And in the mirror I glimpse as I pass,
No reflection is revealed in the glass.
Can't you see that the blood in my veins
Is as lifeless as yesterdays rain?
I am nothing but shadow and mist,
And for you I cannot exist….
"And you're sure it meant to harm you?"
Kirk glanced towards the window, covered now by a draped curtain that McCoy had drawn to shut out the sight of the swirling fog, some obscure memory forcing its way to the surface of his mind. But the recollection sank again before he could examine it more closely.
"I'm telling you it attacked us, Jim. Came billowing over the balcony parapet straight for us."
"That is not certain, Doctor McCoy." Spock interrupted softly. "Its intentions, as far as I could sense, were ambivalent. Though assuredly not benign, neither was it malicious."
"You mean it just came to say 'ciao', Spock, or invite us over for dinner, perhaps? "
"Now you are being facetious, Doctor."
"You can bet your pay on it, Mr. Spock."
Kirk got up from the overstuffed hotel chair and started to pace. "Whether it meant you injury or not, it still doesn't explain what it is or what it's doing on this planet. Could it be native? Is it intelligent? It's a pity you didn't manage to get any tricorder readings, Bones."
McCoy looked abashed, but his concern for Spock had driven any such requirement out of his head.
"Perhaps those questions should be addressed to Ser Ryhanen, Captain." Spock suggested. "The original surveys of Sassandran were carried out by a company under his nominal control. The wraith legend has existed from that time, I believe."
"Agreed. The ideal opportunity will be the formal dinner our host has arranged for this evening. Think you're up to it Mr. Spock?"
"Indeed, Captain. It should be most enlightening."
"According to Mr. Ryhanen, the invitation includes all my senior officers. Scotty's still doing the final tests on the transporter but if everything checks out, he'll be beaming down with Uhura and Sulu."
"Sounds like a reunion, Jim." McCoy said, with a grin, cheering up. "Are we expected to be on our best behaviour or can we let our hair down at this junket?"
"The usual rules apply, Doctor." Kirk tried to sound stern but failed, his hazel eyes suddenly alight. He pushed his qualms about the strangeness of Sassandran back down into his subconscious. "Ryhanen's roped in half of his administrative staff, some of the residents at Castle Cloud, as well as the more prominent colonists presently on Sassandran. Our reputation is on the line. Discretion should be our byword."
"Dha'kaht'chun's have a philosophy of eudemonism, Doctor McCoy. Ser Ryhanen has a reputation for tolerating only the best. I believe even your Lucullan tastes will be effectively gratified."
"If that's a fancy way of saying we're going to eat and drink something apart from reconstituted chicken and synthetic coffee, then I'm all for it." McCoy declared. "A little self-indulgence is better than no indulgence at all in my book. Of course as the Enterprise' resident party-pooper, I suppose you'll stick to the usual mixed vegetables, salad, and rice bread, Spock?"
"My dietary needs are simple, Doctor McCoy, I do not pretend otherwise. I see no reason to overeat and disrupt my digestive system. However, if you wish to gorge yourself, please do not let my attendance interfere."
"Why, thank you, Commander. I'm relieved to have your permission to enjoy myself."
"Gentlemen. Gentlemen." Kirk interceded, rolling his eyes ceiling-ward. "Shall we declare a cessation of hostilities, if only for this evening? Our strength lies in unity before Mr. Ryhanen, not open warfare."
Spock lifted his face, his eyes serene and unseeing. "Of course, Captain."
McCoy harrumphed in grumpy disapproval, still upset by his recent unnerving experience but unwilling to admit that his bad temper originated from that source. "If you say so, Jim. I just hope Ryhanen's not placed us next to each other at dinner, is all. If I'm to get indigestion, I'd like it to stem from the food I eat, not from your First Officer's disapproval of my gluttonous behaviour."
However, they had all underestimated the Dha'kaht'chun's desire to accommodate his guests. The main dining area was a haven of cosy warmth and subdued lighting, with the soft strains of a live ensemble playing from the gallery above. A long table, elegant with china and crystal, mixed with arrangements of fresh-cut, exotic alien flowers and candlelight was the centrepiece of the room. Yet, it was the view through the floor to ceiling transparent shielding out onto the wide balcony that grabbed Kirk and McCoy's immediate attention. Only a few feet from where they stood the mists surged and pitched in ghostly swells, cloaking everything in a sea of white vapours. Castle Cloud floated alone, a stone galleon upon an insubstantial ocean. An eerie beauty existed in that one startling vista. Looking at it, Kirk felt unexpectedly edgy, understanding very well how Bones had become so easily spooked.
Ryhanen Hekmatyer excused himself from other guests and immediately came to meet them. His was an imposing race indeed; splendidly handsome, his mahogany skin emphasized a neatly clipped beard, eyebrows and thick shoulder length hair of startling white. The Dha'kaht'chun's quicksilver eyes had an intelligent, vital quality and a startling magnetism difficult to overlook. He also topped Kirk by more than two feet, and had the towering build of a grizzly bear. At Hekmatyer's side, the three officers resembled offspring of a much lesser God.
Bowing graciously, he acknowledged them all with the utmost respect, asked after Spock's health and showed them to their places where the other members of the Enterprise' crew awaited them.
There were seventy guests in all. A throng of different races and species intermingled about the extended table. A glitteringly, smart assembly, sedately noisy, enjoying the luxury and extravagance orchestrated by their magnanimous host. Kirk studied them, his eyes roving nonchalantly as soon as he had seen Spock safely seated on his left. McCoy, despite his earlier protestations in Spock's room, sat on the First Officer's other side. Sulu took the chair on Kirk's right with Scotty and Uhura sitting in the chairs beside him. On the other side of the table Ryhanen, with his Andorian aides, two of his wives and twin daughters, formed a group of their own. An expectant silence fell as Ryhanen rose to his feet and faced his guests.
"As we are a multicultural assembly this evening, I have taken the liberty of selecting a variety of dishes for your pleasure. Please be reminded however that one man's meat may be another's poison, and take suitable care when tasting each other's specialities. I would not wish the occasion to end abruptly for anyone here…"
There came a smattering of wry laughter as Ryhanen regained his seat, followed by the disciplined entrance of a number of attendants and servers carrying various gastronomic delights from numerous worlds. Soon after came the sounds of silverware scraping fine china, the low tones of conversation, and the fragile ring of crystal as glasses were brought together in diverse toasts.
The smokey white wine, made from a native grape - a fat grey monster the size of a lemon - tasted superb. After his first glass, Kirk started to relax. It felt good to sit at a table finely prepared, lulled by the murmurs of contented diners, surrounded by the sounds of a room devoted to elegance and people who appreciated it. He glanced at Spock. The Vulcan's right hand crept unobtrusively to his plate guided by the placement of the silverware. Spock examined the heavy matt tablecloth and the dishes before him with his fingers. In front of him steamed freshly baked pri tarmeeli, harageel and yorakar. A heavy crystal goblet nearby contained the finest of Vulcan riman cordials. Spock apparently, would not get the chance to eat his mixed vegetables and salad that evening. McCoy, without drawing attention to the fact, quietly informed Spock not only what was on the plate before him but also where the food was placed - and received a murmured 'thank you' for his efforts.
Kirk, trading meaningful glances with the Ryhanen women across from him, especially the beautiful twin daughters, suddenly caught the eye of papa Ryhanen and addressed himself to his own meal of thick beef sirloin, devilled potatoes and baby vegetables. The erection he currently sported withered to nothing as the powerful, all seeing, all knowing glance, searched his soul and found him wanting. To distract that glowing, quicksilver consideration, he chewed thoughtfully on a chunk of rare beef before indicating the transparent shield holding the swirling mists of Wraith at bay.
"I understand that you own this planet, Mr Ryhanen. If you don't mind me saying, it seems a strange choice for a resort world given the abundance of other, more suitable, locations."
"Hekmatyer, if you please, Captain Kirk. Or may I call you, James?" At Kirk's nod, he smiled graciously, a flash of startling white in that otherwise dark face, an expression that came easily enough to the patrician features. "Not so strange, surely? Castle Cloud has everything anyone might want, the finest food, entertainments, gambling, good company and all the comforts of home."
"You also have wraiths, sir" McCoy interjected sharply, looking up from his meal of southern fried chicken with green beans, bacon and spoon bread.
"A myth only, I assure you, Doctor McCoy." Ryhanen's subterranean voice rumbled appreciatively. "There have been a number of studies into the wraith legend but nothing conclusive has ever been found."
"Perhaps you dismiss them too easily, Ser Ryhanen." Spock's eyebrow elevated as he stared directly at the Dha'kaht'chun. "There is copious evidence to support the stories, though much of it is, indeed, subjective. Twenty-five disappearances since Sassandran was … rediscovered, with eyewitness accounts of wraiths by the dozen."
"That is quite true, Commander Spock. Four bodies were found, horribly mutilated, as for the others … who knows? However, individual accounts cannot be classed as real evidence. This is a beautiful planet and people come here for many reasons, to climb the mountains, to hunt and fish. It is a wild place and I do not intend to tame it. If some of my guests are unwary and get hunted in their turn by dream-spiders in the forest, the rock daemons, and the fire lizards of the southern plains, among our many other native predators, they are adequately warned before they leave the protection of these walls."
"Surely your duty towards the safety of your visitors extends beyond a mere warning, Mr … Hekmatyer?"
"James, you must realise that some of my guests disembark here precisely because of the tales told about the wraiths. They are an incongruity in this technological age, a romanticist's dream, and an unsolved mystery. Some individuals are drawn to that. People die on your worlds every day. However, if they die here, apparently, it is because the wraiths lead them astray. No, gentlemen, it is not enough to convince me."
Ryhanen fell silent as the serving staff noiselessly reappeared, cleared away the used tableware, and brought on the next course. Again, Kirk found the food varied and superb. After months of shipboard synthetics, it came near to the sublime. The mistwine too, proved exceptional. He sipped at a second glass, appreciating the mellow, lingering flavour. Sensing eyes upon him from further down the long table, he took time out to gaze at his fellow diners again,. His gaze locked immediately with a young woman who continued to stare at him from out of large obsidian coloured eyes, a seemingly innocent appraisal, guileless and without implication. He raised his glass in amused salute, watching as she mirrored his toast, her perfect alabaster skin flushing a charming pale aquamarine at his attentiveness. He turned away smiling briefly, his attention centred once more on Ryhanen.
"What about the ruins, sir?" He asked. "I understand they're extensive and quite well preserved."
"Would that not add credence to the legends about the wraiths?" Spock enquired with the artless curiosity of one who seeks simply to decipher an intriguing conundrum.
"On my planet, Commander, this part of space - and Sassandran in particular - has long been regarded as the place where Dha'kaht'chun first began. Our homeworld, if you will, left long ago when this system's sun first started to fail. Those ruins are the homes of my ancestors, nothing more." Ryhanen picked up his glass and drank deeply. He dabbed genteelly at his lips with a napkin before continuing, mercurial eyes sweeping over them all. "The mists have a habit of playing tricks with the mind, gentlemen. It is easy to imagine that something inimical hides behind the vapours. Without the mists the wraith saga would have died long ago."
The coffee arrived in carafes of ornate silver accompanied by a pitcher of thick cream and flasks of Saurian and Armagnac brandies.
Ryhanen continued in his deep bass baritone. "All peoples have this need for a mystery, I believe. Did not Terra have its sea monster hiding beneath the waters of a dark lake? Moreover, on Vulcan, are there not tales told of a huge creature that lives beneath the desert sands? It has only rarely been observed, a glimpse here and there, but the conviction remains that it does indeed exist. Cognac Commander, or iced tea, perhaps? "
Spock, who had eaten sparingly even of the Vulcan dishes, covered the top of his glass with one hand, a winged brow shooting upward as he shook his head. "Sir, you are exceedingly well informed, and quite correct."
He discreetly smoothed the tension lines marring his forehead with the tip of an index finger. "Very little is known about the tcha-besheh, even now. However, our instruments, once we learned how to calibrate them, do suggest that it is real and not a figment of the Vulcan imagination."
McCoy leaned back in his chair brandy in hand and snorted cynically. "You surprise me, Spock. I didn't know Vulcans had any imagination."
"In that case I hope you have learned something advantageous, Doctor." Spock's comment was delivered without its usual sting. Rendered into a cat's emotionless mask, his face looked wan. McCoy raised an eyebrow, shooting Kirk a meaningful sideways glance.
Kirk picked up on McCoy's silent enquiry. He leaned in so that only the Vulcan could hear him, "Tired, Spock?"
Spock inclined his head, dark eyes heavy lidded, lips narrowed to a thin, pale line. "Somewhat, Captain."
"It's late. Perhaps you should call it a day. Go on, you need to rest. Get to bed. I'll see you in the morning."
Spock did not protest. "Thank you, sir. I believe I will."
Kirk, disturbed by Spock's uncharacteristic acquiescence, glanced at McCoy, "Bones…"
"With your permission Captain, I do not require Doctor McCoy's assistance. Please allow him to remain and enjoy the rest of the evening." Spock stood up, bowed in Ryhanen's direction. "Ser and Serai Ryhanen. Lieutenant Uhura. Gentlemen. The dinner was greatly pleasing. Thank you."
"Sleep well, Spock." Kirk's affectionate concern clearly warmed his voice.
Spock acknowledged him with a succinct dip of the head before turning casually away, his stride deceptively confident. All the same, McCoy, who still watched the Vulcan like a hawk, pushed himself out of his chair and followed a step or two behind until they were out of earshot of the rest of the guests.
"Spock, are you sure you can find your way alone?"
The First officer halted, half turned to face McCoy. "Perfectly sure, Doctor McCoy. There is no need for anxiety, I assure you. Please, return to the Captain."
McCoy, still worried, persisted. "C'mon, it'll only take five minutes to see you back to your room…"
Spock sighed audibly, "Doctor, I thought I had left my mother back on Vulcan."
"Grant me some self-respect, if you will…" He fixed McCoy with a glacial stare. "I happen to be blind not incapacitated. I am able to find my way on my own."
McCoy reassured by Spock's vehemence, retaliated in kind, "And I suppose you can even do it with your eyes closed, huh?"
"Your levity as always is unbecoming, Doctor. However, that is essentially the truth. Now, if you will be so kind as to return to your … merrymaking. I do not wish to keep you." Spock pivoted around without further ado. His steps faltered slightly giving the lie to his self-assurance as he fumbled for the wall.
"Well, if you happen to fall down a lift shaft and break your godamned stubborn Vulcan neck, don't come crying to me."