Creatures Great and Small by Nancy W.

Alternate Universe "Star Trek"

Author's Note 1: This takes place in the specific Star Trek universe of Deep Space Nine, and for you die-hard Trekkies, I'll explain away any discrepancies by saying it's because the USS Maverick is a law enforcement vessel and not a Federation starship like Enterprise, Defiant or Voyager. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. :-D The "role" of Skel'ar is 'played' by Timothy Olyphant, just because he makes such a damn fine-looking Vulcan.

Author's Note 2: Please don't blame my wonderful beta readers for any errors, since I went back and tweaked this a few times after they read through it. Any mistakes are more than likely my fault, not theirs.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Marnie for her help and especially for her encouragement. She keeps the train on the track. And a galacticly huge thank-you to Sue M, whose very helpful suggestions helped to make this the story I wanted it to be.

Captain Chris Larabee shut down the comm channel in his quarters and cursed.

The "surprise" inspection really shouldn't have come as a surprise. They were routinely conducted by Star Fleet and the Maverick was way past due for one. It happened to every ship in the fleet eventually.

It wasn't that he was afraid of the Inspection team, but...

He raked his fingers though his short, blond hair as he studied his logs. The Maverick's performance record was okay. More than okay, actually. In fact, "beyond credibility' described it better. As peacekeepers in the volatile intersection of the galactic quadrants known as the Four Corners, they had been involved in more than the usual share of police actions, skirmishes, full-scale wars, and just plain weird occurrences. His hand-picked crew rose to every challenge, just as he expected them to, but at first glance, shipboard discipline appeared to be casual at best, with the personal agendas of his officers often open to question. As befitting a ship with a name like Maverick, his officers were more or less renegades, albeit hand-picked ones.

Larabee sighed heavily. Surprise attacks were the rule with the Star Fleet inspection team, and he had been given only 12 earth hours to get his crew and his ship in line with a mountain of Star Fleet instructions, most of which he had read and then ignored.

The crew of the USS Maverick had 12 hours to get its act together and pretend that they cared what Star Fleet thought about how they ran their ship.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee figured he'd get the dirtiest job out of the way, first. He went to LTJG Tanner's stateroom, knowing that even though he was off-duty, the Vulcan was probably awake. Vin seemed to require more sleep than a typical Vulcan, but he still slept less than a human.

Vin greeted him with an easy smile - something most Vulcans never did - and let him in. Chris had known other Vulcans, and their quarters were usually depressingly functional and austere. Vin, though, could become fascinated by the simplest things. He had been raised by archaeologists, and artifacts from other cultures were of special interest to him, so his room looked like a small museum. He also had a huge cat named Lila that slept on his bed and filled the entire cabin with her contented purr.

The wall screen was lit up with visual playback that didn't look like anything from the ship's entertainment library. Vin picked up the controls and gestured at the screen where Chris saw an old couple with a black horse-like animal, straddled by a small, very excited little boy. Chris felt a familiar ache in his heart. The child's grin revealed a large gap where his front baby teeth had been. The boy had to be about six or seven, not much older than his own son had been when he'd died in a transporter accident that he suspected, but could never prove, was no accident at all.

He did a double take when the camera zoomed in on the youngster and he noticed the pointed ears.

He looked at Vin, who smiled somewhat sadly. "My mom and dad. I like to look at these sometimes. I miss them." Vin had never said how his foster parents had died, but judging from their appearance in the video, it very well could have been simply from old age. Chris hoped that was the case. He knew how it hurt to lose someone before their time had come.

A third adult appeared on the screen, mounted atop an animal like the one Vin was riding, only larger. He was considerably younger than the couple, with thick, dark hair and broad shoulders.

"Your uncle?" Chris asked. He'd met Vin's uncle Vladimir a few months before. He was older now, of course, but Chris still recognized him. He'd been the one who had found Vin on Tasco 7 as a small boy, alone and injured, the only survivor of some horrific catastrophe that had claimed his family. Vin was named for him, although Vladimir Ilya Nemudrovich had somewhere along the way been shortened to simply "Vin."

Vin nodded. "We used to have fun. He was more like a big brother."

Larabee watched the small boy on the screen, a beautiful child, with large blue eyes, elfin features and a winsome smile. It would have been very hard not to have been captivated by him, as the three adults in the film appeared to be. He was also an exceptionally skilled rider for such a small boy.

Vin shut the viewer off. "Did you need somethin' Chris?"

Vin looked at him with such open respect and trust that Chris felt guilty for the words as he spoke them. "You need to cut your hair, Vin."

Vin blanched - if that was possible for a green-blooded Vulcan. Chris understood why. Vin not only didn't mind being mistaken for a human, he went out of his way to make it happen. Keeping his hair long enough to cover his ears was one means to that end.

Unfortunately, the new Secretary of Star Fleet Operations - who was bald and proud of that fact - had decided that no one else in Star Fleet needed hair, either, and had instigated hair-length restrictions that harkened back to the era of the microchip. The instruction had been promulgated, and the Maverick had received a copy. Larabee had ignored it as superfluous, until now.

Vin swallowed hard. He'd seen the order when it had come down from Star Fleet, so he couldn't argue. "Okay, Chris," he said softly, dismay more than apparent in his voice.

"JD, too," Chris added, just so Vin wouldn't feel singled out. Ensign Dunne had no reason for not cutting his hair. He simply didn't.

Chris explained about the Inspection Team's impending arrival and then added "You have 12 hours to make sure the Navigation division is up to the standards and guidelines set forth in the current OPREGS. Can you do that?"

Vin blinked at him. "No."

Which was, of course, a completely honest answer of the type Vin always gave him, but not what Larabee wanted to hear.

"Well, can you at least fake it?"

"I will falsify the records," Vin suggested.

Larabee held back a smile. Vin would have no problem lying, cheating or stealing for him if he asked him to. He was that loyal. "No.... no... don't do that.... Just do your best to make it look like we pay attention to the bureaucrats, okay?"

"Okay, Chris."

Larabee turned to leave. "After you get that haircut."

+ + + + + + +

It took Larabee longer to find Ensign Dunne. The kid was theoretically the duty officer that day, but he wasn't in the chartroom, or the bridge, or his stateroom. He knew better than to be in Ten Forward or the holodeck when he was on duty, but Larabee checked there, too. He hated having to ask the ship's computer to locate a member of his own crew, but finally, he had to.

"Ensign Dunne is in Supply," was the response.

Larabee frowned. What the hell was Dunne...

Of course. He should have guessed. Ensign Wells, the pretty young Supply Officer who had come aboard two months before. Buck had practically had to shove the kid's tongue back in his mouth the first time he'd set eyes on her.

He entered Wells' office without announcing himself - or tried to. The door jammed when it was halfway open so he had to manually force it the rest of the way. He was quick enough to discover Ensign Dunne stretched out on the carpeted floor, but Ensign Wells had managed to get her small body behind her desk, and was hurriedly adjusting her uniform. Both of them turned from slightly red to crimson when Larabee picked up the spent dilithium fusion rod that had been holding the door closed.

JD sat up. "Uh... hi Captain. I was just... uh... getting some supplies."

Larabee glared at him. "And did you get everything you came for?"

Ensign Wells looked like she wanted to crawl under her desk. It would have been fun to torment the two youngsters, but there wasn't time. He gave them the word about the Inspection Team, and then told Dunne to go get his hair cut. "After that, I need you to pull the surveys on the Aegelis 4 cluster and..."

"Uh... you mean the actual charts?"

"Yes, is there a problem?"

Dunne looked sheepish. "Well, they are sort of still rough drafts."

"So pull up the rough drafts..."

"Well, when I say rough draft..." JD winced. "The numbers are still in my head."

Larabee knew that Dunne wasn't lazy, and he wasn't stupid. And he knew he could count on him in a fight. But he did have to be inspired occasionally to get his actual job done. "Get them out, as quickly as possible," he ordered tersely and then turned to Ensign Wells. Luckily, there would be no problem with her. The little Supply Officer thrived on record keeping. The Star Fleet Supply Manual was her bible and she could recite its rules and regulations like a holy mantra. It would not have even occurred to her to not go "by the book." Maybe she would be a good influence on Ensign Dunne.

Although, looking at the pair, with their rumpled clothing and disheveled hair, he realized that more likely, Dunne would be a bad influence on her.

Larabee was handing Ensign Wells the Inspection Team checklist when the ship's klaxon sounded. There were different alarms for different events, but the sounding of the klaxon never signaled anything good. This particular alarm hit Larabee like a punch in the gut. There was a breach in the hull.

Normally, the ship's automated systems took care of the damage that routinely occurred due to normal wear and tear - even a microscopic particle that could pierce their hull plating if they were traveling fast enough.

The breach alarm meant it was something fairly substantial that had slipped through their deflector shields and penetrated both the inner and outer hull.

He hit the comm button, "Damage control, status report."

Chief Petty Officer Chanu's voice was calm. "We've got depressurization on deck 9, section D. It's been evacuated and sealed off, but we'll need the hobbits."

"Hobbits' was ship slang for the damage control team comprised of the members of the crew who had been trained to work in "middle earth" - the space between the ship's inner and outer hulls. He turned around to address Wells and Dunne to find himself facing an empty room. The two Ensigns were already on their way to their Damage Control station. He headed for deck 9 and met Lt. Tanner in the corridor. Tanner was also a 'hobbit.'

They arrived at D section to find Dunne and Wells already donning pressurized suits. Tanner grabbed a third suit. Chanu would call the shots. Rank was set aside on a damage control party, and Chanu knew the Maverick's hull structure better than anyone else on the ship.

As soon as everyone was ready, the Chief would open an access panel leading to the cramped crawlspace between the hulls.

Larabee knew that Tanner had an aversion to closed in spaces, but time was critical, and the first on the scene were the first into the suits. Larabee did wonder why Tanner had volunteered for that particular assignment.

He wanted to ask Vin if he was okay with the assignment, even though he knew Tanner would do it even if he wasn't.

As if sensing the unspoken question, Tanner nodded and pulled the helmet over his long hair. Chris tucked the stray strands into his suit for him. "Be careful," he told the team.

The sensors had determined exactly where the two hulls were breached, and oddly, they had not been penetrated at the same spot. The 10-centimeter hole in the outer hull was almost a full meter aft from the similar sized hole in the inner hull. It was Ensign Wells who discovered the culprit - a chunk of space debris the size of a baseball. It was lodged behind a conduit in a storage compartment. It showed no signs that it was radioactive or posed any other threat, so, they decided to leave it until the repairs had been effected. Even though it looked harmless, it would have to be studied to see how it had slipped through their shields.

Chanu determined that some of the repairs would have to be done from the outside, so Tanner and Dunne were sent out. Tanner didn't have a problem with EVA: Larabee suspected that, like most individuals who had managed to make the cut into Star Fleet, he actually enjoyed being outside the ship. And it was certainly preferable to being between the hulls.

The repair job ended up taking almost ten hours. For some reason, the patching material wasn't making as firm a seal with the hull as it should have been. Vin was outside of the ship, having a problem with one of the sensors that detected flaws in the seal. It wasn't registering anything, one way or another. Rather than have him come in and then go out again, JD decided to take him a new sensor. He slipped out of the airlock with no problem but when he went to attach his umbilical to the outer hull, he couldn't make the connection.

"I think something's stuck in there," he told Vin.

Vin floated over to JD's side to steady him, but, it was no good, the umbilical wouldn't connect. "Better get back inside," he said. JD nodded inside his suit, but when he turned to pass Vin the sensor, there was a crackling sound accompanied by a blue electrical arc that suddenly pushed him away from the hull with such force that Vin wasn't able to grab him.

"Shit!" JD exclaimed as he drifted off into space.

"Don't worry, I got ya," Vin said, and pushed away from the hull towards JD. He reached him just as he maxed out his tether, which would have been a perfect catch, except when it reached its full length, Vin's tether separated from the hull also.

Chief Chanu watched in disbelief as the two young officers drifted off into space. He hit his com badge. "Chanu to bridge. We need to get a transporter lock on Tanner and Dunne - their tethers have broken free," then he added "Son of a bitch..."

"I'm on it," came Lieutenant Commander Standish's voice over the comm.

Tanner and Dunne were in no real danger - yet - but the Chief couldn't understand why the tethers had parted like that. He'd inspected them just two days before, and to have them both break free was unthinkable. "Stay together, you two," he said to them.

"Don't worry, we ain't goin' nowhere," Vin said.

"Well, actually, we are.... " JD commented, then laughed softly, and then began to hum the tune to a popular song called "Drifting in the Spheres."

Standish hurried to the transporter room. Chief Nettie Wells had a fix on the two young officers, but the transporter wouldn't lock. "What the hell?...." she muttered.

Standish examined the control panel. It took him awhile to see it - a faint frequency signature that was somehow interfering with the transporter.

"Any time, Commander," Chief Chanu said impatiently.

"Hold on, Chanu... there's a slight problem...." Chief Wells answered.

"I got two crewmen drifting off into space," the Chanu said, "that's a bigger problem."

"We know... we know.... damn it!" Commander Standish added.

Vin and JD looked at each other, their faces lit up by the eerie glow of their helmet lamps. They were able to hear the conversation between Chief Chanu and the transporter room.

"Not good," JD said.

"Nope," Vin agreed.

Ezra contacted the Captain. "If I can't get a lock on them, you're going to have to maneuver the ship so we can retrieve them manually."

"On it," Larabee said. He told the helmsman to stand by. Making small movements in a starship wasn't easy. The engines were not designed to move the vessel a few feet at a time, towards a very small target.

Ezra, meanwhile, was analyzing the interference, and noted that it was intermittent - he had about a half-second window between signal bursts. He waited for the right moment and quickly locked the transporter and energized.

Vin and JD materialized in mid-air about three feet above the transporter pad. As soon as they were reintegrated, they dropped to the pad in a heap with a loud thunk.

Vin was face down with JD face up on top of him. Their backs were pressed together and their packs has somehow gotten tangled.

"Damn, you're heavy," Vin complained. But he was much stronger than a human and easily managed to stand up, causing JD - who actually weighed less than he did - to slide awkwardly off the pad.

"Ouch," the Ensign grunted as he landed on his butt.

"Tanner and Dunne are on board," Ezra said into his comm.

He was helping them out of their suits when Captain Larabee arrived to make sure they were okay. He held back a grin of relief on seeing that they both were. Chanu had determined that the hull seal was sound, but the damage control party was sweaty and exhausted, and had roughly 48 minutes to prepare for the arrival of the Inspection Team.

Realizing that the Maverick was in deep shit no matter how the cards fell, Larabee rescinded his order for Vin and JD to cut their hair. "Just go get cleaned up and into your dress uniforms," he told them.

They could at least look like they weren't trying to blow off the inspection.

Chanu had to get back to Engineering, and Ensign Wells was frantic to get her office in order in the time that remained.

Vin and JD, however, looked at the situation with resignation. There wasn't much they could change in 48 minutes, so, they decided to remove the chunk of space debris from behind the conduit.

It was nothing but a common-looking grey rock. Still, the fact that it may have drifted in space since the beginning of time only to end up on their doorstep was not lost on the young officers.

"I get to keep it," JD teased as Vin removed the access panel for the conduit.

"Says you," the Vulcan grinned. With the panel off, they could see the rock plainly. Reaching it was another matter. JD's arms were too short. Vin was able to touch it, but quickly pulled his hand back, shaking it. "It's hot... or cold... or something." He looked at his hand, frowning.

JD glanced around the area. "We need a stick to poke it out," JD said.

"Right. Lots of sticks on a starship," Vin replied.

JD remembered the spent fusion rod in Casey's office. With a triumphant grin, he patted Vin's arm. "I'll be right back."

He returned a few moments later expecting to find Vin where he'd left him, but the Vulcan was nowhere to be seen. The panel was still open, so, JD reached in with the rod and edged the rock out. He picked it up and immediately felt a twinge up his arm like a mild electric shock.

"Ouch!" He dropped the rock back on the floor and got down on all fours to examine it more closely. It still looked like an ordinary rock. He scanned it with his tricorder. No toxins. No radiation. No electrical discharge. Weird.

He decided to put on a pair of work gloves before he handled it again, just to be on the safe side. Heading down the corridor to the gear locker, he ran into Vin - literally. As he rounded a corner, the Vulcan was just standing there.

JD immediately sensed something wasn't right. Tanner's eyes were glassy and his skin was unnaturally pale.

"Vin?.... you okay?"

It seemed as though Tanner didn't even hear him.


Tanner blinked. "Huh?"

"What's wrong, Vin? You don't look so good."

Tanner shook his head slightly. "I'm okay.... I just... I'm okay."

"Well, you don't look okay. We should get you to sickbay."

"No! I said 'm fine!" Vin insisted. "We gotta get ready for the inspection team."

"No way we're going to be ready," JD laughed.

Vin smiled. "Reckon not."

His concern evident, JD nudged the Vulcan. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah... just a little tired. Where's the rock?"

JD had forgotten all about it. It was still lying on the floor where he'd left it when he went to fetch the gloves. The two of them headed back to retrieve it. JD was about to warn Vin about the electric shock thing, but he was too late. Vin had already picked it up.

With a sharp gasp, Tanner's body suddenly went rigid for a few moments and then, he dropped to his knees. JD had no idea what was going on... Vin appeared to be in pain, but, he didn't cry out. He softly muttered the word "No" before he fell on his side. His body began to tremble and JD quickly realized he was having some kind of seizure.

He knelt beside him and slipped one hand between Vin's head and the floor. "Shit!" He activated his comm link. "Sickbay, this is Ensign Dunne. We have a medical emergency on Deck 9 section D!"

Dr. Jackson's voice responded. "On my way!"

By the time the medical team arrived, the seizure had subsided and Vin looked like he was merely sleeping. That, in and of itself, however, was cause for Jackson to be concerned.

"Lieutenant Tanner?" he nudged the Vulcan lightly, and got no response.

Jackson scanned him with a medical tricorder and frowned.

"Is he okay?" JD asked. "What happened?"

Dr. Jackson shrugged. "I don't know.... the tricorder readings are all normal... Well, normal for a Vulcan.... We'll need to take him to sick bay for a full scan."

As they wheeled the gurney into sick bay, no one was surprised to see Larabee waiting for them. He was already in his dress uniform, and looked mildly annoyed that someone had gone and gotten themselves hurt minutes before the inspection team arrived, until he saw that the patient was Lieutenant Tanner.

Tanner was waking up by this time, and appeared disoriented until he spotted Chris.

He smiled slightly and said, "You look right purty, Chris." Then he looked around and realized where he was. "What happened? Why am I here?"

"You passed out," JD explained.

Larabee noticed the Ensign for the first time and noted he was still in his dirty uniform. "Ensign Dunne, why are you here?" he asked.

"Because I was with Vin when he...and... uh... well, I just wanted to make sure he's okay."

"Dr. Jackson will take care of that. The inspection team will be here in... twenty-seven minutes... Go get cleaned up."

"Aye, sir."

Vin was attempting to sit up. Jackson eased him back down.

"I need t' get cleaned up, too," he protested.

"You need a full body scan," Jackson said. "We need to find out why you collapsed."

"I didn't collapse," Vin protested. "I just... uh..."

"No argument," Larabee said, then turned to Dr. Jackson. "I want a full report as soon as you know anything."

"You'll have it."

Larabee looked at Vin. "You do what the doc says," he warned him.

+ + + + + + +

JD really meant to follow Captain Larabee's order, but, he remembered the rock and went back to Deck 9 to get it, first.

He pulled on the gloves he'd left behind and picked up the dull grey chunk of... whatever it was. Even with the gloves on, he could feel a tingling sensation in his hands. When he held the fragment up for closer examination, he realized that the surface was not actually making contact with the glove. It was as if the rock was just floating there - a fraction of a millimeter or so away from the fabric. He thought it was an optical illusion at first, but as he turned it and rotated it in his hand, it appeared that way from every angle.

"What the hell?..."

He tried closing his fist on it, but it slipped out of his hand like it had grease on it.

The Maverick was not a research or exploration vessel. She was a peacekeeper, and, as such, she wasn't assigned a science officer, but if she had been, JD figured it would be him. So, he took the rock to the science lab, and only meant to look at it for a minute or so. The sounding of the boatswain's whistle announcing the arrival of the inspection team took him by complete surprise twenty minutes later.

"Crap!" he muttered to himself. He pulled off the gloves and attempted to straighten his uniform, but realized it was a lost cause. First of all, he was in the wrong uniform, and there was absolutely no way he was going to make it to Ten Forward to join the assembled crew to greet the inspection team, anyway.

Captain Larabee was sure to notice he was missing. The only question was exactly how pissed off he was going to be.

He decided to stay where he was and hope no one bothered to look in the seldom-used lab. He picked up the rock again and realized an instant too late that he had forgotten to put the gloves back on. "Shit!" he cursed to himself, dropping it quickly. He wasn't too worried about it - he'd already run several tests on it, and still had detected nothing harmful. But, there was still that weird paper thin force field - or whatever - around it that made it extremely interesting. Maybe Larabee would forgive him his curiosity.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee would do his best to be cordial to the team of Star Fleet auditors and button pushers. It would do no good to try to bullshit them. The Maverick was not prepared for a surprise inspection and nothing could be done about that other than to just roll with the punches. It wasn't as if they'd relieve him of command - most senior officers didn't want to serve on a peacekeeper. It wasn't glamorous enough.

It probably wouldn't escape anyone's notice that three of his officers were missing. Dr. Jackson was in sickbay with Vin Tanner, but he had no idea where Ensign Dunne was. Chris flashed a glance at Buck and nodded to the space in the wardroom muster where Dunne should have been. Buck raised his eyebrows and offered a quick shrug, then signaled Ensign Wells to move over and fill in Dunne's empty spot. Larabee sighed. He was going to kill that kid.

The inspection team had no sooner materialized on the transporter pad when yet another alarm screeched throughout the ship. It was followed by a recorded warning. "Biohazard detected... Deck 8 section Alpha is now being quarantined...." Everyone waited for the routine disclaimer, " This is a drill ," but none was forthcoming.

"Shit," Larabee cursed as he mentally ran through the ship's schematics. 8-A was nowhere near sickbay. "I'm sealing off this section!" he told the transporter operator. "As soon as we make sure there's no contamination," he nodded at the inspection team, "send the inspection team back."

"Now see here, Captain...," one of the inspectors protested.

Larabee didn't hear the rest of what he had to say. He was already sealing the hatch to the transporter room.

As Chris ran down the corridor, tossing his dress jacket aside as he did, different compartments were automatically sealing themselves. By the time he arrived at 8-A, Dr. Jackson and the hazmat team had donned biohazard suits and were waiting for the compartment to depressurize before going in.

"What's going on?" he asked Jackson. "Is anyone in there?"

Jackson nodded. "Ensign Dunne."

Larabee hit his comm unit. "Ensign Dunne, can you hear me?"

"Yes, sir," came the tentative reply.

"Are you okay? What's going on?"

"I don't know... . I'm okay, I think... A little light-headed maybe."

"That's the depressurization," Jackson told Larabee. "The oxygen level won't drop much further," he assured, then frowned at his tricorder readings. "Air quality is normal," he said. "Whatever it is, it's not airborne."

Larabee was grateful for that, and the fact that most of the crew was assembled in Ten Forward, a safe distance from whatever had triggered the alarm.

When the depressurization was complete, the hazmat team entered the compartment.

Despite his earlier claim that he was fine, by the time they reached him, Ensign Dunne was lying on the floor, unconscious.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee stood outside the isolation cubicle as Jackson and his team went to work on Ensign Dunne. They transferred him carefully from the portable isolation pod they'd used to transport him to sickbay and then quickly stripped off his clothing and safely discarded it.

In less than a minute, diagnostic readings were appearing on the monitor screen above his bed. Larabee didn't know how to read the indicators, but he did know that a "normal" reading was when the arrows all lined up. JD's readings were all over the place.

Jackson was barking orders that were quickly and efficiently followed, and in just a few short minutes, JD's vital signs began to stabilize. Chris let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

He felt a presence beside him and turned to see Lieutenant Tanner, who was not supposed to be out of bed. The Vulcan appeared very unsteady on his feet, although he no longer actually looked ill.

He took him by the arm. "You need to get back to bed Vin."

"I ain't sick," Tanner protested.

"We'll let Dr. Jackson decide that."

"Is JD okay?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know." He led Vin back to his bed. "How are you doing? Do you remember what happened?"

"Not really... I remember being in the corridor and JD saying something to me... but... It was like my head was somewhere else. Next thing I know, I woke up here.... Hey, what about the inspection team?"

Larabee smiled wryly. "I sent them packing. I guess we can thank them for the fact that most of the crew was all in one place when that biohazard alarm went off, though."

The door to the isolation cubicle whooshed open and Nathan Jackson walked out, his face grim.

He motioned Larabee away from Tanner's bed so they could speak privately.

"How bad?" Chris asked.

Jackson shook his head. "His temp peaked at 109 - a human body can't withstand a fever that high for more than a few minutes before brain cells start to cook. His blood pressure was so high I'm surprised he didn't have a stroke. His endocrine system is going nuts... I have never seen anything like it. We got him stabilized and then put him in stasis, so he's okay for the moment."

Chris frowned as he tried to process what Jackson was saying. "What's causing it?"

"We're still trying to figure that out, but it looks to me like a particularly nasty strain of viral meningitis."

"But, that's treatable, right?"

"Most of the time... but there are a few non-terran viruses that can affect humans that are extremely difficult to control. All we can do for those patients is treat the symptoms."

Chris took a quick look back at the isolation chamber. "Where the hell would he have picked up an alien virus?"'

Jackson's eyes glanced in the direction of Lieutenant Tanner. "His illness could be related to whatever is affecting Vin."

"But Vin's not that sick..."

"Vin is a Vulcan, Chris. This might be something that's relatively harmless to them. I need to run some tests on both of them, then compare and analyze the results... Tanner, what are you doing?!"

Chris turned in the direction Jackson was looking. Vin was out of bed, again, and was standing with his forehead pressed to the glass of the isolation cubicle. His hands were spread out on the partition as if he were trying to reach through it.

He didn't respond to Jackson's question. He appeared to be in some sort of trance.

"Careful," Jackson admonished. "He might be having another seizure."

As the two men edged closer to the young Vulcan, he began to mutter to himself. "So many gone," he whispered, his voice choked with emotion. "So many... won't survive..."

"Vin, come away from the glass," Chris said gently.

But when he put his hand on Vin's shoulder, the young officer turned to him, his eyes glassy. He whispered, "What happened? They don't know what happened...." before he crumpled into Larabee's arms.

Chris lifted him easily and gently placed him back on his bed. His monitor readings were set for a Vulcan, and all of the arrows quickly lined up.

Jackson shook his head. "I don't get it..." Larabee could hear the frustration in the doctor's voice. "...according to the bioscanner, he's perfectly fine."

"Vin?" Larabee gently stroked the Vulcan's brown curls. "Can you hear me, Vin?"

Tanner's eyelids fluttered open. Larabee half expected him to say he was fine, but instead, he grabbed the Captain's forearm tightly. "Somethin' really bad happened, Chris. Somethin' terrible."

"Where?" Larabee asked. "To who? JD?"

Tanner sat up and clutched the sides of his head. "Ow," he moaned. "M' head hurts bad, Nathan."

Vin rarely complained of discomfort. Like most Vulcans, he seemed to have a pretty high tolerance for pain, so Larabee knew he had to be hurting to say something.

Nathan ran his tricorder over Vin's head and down his spine. He looked at Chris, perplexed. "Nothing," he said.

"It can't be NOTHING!" Vin shouted. "It HURTS!"

"Take it easy, Vin," Chris soothed. Even though Vin had never learned the Vulcan disciplines for controlling his emotions, Chris had never seen him like this.

Jackson administered a hypospray that quickly brought relief.

Vin lay back. A few minutes before, he'd looked fine. Now, he looked exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes and a light sheen of sweat covered him.

"Somethin' ain't right in my head," he said softly.

"You said something terrible happened...," Chris prodded. "What were you talking about?"

Vin frowned. "Wish I knew. I just know somethin' did."

Jackson set the bioscanner to do another full scan. "Some Vulcans have innate telepathic abilities..."

"Not me," Vin scoffed. "I ain't even a real Vulcan."

"Biologically, you are," Nathan said.

"Hell, I never even met another Vulcan until I was 20. At least, not one I remember."

Jackson looked up suddenly, frowning. He adjusted the bioscanner slightly.

"What is it?" Larabee asked.

He called up a screen that displayed Vin's central nervous system. Most of the outlines in the diagram were blue, but there were four tiny specks of red. Nathan pointed to them. "This shouldn't be there," he said.

"What is it?"

"It's an indicator of a chemical change in the neural synapses..."

"How bad is that?" Larabee wanted to know.

"It's not a question of good or bad... This shouldn't be happening, not to a Vulcan..."

"...Hey, I'm right here..." Vin reminded

Nathan continued. "...These readings... if he were human, they would indicate the early stages of schizophrenia."

"I ain't crazy," Vin protested. He felt Chris's hand gently grasp his shoulder.

"No one said you were," Jackson assured him. "But, it does appear you may have a neurochemical imbalance of some kind."

"Can you do anything?" Larabee asked.

Jackson shook his head. "I'll comb through the medical data base and see if I can find any reference to something like this."

"Any idea what's causing it? Has this got anything to do with what's wrong with JD?"

"I'm not detecting any biological pathogens or toxins, but just because I'm not seeing them doesn't mean they aren't there. I am going to suggest that Star Fleet quarantine the ship, Captain."

Larabee was about to protest, but then, he realized the doctor was doing the right thing. If the rest of his crew had been exposed - and chances were, they had - the risk was too great.

"Is JD going to be okay?" Vin asked softly. Larabee knew the two young officers were good friends. JD was naturally open and gregarious, but Vin didn't make friends easily, so his concern was real.

Jackson didn't lie to him. "I don't know, Vin. Right now, he's pretty sick... Have you two been anywhere or done anything unusual lately?"

Larabee answered, "They were both on the damage control team earlier today, along with Chief Chanu and Ensign Wells."

"I better get them both in here and check them over," Jackson said.

At that moment, the sick bay doors began to slide open, and Commander Buck Wilmington gave them an impatient shove when they weren't fast enough.

"What the hell's going on, Chris?" he asked Larabee. "The inspection team has their panties in a twist because you sent them back, and now they can't seem to find you to ask why, so they're jumping down my throat."

"Got two crewmen down, Buck. I don't really give a rat's ass about the inspection team right now." Larabee was unapologetic.

Wilmington joined him at Vin's bedside. He frankly didn't give a rat's ass about the inspection team, either, especially when he got a look at the Vulcan. "Hey, elf," he said gently. "You don't look so good."

"Ain't feelin' too good, either," Vin said. "Reckon JD is worse off, though," he nodded towards the isolation chamber.

Wilmington turned sharply and when he saw JD in the isolation cubicle, he was at the partition in an instant. His palms flat against the glass, Buck stared in dismay at the motionless youth. He'd taken the young Ensign under his wing, and regarded him as a little brother. "JD?" he spoke into the comm unit. He got no reply and turned to Nathan. "What happened? What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know yet," Nathan said truthfully.

"JD?" Buck said apprehensively, louder this time.

"He can't hear you, Buck," Nathan explained. "He's in stasis."

"Stasis?!" Buck's eyes flashed with concern, and a hint of frustration. "What the hell for?"

"I'm working on that," Jackson explained, "but for now, I had to do it to keep him stabilized."

Buck shot Larabee an angry glance. "You might have let me know, Chris."

Jackson put a hand on his shoulder. "It's not his fault, Buck. Whatever this is, it came on extremely fast. Less than two hours ago, both of these men were fine."

Not quite ready to let go of the anger, Buck stared at the floor before slowly raising his head. "Is it contagious?"

"I have no idea," Jackson admitted. "But, it might be a good idea if the two of you started checking up on the rest of the crew. If anyone isn't feeling a hundred percent, have them report to me immediately." His tone softened when he saw both officers look back at the young men they considered surrogate family. "We're doing all we can for them. I promise I'll let you both know if there's any change in their conditions."

+ + + + + + +

Twenty-four hours later, the remainder of the crew was still healthy, including Chief Chanu and Ensign Wells. While he was glad for that, Dr. Jackson was still stymied by what had caused the sudden illness afflicting Lieutenant Tanner and Ensign Dunne.

He had taken blood and tissue samples from both patients and had sent them via courier to Deep Space 9, where the resident physician, Dr. Julian Bashir, had a neutron microscope available. Jackson had requested one at least a dozen times, but because they were not a research or "first contact" vessel, they did not have a priority. He would talk to Ezra Standish and fix that. Ezra could get anything.

Tanner claimed he was feeling better and wanted to return to his cabin, but Dr. Jackson could not allow that, not as long as he didn't know what they were dealing with.

"But what about Lila?" the Vulcan had asked. "She'll wonder why I haven't come back."

Nathan scoffed. "She's a cat. Vin. As long as the replicator fills her dinner bowl, she probably won't give you a second thought." If Lila had been a normal-sized cat, he probably would have allowed her in sickbay, but, she weighed close to 50 kilos, and her idea of play had inflicted painful injuries on some members of the crew, Vin included. "How's your head feeling?"

"Still hurts, but not like it did."

There did not appear to be a reason for the Vulcan's persistent headache, but conventional migraine remedies did seem to be helping.

"Can I get up? I'm tired of just lying here."

Jackson didn't see any reason not to allow that. "Just don't overdo it," he admonished as he helped Tanner to his feet. He was alarmingly unsteady, and although he shrugged off Jackson's assistance, he had to hold onto the wall or furniture for support.

He slowly made his way to the isolation cubicle.

"Nathan?" he said softly.


"There's somethin' in my head..."

Jackson frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I'm seeing things... only they aren't images or sounds.... more like I'm feelin' somethin'... Somethin' that happened somewhere... Some horrible, awful thing that no one understands." He looked up at Jackson with haunted blue eyes.

"There haven't been any reports of any cataclysmic events that I know of."

The Vulcan turned to him. "You have to let JD out of stasis."

Jackson shook his head. "I can't do that, Vin. He's very ill." He looked down Vin's fingers clutching his arm.

"I think he's dyin'," Tanner replied sadly.

"I think you need to lie down, Vin," Jackson said, taking Vin's arm. "I want to do another neuro scan."

"Because ya' think I'm crazy."

"No, because I think you're sick, and I can't figure out why."

Surprisingly, Tanner acquiesced and let him do the scan without protest. The result was discouraging. The areas of compromised neurons had increased dramatically. Most of the damage was centered in the midbrain - the area that in humans was associated with motor coordination, vision, hearing and body temperature and Vulcan brains basically functioned the same as a human. Ironically, the damage was not yet significant enough for Vin to be showing symptoms, yet, he was.

Nathan hoped to hear from Bashir soon. Right then, the prognosis for both of his patients was looking less hopeful by the minute.

+ + + + + + +

The Maverick's Security Officer, Lieutenant Commander Ezra Standish, stared at the data on his console, as he had been doing for nearly three hours. There was an odd, very faint, electronic signal emanating from somewhere inside the ship. He'd had Chief Chanu check and recheck the engineering systems and then he'd steadfastly refused to do it a third time, claiming he had real work to do. Standish could have ordered him, but, even he had to admit it seemed like a wild goose chase, since he wasn't able to explain exactly what they were looking for. The signal seemed to consist of a subatomic particle beam of some kind.

Ensign Dunne normally filled the function of Communications Officer, and he was smart enough to act as Science Officer, when they needed one, but he was in sickbay, so Standish had taken it upon himself to run a diagnostic of the comm functions and a full analysis of the signal, all to no avail. He'd tried scanning the ship with an old-fashioned digital scanner and had narrowed the location of the signal's source to a specific section of the ship, but even that made no sense, because there were no communication or engineering systems located in that area. All that was there was Ten Forward, Sickbay, the mess hall, the gym and the holodeck.

Figuring his best chance was the holodeck, he had gone there himself and run a complete diagnostic. Nothing.

The strange little blip was on an obscure frequency seldom used by anyone, and never used by Star Fleet. Plus, it was so faint that only someone with Standish's level of expertise - and those individuals were few and far between - would even notice it.

He would have been willing to dismiss it as a harmless glitch somewhere in the Maverick's multitude of systems and redundant systems and redundant-redundant systems, were it not for one thing: Standish had worked with security systems literally since he was old enough to reach a console. He had learned that certain patterns that were common to most intelligent species, even those who did not possess a true spoken language. The signal he was detecting was repetitive, with regular increases in intensity.

Those were the almost-universal characteristics of a distress call.

He'd keep looking, as long as it took.

+ + + + + + +

"Not possible," Nathan Jackson said to the image of Dr. Bashir on his comm screen. "Vin Tanner was raised by humans. I'm not sure he even knows what mind-melding is."

"Some Vulcans have a natural ability to do it," Bashir pointed out. "With proper training, they can become quite effective, but even without training some of them can still do it."

"But wouldn't he have known?"

Bashir sighed. "I only know what I've read. A Vulcan can be forced into a meld by another melder. He doesn't have to be a willing participant for it to be successful. He might not have known what it was."

"But who could have done it? He's the only Vulcan on the ship..."

"All I am saying is that all of his test results point in that direction."

Jackson was becoming annoyed with the other doctor. "What if you're wrong?"

"Then, we'll have to look again," Bashir said. "But, I've searched every Vulcan medical database and repeated the neutron scan... I'm certain it's Pa'Nar Syndrome."

Nathan shook his head incredulously. "What can I do for him?"

"Unfortunately, you cannot do anything. He needs to be treated by a Vulcan."

Nathan bristled at that. "There is nothing a Vulcan doctor can do for him that I can't."

"He doesn't need a doctor... he needs a Vulcan psychiatrist."

Nathan now understood the reason for Bashir's hesitancy. Vulcan psychiatrists were about as common as unicorns. "Where do I find one?"

Bashir shrugged. "On Vulcan."

Jackson knew he'd have no problem getting Larabee to set a course for Vulcan, but he wished he had something more concrete to go by than one doctor's opinion.

"What about Ensign Dunne?" he asked Bashir.

The doctor's face was replaced on the screen with a graphic display of the young officer's nervous system. As with the scan he had done on Tanner, the normal areas were in blue, but much of JD's brain and spinal cord were lit up with angry red patches.

"You were right on the preliminary diagnosis," Bashir commented. "It's some type of meningitis...."

The screen switched, until it was a close up view of a group of objects that reminded him of anemones - thick, bulbous bodies with a corona of short cilia at one end. That was just a vague outline, though. They were so small that even the powerful microscope did not provide a clear image. Though their shape was uniform, they varied in size, and oddly, they all appeared to be oriented in the same direction. Many of them were clumped together. Jackson didn't recognize the organism. "What is that?"

Bashir's face reappeared. "I don't know. I haven't been able to find anything like it... It does not appear to be damaging the nerve cells themselves, although they are interfering with the proper conduction of neural impulses...."

Jackson had been afraid of that. "I've got him in stasis right now, but I can't keep him there forever. Any suggestions?"

Bashir looked grim. "We can try synthesizing antibodies to this organism... but that's going to take time. Given the rapid onset of the symptoms and their severity, we may be too late."

Jackson thanked Bashir and shut off the comm unit. There was no way he was going to give up on JD. He wished he had the facilities Bashir had at his disposal to work on a treatment himself, but the fact that he didn't wasn't going to stop him from trying. Bashir had narrowed his search field down to pathogens known to cause meningitis in humans - but the fact that the organism was not actually damaging the nerve cells contradicted the term. Meningitis meant inflammation, and there wasn't any. He entered the images of the organism into his own system and then set it to cross-reference every pathogen ever known to exist, a process that would take several hours.

He donned a protective suit and entered the isolation cubicle. He frowned when he looked at the readout. JD was in stasis, so he should have been in a coma-like state, but there was definitely brain activity. It appeared to be random electrical impulses, but they were there when nothing should have been.

"Ensign Dunne?" he said softly. "Can you hear me?"

There was no verbal response - he hadn't expected one - but there was a sudden spike in activity. Jackson was dumbfounded. Dunne could not possibly have been awake. His body temperature was 89 degrees, and his heart was almost stopped.

He checked the stasis settings. They were where they should be.

Amazingly, Dunne's left arm suddenly moved and he moaned slightly. What the hell? His brain activity was now spiking all over the place.

Nathan took hold of JD's hand. "Take it easy, Ensign," he said softly. "You're going to be fine," he lied.

JD returned his grasp with an astonishingly strong grip. "Help..." he gasped.

Jackson was at a loss. He couldn't sedate a patient who should not have even been conscious.

JD's grip tightened. "Help me..." the boy pleaded.

Jackson was startled by a heavy-handed tapping on the glass partition. It was Lieutenant Commander Standish.

"I need to come in there," he said.

Normally, Jackson would have said 'absolutely not,' but nothing was normal here, so he couldn't see how it would hurt. "Suit up, first," he said.

Standish did so as quickly as possible, and let himself through the airlock. "How is he?" he asked.

Jackson shook his head. "I don't know... He's in stasis but he definitely has brain activity... he's trying to wake up."

"Can he do that?"

"He shouldn't be able to, but he is."

Standish whipped out his tricorder and began a scan of Dunne's body.

"What are you doing?" Jackson frowned, not overly pleased with Standish's intrusion.

"I've been detecting a faint signal coming from somewhere in the ship. It's almost undetectable. Most people would have not even noticed it," Standish explained. "It took me awhile to discover the source.... " He looked at Jackson and gestured toward JD. "It's coming from him, and I think it's a distress call."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson had never faced a situation like this. JD was fighting to regain consciousness. There was no way in hell he should have been able to do that, but he was, and Jackson had no idea what kind of damage that was doing to the boy's already weakened body. He realized he didn't have a choice, and quickly began to reverse the stasis.

As soon as he did, Dunne's temperature skyrocketed. Nathan was prepared for that and administered a hypospray before the boy went into convulsions.

Ezra stepped back to give Nathan room, and he ran into Vin Tanner.

"Vin? How the hell did you get in here?" The answer to that was obvious. Vin had simply let himself in without regard for the quarantine. He was barefoot and wore only pajama bottoms. So much for protective gear.

The Vulcan put a hand on his shoulder. "Help me get to him, Ezra," he said.

At the sound of Vin's voice, Nathan turned around. "What the hell? This is isolation Vin, you can't be in here!"

The Vulcan smiled slightly. "Too late now." He pitched forward and grabbed the rails of JD's bed.

Jackson tried to pull him away, but he shouted "NO!" and shrugged him off. Then, he quietly added, "I need to be here."

JD's eyes fluttered open. "Vin?" he rasped.

"'m here, JD," Vin replied.

"They need help..."

"I know."

"What? Who needs help? What's going on?" Nathan asked.

Ezra cautioned him with a hand on his shoulder. "Let them be," he said, even though had no more idea what was going on than Nathan did.

Vin reached down and gently took JD's hand.

JD's grip tightened the same as it had when Nathan had touched him.

Vin's body went rigid and he cried out. He appeared to be in pain, but he didn't try to pull his hand away. "No," he gasped. "No, no, no."

JD struggled to sit up, but he wasn't able to. Both men were sweating, their breathing labored. "We have to fix it, Vin."

Tanner gasped, "I know," as his knees buckled.

Jackson caught him before he hit the floor.

"Vin!" JD called out as Vin's hand slid from his grasp.

Tanner's hand groped the air in front of him until he painfully smacked the edge of JD's bed. Nathan was already helping him up, but he seemed to be feeling for a hand hold rather than looking for one.

As Ezra calmed JD, he noticed Vin snatch at the air and reached his hand out to steady the Vulcan. Vin didn't realize it was there.

"Nathan, I don't think he can see," Standish said softly.

Nathan frowned. He slapped a button on the wall of the isolation chamber and a second bed rolled into view. He gently hoisted Vin up and sat him on it.

A quick examination revealed that his pupils were not reacting to light. Oddly enough, Tanner did not seem particularly distressed by the fact.

"Vin?" Nathan said tentatively.

"'m here," the Vulcan drawled. "Ezra's right, can't see a damn thing, but that ain't important right now."

Nathan looked at Ezra, who was equally surprised by the casual comment.

Vin patted the mattress around him. "This a bed?" he asked.

"Yes," Nathan told him. "You're right next to JD."

"Good." Vin carefully eased himself down. "It's better if I'm close to him."

"What's better?" Ezra asked.

"This... thing... in my head..." Vin shivered involuntarily and Nathan grabbed a blanket to cover him.

Vin continued. "Nathan, it's like a million voices screaming... but when I touched JD, it was like... like... they knew someone heard."

Ezra looked to Nathan, "What's he talking about?"

"I have no idea," the doctor replied. Then he said to Standish, "Tell Captain Larabee to set a course for Vulcan. If he has any questions, tell him to come and see me."

"Don't want to go to Vulcan," Vin protested groggily.

"You're going," Nathan said, and added to himself, ' because you're dying and I can't help you. '

+ + + + + + +

"Skel'ar is an old friend," Josiah, explained to Buck, Ezra and the Captain as they shared a pot of coffee in Ten Forward. "If anyone can help Vin, he's the man."

"I never heard of a Vulcan psychiatrist," Buck stated.

Josiah laughed softly. "Mental illness among Vulcans is a closely guarded secret," he explained. "They don't talk about it, they don't write about it, and it's a rare physician who decides to specialize in diseases of the mind. If any scholarly journals on the subject existed - and they don't - Skel'ar would have written them."

"Do you think he can help JD, too?" Wilmington asked hopefully.

"I am sure he will try," Josiah replied.

The counselor didn't want to speculate on JD's chances. He'd spoken with both of the young men, albeit briefly since they were both very weak. The conundrum was that JD's affliction appeared to have a physical cause - a virus that no one had been able to identify. Nathan had compared it to literally every known pathogen in the universe, and had failed to come up with a match. Dr. Bashir at Deep Space Nine was still working on a treatment for it. Oddly, even though JD was very sick, he didn't seem to be getting worse.

Vin's condition, on the other hand, was deteriorating rapidly. They'd sent Skel'ar his scans and the psychiatrist had agreed with the diagnosis of Pa'Nar Syndrome, a degenerative neurological disease that resulted from the Vulcan practice of mind-melding. It usually occurred in Vulcans who carelessly attempted a meld without proper preparation, or who were forced into it. It often took years to advance as far as it had in Vin, though. The illness was treatable, even at an advanced stage, but, the mystery of how Vin had contracted it, and why it was advancing so rapidly, was something they were hoping Skel'ar could solve.

There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the maladies afflicting the two young officers were related. Even Vin and JD believed that. The question was how. When Josiah had talked to them, both of them had tried to explain the link they now seemed to share. Vin's crippling sense of doom was alleviated when he was with JD, and JD's symptoms seemed to ease when Vin was near.

Ezra had studied the strange signal he had detected, and they were, in fact, coming from JD. It wasn't actually being transmitted, like an S.O.S. More as though it were emanating from him, like some kind of bizarre radiation. There was no doubt that the signal was not random, although he had detected subtle changes to it. He wished he could decipher a code or language, but his attempts to do so hadn't met with results.

Ezra voiced a question he'd been considering. "Do you think it's possible for the subconscious mind to influence the disease process?" he asked Josiah.

"Absolutely. I don't have personal experience, but there are many documented cases of people developing symptoms because they believed they were ill, or being cured because they believed they would be."

"I'm not talking about a cure... This signal that's coming from JD - do you think it's possible he's generating it himself?"

Josiah let out a sigh. "No offense, Ezra, but you seem determined to prove there actually is some kind of signal. So far, you haven't been able to decipher it. I suspect it's just some type of neurological aberration ..."

"Well, I do not," Ezra huffed.

Nathan walked up and joined them at the table, cutting the argument short.

"How are our 'younguns' doing?" Buck asked him.

"No change."

The frustrated doctor obviously didn't want to talk about it, but, Josiah prodded, "Have you heard from Dr. Bashir?"

Nathan nodded. "The news wasn't good. His attempts to kill the organism met with astonishing failure. Apparently, whatever it is, it can't be killed."

"What?" Buck hoped he hadn't heard that correctly. "Everything can be killed."

"Everything organic , yes. Bashir no longer thinks this is organic. I agree with him."

"What are you saying?" Ezra prodded. "If it's not organic then what the hell is it?"

Jackson set his palms on the table. "Gentlemen, if we knew that, we wouldn't be sitting here with our thumbs up our butts while those two kids slip away right in front of our eyes."

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee stood next to Lieutenant Tanner's bed, waiting for some sign of consciousness. He'd opted to skip the protective suit. Nathan had discovered that JD's illness wasn't blood borne or airborne, and it wasn't on JD's skin, so it was unlikely that it could be transmitted by just being in the same room. Vin showed no trace of being infected, even though he'd been sharing the isolation cubicle with JD for seventy two hours.

Ensign Dunne slept fitfully in the next bed. Even asleep the poor kid looked like he was in pain.

"Vin?" Larabee said softly, grasping the Vulcan's hand. "Can you hear me?"

Vin's voice was barely more than a whisper. "Ya got ice cream for me, cowboy?" he smiled.

Larabee held up a small dish, even though Vin couldn't see it. "Chocolate with chocolate syrup and chocolate sprinkles.... right?" It was synthesized chocolate, of course. Real chocolate, aside from being hard to come by, made Vulcans drunk.

Vin struggled to sit up. "Now I know why you're the Captain." He reached out and Larabee placed his hands around the bowl. Vin found the spoon with no problem, but was clearly having a difficult time holding on to it. Larabee resisted the urge to feed him. That would be too awkward for both of them.

"We'll be in orbit around Vulcan in two days."

"We're there already?" Vin frowned, knowing the trip should have taken much longer.

Larabee had used the wormhole at DS9 to make the jump to the Gamma quadrant and then doubled back towards Vulcan at Warp 9. "I have my ways," he said gently.

"You used the wormhole," Vin stated. "How much trouble are ya in for that?"

Larabee shrugged, but then realized Vin couldn't see him, and changed the subject. "Are you ready for Dr. Skel'ar?"

"No," Vin said with his usual honesty. "Don't much care for Vulcans."

"He's a friend of Josiah's. He can't be all bad," Chris assured.

"Reckon not," Vin agreed. "How is Lila?"

Larabee had agreed to take care of the damn cat. Vin didn't need the added stress of worrying about her. The fact was, she'd clawed him twice, her thunderous purring kept him awake half the night, and she'd coughed up a hairball the size of his boot in his boot. "She's fine. I think she misses you though."

"Thanks for taking care of her."

"Hey, where's my ice cream?" JD asked groggily.

Larabee moved over to his bed. "How ya doin' kid?"

"Everyone thinks I'm dying."

Chris wasn't sure what to say to that. "What do you think?" he asked, curious.

JD seemed to ponder the question for a few moments, before he shrugged and replied, "I think I want ice cream."

Chris looked at Nathan. "Is it okay?"

"I don't see how it can hurt," the doctor shrugged.

Chris patted JD's leg. "I'll have Buck bring you some. I have to go relieve him on the bridge... we'll reach Vulcan in a couple of days," he added as he departed.

"I'd like to see Vulcan," JD said wearily.

"I wouldn't," Vin said around a mouthful of ice cream. "Too many damn Vulcans."

+ + + + + + +

The transporter beam solidified into the form of a typically tall, slender Vulcan who by human comparison appeared to be around forty. Josiah knew for a fact that he was closer to ninety.

He refrained from the bear-hug greeting that he customarily bestowed on close friends, and instead smiled and gave a silent nod.

Skel'ar stepped off the pad and held out his hand to greet the human. "Josiah, good friend," he said as they clasped hands. "It is most agreeable to see you once again."

"You are looking well, Skel'ar," Josiah grinned.

Like most Vulcans, Skel'ar was quick to cut to the chase. "Tell me of this patient of yours."

Josiah frowned. He'd already sent Skel'ar Vin's medical and personal history.

Skel'ar seemed to read his thoughts. "Not the routine details... I gathered those from your report. Tell me a little about his... personality."

Josiah laughed. "I can guarantee, you have never met a Vulcan like him."

"He was raised by humans, you say?"

"Yes, but only after suffering a childhood trauma that he's never been able to recollect. He claims not to remember his Vulcan parents or anything about his life before the Tanners."

Skel'ar stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Unusual. Vulcans typically have quite adequate memories, going back almost to the time of birth. I take it he was not educated in Vulcan customs and philosophies?"


Skel'ar, to his credit, seemed entirely non-judgmental about that.

"Take me to him. I am curious to meet this Vin Tanner."

+ + + + + + +

Vin cocked his head to one side as Skel'ar entered sickbay. "He's here," he said softly.

The Vulcan doctor had not yet entered the isolation cubicle, and had scarcely made any sound. Vin was unable to see him - or anything else - so Jackson wondered how he knew.

Skel'ar waved off the offer of protective clothing. "If your lieutenant has not been affected by the virus at large, I likely won't be, either."

He approached the two beds and stood between them. JD looked up at him curiously.

"Astonishing," Skel'ar remarked, and then stood still with his eyes closed.

"Skel'ar?" Josiah prodded.

"I do not know which of these men is Vulcan," he replied. "How very odd."

Josiah mentally chastised himself for not sending Skel'ar a picture of Vin. The ears of both young men were covered by their too-long hair. But then he realized that wasn't the reason for Skel'ar's surprise. The psychiatrist should have known. As someone with highly advanced mental and psychic abilities, Skel'ar should have singled out Vin immediately.

"It's him," JD pointed at Vin. "I'm JD. I'm human."

Skel'ar placed a gentle hand on JD's temple. "Are you quite sure?"

JD blinked in surprise. "Uh... well... yeah... I guess."

"You're very ill," Skel'ar noted, "yet you have no fear."

JD shrugged. "Yeah, I don't get that myself," he said softly.

Skel'ar turned to Vin. Josiah had told him the young man was blind, so he approached cautiously.

"And you are Vin Tanner," he said.


"An odd name for a Vulcan."

"My parents gave it to me. They were Tanners... my foster parents."

"May I touch your hand?" Skel'ar asked. Josiah knew this was because many Vulcans had an aversion to body contact.

Vin had no such misgivings, however. "Sure," he shrugged.

Skel'ar grasped Vin's right hand and appeared to examine it closely and thoroughly. He then did the same with his left. He frowned slightly. "How old are you, Vin?"

"Twenty-four... somewhere around there."

Skel'ar showed no outward reaction to that, but Josiah knew him well enough to tell from his body language that something was troubling the Vulcan doctor.

Skel'ar excused himself and then motioned Josiah and Nathan from the cubicle, sealing it behind him.

"Is there a problem?" Josiah asked intuitively.

"Possibly," Skel'ar replied. "I realize that Vin has lived among humans for most of his life, so no doubt his mental faculties have developed differently than they would have had he been raised on Vulcan..."

"But?" Nathan interjected.

"Treatment for Pa'Nar Syndrome requires a mind meld. Often several of them. As you know, our life spans are significantly longer than those of humans. By our standards, Lieutenant Tanner is very, very young.... attempting a mind meld with him under any other circumstance would be considered unethical. It's far too dangerous to meld with someone his age."

"How dangerous," Nathan frowned.

"He could be left with permanent damage to his brain. Or, he could die."

Nathan regarded this thoughtfully. "I don't see where we have a choice. Pa'Nar Syndrome will kill him anyway, especially at the rate it's progressing."

Skel'ar nodded. "Quite true. I suggest we begin treatment as soon as he is ready. I will need a small and quiet space. Privacy will also be required, although you will be able to monitor the session, providing the patient allows it."

+ + + + + + +

"What will it be like?" Vin asked Skel'ar, after it was explained to him what the Vulcan physician planned to do.

Vin had heard of mind melding, but he'd never done it, at least that he could remember. Dr. Skel'ar was insisting that he had to have done it at least once or he would not be sick. He was glad Chris was there, at least for now.

"It's different for everyone," Skel'ar explained. "Some find it pleasant, others do not. There is no physical pain involved, although you may experience a headache after it's over."

"Will it get these things out of my head?" Vin asked.

"I cannot make that promise. I do not as yet understand the nature of that to which you refer to as 'things.'" His tone was calm and honest.

Vin seemed to appreciate that. He took a deep breath. "Reckon we should get started, then."

Chris put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You're sure this won't hurt him?" he asked Skel'ar.

"I would not be honest if I promised that. But I assure you, I will proceed with the intent of doing him no harm," Skel'ar answered, and then said softly to Vin, "You are afraid,"

Vin didn't lie to him. "Yeah."

Nathan expected a Vulcan lecture on how fear was an emotion which needed to be suppressed, but none was forthcoming.

"This will be a... unique... experience for us both, I believe," Skel'ar said. "But much is to be gained if it is successful. Keep your focus on that thought."

Nathan had set up his office to according to Skel'ar's direction. There was a comfortable reclining chair for Vin that would support his head and back. Skel'ar explained that normally, he preferred to stand face-to-face with the subject, but Vin's physical coordination had deteriorated beyond the point where he could safely and comfortably do that. The room was dark, lit only by candlelight.

Chris got Vin settled into the chair. "It's gonna be okay, Vin. I'll be right here," he said, then left to join Nathan and Josiah outside the room to watch on a monitor. Few humans had observed a mind meld, and Chris and Nathan were no exception. Josiah, however, had, and he was apprehensive.

"This may get intense," he warned the doctor and his Captain. "But no matter what happens, don't interfere."

Nathan nodded that he understood, even though he didn't look as though he liked the idea. Chris nodded, also, but had no intention of letting things get to the point where he thought Vin's was life was in danger.

Vin's chair was titled back until he was almost lying down. Skel'ar stood behind him so that he could lean over it and be face to face with his reclining patient. He instructed Vin to breathe deeply and concentrate on nothing but that. This went on for several minutes and Josiah could see Nathan was growing impatient. "It works better if their heart rates are in sync," he explained. "I suspect Vin's heart rate is different from someone who was raised on Vulcan

Finally, Skel'ar spoke. "My mind to your mind... imagine our minds as two glowing spheres... yours blue, mine yellow..."

"Blue an' yellow," Vin repeated.

"Now, they are going to touch and then merge... into one sphere... green..."

"Green..." Vin intoned.

"Your thoughts to my thoughts," Skel'ar intoned.

Then, suddenly, both Vulcans gasped. Vin remained still, but Skel'ar's eyes flew open, as if he'd just suffered a shock. He quickly regained his composure, but his hands were shaking.

"What's going on?" Chris demanded.

Nathan looked at the counselor apprehensively.

"I don't know," Josiah confessed.

Nathan checked the monitors. Vin's heart rate and respiration had soared dramatically. "This needs to stop," he said.

Josiah held his arm. "No! Skel'ar knows what he's doing."

Chris fought the urge to rush into the room, and paced instead. Despite the monitor readings, Vin did not appear to be in physical distress. He just hoped Josiah was right.

"We don't know who you are," Skel'ar said in a soft monotone. "Tell us... Tell us how to help you..."

Vin's body suddenly went rigid and he gasped in pain. "We don't know!" he cried out. "What happened!?" he screamed in anguish.

Nathan rushed forward, and Josiah grabbed him around the chest. They were both big men, so it was a struggle. "He's killing him!" Nathan protested. Chris tried to get past them both, but Josiah stopped him, also.

"No, he's not," Josiah said calmly, even though he wasn't so sure. As the struggling eased, he eyed them both. "Are we good, here?" When he saw the pair nod, Josiah released his hold on them. Their attention turned back to the monitor when Skel'ar spoke.

"Vin.... Vin... this is Skel'ar..." the Vulcan said calmly. "Focus on my voice... listen to me... be calm..."

Amazingly, Vin quickly relaxed.

"Vin, I want you to go back in your mind... back to before 'They' were here..."

"'Kay," Vin sighed.

"What is the last thing you remember?"

"The rock...just there...I can reach it... I can get it... JD will be pissed," he laughed softly.

"Let my mind join with yours again, so that I see what you see..."


Vin took a deep breath, but remained relaxed.

Skel'ar's face was impassive, except for one eyebrow that cocked upward slightly after a few seconds. "Astonishing," he said softly. "Do not be afraid... I think I understand."

A flicker of understanding crossed Vin's features. "Oh... yeah... me too... Wow... so many of them..."

"I'm going to break our contact now," Skel'ar said. "Are you ready?"


Chris, Nathan, and Josiah let out the breath they had been holding when Vin opened his eyes.

Vin's vital signs all appeared normal, so Nathan was jolted when an alarm suddenly sounded in the sickbay. It took him only an instant to realize it was JD. He'd gone into cardiac arrest. Nathan pushed past Josiah. "Shit!"

Incredibly, JD was still conscious and looked up at Nathan with pleading eyes. He was unable to speak, but he knew what was happening.

As Chris and Josiah anxiously hovered, Nathan acted quickly to administer a stimulant and then immediately prepared the leads to the cardiac regulator in case that didn't work. The regulator would force electrical impulses through the heart to keep it going until surgery could be performed, should that be necessary.

The stimulant worked, but not as effectively as Nathan had hoped. He quickly applied the leads.

JD was frightened, but surprisingly calm. "I had a heart attack, didn't I?" he said when he could speak again.

"Yes," Nathan replied, trying to appear unconcerned, "but you're okay now." For the moment .

"Still hurts," JD groaned.

"I know... it should be better in a few seconds." Nathan assured.

JD closed his eyes, fighting back tears. "Why is this happening to me?"

Nathan shook his head. "I don't know, son."

"What about Vin?" JD asked softly. "Is he okay?"

Jackson had momentarily forgotten all about the Vulcan. He patted JD's shoulder. "I'm gonna go check on him. I'll let you know."

"'Kay," JD sighed, and closed his eyes.



"Would you like me to ask Buck to come and stay with you awhile?" Nathan asked.

JD didn't open his eyes, and there was a slight tremor in his voice when he answered, "Yeah, that would be good."

+ + + + + + +

As Nathan exited JD's cubicle, he ran into Inez carrying a tray from Ten Forward. On it were two cups of a steaming liquid and two bowls of chocolate ice cream. He looked at it curiously.

"Doctor's orders." She shrugged.

Nathan frowned, but she nodded towards Skel'ar. " That doctor." She entered the office and left the tray.

Nathan returned to Chris and Josiah at the monitor. "Did I miss anything?"

"JD okay?" Josiah asked, even though he knew the boy was, or Nathan would not be at his side.

"For now..."

Inside Jackson's office, Skel'ar was placing a steaming cup in Vin's hands. "This will help," he told his patient.

Vin sniffed at it. "What is it?"

"Plomeek broth."

At the monitor, Josiah glanced at the others and grinned. "The Vulcan equivalent of chicken soup."

"I presume the ice cream was Vin's idea?" Nathan laughed softly.

Chris smiled, "I think he'd live on it if he could."

Vin tasted the broth cautiously. "Ain't bad," he told Skel'ar, which surprised Josiah, because Vin was not a particularly adventurous eater. Plomeek broth was some kind of vegetable concoction that, to most humans, smelled and tasted like moldy turnips. He'd never met a Vulcan who didn't love the stuff, though, so maybe there was a genetic reason they found the taste appealing.

Skel'ar took generous sips of the warm liquid while Vin, after the first taste, gulped it down. Then he told Skel'ar, "We should eat the ice cream while it's still frozen," but then added, "even though it don't really taste bad all melted."

Skel'ar handed Vin a bowl and stared cautiously at his own. "Frozen, is it? I would presume that is why it is called ice cream?"

"Reckon so," Vin said, diving in.

Skel'ar took a taste, and could not hide his reaction from Josiah, who had known him for twenty-five years. "He likes it," he whispered to Nathan, "although he'll never say so."

"The texture and flavor are curiously... invigorating," Skel'ar told Vin when he'd finished. "I believe I will require more."

"I know the feelin'," Vin replied.

"First, I must confer with your physician.... do you wish to be present?"

"No," Vin shrugged. "I need to get back to JD."

"I will need to confer with him, also, after I clear it with Dr. Jackson." The psychiatrist helped Vin to his feet. "You should rest now," he cautioned.

"But, we're gonna help them, right?" Vin asked hopefully.

"Indeed, and soon," Skel'ar affirmed.

Vin already seemed steadier on his feet than he had been before the session with Skel'ar, but when he emerged from the cubicle, Chris gently took his arm to lead him back to his bed. He'd stay with him for awhile, just to make sure he was really okay.

Buck was at JD's bedside, no doubt summoned after JD's frightening episode. The boy looked bad - there was no denying that - but he was resting comfortably, Buck's hand covering his own.

Chris wished he could tell his friend that everything would be all right, but he just didn't know if that was true.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah, Nathan and Skel'ar had gathered in Josiah's office.

Skel'ar folded his hands with his index fingers pointed outward. Josiah recognized that gesture as Vulcan body language indicating something interesting or unusual was about to be spoken.

"My meld with Lieutenant Tanner was nothing short of extraordinary," he said. "His mind is quite disorganized... I suspect that comes from being raised as a human." He gave Josiah a wry look.

Josiah recognized this as Vulcan humor. Nathan did not. "He can't help how he was raised," the doctor bristled.

Skel'ar looked directly at Jackson. "I meant no offense. Indeed, I found him to be quite a refreshing subject. He has none of the inhibitions that are common to our culture. His mind was like reading a profoundly interesting book."

"What did you learn?"

"Imagine if you will," Skel'ar began, and then paused thoughtfully, "a world suddenly and without warning experiencing a cataclysmic event on a global scale. Something horrendous and inexplicable." He closed his eyes briefly. Josiah could tell that he found what he was saying profoundly disturbing. Skel'ar continued, "Now, imagine that the inhabitants of this world possess the same capabilities for mind-to-mind transfer of information that Vulcans do, and that in their panic, their minds send out a signal so powerful that it can be quantified... 'sensed' if you will.

"This collective of minds acted as a transmitter. Vin was the receiver. Only instead of concrete thoughts, he was bombarded by wave after wave of emotion so intense that it overwhelmed even him. Fear, horror, despair, agony, confusion.... Quite frankly, if it had been any other Vulcan, he may not have survived. Having been raised as a human, he was open to these emotions, however unpleasant."

"What are you getting at?" Nathan asked, confused. "Where would Vin have melded with beings in that fashion?"

"And what can we do about it?" Josiah asked. "What did you mean when you told him you would 'help them?'"

"Before I can answer those questions, I must find 'the rock.' Do you know what that is?"

Josiah looked at Nathan, who shrugged.

Skel'ar continued, "As is often the case with physical brain trauma, the memory of the few hours leading up to the injurious mind meld are irretrievably lost. However, at some point, Lieutenant Tanner touched or picked up a rock - or what he perceived as a rock. It was then that the mind meld occurred."

"He melded with a rock?" Josiah said incredulously.

"No... with the millions of inhabitants who lived on it."

Skel'ar made that pronouncement so matter-of-factly that it took Josiah and Nathan a few moments to realize what he'd said.

"What?" Josiah finally managed.

Skel'ar did not repeat himself. Vulcan's didn't make up wild stories, so, he fully expected Nathan and Josiah to accept what he'd just told them, no matter how incredible it sounded.

"I presume this rock is somewhere on this ship," he said.

Nathan finally grasped the reality of what Skel'ar was saying. " In the ship?"

"Yes... it was small enough that the Lieutenant picked it up and held it in his hands."

Josiah and Nathan were clearly baffled, so Skel'ar continued patiently, "We are dealing with very small beings."

"No shit," Nathan affirmed, with a hint of sarcasm that was lost on the Vulcan.

"That is not all," Skel'ar continued. "Dr. Jackson, are you familiar with the Vulcan term 'katra'?"

Nathan wasn't, but Josiah knew its meaning. He explained, "It's the life force - the 'spirit' if you will. The essence of one's personality."

Nathan shook his head. "I still don't understand."

"Imagine the brain - human or otherwise - as a computer," Skel'ar explained. "If all of the data contained therein were to form into a cohesive, non-corporeal entity, that would be the 'katra.'"

He continued, "Having melded with them, Lieutenant Tanner now has the ability to sense the katras of these beings, and because there are so very many, the psychic impression is extremely strong. I sensed it quite plainly when I was melded with him.

"These beings, their world having been seriously compromised, relocated in a desperate effort to save themselves."

"Relocated to where?" Josiah asked.

"Ensign Dunne."

Nathan immediately made the connection. "The organism..."

"Is not an illness at all," Skel'ar said. "It's an entire population of sentient creatures."

"Dr. Bashir at DS9 is trying to find a way to combat it...." Nathan said softly, his voice trailing off at the implications.

"He must stop. If he succeeds, the result would be genocide on an unprecedented scale."

"But JD is dying," Nathan said softly.

Skel'ar was clearly not unsympathetic to that fact. His voice was scarcely more than a whisper when he replied, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

+ + + + + + +

Although now awake, JD had been drifting in and out of consciousness, and Skel'ar had waited patiently for the opportunity to speak with him. Buck remained at JD's side, while Josiah and Nathan stood nearby, and Vin sat beside the bed, his head resting on the mattress. Vin was doing better, but the one session with Skel'ar had not cured his Pa'Nar syndrome. It had merely eased the symptoms and slowed down the rate at which it was progressing.

"The rock?" JD frowned at Skel'ar. "What rock?"

"Before you and Lieutenant Tanner became ill, he attempted to pick up a rock. I sensed this in his memories."

"Oh," JD sighed. "That rock.... it's the thing that hit the hull. It's in the science lab."

"What's it doing there?" Vin asked.

"There was something weird about it, so I took it there to run some tests."

"Please define 'weird,'" Skel'ar prodded.

"It felt strange to touch it - like an electric shock. And it's surrounded by some kind of force field."

"JD, why didn't you tell us any of this before now?" Buck scolded.

"I didn't think it had anything to do with any of...." his arm waved feebly at the array of medical equipment surrounding Vin and himself, "this."

"It does," Vin sighed. "JD, that wasn't no ordinary rock. . . It was a planet."

JD had closed his eyes, and for a moment, everyone thought he'd drifted off again, until he whispered softly, "Bullshit."

Unfamiliar with the term, Skel'ar looked to Josiah.

"He doesn't believe it," the counselor translated.

"That does not, however, make it untrue," Skel'ar said.

"Seriously, JD," Vin interjected. "That was someone's fuckin' planet. An' that ain't the weirdest part. It was full of these little folk, too small to even see."

"Leprechauns?" JD yawned.

"Don't be dumb, JD. Ain't no such thing as Leprechauns."

"Oh, but there are," Skel'ar corrected, then quickly continued, "These beings, however, are much smaller. As small as a... virus."

"And they've all abandoned ship," Vin said.


"They thought their planet was toasted, so they all left," Vin explained carefully.

"Where did they go?" JD asked suspiciously. He suddenly seemed to realize where the conversation was going.

"You," Vin said.

JD looked to Buck for confirmation, and when the older man nodded, he stared at both Vulcans for several seconds, and then simply said, "Fuck."

+ + + + + + +

The rock had been retrieved and sent to a Vulcan science lab via courier, since no one knew whether or not beaming it down would affect the odd energy field that surrounded it.

The next step was going to involve translating the signal Ezra had detected to determine if it was an actual language or something more like Morse code. That task had been handed over to a Xindi serving on a visiting Federation starship. The Xindi were comprised of six sentient species - one extinct - who had evolved simultaneously on their home planet, Xindus, and the language of the Insectoid Xindis bore a remote resemblance to the signal. The translator's name was a series of clicking sounds that humans could not replicate, so some members of the crew had taken to calling her Lieutenant Bug. She did not seem to find this offensive, since after all, she was indeed an insect, albeit a highly intelligent one.

In view of what Skel'ar had discovered, Nathan determined that neither JD nor Vin presented a health threat to anyone else on the ship. He released them from quarantine. Neither of them was healthy enough to leave sickbay permanently, but he did allow them a visit to Ten Forward. JD was so weak he could barely sit up, but he seemed to enjoy being in a place that had a sense of normalcy, especially with Casey Wells.

Vin was more ill at ease.. He was still blind, and only knew what was going on around him by the scattering of voices.

"I feel like everyone is looking at me," he told JD.

Casey giggled.

Vin turned his head towards her. "What's so funny?"

"Vin, everyone looks at you. You're gorgeous. Half the women and some of the men on this ship are in love with you."

Vin put his head down on the table and groaned.

JD tried to look offended. "What about me?"

"You're just cute," Casey laughed, and kissed his cheek. "And you got me.... Oh, there's Lieutenant Bug!" Casey motioned towards the Xindi.

"What the hell are you doing?" JD whispered.

"I don't want her to have to sit by herself," Casey explained.

"But she's.... she's...."

"I think she's beautiful," Casey remarked.

JD had to admit that to a certain extent, that was true. Xindi Insectoid workers and soldiers were all drab shades of grayish-yellow. Lieutenant Bug was a member of the royal class. Her carapace was an iridescent black, the rainbow sheen shifting and shimmering as she walked. The rest of her looked like polished obsidian.

She joined them, pushing the chair aside in favor of resting on her strong back legs. Her plate was full of fresh herbs and other greenery from the hydroponics lab.

"Earth vegetation is quite delicious," she spoke through the universal translator as she daintily nibbled a leaf. "Is there... much of it?"

The truth of the matter was that Lieutenant Bug uncomfortably resembled a locust, so after a quick, uneasy glance at Casey, JD said, "No... mostly desert, like Vulcan."

Vin was pretty sure that wasn't true, but really, all he'd seen of Earth was Texas, so he kept his mouth shut.

"A pity. I could eat much of this and bear strong larvae."

"How is the translation coming?" Casey asked.

"Their language bears many similarities to my own," the Xindi replied. "I believe it will prove decipherable."

"Good, then we can ask them what they want," JD said wearily.

"You wish not to host them?" the Xindi asked.

Her question gave JD pause. He hadn't thought of himself that way - as a host - but he realized that's what he was. He also realized that the idea in general did not actually upset him.

"Well, I don't wish them dead or anything," JD replied. "But if I die, what will happen to them?"

The Xindi angled her antennae in JD's direction and brushed them softly across his head in what was apparently a sign of affection. "I hope it does not come to that," she said.

+ + + + + + +

Skel'ar would need to perform another mind meld with Vin, but Nathan was surprised when he suggested attempting one with JD, as well.

"The... beings... have integrated themselves with his nervous system," Skel'ar explained. "I may be able to communicate with them by linking with JD's mind."

Nathan was unsure. Although he was in good spirits, considering, JD was very weak. He required constant monitoring and medication to keep his vital signs stabilized.

Buck, who spent much of his off-duty time with the young officer, was having none of it. "You can't just force your mind into his. He's human. We don't work that way."

"Take it easy, Buck," JD said, patting the man's arm. "I'll be okay."

Josiah also had misgivings. "Have you attempted a meld with a human before?" he asked Skel'ar.

"No," Skel'ar admitted, then added, "The human mind is quite chaotic compared to a Vulcan... As such, it's usually not considered a wise option."

"Then why do it?"

"I believe it's possible that these entities do not realize they have invaded the body of another sentient creature."

"And if they do realize it, and don't care? Then what?" Nathan asked.

"Then our options must be explained to them."

"What options?" Josiah asked.

"They must understand that we can exterminate them if the need arises."

Josiah raised his hands, as if wanting no part of the hostility Skel'ar was implying. "We can't just eradicate an intelligent life form."

Buck's gaze focused on JD. "I can," he muttered coldly.

Skel'ar's expression changed only subtly, but it was clear the Vulcan was unmoved by Josiah's argument. "If they kill Ensign Dunne, they will eradicate themselves, the only difference to that outcome will be that JD will be dead."

Skel'ar's point was valid, even if the logic behind it seemed cold-blooded.

"And then there's me not even considering that might happen," JD rasped out, unnerved that they could talk about him this way with him right there.

Buck placed a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder.

Josiah offered an apologetic smile, and reached out to squeeze JD's hand. On seeing JD nod, he continued. "What needs to be done to prepare him?" Josiah asked.

"The same as for Vin, I think," Skel'ar replied. "I believe it may actually be less stressful for him than for a Vulcan."

"How so?"

There was a pause as the Vulcan eyed the young ensign. "I sense that he is a very malleable personality," Skel'ar began, "in part because he is young, but also because that is his basic nature. His body is not fighting off the invading... population, but rather is attempting to coexist."

"A lot of good that's doing him," Buck scoffed.

Again, Skel'ar missed the sarcasm. "Indeed... it may be what has kept him alive thus far."

+ + + + + + +

Buck insisted on being present while the session was underway. He had strong protective instincts towards JD, and Nathan and Josiah took special pains to make sure he understood that he was not to interfere with Skel'ar as he worked.

As with Vin, JD was settled into the reclining chair, the room lit with candles.

"Are you comfortable?" Skel'ar asked him.

"Yeah... this is nice," JD replied. Unlike Vin, he seemed to have no misgivings about undergoing a mind meld.

Skel'ar placed his hands on JD's head to begin the procedure. However, unlike with Vin, where the process was gradual, he seemed to meld instantaneously with JD.

Josiah could tell the Vulcan was startled by this unexpected turn of events, but, he remained calm and centered.

Also, unlike with Vin, there was no conversation at all. In fact, JD's body went completely limp and the color drained from his already pale face. Only the monitors indicated he was still alive and breathing.

It was Skel'ar's breathing that quickened. Indeed, he seemed agitated, but he continued to maintain his link with JD for several minutes before finally releasing him. He walked unsteadily to a nearby chair and sat down.

Josiah, Buck and Nathan quickly entered the room.

Buck broke his promise to stay out of the way and rushed to the boy's side. "JD?"

"Skel'ar, are you okay?" Josiah asked.

"Quite," the Vulcan replied. "That was just an incredible experience. I am a bit... overcome."

Nathan checked JD's vitals, even though the monitors indicated he was okay.

"JD? Can you hear me?" Buck pleaded.

JD opened his eyes. "Oh, hi, Buck..." he gasped. "Yeah, I'm fine.... just... wow... I can't even explain it."

"What happened?" Nathan wanted to know.

Skel'ar shook his head. "Astonishing. The... beings... are reconstructing their civilization. They are still profoundly distressed by the loss of their world, but they are adapting at an incredible pace...."

JD sat up and looked truly excited. "Their other world... the rock... Buck, it was all grey, and so dark. They are experiencing light and color for the first time in the memory of their race. Can you imagine that?"

Buck frowned. "How can they be seeing light and color if they are inside you, kid?"

JD thought about that. "I don't know..." He looked to Skel'ar.

"They appear to be integrally linked to his nervous system. I believe they are able to share his sensory experiences. It's quite incredible...."

"At first, they were scared.... terrified," JD said. "But, now, I think they kind of like it."

Buck wondered if he was the only one who could see how that might be a problem. "What if they don't want to leave?"

To his surprise, JD shrugged the question off. "Oh, they don't. Not anymore."

"Well, they can't stay," Buck declared. He pointed his finger. "One of you is going to have to tell them that."

Skel'ar nodded his agreement. "Commander Wilmington is correct. This is not a symbiotic relationship. It's a parasitic one. They are drawing energy from Ensign Dunne's neural synapses, and interfering with their normal function. For now, it's primarily his autonomic systems that are affected. But the fact that they can 'see' through him indicates the central nervous system is also involved. It's only a matter of time before symptoms manifest themselves."

"So, what do we do?" Nathan asked.

"We will have to convince them to leave," Skel'ar replied.

JD frowned. "But where will they go?"

"We will create a place for them," the Vulcan assured.

JD bristled. "You mean like a concentration camp?"

Skel'ar was familiar with that earth term and the negative connotations it held for most humans.

"They won't be prisoners," he said softly.

"But they will be stuck in one place," JD argued.

Buck looked at him, frowning. "JD, do you want these things to kill you?"

JD sighed. "No, Buck, of course I don't."

Josiah entered the conversation. "JD, do you know what Stockholm Syndrome is?" It was an archaic term, so the counselor guessed the boy didn't.

"Is it contagious?" JD asked.

Josiah laughed softly. "No. It refers to people who are forced into captivity as hostages. Sometimes, they begin to sympathize with their captors."

JD looked up at the counselor as understanding dawned on him.

"It's usually not in their best interest," Josiah added.

"You should not be concerned about them being 'stuck in one place'," Skel'ar spoke. "That is true for any culture that has not achieved warp drive."

JD realized that was true. "Okay, but...the place we make for them, it can't be dark again. That would be mean."

"Mean?" Buck scoffed. "'Cause they've been so damned considerate to you, huh?"

"Buck, you don't understand.... it's like say, for example, if someone opened the door to Heaven and let us peek inside. Light, color, it's all new to them. New and beautiful. They already lost their world. We can't take that away, too."

Buck realized that in his frustration at what they were doing to JD, he was dismissing the tiny creatures' right to exist. He felt a little ashamed of himself. "If that's the way you want it, kid, that's the way it will be," he promised.

+ + + + + + +

It did not take the Vulcan scientists long to study the strange rock that had crashed through the Maverick's hull. It was the tiniest inhabited planet ever discovered, and it was found to possess a simple, unique ecosystem. What eerily resembled cities turned out to be comprised of Beings joined together to form various structures. These Beings were inert, but whether they were dead or merely inactive was anyone's guess.

The tiny planet was surrounded by an energy field that emanated from inside the rock itself. Thus far, no amount of prodding and scanning had been able to reveal the source of it. Cutting the rock open was obviously not an option, since it was likely that the field was in some way crucial to the Beings' survival. Much of it had been stripped away by the impact with the Maverick. However, what had remained had protected the population from total annihilation. Millions had been lost, but most had survived. The field was renewing itself - it was now twice as thick as JD's original scans had indicated.

JD studied the image of one of the Beings taken with the sub-atomic microscope in the Vulcan science lab. It was from the sample originally sent to Deep Space Nine, which the Vulcans had retrieved before Dr. Bashir succeeded in killing any of them. It had what appeared to be a mouth, but since they were not organic, eating was probably not its purpose. Serrated teeth lined up in what looked like a beak. The beak was surrounded by horn-like protrusions, above which were tiny twinkling eyes that looked uncomfortably intelligent and alert.

Buck looked over his shoulder at it. "That is one ugly motherfucker," he said.

"They'd probably say the same thing about us, except Lieutenant Bug says they can't even see us. We're too big."

JD felt a hand drop onto his shoulder.

"Do you think they'll believe we even exist?" Buck asked.

"Dunno," JD shrugged. He looked up at Buck and spoke softly. "I hope so."

+ + + + + + +

"It's been attempted before," Skel'ar explained, "but not with a human. Or with a Vulcan as... unique... as Lieutenant Tanner."

"So you're saying it could be dangerous?" Nathan countered.

"It could be, yes."

"A three-way mind meld... " Josiah frowned. "That's got to take some skill."

Skel'ar nodded agreement.

"So, what do we hope to accomplish by this?" Nathan asked.

Skel'ar explained. "Lieutenant Tanner has melded with them before, albeit unintentionally. In a controlled setting, I may be able to use him as a conduit to direct my thoughts to them, and to make them aware of JD's thoughts as well. I do foresee the possibility of a problem, however."

"I foresee the possibility of several," Nathan grunted.

"What in particular?" Josiah asked, ignoring the misgivings of the ship's doctor.

"Historical precedent has shown that in first encounters where one culture is vastly different or significantly more advanced than the other, there is a tendency for the less developed culture to imbue certain qualities in the members of the more advanced race."

"Deification," Josiah nodded.

"What?" Nathan asked.

Josiah summed it up. "They may think we're gods."

"Oh, well that's just fucking great," Nathan said with uncharacteristic exasperation.

"It happened on your own world, more than once," Skel'ar stated, apparently unaware that humans were generally embarrassed that it took them fifty centuries to realize the obvious. "In addition, these creatures likely do not realize how small they truly are compared to us. The revelation could be very frightening."

"Well, there really isn't anything we can do to prevent any of that," Nathan observed.

Skel'ar agreed that was true.

Two hours later, Nathan sat with the two young officers and explained the possible ramifications of the impending first contact.

"Wow... that would be awesome... to be a god, I mean," JD remarked.

"No, it would not. You are not a god, and you better remember that," Nathan scolded him.

"Reckon we can't help what they think, though," Vin said. "My mom and dad said the gods of a lot of Earth's ancient cultures were really beings from somewhere else," he echoed Skel'ar's earlier observation. "I guess this would sort of be the same thing."

"Only if you allow it," Nathan said.

"So, how is this going to happen?" JD asked.

"Skel'ar will have to explain it in detail," Nathan answered. "But from what I gather, you, JD, will be put in a hypnotic trance so that your mind is relaxed and receptive to the meld. Skel'ar will then join with Vin, and direct Vin's thoughts as they join with JD's. Ezra has configured a receiver to pick up any resultant signals from the Beings, which will then be translated by Lieutenant Bu... er... the Xindi science officer."

"What are we going to tell them?" JD wanted to know.

"We're just going to have to play it by ear. We don't even know if Vin can initiate a meld, even with Skel'ar's help. There is one other thing..." Nathan began, looking at Vin.


"This could exacerbate your Pa'Nar symptoms. It could also prove psychologically traumatizing to JD."

"Traumatizing?" JD frowned. "How?"

"I've read what little is available on the subject. Vulcan's forced into a mind-meld often experience after-effects similar to those of rape victims... no one knows how it will affect a human."

"Skel'ar must know all this stuff," Vin said.

Nathan shrugged. "No offense, Vin, but, Skel'ar is a Vulcan. He sees no other options, so does not see the logic in dwelling on the ramifications."

JD shrugged. "I don't either, not really. Besides, I'm not afraid."

"You're not afraid because the Beings are interfering with your brain chemistry," Nathan explained.

JD just shrugged. "Well, you already said it, Nathan. Either these little buggers leave, or I'm dead."

+ + + + + + +

Since Nathan's office was small, they had reconfigured the isolation chamber for the melding to take place. Ezra had sprayed the room with 250,000 nanobot sensors that had been mixed into the same coating used to shield the ship from ambient "space noise." It ensured that any signal they picked up would be coming from inside the cubicle.

The Xindi lieutenant stood by with an odd-looking device that appeared to be a scanner of some sort. The insectoid Xindis preferred using wood and natural fibers over metals and plastics, which made for some odd-looking technology. The screen on the device was glass, but the casing was wood, and the buttons appeared to be made from hard seeds of some kind. Lieutenant Bug had commented that when Xindi devices became obsolete, they were eaten.

It was a strange, strange universe, Josiah mused.

Vin and JD had been stripped of everything but their undergarments. The chairs in which they would sit were temperature controlled since a comfortable temperature for Vin was much higher than it was for JD. The chairs had been pushed as close together as possible, and angled so that Skel'ar could sit between them, but also that physical contact between Vin and JD would still be possible.

Captain Larabee and Commander Wilmington were to observe, also, via a monitor in sick bay. Josiah noted that Casey Wells had somehow managed to sneak in, too.

Josiah knew Larabee was facing a time constraint. He was already in hot water for taking the ship to Vulcan, and now he'd been given five earth days to return to their patrol area or face courts-martial. If the situation were not resolved by then, however, Josiah knew what Larabee's choice would be.

Finally, everything was ready for the meld to proceed.

+ + + + + + +

Skel'ar was a skilled hypnotist - he had to be since there were limited options for coaxing his Vulcan patients into revealing thoughts and feelings most of them would steadfastly deny possessing. JD slipped easily into a trance-like state, which Skel'ar tested by asking him to recite the infamous Zefram Cochrane speech backwards.

"Before gone has man no where go boldly to..." JD began in a drowsy voice.

As he did so, Skel'ar placed Vin's right hand on JD's left temple. He placed his own left hand on JD and his right hand on Vin.

He began to recite a mantra similar to what he had done before, only this time, the three subjects were instructed to imagine their minds as red, green and blue light, merging into one circle of white.

Skel'ar was more prepared this time so the expected chaos that was JD's human mind only jolted him slightly.

JD gasped suddenly as if in pain.

"Don't be scared, JD," Vin said softly. "It's just me."

"Do not be frightened," Skel'ar assured the boy. "Let the lights merge...."

"Oh my God..." JD whispered.

The monitors indicated JD's heart rate had skyrocketed. Nathan looked to Josiah with concern, but the counselor had nothing to offer. No one knew if this was a 'normal' response or if JD was in actual distress.

Knowing what his first officer was thinking, Chris reached out and gripped Buck's arm. There was nothing either of them could do for JD. Buck relaxed slightly and slipped his arm around Casey, who was sobbing softly.

The Xindi's device began to pick up several signals at once, all of which had been amplified so that the humans in the room could hear them. She twisted her triangular head until it was almost upside down - an insectoid mannerism that Josiah knew indicated confusion.

"I was afraid of this," Ezra said, studying his own readout. "Multiple signals - we are going to have to run them through a decoder matrix to separate them out."

Inside the cubicle, Skel'ar began to speak in a low monotone. "Tell us... tell us what we must do."

JD gasped again. He was having difficulty breathing - his blood oxygen level had dropped to 89. His scans showed no airway obstruction, however. Despite his concern, Nathan decided to let it go for the time being, unless his sats continued to drop. If that happened he'd stop this in a heartbeat, Skel'ar and Josiah and those stupid little creatures be damned.

Of course, no sooner had he had that thought than he was ashamed of himself. First of all, the 'stupid little creatures' weren't stupid, and secondly, they had done nothing to precipitate the destruction of their world. It had just happened. Both their little rock and the Maverick had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Still, if it came to a choice between a population he could not see or comprehend, and a human being of whom he was very fond...well, he hoped he would not have to make that choice.

Amazingly, JD began to speak in the language that the Xindi Lieutenant had worked so hard on translating. How he was able to create those complex clicking sounds was a mystery - but he was doing it. The Xindi turned her head again, clearly impressed. An artificial imitation of a human voice came from her computer's translator.

"We speak for all," the voice said.

"Who is 'we?'" Josiah wanted to know. "Who is that?"

There followed a series of clicking noises that the voice simulator could not translate. The Xindi struggled to find words. "I believe it is their governing body... a high council of some kind."

"What must we do?" Skel'ar asked again.

Nathan looked at Vin's readings and frowned. The young Vulcan was channeling the thoughts between JD and Skel'ar, and it was costing him dearly. He lay perfectly still, but his heart was racing and his brainwave activity looked like a seismograph of a 9-point earthquake. He was frighteningly close to a seizure. Nathan held his breath. It was all he could do.

"Our people live," the disembodied voice spoke. "But we are not together..."

Vin's voice broke in at that point. "Some of them are still on the hull," he said, his voice strained as if speaking were painful. "They are lost and alone..." as soon as he said that, he cried out.

Skel'ar clamped his hand tightly against Vin's skull. "Do not remember that now," he commanded harshly. "Clear your mind!"

"I... can't..." Vin choked.

"What's going on?" Chris asked, alarmed. No one answered him.

"Yes, you can. You are Vulcan!" Skel'ar said sternly, and then gently added, "and you are a Tanner... you can do this..."

The words 'you are a Tanner' did the trick. Vin inhaled deeply. "I can do this."

"Bring us together," JD whispered. "We are many parts of one... Bring the others to us, here."

Skel'ar again pressed his fingers tightly to Vin's skull. "Tell them!" he commanded.

It was plain to see that Vin was having trouble getting the words out, but finally, he spoke. "Ya can't stay where you are. Your new... universe is... a... life form. A young, livin' bein', an' you're killin' him."

JD's body responded to that, even though he did not say anything. His breathing became rapid and shallow and his heart rate soared.

"You can't.... stay!" Vin repeated. "If you stay in the life form, it will die and you are doomed."

"What is to be done?" JD asked in a panicked voice clearly not his own. His blood oxygen level had dropped to 82. His heartbeat, which had been rapid but steady, was becoming irregular.

"You need to stop this!" Buck insisted.

"Buck's right...," Nathan began, but Josiah cut him off.

"Just give it a few more seconds," the counselor cautioned, struggling himself to remain the voice of reason.

Skel'ar was aware that JD was in trouble. "Listen to me... Vin... JD... our minds are becoming three once again. Let go of the light... feel your own conscience return..."

"No! Not yet!" Vin pleaded. Then, in a softer voice, said, "We will create a new place for you. You will be safe."

JD's body continued to show signs of an extreme fear response.

"You have to trust us," Vin said softly. "Please..."

JD's heart rate abruptly began to slow down to a normal pace. Vin, however, continued in an agitated state.

Gently, Skel'ar removed Vin's hand from contact with JD. "Vin?" he said softly, "It is just us now... I know there is something you want to remember, but we can't do that right now. Do you understand?"

"I was lost and alone, like them," Vin said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.

"I know," Skel'ar replied. "I know... but for now, you must put that thought away... Separate your thoughts from mine."

"Can't..." Vin whispered, and then suddenly went still. He appeared peaceful for an instant, but suddenly his biometric sensors lit up the monitor. He'd stopped breathing and his heart slowed to a stop. An instant later, his brainwaves flat lined.

"SHIT!" Nathan shouted, and the next second was at the young Vulcan's side.

+ + + + + +

Skel'ar stepped back to let Nathan work. He seemed as surprised by what had just happened to Vin as Nathan was, and that worried Josiah. Once satisfied JD was in no danger, the Vulcan doctor allowed the counselor to lead him out of the cubicle.

"What happened?" Chris demanded of him.

"Is JD at risk?" Buck questioned apprehensively.

Skel'ar pondered the questions briefly. "For now, JD is all right. As for Vin. . . " He glanced back at the Lieutenant. "Sometimes recovered memories can be as traumatizing as the events themselves, even for Vulcans.... " he began. "Many of the Beings were separated from the others at the point of impact. While we were merged, there was a flood of emotion as they empathized with those who are still lost...." He looked at Chris. "We have to rescue them, Captain Larabee. They aren't dead. These things don't die."

Chris wasn't going to let Skel'ar sidetrack him. "We will, but what about Vin? What's going on with him?"

Skel'ar gathered his thoughts. "The lost Beings - they still don't know what happened. They are abandoned and alone... These... empathic sensations caused Lieutenant Tanner to recall a memory from his childhood which he has suppressed for almost twenty years. It appears the mental shock may have been too much for him."

Josiah believed that Skel'ar regretted that, although, being Vulcan, he was not especially upset about it. Josiah tried not to let that piss him off as he looked back at Nathan frantically working on the young officer. "Can't you do anything?"

"I made an attempt to correct the neural imbalance in his brain caused by the Pa'Nar syndrome. It's possible that his brain has just shut itself down in order to heal."

"Possible?" Chris snapped. "Don't you know?"

"No, I do not," Skel'ar stated calmly.

"You mean, he's like a computer rebooting itself?" Josiah frowned.

Skel'ar raised an eyebrow. "A crude analogy, but appropriate, nonetheless."

+ + + + + + +

"VIN!" Nathan was shouting at his patient. "VIN! Can you hear me?!"

He got no response from the Vulcan, but JD reached over and gently put his hand on Nathan's arm.

"Leave him be, Nathan. He'll be okay," the boy said.

Nathan was in full panic mode. Vin's monitor clearly showed he was dying - or already dead, and he wasn't about to take the word of a 20-year-old who wasn't even a doctor.

Skel'ar noted the exchange and reentered the cubicle. He gently touched JD's head.

"You are still linked to him," he stated.

"Yeah... Nathan, please leave him alone.... He's not dead... He just... went some place else."

Nathan was preparing a hypospray to restart Vin's heart. He'd already administered two of them.

JD struggled to sit up. "Please, Nathan... You're hurting him with that!"

The boy's voice was so full of anguish that Nathan paused. Defeated, he looked at Skel'ar. "Can you please tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Skel'ar inhaled deeply. "I believe he may have entered a deep trance, as a result of a psychic shock. Vulcans do not deal with sudden, intense emotion the way that humans do."

Nathan often forgot that Vin wasn't human. "But how can he just shut down everything like that and still be alive?"

Skel'ar seemed to search for words to explain. "Certain humans, I have heard, possess the ability to control physiological responses that should be involuntary. Is that not true?"

"Yes," Josiah answered. "But most of them require years of training."

"Vulcans often do, also," Skel'ar explained. "But sometimes, they do not. There is also a possibility that Vin learned to do this when he was very young, and has simply forgotten he could do it until now."

"Who the hell would teach a kid to stop his heart?" Nathan was really becoming annoyed with Vulcans in general.

"His parents were V'tosh ka'tur..." Skel'ar said.

That statement surprised Josiah, as did the fact that Skel'ar made it without the slightest hint of judgment in his voice. Most Vulcans disapproved of the V'tosh ka'tur, some to the point of actually despising them.

Nathan looked confused. "V'tosh ka'tur?"

"Vulcans who do not follow the ways of Surak," Josiah explained. "They do not practice control over their emotions."

"How do you know this?" Nathan asked Skel'ar.

"I sensed it when I was melded with him the first time. It is likely the reason that no one was ever able to identify who his parents are. V'tosh ka'tur keep to themselves."

"Does he know what happened to them?" Josiah asked.

"I believe he has always known," Skel'ar explained. "But he has only just now consciously realized it. He will need time." He looked at Nathan. "You must let him rest now."

It went against everything Nathan thought he should be doing for his patient, but he acquiesced, hoping he didn't regret it.

Chris wanted to stay with Vin, but Skel'ar advised against it. "You are too emotional," he said simply, even though Chris was his usual stoic self. "His mind must be free of such distractions."

"But I can go see JD, right?" Buck asked as he began to leave.

The doctor offered the two officers a sympathetic look. "Go back to the bridge, guys," Nathan said gently. "I'll call you if there is any change." Casey Wells had not moved from her original spot. "You, too, Ensign."

Lieutenant Bug's antennae softly touched Casey's head. The Xindi clearly sensed her distress, even though the Insectoids themselves did not outwardly display any emotions.

Casey looked up at Nathan. "Please don't let them die."

+ + + + + + + +

True to Skel'ar's word, Vin's vital signs slowly began to return to normal. As they did, JD's link to him dissolved. The Vulcan still showed no sign of regaining consciousness, however.

Skel'ar had asked to speak to JD. The young Ensign was drained by the ordeal, and Buck Wilmington now sat protectively at his side, his first inclination being to tell the Vulcan psychiatrist to go to whatever version of Hell Vulcans believed in.

"It's okay, Buck," JD said wearily. "Skel'ar's a good guy."

Skel'ar acknowledged JD's comment with a brief nod. "I wanted to ask... while you were linked with Lieutenant Tanner... you saw in your mind what happened to his parents?"

JD shuddered. "Yeah. Pretty horrible thing for a little kid to see." He looked up at Buck with his big, dark eyes, barely looking like more than a child himself. "It was awful, Buck."

"I can remove that memory from your mind," Skel'ar suggested.

JD thought on that for a moment, then turned his head towards the sleeping Vulcan in the next bed. "No," he said finally.

Skel'ar raised an eyebrow. "May I ask why not?"

JD shrugged. "I just don't want him to be alone.... like he was then." JD wiped away a tear that threatened to fall. Then, he changed the subject. "What are we going to do about the Beings on the hull?"

Now it was Buck who looked surprised. "Don't worry about them," he told JD.

"Don't tell me that!" JD said angrily. "They are people... well, okay, not people, but they think and feel... and they love each other... We need to get them back together."

"Inside you?" Buck said. "Not an option."

"That should be my decision, Buck," JD said without anger.

"And what do we do with them when you're dead?" Buck asked.

"They won't let me die. They understand now that I am a living creature."

Nathan joined them. "It appears to be true. His vital signs are returning to normal. They have stopped interfering with his autonomic neural impulses."

"But didn't you say they drew energy from them?" Buck asked.

Skel'ar nodded. "There is no way to know how long they can continue without an energy source - their conception of time is different than ours. But apparently, for now, they have chosen to keep JD alive."

"How can they even be aware of what they are doing to him?" Buck wanted to know. His fingers wrapped around JD's wrist. "They probably can't even comprehend our size compared to them."

"These Beings are quite advanced, and appear to have their own unique version of telemetry," Skel'ar explained. "They do seem to understand that they are in a confined space, vast as that space may be. They are accepting that it's a life form because they have chosen to trust us."

"But... how can they even have the technology..." Buck began.

"They are intelligent creatures," Skel'ar said simply. Then he added, "Indeed, I believe these beings are technology."


"They were created. Perhaps as a form of nano-science, or an experiment in molecular artificial intelligence. Somehow, they achieved self-awareness."

"How did they come to be on a rock hurtling through space?" Wilmington wanted to know.

"I don't believe even they know the answer to that, anymore than the thousands of humanoid species such as our own know where they originated, or how we came to populate so many vastly different worlds."

"Are they dangerous?" Nathan asked.

"Obviously, they can be, but I do not believe their intent is inherently hostile. I did not sense that from them."

"If they are not actually alive, how were you able to meld with them?"

"I did not say they were not alive. They simply are not life as we know it."

"Simply?" Nathan snorted.

"It is not an unknown discovery, "Skel'ar said patiently. "Your very own starship Enterprise discovered living rocks on Janus VI, and the sentient sand on Valera III was also discovered by your species. An organic, carbon-based constitution is not required for sentience."

Buck shook his head. "I am just having a hard time wrapping my brain around all of this."

"As are we all," Skel'ar said. "But we must concentrate our efforts on resolving their situation."

"Magnets," JD whispered softly.

"Magnets?" Josiah repeated.

"Humans are like magnets to them," he explained. "That's why they didn't attach to Vin when he touched them."

"How do you know this?" Skel'ar asked.

"They sorta told me," JD shrugged. "Not in words, exactly, but when I touched the rock, they were pulled off. It wasn't a gradual thing... just... whoosh! and they were gone. Others had been torn off the rock on impact. Those... They still don't know what happened."

Skel'ar nodded thoughtfully. "He may be correct. They were not drawn into Vin when he touched them..."

"Because our blood is different," Nathan agreed. "Vulcan hemoglobin is copper-based, not iron."

"And copper is not magnetic," Buck finished.

"Do you think JD could be right?" Nathan pushed.

"His theory does present a plausible explanation for why he was affected and Lieutenant Tanner was not," Skel'ar responded.

"It ain't a theory," a raspy voice spoke softly.

"Vin!" Nathan went to the Vulcan's side. His relief that Vin was awake was dampened by the fact that his vital signs were still extremely weak.

"JD's... right," Vin struggled to speak. "When I... touched them... they panicked... they... scattered... but they... love JD." He turned towards the young Ensign and attempted a smile.

"Take it easy, Vin," Nathan cautioned, seeing that the lieutenant was overtaxing himself just trying to speak.

"This is a most profound revelation," Skel'ar observed. "I will report it to the Vulcan Science Academy immediately."

Nathan saw the implications. If the Beings were attracted to certain elements, it would be possible to gather them together, including removing them from JD's body. But, right then, he had other concerns. "These two need to rest," he told the officers assembled in the crowded cubicle. His tone broached no argument and the room quickly cleared.

+ + + + + + +

When they were alone, JD looked at Vin. "I don't know about you, but I'm tired of 'resting.'"

The Vulcan struggled to sit up. "Ten Forward?" he grinned.

JD realized that Vin was looking right at him. "You can see?"

"Yeah," Vin groaned, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "Not sure I can walk, though."

JD wasn't sure he could, either, but he figured between the two of them, they'd manage to make it to the wheelchairs stowed at the opposite corner of the sickbay.

Nathan was busy in his office cubicle, recording his observations, and they wouldn't even have to walk past his door to get out of sickbay. It couldn't have been simpler...

"What about the monitors?" Vin asked.

JD thought for a moment and then studied the console above his bed. He knew there was a way for them to be monitored remotely, without actually being in the bed. He toyed with a few settings and then cautiously slipped off the mattress onto the floor.

No alarm.

He did the same thing to Vin's console.

Both of them were near collapse by the time they reached the wheelchairs, but once they did, it was a simple matter of entering the code for Ten Forward and they were on their way.

+ + + + + + +

Inez stood at their table frowning, hands on her hips. "Are you two supposed to be here?"

JD had his excuses all prepared, but he had forgotten that Vin's mind didn't work that way.

"No," the Vulcan said honestly.

JD groaned.

Inez shook her head. "Well, I suppose since you are here, you might as well enjoy yourself until someone comes looking for you. What will it be?"

"The usual," Vin answered, which meant a double chocolate sundae with a brownie.

"Same for me, only with vanilla ice cream."

Ten Forward was pretty much deserted, which was a good thing. Fewer people to have to deal with.

JD liked people - but Vin hated it when people engaged him in meaningless conversations. He had pointed out to JD that when a human asked "How are you?" they didn't really want to know.

So, it was just as well they were practically alone. JD wasn't sure he was up to explaining their situation, anyway.

"What do you sense from them, Vin?" JD asked.

Vin knew he was referring to the Beings. "I think they are at peace now that they know what happened to them, and that we are tryin' to fix it."

JD had felt that, too. There was no physical sensation resulting from the creatures in his body - they were way too small for that -but somehow, he was aware of their presence, even more so since the meld.

"That was pretty intense... what we did with Skel'ar."

"Yeah," Vin replied, his voice barely more than a whisper.

"What you did afterwards... stopping your heart and everything. How did you learn to do that?"

Vin looked at him and for a brief instant there was a flash of pain in his blue eyes. "I think my parents taught me.... My Vulcan parents."

JD wanted to ask more questions, but wasn't sure if he should. The decision was made for him when their ice cream arrived. They both dug in, and the subject changed.

"We have to send them someplace with light and color," Vin remarked around a mouthful of brownie.

JD agreed. The Beings were quickly adapting to a world that was no longer limited to shades of gray, and they found it wondrous. They did not really understand it, but, they wanted to. "I think I know the perfect place for them," JD said. "But it will take some pulling strings to make it work. Do you know any archaeologists?" he grinned.

Vin raised an eyebrow, "Everyone I know on earth is an archaeologist."

"Well, here's what we gotta do...."

+ + + + + + +

"What am I going to do with you two knot-heads?" Nathan asked sternly when they returned to sickbay. Neither Vin nor JD was fooled. Dr. Jackson was never successful at acting mad, unless he really was mad, which he wasn't.

"We got an idea," JD said, "for the Beings."

"I got an idea, too," Nathan scolded. "Both of you get back to bed."

Vin managed to climb up onto his bed on his own. His Pa'Nar symptoms were rapidly fading. JD required Nathan's assistance, but that didn't stop him from talking. He explained to Nathan their plans for the Beings.

Nathan considered it thoughtfully. "You know, that might work... They would be safe, yet still in a place where we could learn more about each other... We have to gather them all together, first, though."

Vin had thought of that. "We can create a containment around the hull where they entered the ship. All JD will have to do is run his hands over every surface the rock touched. They will come to him."

"How do you know that?"

Vin shrugged. "Because I will tell them to."

"No," Nathan protested. "I can't let you meld with them again. You're recovering from Pa'Nar Syndrome - we can't risk a setback."

Vin waved him off. "Aw, doc, I got sick because I wasn't expecting that first meld. It was like something punched me in the head when I wasn't looking. This time, I'll be ready for it."

"You aren't a trained melder," Nathan pointed out.

"I can still do it," Vin replied.

"What about JD? How do we get them to leave his body?"

"We'll just tell them to," JD said. "We'll give them back their rock."

"What if they won't go?" Nathan was fully aware that the Beings seemed to regard JD's body as some sort of micro-being Nirvana.

"Of course they'll go," Vin said somberly, and then whispered, "It's home."

+ + + + + + +

It was against everyone's better judgment for JD to take on the task of collecting the Beings from the hull, but both he and Vin were adamant that it had to be that way. Despite Buck's protective protests and Nathan's valid misgivings, Captain Larabee had directed Chief Chanu to construct a containment area over the repaired hull breach.

The Maverick was not designed to have anything attached to her sleek exterior, so the job of fusing the containment to the hull was tedious and demanding. There could not be any leaks, lest the area depressurize suddenly. Such an event would likely tear the containment away, suddenly exposing whoever was inside to deep space. Chanu felt as though he were working with glue - the seal would hold, but not forever.

Nathan insisted that JD wear a EVA suit, even though the containment would have air. He would not be wearing gloves, though, and in the event there was a depressurization, the suit would seal around his wrists and his hands would freeze almost instantly and likely break off from his body. As gruesome as that possibility was, there was no other way for him to collect the Beings. They would not be able to penetrate the fabric of the EVA gloves.

Vin wanted to go out with him, but Chanu nixed that idea. It was going to be risky enough with one person in the containment - two was just asking for an accident to happen. Captain Larabee backed the Chief up, so the Vulcan had no choice but to stand back and watch while JD was helped into the suit.

It was easy to see that the task was going to be an ordeal for JD physically. He was weak, and the suit was heavy. Usually, that didn't matter. Once a person was outside the controlled artificial gravity of the ship, they - and the suit - became weightless. But the containment was basically an extension of the compartment to which it was attached. Even though the pull of gravity was somewhat diminished, JD was still far from weightless.

He would have to take readings of the hull temperature before he touched it. Normally, the outside temperature of the ship was well below freezing. He'd have to let it warm up or his hand would stick to the surface. Chief Chanu had rigged blowers to force warm air into the containment. A plasma torch would have been faster, but, no one knew how that would affect the Beings. They had already used one when they had repaired the hull, and might have inadvertently terminated some of them. Vin hoped that wasn't the case.

Eventually, everything was ready. With Buck at his side, JD moved slowly under the weight of the suit, and his breathing was labored.

"You okay, JD?" Vin asked him before he went into the containment.

JD nodded, even though the helmet of the suit didn't budge. "Yeah... I can do this."

Vin patted him reassuringly on the shoulder and then glanced at Skel'ar. Most Vulcans - hell, all Vulcans - he had ever known had disapproved of his tendency to show affection for humans. Skel'ar, though, remained totally impassive. He accepted who Vin was, something the young officer appreciated as much as anything else Skel'ar had done for him.

JD took a reading of the hull temperature. At .8 degrees Centigrade, it was cold, but, not cold enough to damage human tissue on contact. JD wiped his hands on a moisture absorbent towel Chanu had given him. It would temporarily leave the skin on his hands as dry as possible.

JD inhaled deeply. "Okay, here goes!"

He set his fingertips against the hull and inhaled sharply.

"JD?" Nathan said concerned.

"I'm okay," he replied, even though it sounded more like a gasp than spoken words. "I can feel them!"

He gently eased his palm forward until his entire hand was in contact with the hull surface. He then began to sweep it back and forth. His breathing became more rapid and his heart rate spiked.

"JD? Are you alright?" Nathan asked again.

JD leaned his weight against the hull, as if standing upright was an effort. He continued the sweeping motion.

Nathan looked at the monitors. JD's body was clearly in distress even though he seemed calm. "We need to get him out of there!" Nathan said.

"NO!" JD replied in a surprisingly strong voice. "I'm almost done!"

"Goddamnit!" Buck cursed, his fingers raking back his hair in frustration.

JD continued sweeping the hull surface, even though his movements gradually became weaker and more erratic. He began to stagger as if he were drunk.

Just when Nathan was about to say 'to Hell with it' and rush into the containment after him, JD stood quietly, shoulders slumped with fatigue, and softly said, "I got 'em all."

He managed to walk out of the containment before he collapsed into Buck's arms.

"Get this damn suit off him!" Buck shouted, even as he was removing JD's helmet.

Nathan moved in with his tricorder. "His vital signs are very weak," he said. He had feared that the 'newcomers' to JD's body might react the same way the first group of Beings had - by inadvertently attacking JD's nervous system by attempting to draw energy from it.

Vin pushed everyone aside. The Vulcan was not a big man, but he was three times stronger than a human, so even Nathan and Josiah were no match for him. Vin urged Buck to set the youth down and move back. JD was now completely out of the suit, and Vin knelt beside him, placing his hands on JD's head.

Skel'ar stepped forward. "Lieutenant Tanner, are you sure this is wise?"

"No," Vin replied, "but I'm doin' it anyway." His eyes closed in concentration and Skel'ar held the others back as the younger Vulcan attempted a mind meld on his own.

Suddenly, Vin's body stiffened and he gasped, his face grim as if he were in pain. "Tell them!" he whispered.

He kept his fingers on JD's head, even though he was pale and shaking and had broken out in a cold sweat. Nathan turned the tricorder on him. He knew it was dangerous to break the meld, so all he could do was monitor Vin's vital signs, which were fluctuating wildly.

To all who were anxiously gathered, the process seemed to be taking longer than it actually was, but eventually, Vin fell back as if he'd been stunned, and he slowly sank to the floor.

"Aw hell!" Nathan exclaimed, and looked to Skel'ar who had immediately moved in to assist.

The Vulcan doctor touched Vin's head lightly, and used his own tricorder. Finally, he pronounced, "We must get them both back to sick bay."

They didn't wait for a gurney. Buck picked JD up off the floor and Josiah carried Vin.

As soon as they reached sick bay, Nathan wasted no time attempting to stabilize the two young men.

JD responded before Vin did. He looked up at Buck with a weak but triumphant smile. "We did it," he said. Then he looked at Vin, and reached out a hand but wasn't able to span the distance between the two beds. "Help me up," he told Buck.

"JD, I think you should..." Buck began.

"Buck, please!" JD pleaded.

Buck looked at Nathan, who seemed to know what was going on, even if he didn't. Nathan nodded. "Don't let him fall."

They got JD to his feet and he gently took Vin's hand in his own. "It's okay, Vin," he spoke to the unconscious Vulcan. "You can come back now."

Vin's fingers slowly closed around JD's hand and he took a deep breath. Nathan stood back, sensing that JD knew what he was doing.

Vin's blue eyes fluttered opened.

"Can you hear me, Vin?" JD asked.

Vin nodded. "They understand," he rasped.

"I know."

Buck intruded on the conversation, because he could see JD was struggling to stay on his feet. "What now?" he asked. "Where do we go from here?"

"We get the rock back from the Vulcans, and the sample back from DS9," JD said.

Skel'ar looked ill at ease at that suggestion.

"What?" Nathan asked him.

"I am not certain my fellow scientists on Vulcan will be willing to release it until they have completed further study."

"They have no choice," JD spoke in a commanding voice that seemed out of place with his small body and youthful face. "You can't enslave a race just because they're interesting ."

Skel'ar nodded. "You are correct, of course. But may I ask what plans you have for these creatures?"

"We're taking them to Earth," Vin answered.

"To do what with them?" Buck wanted to know.

"The Museum of Natural History, in New York City," Vin said. "My uncle Vlad is there. They'll be safe."

"A museum?!" Nathan scoffed. "You can't put them on display!"

"They won't be on display... unless they want to be," Vin said. "But they'll have a safe, stable environment. They won't be hurtling through space in the dark."

"That might violate the Prime Directive," Josiah pointed out, referring to the Star Fleet regulation that forbade interfering with the development of alien cultures.

"Buck...!" JD reached out to the big man as his knees buckled suddenly. Buck just managed to grab onto him before he passed out. His face was ghostly pale as Buck settled him back on his bed.

Nathan quickly reset the monitors and took a reading. "I think he just fainted," he said, relieved. Even as he spoke, JD was coming around.

"I do not believe the Prime Directive will apply in this situation," Skel'ar spoke.

"Why not?" Josiah wanted to know.

"Because it is after the fact... their culture has already been irreversibly altered. And, as sentient beings, they must have a voice in deciding their fate." Skel'ar explained.

"They don't want the world to be black and grey again," JD said solemnly, his eyes still closed.

"An' we won't let that happen to them," Vin added.

+ + + + + + +

As Skel'ar had predicted, the Vulcan Science Academy was reluctant to release the Beings' home world. They were fascinated by the signs of civilization that covered the tiny sphere. Ultra-micro-scopic cities, built with inert Beings and surrounded by their version of life.

Through the Xindi translations of Lieutenant Bug, they had learned that the Beings' society was stratified by age. Those on the 'high council' were the First Created. They knew they were older than the others, but even they did not know the origins of their race. Vulcan scientists had used sophisticated dating techniques to discover that the inert Beings were even older, and they theorized it was possible that their "life span" depended on a some sort of energy source that eventually became depleted. There was speculation and debate as to whether or not the inert Beings could be revived, and possibly provide some answers. No one had attempted to actually do that, but the Beings were surprisingly receptive to the idea.

That research would have to be held in abeyance, however. The Maverick would soon be rendezvousing with the USS Defiant, which would transport the Beings' tiny world to Earth.

Skel'ar would attempt one more three-way meld with Vin and JD before the Maverick left Vulcan's orbit. It was currently the best way to communicate to them the plans for returning them home. They would be removed from JD's body using an electromagnet with a frequency specifically aligned to the Beings themselves. The Vulcans had already determined how to do this, and it was now up to Skel'ar to convince them that voluntary return was their only option.

+ + + + + + +

JD knew Vin was not looking forward to another meld. No matter how he tried to block it, the intense emotions he was bombarded with during the ritual brought back the terrible memories from his childhood that he had spent a lifetime suppressing. Through their shared connection, JD knew those memories, too. They were frightening for him, and he was an adult. He could not imagine how the experience had been for Vin, who was only a child at the time.

Vin was allowed to return to his quarters, so long as he rested. JD was still confined to sick bay, but, that didn't stop him from leaving. He figured Nathan would quickly discover where he was and probably come after him like a Hell hound, but he felt like he needed some time alone with Vin.

JD found the Vulcan with his cat, Lila, who was apparently as happy to be back in familiar surroundings as Captain Larabee was to be rid of her. Her purr filled the room and when he entered, she almost knocked him down as she ran to greet him and vigorously rubbed her head against his leg.

"She likes you," Vin smiled.

JD stroked the silky fur. Whatever kind of cat Lila was, she was much softer than most cats he'd touched. Satisfied that she'd been appropriately recognized, Lila returned to Vin's side and curled up beside him.

Vin was watching videos of his days at Star Fleet Academy. JD knew that Vin didn't make friends easily and had always assumed that his days there had been isolated and lonely, but as he watched several of the clips - mostly of rigorous training exercises - he noticed the camaraderie between Vin and another cadet.

"Is he Ferengi?" JD asked, surprised. He wasn't aware that any Ferengi served in Star Fleet.

"Yeah. His name's Nog. I used to call him 'Egg' and he never figured out why."

JD laughed. "Looks like he was a good friend."

"He was... of course, Nog pretty much liked everybody."

JD could see from the Ferengi's cheerful demeanor that was probably true.

"He saw combat on the Defiant as a second-year cadet, in the battle for the wormhole," Vin explained, then added, "He's been to hell and back since the Academy... the kind of stuff that changes a man."

"That's too bad. He seems like a nice guy."

Vin nodded. "He's coming here on the Defiant. He might not be the same Nog I knew, but It will be great to see him again."

JD could tell that Vin was nervous about how his old friend might have changed, and the timing just seemed right to bring up what he wanted to talk to Vin about.

"Vin... during the meld..." JD started, and then realized he hadn't actually planned what to say.

Vin helped him out. "You saw," he said flatly.

His face reflecting his sorrow, JD nodded. "Yeah."

The Vulcan lowered his head. "All these years, I thought they had just left me. I should have known... but I just couldn't remember them. It was like a blank wall whenever I tried," he said sadly, and added, "And I didn't try very often."

"You were a little kid, Vin," JD said. "You must have been scared out of your mind."

Vin snorted. "Literally."

JD closed his eyes. "I can't believe I just said that," he apologized.

"I think they must have been good folks," Vin sighed. "They knew I couldn't run, so they taught me the 'dead game.' Those creatures that... took them... they didn't go after dead things."

Vin's head dropped forward and his eyes closed and JD knew he was remembering. . . .

Vin had been part of a family - he'd had parents and two siblings, T'Piki and Telak. His sister T'Piki was two years younger. Telak was Vin's twin. Vin's memories were unclear of how they had come to be on Tasco 7, a world that was mostly vicious swamp that had been deemed uninhabitable. What JD had seen was from a child's point of view, but he got the impression that there had been an emergency of some sort. Their vessel had made a brutal crash-landing. Vin's back was broken in the crash and T'Piki had died from her injuries despite his parents attempts to save her.

That wasn't the worst memory, though. That came later, when a group of some kind of carnivorous animal came from the swamp. The approached out of curiosity, and first, and then out of determination. The first time they came, T'Piki's tiny body was laid out on a tree stump while Vin's parents fabricated a coffin from salvaged parts of the ship. She would have to be buried before the ritual of Vok-Van-Kal t'Kan could take place honoring her short life.

The creatures were large - over 3 meters in height. They had a generally reptilian appearance, but their bodies were covered with a fine coat of black hair. They walked upright, like humans, but appeared to be only marginally sentient. Four of them came that first time. They sniffed and prodded T'Piki's lifeless body, until Telak ran out shouting and hurled a tool at them.

That scared them off, at first. But they came back, again and again, trying to find a way into the ship. With their supplies running out, Vin's parents had taught him and Telak the 'dead game' knowing that eventually, the creatures would find a way in.

Then, it happened. One of the creatures succeeded in creating a small separation in the hull plating and pulled Telak through it. In an attempt to rescue their son, Vin's parents had made the fatal mistake of opening a hatch. Vin was spared the sight of Telak's grim fate, but he saw his parents die by tooth and claw right before his eyes. His mind had simply shut itself off, so that the 'dead game' came easily. After killing his family, the creatures had left Vin to die for real, slowly, painfully and alone.

"I'm real sorry that happened to you, Vin," was all JD could think of to say.

"Weren't your fault," Vin replied.

JD was at a loss for words, which was unusual for him. It was Vin who unexpectedly broke the silence.

"You'd think I would'a remembered Telak.... we were twins... we must'a been close."

JD said the first thing that came to mind. "Losing him probably hurt the worst."

Vin sighed. "That's just it... I have always felt like... part of me was missing somehow. That it was out there waiting for me to find it."

JD was confused, and when he didn't say anything, Vin continued. "I never felt him die. I felt his pain, and he was so scared at the... end...." He looked at JD, tears in his eyes. "But, I didn't feel that he was gone."

JD sat down next to the Vulcan. Lila casually draped a paw over his leg. She had stopped purring, clearly sensing the distress of her master. JD put his arm around Vin's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "That would have been too much for you to handle, I suppose."

Vin looked away, a distant expression in his eyes. "I wonder if he's still alive."

JD didn't see how that was possible. The planet was uninhabitable and Telak had only been a child - and more likely than not, seriously injured after being mauled by the creatures even if they hadn't killed him outright. Stranger things had happened, but he didn't really want to encourage Vin. "Don't know," he said. "I don't think that seems very likely."

"Still... maybe..."

JD held Vin close. "Yeah.... maybe."

+ + + + + + +

Vin underwent a final battery of tests before the Maverick left Vulcan's orbit. The Pa'Nar Syndrome symptoms were almost gone, and Skel'ar assured him that the few that remained would gradually disappear on their own.

As he was preparing to depart, the Vulcan doctor took Vin aside. "I realize these new memories you have discovered within yourself may prove... troubling."

Vin didn't deny it. "Somethin' like that."

"I am sure Commander Sanchez is capable of counseling you as to the appropriate way to deal with them..."

"But, he's human," Vin finished Skel'ar's thought.

Skel'ar put a gentle hand on Vin's shoulder. "For the most part, Lieutenant Tanner, so are you."

He did not say it in a way that made Vin feel like he was damaged goods. He was merely stating what was true. Vin thought and acted like the humans who had raised him. He had never set foot on Vulcan as far as he knew.

"Nevertheless," Skel'ar continued, "should my services be required, all that is needed is for you to contact me."

Vin nodded. "Thanks, Doc."

"You were a most interesting and challenging case," Skel'ar said. He then held up his hand in what Vin recognized as a Vulcan salutation. "Live long, and prosper."

Vin returned the awkward hand gesture. "You, too, Doc."

The trip to earth would take a week in Earth time. Scientists at the Natural History Museum would be hard at work recalibrating an ancient Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine to create the magnetic field that would draw the Beings from JD's body.

Their little home world was safe in a compartment in the ship's security office, judiciously guarded by Lieutenant Commander Standish. The sphere itself would be taken to earth by the Defiant, which had a faster warp capability than the Maverick. Once there, it would be prepared for the return of its population.

After the Maverick had docked with the Defiant, Vin's friend Nog was invited to come aboard. Much of the crew were curious about him, including Standish. Many of them had never met a Ferengi, and Nog was the first and only Ferengi ever to serve in Star Fleet. The tiny Lieutenant greeted Standish with a pointy-toothed grin after Vin introduced him.

He looked intensely at the sphere, which for some reason had turned deep hues of red, blue and orange, and was now really stunningly beautiful. Standish recognized the eager look in the Ferengi's eyes. People had often accused him of being part Ferengi himself. It wasn't true, but he wasn't insulted by it. Acquisition and profit were neither foreign nor abhorrent concepts to him by a long shot.

Nog put on the protective gloves they had devised for handling the sphere and studied it longingly. "Such a marvelous treasure would bring a handsome profit in certain sectors," he remarked, grinning almost maniacally.

"NOG!" Vin slapped the Ferengi on the back of the head.

"I was only saying... " Nog rubbed at the offended spot.

"It is real purty, ain't it?" Vin said.

Nog carefully and deliberately - and somewhat reluctantly - placed the sphere back on its stand. "It's beautiful," he agreed, then added, laughing, "Don't ever let anyone in my family see it."

"We'll arrange for the transfer to take place within the hour," Standish said.

"An hour?" Vin asked, sounding disappointed.

Standish realized that Vin was probably hoping to have more time to spend with his friend.

"I'll see if I can't... delay... the process a bit." He winked at the two young lieutenants.

"Let's go meet JD," Nog suggested. "I have never met anyone with a whole civilization inside him before. What would you even call that?"

"Crowded?" Vin laughed. Nog's ebullient personality was a definite contrast to Vin's quiet demeanor, but they did seem to have a true friendship.

As they walked away, Standish was happy to see their Vulcan officer in good spirits. He'd been even more quiet than usual and had kept to himself ever since the final mind-meld with Skel'ar a few days before, but only JD seemed to know the real reason for that and he wasn't talking.

+ + + + + + +

Their arrival in New York City was a somewhat subdued affair. The scientific world was abuzz with the news of the discovery of the Beings, but concern for their safety was paramount, so the Museum had made certain that their arrival was not openly publicized. The media had obtained pictures of both Vin and JD from Star Fleet, however, so keeping them out of the public eye was going to be a challenge.

JD ideally should have been in a hospital. Despite the Beings' concerted effort not to harm him, their presence sapped his energy and interfered with his autonomic nervous system, which meant his heart rate, breathing and blood pressure all had to be carefully regulated. But in the end, it was decided that the best course of action would be to beam him and Vin directly from the Maverick into the Museum itself, and to have the converted MRI machine set up there. Nathan beamed down with them.

Vin's uncle, Vlad Nemudrovich, greeted them on arrival. He was a tall, burly man who looked more like a laborer than a scientist. He'd visited the Maverick once, so he was no stranger. He scooped Vin up in a bear hug that lifted him off the ground. "It's so good to see you!" he said, his voice choked with emotion. He then released Vin and stood back to look him over. "How are you, lad? I heard you have been ill."

Vin looked away shyly. "Yeah, but I'm gettin' better. I'll be okay."

Nemudrovich obviously knew Vin well. He gently lifted the young man's face towards him and made eye contact. Studying him for a moment, he finally concluded Vin wasn't lying to him. "Good," he said, and hugged him again.

The transporter activated and Josiah appeared along with Buck. Josiah was especially interested in talking to Nemudrovich. He'd had a couple of sessions with Vin, and was now aware that Vin remembered how he'd lost his family, even though they hadn't reached a point where he'd come right out and described it in detail. Learning that Vin was a twin had added a new dimension - twins were often very close, and that was especially true for Vulcans, who often shared psychic bonds with blood relatives.

The counselor had numerous questions he wanted to ask Nemudrovich about the circumstances under which the Tanner's had discovered Vin on Tasco 7. He was especially troubled that no one on Vulcan had ever claimed Vin, or apparently even noticed his family was missing. He'd studied the Tanner's expedition logs and even though they mentioned finding the remains of one child and two adults, no mention was made of the twin, Telak. Oddly, their sensors had detected no other life forms on the planet at all, including the creatures that had killed Vin's family. It seemed highly unlikely that little Telak had escaped, but Vin's doubts would only be put to rest if Nemudrovich could shed some light on his fate.

That would have to wait, though. Right then, the priority was JD. Under the watchful eye of Nathan and a team of medical technicians and Museum scientists, he was prepped for the procedure that would remove the Beings from his body. The magnetic beams would draw the minute creatures out through his hands and feet. They were small enough to pass easily through his skin.

Signals were sent back and forth through the Xindi translation device which both kept the Beings informed of the impending event and recorded occasional fragments of the Beings' reaction. Their general mood was one of excitement, but, there was fear as well. They did not realize that, compared to humans, they were virtually indestructible. Theoretically they could be melted, but only at temperatures that would vaporize JD. The upcoming procedure was far more likely to harm the young human than them.

Vin insisted that he would meld with JD during the procedure. JD wanted him there, so excluding him was not an option.

Appreciating that time was short, a nervous Buck leaned in toward the young Ensign and smiled, despite feeling anything but cheerful. "How you doing, Kid?"

JD offered a bright smile, but his words were spoken with a shaky tone. "Good Buck, really. I can't say I'm not nervous but it's good to be able to help these little guys out."

His eyes bright, Buck swallowed the lump in his throat. He moved in closer and embraced JD in a bear hug. He spoke in a soft whisper. "I'll be right outside, little brother."

When JD was ready, everyone but Vin cleared out of the room.

Vin stood at the head of the bed, bent forward face-to-face with JD, the way Skel'ar had taught him, and placed his fingers on either side of JD's head. There was no recitation - the meld occurred almost instantaneously.

"We are ready," Vin said in a soft monotone.

A technician powered up the machine. Nathan had expected to hear something - he'd heard that these old machines were incredibly noisy. But this one had been reconfigured so that the old electromagnetic coils had been replaced with impulse plasma, and there was only a gentle hum.

At first, it appeared that nothing was happening, but then JD moaned softly. Vin tensed.

"What's going on, Vin?" Nathan whispered, not really expecting the Vulcan to hear him.

"Hang on, JD," Vin whispered. "Give the pain to me."

Nathan checked the monitor. JD was clearly in distress - he was experiencing pain and his body temperature was rising. But as Nathan watched, the dolorimeter readings fluctuated and then dropped to indicate that JD's pain had suddenly decreased to a mild discomfort. Vin, however, was shaking and had broken out in a sweat. Nathan wished they had thought to monitor him, too.

A sensor had been designed to detect the electrical frequency emitted by the Beings as they communicated with each other, and then convert it to a graphic display. On a screen, clusters of the tiny creatures appeared as bright green pinpoints of light.

"They're moving," the technician announced.

As they watched, the green pinpoints began to converge into larger clusters which then began to migrate slowly to the collection points on JD's body. Some moved in a deliberate fashion and others were chaotic - it was as if some knew where they were going while others were lost and confused.

"Vin, can you tell them where to go?" Nathan asked.

Vin shook his head, his jaw clenched. "Scared," he managed to get out.

Nathan didn't know if Vin meant he was scared or the Beings were.

"I'm increasing the strength of the field," the technician announced.

When he did, JD's body went rigid and he cried out. Vin leaned in close to him, so that their heads touched. "Give the pain to me, JD," he gasped.

"Can't...." JD moaned.

Stepping forward, Buck cried out in a mixture of frustration and fear. Josiah clung to the man, no less horrified himself at how this was going.

Nathan wanted to stop the procedure, but he knew he couldn't. The pain levels JD was experiencing were bordering on excruciating, but, were not high enough to cause shock. All of his other vital signs were stable. It was Vin he was worried about. The Vulcan's face was now an ashen grey, and he clearly appeared to be in pain, also.

On the tracking monitor, the Beings began to organize and were now all moving towards the magnetic field, but the process was agonizingly slow. Vin's face indicated he was clearly suffering as much as JD was. Nathan cursed under his breath. No one - himself included - had expected this to hurt.

"Stop!" JD moaned. "Please, stop...."

"We can't.... stop.... yet.... JD," Vin tried to soothe, but Nathan could see that his resolve was weakening too.

Suddenly, an alarm sounded. "Shit!" one of the technicians exclaimed.

Nathan was beside him in an instant. "What?" he demanded.

"Heat.... they're generating heat. They're going to cook this kid from the inside out."

JD was screaming now. "Shut it down!" Nathan yelled.

The technician responded immediately, obviously agreeing with Nathan. No one stopped him but he quickly turned to Nathan, his face grim. "I can't... they've taken control of the magnetic field."

"How can they even do that?!" Nathan demanded.

"I don't know! I...."

There was a sudden, blinding flash from the monitor, and abruptly, the tracking screen was blank.

No... not blank... it just wasn't showing any Beings.

JD stopped screaming and went limp. Vin collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Vlad Nemudrovich ran to Vin and lifted him up to a sitting position, then looked at the readout for the magnetic containment field. "They're in there!" he said, his voice triumphant despite the look of concern on his face. He held Vin close, "You did it, lad," he grinned. Vin moaned in response.

From somewhere, a gurney appeared and Nemudrovich lifted Vin onto it. Nathan was attending to JD, but kept looking back to check on the Vulcan. "Someone get his vitals," he ordered.

Buck and Josiah appeared from nowhere and while Buck anxiously watched Nathan work, Josiah kept an eye on both young men.

A medical technician produced a tricorder and ran it over Vin's still form. "He's in shock," he told Nemudrovich, as he produced a hypospray.

Nemudrovich pushed Vin's long hair back from his ears. The technician seemed surprised by them, even though he had to have known Vin was a Vulcan. He didn't say anything, though, as he administered the hypospray.

Nathan was about to request that JD be beamed back to the Maverick's sickbay when the chief medical technician in charge activated a comm unit. "Manhattan General, one human, one Vulcan casualty, two attending to transport," he said. Then he quickly clipped locators on Vin, JD, Nathan and Nemudrovich. A transporter locked in on them, and in the next instant they were at the huge hospital's trauma center.

A Vulcan team took Vin and whisked him into a cubicle, while a team of humans converged on JD. The one in charge recognized the medical insignia on Nathan's uniform and quickly differed to him. "You've assessed him?"

Nathan nodded. "Internal thermalization, all four extremities, possibly internal organs as well."

The trauma surgeon nodded and then began barking orders to his team. Nathan stood back and let them work. He joined Vlad Nemudrovich outside the cubicle where the Vulcan team was treating Vin. The contrast between human and non-human approaches to medicine was clearly evident. The Vulcan medical team barely spoke to each other. Each one seemed to know his assigned task and did it efficiently but without urgency. While JD's team was trying to elicit a response from the boy, the Vulcans made no attempt to awaken their patient.

They treated Vin for shock and as soon as his vital signs stabilized, the physician in charge ordered him transferred to Recovery. The team left as Vin was regaining consciousness, and had Nathan and Nemudrovich not been there, Vin would have awakened to an empty room.

Nathan approached and did his own assessment with his tricorder. It wasn't that he didn't trust the Vulcan medical team, but Vin was his patient, after all.

The Vulcan's blue eyes fluttered open. "JD?" was the first thing he said.

Nemudrovich grasped his hand. "He's alive. He'll be okay." He looked at Nathan to confirm that was true.

Nathan nodded. JD would need to be treated with tissue regenerators for a few days, but if there were no other problems, he'd make a full recovery. "He's going to be fine," he assured Vin.

"Nathan!" came a shout from outside the room. The doctor hurried into the hall and headlong into Buck Wilmington. Buck had needed to find conventional transportation after JD had been beamed into the hospital. New York City allowed transporters only for emergencies, so it had taken him a few minutes to get there.

"Where's JD? Is he okay?" he panted, and Nathan wondered if he'd actually run all the way from the Museum.

Before Nathan could even answer, the shimmer of a transporter appeared in the hallway and in seconds, Captain Larabee had materialized.

"What the hell happened?" he demanded.

Nathan put a calming had on each man's shoulder. "They're fine. JD suffered some internal injuries, but nothing that won't heal in a couple of days. Vin was in shock, but he'll be okay, too."

"Can I see him?" Buck asked, looking over Nathan's shoulder into JD's room.

"He's sedated at the moment," Nathan explained, "but I'm pretty sure he'll be happy to see your ugly face as soon as he wakes up."

Nathan noted that Vin, now fully alert, was talking to his uncle. The Vulcan looked up when he saw Chris, and Nemudrovich motioned the doctor and the captain to come in.

"Good to see you, Captain Larabee!" he greeted.

Chris shook his hand. "I was expecting the worst when they told me the boys were brought here, but he's looking pretty good." He nodded at Vin, relief evident on his face.

"He was about to tell me what he experienced," Nemudrovich said, then nodded at the young officer. "Go on, Vin."

Vin rubbed at his eyes. "It was.... I don't think there is even a word for it," Vin sighed. "Imagine the entire population of a planet just being.... sucked away. They was so much fear and confusion." He looked at the archaeologist. "It ain't gonna be enough to just put them back on their rock."

"How so?" Nemudrovich asked.

"They had homes... or something like homes. They have groups that they belong with and want to be with..."

"Families?" Nathan frowned.

Vin sighed. "Not families like we have, but something close. Now they are all scattered. It's going to take a long time to get them all back where they want to be."

"That is why they are here," Nemudrovich assured him. "We will do what we can to help them."

Vin tried to sit up. "I want outa here," he said.

Chris and Nemudrovich both pushed him back down. "You need to rest a few hours before they'll cut you loose," Nathan admonished.

The young officer knew from experience that it was pointless to argue. "Can I have some ice cream, then?" he asked.

Nemudrovich laughed. "Chocolate with chocolate and more chocolate?"


"This is New York City," Nemudrovich clapped him on the shoulder. "No replicated stuff - I'll get you the real thing."

Unfortunately, Chris could not stay long, not with three of his officers off the ship. "I'm glad you're okay, Vin," he said sincerely. They clasped forearms briefly.

"Chris?" Vin said as the captain was preparing to leave.


"I might be taking a couple of weeks' leave. I have plenty on the books. Would that be a problem?"

Chris frowned. He could get a temporary replacement for Vin from Starfleet, but the request was unusual coming from the Vulcan, who was content to get into trouble with JD during an occasional shore leave. He cut to the chase. "What's going on, Vin?"

"Somethin' I remembered when I was with Skel'ar. I gotta check it out, for myself."

Chris knew he was talking about his family and Tasco 7, but he didn't know how much the others knew. "We'll talk about it later, okay?"

Vin nodded, and Chris saw both sadness and determination in his eyes. Whatever Vin felt he had to do, he'd stand by him.

Shortly after Chris departed, an attendant entered to take Vin to the recovery ward. He was a Vulcan, and Vin looked slightly panicked, but kept his voice even and calm. In fact, he sounded like Skel'ar, Nathan thought with amusement. "I'd prefer to remain with the humans," he said.

When the Vulcan looked puzzled, he continued, "Ensign Dunne may require my presence when he regains consciousness."

The Vulcan nodded. "As you wish." He made a note on his pad and a few minutes later, Vin was being wheeled into a cubicle to join JD.

The hospital's Chief of Security was also there. "Which of you is from the Museum?" he looked at Nathan and Nemudrovich.

"That would be me," the archaeologist extended his hand. "Vladimir Ilya Nemudrovich," he introduced himself.

"These two got hurt there?" The Security Chief indicated Vin and JD, and he sounded suspicious.

"Yes," Nemudrovich replied tentatively.

"You will have to come with me and answer some questions."

Nemudrovich seemed surprised by his authoritative tone, but Nathan had been expecting it. He'd done research on the New York Museum of Natural History before sending the Beings there, and it had a colorful history of being the scene of bizarre injuries and even a few deaths, dating back to the late 20th century when an alien predator concealed in an artifact had killed several employees and visitors. Humans at that time had not even known there were alien life forms, so the whole incident had been swept under a rug as "unexplained." This latest unusual incident probably came as no surprise to the Security Chief.

Nemudrovich left with him, promising Vin he'd bring the ice cream as soon as he was done.

JD's hands and feet were encased in tissue regenerating casts. It would probably be three or four days before he could beam back to the ship, because the transporter would interfere with the healing process. Vin gazed at him with concern as he lay sedated, Buck waiting patiently for him to awaken.

"He really is going to be okay," Nathan assured him. "Why don't you try and get some sleep?"

Vin nodded. He was exhausted from the ordeal - hell, they all were. And Nathan knew it would not be over for the two young men until they were sure the Beings were safe and back on their tiny little world.

+ + + + + + +

True to his word, Vin's uncle Vlad had brought him some truly wondrous ice cream, and he'd awakened long enough to eat it, then gone back to sleep. He thought he was dreaming as his eyes opened slowly to the viewscreen JD was watching.

"The Japanese Pansy Dog began as a naturally occurring Chihuahua mutation which resulted in the breed's characteristic pansy-shaped ears. It was Japanese genetic engineering which produced the spectrum of coloration from the golds and yellows to the deep reds and purples that we see today... The winner of the Technogenetic Group, Japanese Pansy Dog number 73...."

Vin blinked as a tiny fawn-colored dog with enormous purple ears trotted sassily around a fake grass ring. "What the hell are you watching?"

"The Westminster dog show," JD answered, as if Vin should know what that was, which he didn't.

"Who'd want a dog that looks like that?" Vin frowned.

"Lots of people," JD shrugged. "That dog's probably worth more than we make in a year."

"Not to me," Vin scoffed. Earth was the only planet known to have true dogs, which made them rare enough. Humans liked to mess around with them and make them even more weird. He'd stick with cats.

"We should go see them," JD said eagerly.

"See them?"

"Yeah, they're right here in the city."

Vin pointed to the casts. "You don't think that's a problem?"

JD lowered one foot off the bed and the cast hit the floor with a soft thunk. Vin saw then that the casts had soles, like a shoe. "They're kind of like a boot. I can walk in 'em."

"Are you supposed to?" Vin was suspicious.

"Dunno," JD shrugged again. "Do you want to just lie here for three days?"

Vin actually felt fine. He got up and peered out into the hallway. There was nothing to keep them there that he could see. "Might be easier if we took a wheelchair," he said.

"They got security monitors on them," JD pointed out. The idea had already occurred to him, so he'd checked them out.

"And that's a problem for us, why?" Vin said.

JD grinned. Vin was right, of course. Over-riding the security monitors would be about as difficult as licking butter off a knife.

Fifteen minutes later, they were on the streets of one of the largest cities in the galaxy.

"There's one place we have to stop, first," JD said.

Vin didn't have to ask him where that was. He nodded, and set his locator to find the Museum of Natural History.

+ + + + + + +

Vlad Nemudrovich greeted them eagerly when he saw them, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were supposed to be at the hospital.

"Come and see...." he urged. "The exhibit will not be ready for awhile, of course, but, the concept is in place and...."

Vin froze in his tracks. "Uncle Vlad, you're not going to exhibit them," he stated firmly.

Nemudrovich laughed and clasped Vin's shoulders. "Just come and see...."

He lead them to a small room where the walls swirled with color. In the center, contained in a static field, was the rock. Nemudrovich clicked on a viewing screen and then increased the magnification until they could see a grid work of gossamer tendrils that formed a mesh about the sphere. "These..." he pointed to tiny nodes in the mesh, "are molecular imagers... Cameras that are small enough to fit into most cells."

Vin frowned. "We can't just spy on 'em, either," he said flatly.

"No, no... it's not for us to spy on them ," Nemudrovich explained, "It's so they can study us! We .... our huge, huge world... are the exhibit!"

Vin smiled. The Beings were an intelligent and creative race, and he knew that even though they were frightened to learn just how small a part of the universe they were, they were also overwhelmed with curiosity and the compulsion to find out everything they could about that universe.

JD raised himself up out of the wheelchair for a better look. "That's just about the most amazing thing I ever saw," he said.

"Yup, it is," Vin agreed.

"Of course, we are hoping that they will reveal to us more about themselves," Nemudrovich said. "But our priority is to keep them safe. No one will be allowed to study them unless they agree to it."

JD stood silent for several seconds. Though unintentional, JD and the 'Beings' had coexisted in a manner that he'd never even remotely imagined was possible. He was unexpectedly feeling their loss. "I almost hate saying good-bye to them," he said finally.

"They'll probably name a country after you," Vin said, a hint of humor in his voice.

"A city would be fine," JD replied with a grin. "And speaking of cities..." he motioned to the door and the unexplored metropolis beyond.

Vin hugged Nemudrovich good-bye and they left the Museum. They knew they'd be back to visit the Beings, but it was only a matter of time before Chris, Buck, and Nathan realized they were missing. In the meantime, there were Pansy Dogs and a city to see.

The End

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