Smoke and Mirrors

The weeks that followed their bonding were filled with contentment for Amanda as Sarek opened her eyes to the beauty of Ti-Valka’ain. Many of the places they visited on their extended tour remained in her memory long after they returned to his family home in DhiKune.

The great ruined citadel of ThoKamahr proved one of the most vivid of her recollections. Built by a warrior Lord whose name had, over time become just a legend, the ruins extended for miles along the southern most edge of Tat’sahr Province. Swallowed by the shifting vermilion sands of the Cheleb- khor, for millennia the ruins had remained hidden. Only in the last five hundred years, had the city been excavated and reclaimed.

Cheleb-khor, named for Ket’cheleb, the Vulcan god of anger, consisted of several hundred miles of the harshest desert on Vulcan. Apart from ThoKamahr, the region was known for its many natural hazards to unwary travellers. It was also a traditional testing ground for the kahs-wan ordeal.

Sarek had the sandtrekker packed before dawn and they started out just as the first lustrous orange streaks brightened the eastern horizon. Sarek had cautioned her to dress in a desert soft-suit and Amanda soon realised how necessary the special clothing was when the early light showed her the savage vista of ridges and saw-toothed peaks polished to a blood-red lacquer. The air shimmered with wind-blown dust and heat haze. There were no roads, no tracks, no habitations, or other machinery. Without vegetation or water holes, the Cheleb-khor was a bleak and barren waste. Enclosed in the trekker that glided a few feet above the ground, it’s quiet electric hum the only sound; she and Sarek seemed completely alone in the huge landscape.

They had travelled for less than two hours when Sarek pointed out something that stood out clearly against the skyline. The symbol of civilization to any Vulcan, a great arch or ivrit, soared into the air apparently unsupported and beautifully proportioned.

Distances were misleading in such a vastness and it was another hour before Sarek brought the trekker to a halt. Amanda’s eyes widened at her first sight of the City of ThoKamahr. Sand blasted walls of red stone enclosed an enormous complex of elevated towers, covered galleries, onion domes, courtyards, and stairways.

“I didn’t know Vulcan was ever like this.” She murmured in appreciation.

“This is only a part,” Sarek assured her. He pointed across the sands, “At one time, in the distant past, two great rivers met here. The Andra’vrasht started in the Arlanga Mountains and the Shan’vos flowed down past Chin’ohr in the Southern Range. At ThoKamahr, they joined into one mighty force. The city continues for another fifty kliton.”

“What happened here? Why did the city die?”

Sarek could not say. “No one knows. Perhaps war or possibly lack of water when the river disappeared underground.”

“War?” Amanda echoed in surprise. “Surely not.”

One eyebrow rose significantly towards his short, wayward fringe, “Before the Awakening, we were a warlike race, my wife. Our ferocity far surpassed that of Humans. Much of our history before Surak’s time has been lost to us because of it. ”

He powered up the contragravs and drove on beneath the arching ivrit, guiding the sandtrekker along a vast paved way that dissected the city. The further they journeyed inward, the further the everyday world seemed to recede. Amanda was inundated by a sensation of age, of moving back in time to the far past.

After a second ivrit, they continued along the wide avenue, now flanked on both sides by imposing statues of strange creatures. Amanda recognised larger versions of the winged cat-like animal that held the glowing embers of Sarek’s attunement flame in its paws, powerful sculptures of sehlats and lematya’s, even a couple of dragons, their maws agape and leathery wings unfurled.

Again, a massive, carved stone gateway arch loomed ahead. This time, Sarek pulled up and switched off the alternator. They climbed out and stood before the last arch, which fronted a magnificent domed building of dusky pink sandstone. “There are always three ivrit. Some still believe that to pass under a gateway is the first stage of purification.”

“This is a place of worship, a shrine of some sort?” She asked him, her tone wondering.

“Once it was,” he affirmed. With a hand beneath her elbow, he led Amanda up a flight of broad steps undamaged by time, preserved by the dry, thin air. A great, door-less entrance welcomed them into an enormous reception hall; its walls still daubed with faint, life size murals. “This is wezhb- ut-shukhran, the place of sacred dances. ThoKamahr’s wives and daughters lived here, secure from the world, priestesses of the temple.”

Staring into the gloom of the huge chamber, Amanda allowed her imagination full rein. She could almost see the tall, dark-eyed women dressed in transparent linen, their waist length hair floating behind them as they danced, their brows encircled by a silver metal band set with the opalescent jewels that mimicked the present day ta’al salute.

An unexpected coolness brushed lightly across her cheek and she shivered as her flesh prickled with gooseflesh. Sarek noticed her sudden discomfort.

“It is cold in the shadows. Come, it will be warmer outside.” He led her out into a small forecourt that once may have been an exotic garden. Immediately, Amanda felt more relaxed, the ghosts frightened away by the bright orange sunlight. They sat together upon a low parapet that overlooked the desert, hips touching companionably, watching a far-off dust devil churn up the sand. Peering into the heat haze, something else attracted Amanda’s attention.

“Sarek, what are those?” She indicated an odd procession of tall, conical structures. There were more than seventy of the strange towers. Appearing at regularly spaced intervals, it was obvious they were not products of nature.

“The ichno? They are part of the city’s underground irrigation system. Would you care to inspect one?”

“How kind of you to ask, my husband. I would, indeed!”

They walked unhurriedly back to the sandtrekker. Within a few minutes, Sarek pulled up beside one of the lofty constructions. Steps, cut into the red stone, led up the outside wall to a height of ten metres or more. When they reached the top, Amanda saw that a further stone staircase descended into the darkness inside the tower. Alien to Vulcan as she was, she could still smell the dampness. Sarek leaned over and dropped a pebble into the shaft. Seconds passed before they both heard the sound of the splash as the small rock struck water.

“Let’s go down.” Amanda urged, intrigued.

But Sarek declined. “That would not be wise, aduna. If the ichno were constructed for the use of the city, the system could be anything from five to ten thousand years old. These towers have been known to collapse. I do not wish to risk my wife in such circumstances.”

She glanced at him quickly, blue eyes sparkling - and saw his lips curve in that odd approximation of a smile he sometimes allowed her to see. It was gone almost as fast as it formed but it warmed her heart nevertheless. He might never voice his ‘love’ for her, or even have a word to express the emotion, but she knew it still existed. Gaily, she laughed and darted back down the stairway to the desert floor. He caught up with her as she boarded the trekker once more.

“Have you been here before today?”

He inclined his head, dark brown gaze thoughtful. “I have told you of the kahs-wan ordeal that all males undergo at the age of seven.”

“The manhood rite? Yes, you have.”

“ThoKamahr is an accepted end point after crossing the Cheleb-khor. On foot, the journey takes ten days from east to west. During the trial each child being tested can neither help, nor even talk to any other child he sees. As a boy, during my own initiation, I came here – as did many others.”

“It seems a harsh system, husband.” Amanda commented, choosing her words with care. “To demand so much from such young children. Do many fail?”

“Vulcans have rejected emotion and replaced it with logic. We no longer war amongst ourselves or against other species. But that is not true for many of our neighbouring worlds.” He piloted the sandtrekker through the ruined streets and finally stopped before a large, circular walled building. “The kahs-wan helps to keep us prepared. In these modern times, of course, it is expected that some will not succeed the first time, neither is failure considered a disgrace---”

Again, he looked at her keenly, “We know that when ThoKamahr was at its height to fail was indeed to die.”

“So --- now the proceedings are supervised? You intervene when a child gets into trouble?”

“It would hardly be logical to let our children die in such circumstances. The kahs-wan while a test of survival skills is also a rite of passage for the young male. Only when he has passed can he be considered for bonding. Very few fail twice.”

Again, with his fingers about her elbow, he escorted her up another stairway and through a wide, shadowy corridor until they once more emerged into sunshine. Amanda glanced around at a large arena encircled by banks of deep, high steps. She was immediately reminded of a roman amphitheatre. Mystified, she looked to Sarek for an explanation.

He supplied it, readily. “The Ruler here enjoyed competitive sports --- a trait that has continued even to the present day.”

With measured tread, he continued across the arena and into a tunnel on the far side. Not once did he hesitate as he navigated her through the maze of what must have been long ago equipment stores and changing rooms. At last, they arrived at the open entrance to another chamber. “Please remain here for a moment, aduna.”

Amanda reluctantly complied, her human eyes struggling to see in the gloom. Before very long there came sounds of rustling and the clink of metal on metal.

“What on Earth---?” Amanda questioned aloud then almost jumped out of her skin as Sarek appeared abruptly beside her. “Take this, Amanda. It is not heavy.”

He thrust the braided end of a stout rope into her hand and solemnly she pulled the creaking, rustling thing that was attached to it back out into the main arena.

Love at first sight, she gazed at the small, three-wheeled land yacht in amazement.

“How did this get here?” She asked, softly of her husband. Perfectly proportioned, beautifully made, the small racing wheels gave it a sporty, attractive look. Sarek had also fitted it together in five minutes flat. Amanda laughed with delight, then regarded him suspiciously. “Is this how you spent your time in kahs-wan?”

He bent swiftly so that she was unable to see his face, and slotted the ultra light four-piece aluminium mast together before popping it easily into the peg made for it in front of the seat. Within seconds, the sail was unfurled, the ropes threaded through the three pulleys and it was ready to go.

“She is called Shavokh, aduna.” His mouth curved slightly as he straightened from his task. “Would you care to race? Her mate waits in the equipment room.”

“I have no chance of winning,” she asserted. “Obviously your skill and knowledge are greater than mine.”

“I hear you, my wife. Although the joy is in taking part, and not the winning I will, of course, consider your inexperience.”

His brown eyes met her blue ones, and she thought she saw amusement there. Her mouth twitched upwards in answer to his teasing. “Very well. Show me what I should do.”

It took only a few moments for him to bring out the companion land yacht. He set down the bidet-like seat on the arena floor, clicked the rear axles with their ready-mounted wheels into place, and then, as Amanda watched in admiration, he positioned the front steering head with its half-wheel into its slot. Expertly, fingers flying, he tightened up a palm-sized nut and, as with Shavokh, fixed the sail. Again, so precise were the kit pieces that the process was over before it had begun and the yacht was ready to cruise.

Intentionally clumsy, Amanda allowed him to help her climb aboard the small craft. Once seated comfortably, she listened with rapt attention as he explained where she should brace her feet and how to handle the sail. Only when completely satisfied that she understood his instructions did he stand aside and allow her to release the brake.

The yacht immediately picked up speed as the breeze caught the sail. She adjusted the sheet and the craft lurched on its axle, tipping up onto one wheel as she flew towards the first bend. Amanda laughed aloud with raw exhilaration as she surged forward. It really was a little masterpiece, beautifully balanced, easy to steer although it took all her concentration to keep it on three wheels.

On the start of her second circuit, she waved to Sarek who had climbed aboard his own craft. Tacking hard, he came abreast within seconds and Amanda could see the determination on his face. Side by side, they flew before the wind.

Eventually, no longer interested in who won the race Amanda stopped counting the circuits. She yelled over at Sarek, enjoying the speed, the freedom, and his company in a way that had been denied her since arriving on Vulcan.

They were still racing together when T’Khut finally sank behind the horizon in a blaze of light and colour. With ThoKamahr darkening all about them, Sarek called a halt. He packed up the racers and stowed them away in their hiding place.

“Where has the day gone?” Amanda asked him. She gazed around at the lengthening shadows, tired but happy, her blood still tingling with elation.

He raised an eyebrow, but did not spoil the moment by reminding her of how illogical her question was, and in thanks for the pleasure he had given her, she rose up on tiptoe to kiss him delicately on the lips. For the briefest moment, his arms enclosed her, his mouth softened, and he returned the caress.

An instant later, he broke the embrace although he continued to hold her close with an arm about her waist and together they watched T’Khut’s light dwindle into a faint orange glow. “Lihwa is not far from here, aduna. We will stay the night there.”

Together, they walked through the deserted streets of ThoKamahr and retrieved the sandtrekker. It was like getting into a bright barge and sailing through the sea of the night. They let it take them to the next mystery.