But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness. (Carl Sandburg, "At a Window")
"You're off duty, Lieutenant."
Uhura removed the listening device from her ear and turned to look blearily at Kirk. He looked just as ragged and wrung-out as she felt. After all he'd been through, he probably felt ten times worse.
He jerked a thumb at Dr. McCoy, hovering just behind his left shoulder. "Don't make me sic Bones on you, Uhura. I'm giving you a direct order. Get some sleep."
Kirk's earlier whispered conference with McCoy hadn't been quite sotto voce enough for her keen hearing, so she knew he meant business. At the sight of McCoy's fingers twitching against the handle of the medical case he carried whenever on the bridge she nodded in acquiescence, making room at her station for the officer waiting to relieve her. As she exited the bridge she glanced around, looking for Spock, but he wasn't around. No doubt he was with his father and the other surviving members of Vulcan's High Council. Her posture already beginning to slump, she hit the button to activate the 'lift. Perhaps Kirk had a point.
All told, Uhura had been at her post for nearly thirty hours straight. That wasn't counting the first two hours she'd spent in the communications pool on Deck D, until Kirk, McCoy hot on his heels and cursing a blue streak, had come dashing up to her babbling incoherently about the attack on the Klingon fleet, initiating a chain of events that would turn all of their lives inside out and upside down; or the three hours between the time Admiral Barnett had dismissed the corps of cadets from Kirk's hearing and her arrival on board Enterprise, whereupon a harried Ops specialist issued Uhura her new uniform and duty assignment; or the five hours since she'd arisen that first morning until news of trouble on Vulcan arrived. In all, she calculated she'd been awake and active for over forty hours with nothing more that a few bathroom breaks and a hastily-eaten meal on the shuttle trip from Earth to spacedock. And in that span of time she'd gone from being a fourth-year cadet only weeks from graduating to a lieutenant with a plum posting on the bridge of Starfleet's newest flagship, with all the associated perks and responsibilities that position entailed.
It didn't really hit Uhura how the events of the past two days would affect her directly until a yeoman had contacted her with the news of her cabin re-assignment. When she'd first boarded, she'd been assigned, like most of the cadets, to a cramped, utilitarian cabin on Deck E with four bunks and unisex facilities down the corridor. As a bridge officer, however, she had private quarters with en suite bathroom and replicator on Deck B. The message was a courtesy, to inform her that the duffle containing her belongings had already been transferred, and to provide a temporary entry code that she could reprogram after she'd used it the first time.
Then Vulcan had been destroyed by Nero's black hole and Enterprise became, among other things, a refugee camp for the scant few thousand survivors of the cataclysm. Within moments of the first shuttle unloading its traumatized passengers in Enterprise's bay, the intra-ship net was buzzing with requests for and offers of lodging space, clothing, food, supplies, anything the heartbroken crew could possibly provide to ease the Vulcans' grief and pain. Uhura hadn't had to think twice before offering up her new quarters for anyone who might need them. She passed along the entry code, adding she had a PADD loaded with music audiofiles with her things that anyone could use if they wished. Then, on a whim, she donated her first month's salary to the relief fund someone in the ship's bursary had set up. Even with her higher pay grade it was not enough, not nearly enough, but she knew if she didn't do something the shame would haunt her the rest of her days.
Uhura had raised her hand to key the entry code for her cabin before she remembered she'd given it up. With a groan she turned back and took the 'lift down to the cargo bay, where she found a weary-looking ensign keeping watch over a room full of boxes, duffel bags, and the like, the detritus of Enterprise's generous and giving crew. His tricorder located her bag in a matter of minutes, and soon she was trudging somewhat drunkenly, her exhaustion getting the best of her, towards the cabin she'd originally been assigned to.
Fortunately, only one of the bunks was presently occupied. Unfortunately, the occupant was a snoring Bolian. Make that a snoring, flatulent Bolian. Uhura wrinkled her nose, then dug into the recesses of her bag to retrieve her bathrobe and slippers. She was desperate for a shower, and maybe by the time she returned her cabinmate's intestinal distress would have passed.
The bathroom was blissfully empty, though showed signs of recent occupation. Uhura claimed a towel from the cabinet just inside the door, entered the cleanest cubicle, and undressed. Then, propping herself up against the tiled wall, she blinked at the two buttons before her, trying to summon enough energy to decide whether she wanted a sonic shower or the more traditional wet one.
After thirty hours on duty, thirty hours of constant, concentrated attention to communications from, to, and on Enterprise, the last thing she needed was more sound. The humidity of a wet shower would wreak havoc on her hair, but it was a small price to pay for the much-needed chance to clear her head of the pounding she'd only just begun to notice.
Fifteen minutes later, feeling slightly more human and significantly more somnolent, Uhura trod wearily back to the cabin where, in addition to the still-snoring Bolian, she found the remaining three bunks also occupied. Her bag had been dumped from the bunk where she'd left it in the middle of the floor.
"What the hell?" she snarled, suddenly alert.
"Lieutenant, what are you doing here?" came a reply from one of the upper bunks. "Didn't you get moved up to B Deck?"
"Yeah, but I gave it up to some of the refugees. I was going to crash here until we got back to Earth." A journey of nearly a week, or until Scotty and his engineering crew could get the replacement warp core, already en route aboard one of Enterprise's sister ships, installed and operational.
"Shit, sorry. We told Yeoman Choudhury she could kip with us after her mates all voted to give up their cabin too. If we'd known--"
Where the hell am I supposed to sleep? was Uhura's thought, but instead she sighed and hoisted her bag. "Don't worry about it. I'll find someplace else to stay." She turned for the door.
"Try Deck F. Word in the mess earlier was that Ensigns Chang and Dershowitz were setting people up on the floor of their cabin."
Uhura considered this, then nodded. "Thanks."
"N'prob'm," was the mumbled, sleepy reply.
Now fully awake, if still as exhausted as ever, Uhura considered her options. The thought of spending her first night's rest in over a day and a half, her first night on Enterprise, on the floor of someone else's cabin, surrounded by other bodies, didn't appeal to her. Sickbay was out; she'd heard that they'd had to set up temporary bedding to deal with the overflow of injured personnel and refugees. She supposed she could try sleeping in one of the shuttles, but that meant going all the way down to the lowermost decks, and who's to say someone else hadn't already had the same idea?
The observation deck, however, was accessible only to those ranked lieutenant or higher. Someone might be there, but it likely wouldn't be as crowded as anywhere else on the ship. She hoped. Thus resolved, she ducked back into the cabin she'd just been evicted from to grab a spare blanket and pillow from the storage shelf, then went in search of the turbolift that provided access to the observation deck.
~ * ~
The observation deck was blissfully empty when Uhura emerged from the 'lift. No, wait, it wasn't; someone was sound asleep on the starboard-side sofa. She prudently claimed a seat facing out the viewscreens on the port side.
The starfield from a ship moving at impulse speed looks stationary, but Uhura knew from her astrophysics lectures that such was an optical illusion. Tonight, she was willing to indulge herself in a little illusion. So much had changed in the past two days, temporarily believing in a little imagined stability might give her a chance to catch her breath, to bring order to her chaotic thoughts.
She could not have dreamed, not even in her wildest flights of fancy, all that had come to pass in the past forty-odd hours. Her first mission as a Starfleet officer had been nothing less than a baptism by fire.
At least she'd come through it alive. So many others hadn't. Engineer Olsen. Dr. Puri. Farragut. Truman. Walcott. Antares. Hood. Centaurus. Defiant. Reduced to debris, all hands lost. Thousands of brave men and women sent on a mission of mercy and rescue, cut down in the prime of their lives.
Vulcan, and the nearly six billion souls who went with it. Among them, Spock's mother.
The tears that Uhura had managed through sheer force of will to hold back for so many hours now streamed, unchecked, from her eyes. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. This wasn't the dream that Starfleet promised. Starfleet was about reaching out, about discovering new worlds and civilizations, about forging bonds of diplomacy and friendship, about learning new ways to say, "I love you" or "What do you need?" It was not about having to cope with the incomprehensible enormity of genocide, or the senseless deaths of thousands of people who only wanted to make the galaxy a better place to live. About finding the right way to say, "I'm so sorry." Fearful of waking the observation deck's other occupant, Uhura buried her face in her hands and howled her grief and rage in silence.
With a watery, choked gasp, Uhura sat up. Spock stood a few feet away, hands clasped behind his back, studying her. She sucked in her breath and, hand shaking, wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Commander."
"You were weeping."
A damp laugh escaped through her nose, and she reached up to wipe the sleeve of her robe beneath it. "Yes, I was."
"You lost many friends today."
She knew, from the many hours spent in his company, that he was attempting to express sympathy. Sympathy for her grief, despite having endured losses that she knew would have incapacitated her. It was yet another example of the many ways the oft-derided cold indifference of Vulcans was a lie, a gross misunderstanding. Or, perhaps, yet another example of the influence Spock's human mother had had on him. Uhura chose to believe it was a little bit of both.
Rather than reply to his comment, she instead said, "What brings you here, Spock?"
He took a step towards her. "The computer said that you were here."
"Oh." The realization that he'd purposely come looking for her made her feel strangely calm. "I would have thought you'd prefer to be with your father and--" And the few remaining Vulcans in existence. "--the rest of the High Council."
He inclined his head slightly. "I have donated my living quarters to them for the duration of the journey back to Earth. I presume they are either meditating or discussing the appropriate measures to take in light of recent events. As I am not a member of the High Council, my presence is neither required nor permitted."
Cautiously, it seemed, he sat beside her, though his posture remained erect, palms resting lightly on his thighs, face turned towards the viewscreen. "After the captain released me from duty, I had intended to seek serenity in solitary meditation. Surak teaches that such is the logical course of action in the face of - of extreme emotional distress." He turned to face Uhura. "Tonight, however, I find I am reluctant to be alone. It is illogical to seek out the company of others at times like this, and yet...." His voice trailed off.
Uhura remembered, from her seminar on first contact protocol and procedure, that it was considered both inappropriate and impolite to touch Vulcans. Protocol can stuff itself in a waste disposal chute, she thought, as she reached for Spock's hand. It wasn't as if she hadn't already violated that particular guideline several times in the past two days anyway.
"Spock," she said, lacing her fingers with his, "nothing about what you've been through today is logical. I doubt even Surak would fault you for seeking out companionship after what happened to Vulcan." She scooted closer, drawing her lower legs up beside her. "Surely your people value friendship?"
He looked down at their linked hands, then up at her face, his dark eyes fathomless. She wondered what infernos raged within him, what internal battles he fought to maintain the dignity of control. "Humans are such a tactile species," he murmured, raising his other hand to stroke the side of a finger alongside her temple. "My mother is--" He paused, swallowed. "--was always physically affectionate with me. At times I resented it. It is considered a sign of weakness to seek comfort in the touch of another."
"And yet you are here."
The finger had trailed down the side of her face to crook beneath her jaw, its mates curving lightly around her neck. "And yet I am here."
She brought her free hand up to rest on his. "I would never presume to encourage you to be less Vulcan, Spock, but don't think of your human heritage as anything to be ashamed of. Humans need touch. Without it, we'd go mad. Don't deprive yourself of something that accomplishes what meditation can't, that gives you the strength you need to keep going, simply because it's not the Vulcan way. That would be illogical."
"I cannot fault your reasoning." He glanced down at their joined hands, then back up. "I think my mother would have said the same thing."
She smiled then, and reached out to cup his cheek. "Your mother sounds like a wise and kind woman." His eyes fluttered shut as he nodded. "Her son is a reflection of all that was good in her."
The hand that held hers tightened, just as the muscles in his cheek beneath her other hand grew tense. Recognizing how fragile Spock's control still was, Uhura held herself still but relaxed, allowing him the chance to find his equilibrium again.
This, she realized, was a microcosm of what had drawn her to Starfleet in the first place--the chance to forge close and enduring bonds of friendship and love with people from all across the galaxy. Her grandmother had often remarked that Uhura's acute hearing and her talent for learning languages was a gift. Her grandmother also always said that gifts were meant to be given, not hoarded. Joining Starfleet had been Uhura's declaration of her desire to share her gifts, by using them to facilitate and strengthen bonds between disparate peoples.
The destruction of Vulcan would continue to reverberate throughout the Federation for decades to come. Would the High Council vote to withdraw its membership, to focus its attention, energy, and resources on attending to the needs of its diaspora? This was the question on everyone's lips. Deep in her gut, Uhura knew that the answer would depend on the strength of the bonds that existed between the Vulcans and those around them. They must not be allowed to isolate themselves, to segregate themselves, to look only inward for strength and serenity. Rather, they should be encouraged to look outward, to accept the hands of friendship and support held out to them. To accept the gifts that are offered. It fell to Uhura and those like her, those who had survived the Battle of Vulcan, to offer everything they had to give, that no Vulcan should ever feel adrift in a vast desert of solitude.
Withdrawing her hand from his and shifting closer, Uhura cradled Spock's face in both her hands and whispered his name. His eyes remained closed but she knew she had his attention, so she asked, in his native tongue, the dialect of his childhood, "Tell me what you need."