The voices were not a distraction, neither were the figures coming closer to lean over his shoulder and inspect his work. He ignored them all, his eyes focussed on the screen as equations appeared in rapid succession. There was no sigh of satisfaction as the final question flashed up; his fingers typed the answer without a moment’s hesitation, the screen closed and he leaned back, wondering if he should disturb the group clustered around his chair in order to get a drink of water. Dehydration would have a negative effect on his performance and he could feel the onset of the symptoms. The day was young, but already he had worked for several hours. He stood up, nodding his respect to the elders behind. So many of them? He folded his hands in deference and waited, eyes downcast and serene, as only proper in such unusual circumstances.
‘Your teachers express approval with your work, Straehk.’ The chief elder inclined his head in acknowledgement. ‘We have a … request.’
The statement was so unexpected that Straehk would have looked up had he not composed himself. As it was, one eyebrow betrayed him with a twitch before he could halt its response. He took a slow breath and calmed himself further, aware even that small reaction would have been documented by the elders.
There was only one answer. ‘I am yours to command.’ Straehk bowed his head. His blond hair, loose-bound within a narrow strip of blue and silver cloth, fell over elegant ears with only the gentlest hint of a point. A rarity in the Northern regions of Vulcan; blond hair of such a light hue, and such vivid blue eyes, the eyebrows hardly tilted at all. If it had not been for his impeccable lineage, some might have questioned his right to be here, in the Academy.
There were rumours among the other students about his past, that he was the last of a colony that had failed some two years ago but Straehk kept himself apart, attending some lectures and teaching others, retiring each night to his own rooms. He was not cloistered along with other students in the warren of small cells carved out of the red sandstone cliff or the more comfortable and more spacious rooms of the senior teachers in the inner confines of the complex. His rooms were on the ground floor of one of the older buildings, out of the way and overlooking the less formal gardens and sometimes he could be seen there, hands stroking the blooms of the plants, or trailing his fingers through the tops of the tall grasses. But he was always alone. A quiet and secret Vulcan, still in his prime and yet seeming older than his years as if something in his past had aged him, burned away the spark of youth and left only the dying embers of life.
He waited, taking deep breaths, calming himself. Perhaps there was news of… but no. That would be impossible. No one had found any trace of the alien race who had devastated his world, killing so many. Despite all their attempts, even the greatest Vulcan minds had not learned from where the craft had come, or what had happened to those they had taken with them.
His only relief was that his wish was respected; T’Shaan and her family taken to the fields that she loved and the proper rituals spoken. He had not been back to the place where she now lay. Perhaps he never would; there was nothing there for him now. He may be the last of his people but he was also a Vulcan by birth and he would live the rest of his life here, teaching and learning with the secret hope of one day discovering more about the people who had destroyed his future.
‘We cannot command you in this, we can only ask. Please.’ The Elder gestured to a nearby alcove. ‘May we talk?’
There was silence in the room, a hush that was nothing to do with work, or concentration. Everyone listening to the conversation. It was unheard of for any Elder to interrupt a student, even a teacher, although their presence here was not unusual. But the library was a place where no one spoke apart from brief whispered requests, and for Elders to speak in such an open manner and then to ask a student, even one as accomplished at Straehk, if he would talk to them, was unusual enough to make the other students stop their tasks and turn around.
Straehk lowered his head further as if he might somehow avoid the gaze of those around him, but there was no way he could ignore the Elders, not ones wearing the insignia of Vulcan High Command.
He looked up. They were waiting, ‘Of course.’ He followed the group into the niche, waiting until they had taken their seats and then sliding into the place indicated, appreciative of their consideration that he was not crowded into a corner and unable to leave quickly. But they must be cognisant of his medical reports, of his need to be able to get outside into fresh air. He took a moment to calm himself, using techniques learned in the weeks after his rescue. His reaction to enclosed spaces was…. irrational, illogical. It was childish. Perhaps they were here to request his removal from the Science Council? He could see the gardens outside, the soft pink blooms of the cassarians with their dark green leaves, the waving fronds of sellis pattricius a sea of dark gold. His crops had looked like that when ready for harvesting. His crops. He had not allowed those thoughts to intrude for many months. He was an astrophysicist now, an associate member of the Vulcan Academy and his past life was just that; past.
‘Vulcan High Command and the Science Council requests your assistance in a matter. We do not expect your answer immediately and we will understand should you refuse. However, there is some urgency.’ The Elder glanced outside, as if reluctant to meet the eyes of the young man.
‘Straehk,’ another of the group interjected. ‘We know that the alien race that destroyed the colony on Ochio has another world in its sight. We want your help.’
‘My help? How? I am not a soldier, not -’
‘We cannot fight them; we do not even know where their world is, or who they are. We have searched but they are cunning. They travel at speeds greater than warp drive, crossing the galaxy in their search for compatible life forms. You have seen what they can do. Ochio was the first of our colonies to be attacked. Others were attacked in the following days but we were prepared by then and the enemy retreated. They will not take any more of our people.’
‘So why do you need me?’
There was a pause, a shared look between the scientists, as if they were each reluctant to speak.
He knew of the planet, technologically backward, reliant on dwindling natural resources for its power supplies, a world where countries fought each other for no reason, where the desire for power and money ruled instead of the desire for knowledge. Terra. A beautiful planet, rich with plant and animal life and water. Huge expanses of water, so large that one could travel for days crossing from one side to another. And the races on Terra, different colours, different languages and cultures and beliefs. ‘I know of Terra.’ A terrible thought crossed his mind. ‘The destroyers, are they from Terra? I mean, are they humans?’ Unseen, his fingers tightened in the long sleeves of his robe,
‘No They are not. Humanoid yes, we know that much. Wherever they come from, they did not come from Terra, but they have found it and they have been visiting it unnoticed and unseen for years, taking what they want.’ The Elder sighed, the only outward sign of his unease. ‘They are wary of being discovered though, and as yet they have not attacked in force. We fear it is only a matter of time. When a planet is heavily populated, and they cannot do as they did at Ochio, they will send small raiding parties for years, testing the defences of the world and then, once assured of success, they attack in force. The results are.. unpleasant.’
‘This has happened before? To how many worlds?’
‘Enough. We are not able to determine the precise number, our ships have discovered other more primitive worlds that have been devastated by invaders and evidence leads us to the conclusion that the same creatures are responsible each time. Which is why we are here.’ He held his hands out in a gesture of openness. ‘Terra will be next. It is not too late though. We cannot intervene, at least not openly, but we can aid the humans if you, Straehk, are willing to help us.’
‘Help you? How can I do that?’
There was a pause, as if the group were discussing the question among themselves, yet there were no words, no signs. Straehk looked around the library. The other students, sitting still, not even any pretence of working now, all eyes watching the small alcove where he was sitting. The elders rose as one, nodding to him and he stood as well, following them out of the huge room, its intricately carved ceilings contrasting with the modern workstations at which most of the students were working. His robes brushed the floor as he walked in silence, his mind filled with thoughts of what he could possibly do to help Terra, he, Straehk, the newest member of the Academy, and to be the centre of such attention was disquieting to say the least. He walked on, outwardly composed and at peace, yet inwardly struggling to stop his body trembling. The thought of what they might ask of him was a matter of concern.
The leader stopped outside one of the old and lesser-used meeting rooms, giving the doors a gentle push. They swung open without a sound, balanced on massive hinges. He entered behind them and the doors whispered shut once more under yet another gentle touch.
The table in the centre of the room was a circle of stone inlaid with bands of polished metal. They stood around the table, one space left and he stepped forward to take his assigned place. There were no windows. That was his first thought. No natural light, no way to get out apart from the huge door, now closed, the roof curving over him, oppressive and dark, the table a massive bulk of solid rock and there was no space under it, no niche in which he could fling himself should the roof crack and start to fall. He rested his hands on the table; pressing down to stop shivers betraying his fear to these most respected men. The stone was cold under his palms. He closed his eyes for the few moments needed to compose himself once more and then straightened. They were watching him; he could see unspoken compassion in their eyes. They knew then about his fear and the nightmares that made sleep impossible. This, then, was yet another a test.
The door was still closed. There was no escape. He pressed down harder, stone smooth under his fingers, and concentrated on listening.
It took time and he was weary long before they finished explaining the facts. Earth. It would become his home if he agreed to their request. A new world, a new life. The scientists in the Council had done the research. It would be easy for him to slip into that world, to make a life there after they had completed the necessary modifications. He half-heard the details as if though a haze: minor cranio-maxillo-facial surgery, changes to his blood pigmentation on a genetic level, intensive programs in language and behaviour and culture before liaising with a senior member of an Earth force who was already aware of the existence of Vulcans and was preparing to welcome one of them. His mind filled with one fierce thought. He could help Terra fight the enemy.
Straehk had no illusions as to why they had selected him from all the available candidates. His inherited characteristics made him an ideal choice – pale skinned, requiring only minimal surgery to disguise his Vulcan traits and his lack of family or bondings was an advantage. No one to leave behind him. Furthermore, he would be no real loss to the Academy. Sometimes he wondered if they had invited him out of pity rather than a need for his abilities. He looked up. The Elder paused, all faces were turned to him.
‘In your honour.’ He pressed his hands down with greater force, his limbs now shaking with exhaustion. ‘I will do my best.’
A hand reached out to him, and he found himself accepting the touch, welcoming the brief contact on his own arm. There were no words spoken now; the Elders bowed in a rare gesture of respect and acknowledgment, and then the door was opened and they walked out in single file, leaving Straehk alone in the room, his hands still pressed on the table. It took time for him to stand upright, to drag himself free of the table, leaving dark handprints in sweat on the stone. The corridor outside was cool and quiet and he found a secluded bench and sat, contemplating his future. Earth. A new life. A new person. He would have a new name from today.