"Graduated with honors," says the familiar voice of Commodore Westervliet, "in fact – yes, here it is – the youngest graduate ever. That boy's got the fires of Hell lit under his ass, though no one seems to know why. Maybe it's, you know…"
I lock my knees, standing at attention, and clasp my hands behind my back. I should not be listening to my superior officers, but they are well aware that I am standing in the anteroom, and if they wished to remain unheard, they should have closed the office door completely.
It is already four point nine minutes past the time when the meeting I was invited for should have started.
"I don't know," says another voice, hoarse and somewhat accented. I detect a hint of hostility in the tone and, unobserved, raise an eyebrow.
"It's only to be expected that he'd be compared to his past self, Commander," Commodore Westervliet replies. "And, let me tell you, he's outshining himself on every level, if you know what I mean." He laughs heartily.
The other voice does not laugh. Apparently, the person does not find the assertion witty at all.
Neither do I, as a matter of fact.
"Come in, Ensign," the other voice orders, and I enter the office quietly, keeping my expression neutral in face of the Commodore, his revolting artificial plants, the similarly revolting disorganization of his desk, and the not-at-all revolting scarred visage of the Lieutenant Commander. I feel like I should know this person, but there is no recognition.
"Lieutenant Commander Chekov," the man introduces himself, giving a perfunctory approximation of a salute back, "the Chief Science Officer on the Enterprise."
"Sir," I say, since there is nothing else. I know now who he is – and I do vaguely recall him as an exuberant boy, not quite a man yet, full of mathematics, physics, wonder of the universe and hero-worship for his Captain. Looking at him now is like looking at a whole other person – from that scar, which had obviously not received proper medical attention, to the diamond-sharp look in his eyes, to the square jaw, to the little copper hoop in his ear, mostly hidden under his hair.
Lieutenant Commander Chekov's presence in this meeting means that all my effort has finally come to fruition.
"You have requested assignment to the Enterprise," Lieutenant Commander Chekov says idly, closely observing my face.
"And how does the fact that it is going to be captained by Captain Sulu change that decision?"
My heart stutters. Has Captain Kirk given up on the Enterprise? There hasn't been any talk of promotion this time around – I have assumed he would be going for a third five-year mission.
The Lieutenant Commander's lips twitch. It is not quite a smile, but he has obviously read all my feelings in my expression. "You're different," he remarks.
It is all I can do to not flinch. I have heard it many times – I am unsure why it now affects me so much.
"It is a good thing, mind you," the man continues, waving his hand in the air as though he was attempting to swat away an irritating insect. "We most of us respected the other Spock, but I don't think a lot of us liked him. I did, but then, we both spoke mathematics." He smiles.
I compulsively swallow.
Westervliet leans back in his chair and observes the debate as one would a theatrical performance.
"Are you speaking of the First Officer assigned to the Enterprise prior to the exploratory missions, or of the one recently deceased?" I inquire, a little proud of myself for keeping my tone even and my eyes on the Lieutenant Commander's.
He nods seriously. "They were both very different people. I believe you'll be getting a fresh start, Ensign Spock."
It feels like the greatest validation I have been given in years. I think I will enjoy serving under this man.
It is two days and an hour and seventeen minutes before the scheduled take-off, and the crew is gradually filling out. I have been on board for more than a day already when I am moved to socialize with my new colleagues. The Recreation Room is full, and I do not feel comfortable, but I brace myself and engage in conversation with two other Ensigns in blue science personnel uniforms. One of them is five years older than I, the other eight, but they appear to tolerate my presence well enough, not in the least on behalf of my famous name.
Lieutenant Commander Uhura suddenly shouts in excitement, and the contingent of the Recreation Room converges around her. There are altogether too many officers, assigned to posts for which they are clearly overqualified, but the Enterprise is well-known for being the ship with the most stripes on it.
I climb up onto the seat for a better vantage point, since I have still not grown to my full height.
"They did it!" she yells when Commander Scott waves his hands above his head, demanding a report. "They convinced him!"
"Jim's comin'?!" Commander Scott paraphrases, and then throws his head back and laughs, joined shortly by almost everyone else.
The entire crew is happy to have their Captain back. I observe their joy, sitting down and curling in on myself. There is relief, of course, but it is the painful relief that comes with the catharsis after a great amount of fear and desperate hope. I feel gutted, and try to mimic at least a shade of the happiness going on around me.
"Isn't it great?" the Caitian Ensign demands, gesturing with a replicated flute of champagne. "It's great!"
"It's fabulous!" his human companion agrees, nodding vigorously.
They offer a flute of champagne to me, too. I take it and watch the bubbles form, ascend and disappear into the atmosphere, ephemeral.
Captain Kirk is coming here. I will be on the same ship with him, soon enough.
One last, final step now.
My heart beats so insistently that I fear it will shatter my ribs.
I stand in front of the station to which I am officially assigned, with the full awareness that those assignments are perfunctory at best and I will be expected to attend to anything and everything, at any time it is needed. I am looking forward to the service, aside from all personal motivations to serve on the Enterprise.
I briefly close my eyes and listen to the sounds: five pairs of soles impacting against the floor; the distinct sound of Lieutenant Commander Uhura's heels, accompanied by four sets of standard male boots.
They round the corner.
The Captain swaggers in, all easy smiles and charm. He offers a jaunty hello, says something in a low voice to one of the female Lieutenants, who colors deeper azure and seems pleased at the attention. He asks a couple of questions, nods to the answers, eyes bright and taking in every detail, lips forming the names of the crewmembers as he commits them to memory, hands gesticulating freely when he speaks. He as good as dances between the stations and then suddenly he is here.
And I am still frozen, as though someone has doused me in liquid nitrogen.
"Ensign Spock," Lieutenant Commander Chekov says, coming forth, and nods in a friendly greeting.
"S-sir," I manage, and feel inexcusably young. I think my hands tremble.
Captain Kirk's expression closes completely. His previously bright eyes darken as he looks – very briefly – at me and then turns to his companions. Commander Scott gives me an awkward smile and Commander McCoy keeps staring at me as if he has never seen me before, which is rather an odd position to be in. I must be very different from the Spock he has been used to, because his gaze is unceasing.
I seek assistance from Lieutenant Commander Chekov, who nods at me again, and places his hand on the Captain's shoulder. "Jim, we all know you know what astrometrics are about, so let us get a move on-"
"No," the Captain says. He is half-turned away, and yet addresses me: "Well, Ensign, tell us about your post."
"Sir," I manage, and feeling buoyed now that my voice-box seems to have been released from the sudden grip of muteness, I could describe my job in my sleep.
Frankly, I am not much more conscious of my words than if I was asleep.
Afterwards, the Captain chews on his tongue, finds nothing to say, and with an off-hand salute and a last contemptuous look at the vicinity of my shoulder leaves, followed by his retinue who treat me to a mixture of pity and weary antagonism.
I check the floor under me, but it seems to be clean. Strange. I have been so sure that I was bleeding out.
The Chief Medical Officer takes pity on me.
I find myself admitted to his office, seated in front of a desk that is almost as disordered at Commodore Westervliet's, and offered a tumbler of a contraband alcoholic drink I have not the slightest intention to imbibe. It is, apparently, altogether too easy for the original crew of the USS Enterprise to forget that I am, in fact, underage. Not that alcohol would have any deleterious effect on my body in less than extreme quantities, but it is a pertinent observation nonetheless.
"I do not understand…" I speak into the prolonged, disconcerting silence.
Perhaps my memories are corrupted, yet I still remember those three weeks I spent on board of this ship as a child clearly. There are no gaps, no uncertainties – I recall Captain Kirk being an anchor to me when I was lost. He represented stability and sanity, and while he was as good as radiating staggering sorrow, which I occasionally detected even without the medium of physical contact, he was always kind and filled with limitless, unconditional love for me.
Losing him when my Father re-took responsibility for me had been crushing.
I deduced already years ago, from my Father's reactions and from the none-too-reticent opinions of the survivors of our clan, that I am different now than I was before. I am not the Spock they knew. I am, in fact, a living proof of how differently the psyche develops when exposed to a different nurturing environment.
Perhaps that is the reason for the Captain's cold reception.
"…why Captain Kirk hates me," I finish, mildly embarrassed.
Doctor McCoy mutters something so foul and so depravedly, sexually explicit, that I briefly disbelieve the evidence of my ears. I feel the burn in my cheeks as I force the mental images into the recesses of my mind – to be meditated upon later, in the privacy of my cabin, for their illicitness engenders an uncontrollable excitement that very nearly elicits a physical reaction – and I cross my arms, bracing myself for the response.
The Commander swallows the contents of his tumbler, heedless of their intoxicating effect, and turns to me. His facial expression suggests a strong, presumably enduring, negative disposition toward my person. I consider my personal safety for a moment, before I recall what I have read and heard of this man – he is fair, loyal, and does not break his oaths. Mere anger, or even hatred – which I am duly concerned he feels toward me – would not move him to violent action. Fear might do so, but he does not fear me.
I exhale loudly enough to re-capture his attention.
He scoffs. "He doesn't hate you. I do, no two ways about it, kid – sorry for that, it's a shit thing to do, but then…" he trails off, and I am left to parse out the meaning of his conveyance.
It is quite a puzzle, and as much as I ordinarily enjoy the challenge of puzzles, at the moment I am too nervous for any sort of joy. According to Doctor McCoy, he feels strong negative emotions toward myself that are not directly caused by my own actions. I have accepted a post among those who knew other versions of myself, so I must accordingly accept being the object of their unresolved emotional engagements with… them. With the other Spocks.
Doctor McCoy evidently has a reason to hate the other Spocks.
Captain Kirk, however, still confuses me. If there had been any hatred there, he would have delegated the care of myself as a child to a member of the crew. It had certainly been unorthodox of him to assume the responsibility himself. It hints at a strong positive attachment, and I have been relying on this presumption for a long time.
The Captain's… brush off, as I am forced to term it, bewilders me.
"The thing is," Doctor McCoy suddenly continues, as if the pause has not happened at all, "that you're not him."
"The other Spock," I say, understanding at least that much.
Not for the first time, I am filled with resentment. I should not allow my feelings as much space and influence on myself, but I am told that I am defective as a Vulcan, so it would be futile to try and behave differently. Kaiidth. What is, is. The past is done, the present is set, and it falls to ourselves to form the future.
I wish for Spock's future. The other Spock's. I should not – many have told me so, including my Father and T'Pau, but the desire does not abate. I wish to become him. I wish to have his memories, to resume his relationships and to claim his destiny.
"You're not," the Doctor reaffirms, unaware of how cruel he is being.
The words rend apart the wall shielding me from the worst of my emotions, and I already feel my defenses disintegrating. I have convinced myself that I was ready for this – but I am not. I am still awash with naïve, childish visions of future happiness, of fulfillment, and the crushing of hope is without a doubt the most painful occasion in my… memory. Not in my life. I am sure there were more painful occasions in that time that is now lost to me. My Mother's death, I believe. And the Captain…
Who was I to the Captain?
"You're not his Spock." Commander McCoy presses his clenched fist to his temple. His eyes are closed, preventing him from observing my reaction.
I understand. It is a sudden, heavy, crushing weight upon my chest. It is akin to waking up after a shattering loss. It is the necessity of breathing in cool air despite the smell of burnt flesh still overpowering in it. "I am not his lover, you mean."
McCoy jolts, and then stares at me as if he hasn't expected me to infer this. Captain Kirk's response to my presence was a mixture of pain and self-protective apathy, I can now discern that. Not hatred, as I have mistakenly assumed – as he wished I would assume. On a level that I cannot safely determine, I know him. I have always known him, and I always shall. An untranslatable word alights inside my mind, and I fear it is too early for myself yet too late for the Captain, and while I am not responsible for this tragedy of chronological misalignment, I accept McCoy's anger.
"You're a kid who's got a couple of hazy memories of him," the Doctor says.
I nod. I do not bother to inform him that, owing to my eidetic memory, there is nothing at all hazy about those memories. That they have been my guiding star in the years past – that I have sped through my compulsory education on the Colony and applied to Starfleet Academy at the first opportunity, disregarding my Father's resigned disapproval. That I have toiled and struggled, all in the effort to get back to my Captain as fast as possible. It took me eleven years. For that I am willing to apologize.
"Does…" I allow myself to trail off. I wish to ask, does that automatically render me incapable of loving him? and yet I know already the response my query would receive.
No. No, I shall not expose my vulnerability before anyone but the man for whom I am here.
And if that means acquiring the entrance codes to his cabin, by whatever means that are available to me, whether they be illegal or not, I will do it. I will invade his personal space, I will harass him, I will risk legal repercussions for the chance to recapture what once was stolen from us. I may not remember it, but the black emptiness it left when it disappeared is still an open, crippling wound in my mind.
I cannot rest until it is healed.
"What?" the Doctor inquires dispassionately, as he finishes pouring another tumbler of the sweet-smelling liquid.
"Nothing, Commander," I reply, facetious, knowing that he does not have the wherewithal to interpret my change of mind. "I apologize for monopolizing your time."
"Think nothing of it, kid," the man replies, swallows his mouthful of disgusting alcohol and shivers. "This week, it was about the least nauseating heart-to-heart I've had."
I do not inquire about the meaning of the phrase – instead I offer a generic greeting and depart. Hear-to-heart sounds to me like a medical procedure from Terra's history, and I do not wish to ever know whether it has a literal basis in some of the more ill-advised medical practices of human Middle Age. The figurative meaning is clear enough, when I allow for a little imaginativeness – the sharing of emotionally or sentimentally charged personal information through conversation. A necessary practice for a species unendowed with telepathy.
I pass a pair of chattering Yeomen in the corridor leading to the Sickbay, and they smile at me, momentarily ceasing their discourse. I respond with a nod, which seems to satisfy them. My estimation of their ages suggests that they do not recall my previous assignment to the Enterprise. They are too young. Their responses are too untainted. The original crew tends to look at me askance, to have obvious expectations of myself, to have opinions and emotional ties they are unable to dissociate.
Like the Captain.
It takes two months for me to receive an opportunity for Bridge duty.
It is exceptionally difficult to manage, because in my haste to qualify for an assignment on the flagship, I have concentrated solely on achieving exceptional results in the Science track, neglecting other avenues of education. I could have graduated the Command track, too – but it would have taken an additional year, and that was unacceptable.
I would have missed the cut-off date for this five-year mission.
In the end, I capitalize on the outbreak of cold among the human crewmembers – a virus that I am, fortunately, immune to by virtue of my partial Vulcan heritage. While most of my senior officers are confined to their cabins, I am assigned to Gamma shift.
It is… I hesitate to use the descriptor… boring. We are still flying through the charted space, and there are no dangers to be on the watch for. The shift amounts to eight hours of ennui, disrupted only slightly when Lieutenant Su-krisla falls asleep at her station and her snoring elicits some mocking animal-like sounds from the pilot and navigator stations. She is woken by the other Communications officer, and her subsequent shame makes her the target of further humiliation. At least no one is as spiteful as to report her lapse.
The entire experience is so disheartening that I dread repeating it on the next day – but just before the next Gamma shift starts, Commander Sulu comes in. The crewmen gradually gain the confidence to ask him questions about his adventures. There is a lot of hyperbole, I am certain, but there is also a lot of experience to be second-handedly gained from listening, so I do. I believe that Commander Sulu would be an exemplary Captain himself, should he accept the command of a ship.
Even so, I am selfishly glad that he was not given the opportunity to captain the Enterprise on this mission.
"What about you, Ensign Spock?" Commander Sulu asks suddenly. "What made you decide on the Starfleet?" He does not say 'again', but I can almost hear it.
I affect as much nonchalance as I can muster. "I have always been drawn to a star – the stars, I mean," I correct myself, and I think most of the crew ascribes my slip to a language barrier, but Commander Sulu does not.
He extrapolates from his knowledge of the other Spocks and looks away, discombobulated, choosing not to pursue the topic further.
The other Ensigns are happy enough to fill the time with less galvanized conversation.
A shadow falls on my PADD and I look up into the open face of Lieutenant Commander Uhura.
"May I join you?" she asks.
"Please," I reply. I minimize the word processor window, irrationally self-conscious about my taste in literature. I do not wish to hear Lieutenant Commander Uhura's opinion on Tolkien.
"It is very nice to have you here, as a part of the crew," she says, and once again there's that silent 'again' to which I have no defence.
Even the Captain's explicit rejection, coarse and painful as it was, is better than this. If that makes me a masochist, then so be it. Masochism is, I am reliably informed, a valid preference.
"Thank you, Ma'am," I reply noncommittally.
"None of that formality!" she commands. "Call me Nyota. We-" she cuts herself off, wide eyed.
We, indeed, have not known each other for years.
"Ma'am," I reply blandly.
Her eyes well. I believe this falls under the heading of 'unfair'.
"I have hoped," she professes, "that we might make music some time. It is a joy to listen to you play." There is an eager, wild look in her eyes.
I am very apprehensive about refusing, and yet I remain unable to comply. "Commander, I cannot play a musical instrument. In my haste to complete my education, there was no time left over for extracurricular pursuits."
"Oh," she utters after a while, during which she presumably tries to think of something more appropriate to say and fails.
"I… apologize?" I suggest.
"No!" she exclaims. "No, do not. You should not, of course – that was short-sighted of me. I… am sorry."
"So am I," I reply, instead of the automatic 'your regret is illogical' that would have basically been my Father speaking through me.
Lieutenant Commander Uhura leaves then, with just enough grace to preclude the use of the term 'flees'.
It is my second rotation on landing party, and I am participating mainly because of my extensive knowledge of geological specifics of desert environments.
Also, I presume, although this has not been specifically stated in the briefing, that I am participating because I feel comfortable in higher temperatures, lower humidity and an atmosphere less rich in oxygen. As it is, I experience only mild discomfort standing on the heated surface of a flat rock a short time before meridian.
"My eyes hurt," a Security member complains, using his hand as a makeshift shade over his apparently insufficient protective eye-gear and surveying the plains. The sand is itself crystalline, reflecting the rays of the local star. I myself am not in pain solely due to my nictitating membrane.
The landing party is therefore wholly unprepared when the attack commences.
I look up from a fistful of sand, one knee absorbing the heat of the rock through the thin fabric of regulation trousers and there they are – indigenous people, six-limbed, I believe, wearing camouflage that glitters just like the dunes do, and wielding projectile weapons.
One of the Security members is shot through the head and dead in a shower of wine-red blood before the party realizes what is happening.
I see the weapon aimed at the Captain and all my instincts scream inside my head. I am unaware of moving until it has already been done. Shots thunder, two of them, and I feel as though two iron fists have struck me into the chest, one hitting center, the other slightly off to the left.
The momentum carries me backwards into a person, who manages to remain upright, but grips my upper arms and carries me down to the ground, almost gently. I hear phaser fire and taste copper on my tongue. I cough. Blood bubbles in my throat, and even as voices shout my name I close my eyes and think, it was worth it.
"You know, Spock, they don't let insane people captain ships," someone speaks.
I raise an eyebrow at the statement. Arguably, according to the history of Starfleet as word-of-mouth recounts it, the greater a Captain, the more tenuous a hold on their sanity they had. Captain Archer, for instance – based on anecdotal evidence gathered from his great granddaughter – could not be diagnosed as sane by any stretch of the term.
"I respectfully disagree, Captain," I reply.
There is laughter. A finger, frustratingly cautious, pushes a strand of hair off of my forehead. I open my eyes and see him looking back. My Captain. He is smiling. I would almost be convinced that I am dead, and this is some unanticipated religiously postulated continuation of existence in the afterlife, except that my chest hurts.
"You always do that," the Captain says, exasperated, and takes a seat on the edge of the mattress of the hospital bed. He shakes his head. "Always."
"Do what?" I inquire. Dull ache throbs with every word, but I reroute the information to a part of my conscious where it won't affect my actions.
"All of this!" the Captain exclaims nonspecifically, spreading his arms wide. "Save my life. Sacrifice yours. Scare me out of my wits." He pauses and then presses a fist to his forehead. "Make me laugh," he adds quietly.
"That appears to be my nature, then," I conclude. If three very differently reared versions of myself have resorted to the same patterns of behavior, it must be in my very nature. Although, admittedly, I have known since I was six years old that I would grow up to be this man's satellite.
The imagery makes the corners of my eyes crinkle in the sort of smile I have never been able to fully conceal.
Kirk huffs. "I could do with less of that." Despite his outward amusement, there is very real pain in his demeanor. "Know what? You mess me up. I wasn't fine after you've gotten yourself kiddified – no kidding – but at least I had the other you, but then he died, and now you're here, but you're seventeen and…"
"You are confused," I interpret his monologue. Well, it is understandable. Common wisdom would suggest that Kirk treat the other Spock, the yet another Spock and myself as different people, but when it comes to telepathic bonds and the twinning of katra, there is no compartmentalization that can separate a Spock from a Spock.
"Well duh," Kirk says, almost childishly, and I feel like I am finally seeing the man from eleven years ago – the one that had chased me through Jefferies tubes and told me tall tales about Iowa… the one that had cried quietly in the corner of the cabin when he thought I was asleep, the night before the Enterprise had at the behest of my Father discharged me on the Colony.
I extend my hand and he takes it before he recalls that he didn't mean to, apparently used to it from years of… friendship with the yet another Spock. He tries to pull away, but it is too late. I have his measure now.
He is terribly broken, grieving, but he is still alive, still dreaming and reaching out and capable of love. That is all I need. I already know that he slots perfectly into the empty space inside me.
I use the grip on his hand to pull myself up, closer to him, but he darts forward, pushing me back onto the bed with his other hand. He leans in, so I achieve my objective anyway, probably without even damaging myself further.
I place my hand against his meld-points, whisper: "T'hy'la…" and watch as his protest dies before it is given voice.
Comfortable within the privacy of our – as of yet unofficially – shared cabin, I accept the call from the Colony dressed down to my black undershirt. I admittedly expect it to be my Father, but I am not surprised to face T'Pau.
What does surprise me is the surge of affection I feel looking upon her unapproachable, cold exterior. We exchange formalities; I am reliably informed that both Father and T'Izehl are in satisfactory health, and then T'Pau's eyes narrow. "Would it be appropriate to extend well-wishes upon your bonding?"
I am mortified by how visibly I am certain I flush.
T'Pau's eyebrows climb high above her eyes, and there is a spark of utter filthiness that alights upon her features before it disappears under the veneer of equanimity. "I am given to understand that your return to the Colony is unlikely."
"I follow my bonded," I say, redundantly, for this T'Pau has known since I have set foot onto the Colony. "I do not believe he will choose to live among Vulcans. And yet," this is painful, but I am not as illogical as to close my eyes to the fact, "it is unlikely that he will live long beyond half a century from now, even should his life not be shortened by violent means." Which, knowing Jim, was all too likely.
"You will come back in the aftermath?" T'Pau inquires, steepling her gnarled fingers.
"I imagine I shall go where I am needed at that point in time," I reply. I am eighteen now. With much good luck, I may be seventy before my guiding star winks out of existence. It is far too early to speculate.
"You are wise for one of your age," T'Pau comments, almost idly. "I believe it is the boon of your breeding – wisdom is far more readily accessible to you, even when you still struggle for logic. It is a most interesting phenomenon."
I do not say 'thank you' even though it is on the tip of my tongue. T'Pau is not human to require, expect or accept superficial gratitude.
The door behind me slides open and closed. Light footsteps move across the carpeting, and I feel the weight of my bonded's gaze on the back of my neck. T'Pau's eyes move away from mine, resting briefly on Jim.
"Greetings, Captain Kirk," she says.
"Greetings, Elder T'Pau," Jim replies, and leans his hip against the desk mere inches from my right elbow. Now I am incited to look up at him, and my breath catches in my throat as it still does sometimes. There is too much satisfaction, too much joy, to engender simple happiness. It still feels like sandpaper applied to the inside of my skull occasionally, but my mind has come to equate Jim with ecstasy.
Perhaps my somewhat facetious assessment of my masochistic inclination was actually based in reality.
It does not bother me.
I divert my attention back to T'Pau, who is looking upon me with nary a raised eyebrow. She has quietly been my staunchest supporter in my endeavours through being my least effective opponent. Her counter-arguments have served well to replenish my determination whenever it dwindled.
I owe her much.
"Should I be needed, I will be available to the Colony," I promise.
And T'Pau logs off with the suggestion of a smile around her eyes, knowing that when I promise something, I do not stop until I achieve it.