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The Enterprise was orbiting Mason's Resolve. Shore parties were flocking to its warm, inviting surface. Below decks, minor repairs were underway that would necessitate remaining in orbit for at least a week. All was...almost...right with Kirk's world.

He had been waiting with Doctor McCoy in the transporter room for the third member of their party, and after nearly ten minutes he was growing impatient. Spock suddenly arrived and positioned himself on the platform in icy silence.

"Better late than never," McCoy muttered.

Kirk held his tongue, and a moment later they materialized in a flower-strewn meadow. Taking a deep, satisfying breath of unprocessed atmosphere, he smiled. "Well, I have to admit. It feels good to set foot on solid ground again."

Spock raised a disinterested brow.

"This is be-yu-tiful!" McCoy crowed, flinging out his arms. "I think I'm fallin' in love."

If he had been within reach, Kirk might have poked his ship's surgeon for that "love" comment. But Kirk himself was already half sun-drunk, intoxicated by the warm, pollen-rich breeze stirring the wild blossoms. Turning around, he spied a squat stone building nestled into the hillside. "There it is, gentlemen-our destination."

McCoy knew all about the surprise Kirk was springing on their Vulcan friend. Eager to see Spock's reaction, McCoy charged toward the shady trees and tiered garden beds surrounding the home. Spock followed at a more dignified pace, maintaining his show of indifference all the way to the porch. A pair of striped, catlike creatures retreated into the shadows as Kirk knocked on a bright red door.

The door eased open, revealing a short, wizened man of Asian descent. His dark eyes sparkled, and the wispy beard on his chin perfectly matched his gray hair.

"Hotaka!" Spock blurted. After a fleeting, incredulous half-smile, he bowed respectfully to the chess master of galactic renown, and Hotaka returned the gesture.

Kirk laughed softly in relief. "Spock, I see there's no need for me to introduce you. Hotaka, this other man is my chief surgeon, Leonard McCoy. And of course I am Captain Kirk."

Hotaka bowed twice more. "Gentlemen, I am most honored. Please...come into my humble home."

They entered the dim, cool interior. The living room was tastefully furnished with padded cane furniture and intricately designed rugs. In one corner, an inlaid chess table and four chairs awaited them. The board was set with antique pieces reflecting Earth's medieval age.

Kirk silently congratulated himself. Arranging this match weeks earlier over subspace radio must have been an inspiration. But first, a bit of tea and conversation. As they sat speaking, the ancient chess master displayed the mental vitality for which he was famous, and Spock responded with rare animation.

"Enough chatter," Hotaka said at last. "I have made you wait too long." Smiling, he rose and motioned toward the chess table. "Who wishes to challenge me?"

Kirk went over and pulled out a player's chair. "Spock, you first." He was in no hurry to display his own questionable skill.

Spock accepted the seat, and Hotaka settled opposite him. One Vulcan eyebrow rose. "Traditional chess?" he noted with some disdain, having long since abandoned the two-dimensional format for the more challenging tri-dimensional game.

Hotaka searched the Vulcan's eyes. "It is my habit to study a new opponent in this manner. I do not belittle your skill, Mister Spock, but rather celebrate simplicity."

Spock's gaze dropped, and the stony Vulcan mask settled into place. Gone was the near awe-stricken admiration for the master; Spock clearly intended to win. Fingering an ivory pawn, he opened the game.

Hotaka countered with a dark pawn of his own. On the twelfth move, he said, "Checkmate."

Spock stared at his hopelessly trapped king, face devoid of all expression. Kirk glanced at McCoy and held his breath. It was not so much that Spock had lost, but that he was beaten so easily after voicing a subtle disregard for two-dimensional chess.

It seemed a nerve-wracking eternity before Spock looked into the Asian's deep-set eyes and stiffly admitted defeat. "Sir. You are truly a master. Will you honor me with a rematch?"

Kirk held his breath as the chessmen were set back into their orderly ranks. Then a new game began. As move followed move, he sat warring against a wild urge to whisper strategies into Spock's elegantly pointed ear. Though Spock was the highest rated player in Starfleet, never had he performed so miserably. A mere fourteen moves, and he was routed.

"Checkmate," Hotaka said.

Spock's terrible gaze remained fixed on the ebony and ivory pieces, his Vulcan complexion flushing to a sickly olive green. What had been meant as a pleasant diversion, had suddenly taken on shades of horror.

Then it happened.

With a savage swipe of his right arm, Spock sent the chess men skittering across the floor. Bolting from his chair, he strode out the door and slammed it behind him like a petulant child.

The three men sat in stunned silence. Hotaka, having no experience by which to judge Spock's behavior, was therefore the least shocked and first to speak.

"I apologize if I offended him in some manner."

"You apologize?" McCoy huffed. "He had no call to act like that. And if you'll excuse me, I intend to tell him so."

After the doctor left, Kirk began collecting the scattered remnants of Spock's tantrum.

"Captain, that is not necessary," Hotaka told him.

"But it is," Kirk insisted, his face burning with embarrassment. "I can't apologize enough for my first officer's rudeness. Believe me, sir, this is completely unlike him."

Taking leave of the chess master, he joined McCoy, who was out circling the grove like an angry parent.

"Jim, I checked, and he hasn't beamed up," McCoy reported. Putting his hands beside his mouth, he shouted, "Spock, come out of there! What in blazes has gotten into you?"

Some inner sense told Kirk that McCoy was right; Spock was still somewhere nearby. Something also told him that Spock would stay out of sight until McCoy was gone. Pulling out his communicator, he had the doctor transported back to the Enterprise. He was considering just how he would deal with his second-in-command when Spock came wandering out of the thicket and leaned against a tree.

Kirk closed the distance in a few strides, but his ready reproach died on his lips. It was clearly a struggle for Spock even to stand. The Vulcan shook with tremors as he clutched the tree trunk behind him for support.

"You're sick," Kirk said, reaching for him.

"No, don't touch me," Spock gasped. "It...it will pass in a moment."

Once again Kirk drew out his communicator and flipped it open. "You're going straight to sickbay."

"No." Spock shook his head forcefully, wincing as from some internal pain. "McCoy cannot help me, no doctor can."

Kirk's thoughts shifted back to another place, another time, when Spock stood before him flushed and strained from a very personal agony. Had it been seven years? That time, Kirk had drawn the truth from him bit by painful bit. That time, Kirk had managed to save him.

Forget apologies. Forget everything. All that mattered now was Spock. In a moment, they were aboard ship. Had the Vulcan allowed it, Kirk would have carried him from the transporter room to his cabin, but there was still Vulcan pride, and somehow Spock walked the distance, scarcely staggering until the end. Once inside his private quarters, he collapsed on his bed and curled in on himself, shuddering uncontrollably.

The room was hot by human standards. Kirk read the temperature at 100 degrees, and promptly boosted it by another ten. He arranged a blanket over Spock, then lowered the lights to a restful level and brought him a glass of water.

Spock refused it. "Lock me away," he said.  

Setting the water on a bedside table, Kirk quietly told him, "I'm calling for a doctor. Who will it be-McCoy or M'Benga?"

"Neither," he snapped. "Don't you understand? Must I say it?"

Kirk turned from the wrenching sight of his friend's torment. He had known this might be coming. Inside every Vulcan ticked a biological clock, and Spock's human genes did not always deter it. The normal reproductive drive followed a seven year cycle, stripping away rationality in a fierce mating drive that, if thwarted, would culminate in death. A Vulcan in pon farr had little more than a week to find a suitable mate and join with her. Unfortunately the Enterprise was nearly three weeks from Vulcan.

"How long have you known?" Kirk asked.

"With absolute certainty, two days."

"It was you who ransacked this cabin."

"Yes," Spock admitted.

The Vulcan's voice was steadier now. Kirk looked at him hopefully and found that the distress had eased, just as Spock predicted. For a moment he let himself believe that Spock might master this. And if not, there was an obvious remedy at hand.

"Spock, we have women aboard ship who might be willing to help you. Chris Chapel. Uhura."

Spock gave a short, chilling laugh. "If only it were so simple. The pon farr demands more than a...joining of bodies. It demands a degree of mental bonding-a link that can only be achieved between Vulcans."

"Oh? Your father seems to have managed quite nicely with your human mother."

"Mother is exceptional. Even so, it took Sarek time to develop their natural mental affinity."

Kirk argued, "But even the two of us have some mental affinity. "Try melding with the women. Uhura's esper rating is pretty high, and..."

"And Christine longs to pleasure me," Spock noted dryly. "No, Jim. What you suggest is abhorrent. I will not...make use...of a female crewmate and then simply continue on, as before. There would be...lifelong complications." And so saying, he turned to the wall.

***

Back on the bridge, Kirk struggled to devise a solution. He did some of his best thinking in the comfortable upholstery of the command chair, and fortunately, Orella was busy elsewhere. Not only was she exquisitely distracting, but her presence would only have reminded him of his earlier unfounded suspicions.

Turning to the communications board, he watched Uhura carry out a quiet search for all unattached Vulcan females within a week's radius. She looked understandably concerned. Though Kirk had not offered any explanation for the search, she suspected that Spock was in trouble, and her captain's odd request held about as much chance of success as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.



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