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.