Spock opened his eyes on the heavy stone surrounding him. The holes in the roof were darker than the hazy light on the ceiling. Three hours, fourteen minutes and forty-nine seconds had passed. He closed his eyes again. He could not fail to know the time any more than he could forget his name. But he also could not allow himself the luxury of straining over the failure of knowing.
Spock sat up. His deep inhalation of the thin air rasped against the stillness. He held his breath and let the silence penetrate him. He almost considered what he could have done to raise his class ranking at the academy. He almost considered what Kirk might be doing just then. He stood and went to the narrow windows where the barest cool breath drifted in. Myriad stars penetrated the dark half of the sky to the left.
He had one task and that was to release himself from all concerns especially those things that were the most pleasing aspects of his life. All emotion was disruptive here, negative and positive. Zienn had given him the disciplines he needed in the last month. Among humans, Spock had been pleased to embrace the new techniques so as to possess a newfound control, to be more safely Vulcan. But as he stood here upon a sacred mountain where there would be no limit except his abilities, he saw these new skills as a doorway to another place, a place he would not return from unchanged.
Spock swallowed and leaned his brow against the gritty edge of the window opening. Deep meditation had not revealed the core of his difficulty, but stepping though his conscious mind had. Fear and need were limiting his ability to simply know himself.
One last time, Spock allowed Kirk to be there with him, head tilted just so, listening with affection, mouth contrastingly firm. Only a human could showcase so much dichotomy so effortlessly. The cool air shifted through the room like Kirk's ghost. Kirk's voice came to him in memory. "You're strong enough for far more than this. The Spock I know isn't so easily damaged as that."
Spock closed his eyes. He dare not imagine more of Kirk than his commanding voice. Someday he would hear him again, would feel his softly padded human touch. But first Spock had to do as instructed, and trust in his own depths.
He pulled the sleeping pads aside and stretched out upon the unyielding anchor of the bare stone in a posture of meditation. Methodically, he stepped through his new disciplines, became them, let them leach through his sinew through to his fingertips.
The mind quiet of the mountain bore up Spock, pulled around him a cocoon of flowing, vast, comforting stillness. Within his new controls, his mind still turned on its own cares. Every small internal disquiet loomed large in this vast mind space. He applied another discipline with no hurry, no strain about success or failure. The swirl of his thoughts slowed, became orderly, shed their attachments to emotion, became a core of potential with no limits.
Yet another planet in yet another system. Kirk flipped the forward Skuttle display to show the exterior view. A network of blue-green cracks scored the curved planet surface beneath them. The cracks were deceptive at this altitude, diminutive openings to kilometer-deep canyons. The planet's top surface rolled beneath their flight path as a burnished rough slate. The canyons by contrast sparkled teal and grey and brown. White the crystal rock. Green and teal the primitive plant matter catching the light, glowing of its own chemical accord. Brown where matter had been burned out by weapons fire.
You could tell how important some bureaucrat dreamed a system might be by the ratio of letters to numbers in the star's designation. This one had been designated GWO88-234 by someone looking to settle peacefully, perhaps do some mining. Those looking to harry a superior armed force would have give it a far friendlier name. The place was optimum for setting up an ambush, for hiding indefinitely.
Behind Kirk, Ying and Verna were comparing in crude, low tones the first time they'd gotten laid by someone they hated because they were the only one available. Verna was not at a station, but Ying was at Gunner. It said a lot about Kirk's own situation that he found the crude bodily function laden conversation arousing rather than obnoxious. Weeks and weeks. He didn't want to count them. His imagination had gotten tired of trying to make up for a lack of partner.
Their descent brought them to the surface. Kirk cleared his throat. "Full attention on displays, Team."
The cabin fell still and intent. They'd been promoted to this mission for increasingly good reviews and his team knew it. The Skuttles continued to plummet. The cracks in the surface became corridors, became wide long pits with purple and blue-green fuzzy innards. Sensors blipped in the distance on a non-Starfleet frequency.
"Coordinates," Kirk demanded.
"Estimated on screen," Scanner said.
Kirk noted them and continued on course.
"We aren't heading toward the blip, Sir?" Ying said. Kirk had put Uirik in the other Skuttle. In a place with this much enemy and this much hiding space he wanted crisp leadership in every unit. That and Uirik had remained grumpy and snippy with him after his refusal to bed her and this attitude hadn't let up with time. It was at least stable and predictable, and there were no complaints about favoritism and planning sessions went faster since everyone wanted to break as soon as possible and kept on topic.
"I'd leave sensors everywhere if I were defending this place. Make it a carnival show of them," Kirk said.
"There are at least four I can fix on. Shall I pick the closest one off?" Gunner had her hands spread across the targeting controls.
"Not yet. But do a dry-fire practice as we approach it. Reports are that targeting is near impossible once we are in the canyons due to sensor scatter. I want to be used to it, if possible."
They flew down, down until the world flipped horizontal for vertical and endless craggy and shaggy moss covered walls rose up around them, tens of kilometers deep. Sensor displays skewed, righted, skewed again. Gunner shook her head, grimaced at what might be too difficult of a task.
The four Skuttles of Kirk's team platooned at the recommended spacing, not so close as to be caught two in a single barrage, but close enough to provide support within seconds.
They flew along the endless meandering canyons for an entire shift without another blip, couldn't see anything on sensor until they were already on top of or adjacent to it. The stress of each new section of wall appearing didn't let up as they went. Each exhale felt like a victory, each inhalation a struggle against chest-tightening fate.
The overlays were now brighter than the walls. It was time for a break. They were on a loose schedule to a location repeatedly reported as troublesome. Precision of timing turned out to be a vulnerability in this place that the enemy used against Starfleet. Take your time. Be careful. With two Skuttles they could have remained in constant patrol in shifts, never stop at all, but two Skuttles in a patrol was a recipe for not returning from the mission, so four it was, which meant rest.
"We need to bed down for a rest break. Find me a cave or deep niche with a ledge, Scanner. When you do, drop some sounders so we know if anyone comes up from below."
They could rest on the surface, protected by orbital scans and fire, but that meant risking descent again the next shift. Descending was the most vulnerable time. Despite the stress, Kirk felt good, but he felt good because this mission felt like a ship. He didn't like feeling good. It meant he wasn't learning enough.
Sunlight followed darkness followed sunlight. It was impossible not to count these transitions, even as the shifting light blurred at the deepest moments of meditation. He rose to eat, found it annoying how pleasant it was, the cool water tasting of its red jug, the raw seeds bursting with greenery and dry soil, the baked starches bled nostalgic comfort into his tongue. Zienn came for a time, taught him in silence, became a distant unknowable stranger even as Spock inhabited his mind for increasing hours at a time.
He was left alone for increasing stretches as well. When his meditations went well, the shift of temperature and the sweep of sunlight went unnoticed and he no longer had to force forgetfulness on himself to mimic a properly disconnected state. His emotions prickled only occasionally, and usually unexpected ones. The scent of the basket bringing out a nostalgia for his mother's cakes. The hot stone wafted in memories of parents' garden at noontime when he was not supposed to go outside. That in turn brought forth the overly protected early years, his mother's concern winning out over Vulcan tradition, the logic of protecting something because it was so hard to replace.
With ease now, he slipped free of the tethers of these memories as soon as they were recognized. He need not miss that which held no meaning in the present. His mind had been finally been brought to pure order through sluicing everything but the consciousness out until nothing impeded pure thought. In retrospect, so obvious, not really a battle at all.
Zienn sat on the edge of the stone beside Spock. In the intense, looming quiet his teacher's heartbeat thrummed well within hearing. Zienn's thoughts were fixed far away and he didn't meet Spock's gaze. Spock observed him for a time before returning to meditation. He had settled deep into level five when dry fingers pressed against his temple and a mind that felt cavernous, as large as a hollow mountain, settled over his own.
Spock was buoyed within himself, nudged toward a state yet farther within and outside of himself. Spock hesitated, allowed himself the slow churn of meditative thought. He postulated that anything farther out of himself would be somewhere other than himself entirely. He was nudged again, not directed, not shown. He was expected to do this on his own skills, supported within a weightless inner world where he could come to no harm.
Within that patient cradle, Spock let go of the threads of uncertainty and drifted in the direction indicated, fully into a seemingly gray limbo. He lost all sense of time, of the purr of his heart, of the passing of light and dark. He steered himself from awareness of this loss of awareness and slipped away from all physicality like water slipping beneath a pool of oil.
Spock opened his eyes on a muddled gray light. There was discomfort. He was being pulled upright by his left arm. Something hard was pushed into his hands and water sloshed onto his fingers. Maddening thirst swept through him. He lifted the vessel in his hands with the awkwardness of the blind and drank, held it tipped back to obtain the last drops.
"I must take better care of you." Zienn's unused voice was gravel and rust.
He handed Spock a gritty beverage that tasted of slurried nuts. Spock gathered himself and took a gulp of it. His stomach clenched around the materialness of it, reached upward with animal need for more of it.
"The body rightly asserts itself eventually," Zienn said. "Try, if you can, to not over experience how much your body revels in being fed."
Spock thought that impossible without more warning. His clenched hands were shaking on the tall stone cup. He was more hungry than when he'd been stranded with Kirk. He stared into the slurry and fixed those dangerous memories at a distance, inverted his attention as he'd been taught and suspended his thoughts beyond a horizon of his mind, far from any associated emotion. They were gone again a blink later and it was only him, and the cup and patience for what may come or not.
Zienn interrupted this mode as soon as Spock had attained it. He was unexpectedly talkative. "I wish to take you into the temple proper for at least a brief experience. There is only one small group-mind project being attempted at this time. It will be a good time for you to learn to keep your psychic energy isolated and encapsulated."
Zienn waited. Spock hung suspended, forcing himself apart from his rampant hunger and holding himself there while he drank again of the mealy slurry.
"Do you think you are ready for the temple?" Zienn asked.
"I trust in your assessment, Honored Teacher."
Zienn exhaled. "Maybe you are learning too well." He looked Spock up and down. "Finish all I have brought you and rest. I will return and fetch you."
Spock blinked at him through the gloom, uncertain if it were growing lighter or darker. He had never been so lost in time before without moving from place to place. He had never felt so unlike himself or so little like a thinking being. He found words again. "Yes, Honored Teacher."
"The enemy are here to make trouble," Kirk said. Over time he found himself repeating Commander Nueng, but he had no reason to doubt the man who'd given them instructions. But it was lazy all the same.
"You'd think we wouldn't rate so many lives thrown at us," Jon said.
"We are Goliath," Kirk said. "Usually we avoid a fight by just showing our size. Not here."
They were having yet another falsely leisurely breakfast in a deep inner cave system with glowing dirty seams of white quartz wider than the skuttles were long. These glittering spines criss-crossed seams of fractured amethyst, all at a scale too large to bring into proper scale. They'd left manned guns at the entrances but had pulled all their equipment inside. They had to balance the risk of getting trapped with getting caught in the open. At least the cave scanned as strong enough to resist collapse even under attack.
Kirk folded up the remains of his rations and put them in his breast pocket. He wondered what Spock was doing just then. He imagined he was settling fully into temple life, whatever that entailed. Kirk now wished he had the details, so he could go there in his mind, pretend to be with him for a while. His heart prickled.
"According to transmissions overnight, we meet more teams today," Uirik said. "I hope that means we're narrowing in on the enemy."
Kirk pushed to his feet. "Let's hope." The days had become regularized around their new environment. He was ready to break the pattern. Action beyond pot shots at a single escaping target would break it nicely.
"Everyone ready?" Kirk asked. They were all bent toward their own groups. They all looked up for just a pause, stowed everything in three or four efficient motions. Kirk resisted smiling, doing so would ruin it.
They navigated an exceptionally deep canyon at half a klick from the surface. The long strings of usually bright teal ivy were burned out here, turned into blackened corkscrew vines with curled grey leaves. The primary Skuttle scanners chirruped warnings more regularly than previous days. They changed course, fired barrages at sensor sources until they quieted. Someone could easily track their progress from afar simply by noting the series of destroyed equipment. But it was an investment in cutting off the eyes of the enemy for future missions.
They dipped deeper and the warnings went silent for a time. The deep side crevices opened up to slices of sky even at a kilometer deep. It was wider but not safer. It had the same amount of hiding space, the same chances to get shot at from cover.
"Slow down," Kirk said. He stood up from his rear jump seat and came forward. He'd been giving others time at copilot but couldn't bear it any longer, not with the change in environment. Open made him nervous now. His instincts were screaming at the inside of his ears. The fall off in enemy sensors felt ominous on top of the vulnerability of more possible ambush locations with a line of sight.
Their unit hovered, the other Skuttles came up behind, hovered at distance. Kirk studied the boards. No one spoke.
The readings off sensor were hazier than before, the error bars to the right wide and broad. Too much crystal sending spurious reflections here or something broadcasting sensor noise from all around. It wasn't clear which. Jon looked over his shoulder at Kirk from pilot. "Sir?"
Uirik hissed at him to stay quiet. Kirk hadn't noticed her making thinking space for him before. He'd mixed teams up a few days ago and had her back on his own Skuttle. He wondered fleetingly if she'd thought he'd changed Skuttles today to check up on her.
Kirk said, "Let's go in deeper. Anything to break the pattern. Drop another half a klick."
They plummeted. Hovered again. Jon sat with squared shoulders, awaiting instructions. Sensors were a little clearer down here. They proceeded forward at half speed. Kirk wished dearly for a secondary gunner position he could take over.
Sensors pulsed on likely craft readings then faded. Could be friends or enemies. The enemy in this area was reported to be mercenaries hired by a wannabe mining cartel. They wanted Starfleet to give up so the Federation would create a soft border that included this system. Leave them to what might be lucrative returns without fees or oversight. Kirk had no idea before now how many groups would show up to a fight once things got chaotic and the gambling got high stakes.
A sensor indicated friendlies at 1 o'clock, deeper by yet another quarter click. It too faded. Then it chirruped again.
"What is that?" Kirk said.
The center console's wireframe indicated the signals originated from a wide side crevice with a deceptively narrow opening. Their rate of approach would bring them alongside it in three and a half minutes.
"Hold, sir?" Jon's fingers hovered.
"No. Keep pace. I don't want to indicate we're changing course if we've been spotted over our signal masking. Be ready to change on my signal."
Uirik leaned far forward. "What the hells bells. That's a 'Fleet headset signal. They trying to lure us into a kill box? That side canyon looks like the perfect kill box."
The signals blurred again across the spectrum. Something below them flitted across their path on visual that didn't have a clear signal on sensors.
"Keep pace, let the opening pass if I don't say otherwise."
Jon's upper lip began to glisten despite the cool Skuttle air. Kirk considered taking over pilot. His hands gripped and re-gripped the copilot's chair back in response to lacking hold on the actual controls.
Something else flitted by on visual. The errant Starfleet headset signal dropped and rose seemingly at random on the monitor, as if being bounced around.
"Send a standard check-in signal to that headset. If it's really one of ours it will receive," Kirk said. "Get ready to maneuver into that canyon on my signal."
"It's a trap." Uirik's startled red eyes locked on Kirk. He could see her out of the corner of his own. No one else spoke, but everyone froze or moved stiffly.
Kirk spoke calmly. "I don't think so. It's too obvious."
"Signaled, Sir," Hummer said in a professional, flat tone. Kirk liked him all the more.
Uirik stepped back with a loud exhaled huff. She began fitfully putting her armor on despite their altitude.
"Lock on whatever was scurrying around below us," Kirk said. "But hold fire."
"Too blurry for a weapon's lock. Or ID," Hummer said. "It's not a sensor block exactly, almost a bounce stronger than the main signal. Could be the surrounding stone's focussing our background scan back at us."
"Put it on manual," Kirk said. "If you aren't comfortable, I'll take over."
Hummer put weapons on manual, then struggled to keep the scans updated. "Sir." He frowned, shook his head.
"I'll handle it, Crewman." Kirk swung into the seat as it was vacated, heart filling with a competitive joyfulness at finally getting his hands on things.
"Can I instruct our last unit to hold back to cover a retreat?" Uirik was still fastening straps with angry jerky motions.
"Instruct two units to hold back either side of the opening, covering each other." Kirk spoke while rapidly working the board, tracking the fluttering Starfleet helmet signal. Hopefully they're own shielding wasn't leaking and they were still undetected except by an unlucky visual.
Others were adjusting armor, in expectation of damage and landing, although ground of any kind certainly wasn't visible below them, just a misty bluish black jagged crevice that implied it could reach the center of the planet. But they were trusting Kirk over his second, whom they were far more familiar with. Kirk wore only a loose set of breast plates and nothing else and he had no hands free to change that.
More blurry movement below them at the opening to the side canyon, reminding Kirk of a wasp's nest. Odds are there was more activity he couldn't see. He reversed their course and waited, hanging back until he had a positive ID on anything moving down there. As soon as they entered, they'd be inside the trap instead of outside it.
The computer had finally collected enough noisy data to create a composite scan and an enemy drone id spec came up on the targeting display. Several of them.
"That's it. Open fire," Kirk said. He manually fixed two targets and let off a programmed barrage in a scatter pattern to account for his lack of autolock. Something spun, cracked against the canyon wall and blossomed into blue white flare. It ignited the half burned mossy growth on the wall, and hazy smoke began to expand along the canyon opening.
Kirk's impression of a hornet's nest intensified. Blurry units passed through the smoke, which was aiding the sensors by providing an intermediate background. The weapon's board began to autolock. Kirk slid one gun to auto fire and continued handling the other manually. Corresponding fire came from below and to the side from the other Skuttles in their group. Within four minutes the firing fell silent, lacking targets. Orange flames burst periodically from long sinuous clumps of blue mossy growth on the left, like a silent chain of fireworks. It burned rapidly upward and left behind a brown halo on the rock face. The smoke swirled downward and sideways in the canyons' complex drafts.
A single burst of phaser fire emerged straight down from the Skuttle at Kirk's three o'clock. Kirk couldn't confirm a hit from his angle, but slipping far below in the narrows would be one way to get behind their team.
"Signal a simultaneous approach," Kirk said. "I estimate there are enemy still in there and we're just giving them time to find another way out or a better hiding place."
Turned out there were four units still inside, attempting to work their way deep to slip away. All but one ignored hails to surrender, and a second unit had wedged in a passage too small to accommodate the craft and gotten stuck.
"Prepare to take prisoners," Kirk broadcast over the comm, then looked over his shoulder. "Jon and Uirik, you look ready to board."
Uirik was already holstering a phaser rifle on her back. "Get the rock cramps for climbing," she said to Jon. "We'll need them even with a belay. Let's get some prizes."