DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc and Viacom. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and is copyright (c) 2003 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG-13.
Measureless to Man (Carter #10)
Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
-- Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Kerr trudged along carefully; the small accumulation of snow had turned icy and threatened to send him headlong back down the hill. He looked up to see how Christine was doing and was surprised to see that she was far ahead of him. He had trained in alpine conditions; the mountain boots he wore were designed to navigate ice and snow much more treacherous than this, and he had thought he was doing well, until he watched her move.
As if sensing his eyes on her, she turned around and said with a grin, "Come on, slowpoke."
"Yeah, well, can I help it that I didn't grow up in the Cascades?"
"You grew up in
"You're like a damn mountain goat."
She just laughed. "If you say so."
He frowned as he looked up. "How far is this cavern?"
"Stephen said it was at the top of this rise."
"Hold up," he said, and was gratified to see her stop and wait for him.
"You want to rest?"
"No. I want to see the trail." He caught up with her and looked up at the hillside. He bent down and touched the snow, tasted the consistency of the ice crystals. "This isn't new snow."
"So there should be footprints if this is a trail. How do you know where you're going?"
"Stephen told me."
"There'd be tracks. Even just a few...there hasn't been that much wind since yesterday."
She looked at him as if she couldn't figure out what he was getting at.
In exasperation, he turned her head to the trail. "Stephen didn't come this way."
"Oh, I knew that." She smiled and started to push on.
His hand brought her up short. "What's going on?"
"What fun would it be to go the same way he did?" She shrugged and started moving.
He followed behind her, again losing ground as he slid on the icy snow. She didn't slip once. Then he realized that she wasn't even paying attention to where she put her feet. "You're one with it," he said, remembering what she had told him of Taillte.
She looked back at him and nodded. "Now you're getting it, Kerr." She held out her hand to him. "Trust me?"
"Not in the least, Chapel."
She laughed, but there was a bitter edge to it. "I walked into that one." She looked down.
"Well, since I don't see Spock around anywhere, then yes, I trust you."
Her head shot back up. "I deserve that, I guess. Although it sounds a bit funny coming from you, seeing as how you haven't been completely on the up-and-up yourself."
"I never lied; I just didn't tell you the truth."
"And that makes what you did better? Because I did lie?"
He took a deep breath. "I'm glad that we can joke about this."
She glared at him. "Yeah, me too."
They stood a long time just staring at each other, then he moved closer to her. "Chris." She smiled slightly at the name he'd started calling her. It was a name that Spock never used with her. He liked that.
"Chris," he said again, pulling her closer to him, feeling her arms go around him. He leaned in and kissed her hard, then more gently. "I want to trust you."
"I know. I want to trust you too." They stood that way for a moment longer, then she turned him so he was facing the mountain. "Close your eyes."
"Please, Randall, close your eyes."
He closed them.
"Now just listen for a moment." He could tell she turned away from him, then she whispered. "Please show him?"
"Who are you talking to?"
"Shhh." She took his hand in hers. "Just listen."
He tried to oblige her.
"What do you hear?"
"I hear the wind, a bird overhead. The sound of the snow melting off the trees in the sunlight."
"Listen harder," she whispered.
He did, concentrating on the least little sound. Suddenly, he heard the slightest hint of a whisper calling his name.
"Just open yourself up to her."
He cocked one eye, peered at Christine. "Invite her in?"
"And if I do, then I'll be a mountain goat too?"
She nodded. "When you're one with her, it's much easier to walk the path."
"Walk the path?" He heard the whisper again and ignored it. "And once I'm one with her, will I get to walk around with that dopey look you and Stephen have been wearing lately?"
Her face fell. "You don't want this?"
"Christine, wake the hell up. It's like you're on drugs or something. Both of you. All this oneness with Taillte stuff is starting to concern me."
She looked down. Then she looked back at him, an odd look on her face. "All the psychics the Federation sent are trying to achieve it. And Spock is trying."
"And you think you can manipulate me into doing it, just so I don't lose ground to him? Think again." He pushed past her, started to walk up the hill.
"You don't know where you're going."
He turned around. "Sure I do. Nirvana! Xanadu! Shangri-la!" He held up his hands, jiggled them at the sky. "I'll find it if I just keep going up."
He could hear her behind him. "What'll you do when you reach the top?" she said in his ear.
"This," he said as he pulled her to him and kissed her again.
When they finally pulled away from each other, she whispered, "What if you fall?"
"You'll catch me."
She grinned. "What if I fall?"
"Taillte won't let you."
She smiled. "You think you have it all figured out." She pulled him behind her as she started to head sideways across the hill.
"It's not up?"
"Some pilgrim I'd make." Despite the heavy gloves they both wore, he could feel her hand tighten on his.
"You don't have to be a pilgrim. One of us is probably enough." She stopped for a moment, seemed to be listening. Then she took a few steps to the right and began moving uphill again.
"Aha. So it is up." Then he saw it a few meters ahead, the mouth to a cave, so small Christine had to crawl into it.
"It's just the first part that's narrow," she said as she stood up on the other side, lit one of the lights she'd brought with her.
Kerr crawled through the entrance, trying to ignore how the top of the cave opening scraped his back. He wasn't claustrophobic, but that didn't mean he liked such tight quarters. "Wait a minute," he said. "You don't like caves."
She looked at him, nodded. "No, I don't. But Taillte wouldn't hurt me."
"Well maybe she wouldn't, but a cave-in might."
"But she is the cave-in...and the earthquake. She's everything on this planet because she is the planet."
"Is she the birds?"
"She's one with the birds." Christine looked at him, a serious look on her face. "You don't understand yet, do you?"
"I'm trying, hon. Really I am." He turned on his light and followed her into the tunnel. "But I'm afraid you're going to have to be the zen master of the family."
"You know martial arts, right?"
"Uh huh," he said absently, his gaze drawn toward the sparkling blue mineral streaks that lined the tunnel wall.
"Don't you have to achieve mastery...become one with something?"
"It's recommended. Or you can just pummel the shit out of it." He grinned when he heard her low laugh. Raising his light higher, he saw a colorless streak right above the blue one. It sparkled in the lamplight. "Is this what I think it is?"
"It's not diamond. Just like this isn't sapphire." She stopped and ran her hand over the blue. "The geologists say the properties are different. But they're just as pretty." She smiled for a moment, lost in thought. Then her smile faded. "Valuable too, I bet. There will be a lot of people who don't want to leave this planet alone, Randall."
"I'm not sure we'll be able to protect her."
He pulled off his gloves and pushed them into the pockets of his jacket. The air in the tunnel was much warmer than outside. She did the same, then reached over and took the hand he held out to her.
"Maybe Taillte needs to come up with some ways to protect herself?"
Christine nodded slowly. "Maybe she will." She walked deeper into the cave, then stopped and closed her eyes.
He saw her frown as she turned her head, as if listening for something. "What are you doing?"
"She's stronger here. Can you feel her?" She opened her eyes, stared at him with a slightly unfocused look.
He shook his head. "Sorry."
She took a few more steps away from the entrance. "It gets stronger the farther in you go. Stephen thinks it's some sort of nexus, a place where her energy is concentrated. He told me I'd feel closer to her here."
Kerr didn't answer her, wondered what he was supposed to say. In his opinion, she was already close enough to the planet.
She glanced back at him, caught his expression and sighed softly before turning and leading him deeper into the cave.
Nako moved silently through the forest. She stopped and knelt down, running her hand through the rich dirt and letting it fall through her fingers. Standing up, she walked over to one of the trees. Gently scraping at the bark, she leaned down and sniffed. Cinnamon, she thought to herself. Or allspice.
She could feel the planet's heartbeat under her feet; feel its blood move beneath her in the rivers of hot earth deep below the surface. "Taillte," she called out.
There was no answer except an explosion of birds that suddenly darted from the trees overhead. Nako frowned. She backed up and leaned against the tree. The wind whipped up suddenly, causing the branches of the tree to lash against her face. She pulled her shawl around her, tried to walk by memory away from the trees and out to the clearing. The wind blew even stronger, nearly forcing her off her feet. A loose limb flew by, hitting her on the shoulder and causing her to cry out in pain as she stumbled out to the grass.
The wind died as suddenly as it started. Nako again heard birds singing. She slowly pulled her shawl away from her face.
Taillte was standing right in front of her. Not solid, but not precisely an apparition either. More like water, if it could be captured into feminine form. An ice sculpture, that was in no way frozen.
"Quite the demonstration," Nako said, bowing carefully, never taking her eyes off the woman in front of her.
"I thought you might appreciate it." The other woman bowed also but her voice and her transparent eyes held no welcome. "Your kind always needs a demonstration of power."
"You know my kind?"
Taillte smiled slightly. "Just as you know mine."
"You fear me," Nako said, as she moved toward the woman.
"I fear nothing."
"You fear pain," Nako countered.
Taillte's expression changed to one of suffering. "I do not fear it. But it was unpleasant."
"You were not meant to suffer that way, young one."
Taillte laughed, and as she did the leaves of the trees seemed to shiver around them. "I am not young."
"You are younger than I."
"But then what isn't?" Taillte brought her hands up, made them snap together like pincers. "Grandmother Spider." She pantomimed weaving, then made a sudden stabbing motion.
Nako ignored her, but her heart began to beat faster.
"You hide the truth from them." Taillte's voice was rich with an emotion Nako couldn't quite name. Anger? Fear? Distaste?
"The truth is hard."
"No," Taillte said with a strange smile. "You are hard, Ts'its'tsi'nako. All the old ones are."
"We do what we do to preserve that which is good, that which is deserving."
"You have done it for so long that you have lost your perspective. Who are you to judge what is good and what is not? Who are you to meddle so in the lives of others?"
"You don't know what you are talking about, child. You are new to this world. New to me. You know nothing."
"If I know nothing, then why did you come here? Was it not to find out what I knew?"
Nako smiled, caught in the web of logic. "Very good, my dear."
"I am not stupid."
"I did not think you were." Nako smiled again. "You remind me of Coyote."
"I do not know what that is, but I think there are none here." Taillte sank to the grass. She brushed the grass with one hand, held her other up to feel the rays of the sun. "I am like nothing else. I am this planet."
"Like Gaia. Yes, dear, I understand what you are. I can remember."
"They do not remember. Some of them love me anyway." Taillte seemed to be far away for a moment.
"You're talking to them aren't you? Or to some of them." Nako shook her head.
"I talk with whom I will." Taillte turned her full attention back to Nako. "The others will wait for me."
"Yes, they will. You are quite the new wonder. Certainly you have Starfleet all agog." Nako indicated the grass. "May I sit?"
"You may." Taillte stretched out. "The clouds make designs to please me."
Nako looked up. One of the clouds looked like a woman. The one next to it looked like a huge spider. The spider was about to stab the woman. Nako said sharply, "Stop it."
The clouds were again just clouds.
"You killed." Taillte's voice held more curiosity than condemnation.
"You would have too, in my position."
"We do not know that." Taillte smiled softly. "My meddling is more subtle."
"At least you admit you do it." Nako turned to Taillte. "You may be forced to kill."
"I hope not." Her expression became firmer. "I will not. Not to meddle."
"If you think I did that only to meddle, then you understand nothing. You will do it to protect." Nako looked down. "If you do not, then they will come. Ones like those who hurt you before. They will come and they will overrun you and they will destroy everything that is good and pure and beautiful here." She looked up at the sky. "They may already be here. If they will not leave, Taillte, will you kill?"
Taillte stared at Nako. "I am all that is here."
Nako sighed. It had been a long time since she had talked to one so innocent and so powerful. "You are all that has been here. You and the birds and the animals. You have been alone, inviolate. But you are not alone. You have welcomed some, you seem to be willing to welcome others. Do you not understand that each person that steps on your surface brings with them the potential of pain? Either in small measure or in large. And you will have to grow used to that pain."
Taillte looked bored. "I already grow used to it. The things that seemed painful at first, I hardly notice now." She suddenly ripped a bunch of grass from the ground. "My skin was thin, now it is thicker, it will continue to grow thicker. I will show them where the soil is best so they can plant life within me, and I will embrace the pain that comes with that life. The plants that shoot up from my blood will sustain those who I will invite to live here. And I will choose wisely, my people will be gentle, as these first ones from your ship have been gentle. Their steps on my skin tickle rather than hurt me. When they lay on my grass I can feel their hearts beating. Their warmth spreads down and into me and I am happy that they are with me. They have built their first homes, and the structures sit lightly on my back."
"But others will not be so kind. Or so gentle. They will not sit lightly. They will see the wealth that is here...the kind of wealth that is in such demand and they will seek it. They will hurt you as they seek it. They will dig and burn and explode and cut. You must protect yourself."
Taillte looked around and her expression darkened. "How many can there be who are like that?"
Nako held out her hand. "I will show you."
Taillte stared at her outstretched hand for a long time, then slowly reached out to touch her. The sensation was like putting one's hand in a stream of cold mountain water. Bracing and clean.
"Now watch and learn," Nako said, as she let her see everything she had seen, the damages she had witnessed, the atrocities she had tried to stop, had helped others to clean up. "Life here is hard, Taillte. You have no idea."
Taillte jerked her hand away, her expression stricken. "I am not like that; this place will never be like that." As she began to cry silent tears, dark clouds rolled in and rain poured down from the sky.
"You are all that is, Taillte. I am but an old woman. But I have seen much." Nako pushed herself to her feet. "The day will come when you must do something. Already it begins."
"I am not like you. Your ways are over."
Nako gave her a sad smile. "My ways are just beginning, child." She turned her back on the woman. "You're only borrowing my granddaughter, you know," she called back.
"She is happy here. She is welcome to remain."
"She has another destiny," Nako said softly as she walked back to the Federation shelters.
Penhallon watched Ritsuko as she wandered through the iris field. She was nearly hidden in the tall flowers, lost in the mix of blues and yellows and creams. They weren't really irises, of course. But they looked enough like them to qualify, and Taillte didn't have a better name for them, so he was happy to call them that. "So?" he asked Ritsuko.
"It's just like the iris
fields back home in
"Less domesticated?" He laughed when she nodded. "I thought you might like it."
She smiled as she bent down to look at one of the more vivid flowers. "Shobu were my grandmother's favorite flower. She used to go out to the fields and pick them for ikebana. No one made arrangements like she did. They were much in demand." She touched one of the flowers gently. "If I picked it, would it hurt Taillte?"
"I doubt that she'd even notice it. She's not like she was when we first found her. She's getting tougher."
"But you aren't sure?"
When he shook his head, she let the flower go. "Then I won't do it. I don't want to hurt anyone, even a little."
He leaned back against the hillside, watched her. Could see the pain still raw in her face. Pain that she was holding back with iron control. "It's okay to be sad, you know. It's human to be sad."
"I know." She walked over to him, sat down next to him. "I miss Ren so much, Stephen."
He reached out, touched her hair. Felt her push back against his hand. He thought she might cry, but she didn't.
She said quietly, "Some days, I'm okay. I wake up, and go to work, and I don't think about her for hours. But other days, I can barely get out of bed because I spent the whole night crying for her instead of sleeping."
He was glad to hear she allowed herself to grieve in private. He worried that she held in her emotions too much. "Just give it time, Umachi. It's all you can do."
She turned to Penhallon. "I know. And I try to tell myself I didn't know Ren that long."
"It's not how long we've known someone that matters. It's how intensely we feel for them during that time. You two shared something strong."
He thought she would say more, but she fell silent, so he looked away. It was hard consoling her when he knew that her lover had been responsible for letting a virus loose on the ship, when he knew that she had worked for the Section, and that her death was probably not random. But Ritsuko didn't need to know all that. Not now. Not when there was no way for Farrell to defend herself, or her actions. Penhallon suddenly wondered how Farrell would defend them. If she even would try. He realized Ritsuko was staring at him.
"You seem very far away," she said.
"Ages and ages." He smiled tiredly.
She nodded. "I was scared when you and the Commander disappeared. But now that I see where you were lost, I'm a little envious."
He smiled again. "It wasn't quite this nice when it was in the other universe. Not being able to get home put a bit of a damper on all the beauty." He looked away, not willing to let her catch him in the lie. Even in the other universe, Taillte had been glorious. He hadn't wanted to come back. Wouldn't have come back...but for Christine. But then the planet had been yanked into their universe by Carol Marcus's obsession with Genesis, and he'd gotten this place back. At least for as long as the Carter was assigned to the diplomatic negotiations.
"I guess it would." Ritsuko leaned back against the hillside. They were silent for a while, soaking up the sun. Then she asked, "Is she nice?"
He looked over at her. "The commander?"
"Yes. She's nice." He thought about the night Christine had come to his quarters, after he'd given her Farrell's letter, the one that exposed and damned Kerr. It might very well have been the noblest night of his life. Or possibly just an act of self-preservation. He grinned. Some other night, Christine, he thought. When your heart isn't shredded and when you're running to me, not away from someone else...or a couple someone elses. He doubted that night would ever come. Truth to tell, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted it to. It was almost more fun the way things were. Playful, innocent. One long session of fore--
*--Find another way,* Taillte's voice echoed in the back of his mind.
*Yes, Mother,* he thought ruefully. Then he added, *You're no fun.*
*I am Taillte,* she said simply. He felt the brush of her presence against his side, then warmth spread through him. He sighed, enchanted as always by the amazing sensation of belonging.
He heard Ritsuko gasp. Then she sat up. "Something touched me."
"It was Taillte."
"What does she want?"
He smiled. "Nothing. To be with us. She's everywhere, Umachi. The ground, the flowers, the trees. They are all Taillte."
"Like Haniyasu-Hime. I remember my grandmother leaving offerings for her at the Shinto shrine by her house. I loved the way the incense she burned for her smelled. And the priests often chanted to her, and to Amaterasu. I would sit and listen while I waited for my grandmother to finish her devotions."
"Do you miss home?"
"How can I? It seems like I get a comm from there almost every night." She looked away. "I know they're just worried about me, but I almost wish that I grew up like you did, Stephen. With no home, no strong ties to anywhere."
"No, you don't." He smiled at her sadly. "Trust me, you don't."
"You're right. I don't.
My family can be overbearing, but I can't imagine not knowing where I
belong...who I am. No matter what,
He laughed. "Whereas I have no moral foundation at all."
She shook her head. "You love to say that. You like to act as if you are the worst person in this quadrant, a true rogue with no moral center. But it's a lie, Stephen. I'm on to you." She leaned in. "You've been looking out for me...don't think I haven't noticed."
"Well," he said with a wink, "who wouldn't look out for a chef of your talent?"
"That's not it. But if you want to pretend it is, so you can continue to play the bad boy, I won't ruin your act."
"I appreciate that."
"No one believes that act anymore, you know."
"You spend all your time down here," she said, as she ran her hand over the grass. "You're like this nature monk suddenly."
He laughed out loud. "Nature monk?"
She turned to him. "It's true, look at you. You're completely comfortable here. When was the last time you slept in your quarters?"
He shrugged, but he knew that he hadn't been in his own bed since Christine and he had been lost on Taillte in the other universe. He had been spending all his time on Taillte...mostly alone. He looked over at Ritsuko. She was studying him curiously. "What?"
"You seem different. In a good way," she said.
"I don't know, just different." At his skeptical look, she tried again. "More serious. More steady, I guess."
"I used to swear I'd never be serious."
"Never say never." She smiled sympathetically.
"Never say never," he agreed.
They both leaned back. Penhallon heard her say sleepily, "I should get back to the ship."
He nodded lethargically. "You should." He noticed she made no move to go.
"Maybe just a few more minutes." A few moments later, he heard her breathing change as she dropped into sleep.
"Rest easy, Umachi. Dream of
The area that had been set up for the Federation negotiators was bustling in the afternoon sunshine. Troi walked slowly past the shelters, trying to catch a glimpse of a familiar face. He heard someone call out and turned to look.
An attractive young woman rushed up but when she looked up and saw his face she slowed. "Oh," she said, her extremely fair skin flushing brightly. "I thought you were someone else."
"Then he's a lucky man." Troi couldn't believe he'd just said that, it sounded like something Stephen would say. He held out his hand. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Andrew Troi."
"Words, how quaint." She smiled slightly, took his hand in hers.
He waited, noticed she was staring at him rather intently. "And you are?"
She frowned slightly. "You're not telepathic."
"I'm not," he agreed. "Should I be?"
She seemed to think about that. "Why are you hanging about then?" She gestured at a group assembling on the far edges of the camp. "I thought you were here for the 'Getting to Know Taillte' tour, as we lovingly call the walkabout we give to newcomers."
He smiled. "I'm not exactly a newcomer. I was here from the start, or nearly so." He pointed up. "Spent most of that time on the Carter, admittedly, but I've still logged in a few hours exploring Taillte's treasures."
"You're on the ship? Oh, I see."
He had the impression he'd fallen quite a few notches in her estimation. "Sorry that doesn't measure up."
She bristled. "I didn't say that."
He smiled shortly. "You didn't have to. You're making it quite clear how you feel about those of us not blessed with your gifts."
She blushed again, this time in anger. He decided that she wasn't as attractive as he first thought. Honey gold hair, sky blue eyes, and peaches and cream skin were overrated, he decided. She seemed about to say something, when Troi heard a familiar voice.
"Andrew! What are you doing here?" Rixx came up with a huge smile for his friend. "Oh, I see. You're getting to know Elaine. How unfortunate for you." He shot her a false smile.
"I should have known he'd be a friend of yours," the woman in question said sourly.
"What? You two aren't hitting it off? I'm speechless with shock." Rixx took Troi's arm and turned him toward one of the shelters. "I'm sure you'll be devastated, Elaine, but I'm going to have to steal him."
Troi looked back at Elaine. She was staring at him as if she couldn't figure out which of them was worse. He allowed Rixx to pull him away. "Nice girl," Troi mumbled. "But I'm afraid she's depriving someone of a chilling unit. I hate to think of their beer going warm."
Rixx laughed out loud. "Oh, I like that one. I'm going to have to remember it."
"It was a good one, wasn't it?" Troi smiled. "Pity. At first glance, I thought she was quite attractive."
"Yeah, if you like your women with light-hair. I prefer brunettes like my Larissa." He smiled. "But I bet you like them pale, don't you, my friend."
"Women are all attractive, dark, light, in between." Troi looked around the shelter, took in the dearth of personal items. "Not much here, Rixx."
"I travel light." He grabbed a pack. "You ready to explore?"
Troi nodded and followed his friend out. As they walked through the camp, he found himself looking to see if the woman was still around. Dismayed, he forced his eyes to the front and caught up with Rixx.
"So how are the negotiations going?" he asked as they began to cross open field.
"Haven't started. People are still trying to get a handle on all that Taillte is...and all that she isn't. It's confusing."
"But you volunteered to speak for her?"
"Yeah, along with about fifty other telepaths."
"I'm sure she prefers you." Troi watched as Rixx crossed a stream on a path of boulders. Then he followed carefully.
"Well, that's just it. None of us know what she prefers. She's not talking." Rixx stopped and knelt, laid his hand on the grass. "I can feel her. I can hear her sometimes, as if from a great distance. But she doesn't speak to me, and if she's listening to me when I try talking to her, I can't tell. No one's having any luck."
Troi frowned. "Stephen talks to her. And I'm sure Commander Chapel does too."
Rixx nodded. "You're right. I've seen them when she's talking to them. They get a certain look on their face. But they appear to be the only ones she's talking with right now. And it's irritating to quite a few of the high and mighty, I can tell you."
"Among others. She's used to being needed, relied on. We all are."
"Maybe Taillte doesn't trust your motives."
"What motives?" Troi stood up. "This is what I do. I don't have an agenda except for wanting to speak for her. I don't understand why she doesn't trust me. I'm only trying to help."
"Maybe she'll talk to you on this walk?"
"That's about as likely as Elaine Wynter coming up and apologizing to you," Rixx said with a grin.
"That's her last name?" Troi asked, even as he told himself that he didn't care one way or the other.
"She's not a very nice person, Andrew."
"Believe me, I got that impression," Troi admitted. He laughed. "I have terrible luck with women, Gallen. This is just one more to add to the mix of misfortune that love seems to be for me."
"God, you make it sound so tragic," Rixx said with a grin.
"It is tragic. I'd really like to meet someone, you know. Someone special, someone that likes me." He grinned sheepishly. "Not much to ask. But maybe you've forgotten what it's like to be looking for love? After all you have a beautiful, patient fiancée waiting at home for you."
Rixx shot Troi an amused look. "We were bonded as children. I've always had her waiting for me."
"Even if it's true, it's pretty unromantic of you to say so. I hope someday you realize how good you've got it," Troi said. "It's a nice idea though...someone waiting. Almost makes me long for the days of arranged marriages."
"No you don't. They don't always work out. But I do love Larissa and I do realize how good I've got it," Rixx admitted. "I'll let you in on a secret. This is my last adventure. I'm going home once I'm done here. I'm going home and marrying the woman I love." Rixx smiled happily. "This is the first time I've said it out loud. It sounds good, don't you think?"
"It sounds wonderful."
"You have to come, Andrew. I'll send you an invitation."
Troi smiled wryly. "I'd say I don't know what to wear, but I guess that's pretty much a moot point at a Betazoid wedding, from what I've heard?"
Rixx laughed. "It is. But trust me, if everyone is naked, you don't notice that you are."
"Uh huh," Troi said, not convinced. He moved ahead of Rixx. "Come on, there's an amazing valley I want to show you."
They moved off through a long narrow valley. Troi saw a familiar figure coming toward them. He waved at her. "That's Nako."
"Did I meet her the last time?"
Troi shook his head. "She was unwell, didn't leave her cabin. But she's fine now." As they approached her, he called out. "Hello."
She smiled gently. "Hello, grandson." Then she turned and shot Rixx a look. "That's rather bad manners, isn't it?"
Rixx looked taken aback. "I beg your pardon. I meant no offense."
"Your intent may have been benign, but my mind is my business." Her serene tone was at odds with the sharpness of the words.
"I'm sure he didn't mean any harm," Troi said, trying to help his friend out.
Nako smiled. The expression almost reached her eyes. "I'm sure you're right. Gentlemen, enjoy your walk." With a small inclination of her head, she walked past them.
"That was odd. She's usually so pleasant. She didn't even get your name."
Rixx was staring after her with a confused look on his face. "I didn't mean to try to read her, Andrew. I guess I've fallen so into the habit of getting a 'feel' for people that way that I must have done it unconsciously. If it irritated her, it's going to really aggravate my own people when I get back. I'll have to work on that."
"Still...it wasn't like her to react that way." Troi looked back at her, then turned around. "Oh well, no matter. We've got a view to admire." It took him a very long time to wonder how Nako had known that Rixx was trying to get inside her head.
Spock watched the new members of the Federation contingent set out for their orientation to Taillte. How did one get to know an entire planet in forty minutes? he wondered. Walking over to the creek that ran along one side of the camp, he crouched down and let his fingers dangle in the water.
*Play,* he heard Taillte whisper to him. *You never play.*
*I am a Vulcan.* He tried unsuccessfully to avoid thinking of a time when he was very young and his father had found him wading in the ceremonial fountain of the Rivellian Embassy. He had been kicking joyfully, his bare toes sending water onto the hot Vulcan sand where it evaporated quickly. He had known better than to give in to his urge to screech in delight, Sarek would have found him even sooner. But it had been a given that he would find him. His father seemed to have a special sense that told him when Spock was doing something wrong...something human.
He pulled his hand from the water. *I am a Vulcan,* he said again.
*As you wish.* Taillte brushed against him once, the touch both tender and teasing. Then she was gone.
He almost sighed. She was so...whimsical. When he had first touched minds with her, when she was in the other universe, she had been focused on getting his people back to him, on stopping the experiments that were hurting her. But now...now that they shared the same universe, she seemed entirely capricious. *Taillte, you must focus,* he sent, hoping she was still listening. *The Federation telepaths won't wait forever for you to talk to them.*
There was no answer. He hadn't expected there to be.
He turned and looked out at the meadow, saw Nako walking toward him. He straightened, waiting for her to get within range before asking, "Did she speak to you?"
Nako gave him a strange smile. "Oh, yes, she spoke to me." Nako rubbed her shoulder for a moment. "She is a child, Spock. A child the size of an entire planet."
He considered what he knew, what he had experienced. "She is not logical," he conceded.
"Not logical? She is naïve and trusting."
"No, she is not, Nako. She does not talk to the telepaths. Only to those she knows. And to you...she must trust you, but who does not? It is one of your greatest gifts, your ability to make those who are suspicious open up to you."
Nako nodded distractedly, her mouth set in a tight line.
"Are you upset?" he asked.
She turned to him abruptly. "I think there are people here already who will try to take what they want from this world."
"After the minerals. I saw the surveys, Spock. I know how much dilithium there is here. As well as other strategic materials. And the new minerals, the ones we don't even know the uses for yet. They are enticing too."
He nodded. "I'm afraid this world is a tempting target. But surely Taillte would know if they were here? She can defend herself?"
Nako shrugged. "I'm not so sure she would know until they make their move. I don't know how much attention she is paying to those she won't talk to. I hope she learns. She can't sit and play with her 'children' forever."
He was surprised at her reaction, and his expression must have told her so.
"Don't look so shocked, Spock. I, at least, am practical in the way I approach the mystical. But Taillte is like those spores on Omicron Ceti III." She saw his slight wince and smiled. "Don't mean to make you uncomfortable. But that's how I see it. She has a hold on Christine and Penhallon. And I'm not sure it's a healthy one."
"They are both still acting professionally when on duty, Nako. I haven't seen them hanging upside down from trees or looking for dragons in the clouds when they should be working."
Her look darkened. "Maybe not. But I think the analogy is apt."
"I will, of course, consider what you say." He turned away.
"Taillte's talking to you, too, isn't she?"
He turned. "I was the one that made contact with Christine. Taillte acted as an amplifier for us. She is comfortable with me."
"Well, don't you get too comfortable with her." She held his gaze until he looked away. "Now where did the telepaths go?"
He pointed in the general direction and watched her walk off. He could remember few occasions when he had seen her so agitated. Of course, agitated for Nako would be contemplative for anyone else, but still, it was clear to him, after all the years of knowing her, that something was wrong. He just wasn't sure what it was. But he knew it would be futile to try to find out before Nako was ready to tell him.
Christine gasped as she and Kerr entered the main chamber of the caverns. The feeling of Taillte was incredibly immediate, almost too intense. *This is where you live,* she thought.
She heard Taillte laugh in her mind. *I live everywhere. But much of my energy is focused here.*
The minerals, Christine guessed, as her light and Kerr's played across the surface of the walls, causing them to sparkle as brightly as any diamond. They must amplify Taillte's essence somehow. She moved closer to the wall, studied the striations of color that shot across the entire space, covering flat surfaces and stalactites hanging down from the ceiling. "Wow."
"I see your wow and raise you a gee whiz." Kerr grinned at her as he walked over to a stalagmite, knelt down to scan what looked like quartz matrix. "This is dilithium."
She walked over. "It's all over the planet. Why do you think the Federation keeps sending more telepaths? They want access to this."
"Wouldn't that hurt her? Extracting the dilithium?"
"Digging her insides out?" Christine laughed bitterly. "I can't think it would be pleasant under normal circumstances, but if this place is some kind of energy nexus for her..." She tried to think of a medical analogy. "Nerves congregate different places in our bodies, making those areas more sensitive."
Kerr nodded. "They train us to go for places like that in hand-to-hand. The pain can be overwhelming from a very light hit."
She nodded, glad he understood. "Spock and I have both tried to make it clear in our reports that the planet has to choose what she will and won't allow to be done on her surface."
He started to scan some of the other deposits. "The mineral wealth alone on this world is amazing. Add in the lumber, the potential for raising crops...there's going to be a lot of crowded worlds that don't quite see the logic in keeping Taillte pristine."
"I know." It was something she had thought about often. Taillte did not seem overly concerned about the threat to her. But Christine knew that Randall was right. If Taillte didn't learn to protect herself, then she'd find herself losing control of her world. Even if she was that world. Sometimes it made Christine's head hurt to think about Taillte. "She's so innocent. I don't know why she was left alone in the other universe, but she was. We were the first people she'd seen; Stephen and I were the first ones she got to know."
"And if the reports I've been seeing are any indication, she doesn't seem interested in expanding her circle of friends," he said, turning off his tricorder and shoving it back into his coat.
"She needs friends though, because if she's not going to protect herself then we'll have to do it for her. But she needs more than just the two of us."
"It's up to her, how she deals with this, isn't it?" Kerr moved closer to her, a predatory smile on his face.
"Why do I get the feeling you don't want to talk about Taillte anymore?"
"Because you are so damn smart." He unfastened her coat and slid his arms under her shirt, his hands finding bare skin as he pulled her to him.
She gave in to the sensation of kissing him, being touched. He began to lower her to the ground and she pushed back. "No."
"How long are we going to wait?" he asked, but he didn't sound terribly surprised that she'd stopped him.
"We're still mad at each other. What we said on the hill a while ago. I don't think either of us was kidding."
"Chris, we're probably going to be mad at each other for quite some time. That doesn't mean we're not ready." He shot her a rueful look. "Believe me, I am so ready."
She grinned, pulled him in for a long kiss. As she pushed against him, she heard him groan, moaned a similar sentiment herself. "You're not the only one, Colonel."
"We could do it really fast," he joked.
"We could," she said as she eased away from him and inspected the caverns again.
"Or, we could do it really slow."
"That sounds good too," she agreed.
He walked toward her, saying, "Or a mixture of both."
She was about to answer, when a stab of pain shot through her stomach. She heard someone cry out, realized that she was the one making the shrill noise.
"Christine?" Kerr was at her side instantly. He pulled her hands away from her stomach. They came back red.
She looked down. It looked like someone had dug into her belly, taking out a carefully measured, rather large cylinder of skin and tissue. As blood spurted, she was nearly doubled over by the wave of pain that hit her. She looked at him. "How?"
"Don't move," he said, as he put his glove over the open wound, putting pressure on it with his hand to try to stop the bleeding. He pulled out his communicator. "Kerr to Carter."
"Carter here." It was Saldusta.
"I need an emergency beam out."
A different voice came on. "This is Lieutenant Atkins. The minerals in the cavern are making it difficult to establish a pattern. I'm attempting to compensate."
Kerr turned to her. "Hold on."
She nodded, tried to slow her breathing so she wouldn't hyperventilate. She let him support her as they waited. "I don't understand how this happened. There was nobody in the cave with us."
"Save your strength," he instructed tersely. "We can figure that out later."
She looked down where he was holding the glove tightly against her. His hand was covered with blood. She closed her eyes then and just concentrated on willing the transporter to take them. A wave of pain came over her again and she felt her legs go out. Kerr eased her down, and she collapsed on the floor of the cave as her belly slowly lost all feeling. How had this happened? It was almost as if someone had taken a tissue sample from her. A huge one.
She was suddenly aware of Taillte's voice in her mind; she seemed as agitated as Christine was when she said, *Stop them.*
The pain in her belly increased and Christine screamed as she felt another section of tissue being removed.
But that's impossible, she thought. I'm lying on my stomach. No one is touching me.
Taillte moaned in pain.
No one is touching _me_, Christine realized. She turned over, motioned to Kerr, whispered, "They're taking core samples. Drilling. Stop them."
He didn't seem to hear her, as he pulled out his communicator. "We're out of time, Atkins."
*We'll stop them,* Christine tried to reassure Taillte.
"Beaming up now, sir," was the last thing she heard before the transporter took them.
Carpenter finished the crew reports she was working on and turned her computer terminal off. She was glad to be off duty, anticipating finally having a chance to explore the planet, when her comm panel chimed.
It was the medical transporter room technician. "Doctor Carpenter. Lieutenant Ritsuko just called. Medical emergency on the surface. I'm beaming her and Commander Penhallon up now."
"I'll be right there," she said, grabbing her emergency bag and sprinting down the corridor to the lift. It dropped one deck and she ran to the medical transporter room. The lieutenant on duty nodded to the pad, where Ritsuko was sheltering Penhallon. The man was crouched down, as if in pain from his abdominal area.
"Let me see what's wrong, Stephen," Carpenter said softly, nodding at Ritsuko to move away and gently forcing him to straighten up.
"So much blood," Ritsuko said brokenly. "He was fine, we were relaxing in the sun. Then he cried out and he was bleeding, and part of his stomach was gone."
Carpenter stared down at his clothing. There was no blood, no rips in the fabric, nothing. She lifted up Penhallon's shirt, thinking perhaps they had bandaged the wound, but his skin was fine. "This better not be some kind of joke," she said sternly.
Penhallon and Ritsuko both looked down at this stomach. Their twin expressions of bewilderment told her this was no joke.
"There was blood, just as Umachi said," Penhallon replied as he gingerly started to get up. When nothing appeared to hurt, he moved with more confidence. "This is odd."
"This is more than odd," Carpenter muttered.
The transporter tech looked up from his station. "I'm being hailed by Commander Kerr. Another medical emergency."
"Christine," Penhallon said, looking at Carpenter. "It's Christine."
And this just gets weirder all the time, she thought, wondering if exploring Taillte was such a great idea, if these four were any indication.
The transporter tech was already beaming Kerr and Christine in. Carpenter hurried forward, but Christine was sitting up, motioning her off.
"The pain's gone." She looked down at her shirt. "This was covered in blood, ripped." Christine looked at Kerr, then over at Penhallon. "You felt it too?"
She stood up quickly, "Carter to Spock."
His reply was very quick. "Spock here."
"They're drilling, Spock. Somewhere, I'm not sure where yet. They're taking core samples."
"Are you sure?"
"She's sure, sir," Penhallon vouched for her. "We both felt it."
"The telepaths appear to be unaware, and I felt nothing amiss."
"You're not connected to her the way we are," Christine said, agitation clear in her voice. "They're hurting her, Spock."
"Beam me up now." As he appeared on the platform, he moved toward Christine, his expression deeply concerned. "You are hurt?"
"I thought I was. I'm fine." She rubbed her stomach. "Still can feel the pain, if I try to remember."
Carpenter had the odd impression that Spock could feel Christine's pain too. After what she had seen in the caves when he was in Pon Farr, she didn't question. What was going on in her friend's love life was a little too confusing for Carpenter to make sense of, and she didn't try. She knew that if Christine wanted her to know, she'd tell her. "She's in no danger now. Neither of you are," she said, looking over at Penhallon as she picked up her emergency bag. "And you don't need me around to tell you that. If you don't mind, I have some off duty plans I'm going to rethink."
Spock attempted to scan for the site of the illegal drilling but the unique mineral combinations in the caverns seemed to be playing havoc with the sensors. He gestured to Christine to follow him to the transporter controls. He could still feel the pain she had been in, the shock she'd had. She was not in pain now, but the aftermath of her experience permeated her emotions. He had to resist reaching out for her. He forced his mind to focus on the problem at hand. "Do you have any idea where the drilling is taking place?"
"No. But Taillte does."
Kerr moved toward them. "You're not going to take her back down there?"
Christine held up a hand. "It's all right. She was just getting my attention."
Penhallon nodded. "I think she'll be fine, Colonel."
Spock saw Kerr's face darken. Their eyes met and he shook his head. "I do not plan to take her down there, Colonel. I agree with you that the risk is too great." He ignored Christine and Penhallon's cries of dismay. "That does not mean we are not going to stop this." He looked at Kerr, raised an eyebrow.
Kerr smiled and pulled out his communicator. "Kerr to Collins."
"We need a security team in the medical transporter room. We're expecting guests. Ones who won't take kindly to being beamed up with no notice."
"Yes, sir, we'll be there at once. Collins out."
"Excellent." Spock turned back to Christine, pointed to the sensor readings. "Can you tell me where?"
Christine looked at him. "I told you I don't know."
"Yes, I heard you. You also said Taillte can find them. It would save time, Commander, if she found them now. I suggest you ask her?"
"It's not so easy from up here." She turned to the readouts. "You know I flunked all my ESP tests."
"Yes, I recall." He began to move the sensors over the planet, the display changing as he did so. "Try."
She watched for a second, then held her hands over the grid. Closing her eyes, she stood quietly. He could sense her discomfort, how awkward she felt. Then suddenly she seemed to turn her focus inward, her breathing became slower and deeper. A perfect trance, Spock thought. From one with no training and no skill for telepathy or any other esper talent. He did not understand it.
"There," she said, touching her hand down on the display. Opening her eyes, she asked, "These are caves?"
He nodded. "Halfway across the planet from our base camp." He turned to the transporter tech. "Can you get a lock on this location?"
"Barely, sir. Looks like three humanoids."
Collins and a group of marines arrived. All extremely well armed. Spock shot them a questioning glance.
"Can't be too careful, sir," Collins said, handing a phaser to Kerr.
"No doubt you are right, Major." Spock nodded to the transporter tech. "Beam them up, Lieutenant...?" Spock realized he didn't know the man's name.
"Atkins, sir. Beaming them up now."
A moment later, three very surprised men appeared on the pad. The one nearest them still held the core sampling equipment; the other two had laser pickaxes and several types of tricorders and scanners. They turned around slowly, revealing Starfleet Corps of Engineer uniforms.
"What the hell is going on," the one closest to Spock said. "How dare you interrupt our work!"
"Your work was not authorized, Commander...?"
"Montt. And the hell it wasn't."
"We specifically said nothing invasive." Christine moved closer to the pad. "Who authorized you to take core samples?"
"This kind of sampling is standard procedure for a newly discovered planet. We'll be inventorying all the mineral resources, estimating approximate yield."
"By whose orders?" she asked angrily.
"By Starfleet Command's. If you don't like it, you can take it up with my C.O., Commander Flynn."
Spock gestured for Montt to step off the platform. "We will most assuredly do that, Commander." He held out his hand. "If you would be so kind as to give me the samples you have taken?"
"You have no call to take these away."
Spock heard the sound of four phaser rifles being readied for fire. "Marines have so little to do on a diplomatic ship," he said casually.
One of the engineers practically threw his equipment at Christine. "You people are nuts."
"On the contrary," Spock said, as he took the core samples Montt handed him. "We are simply ensuring that a sentient life form isn't harmed any more than she already has been. I believe you have one more piece of equipment?" he said to the last engineer.
The man tossed the scanner to Spock. He caught it easily. "Now, I assume that you have a ship in orbit?"
"We have a shuttle."
Spock looked at Atkins.
"I've got it, sir."
"Beam them back to their ship." Spock shot Montt a stern look. "Do not come back to Taillte, Lieutenant Commander." He put extra emphasis on the 'lieutenant' part of the title.
Before Montt could reply, the transporter caught the engineers up and beamed them away.
"Nicely done, Lieutenant Atkins."
The tech looked enormously pleased with himself. "They're back on their ship, sir."
"Very good." He turned to Christine. "One of us should examine these samples, see what they found so interesting."
She handed him the equipment she was holding. "You're better at that. Shall I send Kavall down to the science lab to assist?"
"Meanwhile, I'll contact the Corps of Engineers." She smiled grimly as she headed for the door. "And after they've given me the complete runaround, I'll see if any of my friends back at Command can help us figure out who authorized this."
"I will be most curious to hear." Once she was gone, Spock turned to Kerr. "It isn't our place to police the planet. We are here in a diplomatic capacity only."
Kerr nodded. "But you might like to know who's coming and going...with a bit more detail than we've been providing?"
"I think that is exactly what I would like. Lieutenant Myrax might enjoy working with you on this." Spock let his mouth turn up slightly.
"I think she might. She's another one that doesn't have much to do."
"Acknowledged." Spock shook his head slightly. "Someone at Starfleet Command authorized this. Someone who doesn't care that Taillte is sentient, or that we have accorded her the same diplomatic rights as the ruling body of a planet would have. I don't think that person is going to give up now."
Kerr smiled. It was a predatory expression. "I don't think so either."
"I'll leave you to your work then, Colonel." Spock hefted the equipment easily, and headed to the science lab.
Christine was in her office when Saldusta hailed her. "Commander Flynn from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, sir."
"In my office, Lieutenant."
Christine's terminal lit up. The woman on the other end looked annoyed. "Are you the party responsible for disrupting our timetable?"
Christine leaned back, if Flynn wanted to attack her, she'd wasn't going to get the reaction she expected. "You're in direct violation of the first contact parameters for this planet."
"First contact?" Flynn looked bemused. "The planet is uninhabited." Her expression changed to worried.
"Not exactly, Commander." Christine leaned forward. "Look, I only want to get to the bottom of this. I don't want to get you in trouble. I need to know who gave you the orders."
"Commander Harris in Diplomatic. Said he was told to transfer all orders for Taillte to the Corps of Engineers."
"That's damned odd. Can you transfer me to him?"
Flynn nodded, working her panel for a moment. The screen went blank and then a Lieutenant appeared. "Commander Harris's office."
"Commander Chapel, First Officer of the Carter, here. I need to speak to Commander Harris at once."
"I'm not sure he's available, ma'am. Hold please."
Christine sighed. She knew the routine, had played the game herself not too long ago when she'd been at Command. Harris was undoubtedly in his office. But if he didn't want to talk to her, the lieutenant would report that he was in a meeting, or had left for the day, or even that he was offworld. It was relatively easy to evade comms if you really wanted to.
To her surprise, it was not the lieutenant looking apologetic and earnest that appeared on the screen but the commander himself. "What can I do for you, Chris?"
Christine smiled in delight. Why hadn't she put two and two together? Harris was a common name, true, and there was more than one Commander in the fleet with that name. But how many of them worked in Diplomatic? "Tom."
"It seems like forever, Chris. The team's nine-ball game has gone to hell since you shipped out."
She grinned. "Sorry about that. Hope the league's recovered?"
"I convinced Donnelly to join up. She's nowhere near as good as you, but she is a whole lot friendlier."
"I wasn't unfriendly." She grinned at him. This was an old game between them.
"Well, I wouldn't call it friendly to constantly say no to my attempts at seduction." He suddenly turned serious. "What's going on up there? We've heard some odd stories about the Carter and what happened to Farrell."
Tom had never liked Ren. Christine hadn't known exactly why. She suddenly wondered if he had known that Farrell had been involved in more than just relief ops. She weighed whether it would be smart to ask him and decided to save it for some other conversation. "It's a little crazy here, Tom. But nothing we can't handle."
"If you say so."
"Listen, Tom. I need to get to the bottom of a little mix-up. We had a team of engineers out here on Taillte, taking core samples. Their C.O. says you sent the orders over."
"Flynn? Yeah, I sent the orders over to her. Looked like standard discovery protocols to me."
"But our report clearly said that the planet was sentient. We asked for first contact protocols."
He looked stunned. "No, you didn't. Hold on." He worked at his terminal for a moment, then said, "I'm sending you what I got."
A second later the memo appeared in her message file. She scanned it. Someone had rewritten what they had sent. "This doesn't make sense."
"It came directly from Admiral Hays's office."
She could see the routing on the message. "Captain Alexyev?"
"That's what it says. I don't know the person, but then I don't travel in those circles."
"Neither do I. But I know someone that might. Thanks for your help, Tom."
He nodded. "We miss you, Chris."
"I miss you guys too," she said, with a smile as she signed off.
This didn't make any sense. A mistake she could understand, but this was deliberate tampering. Someone wanted what Taillte had to offer. And whoever it was, they were Starfleet. We're supposed to be the good guys, Christine thought, as she signaled Saldusta.
"Get me Admiral Mackin's office. I need to speak with Commander Uhura."
"Aye, Sir." Saldusta was back quickly. "She's in a meeting. Due back in an hour."
"Thanks." Christine suddenly felt restless. She got up and walked out to the bridge. "Sabuti, you have the conn."
"Aye, sir," the navigator replied.
Christine took the turbolift down to the geology lab. Kavall looked up as she walked in. "Hey."
"Hey. Anything interesting?"
"Lots. But nothing unexpected. Spock went down to the planet. He wanted to check out the cave they were in."
"I doubt he'll find anything there." Christine touched the rock sample. This was Taillte, part of her anyway. If this little bit hurt her, what would large-scale drilling do to her? And how would she defend herself if anyone ever tried?
"You okay?" Kavall was looking at her with concern.
Christine nodded. "I'm worried about the planet."
"You don't think they'll leave her alone?"
"I don't know, Nevara." Christine stroked a long vein of the sapphire-like mineral that she'd seen in the cave Stephen had found. "So much abundance. In all the things we need most. And she doesn't seem able to defend herself."
"Maybe she'll learn."
Christine smiled. "That's what Randall thinks."
"Well, he's usually right."
"When did you become such a fan?" Christine shot her a surprised look.
"I like him. He's good for you. He makes you smile." Kavall shrugged. "I'm a fan of the two of you together."
Christine smiled. "You're a good friend."
Kavall turned back to the core samples with a smile. "Just returning the favor."
Christine walked back to her office, busying herself with the reports until Saldusta commed.
"I have Commander Uhura for you."
"Private channel, Saldusta," Christine said. The screen lit up and she smiled at the sight of her old friend. "Hi, Ny."
"Christine. What's the occasion?"
"I need some information."
Uhura rolled her eyes. "Sure you call when you need something. But any other time?" A fond grin softened her words. "What do you need?"
"Do you know a Captain Alexyev?"
Uhura shook her head. "Do you know what office?"
"Admiral Hays. Not sure where. I don't even have a first name."
Uhura was already calling something up on her screen. "Don't need it. There's only one Captain Alexyev in the fleet. Sergei. And he's on Starbase 18."
"Did he just transfer? Did he ever work in Hays's office?"
Uhura shook her head. "No to both. He's been there for two years. And his service record doesn't have him at Command at all. Why?"
"If I send you something, can you trace it?"
Uhura shrugged. "I can try."
Christine pulled up the document again, sent it to Uhura. "It's important that this be discreet, Uhura."
Uhura rolled her eyes. "What isn't, at this level?" She bent to her terminal. "I long for the days when I could actually talk about what I do, you know?" She looked up suddenly. "This didn't come from Admiral Hays's office. But I'm not sure where it did come from."
Christine had an idea who had sent it. The Section that Renata and Randall had worked for was starting to become the bogeyman to her, responsible for every bad thing that happened anywhere. It was probably an overreaction. She leaned forward, as if that would make what she was about to say more private somehow, and asked, "Have you ever heard of a section, Ny?"
"A section of what?"
"Just a section. The Section."
Uhura looked confused. "I'm not sure what you're talking about, Christine. Do you have anything more specific?"
Christine shook her head. "Just forget I said anything."
"It's forgotten. I'm sorry I can't be more help." Uhura leaned back and smiled. "It was good to see you again at Scotty's service, despite the circumstances."
"It was." Christine remembered how wonderful it had felt to be back with her friends. She tried not to think about how much she had enjoyed the time she had spent alone with Spock. Tried not to recall what they had done during part of that time.
"It was good to see you and Spock so close. I know it's been a long time coming."
"We're good friends." Christine didn't want to have this conversation now.
"I'd say a bit more than that?" Uhura frowned. "No?"
"Didn't I mention that I was seeing someone?"
"You kind of forgot that."
"I am. A great guy.
You'd like him." Christine
knew that all her friends would have liked Kerr. If they'd met him. If she'd let him come with her. But she hadn't wanted that. And that had been a mistake on her part...and
a calculated move. At the time, she had
only wanted to spend time with Spock and with the others she'd served with on
Uhura broke into her reverie. "Does he have a name?"
"Randall Kerr. Colonel."
Uhura's expression was one of shock for a split second, then the look was gone. Christine wondered if she had actually seen it. "Do you know him?"
"Colonel? I take it he's a marine?" At Christine's nod, Uhura shook her head. "No, don't think I've ever met him."
"For a minute it looked like you knew him?"
There was a buzzing sound on Uhura's end. "I have a priority call coming in, Christine. I've got to go. It's been good catching up. Uhura out."
Christine stared at the blank screen, wondering if there had truly been a comm. That was another Command trick; it was easy to program the buzzer to go off at the press of a button. Christine had used it herself any time that a conversation showed signs of going on too long. But why would her friend do that to her?
Just one more question to add to the growing list.
Spock walked by the shore of a large lake, taking in the view, the sounds, the gentle breeze. He had checked out the cave, found nothing out of the ordinary. He'd needed a place to think, away from the telepaths, had found the lake earlier but hadn't had much time to explore. It was isolated and calm and had seemed like a good place to think, so he had beamed over. As he gazed out at the water, he felt the same pull he had experienced the first time. He was drawn to the place and now, as he walked, he understood why.
His communicator chimed. "Chapel to Spock."
"Spock here, Commander."
"I have some information on who authorized those core samples. I'd rather tell you in person. Do you mind some company?"
"Beam down, if you wish." He tried to ignore the illogical leap his emotions took at the idea that she would be with him. It was irrelevant. It did not matter.
But it did matter. He had thought that he could let her go. She had made her choice and he had supported it. But now...somehow, here, on this planet, in this place, her choice was no longer acceptable.
Not that he could do much about it. It was, after all, _her_ choice.
"I wish I could tell you I had an answer." She was walking toward him, the breeze blowing bits of her hair that had worked loose from the bun she wore into her face. He had an irrational urge to smooth them back...or to take her hair down altogether.
He realized she was looking at him warily. He could not believe that she had sensed what he was thinking; he knew that his face was in the customary Vulcan mask. "Is something wrong?" he asked her.
"I can feel it."
He let a raised eyebrow stand as commentary.
"You wanted to touch me just then."
"That seems to be a constant desire these days, Christine. And it is hardly a new thing. And one that I have said I will resist. You said you had information?"
She handed him the padd she'd worked up. "I'm sorry. I know this is hard for you."
He didn't look at the padd. "I am sure it is difficult for you too. It cannot be easy making such a final decision. And then carrying it out, with no straying. Very hard." He realized too late how mocking his tone was, how harsh his words.
"Why are you being like this?" She turned to look at the lake. "You supported my decision."
"Yes. I did."
"And that's changed?"
He studied the padd before he answered. "I support it intellectually. Emotionally, however, is another story." He handed the padd back to her. "Fortunately, I am Vulcan. I can control those emotions."
"Fortunately," she agreed. Indicating the padd, she asked, "Are you surprised at this?"
He nodded. "We were quite specific in the parameters for interaction with Taillte."
She nodded. "I thought we were too until I got to the part where they rewrote our memo. I tried to find out where the memo originated at Command, Spock. Took it up the chain as far as I could. But I got nowhere. Commander Flynn got her orders from Commander Harris who got his orders from Admiral Hays's office, only the person he said gave the orders doesn't work for Admiral Hays and never has. And it turns out the message wasn't sent from Hays's office, but it's unclear who did send it. Whoever sent that team here is well hidden."
"Or well placed. Or both."
"Or the Section?"
"The thought has occurred to me." He shook his head slowly. "You have better connections at Command these days than I do. If you could not find out any more than this, then I doubt that I could."
"Then it's a closed issue."
"So it would seem." As she pulled out her communicator, he said, "Stay. For a while?" He could tell she was undecided. "Please?"
With a soft smile, she put the communicator back on her belt. "I doubt it's a good idea, Spock. The mood you seem to be in."
"It is this place. Does it not remind you of something, Christine?"
She looked around, stared at
the lake and smiled. "Other than
He nodded. "I meant somewhere a little more exotic
Her smile faded. "You're right. It never occurred to me."
"It just occurred to me, as well. And I think it may explain some of the mood you say I am in. And Taillte does not make it easier. She is...distracting."
"I didn't realize she was still talking to you."
"She is." He started walking toward the lake, leading her down to the water's edge, then along a path that paralleled the shoreline.
"Now that you've said
it, I can't believe I didn't see the similarities at once. All it's lacking is the obelisk. And a
"With our captain living among them as a god," he said.
"If there was ever a role he was made for, that was it," she said with a grin. "What was her name? His wife? I can't remember now."
"Yes. She was pregnant. I remember that. I remember thinking then how tragic it was. The child he would never know." She turned to him. "Like David..."
"Yes. Doctor Marcus has much to answer for."
"Answer to whom?"
Spock shook his head. "To herself. To those she hurt."
"To some higher power?"
"If such exists."
"Maybe one of my goddesses."
"Perhaps." He gave her a half smile.
They walked in silence for a while. Then she said so softly that he had to strain to hear her, "I miss him, Spock. I only knew Jim, I mean knew him well"--she seemed to search for the right way to say what she meant.
"Was his lover?" he offered.
She shot him a startled glance, then nodded. "Was his lover...for a short time. I can't imagine what losing him must feel like to you?"
He chose to not answer, instead asked, "Did you love him?"
She didn't respond, just stood staring out at the water. He saw her blink several times.
"He loved you," he said.
She looked back at him. "Not as much as he loved you," she
said with a sad smile. "Seeing him
"It must have been unpleasant?" He did not like to remember those days. The coldness that had permeated his soul after Gol. The confusion V-Ger had left inside him. Jim had been kind, had not punished him. But he could have, had he not been a forgiving type.
"It was at first. I thought he'd make my life a living hell. But he didn't. He seemed to forgive me, even if he never let me in again." She smiled wryly. "But why did he need to? He had you back."
He nodded. "We have not spoken of this before. Not the way we should have."
"I know. I don't think either of us was ready to." She looked down, then met his eyes. "I did love him."
"I know." He reached out, touched her cheek. "A Vulcan is not given to wishes, Christine."
"But if I were, I would wish that things had turned out differently for you and me." When she did not answer, he looked back at the lake. "Randall reminds me of him."
"I guess he does me too." She touched his hand. "But not at first. I didn't see that until later."
"You mean you did not choose him because you wanted another chance with Jim?"
"He's not Jim. We both know that."
"No, he is not." Spock said. "Yet I wonder if perhaps I try harder with him because I too am reminded of the Captain? It was not in my best interest to convince Randall to stay when we found out the truth about him."
She smiled. "No, it wasn't." Then her grin disappeared. "But it was in the best interest of the ship. And in the long run, isn't that what matters?"
"Logic would say so."
"Is logic what you listen to when you look at me?" she asked, her expression strange, difficult for him to read. When he didn't answer, she sighed in frustration. "I can feel what you're feeling, Spock. All the time. It's getting stronger...this thing between us. I don't understand." Her voice trailed off to a whisper. "Is it Taillte? Is she doing this?"
"I do not know, Christine. I only know that it is true."
"It has to stop, Spock. I've made my choice. And I'm sorry, I know it hurts, but I didn't choose you. And I'm all right with that, except...with this thing between us...I don't know how to stop feeling that I'm betraying you."
"Perhaps you are betraying me."
"You betray one or the
other of us, however you choose. We both
love you." He turned back to the
lake. "I will not make it more
difficult for you. But I do not know how
to stop what is happening. I do not know
how it even began. We are not bonded,
Christine. I thought after our night in
"Maybe T'Clev would have answers for us?"
He had not considered that. "I do not know. It is conceivable that she might have experience with such a thing. If you wish to contact her, I would not be averse to hearing what she suggests." He touched her cheek briefly. "I too am concerned that the connection between us is getting stronger...more difficult to resist."
"I'll contact her then. Hopefully, she will know something that can help us." She began to walk away, then she turned back. "I'll have to tell her everything."
He nodded. "She is discreet. It is the nature of her vocation."
She laughed softly. "Yes, I guess it is." She turned around, and called for beam-out. Seconds later she was gone.
Spock stared at the spot she had been standing for an illogically long moment, then continued walking by the lake.
*You are sad,* he heard Taillte say.
*Sadness is an emotion,* he sent to her. *I am a Vulcan. I am not a slave to my emotions.*
He wondered which of them he was trying to convince.
Troi was just coming in from the iris fields when he saw some marines wrestling with several Tellarites. "What the hell?" he said softly.
He nearly jumped when a voice sounded in his mind. *Poachers is, I think, the word.*
He stood very still. "Taillte?"
*It is I, Andrew.*
He felt a thrill of pleasure. She knew his name?
*I know much, Andrew. I see all, I understand more and more.*
*Stephen says you are learning at a phenomenal rate,* he tried to form each word carefully in his mind, unsure if he was actually getting to her. He felt a surge of happiness from her when he said Penhallon's name.
*I have always known, but it was difficult to communicate. Now it becomes easier to reach out to you, to the others,* she said.
*So that's why you haven't talked to the psychics?*
*I talk with whom I choose.*
He smiled. *I'm glad you chose me.*
"What are you doing?" Elaine Wynter's voice could, he decided, peel paint.
He looked over at her, tried not to notice how pretty she looked in the light blue outfit she was wearing. "Nothing."
"You were trying to talk to her, weren't you?"
"Not that it's any of your business," he said, as he started walking toward the shelters. He had to tell Rixx about Taillte.
"As if she would ever talk to you," Elaine said, catching up with him and standing in front of him, stopping his progress.
"I live in hope," he said breezily, pushing past her and continuing on his way.
She hurried after him, again getting in his way.
He stopped and gave her a puzzled look. "I'm a little busy, as much fun as your abuse is...."
She seemed frustrated, and he thought for a moment she was going to stamp her foot.
"I have to go," he said, pushing past her one last time and walking quickly to Rixx's shelter. He knocked on the door, heard his friend tell him to come in. As he pushed open the door, he saw that Rixx was packing up the contents of the shelter, placing his items carefully in two small bags.
"What's going on?"
Rixx smiled at him. "I have good news and I have bad news."
Troi frowned. "What's the bad news?"
"I'm pretty sure it goes in the other order," Rixx said as he finished folding his shirts and put them in one of the bags. "The good news is that Taillte finally spoke to me." He turned to look at Troi. "The bad news is that she told me to go home."
"Go home? Back to Betazed?"
Rixx nodded. "It's not like I wasn't going to go back there anyway when this was done. I just thought I'd go out on a note of triumph, you know? Not be sent packing with my tail between my legs by a planet that doesn't want to talk to me."
"Maybe she just wants you to be happy? With Larissa?"
Rixx shrugged. "Maybe." He fastened the bags, then lifted them off the bed. "Well, that's it."
"You're leaving now?"
Rixx nodded. "Taillte must know the shuttle schedule, she told me in time for me to book myself on the next one." He reached out, took Troi's hand in his. "I'll miss you, my friend. You have to come to the wedding."
"I wouldn't miss it," Troi said as he let go of Rixx's hand, followed the Betazoid out to the cordoned off area that was being used as a transport site. He decided not to tell Rixx that Taillte was talking to him and hadn't told him to go home. Troi didn't want to add to the man's bitterness. "Take care. Be happy, Gallen."
"You do the same, Andrew. I'll send you an invitation as soon as we know the date for the wedding. And stay away from Elaine. She's trouble."
"You don't have to tell me twice," Troi said.
Rixx stepped over the barrier and stood with several others that were transporting up to the shuttle. A moment later he was gone.
"Goodbye, Gallen," Troi whispered as the shimmer faded away. The planet already felt lonelier.
He heard Taillte's voice in his mind say, *Don't worry. I will find you another friend.*
Kerr saw Christine sitting in the far corner of the marine lounge. She was slouched down in the chair, her feet up on the low table in front of her. From the back, she looked lost in thought. He stopped at the bar to get a beer, then headed over to her.
As he got closer, he could see her reflected in the view port, realized she had seen him too as she suddenly sat up straight and took her feet off the table.
"At ease, Commander," he said with a grin.
"I'm setting a bad example." Her answering grin was weak.
"You looked relaxed. Isn't that what the lounge is for?" He sat down next to her, studied her while he sipped his beer. "What's the matter?"
"That's not a nothing face." He leaned back in the chair.
"Sure it is." She forced a smile.
"Never play poker for money, Chris."
She rolled her eyes and suddenly slouched down again. "Okay, it's not nothing. But it's nothing important."
"You usually tell me everything, Chris, important or not. If you aren't talking, then it can only be about one thing." He looked over at her, waited till she looked back at him before saying, "It's gotta be Spock."
"We shouldn't be having this conversation here."
He stood up. "Fine. Let's have it somewhere else."
"--No. You're right; this isn't the place. So, let's go." He took a deep swig of his drink. "My place is closer. And farther from him."
She sighed, but at his look got up. He led her out, stopping only to put his drink on the bar before heading for the door.
She followed him into the lift, said quietly, "Deck four." She stared at the floor, then suddenly looked up at him.
He fought the urge to stop the lift, pull her to him. Something was wrong. Again. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know what it was. But he didn't want to walk around with his eyes closed either. They needed to talk about this.
She was out of the lift as soon as the doors opened, walking quickly to his quarters. He palmed it open, gestured for her to go first. He thought he saw her hesitate for a moment before she walked in.
He let the door close behind him, then asked, "So what did he do now?"
She was pacing. And not looking at him. That was never a good sign.
She stopped, turned to face him. "Is this fair to you?"
"Is what fair to me?"
She moved toward him. "I'm not sure I can talk about him to you. I'm not sure that's fair."
He took a deep breath. "Can you talk about me to him?"
"But can you?" He reached for her but she had already turned away, resumed pacing.
"That's not the point, Randall." She stopped moving again, stood at the view port, her back to him.
He walked over to her, stopped just out of arms reach of her. "Then what is the point?"
"He's not the one I chose." Her voice got smaller. "He's not the one I cheated on."
"That's the first time you've put it quite that way."
She nodded. "I wanted to believe that's not what it was. But I know better."
"Would you do it all over again?"
She didn't answer, which was an answer.
He moved so that he could touch her, wrapped his arms around her. "Is that why you won't let me touch you?"
"You're touching me now."
"Don't evade." He pulled her against him. "Do you want to rethink your choice? Do you want to choose Spock this time?"
Her whispered "No," was instantaneous. He wished it made him feel better.
She tensed, seemed ready to pull away. He let go of her, not willing to hold her against her will if she really wanted to escape. To his surprise, she relaxed in his arms, pushing back against him and leaning her head on his shoulder. He twined his arms around her again.
Her voice was very soft. "This bond between Spock and me. It's not going away. I don't know what it means. I don't know how much stronger it will get. It worries me. And I think it's eating him alive."
He tightened his grip on her, suddenly very worried.
She sighed. "I love him, Randall. I don't want to see him hurting."
"I get that."
"But I love you too. And I want to be with you. I've chosen you."
He wasn't sure what to say. He could feel her shaking, realized she was crying. Spock wasn't the only one that was being eaten alive by this. "Chris, look at me."
She turned slowly, looked up at him. Her expression was one of pure misery.
"If you want me to go away, I will. If it will stop this from hurting you, then I'll do it." He didn't know where the words came from, didn't like that he was saying them. But he meant them. He hated seeing her this way. Maybe it was time to go. Even though it would kill him to leave her.
"No." She looked crushed. "You can't leave."
He stroked her hair away from her face. "Maybe it would be easier."
She shook her head. "No. Losing you would not make it easier."
"You could be with him, Christine. Maybe you need to consider that."
She reached up, touched his face. He leaned into her hand with a moan.
"No, Randall. I don't need to consider it. I care for him. I always will. And this link...it will make things harder for us. But I want you. I chose you. And I'm choosing you now." She leaned into him, kissed him gently. "I love you."
"You sound sure." He kissed her back softly. "But you were sure before, and look what happened."
"We were different then. All of us. Now we've seen what we look like when we take off the masks. It wasn't pretty, but we got through it."
He pursed his lips. "Did we?"
She gave him a lopsided grin. "We're getting through it?"
"That I'll buy." Sighing, he pulled her close, buried his face in her hair. "I don't want to lose you."
Her arms tightened around him.
"But I don't want to have to worry about this every time I turn around, Chris. I want to be sure of you."
She nuzzled into him, her breath was warm against his ear as she said, "I want to be sure of you too, Randall. And sure of myself. But maybe we won't ever have that. What then?"
He wasn't sure what to say because he knew she was right.
"Will you walk away from me if I tell you that I can't make any promises? That I only know that I'll try my hardest?" She sighed, pulled away slightly. "Should I walk away because I don't know who you are? I'm having to trust that you're telling me the truth about the Section, but you could be lying. Should that bother me?"
He nodded his understanding, then asked, "What about Spock?"
"This isn't about Spock."
"Yes, it is. Any talk about us, is also a talk about him. I'm beginning to accept that, sad as it sounds."
She shook her head. "How did things get so screwed up?"
He laughed. It was a bitter sound. "But for a cave-in...."
"But for a cave-in," she agreed. "We were fine. You and I were fine."
"We were better than fine, Chris. Other than me lying to you." He gave her a sheepish grin.
"Other than that." She grinned back, and he realized it was the first time that she'd been able to smile when his betrayal was the subject.
He chose his words carefully. "I like it here. I like it on the Carter. We're making a difference, and I want to stay here. With you, with Spock. He's a good captain, and a good man, despite this craziness between the three of us. He needs us. I know he needs you to keep him human. He may need me to keep him honest." He walked to her, pulled her back to him. He knew his expression was deadly serious as he said, "I want to stay here. I'll put up with the uncertainty because I believe that you'll try your damnedest not to make the same mistake again. But I'm not waiting anymore, Chris. It's time."
She nodded, as serious as he was. "Yes. It's time."
He took her hand, led her to his bedroom. Pulled off her clothes, then turned her so she was facing the mirror. He watched as his hands played across her body.
"Look," he said in her ear, watching as she slowly raised her eyes until she could see him in the mirror. She arched back against him and he kissed her neck. "I'm not ever going to offer to go again."
"Good." She turned, pulling off his clothes as she pushed him onto the bed and followed him down. "Don't leave me. Not ever."
"Ever is a long time."
"I hope so," she said firmly, as she leaned over him to kiss him gently. Then she began to touch him, letting her hands roam over his skin.
There was nothing tender in their next kiss. Or in the way she moved on him. He rolled her over, wanting to be on top of her, to be the one controlling how this went. She seemed to understand, reached up and pulled him down to her, kissing him frantically.
"Missed you so," he murmured, as he slowed down, began to move more deliberately.
"I know," she said, giving him a long, sweet kiss. "I love you, Randall."
"Love you, Chris," he whispered, as he lost himself in the sensation of being with her again, a feeling that, despite her having chosen him, he hadn't been completely sure he would ever experience again.
Spock was feeling restive, regretting what he had said to Christine earlier. She had not asked for any of this, was just trying to do the best in a bad situation.
He knew that she had commed T'Clev, told her what was happening. She had said T'Clev had not seemed hopeful that an answer would be found in the temple records, but she would check.
Spock looked down, realized he was worrying a small flat stone. He examined it, then suddenly whipped it underhanded toward the lake. It skipped eight times before it sank out of sight.
He had been nearly seven when his human grandfather had taught him how to do that. The next year, when he had come back to Earth for a visit, Spock had shown no interest in skipping stones, or in any of the other diversions that Amanda's father had suggested. Spock had changed, at his Kahs-wan ceremony he had finally chosen which part of his nature he would let lead him. And he had chosen to be Vulcan. It had broken his grandfather's heart, only Spock had ignored the man's pain at the time. Now he wondered if he could not have tried a little harder to find common ground with the old man who had adored him...who had died two years later.
Spock stood up. This place preyed upon his peace of mind.
*Perhaps your peace of mind is an illusion,* Taillte suggested.
She had been hovering since Christine had beamed back up. A subtle, non-intrusive presence that seemed to be worried about him for some reason.
*Leave me,* he said firmly. He was not sure if she did, but her voice was silent in his mind.
He should not have spoken to Christine as he had. It was unprofessional. And unkind. He did not wish to hurt her. Wished only to--
He forced his thoughts away from that. It did not matter what he wanted. He could have had her months ago. But he had turned away. Shut her out. She had not waited for him. And he had not, at the time, expected her to.
But for a cave-in, he thought wistfully. But for that, he would not now be brooding over a woman he could not have. Would perhaps not even want her. But for a cave-in. If he were human, he would think he was cursed. He had taken every precaution. There should have been no need for Christine to involve herself in his Pon Farr. T'Clev had been there, willing and more than able to assist him.
He hoped the priestess would have answers for them. Answers that would explain the bond between them. The curious link that allowed him to feel what Christine was feeling, that allowed her to know that he felt far too much for her. The link that he could not comprehend.
The link that suddenly flared into life, leaving him reeling. He sank to his knees, took several deep breaths. This feeling, this intense feeling as two bodies came together...
It was Christine. And Kerr.
Spock shielded desperately, finally managing to block the overwhelming sensations he was getting from Christine as she made love to Kerr.
He looked down. He had gouged two deep furrows in the soil. Through his disorientation, he felt a frisson of regret for the pain he must have caused Taillte.
*I am more hardy than you think,* she said gently. *The longer I am in your universe, the more accustomed to pain I become. That is how life is in your world, is it not?*
He did not respond to her, just slowly pushed himself to his feet, standing unsteadily.
*You hurt now,* she said.
He did not try to deny it. *Yes. I hurt.*
*I can help. Stay here. Let them go on without you.*
The thought almost tempted him. To not have to see them again. To not have to know that Christine was in Kerr's arms, in his bed. It would be a relief.
But the Carter was his ship, a stronger part of him answered, and he was needed. He would deal with his feelings as they came. He had a higher purpose, and the ship and her crew--all of her crew--were part of it. He would not leave it just because he could not handle his own emotions.
*You are strong.* Taillte's voice was like a soft caress. *I knew you would not stay with me.*
*I cannot. I will not give up that way.* He thought of how Nako had compared Taillte to the spores. He still thought it was a bad analogy. Taillte exerted pressure, but she would not force him. Or anyone. *There is a part of me that would like to,* he admitted.
*I know.* She sounded amused. *Show me how you skipped the stone?*
He shook his head.
*Please?* When he did not move, she whispered, *I know how much it hurts. It might hurt less, if you play?*
*I have told you. Vulcans do not play.*
*Just as Vulcans do not love?* Her tone was gentle, prodding him only slightly.
Love, he mused. Love was pain. Why did it always hurt so?
*Play...play as I do, Spock. I play with those that are here and the joy I feel makes me forget my pain.* When he did not reply, she said, *I will leave you alone with your logic then, if you will not play.*
I will meditate, he thought. Yes, meditate. That should help. He assumed the proper position almost frantically, drove his consciousness down relentlessly.
It took him a long time to find even a hint of the stillness within.
T'Clev took the last group of scrolls to her rooms in the temple. Commander Chapel's call had been unexpected. The human's worry had been evident, and despite not having spent much time with her, T'Clev had wanted to help her.
She had wondered at the time at the intense connection between the commander and Spock. He had acted as if he had given up on her. She'd appeared to be intensely involved with Colonel Kerr, committed to him enough to refuse the bond during the Pon Farr. When the burning had subsided, Spock and the commander had gone their separate ways. Or so T'Clev had initially thought.
But she had watched them at
the funeral of Spock's mother. Whatever
it was between them had not died. She
had been curious, but not overly so. She
had other things to occupy her. She had
not thought of them again until the comm had come from the commander. The woman had been embarrassed as she
explained their situation. And she had
not wanted to tell T'Clev what had happened in
A mild indiscretion, in T'Clev's mind. But she had perhaps grown jaded over the years.
T'Clev looked down at the scrolls, the temple's most ancient texts. She had been through the more modern temple works, and there was nothing about a bond that was not a bond, about a link, a mental connection that worked in the way the commander had described. A link between those that were not bondmates. It was unprecedented, this connection, and it had been strong enough to call across universes. T'Clev found the story of Taillte fascinating, but found it more compelling that a verified non-esper, as Commander Chapel claimed to be, could call telepathically to one who was not her mate.
She'd had to be creative to gain access to the scrolls. Fortunately, she had enough seniority to command respect and compliance. She opened the first scroll. If her temple had ever known of such a strange connection, perhaps it would be here.
The bells rang many times before she finished the last scroll, rolling it gently and putting it with the others. There were no answers in the ancient texts.
She reached over to her comm unit, input the codes the commander had given her for her private channel. The call was answered immediately.
"T'Clev?" Commander Chapel's voice went up, her hope evident.
"I am sorry," T'Clev said, watching as the commander's face fell. "There is nothing here that will help your situation." The woman looked so miserable that T'Clev said, "Perhaps I could contact T'Lar on your behalf? She may know of something in a text that I do not have access to."
The commander shook her head. "I don't think Spock would want that. We trusted you because..."
"I understand. And I regret that I could not help you." T'Clev studied the woman. "Has it occurred to you that there may be no answer, no way to turn it off?"
"I don't understand."
"Perhaps, it is simply love?" T'Clev could tell from the commander's expression that this was not a comfort. "It is not my place to interfere..."
"But?" The commander watched her, hope again in her eyes. "Interfere away, T'Clev."
"Perhaps the wisest course would be to stop fighting it?"
The commander's expression turned to one of irritation. "Now, why didn't I think of that? Oh yeah, because I'm with someone else. Someone I love."
T'Clev had seen more things than she cared to admit in her life in the temple, more permutations of love than many understood. She was constantly surprised by the rigidity of the Vulcan, and apparently the human mind, when it came to understanding relationships and the fluid way that attraction flowed between individuals. "I am not saying you should leave the colonel."
The commander's eyes widened. "I think you spent a little too much time with Commander Penhallon."
T'Clev ignored the dig. "It may be the most logical course of action."
"Logic has nothing to do with this. And I doubt that either Spock or Randall would agree with you."
"Of course, if the idea does not appeal to you?" T'Clev thought she saw something flash across the commander's face. It was brief, but she was trained to see emotion in the blankest of slates. It was how she judged the Pon Farr's approach in those she helped, and she was rarely wrong. She was about to say more, but saw the warning on the commander's face. She was also a master of knowing when not to push. "It is just a suggestion."
"Thank you...for searching the records. Live long and prosper, T'Clev."
"And you as well, Commander Chapel." T'Clev cut the connection.
T'Clev stared at the blank screen for a long moment. A movement at the doorway caught her eye. T'Kala stood at the door. The young apprentice looked nervous. It was her first time with a client and she had asked T'Clev to watch over her. It was how it was done in the temple, the older women looking out for the younger, making sure they were prepared to deal with anything that might happen during the Pon Farr. And anything might happen. It was a volatile time, and Vulcan males were unpredictable when they burned. The priestesses' jobs were much more dangerous than most people realized. They would have been even more dangerous if each priestess didn't keep a small weapon set on maximum stun within reach of her bed.
T'Clev had only had to use hers once. She hoped T'Kala never had to use hers.
"Is he ready?" she asked.
T'Kala nodded, her nervousness robbing the movement of any grace. They would have to work on that, T'Clev decided. In their profession, grace was paramount, grace and discretion. T'Clev put Spock and his commander out of her mind, and followed T'Kala to her chambers.
Christine sensed rather than saw Spock ahead of her. She had the impression he was deep in contemplation. She slowed, considered whether she should disturb him. She needed to tell him that T'Clev had not been able to help them, but was reluctant to bother him if he was meditating.
*Go to him,* Taillte whispered in her mind.
*No.* Christine started to turn away.
*He needs you. I will tell him you are here.*
Christine knew there was no point in trying to stop Taillte. She heard Spock approaching, looked up and met his gaze, then looked away quickly, unwilling to decipher the emotion she saw in his eyes.
"Did you need me?" he asked quietly.
She shook her head. "Taillte," she said, as if that were an explanation.
He seemed to accept it as such. "Ah. She has taken an interest in my well-being. I believe that she wants something of me that I cannot give."
"Are you so sure?" She followed him into the deeper woods; saw that he had put a meditation mat down near the stream.
"Am I sure that she wants something of me?"
She smiled. "Are you sure that you cannot give it?"
Their eyes met again, and this time held.
She nearly gasped at the intensity of the longing she saw in his. "Maybe I should go." She turned away.
He reached out, stopped her, dropping his hand as soon as she turned back, as if touching her had burned him. "Do not." His voice was ragged.
"This is hurting you."
He shrugged as if to say, 'What of it?'
"It's hurting me too, Spock." She looked down. "T'Clev had no answers for us. She checked the temple records. There are no solutions there." She would not tell him about T'Clev's suggestion.
"I am sorry to hear that." He swallowed hard.
"We'll just have to ignore it," she said, even as she could feel his emotion battering at her. "We can do that. I've made my choice."
"Yes," he said, his voice was harsh, strained. "I could feel it."
She stared at him in horror. "How much could you feel?"
He looked away. "Enough to know that you and the colonel have repaired your relationship...fully."
She could feel pain from him, pain and anger. And jealousy. "I'm sorry."
"I can tell that you are. It is difficult to lie with this link"--he practically spat the word at her--"between us."
"I made a choice, the hardest choice I've ever had to make. I have to honor it. I want to honor it."
His expression did not change. He stared at her as if he could hold her by the power of his eyes alone. "Then you must. If it is what you want, then by all means, take it."
She had never heard his voice hold such a sharp edge. It cut her, shattered the icy resolve she was trying to build. "God, Spock, do you think I don't wonder what might have been? What could still be?" she asked softly.
He looked away. "I think you do when you are with me. I think you do not when the colonel is near." He sighed; the sound was morose and foreign. With a glance at her, he turned and walked to the stream. "The irony is not lost on me, Christine. I could have had you for so long, but I did not want you. Now that you are the only thing I want, I cannot have you."
She didn't say anything. Just stood, buffeted by his emotion, unsure whether to stay or to go.
He looked down at the stream. "Have you ever waded barefoot?"
Confused at the question, she said uncertainly, "Yes."
"I have too. Once. Long ago." He seemed very far away. "I used to laugh then also."
She wondered what that would have sounded like. "When you were a child?"
He nodded. "It was frowned upon, of course. I stopped eventually." He leaned over, began to pull off his sandals. "Some things are out of reach. It is the way life is. But not everything is lost. I have to believe that."
"You are in a dark mood, Spock. It is not healthy." She walked over to him, reached out to touch him.
He pulled away. "Consider what you do, Christine. If you touch me, I will not let you go. Not again."
"I can't touch you?"
"Not like this. Not here. Not now."
She let her hand drop. "Do you want me to go?"
He seemed to consider that for a very long time. Then he shook his head. "No. Stay." He stepped into the creek.
His face did not change expression, but somehow she could read surprise in it. He did not move, but she could almost see a small boy kicking water joyfully.
*Join him,* she heard Taillte say.
*I can't. You don't understand what I feel for him.*
*Neither do you,* Taillte
said, and Christine could hear the teasing note in her words. *Someday, dearest. Someday you...both of you...will play here
Christine thought she saw Spock shiver. "Is it cold?"
He nodded as he tentatively kicked some water onto the bank.
"Quite." He stepped quickly back onto the bank, then turned, seemed to be studying the water. "Curious. I have spent my entire life remembering the lost joy of that moment. And now, now that I can recreate it, it is not the same."
"Things rarely are as good as we remember them."
He slipped on his sandals, walked to her. "That may be true of some things. But for others, the memory is but a shadow. It can never do the reality justice." He held out his hand to her. When she hesitated, he said, "It is safe now."
She met his eyes, saw that they were calm, resigned. She laid her palm on his, and was overwhelmed with the emotions he felt towards her: desire, bitterness, anger, loss, and love.
"Will _that_ ever fade away, t'hy'la?" he asked.
She pulled her hand away abruptly, angry that he would use that endearment here, now. "You were right the first time, Spock. We shouldn't touch."
He shot her a look she couldn't quite read. "We touch all the time, Christine. Our minds, our spirits. The communion between us is there whether our flesh touches or not. Is that not the problem we have been discussing?" He turned around, began to gather his meditation things.
"I made a choice." Even to her, her voice sounded weak.
"I am well aware of that," he said as he walked past her. Then he turned. "Taillte speaks to me. Does she speak to Randall? Does she invite him to stay?"
Christine felt her expression grow hard. "That's not fair."
"Few things are," he said. "And I will not stay in any case. I just thought you should know." He turned and walked away, leaving her alone in the darkening woods.
Spock had just made it back to the shelter he used as an office when he heard a soft knock on the door. Go away, Christine, he thought wearily. I am in no state to continue this discussion. You have made your choice, and I am not it. I can live with that...if only you will leave me alone.
The knock came again, firmer this time. With a smothered sigh, he got up to open the door. It was not Christine. He stared at Pardek, not believing quite what he was seeing.
"You look like you've seen a ghost, Spock." Pardek smiled. "Aren't you going to invite an old friend in?"
"I...forgive me." Spock backed away from the door.
"Why, you're speechless. My erudite Vulcan friend is speechless?" Pardek laughed heartily. "What can I say, Spock? I was in the neighborhood and heard about this amazing planet. I called in some Romulan telepaths and came right over to see what all the fuss was about. Can't let the Federation have all the fun, now can I?" His expression grew serious as he leaned in. "Especially not when it might give us a chance to discuss even weightier matters. Matters that we've both had to table since our fortuitous meeting on Felstrar's Colony. I have replayed those conversations in my head many times, my brother."
Spock felt an unaccustomed rush of satisfaction. He and Pardek had indeed found common ground, wished to find even more. He did consider the man a brother...a long-lost sibling with whom he now had the chance for reconciliation. For...
"Reunification," Pardek said, as if reading his mind. "A dangerous word, my friend. Especially with all these telepaths around. Including the planet, if I understand her true nature correctly? We must be careful. But I think it was worth the risk. I have missed our talks." He leaned back, his eyes suddenly shooting Spock a warning glance as he said in a much more robust voice, "I am only here for a few days, Spock. Just long enough to assure my fellow Senators that we haven't a chance of annexing this world."
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Spock said, not surprised at the interruption. Like Pardek, he too had heard the footsteps.
Kerr looked in. "Excuse me, Captain. I was told that we had Romulan visitors."
Pardek laughed. "Set off the alarms, did we?"
Kerr's expression did not change. "I'm sure you appreciate the importance of security, sir."
"Being Romulan, you mean? Oh, of course I do." Pardek shot Spock an amused look, then turned back to Kerr. "I'm actually surprised it took you this long to get down here. I could have done quite a lot of damage in the meantime." Pardek stood up, walked over to Kerr. "You might want to work on that, Colonel." Pardek turned to Spock, appearing to ignore the way Kerr's expression tightened. "Will I see you for dinner then, old friend? Perhaps on my ship?"
"I shall look forward to it."
Kerr's voice was firm as he said, "Sir, security protocols strictly prohibit--"
"--He is tiresome, isn't he," Pardek said with another secret smile for Spock. "Very well, then we'll dine on your ship, or here on the planet. Whatever agrees most with your head of security? I'll wait for your instructions." Without, giving Kerr a chance to protest, Pardek pushed past him.
"I suppose you have an objection, Colonel?" Spock said, once Pardek was out of range.
"If I have to choose between the scenarios, I prefer the planet," Kerr said, apparently realizing he wasn't going to be able to talk Spock out of having dinner with his friend.
"Yes, I imagine you do." Spock stood up; saw how tightly Kerr was holding himself. "At ease, Randall." He thought of what he had said to Christine about Kerr and Taillte. "Do you like it here?"
Spock got up, went to the open door and gestured for Kerr to walk with him. "Why not?"
Kerr seemed to think about that. "Don't feel all that welcome, I guess. And the hold it has on some of us"--they both knew he meant Christine--"has me worried."
"You aren't going to lose her to the planet." Not when you didn't lose her to me, Spock thought. With a look at Kerr's face, he realized that the colonel was thinking the same thing.
Kerr looked away.
"You appear to have resolved your differences with Christine." Spock was unsure why he could not stop pushing the man.
"We're all right."
"Yes." The word spoke volumes.
Kerr stopped walking. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Will it stop you, if I say no?" Spock said, unable to resist another barb.
"This is none of your business, Spock."
They stared at each other as Spock thought of several things that made it very much his business.
Kerr took a deep breath; his voice was pitched so low even Spock had a hard time hearing it. "I know you love her. I know she loves you. But she loves me too, enough to choose me. More than once. And I trust that if she and I can get through these last few weeks, we can weather anything. Providing, of course, that you leave her the hell alone."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "She is my first officer. And my friend. I cannot leave her the hell alone, as you put it."
"You know what I mean. I know you have this weird bond. I don't know why, and frankly, I don't want to know. I only know that I can't seem to make it go away. But I think that you aren't doing all you can to let it--whatever it is between you--die down. I think you're still trying to get her back. Despite what you've said to me, to her, and probably to yourself. I think that deep down you're never going to stop trying."
"You are free to leave the ship." Spock was surprised to hear those words come out of his mouth. Surprised, but not entirely sorry. It was hard for him to reconcile them with how he had argued with Kerr, convinced the man to stay when Christine was gone. But perhaps that was the essence of their problem. As long as Christine stood between them, they would never be anything but rivals.
Kerr seemed to be on the same track. He didn't even try to keep his tone that of a subordinate officer. "I may do that, Spock. But not until I know she'll go too. In the meantime, you're stuck with me. And while I'm here, I'm going to do my job. And to do my job, I have to tell you that I don't trust Pardek."
"You have some information on him that you would like to share?" Spock knew that Kerr had access to information Spock might never see. Knew also that to get it, Kerr would probably have to explain why he needed it, give up Spock's interest in the Romulan as reason. It could hurt Spock; possibly end his career if Starfleet decided they didn't like his interest in befriending someone from the enemy camp. Spock wondered if Kerr would do that to him.
The answer came when Kerr looked away. "I have nothing that you don't already know."
"What I know is that the Romulan Senator is a friend of mine. You may think that you can dictate what I do with Christine, but you cannot control what I do with Pardek. And I strongly suggest you do not try." And with that, Spock turned and walked away from Kerr.
Nako caught up to Kerr as he strode angrily across the meadow. "Was that Pardek I saw?" She sounded concerned.
"He is staying?"
"Looks like. A few days anyway."
"You can't allow--"
Kerr held up a hand to stop her. "I've been told to stand down, Nako. Not much I can do. At least I kept Spock off the Romulan ship."
"Pardek was not supposed to be here," Nako muttered.
"Not everything runs to your timetable, Ambassador." She stared up at him and he realized that she hadn't been aware she was talking aloud. "Nako, it's not the end of the world."
She nodded slowly as if what he said was more than a figure of speech. "No, it's not. But it is a surprise. And I do not like surprises."
He smiled gently. "Then you're in the wrong line of work, aren't you? Isn't diplomacy full of surprises?"
She shook her head. "Not the way I practice it, Randall." She sighed, suddenly blurted out. "I do not like this place."
He stared at her. She seemed...off balance. He couldn't remember ever seeing her that way. "I don't like it much either, if it makes you feel better."
She laid a hand on his arm; let him lead her to the shade of the trees. "It does make me feel better. Taillte influences too many of our people."
"Is she dangerous?"
Nako considered that far longer than he would have liked.
"I'm not sure yet." As he watched, she seemed to shrink in on herself. Kerr got the feeling she wasn't this unsure very often. She suddenly straightened, patted his hand gently. "I am a foolish old woman, Randall. Don't mind me." She pulled away and walked back toward the shelters.
As he watched her go, Kerr realized she hadn't called him 'grandson' once. Something was definitely wrong with her.
He turned into the trees, deciding to walk off the tension, the extra energy he felt coiling through his body. As he walked, he could hear something calling his name.
He ignored it.
The voice got louder, seemed to taunt him. He stopped, looked up at the bit of sky that showed through the top of the evergreens. Took a deep breath.
He felt something brush against him, again heard the voice. He was tired of it. "Look, Taillte, you've made it clear you don't like me. I get that. Now leave me alone."
He jumped when he suddenly heard Taillte's soft voice perfectly clear in his mind. *I do like you, Randall. But you still think it's a game. You choose sides.*
"I'm not choosing sides," he said, stubbornly holding to speech and refusing to try to form the words in his head.
*But you are. And you're choosing the wrong side.*
"How would you know?"
Her voice when it came was an eerie copy of Farrell's, *It's not a game anymore.*
Kerr felt his palms start to sweat; he wiped them on his pants.
*I have learned much since I came through the burning to this place. And I know this. It's not the _same_ game anymore. Everything has changed, and not even your 'grandmother' realizes how much.*
Kerr backed away, then felt Taillte brush against him, and for the first time the touch brought comfort, not a rush of distaste as before. "I love her," he whispered, as he thought of Christine's closeness to the planet, and the apparent understanding Spock had forged with Taillte. Despite what he had said to Spock, he wasn't at all sure he was going to be able to hold on to Christine.
*I know you love her. I don't seek to destroy that. What you feel for her is true. I can tell.* He thought he felt something like regret coming from her when she touched him again, then she was gone.
Carpenter checked the scans she had run of Penhallon one more time. She compared them to the baseline she had taken when the crew had first reported in. If she could believe the scans, he was as healthy as could be.
But the scans hadn't seen him last night. Hurrying down to the planet as if to a lover, a slightly dazed look on his face. It was as if he were in a trance, or some kind of fog caused by drugs. But the scans didn't show any foreign agents in his system. Whatever he was feeling, it was natural. She knew that he and Christine had some deep link to the planet...to the woman that they said that they spoke to and that was the planet. Carpenter wasn't real clear on how that worked, and she certainly wasn't going down to Taillte to find out.
She'd just have to ask him. "Carpenter to Penhallon."
"Can you come to sickbay when you have a chance?"
"Is there something wrong, Doctor?"
"That's what I want to talk about, Commander," she said, trying to keep her voice casual.
"Very well, I'll be there shortly."
"Thanks." She cut the connection, leaned back, and thought of how both he and Christine had looked when they'd been beamed up from the planet, in pain and sure they were wounded. Whatever their connection was with Taillte, it was strong enough to cause them to evidence symptoms. Both Ritsuko and Kerr had said they'd seen, and felt, real blood. She shook her head. It just didn't seem healthy, whatever was going on. Christine seemed to be managing better. She spent less time on the planet, more time on the ship living her life than Penhallon was doing. The planet was his life, as far as Carpenter could see. And that was so unlike him. If she hadn't seen the DNA scans, she'd suspect they had an imposter aboard.
She saw the sickbay doors open, watched as Penhallon walked through the room, headed for her office. Several nurses tried to catch his eye. He ignored them. Carpenter had caught snatches of their conversation earlier in the day. One of them had asked, "So what's with Penhallon these days?" She wished she had stopped to ask them what they meant. But she was getting the idea just by watching his progress through sickbay.
"Well, I'm here," he said, as he walked into her office. "What's so important?"
"How are you feeling, Stephen?"
"Fine." He shot her a tired look. "You didn't call me down here to find out how I'm feeling, Doctor. So why don't you just say what you have to say, and be done with it? I have two days off coming up and a lot of work yet to finish."
"Very well, let's talk about those days off."
He exhaled loudly. "What's this about, Delynn?"
"Bored and playing ship's counselor, you mean?"
"Humor me, Commander. Where are you going to spend the days off?"
"On the planet. That's where most of the crew spend their days off." He leaned forward. "But you don't, do you? Why don't you like Taillte?"
"I don't like or dislike it."
"Her," he corrected. Then he frowned. "I don't understand."
"I haven't been down there yet." She sighed. This was not going well. "I'll be honest with you. I'm worried about the connection you've got with Taillte. I'm worried about what it's...she's doing to you."
"What she's _doing_ to me?"
"She's not doing anything to me. I've never felt better." He shot her a confused if exasperated look.
"When was the last time you went out on a date?"
His eyes opened very wide. "A date?"
"That's what I said."
"I just haven't heard that word for a while."
"Well, whatever you want to call it when you get together with a woman for drinks or dinner or--"
"I get the picture." He sounded offended.
She couldn't imagine the Stephen Penhallon she'd seen in action being offended. "Well?"
"Doctor Carpenter, I fail to see how this is any of your business."
"You spend every off duty moment on the planet, you have some unexplained connection with said planet, a connection strong enough to make you evidence symptoms when the planet was hurt. You appear to have suffered a personality change, you aren't interested in things that you used to do, and you seem to be keeping to yourself quite a bit."
"That's not true. I spend time with Ritsuko."
"Yes, you've been very good to her. I've noticed you looking out for her. But aside from Ritsuko, who have you been spending time with?"
He didn't answer, just stared at her.
"It's not healthy, Commander."
"Prove to me that it's not."
She thought of the scans again. "I can't give you physical proof. But there are emotional disorders that don't manifest any sort of physiological symptoms."
"Let me see if I understand you, Doctor. You think I'm emotionally disturbed because I'm not sleeping with every woman I meet and because I like to explore one of the most beautiful planets I've ever seen--and I've seen a lot of fascinating planets. Is that what you're saying?"
"You're twisting my words."
"You're twisting my actions to suit your diagnosis."
"I'm not going to argue with a diplomat. I'll only lose."
He put his hands flat on her desk, leaned in. "Then why am I here?" He glared at her. "Are you going to suspend me from leisure time? Make me stay on the ship and work around the clock?"
"I doubt that Commander Chapel would let me. I just want you to take a look at what's going on. You're a valuable member of this crew, Commander. And as a section head, you set an example for others. It's important that if something's wrong, we take steps to fix it, before it becomes an even bigger problem."
He didn't say anything, just pushed himself off her desk. "I appreciate your concern, Doctor. But there's nothing to worry about."
"I hope you're right, Commander."
He smiled tightly. "Is this the point where you say that you'll be watching me?"
"Watch away, then. There's nothing wrong with me."
"Again, I hope you're right." She watched him walk out. The set of his shoulders let her know just how angry he was with her. She wondered momentarily if she had overstepped her authority. Then she thought of how different he was acting. While it was an improvement over the old Penhallon, it was still a significant personality shift. If it was anyone else, she'd be running to the counselors. She still could refer his case to them. She thought of his face as he'd glared down at her. He was either in deep denial, or there really wasn't a problem. Sighing, she cleared his scans off the screen. She hoped, for his sake that it was the latter.
Troi sat near the stream, enjoying his last day of leave. He relaxed, letting the cool breeze blow over him.
*Andrew,* Taillte whispered.
He smiled. He could understand Stephen's infatuation with the planet. Taillte's touch was wonderful. Intoxicating. She'd been talking to him a lot. He found her fascinating.
*Andrew, will you stay?*
He forgot to breathe, was sure he'd misunderstood her. *Stay?* he sent to her.
*Yes, stay with me. Stay here. Be my ambassador?*
He hadn't misunderstood her. *But Stephen--*
*I will handle Stephen. Will you stay?*
Andrew realized he'd closed his eyes and opened them slowly. *Why me?*
*You will look out for me. You will look out for yourself.*
He thought about that. Thought about the way Stephen seemed to be sinking more and more into his relationship with Taillte. How nothing else seemed to matter to him. *I will stay apart?*
*Yes. Apart. You will be objective. Consider it,* she said, then he felt her presence abruptly disappear.
"My god. She's talking to you, isn't she?" Elaine Wynter did not sound pleased.
He looked up at her. She was standing over him, hands on her hips, anger causing her cheeks to redden attractively. They reddened even more as she seemed to sense his attraction.
"Why you? You're nothing. You have no skill. We're all here for her, the best telepaths in the Federation, and she picks yet another dilettante from the Carter to make her new friend?"
"Maybe she doesn't want anything to do with a bitch like you!" Stephen immediately wished he could take the words back.
Elaine stared at him, a strange expression on her face. Then she started to snicker. "That sounded so wrong coming from you, Commander."
He looked away. "It didn't feel very good either." He pulled up a clump of grass, then felt immediately bad. "Oh, I'm sorry, Taillte," he said aloud, as he tried to push the grass back into the soil. "I didn't mean it."
Elaine was standing with a faraway look on her face, then she refocused, and smiled. The expression transformed her face. Troi found he couldn't look away.
"I heard her...just now."
He smiled. "I'm glad."
She looked down at him. "You are, aren't you?"
He shrugged. "I'm stupid that way."
"Yeah, you kind of are." She sat down next to him. "You think you hurt her."
He nodded. "I didn't mean to though."
Elaine reached out, touched his arm. "She says it's okay, that she's getting used to us being here. I never thought that having us around would be painful to her. But she seems to think we're worth the price." Elaine shook herself a bit, then smiled softly. "It's so wonderful to be finally talking to her. She...she likes us. That's why she's willing to put up with the discomfort we bring. Besides, she knows you were just being dumb and thoughtless." At the end, she sounded like the old Elaine.
"You're not very nice." He moved away slightly.
She sighed. "And this is me trying to be nice."
"Maybe you should try harder?"
She glared and he turned away. Then he heard her gasp, and he looked over at her.
"She wants you to stay?" Her eyes were unfocused again. "She does. She wants you to stay. To speak for her."
He looked away again.
"Oh no." Elaine sounded truly distressed.
"What is it?"
"She wants me to stay too." She groaned. "With you."
He groaned too.
She glared at him again. "You could at least pretend to like the idea."
"Why? You aren't?"
"But I'm the rude one. I don't have to be nice."
"Lucky you." He got up, began to walk away, realized that she was following him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm staying with you."
"Well, I don't want you to."
She smiled; it was not a sweet expression. "Oh, yes you do."
"I don't like you in the least."
"Now, that I believe," she said, as she took his arm, and wrapped her hand around it. "Taillte wants us to play nice and I intend to oblige her, Commander. I want to stay here."
"On the planet, you dimwit. Not with you."
"Oh." He hated his disappointment.
"If I have to pretend to like you, then I'll do that."
*She does like you,* Taillte murmured.
"I do not," Elaine said aloud, then turned to him in shock. "Oh, I meant to think that."
"You're slipping," Troi said, putting his hand over hers, keeping her from pulling away. "You heard Taillte. She says you like me."
She rolled her eyes. "What does she know? She chose you."
The disbelief in her voice only reinforced the worry he was already feeling. He wondered if Taillte knew what she was doing?
Suddenly, Elaine's hand tightened on his arm. "I'm sorry. That was mean of me."
He pulled away from her. "No. It wasn't. Well, yes, maybe it was. But you're right." He backed up a few paces, putting some distance between them. "I'm nothing special. Never have been. I'm a popular guy, but never the one that people see first. I'm not someone that's actually chosen for anything this important."
She moved closer. "But Captain Spock chose you for the Carter."
"Starfleet probably suggested me and he just said fine."
She smiled then, a much more tender expression than he'd seen. "I've met the man, Andrew. And he thinks highly of you. I know he does, because it irritated me." She grinned. "He chose you. I'm sure of it."
He took a step closer, realized she'd just called him by his first name. "Is this you being nice?"
She nodded. "Is it working?"
He smiled. "Maybe." Slowly, he held his arm out to her.
She put her hand on his arm, allowed him to pull her closer. "We might be able to pull this off."
"We might," he agreed.
"Just don't get any ideas," she said, even as she moved a bit closer.
"I'll be a perfect gentleman," he teased, but he knew it was true. He'd never been anything but and it had gotten him nowhere so far.
Her fingers tightened, almost sympathetically, as if she knew what he was thinking.
He suddenly realized she probably did know what he was thinking. "Do you?" he asked. "Know what I'm thinking?"
"I wasn't aware you did think," she said, but for once her tone was more teasing than blistering. "I'm afraid I can pick up the more weighty of your emotions."
"Oh." He tried to not enjoy the feel of her fingers on his arm. Tried not to react when she tightened her grip again.
"Don't worry about it, Andrew. I know this is just for Taillte," she said in a soft voice.
And thank god for her, Andrew thought, as he said just as gently, "Of course. It's just for Taillte."
*You will stay?* the planet asked, the note of satisfaction in her voice making it clear she already knew the answer.
*_We_ will stay,* Andrew said, as he forced himself not to look over at Elaine. He wondered if Taillte was asking her the same thing.
Pardek poured himself another glass of wine, then leaned back against the wall of the shelter. "So this is our only night, Spock. My government has told me in no uncertain terms to come back."
"And you are very distracted. What is it?"
Spock looked up, realized what he was doing. "I beg pardon, Pardek."
"Don't beg pardon, Spock. Tell me what's bothering you?"
"It is nothing."
Pardek shot him a skeptical look. "In my experience, when it is nothing, it is either a woman or money troubles. Since I know your family is rich as sin, I'm going to assume it's a woman." Pardek frowned. "A Vulcan with woman troubles? Just a bit out of the ordinary, isn't it?"
"I am half human," Spock said, hoping to divert Pardek from his questioning.
"And you blame your troubles on that?"
Spock knew that if had to blame one side of his heritage, it should probably be the Vulcan one. It was the more likely to have spawned the troublesome link between Christine and him, certainly it was behind the Pon Farr that had started them down this road. "I did not say that I had any troubles."
"That, my friend, is an evasion." Pardek poured Spock another glass of wine. "Drink up. I'm hoping the wine will loosen your tongue so that you'll tell me what's bothering you. I hate guessing."
"I can think of more pleasant topics on which we could converse," Spock countered.
"More pleasant, and more dangerous, Spock. With all these psychics around? Your ship would have been more secure."
"Hardly that, with my chief of security dogging your every move." Spock found Pardek's sudden discretion surprising; the Romulan had been far less cautious on Felstrar's Colony.
Pardek looked up at the mention of Kerr. "He's a good man, very loyal. You need men like that."
Spock did not answer.
"You don't agree, Spock? I should think that you would value such a stalwart officer."
"I do value him." Spock tried not to imagine Kerr with Christine. "The colonel is an excellent officer."
"There is no but. He is an excellent officer."
Pardek looked disappointed for a moment, then he leaned in and held up his glass. "To unification."
Spock frowned. Pardek was acting strangely tonight. "I thought you were concerned about being overheard?"
Pardek seemed to realize what he had said. "I'm sorry, Spock. There's a buzzing in my ear that won't go away. I noticed it when I beamed down the first time too. Do you not hear it? A high-pitched whine. Most annoying."
"I hear nothing out of the ordinary." Spock set down his wine glass. "Perhaps you should have your ears checked, it may be an infection."
"There is nothing wrong with my ears, Spock." Pardek sounded irritated. "I don't hear the noise except when I am on this planet."
*Taillte?* Spock called. *Taillte are you doing this?* There was no answer. He looked at Pardek. "Then it may be the planet that is doing it. She is most capricious."
"Don't know why she'd pick on me. Unless she has some sort of grudge against Romulans?"
"Not that I know of," Spock murmured. But then, how much did he know of Taillte? Other than what she wanted him to know? He knew that she had claimed one of his best officers as her ambassador. Spock had been surprised when Troi had told him that he wanted to stay. Starfleet Command, on the other hand, had been delighted that the planet had chosen one of its own as her mouthpiece.
Pardek suddenly stood up. "If I'm to have so little time here, I should like to see the planet. Unless that would bother your colonel?"
"I do not know why it would." Spock led Pardek out of the building. The sun was just setting and the sky was the vivid red that would have been the color of on Vulcan.
"Beautiful," Pardek said, as he followed Spock's gaze. "Hard to believe that you will allow the entire planet to stand empty, with this much wealth to be gained."
Spock shot him a look. "The planet will determine her own development." His voice was curter than he intended. He tried to soften his words. "It is an unusual situation. To be able to speak with her, to hear her speak back. There is no precedent for this. The settlers will have to learn as they go."
"Walk gently, Spock? I didn't realize that you were such an environmentalist." He grinned.
Spock sensed an edge to the man's words. "You, I take it, are not?"
"Oh, I admire nice scenery as much as anyone, Spock. But I'm a pragmatist. And sometimes other concerns come first. It is prudent. Even logical."
"It is not logical to destroy the very world that supports you."
"True, and it is too often the way of things. How many planets do you see that are like this?" He gestured to indicate the trees, the sky. "And how many have been laid waste? I know that you remember Praxis?"
Spock looked down. The Klingons had known that Praxis was a catastrophe waiting to happen, yet nothing had been done. Until that fateful day, when the moon had blown itself apart, leaving the Empire reeling and finally ready to discuss peace.
For a moment, his mind strayed to Valeris, then shied away. He would not think of her. She was dead to him. Spock realized that Pardek had started walking and hurried to catch up. He was beginning to dislike the ability Taillte had to distract him. He would be relieved to get off the planet. He hoped that some of his preoccupation with his own emotions and relationships would abate once he was back on the ship and out of Taillte's sphere of influence.
*No!* Taillte's voice roared through his mind, and for a moment, he thought she was reacting to his thoughts. Only he could not imagine how his simple statement could provoke the level of rage he felt from her.
*Stop it!* she screamed again. And as her voice died, the planet began to shake.
*Taillte, no!* Spock saw Penhallon running toward him. "Commander?"
"Get Kerr, sir. I think Taillte's caught something...or someone."
Spock pulled out his communicator. "Spock to Kerr."
"We have trouble down here. I am unsure of the exact circumstances." Spock started out after Penhallon, nearly forgetting about Pardek until he realized the man was following him.
"I'll be right down."
A few moments later, Kerr and Collins caught up with them. They were both well armed. Kerr took in Pardek's presence, seemed about to say something and then apparently thought better of it.
"Chris heard her scream," he said.
"From the ship?" Spock asked. At Kerr's nod, he wondered what could have enraged the planet to such an extent.
Collins, who was managing to read a tricorder while running full out, said, "Sir, this shaking. We have at least five off-duty personnel exploring the caves that are in danger.
*Taillte, you must stop the earthquake. You are endangering my crew.*
*Taillte, you will kill innocent people.*
The shaking stopped. Penhallon stopped running, turned to look at him. "Sir, whoever is doing this to her is in the same cave as last time."
Spock pulled out his communicator. "Spock to medical transporter room."
"Atkins here, sir."
"Do you remember the coordinates you beamed those geologists out from?"
Spock winced as Taillte screamed again. Penhallon bent over double, clutching his stomach. Spock saw blood appear around his hands.
"They're taking so much...more than last time," Penhallon gasped.
"Beam whoever is in there directly to our coordinates."
A moment later the miners appeared all of them holding laser drills, and one of them, apparently not realizing he was no longer in the cave, sent a long blast into the ground beneath him.
Taillte's scream was instantaneous. So was the tree branch that suddenly plunged into the man's back, impaling him against the ground. When they reached him, he was still alive...briefly.
The other miners backed away, eying the trees overhead warily.
"Major," Spock said quietly.
Collins stepped forward. "Stop right there." Once the miners were still, he pulled out his communicator and requested beam up to the brig.
"Dilithium poachers," Kerr said. "We've thrown a dozen off the planet already."
"It would appear that these slipped past your security measures," Pardek said neutrally.
Kerr nodded, his jaw set in a tight line. "But not past Taillte's." He walked over to where the miner lay impaled. "Wait a minute. I've seen this one. With the telepaths."
Spock joined him by the fallen man. "Yes, I have seen him in camp as well."
Pardek came up behind him. "Not a pretty death.".
"You are an expert on death, Senator?" Kerr asked, an odd note in his voice.
Pardek shrugged. "Most Romulans are, Colonel. We live a harsh life. If you had ever been to
Spock looked over at the two men. He had the impression that Pardek was baiting Kerr, that he knew something more about the man than he was letting on.
Kerr, on the other hand,
didn't seem much affected by Pardek's words.
Spock looked over at his chief of protocol. He did seem dazed.
"She killed," Penhallon whispered.
"I'm not sure she meant to," Kerr said in encouragement.
Penhallon seemed to snap out of his fog. "She didn't mean to. They wouldn't stop, not even when she tried talking to them. And it hurt...so bad. They just kept drilling, even the shaking didn't make them stop. In the caves...in the caves it hurt so much worse than anywhere else. When he drilled again, she just reacted without thinking. Blind instinct." He turned away from them slowly, a strange look on his face.
Spock turned to see what he was looking at, realized Nako was standing at the edge of the clearing. She was staring at the body, her expression an odd mixture of satisfaction and sadness. Then she turned on her heel and disappeared into the trees.
Penhallon had the unfocused look that he and Christine wore when they were deep in conversation with Taillte.
"Commander, what is she saying?" Spock prodded gently.
He looked at Spock, his eyes clearing. "So much regret. I think she went a little mad because of the pain."
Spock considered the force that would have been necessary to pin a man to the ground. "I think you are correct, Commander."
"She feels guilty, sir. I guess that's something her new ambassador will have to work out with her." Penhallon kicked gently at the ground.
Spock wondered if he was trying to send Taillte a message. It was clear he didn't agree with the planet's choice of representation. "I was surprised that she did not choose you."
Penhallon nodded. "Me too. Guess I'm too close. Or something. I'm not real clear on that despite the fact that she's tried to explain it to me several times. Maybe I'm just not listening." He shook his head.
"I am sorry. It is painful to be denied what you want."
Penhallon looked up at him, surprise showing in his face. Then he glanced over at where Kerr was working. "I guess you do understand." He shook his head as if in bitter amusement at their folly and walked away.
Spock realized that Pardek had been listening. He turned to the Romulan. "We should continue our walk. Somewhere else."
"And let the good colonel get on with his investigation? By all means, Spock."
"Just one moment and we can proceed." Spock walked over to Kerr, motioning for Pardek to stay where he was. "I remember being introduced to this man. He represented himself as an Oldefarii."
Kerr studied the man on the ground. "He looks Oldefarii." He knelt down, began to worry at one of the small protrusions that crusted the man's head. It seemed solid. Then Kerr moved so that only he and Spock could see what he was doing. He reached down with both hands, seemed to be unsealing something at the base of the man's spine. He flicked at one of the bumps again, and it came off in his hand. He looked up at Spock. "Then again, looks can be deceiving." He examined the bump. "These would probably have held up under autopsy."
"Yet you knew exactly how to extract them. Does that mean what I think it does?"
Kerr nodded, careful with his words. "This section of skin looks familiar."
Spock considered that. "Why would they?"
Kerr shrugged. "I don't know." He reached down, pushed the protrusion back into the man's head, and did something else with his hands. Then he looked up again. "He's Oldefarii again. Safer that way."
"Safer for us?"
Kerr nodded. "And for them. We don't want them to feel threatened. I'm going to try to find out what's going on. But I'll have to do it in a way that won't attract attention. I'm going to need some time alone with the body."
Spock nodded. "Do what you must." He turned away, then turned back. "Do not involve Christine."
Kerr looked at him, clearly startled. "I hadn't planned to."
Spock tried to backtrack. "I only meant for access to the morgue. I will ensure that you have any accesses you need."
Kerr grinned. "Spock, I appreciate the help, but there aren't a lot of places on the ship that I don't have access to."
"And I should know that by now." Spock found his own mouth turning up slightly. It was hard for him to accept that he could enjoy and respect a man that he resented in nearly equal measure. "I'll leave you then to your hunting."
Kerr nodded, already turning back to the body.
Nako watched unseen from the woods as Kerr and his marines tried to pull the tree branch from the dead man. "Are you ever going to let go of him, Taillte? He is well and truly dead."
Nako could feel a shimmer in the air, a freshness as Taillte leaned against her, watched the man she had destroyed.
"I killed," Taillte whispered, her voice sounded as if she was in shock.
"I told you it was only a matter of time. The manner of execution was a bit extreme, but I'd say you had cause." She turned, was suddenly uncomfortable at how close Taillte was standing to her. "I'm sure that Spock will see that the story is widely disseminated throughout the Federation. You were fair game when you were helpless. But now...I doubt that many will want to take you on, given the possibly very dire consequences."
"But no one will want to stay." Taillte's voice was so full of misery that Nako almost felt sorry for her.
"Don't be foolish. More people than ever will want to stay, if they know that you can protect them." She moved aside, then stepped a few paces away, so that she had some breathing room. "Just prove that you aren't capricious, aren't dangerous. That you punish only those things that are truly an abomination. You'll need some decent laws."
"Laws." Taillte sounded dejected.
"So long as it harms none, do what ye will, has been a popular one through the ages," Nako said.
"You mock me, Ts'its'tsi'nako?"
"Of course not, Taillte. I just seek to give historical perspective. If you prefer, there is do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
"Stop it. Stop the gloating. You think that now that I have killed, that I am just like you."
Nako could feel her expression harden. "You are nothing like me, little girl." She saw Taillte's expression change from one of anger to a darker one of pure hatred.
Taillte practically spat the words at her. "My day is at hand, old woman. And your day. Your day is over. You have gone too far. Played with too many lives." She turned, looked at Kerr as he was trying fruitlessly to free the body. "I will answer for this," she said to Nako. "I will answer for every single life I take."
"Answer? Answer to whom?" Nako laughed, made it a mocking, cynical sound. "You are such a child. We make our own way. If you haven't figured that out yet, then you are denser than I thought." She moved closer, unwilling to let Taillte know how much she unnerved her. "Free that body, girl. This is becoming macabre."
"Randall," Taillte whispered, and Nako saw Kerr's head shoot up. "Randall, back away. I will help you."
Kerr moved back, and then the limb began to pull back, off the ground, toward the tree.
Taillte whispered, "You will have to pull him off, Randall."
He eased the body off the limb, which then straightened the rest of the way, moving back to its original position.
"You call me macabre," Taillte whispered. "I am not the ghoul here." She grinned, a knowing, secretive grin that Nako did not understand. "But soon you will be gone."
"Yes. And I take my granddaughter with me."
Taillte turned back, smiled that smile again.
Nako felt her hackles rise.
"She may surprise you, Ts'its'tsi'nako. She may well be the hand of judgment."
Nako could not keep the scorn from showing on her face. "Judgment?"
Taillte laughed, the sound one of pure, innocent delight. Then she began to spin, slowly, in some kind of simple, joyful dance. As she spun, she became less tangible, her form slowly disappearing.
Nako waited till she was gone before heading back to the camp. As she passed Kerr covering up the body, Nako nodded in satisfaction. She might not like Taillte, but she was glad that she had learned to defend herself. She could truly become one of the watchers now. And those who watched were important. Nako had ever been one, had done much in order to preserve what she valued. And she would do it again.
She heard Taillte in her mind. Bubbling laughter that suddenly turned sinister as Taillte asked, *Have you really never considered that someone might be watching _us_?*
Penhallon walked slowly through the camp. He had spent the day visiting his favorite spots. Now it was time to leave. Time to say goodbye. To Taillte. And to his best friend.
He didn't want to lose either of them.
Troi was waiting for him. "I don't know what to say, Stephen. I thought it would be you staying."
"That makes two of us."
Troi held out his hand.
Penhallon took it, used it to pull his friend to him for a quick hug. "Take care of yourself, Andrew." He pulled away, looked around for one last look at the camp. Saw a blond woman watching him. "Is that her?"
"Yeah, that's Elaine."
"Quite a looker. Is she nice?"
"Not very." Troi smiled somewhat sheepishly at Penhallon's expression. "But she's getting better."
"Or else you're just getting used to her?"
Penhallon laughed. "You'll have Taillte, anyway. No matter what, she'll be there for you."
Troi nodded, and as he watched his friend's face, his expression sobered. "I'm sorry."
Penhallon just nodded. "Okay, I've got to go be unbearably sentimental. And I have to do it alone or it will ruin my reputation. Although I have it on good authority that it's already ruined." He touched Troi briefly on the arm. "I'll miss you."
Troi swallowed, tried to say something, but settled for nodding.
Penhallon turned and walked away. He closed his eyes, let Taillte guide him for the last time. I'll never belong like this again, he thought. Never feel this secure.
He walked for over an hour, finally ending up in the clearing he and Christine had first landed in when they'd been ripped from their own universe into Taillte's. The patch of raw dirt still stood out, the sandy brown ground stark against the green grass that surrounded it.
*So this is goodbye,* he sent to Taillte.
*Any parting words of wisdom?* he joked.
She was not joking when she answered. *Watch out for Christine and,* her tone turned ominous, *watch out for Nako.*
*Yes, Nako. Your 'grandmother' may not be all she seems. But you have always known that. If you search your heart, Stephen, you'll see that I am right.*
He didn't want to search his heart. His heart was breaking. Taillte was sending him away; she would forget him.
Her love brushed across his thoughts. *You and Christine were my first. You are special. The most special. I will not forget either of you. Ever.*
*But to find this. To find it and have it taken away...twice.* He turned away.
*You'll be back. Never fear, beloved.* She materialized in front of him, the way she had in his dream in the other universe. "You'll be back."
He had never heard her voice, really heard it with his ears not just his mind. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. He drank in the sight of her, then as she moved nearer, closed his eyes. He felt her wrap her arms around him and the feeling of love, of acceptance, was almost unbearable. He wanted to beg her not to make him go. But he didn't. Instead, when she finally pulled away, he took out his communicator and said, "Carter, one to beam up."
She smiled sadly at him, then slowly disappeared.
"Goodbye," he whispered, as the transporter took him.
The ship seemed very sterile, very cold as he headed to his quarters. He passed Troi's room, his friend's name no longer showing on the nameplate. He swallowed hard and walked a little faster. Once in his quarters, he tried to busy himself with reports and correspondence, but could not get his mind to focus.
All he wanted to do was call out to Taillte. And it was the very thing he must not do. He was moving on. He had to let go.
The door chimed and he hurried to it, thinking maybe it was Christine, torn by the same emotions at leaving the planet behind. It wasn't Christine.
"Doctor. This is a surprise. I don't believe you've ever dropped in before."
"I haven't," Carpenter said with a smile.
"Yet, here you are."
"I thought you might need some company."
"As in me," she said, as if to a slow child. She held up a bottle of wine. "It's the real deal."
"Dry, I hope?"
"Who am I to pass up the real deal?" He moved aside to let her pass. "Come on in."
She carried the wine over to the small galley area, searched the cabinets until she found the glasses. "Corkscrew?" she asked, without looking up.
"Second drawer to the left."
She found it and opened the wine expertly. He noticed that she had set something else down by the wine bottle. "What's that?"
She smiled again, this time a somewhat sheepish look. "It's an apology."
"What for?" he asked, as he walked over and took the glass she offered him.
"I was overzealous. And...harsh."
"You were a little harsh," he said, as he tasted the wine. "It's good."
She nodded. "It's my favorite Chardonnay. I thought I'd share."
"Nice of you," he said, refusing to commit more until he was sure why she was here. He looked again at the package. "So, that's an apology?"
She handed it to him. "See for yourself."
He ripped away the package; saw that it was a small holostill platform. He pushed the button on the back and suddenly a small holo-image of the iris fields sprang up. He looked up at Carpenter in question.
"I decided it wasn't fair of me to say that what you felt about the planet was wrong when I hadn't even been down there to see for myself. Holo-photography is a hobby of mine. I just dragged the camera with me out of habit. But once I got down there, I was glad I'd brought it with me."
"You liked the planet?"
She nodded. "I liked the planet." Again the sheepish smile. "And Ritsuko said to go to the iris field. That it was one of the places you two went a lot. I took quite a few of these there. When I was looking at them later, I started thinking that you might like a permanent reminder."
"It's beautiful, Delynn. I don't know what to say."
She grinned, took a sip of her wine as if she was embarrassed. "That's not the only one. Hit the button again."
He did and the scene changed to the caverns he had discovered.
"Christine told me about that place. It's amazing. There's one more."
He pushed again and a forest scene replaced the caverns. It looked so much like the place where he had just said goodbye to Taillte that he was speechless.
"I guess you like it, huh?" she said, sounding very pleased.
He nodded. Blinked a couple of times.
"So, anyway, I'm sorry. It's a beautiful planet. And if you were actually talking to it...her...whichever, then I guess that would only make it lovelier. And not scary. I shouldn't have judged without any evidence."
He nodded acceptance of her apology. "And my newly monastic tendencies? Those don't still worry you?"
"Well, I'm getting a little tired of hearing the nurses bemoan your lack of interest. But maybe I jumped to a conclusion that wasn't quite right."
He looked down. "Taillte told me to find another way."
"What does that mean?"
"I think she thought I needed to stop thinking with my gonads."
Carpenter laughed out loud.
"At least, I hope that's what she meant. I'd hate to think I'd turned over a new leaf if all she meant was I should comb my hair a different way or something similarly trite."
"It's not as if I know her, or even talked to her, but it's probably a good interpretation to think that she might have meant what you thought she meant..." she trailed off uncertainly.
"And I actually understood that sentence." He grinned at her, then turned the image back to the iris field, staring at it for a long time. "Thank you, Delynn. This is the best apology I've ever had."
Carpenter took her wine and sat down in one of the chairs in the living area. "So, your best friend just transferred off the ship. And you appear to have sworn off dating. What are you going to do with yourself, Stephen?"
"A life of contemplative study?"
She exhaled dismissively. "You'd be bored in a week."
"I could devote myself to the betterment of all species."
She shot him a skeptical look.
"Well, I guess I don't know. I suppose I'll concentrate on work for a while and see what occurs to me when I'm off duty." He chuckled, the sound just a soft escape of air. "Of course, as you've pointed out, I used to spend quite a lot of that time with Andrew or one of my female acquaintances. I guess that I'm going to have to find a new friend, Doctor."
She leaned back. "You know, I was thinking the very same thing. Christine's been awfully preoccupied lately."
He nodded knowingly.
They both looked down, uncomfortable with speaking so frivolously about the dead.
"I thought maybe you might want to..." She frowned suddenly. "Well, I don't know exactly what I meant to say there."
He laughed. "Neither do I, but I know what you probably weren't offering." He leered at her dramatically.
"Oh, not on your life."
They both busied themselves with drinking wine. When he peeked over the glass to look at her, he caught her doing the same thing. She looked away quickly. He realized that he'd never noticed what an attractive shade of red her hair was. It set off her pale skin nicely. "What color are your eyes?"
She sounded surprised at the question. "They're gray."
"Hmmm." Very pretty eyes, he decided.
"No reason. Just hmmm." He took another sip, decided that it was very good wine. "So you're lonely?"
"I didn't say I was lonely."
"Yes, you sort of did."
She looked away. "The opportunity to discuss medicine abounds on this ship."
"How exciting. Don't you ever play?"
She smiled. "Can you see Doctor Moorehouse playing?"
He thought about that. He really couldn't. "I suppose Doctor Redmoon's a bit busy playing with Kavall."
"Well, Delynn, it does sound like you could use a friend as much as I could." He held out his glass. "To friends, then?"
She leaned forward, touched his glass with hers. "To friends."
He smiled, was about to say "And more" but caught himself. He studied his wine, then looked up at her. She was watching him curiously.
"I'm glad you're here. Tonight...tonight was hard," he said.
"The old Stephen would be in Three-Forward right now. Chatting up an attractive woman or two. Or five."
"Four was my limit." He laughed. "You know, I'm actually not sure where he went."
Her eyes were gentle as she said, "Oh, I bet he's still in there. Just not in charge anymore."
"But who is?"
She smiled. "I don't know. But I think it'll be interesting to find out."
He laughed. "You may not like what you discover."
"I'll risk it. Friends don't have to like everything about each other, do they?"
"I guess not." He got up to pour more wine and asked, "So, are you hungry?"
"Stay for dinner?"
"I'd be delighted."
"Stay for breakfast?" he asked, glad to hear a trace of the old Stephen in his voice.
"Don't push your luck," she said with a laugh.
"Can't blame a guy for trying," he said, as he ordered up some food from the replicator. He shot a look over at her. She had kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up. She looked very relaxed curled in his chair, like she belonged there.
To his surprise, Penhallon found he wasn't uncomfortable with that idea at all.
Spock was just leaving his quarters when his private channel commed. It was Kerr. "Sir, could you come to my office."
"I will be right there, Colonel."
"Deck nine," he told the lift, walking swiftly to Kerr's office.
Collins was just leaving his office as Spock rang for entry. "Good night, sir," he called as he headed for the lift.
"Good night, Major." Spock replied, then he heard Kerr call for him to come in.
"Jeff leaving?" Kerr asked, waiting for the door to close, then leaning down to fiddle with something under his desk.
"Yes." Spock watched him curiously.
Kerr sat back up, a satisfied smile on his face. "It's safe now. A little extra security never hurt anything."
Spock let an eyebrow go up. "Safe?"
Kerr nodded. "Safe to talk. Without being overheard." Kerr handed Spock a padd. "It's very possible that this is the only room where it is safe."
Spock looked up from the pad, startled at what Kerr was telling him. "Are you sure?"
Kerr shrugged. "I'm just saying. Lots of people had access to this ship when it was being built. It's possible." He saw Spock's look. "If it's true, I doubt anyone's listening most of the time."
"But it is a capability that might be turned on?"
"If the need so arises, yes." Kerr leaned back in his chair. "The miner is human. I've never seen him before, so I can't say for sure that he is or isn't working for the Section. But he doesn't exist on any database that I have access to."
"Perplexing is more like it, Spock. Why send a Section agent to mine on Taillte? I understand there are strategic minerals but even they can't think they can win this one. Taillte's alive."
"Could they be testing her?"
Kerr looked thoughtful. "That's an interesting question. It's possible. If they don't trust our reports of her sentience." He leaned forward. "Speaking of trust. There's something I need to know. Off the record."
Spock sighed. He did not want to discuss Christine. "Off the record," he agreed.
"Have you been checking into my record?"
Spock looked at him in surprise. "No."
"Well someone has. Someone from Admiral Mackin's office." Kerr looked down. "I thought that it might have been for you. Or I was hoping it was."
"I asked for no such information."
"Then someone else is checking into my past. And I'd like to know why."
"I think we both would, Colonel. Keep me apprised."
Spock was not surprised to feel a chill fall over them as soon as their business was finished. "I would enjoy another chess game."
"I wouldn't mind a rematch," Kerr said cautiously.
Spock almost sighed. "Perhaps we could play for Christine." He got up quickly. "That was a joke, Colonel."
To his surprise, Kerr did not seem irritated. "It actually came off as one." He stood up. "But the joke's on both of us, Spock, if we think this is a game. She's hurting. You must know that?"
Spock looked down, suddenly shamed. "Yes. I do know that. I suppose it is easier to focus on my own feelings."
"I'm guilty of the same thing. But I'm worried about her." Kerr looked suddenly very serious. "I'm worried about all of us, frankly."
Spock looked up at him. Nodded. "We work well together."
"Yes, we do. It would be a shame to throw that away."
"We will all have to try harder." Spock turned to go. Before he got to the door, he looked back at Kerr. "You were right."
"I have not stopped trying to get her back. Not entirely."
Kerr just nodded.
"I will try to do
better," Spock said. "But I
make no promises." Then he hurried
out of Kerr's office. He got in the lift,
knew he should go to the bridge, but found himself strangely unwilling. "Deck ten," he said, riding the lift
one deck down and walking slowly to main engineering. He stood at the door, watching as
The engineer looked up and smiled. "Long time no see."
"Taillte has kept me busy."
"But I'm ready to get moving again. Continuous orbit isn't much fun for my engines."
"Or for their engineer?"
Spock was glad that he could say that about at least one person on board.
"Life does not always go
as we plan." He joined
Handing Spock a microspanner, Kettering said, "You just have to quit making so many plans then." He nodded to the end of the panel. "If you want to get those last adjustments, I'd appreciate it."
Spock knew the engineer was
humoring him, allowing him to be useful.
He had seen
"As Commander Scott used to say, 'Where's the fun in that, laddie?' Of course, he usually said that just before doing something he knew was going to land him in trouble."
"Trouble." Trouble in the form of the woman he couldn't get out of his mind. Even now. Spock finished his work and put the microspanner back into the toolbox. "I am needed on the bridge."
"A break?" Spock
"What are friends for?"
Spock pondered that question as he headed for the bridge. The lift stopped at deck four, and Christine and Kerr got on.
Kerr nodded, a polite greeting and one that gave no hint that he and Spock had just been talking. "Captain."
"Colonel." Spock turned to Christine. Noticed that she didn't seem to want to meet either of their eyes. "Commander."
"Captain," she said, still not looking at him.
The lift slowed again at deck two. Nako got on, forcing Christine to back up between Kerr and him. Christine's shoulder touched Spock's and she recoiled as if burnt.
Nako gave her an odd look, and Spock saw Kerr glance at Christine, then at him, before he stared back at the lift doors.
The tension in the lift was palpable, but for once Nako seemed oblivious. When the doors opened, she stepped out, paying no attention to Christine and Kerr, just waiting for Spock to get off before following him to his ready room.
"I take it you wish to speak with me, Nako?"
She nodded. "I have a favor to ask, Spock."
He glanced over as Christine and Kerr disappeared into her office. He hoped that they would leave soon, didn't want them lingering on the bridge. Perhaps with time and distance he could put her out of his mind. It would be good if she stayed for a while with Kerr, in the colonel's quarters, which were far from Spock's.
Far being a relative term on a starship as small as the Carter.
He watched as Nako settled herself in one of his chairs. She seemed to be in no hurry to ask him her favor. And for once she wasn't staring at him with that gaze that seemed able to read every thought, every impulse, every desire. In fact, she seemed to be turned strangely inward. "Are you all right, Nako?"
She looked up then. Gave him a tired smile. "Taillte wore me out, Spock. I'm an old woman."
"Never that," he responded distractedly.
"Well, tonight, I feel old." She glanced at the view port, where Taillte loomed large. "I'll be glad to get back to work. Do we have new orders yet?"
He nodded. "A brief stop on Denarr to pick up Admiral Young, then on to a ceremony on Beta Lambda IX to celebrate their attaining full Federation membership. After that, a ceasefire negotiation on Pelria."
"Pelria?" She looked surprised. "They aren't ready for a ceasefire."
"They apparently do not share your opinion." Spock realized he was tired, more tired than he could remember being in a long time. "You said you had a favor to ask?"
She took a deep breath before she said softly, "I'd like to ask you to stay away from Pardek."
Irritation surged through him. "Why is that any of your concern?"
She held up a hand. "I know you don't appreciate my interfering in what you probably consider your private affairs. But your actions are noticed, Spock. And Pardek isn't good for you. Not professionally. And not personally."
"What do you know of him?"
She shook her head. "I know nothing. It's just a feeling, grandson."
For the first time he did not find the name a comfort. "I am not your grandson, Nako. And you have no right to dictate my actions. Especially not based on your 'feelings'."
She seemed surprised at his reaction. "You have always listened to my counsel in the past, Spock."
He remembered how she had told him that in time he would understand Christine's role in his life. He was still waiting for that understanding. "Your counsel of late has been less than useful." He got up and walked to the door.
She sat, looking stunned.
"If you will excuse me, Nako, we are about to break orbit." He did not look back, as he waited for her. He knew he was being rude to her, would not have dismissed her words so quickly in the past. But he was tired of lectures and admonitions. He was tired of a great many things.
Nako reached out as she passed, her hand surprisingly strong on his arm. He looked down at her thin hand and wondered why he had never noticed how cold her skin was.
"I am sorry if I upset you, Spock," she said softly.
"I am a Vulcan. I am not upset." He met her eyes. They both knew it was a lie, but this time she did not call him on it.
"Of course," she said, following him out and walking toward the lift. He noticed that she did not look at Taillte as she passed the main viewscreen.
He turned to Lieutenant Carlson. "Prepare to break orbit." He looked at the navigator, didn't recognize the gamma shift ensign that sat at the station. That would have to be remedied. "Lay in a course for Denarr."
"Course laid in," the ensign answered back after a few moments.
"Take her out, Mister Carlson." Spock sat down in his chair, felt his body sag in the seat. He could not remember when he had been this tired. Tired in body and spirit. Forcing himself into a more proper pose, he watched Taillte disappear from the viewscreen as the Carter turned and headed for their next assignment.
Nako could feel the subtle shift as the ship went into warp. She looked out the viewport; saw Taillte getting smaller and felt herself relax for the first time in weeks. She was not used to feeling this vulnerable. She was just glad Taillte had not realized how strong she was.
But it was only a matter of time.
Nako smiled, an odd one-sided smile. Taillte might be powerful, but that power was limited. She had to stay within the parameters of her world, of the planet that was her body, her lifeforce. She couldn't touch Nako out here. And Nako didn't plan to ever go back within the other's sphere of influence.
She wished she could say the same for Penhallon. She hadn't thought he would be coming with them at all this time. He seemed so thoroughly enamored of Taillte, of the life she could offer him. But he had come. He had chosen the life he liked less well.
She was not sure why he had but suspected it was because Christine needed him, and he wouldn't desert her. Even for his own good. But Nako knew that somehow he would find a way back to Taillte. He had that look. The look of the true believer.
Nako opened the ancient chest by her bed; the deer hide held together by the art and skill of the Dineh craftsman that had made it for her so long ago--an art stronger than the science of the modern world, more resistant, more resilient. She dug down into the chest, found the sealed container of sand. All the colors that mattered were mixed together. Blue and yellow and white and black and red and, of course, the natural-colored grains, all blended together to bring hozho...balance. And once spilled out, they would form the pictures, show her what she needed to see.
Or she hoped they would. Sometimes they showed her things she already
knew. 'Iika'a'h were tricky that
way. Few used the sandpaintings for
divination anymore, preferring the gentler path of the
Nako laid out the board of scraped hide, then poured the garland first, using the sand to protect the north, south, and west quadrants. She smiled as she thought of how hard it had been for her at first to find east from her perspective in space. But that was long ago. Now she knew. She always knew. She left the portion to the east open, and began to pour the sand inside the garland, letting it fall as it wanted, not trying to stop the way her hand jerked and made the colored grains go in new directions. It was all part of the pattern. She was merely drawing what already was. What would be.
What might be, she corrected herself. There were ways to change things.
She stared down at the finished painting. And frowned. Deeply.
There was no pattern. Nothing at all. No yeis with their corn and feathers and hands outstretched. No rattles or lightning, no evergreen sprigs. Not even a hoop or a triangle. Nothing. The sand had fallen in a pattern that meant nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Something had happened. Something had happened and she had missed it. And now everything she had seen during The Time was unsettled. She could not see what would be, because it was not yet clear what was. And until it was, she could not see what would come.
And if she could not see what would come, she could not change it. Did not dare to try if she did not know what the consequences might be of her actions.
She stared down at the sand again. Tried to close her eyes to half-slits, fluttered them to bring a hidden pattern into relief. There was still nothing. It was as if someone had taken a knife to her weaving, tearing it up the middle and causing it all to unravel. Taking away any pattern she had woven into it.
She could not remember the last time the sand had come up blank. And she had lived a long, long time.
She could almost hear Taillte's mocking laughter.
"You are part of this," Nako realized. She had not dreamt Taillte during The Time. It had only been in a spontaneous vision, just before Doctor Marcus brought the planet over with her device, that Nako had even known what was happening. Yes, Taillte was part of this, but a logical part if you reconnected the threads of the pattern, saw its new design. Taillte was not the surprise. But something was. Something else had happened. Something she wasn't seeing. Something that she had not given enough import to. And it had changed everything.
She carefully destroyed the working by pushing the sand to the center of the hide and pouring it back into its container. She sealed the stopper and stuffed the clay jar into the bottom of the chest, closing the lid, and retying the intricate knots.
When she stood up, she was surprised to feel her heart beating fast. It had been a long time since she had felt this level of disquiet. But she was feeling it now. The advantage was no longer hers. Not unless she figured out what had changed. And she'd better do it soon.
Before all hell broke loose.
She sat down heavily in her chair. Tried to think. What was she missing? Spock was on the path, she had made certain of that. He had been in danger when Amanda died. It had been too soon after Kirk's death. He might have been lost. She'd only taken steps to make sure he would survive, that he would still be a player to be counted on. The most important player. The king. A simple cave-in was all it took for her to give him the queen.
She'd given him the queen.
Nako felt a sick feeling begin in her stomach. She had given him the queen...but the queen hadn't stayed with him.
She had known that. She had known that and had never stopped to think what might happen if he didn't want to give Christine up. Nako had assumed he would benefit from Christine's presence, but had never realized how much of his heart he would give her. She had made the robes for them and had not fully understood the message she had woven into them. Had she been so certain that she knew how everything would turn out that she had not paid attention to what even Kerr could see? And she knew, with a sinking sensation, that she had been that certain, that sure of her own vision. That proud. She had thought that Spock would hold something back as he always had from Christine. That Christine would ground him, give him an outlet for emotion he might suppress otherwise, but that she would ultimately be nothing more than a safety valve for him, a connection to his own humanity. Nako had underestimated the woman's power over Spock. Had not realized how deeply in love with her Spock would grow, had not considered what it would mean if he wanted to keep her, but couldn't.
What would that do to someone already reeling from pain? Might it not be even worse than going through the pain alone in the first place?
The scene she'd witnessed in the lift suddenly made sense. When she'd stood there with the three of them, she'd had the fleeting impression of two male wolves, circling each other for the same mate. But wolves didn't do that, they didn't fight over the females. They mated for life.
And Spock and Christine had mated for life. Without a formal bond, but mated nonetheless. It would explain the strange connection they seemed to share these days. But she had also mated with Kerr and he'd had first claim. Spock had not been able to bond with her. Because of Kerr. But bond or no, Spock and she were mated. Mated but unable to join, unable to be together...and also unable to walk away from each other. While it would be hard on Christine to try to balance this, it would tear Spock apart.
What would it turn him into? How bitter would it make him? Was that why he wouldn't listen to Nako in his ready room? Was he already lost?
Nako bit down hard on the back of her hand, trying to make herself focus. Think, she ordered herself. She had protected Kerr. She had kept him on the Carter when he could have been sent away so easily. All it would have taken was a word in private to Spock. Or she could have disposed of him herself. He would have been just another victim of the Section. He might even have been forced to go when Christine learned the truth about him, but Nako had a feeling that Christine's time on Taillte had softened her, that Penhallon might also have had something to do with her unexpected willingness to forgive Kerr. And that Christine had taken Kerr back had been unexpected. Unforeseen. Nako should have realized then that the pattern was unraveling, that she was losing control.
Should have. Useless words. It was too late. Kerr was needed, his presence was necessary, and Christine wouldn't let him go now, in any case. And he was part of the pattern. The new pattern. The one Nako couldn't read, much less manipulate. They all were all part of this new pattern, even Nako herself. She should have been outside it but, for the first time in her memory, she was a part of what was, what would come.
And what would come was chaos. In chaos, anything could happen. Anything at all.
Nothing new for her grandchildren, they were used to life being uncertain. But it was Nako's worst nightmare. She was helpless to effect any change, unable to see any larger pattern. She was caught in the very web she had woven and she couldn't think of a single thing that she could do to escape.