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Demeter

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* * ** * *Introduction* * *

I've been putting off writing this introduction for quite some time now, partly because I've been busy, but also, I think, because when I'm done with it, I'll truly be done with Demeter. I'm oddly reluctant to reach that stage, to put it to bed, to let it go. However, there comes a time when the most valuable thing for a writer to do is not to tinker more with a completed manuscript, but to submit it, with all its possible faults, to the judgement of readers. So here is Demeter.

At this point, I have to offer an apology to all those people who have been so flatteringly anxious to know when the sequel to Kista will be finished. Demeter is not, strictly speaking, the sequel to Kista, though it is a sequel. It's set on the Enterprise, about seven years after the end of Kista, but Demeter really does stand on its own. There are a few references to Kista in it, but they're mostly self-explanatory. No one needs to have read Kista to understand, and I hope enjoy, Demeter. The most important carried-over plot point, Christine and Spock's marriage, is fairly obvious!

The story of what happened immediately after Kista ended remains to be written, but I'll be working on it very soon. (As a matter of fact, it will be the next thing I write after this introduction.) When I finished Kista, I simply could not concentrate on the immediate sequel. When I tried, I came up blank, so I jumped ahead in time and tackled a question that had been bothering me.

Just how sexist is the Federation? Granted that Star Trek was unusually enlightened for the mid-sixties, there are elements of it which seem offensive in the eighties. And if we accept it as a depiction of the 23rd century, where does that leave us? (Yes, I know, it leaves us blaming NBC and Paramount, but putting that aside...)

Many authors deal with the problem by doing away with it, by simply eliminating the sexism in the show from their Trek writing. This is an excellent solution, and one that I may adopt at some other time. All writers alter and transform the basic Trek universe to some extent, choosing some things to emphasize and others to play down, filtering the characters and the concepts through their own perceptions. This is perfectly legitimate creative license.

But if sexism is still a fact of life several hundred years into our future, then why? And how do the women feel about it? How does it affect them, personally, professionally, politically, socially? I've tried to inject some of those questions into Demeter, without, I hope, stopping the story dead in its tracks. It's been an interesting, occasionally painful, exercise. There were times when I felt like disowning, without exception, the opinions of every single character in this book. (Don't blame me, this is what they said! I just wrote it down.)

One more thing - when I invented nirvana, I had barely even heard of crack, and knew virtually nothing about it. The parallels between the fictional drug and the real drug became more and more apparent as time went on, even down to some of the effects on the brain. I thought when I was writing that the dangers of nirvana were melodramatic fiction. It's sobering that they are so close to reality.

To all of the wonderful people who bought Kista, thank you. I don't know what I would have done with those big heavy boxes if no one had wanted to buy it. Maybe used them for end tables? My special gratitude to everyone who answered my plea for LoCs. Your praise helped enormously during some very difficult stages of working on Demeter, and I was grateful for your well-judged criticisms, too. (Luckily I didn't get any letters from anyone who absolutely hated the book!) I seem to have changed a few people's minds about the possibilities inherent in Christine's character, which is nice.

One person who I absolutely must thank separately is Florence Nygaard, the first person to buy Kista (I was ready to weep with gratitude), and its first booster. I become totally tongue-tied when confronted with a potential reader, so I have stood by blushing at New York cons while Florence enthusiastically told everyone passing, "It's wonderful, buy it!" In many cases, they did. Thank you, Florence.

Thanks also to Devra Langsam, who has taken Kista to cons all over the country, and who passed along the name of her printer for Demeter.

As for my family, what can I say? Without the patience and support of Stephen, Sarah and John, I couldn't write at all. And it takes very great patience for a four-year-old to understand a mommy who says "Later, I'm writing," when he wants her to put the arm back on his He-Man figure. My wonderful husband, Stephen, continues to be as enthusiastic as ever about my writing, in spite of the fact that I moaned and complained even more over Demeter than I did over Kista. He is feeling a little understandable trepidation over how I'll act when I'm writing the next one!

Kista was, at bottom, a love story. Demeter is, if anything, a novel of ideas. What do you think of it? Please let me know. The chance to exchange ideas with others is one of the best things about getting involved in fandom, and I think that as a group, Star Trek fans are the nicest people I have ever met! Live long and prosper.

* * *Chapter 1* * *

"Red alert. Red alert. The ship is on red alert." The voice of the computer spoke steadily, dispassionately, over the whooping of the siren. There is no good time for a red alert. This one sounded at 0213; the middle of the ship's night, a little over two hours into Gamma watch. Three-quarters of the crew of the Enterprise was in bed. The labs were dark, support functions on automatic, recreation areas empty of all but a few confirmed night owls. The bridge, engineering, and sickbay were the only areas fully staffed, and they hadn't been expecting trouble. Not on a milk run back to Starbase XI to pick up supplies and new orders...

* * *

Jim Kirk was awake and reaching for the intercom switch almost before the first whoop of the klaxon had died away. Just as his finger made contact the ship bucked and shuddered, dumping him bodily out of bed onto the floor. He stabbed again at the 'audio only' button, and listened grimly to the report relayed by Uhura from the bridge. "On my way," he said, reaching for his pants as the ship shook again.

* * *

Uhura blessed the redesigned seats which let her tend to communications without having to use one hand to hold on. She'd spent too much of the original five year mission trying to brace herself by winding her legs around the base of her chair. Now she could continue sending messages ship-to-ship while dealing with internal communications with her other hand. As soon as she had shut down the channel to the captain, she received a furious signal from sickbay.

"What the hell's going on up there?"

She knew that McCoy didn't really expect an answer, just some idea of what was coming. "Suggest you prepare for casualties, Doctor," she answered.

She heard a muttered "No shit" in reply as the ship tilted.

"Damage reports coming in from engineering and decks nine and ten," she warned.

* * *

Leonard McCoy shut down the intercom, and swallowed, realizing that his mouth was dry. He hated that damned siren. He knew what it meant to him; they would be getting wounded in sickbay any minute now. He wasn't usually on duty Gamma watch, but there were two newly assigned med-techs on this shift. He'd wanted to ease them into the routine, get to know them... Hell of a way to start, he thought, as the first call came through. "Medics to engi-neering - emergency - coolant poisoning."

"Ozawa, Herija, Thelit," he said to the two Terran men and the graceful Andorian woman. "Get down there." Thelit was one of the new techs. He spared a compassionate thought for her before turning to his remaining staff. "Don't stand there gaping! Get the o.r.s ready for surgery. Check our blood and plasma supplies." With any luck Chris and the rest of the off-duty personnel would be here a few steps ahead of the first casualties.

* * *

Christine Chapel was moving automatically as she pulled on her uniform. Her body had responded reflexively to the alert signal, but her physiological reactions were at least 30 seconds ahead of her mental processes. It had been a rude awakening; the violent lurching of the ship had rolled her straight out of bed onto the floor. Unfortunately it had done the same to her husband, and her first concrete sensation had been of 73 kilos of solid Vulcan landing on her diaphragm. Spock had recovered faster than she had. Well he was on top, she thought ruefully. And when he woke, he did it completely and all at once, not in stages. She gathered her scattered wits. "A storm?" she asked hopefully, not really believing it.

"Negative. The impacts are too definite and spaced out to be natural occurrences. Phaser fire."

"I was afraid of that." The floor of their cabin tilted just as Christine pulled on one of her boots, and she stumbled helplessly across the room to tangle with Spock in the bathroom doorway. When the stabilizers took over to right the ship, she hastily twisted up her hair without bothering to brush it. The hairpins slipped out of her fingers and skittered maddeningly across the floor. Spock picked them up and inserted them firmly as they headed out the door, the alarm still sounding.

A red alert required all stations to be double and triple covered, so the corridors and turbolifts were jammed. Christine shared a down lift for a couple of levels with Scotty, who had fallen asleep over a bottle of scotch and an engineering journal, and knew little more than she did about what was happening. When the lift stopped to let her off at sickbay, three techs with a trolley and portable respirators came crowding on. One of them was Herija, who she'd known for years. The other two were unfamiliar, one of them a waif-like Andorian who didn't even reach her shoulder. "Juan?" she asked, stopping Herija.

"Coolant leak in engineering," he said tersely. "Don't know how bad." Scotty looked horrified. Christine peered down the corridor and made a split-second decision. She could see McCoy in the door, beckoning impatiently. She shook her head and pointed to herself and to the techs. Coolant poisoning was tricky to deal with, and two of the three techs probably had no experience with it. If she wasn't needed, she could come back up. McCoy hesitated for a second, and then nodded, waving her back into the lift.

* * *

Sulu massaged his neck gingerly, and avoided Spock's curious gaze as they stood in the ascending bridge turbolift. He had been working out in the gym when the alert sounded. He was on Beta watch these days, and he usually found that exercise afterward helped him to sleep better. If he kept it up, he might even manage to beat Keiko one of these days. He hadn't believed it when he'd heard that Keiko Ichigawa from Security was the Starfleet Security martial arts championship runner-up. Now, rubbing his aching shoulder, he believed it. He'd been working out with her for three weeks, and she still threw him around the gym with insulting ease, despite being only two-thirds of his size. Tonight she had capped the lesson by tossing him in the pool with all his clothes on just as the alert sounded. Which was why he was leaving a large puddle behind him as he and Spock stepped onto the bridge.

* * *

As the lift doors opened, Spock ceased to concern himself with Sulu's odd condition, and turned his mind to the two small vessels visible on the main viewscreen. Kirk was already in the center seat, and Spock took over the sensors from Lt. Aboudjian, who surrendered them with evident relief. Another burst of fire hit the Enterprise, but she rocked more gently now, her shields on maximum and holding. Without waiting to be asked, Spock relayed the information he was picking up. "Attacking vessels are standard short range freighters. Their registration marks have been obscured, and they are not broadcasting identification beams..." He glanced at Uhura.

"No signal of any sort from either vessel, despite our attempts to contact them," she confirmed.

"Standard freighters, Spock?" asked Kirk sharply.

"In most ways, Captain. Their engines and hulls appear to be ordinary. What are not ordinary, obviously, are their armaments and their shielding." The Enterprise shook. "A hit on number three shield."

The intercom sounded. "Engineering to bridge." Scotty's voice was distorted by a respirator, but his urgency was clear. "We're coping with a coolant leak down here. I canna keep up full power to the shields. Ye've still got phaser power, but I'm not sure for how long."

"Still no reply?" Kirk asked Uhura. She shook her head. "No, sir."

"Energize phasers." He glanced at Spock, and Spock nodded in reluctant assent. "Bring her around to 135 mark 18, Mr. Sulu."

* * *

Christine couldn't hear Scotty's words, but from his tone she imagined that it wasn't good news. She pressed the spray hypo into her patient's neck as his body heaved and twisted. He was coughing blood; her white uniform was speckled with red. The pain of trying to breathe with his burned lungs was convulsing him. The coolant was a corrosive poison, but as necessary in its way to the operation of the ship as the dilithium crystals. She couldn't get the respirator on him until the painkiller started to take effect. He gradually relaxed and she worked the tube into his trachea, adjusting the intake so that he was breathing in an antiseptic antibiotic along with the air. There was no more she could do for him here, and little more even in sickbay. If he didn't go into irreversible shock, and if his lungs didn't fill up with fluid, and if not too much of their surface had been destroyed, and if they didn't collapse, and if he survived the days in which every breath would be agony, then he would live. Maybe a 65% chance. Damn, she was even starting to think like Spock.

"Poor lad," said Scotty, stopping briefly beside her.

She stood. "He's got a decent chance, Scotty." She couldn't promise more, and he understood.

He nodded and sighed. "We've located the leak. The ventilators should have this muck cleared out in about twenty minutes." There was a thick yellow haze in the air, and everyone present was wearing respirator masks.

The ship took another hit, and Scotty left with a muffled curse. Christine peered through the murk, trying to locate the other casualties. She saw a flash of blue and white - the Andorian... Thelit, that was her name. She was disappearing around a bulkhead into a room which held some minor bypass circuits. Christine started to go after her, then stopped as Herija came over. "Have we got all of them on respirators?" she asked.

"All except Ensign Chandra. She didn't make it."

"Damn. Get the rest of them on gurneys, Juan. I don't think we can do any more here. I'll take a last..."

"Dr. Chapel..." The soft, lisping accent was enough to identify the speaker. "Over here, quickly." Thelit was beckoning from behind the dented bulkhead.

Christine left the evacuation of the casualties to the capable Herija. What she found when she joined Thelit made coolant poisoning seem simple. She took a horrified breath. "Shit! What was he doing down here? Damn his curiosity! It must run in the family."

Thelit didn't try to answer. She was passing a scanner over what could be seen of the young Vulcan. Sarel must have been sitting at one of the consoles when the engineering hull was first hit. The jolt had sent him backwards, and torn the heavy console loose from the bulkhead. It had landed squarely on him from knees to ribcage.

"He is alive," said Thelit. She didn't need to add "barely." "His back is broken."

Christine was conducting her own examination, heedlessly kneeling in the sticky patch of green blood staining the floor. "Broken back, broken pelvis, crushed legs - nearly severed. Broken ribs, ruptured liver..." She didn't go on. Even for a Vulcan... One thing at a time, she reminded herself. "Get this console off him. I've got to control the bleeding and immobilize the spinal column before we can even think of moving him."

Thelit pushed at one corner of the console. "I was taught that Vulcans can control their own bleeding."

Christine strained at the other corner. "Not with a broken back. The nerve impulses can't get through."

"I see." The twisted metal mass lifted a little, and then stuck. "We need help here," she called out as Christine continued to brace the console with her shoulder and hip.

Ozawa and two engineering crewmen responded in a few seconds, and Christine backed away. The console trembled and rose, sparks spitting from a few exposed wires. "There's no room to set it down," grunted one of the engineers. "Can't you just slide him out?"

"If I do, he won't come in one piece," said Christine bluntly. The crewman looked sick. What was left of Sarel from knees to ribs was hardly recognizable. "Brace the console against the wall. I'll get under it."

"Careful," gasped Ozawa.

"I will get under on his other side," volunteered Thelit.

Christine hesitated, and then nodded. This girl was steady in a crisis. "Seal off the bleeders on that side. I'll do this side, and then we'll get a body wrap on him to stabilize his spine." In the back of her mind, a voice said pessimistically that Sarel's body was broken beyond any hope of repair. She ignored it, and slid on her side through a tangle of wires. A sharp shard of broken metal scraped her arm, but she managed to pull out the laser suture and began to look for severed blood vessels.

* * *

"164 mark 8, Mr. Sulu." The Enterprise dipped sharply, turning momentarily away from the two freighters. They turned too, but more slowly, clumsily, as they tried to pursue. The shots they loosed as they turned went wide. Kirk considered them. He was beginning to grasp their weaknesses.

"Our shields are holding, but only at 52% power now," reported Spock. "Another direct hit on any of them will cause the affected shield to collapse."

"Understood. Still no response on communications?" He knew the answer, but he wanted to give one last try.

"No, sir," said Uhura quietly.

"Captain, I am reading a power loss on the attacking vessel's shields as well. They appear to be pursuing parallel courses." Spock raised an eyebrow.

"Keeping their weakened shields toward each other," agreed Kirk. "Mr. Chekov, prepare to target port and starboard phasers. Mr. Sulu, warp .8"

".8, sir?"

".8"

"Aye, sir." The Enterprise shuddered as she dropped abruptly into sublight speed. The two freighters were a hundred thousand kilometers past her before they could brake and turn. Kirk hit the intercom for engineering. "Hang on down there, Scotty. I'm about to ask you for warp 9."

"But sir..." A long pause. "Aye, sir."

"Execute, Mr. Sulu. Course 146 mark 20."

The Enterprise exploded forward, shooting into the narrow slot between the two freighters just as they completed their clumsy turning maneuver.

"Fire phasers, port and starboard." The freighters fired an instant later, but they could not turn quickly enough to target properly. Both ships took direct hits on the weakened shields that they had been trying to protect. The Enterprise rocked as the viewscreen exploded with light.

"One ship destroyed, the other disabled," Spock reported tonelessly. Kirk knew that expressionless voice masked his profound distaste for the destruction of life, even when necessary. And Spock wasn't the only one. There was acceptance on the bridge, but little elation.

"Ms. Uhura, send to the disabled vessel. Prepare to abandon ship." Uhura began to relay the message, but before she could complete it, the second freighter was a disintegrating fireball. The Enterprise bucked like a living creature as debris and radiation hit her screens.

* * *

An explosion sent wires and bits of metal showering over Christine's shoulders and into Sarel's torn abdomen. "Oh, shit," she whispered, blinking the dust from her eyes. She couldn't spare a hand to rub them. Sarel's life signs were almost nonexistent.

"Get out of there!" said someone above her. "We can't brace this much longer! If we get hit again..."

"Done on this side, for what good it will do," said Thelit. If Christine lifted her head, she could just see one of the Andorian's white antennae over Sarel's body.

"Go, Thelit. Good job. I can get the body wrap on myself." Thelit wiggled out as Christine eased the body wrap around Sarel. Getting it under him would be the tricky part... There. He had hung on this long. Typical Vulcan stubbornness. Now if they could get him into surgery, he might have a chance. Suddenly the ship shook and tilted wildly, sending Sarel's body sliding down on top of her.

"It's slipping! Get out!" The slant changed, and she tried to move backward, but she was caught on something, tangled with Sarel, and the floor was slippery with blood. Someone grabbed her feet and pulled. She managed to clutch Sarel and drag him with her, and they both rolled out just as two thousand kilos of broken metal smashed into the place where they had been lying.

Christine turned, and realized that it had been Thelit, of all people, who had yanked them free. "Thank you," she gasped. "I didn't think..." She stopped.

"That I had it in me?" There was matter-of-fact pride in the soft voice. "No one ever does."

"Sorry." Christine made a mental note not to underestimate this girl. "Let's get Sarel to the o.r."

* * *

Kirk allowed himself to slump back in his chair. "Any other ships in the vicinity?" he asked as the Enterprise stabilized.

"Negative, Captain. All scanners read clear."

"Cancel alert. Secure from general quarters." He looked at the chronometer. 0304. Less than an hour since the alert had woken him. It seemed longer. He rubbed his scratchy eyes and stared at the clear star pattern on the viewscreen. "Who the hell were they?" he asked softly. "And what were they up to that was so important that they blew themselves up to avoid surrendering?"

After a moment Spock said, "It is difficult to form a theory with so little data." He sounded aggrieved at his inability to provide an immediate answer.

Kirk's mouth twitched. "All right," he said. "I want to see all of you in the main briefing room at 0800. We'll go over the incident in detail and see if anything shows up."

"Damage and casualty reports coming in," said Uhura.

Kirk sat up straight again, his muscles tensing. "Report."

"Minor damage to recreation areas and labs on decks nine and ten. A coolant leak, under control, and damage to bypass circuits in engineering."

"Estimated repair time?"

"Mr. Scott says twelve hours, sir."

"Casualties?"

"One dead," said Uhura sadly. "Ensign Chandra from engineering." She stopped and listened for a moment. "A dozen cases of coolant poisoning and one serious injury. Lt. Sarel is in surgery now. He was trapped under a falling console." She looked to her left, toward the science station.

Kirk sensed rather than saw Spock's reaction. The Vulcan's face didn't change, and his body only tensed fractionally before relaxing, but Kirk knew him well enough to see the shift from logical calm to rigid control. Sarel was Spock's cousin, and Vulcans took their family ties seriously. "I'll be in sickbay," he said. "Lt. Aboudjian, you have the conn. Spock, with me." He phrased it as a command, not a request, to forestall an objection. Spock undoubtedly wanted to go to sickbay, and equally certainly would resist the desire as illogical.

In the descending lift Kirk looked at his friend's expressionless profile and said, "I'm sorry, Spock. But they'll pull him through."

"Lt. Sarel is a capable young officer, and a promising scientist. His loss would be an unfortunate waste of potential."

"Yes." If Spock was talking like that, he must be extremely worried.

"Dr. Chapel has a reasonable knowledge of Vulcan physiology. I am sure that she and Dr. McCoy will do everything possible."

"Of course," said Kirk, faintly bemused. Spock and Christine had been married for almost ten years, and Kirk still hadn't gotten used to Spock's careful use of her title when on duty.

McCoy met them at the entrance to sickbay. "Sarel's still in surgery. I had Chris take it; she held him together 'til they could get him up here." Spock nodded gravely. "The coolant poisoning cases are all stabilized, Jim. You can say exactly two words to each of them, if you want."

Kirk turned toward the recovery ward. The medical benefits of a visit from the commanding officer were intangible, but very real. And, to be honest with himself, he needed them too.

* * *

"Scalpel." Christine held out her hand without looking up, and the instrument slid easily into it. Sarel's liver was destroyed. They would have to put in an artificial replacement until a donor could be found. She lifted the ruptured tissue away, careful not to get too near the exposed heart muscle. She frowned in concentration. At least that wasn't... The fountain of blood hit her face, spurting wildly, blinding her. The life indicators over the table jumped crazily, and alarms sounded frantically before the indicators went abruptly flat. Thelit had a clamp and sealer in Christine's hands before she asked, and someone else was wiping her face, but it was no use. The damaged liver tissue had been blocking off the gaping tears in the left ventricle and the aorta. It was a miracle that Sarel's heart had kept going as long as it had.

Five minutes later Christine stared up at the indicators and swore quietly but savagely. She stripped off her gloves, deactivated the sterile field, looked across the table at Thelit and shook her head. "I'm calling it. Time of death, 0336. Cause of death, hemorrhage and massive internal injuries."

"You did your best."

"Yeah, and my best wasn't good enough." She would have to tell Spock. "I should have asked Leonard to take over."

"What could he have done that you didn't do?"

"Probably nothing. It's just such a goddamn waste." She turned wearily away and started to wash. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Thelit cover Sarel's body and look down at it for a moment. Her face was drawn with fatigue and sorrow. Christine wondered how old she was. Right now she looked about twelve. Christine sighed. "Sarel was Spock's cousin. I'll have to tell him."

"The first officer? I didn't know that," Thelit said softly. "Were they close?"

"In their way." She was too tired to explain. She knew that Spock, though he would have denied it, had seen Sarel as a younger, less torn, version of himself. He had taken an understated but genuine pleasure in nurturing Sarel's talent for astrophysics, and in explaining to him how to cope with a ship full of illogical humans.

"That will be terrible for Commander Spock." A single tear slid down Thelit's azure cheek.

Christine dried her face, and hands, blinking back her own tears. "Thelit, before I go, I want to thank you. You've been great. This was a rotten way to start your tour of duty, and you handled it like a pro. Not to mention that you probably saved my life down in engineering." She put her hand on the girl's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Christine had to wipe her eyes and blow her nose as she walked out of the O.R. Spock was waiting in the anteroom. She cursed her overactive tear ducts, but as she met his eyes she knew that her expression spared her the necessity of putting the news into words. "I grieve with thee," she said formally.

Spock shut his eyes for an instant, and then bent his head in acknowledgment, his face remote. "Sarel was a credit to his family and to Starfleet. His death is a regrettable loss of potential." He paused. "He will be difficult to replace."

Christine saw McCoy turn from the the terminal in one corner and open his mouth. She shook her head fiercely at him and he subsided. Thelit, who had just followed Christine into the room, said warmly, impulsively, "Commander, we are so sorry. This must be very hard for you. If there's anything we can do to help..."

Spock ignored her. His eyes, holding Christine's, seemed to have darkened from their usual warm brown to an unreadable black. She wanted to hold out her arms to him, but that was for later. In public he couldn't display his pain, so she couldn't offer to comfort it. She had learned that hard lesson long ago.

"What were the precise nature of the lieutenant's injuries?" he asked. "His parents will wish to know."

Christine used the inquiry as an excuse to cross to him. As she explained she let her arm rest lightly, unobtrusively, against his. //Spock?//

He was shielding, but she could sense that he welcomed the contact. As she finished her explanation she felt a gentle touch in her mind. //Christine. My wife, there was nothing that you or anyone else could have done. Your guilt is unwarranted.// Aloud, he said, "I see. It is possible that the bolts securing that console were defective. I will recommend a general inspection to the captain. Lt. Sarel's body can be kept in stasis until we have the opportunity to return it to Vulcan."

He moved toward the door, with both McCoy and Thelit staring after him. "Is that all you have to say?" McCoy demanded.

Spock stopped and turned. "I have duties to perform. Lt. Sarel's work must be reassigned."

"And that's the best epitaph you can give your own cousin?" McCoy sounded disgusted.

Spock's voice took on an even more glacial calm. "Doctor, I do not see what purpose would be served by emotional outbursts on my part. Your own abilities in that regard are more than sufficient."

"You inhuman..."

"Precisely, Doctor. I am not human."

Thelit gave a gasp. Her antennae had curved sharply inward, a sign of anger in an Andorian, and her cheeks were flushed purple. "Well I'm not human either, and I don't understand you any more than Dr. McCoy does. You're not even sorry!" Her sibilant accent had thickened until it was nearly incomprehensible. She looked at Christine. "You said they were close! If this is how he shows it..."

"That's enough, Ensign Thelit! Leonard, you shut up, too!" Christine's blood pressure was rising. "I'm sick and tired of..."

Spock's quiet "Christine," cut across her words simultaneously with the opening of the door from the ward.

"What's going on here?" asked the captain sternly.

There was a long, awkward silence. Finally Spock said,' "I believe it could be termed a cultural misunderstanding, Jim." He paused. "Lt. Sarel is dead."

"I see," said Kirk, and Christine thought gratefully that he probably did. "I'm sorry, Spock. There are a couple of things I want to go over with you. Can I see you for a minute?"

"Certainly, Captain. I also have a few matters which require discussion."

Christine gave a sigh of relief as they went out. Jim was the best person to supply the kind of unobtrusive support which Spock needed now. She looked back at Thelit and McCoy. She was still angry with both of them, but her voice was back under control. "You two had no right," she said quietly. "What do you think, that Spock's a performing animal, required to put on a show for your benefit? He's a Vulcan. What he feels is his business."

"Chris..." McCoy interjected.

She glared him into silence. "Ensign Thelit, as I said before, you're a damn fine nurse - technically. But you'd better take the trouble to learn something about behavior as well as bodies. Yes, I said that Spock and Sarel were close - in their way. Their way might not be yours, but what right do you have to expect it to be? Not everyone on this ship is going fit in with your cultural prejudices! And at the very least you need a lesson in courtesy. You're new, and you've been under stress, so I won't put you on report for yelling at a superior officer. But don't try it again!"

Thelit drew herself up stiffly, her eyes enormous. "Yes, sir," she said with a fair amount of military discipline.

"And you!" She swung on McCoy. "Leonard, you've known Spock for nearly twenty years now. Haven't you learned to recognize how he acts when he's hurting? How stupid can you be? And you dare to call him inhuman and insensitive!" Her voice had risen again, and a part of her mind realized that she was doing exactly what she had warned Thelit about: yelling at a superior officer. How very illogical of her. She took a moment to calm down. Both Thelit and Leonard were eyeing her cautiously as if wondering what she would do next. She sighed and forced the tension out of her body. "All right," she said finally. "Now what's happening with the coolant poisoning cases?"

"They're stable. With care they should all pull through."

"I'll stay and help monitor them. I might as well; I have the report to do on Sarel." Her voice was shaky. She looked down and put her hands on the edge of a table to steady herself. After a moment, she felt a touch on her shoulder.

McCoy pulled her into a tight hug. "You'll do no such thing. Go to bed. You're back on duty in four hours."

"But..."

"No buts." He released her. "And Chris... I'm sorry. Sometimes my mouth works faster than my brain. You can tell that Vulcan of yours so. 'Course he'll probably just say that he already knew it."

Christine managed a smile. "Probably. He wouldn't have found my behavior a model of rational control either. Are you sure you don't need me?"

"Go." He gave her a gentle push toward the door.

* * *

After the door had slid shut behind Christine, McCoy turned to find Ensign Thelit standing at something very close to attention in the center of the room. "At ease," he said with a grin, and she relaxed, a little warily.

"I'm sorry, Doctor," she said. "I offer no excuse for my behavior." Her eyes were still fixed on the middle distance.

"I didn't set you much of an example."

Thelit gradually assumed a more normal attitude. "Dr. Chapel was right. I didn't think... My people mourn very openly."

"So do mine," said McCoy, thinking of some of the Baptist funerals of his youth.

"She was more angry than I expected, considering that she was quite upset herself over the lieutenant's death."

"She's very protective when she senses that Spock's vulnerable. Some kind of instinct. The rest of us tend to assume that he's made of solid neutronium."

"Does she know him well? I wouldn't have thought that their duty areas overlapped much."

McCoy stared at her. "Oh, lord," he said at last. "She's his wife. You didn't know that?"

"No." Thelit's expressive eyes widened. "She's...? But they didn't act... I don't understand."

"Neither do I sometimes. And Chris has been my right arm for almost as long as you've been alive. But it seems to suit them. Now come give me a hand with the inhalant levels on the respirators."

* * *

"Efficiency during the alert was 95%..."

"95.8%, Captain," corrected Spock automatically.

"95.8," agreed Kirk. "That's not bad, but it could be a little better. We'll run some drills during the next week, to liven up those inspections for metal fatigue that you suggested."

"An excellent suggestion." Spock was looking out the viewing port in Kirk's cabin at the stars. Sarel's research on the origins of the Beta Upsilon cluster had been almost ready for publication. They had planned to go over the preliminary draft tonight. There was a painful emptiness in the thought that the discussion would not take place.

He became aware that Kirk was also studying the star pattern. Their conversation seemed to be over, but he felt no eagerness to move. He was grateful for Jim's presence, which offered support without intruding or demanding a specific reaction from him. After the emotional scene in sickbay, it was a relief to stand here with a friend who did not expect that Vulcans expressed their sorrow in some overt fashion. Christine understood that too, but her own grief and guilt would complicate her reaction.

He had been fortunate, he thought; more fortunate than he had once anticipated. He had deliberately chosen to spend his life among humans, while remaining essentially Vulcan. In the beginning it had seemed that a permanent loneliness would be the cost of his choice. He had been prepared to live with that. But instead he had found first a friend and then a bondmate; two beings who saw him clearly and accepted what they saw. Two whom he could call t'hy'la...

He turned his head and looked at Kirk with grave affection. If Jim had not taken the patient trouble to offer his friendship so many years ago, the person who was now Spock might not exist. Would he ever have been able to reach out to Christine if Jim had not taught him the value of human warmth? He might have no bondmate, no children, not even the rapport which he now shared with most of his colleagues.

Jim had cocked his head and was looking back at him with a questioning half-smile. "Spock?"

Spock came out of his reverie with a start. It would be appropriate to put some of his gratitude into words. "I was considering the value to me of our past - and present -association, Jim."

"Mutually beneficial, Spock."

"Indeed. It was..." He sighed and looked at the stars again. "The value of such a friendship is one of the things I hoped to demonstrate to Sarel. Despite his desire to work with non-Vulcans he still had a certain rigidity in his way of thinking."

"He was young."

"Yes." It was not easy to discuss Sarel yet, even with Jim. Spock changed the subject. "Captain, I still have no satisfactory working hypothesis for the behavior or identity of our attackers."

"There hasn't been much time." Kirk gave an unexpected yawn, and looked sheepish. "We'll hash it out at the briefing in - damn, it's less than four hours. We'd better go back to sleep with our thinking caps on."

"Captain, it has never been my practice to don headgear while sleeping." Spock knew a cue when he heard one. "Nor do I see why it would have a beneficial effect on one's mental processes. However, if you find it helpful, you are welcome to try it."

Jim was chuckling. "It's just an exp... And you know that as well as I do! Good night, Spock."

"Good night, Captain."

* * *

Spock was meditating when Christine got back to their quarters. She knew it as soon as the door opened; he had dimmed the lighting, leaving the rooms almost in darkness except for the soft red glow of the firepot. She stopped for a moment just inside the door, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dimness, and her body to the increase in temperature. It had been hard, once, to accustom herself to the heat, but she wanted there to be one place on the ship where Spock wasn't chilly. It had been even hotter when he had lived alone. Over time she had gotten used to it. Now it was almost pleasant. Like the scent of the firepot, it meant home. And Spock never raised any objection to her staying very lightly dressed... She grinned to herself, and then remembered Sarel with a stab of sorrow.

She went softly into the bathroom. She wanted to go to Spock, but he needed the time to examine his own grief before he had to deal with hers. Her body felt horribly sticky; she might as well shower. She chose water over sonics; she always did when she was upset. The hot spray was soothing. Under it, she could think of Sarel with affection as well as pain.

When she emerged, Spock hadn't moved. Christine resisted the desire to interrupt him. Meditation was more important than sleep to him right now. She climbed back into the rumpled bed, noting that it was 0438. One thing was certain, she wasn't going to try fitting in breakfast...

Her eyelids had drooped and she was almost asleep when Spock stood up. She blinked, glad that he was coming to bed, enjoying the flickering red light on his body as he hung up his robe. Predictably, he spotted hers where she had thrown it on a chair, and hung it tidily too. She sighed and closed her eyes as he slid in beside her. After a moment she snuggled close and waited.

When he realized that she wasn't asleep he turned on his side and pulled her into his arms. //Christine? Are you...?//

//I'm okay. I guess.// To her own surprise, she began to cry. //Damn... I thought I was okay. I liked him.//

//He liked you... though that is not the word he would have used.//

//I think I scared him at first.//

//You did. You also provided him with valuable lessons in human behavior.//

//And I tried to be so Vulcan around him!// She sniffed, and Spock handed her a tissue, keeping his other arm tightly around her. //What about you?//

//I am...// He let her see his pain. //I will deal with it, my wife.//

//Oh, Spock...// She held him closer. //I know you will. But I'm glad I'm here, my love.//

//As am I. Your presence is a comfort.// His hand moved against her back, and his mental patterns shifted, another reaction coexisting with the sorrow.

Christine lifted her head instinctively, and fitted her mouth to his as she felt the rush of desire in his mind. She was tired and sad, but not too much to respond to this. She had never quite gotten over the wonder of seeing herself as he saw her when he wanted her. He was surprised now by his own reactions, but she was not. //The need to reaffirm life when confronted with death is instinctive.//

She felt him consider that even as his mouth opened against hers. //The logic of nature?//

//Yes.//

//Reasonable enough.// Her hands traced a familiar path down his body, and he shuddered pleasurably. //My wife...//

Christine smiled as his mouth found her breast and his hand slid between her thighs. It seemed to her that logic was often Spock's excuse for doing what he felt like doing. She shielded the thought lightly. If he sensed it, they would end up in a philosophical discussion... His hand moved, and she moaned softly. And a philosophical discussion was not what she wanted right now.

* * *

She loved the moments afterwards, almost as much as the lovemaking itself. She had never understood what was meant by post-coital depression. She thought about it. Maybe if you came down from the high of orgasm and realized that you didn't really like your lover... ?

She heard a flicker of mental laughter. //Not a factor in this case,// Spock told her with amused self-confidence.

//Sure of yourself, aren't you?// She grinned. //I love you, Spock.//

//I am aware of it, my wife.// She was enveloped in a vivid, warming burst of tenderness.

She sighed happily and turned her head, kissing his temple. He was still resting on her, warm and heavy and satisfied, and she was in no hurry for him to move. She rubbed her palm idly up and down the smooth skin of his back, exploring the angular shape of his shoulder blades and the narrow firmness of his buttocks. Nice, she thought languidly. A Vulcan male body, so different from hers and yet completing it so well.

Her finger traced the indentation of his spine and she stopped, remembering Sarel's broken back. Shit. Another bit of wasted potential that she doubted Spock had thought of - Sarel had certainly died a virgin. //There must be something I should have done differently.//

//Christine, there was not. Even a Vulcan body can sustain only so much damage before failing.//

//I know. I guess.// She was getting teary-eyed again.

//You cannot cure all the ills of the universe, my wife. It is illogical to feel guilt over it.//

//He shouldn't even have been there. In the lift, when we were bringing him up, one of the engineering techs told me that Sarel had wanted to study the operation of the bypass circuits. He thought they could be made more efficient. It wasn't even his field. He should have been asleep. You know what it is, don't you? He wants - wanted - to be like you.//

//Sarel had, perhaps, an exaggerated notion of my abilities.// He raised his head, looked down at her, and gently began to wipe the tears from her face with his fingers. //I grieve with thee, my wife.// He had slipped into Vulcan. //We will miss him.//

Turning on his back, he settled her with her head on his chest. Feeling the mixture of grief and tenderness coming from him, she thought of the scene in sickbay. It had always been easy to misinterpret Spock, but Leonard at least should have known better. //Leonard says he's sorry.//

//His reaction was not unexpected.// He examined her memory of the conversation after he had left with Jim.

//I don't mind telling Leonard off; we're used to each other; but was I too hard on Thelit?//

//Not necessarily, though your tone was rather blistering. Her behavior was inappropriate, but she does come from the excessively violent and emotional Andorian culture.//

//Which probably means that she understood my anger better than your calm. I'll talk to her about it.// She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, fatigue catching up with her.

Spock stroked her tangled hair. //Sleep. We are back on duty in 2.47 hours.//

Chapter Text

Kirk looked around the briefing room. He had assembled all of the section heads and most of the senior bridge crew for this meeting, in addition to the junior officers who had been on bridge duty when the attack had started. They had just finished viewing the log extract covering the period beginning with the first detection of the mysterious ships. "Any comments, Lt. Aboudjian?" he asked the young man who had been in command.

The lieutenant looked back at him with tired, unhappy eyes. "Yes, sir. I should have raised the shields to full power as soon as the ships refused to answer our hail. Damage from the initial attack would have been considerably less if the shields had been on full rather than half power.

I assumed that the ships were having some problem with their communications..."

"But nonetheless, you should have taken full precautionary measures."

"Yes, sir."

"Well I have no quarrel with your after-the-fact analysis of the situation." Kirk paused. "You're temporarily relieved of bridge duty, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir. Temporarily, sir?" A faint hope warred with distress in Aboudjian's tone.

"You're hereby placed in charge of running a series of unscheduled alerts and battle drills, to take place at irregular intervals until we reach Starbase XI. Crew efficiency was 95..." He glanced at Spock. "95.8% during the attack. I'm making you responsible for increasing it by at least three percentage points. We'll talk about your duty assignment again after that. Understood?"

"Understood, sir." Aboudjian relaxed fractionally. He'd been given a chance to redeem himself.

"What was the status of the freighters when you first contacted them?" asked Kirk, turning to the main point of the briefing. He instinctively looked at Uhura, who had been the senior officer on duty, though not in the direct chain of command.

"They were linked by a docking tube," she said thoughtfully.

"For what purpose?"

"We couldn't tell, sir. We assumed that it was for repairs - that they were in need of assistance. Damage would have been consistent with the lack of communications."

"Obviously the assumption was a little off base."

Uhura nodded, and Lt. Imbimbo, who had been at the helm until Sulu arrived, joined the discussion. "It seemed like their sensors weren't as powerful as ours, sir. They seemed to be unaware of us until we were quite close. Then they broke apart and attacked immediately."

"Other purposes for a docking tube?" asked Kirk. "Spock?"

"To transfer cargo or personnel in the event of a transporter malfunction. Or in cases where the parties involved do not trust each other, a physical exchange of goods or hostages may be considered preferable to reliance on the transporter. There are also certain materials which may be damaged by going through the transporter..."

"I always knew it," muttered McCoy, barely loud enough for Kirk to hear him.

Spock's eyebrow rose, but he ignored the comment. "With no further data, I cannot speculate which of the those explanations may fit."

"Care to speculate on the identity of the attackers?"

Spock steepled his fingers. "They were short-range freighters, and their engines and sensors had not been modified, though their weaponry had been."

"Therefore they can't have come from very far away."

"Choosing suicide over surrender is consistent with Romulan practice, but this is not a sector in which espionage is likely."

"No," agreed Kirk. "If I had to bet, it would be on pirates or smugglers of some sort, though that answer doesn't fit perfectly either. They usually have a healthy sense of self-preservation." He looked around the table. No one else had a comment. "Maybe Starfleet Command will know something about it that we don't - that is if they choose to tell us."

"The preliminary report of the facts has already gone out on subspace," offered Uhura. "They should have it within a few hours."

"Good. I'll follow up with my analysis. Is there anything else? No?" Everyone looked tired. It was bedtime for Gamma watch, and Alpha and Beta watches had had their sleep interrupted. "Dismissed, then." People stood and stretched. "Oh... A memorial service for Lt. Sarel and Ensign Chandra will be held at 1730."

* * *

Christine sat very straight, and clenched her teeth to smother a yawn. The chapel was hot and crowded, and fatigue was catching up with her. It was awful, she thought foggily, that she should be so sleepy at Sarel's memorial service, but they had gotten the order of it wrong. The captain's short, eloquent eulogy should have been put last instead of first.

She tried hard to concentrate on what Spock was saying. She loved his voice, but at this point... Long extracts from the writings of Surak, however worthy, tended to make human eyelids droop. There had been nights on Vulcan when she had read herself to sleep with them. She shifted in her seat, remembering why she was here. Poor Sarel. She tuned out Surak's elegant comparison of the necessity of logic and the logic of necessity and remembered instead Sarel standing awkward and embarrassed in the door of her office the day of his first physical.

"... and thus it is logical that the necessities of nature, such as birth and death, should be accepted..." The reading was nearly over. "...for the logic of nature..." The phrase caught her ear, and she looked sharply up, thinking of the previous night, carefully avoiding a smile. She was sure Spock had chosen that passage deliberately. "...to find a rational harmony." He was finished.

She stood with the rest of the audience - congregation? - as they stretched. A babble of voices broke out as people gradually worked their way toward the exits. Spock had stayed at the lectern, his head bent, thin and ascetic-looking in his dress uniform. He glanced up as she joined him, and held out his fingers to her.

She touched them. "'To everything there is a season,'" she quoted softly.

"'And a time for every purpose under heaven,'" completed Spock. "That is a part, but not all, of what I was trying to convey." He paused. "It related somewhat to what you said last night, or rather this morning."

"I know." Their eyes and fingers held for a minute, and then parted. "Can you wait another hour for dinner?" Christine asked. "I want to catch Ensign Thelit and talk to her. She was just going off when I got to sickbay this morning, and she jumped half a meter sideways when she saw me." She scanned the crowd. "She's over there."

"That should not be a problem. I will see you at 1930."

When Christine made her way over to Thelit, the ensign looked torn between leaving rapidly and enduring the encounter. She opted for standing at attention. Christine sighed. Good god, had she scared the girl that much? "Do you mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?" she asked in her mildest voice.

"No, sir," said Thelit crisply.

"At ease, and you don't have to call me 'sir.' I wanted you to know that I'm not your drill sergeant, and I don't ordinarily eat nurses for a late night snack."

"Yes, s... Doctor." Thelit slowly relaxed. "I'm sorry for..."

"Forget it. Do you drink coffee?"

Thelit permitted herself a tiny smile. "Not here, I'm afraid. I tried it, and it made me sick to my stomach."

Christine grinned. "Understandable."

Thelit hesitated. "I have a bottle of aralmin in my quarters. I brought it from home. Would you like to try some?"

* * *

"This is probably the most overworked question in the book," said Christine, "but... Why did you want to join Starfleet?" She took another cautious sip of the aralmin. It was very sour. Something like fermented lemon juice mixed with boiled anti-coagulant, she decided. But at that, it wasn't much worse than the coffee.

"To get away from home," said Thelit flatly, looking surprised by the honesty of her answer.

"Home was bad? I'm sorry."

"To my family, I'm dead now - no, more. It's as though I was never born. I'm estril'los... an unperson." There was quiet fury in Thelit's voice, and a kind of pride, too.

"Oh," said Christine inadequately. She hadn't expected such a dramatic answer to a casual question. "Uh... Why? If you don't mind my asking." She frowned, thinking of Spock and Sarek. "Your people have a martial tradition, after all; there are probably more Andorians in Starfleet than any other species except humans. On the Enterprise we have a couple of dozen..."

"Men," interrupted Thelit. Her antennae had curved in anger and there was a fierce gleam in her dark eyes.

"What?"

"They are all men."

"Well..." Christine hadn't thought about it before. "Yes, they are."

"Do you know how many Andorian women there are in Starfleet?" She went on without giving Christine time to answer. "There are eleven, including me. Only eleven. And we're all estril'los. Cast out! After defying my family, I can no longer even claim Andorian citizenship."

Christine was quiet, listening to the bitter voice. She had intended this conversation simply as a friendly gesture. But there was an amazing reservoir of anger in this fragile looking girl... no, woman... that went beyond the usual Andorian volatility. It was probably good for her to express it before it erupted at the wrong time, as it had when she blew up at Spock.

"Women in a warrior society! We're valued for our ability to produce the next generation of soldiers! Educated just enough to be dutiful wives and mothers, but not comrades in arms, and never, never equals! Drudges or playthings, and sometimes the spoils of war! The property of our fathers, the property of our husbands, as our mothers were before us!" Thelit jumped to her feet.

Christine stood quickly. "Ensign..." She grabbed the trembling shoulders. "Thelit, calm down. Calm down. It's all right. I'm sorry." She used the same steadying voice she had used on her children when they were small. "I'm sorry, but it's all right now. Calm down."

It gradually worked. The shaking stopped. "My father..." said Thelit, more quietly. "He couldn't let me be just his daughter. If I wasn't his property, I was nothing. My husband... the same."

"You were married?" She hardly looked old enough.

"I ran away from him. Don't they tell us that slavery is illegal in the Federation? He divorced me, of course, and I was glad. I'm no one's property!"

"Of course not," murmured Christine automatically, but she was no longer listening. Thelit's words had thrown her back in time, and she was standing in a haze of red light and heat and pain, listening, unbelievably, to her own voice speaking the Old Vulcan phrases which bound her for life as Spock's property, to serve him and to obey him... She had no choice. The pressure of his mind in the mating fever made it all but impossible to refuse, even if she wanted to. And with his need flooding her consciousness, she did not want to refuse. She had committed herself years before, when they had bonded. The ceremony was only a ritual, and soon they would be alone...

She jerked her mind back to the present. Had she had less... what...? Less... pride than Thelit? No. It wasn't the same thing at all. She had no regrets. The words had no legal meaning any longer, even on Vulcan. And the tradition had nothing to do with the warm, sustaining, joy of her marriage. Did it? She put the memory away. "I'm sorry. What...?"

Thelit was peering into her face. "Doctor, have you been listening to a word I've said?" She looked merry now, as if her explosion of anger had been enjoyable.

"Just remembering something..." said Christine vaguely. Then she answered Thelit's smile. "That was quite an outburst. Do you feel better now that you've got some of it out of your system?"

"Much better. Do you have any children?"

The abrupt change of subject startled Christine. "Uh... yes. Two."

"You're lucky. I don't, and never will, now. It's my only regret. How old are they?"

"Nine and seven and a half. They're in school on Vulcan. We've got three weeks leave coming as soon as we get to the starbase. We'll see them then."

"What are their names?" Thelit sat again, and leaned forward curiously.

"Bri and T'Kista. Boy and girl. Bri's adopted. Spock and I were stranded on his home planet once."

"Do you miss your children?"

"Very much."

"Then why didn't you stay with them? Did you think it was more important to be with your husband?"

Christine's eyebrows rose, and she blinked in shock. "This is quite an interrogation, Ensign." She felt slightly guilty for reminding Thelit of her rank, but Thelit was evidently irrepressible. No wonder she had had to leave Andor.

Thelit looked abashed. "I'm sorry."

"I don't really mind. But... Do you always say whatever comes into your head?"

"Most of the time. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. It always did at home." The soft, lisping voice was at variance with the matter of fact words.

Almost against her will, Christine started to laugh. "Ensign Thelit, you are... not at all what you look like, are you? You look like a blue and white porcelain doll. But in the last twenty-four hours you've saved my life, assisted me and watched our patient die anyway, yelled at my husband, raged against social injustice, and then started to pull me apart to see how I work. If you could channel all that energy, you'd end up as President of the Federation Council!"

Thelit's eyes were twinkling. She had evidently figured out that Christine was not seriously angry. "Are you avoiding my question, Doctor?"

Christine sighed, and pushed a wisp of hair out of her face. "A psychologist, too? Maybe I am." She hesitated. It was none of Thelit's business, but Christine had started this discussion herself. "I stayed on Vulcan with them until a year ago," she said slowly. "Then I asked for - and got - my old job back. I spend my life weighing the children's needs against my needs against Spock's needs, and at any given time I know I'm shortchanging someone." She shrugged. "I do the best I can. No solution is perfect."

"It sounds hard. Maybe I'm luckier than you are after all."

Christine couldn't quite control a warm, private smile. "No. I don't think so."

"Why did you marry him?"

She hastily straightened out her face. "Now that, Thelit, is really none of your business." She glanced at the chronometer. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you come to dinner..." She stopped. She had nearly said, "and try to figure it out." Not a good idea; Thelit would probably take the direct route of quizzing Spock. She might do it in any case. Christine mentally rolled her eyes, suppressed another smile, and motioned the Andorian toward the door.

* * *

"Message coming in from Admiral Malenkov at Starbase XI, Captain," said Uhura, barely avoiding a yawn in the middle of the sentence. It was good to be back on Alpha watch, but it would be a few days yet until her biological clock was readjusted.

Kirk turned his chair slightly and grinned sympathetically at her. She knew that he recognized the symptoms of watch change fatigue. "Scrambled?"

Uhura realized in time that he was asking about the transmission, not her mental state. "Recorded message on an open channel, sir."

"Put it on."

Malenkov flickered into existence on the screen. Stocky and gray-haired, he out-ranked Kirk by one stripe, and was very conscious of his dignity. He had an unfortunate reputation for pomposity. Uhura noticed that Chekov had straightened slightly. Malenkov was the highest ranking Russian Terran in Starfleet, and Chekov's ethnic pride was obviously in working order.

"Greetings, Captain, gentlemen." His accent was less pronounced than Chekov's carefully cultivated one, but still noticeable. "I'm sure you will all be pleased to know that the Enterprise has been chosen for a special assignment. You are ordered to increase speed to maximum, in order to arrive at Starbase XI in thirty-six hours. While here you will receive new orders concerning a matter of great importance to the Federation." He paused. "As a result of this new assignment, I must inform you that all planned leaves will be postponed indefinitely. I'm sure that you all understand that the good of Starfleet and the Federation far outweighs any personal inconvenience." He looked pleased with his turn of phrase. "That is all. Malenkov out."

There was a moment of silence on the bridge. "Pompous ass," muttered Kirk finally. His crew needed their leaves. For that matter, so did he.

He had spoken too softly for most ears, but he was not surprised to hear a dry "Indeed," from behind his shoulder.

"His ancestors ran the KGB," said Chekov in disgust.

"Very likely," agreed Kirk. "Increase speed to warp eight. Spock?"

"That will make our ETA precisely 33.25 hours from now."

"Speculation on the nature of this 'matter of great importance?' Provided it's not all in Malenkov's head."

"The freighters," said Spock thoughtfully.

"That's my idea too. Why don't we..." The rest of his sentence was cut off.

"Red alert. Red alert." The siren blared. "All hands to battle stations. The ship is on..."

"Not again!" Kirk almost leaped out of his chair.

"Sensors report no vessels in our vicinity. All ship's functions are normal, sir," Spock reported with a touch of resignation. "Obviously another..."

"...goddamn drill," finished Kirk. "That's the third one in the last twenty-four hours. Well, I can't fault Aboudjian for doing his job. After this we'll be ready for anything. Energize phasers. Photon torpedo load status?"

* * *

"Breathe in and hold it," said Christine, giving the man on the bed her best professional smile. She glanced up at the scan of his lungs displayed on the monitor. "Good. Now exhale, please." She studied the readings, aware that he was watching her anxiously.

"It hardly hurts at all anymore," he ventured.

"Mm." She rotated the scan, then focussed on him again. "That's because the burns from the coolant are almost healed. Oxygen exchange through the aveoli is back up to 93% of normal." She managed another professional smile. "You'll be out of here in a couple of days."

"Thanks, Doctor." He grinned back. "You know, I've got some sort of memory of you pinning me down in engineering and shoving a tube into my throat. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate it."

"My pleasure. Try to get some more rest while you still can." She turned away, glad to let the smile drop. Her face was getting tired.

In her office she switched on the terminal and started to enter the notes from her just-completed rounds. She had gotten halfway through them when McCoy walked in, sympathy written all over his face. "Chris?"

She met his eyes. "Goddamnit all to hell," she said quietly.

"You could ask for an exception. Hardship, maybe?"

"No good. Spock's already pointed out that there are no legitimate grounds to claim hardship. And before you start, no, he's not unfeeling, only honest. And perfectly right."

"I wasn't going to say..."

"I know. I'm just in a rotten mood." She smiled bitterly, feeling the threat of tears behind her eyelids. "Of course, if one of our children were to die, then that would be a hardship. We'd get compassionate leave for that, no matter what. But if they're alive, the fact that we haven't seen them in six months doesn't count one bit. I feel shitty."

"What about Spock?"

"He feels shitty too." She reached for a tissue. "Don't quote me on that."

"I won't. You feel guilty, too, don't you?"

"How did you ever guess?" Her voice was sarcastic.

"We've been through this before."

"I'm a terrible mother. I should never have taken this assignment."

"What a melodrama. If you were with the kids right now, you'd probably be fretting about Spock."

She sighed. "Probably."

"Is anything wrong with them? Are they unhappy with Amanda and Sarek? Having trouble in school?"

"Of course not! If I thought that, I'd go home right away! They're fine. It's just..."

"Then stop beating up on yourself and listen to me. Chris, the set-up in Starfleet doesn't make it easy for people with families, but you... you're an emotional perfectionist. You're a first class doctor and a damn fine wife and mother, but if you can't take care of everyone at once, you blame yourself." He frowned at her. "From there, you start to slide into maudlin self-pity, young lady - and I'm not letting you go down that route."

She spluttered, the tears receding. "Leonard, are you supposed to be comforting me or scolding me? Young lady, indeed! Watch your mouth, sonny!"

He was unperturbed, switching to what she thought of as his magnolia and mint julep grin. "Much better."

"I guess," said Christine ruefully. "At least the children'll get to see my parents. The liner was due to leave Earth yesterday, so they're already on their way. We'll send a tape explaining. Electronic family life - just wonderful." She noticed McCoy's warning glance. "Right. No self-pity. Let's go over my notes on the last three coolant poisoning cases."

Chapter Text

Kirk was beginning to think that Malenkov would never get to the point. The admiral obviously enjoyed the sound of his own voice. He also liked the trappings of power, to judge by his sumptuous office. This wasn't standard quartermaster corps issue. The office had been a good deal more spartan back when it had belonged to Jose Mendez. Kirk settled himself more comfortably into the soft chair, and prepared to wait out Malenkov's windy oratory on the good of the Federation, the honor of Starfleet, and the compliment being shown the Enterprise. The very floweriness of the praise was beginning to make Kirk uneasy. In his experience, it meant that a load of manure was about to be dropped in his lap.

Finally the admiral showed signs of getting to the substance of his speech. Malenkov never carried on conversations, Kirk thought, he always made speeches. According to him, two other ships had had encounters with rogue freighters similar to those met by the Enterprise. In both cases the freighters had either been destroyed, or destroyed themselves. Malenkov paused for a long time. "In addition," he said finally, "we have received an urgent distress call..." As he continued, he had no more trouble holding Kirk's attention.

Twenty minutes later, all of Kirk's muscles were aching with tension, even though he hadn't moved from his chair. Malenkov might be a pompous ass, but in this case he hadn't underestimated the problem. "One dose can cause addiction?" he asked.

"Yes. Compared to this, the Earth drugs - heroin, for example - and even the balharin that the Orions sell, are mild. The experts tell me that it acts instantly on the pleasure centers of the brain, and the stimulation lasts for several hours. By the time it wears off, the synapses have been altered enough so that the user not only craves the sensation, but the drug is actually necessary to the transmission of nerve impulses." Malenkov had been consulting a computer tape; now he extracted it, dropped it on the desk, and returned to his oratorical style. "This is one of the greatest vehicles for corruption of our civilization ever seen, and it's sweeping like a plague from planet to planet..."

Kirk cut him off before he could get into full swing again. "I understand that, sir." He added silently, "Probably better than you do." Aloud, he said, "With your permission, I think I should check up on the transfer of supplies and personnel. If everything goes smoothly, we can leave orbit in twelve hours." He reached for the tape lying on Malenkov's desk. "I'll need to brief my people right away."

Malenkov put his hand over it. "Captain, some of this is highly classified information. I'm not sure that I should have let you see it, much less..."

"You can't expect them to work blind."

"The political situation..."

"I understand the implications, Admiral, and I have every confidence in the discretion of my crew. If you don't, why were we selected in the first place?"

Malenkov hesitated, turning the tape between his fingers. At last, he pushed it across to Kirk. "Very well. But I want your assurance that access to this material will be strictly on a need-to-know basis. The nature of your assignment will require you to entrust certain secrets to members of the crew who would not normally be in possession of classified information."

"I will tell them what, in my opinion, is necessary for their safety, and the success of their mission," said Kirk firmly. He picked up the tape and stood.

Malenkov sighed, and he stood too, suddenly looking less arrogant. "Agreed, Jim." He held out his hand. "Good luck to you, and to them."

* * *

Spock scanned the starbase arrival gate with something approaching impatience. By his calculations, the first group of arrivals should have appeared 9.38 minutes ago. He had managed to install himself with his back to the wall, near the front of the waiting crowd, but he was still being jostled constantly. The terminal had been built forty years before, when this sector was still sparsely populated, and the facilities were now absurdly overcrowded. The mixed group of humans and other species, Starfleet personnel and civilians, was packed into the inadequate waiting area much too tightly for a Vulcan's comfort. Spock sighed in resignation, and detached his mind from the flood of telepathic impressions which pushed at it.

He came out of his meditations when a voice near him shouted, "There they come. Thought we were going to be here all day!"

It was easy to pick out the tall figure for which he was searching; she was the only Vulcan among the new arrivals. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw him waiting, but she showed no other sign of surprise. She put down the small bag she was carrying. "Lt. T'Nila reporting for duty on the Enterprise, Commander." She switched to Vulcan, raising her hand. "Live long and prosper, Spock. I had not expected to be met here. My transport was late; a docking bay malfunction." She did not apologize as a human would have, he noted. To apologize for an event over which she had no control would have been illogical.

"Peace and long life, T'Nila." Spock returned her salute. "Normal procedure would indeed have been for you to beam to the Enterprise before reporting. However, under the circumstances..." He paused, not wanting to reveal a too-open reaction. "I grieve with thee."

"Thy grief lessens mine," replied T'Nila, perfectly composed.

"You did not wish to request a different assignment after you heard of Sarel's death?" She had picked up her bag again, and they were working their way slowly toward the main concourse.

"For what reason? The presence of my bondmate was only one factor in my assignment to the Enterprise. His death does not change the other reasons. The medical staff is still in need of a geneticist. And I understand that I will be the only healer with mental abilities." Her eyebrows arched. "Surely that has been a grave lack on a ship with a multi-species crew. It seems to indicate a lack of foresight on the part of the senior medical personnel."

Spock suppressed a flicker of irritation at her words. She had a point, of course, but he sensed an implied criticism of McCoy and Christine. "There are few medically trained telepaths in Starfleet. I believe that you will find all the medical personnel of the Enterprise to be more than fully qualified, T'Nila. In addition, though she is not telepathic, Dr. Chapel did spend six years working on Vulcan."

"Of course." T'Nila accepted the understated rebuke gracefully. "I look forward to meeting her. Your wife is well?"

"Indeed. She is..." Spock broke off. Almost as if in answer to his thought, he had caught sight of Christine on the other side of the concourse. She was just emerging from the message center that humans, quaintly, still referred to as a 'post office.' "In fact, she is over there."

He raised his hand, resisting the impulse to wave, and she noticed him. Even through the shifting crowds he could see the small package in her hand, and the smile on her face. The tape from home had evidently arrived; he hoped that watching it would assuage some of her distress over the cancelled leave.

She cut across the stream of traffic to where they waited, and he lowered his hand, extending his fingers to her. "My wife."

Christine had seen T'Nila before she reached him, and had instantly assumed what he recognized as her Vulcan demeanor. Originally, it had been a calculated device, a carefully adopted behavior to avoid embarrassing him in front of his people. Her years on Vulcan, and a growing understanding of its philosophy, had changed it from an act to a facet of her personality. Now, the calm dignity of her face did not extinguish the glow in her eyes. Her fingers brushed his. "My husband." She turned politely to T'Nila, noting the Starfleet uniform.

"Lt. T'Nila, healer and geneticist," the Vulcan woman introduced herself in English. "I am newly assigned to the Enterprise, Dr. Chapel. I understand that you have no one with my training on your staff. A considerable oversight."

"Of course. We've been expecting you, Lieutenant. I'm very glad to meet you, and welcome aboard." Christine switched back to Vulcan. "Live long and prosper, T'Nila. I have seen your record, and I am sure that your skills will be invaluable to our department. I read your recent paper. Have you done any more work on the reversal of genetic damage after exposure to kaminium radiation?"

T'Nila replied, her face unreadable, as they walked toward the transporters. Spock didn't know if Christine had done it deliberately, but he sensed that both her almost accentless Vulcan and her question had put T'Nila neatly in her place. The paper hadn't been translated, or even published yet, only circulated among the members of the Vulcan Academy Committee on Genetics Research. Christine, though the most junior member, had gotten her copy several weeks previously; he had noticed it on her desk.

The line at the transporters was long; they were as overtaxed by traffic as the arrival gate had been. Christine had let Spock lead the way there while she and T'Nila walked behind him; another bit of perfectly Vulcan behavior which left him faintly amused. He'd always been aware that Christine only stayed in the two-steps-back position of a proper wife on the most formal Vulcan occasions, or when she wanted to make a point. In this case, he thought, glancing back at them, the point had evidently been taken. If T'Nila had been prepared to condescend to Christine either professionally or socially, she wasn't being given the chance.

When they were in line, during a lull in the conversation, he linked his fingers casually with hers. //Very neatly done.//

//Some of your relatives gave me a lot of practice in dealing with that sort of attitude.// Aloud, she asked T'Nila, "Do you have your cabin assignment yet?"

"Indeed yes, I received it some weeks ago. It is Deck 6, Number 54."

Christine frowned. "That can't be right. That cabin is..." She stopped. "Was in use... at that time."

"That is quite correct," T'Nila agreed gravely. "I was to share it with my bondmate. Since he is no longer alive, I assume that another roommate will be assigned to the space."

//What the hell... Spock! Why didn't you tell me?//

//Later, my wife.//

Christine's eyes had widened in shock, but her voice was controlled. "I grieve with thee." One advantage - or disadvantage, depending on the circumstances - of modern Vulcan was that it was almost impossible to become wildly emotional using it. "I was not aware that Sarel was your bondmate." It was time for them to step onto the transporter, and she added, switching to English as if daring T'Nila to disapprove, "I liked him very much."

"Indeed," said T'Nila softly, not looking at her. "I did not know him as well as you did."

Before Christine could begin to interpret her words, the transporter beam hummed around them.

* * *

Vorn waddled into John Evans's office and threw a printout onto his desk. "Shipments 124 and 125 are confirmed lost," he grunted. "We picked up a message from the Enterprise to Starbase XI."

Tellarites enjoyed bringing bad news, Evans thought. He casually leaned back and put an elegantly shod foot up on his desk. "Is that so?" he asked. "Are you sure the message wasn't a fake?"

"Of course I'm sure!" Vorn always either grunted or bellowed. "I decoded it myself. There's no way Starfleet could know that we have that code."

"Then we'll write it off," said Evans negligently. "Cost of doing business."

Vorn bounced furiously on his toes. "Write it off! That's the third time this month!"

"A nuisance, I agree. But the loss is spare change compared to what we've made." Evans ran a hand through his fair hair and watched Vorn from under lowered eyelashes. Vorn's indignation set off his own aristocratic cool so beautifully. And in appearance... Beauty and the Beast, that's us, he thought, amused. His own extraordinary handsomeness was probably his best cover.

Vorn slowly simmered down. "At least the other shipments got through."

"That's right. And as long as Starfleet doesn't have a clue where the stuff is coming from..."

"Those bitches on the planet don't know that we're there. By the time they figure it out, it'll be too late for them. Next time, we'll send enough men to be sure of it." Vorn grinned, his snout wrinkling.

"Vorn, my hairy little friend, you and I are in perfect agreement." Evans stood, stretched, and put an arm lightly around the Tellarite's shoulder. He looked mockingly down into Vorn's face, knowing that Vorn was humiliated by the contact, and knowing that Vorn, for all his bluster, was afraid of him. He received his greatest pleasure from power, and the fear of others. Soon, with a little luck, he thought, half a quadrant would fear him.

After a moment Vorn moved away. "The self-destructs are working perfectly," he said with grumpy satisfaction, reminding Evans of one of his contributions to their partnership. "Every time a ship has lost shields or warp maneuvering speed, the mechanism has kicked in."

Evans gave an elegant, feral smile. "Our crews are sworn to death before capture... but it is better not to test that oath too far." His eyes narrowed. "Vorn... have you ever heard the phrase 'capo da tutti capi'?" His die away drawl was suddenly tinged with fanatic intensity.

"No," said Vorn uneasily.

"It's Terran. Old Italian. 'Chief of the chiefs...' Learn it, because in a year, that's who I'll be. Lord of the underworld!" He began to laugh, a light musical laugh. Vorn backed away a little. "There won't be a piss-ant Orion smuggler operating off an asteroid who won't be under my control. And all because I knew a good thing when I saw it. That Rigellian who brought in the first sample... She didn't know what she had. I stripped her brain to find out where she got it... and she still didn't know why I wanted it so much!" Still laughing, he strode out the door, with Vorn trailing behind him.

* * *

"If you knew, why didn't you tell me?" Christine demanded, tossing the tape from home on a table, and impatiently pulling off her tunic. "I know I mentioned that a Lt. T'Nila was joining the staff. I've been asking for a telepath for the past year."

"Sarel requested that I keep the matter private."

"Why?" She yanked off her boots, tossed them into the closet, and then, glancing at Spock, picked them up and set them neatly side by side.

"He was embarrassed." Spock paused. "Though in fact, you were directly responsible for his decision to send for her."

"I was?" She sat on the edge of the bed. It was after dinner; their first chance to talk privately.

"You performed his initial physical examination when he was assigned to the Enterprise."

"That's right..." Comprehension dawned. "And I told him that certain changes in his endocrine system indicated that his first pon farr would occur in six to eighteen standard months." She sighed. "I know it embarrassed him; he turned an interesting shade of apple green. Whether it was the general subject, or me, because I'm female, human and your wife..."

"All of the above, I suspect." Spock crossed the room to sit beside her.

"I couldn't have not warned him; it would have been irresponsible." She pulled off her socks and trousers and shook her hair loose, rubbing her scalp.

"Indeed. He was, in fact, grateful for the information. But he could not have to talked to you about it."

"So he went to you instead?" Christine surmised. She stretched, and feeling too lazy to walk over to the laundry chute, started wadding up her discarded clothes into balls and lobbing them at the opening.

"Yes, after some consideration."

She looked at him for a moment. "That must have been a... fascinating conversation." The socks arced across the room one after another, and disappeared. "Bullseye!" She grinned, and then looked thoughtful. "You told him to send for her?"

"He had not seen her in many years. I told him... that the madness of the blood fever is a poor way to begin a marriage. When he told me that his bondmate was a Starfleet healer, the solution seemed obvious. I suggested that to complete their bonding and to initiate an intellectual..."

"Emotional..." murmured Christine.

"...and physical relationship before it became imperative, would be beneficial to them both." He stopped, and looked at her. "That is not usual... but Sarel, though wishing to keep the matter private, indicated that he found the advice worthy. Do you agree?"

Christine leaned over and wound her arms tightly around his neck. "Spock... I love you so much."

"That, my wife, is a non sequitur." He held her warmly close.

//No it isn't, and you know it,// she told him silently. //Sarel respected you. What you said wouldn't have. been the same coming from me, or anyone else.//

//I wished them to know some of the... completeness that we have found in our bonding.//

Christine sat back and sighed. "Poor Sarel. And poor T'Nila. She's scared, I can see that now. She's lost her bondmate, and she's been dumped into the middle of god knows what..."

The intercom sounded, and Spock answered it, pushing 'audio only' after a quick glance at her. "Informing you that we have left orbit, sir."

"Left orbit for where"?" Christine shed her underclothes and leaned back on her hands. "You must know. I hear that Jim came back from his meeting with Malenkov looking grim, and then the two of you spent the entire afternoon holed up in his office."

"It is classified information, Christine. be a briefing in the morning."

"Spock ..." she said, exasperated, breaking off as he raised an eyebrow at her. "Right. I know our rules. I'll be told what I need to know, when I need to know it. I shouldn't complain. It took me months to convince most of my patients that whatever they told me wouldn't get passed on to you." Her underwear followed the rest of her garments into the laundry chute.

"Precisely." Spock was still standing by the intercom. After deliberating for a moment, he switched it to respond only to emergency calls. He looked back at Christine, sitting unselfconsciously naked in the middle of their bed, smiling at her successful throw. It was odd, he thought, that she was sometimes most provocative when least aware of it. There were times - and this had been one of them - when her automatic, casual shedding of her clothes in response to the temperature seemed far more erotic than a deliberate striptease.

"Do you want to watch the tape now?" she asked, scooting over to the edge of the bed and reaching for her robe.

"Perhaps not just yet, my wife." His voice had deepened, and she looked at him, awareness dawning as she saw the position of the intercom.

"I see, my husband." Her mouth twitched, her face softening into amused tenderness. She stood and straightened, deliberately waiting for a moment, feeling her skin tingle as his eyes slowly caressed her body. Then she moved to him, sliding her arms around his waist, raising her mouth to his. //Spock...//

His mouth was dry and gentle at first, and then suddenly hot and wet and hungry on hers. //You are lovely,// he told her, saying easily through the bondlink what he found harder to speak aloud.

//So are you.// One of his hands gripped her buttocks, holding her tightly against him, and she moved her hips, feeling his growing hardness. //But aren't you a little overdressed for the occasion?// She broke from the kiss to help him pull off his shirt, and then moved back just close enough to allow her sensitized nipples to brush through the soft dark hair on his chest. They both quivered slightly, eyes locked together, minds and bodies responding simultaneously. Spock pulled away and stripped with swift, economical movements.

Christine lay back on the bed and watched him. Characteristically, he stopped to dispose of his clothes before joining her. It wouldn't occur to him simply to leave them on the floor, she thought lovingly. Passion was no excuse for untidiness, certainly not when they had the entire evening in front of them. Or maybe, just maybe, he was teasing her.

//Teasing you, Christine?// He sat beside her, fingers lightly brushing her face.

//You are!// She ran her own fingers in a slow circle over his stomach. She loved the sight of him like this, naked and aroused, the severely repressed sensuality in his mouth and eyes released. It had taken him a long time to become comfortable with her uninhibited enjoyment of his body. //You know I like to look at you.//

//Indeed. One would not expect a physician to be especially interested in the sight of another body.//

Her hand moved lower. //Very few of my patients arrive in this condition!//

//I am glad to hear it.// His breathing changed as she stroked the silky skin of his erection and he opened his mind to the deepest level of their bond, letting her share exactly what she was doing to him.

She was suddenly serious. //And even if they did, they're not you. My love...//

//Bondmate. Kal venu t'hy'la la'an mavol ...// The fragment of pre-reform poetry trailed off into a gasp.

She was aching for his touch, and she pulled him down beside her. Over the years he had learned every response of her body, applying the same concentration to the task that he gave to any scientific subject. Now he tongued her nipples into firmness, and explored the damp folds between her thighs, knowing just how much pressure to use, and when, and where. She could hear her own breathing becoming loud and ragged, and felt a consuming desire to feel his heat inside her. //Please, Spock. I'm ready...//

//There is no hurry.// He was holding his own excitement firmly in check, not letting it build to the point where he could no longer control it.

//Yes there is!// She moaned, and he braced himself over her. She pressed up. her body open to him, expecting him to enter, but he lowered himself only enough to let the glans of his penis stroke her genitals, lubricating them with a few drops of fluid. She gasped. //Spock ... don't ohh..... She was no longer coherent. //I'm... I can't wait...// She climaxed explosively, thrusting her hips up at the steady rubbing.

As she relaxed beneath him, he abandoned his own restraint and entered her, thrusting slowly and deeply into the cool, tight moistness. She lay quiet for a minute, and then opened her eyes and looked up at him. //Good?// he asked her, knowing the answer.

//Very good. Your turn?

//And yours, again.//

//If you insist ...// Her body was moving again, matching his rhythm, responding to the different stimulation of intercourse. After a few moments of enjoyment, she tightened around him, expecting him to quicken his tempo, bringing them both to release, but to her surprise he continued to hold back. She could feel the ridged shape of the glans deep inside her, its steady movements increasing her arousal as she shuddered quickly into a second orgasm.

After that she began to concentrate on his responses, kissing him deeply, tightening internal muscles, pulling him more strongly to her. It was effective. He grunted and the pace of his thrust and withdrawal quickened. She wrapped her legs tightly around his hips. Her third climax came as he groaned and she felt the liquid warmth of his ejaculation spill into her.

They lay together for a long time without speaking, wrapped in tenderness and contentment. Spock was the first to stir, reaching down to pull the sheet up around them. "That was a pleasant experience," he observed sedately.

Christine, who had been getting sleepy, opened her eye: and chuckled. "Very pleasant indeed. Have I mentioned lately that you're a very good lover, my husband?" She snuggled back into the curve of his body, one hand resting on his flank.

"Ten years of marriage should be sufficient to gain proficiency at a relatively straightforward biological activity."

//You'd be amazed at the number of men who never bother...// She stopped. Spock had always known that she'd had previous lovers, but it never sat well with his instinctive Vulcan possessiveness. She shielded lightly and changed the focus of her thoughts. //That's left me so limp I feel like I've been given a triple strength tranquilizer. Mm - that's about right, one for each orgasm. I didn't expect that - why did you...// She paused in surprise. He didn't want to discuss it; it was his turn to shield. But she sensed for the first time that he was faintly disturbed about something. Something that made him want to cling to her? Something that had given his lovemaking an intensity beyond the usual? Odd. //All right,// she assured him. //It doesn't matter. Tell me when you're ready.//

//I will, Christine.// He changed the subject. "My wife, I believe that now would be an appropriate time to view the tape from the children."

"The tape!" Christine sat up abruptly. "I forgot all about it!" She ran out into the office area to retrieve it, and put it in the bedside viewer. She gave a mock frown. "It's your fault for distracting me."

"If we are allocating blame, you will recall that it was you who first distracted me." Spock raised an eyebrow.

"If you //will// persist in removing your clothes at every opportunity ..."

"I thought Vulcans were above noticing such trivial things." Christine grinned and activated the tape. "Now let's settle down and behave like serious and proper parents." She put her head on Spock's chest. "Though I must say, it's good that our offspring can't see us right now."

Chapter Text

Kirk was the last one to enter the briefing room in the morning. He stood in the corridor with McCoy, watching the motley group of crew members arriving, responding to their greetings. "This assignment has a rotten smell about it, Bones," he said quietly. "I don't like what I might be sending them into."

"I know what you mean, Jim. Four of my people are going to be in that landing party." McCoy grimaced. "But you and I both lack the one qualification that would let us go along."

When Kirk seated himself at the head of the table, the murmur of conversation died away, coffee cups were set down, and ten pairs of eyes fixed themselves on him with barely restrained curiosity. Spock and McCoy knew what this was about, but the rest of the group must be wondering why he had assembled this odd assortment of personnel, several of whom he hardly knew.

He cleared his throat. "Gentlemen. And ladies, though perhaps I should say women ..." His audience looked confused. "The first thing I have to say is that everything said at this briefing must be kept entirely confidential." He looked around the table as everyone nodded. "You won't be too surprised to hear that this relates to the unprovoked attack by those freighters while we were en route to Starbase XI."

"Has their identity been established yet?" asked Sulu. The helmsman was sitting next to Keiko Ichigawa from Security. Kirk had heard that they were sparring partners, friends, and maybe something more. Sulu had sheepishly explained why he had been dripping wet during the alert.

"Let's say that a strong presumption has been established. According to Starfleet, our experience wasn't unique. But a few rogue freighters are the least of the problem. It's what they're carrying that's the real threat. Have any of you heard of nirvana?"

Faces were blank for a moment, and then Uhura said cautiously, "It's a Terran religious/philosophical concept of bliss ..."

Kirk shook his head, his face hardening. "I'm talking about something a lot more concrete - and a lot less heavenly. In a way, I'm glad that none of you know about it.

Maybe the problem hasn't reached into Starfleet yet. Nirvana is a drug; probably the most enticing and severely addictive stimulant ever produced. A single dose can cause addiction, but the high it produces is supposed to be more intense than any other known experience. It first showed up on the market about a year ago, but lately the supply has increased from a trickle to a flood. It's causing disruption on every planet in this sector."

"Where's it coming from?" asked Scotty, frowning.

"That, until recently, has been the question. The source has been tightly controlled and well hidden. But we do know who's controlling the supply."

He nodded to Spock, who activated the viewscreen on the far wall. "John Andrew Evans," Spock said, as the picture of a man appeared on the screen.

People swiveled in their seats to look, and there was a short silence. Finally Uhura shook her head. "That is probably the handsomest man I've ever seen in my life," she murmured thoughtfully. There were soft chuckles around the room.

"Indeed," said Spock. "He is believed to use it to his advantage. He is Terran, 38 years old, educated at Harrow, Cambridge, and the Harvard Business School. Recently divorced - amid accusations of extreme cruelty - from Lady Charlotte Spencer. No children. He is the second son of the Duke of Barclay - therefore Lord John Evans, when he cares to use his title..."

"Barclay Communications...?" interrupted Uhura, her eyes widening.

"Unfortunately, yes."

"His father is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Federation," said Kirk grimly. "I'm not saying that Barclay knows what his son is up to this time, but he's used influence to keep him out of trouble before. He kept that divorce out of the press, for one thing. A moral certainty that Evans is behind the nirvana traffic isn't the same as legal proof, and no one dares to move against someone in his position without absolute proof."

"No known history of mental pathology in his family," muttered McCoy.

"Brains, charm, looks, position, money... He has everything, and apparently every bit of it is rotten. Who knows why? But that's part of what we're up against," said Kirk as Spock switched off the screen.

"How?" Kirk turned back to the table and looked at Christine Chapel. There was a tiny crease between her eyebrows, but she gave him a faint smile. "I mean... I take it, Captain, that the Enterprise has been delegated to stop the production of this drug, if we can. But how, and why," she swept her hand around the group, "us particularly? I've been wondering that ever since I walked in here."

"And I've been waiting for someone to ask the question, Doctor. I said before that until recently the source of the drug was unknown. But two weeks ago an urgent distress call and request for assistance was received at Starbase XI, and forwarded to Starfleet Command and the Federation Council. It came from Beta Psi III."

"Demeter!"

At Christine's exclamation there was an audible, tangible, ripple around the table. Faces shifted, eyes widened, mouths tightened. Only Scotty, looking bewildered, and T'Nila, seemed not to recognize the name. Looking at the others, Kirk could see everything from patent fascina-tion to outright disgust. "I take it that most of you have heard of the colony?" he asked after a moment.

"Well I havena," said Scotty.

"Nor have I, sir," added T'Nila.

Kirk cleared his throat and said in a carefully neutral tone, "Demeter was founded about fifty ..."

"46.4."

"Thank you, Spock. 46.4 years ago, by a group of radical feminist separatists. It is a completely self-contained, self-propagating, all-female culture."

"But how is that possible?" asked Scotty. "I mean..."

Kirk looked at McCoy. "It's not really that difficult," McCoy explained. "It would probably have been done sooner except for the restrictions on genetic research after the Eugenics Wars. The technology for combining the genetic material in two ova to create an embryo was developed just before these women left. The merging was the only problem. Once past that, an ovum contains everything a sperm cell does, except of course a Y chromosome. But they didn't want sons."

T'Nila, her hands folded precisely on the table before her, nodded. "Of course. The technique has been theoretically understood on Vulcan for a long time. It is, however, an illogical and unnecessarily complicated way of continuing a species."

"Aye, lassie, that it is." Scotty agreed with a snort.

T'Nila's eyebrows flew up, and Kirk grinned. He doubted that anyone had ever called her 'lassie' before. "It is technically interesting," she said repressively.

"It's a perversion," said a low, intense voice from the far end of the table.

"Nurse... Dawson?" The blonde woman had been so quiet that Kirk had all but forgotten her presence. He hoped she hadn't noticed that he'd also almost forgotten her name.

"God's will..."

"Nurse..."

"Grace, not now." The nurse, McCoy and Chapel all spoke simultaneously.

Kirk cut them all off. "As you were. Ms...."

"Miss!"

"Very well, Miss Dawson. I agree that the concept raises moral questions. However, to debate them is not the purpose of this briefing. Perhaps you can take up the matter later with Commander Uhura and Dr. Chapel."

"Yes, sir."

Kirk noticed the questioning exchange of glances between Uhura and Chapel, but before they could speak, Spock had activated the screen again. A schematic of a class M planet appeared, together with the picture of a strong-looking dark-haired woman.

"Dr. Juanita Alvarez," Spock said. "Developer of the ovum combination technique, and founder of the Demeter colony. It is not known if she is still alive. She and her followers have had no direct contact with the Federation since they left Earth amid a considerable amount of publicity."

"On this day we have broken forever the chains of culture and biology. Our womanhood is now our strength, and we call to all our sisters everywhere..." Everyone stared at Keiko. She shrugged in apology. "I did a college history paper on the movement."

Spock nodded. "That was a portion of Dr. Alvarez's farewell statement. Since then, reports from free traders indicate that the colony has grown somewhat from its original population. Beta Psi III, the planet on which they settled, has seemed until now totally unremarkable. It had been declared suitable for colonization prior to their arrival, and though they were not an officially approved expedition, it was thought politically simpler to leave them alone."

"And the nirvana is coming from Demeter?" asked Chapel.

"From the fragmentary information contained in the distress call, that seems a strong probability."

"And that, Doctor, to get back to your original question," said Kirk, "is why you all are here." The six women at the table looked at each other, and then at him in growing comprehension.

"The distress call didn't fully explain the difficulties they are encountering, though there's evidently a disruption of the ecology which is causing medical problems. But one thing was very clear. They absolutely, categorically refuse to let any men at all set foot on their planet. Help they'll take - but only female help."

"And we're..."

"The help."

"That's the most ungrateful nonsense I've ever heard," said Scotty indignantly. "Do we have to put up with such a condition? I dinna see why..."

"Scotty, Federation intervention in and control over colony cultures is the most politically explosive issue of the decade. Granted, Demeter is no ordinary colony, but very few colonies are really ordinary. Don't forget, most colonies are founded by misfits - or visionaries." Kirk paused, and ran a hand impatiently through his hair. "The way we handle this could have serious political repercussions. And there are other considerations..."

"The nirvana's evidently refined from the leaves of a native plant," McCoy interrupted. "One of its components is levitonin, which we now synthesize to treat brain tumors - a hellishly slow and expensive process. If Beta Psi III is a natural source, it could be damned important to keep on the right side of its owners."

"If I think that it's necessary to interfere with the colony to stop the drug production, I'll do it," said Kirk. "But we'll start by working within their rules."


***

The six women assigned to the initial Demeter landing party stared at each other uneasily after the door swished shut behind the last of the men. The air was heavy with tension, emotion, and unspoken questions. Uhura, who had been placed in command, had asked them all to stay behind for a few minutes.

An interesting test of the concept of universal sisterhood, thought Christine, studying her companions. We're all here for good reasons, but we couldn't be more different. Four humans, with three different ethnic backgrounds between us, plus an excitable Andorian and an aloof Vulcan. Mix with a difficult assignment, and you get -what? She looked at Uhura.

"Relax, everyone," said Uhura. "I won't keep you much longer. We won't be at Demeter for another thirty-six hours, and we already have as many facts as we will until we get there."

There were nods around the table. Christine picked up her cold coffee, swirling it around in the cup. She sipped it and made a face. They had spent the entire day in this room. After Kirk explained the basic situation, Spock and McCoy had stayed to go over all the facts available on nirvana, illegal drug production facilities, the ecology of Beta Psi III, the genetic research of Dr. Alvarez, and the history of the Demeter colony. Since they wouldn't know exactly what they were facing until they got there, they needed all the information they could get. Her head felt swollen and achy.

"What I think we need to do now," continued Uhura, "is clear the air." She smiled. "Is it just me, or does anyone else think that the walls in here are vibrating from the stress?"

There was nervous laughter from everyone but T'Nila, and Christine deliberately got up and stretched. They'd all been sitting in the same position too long.

"It's useless to pretend that we're not all having emotional ..." Uhura broke off and glanced at T'Nila. "Well, some sort of reactions to this assignment. I want to find out what those reactions are before they interfere with our job on Beta Psi III... whatever it might turn out to be."

There was a silence during which no one met her eyes. Christine sat down with elaborate casualness. Grace studied her hands, Keiko and Thelit looked at each other and then away, and T'Nila gazed with perfect composure at nothing at all.

Uhura sighed. "No one is thinking anything? No one has any opinions? Except me? Then I'll go first. I've been put in command here because I'm the most senior female officer on this ship. I don't like the situation we may be going into, but at the same time, I'm damned glad of the challenge, and a part of me is very grateful to those women for forcing Starfleet to give it to me."

"Starfleet..."

"If they hadn't..." Christine stopped and looked at Keiko. "You first."

"At least you're talking," said Uhura with a smile.

"What you said is twice as true for me," Keiko said, leaning forward. "Security section..." She shook her head. "I'm good, but the chances for leadership for a woman in my field are too few to count. If they hadn't demanded a woman, I know that I wouldn't be going." Her chin went up. "I'll go further. I know something about the Demeter colony, and I've always thought that maybe they were right. I've known some good men, but still..."

"All women," said Thelit broke in softly. going and saying and doing what they please."

"No barriers," agreed Keiko. "No one holding them back and saying that it's for their own good. No limits on what they can be or do or imagine."

"Even children - daughters who can grow up and never know what it's like to be restricted by their womanhood."

Christine looked at Uhura and gave a tiny nod. "Good idea. They need this." she mouthed silently, and got a slight grin in return.

There was a sudden, loud scrape of a chair. Grace had jumped to her feet. "I can't believe this."

"Can't believe what?" Keiko looked skeptical. "That there are still restrictions..."

"That you admire this...perversion!"

"Damn right I admire some things about it."

"And you don't see that it's disgusting? An offense against the will of God and the rules of nature?"

"Whose God?" Keiko laughed. "Yours, maybe, but I haven't got one."

"There is only one true God, whether you accept Him..."

"Him?" Thelit looked scornful. with a..."

"Don't blaspheme. He is a spirit, personified as a man, and He created woman as man's helper and comfort, not to compete with him, and certainly not to defy him." Grace's cheeks were scarlet.

"I can make no rational determination of the existence of such a supreme being." T'Nila entered the conversation for the first time. "Such beliefs are not scientifically verifiable. However, it is obvious that to circumvent the natural biological process by which most humanoid species reproduce is illogical."

"Is sinful," said Grace emphatically.

T'Nila steepled her fingers. "I am not familiar with that concept. "

"She means that people should only make babies by screwing," said Keiko gleefully. Christine bit the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing. Grace looked furious.

"By...? I believe I understand." T'Nila lowered her eyes for a moment.

"The relationship between men and women is established and sanctioned by God. The purpose of their union is to create new life. Anything which interferes with that contradicts God's purpose." Grace now sounded as if she was quoting.

"Keep 'em barefoot and pregnant," murmured Uhura to Christine.

Christine smiled at a memory. "Like me eight years ago?"

"Sorry. I didn't mean..."

"I know."

"Nurse Dawson," said T'Nila, cutting Grace off in mid-quote, "while I do not fully comprehend your emotional distaste for the basis of the Demeter colony, I am inclined to agree with you."

"Why should you support a human theo-patriarchy?" demanded Thelit indignantly.

T'Nila hesitated, as if debating her answer. "I do not say that I do. That would be irrational. However, the Demeter colony is equally irrational. In addition, there is sometimes a biological basis for male authority which cannot be ignored. In many species it is ... necessary... for a husband to have a certain authority in his relationship with his wife. Vulcans find it logical to adapt to that fact."

"To adapt to slavery!" Thelit's antennae curved. "To adapt..." She broke off and turned quickly to look guiltily at Christine.

Christine felt that it was time someone calmed this conversation down. "Isn't everyone getting a little dramatic?" she asked.

"I asked for frank opinions," agreed Uhura, "but that doesn't mean open warfare. This is a team, and we have to work together like one."

The tension slowly drained out of the air, but Thelit was still looking at Christine. Her hostility had vanished, but her irrepressible curiosity was still active. "So what do you think, Doctor? After all, you're the only one of us who's married."

"It seems to me that all of you are part right and part wrong," Christine said slowly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Keiko.

"It means that I don't think you can reduce complicated relationships to political - or religious - slogans." She looked around the table. "I don't really imagine that any of you think that either. You were getting carried away by your own rhetoric. Words like slavery on the one hand and perversion on the other don't say much about reality."

Thelit gave her a rueful grin, but Grace looked unconvinced. Christine sighed, leaning her chin on her hand. "To talk about all women and all men as though there's one ideal way for them to relate - or not relate - to each other is absurd. We're all too different." Her voice trailed off, and she absently traced a crack in the table with her finger. "If that sounds ambiguous to you, maybe even wishy-washy, that's how it sounds to me, too. But it also sounds reasonable."

"You're making it into a private issue," argued Keiko. "What about institutional bias? How many women are starship captains? Chief medical officers? Heads of security? On Demeter..."

"I doubt that any of those positions exist." Christine held up her hands. "No - I know what you're trying to say, and I agree with it, on that level, but..."

"Men are intended to be leaders," Grace broke in, full of conviction. "They stand in the same relation to women that God stands to His creation."

"'He for God only, and she for God in him'?" Christine shook her head skeptically. "Milton was wrong. Bad theology."

"You should know better," said Grace sorrowfully.

Christine gave an exasperated snort. "Maybe. But I don't. And I'm not going to debate religion with you again, Nurse. Anyway, aren't we all forgetting one thing? What we think about Demeter isn't the real issue. All of us except you," she nodded at Uhura, "have been acting as though our business is to pass moral judgement on the colony. It isn't. Our business is to shut down a drug production facility."

Uhura nodded thoughtfully. "I'm glad that I suggested this discussion, and I certainly don't expect you not to have opinions - that would be impossible. But the purpose of getting them out in the open now is so that they won't be in our way later. I want one thing understood. Everyone of you has a right to her beliefs, but I expect you to do your jobs like the professionals you are." She stood. "It's getting late. Does anyone have anything else to say?" There was a silence.

"Evidently not at the moment, Commander," said T'Nila finally, with a touch of relief. "The discussion had become excessively emotional."

"It's an emotional issue, T'Nila," said Christine. Even for Vulcans, she thought.

No one else spoke. "Dismissed, then," Uhura said with a smile. "I'll see you all in the morning."

"God, am I glad to get out of that room." Christine sighed as she and Uhura stepped into the corridor.

"Me too. I'm starving."

"Want some dinner?" She checked the time. Supposed to meet Spock in five minutes."

"I'd love some." She rotated her shoulders. "My muscles are stiff. All that intensity wore me out."

"I know." Christine gave the sore shoulders a sympathetic rub. "They're an opinionated bunch."

"What was with Grace Dawson and that 'You should know better' business?"

"Children of the Lamb. She's from Zion."

"Huh?"

Christine laughed. "It's a fundamentalist Christian colony - absolutely as pigheaded in their way as the women of Demeter are in theirs. Grace wouldn't see the connection, of course. She thinks I'm..." She looked ahead. "Hey, hold please! Hold... Damn, there goes the lift."

"No one ever bothers to hold anymore," grumbled Uhura. "Grace thinks you're what?"

"A lost sheep. Far worse than you, who have never seen the light." Uhura still looked puzzled. "Last year we were the only two people from Medical to leave the Christmas party for midnight services. Leonard usually goes, but I think he'd been enjoying the eggnog too much. Anyway, Grace hailed me as a fellow true believer, and was grievously disappointed to discover that I'm theologically liberal and not very devout. When she found out that my children aren't baptized, and that, by her views, Spock and I aren't even properly married..." Christine shook her head, and Uhura began to laugh.

"Does she think that you're a terrible sinner?"

"She told me that we're setting a bad example for the crew. When I told her that it was none of her business, she reacted more in sorrow than in anger. She prays for me, which is very unnerving."

"I'll bet. Why don't you suggest that she transfer?"

"Because, believe it or not, when she's not preaching she's one of the most caring and compassionate nurses we've got."

"She's supposed to have some experience with drug addiction, right?" The lift doors opened. "Oh, good, finally."

Christine nodded as they stepped into the lift. "Children of the Lamb run a couple of rehab centers. Whatever anyone thinks of their beliefs, it's undeniable that they've had a lot of success with addicts. If that's part of the problem on Demeter..."

"We won't know 'til we get there. The j.r distress call was short and garbled, and now something's jamming our attempts to reach them."

"Wonderful."

The mess hall wasn't crowded, and Christine gave a whoop of delight. "Look, a booth with a viewport is free! Let's grab it."

"There are advantages to eating late," agreed Uhura. "Ugh, it's a mess though. You'd think people could slide their dirty dishes half a meter into the disposal chute."

"Chicken, broccoli, and apple pie." Christine took inventory as the dishes vanished. "Anglo-American food this week, it looks like."

Uhura punched up the menu. "That's the theme. Chinese next week, Indian the week after that... Chris, I'd love a steak while they're available. Would Spock...?"

"Go ahead. He's used to it. I'm going to have blue-berry pancakes."

"For dinner?

"I like them. And Spock won't mind you eating steak, but I'm another matter. 'My wife, the consumption of animal flesh is not only barbaric, but unaesthetic.'"

Christine looked up from punching in the food codes. "Only when I let him be." She caught sight of him in the doorway, scanning the room. "Here he is. Jim's with him."


***

"Why?" asked Kirk, frowning. The question had been nagging at him ever since his meeting with Malenkov.

"Perhaps you should address the question to Christine and Uhura," replied Spock as they crossed the dining room. "I do not feel fully qualified to answer it."

"I will. It could be important."

The two women had moved over to make room for them. Kirk slid in next to Uhura. Vulcans, he had noted in the past, did not split up husbands and wives at dinners, and Spock claimed the seat next to Christine as a matter of course.

"My wife." His voice as he greeted her was grave and neutral, but Kirk noticed that as he sat, he unobtrusively placed his fingers against hers on the seat between them. Kirk had seen the gesture before, and was always touched by it. The contact was casual, habitual, and yet surprisingly intimate.

He waited until their food had come before posing his question. "Just before I came down here, I reviewed the information on the founding of the Demeter colony, and I still don't understand it. Maybe you two can explain it to me. "

The women looked at each other, and he thought he saw a flash of communication between them. "Explain what?" asked Uhura.

Kirk spread out his hands and smiled. "Why did they feel it was necessary to take such a drastic step?"

Uhura put down her fork. "Lack of opportunity, maybe. Feeling hemmed in, restricted..."

Kirk shook his head. "Juanita Alvarez was the best geneticist of that period. The founders included other scientists, an Olympic champion swimmer, two best-selling authors... For all their talk about chains, they don't seem to have been a that oppressed of a group. It was a waste of their talents. Mankind needs women like that."

Christine and Uhura gazed at each other again, and this time he was sure that the look had meaning. Christine folded her hands deliberately on the table in front of her, no longer in contact with Spock, whose eyebrow had arched upward. Uhura pushed back her plate a little. "Captain ..." She took a deep breath. "Permission to speak candidly?"

"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want an honest answer." Kirk was slightly bemused.

"All right, then... Jim, you didn't even hear what you just said. 'Mankind needs...'"

"It's only an expression, Penda."

"Not completely. Mankind equals people, right? On Demeter women are people."

"Sorry. But the contributions they could have made..."

Uhura's chin went up. "Yes, some of those women were the best at what they did, and I'll bet that meant they had to be a lot better than the men they worked with. Maybe they were tired of that. Maybe they wanted a place where their daughters wouldn't have to go through it."

"Their talent may have been a part of their frustration," said Christine. "Fifty years ago, most human societies were still saying to their women 'Thus far, fine, but no farther.' It wasn't as bad as what Thelit says about Andor - and I'm inclined to take that with a grain of salt; she has a flair for overstatement - but for women who were brilliant..."

"It wasn't that bad." Kirk wondered how he had ended up so quickly on the defensive. "There were injustices, but.

"Jim, after the Eugenics Wars, it took women a hundred years to get back to the limited equality we'd had before that. I'm not trying to assign blame. I don't think that men got together and created a conspiracy to keep women in their place, but with most forms of birth control severely restricted - people were so revolted by any interference in the reproductive process..." She shook her head. "A woman who has no control over her fertility has very little time for anything but motherhood."

"A lot of good came out of that period. The transformation of the United Nations into a world government, the abolition of nuclear weapons, contact with alien cultures, the beginnings of colonization..."

"Which fortunately took the population pressure off Earth... I'm not denying the good things. Overall, it was a productive part of history - and for most women, a reproductive part. I'm just saying that one of things the women of Demeter wanted, I think, was to give women, finally and forever, control over childbearing."

"Something else." Uhura took another deep breath. "The institutional and social set up of the Federation is still defined by male rules. A woman in Starfleet can still go only so far. It shows up all the time in the promotion patterns if you look. A promising young male officer tends to get moved around, exposed to a lot of different areas. If a woman is good at what she does, she gets patted on the head and left stuck there."

Kirk looked at her sharply. "There are women captains. Women admirals. You know that."

"How many? A bare handful of admirals, all in staff positions. And captains - only of transports, supply ships, maybe a scout or two. None on starships or dreadnoughts or destroyers. If a woman wants more than that - more than she's allowed - at best she's unwomanly. At worst, she's crazy."

"You sound like..." Kirk broke off. A charged silence hung over the table.

"Janice Lester was psychotic," said Christine quietly.

"Well I'm glad we agree on that!" Kirk could feel his muscles tensing. Janice still haunted his nightmares, though he hadn't seen her for fifteen years.

Christine was absently turning a spoon over and over in her fingers. "Oh, yes, definitely." Her eyes stayed on the spoon. "I spent a lot of time with her in the days before she left the ship. She talked, I listened and soothed, and I wondered... Was she really so crazy, or did society drive her into madness by forcing her to be less than she was?"

"Are you saying that Janice would have made a suitable starship captain?" Kirk was trying very hard not to lose his temper.

"I'm saying that she never had the chance to find out, did she?"

"Janice hated being a woman!"

"Did she? Or did she just hate the limits placed on her because she was a woman?"

"Christine." Spock spoke for the first time, his voice extremely level. "I do not believe that the subject of Dr. Lester, who exhibited all the symptoms of criminal insanity, is germane to this discussion."

"Don't be so..."

"My wife..."

"One thing I noticed this afternoon," said Uhura suddenly. "All of us in the landing party, when we talked among ourselves about Demeter, we didn't agree at all, except in one basic assumption. We all agreed that men hold the balance of power over women in our cultures. Whether we thought that it was good or bad, logical or not, we all accepted it as fact."

"Well it is fact." Christine looked away from Spock, her jaw set stubbornly.

"Aren't you two being a little paranoid?" asked Kirk patiently.

Uhura shook her head. "Not when such a diverse group all see it."

"Even Grace and T'Nila." Christine shoved her plate into the disposal slot. "They argued that male authority was natural, but they didn't say that it didn't exist. Think about it. T'Nila transferred on to the Enterprise because Sarel wanted her to." She turned back to Spock. "I didn't even think of it until now, but who says that she wanted to?"

"She was his bondmate."

"Exactly. Bondmate. As in property, and she had no choice?"

"Christine, this is a private matter."

"It never occurred to you to tell Sarel to transfer to her ship?"

"My wife, we will not speak..."

"Just why does male biological necessity have to determine social..."

"My wife, attend!" Spock's voice wasn't loud, but it cut Christine off in mid-sentence. He stood with no wasted motion and held out his fingers. "We will speak of this later."

Christine had stood too. and for a long moment they stared at each other, brown eyes commanding, blue defiant. Kirk wondered if Christine would ignore Spock's raised hand. For a long moment he thought that she would. At last, without dropping her gaze, she touched her fingers briefly to his. "Later, my husband? You bet we will. Excuse me."

Kirk looked after her rigid, retreating back. He had never seen Spock and Christine argue in public before.

"I apologize for my wife's emotional outburst, Captain," said Spock stiffly.

"Excuse me, too." Uhura hurried after Christine.

"I asked for honesty." Kirk reminded Spock. "Maybe I got a little more than I bargained for. I'm sorry you got mixed up in it."

"Indeed."

Chapter Text

Uhura caught up with Christine in the corridor. "You okay?" she asked.

Christine took several deep breaths. Her heart was thumping erratically. "Yes. I guess so." She shook her head. "I don't know what I was doing in there - playing devil's advocate?"

"Jim's lack of comprehension set us both off a little."

"It's not that I think that Alvarez's group were right, I don't. But I can see why they did it."

"Separatism isn't an answer. Anyway..." Uhura put her head to one side and grinned. "I like men."

"So do I; most women do. I even married one." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Listen to us now. The voices of sweet reason. Meanwhile, Jim and Spock are back there wondering if we're planning to desert and join the colony."

"Let them wonder for a while. It'll be good for them.” said Uhura unrepentantly.

Christine gave a chuckle which never quite made it out of her throat. To her embarrassment it turned into a choked off sob, and her eyes filled with tears. She blinked hastily.

"Chris? Chris, honey?" Uhura put her hands on Christine's shoulders and peered into her face.

Christine took control of her voice. "Come have a glass of wine," she invited shakily. "If I'm going to cry, I might as well have something to cry into." She disciplined her face into exterior calm as they headed for the lift.

"I've never seen you two argue before," said Uhura as Christine poured two glasses of wine.

Christine handed her one of the glasses and pulled off her boots. "Let me turn down the heat in here. Spock won't be back for a while."

"Because whenever we fight he goes off and plays chess with Jim." She adjusted the environmental controls.

Uhura looked at her questioningly over the rim of the glass. "Whenever...?"

"Not what you're thinking. That doesn't mean that wherever they play, we've been arguing!"

"I'm glad to hear that. They play almost every day." She paused. "I didn't know that T'Nila was Sarel's bondmate."

"Yes." Christine stared at a tiny piece of cork on the surface of her wine.

"What was it you said? 'Bondmate, as in property?'"

"Bondmate as in "My wife, attend.'" She looked up to meet Uhura's troubled eyes.

"You/"

"Me. Oh, not legally. It's tradition, not law. But tradition can be... very binding." She got restlessly to her feet. "I shouldn't even be talking about it. Spock's right, it's private." Pain and anger were churning inside her.

"Don't then," said Uhura soothingly.

Christine stared into the bedroom at the smoldering firepot and then turned abruptly. "Goddamnit, why should I let Spock tell me what I can and can't talk about?"

"I don't know. Why should you?"

Uhura fell silent, and after a moment Christine answered her own question. "Because he's a Vulcan. Because what we have is a Vulcan bonding, not a human marriage, and I know that. I've known it from the start." She looked down at her hands. "And most of all," she said, almost to herself, "because he needs me, and trusts me...and I love him."

"That's your answer, then."

"I guess so. But as Keiko pointed out, it's a personal answer, not a political one." She sighed, and sat down again. "Most of the time the issue doesn't arise, of course. He doesn't order me around in the context of daily life. "

"'My wife, attend'?"

"Oh, that?" Christine shook her head and drank her wine. "I'm used to it. Most of the time I don't hear it as a command, and I know that he doesn't mean it as one. In human terms, it would translate to 'Would you please come here for a minute?' A request. But tonight it was defi-nitely 'Christine, shut up!'" She managed to smile. "He chose the wrong time to say it."

"You'll work it out."

"We always do. That's one thing... He's not going to trade me in for a newer model."

"And Jim's too fair minded to fire his officers for telling him a few basic truths, even unpleasant ones."

"I kind of wish I'd left Janice Lester out of it."

"I was the one who raised that issue."

Christine studied Uhura's fine-boned, almost ageless face. "How much did you want to command?"

"Probably not enough. Maybe if I'd wanted it more than anything else, I'd have fought for it."

"Maybe. Top level commanders have a very special psychological profile. There are damn few men suited to the job, but if they are suited to it, it fits them like... Well. Like it fits Jim."

"I'm not saying I had that quality..." Uhura frowned.

"But Starfleet has refused to consider any women physically or mentally suited for starship command," finished Christine.

"And I preferred to be the best at what I do, on the best ship in the fleet, to a desk job with higher rank, or even a second-level command."

"So here we are." Christine drained her glass. “And happy about it most of the time."

"Most of the time."

They were both smiling as the door opened. "My wife," said Spock coolly. "Ms. Uhura."

"you're back early."

"The captain employed an effective if illogical strategy." He vanished into the bedroom.

"Uh huh," said Christine softly. "Jim always wins when Spock is upset."

Spock reappeared. "I am not 'upset.'"

"You could have fooled me."

"Vulcans, unlike humans, do not..."

Uhura got to her feet. "This, my friends, is where I leave. Good night, Spock. Chris, I'll see you in the morning. I want to go over the options for the landing party again."

The door shut quietly behind her, and there was a strained silence in the room. It was clear to both of them, Christine thought, that they were about to have a fight. The prospect was giving her a headache. Better to have it out and finish it. "All right, Spock, let's get it over with," she said.

"I do not understand."

"The hell you don't."

After a moment, Spock went to return the temperature and humidity controls to their normal settings. Christine watched him. He then seated himself behind his desk and steepled his fingers. "My wife, I did not approve of your behavior at dinner this evening," he said in Vulcan.

"That, my husband, was obvious."

"Your tone was unacceptably emotional, and you spoke of matters which are not suitable for public comment."

"In other words I lost my temper." Christine switched back to English. "Okay, I'm sorry about that. But I don't apologize for what I said. Not a word of it."

"My name is Christine, not 'my wife', and will you kindly speak English!" She put away the wine bottle and rinsed off the glasses.

"Vulcan tradition demands a certain respect between husband and wife. I am a Vulcan. You..."

"'Are my wife,'" finished Christine mockingly.

"Indeed. I fail to see the reason for your tone, but I am glad that you recognize the fact."

"I recognize that I'm your wife and I refuse to be talked to like a child."

"Your behavior is more suited to Bri or T'Kista than to a responsible adult. I have apologized to Jim for your outburst..."

"You've what!"

"I believe you heard me."

"How dare you apologize for me! I suppose you apologized for Penda too!"

"Ms. Uhura's actions are her own responsibility. Yours are..."

"My own too! If apologies are needed, let's get one thing straight. I can make them myself. Of all the condescending..."

Spock rose. "I intend to meditate now. It seems clear to me that you should do the same."

Christine's fingers tightened on the wine glasses, and she set them down with exaggerated care. If she continued to hold them, it would be much too tempting to throw one at Spock. "Stop it, Spock. You're running away."

"I am attempting to behave in a logical manner."

"No you aren't."

"I have expressed my feelings. I see no point in belaboring..."

"Listen to me, Spock." She went to him and gripped his arms, looking up into his face. "The last thing you've done is expressed your feelings. I don't expect you to react the way I do, but 'I am a Vulcan; you are my wife' is your defensive position whenever you don't want to confront either my feelings or yours." She paused. He hadn't moved away from her. "Are you capable of considering that possibility logically, my husband?" She released him, stepped back, and waited.

He stayed where he was for several minutes before moving out from behind his desk to join her in the sitting area. "Perhaps, Christine," he said slowly, in English, and she sighed, unexpected tears coming to her eyes. His basic honesty almost always won out over his peculiarly Vulcan forms of irrationality. "Your analysis has considerable merit. As usual." There was a gleam of returning humor in his voice.

She looked down, her anger drained away, not wanting him to see that she was crying. "I just... Our arguments have this stupid, familiar pattern where I jab at you and get furious, and you retreat into a formal shell. It's pointless, and it gives me a headache." She noticed the glasses where she had left them, and went to put them away. She was no longer tempted to use them as projectiles.

As she closed the cabinet, she felt his presence just behind her, and long fingers pulled out her hair pins and slipped gently into her hair. //Where is this headache?// She closed her eyes and he located the pain and eased it away. She knew the technique herself, but seldom had the ability to summon it when she was upset.

She turned, and he held her for a moment, not trying to read her thoughts or allow her to see his, but simply giving and accepting physical reassurance. "Much better now," she said, her face buried in his shoulder, meaning more than just the headache.

"Yes," he agreed quietly.

They stepped apart and sat down. "So what are you feeling?" Christine asked.

"What does it seem to you that I am feeling? You are frequently more perceptive than I." His eyes met hers, and his mouth softened fractionally. "Sometimes too much for my comfort."

She smiled at him, wiping her eyes. "I think that you're confused. As confused as I am."

She shook her head. "This whole issue makes people... strident. It's been happening all day. I don't agree with the basis for the Demeter colony; I'm no radical. But if I hear it challenged, I automatically jump to their defense."

"Christine, it is obvious that there is residual, illogical prejudice against women in human society. But that is not a basis for denying the value of diversity. Or for attacking Jim."

"Jim is a wonderful man, and also the most charming of male supremacists. Have you ever noticed how differently he reacts to women depending on their age and attractiveness? Something that you never do."

"I am a bonded Vulcan, Christine. The circumstances are entirely different."

"Bonded. Right."

She could sense Spock's tension even through his mental shields. "It is mutual, my wife. And more binding on me than on you. You have the right to challenge..."

"Oh don't be absurd!" Instinctively she moved close to him. He lifted his head and looked at her. "That's the other thing you're feeling, isn't it? Threatened?"

"The basis of the bonding..."

"Spock, listen to me. I'm your wife and your bondmate and I love you. I will never, ever leave you when you need me. How often do I have to say that?"

He relaxed slightly. "At dinner..."

She shook her head impatiently. "I didn't suggest that T'Nila abandon Sarel. I just asked why we'd assumed that his convenience should determine the course of their careers."

"She respected his wishes. That is her duty."

"Respect is earned, Spock. The respect I give you is because you deserve it, not because you demand it." She looked deep into his eyes. "Can you accept that?"

"Yes." Something else occurred to her. "Last night, after we made love, you were blocking something. Did it have to do with his?"

He was silent, which was an answer in itself. Christine knew that he was struggling to find words. Touched by the effort, she reached out and traced the line of one winged eyebrow with her finger. He caught her hand and held it against his face, the contact warming both of them. //It is difficult for me... as a Vulcan, and as a man, to see you exposed to a danger from which I cannot protect you. Which I cannot even share.//

//So you were clinging to me?"//

//Perhaps.// He paused, and then a wave of fear tumbled through the bond. //If I lost you...//

//Spock, I know. But it's my job. I have to do it, just as you have to do yours. Even if we weren't in Starfleet, that would be true. As it is, you owe me the same freedom I give you.//

//Christine?//

//How do you think I felt during those years when I was with the children and you were off who knows where, doing who knows what, and sometimes I didn't hear from you for weeks at a time?//

//Oh sure. I'd have known if you died. That was a real comfort when I was lying awake at night.// The thought was edged with sarcasm. //Even now... Don't you understand how I feel every time there's an alert, and I know that bleeding bodies are going to come through the sickbay door? Someday one of those bodies might be yours. There have been times when I wanted to rush up to the bridge and drag you bodily out of danger. Why do you think I wanted a telepathic healer on the staff? There are kinds of mental damage no human doctor can handle. What about hazardous landing parties? But it's the work you've chosen, so I want you to do it. Let me do mine.//

He held back for a moment and then sighed. //Logical, my wife, if emotionally expressed.//

//Yes, some. With... all sorts of things. With Sarel, for dying. With Starfleet for cancelling our leaves. Even with the children for doing so well without me...//

//That is extremely illogical. Would you prefer that they were unhappy and maladjusted?//

//Of course not, but... Try to understand?//

//Yes, my wife.// He put an arm around her, and she leaned against him.

//I'm angry... Oh, with the Demeter women because their ideas make me uncomfortable. And with the forces that drove them to separatism. And with those drug producers who must be a lower form of life than slime molds...//

//Indeed. Is that all?//

//No.// She stopped, blocking him for a moment. He waited patiently. //And with Jim, for not understanding, and yes...// She stopped again, and then released the thought in a rush. //Even with you, for not trusting me enough to see that you don't have to own me.//

//I see.// There was no expression at all in the thought.

She began to cry quietly. //I'm as tense as a... as a...// The simile failed her, and she sat up, pulling away from him.

"Christine." He caught her hands before she could stand up. "We have talked of this before." His voice was tired. "It is not simply the words of the ceremony, not simply tradition, but also in the nature of the bond itself."

"I know."

"We could perhaps have avoided it if we had not bonded."

"You wouldn't have wanted that."

"Nor would you."

"No. No. I wanted to belong to you, more than I've ever wanted anything else in my life. I can't imagine living without the bond." She pressed her knuckles against her eyes. "God, I'm such a mass of contradictions."

"A normal human state."

Christine got to her feet. "Hold me for a minute?"

"If you will hold me, my wife."

His arms were warm, and very strong, and as her arms went around him she pushed the tension and resentment and contradictions aside for a moment. //I love you. There's damn little else I'm sure of in all this, but I'm sure of that.//

//I know, Christine.//


***

Grace Dawson knelt in a quiet, inconspicuous corner of the observation deck, her hands folded in front of her, her head bent, her eyes focussed inward. Effective prayer required purity of mind and deep concentration. Grace had been sent out from Zion into the wider galaxy to bear witness to the Truth, and it was a much harder job than she had expected. She hadn't known until she left her own world how badly her witness was needed. After several minutes she felt the rush of joy and peace which came when she was in communication with the divine.

She concentrated one by one on the members of the landing party, praying that they would come to understand the Truth as she did. She prayed for mercy on their hard-heartedness, which turned away from God's mercy and deliberately rejected the light. She paused, considering. Perhaps only Dr. Chapel really fell into that category. She was especially in need of forgiveness. What Dr. Chapel called religion was no more than a watered-down humanism, holding none of the exaltation and terror of surrender to the will of God.

The others, especially the aliens, simply might not know. The Vulcan, T'Nila, at least understood something of the proper, natural relation between man and woman. Commander Uhura was not totally unreasonable, but how much better it would be, how much more right, if Captain Kirk were their leader. Keiko Ichigawa and the Andorian were almost blasphemous in their irreverence. How good it would be if she could reach them, and save their souls from damnation.

She prayed for the women of the colony on Beta Psi III. Their perversion of moral law sickened her, but it showed how much they needed her help. She reminded herself, with difficulty, to hate the sin and not the sinner, unless, of course, the sinner proved totally unregenerate.

She prayed humbly for the strength to preach and convince, and fervently for the time when every soul throughout the galaxy would be in submission to God's will. She was exhausted and shaking when she finally rose from her place, but also fortified for the duty which lay ahead of her. She prepared for bed with a peaceful heart.


***

Thelit opened the bottom drawer of her bureau, and rummaged around beneath the clothes until she found a small disc. She took it back to her bed, and pressed a tiny switch on the bottom. A three-dimensional image flared into existence above the disc, and she gazed at it, lost in thought.

"Who's that?" the voice of her roommate startled her.

"My mother."

"She's beautiful."

"Yes." Thelit was, uncharacteristically, not in a mood for conversation, and after a moment the other woman shrugged and turned back to her reading.

My mother, thought Thelit, frowning. Shamra mas Hamor, my mother. What would she do if she saw me now? I disgraced my family when I left my husband, left Andor, joined Starfleet. Estril'los. Shamra told me so the day I departed. Would she even speak to me, acknowledge me as her daughter?

Thelit stared at the proud, elegant face in the hologram. But I am her daughter. Why couldn't she let me pursue possibilities that were denied to her? She was strong, intelligent, beautiful... She could have used her talents for so much more than just... adaptation. But she used all her strength and intelligence to adjust, to force her mind and feelings into conformity with what she had been told was her place. And she came to believe what she had been forced to believe, and so I'm dead to her. Demeter. What would my mother have been on a world like that? What would life be like? She continued to look at the portrait, her imagination soaring.

T'Nila was grateful for the silence and heat and red light in her cabin as she sat before the firepot which had once belonged to her bondmate. She hoped that she would not have a roommate assigned to her immediately. Solitude was important while she attempted to heal the mental pain of her broken bond with Sarel. She had known when he died, of course. There had been a sudden wrench, an emptiness in her consciousness. She had been more aware of the bond in its breaking than she had been while it existed.

It was only the childhood bond, she reminded herself, not the full adult marital bond. They would never share that now. How would it have been? Like all healers, she was an unusually sensitive telepath. It was not always a comfortable gift, and she remembered the brief but disconcerting flashes of intensity she had noted while in the presence of Spock and Dr. Chapel. Of course, the doctor was human, and Spock half-human, though outwardly Vulcan. Might that explain it? In honesty, though, she had received the same impressions from time to time in healing melds with full Vulcans.

Sarel's carefully phrased summons, saying that he wished to bond with her before his first time of mating, had been both frightening and attractive. She had subdued the emotional reactions, and agreed that his plan was logical, if not traditional. He had implied that Spock had been somehow responsible for his decision, and she had hoped that he would tell her more when they were together. But to ask, now, would be an unacceptable exhibition of personal curiosity.

She thought it odd, considering the obvious strength of her bond, that Dr. Chapel had seemed so ambiguous concerning the illogical basis for the Demeter colony. Surely a bonded adult could see that to deny the differences between male and female struck at the very heart of the principle of idic. The anger of the Andorian and the human from security also struck her as irrational, equally so with the heated moral judgements of the nurse.

If only all societies were as well ordered and attuned to necessity as that of Vulcan. A Vulcan woman was, quite logically, the complete equal of anyone in her culture... except her husband. To him, she was bondmate, as had been necessary since the time of the beginning. To protest against it... T'Nila remembered another emotion with some discomfort. She had initially experienced anger at Sarel's order to join him here. It had been very awkward to abandon her research when the transfer came through. She sighed, realizing that her mind was straying unacceptably. Putting aside that thought for later consideration, she sank into a deeper level of meditation.


***

"Had enough?" Keiko asked Sulu with a grin.

He looked up at her from where he had just landed, flat on his back on the mat. "For tonight, anyway."

She laughed and held out a hand to help him up. He grasped it, trying to pull her off balance, and found himself on the mat again, this time with her arm across his windpipe. Her eyes were dancing. "Had enough?"

"I surrender. Really, this time!" She released him, and he got to his feet, giving her a low, formal bow. "Your victory, Keiko-chan."

She returned the bow. "You are a worthy opponent, Sulu-san."

He wrapped an arm companionably around her shoulders as they walked toward the changing rooms, and she returned the gesture. He was such fun to be with, she thought, but she was still waiting to see where their friendship would lead. His next words surprised her. "You know, it's taken me this long to figure it out, but I'm never going to be able to beat you, am I?"

"No," she agreed. glance up at him.

He returned her gaze openly. "I shouldn't be. It's your specialty, after all. You just don't look....

"I know I don't. What most people refuse to accept is that sheer muscle mass counts for a lot less than being able to use what you've got."

"I won't make that mistake again." She could detect no resentment in his voice.

"It's very hard for me to get taken seriously," she said, as they stepped into separate cubicles to change.

"It wouldn't be hard for a man with your qualifications." His voice came to her through the wall.

"Not as hard. Security is hazardous duty; it's only right that we should be expected to prove ourselves before we're trusted. But I have to keep proving myself, and proving myself again..." She snorted. "It gets tedious."

"You like the idea of that colony, don't you?" Once again, no resentment, just curiosity. She wished that she could see him.

"Yes. It sounds so clean, so simple."

"I can see what you mean."

"Yes," she said slowly, "I think you can." She had almost finished dressing, and she stepped out of her cubicle. "Hikaru...."

"Yes?"

"There's one thing I would miss on an all female world. "

"What's that?"

"The company of the few men who have been able to see me as an equal, and as a woman too." She waited.

The screen which closed off his cubicle slid aside. "If I were conceited, I'd take that as a compliment."

"You should. With the other men I work with - and work out with - well, I've proved myself. And, a bit grudgingly, they've accepted it. The price is that, to them, I'm no longer female. I'm... neuter."

"Are they blind?" His eyes twinkled at her.

She laughed. "I think that their egos can't take being beaten by a woman. So if they are, they stop thinking of her as a woman. It protects them."

"I'd like to think that I'm not that fragile."

"I'd like to think so too." Smiling, she went to him and put her arms around his neck. "You know, half the ship thinks that we're lovers already."

"Would you like to turn the rumor into fact?"

"Right now I can't think of anything I'd like better."

***

The chronometer read 0214 when Kirk looked at it, only seven minutes later than it had read when he last checked it. Abandoning his futile efforts to sleep, he turned on the light and sat up. His command intuition, that tiny familiar itch in the back of his mind, was on overdrive.

He set himself to examining the feeling, to isolating what about this mission bothered him so. It was potentially dangerous, but that was nothing new to him. If he screwed up, there were plenty of people in Starfleet who would love to hang his ass out to dry, but that was nothing new either. The political and social consequences of failure were more worrisome. The nirvana production had to be shut down at its source, but if the price was destruction of the social system of a colony, even a wrong-headed one, it could cause a massive secession movement among other restive colony planets. It might also deprive the Federation of a valuable medical resource. Malenkov had made that very clear. His job was to do the first without causing the second.

His job? He smiled wryly to himself. That's what's getting to you, isn't it, Captain James Tiberius Kirk? It's not your job. You have no choice but to delegate it, and that makes you jumpy as hell. And you can't delegate it to Spock or Scotty or Sulu, you have to give it to...

He slumped back on the bed. Was he really thinking that Uhura was less competent than the men? Or Chapel, or Ichigawa, or any of the others? No, he decided, not less competent, but less experienced, and more vulnerable. And whose fault was that? They had all been on landing parties before, plenty of them. But had they been on as many as a comparable group of male officers? Maybe not.

Were Uhura and Chapel right? He had asked them a question, and gotten an earful in reply. He was disturbed by their conviction. Neither of them had ever struck him as the radical type. They were both... What? Womanly, Kirk? Gentle, unthreatening? That was what he liked, wasn't it? Had his experiences with Janice Lester made him that wary of ambition and aggression in women? He shelved the thought of Janice uncomfortably, and shifted his thoughts.

Damn Christine for upsetting Spock. Their marital spats were their business, but their relationship was usually so serene. When they sat down to chess earlier, Spock had made two blunders in ten minutes. The last Hung Kirk needed, now or at any time, was to have that logical brain disturbed. But Spock would only talk about it when and if he was ready.

He changed his mental focus again. He could make one concrete decision right now. He didn't know if he'd been unconsciously giving more duties, more chances for leadership and responsibility to his male officers, but if he had been, that was going to change right now. He'd always prided himself on his fairness... and he was damned if he'd let himself or the Enterprise be caught in this situation again.

Chapter Text

"Will you all be quiet and listen for a minute!" Sappho slapped her hand on the table. Gradually the clashing voices died away, and eyes turned toward her. "We aren't getting anywhere."

"And who gives you the right to tell us to be quiet?" said a tall red-haired woman.

"I'm head of the council this season, Rahab."

"No one appointed you dictator!"

"All I'm asking is that you attack me one at a time, so that I can explain my reasoning." Sappho ran her hands through her short gray hair. There were ten women in the panelled room, sitting on chairs or cushions. The summer day was warm, and the open windows let in the breeze, but the tension in the air kept Sappho from enjoying it as she normally would. She looked back at Rahab. "You can start if you want. You seem to have something to say."

Rahab's eyes blazed. "You had no authority to send that distress call."

"I agree. But that doesn't mean that I was wrong to do it."

"Sappho, we're your equals, not your subordinates. This was a matter for the full council. You've usurped our responsibility."

"The full council? The full council - all of you -" she swept her arm around the room, glaring, "have been debating for two cycles without deciding on a course of action. Meanwhile, the problem is getting worse."

"We haven't had enough time to deal with it," argued Astarte, joining the debate. "There's no reason to assume that we need outside help."

Sappho looked at her lifemate wearily. "You too?" she said.

"I'm a physician, love. I understand the medical problems, and I'm working on them. Don't you trust me?"

There was more behind the question than hurt professional pride, Sappho knew. This was the first time in their years together that she had not shared such a decision with Astarte. "I trust you," she said slowly. "But time is the one thing we didn't have."

"Why not?"

"How can you ask that? The radiation levels are increasing. Our subspace radio is blocked now. Right or wrong, if I hadn't sent that call when I did, it couldn't have been sent at all."

"Maybe that would have been better!"

"To go behind our backs..."

"How do we know..."

"Is sisterhood just a word to you?"

"Stop it!" Sappho was a tall woman, and she knew how to use her height. She drew herself up. "Are you all blind? Deaf? Mentally deficient?" She strode to the window and pointed. "Out there, ten kilometers away, is a force field dome that we can't break through, and in it is a factory that's sending out progressively greater levels of radiation every day!"

"I can counteract..." began Astarte.

"Not totally. It's getting worse. How many successful combinations have you done in the last two seasons?"

"None," said Astarte unwillingly. "You know that. But two seasons isn't much..."

"How long would be long enough? The future of this colony is at stake, don't you see that? They're destroying the basis of our sisterhood."

"You are destroying the basis of our sisterhood." The new voice wasn't forceful, but its breathy quaver dominated the room.

Sappho turned slowly. That voice had shaped her life, and it still had power over her. She went to kneel before the frail white haired figure in the glide chair. "Mother Demeter," she said, "is that how it seems to you?"

"You can't ask for help from the very people we broke free of. You can't..."

"I saw no other choice. I still don't." She took the bony hands and looked up into the dark eyes.

The thin fingers tightened. "Child, you were born here. You - and all the rest of you, and your daughters and granddaughters..." Her voice trailed off, and then strengthened. "It was for you that we came here. We wanted you to grow up free... whole... not stunted..."

"And you succeeded," Sappho murmured reassuringly. "You're our mother, just as this world is our mother."

"But that's why you don't know... you can't know..." Demeter coughed and closed her eyes, and Sappho summoned Astarte with a jerk of her head. Astarte adjusted her scanner, but Demeter's eyes opened, and she pushed the scanner away. "You can't know what it was like - what they are like."

"I've studied, Mother..."

"But I know. You can't let them come."

"They're already on their way. Mother, I didn't invite men. We need outside help, but it will be women's help."

"Controlled by men! And how do you know that they won't send men? Oppressors, rapists..." Her eyes closed again.

"Better get her to bed," said Sappho to Astarte, softly and a little sadly. Astarte nodded, not quite meeting her eyes, and guided the glide chair out of the room.

"I hope you're pleased with yourself," said Rahab sarcastically.

Sappho studied the mostly disapproving faces of her fellow council members. Demeter's words had hurt her, but she still thought that she had been right. She had done what needed to be done. Sappho had never seen a man, and she had no place for them on her world, but she wasn't afraid of them.

"I can't take back what I did," she said, "and I don't want to. But Mother disapproves of it, and a majority of you do too." She sighed. "I'll resign as head of the council, if that's what you want."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence, during which no one would look at her. Then Rahab raised her head. "The head of the council will have to work with the... visitors."

"You sent for them," said someone else. "Goddess knows, if they have to come I hope they can help, but that doesn't mean I have to like them."

"In other words, I've put myself in this situation, and I can live with it? All right, then. I'm not as fastidious as you are." She smiled, a little bitterly. "I'm fighting for our future, and I'll take any help I can get, even male help if it comes to that."

"Sappho!"

"Anyway, why are you so sure you won't like the women who are coming?" She was enjoying challenging them.

"They'll be controlled by men. You heard what Mother Demeter said."

"Don't be so dogmatic. They're sisters, too. I wonder what they'll be like?"

"We've got no choice but to find out."

* * *

Vorn always looked and felt uncomfortably out of place in John Evans's private quarters. Even this cabin, aboard the freighter heading in convoy for Beta Psi III, breathed an irritating air of assumed privilege and superiority. He knew that Lord John enjoyed reminding Vorn of his title. The antique furniture, the art, the whole setting, emphasized, the differences between them, between the younger son of a Terran duke and the offspring of a Tellarite beggar who had clawed his way up through the Federation underworld. His partner was easier to deal with in their offices.

Vorn shifted on the leather couch, angry that Evans had somehow usurped the upper hand in their affairs. Vorn was the one with the experience, the criminal contacts, the ships themselves. Evans had brought knowledge of the drug, money, and an only slightly cracked facade of respectability. Vorn had been sure at first that he could control the human. Now... he was beginning to be afraid of him. And Vorn was not accustomed to being afraid. But Evans had a hunger for domination and humiliation, an instinct for unbalancing others and boring into their weaknesses. He enjoyed giving pain, and he was frighteningly unpredictable.

Vorn became aware that icy blue eyes were regarding him with chilly amusement. "You're not drinking your brandy," said Evans. "Perhaps your palate doesn't appreciate it?"

Vorn took a swift swallow, and cursed Evans mentally for catching him off balance again. Had the human been following everything Vorn thought? His discomfort brought out his natural combativeness. He set his glass down hard, careless of the drops that splashed onto the shining wooden table. "Forget the brandy, Evans. You're a fool."

"And you're a meddlesome worrier with the soul of an accountant. My father uses men like you to keep track of his spare change." Evans's insults were all the more effective because he never raised his voice.

Vorn tightened his paws on his knees, but refused to be baited. "You're underestimating them. You don't know that they didn't send a distress call."

"They didn't while our last team was there. There's not a free trader who'll go near the planet now, we've seen to that. And the radiation will be blocking their subspace communications."

Evans sipped his brandy, rolling it around critically in his mouth. "Excellent."

"I know what I'm doing," grunted Vorn, "and to go in without being sure is too big a risk."

"Don't you like risk, Vorn?" Evans shook his head. "An accountant. Say they did get a message out. Maybe a one percent chance. It adds a spice of danger."

"Listen Evans, I'm in this for the profit, not to help you get your idea of fun."

"You have no poetry in you, my friend."

"There are four hundred women..."

"Exactly, my dear chap. Four hundred women. I don't know what your Tellarite females are like, and frankly I've never wanted to know." He gave a slight, affected shudder. "Spare me." Vorn growled angrily. Evans continued, unperturbed. "But I have a certain experience with human women."

"Not women like these."

"Oh, come now. Our teams have reported that they have almost no weapons, and they can't fart without talking about it first. They're a collection of freaks."

"We should go in quickly and put them out of the way so we can get down to business. They've got to be cleared out before we can expand production."

"Naturally. But they'll be no trouble. Women are no match for us and our men." His smile widened. "I've never-met a woman who was any use with her clothes on in any case. I don't suppose these women have ever been taught that. It could be... interesting."

"I don't care how you take your pleasures, but if they start to interfere with the operation..."

"What will you do, Vorn? Growl at me?" Evans raised his eyebrows.

"Worse than that, Lord John."

"Oh, I really don't think so. I really don't. You need me."

"Not as badly as you think!" Vorn picked up his glass and gulped defiantly, the liquor warming him.

"Oh, no?" Evans sighed. "My dear fellow, that is a fine, ancient vintage. Please stop swilling it. There is no reason for you to behave like a pig simply because you look like one. And you are ruining the finish on that table."

He bent casually to inspect the damage, and Vorn, furious, tried to lash out at him. There was a blur of movement, a cascade of stinging liquid, a tinkling smash, and Vorn found himself pinned back to the couch. Brandy was dripping down his face, and a pointed shard of broken crystal was only a centimeter from his eye.

Evans's gaze was supremely joyful. "You do need me, don't you, Vorn? And you're not going to interfere with me,

are you?" Vorn was silent. Evans moved the piece of glass slightly. "Are you?"

"Have it your way," Vorn grunted at last.

"I shall. Believe me, I shall." Evans laughed musically, exhilaration singing out of him, and let Vorn up.

The Tellarite waddled toward the door, then stopped, staring at the handsome human. "Maybe I do need you, for now. But remember, someday you'll push someone too far with one of your games, and it might be me. So watch your back, Evans."

"I always do, my dear chap. Do you watch yours?" As the door closed behind Vorn, he could still hear Evans's laughter.

* * *

The Enterprise landing party materialized at the bottom of a wooded hill, half a kilometer from the main Demeter settlement. Uhura pulled out her communicator instantly. "Landing party to Enterprise." She had spent the previous day huddled with Scotty, reconstructing six communicators until they could punch through almost any kind of interference. This was the practical test.

She was relieved when the answer came through with only a touch of distortion. "Enterprise here."

"Just checking communications. Everything looks quiet. We'll report again in an hour. Uhura out."

She and her companions surveyed the scene before them. They hadn't been able to raise the colony even after establishing orbit, so they had beamed down close to cover, not knowing what kind of welcome to expect. The peace was unnerving. If there was something wrong here, it wasn't apparent on the surface.

Just in front of them was an immense flat field, flooded with water and criss-crossed by a system of pipes and raised dikes. "It looks like a rice paddy," said Keiko in surprise. Her hand hovered near her phaser, as it had since the beamdown. She saw no immediate danger, but it was better to be ready.

Christine had her tricorder out. "Phyllium," she said. "A rare grain, and quite a delicacy. Reports are that it's the only thing they export. They sell it to free traders -

women of course - in return for equipment, tapes, anything they can't make or grow here."

The buildings of the settlement were visible across the field. "Let's see what's going on," said Uhura. "Stay alert. Just because we don't see any danger doesn't mean that there isn't any."

They stepped out onto the nearest of the dikes, wide enough for two to walk abreast along it. The greenish yellow stalks of the phyllium waved beside them, the heads rising just above the level of the dike. The air smelled damp and spicy and there was a warm breeze. Christine had fallen into step beside Uhura, who was in the lead. Grace and T'Nila were behind them, and Keiko and Thelit in the rear.

Christine changed the settings on the tricorder, and frowned. "What?" asked Uhura, noticing the change in expression.

"Radiation. And I don't think it's from any natural source."

"Location?"

"That way." Christine pointed, and everyone looked at a distant range of hills. "More precisely, bearing 248 degrees, and about ten kilometers away."

"A high enough level to be dangerous?" asked T'Nila. She was taking her own readings.

"No, not immediately. Not in a few days, or even weeks or months. But I wouldn't want to live here for a year. I bet this has something to do with the distress call."

"But if it's not immediately dangerous, why did they say it was so urgent?"

"They must know something that we don't." The wind was tugging Christine's hair loose from its bun, blowing wisps of it in her face.

"We have to find out who sent that distress call."

They continued toward the buildings. They could begin to make out signs of activity, but they were still out of shouting distance, and no one had noticed their approach. The buildings were low, of wood and stone, scattered among tall trees. "Pretty," said Uhura appreciatively, a little surprised.

"There were three architects among the founders," volunteered Keiko, who was the most knowledgeable about the history of the colony.

"Sounds like they tried for at least one of everything."

"They did. They deliberately recruited for professions and skills they lacked."

"Smart," Thelit said gleefully. "They knew what they were doing."

"Corrupting and seducing the innocent." said Grace firmly.

"If you can evangelize, why can't they?"

They were almost across the field now. "Save your arguments for later," Uhura told them, just as they heard a loud splash from a few meters ahead.

Keiko was the first to react, slipping to the front, bringing out her phaser and dropping to a crouch. She crept forward, followed by everyone else.

"Goddamn fucking wrench," said a clear young voice to their left and near their feet. There were several more splashes. "Got it."

The Enterprise women straightened slightly, and peered down into the waving stalks of phyllium to locate the owner of the voice. A pipe ran through the grain just above the level of the water, and a figure in wet coveralls was working at a joint, her back to them. She turned, saying, "It slipped off my belt..." Her voice died away for a moment in surprise and her eyes widened. "Who are you?" she demanded finally. "And what the hell are you pointing that thing at me for?"

Uhura glanced at Keiko, and Keiko lowered her phaser. "I'm Commander Uhura of the Federation starship Enterprise. We came in answer to a distress call."

"Goddess, yes, I heard about that." A shadow passed over her face. "My mothers..." She broke off, but continued to stare at them with open curiosity. They stared back. She was, Christine realized, little more than a child,

perhaps about thirteen standard years old, with a round, cheerful face, olive skin, and a tangled mop of curly black hair.

"Do you know who sent the call?" asked Uhura.

Again the look of trouble. "Yes. Sappho; she's my mother. I can take you to her office; I'm supposed to tell her when I'm done with this fucking pipe. It was blocked, and the ph in this section is way too acid. It just needs one more turn." She gave the wrench a final twist, hooked it back on her belt and looked at them. "Okay. Come on, move out of the way. How do you expect me to get out?"

They scattered, and she put her hands on the edge of the dike, jumped, and scrambled to her feet. She shook herself once, briskly, like a dog, splattering drops of mud and water, and said, "There. What are the rest of your names?"

Uhura introduced them all, and the girl looked with special interest at Thelit and T'Nila. "Andorian and Vulcan, right? We're all Terran here. My mother doesn't know if the combination technique would work with alien ova."

"Is your mother - Sappho, you said? - a doctor?" Christine asked.

"No, I meant Astarte, my other mother. She was my carrier-mother. Sappho was my donor-mother."

"Oh. I wondered, because I'm a doctor too. What's your name?"

"Lilith. Let's get going." She led the way briskly along the dike, and Christine tried not to laugh as she followed. Grace looked slightly shocked, but Christine thought that she had seldom seen a less likely Lilith.

The dike ended at the edge of the field, and a muddy gravel path led into the settlement. It was larger than it had looked from a distance, and busier. "The mill," said Lilith, with a jerk of her head at the first building they passed. There was a note of pride in her voice, and they could hear the whirr of machinery. "Warehouses over there, community buildings ahead, and living clusters beyond that. Sappho will probably show you around."

There were quite a few women about, on the paths, passing in and out of buildings, and talking in groups.

Christine was intensely aware of curious eyes following them, but Lilith didn't stop. The pleased self-importance in the set of her shoulders was amusing. "Here we are," she said, leading the way onto a long porch attached to a gray stone building. She headed past long windows toward a door which opened as she reached it.

Sappho had seen the odd procession pass her office windows. She knew at once that it must be the group from the Federation. She had been expecting them for days, but it was still startling to see the reality of them on her porch, with her daughter. Surprise kept her frozen in her seat for no more than a second, and she stepped to the door just as Lilith reached it.

"They're from the Federation. I found them out in the east field," said Lilith as soon as she saw Sappho. "I brought them straight to you." She had a proprietary air.

Sappho nodded. "Welcome to Demeter," she said slowly, studying them. Her eyes strayed beyond them out into the settlement. "Come in." Word would already be spreading. Better to get them in her office and size them up before everyone converged.

They crowded through the doorway, and clustered just inside, looking around with a kind of wary caution. There were, she saw, four humans of various sorts, and what she recognized as an Andorian and a Vulcan. They were all armed, and she eyed their weapons with distaste. But that, after all, was one of the reasons she had sent for them. "I'm Sappho," she said aloud, "current leader of the council."

"Your daughter told us that you sent the distress call."

"That's right." She spared a glance for Lilith. "Did you fix the pipe?"

Lilith nodded vigorously. "But this wrench is shitty. It kept slipping."

"Ask Rahab for a new one. But first, find Astarte and ask her to join me here, and to bring Mother Demeter."

Lilith hesitated, obviously not wanting to lose touch with the newcomers. "But..."

"Go on. It you do that, and ask the other members of the council to come too - and ask everyone else to stay at work - then you can listen to the meeting."

"Done!" Lilith beamed, and ran out the door.

Sappho turned back to her visitors. She couldn't bring herself to offer them the embrace of sisterhood which was the standard greeting on Demeter. "Come into the council room, and tell me your names, and what you know about our problem here. The rest can wait until the council is assembled."

* * *

"The radiation has had no appreciable effect as yet on any other aspect of the ecology," said Astarte, leaning forward. "The ova appear normal, but attempts at combination have gone from an 87% success rate to 14%. And of the achieved combinations, virtually every embryo has exhibited gross abnormalities within a few days of conception, before implantation."

"If it's not in the ova themselves," said Christine slowly, thinking aloud, "then it must be something in either the culture medium, or in the enzymes which facilitate fertilization."

"Those possibilities are under consideration," said Astarte, rather stiffly. "We understand the process far better than you do."

"I'm sure you do."

The atmosphere in the panelled council room was tense. The space was deliberately designed to be casual and informal, with floor cushions, low chairs, and scattered small tables. More like a living room than a meeting hall,

thought Christine, comparing it automatically with the briefing rooms of the Enterprise. Very non-hierarchical. But the mood was anything but relaxed.

The Enterprise landing party was clustered at one end of the room, the Demeter council members mostly at the other. Sappho sat in the middle with a writing board on her lap, flanked by an unhappy looking Lilith and an ancient woman in a glide chair who seemed to be sound asleep.

"I accept the responsibility for calling for help," said Sappho firmly. "We've been through this before. Now that they're here, why not see what they can do?"

"To refuse help at this juncture would be irrational," observed T'Nila. Several council members eyed her oddly.

"So far I haven't heard anything brilliant," said Rahab.

"You didn't want our help, but now we're expected to be brilliant in the first hour we're here?" Christine snapped.

"The sooner you help, the sooner you'll leave," said Rahab.

It surprised Christine, as it surprised all of them, how little they were wanted on Demeter. Attitudes ranged from reluctant welcome to outright hostility. They had been offered, and had accepted, cups of a strong, grassy tasting native tea, but the hospitality had a grudging flavor.

"Whether you believe it or not," said Uhura, "we weren't sent here to criticize you or change you. Simply to help. But that's not all there is to it. We know some things that you don't know about what's going on inside that dome."

"Drug production?" asked Sappho shrewdly.

"Right you are." As Uhura explained about the nirvana trade and the effects of the drug, Christine studied the faces of the listening women. They looked less startled than she had expected. Sappho was staring into her tea.

"What I don't understand is why they set the factory up so close to the colony," said Uhura as she finished her explanation.

"It's not so close," Sappho said with a shrug. "Out of sight, out of hearing. We don't get over that way very often; we didn't know it was there until the radiation levels went up. By then there was nothing we could do. The damn thing's fully automated, and we can't get into it. As to why it's there, we guessed the reason."

"Did you suspect?" asked Keiko.

"Yes. We know this area pretty well, and there's not much here that's useful except for agricultural purposes. We thought that it might be the virula. It only grows right around here." She tilted her cup, watching the liquid swirl around. When she looked up there was a trace of humor in her eyes. "We use it for tea. You're drinking it now."

Christine heard the clatter of cups being hastily set down. She controlled the impulse to drop her own as though it had bitten her. Instead she looked at the tea, and then up at Astarte. "I assume the active ingredient is very weak in this form."

"It's a mild stimulant, no more."

"The difference between coca leaves and refined cocaine?"

"Something like that."

"But it is addictive."

"No more than caffeine," snapped Astarte. "Do you drink coffee?"

Christine gave a small smile, trying to defuse the tension. "Too much sometimes."

"Then don't criticize. We don't owe any man for this, either."

"Don't be so defensive. I just wanted to find out what you know about the effects!"

"Have you ever tried to refine it?" asked Uhura in her most neutral voice.

"We have not!"

"No one here needs the crutches used by slaves. Where there's no oppression, there's no need for escape. You couldn't understand that." It was a new voice, breathy and shaky, but with an utter conviction that commanded attention. It took Christine a moment to figure out that it was coming from the frail figure in the glide chair. After initially wondering what she was doing at the meeting, she had forgotten the old woman's presence.

There was a subtle shift in the attitudes of the colony women. Heads turned, postures became somehow more respectful. Sappho moved to sit at the old woman's feet. "Mother," she said gently, taking a bony hand in both of hers. "I'm glad you're awake. These are the women from the Federation."

"So I assumed." Dark eyes, which still held a flickering fire, studied them one by one.

"This," said Sappho reverently, "is Demeter. The founder of our world; the mother of all that we are." Lilith crossed the room to sit next to her, and Demeter reached out absently to touch her black curls.

The dark eyes and the strong bones of the face under the withered skin began to look familiar to Christine, and she felt a sudden stir of recognition among her companions as well. That face, fifty years younger, had stared forbiddingly down at them in the Enterprise briefing room. "Dr. Alvarez?" she asked.

"We're honored to meet you," said Uhura respectfully.

The fragile body stiffened in the glide chair. "Dr. Alvarez no longer exists. I rejected that name, and everything it stood for, when I came here. I am Demeter. Please remember that."

"Of course, Demeter." Everyone murmured the name in turn as Uhura introduced them, except Grace who stared with a defiant frown of disapproval. Christine met Demeter's piercing gaze with a mixture of interest and discomfort. The force of personality in that look had not faded with age.

"I didn't and don't want you here," Demeter told them after she had finished surveying them. She spoke with the abruptness of the very old, who have little time to waste. "But my daughter thinks that it's necessary. You're the puppets of men..."

"Now wait just a minute..." Uhura began.

"But you can help us with a greater evil, also caused by men."

"We're not puppets, Demeter."

"No? You don't think so? Where do you get your orders, then?"

"Things have changed since you left."

"Have they? How much?" Her voice softened a little. "I'm very old, child. I don't blame any of you for it, but I've got no patience with softening the truth. You represent everything I left behind. When I look at you I see every intelligent woman who ever struggled against invisible barriers, all the while denying that they existed."

There was pity in her eyes now, echoed in the looks of all the women of the colony, and Christine drew a breath of anger, then let it out slowly. It was not pleasant to be pitied. She felt Uhura's eyes on her. "You're wrong," she said. "At least as wrong as those who say that there are no barriers. But your information is fifty years out of date. In any case, we're not asking you to approve of us. We're asking you to let us help."

"We were asked to come here," Uhura reminded her. "Do you want our help or not?"

Unexpectedly, Demeter chuckled. "Want it or not, it seems that we need it. So be it. Welcome to our world. Enjoy for a few days the chance to live as free women."

* * *

The meeting broke up after that, as if Demeter's acceptance of their presence was a signal that the matter was settled. After her few moments of alertness and lucidity, she had fallen suddenly asleep again, as though the effort had exhausted her. Sappho, taking charge as the council room emptied, had invited all of them to her house for dinner. Astarte had started to protest, then stopped, but there was a disapproving set to her jaw.

The meal proved to be vegetarian, to T'Nila's obvious relief and Thelit's barely concealed dismay. Christine rubbed her back surreptitiously as she ate. They were sitting on cushions again; the colony seemed to disbelieve in most kinds of furniture. She supposed that there was a psychological point to it, but it was more comfortable in theory than in practice. The combination kitchen, living and dining room where they sat was large, but crowded now, with the Enterprise landing party, Sappho, Astarte, Demeter, still asleep, Lilith, two other women and two noisy small children.

"This is extremely palatable," said T'Nila seriously to Lilith who was sitting next to her. The main course was phyllium seasoned with native herbs.

Lilith's face lit up. "You like it? I made it."

"I had surmised that you do not make use of processors or kitchen computers."

"Ugh, no," said Lilith emphatically, and Uhura and Christine exchanged amused glances. "We take turns cooking."

"We?" asked Keiko.

"All of us - well, no, not all; Ishtar and Morgan are too little. They just get in the way. But my mothers and me, and Rahab and Hagar."

"You all live together in this house?" inquired Uhura.

Lilith nodded vigorously, her mouth full. She swallowed and said, "Mother Demeter too. She was Sappho's donor mother. But she doesn't cook either."

Uhura looked cautiously at Sappho. "We don't mean to pry, but I'd be interested in knowing how you've organized the colony."

Sappho shrugged. "We didn't organize it so much as let it grow. There are four to eight adults living in each house, with their children. Some are lifemates..." She smiled at Astarte a little wistfully, "...as we are, some are just compatible. There's a fair amount of shifting around, but our household's been together for nearly twenty years."

"I like that," said Thelit.

Sappho followed her survey of the pleasantly untidy room. "It works," she agreed. Rahab and Hagar murmured agreement, but Astarte was avoiding her glance. After a moment she went on. "The houses are clustered in groups of five - Diana, the architect who laid out the settlement, planned that - and each cluster sends a representative to the council, which runs our business affairs. We have meetings of everyone, of course, to decide important issues..."

"Except this time," cut in Astarte sharply, finally raising her head from her food.

Sappho gave an irritable sigh and pushed away her plate. "Don't you think you've said that often enough by now, Astarte? I'm sick of the subject."

"Well I'm not."

"This isn't the time..."

"Then when is the time?"

"Not at dinner, Astarte."

"What makes you think that you can choose..."

"I did what needed to be done!"

"It's the way you did it..."

"Will you two stop it!" Lilith's voice was shrill. "You've been fighting at every meal for the last week. Stop it! I can't stand it any more."

"Lilith, stay out of..."

"Why should I! This is my house too!" She glared at them. "You both say that I'm too young to live in my own household, but you're the ones who are acting like... like..." Her breath caught raggedly, "like babies! You're more interested in arguing than in what's going to happen to us! You're acting worse than babies. You're acting like men! "

The room was filled with awkward silence. Lilith glared furiously at her mothers, tears trickling down her cheeks. Christine carefully studied a carving on the opposite wall, and she knew that her companions were equally self-conscious. T'Nila was acutely expressionless, and everyone else looked uncomfortable.

Rahab and Hagar got up and quietly started to clear the plates, and Christine moved to help them, glad of a chance to stand and ease her back, glad of a task to take her mind off the scene. Her own memories of marital discord were too fresh.

Uhura stood as well. "I think it's time for us to be getting back to the ship," she said. "We'll help you clean up, and then say good night."

Her voice broke the tense silence. Sappho, Astarte, and Lilith all turned to look at her in varying degrees of surprise. "You're not staying?" said Astarte. "We assumed..."

"We hadn't made definite plans. We didn't know what the situation would be. But wouldn't you rather..."

"No. I..." She looked at Lilith. "I think maybe I should apologize to you. We do need help, and you've done nothing to deserve hostility. Please stay. Be our guests."

"We have an empty house you can use," offered Sappho.

Uhura looked at her companions. "I don't know if..."

"My daughters are right. Especially the youngest of them." Demeter had woken up, and made one of her unexpected entrances into the conversation. Lilith gave an unrestrained sniff and ran to her, laying her head in hex-grandmother's lap. "It's all right, Lilibell," said Demeter softly. "You're smarter than the rest of us sometimes." She looked up again. "We don't see many sisters from outside. Sappho asked you to come, and it seems she was right. The least we can do is make you welcome."

Uhura hesitated, and made up her mind. "Thank you. We'd like to stay." She glanced sternly at Grace, who was ready to protest. "But... under the circumstances, this is a little awkward... I have to ask the captain's permission." She pulled out her communicator and held it up.

There was a clatter of plates from the kitchen area. "You have to ask his permission?" said Rahab disbelievingly.

Christine took the plate from Rahab's hand before she dropped it. Unexpectedly, the situation now struck her as funny. She was striving not to laugh. "Not because he's a man..." she murmured.

"Because he's the captain," finished Uhura. "We'd rather not have to debate that with you right now."

Demeter waved a thin hand in dismissal. "Call him then." Her tone sharpened. "But outside. I don't want to hear his voice in my house."

Uhura motioned to Christine, and they stepped out onto the porch. Their call was put through to Kirk's quarters. He listened to their report, and granted them formal permission to stay planetside, an undertone of laughter in his voice. After they had signed off Uhura rolled her eyes.

"Well it is a little funny," said Christine.

"Having to ask a man's permission to spend the night on a planet of radical feminists?"

"Right."

When they reentered the house, almost everyone had crowded into the kitchen. There was a cautious friendliness in the busy scene. Christine could see Thelit's antennae nodding as she spoke emphatically to Hagar. Keiko had bent down to talk to one of the children. Even T'Nila was there,

by her gestures apparently receiving an explanation of the garbage recycling system.

Only Grace was still in the living area, watching the others with an expression of tense distaste. She had spoken less than any one else during the day, and Christine had been grateful for her silence. She had been intermittently conscious of Grace's disapproval, but Grace had a right to that as long as she kept it to herself. The danger was that she might not keep it to herself for much longer.

Sappho and Astarte were putting the leftover food into an enormous storage unit in one wall of the kitchen. Lilith, passing by, said something inaudible to them, and Astarte laughed and shook her head. Sappho, turning, saw the gesture and laughed too, reaching out to touch Astarte's cheek. They smiled at each other, and Astarte held out her arms.

At least they've made up, thought Christine. I'm glad for Lilith's sake, and it will make our job simpler. She blinked, and reminded herself that it was not polite to stare at kissing couples, regardless of their gender. She turned to see if there were any dishes left around the room, and nearly collided with Grace.

Grace's eyes were fixed on Sappho and Astarte, and she said in disbelief, "No. They can't..." She took a step and stopped, seeming uncertain whether to head for the door or the kitchen. After a moment her jaw set, and she evidently decided on confrontation. Before she had taken two steps toward Sappho and Astarte, Christine and Uhura had grabbed her arms. "Let me go," she snapped, jerking away.

"No," said Uhura. "Grace, don't."

"I have to tell them..."

"No, you don't."

"What's the matter?" Sappho had noticed the tableau.

"It's wrong. You can't go against the laws of God..."

"What.

"Christine," said Uhura urgently, and jerked her head toward the door.

"Grace! Nurse Dawson, I would like to talk to you for a minute. Outside. " Christine tightened her grip on Grace's upper arm and all but dragged her out of the room, feeling a collection of puzzled stares on their backs.

Grace didn't speak as Christine marched her down some steps and over to a bench beneath a tree. Once there, Christine released her arm, and she rubbed it. "You're strong," she said with a kind of distracted surprise.

"Vulcan gravity. It builds the muscles once you get used to it." They were both silent for a moment. Then Christine sighed. "Of course these women are lesbians. Didn't you expect that?"

"I wasn't sure. I didn't like thinking about it."

"Well now you know. Grace, it isn't your business."

"To rebuke sin is always my business."

"For god's sake..." She broke off. "Sorry. No blasphemy intended. Will you please talk like a person instead of a sermon?"

Grace sat down abruptly on the bench. "It's my duty to tell people the will of God."

"Which you understand and no one else does?"

"There is only one truth." Grace sounded tired now, still convinced, but unhappy. "If people are living in sin, I have to try to save them." She stopped. Christine could hardly see her face in the darkness. "I know they don't like me for it. I don't want to be disliked. People on the ship snicker at me behind my back. I know that, but my feelings aren't important. My mission is."

Ouch, thought Christine. That made her feel guilty. She herself still resented Grace's remarks about her own marriage. "No one likes being told that they're sinful. Look, Grace, there's a part of me that admires your conviction, your willingness to speak your beliefs even when they're unpopular. But can't you see that others, like these women here, have beliefs which are just as important to them, just as strongly held?"

"What do you believe in?" Grace sounded genuinely curious, more natural than Christine had heard her before.

"To tell the truth, I don't really know. Not the way you do, or they do. All my certainties are private ones, not cosmic ones. But... Toleration, I guess. And kindness. Definitely kindness."

"But they're wrong..."

"They don't think so. And I don't think that you have any right to interfere here. Surely sexual morality is the most private part of life."

"Not when they flaunt it."

Christine sighed. "So don't look. You won't change anything by telling them that they're sinners. You'll just reinforce everything negative they think about Federation culture."

"To divorce sexuality from procreation is wrong."

"Oh come on..." Christine checked herself. "You've a right to feel that way." So, she reminded herself, did many Vulcans. Vulcans, however, had the good taste not to inquire into what went on in their neighbor's bedrooms.

Grace said, "And a right to say so?"

"Within limits. But you can't expect to impose it on everyone else. You think that it's wrong for women to sleep with other women..."

"It's unnatural."

"What's natural? They think that it's wrong to sleep with men."

"God gave us the gift of sexuality to be used reverently for the conception of children." Grace was using her prim, sermon-quoting voice again.

"Then why are we fertile only at intervals, and sexual all our lives?" Christine probed.

"The gift can be degraded and misused."

"Of course. But what constitutes misuse depends a lot on your point of view."

"But..."

"You're right, and everyone else isn't? We don't seem to be getting anywhere, do we?"

Grace leaned her head against the trunk of the tree. "I don't want to jeopardize the mission."

Christine gave a tired smile. "I'm glad we agree on that at least. Hang onto the thought."

Chapter Text

The house they were given to stay in was new. It had a fresh smell of sawdust and paint about it, and the walls in two of the rooms were still unfinished "Sappho told me that it was built by a group of young women, just older than Lilith, who were setting up their own household," said Uhura. "Two of them were planning children, but when the radiation levels increased, it became impossible. They lost heart."

"Too bad," said Keiko sympathetically. She wandered around, opening doors and peering into cabinets. "It's a nice house." She opened a door. "Not at all automated, but the bathroom's decent. No environmental controls - they're fresh air freaks."

"This entire community is planned with more harmony and rationality than is usual in human settlements," observed T'Nila with serious approval.

"Harmonious," Keiko agreed. "Almost... organic? Like the buildings belong here. It reminds me of..."

Christine frowned, chasing a memory. She and Grace had caught up with the others as they were being shown to this house. Grace had stayed outside on a terrace, apparently to pray. Christine hoped that it would help. She produced a name from the depths of her mind. "Frank Lloyd Wright," she said triumphantly.

"That's right," said Keiko. "I was trying to remember."

"Who?" Thelit asked.

"He was a twentieth century Terran architect. Not as influential back then as he should have been, but he's been rediscovered. His stuff is great for this kind of setting, but it doesn't work well in cities. This whole settlement is in his style... though I don't know if they'd admit the debt."

"Interesting," said T'Nila, sinking gracefully onto a floor cushion. "Illogical if they owe a debt to a male architect, and are unwilling to admit it. Indeed, their entire posture of separatism tends to break down, if examined logically..."

"What surprised me," interrupted Thelit, "is the way that they knew they needed help, but they resented us for coming! Even Sappho, who sent for us in the first place."

Uhura shook her head. "That's normal enough. Maybe they expected..." She shot a quick look at Grace, just visible through the window. "Maybe they expected us to criticize them, or to be... I don't know, like mechanical dolls instead of real women. Don't forget, they have a distorted picture of what life outside the colony is like."

"Not so distorted in some ways," Thelit muttered. "Only in some ways, Ensign."

"It would be considerably more profitable to discuss our plans for tomorrow," said T'Nila flatly.

Christine suppressed a smile, and also felt a stab of sympathy. T'Nila had been exposed to several emotional scenes already today; she obviously wanted to forestall another one. Christine knew how she felt. Another rehashing of how they all felt about the Demeter colony would be profitless. They were all very tired.

"I gather," she said, "that we'll all get a tour of the genetics lab. Then you and I and Thelit will see what we can do there."

"The rest of us will go take a look at the nirvana facility," said Uhura. "We'll see what that force field is like. For now, I suggest sleep." She looked at the bundle of clothes that Sappho and Lilith had left them. "They said we'll be more comfortable if we dress like they do, and I'm inclined to agree."

"Well I'm not sleeping in my soggy uniform," agreed Keiko.

The climate of the colony site was warm and humid, perfect for growing phyllium, but Christine could feel the clingy synthetic material of her uniform sticking uncomfortably to her body. The colony women all wore loose cotton shifts or baggy pants and shirts. She had intermittently envied them all day. At least the damp breeze could get at their skin. A new thought struck her, and she started to laugh.

"What, Chris?" asked Uhura, looking up from sorting through the clothes.

"Sappho said that our uniforms aren't good for the climate, and she's perfectly right."

"So?"

"Can you imagine what she'd have said if we'd beamed down here fifteen or twenty years ago?"

Uhura began to laugh too. "Oh, no..." She looked at Keiko, Thelit and T'Nila. "You're too young to remember."

"High heeled boots," spluttered Christine.

"Skirts up to our asses!" Uhura indicated a hemline.

"Necklines almost down to... You should have seen what some of my patients tried when I leaned over them. She'd either have ordered us off the planet or rolled on the ground in hysterics."

"I've seen pictures," said Keiko. "You really wore those things?"

"Hey, we were younger then." Uhura grinned. "And we both had pretty good legs, if I do say so myself. But we weren't sorry when they put us back in pants."

"It made bending over a lot less complicated."

* * *

"They're not so bad after all," said Lilith, emerging from the shower. "Your turn, Rahab. They're almost ordinary, like everyone."

Astarte paused, halting Demeter's glide chair. "Don't be too sure of that."

"They didn't grow up free, the way we did," said Rahab. "Morgan, no..." She ran after the toddler.

"But they don't look like puppets. They look..." She searched for a word. "...ordinary," she said again. "I mean..." She looked confused.

"Lilibell," said Demeter, and Lilith went to her. She was the only one who called Lilith by that pet name. Lilith had always known that she was Demeter's favorite granddaughter. "Lilibell, you're wrong and right. You can't see the ways that they've been warped. But you keep reminding us that they're not enemies. We can't blame them for what they can't help."

When Demeter had been put to bed, Astarte joined Sappho in their room. "I'm sorry, love," she said as soon as the door closed behind her.

"I'm sorry, too. I should have told you about the distress call when I sent it. I was trying to avoid a fight, but it didn't work."

"I've been acting like a real bitch ever since, haven't I?"

Sappho smiled. "Pretty much. Don't worry about it."

"Lilith's right, they're not so bad. I can stand having them here. And you were right that we don't have a choice."

"With luck they'll knock out the radiation and be gone in a few weeks." A voice in the back of Sappho's mind warned her that it might not be that simple. For now, though, all she wanted was to reassure Astarte.

Astarte rummaged in the closet. "That was a funny scene after dinner, with the quiet blonde one who looked like she'd bitten a lemon..."

"Grace."

"That's right, Grace. What was the matter with her?"

Sappho didn't answer immediately. She had hoped Astarte wouldn't ask. She sighed. "It took me a few minutes to figure out. Come here."

Astarte tilted her dark head inquiringly as she settled into the familiar curve of Sappho's arms. "What?"

"This." Sappho kissed her, feeling the warm response. "She thinks that it's wrong."

Astarte stretched. "Hmm? Wrong...?" Comprehension spread across her face. "Wrong for us to love each other?"

She considered for a minute. "That," she said decisively, "is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"Of course. But that's what it's like out there, I imagine."

"The others shut her up."

"So they did. Let's hope she stays that way."

* * *

Christine looked around the unfurnished bedroom and sighed. Uhura glanced up from spreading out the sleeping mats. "Futons are really very comfortable, you know."

"Actually, I do know. I'm just more used to beds, especially my own."

"Given the choice between these and the bare floor..."

"Okay. Give me a pillow, and an extra blanket if we've got one."

"Here." Uhura tossed them. The landing party had divided naturally into roommate pairs, Uhura and Christine, Thelit and Keiko, and Grace and T'Nila. T'Nila was the least susceptible to being irritated by Grace.

"Thanks." Christine frowned, and thumped the pillow.

"Grouchy, aren't we?" said Uhura, peering at her. "Worried about Grace?" She shut off the light and settled down.

"That's part of it."

"What did you tell her?"

"Nothing very helpful. I let her talk, and made a plea for tolerance and the success of the mission. I couldn't bring myself just to order her to shut up."

"Seems to have worked, though. She's been quiet ever since. I wonder..."

"What?"

"Why didn't you order her to shut up? For that matter, why didn't I? We're her superior officers, we could have."

"I guess we... at least I... respect her sincerity, her willingness to stand up for her beliefs... something like that. Persuasion seems like a better way to approach her."

Uhura propped her head on her hand. "I've been thinking, on and off for the last few days, about what command is like..." She grinned. "...even on this fairly low level."

"And?"

"I wonder if women do behave differently in command than men do. Would Jim have talked to Grace or just ordered her to behave?"

"Probably a bit of both. But... yes, he would have ended it by reminding her that he is the captain."

"And he would have done it himself. I delegated. And what about Sappho?"

Christine turned onto her back. "Mm. For all their theoretical commitment to collegiality, she is definitely first among equals. She takes charge naturally."

"They were all furious with her for sending for us without consulting them, even though she was right. Maybe women value consensus more, and men like a clear chain of authority?"

"These women can't be taken as typical. Men differ, too. I can count on my fingers the number of times in the last twenty years that Leonard's directly pulled rank on me."

"I still think there's something to it. But you're right, I'm generalizing from too small a sample." She stopped, and they could hear quiet, rustling night noises coming in through the window. "Let's get some sleep. I'm glad that Grace didn't raise a fuss about spending the night."

"Yes." Christine shook her squashy pillow again, trying to make it comfortable.

After a moment Uhura spoke again. "I get the idea that you're not too fond of it yourself."

"I'll go sleep in the main room."

"No, don't. Did..." Christine sensed that Uhura was searching for a tactful way to phrase the question. "Are you and Spock..."

"Yes. No. I don't know."

"Oh."

"We talked it over."

"That sounds encouraging."

"Not necessarily. That conversation with Jim... for you and for him, it was mostly impersonal, even if it did raise important issues. For us, it stirred up some very muddy waters. This whole assignment did. Does. I wanted to see him tonight."

"Sorry."

"No, we were right to stay. It's good for the mission, and that's what counts."

"You sound very noble and pompous."

Christine chuckled weakly. "Don't I? Maybe I should do recruiting advertisements."

"It's funny, but I didn't think you two ever fought."

"Oh we do, but that's no big deal. Fights can be made up, often very pleasantly." A part of her mind told her that Spock would be unhappy with this discussion of their private lives, but she was still angry enough with him to ignore the warning. "This is deeper. It gets at... well, muddy waters, as I said. Underlying assumptions, differences that we usually manage to ignore."

"Complicated? Being married to a Vulcan?"

"Very, sometimes. Sometimes... as simple as breathing, and as right and natural and necessary."

"That's what I thought."

"It'll work out." Christine thought of Spock, testing the presence of the bondlink in her mind. Yes, it was there, the steady subliminal warmth that connected them. As long as that tenuous connection remained open, nothing was too wrong.

Kirk rose from his desk, rubbing the back of his neck, and stretched. He was almost caught up with his paperwork, a beneficial side effect of his uselessness on this mission. He still felt itchy, uneasy about the whole thing despite Uhura's reassuring reports from the planet. He had been prepared for anything up to a combat situation, but what existed seemed to be a technical problem. He supposed he should be relieved. It was hard to decide whether his nervousness was based on legitimate command intuition - it was hard to believe that they could shut down the nirvana production unchallenged - or on a bruised ego.

He reached over and switched off his terminal. He was at a loose end. His chronometer told him it was 2423; he should probably turn in, but if he did he knew that he wouldn't sleep. Spock would say that worry was unproductive, but... Spock. A smile tugged at the corner of Kirk's mouth, and he reactivated the terminal, punching the code for the first officer's quarters.

Spock answered immediately, confirming Kirk's suspicion that he wasn't asleep either. Still in uniform, which meant that he had been working. "Captain?"

"Care for a game of chess?"

Spock's eyebrows lifted. "That could prove pleasant. However, I believe that you should endeavor to rest. It is late."

"That's not your line, Spock. That's my mother's, or Bones's, or Christine's. I couldn't sleep anyway. Worried."

"Worry is an unproductive emotion. You have done all that you can in this situation. It is in capable hands."

"Then what are you doing awake after midnight?"

"Creating a computer model of the molecular structure of a nirvana antidote..."

"You could finish it in the morning."

"...and worrying." There was a rueful gleam in Spock's eyes.

"Which I suspected." Kirk grinned.

"The knowledge that an emotion is unproductive is not always sufficient for its elimination."

"Chess?"

"Agreed."

When Kirk reached Spock's quarters, the Vulcan had already set up the chess board. The molecular model he had been working on was displayed on the computer screen. "It is based upon the work begun by researchers at Starbase XI. It needs to be tested in the laboratory, of course, and further refined."

"Get Bones on it tomorrow."

"I have already spoken to the doctor."

"Good." Kirk made his opening move, and for fifteen minutes they played in silence.

As Spock contemplated a move, Kirk allowed his eyes and mind to wander for a moment. They were sitting at a table in the outer, living area of the cabin, an odd hybrid of Vulcan, human, and standard Starfleet issue furnishings. The table was Starfleet neutral, but the carved chairs were Vulcan. The soft cushioned couch was obviously Christine's, as was the blue and white and rose color scheme, but it blended better than it should have with the crimson tapestries visible through the bedroom door. Just, Kirk thought, as their marriage worked better than he would have expected. Most of the time...

His eyes fell on the holocube sitting on a shelf in the corner. It was familiar enough, but he had not looked closely at it since Christine had brought it back from their last leave. He supposed that he had made the usual 'haven't they grown' exclamations when she had shown him the family portrait. It had been taken in Sarek and Amanda's garden, and, he would guess, at Christine and Amanda's insistence. Christine and Bri were sitting on a bench, Spock standing behind them, and T'Kista standing next to her mother.

When he had first seen it, he had looked mostly at the children. Bri, nearly nine, stocky, furry, bright-eyed, the only one of the four who was openly smiling. Odd-looking, but not unattractive, and as yet apparently undisturbed by his differences from his adoptive parents and his sister. T'Kista, seven, fairer than most Vulcans, her ears smaller, her blue eyes surprising under the slanting brows.

Blue-eyed Vulcans were not unknown, but rare. Of course, Amanda had blue eyes. Spock must carry the recessive gene.

He had not really studied the adults in the holo before. After all, he saw them every day. But there was something in their attitude toward the children that caught his attention now. Christine had an arm around Bri and was holding her daughter's hand. Her mouth was slightly curved, but was there a hint of sadness in her eyes? Spock had not been looking at the camera, but down at his family, and there seemed to be a kind of protectiveness in the contemplation.

He felt a stab of guilt. They were nice children; called him Jim in precise, slightly Vulcan accented voices, listened to his stories, Bri with enthusiasm, T'Kista with earnest gravity. Their reward had been for him to take away their parents, making that family grouping a sometime thing. He had known how disappointing the cancelled leave had been, had read it in Spock's careful control and the faint redness around Christine's eyes. They're adults, he reminded himself. They could request a shore posting tomorrow if they wanted to.

But they wouldn't. He had bound them, fairly or not, by a sense of responsibility to him, to the Enterprise. He needed Spock, and he had known after the years when Christine had been on Vulcan, when the children were babies, that if she didn't return to the ship, Spock would leave it. He had persuaded her to come back. Best for him, best for his ship, maybe even best for Spock and Chris. But what about the children? If he felt guilty, how much more must their parents?

"Captain?" Kirk almost jumped. He tore his eyes away from the holocube. Spock was regarding him curiously from the other side of the table. "It is your move."

"Spock..." Kirk was uncertain. He felt a sudden desire to tell Spock some of what he had been thinking. Did he grudge Spock his other loyalties? If a wife and children were a virtual impossibility for a captain on active duty, did he think that his officers should also give their entire devotion to their jobs? The concern Kirk felt for the landing party was personal as well as professional, but even more deeply so for Spock.

He had always congratulated himself on how well he had integrated Spock's marriage into their friendship and their working partnership. It occurred to him now that it had been Spock and Christine who had done most of the adapting, most of the integrating.

"It was our choice, Jim." The words, spoken aloud, startled him. Spock lifted an eyebrow at Kirk's expression, then nodded at the portrait. "Not direct telepathy, I assure you. But I am familiar with your expressions, and this one was somewhat eloquent."

"Have I asked too much?"

"No more than we have been willing to give. No more than you have given in a different way." Spock contemplated him seriously over steepled fingers. "The children are well. My wife and I are satisfied with their well-being, and content with our duties on the Enterprise. I do not claim that it is an ideal situation, but it is what we have chosen. Do not reproach yourself."

Kirk shook his head.

There was a glint of humor in Spock's eyes. "In any case, life with my parents and attendance at the Vulcan Academy primary school is hardly equal to the somewhat... Dickensian... orphanage existence which you seemed to be envisioning for them. I assure you, they give no signs of feeling abused."

Kirk smiled. "I suppose not." He turned his attention back to the chess board just as the door buzzer sounded.

Spock's eyebrow went up as McCoy strolled in without waiting for a reply. The doctor was carrying a bottle and wearing a grin. "Thought I'd find you here, Jim," he remarked.

"Doctor, it is customary to wait for permission to enter private quarters," said Spock.

"Sorry." McCoy replied, faintly abashed. "But when I couldn't find Jim in his cabin, I figured he'd be here." The molecular model on the terminal screen caught his eye, and he crossed to it. "Is that the antidote?"

"Possibly."

"Hmm." McCoy rotated the image, studying it. "We should be able to synthesize it in limited quantities."

Kirk shifted a bishop and leaned back. "Can it be tested against samples of the drug obtained by the landing party?"

"Best way to do it. Models can only tell us so much." McCoy set down the bottle on the edge of a table.

Without looking up from the chess board, Spock said, "I assume you do not intend that brandy to be a decorative object, Doctor. There are glasses in the cabinet."

McCoy poured two brandies, handed one to Kirk, and after a slight hesitation poured a third and set it beside Spock's elbow. He took a sip of the dark liquid, and stared into it.

"Bones?" asked Kirk curiously.

"A respectable form of drug use," said McCoy ruefully. "I'm damned worried about this mission, so I have a drink. Is that so different from..."

"It's a matter of degree, Bones."

Spock, his hand on a rook, said, "The moderate consumption of alcohol may be illogical, but it is essentially harmless. The same can hardly be said of the instantly addictive use of nirvana."

"Yeah. Makes me think though. I've been feeling..."

"Useless," supplied Kirk.

McCoy's blue eyes peered at Kirk shrewdly, and he nodded. "We're used to being where the action is. I'm used to gathering the samples, assessing the problem myself, and then sending it back to the lab. This time, we're the ones left behind waiting to be told what's going on." He and Kirk exchanged a wordless glance of understanding, and McCoy shook his head impatiently. "'They also serve...'" he muttered. He set down his brandy and peered over Spock's shoulder. "Why'd you do that, Spock? Looks like a dumb move to me."

"Which is why you are not a chess player, Doctor. Your move, Captain."

McCoy wandered back to the couch and sat down. "Why did they want to stay down there tonight? I was expecting an in-person briefing."

"Trust," said Kirk, leaning forward in his chair to study the board. "They're just establishing a relationship with the leaders of the colony. Accepting hospitality eases it along."

"Whatever our personal preferences might have been, the decision to stay planet-side was logical."

McCoy looked at Spock with a grin. "Don't tell me you admit to missing Chris."

"Really, Doctor. Do you expect me to prefer my wife's absence to her presence?"

"She's been gone twelve hours..."

"16.7."

"...and he misses her."

"If you insist on putting it in those terms, Doctor."

"You're mellowing, Spock, and you don't want to admit it." McCoy leaned back and put his feet up. "This cabin might almost belong to someone with taste. There was a time you'd never have allowed a comfortable piece of furniture within a hundred meters of your quarters."

Spock looked at him. "That couch is not in the least comfortable. Its ergonomic design is appallingly poor, as you should know. Furthermore, I did not put it there. Christine did."

Kirk had made his move, and Spock returned his attention to the game. McCoy leaned toward Kirk and said in a loud whisper, "She told me he agreed to the couch as a compromise after she threatened him with flowered chintz curtains."

Kirk tried and failed to suppress a chuckle, and Spock raised his head and eyed McCoy balefully. "I do not understand why you find our housekeeping arrangements so amusing, Doctor."

McCoy's eyes danced with mischief. "Because, you ungrateful cold-blooded robot, I'm happy for you."

Spock simply stared at him for a minute with an expression between bafflement and outrage, before turning back to the chess pieces with a small shake of his head. His hand reached out tentatively toward a knight, and then withdrew. He frowned slightly, considering.

McCoy circled the table and looked over his shoulder. "I think you should move that bishop to king's level four," he suggested helpfully.

Spock did not reply.

"Just trying to help."

"Help Spock or me, Bones?" asked Kirk, grinning.

"Doctor," said Spock firmly. "Please reseat yourself. You are giving me ample reminder of why my wife's presence is preferable to yours. She at least does not breathe down my neck and make inane comments while I am attempting to concentrate." He considered the board, and after a moment moved the bishop.

Kirk, with the tiniest of smiles, shifted his queen. "Checkmate."

"Uh..." said McCoy, and Spock gave him an eloquent stare.

Chapter Text

The genetics lab was in the center of the settlement, near the council room and offices. Astarte led them into it with an air of defiant pride. The room was clean, but incredibly cluttered, and Christine had the impression of a few new instruments combined with others which were nearly antiques. She stood with the rest of the landing party in the middle of the work space, trying to make sense of what she saw.

"Without this," said Sappho from behind her, "none of us would exist." She nodded at the equipment, and Astarte turned, giving her a quick, grateful look.

"This is where all the combinations are... were... done." Her expression dared them to say anything disapproving.

Christine shot a warning glance at Grace, but the nurse stood quietly, her lips pressed tightly together. Holding her fire, thank god, thought Christine. Thelit looked alert and curious, tilting her antennae at something that might or might not be an outdated centrifuge. Behind it rose an enormous, rather murky aquarium. T'Nila's eyebrows had arched slightly, and Keiko looked simply bewildered. "What is all this stuff, and how does it..." she began, but Astarte's voice cut across hers.

"The projector is in the next room. In here." They followed her obediently, threading their way carefully between lab tables to a small interior office - with, Christine noted, chairs. Apparently floor cushions were understood to be unsuitable in a laboratory environment. Astarte was fussing with a crude holographic projector, which made curious clicking noises. After staring for a moment, Keiko and Uhura moved to help her.

"That looks as ancient as most of the lab equipment," murmured Thelit to Christine.

"Evidently the price of isolation. I'm surprised it works at all. Let's hope they can..." The projector clicked again, and flashed into life. "Oh, good."

They settled into chairs, and Astarte said, "This is the tape of conception that we show to the mothers before we create a child. We want..." Her voice shook a little. "We want them to see how beautiful it is."

Christine focussed on the patterns of color in front of her, her eyes gradually making sense of the shapes. A human ovum hung there, magnified many thousands of times, the twenty-three chromosomes of the nucleus clearly visible, waiting. The image blurred and vanished for a moment, as though something had moved across it, and when it cleared another ovum had appeared in the field to rest beside the first.

Christine thought, a little cynically, that the holo had obviously been touched up. The colors were too pretty to be believed, the egg cells rosy against a faintly swirling lavender blue background. The layer of cumulus cells surrounding and protecting each ovum was a cloudy pale pink.

"When both ova have been introduced into the culture medium," said Astarte, "we introduce the enzyme which dissolves the cumulus cells."

A splotch of dark purple appeared, and the cumulus cells began to break up, rupturing, dissolving, floating away. The enzyme was found naturally under the outer membrane of the head of a sperm cell. Christine recalled from the briefings aboard the Enterprise that Dr. Alvarez -Demeter - had found a way to produce it artificially.

"This tape is speeded up somewhat," said Sappho, from where she was sitting beside Astarte.

The cumulus cells were gone now, and the purple surrounded the ova, softening the firm zona pellucida, the outer capsule enclosing the cytoplasm and nucleus of each egg. "The final step," said Astarte, "is the introduction of another enzyme, and bringing the ova into contact so that capsule dissolves where they touch. Watch."

The instruction was unnecessary. They all stared, mesmerized, as currents in the medium urged the ova together, and a darker blue halo appeared around them. The blue intensified as the egg cells came into contact. Where they touched they clung, and the membranes stretched, thinned, and dissolved, while still clinging together tenaciously. What had been two separate bodies was now one, enclosed by a single membrane.

Christine heard the swift intakes of breath around her as the cytoplasm of the two cells merged. "We speed the tape up even more from this point," Sappho observed quietly.

"The next process - the final step of fertilization -is the fusion of the nucleii," said Astarte. The words were matter of fact, but there was reverence in her voice.

"This does not require intervention?" asked T'Nila, as the nucleii slowly migrated to the center of the cell.

"No."

The two parent nucleii enlarged slightly as they watched, and fused into one, the twenty-three chromosomes from each lining up to form the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes found in every human cell. Fertilization was complete; the cell now contained everything necessary to develop into a complete person. Christine sighed, torn between awe and a kind of queasiness. She half-expected to hear a burst of inspirational music.

Abruptly, the image vanished, and the lights came up. Everyone was silent for several seconds, until Sappho said, "And that was how Lilith was conceived." There was a hint of laughter in her voice, and she was looking at Astarte with affection.

Uhura's head swung around. "Lilith?" she asked, startled.

"That was when we made the tape," confirmed Astarte, quiet but proud, making an adjustment to the projector. "What you just saw was our daughter's conception. Implantation in my body took place five days later."

Christine stared at the spot where the images had been. It gave them an amazing immediacy to associate them with that cheerfully profane curly-haired child. "Lilith," she murmured in wonder. Before she could sort out her own reactions to what she had seen, or guess at anyone else's, the lights dimmed again.

There was a new, grimmer tone to Sappho's voice. "That's how it has been. But this is what has been happening recently."

The new tape was essentially the same up to the point where the zonae pellucidae should have thinned and merged. Instead, as the blue enzyme haloed around them and they touched, they ruptured. The ova fragmented and disintegrated within a few seconds, the contents spilling, dissolving, dying. Unexpectedly, Christine felt sick.

When the lights came on this time, she turned to look at her companions. "Grace," she said urgently. Grace's face was dead white, and as everyone turned she jumped to her feet, hand over her mouth.

"Out there," said Sappho hastily, pointing. "First door on the right."

Keiko, taking rapid stock, hustled Grace out. Everyone waited in tense silence. A door slammed, and there was a distant sound of water running. "Sounds like they made it," said Thelit, apparently undisturbed.

Christine nodded, taking a moment to settle her own stomach. She was less surprised at Grace's reaction than her own. She had worked with artificial fertilization techniques before, but it seemed that the legacy of the Eugenics Wars ran deeper than she had suspected.

Keiko returned in a few minutes with a subdued, still pale Grace, who sat down abruptly, as if her legs weren't quite functioning. All of the humans, except of course Sappho and Astarte, looked mildly shaken. T'Nila and Thelit had evidently not shared the reaction. Of course, thought Christine. They didn't have the same cultural heritage.

The human taboo on genetic research had not existed legally for a hundred years, but the cultural distaste was something that most human scientists still had to make a conscious effort to overcome. She had thought she was free of it.

"Are you all right?" Astarte asked Grace, concern warring with impatience in her voice.

"Yes," said Grace, her eyes on the floor.

"Interesting," Sappho observed. "It made you sick, did it?"

"It's wrong. Sinful."

"Goddess, is this what Mother Demeter had to deal with?"

Uhura stood up. "Why don't we get out of this room? It's stuffy in here."

"You all look a little green."

"Not me," protested Thelit with a grin. "And T'Nila can't help it."

The evident truth of the remark broke the tension. Christine started to laugh as T'Nila's eyebrows soared. As they crowded through the door, she said to Astarte, "It's not an intellectual reaction. It's purely emotional. I did fertility research on Vulcan, and I still got queasy."

"The Eugenics Wars?"

"Mm. The Enterprise ran into one of those mutated supermen once. It wasn't pleasant. I know it's got nothing to do with what you're doing here, but.,."

Uhura, behind them, said, "I didn't mind the first tape. You were right, it was rather beautiful. But the second one..."

Sappho stopped and ran a hand through her hair. "We've seen it so often that the impact has gotten blunted."

"We can help," Christine said. "I'm fairly sure of that now." They were back in the middle of the lab, and she looked around, assessing.

"We want to help," said Thelit, her eyes glowing. "I thought it was wonderful."

"You did?" Sappho smiled at her.

"If men only knew how unnecessary they are!" Her expression changed, becoming wistful. "I would love to have children. My species has twenty-five chromosomes." She stopped.

Astarte shook her head. "The fusion of the nucleii is the one part of the process that we don't control. We might be able to adjust the necessary enzymes, but the fusion still wouldn't..."

"On Vulcan," began Christine, and stopped. The Academy Committee on Genetic Research certainly would not release its findings for such a purpose, and an associate member like herself had no right even to suggest it.

She was spared the need to explain by Sappho, who said, "There's one more thing I'd like you to see before we get to work. It's the best part of what we do here." She led the way to an inconspicuous door set in the far wall of the lab.

The door opened into a space as open and airy as the laboratory was cluttered. There was a cheerful impression of light and color and noise and movement. "The nursery," said Sappho. "Our children. Our future."

The room held girls of every size from infancy through early childhood. It was divided into areas for play, for eating, for sleeping, for reading, and the sun slanted in through the tall windows.

Their entrance gradually attracted notice. A woman looked up from where she was sitting on the floor with a group of toddlers and came over to them. "Twenty-eight right now," she said to Sappho.

"You have enough help?"

"There are seven of us. Hagar said she'd come in if I need her."

"Fine."

One of the toddlers was pulling at Sappho's leg, and she reached down to scoop the child up. Christine recognized Morgan, the daughter of Hagar and Rahab, Sappho and Astarte's housemates. The little girl regarded them intently for a minute, and then gave a sunny smile. "I remember you," she said. "You came to my house."

"That's right," said Thelit.

Morgan stared at her. "You're blue."

Thelit laughed. "You're smart."

Morgan wiggled, and Sappho, with a glint in her eye, shifted the girl's weight and held her out to Grace. Grace looked surprised, but she had little choice. Morgan settled on her hip and peered into her face. "What's your name?"

Grace began to smile. "Grace."

"That's a funny name. Mine's Morgan."

"I know."

"Look around," Astarte invited them. They moved into the room, and she said, "This is where the smaller children stay when their mothers are both busy."

"Is this all of them?" asked Uhura, surprised.

"Of course not. Most of them are with their mothers. The nursery is for times when a woman can't have a child along - say if she's running a combine in the fields, like Rahab is this morning."

"You mean most of the women take their children to work with them?"

"Of course they do."

"Don't they get in the way, interfere...?"

"Interfere with what?" Astarte sounded scornful. "Our children are a part of our lives, not an interruption to it."

"But..."

"It works better than you'd think," said Christine.

"A sensible arrangement," agreed T'Nila.

Uhura looked at them in curiosity, but Christine's eye had been caught by Grace, who was sitting on the floor with Morgan on her lap and three other children around her. She was smiling, the first genuine smile Christine had seen from her since this assignment had started. They were examining a toy, an arrangement of colored rods which formed the shapes of crystals. They were having difficulty with one of the shapes.

"Here," said Christine, kneeling next to them. "You need another red rod, see? I remember making that mistake, too." There was an aching lump in her throat. The toy was so unexpected, and so ridiculously familiar. She stood again.

"You've seen it before?" asked Sappho. "We haven't had it long."

"My children had - still have somewhere, I guess - one just like it."

"You have children?"

"Two. I..." She suddenly realised that she should probably tell them. "I'm married."

"Married?" Astarte, standing next to Sappho, blinked. "You mean... to a man?"

Christine gave in to the impulse to laugh. Astarte's expression was a perfect example of intellectual comprehension warring with emotional shock. "Yes, to a man. At any rate, to a male. He's Vulcan."

"Oh," said Astarte dubiously.

"What was that you said about children not interfering?" asked Uhura, and Christine gave her a grateful smile. She didn't feel up to explaining Vulcan marriage customs. T'Nila, beside her, also seemed to relax imperceptibly.

"Just that it's what's usually done on Vulcan, too."

"You took them..."

"Didn't I ever tell you? The hospital had a care center like this one, of course, but when I was in my office, or even at meetings, they came along. Until they were school age."

"Children are a valuable resource," said T'Nila. "Why should they be isolated from the mainstream of life?"

"What if they cry or need to be fed or something?"

"Then they are quieted, or fed. It is perfectly logical. "

Sappho and Astarte were looking at them with surprised approval. Christine sighed. "Human cultures almost all have ended up segregating children into a world of their own - which they need some of the time - but it's usually done because they're thought of as inconvenient. Somehow extraneous to the important business of adults. Vulcans value their children more than that."

"So do we. Men..."

"It's not just men." Christine leaned against a bookshelf. "You really can't blame men for every problem in the universe, though I admit that the separation of children from the working life of their parents dates from a time when the paid workforce was mostly male."

"Technology forced women and children to the periphery of society," began Sappho. "Feminist historical analysis proves that the patriarchy..."

Morgan jumped up from Grace's lap. "Sappho, look!"

"...took advantage of..."

"Look at what we made!"

"...the natural maternal..."

"Look!" She yanked on Sappho's hand, and Sappho gave up as everyone laughed.

"There are disadvantages to having them around," observed Uhura mildly.

"Outweighed by the advantages, most of the time."

"Look, I put in the yellow ones," said Morgan proudly, pointing to the structure on the floor.

"You did it very well," said Grace, smiling at her.

"You helped," Morgan admitted graciously. The color had come back into Grace's cheeks, but her eyes dropped and her expression changed as Sappho returned her smile.

Sappho sighed. "And now we should get to work."

* * *

Christine, T'Nila, and Thelit went back to the lab with Astarte. Uhura and Keiko had been logical choices to check out the force field, and Christine had sent Grace along with them. Grace could gather specimens of the virula from which the nirvana was refined. Christine had originally planned to use her in the lab, but Grace had shown signs of getting sick again at the idea. And it was good, Christine told herself, to have someone with biology training to gather the plants and make observations. She was also rather relieved not to have to worry about Grace's reactions for a while. After her relaxation with the children, Grace had resumed her sour expression, as though she regretted her momentary lapse.

Christine brought her mind back to the task at hand. "How are the two enzymes produced?" she asked Astarte.

"By genetically altered bacteria. Mother Demeter did the original research."

"I know."

"And she was reviled and persecuted for it."

"Denied tenure," said Thelit, "and none of the major journals would publish her papers."

"You know about it?"

"We studied the facts before we came here."

"They let you?"

"Astarte," said Christine firmly, "whatever you may think, 'they' - and that includes Starfleet Command, the captain, the CMO, and the science officer of the Enterprise, who also happens to be my husband - are not in the habit of denying facts or practicing thought control."

"Maybe you're too brainwashed by them to notice."

"We're not, you know."

"I certainly am not," said T'Nila, with dignified Vulcan reproof.

"Let's see these enzymes."

Two hours later, Christine raised her head from a scanner and rubbed her eyes in weary frustration. "There must be a change, but I'm damned if I can find it."

"I told you I'd been through those tests before," said Astarte coldly.

"We had to double check." Christine gave the side of the scanner a thump. "The focus on this thing keeps slipping."

"Then learn how to adjust it."

"It is difficult to work with outdated equipment," observed T'Nila, and Astarte's mouth tightened defensively.

Christine intervened before she could speak. "Thelit, could you lay out our preliminary conclusions, so that we can make sure we agree so far?"

Thelit's antennae dipped. "Judging from the tape of the unsuccessful fertilization attempt, there are two areas where the problem might lie. It could be a change in the enzyme which dissolves the zona pellucida, or it could be an alteration in the zona itself, which makes it more susceptible to rupture. The process proceeds normally until that stage, so it does not seem that either the enzyme which affects the cumulus cells, or the culture medium are at fault."

"There are no abnormalities in the zona that I can see," said Astarte. "And I'm trained in this. Very well trained."

"Of course." Astarte's defensiveness was getting hard to deal with. "I suggest," Christine looked at Astarte, "that we concentrate first on the enzyme."

"You just admitted that you couldn't find a change."

"Yet. I think we should work from the other end, starting with possible variations in the bacteria which manufacture the enzyme."

"We don't have..." Astarte stopped, evidently reluctant to admit the deficiencies of her equipment.

"The facilities on board the Enterprise are much superior. It is illogical to conduct research under primitive conditions when it is unnecessary." T'Nila's voice was cool and precise. "We should beam up and perform the tests there. You could accompany..."

"No," interrupted Astarte vehemently. "I knew this would happen. We never gave you permission to walk in here and take over..."

Christine sighed impatiently. "Don't be paranoid. There are alternatives." She reached for her communicator. "With your permission, I can at least have a portable biocomp and other equipment sent down."

Astarte's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I will not be obliged to men..."

Christine was losing her temper. "Good sweet Christ, you're as bad as Grace! Most of the stuff in this lab, out of date as it is, was originally designed by men. You'll take our help, and we got here on a ship two-thirds crewed by men. At least half of the professors who taught us what we know were men. You're obliged whether you like it or not! Damn it, we're trying to help, trying to respect your way of life. If you're too much of a fanatic to be reasonable..."

"All right, all right!" Astarte snapped. She stalked to the window, and gazed out. Her shoulders slowly slumped. When she turned back, she looked chastened. "I'm sorry. I'm on edge."

Christine retreated to the opposite end of the lab to call McCoy. She didn't want to risk Astarte's possible anger at the sound of a male voice.

There was sharp curiosity in his voice when she was patched through to sickbay. "Making any progress down there?"

"Some. It's a fertilization problem, and we've begun to narrow it down."

"Hmm. Wish I were there."

"Don't think I can handle it?"

"Bit sharp-tongued this morning, aren't you? I didn't say that."

"Never mind. This place is getting to me. I wish you were here, too. If nothing else, I'd like to show them on a practical level that men and women can work together."

"Got any drug samples for me yet?"

"No, but we will by tonight, or at least samples of the original plant. Uhura, Keiko, and Grace are taking care of that. I wanted to get Grace out of the lab. She kept her mouth shut, but she was on the verge of throwing up all morning."

"I can imagine. We can use the samples as soon as you get them. That Vulcan of yours has a computer model of an antidote, and we're running simulations, but I'd rather test it on the real thing."

"We'll get it to you. Now here's what I need - and don't suggest we beam up; that's out." She ran down the list of equipment. "Okay?"

"You don't want much do you? Just about every piece of portable lab equipment we have. Let me see..." He grunted. "All right, you've got it. Those coordinates?"

"Yes - and thanks, Leonard."

"Take care of yourself."

"I will. Tell Spock..." She stopped. Tell Spock what? Nothing that he'd be comfortable hearing from McCoy. It would have to wait. "Never mind."

"Yeah," McCoy sounded sympathetic. "He and Jim were up playing chess into the wee hours last night."

"I'm not surprised." Christine sighed and shook her head as she signed off.

It took most of the rest of the day to install the new equipment. Astarte soon gave up on her defensive pose and began to ask questions with fierce and eager curiosity. Her knowledge of engineering was patchy, but then most physicians didn't understand in detail how their instruments worked. Christine certainly didn't claim to; it was hard enough to keep track of the constantly expanding body of medical knowledge. Astarte's occasional deficiencies in that area were more surprising, though maybe not under the circumstances. She's a healer all right, thought Christine, but she can't actually have an M.D. Not if she was born here...

T'Nila was making the final adjustments to the spectrometer when Astarte leaned over and asked her a question. Though the query had been inaudible, T'Nila's answer was not. "I find it astonishing that a doctor of your apparent competence would not know that. Surely it was part of the basic medical curriculum..."

Uh oh, thought Christine, as Astarte stepped back, drawing herself up. Damn Vulcan tactlessness. "Lt. T'Nila, would you run this program through the biocomp?"

"I have never been off this planet," said Astarte stiffly.

T'Nila looked back from the biocomp. "No? I understood that you are a physician. Was I mistaken?"

"Mother Demeter trained me. I wouldn't trade what she taught me for all the degrees you were so condescendingly granted by male dominated medical schools."

"The present head of the medical division of the Vulcan Academy is female," observed T'Nila mildly. "I do not understand why you are becoming agitated. I simply wished to determine whether or not you are a physician..."

Astarte looked both furious and hurt. "T'Nila, the program, please," said Christine. Shut up, T'Nila, she thought, this is no time to push for complete and accurate knowledge.

"I am..." began Astarte.

"Yes," agreed Christine quickly, feeling a sudden surge of empathy. She was thinking of Aga, her friend and teacher, Adar Doma of the Domii, who had been the healer of her tribe. Aga didn't have a degree, she thought. Aga was illiterate, but she saved Spock's life when I couldn't.

Fortunately both Astarte and T'Nila seemed willing to let the subject drop. "The program is up and running, Dr. Chapel," reported T'Nila, and Astarte noted the title with no more than a slight tightening of her lips.

"Good. Oh, and T'Nila..." She looked at Astarte. "First names are the rule here, right?"

"We don't have last names. They're symbols of oppression. "

"Um." All of the women of Demeter were given to that sort of statement. Christine hadn't yet figured out how to respond; it was easier not to. "Anyway, T'Nila, Thelit, neither of you have last names either, not in the Terran sense, so it's perfectly all right to call me Christine. If you want to," she added hastily, seeing T'Nila's discomfort.

"Christine Chapel?" asked Astarte. "What kind of name is that?"

Christine resisted the impulse to ask what kind of name Astarte was. "Anglo-Terran."

"Your father's or your husband's?"

Oh come on, thought Christine. "I always thought of it as mine," she said quietly.

"Someone must have given it to you."

"Someone gave you yours, too." She relented. This was childish. "You can probably tell that it's not Vulcan. My surname is my father's. It's still the custom among the majority of humans. Satisfied?"

Rather to her surprise, Astarte was. She seemed to feel that she had made a point. She settled in front of the biocomp, and T'Nila slid over to make room for her, while Christine and Thelit looked over her shoulders. She activated the screen. "This can display a bacterium down to the molecular level?"

"Down to the sub-atomic level if you want."

"Show me."

* * *

Sappho steered the aircar so that its undercarriage nearly brushed the tops of the enormous tree ferns surrounding the flat fields of phyllium. It was amazing, thought Uhura, how quickly all signs of human habitation disappeared. She looked back over her shoulder. The settlement was vanishing as they climbed and then dipped amid a low range of hills. She settled back to enjoy the ride, while trying to note the route and landmarks.

The windows of the aircar were open, and the scent of the forest rose up to meet them, rich, green and primitive. As they travelled farther into the hills, the vegetation changed, the tree ferns giving way to woody species and evergreens, but the effect was still lushly tropical. Average rainfall here was nearly 700 centimeters a year, she remembered, and the average temperature was 27 degrees Celsius. Hot and damp, she thought, grateful now for the loose cotton clothes she had been given. She and Grace and Keiko were all crammed together in the back seat of the aircar, with Keiko in the middle. Considering the unsteady state of Grace's stomach, it had seemed wise to give her one of the windows. Keiko was holding a tricorder, taking readings of the terrain over which they passed.

Lilith was sitting in the front seat next to Sappho. She had appeared as they were loading the aircar, and Sappho had accepted her desire to come along as perfectly natural. Now she twisted around in her seat and called out something which was inaudible over the clatter of the aircar's engine.

"What?" yelled Uhura, leaning forward.

"I said is this like your home? You're from Africa, right?" The wind tugged at Lilith's curls.

Uhura grinned. "No, and yes."

"What?"

"My part of Africa is hot and dry, not wet." Many non-Terrans still assumed that all of Africa was a jungle, an assumption which sometimes irritated her, though not in this case. "I'm East African. Parts of west Africa, where my brother lives, are something like this."

"Oh." Lilith pondered. "I don't know much about Earth, except that women were oppressed there."

Uhura tried to gather breath to scream a rebuttal, but before she could phrase it, the note of the engines changed. She craned her neck.

"There it is," called Sappho, grimly, banking the aircar.

Uhura held tightly to the window frame to keep herself from sliding down onto Keiko. The force field dome rose in a translucent shimmer from the floor of a forested valley. It was larger than she had expected, and in itself it might have been beautiful. It was almost silver, and bits of color swirled in the energy flow. But the setting made it obscene. The trees had been carelessly cleared around it, and the ground was a trampled and muddy wasteland, with rank weeds just beginning to reestablish a foothold among bits of garbage and debris.

The aircar's engines whined mercilessly as it dove down toward the ground. Grace was hanging on to the window with an iron grip, and Keiko had been forced to abandon the tricorder in an attempt to keep her seat. They landed with a bone jarring thump. The sudden silence as Sappho cut the power was very welcome.

"The antigravs don't work too well any more," said Sappho apologetically as they caught their breath. "Rahab does her best - she's our chief engineer - but we haven't seen a trader's ship in months. She can't get parts."

"I would guess that the traders have been warned away from this planet," said Uhura thoughtfully, unlatching her door. "Not many free traders have the muscle or desire to tangle with major criminals."

"They're not going to drive us off our planet," said Sappho bitterly, staring with loathing around the clearing. "This is our home, regardless of how they've polluted it."

Keiko stretched, unkinking her muscles, and tucked her windblown hair behind her ears. She adjusted the tricorder. "Radiation levels are much higher here at the source," she confirmed. "Nearly twice what they are at the settlement."

"Any immediate danger?" asked Uhura.

"No."

"How about the composition of the force field?"

"Standard energy field, with the addition of light waves to make it semi-opaque."

They began to pick their way over to the perimeter of the field. Broken pieces of metal and scraps of insulation littered the muddy ground. A half buried shape caught Lilith's eye, and she picked it up, wiping it on her coveralls. "A magnetic wrench." She gave it a twist. "It's broken."

"Save it for Rahab. Maybe she can do something with it."

"What's the size of that thing?" Uhura asked Keiko as the force field dome loomed above them.

"167 meters in diameter, and... 59 meters at its highest point."

The force field rose in front of their faces now, seeming solid and yet not so. It was frustrating not to be able to see through it to the facility inside. Uhura put out her hand. It sank into the silvery shimmer with a slight tingle. As she pushed it deeper, the resistance became greater, and the tingle grew to a pain. When her arm had penetrated almost to the shoulder she could push it no farther, and fire was shooting along her nerves. She wrenched herself free with a gasp.

"Nothing we've tried has even dented it."

"It's a big one all right." Uhura rubbed her arm, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Lieutenant, can you estimate how much force would be needed to cut through a field of that strength?"

Keiko shook her head. "A field tricorder doesn't have the capacity for that. You'd need ship's sensors and the main computer for accuracy." She tilted her head back to squint up at the dome soaring high above them. "Plenty of force, I can tell you that much."

Uhura took out her communicator and looked at Sappho in silent question. Sappho nodded. "Uhura to Enterprise. Landing party to Enterprise."

To her surprise, neither Sappho nor Lilith moved away as she relayed her query to Spock. He promised an exact answer by the evening, her next scheduled report time. As she was signing off, he stopped her. "Ms. Uhura?"

"Yes?"

"Is Dr. Chapel with you?"

"No, Mr. Spock, she's back at the lab. You can call her there, or if you have a message, I can..."

"Unnecessary," Spock said, a little hastily. "Enterprise out." Uhura grimaced. She wondered what he had wanted to say. Complicated, as Chris had indicated.

Sappho and Lilith had listened to the conversation with frowning intensity. "Was that a man?" asked Lilith bluntly.

"Yes." This was, she realized, the first time either of them had ever heard a male voice.

"Do you know him?" asked Sappho.

A tough question to answer about Spock, thought Uhura. "Fairly well. We've worked together for twenty years, on and off."

"Do you trust him?"

That one, at least, was easy. "Implicitly."

Sappho sighed. "Then I suppose we can too. Funny..." Her voice trailed off and she frowned.

"What?"

Sappho looked at Uhura very directly. "It makes them seem real. Men. I've always known about them, but I don't think I ever quite believed in them. This..." she indicated the communicator, "makes them real. Hearing them, knowing we have to rely on them..." She shook her head, dismissing the subject.

"They'll be wanting samples of the virula, too," Grace reminded Uhura. "Both on the ship and back at the... labs in the settlement." She was avoiding looking at Sappho or addressing her directly.

"Right." Sappho jerked her head. "Come on."

They picked their way back across the clearing, the mud clinging stickily to their shoes. Sappho had already shown them pictures and dried samples of the virula, so they knew what they were looking for. It grew in the upland woods, only in association with the rare umbrella trees whose huge overlapping leaves formed an arching canopy high above the forest floor. The smooth, black-barked trunks rose straight and bare for twenty meters before the leaves fanned out.

Uhura blinked, adjusting her eyes, as they passed from the steamy sunlight of the clearing into the cooler dimness of the woods. "We'd better spread out," she suggested.

Sappho nodded. "It used to be all over here. They stripped the woods." She pointed angrily to the scars and slash marks at the bases of the trees. "A lot of these trees will die."

Keiko had recalibrated her tricorder. "The umbrella trees seem to secrete a substance from their roots necessary for the virula to thrive."

Uhura noticed that Grace was already wading determinedly into the underbrush. Lilith looked after her. "Hey!" she shouted. "Come back here. You're heading straight into a patch of poison grass!" She plunged off in pursuit, and returned dragging Grace by the arm. "Don't be stupid," she scolded. "If you'd kept going, you'd have ended up with a rash from your eyes to your ass."

Grace freed her arm uncomfortably. "Thank you," she murmured.

"Let me go with you. Keep you out of trouble," suggested Lilith.

"That won't be..." began Grace huffily, but then her expression changed. She looked thoughtful. "Yes," she agreed, "that would be a good idea."

Uhura looked after them as they took a different path through the undergrowth. "Rendezvous at the aircar in an hour," she called. She wondered what had changed Grace's mind. Still, it was a good idea. "Could you come with us?" she asked Sappho. "A pair of knowledgeable eyes are almost as good as another tricorder."

* * *

At first Grace had little breath for anything but keeping up with the stiff pace Lilith set into the woods. The underbrush was thick, and the ground marshy in unexpected places. Mixed with the tangled lushness of the forest she saw the ugly gashes left by the harvest. But even if she couldn't talk, she could think. This was her God-given opportunity. She had been so shaken and revolted most of the time since she arrived here that she had neglected her primary mission: to tell these women the error of their ways. Lilith was an excellent place to start; she was young, and like the children in the nursery, still flexible enough to be changed and saved.

Finally, Lilith slowed down, peered around, and gave a cry of triumph. "There! They missed that tree. Rahab says they must have done most of the harvesting with robots. You can tell, the way they slashed and trampled everything. But it was inefficient, too. They overlooked patches."

They knelt at the base of the trunk. The virula plants were small and pale, with thin, heavily veined leaves, and they grew thickly between the roots of the umbrella tree. "Take them roots and all," said Grace. "It may be important."

Lilith nodded, and they worked in silence for a few minutes, putting the plants in Grace's specimen bags. Lilith stopped her when she was reaching for the last few plants. "No, leave them. We don't want to take them all. It would upset the life cycle." She reached out and stroked a leaf gently. "We want to live in harmony with nature."

This was Grace's opening. "But you don't," she said, sitting back on her heels. "It's not your fault, you've never been told, but your whole life here is unnatural."

"How? We only use safe technology, we haven't introduced any harmful organisms..."

"That's not what I was talking about." She took a deep breath, and looked closely at Lilith. "I have to make you understand." The words spilled out. "Your way of life here is a sin against the will of God. Woman was created to be man's helper, not to set herself up apart from him. When you do, you violate the natural order, which is based on God's will."

Lilith was blinking in shock. "What's a sin?"

Grace was taken aback. "Well... something, an action which is wrong. Evil."

"Evil?" said Lilith incredulously. She wiped her hands and considered for a moment. "Don't be stupid," she said impatiently.

Grace shook her head. "Do you know where your name comes from?"

"No."

"Lilith was Adam's first wife, a wicked demon." Lilith stared at her and started to giggle. Grace frowned. She had to get through, had to be convincing. "Your mothers have deliberately set their faces against everything that's natural and right. God..."

Lilith interrupted. "You keep talking about God. I know about God, I remember now. We learned all this crap. It was only a trick, to keep women thinking they weren't as good as men."

"God created man and woman to complement each other, each within his or her own natural sphere. It's not a trick, it's the truth."

"Well I don't believe you. My mothers aren't wicked,

and neither is Mother Demeter, or Rahab..." She began to get up. Grace stopped her.

"Maybe not, but what they're doing is wrong. You have to understand. God will punish wickedness, if not now, then later. You can't flout His will indefinitely. This," she held up the virula, "may be proof of that, don't you see? It may be God's way of showing you that you're sinful."

"No, I don't see, and I don't believe you!" Lilith freed herself and scrambled up. "You're full of shit!" Her voice wavered.

Grace looked up at her, putting all her conviction in her words. "It's true, Lilith. You must understand it, and make them understand it, too. I want to help you. Do you have a Bible here?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

"You should read it. I can explain..."

"No!" There were tears in Lilith's eyes. "I won't, and you can't make me." She turned and headed back in the direction of the aircar, not looking to see if Grace was following.

Grace sighed and stood, breathing a short prayer for strength. She had set herself a difficult task.

Chapter Text

Christine and Uhura sat on the bank of a clear pond, their feet dangling into the water. "...and Lilith seemed upset when they got back," said Uhura. "Grace was thoughtful, and a bit smug. Sappho looked at them both pretty sharply, but no one said anything."

"I'll talk to Grace again." Christine leaned back on her hands and kicked with one foot, sending a rain of droplets out over the water. The spray showered over Keiko, who turned and returned the fire. Both women laughed. Sappho and Astarte had proposed this evening swim; it was evidently a regular feature of colony life.

"Where's Grace now?"

"Back at our house. Praying again, I suppose." Christine made a face and then sighed. "She's so earnest. There's a part of me that respects that. If she's really convinced that we'll all go to hell - you, me, all the women here - if we don't believe as she does, then she has to try to save us, right? She doesn't want us to go to hell."

"I don't believe in hell," said Uhura firmly.

"But she does. She's got a direct pipeline to the Almighty."

"Which is damned frightening."

"It must be comforting for her, though. She knows exactly who and what she's praying to and for. I've tossed an occasional prayer out into the cosmos myself, but they're always addressed 'To Whom It May Concern' and they begin 'Is anyone out there listening?'"

Uhura laughed, and after a moment Christine joined her. "Lilith seems to have recovered her spirits," said Uhura, nodding down the bank to a short pier where the girl stood lissomely poised to dive. "But I'm not surprised that Grace refused this invitation."

"Neither am I. The very people who are most convinced that the human body was created directly by God are usually the most uncomfortable with the sight of it."

"I heard some scuttlebutt once that she protested to the captain about the no-suit hours in the Enterprise pool."

"She did." Christine leaned forward to brush her fingers through the cool water. "He told her, fairly politely, that she didn't have to swim during them." She put her hands behind her and shoved off the bank. Taking a deep breath, she turned on her back and floated, looking up at the sky. The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the tree-tops, and the surface of the water was still washed with golden light. "This is so nice. Water on skin feels good."

There was a gentle splash, and Uhura bobbed beside her. "I've noticed that you only swim during suit-required hours now. Why, if you like this better? Spock?"

"No, actually. He wouldn't mind, so long as I didn't expect him to come along. The Domii all swam naked, of course. No, it was me." She raised her head cut of the water to look down at herself, destroying her equilibrium. She ended up floundering and treading water. "Pooh!"

Tilting her head far back, she washed her hair out of her eyes.

"What?"

"Right after I rejoined the Enterprise, I started to swim - without a suit - several times a week. I hadn't had much chance on Vulcan, and I like swimming; it's the only form of exercise that doesn't leave you sweaty. It was fun, even though I did notice that the crew had gotten a lot younger while I was gone..."

"Yeah, they do that, don't they?"

"Anyway, it was okay until one day when I climbed out, feeling pretty pleased with myself, and an eighteen year old twit of a yeoman popped out next to me while I was drying off. She grabbed a towel, looked me up and down carefully and said, 'Oh, so that's what stretch marks look like. I've always wondered, but I've never seen them before.'"

"She didn't."

"She did." Christine grinned, and paddled back to where her feet could touch bottom. "I bet you can visualize what she looked like, too. Perfect for a Playpeople layout on 'The Women of Starfleet.' For a couple of minutes I seriously considered turning her into a patient."

Uhura laughed, and tried not to. "Sorry."

"It is funny, but at the time it bothered me a lot. Two pregnancies and six years on a high gravity planet do show. At that moment I felt every one of my forty-five years and then some."

"You look fine to me," said Uhura loyally, "and don't forget, I'm not eighteen either. Anyway, you don't seem to mind it here."

"No. It's different, and I've been trying to decide why for the last hour."

"I think I know." Uhura drifted toward a branch hanging low over the water and caught hold of it. "There isn't any body self-consciousness. Look at everyone."

Christine hooked an arm around the branch beside her and studied the scene. It was true, there were women of every age and shape and size, and the old and the plump and the oddly proportioned seemed every bit as comfortable as the young and slender. "I think you're right. Even when we try not to, we all tend to measure ourselves against some abstract notion of what a woman 'should' look like, and we're ashamed if we don't measure up. Most of these women have never been exposed to our 'shoulds'."

"They must have standards of sexual attractiveness for each other," said Uhura slowly. "They're not innocents."

"Different standards, I guess. And as visitors, we're not tuned in to them. What I must feel is the absence of being judged by Federation fashion magazine rules."

"It's absurd." Uhura frowned. "We accept those standards, worry about them, even when our lovers..."

"Or husbands..." agreed Christine, looking at the ripples on the surface of the water.

"...are sensible enough to see past them."

They fell silent for a few moments, and then Christine shook her head vigorously to clear it. The long wet strands of her hair stuck to her face. "Brr. The sun's gone, and I'm getting chilly. Let's get out."

As they pulled themselves up onto the bank, Uhura said casually, "Speaking of husbands..."

"Yes?"

"When I spoke to Spock about taking readings on the force field, he asked if you were there. I think he wanted to talk to you, but then changed his mind."

Christine began to dry herself. "Oh." She stopped, balanced on one foot.

"We'll be checking in after dinner, if you want..."

"No. Even if we could both get some privacy, nothing important gets said on a communicator. I know that as well as he does."

As they finished dressing, Astarte came over to them. Her hair, as dark and curly as Uhura's, had been similarly toweled dry. She was running her fingers through it, fluffing it out. "Eat with us again," she said. "We've decided that the council should be present when you call that ship of yours."

Uhura tensed slightly at the implication of mistrust, then deliberately relaxed. "Of course. Thank you."

Astarte was staring at Christine, who was trying to work a snarl out of her hair with her fingers. "Forget it," Christine said finally. "I need a mirror and a comb. I should have kept it braided while I was swimming."

"Cut it," suggested Astarte impatiently. "Why do you keep it like that? It was falling down down all day. It's a nuisance."

Glancing around, Christine realized that few of the colony women had long hair. "Because my..." she began, and stopped. Was the honest answer unwise? To hell with it, she thought. How careful was she expected to be? "Because my husband likes it this way," she said, unable to stop a faint smile at the memory of warm fingers running through the strands.

"He ordered you to..."

"He didn't order." Not about that. "He asked."

"And you're so subservient that you..."

"No, goddamnit. Haven't you ever done something that Sappho wanted, just because you wanted to please her? Because you loved her?"

"That's not the same."

"Isn't it? Think about it."


* * *

After dinner, the council members crowded into the main room of Sappho's house. Most had brought along mates, friends and children, and the space quickly became hot and overcrowded. Christine retreated to sit on a window sill with T'Nila. She could not get over the human feeling that there was something she should be doing for T'Nila, or saying to her about Sarel. She occasionally noticed the Vulcan woman studying her, but T'Nila was so quiet and self-contained even for a Vulcan that Christine hadn't figured out how to approach her. Maybe it was presumptuous to think that she could.

The noise level in the room seemed to be unaccountably high for only a few dozen people. T'Nila had an expression of concentration, which probably meant that she was controlling the discomfort it caused her sensitive ears. It's the pitch, Christine realized. All these women, all of us with high voices. And the louder it gets, the more we all screech to be heard over it. Right now I'd appreciate hearing a nice, soothing baritone or bass. One in particular...

Sappho had stood on a table, and was waving her arms to get everyone's attention. "Please, everyone. If we want to hear..." A child climbed up on the table and crawled through her legs. "Simone, get down this minute." She took a visibly deep breath. "All right!" she bellowed. "Pipe down, all of you!" The stentorian tone was effective. The room gradually quieted. "Uhura here is going to call the ship. We want to hear what they say about the options for breaking the force field. Mother Demeter has agreed that we can listen to these men. If any one objects, or thinks that she can't stand it, she should leave now." The women stirred uneasily, but no one moved. "Good. Uhura?"

Sappho climbed down, and Uhura sat on the edge of the low table where she had been standing. "Landing party to Enterprise. Uhura here." There were several seconds of static before the channel cleared. The radiation interference was still a problem.

"Enterprise." It was Kirk's voice. He had evidently been waiting for the call. "Report, Commander." A vast sigh and rustle went through the listening women, and the tension in the room subtly increased.

"Everything's going well... sir." Uhura looked cautiously at her audience.

"Much trouble with the col..."

Uhura interrupted deftly. "We... ah... have an audience, Captain."

"I see. Extend my greetings to them."

"Yes, Captain." She looked at Sappho and Demeter. "Captain Kirk sends his greetings." She waited for a moment, and turned back to her communicator when it became apparent that they had no intention of responding. "The lab equipment that Dr. Chapel requested has been installed, and samples of the unrefined virula have been beamed up for Dr. McCoy to analyze. We didn't have any success against the force field, but that wasn't to be expected yet. Mr. Spock was going to calculate the amount of force needed to punch through it with ship's phasers."

"Very good, Uhura." There was a pause. "My compliments to you and the landing party." The 'wish I were there' was implicit in his tone. "I'll turn you over to Spock for his analysis."

There was a brief silence, then, "Spock here, Commander. I have completed the calculations you requested."

Christine felt the tightness over her shoulder blades ease. The sound of his voice was subtly soothing. She felt eyes on her, and turned her head to meet Astarte's stare. She raised her eyebrows and answered the unspoken question with a nod. That's the terrible tyrant, she thought with a mental chuckle. She sobered. My wife, attend. Oh Spock, damn it...

She tuned in again on what he was saying. "...would require a sustained maximum phaser strike lasting approximately 7.4 minutes. This would completely eliminate the force field."

"What about the facility inside?" Uhura asked.

"That poses a problem. Energy sufficient to break through the force field would also destroy the facility. That is, of course, our mission here. The destruction would eliminate the dual threats to the Federation and to the Demeter colony. However, wholesale destruction might also eliminate potentially valuable scientific and legal evidence."

Kirk's voice broke in again. "In my opinion, that risk is worth it, Spock."

"Perhaps, sir. However..."

"What about the surrounding area?" Sappho demanded urgently. "Ask him. The ecology is fragile already..."

"Mr. Spock, Sappho..."

"I heard the question, Ms. Uhura. Ms... Sappho, I was about to address that point. Unfortunately, I estimate that the energy of ship's phasers would devastate an area of almost four square kilometers surrounding the facility."

A horrified buzzing broke out in the room. "No!" said Sappho. "There must be a better way."

"Perhaps, but there is no faster or surer way."

"I thought you wanted the virula for medical research. Its habitat is limited, don't forget. Why do you want to destroy a big section of it?"

"It's regrettable," said Kirk soothingly, "but..."

"It's more than regrettable; it's out of the question. We won't allow it." Sappho's voice rang with determination, and there were murmurs of assent from the other women. The very silence from the ship sounded taken aback.

"Perhaps a demolition team with special equipment could cut through down here?" suggested Uhura.

"Slow and inefficient," said Kirk.

"And devastating four square kilometers is 'efficient'?" demanded Sappho, grabbing the communicator from Uhura.

"You don't have to bellow into it," Uhura murmured.

"Spare the galaxy from male efficiency!" said Sappho.

"If you sent down a team, couldn't they break through the force field at its doors - it must have doors..."

"More precisely," said Spock, "places where changes in the energy flow make the field more susceptible to disruption."

"That's right. Isn't that possible? If there's any of that 'evidence' you mentioned, it would protect it, too."

"Indeed. Captain?"

"Agreed," said Kirk. "We'll sacrifice speed for accuracy, then. Ms. Sappho, I assume that you prefer an all-female team?"

"We insist on it!"

"Naturally," replied Kirk dryly. directly to the site in the morning."

Sappho looked around the room. "Do we accept that, sisters?" There were nods and murmurs. "Very well, Kirk. We'll meet them there." She handed the communicator back to Uhura.

As Uhura signed off, Christine suddenly realized the most astonishing thing about this scene was that Sappho had been talking directly to Spock and Kirk. Arguing, it was true, but communicating ear to ear, if not face to face.

"Well done, daughter," said Demeter, who had woken up during the final exchange. "Show them that you won't be bullied by them. This is our planet!" She nodded off again.

Interesting, thought Christine. Two days ago, most of these women didn't much want us here, and Demeter wouldn't have allowed a male voice in her presence. And I'm not sure that a week ago Jim would have thought he could put together an all-woman demolition squad. Now he thinks he can. Interesting.


* * *

The next morning, the demolition team beamed down directly to the force field with their equipment. Unlike the contact team, they wouldn't be staying overnight. Uhura and Keiko were waiting for them in the clearing, along with Sappho, Rahab, and several other women. Rahab, the colony's chief engineer, had insisted that she and some of her colleagues would share in the work.

The beam down had two stages. The equipment, including a massive molecular disruptor, came first, followed by the people. Rahab's eyes widened covetously at the sight of the tools, and narrowed suspiciously as the women materialized.

Keiko suppressed a chuckle as the leader of the team tried to locate Uhura amid the colonists. The lack of uniforms seemed to disconcert her momentarily. "Ensign Abrams reporting, Commander," she said finally, controlling her surprise at Uhura's lavender cotton coveralls.

"Very good, Ensign," said Uhura calmly. "You've been briefed?"

"Yes, sir. Last night, by Mr. Spock and Mr. Scott."

"Then you know what you have to do. This is Rahab, the chief engineer of the colony. She and her people will be working with you." Uhura paused. "I'm putting Lt. Ichigawa in charge."

Everyone looked at her, and Keiko, taken aback, swallowed. "But..."

Uhura touched her arm. "Keiko" she said quietly, "what have I heard you say about not enough chances for responsibility?"

Keiko breathed in. "Right."

"I'm going back to the settlement with Sappho. I have a few things to discuss with her, and I want to see how things are coming at the lab. I'll probably be back later. If not, use your discretion about when to stop for the day."

Uhura turned away toward the aircar, and Keiko mentally and physically squared her shoulders. "All right, everybody," she said. "Over here, please." She led them across the clearing to the dome, noticing that the Enterprise women and the Demeter women stayed in their separate groups, eyeing each other warily. She faced them. "It seems to me that the first step is to do a meter by meter scan of the force field to see if we can detect any changes in the energy flow which indicate a break. Since you," she nodded at Rahab, "and your people are familiar with the local conditions, and you all," she glanced at the demolition team, "know the equipment, why don't you pair off with one from each group?"

Rahab and Abrams nodded curtly. Keiko suspected that they both resented her suggestion, but she could think of no better way to get everyone working smoothly together. Abrams and Rahab studied each other, and then Abrams turned and looked up at the dome. From her expression, this was the first time she had really seen the size of it. "Holy shit," she breathed, craning her neck. "That thing is big!"

The tension broke. Rahab laughed. "What what I said when I first saw it."

"Let's collect the scanners," said Keiko briskly.

For the next hour they circled the force field. Keiko had paired herself off with Rahab, and they were creeping around the southwest quadrant of the dome, looking for the minute changes which might indicate a weakness in the force field. The indicators had remained unwaveringly steady so far. "Could the scanner be broken?" asked Rahab, frowning.

Keiko swung it away from the force field and examined it. "It checks out okay."

"Goddess, but I'd like a chance to take this stuff apart and see how it works." Rahab sounded intensely curious. "Could be the radiation is affecting it." She wiped the sweat off her upper lip on her sleeve. The day was getting steamier and steamier as the sun climbed in the sky. She looked along the curve of the dome, but the other workers were out of sight. "No one else has picked up anything either. The radiation must be blocking..."

Keiko shook her head. "No way. Scotty wouldn't have sent down equipment that couldn't do the job. As a matter of fact, Abrams told me that he personally checked and adjusted everything that was coming down."

"Who's Scotty?"

"Chief engineer of the Enterprise. One of my remote bosses, in my secondary capacity as engineering tech third class."

"A man," said Rahab flatly.

"Naturally." Keiko shrugged. "But first and foremost an engineer. You two would probably like each other if you stuck to engineering talk. If you tried to talk about something else..." She remembered Scotty's scorn for the basis of the colony, and tried to envision Rahab's reaction to being called 'lassie.'

"I have no intention of talking to a man about anything, not if he were Zephram Cochrane himself."

"Not even if you could learn from him?"

"It's not worth the price." Rahab took the scanner and swung it back to the force field. "But I'll take your word about the scanner."

Wisps of Keiko's hair stuck to her forehead, plastered there in the humidity as they moved the scanner slowly along. She blinked and yawned, feeling the sun burning the back of her neck. The shifting grayness of the force field was less than a meter from her face, and it was difficult to keep alert and make her eyes stay in focus. She was wondering whether to call for a lunch break, when Rahab, just ahead of her, stopped dead. Keiko nearly bumped into her. Rahab was staring at the indicators.

"What?" asked Keiko. They were at the same levels as before.

"Move back a little." They inched backward. The indicators flickered, almost too quickly to follow. "Now forward. Slowly... There." The indicators dipped sharply downward for an instant, and swung back up nearly as fast.

"A weak spot!" breathed Keiko. "Damn, you've got sharp eyes. I was half-asleep; I would have missed it."

Rahab looked triumphant. "It matters more to us than to you. Don't forget that." She closed her eyes for a second. "You were right about the scanner, though. You can..." She stopped, and continued grudgingly, "you can even thank that Scotty man for me."

"I will."

"Call the others. Now we can get to work."

* * *

Morgan ran into the lab, shouting "Astarte!" and Lilith deftly intercepted her before she reached the biocomp where Astarte was working.

"She's busy, Morgan. I'll give you something to do."

There had been children wandering in and out all morning; it was evidently common practice unless the work being done was dangerous. Christine smiled at Morgan as Lilith settled her down to play with a set of plastic beakers. The child began to pour water from one into another with an expression of profound concentration.

"What a little sweetheart," said Thelit, from her perch on the next stool. "Fore that matter, they're all better behaved than I'd have expected."

"Well they're not treated like little intruders, or constantly told to get out and shut up."

"It must make a difference, " said Thelit, looking around the lab, "that every single child here is wanted, deliberately, lovingly created..."

Christine nodded. "And they never have to be obnoxious simply to get an adult's attention. They know that they're Important."

"Damn! Fel'as shr'n la! Morgan!" Morgan, in trying to pour the water faster and faster, had lost control of her beakers, and one of them had flown wildly into Thelit's lap, emptying its contents all over her.

Morgan stared at Thelit and burst into noisy sobs. Lilith ran over with a towel, and Christine grinned. "As I was saying..."

Thelit mopped herself up. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"I'm sorry you're wet." Morgan sniffed. "I didn't mean to. It was an accident."

"I'll take her away," said Lilith.

"Don't bother. I'll all right now."

Lilith perched next to Morgan, wrapping her legs around the rungs of the lab stool. "Let me help you, Morgan. We'll play fertilization."

"Like Astarte does?"

"Right. We put the egg in the dish."

Christine looked at Thelit, and then hastily away before they both started to laugh. She concentrated hard on her terminal. Really, it was less funny than pathetic. What was a game to Morgan, and even to Lilith, was a deadly serious problem to their elders.

She, Thelit, and T'Nila were separately verifying the normality of ova taken from a representative sample of the colonists. They were checking both fresh ova and frozen. On her screen, Christine had scans of frozen ova from various dates over the last two years. If there had been a change in the zona pellucida which was preventing fertilization, she might be able to spot it by comparison with the normal ova frozen before the radiation began. Unless they had been affected too... But she knew the structure of a normal ovum, and all of these looked normal. Hell. Was she missing something?

She rubbed the back of her neck, and blew impatiently at a strand of hair which kept flopping down over her nose. "Any luck?" she asked, leaning around her terminal to look at T'Nila.

T'Nila glanced up. "Luck? I do not see how that is applicable. I have made no progress in identifying any abnormalities."

Lilith turned her attention away from Morgan for a moment. "Who put a poker up your ass, T'Nila?" she asked cheerfully, totally without rancor.

"That's the way Vulcans talk," said Thelit, grinning.

T'Nila turned back to her work without comment, and Christine spared a moment to worry about her. T'Nila was being unusually stiff. If only Sarel hadn't died. If only... Illogical. She shook her head.

Still, the fact that neither T'Nila nor Thelit had turned up anything was, in its way, encouraging. It was negative evidence. If the problem didn't lie in the ova, then the enzyme must have been altered somehow. She had always thought that was more likely, and so had Astarte, who had insisted on tackling that part of the problem herself.

Grace was working with her; right now they were both bent over the biocomp at the other end of the lab. Christine had thought it wiser to allow Grace to pursue that end of the investigation, rather than endure her outbursts over the ovum analysis. And to tell the truth, she found Grace to be tiresome company even while she felt sympathy for her. Grace seemed to be working fairly well with Astarte, or maybe Astarte was simply oblivious to her veiled disapproval.

Astarte had taken to the biocomp like a horta to rock. If she didn't really understand it as a computer, she was fascinated by its potential as a medical research tool. She had scarcely left it all day; she had sent Lilith to get her lunch and kept right on working. Her eyes had been so glued to the readout that Christine had been surprised that she hadn't absentmindedly started eating the samples instead of her sandwich.

Even as Christine watched her, Astarte raised her head and gave a queer little sigh. She stared blindly at the wall for a moment, and then looked at Grace. There was a sudden tension in Grace's pose, and she gazed at the readout and nodded slowly. To Christine's amazement, Astarte's eyes turned back to the biocomp, and unmistakably filled with tears. Her shoulders shook, and she leaned her forehead against the cool metal casing.

Christine wasn't the only one who had noticed her. Lilith jumped down off her stool. "Astarte! Mother, what is it?" She trotted across the room, trailed by Morgan.

Putting her arms around Astarte's shoulders, she glared at Grace. "Did you say something to her?"

Grace looked genuinely taken aback. "No."

"You'd better not!"

Astarte raised her head again. Her eyes, still full of tears, were reshining with triumph. "Here it is. Look. The bacteria." Her voice choked, and she let out a shuddering sigh.

Christine, Thelit and T'Nila crowded in behind her, peering over her shoulder. T'Nila, the geneticist, was the first to decipher the display. "I see," she said. "I assume that the bacterium on the right is the original form?"

Astarte nodded, tear-streaked dark face glowing. "I fed that in from our records. We never froze any of the bacteria; why should we have? They replicated so easily. The enzyme that dissolves... dissolved the zona pellucida is a by-product of the replication."

"An on the left is the current form?"

"Yes. It's such a small change, just a mutation in one gene... "

"These bacteria must be especially susceptible to this type of radiation," said Grace. "We've been analyzing them all morning." She actually sounded proud.

"Then the enzyme must be altered too..." Thelit observed.

"...which is why it ruptures the zona instead of dissolving it," finished Astarte.

"Good work," said Christine. She was glad that Astarte had been the one to identify the mutation; it was good for her pride.

A trace of trouble reappeared in Astarte's face. "Good, but not good enough," she said. "We still have to alter that one gene back... and how can we do that while the radiation is still present?"

"They'll be through the force field soon," said Christine comfortingly. "Once it's shut down at the source... this kind of radiation has a short half life. It won't linger at significant levels for long. Only a few days."

"I wish I could be certain the alteration would work."

Christine hesitated. There was an obvious answer, but she was uncertain how Astarte would react. "Why don't we..." she began, but her tentative suggestion was cut off by Lilith.

"Can't you have the people on the ship try it?" she asked. "There's no radiation up there, and they must have the facilities." Her cheeks reddened, and she looked at Astarte a little defensively. "I mean, they did send down all this equipment, they can't be so bad..."

"You don't know what you're talking about, Lilith," said Astarte, but it was an automatic, half-hearted protest. Her face was speculative. She took a deep breath. "Well... why not?"

"Do you want to beam up?" asked Christine. "You could, you know, and do the work yourself."

For a moment she almost thought that Astarte would agree. Instinctive reluctance warred with curiosity before the training of a lifetime won out. Identifying the mutation had obviously boosted her self-confidence, but not yet enough for that. She looks like I asked her to beam aboard a ship full of Klingons, thought Christine, but that's how it must seem to her.

After that moment of hesitation Astarte shook her head decisively. "No... No. I won't work with a man, I'm not..."

"I could go," said Lilith.

"Go where? I want to go too," demanded Morgan, feeling that it was time she got some attention again.

"Absolutely not," replied Astarte vehemently.

"They're not monsters," Grace snapped, her face flushing.

"T'Nila," intervened Christine, "please prepare several samples of the mutated bacteria for transport to Dr. McCoy on the Enterprise."

* * *

Christine was comparing the structure of the two enzymes, before and after, when her communicator beeped. Astarte, washing her hands at the lab sink, turned quickly as she flipped it open. "Leonard?"

"Now how did you know it would be me?"

"A lucky guess? Well?"

"Well what?"

"The bacterium? The enzyme?"

"Oh, that."

"It must be good news, or you wouldn't dare be so infuriating. "

Everyone else had crowded around her by now, chuckling. "I guess not."

"Leonard... tell Astarte, not me." Christine smiled, and handed the communicator to Astarte, who took it with a strange mixture of eagerness and reluctance.

"Astarte, ma'am?" McCoy had put on his most charming drawl.

"Yes?"

"We've transplanted a gene from a common bacterial strain we grow up here. Your bacteria have started reproducing. You'll want to field test the enzyme when the radiation levels have gone down, but all the models show it should work just fine. I've already transmitted the models to the biocomp in your lab so that you can take a look at them."

"Yes."

"Glad to be of service, ma'am. did, locating the mutation."

Astarte looked both delighted and uncomfortable. Christine smiled. Beyond Astarte's pleasure with the results, she could see a mixture of intrigue with and resistance to McCoy's deliberate charm. Wonder how she'd fare with the captain, she thought.

"Yes," said Astarte again. Then, quickly, almost hostilely, "Thank you. I didn't expect... Never mind. Thank you."

"You're very welcome."

When Christine had signed off, Astarte looked at her. "Thank you, too." It came more naturally and graciously than it had with McCoy. "Thank all of you." Her eyes were filling with tears again. She looked at the biocomp. "I didn't want you here, but I think I was wrong."

"Don't worry about it." Christine's mouth twitched wryly. "Some of us weren't crazy about coming." She didn't look at Grace.

"Never mind about that," said Thelit warmly. "We're glad for you. We are." She gazed fiercely at Grace, daring her to disagree. Grace didn't speak, but she gave Astarte a small, tentative smile before turning abruptly away.

"I want to see that model," said Astarte eagerly. She crossed the lab with a buoyant step.

Chapter Text

Uhura sat in a low wooden chair on the terrace in front of the landing party's temporary home, slowly fanning herself with a broad leaf. This evening the temperature had scarcely dropped at sunset. The darkening sky was hazy, and the air was damp and heavy.

Christine came out of the house and sat on the low stone edge of the terrace opposite her. "Oppressive, isn't it?"

"There's a storm coming. It's surprising that it hasn't rained since we got here. We've been lucky. I hope it doesn't screw up communications."

Christine looked up at the sky. "No stars tonight... I don't envy Keiko and the others working out in the open tomorrow. They'll be soaked through, or up to their knees in mud, or both. She seems pretty happy about their progress, though." She noticed the communicator lying in Uhura's lap. "Have you called in yet?"

"No, I was waiting for you all to be through in the bathroom. It's simpler to have everyone here, so you can amend or add to what I say."

Christine turned her head and looked in the long window. "T'Nila was after me, and she was the last one... Thelit?" she called. "Is T'Nila still...?"

They heard Thelit give the door a thump. "T'Nila? Are you still in there? Hurry up, the bosses want you."

Christine and Uhura both laughed, but Christine's forehead puckered. "I'm glad to have T'Nila along. In some ways she's the least troublesome member of this landing party..." Uhura's eyebrows went up. "Okay, not counting you! She does her job and doesn't complain, but I have this gut feeling that she's under a lot of stress."

"She doesn't look it."

"That's part of the problem. She's been almost too controlled, too 'Vulcan' ever since I met her. I can't get any sense of her as an individual, and you have to admit that I have a lot of experience in reading Vulcans."

"No argument there."

"She probably needs more time to work out her feelings than she's been given since Sarel died. I'm sorry that we're dragging her out of the bathroom; it's practically the only peace and quiet she gets. Oh well."

The door onto the terrace opened, and the others straggled out. T'Nila had her hair wrapped in a towel, and Christine thought fleetingly that it made her look more approachable, more vulnerable. They pulled up chairs and cushions in a semi-circle as Uhura opened the communicator.

The call was put through to Kirk's quarters, and Uhura gave him a succinct rundown of the day's progress. As she finished, he said, "Very good, Uhura. Are you... Who else is with you?"

Uhura laughed. "No audience tonight, sir. Just the landing party."

"Good, then I don't have to pussyfoot. It sounds like you've established some trust down there."

"I think we have."

"It may be valuable later on. The Federation is going to want to keep a close eye on this planet, even after we've finished our job here."

"They've given us cooperation. They deserve to be left alone... sir."

"Wouldn't you agree that they also deserve to be protected, Commander?" asked Kirk very mildly.

Uhura sighed. "They may not want Federation protection. Male protection. Asking for short term help isn't the same as opening themselves up to..."

"They may have no choice. Unless the virula becomes extinct, which is undesirable, they'll always be a target. The Federation has a right to protect its interests."

"But..." Uhura stopped. "Yes, sir."

Christine consciously relaxed her clenched fingers. For a moment she was aware of a strong wish to have this assignment over with. She was tired of the edginess permeating every conversation.

Kirk's voice became brisk. "I understand that Dr. Chapel and Lt. Ichigawa have been in communication with Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott. Bones and Scotty have both talked to me, but I want to know if they have anything they want to add."

Uhura looked from Keiko to Christine. Christine motioned for Keiko to go first. "Ichigawa here, Captain. As you know, we've found a weakness in the force field. My best estimate is that we'll be through it tomorrow morning. The demolition team had better bring down decontamination suits."

"Good work, Lieutenant. There hasn't been much call for your security skills on this assignment, but you've earned your pay as an engineer."

"Thank you, sir." A slightly unwilling honesty forced her to add, "But most of the credit should go to Rahab, who's the chief engineer of the colony. And to Mr. Scott, of course."

"Modesty, too?"

"Just honesty, sir."

"Another valuable quality. No wonder Mr. Sulu's been looking so lonely in his off hours."

Keiko looked annoyed. "I'll turn you over to Dr. Chapel now, Captain."

Christine took the communicator and resisted the impulse to snap 'Jim, sometimes you're not as cute as you think you are.' They were all hypersensitive. Instead she said, "Dr. McCoy knows as much as we do now about the fertilization problem, Captain. The final work on that can't be done until the radiation source is eliminated. What can be done immediately are environmental studies. The colonists haven't yet detected any ecological damage from the radiation, but it may be very subtle. Until now they haven't had the equipment for in depth examination."

"Fine, Doctor. Why don't you go over the details with Mr. Spock?"

Christine hadn't realized that Spock was there, though it wasn't surprising. "Doctor?" he said a moment later.

Before answering, she had to push back an intense wave of longing for his presence. "Yes. Here's what we've planned." Fortunately she had worked out in detail after dinner the plans for scans of the genetic structure of the native fauna and flora. She could give the top level of her mind to the subject, while letting a deeper level lean on the intensified sense of the bond that came with hearing his voice. There was still an unease between them but...

"Astarte has assured me that she can provide samples to use as a control," she said, while thinking to him, knowing that he couldn't hear her, //God... Goddess, they'd say here... I miss you. Being with you is always better than being without you, even when you're being impossible...//

Finally she ran out of things to say. "That's it, then. Unless Jim wants to talk to..."

"The captain is in the other room. He indicated that he was finished."

"Well..." She hesitated. "Good night." What did she expect him to say?

"My wife." The change in his voice, from science officer to husband, stopped her before she could close the channel.

"Yes, Spock?"

"If all goes as planned, this assignment will be over in 83.4 hours."

"We need to talk?"

"Indeed."

Christine noticed that her companions had backed off with hasty tact during this final exchange. Nice of them. She lowered her voice. "I miss you," she said quietly.

"I am anticipating your return, my wife."

"I..." Christine sighed. "I can't say anything important on a communicator. Good night, my husband. Sleep well."

"I seriously doubt it, Christine. Good night."

* * *

"Why wouldn't you let me go?" demanded Lilith, rummaging in the closet.

"Go where?" asked Astarte. She was carefully transferring Demeter from her glide chair into bed. When Demeter had started to use the glide chair, she had also begun to sleep in a special bed instead of on a futon. It was easier to maneuver her into it. "Ready, Mother? One, two, three..." Astarte grunted slightly and lifted. "There you are."

Demeter closed her eyes for a second. "It's good I'm not much weight to lift any more. Where did you want to go, Lilith?"

"Up to that ship with the samples." Lilith found a clean nightgown, and brought it over to Astarte. "Astarte wouldn't go, and she wouldn't let me either. I think that's stupid."

Astarte, helping Demeter with the nightgown, frowned and began to reply, but Demeter stopped her. "Let the child talk. Why was it stupid?"

"Because I was curious, and you've always said it's good to be curious. I wanted to see their equipment, and I could have kept an eye on the samples for you, made sure that they did everything right. If I'm going to work with you, I should be allowed to do things like that." She looked defiantly at Astarte. "Especially if you're too scared to."

"That's enough, Lilith! You don't know what you're talking about."

"Well it's true. You wanted to go, and then you looked like you were scared shitless." She appealed to her grandmother for support. "She did. I wasn't scared."

Demeter looked back at her sternly. "Astarte is right, you don't know what you're talking about. She was right not to let you go." She smiled then, a spark burning in her dark eyes. "But I'm glad you wanted to go. I'm very glad." Lilith was startled but pleased, and Astarte looked hurt as she settled Demeter back among the pillows.

Sappho put her head around the door. "I wanted to say good night, Mother. Are you..." She noticed Astarte's expression. "What's wrong?"

Astarte explained in a few clipped words. Sappho looked thoughtful. "I think I understand what you mean, Mother."

"I don't," said Astarte crossly.

"I'll illustrate," said Demeter. She stopped for a minute, eyes closed, breathing shallowly, and Astarte reached automatically for her scanner. Demeter tired very easily. "No. I'm all right. This is important." She opened her eyes. "Were you afraid, Astarte?" Her voice was mild.

Astarte opened her mouth, shut it, and finally said, "Yes."

"That's understandable. When we were raising you, we were afraid. I'm so old I can admit that now. We were trying something that had never been done before, and we couldn't leave all our own bad memories behind."

"But Lilith is third generation," said Sappho.

"Yes. It's her generation, the ones coming to womanhood now, who are the first really free women this galaxy has ever seen. She should be curious, unafraid, it's what I dreamed of..." Her voice trailed off exhaustedly and her eyelids drooped.

Lilith had grown tired of abstractions. She sat on the end of Demeter's bed. "I was curious," she confided. "I... I wanted to see what a man was like."

"Your curiosity is commendable," said Sappho dryly, "but you've read your history. You can't really want anything to do with them."

"You're dealing with them."

"Only as much as I have to. I'm still on my guard."

"Are they really so bad? I heard them on the communicators. They have ugly voices, but they didn't sound cruel."

Demeter's eyes opened again. "Lilibell, I want to tell you something, something that I hope you're old enough to understand. It's not the men you heard, or the women who represent them down here. They may not be bad." Sappho and Astarte exchanged a surprised glance. Demeter sighed. "I know. I know that's not what I've always said, what I said when I heard they were coming. But I want to be honest with Lilith."

"Don't overtire yourself," commanded Astarte anxiously.

Demeter's eyes twinkled. "Astarte, I'm no good at anything any more but talk. Let me do the one thing I still can do, while I still can do it."

"What did you want to tell me, Grandmother?" asked Lilith lovingly, reaching for Demeter's age-spotted hands.

"It's not those men up there. For all I know, they may be good men. Good men do exist; I knew one or two, once. But the system behind them is rotten. You have to keep that in your mind. These men, in this ship, may mean to help us. In fact, they have helped us. But we can't let them on our world. If we're fooled into too much trust, what we've built will be destroyed. Others will follow. Our freedom is a basic threat to the patriarchy, no matter what soothing words they may say. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"That I shouldn't be afraid, but I should be..." Lilith searched for a word. "Vigilant...?"

"That sounds exactly right," said Sappho. "Vigilant. We all have to remember that."

Lilith remembered something else. "One of those women, Grace, tried to tell me that men are better than women, and you're evil. It had something to do with some god."

Astarte's head snapped up. "How dare she!"

"I told her she was full of shit."

"Good for you. She is. When I think of her helping me in the lab today... She seemed pleased with our results, the hypocrite!"

"Not necessarily," Sappho interrupted. "She could be ambivalent. But I'm glad you told us, Lilith."

"She worried me, so I told her she was full of shit, but when I thought about it later I knew she was full of shit!"

Astarte was still angry, but Sappho laughed, and Demeter opened her eyes a last time. "Very good. Freedom and vigilance," she said quietly. "Remember that, Lilibell."

Astarte tucked in the covers around Demeter and they tiptoed out of the room. Sappho held out her arms as Astarte gently closed the door. Astarte leaned against her, and reached out to draw Lilith into the embrace. "They'll be gone in a few more days, love," Sappho said soothingly. "The whole thing is nearly over. Everything's going to be all right now."

* * *

Christine squirmed around under her blanket, trying to find a comfortable position, and then threw off the covers. She raised her head, listening intently. "Is that thunder?"

Uhura, a few meters away, listened too. "I think so; but it's a long way off."

"I hope it rains soon. This air is like breathing wet cotton."

"Mm. 'Night, Chris."

'"Night." Christine pulled up the blanket and fell silent. After a few minutes she turned on her stomach. Then, developing a crick in her neck, she rolled onto her back. After staring at the shadowy ceiling, she let out an explosive sigh and settled on her side, hugging the pillow in front of her. The blanket was tangled around her legs, and she kicked at it.

"For god's sake, Chris!" Uhura sat up. "What's going on? Has your blanket turned into an octopus?"

"Sorry. It's so stuffy. I'm not used to this much humidity. I wonder how T'Nila's managing?"

"It's not just the weather, is it?"

"No. Not really."

"Spock again? Chris, honey, I don't want to pry, but if you need to talk, go ahead. I'm not going to get any sleep with you thrashing around anyway..."

"I said I'm sorry!"

"Why the hell are you so touchy!"

"Oh, damn it... I am sorry. You don't deserve that."

"Does Spock?"

"Maybe. I'm mad at him, but I never sleep well when we're apart..."

"Does he?"

Christine smiled in the darkness. "No. I can get some satisfaction out of that, at least."

"You're lucky, you know."

"Am I? Why? Because I've got insomnia and a dictatorial husband and two kids a hundred light years away..."

"Because you've got what you want, don't you?"

Christine was quiet for a long moment. "Yes," she said quietly. "Yes. Problems and all. Yes."

"Just so you remember it. For all your complaints, Chris, you're the monogamous, committed type, and always have been. You made up your mind almost twenty years ago that you wanted Spock..."

"And I've no right to bitch now that I've got him?"

"I didn't mean that. But there's obviously something to be said for knowing what you want and holding out for it. The way you feel about him comes through even when you're angry."

"Maybe that's part of what's bothering me. I keep wondering what Sappho and the other women here make of my marriage... which is stupid, I know. I decided long ago not to care what anyone else thought of it. Not Sarek or T'Pau or my family or even Jim and Leonard... Where was I...?"

"What's bothering you?"

"Oh yeah... I've been thinking about what marriages are like, and I think that mine operates on three levels..."

Uhura laughed. "Classifying and sorting it? Living with Spock really has gotten to you!"

"There is nothing wrong," said Christine with dignity, "in learning to apply logic to one's emotions."

"Right. Three levels?"

"Yes. The top one... 'My wife, attend,' and walking behind him on formal occasions... I have to grit my teeth sometimes, but I tell myself that it's just a convention, a cultural difference that doesn't really mean anything... and Spock puts up with some of my customs, so..." She sighed. "And the bottom level... The bond, but it's not even dependent on that..." She knew that she was rambling, but Uhura's patience was a comfort. She turned her head to look at her friend's shadowy features. "On that deepest level, I do belong to him," she said quietly, "and it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Vulcan tradition or human pride. I'm his in some way that I can't even explain, it just exists."

"Which is what I was trying to tell you. It shows."

"God... I suppose it does. Embarrassing."

"What about the middle level?"

"That's where all the problems are. That's where pride comes in, and resentment, and intellectual conviction... It's so damn funny, you know, being a woman on Vulcan, because they have far more real intellectual and political equality than most human women... But when it comes to the relationship between husband and wife, it's something entirely different. A wife has so little power, and yet so terribly much..." She shook her head wearily. "I thought I'd adjusted to being a Vulcan wife, because after all, that's not really what's important - that I'm Spock's wife is. But coming here has made me wonder. That I'm his by Vulcan custom, I sometimes resent. That I'm his because I love him, I accept. But the whole set up here denies that I should be his at all."

Uhura sat up. "But..." She stopped, thinking. "No, Chris, you're missing the point."

"I am? Try telling Astarte that I went through a ceremony in which I promised to become a man's property..."

Uhura shook her head. "Leave the ceremony out of it, but think about Astarte, and think about Sappho. Are they married?"

"Yes. They feel married."

"Then maybe it's not so much a matter of men or women or Vulcans or humans. Maybe it's just a question of commitment. Is your commitment to Spock so different from Astarte's to Sappho?"

"I don't know."

"Well they seem to me to be committed types, just like you are, never mind that they're both women. Some of us, on the other hand..." She shrugged. "Aren't."

"You?"

"I've thought about getting married. But I've never wanted it enough to bother. I've been in love, that's for sure..." She grinned, her high-cheekboned face mischievous. "But not, I think, the way that you love Spock. I don't know that I'd want to be."

"Penda..." Christine had always wanted to ask this question, but had never found the right time before. "I've always wondered... You were in love with Jim for a while, weren't you?"

"For a while... yes. At least I thought I was. A long time ago now. I talked myself out of it."

"And it worked?" Christine heard the incredulity in her own voice, and laughed. "What was the secret? There were times... Oh, were there times... when I would have given anything to be able to do that."

"You couldn't have. You didn't really, truly want to. And one thing... Spock has that capacity for commitment too."

"Being Vulcan, he has no choice."

"That's not what makes your marriage work," said Uhura shrewdly.

"No." Christine wondered briefly how much Uhura knew about the pon farr. They had never discussed the details; she wouldn't do that to Spock; but the subject hovered at the edges of any conversation about her marriage. What was Uhura saying about Jim?

"...Jim's commitments are less personal, but just as deep. Chris, if I sometimes thought you were stupid to fall for a Vulcan, I knew for sure that to fall for my captain was even more futile. I finally figured out that I was better off loving him without being in love with him."

Christine stretched. "That's incredibly logical, you know. You're a lot more emotionally organized than I am. Maybe Spock should have married you."

"No way, my dear. Haven't I just explained that lifetime fidelity isn't in my temperament?"

They both laughed, and Christine thought of something else. "Penda, what you said about Sappho and Astarte's relationship... how much does it bother you that they're lesbians?"

"Not much. It's odd, because it's so pervasive and yet so natural."

"Natural? I can just hear what Grace would say to that!"

"Does it bother you? You were the one giving Grace the lecture on tolerance and respect."

"No. Humans are sexual creatures; if they don't get it one way, they get it another. But it startles me a little. Makes me realize how discreet most of the homosexuals in Starfleet are. I guess what really troubles me about it is the lack of choice involved. It was probably the natural inclination of most of the founders, but their daughters..."

"Haven't had a chance to know what they're missing?"

"No, they haven't."

"They'd say oppression and second class citizenship."

"We both know it's more complicated than that. I can't say - how could I say - that what couples like Sappho and Astarte feel for each other is wrong. But there's a part of me - not that I agree with Grace on any rational level - but men and women do fit together awfully well, don't you think?"

Uhura gave a bawdy chuckle in the darkness. "You're the doctor. Is that an expert opinion?"

"And I thought a big girl like you knew all about it! You want me to draw you a diagram?" An immense crash of thunder distracted her. "Ohh! Will you listen to that!"

"I can hardly help listening to it!" The thunder boomed and rumbled again, and there was a bright flash of lightning.

Christine held her breath. There was a rush of air through the window, followed by the first taps of falling rain. "Thank goodness!"

Uhura stood and peered out the window as the drumming noise grew. "It's pouring."

"The temperature is dropping every second."

Uhura shut the window and curled up neatly on her futon. "Maybe now we can sleep."

Uhura did sleep, within five minutes. Christine lay awake listening to her deep, steady breathing. She doubted that she herself would drop off for a long time. She settled down to think about it. The plain fact was, she didn't sleep well without the solid comfort of Spock's body next to her.

She knew biofeedback techniques for inducing sleep, but even so her years on Vulcan had been plagued by periodic bouts of insomnia. She had learned to cope; the prospect of a sleepless night no longer frightened her. But when she was with her husband... She had often wondered what a mediscan would reveal if it was trained on her as they went to bed at night. Blood pressure lowering, brain waves calming, endorphins flooding into the blood stream... Definitely. She smiled. It was an enjoyable paradox that his touch could be both exciting and soothing.

Her thoughts shifted to the day's work in the genetics lab. Astarte and Leonard between them had done a good job. After all, this had been an easier assignment than they had anticipated. They'd gotten the colony back on course, and there wouldn't be any more nirvana shipped out from this planet. In 83.4 hours... no, less than that now... Demeter's problems would be behind them. She was glad that they could continue having children. That was probably the nicest thing about this community; how much they valued their daughters. If only they weren't so stubborn in their isolationism.

Lying on her back, she reached across her body and felt with her fingers inside the crook of her elbow. Where was it? There. She could barely feel it when she pressed, the tiny shape of the contraceptive implant that kept her infertile, that let her stay on the Enterprise. She sighed. I'm forty-six, she thought. Forty-six. Women are fertile longer than they used to be, but how much longer do I have? Ten years maybe, and they can take the implant out because I'll have no more need for it.

She wanted another child. A son, maybe, with Spock's eyes... She had been aware of that yearning for a while now, but... But. Not enough to go back to Vulcan without Spock, and not enough to ask him to resign and go with her. Damn.

There were ways around her dilemma, plenty of ways. An embryo could be removed from her, frozen, and if she was too old to carry it later on, it could be gestated in vitro or by a host mother... Ugh. She knew already her visceral reaction to that. No. For other people, fine, but not for me.

Stop it, Christine chided herself. You worked at the Vulcan Academy fertility clinic. You know that you and Spock are rarities, a naturally fertile cross-species couple. So you were lucky. That hardly invests you with some sort of mystical virtue. If you hadn't been lucky, you wouldn't be so damned picky about how you get a child.

Still... She was no Grace; to her, reproduction was probably the least important function of sex within a marriage. Lovemaking, she called it; the positive physical affirmation of what they felt for each other. But there was a very special sweetness to her memories of the times she had conceived. One of the pregnancies had ended in tragedy, but at least it had begun in joy. It seemed so marvelously right that life should come out of that pleasure rather than beginning in a laboratory.

For a moment she could almost feel it, hot bare skin against hers, lean hard thighs between the softness of her own, her husband's mind and body exploding deep inside her. The best way. For her, the only way. And Spock, to give him credit, had never argued for the logic of any other course.

Christine sighed, realizing that she was getting cold. The thunder was over, but the rain had settled into a steady stream, promising to last a long time. She pulled up her blanket. Before she made the effort to discipline her restless body into sleep, she sent a thought up to Spock. It would go unheard, but it comforted her to send it. //Spock? My stubborn Vulcan husband? We may have problems sometimes, but you're worth it, and I wouldn't trade places, or problems, with anyone.//

* * *

Spock permitted himself an inaudible sigh of relief as the door of his quarters shut behind him. He was tired. He had just come from the computer center, where he had been further refining the antidote formula, based on the raw samples sent up by Keiko Ichigawa. His work had been delayed by the necessity to reprimand two ensigns who were using their duty time to play an electronic version of strip poker. He had assigned them more useful tasks, and seen in their glances their opinion of superior officers who butted in where they weren't expected.

He had warned them dryly to confine their mating rituals to a more suitable time and place. He was sure that he had not been meant to hear the fragment of conversation which floated after him. He had thought it best to ignore it. Humans consistently underestimated Vulcan hearing.

"Vulcan slavedriver. We both have roommates; where are we supposed to go? You'd think he'd have some sympathy. He gets his."

"What d'you mean?"

"He's married to Chapel, the assistant CMO."

"No shit? The poor woman. I'd as soon be screwed by an icicle."

He had passed out of earshot at that point, irritation at their personal remarks competing with wonder at their illogic. It was common knowledge that Vulcan body temperature was higher...

He had put the incident out of his mind while working, but it returned now in the dim warmth of the cabin. The rooms were full of Christine's presence, and a concrete reminder of her absence. Perhaps that was why he had worked late tonight, even for him. He often worked in the evenings, but almost always here, where he could look up to see her head bent over her own work, or watch her reading on that uncomfortably squashy couch. In some absurd position, slumped down on the back of her neck, or lying on her back with her legs hanging over the arm... The familiar rooms were too empty and quiet without his wife in them.

As a child he had never understood his father's wish to be in Amanda's presence even when it seemed totally unnecessary. It was true that Spock took comfort in being near her, but he had thought of that as a weakness stemming from his human blood. Surely it should be different for an adult Vulcan. Now, as he undressed, put his clothes in the laundry chute, and stepped into the shower, he breathed a silent apology to both his parents. How little he had understood then of what it meant to be either Vulcan or human.

If Christine were here now, she might very well be putting her head into the shower, blue eyes smiling, sliding over his body, asking, "Would you like some company?" Spock shook his head. Or, considering the situation between them, she might not. He switched the water spray - another reminder of her - over to sonics, and let the waves dry him. This assignment had created an undercurrent of discord between them which was all the more disquieting because of the solidity of their bond. He was not accustomed to feeling subtly at odds with his bondmate.

He sincerely deplored the illogical prejudices about women which were so prevalent in human society. The mixture of condescension and lust which he saw in so many human males was very unpleasant. But he could not approve the illogic of a separatist culture. Nor could he allow Christine to attack the necessary basis of the Vulcan marriage bond. That was a different thing all together. That she owed him respect and obedience did not in any way diminish her. Did it? He shook his head again. No. He was not human, and his need of her was basic to his species; the one central biological fact which defeated even logic. It was therefore appropriate to deal with that need within the structure of the marriage bond.

Spock stepped out of the shower and walked into the bedroom. Christine was his bondmate. It was true that she was not independent of him, but even less was he independent of her. His work on the Enterprise and his friendship with Jim had been the central core of his adult life, but he could not have continued here if Christine had chosen to remain on Vulcan. He had known that several years ago. He had considered ordering her to return, but that would have been a misuse of his authority as her husband. In addition, he remembered wryly, he had had no great faith in her willingness to respond to such an order. He had been prepared to resign. And then she had solved the difficulty, showing him her application for return to active duty when he came home on leave.

It occurred to him now that he had not appreciated the unselfishness of that gesture. The Enterprise was less important to her than it was to him, but despite her occasional emotional resentment of his authority, she tended to put his wishes ahead of her own. He often did the same, but with Christine it was so quietly done that he hardly noticed it. If he asked her about it, he knew that she would have a three word answer. "I love you."

After all these years he still did not fully understand the connotations which those words had for humans. There was no corresponding phrase in modern Vulcan, though it existed in the ancient form of the language. As experienced by humans, 'love' seemed to Spock to be a dangerously unstable, and also frequently trivial emotion, leading to many sorts of unfortunate behavior. Human love was apparently capable of turning to hatred or indifference in no time at all, and as a basis for marriage its record was disastrous. In spite of that, he did not doubt the strength of what Christine felt for him, or equally, the strength of what he felt in return. He preferred not to assign a word to it. The feeling simply existed, flowing through the bond even at times like this. It was what overcame their problems, what made them able (much of the time) to rejoice in their differences rather than being driven apart by them.

Opening the closet door, he reached for his robe. As he pulled it down, he noticed Christine's robe hanging next to it, and stopped. Hers was blue, old and faded, worn thin with constant washing. The edge of one sleeve was unraveling. She said it was loose and comfortable in the heat of their quarters. Giving in to a sudden impulse, he buried his face in it. It smelled of soap and shampoo and deodorant, but beneath that, ineradicably, of human woman. He breathed in the scent for a moment, and then raised his head. Remembering the smell and feel of his wife's skin was creating desires which could not be immediately fulfilled. Meditation was in order.

He settled in front of the fire pot, prepared to use some simple body control techniques. He found himself considering, first, how much more often he needed these techniques since his marriage. During his adolescence and early manhood, and even during his early service on the Enterprise, celibacy had been only a minor inconvenience. He had walled off the pain of T'Pring's rejection, just as he had walled off the memories of his few, almost inadvertent, sexual encounters. He had not allowed himself to think of the pon farr at all. Aside from that, his physical desires had been quite easily controlled, and he had, in retrospect, been smug about that. He was, after all, Vulcan.

Marriage was quite different. That, perhaps, was one difference between Vulcan and human sexuality. Vulcans were both culturally and biologically constrained not to mate outside their bondings. That some did was undeniable, but such aberrations were rare. Spock still felt some shame that his bondmate had not been his first sexual partner; he knew that Christine felt no such discomfort concerning her previous lovers. But within marriage... He had known that sexual activity was an acceptable part of the relationship between bondmates, though some avoided it all together outside of the time of mating. That had struck him as unnecessarily rigid, even before he had found himself wanting to bond with a human. But having arrived at that soberly logical conclusion, he had been taken aback by the sheer constancy of his appetite for his wife's body.

He had come to accept it, and even to welcome it, knowing that her pleasure in it was as great as his. But it caused some distress when they were apart. It had been five days now since they had last made love - Christine's term for sexual contact - and his body was growing slightly restive. Five days was, of course, only a short time, but as he had told her, it was unlikely that he would sleep well tonight. He could temporarily put aside the unresolved sexual tension, but even so their bed was strangely large and cold without her curled against him.

Spock immediately chided himself for that thought. It was no more logical than the impertinent speculations of the computer techs. How could the bed feel cold without Christine when her body temperature was four degrees lower than his? He should, in fact, be warmer in her absence. But he was not. There were still a number of issues to be resolved between them, but she would be returning to the Enterprise in 78.9 hours. There was definite satisfaction in that knowledge.

Chapter Text

Vorn paused outside John Evans's cabin, nerving himself for the coming encounter. The Tellarite had avoided the human for the past week. Evans's behavior was too erratic, too keyed up. Vorn growled almost inaudibly as he remembered his humiliation the last time he had visited Evans's quarters. He regretted their partnership now. Possibly he could arrange an accident for Evans after this trip was done. Open murder was out; the human's family was too prominent.

Evans's strain of reckless cruelty was becoming more and more apparent the closer they came to their destination. Two days ago he had personally used a captured Klingon agonizer on a careless crewman. The pain had driven the man mad before Evans ordered him beamed into space on wide dispersal. Vorn had been appalled, not so much by the torture, but by the fact that the man had half a dozen relatives on board. They were tense and sullen; was Evans trying to provoke a mutiny?

In the beginning, it had not occurred to Vorn to wonder why Evans had joined the underworld. Vorn wasn't given to speculation. He preferred the concrete, and seldom had time for anything else. Evans's money and connections had seemed like a blessing. Now he wished he was free of him. The human was driven by forces that the Tellarite didn't understand. How Evans would react to this latest communication, Vorn couldn't imagine. He pushed the door buzzer.

"Come," said Evans's voice languidly, and the door slid open.

Vorn made certain that his hidden phaser was loose in its holder, and stumped into the room. Evans was lying back in his chair, legs negligently crossed. Vorn grunted a greeting.

"Sit down, my hairy little friend." Evans smiled. "I haven't seen much of you lately. Care for some brandy? Your drink got spilled last time, as I recall." His eyes danced coldly.

Vorn planted himself on the edge of the seat. "No games today, Evans. We can't afford them."

"Ah. Then this isn't simply a social call?"

"You know better. Remember Carson, that informer on Starbase XI?"

"A code officer in the Admiral's office, wasn't he?" Evans leaned forward, his interest sharpening.

"We've got a report from him - finally; I thought the fool wasn't ever going to be worth what we paid him. I had to bring it down personally; I couldn't trust a messenger or risk sending it to your terminal. Someone might have picked it up."

"Didn't want to see me, eh? I can't imagine why." Vorn tensed. Evans had an uncanny knack for reading the subtext of his words. Evans, seeing his discomfort, laughed. "What is this important message that brings you into my presence?"

Vorn flipped the tape over to Evans. "It's scrambled. Won't print out except on your terminal or mine." As Evans crossed to the desk, Vorn said, "The essence of it is that they're bringing out the big guns. They've traced the nirvana production to Beta Psi III."

"Impossible."

"I told you you've been over-confident... Lord John." It was easier to deal with the title by making it an insult.

"Well, well." Evans scanned the first part of the tape. "The silly bitches did get a message out, did they? It won't do them any good."

"Not even with the Enterprise ordered to the planet, to give medical assistance and shut down the factory?"

Evans's eyes narrowed. "The Enterprise?" He glanced at the rest of the message.

"They'll be there already," said Vorn angrily. "Who knows how far they'll have gotten with the job!"

Evans stood and prowled restlessly around the room. His face was set in tense concentration. "The Enterprise... The Enterprise... Now how will we..."

Vorn slapped his hand on a table. "Don't be a fool, Evans. We won't. We can't. You want to go in with a freighter to challenge a starship?"

"Don't be so unsubtle, my dear fellow. There are ways."

"There's nothing subtle about getting ourselves blown to atoms by their phasers! We're turning back. We'll find other sources of supply."

"But none so rich." Evans's lips drew back from his teeth. It was not a smile. "Or presenting such a challenge."

"I don't understand you, human."

"You don't have to. Are we still out of range of their sensors?"

"Of course. I had the helmsman cut speed when the message came through."

"Good. Very good."

"What are you up to?" "Trust me."

"Not for one second."

Evans's eyes gleamed. "I have a plan." He turned back to the terminal. Vorn inconspicuously fingered his phaser. "I wouldn't recommend it," said Evans, without turning. "I still command a certain loyalty among the crew. Kill me, and you won't live much longer yourself, you know."

Vorn knew. He hadn't seriously considered it, but it. was so tempting. "Tell me your plan."

"I need to contact the other ships in the convoy."

* * *

Even the steady downpour couldn't dampen the sparks and heat flying out from the molecular disruptor. Keiko, standing by, peered at the work through the rain streaming down her visor. She was grateful that their decontamination suits were waterproof, but she wished that something could be done about the mud. She sank into it up to her boot tops at every step. She shielded the readout panel with one hand, and squinted at the indicators.

As she had suspected, the seam in the force field that Rahab had discovered marked one edge of a 'door,' a portion of the field which could be switched off to allow access to the facility. With time, she knew they could probably find the code which controlled the field, but it didn't seem worth the bother. Brute force, in the form of the disruptor, was doing quite nicely.

Rahab sloshed over to her, followed by Abrams. Her smile gleamed through her face plate. Keiko pointed at the indicators. "We'll be through any minute."

"If we break through it at the seam, that whole section of the field will shut down, right?"

"It should." They turned to watch.

The hissing, crackling noise of the disruptor changed. There was a final burst of sparks, and the sound grew to a high-pitched whine. A four meter high section of the force field wavered, flickered, danced wildly, glowed, and abruptly vanished. The sound of the disruptor died slowly away.

Keiko blinked. It had disappeared in the wink of an eye, and the after image still glowed in front of her. Rahab gave a short, wordless cry of triumph, and jabbed a fist in the air. "Let's go!"

Keiko shook herself back into activity as the rest of the team crowded around her. "Abrams, get that temporary containment unit set up in front of this opening. We don't want any more radiation escaping." She grabbed Rahab's arm as the other woman headed toward the gap. "Not yet."

Rahab stopped. "The radiation levels?"

"Let me check how high they are inside the dome before we go rushing in. These suits don't protect beyond 8,000 millirems." She unhooked the tricorder from her belt.

Rahab peered over her shoulder. "But..." she said. "They're lower inside the facility."

Rahab frowned, and said bitterly, "Of course. They didn't care."

Keiko nodded. "They must have vented it all to the outside."

"Bastards." There were murmurs of agreement from the women setting up the containment field.

Keiko gave Rahab's arm a sympathetic squeeze. She looked around at the others. "Finish with that and keep your suits on just in case. We don't know what we may run into in there." She started forward. This time it was Rahab who stopped her.

"Keiko. Let us go first. Whatever's in there, it's my home that's been messed with."

"And you want first crack at it? Be my guest."

* * *

Keiko stood in the exact center of the factory and looked around her. She couldn't see far. The vast bins that held the unrefined virula walled her in. The machinery stretched out from the bins like the spokes of an old fashioned wheel, to the much smaller canisters around the rim which contained the pure nirvana. What surprised her most was the simple ordinariness of the facility. Aside from the protective force field and the total lack of containment facilities for the radiation, it could have been any factory, one processing coffee, or Aldebaran ghikal leaves. Total automation was no longer rare for such facilities, and this one held no technological mysteries.

Turning in a circle, she took readings and recorded this area. She had been working at the task all day, and she was nearly done. At her orders, the others had shut down the processing and beamed samples of the nirvana up to the ship. Uhura had stopped by in the midafternoon and reported that McCoy and Spock were testing the antidote, and she had taken samples back to the settlement for Astarte to analyze.

Keiko switched off her tricorder and walked back, along one of the narrow aisles between the machinery. She had found no evidence of who was behind all this, but something might show up on a detailed analysis of her recordings. It wasn't to be expected that the shadowy owners - John Evans or whoever - would blazon their names on their work.

The day was almost over. Little remained to do but to set the explosive charges that would reduce the factory to a pile of rubble. Most of that would have to wait until the morning. The whole thing had gone quite smoothly, Keiko thought with satisfaction. Practically her first chance at authority, and she hadn't fallen on her butt.

As she came up to the opening to the outside, she found Rahab and two other women wrestling with an oversized condenser unit. Pieces of jagged metal showed where it had been sheared away from its mounting. They were trying to drag it out into the open.

Keiko contemplated them with her hands on her hips. "What are you doing?"

"We can use this." Sweat was trickling down Rahab's face. She had taken off her helmet; radiation levels were already dropping. "We can use a lot of this stuff in one way or another. What's the use of letting it all get blown up?" She had the intent expression of a born scavenger. "Ahh, shit, it's stuck on something."

Keiko pulled out her phaser and neatly sliced off the shard of steel that was hooked around a cable. "Try now."

Rahab grunted. "One, two, three... heave!" The piece of machinery shifted, and they dragged it clear. "Phew..." Rahab straightened up, panting. "Thanks." She nodded to Keiko.

Keiko pulled off her own helmet and let the breeze lift her hair. The rain had stopped and the sky was blue again. The clearing smelled of hot, steamy earth. She eyed the condenser, and noticed that the area was littered with other pieces of machinery and unidentifiable piles of spare parts. "So this is what you've been doing all afternoon!" She gave a stern frown.

Rahab grinned. Her fierce disgust had dissipated as the radiation levels dropped, and it was evident that she now regarded the factory as a vast source of materials. "I'm going make some good come of this. Goddess knows, we deserve it."

"All this stuff?"

"Why not?" She wrinkled her forehead in thought. "We'll have to move it out of range of the explosion. The aircar can make trips over the next few weeks as I figure out uses for it." She chuckled triumphantly. "Matter of fact, the first thing I'll do is fix the antigravs."

"Before we go, we can have most of it beamed to the ship and back to the settlement," Keiko suggested.

"Your cargo transporters will handle it?"

"They'll handle anything smaller than a shuttlecraft."

"Damn, that's good." Rahab shook her head in wonder.

"Are you done with your scavenging?" The sun had gone from the clearing.

"Give me an hour more in the morning."

Keiko rolled her eyes. "I really should introduce you to Scotty."

"Forget it."

"Let's get out of these suits. We won't need them tomorrow."

Keiko used her communicator to call the workers inside the dome. They straggled out, tired but satisfied, and Abrams reported that half the explosives were already set. Keiko nodded approval. "We'll see you in the morning then," she said.

The demolition team beamed up with the disruptor and the pile of decontamination suits just as the colony aircar curved down over the trees to take the rest of them back to the settlement. Keiko wasn't surprised when Rahab sent the condenser on the first trip and told Sappho to come back for her later. From Sappho's expression of resignation, she wasn't surprised either. Keiko volunteered to stay behind as well. She felt a responsibility as the theoretical leader, though Rahab certainly could take care of herself.

They stood at the edge of the clearing, just under the trees, watching the aircar leave. Keiko stretched. "If you don't look at that," she gestured at the dome, "it's beautiful here."

"The forest grows fast. In a few years it'll cover the rubble."

"I'm glad."

"I know you are. Keiko..."

Keiko had spotted a bird in the sky. "Mm?" She turned, following its flight, and found herself in Rahab's arms.

"You like it here. Why don't you stay?" Rahab tilted Keiko's chin up and kissed her warmly on the mouth.

Keiko was too startled to react at first. Then she pulled away, more roughly than she had intended. "Don't."

Surprised hurt flashed across Rahab's face, followed almost immediately by anger. "So," she said bitterly. "I was wrong. Sorry." She turned her back.

Keiko felt washed with regret. "Rahab, I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"Didn't you? I thought you'd seen how much better it is for a woman here."

"I have, but I don't know if it's for me."

"Don't you want to find out?" Rahab turned again, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "Keiko..." She reached out slowly, and brushed her cheek. "I could be very fond of you. "

Keiko willed herself not to jump away from the light touch. If she'd thought about it, she wouldn't have been so surprised. Certainly she wouldn't have been startled by those actions from a man under similar circumstances. She was perfectly capable of fending off unwanted passes, either verbal or physical; her martial arts training took care of that. But now... Despite her initial reaction, she didn't know what she wanted. She sensed that Rahab was giving her time to think. Very few men bothered with such niceties.

She looked up, her eyes troubled. "Rahab, I don't know. I like what you've done here, I have from the first time I read about it, years ago. I like you. But I've never gone to bed with a woman, and I'm not sure I want to."

"Are men so good as all that?" Rahab sounded sure that she knew the answer.

"Some are. Not many, but some." Keiko thought affectionately of Sulu.

"You haven't struck me as a worshiper of the almighty cock."

"I'm not, but... I do have a lover, and I like him very much, too. Some men are worth getting to know." Another thought came to her. "Besides, what about Hagar?"

"We're just housemates. Not lifemates like Sappho and Astarte."

Keiko sighed. A kaleidoscope of words and images was flooding through her head. Rahab's face, Sulu's face, and the playful satisfaction of their lovemaking, the easy self-confidence of Rahab's walk, a few condescending senior officers who had called her 'honey' and 'baby doll'... Memories... Why don't I ever get assigned to initial contact landing parties... The almost embarrassed silence which greeted her unarmed combat victories... Her father, though, and his constant pride and encouragement, and Jerzy Velinsky, her first coach, who had stood up for her when she was rejected by Starfleet as too small for security training... And she was showing them, wasn't she? But why should it be so hard, why should she have to always be better? There was joy, too, in the fight, in not running away from the problem. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other... She blinked, and focussed again on Rahab.

"Rahab, I don't think it's the answer for me. I don't think I love you that way... though I admit that I'm not sure."

Rahab looked at her tenderly. "I wouldn't rush you."

"I know you wouldn't."

"Friends, though?"

"Oh, yes. Certainly friends." After a second's hesitation, Keiko held out her own arms, and Rahab stepped into them. They hugged each other tightly just as the buzz of the returning aircar sounded in the distance.

* * *

James Kirk leaned back in his chair and unobtrusively rotated his shoulders. It was early in the day, but inaction was wearing on his nerves. He glanced down at the life support status sheet on the armrest, and signed it with an irritable flourish. This assignment had rubbed him the wrong way from the start, and he was grateful that it was nearly over. It was, he thought with a wry frown, maddening to be sent off on a mission, assured of its vital importance, but with his hands tied and his freedom of action severely limited. It had happened before, but he had never gotten used to it.

In addition, his concern about the difficulty of the assignment had never let up. It seemed to be going smoothly as silk, but there was still a prickling on the back of his neck, a tension in his gut. He had done a lot of soul-searching in the last few days - there had been little enough else for him to do - and he had satisfied himself on one point. It was part of his nature to take a hands-on approach to any problem, but his unease was no longer based on an underestimation of the women he had sent down. They had done a damn fine job, and he was proud of them.

He had done some shaking up of shipboard assignments yesterday, remembering Uhura's criticisms of deadend "female" jobs. It was too soon to make any evaluation of the results, but it was a good approach. The Enterprise was too important to be underusing anyone's talents, and, he thought, Jim Kirk wasn't old enough to suffer yet from hardening of the mental arteries.

No, he mused, it wasn't that, not any more. His ego, as a captain and as a man, could accept a little justified criticism. Then what was it? He reviewed the status of the mission so far. The drug factory shut down, all data recorded and samples taken, the destruction of the facility almost accomplished. The medical problems of the colonists being dealt with, ecological damage being studied. An effective antidote to the nirvana being tested. Perhaps most important, a fragile accord developing with the Demeter colony, which might lead to their acceptance of Federation protection, and, not incidentally, to Federation control of the medically useful virula derivatives. Where was the problem in all this?

The communications officer broke in on his reverie. "Sir, I'm receiving a subspace message... A distress call."

Kirk swivelled sharply in his chair. "On audio, Lieutenant."

"Trying, sir. It's breaking up..." There was an enormous crackle of static, and the lieutenant hastily turned down the gain. Heads all over the bridge turned, waiting. Kirk wasn't the only one who had felt the time hanging heavy on this watch.

The communications officer made another adjustment, and a voice crackled suddenly through the static. "Mayday. Mayday. S.O.S. To any ship in this sector. This is the liner Queen Caroline, identification code GB96/5T/6304. Our location is sector 10, coordinates 56..." The transmission disappeared under static. "I repeat, mayday. We have encountered a severe ion storm. Our outer and inner hulls are breached and we have lost atmosphere." The static blasted out again. "...casualties. We have a total complement of 359 passengers and crew. Estimate 29..." More static. "...air remaining in undamaged sections. Our situation is critical. Mayday..."

The message repeated. The voice filtering through the static was anything but hysterical, but there was tremendous strain underlying the calm. Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk noticed the navigator making rapid calculations. When the distress call went into its third repetition, Kirk signalled the communications officer to cut off the audio. "Did you get the coordinates?" he asked the navigator.

"Yes, sir, the second time. Course is plotted."

Kirk hesitated for a moment. He hit the intercom button. "Mr. Spock, report to the bridge immediately." Spock was down in the labs, overseeing testing of the antidote, and compiling data concerning mutations in the native plants and animals.

"Should I lay in the course, sir?" asked the helmsman.

Kirk nodded. "But maintain orbit until I give the order." His fingers tightened on the armrest. His command intuition was working overtime, and he didn't like what it was telling him. His uneasiness had crystallized into a sharp point. That facility had been in use, unattended beneath its protective force field, for months before the Demeter women had brought themselves to ask for help. The bins of harvested virula had been almost empty, the ones of refined nirvana almost full. How long could one of those factories run with out supervision? And just where were the people who had set it up? This distress call was too pat, too opportune...

On the other hand... 359 lives, and the most ancient law of the sea. The voice had held just the right mixture of control over desperation. A ruptured hull; every spacefarer's nightmare. Still, Kirk wanted a few things checked. Where the hell was Spock; the lifts weren't that slow... The door opened, and decanted Spock onto the bridge.

Spock listened impassively to a playback of the distress call, and looked at Kirk, eyebrow raised. Kirk joined him at the science station. "You question the legitimacy of the message, Captain?" he asked, softly enough that the rest of the crew could not hear.

Kirk noted, beneath his preoccupation, that Spock had once again anticipated his thoughts. For a being who claimed no intuition of his own, he had a remarkable under-

standing of his captain's. "Analysis, Spock? It's been used as a trick before."

Spock worked for a minute. "The identification codes are legitimate, and the message was on the emergency channel. Access to that channel, and those codes, is restricted. The Queen Caroline is a well known luxury liner, scheduled to be in this sector for an observation cruise near Kai Sung's comet." He looked up. "It fits together."

"Yes. It does. But it smells bad."

"Smells?" said Spock thoughtfully. "I cannot analyze that illogical aspect of the situation." The lifted eyebrow was as good as a smile, and Kirk returned it. Spock's face grew sober. "But in logic, I see no reason to assume that this is not a legitimate emergency. And in that case, Jim..."

"359 innocent lives are in danger," finished Kirk. He turned back to the bridge crew. "Prepare to leave orbit, top speed. Spock, notify Mr. Scott we'll be needing everything he can give us. Mr. Abada," to the communications officer, "reply to that distress call that we're on our way."

Abada complied. "Subspace message should reach them in a little over three hours."

"Good. Now contact the landing party."

Uhura answered almost at once, and listened attentively to Kirk's explanation. "No problem, Captain," she said at once. "Our work is under control. I'm at the factory site, and I know that Dr. Chapel is pleased with the way things are going at the lab."

"If we have to take all those passengers back to Starbase XI, we can't return for at least a week."

"Understood, sir. The demolition team has set the explosives..."

"Is it possible to beam the team up?"

"There's no real need for them to stay. Setting the stuff is tricky. Detonating it isn't."

"Can the rest of you...?"

"We have a few things to finish."

"We'll be back soon. You're doing a good job."

"Thank you. Captain. We know." The mischief died out of Uhura's voice. "I hope you get there in time. Good luck."

* * *

Evans stood by the shoulder of the navigator, who shifted uneasily in his chair. The bridge of the freighter was cramped, utilitarian, and not especially clean. The navigator, a Rigellian, smelled of fear as Evans leaned over him, and Evans smiled at that. "How long to the Beta Psi system?" he asked, mildly enough.

"Two hours, twelve minutes, to the system. Another hour or so on impulse power to the third planet," answered the navigator, not looking up.

"The Enterprise is gone?"

"We intercepted a message saying that they were on their way to answer the distress call."

"Good. Very good." The star Beta Psi was bright on the viewscreen as Evans strolled around the periphery of the bridge. He had no real reason for remaining on the bridge, but he enjoyed the nervousness his presence produced among the crew. From some of them he sensed hatred, and from all of them fear, and there was no combination of emotions which pleased him more. A warm, heady, pulsing exhilaration was running through all his veins.

"Evans." A short bark from Vorn interrupted this pleasant sensation.

He looked at the Tellarite, barely bothering to hide his contempt. "Yes?"

"I need to talk to you."

"Talk, then. Or grunt, that's more your style." There was a ripple of laughter from the crew, which died away quickly.

"Not here."

In the corridor outside the bridge, Vorn came straight to the point. He was no longer so easy to bait as he had been, Evans noted with disappointment. "I'll grant your 'plan' is working so far," the Tellarite said grudgingly.

"With luck we'll salvage enough from this mess to cover the cost of the trip. We can get down, get what's left of our stock, and get the hell out before the Enterprise comes back..."

"They won't be coming back."

"Don't count on it."

* * *

The small freighter was equipped with landing gear, and three hours later it set down in the woods close to the factory. Vorn's sensitive snout curled appreciatively at the lush smell of the forest as he stepped out of the hatch. He had no particular fondness for Tellar, but the scent did remind him faintly of his homeworld, and his olfactory sense seemed programmed to respond to it.

When disembarkation was complete, there were nearly fifty armed men crowded around Evans and Vorn. "Did they see us come down?" Vorn asked the helmsman.

The Rigellian shrugged warily. "Can't tell."

Evans laughed. "Surely we don't intend to keep our presence a secret!"

Vorn snorted, and resolved to keep a close eye on the human. Evans was so tightly wound, his body tensed and balanced like a spring, that the air around him seemed to be vibrating.

Vorn had just finished issuing orders about approaching the factory, when he noticed that Evans hadn't been listening or participating. He stood to one side, talking to a group gathered close around him. The sun, slanting down through the trees, gilded his blond hair, and for a moment he looked impossibly angelic. Then his eyes glinted, and he smiled his wide, feral smile.

Vorn stumped over to him and grabbed his arm unceremoniously. "What are you up to?"

The smile broadened. "These fine chaps," he nodded at the group, "and I have some plans of our own. I have a score to settle with these women down here. And unlike you, I have no taste for being a stevedore. I'm sure you're capable of handling that end of the job."

"Don't be a fool, Evans," said Vorn. It occurred to him that he had been saying that all too frequently. And Evans wasn't a fool. As dangerous as a raw antimatter pile, but not a fool. "I don't know what you're up to, but I want you where I can see you."

"What you want and what you get are not, I'm afraid, the same thing."

"I don't have as much faith in your scheme as you do. The less time I spend here, the better I'll like it. This isn't a pleasure trip."

"Not for you, maybe. But my pleasures have a point. I can at least ensure that you won't be interrupted."

"You can't just go off..." Vorn stopped, growling as if furious, but ideas were racing through his mind. He gave a grunt, as though disgusted with the argument. "Go, then. Have your fun where I don't have to watch it."

"A squeamish Tellarite? My, my, who would have thought it?" The men around Evans laughed with a touch of derision. Vorn noticed that they were drawn from the most reckless segment of the crew, those whom Evans had recruited himself. If all went well, he'd be glad to be rid of them, too...

Evans turned away, and then looked back over his shoulder, "Oh, and dear boy... If you were thinking of stranding me here... I think you'll find that the navigational computer no longer works perfectly." He fingered something in his pocket. At Vorn's expression, he laughed. "Don't worry, I'll be back. I still find our partnership useful... not to mention amusing!" He vanished into the forest, his laughter lingering behind him.

Chapter Text

Christine turned the screen so Demeter could see it more clearly. It was designed to be read by someone on a lab stool, not lower down in a glide chair. She tilted it so that the dark old eyes could focus more clearly on the data. "At this point we can't accurately predict the long range effects," she said.

"But the mutation rate is twice what would occur normally."

"1.928 times," murmured Christine automatically. Demeter looked at her. Christine's mouth twitched. "A bad habit I picked up from my husband," she explained.

Demeter snorted, but without real bitterness. T'Nila's eyebrows rose. "Precise accuracy is always desirable," she said.

Demeter gave a wheezy chuckle. "Of course."

This morning's work was reminding Christine of just who this dogmatic old woman was, and she was feeling a touch of awe. Demeter was too frail to carry a steady research load, and she did have a tendency to fall asleep at odd moments. But to see a mind like that at work, even in old age, was almost worth the delay in getting back to the Enterprise. She ought to be used to being away from Spock, Christine thought; they would simply have to postpone their talk/argument for a few more days.

Juanita Alvarez had been one of the most brilliant scientists of her generation. If her personality had been less forceful, her political opinions less controversial, and her research subject less taboo, she would have easily won a Nobel Prize for her work. As it was, the mainstream scientific community had rejected her. Christine wondered how much that had hurt, how much it had led her to become a separatist. It was a romantic view that scientists worked solely for the love of their field. The human ones, at least, were as hungry for recognition as any other professionals. If it was withheld, especially when legitimately due... She brought her attention back to what Demeter and T'Nila were discussing.

"...greater effects nearer the site, and in the less complex life forms. I have plotted a curve." T'Nila changed the display.

Demeter shook her head. "You haven't taken into account the natural rate. See here..." She reached for the keyboard, and T'Nila pushed her closer.

Christine looked around the lab. There was a lively sense of purpose here today; a sense of hope regained and rediscovered. Astarte and McCoy had calculated, before the Enterprise left, that tomorrow they could try the first ovum combination using the enzyme synthesized on the ship. Astarte was getting ready now, choosing the donors from medical profiles of a host of willing volunteers.

Thelit was out at the factory site with Uhura and Keiko. Christine had expected Grace to go, but to her surprise, Grace had asked to work in the lab. Christine was unsure if that represented a growing tolerance, a fresh effort to convert someone (probably Lilith), or, more simply, a desire to do more challenging work than collecting specimens.

Astarte had, rather shrewdly, asked Grace to cover any minor medical emergencies that came up. Grace was a good nurse, and the task was further breaking down her air of virtuous, chilly disapproval. Lilith was helping her; Christine could see them out of the corner of her eye. They had just finished bandaging Morgan's elbow. The ubiquitous toddler had scraped it, and was playing up the incident for all it was worth. Christine grinned, recognizing the attention-grabbing tactic, as Morgan apparently insisted that both Grace and Lilith kiss the injury. She missed her own children with a sudden sharp ache, and sighed, turning back to her work.

Several minutes later, she became aware that Lilith and Grace had come over to Demeter. Lilith looked nervous, and Grace satisfied. Lilith took a deep breath. "Grandmother Demeter, do we have a Bible?" she asked in a quick rush.

Demeter's head snapped up, and she looked at Grace while addressing Lilith. "Why would you want one, Lilibell?"

Lilith knelt to look her grandmother in the eye. "Because she says I should read..."

"And you believe her?" Christine could hear the undertone of anger.

"Grandmother..."

Astarte interrupted. "Don't upset your grandmother." She put a protective hand on Demeter's shoulder.

"Grace," said Christine warningly, "what did I tell you at the very beginning..."

"She has a right to hear the truth." Grace's jaw tightened defiantly.

"Whose truth?" snapped Astarte.

"My own!" Lilith charged back into the discussion with a vehemence which startled everyone. "Why are you all trying to make up my mind for me?" She appealed to her grandmother. "I think that what Grace says is a load of crap, but how can I really tell unless you let me see what she's talking about?"

"The empirical method," said T'Nila, surprisingly. "Scientific. Logical. One must never suppress evidence."

"Do we have a Bible?" insisted Lilith.

"Yes," admitted Demeter after a moment. Her eyes went far away, remembering. "That was such a debate we had, in the beginning... whether we would take any literature of oppression with us, or start totally fresh." Her gaze returned to the present. "We decided..." She looked at T'Nila. "Not to suppress the evidence, Lilith has grown up into a free woman. She can read what she wants." Her eyes snapped at Grace. "You can't corrupt her now."

Lilith gave Demeter an impulsive hug. "I love you, Grandmother." A blue-veined hand tugged affectionately at her curls.

Grace's smug expression had wavered a bit at Demeter's words, and now Lilith turned to her, with an expression full of mischief. "Satisfied? Are you as confident as Demeter?"

Grace's eyes widened. "What...?"

"You told me about your ideas. I'll make a bargain. I'll read your book, if you've got the nerve to read some of ours."

"I don't need to. I already know..."

"Damn little! Scared? I dare you!" Lilith was young enough to make it into a playground taunt, and Christine tried to smother a grin, noticing that Demeter was doing the same.

Grace was still young too, and she rose to the bait. "I'm not scared! God protects..."

"The Second Sex," said Lilith, "Against Our Will, Womanpower, Without our Chains..."

"That's four books!" Almost in spite of herself, Grace giggled. "Not fair. I only asked you to read one."

"You said it has sixty-six books in it! I think that's..."

"Stop," said T'Nila abruptly, holding up a hand. "Be quiet." Every one turned to her in surprise. Her voice had commanded attention, and Christine saw at once that her urgency had nothing to do with Grace and Lilith or religion and feminism. "Listen."

For a few seconds there was nothing for a human to hear. Then there was a dull boom, and a confused, wordless outcry in the distance. Astarte jumped to her feet. "Something's wrong down by the mill!" She took two steps toward the door, and chaos descended.

* * *

The lab doors flew open before Astarte reached them, and phaser fire lanced in, raking the room. There was the shatter of breaking glass, and Christine dived instinctively to one side, rolling into cover as she had done many times in training drills. She crouched under a table, trying vainly to absorb what was happening.

The others had scattered too, Lilith throwing herself bodily across Demeter, propelling the glide chair back between the lab tables. Deadly fire swept the room again. A terminal screen exploded in a soft shower of sparks, and the biocomp disintegrated into a smoking mass of destroyed microcircuitry. Thank god most of the data is safe on the Enterprise, thought Christine, and her stomach lurched sickeningly. What did this mean? Where had these attackers come from? Was the Enterprise safe?

Smoke from the destroyed equipment clouded her vision, and she couldn't see who was firing. What was happening? Easy assignment, her mind chattered in fear. We all said yesterday this assignment had turned out to be easy... Too easy. She realized, fighting panic, what the smoke and the smell of burning circuitry and insulation meant. Those weren't standard phasers, set to disintegrate, painlessly. Those were cell disrupters, designed to cause as much damage as possible with even the slightest hit. Oh god. Phasers... Where the hell was her phaser? She'd had it this morning; it had looked silly with the loose native smock and trousers. She had left it clear on the other side of the lab. She had to get to it.

Christine started to edge forward, and then stopped. No. Stupid. First things first. Her mental processes seemed slowed by shock, though she knew no more than ten seconds had elapsed since she had rolled under the table. Her communicator was still on her belt, already set to signal Uhura. She yanked at it with numb fingers, and flipped it open. The channel was clear, but there was no answer. She changed the channel. "Chapel to Enterprise." Please be there. A forlorn hope; the only reply was static.

She replaced the communicator, dropped flat on her stomach, and peered across the floor. The smoke didn't travel down there, and she could see Grace and T'Nila looking back at her. "Get to the phasers," she yelled, and hoped they had heard her.

"In here. Keep firing," shouted an excited voice from the doorway. A male voice... had she expected otherwise? Heavy feet thudded on the floor.

Christine knew that she was inconspicuous under the table, but Demeter would be all too easy a target in her glide chair. She twisted urgently around. "Lilith! Get your grandmother out of here. Back through the nursery -get the children out too, and go for weapons." The community had a few antiquated phaser rifles somewhere; she hoped they knew how to use them.

She looked out again, not waiting to see if Lilith had gone. There was no one, friend or enemy, in her line of vision now. Suddenly she heard a whine from the other side of the room, a yell, and a stream of ugly curses from their unseen antagonists. Good; Grace and T'Nila must have reached the phasers. Now she had to get to them. She tensed her muscles, fear-produced adrenaline racing through her system.

Her movement across the open floor was a rolling, tumbling dive, an attempt to provide as small and erratic a target as possible. Grace and T'Nila were distracting the attackers, and she was almost successful. She heard the whine of energy beams above and to the side of her, but she was nearly behind the protection of a tall storage unit when she saw Morgan.

The toddler's mouth was wide open in a wail of terror as she ran, her innocent world disintegrating around her. No one had realized that she was still in the lab. Christine reached out and grabbed her just as a figure aimed at them out of the smoke. Christine knocked Morgan's legs out from under her and twisted the child under her own body. They fell back into shelter just as the tearing impact of the shot reached them. The man who had fired at them disappeared in a crackle of energy from one of their own phasers, and Christine became aware of the sickening stench of burned flesh.

Her shoulder had been torn open by the blast, and she felt a wave of nausea at the pain, instantly forgotten as she laid Morgan down. Half of the little girl's face was gone. Christine groped futilely for a pulse, knowing there would be none. Nothing. No, oh no... The front of her shirt was soaked with blood; Morgan's and her own. The bandage on Morgan's scraped elbow mocked her. Sweet, funny little child, always getting underfoot. Above her, there was a crack and a splintering noise.

"Get out of there," someone screamed, and Christine was grabbed from behind by strong hands. The storage unit wobbled and crashed down onto the spot where she had been kneeling.

She scrambled painfully back onto her hands and knees, and looked at her rescuer. "Thanks," she whispered, coughing in the smoke and dust, blinking tears from her eyes.

"I'll kill them," said Grace, staring at the spot where Morgan's body had been. "I'll kill them." She shoved a phaser into Christine's hand.

"Where are Astarte and T'Nila?"

"Behind there." A shudder ran through Grace's body, and she jerked her head toward the huge aquarium which housed aquatic specimens.

It was only six meters away. They made it, barely. "Morgan," said Astarte in anguish, grabbing Christine's arm, fingers digging in.

"Oh god, Astarte. I'm sorry."

"I'll kill them," repeated Grace bitterly. Even T'Nila did not contradict her. Grace leaned around the corner of the tank, and fired repeatedly.

* * *

Some short, interminable time later, Christine tried to get her bearings. The smoke was thickening, and they had been driven farther and farther back into the lab. "We can't stay here." she said. "This isn't defensible. I sent Lilith and Demeter out the back way, through the nursery. I think they made it. We'll have to go that way too."

They made it to the nursery door by splitting up, dodging and firing as best they could in the haze. Luckily, the smoke hampered their attackers as well. But at last they found themselves pinned down by the rear wall of the lab, the door to safety raked continuously by disruptor fire. Christine, crouching between Astarte and T'Nila, thought despairingly that their odds of escape would be appallingly small at this point, even if Spock were here to calculate them. They were holding their attackers at bay, even inflicting some casualties, but they were well and truly trapped all the same. In some remote corner of her mind, she realized that in all her years in Starfleet, she had never before fired her phaser in anger. She was a doctor. Her business was healing, not destruction. But the thought of Morgan's broken body filled her with fury. Then a beam hit the wall beside her, and everything but the need to survive vanished temporarily from her mind.

The closed door to the nursery was probably no route to safety anyway, she thought a few minutes later. Who knew what was going on outside? But to be caught here... Her entire body jerked in shock as the door crashed open. An enormous, destructive blast swept through it. There was an deafening smashing noise, and the growing roar of escaping water. The aquarium tank had ruptured, realized Christine, her head spinning. God. What had Astarte told her... it held how many hundred thousand liters...?

There were shouts and screams from their attackers, and a sudden cessation of the disruptor fire. Water rushed along the floor of the lab. Lilith's head poked through the door for a fraction of a second. "Come on!"

They ducked and ran, not stopping to think. The nursery was a shambles. Lilith stood grimly clutching an enormous phaser rifle. "Let's get out of here! Grandmother's waiting. She says this thing only had one charge in it. She told me to aim for the tank!"

Christine grabbed Astarte's arm, and they ran for the outside, stumbling over scattered toys and books. She noticed a smashed molecular model, and a doll, blank-eyed, with its neck askew as if broken. The pain in her shoulder was making her lightheaded, and blood was running down her arm. Almost there. She could see Demeter, still in her glide chair, waiting for them. Where were all the children? In fields and woods, maybe. Safe? Not Morgan.

Demeter raised a fist in a gesture of encouragement, and started to turn her glide chair out of the long window. The man who appeared in front of her was a nightmare. There seemed to be no safety any more. Anywhere. Demeter crumpled in her seat, knocked sideways by a blow to the head. Christine aimed her phaser and fired just as Astarte cried out and stumbled against her. Christine's shot went wild, and she and Astarte fell together.

More and more men were pouring into the room. Lilith had jumped forward to protect Astarte. Christine couldn't see Grace or T'Nila. Her head had struck the floor heavily, and the room was whirling. She tried to steady it, tried to rise, but she had lost too much blood. Spock, she thought. Where are you, husband? A mental cry of love and fear, for both him and herself. Please be safe. Spock...

Her vision narrowed, until she could no longer see anything - except a single figure looming above them, larger and larger. His hair was a golden helmet, his face lit with joy. An angel, Christine's fading consciousness told her in bemusement. This should be Grace's vision. I'm seeing an angel.

And then, in a last second of awareness, her gaze locked on his. A memory leapt up. Dante. The lowest circle of hell was not fire, but ice. And Lucifer was the most beautiful of the angels. Her mind spun away from the horror she had seen in his eyes, down into blackness.

* * *

A stinging blow across her face half woke her. "Christine! Dr. Chapel!" Christine knew she should respond, but she had no sense of how to control her body. Her brain was spinning in a void. A moment later, her mind was ruthlessly invaded. //Doctor! There is no time. You are needed. You will wake up.//

Her mind tried to pull away, but she was not strong enough. She fell back into consciousness with a sickening thud. "T'Nila," she gasped.

"You must get up. I need help. We must leave here at once, and I cannot perform the task alone." T'Nila's face was filthy, her smooth hair hanging in tangles.

Christine sat up quickly, and immediately found herself retching with pain and disorientation. T'Nila's fingers clamped down on her temples again, and after a moment the world settled roughly into place. "What happened?" she asked. Looking around, she located Astarte, Grace, and finally Lilith. All of them appeared to be unconscious. Her senses registered a growing smell of smoke, and a soft, ominous crackling.

"More to the point is what is happening. The laboratory building is on fire," said T'Nila with controlled urgency. "The fact that it is somewhat... damp... will retard the flames, but not for long."

Christine willed her muscles into activity, damning her own weakness. Stumbling, and coughing, she and T'Nila lifted and dragged their companions through the windows. Christine didn't even stop to examine their injuries. The risk of moving them seemed slight when she saw the flames eating at the wall between the lab and the nursery.

Grace was coughing and gagging and returning to consciousness as they laid her on the grass. Christine fumbled at her waist automatically, relieved to find that her medikit was still in its accustomed place. She clamped down for a moment on her own pain, blocking as much of it. as she could. Her injuries were more painful than dangerous, and she had patients to care for.

Grace was suffering from a slight blow to the head, a phaser burn on her hand, and smoke inhalation. "Lie still for a minute," ordered Christine as Grace's eyes fluttered open. She gasped in pain, but Christine turned away from her ruthlessly. Nothing there that couldn't wait.

T'Nila was examining Astarte. Astarte's dark skin was an unhealthy ashy color, and her breathing was barely discernible. Half of her hair had been singed off, and her abdomen was bloody. Christine pressed a hypo into her arm. "Shock and internal injuries. This will stabilize her blood pressure."

There was a soft explosion behind her, and a wave of heat on her back as the windows of the nursery blew out. "I do not believe it is advisable to stay here," observed T'Nila.

"Agreed, but I don't want to move Lilith without at least running a scanner over her."

Lilith was huddled up as though trying to protect herself even in unconsciousness. Christine had not really looked at her when they had carried her out of the building. There hadn't been time. Now, she turned the girl over and froze for a split second. The bruises and torn coveralls told their story even before her instruments confirmed it. She tried to straighten Lilith's arms and legs to check them, but Lilith jerked and whimpered "No," her voice a whisper of terror.

Grace had gotten unsteadily to her feet, and stumbled over. Christine looked up at her. "She's been raped," she said in grim fury.

"I know," whispered Grace. "I tried to stop him. Tried... My phaser was out of power." She swayed, and sank down, shaking. "He laughed and laughed. I've never heard anyone laugh like that. He knocked me to one side. I don't remember any more."

There was a soft hum next to them, and Christine tore her eyes away from Lilith. T'Nila was guiding Demeter's glide chair. "Demeter is alive," T'Nila replied to Christine's glance. "She was lying on the ground over there, also unconscious, but I think there is no grave damage." She looked around. The scene was now lit as much by the fire as by the afternoon sun. "I suggest we depart with some alacrity."

Christine nodded tersely. Vulcan coolness was comforting in a crisis, at least to her. "We should head for the fields. Maybe we can locate some other survivors." It occurred to her how little she knew of what was going on. What had happened to Uhura and Keiko and Sappho? She looked at T'Nila. "Let's put Astarte in the glide chair with Demeter. It will jar her less than carrying her. T'Nila, you steer it. Grace and I will carry Lilith." A small voice told her that neither she nor Grace were in much shape to carry themselves, let alone another person. She ignored it. If the alternative was to wait here for their attackers to come back...

She bent stiffly over Lilith, pulling the rags of the girl's coverall around her. As she straightened a sleeve, something caught her eye. There were rapidly purpling bruises on the inside of Lilith's arm; the marks of a carelessly applied spray hypo. Christine's stomach clenched with an appalling fear, and she whipped out her scanner again, resetting it. Grace, beside her, had gone whiter than before. "That looks like..."

"It is." Christine's fingers tightened convulsively on the metal cylinder. "Maybe he got tired of fighting her. She's been dosed with nirvana. Her neural pathways already show signs of alteration. She's addicted."

* * *

Thelit pushed aside the tall stem of a tree fern. The feathery fronds brushed her cheek, and she gave a smile of pure delight. This planet was lovely. Remembering her task, she reached as high as she could, and snapped off the end of the frond. It released a shower of droplets over her face, and a sweetly pungent smell.

She had been irked when Dr. Chapel had assigned her to field duty today. The lab was where the interesting work was going on; and she didn't see why she had to miss out on it in favor of that prissy fanatic Grace. But she had found herself enjoying the task after all. She had hung around the half-dismantled dome in the morning, watching the demolition team set the explosives; a form of shirking, she supposed, but it had been interesting. She hadn't been bothered by the news that the Enterprise was leaving. She liked it here, and this would give them a few more days than they might otherwise have had. She was just grateful that the captain was letting them finish up, instead of insisting on beaming them aboard with the demolition team.

After a while she had realized guiltily that she wasn't doing her job. It had been tempting to stay and watch the explosion; she had always loved fireworks. But Rahab, to Keiko and Uhura's distressed amusement, had found yet another piece of equipment she wanted to salvage. And Thelit had the feeling that Dr. Chapel already considered her a little flighty and unreliable. She didn't want to face her this evening with an empty collecting bag.

She stopped and noted with her tricorder the radiation level at the spot where she had taken the fern sample. It had definitely dropped; it was already below the point where it could cause any further damage. Thelit smiled. Maybe if she worked fast, and Rahab slowly, she could get back before they touched off the charges. They certainly hadn't yet; she imagined that the noise would echo for kilometers around. Her sensitive antennae stretched automatically, searching for any evidence.

She found nothing that related to her companions or their job, but she did pick up something, almost past the range of her senses. She stood very still and concentrated. She was hearing a heavy rustling with her ears, but with her antennae she was sensing, in a way that she had never been able to explain to a human, that a group of large creatures were moving through the forest. She could estimate their size and location and body temperature, and as her mind evaluated the signals her body tensed. Humans, mostly, maybe some other species, moving quickly and quietly toward the clearing and her friends.

Thelit frowned grimly. The blood of hunters was in her veins. They might move softly, but not so softly as she could if she chose. Her breathing became light and quick, and she balanced herself within her body. Checking that her phaser was secure at her waist, she faded into the undergrowth.

She edged lightly through the woods. Her small size was an advantage here, as it had been in the past. Her brother had taught her the tricks of moving silently, before he had been old enough to learn to despise her. She had used them to slip away from her parents, and later from her husband, when she had wanted some peace. It had made them furious.

Unfortunately, her prey was moving toward the clearing at right angles to her position. She quickly realized that she couldn't catch them before they got there. Her heart began to race in its complicated triple beat. She was assuming the hostile intent of the group she was shadowing; she could think of no good explanation for their presence, approaching her friends without warning. Why, oh why, had she left her communicator in the air car? Her mind racing, she drew a mighty breath, filling her lungs to their capacity and beyond.

"Ghraiil terea ki monu A-a-ann-do-o-o-o-rrr!" The piercing cry had been meant to carry across bloody battlefields, and it shook the woods. Thelit was sure it had reached at least to the clearing. Uhura spoke Andorian; she would recognize the urgent warning of danger.

The world was silent for a few seconds in the aftermath of her ringing yell. Then there was loud crashing ahead of her, shouts, and the unmistakable noise of phaser fire. Secrecy, on either side, was now abandoned. Thelit pulled out her own phaser, and began to run. Her antennae at once registered two humanoids directly ahead of her, broken off from the main group, probably to investigate her call. Thelit stopped behind a tree and listened scornfully to their heavy footsteps and loud breathing. Fools. She was a steady shot; another legacy from her brother. The two men fell to her phaser, and she veered off toward the clearing again.

Battle lust was easily woken in her people, and Thelit felt it coursing through her body now. All her senses seemed heightened, and she felt at once over-stimulated and invulnerable. The noises of the fight ahead of her increased the sensation. She crouched behind a bush at the very edge of the clearing, evaluating.

The muddy circle was chaotic. The air car had evidently been hit; it was burning fiercely. The combat was ugly; not content to fire from cover, the attackers had rushed the dome. Smoke blew here and there. The clearing was littered with machinery, crisscrossed by phaser fire, and heaving with struggling figures. She saw several bodies. The attackers all seemed to be male, and most of them human, though she saw at least one burly Tellarite, bellowing in anger. She tried to estimate how many there were. Certainly far more than the eight or so colony and Enterprise women left after the demolition team had been beamed up. She could pick out Uhura and Keiko now; they were the only women with phasers.

Pulling out her own, she took careful aim. She would give these dhrev, these scum, something to think about. She picked off three of them before they could figure out where the fire was coming from. She was preparing to fade back into the woods and come around from another angle when a sickening tableau at one side of the battle caught her eye.

Two men had Sappho pinned between them, bent backward over a scrap of scaffolding. They were asking her something, phasers held at her neck. Sappho, struggling, eyes blazing, shook her head and spat at them. One of the men spat back, and dialing down the setting of his weapon, casually ran it over the front of her body. Sappho's spine arched, and she screamed. Her clothes burned open, and Thelit could see the strip of charred flesh beneath. The men bent over her. They were only fifteen meters away, but Thelit couldn't get a good aim without hitting Sappho. Her blood boiled fiercely.

Armored in her own ferocity, she burst from cover and sprinted toward them. They had not expected an attack from that angle, and when she screamed a battle cry, they whirled in confusion. Before they could bring their weapons to bear, she leapt on one of them, knocking him clear of Sappho. As they fell together, she twisted sideways, catlike, shoved her phaser into his abdomen and pressed the firing button.

She had no time to exult in her success. Before she could regain her feet, she felt a sharp blow, and a dull burning in her arm. When she tried to bring it up to look at it, it was no longer there. The blast had sheared off her phaser arm at the elbow. She fell backward, feeling less pain than astonishment. The other man loomed over her, aiming again. Everything was suddenly very slow; Thelit could see his finger tightening on the trigger...

Something hit him in the back like a well-placed projectile. He staggered, his shot going wild, and the next moment he was tumbling through the air. His head hit the ground first, and his neck twisted sharply. He lay still.

"Thelit!" Keiko was bending over her. "Your arm!"

"Get her out of here! I'll cover you! Sappho, go!" Uhura was behind Keiko, firing as she spoke. "We can't do anything here. We have to get into the woods, maybe back to the settlement." Rahab was lifting Sappho, draping Sappho's arm over her shoulders.

"Can you walk?" demanded Keiko, hauling Thelit up.

"Yes," Thelit gasped. She still felt little pain. The beam seemed to have cauterized the nerves and blood vessels; she wasn't bleeding much either. Her hand and arm just... weren't there. Her metabolism was still racing, still in battle mode. She reached down and grabbed the weapon of the man who had shot her. "My phaser is gone," she explained to Keiko, eyes burning. "I need a replacement."

Keiko nodded shortly, understanding. They turned and ran, stumbling the short distance into the forest, the others following.

* * *

They didn't stop for over an hour. Sappho and Rahab gasped out directions, leading them on a twisting course into the hills, where pursuit would be difficult. Thelit's tricorder was, miraculously, still working, and it told them that they had soon left their enemies behind. They finally halted under an overhanging ledge, all of their faces ashen, their breathing strained.

Thelit sank down, trembling from reaction. The burning in her arm was beginning; it would get worse. There were only six of them; two had been left dead back in the clearing.

"They weren't really interested in chasing us," said Uhura after a moment. "They wanted to get into the dome."

Thelit looked over at Sappho, whose sweating face was contorted with the agony of her burns. She fumbled awkwardly at her waist with her remaining hand. She had an extremely limited aid kit with her, but there was a pain reliever in it. Keiko saw the gesture, and at her explana-

tion, pressed the hypo into Sappho's shoulder. She also gave Thelit a dose, and the burning receded a little.

Uhura looked at Thelit. "Thank you. If you hadn't let out that yell, we wouldn't have had any warning. We'd all be..." She shrugged.

"Why..." Thelit's voice was hoarse. "Why didn't you let them get into the dome, and then touch off the explosives? They were all set..."

"Not the final priming." Uhura glanced sharply at Rahab. "If you hadn't insisted on getting out that last..."

Keiko put an arm around Rahab. "It's not her fault."

"I know." Uhura reached stiffly for her communicator. It was the only one remaining to them. "I hope the Enterprise hasn't headed into a trap. In the meantime, let's try to call the settlement."

Chapter Text

"Anything on the sensors yet, Spock?" Kirk asked, swinging around in his chair.

"Negative, Captain," said Spock patiently. Kirk had been asking the same question every fifteen minutes for the past several hours. "We are not yet in range. Nor will we be for approximately another 3.3 hours."

"As you have told me before," murmured Kirk with a grin.

"As I have told you before. Captain," Spock agreed.

Kirk turned back to the main viewscreen and frowned at it unseeingly, his mind evaluating possibilities. He couldn't decide if his restlessness was due to a desire to reach the stricken liner, or a desire to confirm that there was, in fact, a stricken liner to reach.

He glanced over to the engineering station. Lt. Aboudjian was covering it, back on bridge duty, somewhat chastened. He had partially redeemed himself with his zealous running of the battle drills - Kirk remembered those constantly sounding mock alerts with a slight shudder - but he knew that he was still on probation. His eyes were glued to his board, but when Kirk spoke his name, he swung around instantly, all but snapping to attention in his seat. "Captain! Yes, sir!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk noticed Sulu's grin. "Could you and Mr. Scott squeeze another half warp out of the Enterprise, do you think?"

"Yes, sir! Certainly, sir!" There were exclamation points on the end of everything Aboudjian said lately. Kirk had thought of telling him he was overdoing it, but had decided to let it wear off naturally. Aboudjian spoke into his intercom, and his fingers worked to adjust the fuel flow.

"Speed up to warp 8.2," reported Sulu.

"Very good, Mr. Aboudjian."

"Thank you, sir!"

Kirk started to laugh and managed to convert it into a cough. "How about the distress call?" he asked the ensign at communications - what was her name...? Lopez, that was right. She was new to the bridge; part of his assignment reshuffle. She had been doing translations in the linguistics lab ever since she had come aboard.

"Still repeating. Nothing new, and the original message is very broken up. I suspect, sir, that their communications may be damaged. They probably recorded the distress call and set it to repeat on automatic. An ion storm will frequently cause a power surge which damages communication circuits, and repair work would be difficult if most of the ship is uninhabitable. The distress channel operates on a different circuit for precisely that reason. It's very possible that they have not replied to our messages because they are unable to receive them." The words tumbled out eagerly. Lopez was, like Aboudjian, practically at attention in her seat, but she lacked his nervousness. Her eyes shone; she was obviously reveling in the responsibility.

"Excellent analysis, Ensign," Kirk told her, his eyebrows raised.

"I haven't had much chance to use my technical training before, sir, but I've tried not to get rusty."

"You obviously haven't." Score one for Uhura's advice, thought Kirk. He turned his attention elsewhere. "Spock...?"

"ETA at the liner's position is now 9.4 hours. With our increased speed, sensor contact may be established in 2.6 hours. There is nothing on the sensors at present..." He paused. "That is to say, no sign of the vessel Queen Caroline. There is a considerable ion storm on the edge of sensor range, presumably the one in which the vessel was damaged. It may interfere with our instruments even when we are within range."

"The type of storm is consistent with the damage reported in the distress call?"

"Perfectly." Something in Spock's eyes summoned Kirk to his side. "You are still uneasy concerning this situation, Jim?" the Vulcan asked quietly.

"Yes," Kirk admitted. "If I could find one good reason to turn this ship around, I'd take it. Illogical, I know. Thanks for humoring me."

"Experience gives me considerable reason to trust your instincts." Spock steepled his fingers. "If this is indeed some sort of trap, we should be prepared to re-"

"Spock!" Spock's voice had not died away; it had cut off as if someone had thrown a switch. All the color drained out of his face, and Kirk instinctively grabbed his shoulders in a protective grip. The Vulcan had not swayed in his seat, had not in fact moved a muscle, but the impression of a severe blow remained. His eyes were blank for a few seconds, intensely focussed on some internal picture. Kirk hesitated, holding him, uncertain whether he should shake Spock to bring him out of it, and risk interrupting whatever was going on in the Vulcan's brain, or leave him alone.

After an interminable minute, Spock's eyes cleared, and the rigidity left his body. Kirk released him, and Spock looked up. "Captain. I fear that something is gravely wrong on Demeter." His voice was only a fraction less steady than usual, but his face was white.

"Sickbay," ordered Kirk sharply, jerking his head toward the lift. To his surprise, Spock did not protest. "Mr. Sulu, you have the conn."

"Continue present course, sir?" Heads had turned all over the bridge.

"For now. But be prepared to change it."

"Yes, sir."

* * *

McCoy's comments on the antidote research died away as soon as he saw Spock's face. "On the table," he ordered.

Spock did not comply. "There is nothing physically wrong with me, Doctor."

"That's for me to say. Now..."

Spock ignored him. He looked steadily at Kirk. "I am certain now that your instincts were correct, Captain. There is something wrong on the planet; and the chances of that fact being unconnected to the Enterprise being called away are... too small to be worth calculating."

"Wrong on the planet?" asked McCoy incredulously. "What's wrong on the planet? And how the hell do you know?" He pulled out a mediscanner, and started to run it over Spock.

"That is unnecessary, Doctor. I am uninjured," said Spock impatiently. "As for your questions, I do not know what is wrong. How I know..." He broke off and looked across sickbay, to an empty desk visible through an open office door.

"Christine?" asked Kirk. "A telepathic impression?"

"What did she tell you? Is she all right?"

"She did not tell me anything, Doctor. Dr. Chapel is a non-telepath, and even if she did have esper powers, my own are certainly not sufficient for the exchange of direct messages over distance. We are not a substitute for sub-space radio." Spock looked away. "However, it is an established fact that strong... emotional impressions, or severe physical injuries can be felt even over great spaces if a bonding is sufficiently... well-developed."

"Chris never mentioned it."

"It is a private matter. My wife understands that."

McCoy snorted. "The Vulcan answer to every question."

"Spock," said Kirk, as gently as he could, but urgently, "just what was this message, this impression like?"

Spock straightened. His control had reasserted itself. "Dr. Chapel is certainly alive," he said calmly. "The severing of the marital bond is an entirely more traumatic experience."

Something flickered in his eyes, and Kirk put a hand lightly on his arm for a moment. "I would imagine."

"She has received some sort of injury, but that alone would not be enough to justify returning the Enterprise to Beta Psi III. She has experienced a considerable degree of fear. This too could be simply a personal reaction, not worthy of being reported to you. However, I also sensed a feeling of... horror. Of a... wrongness that was not simply personal, but general. I am sorry not to be more specific in my descriptions."

Kirk shook his head. "No. I trust what you're telling me. I can remember what happened when the Intrepid was destroyed. And I'm no telepath, but when I put together what you say with what my gut tells me..." He walked over to the intercom. "Mr. Sulu, lay in and execute a course back to Beta Psi III, best speed." He flicked the intercom off. "Spock, get me everything, and I mean every scrap, of information we have on the Queen Caroline."

"Certainly, Jim." Spock seemed relieved to have a definite task. He switched the nearest sickbay terminal to call up the main computer. "The information will take several minutes to correlate."

Kirk sat down, stood up, and began to pace. McCoy fidgeted, rearranging the instruments on a bedside tray. He leaned over Spock's shoulder, and Spock's mouth tightened in irritation. "Doctor McCoy, that does not help my concentration." He keyed a final command. "The computer should give us all relevant facts in approximately 180 seconds." He leaned back, expressionless.

McCoy went to his desk, opened a drawer as though looking for something, and shut it with a bang. "Spock, are you just going to sit there?"

"I fail to see what else I should be doing."

"Damn it! 'Injured; experiencing a considerable degree of fear.' That's your wife you were talking about so clinically."

"Your talent for pointing out the obvious is amazing. What is it that you wish me to do, Doctor? Restate what I know? Very well. In the simplest language, Christine is hurt, afraid and horrified."

"Don't you care?"

Kirk's head turned. There were still times when McCoy could misread Spock totally - generally when he was under stress himself. "Bones," he said, "I don't expect Spock to dignify that with an answer."

"Thank you, Jim." Spock met his eyes for a moment. "As for your earlier question, Doctor, if I believed it would aid Christine or the other members of the landing party, I would consider putting on some sort of emotional display. However, I do not intend to do so for your benefit. The best help I can offer my wife and her colleagues is to concentrate on my responsibilities."

McCoy opened and shut the drawer again aimlessly. He looked up. "Sorry, Spock. At this point, I feel so damned helpless."

"Understood, Leonard." Spock's gaze turned inward again for a moment. "The impressions I am receiving are now considerably muted. Dr. Chapel did not spend her time on Vulcan to no purpose. She has become capable to some extent of controlling her own emotions... when she chooses to." Kirk saw two barely readable flickers cross Spock's face; the first of amusement, the second of pain. "Like many humans," he looked pointedly at McCoy, "there are many occasions when she does not so choose."

Kirk ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we're concerned. The question is, just what do we expect, and what should we do?"

The computer signalled its readiness, and at a nod from Kirk, Spock switched on the voice synthesizer. "Passenger liner Queen Caroline," said the machine. "Registration number UFMM-78309. Home port, Terra. Tritanium hull, engines powered by standard matter-antimatter reactor, maximum cruising speed..." The voice droned on with information about construction, accommodations and history.

Kirk listened closely. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for; some confirmation for Spock's telepathy and his own instinct, he supposed. Some hint that the Queen Caroline was not what she seemed? "Owner of record, " said the computer, "Starsea Lines, Inc., headquarters on Centaurus..."

"Stop," said Kirk suddenly. The computer obediently halted its recital. "Owner of Starsea Lines?"

The computer searched its memory. "Starsea Lines is a part of the Devon Shipping Group, headquartered in Melbourne, Austra-"

"Stop." Kirk leaned forward as if the machine was a person he could coax more information from. Spock and McCoy both looked interested, but slightly puzzled. "Owner of the Devon Shipping Group?"

"Devon Shipping Group set up by Terra Transportation to handle interstellar passenger and cargo-"

"Stop."

"What are you doing, Jim?" asked McCoy.

"I'm not sure yet. Owner of Terra Transportation?"

The computer was silent for many seconds. Finally, "Terra Transportation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Barclay Communications, headquarters in London, Eng-"

"Stop." Kirk looked at Spock and McCoy.

"Do you think that means anything, Jim?" McCoy inquired.

"It is a coincidence," said Spock thoughtfully. "Another coincidence. I do not find it reassuring."

"Neither do I," Kirk agreed.

"Priority distress channel frequencies and codes are not a matter of public record. They are known to ship's crews and owners; an obvious precaution to prevent their misuse. The codes used by the Queen Caroline were legitimate." Spock lifted an eyebrow. "It might be interesting to find out more about Starsea Lines."

"My thought exactly."

According to the computer, Starsea Lines was a fairly new company, set up only six years previously. The chairman of its board of directors was John Andrew Evans. The three men looked at each other. "He could know the codes," said Kirk grimly.

"I now estimate the chances of this distress call being legitimate at under nine percent," agreed Spock.

"Sounds like this company was one of Barclay's tries at keeping his son out of trouble," McCoy observed.

"If so, it didn't work, Bones. Dealing with Evans must be like being zoo-keeper to a mugato." Kirk's jaw clenched. "Not that he's not smart. Too damn smart." He hit the intercom switch. "Ensign Lopez?"

"Yes, sir?1" Lopez answered immediately.

"Is that distress call still repeating?"

"Yes, Captain. No change."

He could hear the curiosity in her voice; the bridge crew must be buzzing. He would head back up and explain it to them in a minute. "Give me Mr. Su-"

"Sir! The transmission just stopped. Not interference; it just cut off in the middle."

"I'm not surprised, Ensign. Give me Mr. Sulu."

"Sulu here, Captain. On course for Beta Psi III at warp 8.3."

"Keep a sharp eye on the scanners."

"Yes, sir. Sir - something coming within our sensor range - emerging from the area of the ion storm. Ships, sir."

"How many?"

"Two... no, three. Coming straight after us, Captain."

"I'll be right there." Kirk turned to Spock and McCoy. "We wondered if this could be a trap, gentlemen. I'd say the trap has just been sprung."

* * *

Christine shafted Lilith's weight higher on her good shoulder. It only made the girl harder to carry if her legs slipped down to trail in the muddy water. The route they had chosen through the broad fields of phyllium was difficult; but if it was hard for them, it would be just as hard for pursuers. It was also the most direct path toward the hills, where there would be places to hide. Where, with any luck, they might find Sappho and Uhura and the others...

Demeter's glide chair had been abandoned, carefully hidden; Grace was carrying her now, and T'Nila was holding Astarte. They had been joined by other filthy, hollow-eyed survivors, who spoke in disjointed sentences of violence and death. Mothers clutched their daughters, trying desperately to keep the children from crying. The water in the fields was almost waist deep, and the waving stalks of grain rose above their heads; the phyllium would have been ready for harvest in a week or two. The humid breeze tossed the heads of the grain, and Christine hoped that the constant motion would mask the stirring caused by their passage. If anyone was looking for them; it didn't seem that anyone was.

The day was well advanced, but if they looked back toward the settlement there were clouds of smoke, and the red glare of leaping flames. The lab wasn't the only building burning. The wonder of it was that, from what she could piece together, there could have been no more than a few dozen attackers... but armed and prepared and ruthless. Perhaps that was why there was no pursuit; they couldn't spare the men from sacking the settlement. Guilt and fear stabbed through Christine simultaneously. They had run away, but what choice did they have? Only three phasers, and Grace's was dead, with no way to recharge it. And Lilith, and Astarte, and now some of the others, were in bad shape.

Lilith jerked, and gave a low, terrified moan. Her open eyes were blank and unseeing, but she struggled instinctively, trying to escape Christine's grip. A sharp pain ran through Christine's torn shoulder, and she dug her teeth into her underlip. Lilith slipped out of her grasp to thrash in the water, and Christine grabbed for a spray hypo. The best she could do for Lilith was to keep her unconscious until they found a hiding place for the night. Sedatives would stave off the nirvana withdrawal symptoms for a while. Not indefinitely.

Lilith screamed "No!" once, a short sharp sound of agony, and then relaxed. Christine picked her up again and, clenching her teeth, slogged on. No one had offered to help her. She knew that no one could; she was in better shape than most. Damp strands of hair hung in her eyes, but she couldn't spare a hand to push them back. She concentrated on putting one foot ahead of another.

Christine did not risk calling a halt until they were out of the fields. She seemed to be in charge of this battered group; certainly no one else was. When she thought they were far enough into the shelter of the woods, she raised her hand. She had no energy to speak; it took almost all her strength just to lay Lilith down gently instead of dropping her. She sank to the ground beside her, every muscle and nerve in her body aching. It would be so good just to lie down and not move. She shook her head. There was maybe an hour of daylight left. She couldn't rest yet.

She reached for her communicator, praying that this time there would be an answer, but before she could even unhook it from her belt, it signalled. She jerked in surprise, and flipped it open with trembling fingers. "Chapel here."

"Christine. Oh, thank god! Are you all right?"

"Penda." Christine suppressed the impulse to cry with relief. "Not really." In a few terse sentences, they exchanged stories. "Does Thelit have her medikit?" asked Christine.

"Yes."

"Good; we need it." Grace and T'Nila had lost theirs in the burning lab; not that she blamed them. But she was doling out medication in droplets.

"Rahab and Sappho say that there's a cave about a kilometer from our position. We're going to try to get to it before dark."

"We have a. tricorder - do you?"

"Yes. Lock onto ours and you can meet us. Can your wounded make it that far?"

"We don't have much choice." There was a distant rumble of thunder. "There's a storm coming. We need shelter."

They moved on again in virtual silence. Only an occasional moan from one of the wounded, and the harsh sound of labored breathing sounded through the natural noises of the woods. No one had disagreed with Christine and Uhura's plan; perhaps they didn't have the strength. T'Nila walked beside Christine, carrying the still unconscious Astarte with enviable ease, and also periodically checking the tricorder to keep them on course.

Christine was hardly aware of her until she unexpectedly spoke. "Dr. Chapel, I wish to apologize."

Even through her pain and weariness, Christine was conscious of surprise. Vulcans seldom apologized for anything. "For what?"

"For contacting your mind without permission. It seemed necessary at the time."

"Forget it." Christine had all but forgotten it herself; they had far worse problems.

"I required assistance, and it was the only way to bring you back to consciousness quickly," T'Nila explained. She evidently felt a need to justify her logic. "I surmised that, unlike the other humans, you were accustomed to mental contact, and therefore were more likely to respond well to it..."

"It's all right, T'Nila." A question had been nagging at her. "What I can't understand is why they didn't kill us all while we were knocked out."

T'Nila stared straight ahead. "I returned to awareness sooner than the rest of you, though not in time to prevent the attack on Lilith. I... As a healer, my telepathic abilities are considerably above the norm. I... projected a suggestion that it was unnecessary to kill us, since the fire would perform the task. The suggestion worked, but it also nearly proved true."

"I'm glad you were there to make it."

"It was most distasteful. I have never encountered such..." T'Nila swallowed. "The minds which I touched while implanting this idea were..." Her voice died away.

Christine could imagine. Or perhaps she couldn't; but the level of violence and hatred T'Nila must have felt was appalling. T'Nila's physical injuries were slight, but the mental hurt would take intensive meditation to repair. She sensed that T'Nila was asking for help; that was probably why she had opened the conversation. Lilith's weight was momentarily forgotten as she considered what response would best comfort the Vulcan woman. "You acted to preserve life. The violence wasn't in you; you tried to stop it."

"I have still been tainted by it. I felt... emotion... in response."

"You chose a logical course. And I, for one, am grateful. Bad as this is, I wouldn't rather be dead."

"As Sarel is," said T'Nila with unexpected force. "I believe these events are connected with those which led to his death."

"You're probably right." So that was part of the problem.

T'Nila was silent for several seconds as they navigated around an enormous fallen tree trunk. Then she said, "It is unworthy of me to be ruled by emotion. If I feel hatred for his killers, for the killers of the child Morgan, I am no better than they." The words seemed to be dragged from her.

"Don't be ridiculous!" Wrong, Christine thought, that's not the way to reach her. "T'Nila, to experience an emotion is not the same as being ruled by it."

"I am a Vulcan healer, Doctor. It is unworthy of my training." T'Nila quickened her pace abruptly, and left Christine looking at her rigid back. The first raindrops started to fall.

* * *

The cave was cramped, scarcely big enough for all of them, but Christine was inexpressibly glad to reach it. It had been the focus of her longings for hours. The relief dissipated when she had time to consider their position; when she took full stock of the medical situation, and saw the expression on Sappho's face. It was one of bitter, inconsolable despair.

Sappho sat between her mate and her daughter. T'Nila had sprayed a dressing on her burns, but her clothes were in rags. Astarte was still unconscious, shot full of pain relievers and antibiotics. She needed surgery, but not under these conditions. Lilith's head was pillowed in Sappho's lap, and she was tossing restlessly. There was a black fire in Sappho's eyes.

Christine finished dressing the raw purple stump which was all that remained of Thelit's arm. Thelit hadn't flinched. She was accepting the loss with a fierce stoicism. "My people are warriors," she said proudly when Christine tried to comfort her. "I know that I fought well. My enemies are worse off than I am! If my family could see me now, they would know what a woman can do!"

Christine nodded, setting up one of their precious hypos of painkiller. If anger helped Thelit to deal with this, who was she to say no? A human with a similar injury might have bled to death or gone into shock, but the Andorian circulatory system was resilient. Thelit's arm would heal cleanly. Whether a fully functional prosthesis could be attached would depend on an evaluation of the nerve damage. She used the hypo over Thelit's objections. "Believe me, it's a minimum dose. I don't have any to spare, and I need you on your feet to help me, Nurse."

As she had suspected, Thelit responded to that. "Yes, sir."

"Get Keiko to help you. Use spray dressings only on burns and the worst wounds, painkillers only for severe cases. Everyone else will just have to manage." Her own shoulder was throbbing, but she had managed to bandage it crudely with a strip torn from her shirt.

As she turned away from Thelit, Lilith screamed, a knife-sharp sound of terror. Before Christine could work her way over to the other side of the cave, the girl was struggling to her feet, shouting incoherently. Christine tried to get to her without stepping on anyone else. Lilith nearly pulled away from Sappho, but then Grace was there, pinning her arms to her side, and Christine had pushed another dose of sedative into her bloodstream. She sagged limply, and they lowered her back to the floor.

"The withdrawal symptoms are starting," said Grace, holding Lilith's trembling body.

Lilith's eyes flicked open. They were clouded, but she seemed minimally aware of her surroundings. "Cold," she whispered. "Hurts." Her face was very white.

"Hush," crooned Grace. "Hush." She looked up, and her eyes met Christine's.

"She needs a fix," said Christine grimly. "She's in no shape to go cold turkey."

Grace nodded, and Christine remembered that she had experience with addicts in the Children of the Lamb rehab centers. "Even in our centers, we phase it out over a week. We pray with them. Prayer helps."

"To hell with your prayers!" Sappho's voice was a bitter whisper. "You want to put more of that filthy stuff in her body? Haven't you outsiders done enough harm already?"

Christine was startled by the rage in Sappho's eyes, rage that blazed directly at her. But it was understandable. Sappho's world had been all but destroyed by outsiders. Friend or foe, they must at this moment seem the same to her. "Sappho, we don't have any choice. She may die if we don't. Look at her!"

Lilith was shaking again, and Grace was rocking her. Grace looked at Sappho. "Help me!" she said. "I don't care what you think of me! You're her mother. If you won't pray, then hold her, talk to her, even if she doesn't understand you. Your anger won't do her any good!"

The fire died out of Sappho's eyes, and she sat again, helping Grace to hold Lilith as she shuddered and shuddered. "My baby," she whispered.

"Thelit," called Christine urgently. Please let her have it, she thought. If she forgot, or lost it... Thelit had been told to get a sample of refined nirvana from a previously untapped canister so that McCoy could compare it with samples from the others.

The Andorian picked her way over, and Christine saw with relief that her collecting bag was still attached to her belt. Thelit fumbled with it, one handed, and a flash of misery crossed her face. "I can't..."

Christine pulled the bag open, and found the small container. She had only one hypo with distilled water. God knows what she would do tomorrow. The powder in the container mixed with the water... how much? She didn't know the dosage. Very, very little. Just enough to hold the symptoms at bay, to keep Lilith from convulsions and brain damage...

With a feeling of disgust, knowing that Sappho's eyes were fixed on her, Christine pressed the hypo gently against Lilith's arm. She frowned at the ugly bruises left by the initial, injections. For a moment, nothing happened. Then Lilith gave a small sigh, and a low moan of pleasure. Her eyes closed, and a blissful smile spread across her face.

Sappho looked away from her, tears falling silently down her cheeks. Christine felt sick.

"She'll be like this for an hour or so," said Grace quietly. "Then she'll sleep."

"You'll stay with her?"

Grace nodded, and Christine turned away from the scene, overwhelmingly tired. She looked around the cave. It was almost dark, lit only by a few emergency torches, but there was now a kind of order to the crowded scene. The wounded had all received some minimal attention, and many were asleep from sheer exhaustion. Through the gloom, she spied Uhura standing at the mouth of the cave, looking out.

Christine joined her. The rain which had begun during their journey here was now falling steadily. "We may not have food, but at least we have water," Uhura pointed out after a minute.

"It would help if we could make a fire."

"Too risky."

"Anyway, we'd smother. This cave has no chimney, and the entrance is too wet."

"At least it's crowded. Body heat will help."

Christine became aware that she was soaked through. First the water in the fields, and then the rain... Her clothes stuck to her unpleasantly, and she had lost most of her hairpins. Her hair hung down in a tangle. Why was she standing up? The floor was wet and muddy, but no wetter and muddier than she was. They should dig a drainage channel to send the water away from the entrance. Tomorrow. She sat, leaning her back against the wall, and Uhura followed suit with a resigned shrug.

Uhura pulled out her communicator. "Enterprise, this is Commander Uhura. Are you there, Enterprise?" Nothing. They sat in an exhausted silence.

Christine realized that others were slowly joining them. Those who weren't asleep or too badly hurt, drawn by a need for companionship, for help in facing what was too terrible to be faced alone. Thelit, her face a grayish lavender, her mutilated arm supported by a sling. Keiko, with her arm around Rahab, whose face was swollen with grief - she had been one of Morgan's mothers. Other colony women,

whose names Christine didn't remember. T'Nila, armored again behind Vulcan reserve after her unexpected outburst. And finally even Sappho, supporting Demeter, unbelievably fragile, on her arm.

No one spoke for a while, until Demeter's gaze fell on the communicator still in Uhura's hand. "So where are they?" she asked. "These fine brave men of yours, who were going to protect us?" There was an ugly bruise on her cheekbone, and one of her eyes was blackened. "I should have known better than to trust..."

"Oh, shut up," said Uhura, her voice abrupt with strain. "You know they were called away. This is no more their fault than yours."

"Are you saying that men didn't do this?" Demeter touched her eye. "Or that?" She gestured to Thelit's arm.

"Other men."

"We should never have let you come here."

"We came to help. At your request."

"How do you know that your 'help' didn't bring this down on us?" asked Sappho acidly.

"And what would you have done if we hadn't come? The radiation would still have been there. Your supplies would still have been cut off." The reasonableness in Uhura's voice was wearing thin.

"What right do you have to blame us!" Thelit jumped into the discussion with characteristic passion. "I fought for you, and not so you could insult us."

"Most irrational," agreed T'Nila.

"We're easy targets, aren't we?" Christine asked. "We're here, and if you have to blame someone..."

"Yes," said Demeter, "We do," and silence fell again. The rain poured down, and Christine shivered.

"But where is your ship?" Sappho asked several minutes later. The hostility was gone from her tone, but the tiredness was deeper.

"Answering a distress call which is probably fake," Uhura replied, equally wearily. "Heading into a trap? Who knows? They'll be back... when they can be. If they can..."

"How do you know you can trust them?"

"For all we've said, you still don't understand? We can trust them."

"They're coming." Christine had leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. "They know. They're coming."

"What?"

Christine opened her eyes. She owed it to them to explain. "I have a low-level telepathic link with my husband," she said in a flat, neutral tone. "He's sensed that something's wrong."

"Just like that?" Sappho sounded incredulous. "Wishful thinking."

"No." Christine looked at her fellow members of the landing party. Why hadn't she thought to tell them before? "The Enterprise is... well I don't know if she's safe, but she's out there. If she'd been destroyed..." A wave of panic ran through her. "I'd know," she finished, steadying her voice.

"Impossible." Sappho's voice was brittle, but Christine saw a faint relaxation in Uhura, Thelit, and Keiko. They might not believe her totally, but they desperately wanted to.

"You've never had any telepaths in the colony, have you?"

"No. Are you?" Sappho asked suspiciously.

"Not at all. The link might be stronger if I were, but..."

"Have you told him what's wrong?"

"It doesn't work that way. It's not on a verbal level, not over distance." Spock would be discomfited by this conversation, but she wanted them to believe her. "It's an awareness. He established it when..."

"Then he has you brainwashed..."

"For god's sake!" Christine's voice cracked. She might have known they'd take it that way. "I was trying to offer you some hope! If you don't want it, fine, but if I were you I'd be praying that I was right!"

"She is perfectly correct," said T'Nila calmly. "A well known phenomenon among bonded adults. Under the circumstances, extremely useful."

"Maybe," said Demeter. "But to me it just sounds like another way to keep control of a woman."

There was a small silence. "That is undeniably a part of its function," said T'Nila with quiet precision and typically Vulcan honesty. "But it is necessary for reasons which I cannot discuss."

"Do you put up with this too?"

"I am a telepathic healer, but I have never experienced a completed marital bond."

"You're lucky then."

"I would not have said so," replied T'Nila very softly. Her eyes met Christine's for a moment, and Christine gave her the tiniest of nods.

Demeter shifted painfully to look back at Christine, her face skull-like in the semi-darkness. "You can't expect me to think that this is a good thing, though if it brings us help..."

"Who said I wanted your approval!" Christine suddenly knew that she was on the edge of hysteria. "And I'm sick of being careful of what I say! You don't understand the first damn thing about my marriage, and I don't have to justify it to you! I want my husband!"

She had been strongly suppressing that need all day, ever since the initial attack on the lab. Now it poured over her in a wave. Please, Spock, please. I need you. Please come. She was hurt and frightened and totally uninterested in being brave and competent. All she wanted in the whole galaxy was to feel his arms around her and his mind soothing hers, keeping her safe. Her eyes were tightly closed, but the tears started to seep out from under the lids. I want my husband. She clung desperately to the awareness of him deep in her consciousness.

"Chris." Uhura was holding her shoulders. "It's all right, Chris."

Christine forced her eyes open, ashamed. "I'm sorry."

"Dr. Chapel," said T'Nila warningly, "Commander Spock's duties..."

"I know." Acting like a baby. She took a deep breath. At least Sappho and Demeter had shut up. Spock, please... She stood quickly. "I'll go outside to meditate."

"But it's pouring," said Uhura.

"It's warm, and I'm wet already." She blinked, and looked at T'Nila. "You're right." She sighed, and explained to Uhura, "It's no good... Spock already knows I... we... need help. It's no good having me screaming telepathic fear at him." Her voice wavered. "I can't distract him, I've known that all day. He has a right to expect better of me."

"If you require assistance to concentrate, I can..."

"I'm not that incompetent, T'Nila!" That's right, she thought, yell at her, and prove that you are. "I'm sorry. I can manage." She looked around. "Call me if you need me."

Chapter Text

The sky was beginning to gray with intimations of dawn by the time Christine reentered the cave. The rain had ended, and her clothes, though stiff with dirt, were almost dry. She was calm. She had succeeded in taming her emotions, knowing that they were no service to her patients, her bondmate or herself. There would be a time to surrender, a time to cry her head off, but not yet. She had carefully put thoughts of Spock and the Enterprise out of her mind. Her job was here and now, as tangible as the smell of mud and burned flesh that came to meet her.

She worked her way from the front to the back of the cave, checking the wounded, conferring quietly with Thelit and T'Nila. They had both gotten a few hours of sleep, and Thelit's color was better. Christine took a moment to admire her stubborn courage. She was doggedly tending her patients, even with one hand. That hand was needed; what they could do here was more nursing than doctoring in any case. Looking back to her own years as a nurse, Christine knew how important that could be.

They had splinted several broken bones the night before, and the splints seemed to be holding well. In the back of her mind, Christine blessed old Aga of the Domii, dead many years now, for having taught her so much about healing under primitive conditions. Those bones would knit straight even if they had no more attention. The burns worried her more. She was running out of dressings and painkillers. Dehydration, shock, and massive infection were around the corner if the Enterprise didn't hurry.

She propped up a young woman with a burned face to let her use the pouch that was their makeshift bedpan. She didn't even know the woman's name, but her skin had blistered and begun to peel grotesquely. Her eyes were all but swollen shut. Christine gave her another dose of anesthetic, a sip of water, and the most encouraging smile she could manage. As she groped her way back outside to empty the pouch, she sighed. Simply keeping everyone clean and comfortable would be close to impossible, and when their condition started to deteriorate... She realized why she hadn't bothered to ask that burned woman her name. Her own control was fragile; she needed some scrap of emotional distance or the responsibility would batter it down.

Keiko and Uhura were helping the ambulatory patients to move outside. There were wild fruits and some edible plants in the area; Christine suggested gathering what they could. It wouldn't be much, but better than nothing. When she went back into the cave, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust enough to find the people she was looking for. Sappho was in the back of the cave again with Astarte and Lilith. She looked up sharply as Christine bent over her, a look that was almost a plea. "I told you," said Christine, as gently as she could, "they're coming."

"When?"

"When they can." Astarte's skin was cold and clammy, and her breathing wasn't good. Christine palpitated her abdomen, feeling the rigidity and distension. She summoned T'Nila with a nod of her head.

"A rupture of the intestinal tract," said T'Nila, frowning.

"Peritonitis. She needs surgery, and massive doses of antibiotics."

"We do not have the supplies or facilities."

"No." Christine looked at Sappho.

"She's going to die?" asked Sappho in a flat, far-away voice.

"Not if the Enterprise gets here in time."

"And if it doesn't?"

Christine had no answer for her, and T'Nila veiled her eyes for a moment in compassion. "I regret there is not more that we can do," she said quietly.

Christine crawled a few meters to her left. Grace was there, leaning back against the wall, holding Lilith. Christine thought at first that she was asleep, but then her eyes opened, and she shifted stiffly to sit. upright, laying Lilith on the floor. T'Nila joined them, and the three of them looked down at the girl.

Lilith's eyes were open, but she didn't seem to be seeing them. She was smiling, a blank empty smile, and her body stirred faintly. She sighed, and her smile widened. There was something obscene about the euphoria in her face. The artificial ecstasy was unlike any expression Christine had seen on her before, and it had cut her off totally from the world around her.

"When did she have her last injection?"

Grace shook her head tiredly. "I'm not sure. I don't have a chronometer. Almost an hour ago."

"Then she'll be coming out of it soon?"

"Yes. But that's almost as bad."

"Why?"

"Look."

Lilith's face had changed; the mindless pleasure receding. A shiver of distress ran through her, and she mumbled something. "I thought she slept after the first high?" said Christine.

"She did, but she's been having longer periods of lucidity. If you can call it..."

Lilith whimpered, and then screamed. "No! No, don't. Please. I won't let you..."

Grace grabbed her, and Sappho closed in from the other side. "He's gone, Lilith. It's all right."

"No! Mother?" A foggy awareness returned to Lilith's gaze. "He hurt me. He hurt Astarte. He was so ugly. Is that what they're like? He wanted to hurt me... He laughed. They all laughed."

"Shh, love. Don't think about it." Sappho's voice was gentle, but her eyes were full of hate.

Lilith sobbed brokenly. "He said he could make me do anything he wanted. He said... nirvana. He said..." Her face shifted again. "I want it."

"Not yet," said Grace.

"I'm cold. He said I would want it... want him... beg. He hurt me, and I begged him not to, and he said I'd beg for more than that..." Her eyes were unfocused again. "Give it to me!"

"No, love. Shh." Sappho tried to rock her, but Lilith pulled away.

"No! I hate you! I hate you! You're hurting me!" Her eyes were staring. It was impossible to tell whether she was talking to Sappho or Evans. She retched, and clawed at Grace. "Give it to me. Now!"

"No, Lilith. We love you. God loves you. Remember that, and you'll feel better."

"I hate you!"

Christine reached for her spray hypo as Lilith shoved Grace backward. There were only two doses of sedative left, but this couldn't go on. Before she could bring the hypo up, she had another thought. "T'Nila! Can you...?"

T'Nila's fingers reached out, and Lilith slumped limply down on Grace. Sappho lifted her quickly. "A simple nerve pinch," explained T'Nila. "She will only be unconscious for a short while."

"She's getting worse," said Sappho in anguish, and Christine looked at Grace.

Grace nodded. "She's sleeping less, and her 'lucid' periods are less lucid."

"The trauma... The more she remembers, the less she wants to remember. She's retreating."

"I am not expert in human mental illness, but I believe that her behavior borders on psychosis."

Christine was silent, thinking, weighing consequences. She looked at T'Nila. T'Nila's face was controlled, but not calm. Christine knew the difference and was sorry. "Unless she gets some relief she may go too far to be pulled back," she said slowly, her eyes still on the Vulcan healer. "T'Nila?" The silence stretched out.

"We don't have the supplies to keep her sedated," said Grace unhappily.

Finally T'Nila's eyes met Christine's. "I could eliminate the worst of the memories," she said expressionlessly. "Perhaps I could even damp the craving for the drug."

"Will you? I wouldn't ask, but I don't see any other way to stabilize her."

"If I may have a moment."

"Of course."

T'Nila withdrew briefly inside herself. "It's not brainwashing," said Christine to Sappho.

"Anything to stop what's happening." Sappho turned her head to look back at Astarte. "I won't lose both of them to... those... animals."

"You won't lose either of them." But Christine knew that her confidence rang hollow.

"I am ready," said T'Nila.

It was not a dramatic meld. T'Nila did not speak, and her expression barely wavered, but it seemed to Christine that all the blood slowly drained from her face, leaving it more masklike than before. Lilith stirred several times, and once she began to thrash, but Christine and Grace pinned her arms and legs. Then, as T'Nila grew paler, Lilith relaxed. She gave a sigh, and T'Nila slowly withdrew her hands from the girl's temples.

Christine pulled out her scanner. "She's asleep. Normal sleep."

"Thank God," said Grace. "Thank T'Nila too."

T'Nila began to stand up. She lurched sideways with a startled look, and put a hand out. Christine caught her and steadied her, and T'Nila accepted the support for a few seconds before saying, "I am well. I do not require further assistance." It was obviously untrue.

"Was it bad?"

For a minute, she was sure T'Nila wouldn't answer. "It was... disturbing." Her voice was barely above a whisper".

"Come outside for a minute."

It was still early in the morning, but the sun was filtering down into the forest in some places. Christine steered T'Nila over to a sunny rock near the cave entrance. "You've never melded that deeply with a human before, have you?"

"No. The memories were... It is not surprising that the child felt the need to retreat from them. In order to erase their more horrific aspects, it was necessary for me to assimilate..."

"Worse than making the suggestion about the fire?"

"Yes. Is it..." She stopped.

"What, T'Nila?" asked Christine when she didn't go on.

"Sarel..." She stopped again. "I have no experience with this. There is no rape on Vulcan," she said. A statement, and lurking behind it a question.

Christine understood. "It's nothing like that, T'Nila. Nothing."

"But if the female has no choice..."

"T'Nila, listen to me. Can you imagine, ever, Sarel wanting to hurt you the way Lilith was hurt?"

"No Vulcan would..."

"Precisely. And I don't like generalizations. But the need to mate and the need to hurt aren't the same at all. Rape is violence, cruelty. It isn't sex, and it has nothing to do with what goes on between bondmates, even during the fever." She willed T'Nila to believe her. Even if her words weren't quite the whole truth, they were most of the truth. Now was not the time to explore ambiguities.

T'Nila gave a small sigh. "In any case, the question is irrelevant. I no longer have a bondmate."

"Which makes this all the worse?"

T'Nila looked startled, and ashamed. Her mask was slipping. "If Sarel had not summoned me, I would still be on Outpost Four."

"Still... uncontaminated?"

"The series of events to which I have been subjected is not logical. I find that difficult to deal with."

"I'm sorry, T'Nila. Life with humans isn't logical. If Sarel had lived, he could have explained it to you."

"I find myself... angered." Her voice dropped in shame on the word. "Angered that he summoned me, though I understood my duty. Angered that he... died. Angered with those responsible for his death. Angered that such cruelty and waste exists. That..."

"T'Nila, I'm a human. To me, your reactions seem normal. My advice may not be worth a damn."

"You are bonded to a Vulcan. You know our ways."

"You joined Starfleet, but you've served mainly with other Vulcans. Your control hasn't been tested this way before. Whatever you may think, you've been doing very well. Where would Lilith be without you?"

"I had not expected to find such anger within myself."

"No one ever does. That goes for humans as well. Don't hate yourself for it."

* * *

T'Nila remained seated on the rock after Christine had returned to the cave. The human's words had been distantly comforting, but she knew that true calm must come from within. She must cleanse her mind. She was not sorry that she had melded with Lilith; to do less would have been a betrayal of her healer's training. But it had been a shock to touch that much uncontrolled pain and terror; far more draining than a healing meld with another Vulcan.

Never spoken, but often implied in her training, had been the assumption that the emotionalism of humans made them not only different, but inferior. It was disturbing to have found such strong feelings echoing in herself. They had not yielded to simple controls, as her emotional impulses had in the past. Had her discipline been only a veneer, ready to crack under stress? Dr. Chapel had, very gently, indicated something of the sort, but she seemed to find it natural. "Don't hate yourself for it," she had said. T'Nila would never before have considered herself capable of hatred, of herself or anyone else. Now, she was not sure.

She felt alien and alone in this moist, lush landscape. It would be good to have another Vulcan to speak with... but no. She would not want to reveal her weakness and turmoil to any of her people. It was bad enough that she had allowed Dr. Chapel to glimpse it.

T'Nila realized with sudden, surprising clarity that it was Sarel she wanted. She had not known him well, but she wanted the idea of him. One could share with a bondmate things which were unacceptable in other contexts. She remembered the utter trust with which Dr. Chapel had stated that the Enterprise was returning. If a strong bond could exist when one of the partners was an unavoidably emotional human, then some outlet for emotion must exist even in a Vulcan bonding. Perhaps, considering that, it was not so incomprehensible that she was angry both with Sarel for dying and with those who had killed him. They had deprived her of something which she was just realizing that she needed.

She closed her eyes, seeing the sun shine through her lids in a green haze. She must concentrate; these were whirling, unfocused thoughts. But as she sank to a deeper level of meditation, she heard voices.

"Sappho, if I thought it could work, I'd be heading back there now myself. But it would be a suicide mission."

"Do you think I care?"

"For Lilith and Astarte's sake, you should care."

"For their sake I want to fight back."

"I'd do it if I could," said another voice. "Gladly. My life isn't worth so much any more..." The speaker coughed raspingly. "...to me or anyone else."

"That's not true, Mother. But anything's better than sitting here waiting for them to find us! I know how to prime the explosives..."

"You wouldn't get within fifty meters. When the Enterprise..."

"Screw the Enterprise!"

T'Nila opened her eyes in resignation. She was to get no respite from humans even in meditation. Sappho and Uhura stood facing each other a few meters away from her. Demeter was leaning on Sappho's arm. "So the Enterprise comes," said Sappho passionately. "That's fine for you! My home is still destroyed. I want to fight back, now, while I can."

"Even if you can't stay here - and we don't know that -there are other planets..."

"And you think your precious Federation would give us one! "

"We won't be driven out." Demeter straightened as much as she could. "We won't."

"We want to help you stay. It's one of the reasons we came, and that alone should tell you something about the Federation."

"It tells us that we have something they want!"

"I'm not denying that. But trying to get back inside that dome now is crazy. We need reinforcements."

"What if the ship doesn't come?"

"Then we'll think again. Sappho, I know how bad this is for you..."

"Do you? Do you really?" asked Demeter scornfully.

Uhura dropped the hand she had put on Sappho's arm. "No," she said quietly, "I guess I don't. But I don't want you to throw your life away."

"We thought this would be paradise. No violence, no war. But it's come to us." Sappho stared blindly into the trees. "For what they did to Lilith... to Astarte... I want revenge. Not someday, from someone else. Now, from me."

T'Nila rose abruptly, and they noticed her for the first time. "I suppose you think that revenge is illogical," said Sappho bitterly.

"It is."

"It's not the noblest of impulses. It's one reason we have laws..." said Uhura.

"And how have your laws protected us? If you had lost what I've lost..."

Uhura shook her head, her eyes pained. "It's my responsibility to look at the whole picture. That's what command is about. But in your place, I'd probably feel very, different. I know that."

"Indeed," said T'Nila unwillingly, and they looked at her in surprise. That was what had brought her to her feet. Revenge was illogical, but she understood why Sappho wanted it. She wanted it too. For Sarel, she thought. But she was not human. "Revenge is illogical," she repeated, her voice cool and steady. "Violence begets more violence, to the detriment of all."

"But you understand why...?" Demeter looked at her sharply.

T'Nila met the dark old eyes with her own. "Yes," she admitted. "I do." There was a kind of peace in honesty, too.

* * *

Vorn heard John Evans's triumphant laughter before he saw the human. He grunted and clambered out of the storage vat, dusting his fur. It was about time. This trip was barely worth what it was costing, and the reckless edge to Evans's mirth grated on his ears. The bones of his fathers protect him from dilettantes and amateurs.

Evans's face was streaked with black, and there were scratches showing red down one cheek. The white of his teeth flashed against the dirt. "Vorn!" He held out his arms, and Vorn glared at him. "My dear partner. I can only hope that you've had half the time I've had!"

"Where have you been, damn you? You were supposed to be back last night."

"Ah, but I did ensure that you weren't interrupted."

"We saw the smoke. What have you been doing? There's work to be done here."

"Are you really sure you want to know the details?" Evans laughed again. "Let's just say that I haven't had such fun since ray wife left me."

"A smart woman. Now that you've settled your score with the female sex, maybe we can get out of here."

Evans glanced around. "Dear me, it is quite a mess, isn't it?"

"They'd been taking it apart and planting explosives. We've been working while you've been enjoying yourself."

Evans's eyes were suddenly shrewd. "I told you my pleasures have a purpose. There's not much left of that colony now. I've made sure that we can do as we like on this planet." He smiled. "I believe in combining work and play whenever I can."

"If you and your pack of scum had been here to help, we'd have been loaded by now. There's enough refined nirvana left to pay for this trip, but barely."

"Oh, but I'm not through yet. There are a few too many survivors lurking about for me to be entirely happy, and I do so like to be happy."

"Fought better than you expected, didn't they?" Vorn cleared his throat and spat, a sign of grudging respect. "We lost six before we drove them off."

Evans pulled out his handkerchief, an archaic affectation, and dusted the edge of a piece of machinery. He sat down, eyes gleaming. "Shooting has always been one of my favorite sports," he said thoughtfully, "and the cleverer the quarry, the greater the pleasure of the kill. Pity we don't have dogs and beaters..."

"Have what? These aren't the moors of England, Evans. Your luck's held so far, but I say we load up and get out of here."

"Still worrying about the Enterprise?"

"Once we're loaded, you may have time for your hunting expedition..."

"Shooting, old chap. Hunting requires horses, which are unfortunately in short supply. If you had a gentleman's education you would understand the difference."

Vorn ignored him. "... but not before. The force field's down, and we need guards." He looked out at the wall of trees surrounding the clearing. "My belly crawls when I look at those damned trees. Who knows what might be hiding in them?"

"All the more reason for my little expedition."

"Watch out for trouble, but why go looking for it?"

"It adds spice to life. But then, you wouldn't understand that. You really do fascinate me. An accountant masquerading as a gangster, with the face of a bad-tempered hog."

"You can stop the insults, Evans. They don't work any more."

Evans sighed. "What a pity. I'll help you load - or rather my men will. I have no taste for it myself; I'll be taking a bath. But don't forget..." He smiled and reached in his pocket, his other hand hovering casually near his phaser. He brought out a handful of computer chips. "As long as I have these, the ship goes nowhere until I say it does."

Chapter Text

"Entering the Beta Psi system," reported Sulu. A bright yellow sun gleamed in the corner of the viewscreen. "Fifty-six minutes to standard orbit around Demeter."

"Anything on subspace, Ensign Lopez?" asked Kirk. "The radiation shouldn't be interfering any more."

"Nothing sir."

"What about our escort? Spock?"

"Still pursuing. They have fallen slightly behind, but their speed is far greater than their configuration would indicate. If they continue present speed and course, they will reach the planet no more than a half hour behind us."

"Hm. If we're lucky, we'll just have time to grab our people and get out of there." Kirk's fingers beat a tattoo on the arm of his chair. "Put a tactical display of the system and the enemy vessels on the main screen." The schematic flashed up, and he stared at it, frowning.

Spock straightened and looked at him very steadily. Kirk became aware of the scrutiny, and cocked his head in inquiry. "Captain," said Spock evenly, "I would be derelict in my duty if I did not point out the tactical disadvantages of our present course."

"You have a recommendation?"

"If we are to fight, which seems unavoidable, it would be preferable to turn now, and engage our attackers in open space. Our superior speed can be used to best advantage there. If the battle is joined within the system, we cannot use warp power, and their numbers will allow them to box us in." His expression had the rigidity of taut control.

"A very logical analysis, Mr. Spock. But there are other factors."

Spock glanced away for a moment. "I am aware of them. Obviously. But it is my responsibility to point out that returning to Demeter could place the ship in increased jeopardy."

"Viewscreen ahead again," Kirk ordered. "Continue present course." He stepped up to lean against the edge of the science station. "Spock, as you can see, I'm not taking your recommendation."

A flicker of relief crossed Spock's face. "It was not precisely a recommendation, Captain. It was the presentation of an alternative."

"Noted, Spock. Thanks. But in this case, I think that our first responsibility is to our people on Demeter. And after that... the Enterprise can still show them a trick or two. "

"Jim... If I were to allow my personal wishes to influence my advice to you, I would be unfit for my post."

"Have you..." Kirk wasn't quite sure how to phrase the question. "Felt anything...?"

"Nothing new." Spock thought briefly of the surge of panicky longing he had sensed. It had been quickly muted. "My wife's control is well established."

"We'll know in another fifty minutes."

"48.4 minutes, Captain."

* * *

Christine held the water bottle to Lilith's mouth and the girl swallowed obediently. There was no awareness in her eyes. She was no longer terrified, but her craving for the drug continued, and she existed in a kind of blank docility, distressingly different from her normal sharp intelligence. Grace had assumed primary responsibility for her care, trying to hold her to some link with the outside world.

Astarte was clearly dying. Christine looked down at her, then felt her pulse and pulled back an eyelid. She had slipped into a coma. At least she was no longer in pain. Christine turned, and went down the cave with the water bottle. The unconscious patients were the luckiest now. Their supply of anesthetics and sedatives was exhausted. Water and tenderness were all they had left to offer.

She passed Uhura in the entrance, coming back from another round of bedpan duty. The cave was beginning to stink of sweat and urine and vomit. They didn't bother to speak - what was there to say? - but Christine reached out to give her friend's arm a squeeze.

The communicator on Uhura's belt signalled.

Both women jumped at the familiar sound. They had been expecting it, waiting for it, but it was still a shock. Uhura tossed aside the bag she was carrying. "Uhura here. Enterprise?"

"Uhura." The relief in the well-known voice was obvious. "Kirk here. Status, Commander?"

"The settlement has been destroyed, sir. We're in the woods with a large group of survivors, many badly wounded."

"Prepare to beam up immediately. We've got some unfriendly guests on our tail."

"Yes, sir!" Uhura managed her first smile for a long time. She turned to survey the others. "All right, everyone. Time to go!"

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. The most serious cases were beamed up first, the children and the more lightly wounded next. A few tried to protest, but, surprisingly, Demeter overruled them. "Go!" she said, and they gave way before her authority.

Christine hoped that it wasn't already too late for some of the burn victims. Astarte vanished with the first group, and Sappho stared after her with burning eyes. "They'll do their best for her," Christine said. "You'll see."

"Maybe."

"You can trust them."

"Maybe."

Finally only Lilith, the landing party, and a handful of colonists including Sappho and Demeter remained. "You next," said Uhura, gesturing to them.

Sappho and Demeter looked at each other. "No," said Sappho.

"What do you mean, 'no'?"

"We're not leaving."

"You can't be serious!"

"What's holding you up down there?" said the voice of the transporter tech. "We haven't got all day, ladies."

"Just a minute." Uhura gazed at them in anger.

"We're not under your orders," Sappho reminded her. "We don't need medical help, and we have our reasons for staying." She, Demeter and the other colony women stepped away from the landing party.

"I made a vow," said Demeter. "When I left Earth to come here..." She looked around. "I promised myself and my sisters that I would never see or speak to any man again. I keep my promises."

"But..."

"Oh, I've compromised." She smiled mirthlessly. "For the sake of our future here I've been forced to compromise. I'm not so stubborn as all that..."

"The hell you're not!"

"But what I'll advise my friends, my sisters, my daughters to do is one thing. For myself... I'm not leaving. This is my home, my dream." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "What more can they do to me, anyway?"

"Sappho!" Uhura appealed. "Can't you see..."

Sappho was shaking her head. "My home too. I would go with you if there was anything I could do..." She blinked back tears. "For Astarte. But there isn't. I can't leave Demeter." Her arm tightened around the old woman's waist. "Demeter the woman or Demeter the world."

Lilith, held by Grace, began to laugh softly. The murmuring chuckle went on and on, inspired by some drug-induced vision. "Shh," said Grace. "Shh." But Lilith's eerie laughter continued.

Sappho shifted Demeter onto another woman's arm, and went swiftly to her daughter. "Lilith! Lilith, listen to me. Look at me. I'm here." She gripped Lilith's head, staring into her eyes.

The sound stopped, and Lilith's eyes gradually cleared. They focussed. "Sappho?" she said weakly. "Mother?" Her eyes closed again.

Christine held out her scanner and nodded. "She's asleep."

"At least let us get her up to sickbay!" urged Uhura. "We don't have the time to stand here arguing."

Sappho stroked Lilith's dirty cheek. "She needs me more than she needs anything they could do there. She needs her home."

"They have an antidote to ease her through withdrawal," Christine reminded Sappho.

"Have them beam it down. We're not leaving." She looked straight at Christine. "Demeter needs me, and Lilith needs me too, you know that. I can't help Astarte, but there's nothing men can do for Lilith that I can't do better."

Christine looked at T'Nila and Grace, and saw the unwilling agreement in their eyes. "You have a point," she said to Sappho. "Damn you," she added softly.

A short silence fell, full of baffled frustration. Then Kirk's voice crackled through the clearing. "Uhura? What's the problem down there? We have ten minutes, Commander."

"Demeter and Sappho refuse to beam up, sir."

"They...? Of all the..."

"I'm inclined to agree, Captain, but they have their reasons." Uhura moved a short distance away and lowered her voice. "I don't think I can convince them. Why don't you do a wide scan beam up, and argue about it later?"

"Damn them."

"Just what Dr. Chapel said."

"Mm." Uhura could visualize Kirk's gesture, fingers pinching his lower lip as he considered the alternatives. He sighed. "I can't take your suggestion, Uhura, much as I'd like to. I was ordered to handle this with kid gloves, and that means letting them make their own mistakes. Stand by to beam up with the rest of the landing party. We've got to get the hell out of here."

"Aye sir." Uhura turned back to her companions and gestured. "Enterprise party to beam up."

Christine took a deep breath. It didn't help the hollowness in her stomach. "I can't go either, Penda."

"You?"

"Or me." To Christine's surprise, Grace was still holding Lilith, standing now next to Sappho and Demeter.

"I too must remain."

"T'Nila? Are you crazy?"

"I am quite sane."

"They need medical help..." Christine turned to glare at Sappho and Demeter. "And don't tell me you don't. Lilith especially. If you won't go, we can't leave you."

Thelit took an uncertain breath. "Doctor...?"

Christine shook her head. "No. You've been wonderful, but you need care too. Go. We'll manage. You too, Keiko."

Uhura's face was grim as she signalled the Enterprise again. "Three to beam up."

* * *

Kirk stared at the comm unit, and mentally said the dozen filthiest words he knew. It didn't help much. Even if he had said them aloud it wouldn't have helped much. He swung around in his chair. "Spock, range to those vessels?"

"They are approaching the fourth planet of the system. We should break orbit in 6.7 minutes in order to meet them. Captain..."

"Just a minute, Spock." He turned his head and snapped, "Lopez, give me Dr. Chapel."

On the surface, Christine looked at the communicator with bleak amusement. Kirk's 'give me Dr. Chapel' had an unspoken 'because I want to keelhaul her' on the end of it. But it really wasn't funny. Not at all. "Captain?" she said. Before he could answer, she continued, "We need a supply of the antidote, three emergency medikits, and survival rations if there's time. If not, we can..."

"Doctor," Kirk cut her off forcefully, "you are a member of my crew. The colonists are not under my command, but I'm reminding you that you and your colleagues are. You have duties here."

"We have duties here too."

"Doctor, I don't have time to argue with you!" The full force of his anger had never been directed against her before. "I'm ordering you to get your ass on board this ship right now!"

Christine stared at the communicator. Jim wasn't usually crude on the bridge - or in front of female crew. His chivalry was quaint, but it had been a protection, too. So she hadn't wanted to be protected. She was a big girl; she could act like one. "Captain. Medical obligations require that I stay. Please..." To her horror, her voice started to break. "Jim. Please don't give me an order I can't follow."

Kirk forced his jaw to unclench, and became aware of Spock standing by his side. "5.3 minutes." Spock's eyes were on the comm unit. "Jim. If I may?"

"Be my guest. We can't separate them from the colonists for transport. They're standing bunched together."

"My wife is stubborn and foolish, but she is not stupid," said Spock grimly. Kirk wondered what he would say, but when he spoke it was a terse phrase in Vulcan.

Christine flinched when she heard his voice. It was cold as frozen methane. "My wife. Your behavior is inappropriate."

"On the contrary."

"Remember your duty."

"I am."

"You will return to the ship."

"No."

"You are a Starfleet officer. You are also my wife. In both capacities..."

"I am also a doctor. I cannot leave my friends here."

"Thee is being emotional."

The change to the intimate form hurt. Christine went on the offensive. It was the only way she could bear this conversation. "Thee is being emotional, and that is unacceptable." She spoke past the ache in her throat. "I do not wish to anger thee, my husband, but I do not accept thy authority in this. Examine thy reasoning. It is not logical."

A long pause. Christine could hear her heart beating heavily. "There is danger on the planet," said Spock.

As if she didn't know that. "And as much danger on the ship. I cannot keep thee always safe. Allow me to take the risks I must." She switched back to English. Vulcan was too highminded, and there was something she had to say, just in case. "There's no more time. We need the antidote, medikits and survival packs. Spock... I'm sorry." And very softly, too softly for human ears, she added, "I love you."

* * *

"Did you get any of that?" Evans asked impatiently.

"Enough." Vorn switched off the decoder. "This piece of junk doesn't do much, but they were only using a simple scrambler. Those hand communicators can't do any better."

"Well?" Evans paced restlessly around the circumference of the grounded freighter's bridge. "What brought them back? How did they know the distress call was a fake?"

"Don't ask me! I only tuned in on half of what they said, and they weren't gabbing for my benefit. The point is that they did. I told you - they're smart."

"Not smart enough, I hope. Did you catch their plans?"

"What do you think I am, a mind reader? Or did you expect Kirk to lay out his battle drill just for your benefit?" He relented. "It's good enough news. The Enterprise came back to pick up their landing party and the colonists. Our ships are right on their tail."

Evans began to smile. "Sentimental idiots."

Vorn grunted in agreement. "Some of them wouldn't go."

"How ungrateful of the silly bitches. And how delightful. I may get my shooting expedition after all. As for the Enterprise..."

Vorn stumped to the hatch and looked out. "Keep loading you lazy slobs," he bellowed. He was careful not to turn his back on Evans. The fur on his spine still bristled when he couldn't see what the human was doing. He turned back. "The Enterprise? She's outnumbered, but Kirk's a wily old lizard. Trouble with you, Evans, is you take too much for granted."

"It hasn't failed me yet, dear boy." Evans frowned thoughtfully. "I'd hoped to give them a surprise on the edge of that ion storm, but this may be even better. As it turned out, we had the time to take care of things down here..." He gave a reminiscent sigh.

"And even a starship doesn't fight her best with no room to move," Vorn agreed. The two men exchanged a rare smile of amity, even white teeth and yellowish fangs gleaming in the sunlight slanting through the open hatch.

* * *

The lift doors opened, and Uhura hurried onto the bridge in time to hear Kirk say tautly, "That's it then. Prepare to leave orbit." He looked at Spock, who did not return the glance, and shook his head slightly. "No time to get out of the star's magnetic and gravitational fields. Take us around inside the second planet, Mr. Sulu. Course 193 mark 5. Range, Spock?"

Spock was standing next to Kirk's chair. At the captain's words he seemed to snap out of an unpleasant inner vision. He moved quickly to his station, back very straight. "Vessels closing at warp .7. Distance... 1.583 million kilometers, Captain."

"Still out of phaser range. We've got a few minutes, but only a few. Let's play a little hide and seek." He turned his head and saw her. "Uhura!" His smile was brief but vivid, a warm interruption to his tense preoccupation. "Fit for duty, Commander?"

"Yes, sir." She was still filthy, but who cared? "Sound the alert. I'll get your report later."

Uhura leaned over Lopez's shoulder at the communications station. The young ensign started to rise, but Uhura shook her head. She was pleased to see Lopez on the bridge. "I'll take the next station. We can work together; there'll be more than enough for both of us to do." She sat down and activated the console as the red alert klaxon began its relentless warning.

Lopez cocked her head in puzzlement a moment later. "Commander, I don't understand... I'm starting to pick up some strange signals here."

Uhura checked the readings and smiled, glancing down at Kirk out of the corner of her eye. "Hide and seek, Ensign." She nodded toward the orange second planet looming larger on the viewscreen. "When a planet with that composition is hit by the solar wind, it becomes a natural radiation source all across the spectrum. It'll knock the hell out of their sensors. They can't trap us if they can't find us."

"Ohh... What about our sensors?" The pitch of her voice wavered slightly and then steadied.

"It won't do ours any good either," Uhura admitted. She put on her best reassuring tone, as much for herself as for Lopez. "But the captain can think like his opponents, and Mr. Spock will pick up the slightest fluctuation in the readings..."

"Even with other things on his mind?" At Uhura's inquiring look she added, "I speak Vulcan."

"He was talking...?"

"To Dr. Chapel. He sounded pretty mad in an unemotional kind of way."

"He probably was." Poor Chris. And poor Spock, too. "But that's his business, not ours, Ensign."

Kirk was calling for readiness readouts from all sections, and Uhura and Lopez spent several minutes channeling the reports to him. Medical was the last area to report, and the news arrived in person. McCoy shot onto the bridge just as Spock reported losing contact with the pursuing vessels.

Kirk's attention was focussed on the viewscreen. The orange planet filled it now. "Sulu, bring us around and cut power. Hold position, but be ready to move on my order."

"Aye, sir."

"Sensors only partially operative," reported Spock.

"Put the visual readouts of planetary approaches on the main screen. Looking at the planet itself won't tell us anything." He leaned back. "Now we wait, and let them wonder where we've gone." He frowned at the static-filled display, then swivelled. "Bones?"

McCoy looked harassed. "You planning on giving me any more business, Jim? We're up to our eyebrows already."

"The colonists?"

"Everything from bruises to burns to internal injuries. I can't stay long, I've got five cases being prepped right now. Not to mention that the conscious ones are scared and boiling mad. Half of them won't let me within three meters of them."

"Can you handle it if we get casualties of our own?"

"Yeah... We're a little shorthanded, but we'll manage."

Kirk looked irritated. "Just dandy, Bones. A fine time for three of your staff to turn mutinous." He glanced back at Spock, then frowned at McCoy. "What the hell got into them anyway? Chapel especially. If I were you..."

"You're not, Jim. If you were, you wouldn't have to ask that question."

"Damn it, they had a clear duty here!"

"Indeed." Neither of them had heard Spock's approach. "Jim... I have the distasteful responsibility, once again, of apologizing for Christine's attitude."

"Forget it."

"Unfortunately, I cannot."

McCoy stared at him, blue eyes narrowed. "You know, you're the one who really surprises me, Spock. You're the one who puts duty over personal considerations, aren't you? That, my logical friend, is what she did."

"Dr. Chapel's obvious duty..."

"Is to use her best medical judgement in any situation. I said that we'll manage here; Chris would have known that." He paused. "Jim, that's why I came up here. I had a spare minute, and I had a feeling my people needed an advocate."

Kirk managed a sour smile. "A good assumption."

"Captain." McCoy's voice sharpened, and he assumed a combative stance. "Christine and the others made a medical decision about where they were needed most. I trust them to make that decision, and Starfleet gives them that right. In their shoes, I might well have done the same." He paused. "It also gives you the right to haul them up in front of an inquiry board, which will either vindicate them, or recommend a court-martial." He thrust his jaw out and added softly, "That is if you enjoy acting like a petty tyrant. Sir."

"You know better than that, Bones."

McCoy's expression relaxed, and a faint twinkle came back to his eyes. "Yeah, I do, Jim. I wanted to make sure that you did." He shifted his attention to Spock. "And as for you..."

"I do not wish to discuss the matter. It is a private..."

"Then don't. But I will." He glanced at the chronometer. "In one minute, I'm going back to my job, and leaving you to yours. Before I do, Spock, I want to ask you -where's the logic in not letting Chris do hers?"

Spock was silent, his eyes fixed on the screen.

"Emotional, Spock," said McCoy quietly. "Emotional." He flashed a brief grin. "Not that I don't like you better for it."

"Doctor..."

"One more question. In her position, what would you have done? Think about it." He stepped up to the lift and the doors slid open. "She'll be all right. Any woman who's survived ten years of being married to you..." The doors shut.

Spock raised his eyebrows, and returned his gaze to the screen. "Touche, Spock?" asked Kirk.

"Perhaps, Captain."

"Something to think about - for both of us." His gaze swept the bridge. "Keep an eye on those sensors." He stood. "Engineering - status report?"

Spock returned to his station, from where he could concentrate both on the visual display and on the meager sensor data feeding into the computer. The readings showed a broad-spectrum mass of radiation, but the entry of a ship into the area should be perceptible. The artificial energy output of its engines would disturb the flow. He could find nothing as yet, and he shook his head when Kirk glanced up at him.

His mind returned briefly, involuntarily, to McCoy's words, and to Christine's before them. McCoy had said, "Where's the logic in not letting Chris do hers?" An echo of Christine's "It's the work you've chosen, so I want you to do it. Let me do mine." And both of them had accused him of a lack of logic. The truth of the accusation was undeniable. Knowledge of it warred with the recognition that the possessive, protective nature of the Vulcan marriage bond was not easily set aside. It was logical in that it was a response to a need that denied all logic. But his wife had deliberately chosen to set herself at risk, denying him his right to protect her.

Spock scanned his instruments. Still nothing. Did he have the right to protect her, if to do so was to deny her autonomy? Tradition might grant that right, but he was not trapped by tradition. She was his bondmate, but she was also many other things. Did he truly imagine that her distaste for possessiveness would translate into a desire to break their bonding? He knew that the very idea would infuriate her, leaving her somewhere between laughter and tears. Many humans took such things lightly, but Christine did not.

In any case, she had wanted his presence. That had been very apparent. It was a lapse of clear thinking, and an insult to her, to read her actions as a rejection of him. If she had chosen to put an obligation above her own wishes, or even his, surely that was an admirable choice. Her defiance of Jim was a difficult matter, but she had her own standards to answer to as well. To be trapped between two loyalties was an uncomfortable position, as he had reason to know. He would not apologize for her again. She was an adult, not a child, and her reasons and her regrets were her own.

His eyes had not left the computer in the seconds it took him to reach that conclusion. Now he saw it. He glanced at the screen. Nothing there, but visual was the least reliable indicator. "Disturbance in the microwave flow, Captain," he said calmly. "Indications of two ships entering orbit."

"Have they seen us?"

"Apparently not, though they undoubtedly know that we are here somewhere. We will be virtually undetectable until we move."

"And the third ship?"

"Unknown, Captain."

Kirk breathed in sharply. "Put the tactical of their positions up on the screen. Ship's status?"

"Shields at full power. Phasers energized, photon torpedoes armed and ready."

"Navigator, plot a course for Beta Psi."

Heads turned. "For Beta Psi, sir?"

"You heard me."

"Course plotted, sir."

Kirk snapped his seat restraints into place. "Batten down the hatches, ladies and gentlemen. Here we go. Mr. Sulu, warp 9. Execute."

* * *

Keiko felt the acceleration in her bones. She couldn't have explained exactly how; the inertial stabilizers theoretically eliminated any sense of motion. But she knew. A faint lurch in her stomach, a tiny change in the almost imperceptible throb of the engines. She started to slide off the table.

"Nothing doing," said the nurse who was bandaging her arm. "You sit still. I haven't got time to wrestle with my patients."

Keiko subsided, still impatient. She couldn't even remember where she had gotten that long gash on her arm. Looking around sickbay, she knew that she had gotten off lightly.

"There," said the nurse. "Nothing more wrong with you that rest and food won't cure. Get to your cabin - we don't have room for you here." His mind had already moved on. "Next!" he called.

Keiko nodded obediently, but she had no intention of resting while the ship was going through heaven knew what. None of the medics would bother to monitor her. They had troubles enough. She headed for the door, intending to assume her back-up post in engineering.

"Next!" the nurse called again, an edge in his voice. "Are you deaf?"

Keiko turned in time to see Rahab stand, tension vibrating through her body. "You... keep away from me!" Her voice was taut. "I don't need..."

"Listen, lady. My orders are to check all of you. If you don't like it, that's too bad. Just get on the table."

"No." Rahab looked and sounded defiant, but when her eyes met Keiko's, Keiko could see the fear in them.

The colonists had been taken directly from the transporters to sickbay, where the badly hurt were whisked into surgery or intensive care. The less injured huddled together in tight groups, anger and fear emanating from them in equal parts. Most were submitting to the medical attention, but making no attempt to interact with the Enterprise crew. That wasn't surprising, considering what they had been through, but Keiko was filled with regret. If things had been different, maybe, just maybe, she could have brought Rahab here as a friend.

She went to her now, stopping the nurse with a shake of her head. It wasn't really his fault, either. He was over-worked, and he had to keep things moving. "Rahab," she said gently, taking her shoulders, "Come on. He's a loudmouth, but he's only doing his job. It'll just take a few seconds."

Rahab pressed her lips together tightly, but she didn't resist when Keiko put an arm through hers and walked her over to the diagnostic table. She ignored the nurse as he examined her, keeping her gaze on Keiko.

"Stress," said the nurse succinctly, switching off the panel. "Nothing to make such a fuss about. Nothing physically wrong. Food and rest."

Keiko looked up at him. "Stress?" she snapped. "Her daughter died in the attack." She looked toward the waiting colonists. "A lot of them have similar stories. You might try remembering that, no matter how busy you are."

A kind of awareness came into his eyes. "Sorry," he said, meaning it. "You can get up now," he told Rahab. "Someone will get you some clean clothes." As she got down, he asked Keiko, "Is it really true they've never seen a man before?"

Rahab looked at him directly for the first time. "Until they came down, killing and burning," she said bitterly. "We have no high opinion of your sex."

"I'm sorry."

"You should be." Rahab turned away.

The nurse opened his mouth to yell for his next patient, and caught Keiko's eye. He blinked, shut his mouth, and walked over to the group, not crowding them too closely. "Would one of you please come for a quick checkup? I'll take you in whatever order you decide."

Keiko gave him a thumbs up, and followed Rahab to the cubicle where she was struggling into a clean sickbay-issue jumpsuit. "He'll be a little gentler now, I think. It's tough - they may be getting crew casualties any time." As if to emphasize her words, the ship gave a shudder and a slight lurch. "I've got to go."

Rahab put out a hand to steady herself. "You're leaving? Where are you going?"

"I'm supposed to rest, but we're on an alert. I'm a backup engineering tech; they can probably use me somehow." The ship lurched again. "I can't sit in my cabin wondering what's going on."

"I can't either. There's nothing I can do here. Take me with you. Give me a chance to be useful." Her eyes burned.

Keiko hesitated. Non-regulation, but her affection for Rahab was joined to a healthy respect for her abilities. "Okay. Come on, but if I tell you to get out of the way, don't argue."

Chapter Text

Christine finished applying the artificial skin dressing to the blistered burn running down Sappho's front from collarbone to navel. It was first to second degree, not really dangerous, but nasty and painful. "There. Did you say something about not needing any more medical help?" Her attempt at a cheerful voice sounded false even to her.

"We wanted to leave you free to go." Sappho's eyes were unexpectedly sympathetic.

"Well you didn't," said Christine very evenly, not looking at her.

"Are you angry?"

"Yes." Christine snapped the emergency medikit back together with precise movements. "You bet I am. I respect your reasons for staying, but... I've disobeyed my captain, and argued with my husband on your account. And do you know something? I like them better than I like you."

Sappho didn't bother to react to the insult. "But you were right, weren't you?"

"Oh, sure. Medically and ethically justified." She looked up. "All the same, I don't enjoy the idea of explaining myself to an inquiry board. And I wonder seriously if your problems are worth fighting with my husband about."

"He means so much to you?"

"At least as much as Astarte means to you."

Sappho's face trembled, but she controlled it, and gave a slow nod as Christine turned away. "You got the supplies you asked for."

"I knew I would."

"I thought maybe..."

"That Jim and Spock would leave us without them as a kind of punishment? No way. They're not like that."

"If you say so."

The cave seemed empty with most of the women gone, but the survival packs had given them blankets and emergency heaters. Unfortunately, they were still short on food. Demeter was asleep, the light doze of the very old. Grace and Lilith were both sleeping too, Grace worn out by caring for the girl. They had begun to treat Lilith with the antidote, but it was too soon to know if it would work.

Christine left the cave and sat in the sun, deliberately blanking her mind. It wasn't as hard as it might have been. The anger and fear and pain of the past few days had been too much, and her weary brain was overloaded. It was as though a mental circuit breaker had tripped, protecting her for a little while. She soaked in the warmth with a simple animal pleasure. Even the throbbing in her shoulder receded. She had almost fallen asleep when there was a small, polite noise above her. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.

"Doctor?" said T'Nila. She was holding her medikit. "I regret interrupting your meditation."

The tension and worry poured back into Christine's mind. "What is it, T'Nila?"

"All the remaining colonists have been treated for their injuries - superficial cuts and bruises for the most part."

"Fine. Are the lookouts in place?"

"Yes. But one patient has not yet been cared for."

"Where?" Christine started to get up.

"Here." T'Nila barred her way.

Christine looked down in vague surprise at her shoulder. She hadn't forgotten about it; the pain when she tried to raise her left arm was sufficient reminder, but she hadn't really considered it except as a nuisance. After the attack she had bandaged it with a strip torn from her shirt, and she now saw that the makeshift bandage was filthy, and stiff with dried blood.

"You are risking infection and scarring," T'Nila warned her.

Christine pulled gently at the bandage and winced. "You'll have to soak it off."

"So I surmised. This may be painful. Do you wish me to..."

"I can block it." T'Nila always made her feel defensive.

"Very well."

T'Nila's fingers were deft, and Christine blocked as much of the pain as she could, relying on human stoicism to get her through the rest. The spray dressing, when applied, was soothing, and infinitely more comfortable than the bulky wad of cotton. "Thank you," she said. T'Nila nodded. "Now all we have to do is wait for the Enterprise."

"Indeed." T'Nila fiddled with her medikit. "You are confident of the outcome of the conflict?"

"I have to be." If she wasn't, she would go mad. Those few minutes of blessed numbness were over. "I've seen the captain and Spock pull off harder things than this."

"And yet you disobeyed them?"

"So did you," Christine reminded her.

"I saw no alternative."

"Neither did I."

"But you challenged the authority of your bondmate..."

"Which is worse than defying my captain? Tell that to the Surgeon General." Christine smiled unhappily. "T'Nila, even granting Spock the right to order me around - which I don't - he was being irrational. I never made any promises to honor illogic."

T'Nila lowered her eyes. "An interesting point. Your bonding is not weakened by this?"

"No. I hope not. If he has any sense at all, he must know that it's not that I don't want him."

T'Nila looked up, then down again, curiosity warring with restraint. "Because you... love... him?"

She's really very young, thought Christine. "Yes and no. Love - or whatever you want to call it - doesn't solve problems. But it creates the will to work at them."

"Does Spock lo..." T'Nila stopped, cheeks olive, unable to ask the question. "I ask pardon for my rudeness."

"Why don't you ask him? At least... Maybe not in those words, but ask him what he told Sarel. It might help."

T'Nila bent her head, acquiescing, and by common consent they turned back toward the cave.

Demeter was still asleep. Grace and Sappho were watching Lilith. "We just gave her another injection," Grace reported. "The physical craving doesn't seem as strong."

"If only she weren't so... blank," said Sappho painfully. "So withdrawn."

T'Nila touched Lilith's head lightly, and the girl stirred and opened her eyes. "Mother?" she said. "G -Grace..." She closed her eyes again. "Hungry."

"That's a good sign," said Christine. "A normal physiological response is coming through."

T'Nila gave an infinitesimal frown. "If I may make a suggestion? In my brief contact with her mind, I sensed that external stimulation might be helpful to her. If she remains here, she is content to stay in a passive, vegetative state. Perhaps if she were brought outside, forced to move..."

Grace nodded. "Get her to respond. At our centers, we..."

"Drag them off to your church for indoctrination?" asked Sappho.

"We love them. We want to show them that God loves them too." Sappho snorted, but Grace reached out to touch Lilith's cheek. "If I didn't love her, would I be here?" She met Sappho's eyes, and Sappho sighed and nodded.

"In any case," said T'Nila, "that avenue of response is not available here. It is pointless to debate its merits."

"She's hungry," said Christine. "We need food. Why not kill two birds with one stone..."

"Birds?"

"Sorry, T'Nila. An expression. Isn't the phyllium ready for harvest? There's not much to eat around here, even if we did want to start killing the birds, but there's enough in the fields for an army. It's only a kilometer or so away. It seemed farther the other night..." She steadied her voice. "With the wounded, in the dark."

Sappho looked at Lilith. "Is she well enough... physically?"

Christine nodded. "Physically... Bruises and some vaginal tearing. She's healing."

"I'll go with you."

"Of course. But we'll have to decide... Someone has to stay here with Demeter. She can't..."

"With a little help, I can. You'd be surprised." Demeter's voice came out of the shadows.

"Mother! We didn't know you were awake."

"Well I am. Even if you leave now, you won't be able to get back today with enough to feed everyone. We'll all go." She shivered. "I want to get out of this cave."

* * *

Evans was bored. Vorn could read the signs. Not only in the pacing, the fidgeting, the aimless trips around the ship, but in the human's eyes. There was a bright metallic glitter in their blue depths. He swung around on Vorn. "How long until our ships get back?" he demanded.

Vorn shrugged. "How should I know?" he replied with perverse satisfaction.

"You're supposed to know such things, dear boy. Why do think I keep you around?"

Vorn growled. "Any time between now and the day after tomorrow. Satisfied?"

"Not at all." Evans resumed his prowling. "Inactivity irks me."

"You can't expect to play all the time."

"We're loaded now." Evans flashed a sudden smile. "What do you say we leave, and see what's going on for ourselves?"

"That's an idiotic idea, and you know it. This ship has more cargo capacity than the others, but our shields and weapons aren't much. I wanted to stay the hell away from the Enterprise, but as long as we're here, I'm not going up and risking my skin and our load."

"Afraid?"

"Sensible, Lord John."

"And if I say we go, how do you intend to stop me?"

Vorn had been waiting for that question. "The same way you've been stopping me." He showed Evans the computer chips he had been fingering in his pocket. "You're not the only one who can play that trick." His other hand hovered near his phaser. He didn't know how Evans would react, but he almost hoped that the human would draw. For all Evans's talk, Vorn didn't want to believe that Evans could really out shoot him.

Evans's eyes widened fractionally, and then he gave an unexpected whoop of laughter. "Very good, my dear Vorn. Very good."

Vorn smiled sourly. "I don't like being put at a disadvantage."

"So I see. It seems that we don't leave until we both agree to." Evans paced again, and stopped to look out a port. Groups of men were visible in the clearing, lounging, sleeping, playing cards. The loading was done, and repair work on the dome couldn't continue without fresh supplies. Evans studied them, eyes gleaming. "What a pity. All these fine lads idle."

"Nothing more to do here."

"No? I disagree. I'm bored, old chap, bored." He turned away from the port and stretched elaborately.

Angry shouting floated in through the open hatch, and Vorn and Evans hurried to the doorway. One of the card games had degenerated into a fist fight. "I'm not the only one, either," observed Evans, watching the combatants.

Vorn gave a disgusted grunt and drew his phaser. He fired a burst over the heads of the struggling knot of men. "Break it up, you bastards, or the next one will fry you," he bellowed.

The men exchanged a final few shoves and moved sullenly apart. Vorn and Evans turned back to the interior of the ship. "That's not the first time, and it won't be the end of it," said Evans.

"We'll have to keep an eye on them."

"The louts will be knifing each other while they sleep next," said Evans impatiently.

"I thought they were fine lads."

"Only when they have something worth doing."

Vorn eyed him shrewdly. "You have an idea?"

"My shooting expedition. Why not?" Evans was suddenly energetic.

Vorn considered. His own tactic would have been to wait for reinforcements, but the job of clearing out the survivors had to be done sooner or later. And he had to admit that Evans's luck had been running very well. Evans was a dangerous man, but it seemed that it paid to keep him happy. Vorn looked at the handsome human and shrugged his heavy shoulders. "Why not?" he agreed.

* * *

Beta Psi grew steadily on the screen in front of them. Kirk called engineering. "Mr. Scott, be sure to keep as much power as you can going to the navigational shields as well as the defensive shields. We're going to be hit with high heat and radiation levels."

"Aye, sir." There was a pause. "Captain... just how close are ye planning to take us to that star?"

"Not so close that your engines can't pull us out, Scotty."

"I appreciate the compliment, Captain, but that's not verra reassuring. Scott out."

Spock had stepped down from his station. "I was about to ask the same question."

"Where are our pursuers?"

"Two just emerging from the radiation field of Beta Psi II. The other is further behind, angling in across the orbit of Beta Psi III. They evidently did not expect us to take this route."

"I counted on that. As for how close we're going... as close as the Enterprise can take us."

"Indeed." Spock's eyebrow went up.

"No registration beams from any of those vessels," reported Uhura.

"I've labeled them 1, 2 and 3 on the tactical, sir," said Sulu, eyes firmly on his board.

"Aft phasers ready, Mr. Chekov?"

"Ready, sir."

"The Enterprise," said Kirk, "has an advantage in this situation..."

"I am glad to hear that," muttered Chekov.

"It's easy to see what we don't have," agreed Kirk. "We don't have superior numbers, probably not superior fire power, and under these circumstances we can't use our speed advantage. What we do have is maneuverability, and structural strength. I intend to use them."

"Ship number 1 firing phasers," reported Spock.

"Evasive 189 mark 2. Return fire." The Enterprise shook slightly.

"A glancing hit on aft shield 6. No damage."

"A hit on ship 1, sir. Damage to one of his shields."

Beta Psi was swollen on the screen before them, its brightness automatically dimmed down on the display. Sunspots spattered its surface.

"Hull temperature 10,000 degrees and rising," stated Spock.

"Ships 1 and 2 separating, going to courses 113 mark 8 and 293 mark 8."

"Trying to catch us in a cross fire. Where's that third ship?"

"Closing. Not within range yet."

"Good." Kirk leaned forward. "Mr. Chekov, you may fire at your discretion - I trust your targeting. Mr. Spock, how long before those ships have us bracketed?"

"34 seconds, sir. Gravitational pull increasing. Stress on the hull past safe level."

"Mr. Sulu, go to course 189 mark 6 at... 22 seconds, mark."

Sulu's eyes widened. "Aye, sir."

Kirk hit the intercom switch. "Watch your stress levels, engineering!"

"Ships are targeting on us, sir!"

"Now, Sulu."

An instant later, the Enterprise was swooping downward in a long spiral, seemingly just above the hungry prominences licking up from the surface of Beta Psi. Behind her, phaser fire spat from the pursuing ships. The first ship swung about in a hasty evasive maneuver, but not fast enough. The fire from the second ship bracketed it squarely, and it flared almost as brightly as the star for an instant and was gone.

The second ship attempted to follow the Enterprise. Kirk knew that the abrupt course change so close to the star would be too much, even before he saw the ship's starboard nacelle shear off. The hull of the ship seemed to twist for an instant, before disintegrating spectacularly in the resulting matter-antimatter explosion.

"Get us out of here, Sulu!"

Alarms were sounding, and the voice of the computer was saying, "Hull temperature is in critical violation. Stress levels on port nacelle and pylon also critical. Power levels..."

* * *

At these power levels, the sound of the engines was audible, not just the subliminal throb that was the heartbeat of a starship, but a rising sound part roar, part scream. Rahab had never heard anything like it, but it didn't frighten her. She had never seen anything like the engineering deck of the Enterprise either, but she had read and dreamed of such places. Even her grief had taken momentary second place to her fascination. There were a thousand questions she wanted to ask.

She was flattened against a bulkhead in a corner, keeping out of the way. Keiko was nearby, standing at what she had told Rahab was the backup stabilizer control console. So far no one had questioned Rahab's presence. In fact they had hardly glanced at her; they were too intent on their jobs. That was a relief; engineering was full of men, and she automatically tensed every time one came too near her.

Keiko had pointed out the Scott man to her, and she had been watching him with wary respect. He seemed to know what he was doing. Her eyes kept returning to his mustache with a mixture of interest and repulsion. What a strange thing.

The ship began to shudder, and the noise of the engines changed again. Rahab had felt the ship shake before, with what she had assumed were phaser strikes, but this vibration was in the bones. Alarms began to sound, and an insistent mechanical voice sounded. "Hull stress critical, hull stress critical."

Keiko put out an arm to steady herself without taking her eyes from her readings, and Rahab braced her. "Use both hands on your console."

"Thanks."

"Power levels dropping," someone shouted.

"Come on, you beauties," said someone else.

"Holding steady now."

"We're pulling away."

Another alarm sounded, and Keiko's shoulders tensed under Rahab's hands. "Oh, shit," she muttered, "oh, shit."

"What?"

Keiko ignored Rahab, her hands working frantically. There was an ominous buzzing from her board. "It's overloading!" She hit an alarm button. "The stabilizers are going!"

It was an odd sensation. In theory, Rahab had read, the artificial gravity should function even if the stabilizers went completely, sending the ship tumbling through space. In practice, the gravity was overstrained as well. They seemed to be turning over in an infinitely slow wheeling motion. It was hard to tell exactly which way was up, even though her feet remained firmly on the deck.

Keiko dropped to her knees and frantically yanked off the access plate beneath the console. Her head disappeared into the opening just as Scott came up. Rahab edged back as Keiko emerged again.

"The main stabilizers gave out," said Scott grimly. "We had to divert to this console in a hurry."

"The power surge blew the components, sir," reported Keiko.

"Aye. They were na designed for the sudden stress. Let me see, lass." He put his head and shoulders into the console. The feeling of turning and disorientation persist-

ed. He crawled backward with a grunt, his face red from the position, and frowned. "Starfleet contracted to the lowest bidder, na doubt. That's a sloppy piece of design to have aboard ma ship."

Keiko had been kneeling before a storage compartment. "I have the replacement components, sir."

"Get in there and start changing them... Ichigawa, isn't it, lass? It's tight for me. I'll stay and give ye a hand. Ye did a fine job down on that planet, even if ye didn't get to finish it."

Keiko, underneath the console, said something that Rahab couldn't hear. To her surprise, Scott turned and looked at her measuringly. "She says ye're an engineer."

"That's right."

Shrewd brown eyes inspected her, and he gave a nod before turning back to the console and handing an instrument in to Keiko.

Rahab felt compelled to ask a question. "How serious is this problem?"

Scott glanced up at her. "Serious enough. We're pulling away from that sun, but there's another ship out there, and we canna fight our best while we're somersaulting around."

Keiko said something else, urgently, and Scott swore briefly, looking around. His eyes lit on Rahab. "You -what's your name, lass?"

"Rahab."

Scott looked baffled for an instant. "Of all the outlandish..." he muttered, and broke off at her glare.

"A'right. Sorry, Rahab. She needs someone to help a wee bit under there, and I won't fit. Squeeze in and do what she tells ye."

Rahab thought for an instant of refusing. What right did he have to tell her what to do? Common sense won. This ship was in danger, and she was on it.

The interior of the console was a tight, dimly lit mass of circuits. She wished she could see it better. "Just hold this in place for me while I attach it," said Keiko's voice by her ear.

"Be sure ye patch in the A12 circuit first," said Scott from outside.

"Yes, sir."

"Sir," said Rahab, quietly but scornfully.

"A term of respect. On this ship, almost always well deserved, Rahab."

They finished the job a few minutes later, and felt the motion of the ship settle down. Rahab's part had been minor enough; passing components to Keiko and holding them in place while she reconnected the circuits. Nevertheless, she felt a distinct satisfaction. She had been of use. She crawled out and met Scott's eyes squarely. "It's a bad design if it needs two people in there to do a simple repair. Even I can tell that."

He looked back at her as he turned away. "Ye'll get na argument from me. Care to think about the redesign, lass?"

Rahab stared after him. "Was he serious?"

Keiko finished putting back the access plate. "Depends on what you come up with."

* * *

The turning sensation faded, and Kirk settled back in his chair. "Engineering. Stabilizer function normal," said Scotty's voice.

"Very good, Mr. Scott." Beta Psi was fading behind them, and damage to the ship had been minimal. So far, so good.

"Ship coming in at 145 mark 3, Captain," reported Spock.

"Our other friend?"

"Evidently."

"Bring us around to 315 mark 5, Mr. Sulu. Chekov, fire when he's within range."

He had managed to more than even the odds, thought Kirk over the next few hours, as the ships performed a delicate and deadly dance among the planets of the Beta Psi system. The Enterprise had the advantage now. It was only a matter of time. "Report on our shields?"

"Number seven at 40% power, number three at 60%. The others at full power." Sulu had kept the Enterprise dipping and swerving deftly, with a grace that the other ship could not match. The Enterprise had not presented a very good target.

"Other ship's shields?"

"Port side gone. Fore and aft shields barely powered."

"Any response yet to our surrender messages?"

"No, sir."

"I didn't think so." Kirk sighed, feeling the familiar tension. That his beautiful ship should also be a deadly source of destruction, even when necessary... "All right. Let's close in and get her. 265 mark 9."

Sulu executed the course change, and stared at his instruments. "Sir... he's changed course too. Veering away from us at top speed."

"Set a pursuit course, Mr. Aboudjian."

"Aye, Captain... Sir, look!"

There was a visual of the smuggler's ship on the screen. It was doing a slow roll, over and over, finally coming to rest upside down in relation to the Enterprise.

"He is surrendering. I thought these people never surrendered."

Kirk stared at the universally known sign of submission. "Maybe, maybe not. Watch out for tricks. Uhura, send to that ship..."

"Message coming in, sir," said Lopez, who was monitoring the incoming channels.

"Put it on."

"Enterprise," said a rough voice. "We're dropping our shields..."

"His shields are down," confirmed Spock.

"...because I'm not crazy enough to get killed pulling Evans's balls out of this nutcracker. I'm sick of his game."

"I thought you people had 'no surrender' orders."

"What we had," said the voice, "was a self-destruct if we tried. I pulled it out when I found it. I'm not givin' any loyalty to a bastard who plays me for that kind of fool. Believe it or not, I'd sooner trust you." There was a gravelly laugh.

"We'll take you in tow and beam a security team aboard. You'll be under our phasers still, so don't try anything."

* * *

Kirk stared at the screen without relaxing until the security team reported that the smuggler's ship was secured. "Tractor beam locked on?" he asked.

"Aye sir."

"Set course back for Beta Psi III and execute. Spock..."

"No other ships within sensor range, Captain," said Spock, still at the science station.

Kirk stood up. "Then it's over." For the first time in hours, he allowed himself to feel how tired he was.

"Not quite," Spock said quietly. He also stood, and Kirk noticed how drained he looked. The immediate demands of the battle over, his control was harder to maintain.

Kirk stepped up to stand beside him, to offer what reassurance he could. "You're right, Spock. Not quite. But it'll be all right."

"The odds are favorable," agreed Spock. He added softly, "I wish that I found that fact more comforting."

Chapter Text

The late afternoon sun was hot in a hazy sky, and Christine thought wearily that the humidity must be at least 90%. She was grateful for the cool water of the field around her bare legs. She had rolled up the legs of her dirty coveralls - why she didn't know, since the water was up to her waist. She pulled down a tall stalk of phyllium and cut off the ears of grain. When her bag was full, she would take it to Demeter and Grace and Lilith, who were sitting on a bank beating the kernels from the ears with stones.

It. was a peaceful, primitive scene; at odds with the reality of their position. That was more accurately expressed by the cramps in her stomach, which were more from fear than from hunger. Damn you, Spock, don't you dare get yourself killed, she thought. Don't you dare. You can't run away from this problem that easily. I'm so mad that if you die, I'll want to kill you with my bare hands. Please be safe. Oh god, please...

She shook her head, and clamped down on her feelings. Hysteria was not a productive use of her energy. Spock had more vital things to worry about. The bond was operating at its lowest level, nothing but a bare thread of awareness. That was just as well for both of them.

Christine swished through the water to Demeter, and dumped out her grain. One of their two tricorders sat on the bank beside the old woman, set to scan for anyone approaching within a half kilometer. So far there had been no sign, but none of them had forgotten that they might not be alone on the planet.

"How is she?" Christine asked Demeter softly, looking at Lilith.

"Better. Still not good, but wider awake."

Lilith was pounding at the grain with a dreamy expression. It was hard to tell if she knew what she was doing, but at least she was doing something. She even turned her head and smiled vaguely at Grace, who was sitting beside her, singing a song. Christine cocked her head and listened, searching her memory. The tune sounded familiar. "Fairest Lord Jesus...?" Oh, dear. She looked at Demeter, who shrugged. "If it gets through to her, who cares? I can counteract the propaganda later." She kept on pounding, and Christine reflected that in some odd way Demeter had grown stronger in the last few days of horror. She was a born fighter.

Sappho came up with her own gleanings, her face drawn. Christine remembered with guilt that she wasn't the only one with a mate at risk. Even the success of the Enterprise might not save Astarte. She put a tentative hand on Sappho's shoulder as she leaned tiredly against the bank. She could think of no reassurances that wouldn't sound false, but she hoped that the contact would say something. Sappho gave her a bleak smile.

Others drifted up with their ears of grain, enough when threshed and boiled to make a decent supper. It was hard to work in the flooded field. The paddy on the other side of the bank had been drained for harvesting the day of the attack. It would have been easier going, but the phyllium was delicate. The attack had prevented the harvest, and the stalks were already brittle and withered. The crop had been lost - another reason for anger.

Sappho was just hoisting herself up out of the water when the tricorder on the bank sounded a warning beep. She froze, half in and half out. Grace's singing broke off in mid-phrase. Even Lilith stopped her pounding, looking confused and uncertain.

After a second of motionless shock, Christine snatched the tricorder. "Jesus Christ." Grace didn't react to the blasphemy. "A group of humanoids, coming through the dry field. Range just under a half kilometer. There are... at least thirty of them. Christ!"

"The phasers!" said Sappho, scrambling onto the bank. "How many do we have?"

"Five, but only two are fully charged."

"Do they know we're here?"

"Probably. They're coming straight for us." "Give me a phaser."

Christine handed her one, but warned, "We'd better get back into the field. They'll have a hard time finding us there."

Sappho shoved the phaser in her belt. "Good idea. Go on. Get Lilith away from here." She turned away.

"Where are you going?"

"To the main floodgates."

"You'll never make it in time! Anyway..."

"I know what I'm doing." Sappho's face was fierce.

Demeter spoke, her expression matching her daughter's. "I'll give you the time."

"Mother..."

"Go on. I wanted to stay here. I know what I'm doing too."

Sappho's face softened. "You always have, Demeter. I love you."

"And I love you too. Now get going!"

Sappho vanished into the dry field, and Demeter turned to the rest of them. "Don't stand there staring at me. Give me one of those phasers - not one with a full charge, it would be wasted. Now get out of sight."

"But..."

"No buts. I'm the mother of this world. This is why I wouldn't leave." She hauled herself up with the help of a sturdy stick. "One of us is enough to delay them. Fire from ambush if you can; but why give them eight sitting targets?" A brief smile touched her eyes. "And don't waste time arguing with me; better women than you have failed at that."

They crouched in the water below the level of the bank, a couple of meters back into the phyllium. Christine had given the remaining phasers to Grace and T'Nila, who were best trained to use them. She would have given a lot to have Keiko's skills available.

Demeter sat on the bank above them, just barely visible from this angle. Christine couldn't see her face, but her back was straight and proud. For a few minutes there was no sound but the hot breeze and their own anxious breathing. Then they heard a careless, ominous trampling.

"My, my," said a cool, cultured voice. "What are you?"

Demeter had stood. "The mother of my world. The world that you've invaded and destroyed." She was leaning heavily on her stick, her other hand hidden in a fold of her tunic.

"Grand words, old woman." Laughter rose behind him.

"You're not wanted here. Fifty years ago I stopped being persecuted by your kind. You've done enough harm; I'm not letting you do any more."

"How marvelous. All by yourself?" the voice mocked. "Not necessarily," said Demeter.

"Come on," muttered Christine to Grace and T'Nila. "The rest of you - keep Lilith safe. I don't know what Sappho's trying, but it hasn't happened yet. We can't leave Demeter alone out there."

"I remember you," the voice was saying. Christine's memory suddenly kicked in. That perfect Oxonian drawl. John Evans. "I thought I'd taken care of you back at that pathetic settlement of yours. An unfortunate oversight... which I intend to remedy. Now." His voice turned to an ugly growl.

"Oh do you?"

Christine's head rose above the level of the bank in time to see the phaser whip out from Demeter's side. Evans had climbed up to face her, shining in his handsomeness. His men, including a burly Tellarite, were preparing to follow.

Demeter's phaser beam caught Evans in the side, and he crumpled to the ground. As he went down, an arc of blue fire spat out from his weapon and touched her. She was haloed by it; almost too bright to look at. Her stick dropped from her hand, and for the barest instant she stood straight without it. Then she fell.

Christine heard Grace sob, "No!" next to her. She leaped clumsily for the top of the bank, feeling her ankle twist painfully under her as she landed. Raising her own phaser, she fired, but she never knew if she hit her target. The next moment, the scene was lost in confusion. There was a growing roar in her ears, a primitive, uncontrolled sound of danger. The men were turning in confusion, shouting, knocking into each other. And a wall of water as high as the bank had smashed across the dry field where they were standing.

* * *

They stunned the men who reached the bank without much trouble. They were too shocked and confused to put up more than a token resistance. A few had been swept away and drowned; Christine found that she couldn't feel any regret. The stunned men were tied securely with braided stalks of phyllium.

Demeter was dead. Christine had known it as soon as she had seen her fall, but she had tried to hope. The hope vanished when she turned the fragile figure over. Her chest was crushed, but her unmarked face was both peaceful and proud. They had gathered, speechless, around her body when Sappho arrived.

"It worked," said Christine, looking up at her.

"I know." She knelt beside Demeter, taking her hand. "Mother. Oh, Demeter..." Her voice broke. "She knew this would happen."

Christine nodded, not trusting her voice, and T'Nila reached out gently and closed Demeter's eyes. Grace put her arms around Lilith, who was crying, only half-comprehending.

Sappho stood. "If I only had the man who did this to her. To all of us..." The tender grief in her voice had been replaced by fury.

Christine hesitated. "You do."

"Where?"

Christine turned and pointed to Evans, lying with his men. "She shot him, but it turned out to be superficial."

Sappho yanked out her phaser and walked over to stand above Evans. She aimed it down at him, her hand trembling. "You bastard. You bastard." Her voice was a harsh whisper.

Christine stood watching in frozen stillness. She should stop Sappho. Someone should stop her. But even T'Nila hadn't moved. What would I do, Christine wondered, if I were in Sappho's position? If someone, anyone, hurt Spock or the children... I would want to kill him. Yes. I would. I would.

Time stretched out as Sappho's finger tightened on the firing control. Evans's eyes had opened, and he was staring up at her, his beauty fallen away, his face an ugly rictus of fear. If he hadn't been gagged, he would have been screaming.

Lilith's voice broke the silence. "Mother?" she said in confusion from where Grace was holding her. "Where are you?" Her voice was lost and plaintive.

Sappho's head jerked up. She looked back at Evans, and spat deliberately in his face. Then she shoved the phaser back in her belt. The tremor had left her hands. "If I were like you, I'd kill you," she said. "But I don't want to be. So I won't. Lucky for you."

She went swiftly back to Lilith, and the very air seemed to let out a sigh. "I'm here, sweetheart," she said. "Of course I'm here." Christine blinked back tears. Her twisted ankle was starting to throb.

"Grandmother...?" asked Lilith in bewilderment.

Sappho sat down on the ground with Lilith in her lap. "Demeter is dead, Lilith," she said very gently.

"Dead?" Lilith began to shake.

"Yes, love. But she was very strong and very brave. She'd want us to remember her like that." Tears were running unchecked down Sappho's cheeks now. "It's all right to cry for her, though. It's good to cry for her."

Lilith nodded, clinging to her mother. Christine looked around and found a scrap of fabric. She placed it gently, not over Demeter's peaceful face, but over her bloody chest. She rubbed her own eyes, and wiped her nose inelegantly on her sleeve. "You know," she said, "some leaders - a lot of them - hold up better as symbols than they do as people. Their ideas are better than they are. Demeter the symbol was pretty hard to take before I met her - and even afterwards. But I liked Demeter the woman. I liked her a lot."

"So did I," said Grace unexpectedly. "I thought she'd be evil. But she wasn't evil, only wrong. I'll pray for God's mercy on her soul."

Sappho looked up, with a brief smile through her tears. "She'd have laughed at that, but I don't suppose it can do her any harm."

"She was a most remarkable scientist," said T'Nila gravely. "I am honored to have encountered her, however briefly."

"Now that epitaph she would have appreciated."

* * *

When the sun had just set behind the treetops, the Enterprise came back. Christine opened her communicator with stiff, awkward fingers. Her throat was constricted. "Chapel here," she said. It came out in a squawk.

"Enterprise," came a familiar voice. "Kirk here, Dr. Chapel. What's your situation?"

"You're back!"

"To borrow a phrase, Doctor - obviously." He sounded faintly amused.

Christine swallowed. "We... we have some prisoners, sir. We could use some help with them." Her voice still wasn't functioning right. She tried to clear her throat.

"Are you all right, Christine?"

"Yes. No. Mostly yes. Are you...?"

"Minor damage to the ship, none to us. You said you could use some help down there?"

"Yes, sir." Her voice went up in an undignified squeak of relief. "We..." She stopped to pull herself together. "It's not my decision, Captain."

"Give me that," said Sappho, beside her, taking the communicator. "Kirk?"

"Ms... uh... Sappho?"

"That's right."

"Do I have your permission to beam down with medical and security teams?"

"Men?"

"Some."

"What if I say no?"

"As Dr. Chapel said, it's your decision." He hesitated. "One point, though. Haven't you paid a high enough price for your stubbornness already?"

Sappho looked around her, at the bound prisoners, at the filthy, exhausted women guarding them, at her daughter, at her mother. Christine caught her eyes. "You can trust him. I've been telling you that for days and days. Can't you get it through your head even now?"

Sappho looked back at the communicator. "Maybe we have, Kirk. You've got permission."

"We'll be there in five minutes. Stand by."

"That was brave of you," said Christine quietly to Sappho as they waited.

"A most logical choice," agreed T'Nila.

Sappho shrugged, her eyes tired. "Much as I hate to admit it, he's right." She smiled bleakly. "Our isolation is gone, and our innocence too. Demeter died to preserve a dream that's already dead. Maybe if she - if we all -hadn't been so stubborn in the beginning..."

"Don't waste your time second-guessing yourself."

"How can I help it?" Sappho squared her shoulders as she heard the hum of the transporter. "Here comes the future."

Kirk and the security team were the first to materialize. The redshirts - the nickname had stuck through several uniform changes - moved instantly to surround the prisoners, snapping on restraints as they loosened the phyllium stalk ropes. "Not bad," Christine heard one of them mutter as he tested the strength of the braided line.

Kirk stepped toward Sappho, his hand outstretched. She studied him intently, but made no move to return the gesture. Kirk dropped his hand, giving no hint of offense. "Welcome to Demeter," said Sappho slowly, experimentally. "I never thought I'd be glad to see a man."

"I don't eat babies for breakfast," observed Kirk mildly after a moment.

"I suppose not." Sappho sighed and relaxed slightly. "Thank you for your help."

"Our job, Ms. Sappho. The medical team will be down any moment. Where is Dr. Alvar- that is to say, Dr. Demeter?"

Sappho's pride forbade her to cry in front of a man. "Mother Demeter is dead."

"I'm sorry. I would have liked to have met her."

"She wouldn't have wanted to meet you. It's better for her this way."

"I'm sorry," repeated Kirk, and Sappho nodded in silent acknowledgement.

Out of the corner of her eye, Christine could see bunches of prisoners and security guards disappearing in twinkling light. The prisoners were on their way to the brig, she supposed. She might be called on later to help with their medical exams, but she hoped not. She had a profound desire never to see any of them again.

She got carefully to her feet, summoning Grace and T'Nila with a jerk of her head. Her twisted ankle had swollen so badly that she could barely put it to the ground, but she preferred to face her commanding officer standing up. It was coming back to her full force that the safe return of the Enterprise hadn't solved all her problems.

Grace looked uneasy too, and T'Nila was rigidly composed. They were filthy and tattered; maybe they seemed pathetic enough to appeal to Kirk's well-developed sense of chivalry. But no, Christine thought with grim amusement, in this situation we can't very well fall back on the helpless damsel gambit. Shame on me for thinking of it.

Kirk turned to survey them, and Christine drew herself up into what she knew was a parody of military attention. "Lt. Commander Chapel, Lt. T'Nila, Lt. Dawson reporting, sir," she said.

"At ease." Was there or wasn't there a twinkle in his eye?

"Thank you, sir." She spoke in an even voice, taking refuge in formality. "May I request that if you are contemplating any disciplinary measures, up to or including a board of inquiry, that I alone be held responsible for the actions of the lieutenants? I am their superior officer and I exercised an unwarranted influence over their decisions..."

Grace and T'Nila both cut her off. "I knew what I was doing..."

"My actions were not 'influenced,' but based on perfectly logical..."

"Oh shut up, all of you," said Kirk with perfect good humor. "Where did you find a military phrase book on this planet, Christine?"

"Huh?" Christine knew she was gaping at him. "Sir?" Kirk grinned. "The one you sound like you swallowed."

He wasn't mad, she thought, with a wave of relief. Not any more. "You understand?"

"I don't run my ship by acting like a 'petty tyrant,' to quote Bones. You made a medical judgement. That's your privilege." This time his eyes definitely twinkled. "Of course, it's a little hard for me to play knight in shining armor when the princesses refuse to cooperate. But then this isn't a game, is it?"

"No. Not a fairy tale, either."

"As far as I'm concerned, the matter will be closed after you file your report justifying your actions."

"Yes, sir. Jim... thank you."

"I said as far as I'm concerned," Kirk reminded her quietly. "I'm not the only one waiting for an explanation from you."

Christine met his eyes. "I know. Is he..." Her voice died away and she forgot about Kirk. The last of the prisoners and guards were gone. In their place was a new group of figures.

Christine was actually grateful for her twisted ankle. If it hadn't kept her immobile, she might have run to Spock and started wailing like a newborn baby. As it was, she stayed rooted in place with a dignity that even T'Nila must approve. She tried to remember that she was furious with him. She tried to remember that he was a stubborn, autocratic, unreasonable bastard. She failed. He was here,

real, solid and safe, and that was all she could see and all she cared about.

He had inclined his head in greeting to Sappho and the other women, but his eyes were on her. He began to raise his hand to summon her, but she forestalled him. She couldn't move, so... She straightened and held out her fingers. "My husband, attend."

She could feel T'Nila staring at her in astonishment, and heard something that sounded like a muffled snort of laughter from Kirk. A series of indefinable flickers crossed Spock's face, and his eyebrows disappeared for a moment under his bangs. He moved smoothly to her side and closed the touch. "Yes, my wife?"

Relief, tenderness, amusement, irritation even, but none of the coldness that she had been fearing. She had been afraid that his shields would be up, that his anger would have arbitrarily shut her out of his mind. The release from that fear made her head spin. //Spock. Oh god, Spock...//

//Emotion makes you inarticulate, my wife. I have never been addressed as a deity before.//

//I was so scared.//

//I was somewhat apprehensive myself. Your self-possession was admirable. 'My husband, attend?'//

//Well you did!//

//What am I to do with you, Christine?// But there was more humor than exasperation in the question.

Christine began to giggle. The sudden relief from tension had left her lightheaded. //Put me in a pumpkin shell.//

//A...? What? Christine!//

Spock and the sky and the stalks of phyllium were doing a slow revolution before Christine's eyes. Her sense of balance seemed to be off. //Which way is up? No, this is stupid. I'm not going to pass out. I'm not...//

//No, you are not.//

The world settled down again, but not in the same place. She was being cradled securely, Spock's arms under her knees and shoulders, her head resting against him. //Put me down, for heaven's sake. I'm all right.//

//No, you are not 'all right.' I was remiss in not considering your physical condition sooner.// "Doctor? If you please?"

It took Christine several seconds to figure out that he was not talking to her. Another familiar face swam into view. "Leonard?"

"What the hell did you do to her, Spock?" Christine could hear the whirring of a scanner. "You go up, touch her hand, and she keels over."

"I didn't know you were here," said Christine in vague surprise.

"Humph. You weren't noticing much besides Spock."

"Sorry."

"When was the last time you ate anything?"

"Umm..." She tried to think. "I don't remember."

"That means it was too long ago. Your blood sugar level is down to nothing. Exhaustion, exposure... all of you." He pressed a spray hypo into her shoulder. "That should stop the giddies until I get you in bed." He turned to T'Nila and Grace. "You too."

Grace held out. her arm obediently, but T'Nila demurred. "I am Vulcan, Doctor McCoy. We are well equipped to go without food or sleep..."

"Poppycock."

"It is fruitless to resist, T'Nila," said Spock, looking over at her. "He will insist on having his way if he has to argue all night. It is wisest to humor him."

The vitalizer was taking effect, and Christine's head had cleared. "Put me down now, Spock," she ordered, embarrassed. "I can stand."

McCoy looked back at her. "No you can't, as you know perfectly well. You've got a sprained ankle the size of a balloon, and you haven't helped it one bit by hopping around on it."

"But I'm wet. And muddy."

"So I had noticed, my wife," observed Spock. "However, you have already transferred quantities of earth and water to my person. It is too late to remedy the situation. And I agree with the good doctor. You cannot be expected to stand. I suggest that you refrain from struggling; it would be useless and undignified. We will remain as we are."

"You tell her, Spock." McCoy shot the hypo into T'Nila with a private grin. Christine had subsided; head resting against Spock's shoulder. He suspected that she really preferred it that way. Spock looked unruffled and calmly satisfied. It was, McCoy realized, the first time he had ever seen them touch more than fingers in public.

* * *

Sappho watched Lilith disappear in the transporter beam, along with most of the Enterprise crew and her last remaining sisters from the colony. Her throat ached. She hated to see Lilith go without her, but at least Grace and T'Nila and Christine had gone too. Christine, still held by the tall Vulcan who seemed to be her mate, had promised, "We'll take care of her," and Sappho had realized that she accepted that promise.

The man doctor, McCoy, had brought her up to date on Astarte's condition. "I operated, repaired the intestinal and liver damage, and took out her spleen. The infection's bad, but she's in intensive care now, pumped so full of antibiotics that a bug couldn't live within a parsec of her. She's got a good chance. She's a fighter, isn't she?"

Sappho had nodded, not trusting her voice. Keep on fighting, love, she had thought. You can do it. I'll be there soon; I don't want you to wake up without me. A humming noise brought her mind back to here and now. High above them, a sleek white shape was coming down.

"The shuttlecraft," Kirk told her, unnecessarily.

"I can see that." It was larger and quieter than their old aircar, and from the shape it looked to be capable of faster than light speeds. Rahab would be interested in it.

It had been summoned to take them to what was left of the drug factory. This time, Sappho hoped, there would be no delays or mistakes. Kirk had said that it wasn't necessary for her to come, but she had to see this done with her own eyes. It was the final act, the final step before she could begin to think about their future.

The shuttle settled down in front of them, and the hatch slid silently open. Sappho stepped tentatively through the door. The first thing she saw was a tangle of equipment; the second was Rahab, sitting strapped into one of the seats. Sappho went to her and hugged her, unwilling to say in words how relieved she was to have one of her people along on this trip.

"Are you all right?" asked Rahab, looking at her hard. "You're so tired."

"Just this one job to do. I'm glad you're here."

Rahab sighed. She was clean, but pale with grief and fatigue. "I hurt a little less when I'm working. And it's my job even more than yours. Or theirs." She indicated the men in the other seats without looking at them.

"We couldna have kept her away, short o' tying her down." It was an oddly accented male voice, but it was tinged with approval. Sappho strapped herself into a seat and studied the speaker, a stout graying man with a hairy upper lip. Great goddess, how strange-looking. "This lass..." Rahab turned her head and frowned at him. "That is, Rahab, has a real appreciation for a fine bit o' machinery."

"You should see their engines," murmured Rahab, her voice full of reluctant fascination.

"She'll have the chance soon," said Kirk as the shuttle rose smoothly from the ground.

There was no vibration, and hardly any noise. Rahab's eyes were fixed on the controls, her hands obviously itching to examine them. Her interest in the machinery even outweighed her discomfort at being packed into close quarters with half a dozen men. Sappho was unable to ignore them so easily. They were all different, not only from women, which she had expected, but from each other. She hadn't thought, somehow, that they would be so individual.

She studied them covertly, accustoming her eyes to the sight. Like it or not, she would have to get used to them. They were squarer and thicker than most women, and their faces seemed less alive, less intelligent and expressive than women's faces. Their hair and skin were coarse and their voices grated. She warned herself not to under-

estimate them just because she found them physically unattractive. It was all in the eye of the beholder, she supposed.

All the men she had seen were certainly unlike, however; as different from each other in build and coloring as any group of women. She sorted them out in her mind, trying to understand what sort of people they might be. It was hard not to see them as a threat, but so far, she had to admit, they had dealt fairly with her. There were the nameless young ones, tough and muscular; their faces disciplined, a little frightening. The hefty engineer, with twinkling brown eyes, who was apparently as devoted to his calling as Rahab was. The doctor, McCoy, with a slightly lopsided face, and a flash of compassion when he talked about Astarte. She had not expected that from a man. The tall, dark, thin Vulcan, like T'Nila, but not very much. Inscrutable to Sappho, but when Christine had looked at him her eyes had widened enormously in her dirty face. And finally Kirk, with his indefinable air of authority; in part because he was obeyed, but also, she had to acknowledge, because it was within him. In his glance, and voice, and the set of his neck and shoulders...

None of them looked anything like Evans, for which she was grateful. Neither did any of them emanate the almost palpable air of rottenness which she had smelled from him. But she still wasn't sure how far she could trust them.

Sappho had been so involved in her thoughts that she had not even felt the shuttle descend. The flight had taken only two or three minutes. The shuttle landed in the clearing with a soft squelching noise, and they stepped out into ankle deep mud. It looked much the same as it had when she had last seen it; with one important exception. An ugly gray freighter occupied most of the space between the entrance to the dome and the edge of the forest.

"They must have brought that in after we left," muttered Rahab.

"See if you can get that cargo ship fired up, Scotty," said Kirk. "When we blow the dome, she'll go too if she stays there, and she's wanted for evidence."

"Aye, sir. I can get her inta orbit, nae doubt about that. We lifted a few computer chips off those laddies ye beamed up." He beckoned to one of the young men, and looked at Rahab. "Care to lend a hand?"

Rahab glanced at Sappho, torn. Sappho nodded. "Go if you want to. Learn what you can; we'll need it to rebuild."

"We're going to rebuild?"

"Did you ever doubt it?" asked Sappho fiercely, and Rahab smiled tentatively at her before following the men into the ship.

"The rest of you," Kirk ordered, "reset and prime those explosives." He turned to Sappho. "The Federation will help you rebuild."

"I'm not sure we want that kind of help."

"Don't you?" Kirk inquired gently. "Think about it. Beta Psi III is important now, whether you like it or not. You're a target..."

"Because of the virula?"

"It can be harvested legally for medical uses, or illegally for the drug trade. You may not give a damn what happens out in the rest of the galaxy, but which would be best for you?"

Sappho thought of Lilith. He was right, she never before had given a damn for the affairs of the galaxy. Now she was finding that she did. She had seen first hand what the nirvana could do, and she could be no party to it, even apart from self-interest. "It sounds like the Federation is determined to 'protect' us no matter what we want," she said cautiously, not prepared to concede too much openly.

Kirk hesitated, and nodded. "I can't deny that. But I can help you get the most favorable deal with them."

"No interference in our internal affairs?"

Kirk looked away for a second. Sappho waited to see how honest he would be. "I can promise that to some extent," he said slowly. "But I can't promise it totally. The balance between colony self-determination and Federation law is damned difficult. The Federation charter forbids discrimination by sex..."

Sappho snorted. "Tell that to most women. Even your crew..."

Kirk grimaced. "I know. They told me. Look, I'm not saying that this won't change your lives here, but..."

Sappho let out a pent up breath. "At least you're honest."

"I wouldn't insult you by lying." His eyes twinkled. "I doubt you'd let me get away with it. But the changes wouldn't be all bad. Loans, equipment, technical advice..."

"I'll think about it."

Kirk smiled. It changed his face, made it gentler and more open. "You do that." Sappho fought the urge to smile back, and gave in to it, just a little.

Just then one of the men came up to them. "The explosives were still in place, sir," he told Kirk. "They probably figured it was riskier to move them than to leave them there unprimed. They're primed now, Captain."

"We'll detonate from the shuttle. Let's get going."

* * *

The shuttle rose into the air following the heavy freighter. The freighter was being taken out into a parking orbit, but the shuttle hovered in the atmosphere. Sappho could see the entire colony spread out below her, only partially masked by wispy clouds. The burned ruins of the settlement, the wide gold fields of phyllium, still intact, the deep green of the surrounding forest. Then her eyes fixed themselves on the ugly scar of the clearing and the dome within it. How long would it take, she wondered, before the forest would reclaim the site? The wound on the land would be healed long before she forgot the events of the last few weeks.

"Six thousand meters, sir," reported the pilot.

"Hold position here. Ms. Sappho, would you care to do the honors?"

From this height, the explosion was soundless. There was a bright flare of light; Sappho blinked, and when she could see again all that was left of the dome was a flattened circle, looking surprisingly insignificant. She breathed deeply. It had been satisfying, but now she wanted to get to Astarte and Lilith.

Kirk gave an order, and the shuttle circled up and away. The colony dropped beneath them, and for the first time Sappho saw the blue-green curve of her home from space. It was very beautiful, she thought, as the shuttle turned toward the hangar deck of the Enterprise. Worth fighting for.

Chapter Text

McCoy smiled down at the curly-headed girl in the recovery ward bed. She was a little beauty all right, and even in the short time that she had been here the sparkle had started to come back to her black eyes. They were closed in sleep now, and he carefully studied the brainwave patterns on the monitor above her. Very encouraging.

"How is she?" asked Thelit anxiously from the next bed.

"Improving. Look at that delta curve." He brought it up on the screen. "The synapses are regenerating; we'll be able to get her off the antidote in a week or so."

"Good. She is..." Thelit gave a soft chuckle. "...really something when she's herself." Her face sobered. "I hope she will be again. She's seen things no child her age should see."

"Does she remind you of yourself?" asked McCoy shrewdly.

"A little. But less scarred by life, I would have hoped."

"And you?"

Thelit stared down at her bandaged arm. "It's no disgrace among my people to carry the scars of an honorable battle." McCoy looked his question, and she answered it. "Oh, yes, I know that I left Andor, but for all that I am Andorian, and that helps with this. More than you can know."

"Chances are pretty good that you can get a fully functioning prosthesis."

"Even if I can't, I will survive. I'm good at it." Her antennae flexed, and her eyes went far away. "I don't regret it. I may stay with the colony if Starfleet will allow it." Her eyes came back. "Does that surprise you, Doctor?"

McCoy opened his mouth and shut it, thinking. "No," he said slowly, "it doesn't. I never thought I'd say this, but it even makes a kind of sense."

Thelit was looking at Lilith again. "She's still got her parents - both of them, with any luck."

"God willing," said Grace, who had been dozing in the bed on the other side of Lilith.

Thelit gave her a belligerent glance. "You're not going to start moaning about sin?"

Grace's eyes were tranquil. "I will pray that God will reveal Himself to you, in His own time and His own way." She took Lilith's hand. "But I don't think any more that I can force any one else into my path." A smile touched her face. "It doesn't seem to work."

"Well, holy hallelujah!" muttered McCoy, loudly enough for Grace to hear him, but she simply smiled again.

A soft beeping sounded from Lilith's monitor, and they all turned to her as her lids fluttered open. She squinted, yawned, and rubbed her eyes. She focussed on McCoy first, with curious recognition. "I remember you, I think. Who the hell are you?"

McCoy grinned. "Leonard McCoy, at your service, ma'am."

"My name's Lilith, not ma'am. What made you think it was ma'am? I've never heard a name like that." McCoy started to laugh. "What's so funny?"

"You are."

"I am?" Lilith ran her hands through her curls, wriggled, and sat up. "Am I on that ship?" she asked, looking around. "The Enterprise? Hello, Grace. Hello, Thelit."

"You're in the recovery ward of the Enterprise sickbay, to be precise."

Lilith twisted around to look at her monitor. "Pretty good," she said, impressed. She sat straight again, and studied McCoy. "You're a man," she observed.

"Always have been."

Lilith stared at him, and a faint frown crossed her face. Not memory, not fear, but the awareness that there was something out of her reach. But she could not touch it. The blocks placed by T'Nila held firm, and McCoy relaxed slightly. Then a more conscious fear and pain crossed her face, pinching it. "I don't remember much about the last few days," she said.

"You've been sick. Your mother and Grace and T'Nila took care of you."

"I know." She smiled briefly at Grace, still worried. "But... Demeter's dead, isn't she? I didn't imagine that?" Tears swam in her eyes.

"No, Lilith, I'm sorry," said McCoy tenderly. "You didn't."

Lilith's face crumpled. "Where are my mothers?" Terror flared for a moment. "They're not..."

"Lilith!" They had all been so intent on the girl that they hadn't heard the door open.

"Mother!" Lilith would have scrambled out of bed, but Sappho had crossed the floor in a few rapid strides. "I thought for a minute that you were dead like Grandmother," cried Lilith, clinging to her.

"Of course not, love, of course not. Everything's going to be all right now. You'll see."

Sappho held Lilith until her tears stopped and she gave a childish yawn. "My..." She sniffed. "My head feels funny."

"Time for more medicine and sleep for you, young lady," said McCoy.

He deftly pressed a hypo into her arm as she protested, "I'm not any goddamn lady. I'm a woman."

McCoy laid her down with a grin. "At that, I guess you're certainly not a lady. But you are a very young woman, who needs her rest."

Lilith settled back into her pillow without much protest. McCoy drew Sappho aside. "I don't know what she was like before, but to me she seems to be improving by leaps and bounds. Certainly physically, but mentally too."

"She doesn't remember any of it? The rape, the addiction?"

"Not the worst of it anyway. T'Nila blocked that pretty firmly. At some cost to herself, I might add. She's gone deep into a Vulcan trance."

"I know, and I'm grateful to her. But Lilith will recover?"

"Yes." He hesitated. "By the way, you'll want to know... she's definitely not pregnant. As for the rest, the antidote works. We can reverse the physical changes in the brain. And since she didn't have an addict's psychological profile, we're not fighting that. I wish I had a. brain scan of her from before the addiction, but it's not vital."

"The records would have been stored at the lab," said Sappho wearily. "That's where Astarte kept them." Her voice cracked. "Astarte..."

"Is, I'm glad to report, out of danger. She'll take a while to mend, but mend she will."

Sappho choked down a sob. "Thank you."

McCoy pulled out his scanner and ran it over her, frowning. "Hey, what are you still doing on your feet? Lilith's in no worse shape than you are at this point."

Sappho shook her head. "I have to see my sisters, make sure they're all right..."

"They're all right. We've turned one of the recreation areas into a dorm. And seeing you looking like death warmed over sure isn't going to reassure them."

"I have to see for myself."

"Not until you've rested and had that burn cleaned up again. Chris's field dressing is due for a change."

"It's not important."

"Yes it is. You been taking stubborn lessons from Jim and Spock? I'm used to this argument, and I don't lose it."

"You..." She choked again. "You sound just like Astarte."

"Tell you what. We've got a free bed next to her. If you'll stay put in it for a few hours, you'll be sure to be there when she wakes up."

Sappho sighed and nodded. "All right. But just for a few hours. There's still too much to do and decide..."

* * *

Christine watched McCoy lead Sappho out of the door. He'd raised an arm to put it around her, then thought better of the gesture. None of these women were ready for casual physical contact with men yet. Funny, though, considering that he'd spent several hours in intimate connection with Astarte's abdominal cavity.

It was predictable, she thought, how reluctant Sappho was to give up her responsibilities even for a short time. The typical leader's fallacy, both strength and weakness: the need to be always in charge. Interesting how powerfully it came out in a crisis, even in someone like Sappho, raised to work through consensus rather than in a hierarchy.

There was little of the born leader in her own personality, she knew. It wasn't one of her drives, but even she had found it hard to relax, to realize that her job could be taken over by others for a while. Her exhaustion was so deep that she was unable to let go of it. She lay looking at the cool white ceiling, her mind turning over and over, her thoughts a mixture of the trivial and important jumbled together. It was good to be clean. Absolutely wonderful to be clean and dry, with the pain in her shoulder and ankle no more than the tiniest of distant aches. She had dozed off a few times, and come awake with a jerk of fear, her heart pounding, until she realized where she was. For the last few days, sleep had been a threat to ward off. But now, finally, she could feel her exhaustion creeping up on her. If she could just get her mind to stop working.

She tiredly ticked off her primary concerns on a mental list, putting them aside, Lilith, recovering, asleep now. The mental blocks placed by T'Nila would wear off eventually, but by then Lilith would be physically well, and could be helped to handle the memories. T'Nila herself, in a healing trance. The best thing for her, much better than any human help. Thelit and Grace? She raised her head to look over to their beds. They were asleep too. Good. Keiko and Uhura, whom she hadn't seen since coming aboard. On duty, or resting; resting, she hoped, but they must be all right. Astarte, in intensive care, but out of danger. Sappho, with Astarte. Christine hoped that McCoy had given her a sedative. All the other colony women, either in sickbay for treatment, or bedded down in a makeshift dorm.

Jim, back from the planet presumably, but not busy planning her courtmartial. Bless him for understanding. He'd be getting a report from Spock now. And last, but certainly not least; last because this was where her tired mind would stop and dwell... Spock. He had taken her to sickbay and left to question Evans and the other prisoners, but not without a gentle touch on her face that communicated peace. He was well, and he would be back. She let that knowledge push her other concerns away, out of her mind until she was ready to deal with them again. For now, thinking of him, she knew that she could sleep.

* * *

When she woke up, she was starving. Spock was sitting next to her bed, looking imperturbable. "I have been expecting you to awake for some time."

"How long have you been here?" She smiled up at him, and he took her hand.

"Twenty-two minutes."

"I'm hungry."

"You have been receiving intravenous nourishment."

"I said I'm hungry. Not dehydrated, not suffering from low blood sugar or vitamin deficiencies. Just plain hungry."

"I see. That can be rectified." He stood, and she sat up, stretching. He glanced quickly around the room, eyebrows soaring, and reached hastily to press together the undone fastener on the front of her sickbay gown.

Christine spluttered and hit the bedside button that lowered a privacy screen. "Sorry. They're not very well made. It must have popped open while I was asleep."

"As an attempt at seduction, it would have been ill-timed." His eyes held hers for a second, and then broke the contact as McCoy walked over.

"Come to visit, Spock? You're looking better, Christine."

"I'm starving."

"Fair enough. What do you want?"

"To go to the mess hall." She swung her legs over the side of the bed.

"Uh uh."

"Leonard, I feel fine. You must have better uses for this bed." She examined the readings on the monitor. See. I'm fine. I'm releasing myself."

"You won't get very far on that ankle, and without any clothes. I'm holding you for observation, maybe some physical therapy."

"You're a bully."

"He has always been so," observed Spock.

"What do you want to eat here?" repeated McCoy.

"Oh, anything. Anything but phyllium."

She settled for a plate of spaghetti. Spock watched her as she ate it with concentrated enjoyment. "This is good," she said, twirling up another forkful.

"Temporary deprivation tends to heighten appreciation, said Spock calmly.

Christine looked back at him, her mouth full of pasta, color rising in her cheeks. Damn Leonard. When her mouth was clear, she asked, "When are you due back on duty?

"Not for 14.3 hours. Do you wish me to leave, my wife?"

"No. Don't look at me like that." 14.3 hours, and she was stuck here.

"Like what, my wife?"

"Don't act innocent; you know damn well like what." She concentrated on her plate.

"This setting is not conducive to serious conversation."

"Or anything else."

"Indeed."

Christine made the mistake of looking up again. Spock reached for her fingers. //Don't touch me.//

//Why not, Christine?//

//Do you want your clothes torn off in the middle of sickbay?//

//I trust your control, my wife.//

//More than I trust it.// She wanted him, physically, emotionally, needed to finally heal the breach between them. It was hard to sit here, in this intimacy that was not close enough, trying to keep the contact light.

//It is important to me as well,// he told her gently. //And difficult.//

//I missed you so.//

"You have spaghetti sauce on your chin," observed Spock. He reached for her napkin and wiped it away. She held his hand against her cheek.

McCoy walked around the end of the screen. "Done yet?" Spock withdrew the napkin and his hand, and Christine took a sip of water. There was a silence, during which they didn't look at each other.

Christine pushed away her plate. "I'm done."

"Well now," drawled McCoy after a moment. "I've been thinking. Maybe you don't really need to stay here after all."

"Of course I don't."

"If I let you go, will you stay off your feet?"

"Yes."

"You'll go straight to your quarters and to bed? Spock, I'm making you responsible for keeping her there."

"Yes," said Christine again, not daring to meet McCoy's eyes. It was perfectly sensible advice; she simply had a dirty mind. He couldn't have meant that the way it sounded.

"I shall do my best, Doctor," said Spock, completely unreadable.

"Yeah, I believe you will." McCoy summoned an orderly with a chair. "Unless you'd rather carry her again, Spock?"

"This will be satisfactory." He lifted her into it, and the orderly tucked a blanket around her legs.

"Thank you, Leonard," Christine said as they headed for the door.

"Seemed logical, that's all." Christine glanced back over her shoulder. Spock didn't see it, but just before the door slid shut, McCoy gave her a slow deliberate wink. Christine grinned and made a face at him. He knew her too well; to him, she must be as transparent as a viewport.

* * *

She was trembling slightly as the door of their cabin closed behind them. The familiar rooms were just the same; she'd somehow expected them to have changed. Spock stopped the chair in the middle of the living area, and she started to stand. "Do not get up," he said quickly.

She reached blindly and found a firm, taut-muscled arm, warm even through the sleeve. "Spock..."

"My wife..." And she was in his arms, half in the chair, half out of it, clinging to him joyfully. Eyes closed, she reached for his mind and found a passion and relief that matched her own.

The beautiful shape of his mouth, so familiar; she locked her hands behind his head, molding it against hers, loving the taste and texture of him. After a moment she loosened her grip and kissed his eyebrows and cheekbones, hands smoothing the silkiness of his hair. The blanket was between them; he pushed it away, and she felt the badly designed fastener on the front of the gown pop open again. //Now this is an official attempt at seduction.//

//A successful one.// Warm hands were pushing the robe off her shoulders, freeing her breasts, pulling her up. The robe fell away, and she used one hand to push at her underwear. It tangled around her feet, and she tried to step out of it. stumbling against Spock, feeling an ominous twinge in her ankle. //Ouch.//

//Do not try to stand.//

//Just one thing...// She slid her hands inside his shirt, feeling the wiry hair of his chest under her palms.

She tugged at the shirt, freeing it from the invisible seam that held it to his uniform trousers, and he pulled it off.

//Better?//

//Much.// He scooped her up, the offending garments left behind, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. //I love being married to a Vulcan. I'm no butterfly, but I've never once worried that you were going to drop me.//

She let her head fall back as his lips brushed her neck and very tenderly touched her injured shoulder. //I do not want to hurt you, Christine.// He did not mean only physically.

//I know. Nor I, you, my husband. The ways we can't avoid are bad enough.//

His mouth was on hers again. //Indeed.// //Think we can make it to the bedroom?// //If we do not delay too much longer.//

She turned in his arms, careful of her shoulder but not too careful, and wrapped her legs strongly about his hips, feeling his erection pressing against her. //Oh yes.//

He made a deep, soft noise, low in his chest, and carried her to the bed. She pushed the covers back and they stripped off the rest of his clothes impatiently, freeing his body for her caresses. This wasn't an occasion for slow, deliberate sensuality. //Christine, are you...?// He was shuddering with the attempt at restraint.

She guided him. //Ready, my love. So ready.//

They both climaxed quickly, intensely, in a swirl of wordless emotion, mental and physical intensity building on each other and spasming into trembling, ecstatic release. As the waves of pleasure receded, Christine could feel Spock's ribcage expanding against her in deep breaths. Her own fingers were dug into his shoulders so strongly that they hurt; she had probably left marks on his back. He murmured her name, his lips against her ear.

Silently at first, she began to cry. She cried with relief and release, with happiness and pain, with fatigue and anger and frustration and joy. //I'm sorry,// she managed.

He touched her damp cheeks, and his arms tightened. //Do not be. You are human, my wife, and you need this. Cry.//

She clung to him until her arms ached, letting herself weep noisily, without restraint, pouring out the longing and fear she had held in check on the planet. In a corner of her mind she wondered whether either of her Vulcan-raised children would ever know the release of this kind of tears. Bawling, that was what she was doing. She cried until the tears were all gone, replaced by a soul-deep calm. And he held her, quietly sharing, trying to understand.

* * *

Christine swam up from sleep through multi-layered stages of consciousness. She was happy. She knew that first, before she knew why, or even where she was. She slowly, vaguely, sorted out her physical sensations. Warmth, a relaxed limpness in her muscles, a faint musky smell, a familiar stickiness between her legs. I'm home, she thought sleepily. Home. There was a dull ache in her shoulder, and she remembered that she had been wounded. But hadn't that been the other shoulder? She pushed herself back to full awareness, and opened her eyes, yawning.

It had been the other shoulder. Her wounded left shoulder did not hurt at all, but her right shoulder was pinned down by the heavy weight of Spock's head. It was resting in the hollow below her collarbone; she could feel the faint prickle of stubble against her skin. He was still asleep, breathing slowly and deeply, each exhalation hot on the curve of her breast. His arm rested across her, and her numb right arm was caught underneath him. Their legs were tangled together; now that Christine was awake she couldn't imagine how they had slept like that.

Not that it was totally unfamiliar. She remembered that during the pon farr, he wanted to rest in that position; it was part of a need for security. So it had been this time, in all probability, and for her as well as for him. She brought her free hand up and rubbed his back tenderly, love welling up inside her and emerging in a wordless sound, half gasp, half chuckle. "I love you," she whispered, brushing her her lips against his ruffled hair. He didn't wake up, but the hand that was resting on her ribs slid up instinctively to cup her breast, and she smiled.

She didn't want to move, didn't want to disturb him; it was hard, to imagine a state of deeper content than she was feeling now. But she was also extremely uncomfortable. Now that she was fully awake, her shoulder hurt, her back hurt, her arm and leg were asleep, her mouth was dry, and she needed to go to the bathroom badly. A pity that physical and psychological comfort didn't always go hand in hand. She sighed, got a hand against his shoulder and pushed firmly, rolling him off of her.

He grunted, blinking, and she leaned over, kissing his forehead. "Good morning, sleepyhead."

Spock thought for a moment. "Note the time."

She hadn't looked at the chronometer before. "It's... good heavens it's 1324."

"Therefore the proper greeting would be 'good afternoon, sleepyhead'." His mouth twitched.

"Whatever. I'm sorry I had to wake you up."

"I do seem to have been comfortable."

"But I wasn't." She rubbed her shoulder, and he sat up and massaged it for her. "Ohh, that feels nice. It's the least you can do."

"Agreed."

"I have to go to the bathroom." Forgetting her ankle, she swung her legs off the bed and stood up. "Damn! Shit! Ow, ow, ow!" She collapsed backward.

"Is that a request for assistance?"

"Yes! What does it sound like?"

"Like a series of vulgarities." He picked her up and deposited her carefully on the toilet.

"Now this is what I call being waited on. Good practice for the days when I'll be a doddering old lady."

"You will still be my bondmate," Spock said with unexpected seriousness.

While he was carrying her back to the bedroom, she looked around and started to laugh. He put her down on the bed again. "What is amusing you?"

"It's marvelous! Look, you left your clothes all over the floor."

"The cause was sufficient."

She smiled up into his eyes. "I hope so."

He retrieved the clothes, put them down the laundry chute, and placed his boots in the closet. He reached for his robe, glanced back at her, and left it there. She pushed up the pillows and leaned back on them, watching him. "Good. You're not cold?"

"No." He shook his head and sat opposite her. "How long until you're back on duty?"

"2.4 hours. There is to be a meeting of the landing party. You will be needed as well."

"I haven't even started my report."

"The captain does not expect it. If you recall, you are under orders to rest."

"I'd love to put in for commendations for T'Nila and Grace." Spock's eyebrow rose, and she smiled ruefully. "Don't push Jim's patience that far?"

"A very short time ago, you were grateful not to be facing a board of inquiry."

"I know. I'll test the waters carefully."

"You are planning to go swimming with him?"

"Don't tease. Grace and T'Nila were wonderful, and I wouldn't have expected so much of them when we started. They both... how can I put it? Pushed themselves, not only beyond the call of duty, but past their own prejudices as well. That's harder to do."

"A valuable lesson," said Spock. He reached for her hands. "My wife, I believe that I owe you an apology."

Christine looked at him and nodded gravely. "Yes, you do."

"I am sorry, Christine. I was unreasonable."

"Illogical, as I told you." She lifted his hand and slowly kissed the long fingers.

"I am..."

"Oh, Spock. We won't get anywhere if you start with 'I-am-a-Vulcan-you-are-my-wife.'" She saw the flash of hurt in his eyes. "I'm sorry, too. That came out wrong. It's true, of course it is. Beyond any argument. But you always say it as though it's the end of the subject, instead of the beginning. The question is, where does it leave us? What does it mean?"

"Christine... you use 'I love you' in the same fashion."

"That's different."

"Is it, my wife? What, exactly, does it mean?"

Christine opened her mouth, indignant, and shut it, thinking. "Oh, damn. You're right."

"I have been afraid of losing you," said Spock slowly.

"Losing me? Me?" She took him by the shoulders and shook him slightly. "For god's sake, Spock. I love you. I've been in love with you for twenty years! What kind of proof do you need?" He looked at her, eyes tender, letting her hear her own words. She figured it out. "Oh... The beginning of the subject, not the end?"

"Yes. Sometimes we seem to speak at cross-purposes."

"More than we need to. Are we both just groping for ways to say that we're... important to each other?"

"I believe so. Christine, I regret having seemed to demand that you surrender your intelligence or your independence. Those are qualities worthy of respect. But..." He looked at their clasped hands. "The desire to protect you... even what you deem possessiveness..." He was trying very hard to be honest. "Those are deeply rooted in the Vulcan psyche. They do not necessarily have to translate to a need to dominate. Can you understand that?"

She sighed. "If you can understand that when I say 'I love you...' Spock, it's not a casual or trivial thing! Not something I'm going to change my mind about."

"Humans..."

"You didn't marry humans, you married me. You know me inside out, mentally, physically, backwards and forwards. Am I the fickle type?"

"Hardly."

"You don't need to control me to keep me, because you're going to keep me, no matter what. Can you get that through your Vulcan skull?"

"My wife."

"Exactly, O possessive one."

"Christine. Shall I keep you in a pumpkin shell?"

She laughed and crawled into his lap. "You remembered that?"

"After some searching of my memory."

She kissed his collarbone and the base of his throat, and they slid down carefully to lie facing each other. //We could go get some lunch. Or...//

//Are you hungry?//

//Depends what you mean.// Her hand drifted down to his groin.

//The choice is becoming obvious.//

//Increasingly obvious.// The movement of her hand gave point to the words.

//Your sense of humor is tasteless.// //Only in bed.//

"Your back is sore," he observed, reading her. "Roll over and I shall rub it."

"You know what that does to me." She turned happily on her stomach, and gave a soft whimper of pleasure as his hands moved firmly up and down.

"Naturally. Why do you think I do it?"

"Leonard did say that I should have physical therapy."

"Then this is medically indicated. Do not wiggle, my wife."

"I can't help it!" She turned over and held out her arms.

//Bondmate.//

//I love you, Spock.//

Chapter Text

Uhura was the first to reach the briefing room. Before going off duty she had coded and sent a long transmission from Kirk to Malenkov at Starbase XI. By her calculations, the reply should have come while she was asleep; she was very curious about what it would say.

She got herself a cup of coffee and glanced at the time; the others should be arriving any minute. She had been mentally reviewing the outcome of the mission and her own performance as leader of the landing party. The mission had been successful on both scores: solving the colony's fertility problem and halting the nirvana production. The Federation should be satisfied. And the women? They might be given the resources to rebuild, but would they have the heart? Would they agree if it meant accepting help from outsiders? And if not, what would happen to them?

The price to the colony of the mission had been painfully high; she had tried and tried to see if there was a way she could have done better, could have reduced the cost. She didn't honestly think that there was. She had made mistakes, sure, but not crucial ones, and she would learn from them. The captain had offered far more praise than criticism when she had given her preliminary report; she had the feeling that she might be leading more landing parties in the future.

He came in then, twirling a tape loosely between his fingers, with the confident bounce in his walk which meant that all was right on the Enterprise, in his world. The other senior officers and the members of the landing party trickled in behind him. It was the same group, Uhura realized, that had met initially, the day Kirk had laid out the problem for them. The women looked battered but rested, and curiously serene, as if they had been tested, and not found wanting.

Kirk cleared his throat and tapped the tape on the table, gathering everyone's attention. "This is only the most preliminary of meetings," he said. "I won't keep you long. Several of you..."

"Should be in sickbay," said McCoy with a scowl. "Hurry it up, Jim."

"It'll go faster if you don't interrupt, Bones." McCoy sat back with a snort, and Kirk continued, "I thought you'd rest easier if you knew exactly where things stand now. Certainly," he looked at the landing party, "no one has a better right to know."

"Have you received a reply from Admiral Malenkov?" asked Uhura.

"I have indeed." Kirk looked at the tape and clicked it into a computer slot. "I won't bore you with the whole thing; most of it I can summarize in less time than it takes Malenkov to clear his throat. But there's one part I think you should hear."

Malenkov's florid face flashed onto the screen. "...when I see you," he was saying. "Moving to the next matter, as regards your recommendation for commendations to be issued to Commander Uhura, Lt. Commander Chapel, Lts. Ichigawa, T'Nila and Dawson, and Ensign Thelit, this must, of course, be dealt with in a regular manner."

Uhura looked around the table, smiling, meeting eyes which showed varying degrees of astonishment. Malenkov was continuing. "However, I am quite prepared to accept your recommendation; as I said before, Starfleet views your resolution of this troubling matter with approval. Upon receipt of the proper forms with supporting evidence, notations will be placed in their files. You can pass on to them my personal appreciation. They, and you, can take satisfaction in your vital contribution to the safety and health of the Federation."

Kirk switched off the picture, and grinned at them. There was a pleased chorus of "Thank you, sir."

"My thanks, ladies, and congratulations."

Keiko, smiling at Sulu, asked, "Captain... does Admiral Malenkov always talk that way?"

"He has ever since I've known him, and rumor says, ever since he went to the Academy."

"I can see why you didn't want to play the whole tape."

"Captain, might I be permitted to ask a question?" It was T'Nila, every hair in place, calm restored, but no longer quite so rigid.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"For what reason do you thank us? I am aware of human social customs, but there seemed to be more meaning than usual in the phrase."

Kirk grinned at her, hazel eyes dancing. Uhura, watching, thought without rancor that T'Nila really was very beautiful. And Kirk's reaction to a beautiful woman was automatic. "Perceptive of you." His face grew more serious. "This mission, and the ways in which you've reacted to it, handled it... It's shaken up my thinking a little, and that's not a bad thing at all. In fact, it's a very good thing, especially for a captain."

"I see."

"For me to think of any person or group of people in one set way is more than unfair, it's dangerous. To my ship, to my crew - and I can't afford that. The day I stop being able to learn is the day I should give up my command." He smiled again, looking around the table. "And I hope that day is still a way in the future. So," he turned his hands palm up, "I thank you."

"Indeed, sir." T'Nila nodded gravely. "That is a logical explanation."

"Now for the rest of the news. As you know by now, we're riding herd on two smuggler's ships, the brig is crammed, and security is working double shifts."

"Sir," said Keiko, "request permission..."

"Later, Ichigawa. I asked for support, and a couple of ships - the Inuit and the Carl Gustav - are being diverted to take them off our hands. The fact that we have both Evans and his partner is quite a bonus."

"I doubt Evans will go to trial, Jim," said McCoy. Kirk looked at him inquiringly. "I've ordered him put in isolation. He's showing increasing signs of violent megalomania, and I don't think he's faking."

"Like Garth," Kirk murmured, and McCoy nodded.

"Very like. And with about the same prognosis. He'll end up on Elba II."

"I have questioned Evans's partner," said Spock. "His name is Vorn, a Tellarite obviously, and a career criminal. He admits little about his own part in the affair, but he says frankly that Evans's behavior has grown more and more erratic and dangerous in the past weeks. He sounds rather... disgruntled... by the whole business."

"Well it's up to the lawyers now. But close behind the ships that'll take the prisoners is a supply ship with technical support for the colony. After they're established, the Enterprise is free - and we've been granted six standard weeks leave, starting when we hit Starbase XI."

If it had been a larger group, they would have cheered. As it was, a happy babble broke out. Six weeks. A leave of that length didn't happen very often. Christine said softly, "Long enough to start feeling like a family again."

"Indeed." murmured Spock.

She frowned, personal contentment warring with a larger concern. "What about the colony? Support to rebuild, sure, but what are the conditions?"

"There are always strings," agreed Uhura, "and you can bet that Sappho will be looking for them."

Kirk nodded. "I've already mentioned it to her, but I couldn't be specific until I'd gotten word from Starfleet. Malenkov wants an outpost on the planet, to guard the virula and harvest it."

"They won't like that... Demeter certainly wouldn't have allowed it. She would have died..." Uhura stopped, sighing. "She did die, rather than compromise her principles."

"But Sappho's more flexible," said Christine thoughtfully. She cocked her head at Kirk. "She's like you - she can still learn."

"I got that impression from her," agreed Kirk. "I think she'll at least listen. It's not one sided - they'll get all the help they need to rebuild, and payment for the virula. The outpost will be there, but it won't be on top of the settlement."

Uhura nodded. "It's not a bad offer."

"I'll do my best to make her see..."

"You'd better try the whole council, or what's left of it. She'll need a consensus."

Kirk stopped, his hand on the intercom button, and studied her. "You do it."

"Jim?"

"Your mission, Uhura, Chapel, the rest of you. I trusted you to do it. I trust you to finish it."

* * *

The wide ports on the recreation deck were open to the view. Beta Psi III hung against a background of faint stars, blue and green on the sunlit side, softly gray beyond the terminator.

"And that's the basic outline of the deal," finished Uhura.

"I see," said Sappho, her eyes fixed on the planet.

"There'll be plenty of details to be worked out, of course, but..." She stopped, giving Sappho and the others time to think.

The rec room was crowded, cots and bedding piled high by the walls, dirty plates and half-full cups on all the tables, women in every chair and perched on the floor. Babies cried and children played, their natural restlessness overcoming the strangeness of their surroundings. More than three-quarters of the colonists were there, and another dozen were still in sickbay. There had been fewer deaths than it had seemed at first; more scattered groups of survivors had been picked up in the past day.

One of the last groups to be located had been the children from the nursery, hidden in a swamp behind the settlement. Their caretakers, fiercely protective, had refused to come out until Sappho had beamed down to reassure them.

Now the members of the landing party sat with Sappho and the other council members in the seats nearest the viewports. Looking at the women, Christine thought that Demeter's absence left a palpable void. It was astonishing the moral force that had existed in that aged figure. Her death left a gap, and a deep sorrow, but it also gave an air of freedom to the group. She wondered if they saw it that way. The decision would be made by the entire community, and the atmosphere was thick with a mixture of hope and tension.

Sappho turned, and looked hard at Uhura. "Do you think this is a fair offer?"

"Yes, I do."

"You think we can trust the Federation?"

"Yes." She leaned forward, intent. "Sappho, all of you, think about it. Not about what you've been told or taught, but about what's happened. Judge us by what we've done. If you don't think by now that you can trust us, I don't know what I can say to convince you."

"Trusting you and trusting the Federation are two different things," said someone in the crowd.

Uhura sighed. "I know that. But in a way, we are the Federation. Its representatives."

"Demeter would never have allowed it."

"Maybe not. But it's your decision now, not hers."

"Grandmother wasn't right about everything," said a new voice. Lilith had been allowed out of bed for the meeting; she sat curled in a chair, a blanket around her shoulders, with Grace taking unobtrusive readings of her condition every few minutes.

"What do you think we should do, Lilith?" asked Sappho, smiling.

Lilith considered for a moment, obviously pleased to be asked. "Grandmother said something to me about not being afraid, but being vigilant. I think that's what we should do."

"She also said that the system was rotten," Sappho reminded her.

"That's why we should be careful, then. But maybe she was wrong."

An indignant babble of voices broke out, and Sappho waved her arms for quiet. She looked around. "Lilith has as much right to be heard as any of you. More, maybe, because she'll be living with our choices longer."

Lilith lifted her chin defiantly. "I like Dr. McCoy," she said, "even if he is a man. Grandmother was wrong about that, too, so..."

"It is a fallacy to extrapolate from a single fact," said T'Nila. "However..."

Lilith grinned. "I like you, too. That's two facts, T'Nila."

"However," T'Nila continued, hands folded precisely in her lap, "as a governmental entity, the Federation has a better than usual record of keeping its promises."

"Have you thought of the consequences of refusing?" asked Keiko practically. "Of leaving yourselves open to more attacks? And make no mistake about it, without protection you will be attacked."

Rahab, sitting next to her, nodded. "To my mind, that's the best argument. Purity of principle isn't much good if it leaves us vulnerable to the worst scum of the galaxy." She looked at the floor, face contorted. "Can any of us risk losing more of our children the way that I lost Morgan?"

"Think of what you can learn, too," said Keiko, stroking Rahab's bent head.

Rahab nodded, wiping her eyes and sighing. "Goddess, I never would have guessed the technical advances we've missed out on."

"Technical advances aren't everything," said someone else.

"No," said Rahab, "but they aren't nothing, either."

Christine had stayed silent up until now, but there was one point that she wanted to make, one lesson that she had taken away from the mission. "It's not just technical advances," she said. She had to almost yell to be heard; she'd traded in her chair for a crutch, but it was easier to stay sitting down. When she had collected attention, she said, "I think we've all - every one of us - learned something from you. And I think you've learned from us. That's what you'll be getting that you've missed."

"Ideas?" Sappho asked.

Christine nodded. "Not just machines or drugs or credits or even protection from attack. Ideas. You have a lot to offer, but if you close in on yourselves you'll stagnate and wither."

"Should we risk the corruption of outside contact?"

"How much do you trust your own beliefs if you're afraid to test them?"

As if by association of ideas, Sappho turned to Grace. "What do you think? You've been very quiet."

"She thinks we're all going to hell unless we mumble incantations to an old man in a nightgown," called a voice from the back.

"That's not fair," said Lilith indignantly. "Grace can't help it; she doesn't know any better."

To Grace's credit, she managed a smile. "I can speak for myself, Lilith. As a missionary, I'm not much use, I've discovered. I'm not going to presume to tell you what to do anymore. You won't listen anyway. I'll simply pray for you. God will take better care of guiding you than I could."

"Thelit?" asked Sappho. "You're the one person we haven't heard from." Her eyes rested on Thelit's arm. "We never expected to have to fight, but if we had medals, you'd surely get one."

"I have been thinking," said Thelit. "I haven't spoken because I have more at stake than the others."

"More?"

"I joined Starfleet to get away from Andor, not because I wanted it for itself. Now..." She stopped, and looked at Sappho.

"Do you want to stay with us?"

"If you'll have me."

"You don't need to worry about that." She looked at the others. "Agreed, sisters?"

There was a chorus of assent, and Grace sighed ruefully, "They're better at making converts than I am."

"You may do better if you're not so grim about it," said Uhura with a twinkle.

"Does anyone else have more to say?" asked Sappho. There was silence, full of the sound of breathing and shuffling. "If no one else does, I do. As leader of the council, I was responsible for calling for help in the first place, and I'm not sorry that I did." She nodded toward the landing party. "They've asked for trust, and I think they've earned it. I'm willing to give the Federation a chance." She took a deep breath. "Demeter was my mother and I loved her. I honor her memory. But Lilith is right. Demeter was as mortal as any of us, and just as capable of being wrong. As I see it now, we open up to the outside, or we die. We're strong, strong enough to be flexible. Strong enough to learn, and strong enough to teach, too. And most of all, strong enough not to be afraid."

Chapter Text

There was no formal vote, but after Sappho spoke, the sense of the meeting was clear. Sappho, looking tired but hopeful, came over to where the landing party was still sitting. "I'm glad," said Uhura.

"I'm scared," said Sappho frankly. "But it's the only answer." She studied them, one by one, and then reached out and hugged Uhura warmly. Each of them in turn was caught in a brief embrace, even an astonished T'Nila. "When you first came to the colony, I didn't want to do this. But now you're my sisters."

The noise level in the room was rising to an excited pitch, as if, for all its dangers, the future was now more compelling than the past. The door signal was barely audible over the babble. The crew members went to answer it, and Sappho followed closely.

The noise died away at the sight of Kirk and Spock in the doorway. Kirk looked a question at Uhura, and she indicated Sappho. Sappho stood straight. "We accept the offer, Kirk," she said decisively. "But I want to see it in writing."

Kirk nodded. "You'll have it in writing." He smiled slightly. "I can even recommend a good lawyer to advise you on the details."

"Woman or man?"

"I know one of each, actually. You can take your pick."

Sappho studied him, and seemed to reach a decision. "You can come in," she said abruptly. "I guess we should start getting used to the sight of you."

Spock's eyebrow rose, and Kirk's mouth twitched. "Thank you." He wasn't used to being given permission to move around his own ship. "Does the invitation extend to Mr. Spock as well?"

"To anyone who's willing to come with an open mind."

"A pretty stiff requirement, but I think we can qualify."

"I've brought along a special ticket of admission," drawled a voice behind Kirk.

Kirk and Spock moved into the room to make room for McCoy, guiding a glide chair. Sappho dropped to her knees next to it. "Astarte! Should you be out of bed?"

"Just for a few minutes," said McCoy.

"I'm all right," said Astarte. "Just tired. You've decided to deal with them?"

Sappho took her hands. "I don't think we have any choice, love. It may even be a good thing." Her voice asked for understanding.

"You're right," said Astarte quietly.

"I hope I am. But I'm glad," her voice shook a little, "that you can see it." She kissed Astarte gently.

Astarte glanced up at McCoy. "He wants me to write a paper."

"On the effects of the radiation on the enzyme," said McCoy.

"Do you want to? You know how the scientific community treated Demeter."

"He says it's different now. Better. Yes, I do want to do it. For Demeter."

"Can you get it printed?" Sappho asked McCoy suspiciously.

He held up his hands. "I'm a doctor, not a publisher. But I do have a few friends. If it's good, it'll get printed."

"It will be good," said Sappho confidently.

Astarte laughed, just as Lilith, trailing Grace and her blanket, rushed up to her. "Mother! They told me you were all right, but they wouldn't let me see you." She flung her arms enthusiastically around Astarte's neck. Astarte returned the hug, before Grace and Sappho hauled Lilith back.

"Don't jump all over her," Grace scolded.

Astarte smiled, holding Lilith's hand. A little of the glow was coming back to her ashen cheeks. "I wanted to see you, too, Lilibell." Lilith gave a painful smile, her eyes filling with tears at the use of Demeter's pet name.

"Back to sickbay with you now," ordered McCoy. "I'll take her," offered Grace.

"Lilith and I will follow you in a minute," Sappho said. She turned, to find Kirk standing again at her elbow.

"Have you been spreading disaffection among my crew?" he asked. It was hard to tell if he was joking or angry. Sappho's eyes slid past him to Thelit, whose chin was tilted proudly up.

"What's all this about?" asked McCoy. "Ensign Thelit..." said Kirk in exasperation. "I've decided to stay here."

"Are you sure?" McCoy asked gently. He noticed that Uhura, Christine and T'Nila had drifted over to stand protectively behind Thelit. "We'll miss you."

Thelit looked down at her arm. "You would miss me anyway. No matter how good my new arm will be, I'd still be rotated to shore duty, you know that."

"You'll be giving up a lot," warned Kirk.

"Less than I'll be gaining," said Thelit. She tilted her head, antennae curving in anger. "I'm formally filing my resignation. Are you going to try to stop me?"

"What do you expect me to put on your resignation form?"

"Personal hardship is a valid reason," Christine observed.

"To be used at the captain's discretion," said Uhura smoothly.

Kirk looked at them sharply. "Would you object if this were a more... conventional colony?" Uhura pressed.

Kirk looked toward the planet. "We can use a trained nurse," said Sappho, watching him.

"In these circumstances," commented T'Nila, "the choice is logical."

He turned back to Thelit. "Very well, Ensign. If I rush it, we can get the paperwork done before we head for Starbase XI. I assume you'll want to spend your leave here?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Good luck. I hope you won't regret it."

Thelit shook her white head. "I won't. I can belong here. I have no real home..."

"You do now," said Lilith, beaming at her, and Thelit smiled back.

* * *

Keiko was sprawled on a low couch with her feet up, watching the scene shrewdly. "The captain's going to put through Thelit's resignation request."

"She has to get his permission?"

"Don't be so touchy, Rahab," Keiko said affectionately.

Rahab twisted around, wrapping her arms around her knees, and studied Keiko. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Don't play games. Will you stay?"

Keiko sighed. She hadn't been looking forward to this. "No, Rahab. I can't."

"Can't, or don't want to?" asked Rahab, hurt. "We could use you. I could love you. With Morgan gone..."

"Oh damn it, Rahab! That's not fair." Keiko bit her lip. "I'm sorry, really I am. I know, and I wish I could help. But it's no good for either of us if I stay out of pity."

"Then stay for your own sake." Rahab leaned forward.

"But I'm not..." Keiko pushed back her hair, shaking her head. "I'm not like Thelit. I have a home, a family to go back to, a career that means a lot to me. I do love you, but I can't stay. If you insist on putting it that way... I don't want to stay."

"Well that puts me in my place!" Rahab started to get up.

Keiko caught her ankle. "You said we could be friends, no matter what."

Rahab tried to pull away, and then stopped. "Yes, I did say that, didn't I? Maybe I was wrong. Does this have anything to do with that man?"

"Sulu?" Keiko thought hard, trying to be honest. "Yes and no. I don't love him more than I love you. I could..." more honesty, "probably find you as desirable if I made the effort..."

"But in the balance, it's not worth the effort?" Rahab sounded less bitter than thoughtful.

"It doesn't come down to him versus you. If I were really committed to one of you... but I'm not. It's my life here, or life in the colony, and I've found out that with all the problems, I'd rather stay here."

Rahab nodded, tears in the corners of her eyes. She shrugged. "I think you're wrong." She looked down for a moment, and when she raised her head again, her eyes were clear. "But friends anyway." She looked around the room. "There are more men here."

Keiko sat up straighter, scanning the crowd. She waved. "There's Sulu."

Rahab looked at her. "Do you expect me to wait around to meet him?"

"Not if you don't want to. But he won't call you 'lassie'."

"All the same, I'll take my chances with Scott. He promised to lend me back copies of his journals. It helps. I cry less when I work." She was on her feet by the time Sulu strolled up, smiling. She gave him one comprehensive glance and said, "I doubt you're good enough for her," as she turned away.

"What was that about?" Sulu asked, face alert with curiosity.

"A long story." As she told it, she watched Rahab.

After five minutes, Rahab was deep in one of Scotty's journals, making hasty notes, and asking questions, her face intent. At one point her voice floated above the general babble. "Then if we reverse the energy flow through the bypass..."

"Aye, lassie, but only if..." The rest of Scotty's sentence was lost.

"Luckily," Keiko finished, "she's much more interested in her work than she is in me, and it will help her more in the long run."

"Luckily for me, too," said Sulu.

"The gym at 2015?"

"Good idea. I've learned some new tricks while you were gone."

"Think you can throw me?" Keiko gave a ferocious glare.

Sulu put up his hands in mock horror. "I can try."

* * *

"What's Vulcan like?" demanded Lilith.

Spock looked taken aback. "Vulcan is the English translation of the native name for the fourth planet of the 40 Eridani system. Its period of rotation is 391 standard days. It is class M, with an atmosphere composed of..."

"That's not what I wanted to know. T'Nila, you tell me."

"The population is approximately 56.3 million. The largest city is..."

"You're not answering my question."

"Oh yes, they are," Christine told her, smothering a laugh. "They're demonstrating. Vulcan is a place where everyone talks that way. That's the first thing about it."

"Oh," said Lilith. "I thought maybe it was just them."

"I'm afraid not."

"Do your children talk that way?"

"By and large, yes."

"But you don't."

Christine met Spock's eyes, seeing the amusement there. "I'm not Vulcan, as I prove at every turn."

"Indeed, my wife. For example, you seem to understand what information it is that Lilith requires."

"I think I'd like to see Vulcan someday," said Lilith thoughtfully.

"Maybe you will," said Christine, "but right now you're overdue back in sickbay. I'll come by later and tell you more."

McCoy collected Lilith on her way toward the door, and escorted her out. Christine, Spock and T'Nila were left standing by the viewport at one end of the packed, untidy room. Christine leaned on her crutch, shifting the weight off her swollen ankle. Most of the women were still clumped suspiciously together, but a few were beginning to mingle with the Enterprise crew. Kirk, Sappho, and several council members had their heads together over a first draft of the treaty. Rahab was gesturing to a computer diagram, explaining it to another group, backed up by Scotty. And a more casual knot of people had gathered around Keiko and Sulu.

"Not bad," said Christine after a moment.

"A satisfactory outcome to the mission," agreed T'Nila.

"At first you thought they were illogical," Christine reminded her.

"They were, and would have remained so, had they stayed chained rigidly to one mode of thinking. They exhibited the capacity to change. That is logical."

"The ability to learn from new experiences is basic to intelligence," said Spock.

T'Nila lifted her eyes to his. "Indeed."

"You will remain on the Enterprise?"

"Yes. That is clearly the best course, in spite of Sarel's death. It is an appropriate posting. I have much to learn here." She looked thoughtfully at Christine. "And also much to teach."

Spock's eyebrow rose. "Nowhere can logic be more useful than on a ship of humans," he agreed.

//Don't be pompous, Spock,// Christine told him, her arm brushing against his.

"A simple statement of fact, my wife," he said aloud, and T'Nila glanced at them sharply.

"If I am bonded again," she said slowly, "I may, of course, have to transfer."

"It might be preferable for your bondmate to join you here," said Spock. "Or... as an adult, it is not imperative for you to accept a new bonding. You could elect to choose for yourself." Both Christine and T'Nila stared at him.

"That is not traditional," said T'Nila. //Spock!//

//The ability to learn from new experiences, Christine.//

"It is not traditional," agreed Spock, "but what is not traditional may be logical." Christine, smiling, lifted her free hand, and his fingers rested against hers.

"I will consider it," said T'Nila, both eyebrows arched. She looked at them for a moment longer and moved gracefully away.

"Well at least I won't have to pester Starfleet to send us another telepath," said Christine practically. She turned to face the viewport before looking up at Spock; she had not wanted to embarrass him by showing too openly what was written on her face. //You're very special, you know?//

//I might say the same, my wife.//

//I'm hungry. We never did get any lunch.//

//And who was responsible for that?//

/Both of us.// Christine relaxed for a happy moment in the warm accord flowing through the bond. //One problem solved, one time.//

//Yes. We will deal with the others as they come.//

//We always have.//

//It is not always easy.//

//I never thought it would be.//

Behind them, someone cleared his throat loudly. By the "time she turned, Christine knew that her face was unobjectionably composed. Spock, hands now behind his back, looked at Kirk with calm inquiry. "Yes, Captain?"

"I'm sorry to interrupt..."

"We had completed our... conversation, Jim."

Kirk gave a faintly apologetic smile. "Time to mind the store, then. The Inuit and the Carl Gustav are coming in to pick up our prisoners. I'm going to supervise the transfer; I want you on the bridge, Spock. And Christine, you're needed in sickbay."

"As a doctor or a patient?"

"Bones didn't say." Kirk looked out at the planet for a long minute. "The story isn't really over," he said,

musing, "even if our part in it is done. It's up to them now. I'll be very interested in what happens here."

"So will we all," said Christine, as they picked their way through the crowded room toward the door.

The End