Hotter than any place that supports life has a right to be.
Standing at the cracked red foot of Mount Seleya, wrapped in the finest thermo-lytic garments the twenty-fourth century has to offer, I still sweat so profusely that the moisture clouds my vision. I'm barely able to discern the outline of the mountain through my stinging eyes. Intellectually, I know the suit is minimizing my body's need to perspire, keeping me from drying up like a pressed flower.
Emotionally, it's of little comfort.
Here I am on one of the least habitable M class planets in the Federation on one of the most fiery days of its year, a parched and hapless human raised in what I now realize is the relatively balmy comfort of Earth's southern Arizona desert. For the first time in my life I understand the casual, if overused, phrase, "Hot as Vulcan." My native guide, Tavis, a retired master an impressive 220 years old, regards my discomfort with what I now recognize as wry Vulcan humor, though I know he would certainly deny the characterization if I were rude enough to mention it. His sole protection from the blazing star overhead is a simple white robe made of nothing more sophisticated than native plant fibers.
Surak, revered as the father of modern Vulcan culture, worked out the basic tenets of his rigorously logical philosophy two thousand years ago as he trekked across the desert west of Seleya, a monotonously flat plane of sun-baked rock and sand that stretches for three hundred kilometers. Humans call it the Forge; even Vulcans will admit the logic of the metaphor. Maybe it's because so many of their children undergo a strenuous rite of passage on these sands, the desert tempering them, forging them into adulthood as their distant ancestors forged metal spears in the blazing heat.
When I first approached the Vulcan Consulate about crossing the Forge on foot they regarded me with skepticism. I insisted that my Arizona childhood had prepared me for the climate, but they "suggested" that I be accompanied by a Vulcan master of desert survival. I had casually assumed that with just a little technological boost, I could make a trek of the entire desert, end to end. Five days, tops. My hosts "proposed" that I start at the halfway point, the foothills of Mount Seleya.
As our hovercraft lifted off from the capital city, ShariKahr, I found myself captivated by the view. The complex, intertwining pattern of narrow streets at the center of the old city testifies to the Vulcans' longstanding preoccupation with mathematics and logic. As the city expanded, later architects, honoring the work of their predecessors, created intricate new designs in geometric harmony with those of the past. An ancient aqueduct system, one of the few relics predating the "Time of Awakening," draws precious water into the city from deep aquifers fed by desert hot springs some thirty kilometers to the south. Seeing it from this vantage, I was struck by the realization that ShariKahr is much more than home to eight million Vulcans -- it's a continually evolving work of mathematical art.
As the city dwindled behind us, I was drawn to the unnerving image of T'Khut, Vulcan's airless sister world, dominating half my field of vision. Most humans never entirely adjust to the sight of its huge disk, ruddy and mottled by the planet's rich mineralogical diversity. T'Khut seems to watch over Vulcan like an ominous, omniscient eye, and it always seems so perilously, impossibly close. My mind flashed on the nightmarish thought that it could drop out of the sky at any moment and roll over Vulcan, flattening everything in its path. In reality, T'Khut's orbit is implacably stable. Mated by gravity, the two worlds are locked in a perpetual dance of tidal forces that stimulate the almost ceaseless volcanic activity common to both of them.
Only with effort did I force my eyes away to focus on the twin ochre cones of Mount Seleya that were slowly growing on the horizon. One of Vulcan's most striking and sacred geological formations, at first glance this barren outcroppings of sun-hardened sandstone gives no hint of the spiritual significance it holds for the people of this world. But as the lighting and the viewing angle became just right, I experienced a delightful epiphany: Mount Seleya's unusual outline mimics the customary split-fingered hand gesture used by Vulcans in greeting and parting.
Tradition holds that The Kurat Temple Complex at the base of the mountain was erected by Vulcan mystics over eight thousand years ago. The seemingly endless steps carved into the steep mountain slopes lead almost to the summit, where ancient ceremonies seldom witnessed by off-worlders are still performed.
To my disappointment, our hovercraft got no closer to the temple, silently vectoring off to an isolated bluff on a different slope of the Kurat mountain range. When I questioned our pilot about the course change, he responded simply, "Our presence would be disruptive." I took this as a diplomatic way of telling me, "Your presence would be disruptive."
We set down on a sunny rock terrace that is seemingly devoid of life, until the pungent, spicy fragrance of favinit invaded my nostrils. Its prolific, spiky petals extend from a slender yellow stalk that can rise as high as three meters. Most off-worlders find the fragrance produced in full bloom intense, to put it mildly. To my human senses, they reeked. But the pungent odor released by the billowing, translucent blossoms is typical of the flora found in the higher deserts, and a wide variety of popular spices are derived from the leaves of the favinit and other native plants. In the spring, fields of the fertile succulent cover tens of kilometers in the Surak province. Favinit roots sometimes burrow twenty meters below the desert caliche in their search for elusive water.
My pilot had already started walking toward a cave opening I hadn't noticed. Forgetting where I was, I ran to catch up, and immediately started to lose my breath in the hot, thin atmosphere. The pilot looked back, arching an inquiring eyebrow. I mustered as much dignity as possible as I forced my ragged breathing closer to normalcy. Before he could comment, I changed the subject. "Where are we going?" He resumed his climb. "To find your guide," he replied.
As we reached the cave entrance, I once again suspected the oft-denied Vulcan humor was at work. The interior of the cave was an ancient dwelling, so simple and primitive I found it hard to accept that anyone could still be living there. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to make out the features of the oldest Vulcan I've ever seen sitting cross-legged on the red dirt floor.
A pair of surprisingly lively eyes looked up at me from a face lined and weathered by two centuries of desert sun. Tavis had spent all of his 220 years on Vulcan. He'd never once left his homeworld, not even for a brief visit to T'Khut or one of the orbital stations. "Vulcan is more than enough to occupy a single lifetime," he told me. I had trouble believing him. The galaxy is rich with worlds whose diversity and stunning beauty boggle the imagination. How could anyone not want to leave his native planet and explore at least part of the galaxy? Tavis simply pointed to his head and responded, rather mysteriously, "All exploration begins and ends here."
The Vulcan Consulate had chosen Tavis to guide me across the Forge. He'd crossed it himself more than a dozen times, and in his orderly Vulcan mind he could visualize every meter of the terrain with photographic precision.
We struck out at dawn.
The Forge is a rocky, hardscrabble desert plain, with a scattering of sand dunes and a few spiny succulents sprouting here and there. Its southern edge is bordered by a sprawling system of mazelike slot canyons. Their exposed rock strata display an enchanting array of muted pastel colors, from rich, golden brown to sulfurous yellow. We head north, away from the canyons, toward the Great T'Kala Sea, which marks the Forge's northern border.
By mid-morning the intense sunlight feels as hard as the stony ground. Crossing over a small dune, we discover a jumbled pile of chalky white sticks. I come to the realization they aren't sticks, but bones. Tavis identifies them as the skeletal remains of a sehlat. Remarkably agile for such massive beasts, sehlats -- two and a half meters tall with thick dark fur and massive limbs -- are mostly found in the mountains, although they have been known to descend to the deserts at night in search of food. Presumably that's what this poor creature was doing on the Forge. Adult sehlats superficially resemble the ancient child's doll known as a "teddy bear," with the notable exception that sehlats possess six-inch fangs.
A handful of reptilian, avian, and mammalian species inhabit the Vulcan deserts and hill country. Sand vipers, common in the deserts, migrate south in the season that passes for Vulcan winter. We aren't likely to encounter one this time of year on the Forge, but Tavis tells me that migrating herds of the blue-green serpents can flow across the sand like a living river in search of a welcoming ocean.
We manage to cover twenty-five kilometers our first day. My exhaustion is mitigated by the exhilaration I feel at the amount of territory we've crossed. An impressive feat, I think, until Tavis informs me that on his last trek across the Forge he averaged sixty kilometers a day. Of course, he was a spry 114 back then. More Vulcan non-humor...
As we make our camp, I ask Tavis about the history of his proudly logical people. He tells me that the earliest Vulcan texts date back some 50,000 years. Prior to the "Time of Awakening," Vulcans were a highly emotional, violent species, almost constantly at war with one another. Some two thousand years ago, with their civilization on the verge of collapse, the revered philosopher and pacifist Surak convinced his people to reject their emotions and embrace a new form of mental discipline based on rationalism and pure logic (one of the contending factions at the Time of Awakening rejected Surak's philosophy and eventually left the planet to found the Romulan Star Empire).
Sunset on Vulcan is a blissful event. The temperature almost instantly drops twenty degrees. The harsh glare of the Vulcan sun is replaced by the cool glow of T'Khut. Here on the Forge, T'Khut hangs low on the horizon. Even though most of its disk is hidden from view, it still provides ten times as much light as a full moon on Earth. Tavis opens a packet of dried fruits and vegetables (the vast majority of Vulcans do not eat meat, even replicated meat). We eat silently, drink generous portions of water, then lay down on simple bed mats and prepare for sleep.
Halfway through our second day we enter the ruins of an ancient temple, a series of five-meter stone columns arranged in a wide circle. Tavis informs me that this place has been used for centuries to perform the Koon-ut-kal-if-fee ritual. Every seven years, Vulcans succumb to an irresistible drive to take a mate. During the time of the Pon farr, logic is cast aside and primitive, violent emotions once again take control. In ancient times, Vulcans fought for their mates in ritual combat, the grueling and bloody contest ending only when one of the combatants was dead. I've heard rumors that Koon-ut-kal-if-fee is practiced even today, although rarely and discreetly. For a moment, I think I see a wistful expression cross Tavis' face as he examines one of the stone columns. Did he himself once face a challenger in this sacred place?
On the fourth day of our journey, a line of swirling dust devils gathers below the approaching ridgeline, dancing across the sand like ghostly ballerinas. Situated on the ridge are the giant statues of the Vulcan Masters. At least twenty meters tall, carved from massive blocks of rubinitite crystals, they seem to glow from within, as if small pieces of the Vulcan sun were trapped inside them.
It's easy to forget most Vulcans still possess emotions; it is not the existence of emotion, but its outward expression that is strictly forbidden. In each generation, however, a small number of Vulcans achieve the state of Kolinahr, complete freedom from all emotion. The Forge is where those who strive for this ultimate triumph of logic come to take their final test. Many are called, as the saying goes, but few are chosen. I'm concerned I may be violating basic Vulcan decorum, but I have to ask: "Have you achieved Kolinahr?" Tavis pauses before answering. "My path lies in a different direction."
The seventh day of our journey is the most excruciating. Just putting one foot in front of the other requires an extraordinary effort of will on my part. Tavis, however, looks like he's just out for a Sunday stroll. I remember the words of an ancient human writer, Samuel Beckett: "I can't go on; I must go on; I will go on." Every muscle in my body is on fire. But the ordeal of traversing this punishing landscape has had another, more significant effect on me. A distinctly Vulcan stoicism has begun to take hold of me. The pain becomes a separate entity, floating outside my body. I sense it, but I find I can also ignore it. Tavis seems to recognize this, perhaps through the limited telepathic ability common to all Vulcans. We press on.
As the afternoon sun begins its slow descent, Tavis points to a thin green line on the horizon: the Great T'Kala Sea, the northern border of the Forge. Another hour of walking and our journey is over. The highest frequency sonic shower cannot have been more rejuvenating than those green, brackish waves. My parched skin rejoices.
A hovercraft picks us up the next morning. Tavis and I exchange the Vulcan salute as he returns to his cavern home. "Live long and prosper," he wishes me, and I wish him the same, knowing full well he already has. As the hovercraft returns me to the shuttleport at ShariKahr, I begin to understand the degree to which the Vulcan landscape and climate shaped the Vulcan psyche.
On a gentler, less severe world, Vulcans would never have become so reckless or so bloody. But had they not been seized by violent passions, they would have never felt the need to master them.
The logic, it seems to me, is inescapable.
Copyright © 1999 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.