Logically, Spock knew that although he had put significant distance between himself and his current home, he was not running away. He had not set out with ample provisions for an undertaking of that magnitude, lacked proper identification for space travel, and would certainly not be taken aboard any legal transport if he intended to embark while accompanied by such a large pet. He recalled the difficulty in securing proper travel permits for I-Chaya in the past; his father’s political standing and strict adherence to protocol had made it possible to keep the old sehlat with them ‘as a part of the family,’ Mother had called him, to which Spock had replied, ‘I-Chaya is not a part of this family. I-Chaya is a sehlat.’
The look in mother’s eyes at his correction remained a mystery long after the colors of the night sky and the complex patterns of distant nebulae had become translatable by means of distinct and relatively straightforward equations. Spock no longer posed idle questions to I-Chaya when he could more easily keep them to himself and solve them within himself, not even when they were alone.
However, there were some things his equations could not solve.
I-Chaya, is it not curious that so many phenomena can be understood with mathematics, yet Mother cannot be?
I-Chaya was missing half of one long fang; his age was apparent in his diminished speed, as well as the occasional lack of clarity in his eyes. They appeared clouded, especially after rigorous physical demands were put to him—such as crossing the mile-long stretch of desert they were little more than halfway through by nineteen hundred, the dry grit of white sand crunching beneath the soles of Spock’s shoes and sticking between the leathery pads of I-Chaya’s paws.
In that first half-mile, due no doubt to the demands of exercise, Spock’s hands had ceased their initial trembling, but his knuckles were still streaked with green where the skin had been split by blunt force. Lesions on the skin and a small but not insignificant swelling on his bottom lip would have made it readily apparent to anyone capable of observational deduction that he had recently been engaged in a physical scuffle, though it was not as readily apparent if he had won or lost.
So, too, was Spock’s mind divided in the answering of that question. There were many ways to succeed and many ways to be defeated. When there was no clear purpose, no real goal, success was not even a variable.
At least he had not cried.
He had seen Mother engage in this unsightly human pastime but only once, and she had not known he saw her. There was nothing to precipitate it. There had been no fighting at all, which Spock understood was a common cause for human tears. She was not in pain; no one, to Spock’s knowledge, had died; the day was clear, the air thin, and nothing at all had happened. Yet after dinner she had excused herself and, when Spock found her, it was on the balcony overlooking the sunset, sitting on her favorite bench where she often read or wove, and her face was wet. She made no sound. Spock had known that to witness such a moment, though she was his mother and she was forthcoming about her affections for him, was a great breach in privacy. She had thought she was shedding her tears alone.
He had watched anyway.
‘Come, I-Chaya,’ Spock said. They paused in the shade of a rocky outcropping and Spock began, in the proper way, to remove the grit from I-Chaya’s paws, where it was causing him discomfort. He held one paw with its blunted, powerful claws in his lap and soon I-Chaya’s breathing had evened, the rumble in his chest indicative of basic pleasure.
Spock was not running away. Simply put, he was not running at all; the brisk pace he had set at the beginning had slowed as the undercurrent of agitation he felt settled. But he was far from tranquil and—a part of the paradox he had come to recognize was his to solve and his alone—his ability to acknowledge a lack of tranquility served only to frustrate him, rather than guide him toward peace.
‘Yes,’ Spock said. ‘That is better. Shall we continue, I-Chaya?’
I-Chaya gazed at him with eyes more rheumy than unfathomable. He sighed, then stood, and Spock rested his hand against I-Chaya’s heavy coat, acknowledging that it must have been difficult to be so well-insulated in hotter climates.
‘I am grateful you came with me, I-Chaya.’ Spock listened to the sounds their footfalls made upon the sand, regulated his breathing, and continued to apply himself to the task of meditative reflection. This was no petulant rebellion but a quest, a walkabout. Like his forebears had crossed deserts to come of age during their kahs-wan, Spock, too, sought a similar insight.
His desire to understand the anger that he felt meant only that the insight continue to elude him. He knew that he must abandon the search in order to achieve discovery.
Yet, upon crossing the next ridge, Spock saw a human in the gulley below.
From that distance there were not enough facts to have ascertained the hypothesis so quickly—yet there was no more logical conclusion for Spock to draw. The figure’s ears were round and smooth and his hair was blond, a genetic trait shared by no one native to Vulcan. He was lying on his side, knees curled against his stomach. Even in that position it was plain to see that he would be small when standing, shorter than Spock. He might have been truly unconscious before Spock had crossed his path, but now he was only pretending. His eyes were clenched shut, his head pillowed against a balled-up roll of fabric that might have been an Earth-style jacket.
I-Chaya experienced none of Spock’s uncertainty and none of his wariness in the face of the unknown and unexpected element. Where Spock had halted with rational caution, I-Chaya plodded on, over the crest of the ridge and down the dune, leaving wide footprints in his wake.
After that, what course was there but for Spock to follow?
He did not arrive quickly enough to stop I-Chaya from inspecting the human first. The sehlat pressed his large, damp nose to the side of the human’s face, proving at once Spock’s appraisal that he had already regained consciousness when he twitched and jerked upright. Whatever ambush he had anticipated, it hadn’t taken the form of a sehlat. His blue eyes widened and he scooted backward along the sand, abandoning his makeshift pillow.
It was only when I-Chaya did not move after him—the human’s smell was evidently the most interesting thing about him; I-Chaya had neither attacked nor bared his teeth in territorial aggression—that the boy managed to take his gaze off of him, head swinging from left to right until he caught sight of Spock.
His face was scattered with points of concentrated melanin and his eyes were so blue that Spock could neither look directly at them nor pull his gaze away from them. It was a contradiction that prickled beneath his skin. Surely one or the other must have been possible.
Silence was measured between them, punctuated only by I-Chaya’s thoughtful snuffling. It did not last.
‘You’re Vulcan,’ the boy said, in clear, unaccented Standard. ‘Right?’
This much was self-evident.
Spock had never met a human his own age. He found himself unprepared in how to properly address him. It seemed impolite to inquire after his sleeping arrangements or to point out the holes worn in the hem of his simple, gray shirt. It had short sleeves, and it was unclear whether the garment had been gray to begin with, or whether time and misfortune had worn it to that particular shade from another, original one.
A frown creased in the boy’s forehead when Spock did not respond and he looked down at his hands, clutching the sand beneath him as though he believed it could provide stability. Slowly, he raised one, parting his fingers down the center to perform a shaky but otherwise acceptable Vulcan salute.
Grains of sand clung to the damp skin of his open palm, and there were angry red crescents there; some unseen tension had caused him to make a fist and dig his nails in hard enough to leave marks not yet faded.
Spock responded in kind. The boy’s expression cleared and he sat back, kneeling in the sand.
There were no footprints to indicate what direction he had come from. The desert’s night winds had swept the sand bare of any trace of life except for Spock, I-Chaya, and the boy. Spock was not familiar with human tradition and practices, but he could judge from his mother’s affection and care for him that it was nottypical to leave one’s offspring apparently alone and without protection anywhere, much less unprotected from the elements.
‘It is dangerous to be out here alone,’ Spock said, replying in Standard for the boy’s benefit. Father had once explained that humans did not take to the Vulcan language without considerable effort. Mother’s felicity had come to her only with great difficulty and great dedication.
The boy jolted upright once more, as though this had caught him by surprise, even though his eyes had not once left Spock’s face. Spock recognized the signs of fever that he wore, which provided him with no surprise. Even Mother, who was by now accustomed to Vulcan’s temperatures, would pause now and then in the heat to fan her hand before her throat, tugging aside the drape of a scarf to reveal flushed skin. She did not do it often and the rarity of the admission made it all the more noticeable when she did indulge on the hotter days.
I-Chaya turned over his left shoulder and looked to Spock, then resumed exploring the stranger with his nose. Certain animals were able to sniff out, from the properties of their sweat, the presence of illness in humans. Spock knew that I-Chaya’s sensory perception had been dulled with age—but it would be unwise to assume that a chipped tooth no longer had any bite.
‘I know that you are able to understand me,’ Spock said. ‘Why do you not answer?’
The boy swallowed. ‘I’m not trespassing,’ he said at last, defending himself against an accusation that had neither been spoken nor implied. ‘I know there’s nobody here.’
‘I did not say that you were.’ The boy was irrational, as all humans were, especially when they found themselves confronted with the unfamiliar. ‘Still, you should not be here.’
‘Is he yours?’ The boy nodded, barely perceptibly, toward I-Chaya. He was at least intelligent enough to make no sudden movements around a large and unfamiliar animal close to five times his size.
‘I-Chaya is my companion,’ Spock replied. ‘If you do not try to harm either of us, then he will present no danger to you.’
‘I’m not gonna...’ The boy swallowed. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘We’re okay—I-Chaya, right?’
His eyes were still wide with fear despite the facts as he lifted his hand, very slowly, to allow I-Chaya to scent his fingers. His hand trembled. Though I-Chaya could be physically intimidating, the ferocity of his nature was revealed only when provoked. Spock did not understand why the boy’s expression did not change or why, despite the sting of the gritty wind, he refused to blink until his eyes watered.
‘How did you come to be here?’ Spock asked.
He did not belong.
The boy might have answered him then, had a sudden noise not drawn both their attention away. But it was not a worthwhile endeavor to speculate on what might have been—especially when it would not ever be.
Spock turned as shale scattered down upon him from above. Cresting the ridge was the source of the noise, a deep-throated growl, and Spock recognized the pattern of the dull gray scales, the shape of the muzzle, on the creature that had just discovered them. It was a Le-matya, and its claws were poisonous. It must have scented them on the wind—the stranger’s sweat was especially acrid—and it was a creature of instinct and hunger. It lunged when it knew it had been marked, scrambling down the ridge and into the gulley below with lean, muscular speed.
The danger could not be measured by any equation, nor could the timing of impact be equated without full knowledge of the constants. Spock felt the elevation of his pulse and experienced no displacement from his body in the moment of heightened awareness—but, to his dismay, he did not move quickly enough. The Le-matya would have crashed into him, swiping him aside with finely honed talons, had I-Chaya not barreled into him from behind, knocking him aside and out of immediate danger. The Le-matya met with I-Chaya instead, a larger obstacle than expected, and growled again in frustration. The sound echoed through the valley as they engaged in combat.
Spock stumbled, then called out I-Chaya’s name despite himself.
I-Chaya stood on his hind paws, raising himself to his full height. Spock saw that the boy had had every right to maintain his distance and hold on to his fear. The sehlat, when angered, would have been terrifying to anyone seeing it express rage for the first time.
Yet I-Chaya was old, the Le-matya too swift for him. It lunged with snapping teeth toward I-Chaya’s belly and Spock cried out again.
Unnecessary. Sentimental. He bit back on the sound with self-reprimand but that, too, had little time to take effect. The Le-Matya shrieked, a new sound of pain rather than hostility, and Spock recognized its surprise before it dropped to the sand. The boy was standing behind it, a large rock held between both hands, pleased with his triumph—until the Le-matya’s tail lashed after him, knocking him flat on his back.
It was all the time I-Chaya had needed, however, to bring his full weight down on their attacker. The Le-matya did not scream again.
Neither did the boy move.
Now that the danger had passed, Spock could afford to allow his attentions to shift. This time, he was certain that the boy’s unconsciousness was not a ploy. Rather, it seemed the stimulus of sudden activity, compounded by very real and immediate danger, had incapacitated his already-fraught nervous system, requiring a necessary period of rest and recovery.
Spock’s bent to make a closer inspection; his fingers brushed the boy’s forehead, attempting to clear his hair from his eyes. Spock’s own hair had never grown long enough for his vision to be obscured by it, but his mother often performed a similar gesture whenever she was concerned after his health. The boy’s skin was flushed and hot to the touch. It would have been possible to sense more—but not appropriate. Spock retracted his touch from the damp skin.
Such a fever would not pass if it remained untreated. That made Spock’s decision very clear.