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A man who cannot move can do little else but think.
Christopher Pike had always been an active man. This was not to say that he couldn't occasionally lose himself in a good book or a magnificent sunset or the eyes of a beautiful woman. It didn't mean he never thought deep thoughts or took a moment or ten or thirty to sit quietly and contemplate the meaning of life. It only meant that he did all of these things against the background of a need to move, to do, to participate, to make a difference.
As his ship's doctor once said, "A man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or turns his back on it and starts to wither away."
Phil Boyce had been preaching to the choir when he said that. In the thirteen years since Enterprise had left Talos IV behind, Pike had been more active, more engaged, more "in the moment" than ever before in his always-active life. It was clear to anyone who knew him that he had been driving himself, though whether toward something or away from it only those who knew him well could truly say.
Not a few wondered if it had to do with whatever it was that compelled Starfleet Command to enact General Order 7 following Enterprise's mission to Talos.
Pike couldn't talk about it, of course. No one except those who had been to the surface and those who briefed them afterward had any idea what had transpired there, and even they did not know what Pike, as the last to beam up and the only one to see Vina as she truly was, knew about the Talosians and their power.
Not given to talking about himself at the best of times, Christopher Pike was especially reluctant to share the fact that he had spent those years away from Talos IV wondering if he would ever again be able to distinguish reality from dream.
All that had ended in a burst of light and noise and chaos and incredible, unbearable pain, on a cadet ship in a remote sector beyond Starbase 11 that Starfleet used for training exercises.
"Starfleet ought to decommission those Class-Js," Commodore Mendez grumbled when Fleet Captain Pike contacted him out of courtesy because they were passing through his space, and because Mendez had just been assigned to Starbase 11 to relieve Commodore Stone. Pike himself had put in a year at this particular base when he was first promoted to fleet captain. "But you didn't hear me say that, Chris."
Christopher Pike's handsome face had filled Mendez's viewscreen, his smile wry, those black eyebrows above the piercing blue eyes always frowning slightly no matter what the rest of his face was doing.
"Well, considering you've just broadcast it over an open frequency, José, you can't blame me if you end up with your ass in a sling."
Mendez was a less active man than Pike, a scholar in his spare time with degrees in heuristics and etymology, perfectly content to warm a desk on a starbase and vacation on Earth once a year to see his grandkids. The irony of Pike's words (it was not Mendez, after all, who would end up quite literally in a sling) would haunt him for a long time after this conversation was wiped from the official records.
"Be careful, will you, Chris?" Mendez said sincerely, his deep voice made that much deeper by his concern. "Those ships had structural quirks when they were built, which was before you were born and damn near before I was. They're due to be decommissioned within the year, and I'm not thrilled about the fact you've been assigned to take a shipload of green kids out to the middle of nowhere in one of those rust buckets -- "
"Yes, Mother," Pike had interrupted him, then softened his smile to assure Mendez he was taking him seriously. "José, I know the region. And I think after over twenty-five years on active duty, I just might know how to captain a ship under less than optimum conditions."
"Chris, I didn't mean -- "
"This baby was okayed at Planitia before we left the Sol System. She'll fly us there, she'll challenge these soft-handed kids on maneuvers, and she'll fly us home."
"So you say," Mendez sighed, resigning himself. The two men had exchanged some small talk after that, and Pike promised to lay over at the starbase for a drink or two on the way back.
Neither man knew that the next time Pike arrived on Starbase 11, there would be no drinks, no celebration, but the return of a broken man.
Following Pike's "recovery," if such it could be called, Mendez had seen to it that he got the best suite in the medical wing, on the top floor of the administration building, where the view was best. One of the round-the-clock medical aides who saw to Pike's needs -- which pretty much meant everything, considering his immobility -- would position the motorized chair at one of the tall windows, at an angle which allowed him to overlook the distant hills and, since the planet's atmosphere was so thin, a realm of stars almost as glorious as one might see from the viewscreen of a starship at station-keeping.
This, Pike supposed, was meant to distract him, at least once in a while, from the fact that he was trapped inside his own body, unable to do more than communicate by sheer force of will, enough functioning motor neurons remaining to move the chair in an awkward chugging motion from time to time, affect a simple signal transducer to beep once or twice, and nothing more.
He could blink his eyes, sometimes move his head, but the machines did everything else. With careful concentration he could operate the transducer to blink once for yes, twice for no. Some of the medical experts who had examined him weren't sure he would even be capable of that much longer. The consensus was that his condition was degenerative. Off the machines for even a moment, he would begin to die.
What he could do, without restriction, was think. Remember the horrors he'd been through, acknowledge the time lost to unconsciousness and immobility, imagine the horrors that lay ahead, hope the doctors were wrong, hope against hope that it was all a dream and he would wake to find himself as he once was, sound of wind and limb, ready to take on the most mundane assignment, as long as he could buy back his freedom...
...only to wake to find that it was not a dream, and none of what he had once been able to do would ever be possible again.
One for yes, two for no.
Too bad, Christopher Pike thought, that there is no signal for "Let me die."
A man who cannot move can do little else but think. Until the day a few months later when he understood why Spock had come for him, all he could think of was death.
Had it really been only days ago? Spock had all but kidnapped him, against his protests.
(Not a protest against being taken. In truth he hadn't had time to decide if he wanted to go or not. His objection was to what he knew Spock would face if he were caught -- would face in any event, unless he also chose to remain on Talos. Had he even thought it through? Or were the Talosians compelling him, as they so easily could? It was all of that roiling through Pike's mind that had him agitating himself, focusing his will on blinking "No, no, no!" Meaning "Don't do this to yourself. Not for me, not for anyone. The cost is too great and I will not be the cause of it!")
But Spock was adamant and, as he had said himself with characteristic understatement, he had it well planned. Well planned, that was, except that he'd miscalculated Jim Kirk's dogged determination that no one and nothing intervene between him and his ship. The shuttle with Kirk aboard had given chase until it ran out of fuel and, Spock being Spock, he was compelled to rescue the very officers who would put him on trial for his life.
The court-martial was the pièce de résistance, seeming so real that even Pike had believed Mendez was really there, and that Spock was doomed. Then Captain Kirk had asked the question, "Chris, is this what you want?"
What other answer could he have given them, after all of that? Before Spock came for him, death would have been welcome. Now he had been given a chance at life again. And more.
Now he had what he wanted. Didn't he? Why then did the thought of seeing Vina again, after all this time, after all he'd been through to get here, fill him with such trepidation?
How do you say hello to a woman you haven't seen in thirteen years -- a woman you thought you'd never see again -- when ever since that time you've kept her tucked safely away in your heart?
What was he afraid of? Was it the thought that, having almost been the cause of Spock's execution, having committed himself to spend the rest of his life as only one of two humans in this place, he had made a mistake? Was it the thought that Vina would not be as he remembered her? Would she appear as the "wild little animal" the Talosians had wanted him to see, still in her teens, vulnerable and innocent, yet possessed of a kittenish sex appeal enhanced by a wisdom that surpassed her years? Or would she appear as the woman she would have been had the Columbia never crashed, but returned to Earth, where he and she might have met at some Starfleet get-together, where his interest would have been polite but nothing more, because she was, after all, thirteen years his senior?
Would I really have been so shallow? he asked himself, and got no answer. His former life had been burned away by the trauma he had just survived. In the ordeal of the past few months, he had learned to disregard the trivial. Thus, he told himself, if their fates had been different and it had been Vina instead of someone else he had met at that diplomatic reception a little more than a year ago, he'd have found her just as attractive, if in an entirely different way, as he had when he thought she was a girl of eighteen and the only human on Talos.
There was a third possibility, Pike realized as he waited in the antechamber deep belowground where the Keeper --
No, he corrected himself: the Magistrate. When they captured you that first time and kept you in a cage, "Keeper" was appropriate. But hir proper title is Magistrate, and s/he has offered you another chance at life. The least you can do is set aside your old bitterness and begin anew.
The Magistrate, then, had given Spock the coordinates to beam Pike down to one of the hundreds of interconnected chambers in one of several subterranean cities to which the surviving Talosians had retreated after they had all but destroyed the surface of their world. Following a brief farewell, Spock had gone back to the ship, and the Magistrate -- looking, Pike thought, more smug than ever -- having completed the necessary niceties that saw Spock on his way, had merely observed Pike for a moment without speaking, even in his mind, then floated ethereally into a nearby lift, leaving him alone.
Now he heard the hum of the lift mechanism and surmised it was the Magistrate returning, bringing Vina to him. His anticipation all but overcame him as he considered the third possibility.
The Magistrate might have used the power of illusion to vanish, instead of the mundane device of the lift. So too, the Magistrate might have made Vina appear out of nowhere like some magician's trick. Why the drawn-out process of leaving and returning, unless -- ?
Unless, Pike thought, Vina and I are to be presented to each other this time as what we "truly" are, she a "lump of flesh," to use her cruel, self-deprecating words, a woman whose body was as damaged as --
As yours is? he chided himself. Face it, Mister. It's not how Vina will appear to you that worries you, but how you will appear to her. When you left her here thirteen years ago -- abandoned her, some would say -- what she saw was a handsome, vital young man in his prime -- strong, in command, exactly matching her image of perfection. What will she see now? Will they let her keep that idealized image of you she's been holding on to all this time, or will she see the ruined husk of you, your body insensate, useless, your mind still teeming with words and thoughts you can only communicate to other humans in binary, one light for yes, two for no?
Oh, yes, eventually the Talosians will give you each back the illusion you have of the other but, knowing what lies beneath, will that satisfy either of you?
It's not how she will seem to you that frightens you more than any enemy real or imagined, but how you will seem to her. What will you do if the sight of you is so repulsive to her that she turns away?
His thought process got no further than that. Suddenly, she was there.
"Vina..." someone said. Was that his voice? He no longer remembered what it sounded like. How were the Talosians doing that? In reality, he couldn't speak. But the Talosians were giving him the illusion that he could, just as they were convincing him that he was moving his arms, freeing them from the confines of the chair, his hands finding the mechanism that would detach all the sensors and tubes that connected him to the machines that breathed for him, forced his heart, his lungs, his digestive system, the entire complexity of his autonomic nervous system, to keep functioning.
He watched himself as if from a distance as he opened the front panel of the chair, only to discover that somehow all those mechanisms had vanished and he was free, free to move his legs, stand up as if he'd only been resting there, as if the chair was not the complex device it was, but merely a conveyance that he could discard at any time, walk away from, and move toward Vina and take her hands in his.
Her hands were cool, small and delicate, just as he remembered them; when he held them, they fit neatly into his, as if they were meant to be there. Don't think of it as illusion, he warned himself, or you'll go mad.
"Christopher..." she said in return, her voice as sweet as he remembered, her small, heart-shaped face tilted up toward his, those feline eyes always a little sad, even when she smiled. "Chris..."
Had she called him that the first time? Had she called him anything at all? Or had she been so afraid of losing him, so desperate to convince him to stay, that she hadn't dared to even speak his name?
"It's good to see you," he said carefully, and a puzzled expression, for the briefest moment, crossed her face. Then he remembered that she'd been living with an image of him, another illusion created by her keepers, since he'd left. "Then it is really you?" she asked, as if she wasn't sure. She slipped one hand out of his and touched his face, resting her hand on his cheek as if she'd done it a thousand times before, and Pike shook off the thought that she probably had. "They said you'd been ill, that this time you chose to come here.... I didn't dare hope...not that I wanted you to be ill, but..."
She stopped, as if she didn't know what she was saying even as she said it. He found himself taking her chin in his hand, something he'd wanted to do from the very first.
"I know they gave you the illusion that I'd never left," he heard that voice again, which must be his. He searched her face and it was just as he remembered it, and also not. She was no longer the lithe adolescent he'd wanted to cherish, keep safe, and yet she was, even as she was the mature woman she would have been if he'd met her in real life and her ship had never crashed on Talos IV. If he looked closely enough, he could see the devoted wife of several years' familiarity, and the Orion slave girl, and a thousand other incarnations, but only one Vina. As his thoughts raced, his voice seemed to have a mind of its own. "But I'm real this time, and I'm here with you. Here to stay."
Though even as he "said" this, he wondered if it was true. Because, in a sense, he'd never left her at all.
"Not your first love, then," she suggested knowingly, reaching her arms up to clasp her hands behind his neck, "but your last?"
"The only one that counts," he said, wondering if that was true as well.
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and for the first time illusion and reality overlapped and melded, because the kiss was exactly as he'd imagined it, if he'd only ever really imagined it, and he cupped her face in his hands and leaned into the kiss, no longer bothering to figure it out.
"I want you to tell me everything," she said, leaning back against his chest, his arms around her, the two of them contemplating the horizon as the sea breeze made ripples in the saw grass and wafted her silky hair against his chin, tickling pleasantly. "I want to know your whole life, from your earliest memories until the day before you first met me. Then everything that happened from the time you went back to your ship until Spock brought you here."
"Here" at the moment was a beach house belonging to an aunt, where she'd spent school holidays as a child. It was peaceful and private, and seemed a safe place to begin.
"Everything, hm?" he asked, settling into the illusion, trying not to search the edges to see where the scenery ended. Pay no attention to that Talosian behind the curtain, he thought grimly, forcing himself to relax.
Where should he begin? At the beginning? As the old saying went, "First you were born, and then what happened?" What was the first thing he remembered? Or would she find his recounting his entire childhood and adolescence tedious?
Should he start instead with the less emotionally fraught stuff, the swashbuckling adventures of the starship captain, youngest in the Fleet until James T. Kirk had taken Enterprise from him, to his great relief at the time? Should he tell her about the wonders he had seen -- about the spacefaring Leviathans, living creatures transformed into interplanetary vessels? Or about a Vulcan gemstone so huge and fraught with history that even a Vulcan would kill to possess it? Should he tell her of the strange little watering hole in San Francisco where time seemed to stand still, and improbable tales were told? Or about a crewman named Dabisch who had a transparent skull? Or perhaps about a race called the Calligar, who lived on the other side of a time portal that opened only once every thirty-three years? Or of a sad and mysterious Trill woman named Audrid, who once upon a time, in a cavern deep inside a wayward comet --
No, he stopped himself. Begin from the beginning. What's the first thing you remember?
Pike closed his eyes and allowed himself to feel. Of all the faculties he had lost, that one was the most devastating. Following the accident he had lost all feeling, physical and emotional. At first his ruined nerves had screamed at him day and night as if they were on fire, and neither painkillers nor the auto-biofeedback monitors he'd been hooked up to could help him. In time the agony had eased and he'd gradually gone numb, and while at first he'd considered it a blessing, it had proved otherwise.
The emotional numbness was worse. All he'd wanted to do was to die. Until he overheard the doctors, making the mistake of thinking his hearing was as affected as his other senses (it was not; if anything, it had grown more acute since the accident), discussing his case in the hall outside, and he'd learned exactly what they expected the delta rays would ultimately do to him. Then, perversely, offered a slow and vegetating death, all he'd wanted to do was live.
Now here he was, as if all of that had been a dream and only this was reality -- moving, speaking, feeling his own skin again, hearing his heartbeat rushing in his ears, aware of the scent of...something...it took him a moment to identify it as sea air and a touch of jasmine, and the scent of the bark of a particular tree he'd encountered on a world devoted to pleasure, and...
How did they do this? How did they know? He would ask them about that later. He had, after all, a life's worth of time.
He cradled Vina in his arms, rested his chin on the top of her head, thinking. Where should he begin? Ah, he had it now!
"Let me tell you about my first love..." he began.
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