WARNING: This story includes NC-17 male/male material, suitable for readers 18 years of age and older. Please do not read if you object to the premise.
In the hours to come he was to find a partial answer to that question. Both ENTERPRISE and TAENOR were within a type of tractor field, but one which operated only when the ships were travelling at warp speed. They could proceed under impulse power, and were doing so, but it was a pathetic, crippled rate, like crawling before an avalanche. The power drain continued, still only on a superficial level. Engineering and sciences were intense hives of concentration. Some personnel were beamed over to the TAENOR to fill key positions should another telepathic attack occur. There was, however, no reoccurrence. All affected personnel on board the ENTERPRISE were ordered off duty. Soquel and T'Mek had finally agreed to allow a monitor hookup in their quarters, though they were still avoiding contact with others as much as possible. Spock, Kirk knew, had gone to his quarters.
Finally, several hours later, at the ragged edge of exhaustion, Kirk turned his attention to what had happened earlier.
Spock's decision had been logical. The bond was something that had no influence on his conscious mind under ordinary circumstances. The intense rapport was there whenever Kirk needed it, and when he did not. it slid back into the recesses of his mind, an unfelt presence that sustained him. Now it was gone, and he could feel a deep shaking threatening to begin. Teetering between anger and despair, he moved, not to his cabin, but to the one next to it.
The door to Spock's quarters slid open. Kirk stepped in, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimmer red light, his body to adjust to the close high heat. It was Spock, he realized, who usually adjusted to him; it was Kirk's cabin where they spent most of their time together. Not here. The decorations were different, sparser than they had been during the first five year mission, but alien all the same, and though he knew the meaning for all the objects, had shared this with Spock until it seemed he too had used and been affected by all these things, now, suddenly, there was separation again. Alienness. Objects from a world he was suddenly severed from.
Spock was there, sitting in a meditative pose on the floor before the firepot. Before, he could always sense the calm shield of Spock's mind as it withdrew into the areas of trance. Now there was nothing... no clues to tell him whether to go or to stay...whether his wait would be a long or short one. Spock's eyes remained closed; the dim red light flickered on the quiet features. Spock was like some living statue, enclosed within itself, not accessable to him at all.
He sat and waited.
He had been staring blankly at the lyrette in its protective holder on the wall when one word caused him to turn.
The tone was completely formal. He turned and met Spock's eyes. They were carefully controlled... shuttered... quiet. Yet not calm. Whatever peace he'd sought in meditation had not filtered back to conscious levels.
“Jim.” This word was every bit as formal as the first.
Kirk shifted, stood. Spock rose easily from the position of meditation and moved over toward him, but there was no trace of intimacy, of welcome in his posture. Neither was there rejection. Just Vulcan calm, Vulcan reticence, Vulcan withdrawal. Kirk suddenly wondered how he would break through.
The words weren't immediately there. It had been so long since he had had to explain his thoughts in words alone to Spock. He'd forgotten how to proceed. Forgotten how to read the cues he'd relied upon for so long. The easy means of communication was gone; the instantaneous transmittal of thoughts and feelings was not there. A sudden, aching pain filled him, throbbing like an insistent wound, centering in his mind where the bond had been.
“We have to talk,” he said.
But still the words weren't there. He clenched and then unclenched his fists and forced himself to relax. He sought for the commanding, confident pose, relying on old habits because the new ones had suddenly fallen apart. How odd, to have to communicate with Spock as he would with everyone else--with friends, colleagues, superiors, subordinates... or ex-lovers. The means of communication he used with everyone else did not belong here, but suddenly it was all he had. The feeling out... the definition of boundaries...the interpretation of voice and expression...the setting of intangibles into the hard confines of words... He was once again confined to finding the rights sounds, trying to catch at the edges of meaning and not let too much of the heart slip away.
“We can find a way of dealing with this.”
Spock shook his head. Only his eyes were touched with expression; his face was as carefully controlled as it had been when they first met. Kirk suddenly remembered that day: first, formality and protocol; then, leaving his unsettling First Officer behind for the comfortable company of Gary and Bones.
Sudden anger filled him. “We haven't tried.” You haven't tried, was what he wanted to say, unfair though he knew it to be.
“After what has happened,” Spock stated calmly. “It should be quite evident. It is not possible to 'deal with' this. It is not possible to even try.”
Without consciously willing it, Kirk pushed at the barrier which cut him off from the bond. It rebounded. A pounding tore at the inside of his skull; an itching, maddening feeling, as if he were reaching out with an amputated hand.
“It frightens me,” Kirk said. “I'll admit it. What happened in the turbolift... on the bridge...” He paused, gathering his words. The worst of it was that Spock was right. Kirk couldn't deal with it. He knew that on gut instinct. It terrified him to even think of facing that force again. “I want to help you. I don't want you to have to go through that alone...”
“Jim--it does me no good to know you are affected by this. I am aware of your strength, your support. And, if it occurs again--and I think that highly likely--you will be a part of my mind.”
“Finish it,” Kirk said. “I'll be a part of your mind. And so will everyone else.”
Spock acknowledged his bitter words by lowering his gaze briefly.
“I'll be part of your mind,” Kirk went on. “But you won't be part of mine.”
“Yes. You realize that.” Spock's gaze held his with haunted intensity. “Rationally, you cannot want to share this, because there is nothing to be shared. There is no sense of individuality in this, Jim. This is not the bond. This is chaos.”
The pain was deepening. The helplessness. Kirk repeated, “I want to help you.”
Spock stepped closer. He reached out, laid his hand on Kirk's. “I want your help. I ask you this: do not ask me to reinstate the bond. When these--attacks--occur--perhaps I will be better able to resist them if I do not have to worry about the cost to you.”
“Can you shield your mind against it under those conditions?”
The answer was quite obvious in Spock's eyes, but he chose to soften it. “Unknown.”
“The probabilities,” Kirk bit off angrily. //Quote the odds, mister, you're always so good at that!// he thought savagely. “Will you survive? Sane?” //And if you do, can we go on like we have before?//
“The odds are not good. There are too many variables for me to make a more precise estimate.”
Precision. Order out of chaos. Spock was continuing in the face of his silence. “We have discussed such possibilities before. If our link ever became a danger to you...” His words trailed off. He clasped his hands behind his back, but Kirk saw the way the fingers tightened into fists before they disappeared from his field of vision.
“Yes. I know. We discussed it.” The weariness caught up with him; he swayed on his feet. Spock was instantly there and he was eased with an economy of motion down upon the hard narrow bed Spock had once slept in alone.
Warm fingers softly caressed his temples, then tension-knotted shoulders. He felt one finger wipe away the beads of sweat on his upper lip, then Spock moved away. He was back a moment later, and the room temperature was already heading down to ship normal. Weariness crashed over him, a great wave drawing him under. A thin blanket was settled over him; a warm body pressed close to his side. He let sleep take him under. He'd find the answers when he woke.
But nothing had changed. The drain on their power was small but still constant. Their engines were able to generate barely enough energy to counteract the influence. The Science and Engineering departments were still deep in research, and the TAENOR had the same lack of answers. No further telepathic assault had come, and though he kept all the others off duty, he didn't refuse Spock when the First Officer asked to help with the research.
It was some five hours later when it happened again.
The change was instantaneous. Kirk was suddenly intensely aware of everyone else on the bridge. Colors were sharper; sound louder. Each person was a separate pool of warmth, an envelope of electricity surrounding them, exaggerating their motions and expressions to the edge of irritation. It was like a maddening itch; one that couldn't be localized. People were beginning to squirm in their seats, turning to stare at each other, puzzled or frustrated by turns.
Even their expressions set fire to Kirk's shortened fuse. He felt ready to explode and swung about; looking for a cause.
The sight of Spock's blanched face brought him back to reality. This reaction was artifically induced. Remember that--fight it.
He was on his feet, moving toward Spock and mouthing his name when the other flinched. At Kirk's words, all eyes on the bridge turned toward Spock.
The First Officer slid jerkily off his seat, shrinking away in tiny broken motions. Uhura moved a half step toward him. Kirk took several strides that brought him close enough to reach out.
Spock abruptly brought up his hands, pressing them tightly against his temples. Breath escaped him in ragged gasps. Kirk's hand halted in mid-air; he backed off slowly and motioned to Uhura to do the same.
A frantic blip began at the science board. Spock stared at the sound but made no move to investigate.
Kirk's attention veered between Spock and the board. Spock wasn't following his gaze. With a shuddering breath he managed a step away from his station. then another, moving slowly toward the turbolift. Those in his path moved quickly out of his way. Chekov slipped into the vacated seat.
“We're being scanned, sir,” he reported.
Uhura cut in. “Sickbay reports that Soquel and T'Mek have slipped into a coma.”
Kirk whirled to Spock, who was now sagging against the wall next to the turbolift. Spock's gaze was unfocused, his breath coming in quick gasps.
Kirk nodded at the security guard. “Janseen, take him to Sickbay.” The guard obediently edged forward.
Spock shrank away. “No one--near me,” he rasped.
Janssen stopped in his tracks. Kirk motioned toward the turbo. “Program it. Uhura, notify McCoy.”
Kirk prevented himself from going to Spock by a sheer act of will. Slowly, every movement stiff and uncoordinated, Spock managed to get into the turbolift. The door slid shut, cutting off Kirk's view of the tense face, the thin body sagging against the wall.
He forced down concern rapidly spiking into terror, and brought his mind back to the situation at hand. “Chekov, report.”
His senses still seemed too heightened--too raw-edged and jangled.
Chekov shook his head. “This is not an ordinary scan. It is very powerful, sir.”
“The Barrier, sir. The area we pinpointed earlier. Or something beyond it.” He bent over the controls. “I can't get through. But whatever is causing this has immense power.”
His own tension and the jumpiness of everyone else on the bridge was an unnecessary backup to Chekov's words.
“Sir, it appears not only to be scanning us, but analyzing us down to the subatomic level,” Chekov continued.
He frowned at the screen, turning as a message came through on Uhura's board.
“Captain, McCoy reports that he's redirected the turbolift to take Spock to Deck 5--he wants to keep everyone affected as isolated as possible. Semtel and T'Chrei have barricaded themselves in their quarters. And Lt. Manderley has been located below levels in the storage section, and becomes hysterical whenever anyone approaches her.”
“Have them get a medic down there and tell everyone else to stay away.” He had to keep from shouting. Shown clearly on the viewscreen, stars shone calmly, stable points in the blackness. From this distance, at the crawl of impulse power, the nearest planetary system was years away. “Get department heads together. I want answers to this, and soon.”
In the turbolift, Spock was barely aware of anything. An intense cacophany of thoughts assaulted him. Being alone in the confined space gave him distance enough to fight against it, but the white noise continued. It was like sound through a cloth barrier, distorted but still there. And the motion of the turbolift cutting its way through the ship carried him through erratic concentrations of thought patterns. As each new group of people approached or receded, the assault in his head changed in focus and intensity.
Blinding pain, like a sword thrust through his brain, tore at him, and nausea cramped his stomach. He had sunk to the floor, clutching at the wall for support, when he became dimly aware that the lift had changed direction again.
That knowledge was lost in a growing haze as he felt his control and rationality crumbling. He was drowning in a hurricane of other people's thoughts, each unconnected fragment crashing down to crush him. He dug nails into palms and bit through his lip, but that pain was a distant flicker, a dying candle flame in an infinite darkness.
He concentrated fiercely, gathered what remained of his awareness and focused on one simple thought: his name. His separateness. His self.
Some endless time later he became aware that the turbolift had halted and the door opened. Slowly, cautiously, he let his awareness expand.
With the turbolift stopped, still crouched motionless on the floor, the pain in his head receded slightly, the nausea eased. He drew in a deep breath. One mind was very near, steadying, concerned. There were a few others close by, but most were in the dormant patterns of sleep.
The mind close to him continued to radiate peace, calm, and a warm friendliness. He was at last able to open his eyes and look across the corridor at the concerned face of McCoy.
The corridor was clear. Spock sensed no one else nearby. He stood for a long moment, trying to focus on the doctor's face. His vision was blurred, his head swam with dizziness. He had to hold on tightly to the wall to steady himself.
He heard his name being called. Once. Twice. Several times. It was as if he were asleep, caught in some nightmare, trying to wake up. Not succeeding.
He managed to focus on McCoy. He said nothing, but the doctor seemed to sense a difference in him, for he continued,
“We're here alone, Spock. I've opened the door to your quarters. There's no one there. I've cleared the corridor.”
Spock threw an apprehensive glance down the hall, before glancing back at McCoy. “No one,” he managed in a dry voice.
“No one will come near you, Spock. I'll see to that. I'm going to move away now. I'm going to the end of the corridor. Go on into your quarters.”
Spock managed a nod. He levered himself awkwardly to his feet, and as McCoy backed away, took several hesitant steps forward, using his hand to steady himself against the wall. It was difficult placing his feet in the proper steps; he felt uncoordinated, clumsy, as if he'd been just treated by one of McCoy's drugs.
It took several moments of effort to reach his quarters. He stumbled against the doorframe and leaned there heavily for a moment.
He glanced back down the hallway, too tired to move. The corridor seemed lengthened somehow; McCoy standing at some impossible distance away. And yet he could see him clearly. And that was all he could see clearly.
Summoning a final effort, he staggered into his quarters, barely hearing the door slide shut behind him. He managed to make it to his bed where he collapsed in a graceless heap, mind swimming under the dying impact of the images swirling at the edges of his consciousness.
Tension knotted in Kirk's belly. He'd heard the same words in a dozen voices. No answers. No answers. He rubbed at his head, fighting a violent headache.
Over two hours ago the scan had stopped. So had the sensory heightening effect. His first thought had been of Spock. Contacting McCoy had updated him on what had been done, with the further information that the life-energy readings for Soquel, T'Mek and M'Ress, the hardest-hit of the ENTERPRISE's victims, had stabilized and were improving.
The news took away some of the worry. Not a lot. They'd gone over everything half a dozen times since then; suggested solutions were becoming practical failures. The tractor beam was still in effect; every attempt at escaping its influence had failed. Reviewing his past experience with unknown alien forces proved nothing but that new ingenuity was needed here, and right now Kirk was fresh out of inspiration.
Contact with HEART OF TAENOR had been re-established. The Humans on board the Caitian ship reported that most of the crew had recovered to a minimum functioning level. No one over there had any answers, either.
McCoy caught him as he exited the turbolift, intending to head down to Engineering yet one more time.
“You need some sleep,” the doctor stated.
“I had some sleep,” he retorted.
McCoy snorted. “When was that?” Kirk fumbled for a plausible answer and tried the ghost of a charming smile. “Jim, go to bed, or I'll make it an order.”
“I need to check in on Engineering...”
“You know as well as I do they're doing their jobs down there.”
Kirk thought about that. Everyone was working around the clock. But being there, being present made him feel as if they were closer to a solution.
“You know perfectly well that if something comes up you'll be contacted,” McCoy went on reasonably.
His head still was throbbing with a low-level ache. Maybe a little rest would help. “How's Spock?” he asked.
“Resting. I check in on him a couple of hours ago. They're all recovering their strength--for now.” McCoy's eyes darkened with troubled thoughts. “Jim...how are you?”
“Me?” Kirk looked surprised. “I'm doing just fine. A headache, that's all.”
“Like I said,” McCoy went on. “Go get some rest. A couple of hours at least.”
Kirk gave him a crooked smile. “All right. A couple of hours.”
Spock's name was on Kirk's lips as he walked into his quarters, but the word died half-spoken.
The room was empty.
The pain had been with him before, but he'd buried it quickly, getting rid of it by denying its existence. Without thought, he tried to reach out through the bond, and gasped and staggered under the mental impact. It was like running full speed into an unsensed force field, like falling down an invisible chasm, as if he were lost and wheeling in space, forever beyond the claim of gravity.
He held himself upright by determination alone. One year, his mind chanted inanely. One year of that link, that bond, was all it had taken to become a permanent part of him, as necessary to him and as natural as his limbs or sight. But now there was only blankness and aching emptiness because it didn't exist anymore...
“Spock.” he whispered again, and pulled himself together.
His ears were ringing; his head pounding. He swallowed the nausea and looked around the empty room. What had McCoy said, hours ago? 'I sent him to his quarters...'
His. Not ours.
He stepped back into the hall and into the dim silence of the other room.
Even without the bond Spock's presence was a palpable thing. Kirk moved forward as his eyes adjusted, then halted.
Spock was kneeling in a meditative pose, hands folded, head bowed. The dimness pooled darkness under eyes and cheekbones and left him an unmoving statue. Spock’s face, when it slowly turned up to meet his eyes, was full of pain.
Kirk had been prepared for that. But he had not expected the sudden. intense desire that filled Spock's eyes as their gazes met--the softening of the ravaged face making more bitter the pain that had deepened the lines.
Spock was up and facing him before he took another step. The heat radiating from his body surrounded Kirk with a vital, crackling aura. Then the desperation touched him too, and their mouths met in a demanding kiss. Spock pressed long-fingered hands against Kirk's back, stroking hard, hands knowing where to curve and where to flatten to define the limits of Kirk's body, Kirk's muscle and bone.
Spock's hands tore his shirt away, Spock's lips moved to trace lines of fire along Kirk's throat and dipped down further to suck at hardened nipples. Kirk gasped, pleasure arcing through his body as his own hands explored the slender lines of Spock's body. Clothing was discarded, kicked aside until there was nothing between them. Warmth of skin upon skin increased as the length of their bodies pressed together; erect, iron-hard organs met, trapped ecstatically between their bodies.
Then Spock moved, sinking gracefully to his knees, hands trailing down Kirk's back until his mouth was a scant inch from the straining cock, his breath teasing it, hands moving to caress inner thighs. Spock's lips surrounded him and he surged forward, calling out his bondmate's name, saying, “Yes!” saying “Love you! Always!”
The fire was burning through Kirk...his own fire, for he could feel none of Spock's... so strange, to be alone again like this. It was a sharp stab through him, but the sweetness in his groin overlaid it; above all, there was the need to be close, closer... the need to share, if not everything, then everything he could. He gasped as Spock pulled away, his hips following longingly, but Spock's hands were upon him again, a caress and a command as he turned him, and it was Kirk who knelt this time.
//Not so fast, Spock...make it last...//
But Kirk's mind couldn't follow the thought or the fear. It was as if that mouth and those hands were touching him for the first time; he couldn't admit the fear that it might be the last. A rage of heat was demanding completion in him. When Spock pulled him to his feet and pushed him to the bed, when Spock's hands found the cleft that led into his body he cried, “Yes!” and when Spock's organ replaced those warm hands yet lingered for one nerve-straining moment, he cried, “Now!” And finally when Spock entered him in a hard thrust he cried out with the exquisite sensations, breath coming in harsh rasps as Spock thrust again and again, that warm hand finding his straining cock, pumping and stroking in perfect rhythm. The sensations built, surging higher and higher until that was all there was of the universe with no admittance of any other thing. There was just the feel of Spock in him, the hand closed around him, body grazing his, breath upon his skin. Spock gasped and arched one last time as he came, causing Kirk to cry out an instant later as his own orgasm racked him.
They collapsed together, arms seeking each other in the languor of aftermath. Kirk felt himself slipping under, exhaustion claiming him. He was barely aware as fingers gently caressed his shoulder, then pressed...
“Mr. Lee,” Lt. Rahda said, looking up from the sensor board to the questioning gaze of the third shift senior officer. “HEART OF TAENOR is releasing a shuttle.”
Lee frowned and turned to Communications. “Any incoming messages?”
“Contact them. Find out what's going on--”
“Sir, our own shuttle bay doors are opening.”
“What? Override! Check that craft.”
Rahda's fingers were capable, but she frowned at the results. “It's overriden at the source, sir. All crafts appear still berthed.”
The view revealed a shuttle as it emerged from the bay and executed a graceful turn.
“Contact that ship.”
“Sir, the TAENOR reports that the shuttle is unauthorized,” the Communications ensign broke in. “They don't have any information as to who is piloting it. No response from our own shuttle.”
“What do the sensors say?”
“Vulcan readings, sir.”
“Contact Sickbay. Locate the Vulcans. Find out just who is missing.”
“The projected course of the two shuttles has been calculated,” Rahda broke in.
“The Barrier. The center of the disturbance.”
Lee whirled to Communications. “Contact the Captain.”
After a moment came the report. “Sir, no response.”
“Get security. Have them meet me at his cabin--we'll start there. Rahda, you have the con.”
Kirk first became aware of a dull aching throb at the base of his neck and then a nasty taste in his mouth which he associated with McCoy's stim-shots.
He forced his eyes open to find a blue pair of eyes watching him closely. He sat upright, keeping hold of the blanket now covering him. “Spock?”
McCoy took a breath. His expression altered to one of discomfort and concern. “He took a shuttle. He's gone.”
The words were like a body blow. “Gone? Where?”
“Toward the Barrier.”
Kirk hit the intercom. “Are tractors functional.”
“No, sir,” Lee reported from the Bridge.
“Status of the shuttle.”
“Approaching the Barrier, ETA 3 minutes. Same heading as the Caitian shuttle took.”
Kirk turned to McCoy. “What Caitian shuttle?”
“One of their shuttles left without authorization just before Spock did,” came the explanation.
He turned back to the intercom. “Status of the Caitian shuttle?”
“It's already passed through the barrier. No sensor contact.”
“I'll be right there.” He cut the communication and turned to McCoy. “The Barrier,” he said, voice drained of emotion.
Then, suddenly he was in action, throwing on his uniform, heading out the door. McCoy followed, barely making it through the turbolift door before it snapped shut and the lift headed toward the bridge.
The wall of seething energy was very close now. Securely strapped in the pilot's seat of the KEPLER, Spock held on tightly. The flickering intensity of the light from the Barrier flashed through the tiny cabin. He reached out, knowing he had the time, and darkened the screen completely. No need to watch; the instruments told him more of the Barrier's nature than his eyes ever could. 3.5 seconds. 3.3...
The KEPLER hit the Barrier at an oblique angle. Turbulence seized it, tossed it like a wooden chip carried on some wildly heaving sea and shook it with abandon. It released the ship finally, out in the darkness of intergalactic space. The shuttle's instrumentation reported that the egress point lay thousands of kilometers from where he had entered. But Spock, collapsed inside the security strapping, did not register the information...
When Kirk stepped out, Lee turned toward him apologetically. “He passed through thirty seconds ago.”
Kirk somehow made it to the command chair, somehow sat down though his entire body had gone very cold. He stared at the distant flicker and the attenuated colors spread out against an infinite blackness... a vastness so incomprehensible that a shuttle was nothing, was only another fleck of dust.
“Captain!” The officer manning the sensors turned a startled face toward him. “The tractor field has been removed.”
“We have warp capability?” Kirk's response was automatic, divorced from his inner feelings, words crisp and commanding.
“Indications are we have full capability.”
Kirk stared at the screen. “So we're free to go.” The words didn't express half the bitterness he felt. From somewhere distant he felt McCoy's hand settle on his shoulder. “Free to go, “ he repeated. He remembered Spock's desperate touch, his fevered gaze.
I won't let that be goodbye, Spock. “I don't know what's out there, but I'm going to find out. We're not leaving. Not yet.”
The color patterns shifted, altered, in the same random patterns as before. His fist clenched as he turned to communications and began issuing orders.
Spock forced himself back from unconsciousness, clamping down strict control on the nausea and the minor pains of new bruises. He turned toward the instrument panel even as he opened his eyes, rapidly absorbing the information revealed, and then reactivating the viewscreen.
A vast darkness was revealed. Intruding on the outer limits of vision were soft smudges--the spirals of incredibly distant galaxies painted in soft cloudy whites against soot black. They were a thin overlay on the color of nothing, of infinity. He pressed buttons, took in the view from all sides. A white swath--Andromeda, far brighter than all the rest. Memory summoned images of Sylvia and Korob, of the Kelvans. Especially the Kelvans. He remembered the brief mind-link he had had with one of the members of that race, and the twisting, incomprehensible thoughts briefly revealed before he had retreated in shock, his mind overloaded from a viewpoint far too alien to understand.
V'ger had been like that, too. He hadn't been able to completely deal with either. He had explored what memories he retained from both experiences, sought to catalogue and comprehend what he found, but there was much he had never understood, and even more he had never remembered. The information was either sealed securely away from access to his conscious mind, or forgotten completely.
Whatever this new force was, it was like that. Alien. Beyond understanding. And he was heading straight for it.
The viewscreen completed the circuit. Sensors added more data. There were a few stars exiled beyond the edges of the galaxy. Five of them were within the span of one parsec. They completed the last flung arm of the galaxy as they edged out toward nothing. Three were in the final stages approaching nova. One, still hot, burned alone in space.
The last was dying, a faint flicker of light and heat. Around it circled three barren planets, hunks of rock moving blindly around the sun which, millennia before, might have given them enough warmth for life.
The tug in his head was strong. He set course toward the second world, and let the ship move on automatic. Then he sat back and, moved by an illogical impulse, set the scanner to show the galaxy behind him.
The viewscreen revealed the extent of the Barrier which seemed to approach infinity from his present position. No beginning. No end. He knew that that wasn't true, but he was too close to see its limitations. It moved, a ghostlike thing convulsing with sudden brighter flickers. Minor storms swirled in hot whites and yellows against the cooler reds and thin purples of the energy field. Faintly through it he saw bright smudges that must be star clusters and a larger dominant white glow which must be the heart of the galaxy hundreds of thousands of parsecs away. Of nearer stars he saw nothing.
He thought of Jim as he had left him, wrapped in the blankets and placed comfortably on the bed, the feel of his skin like silk beneath his fingers. The soft texture of Kirk's hair as his hand lingered in a final caress had tempted him almost beyond bearing to hold that figure close again and let his mind ease back into his t'hy'la's mind, safe and needed, where he belonged.
Instead he had left, walked out that door, departed the ship, and followed the thread that had touched him in the last mass-meld and never quite let go.
He was not under the alien's control. At least not to his own perceptions. Honesty forced him to admit he might be in error. The summons he followed was persistent and utterly alien; since he could not understand it, since his perceptions were too limited to operate in the same plane, perhaps this entity or entities were even now in his mind, directing his actions and yet leaving him entirely unaware of their presence.
It was an unsettling thought.
At least here he was alone. The Barrier had cut off the sense of the minds on the ships behind him. Though he had recovered from the last psychic attack, the recovery had not been complete. The presence of every mind around him had remained, a low-level dissonance, like a dim light or a barely audible sound, constant and impossible to ignore.
Here he was complete in himself to a much greater degree. There was only the alien mind--or minds--and somewhere up ahead in a shuttle invisible to his eyes but visible to his sensors, the woman from the Caitian ship who had answered the same summons.
Her mind was closed to him now; he was aware of her on some more basic level, an animal instinct warning of another's presence. Yet it was distant, contained. The patterns of her thoughts were far more familiar, however, than that of whatever drew them. Without ever having seen her face or heard her name he felt an odd sense of kinship for the speck of life thousands of kilometers away
He switched the viewscreen to reveal what lay ahead and watched the infinite shades of darkness as the KEPLER rode on through hard vacuum, heading toward a dead planet circling a dying star.
CAPTAIN'S LOG: Stardate 3742.9. The transference of all personnel who rate high levels of telepathic or psi ability to the HEART OF TAENOR is now underway. In addition, crew rotation on the TAENOR is in progress, and backup relief personnel from ENTERPRISE are being transported over. In case of another attack, that ship will not be incapacitated.
Mr. Scott and his engineers are running checks on the warp drive and bringing power back up to full capacity. We are running a full systems check, and battle-ready procedures are in effect. Crossing the Galactic Barrier will put enormous stress on the ship. We must be fully prepared for whatever lies beyond. We will be ready to proceed in two hours.
I believe the events we have experienced may well be the prelude to invasion. Certainly there are forces involved beyond our current understanding....
Kirk and McCoy watched in silence as a medtech escorted Soquel and T'Mek from Sickbay. Both Vulcans were pale and subdued, though they managed all the correct military formality in his presence.
That they were drawing strength from each other was obvious to Kirk. Standing there, in their company, he felt a cripple, one whose disability everyone was politely ignoring. Pain surged in his mind, but if he moved fast enough, hard enough, it wouldn't drag him down.
The door closed, and he was alone with McCoy.
“You're going to go after him,” McCoy stated.
He turned and was instantly angry at the expression in the Doctor's blue eyes. He didn't want sympathy and understanding. Nor did he want Bones' probing, sarcastic accusations. Most particularly he didn't want the two of them together, didn't want to drink the bittersweet brew McCoy always offered when he was playing his psychologist's role.
“Any objections?” he flared.
“No. If you remember that it's more than just him.” He glanced pointedly at the door where the two Vulcans had exited. “Is Spock the only reason you're risking the ship, Jim?”
“What do you think, doctor?” His words were edged with ice.
“I think that whatever is out there may be beyond any of us.”
“Are you advocating just giving up?” Kirk asked sharply, ready to probe as well with whatever painful weapon was at hand.
“Of course not--”
“Because if you are, I don't know why the hell you ever signed back on.”
“For one thing, because you asked me to--Captain.” Blue eyes blazed in anger. “And the reason why I'm asking these questions, sir, is to find out something important--something that could affect the safety of this ship. Can you sense Spock through your link?”
“He cut me off.” The words slipped out in a rush of pain.
McCoy's eyes lost their anger, but he found he didn't want the sympathy that was growing there instead. “And you know damn well I'm doing this for more than Spock. Whatever this thing is, it poses a threat to far more than my personal relationships.” He bit the words off, feeling their nasty taste on his tongue. “I don't like having to argue these things with you. And even if I were just doing this for Spock--what would you do? Wouldn't you go after him? After any crewmember?”
McCoy sighed. “I can't answer that.”
“Then don't put yourself in command if you aren't prepared for the hard decisions.”
“Jim... I'm not asking any of these things to hurt you. And you know me well enough to know that. But I need to know--can you function as Captain of the ENTERPRISE. Because if you can't, I think you'd just better put someone else in command and follow Soquel and the rest over to the TAENOR.”
“I can function,” Kirk said shortly.
“If something happens to Spock--what happens to you?”
Kirk felt as if stone had just abraded an open wound. “He cut me off. All the way.”
“Oh. Jim...” McCoy couldn't think of anything else to say.
Kirk saw that, and continued. “You're right--whatever is out there may be beyond us. But we can't turn back. If whatever is out there wants in...I suspect the invasion has just begun.”
Go on to Part 3