‘No. Your inflection is still incorrect. Read the poem again, Straker. From the beginning.’
It was still difficult to accept his name. He had been Straehk for over thirty years, and one did not cast aside so much time with callous ease. But no-one called him that name now and although there were times he longed to hear his given name he knew that it was a necessity, that they were moulding him into someone new. Straker. A human. They even encouraged him to smile and laugh but it was strange and made him uncomfortable. These were not family, or friends, they were his superiors, and each time he smiled at them, the sensation forced and grating in his thoughts, he knew it was unseemly. But like everything else it was crucial if he was to integrate himself into human society.
‘From the beginning, then, although I believe that Donne was not an American.’ Straehk gave a brief questioning look at his tutor before he lowered his head to the page and began reading aloud once more. ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’
He was aware of the door to the small chamber opening but continued reading, concentrating on the soft and slow accent he needed to perfect. He finished the passage and waited, reading the lines again in his mind, thinking about the English sound, although he was speaking American. It still confused him at times.
‘Better. However, you will need to continue your studies. The Boston accent that was selected for Straker is close to your own dialect, but there is still work to be done.’ The tutor nodded. ‘Elder?’
Straehk looked up from his book and stood in deference to the visitor. The Elder waited, his head tilted and Straehk remembered. He held out one hand. ‘Good afternoon sir. It’s a pleasure to see you again.’ The contact, one hand against another, formal strangers as they were, was strange, but protocols had to be learned. He released his grip after a second.
‘Good afternoon.’ The reply was unusual, but everything was unusual now. ‘You are making excellent progress.’
‘Thank you.’ Straehk noticed his tutor leave the chamber in silence. Alone with the Elder now, he gestured to a seat. ‘Please. May I get you a drink?’ He noticed with some pleasure that his accent was just the right tone. Boston. He had studied the pictures; a beautiful city. One day he might actually visit it.
‘Thank you. Refreshment would be appreciated.’ The Elder sat, waiting as Straehk poured chilled water into a glass, passing it with a hand no longer showing any hint of its previous copper-coloured tinge. ‘The doctors tell me that you require only a few more treatments. The genetic modifications are nearly complete?’
Straehk held out one hand, turning it over and displaying his wrist, the tracery of fine veins looking almost blue under the transparent skin. ‘Yes. I have the final session this evening.’ He busied himself pouring another glass of water, unwilling to think about the treatment and its effect on his body, and then sat as well, not the proper actions of a student in the presence of an Elder, but aware that this too, was a test. ‘Is the ship ready?’
‘The question is – are you? Tell me the truth, Straehk. Not what you think I desire to hear.’
His own name. A precious word given with meaning. He bowed his head, the loose-bound queue of hair hiding the surgically neat curve of his ears. Everything hinged on this moment. There was the briefest of pauses before he spoke.
‘Straker. My name is Edward Straker.’ The personal name sounded clumsy, over long, the second syllable extended. It was his first time of speaking it, and he frowned, clasping long fingered hands together and saying the words again, in the required accent. ‘Ed. Ed Straker. That sounds better.’ He lifted his face and stared at the Elder, blue eyes under curved brows meeting dark Vulcan eyes that held no sign of emotion. ‘If the doctors are satisfied with the results, I should be ready to travel in three days.’
The Vulcan stood. ‘Then the ship will depart in three days. The Council thanks you, Ed Straker. We owe you a debt of gratitude and we wish you well in your endeavours. Should you require our help during your work, you will only have to ask, but if all goes as planned, you will be given the role of aide to General Henderson. Once Earth is protected, we hope you will return to Vulcan to take up your teaching post in the ScienceAcademy. But that may be some years in the future. Does that concern you?’
‘No.’ Straehk shrugged, another Earth gesture, ‘I have nothing holding me to Vulcan. If it takes ten years or tens of years, it is of no import. It is an honour to serve.’
‘I must speak of more personal matters now… Straker.’ The Elder folded his hands together. ‘Your culture and your family are gone. You will be alone on Earth, isolated from us and from our ways. An altered Vulcan. You may find that there is a price to pay for your willingness to be of service.’ There was a pause. ‘You will pass as human. You will be human. A single man of marriageable age on Earth. Are you prepared for the consequences?’
Straehk lowered his head. ‘I am no longer bonded. My betrothed died on Ochio along with the rest of my people. If I were to find love again, from wherever it came, I would welcome it and embrace the gift. But it is unlikely. I will be a stranger in a strange land, with secrets I cannot reveal.’
‘We will see. You will do what you must in order to be accepted on Earth. Your presence there is vital to Earth’s safety.’ The Elder put his glass aside and stood, hand raised in the familiar gesture for a moment. ‘Ed Straker. Live long and prosper.’ Then he was gone.
Later that evening Straehk tried raising his head from the pillow, but dizziness swept through him and with a groan he realised that he was going to vomit again. He retched, bringing up nothing but more sour bile, all the while trying not to disturb the assistants, but even so he was aware of someone approaching. He kept his eyes closed, hoping that he might be left alone, the vile taste of acid burning his raw throat. Sickness did not repel him, nor was he frustrated at his weakness but the nausea was worse than after any previous treatment and the thought of further examinations and tests while he was still incapable of speaking, let alone opening his eyes, was more than he could bear.
Strong hands lifted his head, the pillow was removed and a fresh cool one slid into place before he was lowered once more. A damp cloth touched his lips, wiping the sourness away. More cloths now, over face and eyes, cooling his neck and arms, wiping fingers and then a final caress over his forehead. ‘Better?’ A soft voice close to his ear. He managed a single mumble, monosyllabic and barely audible, but she seemed content with his reply and moved away, leaving him more comfortable, the nausea still there but bearable as long as he remained motionless. The final treatment completed and now just the after-effects to deal with. The sickness rose again and he curled up, clutching his stomach and wondering when this torment would cease.
The voices in the background were too soft for him to hear the words, but he recognised one of the speakers; the senior geneticist, in charge of his management. Straehk concentrated, pushing his discomfort away, and letting other sounds in the room fade. They were talking about him. He could hear his name, his new name. Straker. Perhaps they were coming to do the tests now. A groan slipped out before he could suppress it. He was too tired and sick and thirsty and unable to keep anything, even rehydration fluids, down. A healing trance would not help this, the changing of his body at a molecular level.
They warned him it would be unpleasant, but each treatment had worsened the symptoms until he was here, unable to move without retching, the slightest movement making his head throb even more. And yet the transport ship would be waiting, and he could not delay it. He would have time to recover on the voyage but he still had final preparations to complete, and assignments to mark, his last personal items to pack; not that there many of those. He tried to push himself up in a last effort, only to flop down again on the thin pillow. Enough. The world spun around him in a swirl of pain and sickness and, distressed, he cried out. The hand on his face was stronger this time, not the gentle touch of the assistant, cool and comforting. The voice was darker, masculine. He knew that sound. The senior physician.
Straehk lay still under the touch of fingers on his face, not moving, just holding him still. He kept his eyes closed, aware of bright lights above his bed, more voices, the rattle of instruments close by his bed. The hand moved to his wrist, pressing to feel the pulse, lifting his limp hand away from the sheets. He felt sick again. Not here. Not with the senior physician examining him. The fingers lowered his hand and he would have curled up under the sleek cover, but even that slight movement would have resulted in him disgracing himself. He swallowed, forcing down thin acid rising yet again from his stomach, and the physician laid one hand on his shoulder. ‘Straehk. Your body is rejecting the new coding. Without further treatment the process will fail. You must decide whether we may proceed or not and there is a seventy-eight point six two probability the changes will be irreversible.’ There was a pause. ‘You have to make the choice. There will be no turning back later.’
A Terran, an Earthman, human. Permanently. Was he willing to make that decision? He would not fit in either world, Terra or Vulcan, would not find a mate here when he returned, might not even live a full life span. He opened his eyes, seeing the physician close to him, watching with open sympathy. ‘Straehk? You need to decide, and quickly, if we are to make this work.’
Vulcan. Hot and dry. His work on the Academy, teaching physics and studying, and always thinking of his lost people, his lost life. Hating the enemy, and knowing that they were still out there, unstopped, killing and stealing and destroying. And he was safe.
Terra. Green lands, blue seas, rich forests. Once his work was done and Earth protected, he might be able to find somewhere he could farm and grow crops and be at peace.
There was only once choice. He managed to force one croak from his parched throat. ‘Continue.’ The hand on his shoulder squeezed once and then he felt the needle and closed his eyes as fire swept through him, searing his blood and burning away the last remnants of his past and he screamed.