Note: This story
contains graphic violence and sexual situations.
It is not intended for readers under the age of 17.
Open your mind, Spock. Screen out the distractions of your environment. You must be totally receptive to the link.
I am trying, he returned, his mind straining to reach the Teacher beyond even a perfect alpha-bond. The part of me that is Vulcan is prepared, but the Human half...
Do not be so quick to condemn you Terran blood. You must accept yourself for what you are and be at peace with yourself if you ever want to achieve the perfect meld.
But these emotions! She sensed the thinly-veiled anguish behind his thought impressions, and they began to flicker and dim like a dying flame. These emotions are not worthy of a Vulcan. They impede my progress. My mind meld powers are weak; I wish to learn from you; I wish to know how you can control your emotions as successfully as you do. If I am ever to live up the heritage of my forefathers, I must exorcise these shameful feelings.
It is important to you, is it not, Spock, to live up to your Vulcan heritage? But never forget: you are only half Vulcan. Perhaps you expect too much of yourself. You must be totally honest. During a mind link, there is nowhere to hide. The consciousness is stripped bare, and if you are uncomfortable with your self-image, it will be most difficult.
He was losing the link, and she had to strive that much harder to maintain it for both of them. Clutching the tendrils of mental fatigue plucked at the edges of her consciousness. She beat them back. She did not want to break with him just yet.
But you are not Vulcan, Spock countered. Yet you control your emotions most admirably. I wish to do the same. At times, I reflect upon my past behavior, and I am ashamed. The mission to Talos Four....
You dwell too much on the past! She sensed his surprise at the flicker of irritation in her thought patterns, and she mentally chuckled. You see, Spock, I can't maintain perfect balance at all times. Don't protest against your nature. Perhaps one day, you'll see the value of your emotions. You'll be better off for it if you do.
I am Vulcan! I must try to cleanse myself of the weakness.
She sighed. It's one thing if you want to hide behind that emotionless mask in your everyday life, but when you come to the link, you must come as a newborn child comes into the world without artifice. There must be no pretense, no defenses. Your true inner-self must flow into the meld. If you want to be the consummate Vulcan again afterwards, that is fine. Just once, though, try to get in touch with the real Spock inside, not the one who hides behind the facade. You must attempt it. I'm growing weary, and I'll be unable to hold the bond for both of us much longer.
I will try, Spock responded.
Don't work at it, she admonished. Just let it happen.
For the first time since they had begun these sessions, Spock truly relaxed. He floated serenely through golden, nebulous mists, freely surrendering himself to the link, leaving himself open and vulnerable. Suddenly, like a silver sun gliding from behind the limb of a darkened planet, his latent Vulcan mental powers surged forth. The teacher gasped involuntarily at the awesome strength of his mind probe. He had achieved an alpha bond for the first time, linking himself to the core of her consciousness. They were one.
See? she asked triumphantly. You've done it, Spock. You've done it! She sensed his soft laugh, his pleasure at his new-found prowess.
I have never experienced anything like this, Spock projected. It is not as difficult as I had previously thought. If I clear my mind, I can...
The intercom call knifed through their shared consciousness. Their link shattered like broken glass as the patina of gold dissolved around them.
"Bridge to Number One. Bridge to Number One."
Like drugged sleepers, they swam back to the light. She shook her head twice to clear it, then acknowledged the intrusive summons from Navigator Jose Tyler, temporarily at the conn.
His handsome Latin features were taut with concern as the screen on the gooseneck viewer came to life..
"This is Number One. Go ahead, Lieutenant Tyler."
"Priority One message from Starfleet--Captain's Eyes Only."
Spock and Number One exchanged quick glances. Something big was up, something that might spell an end to the crew's much-needed shore leave.
Number One keyed the intercom on the viewer. "Have communications patch it through to the captain's quarters, and red code it. He will have to be recalled from shore leave."
Tyler frowned. "That's not going to sit well with Doc Boyce. You know how Cap wasn't going to take leave until Doc made it a medical order."
Her face shifted into a slight smile. "I'll deal with our C.M.O., Lieutenant. You have the conn for the duration. If you need to contact me, I'll be in Sickbay, reasoning with Doctor Boyce. Number One out."
"I do not think Doctor Boyce with be very agreeable to this," Spock intoned. "Captain Pike has been exhibiting symptoms of physical and emotional deterioration of late. His condition has been improving since he has taken leave."
Number One exhaled slowly. "I am aware of that, Lieutenant. However, this is a direct top priority communiqué from Starfleet Command, and we have little choice in the matter. Perhaps you might wish to accompany me to Sickbay. We'll have to postpone the rest of our session until later."
"Number One." Was there a slight catch in the Vulcan's voice? She turned to him, surprised. "I...appreciate the assistance you've given me. Thank you."
She smiled slightly. "You have yourself to thank, Spock. I merely guided you."
They left for Sickbay, and Spock suddenly realized he felt buoyant, elated over his accomplishment. And just as suddenly, the thought struck him that a Vulcan would feel no pride under these circumstances. It shocked him, and the stoic reserve he had been so carefully cultivating crept back. He followed Number One, marveling at the emotional control of the mystery woman, whose calling name was a jealously guarded secret. Indeed, everything about her was an enigma. She appeared to be Human, yet she possessed abilities that were beyond the grasp of Human understanding. If only he could be so serene and well-ordered! Spock was determined to try, and by the time they reached Sickbay, his face was once again set like stone.
"I just hope the good doctor understands the urgency of the situation," Number One remarked.
Unfortunately, the "good doctor" had a bit of difficulty understanding the urgency of the situation.
"I can't call Chris back!" Boyce exclaimed, his tone almost pleading. "Don't you see? He was on the edge of a burnout. This is the first decent leave he's had in months, the first decent leave the crew's had in months. I've seen Chris get better day by day. After what happened on Theta Cygni Three, I thought we were going to lose him. All those people dead...." His eyes flashed beneath his silvery hair, but his tone softened as he realized the inevitable outcome. "It's not fair. It's just not fair!"
"No one ever said starship command was 'fair,' Doctor," Number One returned evenly. "Will you authorize his recall from leave?"
"I don't have much choice, do I?" The elderly man's expression was infinitely sad as he took the proffered stylus from Spock and append his signature to the appropriate documents. "I just hope he can hold it together."
"Captain Pike is a most efficient commander, even when he is in less than peak condition, Doctor," Spock countered. "He will, as you put it, hold together."
Boyce grimly followed their exit, shaking his head. He mumbled under his breath as he turned back to his desk.
Someone within range would have heard him say, "I'm sorry, Chris."
Heaven. That was the word that gently settled in the edge of Christopher Pike's consciousness. He hadn't been this content in ages. Chrysalis had a well-deserved reputation as a resort planet, a paradise where over-stressed starship personnel could let down their hair and relax. Frothy mint-green waves lapped at the edges of a shimmering, sandy beach. The air was pleasantly warm and still, and if you kept your eyes closed, you could almost imagine you were back on Earth, catching the sun on a Pacific island.
Pike shielded his eyes against the red-orange glare of twin suns blazing in a violet sky. He sighed happily. He was relaxed. He felt better than he had in months. If he could only shake this feeling that he didn't deserve this....
Memories of Theta Cygni Three leaped unbidden into his mind, casting a shadow like an eclipse over his contentment. He shivered, tightly shutting his eyes. It didn't hurt as much as before, but he could still see the faces of his landing party as the cliff gave way, the horror in their eyes as they tumbled to their doom. He felt again the sharp, piercing pain in his leg as a shard of rock tore into his thigh, the helpless panic as he, too, began to fall.
And, as before, he remembered the shocking flush of astonishment and relief as he realized that someone held him by the wrist, halting his death plunge, someone who hauled him up the rock face by strength alone until he reached a place of safety.
Spock. Once again, Spock. If the Vulcan only knew how much Pike valued him. If only he could unbend a little!
He opened his eyes. He had cheated the Grim Reaper one more time, probably one time more than he had any right to expect. Boyce was right. He couldn't dwell on the past or brood about death. He could mourn his dead, but he had to temper his grief with the realization that this sort of thing came with the territory. No one signed on for starship duty with the illusion that it was going to be a picnic. Despite all this, he knew he would always lose a little piece of himself whenever one of his people died.
Pike's back was beginning to feel decidedly warm. He rolled over lazily into a sitting position. No use getting parboiled on one side! He brushed some reddish sand off his oversized beach towel, and was about to lie down again when he saw her.
He'd thought he was totally alone on the beach; he must have dozed off because he didn't remember seeing her before--and there was no way he would have missed her! She lay on her stomach about fifteen feet away, her deeply tanned skin gleaming like a real sun-worshippers. Her body was sleek and supple, trim as an athlete's. A mass of sun-colored curls framed the face of an angel. Her eyes were closed. She was either sleeping or just shutting out the glare of the suns. She appeared to be in her early- to mid-twenties at the most. A half-smile played about her full, lush lips, and Pike found himself staring foolishly at her in open-mouthed admiration, drinking in the clean beauty of her taut, young body. He felt his mouth go dry. She was a vision.
It was then that Pike realized that his vision wore the bottom half of a scandalously skimpy two-piece swimsuit. Just the bottom.
The top lay carelessly discarded off to one side.
She opened her eyes then and stared right at him. Green, luminous, bright, emerald green they were, as deep and clear as the churning sea nearby. He couldn't stop gaping at her, and his face reddened in embarrassment. She flashed a dazzling smile at his discomfort. The fact that a strange man was ogling her superb, nearly naked form didn't seem to bother her in the least. She got up onto her knees, and Pike drew in his breath sharply. Her full, rounded breasts were indeed bare; they glistened and shimmered with oil, and were as smoothly tanned as the rest of her. She had wasted her money buying the brief halter that came with her suit, because it was immediately apparent that she had never used it!
Pike heard a strangled groan rattling in his throat.
The young woman's bright smile was openly inviting now. She obviously like what she saw. She suddenly reached down and undid the clasp of her tiny suit bottom. In one swift motion, she peeled off the wedge of cloth and held it tauntingly aloft. Then she let it fall to the sand, fluttering slowly from her fingertips like a dying autumn leaf. The girl arched her fine eyebrows at Pike, as if to ask, "What are you waiting for?"
The beleaguered starship captain moaned aloud now. In spite of himself, he let his eyes drift to the sparse, downy triangle of platinum curls between her parted thighs. God, she was beautiful, and it had been so long! And he was on shore leave, he reminded himself, grinning devilishly. He wondered if Boyce would approve of his choice of R&R.
Pike was pondering the delicately delicious dilemma of how to go over and introduce himself and still manage to conceal the growing bulge in his swim trunks when his communicator bleeped insistently for attention.
Not now! God, not now! Pike's eyes darted back and forth several times between the accursed communicator and his golden sea nymph. Finally he swore under his breath and snatched up the beeping device.
"This had better be God-damned good!" he rasped raggedly into the 'send' grid.
"Phil Boyce, Chris. I hate to do this to you, but I'm going to have to call you back from shore leave. I'm sorry."
"Not half as sorry as I am!" Pike muttered. The woman just kept beaming at him as she tugged distractedly at a tuft of golden pubic hair, waiting for him to complete his call. Pike nearly dropped his communicator.
"What in Hell's so important?" he finally asked, admirably regaining control of his trembling hands.
"Priority One message from Starfleet Command, Code Red--for your eyes only, that's what!" Boyce replied a bit snappishly.
Any visions Pike might have had of a long, lazy afternoon of love-making with his sun-kissed beauty vanished like a melting snow before a driving rain. "Transfer these coordinates to Chief Pitcairn," he sighed wearily. "Give me a couple of minutes to gather up what I've got here, then have him beam me up. I'm going to leave the rest of my stuff at the guest bungalow; I fully intend to come right back here after this mission is over! Pike out!"
He slapped the communicator shut. The golden girl had heard the exchange; she pouted prettily as Pike collected his towel and beach jacket. He grinned ruefully in apology. It figured. For the first time in ages, the quiet, reserved Christopher Pike got a chance to really cut loose--an engraved invitation, no less!--and Starfleet Command stepped in with a galactic emergency! It had to be the ultimate cosmic joke.
Pike sensed the first queasy tingle of transporter effect. His body began to break down into its constituent atoms, and the woman spoke quickly to him with a voice like liquid music.
"My name is Ariel," she called out. "I'll be waiting for you when you get back."
And as the peaceful planet Chrysalis dissolved around Pike, the nymph called Ariel blew him a soft, sensual kiss.
"That's it in a nutshell," Pike said quietly. "Whatever these plans are that the Hood was transporting, they're valuable enough to warrant our illegal entry into Barrier Alliance space and valuable enough to draw an ambush by ships from the seceded Orion colonies."
The captain surveyed the ring of faces that stared intently back at him from their places around the large conference table in the Enterprise briefing room. Spock and Number One were in attendance, along with C.M.O. Boyce and Chief Pitcairn of Engineering. Pike was still in something of a daze. Less than one standard hour ago, he'd been basking contentedly under the balmy suns of the planet Chrysalis. Now, he was back abroad his starship, roaring at maximum warp toward Barrier Alliance territory. He felt tightening knots of tension in his stomach. All the salubrious effects of his shore leave rapidly dissipated.
Well, Chris old boy, he thought wryly, time to earn your paycheck.
""Interesting," Spock commented.
"Starfleet has ordered us to destroy the cassette if we cannot retrieve it. You realize what this means, Captain?"
"I sure do, Number One," Pike nodded. "Whatever this weapons system is, it's so formidable that it could tip the balance of military power in the galaxy. It could elevate the Orion colonies and their allies from their 'third world' status and transformed them into a galactic superpower."
"There is another alternative as well," Spock offered. "Given the greedy, larcenous nature of the Orions, it is conceivable that they could decide to sell the plans to the highest bidder."
The captain shuddered. Horrific visions of an insane, cut-throat bidding war among the Federation, the Klingons, and God only knew what other star empires, flickered in his mind. "Let's certainly hope not," Pike said fervently.
Number One had been frowning thoughtfully. She spoke up, "There's something very wrong about all this," she said. "Doesn't it strike you as odd that the Orions knew exactly where to locate and hit the Hood, and that they even knew about the transferal of the plans at all?"
"I know." Pike's eyes glittered. "It's been sticking in my craw. The Orions aren't renowned for their military intelligence network. They're primarily pirates, smugglers, slave traders, and the like, operating behind the bogus veil of supposed neutrality. It's not like them to get involved in espionage and intergalactic power plays." He got to his feet abruptly and began to pace. "I don't like to think about it, but it looks like they had inside help. I can't make any other conclusion. At any rate, we've got to be ready for anything. The Orions have apparently destroyed the Hood, and we're on a mission to illegally penetrate their borders. We've got to be on guard."
He turned to face the group at the table once more. "I don't need to remind any of you that the Enterprise and all of us are expendable, just as the Hood and her crew were."
They all nodded gravely in reply, then stood up and began to file out of the room. Pike stopped Pitcairn at the door.
"Bill, I know it's a strain on the engines, but try to maintain Time Warp Factor Seven flat out. We might already be too late."
Pitcairn grinned confidently. The transporter chief had taken on double duty since the tragic death of Chief Engineer Waller on Theta Cygni III. They were expecting Larry Marvick to be transferred to the Enterprise in the coming weeks to assume the duties of Chief Engineer. "Don't worry, Cap," he said. "We'll keep her flyin'."
"Thanks, Bill," Pike returned. "You've been doing a hell of a job, and I'm proud of you."
Pitcairn's smile broadened as he left the room. As soon as he was gone, Pike's shoulders slumped. He sighed wearily, then started as he realized he was not alone.
"You okay, Chris?" Boyce asked solicitously.
"Not really," Pike murmured. "I graduated from the Academy with Jack Raintree. He's really quite a character. He's a full-blooded Amerind...Apache if memory serves me. Really proud of his heritage, too, almost to the point of fanaticism." His face fell. "Even if he did somehow survive the attack on the Hood, the closest planet to their last reported location is Xantharus."
Boyce shuddered. "The biggest snake pit in the galaxy."
"Right. I doubt that the locals would take too kindly to a Starfleet captain in their midst. Xantharus is a hub for slave trade, smuggling, prostitution, you name it. Even the Klingons aren't too crazy about dealing there...and you know how tough they are."
The physician smiled softly. "I see what you mean. Let's hope for the sake of him and his people that they got away clean."
"Yeah, let's hope." Pike turned and headed for the door. "C'mon, Phil. We've got some time before we hit the Barrier Alliance border. I've got a bottle of Vegan flamewater in my cabin, and...."
"Say no more. I couldn't have prescribed better myself!" He got to his feet, grinning as he followed in the captain's wake.
Pike palmed the light switch, and the two men left for his cabin, hoping to enjoy a few brief moments of calm before the impending storm.
The huge amphitheater in the city of Gracchos was quickly filling to capacity, and with good reason: the largest slave auction of the year was taking place on this day. Slave traders, dealers, and even private buyers flocked to Gracchos from all over Xantharus and from the farthest corners of the Orion colonies. The finest female flesh in the galaxy would be auctioned off, including several specimens illegally obtained from Federation planets. Excitement and tension filled the area like a live thing.
To twenty-one-year-old Ensign Julie Chastain, late of the U.S.S. Hood, the spectacle was jut one more element in the nightmare of horror and degradation that had begun a day earlier. Her mind drifted back in time; vivid images of yesterday's terror filled her consciousness. They had been en route to Starbase 27 with a cassette of top secret documents when four Orion raiders came screaming effective; the pirate ships managed to hopelessly cripple the mighty starship and force it into Orion space before her awesome firepower totally obliterated them. Hulled in three places, one engine nacelle completely shorn off at the pylon, the Hood now hung in space high above the planet. One the seven crewmembers on the bridge had survived, saved by the hermetic emergency seal that automatically locked in when power went dead.
The remaining one hundred ninety-six crewmen died horrible deaths, their bodies blasted to shreds from the inside out, exploding like over inflated balloons when the atmosphere roared out of the doomed star cruiser.
Things happened with the speed of thought after that. As communications officer, Chastain send a Priority One distress call while Captain Raintree taped his final log entry and jettisoned the ship's recorder. Then the survivors had donned environmental suits and gingerly made their way down to the shuttle bay, resolutely trying not to look at the gruesome remains of their shipmates splattered about bulkheads, floors and ceilings.
They struck out for the Barrier Alliance-Federation border, headed for Rigel knowing they couldn't have too far to go. If they could just get back to their own space...
But it was not meant to be. An Orion scoutship quickly overtook them, and, with a few judicious blasts from its lasers, forced the shuttle down on Xantharus. The damaged craft landed hard; by the time they regained their senses, an Orion pirate crew was converging on their downed ship. The captain handed Chastain the sealed cassette, and while he and the others traded shots with the Orions, she buried the container in the soft earth beneath the roots of a large, dead tree. She got back to the shuttle in time to snap off a few shots of her own before they were swarmed over and captured by the brigands.
And then the terror began in earnest.
The leader of their captors was the dreaded Captain Garon, a bitter personal enemy of Captain Raintree. The Hood had patrolled the Barrier Alliance borders, and the two had clashed many times in the past, so Garon was delighted when he realized the archenemy was helpless and in his power.
He knew about the plans, and he meant to have them.
The survivors, of course, refused to reveal the location of the package. Unfortunately, the Orions had a less than subtle method of persuading them to talk. The men were hung by their heels, hand bound behind their backs and gradually lowered head down into a blazing bonfire. All of them refused to talk, and all of them perished, screaming in the flames.
And for Captain John Raintree, Garon had fashioned a particularly grisly fate. In an effort to know his enemy, Garon had studied history tapes of the Amerinds, studied their culture, their rituals. It was thus that the Orion decided his enemy should dance the Dance of the Sun.
Helplessly bound to a nearby tree, Julie Chastain could only watch in horror what happened next. The Orions pulled off Raintree's uniform tunic. One of them unsheathed a long, razor-sharp dagger. He moved in, his dusky green-skinned face twisted in a savage grimace, and as his comrades held the captain down, the pirate made a deep, clean slash in each of Raintree's pectoral muscles. The Amerind's face went white, but he did not cry out.
Nor did he cry when Garon produced a pair of barbed hooks attached to high tension monofilament lines. The hooks were forced into the wounds, imbedded into the flesh behind the muscles. Then the lines were thrown over a low limb of a nearby tree and secured to the trunk.
John Raintree of the Apache nation was hoisted six inches off the ground, his chest torn and bleeding, his hands lashed behind his back, left to dangle in agony under the merciless blaze of the giant red sun.
Garon laughed harshly, hoping that his nemesis would see fit to reveal the whereabouts of the cassette before he died. The Orions left the captain to his slow death. Suddenly, as if possessed of one mind, they turned and began to advance toward Chastain.
The thought that the young woman might have hidden the plans never occurred to Garon and his cohorts--nor was it likely to. As a woman, she was unworthy even to contempt; no one would trust a female with such an important task as secreting sensitive documents. She was a woman, a creature to be owned, a creature to be used, a creature designed by nature only to give pleasure to a man.
No, there were many very interesting things that could be done with--and done to--a very beautiful, young, captive female.
They were on her then. One of them cut her bonds, then, strangely enough, Garon, almost tenderly stripped off her boots, uniform and underclothing, which he neatly folded and laid aside. Chastain tried to scream, but a callused hand clamped roughly over her mouth as she was dragged to the ground.
The Orions wasted no time on subtleties. They raped her and did other things to her; they took her again and again and again, far into the night, sometimes with as many as three of them using her as once. When they finally finished with her, they tied the sobbing, terrified woman to the tree once again, her lithe body coated with a mingled mixture of sweat, blood and semen.
At daybreak, Garon had her bathed and perfumed. Then he took her into Gracchos and sold her to Turok the Slavemaster for a healthy sum.
And now, here she was, naked, her wrists cruelly manacled and chained behind her back, imprisoned in a tiny filthy cage that reeked of vomit and urine. Chastain's mind sluggishly refocused. She gazed numbly out across the open, empty expanse of the area grounds to the amphitheater grandstands. A burgeoning crowd now filled the tiers. Thousands of pairs of searching eyes hungrily surveyed the cages clustered near the center of the stadium grounds. The most exotic, beautiful females ever arrayed on an auction block occupied the pens. In one knelt a nymph-like Andorian woman, proud and sullen in her captivity. There was a delicate, tiny Deltan woman, her large, dark eyes wide with terror. A shame. She was exceedingly beautiful, but no one in his right mind would bed a Deltan unless he was prepared to spend the rest of his life as a love slave to her charms. In another cage, a real prize: a sensuous, but deadly green Orion animal woman. She howled in fury, clawing at the bars of her prison, the firm muscles of her lissome body rippling like a she-panther's.
And then there was the lovely, golden-haired Terran woman, Julie Chastain. She could feel their eyes on her, and she shuddered. She would be saved for last, the highlight of the day, the illicit, forbidden, tender fruit which was not readily--if illegally--available. Chastain could sense their lustful thoughts; she could almost feel them examining her, squeezing here, poking and probing with obscene fingers there, wondering what it would be like to violate those warm, moist recesses of her body...
It was too much. The sickness of despair overcame her; the taste of bile filled her mouth and Chastain collapsed to her knees, retching uncontrollably in the corner of her small cage.
"Damn you female!" Turok bellowed as he rushed to her pen.
Chastain weakly raised her head, trying to focus on the Orion slavemaster's cruel, angular features through her streaming eyes.
"You are going to make me a fortune today, perhaps enough to retire until next season, but you'll not enhance your value if you empty your stomach down the front of you. Lonak!" He caught the attention of his young assistant. "The Terran has gotten sick all over herself. Hose her down; I'll not lose a single drekon because she has soiled herself!"
Chastain struggled unsteadily to her feet, heedless of her own filth. "Turok! Listen to me!" she begged. "I am Ensign Julia R. Chastain of the Federation starship Hood! Not only is it illegal for you to imprison me here, but you're risking interstellar war by doing so! I am a Starfleet officer, and--"
"And I am Emperor of all the Orion dominions!" Turok guffawed. "Listen to me, bitch! As far as I am concerned, you are just another slave-whore, just like all these others. And just like them, you will be sold and branded and collared." He motioned to Lonak.
The young Orion grinned savagely and cracked the valve on the high pressure hose he held. Chastain was slammed screaming against the back of her cage by the force of the water. The torrent continued for several minutes until both the woman's body and the cage were clean once again. Lonak reluctantly shut off the flow and dragged the hose to its rack on the amphitheater wall.
Turok pressed his face against the bars of Chastain's cage, peering in at the sobbing woman. His voice was deadly calm now. "Earth-slut," he hissed. "Should you befoul yourself again, I will hang you by your thumbs, and I will personally flay that lovely flesh from your lovely back with a bullwhip." he turned and strode toward a rostrum that had been set up by the wall near the cages, leaving Chastain alone in her misery.
She wept bitterly. So, this is how it ends! All her shipmates had been slaughtered, even the captain--he had to be dead by now. When Garon dragged her kicking and screaming from the pirates' camp that morning, Captain Raintree still hung limply on those awful hooks. His body was as white as a sheet; his blood was everywhere, and he had not seemed to be moving at all.
And what of her? She would likely end up as the plaything of some lust-crazed pirate or slave-trader. Her life would be short and miserable. All too soon would come the night when her soft, pliant body no longer pleased and aroused her master. How would it end for her? Would it be quick and merciful--a point-blank blast from a plasma pistol, a brutal slash across her throat with a dagger? Or would death be slow and agonizing--hung upside down under the blazing, red giant star until thirst and impatient scavengers finished her? Would her corpse be left to decay in the sun as an example of what happened to slave-whores whose owners grew tired of them?
A great, shuddering sob shook Chastain, and it burned with a flush of anger. No! No, I will not be sold and bartered about like a side of beef in the marketplace! Somehow, she had to escape. She was a Starfleet officer, the only survivor, as far as she knew, of a perilous secret mission that had failed dismally. It was her duty to recover the cassette and either deliver it or destroy it.
Or die trying.
Chastain realized the hopelessness of her task. There was little chance she could escape from the amphitheater. The bars of her slave cage were solid, rolled durasteel, and her arms were pinioned tightly behind her by those manacles and heavy chains. No, not here. But even if she were sold, perhaps she would have a chance of escaping her new master. A stubborn spark of determination inflamed the woman's spirit. If an opportunity arose, she would take it.
Two objects a little larger than a man's hand now floated toward the center of the arena, powered by their internal antigrav units. They looked like slightly larger version of hand-held holovid cameras. Chastain recognized them as imaging robots. They would scan and focus on each slave put up for sale, sometimes zooming in for close-ups of selected portions of he anatomy. The images would be relayed to monitor screens at each bidder's seat. It was the only way the large crowd could get a good look at the merchandise from such a distance. Chastain shuddered with distaste at the thought of her privacy being violated in such a fashion.
She was startled to hear the amplified sound of Turok clearing his throat, courtesy of the amphitheater's public address system.
"Good day to you, gentlebeings," he began. "Most of you are already familiar with our procedures, but for those of you who might be new at this, I will review them briefly. On the arm of your chair is a control panel and a monitor viewscreen mounted into a lap board. You will notice the keyboard at the bottom; you can enter your bid for each round here. The highest bid electronically overrides all others at the end of each round, and is displayed on the tote board you see behind the rostrum, along with the seat number of the bidder. If it happens that there is a deadlock for high bid, the seat numbers of all parties involved will be shown. We will continue to bid through the rounds until one last bid is uncontested. That final bidder will be deemed purchaser of the merchandise."
Turok turned his head and nodded almost imperceptibly to Lonak. Might as well get this out of the way immediately. He had agreed to sell this one as a favor to a friend, and it had caused nothing but trouble. No matter what he did, he couldn't unload her, couldn't give her away. His patience with her was at an end. Perhaps today would be different--but he wouldn't hold his breath.
Seeing the slavemaster's signal, Lonak unlocked the Deltan woman's cage and pulled her out roughly. She whimpered in terror as the Orion half-dragged and half-shoved her toward the center of the amphitheater.
"You'd better hope someone sees fit to buy you today, you hairless slut!" Lonak hissed. "If not, I'm afraid Turok will slit you down the middle and hang you up to dry!"
Chastain watched in horrified fascination as the sobbing Deltan was chained to a thick wooden peg driven into the ground at the precise center of the arena. A collective groan arose from the crowd as she was brought forth.
"First up for sale today is this fine Deltan female. Who will be the first to bid? Who will sample the exotic, mysterious charms of this young beauty?"
The silence was deafening; the whirring servo motors of the imaging robots could be plainly heard as they floated up, down and around the woman, scanning every inch of her supple body. Turok waited several long minutes, but not one bid lit up the tote board.
"Come now," he chided. "Surely someone here would find her a sweet bed companion! Think of it--mating a Deltan woman is a carnal experience like no other in the universe."
"You're right!" someone shouted from the grandstands. "And then she'll lead you around by the balls from then on!"
A howl of approving laughter rang out, followed by murmurs of agreement. Turok shook his head in exasperated resignation. He was losing them; they'd never go for her now. He waited several more minutes. Not a single bid was made, and the crowd began to mutter impatiently.
"Very well," Turok sighed finally. "I can see this one is not to your tastes. To be honest, I've had her for quite some time, and she has become somewhat shopworn." He glowered angrily in the direction of the terrified Deltan. "One disposes of shopworn merchandise. I do not want you to feel cheated, gentlebeings, so I will present a little spectacle for you, a bloodsport, as it were, to make it up to you for being unable to bid on this piece of merchandise."
He turned away from the microphone momentarily. "Lonak!" he shouted. "Bring out the green animal woman's cage--she's next up, anyway!"
Turok once again turned his attention to the crowd as Lonak and a crew of assistants warily rolled out the animal woman's cage. She gnarled and spat like a caged tigress, her long, claw-like fingernails raking the air as she sought to rend and tear something, anything, to relieve her fury.
"The green animal woman," Turok crooned. "Her sexual prowess is legendary. You will experience the most fulfilling, satisfying coupling you have ever known--if you survive! However, this specimen seems upset at her captivity. She needs a release for her hostility. I shall provide her with that, and she will dispose of the shopworn goods for me at the same time. I am willing to take a loss in order to provide you with entertainment, my friends--and it seems I couldn't have sold the Deltan anyway!" Turok snickered, then nodded imperceptibly to Lonak and his men. "Throw her to the animal woman!"
Lonak unshackled the screaming, struggling Deltan woman and dragged her to the cage. One of the slavemaster's crew hastily slipped the latch on the door while his fellows held the enraged, frothing, sub-Human Orion female at bay and blocked the gate with laser prods. Then Lonak thrust the terror-stricken Deltan into the small pen, and slammed the locked gate securely.
Chastain watched, her body trembling with revulsion. Orions were bloodthirsty by their very nature, and the crowd roared its approval at the gory spectacle about to be carried out for their entertainment.
But even the noise of the spectators could not down out the feral growling of the beast-woman, the terrible agonized shrieks of her defenseless victim. or the sodden sounds of naked flesh being ripped and torn by razor-sharp claws. Finally, the green woman found a tender throat, and the Deltan woman's screaming ceased.
And Chastain had to turn away, sickened, as the Orion savage literally tore her victim limb from limb, dismembering the Deltan's corpse with her bare hands.
"You see demonstrated before you the ultimate outcome of strength versus weakness," Turok said. "See how easily the strong one triumphs, and see how easily the fragile body of the weak one is torn asunder. Gentlebeings, have you enjoyed this little entertainment?"
A round of applause greeted Turok's question, and Chastain fought desperately to keep from becoming physically ill once more. She doubled over, kneeling on the floor of her cage as convulsions rippled through her unsteady stomach. All the resolve and courage she had built up vanished at the spectacle of the Deltan slave's grisly death. Chastain felt defeated, beaten...and terrified.
She barely heard Turok touting the merits of the blood-spattered Orion animal woman, and she barely heard the clicking of the tote board as bid after escalating bid lit up the display. The afternoon dragged on in a blur of horror; one by one the young women were pulled from their cages, forced to kneel in the center of the arena, scanned by the obscene, voyeuristic lenses of the imaging robots. One by one, they were sold to the highest bidder, then led away to an unknown fate.
The giant, bloated sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows, when Lonak finally came for her. Chastain raised her head with a supreme effort as her cage door squealed open on rusty hinges.
"On your feet, bitch," Lonak grated. "Time for you to take your place on the block. Master Turok has had a very good day thus far, but you are his showpiece. He is expecting to fetch a record price for you."
"And if he doesn't, will I end up like her?" Chastain asked in a quavering voice, nodding toward the now empty row of cages where a torn, mangled lump of flesh that had once been a beautiful young Deltan woman lay like the discarded carcass of a dead animal.
Lonak followed her terrified gaze and laughed harshly. "Fear not, Earther!" he chuckled. "When our fine customers first laid eyes on you, I am certain their loins were fired with lust! They would kill one another to possess you. Now, let us go."
The young Orion helped her from the cage, seizing the opportunity to squeeze and fondle her firm breasts. Chastain whimpered in pain as his brutal, kneading fingers nearly broke her tender skin. Beyond that, however, she offered no resistance. She was thoroughly demoralized and defeated, and with her hands chained behind her back, she could have done little to stop him anyway. She followed him docilely to the middle of the amphitheater as the roar of the crowd built to a crescendo. Lonak picked up a heavy, meter-long chain; he attached one end to Chastain's manacles, and the other to the stake driven into the ground. Then he roughly shoved her down to her knees in the dust. He strode back toward the cages, never once looking back at her.
"Now, gentlebeings, the moment you've all been waiting for; the golden-haired Terran girl is now up for bid!" Turok's excited voice fairly dripped with greed and avarice. This was his lucky day! His well-heeled buyers had bid far more than he had expected. He had already made more than enough from his lesser merchandise to retire for two full seasons! Only the gods knew how much the crowd would pay for this blonde beauty. Turok's head spun crazily; visions of veritable mountains of gold and silver drekons filled his brain. By the end of this day, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams!
The imaging robots hummed into life. Chastain trembled in disgust as the impersonal, glassy eyes of their lenses coldly swept the length and breadth of her superb naked body. One of the robot cameras hovered low to the ground and turned completely over. It flew between Chastain's legs, its lens aimed obscenely upward, focused on the silky, golden mound between her open thighs. Hot, scalding tears of shame and humiliation coursed down the young woman's soft cheeks as the crowd roared with delight.
"A tip of the cap to the technology that developed imaging robots for that spectacular view we just witnessed!" Turok hooted. "What can I say about the awesome beauty of this truly magnificent specimen that you cannot see for yourself? Let the bidding begin!"
As expected, the board lit up like a Christmas tree. The opening bid was 800,000 drekons--unheard of! Turok danced for joy, delirious with greed as the bid followed bid in rapid fire succession. A million drekons, a million-five, three million!
"More!" Turok screamed. "Higher! Higher!!"
Another figure flashed on the tote board, and a stunned collective gasp rippled through the grandstands. The crowd fell silent.
Turok turned to look at the numbers, his eyes threatened to bulge from their sockets; his mouth flew open in astonishment. "This bid...can it be right?" he asked finally. "Buyer number 8437, please confirm you bid!"
A green light pulsed on the tote board, and Turok nearly fainted.
Instead, he screamed for joy, and leaped high into the air. "The Terran girl is sold to buyer number 8437 for six billion drekons!!!"
Lonak unchained a dazed, bewildered Chastain as Turok continued to dance crazily around the rostrum. The young woman would have derived scant comfort from the fact that the previous record bid for a slave girl in Barrier Alliance territory had been four and half million drekons, and that her new owner had just paid over thirteen hundred times that much for her. She stumbled numbly across the sun-baked earth in the blistering heat, her parched throat aching for just a swallow of cool water.
The crowd was filing out of the amphitheater as Lonak shoved her unceremoniously down a tunnel which led under the grandstands. Soon they came to a small, stuffy room at the end of the corridor. It was tiny, more like a cubicle actually, the only light being furnished by a dim, yellow glow-pup mounted in the ceiling. A bare wooden table sat in the center of the cramped cell; Lonak promptly shackled Chastain face-down on the table in a lewd, spread-eagled position. Then he stepped back, leering down at her naked beauty.
"Your new master will be here shortly," he whispered. "But there is no reason I cannot enjoy you until he arrives!" He brushed a hand lightly across her buttocks, and Chastain gasped in outrage and horror when his fingers dipped down to stroke her pubic notch and then slipped inside her.
"Oh, please no!" she sobbed. "God, please, let me alone!!"
She was saved any further degradation by the sound of footsteps in the hall outside.
Lonak pulled his hand away quickly as Turok burst into the room. He was still dancing, and now he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Six billion drekons, Lonak!" he babbled. "Six billion! I'm set for life! I'll never have to work again!"
"My congratulations, Turok," Lonak acknowledged sourly. He reached under the table to which he had pinioned Chastain and produced a small device that resembled a miniature hand weapon.
"W-what is that?" Chastain asked fearfully, twisting her head around to look at the object.
"A laser brand," Lonak applied with a sadistic grin. "When your new master gets here, he will give me a die which bears his crest of ownership. I'll mount it on the tip of the iron, and heat it until it is white hot. Then I'll put his mark on that enticing sweet, little ass of yours!" He laughed, and Chastain yelped when he smacked her bare bottom.
"That's enough, Lonak," a chuckling Turok admonished. "She is the property of buyer number 8437 now--whoever that is."
"I am 8437," a sweet, honeyed voice intoned behind them.
Turok and Lonak whirled in unison, startled by the silent entrance of their visitor.
"Malana!" Turok exclaimed, his upper lips curling into a sneer of derision.
She was an Orion woman, petite, aristocratic, a lovely vision of feminine perfection. Long silken, black hair tumbled about her shoulders, and her luminous golden eyes contrasted strikingly with her almost translucent green skin. Malana was young, not much older than Chastain herself. The plain black gown she wore could not conceal the ripe, womanly curves beneath it.
"Could I see her, please, Turok?" Malana asked politely.
"I should have known only you would have a great fortune to squander six billion drekons on one slave-whore," Turok growled. "It is blasphemous that a woman should have such power and fortune."
The Orion woman smiled pleasantly, her lovely face radiant. "Does it disturb you, Turok? I was just a child when I was sold into slavery after my poor father was ruined. I was fortunate enough to be sold to a kind, progressive thinking man who later gave me my freedom and made me his wife."
"And when the old goat died, you fell heir to the most inestimable fortune in the entire territory!" the slavemaster spat. "He should have had his head examined."
Malana's smile did not dim. "May I see her?" she repeated.
"Turn her over, Lonak," Turok commanded. He leered at Malana as his assistant complied with his directive. "Well, Malana, I suppose you're going to turn this perfectly magnificent gem and turn her into a queer, cunt-licking she lover like yourself!"
Malana chuckled. "Turok, you're too narrow-minded to understand my philosophy. I enjoy making love with men as well. It's just that I can appreciate diversity. I happen to believe that two women can bring a gentleness and tenderness to the act of love that no man can possibly match--at least not one man on Xantharus!"
"In other words, you're a queer bitch!" Lonak snarled. He finished unshackling Chastain, then threw her roughly on her back. "Here she is, woman-lover."
Chastain's eyes were huge with terror. The beautiful Orion woman did not seem to be at all menacing, but the ensign could not mask the fear and revulsion she felt because another woman looked upon her as a love partner.
"Ohhh, Turok!" Malana breathed. "She is exquisite! A lovely sweet flower indeed!" She moved forward and stroked the Terran's cheek. Chastain shuddered; she closed her eyes, shrinking from the gentle touch.
Malana smiled softly. "I am sorry. I will not force you. When we return to my villa, you will come to understand the ways of woman-love."
"I don't want to," Chastain sobbed brokenly as large tears trickled down her smooth cheeks.
"You won't have any choice, child," Turok snorted. "She'll drug you and wipe your mind clean. She'll 're-educate' you. You'll be just like a virgin again with that and a little surgery, only this time, it'll be a woman's tongue that breaches your maidenhead, and not a good, strong cock--the way it should be!"
"That's enough," Malana said curtly. She dipped her hand into a pocket of her black gown and retrieved a disc-shaped die, which she tossed to Lonak. "Let's get this over with. I detest this part."
"Figures," Turok chortled as his assistant snapped the die onto the tip of the laser brand and set it aside to heat up. "Of course I can't turn her over to you unless she's branded, Malana. You do want to take your sweet little playmate with you, do you not?"
The Orion woman ignored the slavemaster's barbs. She watched Lonak wrestle the struggling Chastain back into her vulnerable face-down position and re-shackle her.
Chastain moaned in horror as Lonak finished securing her, and Malana could almost smell the Terran woman's fear. She closed her eyes tightly. Lonak picked up the laser brand when its green "ready" lamp pulsed on.
Malana turned away, trembling. "Please don't hurt her, Lonak," she begged in a weak voice.
Lonak snickered. He hesitated momentarily, then savagely rammed the white-hot brand against the smooth, quivering flesh of Chastain's left buttock. The ensign screamed once, a long, piercing shriek of pure agony, before passing out from the excruciating pain.
Lonak held the brand against her backside for an interminable length of time, much longer than was necessary to mark her. When he finally pulled the device away, a thick wisp of smoke curled up from the sizzling patch of charred, blistered skin as the sickening stink of burning Human flesh permeated the small cell.
Malana turned back to Turok finally, tears streaming down her face. She handed the Orion slaver a small, softskin pouch. "Your payment, Turok," she sniffed. "Six one billion drekon credit chips. Now if your sadistic cretin of an assistant will kindly carry this poor child to my ground vehicle, I'll trouble you no further."
Turok waved a distracted command to Lonak, but his eyes never left the leatherette sack he now held in his trembling hands. He scarcely noticed Malana's exit.
Nor did he see Lonak avail himself of his last opportunity to run his obscene hands up and down Julie Chastain's supple body as he carried the unconscious woman from the tiny woman.
Christopher Pike perched tensely on the edge of his command seat, chewing absently on a thumbnail. The Enterprise streaked through the black, endless void of interstellar space, her engines groaning in protest as they were pushed to their limit--and slightly beyond.
The fact that they would soon be entering the fringes of the territories of the Orion-dominated Barrier Alliance was the chief catalyst of Pike's edginess. He did not want the Enterprise to meet the same dire fate as had the U.S.S. Hood.
He eased back into the command chair. It was not easy to relax, but he tried. Pike thought of the woman, Ariel, and he smiled. He had asked his yeoman, J. M. Colt, to do some checking up for him. She was, to put it mildly, quite surprised at his request and most decidedly more than a little jealous. It was extremely unusual for the taciturn Pike to request information about a woman. The fact that the woman also happened to be excruciatingly beautiful and almost sinfully young did little to soften Ms. Colt's disposition. Her interest in the captain was hopelessly obvious and obviously hopeless. But Yeoman Colt was also a good, efficient crewmember. She did a little digging into the computer fax file on the resort planet Chrysalis. Before long, she had prepared a cassette for Pike, and had handed it to him with a frosty glare of disapproval.
Ariel Cord, it turned out, was the daughter of entertainment mogul Aaron Cord. He owned the Sybaron, the plushiest, most spectacular pleasure spa-hotel complex on Chrysalis. The woman, Ariel, was twenty-two. She was a spoiled little rich girl who spent almost all her time on the beach, sunbathing or exercising her delightfully well-conditioned body.
Pike's smile broadened. He would most definitely look her up when he got back to Chrysalis. It might be interesting, to say the least. He found himself inexplicably attracted to this young, golden-haired woman. Most of it, he was certain, could be beyond that. Every now and then, he needed to be able to step outside himself, to escape the awesome pressures of starship command. He wanted to let down his hair and enjoy female companionship just like any other man, without regard to his position as a Starfleet command grade officer.
Pike sighed heavily. He could take care of his own problems later. For now, there was the matter of the U.S.S. Hood.
"Entering Barrier Alliance space, sir," Tyler sang out. "Mark...now!"
"Go to red alert, Mister Tyler," Pike snapped. "Lasers to defensive posture, maximum shielding."
Klaxons blared shrilly as crewmembers scrambled to their stations. Pike tensed again. He stared intensely at the forward main viewing screen, watching for the appearance of enemy spacecraft.
But only a myriad of seemingly onrushing stars spattered the screen, their multicolored spectra glittering like cold fragments of a shattered rainbow.
At the science station, Spock bent over his hooded gooseneck viewer, peering into the imaging prism. He was all Vulcan again, all business--cold and efficient. Yet he could not forget the wonder, the mystery, the sense of accomplishment of achieving his first alpha bond. He must learn more of this...
Suddenly, he stiffened. A readout flashed in the lower left-hand corner of the viewer.
"Sensors are picking up a small object ahead, Captain," Spock reported. "It is cylindrical, one point two-six meters in length, emitting a standard Starfleet recognition signal. Vessel registry, Constitution class, ship registration number NCC-1707." The Vulcan glanced up from his viewer and turned to face Pike. "It would appear that we have located the log recorder of the U.S.S. Hood, sir."
Pike swore softly. "Damn! That just about confirms it. The Orions must've taken out the Hood. Number One, bring us around to an intercept course, slow to impulse. We're going to bring it aboard."
"Aye, sir." The dark woman's deft fingers played over her panel, and the Enterprise wheeled smoothly around and tacked toward the small buoy.
The captain punched another control on his command array. "Engineering--Chief Pitcairn," he said. "This is the captain. Standby to beam aboard the Hood's recorder."
"Aye, sir," came the filtered reply.
Pike sat back to wait, drumming his fingers on the armrest. Before long, a tiny silver speck glimmered in the center of the screen.
"There she is," Tyler whispered somberly.
"Message from Chief Pitcairn, sir," Lieutenant Kelly Forrester sang out from the communications bay. "He has locked onto the recorder and is beaming it aboard." The young, fresh-faced communications officer frowned in concentration as she listened to the transmission over her chromium earpiece. "Transport complete, Captain," she finally reported. "The cassette has been retrieved, and is being brought to the bridge."
"Hold position, Number One," Pike ordered. "Let's see if the Hood's log entries can give us any information."
"Aye, sir," she answered. "Answering all stop."
The turbolift doors slid aside, and a yeoman briskly strode down to the lower level of the bridge and handed Pike the log cassette. The captain promptly slid the cartridge into the command array. The playback head whirred smoothly into life, and the starfield on the main screen vanished, only to be replaced by the smoke-smudged, grime-smeared visage of Captain John Raintree of the U.S.S. Hood. He sat proud and erect in his own command chair, but his dark, deep-set eyes smoldered in his handsome bronze face, glittering with a melange of remorse and rage and hatred. Raintree ran a hand through his long, jet-black hair. The Amerind paused as he composed himself. Then he began to speak in deep, clear tones.
"By the time you view this tape, we will be long gone. We are in a decaying orbit over Xantharus. Only the seven of us remain as survivors of a savage Orion attack. They killed my crew, my ship..." He paused a moment, unable to continue, his eyes shining with unshed tears. Finally he could go on.
"They're all dead," he muttered brokenly. "We did manage to destroy the Orion attackers, and hope they all wake up in whatever version of Hell exists in their culture. The seven of us will attempt to escape back to Federation space in a shuttlecraft, carrying with us a tip secret document packet for Starfleet Command's Tactical Weapons Research group. I believe the Orions are after this package. Somehow, they got wind we were carrying it, and they attacked us and drove us into their space to get it. We're going to try to make it to the Rigel system--if we can outrun enemy scoutships."
Raintree hesitated again, his features tightening. "One more thing--the attack wiped out our computers; the auto destruct sequence is inoperative, as is the manual override. I am unable to destroy my own ship to keep it from falling into the hands of these Orion renegades. Whatever vessel finds this recorder, I beg of you--blow the Hood into atoms! If you happen to be a starship captain...well, you know how difficult it is for me to make this request, but it must be done. Raintree out."
The mainscreen darkened for a second, then the starfield flickered back into existence.
Pike's voice was cold with the controlled calm of barely suppressed rage. "Lieutenant Tyler, plot a course for Xantharus; we should be in the neighborhood."
"Plotted and laid in, sir. Our E.T.A. is twelve point four standard minutes at Time Warp Factor Six," the young navigator responded.
"Ahead, Factor Six, then," Pike commanded grimly. His knuckles whitened as he gripped his armrests. It was inconceivable; a Federation heavy cruiser class starship destroyed, and about two hundred people killed, for a packet of documents, and he was ordering his own ship and crew into the eye of the hurricane. He thought of John Raintree, and of the hollow, numbed expression on his old classmate's face. Pike wondered if his fellow starship commander were still alive.
"I have completed a deep sensor scan back toward the Rigel system, Captain," Spock reported. "There is no ion trail. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume no Federation shuttlecraft has passed that way recently. I am initiating a full three hundred-sixty degree probe radiating out from Xantharus."
"Acknowledged, Lieutenant," Pike said. "Carry on."
That was bad. Raintree and his people probably never made it out of the Xantharus system. A fresh ion trail would not be at all difficult to pick up, so they had to assume the worst. Pike wearily rubbed a hand across his eyes. He felt so helpless, so frustrated--but all he could do was wait.
"Commencing orbital insertion in five point three seconds, sir," Number One called out suddenly. "And there's the Hood."
Pike's heart sank. On the viewscreen, the starship Hood hung upside down to their relative position against the buff and umber backdrop of the sands of the giant planet Xantharus. Garish red sunlight streaked the shattered hulk of the vessel with the color of blood, tinged it with reflected flame. A gaping wound had been drilled completely through the primary saucer hull; ugly scorched scars ran the length of the cigar-shaped engineering fuselage, and one engine was completely gone. The Hood was a gutted, radioactive corpse, spiraling slowly in toward the thick blanket of Xantharus' atmosphere.
"High-level radiation, Captain," Spock said. "It is doubtful that Orion crews have attempted to board her yet."
"Then they'll never get the chance, Mister Spock!" Pike growled. "Standby on laser cannons. Communications officer, scan the planet for a shuttlecraft auto distress beacon. I've a hunch that Jack and his crew didn't get away from here."
"Acknowledged, sir," Lieutenant Forrester responded. The pretty dark-haired communications officer's hands flew expertly over her console. "Yes sir. I've got it!" she exclaimed seconds later. "I'm also picking up a signal from a command grade officer's transponder just a little more than a hundred meters away from the shuttle!"
Pikes' mind raced. Raintree was still alive, at least! "Feed those coordinates to the transporter room!" he snapped. "Navigator, plot an orbit that will lift us into Xantharus' trinary moon system. We'll hide ourselves there while we reconnoiter below--after we attend to the Hood."
Each member of the bridge crew stared in sober silence at the main viewscreen. That could just as easily have been the Enterprise floating belly-up out there; that could just as easily have been their own tomb instead of that of the Hood's crewmen. The grim reminder of their own mortality clutched at their hearts with fingers of ice.
"Fire all lasers," Pike commanded quietly.
Number One stabbed the firing button on the helm console, and the Hood vanished in a violent, scarlet flash.
Silence reigned again on the bridge as the plasma cloud dissipated on the screen. They watched it expand for several seconds until Pike finally broke the spell. "Helm, get us up into the lunar system," he said. "Those fireworks are liable to draw some attention from Orion scouters. Let's lose ourselves up there."
He swivelled toward the science station as the Enterprise banked and climbed onto a higher orbital plane under Number One's experienced guidance. "Lieutenant Spock, have Doctor Boyce meet us in the transporter room, along with s six-man security team," Pike ordered. "Number One, you have the conn."
The captain rose from his chair and strode toward the turbolift as Spock efficiently ordered replacements for the helm and science stations. The young Vulcan joined his commander in the car seconds later.
"Transporter room," Pike said into the voice-command grid.
The turbolift began its rapid, cushioned drop, and as it plunged toward its destination, Pike wondered if he would be in time to save his friend's life.
Or would John Raintree become just one more statistic chalked up to a cassette of top secret plans that had already claimed a starship and its entire crew.
Captain Garon of the Orion raider Tesla blanched in terror, his mouth becoming as dust-dry as the desiccated desert of Gracchos. He, Garon the Terrible, Garon the Invincible, who feared only one being in the entire galaxy, now cowered in abject gear before that one being.
"You fool!" the Director shouted. "You mindless, cretinous, worthless fool!"
He was a giant, towering almost two and a half meters above the sifting, shimmering sands of the baked desert floor. Dressed head to toe in midnight black, his head shrouded in a cowled ebony hood, the Director looked like a member of the ancient Brotherhood of Executioners of Achernar IV.
The similarity was not lost on the usually formidable Captain Garon, who trembled like a palsy victim. He had every right to be apprehensive. The Director was the most powerful man in the entire Barrier Alliance territory. As the head of the Alliance Consortium, the Director controlled the most powerful criminal syndicate in the galaxy. Captain Garon plied his illegal smuggling and piracy trade for the Consortium, and had been one of its brightest stars.
"Look at the condition of this Human!" the Director spat, his voice muffled by the hood. "I defy you to stand there and tell me that you honestly expect me to garner any useful information from this wretch!"
He swept a heavily gloved hand in the direction of John Raintree's mutilated, hanging form. The Amerind's horrible wounds were matted over with dried blood and a suppurating, gangrenous crust. His glazed eyes shone with fever; even in the blast furnace heat of the giant red sun, his muscular body trembled with wracking chills. His head dropped forward on his chest, and he sang a tribal chant that was ancient when Christopher Columbus established his first beachhead in the New World.
"Hopeless! He is delirious!" The Director's eyes blazed behind his black mask. "The Consortium receives an anonymous tip that the Federation starship is carrying plans for a revolutionary new weapons system, and you, Garon, have effectively ruined any chances we might have had for recovering the documents! We have been over their wrecked shuttlecraft with a fine-tooth comb! Now we are reduced to searching behind every tree, every bush, under every rock! It could take years! And this one's mind is gone, and all the rest are dead! You imbecile!"
Garon shut his eyes tightly, as if trying to blink away a nightmare. When he opened them again, he gazed past the Director at the small knot of men who stood by. watching the exchange with fearful curiosity. Then Garon locked gazes with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Tyro, and his blood ran cold.
Tyro wore a crafty, self-satisfied smirk, the expression of an opportunistic man who saw that his time had come.
"My lord," Tyro ventured, and the Director wheeled to face the younger Orion. "My lord, there was one other survivor of the Starfleet crew. She's a female, a young girl actually, a beautiful, golden-haired bitch that Captain Garon sold to Turok the Slavemaster."
Silence. Silence, save for the eerie, keening moan of John Raintree's death song. With infinite slowness, the Director turned on Garon again. His voice was a silken whisper of doom.
Garon felt as if his bowels were about to fail him.
"Captain Garon," the Director hissed. "Is this true? You sold a Federation prisoner to Turok? You did interrogate her first?"
The Orion captain could not find his voice. He knew now that his fate was sealed. Tyro's damning testimony had finished him. "My l-lord," he finally stammered. "She was b-but a mere female. A female! S-surely you do not think she would be trusted with th-the plans!"
"Obviously you did not," the Director returned sarcastically. "Of course, you are looking at this from a totally ethnocentric viewpoint. An Orion female would not be given such responsibility, of course, but did it ever occur to you, Garon, that Starfleet personnel might look upon females as equals?"
The Orion captain was speechless, and the Director sighed, a weary tinge of sadness in his voice. "I had such high hopes for you, Captain Garon," he murmured. "Too bad, too bad."
Garon never saw the curved dagger, nor did he feel the velvety pain as the blade slashed his throat from ear to ear. He dropped soundlessly, like a felled tree, jets of green blood spewing forth onto the steaming ground from his opened neck. In the endless cycle of life and death, the parched desert earth gratefully drank life from the Orion even as it seeped from his twitching corpse.
The Director jammed the bloodstained dagger into its sheath. "Tyro," he snapped. "Tell me more of this female. Do you know where she is now?"
"Yes, lord," Tyro quavered. "She was sold to Malana the She-Lover for six billion drekons. It's the biggest news in Gracchos right now."
"Six billion." The ominous, black-clad figure chuckled. "I'll wager our poor, departed Garon here did not fare nearly as well. I would say that this was definitely not his day!" He turned to survey his newly-acquired crew of ragtag brigands, and his eyes fell on one particular member of the assemblage.
Had the pirates been able to penetrate the veil of the Director's black hood, they would have seen his lips quirk in a cruel twisted smile. "Shall we visit Malana's villa and 're-acquire' our little golden-haired playmate?" he asked. "I believe I have a plan we can implement to get the information we need from her. And if by some chance that plans fails, well..." The deadly dagger snicked out once more, gleaming wickedly in the crimson sunlight.
"There are other methods of persuasion that can be employed as well," he finished softly. "Now then, we shall cease searching the shuttlecraft and the surrounding area until we see if our little female can lead us to what we're looking for. Why work so hard when she can do it for us?"
The brigands nodded nervously in agreement as the Director strode briskly toward the Consortium's armored personnel carrier in which he had arrived. He paused for a moment in front of Raintree, whose moaning had dropped off to an incoherent muttering, then glanced back at Garon's sprawled corpse. "Fear not, Captain Garon," he murmured. "You'll soon have company in the Netherworld."
Then, with an imperious sweeping gesture, the Director led his band of cutthroats to the waiting ground vehicle.
Minutes passed. The armored carrier slowly lumbered across the desert floor, until even the shroud of dust it kicked up disappeared from sight in the quivering waves of white heat that convected upward from the blistered earth.
John Raintree's chant had ceased; all was silent again in the Desert of Gracchos.
They hurried to the side of their tortured comrade now, Christopher Pike and his small landing party, bursting from the concealment of the jagged, ebony rocks that had hidden them from the Orion band. Hopelessly outnumbered, they had been forced to hold back, seething with outrage, until the enemy had left.
Boyce paused by the sprawled body of Garon only long enough to confirm the obvious fact that he was indeed dead. Then he turned his full attention to Raintree.
"Cut him down!" Pike snapped. "Spock, hold his weight while they clip those damned lines!"
The young Vulcan easily supported Raintree's limp form while one of the security guards cut the monofilament cords. The Amerind moaned softly, and Pike's heart leaped. At least his friend was alive--for now.
"Lay him down easy, Lieutenant," Boyce said. "I'm going to operate on him right there. His stamina is amazing. With the blood he's lost, and the spreading infection, he should have been finished hours ago!"
"Will he make it, Phil?" Pike queried anxiously.
Boyce scanned the Amerind's recumbent form with his medical tricorder, shaking his head in bewilderment. "I don't see why now--although I have no idea how he's doing it. By rights, he should be long gone by now, but his vital signs are impossibly strong and stable when you consider what he's been through."
"I have read that some tribes of the American Indians practiced the art of meditative trances that were very similar to Vulcan self-healing techniques," Spock put in. "It allowed one to withstand great pain and physical damage."
"Well, a trance won't save him forever," Boyce growled, reaching for a laser scalpel. "Those barbarian bastards! Look what they've done to him!"
The physician worked quickly. He surgically removed the insidious hooks, then cleaned and irrigated the wounds until his tricorder indicated they were free from infection and necrotic tissue. Finally, he produced a hypospray. He coded the syringe and injected Raintree with a strong antibiotic and a blood regenerator. Miraculously, the color began to flow back into the unconscious Amerind's face.
Boyce exhaled with relief. "Good! The regenerator's building the plasma in his system back to normal levels, and when the antibiotics get hold of his fever, he should be out of danger."
"Thank God!" Pike exclaimed fervently as Boyce closed the wounds with and anabolic protoplaser. "Can you bring him to consciousness? We've got to find that cassette."
"I don't know if that's a good idea," Boyce answered doubtfully. "It's risky. Captain Raintree here is incredibly hardy, but he's been surviving by sheer cursedness. He's weak, and he needs a lot of rest."
"Phil, we've got to get those plans before the Orions do," Pike pressed on urgently. "We don't have any idea where the cassette is. Jack might. We've got to take the chance."
"One quarter c.c. of cordrazine--that's all I can do," Boyce returned. "I don't know what to expect with his fever and all."
"Do it," Pike ordered. "We're running out of time."
Boyce reprogrammed his hypo and discharged it into Raintree's arm. The high-powered drug took effect almost immediately; the captain's eyes fluttered open, and Pike noticed the glaze of fever that coated them. Raintree glanced wildly from face to face. There was no sign that he recognized any of them, including his old classmate Christopher Pike.
Suddenly, with an incoherent cry, the Amerind lunged and seized the kneeling Boyce in a hammer lock, twisting the elderly physician's arm up painfully behind his back. Before a stunned Pike or Spock could react, Raintree grabbed Boyce's laser pistol, clicked the barrel to "kill" setting, and thrust the snout of the heavy weapon up under the C.M.O.'s chin.
"All right, you green-skinned bastards, throw down your weapons, or I'll blow his fucking head off!" Raintree screamed hoarsely at the advancing security squad.
"Do as he says!" Pike ordered. "Drop your lasers!"
"He is delirious, Captain," Spock whispered. "He believes we are Orions."
"And in his condition, he might just kill Doctor Boyce," Pike returned. "We'll have to wait for our chance."
Somehow, Raintree staggered weakly to his feet and managed to maintain his hold on Boyce. "I ought to kill all of you for destroying my ship and my crew, and especially for what you did to Julie Chastain!" the Native American raged. "But I won't! That'll make me worse than you. Now, I'm going to find Chastain, and all of you are going to stay put, or your friend here gets his skull ventilated! Understand?"
"Jack, listen to me!" Pike pleaded. "Let him go. It's me--Chris Pike. Don't you recognize me?"
"Shut up!" Raintree's sweat-stained face contorted with hysteria, and his wild eyes stared right through Pike. "How do you know about Chris Pike, you bastard? Did you kill him too? Did you skewer him on hooks and force him to watch while you raped and sodomized his female yeoman? Now, I'll tell you again--stay where you are and he doesn't get hurt! I'll let him go once I put some distance between me and this filthy place!"
"Don't worry, Chris," Boyce managed. "I'll be all right."
"You'd better pray that your friends behave themselves, you Orion scum, or I will most certainly kill you!" Raintree pressed the barrel of his pistol even more firmly under Boyce's jaw, and began to clumsily stumble across the searing sands with the physician in tow.
Pike caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. One of the security men was angling slowly away from the landing party. He was going to make a play for a dropped laser.
"Stay put, Ensign Fairbanks!" the captain snapped. "That goes for the rest of you, too. He can't get far in his condition." He turned to the young Vulcan at his side. "Spock, we'll let them get a head start, then you and I will follow them. If you see any sings of Orions, you are to beam back aboard the Enterprise at once."
They waited until Raintree and his reluctant companion were out of sight. Then Pike and Spock began their pursuit at a brisk pace, clinging as much as they could to the shadows and concealment of the jumbled rock formations which dotted the blistering desert floor. As they hurried along in the draining, debilitating head, Pike silently cursed their rotten luck and his poor judgment. They had to find that cassette, and the cordrazine had pumped up the already feverish Raintree into pushing his tortured body far beyond its limits. If his friend died, it would be his fault--provided the Orions did not capture them all first.
They were running out of time.
"Ensign! Ensign Chastain, wake up! We've got to get you out of here!"
Someone was slapping her face. Was it Turok, or that vile Lonak tormenting her again? No, wait--the voice was feminine, and familiar.
Julie Chastain forced her open her heavy-lidded eyes, squinting painfully against the blinding glare. Gradually, her pupils adjusted. She focused on the anxious face peering down at her and gasped in astonishment.
The Orion woman was now attired in a khaki-colored desert softsuit as Chastain cringed and pulled away from her. Malana yanked her to her feet, swearing in exasperation. "Damn it, Julie, we don't have time for this! We've got to get you off-planet before Garon realizes his mistake in letting you go. Starfleet orders."
"Yes." She smiled softly. "Commander Shy'na Purim, Starfleet Intelligence division. I've been the 'fleet contact here for the last three years."
"Then you're not...uh, I mean..." Chastain paused , and "Malana's" grin broadened.
"No, I'm not one of those. It's a perfect cover; nobody takes me seriously around here. They all think my only interest in life is to bury my tongue in the private parts of some sweet young thing I've bought at a slave auction, and they leave me alone. So, even though you're extremely fetching standing there like that in your birthday suit, you don't have to worry about me making obscene advances."
She bent and picked up a neatly folded pile of clothing--Chastain's Starfleet uniform--and handed it to the now-blushing Terran woman. "Get dressed. We've go to make tracks and fast."
"Commander Purim," Chastain began as she pulled her tunic over her head. "How do I know you are who you say you are?"
"You don't," the Orion woman answered candidly. "And please call me Shy'na. Anyway, I can show my I.D.'s but they could be forged for all you know. I can tell you that I know the Hood was on its way to Starbase Twenty-seven with a top secret document cassette, but that bit of information seems to be common knowledge. Garon's freebooters sure knew about it." Purim's golden eyes twinkled. "I guess you'll just have to trust me."
"You'll have to pardon my suspicious nature," Chastain returned, a bit sarcastically. "I've been raped and sodomized by Orion pirates--those animals did things to me that I never would've believed could be done to a Human body. On top of that, I've been beaten, tortured, branded, chained in a cage, and sold in a slave auction. Then I wake up to face an Orion woman who claims to be a Starfleet Intelligence officer whiles she's standing in the middle of this plush, overstuffed boudoir that looks like it belongs in an Orion bordello." Chastain gestured at the decadent opulence of the room, the luxurious bed and sofas, the end tables of rare Merakan coralwood, and the deep carpeting and brocaded wall tapestries.
"I'll agree; it's a bit much, but tasteful--in a gaudy sort of way," Purim admitted. "But that was the real Malana's style."
"The real Malana?"
"Right. The real Malana was the slave of Master Kajaka who once owned this villa. Kajaka, it happens, ran a communications drop for Starfleet. He had a weakness for very young girls--Malana was the equivalent of fifteen Terran years old when he bought her. At any rate, she was confirmed lesbian, and somewhat psychotic as well. She wouldn't have a thing to do with Kajaka. He was extremely taken by her beauty, though, and he supplied her with slave girls for her pleasure, which she used until she tired of them."
"But what's that got to do with--" a puzzled Chastain began.
"I'm coming to that. Starfleet Intelligence wanted an active field agent on the Xantharus. It was becoming a power center of the Orion-dominated Barrier Alliance, an organization which has never been particularly friendly to the Federation, and it bears watching. Commodore Wentworth from Starbase Twenty-seven came to Xantharus in disguise to discuss the matter with Kajaka; he was getting on in years, and had never been a field agent anyway." Shy'na paused, frowning. "One night while Wentworth was here, Malana got into a quarrel with one of her captive lovers and took a knife to her. Before she died, the slave girl managed to kill Malana as well."
Chastain nodded. "I think I'm getting the picture."
"It made sense. I'd been out of the Academy about a year; I was a native Orion, about the same height and build as Malana, and the same age--twenty-three standard years. With a little plastic surgery, I became Malana. Wentworth saw the opportunity when he and Kajaka came to this room and found the girls' bodies."
Chastain finished dressing, tugging on her boots. "So Wentworth hit Kajaka with the idea right on the spot, even before the body was cold. A little callous, wouldn't you say?"
Purim's eyes flashed, and a sudden cold edge of anger colored her voice. "Listen, Ensign, you've got to understand Intelligence. You do a lot of things that aren't exactly enjoyable, or even moral. I was forced to kill one of my 'lovers' in public because that's what Malana would've done. I've made love to a slave girl I bought at an auction, gone down on her right in front of that pig, Turok, just to keep up the appearances of being a 'she-lover.' So don't pass judgment on something you don't understand!"
"I'm-I'm sorry," Chastain stammered. "I didn't know."
"Forget it." Purim smiled somewhat sheepishly, then continued. "Even in his grief, Kajaka could see the wisdom of the commodore's idea. They secretly buried the bodies of the two girls in the desert, then a couple of weeks later, I moved in to take Malana's place."
"And you inherited Kajaka's estate," Chastain added.
"Yes. It was decided that I would have more freedom to operate here than a slave would have, so Kajaka 'freed' me, and we were married in a mock ceremony. And that's how I came to be here as a Starfleet agent. When the message came in that the Hood was down, I was instructed to try and bail out as many of the crew as I could. I'm sorry you were the only one left."
Chastain shuddered. "So am I. Well, we'd better get moving. We've got to get to the cassette before Garon and his pirates."
"Sorry, Ensign. My orders are to get you off-planet," Purim said. "I've got connections in the area of interstellar transportation. You can tell me where it is, and I'll go pick it up later. No one would suspect me."
"Nothing doing, Commander!" Chastain snapped. "Now, believe it or nor, I'm convinced you are who you say you are, but the Hood's orders were to deliver that cassette, and since I am now the only survivor of the Hood, those are my orders!"
"I could torture the information out of you, you know, and I would," the Orion woman returned. "Just because we're on the same side--"
"Go ahead," Chastain retorted. "After what Garon and his men did to me, anything you'd do would be a picnic by comparison."
Purim studied the Terran woman intently for several seconds, then sighed resignedly. "All right, you win. You called my bluff." She opened a bureau drawer, rummaged in it for an instant, and came up with two Starfleet standard-issue laser pistols. Purim tossed one to Chastain and tucked the other into the belt of her softsuit trousers.
"We'll go pick up the cassette," the Orion agent began, "but only if there's no sign of Garon and his crew. Then we proceed to the Gracchos spaceport and get the hell out of here. Deal?"
Chastain grinned broadly. "Deal," she replied.
Purim handed Chastain a lightweight, hooded cloak to hide her uniform, and they hastened out of the villa, hurrying across the grounds to a large garage where the Orion woman maintained a small fleet of ground cruisers. It was late in the afternoon; the estate slumbered under the scorching sun, and they slipped inside the building unnoticed.
Something moved in the dim shadows.
"Step out where I can see you and have your hands up!" Purim ordered, whipping out her laser with one hand, and reaching for the light panel with the other.
"Don't shoot," whispered a weak voice which Chastain instantly recognized.
"Oh, my God--Captain Raintree!"
She rushed forward to embrace him, and he almost collapsed. His pale face glistened with a fevered sweat; the sides of his uniform tunic were soaked with blood, but at least he was alive! Chastain sobbed gratefully, hugging him, until he whimpered in pain.
She pulled away from him, mortified that she had hurt him in her exuberance. "Oh, I'm sorry. I--"
"Forget it," he murmured. "I didn't know you had any Orion friends, Ensign."
"Commander Shy'na Purim, Starfleet Intelligence, Captain Raintree." Purim glanced at the laser pistol he loosely held in his trembling hand. "At least you had the good sense to come armed. Let's go--we haven't got all day!"
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"We've got to get the cassette, sir," Chastain answered. "Commander Purim saved my life. She'll take us back out."
They helped the injured Raintree into the groundcar. Then Purim pulled it out of the garage area, and they sped off into the desert. The Orion woman was strangely quiet as she piloted the car toward the spot where the shuttlecraft had come down. She listened to Chastain, who chattered like a magpie in her nervous relief at finding her captain alive. Raintree chimed in with a noncommittal grunt, every now and then. He leaned back in his seat, his eyes closed.
Purim frowned. A warning bell had gone off in her head; her intuition was trying to tell her something. Something was wrong here, but she did not know what it was.
Or maybe she was being paranoid.
The shuttlecraft was now in sight. So far there had been no sign of any Orion patrols. "We'll stop here," Purim said, coasting the groundcar to a halt next to the wrecked shuttle. She surveyed the terrain with her keen eyes and frowned again.
No good. For the most part, the area was flat, sand-strewn desert, but there were a couple of low rock outcroppings and a windswept dune nearby that could conceal a whole platoon. She shook her head. "I don't like this," Purim muttered. "So far it looks clean, but we'll have to make it fast."
"Fine with me!" Chastain exclaimed fervently. "The cassette is--"
"Hold on a second, Julie," Purim interrupted hastily. She stared piercingly at Raintree. "Captain, you realize you'll have to file a report directly to Starfleet's Commanding Admiral Paindexter on this affair, don't you?"
"Of course," a puzzled Raintree answered. "I'll do it when we get off this cursed planet. What's that got to do with..."
Shy'na Purim drew her laser with blinding speed. "A test, 'Captain,' and you failed it! To my knowledge there has never been anyone in Starfleet Admiralty with the last name of Paindexter!" She relieved him of his laser pistol. "Now then, asshole, just who the Hell are you?"
'Raintree' said nothing; he crossed his arms, and the flesh of his face crawled and wrinkled as the contours of his body altered drastically.
"Oh my God!" Chastain gasped. "A Vendorian--a shape-changer!"
"And I fell for it, hook, line and sinker!" Purim growled through gritted teeth.
A tall nightmarish apparition now stood before them in seven thickly-cabled tentacles with iridescent orange scales. A dozen or more glassy blue eyes surveyed them from a large, bulbous head. "You may throw down your weapons now," the being piped up in a sibilant, reedy voice. "Our conversations have been monitored since we left the estate. This area is completely surrounded."
"Oh shit!" Chastain whispered.
"My sentiments exactly." Purim suddenly grabbed the Vendorian and shoved the snout of her laser against the creature's face. "You're bluffing--and if you're not, you'd better hope your friends value your services!"
Before she could say another word, the air sang with energy, and the Vendorian's head exploded. Purim went down, stunned by the flashover of the plasma blast that had killed the creature.
Chastain whirled around, startled, brandishing her laser pistol ineffectively.
"Welcome back, Ensign Chastain," a stentorian voice thundered. "Drop your pistol. Your 'bargaining power' is dead, and I wouldn't want to have to stun you like your friend there. If you'll notice, you are slightly outgunned."
Heads popped up from behind the cover of rock outcroppings around the shuttle, followed by plasma blasters and carbines which were all unerringly trained on her. Chastain loosened her grip on the laser, and it clattered on the ground.
"Much better." A looming, ominous, black-clad figure strode out from behind a large boulder. Chastain tensed, a dawning feeling of horror growing inside her. The black, snug-fitting uniform, the full-head mask--this had to be the Director of the Barrier Alliance Consortium! She had heard of this fiend, and what she had heard made Garon seem like a saint. She shuddered.
"It's unfortunate that I was forced to kill our friend Betark here." He gestured at the corpse of the Vendorian. "His shape-changing ability was useful, but I could not afford to provide you and your friend, Commander Purim, with a hostage."
Purim moaned as the Orion pirate crew filed out from behind rocks and sand dunes to surround them. The Director glanced down at the fallen intelligence agent. Julie could only see his eyes behind the mask, and they chilled her to the bone. They were cold and flint-gray and quite, quite insane.
"So, 'Malana'--or should I call you Commander Purim?--you are a Federation spy," the Director rumbled. "For years I have wondered how so many ventures on Xantharus came to abortive ends. Now I know." He suddenly drew back his right foot and savagely kicked Purim in the pit of her stomach. She screamed, and the Director chuckled nastily. "You will be executed. Whether your death is quick or lingering depends on my whim." He turned slowly to face Chastain. She could not meet his steely gaze and lowered her eyes.
"You, Ensign Chastain, will reveal the location of the cassette your starship was transporting. It is unfortunate that you did not tell Betark earlier; I believe it would have saved you a good deal of grief. I don't suppose you'll tell me voluntarily so I can kill you quickly and cleanly?"
"Go fuck yourself," Chastain grated.
"A novel suggestion, my dear, but somewhat anatomically impractical." The Director sighed wearily. "I was afraid you'd choose the difficult path.. Lieutenant Tyro!"
The young brigand stepped forward hastily. "Yes, sir," he acknowledged.
"Lieutenant, there is a jo'kan tree over there in the distance. Have these two young lades stripped down naked and hang them by their wrists in the sun."
"Yes, sir!" Tyro exclaimed enthusiastically. He eagerly grabbed a cursing, struggling Julie Chastain and began to tear at her tunic.
"Oh, Lieutenant," the Director growled warningly. "Nothing amorous, understood? I'd like to let you and your men play with them, but we don't have the time. The starship captain's body has mysteriously disappeared. I wouldn't be surprised if Starfleet reinforcements have arrived. They'll be looking for the cassette as well, and we've got to find it first."
Another of the pirates dragged Purim to her feet by her hair, and the tow captives were bundled off toward the lone tree.
"Let the sun beat down on their heads for a while," the Director shouted after them. "Perhaps the heat will loosen their tongues. If not..." He drew his long, wicked dagger from its sheath. "Perhaps this will," he finished with a dry brittle laugh.
"How's he doing, Phil?"
"He'll make it," Boyce replied, checking Raintree's life readings on the overhead scan panel. "He's a determined cuss. I couldn't believe he was still standing, much less leading us on a merry chase through the desert, what with the loss of blood and cordrazine psychosis." The doctor gazed down at his recumbent patient, shaking his head the network of intravenous tubes and the precautionary life support unit.
"Doc?" The Amerind's voice was soft but strong. "Doc, I'm really sorry I strong-armed you down there. I--"
"Don't worry abut it," the physician returned. "Between the fever and the cordrazine, I'm surprised you didn't fly to the Enterprise under your own power!"
Raintree turned his head to gaze up at Pike. "Chris...Chris, have you found her?"
Pike sighed. "We're looking for her now. Spock is scanning the area around the shuttle and Gracchos for Human life readings. It might take a while, but we'll find her."
"I hope we're in time. If those green-skinned bastards get hold of her again..." Tears filled the Amerind's eyes. "God, Chris, they passed her around like a bottle of wine. They just kept using her and that son of a bitch Garon...he made her kneel in front of him and made me watch while he forced her to use her mouth on his...he made her take him in the mouth." He closed his eyes tightly. "I'm glad the bastard is dead."
"Jack," Pike gently interposed. "Don't you have any idea where she buried the tape cassette?"
Raintree shook his head weakly. "We were too busy fighting off Garon and his pirates. I didn't see where she went." He paused. "I'm praying to the Great Spirit for his help. Does that seem strange to you, Chris?"
"No," Pike answered, smiling softly.
"It does to a lot of people. I believe in the Great Spirit, Chris, I really do. And yet I fly between the stars to other worlds, other planets, using ships and technologies the wisest of my ancestors could not have possibly conceived of." He grinned wanly. "Sometimes I can really believe in the old ways of one, but I choose to live with the new ways of the other."
Pike gripped his friend's shoulder. "Keep praying, Jack. Maybe He'll help us find her."
"Better let him rest now, Chris," Boyce admonished. "He's taken quite a beating."
"Okay, Phil. I'll be on the bridge. Notify me of any change in Jack's condition."
Pike left Sickbay and summoned the nearest turbolift. His recent shore leave on Chrysalis seemed like ancient history now. His entire crew was on standby red alert, the Enterprise was playing hide-and-seek in Xantharus' lunar system, and Spock was hunting for one Human female on the surface of an entire planet. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, he thought grimly. But they really had no other choice.
The lift deposited him at his destination, and Pike strode briskly onto the bridge. "Status report," he snapped as he relieved Number One at the conn.
"Lieutenant Spock is still scanning for Ensign Chastain," she reported. "Negative results. There is one Orion raider in orbit below us, but it has not detected our presence thus far.
"Good work." Pike settled back into the command chair as Number One returned to the helm. "Keep the moons between us and them until we're ready to break orbit."
"Captain!" Spock exclaimed, glancing over his shoulder at Pike. "I believe I have located Ensign Chastain. Getting a Human life reading."
Pike bolted up from his seat. "Where is she, Spock?"
"Approximately one hundred-three point two meters from the downed shuttlecraft, sir," the Vulcan responded. "She is not moving and is surrounded by a number of Orion readings."
"Damn it!" Pike exploded. "They've got her! They're probably trying to rip the info they need out of her! Spock, have Boyce and four security teams meet us in the transporter room. Number One, you have the conn again. Have the Enterprise ready to cut out of here on a second's notice!"
"Aye, sir," the woman responded. "Good luck!"
"Thanks," Pike called out as he and Spock got on the turbolift. "And ask the Great Spirit to give us a hand!"
Before a puzzled Number One could ask Pike what he meant by his enigmatic remark, the lift doors had hissed shut behind him.
"Are you thirsty, Ensign?" the Director asked tauntingly. "I could send one of my men for some water, but they're all out looking for your accursed cassette."
Julie Chastain raised her head numbly, but could not force her cracked, parched lips to form speech patterns. She hung from a strong limb of the jo'kan tree, her feet under the merciless sun. The ropes which bound her cut cruelly into her wrists; blood trickled down her forearms in a sticky stream and dripped off her elbows. Shy'na Purim hung a few feet to her left in an identical predicament. They were absolutely helpless.
Chastain tried to speak again, but could only make a hoarse croaking noise.
"I'm sorry," the Director chuckled. "I can't understand you. I guess you don't want any water then. I could get you some. However, we're wasting time. Which of you feels like talking?"
He drew his knife; its long blade glistened wickedly in the bloody sunlight.
"I--I'll talk," Purim gasped. "I can't take any more of this! Don't hurt me, please!"
"So! The convicted spy will talk!" the Director exclaimed. "It seems your intelligence training has not toughened you as much as you thought!" He stepped forward, closer to hear the Orion woman's weak, raspy voice.
Suddenly, Purim's long, well-muscled legs shot out, locking the Director's neck in a scissors hold. It was a valiant attempt, but ultimately futile; she couldn't exert enough pressure to snap his neck. The Director slipped out of her grasp and tumbled to the ground. He was back on his feet with cat-like quickness, brandishing his dagger menacingly.
"Bitch! Slut! Whore!" he screamed insanely. "You'll pay the ultimate price for that...and right now!"
Chastain's scream halted Purim's would-be executioner just long enough.
A strong sinewy hand clamped his arm, stopping his dagger's arc in mid-strike. The young Vulcan in the Starfleet uniform had come out of nowhere, and now he was locked in mortal combat with his gigantic, black-clad adversary. The Vulcan fought gamely, but even his great strength was barely equal to the task. The two figures rolled in the sand, each trying to gain the upper hand. It was going to be a race against time, the Director's knife seeking the Vulcan's throat, the Vulcan's fingers trying to move into position for a nerve pinch.
"Spock! Get clear, and we'll stun him!" A Starfleet captain now circled the combatants, trying to get a clean shot at the Director, and he was joined by an elderly, white-haired man and four squads of security personnel.
Chastain sobbed with relief when she saw them.
Suddenly, the Vulcan broke free for a split-second. His clasping fingertips stabbed down and gripped the trapezius muscles on each side of his adversary's neck. The Director thrashed wildly, and his knife slid clear and opened a deep, crescent-shaped gash under Spock's eyes. The Vulcan did not make a sound; he hung on doggedly, green blood streaming down his face, until the black-clad giant went limp.
One of the security men cut Chastain and Purim down from the tree limb, and the ensign sagged against the trunk, gratefully drinking from a canteen offered to her by the elderly man. She saw by his insignia that he was a physician.
"Are you all right, Miss?" Boyce asked anxiously.
Chastain nodded. "Thank you, yes. I was just so thirsty." She handed the canteen back to him. "Check Shy'na...Commander Purim."
But Purim was already on her feet, rubbing circulation back into her numb wrists. She shrugged off Boyce's offer of assistance, so the physician moved to the wounded Spock. She quickly pulled on the tattered remnants of her desert suit, trying to gather up what little dignity that clothing afforded her. Purim tossed what was left of Chastain's uniform to the Terran woman, and she, too, gratefully dressed herself.
Pike, meanwhile, had been anxiously checking his science officer. Spock had torn a swatch of cloth from the sleeve of his uniform tunic and held it against the wound. He also waved off the approaching Boyce.
"Spock, at least let me close it up," the physician protested. "That's a nasty gash."
"We don't have time, Doctor," the Vulcan said. "I will be fine."
"Spock's right, Phil." Pike hurried over to Chastain and gripped her shoulders. "Ensign," he said urgently, "I know you've been through a terrible ordeal, but we're running out of time. Please, we've got to get the tape!"
Chastain gazed up into Pike's handsome earnest face and laughed momentarily. "Captain, you're practically standing on it."
"The Director never knew how close he was," she continued. "I buried the tape package under the rocks of this tree he used to string up Shy'na and me."
Purim groaned aloud, and then began to laugh. "Incredible!" she said. "That's pretty devious, Julie. Have you ever considered a career in Starfleet Intelligence?"
Pike unearthed the packet containing the cassette. "Here's the little bastard that's been causing all the trouble!" he exclaimed, grinning as he held it aloft. He strode up just as one of the security contingent that had been surveying the surrounding area came pounding up breathlessly to him.
"Cap!" the security officer exclaimed. "Party of Orion pirates approaching from the north, eleven of them. Shall we engage? We've got them outnumbered!"
"Negative, Mister Collins!" Pike barked. "We got what we came for; we're clearing out!" He flipped open his communicator. Pike to all units," he said. "Return to beam-down point immediately. Report to beam-down point."
"What about the Director?" asked Purim.
"We leave him," said Pike. "We're already violating Barrier Alliance territory. Can you imagine the trouble we'd have if we took him with us? We'd be risking a war with the Orions and their allies. No, he stays." He adjusted the gain on his open communicator. "Pike to Enterprise."
"Number One," came the reply. "Go ahead, Captain."
"Landing party to beam up immediately," Pike ordered. "Use cargo transporters as well; I want everyone picked up at once! Have engines ready to cut in at Time Warp Factor Seven. I want to tear out of here so fast that the Orion raider will never know we were here."
"Aye, sir. Number One out."
Within moments , the landing party dissolved into the sparkle of the transporter effect and vanished from the surface of the deadly planet Xantharus.
By the time the Orion scouting party returned to the jo'kan tree, they found only their unconscious leader lying sprawled in the he sand, splotches of green blood drying on his jet-black tunic.
Commodore Wentworth seemed to be somewhat nervous. The stocky, graying officer looked as though he would jump through the ceiling if someone touched him. His brown eyes darted nervously around the Enterprise sickbay, from the bedridden Raintree, to Pike, on to Julie Chastain and Shy'na Purim, and finally to Boyce, who was treating Spock's facial cut.
Maybe being in Sickbay bothers the commodore, Pike reflected wryly.
"You should have left me close your wound back on the planet, Lieutenant Spock," Boyce scolded. "It left a scar. Of course, I can fix that up for you with about half an hour of microlaser surgery."
Spock's right eyebrow canted. "Unnecessary, Doctor," the young Vulcan intoned. "The scar is not that noticeable. We Vulcans are not as concerned with physical perfection and beauty."
"I think it gives you a rather rakish air, Lieutenant," Pike said, chuckling.
"Indeed!" Both eyebrows escalated now. "If you'll excuse me, Captain, ladies and gentlemen, I must return to the bridge."
He was passed on his way out by a tall, muscular Human wearing the blue tunic with gold trim commonly worn by those seated on the Federation Council. Derek Corman was handsome in a neutral sort of way, but his silver hair and cold, impersonal blue eyes imparted an almost sinister air about him. Even when he addressed someone, he seemed to stare right through them, as if they weren't even there.
"Captain Pike, Captain Raintree, I'm sorry I was delayed. I had to stop at a conn terminal to send a message to Federation Headquarters so I had Commodore Wentworth come down ahead of me." He paused a second as if collecting his thoughts, his icy eyes flickering past each of his intent listeners in turn. "I'll get right to the point. All of you deserve the right to know what you were involved in, particularly you, Captain Raintree, and you, Ensign Chastain."
He began to pace, and his voice took on the pedantic tone of an Academy instructor. "There was a recent revolutionary breakthrough in weapons research discovered by an Andorian scientist, Doctor Thelans, involving the utilization of coherent beams of phased energy. Thelans designed and built a proto-type version of the new weapon, called a phaser. The phaser is an extremely powerful weapon; it makes all laser armament now in use functionally obsolete. Lasers are like popguns compared to this new design. At any rate, Thelans contacted Federation Council and offered to present us with the phaser technology in exchange for a state-of-the-art laboratory and unlimited funds for research. We readily agreed. Possession of phaser technology would give its owner a clear edge in weaponry capability. There was one small problem; Thelans did his research on the planet Dea Five, and we had to transport him and his plans into Federation territory."
"Wait a minute," Raintree said, his eyes narrowing. "Dea Five is on the other side of the Federation, near the fringes of Klingon space. Why did we have to come here to pick up the plans?"
Commodore Wentworth cleared his throat nervously. "You never had the plans, Jack."
"What?!" An expression of numb, incredulous horror settled over his features, a look that was mirrored on the faces of everyone else in the room, save for Wentworth and Corman.
"You were a decoy," Wentworth continued in a low voice, his eyes downcast. "Federation Council orders. My hands were tied. The Farragut picked up Thelans and the plans, and transported them to the Arcturus Test Range while you diverted attention away from them. Thelans will begin designing the Federation version of the phaser at the firing range with the assistance of range science officer Bruno Wilheim."
"A decoy!" Raintree's bronze face had gone pale with rage. "Commodore, I lost my ship, my entire crew, for a worthless cartridge of plastex and celluloid! I was nearly killed! My communications officer was raped and had God knows what else done to her by those Orion fiends!"
"The loss of a starship and crew was deemed acceptable by Council when weighed against the countless untold billions who might die if the phaser fell into the wrong hands," Corman said airily. "Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated."
The Amerind's voice was ice-cold in reply. "If I could move off this bed, I'd sacrifice you, you unfeeling bastard!"
"I just want to know one thing, Councilman," Purim chimed in. "How is it that the Orions were so well informed? They were lying in wait for the Hood."
Corman paused for a long moment before answering, but his eyes never flickered. "I leaked an 'anonymous' tip to them, Commander Purim. It was hoped that the Hood would fend of any attack by Orion warships. Regrettably, this was not the case. We wanted to be sure the Orions and other unfriendly powers fell for our ruse and concentrated on the Hood, leaving the Farragut unscathed."
Suddenly, Chastain screamed hysterically. She attacked Corman, pounding at him with clenched fists. "You cold-blooded son of a bitch!" she shrieked as she landed a solid punch to Corman's solar plexus. "Four hundred and thirty people died because the Orions fell for your ruse."
Pike pulled the enraged woman off the staggering Corman, doing all he could to hold her back. "Phil!" he shouted. "Give her a sedative! Quickly!"
Boyce moved in with his hypo, pressing it against Chastain's struggling arm. Almost immediately, she stopped flailing with her fists and subsided into a quiet fit of sobbing. The physician led her over to a diagnostic couch, where she lay down docilely.
Wentworth walked hesitantly over to Raintree's bed as Corman regained his breath. The commodore clutched a flat black box in his hands. "There's a whole raft of medals and decorations for you and Julie in this, Jack," he said. "Plus posthumous awards for all your crew and..."
Raintree did not look up. "Commodore," he rated, "you can take you medals and stuff 'em up your ass."
Wentworth looked shocked. Before he could say anything else, Pike stepped between the Commodore and Raintree's bed. "Commodore Wentworth," Pike began, "if you and Corman are finished here, I'd appreciate it if you would both get back in your shuttle and get the hell off my ship...with all due respect, sir."
A muscle tensed in Wentworth's jaw, but he said nothing. He set the black box of medals down on an instrument table. "In case he changes his mind later," the commodore said softly. Then he turned and left Sickbay. Corman shook his head uncomprehendingly, then followed in the commodore's wake.
Pike stabbed a button on a wall intercom unit. "Shuttlecraft bay, this is Captain Pike. Prepare Commodore Wentworth's shuttle for departure. He and his passenger are leaving immediately."
Pike turned away from the 'com panel. Boyce and Purim were comforting Chastain, but Jack Raintree just stared at the ceiling, tears standing in his open, unblinking eyes. Pike felt inadequate; he could think of nothing to say that would make any difference just now, so he, too, decided to leave Sickbay. He would go to the gym for a while and vent his frustration on a bag.
It would be much more satisfying and far less painful than driving his fist through a bulkhead.
Personal Log, Christopher Pike, Stardate 1020.3
Free counters provided by Andale.
This story can be found in printed form in ORION ARCHIVES -- 2251-2264 Pike's Enterprise1.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES -- 2234-2265 The Beginnings.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES On-Line Fiction.
Click Here to Return to the Orion Press Website