Measureless to Man

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

-- Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kerr trudged along carefully; the small accumulation of snow had turned icy and threatened to send him headlong back down the hill. He looked up to see how Christine was doing and was surprised to see that she was far ahead of him. He had trained in alpine conditions; the mountain boots he wore were designed to navigate ice and snow much more treacherous than this, and he had thought he was doing well, until he watched her move.

As if sensing his eyes on her, she turned around and said with a grin, "Come on, slowpoke."

"Yeah, well, can I help it that I didn't grow up in the Cascades?"

"You grew up in Calgary, Randall, that's not exactly the endless prairies. Besides, I'm a city girl. I didn't spend much time in the mountains." She laughed as she turned and headed back up the hill. She moved gracefully over the icy snow, never tripping over branches, or slipping on half- covered shale.

"You're like a damn mountain goat."

She just laughed. "If you say so."

He frowned as he looked up. "How far is this cavern?"

"Stephen said it was at the top of this rise."

"Hold up," he said, and was gratified to see her stop and wait for him.

"You want to rest?"

"No. I want to see the trail." He caught up with her and looked up at the hillside. He bent down and touched the snow, tasted the consistency of the ice crystals. "This isn't new snow."

"So?"

"So there should be footprints if this is a trail. How do you know where you're going?"

"Stephen told me."

"There'd be tracks. Even just a few...there hasn't been that much wind since yesterday."

She looked at him as if she couldn't figure out what he was getting at.

In exasperation, he turned her head to the trail. "Stephen didn't come this way."

"Oh, I knew that." She smiled and started to push on.

His hand brought her up short. "What's going on?"

"What fun would it be to go the same way he did?" She shrugged and started moving.

He followed behind her, again losing ground as he slid on the icy snow. She didn't slip once. Then he realized that she wasn't even paying attention to where she put her feet. "You're one with it," he said, remembering what she had told him of Taillte.

She looked back at him and nodded. "Now you're getting it, Kerr." She held out her hand to him. "Trust me?"

"Not in the least, Chapel."

She laughed, but there was a bitter edge to it. "I walked into that one." She looked down.

"Well, since I don't see Spock around anywhere, then yes, I trust you."

Her head shot back up. "I deserve that, I guess. Although it sounds a bit funny coming from you, seeing as how you haven't been completely on the up- and-up yourself."

"I never lied; I just didn't tell you the truth."

"And that makes what you did better? Because I did lie?"

He took a deep breath. "I'm glad that we can joke about this."

She glared at him. "Yeah, me too."

They stood a long time just staring at each other, then he moved closer to her. "Chris." She smiled slightly at the name he'd started calling her. It was a name that Spock never used with her. He liked that.

"Chris," he said again, pulling her closer to him, feeling her arms go around him. He leaned in and kissed her hard, then more gently. "I want to trust you."

"I know. I want to trust you too." They stood that way for a moment longer, then she turned him so he was facing the mountain. "Close your eyes."

He didn't.

"Please, Randall, close your eyes."

He closed them.

"Now just listen for a moment." He could tell she turned away from him, then she whispered. "Please show him?"

"Who are you talking to?"

"Shhh." She took his hand in hers. "Just listen."

He tried to oblige her.

"What do you hear?"

"I hear the wind, a bird overhead. The sound of the snow melting off the trees in the sunlight."

"Listen harder," she whispered.

He did, concentrating on the least little sound. Suddenly, he heard the slightest hint of a whisper calling his name.

"Who's there?"

"Just open yourself up to her."

He cocked one eye, peered at Christine. "Invite her in?"

She nodded.

"And if I do, then I'll be a mountain goat too?"

She nodded. "When you're one with her, it's much easier to walk the path."

"Walk the path?" He heard the whisper again and ignored it. "And once I'm one with her, will I get to walk around with that dopey look you and Stephen have been wearing lately?"

Her face fell. "You don't want this?"

"Christine, wake the hell up. It's like you're on drugs or something. Both of you. All this oneness with Taillte stuff is starting to concern me."

She looked down. Then she looked back at him, an odd look on her face. "All the psychics the Federation sent are trying to achieve it. And Spock is trying."

"And you think you can manipulate me into doing it, just so I don't lose ground to him? Think again." He pushed past her, started to walk up the hill.

"You don't know where you're going."

He turned around. "Sure I do. Nirvana! Xanadu! Shangri-la!" He held up his hands, jiggled them at the sky. "I'll find it if I just keep going up."

He could hear her behind him. "What'll you do when you reach the top?" she said in his ear.

"This," he said as he pulled her to him and kissed her again.

When they finally pulled away from each other, she whispered, "What if you fall?"

"You'll catch me."

She grinned. "What if I fall?"

"Taillte won't let you."

She smiled. "You think you have it all figured out." She pulled him behind her as she started to head sideways across the hill.

"It's not up?"

"Not exactly."

"Some pilgrim I'd make." Despite the heavy gloves they both wore, he could feel her hand tighten on his.

"You don't have to be a pilgrim. One of us is probably enough." She stopped for a moment, seemed to be listening. Then she took a few steps to the right and began moving uphill again.

"Aha. So it is up." Then he saw it a few meters ahead, the mouth to a cave, so small Christine had to crawl into it.

"It's just the first part that's narrow," she said as she stood up on the other side, lit one of the lights she'd brought with her.

Kerr crawled through the entrance, trying to ignore how the top of the cave opening scraped his back. He wasn't claustrophobic, but that didn't mean he liked such tight quarters. "Wait a minute," he said. "You don't like caves."

She looked at him, nodded. "No, I don't. But Taillte wouldn't hurt me."

"Well maybe she wouldn't, but a cave-in might."

"But she is the cave-in...and the earthquake. She's everything on this planet because she is the planet."

"Is she the birds?"

"She's one with the birds." Christine looked at him, a serious look on her face. "You don't understand yet, do you?"

"I'm trying, hon. Really I am." He turned on his light and followed her into the tunnel. "But I'm afraid you're going to have to be the zen master of the family."

"You know martial arts, right?"

"Uh huh," he said absently, his gaze drawn toward the sparkling blue mineral streaks that lined the tunnel wall.

"Don't you have to achieve mastery...become one with something?"

"It's recommended. Or you can just pummel the shit out of it." He grinned when he heard her low laugh. Raising his light higher, he saw a colorless streak right above the blue one. It sparkled in the lamplight. "Is this what I think it is?"

"It's not diamond. Just like this isn't sapphire." She stopped and ran her hand over the blue. "The geologists say the properties are different. But they're just as pretty." She smiled for a moment, lost in thought. Then her smile faded. "Valuable too, I bet. There will be a lot of people who don't want to leave this planet alone, Randall."

He nodded.

"I'm not sure we'll be able to protect her."

He pulled off his gloves and pushed them into the pockets of his jacket. The air in the tunnel was much warmer than outside. She did the same, then reached over and took the hand he held out to her.

"Maybe Taillte needs to come up with some ways to protect herself?"

Christine nodded slowly. "Maybe she will." She walked deeper into the cave, then stopped and closed her eyes.

He saw her frown as she turned her head, as if listening for something. "What are you doing?"

"She's stronger here. Can you feel her?" She opened her eyes, stared at him with a slightly unfocused look.

He shook his head. "Sorry."

She took a few more steps away from the entrance. "It gets stronger the farther in you go. Stephen thinks it's some sort of nexus, a place where her energy is concentrated. He told me I'd feel closer to her here."

Kerr didn't answer her, wondered what he was supposed to say. In his opinion, she was already close enough to the planet.

She glanced back at him, caught his expression and sighed softly before turning and leading him deeper into the cave.

-----------------------------------

Nako moved silently through the forest. She stopped and knelt down, running her hand through the rich dirt and letting it fall through her fingers. Standing up, she walked over to one of the trees. Gently scraping at the bark, she leaned down and sniffed. Cinnamon, she thought to herself. Or allspice.

She could feel the planet's heartbeat under her feet; feel its blood move beneath her in the rivers of hot earth deep below the surface. "Taillte," she called out.

There was no answer except an explosion of birds that suddenly darted from the trees overhead. Nako frowned. She backed up and leaned against the tree. The wind whipped up suddenly, causing the branches of the tree to lash against her face. She pulled her shawl around her, tried to walk by memory away from the trees and out to the clearing. The wind blew even stronger, nearly forcing her off her feet. A loose limb flew by, hitting her on the shoulder and causing her to cry out in pain as she stumbled out to the grass.

The wind died as suddenly as it started. Nako again heard birds singing. She slowly pulled her shawl away from her face.

Taillte was standing right in front of her. Not solid, but not precisely an apparition either. More like water, if it could be captured into feminine form. An ice sculpture, that was in no way frozen.

"Quite the demonstration," Nako said, bowing carefully, never taking her eyes off the woman in front of her.

"I thought you might appreciate it." The other woman bowed also but her voice and her transparent eyes held no welcome. "Your kind always needs a demonstration of power."

"You know my kind?"

Taillte smiled slightly. "Just as you know mine."

"You fear me," Nako said, as she moved toward the woman.

"I fear nothing."

"You fear pain," Nako countered.

Taillte's expression changed to one of suffering. "I do not fear it. But it was unpleasant."

"You were not meant to suffer that way, young one."

Taillte laughed, and as she did the leaves of the trees seemed to shiver around them. "I am not young."

"You are younger than I."

"But then what isn't?" Taillte brought her hands up, made them snap together like pincers. "Grandmother Spider." She pantomimed weaving, then made a sudden stabbing motion.

Nako ignored her, but her heart began to beat faster.

"You hide the truth from them." Taillte's voice was rich with an emotion Nako couldn't quite name. Anger? Fear? Distaste?

"The truth is hard."

"No," Taillte said with a strange smile. "You are hard, Ts'its'tsi'nako. All the old ones are."

"We do what we do to preserve that which is good, that which is deserving."

"You have done it for so long that you have lost your perspective. Who are you to judge what is good and what is not? Who are you to meddle so in the lives of others?"

"You don't know what you are talking about, child. You are new to this world. New to me. You know nothing."

"If I know nothing, then why did you come here? Was it not to find out what I knew?"

Nako smiled, caught in the web of logic. "Very good, my dear."

"I am not stupid."

"I did not think you were." Nako smiled again. "You remind me of Coyote."

"I do not know what that is, but I think there are none here." Taillte sank to the grass. She brushed the grass with one hand, held her other up to feel the rays of the sun. "I am like nothing else. I am this planet."

"Like Gaia. Yes, dear, I understand what you are. I can remember."

"They do not remember. Some of them love me anyway." Taillte seemed to be far away for a moment.

"You're talking to them aren't you? Or to some of them." Nako shook her head.

"I talk with whom I will." Taillte turned her full attention back to Nako. "The others will wait for me."

"Yes, they will. You are quite the new wonder. Certainly you have Starfleet all agog." Nako indicated the grass. "May I sit?"

"You may." Taillte stretched out. "The clouds make designs to please me."

Nako looked up. One of the clouds looked like a woman. The one next to it looked like a huge spider. The spider was about to stab the woman. Nako said sharply, "Stop it."

The clouds were again just clouds.

"You killed." Taillte's voice held more curiosity than condemnation.

"You would have too, in my position."

"We do not know that." Taillte smiled softly. "My meddling is more subtle."

"At least you admit you do it." Nako turned to Taillte. "You may be forced to kill."

"I hope not." Her expression became firmer. "I will not. Not to meddle."

"If you think I did that only to meddle, then you understand nothing. You will do it to protect." Nako looked down. "If you do not, then they will come. Ones like those who hurt you before. They will come and they will overrun you and they will destroy everything that is good and pure and beautiful here." She looked up at the sky. "They may already be here. If they will not leave, Taillte, will you kill?"

Taillte stared at Nako. "I am all that is here."

Nako sighed. It had been a long time since she had talked to one so innocent and so powerful. "You are all that has been here. You and the birds and the animals. You have been alone, inviolate. But you are not alone. You have welcomed some, you seem to be willing to welcome others. Do you not understand that each person that steps on your surface brings with them the potential of pain? Either in small measure or in large. And you will have to grow used to that pain."

Taillte looked bored. "I already grow used to it. The things that seemed painful at first, I hardly notice now." She suddenly ripped a bunch of grass from the ground. "My skin was thin, now it is thicker, it will continue to grow thicker. I will show them where the soil is best so they can plant life within me, and I will embrace the pain that comes with that life. The plants that shoot up from my blood will sustain those who I will invite to live here. And I will choose wisely, my people will be gentle, as these first ones from your ship have been gentle. Their steps on my skin tickle rather than hurt me. When they lay on my grass I can feel their hearts beating. Their warmth spreads down and into me and I am happy that they are with me. They have built their first homes, and the structures sit lightly on my back."

"But others will not be so kind. Or so gentle. They will not sit lightly. They will see the wealth that is here...the kind of wealth that is in such demand and they will seek it. They will hurt you as they seek it. They will dig and burn and explode and cut. You must protect yourself."

Taillte looked around and her expression darkened. "How many can there be who are like that?"

Nako held out her hand. "I will show you."

Taillte stared at her outstretched hand for a long time, then slowly reached out to touch her. The sensation was like putting one's hand in a stream of cold mountain water. Bracing and clean.

"Now watch and learn," Nako said, as she let her see everything she had seen, the damages she had witnessed, the atrocities she had tried to stop, had helped others to clean up. "Life here is hard, Taillte. You have no idea."

Taillte jerked her hand away, her expression stricken. "I am not like that; this place will never be like that." As she began to cry silent tears, dark clouds rolled in and rain poured down from the sky.

"You are all that is, Taillte. I am but an old woman. But I have seen much." Nako pushed herself to her feet. "The day will come when you must do something. Already it begins."

"I am not like you. Your ways are over."

Nako gave her a sad smile. "My ways are just beginning, child." She turned her back on the woman. "You're only borrowing my granddaughter, you know," she called back.

"She is happy here. She is welcome to remain."

"She has another destiny," Nako said softly as she walked back to the Federation shelters.

------------------------------

Penhallon watched Ritsuko as she wandered through the iris field. She was nearly hidden in the tall flowers, lost in the mix of blues and yellows and creams. They weren't really irises, of course. But they looked enough like them to qualify, and Taillte didn't have a better name for them, so he was happy to call them that. "So?" he asked Ritsuko.

"It's just like the iris fields back home in Yokosuka. But these flowers are bigger. And less..."

"Less domesticated?" He laughed when she nodded. "I thought you might like it."

She smiled as she bent down to look at one of the more vivid flowers. "Shobu were my grandmother's favorite flower. She used to go out to the fields and pick them for ikebana. No one made arrangements like she did. They were much in demand." She touched one of the flowers gently. "If I picked it, would it hurt Taillte?"

"I doubt that she'd even notice it. She's not like she was when we first found her. She's getting tougher."

"But you aren't sure?"

When he shook his head, she let the flower go. "Then I won't do it. I don't want to hurt anyone, even a little."

He leaned back against the hillside, watched her. Could see the pain still raw in her face. Pain that she was holding back with iron control. "It's okay to be sad, you know. It's human to be sad."

"I know." She walked over to him, sat down next to him. "I miss Ren so much, Stephen."

He reached out, touched her hair. Felt her push back against his hand. He thought she might cry, but she didn't.

She said quietly, "Some days, I'm okay. I wake up, and go to work, and I don't think about her for hours. But other days, I can barely get out of bed because I spent the whole night crying for her instead of sleeping."

He was glad to hear she allowed herself to grieve in private. He worried that she held in her emotions too much. "Just give it time, Umachi. It's all you can do."

She turned to Penhallon. "I know. And I try to tell myself I didn't know Ren that long."

"It's not how long we've known someone that matters. It's how intensely we feel for them during that time. You two shared something strong."

"We did."

He thought she would say more, but she fell silent, so he looked away. It was hard consoling her when he knew that her lover had been responsible for letting a virus loose on the ship, when he knew that she had worked for the Section, and that her death was probably not random. But Ritsuko didn't need to know all that. Not now. Not when there was no way for Farrell to defend herself, or her actions. Penhallon suddenly wondered how Farrell would defend them. If she even would try. He realized Ritsuko was staring at him.

"You seem very far away," she said.

"Ages and ages." He smiled tiredly.

She nodded. "I was scared when you and the Commander disappeared. But now that I see where you were lost, I'm a little envious."

He smiled again. "It wasn't quite this nice when it was in the other universe. Not being able to get home put a bit of a damper on all the beauty." He looked away, not willing to let her catch him in the lie. Even in the other universe, Taillte had been glorious. He hadn't wanted to come back. Wouldn't have come back...but for Christine. But then the planet had been yanked into their universe by Carol Marcus's obsession with Genesis, and he'd gotten this place back. At least for as long as the Carter was assigned to the diplomatic negotiations.

"I guess it would." Ritsuko leaned back against the hillside. They were silent for a while, soaking up the sun. Then she asked, "Is she nice?"

He looked over at her. "The commander?"

Ritsuko nodded.

"Yes. She's nice." He thought about the night Christine had come to his quarters, after he'd given her Farrell's letter, the one that exposed and damned Kerr. It might very well have been the noblest night of his life. Or possibly just an act of self-preservation. He grinned. Some other night, Christine, he thought. When your heart isn't shredded and when you're running to me, not away from someone else...or a couple someone elses. He doubted that night would ever come. Truth to tell, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted it to. It was almost more fun the way things were. Playful, innocent. One long session of fore--

*--Find another way,* Taillte's voice echoed in the back of his mind.

*Yes, Mother,* he thought ruefully. Then he added, *You're no fun.*

*I am Taillte,* she said simply. He felt the brush of her presence against his side, then warmth spread through him. He sighed, enchanted as always by the amazing sensation of belonging.

He heard Ritsuko gasp. Then she sat up. "Something touched me."

"It was Taillte."

"She's here?"

He nodded.

"What does she want?"

He smiled. "Nothing. To be with us. She's everywhere, Umachi. The ground, the flowers, the trees. They are all Taillte."

"Like Haniyasu-Hime. I remember my grandmother leaving offerings for her at the Shinto shrine by her house. I loved the way the incense she burned for her smelled. And the priests often chanted to her, and to Amaterasu. I would sit and listen while I waited for my grandmother to finish her devotions."

"Do you miss home?"

"How can I? It seems like I get a comm from there almost every night." She looked away. "I know they're just worried about me, but I almost wish that I grew up like you did, Stephen. With no home, no strong ties to anywhere."

"No, you don't." He smiled at her sadly. "Trust me, you don't."

"You're right. I don't. My family can be overbearing, but I can't imagine not knowing where I belong...who I am. No matter what, Yokosuka defines me, gives me a foundation so that I can build the Umachi I want to be."

He laughed. "Whereas I have no moral foundation at all."

She shook her head. "You love to say that. You like to act as if you are the worst person in this quadrant, a true rogue with no moral center. But it's a lie, Stephen. I'm on to you." She leaned in. "You've been looking out for me...don't think I haven't noticed."

"Well," he said with a wink, "who wouldn't look out for a chef of your talent?"

"That's not it. But if you want to pretend it is, so you can continue to play the bad boy, I won't ruin your act."

"I appreciate that."

"No one believes that act anymore, you know."

"Why's that?"

"You spend all your time down here," she said, as she ran her hand over the grass. "You're like this nature monk suddenly."

He laughed out loud. "Nature monk?"

She turned to him. "It's true, look at you. You're completely comfortable here. When was the last time you slept in your quarters?"

He shrugged, but he knew that he hadn't been in his own bed since Christine and he had been lost on Taillte in the other universe. He had been spending all his time on Taillte...mostly alone. He looked over at Ritsuko. She was studying him curiously. "What?"

"You seem different. In a good way," she said.

"Different how?"

"I don't know, just different." At his skeptical look, she tried again. "More serious. More steady, I guess."

"I used to swear I'd never be serious."

"Never say never." She smiled sympathetically.

"Never say never," he agreed.

They both leaned back. Penhallon heard her say sleepily, "I should get back to the ship."

He nodded lethargically. "You should." He noticed she made no move to go.

"Maybe just a few more minutes." A few moments later, he heard her breathing change as she dropped into sleep.

"Rest easy, Umachi. Dream of Yokosuka and fields of iris." He felt the brush of Taillte's presence and let himself drift off to his own dream world where his childhood was a happy one and he was never alone.

--------------2---------------------

The area that had been set up for the Federation negotiators was bustling in the afternoon sunshine. Troi walked slowly past the shelters, trying to catch a glimpse of a familiar face. He heard someone call out and turned to look.

An attractive young woman rushed up but when she looked up and saw his face she slowed. "Oh," she said, her extremely fair skin flushing brightly. "I thought you were someone else."

"Then he's a lucky man." Troi couldn't believe he'd just said that, it sounded like something Stephen would say. He held out his hand. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Andrew Troi."

"Words, how quaint." She smiled slightly, took his hand in hers.

He waited, noticed she was staring at him rather intently. "And you are?"

She frowned slightly. "You're not telepathic."

"I'm not," he agreed. "Should I be?"

She seemed to think about that. "Why are you hanging about then?" She gestured at a group assembling on the far edges of the camp. "I thought you were here for the 'Getting to Know Taillte' tour, as we lovingly call the walkabout we give to newcomers."

He smiled. "I'm not exactly a newcomer. I was here from the start, or nearly so." He pointed up. "Spent most of that time on the Carter, admittedly, but I've still logged in a few hours exploring Taillte's treasures."

"You're on the ship? Oh, I see."

He had the impression he'd fallen quite a few notches in her estimation. "Sorry that doesn't measure up."

She bristled. "I didn't say that."

He smiled shortly. "You didn't have to. You're making it quite clear how you feel about those of us not blessed with your gifts."

She blushed again, this time in anger. He decided that she wasn't as attractive as he first thought. Honey gold hair, sky blue eyes, and peaches and cream skin were overrated, he decided. She seemed about to say something, when Troi heard a familiar voice.

"Andrew! What are you doing here?" Rixx came up with a huge smile for his friend. "Oh, I see. You're getting to know Elaine. How unfortunate for you." He shot her a false smile.

"I should have known he'd be a friend of yours," the woman in question said sourly.

"What? You two aren't hitting it off? I'm speechless with shock." Rixx took Troi's arm and turned him toward one of the shelters. "I'm sure you'll be devastated, Elaine, but I'm going to have to steal him."

Troi looked back at Elaine. She was staring at him as if she couldn't figure out which of them was worse. He allowed Rixx to pull him away. "Nice girl," Troi mumbled. "But I'm afraid she's depriving someone of a chilling unit. I hate to think of their beer going warm."

Rixx laughed out loud. "Oh, I like that one. I'm going to have to remember it."

"It was a good one, wasn't it?" Troi smiled. "Pity. At first glance, I thought she was quite attractive."

"Yeah, if you like your women with light-hair. I prefer brunettes like my Larissa." He smiled. "But I bet you like them pale, don't you, my friend."

"Women are all attractive, dark, light, in between." Troi looked around the shelter, took in the dearth of personal items. "Not much here, Rixx."

"I travel light." He grabbed a pack. "You ready to explore?"

Troi nodded and followed his friend out. As they walked through the camp, he found himself looking to see if the woman was still around. Dismayed, he forced his eyes to the front and caught up with Rixx.

"So how are the negotiations going?" he asked as they began to cross open field.

"Haven't started. People are still trying to get a handle on all that Taillte is...and all that she isn't. It's confusing."

"But you volunteered to speak for her?"

"Yeah, along with about fifty other telepaths."

"I'm sure she prefers you." Troi watched as Rixx crossed a stream on a path of boulders. Then he followed carefully.

"Well, that's just it. None of us know what she prefers. She's not talking." Rixx stopped and knelt, laid his hand on the grass. "I can feel her. I can hear her sometimes, as if from a great distance. But she doesn't speak to me, and if she's listening to me when I try talking to her, I can't tell. No one's having any luck."

Troi frowned. "Stephen talks to her. And I'm sure Commander Chapel does too."

Rixx nodded. "You're right. I've seen them when she's talking to them. They get a certain look on their face. But they appear to be the only ones she's talking with right now. And it's irritating to quite a few of the high and mighty, I can tell you."

"Meaning Elaine?"

"Among others. She's used to being needed, relied on. We all are."

"Maybe Taillte doesn't trust your motives."

"What motives?" Troi stood up. "This is what I do. I don't have an agenda except for wanting to speak for her. I don't understand why she doesn't trust me. I'm only trying to help."

"Maybe she'll talk to you on this walk?"

"That's about as likely as Elaine Wynter coming up and apologizing to you," Rixx said with a grin.

"That's her last name?" Troi asked, even as he told himself that he didn't care one way or the other.

"She's not a very nice person, Andrew."

"Believe me, I got that impression," Troi admitted. He laughed. "I have terrible luck with women, Gallen. This is just one more to add to the mix of misfortune that love seems to be for me."

"God, you make it sound so tragic," Rixx said with a grin.

"It is tragic. I'd really like to meet someone, you know. Someone special, someone that likes me." He grinned sheepishly. "Not much to ask. But maybe you've forgotten what it's like to be looking for love? After all you have a beautiful, patient fiancée waiting at home for you."

Rixx shot Troi an amused look. "We were bonded as children. I've always had her waiting for me."

"Even if it's true, it's pretty unromantic of you to say so. I hope someday you realize how good you've got it," Troi said. "It's a nice idea though...someone waiting. Almost makes me long for the days of arranged marriages."

"No you don't. They don't always work out. But I do love Larissa and I do realize how good I've got it," Rixx admitted. "I'll let you in on a secret. This is my last adventure. I'm going home once I'm done here. I'm going home and marrying the woman I love." Rixx smiled happily. "This is the first time I've said it out loud. It sounds good, don't you think?"

"It sounds wonderful."

"You have to come, Andrew. I'll send you an invitation."

Troi smiled wryly. "I'd say I don't know what to wear, but I guess that's pretty much a moot point at a Betazoid wedding, from what I've heard?"

Rixx laughed. "It is. But trust me, if everyone is naked, you don't notice that you are."

"Uh huh," Troi said, not convinced. He moved ahead of Rixx. "Come on, there's an amazing valley I want to show you."

They moved off through a long narrow valley. Troi saw a familiar figure coming toward them. He waved at her. "That's Nako."

"Did I meet her the last time?"

Troi shook his head. "She was unwell, didn't leave her cabin. But she's fine now." As they approached her, he called out. "Hello."

She smiled gently. "Hello, grandson." Then she turned and shot Rixx a look. "That's rather bad manners, isn't it?"

Rixx looked taken aback. "I beg your pardon. I meant no offense."

"Your intent may have been benign, but my mind is my business." Her serene tone was at odds with the sharpness of the words.

"I'm sure he didn't mean any harm," Troi said, trying to help his friend out.

Nako smiled. The expression almost reached her eyes. "I'm sure you're right. Gentlemen, enjoy your walk." With a small inclination of her head, she walked past them.

"That was odd. She's usually so pleasant. She didn't even get your name."

Rixx was staring after her with a confused look on his face. "I didn't mean to try to read her, Andrew. I guess I've fallen so into the habit of getting a 'feel' for people that way that I must have done it unconsciously. If it irritated her, it's going to really aggravate my own people when I get back. I'll have to work on that."

"Still...it wasn't like her to react that way." Troi looked back at her, then turned around. "Oh well, no matter. We've got a view to admire." It took him a very long time to wonder how Nako had known that Rixx was trying to get inside her head.

----------------------------

Spock watched the new members of the Federation contingent set out for their orientation to Taillte. How did one get to know an entire planet in forty minutes? he wondered. Walking over to the creek that ran along one side of the camp, he crouched down and let his fingers dangle in the water.

*Play,* he heard Taillte whisper to him. *You never play.*

*I am a Vulcan.* He tried unsuccessfully to avoid thinking of a time when he was very young and his father had found him wading in the ceremonial fountain of the Rivellian Embassy. He had been kicking joyfully, his bare toes sending water onto the hot Vulcan sand where it evaporated quickly. He had known better than to give in to his urge to screech in delight, Sarek would have found him even sooner. But it had been a given that he would find him. His father seemed to have a special sense that told him when Spock was doing something wrong...something human.

He pulled his hand from the water. *I am a Vulcan,* he said again.

*As you wish.* Taillte brushed against him once, the touch both tender and teasing. Then she was gone.

He almost sighed. She was so...whimsical. When he had first touched minds with her, when she was in the other universe, she had been focused on getting his people back to him, on stopping the experiments that were hurting her. But now...now that they shared the same universe, she seemed entirely capricious. *Taillte, you must focus,* he sent, hoping she was still listening. *The Federation telepaths won't wait forever for you to talk to them.*

There was no answer. He hadn't expected there to be.

He turned and looked out at the meadow, saw Nako walking toward him. He straightened, waiting for her to get within range before asking, "Did she speak to you?"

Nako gave him a strange smile. "Oh, yes, she spoke to me." Nako rubbed her shoulder for a moment. "She is a child, Spock. A child the size of an entire planet."

He considered what he knew, what he had experienced. "She is not logical," he conceded.

"Not logical? She is naïve and trusting."

"No, she is not, Nako. She does not talk to the telepaths. Only to those she knows. And to you...she must trust you, but who does not? It is one of your greatest gifts, your ability to make those who are suspicious open up to you."

Nako nodded distractedly, her mouth set in a tight line.

"Are you upset?" he asked.

She turned to him abruptly. "I think there are people here already who will try to take what they want from this world."

"Poachers?"

"After the minerals. I saw the surveys, Spock. I know how much dilithium there is here. As well as other strategic materials. And the new minerals, the ones we don't even know the uses for yet. They are enticing too."

He nodded. "I'm afraid this world is a tempting target. But surely Taillte would know if they were here? She can defend herself?"

Nako shrugged. "I'm not so sure she would know until they make their move. I don't know how much attention she is paying to those she won't talk to. I hope she learns. She can't sit and play with her 'children' forever."

He was surprised at her reaction, and his expression must have told her so.

"Don't look so shocked, Spock. I, at least, am practical in the way I approach the mystical. But Taillte is like those spores on Omicron Ceti III." She saw his slight wince and smiled. "Don't mean to make you uncomfortable. But that's how I see it. She has a hold on Christine and Penhallon. And I'm not sure it's a healthy one."

"They are both still acting professionally when on duty, Nako. I haven't seen them hanging upside down from trees or looking for dragons in the clouds when they should be working."

Her look darkened. "Maybe not. But I think the analogy is apt."

"I will, of course, consider what you say." He turned away.

"Taillte's talking to you, too, isn't she?"

He turned. "I was the one that made contact with Christine. Taillte acted as an amplifier for us. She is comfortable with me."

"Well, don't you get too comfortable with her." She held his gaze until he looked away. "Now where did the telepaths go?"

He pointed in the general direction and watched her walk off. He could remember few occasions when he had seen her so agitated. Of course, agitated for Nako would be contemplative for anyone else, but still, it was clear to him, after all the years of knowing her, that something was wrong. He just wasn't sure what it was. But he knew it would be futile to try to find out before Nako was ready to tell him.

----------------------------

Christine gasped as she and Kerr entered the main chamber of the caverns. The feeling of Taillte was incredibly immediate, almost too intense. *This is where you live,* she thought.

She heard Taillte laugh in her mind. *I live everywhere. But much of my energy is focused here.*

The minerals, Christine guessed, as her light and Kerr's played across the surface of the walls, causing them to sparkle as brightly as any diamond. They must amplify Taillte's essence somehow. She moved closer to the wall, studied the striations of color that shot across the entire space, covering flat surfaces and stalactites hanging down from the ceiling. "Wow."

"I see your wow and raise you a gee whiz." Kerr grinned at her as he walked over to a stalagmite, knelt down to scan what looked like quartz matrix. "This is dilithium."

She walked over. "It's all over the planet. Why do you think the Federation keeps sending more telepaths? They want access to this."

"Wouldn't that hurt her? Extracting the dilithium?"

"Digging her insides out?" Christine laughed bitterly. "I can't think it would be pleasant under normal circumstances, but if this place is some kind of energy nexus for her..." She tried to think of a medical analogy. "Nerves congregate different places in our bodies, making those areas more sensitive."

Kerr nodded. "They train us to go for places like that in hand-to-hand. The pain can be overwhelming from a very light hit."

She nodded, glad he understood. "Spock and I have both tried to make it clear in our reports that the planet has to choose what she will and won't allow to be done on her surface."

He started to scan some of the other deposits. "The mineral wealth alone on this world is amazing. Add in the lumber, the potential for raising crops...there's going to be a lot of crowded worlds that don't quite see the logic in keeping Taillte pristine."

"I know." It was something she had thought about often. Taillte did not seem overly concerned about the threat to her. But Christine knew that Randall was right. If Taillte didn't learn to protect herself, then she'd find herself losing control of her world. Even if she was that world. Sometimes it made Christine's head hurt to think about Taillte. "She's so innocent. I don't know why she was left alone in the other universe, but she was. We were the first people she'd seen; Stephen and I were the first ones she got to know."

"And if the reports I've been seeing are any indication, she doesn't seem interested in expanding her circle of friends," he said, turning off his tricorder and shoving it back into his coat.

"She needs friends though, because if she's not going to protect herself then we'll have to do it for her. But she needs more than just the two of us."

"It's up to her, how she deals with this, isn't it?" Kerr moved closer to her, a predatory smile on his face.

"Why do I get the feeling you don't want to talk about Taillte anymore?"

"Because you are so damn smart." He unfastened her coat and slid his arms under her shirt, his hands finding bare skin as he pulled her to him.

She gave in to the sensation of kissing him, being touched. He began to lower her to the ground and she pushed back. "No."

"How long are we going to wait?" he asked, but he didn't sound terribly surprised that she'd stopped him.

"We're still mad at each other. What we said on the hill a while ago. I don't think either of us was kidding."

"Chris, we're probably going to be mad at each other for quite some time. That doesn't mean we're not ready." He shot her a rueful look. "Believe me, I am so ready."

She grinned, pulled him in for a long kiss. As she pushed against him, she heard him groan, moaned a similar sentiment herself. "You're not the only one, Colonel."

"We could do it really fast," he joked.

"We could," she said as she eased away from him and inspected the caverns again.

"Or, we could do it really slow."

"That sounds good too," she agreed.

He walked toward her, saying, "Or a mixture of both."

She was about to answer, when a stab of pain shot through her stomach. She heard someone cry out, realized that she was the one making the shrill noise.

"Christine?" Kerr was at her side instantly. He pulled her hands away from her stomach. They came back red.

She looked down. It looked like someone had dug into her belly, taking out a carefully measured, rather large cylinder of skin and tissue. As blood spurted, she was nearly doubled over by the wave of pain that hit her. She looked at him. "How?"

"Don't move," he said, as he put his glove over the open wound, putting pressure on it with his hand to try to stop the bleeding. He pulled out his communicator. "Kerr to Carter."

"Carter here." It was Saldusta.

"I need an emergency beam out."

A different voice came on. "This is Lieutenant Atkins. The minerals in the cavern are making it difficult to establish a pattern. I'm attempting to compensate."

Kerr turned to her. "Hold on."

She nodded, tried to slow her breathing so she wouldn't hyperventilate. She let him support her as they waited. "I don't understand how this happened. There was nobody in the cave with us."

"Save your strength," he instructed tersely. "We can figure that out later."

She looked down where he was holding the glove tightly against her. His hand was covered with blood. She closed her eyes then and just concentrated on willing the transporter to take them. A wave of pain came over her again and she felt her legs go out. Kerr eased her down, and she collapsed on the floor of the cave as her belly slowly lost all feeling. How had this happened? It was almost as if someone had taken a tissue sample from her. A huge one.

She was suddenly aware of Taillte's voice in her mind; she seemed as agitated as Christine was when she said, *Stop them.*

*Stop who?*

The pain in her belly increased and Christine screamed as she felt another section of tissue being removed.

But that's impossible, she thought. I'm lying on my stomach. No one is touching me.

Taillte moaned in pain.

No one is touching _me_, Christine realized. She turned over, motioned to Kerr, whispered, "They're taking core samples. Drilling. Stop them."

He didn't seem to hear her, as he pulled out his communicator. "We're out of time, Atkins."

*We'll stop them,* Christine tried to reassure Taillte.

"Beaming up now, sir," was the last thing she heard before the transporter took them.

---------------------------------------

Carpenter finished the crew reports she was working on and turned her computer terminal off. She was glad to be off duty, anticipating finally having a chance to explore the planet, when her comm panel chimed.

It was the medical transporter room technician. "Doctor Carpenter. Lieutenant Ritsuko just called. Medical emergency on the surface. I'm beaming her and Commander Penhallon up now."

"I'll be right there," she said, grabbing her emergency bag and sprinting down the corridor to the lift. It dropped one deck and she ran to the medical transporter room. The lieutenant on duty nodded to the pad, where Ritsuko was sheltering Penhallon. The man was crouched down, as if in pain from his abdominal area.

"Let me see what's wrong, Stephen," Carpenter said softly, nodding at Ritsuko to move away and gently forcing him to straighten up.

"So much blood," Ritsuko said brokenly. "He was fine, we were relaxing in the sun. Then he cried out and he was bleeding, and part of his stomach was gone."

Carpenter stared down at his clothing. There was no blood, no rips in the fabric, nothing. She lifted up Penhallon's shirt, thinking perhaps they had bandaged the wound, but his skin was fine. "This better not be some kind of joke," she said sternly.

Penhallon and Ritsuko both looked down at this stomach. Their twin expressions of bewilderment told her this was no joke.

"There was blood, just as Umachi said," Penhallon replied as he gingerly started to get up. When nothing appeared to hurt, he moved with more confidence. "This is odd."

"This is more than odd," Carpenter muttered.

The transporter tech looked up from his station. "I'm being hailed by Commander Kerr. Another medical emergency."

"Christine," Penhallon said, looking at Carpenter. "It's Christine."

And this just gets weirder all the time, she thought, wondering if exploring Taillte was such a great idea, if these four were any indication.

The transporter tech was already beaming Kerr and Christine in. Carpenter hurried forward, but Christine was sitting up, motioning her off.

"The pain's gone." She looked down at her shirt. "This was covered in blood, ripped." Christine looked at Kerr, then over at Penhallon. "You felt it too?"

He nodded.

She stood up quickly, "Carter to Spock."

His reply was very quick. "Spock here."

"They're drilling, Spock. Somewhere, I'm not sure where yet. They're taking core samples."

"Are you sure?"

"She's sure, sir," Penhallon vouched for her. "We both felt it."

"The telepaths appear to be unaware, and I felt nothing amiss."

"You're not connected to her the way we are," Christine said, agitation clear in her voice. "They're hurting her, Spock."

"Beam me up now." As he appeared on the platform, he moved toward Christine, his expression deeply concerned. "You are hurt?"

"I thought I was. I'm fine." She rubbed her stomach. "Still can feel the pain, if I try to remember."

Carpenter had the odd impression that Spock could feel Christine's pain too. After what she had seen in the caves when he was in Pon Farr, she didn't question. What was going on in her friend's love life was a little too confusing for Carpenter to make sense of, and she didn't try. She knew that if Christine wanted her to know, she'd tell her. "She's in no danger now. Neither of you are," she said, looking over at Penhallon as she picked up her emergency bag. "And you don't need me around to tell you that. If you don't mind, I have some off duty plans I'm going to rethink."

Maybe Kettering would be up for a game of cribbage? she thought, as she scrapped her plans for Taillte and tried to come up with more mundane but less potentially painful ways to pass her off duty hours.

------------------------------

Spock attempted to scan for the site of the illegal drilling but the unique mineral combinations in the caverns seemed to be playing havoc with the sensors. He gestured to Christine to follow him to the transporter controls. He could still feel the pain she had been in, the shock she'd had. She was not in pain now, but the aftermath of her experience permeated her emotions. He had to resist reaching out for her. He forced his mind to focus on the problem at hand. "Do you have any idea where the drilling is taking place?"

"No. But Taillte does."

Kerr moved toward them. "You're not going to take her back down there?"

Christine held up a hand. "It's all right. She was just getting my attention."

Penhallon nodded. "I think she'll be fine, Colonel."

Spock saw Kerr's face darken. Their eyes met and he shook his head. "I do not plan to take her down there, Colonel. I agree with you that the risk is too great." He ignored Christine and Penhallon's cries of dismay. "That does not mean we are not going to stop this." He looked at Kerr, raised an eyebrow.

Kerr smiled and pulled out his communicator. "Kerr to Collins."

"Collins here."

"We need a security team in the medical transporter room. We're expecting guests. Ones who won't take kindly to being beamed up with no notice."

"Yes, sir, we'll be there at once. Collins out."

"Excellent." Spock turned back to Christine, pointed to the sensor readings. "Can you tell me where?"

Christine looked at him. "I told you I don't know."

"Yes, I heard you. You also said Taillte can find them. It would save time, Commander, if she found them now. I suggest you ask her?"

"It's not so easy from up here." She turned to the readouts. "You know I flunked all my ESP tests."

"Yes, I recall." He began to move the sensors over the planet, the display changing as he did so. "Try."

She watched for a second, then held her hands over the grid. Closing her eyes, she stood quietly. He could sense her discomfort, how awkward she felt. Then suddenly she seemed to turn her focus inward, her breathing became slower and deeper. A perfect trance, Spock thought. From one with no training and no skill for telepathy or any other esper talent. He did not understand it.

"There," she said, touching her hand down on the display. Opening her eyes, she asked, "These are caves?"

He nodded. "Halfway across the planet from our base camp." He turned to the transporter tech. "Can you get a lock on this location?"

"Barely, sir. Looks like three humanoids."

Collins and a group of marines arrived. All extremely well armed. Spock shot them a questioning glance.

"Can't be too careful, sir," Collins said, handing a phaser to Kerr.

"No doubt you are right, Major." Spock nodded to the transporter tech. "Beam them up, Lieutenant...?" Spock realized he didn't know the man's name.

"Atkins, sir. Beaming them up now."

A moment later, three very surprised men appeared on the pad. The one nearest them still held the core sampling equipment; the other two had laser pickaxes and several types of tricorders and scanners. They turned around slowly, revealing Starfleet Corps of Engineer uniforms.

"What the hell is going on," the one closest to Spock said. "How dare you interrupt our work!"

"Your work was not authorized, Commander...?"

"Montt. And the hell it wasn't."

"We specifically said nothing invasive." Christine moved closer to the pad. "Who authorized you to take core samples?"

"This kind of sampling is standard procedure for a newly discovered planet. We'll be inventorying all the mineral resources, estimating approximate yield."

"By whose orders?" she asked angrily.

"By Starfleet Command's. If you don't like it, you can take it up with my C.O., Commander Flynn."

Spock gestured for Montt to step off the platform. "We will most assuredly do that, Commander." He held out his hand. "If you would be so kind as to give me the samples you have taken?"

"You have no call to take these away."

Spock heard the sound of four phaser rifles being readied for fire. "Marines have so little to do on a diplomatic ship," he said casually.

One of the engineers practically threw his equipment at Christine. "You people are nuts."

"On the contrary," Spock said, as he took the core samples Montt handed him. "We are simply ensuring that a sentient life form isn't harmed any more than she already has been. I believe you have one more piece of equipment?" he said to the last engineer.

The man tossed the scanner to Spock. He caught it easily. "Now, I assume that you have a ship in orbit?"

"We have a shuttle."

Spock looked at Atkins.

"I've got it, sir."

"Beam them back to their ship." Spock shot Montt a stern look. "Do not come back to Taillte, Lieutenant Commander." He put extra emphasis on the 'lieutenant' part of the title.

Before Montt could reply, the transporter caught the engineers up and beamed them away.

"Nicely done, Lieutenant Atkins."

The tech looked enormously pleased with himself. "They're back on their ship, sir."

"Very good." He turned to Christine. "One of us should examine these samples, see what they found so interesting."

She handed him the equipment she was holding. "You're better at that. Shall I send Kavall down to the science lab to assist?"

He nodded.

"Meanwhile, I'll contact the Corps of Engineers." She smiled grimly as she headed for the door. "And after they've given me the complete runaround, I'll see if any of my friends back at Command can help us figure out who authorized this."

"I will be most curious to hear." Once she was gone, Spock turned to Kerr. "It isn't our place to police the planet. We are here in a diplomatic capacity only."

Kerr nodded. "But you might like to know who's coming and going...with a bit more detail than we've been providing?"

"I think that is exactly what I would like. Lieutenant Myrax might enjoy working with you on this." Spock let his mouth turn up slightly.

"I think she might. She's another one that doesn't have much to do."

"Acknowledged." Spock shook his head slightly. "Someone at Starfleet Command authorized this. Someone who doesn't care that Taillte is sentient, or that we have accorded her the same diplomatic rights as the ruling body of a planet would have. I don't think that person is going to give up now."

Kerr smiled. It was a predatory expression. "I don't think so either."

"I'll leave you to your work then, Colonel." Spock hefted the equipment easily, and headed to the science lab.

-------------3------------------

Christine was in her office when Saldusta hailed her. "Commander Flynn from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, sir."

"In my office, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir."

Christine's terminal lit up. The woman on the other end looked annoyed. "Are you the party responsible for disrupting our timetable?"

Christine leaned back, if Flynn wanted to attack her, she'd wasn't going to get the reaction she expected. "You're in direct violation of the first contact parameters for this planet."

"First contact?" Flynn looked bemused. "The planet is uninhabited." Her expression changed to worried.

"Not exactly, Commander." Christine leaned forward. "Look, I only want to get to the bottom of this. I don't want to get you in trouble. I need to know who gave you the orders."

"Commander Harris in Diplomatic. Said he was told to transfer all orders for Taillte to the Corps of Engineers."

"That's damned odd. Can you transfer me to him?"

Flynn nodded, working her panel for a moment. The screen went blank and then a Lieutenant appeared. "Commander Harris's office."

"Commander Chapel, First Officer of the Carter, here. I need to speak to Commander Harris at once."

"I'm not sure he's available, ma'am. Hold please."

Christine sighed. She knew the routine, had played the game herself not too long ago when she'd been at Command. Harris was undoubtedly in his office. But if he didn't want to talk to her, the lieutenant would report that he was in a meeting, or had left for the day, or even that he was offworld. It was relatively easy to evade comms if you really wanted to.

To her surprise, it was not the lieutenant looking apologetic and earnest that appeared on the screen but the commander himself. "What can I do for you, Chris?"

Christine smiled in delight. Why hadn't she put two and two together? Harris was a common name, true, and there was more than one Commander in the fleet with that name. But how many of them worked in Diplomatic? "Tom."

"It seems like forever, Chris. The team's nine-ball game has gone to hell since you shipped out."

She grinned. "Sorry about that. Hope the league's recovered?"

"I convinced Donnelly to join up. She's nowhere near as good as you, but she is a whole lot friendlier."

"I wasn't unfriendly." She grinned at him. This was an old game between them.

"Well, I wouldn't call it friendly to constantly say no to my attempts at seduction." He suddenly turned serious. "What's going on up there? We've heard some odd stories about the Carter and what happened to Farrell."

Tom had never liked Ren. Christine hadn't known exactly why. She suddenly wondered if he had known that Farrell had been involved in more than just relief ops. She weighed whether it would be smart to ask him and decided to save it for some other conversation. "It's a little crazy here, Tom. But nothing we can't handle."

"If you say so."

"Listen, Tom. I need to get to the bottom of a little mix-up. We had a team of engineers out here on Taillte, taking core samples. Their C.O. says you sent the orders over."

"Flynn? Yeah, I sent the orders over to her. Looked like standard discovery protocols to me."

"But our report clearly said that the planet was sentient. We asked for first contact protocols."

He looked stunned. "No, you didn't. Hold on." He worked at his terminal for a moment, then said, "I'm sending you what I got."

A second later the memo appeared in her message file. She scanned it. Someone had rewritten what they had sent. "This doesn't make sense."

"It came directly from Admiral Hays's office."

She could see the routing on the message. "Captain Alexyev?"

"That's what it says. I don't know the person, but then I don't travel in those circles."

"Neither do I. But I know someone that might. Thanks for your help, Tom."

He nodded. "We miss you, Chris."

"I miss you guys too," she said, with a smile as she signed off.

This didn't make any sense. A mistake she could understand, but this was deliberate tampering. Someone wanted what Taillte had to offer. And whoever it was, they were Starfleet. We're supposed to be the good guys, Christine thought, as she signaled Saldusta.

"Sir?"

"Get me Admiral Mackin's office. I need to speak with Commander Uhura."

"Aye, Sir." Saldusta was back quickly. "She's in a meeting. Due back in an hour."

"Thanks." Christine suddenly felt restless. She got up and walked out to the bridge. "Sabuti, you have the conn."

"Aye, sir," the navigator replied.

Christine took the turbolift down to the geology lab. Kavall looked up as she walked in. "Hey."

"Hey. Anything interesting?"

"Lots. But nothing unexpected. Spock went down to the planet. He wanted to check out the cave they were in."

"I doubt he'll find anything there." Christine touched the rock sample. This was Taillte, part of her anyway. If this little bit hurt her, what would large-scale drilling do to her? And how would she defend herself if anyone ever tried?

"You okay?" Kavall was looking at her with concern.

Christine nodded. "I'm worried about the planet."

"You don't think they'll leave her alone?"

"I don't know, Nevara." Christine stroked a long vein of the sapphire-like mineral that she'd seen in the cave Stephen had found. "So much abundance. In all the things we need most. And she doesn't seem able to defend herself."

"Maybe she'll learn."

Christine smiled. "That's what Randall thinks."

"Well, he's usually right."

"When did you become such a fan?" Christine shot her a surprised look.

"I like him. He's good for you. He makes you smile." Kavall shrugged. "I'm a fan of the two of you together."

Christine smiled. "You're a good friend."

Kavall turned back to the core samples with a smile. "Just returning the favor."

Christine walked back to her office, busying herself with the reports until Saldusta commed.

"I have Commander Uhura for you."

"Private channel, Saldusta," Christine said. The screen lit up and she smiled at the sight of her old friend. "Hi, Ny."

"Christine. What's the occasion?"

"I need some information."

Uhura rolled her eyes. "Sure you call when you need something. But any other time?" A fond grin softened her words. "What do you need?"

"Do you know a Captain Alexyev?"

Uhura shook her head. "Do you know what office?"

"Admiral Hays. Not sure where. I don't even have a first name."

Uhura was already calling something up on her screen. "Don't need it. There's only one Captain Alexyev in the fleet. Sergei. And he's on Starbase 18."

"Did he just transfer? Did he ever work in Hays's office?"

Uhura shook her head. "No to both. He's been there for two years. And his service record doesn't have him at Command at all. Why?"

"If I send you something, can you trace it?"

Uhura shrugged. "I can try."

Christine pulled up the document again, sent it to Uhura. "It's important that this be discreet, Uhura."

Uhura rolled her eyes. "What isn't, at this level?" She bent to her terminal. "I long for the days when I could actually talk about what I do, you know?" She looked up suddenly. "This didn't come from Admiral Hays's office. But I'm not sure where it did come from."

Christine had an idea who had sent it. The Section that Renata and Randall had worked for was starting to become the bogeyman to her, responsible for every bad thing that happened anywhere. It was probably an overreaction. She leaned forward, as if that would make what she was about to say more private somehow, and asked, "Have you ever heard of a section, Ny?"

"A section of what?"

"Just a section. The Section."

Uhura looked confused. "I'm not sure what you're talking about, Christine. Do you have anything more specific?"

Christine shook her head. "Just forget I said anything."

"It's forgotten. I'm sorry I can't be more help." Uhura leaned back and smiled. "It was good to see you again at Scotty's service, despite the circumstances."

"It was." Christine remembered how wonderful it had felt to be back with her friends. She tried not to think about how much she had enjoyed the time she had spent alone with Spock. Tried not to recall what they had done during part of that time.

"It was good to see you and Spock so close. I know it's been a long time coming."

"We're good friends." Christine didn't want to have this conversation now.

"I'd say a bit more than that?" Uhura frowned. "No?"

"Didn't I mention that I was seeing someone?"

"You kind of forgot that."

"I am. A great guy. You'd like him." Christine knew that all her friends would have liked Kerr. If they'd met him. If she'd let him come with her. But she hadn't wanted that. And that had been a mistake on her part...and a calculated move. At the time, she had only wanted to spend time with Spock and with the others she'd served with on the Enterprise. She didn't want Kerr along and so she'd told him to stay back. And he had. The rest...the rest was the problem.

Uhura broke into her reverie. "Does he have a name?"

"Randall Kerr. Colonel."

Uhura's expression was one of shock for a split second, then the look was gone. Christine wondered if she had actually seen it. "Do you know him?"

"Colonel? I take it he's a marine?" At Christine's nod, Uhura shook her head. "No, don't think I've ever met him."

"For a minute it looked like you knew him?"

There was a buzzing sound on Uhura's end. "I have a priority call coming in, Christine. I've got to go. It's been good catching up. Uhura out."

Christine stared at the blank screen, wondering if there had truly been a comm. That was another Command trick; it was easy to program the buzzer to go off at the press of a button. Christine had used it herself any time that a conversation showed signs of going on too long. But why would her friend do that to her?

Just one more question to add to the growing list.

---------------------------

Spock walked by the shore of a large lake, taking in the view, the sounds, the gentle breeze. He had checked out the cave, found nothing out of the ordinary. He'd needed a place to think, away from the telepaths, had found the lake earlier but hadn't had much time to explore. It was isolated and calm and had seemed like a good place to think, so he had beamed over. As he gazed out at the water, he felt the same pull he had experienced the first time. He was drawn to the place and now, as he walked, he understood why.

His communicator chimed. "Chapel to Spock."

"Spock here, Commander."

"I have some information on who authorized those core samples. I'd rather tell you in person. Do you mind some company?"

"Beam down, if you wish." He tried to ignore the illogical leap his emotions took at the idea that she would be with him. It was irrelevant. It did not matter.

But it did matter. He had thought that he could let her go. She had made her choice and he had supported it. But now...somehow, here, on this planet, in this place, her choice was no longer acceptable.

Not that he could do much about it. It was, after all, _her_ choice.

"I wish I could tell you I had an answer." She was walking toward him, the breeze blowing bits of her hair that had worked loose from the bun she wore into her face. He had an irrational urge to smooth them back...or to take her hair down altogether.

He realized she was looking at him warily. He could not believe that she had sensed what he was thinking; he knew that his face was in the customary Vulcan mask. "Is something wrong?" he asked her.

"I can feel it."

He let a raised eyebrow stand as commentary.

"You wanted to touch me just then."

"That seems to be a constant desire these days, Christine. And it is hardly a new thing. And one that I have said I will resist. You said you had information?"

She handed him the padd she'd worked up. "I'm sorry. I know this is hard for you."

He didn't look at the padd. "I am sure it is difficult for you too. It cannot be easy making such a final decision. And then carrying it out, with no straying. Very hard." He realized too late how mocking his tone was, how harsh his words.

"Why are you being like this?" She turned to look at the lake. "You supported my decision."

"Yes. I did."

"And that's changed?"

He studied the padd before he answered. "I support it intellectually. Emotionally, however, is another story." He handed the padd back to her. "Fortunately, I am Vulcan. I can control those emotions."

"Fortunately," she agreed. Indicating the padd, she asked, "Are you surprised at this?"

He nodded. "We were quite specific in the parameters for interaction with Taillte."

She nodded. "I thought we were too until I got to the part where they rewrote our memo. I tried to find out where the memo originated at Command, Spock. Took it up the chain as far as I could. But I got nowhere. Commander Flynn got her orders from Commander Harris who got his orders from Admiral Hays's office, only the person he said gave the orders doesn't work for Admiral Hays and never has. And it turns out the message wasn't sent from Hays's office, but it's unclear who did send it. Whoever sent that team here is well hidden."

"Or well placed. Or both."

"Or the Section?"

"The thought has occurred to me." He shook his head slowly. "You have better connections at Command these days than I do. If you could not find out any more than this, then I doubt that I could."

"Then it's a closed issue."

"So it would seem." As she pulled out her communicator, he said, "Stay. For a while?" He could tell she was undecided. "Please?"

With a soft smile, she put the communicator back on her belt. "I doubt it's a good idea, Spock. The mood you seem to be in."

"It is this place. Does it not remind you of something, Christine?"

She looked around, stared at the lake and smiled. "Other than Lake Hemet, you mean?"

He nodded. "I meant somewhere a little more exotic than California."

Her smile faded. "You're right. It never occurred to me."

"It just occurred to me, as well. And I think it may explain some of the mood you say I am in. And Taillte does not make it easier. She is...distracting."

"I didn't realize she was still talking to you."

"She is." He started walking toward the lake, leading her down to the water's edge, then along a path that paralleled the shoreline.

"Now that you've said it, I can't believe I didn't see the similarities at once. All it's lacking is the obelisk. And a village of American Indians."

"With our captain living among them as a god," he said.

"If there was ever a role he was made for, that was it," she said with a grin. "What was her name? His wife? I can't remember now."

"Miramanee."

"Yes. She was pregnant. I remember that. I remember thinking then how tragic it was. The child he would never know." She turned to him. "Like David..."

"Yes. Doctor Marcus has much to answer for."

"Answer to whom?"

Spock shook his head. "To herself. To those she hurt."

"To some higher power?"

"If such exists."

"Maybe one of my goddesses."

"Perhaps." He gave her a half smile.

They walked in silence for a while. Then she said so softly that he had to strain to hear her, "I miss him, Spock. I only knew Jim, I mean knew him well"--she seemed to search for the right way to say what she meant.

"Was his lover?" he offered.

She shot him a startled glance, then nodded. "Was his lover...for a short time. I can't imagine what losing him must feel like to you?"

He chose to not answer, instead asked, "Did you love him?"

She didn't respond, just stood staring out at the water. He saw her blink several times.

"He loved you," he said.

She looked back at him. "Not as much as he loved you," she said with a sad smile. "Seeing him on the Enterprise, after I'd hurt him so by taking an assignment that I didn't even have the guts to tell him about it...then seeing you...the two of you..."

"It must have been unpleasant?" He did not like to remember those days. The coldness that had permeated his soul after Gol. The confusion V-Ger had left inside him. Jim had been kind, had not punished him. But he could have, had he not been a forgiving type.

"It was at first. I thought he'd make my life a living hell. But he didn't. He seemed to forgive me, even if he never let me in again." She smiled wryly. "But why did he need to? He had you back."

He nodded. "We have not spoken of this before. Not the way we should have."

"I know. I don't think either of us was ready to." She looked down, then met his eyes. "I did love him."

"I know." He reached out, touched her cheek. "A Vulcan is not given to wishes, Christine."

"But?"

"But if I were, I would wish that things had turned out differently for you and me." When she did not answer, he looked back at the lake. "Randall reminds me of him."

"I guess he does me too." She touched his hand. "But not at first. I didn't see that until later."

"You mean you did not choose him because you wanted another chance with Jim?"

"He's not Jim. We both know that."

"No, he is not." Spock said. "Yet I wonder if perhaps I try harder with him because I too am reminded of the Captain? It was not in my best interest to convince Randall to stay when we found out the truth about him."

She smiled. "No, it wasn't." Then her grin disappeared. "But it was in the best interest of the ship. And in the long run, isn't that what matters?"

"Logic would say so."

"Is logic what you listen to when you look at me?" she asked, her expression strange, difficult for him to read. When he didn't answer, she sighed in frustration. "I can feel what you're feeling, Spock. All the time. It's getting stronger...this thing between us. I don't understand." Her voice trailed off to a whisper. "Is it Taillte? Is she doing this?"

"I do not know, Christine. I only know that it is true."

"It has to stop, Spock. I've made my choice. And I'm sorry, I know it hurts, but I didn't choose you. And I'm all right with that, except...with this thing between us...I don't know how to stop feeling that I'm betraying you."

"Perhaps you are betraying me."

"I'm not."

"You betray one or the other of us, however you choose. We both love you." He turned back to the lake. "I will not make it more difficult for you. But I do not know how to stop what is happening. I do not know how it even began. We are not bonded, Christine. I thought after our night in San Francisco that perhaps we had made the connection permanent in the heat of passion, but there is no bond. That is the only reference I know for what we are feeling. It is not there. If it were, there are ways we could handle an unwelcome union. But I have no suggestions for this."

"Maybe T'Clev would have answers for us?"

He had not considered that. "I do not know. It is conceivable that she might have experience with such a thing. If you wish to contact her, I would not be averse to hearing what she suggests." He touched her cheek briefly. "I too am concerned that the connection between us is getting stronger...more difficult to resist."

"I'll contact her then. Hopefully, she will know something that can help us." She began to walk away, then she turned back. "I'll have to tell her everything."

He nodded. "She is discreet. It is the nature of her vocation."

She laughed softly. "Yes, I guess it is." She turned around, and called for beam-out. Seconds later she was gone.

Spock stared at the spot she had been standing for an illogically long moment, then continued walking by the lake.

*You are sad,* he heard Taillte say.

*Sadness is an emotion,* he sent to her. *I am a Vulcan. I am not a slave to my emotions.*

He wondered which of them he was trying to convince.

----------------------------

Troi was just coming in from the iris fields when he saw some marines wrestling with several Tellarites. "What the hell?" he said softly.

He nearly jumped when a voice sounded in his mind. *Poachers is, I think, the word.*

He stood very still. "Taillte?"

*It is I, Andrew.*

He felt a thrill of pleasure. She knew his name?

*I know much, Andrew. I see all, I understand more and more.*

*Stephen says you are learning at a phenomenal rate,* he tried to form each word carefully in his mind, unsure if he was actually getting to her. He felt a surge of happiness from her when he said Penhallon's name.

*I have always known, but it was difficult to communicate. Now it becomes easier to reach out to you, to the others,* she said.

*So that's why you haven't talked to the psychics?*

*I talk with whom I choose.*

He smiled. *I'm glad you chose me.*

"What are you doing?" Elaine Wynter's voice could, he decided, peel paint.

He looked over at her, tried not to notice how pretty she looked in the light blue outfit she was wearing. "Nothing."

"You were trying to talk to her, weren't you?"

"Not that it's any of your business," he said, as he started walking toward the shelters. He had to tell Rixx about Taillte.

"As if she would ever talk to you," Elaine said, catching up with him and standing in front of him, stopping his progress.

"I live in hope," he said breezily, pushing past her and continuing on his way.

She hurried after him, again getting in his way.

He stopped and gave her a puzzled look. "I'm a little busy, as much fun as your abuse is...."

She seemed frustrated, and he thought for a moment she was going to stamp her foot.

"I have to go," he said, pushing past her one last time and walking quickly to Rixx's shelter. He knocked on the door, heard his friend tell him to come in. As he pushed open the door, he saw that Rixx was packing up the contents of the shelter, placing his items carefully in two small bags.

"What's going on?"

Rixx smiled at him. "I have good news and I have bad news."

Troi frowned. "What's the bad news?"

"I'm pretty sure it goes in the other order," Rixx said as he finished folding his shirts and put them in one of the bags. "The good news is that Taillte finally spoke to me." He turned to look at Troi. "The bad news is that she told me to go home."

"Go home? Back to Betazed?"

Rixx nodded. "It's not like I wasn't going to go back there anyway when this was done. I just thought I'd go out on a note of triumph, you know? Not be sent packing with my tail between my legs by a planet that doesn't want to talk to me."

"Maybe she just wants you to be happy? With Larissa?"

Rixx shrugged. "Maybe." He fastened the bags, then lifted them off the bed. "Well, that's it."

"You're leaving now?"

Rixx nodded. "Taillte must know the shuttle schedule, she told me in time for me to book myself on the next one." He reached out, took Troi's hand in his. "I'll miss you, my friend. You have to come to the wedding."

"I wouldn't miss it," Troi said as he let go of Rixx's hand, followed the Betazoid out to the cordoned off area that was being used as a transport site. He decided not to tell Rixx that Taillte was talking to him and hadn't told him to go home. Troi didn't want to add to the man's bitterness. "Take care. Be happy, Gallen."

"You do the same, Andrew. I'll send you an invitation as soon as we know the date for the wedding. And stay away from Elaine. She's trouble."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Troi said.

Rixx stepped over the barrier and stood with several others that were transporting up to the shuttle. A moment later he was gone.

"Goodbye, Gallen," Troi whispered as the shimmer faded away. The planet already felt lonelier.

He heard Taillte's voice in his mind say, *Don't worry. I will find you another friend.*

-------------4--------------

Kerr saw Christine sitting in the far corner of the marine lounge. She was slouched down in the chair, her feet up on the low table in front of her. From the back, she looked lost in thought. He stopped at the bar to get a beer, then headed over to her.

As he got closer, he could see her reflected in the view port, realized she had seen him too as she suddenly sat up straight and took her feet off the table.

"At ease, Commander," he said with a grin.

"I'm setting a bad example." Her answering grin was weak.

"You looked relaxed. Isn't that what the lounge is for?" He sat down next to her, studied her while he sipped his beer. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing."

"That's not a nothing face." He leaned back in the chair.

"Sure it is." She forced a smile.

"Never play poker for money, Chris."

She rolled her eyes and suddenly slouched down again. "Okay, it's not nothing. But it's nothing important."

"You usually tell me everything, Chris, important or not. If you aren't talking, then it can only be about one thing." He looked over at her, waited till she looked back at him before saying, "It's gotta be Spock."

"We shouldn't be having this conversation here."

He stood up. "Fine. Let's have it somewhere else."

"Randall--"

"--No. You're right; this isn't the place. So, let's go." He took a deep swig of his drink. "My place is closer. And farther from him."

She sighed, but at his look got up. He led her out, stopping only to put his drink on the bar before heading for the door.

She followed him into the lift, said quietly, "Deck four." She stared at the floor, then suddenly looked up at him.

He fought the urge to stop the lift, pull her to him. Something was wrong. Again. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know what it was. But he didn't want to walk around with his eyes closed either. They needed to talk about this.

She was out of the lift as soon as the doors opened, walking quickly to his quarters. He palmed it open, gestured for her to go first. He thought he saw her hesitate for a moment before she walked in.

He let the door close behind him, then asked, "So what did he do now?"

She was pacing. And not looking at him. That was never a good sign.

"Chris?"

She stopped, turned to face him. "Is this fair to you?"

"Is what fair to me?"

She moved toward him. "I'm not sure I can talk about him to you. I'm not sure that's fair."

He took a deep breath. "Can you talk about me to him?"

"I don't."

"But can you?" He reached for her but she had already turned away, resumed pacing.

"That's not the point, Randall." She stopped moving again, stood at the view port, her back to him.

He walked over to her, stopped just out of arms reach of her. "Then what is the point?"

"He's not the one I chose." Her voice got smaller. "He's not the one I cheated on."

"That's the first time you've put it quite that way."

She nodded. "I wanted to believe that's not what it was. But I know better."

"Would you do it all over again?"

She didn't answer, which was an answer.

He moved so that he could touch her, wrapped his arms around her. "Is that why you won't let me touch you?"

"You're touching me now."

"Don't evade." He pulled her against him. "Do you want to rethink your choice? Do you want to choose Spock this time?"

Her whispered "No," was instantaneous. He wished it made him feel better.

"Then what?"

She tensed, seemed ready to pull away. He let go of her, not willing to hold her against her will if she really wanted to escape. To his surprise, she relaxed in his arms, pushing back against him and leaning her head on his shoulder. He twined his arms around her again.

Her voice was very soft. "This bond between Spock and me. It's not going away. I don't know what it means. I don't know how much stronger it will get. It worries me. And I think it's eating him alive."

He tightened his grip on her, suddenly very worried.

She sighed. "I love him, Randall. I don't want to see him hurting."

"I get that."

"But I love you too. And I want to be with you. I've chosen you."

He wasn't sure what to say. He could feel her shaking, realized she was crying. Spock wasn't the only one that was being eaten alive by this. "Chris, look at me."

She turned slowly, looked up at him. Her expression was one of pure misery.

"If you want me to go away, I will. If it will stop this from hurting you, then I'll do it." He didn't know where the words came from, didn't like that he was saying them. But he meant them. He hated seeing her this way. Maybe it was time to go. Even though it would kill him to leave her.

"No." She looked crushed. "You can't leave."

He stroked her hair away from her face. "Maybe it would be easier."

She shook her head. "No. Losing you would not make it easier."

"You could be with him, Christine. Maybe you need to consider that."

She reached up, touched his face. He leaned into her hand with a moan.

"No, Randall. I don't need to consider it. I care for him. I always will. And this link...it will make things harder for us. But I want you. I chose you. And I'm choosing you now." She leaned into him, kissed him gently. "I love you."

"You sound sure." He kissed her back softly. "But you were sure before, and look what happened."

"We were different then. All of us. Now we've seen what we look like when we take off the masks. It wasn't pretty, but we got through it."

He pursed his lips. "Did we?"

She gave him a lopsided grin. "We're getting through it?"

"That I'll buy." Sighing, he pulled her close, buried his face in her hair. "I don't want to lose you."

Her arms tightened around him.

"But I don't want to have to worry about this every time I turn around, Chris. I want to be sure of you."

She nuzzled into him, her breath was warm against his ear as she said, "I want to be sure of you too, Randall. And sure of myself. But maybe we won't ever have that. What then?"

He wasn't sure what to say because he knew she was right.

"Will you walk away from me if I tell you that I can't make any promises? That I only know that I'll try my hardest?" She sighed, pulled away slightly. "Should I walk away because I don't know who you are? I'm having to trust that you're telling me the truth about the Section, but you could be lying. Should that bother me?"

He nodded his understanding, then asked, "What about Spock?"

"This isn't about Spock."

"Yes, it is. Any talk about us, is also a talk about him. I'm beginning to accept that, sad as it sounds."

She shook her head. "How did things get so screwed up?"

He laughed. It was a bitter sound. "But for a cave-in...."

"But for a cave-in," she agreed. "We were fine. You and I were fine."

"We were better than fine, Chris. Other than me lying to you." He gave her a sheepish grin.

"Other than that." She grinned back, and he realized it was the first time that she'd been able to smile when his betrayal was the subject.

He chose his words carefully. "I like it here. I like it on the Carter. We're making a difference, and I want to stay here. With you, with Spock. He's a good captain, and a good man, despite this craziness between the three of us. He needs us. I know he needs you to keep him human. He may need me to keep him honest." He walked to her, pulled her back to him. He knew his expression was deadly serious as he said, "I want to stay here. I'll put up with the uncertainty because I believe that you'll try your damnedest not to make the same mistake again. But I'm not waiting anymore, Chris. It's time."

She nodded, as serious as he was. "Yes. It's time."

He took her hand, led her to his bedroom. Pulled off her clothes, then turned her so she was facing the mirror. He watched as his hands played across her body.

She groaned.

"Look," he said in her ear, watching as she slowly raised her eyes until she could see him in the mirror. She arched back against him and he kissed her neck. "I'm not ever going to offer to go again."

"Good." She turned, pulling off his clothes as she pushed him onto the bed and followed him down. "Don't leave me. Not ever."

"Ever is a long time."

"I hope so," she said firmly, as she leaned over him to kiss him gently. Then she began to touch him, letting her hands roam over his skin.

There was nothing tender in their next kiss. Or in the way she moved on him. He rolled her over, wanting to be on top of her, to be the one controlling how this went. She seemed to understand, reached up and pulled him down to her, kissing him frantically.

"Missed you so," he murmured, as he slowed down, began to move more deliberately.

"I know," she said, giving him a long, sweet kiss. "I love you, Randall."

"Love you, Chris," he whispered, as he lost himself in the sensation of being with her again, a feeling that, despite her having chosen him, he hadn't been completely sure he would ever experience again.

-----------------------

Spock was feeling restive, regretting what he had said to Christine earlier. She had not asked for any of this, was just trying to do the best in a bad situation.

He knew that she had commed T'Clev, told her what was happening. She had said T'Clev had not seemed hopeful that an answer would be found in the temple records, but she would check.

Spock looked down, realized he was worrying a small flat stone. He examined it, then suddenly whipped it underhanded toward the lake. It skipped eight times before it sank out of sight.

He had been nearly seven when his human grandfather had taught him how to do that. The next year, when he had come back to Earth for a visit, Spock had shown no interest in skipping stones, or in any of the other diversions that Amanda's father had suggested. Spock had changed, at his Kahs-wan ceremony he had finally chosen which part of his nature he would let lead him. And he had chosen to be Vulcan. It had broken his grandfather's heart, only Spock had ignored the man's pain at the time. Now he wondered if he could not have tried a little harder to find common ground with the old man who had adored him...who had died two years later.

Spock stood up. This place preyed upon his peace of mind.

*Perhaps your peace of mind is an illusion,* Taillte suggested.

She had been hovering since Christine had beamed back up. A subtle, non- intrusive presence that seemed to be worried about him for some reason.

*Leave me,* he said firmly. He was not sure if she did, but her voice was silent in his mind.

He should not have spoken to Christine as he had. It was unprofessional. And unkind. He did not wish to hurt her. Wished only to--

He forced his thoughts away from that. It did not matter what he wanted. He could have had her months ago. But he had turned away. Shut her out. She had not waited for him. And he had not, at the time, expected her to.

But for a cave-in, he thought wistfully. But for that, he would not now be brooding over a woman he could not have. Would perhaps not even want her. But for a cave-in. If he were human, he would think he was cursed. He had taken every precaution. There should have been no need for Christine to involve herself in his Pon Farr. T'Clev had been there, willing and more than able to assist him.

He hoped the priestess would have answers for them. Answers that would explain the bond between them. The curious link that allowed him to feel what Christine was feeling, that allowed her to know that he felt far too much for her. The link that he could not comprehend.

The link that suddenly flared into life, leaving him reeling. He sank to his knees, took several deep breaths. This feeling, this intense feeling as two bodies came together...

It was Christine. And Kerr.

Spock shielded desperately, finally managing to block the overwhelming sensations he was getting from Christine as she made love to Kerr.

He looked down. He had gouged two deep furrows in the soil. Through his disorientation, he felt a frisson of regret for the pain he must have caused Taillte.

*I am more hardy than you think,* she said gently. *The longer I am in your universe, the more accustomed to pain I become. That is how life is in your world, is it not?*

He did not respond to her, just slowly pushed himself to his feet, standing unsteadily.

*You hurt now,* she said.

He did not try to deny it. *Yes. I hurt.*

*I can help. Stay here. Let them go on without you.*

The thought almost tempted him. To not have to see them again. To not have to know that Christine was in Kerr's arms, in his bed. It would be a relief.

But the Carter was his ship, a stronger part of him answered, and he was needed. He would deal with his feelings as they came. He had a higher purpose, and the ship and her crew--all of her crew--were part of it. He would not leave it just because he could not handle his own emotions.

*You are strong.* Taillte's voice was like a soft caress. *I knew you would not stay with me.*

*I cannot. I will not give up that way.* He thought of how Nako had compared Taillte to the spores. He still thought it was a bad analogy. Taillte exerted pressure, but she would not force him. Or anyone. *There is a part of me that would like to,* he admitted.

*I know.* She sounded amused. *Show me how you skipped the stone?*

He shook his head.

*Please?* When he did not move, she whispered, *I know how much it hurts. It might hurt less, if you play?*

*I have told you. Vulcans do not play.*

*Just as Vulcans do not love?* Her tone was gentle, prodding him only slightly.

Love, he mused. Love was pain. Why did it always hurt so?

*Play...play as I do, Spock. I play with those that are here and the joy I feel makes me forget my pain.* When he did not reply, she said, *I will leave you alone with your logic then, if you will not play.*

I will meditate, he thought. Yes, meditate. That should help. He assumed the proper position almost frantically, drove his consciousness down relentlessly.

It took him a long time to find even a hint of the stillness within.

-------------------------------

T'Clev took the last group of scrolls to her rooms in the temple. Commander Chapel's call had been unexpected. The human's worry had been evident, and despite not having spent much time with her, T'Clev had wanted to help her.

She had wondered at the time at the intense connection between the commander and Spock. He had acted as if he had given up on her. She'd appeared to be intensely involved with Colonel Kerr, committed to him enough to refuse the bond during the Pon Farr. When the burning had subsided, Spock and the commander had gone their separate ways. Or so T'Clev had initially thought.

But she had watched them at the funeral of Spock's mother. Whatever it was between them had not died. She had been curious, but not overly so. She had other things to occupy her. She had not thought of them again until the comm had come from the commander. The woman had been embarrassed as she explained their situation. And she had not wanted to tell T'Clev what had happened in San Francisco.

A mild indiscretion, in T'Clev's mind. But she had perhaps grown jaded over the years.

T'Clev looked down at the scrolls, the temple's most ancient texts. She had been through the more modern temple works, and there was nothing about a bond that was not a bond, about a link, a mental connection that worked in the way the commander had described. A link between those that were not bondmates. It was unprecedented, this connection, and it had been strong enough to call across universes. T'Clev found the story of Taillte fascinating, but found it more compelling that a verified non-esper, as Commander Chapel claimed to be, could call telepathically to one who was not her mate.

She'd had to be creative to gain access to the scrolls. Fortunately, she had enough seniority to command respect and compliance. She opened the first scroll. If her temple had ever known of such a strange connection, perhaps it would be here.

The bells rang many times before she finished the last scroll, rolling it gently and putting it with the others. There were no answers in the ancient texts.

She reached over to her comm unit, input the codes the commander had given her for her private channel. The call was answered immediately.

"T'Clev?" Commander Chapel's voice went up, her hope evident.

"I am sorry," T'Clev said, watching as the commander's face fell. "There is nothing here that will help your situation." The woman looked so miserable that T'Clev said, "Perhaps I could contact T'Lar on your behalf? She may know of something in a text that I do not have access to."

The commander shook her head. "I don't think Spock would want that. We trusted you because..."

"I understand. And I regret that I could not help you." T'Clev studied the woman. "Has it occurred to you that there may be no answer, no way to turn it off?"

"I don't understand."

"Perhaps, it is simply love?" T'Clev could tell from the commander's expression that this was not a comfort. "It is not my place to interfere..."

"But?" The commander watched her, hope again in her eyes. "Interfere away, T'Clev."

"Perhaps the wisest course would be to stop fighting it?"

The commander's expression turned to one of irritation. "Now, why didn't I think of that? Oh yeah, because I'm with someone else. Someone I love."

T'Clev had seen more things than she cared to admit in her life in the temple, more permutations of love than many understood. She was constantly surprised by the rigidity of the Vulcan, and apparently the human mind, when it came to understanding relationships and the fluid way that attraction flowed between individuals. "I am not saying you should leave the colonel."

The commander's eyes widened. "I think you spent a little too much time with Commander Penhallon."

T'Clev ignored the dig. "It may be the most logical course of action."

"Logic has nothing to do with this. And I doubt that either Spock or Randall would agree with you."

"Of course, if the idea does not appeal to you?" T'Clev thought she saw something flash across the commander's face. It was brief, but she was trained to see emotion in the blankest of slates. It was how she judged the Pon Farr's approach in those she helped, and she was rarely wrong. She was about to say more, but saw the warning on the commander's face. She was also a master of knowing when not to push. "It is just a suggestion."

"Thank you...for searching the records. Live long and prosper, T'Clev."

"And you as well, Commander Chapel." T'Clev cut the connection.

T'Clev stared at the blank screen for a long moment. A movement at the doorway caught her eye. T'Kala stood at the door. The young apprentice looked nervous. It was her first time with a client and she had asked T'Clev to watch over her. It was how it was done in the temple, the older women looking out for the younger, making sure they were prepared to deal with anything that might happen during the Pon Farr. And anything might happen. It was a volatile time, and Vulcan males were unpredictable when they burned. The priestesses' jobs were much more dangerous than most people realized. They would have been even more dangerous if each priestess didn't keep a small weapon set on maximum stun within reach of her bed.

T'Clev had only had to use hers once. She hoped T'Kala never had to use hers.

"Is he ready?" she asked.

T'Kala nodded, her nervousness robbing the movement of any grace. They would have to work on that, T'Clev decided. In their profession, grace was paramount, grace and discretion. T'Clev put Spock and his commander out of her mind, and followed T'Kala to her chambers.

End part 1 of 2