1. Chapter 1 by sixbeforelunch
2. Chapter 2 by sixbeforelunch
3. Chapter 3 by sixbeforelunch
There were many things, many patients, that Veral should have been focused on, but all he could think of was how much his back ached.
His back ached, indirectly, because he was tall. He had always been large. At ten, he had grown so much in three months that his mother had taken him to a doctor to rule out a growth disorder. There was none. By fifteen, he was the tallest person in every room he entered, and that had not changed since.
He was accustomed to it. He had overcome the self-consciousness of towering over the people around him. He had grown used to ducking through doors. Yet today, he was more frustrated with trying to live in a world that was too small for him than he could ever remember being.
Biobeds in particular had become far more of an aggravation than he should have allowed. In theory, they were height adjustable. In practice, Starfleet had not engineered them for someone who was two hundred and one point three centimeters tall, and even at their greatest height, he had to stoop, always, to treat his patients. And so his back ached.
It was a small thing, it was barely worth considering, and yet he could not stop thinking about it.
He maneuvered with the grace of long practice around a Trill female being moved into post-operative recovery and entered the crowded front-line trauma ward where he had worked for the past two years. Now that the treaty had been signed, they were crowded, but no longer overcrowded. It was an improvement, and he should have been gratified. He was not.
He tried to ignore the ache in his back as examined the chart of his newest patient. His name was Hara and he was a Betazoid male, smaller than average for his species and sex, but athletic and strong, and previous to this in good health. He had been sent to the Eian, the medical ship where Veral had served almost since the war had begun, for a problem with his lungs that his small ship did not have the resources to diagnose.
"Did you figure it out yet?" Hara asked. He used his mind to communicate. He was fortunate to be able to. Talking caused severe coughing spells.
Veral responded in kind. "No. I am going to take a sample of your lung tissue."
"That sounds unpleasant." Hara's tawny skin had an ashen undertone and his black eyes were half-closed. His lips were cracked and dry, because drinking also caused him to cough until he wheezed. He was not yet on IV fluids, but would need to be soon. The chart said that he was a ground combat specialist. He looked very small and helpless in his hospital gown, with half of his chest bared so that Veral could biopsy his lung.
Veral loaded a hypospray, did a drug-dose-patient check, and said, "You will feel a great deal of pressure, but only a small amount of pain. If you would prefer, I can render you unconscious for the procedure, but it will take longer and require more drugs. I would prefer to minimize the medication we give you until we understand your condition."
"It's fine," Hara said. He closed his eyes. Veral could feel him casting about for a mental anchor, another mind to connect to during a frightening time. Veral considering lessening his own mental shielding and immediately dismissed the idea. It was unpleasant to have a stranger touch his unshielded mind, especially one scared and in pain. He gave much to his patients, but had a right to keep his mind to himself.
The war had made him calloused.
Veral pressed the hypospray to Hara's side, between the two ribs where he would insert the probe. This ward was a terrible place for a Betazoid. It was not a conducive place to healing for anyone, in fact, though raising that issue with colleagues resulted in either a shrug of the shoulders or a long rant about trying to practice medicine in a converted cargo bay, and raising it with administrators gained one nothing but a lecture on limited resources.
Still, it was worse for some. Vulcans fared poorly with the lack of privacy, Trill always struggled to sleep even with medication, and Betazoids were beset by the suffering minds all around them which left them even more agitated than they would otherwise have been.
Thirty seconds had passed. Veral checked the readings on the biobed, then confirmed them by testing the skin where he had injected the medication, pinching it not gently. Hara did not react. He had felt no pain, but he was very scared. Veral could sense him still casting around for a mental anchor. He wouldn't find one. The other telepaths in the room were too ill to help.
Veral lessened his mental shielding. His right to keep his mind entirely to himself was not greater than his responsibility to his patients. Hara gripped his mind at once, like a Vulcan greatly in need of comfort might grasp the hand of a near friend or relation.
Veral readied the biopsy probe. A passing nurse stilled his hand. He reached across and turned on the sterile field of the biobed, and gave Veral a look that clearly asked if he was trying to give his patient an infection, before running off to help another patient who was vomiting over the edge of her bed. Veral stared after him and then, gathering himself, ran a mental double check of everything that he had done so far. Hara, fortunately, had not been permitted so far as to read his thoughts. He was not aware of the error.
"The anticipation is not helping," Hara said.
Veral hunched over to perform the procedure and tried to give the man the reassurance that he did not himself feel.
T'Nirin's office was not decorated in a Vulcan style. It was first of all colored in shades of blue and gray, like everything that Starfleet Medical designed. It was also soft, with chairs that offered no proper support. The art work on the wall was what was called watercolor. Many species appeared to find it soothing. Veral found the indistinct shapes and blurred lines difficult to look at for very long.
T'Nirin was seated at her desk. She nodded to the chair across from her.
"What is this about?" Veral asked, seating himself. Asking unnecessary questions was a bad habit he had picked up from his non-Vulcan colleagues. T'Nirin had placed the meeting on his schedule, so logically she would tell him why she had called him in. He was unable to figure out the reason. T'Nirin was a senior counselor, and he had no patients who needed more than usual psychiatric care at the moment.
T'Nirin met his eyes. She was almost as fair skinned as he was and had red-brown hair, but it was her eyes that one noticed. They were dark blue, a rare shade for a Vulcan.
He could sense that her mental shielding was very limited. She had greater training in the mental disciplines than he. Her lack of mental shielding was deliberate. Once one had been through healer's training at Gol and worked in the medical field for a time, one had to make a conscious choice to not shield one's mind.
This was about him. She wanted access to his mind without being so blunt as to ask him for it. He considered, for a moment, not responding as he was expected to. Yet if he passively refused her request, she would simply ask, and likely press him to meld with her. He had no patience for having his mind invaded today.
Veral lessened the many layers of shielding in his mind. T'Nirin, in addition to being more skilled in the mental disciplines than any other Vulcan on the ship, was also at the very high end, for a Vulcan, of the psi-receptive spectrum. It was not as invasive as a meld, but he was still exposed before her.
For a time, neither of them spoke. T'Nirin stared at him, studying him like a specimen. Veral kept his eyes on the stone statue that sat behind her. It was red-gold in color, and an abstract representation of a sharva flock. It was the only thing in the room that was in any way restful to look at.
After several minutes, Veral met her eyes. "Have you found what you are looking for yet?"
He spoke too sharply, and his aggravation would be plain to her.
"I have been informed," T'Nirin said, "that Starfleet is going to begin the process of sending personnel home within three days. In the normal course, the reduction will begin with unskilled enlisted service members whose services are no longer needed." Veral mentally translated this. The people who had joined to fight, been taught little more than how to aim a weapon and fire it, and had no function in a peacetime Starfleet, were being sent home before they could cause trouble.
There had been no Federation-level draft, but a number of planets, including Vulcan, had their own war-time service requirements which they had chosen to enforce, often drafting their people into planetary military or police forces, and then placing those forces temporarily under the command of Starfleet. People who had been coerced into joining did not constitute a population that one wished to see kept at their posts a moment beyond what was necessary. They grew restless and angry at being kept in forced service once the threat had passed. Those few that wished to stay on often had simply grown too accustomed to fighting to remember any other way, and needed to be returned home even more urgently than those who wanted out.
"Skilled civilians who enlisted only for the duration of the war will be sent after them, but it may take time." A number of engineers, scientists, and other skilled professionals had joined or been drafted also. They also would want to be sent home, but there were fewer of them, and their skills were still needed. Starfleet would be slower about discharging them because it could make the case for their continued service. Ships needed to be fixed. People needed to be treated.
"Medical professionals will be among the last to go home," Veral said.
T'Nirin nodded slightly. "Perhaps. It is a political matter, being debated at every level. Federation member planets lent their forces to Starfleet, they did not give them over permanently. They can recall them at any time, and will shortly do so, especially if they think Starfleet is too slow in releasing their people. Service contracts that volunteers signed with Starfleet are going to be contested. They worded the contract badly, and there is a question even now as to whether or not volunteers are required to stay on a moment beyond the signing of the treaty. For now it is said that they are, but if the Federation Council places enough pressure on Starfleet Command, that may change."
She leaned forward in her chair. Her hands were laced together and rested on her desk. "Whether we are here for six weeks or six months is hard to say. The politics and logistics are complex."
Was this what she had brought him here to tell him? He did not expect to leave simply because the war was over, not when they still had so many patients to care for.
She continued, "Some of us, however, need to return home, and cannot wait for the politicians and bureaucrats. I want you to apply for a compassionate early leave. I will see that it is approved."
"That is unnecessary," Veral said. T'Nirin's eyebrow flickered slightly as she sensed him close off his mind to her, but she said nothing. "There is no reason for me to leave while my colleagues remain."
T'Nirin had partially closed off her mind as well, but he could still sense her disappointment. She had hoped this would go another way. Did she think he would eagerly grasp the chance to abandon his duty?
"You are not well," T'Nirin said.
"This conversation is a waste of your time and mine. I have patients to attend to." Hara's biopsy had come back and revealed a never before seen prion destroying his lung tissue. Veral had only begun to formulate a treatment plan.
"You are growing incapable of caring for them properly," T'Nirin said. Her face had become closed off, and her eyes were hard, but she had not completely walled off her mind. Her disappointment in him seemed like condescension. Who was she to judge him in this way?
Veral did not speak until he had mastered his anger. "You are questioning my competency as a doctor."
"No. I am questioning your ability to continue to do your work at this time." She paused, but not long enough for him to reply. "Yesterday, you would have performed a biopsy without a sterile field in place if not for the intervention of a nurse. Two days before that, you very nearly gave a Terran cyanide to treat his headache." Veral pressed his lips together. He had gotten confused for a moment and mistaken his Terran patient for a Bolian two beds over. Another doctor had caught the error before he had administered the drug, but it had been a near thing.
"There have been smaller mistakes, less dangerous, prior to this. It is a pattern of increasing inattentiveness and it is going to kill someone." Her face softened. "You are an excellent doctor, but you are exhausted, and it is showing in your work."
She paused, and when he said nothing, continued, "You struggle with your control."
"We all struggle with our control. This place taxes it." The emotional races would not have noticed, but there was not a Vulcan on the ship who had not been seen to have their control slip at least once.
"Yes. We make allowances for each other. But I think you are struggling more than the others. Your behavior remains appropriate, but if you are using a large portion of your mental energy simply to keep your emotions from overwhelming you, how much do you have left for your patients?"
He did not reply, and stared again at the statue behind her, studying the contrast between rough and smooth stone, the sweep of the lines.
"How long have you suffered from nightmares?"
His eyes went to her in surprise. Was that a logical guess, or did she somehow know? Perhaps his roommate had said something? Was he crying out in his sleep?
Veral closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and forced himself to look at her. "Six months, perhaps. I do not recall precisely when they started."
"How much do you sleep in a week?"
"Perhaps twenty five hours, on average. Sometimes as much as thirty."
"That is too little."
"It is enough for a Vulcan to function."
"For six or eight weeks. So little sleep, consistently over a long period of time, do you think it adequate? And if that sleep is often interrupted by nightmares, does that not make it even more a matter of concern?"
Perhaps it was the difficulty of the conversation, or having how little he really slept presented to him in no uncertain terms, but he found himself very tired. It was all he could do not to lean back in his chair.
When he did not reply, T'Nirin said, "Your wife suffered severe chemical burns one point four years ago."
"She is on Vulcan, recovering." She had been released from the hospital four months ago, but she still suffered from attacks of severe pain.
"It is nevertheless a stressor, and must have been a very great one shortly after it happened."
He acknowledged this with a nod. He recalled the day he had found out. He had known for hours that something was wrong, but at such a distance as had then been between T'Lin and himself, the bond was a faint thing. It was not until the real-time subspace call from Vulcan that he had found out the extent of it. It remained the only time in his entire two years on the Eian that he had not worked his full scheduled shift. The doctor in charge of the ward had sent him back to his quarters, and he had not objected.
T'Nirin placed a PADD on the desk in front of him. "You have not slept properly in years. Your wife was badly injured. You suffer from nightmares. You are compassionate to everyone except yourself. You think that you are failing if you hold anything back from your patients, and so you have been working as hard as you can since you arrived. You have used all of your resources, mental and physical. Now you are becoming a danger to your patients and doing harm to yourself by remaining here."
She fell quiet, and they sat in silence for several minutes more. Veral turned her words over and over in his mind, trying to see an error in her reasoning. There was none.
He forced himself to speak. "Your argument is well presented. I will take your suggestion under advisement."
She was correct. She was incorrect about him leaving--he could not possibly leave when so much work remained--but she was correct that he was over-working himself and making mistakes. He would be more careful. He would fill out the request to please T'Nirin, and then he would allow himself more time to rest, and perhaps try to find some way to reduce his caseload, and this idea would be dismissed and he would be able to continue at his duties.
"I have patients to see," he said.
"You do not. I have placed you on leave. There is a Vulcan transport ship scheduled to pass nearby in two days. It will stop here to pick you up. You will see no more patients."
The weight of what she was saying settled on him slowly, but with great force. The request to Starfleet, it was merely cover to save him the humiliation of being sent home in disgrace. Whether he filled out the form or not, he was being removed from his post. Somehow, he could not be grateful to her for allowing him to leave with some dignity intact.
He was cold. He had been cold since he arrived on the Eian, but it struck him with force as he sat under the unwavering gaze of T'Nirin.
Hara had a communicable prion disease transmitted by contact with infected tissue. Without the sterile field, he could have done worse than give the man an infection. He might have exposed others to the disease.
If his error hadn't been caught in time, he could have killed his Terran patient. The amount of cyanide that acted as a mild analgesic for a Bolian would be so toxic to a Terran that even if the mistake had been realized immediately, an antidote might not have been effective.
T'Nirin touched the PADD. "There is no shame in this. You have served well. You have brought honor to your clan and your house. Now you must go home and heal yourself."
That was a lie. She should have done him the dignity of not telling him the sort of reassuring platitudes that she used for the emotional races, but he found he did not have the energy to say so. Veral picked up the PADD. "Am I to tell Starfleet all that we have discussed?" The thought of having his failure filed away on a Starfleet computer was not appealing.
"You may, if you like," T'Nirin said. "Or you could simply tell them about your wife."
Veral shook his head. "T'Lin is in the care of her family. She has a number of physicians who are attending to her case. She has no need of me."
"Starfleet hardly knows that. They will not question the request, especially not if I sign my name to it."
Veral forced himself to his feet and left without a word. He found himself back in his quarters hardly aware of having walked there. The room was empty when he arrived. He sat on the too-small bottom bunk that had been his bed since he arrived, having to stoop so that he did not hit his head on the bottom of the top bunk, and stared at the floor between his feet.
Sarlah nash-veh dvin-tor. I come to serve.
He had failed to serve. He had nearly killed one patient. He had put another at risk for infection--had put any one else who could have come in contact with the infected tissue at risk. He committed an unknown number of other errors without noticing them, and he had not even had the sense to see how much of a danger he was becoming.
He took the PADD and began to fill out the form. It was a weakness to lie to protect himself. It would have been a fitting punishment for his shame to be known. Yet, he did as T'Nirin had suggested, and wrote only of his wife in his request. Was he a coward as well, to hide behind T'Lin? It seemed he was. When he was done, he sent it to T'Nirin without reading it over.
Where was he to go? To T'Lin? She was with her family, just recently having regained some measure of health. Her disgraced husband was a weight on her that she did not need or deserve. His parents? His sense of what was due to them was too great to allow him to return to their door in his present state, with only failure to show for all their many efforts and sacrifices to raise him.
To Gol, then. He was a healer-adept, and having completed his training gave him the right to return to the monastery at any time.
He lay down on the bed. His exhaustion was so great that he was asleep in minutes. He dreamed of returning home to Vulcan, to the home of Selesh, his closest friend. The private sitting area was covered in blood. Selesh and his family were lying dead, and Veral knew, with the certainty of dream knowledge, that he might have saved them if he had tried harder.
The corridors of the Eian were crowded, as they always were, but there was no frenetic activity in them now. His bag was light, but knocked against his leg no matter how he held it. It contained only a few possessions: a PADD; a meditation mat and lamp, which he had used only rarely, finding it hard to find both time and privacy; a sleep tunic made of fine soft fabric and embroidered by a cousin who was a textile artist, which he had slept in only a few times, preferring scrubs as they allowed him to respond to alarms more quickly; and a book of essays given to him by T'Lin shortly before his departure, which he had never found time to read.
He could as easily have come with nothing.
No one accompanied him to the transporter room. No one had approached him to say goodbye, and even his roommate had been conspicuously absent. The story which had been communicated between his colleagues was only that he was going home to his wife. Being doctors, most of them knew something of pon farr, and had leapt to that conclusion. The Vulcans were better informed, knowing the symptoms and that he had none, and also some of them being aware that his marriage was less than three years old--even those so unfortunate as to have a very rapid pon farr cycle did not burn again so soon. But they would not have approached him in any case. Leave taking of that sort between work colleagues was not the Vulcan way.
He found himself relieved to have been spared any sort of attention before his departure, and was therefore not pleased when T'Nirin fell into step beside him.
"Where do you intend to go?" she asked.
She nodded. "A wise choice. Who was your mentor when you studied there?"
He could see no reason why she wished to know, but he saw no reason not to answer either. "Xhenat."
"I know of her. She is an excellent healer. With your permission, I will contact her about you."
His step nearly faltered. His failure was to follow him to Gol as well. He wished to object, but his conscience would not allow it. He had to right no try to run from his shame, nor was he quite that much of a coward. "You may do so."
They stopped at the door to the transporter room. T'Nirin raised her hand in the ta'al. "Live long and prosper, Veral."
He had at that moment no desire to do the one and no right to do the other, but he gave only the appropriate response. "Peace and long life, T'Nirin."
The transition from chill and dull colors of the Eian to the warmth of the Vulcan transport ship was welcome, but the increase in gravity nearly made him stumble though he had prepared himself for it.
He was the only person who had beamed aboard the ship. As he walked through the corridors to his assigned room, no one on the ship seemed even to notice his presence. A few people were speaking quietly as he passed, but their conversations were too soft to hear the words. He had not realized until that moment how much he had missed quiet, and being politely ignored. He found his quarters with no difficulty, and unpacked his few items. It would be six days before he was back on his home planet, assuming no unexpected delays, and in these times there were always unexpected delays. The room was small, but colorfully decorated and comfortable. There was a replicator in one corner. The food served in the dining area would be better, but he had no desire to leave his quarters.
He was ragged, exhausted, and not of use to anyone. He certainly was not fit to be in public.
He set out his meditation mat and lamp and settled onto the floor. For the first time since he had been a very young child, he found himself unwilling to meditate. There was a temptation instead to sit and stare at nothing, and avoid facing the unpleasant facts of his life. He ignored it. A failure he may be, but he was still Vulcan, raised in the disciplines, and with the honor of his clan to uphold. He did not give in to petty desires. Straightening into the first meditative position, he forced his mind to action.
He slipped with ease into the tal t'li, the first stage, but scarcely had he achieved it when the thought came to him. Had an error gone unnoticed? Had he harmed one of his patients?
No, he had not. He had made mistakes in his career, but none which had killed or irreparably harmed someone.
Intrusive thoughts were common in the first stage, and it should have been easy to dismiss, but he found that the longer he wrestled with this one, he larger it grew. Frustrated, he gave up the fight, and allowed his mind to dwell on it. If he could not dismiss it, he would bring it into focus, and logic would break it down.
But logic failed. No, logic itself did not fail, his logic was faulty. He could not reason properly. He fell into circles, every time he thought he had conquered the problem, it would come back to him in another form.
How did he know? Was one of his former patients even now walking around, soon to die or come to harm because of something he had done?
Reason told him that, in the end, he could not know, but as long as he was satisfied that he had done his best, he could be at peace.
How could he possibly be satisfied after what had transpired?
Eventually, he grew weary, and he let his hands fall from the meditative position. He checked the time. Over an hour had passed, and meditation had brought him nothing but frustration. His fists were clenched. He relaxed them.
He stood up, wondering what he was supposed to do now, if he could not even use logic properly. His eyes fell on his PADD. All of T'Lin's letters were saved on it.
He pulled them up. The ones that she had written after her injury...no, he could not. He truly was a coward for he could not bear to read those words, with all of her suffering the more apparent for the things that she left unsaid.
He chose instead one of the first letters that she had written to him.
To Veral the son of Skan, on the starship Eian, written by T'Lin the daughter of T'Lyra, on the space station Rega 10, on the seventh day of Khuti in the year as counted from the founding of Seleya, 14,804--
You are correct that from an aesthetic standpoint, there is little difference in surgery to correct facial features and work done to repair the unattractive elements of a building, but there is something more than aesthetics at work in the face of a person. Do as you prefer, but your features are to me entirely as they should be, and cannot possibly be improved on.
He stopped reading, added illogical concern with appearance to his list of failings, and closed the letter. He wanted now only to sleep, but with the nightmares even that was not a refuge. A Vulcan raised in the disciplines he might be, but he gave into temptation. He stared up at the ceiling and tried his best to think of nothing at all. Even that was denied to him. He could not stop ideas, illogical, shameful, from coming into his mind. He passed several hours in the company of ever darker thoughts, and then sleep, and the nightmares, claimed him.
It was often forgotten that Gol was a modern, inhabited city. The monastery at Gol was so large and so prominent that in common parlance, "Gol" had come always to refer to the monastery. The city of Gol, though, had a non-adept population of nearly eighty thousand, and all of the train stations, hospitals, libraries, and other services that one would expect to serve a population of that size.
Gol, city and monastery both, was notoriously hard to navigate. The monastery was the work of innumerable generations. In the ancient past, when it had first begun to be built, it had not been well planned, or in fact planned at all, and it was laid out in an entirely disorganized manner. The city had come up around it, later, fitting itself around the walls of the monastery. Viewed from above, the two entities appeared tangled together.
The morning sun was already high when Veral arrived at the monastery gates. The region where Gol was located was one of the hottest places on the planet, and the city was only inhabitable because it was built into the side of a mountain, and received shade in the afternoon, and water from underground rivers located deep below the surface. It was hot enough now, before the sun dipped below the mountain top, that he had raised the hood of his robes, though the feel of the sun on his head was still a great pleasure after the Eian
The two guards stationed at either side of the gates were watching him. They were young and fit, nearly matched in height. One had bronze skin, the other deep brown, and both had shaved heads. They were armed with lirpas, because of tradition rather than any concern that someone might try to break through the monastery gates.
It was strange to stand here. He had come as a student, just over five years ago, and had left a healer-adept a year later. It had been difficult, but he had also come to peace with many things here. He had learned to fully accept the loss of his first bondmate, to grieve for what could have been, and look forward to what was now to be. He had learned to stop being frustrated when others, sometimes even Vulcans, saw his size and his rough features and made an assumption about who he was before they knew anything else about him. He had accepted that his father spoke the entire truth when he said that he was proud of his decision to study medicine, and that any disappointment that his son had not chosen to study history as he had was slight in comparison to how gratified he was to see him successful in his chosen field.
Those problems, though, seemed now simple. Not small or insignificant--the death of Najin, his first bondmate, had affected him profoundly, and her loss would always be something that pained him--but more straightforward.
His tangled mental state now was proving harder to un-knot. It was not simply a matter of allowing himself to grieve for an ending, or accepting something that he could not change, or no longer coloring a plain fact with emotional reasoning. It was all of these things, and many other besides. The weight of his failure and shame still seemed unbearable, and though he tried to reason with himself that they were larger in his mind than in reality, he found himself daily more convinced of his complete failure not only as a doctor, but as a son and a husband and indeed as a person.
The nightmares continued. In desperation, and relieved of his responsibility to be always on call, he had replicated for himself a sleep aid, but the first he had tried had made his nightmares worse, and left him scarcely able to wake up from them so that he was trapped inside of them until he could claw his way back to consciousness. The second was designed to interfere with memory formation, so that he did not remember if he did dream. Yet, the sleep was so deep that it left him with a sensation of vulnerability, as though he could not wake even if he needed to, and the difficulty forming memories continued for up to two hours after waking. The resulting mental blanks were disconcerting.
Traveling here, he had foolishly turned Gol into a place where he could fix his flaws. He would come, and he would find logic again. Here now, faced with the concrete reality of the place, he knew with certainty that coming here was only the first step in a very long journey.
He stepped forward.
"What do thou seek?" the guard asked in Old High Vulcan.
"I seek logic, peace, and rest," Veral responded in the same tongue.
"Enter," the other guard said. The gate opened just enough for one person to pass through. "May thou find what thou seek."
He passed through the high stone arches, into the primary courtyard. Vulcan ships and cities seemed quiet to him after the noise of the Eian, but the silence here was of another quality altogether. He paused for a moment, and let it settle into him.
He had come to Gol, as custom demanded, possessing only the plain white robe and boots that he currently wore. He had placed the small bag of possessions that he had brought back from The Eian into storage in the city.
There was no risk of getting lost here, despite the way the paths seemed to wander in confusion. He had walked the courtyards and walkways of the monastery many times in his year at Gol, at all hours of the day and night. He had walked to rest his mind after a long session of training, or to exercise his body after sitting still for hours.
He passed the staircase that led into the mountain where the kolinahr adepts studied, turned and went through the largest of the many courtyards, where the most accomplished adepts sat and answered questions of those who had only begun their training, and often also debated among themselves. The cloister of the healer-adepts lay a little beyond, and when he entered it, the smell of bar-kas spice made him remember, vividly, the experience of sitting out until the dawn debating ethics and philosophy with his fellow students. If was the first time he had been overwhelmed with a good memory, and he stood breathing in the scent of bar-kas and allowing himself to take pleasure in it for a few minutes.
Several students sat in meditation in the open area. Most did not take notice of him as he passed. Xhenat had sent him a message while he was still on the transport ship, asking to see him as soon as he arrived. He climbed the stairs to her office, which overlooked the courtyard below.
The aide who sat outside of her office waved him past. Xhenat was standing with her back to him, looking out at the students. She turned when he entered and looked him over. He wondered, not for the first time, how old she was. Her short, tightly curled hair was still mostly dark though streaks of white cut through it, and her dark skin remained smooth, but her eyes seemed to carry centuries in them.
She gestured him closer. He was so tall, and she so short, that he had to sit before she could reach out her hand and touch his mind. She did not seek out the parts of his mind that were raw and in pain, but she could not touch him without brushing against some of what he now struggled with.
Her control was excellent, as befitted a healer-adept of her standing, but he thought he saw pain in her eyes when she dropped her hand. She too was disappointed in him.
"War," she said, allowing disgust into her voice. "We will be a long time treating these wounds."
He was uncertain how to respond, and decided to speak the truth. "I will be of no use in treating them."
"You will be. You are not now, because you are suffering so acutely from them yourself."
"I do not suffer from the wounds of war. I did not fight."
She stared at him. It seemed to him that he was more exposed before Xhenat even than he had been before T'Nirin, but he found her examination of him oddly comforting.
"Why have you come to Gol?"
"To find logic."
"Why have you come to Gol?" This he remembered from his days as a student. She would ask the question until she was satisfied with the truth of his answer.
He tried again. "To find peace."
"Why have you come to Gol?"
"Why have you come to Gol?"
What more could he say? Why had he come to Gol? He found on examination that he did not entirely know.
"Do not think, only answer. Why have you come to Gol?"
"To be out of the way," he said, and then blinked in surprise.
"Ah." She clasped her hands behind her back. "You suffer greatly from the wounds of war, and you do not yet see it. I do not like to see you in this state. Kaiidth. You are in my care now."
"T'sai, that is not proper."
"You object to having me as your healer?"
"Your time is too valuable--"
"You are valuable. I give my time to aid you in your return to logic and good health. The trade is more than acceptable."
Veral said nothing. He had come to Gol expecting to be given only a quiet place to continue his personal struggle. It gave him a sense of profound relief to find himself in the care of someone else, and it took some moments for him to process his perhaps excessive gratitude, and dismiss the black thoughts that told him that someone who had failed as badly as he had was not worthy of such consideration.
Logic, had he known it, would have told him long before now that his nightmares, lack of sleep, intrusive thoughts, and irrationally bleak opinion of himself pointed to his needing to be in the care of a physician, but his was a mind without logic.
Xhenat was standing quietly, waiting for him to return to her.
"Forgive me, t'sai. For a moment, I did not attend."
"I know," she said, patiently. "Let us discuss your treatment."
They spoke for a long time. She had T'Nirin's report of him. T'Nirin had written, not of his failure, but of his need for treatment, treatment that she lacked the time and resources to provide on the Eian. He told Xhenat what medication he had tried, and she did not comment on the foolishness of self-medicating in his condition. She only agreed with him that the second drug he had tried was likely the best of bad options, and said she would replicate several doses for him.
They talked of meditations and what routine he would follow while he was with them. They spoke of the healing melds that she would employ with him. She told him of others who served at Gol and who would be of use to him, whether to aid him in finding his logic, or in helping him to focus his mind.
By the end, a plan of treatment was in place. As a student, he had often left lessons with her feeling as though he now saw the whole of a picture that he had previously seen only a small portion of. This was similar. He had become focused on his errors, and had missed the larger context that had caused them. When he left her office, the city was deep in the shadow of the mountain. He went and sat on one of the benches in the courtyard. Peace still eluded him, but he could believe now that it would not always.
Two weeks and three days after his arrival at Gol, he received a letter from T'Lin. She had written it on paper, because it was easier to receive paper than electronic communication at Gol. He had never before seen her handwriting, and studied it before reading the letter. She wrote in small, neat script, and her lines were straight as they ran vertically down the page.
She had written to him in the Western Xir'tani dialect, as she always did, and he would reply in Shi'kahri as had become their custom. They both understood the other's native language, but expressed themselves better in their own, especially in writing.
She wrote to say that the drug treatment had worked and her throat no longer had abnormal cells. She would not be subjected to another surgery. She had a poor opinion of most of the offerings from the publishing houses this month, and thought that Vulcans should stop trying to write novels altogether.
We picked the form up from the Terrans and the Andorians and the Trill. We should have left it with them. I have never read a good Vulcan novel. We are poets, essayists, and philosophers. We are not novelists.
Her brother had been bonded. The choice had been proposed four years ago, when Suvin had been five and the girl three, and the contract signed two years after that, though they had to wait until the girl had completed her kas-wahn before the bonding could take place. They had been so perfectly suited in temperament, personality, and genetics, that the clan mother had agreed to the match, though five was young for a betrothal contract, and the necessary wait meant that Suvin would be nine before he was bonded.
She continued, I believe my brother and his bondmate will do well. Much thought went into their betrothal. We, by contrast, were brought together by circumstance and necessity, but I believe that we also are well suited. We are still in many ways unknown to each other, but I see even now that your capacity for empathy counters my tendency to be over-critical. You are purposeful where I am unambitious. Yet we have similarities as well. You well understand that sometimes I allow my reticence to overcome my good sense, and sometimes I do not speak or act when I ought, especially in the matter of personal relationships.
The night before you left Vulcan, I was in Shi'kahr. I had not thought I would be, but my assignment with the Gol'nev changed my plans, and I found myself both near to you and with time available to me. We had already taken leave of each other, and you were with your parents. I did not want to show up unannounced at your door when we had said all that needed to be said. I thought perhaps your parents, or even you yourself, might think poorly of me for it. I regret that decision. I should not have allowed myself to lose the opportunity of seeing you one more time because I was concerned with how it would appear.
I mention this only because it colors my decision to write now when I would otherwise be inclined to stay silent. I want to see you. Can you come, even for a short time, to Xir'tan? I would prefer not to travel, but I will come to Gol if there is no other way.
He had little time, but he could not leave the letter unanswered until tomorrow. He went to the library, where there was note paper, and wrote, Do not come to Gol. I will come to Xir'tan before the wandering eye disappears. That would be in eighty five days, when 40 Eridani C was no longer seen in the night sky above Mt. Seleya.
He did not want her to travel unnecessarily, and his recovery, while good, included some tearing down so that building up could take place. She did not need to be burdened with that process. He believed that within three months, he would be able to see her, at least for a short time, without being a weight on her own recovery.
He left the note with the other outgoing letters.
His father had come to the city to see him. He would have left that meeting for another time as well, but Xhenat had reasoned with him until he saw that his duty to his parents was not served by avoiding them.
Skan was waiting for him outside of the gates. The gates of Gol were not absolutely closed to anyone, but most who were not adepts did not think it appropriate to set foot inside.
Frey, Veral's sister, was with him. She was four now, and at an age where her youthful energy was just beginning to be tamed. She had still the self-centered nature of youth, and among the first things she said to him was, "It is good that you came to Gol. I have never traveled here before."
Veral brushed his hand against her soft hair. It was good to see her. Skan must have known how refreshing Veral would find her presence. His father had always had a good sense for what would bring comfort to someone, especially his children.
They walked through one of the crowded areas of the city. Even with so many people, it was still far calmer and quieter than the Eian had ever been. He had ceased noticing the silence of the monastery, but it seemed odd to be in a place filled with people and hear only soft conversations and the rustling of robes. The Eian had been a strange environment, but he had grown so accustomed to it that upon his return, he felt an alien on his own planet.
There was a sculpture garden further on. When they arrived there, Frey disappeared to wander and examine on her own. Skan and Veral walked in silence.
"You have lost weight," Skan said finally.
"I have gained some of it back since my return." Xhenat had insisted that he eat extra meals during the day, besides the ones he was served in his cell morning and evening, and had him taking supplemental nutrition in pill form. He had not realized how little he had eaten during the normal course of a day on the Eian until Xhenat had asked him if he was aware of how underweight he had become.
"We would have preferred to see you when you returned to Vulcan, if only for a few hours."
"I did not want to trouble you."
"You believe it would have been troubling for us to see our son." Veral recognized the flat sound of his father's anger.
"I had then been dismissed from my post in disgrace." Private disgrace, perhaps, but it carried real shame. "I could not return to your door in that state. I was not worthy to."
Skan reached out and touched his shoulder. "I can conceive of nothing that you are capable of that would make you unworthy to come into your home, or unwelcome once you were there."
Veral ducked his head. "I ask your forgiveness then."
Skan shook his head and let his hand fall. "There is nothing to forgive."
"You are angry," Veral said.
His father did not deny it. "Not with you. It angers me to see my son suffer."
They walked further, examining the bronze and stone sculptures. Veral said, "It is not logical for you to be angry at my suffering. I caused it by own actions." Xhenat and others had helped him to see that he had failed to allow for his own limitations when he had served on the Eian. He had not slept or eaten properly. He had not spoken up when he found his caseload too much as others--yes, even other Vulcans--had done. He had allowed his horror at the suffering around him to overwhelm his reason. Empathy was a necessary trait in a doctor, but if he had not been so concerned with Hara's need of a mental anchor he likely would not have forgotten the sterile field.
Skan stopped and looked at him. "It is not logical for me to be angry at your suffering because it does you no good, and causes me harm to indulge the emotion. The cause of your suffering does not matter. It hurts me."
They sat down. Frey had seated herself underneath a colorful work that depicted a children's tale. The text of the story was inscribed in the base of the statue, which had been designed so that children could also crawl through it. She was paying no attention to them.
"Have you seen T'Lin?"
"No. She wishes to see me. I will go to her in perhaps two months, when I am further along in my recovery."
"You were very fortunate to obtain her as a wife."
"I would have died," Veral said. It had been a near thing. Another twelve hours, perhaps less, and the strain of unresolved plak tow would have drained him of the last of his strength. He would have lost the ability to ejaculate, and the seizures would have started, and then there would have been nothing that could save him.
"I do not refer only to that. She is suited to you, I believe. There is strength and patience in her, and steadiness. She bore her ordeal with a fortitude that few could match." His parents had seen T'Lin in the hospital, though not until she had been far along in her recovery. "The way in which you were brought together is not ideal. It would have been better had you had even a little time together before your marriage. It would have made things go more smoothly. But do not allow this unfortunate start to keep you from having the relationship you ought."
"We are coming together, but slowly. I do not know yet what sort of marriage we will have." Would they cohabitate by choice, as his parents did? Or would they see each other only at the necessary times, perhaps living together for a short time to raise a child? Did she desire sexual intimacy with him outside of pon farr? They were coming together not only slowly, but in fits and starts. The war, and her injury, had interrupted the natural progression that might have otherwise occurred. Sometimes he wondered if they did not move back as well as forward. It seemed they had been more connected to each other the night that she had come to his home in Shi'kahr following the train derailment than they were now.
"You will do well. Though you struggle, I have that confidence."
"I do not." He had no confidence in his marriage or in his profession.
Seeing his father reminded him that he had not even contacted Selesh, who had been his friend for many years. He was older than Veral by several years, but they had grown close. Selesh had even stood with him at his hasty wedding, and he had not informed the man that he was once again on the planet. By now he likely knew of it by other means. He doubted Selesh would forgive the lapse of courtesy. There was a friendship lost, and another failure to hold against himself.
"You will regain your confidence."
"Perhaps," Veral said. When he did not continue, Skan stood. Veral followed him. They retrieved Frey, who was by then inside the base of the statue, and had to be called three times before she came out.
"Was I so stubborn?" Veral asked.
"No," his father said, some exasperation evident in his voice.
As they passed again through the crowded areas of the city, his father said, "Selesh heard of my coming here and asked me to bring you this message. He has not contacted you because he does not wish for you to be distracted from your healing, but he values your friendship, and wishes to know if he can be of service to you."
Veral was long in answering. At last, he said, "Tell him I am not in need of anything at this time, but that his message has been a service in itself. Tell him that I also value his friendship, and that I...apologize for my lapses."
"I suspect, like me, he will see your apology as unnecessary, but I will tell him all that you said."
Veral did not reply. He did not deserve one tenth of the consideration that the people around him gave. It was a matter of some astonishment to him.
The healing melds, like any medical technique, could be unpleasant. After his sessions with Xhenat, he frequently found himself taking refuge in the library. The stillness and the smell of old scrolls and books were soothing. Often, he would be alone, for he met with Xhenat at a time when most of the students were elsewhere in training.
Today, they had worked on his illogical feelings of shame, which had spread out from the shame he felt at being dismissed from the Eian to other aspects of his life. Xhenat had pulled to the forefront of his mind those memories that caused him to believe he had failed. They had spent two hours, examining memories of his errors and his foolish choices, and working past the emotions coloring them, and then considering them in the light of logic. It had been hard, sometimes painful, to look so long and closely at past mistakes, but it had been productive. He could think now of leaving the Eian and not be overwhelmed with a sense of deep personal failure. He saw his mistakes as understandable, and could almost begin to appreciate again the good that he had done.
He was seated at one of the long tables, considering several volumes of poetry. It had been suggested to him that he choose a text for study, one not related to medicine. It would give him something to focus on other than his recovery. The riddles of Rahal's poems, being both enjoyable and intellectually challenging, seemed a logical choice.
He looked up as another person entered. A woman, about his age, tall and brown skinned with close-cropped hair, entered. She looked around as if in a daze. Veral looked at her robes, marked with the symbols of a new student of the healer's cloister, and realized that this was a person whose mind had been more fully exposed than his.
He watched her touch the edge of the table as if she was not even certain it was real. He knew what she had been through. She had been examined by one of the priestesses today. That was less a meld than the experience of having one's katra ripped out of one's body and held up to the bright light for inspection. The priestess left nothing unturned. No secrets could be kept from her.
It was necessary. The techniques learned here were powerful, dangerous, and easy to abuse. They taught the healer-adepts how to command a mind to stop or start the heart, how to force a meld, even how to alter or remove memories. All were techniques that could save a life under certain circumstances, but in the wrong hands they could be devastating. Before one was taught, one was examined. There was no way to be absolutely certain that a student would never use the techniques they learned for a purpose other than healing, but no one who was hiding a bad motive in their desire to learn would be permitted to stay at Gol.
Veral looked again at the woman. The examination was a disorienting experience. An attendant from the court of the priestess would have taken her back to her cell, but there would have been nothing stopping her from leaving it.
"Go back to your cell," Veral said. The woman looked at him. "Go back to your cell," he repeated. "Drink more water than you think you need, and let your mind rest. No one expects anything of you for the rest of today."
She blinked slowly and walked off. She was in no danger wandering in a daze if she did not follow his advice. Everyone who saw her would know what she had been through and would not interfere with her unless she tried to go somewhere unsafe, but she would be more comfortable in her cell.
He took his chosen volume of poems and carried it the corner of the room where a much larger book, fifty centimeters in height and at at least sixty across when open, stood on a stone pedestal. He found the page for the book he was taking, took up the pen and entered his name, showing that the book was not to be found in the library any longer. When he returned it, he would make a mark next to the entry, indicating that the book had been placed back on the shelf.
Like many things at Gol, it was an old and inefficient system, but no one saw any reason to change it. When he had come the first time, he had questioned such things. Now he saw the logic. A computer would be more efficient, but it would not serve the needs of the community any better than the book, and the change would cause needless disruption.
His cell was a stone room, larger than his quarters on the Eian and entirely his own. It was windowless, lit by recessed electric lighting that cast a warm red glow up onto the ceiling. There was against one wall a bench and a desk for study, with an additional light source built into the wall above it. There was a meditation mat and lamp, and three hooks on the wall for him to hang a few articles of clothing. There was no bed. At night he rolled out a reed mat and covered himself with a blanket that was thin, but warm.
Ascetic as it was, he found it far more comfortable than his quarters on the Eian. The mat was too short, but he was sleeping on the floor, and did not need to contort himself so that he could fit both his head and feet on it at once. And he was alone. He did not have a roommate above him, moving and coughing and mumbling in his sleep.
He read Rahal's poems until the gong sounded, indicating that the sun had set.
They were served two meals each day in their cells, at sunup and sundown. Tonight they served a thick vegetable stew, with bread, and mineral water from the underground river. He set the dirty plates outside of the door when he was finished. Then he meditated for an hour, finding it easier than he had in some time to dismiss the intrusive thoughts when they arose.
Afterward, he read again the letters that T'Lin had sent him recently. The neat formation of her letters was an aesthetic pleasure in itself, and her words were always well-chosen. She was right, they were both reticent by nature. They had been pushing themselves to speak more openly. Their letters had grown more intimate, with less general news and common conversation and more talk of deeply-held beliefs and personal desires.
He had in his most recent letter found a way to ask the question that had been coming into his mind more and more frequently now that they were once again on the same planet. Her reply was gratifying.
As to sexual intimacy, yes I do desire it. I am grateful to you for asking the question, for it is something that I too have been wondering, but I had been unable to find the words to address it.
He traced the passage with his thumb. He would not allow his mind to dwell on the matter, but the image of her in the sitting area attached to his bedroom in Shi'kahr, naked except for the blanket pooled in her lap, came into his mind, and he did not dismiss it immediately.
He roused himself. Such things were for another time. With only a little reluctance, he put the letter away. He felt calm, and the tension that he carried in his back had eased. He went to bed, and allowed himself to hope that he might sleep the whole night.
He woke up a few hours later with the image of T'Lin being burned alive over the fire pit at his home in Shi'kahr in his mind's eye.
Veral came back to his logic slowly at first, but once Xhenat had helped him to rebuild his foundations, he healed quickly. He came to see that while he was responsible for overworking himself and allowing himself to reach the place where he had become a danger to his patients, none of his mistakes had been borne of malice or selfishness or negligence. He forgave himself.
His most acute wounds healed, though not entirely. When intrusive thoughts came, he found he could let them be, and eventually they receded. They were not so disruptive, and seemed less so with each passing day. He became able to see himself as he was, not a failure, but someone who had been wounded, and had been unable to work until he received treatment.
Only the nightmares, and the sleepless nights caused by them, continued on with little improvement.
On the worst nights, he left his cell and wandered. He had never been placed in harm's way during the war. He had been aware, abstractly, that their enemy made no allowance for medical ships, and they could be attacked at any time, but the Eian was kept far behind the front lines. The only time he was in real physical danger was once, when an enemy solder--a Cardassian--was given to him for treatment. They had told him the man was unconscious, but he had woken up, managed to get his hand on a laser scalpel, and very nearly slit Veral's throat.
Despite his lack of combat experience, one did not serve in a war without learning something of constant vigilance. The sensation of security that came of wandering the courtyards of Gol at night, with the gates closed for the night, released a tension that he had been holding for so long that he had ceased to be aware of it.
The hour was very late, and the desert air was cold in the unheated open spaces. His robe was thin. To get warm, he stepped into the staircase that led up to where the kolinahr adepts studied. After a moment's consideration, he climbed the steps. It was not forbidden to him to see this part of their area, though the rooms where the rites were conducted were sacred and off-limits to all but those who sought kolinahr.
The stairway was long. It led to a passageway that was lit by flame torches. This part of the monastery had been carved directly into the mountain. The first room he came to was large, and empty except for a man seated in the s'thaupi meditation position. He opened his eyes when Veral entered.
"Do you seek this path?" he asked.
Veral clasped his hands behind his back. He did not, and yet of late, struggling with the nightmares and the fear that often accompanied with them, he had begun to wonder if perhaps it might not be worth the total dedication needed to reach a state where he would never again be troubled by any emotion at all. He had not come here out of idle curiosity, or a desire to get warm. It had not been an intentional choice to come, but his subconscious mind had led him here to find the answer to a question it had been turning over of late.
"I do not know. I grow weary of emotion."
The man's face was the most perfect picture of peace that Veral had ever seen. He struggled with nothing. He was ancient, yet his face held no world-weariness.
"You would eliminate it from your life? You would dedicate your life to this purpose?"
To never again feel fear or anger or disgust or grief...he had never before thought the sacrifices of kolinahr worth the reward, but he had never before struggled so long and hard with his emotions. "My life is not entirely mine to give away." To be the spouse of a kolinahr adept was to be a widow, and should he achieve it, their marriage would be at an end.
"Yours is a mind in pain."
Veral had not sensed the man touch his mind, but a kolinahr master of his age would be so far beyond the mental abilities of most that that was not surprising. "Yes."
"The traumatized come to us, seeking escape. They often fail. If they succeed, they find that the way of kolinahr is not, for them, a satisfying one. One must have the right motive."
"What is the right motive?"
The man rose to his feet in a single smooth movement and crossed the room until he was standing within a meter of Veral. "A desire for perfect clarity of thought, such as is only allowable by the total elimination of all emotion."
"Is that not what we all seek?" But even as he said it, he knew the answer.
"No. Mastery is not elimination. They are, in fact, incompatible, for one does not seek to master what one does not have. Do you wish to remove the color of emotion from all your thoughts and memories?"
Veral thought of sitting in the common room of his family house, working at something for his mother, and of Frey, then just barely a year and only recently capable of walking upright, coming in. He was seated cross-legged on the floor. She toddled over to him and placed one of her toys on his leg. "For you," she said, and ran off before he could reply.
There were things in his life that he did not wish to view as nothing more than an experience to be analyzed.
"No," Veral said. "I would master them, not see them gone from me entirely."
The man turned and returned to his seat. "Then kolinahr is not your path."
Veral bowed and left. He returned to the open air, discomfited by the encounter, but also with a profound sense of relief, knowing with certainty that whatever path lay before him, it was not the way of kolinahr. His path did not end at Gol, he realized as he walked back to his cell, but was that of family and friendship and doing the work of a healer.
It was time for him to leave.
Veral felt only an almost imperceptible push toward his seat as the train pulled out from the station at Gol, though in fact the acceleration during those first few seconds was profound. He took a PADD from his bag. Selesh had written him a short letter to which he had yet to reply. He read it over again, and composed a brief reply as the train crossed the uninhabitable stretch of desert in southern Na'ree.
He saw many things clearly now that had been confused in the wake of his removal from the Eian. Selesh would not toss away a friendship of nearly two decades because Veral had not informed him that he had returned to the planet. His parents would not be shamed because their son had staggered under the weight of trauma and mental illness. T'Lin cared for him, in fact wanted his presence in her life.
The train stopped twice before it reached the Straight of Ha'zen. A few kilometers out from the straight, it went underground, starting a steep descent that the inertial dampeners prevented the passengers from feeling. Veral put his PADD away while they were in the tunnel. When the train emerged, it was passing through farm fields. The crops--he did not recognize what was growing--were bright gold and purple against the red-orange sky. The sun was bright enough even through the tinted window to make his third eyelid slide shut, but he did not look away. The colors of his home world were a pleasure to him.
Several hundred kilometers further, the train stopped in Klan-ne, where he transferred to a smaller, older, slower local train that took him inland to Slor-masu Klomak. There, he picked up another train that went south of Shi'aluk, and from there, it was a twenty minute ground shuttle ride to be dropped off at the terminal outside of Shi'aluk, which was still nearly seven kilometers from his final destination.
T'Lin, he thought, was more removed from civilization than the monastery he had just left.
He could have gotten into one of the automated ground cars available at the terminal, but a gentle breeze was blowing from the northwest, where the sea lay just two kilometers further. The air was warm and pleasant. Shi'kahr was a land of extremes, swinging from sweltering heat in the day to sometimes dangerously cold at night. Xir'tan was more moderate, cool even at the height of the day, and warm enough at night that it was not uncommon for families to sit out in the open air into the early hours of the morning without so much as a fire pit to warm them.
Still, it was not without its dangers. Out of the corner of his eye, Veral could see a sahr-kastik swarm. Their iridescent red wings were beautiful, but the sting of just one would leave an adult in agony and could easily kill a child. It was far from the most poisonous creature in the area.
As he walked, he contemplated T'Lin. The last letter that he had received from her had assured him of her continuing good health, excepting the sudden attacks of severe pain that continued to plague her. Her last scans had shown no more abnormal cell growths. All of her many organ replacements and skin grafts had been fully integrated into her body. Her team of burns specialists and surgeons considered her healed to the point of no longer needing their services.
She was now only under the care of a doctor specializing in pain, and another who aided her in her mental recovery. She had resisted the latter at first, saying that her body had been harmed, not her mind, but in her most recent letter she had said that she found T'Aj useful, on days when resentment started to build up and she could not on her own see her way back to logic.
It was an improvement that he had not thought possible when he had first received a detailed report of her condition. That had been not long after she had arrived on Vulcan following her injury. He had gotten such updates weekly thereafter, and he had spent hours poring over her medical charts and writing recommendations to her medical team. Often, these came back with notations that informed him that, while they recognized that he was a skilled physician, he was a generalist who was currently working as a front line trauma doctor. He might have some experience with stabilizing burn patients, but he was not a burns specialist, to say nothing of the fact that the toxic nature of the haseen gas that had burned her had caused complications that made her case especially complex and difficult even for those entirely immersed in her care on a daily basis.
He understood now how illogical it had been for him to allow himself to obsess. Spending nearly all of his limited free time immersing himself in her case had certainly contributed to the difficulties that had led him to seek refuge at Gol. Yet, like so many things, at the time he had not been able to see it.
The road that he had been walking on transitioned from gray stone to black when he crossed from the common property onto the private land of the family. From there, it was only one point four kilometers to the flight of stairs that led to the front door.
The house was tall, as houses in this part of Xir'tan usually were. The area was sparsely populated, but had an abundance of arable land on a planet where that was at a premium. Before, when Vulcan had been always hovering on the edge of famine, every square meter of that land had been precious, and they had learned to build up rather than out.
Now, with weather control technology and replicators and interplanetary trade, they could afford to relax somewhat and build pleasure gardens where once had been crops, but the tradition of the architecture remained.
He scaled the steps and waited for the house computer to alert the residents to his presence. The door was opened by Suvin. The boy had grown taller since the last time Veral had seen him, but he was still very much a child.
Veral took in the formal reception area with a glance. It was sparsely but finely decorated. The reception table was made of the polished black stone so common to the area. It held a glass pitcher and cups, now empty, but clean and ready to be filled with water to welcome guests. The family sign, a stylized tree with branches woven through the crest of the clan, was painted on one wall.
At home, the public was permitted only into a formal receiving area separated from the private spaces by ornate doors. Here the lowest level of the house seemed to serve a similar function. Two abstract sculptures sat on either side of the stairs leading up to the rest of the house. To keep visitors from accidentally glimpsing what did not belong to them, a heavy curtain hung at the top of the stairs.
Suvin led him up the stairs, through the curtain, and down a short hall into the common area. This was the true soul of a home, and Veral found it immediately pleasing. It was neither chaotic nor painfully formal. All who were gathered there rose when he entered.
He addressed himself first to the eldest in the room. "Peace and long life, Honored Foremother."
She was slightly stooped with age and her hair was entirely white. A distinctive scar on her throat caused by the leth'ar-kur virus, a sickness which had not been seen in over two hundred and fifty years, confirmed his suspicion that she was nearing three hundred.
She raised an eyebrow. "I see no gongs here, child. Call me T'Reya, or t'sai if you must, but save your formality for the rituals."
"Yes, t'sai," he said. Even now he could feel his father's disapproving stare at his back if he dared think to call a woman nearing her fourth century by her common name.
A girl stood very close to T'Lyra. He thought at first she might be Suvin's bondmate, but she was at least ten. A man, tall and wiry in build, Veral knew to be T'Lin's father, Xan. Her mother he had seen once before, briefly, before he had left for the Eian. T'Lyra remained as she had been then, more classically beautiful than her daughter, average in height and thin to the point of appearing frail, though her dark steady eyes declared her anything but.
He allowed his gaze to linger on T'Lin. She wore simple red pants and a tunic in a matching fabric that was embroidered with black thread at the hem and cuffs and neckline in a geometric pattern. Her hair was loose, shorter than she had worn it previously. It fell to her shoulders and was tucked behind her ears.
Her face was a masterwork. The surgeon had been an artist. Veral recalled his earlier letter asking why, if it was acceptable to remake one's home to be aesthetically pleasing, it was not also acceptable to remake one's face. He had not understood T'Lin's answer then, but he did now.
There is something more than aesthetics at work in the face of a person, she had written, and indeed there was. The surgeons might have been tempted to fix the asymmetry of her eyebrows, and give her a broader nose and a stronger chin. They had not attempted any such improvements, however, and he was grateful for it. He would have borne any changes in her appearance with equanimity, but to find her exactly as she had been was a gift, and made him realize that it was indeed impossible to improve on that which was already perfect.
The girl was Pel. She caught his attention once he properly looked at her. Her eyes were light in color, and the third eyelid was missing. He noted how closely she was hovering to the others and realized that she was an esta'olaya.
He held out his hand to her. She hesitated for a moment, then took and pressed his hand between both of hers, and he could sense her gratitude for his understanding. When she released him, she and Suvin returned to what they had been doing. Pel gave Veral a questioning look, and then, seeming satisfied that she would face no judgement from him, slid closer to Suvin so that their bare arms were touching.
T'Lin gave him a slight nod of thanks and gestured for him to join her at the table with tea. "Pel is with us often. Her mother and mine are t'hy'la."
T'Lin poured out the tea. Veral wondered for a moment at her taking the duty from T'Reya, who as the eldest in the room had right of precedence, before realizing that they had entirely dispensed of ceremony now. T'Lin had done it because she was closest. He allowed himself to relax. It was not his home in Shi'kahr, but it was still his home. There were no more forms to hold to.
T'Reya stayed in the corner of the room, working at a stone carving. The piece she was working on was small and her movements were delicate. Her hands were strong and steady despite her advanced age. T'Lin followed his gaze. "The sculptures by the stairs below are hers," she said.
Xan and T'Lyra took a single cup of tea with them, then left to return to their own interests, Xan to a book and T'Lyra to the computer console in the corner of the room. Pel and Suvin were bent over a puzzle of some kind that had taken over much of the center of the floor. No one was speaking, but everyone was aware of the others.
When he had gone to Xhenat and expressed his intention to leave, he had half expected her to argue him out of the idea. Instead, she had expressed her approbation of his choice. "You have found healing in Gol," she had said. "The peace you seek is not here. This is not your path."
He wondered if Xir'tan was his path, his peace. It seemed unlikely. His life--mother and father and friends and work--had always been in Shi'kahr. And yet.
T'Lin extended two fingers two him in the ozh'esta. He responded in kind, running two fingers down the back of her hand, around her wrist and back up. Unable to resist, he took her hand and turned it over, examining the back, then the palm, tracing every tendon and vein. He pressed two fingers against the middle of her palm and sent the faintest of telepathic impulses.
T'Lin raised an eyebrow. "The functionality of the telepathic nerves in my hands has been fully tested. It is at ninety six percent of my previous baseline and likely to remain there." Ninety six percent recovery of nerves that had been damaged as severely as hers was more than they had had any right to hope for, but they were her hands, and he mourned even the slight loss in their sensitivity.
He nodded. "Yes, of course. I only wanted--"
"--to check for yourself. So I see." She brushed her fingers against his once more and said, "Servants are not our tradition here. You will have to put your own things away. I can show you to our rooms."
He followed her up two more stories. The suite of rooms was small. Two sleeping areas, neither larger than his room at Gol, were connected by a larger sitting area. The three rooms had no doors between them, but curtains that were currently pulled back. He looked in his room.
"You had my bed sent from Shi'kahr." It was a large bed, custom-made for him, designed to hold only his length but also his weight. He could sleep on something more forgiving than the stone floor at Gol without the sensation of not being supported at all. It took up much of the room, but there was space enough to walk around it.
"It was a small thing to have it beamed here, and I thought you would be more comfortable in a bed built for your size," T'Lin said.
A small thing to have it transported, yes, but it meant a great deal to his comfort. He turned to look at her, and held out his fingers in the ozh'esta once more. She only lightly touched her fingertips with hers, and they stared at each other for a time before they both, discomfited by the intimacy of the moment, dropped their hands and eyes.
T'Lin sat on the stool by the window and, tilting her head to one side, observed him. "Did you realize your purpose at Gol?"
"To some extent." He sat on the floor at her feet. "I healed a great deal, but there are still things that I struggle with."
"You are still having nightmares?" T'Lin asked.
"Are they of what happened to me?"
"You feature in them frequently, but not exclusively." He found he was not yet ready to speak of the contents of his dreams, even to her.
"Perhaps what you need is simply time. Be patient with yourself."
"You, I suppose, have a great deal of experience with patience."
She inclined her head in agreement, but said nothing. He looked up at her. "How are you?"
"I am as well as can be expected, all things considered. It was a difficult experience." He knew she was not speaking only of the sheer physical pain, though that had no doubt been profound. Modern techniques were very, very good at managing pain, but there was no escaping such as she had endured without suffering. She had spent twenty three days in a medically induced coma encased in a bio-regenerative gel while they coaxed her damaged nerves to regrow. That had been followed by nineteen major surgeries to replace her face, eaten away by the haseen gas, using lab-grown skin and cartilage, and to replace her lungs and repair her throat and sinuses and everything else that had been damaged by the caustic cloud. There had been other minor procedures as well, too many to recall them all though he had read her file so often he could recite parts of it by rote.
With the organ labs so backed up, and eyes requiring such specialized equipment, it had been months before her sight had been returned to her. She had been trapped in a mutilated body, undergoing surgeries sometimes on a daily basis, and blind besides. It was hard even to think of.
"I regret that I could not come home to you." He could have made things easier for her. There was a reason the family of the very ill were encouraged to spend as much time with their sick relative as was reasonably possible. The mere presence of a familiar mind close by--a bondmate, best of all--had a measurable effect on patient outcomes. They needed less pain medication, improved faster, were less prone to emotional disturbances... As new as their relationship had been and was, their mental bond was strong and stable. He could have been a great help to her. Instead, he had been trapped light years away, working to care for other people.
"You did your duty," T'Lin said softly. "It was right that you stayed where you were."
"That does not make it easier."
"No." She straightened her shoulders. "I was not without aid. My mother was with me often, and my father and brother at times. I endured it." The corner of her mouth quirked slightly. "I learned patience."
They sat in silence for several minutes, until it was time to join the family for a meal.
They ate in the open air, on the roof, from which they could see for kilometers out into the sea. The food was simple, and good: cold plomeek salad, and pok tar, garnished with a green flower he did not recognize. They ate in silence. Veral had not realized how much he had missed a proper meal--not just the food itself, but the attendant company and traditions. At Gol, of course, his meals had been silent, but they had also been solitary. Before that had been the Eian, where meals were eaten either in hasty bites between patients, or in a noisy cafeteria surrounded by people who did not understand that meals were times for the silent contemplation of the food and the company, and not for discussing holonovels or complaining about supply shortages.
When the meal was cleared away, the water was brought out. Unlike the formal water jug below which was delicate and designed for infrequent use, the one for the family was made of heavy red-orange glass, and might well have served the family every day for centuries. They passed the water around, each person pouring out for the one on their left. When they all had water before them, they drank, and the silence of the meal was ended.
The sun was still high, but it was beginning its descent. Xan and T'Lyra and T'Reya were discussing a book that they had all read. Suvin and Pel were talking of their puzzle with T'Lin.
The parapet around the roof was decorated with a geometric mosaic design in hues of purple and green. Veral contemplated it, and made a note to ask T'Lin about it at a later date. She was more knowledgeable and insightful about architecture and design than anyone he had ever met.
He had been half-listening to the conversations going on around him, and so knew at once when Suvin addressed him.
"Did you fight in the war?"
Veral tensed, and was for a moment angry at being reminded of what he had managed, for a few short moments, to forget. He relaxed the hands he had tightened reflexively. "I did not. I was assigned to the Eian, a medical ship. We never saw combat."
"Could you have fought?"
"I spent a great deal of time considering that question. When I was thirteen, I read Venok's account of The War of the Seven Stones, and the atrocities recounted in that book left me certain that war and violence were to be avoided if at all possible. I still hold to that, but it is not always possible to avoid them. If there was a clear threat and no other options were open to me, yes, I believe I could fight, and kill."
"What was the worst thing you saw?" Pel asked.
"There was no one worst thing," he said. A hundred memories came into his mind at once. Ensign Colt sobbing into his chest after receiving the news that his sister had died. Captain F'Dos and her low keening wail after learning that her sacred forelock feathers had been burned beyond repair. Chief Nras so distraught over his injury that his skin began to turn green and peel. "It was, collectively, the worst experience of my life. There are a few moments which stand out, but I have no desire to recount them."
The children fell silent at this, and after a moment the conversation moved on to other things. He stayed quiet, enjoying the opportunity to listen to everyday talk about common things--the need for a new desalinization plant, an anthology of poems that had recently come out, and how to lay out the garden that was planned for the winter.
T'Lin was making the case for a Xab'rari style bench in the garden when she stopped in the middle of her sentence, stiffened, and dropped the glass she was holding. Veral, closest, caught it before it hit the table. Suvin ran into the house and appeared a moment later with a small medkit. He dug out a hypo and handed it to Veral.
Veral did a quick drug-dose-patient check out of habit, though these hyposprays were designed for lay users and were pre-loaded with the correct amount of medication. He pulled her hair aside and injected the medication between the vertebrae in the back of her neck. It would take approximately ten point six seconds for the medication to begin working, and there was nothing else that could be done for her.
T'Lyra was pale and her lips were pressed together. The maternal telepathic bond faded with age, but T'Lin was very close to her mother, and it was not surprising that it remained strong between them. Veral made a note to teach T'Lyra some of the techniques that were generally used by the spouses and parents of patients in severe pain. It frustrated him that it had not been done before now, but of course so many medical personnel had been sent away to the war that non-critical care was by necessity rationed.
He could block out a good deal of the pain, but she was his bondmate, and they were in close proximity, and the pain was intense. He felt it despite his training, and he felt also the moment when it changed from fiery agony to a profound dull ache.
T'Lin drew a shaky breath. T'Lyra moved to support her, but T'Lin leaned toward Veral instead. Veral caught his mother-in-law's eyes for a moment. There was acceptance in them, but also a slight wariness, as though she was not entirely convinced that this newcomer could be trusted to support her daughter in her most vulnerable times. He wanted to reassure her that he could and would give everything for T'Lin, but now was hardly the time for such a conversation, and besides it was actions were what were needed to convince T'Lyra, not words.
"She will be most comfortable inside, on the couch by the window," T'Reya said.
It was easiest to carry her, and Veral could sense her amusement as she remembered another, less fraught time, when he had carried her similarly.
T'Lyra appeared with a heating pad that they placed behind her back, and Xan set out a cup of hot Terran ginger tea. Suvin and Pel had disappeared, but not before lighting the incense burner in the corner.
It would have been disastrous for him to come here directly after leaving the Eian. Going to Gol had been a wise choice, poorly made. His reasons for going had been illogical, even emotional, but bad reasoning had still led him to the right conclusion. Coming to T'Lin would have placed a weight of responsibility on her at a time when she needed support, not additional burdens.
And yet. "I am sorry I could not come sooner."
"I am as well, but I am pleased that you are here now." She spoke very softly. Her exhaustion was profound, and she was still in pain. He had no right to trouble her with his own illogical regrets.
He hovered until T'Lin opened her eyes just slightly and said, "I prefer to be alone."
He was left adrift then, with nothing to do. He reviewed the notes on her case. There was nothing new to be read there, though he did update the log of attacks to reflect this latest one. Encouragingly, the average time between attacks was lengthening, but there remained no pattern to them. Two weeks might pass between attacks, then three would strike within a matter of days.
Every doctor who had reviewed her case believed that, in time, her re-grown nerves would no longer be prone to firing at random, and the pain would stop. The scant evidence supported that conclusion. Yet there was not enough evidence to know for certain. The techniques that had saved her life were too new, too little tested on Vulcans, for there to be any assurances.
He needed physical activity. He asked T'Reya what in the house needed doing and, with an understanding gained over centuries, she sent him to rip up vines and clear space for the new garden. He worked for hours, until his arms and legs were shaking and his back was a knot of pain, but at the end of it his mind had cleared.
He was filthy, covered in gritty mud, with plant debris in his hair and dirt under his nails.
It had never before the war occurred to him to be grateful for the chance to clean himself in the normal way. The Eian had had only sonic showers, and while he could have replicated for himself tetau-sok'i, the sonics were free, while the replicator would cost credits that he preferred to save for other things. Besides that, the bathrooms on the Eian were entirely wrong. They lacked the comfort of a hot room. It was easier to accept the sonics than try to replicate the comforts of home in a place that was too cold and colorless and metallic to ever be comfortable.
Here was a proper hot room with stone benches large enough even for him to stretch out on, freshly made tetau-sok'i to clean his skin and hair, a clean stack of wash clothes, and cool water to wipe himself down at the end. He rubbed himself down with tetau-sok'i and lay back on one of the benches to allow the surfactants time to clean his skin. The heat and humidity were sufficient to make him sweat, and to make the muscles in his back begin to relax. He did not want to sleep, but he put himself into a light trance, until the step of another person brought him back to full alertness.
Suvin was nearly as dirty has he himself had been, and had besides a blossoming bruise on his thigh. Whatever the child had been playing at had been rough and muddy. Veral closed his eyes again, thinking that it was very gratifying to think that the boy could play without the threat of the Dominion hanging over him.
"What was it like to live on an alien ship?" Suvin asked, taking the bench opposite Veral.
"Blue," Veral said, and waited to see if the child would catch his meaning.
He didn't. "Blue?"
"Most species perceive light waves shorter than five hundred nanometers differently than we do, and Starfleet has a tendency toward the color blue in all of their design schemes."
"You couldn't see?"
"I could see perfectly well to function and do my work, but blue is a very dull color to be surrounded with. The entire ship seemed, to me, flat and...cold." He looked around and the rich colors of the room. "It is much more vibrant on Vulcan." He thought many of his alien colleagues would have questioned that statement, but, both literally and figuratively, they didn't see what he saw when he looked at the rich shades of red and brown and green and yellow of his home world.
Suvin said nothing else, and Veral drifted back into his meditations, until the tetau-sok'i started to dry on his skin. He dampened one of the wash clothes and carefully wiped himself down. He got most of the tetau-sok'i out of his hair by combing it with a fine damp comb before wiping it with the wash cloth, and then he retrieved his clothes from the cleaning unit, where the nanites had left them once again perfectly clean and soft. It was astonishing what became luxuries after a period of deprivation. He had lived in scrubs on the Eian, rarely taking them off except to sleep, and often not even then. They had nanotechnology to self-clean, and were sanitary within minutes of being covered in body fluids, but they were nothing like clean kur-kastik cloth.
He supposed he would eventually be used to being home, but he did not think he would ever again fail to be grateful for it.
"It will rain soon," T'Lin said.
The house was quiet. Suvin was at the home of one of his tutors. Xan had gone to work on his boat, and T'Reya was with a sculpture student who came down periodically from Nal'shin to work under her tutelage. T'Lyra had been in the garden earlier, and was likely still there.
They sat on the floor by the large window that looked out at the sea. The sky had turned a peculiar shade of red-yellow that he had never seen before, and the sea was choppy. He could see boats out by the horizon, and though he knew that their experience and their technology kept the crews quite safe, they looked to him small and fragile against the expanse of the sea.
Two of her architecture books were open between them, and a pot of tea was safely off to one side where it would not accidentally be knocked over. Veral traced a line of one of the drawings.
T'Lin shifted her weight.
He looked up. "You are in pain."
"Only from staying in one position for too long. Pel wants to know if she can use you as her touchstone tomorrow, at Katra fi'Salan."
"It is what she calls the person she can go to if she becomes touch starved. It was her idea to start designating someone in advance. She says it is calming, to know where she will go, if the beads she uses for tactile focus are not enough." T'Lin's voice was calm, but her eyes were wary, as if she expected him to refuse.
"Clever. Tell her I am honored, and she is welcome to use me as such. I am surprised at her asking me. She hardly knows me."
"You knew her for what she is at a glance, and you did not draw away from her. Most people do when they first meet her. They try to hide their reaction, but they do."
"The esta'olaya need touch to focus and calm their minds, sometimes at what most would term inappropriate times. They act in ways contrary to all the cultural norms because of it."
"Yes. I understand why people draw away. I only...I would prefer if Pel did not see it. She has known since she is a toddler that she is not entirely like the rest of us, though most are so carefully polite."
The storm broke. A huge bolt of lightning lit the sky on fire, and the clap of thunder seemed to shake the room. He read the amusement in T'Lin's eyes at his startling. He stood and watched as the rain came down in a solid sheet. "How often does it rain here?"
"It varies by season. In the winter, it is very wet. In the summer, we will get two or three storms every month. A storm of this intensity comes generally once or twice a year."
"Is your father's boat still on the water?" He could not imagine anyone being on the sea when the rain was coming down with such force as this.
"Of course. I do not doubt that he went out because he knew this was coming. He says that he never feels more focused or more challenged but when he is at sea in a storm." She paused and he felt something from her that he could not at first place. Regret, tinged with a deep pain that was not physical. "He is quite right. It is an experience like no other. I would have gone with him, but my condition makes me a liability in a situation where everyone needs absolute focus." She paused again, then added, "There are a number of things that my condition currently makes it inadvisable for me to do."
Veral sat back down. "I am sorry for it."
T'Lin closed her books. "As am I. And...angry. No, that is the wrong word. Vengeful. I was not before, but now that I have the energy to think about what happened to me and to so many others, I want to see every Cardassian in existence dead." She paused. "T'Aj says this is why I must see her so often."
"Your counselor is entirely correct. It is good that you see her often. But I do understand."
T'Lin had not fought in the war. She had examined her conscience and found that it would not permit her to deliberately set out to take lives. She had joined instead the Gol'nev, placed for the duration of the war under the direction of the Federation Aid and Mercy Corps, and had been assigned to humanitarian work on a nearly derelict space station. The station had been slated for demolition before being appropriated by the FAMC, and she had processed the refugees who came flooding in from the war ravaged systems. She had provided them with what was possibly their first good meal in days or weeks, assigned them a place to sleep, and treated minor injuries.
There had been nothing in T'Lin's job, nothing in the entire system where she had served, that had been of service to the Federation's military offensives. There were no weapons on the station, no ships beyond the aging freighters and passenger ships that had been used to flee the Dominion forces and a single--small, old--Starfleet vessel that patrolled the area. There had been no tactical reason at all for the Dominion to attack.
But they had attacked. T'Lin had been caught in a cloud of haseem gas released when the cargo bay suffered a direct hit and containers of dangerous chemicals, rated to withstand a hand phaser but not the guns of a Cardassian warship, had burst open. It was astonishing that she had survived long enough to be rescued--several others caught in the same chemical cloud had not. She had escaped with a few dozen others on one of the passenger ships that had been about to drop off refugees and instead found itself fleeing the Dominion once again.
When he thought of the agonies she had experienced and continued to endure even now, and all the other suffering that had been caused by this war, he wished fervently that no cure had ever been found for the Changelings, and that every one of them had died horribly.
Such thoughts were a violation of all his fundamental principles, but they were part of who he had become. The war had changed him, and it was foolish to think that he could return to who he had been before he had gone away, before T'Lin had been hurt, before he had daily checked the casualties list to see if any of the people he cared about had died.
Selesh had fought. It was a common name and he had tensed every time he had seen it on the casualty lists, though each time he read on it was someone of another clan, the child of another family. He had felt relief to know it was not his friend, all the while aware that it was someone's friend, someone's husband, someone's son.
He thought of all this, and he knew what hate was.
T'Lin was watching him intently. He was careful, now, not to shield himself from her, even when his thoughts were such as might make her think worse of him. She had a right to know all of him, good and bad. She did not appear to judge what she sensed from him, however. She only nodded slowly and said, "Yes, I believe you do understand."
He heard a faint footstep outside of the room. T'Lyra, most likely. The steps continued past.
"I am told," T'Lin said, "that the pain will probably stop eventually, but they cannot say with any certainty that it will be so."
"The data is limited," Veral acknowledged.
T'Lin nodded. "No one has ever before survived prolonged exposure to vaporized haseem gas." She looked out at the rain for a moment, then back to him. "Is the medication used to control my pain teratogenic?"
He blinked, surprised by the question. "No." Sensing there was more to the question than the reproductive side effects of the drug she used, he continued, "There is nothing that would prevent you from having a normal pregnancy, whether you continue to need the medication or not. If you are still experiencing attacks of pain when you choose to get pregnant, it would be wise to involve a midwife even prior to conception, and you may need more frequent visits than most mothers. Chronic pain in the mother can have a deleterious effect on the mental development of the fetus unless precautions are taken. But with appropriate care, there is nothing to prevent you from having a healthy child."
"Nothing to prevent us from having a healthy child," T'Lin said. Veral nodded. "That is gratifying to know."
"If it was a concern, why did you not ask your doctors before now?"
T'Lin looked down at one of her books. "The answer is not logical." She looked up. "If there was a chance I would not be able to have children, I thought it would be easier to hear it from you."
He touched his fingers to her temple, brushing their minds together, and offering what reassurance he could. When he drew back, he asked, "Is there anything else you wish to know?"
"Yes. Pon farr. If my nerve pain were to strike while you burn and are..."
"While I am temporarily lacking in higher brain function," Veral finished, so that she did not have to find a more diplomatic way to say it. She tilted her head in acknowledgment. Veral paused, considering his words. "The literature about pon farr and disability is surprisingly robust, far more so than the literature about pon farr in the healthy population." He felt her surprise and explained, "It is logical when you consider it. The medical community has never been successful in getting people to open up about their personal experiences, no matter how many conditions of anonymity we offer. The healthy population has the privilege of staying silent."
T'Lin understood. "The ill and disabled have no such privilege. They are forced to interact with the healers and reveal what they would rather not, because they need their help."
He nodded and paused again. He had slipped into speaking clinically, in generalities, because he did not want to talk about the specifics of their situation. Setting aside that illogic, he forced himself to begin speaking, through he found himself staring at his hands as he did so.
"Your pain manifests in sudden attacks. If it were to happen while I am in the grip of the fever, worst of all if happened while we were engaged sexually...I would likely panic. A violent reaction is unlikely, but ineffectual attempts to help could make it worse. You would need to keep me calm, and administer the medication yourself, because I would not likely be able to help you. It would be a terrible thing for you to have to manage me, and your own treatment, while in such pain yourself. And the pon farr would still need to be resolved, though the attacks leave you tired and aching, which means that despite your pain and exhaustion, we would need to continue our sexual activity."
He paused, forced himself to meet her eyes, and said, "If you wished to be free of a husband, no one would blame you. Men died disproportionately, so I could likely find another. There would be no dishonor in not wishing to be so thoroughly...discomfited. If you made a petition for divorce, I would support it."
He had rather hoped for an immediate refusal, but T'Lin fell silent, considering. He could not feel hurt at that. The scenario he had described was horrific. After a time she spoke with slow mentation. "No. Breaking the bond would be difficult for both of us, but the pain would last longer for you. I do not need to be a healer to know that males suffer the worse for a broken bond. Then you would have to go through the trouble of finding another mate. I do not wish that for you. More selfishly, perhaps less logically, my condition has taken so much from me already. I do not want it to take you also. I have grown to...prefer you to most people.
"We speak, in any case, of things which may happen. I may still be suffering from nerve pain when next you burn. An attack may happen at the worst possible moment. I am not going to pursue such a drastic, difficult course because of possibilities." He felt her grow suddenly wary. "Would you prefer a less damaged wife?"
"I want no one but you," he assured her and she relaxed.
"Then the matter is settled. We will face the challenge together."
The wind was less violent, but the rain still pounded down in a steady sheet. Veral laced their fingers together. The esta'olaya were not the only ones who sometimes needed the comfort of touch.
White lights hung in the air illuminating the ceremonial ground where the people gathered for the Katra fi'Salan. Someone was playing the flute, and a male voice was singing the traditional dirge of the lost katra.
T'Reya sat on a low wall with a man of about her age. Veral looked at the gongs, used earlier in the ceremony and still present, and back at T'Reya. "Honored Foremother."
The man said, "You are the husband of T'Lin."
Veral bowed slightly. "I have that privilege, Honored Forefather."
"You speak with a Shi'kahri accent." He pronounced it Shirkahri, and seemed even to place an emphasis on the intrusive 'R' that was the hallmark of the Xir'tani accent.
"Forefather, I am of Shi'kahr."
"You are of Masutra. That you have been disadvantaged to live in the desert instead of by the sea where you belong does not change that."
"With respect, I prefer the desert."
"That is unfortunate."
Veral, unable to think of anything respectful to say, remained silent. T'Reya looked at her companion. "Let the boy go, Xhil. We are fond of him, despite his Shi'kahri ways."
Xhil gestured him away. Veral nodded respectfully and moved away, deeper into the crowd. He was startled to find himself with a child attached to his hip a moment later.
Pel looked up at him. "I thought perhaps you were gone."
"I would have informed you if I had to leave."
Pel took his hand and placed it on the back of her neck. Veral was aware of the sideways glances the action caused, but he resisted the urge to move them into the shadows.
"I kept my place at the ceremony. It was hard, but I did it. Now I need--do not move your hand."
"My sister Ulin died at Inak Nor. Hers is a katra fi'salan."
"My father suffers. We all suffer, but my father suffers most. Ulin was his favorite child. They were alike in many ways."
Veral had seen Tenat at the ceremony. He had allowed no improper emotion to show on his face, but it was obvious that he was as a man gutted.
"Likely he finds comfort in you and your brother."
Pel shook her head. "No. He is angry with us because we are not her. It is an observation which I am not supposed to voice, but I wanted to cling to my mother at the ceremony and I did not, so I am allowing myself to say it. You are a healer. You can be trusted with our secrets."
"You have my silence. Give your father time. You are a comfort to him, even if he cannot see it right now."
Pel hummed thoughtfully and pulled away. "The Federation is giving aid it can hardly spare to keep alive the race of people who killed my sister."
"Few, perhaps none, of the Cardassians who remain on their ruined world were complicit your sister's death."
"I know what they did to people at Inak Nor. I know the medical experiments carried out there. I do not care if they were not directly responsible. No culture capable of such evil should be suffered to continue."
"Have you read no Vulcan history? Cultures do change. Aid may gain us an ally. Vengeance will accomplish nothing."
"Let them starve. Vengeance requires action. Leaving them to the consequences of their actions is simply justice."
"I do not agree with your concept of justice, nor of vengeance."
"Because I am a child."
"Because you are wrong."
A lyre joined the flute, and a feminine voice took over for the masculine. The area was crowded with people who did not wish to go home after the ceremony, not this year.
Pel took his hand and pulled him over to a low bench. She leaned against him when they sat. "I am not usually so...needy. Today has been hard."
"Do not make excuses for what you need, nor apologize for needing it."
"Not everyone thinks as you do," she said, very softly. "Many have told me of how the esta'olaya are so very useful as diplomats to planets where the customs demand touch. Sometimes I think most people expect me to go away when I am old enough, to a planet where my idiosyncrasies are regarded as normal, and proper Vulcans will no longer have to be discomfited by them." She looked up at him. "I am not an alien."
"No. You are Vulcan, and I am sorry for you that our culture has made you unwelcome."
After a moment, she said, "Sometimes I do wonder if perhaps I am an alien. I am so unlike the others. They do not like to be touched. I will never understand that."
"You more like them than different from them. I do not mean to minimize your concerns, but I doubt that there is anyone who has not at one time felt so set apart from their peers as to wonder how they can possibly fit into their society. I have wondered it myself many times."
"When I was a boy of five and already so large that I towered above my playmates and was always reminded not to play too roughly for fear of hurting them," he said. When he had been seemingly the only man in Shi'kahr without a bondmate. Now, when he still expected to hear the alarm of incoming casualties at any moment though he had been home for months.
They sat in silence for a while longer, then Pel pulled away and went to dance with the other children. He looked out at the crowd. The dance the children performed was ancient. It mimicked the final steps of the dead as their katras were lost into the wind. The adults were largely silent. Most years, only a handful of people had recently known loss, but this year nearly every family had been touched. Pel's sister, one of T'Reya's great-granddaughters, Xan's nephew. Those were only the few he knew of. And for nearly all of the war dead, no katra had come home.
T'Lin found him and gestured for him to follow. "I told Pel we were leaving. She has assured me she will be fine."
He followed her out of the meeting place and into the town. Nearly everyone was either at the gathering, or at home. Very few people lived in the town itself. They had once. Old houses, barely habitable to modern eyes, spoke of a time when the poor lived and worked in squalor under the pitiless eye of the wealthy who owned the boats. It was thousands of years since these houses had been used as dwellings. Many had been torn down. Others now housed services--a library, a medical clinic, a school, curio shops, and musicians' studios--luxuries that would have been unimaginable to those who had once occupied the space.
The streets were paved in gray and red stones. The town was quite dark, but as they went, lights detected their presence and illuminated so that they could see their way to walk. They stopped by a stone wall and looked out into the unfathomable darkness of the sea. Several thousand kilometers away was the continent of Han'shir.
The sound of the waves breaking and the smell of rotting vegetation and the damp, sticky way the air felt made him remember, with astonishing clarity, the color of the sky after a storm at sea. He startled.
"What is it?" T'Lin asked.
"An ancestral memory," Veral said. "Of--" He tried to focus on it, but it was slippery and it twisted away from him. "Of working on the boats. It is a very old memory." Somewhere in his genetic past, the memory had been formed by a woman while she carried her daughter within herself. The women of that line had passed the memory down to each succeeding generation that they carried, and finally it had come down to him. How many generations had come and gone between the woman who had stood on the deck of a boat staring out at the red-orange horizon and him?
It was not probable that her katra had been preserved. A poor boat's woman would not have been counted worthy of it. Yet, he carried something of her, and though he could not pass down the memory to his offspring, his sister might. The woman's memory would continue to live even beyond him.
"Katra fi'Salan. May they be remembered," T'Lin said.
"May they be remembered," Veral echoed.
T'Lin asked, "Do you like tofu?"
Veral nodded. It was a contentious food on Vulcan. Terran soy was a major import, but those who disliked it claimed the mere presence of it on a table could put them off of their meal.
He followed her into the kitchen. T'Lin set out a block of tofu, plomeek root, coarse ground ug'yon-kur, and koleem oil.
She handed him the tofu, sealed in a food stasis container. "One centimeter cubes."
He looked around. "Where are the gloves?" T'Lin looked at him questioningly. "You do not wear gloves when you prepare food?" That was unsettling.
He sensed bemusement from her. "I wondered at your father wearing gloves when I saw him preparing food. I thought perhaps he had a contagious illness."
"No. We always wear gloves." He reminded himself that there was nothing unhygienic about food prepared with clean bare hands. It was simply not done. Rather, it was not done in Shi'kahr, or any of the surrounding areas.
"If you find it very distasteful, I can replicate a pair of gloves."
Veral took the tofu from her. "No. I will adapt," he said, and touched food that he was preparing to eat with his bare hands, something he had not done since he was a very young child, testing boundaries by deliberately ignoring the rules. At least they did not eat with their hands here. He had adapted to seeing that too, on the Eian, but the first time he had seen a Terran eat the dried flat bread they called tortilla chips and then lick their finger afterward, he had fully realized what was meant by 'culture shock'.
T'Lin left him to the chopping and heated the oil on the stove, adding the ground ug'yon-kur when it was hot. When the tofu and plomeek was chopped and mixed, she poured the hot oil over it, and put it into two bowls. They ate in the kitchen, sitting on stools at a high table. They were close enough that their knees brushed. He was aware of the heat coming off of her body, and the sound of her breathing.
When they were done eating, Veral removed the dirty plates and cleaned the kitchen, aware of T'Lin watching him the entire time.
When he was done, T'Lin said, "My first bondmate rejected me when we were still young."
Veral sat, and was quiet. She had not spoken of her first bonding previously.
"It was painful at the time, but now I see I was fortunate. He showed signs of instability early, and publicly. He did not hide what he was." She looked away. "He had a tendency toward violence. He lacked control. He rejected the very idea of control. I believe he thought it beneath him. In the beginning, when he first began to reject what it is to be Vulcan, he wanted to make me like him. When he found that I would not become like him--in no small part because my parents and his saw what he was, and intervened to separate us--he became very...angry."
Veral said nothing, but she read the question in his mind.
"He never harmed me physically. He did me very little harm at all, in fact. He was even so considerate as to declare himself v'tosh ka'tur. It might have been complicated otherwise."
Had he not rejected all of Vulcan society, and his bondmate with it, their being bonded would have become complicated indeed. A marriage contract could not easily be broken. If he had been shown to be a danger to her, a legal case could have been made, but if no clear threat could have be shown... She might have severed ties with him to some extent, but when he burned, Vulcan law would have prioritized his life over her rights. Kal'i'fee would have been her only recourse, and who would have fought for her?
I would have, he thought, but of course that was a foolish idea. He would never have known of her existence.
Pon farr was their curse. It tainted them. It forced them to compromise, to make impossible choices.
T'Lin sensed some of what he was thinking, and touched his hand. "I do not bring this matter up because it troubles me. I rarely think of it. I know what suffering is, and it is not the rejection of a selfish boy with no sense of duty or honor. I only wish for you to understand that because my bondmate and I were drawn apart before we completed our adolescence, there are certain experiences common to that age that I lack."
He realized what she was saying, and very nearly winced. "You came to our marriage with no sexual experience."
"Yes. You need not be concerned. I lacked experience, not knowledge. You were not subtle about what you needed. What transpired between us that day was entirely acceptable for what it was, but it was pon farr, and necessarily unpleasant for both of us, especially under the circumstances."
He drew a breath, and waited for her to continue, but her reticence had reasserted itself. He slowly breathed out.
"There are aspects of sexuality that are far more enjoyable," he said.
She nodded. This too was part of the curse of pon farr. Their sexuality was so tangled up in it, in the bone-deep shame of it, that they struggled to express themselves in explicit terms even with each other.
It had been easier with Najin. Their adolescent experimentation had had the all ease of naivete, but of course that was one of the reasons for early bonding. He and Najin would have gone to their marriage with no embarrassment.
He and T'Lin had known nothing of each other, and it had been, among other things, mortifying for both of them to be so exposed before a stranger. Veral's memories of that night were indistinct, but he clearly recalled his self-consciousness as T'Lin had helped him from his robes. Even in the depths of plak tow, he had retained enough of himself to feel that humiliation.
They were both struggling past that mortification even now, but they had to overcome it. Sex outside of pon farr was not necessary, but that did not make it unimportant. In just over four years, he would burn again, as surely as Vulcan would continue in its orbit. If they could cultivate a healthy sexuality now, pon farr would be...not pleasant, precisely, but far, far better than it would otherwise be.
He brushed his fingertips against her. "Will you come upstairs with me?"
It was late-evening, and dusk was settling. Their rooms were nearly dark, but neither of them wanted a light. They stood facing each other.
"What do you need?" T'Lin asked, wary and tense though she was trying not to be.
"I do not need, I want," he said. "I am entirely in control of myself. This for our pleasure."
The tension he sensed from her eased. "I know," T'Lin said, "but I am grateful to you for saying it. What do you want?"
He touched her face, finding the meld points, showing her what it was that he could not seem to speak. When he drew back his hand, T'Lin caught it before she could let it drop.
She brought his thumb to her lips, and touched her tongue to the top of it. Veral caught himself before he gasped. T'Lin, staring at him, ran her bottom teeth across the pad of his thumb, and he shivered.
Veral swallowed. "You were clever to have my bed sent," he said.
T'Lin touched his face. "Yes, I was."
They had amputated his hands. He could not recall why or when, but the fact remained that his hands were gone. Yet his colleagues were yelling at him to come help them. He couldn't see them, though they yelled so loudly that it hurt his ears. All he could see was an endless stretch of the dead and dying. He stared at his missing hands, and wondered what he could possibly do to help.
Veral's eyes snapped open. Disoriented and fighting against a panic reaction, he sat up and looked around. The room was dark, though an ashy sliver of light was coming in through the window. The curtains between the rooms were still open. He could sense T'Lin in her bed, where she had gone to sleep after their earlier activities, but he could not see her.
He was shaking. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and settled onto the floor. He knew he should meditate, but he found he had not even the power for that. Instead, he curled over and rested his head on his bent knees, his hands laced behind his neck, and he performed one of the most elementary breathing exercises.
When the panic receded, he rose, and dressed quietly so as not to disturb T'Lin, somewhat surprised that she had not sensed his nightmare and woken up. But then, his mental shielding was very good, and his instinct was to shield his mind when he was in pain. He checked the time. He had managed less than two hours of sleep. He was profoundly exhausted, but could not face returning to sleep. He walked the house instead.
He found T'Reya and T'Lyra on the roof, taking tea and playing a game. He began to withdraw, but T'Reya gestured him to the table. They were playing a card game. He did not recognize it, but knew it to be alien. Vulcan had no native games played with cards.
T'Reya poured him a cup of tea. "You do not sleep."
"Not well. Not since I returned."
"Nightmares are a sign of an unsettled mind."
"That is true."
"What troubles you?"
"The past. The things I have seen."
"Why dwell on that which is gone? It is not logical."
"Forgive me, t'sai, I speak with all respect to the one who is my elder, but your efforts to aid me in finding logic will not be of assistance to me. My mind has suffered trauma. Logic is a tool to aid its healing, one that I am using to the full, but it is not a cure."
"What of meditation?" T'Lyra asked.
"It is very helpful, but also a tool, and ultimately limited. It cannot replace REM sleep."
T'Reya considered this. "You must be very tired."
"I am." There was the medication. He availed himself of it when the exhaustion became too great to bear, but most nights he preferred the fatigue to the mental blanks that followed medication-induced sleep.
They went back to their game. Having no knowledge of the game, he could not follow what was happening. The cards moved quickly back and forth between them, and piles of cards built up. Finally, T'Lyra said, "I concede."
T'Reya shuffled the deck. The cards were brightly colored and had gilding on the edges. "You should have him see to your eye."
"It is of no matter," T'Lyra said, at the same moment Veral asked, "What of your eye?"
"Vom-krizhiv," T'Lyra said. It was the local term for a benign growth on the third eyelid. It was not a threat to health or vision, but it did cause pain when the inner eyelid closed.
"I will see to it," Veral said. A month ago he could not have so casually offered to treat a patient, but as his father had predicted, his confidence had returned. "How long have you had it?"
"A year, perhaps."
Veral raised an eyebrow. He kept his voice neutral when he said, "The local clinic, I suppose, is closed."
"Since T'Gi went away to the war," T'Lyra confirmed.
"Will she return?"
"She lived," T'Reya said. "The injury to her brain makes it unlikely that she will practice medicine again."
"Where do you go for treatment?"
"Klan-ne," T'Lyra said.
Klan-ne was neither close nor convenient. A terrible thought occurred to him. "Have many people been delaying medical treatment?"
"Not for anything serious, but small things, yes. It is not worth two train rides and a six hour wait to have something minor seen to."
"I was not aware that the wait time was as bad as that."
"They took the doctors for the war."
He closed his eyes. Vulcan had offered up its children on the altar of the war, and that altar had burned hot. The suffering had not been confined to those sacrificed.
How foolish, how self-centered of him, not to have realized before now how badly the lack of medical personnel would have affected the people left at home. He knew that they had leaned heavily on older doctors, too frail to be sent into a war zone, some of whom were no longer even fit to be practicing medicine at the level that was demanded of them. He knew that they had closed local clinics and rationed non-critical care. But it had not fully dawned on him before, the real cost it would have had in the patient population.
The critically ill, like T'Lin, had been cared for and cared for well, but what of small things that were not so small when they caused someone to live with an aching knee or a painful eye condition or an uncomfortable intestinal disorder for months without relief?
He rose and excused himself with a bow. One of the house computers was down two flights. He logged on and sent a message to the central medical office, asking permission to use the local clinic for a day, to treat T'Lyra's eye, and anyone else who had been delaying care because of the inconvenience and the waits involved in going to the hospital in Klan-ne.
He checked his personal messages and found a note from Selesh. A few minutes later, as he was finishing his response, and long before he had expected it, an answer from the central medical office appeared on his screen.
He was welcome to use the clinic for a day, or for several days, or for many months if he wished it. He was in fact, welcome to take the clinic as his own, and if he did the medical office would supply him with any supplies he might need, and a house if he required one, and anything else that might aid in his comfort if it was in their power to do so. It was a letter that was only this side of begging him to take the clinic. He sat back, considering.
Rural clinics were a struggle to man even at the best of times. The challenging work was in Shi'kahr. If one could not secure a post there, one went to Nal'shin or Han'shir, where one would see a large, diverse population, and that was assuming that one did not simply go off world. A skilled doctor would be welcomed on any one of hundreds of planets or space stations. The work there could prove most challenging of all, and give one the opportunity for new discoveries that could make a career.
Some areas were forced to make due with a medic who had no special aptitude or training in the mental arts. A few very rural towns had been given modified EMH programs which were of course never used. Veral wasn't certain what logic had suggested that a population that viewed a healer's touch as something very nearly sacred would accept a computer for a doctor. He suspected it was less logic than desperation.
Of course a fully equipped medical shuttle could be anywhere on the planet in ten minutes, and dire emergencies could be beamed directly to one of the hospitals, but the lack of rural medical access took a toll. The general health of the population suffered if one was forced to take a day, or even two, to see a doctor.
Still, there was a reason no one wanted to work in a rural clinic. They presented a steady stream of vaccinations, routine exams, and minor procedures. A truly interesting case might present itself once every five years. And often there wasn't enough work to fill the days. He knew a doctor who worked at a rural clinic in Tra'voth who had sufficient free time to also be an accomplished composer. She found it suited her, but Veral was not so certain it would suit him.
He wrote back, saying that he would take the clinic temporarily, for as long as he remained in Xir'tan, but that he would have to consider any more permanent arrangements. He sat at the computer a while longer, considering the fact that he had gone nearly six nights without a proper night's rest, and wondering if it might be time to use medication, when he felt T'Lin crying out in pain.
He raced to their room and found her struggling to hold the hypospray so that she could inject it into her thigh. He took it from her, and said as he was brushing her hair aside, "It works more quickly this way." But of course she knew that, and was only settling for an intramuscular injection because she did not have the ability to inject herself in the spine. Illogical to state what was known.
He waited with her until the worst of the pain passed, then got the heating pad and helped her arrange herself on the bed so that she would be most comfortable. "Should I leave you?"
He settled onto the edge of the bed and waited. Her eyes were closed, though she was not asleep. He took the medical tricorder from the bag and switched it from lay settings to professional. It told him nothing he didn't already know. The nerve pain had calmed, but was not gone entirely. Her blood pressure and heart rate were high, but acceptable. Her breathing was steady and unlabored, her organ function was good. He put the tricorder away and brushed her hair from her face.
"It is worst at night," T'Lin said. "Every time it happens, I think that this will be the time that it does not stop. This time the medication will not work. I know that it is not rational, and during the day when it is light and there are people around, I can put that thought from my mind. But at night, it is dark. I am alone and half-asleep and my logic fails me."
He stayed silent, trusting in the bond between them to communicate all he wished to say, but had no words for. She opened her eyes. "There is a book on the table."
It was a codex-form book. T'Lin raised an eyebrow and said, "I read it when I am troubled. You disapprove."
"The Mastery is not the work that I would choose when seeking solace."
"It is has a great deal to say on suffering."
"It has far too much to say on suffering. It is a fifteen thousand line poem about someone being tortured to death."
"The torture is hardly the point. The work is about accepting one's fate. In the beginning, the narrator knows they will die and that they will suffer, and they think they have come to terms with it, but it is only when their torture begins in earnest that they learn true acceptance. I have read no more powerful words about the freedom that one gains when they come to terms with pain."
Veral raised an eyebrow. "You speak eloquently, but I am afraid I did not find that which you did in the work. Perhaps I lost the thread of it somewhere during the interminable passages of explicit torture."
"It is a very accurate work."
"It is needlessly graphic, and detailed to the point of dullness. It reads like a medical textbook written by someone with an unhealthy obsession with pain."
"It is pre-Surakian. One must make allowances."
"I can and do. I have read many pre-Surakian works. My father read me The Fall of the City before I could walk, which is, in retrospect, a questionable parenting decision, but even that has more to redeem it than The Mastery."
"We disagree. The Fall of the City is about nothing but slaughter until it becomes about cannibalism." T'Lin tried to adjust her blanket and winced at the movement. Her hands always hurt worst.
"The debate will keep. You need rest," Veral said.
He felt her disappointment. It had the potential to be a fascinating argument. Still, she did not object. She let him adjust her blankets and even hold the glass for her while she drank.
"Taluhk nash-veh k'dular, aduna," he said, and then wondered if he should not have. It was one thing for such thoughts to be communicated by the bond. It was another to give them voice.
"I know," T'Lin said.
The medical clinic needed very little to be re-opened. He found the stasis storage unit fully stocked with common medications and the biobed neatly covered with a sterilizing cloth. T'Gi had closed it methodically and carefully, with every intention to come back here and resume her work. It was troubling to think of her being now unable to do so.
T'Lyra came first, and he treated her eye. He had not known what to expect of the rest of the day. The re-opening of the clinic had been announced, but how busy he would be had been an open question. By the time that he was done with T'Lyra, though, he had several patients waiting, and a steady stream of them came. For the next three days, the waiting room was always full.
It was the first time he had practiced his vocation since leaving the Eian. There were no emergencies, no critical patients here. Yet, it was important work. He saw all of the things that people had been ignoring for the last two years because they did not want the inconvenience of going to Klan-ne, or felt that their condition was not important enough to justify taxing an overworked medical system. He saw joint pain and minor hearing loss and headaches. He vaccinated children whose parents were grateful that they did not have to take an infant on two trains and a ground car shuttle. He assuaged concerns from pubescent adolescents and aging adults that, yes, what they were experiencing was within the range of normal experiences for their age.
It took several days for the initial burst of activity die down. When it did, he spent time between patients reviewing the records for the clinic. Shi'aluk was an inconvenient, out of the way place for the rest of Vulcan, but it was central to the string of towns and villages along the along this part of the coast. The clinic took its patients from Shi'sif and Masutra-menal and Alem-masu Klomak and even as far inland as Slor-masu Klomak. If he took the clinic as his own, he would not be busy as he had been on the Eian or even at the hospital in Shi'kahr, but neither would he have to find a second profession to keep himself occupied.
He was reviewing the records still when he heard a noise in the waiting area. He got up from his seat, and found a man about to leave.
"I am still available, if you need me."
There was an uncertainty about the man. Most people--most Vulcans, he reminded himself, because Vulcan ways were not the ways of the galaxy--would not have allowed such profound indecision to be apparent. He was a man deeply conflicted about seeking help.
Veral waited, not speaking or even moving. Finally, the man nodded slightly, as if to himself and said, "I am Tenak and... Healer, I do not sleep."
Veral took him back into the treatment area. He gestured for him to sit, and took a seat across from him. "Tell me."
"I fought. I believe that peace is preferable, but I have never been a strict pacifist. When the call came, I went to fight without reservation. I was at the second Battle of Chin'toka, among others. It was a...deeply troubling experience." He swallowed hard, but otherwise kept his composure. "Since my return I have nightmares every night. I close my eyes and I see it all again. I survived it the first time. I kept my control. I endured the experience. Once. I endured it once, but now I endure it every night over and over again. I do not sleep, Healer, because I am..." He swallowed again. "And now I begin to experience the memories even in the daylight. I can smell burning flesh in an odorless room. I can hear screaming on a silent night. The worst of it, though, is that I am just so very tired."
"Have you sought help before now?
"No." He closed his eyes. "I know that I need help, but I ought not to. I am Vulcan, raised in the disciplines. Can I not master my own mind?"
"I served on a medical ship during the war. They worked the Vulcans harder than most. They were not wrong to do so. We could work harder and longer than many of the other species there, so it was logical that we did. But I do not think that they realized that it took a toll on us. The emotional races, they see us and they think we are impervious. A Trill patient once expressed surprise on learning that Vulcans do indeed feel pain. We master our fears and we control our grief and we do not vocalize our pain, and because we do not scream or cry, they think that we do not feel. And we allow them to think it, because they do not know our ways, and would not respect our silences if they knew. But we cannot see ourselves as the emotional races see us. We do feel, and we do hurt, and sometimes we do need help."
Tenak appeared close to losing his composure. Veral turned away and kept his mind closed to him, unwilling to do him the indignity of bearing witness to his struggle. When the man spoke again, he was in control of his voice, and Veral turned back. "I only want to sleep. I believe I would fare better if I could sleep. But I..."
"I suffer from nightmares as well. Many nights, I also cannot bear to sleep. I am afraid to."
Tenak's eyes widened just fractionally at the admission. He drew a breath and said, "I was in the garden two days ago. I saw the kastik-hohl-vel and I thought, if I only eat the seeds, I will have rest."
"That would be a rest from which you would not wake."
"I would not dream. I would not remember."
"There are other options, less permanent in nature."
Tenak drew a kastik-hohl-vel seed pod from his pocket. "I have been carrying it with me since then. In case the exhaustion grows too great." Veral said nothing, and made no movement to take it from him, though his instinct was to grab it out of the other man's hand. Tenak sighed and held it out to him. "You are going to have me hospitalized."
Veral took the seed pod and put it on the table. "Do you want to be hospitalized?"
"Do you need to be?"
"That is hardly for me to say."
"I would like your opinion."
Tenak was silent, honestly considering. "I do not believe so. I do not want to die. I only do not want to suffer any longer."
"Is there anyone whom you trust to stay with you, to protect you from yourself should the need arise, while we consider your treatment options?"
"You will permit me to call him when we are through, and tell him all that has been said here?"
"Will you allow me to meld with you? What I need to do will be invasive. I will do my best to respect your privacy, but I may glimpse things you would rather I did not."
Tenak nodded again, but it was clear he struggled not to flinch when Veral raised his hand.
A meld as thorough as this, with a mind in great pain, was one of the most difficult of the healer's arts, and it left Veral drained. Tenak, unused to such experiences and by his own admission exhausted and in mental distress, was pale and drawn when Veral finally dropped his hand. The meld had confirmed, though, that Tenak could safely be left in the care of his brother.
Tenak looked ready to faint, so Veral waited until his brother arrived to discuss treatment options. He was almost an hour with the man's brother, and by the time he had finished prescribing a medication regimen and arranging a time to come and aid with meditation and discussing the protections required to keep Tenak safe, he felt ready to faint himself. On the Eian he had pushed himself past this state on a nearly daily basis. Toward the end of his time there, he had often started his day feeling as badly as he did now. Now, though, he knew that he could not safely see another patient. He closed the clinic and returned home.
He had gone too long without proper sleep. He felt tired enough to sleep without medication, but he could not bear the thought of the dreams, not now. T'Lin found him on the edge of the bed, examining the hypospray as though he had never seen one before.
He looked up at her. "This medication will put me into such a deep state of sleep that I will not wake even for a nightmare, or for much of anything else, and it interferes with memory formation, so that if I do dream, I will not remember it. It also leaves me unable to form memories for a few hours after waking. I do not like to use it, yet I know I should."
T'Lin sat down next to him. "Use it. I will stay with you while you sleep so that you will not be vulnerable though you sleep so deeply, and I will stay with you when you wake, so that you may fill in your mental blanks with my own memories."
He stared at her, shocked at her perfect understanding. "Thank you."
"Do not thank logic, aduna. Taluhk nash-veh k'dular." I cherish thee.
Veral lay down and pressed the hypospray to his arm. The last thing he felt before sleep claimed him was her hand against his forehead.
On the twentieth day the clinic was open, T'Lin came to him in the middle of the day. He was rearranging the furniture in the office when she walked in.
Seeing her, Veral opened his mind entirely to the bond, but he sensed nothing amiss. T'Lin's mind was calm and, now, amused.
"I am perfectly well. I came to see if you wanted to eat. The first of the ug'yon-kur harvest was brought in yesterday. Have you ever had it fresh?"
The scarlet colored sea plant was a dietary staple throughout the planet, but he had only ever eaten it dried and ground into a coarse meal. Fresh, it was served in long, fat slices.
They were not the only ones who had come out for the first taste of the harvest. The line to be served was long, and after they had gotten their food, it was difficult to find a place to sit. They could have returned to the clinic to eat, but the day was too fine and clear to stay inside. They found at last an open section of the sea wall. The sea and sky were calm.
T'Lin handed him his bowl of ug'yon-kur and a utensil. It was tart and sweet.
As he watched the people pass, he remembered thinking that T'Lin lived far from civilization, and belatedly corrected himself. This too was civilization. It was said that people from Shi'kahr forgot that Vulcan had more than one way of life. Perhaps he had been guilty of that. The culture of Shi'aluk was vibrant. It was not identical to the one he had grown up in, but no healthy planet with a sizable population had a monolithic culture. This was a place, a people, that he could grow to appreciate. He had already grown to appreciate them.
He looked at T'Lin.
"I am going to stay here, and take the clinic as my own, if you have no objections," Veral said, once they had finished eating.
T'Lin's eyes were bright. He could feel from her something rather more than contentment. "I have no objections," she said, with perfect composure.
"We can cohabitate, or not, as you prefer."
"Of course we will cohabitate," T'Lin said. "As for the rest of the details, they will keep, along with our debate about The Mastery and The Fall of the City, which I have not forgotten. Let us for now simply enjoy this moment."
The wind came gently off the sea. Around him people ate the harvest and talked of mundane things and went about their lives. A student was arguing with her tutor about Y'Nashal's more abstruse philosophical essays. A few children were swimming. Two women wove a net in the way that their ancestors had done for millennia.
Veral closed his eyes and let the peace wash over him.