VULCAN, SAREK'S ESTATE, DAY 2, FIRST WEEK OF SHARVEEN, YEAR 2329
Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard of Starfleet, twenty-four Earth years old and, for all his Starfleet experience, feeling painfully aware of his youth amid this distinguished gathering, tugged surreptitiously at the hem of his dress uniform's tunic, trying to get the cursed thing to lie properly -- and trying at the same time not to sweat. Tri-ox injections might help a human deal with Vulcan's thinner atmosphere, but the climate was still unbelievably warm, even now when it was barely dawn. It was rather flattering that his captain should have picked him to be part of this ceremonial team, but --
"Already hotter than good old Terran Hell, isn't it?" a voice with an unmistakable Southern United States accent drawled.
Picard turned sharply, and found himself staring into a weatherworn, aged face -- with two of the shrewdest, least-aged eyes he'd seen. "Sir?" Picard began, then hastily upgraded that as the man's trim maroon uniform and metallic ornaments registered (despite the floppy, decidedly nonregulation sunhat): "Admiral!"
God, there was only one Starfleet admiral who would be this old, and this old-fashionedly Southern: "Admiral -- Doctor -- Admiral McCoy!"
"Doctor, please. Sounds more natural."
But this was the McCoy, Leonard McCoy, the one who'd shipped with Captain James T. Kirk aboard the original Enterprise, yes, and with Mr. Spock, Ambassador Spock, too -- Picard had to fight himself not to grab the admiral's hand, reminding himself sternly, You are not a raw cadet, you are a Starfleet lieutenant. Of course the admiral would be here; he was one of Spock's oldest Starfleet friends. But this -- this was like meeting part of living history!
"At ease, son," the famous McCoy said wryly. "This damn climate's no place for military formality."
"But, sir, I -- I know -- "
"You're not going to tell me you read about me in school, are you?"
At Picard's guilty start, McCoy snorted. "Isn't that charming. Lieutenant Whoever..."
"Picard, sir. Jean-Luc Picard, serving with Captain Anton Manning."
"A pleasure, Lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard. But I haven't survived a century just to become someone's folk hero!"
The world-weary grin was infectious. Picard hazarded a smile in return, then abruptly remembered where he was, and why he was here, and went back to attention.
"Nice turnout," McCoy murmured in his ear. "But then, Spock's earned it."
Picard glanced subtly about. He couldn't put names to most of the civilians, although there was no mistaking the strong features of Dr. Mbiti, the Kenyan-born Ambassador to Vulcan, in his flowing red, green, and black robes. There were no less than twenty Starfleet officers, eighteen human men and women, one lithe gray-furred felinoid Ikatr, and one startlingly blue Bolian. All of them, including his solid, middle-aged captain, looked crisp, clean, and uncomfortable in their dress uniforms, a row of muted reds and blues. The Vulcan dignitaries, a mixed lot of scientists and diplomats, men and women, were still assembling, elegant, lean figures, utterly tranquil and absolutely silent in their flowing white or brown or blue robes. Picard straightened as he recognized one of them, too, a slender woman in a long bronze robe, from the newsvids: T'Sera, who had led the second archaeological expedition to M-113. He'd love the chance to hear her lecture...but not in this climate.
"Not a mussed hair on any of them," McCoy continued. "But then, they're bred for this climate. A little thing like desert heat isn't going to bother them."
"This is Ambassador Sarek's land, isn't it?"
"Sure is. Been in the family for millennia."
The plateau on which they stood would have looked like a Breton stone circle -- if Brittany had suddenly spouted fumaroles and its grassy fields had turned to reddish rock. Picard stifled a cough as the breeze brought him a whiff of sulfur, and watched the dark blue shadows rapidly retreat from the deeper red of the desert plains far below.
"Sir? Isn't that peak Mount Seleya?"
"That it is. The only mountain in the area with snow on it. Watch, now. You'll see something spectacular."
Above the distant Mount Seleya and the other jagged peaks, the thin air was already starting to shimmer. Then with dramatic suddenness, the rising sun, 40 Eridani A, flared off the snow capping Mount Seleya, turning the mountain's peak to blazing copper -- and catching Picard right in the eye.
Wonderful. If the ceremony didn't start soon, the sun was going to be burning his scalp right through his already sadly thinning hair.
"God, what I'd give for some shade," someone muttered and Picard silently agreed. To take his mind off his discomfort, he tried to picture himself sitting in a chair in relatively cool shade, maybe even with a tall glass of iced tea, the real thing, Earl Grey all the way from Earth.
The fantasy wasn't working. Feeling a trickle of sweat tickling its way down his back, Picard fought not to fidget. "Uh...sir?"
"Go ahead, son. Ask away. Takes both our minds off the weather."
"About the betrothal...I understood that it was normal Vulcan practice for formal betrothals to take place between seven-year-old children."
"That's right. And such a betrothal's every bit as important to Vulcans as the actual wedding years later. But yes, today it's two adults getting betrothed, not two kids."
Specifically, Picard's mind filled in, Ambassador Spock, formerly of Starfleet, and Starfleet Commander Saavik, first officer of the U.S.S. Armstrong.
"Two people who've been colleagues and friends for decades now," McCoy mused aloud. "And why they're doing this at this stage of their lives..." He shrugged, a little too casually. "There are exceptions to every rule."
And there's more to the story than you're going to tell me, isn't there? "Two people who've been colleagues and friends for decades."
His mind wanted very much to make something romantic out of that. But Picard rather suspected that this late betrothal was more a matter of convenience, or maybe politics. You never knew motives for sure, if Starfleet scuttlebutt was correct, when someone as, well, cunning as the father of the groom Ambassador Sarek, was involved.
He suddenly realized that a high-ranking officer had moved to McCoy's side -- no, not just high-ranking. This was Captain Truman Howes of the Armstrong, Commander Saavik's ship, his fair skin and pale eyes startlingly out of place in a desert climate.
"Worried about your first officer?" McCoy asked mildly.
"Hardly! Commander Saavik can take care of herself. Best first officer any captain ever had," he added, with a glance at Picard. "It's worth coming down into this...this blast furnace of a world to see this. He'd better be good to her," Howes added to McCoy in an undertone, "or, ambassador or not, he'll hear from my crew. And me."
"Just don't expect Spock to keep her safe," McCoy drawled. "It's her job to go in harm's way, and Spock who taught her that job, remember? If you ask me," he continued, "though, mind you, nobody has, I'd say this is just what the doctor ordered. Since Spock left the Fleet, they've both been too damned alone."
A rustle of the dawn wind brought with it the high-pitched chime of tiny bells.
"Ha," McCoy exclaimed. "Here we go."
The Starfleet officers straightened to attention. So did the Vulcans, though no one could have called their subtle, elegant tensing a military posture.
Two heavyset Vulcans wearing black skullcaps topped with starched frills carried out a large jadeite gong, which a third man struck. Its deep-voiced boom echoed out onto the Forge.
"Right," Picard heard McCoy mutter. "They never did get around to replacing the old one."
That didn't mean anything