olDisclaimer: ParaBorg owns everything except an imagination, and the creative content of this story. Neener, neener. All original characters, content, and ceremonies are © 2000 by Roisin Fraser. Okay to archive or post at ASC. All others, please ask.
Author's Note: Thanks to my betas Islaofhope, Pern Fancy, and T'Thelaih. Thanks also to Editrix, who beta'd this story in its (multiple) early forms, and provided much-need thwacking when necessary. This story also owes a tremendous debt to Diane Duane's Spock's World, from which almost all of my conclusions about the nature of the killing gift have been drawn. Any errors of course are my responsibility. This story is the fourth story in the T'Rela series. The framing story takes place about eight months before "The Crucible." Readers of "Solstice" will recognize the mistletoe. The other stories can be found at my website www.reocities.com/Area51/Starship/2151
Summary: Spock and T'Rela have to answer the question "Why am I different?"
Feedback: Can I have some, huh, huh, please? Constructive only, flames will be sent to the circular file, or the Bermuda Triangle, whichever is closest. Send feedback to Roisin_Fraser@hotmail.com
Rating: TOS, S/f, R for het smut and angst.
This story is dedicated to PernFancy, who knows it only too well.
"Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you…
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday…"
---///--- indicates flashback
*** indicates scene change
// indicates telepathic or internal thought
My wife's hand clasps mine as I exit the passenger terminal of Vulcan Space Central. I smile at her; the gesture is not Akaren, and it certainly is not Vulcan, but it is her way, and I do not find that I mind. //It is good to see thee again, Beloved// she thinks to me in the formal language of her nomadic people.
//Thy presence heartens me, my wife// I say through our bond, and receive the flash of T'Rela's smile in return. But I can tell she is concerned. The cause is more than sufficient; and it is well that I have come home on leave. My son Sudek needs me.
The concept of emotional need is not openly acknowledged among Vulcans, but the Akaren acknowledge its importance. Sudek is our eldest son, our only child, and the one born with a difference that has no real explanation---or at least, no explanation that will satisfy him.
I had seen it in his eyes, in the messages he taped to me, the look of a child who has realized that he is not as the others are. Though he does not speak directly of it, I know he has taken a fair amount of verbal abuse lately from his classmates. What I do not know with absolute certainty is why.
T'Rela has picked up on my thoughts through our bond. She sends me no words of reassurance; they would not help. But her presence is helpful, a reminder that whatever we must say to our son, we will not say it alone. //What has he said to you?// I ask her.
//He will not speak of it. But our son has been nervous and withdrawn for these past few weeks. I have tried to speak with him of it, but he turns me away.//
My son, one of the ye'shanta, those with the killing gift. I know what the humans mean when they say: my heart aches. Mine does, for my son who at seven is far too young to bear that particular burden. Yet the burden has been his since he was old enough to know of it; we could not lie to him, even to protect him.
This is also the month when Sudek, along with those who are his age-mates, will make his kahs-wan, the trek into the desert that is the ritual beginning of adulthood. My wife's brother, Sorcha, has acted in my stead, teaching Sudek what he must know of desert ways, of Akaren methods of tracking and survival. A few days from now, Sudek will enter the desert with a randomly chosen group of children near his own age. They will navigate the desert, relying upon each other for their survival. If even one does not finish the trial, all will have to repeat it. I can deduce that perhaps the nearness of the trial is the cause of some of Sudek's reactions, but I do not know for certain.
When we enter our house, I notice two things almost simultaneously. The bowl of water placed by the statue of Aliset is plea for the safety of our son. Our son himself is not here. //He is with Sulien// T'Rela explains. I nod; Sulien is one of my son's friends.
The door creaks open slightly, and Sudek walks in. It has been almost a year since I saw him last; he has grown to almost my elbow. There is still much of his mother's people in him, but I see something of myself in the set of his jaw. But when he sees me, there is an almost physical withdrawal. Though Sudek does not run away, his entire body language has changed: Go away, I do not wish to talk.
"Greetings, my son," I say. I begin the greeting ritual, one of the few that is common between both the Akaren and Vulcans. "How does the day find you?"
Sudek smiles, but there is little of childhood in that smile. He smiles, I realize, because he thinks I expect it, but not because he feels the emotion. "It finds me well." He pauses then, and I can sense the undercurrent of unease seeping through his shielding. "How long are you staying?"
"A month." Just in time for me to know you, then I shall have to leave again. I push the thought away. It is of little use to me, and even less use to Sudek.
Sensing my momentary loss, T'Rela intervenes. "Come, Sudek, you must finish your homework."
My son nods, and I wonder if school is the same for him as it was for me. During the morning, Sudek attends a Federation school in ShiKahr where many of the students are off-worlders, while in the evening he attends a Vulcan school to learn how to control the strong telepathy that is a side-effect of the killing gift. From all of Sudek's messages, the experience does not seem to have been as traumatic on my son as it was on me. Unlike myself as a child, he has friends.
Just before he goes into the study, Sudek turns to me. The sullen child who I saw just a few minutes earlier has disappeared for a time. "I'm learning algebra. Will you help me with it, if I need it?" I nod, surprisingly reassured by his faith in me. Would that I could solve his main problem so easily.
T'Rela picks up on the thought easily. //Spock, do not do this to yourself. It was none of your doing.//
I know the logic of what she says. There is no way to test for the killing gift. It follows no genetic principles, no apparent patterns of inheritance. It is a rare ability which appears in some Vulcan families every six or seven generations or so, then disappears. I know all of this, but I wonder if it was something in me, in the unique genetics of a hybrid, which passed this ability to my son. And there is, of course, the question of his mother's people. Long-distance telepaths all, the Akaren are descended from a clan of assassins with the killing gift. But in the end, there are no real answers; it could be any of these factors, or none of them, which gave the killing gift to our son.
She takes my hand, and the contact between us flares open again. //But had there been something we could have done, would you have chosen not to have him?//
I shake my head no, thinking of the baby I held moments after his birth, of the child who laughed as Jim taught him to play baseball. //Then that is your answer.// Her mental voice is gently chiding, and I accept this. Dwelling on what might have caused my son to have the killing gift is, after all, useless. And my logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.
My wife tugs lightly on my hand. //Come, you need rest.//
I raise my eyebrow at her. Although it is true that the transport to Vulcan was not exactly conducive to rest, I also know my wife as I know myself. //And how do you plan on ensuring this? By exercise?//
I feel her mental laughter, and notice with relief that she is shielding this conversation with her strong healers' shields. When Sudek is grown, I hope he can find a woman to laugh with as I have found with his mother, but for now, there are some things I should prefer he were not aware of.
Her dark eyes, the color of polished amethyst, are fairly dancing. //That's not what I meant! Although if that was a proposition, I accept it.//
I calculate the odds that Sudek would need help with his algebra, and the odds are not in our favor. I send her the smile I would not normally show. //My wife, there is an 86.7% chance that Sudek will need my assistance with his homework. I should prefer not to be…otherwise engaged if that should happen.//
Her face is once again that of the proper Vulcan matron, and I know that in her subtle way, she is teasing me. T'Rela is a true daughter of the emotionally open Akaren; for her to wear the impassive mask of a Vulcan woman is about as likely as McCoy lasting a month without mentioning my name and "green-blooded" in the same sentence. Her lips brush against mine, adding a small bit of tinder to the fire of our bond. //On account, then.//
The door creaks again. Sudek comes out of the hallway. "Father, I am having trouble balancing this equation."
We are able to return to our room only after Sudek has fallen asleep on the couch watching a holovid. Throughout the evening, he had plied me with endless questions about what I did during the months I was apart from them---what it was like being on a starship, how his Uncle Jim was doing, did the stars look different from space. I answered his questions as honestly as I could, but I could still sense the uneasiness there. I realized that he was asking questions for a reason other than a search for knowledge. Sudek did not want to talk about what was bothering him.
Sensing my distress, T'Rela pulls me against her where she is half-sitting on our bed. Heya, she has always been this for me, my oasis in the desert. I can feel the steady beat of her heart against my side. We have found our shelter here, in each other's arms, when it was lacking elsewhere. It is pleasant, being here like this. //Is my account still open?//
Her mental laugh is more than a little suggestive. //That depends, Beloved. What did you have in mind?//
My lips touch the pulse-point on her neck which is hot with the faint scent of her, a scent of hot desert wind and ra'amki leaves. T'Rela stirs under my touch. //Oh, so this is what you have in mind. I think I can keep your account open.//
Her scent flares strong with her arousal as I shift position to nibble lightly on one full breast. The scent does something to me that no other substance can do; my heart begins to race and it feels as if the air is much thinner. My wife's body arches like a taut bow under my mouth and hands. I am not truly surprised to find her ready for me; my own arousal is only too evident. We have longed for each other these months of our separation, and our bodies are only acknowledging that fact. My hands know her body as well as I know my own, and as my hands trace the curves on her body, our desire flows through the bond. //Feedback loop// I hear her say with no small amount of delight, and the analogy is an accurate one.
She pulls my head up and our lips meet in an embrace that is nothing like the chaste kiss of earlier. I can taste the faint odor of cinnamon and cardamom, no doubt from a Terran tea she favors. //Beloved, adun, be with me, be with me---//
Under the call, I can hear my mind's response: //Beloved, aduna, I am yours// And so I am, and so we are, and the fire pulls us down into its welcoming heat.
I awake sometime later to find her head pillowed on my shoulder. We have slept that way since our first beginning, T'Rela and I. As I watch her, with her hair arrayed wildly in all directions, I am reminded of an Akaren legend I heard as a child, of the se'lika, the mythical women of the deep desert who lured unwary travelers to their deaths with promises of water and shelter. I used to think the legend illogical in the extreme, for it would seem to be the height of madness to follow a stranger anywhere in the deep desert. But now, watching my wife sleep, I do not find the legend to be so illogical anymore. Had I been a desert traveler seeing T'Rela in the desert, I would have followed her anywhere.
Her mind is just starting to wake up; I feel its slight awareness through our bond. //Then it is fortunate for you that I am not a se'lika. With my sense of direction, I am certain we would both be lost.//
I laugh aloud at this, for her comment has always been a joke between us. T'Rela, born of Akaren nomads, is perhaps the last person one would want to have reading the map on a journey. Though as a healer she can navigate her way through a Vulcan body quite well, her sense of direction is abysmal at best.
The page on the commset goes off. Were it not for the fact that my mouth is covering hers, the sound she makes might be interpreted as a curse. She leaves our bed and activates the page, voice only. "Yes?"
"T'Rela, S'len has been rushed to ICU with a malfunction in one of the heart valves. T'Nira is in Seclusion with her bondmate and cannot operate. Can you----"
"T'Preth, I am on my way. Out."
Within the space of a few minutes, my wife is gone. I wander into the kitchen to watch the red face of T'Kuht as she watches the desert, and it is then that I hear the sound. Hitch, stop. Hitch, stop. The sound is strangely familiar, and as I am trying to place it, memory rises up before me, painful and demanding. I had thought to forget it, but it is not possible, after all.
"…Run, Earther, run! You are no Vulcan and never will be."
" Look at him, he's crying!"
"Go back to the other humans, back to Earth where you belong."
I wipe my face dry. I am six years old, and it is not the first time I have heard these taunts. Though they have lost their novelty, they have not lost their ability to cause pain. I try to compose myself in the way my father expects, but it is difficult. I am smaller than the other boys, and younger, and not yet as strong as they are; the fear I feel is written on my face.
Salen, the eldest of the boys, shoves me to punctuate his words. "Go back, Earther! You are a half-human mongrel, go swing in the trees with the rest of the humans." He shoves me again, and anger consumes me. I have done nothing to these boys, I only want to be left alone. I swing wildly, hitting Salen in the stomach. He laughs then. "Can't even do that right, can you, Earther?"
"Stop." It is an ambassador's voice, calm and modulated, the words somehow all the more revealing of his anger for their lack of inflection. The boys step back from each other, as if my father's words have broken the pack mentality. They are as terrified of my father as they are contemptuous of me.
"Have Surak's rules been adapted so that bullying is now acceptable?" my father inquires acerbically. "Perhaps your parents might wish to know how you apply the principles of IDIC. I think this will make an excellent report to each of your parents; in fact, I will deliver it myself. Now go!" They scatter as the le-matya do when the rain is upon them, and I am left alone with the stranger who is my father.
I turn to my father, seeking what, I do not know. Whatever I am looking for in his dark gaze, it is absent. "You encouraged them, my son. You allowed Salen to prove his point by striking him as you did."
//And letting him kill me would have proved my devotion to Surak's principles?// I think but do not say. Young as I am, I know that arguing with Sarek will get me precisely nowhere.
Instead, I turn to follow my father, and the only sound I hear is the sound of my breath, ragged and halting on the sobs which I dare not allow to escape.
The sound of a crying child, how could I have forgotten it? I walk into Sudek's bedroom and I hear it again, the sobs of my son crying into a pillow. It is little wonder T'Rela did not hear it; the sound is nearly inaudible.
I drop my shields, so that my son may better communicate with me. When did words become so hard between us? //Sudek, my son, what troubles you so?//
Sudek's violet eyes are nearly black in the night. I can sense his distress as a nearly palpable surge of pain and fear. //Why do you care? I am to be sent away. //
I have no strengths in this. Klingon warriors, a plague of tribbles, an injured horta, these things I know how to deal with, but not this. //Sudek, you are my son. I cherish thee. I would no sooner send you away than I would exile myself. Why do you think I would send you away?//
//They said you would send me away because I am a ye'shanta.// As he speaks, Sudek broadcasts a series of visual images, images which are disturbingly familiar. Older children taunting a younger one because he is different. I recognize one of the children who has taunted my son: Stirek, the son of T'Pring and Stonn. //They said that I had the killing gift, that you would have to send me to the Kolinahru.//
Stirek had not been entirely untruthful. It was a tradition, in years past, for children with the killing gift to be sent to the Kolinahru, for where there is no emotion, there can be no trigger for the killing gift. I reach out to take my son in my arms. He is tense, but he does not fight me."Sudek, hear my words. You are my son, and I will never send you away unless it is your choice to go."
But my own Gift tells me that it is not just Stirek's words which are haunting my son. //What else, my son?//
Like many of his mother's people, Sudek is primarily a visual telepath. The impressions which cascade into my mind are as vivid as the images in a holovid: the drawing of lots for the groups which will undertake the kahs-wan together. I had seen this ceremony myself as a child, but had dared the kahs-wan alone rather than risk being abandoned in the desert by children I neither knew nor trusted. My son is fortunate; his friend Sulien was selected to be in the group. But Stirek was selected as well.
Sudek's fear is not of Stirek. But in the way of children, Stirek's words, reminding the other children of just how Sudek is different, have stirred up the undercurrent of mistrust among them. Sudek, who has enjoyed a relatively congenial relationship with his Vulcan classmates until now, is afraid that Stirek's words will cause him to lose the friends he has gained. Indeed, he has already experienced the effects of Stirek's words at school, in the conversations which cease as he enters a room, in the whispered words and sly glances.
I know no way to answer his fears. I cannot tell him the children will behave logically, for as I know, children do not act logically merely because their parents are Vulcans. Logic is a behavior taught to children, and like all learned behaviors, its application can be inconsistent. Their first instinct might well be to shun that which is different, and the shunning, during the kahs-wan, could be fatal.
The look in his eyes is far older than his actual age, the look of a child who has discovered all too early the death of innocence. "Why am I different, Father?"
As a scientist, I could quote probability statistics. I could say the truth that the statistics reveal; the Akaren, with their long-distance telepathic abilities, are a population with a higher percentage of ye'shanta. I could use the phrase that one of the healers used, when he confirmed T'Rela's suspicions: "The killing gift occurs with no real predictability." I could say all these things, but they would be both painfully inadequate and utterly useless.
But I remember something, a story I was told once, when I had faced my mother with much the same questions, when I had first learned that I was the only one with a human mother. "Sudek, there is a story I would tell you," I say to him in the Akaren I learned from his mother; Vulcan is ill-suited for the words I will speak to him.
His head nods in assent against my shoulder. "There were two friends, Sekmet and T'Nira, who were separated as children by a desert storm and lost, far from the other. Sekmet became a lord in his adopted village, and sought to find the friend he had lost. When his scouts returned with the news that T'Nira had been found, there was much rejoicing, but much confusion as well. Many women claimed the honor of being the woman who was favored by such a powerful lord.
Thirty women were brought before Sekmet, but the distance of years had dimmed his memories of his childhood friend. Nevertheless, he told his scouts, he would find her. A desert storm began to blow, fierce and hard, and the women began to look about in fear. 'By the storm I shall know her, for she trusted me once, and if T'Nira is among them, she will trust me yet again.' The storm howled its fury, and Sekmet's attendants fled, and the women fled. Only one remained.
Sekmet made T'Nira, his childhood friend, his bondmate, for she had proven the strength of a true friend, the strength to stand firm in the face of all dangers."
I looked at my son. "Those who are your friends will stand with you as T'Nira did. Do not fear, my son."
Like the child that he still is, the storm of his emotions has worn him out completely; I am not surprised to find him deeply asleep by the time dawn creeps over the horizon. Illogically, perhaps, I do not wish to leave him alone. I fall asleep with the warm body of my son curled up next to me.
It is early morning when T'Rela's gentle touch on my shoulder awakens me. She helps me to move from my son's bed without waking him, and we walk to the far room of the house.
Until I was bonded to T'Rela, I never understood the emotional significance of touch. The Vulcan reluctance to touch casually is ingrained with the demands of a telepathic mind; the sudden rush of emotions from an unshielded mind can be greatly disorienting. But now, as T'Rela's hand rests on my arm, I think how reassuring that simple motion is. Without words, without telepathy or the use of our bond, she is telling me that I am not alone in this.
In low whispers, I tell her of the conversation I had with Sudek. Her hand tightens on my arm when I mention Stirek; apparently, his name is not unfamiliar to her. I can feel the anger vibrating like a mad thing in her mind, but she controls it. //I wish I knew what to do. Talking to Stirek will not help; his mother will say he only spoke the truth.//
I put my arms around her; I can feel how exhausted she is. //This can be discussed later, when we are both rested. Are you on call for today?//
She shakes her head wearily. //No, but I wasn't on call yesterday either.// And I know that she had been on duty for five days straight without rest before S'len's heart attack. Akaren constitution or no, the experience must have been wearying.
//Your patient, is he well?//
//For now. T'Preth has him under observation in the ICU.// The look in her eyes is one which I have seen before in Dr McCoy's, the look of a healer operating on adrenaline alone.
We go back to bed and she nestles, warm and solid, against me. Again, I marvel at the power of touch, for here is safety and strength, expressed through the simple action of being close together. The leaves of the ipanki tree outside the window begin to rattle with the breeze, and the sound is the last one I hear.
Later in the morning, T'Rela and Sudek both leave. T'Rela's patient is having difficulty initiating the healing trance, and so she has returned to the hospital. Sudek, as my wife told me before she left, is to see Healer Sietkal after school.
I knew the healer as a child; he was one of the few boys who found no diversion in taunting me. Sietkal has been our son's healer almost since his birth. It was Sietkal who suggested the implantation of mental blocks until such time as Sudek was of an age to be trained to control the killing gift.
And it is Sietkal, I suspect, who will be removing them. Sudek has always been a strong telepath; Sietkal knew the mental blocks were only temporary. But there was little other alternative; the killing gift was far too capricious and far too fatal to be left without strong barriers around it. As McCoy might say, Sietkal has simply made the best of a bad bargain.
I meet my son at his school just as classes are releasing for the afternoon. I have not ever had the chance to do so before, and it does give me a chance to observe my son with the other children. Sudek is taller than most of the other children in his age-group, and there is a new wariness about him as he walks from the door to the bench where I am to meet him. But perhaps it is not so curious; I have known this wariness from my own childhood, the result of never knowing where the next attack, be it sabotage of school lessons or open taunting, will come from. It was ingrained in my behavior when I was his age, but Sudek has come to it only lately.
Sulien comes to sit with my son, and Sudek's whole body language changes. They have been friends since infant school, and I can see that Sulien's presence gives my son some reason to relax. Sulien, nearly a year older than my son, is also nearly a head taller. There is a broad-shouldered strength to him that hints at the man he will become.
I see out of the corner of my eye the approach of another child, and although I have never seen this boy except through the mirror of my son's anguish, I know who he is. He comes near the bench and begins taunting my son in language which owes little to Surak's Rules.
My first instinct is not logical. I want to do as my father did in a similar situation, and intervene in the fight I know is impending. But then I hear the words I spoke once to McCoy in the engine room of the Enterprise. As we watched a creature gorge itself on fear and hate, I had told the doctor that "those who hate and fight must stop themselves, or it is not stopped." So I watch and do not intervene. For now.
Sulien and Sudek both rise to their feet. The contrast in their sizes shows how much Sudek himself has grown; there is much in him of the wiry grace of the Akaren. He will be tall, my son, though probably not as physically imposing as Sulien. He stands close with Sulien, and I wonder how different my own childhood might have been if there had been someone who stood with me like that. Sudek is fortunate; he has found as a child what it took me years to find as an adult.
I can tell by the expression on my son's face that this child has been his main tormentor. But Sudek stands his ground. Just as Stirek begins to quietly and viciously insult my son for his differences, Sudek looks him straight in the eye. "I choose…not to kill today. That's all it takes."
The words are spoken in much the same tone as they were by Jim, facing down the Eminiar government, and I have to smother a smile at the sounds of those words spoken by my son. Stirek backs up a pace, as if realizing the implications of Sudek's words. If the mental blocks were not in place, Sudek could kill him, quite effectively, by means of a simple thought. It was not for nothing the ancients called the killing gift the Last Thought.
Enough of this. I go to where my son and Sulien are. "Stirek, your behavior does no credit to your house," I say evenly. Stirek stares at me; he did not expect to be caught acting in such a blatantly emotional fashion. And although I am not my father, I can tell that my behavior is making him nervous. "I should think your mother would find your extra-curricular activities most…fascinating."
It is Sudek's turn to stare at me. He knows most of the reasons why Stirek's mother T'Pring and I are not on speaking terms. Stirek goes a shade paler and then walks away.
//You would do this for me?// Sudek asks; clearly he does not understand why I would willingly speak to a woman my clan successfully prosecuted for attempted murder only ten years before.
I place a hand on his shoulder for a moment. //It is no sacrifice. You are my son.//
Sietkal's diagnosis is not unexpected. Sudek's mind has started to overcome the mental barriers preventing the use of the killing gift. As a near-adult, as a child who will soon attempt the kahs-wan, it is Sudek's right to decide whether the barriers should be removed, or be allowed to dissolve gradually.
"What happens if they are removed?" Sudek asks, sitting between his mother and I in the healer's office.
Sietkal folds his hands in a contemplative form. "The killing gift would become active. You would have to begin training immediately to control it, to separate it from your emotional responses so that it is not triggered accidentally."
I can sense through our family bond the quicksilver of Sudek's mind as he tries to make the best decision. "Could the barriers be removed after the kahs-wan?" The fear of accidentally killing someone, of stripping the life from their nerves with a thought, is all too real. It is the aspect of his difference that we could not shield him from, no matter how much we may have wanted to.
Sietkal nods, then looks at T'Rela and I. Seeing our assent, he stands. "Then I shall see you in a week from now, to remove the barriers."
As we leave the clinic, Sudek murmurs a quick phrase in Akaren to T'Rela. His Akaren is far more fluent and colloquial than my own, and the crucial words are unknown to me. //What did he say?// I ask.
There is a faint glimmer of T'Rela's smile through our bond. //The phrase translates as "to seek the calmness of water." He wants to be alone.//
I smile a little in return; I can scarcely blame him. //Where will he go?//
//Where did you go, when you were his age?// she asks, amused.
//For me, it was the mountains.// Sarek had always come to find me, to try to make me promise I would not return; the mountains were dangerous, he said. But I could see the stars from there, and not be reminded that I was an ambassador's son.
//For me it was the Lesser Sea// The image is clear in her mind, the green, placid waters of the only free-standing body of water on Vulcan. The sea is sacred to the Akaren, for it is on their lands. When the Akaren say, "From water does all life begin," it is the Lesser Sea they speak of. //Sorcha came to look for me there---he was afraid I would get lost coming back.//
My son has been observing the silent conversation between us with his usual aplomb. "May I go?" he asks, returning to Vulcan. I notice that he has some of his mother's accent, the lisping of the consonants faint but unmistakable.
Sudek's shields, strong for a child, are relaxed around us; I can see in his mind where he will go. The outcropping of rock behind Sulien's house, the outcropping which shields a small garden. There is no place within the cities where a Vulcan or Akaren child could not walk in safety, but Sulien's house is at the very borders between the city and the desert. "You must return before night," I say, thinking of the predators like the le-matya which seek unwary prey by shelter of dark.
Sudek nods. He has been through the desert survival training because of the upcoming kahs-wan; he knows as well as any adult what dangers may befall. But knowledge and practice are two entirely different things. Heya, we can only trust him, that we have taught him to use his best judgement. "Be careful," his mother murmurs, and our son leaves.
Our walk takes us away from the direction of our house, towards a familiar spot. It was at this oasis that I formally took T'Rela as my wife before our clans and our friends. T'Rela cants a grin at me, and I know she is remembering our other memories of this place. It was here, among the flowers and the fountain, that our son was conceived.
But tonight, we are here for its solitude; there is much we need to discuss. T'Rela settles the warmth of her desert cloak over us as we sit and watch the fountain. //I worry for him so.// she says simply.
I remember how it was when we learned she was pregnant. //It has ever been that way.//
She settles against me, and I remember.
My head brushes against the mistletoe in the low arch of the doorway as my wife's lips meet mine. //I carry your child// she murmurs in my mind.
I blink, stepping back from her. We had been told that it was most unlikely that we could conceive naturally; I am a hybrid, and a product of genetic engineering myself. //When did this happen?// I ask.
The look in her eyes is what McCoy might term "devilish." //Remember that little walk we took last week to the oasis?//
I feel the heat rise to my face; I do indeed remember that journey to the oasis, although there was very little walking once we arrived. I can feel her quiet amazement in my mind, her joy, and it mirrors my own. Life, it seems, has found a way.
I return to the ship some days later. T'Rela's pregnancy progresses normally, as her letters inform me. But it is when I try to Reach her mind, four months into the pregnancy, that I begin to suspect that something is wrong. T'Rela is shielding heavily from me, she who has never done such a thing. This shielding is not like the light barrier she uses when she treats her patients, or the somewhat stronger barrier I use when I am on a mission. This is a wall, solid and opaque.
But in the moment before the shields rise, I sense an emotion that is utterly foreign in my experience of T'Rela.
"Earth to Spock, Earth to Spock, are you there?" The bantering voice is Jim's, and as he speaks, I know that I have just been caught doing something distracted. My salad is on my fork, and I suspect it has been hanging there for approximately 3.2 minutes.
Jim smiles at me. "I'll admit the food's bad, but I don't think airing it out will help any."
I place the fork back on my plate and raise one eyebrow at him. "The food is what it has always been. Rather…uninspired."
He eyes me with a look of calculating appraisal. Heya, I never could hide anything from him. "It isn't the food that's got you so distracted," he says quietly; were I human, his words would have been lost in the mess-hall noise. "Care to talk about it?"
Curious, the phrasing he uses. If I answer that I did not want to talk, it would not stop him. Jim is as implacable as my father, when the mood is on him. "Perhaps a game of chess?" I suggest, not wanting to have such a conversation here.
I tell him the truth, once the chess game is completed. My discretion nearly killed him once; I will not do so again. I also know that he hears much that I will never say: my fear for my wife, for the child she carries. "I cannot reach her, " I say. "And she is shielding heavily."
Intuition has always been his gift, not mine. "And that concerns you."
I nod. "I have tried to contact her on her comm terminal, but there is no answer."
The comm terminal on his desk bleeps. Uhura’s face fills the screen. "An incoming hail, from Vulcan. It’s for Mr Spock."
Jim nods at me to go ahead and use his terminal, and my mother’s face fills the screen. T’Rela has been staying with my parents since the pregnancy was confirmed, due to the medical necessities of a hybrid pregnancy. The fact that it is my mother’s face I see, and not T’Rela’s, is hardly reassuring. "Greetings, Mother," I say, but I cannot bring myself to finish the usual ritual greeting.
My mother is distraught; the reddened eyes speak of that all too clearly. "I’m calling about T’Rela," she says unsteadily. "She was taken to the Vulcan Science Academy Hospital a little over an hour ago."
Out of range of the pick-up, Jim’s hand touches my shoulder. It is a reassuring gesture, and I can feel his concern through the contact. "For what reason?" I manage to say, calling on a lifetime of emotional controls to keep my voice even. If I give way to the fear, it will do neither of us any good.
"She collapsed here at home. We were just having some tea, when T'Rela looked ill. The next thing I knew, she had collapsed."
The news is disturbing, to say the least. I can think of several reasons why my wife might have collapsed, but none of them bode well for T'Rela or the child she carries. And among the most disturbing of the thoughts that crowd my mind is this: had she not been blocking our bond, I would have known. Beloved, forgive me. I should have been there. "What do the healers say?" I say, pushing away the regret which is, after all, utterly useless.
"They’re running tests, but they don’t really know what happened. Caoileann, Sarek and Siret are with her now, and I was just getting ready to leave." She does not ask, but I can see the request in her eyes that I come home as well. But I do not know if such a thing is even possible; as I told my mother once, Starfleet regulations make no allowance for personal gain, no matter how important that gain might be.
"I will do what I can, Mother." It is not a sufficient answer, even to my own ears, but it is the only logical response. She nods and the screen fades.
When I turn back to Jim, he has already made the arrangements to cover my duties for the next few weeks. "A shuttle will be ready for you in an hour. Make sure you’re on it. You’re on compassionate leave until further notice."
I want to go, to stand with my wife through whatever is going on, but I also have my duties to this ship. I begin to protest, but he cuts me off. "Spock, this is your captain speaking. Either you will be on that shuttlecraft, or I will personally have Bones drug you with some of those noxious potions you hate, and you will still be on that shuttlecraft. Is that clear?" The hazel eyes across the chessboard are immovable, and I cannot disagree. The hand rests on my shoulder again, and the captain is replaced by my oldest friend. "Your duty to her is more important."
By the time I reach Vulcan, T’Rela has been in the hospital for nearly two standard days. I do not know what has happened to her; our bond is still blocked on her end. It is not logical to imagine the worst, but those are the images I keep seeing whenever I try to meditate. And for the first time, I wonder how my father dealt with my mother’s ill health during her own pregnancy.
My wife is alone when I enter her room. Caoileann, my wife's mother, has left with Siret to go get something to eat.. My own parents have left to "get some fresh air," as my mother said; they have stayed with my wife since her injury. T’Rela is awake, but there is something in her eyes, an emotion I cannot identify.
There is a saying about the Akaren: "The eyes of the Akaren know not moisture." There is no prohibition on the expression of emotions among my wife’s people, but crying is anathema to them. For the Akaren, a people who have lived in harmony with the deep desert for thousands of years, crying is a criminal waste of water. Yet I see the suspicious brightness in T’Rela’s violet eyes; whatever has happened, it has caused her to break this most pervasive of Akaren taboos.
"T’Rela," I say, using the Akaren form of her name, and not the shortened version that is easier on Vulcan tongues. "I would know what causes you such pain."
The tears track unheeded down her face as she turns to me. "I ask forgiveness," she murmurs.
I sit down on the narrow bed. "There is no cause. I would share this pain with you."
We have never lied to each other, she and I, and it is this that moves her to speak. One arm lies protectively across her stomach, guarding the slight swell of the child within. Her other hand seeks mine and I hold it. "Tell me, what does ahkar’ret mean in Ancient Vulcan?"
I am puzzled by the seeming non sequitur, but I cannot fail to answer. "It was the term used to refer to disciples of the mind-lords during pre-Reform days. Specifically those who had----" And the words stop cold in my throat. The ahkar’et were assassins, adepts in that most deadly of Vulcan abilities, the killing gift. A group of them had nearly been forced to go on the Sundering, but had escaped into the northern deserts, or so the legends went.
Unlike my mother, I am no linguist. But I know enough to realize the etymology of the word Akaren. "It is no legend, is it?" I whisper. "This is where your people came from." T’Rela’s hand tightens on mine in answer. The rumor had been persistent in Vulcan academic circles for years. At the time, I had thought it an illogical justification for the subtle Vulcan mistrust of the Akaren.
Conclusions rush through my mind like wind over sand. It was said, in the past of our ancestors, that the first sign of a child born with the killing gift was powerful mental emanations, emanations so powerful that they could not be blocked, but only endured. "Does our child have the killing gift?" The words burn to ashes in my mouth.
T’Rela nods. "It would seem likely." My wife is a healer, trained in Akaren methods. She knows, as I do, that the mind of a pre-born child is not normally so strong, that our child’s emanations are the only proof necessary of the Gift he carries within him. What that mind might do as an adult, if a way is not found to control the killing gift, does not bear close scrutiny.
My wife has turned her face away from me, and I gently pull it back. The bond is now open between us; there is no more need to hide, now that the worst has been said. //Hear me, my wife. I make the ancient claim. As long as desert winds blow, I will not forsake you or our son. We will find a way, somehow.//
//You are so certain// T'Rela says, and the response is tinged with bitterness. //It was our secret, this knowledge of what we once were. We kept silent because your people would not accept us if they knew.//
I touch her arm. //I accept you and our son. Is that not enough?// I have known this pain myself, the pain of difference caused by an accident of birth, and although I know this is illogical, I would do what I must to spare my wife and child its pain.
I receive a smile in response. //I suppose it will have to be, Beloved.//
We did indeed find a way for Sudek to be accepted by our clans. It proved to be somewhat less of a concern for the Akaren, for ye'shanta are more common among them. At Sudek's birth six months after the incident, Siret and Caoileann stood with us as our son was given the ritual blessing that numbered him among the Akaren.
But for my clan, it was not to be that simple. No matter that logic had ruled Vulcan for millennia, it was not logic which ruled the response of the Elders. The simple, irreducible fact was that accepting Sudek into the clan made the house of Surak responsible for any acts he might one day commit.
Strangely, it was T'Pau who found a way for our son. When we stood before the Council of Elders, she posed a ritual question I had not heard since my ill-fated pon farr. "Spock, son of Sarek, how doest thou pledge the behavior of thy son?"
The other elders glanced at each other uneasily; clearly this was not the expected question. The child in my arms shifted, and as I looked into eyes that were the deep violet of the Akaren, I knew there could only be one answer. "We pledge his behavior with our lives," I said. And in an experience that still ranks as a miracle to me, those words were enough.
Sudek is, of course, rapidly approaching the dividing line between childhood and adulthood; if he passes the kahs-wan, he will be legally an adult, responsible for his own actions. If he survives…His mother and I sit side by side, the warmth of her desert cloak shielding us both. //He will survive, Beloved. What you and I could not teach him, Sorcha has. He could ask for no better teachers.//
By the fading light in the sky, I know Sudek will be home soon. As we leave the place that saw the beginning of his life, I can only hope that the events two days from now do not see the end of it.
The morning of Sudek's kahs-wan dawns hot and bright. It is one of the mornings I remember from my own childhood, when the heat blurred the desert sands so much that it was hard to tell where land began and sky ended. As I look at my son, fairly bustling with the easy energy of childhood, I wonder what he will remember of this day. Will he remember the too calm features of his mother as she struggles to hide her worry? Will he remember my voice as I tell him that no matter what happens, he will not disappoint us? Will Sudek remember the embrace of his human grandmother, or the light touch on his shoulder from his Vulcan grandfather?
T'Rela comes beside me, with my mother in tow. Sarek stands back a little in the crowd of relatives who have come to watch their children take this first journey into adulthood. There is little ceremony here; the real ceremony will take place when these children have Crossed into adulthood. The children organize themselves roughly into groups under the watchful eye of the adults who are the proctors for this test. The children are given the barest of necessities: a knife, a canteen, and an emergency beacon. They are allowed to take only one blanket and a day's worth of rations. The rest, they will have to discover on their own.
"It's hard, watching the first one go," Amanda says softly. "But you just have to have faith that he'll return." And I remember quite suddenly that she had no such assurances when I had fled into the desert ahead of my kahs-wan. Someday, I shall have to apologize for that, for it is only now that I realize how worried she must have been.
The sun climbs higher into the sky. When it rises to the prescribed distance, a gong rings out over the stillness of the desert. It is a signal, as clear as if the priestess had spoken. The groups of children clearly recognize it as such; they begin organizing their gear for the long journey north. Four days' walk, if they are prudent. Three, if they rush. The destination is the Akaren city of Portira.
//It's not really a city,// my wife says, amused. //More like a flock of tents. You know we're nomads.//
The light, easy banter is nothing but my wife's attempt to distract herself, and me, from Sudek's impending departure, and I recognize it as such. We watch as our son fades into the distance.
II. The Distance I Have Wandered
The explosion, when it finally occurred, was not unexpected. They had walked for the first day of the journey, with the sullen Stirek remaining distant and cold throughout the banter of the other boys. Four hours into the afternoon, they stopped for water. Stirek had said there was none, but Sudek recognized water-signs.
"We have to make a decision," Sulien said, looking at the fragment of the map they were provided. Not the whole map, but part of it. The whole map would have been too easy.
Sudek refilled his canteen and then Sulien's. "What decision?"
Sulien spread the map fragment on the ground. "If I read this right, we can take either of two trails. The first one will take us straight through the Alekt Mountains, which will get us there faster. The other trail is through the Marindan Plateau."
The third member of the group snorted slightly, whether in contempt or amusement the other boys could not say. "Let's take the Alekt Mountains."
Sulien stared at the older boy. It had not escaped his notice that Stirek was quick to offer opinions but far less adept at offering alternatives. "The Alekt path is quicker but----"
Sudek finished the sentence. "----it's breeding season for the le-matyas and you know how they congregate in Alekt during their Time."
Stirek swallowed some of his water. "What's the matter? Afraid that the Akaren can't rescue you there?"
"That has nothing----" Sudek started to say sharply, but stopped. His father had told him that getting angry at Stirek, while understandable, was only what the other boy wanted. Besides, there was that peculiar buzzing in his head when he did get angry, a buzzing that was not painful but made him nervous nonetheless. It clearly wasn't worth it. "That course isn't a good idea. If we make to Alekt, the le-matyas will attack us."
Stirek stood. "Well, I'm not going to spend my Crossing with you two. You've got all the courage of a whipped sehlat. I'll see you on the other side." And with that, he was gone, taking only his share of the supplies. Sulien had kept a gimlet eye on him while he packed.
"Do you want to go after him?" Sudek asked.
Sulien grinned. "If it's a question of wanting…."
Despite himself, Sudek smiled in return. "That wasn't the question, and well you know it. We have to make it to Portira together, or not at all. And I am not going through this again on account of his smelly hide."
The other boy laughed. "I think we'll both be pretty smelly when this is done." He looked at the map again. "What do you say we…follow him, at a discreet distance. We can always catch up to him when we get closer to Portira."
Sudek grinned. "As long as we stay downwind of him…"
They made camp later in the evening at the entrance to a cave which was both cool and free of predators. "We're making good time," Sudek said, triangulating off the stars and calculating the distance as his father had taught him. Portira, or at least, Portira's current site, was three days travel away. They had walked a fourth of that distance.
"Hmmph," Sulien replied, lighting the fire. "Indeed. What about Stirek? We're going to have to follow him through Alekt so that we all arrive in Portira at the same time. How far ahead of us is he?"
Sudek raised one eyebrow. "You're asking me?"
"You're the one whose mother is Akaren. They're supposed to be excellent trackers, aren't they?"
The other boy decided not to mention the reason why his mother hadn't trained him. "My uncle Sorcha taught me, but he's a weaver."
Sulien snorted, an un-Vulcan sound that nearly made Sudek spill his water. "So you were taught by an Akaren. The question is: can you sense Stirek or not?"
The strange thing was, he could sense the presence of Stirek. In some unnamed way the mind of the other child was a volatile hum. Distant, but not imperceivable. Sudek didn't know if all the Akaren could sense the presence of strangers, or if it was another facet of his difference, but the fact remained that Stirek was alive and well. He said as much to Sulien. "He's about three hours or so ahead of us. I don't think he's made camp yet, or gathered provisions at that oasis we found."
"Sure he hasn't. He knows that if he gets there before us, we'll have to take the test over, while he's an adult."
Sulien paused in the act of roasting part of a d'mallu vine. "I wonder what he's thinking. The whole point of this is together, or not at all. I don't know if I want to be Stirek's version of an adult. "
Sudek crunched thoughtfully on his piece of the vine. "What do you mean?"
"Well, here we are, in the middle of the desert, following someone who'd just as soon see us lost or dead as have us Cross at the same time as him. And if he succeeds, *he'll* be the adult. Hardly seems logical."
"You know what I think?" Sudek asked, tossing the rest of the vine into the fire. "I think Stirek's a fool. I think you may have a point. And I think we should get some rest while we can. I don't think we'll have the option tomorrow."
As it turned out, Sudek was right. It was the season for wind-shift, the sudden, brutal windstorms that were the fabric of Akaren nightmares. Only fools traveled when the wind-shift was at its height, and Sulien and Sudek were forced to wait it out in the comparative safety of the cave. They took turns standing guard against other creatures which might wish to share the cave as well. During one of the shifts, Sulien turned to Sudek. "Can I ask you something?"
Sudek's eyebrows rose in the Akaren gesture of assent. "What do you wish to know?"
"I've known you since we were in infant school, heard when the others called you ye'shanta. But what's it like, to have the killing gift?"
Sudek shrugged. "How should I know? Having it doesn't mean I have the use of it. I don't know how to describe it, since I've never lived a life without it."
The other boy looked at him, an appraising glance. Sudek had seen that look before, in the eyes of some of his classmates and teachers, and was beginning to discover that he didn't much like it. "But is it true, what the legends say about the killing gift?"
Sudek ran a hand through his hair, tied back in the Akaren fashion with a leather tie. "You mean, could I kill someone with it? That's what the healers say, but I've never actually done anything like that."
As the night closed in around them, the last thing Sudek heard was Sulien's voice over the howl of the wind-shift. "I don't suppose you could try it on Stirek to find out?"
The sound of their laughter all but drowned out the sound of the wind-shift.
The next morning dawned with the preternatural calm that was the aftermath of the wind-shift. As the day advanced, the boys found they were able to track Stirek fairly easily. A broken branch here, a buried campsite there. There was no sign of the other children, which made both boys wonder if they were the only ones foolish enough to try going through Alekt.
"This is troublesome," Sudek said as they stood at one such abandoned site.
"What?" Sulien asked, interrupted in the middle of reading the map.
"This is the cap of Stirek's canteen. We were only issued one, which means he's going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when he tries to take a drink."
Sulien eyed the cap. "How do you know it's Stirek's?"
"It has his house sigil engraved on it." He muttered a word he had heard his Akaren relatives use to describe one who belonged too much to the cities. "Ei'dat. He wasn't paying attention to the survival training, was he?"
Sulien grinned, the uninhibited grin of a Vulcan boy who knows, because his parents do not believe in the doctrine of emotional control, that there is no one to chastise him for the display. "For someone who had all the answers, he should have thought to ask some questions. Do you think we should try and find him?"
Sudek nodded. "He's going to be in real danger of dehydration if we don't. It happens too easily out here. How are you doing on your supplies?"
"Well enough. I refilled the canteen before we left. What about you?"
"Then we might have enough to spare for him, assuming we can find him before the le-matyas do."
Silence fell over the boys as the moved closer to the Alekt Mountains. The le-matyas, never the most even-tempered of creatures, were notoriously short-tempered during their Time of Mating, and both boys knew that any excess noise might well be enough to anger the beasts.
As they edged nearer to the mountains, Sudek began to sense something, a feeling he'd never felt before. He knew, of course, that he was a strong telepath; it would have been impossible for him not to have been, with his mother and father both extremely talented in the mind arts. But this feeling was almost more insistent than mere telepathy could ever be. Be careful, or the desert shall take you, it warned. And whether it was born out of instinct or something else entirely, Sudek knew far too much about the dangers of the desert to disregard the warning.
He stopped so suddenly that Sulien bumped into him. "What is it?"
Sudek turned his head slightly. "Do you smell it?" It was there, the peculiar acrid smell of le-matya venom on hot ground. Which could only mean…."Come on!" The two boys ran, with the certainty of the desert-born, towards a cave in the shade of the nearest cliff.
They found Stirek, cornered by a raging le-matya. It did not take long for either boy to deduce what had happened: Stirek had come, looking for shade, and encountered a nest of le-matya kits. The parents had returned, and it was the male who had spat some of his venom on the ground. A threat display, as both boys well knew. In another minute, the parents would attack.
Stirek was terrified, and nearly out of control with the emotion; his fear hung thick in the air, and the le-matyas, as Sudek knew, were attracted to prey who feared. "Stirek," Sudek whispered, trying to remain calm, lest he become prey as well, "stay where you are. Do not move. And calm yourself; their eyesight is poor, but they know you fear them."
"Easy for you to say, Earther. Shall I recite the Analects of Logic so that they may be bored?"
Sulien whispered violently. "If you cannot listen, can you at least be silent?" It was too late. Another le-matya, a female with the familiar dull green stripe, turned to stare at him.
Time compresses in danger and expands in safety…Sudek seemed to hear his mother's voice saying that---had it only been two days before? It seemed like a lifetime since then. She had been speaking of the time, long ago, when she had been stalked by a pack of calidri---and had frozen, hoping the birds had not seen her. Sudek understood what she'd meant; it felt like every sound was drawn out, every movement slower than it had ever been. And the buzzing in his head was getting worse.
He sensed a movement out of the corner of his eye. There was a third le-matya---how had he forgotten that le-matya were pack hunters? And they were even more dangerous now because it was their Time. Slowly, but surely, they were being scissored in, and when there was no more room for the three boys to maneuver, the le-matya would attack. He saw Stirek about to speak, to breathe too loudly or make some other foolish sound. //No, you can't, you fool! If you speak, you'll kill us all!//
When he felt the recoil of the other minds, Sudek realized what he had done. Invaded their minds, gone through their shielding… and it had been so…easy. The buzzing in his head was growing more insistent. What is this? What is going on here? Sudek noted with grim satisfaction that at least Stirek was quiet for once.
The third le-matya sat down on its haunches, suddenly uncertain if the prey it sought was still in the cave. It took all of Sudek's training not to breathe a sigh of relief.
Then he heard it. The sound of a suppressed sneeze.
It was Stirek, trying not to let the sneeze escape, but not succeeding. The dull orange ears of the le-matya perked up and the others moved, slowly but relentlessly, towards Stirek. Sulien's eyes met Sudek's and both boys knew it was only a matter of time before the le-matya's attacked one or all of them. They could be fooled once, but not twice.
Sudek thought something rude in Akaren. He watched with hooded eyes as the other le-matyas---maybe ten or more---began to sniff the air, searching for fear. Kora'kehst ver'al, Sudek tried to remind himself. Find the calm within. Time slowed down to a haunted crawl---he saw the le-matya gathering itself to attack Stirek, saw Stirek unable to move for fear, saw the fear attracting the others.
The le-matya jumped.
The implacable buzzing in Sudek's head became a dull roar and then a fire, stripping the energy from the nerves of the le-matyas and leaving the animals dead on the floor. All at once, Sudek felt the darkness gathering him in, and in the instant before it took him, he had only one thought : The mind barriers are gone. I have killed. I am ye'shanta.
"Urgh…what?" Coolness of water, the touch of a friend. Sulien's voice, reassuring.
"Don't move, Sudek," Sulien was saying with the assurance of a natural healer. "Lie still there for a second."
Sudek opened his eyes, to find the faces of Sulien and Stirek leaning over him. "Head hurts," he managed, which was an understatement. The pain left him feeling hollow and just a little nauseous.
Sulien raised his eyebrows. If he hadn't seen it himself… "I bet it does. Now just lie still and be happy you're still alive."
Sudek closed his eyes. If the desert were not suddenly spinning, lying still would be a good deal easier. He felt the drift of air off to his right that had to be Stirek. "You came back for me," the older boy said slowly. "Why did you do this?"
"Did you not desire life as we did?" Sudek said in the ritual Vulcan that seemed strangely appropriate---they had never been informal, he and this boy. "How then could we leave you?"
Stirek blew out his breath in what might have been frustration. "You could have left me, and Crossed. Yet you came back and…"
Killed for your smelly hide, Sudek thought with a touch of wryness, and not a little bit of sadness. This day, it had only been the le-matya. The next, it might be anyone else… "Did you listen to nothing we were told? We go together or not at all."
Stirek seemed to mull this over. Then he stood. Looking at both of the other boys, he said formally, "I accept the life which you have given me."
They made Portira by the evening of the fourth day. Though there had been little conversation between Stirek and the other boys, there had been a change wrought in their relationship. Sudek, recovering from the aftereffects of his first use of the killing gift, was surprised to find that Stirek was at least a decent cook, making meals out of roots and vegetables that the other boys had not been able to find.
As Portira drew closer, Sulien finally asked the question that had been on both their minds since the le-matya attack. "Does this change anything?"
Stirek's eyes as cool as his mother's. "Specify."
The light breeze stirred in Sulien's red hair. "We go back to school in a few days. Will this all be…conveniently forgotten?"
Stirek looked at the two of them, a thin, gangly red-haired boy, and his friend, purple eyes blazing in a too-pale face, born of a family his mother despised. "I have received my life from you. I will not forget." He helped to gather up the remains of the meal, then said, with surprising wryness, looking down at his sand-encrusted clothing, "Shall I walk downwind of you?"
It was too much for the other boys. They both started laughing, and after a while, Stirek joined in, though he never did learn what was so funny.
My wife's hand feels very cold in my own, though her face is calm. The groups of near-adults, for they are children no longer, have started arriving in Portira. But Sudek's group is not yet among them.
We took turns waiting; my father, Siret, my mother, Caoileann, Sorcha, Saresh, T'Ilai. We all took turns watching the east as the first groups came straggling in. Even T'Pring and Stonn joined us one night.
It was a scene out of Vulcan's past---woven tents colored a strange mixture of dyes that were, in the bright sunlight, almost too bright to look at. There was the fluid sound of Akaren spoken in a dozen or more dialects---traders, come from other settlements, relatives of the near-adults on this journey, weavers and poets.
But none of these travelers were my son, none of them were Sulien or Stirek.
I do not remember who saw them first, but I could sense the presence of my son long before he was seen by the last of the scouts. There was something different about his mental presence, something that reminded me strongly of the emanations he broadcast before his birth. My eyes met T'Rela's and I saw that she agreed: somewhere out there, in the timelessness and danger of the deep desert, the killing gift had become active.
As they came closer, we could see that they had all three survived some recent cataclysm; Sulien and Sudek looked as if they had been through, as my mother might have said, hell and back. Dirty and travel-stained, there was no mistaking the paleness of Sudek's face or the tense stance of Sulien. And then there was Stirek, who looked as if he had been a target for balls of sand and venom. Was that le-matya venom, staining the hem of his robe? It was.
My father is the eldest of the relatives present; my son is the youngest of the near-adults in his group. Sarek goes to them and asks the ritual question. "Have we adults or children here?"
Sudek speaks the answer as he has been taught. "We are adults this day. Our lives were as shadows half-hidden before this journey was made. Now we have seen clearly that which was hidden, and we ask for the status of adults."
There is, of course, no question but that the request would be granted. Sarek nods. "We have three adults here this day." I hear my wife beside me, murmuring an Akaren invocation, a prayer of thanksgiving, perhaps, that the very real dangers of the desert did not take our son. It is one which Caoileann and Siret, standing just behind my wife, murmur as well.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Stirek standing with T'Pring and Stonn. Their voices are too low to hear, but Stirek's next sentence, spoken much louder, makes me wonder exactly what did happen out there. "They saved my life, Mother, and when the le-matyas attacked----"
I look carefully at my son, remembering the venom splattered on the hem of Stirek's robe. "Le-matyas?" I ask quietly. I had not thought that history would repeat itself.
Sudek nods. "Le-matyas. About fifteen of them total." T'Ilai's hand tightens on Sulien's shoulder; the same action is mirrored with T'Rela as she gazes at our son. Le-matyas were only pack animals during their Time of Mating, and I wonder what occurrence brought my son and his companions so close to a large pack.
Sulien saves me the trouble of asking. "Stirek had gone to scout out some campsites, when we smelled the le-matya's venom on the ground and knew he was in trouble."
There is something passing strange here; my son's quick glance at Sulien tells me that this is not exactly how it was out there, but I do not pursue it. For now. "And then what happened?" T'Ilai asks.
My son runs a hand through his hair; it is sticking up in much the same way that my wife's does in the morning. "When we got to the cave, we found that a pack of le-matyas had taken shelter there during the wind-shift, and cornered Stirek."
I look over at T'Pring, at the woman who might have been my wife in another lifetime, and am profoundly grateful that we were Severed from each other. Behind the cool remoteness of her expression, there was anger there. Anger that her son had been saved by those whom she considered his inferiors: my son, born of the Akaren and a quarter human besides, and Sulien, whose family, in accordance with their own traditions, had not adopted Surak's Rules.
Stonn, he who was her Chosen, places one hand on her arm. "Wife, this is neither the time nor the place. Our son is alive, is that not enough?"
There is something different about Stirek, a new maturity perhaps. "It was enough for me," he said. "My life was saved by them, how then should I forget it?"
I can feel the laughter and astonishment that T'Rela is trying gamely to surpress. Amanda, standing on the other side of my wife, suddenly experiences a rather suspicious coughing fit. Sarek looks away, into the middle distance. Caoileann and Siret just look mystified.
It is perhaps typical of T'Pring that she does not recognize that her own actions provoked this behavior. She looks at us, Akaren, Vulcan, and human, and raises one eyebrow. "As you say, Husband." It will not be, I know, the last Stonn will hear of it. But he did choose her as well.
T'Rela's voice draws me back to more immediate concerns. "How did you escape the le-matya, Sudek?"
A glance passes between Sudek and Sulien. Any other Vulcan might have missed it; those who deny they have emotions are sometimes unable to see them clearly in others. But Jim and I had shared many such moments during our years of friendship. Must I say this thing? Yes, I think you must. It is a glance of understanding, of companionship. "When the le-matya attacked Stirek, I…used the killing gift, and they all died."
My wife's eyes meet mine over the top of Sudek's head. //The killing gift was uncontrolled, and yet, it did not kill everyone in the cave, only those who were the threat.// It speaks well for the potential learn how to control the killing gift further, so that it is not triggered accidentally. By all rights, according to the ancient accounts, everyone should have died in that cave. Yet my son was able, somehow, to control it.
Sudek's eyes are old beyond his years, and I wonder suddenly if he has ever truly been a child. How much childhood could there be, with the knowledge of the killing gift? "You are not upset that I used it?" he asks hesitantly.
Sarek and Amanda glance at my wife and me, wondering how we will respond. I give an absolution I did not often receive from my own parents, an absolution for acting in a decidedly non-Vulcan way. "It saved your life, my son. How then could I disagree with the outcome?"
Sudek smiles suddenly, and there is my child again, behind the face of the man.
It is well.