I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
— Psalm 31:12
Jim wakes suddenly, still half in his dream, still running through the decimated forests of Anatolia, the broken, rotted branches reaching above his head, the slimy ground under his palms as he trips and falls. He gasps for breath, hands scrabbling, scrabbling, grabbing only sheet. He opens his eyes, sitting up at the same instant, on guard, heart racing.
He’s in a hospital, or what looks like one. An I.V. in his hand. He rips it out, tries to stumble from the narrow bed. And he falls, his legs too weak to support him. Up close, the tile is pale cream with flecks of gray. It’s cold.
“He’s awake,” he hears a woman say. Footsteps hurry toward him.
“Son,” a deep voice says. “It’s all right. You’re safe now.” An older man with a gray beard, a white doctor’s coat, and a tricorder squats beside Jim. Behind him, a woman stands uncertainly, her brow furrowed.
Jim tries to roll away, but hands grab for him, restrain him. He struggles against them, breathing hard. He can’t make sense of it. Doesn’t know where he is, who these people are. Maybe it’s a lab. An experiment.
“James,” the man says. “I’m Dr. Salter. You’re in the hospital in Tarsus Central. Kodos is dead.” The man turns to the woman. “We might need to sedate him. Twenty mils.” The woman disappears, her footsteps loud on the tiles.
The man turns his attention back to Jim, still pressing down on his arms. Jim feels weak and most of his fight is gone. He’s tired. He can feel tears spilling from his eyes, and hates himself for it. Kodos’s men will kill him if he shows any weakness.
“Everything’s going to be okay. You really are safe, now. The Federation ships arrived. They brought food and supplies. Do you understand me?”
Jim understands but can’t quite believe.
“Doctor,” the woman’s voice says, back again.
The woman kneels beside Jim and presses the hypo to his neck. He tries to jerk away, but the sting hits his skin with the sound of compressed air being released.
“That should calm him down without knocking him out,” Dr. Salter says. “Help me get him back on the bed.”
Together they lift him. He tries to pull away, but his body feels even more tired now. They lay him on the mattress.
“See if Dr. Hugo can visit him soon,” Dr. Salter suggests.
The woman nods and disappears again. Jim scans the room. For the first time, he sees there are patients in the other beds. Some are children. A few watch him, but the rest seem to be sleeping.
“Your friends are here, too. The kids who were with you. They’re doing fine.”
Jim feels suddenly sleepy. He tries to speak, but his mouth won’t cooperate.
“Would you like to see them?”
Yes. He wants to know if they’re okay. But his thoughts fade, growing fainter. And then sleep.
When he next wakes, he’s calmer. He feels no pain, at least not physical pain. There’s no hunger. His two constant companions for the last few months. Weeks? Months? He doesn’t know. He blinks against the light. A familiar face — Barrett, one of the little kids he was on the run with — watches Jim from the adjacent bed. Jim licks his lips. Words won’t come.
“It’s okay,” Barrett says in his little voice, clambering out of the bed and coming to stand beside Jim’s bed. “They moved me over here to be by you. Miranda already went home.” He reaches out a hand.
Jim takes it in his larger one and closes his eyes again. Images come. Memories. They must have been Federation soldiers, not Kodos’s men. He remembers clawing, biting, hitting with everything he had (which wasn’t much) as they held his arms. The smell of blood. The smell of death. The inside of his nose still reeks of those things. His throat hurts, like someone’s pressing on it, and there’s a strange sort of hurt deep in his stomach. He knows these things have nothing to do with injury.
“Is he awake, Barrett?” It’s Dr. Salter. Jim recognizes the voice. Remembers.
“Uh-huh. He’s not talking.”
Jim opens his eyes to find Dr. Salter peering at him from above.
“How are you feeling?”
It feels like something huge and heavy is sitting on his chest. He can barely breathe. Can’t get enough air.
“How’s your pain? You have a few broken ribs and toes.”
Jim blinks at him. Tries to breathe again. How is he still alive? He can’t breathe.
Dr. Salter presses a button, and the bed begins to shift beneath him, bringing him to a sitting position. He can feel a creakiness in his chest. The broken ribs, maybe.
“Do you want to try some food today? Jell-O?”
He almost laughs. Jell-O? The last thing he ate was grass. And some kind of root that made him throw up, but he had to test it before giving it to the younger kids. He slides a look at Barrett.
“It’s good,” Barrett whispers like it’s a secret.
Jim manages a nod.
“Excellent.” Dr. Salter pats his arm.
The Jell-O comes in a sealed container. Jim turns it over in his hands wonderingly, examining the wrap and the printed logo. The spoon feels strange in his bandaged fingers — bandaged to cover where some of his nails have been torn away. When he’s done, he uses one of his bare fingers to wipe at the inside of the container, then his tongue to get what he missed. The nurses bring him more. Carefully, when no one’s looking, he stashes two containers under his pillow. Barrett looks at him from the neighboring bed. He points knowingly at his own pillow, and Jim smiles at him. Barrett holds up six fingers. Jim gives him a thumbs up. You never know when you’ll need food. Tomorrow it could all be gone.
A small man with glasses and a PADD appears as Jim is finishing his Jell-O. He pulls up a chair beside Jim’s bed. His voice, when he speaks, is sing-song and soft, and almost everything is said as a question.
“James Kirk,” he says. “I am Dr. Hugo, the psychiatrist for this ward. If I may, I would like a moment of your time, yes? I would like to know how you are doing. You have been through quite an ordeal, yes?”
Jim looks at him. What a stupid man. An ordeal? That’s all he has to say?
“Dr. Salter reports that you are not talking. Perhaps you would like to write me a message?” Dr. Hugo hands Jim the PADD.
In the open word screen, Jim uses one of his bare fingers to type: Fuck off. He hands the PADD back to the doctor, then presses the button to return his bed to a flat position. He faces the other way, looking at Barrett.
“I see. You are not in the mood to talk, yes? But talking is very important. You must process what you have gone through. Drawing can be easier, yes? I will bring you a stylus.”
Drawing. Right. Like Jim really wants to draw dismembered and rotting bodies. Like he wants to draw the devastation he knows is lying right outside the window. Like he wants to draw little kids starving to death. Jim can hear the doctor getting up from his chair.
“I am not here to make your life difficult. I am only trying to help, yes? You must let me know if there is something I can do for you. I am here for you.”
No one is here for him. No one was here. He had to save himself. He still has to.
The next day, a nurse appears with a wheelchair. This one’s name is Griff, according to his nametag.
“They told me to take you to the showers today,” he says.
Jim glances at his pillow. If he leaves his bed, someone will find the food. He turns toward Barrett, who seems to understand.
“I’ll watch it,” Barrett whispers.
Jim swings his legs out of bed, but when his feet hit the floor, they don’t work.
Griff moves quickly. “Let me help you. You’ve been in bed a while.” He helps Jim into the chair. “You lost a lot of muscle from starvation. We’ll have to work to get you back on your feet.”
Jim stares down at his legs as if seeing them for the first time. He’s wearing a hospital gown that covers his thighs, but even so, he can see how skinny his legs are. His skin is bruised, and he has a strange rash. He touches a finger to a cluster of red bumps.
“Allergies,” Griff offers. “You ate a lot of things you shouldn’t have, but it’s getting better.”
Jim doesn’t like the look of pity. Griff wasn’t here. They brought him in on a ship, Jim knows with sudden certainty. Some of the hospital staff were Kodos’s chosen. They look guilty, and they treat Jim like he’s going to break any second. Maybe they’re not so wrong.
In the shower, he can see his ribs. Count them. The rash is on his stomach, too, and on his chest. He hardly recognizes himself. He didn’t have time to think about how he looked when he was running from Kodos’s soldiers. He turns the water as hot as it will go, and still he’s cold. He has to hold himself up with the railing on the wall. Even then, he only lasts a few minutes before he’s tired. He turns off the water, and Griff appears, averting his eyes, ready with a towel.
When they return to the ward, the first thing Jim sees is Katie and Andy, who are sitting on Barrett’s bed, playing a board game.
“Jim!” Katie shouts, hurling herself off the bed and almost into his arms.
Griff reaches out to restrain her gently. “He’s got a bunch of broken ribs. Be gentle.”
Katie’s eyes get big, and she just stands there until Jim reaches for her, then she falls into his arms. It hurts, even though she’s small for five, but he holds onto her like she’s his life preserver. She’s alive. She’s alive. Someone has washed and combed her hair. She looks almost normal — thin, but normal. He didn’t do all that fighting for nothing. Kodos would have killed her.
“We’re going home today,” she announces into his shoulder. “We came to say ‘bye.”
He holds her tighter. He tries not to cry. He carried her for miles. He found food for her. She’s his little sister for all intents and purposes, and he doesn’t want to let her go. Andy, who’s older, stands solemnly beside Jim’s wheelchair. Jim wants to ask questions, wants to ask if they’re okay, if someone is coming to get them, or if they’re being put on a transport shuttle, but he can’t form the words. He knows their parents work on a nearby starbase. The journey won’t be long.
“I’ll miss you,” Katie whispers as she pulls away. “They said you can’t talk. Will you message me when you’re all better?”
Jim nods. Messaging. It hasn’t even crossed his mind for months.
Andy hugs him quickly, silently. He’s never been one to talk much. At least he and Katie have each other. And their parents. And they’re going home.
Home. Jim doesn’t even know where that is anymore. Earth seems billions of parsecs away.
At night, the ward is quiet. Lights from the hallway illuminate the room slightly so Jim can see. The wheelchair sits beside his bed — he’s supposed to try to go to the bathroom by himself. It takes time, but he hates pressing the call button, hates facing anyone at all. Hates people touching him.
He slides his legs out of bed, then braces his hands on the arms of the wheelchair. Manages to get himself settled in it without falling. He peers under the pillow to check his food stash — still there — then wheels himself over to one of the windows.
Even here in the city, there’s evidence of the events of the last few months. Broken tree branches. Broken windows. Strange things in the streets — a disassembled aircar, a refrigeration unit, doors ripped from their hinges, and, oddly, a large painting of the mountains beyond Anatolia. But the dead bodies have been cleared. Weeds grow in the circles of soil surrounding the dead street trees. During the day, people walk around without weapons, though Federation soldiers continue to patrol, and they are armed. During the hour or so that Jim spends in front of the window, one military vehicle rolls by, completing its rounds. There’s something so lonely about it.
Three days since waking, and he hasn’t spoken. He can’t. He doesn’t know why. Something wrong with his mouth? His tongue? His vocal cords? Or maybe he doesn’t have anything to say. His lungs aren’t working. There’s not enough air for talking. That has to be it. But what’s wrong with his lungs? The doctor hasn’t said anything about them being damaged.
But Dr. Salter does make an announcement two days later when he appears by Jim’s bedside. “Good news, James. You’re going home! There’s a transport shuttle leaving for Earth in a few days. Your birthday, in fact. How old will you be?” He smiles down at Jim hopefully.
Jim doesn’t answer. Dr. Salter has his medical records. He knows perfectly well when Jim was born.
“My son is about to turn fourteen, too.”
Great. Jim bets Dr. Salter’s son has a nice, normal life. Maybe if Jim’s lucky, he can sneak a few more epic tragedies in under the wire before the big one-four. He hates his birthday. His mom has made sure never to be around for it. She’s always off in space, while Jim and Sam got stuck at home with their uncle.
Jim has been lying in the hospital for a week, and he hasn’t once thought of home. He can’t process that Iowa was ever a part of his life. Driving Frank’s car off a cliff seems a lifetime ago. The stupid car that started this whole thing, gave Frank the brilliant idea to send Jim off-world to learn some discipline at a military training camp. His mind is stuck in a strange sort of rewind, going over and over and over the last few months. Dreams wake him. In every container of food they bring him, he sees only waste — food that should have arrived weeks ago. Months. He has had to move his food collection to under the bed. The nurses either haven’t noticed, or have chosen to ignore it.
Dr. Salter hands Jim a PADD. “So you can write to your family. We already let them know when you’ll be arriving.”
Jim takes the PADD, staring at its hard, plastic surface. His finger memory is strong, and the pattern of the letters on the touchboard is comforting. His fingers are clumsy with their derma coverings, but he’s able to type. He can feel Dr. Salter watching him, but he doesn’t look up.
“Jim, before you leave, I’d like you to meet with Dr. Hugo again. Maybe he can help you process some of what’s happened.”
Jim looks up for a moment, and he hopes Dr. Salter can read everything in his expression: Like hell. He cannot fucking help me.
“You can message me, too, if you need anything.”
When Dr. Salter is gone, Jim opens the browser, but then he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t really want to write to his family. He sits there for a while absorbing the warmth emitted by the PADD. He thinks about Iowa. About all those fields of corn. Even now, when most things are imported, Iowa still grows food. It’s a point of pride. He wouldn’t mind seeing those fields again. The sea of green, everything healthy and strong.
He finds the Riverside newspaper, and scans the headlines, which include a local race for a council seat, and a football game between Riverside High and the rival team from Des Moines. He can’t bring himself to care, even though he used to love football. He hasn’t seen his friends in over six months. He tries to imagine going back there, sitting with them in the cafeteria, hanging out at the skate park. What would he say to them? He imagines smiling and pretending nothing ever happened. He imagines pretending to give a shit about video games and girls and cars. His chest seizes up, and he works at breathing.
He looks over at Barrett’s bed. The kid is sleeping. He’s seven, he told Jim once. Seven. Maybe it’ll be easier for him. Other seven-year-olds won’t think to ask him where he’s been. They won’t have heard what happened on Tarsus. Barrett is from Earth, but Jim can’t remember where. New York? He was here visiting relatives, relatives who were killed by Kodos.
Lungs, Jim types into the search field, waking the PADD from slumber. Then he adds: trouble breathing. He hits the button to begin the search.
Most of the hits are about asthma and allergies, but one article about Chinese medicine mentions that grief causes the lungs to feel constricted. He follows a few links on the site, wandering farther and farther from his original search, until he comes to an article about the control of breath during meditation, particularly in Vulcan meditation. He spends the rest of the day reading about Vulcan, about its geography and climate, but mostly about the monks at Mount Seleya who practice the elimination of emotion: kolinahr.
“What are you reading?” Barrett asks from his bed, his sleepy, small face turned toward Jim.
Jim scoots over in his bed, and Barrett gets up. Climbs in next to Jim and looks on with him.
“The words are too big,” Barrett comments after scanning the page. “How come you can’t talk anymore?”
Jim tries. He opens his mouth, and a strange gasp comes out. My voice hurts, he types, and Barrett accepts that, leaning up against him. Jim types in a different address so Barrett can watch vids. They watch together until dinner arrives.
By that time, Jim has made up his mind. Sometimes he gets crazy ideas in his head, and nothing can stop him from carrying them out. He knows he doesn’t want to stay on Tarsus. He knows he doesn’t want to go home — just the thought of it sends him into something like panic. What he wants is never to feel pain again. What he wants is to leave the past behind. What he wants is not to talk to anyone for a very long time.
That night, and the next, and the next, after everyone is asleep, Jim quietly transfers his body to his wheelchair — he’s getting better at it — and wheels to one of the walls with a long clear stretch. Then he practices walking, one hand on the wall to help his balance. Or he walks with the wheelchair, using it to steady himself as he traverses the room. One end to the other and back. He pushes himself because it won’t do to be unprepared. It’s stupid to lie around when he should be getting his body in shape to move.
He has moments of doubt. Sometimes when he almost falls down, or when the wheelchair almost rolls away from him, he changes his mind, and he convinces himself that going back to Earth is the right thing, or at least the sensible thing. But he never falls, and he takes that as a sign. He’s weak, but he can do it. Still, he knows his idea walks a thin line between brave and stupid. Like most of his ideas, maybe. But once it’s in his head, he can’t stop thinking about it. Can’t stop imagining what it’ll be like. Can’t stop thinking it’s the solution to all his problems.
He sleeps during the day to build up his strength, and he eats as much as his body will tolerate.
The transport ship is scheduled to leave on the planet’s Monday. It doesn’t take much work for Jim to discover another ship, one headed for Vulcan. There are many transports coming and going, bringing supplies and aid now that the extent of the situation on Tarsus is known, and there has been time to centralize resources.
The Collier, a freight vessel, leaves early Monday morning, before Jim is scheduled to depart. It’s stopping at Vulcan to drop off several passengers, probably survivors of the massacre. Late on Sunday night, after everyone is asleep, Jim climbs out of bed, his muscles supporting him now. Barely. He makes almost no sound as he strips the pillowcase off of one of his pillows and fills it with the food he’s been stashing. One of the nurses thoughtfully provided him with a set of clothes, which he puts on in the darkness, carrying the shoes in his hand in order to be quiet.
Before he goes, he leans quietly over Barrett, touching his hand gently. The boy wakes with a start, but when he sees it’s Jim, he relaxes.
“You’re leaving,” he whispers.
Jim nods, then puts a finger to his lips.
“Okay.” Barrett utters it like an oath.
Jim saved his life, and Barrett knows it. He’ll be loyal, Jim is certain. His parents will be coming for him in a few days, and Jim tries not to feel bad about leaving him. He gives the kid’s hand one last squeeze, then tiptoes silently toward the door of the ward.
Tarsus is a primarily Human colony, though other races have filtered in in small numbers. Jim looks like he belongs. He’s ordinary and unnoticeable. He’s been glad of that fact for most of the months he’s spent on this planet. No one really looks at him, even in the dead of night, even though he’s younger than most of the people wandering the streets. He’s not stupid. He knows most of them are prostitutes, but a man’s voice calling out to him from the shadows catches him by surprise.
He can’t speak, but he walks away quickly, and the man doesn’t pursue him through the streets with their shattered windows and looted shops. These things haven’t been fixed yet. Jim wonders how long it will be before Tarsus looks as it did when he arrived. It never was as beautiful as Earth, but it had forests and meadows. The camp where he was sent was desolate, but naturally so, located on a grassland outside the city.
At the spacedocks, a few shuttles wait. The key will be figuring out which one is going up to the Collier. Fortunately, before this whole mess began, Jim loved nothing more than to hack into any system he could. Now that he’s out of the hospital, he feels more like his old self. The hacking skills kick right in when he pulls the PADD out of his pocket and locates the shipping company’s system. He quickly gets into the database and locates the shuttles going up to the ship.
When no one’s watching, he and his pillowcase of food find their temporary home in a spacesuit compartment. A few hours later, he hears voices and the smooth rumble of the shuttle starting up. In a short half hour, he feels the shuttle settle in the docking bay of the ship.
The Collier is a freighter capable of warp three and nothing more. A workhorse. It won’t be fast, but it’ll get him there. A week, maybe. He’ll ration the food in his pillowcase. It’s enough.
During a week alone with no company, a week spent moving quickly from place to place in the ship, trying not to be found, he has a lot of time to think, but his mind is mostly blank and numb. Sometimes he has dreams about running through the woods, dreams where someone is chasing him or hurting him. Other times, he has quiet dreams of Iowa, of snow and socked feet on creaky floorboards. In one, his body is wrapped in gauze and bees are flying all around him. They are dying as they fly, falling like soft whispers onto the floor. He dreams about sex, even though he’s never had sex. He had a crush on a girl named Aly, who pretty much ignored him. She was in his seventh grade English class during his last semester before being sent to Tarsus. It’s been over six months. He wonders what she looks like now. If she’s got tits yet. In his dream, she has them, and he’s touching them. He wakes up and jerks off in the dark, and it’s the first moment of pleasure in months. It’s over quickly, replaced by guilt. He shouldn’t think about sex when he’s just witnessed so much death, but he can’t help himself.
As they approach Vulcan, his mind fills with doubt again. He doesn’t know anyone on Vulcan. He could get arrested. Or hunted. He doesn’t know. But it seems better than Earth. He can’t face that place. He doesn’t want people looking at him, remembering who he once was. Doesn’t want to answer questions. Doesn’t want to ask them. He’s lonely but doesn’t want company. Everything inside him hurts. He curls up, but the pain doesn’t go away. Sometimes he can’t stop breathing fast in a panic, tears almost coming but not quite.
It’s easy enough to wedge himself back into the compartment in the shuttle. The sound and feel of the engine soothe him. Machines always work magic on him. He likes their combination of complexity and comprehensibility. He gets the way they work. He can take things apart and then fix them. In life, things aren’t so much like that.
He has read about Vulcan’s higher temperature and gravity and its lower oxygen content. During his time on the ship, he has added a few things to his pillowcase: more food, a small emergency tank of oxygen, some clothes to protect his skin from the sun. Despite that, he feels like he doesn’t know anything at all. A different planet is a different planet, and you don’t know anything until you get there. At least that’s how Tarsus was.
The shuttle makes two stops, one at Shi’kahr, and another at Gol. Gol is closest to Mount Seleya, where Jim needs to go. He has the map on the PADD he stole from the hospital. He’s committed it to memory, too, just in case.
He waits for his moment, then slips quietly from the shuttle, hiding behind shipping crates until the landing area clears out. It’s hot, even as the sun is setting brilliant and orange on the other side of the mountains. The light rays upward, and that must be how God looks, if he exists, which Jim doesn’t think he does.
He expected to have trouble breathing, since the air is thinner here, but something has been lifted from him. He fills his lungs, taking in the new smells. Something earthy and hot, something else pungent like pine trees but different. The ground is scalding under his hand, and he’s glad for the shoes. The journey should take three days if he travels at night and seeks shelter during the day. He knows from his research that walking during the day will give him heatstroke. Or worse. And if there’s one thing Jim is good at in life, it’s survival.
On the Collier, he got his hands on a backpack, which he shoulders before heading up into the mountains behind Gol. Most of the weight on his back is water. He also carries a phaser, which he stole from the ship just in case something or someone attacks him. His legs feel heavy, and he has to think about each step. He makes up chants in his head as he walks through the darkness.
His legs tire easily, and he has to stop to rest. He wonders how the hell he ran for so long on Tarsus, how he did what he did. Maybe when someone’s chasing you, it gives you strength. Only time is chasing him now. He has to reach his destination in three days or he’ll run out of water. Part of him doesn’t care. He doesn’t see much point in living. Life hasn’t been a real cakewalk so far. If his father had lived, would things have been different? Or just shitty in a different way?
His bones might end up out here in the desert. Maybe no one will find him.
He comes across a well-travelled path over the mountain. Who has walked it before him? Will he run into someone? And what will they say?
But he never gets the answers because he meets no one. The mountain is devoid of shelter. Sometimes an overhanging rock offers a sliver of shade. There are no trees, only scrubby bushes. He lies in the thick of them during the day, avoiding the sun as much as he can. He keeps moving, beginning at dusk and stopping at dawn. He uses the flashlight as little as possible in order to save the charge. An animal of some kind shrieks at night like someone is sawing off its limbs. He keeps his phaser at the ready.
The water runs out at the end of the third day, and he has not reached the monastery. His body isn’t what it used to be. At the rate he’s going, he thinks it’s only one more day there. His PADD doesn’t get a signal, and he can’t locate his position. The last of the food disappears on the morning of the fourth day. At least the pack is light. The landscape shimmers, but he keeps going, even if it’s stupid to walk during the day. His feet in the shoes are blistered and sore. The sunscreen he brought does almost nothing against Eridani’s intensity. He knows if he could see his face, it would look like his feet. His lips are bleeding. The sun reflects off the ground, coming at him from below, too. He covers as much of his body and his face as he can, even though it means he’s hotter. He feels constantly dizzy and lightheaded, like he doesn’t know which way is up. He’s not sure if it’s the heat doing that to him, or if it’s lack of water. Maybe both.
A succulent plant on the side of the trail looks promising, and Jim splits a leaf with his knife, lapping at the slimy substance inside. It’s bitter, but feels good on his swollen tongue. He splits another leaf, and another. It might be stupid — he could be poisoning himself slowly. He stops after four leaves, his thirst still crying out. He packs some leaves in his bag, just in case. If he doesn’t throw up in a few hours, he can have more.
After an hour, his stomach cramps so badly that he falls on the trail, sliding in the dirt, headed downslope now. He can see the monastery in the distance, a group of buildings made of sand-colored stone. He propels himself down, gritting his teeth against the pain of rolling over rocks and crashing into thorny plants. He comes to a stop at a flat place, and can go no farther. The pain in his belly won’t let him uncurl. His mouth is dry. His skin burns. This is the fucking end, and he doesn’t really care. He came here so he wouldn’t have to feel pain anymore, and soon he’ll get his wish.
He closes his eyes, and the sun shines bright behind his eyelids, making them orange and red, racing with yellow comets. Then everything goes black.
Jim seems to be waking up in strange places more than usual lately. He’s aware of his body aching all over. A distinct smell to the air. He’s hot. There are faint sounds. Whispers of movement. He tries to open his eyes, but they hurt and only stay open for an instant before closing again. He makes a second attempt. Lasts longer, long enough to see dim light and a yellowish wall. Third time’s the charm. He blinks quickly a few times, but his eyes stay open enough to take in his surroundings.
The most obvious feature is a boy, a Vulcan who looks around Jim’s age. He sits stiffly in a chair beside whatever Jim’s lying on. The boy’s dark hair is cut straight across his forehead, and he wears a gray robe. He gazes at Jim steadily.
Jim tries to lick his lips.
“Do you wish for some water?” the boy inquires in perfect Standard.
“Unh,” Jim says.
“You must sit up, otherwise there is a risk of choking.” The boy stands, and there’s the sound of water being poured into a cup.
Jim fights his body, trying to get it to prop itself up. Fierce pain tears through him. He hears the cup being set down on a hard surface. The boy nears, sliding his hands beneath the pillow under Jim’s head. It’s just enough assistance that Jim can sit up.
“If you position your body closer to the wall, you will be able to sit up with less effort.”
Jim does as he’s told, every inch of him protesting. The boy bolsters him with more blankets and cushions.
“I’m hot,” Jim croaks.
“You are Human,” the boy observes. “You are unaccustomed to the temperature here.” It’s almost a question.
Jim nods, and the boy peels back one of the blankets covering Jim’s legs. Beneath the remaining blanket, Jim can feel his nakedness.
“Where am I?” He studies the room, which is nearly bare. He is sitting on a narrow bed next to a small table. Nothing adorns the walls. There’s a window with a wide ledge beside him, but it’s shuttered, and he can’t see out.
The boy brings him the cup, and Jim takes it gratefully, drinking.
“Slowly,” the boy commands. “You are at the monastery at Mount Seleya. My name is Spock.”
“I made it.” Jim looks down at his scratched and bruised arms and the embroidered blanket draped over his lap, wondering if maybe this is all a dream. “I thought I was dead.”
The boy, Spock, regards him curiously. “Indeed. You almost were. It is fortunate one of the monks was out collecting plomeek. He found you on the trail. If night had fallen, you might have been eaten by le-matyas.”
“I was out there for three nights. Is there more water?” Jim looks toward the table hopefully.
There is. Spock rises, taking the cup from Jim’s hands. He pours more from an earthen pitcher.
“Are you a monk? You’re too young to be a monk.” Jim wonders if Vulcans age the same as Humans.
Spock sits again. “I am studying kolinahr.”
Jim drinks again, letting each mouthful of water roll around on his tongue before swallowing. He’s never felt anything so nice in his life. “That’s what I’m here for, too.” His upper lip feels cool as water evaporates into the dry air.
One of Spock’s eyebrows goes up. “No Human has ever trained here. Have you made a previous arrangement with the monks?”
“Uh-uh,” Jim says, finishing the cup of water. “I just came. From Gol. They’ll let me do it, won’t they? I came a long way.”
“Kolinahr is not to be undertaken lightly.” Spock tilts his head.
Jim realizes he’s been talking. Talking! “Hey, I’m talking,” he says. “Why do you think that is? I mean... I haven’t been able to talk in weeks.”
“It is, perhaps, unfortunate that you chose now to begin again. If you wish to study here, I will inform the monks, but it is unlikely that you will be allowed to remain. Vulcan ritual and custom are not openly discussed with off-worlders.”
“Why did you decide to do it?” Jim has only met a few Vulcans in his life, and there’s something different about this one. More than the fact that he’s so young. There’s something slightly less stiff about him.
Spock reacts to the question by becoming exactly like every other Vulcan Jim has met, straightening his spine even more, and molding his face into something betraying not an iota of curiosity or emotion. “My reasons are of no consequence to you.” He stands. “I shall return.”
When Jim is alone again, awareness of his body’s condition returns. And awareness of where he is, on a strange planet, in a strange place, where he knows no one. Better than Tarsus. Probably better than Earth. He doesn’t really want to talk to anyone he knows. Spock or whatever monks are okay. They don’t know who he is, or where he came from, and that’s just fine. Jim looks forward to beginning kolinahr. The sooner the better. He feels weirdly like everything is going to be all right once that happens.
He scans the room for his clothes but doesn’t see them. His pack is gone, too. A gray robe lies draped over the back of the chair, though. Jim reaches for it, his joints aching. He moves himself delicately to the edge of the bed. As he’s pulling the robe on, the door to the room opens, and Spock steps inside. He quickly averts his gaze from Jim’s semi-naked body.
“Is it okay for me to wear this?”
“I placed it there for you. Staal is on his way.” Spock steps to the side of the room.
A moment later, the door opens again, and an older man with bushy eyebrows and long, gray hair enters. He comes forward to stand beside the bed. “I am Staal.”
Still sitting on the edge of the bed, Jim has to crane his neck to look up at the guy. “Jim,” he says, realizing he shouldn’t give his whole name. The Vulcans might report him and have him sent back to Earth. “I’m here to study kolinahr.”
Staal’s eyebrow twitches. “I am aware of your purpose in coming here. Upon your arrival, you were near death. I performed a mind meld in order to discover the cause of your deplorable physical condition and to facilitate your healing. In doing so, I became privy to the details of your journey. You have endured much. Your katra is weak.”
Tears come suddenly to Jim’s eyes. They’re going to send him away. Back to Earth, probably. “Look, I know I’m only fourteen, but you can’t send me back. Please. I need to be here.”
“According to Vulcan norms, you are considered an adult. That is not the issue. Simply put: Humans do not attempt kolinahr.”
“Then I’ll be the first.” Jim doesn’t even blink.
The old man assesses Jim. After a moment, he stands. “I do not believe Humans capable of completing kolinahr, but due to your circumstances, it is possible that our program of study will benefit you. You may stay as long as you wish. Spock will familiarize you with the monastery, and he will serve as your translator when necessary. He is half Human, as you may have surmised. I am certain he will prove a suitable study companion, as you are both at a disadvantage.” Staal opens the door and departs without another word.
Spock stares at the closed door for a long moment before turning his attention to Jim. There is a determined set to his face, almost like he’s trying not to cry.
“You’re half Human?” Jim asks, thinking it makes sense.
Spock steps forward suddenly, his hands in fists. “Do you find that distasteful?”
Jim opens his mouth, unsure what to say to such a bizarre question. “No. I’m glad.” He hesitates. “I don’t know much about Vulcan. I... I didn’t know where else to go, that’s all.”
Spock’s hands unclench. “Are you able to walk?”
Jim nods. “I think so.” He looks down at his bare feet, which are still blistered. It’s like they remember the heat of the ground. He notices Spock’s feet are also bare.
“Are my shoes somewhere?”
“They are outside. We do not wear shoes inside. I will show you where everything is.”
Walking is painful and slow, but Jim hates lying in bed. He’ll take pain any day over boredom. He shuffles awkwardly, lurching a little toward the door to the room, favoring first one foot and then the other. Just outside the door, he finds not his shoes but sandals. He follows Spock’s example, slipping them on. Underneath the pain of the blisters, they feel comfortable, exactly the right size for his feet.
Spock isn’t the most chatty person on the planet — or maybe he is, since this is Vulcan — but he conveys the important information: where the bathroom is, where meals are taken, and the room where Jim will be studying. Spock pointedly bypasses several rooms with closed doors.
It feels like morning. From his few days on the planet, Jim knows the current temperature is cool, even though he’s already sweating. Light slants onto the outdoor corridors, which are covered to protect them from the sun. The entire building and its walkways are made of a pale stone. There is no variation. The building is simple with doorways made of metal. Glass windows. There’s very little made of wood. The corridors stretch on and on. At the far end of the building, past a tall archway, there’s a sort of amphitheater, which Spock informs him is used for ceremonies. As they circle around to the other side of the building, there are more rooms, more closed doors.
“This is the library,” Spock says, opening a heavy door into a high-ceilinged room with tall, narrow windows that let in stripes of light.
“No computers?” Jim has never heard of a library without them. He sees only rows of heavy desks, and chairs. There’s electricity here, he knows that.
“There is little contact with the outside world. The monks believe it is detrimental to achieving a clear state of mind. We are allowed reading tablets only.”
That explains why Jim’s PADD isn’t in his room. Fine by him. No contact with the outside world means less chance someone will find him.
Beyond the monastery, everything is dry and dusty, the mountains dotted with pale, spiny plants, but the courtyard in the center of the structure is lush in comparison. Fruit trees grow there, and there are garden beds filled with small plants.
During the tour, they only see a few other Vulcans walking, heads bowed, past them. Spock speaks softly but clearly, and there is little other sound except for the whisper of wind. The sun rises in the sky, and Jim begins to feel faint. He leans against one of the walls, which is already warm despite being in the shade.
Spock pauses to study him. “Do you require nourishment?”
“I can’t remember when I last ate something.” Jim is so used to being hungry that it almost doesn’t occur to him that he is. “I’m starving,” he says suddenly, feeling the edge of panic that sometimes accompanies the thought of food.
“I will secure a meal for you. Meals are not usually taken during the day.”
“When do you eat?” Jim lays a hand on his stomach. It’s actually starting to hurt. He feels lightheaded and strange. The world is humming a little. He can sense his breathing quickening.
Spock changes his direction, leading Jim back toward the small dining room. “We have broth in the morning, then a meal at the end of the day.”
“Okay,” Jim says, but in his mind, he calculates how much time it will take to build up a store of food in his room.
They enter the dining area, which is bigger than the cafeteria at Jefferson Middle School in Riverside. There must be a lot of monks. Jim wonders where they all are. Doing monky things. Studying in the rooms he didn’t get to see. Spock tells him to wait, then disappears for a minute, returning with a plate of what looks like fruit. They sit together at one of the tables.
Jim picks up one of the golden wedges and tentatively bites off a piece. It’s tart and sweet at the same time. Juicy. Like an orange. It stings his cracked lips. “What is this?”
“Sash-savas. And that is a hirat,” Spock says, indicating a small, shiny green thing on the plate. “Does this satisfy you? The healer reported that you recently suffered malnourishment.”
Something in Jim’s eyes must tell Spock it’s not enough. Without a word, Spock gets up from his chair and disappears again. He returns with another plate, this one filled with pale, oblong crackery things.
“Kreila. They are filling.”
Spock sits, watching Jim eat. It must not be rude to stare on Vulcan. Not that Jim is one to care. Spock isn’t staring with pity, only with curiosity. After being on Tarsus, that’s a relief. Jim can handle someone wondering about him because he’s Human and weird.
“Where are your parents?” he asks. The possibility that they might be dead doesn’t occur to him until after the words are out of his mouth.
Spock looks away. “I was raised in Shi’kahr. They are still there.”
Jim senses that Spock doesn’t want to talk about it, but his curiosity outweighs his tact. “Which one of them is Human?”
“My mother. She is from Earth.”
The cracker things are dry and hard and bland, but Jim is too hungry to care. He chews them slowly. “Where on Earth?”
“She must have had a hard time moving here.”
“Indeed.” Something in Spock’s face softens. It’s not that noticeable, but it’s there. “After this, you may return to your room to rest. I will leave you to undertake my afternoon studies.”
Jim is tired. He almost doesn’t remember how it feels to be normal. To go a whole day without pain. “That would be good,” he says, feeling for pockets in the robe, but there are none. There’s no place to hide food. He stuffs more crackers in his mouth.
On the way back to the room, Spock indicates that he resides in the neighboring room. “Should you need anything, I will be available to assist you.” He nods slightly before gliding off toward a meditation room.
Jim watches him go, his hand coming up to cover his mouth as he yawns. Before he lies down to rest, he lurches to the bathroom, and is shocked by the color of his piss, which is almost red. He gulps water from the water dispenser, closing his eyes with pleasure at the feel of it on his lips.
He falls almost instantly asleep, lying on top of the blankets, his skin burning with heat.
His dreams are hazy and strange. Things move slowly in them. Aly is walking with him, holding his hand. She laughs, and her cheeks dimple up. They’re on Tarsus, not in Iowa, and they’re suddenly running through the woods. His clothes snag on trees, branches hit him in the face. He falls to the ground with her, their bodies pressed together. Someone is coming. He can hear footfalls, boots. Aly’s body is warm, so warm, and he covers it with his, trying to protect her. He wakes, crying out, breathing hard. The room is dark.
He tries to remember where the light is, but can’t. His hand gropes blindly. Something smashes to the floor.
He battles the pain of sitting up, and places his feet gently on the floor. There’s water. For a moment, he thinks he wet the bed. He reaches for his groin, and there’s wetness under the robe, but not piss.
A soft knock on the door.
“Come —” Jim croaks. Clears his throat. “Come in.” He pulls the robe into folds in case something shows.
The lights come on. Spock stands serenely, looking as if he was already awake when he heard the noise.
“Sorry,” Jim says, voice clearing.
Spock looks at him closely. “You are unhurt.”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Sorry I woke you.”
A Human would have helped Jim clean up, would have asked if he was all right. But Spock merely says, “I will replace the pitcher in the morning.” He gives Jim a final once-over, then he’s gone.
Jim stares at the closed door for a moment, wondering if all Vulcans are so...hands off. He hopes so. It’s kind of nice having someone who’ll know if he smashes his skull, but who won’t bother him with questions. Or notice that he just had a wet dream.
Against his body’s complaints, he kneels on the floor to pick up the pieces of shattered crockery. There’s nothing to mop up the water, but it’s so hot, it’ll evaporate in no time. He takes the shards to the bathroom, where he remembers seeing a recycler. There are no towels in the bathroom, nothing to use to scrub at the mess on his robe. He does his best to clean it under the water dispenser, then he steps into one of the shower stalls. It’s sonic, which he has only used during space travel, and it takes him a few seconds to decipher the Vulcan symbols on the control panel.
In the small chamber in the middle of the night, he is certain no one will disturb him. When he’s clean, he turns off the controls and just sits there, his back against the wall, his arms hooked around his knees. It’s quiet. No sound of traffic, not even air traffic. No sound of animals or appliances. Nothing. No heating or cooling system. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
He chants in his head, staring down at his body, which has started to betray him. Not just the wet dreams, but his smell. He had a deodorant stick on Tarsus, but he left it at Camp Nusret. He stopped caring how he smelled, anyway. Nothing like almost dying to take care of those little concerns. He sniffs at his armpit. He feels like it smells already. Cool on Vulcan is still warm, and he’s sweating lightly. There’s hair, too, where there didn’t used to be hair. He wonders if Aly would be grossed out by these things. Or if she’d like them. In a few minutes, he’s jerking off again.
At dawn, Spock knocks softly at the door to inform Jim that it’s time for the morning meal. Jim wakes easily, instantly ready to go — something he learned in the last few months. They walk silently toward the dining room where other Vulcans already sit, dressed in robes, sipping their broth without speaking to one another. They range in age, but Spock is by far the youngest. Jim wonders if Spock’s age is unusual, and what made him come here so young.
The others make no effort to hide their stares. Jim puts it down to the fact that they maybe haven’t seen any Humans before. Or at least not many of them. He ignores the attention, though he’s somewhat surprised that reserved Vulcans would display their curiosity so openly.
“Why only broth?” Jim asks, aware of how loud his voice sounds, even though he’s making an effort to be quiet.
“The digestion of food diverts the body’s attention and resources from mental processes. Furthermore, certain foods have psychological effects, particularly if they possess strong flavors or spices.”
Jim has never noticed psychological effects of burritos or curry, but maybe Vulcans are more sensitive.
Across from him, Spock sits, head bowed, not really looking up from his broth. Jim gets the sense that Spock is used to being stared at because he hasn’t seemed to notice the attention being directed their way. No one has come to speak to them. Jim wonders if that’s normal, or if it’s because of him.
“You don’t have to sit with me,” Jim says suddenly in the quietest voice he can manage.
Spock glances up. “Would you prefer I not?”
“No!” Jim corrects. Spock jumps to the weirdest conclusions. “I mean, I want you to, but if you’re used to sitting with someone else...”
“That is not the case,” Spock says, his face expressionless. “We should, however, cease our conversation.”
Spock doesn’t seem annoyed that he’s stuck sitting with Jim. If anything, he might be pleased.
But with Vulcans it’s hard to say.
After the meal that’s not really a meal, Spock directs Jim toward one of the rooms off the courtyard.
“Staal will arrive shortly to instruct you,” Spock says before departing to another part of the monastery.
The room is completely bare except for a grass mat laid on the floor, a stone sculpture at one end of the room, incense, a set of something like building blocks, and a perfectly round, polished rock sitting beside the sculpture. Narrow, horizontal windows let some sunlight in. Jim sits cross-legged on the mat, which still smells like the grasses that were used to make it.
Staal arrives within a minute, sweeping into the room with hardly a sound, closing the door behind him. “Are you ready to begin?”
Jim nods. As ready as he’ll ever be. He has no idea what to expect.
“You have had no previous instruction, thus I will begin with the most elementary aspects of meditation. First: your position.” He sits with his legs folded under him, knees straight in front. “This is the simplest posture: lesh’riq. You must sit up straighter. Do not compress the internal organs.”
Jim sits up as straight as he can. His muscles protest. They still ache from all he’s been through in the last few months, and especially the last few days. His legs don’t like what he’s asking of them.
“Breathe. Human physiology differs from Vulcan. You must attempt to breathe with your diaphragm. Here.” He leans forward and places a hand below Jim’s lungs. “We will begin with kohl-tor, the emptying of the mind.” He stands and lights the incense, placing it into a depression in the stone sculpture. “Focus on the ember. Focus on your breath. With each breath, visualize your thoughts escaping your mind.”
Staal remains in the room, guiding Jim through breathing exercises, trying to get him into a meditative state. But Jim can’t seem to calm his mind. Thoughts race through, unstoppable. Staal doesn’t exactly show impatience, but he does repeat himself, over and over and over.
“You are not focussing,” Staal says.
“I’m trying.” Jim has said the same thing about ten times already today.
“Your mind is weak.”
“It’s not weak.”
“Perhaps you will have more success if I leave you. I will return in one hour.”
Staal departs without a sound, and Jim just sits there, trying to sit up straight, trying to ignore the pain in his legs and his shoulders and his feet. The room is so quiet. It makes him fidgety. He looks behind him at the soles of his feet. He can see the undersides of his toes, which are covered in blistered skin. He turns back to the sculpture. The incense smells weird, and it pierces his nose in a way he doesn’t like. He tries to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. He tries to empty his mind, but in order to get the thoughts out, he has to think them first. That’s a problem. He doesn’t want to think because every time he thinks, he thinks of Tarsus.
Tarsus was a thriving planet. The colony supported a healthy population, which grew steadily as people of different races came to live there. There were children and schools. Jim remembers how the city looked from the window of the shuttle. He remembers being dropped off at Camp Nusret, which was the only thing for miles. Barracks, classroom buildings, athletic facilities. And that was all. Jim was prepared to hate it, but the classes were more challenging than his classes on Earth, and he got to kick the shit out of things in the name of athletic training.
Not that he didn’t get into trouble — hacking into the school’s computer system probably wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had — but, all in all, the place was tolerable. He was there for three months.
He remembers the first sign that something was wrong: no delivery trucks. The principal and teachers meeting after classes and talking in hushed tones. Jim, of course, spied on them. He remembers everyone gathering in the main quad, and soldiers walking up and down the rows, looking, examining, separating everyone into two groups. He remembers thinking it would only be a few days before the Federation arrived.
The images rush through his mind, and he can’t stop them.
“I do not understand your difficulty.” Staal’s voice yanks Jim back into the room, into the dry heat.
It feels like only a minute has passed, but it must have been longer. Things come back into focus: the dull, stone floor, the narrow windows near the ceiling, the rough grass mat under his knees, digging into his skin. He didn’t even hear Staal come in.
Staal sets a stone on the floor directly in front of Jim’s knees. “You will focus on the stone. Only think of the stone. When you have done so, then stop thinking of the stone. Your mind will be clear.”
It’s gray. It’s just a stone. But images come flooding in like blood. Jim killed a man with a stone. To survive. He had to do it to survive. It was kill or be killed. There was no other choice. Would the kids still have looked up to him if they’d known what he did to protect them? He’s grateful they didn’t see it.
“It is not important.”
Jim looks up. “It is,” he says.
“You only believe it is. It is clutter in your mind. Let it go.” It’s an order, not an encouragement.
Jim shakes his head. “I can’t.” His voice cracks.
“Then you will never succeed.”
Jim’s jaw clenches, the teeth grinding against one another. His throat feels suddenly tight, but no tears come. Obstinate, he knows, as he picks up the rock and sets it as far away from his body as he can without getting up. Everything reminds him of Tarsus. It’s the bare floor or nothing.
The lesson ends in what must be the afternoon. Jim has no sense of time. He only knows the endless repetition of Staal’s voice chastising him, correcting him, berating him, until he’s so tired he can barely sit up. His stomach eats itself with hunger. Stepping outside should be a relief, but the heat is so intense he can’t breathe. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. He wonders where Spock is — they haven’t seen one another since the morning meal.
The dining area is open and empty. Jim finds himself walking on tiptoes, trying not to make a sound, even though no one has forbidden him from coming inside. He finds more of the dry crackers, which he hides in the sleeve of his robe before hurrying back to his room. Once there, he eats some of them, puts the others under the bed, drinks several glasses of water, and falls asleep, sweating.
His dreams drift in his mind, hazy and strange. Nothing about Tarsus. One where he’s little again, drifting in space, then walking barefoot on Vulcan, his feet burning. A giant bird tapping at a tree bare of leaves.
The tapping becomes real. Jim opens his eyes. His body hurts. He’s hot as hell. The knocking continues.
“Yeah?” he says, trying to sit up.
The door opens. Jim feels dizzy, and it’s nearly dark in the room, so he can barely see.
“It is time for the evening meal,” says Spock’s voice from a short distance away.
“Okay.” Jim shakes his head, trying to get his bearings.
Spock nears. “You are dehydrated.”
Jim’s lip hurts. He touches it. Finds blood. “Yeah, I guess so.”
The sound of water splashing in the cup. Then Spock is putting the cup into Jim’s hands. “Vulcan physiology conserves moisture. Human physiology does not.”
“Thanks, Sherlock,” Jim says before finishing off the water. He can smell himself. He tries not to think about it. He’s hungry again.
“It’s — we say it on Earth to mean someone who knows everything.” Jim tries to smile, but his lip won’t stretch that much without cracking even more.
Spock looks at him curiously. “I do not know everything. My intellect is considered inferior here.”
Jim doesn’t know much about Vulcans. Maybe Spock’s not as smart as the others — who knows — but the fact that the other Vulcans think Spock isn’t as smart, and have maybe even mentioned it… The facts click into place. Jim hasn’t seen Spock speak to anyone. Spock mentioned that no one sat with him, even before Jim arrived. The other Vulcans have only stared. Jim thought they were staring at him, but maybe they were staring at Spock.
“Most people think I’m stupid, too,” Jim says. “But I’m not.”
After a week or so, Jim starts to get used to the routine. He’s still bone tired, but he’s not collapsing from exhaustion all the time. No one has told him he has to meditate in the afternoons, so when the morning session is done, he wanders around the monastery or rests in his room. Sometimes he goes outside. The sun is so intense that within minutes he feels his skin burning, but his robe has a hood, which he uses to shade his face. He circles the monastery, following a path worn in the dirt and stones. This is the quietest place he’s ever been. Iowa was always buzzing with insects or there was the sound of wind in winter. Tarsus was full of noises, maybe because he was always on alert. He doesn’t know what’s different here. Everything feels immense and still. He likes it. He feels like he’s the only person in the universe. The rocks understand him. The bushes growing in the sand are gnarled and dusty like they’ve been there forever, like they’ve had to fight to last as long as they have. He dares to look up at the sky, avoiding a direct line to the sun. The sky is bright, pale blue, just like on Earth. He sways dizzily, letting it fill his vision. His skin tingles from the heat, and he has to bow his head. He stumbles, then regains his footing. There’s a faint buzzing in his ears and a strange glow in his vision as his eyes adjust. He remembers a random moment from Tarsus, when he hid with Barrett and the others in a cave in the side of a mountain. He told them to wait while he went out onto the rock face to look out into the valley. When he got there, he could see soldiers in the distance, tiny specks making their way across the valley floor. They seemed so far, yet so close. The sight of them filled him with panic, that dragging in his gut that said: Time to run again.
He makes his way back to the building, glad to be out of the sun, but reluctant to go back to his room. He wonders where Spock is. He stops outside Spock’s bedroom door. Knocks quietly, but there’s no answer. The library, maybe. He walks there, his feet sounding loud on the stones of the empty corridors. Something in the courtyard smells sweet, but he can’t see any flowers or fruit.
There are only a few Vulcans in the library, all of them much older, studying alone. They look up when Jim enters, and then look down again at their tablets. It is Spock, then, that they’re staring at during meals. In the far corner of the room, Spock sits, attention focussed on his tablet, fingers moving over the display.
Jim approaches as quietly as he can and sits in the chair across the table from Spock. “Hi,” he whispers.
Spock considers him for a moment before responding. “I will procure a tablet for you.” Without another word, he gets up, crosses the room, and returns a minute later.
Jim takes the device, leans across the table to whisper, “Are most Vulcans done with school by your age? And how old are you, anyway?”
“I am twenty Vulcan years old, the equivalent of 14.62 Earth years. I have not completed the standard course of education, but I have elected to continue the prescribed lessons on my own as I complete kolinahr.”
“So...” Jim tries to imagine finishing high school by himself, with no teachers. He might actually learn more. “What if you don’t understand something? Who do you ask?”
Spock looks at Jim like he’s said something in gibberish. “I simply read the material again if I do not understand it the first time.”
“Oh,” Jim says, sitting back. “Vulcan brains must be different from Human brains.”
“You are correct.” Spock looks down at his tablet, conversation over.
Okay, then. Jim fiddles with the menus, which are all in Vulcan. He recognizes numbers, at least. Math. Good place to start. “Vulcan math is the same as Human math,” he says, mostly to himself, as he scans the first lesson. Something occurs to him. “How did you learn Standard? You didn’t just read a book.”
Spock pauses in his work. “I learned from my mother.”
Spock’s voice changes when he mentions his mother. Jim’s noticed that already. “Will you teach me Vulcan?” he asks, caught unawares by his own question.
Spock seems just as surprised. “If you wish to learn, I will teach you.” He studies Jim across the table, his wide eyes curious. “You are an interesting Human,” he says, returning to his work.
That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about Jim in a long time. He smiles, cracking his lip again, and tries to figure out differential equations.
A few weeks later, he’s gotten no better at meditating, but he has settled into a routine: he has silent broth and crackers in the morning with Spock, instruction with Staal, who wanders in and out of the room, monitoring Jim’s progress, then he has a snack and spends the afternoon either alone or studying with Spock in the library. He finds he’s often tired. The efforts of meditation exhaust him, even though he feels like he’s not getting anywhere. Vulcan lessons are easier. He’s taken to studying with Spock after dinner, too. They’re spending a lot of time together, but they don’t talk about much besides what they’re studying.
Jim tries to make conversation over their plomeek soup and berlak with qu’chal, some weird grain. “What do you do all morning? I mean your kolinahr classes, what are they like? You’re farther along than I am, right?”
Spock finishes chewing before he replies. “I have had a brief period of instruction on methods of controlling what in Humans are autonomous functions, such as heartbeat and blood flow, but as it is a solitary practice, I am in seclusion all morning. One of the adepts monitors my progress.”
The solitude doesn’t surprise Jim. It seems to be the way things are here. Not at all like the hospital on Tarsus, where they wanted him to spill his guts to everyone. He prefers it this way.
“What does heartbeat have to do with kolinahr? I thought you were learning to get rid of your emotions.”
“Once I have control over my body, I will begin the deeper process of controlling my mind.”
“How long before you’re done?”
“It may take several years. In my case, perhaps longer.” Spock grows quiet.
Jim has noticed that Spock sometimes doesn’t like to talk when they’re here among the other Vulcans.
“I guess that means I’ll be here for a long time, too,” Jim says, stubbornly continuing the conversation. “It’s not going that well so far.”
Spock raises one eyebrow, which Jim finds...cute. “Indeed. You are learning what most Vulcan children learn by the time of their kahs-wan.”
“What’s a kahs-wan?”
“It is a test of survival in the desert, a way to prove one’s maturity. Do you not have something similar?”
Jim thinks about it. “Uh, drinking? No. I guess we don’t have anything like that. Well, maybe getting a driver’s permit. Yeah, that would be the closest.”
“A permit is required in order to drive?” Spock doesn’t seem to mind discussing Jim. Only himself.
“To drive legally.”
“That is illogical. One either knows how to drive or one does not.”
“Yeah, that’s my view of the situation, but the cops don’t exactly agree.” They’re getting dangerously close to the reason Jim ended up on Tarsus, and he does his own shut-down mode, paying really close attention to his food.
Spock watches Jim eat. Jim clears his throat, conscious of the scrutiny, and shoves the food around on his plate. He wonders if there’s anything he can sneak into the sleeve of his robe before going back to his room. Maybe a piece of fruit. It’s so hot that several things he’s hoarded have spoiled. Nothing comes in packages the way it did at the hospital. It’s definitely getting in the way of his survival plan.
“Is there any place on this planet that’s not totally baking hot?” he asks to get Spock to stop staring at him. It works.
“According to Human definitions, perhaps not.” Spock bows his head, retreating.
Jim wonders what he said. He hasn’t quite gotten the hang of talking to Spock. “So, uh, this kahs-wan thing, I take it, it happens when you’re little?”
“Perhaps the equivalent of ten Human years.”
They chew in silence.
“That means I’m at a ten-year-old level in meditation, then?”
The eyebrow goes up again. “Perhaps six.”
Jim thinks maybe Spock is amused, but he’s not sure. He can’t help smiling at the thought of trying to learn meditation with a bunch of first-graders. It’s the first time he can recall smiling in months — since before the shit hit the fan on Tarsus. And all of a sudden, he has to hold back his laughter. He’s not sure why he finds it so funny. The laughter erupts, unstoppable. The others are staring at him in what must be shock. It’s the stillness more than anything that gives them away. And then he notices Spock is staring, too, but with a completely different expression, one Jim isn’t sure how to read.
It’s the heat, Jim thinks, that makes him so restless at night. He lies there on the hard mattress, turning this way and that. He wonders how Barrett and the others are doing. Maybe they’re having birthday parties or going to school. Their parents are taking care of them. Fixing them food. Tucking them into bed and turning out the light. Or maybe they want to sleep with the light on...
Jim tries to calculate how long it’s been since he got to Vulcan, but he’s lost track. It must be a couple of months, as near as he can guess. In that time, he’s hardly talked to anyone. This is probably the fewest conversations he’s ever had in his life, at least since he learned to talk. Talking never got him very far, anyway. Who needs it? He’s been feeling quiet.
His body feels clenched all the time, like he couldn’t really talk for long, anyway. Sometimes his guts actually hurt. Breathing always gives him trouble. Staal has mentioned this, has told Jim that until he learns to breathe, he will never clear his mind. The long periods of sitting in silence on the grass mat do nothing, but Staal shows no impatience. He only delivers his habitual criticisms before gliding out of the room to attend to other pupils, ones more worthy of his time.
When Jim does sleep, he has nightmares. Wakes to find himself all turned around on the bed, his heart racing, his throat dry from breathing hard. Sometimes he remembers the dream, sometimes he doesn’t. The room is always so dark that he has a hard time sorting out where he is. One night, he wakes shouting, convinced he’s been buried alive. His hands strike at something above him, and he thinks the waking nightmare has somehow begun again. Maybe Vulcan was a dream. He doesn’t know. He cries out again, hitting whatever’s above him.
Then there’s a light. A lamp. Feet approaching. Jim realizes he’s lying on the floor beneath the mattress. He tries to get his breath back. Scoots toward the edge of the cavern and peers up to see Spock.
Spock kneels to look under the bed. He begins to speak, then stops, as if he can’t figure out what to say. “Do you require assistance?”
Jim reaches a hand out to touch Spock’s robe. The fabric feels rough and heavy in his hand. It must be real. “Spock,” Jim says, his voice hoarse.
Spock is silent. He leans down onto his elbows, his face nearing Jim’s. He studies the space under the bed. “Why do you have kreila under your bed?”
Jim turns his head. The space under the bed suddenly seems huge. He feels dizzy even though he’s lying down. The crackers lie in neat stacks on the floor. He had nothing to wrap them in. The monks took his pack with all his belongings.
“In case,” Jim says. And that’s all he can say. There’s no way to explain it, really.
Spock just looks at him. “Do you always sleep under the bed?”
Jim rolls his skull against the hard floor, shaking his head. “Woke up this way. I was having a nightmare.”
“My mother reports experiencing nightmares. Vulcans, however, do not dream.”
Spock’s eyes look dark in the dim light, his face unusually relaxed. He doesn’t answer, just withdraws, straightening up. Jim scoots the rest of the way out from under the bed. He sits and leans against the mattress.
“Do you often have them?” Spock gazes at him, like he’s a curiosity.
“They are unpleasant for you.”
Jim smiles crookedly. “You could say that.”
“May I assist in some way?”
“There’s nothing you can do. But thanks.”
Spock remains still, continuing to study Jim.
“Really, I’m okay.” As if to prove it, Jim clambers to his feet and sits on the bed.
“I believe meditation will ameliorate your situation.” With that, Spock turns to leave the room.
Jim watches him go. Even in the middle of the night, Spock’s hair is neatly in place, his robe tidy. Vulcans are funny. Do they ever laugh? Probably not. They probably don’t even smile. Not ever.
Staal comes into the meditation room one day a few weeks later, then steps right out without saying a word. That's probably a good sign. The session does seem to pass quickly, with less struggle than usual. It’s not that Jim’s mind is clear, exactly, but it’s wandering in a less upsetting way. He’s been thinking about his childhood for some reason. He can recall building a snow fort with Sam. He can recall sitting under a giant fir tree whose branches were weighted with snow, muffling all sound. He can recall sliding down hills on cafeteria trays. The heat is making him fantasize about winter. About skiing and sledding and cocoa and Christmas. He imagines wearing hats and mittens and being glad of it. He thinks vaguely of returning home, but it isn’t an immediate desire. He feels like that place is farther away than it really is. It’s in the past, and he can never have it again. His mom home for once, trying to cook a turkey the old-fashioned way and burning it. Smoke filling the kitchen and Sam laughing. It’s one of the few good memories he has of both of them. What would life have been like with his dad there? What would have happened if his dad had fled the Kelvin with everyone else instead of giving his life? Would everyone have died? Would Jim even be alive to wonder?
He’s not sure why that takes him back to Tarsus. Things just hit him sometimes, and his chest seizes up. He remembers something Kodos said on the planet-wide audio broadcast, that decisions had to be made about who would live and who would die, and suddenly, he can’t bear his own existence, the fact that he’s alive and so many others aren’t. And something is about to drop right out of him. There’s no one to talk to, no one to save him. He doesn’t know where his mother is, or even Sam. They could be anywhere. They could be dead for all he knows. He suddenly wants to see them more than anything. Maybe then he’d feel real. He’d feel safe, like when he was little, making a face at burnt turkey. His knees buckle when he tries to stand, stiff from being folded under him for hours. The tops of his feet are pebbled with the pattern from the mat.
The door opens and Staal is there. He signals Jim back down to the mat. Tears are falling, hot and unbidden, from Jim’s eyes.
“It was momentary,” Staal says. “You must sit differently to rearrange your mind. A more open position will be of assistance.” He sits in front of Jim, demonstrating. His knees are out, like sitting cross-legged, but with his feet tucked into the crooks below his hip bones.
Jim can barely see through the blur of his tears, but he refuses to wipe them away, to acknowledge them. Even half-blind, he gets the idea. Brings his feet up. It’s awkward. His body protests. He has to yank his foot into place. It hurts, but he doesn’t care. Staal watches him for a moment.
“That is satisfactory. Continue.” And then he’s gone.
Jim lets the ache in his feet take over his consciousness. He’s just floating in space, and there’s nothing. There’s no one.
Jim feels weird and out of place when he comes out of meditation, a.k.a. his mind wandering. Staal doesn’t return. Jim decides that’s all the excuse he needs to quit for the day. When he walks outside, the sun is slanted so it blasts him in the face. He has a sudden vision of himself as one of those lizards on a rock in Arizona or somewhere. He slips on his sandals and wanders down the covered corridor, thinking about drinking ten cups of water.
From the room a few doors down, he hears faint voices. He never hears anything from the rooms. It’s as if the Vulcans not only don’t talk to him but don’t talk at all. Curious, he walks as quietly as he can and stops outside the door to listen.
His vocabulary lessons with Spock have been highly structured and logical, and he’s learning fast, but there are still huge gaps in his knowledge. At first, he can’t make out what the voices are saying — he’s not used to the rhythms of Vulcan speech — but as he listens, words start to pop out at him: kohlan, enok-ka-fi, two kinds of meditation. Then Spock’s voice, which he’s more used to, and he’s able to understand.
“To what disadvantage are you referring?”
“Your Human mother,” one of the other voices responds. “It is unlikely that you will succeed in completing kolinahr.”
A second of silence, then Spock’s voice, tight and controlled: “I will accept your final judgment, but if you will allow me, I will continue my attempts.”
“Continuing a task you will inevitably fail to complete is illogical.”
Outside the door, Jim does all he can not to bust in there. It’s his inability to talk that stops him. He may be able to understand when someone’s speaking Vulcan, but the minute he tries to make Vulcan words come out of his mouth, it sounds like he’s choking. It’s not like he’s learned how to say ‘Fuck off’ in Vulcan, anyway.
“Inevitable failure does not always imply a useless endeavor,” Spock says, his voice so taut, it sounds like it’s going to break any second.
Good comeback, Jim thinks. Maybe Spock doesn’t need anyone busting in, but Jim would like to land one good punch on whoever the smug bastard is in there. He’s heard Vulcans are twice as strong as Humans, but shitty odds have never stopped him before.
“As you wish.”
Silence. Then the door opens. Surprise flashes across Spock’s face before he can hide it, but within a split second, his face has returned to its regular neutral expression, revealing nothing. Spock doesn’t say a word. He shuts the door, slips on his sandals, and begins walking toward his room. Jim walks beside him, not sure what to say. Sorry the adepts are such dicks? Don’t listen to them?
When they arrive at the room, Spock removes his sandals to go inside.
“Hey,” Jim says, taking his sandals off, too. “Are you okay?”
Spock pauses on the threshold of the room. “‘Okay’ has variable definitions. I am unable to reply to your query.”
Jim follows Spock into his room. He’s actually never been inside before. Spock always comes to get him for meals. Spock is the one who checks on him in the middle of the night. Is that a big deal for Vulcans? Is Spock just being polite? On Earth, that kind of thing would mean someone really liked you, but Jim has no clue what it means here.
The room is as almost as sparsely furnished as Jim’s. You’d think Spock came from some other planet on the run, too. There’s a stone meditation statue in the center of the room, but that is the only noticeable possession.
“Don’t quit,” Jim says. “No matter what they tell you. They’re assholes. You’re smart enough to do whatever you want.”
“Intelligence has nothing to do with my success or failure in achieving kolinahr.”
“Whatever. You know what I mean.” He feels like kind of an idiot standing there trying to make a Vulcan feel better. He doesn’t know why it bothered him so much to hear the monks being dicks.
“I believe I do understand,” Spock says.
They stand there awkwardly for a few seconds. Jim doesn’t know why he does it — it’s not something he’d do on Earth, but maybe months on the run with little kids has done something to him — he takes a step nearer and pulls Spock into a hug. Spock isn’t crying. He isn’t visibly hurt, but no one could listen to a Vulcan smack them down and not feel like crap afterwards.
At first, Spock stands there stiffly, resisting, but just as Jim is about to let go, make some lame excuse, and go to his own room, Spock relaxes and leans into him. Jim squeezes hard, his head on Spock’s shoulder. Spock fits his arms, and it feels good. No one’s hugged Jim in a long time. When Spock’s arms fold around him, something catches in his throat, and he has to close his eyes hard.
“Do all Humans do this? I believed it was only my mother.”
Jim can’t help the little laugh that escapes him. Spock can be really funny without meaning to be. “Most of them do, yeah.”
“I do not find it unpleasant.”
They stand there for way longer than would be normal on Earth, but it doesn’t feel weird at all. They’re about the same size, and it’s like two puzzle pieces or something. Jim suddenly misses his mom with a sharp pain in his chest. He misses her even though she’s been gone most of his life. Maybe he misses the idea of her more than the actual her. He doesn’t really know. Tears want to come, but he won’t let them. Crying is stupid. It won’t change anything.
“You are highly emotional,” Spock says. “Vulcans are touch telepaths. I am able to sense your feelings when I am in close proximity to you.”
“Sorry.” Jim loosens his grip.
When they step away from each other, Spock studies Jim curiously. “What is the source of your grief?”
Jim shakes his head, his vision blurry. “Nothing,” he says. “It’s nothing.”
One restless night, a few months into his stay at the monastery, Jim is going to explode out of his skin if he doesn’t move. His bones feel like they’re on fire. In the dark, he paces his room, naked, enjoying the movement of air on his hot skin, but even that’s not enough. The outside calls to him. He slips on the heavy robe, regretting that he has to wear it in the heat, but he can just imagine being caught naked by some Vulcans. Yeah, that would go well.
The sandals outside greet his feet. Now that he doesn’t have a million blisters, they’re really comfortable. The monastery is quiet and dark. There’s no moon, a fact Jim forgot about. He stands there a moment, thinking, before he recalls that Spock gave him a little flashlight because ‘Human vision is inferior to Vulcan’. He’s never needed it to go to the bathroom — he always feels his way, liking how the wall slides under his fingers. He goes back in to get the light and some crackers, stale but still edible.
At first, he intends to circle the monastery, which is surrounded by winding paths, weaving between shade trees that the monks water daily. They have not asked Jim to do any work, a fact he’s grateful for, since he’s often crabby and tired after meditation sessions. A few laps around the monastery don’t soothe the ache inside him. The mountain stands off in the distance, a dark shape against more darkness. He wants to climb it, remembers where the path is, and heads in that direction.
There’s something about the place at night. It seems even more empty and isolated than usual. It’s even quieter. The sky yawns, enormous and dark and endless above him. He’s the only one in the universe. The stars sway as he spins in circles, looking up, almost losing his balance.
A hand steadies him.
Jim comes to his senses quickly. Finds Spock’s face in the shadows. “Hey. How long have you been here?”
Spock releases his grip on Jim’s robed arm. “It is not prudent to wander out alone. Le-matyas are nocturnal.”
The robe is suddenly too hot. It seems to suffocate him. “What’s a le-matya?” he asks, pushing the collar of the robe away from his neck as much as he can. “Were you following me?”
“I was aware of your movements around the monastery, but I did not see cause to interfere. I detected you retreating from the buildings, and I thought it wise to inquire as to your intended destination.”
“You were checking up on me.” Jim tries not to shine the light right in Spock’s face, but he has this burning desire to see his exact expression. It’s hard enough to read him in daylight, close up.
Spock angles his head away, looking toward the ground as he does so. “Le-matyas are predators. I believe they are similar to an extinct Earth species called a panther. They weigh between 500 and 700 kilograms.”
“You didn’t want me to be panther dinner, huh?”
“Essentially. As your hearing is inferior, you would not have heard a le-matya approach.”
“And you would’ve?”
“Certainly.” Spock looks at Jim in the barely-lit darkness. “In addition, Vulcans possess superior physical strength to Humans.”
“Blah, blah, blah.” Jim waves the flashlight around, gesturing toward the path up the mountain. “Come with me, then. I was going crazy in there. I need to walk.”
Spock hesitates. Looks toward the mountain, then back at the monastery.
Jim shrugs. “I’m going. With or without you.”
Without a sound, or any other discussion, they both begin walking up the path.
“I was out here for three nights by myself and no le-matyas attacked me.”
“A statistical anomaly.”
“I didn’t think I was lucky, but I guess I was!” Jim feels a little lighter, his steps bouncing on the dry dirt and the rocks.
“Luck is a peculiar idea, completely unverifiable through scientific experimentation.”
Jim wonders if Spock is purposely walking at the same pace as he is. It’s kind of nice having someone by his side. “That’s why it’s called luck,” he says, angling the light toward Spock.
Spock glances over at him in the darkness, but Jim can’t quite read the minute expression on his face.
“Do you think everyone else heard me wandering around, too? I didn’t mean to wake people up.” There’s a sweet smell in the air. Some plant blooming even in this desert. “What’s that smell?” Jim adds.
“Liria,” Spock answers. “It blooms at night.”
They walk in silence for a long time, ascending the mountain. Jim wonders how far up he was — if he was incredibly lucky that the monk found him, or if he was actually closer than he thought to the monastery. If he had died there, would he have known? Would he have gone to some afterworld? He doesn’t really believe in God. He wasn’t raised that way, and after Tarsus, there’s just no chance in hell. There might be some other big, powerful being out there, but not the God people talk about. Merciful, my ass, he thinks.
Maybe there just would’ve been nothingness. Stillness. The sun blazing down on his bones all day, and then these nights, cooler, with the smell of flowers. He guesses that’s not a bad fate. It could be worse. He kind of likes it here, not the planet, really, but here, on this mountain trail at night in the open air, with the sky above him. He looks up again, coming to a halt. Beside him, Spock stops, too. They both gaze at the stars. Jim tries to pick out constellations, but they’re different from Earth, different from Tarsus. Still, the sight soothes him. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, filling his lungs.
“Your breathing has improved as we have been walking,” Spock observes.
“I guess so,” Jim agrees. He can’t even remember the last time he could breathe deeply, pain or no pain. His ribs have completely healed now, but he always feels like something is pressing down on him.
“I detect, also, that your mind is calmer when you are in motion. In this, you are different from Vulcans, who need stillness in order to achieve the most effective meditation.”
Spock is pretty entertaining. He likes to make big announcements, like about the condition of Jim’s mind. “You can detect my mind, huh?” He’s joking, but Spock nods in all seriousness.
“Even without touch, Vulcans are able to sense the mental energies of those around us. You, in particular, are quite open and easy to gauge. You have no control over your emotions.”
“That’s what I came here for. To learn that stuff.” He’s suddenly conscious of a rock in his sandal, and he bends to take the sandal off. He shakes the rock out.
Spock watches him intently, staring at his feet. “It is most curious. I have never heard of a Human desiring to be so much like a Vulcan.”
“Yeah, well.” Jim doesn’t know what to say. You can’t just explain Tarsus in a few seconds. “Not every Human is like me,” he offers instead. “What about your mom? What’s she like?”
Without discussing it, they have turned around. They begin ambling down the path, heading back toward the monastery.
“She has undertaken some of the Vulcan disciplines in order to cohabit more easily with my father.”
“But what’s she like?” Jim insists. He looks at Spock, whose pale skin contrasts with his dark hair.
“She is...” Spock thinks. “Quite tactile and demonstrative.” He pauses again. “She often kissed me and hugged me, even in front of others.” There’s a strained sound to Spock’s voice.
Jim pictures that. He hasn’t met a ton of Vulcans. The ones here won’t even talk to him, which says a lot. Not big huggers, he’s going to guess.
“Do you miss her?” Jim isn’t looking at Spock — he’s too busy stepping around rocks on the uneven path — but he hears something. A breath? A weird sort of quiet?
Spock doesn’t answer right away. Finally, he says, “Missing her would be illogical, as she is not here.”
“You like to be logical.”
“That is the Vulcan way.”
Jim smiles in the darkness. Man, he came to a weird planet. But it’s better than being at that shitty hospital with a bunch of people up in his face. Better than being back on Earth with his mother either fussing over him or running off to some other planet so she can avoid looking at him. Better than being an animal in a cage at the zoo with everyone staring at him in the cafeteria, whispering about how fucked up he is. Better than having Frank telling him to be a man and do something productive all the time, like mow the lawn or get a job after school. He really wants to be left alone. That’s all.
Without being asked, Spock joins Jim again the following night. And the night after that. Each time, they trek a couple of miles up the mountain and then return. There are no lights on the plains of Vulcan’s Forge or on Mount Seleya. The stars are incredibly crisp and clear, not diluted at all. When he’s out walking like this at night, it’s always easier to breathe.
“Due to your improved condition on our walks, I suggest you attempt to meditate,” Spock says one night as they head out again.
“Just plop down on the trail and go at it?” Jim can just see Spock sitting there waiting for him. Sitting there like a rock.
“It is called walking meditation. It is not routinely practiced — for Vulcans, it is only used when it is impossible to sit quietly. As I have observed before, your mind is calmer in motion. I believe you will progress more efficiently by modifying the practice.”
Jim glances over at Spock in the almost-darkness. He’s a couple of inches taller than Jim, and he always walks so gracefully, never stumbling the way Jim does as they climb the trail. “How would I do it?” he asks. “Would I have to come out here alone?” The thought makes him a little anxious, even though he set out to do these walks alone in the first place. Spock doesn’t invade Jim’s personal space, doesn’t bug him about stupid shit. Jim kind of likes having him around.
“You would employ the techniques Staal has taught you. We would simply walk in silence, in order that you may concentrate.”
That sounds simple enough. His slow progress with meditation has frustrated him, and he’s willing to try anything to get better at it. “When I was out here before,” he says, “well, have you heard of a metronome?”
“A device for keeping time while playing music.”
“Yeah. Well, my footsteps were like that. It’s like they smoothed things out in my mind. Do you know what I mean?”
Spock pauses for the briefest moment, regarding Jim with open curiosity. “Fascinating,” he says.
Jim returns the stare. “You say that a lot. I’m not that fascinating. Not any more than you are, anyway.” He’s joking, but Spock takes him seriously, nodding as if considering a difficult question. Jim laughs, which only makes Spock look at him more intently. “All right, I’ll try it,” Jim agrees. “Just don’t let me fall off the side of the mountain or anything.”
“I will maintain close watch,” Spock replies.
Spock is funny. He takes everything so literally. He doesn’t joke around, or even really get jokes when Jim makes them. But he does always say what he’s thinking, which Jim appreciates. Jim read somewhere that Vulcans can’t or don’t lie. If Spock is anything like a typical Vulcan, Jim can believe the claim. There’s something really sincere about him, even if he’s always holding back in a certain way, not expressing his emotions.
If Spock came to Earth and went to high school, everyone would make fun of him, Jim realizes. He looks over at the figure beside him. Spock walks quietly, his feet barely making noise, his back straight, his hands clasped in front of him within the sleeves of his robe.
“You are not concentrating,” Spock says.
“Sorry. I was just thinking about something.” Jim shifts his eyes to the trail. Tries to focus. He pays attention to his feet. The rhythm of his footsteps. He and Spock are walking in synchrony. Probably Spock making his pace match Jim’s. It’s soothing. He concentrates just on the whisper of their feet against dirt. Step, step, step. He loses track of his body. Isn’t conscious of making any effort to ascend the mountain. Isn’t conscious of breathing or looking for obstructions on the path. He just is. And outside of him, the night is. Space is. Rocks are. He is. He is.
When he finally comes to, they have ascended farther than they ever have before. Jim doesn’t know how he knows this, since he can’t really see down onto the plain and he doesn’t recognize any landmarks. But he has a sense of distance. They might be almost as far as he was when he fell over, near dead. He recognizes some of the succulent plants he ate in an attempt to get water. He stops walking, suddenly tired.
Beside him, Spock stops also.
“You have been successful,” Spock says.
“I guess so.” Jim collapses onto a boulder at the side of the trail.
Spock remains standing. “It is not advisable to rest here. We are near a le-matya trail.”
“Yeah, yeah. I should’ve brought some water.”
“I will bring water on subsequent outings.”
Jim points to the plant he ate. “What’s that plant?”
“I ate some of it when I was on my way to the monastery. I ran out of water.”
“It must be cooked to be edible.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“You vomited a great deal when you arrived.”
“I don’t remember.” Reluctantly, Jim gets to his feet. “You were there?”
“The monks informed me of your arrival. It is supposed that I know more about Humans than the others here.”
That’s probably true. Jim has the impression that Vulcans don’t go out of their way to associate with Humans.
“I have rarely seen Humans besides my mother, however, and one Human is not a sample size which lends itself to accuracy.”
“Are there other half-Human-half-Vulcans?”
“I am the only one. My conception and birth required extensive genetic engineering.”
Jim thinks about that. That must have been weird. To be half Human and never to see anyone like you. He wonders what Spock’s life was like back where he came from. Wonders about school and other things. But his mind is too tired to ask. They walk the entire way down the mountain without speaking.
The next morning, Staal leads Jim out to the courtyard. The space is mostly shaded by the surrounding walls of the monastery. Jim finds it peaceful. There’s an order to everything — lines of trees, a fountain, low-growing plants between.
“I have changed your program of study based upon new data.” Staal points to a bare area of dirt, a trowel, and a bowl of dark, round seeds. “Dampen the soil, then loosen it with the trowel. Plant the seeds at a depth of one centimeter, each ten centimeters apart. You will stop when the building ceases to offer you shade.”
“You want me to plant seeds? I thought I was going to learn to meditate.”
“It is called work meditation. Every disciple practices it. In your case, sitting meditation is less suitable. You will practice only walking meditation and work meditation for a time.” Staal has a way of looking down his nose at Jim. Jim hates it.
Jim has a feeling Spock had something to do with this change in his daily routine. “Okay. What am I supposed to do?”
“I have already instructed you.”
“You told me to plant seeds. You didn’t tell me how to meditate while I do it.”
“If that is not clear, I have not done an adequate job of instructing you. Or perhaps you have not paid adequate attention.” And with that pronouncement, Staal departs without a sound, his sandalled feet noiseless on the stone of the corridor.
Jim sighs. Fine. He gets it. How anyone stands Vulcans, he has no idea. He kneels on the dirt, picks up the trowel, and drives it down as deep as he can.
He watches the uplift of the soil, the way it cracks into chunks. It reminds him of Tarsus. Maybe Staal brought Jim out here on purpose out of some twisted logic that says Jim should confront all the shit that happened. Like he should be reminded of the giant pit in the ground where Kodos ordered thousands of bodies to be buried. He stabs at the earth with the trowel, not really being productive. He can hardly see. He can hardly breathe.
A pair of sandalled feet appears at the edge of his vision. He looks up to see Spock.
“What?” he says, driving the trowel into the soil again.
“I was on my way to meditation when I heard your sounds of distress.”
“I’m not making sounds of distress,” Jim insists. “You can go back to doing whatever.”
Spock kneels beside him. “I will assist you.” He picks up the bowl of seeds. “You are planting bar-got.”
“Or not planting it. What’s bar-got?”
“A medicinal plant often used as an herb in cooking, or brewed as a tea. It grows only on Vulcan, and it requires our intervention in order to grow in significant quantities.” Spock rises and fills an earthen jug with water from the fountain.
Jim watches as Spock calmly and deliberately begins watering the soil.
Fine. Jim starts breaking up the chunks of soil with the blade of the trowel. As he works, he notices that what seemed to be bare earth actually has the tiniest weeds growing on it. Amazing that anything can grow without someone watering it around here.
“What are these things?” Jim points to the weeds.
Spock raises an eyebrow. “Vedik.”
Jim remembers reading the word while studying a Vulcan text on his tablet. “Weeds? You don’t have some specific name to give me?”
“I do not.”
Jim smiles. Spock really doesn’t know everything. They begin working together, establishing a rhythm of watering, breaking up the soil, pressing the seeds into rows. The courtyard is quiet except for a very faint hum like cicadas or crickets. Jim wonders what the hell he’d be doing if he were on Earth right now. Probably not gardening. Yeah, that would be the day. Their yard in Riverside was the kind where the City called to tell Frank to mow or they’d fine him.
He’d probably be in Spanish class or math class or something boring as shit. The work was so easy, it wasn’t worth doing. He’d have to keep himself from insanity by reading comics on his PADD. He’d be slamming his locker shut on a mess of papers. He’d be listening to the bell ring in the crowded hallways. He wonders what month it is. He doesn’t know. Maybe he wouldn’t even be in school.
The smell of the wet soil reminds him of Iowa rain coming down on the dirt. The way the corn shot right up in the late spring, the green stalks dotting the fields of dark soil. Foot high by the fourth of July. Cicadas. The hum. The humidity. The heat. How it felt to hide in the rows, the green leaves waving above him against the blue sky. He lies there like no one will ever find him. He lies there and falls asleep. Everything is quiet. Leaves.
He’s suddenly back on Vulcan. The rows of the plot are all planted. Jim doesn’t even remember doing the last few rows, but the soil is smoothed over and a bunch of seeds are gone from the bowl. It looks healthy, like green shoots will come up any minute.
Spock is sitting back on his heels, surveying the plot. “The seeds will germinate in fourteen days.” He gets up.
The sun is beginning to slant onto them. Jim gets up, too, feeling a little dizzy from being outside in the heat and not drinking any water. Flecks of gold dot his vision. He stands still for a few seconds until his vision clears.
“You do not like to be alone,” Spock observes.
Jim has spent a lot of time thinking the opposite is true. He wants to be alone. It’s just that Spock isn’t on the long list of people he doesn’t want to see.
It seems like it’s been getting hotter, but it’s hard to tell when it’s a million degrees already. One day, though, there are unfamiliar scents in the air, and Jim knows the Vulcan summer has come. It’s still in the morning when he goes in to meditate, but when he leaves the room a few hours later, there’s a hot wind swirling dust around. Jim has to squint until his eyes are almost shut, but debris still gets into them. By the time he gets back to his room, his hair is dusted with sand, as are his eyes, nose, and mouth. At least the shutters are already closed against the heat. It sounds like when tornadoes hit Iowa, hurling everything they could carry.
Jim sits on his bed, listening. With the light off, he can easily imagine he’s back home. Only, in Iowa, there would be rain. He’s been having lots of thoughts about water and trees and cool weather. It’s getting to be an obsession. He can tell when the winds get even stronger — the dust gets louder, and there’s a high keening and whistling, then crackles of loud static. The air feels electric, and it makes Jim want to run — to do something, something other than sit there.
He almost doesn’t hear the knock on the door with all the other noise, but a lull in the wind brings quiet, and the rapping startles him. “Yeah?” he says, getting up in the darkness, but the door opens before he can get there. He switches on the lamp.
Spock enters, his face covered by the hood of his robe. Once inside, he closes the door and reveals his face. His cheeks are dusted with yellowish dirt. “You were not in the library.”
“I didn’t want to walk that far in this. What’s going on out there?” Jim asks as Spock joins him, sitting cross-legged on the bed.
“A summer grazhiv-sahriv. A sandstorm, you might call it.”
“Is it always like this? Or is this worse than normal?”
Spock’s feet are covered in dust. It’s rare to see him looking anything but neat and tidy. His hair has grown out of its severe cut over the last few months, but it still lies flat, which is more than Jim can say for his mess of shaggy hair.
“They are often like this. There will be an average of six of them during the course of the summer.”
“How long will it last?” Jim leans to put his ear against the shutter, and the noise of the sand hitting the metal is magnified, sounding almost like it’s happening in his head.
Spock moves to lean against the window ledge beside Jim. “The wind and electrical discharge will last for another one to two hours. After that, it will rain.”
Rain. Jim has never felt so excited by that word in his life. Rain always meant a muddy playing field or soaking wet jeans and backpack, wet hall floors at school. He didn’t mind it. He even liked it. But here it means a change from the constant dry weather. He’s been waiting forever for it.
“How long have I been here?” Jim asks, suddenly aware that the seasons are changing, he’s been here so long.
Spock takes only a moment to answer. “One hundred ninety-nine Vulcan days, the equivalent of 210 Earth days.”
Jim calculates. “Seven months. That’s…a long time.” People must be looking for him. Unless his mom thought, Good riddance. Maybe no one’s looking at all. Maybe he’ll be here forever, and no one will ever hear from him again.
“Are you considering leaving?” Spock doesn’t look at Jim as he asks. He’s very still.
Sometimes it’s scary how well Spock can guess what Jim is thinking about. It must be a Vulcan thing. “No. I was —”
Jim has never liked talking to people about his family. He learned quickly how to change the subject, especially around adults, who always gave him The Look. The look that said, that poor kid whose dad died saving the universe and all that. Spock would never give him The Look. There’s something about him that makes Jim feel like it’s okay to say things.
“My mom,” Jim says. “I wonder if she’s looking for me.”
“You have not mentioned her previously.”
“She’s — not around much. She wasn’t, I mean.”
Spock doesn’t ask any other questions. They sit there in silence, leaning on the window ledge, listening to the dust and wind, which suddenly sound so lonely and empty. They don’t often sit this close together. Jim can see all the specks of sand in the crevices of Spock’s knuckles, his ears. The light-colored dust is even in Spock’s eyebrows and eyelashes. Spock catches him staring, and he looks away.
“You have dust in your eyebrows,” Jim says, trying to explain.
“It is also in yours.”
“Yeah. I got blasted when I came out of the meditation room.” He smiles at Spock for no reason, and Spock stares like Jim is something he’s never seen before. “What?”
“I do not know.” Spock does the unexpected: he reaches out tentatively.
Jim holds his breath as Spock’s finger meets his face, stroking his eyebrow, wiping dust away. He feels a tingling like Spock’s finger is as charged as the air. He has a sudden image of Spock as a little boy, running to his mom. He doesn’t even know what Spock’s mom looks like, but from the little Spock has offered, Jim knows she’s not very Vulcan. She hugged Spock. She held him.
“Why doesn’t your mom visit?”
Spock drops his hand to his lap. “We are not allowed visitors who might impede our progress.”
“Why would your mom impede your progress?”
“I —” Spock looks down at his hands. “I have an emotional attachment to her. Her presence would make my mind weak. I must forsake all attachments but those which serve a logical function.”
Jim supposes that makes sense. That’s why he came here, so he could get rid of all that stuff. It’s not like wanting his mom to come home ever helped him out in this life. Still, there’s something a little sad about Spock saying it like that, especially when it seems like he actually loves his mom, and she loves him back.
“Does she want to visit, do you think?”
Spock raises a dusty eyebrow. “That is irrelevant. She is forbidden from doing so.” He sits up straighter. “Perhaps we should utilize this time to continue our Vulcan lessons, though it seems you have already acquired a facility with the language.”
Jim shrugs. “Never hurts to know more.” He means Vulcan, but it’s Spock he really wants to know more about. What his life was like before this. He hates when people are nosy, and he decides not to push it. If Spock wants to talk about it, he will.
“Hey, you don’t know any other languages, do you?”
“I speak Romulan,” Spock says. “Vulcans and Romulans share a common ancestry. The tongues possess similar grammatical structure and word origins.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It is not something Vulcans acknowledge often. Romulans took a different path, eschewing logic in favor of unbridled emotionalism. Their warlike ways are one of the results of that split.”
Jim reviews what he knows of Romulans. “Humans are sort of in-between. Half logical, half emotional.”
“The Romulan word for logic is sometimes used to refer to excrement.”
Jim laughs out loud. He’s going to like learning Romulan. Those guys have a sense of humor.
For the next hour, Spock teaches him some basic vocabulary, throwing in some facts about Romulus: the length of the days, the customs of the planet. Time flies, as it always does with Spock.
Just as they’re finishing up Romulan holidays, the noise outside changes. Jim gets up on his knees and puts his ear against the shutters.
“The rain is beginning,” Spock says beside him.
Jim opens the clasp on the shutters and peers out. The sky is purple and heavy with dark violet clouds. The wind is still blowing, but it’s gentler now, and clean. Almost cool. Spock shivers.
“Are you cold?”
“I am unused to this temperature. It will not last long.”
It feels amazing. Jim leans out. “Want to go outside?”
Spock nods, and that’s all Jim needs. He’s on his feet, striding to the door, flinging it open. His heart races. Rain, rain, rain! It’s suddenly his favorite word. Rain! His sandals slip easily onto his feet. He can feel all the grit collected in them, and he has to lift his feet to shake it out. The monastery is quiet and empty. They’re the only ones around. They exit the archways together as the first drops are starting to fall.
“Holy shit! I missed rain.” Jim leaps and runs for the path up the mountain, laughing as it begins to rain harder.
On the trail, the drops make divots in the dry soil. Jim’s feet slip and slide in the sandals, and he kicks them off. He feels like taking his robe off, too. Bare heels on the rock. It feels so good. When he stumbles, foot skidding on a smooth stone, Spock grabs his hand to keep him from falling.
Jim stops. Looks up at the sky, letting the rain fall on his face. He hasn’t felt joy like this in longer than he can remember. So long. He almost forgot what it felt like.
That night, Spock leads Jim on a different trail from usual, a trail winding into one of the box canyons. The air is cool after the rain. If 200 days have passed, it’s November back on Earth. Winter is just getting underway in Iowa. Bare branches of trees against a snowy sky. The air sharp and cold, your breath coming out in puffs... Jim feels a strange heaviness in his stomach, and suddenly he has trouble breathing. He tries to control it, the way Staal has taught him.
Here in the canyon, there’s a rich smell in the air, different from the liria he smelled before. Earthy. There are some trees. Kind of like pine trees but without real leaves. Instead, they have spear-like things, wider than pine needles.
“Before Surak, Vulcans were a warrior race,” Spock explains, shining a light onto a rock face stained with ancient petroglyphs.
Jim stares up at the stars, imagining he’s breathing their light in. When he brings his eyes back down to the trail, Spock is looking at him, but he quickly looks away. Jim touches a finger to the figure of the warrior wielding a sword and shield. “Who’s Surak?”
“He was the philosopher who introduced the idea of logic as a ruling principle.”
“Before that, you were ass-kicking?”
“I fail to discern your meaning.”
“Lots of battles,” Jim smiles, feeling like maybe Spock is just pretending not to know what ass-kicking means.
“Indeed. It was a vastly different culture.” Spock directs the flashlight onto the trail. There’s no moonlight, but the stars are clear, slicing the darkness of the sky away, throwing the faintest light onto his face.
“Do you like living on Vulcan? You said you haven’t been anywhere else.”
“Whether I like it is irrelevant. I am here.”
“Yeah, I know, genius, but do you ever think about skipping town? Going somewhere else?”
“Are you proposing such an excursion?”
The look on Spock’s face is priceless. Jim laughs, imagining Spock stowing away on some transport vessel with him. “No. I just wondered, that’s all. What you think about and all. You’re not friends with the other Vulcans. I thought it was because they’re older, now I don’t know.”
“I came here to escape my peers,” Spock says.
“Sorry,” Jim says.
“It is illogical to be sorry. I do not count you among them.”
“Oh.” Jim guesses that’s a compliment. He takes it.
They walk on, the circle of light bouncing in front of them, showing them where to step. They find their footing on protruding rocks and scree. On either side of them are bare rock faces or shattered slopes. Now the air smells like wet soil. Jim sniffs. There’s a strange sound, too, a sound he hasn’t heard in forever.
“Is that a stream?”
“There is a spring farther up the trail.”
“Because of the rain?” He walks faster, his sandals almost coming off, and Spock keeps pace with him.
“The spring flows throughout the year, even during times of drought.”
The ground levels briefly, forming a small plateau. And there in a rounded enclave is the spring: a stream of water rushing happily down the rock, forming a pool below. It’s small — maybe three meters across, a size Jim would have scorned on Earth — but he has never been so happy to see water in his life. They’re high up, so close to the stars. With the rock walls around them, it feels like they’re in their own pocket of the world.
“This is awesome. How come you never told me about it before?” Jim asks, staring up at where Spock is shining his light, where small ferns grow from the rock. It’s like a little garden around the source of the water. Things grow at the edges of the pool, too. Reeds or grasses or something.
“I did not know of your emotional reaction to water until today.” Spock sets the flashlight down on the ground. “I come here sometimes, by myself. Most Vulcans do not like water. While my physiology is dominantly Vulcan, I find this is one area in which I differ. I find it peaceful here.”
“It’s not, I don’t know, poisonous or something?” Jim is already kicking off his sandals.
“It is not.”
Jim sits on a rock at the water’s edge. Slips his feet in. The water is warm, but it feels nice. It’s like a weight lifts off him when he feels it. Like he’s some kind of amphibian that was about to die without it. “Hey, will you be offended if I take this off?” He indicates his robe.
“Why would such an action cause offense?” Spock watches him carefully from the other side of the pool.
“I feel like I offend people here. No one talks to me except you,” Jim says, peeling the heavy cloth off his body. It’s like being freed. “I hate those things. They’re so hot. I’m always sweating. And I stink.” He throws the robe aside, and slides his whole body into the water. The faint light makes the water sparkle, as if fireflies are dancing on it.
“Is that not how all Human males smell?”
“Not usually. Well, I don’t know about me. It’s — I didn’t used to smell.”
“If you desire it, I will find you a lighter robe.” Spock has come near, crouching on the rock at the edge of the water.
“Are you coming in?”
The pool is deep, or maybe it just feels that way in the near-darkness. Jim can’t reach the bottom. He takes a deep breath and goes under, sinking as far as he can. Still no bottom. It’s a little creepy, like it could go on forever. And there could be things down there. He springs back up to the surface, kicking his feet.
When he shakes his head and clears his eyes, Spock is in the water, his hand anchoring him to the rock. It’s strange to see his bare shoulders and his thin arm. He’s like a ghost.
“How deep is it?”
“Were you not able to touch the bottom?”
“I have never tried. I do not like to get my ears wet.”
“Oh.” Jim hasn’t thought much about the differences between them. Spock’s ears. His eyebrows. The way his mind works. The fact that he doesn’t seem hot in temperatures that make Jim sweat. He’s gripped by the impulse to reach out and touch. “Not even a little? Or do you just not want to put your head under?”
Jim dog paddles closer, reaching out to grab the rock. He’s so close, he and Spock are face to face, the ripples of their waves clashing.
“I find Humans quite fascinating,” Spock says unexpectedly, looking at Jim in the faint light.
“Well, you’re half-Human, and you’ve hardly met any. Who could blame you?” Jim sinks under the water again and bobs up a second later.
“May I —” Spock halts mid-question.
“It is perhaps too much to ask, but I am curious to see what it is like inside a Human’s mind.”
“You want to look in my mind?”
“It would be similar to the meld Staal performed when you first arrived, except I would only look at things you choose to show me.”
Jim doesn’t remember that day. “Will I be able to see your mind, too?”
“Yes. It is not a common practice among strangers. I admit that I have displayed impropriety by suggesting it.”
“We’re not strangers,” Jim says. He’s spent a long time hiding his thoughts from everyone. He’s been quiet. He’s hardly talked. Sometimes, he just wants, wants something, he doesn’t know what. He wants to tell someone everything. Wants someone to look inside his mind and accept all the shit that’s there. “How will I tell you what not to look at? If I’m thinking about it, won’t you see it?”
“That would require a deeper meld than the one I will perform. This one will require you to direct your thoughts to me.”
In all the months Jim has spent with Spock, Spock has never been pushy or nosy. And, as far as Jim can tell, he has never lied. It’s weird to think of trusting someone when for so long he couldn’t trust anyone except himself, but if he trusts anyone in this world, it’s Spock. There’s also the fact that curiosity pretty much overrides all other emotions in his brain. If he can see Spock’s mind, too, how’s he supposed to turn that down?
“Okay,” Jim says.
“You are more comfortable in the water. We will remain here. Are you ready?”
Jim nods, feeling like he’s about to become blood brothers with Spock or something. Like they should be in the woods, in a secret fort, pressing knives to their thumbs.
Spock moves closer, brings his right hand out of the water, and places his fingertips on Jim’s face. Jim can feel drops of water rolling down his cheek.
“My mind to your mind,” Spock says.
They’re so close that when Jim feels the brush of something soft near his groin, he knows it must be Spock’s dick. He’s distracted for a moment by the thought, simultaneously trying to clear it from his mind. He knows Vulcan bodies are similar to Human ones, but he hasn’t really given it that much thought before.
And then Spock is there. Inside him. It feels strange, like something’s pushing at his mind, something that isn’t usually there.
Try to relax, Spock says in a weird mind-voice that’s kind of like his regular voice but not.
Jim takes a breath, pretending he’s meditating, and he can feel the discomfort lessen. He thought it would be kind of like a movie — parts of Spock’s mind unfolding before his eyes — but it’s more like being in a dream where you see someone and you know it’s them, even if it doesn’t look like them at all. Or you’re in a house and you know it’s yours, even if it looks nothing like anywhere you’ve ever lived. There are colors, like stained glass. Cool colors, blues and silvers and purples. Shapes, like a sort of map, and he’s wandering through.
I have performed only a shallow meld, which gives me a sense of your emotions and the structure of your mind. I can discern only the most general thoughts unless you consciously direct them toward me.
Are these colors your mind? Jim thinks while imagining Spock.
That seems to do the trick because Spock answers. They are how you perceive my mind, yes.
Spock doesn’t answer, but Jim feels pleasantly tingly. Ropes of silver and pale blue light wind around him, and he sees bright red and gold threads unfurling from somewhere he can’t see. The longer they’re connected, the more he can pick out nuances of color in Spock’s mind. Colors that look like pain and loneliness. Jim doesn’t know how he knows, but he does. They stay that way, floating together for a long time, not saying anything, just meandering. It’s like being underwater, muted and strange.
I must withdraw now. It is not wise to remain connected for a long period of time.
Why? Jim asks, but he can feel the loosening of the connection. He can feel Spock slipping away. He tries to grab on, but he doesn’t know how, doesn’t understand the force that links them. Then he’s aware of the water and the heat of the planet’s surface. Spock’s hand is still on his face. “I wasn’t ready to leave,” he says.
Spock is breathing heavily, and he looks away. “I do not yet have adequate controls to remain in a meld for a longer time.” He lets his hand fall, and then he’s using the rock edge to hoist himself out of the water, his long limbs visible against the darkness. He’s beautiful. Weird and beautiful. Jim suddenly wants to touch him. To kiss him. He pushes the thought away. It would probably freak Spock out. He watches Spock put on his robe and his sandals before he gets out of the water and does the same. The weight of the robe makes him feel suffocated.
“You do feel,” Jim says. “You just don’t show it.”
For a few seconds, Spock won’t look at him. Finally, he says, “When I feel friendship for you, I am ashamed.”
Friendship. “It’s not very Vulcan,” Jim says, understanding something he didn’t before.
“You are correct.”
They begin making their way back down the trail. Jim holds the flashlight this time, illuminating the path.
“If it’s not very Vulcan, then... What about your parents? They’re friends. Well, they’re more than friends, but — are they? Friends?”
Spock glances at him. “I once asked my father why he married my mother. He told me it was logical. He is the Ambassador to Earth. Marrying my mother allowed him a better understanding of your culture.”
“Seriously? See, I think that’s bullshit. Not that I even know your parents, but logic? Really? Do you really think that’s it?”
“I do not know. My mother is not logical. That could not have been her reason for marrying my father.”
Jim laughs, imagining Spock’s illogical mom. He’s conscious of Spock beside him in a way he wasn’t before. It makes him feel tingly and hot. He wonders if it’s normal to feel that way after a meld, but he can’t ask. Maybe it’ll go away.
They walk the rest of the way in silence.
Jim is woken not by Spock’s gentle morning knock but by a businesslike rap. It’s like being back on Tarsus when any unfamiliar sound signalled danger — Jim is out of bed in an instant. He goes to the door and lays his ear against it, heart pounding.
“James Kirk,” Staal’s voice says from the other side of the door.
The tone of Staal’s voice makes Jim nervous. Something’s up. He opens the door.
“A Human woman, Winona Kirk, is here. She claims to be your mother. She refused to depart when I informed her of our policy regarding visitors.” Staal says. “Come with me.”
“My mom?” It can’t be real. His mom is on another planet. She’s in fucking space. She has to be. Mount Seleya seems like it doesn’t have any contact with the outside world. How could she have found him? His first impulse is to run, but he knows there’s no chance of survival, not without careful preparation. Instead, he puts on his sandals and follows Staal, passing Spock, who stands in the doorway to his room, hands clasped in the sleeves of his robe. It’s kind of comforting to see him. “Principal’s office,” Jim says, because if he’s not in real danger, his mouth always kicks into gear.
Spock just tilts his head and looks at Jim.
Jim hasn’t seen his mother in two years, at least. He’s lost track of time. Before Tarsus. He wonders if he’ll even recognize her.
He follows Staal to a room he’s never been in before — not exactly the principal’s office — and there’s his mom, in Starfleet uniform, sitting ramrod straight in the only chair in the room. Flyaway hair, eyes red, tissue in her hand. She leaps to her feet when she sees him.
“Oh my God. Jimmy!”
And then he’s enclosed in her angular arms. He’s taller than she is. Barely. It’s weird. It makes him feel more grown up than her. Her chin on his shoulder. Her embrace like a cage. Her smell is the same, and it takes him back to the farmhouse, reminds him of cluttered garages and abandoned rags covered in motor oil, grandfather clocks ticking, eggs burning in a pan, the carpet under his toes, the ding of the doorbell, things flooding back without him wanting them to. Trees rustling, the leaves in sunlight. The ancient, rusty mailbox at the end of the driveway. The sound of footsteps on gravel. The way her bed felt when he climbed in as a little boy, wishing she’d come home. Everything. Everything. Rushing.
“Don’t ever, ever do that to me again! Do you know how worried I was? You’ve been missing for eight months! And before that, on Tarsus, God knows. And I was so far away. I didn’t know where you were. I was pulling strings left and right to find you. I thought you’d been kidnapped. Or worse! You don’t know the things I thought of! The things that went through my mind. Jesus.” All of it said through tears.
He thinks he could give in. Lean into that wiry grip. But he pulls away out of habit, and he can feel her resisting, trying to keep him.
“I’m fine,” he says and keeps pulling.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Winona clings fiercely. “Do you understand? How worried I was?”
“You don’t understand.” She lets go. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim can see Staal looking on with something like shock. Jim is getting pretty good at reading Vulcans.
“Mom. Calm down. Everything’s fine. They’re taking good care of me here.”
“That’s not the point.” She turns to Staal. “Could you leave us, please?”
To Jim’s surprise, Staal glances at him as if for permission. Jim nods, and Staal departs without a sound.
“If I weren’t so relieved, I’d be angry. Hell, I am angry. What you did was selfish and hurtful. What did you think? I wouldn’t care where you were? They told me you just showed up here one day, and you could’ve left anytime. Is that true? They aren’t forcing you to stay?”
“Why would they do that? They’re Vulcans, not Klingons.”
“Good. I won’t have to fight anyone to get you on that shuttle.”
“I’m not going with you,” he says automatically, his stomach tensing up.
“It’s not open to discussion.”
“You want me to run away again? Because I can. And I will. And I’ll keep running.”
She looks at him, her jaw clenched in anger. He remembers that look.
“Why do you do this to me?”
“You know what.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Can’t you be a normal kid? It’s always something with you. Fighting in school. Stealing. Driving Frank’s car off the cliff. Running away.”
“I wonder where I learned that from?”
She doesn’t miss his meaning. “That’s not fair.”
“Why not? Maybe what isn’t fair is you treating me like a kid. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Yes, you are, whatever you might think. You’re too young to make a decision to run away and live on another planet.”
“I’m not too young to save four kids’ lives and survive in the wilderness for three months.”
Tears come to her eyes again. She sits heavily in the chair. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I’m used to that part.” He knows he’s being mean, but something about being with her brings it out in him. This is they way they talk to each other.
She’s quiet for a long minute, avoiding looking at him. “I tried my best. You know that, don’t you?”
He doesn’t answer. She could’ve tried harder. Could’ve stuck around. But he reminds her of his dad. He knows that deep in his gut. She doesn’t have to say it out loud. She’s looking at him again, like he’s something she found on the highway, and she doesn’t know what the hell it is.
After a moment, she wipes her eyes and composes herself. “Want to show your old lady around? I’ve never been to Vulcan before. I might as well see the place while I’m here. We’ve got a few hours before the shuttle comes back.”
He doesn’t bother telling her again that he’s not getting on the shuttle. He might not have a choice. Running right now would be pointless. She’d catch up to him in no time. It’s not like he’s an expert on the desert surrounding them. The thing is, if he runs again — ditches the transport shuttle or stows away on a ship leaving another planet — he can’t come back here. It’s one of the places she’ll look for him first. Or she’ll send someone to look for him. No, if he wants to stay here, he’s going to have to convince her to leave him. That shouldn’t be too hard given that she’s good at leaving him places.
“Okay,” he says. He’ll show her the place. He knows exactly what buttons to push to piss her off. Achieving the opposite can’t be that hard, even if he’s never managed to do it before. He likes a challenge.
When they leave the room, Jim’s first impulse is to look for Spock, but of course he’s not in the walkway anymore.
“How’s Sam?” he asks, suddenly realizing he’s had no news about his brother in a year.
“He’s still with Frank. He’s going to graduate early. He wants to go to MIT.”
Of course. Get as far away from Iowa as possible. Sam always dealt with their situation better, but Jim knew he was counting the days until he could leave.
Beside him, Winona is looking around. “How do you stand the heat?”
He thinks it’s a stupid question. Heat is better than Tarsus. “They’re meditating in the rooms over there, so we have to be quiet.” He walks with her onto the path leading into the heart of the courtyard. “This is the garden. I planted that part.” He gestures toward the newly-planted seeds, whose tender shoots have poked out of the soil. “I guess it doesn’t look like much yet, but it’s supposed to grow all these heart-shaped leaves.”
“The pilot told me this place is a monastery. How could you spend eight months here? What do you do all day?”
Jim suddenly sees the monastery through his mother’s eyes: the earthen floors, the heat, the lack of computers, the isolation and the silence. She’s seen dozens of planets, and this place seems weird to her. He doesn’t know why it doesn’t seem that way to him.
“I meditate. I study.”
“My Jimmy? Meditating?”
“It’s a special kind of meditation.” She’ll freak out if he tells her about kolinahr. He decides to keep it vague.
“You’re supposed to be in therapy. They told me you could have post-traumatic stress. All kinds of things. You should be talking about what happened to you. It’s not going to go away by itself.”
He changes the subject. “You’ll be happy to know I’m studying. I learned Vulcan already. I’m learning Romulan now. It’s way more interesting than school at home.”
Winona accepts the change in subject. Maybe she knows it’s a losing battle trying to get him to discuss crap like therapy.
“It’s not the same,” she says. “You can’t get into college by studying at some monastery on Vulcan. What about history? English?”
“They have a lot in the library. I’m learning about the history of Vulcan and the Federation. And I’m doing math. The math is easy.”
To demonstrate, he takes her to the library. It’s empty and silent. Everyone is in meditation. Jim gets a tablet out.
“All the basic stuff is on here. It’s a locally-stored database.” His fingers fly over the menus to bring up various screens. “Math. History. Vulcan literature. See. This is one of the epic warrior poems from the pre-Surak period. There are creation texts, too, from before scientists figured out how the planet formed.” He keeps talking because his mom is listening, and it’s easier to talk about the things he’s studying than it is to talk about himself.
Winona takes the tablet from him, staring uncomprehendingly at the display. “It’s all in Vulcan. Who taught you to read it?”
“Uh.” He can feel his face flushing. “Spock.”
“Spock?” She looks at him curiously. “Who’s Spock? The monk I spoke to was named Staal.”
“One of the other students.” He deftly changes the subject. “Come back here. I’ll show you the books. They’re cool.” He leads her to the shelves. Shows her the texts that are hundreds of years old, printed on paper pressed from desert grasses. He tells her about the first Vulcan space exploration and about the famous scientists from the Vulcan Science Academy. He rattles on and on, not giving her a chance to talk.
“You’re learning more here,” she says.
“You never studied in school — on Earth.”
Jim shrugs. “It was boring.”
She’s quiet as he shows her the tower from which you can see all the way down the mountain and across Vulcan’s Forge. It’s beautiful in a way he’s never noticed before. Kind of lonely but impressive. You do not fuck around with the desert on Vulcan.
Lastly, he shows his mom his room. It’s weird taking her in there. Kind of like when she sometimes barged into his room in Iowa, looking at everything, picking up his socks and asking where he got things.
“You don’t have any...things,” she says, her arms folded across her chest.
“I don’t need anything.” He pulls at a thread on his robe.
She scans the room as if memorizing it for a test later. “What about friends? Have you made friends here? Vulcans are so... I love having them in the science department, but I worry about you being here with no Human contact.”
“They’re not robots!”
His mom gives him a skeptical look.
Jim feels the need to defend the Vulcans even though he’s only spoken to two of them since arriving. “There’s nothing wrong with Vulcans! When I got here, Staal — he understood what I’d been through. He knew what I needed. That’s why he let me stay. If a guy that’s all rational and smart thought I should stay, that should count for something.”
“Rational has nothing to do with it. You need friends your own age. Girls.”
“There’s Spock.” It spills out of Jim’s mouth before he can stop it. He doesn’t want to talk to her about Spock. Spock is his. He doesn’t know why he feels that way, but he does. At the same time, he only wants to talk about Spock. About their walks and eating together and how strange Spock is. In a cool way. He feels a tingle and he knows he’s blushing.
“You mentioned him — him? — before,” she says in that way that means she’s not going to let the matter drop. She comes near, looking at his face intently.
He thinks for a second that she’s going to grill him, but she says: “Is that a pimple? What is that? Your hair is all over the place. Don’t they believe in haircuts around here?”
He puts his hand up to shield his face and backs away. “Mom.”
“It is a pimple. You should put something on it. A pimple! You’ve never had a pimple before!”
“I have. You just missed them.”
He thinks she might cry again, but she doesn’t. “So. Spock,” she says. “Who’s this Spock?”
Jim shrugs again. He needs to get out of the room. “He’s my — friend. I guess. I mean, he looks out for me.” He’s never thought of it that way, but it’s true. “We hang out,” he adds.
“Is he your age?” She peers at him again.
Jim turns his face away, suddenly embarrassed about the zit, as if maybe in Iowa he wouldn’t have it. “Yes. He’s my age.”
“Can I meet him?”
“No!” he says more emphatically than he meant to. “It’s just — he’s meditating. We can’t just bust in there.”
“Jimmy, I worry about you. Why can’t you do this on Earth?”
“Because I like Vulcan. I want to be here. I’m not getting in trouble. I’m studying. Isn’t that what you want?”
She stares hard at him. He makes himself look at her. He’s not going to back down. They’re silent for what must be an entire minute. She’s turning everything over in her mind, he can see it, hear it.
She unfolds her arms and looks toward the door. Jim holds his breath.
“It’s quiet here,” she says.
Something in Jim settles. She’s going to let him stay. He can feel it.
Jim serves his mom tea and a light meal in the dining room as they wait for the shuttle to return. He's acutely aware of the minutes ticking by. His mom keeps looking at her chrono and then looking at him in a weird way he can’t decipher. They don’t talk that much. It’s like his mom has figured out they don’t have anything to say to each other.
She’s quiet for a long time, and they sit there, not looking at each other. When she does speak, her voice startles him: “That thing they say about time healing all wounds, it’s not true.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he waits for her to go on.
“You try to move on —” Her voice breaks. “I’ve never found anybody else like him.”
Winona has never — never — talked about Jim’s dad, and Jim has learned not to ask. He never liked the look she got when the subject came up — kind of like the look she has now. He’s been walking on eggshells his whole life, afraid he’ll say something that will make his mom get that look. He’ll do anything else. He’ll bomb his math test on purpose. He’ll raid the liquor cabinet. He’ll burn the house down. But he won’t talk about his dad.
“I should have told you about him. I should have. Because…you should know who he is. I’m sorry I couldn’t do that for you.”
“It’s okay,” he says, but he doesn’t know why. The words seem inadequate for whatever his mom is going through. Something he doesn’t really understand.
“It’s not okay. I should have told you.”
She looks up, finally. Looks at him. Tears spill from her eyes. She’s crying more today than he’s ever seen her cry in his entire life. And he does something he’s never done: he reaches out to take her hand. She squeezes it. Hard.
“This sounds stupid. Maybe you’ll understand it someday. But space — I feel like he’s out there. I know he’s not, really. I know I’ll never find him. But…he’s there. And I have to be there. That makes me a bad mom.” She cuts off his response. “It does. And I’m sorry. I’m doing the best I can. I really am.”
Jim believes that. At the same time, he doesn’t get how someone who’s dead can be more important than someone who’s living. He thinks about Sam, stuck in Iowa with Frank, and he’s struck with guilt for not being there. He and his brother aren’t that close, but still. Sam is maybe the one reason he should go back.
The crying is starting to make him uncomfortable. He does the only thing he can do. “I bet Spock is out of meditation. You said you wanted to meet him.”
She nods. “Yeah.” She squeezes his hand one more time, rises silently, and walks with him to the door. Before he can protest, she pulls him into a hug again. This hug is different. Less intense. He almost leans into it. Doesn’t. But he doesn’t protest either.
It is at that moment that Spock appears.
“Spock!” Jim pulls out of the hug, glad to have an excuse.
His mom lets go quickly and turns all of her attention to Spock. “I’m Winona,” she says.
Spock bows slightly, his hands clasped behind his back. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.” He turns to Jim. “I was uncertain of your status. Staal informed me that there was a chance you would depart today.”
Jim looks at his mom for a second before saying, “No. I’m not going anywhere.”
Winona glances at Jim, but she doesn’t insist that, yes, he’s coming with her. “So you and Jimmy are friends?” she says instead.
“Yes, that is the Standard term which most closely describes our relationship.”
An unexpected flip hits Jim’s stomach, and he feels heat race to his cheeks. Again. He has no idea why. He’s conscious of his mom watching him.
Winona laughs. “Is there a better word in Vulcan?”
Spock gives the question some consideration before saying, “I have insufficient data with which to form a more in-depth conclusion.”
Spock’s ears are slightly green, which Jim has never seen happen before. Spock, embarrassed? But if anyone can embarrass a Vulcan, it’s his mom. She studies Spock like she’s trying to figure out if he’s going to be trouble.
“I see,” Winona says, suddenly serious. “You two spend a lot of time together. Studying.”
“Indeed. I admit that my initial assessment of Jim’s capacity to absorb information was inaccurate. I find him to be an excellent study companion.”
“And what about when you’re not studying?”
“Mom. Don’t grill him.”
“I must ask you to be more specific in your query,” Spock says.
Jim guides his mom back toward the table where they were sitting. “She’s asking if we hang out when we’re not studying. I already told her we did.”
“I’m concerned that you don’t have a normal life here.” Winona sits.
“I have a normal life. We hang out.” Jim sits in a chair next to his mom. “You don’t have to stay. My mom’s just being nosy,” he says to Spock.
Spock sits. “I have experienced some curiosity with regard to you, as my own mother is Human.”
“You may know of her work in xenolinguistics. Her name is Amanda Grayson.”
“I do know of her!” Winona exclaims, smiling.
Jim sits there for the next hour as his mom bonds with Spock, asking him question after question about growing up the child of the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth and the famous Amanda Grayson. This has never — never — happened before. His mom never meets his friends. And it’s not like any of his friends ever wanted to meet his mom, that’s for sure. Spock not only answers all of Winona’s questions, but he seems like he’s really interested in talking to her. Maybe he’s just being polite.
Winona’s comm beeps, interrupting the conversation. MacAvoy to Kirk. Your shuttle is here.
“Oh!” Winona says. She presses the comm switch. “I’ll be right out,” she says into the comm. “Spock, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. Would you mind if I talked to Jimmy alone for a minute.”
Spock stands. “Do not be concerned about your son. I will do everything in my power to ensure his safety and well-being.” He raises his hand, fingers parted. “Live long and prosper.”
Winona watches Spock leave, then she turns her attention to Jim. She gets a funny look on her face. “Is he — Nevermind.”
“What?” he asks.
Winona laughs. “Nothing.” She leans close to him and whispers in his ear. “He’s a funny one, but I like him.”
Jim has no idea what she means by that. “Me, too,” he says, for lack of anything better.
“When I got here, I was hellbent on taking you back with me. I wanted to do the right thing for once in my life. But I’m going to let you stay here. Maybe that’s stupid, I don’t know.”
She keeps surprising him. He feels like she’s not the mom he grew up with. Or without. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks.”
There’s an awkward pause.
“If you change your mind, if you need me, I’ll do my best to be there.” She’s crying again.
“Okay,” he says again. All this crying. It’s weird. He stands up. “Your shuttle’s waiting.”
“I know.” She gets up, and together they walk out of the monastery to the flat area where the shuttle has landed.
Winona is silent, a furrow in her brow as if she’s in deep concentration mode. The hum of the shuttle is the only sound.
A pilot is filling in information on a PADD. “Ready, Lieutenant?” he says.
“Give me a second.” She looks commanding and important in her Starfleet uniform, even if her hair’s a mess and her eyes are rimmed with red.
The pilot nods, ducking inside the small doorway.
“Who am I going to find when I see you next?” She scrutinizes him like he’s some kind of puzzle.
“I don’t know. But I can’t — I can’t do anything else right now.”
His mom seems to get this, at least. She nods. “Send me a message when you want to come home. You will someday, won’t you?” Tears fill her eyes again.
Jim isn’t so sure, but he says, “Yeah. I will.”
“You’re so grown up now. When did that happen?”
He reaches for her and hugs her with everything he’s got. His face close to her hair, he notices streaks of gray. Then the wrinkles in her forehead and around her eyes as she pulls back to look at him again. Somehow she got old, he doesn’t know when.
And then she’s walking backwards up the ramp, waving, almost hitting her head on the low doorway. The pilot presses a button. The ramp lifts. The door slides shut, giving Jim one last glimpse of his mother’s face before all there is is smooth gray aluminum.
That night, he wakes up crying. He doesn’t remember the dream, but he wakes, fighting to breathe. His heart isn’t racing or anything, he just hurts somewhere. Sobs wrack his body no matter how he tries to stifle them in the pillow. He doesn’t want to go out walking. He can’t even move from the bed. Something is holding him down, digging a huge hole in his stomach. His mom came for him. It’s something he’s always wanted. She could have sent a shuttle. She could have ordered someone to take him home, but she actually showed up.
Images of Earth flood his mind. He’s not sure if he misses it, or what. He remembers how his mom’s face looked as she said goodbye, and he suddenly, painfully, wants to see her again. It’s like seeing her opened up an old wound, and he understands, now, why visits from family members aren’t allowed. He’s angry at her for leaving, even though he told her to leave. He feels like she should have stayed. Or she should have forced him to get on the shuttle. It’s his fault: he lied and said he’d be fine, but he doesn’t know if he will be. He doesn’t know what will happen after this. He was stupid for coming here, but he doesn’t see how he could have done anything else. Everything seems like a bad choice, but there are no good ones. He works himself into a kind of panic, then falls asleep exhausted, his chest aching. The last thing he remembers: some hazy Christmas when he sat at the foot of the tree with his teddy bear, the bright lights strung in the branches, casting their glow over him.
In the morning, when he hears Spock’s tap at his door, he can’t make himself get out of bed. He can’t make himself call out. He wonders if Spock woke up last night expecting to go on one of their walks. Did he miss it? Maybe all this is stupid. He doesn’t know anymore.
He covers his head with the pillow, but Vulcan pillows are hard, inflexible things, not soft and comfy at all. They aren’t very good for shutting out the light or covering your ears. He tosses the pillow aside. Stares at the ceiling in the dawn light. He doesn’t want to stay in bed. He doesn’t want to go out. He can’t think past the moment he’s in.
The knock comes again.
Jim doesn’t know what the hell is wrong with him. He thought he was getting better, but when he opens his mouth to talk, nothing comes out.
It doesn’t surprise him when there are no more knocks.
He lies there. And the day passes. He gets hungry, but for the first time in months, that’s not enough to move him. His stomach growls. There’s some kreila under his bed, but even reaching under to get it seems too much. He’s dehydrated, too, but he lies there. On and on. He hears quiet footsteps outside his door — the monks going to the evening meal, probably. Then it gets even quieter. Through his open window, he can hear some kind of insect and the distant shrieking of a le-matya. The sound expresses how he feels — far away and hollow.
His mind turns to Spock, who he kind of misses. He could go outside, he knows, and Spock would just be there. He’s never not been there. Jim has started to expect him, to count on him, which is weird — and usually he wouldn’t like it. He could go out, but he wouldn’t know what to say. Yeah, I couldn’t lift myself out of bed. Some invisible force was holding me down. I’m sad and stupid and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and my mom left me. Even my mom left me. Those are dumb things to say. Instead, he rewinds and imagines he’s just walking with Spock, going up the mountain, and Spock is looking at him in the light from the flashlight. He’s talking about the stars. He’s looking up at the sky.
He falls asleep, finally. Wakes hours later. Gets up, lightheaded from thirst and hunger, and goes to the bathroom. It’s early. He hasn’t missed the morning meal. He cleans his teeth and steps for a minute into the sonic shower. When he arrives at the dining room, Spock is sitting at a table by himself, looking very alone. He notices Jim immediately, but he makes no indication beyond glancing at him for a moment.
Jim gets his broth and sits beside Spock.
“Hey,” he says.
Spock doesn’t ask how Jim is, or why he didn’t answer the door before. He just says, “I find that I appreciate your company at meals.” And that’s all. He turns back to his food.
Jim thinks that’s the Vulcan equivalent of saying: I missed you. So he says, “Me, too.” He feels strange, like everything is new. Something big has come and gone, and now everything is quiet. He’s grateful for it. And they finish their broth in silence.
Jim is surprised when Staal ceases the work meditation, and directs Jim back into the meditation room.
“You have made progress. I believe you are ready for the next stage of meditation.” Staal looks at Jim severely. “Do you wish to proceed?”
Jim nods. “Yeah. Of course.”
“It will be a challenge for you, if I have correctly assessed your mind.” Staal lowers himself to the floor, sitting cross-legged. He gestures for Jim to follow. “The goal of this exercise is to find recourse when your emotions overtake you. You will not eliminate the emotion. You will simply shift your focus in order to control the dominant impulse. Do you understand?”
Seated, Jim nods again. He’s much more comfortable since Spock gave him lighter robes. The fabric feels cool against his skin, and he’s able to concentrate better.
“First, you must choose an anchor. This can be a neutral object or a place you find peaceful.”
A series of things runs through Jim’s mind. His bedroom in Iowa. The woods. The canyon with the spring. Then Spock. It’s Spock who makes him feel most settled.
“Now, place that object in a corner of your mind. Turn the rest of your mind toward the events which brought you here.” As if he can feel Jim resisting, Staal repeats the order: “You will contemplate the events on Tarsus. You will remember the violence you witnessed and the violence you committed.”
The final words are like a blow. Jim can’t believe Staal was able to see all that in his mind. He’s flooded with shame. And then with memory. How the rock felt in his hand. The sound it made hitting the soldier’s head. Nevermind that the man was trying to kill him. There was still blood and death and the look in the man’s eyes as he died.
“Slow your breathing,” Staal commands. “Control it.”
His lungs don’t want to obey, but Jim reins them in, slowing his breathing. He can do that, at least. He hears the sounds of footsteps in his head, his own metronome, and he breathes like he’s out walking on the mountain. His stomach is still tight with anger. He remembers how he felt when he killed the soldier: unstoppable. He wasn’t even fully conscious of what he was doing. He had to let his body take over in order to do what he needed to do. It scared him, what he could become. His breathing fails.
“Turn your focus to your anchor. Do it now.”
Jim tries. Spock’s face flashes into his mind, but he can’t keep it there. The soldier’s face comes back. He tries again. And again.
“Cease,” Staal says calmly. “That is enough for today. You will attempt it again tomorrow.” He rises in one smooth motion.
Easy for him to say, Jim thinks. His hands are shaking. He can’t get up. Staal glances at him once before sweeping out of the room. Jim remains there for a long time, trying to bring his thoughts under control. He wonders. He wonders what people would say if they knew what he’d done. Staal might have found out in his way, but Jim will never, ever tell anyone else. Not willingly.
When Jim finds a box sitting outside his door a few weeks later, he thinks it must be something he needs for meditation. But it’s not. It’s from his mom. He takes the box inside and opens it. There’s no note. That’s just like her. She never wrote much. She sometimes sent Jim vid messages from starbases, but out of sight is pretty much out of mind for her. The package contains books, and Jim is surprised the Vulcans allowed it through. He wonders where his mom is. She could be halfway across the galaxy. Or on the next planet.
Considering how little they talk, she’s done pretty well in her selection: a bunch of high seas adventures and one about a thing called a zeppelin whose crew discovers animals in the clouds. The books smell musty. The pages are fragile, and the bindings are cracked. Jim sits on his bed to read, cradling one of the books gently.
He reads until he falls asleep. He doesn’t wake until Spock knocks on the door to get him for the evening meal. For a moment, he’s disoriented. It’s almost dark.
“Come in,” he says, hands finding the book beside him on the bed. He shuts it gently and reaches for the lamp.
When the light comes on, Spock is just closing the door. “I woke you.”
“I was reading, and I fell asleep.” Jim rubs at his eyes, feeling a little groggy, still half in some fictional world, half in sleep.
Spock nears, staring at the books. “Are these from your mother?” He sits on the bed without invitation, something he didn’t used to do.
“You can borrow one if you want.” Jim stares at Spock while his attention is focussed on the books. He’s tried not to let Spock catch him doing it, but it’s getting harder. He can’t stop looking. He can’t stop thinking about Spock. And there’s been more than one jerk-off session in the sonic shower. He should really get over it. Spock isn’t interested. Not in that.
Spock picks up one of the books, turning the pages with his long fingers. “My mother has a collection of these also. She used to read to me. I believe it was her way of returning home.”
Jim nods. That makes sense. Even though Iowa doesn’t feel like home, Earth sort of does. The books are familiar and comforting. He can picture things in his head better because he’s from there.
“You talked to my mom a lot. You didn’t have to do that.”
“She reminded me of my own mother. I found it…gratifying to speak with her.”
Jim suddenly wishes he could meet Spock’s mom. He probably wouldn’t mind if she asked him questions.
“If you will allow me... Perhaps we could read together. I often encounter colloquialisms and particulars of Terran custom that I do not understand when I am reading Earth books.” Spock looks at Jim, trying not to show anything, Jim can tell, but there’s a hopefulness he can’t hide.
Jim couldn’t say no if he tried. “Sure.” He pictures Spock lying on his bed with him, reading. He’d just have to lean over and —
“I look forward to it,” Spock says, laying down the book. He stands. “Shall we eat?”
Books under one arm, Jim knocks on Spock’s door. They often go to the library to study after the evening meal, but it can’t hurt to take a night off to read. When Spock opens the door, his eyes immediately fall on the books.
“I thought we could read,” Jim says. “Want to?”
“That would be agreeable,” Spock says, stepping aside to let Jim in.
Jim has been in Spock’s room before, but only for a few minutes at a time, and he didn’t really have time to look around. He now knows the word for the strange sculpture thing in the middle of the floor — an asenoi — the firepot used for meditation. There is little else in the room. Only one chair. It’s the bed, then, if they want to read together. Jim flops down.
“I brought a few. I didn’t know what you’d like.”
Spock sits gracefully beside him, examining the books. “I am not familiar with any of these.”
“This one’s about ships, like in Earth’s nineteenth century. This one’s more of a space adventure thing.” He waits for Spock to choose — ships — and then takes one of the others.
As they’re getting comfortable, sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall, Jim notices something: two tiny, metal Federation ships lying on Spock’s window ledge. He picks one up. “Hey, it’s the Kelvin. Where are these from?”
“My mother unearthed them when she was gardening at our dwelling in Shi’kahr. I am unaware of their provenance. I do not know why she gave them to me, but when I look at them, I am reminded of her gardening.” Spock picks up the other ship, which is almost identical to the one in Jim’s hands, only its side reads Enterprise, the first Federation ship ever to go on a long-term mission.
Spock is quiet for a long moment. When Jim looks up, he finds Spock staring at him.
“I am aware that your father captained the Kelvin for a short time.”
“Twelve minutes.” Jim’s throat tightens up. His father. One of the many things he hates talking about.
Spock doesn’t say anything about heroics or being sorry. Instead, he says, “I grieve with thee.”
It’s probably the Vulcan way of saying sorry, but it sounds less stupid. It’s not so much sorry as: I am willing to feel what you feel. Like lo siento in Spanish. “Thanks,” Jim says, setting the ship back on the ledge.
“Why do you thank me?”
“Because.” Jim shrugs. Spock seems so inexpressive, but he probably does get how Jim feels.
“You are often puzzling,” Spock proclaims, opening the book he’s chosen.
Jim opens his, too. “Better than boring.”
“Indeed. You are never boring.”
When Jim pictured reading with Spock, he pictured them reading separate books. But that doesn’t last long. Spock is the most curious person Jim has ever met, and he has so many questions about Horatio Hornblower that they end up lying on Spock’s bed on their stomachs, leaning over the same book, spending more time talking than reading. Spock’s shoulder touches Jim’s. Even through their robes, the contact makes Jim’s skin tingle, and he tries to touch Spock as often as he can, making it seem accidental. He lets their fingers brush together on the pages, half-dreading, half-hoping that Spock will pick up on his emotions. He has no idea what to do. He’s never really liked a guy, not in this way, but it can’t be that much different from a girl. On Earth, girls would message him or smile, and maybe he didn’t really know what to do then either, and he was sometimes wrong, but it wasn’t as big a deal. They always got over it or just told him to fuck off. Even though he’s gotten pretty good at figuring out what Spock is thinking, this is different. He has no clue how Vulcans date or hook up or whatever they do, if they even do it. And if he fucks up, it could be epic. The result is that his heart is constantly going at twice its normal rate.
“The ocean is difficult to imagine,” Spock confesses, asking again about a description in the book.
Jim has only been to the ocean once, in California, when his mom was home for a few days and Frank thought it would be a fun family trip to go out to Starfleet Headquarters. They drove up the coast, stopping on the beaches. It was one of the few fun times Jim remembers. He liked the cliffs and the rocks and the seals, the power of the ocean, and the noise.
He tries to describe it. “It goes on forever, like the Forge. Except it’s water. And it’s really deep.”
“I have read descriptions,” Spock says. “The Mariana Trench is 11.03 kilometers under water.”
“You want to know how it feels,” Jim says, getting it. “Could I show you? Like, in my mind?”
“That is possible.” Spock turns onto his side. His fingers softly touch Jim’s face.
Jim’s heart actually stops for a few seconds, and he feels like the blood is swelling in his chest, like it’s behind a dam. And then it releases. Ever since they first shared minds, Jim has wanted to do it again. He doesn’t like people asking him things, and he didn’t think he’d exactly like having someone in his mind — because that’s almost like saying: Here, look at anything you want, all the things I never wanted anyone to see — but he liked having Spock there. Spock’s mind was like swimming in the ocean. Or staring at the sky.
He can feel his face tingling with heat. Spock is looking at him in this weird way, like he might not mind if Jim kissed him.
“What do I do?” It comes out hoarse and rocky.
Spock’s fingers move over Jim’s skin, tracing some pattern Jim is too excited to pay attention to. “If you imagine it and direct it toward me, I will see it.”
“What about other things?” Jim has to ask again. “Will you see those, too?” He has a lot more than Tarsus to hide from Spock now. Like all the things he thinks about while jerking off in the shower, all the things he tries not to think about when Spock touches him.
“Only if you allow it.”
“Okay.” Jim mirrors Spock’s position, lying on his side. They’re so close, their knees bump.
Spock’s eyes seem darker than usual as he adjusts his fingertips. “My mind to your mind.”
And then he’s there, his presence sliding into Jim, not unpleasant at all. For a minute, Jim can’t think, he feels so good. He’s reminded of building a fort out of couch cushions and blankets as a kid and lying under there listening to everything going on outside, like he was secret, but everyone knew he was there. He imagines Spock there with him, in that small, protected space.
Then he can hear Spock’s voice in his mind. You are letting me in more than you realize. You must control your mind if you do not wish me to see your innermost thoughts.
Jim is in a dream, falling and then hitting the ground. He’s scrambling not to fall off the cliff in Riverside. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he imagines closing up his mind, and the force of Spock’s presence lessens. He misses how it feels. Part of him doesn’t want to close up at all. The other part clings to Tarsus, shielding it.
That is satisfactory.
Did you see anything? Jim asks, directing the thought toward Spock.
I restrained my mind. I do not wish to invade your privacy.
Jim knows Spock is telling the truth. He can feel it. He’s been told lies all his life; he knows what they sound like. He tries something: he sends Spock a feeling because he doesn’t know how to say it with words. He’s grateful, and he feels safe.
The colors of Spock’s mind shift, warming from blues to reddish purples and oranges. It’s strange to talk to someone like that, without words. Like the first time, they stay that way, silent, just touching minds. It feels good. Intoxicating, even. He wants more. He can feel Spock hesitate.
I have not done this before.
I have not had this level of mental contact with anyone.
Jim senses this is a big deal. Spock is so serious. It’s okay, I trust you. He can feel their minds meshing together, joining in some way he can’t describe.
You intended to show me the ocean.
Jim doesn’t know how, exactly, but if he can talk to Spock, he must be able to show him things in the same way. He pictures the ocean, its deep blues and swells. The salt and the noise. The wind. The water spraying his face. How the water goes on and on, so full of possibility and mystery. He likes that. He wants to see everything, taste everything.
He even shows Spock his family. Remembers the trip to the coast. The car ride. How his mom looked. His brother fighting with him in the back of the aircar.
We must stop, Spock says.
It feels good, Jim says without really thinking about it. Is it that way for you, too?
There’s no other way to describe it: he can feel Spock’s mind opening up, letting him in, weaving with his. And he understands that, yes, it’s the same for both of them. They’re together for only a moment more before Spock is withdrawing again, the colors of his mind fading in intensity.
The bed is hard under Jim’s back, and he’s staring at the ceiling, a little out of breath. When he turns his head, Spock is just looking at him. They don’t say anything. What is there to say?
They don’t discuss it the third time. The minute they’re together in Spock’s room, their books in front of them, not yet open, Spock is reaching out tentatively, like he’s afraid Jim might say no.
“Go ahead,” Jim whispers, and then Spock’s fingers are on his face.
They share the details of everyday life on Earth, life on Vulcan. Spock is mystified by school bells. Jim would rather spend an entire year in detention than learn everything from a computerized pod. Spock fails to comprehend organized sports. Jim can’t believe ten-year-olds are sent out to Vulcan’s Forge alone for ten days without food or weapons or water.
They meld every day. They take to studying either in Spock’s or Jim’s room instead of the library. Jim knows without asking that the monks would disapprove of what they’re doing. When they aren’t together, Jim counts the minutes until they will be. He counts the minutes during meditation. He counts the minutes while sleeping. He can’t concentrate at all, and Staal notices. But Jim can’t bring himself to care.
Jim shows Spock snow, how it stacks on branches before the wind blows it away, how layers of ice crystallize on the twigs, how crust forms, breaking when you step on it. Spock shows Jim his mother, his father, their home in Shi’kahr, the garden where his mother forces roses to grow. Jim shows Spock the car, how it felt as he leapt, like he was about to break apart. He carefully withholds the consequences. He shows Spock the crawlspace under the front porch, where he spent whole afternoons hiding from his uncle. He shows Spock all the places, all the places he went to escape. Spock shows Jim the medical tests he endured as the Vulcan healers tried to understand his biology, which was unique — neither purely Vulcan nor purely Human.
They don’t kiss, but they touch, Spock’s hands on Jim’s face. Sometimes Spock touches Jim’s hand for a few seconds before pulling away. But it’s the touching of their minds that pushes Jim’s buttons. He actually comes out of a meld, once, aware that he’s basically had a wet dream without being asleep. He makes some kind of excuse, and runs to the bathroom to clean up, splashing water on his face, willing himself to look less flushed. He’s got no clue if Spock is aware of what happened. Maybe not, since even Jim wasn’t conscious of it in the meld.
“You have shared many personal memories with me,” Spock says one afternoon when they’ve come back to Jim’s room, and they’re sitting on his bed.
For a second, Jim thinks Spock is going to ask about Tarsus. He’s gotten so comfortable with having Spock in his mind that he’s been letting his guard down, showing Spock things like detention and getting busted by his uncle for drinking half a bottle of whiskey.
“There is something I wish to share with you if you do not object,” Spock continues.
“Why would I object?”
“When you show me your memories, I experience your emotions. Am I correct in supposing that you also experience mine?”
Jim never thought of it that way, but he guesses it’s true. Lo siento. “Yeah,” he says. “I do.” He recalls being scared during Spock’s kahs-wan. That was probably the most intense memory Spock shared with him.
“You have often wondered what brought me to Mount Seleya. I will show you.”
It’s a big deal. Jim can hear it in Spock’s voice. “I want to see,” Jim says. They’re sitting cross-legged, across from one another, so he leans closer. Closes his eyes when he feels the brush of Spock’s fingertips on his face. “My mind to your mind,” he says at the same time Spock does.
Jim knows immediately that Spock is nervous. He can see it in the colors and movements of Spock’s mind. It’s okay, he says.
Jim finds himself suddenly in Spock’s home in Shi’kahr, a place that’s familiar by now. The chimes on the patio. The scent of roses. The feel of the floor under his bare feet. Voices coming from another room in the house.
“Spock!” Amanda calls. Jim recognizes her voice.
In this memory, Spock is about six, Jim guesses. Maybe seven. He walks slowly down the hallway until he reaches the living room, where Amanda sits with Spock’s father, Sarek, and a Vulcan couple Jim doesn’t know. The Vulcan couple sit with a little girl between them. She looks like she’s about Spock’s age.
“You do us a great honor by visiting the house,” Amanda says, setting cups of tea in front of the strangers.
Their names are T’Val and Soren. Their daughter is named T’Pring. They are from a well-respected, ancient bloodline.
“We are here at Sarek’s request,” Soren says.
There’s a dig in there somewhere, Jim thinks. Maybe they’re trying to insult Spock’s mom because she’s Human.
You are correct, Spock informs Jim. They would not have come at my mother’s request.
You know that’s kind of racist, right? Humans got over most of that petty crap a hundred years ago.
Spock doesn’t answer. The younger Spock in the memory sits dutifully in a chair across from the Vulcan family. He looks steadily at T’Pring, who glares at him from beneath her bangs. Her hair is in an ornate twist piled on top of her head.
Sarek speaks. “We would like to propose a bonding between T’Pring and Spock if that is agreeable to you.”
It is something less than a marriage, but more than a betrothal. Our minds would be linked until the time of our marriage.
T’Val is like a grown-up version of her daughter. She sits up very straight and looks at Sarek imperiously. “I do not believe that is an appropriate match.”
“Our families have long been allied. This would not be the first match between them,” Sarek replies, retaining his calm demeanor.
Spock looks over at his mother, who sits tensely in the chair beside him. Jim can feel everything Spock is feeling. He’s aware of T’Pring’s gaze. He’s aware of how little she thinks of Spock. There’s a weird emptiness in his stomach, an intense hunger, and he can hear the wind hitting the walls of the house. Everything feels so lonely, even in that room full of people. Spock isn’t paying attention to the conversation anymore. He’s purposely shutting it out.
T’Val, Soren, and T’Pring stand up. Spock turns his attention back to them. He stands also. Bows respectfully. He doesn’t feel rage. He feels like T’Pring’s parents are correct. They should not let their daughter bond with him. He would not be suitable for her.
T’Val lifts her chin as she says, “Perhaps you can find a Human bondmate for your son. I doubt you shall find one on Vulcan.”
“I accept your decision,” Sarek says. “I will escort you out.” He leads the Vulcan family from the room.
And then the room is gone. Jim is back in the swirling colors of Spock’s mind. He’s filled with fury.
I can’t believe they said that right in front of you. If I’d been there, I would’ve — I don’t even know. How can you not be angry?
It is less painful when you are present. The colors of Spock’s mind settle. In the future, you will be attached to that memory in my mind. It will be as if you were there with me.
Jim gets that. Every time he’s shown Spock something, it’s like Spock is with him. All those times he was alone in Riverside, when no one was home, or after he’d been in a fight. When he ran through the cornfields, when he hid in the crawlspace. Sharing those times with Spock doesn’t change the things that happened, but it changes how Jim remembers them.
He can feel Spock pulling out of the meld, lessening the connection between them. As always, Jim tries to hold on, but after a moment, they are back in his room, sitting on his bed.
“I wish I had been there,” Jim says, reaching for Spock’s hand. “I wouldn’t have let them do that to you.”
Meditation sessions are like picking at a scab until the cut bleeds again. Every day, Staal goads Jim into remembering the most excruciating details of his days on the run on Tarsus, and then insists he shift his focus in an instant.
Jim always fails.
“You will attempt another method,” Staal says one day, retrieving the blocks from the corner of the room. “This is called keethara. Structure, logic, function, control. A structure cannot stand without a foundation. Logic is the foundation of function. Function is the essence of control. Your mind lacks foundation, therefore it is vulnerable to collapse. You must order your memories. You will do this by constructing a solid structure with your eyes closed. The process will assist you in rearranging your mind.” Staal sets the blocks in front of Jim. “Begin.”
Jim closes his eyes. The idea sounds dumb, but Vulcans do seem to know what they’re doing, at least in some things. He takes a deep breath. Feels for the blocks. Begins stacking them.
“You are on Tarsus. Imagine it. Imagine the moments you try to avoid.”
Jim can’t help the memory flashing into his mind. It still causes him a kind of physical pain. He hears the blocks collapse.
“The first step toward eliminating emotions is to control them and organize them. You must master this if you are to continue. If you cannot overcome this obstacle, we can proceed no further. Again. You are at the pit in the ground.”
Hands shaking, Jim stacks the blocks. It’s like Staal is using some kind of mind control to make the images more intense. He can actually remember the smells. The way the dirt felt. The flies. He saw Kodos’s face. Jim wanted to kill him, but he knew he couldn’t. That came later, the ability to kill. He hears the blocks fall again.
“If you think it is difficult to eliminate anger, you are mistaken. Anger is one of the easier emotions to let go.” Staal sits before Jim, imperturbable as always.
Jim can hardly see through the tears coming unwanted to his eyes. He wipes them away with a rough hand. Tries to steady his breathing.
“Pain, suffering, they are all nothing.”
“They’re not nothing.”
“When you arrived here, pain and anger were all you felt. That is no longer the case.” Staal rises, his image blurry in Jim’s vision.
“I still feel them.” What the hell is Staal talking about? Jim doesn’t even know. Vulcans can’t just come out and say things in a way he can understand.
“Humans are prone to illogical emotions, such as the ones you mention, but you also feel pleasure. Love. Those must be forsaken. You have made a surprising amount of progress for a Human, but you have far to go. Continue. I will return.”
After Staal leaves, Jim sits there for a few minutes, trying to calm his mind. He thinks about other things. Time passing. Summer is over, and the planet is heading into its winter. The only difference Jim can see is that there aren’t any more storms. It’s still as hot as it’s ever been. He’s now been on Vulcan for over one Vulcan year. Probably a whole Earth year. Jim doesn’t know the exact date. Has no clue if his birthday is coming up, or if it passed already. Fifteen is an arbitrary number, anyway. He doesn’t feel fifteen. He doesn’t feel any age. He just is.
He remembers his mom commenting on how grown up he seemed. He’s been thinking about her a lot, missing her a little, even though it’s not like they ever spent much time together. A while ago, he realized that she let him stay on Vulcan not because she didn’t want to deal with him but because she thought it would make him happy. She didn’t know he was trying not to feel anything at all.
Then he can’t sit. He disobeys Staal. Leaves the room and goes out into the courtyard. He wants to hit something, but there’s nothing to hit. He wants to run, but the sun will burn him in minutes. He longs for cold air. For a good fight. The heat is making him crazy. He walks the covered corridor for a few minutes, trying to settle himself. When he feels closer to normal, he sets to work watering his plants in the garden, but his hands shake, and they won’t stop. Staal’s words echo in his head: If you cannot overcome this obstacle, we can proceed no further. He needs to proceed. He needs to erase Tarsus from his memory. He needs to let it go. He doesn’t know of any other way to go on.
Later in the day, he goes to Spock’s room. They haven’t been getting that much studying done, and when they do study, it’s because Spock makes it happen. Jim can think of a million other things he’d rather be doing with Spock, but he still isn’t sure how to go about getting them started.
“Hey,” he says, flopping onto Spock’s bed.
Spock is already studying, fingers moving deftly on the surface of his tablet. He seems more focussed than usual, but he sometimes gets like that. Jim reaches out tentatively to touch one of Spock’s fingers with his own. Spock allows the contact for a second before withdrawing.
“We cannot continue the level of contact we have been initiating for the last 5.7 weeks,” Spock says, keeping his eyes fixed on his tablet.
“What do you mean, contact?”
“What we have done is not customary. It is rare for two individuals to share minds unless it is to convey a specific piece of information. In some cases, a healer may do it in order to facilitate recovery from an injury...”
There’s something else. “What aren’t you telling me? Is this rotting my brain or something?”
Spock goes into what Jim calls his Vulcan mode, tense and poker-faced. “Melding is most commonly undertaken with one’s bondmate. In terms familiar to you, one’s spouse or intended. It is what T’Pring would have been to me if her parents had agreed. I have taken advantage of your ignorance. For that, I apologize.”
“Why are you sorry? It’s not like I minded.”
“I am aware of your feelings on the matter,” Spock says, shifting away from Jim. “As you know, during the process of kolinahr, we are not allowed visitors, nor are we allowed contact with family members or other acquaintances. The emotions caused by such contact can impede progress. It is similar with our melds. Staal has become aware of them, and he has advised against continuing. I agree with his assessment: if we are to proceed with kolinahr, I cannot continue to meld with you.”
It’s all so sudden. Just yesterday, it seemed like Spock might actually let Jim kiss him. They shared everything. Except Tarsus. And maybe there are parts of Spock’s life that he kept secret, too. Jim doesn’t know. He wants to know. “This is your decision, then, that’s what you’re saying.”
“Just like that? We do this every day for weeks, and now you want to stop? But you like it. I like it. Why is that bad?” Jim knows he’s not arguing very logically. It would probably be better if he could be scientific about the whole thing.
“‘Bad’ is a general term,” Spock says to the tablet on his lap. “The melds are counter-productive to the process we have both decided to undergo. I regret that I did not put a stop to them earlier.”
Of course Spock would argue it logically. There’s no denying what he’s saying.
“What does that mean? We have to avoid each other now?”
“Such extreme measures will not be necessary. We may continue to study together and to go on our nightly walks, but at present, you must leave me. I find I require additional meditation.”
Jim doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t buy that Spock regrets the melds, but his mind is too much of a mess to come up with a counter-argument. He needs time to think. He gets up slowly, watching to see if Spock breaks, if he glances up at all, if he changes his mind.
But he doesn’t.
Jim has never had a fight with Spock, and he has no idea how this will play out. Will Spock get over it? Change his mind? Or are things going to be like this forever? The thought of not spending time with Spock the way he has been…it actually hurts to think about it.
At dinner, Spock is quiet, which is normal. It’s the way he’s quiet that’s different. For months, now, they’ve been able to sit next to each other without saying a word, but Jim has felt comfortable, like he has an idea what Spock is thinking or feeling. Tonight, he doesn’t. It’s like there’s a stone at the table with him. He wonders if the other Vulcans can sense it. If they’re wondering what the hell happened between the freaky half-Vulcan and the Human.
They haven’t studied in the library for weeks, but as they’re leaving the dining room, Spock announces, “I plan to study in the library tonight.”
“Okay,” Jim says. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“We have yet to cover the conditional tense in Romulan.”
The conditional tense. Right. Not exactly what’s on Jim’s mind, but he’s not going to say no. They walk together down the corridor to the other end of the monastery. The library is empty, and they sit together at their usual table in the corner. Things are so awkward between them that Jim feels physically off balance, like one of his legs is longer than the other.
He can’t get his mind to focus on the lesson. He forgets the verbs the minute he looks at them. He stops asking Spock questions and just sits there, staring at his tablet. It’s not like he really needs Spock — the translation is right there, Romulan to Vulcan, and Jim knows Vulcan. He can figure out how to pronounce the Romulan words, but his desire to learn the language is gone.
Spock is probably studying just fine. Jim stops pretending to look at the tablet. He watches Spock instead, trying to figure out what’s going on in his mind. Spock’s hair has gotten really long, and locks of it fall into his eyes, over his ears. Jim wants to touch it, to push it aside, to make Spock look at him.
“You are not concentrating,” Spock says without glancing up from his tablet.
“Nope.” Jim reaches a hand across the table. Tries to touch Spock’s hand.
Spock moves his hand away. “You must resist such overtures.”
“What the hell is an overture? This is stupid. I can’t just sit here like this.”
“Then perhaps we should not study together. It is distracting to you, and you no longer require my assistance.”
Jim stands up, pushing his chair out from the table. The legs make a loud scraping sound on the floor. “I might not need it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it.” He picks up his tablet from the table. “I’m going back to my room.”
On his way out, he doesn’t look back, but once he’s in his room, Spock is all he can think about. He lies on his bed in the darkness. He doesn’t study. He doesn’t do anything. He’s pissed off at Spock. Pissed off at Vulcans in general for making Spock be like this. He doesn’t want Spock to end up like Staal or any of the other adepts living at the monastery. They’re just like what his mom described: computers. Spock isn’t a computer. Not yet, anyway.
After he doesn’t know how many hours, Jim falls asleep. He wakes later, in the middle of the night, his internal clock telling him it’s time to get up and go for a hike with Spock. He lies there for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do. He doesn’t really want to see Spock right now. Will Spock even come out to meet him? He’s never not shown up.
Jim gets out of bed. Goes outside and slips on his sandals. Stands there outside his door for a minute, undecided. A short distance away, a door opens, and Spock appears, a shadow in the darkness. Jim’s stomach tenses up. “Were you planning on coming with me?” he asks, “Because I’d rather go alone.”
It takes Spock a few seconds to answer. “It is unsafe for you to go alone.”
“Is it really? Because in all the nights we’ve gone out there, we’ve never seen a le-matya. Or a sehlat.” Jim can’t see Spock’s face. Maybe it wouldn’t tell him anything, anyway. Spock has been hard to read since their argument.
“It is perhaps less dangerous than I led you to believe.”
“I’ll take my chances, then.”
“Very well.” Spock steps back into his room and closes the door.
Jim stares into the darkness, feeling suddenly empty, wishing he hadn’t turned Spock away. What’s done is done. He walks quietly down the corridor, exits the archways of the monastery, and walks the familiar path to the mountain trail. Spock said it wasn’t all that dangerous. So he made it up before. An excuse to come along, Jim realizes. It’s not an excuse Spock was willing to make tonight.
The walk passes more slowly when Spock isn’t there. Jim doesn’t go as far as usual. He doesn’t meditate while he walks. Every sound makes him stop to listen, makes him search the darkness, shining his flashlight out over the shrubs and succulents, but he never sees anything.
Meditation is pretty much shot to hell. His anchor was Spock, and now he’s fighting with Spock, which makes the whole anchor thing kind of pointless. After an hour, Jim asks Staal if he can go work in the courtyard garden. Staal raises no objection, and Jim is pretty sure he knows exactly what’s going on. The part that surprises him is that Staal doesn’t give him a lecture about compartmentalizing his emotions and focussing his mind. It’s probably not logical to ask the impossible.
Working in the garden calms him, steadies him. He prefers moving around to sitting still, especially when his mind is in turmoil. He hasn’t really come up with a plan to get Spock to go back to normal, whatever that is. He liked the Spock who was willing to break the rules, the Spock who was willing to be part Human.
As he trims the fruit trees and pulls weeds from the beds of bar-got, he thinks about Iowa for some reason. He misses the places he used to go. The bridge over the river. The bluffs northeast of town. The leaves of the bar-got plants have unfurled, revealing dark crimson within their pale, curled undersides. Green tendrils sprawl out over the soil, clinging to the weeds. It’s a job getting everything separated, but it occupies Jim’s mind and hands.
When he got to Vulcan, he felt like he knew what he wanted. What he needed. Now he’s not so sure. What is it like to go through life without feeling happy? He’d be glad to ditch all the things he felt during and after Tarsus — things he still feels — but how can he give up lying on Spock’s bed, touching his mind, seeing his thoughts, looking at the world through his eyes. Even the way it feels when Spock touches him — the slightest touch of his hands, his fingers.
He’s come so far. He’s spent a year of his life here. It seems stupid to turn back. He doesn’t know what he’d do, where he’d go. He doesn’t know what he wants.
When the sun slants into the courtyard, Jim quits for the day, returning to his room. He sits there alone, trying to read one of the books his mom sent. And he misses Spock. In a big way.
His solo walks last about a week. He skips one night, and then another. He wakes the night after that with a restless aching in his limbs. The whole reason he liked the walks was because of Spock, and now there is no Spock. Making up his mind, he forces himself out of bed and out of his room. He stops outside of Spock’s door. Hesitates. Listens.
After a minute, he knocks as softly as he can. Waits.
It’s only a few seconds before the door opens. Spock’s face shows up, pale in the darkness.
“Hey,” Jim says softly. “I wasn’t sure you’d answer.”
“I will always answer when you call for me.”
That, at least, is the same. Jim is grateful for it, even if Spock is formal and distant. They’ve hardly spoken in the last week or so. They’ve been silent at meals. They’ve studied apart. It’s been torture. It’s made Jim hate everything.
“Will you come out with me?” Jim asks, half expecting Spock will decline.
In answer, Spock steps outside of his room and puts his sandals on. “I derive satisfaction from our nightly excursions,” Spock says as the two of them set off for the trail.
“Want to go to the spring?” Jim suggests.
“I would prefer the mountain.”
Jim guesses the choice has something to do with the fact that they first melded by the spring. He doesn’t know anymore what’s on Spock’s mind. “Okay,” Jim agrees, already thinking he might’ve made a mistake asking Spock to come with him. Nothing has changed in the time they’ve been apart. This Spock is making him feel even more lonely.
They don’t talk at all as they make their way up the trail. There’s a hum of insects. Everything smells pungent and fresh. It’s been cooler and a little bit breezy lately. The spring would probably be really nice right now. Jim remembers the first time they went there. Spock climbing out of the water naked. The slight contact of their bodies as they melded. He looks over at Spock, trying to read his expression in the faint light from the flashlight.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jim says suddenly, “about whether or not I should finish kolinahr.”
There’s a slight stumble in Spock’s step, but he quickly recovers. “What has caused you to question your decision?”
“Staal told me that when I came here, I only felt pain, but now I feel other things. He was talking about you.”
Spock is quiet for a long moment before he says, “When you arrived, you had suffered physical and mental hardship. I believe that is the reason you came here.” He looks over at Jim for confirmation.
“You have never shared the cause of your grief.”
Jim hasn’t told Spock about Tarsus. He hasn’t shown Spock Tarsus in their melds. It’s the one thing he won’t share. He knows Spock can sense that he’s hiding something, but Spock has never pushed him to reveal it. Something he’s learned about Spock, though, is that he responds to what Jim does. If Jim opens up his mind, Spock does the same. If Jim talks to him, he talks back. And, on occasion, when Jim touches him, he touches back. That makes Jim want to tell him everything and show him everything, especially now that Spock is so closed off. “You probably didn’t hear about what happened on Tarsus because you were here.”
“Incorrect. The events on Tarsus occurred shortly before I came here. I was in Shi’Kahr. I gather that you were on Tarsus during the famine.”
“Yeah. I was one of the lucky ones. If there is such a thing.”
“You were one of the people randomly chosen to live.”
“It wasn’t random. Kodos condemned 4,000 people to death based on biology. I don’t know if I was chosen. I didn’t wait around to find out.”
“There must have been a logical reason for his decision.”
“There wasn’t. Logic wasn’t a part of it at all.”
Spock looks at Jim curiously. “Resources were limited. Feeding 8,000 people was impossible. Many would have died.”
“There’s no way of knowing that!” Jim can feel something rising in his stomach. It always takes over him when he thinks about what happened. “The Federation arrived in time. There would have been enough food.”
“The chances of the Federation arriving were 1.2 percent given the timeframe and the vast resources in need of transportation.” Spock says it calmly, as if he’s a computer. Which he isn’t. Jim knows he isn’t.
“One point two percent isn’t zero. If there’s a chance, you have to do it. Kodos was giving up before he even tried anything. He wanted to kill those people. He thought they were inferior. I saw them die. I saw his face. He didn’t — care. How could you not care?”
“Is it not possible to view Kodos’s choice as a measure taken to prevent infighting and violence? A Vulcan might have made a similar decision based on logic,” Spock points out.
Jim shakes his head. “I don’t believe that for a second. You would never make that decision.”
“I am half-Human.”
For the first time, it hits Jim: all the ways Kolinahr is going to change Spock. Forever. It will make him unable to feel happiness, or to say, I grieve with thee. All the little things he understands about Jim will be gone. He won’t go out in the rain with Jim. He won’t read with him or take him to the spring. He won’t sit down and talk to Jim’s mom. He did all those things because of his emotions. Without them, he might even reach the point where he could kill 4,000 people if it really was the logical thing to do. Sometimes you need to be illogical in life. You need to have hope and faith. It’s not something Jim has really thought about before, but he suddenly knows it’s true.
“Don’t you think Staal showed compassion when he let me stay here?”
Spock gives the question his full consideration. “I believe he based his decision on logic.”
“How is it logical to let some runaway stay at your monastery? A Human runaway that people are looking for?”
“Perhaps he knew that if he refused you, you would run again. Without care, you would have died, and he would have been responsible for your death. It is illogical to waste life.”
Jim smiles. “Call it logic if you want. I call it compassion. And I don’t think Kodos’s actions were logical. Not if you were there.”
“I can think of no other explanation for his course. Perhaps you are correct: if I had been there, I might comprehend your argument.”
“That’s the thing. Not everyone is logical. If you expect them to be, you won’t understand them.”
They’ve stopped walking. The sky above them is clear. Beautiful. Sometimes Jim never wants to leave. When he looks over, Spock is watching him.
“When you show me things, I see them differently.”
“Me, too. I mean, with you.”
They’ve reached one of the small plateaus along the trail. Jim sits down, looking out over the Forge. Spock stops walking, and watches him for a moment before coming to sit beside him. Jim hasn’t been this physically close to Spock in a while. He can feel Spock’s presence, heat and energy, and he comes to a decision: he’s going to show Spock everything — everything except the soldier. He wants to make Spock feel again. He wants to make Spock understand what he went through. It’s that simple. They can argue all they want, but nothing is more powerful than being there.
“I’ve never told anyone all the things that happened there. Staal pulled it out of my mind. That’s the only reason he knows.” The stars are so bright that even without the light of the flashlight, he can see the shape of Spock’s face, the darkness of his eyelashes. He touches Spock’s cheek with the tip of his finger, hesitant, afraid to close the gap between them. “Let me show you.”
“I should not allow it.” Spock doesn’t sound like he means it.
“Don’t you think it’s logical to know the whole story before you make an argument?”
Jim takes Spock’s hand and places it on his face. Then there’s no hesitation. Spock’s fingers move, finding their place. Jim knows, deep in his heart, that Spock wants to be there. Wants to join minds again. He closes his eyes. Listens to the familiar words. Sees the familiar colors, floating, peaceful.
You must show me. I will not go there without you.
Jim shakes his head. He likes it just like this. Spock’s beautiful mind. He loves the way it feels. He can see his own mind bleeding into Spock’s, tendrils of color weaving among the orderly compartments, the map of everything. He can feel Spock’s curiosity, his openness, so different from the way he seems from the outside.
Jim takes a deep breath in his mind, and then starts with the camp. That’s not so hard.
The soldiers arriving. The sorting. No one knew why or how they were being sorted, or what was going to happen to them. Jim was never good at following directions. He ran. These memories seem ordinary compared to everything else. It’s only what came after that made them so terrible.
The soldiers tried to kill him. He stole a uniform. He saw the field, the pit Kodos dug, where he herded everyone before he killed them. The smell of blood. The sound of panic and crying and screaming. Mothers trying to shield their children. As always when these images come into his mind, Jim feels actual pain near his stomach, near his spine, in his lungs. He wants to fall apart, disappear.
A bright light. Not his memory but a strand of silver wrapping around him in his mind. Spock. It feels like he’s saying: You can tell me anything. Tell me all the things you’ve ever done.
And Jim does. He calls forth the worst of it, the part he vowed never to tell anyone. He remembers how he pulled Barrett and Miranda and Andy and Katie out of the pit in the confusion, and he ran with them. He protected them. He stole food for them. He killed for them. He took a life to save five lives, including his own. Was that a fair trade? The rock. How it felt in his hand. How angry he was. He couldn’t have stopped for anything. The sound of the rock hitting the soldier’s skull. He stole the soldier’s gun. He stole the soldier’s food. And he lived. Except, after that, he felt dead. It wasn’t like living at all.
He can feel Spock severing the connection between them, moving to a shallower place in his mind. He hates this part: losing Spock’s presence. He grabs on. He’s afraid to say what he wants. He sees their colors again, swirling together. The orderly patterns of Spock’s mind have been disturbed.
Do not concern yourself. It is a result of emotional transference.
Jim comes out of the meld, and and he’s crying, tears streaming down his face. He can hardly breathe. They’re both lying flat on the ground. He rolls away from Spock. Can’t look at him. There’s a hole in his stomach, a painful, black hole. He feels like he’s floating in space, in nothingness, like there’s no earth under him, no air around him.
“I believe you are right,” he hears faintly from behind him. “Logic could not guide Kodos to act as he did.”
Jim shuts his eyes, taking gulps of air. Behind his lids, he sees strands of silver again, woven with strands of gold. The image calms him. He opens his eyes. Spock doesn’t try to touch him. Doesn’t say the things a Human would say to someone who’s just lost their shit. But Jim can feel him there, solid and comforting. He knows, without hearing it, that Spock doesn’t condemn him for what he did. He can feel something working on his mind, smoothing the waves.
“What are you doing?”
“Our minds have formed a temporary link. I am using it to help you mitigate the immediacy of your memories.”
Jim turns over on the hard ground. He can feel a rock digging into his hip. Spock is still lying there, just looking at him. Jim can’t help himself. Everything is too much. And he wants Spock, wants to touch him and feel him, so he scoots closer, and he does. He touches the hard angle of Spock’s jaw. Presses his mouth to Spock’s. For a few seconds, Spock responds, but then he pulls away.
“What’s wrong?” Something’s wrong, but it’s not that Spock didn’t like it.
“If my reading on Human biology is correct, kissing often leads to intercourse,” Spock states in his usual detached voice.
That’s one way to get down to business. Jim’s pulse quickens. “You want to have inter — I mean sex?”
“That is not what I said.”
“You don’t want to have sex?” Jim has no clue what's going on. He imagined a lot of possible scenarios after kissing Spock, but this wasn't one of them.
“I do not think it would be wise.”
It must be some weird Vulcan thing. Spock looked pretty standard, but it was dark and Jim didn’t have the greatest view. He’s gotten used to thinking of Spock as Human with some minor differences. “Why?”
“I cannot — You make me feel things that will be difficult to eliminate when the time comes.”
Jim understands. He understands completely. “Me, too.” Spock wants to do it. He wants it, but he won’t let himself have it. “If I do this, I won’t be able to have sex? I mean, if I go through kolinahr.”
“You must forsake every emotion. It appears to me that sex is an emotional experience for you.”
How can Spock sound so rational? Jim knows that’s not how he feels. “I don’t know. I haven’t done it before.” He wants Spock. Painfully. He’s never known anyone so beautiful in his life. “All I know is I want you. More than anything.”
Spock gazes at Jim, his face almost lost in shadow. “I, too, did not realize the depth of my feelings before now. I do not know how to process them.”
Spock’s tone is so serious that Jim can’t push him, can’t try to talk him into anything, no matter how much he wants to do more.
“What do you want me to do?”
Spock doesn’t answer, but he mirrors Jim’s earlier gesture, pressing the tip of his finger to Jim’s cheek for an instant before slowly getting to his feet. Jim scrambles up after him, and they stand facing each other.
“It is not easy to know one’s own mind,” Spock says, turning to descend the trail.
Jim falls into step beside him. “I could’ve told you that a long time ago.”
At meals the next day, Spock is silent and distant. He isn’t in the library in the evening. Neither of those things are completely unexpected — Jim knew Spock would need time to think things over — but he’s also conscious of Spock’s presence in his mind. He can feel Spock’s mood, and he knows something is wrong. He doesn’t wait for Spock to show up to meet him, but knocks lightly on the door to his room.
“Enter,” Jim hears from inside.
He opens the door to find Spock kneeling before his asenoi.
“Sorry. I didn’t know you were meditating. Are you okay?”
Spock doesn’t look Jim’s way but continues to maintain his focus on the asenoi. “‘Okay’ is an inexact term.”
“You know what I mean.” Jim sprawls on the floor near Spock.
“The link formed between our minds has not dissolved as it was supposed to. I am attempting to sever it.”
“Is that why I’ve had a headache all day?”
“Yeah, but why are you trying to cut the link? Won’t it go away after a while? Maybe it’s just slow.”
Spock gives him a look. The lecture look. “If it has not dissipated by now, it is stronger than I anticipated, and it will not go away without active interference.”
“It’s not bothering me. Does it bother you?”
“Its continued existence will hinder my progress. If I do not sever it, there is a danger it will develop into a bond.”
Instead of making Spock go back to the way he was before, the previous night’s events seem to have cemented his resolve to complete kolinahr. Basically, he’s freaking out. Jim kind of gets that, but he can’t deal with the idea of Spock going all the way with this. It made so much sense before, but now Jim doesn’t think it’s right. For either of them.
“Spock. Maybe — Are you sure this is what you really want?”
“You once told me I should not quit. Do you recall?”
“That was different. They wanted you to quit because they didn’t think you could do it. I know you can do it, I just don’t think you should.”
“My mental faculties are inferior to those of other Vulcans. I am simply seeking to rectify the situation.” Spock continues to avoid Jim’s gaze.
Jim feels a flare of anger rise up in his stomach. “Inferior according to who? Not your mother. Not me.”
“You are Humans.”
“So what? What’s the point of getting the approval of a bunch of Vulcans if you have to change who you are? There are other people out there. This isn’t the only place in the universe!”
“You have shown me another place.”
“Tarsus isn’t another place. That was hell.”
“And Earth? You have chosen not to return there. I surmise that it is no different.”
“It is different,” Jim protests, but an image of Spock trying to go to high school in Iowa flashes into his mind, and he wonders if it really would be any different.
Spock seems to know exactly what’s going through Jim’s mind. “I have made my decision.”
“Between the two of us, we haven’t seen that much of the universe. There are other places out there. And you can prove people wrong without — without doing this.”
“I am beginning a fast tomorrow. You will not see me. Do not concern yourself.” Spock closes his eyes.
“How can I not worry?” Jim waits, but Spock doesn’t say anything. His head throbs, and he knows Spock is trying to push him away. That’s not acceptable. But Jim has no idea how to change Spock’s mind.
Spock wasn’t kidding about fasting or not seeing Jim. It’s like he’s left the monastery. He’s not at breakfast. He’s not at dinner. He’s not in the corridors. And, no surprise, he doesn’t show up to walk with Jim at night or to read with him, not even in the library.
When Jim wakes in the middle of the night, he goes out on the mountain alone, taking only a flashlight and a container of water. Out there on the trail, he can think. He forces himself to meditate without Spock and without falling off the cliff. All the darkness and emptiness and silence suit his mood, and they help clear his mind. Sometimes he hears distant wails, which he knows come from le-matyas, but he’s filled with the sense that they won’t hurt him. He’s like one of them, going crazy, wandering around, looking for something he can’t find. They wouldn’t kill one of their own.
When he concentrates, he can still feel the link in his mind, the woven threads of it shining brightly like stars in the night sky. Sometimes he has headaches. Most of the time, he doesn’t. But he’s always conscious that Spock is nearby. He can feel Spock’s confusion, the parts of him warring with each other.
Jim is used to being able to solve problems. He’s smart, he knows that. He can breeze through math without even studying. He can remember plots of books. He can hack into computer systems. He can outrun Kodos’s soldiers. He can hitch rides to other planets. Hotwire cars. Mechanical things are easy. You take the machine apart, and then you put it back together again when you’ve looked at all the pieces and figured out how they work with each other.
Maybe logic is the way to go with this problem, too. What are all the pieces, and how do they fit together?
There’s Spock, who is seriously fucked up from people telling him he’s stupid all his life — Jim can relate to that. There’s kolinahr, which he knows is irreversible once you take the leap. Jim has decided he doesn’t want to keep going with it. The problem is, if he’s not studying kolinahr, he can’t stay here. And if he can’t stay, he can’t be with Spock. But if he stays, then he has to keep going with kolinahr, which defeats the whole purpose of staying. Because the way he feels with Spock, he never wants to lose that. He loves that feeling — like Spock gets him. He loves the way Spock looks, how it felt to kiss him. Their walks, their talks. Everything. He doesn’t understand why that’s not enough to change Spock’s mind. If he feels the same way — which Jim thinks he does — then how could he still want to do what he’s doing?
Jim doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios. He knows he and Spock are connected now. The link is still there, and it’s somehow the key to solving the problem.
Jim starts researching in earnest, thankful he’s learned Vulcan. The information on the tablet’s database is limited, and he has to venture into the part of the library where the paper books are kept. He reads ancient epics about bonded warriors. He reads about pon farr — tries to imagine losing control like that, and he has to leave the library. He reads about the bond formed in childhood, and he finally understands what a big deal it is that the little girl’s family refused the proposal. Spock has been living his whole life in a state of isolation unnatural to Vulcans, who in spite of seeming so unemotional, actually possess very passionate natures. They need the presence of another in order to have healthy brain function. Only kolinahr eliminates this need by eliminating emotion. Most who come here have lost their bondmates, or like Spock, have never had one for whatever reason. And he finally understands why Spock chose this path. He doesn’t agree with it, but he understands it.
A bonded Vulcan — even one with only a childhood bond — can only go so far with kolinahr unless the bond is severed. It is rare for a Vulcan to choose that option. It has only been done twice, according to the books Jim consults. That’s really all Jim needs to know. If the bond is formed, Spock probably won’t feel the need to complete kolinahr, and even if he does still want to go through with the process, he’ll have to take an extra step, severing the bond. Severing the bond can be harmful to one or both parties, even if done properly with both people present, supervised by a healer.
The bond is usually formed by a healer when the pair are children, but it’s not completed until much later. There are cases of bonds forming spontaneously between exceptionally compatible individuals. They can form over time, or sometimes immediately during intense connection. Like sex. And sex is definitely something Jim wants to do with Spock.
Jim glosses over the fact that bonds are generally a lifetime thing. It might hurt like hell, but they can be dissolved. They’re reversible. He’s not going to worry about the details right now. If it needs to be dissolved, he can cross that bridge when he comes to it. The important part is whether it can be formed between them at all. There is only one mention of a Human-Vulcan bond in the database, and that is the bond between Spock’s parents. Spock is only half Vulcan, and Jim is Human, and there is no documentation of that kind of bond. But Jim knows the link that has formed between them is unusual, and that gives him hope that his plan will work.
Jim’s project has given him a new focus and clarity. He feels like he knows what he wants, at least in the immediate future. He’s purposely not thinking too far ahead. He feels a kind of calm he hasn’t felt in ages despite the fact that he’s aware of Spock’s turmoil on the other end of the link connecting them. Spock is pushing him away, but Jim knows it doesn’t have to do with what he did on Tarsus. Spock accepted Jim’s actions — forgave him — and that has changed something. Jim feels strangely at peace with what happened. If Spock can do that for him, then he can do the same thing for Spock: help him to accept the facts of his life, the facts of who he is.
During meditation, he focusses on the silver thread woven with the strands of his own mind. It’s different from the way he thought of Spock before. This isn’t Spock, exactly. It’s the connection between them.
“You have made remarkable progress,” Staal says after Jim has once again managed to regain his focus after recalling the events on Tarsus. “Soon you will be able to move on to the next phase.” Staal studies Jim closely. “There is something you would like to ask me.”
Jim nods. “It’s about Spock.”
Staal’s eyebrow rises a centimeter before his normal, expressionless face returns. “Indeed.”
“How close is he to completing kolinahr?” Staal has stood, and Jim has to look up at him from where he’s sitting on the floor.
“It will take him at least two more Vulcan years. He might have required less time if you had not impeded his progress.”
Jim thought as much. He knows what he has to do. “I’ve decided I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“It is not because it is too difficult for you,” Staal states.
“When I came here, I wanted to get rid of everything I felt. Now I’ve changed my mind.”
Staal nods. “You are an unusual Human in some respects, but in others you are quite predictable,” Staal observes before quietly leaving the room.
Jim can’t decipher that Vulcan-speak, but he knows Staal is neither stupid nor cruel. Even if he’s figured out what Jim is up to, he won’t interfere.
Back in his room, Jim tears an endpaper from one of his books. It’s the only paper he has, and a stubby bit of chalk is the only thing he can find to write with. He doesn’t know how to say what he needs to say, but he takes a cue from his mom and keeps it short:
Hi, Mom. You said to write if I wanted to go home. I’m ready.
The next part is harder. He’s never really had personal discussions with his mom, but she has experience with this kind of thing, and her opinion is important. He thinks for a long minute. Decides on being short and to the point again.
If you’d known what was going to happen to dad — that you were going to lose him — would you still have married him?
He signs the letter, folds it up, and takes it to the monastery office where one of the monks places it in the basket to be taken to Gol.
Spock will probably be pissed off at him, Jim knows, but he doesn’t really care. Pissed off is better than nothing at all. He hasn’t heard from his mom yet, but he knows he’s making the right decision. He takes a sonic shower, puts on a clean robe, then goes to Spock’s door.
There’s no answer to his knock, but Spock is in there, Jim can feel it in his mind. There’s a different pulsing of energy when Spock is nearby. None of the doors in the monastery have locks, and Jim is through being polite. He opens the door.
It’s like Spock hasn’t moved since the last time they spoke. He kneels in front of the asenoi, his gaze fixed on the flame. “I did not give you permission to enter.”
“I know.” Jim shuts the door and comes to sit near Spock. “I had to see you.”
“I have been unsuccessful in dissolving the link.”
“I know that, too.”
“I will seek the assistance of a healer. It may cause you a certain amount of pain, but it will be brief, and no permanent damage will result.”
“I disagree.” Jim braces a hand against the floor. He’s so nervous he’s shaking.
“You disagree?” There’s surprise in Spock’s voice.
“No permanent damage? That’s like saying there’s no permanent damage from what happened on Tarsus. I might go on, yeah. I might live my life, but I won’t ever forget you. All the things we ever said or did will always be there.” Jim takes a deep breath. “For you, too. Even if you go through kolinahr, you won’t forget.”
Spock doesn’t answer immediately. He’s silent so long that Jim has to make himself look. Spock is like a stone, absolutely still. “The emotions attached to the memories will be gone.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.” And then Jim does something he’s not sure will work. He knows he’s been conscious of Spock all week. He’s sensed — even in the most intangible way — what Spock is going through, what he’s feeling. The link is alive, and it works both ways. So with everything he has, he pushes at Spock through the link, visualizing it in his mind.
He thinks about all the things he loves about Spock. How he never judged Jim or thought he was weird when he found food under the bed. The way he knew Jim needed company in the middle of the night. He knew what kind of meditation would work. How he looked when they went swimming. And — this is part of his plan — he imagines having sex with Spock. Kissing him. Everywhere. Touching him in ways Jim has never touched anyone except in his mind. The longer he pictures it, the more he can feel the heat building inside him, a flare of arousal.
He tries not to feel guilty about what he’s doing. He doesn’t think it was an accident that the link formed. Spock wanted it. He wanted it. Jim has just decided to push it a little farther.
Spock, who is usually so composed, has lost his stiff appearance. He’s breathing faster than normal. “What are you doing?” He finally turns to look at Jim, his eyes wide, the pupils dark.
“Do you trust me?” Jim moves closer. Puts a hand on Spock’s hands, which are folded in his lap.
“I —” Spock nods. “Yes.”
“Then, before it’s too late, I want you to do something for me. Or take something from me, I don’t know. What I mean is, I’m asking you to think about this more before you go any farther.”
“I have contemplated it at great length.”
“Yeah, while you were alone and miserable and everyone was telling you you were inferior. That doesn’t count.”
“Are you suggesting I return to Shi’kahr?”
Jim knows Spock knows what he’s talking about. He shakes his head. “Uh-uh. I’m suggesting you think it over with me.” Jim leans in. Spock doesn’t move away. Not even when Jim presses their lips together. “Will you do that?”
“You do not comprehend what you are offering.”
“Sure, I do. You saved my life,” Jim says, kissing Spock again, deepening that kiss. “I’m trying to return the favor.”
“It was not I who found you on the trail.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Without a word, they both stand. Jim grabs fistfuls of Spock’s robe, pulling it up over his head. Spock makes no protest. Jim pulls off his own robe, and together he and Spock fall onto the bed.
Spock stills, looking at Jim very seriously. “My mother would say you are leaping without looking.”
Jim laughs. “Yeah, I do that a lot.”
“Intercourse will cause —”
“Shh.” Jim puts a finger on Spock’s lips. “We can do other things.” Things Jim has read about. Things he’s imagined but never done.
“The result will be the same.”
“It can be undone. Kolinahr can’t be undone. See what I’m saying?”
And then Spock is kissing him, rolling him over onto his back, moving against him, placing his fingertips to Jim’s face.
When their minds connect, the first thing Jim says is, You’re perfect the way you are. You don’t need to do anything. Don’t change anything.
“I have not slept for 9.4 days,” Spock says sleepily, lying beside Jim later.
Jim can’t stop touching him, kissing him. This time, a shoulder. “Sleep,” he says. He can feel the bond between them, bright color emblazoned on his mind. It’s more than a link now. It’s something stronger, more permanent. He can feel Spock’s tiredness and worry, and it’s his own.
Spock takes Jim’s hand. Places it on his chest. “You must do one more thing for me.”
Jim stops the kissing. He knew this moment would come. He expected it, but expecting it doesn’t make it less awful. “Okay,” he agrees.
“I find I have little emotional control when I am near you. You must leave me in order that I may think.”
“You don’t just mean to go to another room, do you?”
“You must leave Vulcan, or at the very least, leave Mount Seleya. The decision to forsake kolinahr is not one to be made lightly. I must give the matter my full attention.”
“Just remember that the decision to do it is a big deal, too. You can’t change your mind once it’s done.”
“Affirmative. Whatever decision I make —”
“I know. Don’t worry.”
“I believe what has formed between us is similar to a betrothal bond, not a complete bond. A healer can dissolve it if necessary. I will begin a psthan, a quest for truth. It will help me to arrive at a decision. Do you agree to my terms?”
Jim’s stomach tenses, but he nods. “Yeah. I do.”
“No matter how much distance is between us, you will sense me. If you need me, I will come to you. If I need you — you must do the same.”
“Yeah, I know the reason you might need me.” He’s actually hoping Spock does need him for that.
“Vulcans do not usually experience pon farr until much later in life.”
“But you’re half Human.”
“Indeed. My biology is unpredictable.”
“Not that unpredictable,” Jim says, climbing on top of Spock. He leans in, bringing his face so close that Spock’s features completely fill his vision.
“If at any time, you wish to be released from the bond, I will come to you with a healer who can facilitate its dissolution.”
Jim doesn’t want to think about that. It’s too far ahead. He kisses Spock again instead. Kisses him again. And again.
When Jim returns to his room, there’s a letter from his mother. The envelope feels empty. Jim opens it. Inside is a tiny slip of paper with a short message written with a stylus, probably printed here on Vulcan to reach him faster.
Jim reads the message, then tucks the paper back into the envelope and goes to inform Staal that a shuttle will be arriving to pick him up in two days.
He’s not surprised that Spock avoids him for those two days. He expected that. When he left Spock’s room, it was like something was scraping him raw inside. And Spock felt the same way. It’s weird knowing that, knowing exactly how Spock is feeling, even if they can’t talk to each other through the bond or anything. Spock is just...there.
It’s a windy day, and swirls of dust hit the monastery. Jim worries that a sandstorm is coming and that it will delay his shuttle. Now that he’s decided to return to Earth, he wants to get it over with. It’s painful being here and not seeing Spock. It doesn’t feel right.
But the storm doesn’t come.
The shuttle appears as darkness is falling. It settles in swirls of dust. The pilot leaps down the gangway.
“James T. Kirk?”
Jim nods. He’s packed a bag with his books and the PADD, which the monks have returned to him, even though it’s probably outdated and it didn’t belong to Jim to begin with. He’s about to head into the shuttle when he hears his name.
“Jim.” Spock’s voice.
Jim turns to find Spock standing near the entrance to the monastery.
“Give us a minute?” he says to the pilot, echoing his mother’s words from months ago.
The pilot nods and disappears into the interior of the shuttle.
“I didn’t know if you’d come out to say goodbye.” He walks the few steps to the curved, stone archway.
“I have something for you,” Spock says, reaching into his sleeve. He hands Jim the tiny figurine of the Kelvin. It’s one of the few things Spock owns.
Jim takes it, rubbing his thumb on the sand-scraped metal. “Thanks.”
“I have yet to decide my course.”
“I figured it would take more than two days. Don’t rush, okay?”
“Are you pissed off at me?”
“I could not be angry with you.”
They stand there, not speaking. Spock is beautiful in the lights coming from the shuttle, his dark hair falling in his face. On impulse, Jim leans in and places a kiss on his cheek.
“Like this,” Spock says, taking the hand not holding the figurine. He curls Jim’s fingers, then straightens the pointer and middle finger. He does the same with his own hand, then presses their fingers together. “This is the Vulcan way.”
Jim feels a tingle where they’re touching.
“I have been and always shall be your friend.” Then Spock steps back, separating their hands.
Jim doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to. He turns. Goes up the gangway and into the shuttle. The door slides shut behind him.
“Ready?” the pilot asks.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Jim answers, looking down at the fastening of his seatbelt to hide the sudden tears in his eyes. The metal of the figurine digs into his palm. He turns it over in his hand, studying it. A few grains of sand fall out, and that’s when Jim notices it’s actually a salt shaker, one of those trinkets you can buy at a starbase tourist shop. It’s funny how something so small and cheesy can remind him both of his father, who has always been a part of him, and of Spock, who’s only recently been woven into who he is.
He reaches to get his mom’s note from the pocket of his backpack. He’s read it over a hundred times, even though it’s only two words long, and one of those words is the date of his shuttle pick-up. He stares at the little piece of paper.
Yes. He asked if she would do it all again, even if she knew she’d lose his dad, and she said yes. A part of her is still missing, and she’ll never get it back, but it hits him that she’d rather have that emptiness inside her than nothing all, as weird as that sounds.
It’s possible Spock will decide to continue on his course. He might call Jim back from Earth and ask him to dissolve this thing that’s grown between them. Or he might not. Or Jim might be the one to ask for the dissolution. But he knows Spock won’t sever the connection without his consent. And as long as the bond exists, Spock won’t be able to go through with kolinahr.
No matter what happens, Jim has no regrets.
As the shuttle takes off, he feels something pulling in his mind, like a rubber-band being stretched and stretched. The shuttle gains altitude, breaking away from the planet. Jim can see the mountains of Gol. He can see Vulcan’s Forge disappearing into darkness. He can see beyond, and he thinks about Spock’s journey from Shi’kahr to Mount Seleya.
Vulcan has come to feel like his home — no, it’s not that. He won’t miss the planet. He’ll miss Spock. It’s Spock who anchored him and made him feel he belonged. No one ever made him feel that way before.
Soon the curve of the planet is visible, and Jim can see the ship that will take him back to Earth. At that moment, he can feel a change in the bond. The tension releases. It’s not painful, exactly, just less intense. He has a vision of spools of silver and gold threads leaving his body, unfurling into space, still intertwined. The stars outside the viewing portal look back at him silently.
Jim focusses on Spock’s presence. Asks a wordless question. Waits. And feels the answer coming across kilometers of space. Across light years. Across parsecs. Across the days and days he has yet to live.