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Story Notes:

This is the first in a series of three stories; a fourth is brewing but not written yet.  The name of the series is "Songs of the Dirhja".

(ETA: this one won a Silver Philon award (for short story) in 2000; I was stoked! XD)

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ObDisclaim: In case of glass, break fire. ParaBorg owns the boyz, I'm just playing with 'em. I'm not worth suing, all I own is my arse and an elderly pickup truck.

 

(This is for UKJess, for writing "Beside the Wells", thereby giving me the balls to finally write this one down.)

Deep Elem Blues

Eyes opened, to darkness and pain. It was nothing new; he was in the world of pain now, and had been for a long time. He still dreamed, sometimes, of bright-lit rooms where it was always warm, and there was always enough to eat. He'd had a name, then, and duties. He'd still had pride, then, and strength to spare for other things besides simple existence. That world was his home; he remembered that sometimes -- but when he opened his eyes, it was always this one that he saw.

He hadn't always been alone like this. There had been companions, once, comrades -- one he called t'hy'la – but that was long ago, and now he was no longer entirely certain that any of that had been real. In that world he was whole and healthy; he walked easily on strong, undamaged legs. In that world, he was a free man among free men. In that world, the light didn't burn his eyes. In that world pain was a stranger, seldom seen and easily vanquished.

Surely that last was only a dream. How could the pain be vanquished, when it reached to the very core of his bones? It was the first thing he knew each morning, and the last he knew each night. Its continued presence reassured him that he yet lived.

It was himself, his own dark twin, bound to him more strongly than steel to a hull, closer than any lover; deeper than life itself. He would never be free of it; he no longer even dreamed of that. The cost of such dreams was simply too high.

There were times when he doubted that he'd ever been anywhere but here. The face he saw in dreams was that of a stranger; it bore little resemblance to his own haggard visage -- only the eyes were the same. That man's nose had never been broken, his cheekbones never shattered. He had all his teeth. His hair was pure black, unmarked by time or toil. He was unscarred. He stood straight and undamaged and bowed his head to no man.

But that was in another world; it was nothing that was any part of this life. In this world, he dropped his eyes before the masters, just as the others did, for to refuse was costly -- he had paid dearly for that knowledge. In this world, he hauled rocks, dug the crystals from the mine, made and stacked bricks, side by side with the small graceful people whose world this once had been.The masters were tall -- even his own height seemed lacking, compared to theirs. He barely came up to the chin of the shortest of them. Their skin was velvet-furred, as black as space itself; their hair and eyes were silver. He had never seen anyone like them before he came to this place. The overseers and the guards were of another kind. Their skin was a deep green, much darker than his own, and their hair was black -- he thought that once, in that other life, he had known such folk. But he couldn't remember.

They commanded and he worked, long and hard, forcing his damaged body to obey his will. The work was heavy, the conditions harsh -- they lacked even the simplest conveniences that might have eased the load. The masters allowed them no power tools at all, and very few hand tools. Such things belonged to another world than this.

It didn't matter; what was, was.

Sometimes something went wrong in his head; he would fall, then, and lie insensible for a time. Sometimes it was his lungs, always overworked in the cold, damp air. Sometimes the veterinarian would put him into the animal hospital. Then he would curl up in his cage, either to die, or to heal as best he might. But that didn't matter, either. He survived because it was all he knew to do.

It was always cold here, to him. He wore as many layers of clothes as he could scavenge, but he could never really get warm. The cold, like the pain, lived in the core of his bones. Only so did he sometimes remember that he didn't belong here, for at the height of mid-day when thisworld’s natives shed all but a breechclout, he still shivered, unable to get warm. The sun here was smaller, somehow, than he thought it ought to be. Its light was a harsh blue-white. The masters wore protective lenses whenever they were outside. Even to his eyes it was unpleasant, though the other people did not seem to mind it.

To the masters, this world was too hot. They wore insulated clothing, and clever devices chilled the air in their homes and conveyances. On the rare occasions when they remembered him and had him brought before them it was all he could do to stand up, where every nerve and muscle protested against the cold. He couldn't keep his teeth from chattering, and the cold iron of the collar burned against his flesh like fire, drawing from him heat he could ill afford to spare.

They would stare at him then, with their cold silver eyes, poking at him with bored, disinterested fingers, and he could see in their thoughts that he was less than an animal to them, merely property. They saw none but themselves as being of any worth. All else existed merely for their convenience. If they had known that he could see their thoughts, they would have put him to death in an instant. He put the knowledge away, as he had put so much else away already.

At times the overseers came and took him back to the place where the questioners were. Those times were the worst. They had devices that could fill a man's nerves with pain; they could make him feel it running like acid in his veins, and charring his bones to ash. Yet it was all a trick of some sort, for afterwards when he curled, shaking, sweat-soaked, in his bunk, there were no marks upon his flesh, no sign that any of it had happened at all. There were only the memories of pain, the bruises where he'd fought without success against the restraints that held him captive, and the tremors that never completely went away any more. He could not answer their questions, and he did not understand what they wanted of him -- and the questioners couldn't, or wouldn't, accept that. And then there were times when they didn't ask him anything. They just put him in the chair and used the machine on him. At those times, the prospect of death took on new meaning -- that of peace, and freedom from the pain. But his body wouldn't let him die; it clung fiercely to life. He no longer really knew why.

He did not let himself dream very often. What was the point? Here he was, and here he would eventually die, and although he knew that he had once had a reason for clinging so hard to life, he no longer remembered what it might have been. He didn't remember how he came to be here, or why he'd come, or when. He didn't even remember what his name had been. There was only this life, and the vague recollection of another, long ago. Everything else he had lost, over the years, for in this place, merely surviving demanded his full attention.

No one here spoke his language, and he could only speak theirs a little. The masters' speech had a much higher pitch than his, and although he could hear and understand it well enough, his voice could not repeat it. Attempts to speak it in his own vocal range had brought only scorn, and punishment. It didn't matter -- he could hardly speak his own tongue, any more. He hadn't tried in a long time. There seemed no point. He had learned to read the script they used, but it was of little use to him; there were only a few signs posted, notices on this shed or that. Among themselves, the other slaves spoke a chirping, twittering language, sounding more like birds than people, and that speech he could not reproduce at all, nor did he understand it. So he used the signed speech, which the others had taught him, when he had to communicate. That, the masters accepted. It would have surprised him to know that when he slept, and dreamed, his hands moaned and wept and cried out, in lieu of the voice that he never used any more. The others never mentioned it, for so it was with many in this place. It was the only privacy they could give to one another, and so was precious beyond any price.

It was less cruel when the overseers grew angry and beat him, for the mercy of shock eventually put an end to that pain. He could seek refuge then in blessed oblivion, a release that the questioners' machines denied to him. But best of all were those times when it seemed that they had forgotten he existed. Then he did his work, ate his meagre rations, and slept as much as he could -- not seeking dreams but rather nothingness, simple not-being. Only then did he feel any real peace, for he did not remember most of his nightmares.

Days were much alike here; it was easy to lose the flow of time, in this place where nothing ever changed. There were no seasons; once, he had known what it meant when that was so, but he didn't remember it now. He knew that he had been here a long time, some years perhaps -- but he had no idea how long. He had no way to keep track.

It felt doubly strange, therefore, to awaken one morning, hours before sunrise, with a man's face held clearly in his mind -- a face he once had known, though he had forgotten about it over the years. It had surely been a dream. And yet...

And yet, it had not. As he lay there on his hard narrow bunk, trying to think, he found himself, more and more, believing that it hadn't been a dream. He never did get back to sleep that day. That face... unruly sand-brown hair and hazel eyes, that lazy cat-smile -- that face was a part of his other life, that life he'd sometimes doubted ever was. Once, he had known that face as well as he knew his own. That was all he could remember, but it stayed with him all that day, making him sleepy and distracted. He almost died that afternoon, stepping unaware into the path of an overseer's ground car; the only thing that saved him was his bad leg, which gave way and pitched him to the ground. He missed the mid-day ration, too, for by the time he remembered to go to the cook shack, the food was all gone.

He couldn't afford to do that; he didn't have the strength to keep working without food. Slaves who could no longer work were given to the guards to be killed. Desperate, he tried once more to push it all away, back into his mind. Best to forget such things here, where a moment's distraction was often fatal.

But that night he saw the face again, saw worry in the hazel eyes, saw the lips forming words that he could not hear. In his sleep, his hands moved again, crying out words he no longer remembered how to say. He tossed and turned, but every time he fell asleep again, the face returned to haunt him. Even in his dreams his head ached, and confusion dogged his thoughts.

He saw the same face in his mind the next night, and the next; on the following day, exhausted, he slipped and fell from a roof that he was helping to patch, wrenching his knee, breaking one wrist, and giving himself a good sharp knock on the head. Several of the other slaves brought him back to camp.

The same veterinarian who doctored the other livestock treated him, brusquely cleaning the scrapes and scratches from his fall, splinting his knee, then setting and splinting his arm. The vet ran the regrower over the break once or twice -- it never worked very well on him, but it helped. He could feel the man's thoughts through his touch; they were neither kind nor hateful; it was only important to the vet that a useful piece of property not be permitted to die. He lay quietly, offering no resistance; his head was still spinning from the fall, and that, plus the sedative the vet had given him, left him semi-conscious at best. Once again he lay in a cage among the other animals. He stayed curled in a ball and dozed, slipping fitfully in and out of strange and disturbing dreams.

Eventually he saw the hazel-eyed face again, but this time he could hear the man's words. He didn't understand them at first, but as the face kept speaking, old memories began to surface, memories he hadn't known were there, hadn't thought of in years...

((Spock!! It's me, it's Jim! I can feel you; I know you're there. Can you hear me? You have to remember, please -- listen to me. It's Jim!! Spock, can you hear me?))

His head hurt, a bright fierce pain behind his eyes. There was something -- almost, he knew what it was... In his sleep his hands reached out, trembling, trying to touch -- and there was nothing and no-one there. Again he reached, and something slipped and twisted inside his head,one sharp hot spike of pain, an instant of release -- and then he was reaching out in another way, a way he had forgotten that he knew.

((...Jim?)) He did know that name. It came from the time before this place, the time he could hardly remember... ((Jim... t'hy'la?)) Was any of this real?

A quick, light touch of joy, then, before the other veiled his thoughts. There was something about that -- he frowned, but the idea was elusive; it vanished again. The other touched his thoughts once more, and he recognized that touch -- and the other felt it.

((Yes! It's me -- you do remember... I thought -- I thought they'd killed you... It's been years since I could feel your thoughts -- not since that day...)) A series of images came to him, then -- of a stranger that he somehow knew was himself, still proud, then, unbroken, fighting off a full hand of swaggering green-skinned assailants -- the ones he knew now as overseers and guards. His body was straight and strong, his muscles powerful. He fought like someone trained as a warrior, quick and lethal in his moves -- three previous opponents lay crumpled on the ground. But another came up behind him with a shockrod upraised; there was a fat blue spark, a loud "crack!" -- and the man with the smooth olive skin and the straight black hair convulsed and fell. He dropped limply to the floor, and his skull struck it with a sharp, hollow thud. A thread of green trickled from his mouth and stopped. The green-skinned ones closed in around him, kicking, hitting... The searing memory of grief, then, in the mind of the watcher -- grief, and rage -- and hopelessness, for no-one knew that they were here, or even that they still lived at all. Hands kept the hazel-eyed one away; he watched, helpless, as the other was dragged from the room, hanging limp and lifeless from the enemy's hands, a wide smear of blood trailed green across the floor. In the watcher's mind was only emptiness; darkness, and the hopeless knowledge that he was truly alone, now.

The flow of memory began, then, to show him other things -- and was abruptly veiled once more. The other's thoughts were tinged now with shame, though he did not understand why. There was an odd quality to those thoughts, a peculiar sort of clarity, almost a mechanical flavour. There was a strength behind them that he didn't recognize, something that was not familiar. But he let it pass. There were many things here that he did not understand.

((Gods... I can't believe you're still alive,)) came the thought. ((All this time, I never found a trace of you. I've been alone for so long... I thought it was a dream at first, when I felt your thoughts the other night.)) The face in his mind shone with tears, now, the taste of them an undercurrent in the man's thoughts.

He reached again, feeling something long unused somehow stretch, growing more limber with this use. ((...Jim?)) Even in thought, his words, long unused, failed him. He frowned, and in both their minds came flashing images, in quick succession -- a star-filled sky, turning suddenly to rainbow streaks; a third man, dark-haired and smiling. A ship, gleaming whitely, floating out of spacedock... An arena of blood red rock, and fine grey sand. He and this man face each other, and in their hands... Laying curled in the cage, still he had to grip the bars tightly, lest he fall -- dizziness swooped and roared about him, as memory, long neglected, began to return...

Though he did not know it, a voice gone harsh and rusty whispered the name, even as his thoughts framed it. ((...Enterprise... I -- remember.))

Enterprise -- she was Jim's ship -- no. She was their ship. She was -- home.

And she was far away, years gone, most likely beyond their reach. But even so, he remembered her now; he had snatched back that much of what he had lost. He wasn't just dreaming. This was real. That ship -- was real.

Her name was Enterprise. His was Spock. And he had belonged there, once, at this one's side. He remembered...

-----///-----

The man in the cage lay dreaming, and in the dream a pair of hazel eyes watched from over his shoulder, the images of the dream showing what he still had no words to tell.

...reaching up, his hands sore and broken, to feel the collar cold and hard about his neck. He tries to pull it off, and a shockrod reaches through the bars and knocks him flat. A sneering, green-skinned guardsman taps the rod against the bars and walks away. He is in a cage, in a bare, chilly room that is lined with stalls and cages. In the stalls are beasts of burden; in each cage, a sick or injured hominid. None are of his kind; most are smaller than he, light-boned and dark of skin. No-one speaks, though he can hear a twittering in the background, somewhere. He leaves the collar alone for a while and examines himself -- he is injured, as if from a fight. His face is swollen and damaged; he can only open one eye. He is very dizzy, and even the dim light that comes through the shutters is too bright. Bruises and scrapes abound, some of his ribs are broken, and there is some sort of poultice bound about his head. He is dressed in something soft and worn, a nondescript dark grey. Neither the clothes nor his surroundings are at all familiar; he has never seen any of it before. His wounds are clean and have been smeared with ointment; there is clean water in a pan on the cage floor, but there is no food. The only bedding is two thin and shabby blankets, crumpled in the corner where he lies. It is as if he were an animal, in a veterinary hospital. He cannot remember how he came to be here.

He feels strange, dreamy and disconnected. He realizes that he has been drugged, perhaps for some time. Somewhere in the back of his mind is worry and fear -- and... grief? He cannot seem to concentrate; as he reaches for the knowledge it falls apart and vanishes, leaving him confused, but oddly unconcerned. There is something he should be doing, but he cannot remember what it is... Somewhere under the drugs his head hurts, a lot. It is easier just to curl up again and let the darkness take him.

More fragments of memories... An image, mostly dark -- the cockpit of a small ship, lit only by red and yellow lights -- and a few, only a very few, still green. Once more his hands move as he sleeps on, unaware, but now their movements are quick, precise, manipulating remembered controls that are surely dust and gone by now. For just a moment, he gets the viewscreen working again -- just in time to show the incoming salvo that will finish them. He looks up, to meet the other's worried hazel eyes -- there is nothing more that can be done.

...one of the first sessions with the questioners. Something kept going wrong inside his head -- he'd forgotten how bad that used to be. Every time they turned their machines on him, his mind greened out and he lost consciousness. He had almost no words at all -- even if he'd known what they wanted, he probably could not have told them. Even through the fog of confusion and pain, he could feel their frustration in their thoughts, every time they touched him. He barely noticed. He kept listening for something else, and not finding it -- and that lack hurt him more surely than any blow of boot, or fist.

A memory of a room, all white and chrome, gleaming and spotless. More cages, each with its single occupant. Many were in restraints of some kind; a few were on life support. The gradual panicked realization that he couldn't move at all...

((No.)) Startled by that comment, he awoke. A quick look around showed everyone asleep in their cages, the familiar grubby walls of the animal hospital. There was no chrome in this place; nothing here had been painted in years... He blinked, fighting off the pull of the sedative.

(( ...??...)) That memory wasn't one of his...

((I'm -- I'm sorry, Spock. I keep waking you up, and you need your sleep.)) Again that feeling of shame surrounded the hazel eyes; beneath it he could feel a steely determination. ((I need some sleep, too,)) the voice in his head continued. ((We can talk more tomorrow -- I'll be here for a while, yet.))

In the cage the black-haired man sat up, and pulled his blankets up around him. There was something still puzzling him about all this, but he did not have the energy to pursue it. Even in the dark, he could see his breath condensing in the cold, still air. He shivered and curled himself back up again, as tightly as he could. He frowned, finally finding some of the words he needed. ((...Jim. I -- remember. Tomorrow?))

((Tomorrow. Get some sleep, Spock.))

((I... will.)) Acknowledgement came; then the contact diminished again, until it was just a mutual awareness of one another's existence. The ache in his head was almost gone, now. He pulled the edge of the blankets up over his face; and slowly, very slowly, he began to get warm, and to relax. After a time, he fell once more into a deep, exhausted sleep.

Elsewhere, the man who had once been Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation StarFleet showed his teeth to the night. Tamed lightning danced in the depths of his eyes.

Sleep well, t'hy'la. Gods know, you need it. Fingers curled, unnoticed, into fists. I don't know how, yet -- but I know this much. I'm not leaving here without you again. Fingertips danced across control pads, with the ease of long practice. He felt one short, sharp jolt of pain, as the field retuned. Then the fierce hazel eyes snapped shut, and welcome sleep washed all of it away -- the anger, and the shame -- and the worry, over what he would have to do.

----///-----

It was cold and dark, when !Mzh!w*hee Called him to her side the next night. It didn't matter. The Caller did its work, and his nerves, long-trained, brought him to her alert and aware, with just the slightest of tremors thrumming through his flesh. He knelt, as she had taught him to do, and offered her his control. She had her own, master's unit, of course -- but it pleased her to see him so, and when pleased, sometimes she would be merciful, as much as was in her to be.

Once, he had sworn that he would die before any could break him to their will -- but the long, weary years and the wire's cruel and subtle grip had taken that freedom from him, years ago. Property did not die here without permission, and permission was never granted. The last time he'd tried to kill himself had cost him months of pain and weakness, a seemingly endless time when only the wire permitted him to function at all -- and it had done him absolutely no good.

And then she'd decided to return to this place, and of course nothing would do but that he must accompany her. She'd heard there was a new shipment; she needed more labourers for her estates... It wasn't until they'd arrived that he had looked around and known what place this was.

Here it was that Spock had died, trying to defend him from the Orion guards. Here it was that the masters' accursed surgeons had taken his freedom, his will -- even his very soul -- from him. Here it was that they had taught him the real meaning of captivity; how it was to be played like an instrument, imprisoned not by bars and locks, but by his own mind and body, traitorously turned against him.

Only a quick dance of fingers upon his control had saved him from vomiting in front of her, and the punishment that would have brought. A few swift taps of a fingertip, a slide -- and blessed numbness had wrapped him, safe and calm, within the wire's sly counterfeit of peace.

Oh, it was a good trap, that wire -- with it, he could be anything she allowed. It held pleasure or pain; sleep, or that total humming alertness once reserved for a dance along the very edge of death. With the wire, he could force his nerves and body to fulfill her needs in ways he'd never thought were possible. He could turn nausea into passion, pain into pleasure... He could go without sleep till he fried his very nerves, if need be. He could do anything.

But he couldn't live without it any more. It had controlled his every mood, every sensation, for so long... Once, perhaps a year ago, as punishment for some imagined wrong, she had powered it off, taken his control, and left him caged. By nightfall he was convinced that he would die, as his outraged nervous system went into revolt; by morning, he knew he wasn't going to be that lucky. She'd left him there like that for three days; it had seemed like three thousand years of reeking, shivering, soiled and desperate Hell. And when at last she'd returned, unlocked the cage, and handed him the control again, he had knelt before her, still trembling, in full submission, the ashen taste of total defeat cold and bitter in his throat. Pride, after all, was a luxury possessed by free men, and there was no-one like that, here.

But he had endured. She had taught him ways to use the wire for his own pleasure, as well as hers. The controller would not permit some things, but others he was allowed. He grew skilled, and therefore grew in value -- and slowly, very slowly, he came to understand more of what the wire was, and how it did its work. Only a week ago, he'd finally figured out a possible way to cheat the control and give himself to death -- and then they'd come here, and in dreams that first night he'd felt that touch within his mind, which he'd thought was gone forever. It was faint and hard to read; damaged, even as he was himself -- but it was unmistakable. Somewhere in this cold, accursed place, was Spock -- t'hy'la -- the man he'd thought had died for him, all those years ago.

And suddenly, everything looked different.

-----///-----

Four hours to sunrise. It was time. He had managed to steal what he needed earlier, right under the noses of the drunken overseers, who just laughed when he'd told them his Lady had sent him to bring her more wine.

Years before, preferring the spoken word to the signed speech of the other slaves, she'd had him fitted with a throat patch and earpiece, that he might hear her words and respond in kind -- for unaided, their speech was far above his range. For this, she was accounted mildly perverse among the other masters, and thereby gained some measure of status in their intricate and deadly game of politics and plots.

The guards let him fetch a bottle and carry it out. They were so busy watching the arena broadcast, a recap of the recent Rihannsu Year Games, that they never even saw him steal the injector from the office medkit.

The sedative was a safe one for her, he knew -- he had heard the Orions laughing together one night, at her estate, about how certain of the masters found the drug's aftereffect not only pleasant, but arousing. Some of them used it fairly often, to hear the guards tell of it.

That was very important, that it be something safe.

She lay sleeping even now. She had been especially demanding tonight. Jim was sore, and he was tired. None of that mattered.

It was the work of but moments to retune the wire, and now he felt young and strong again, fiercely alert, and alive. He lived for these moments. He paid for them afterwards, of course -- it was still his energy and strength the wire drew on. Tomorrow he would be exhausted and ravenously hungry. That didn't matter, either.

He walked up to her bed, injector in hand -- and dizziness and nausea roared through his flesh. It was all he could do to remain standing; he nearly dropped the injector. He ended up on his knees beside her, shaking and sweating, and trying not to puke.

It was the wire, of course.

Years before, when he was newly wired and not yet trained, he'd thought to kill her and so to gain his freedom. When he'd raised the knife, the wire had given him a jolt that laid him out for most of a day. And at the end of that, she had been waiting, to punish him.

The limitation, she had told him, was hard-wired in. He could not kill any master, nor could he harm one. And then she had spent the rest of an endless night demonstrating his helplessness to him, in every way. Her, and the sneering Orions of her personal guard. Even the memory of it made him feel ill all over again.

But he had to do this. Nothing in his life had ever been more important. She was scheduled to take her property, including him, and lift off later today -- and he couldn't let that happen. Couldn't leave Spock behind again. No. Not now. Never again. So he moved into a cross-legged position, put the injector down, and thought it out.

He already knew the sedative was a safe one for her. To him it would have been a deadly poison; to her, it was no more than a restful night's sleep, and a pleasant randiness the following day. So giving her the shot would not do her any harm.... It must be because he hadn't been told to do so that the wire was causing problems. He might be able to work around that.

He took his control out of his pocket again, picked up the injector, and when the shakes began he very delicately adjusted his settings, one tiny attribute at a time. Jim had no idea how many possible settings the wire had; he himself knew of several thousand, and her master's control no doubt had more than that.

Finally he was able to stand again and keep the injector steady. He felt very odd -- distant, somehow, and rather floaty. It was hard to remember what he'd wanted to do, for a while. But in the end he was able to lean down and very delicately give her the shot.

She stirred and mumbled something in her sleep, and for a moment he could not move, nor breathe. But the moment passed; as the drug took effect her already loose posture relaxed considerably. She slumped as if boneless and began to snore. Relief made him dizzy again, but only for a moment. Now, he could make his other preparations.

Ship keys -- ah. There. She never let those out of her sight. He knew for a fact that there were no others.

His medkit, the one she used when she got a little too rough and injured him. It was not an uncommon occurrence.

Her sidearm -- an antique laser pistol, of impressive power. He picked that up, and walked to the bed again, just wishing...

-- and he doubled over in pain, as violent cramping nausea twisted his insides. He gritted his teeth and thought about raising the pistol--

--and woke up some minutes later on the floor, the sweet metallic taste of blood choking him. His nose was bleeding, a slow steady drip. He left the pistol and walked into the fresher. It took him nearly 20 minutes to make it stop. He had to sit still that whole time.

So. That was out. Damn. He wanted to kill her. Needed to kill her. Needed to exorcise her from his soul. But the wire would not permit it.

He hated her. He had hated her for a long time. For good reason, he feared her -- her capricious temper, the wide streak of willful cruelty in her. And yet... In some odd fashion, she had gotten under his skin, over all the long years. As her pet, he had been spared most of the more random cruelty of the Orions. She had even nursed him a time or two, when illness or injury had laid him lower than the wire could help... For this, too, she was accounted perverse among her fellows. Inasmuch as she cared for any living thing besides herself -- and that was debatable -- she did care, in her own strange way, for him. If only because he was her pet and her favourite bed-toy.

!M'zh!w*hee was cruel. She was vicious. She was manipulative, arrogant, hateful in many ways. She was a gods-be-damned slaver. But she had also been, for many years, his only refuge. She had taught him of pleasure, as well as of pain.

But as he sat and thought, and waited for the bleeding to stop, he remembered the other times. Times when she had shrieked in rage, used the wire against him, even once or twice given him to the guards for a night, given them his control. They had been forbidden only to kill or cripple him, though he had wished, endlessly, for death's release.

And then there was Spock. The Vulcan was here, somewhere; Jim even knew more or less in what direction. He would not be hard to find, in this primitive place. Spock. Still alive, against all odds -- but hurt. Damaged, somehow. His mindtouch had been faint, faltering, full of fear and uncertainty. If not for the wire, Jim doubted he could have spoken to him at all. The first few dreaming nights here, all that he had seen were images, and those faint and confused. He hadn't dared let himself believe it was real, not at first.

Still. Spock was alive, and he was here.

For twelve years, Jim Kirk had mourned for the wise and gentle friend who had died trying to defend him. For twelve years, he had known that he was lost. Alone among his enemies, far from home, away from anything or anyone he had ever known. !M'zh!w*hee had bought him from the Orions, had paid for the wire, had showed him beyond any doubt, time and again, that he was helpless here, dependent on her whims for even the air he breathed.

Until she had brought him here with her. And something had exploded inside his head like a mortar round. Something he'd thought he'd lost, all those years ago. Spock was alive. And somehow none of the rest of it mattered so much, knowing that.

The bleeding had stopped, finally. He scowled at himself in the mirror. A shopworn human male; older, paler and thinner than he once had been. He'd lost some of his remaining hair over the years -- and the augments he had once been so proud of had fallen out, long ago. The flat woven band of chain around his neck bore a plaque, emblazoned with her sigil. The clothes he wore -- skintight, shimmering silver catsuit and slippers -- marked him as what he was.

That didn't matter either, he told himself fiercely.

He almost believed it.

----///----

Part of it was pure luck, of course. The masters were complacent; there hadn't been an organized slave rebellion in nearly a century, and even individual rebellion was practically unknown. Add to that the shoddy discipline and poor morale of the Orion guard force, and he was halfway there already.

Slipping out of her quarters was easy. The doorguard was slouched against the wall, reeking of cheap wine and snoring. Jim smiled fiercely, thinking of this same guard later, facing her wrath. Sonofabitch had it coming. Damn straight.

For a moment he felt shamed; his feeling for the green-skinned guards was damned close to racist in nature. But he knew they weren't all like that. Times past, when he still wore StarFleet's command gold, he'd met a few Orion trade delegates who were as civilized and pleasant as anyone else. Too bad none of that type seemed to be working here.

The weight of the laser pistol tucked under his shirt was solidly reassuring. He had cautiously retrieved it just before he left, making certain that he did not look at her or think of her, as he did so. The wire had permitted that. A pouch slung over one shoulder held the rest of it. There were only those things he had stolen tonight. Personal possessions were something she had always forbidden him. And that didn't matter, either.

Making certain that both laser and pouch were secure, he tuned himself up high. To climb the fence out into the main compound was laughably easy. His vision was sparkling and clear; his blood sang and fizzed in his veins. He felt as if he was ten feet tall, as if he could literally do anything. And it felt wonderful.

That was the fiendish thing about the wire. If he could simply have loathed it, it would have been much easier to live with. But in his more honest moments, Jim Kirk knew that he loved the damned thing as much as he hated it.

It was himself that he despised.

He paused at the top of the fence, in the shadow of the masters' quarters, scanning for guards on patrol. It was child's play to find them. As fast as he was tuned right now, they seemed to be moving in slow motion, ponderous lumbering behemoths. He watched, trying not to fidget, until he'd seen them walk one complete circuit and knew their pattern.

Enough. He slithered silently down and set out in the direction that led to Spock. The pull of the bond in his head was like an anchor chain; following it was effortless. The Vulcan was sleeping at the moment; Jim let him be. Spock had sounded exhausted and more than a little ill during their last contact. His mindtouch had been filled with pain. He needed the rest.

With contemptuous ease, the human slipped between the sheds, the stacks of wood, the piles of rock and mine tailings. He sneaked around the cleared circle where the whipping posts stood, wrinkling his nose at the fetid smell from the nearby punishment boxes. He had seen such things before, in old Terran historical tapes. In Viet Nam they'd been called "tiger cages".

At one point he froze, deep in the heart of a shadow, while not ten feet away two guards hawked, spat, and shared a pipeful of dreamdust. Typical Orions -- neither saw him. It was Jim's opinion, after living around them for far too long, that the Orions' martial reputation was vastly overstated -- that, or they'd been living off it for so long they'd forgotten how to be warriors. After an interminable wait, the two guards finally trudged on about their rounds, noticeably less steady on their feet than before.

Soon he had reached the shed where they kept sick or wounded livestock. At least, that's what it said -- after all these years, Jim could read either Orion script or the glyphs of the masters as easily as he had once read Standard.

The shed was unguarded -- and unlocked, much to his surprise. He examined the door very carefully before slipping silently through it. No alarms. Not even any contacts for alarms. Inside, there were no visible cameras. No sensor grids. Nothing. Just a long double row of locked cages, with stalls and more cages along two walls. But he recognized this. He had seen it before -- in Spock's thoughts. This was it!

Large animals dozed in most of the stalls. For one painfully sharp moment, he was reminded of his mother's barn, back on Earth. But he sniffed the air, and that image vanished. This place smelled like a mixture of a nursing home and a stockyard. No farmer worth his salt would let his barn get this bad. Careful after that to breathe through his mouth, Jim started looking into the cages, one by one.

Each held a single hominid. Most were all of a type -- nut brown skin, feathery crest on the head, the same colour as the skin. Small and slight of build. Not Spock. All lay deeply asleep, though one or two tossed as if in fever. Their scent, close up, was sweet and a little musky; not unpleasant, but for the other smells around it.

Further along he saw what had once been a Tellarite, he thought. It was hard to tell. One ear was missing and most of the fur was gone, and its breathing had a wet, laboured rasp to it. He couldn't tell if it was male or female, but it was not long for this world.

For just a moment, he let himself dream of somehow getting them *all* away from here. But reality intervened. They were all unconscious, in addition to being either injured, ill, or both. He was one man, with nothing but a wire in his head and an antique sidearm. He'd have needed a full squadron of Ground Forces Marines, and air cover, to pull it off. And all he had was himself -- and the wire.

He sighed, shook his head, and went on looking. And wondered how many years it would be before he stopped feeling guilty about it.

Kaiidth!, as the Vulcans said. What is, is.

One cage held an Andorian, whose antennae had been snapped off long ago, by the look of them. Deaf, then -- and in all probability, irretrievably crazed. Andorians needed to be able to hear. That one lay curled in a ball, hardly breathing at all. His blue skin had that musty greenish tinge that told of oxygen starvation.

More of the little brown people.

And finally, near the far end of the barn, a cage containing a tight-curled shape, concealed by blankets. And Jim knew. This was Spock. He could feel him, deep in exhausted sleep.

He squatted down in front of the cage, and retuned himself for the mindtouch. ((Spock... Wake up. It's Jim.))

He felt the other fight his way to consciousness -- he'd been given a sedative again, it felt like. Finally one thin, long-fingered hand parted the blankets, and the Vulcan looked out at him. For the first time in twelve years, they looked at one another. The lump in Jim's throat felt big enough to choke on. He couldn't speak. Didn't have words for what he felt -- except maybe relief. God. It really was Spock. Somehow he hadn't quite dared believe it, until now.

The Vulcan rubbed at his eyes and frowned. One wrist and hand were splinted, heavily bandaged. Jim leaned in closer, the better to see in the dim light -- and saw the faint half-smile flicker across the other's face, almost too fast to be seen.

God, he was thin. He looked half-starved. His hands and wrists were scarred. His face showed the marks of years of beatings. Under the crude iron collar, the flesh of his throat was scarred and discoloured. His hair was long, now, well below his shoulders. Still as thick as ever -- but there were wide swathes of pure white all through it. Jim winced when he saw that. He knew what that was from. He'd seen it happen.

The other cleared his throat, and coughed a couple of times. Didn't sound very good -- but as cold and damp as it was here, that was no surprise. Without his catsuit Jim would have been shivering himself -- and Spock had always maintained, to Scotty's disgust, that the Enterprise was a good ten degrees too cold for real comfort. The human made a note to himself, to turn up the heating on board the ship, even higher than he'd already planned to.

He looked up again, into the familiar black eyes, noting the effort Spock was making to stay awake and focused. ((Spock -- can you hear me?))

The Vulcan nodded. ((Jim... yes.)) Then he tried to use the signed speech, and found the splint was just too cumbersome. His lips thinned together for a moment and he frowned again. ((What... why? You, here... why?)) The human could feel him, searching for the words he needed. It was as if they simply weren't there. Then he realized. Head injuries. It must be. Damage from the beating, when Jim thought he'd seen him killed. He still remembered -- the feeling of the other's thoughts in his, flaring into white-hot pain, and then nothing. There had been so much blood...

Jim showed him the laser. ((I'm leaving. Now. And I'm taking you with me.)) He pointed to the splinted wrist. ((What happened to you?))

Spock shrugged, one-handed, the Vulcan spread-fingered gesture. ((I... fell. Knee, hand... damage.)) The expression on his face now was resigned, passive, and Jim realized he was still expecting to be left behind. God. He couldn't even imagine what it must have been like for him here, through all the long years alone.

He shook his head, no. ((Don't worry about it, Spock. Can you walk at all?))

((I... can try...)) The Vulcan was moving, now, laboriously working his way to the front of the cage, clutching his ragged blankets about him. As he approached, Jim noticed that his left knee was splinted, also. It didn't matter. He had to get them out of here. So he would.

The human's hands were shaking. He tuned himself back down a little, dialed the laser down to a needle-beam, and very careful of his aim, cut through the simple padlock on the door of the Vulcan's cage. Spock watched, silently. The black eyes were focused intently on him, but they were glazed from the drug and the pain. Even so, Jim could feel excitement, long dormant, beginning to build within him.

A beast in one of the stalls twittered nervously and stamped a clawed paw -- but none of the other hominids so much as stirred. They must put drugs in their food at night. No wonder the shed's unlocked. Mentally he crossed his fingers, hoping that Spock would be able to stay awake enough to help.

The metal had cooled, now, and he pulled the door of the cage open and beckoned to the Vulcan. ((Come on, Spock. Here -- let me help...))

Spock held out his good arm, and let Jim pull him up and out of the cage. He tottered precariously on his good leg, then leaned against the cage. Jim could feel the dizziness in him. On an impulse, he laid one hand on the thin shoulder, to steady him.

God. How had he forgotten this, how hot the Vulcan always felt? Even now, shivering in the chill of the night, Spock's skin was fever-hot, under his hand. The cold here must have been excruciating for him... No wonder he wore so many layers of ragged clothes.

Spock frowned again. ((Jim... what of... the–)) He lost the words, then, but Jim had seen the image he was thinking of -- one of the hulking Orion overseers.

He smiled. ((Don't worry about them. Half of them are drunk, and the rest are fools. I can see them coming a kilometer away, Spock.))

In the end, Spock had to drape his good arm around Jim's shoulders and use him as a crutch. The human was shocked all over again at how gaunt he was, how much weight he had lost. Oh, t'hy'la... The slow and halting trip to the barn door seemed endless.

To hell with it. After he closed the door behind them, Jim tuned himself up high again. Like this, he had strength to burn. More than enough to help this ailing half-starved stranger/friend. And given how much trouble Spock was having merely staying awake, it was necessary. ((All right, Spock. Just lean on me. Let me take your weight -- we haven't got much farther to go.)) He sent the other an image of !M'zh!w*hee's ship. ((That's our destination. We have to get to the landing field. This place isn't very big; it's not far. I'll help you.))

The expression in the black eyes was a little more alert, now. ((How did...?))

Jim grinned nonchalantly, dismissing it as nothing, a mere trifle. ((It was easy. I knocked her out and stole her keys. It's my... my owner's ship. It was. It's mine now. Ours.)) He laced his arm around the other's skeletal ribcage and they started out. Tuned up as high as he was, even with a half-conscious Vulcan draped over him, it was nothing to evade the guards. It had been so long since anyone resisted, the masters were smug, complacent. She had never bothered wiring him not to run. It had never occurred to her -- or, at first, to him -- that he might even try. Until now, he'd had no reason to risk it.

Until now.

Her loss. His gain -- and Spock's.

By the time he reached !M'zh!w*hee's ship Spock was barely conscious. The landing field was deserted; there was no sign of the guard who should have been posted there. Jim stopped, keyed the hatch open, then just picked the Vulcan up and carried him inside. Thin as he was, it wasn't hard. The hatch closed and locked automatically behind them.

There were several bunks in an alcove at the back of the main compartment. He laid Spock down on one of these, and covered him with several spare blankets. Stood looking down at him for a moment, still barely able to believe it. Then the human shook himself and went for'ard, to begin the pre-flight checklist, and to turn up the heat.

This was the most dangerous part of all; he was counting on the overseers' fear of her, hoping that none would question her apparent decision to leave at such an hour. He was taking one hell of a chance -- but he couldn't see any other way out. He offered a little mental prayer to Saint Murphy, long beloved patron saint of StarFleet Academy cadets, and started to warm up the engines.

-----///-----

He ought to run the scans again. Jim walked over to what he thought of as the ops console; he concentrated for a moment, and the memory of what to do came sharply into focus. Now he was glad of all the times her vanity had kept him on this bridge, crouched immobile at her side, while her crew carried out her orders. That, and the hyperaware focus the wire let him reach on demand, were making their escape possible.

And the fact that, with the throat patch and earpiece, he was able to speak to the ship as one of them would have spoken.

He had loathed the patch, at the time she'd had him fitted with it -- as he'd loathed almost everything of hers. But now, it just might save their lives. He knew her, almost as well as he knew himself. He was sure she'd left booby traps in the ship's operating system -- but the ship still thought he was one of them. He sounded right, he knew the right codes -- and none of the traps had sprung.

Jealous of their power as the masters were, none of the overseers had dared to question why !Mzh!w*hee wished to launch at such an hour. It was her scheduled day of departure, after all. No call was made to the barracks where her crew was sleeping; it was presumed that they were already aboard. He had answered, when they queried the ship, in the voice of her first mate. The throat patch did have its uses.

She was dangerous to annoy; even the overseers trembled before her. No-one had challenged him, or insisted on a vid. They had checked out of local traffic control on autopilot; Jim just used the settings that she had always used. So it was that he had used their ways against them, and gotten Spock and himself away.

Scan still showed negative, as it had since their departure. Hopefully it would stay that way. He'd never actually piloted this ship before, and he'd certainly never fought in her.

He wondered, for a moment, what had become of !Mzh!w*hee, whether or not she could track them through the ship's cloak. He didn't think so, but there was nothing he could do but put as much distance between them as possible. The very first thing he'd done, on clearing the atmosphere, was engage the cloaking device. Immediately after that, he'd made a series of rapid course changes, hoping to fool any who sought to guess their path.

But oh, gods, he wished he could have killed her. Maybe then he'd have felt more like a free man...

For a moment, despair overwhelmed him, the crushing weight of the future threatening to drown him. He couldn't bear to face that, so he made it go away; tap, tap, slide, and peace washed through him, blessed calm returned. With the terrible ease of too many years of practice, he made it all go away. Some other time, he'd deal with that. For now, he had work to do.

Sure, Jim.

Something moved, then, at the edge of his vision, and he whipped around, lightning fast -- but it was only Spock, asleep, talking with his hands again. His face was drawn into a grimace of pain, his eyes tight-shut.

Listening to the bond, Jim could feel fear and desperation; he sighed, and reached to take the other's hand, feeling Spock's fingers hot and dry against his own. He had replaced the clumsy splint with a lightweight cast, earlier. The physical contact showed him what the dream was, as it poured through the bond and into his own mind....

....He is cold. So cold -- he cannot stop shivering, as the overseer's green-skinned hands strap him into the hated chair once more. Around his neck, the iron of the collar is cold -- it burns against his skin like fire. He tries, as he always does, to avoid their hands, but he is held motionless, while the contacts are stuck to his head, the back of his neck, his hands... With every touch their loathing fills his thoughts, as foul as the smell of death in the hot sun, as cold as the ice in the deepest pits of Hell. If they knew that he could see this, they would kill him in an instant.

When they first test the power feed, his muscles lock with a jolt. The pain is so intense his mind just... stops -- and when they power it down, he has bitten his cheek again. The sharp copper taste of blood in his mouth makes him choke. They watch, sneering, in silence as the power is turned back on. And it arches him up against the bonds, every muscle in his body screaming for relief -- but none comes. When they release the switch, he hangs limply in the straps, as if all his tendons have been cut. His breath whistles harshly in his throat.

Again and again they throw the switch -- today, in total silence. Some days they ask questions, some days not -- he has never understood why they do one or the other, and he could not answer them if he wanted to, for he has almost no words, and he cannot use the signed speech with his hands tied down... Today it seems is only for punishment, though as usual, he does not know why or what for... They do not tell him. They have never told him. Perhaps they find it entertaining...

He fights, as he always does, to stay silent; it is the only thing he has left -- but in the end, as they always do, they break him. And he cries out, wordlessly, hoping for mercy... but there is none to be had. The green-skinned men only laugh, and reach for the switch again....

Jim gasped, and sat bolt upright, his heart pounding, his breath coming in tight little gasps. Gods, it was so real... He had actually bitten his own cheek; it throbbed, in counterpoint to the pain in the dream. He could still feel it. The Vulcan, hands curled now into white-knuckled fists, was tossing and turning, still caught in the dream. His breathing was ragged, uneven.

Very gently he drew two fingers down the other's face. ((Spock -- t'hy'la -- wake up!))

One last jolt, a gasp -- and the black eyes opened wide. Strong fingers gripped his arms, and Jim knew he would have bruises there by morning. He didn't give a damn. He reached for the Vulcan and pulled him in close, trying to warm him up, stop the shivers... Scarred and hesitant fingers reached for his own face; wide black eyes locked their gaze with his. And slowly it passed, as awareness returned and the dream broke apart. More than he had ever wished for anything, Jim wished that he could just make all of it go away. The old plea of childhood -- make it never was, Dad... He looked into the other's eyes and shuddered. ((God, Spock -- is that why your voice is so rough?))

A long pause. Finally... ((...yes...)) Old shame darkened the Vulcan's thoughts.

Hot bright anger bloomed in Jim's mind. ((The bastards! If I'd known, I'd have killed every damned one of them!))

The black eyes locked with his. Once more, Jim could feel how hard it was for him to speak, to find the proper words, to say what he needed to. ((If you... tried, we ...would not ...escape...)) The Vulcan looked away for a moment, then nervously raised his eyes. But whatever he saw on the human's face, it was not what he'd feared. For a moment, he visibly fought for control; finally he raised an eyebrow, his thoughts still tinged with shame. ((I am... sorry, Jim. I wished... not, ...for you... to see that.))

Jim moved his hands, as if to brush it all away. ((It doesn't matter any more. It was only a dream, Spock. Feel this. Know this. They're far behind us now. We're free, and we're never going back there! From here, even if they catch up to us -- we can blow this ship up, maybe take some of them with us. They can't take us prisoner again. Whatever else happens, you've seen the last of that place.)) Jim sat silently, then, filling his eyes with the sight he'd never thought to see -- Spock, alive, and both of them free.

Spock had always possessed a certain fine-boned, almost patrician cast of feature; now, it was as if he had been through some forge, which had burned away everything but the very essence of the man. His cheekbones were razor-sharp under the olive skin, and there were large dark shadows around his eyes. His pallor accentuated the oddness of his colouring; he looked more alien than he had ever done before. But this was Spock; he was here, and they had escaped. For now, it was more than enough.

Spock drew a breath, slowly, his nerves beginning to steady down. ((I -- I thought... I was –)) Even in the mindspeech, he still had to fight for words. Jim could feel his frustration, as what should have been easy took such effort. It was a little bit easier than it had been, but he had a long way to go, yet.

He had lost the mind rules; he wasn't controlling his pain, and he couldn't go into the healing trance. He needed specialized treatment, and Jim didn't have the knowledge for that. With the wire boosting him, he could reach Spock's thoughts, through the bond that they had shared for so long. But he couldn't give back to the Vulcan the knowledge he had lost, for Jim had never learned those things himself. He could use the ship's autodoc to treat simple physical injuries, but this -- this was out of his league. All he could hope for was that time, and rest, and his friend's own strength, could heal him in the end. Jim himself didn't dare go near a hospital -- there was no way any Federation hospital would let him keep the wire, and he doubted he would survive the loss of it. Wireheading had been illegal since the Eugenics war.

In any case -- he wasn't interested in going back. He didn't want pity, or scorn, for the choices he had made. He wanted only his freedom, and Spock's, and to be left in peace.

In the Federation, he would be seen as a wirehead, an addict, someone to be put in a rehab clinic whether he wanted to go, or not. Jim knew that he was, in some ways, addicted to the wire. He enjoyed the boosted times entirely too much. But it had been a part of him for so long, now. He couldn't really remember how it used to be, before. He didn't think it was anyone's damn business, how he lived his life. And he never wanted to be in another hospital as long as he lived.

Now, though, he smiled, looked down at the Vulcan, and said, "Hey, don't worry about it -- I've had bad dreams myself, enough times." He spoke aloud, relishing the chance to speak normally for once, without using the hardware. "Listen, I thought you'd like to know -- we've been under way for 12 hours now, and there's no sign of them on scan."

Spock frowned for a moment, and then replied, his own voice still a harsh whisper. "Thank ...you. ...Good." Then he got up, cautiously, not trusting his bad leg, and went to get himself a cup of tea.

He looked a little stronger, now. He was much more alert... Gods. Maybe they were actually going to get away with this.

-----///-----

Jim was in trouble. Spock could feel it. The human had been running on pure nerves for days now, aided somehow by the device that he carried. He couldn't quite see what it was; somehow Jim always managed to keep a hand over it, if it wasn't tucked into a pocket. But he could feel the results -- a fine-drawn edge of nervous energy, maintained, somehow, long past the point where anyone else would have collapsed. Even if Jim had been Vulcan, such an effort would have been dangerous -- but he was human. If he kept this up he could kill himself.

Once or twice Spock had tried to bring it up, picking out the words in his slow and careful way, but Jim would have none of that. He simply changed the subject, or bounced out of his seat and pretended to be busy with ship's controls. Spock did not understand -- if it was so obvious to him, how could the human not see it also?

For himself, the Vulcan felt much better. He had eaten his fill, several times; he had slept luxuriously, spent far too long in the 'fresher -- comforts he'd not had access to in years. Jim had laughed, at one point, on finding him asleep on the deck, but he had been more comfortable that way. The bed was too soft and giving; he had finally put the bedding down on the floor, where he slept like a dead man. It was still softer than his bunk in the camp had been.

He was warm enough, and clean -- and his body was beginning to heal, a little. Between the rest and good food, and the treatments Jim had been able to administer, he was getting stronger every day. This morning, he had asked Jim to cut down on his pain medicine, and was encouraged to find that his discomfort was only mild, at worst. That alone was amazing; he had hurt for so long, he'd forgotten what it was like not to. His thoughts were growing clearer all the time. He had taken the splint off his knee this morning, and Jim had replicated a walking stick for him, so that he could get around better.

Even his words were beginning to come a little easier, with practice -- not as freely as the signed speech, but enough to communicate, at least.

But Jim -- Jim was burning himself up. Somehow he just kept going, on and on and on. His hands had developed a fine tremor; his face was pale, save for great dark hollows about the eyes. He wasn't eating at all, as far as Spock could see, and it had been four days since they made their escape. Four days, in which, every time he woke, he saw Jim, hunched over the controls; four days of running, cloaked and silent, through first the masters' territory, and then the fringes of Rihannsu space. How much longer could he keep this up?

Finally the Vulcan took matters into his own hands. The human was at the conn again, working their way through a tricky little debris swarm -- an asteroid belt, really, but without a sun to call its own. They came to the end of it, and he let his hands fall to his knees and just sat, staring vacantly at the screen. He didn't seem to notice, when Spock sat down at the copilot'sstation.

So he reached out and took Jim's hand, and held it between his own. Touching in that way, he could feel the depth of the other's exhaustion, along with the strange hard-edged energy of whatever was driving him. An image of a piece of wire came into his mind, but he did not understand what it meant. He just stayed there, until finally the human dropped his gaze from the screen and turned to face him. His face looked more like that of a skull, than a man.

Spock met his gaze, and reached cautiously for the right words. "T'hy'la -- enough. It is... enough; ...stop this."

Bloodshot hazel eyes locked on to worried black ones, and the weight of the other man's despair hit Spock like a thunderbolt. The breath caught in his throat; there was so much of it -- despair, and shame, a black hatred of the masters, loathing for himself... and underneath it all, that strange, driving energy, like an engine running near its redline... For a moment, it was all he could do not to tear his hands away and shield his thoughts. But he did not.

He kept his shields down, despite the flood of sensations, trying to make Jim see -- ((No.)) He made his thoughts as clear as he could; this was no time for the hesitation of spoken words. ((You ...are not like them.)) He looked down for an instant, then forced himself to meet Jim's eyes again, to be honest. ((Jim, I... I, also, hate them. But if you... kill yourself, t'hy'la -- if you kill... yourself, they win.)) And he held that thought, and his knowledge that it was true, in a place where the human could not ignore it.

Jim dropped his eyes and looked away. ((You don't know what they did.)) The thought was bleak, bitter. ((You don't know what I am.))

((No. I... do not. But I do... not care. You have... given me back my life.)) He pointed toward his neck, finally freed from the cold iron of the collar. He would still bear the scars -- but the skin was beginning to heal, now. ((For the rest...)) and another small piece of his past returned to him, an idea from his birth tongue, ((Kaiidth! What is, is. It... is done. You are still... t'hy'la.))

The human stared at the floor for a time; then he met Spock's gaze again and smiled, a tight, bitter grimace. ((Am I?)) he thought. ((Watch, then, and learn.)) And he pulled a small device from his pocket, held it on his open palm. It was a remote control of some sort, a smooth, oval blackness, studded with miniature control surfaces. He curled his fingers over it, made one quick, sliding tap on its surface --

-- and the despair was gone, in an instant, as if it had never been. He tapped it again and the mood returned, full force. He did something else and Spock felt it lift, just so far, and stop. It was more bearable now. He touched it once more and his mindtouch grew much louder and clearer. A question that Spock had not even found the words to ask was answered.

((There. No point in making you feel it too.)) He dropped it into his pocket again. ((I'm wired, Spock. I can do whatever I have to do -- but it's all a fake. Smoke and mirrors...)) He tried to block their contact, then, but it was too late -- the Vulcan had seen the rest of it in one sharp intuitive flash; !Mzh!w*hee, the surgeons, the things that she had made him do -- and the time she had taken it all away.

Jim's mindtouch shimmered with returning pain. ((I can't function any more, without this -- this thing. You saw what I turned into without it. How can you tell me that you value this?))

And Spock saw another part of it, then, the thought that burning himself up would solve it once and for all. He did the only thing he could think of; he dropped the last of his shields and left himself open, undefended. ((Because I do.)) He reached out, touching one finger to the human's cheek for just an instant. ((That "wire" -- changes nothing.)) He hesitated, reaching for the proper words. He had to get this right. ((There is... a link, between us -- a bond, as... my people would say. How could I not... value that?)) And he sent an image of his own, then -- how it had been to be alone, and counted of less worth than any herd beast. ((You... came back... and got me.))

((But I could have done it so much sooner!)) came the thought, and again the harsh self-loathing.

In the human's mind he saw regret, for all that he had endured, for the years of wasted time. He answered the only way he could. ((Could you? You... saw me die. Felt... me die. Were they...)) He lost the words for a moment, had to fight to get them back. ((...were they so careless, then? Or... were you watched, ...as I was, close-held... through every minute? I -- can see it, Jim. I will not... judge thee. If this... if this... were a test, then... I failed, too.)) And he made Jim see how it had been with him. They had named him beast, and he had accepted it -- and in many ways, it had been true. It had been all that he could do to survive at all. ((It was the same... for you. We did as... we had to. We... survived.))

There was silence then, and a fierce scowl on the human's face as he thought it over. Spock waited, quietly. He had argued as well as he could; now it was for Jim, to choose what he would do.

He waited. He glanced around the ship's cockpit, noting red lights across the board -- and remembered that to the masters, that was the equivalent of green lights on any Federation ship. They were still running cloaked; in that mode, engine noise was minimal, and the loudest sound he could hear was his own breathing.

He didn't know where they could go, from here. They had been StarFleet officers, once -- but Jim could never return to that, not with a wire in his head. And Spock realized that he did not want to rejoin StarFleet, without the human. It would not be the same -- and in truth, he didn't know if he could pass the entry exams, in his current condition. He was not eager to try, or to see, perhaps, pity, on the faces of those he had known before. He had shamed himself in that place; he had shamed the culture in which he'd been raised. He had forgotten the Traditions; forgotten the Tenets of Surak. He had lived as little better than a beast. How could he face his former crewmates and meet their eyes? It was all he could do to meet his own eyes, in the mirror.

He did not want his parents to see him like this, so damaged, so useless. Especially not Amanda. She would grieve all over again, as she must have grieved when he was lost.

No.

Everyone thought the two of them were dead. Perhaps it might be best to leave it that way. He didn't know. If he returned to Vulcan, they might be able to help him regain what he had lost -- but at what cost? He had never really felt that he belonged on that world, never been accepted as one of them. How much more so would he be outcaste, as he was now? And for Jim to go there -- no. The wire was an abomination, by Vulcan tradition. They would never agree to let him live there, without trying to remove it -- and that choice was not theirs to make. No. Vulcan was not an option. Surely there were places where the two of them could go, honourable ways to earn themselves a living. Surely there were other places where he could get the help he needed...

Finally, after what seemed like a long time, Jim stirred, and met his gaze again. There was a look on his face that could almost have been called a real smile. He spoke, his voice soft but clear, in the quiet cockpit. "I don't know if you remember this -- Omicron Ceti III? The spores?" Spock thought about it, and realized that he did remember, somewhat dimly, now that he had been reminded of it. It had been the first time in his life that he was truly happy -- and he had left it behind, willingly, to help this man. Working together, they had rescued both crew and colonists from the pleasant trap of the spore world -- but not without cost. He nodded, still thinking about it. Remembering. There were so many things that he had forgotten...

"So," said Jim. "Remember me asking you, if we were both in the brig for fighting, who was going to get the job done? I guess that maybe this is the same kind of thing..." And now he did smile. "You're a stubborn man, Spock -- did I ever tell you that?"

The Vulcan made a show of considering it. "I believe... that you did," he said. His voice was still scratchy and hoarse. "I -- have found it... a necessary ...attribute... " The very tiniest of smiles might have crossed his face. Then he reached for the human's hand once more. It was still difficult, to speak aloud for very long.

((Now, t'hy'la -- will you ...sleep? It would... be wise, to do so.)) And he showed Jim then, what he looked like. ((If... if you would live, then... you must rest.))

Jim scowled, and Spock could see that it worried him, the idea of letting go like that -- but they both knew it was necessary. Eventually, the human took the control out of his pocket. His fingers danced across the pads a moment; then he looked up. "You're right, dammit. I don't like it -- but you're right." He got up and walked to one of the bunks in the back; Spock followed him. He sat down on the bunk, and set the control on the single small shelf by his head. "OK. Now listen -- when I do this, I'm going to crash, hard. You won't be able to wake me up easily, maybe not at all. Can't be helped. But you have to promise me this -- if anything goes wrong," and he pointed to a single stud at the control's center, "you'll hit this, and wake me up. That'll do it. And don't worry about messing me up; I've locked out all the rest of it. If nothing happens, it's set to wake me by itself, in about eight hours.

"Will you promise me that?"

Spock didn't much like it, but he knew Jim was right. The ship didn't recognize Spock, and he didn't know either the codes, or the controls. If something happened, Jim would be the only one who could fly them to safety. He said, "I... agree." And then, feeling something else was called for, " ...sleep well, ...t'hy'la."

The human swung his feet up and stretched out. He reached up and tapped the control, just once -- and was gone, instantly. One brief spasm rippled through his body, and then he went limp and started to snore. The Vulcan watched him for a time, then pulled the blankets over his legs, and returned to the cockpit. There he sat down again, to watch the stars, and think.

-----/end/-----

Greywolf the Wanderer

originally posted to ASCEM around November of ‘96.

 

Chapter End Notes:

The other two stories will be uploaded soon as I can.  Promise!  The whole series, plus lots of art, is available from kathleener@aol.com; the zine came out around 2000.

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