Skin Deep

written by Holly Trueblood



"My God, Spock, how are we going to tell him?" McCoy shook his head hopelessly at the ship's first officer across the unconscious body of its captain. The doctor's right hand was clasped firmly in his left to quell its persistent shaking.

"It will come as a considerable shock to him," the Vulcan agreed; the double meaning was not intended, and passed unnoticed by both the speaker and the doctor.

Tell who...Tell him what? Kirk, regaining his hearing before his other senses, tried to make sense of the conversation passing back and forth above his head.

...come as a shock...? I don't remember... Has something happened to the ship? I'm missing something here. Why am I lying down... ? His returning sense of balance and the sensation of the firmly padded table along the length of his back and head informed him that he was horizontal. The smell was familiar. An everyday smell, but one that carried just a hint of foreboding. A smell he associated with anxiety or lack of control. Sickbay...

Yes, I was in Sickbay. McCoy was going to trim back those awful looking Romulan ear implants and put my eyebrows back where they belong...but I was awake! I was sitting up in his chair with the headrest. I was awake and... Why am I lying down? What happened ? Where have l been? Tell who... ? Tell me? ... Come as a shock?

Kirk's brows, above still-closed eyes, drew together in concern.

The doctor caught the movement and recognized it as the beginnings of a return to consciousness. He winced. it was worse, much worse, now that his patient's features were animated with life.

"He's waking up, Spock,' the doctor noted, unnecessarily. The Vulcan would be able to make that same observation without McCoy's clinical analysis.

Waking up? Then I must have been unconscious...How long? Why? Kirk kept his eyes closed postponing I the moment of confrontation until he had made his own physical inventory, searching for an explanation for their concern.

His feet seemed to be intact. He flexed toes that responded appropriately to his mental command. They confirmed the presence of boots. Still in uniform... Can 't have been out long. No paralysis, no pain...

He concentrated on his lower limbs. Again, perfectly normal sensation, no sense of injury. He took a slow, tentative breath, deepening it to the full extent of his lung capacity when nothing protested or prevented him. No difficulty in breathing...no nausea...

His hands lay at his sides. Fully sensate fingertips could easily discern the texture of the bedding beneath them. He rolled his shoulders experimentally, each in turn, against the firm surface of the Sickbay bed and found no cause for concern.

Everything functioning from the neck down. Not much else to go. Kirk's confidence began to return; the sense of foreboding engendered by the doctor's overheard concern beginning to retreat. Kirk turned his head to the right, toward where he had heard, and could feel McCoy standing near him.

Neck moves okay...No headache...No pain. Won't know if I'm dizzy until I sit up...doesn't feel like it I though. What's left? What about vision? Light sensitivity?

Fully awake now, Kirk risked opening his eyes. McCoy came immediately into clear and distinct focus.

He looked haggard -- worried. Kirk flashed him a patented smile of reassurance. The doctor seemed to I flinch.

"Vones?" That didn't come out right. Sounded funny...try it again...

Kirk licked his lips before attempting to speak again-and realized that on the right side of his mouth there was no sensation where his tongue touched his lips. The tongue had feeling, but not the lips I where he touched them. As a matter of fact, that whole side of his face just felt faintly warm and almost, not quite, tingly. He rolled his head farther to the side and was disoriented when the pillow halted the motion without his being able to feel its resistance against his cheek at all.

He explored further with the tip of his tongue. It was hard to make the comparison because of the numbness he now recognized, but he didn't think the right side of his mouth felt the same to his tongue as the left. It seemed that he could feel the hard edges of his upper teeth, but that it took a further stretch to reach his upper lip on the right side.

His brows drawing together in worry and confusion, he said again, more urgently this time, "Vones?' The distorted sound of his own pronunciation was distinctly alarming.

When the doctor didn't immediately answer, but appeared even more distraught, Kirk lifted a hand and began to move it hesitantly toward his face.

McCoy immediately reached out his left hand to restrain Kirk's, but as soon as he let it go, his right hand commenced to tremble violently, and the doctor was compelled to recapture it with his own rather than completing his grab for Kirk's. Instead, the warm, steady grip that closed on and restrained the captain's questing hand, came from the other side. Kirk turned to look at the Vulcan.

He knew that look. It was the total lack of expression that came over Spock when he was struggling to hide his reaction.

'Jim, there has been an accident."

Kirk attempted to repeat the word "accident.' It came out garbled and unrecognizable. His eyes clung to Spock's, begging for an explanation.

"Let me tell him, Spock. I'm the doctor here,' McCoy said, bitterly.

Spock's grip on Kirk's hand tightened and Kirk held the Vulcan's gaze, even while listening to the doctor's voice. Somehow he knew instinctively that he would be better able to meet whatever the doctor had to say with the support of Spock's steady and dispassionate facade in front of him rather than the doctor's obviously agitated demeanor.

"Jim," McCoy began, 'we were working on getting those ears off you. The left one's done, it's okay. And the eyebrows, too, But when I had almost finished the other one, the laser scalpel...malfunctioned."

"Ot was an electrical surge, Jim," Spock added. "The containment field surrounding the instrument's power supply decayed and there was an electrical discharge distributed along the exterior casing. Doctor McCoy understandably... "

"Like hell, 'understandably!'" McCoy interjected. "I lost control of the damn thing! I couldn't control my own reaction and I lost control and allowed it to hurt Jim!"

"Doctor,' Spock insisted, his manner suggesting that this was yet another round of what was already a long running argument, "there was nothing you could have done. It would be illogical to expect you to retain control over the instrument when the electrical shock was even then doing serious damage to your own nervous system."

Spock was the first to recognize that his ongoing discussion with McCoy had led them away from finishing the explanation Kirk was waiting for. "In any event, Jim, the scalpel was apparently in contact with your face at the moment when the charge went off. The electrical shock traveled through the muscle, burning out the nerves."

That explains the lack of feeling... Kirk reasoned with a distant part of his brain.

Spock continued, "You jerked away, the doctor's hand responded to the shock, and the scalpel severed a small muscular structure above the cheekbone. The resultant effect of the electrical discharge into the muscle and the erratic laser cut has created a distorted rictus of the maxillofacial musculature."

Kirk's stomach turned over. He closed his eyes while he tried to come to an understanding of what Spock's precise and clinical explanation must mean. My face...rictus...frozen expression...distorted...

'That's...that's not all, Jim.' Kirk opened his eyes and turned his head to face the doctor as he spoke.

That 's not ALL? There's more... ?? What else could be... ?

"I almost had the artificial ear-tip removed -- working from back to front, so the scalpel was right at your temple in front of the top of your ear when it happened." McCoy let go of his shaking hand long enough to indicate the spot on his own face for the sake of illustration. "The plas-skin was just sort of hanging there, still attached at the very edge." His gesture mimed a lock of substance hanging down in front of his ear.

"When you flinched away from the scalpel, the plas-skin appendage slapped against your cheek and the electrical impulses traveling across your skin...fused it there."

Kirk took a slow, deep breath to gather his courage. "Et ee zee," he mouthed with difficulty.

"No, Jim, not yet," McCoy pleaded -- easily translating the garbled noises into the intended "Let me see." It was the obvious demand for Kick to make.

The captain repeated himself, with no more clarity, but added vehemence.

'There is no point in postponing the inevitable, Doctor," Spock agreed with Kirk.

McCoy nodded in resignation and turned to rummage in a drawer for a mirror, while Spock helped the captain into a sitting position on the table. As he sat up, Kirk caught his reflection in a glass fronted case behind Spock's shoulder. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary. But then, he realized, he was seeing his left side. Slowly, he turned to face his reflection full on.

The image was more than a sane man should have to bear.

His lip was drawn upward and back in a horrifying travesty of a smile. The lower eyelid at the outside corner of his right eye drooped lifelessly, exposing the red membrane inside the eye socket, and the under side of the vein-mottled eyeball where it attached to the optic muscle. A black network of electrical burns webbed the surface of his bloated, rigid cheek. And the artificial skin that had been his Romulan ear tip ridged downward in an arch from the front of his ear to nearly the corner of his distended mouth.

Kirk's hand moved to pull away from the hold that Spock still maintained on it. This time the Vulcan released him. Still staring into the reflective cabinet front, he brought his hand up to feel the grotesque new contours of the face which could not sense the presence of his fingertips against it.

McCoy turned from the drawer in which he had been rummaging. He cradled the mirror that he had found against his chest with both of his hands, one still clasped one inside the other. He saw immediately that he was too late-Kirk had already seen the worst for himself. The doctor watched helplessly as his friend tested the rigidity of his flesh and traced with tentative fingers the inert, spongy flap that depended from his cheek like some vestigial gill. Wetness seeped down now from the corners of his eyes -- in a straight line down the left cheek, and weaving through the tortured channel that made up the landscape of his face on the other side.

McCoy wished that he could call again for an injection of the drug he'd had Chapel administer immediately after the accident. A drug that had brought instant oblivion for his thrashing patient and kept him from the pain and prevented him from further damaging himself until the worst was over and the agony of the dying nerves retreated into unfeeling blackness. He would have given anything to he able to keep Kirk from this terrible knowledge indefinitely, but however much he willed it, it could not be.

The door to this inner chamber within the sickbay squeaked open. Chris Chapel bustled in, her concentration on a report she carried. Before McCoy could warn her away, she was in their midst, holding the padd under his nose for signature. There was some awkward business while she and the doctor managed to position the padd so that he could scribble his authorization with his steady, but illiterate left hand, Only when the doctor had finally managed to comply with Chapel's request did she turn to look at the captain.

The experience of it mirrored McCoy's earlier reaction: she had seen the captain immediately after the damage was done and so did not expect to be affected by it again. However now that the grotesquerie had settled in and made itself at home on his features, now that the black netting of the burned nerves had begun to surface, now that the flesh had had time to swell and discolor in protest, and worst of all, now that it was animated with not only consciousness, but Kirk's own awareness of how he looked, even Chapel's professional distance was taken by surprise. Only a very small startled twitch, which she quickly controlled, betrayed the horrified reaction she felt.

She started to say she was sorry, but choked up after, "Captain, I'm..." To her credit, however. rather than looking away, embarrassed for him and for her own reflexive display of shock, she continued to look him in the face, her now professional expression acknowledging the seriousness of his injury, but not its repulsiveness.

In the end, it was Kirk that turned away. Seeing that momentary look of horror before she got it under control was bad enough, but even worse was the pity that welled up in her eyes afterwards.

Kirk's gaze flicked up to the chronometer on the wall. It was ship's night. The corridors should be empty or nearly so, he thought. Decisively, he slipped off the edge of the table, regained his footing and headed for the door, both hands shielding the ruined side of his face.

McCoy stepped forward to try to block the captain's retreat with his body rather than trying to stretch out his trembling hand, but Spock stopped him.

"Let him go, Doctor. He needs some time alone."

Chris Chapel laid a hand on McCoy's arm in silent agreement with the first officer.



As much as he hated to face Kirk again, the doctor simply could not let it go for long. No matter what Spock said, no matter that he had to admit intellectually that the accident was not his fault, McCoy clung to the blame like a cloak. He said he was afraid for Kirk to be left alone, but it was as much his own restlessness and his self-inflicted need to take on Kirk's blame in addition to his own that drew him, less than an hour later, to the entrance to the captain's quarters. Frustrated that he could not do what needed to be done, he had to be doing something

"Jim!"

He heard movement inside, but no answer. He could only imagine the torment of the man on the other side of the door.

"Jim, open up. It's me, McCoy," he insisted, trying to keep the pleading tone out of his voice and replace it with enough authority to get his friend to accede.

The doctor waited while the sound of aimless movement continued beyond the closed door. He was about to speak again, beginning to wonder what he would do if Kirk simply refused to see him, when the noises came closer and after a moment the door slid open.

The room beyond was in total darkness. There was nothing Kirk wanted to see. Especially not the chance reflection of himself. Kirk's dimly seen figure had already retreated across the room, where he stood with his back to the open door. McCoy realized with a twist of further guilt that Kirk's distorted speech had prevented him from opening the door with a voice command.

McCoy entered and closed the door softly behind himself. "Lights," he said quietly.

"...0!" Kirk protested, hut the speech-responsive environmental controller was unable to recognize the command. The lights came up and stayed.

For a long moment, Kirk stubbornly remained standing with his back to the doctor, his shoulders rigid with building frustration. Then he spun around and stepped up close to McCoy who did his best not to flinch as he was brought nearly nose to nose with the monstrosity that shared Kirk's face.

Kirk gripped the doctor's upper arms desperately. "Ix i... ! 00 uthing!"

The doctor's voice was tortured, "I can't fix it, Jim! The nerves are fried! There's nothing to regenerate! I'm not some kind of fairy godfather who can just mutter an incantation over you and make it go away! l work with medical instruments, Jim, not magic wands-there's only so much I can do!"

Kirk gestured near the flaring fin of artificial skin on his cheek, managing to avoid touching it by a hair's breadth. "..et id o' is a' eas'." Kirk's eyes were imploring, their expression not lost amid the ruin of his other features.

At a loss to understand Kirk's impaired speech, McCoy shook his head and raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness. It was then that he remembered part of why he had come in the first place. Dangling from his left hand, almost forgotten until now, was a lightweight strap with a small, flat casing about the size of a large coin threaded against it about halfway down its length.

"Wait, Jim. I...I brought you this..." He'd meant for it to help the captain, but now he couldn't think of a way of suggesting it without adding to Kirk's humiliation and reinforcing the hopelessness of his situation. This was an admission that the best he could do was to begin to compensate for the symptoms of Kirk's tragedy since he could do nothing about the cause. But it was also the least he could do, so McCoy made himself continue. "It's a voder, Jim. A voice enhancer. You wear it against your larynx..."

He illustrated by placing the disc against his own throat, holding the ends of the strap together behind his neck. "And this little lead..". he fingered a small filament attached to the collar. "...attaches up behind your...ear..." he managed to say it without changing expression, "where it can tap into the speech center of the brain. The voice box is activated by the action of your own voice and the articulation is enhanced through the direct neural feed."

The doctor removed it from around his own neck and held it out in offering to Kirk.

At first Kirk shied away. To accept this would be to admit to his inability to communicate on his own. It was degrading. And while it might help him to be more articulate, he couldn't help but feel that it would also add to that sense of separateness -- of differentness -- to which his face already condemned him.

Kirk stared silently at the device McCoy held forward for a long time. Finally, he sighed deeply and nodded in assent, unwilling to hear his own inarticulate voice again. He led the way to a chair where he sat and allowed McCoy to perform his ministrations.

Application of the device was simple, and with Kirk's assistance McCoy was able to manage it with the use of only his left hand while gripping his trembling right hand firmly between his left elbow and side. The neural filament required only surface application to a patch of skin behind the ear. The doctor decided to place it on the normal side of Kirk's head where it would not risk interference from the damaged neural network. At the same time, it avoided his having to handle or manipulate Kirk's damaged features to accomplish this process.

"Try it, Jim. Say something," McCoy prompted when he was finished.

Kirk repeated the request he had been trying to make before McCoy bound him to dependence on the voice enhancer. "Can't..." It sounded odd, flat and mechanical, the sound of the articulate voice laid over his own slurred speech. He persisted. "Can't you at least get this off'?" He gestured again at the appendage of plas-skin.

For answer, McCoy let go of his captive right hand and held it up for Kirk to observe the constant tremors. "What do you expect me to be able to do with this?" McCoy glanced deprecatingly at his shaking hand. "It's been like this ever since the...accident,"

Kirk's expression clouded, taking in the implications of what McCoy was trying to tell him. His face, he realized, wasn't the only casualty of the instrument malfunction. He sympathized with McCoy, but at this moment Kirk was hard put to concern himself with anything beyond himself. All he could think of washow McCoy's injury affected the doctor's ability to rescue him from his own disaster.

"For Chrissake, Jim, l can't even find my face with a fork with this thing. Hell, I can barely dress myself!" The doctor angrily clamped his good hand around the palsied one to quell its constant movement. "You really want to see a disaster area. ask me to turn this thing loose on your face with a scalpel. I can't do it, Jim. l just can't do it!" McCoy's tone rose in frustration.

"M'Benga then?" Kirk was already developing a preference to keep his utterances to the barest minimum. The sound of the voder was unnatural and uncomfortable.

In answer, McCoy fingered his rank insignia with his good hand. "'Chief Surgeon,' they gave me that title for a reason, Jim. M'Benga's a terrific internist, excellent diagnostician, absolutely intuitive with chemical analysis and a Vulcan specialist to boot, but he's no surgeon. He always told me he didn't think he had the hands for it...now I guess, neither do I... " McCoy trailed off.

"But," Kirk protested, gesturing again at the artificial ridge tracing a line down his face, "Just plas-skin."

"Yes, Jim, that's just what it is. Plas-skin is made to be chemically matched to your own cell structure-- intended to be used for permanent repair work or reconstruction. It's fused. Bonded. The electrical current has made it an integral part of your face. We're talking micro surgery: working on damn near one cell at a time to remove it completely. And the fusion goes deep. Even if I were able to get it completely off, there'll be...craters, pits and irregularities left behind from where the real tissue was destroyed in the fusion. All of that would have to be reconstructed--the same process in reverse -- to build the contours back up to where they belong. And then there's the neural and muscular damage. There's no way to rebuild your features until that frozen muscle can be released and the one under your eye repaired. It's gonna be a long, painstaking process, Jim..."

Kirk caught at McCoy's arm, interrupting him. "Gonna be...? But you said you couldn't... " he repeated. his eyes alight with hope.

'Well, no, Jim, not me," McCoy hedged. "But maybe back at the Academy hospital, with enough time and the right people...but don't depend on it. Don't get your hopes up too high. It's...pretty bad."

"Yeah," Kirk repeated, turning to the mirror over his dresser and forcing himself to contemplate the reflection in it. "Yeah...'pretty bad,'" he whispered.

McCoy stood behind him, looking over his shoulder at the reflection in the glass, each man lost in the silence of his own personal hell.

The sound of the door chime broke into their respective thoughts.

"Who's there?" McCoy snapped, anxious to protect the captain from unnecessary intrusions.

"Spock," came the answer.

Kirk nodded in response to McCoy's questioning look. His gesture said "It's okay, you can go. I'll handle it." But even so, as McCoy turned reluctantly to leave, Kirk's voice, overlaid by the voder said, "Lights."

This time the light control responded to his verbal command and dimmed to only the barest shade above total darkness. When McCoy's departting figure passed him, Spock entered quarters where Kirk's privacy was curtained by the absence of light.

Spock stood in the center of the room in a pose of formal 'at ease,' with his hands clasped behind his back. Although the darkness would have prevented his seeing much of anything, he carefully kept his gaze straight ahead.

"I require your instructions for course setting and the disposition of our passenger, Captain." Spock's voice was flat. Contained.

"Our passenger?" the artificially enhanced voice responded from the dark shrouded corner of the room.

"The Romulan Commander is still aboard, Captain. You had mentioned something about the nearest Federation outpost..." Spock reminded him.

"Damn!" Although the inflection was flat in the electronic simulation of Kirk's voice, the vehemence of' his remark was evident in the less well articulated sound that came from his own lips.

"Captain?" Spock inquired, bemused by the inappropriateness of the response.

Damn! McCoy had said the Academy doctors could help him...well maybe, at least...if only he could get home. Even at maximum warp they were a long way from home. Out here at the edge of Federation territory the trip would take weeks at least, and now there was this other interruption, this Romulan woman who'd come aboard uninvited, that he'd have to deal with before he could even begin the journey.

"Have you determined the location of the nearest outpost?" Kirk asked his first officer, knowing full well that Spock would already have the answer at hand.

"I have, sir." Spock rattled off location and course coordinates. Kirk recognized that they were in direct opposition to the course that would take him home. And he wanted to go home. Even more than the place where skilled surgeons waited to relieve him of the desecration of his spoiled features, home was a place of comfort, a place to hide. All the archetypal meanings of the word called to him, pulled at him. made him obsessive about reaching that destination.

"How far to Outpost 83 from here, Mister Spock? In hours." Kirk thought to keep his voice impassive. With the flat inflection imposed by the voder, it was easier than it should have been.

"Approximately, seventy-one point two-five."

Three days! And three more days to return. Almost a week added on to the already impossibly long trip back. "See to it, Mister Spock." Kirk turned away; as always, putting duty above his personal needs.

It was a dismissal, but Spock didn't turn to leave.

"Something else, Mister Spock?" Kirk asked irritably.

"When can the crew expect your return to the bridge, Captain?" Spock's tone was formal but a bit tentative.

The bridge? The idea took Kirk aback. All he wanted was to go home. Home to someplace where he could hide. Bad enough to be stuck out here for weeks before he could seek the refuge of Earth, but the thought of appearing on the bridge! It was untenable!

"You have the bridge until further notice, Mister Spock."

Then, when there was no response, "Dismissed."

"As you wish, Captain."

And Kirk was left alone with the darkness that surrounded and inhabited him.



"...and so it seems, you lost nothing after all." The dark haired woman considered Spock from under upslanting brows. "I offered you a command post which you turned down in fealty to your precious Federation and it seems they have rewarded you with the same elevation in status that I would have given you. They leave me nothing to bargain with."

Spock was stoic. "The command of the Enterprise is not a reward to be lightly offered for services rendered, nor a prize with which to insure my loyalty. Neither would I have sought it. It is simply a fact, required on a temporary basis by circumstance."

"And you are there, to serve unquestioningly in whatever capacity they require you, is that it?

With no thought or concern for how it affects you personally?" she asked bitterly.

"Those are the terms of my service to the Federation," Spock replied.

"Whether they make you a commander or a spy--it makes no difference to you, does it?" she accused.

Unable to bear the sting of her words. he looked directly at her for the first time since he had entered her guest quarters. "It does," he admitted.

"Then where is that famous Vulcan honor? Is there no line which you will not cross at the behest

of' the Federation? No limit to which you will not go?"

"It is possible that recent events may have helped me to delineate that line." He wanted very badly for her to find some meaning in those words, but she had tired of baiting him.

"Why did you come here?" she asked brusquely. "Just to prattle on about your precious Federation who sends men of little character out on missions to betray whatever honor they have left?"

"I came," he said soberly, "to inform you that we are on a heading for Outpost 83, where you will he detached from the Enterprise."

"Federation Outpost 83, you mean. And what will happen to me there?"

"I do not know. I assume you will be repatriated to your own people.""

"You do not know and you do not care, As long as I am delivered safely out of your hands you'll have done the 'honorable' thing and what happens to me then is on somebody else's conscience to deal with."

"As I said, I expect you will be returned to your own Empire."

"Don't be a fool, Spock." She whirled on him. "Do you think your overlords will be satisfied with a mere bit of technology when they can have a hostage? I will never see my people again--but don't you worry about it," she added sarcastically, "Your hands will be clean. As long as you drop me off safely at your Outpost 83, it doesn't matter to you what happens to me!"

"You should not think so little of yourself," Spock said quietly.

"Oh, get out!" she railed furiously.

Spock complied.



"Run it again, M'Benga, you must be missing something!' McCoy fought down the urge to snatch the scanner out of his colleague's hand. Normally the chief medical officer had a high regard for the capabilities of the other physician on board, but right now his inability to make a diagnosis appeared to border on incompetency.

'Dammit, Leonard." Years of working together in the confines of the same sickbay had led the other doctor to pick up some of his superior's speech patterns. "I can't help it if there's nothing there to see! The instruments aren't malfunctioning and I'm not stupid!"

Their mutual respect was left-handedly acknowledged by the fact that, even under stress. M'Benga still didn't stint at giving as well as he could get. "I've run this scan three times with two entirely different instruments and the results are identical. Other than some residual surface burns on your fingertips and one on the heel of your hand where the scalpel rested, there is no neural damage."

"Then why is my hand still shaking like this?" McCoy demanded, wrenching it free from the light restraint which had held it immobile for the examination, and holding it up to tremor uninhibited in front of his colleague's face.

"All I know is that it shouldn't be," M'Benga reiterated.

"But it is, dammit. It is!" McCoy insisted with dogged vehemence.

"Yes, I see that," M'Benga said, trying to sound reasonable while gently capturing McCoy's hand and lowering it out of his direct line of vision. "But it's not because of anything physical."

"So...what? You're saying I'm crazy? That it's psy-cho-so-matic?" McCoy snapped sarcastically, his tone just daring the other doctor to make such an irrational accusation.

"Leonard, all I'm saying is that the scanners show absolutely no physical cause for the spasticity. Make of it what you will."

"What l make of it is that the damage is either so microscopic that the scanners aren't picking it up, or that it's electrical, not cellular..."

"You know that the diagnostic routines would be able to pick up on that, too."

"Well then, it's something else we haven't thought of yet. Christ, M'Benga," McCoy's tone took a less defensive and more desperate turn, "I did this terrible thing to Jim. You can't believe I'd psyche myself into a condition like this so that I wouldn't be able to help him when he needs me most? Dammit, I'd give my right arm..." he glanced at the still trembling appendage at the end of that arm and smiled ruefully, "...guess that wouldn't do much good anyway. But I'd give a lot to be able to help him. I wouldn't do this to myself."

"Whatever you say, Leonard. What ever you say." The the statement was intentionally ambiguous.



"Identification confirmed, Mister Spock. It's a Romulan Warbird, all right." Mister Sulu's tone was grim.

"Are you able to discern registry number, Mister Sulu? Is it the same ship we had dealings with before?" the Vulcan inquired, still occupying the command chair as captain-by-default.

"No way to tell yet, but he's right out in the open. Sir, no cloak engaged," the helmsman answered.

"That would tend to increase the probability that it is indeed the same ship," Spock interpolated.

"But, sir!" Chekov interjected, bemused. "We are cloaked. How could they have found us?"

Before Spock could advance a speculation on that question, Uhura interrupted. "Whoever they are, they're hailing us, Sir."

"At this distance, Lieutenant?" The end of one eyebrow lifted in surprise at the apparent range of the other ship's communications capabilities.

"Affirmative, sir. No identification given, just a demand to speak to the captain."

Spock hit a configuration of buttons on the arm of the command console. "Captain to the bridge. Captain to the bridge."

The immediate reply, which he should have been able to expect, did not come.

After thirty seconds passed in silence which seemed to go on much longer, Spock acted on a speculation. He rose from the command chair. "Uhura, delay them as best you can. I shall return."

Spock headed for the doorway, his communicator already in his hand. The doctor was doubling for Spock at the science station since his ability to be of any practical use in Sickbay was diminished by the persistent palsy in his right hand. He rose and made as if to follow Spock into the lift. But the slightest shake of the acting captain's head told him to stay where he was.

The doctor stopped, but the look he shot Spock said he didn't like it one bit.

A deepening of Spock's intense expression assured McCoy that he had reasons of his own for wishing to leave the bridge alone and that he was insistent that the doctor respect his judgment.

The silent conversation took place almost too quickly to be followed by the casual observer. McCoy sighed and resumed his seat and Spock continued into the turbolift.

As soon as he stepped into the lift and the doors swooshed shut behind him, Spock tried again to make contact with the captain's cabin. "Jim, this is Spock. We have an emergency on the bridge."

There was a long, silent pause. "It's all right, Jim, We are on a private communication channel. I am alone."

"Spock?" came the whispered response.

Spock nodded to himself. He had been correct in his assumption that the captain's sensitivity about the artificial sound of the voder had prevented him from speaking openly where the entire bridge crew would be witness to his dependence. Spock thought grimly that the captain would have to master that sensitivity in short order if he was to take his rightful place in the command chair and handle this encounter with their pursuers.

"Captain, your presence is required on the bridge. We are being hailed by a Romulan vessel-quite possibly the same one with which we have had recent dealings," Spock informed the captain via the communicator he held close to his lips, keeping his voice low despite the fact that he was alone in the lift.

There was a brief beat before Kirk's curt answer came. "Handle it," the artificial voice said over the comm unit.

"But, Captain..." Spock argued.

"l said, handle it. Kirk out."

The communicator in Spock's hand went silent. The Vulcan's forehead creased in concern. Then he turned to reenter the bridge. Without explanation, he assumed the center seat. Outside his range of vision, Uhura and Sulu exchanged puzzled shrugs while Chekov forced himself to keep his eyes on his console for fear of creating a conspicuous breach of discipline by being drawn into

their speculation.

"Lieutenant Uhura, respond to their hail and request further identification," the acting-captain instructed.

While Uhura went about completing her assignment, the others on the bridge watched the warbird loom into visible range and appear to hover directly in front of the view screen. Spock, anticipating that it might be politic for their guest commander to be shown unrestrained and on the bridge sent Lieutenant Remington. the redshirt on bridge duty, to escort her from her quarters on deck two. It would also serve his purposes to best advantage if she was placed where he could keep an eye on her during the coming confrontation.

A long silence ensued as the ships faced each other across empty space. Tension mounted until it was broken by the doctor's sudden outburst.

"The nerve of him!" McCoy sputtered, offended by the Romulan ship's audacity. "Just sitting out there within easy phaser range as if he didn't have a thing to fear!"

"He doesn't." Spock's explanation was interrupted by the sound of the turbolift doors opening behind him as Remington brought their guest onto the bridge.

Sulu elaborated for the doctor's benefit. "We're still running cloaked, and no one should know better than the inventor of the cloaking device that we can't fire phasers or raise shields when the cloak is engaged."

"Therefore, Doctor," Spock corrected, "he knows that he should not have anything to fear from us unless he makes the first hostile move."

"You assume too much, Mister Spock." The Romulan commander, still wearing the swirl of black and white fabric which she had adopted in favor of her uniform under much different circumstances, had arrived on the bridge. "He knows from experience that the cloak will prevent you from firing, but he should also know from experience that the honor of a Federation officer is not to be trusted," she commented bitterly.

Spock was about to respond when Uhura's report on her incoming call interrupted. "He identifies himself as Sub-commander Tal, sir. He wishes to speak to the captain."

"Tell him that the captain...is not on the bridge at this time. He will have to be satisfied with talking to me."

"Where is Kirk"" demanded the face that swam into focus on the viewscreen, replacing the image of his ship. It was indeed the officer from the Romulan woman's own ship pictured before them.

"The captain is not here. I am in temporary command, What is the purpose of your hail?" Spock managed a certain arrogance of his own, without stepping outside the bounds of Vulcan decorum.

An ironic expression twisted the Romulan's face. "Perhaps it is fitting that we two sub-commanders are left to negotiate. Your own deserves the worst that the fates can deliver him for what he has done. At least he has the decency to allow his guilty conscience make him hide from the sight of those he has wronged. And ours..."

Spock did not seek to correct the Romulan's misinterpretation of Kirk's absence from the bridge, although it rankled him to hear Kirk's honor so abused. In any event, before he could have said anything, and cutting off her sub-commander in mid-sentence, the Romulan woman stepped into the range of the Enterprise's transmission and so became visible on the screen of the Romulan ship.

"What about your commander, Tal? I am here."

"Ah, Commander." Tal expressed his gratification at seeing her. "Are you unharmed?"

"I have been treated with courtesy, Tal. The officers of the Enterprise ..." she looked pointedly at Spock, "...have steadfastly maintained the polite fiction that I am merely a guest here, despite their intention to turn me over to Federation authorities as soon as we reach their outpost."

Unintentionally reinforcing her assertion, Remington stepped closer, maintaining his hands-off but within arms-reach position beside the visiting commander.

"We shall see about that, Commander," Tal promised.

"And we know now how the Federation spies managed to obtain the cloaking device, through Kirk's deception and the...distraction...provided by Mister Spock."

In response to that remark, speculative eyebrows went up all over the Enterprise bridge. But Spock's expression remained passive and unreadable.

"We also know," she continued, "that our device is sufficiently compatible with Federation technology to be patched into their shielding system and made to function."

"That was your captain's mistake, Vulcan," Tal named Spock's race sarcastically. "If you had resisted the temptation to engage the device you might have stood a chance of getting away with it. We could not be sure you had it aboard your ship until you activated it."

"And yet, with the cloaking device in place, you were still able to follow and locate us?" Spock was bemused. This was a contradiction of known facts. He turned to the Romulan woman now standing beside the command chair. "You told me that your people were still working on the technology to track a cloaked ship, but that you had not achieved it yet."

Her bearing was arrogant, her voice cold as she answered. "It is Vulcans who have the unearned reputation for truthfulness, my people do not make such claims. Romulans are pragmatists, Spock. We will say or do whatever is needful to protect and advance our empire. It is characteristic of the naive fiction about truthfulness that you maintain that you believed me." She took a defiant step away from Remington's hovering presence.

From the view screen, Tal continued. "How could you believe that we would put into use a device which we could not fully control? A cloaked ship would make detection or treason by misguided commanders too great a temptation. it could not be installed on our ships until the High Command knew how to overcome its effects."

"So you see, Spock, two can play at your little game of half-told truth. And so the game goes on. Your captain was beamed off the flag ship under our very noses, and you very nearly escaped me in the same way. Now it is our turn." She nodded at her sub-commander's image on the screen.

McCoy, whose mind worked in more devious ways than Spock's, realized a split second sooner than the acting-captain what was about to happen. He pushed off from the science station, but his palsied hand, now suspended in a sling, made him clumsy and he was still too far away when the twinkling lights surrounded and removed the Romulan woman to her own bridge.

Spock was quick to realize the implications. He hit the communications switch on the console arm. "Mister Scott, throw an interference field around the cloaking device."

"But sir! If I do that it'll cut off the interface to the shielding mechanism! We'll lose our invisibility and as long as the thing's connected, we still won't be able to raise our shields!" the engineer cautioned urgently.

"Do it, Mister Scott. Do it now." Spock's tone left n room for interpretation.

"But Mister Spock, if they can see us and our shields are down..." Chekov silenced himself at a stern look from his commanding officer.

Spock understood Scott and Chekov's concerns all too well. In order to protect the cloaking device from transporter theft, they would have to sacrifice its effects and the protection of their shields as well -- with a Romulan Warbird perched right outside the window on the front porch.

"Arm phasers, but hold your fire," he instructed Chekov, now switching roles from navigator to weapons officer.

"Cloaking device under protective field," Scott reported over the intercom. Then with doom in his voice he finished, "Shields inoperable, Mister Spock."

The Romulan commander appeared on the screen beside Tal, dismissing him with a mere look.

"This negotiation is no longer being conducted by underlings. I will speak to your captain, now."

"Commander," Spock replied patiently, "As you are aware, I am acting on the captain's behalf at this time."

"Your captain is alive and well aboard that ship, and I will speak with no one other than James Kirk, himself, Sub-commander Spock."

"You recognize the fact that your ship is now well outside the neutral zone and clearly within Federation space. The Enterprise would be within our rights to fire on you right now as an invading hostile ship."

"The Romulan Empire would defend our presence here as our right in pursuing agents of espionage who first crossed our borders with intent to sabotage. If you do decide to fire, there will doubtless be retaliation and an end to the tenuous cease fire that exists between our governments. There will also he an end to your ship and everyone on it. Neither of us is shielded, and we are maintaining such close proximity that catastrophic damage to either ship would have extensive repercussions on the other."

"Which means that you would place yourself in the same danger if you fired upon the Enterprise," Spock reminded her. "It would appear that we are at a standoff."

"We are indeed, and so we shall remain until you can produce your captain. Our current situation makes the need for negotiation imperative, but I will negotiate with no one other than Kirk. I have learned that I cannot trust him out of my sight. I will not believe your protestations of illness or incapacitation again."

Spock rose. "This may take some time, Commander."

"No one is going anywhere, Mister Spock. Take all the time you need."

Spock scanned the bridge, determining the most senior officer present. "Mister Sulu, you have the con. If the Romulan ship makes any move that would jeopardize our safety, be very sure that we take them with us."

"Aye, Mister Spock," Sulu responded, gravely accepting the weight of the responsibility he had been given.

Spock waited while the helmsman took his place in the command chair, then headed for the lift doors. This time a small gesture invited McCoy to go with him. He would need all the help he could get.

Together they stepped inside the turbolift. "Deck two."

"Sulu? Do you think he can..." McCoy began to question the advisability of' leaving so junior an officer in charge under such volatile circumstances.

Spock would indeed have preferred to leave the more experienced Commander Scott in the command chair, but he needed him more urgently elsewhere. In answer to the doctor' s protest,

Spock flipped open his communicator. "Mister Scott?"

"Here, Mister Spock."

"Is the interference field around the device holding?"

"Aye, sir. They've made a couple of transporter attempts on it already. We've kept the damned thing safe and sound so far. But..."

"I need you to disconnect the cloaking device from the Enterprise's shielding array so that we can bypass it and bring the shields on line again as quickly as possible."

"I'm already workin' on it, sir." Scott's pride in his ability to anticipate his orders showed briefly through the worry in his voice. "But there's gonna be a tricky bit towards the last, when I'll have to drop the force field to make the final connections."

"See to it, Mister Scott." Spock acknowledged his confidence in the engineer with the unspoken assumption that Scott would indeed see to it. Then he added, "But hurry."

The turbolift doors opened and the two officers covered the few yards to the captain's quarters in long, decisive strides.

When the response to their hail was not split-second immediate, McCoy stepped up to the security pad and input the coding for medical emergency override. The door opened.

Kirk stood shadowed in the darkness.

"Lights," Spock commanded. Nothing happened.

McCoy reached out impatiently and slapped at the light control. Kirk faced them, the unforgiving brightness highlighting the dreadful wreck of his face. The network of blackened burn marks was fading, but diffusing, the flapping appendage of plas-skin was ragged and tattered where Kirk, in a moment of rage had torn at it, leaving scabbed patches where he had unsuccessfully attempted to separate it from the living tissue, and beneath it all, the lunatic and exaggerated grin that was frozen onto his features made mockery of his desperation.

McCoy gripped tightly at his right hand which had begun to shake violently despite the light sling he had adopted to restrain it.

Spock took a deep breath and held it, clamping down his control to enable him to do what had to be done in spite of Kirk's distress.

"Captain, your presence is needed on the bridge."

"I said no, Spock." Kirk turned away.

Spock pushed on relentlessly, informing the captain about their pursuit by the Romulan flagship and the multilayered subterfuge which had gone on regarding the cloaking device, the Romulan's ability to detect it, and the events which had lead up to their current stand off in space with the enemy vessel, concluding with the recapture by transporter and cunning of the Romulan commander from off their very bridge.

Kirk spun to face his first officer. "And you just let them take her?" The voder' s inflection was flat, but what facial expression Kirk was capable of was incredulous.

Spock looked straight ahead, in accepted military fashion. "She was not a prisoner, Captain. She had come aboard of her own free will and we had planned to put her off at the nearest station."

He met Kirk's eyes, a hint of challenge in his otherwise formal expression. "It was always our intention to return her to her own people, was it not, Captain?" Spock was not about to allow the Federation, in the person of his commanding officer to go back on that promise. He had had more than enough opportunity to contemplate the honorable standing of' that institution lately. and he would do his best to insist that they uphold it to his own standards.

"Well...yes," Kirk hedged, caught off guard. "That was my intention...I just didn't expect it to happen quite this way is all."

"We still have the cloaking device..."

"For all the good it will do us, now that the Romulans can penetrate it anyway!" McCoy interrupted.

Spock continued: "We have fulfilled the assignment we were given -- to obtain a working model of the device. Further we have managed to exit the neutral zone unscathed. The odds were substantially against our getting even this far into the mission successfully. But now there remains the need to deal with the not totally unexpected retaliation by the Romulans which has manifested itself in the commander's demand to speak with you on the bridge."

"You gotta go up there and do something, Jim!" McCoy insisted. "This whole thing has come to an impasse for now, but God knows how long it will stay that way."

"On the one hand, Mister Scott is working to restore our shields while keeping the cloaking device in a field which will inhibit transporter activity."

"And on the other hand, Jim, Romulans aren't noted for their patience no matter what they claim. It may be that they are just trying to keep us busy long enough for their escort ships to catch up with them and change the odds."

"So you expect me to accede to their demands and face them like this? And just what do you think that's going to accomplish?"

"This is a command level crisis, Jim."

"Spock, you can do this as well as..."

"No, Captain. You are the commander of this vessel. At a critical time like this, when the fate of the ship and its crew are at risk, it is not for you to choose whether to accept that responsibility or not."

"You're not incapacitated, Jim." McCoy supported Spock's argument. "There's no medical reason for you to defer your command responsibilities to Spock."

"But Spock is just as capable..." Kirk argued.

"Look, Jim, I trust his command abilities, too, but the fact remains that he is not the designated captain of the Enterprise. You are. And there's no excuse for you to abdicate that position."

"What about this?" Kirk exclaimed angrily, holding one palm upward in front of and at the level of his chin, as if presenting his mangled face on a platter for the doctor's inspection. "This is my excuse! How can you expect me to appear before my crew -- before the Romulans like this?"

"Why not, Jim?" Spock asked quietly.

"Because..." Kirk began vehemently. "Because..." then trailed off, unable to put words to his terror at being seen as a grotesquerie, a freak...

"Because you are afraid of being stared at?" Spock supplied. softly. "I have been stared at all my life. It is not pleasant, but one learns to live with it."

"But I'm not just different, I'm... "

"You're James T. Kirk, Captain of the Enterprise and that's all that matters right now," the doctor interrupted him firmly.

Kirk reacted like a hysteric who has just been slapped back to reality. He blinked once, twice, hastily examining his motivations and suddenly seeing them for no more than they were. He had been disfigured in the performance of his duties as the commander of this starship. It was a freak twist of fate, but it was a part of the risk that went with the job. But now he was abdicating command, willingly turning his back on who he was, what he was and what his ship, his crew needed him, depended on him to do. The horror of his injury did not deprive him of his identity -- but would he allow it to make him give up, simply walk away from his command, the very thing that defined that identity?

Slowly, the hunched forward, belligerently defiant set of his shoulders melted to a more normal, merely confident stance. The heightened color began to recede from his cheeks, both the normal one and the distorted side. He lowered his head for a moment.

"Bones, Spock, I'm sorry. l..."

"Captain," Spock said, "the Romulans are waiting."

Kirk's first officer stepped aside and allowed the captain to precede him into the corridor.

The doctor followed them, and the door to Kirk's quarters slipped closed on the vacant room.

As they turned a corner to the lift door, a crewman hurrying toward them from an adjoining corridor on business of his own caught sight of the captain and stopped dead, performing a classic theatrical double take. Kirk saw the ensign' s slack-jawed stare, but at the same time felt the supportive tightening of his first officer's hold on his upper arm, and resolutely kept his face straight ahead and his eyes on his destination. What was it Oscar Wilde said? "Never apologize, never explain." He'd have to work on that attitude if he was to get through this.

Once inside the turbolift Kirk asked, "Bones, what does the crew know about..."

"About your...injury, Jim? Only that there was an accident in surgery. Obviously..." he indicated his right hand in its sling, "...something went wrong. They know you're not dead or anything like that, but I haven't been drawing them any pictures, if that's what you mean.

"I suppose," he sighed resignedly, "that speculation is running pretty high by now, since you haven't shown your...I mean, since you haven't been on the bridge for days now."

Kirk considered that and nodded, steeling himself for the reaction that would be waiting for him on the bridge.

The lift doors swooshed open.

Spock stepped out first and announced formally, with a protocol they rarely bothered to observe anymore, "Captain on the bridge."

The crew rose to attention, Sulu stepping to the side in preparation to vacate the command position as soon as the captain should arrive to replace him. Kirk squared his shoulders and strode through the doors toward his chair.

From the stations on his right he could hear sharp intakes of breath, as the crewmembers got their first look at his ravaged face. There was a soft moan from a voice he recognized as Uhura's. On his left, confused crewmen, at first relieved to see the captain back on the bridge again, began to crane to see what had so upset the officers on the opposite side of the room.

With grim determination, all the while telling himself to act as if nothing was wrong, Kirk turned to face them and satisfy their curiosity. Their reactions echoed those that had first greeted his appearance.

He seated himself in his accustomed chair and returned the crew to their duties. "As you were," came the mechanical voice of the voder overlaying the pathetic, inarticulate noises of the human voice.

There was a rustling as the men and women around him tried to take their minds off what they had seen and get back to their appointed tasks. Some had looked immediately away, too polite, or too disgusted to stare. Others, in horrified fascination, had not been able to pull their eyes away.

Now there was an embarrassed chorus of clearing throats and other small noises to cover their reactions as they turned back to their stations.

Kirk faced the view screen squarely and addressed the image of the Romulan Commander there. "You wished to speak with me, Commander. I am here."

She could not hide her reaction at the sight of the mangled features on her screen, although to her credit, she managed to hold it to a long, shuddering intake of breath. Her courage was such that her eyes never left his.

Finally she said, slowly and with articulate venom, "I prefer to see you this way than hiding behind the stolen features of an honorable Romulan, Captain Kirk. This is a face more appropriate to a traitor and a thief. A true ref1ection of your soul."

"I did not come here to discuss physiognomy or listen to you berate me personally, Commander," Kick replied, maintaining an admirable nonchalance. "My officers inform me that we have reached an impasse which you wish to negotiate. State your position."

"My position, quite obviously, is within phaser range of an unshielded ship which has violated my Empire's borders and is deserving of retribution."

"Cut the semantics, Commander. You are safely back aboard your own ship. You came aboard mine uninvited, and rather than taking advantage of that, my first officer did the honorable thing in returning you to yours. What more do you want?"

"You speak of semantics, Captain. You have a greater skill than I at manipulating them if you mean to suggest that your Mister Spock returned me to my ship intentionally."

"Nevertheless, you are there; and unharmed. I repeat. What do you want?"

"Obviously, Captain, I want the return of' Romulan property which you stole from us. I want the cloaking device."

"Why such a fuss, Commander?" A smile that would have been merely disarming before the accident, tormented his already tortured features, making him look like a superimposition in living flesh of the classic masks of comedy and tragedy.

"You have the technology to make more and you have allowed us to learn that you also have the technology to circumvent its effects. What does it matter if the Federation gets hold of the model? Why even bother to try to duplicate it if we already know that you can track a cloaked vessel? A military secret that has already become obsolete." He shrugged, then continued evenly, "We've trespassed into the neutral zone; you've followed us deep into Federation territory. Why don't we all just go home and forget the whole thing ever happened. Call it even."

"Come, Kirk, your feeble attempt at logic demeans you and insults us. Quite obviously the imperative in getting the device out of your hands is not in keeping you from duplicating it, since you already know that it is of no use against us, but to keep you from analyzing it and developing that same ability to pierce its defenses. The device itself is of no strategic use to you, and remains so to us only as long as you cannot penetrate it. We want it back, Kirk. And now."

"I will take your request under consideration, Commander. Allow me to consult with my senior officers."

The captain turned to his first officer. "Analysis, Mister Spock?" he asked, laying heavy emphasis on the word and hoping against hope that the Vulcan would pick up on his meaning, since more explicit communication was impossible in view of the open channel being maintained with the Romulan ship. It was infinitely more difficult to project multiple meanings with the limitations on his facial expressions and the flat delivery of the electronic voice simulator.

"I suggest that we can place a great deal of trust in Mister Scott's abilities," Spock replied impassively.

"In...his abilities to disengage the device, you mean?"

"Indeed, Captain"" Spock knew that he was off-screen on the transmission to the Romulan ship, so he was able to indulge in the expressive lift of an eyebrow to carry the meaning that he kept out of his voice.

Kirk punched a control on his chair arm. "Mister Scott."

"Aye, Captain."

"Mister Spock's analysis of the situation suggests that you will be able to successfully disengage the cloaking device from the Enterprise's systems without damage to the original circuitry. Would you say that assessment is complete, Mister Scott?"

Scott's reply was at first a bit mystified, "Aye, sir." Then, as comprehension broke, "Oh, aye, sir! Any time yer ready, Captain."

"Good man, Scotty," Kirk spoke quietly, but fervently into the channel to the engineer.

Then, turning back to the impatiently waiting Romulan on the screen, "Commander, my engineering staff is ready to reroute our systems around your device so that it can be returned to you. I will assume that once you have what you want you will not seek further retaliation on this ship?""

"And that likewise we may be permitted to depart from Federation space unmolested?"

"You have my word on it, Commander."

"For whatever that may be worth, Captain. For all that you now bear the face of a liar, it makes it that much harder to tell when you are telling the truth. Still, l suppose we shall have to trust each other at some point, or we will spend the rest of our lives hovering around each other like conjoined twins. Release the field surrounding the device and we will transport it off your ship."

"I'm afraid I cannot allow that, Commander. As soon as we disconnect the device from our own systems, we will be able to restore shields--shields which we may well be in need of as soon as your device is no longer aboard. Even my 'feeble' logic can recognize that for you to beam the device off of our ship, we would have to lower those shields. We will be taking enough of a risk without allowing ourselves to remain defenseless while you transport the device and who knows what-all-else off the Enterprise at your leisure. There has been too much theft-by-transporter already in this encounter."

"All of it done by you, I might add."

"Be that as it may, we will return your bit of hardware as you request, but on our terms. Give my people the co-ordinates and we'll send it over ourselves."

"You'll still have to drop your shields to transport it out, Captain."

"Yes, but it will be at a time of our own choosing, and only for as long as the transfer takes."

"Accepted, Captain. Transmitting co-ordinates now." She gestured one of her bridge officers to

comply.

"Scotty," Kirk again addressed the engineer. "Be ready to disengage the device on my signal."

"Already done, sir." Scott's satisfied grin was nearly audible in his voice. "We took the liberty of doing the reroute while ye were havin' that little talk with the Commander, sir. The thing's disconnected and shields are already back up."

One hurdle down. Bless Scotty's devious Highland heart! "Prepare to transport, Mister Scott. The coordinates are coming in now. Congratulations, Scotty, it would take a man with about forty-five advanced degrees to manage what you've done today...Do you read me, Scotty?"

"Aye, sir, ye know I have several advanced...oh, degrees, sir. Aye, Captain, I read you. loud and clear, sir."

There was a pause and sounds of movement and background conversation. "Ready to transport on your word, Captain."

"Energize! Track it, Mister Chekov."

Looking up from his screens a second later Chekov responded, "Transmission complete. Screens back up, Captain. Cloaking device has been delivered... outside the Romulan ship. Sir!...about 45 degrees off the coordinates they sent us!"

On screen, the Romulan Commander was receiving the same intelligence from her corresponding crewman. "Outside! Kirk...Damn you, Kirk!"

"It's all yours, Commander. Mister Sulu, get us out of here. Warp nine!"

"Aye, sir!"

The ship streaked into light speed, leaving the Romulan ship to go space-fishing for its free-floating prey.

"Nice get away, Jim," McCoy congratulated him from his position near the lift doors. "Aren't you afraid they'll come after us, though?"

"Their cloaking device was the only thing that really mattered to them, Bones. That's going to keep her occupied long enough for us to put some distance between us. She's angry, of course, but wounded pride isn't enough to make her pursue us any further into Federation territory."

McCoy had come to stand closer to the captain's chair, so Kirk was able to lower his voice and speak more confidentially to the doctor. "l guess, when you come right down to it, there are a lot of things that aren't worth indulging wounded pride for, aren't there?"

McCoy took his meaning and laid an understanding hand on the captain's shoulder.

"But, Keptin..." Chekov turned in his chair, "If we gave them hack their cloaking device just like that, what is Starfleet going to say? We went through all that just for..."

In answer, Kirk hailed the engineering department once again. "Mister Scott, what have you got for me?"

"Analysis complete, Captain, just like you requested. We've got all the specs on their wee beastie cataloged and filed, sir. We ought tae be able tae put together one of our own wi' no trouble at all."

"Let that be a lesson to you, Mister Spock." Kirk turned on his baffled first officer.

"Captain?"

"'Feeble logic,' Mister Spock. Sometimes it helps if you don't let on how smart you really are."

"I'll take that under consideration, Captain," the Vulcan answered with mock solemnity.

"See that you do, Mister Spock. You have the conn. I'll be in my quarters. Mister Sulu, set a course for home…and get the lead out."

Kirk levered himself out of his seat and headed for the lift doors.

As he passed the doctor, McCoy decided that although Kirk might choose to return to his quarters, chances were good that he'd leave the lights on after this.



Several hours later, Spock completed his shift on the bridge and, true to the captain's predictions, there had been no sign of pursuit from the Romulan ship. He decided to drop by Kirk's quarters before retiring. The chime sounded inside the cabin as he approached.

"May I come in?" he asked, knowing that the sound of his voice would identify him.

In answer, the door slipped open in front of him. Kirk was seated at his computer screen, working. The lights were on. His left profile was turned toward his first officer and for a moment it was as if none of this nightmare had ever happened. Then he turned. There was nothing any less horrible about his face than there had been before, but somehow Kirk himself seemed more at ease.

Taking note of all of that, Spock said what he had come to say. "That was a courageous thing you did today, Captain."

Kirk intentionally misinterpreted Spock's comment, and replied as if the reference had been to his tactical action rather than what it cost him to appear before his officers and his enemies looking like the unmasked phantom of the Enterprise. "Nothing you couldn't have done instead, Spock."

Spock accepted the captain's detour around the intent of his compliment and responded in kind. "On the contrary. Your solution required a subtlety of communication which would have been beyond my abilities."

"To each his own, Spock. I'm sure you would have thought of something."

"We need not speculate on that eventuality, as the crisis has passed and we have come out unscathed. I am gratified, however, that your solution allowed the Romulan ship -- and its commander -- to remain unharmed also."

"She got to you, didn't she, Spock? Those 'delaying tactics' turned into a little more than you had bargained for, didn't they?" The words could have been teasing, but they were not, and not only from lack of expression which the voder could not produce.

Now it was Spock's turn to sidestep the issue. "Although the Federation considers the Romulans our enemies, this particular ship and her crew took no overt action against us which we did not provoke ourselves at the dictates of our mission. I must concur with the strategic need for us to gain access to their cloaking technology, but I would have been reluctant to do so at the cost of doing harm where none was deserved."

Kirk nodded, then said gently, "Yeah, Spock. I know what you mean."

Changing the subject, Spock asked, "Do you intend to remain in your cabin until we reach Earth?"

Kirk considered. "I think so, Spock, if you don't mind filling in for me for a while. I've got a lot of' work to catch up on." He indicated his desk with a gesture. "But I'll be there if you need me. All right?"

Spock seemed satisfied. "Very well. Good night. Captain."



A week later, they were halfway to Earth when the call came. Rather than reporting directly to the captain, Spock headed straight for Sickbay.

"There is no further room for discussion, Doctor. Something must be done."

"Look, Spock, maybe you can get away with just telling Scotty that something-or-other simply 'must' be done and be sure that he will find a way to break all the rules and get it done for you. He' s more than an engineer, he's a miracle worker. Me? I'm just an old country doctor,..." he held forward his restrained right hand for Spock's consideration, "...and not much of a one at that any more. Giving orders like that just doesn't automatically make it so."

"Doctor, however it is accomplished, there is no longer an alternative. Starfleet Command says the Enterprise cannot be taken off duty for the personal needs of one of its crew, even if he is the captain. They will not allow us the leisure of a two week trip to Earth, plus his recovery time and travel time back to our next assignment."

"Well, damn Fleet command anyway! Don't those people have any compassion, any gratitude?"

"Their position is not entirely illogical. The captain's condition is not life threatening. It is, however, a threat to the success of out next mission. Combined with the emotional toll his appearance is taking on the captain, and the fact that unless you intervene he will have to retain this appearance for an indefinite period to come, l would suggest that the compassionate thing would be for you to overcome the psychological manifestations of your own trauma and put Jim's needs ahead of your own."

"My psychological manifes--Just what the hell do you mean by that crack, Spock!"

"Doctor M'Benga has informed me..."

"M'Benga! What right has he to..."

"In his role as acting CMO, and reporting to me as acting-captain, where the welfare of an indispensable member of the crew is concerned..." Spock paused, waiting to see if McCoy was going to interrupt further or if this explanation had finally silenced him. It had, but only provisionally.

"Doctor M'Benga says he has run every conceivable test on your arm and hand, and finds no residual neurological damage. Therefore, his deduction is that on an unconscious level, you have manufactured the symptoms as a response to your feelings of guilt or inadequacy..."

Now McCoy did interrupt again. "Inadequacy! Why you…"

"Your misplaced feelings of inadequacy, I should have said, Doctor. It is a fact that what happened to the captain is in no way a result of your lack of competence. It was, quite purely, an accident. However, as Doctor M'Benga explained it to me, by developing a disabling injury for yourself, you are manifesting your guilt by sharing his disability, while at the same time effectively eliminating your ability to do further harm as you see it. Doctor M'Benga says this sort of physical manifestation of emotional turmoil is not untypical of your race. I could teach you more effective ways to deal with such…"

"Hogwash! Dammit, Spock, if I feel so guilty--which I do--you've got that much right. But if I was motivated by feelings of responsibility, don't you think I'd do everything in my power to help Jim, not just run away from the whole damn situation?"

"That would be the logical approach. However, I am merely quoting Doctor M'Benga, who is much more expert on the subject of Human psychological behavior than am I. In any event, we have been informed by Starfleet, there are families--children on the colony world to which we are now en route. It takes no expert in Human psychology to know that our captain's effectiveness with these people would be highly impaired by his present appearance. The situation requires the same sort of success, against all odds, that the captain has come to depend upon from Mister Scott. Somehow, between you and Doctor M'Benga, you must effect at least some degree of repair on the captain's face before we reach Triacus."

Spock left.

It was quite a while before McCoy knocked on his colleague's office door in Sickbay. During that time, he'd managed to overcome, or at least come to overlook, what he saw as the other doctor's betrayal of their friendship by running to Spock with all this psychological mumbo jumbo when there had to be a physical cause for the tremors in his hand. There simply had to be.

Nonetheless, McCoy laid out Spock's case for the need to make an attempt to undertake the captain's surgery themselves, since a return to better facilities and more expert hands on Earth was now impossible.

"Leonard," M'Benga protested, "that' s all well and good, but I've told you before, and you know it to be true yourself; I'm not a surgeon. I have very little talent for it and took no training in it beyond the barest field necessities. I just don't have the hands for it."

"Well, dammit, neither do I!" McCoy stormed. "At least you've got two of them and they both work! I'll be right there to advise. I do know how, even if I can't do it myself. It's a long, slow process, but all it takes is a lot of patience and a steady hand."

"I'm sorry, Leonard, but I have real misgivings about..."

"I'm sorry you have misgivings, Doctor, but I suggest you get over them. Consider that an order."

Although M'Benga saw no reason to point it out, since McCoy had abdicated his place as CMO, the authority of his orders could be questionable. However, while McCoy's authority might be debatable, the need to act in the best interests of the captain and their mission was not, No matter what their chances of success, it was imperative that they make the attempt.

McCoy watched the thought process play across M'Benga's dark features. When he saw the acquiescence he was looking for, he said, "I'll go tell the captain."

"I'll prepare for surgery, Doctor," M'Benga affirmed.

Only an hour and a half later, Kirk was unconscious again on McCoy's sickbay table. He had expressed only confidence in the two doctors' abilities to put him back together again. McCoy wished that the supervising surgeon could feel even a fraction of the same assuredness ut' their success.

So far so good. Under McCoy's direction, M'Benga had excised the main body of the flap of plas-skin with no difficulty. It was, after all, not really living tissue, although it functioned as such. There was some noticeable improvement already in having that ragged, discolored gill gone from Kirk's face. The microsurgery required to remove the embedded fragments of the plas-skin, and reconstruct any flaws created by that procedure, would be completed after the underlying structural damage was repaired. But first the more difficult work had begun.

Many injuries could be repaired with healing rays and precise application of electrical stimulation, but only if the tissue to be so fused was in proper alignment, or if the nerves could function enough to respond to stimulation. Neither was the case in Kirk's situation. Old fashioned surgery where the physician could actually see the damage itself and effect physical, manual repairs was the only answer here. The skin was incised at strategic points and laid back with clamps. exposing the musculature beneath. Once that was accomplished, any improvement in the captain's appearance was up to the intentional, and hopefully temporary further disfigurement of' the surgeon's laser.

First in order was the repair to the muscle below Kirk's eye. It had been cleanly severed by the laser scalpel when both Kirk and the doctor reacted reflexively to the initial shock from the malfunctioning instrument. This was the injury which caused his lower eyelid to sag lifelessly, exposing the raw looking membrane beneath. It was not a complicated repair, but it would have been easier if it had been done immediately after the initial injury. Now there was improper healing to undo, developing scar tissue to remove.

The process was painstakingly slow and McCoy itched to offer more advice than was strictly necessary or, better yet, to get his own hands on the instruments and do the job just a little differently here, a little more deftly there. As it was, however, he managed to keep his commentary to a minimum, not wishing to increase the strain that already showed in the deep furrow between M'Benga's brows.

Watching the other doctor work, McCoy's tension mounted, his muscles clenching as he clutched his trembling arm tightly against his chest, subconsciously trying to emulate the steadiness it was so important for M'Benga to maintain. Finally, the muscle was rejoined in the proper position, and light stimulation of the nerves showed it to be back in working order.

M'Benga sat back and allowed one of the assisting nurses to blot his forehead and knead his Shoulders for a moment while the high magnification and micro-laser instruments were put in place for the more difficult procedures to come. The entire zygomatic neural structure would have to be rebuilt from synthetic neuroconductive filaments too small to be seen with the naked eye and only slightly less fragile than spun sugar. A whole network would need to be attached to one contact point at a time, and interwoven back into the healthy nerve, prior to the point of damage. Massive magnification would allow the surgeon to see what he was doing, and specially calibrated instruments would reduce the smallest movements of his hands to the minuscule scale required by the extreme delicacy of the work.

M'Benga took a deep breath before embarking on the project at hand. Once begun it must be taken all the way to completion in a single working session that could easily take hours. He bent over the goggle-like viewer which presented him with the necessary magnification to see the landscape of the miniature field in which he would do his work.

McCoy sat by, unable to see the surgical field, able to gauge the other doctor's progress only by watching the tension of his shoulders as he dealt with the minutia of' reconstruction.

That tension seemed to increase as minutes ticked by. More than once M'Benga drew back from the viewer to stretch his back or allow a nurse to mop his brow. Neither doctor spoke. McCoy held his breath and tried to remain perfectly still, not wanting to create any distraction by the slightest movement. He could tell without asking that M'Benga was having difficulty. Nervous sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip, the muscles in his shoulders bunched with the effort of keeping the movements of his meaty hands small enough and controlled enough too keep from blundering like Bigfoot through the tiny structures beneath the viewer.

More than once McCoy was sure that M'Benga's renewed efforts were directed at undoing mistakes and starting over. Each time that happened, he seemed to become more and more frustrated. Slowly, in his empathy with the other doctor's intensity, McCoy found himself edging closer and closer to the array of equipment surrounding their patient's head.

Suddenly, when the intensity of the silence had become almost too much to bear, M'Benga threw himself backward in his chair and pulled his hands out from under the surgical hood. Tears of frustration welled in his reddening eyes.

"I can't do it, Leonard! I just can't do it!"

McCoy rose. "You have to do it! You can't just give up!"

"Listen, Leonard, I told you before we started this that it's beyond my expertise. I've tried. I've tried my damnedest but it's no good!"

"Look here, Doctor..." McCoy began.

"No, Leonard, you look -- take a good look..." M'Benga indicated the viewer with a wave.

"I'm only making it worse...going over the same connections again and again, making a botch of it like a kid with sticky fingers..."

McCoy was already bent over the viewer. M'Benga was right. Frayed ends of the delicate filaments were attached clumsily if at all. Strands had become kinked or split from over-manipulation. The site was a mess! McCoy picked up a micro instrument with his left hand and began to clear away the mistakes and the incomplete connections, preparing the way so that he could start over again.

How could M'Benga have done such a ham handed job of it, he wondered, as he became more and more immersed in the detail of what had to be done, his mind working several steps ahead of his hands as he planned and anticipated the next step and the next. The work was absorbing, holding his complete attention. He worked with one tiny instrument after another, switching back and forth rapidly as the work progressed.

Above his bent head, M'Benga and Chapel exchanged a look. Hers was incredulous. He answered with a gesture that said, "Don't say anything, just watch!"

She nodded, then looked down on McCoy's bent back, biting her lip in a flood of maternal emotion and relief.

The surgeon reached for another filament, transferred it to the instrument in his other hand and suddenly froze. His head came up and away from the goggles. His hand came out from under the hood and he stared at it. Then he pulled the other hand out and looked hack and forth from one to the other. Each was holding one of the tiny instruments which looked so much larger under the magnifying viewer. Both were still. His right hand as steady as his left.

He glanced up at M'Benga who was standing beside Chapel. watching him with a knowing took on his face. McCoy glowered at him. "Well, don't just stand there like simpering idiots, you two. You're supposed to be assisting me. So...do something useful. Assist."

He turned back to the viewer and continued his work.

It was every bit as tedious and difficult as he had predicted it would be. After what seemed like hours, for the very good reason that it had been hours, McCoy was able to back away from the patient and allow Chapel to test the nerve reflexes by direct stimulation of the related centers of the brain.

Slowly, in the course of the surgery, the contours of the muscles had relaxed out of the drawn up tension produced by the trauma suffered by the natural nervous system. As Chapel manipulated the extra-cranial stimulation, various muscle groups responded in an organized and predictable fashion.

With the skin peeled away. it was still not really recognizable as a normal facial expression, but the skilled eye of the physician saw the changes and was able to extrapolate the effect they would have on the finished restoration.

Different viewing aids and different instrumentation were brought into place for the final stage while McCoy stretched and stole a surreptitious and still disbelieving glance at his hands. M'Benga might not be much of a surgeon, he thought, but he surely was one hell of a psychologist -- and McCoy would be damned if he'd ever admit such a thing out loud.

He gave his back a final wrench so that it cracked audibly, and returned to finish his work. First the dermal layer was slowly and carefully reattached along the lines of the incision. The protoplaser rejoined it one tiny micrometer at a time until it was again the face of their captain.

Spock came to the door to inquire as to their progress. Chapel went to stand in the doorway to assure him that all was going well.

He stood for a moment, watching the restrained intensity of activity around the head of the sickbay bed. M'Benga was at McCoy's elbow, handing instruments, making himself useful. But it was McCoy's hands on the patient's face. Both hands. Spock's eyebrow rose of its own volition. Chapel just smiled and returned to her work.

It was evening before McCoy fell back in his chair, exhausted, knowing that his labors were finally over.

Chapel moved the equipment away and finished the clean-up, gently dabbing crusted blood off of Kirk's now perfect earlobe, replacing the fluid stained headrest with a proper, starch-smelling pillow and straightening the sheet that covered him.

At last, she stepped back to allow the physicians a good look at their completed handiwork. He was Kirk again. They had done their work well. A little swelling perhaps, a little bruising and discoloration, but nothing that a couple of treatments with a sonic stimulator wouldn't take care of. They could go on with their mission to Triacus with some hope of success. Whatever happened, at least the captain would no longer be likely to frighten little children with a mere glance.

The two doctors beamed at each other across their patient in satisfaction. Then M'Benga looked down, embarrassed. "Leonard, thank you, I..."

McCoy shook his head. "No. Thank you."

M'Benga nodded, understanding.

McCoy cleared his throat. "Come on. Lets get out of here and get some sleep."

He looked down at Kirk. 'Let him get all the sleep he can, too. Those synthetic nerves are perfectly capable of feeling pain. He's been through a lot and there's no reason to wake him any sooner than necessary."

M'Benga grimaced in sympathetic agreement.

They left Sickbay and headed off in opposite directions toward their respective quarters.

Spock accosted McCoy at the first bend in the corridor.

"Doctor?"

McCoy sighed. He was tired--completely exhausted--and he just wanted to go to bed and sleep for a couple of days.

"It seems that congratulations are in order."

"Yeah, Spock"" McCoy agreed, "it came out pretty good. Jim looks like his old self again."

"Oh?"

"Or will after a couple of treatments. Looks like the new neural pathways are functioning normally; full range of motion and probably of sensation."

"Then congratulations are, indeed, in order. I had meant, however..." Spock cast a look laden with significance at the doctor's right arm, hanging comfortably at his side, free of its sling.

McCoy followed the Vulcan's glance and stiffened defensively.

"I had meant, Doctor, to remark on the regained use of your hand. I stopped by Sickbay for a moment while you were operating..." he said by way of' explanation. "How did Doctor M'Benga manage to convince you to...What did you.."

McCoy cut him off. "I just did what had to be done, Spock. Nobody convinced me of anything. It just came back when I needed it..."

McCoy realized just how facile that statement sounded, "...hell, I don't know. I just did it, that's all. Now get out of my way and let me get some sleep!"

Behind McCoy's retreating back, a smile of satisfaction and perhaps just the slightest amusement played across Spock's eyes.



Two days later, the captain appeared on the bridge again. The doctors' predictions had been right; it had hurt like a Klingon boot in the face at first. But with a little time and a little help from Doctor McCoy's potions and magic wands, he could manage a pretty natural looking smile and not regret the effort.

It was with that smile on his face, that Kirk breezed onto the bridge to assume his usual shift that morning. The response was a happy parody of his previous entrance during the Romulan crisis. Those on his right side were the first to respond, with dumbstruck expressions and softly murmured comments. A soft, "Oh. Captain!" from Uhura's station.

While those on his left strained, unheeding of' protocol, for a better look. The gasps this time, however, were exclamations of joy, or from those who knew him less well than his regular bridge crew, wonderment at least.

He called for the morning change of shift reports. The voder was gone from around his throat and there was only his own familiar voice; confident and articulate.

When all the usual change-of-shift rituals were complete, Kirk leaned back in the command chair, his chair, and sighed with quiet satisfaction, his gaze coming to rest on the forward view screen. The darkness outside was nearly starless, and the viewscreen cast back the wavering reflections of the men and women on the bridge. Kirk stared at the image of himself.

Images, he thought to himself. How much of what we are is just "images." Images of ourselves...the images we present to the world.

Of course he was glad to have his own face back again. No matter how philosophical his thoughts might turn, he'd be crazy to have gone through life looking like that willingly. But maybe, Kirk mused, the reality of who we are lies nor in what we look like, but in what we do.

the end


There's more Tantalus Revisited.