The planet was pretty much like Mars. Thankfully, there was enough oxygen left in its sparse atmosphere to be breathable, but it had precious little free water. A dry river bed indicated that there had once been abundant water, but it had long since evaporated. A few scant traces of edible vegetation here and there. And plenty of rocks to look at. Some of them had clearly been part of something made by a primitive culture long since dead, unable to stop the slow out-gassing of the planets atmosphere and probably unable even to understand it. A shattered remnant of something here, a broken piece of something else there. Yes, thered once been life here, but it was no more. Not every cradle was hospitable, and not every child lived to leave the cradle, even if it were a nicer one than this.
The young commander of the Shenandoah surveyed the horizon. The sky was a dark blue, almost violet, so dark that you could see a few stars in it. Landing the shuttle through the thin atmosphere was trickier than he might have liked, but his skills at piloting hadnt diminished in the years since hed graduated from Starfleet Academy. Hed sat the Aldrin down without incident. So here they were, searching for whatever it was that had stopped the Shenandoah dead in its tracks.
A voice interrupted his thoughts: "Captain, Im getting some unusual energy readings here. Unknown type of radiation."
Commander James T. Kirk turned quickly to Ensign Hikaru Sulu, his expression filled with concern. "Can you identify the source? Weve got to find whatever it is thats holding us here and soon."
"Im not sure, sir." The young astrophysicist waved the tricorder toward the horizon. "Im just getting some odd energy readings, non-localized."
"Is the landing party in any danger?"
"Not so far as I can tell, sir. The level is very faint."
The starship commander flipped open his communicator. "Kirk to Shenandoah. Kirk to Shenandoah."
There was an unusual crackle. "Shenandoah. Ensign Chu here."
"Ensign, were detecting some odd energy readings down here. Can ships sensors pick up anything?"
"Checking, sir." There was a pause. "Doc wishes to speak with you, sir."
Kirk looked at his executive officer and sighed. Dealing with Lieutenant Doc Samson, chief engineer of the Shenandoah, was a chore. "Go ahead; put him on."
"Captain, Lieutenant Samson here. The sensor readings are blurred at best. Unfocussed. But our warp engine still will not engage."
"Can we leave orbit on impulse power?"
"Yes, sir. But the range of our sensors indicates the warp dampening field extends at least in a six lightyear radius from the planet. Even at maximum impulse power..."
"Damn. So were stuck here until we find the source of the dampening field."
"Yes, Captain. Quite so."
"Thanks, Doc. Kirk out." The captain closed the communicator. "Okay, Mister Mitchell, something down here interrupted our warp flight through this star system. That same something is generating some sort of field that is stopping us from leaving. Bring down two more shuttlecraft. Lets get some search parties organized."
Gary Mitchell looked at his friend with concern. "Is that a good idea, Jim? Transporters are down. Warp fields are down. Subspace communications are down. It seems that whatever were dealing with here is so powerful that we run the risk of provoking it further with more people." Mitchell kept looking at the rocky outcroppings all around them, as if half-expecting something to leap out from them, Kirk noted.
"You think whatever is causing it is intelligent, not some sort of natural phenomenon?"
"Whos to say, Jim? Not my speciality. But Id hate it if we pissed something off accidentally." Mitchell shuddered, and glanced over his shoulder.
"Me, too." Kirk looked with a shielded hand at the sun. "Recall everyone from the landing party. Break out the camping gear. Set up a base camp near the shuttlecraft."
"And the extra shuttles?"
Kirk nodded. "Bring em down loaded with supplies for a weeks stay. I want base camp established in two hours."
Mitchell narrowed his eyes and shook his head ever so slightly in disagreement. "Per your orders, Captain."
James Kirk watched as his best friend retreated back toward the shuttlecraft. He felt a chill, and glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting something to be staring at him, watching him. He saw nothing, and walked toward the shuttlecraft, casting a cautious eye over his shoulder from time to time.
Gary Mitchell didnt tolerate subordinates well. They exasperated him at best, and pissed him off at worst. But he needed them, and they needed him, to be sure. Without his direction, they would have set up the tent in the wrong place, built a fire that wouldve gone out in minutes, and even set up the latrine upwind of the camp.
But superior officers, even when they were your best friends, were another thing altogether. He thoroughly hated them. Not that he hated Jim Kirk. His best friend would at least listen to his considered advice from time to time, unlike that bitch Lystra Davis or that snooty Andorian friend of Kirks, Thrax Kal Kevaran.
He sighed as he looked up. He could see the Shenandoah traverse the sky and longed to be up there. If hed been her commander, theydve left orbit on impulse power and headed in the direction of the nearest starbase. It might take years to get there, but surely that was better than poking around on what was clearly an almost lifeless world looking to stir up trouble with God only knows what. He glanced over at a rock outcropping, thinking something had caught his eye. Must be seeing things. He shook his head and turned back to his task at hand, supervising the landing party even though hed rather not.
Still, thats what hed been ordered to do, and by God, thats what he was going to do. Hed taken the three shuttle crews and formed six small scouting parties and sent them in six different directions. He had chosen to remain here at the base camp, coordinating the teams various search patterns. Jim Kirk, of course, had chosen to go with a scouting party as well. He sighed. When would his friend ever stop placing himself in the line of fire?
He looked over at Yeoman Brigette Austin, who had remained behind as well, serving as the communications officer for the base camp. She stood, leaning over a small BellComm unit that she was using to maintain communications with each scout party. He felt a stirring in his loins as he looked at her shapely breasts and hips.
R.H.I.P., he reminded himself. Rank hath its privileges. He moved beside her. "Status report?"
"All six patrols report finding no sign of any life other than a few lichen, grass clusters and scrub brush," she responded with a smile.
Oh, baby... Mitchell thought as he looked at the sun and made a few mental calculations. "Tell the search parties theyve got two more hours before they need to return."
"Yes, sir," she smiled demurely at him.
Mitchell turned to her with a plainly lascivious leer on his face. "So, Brigette, whats a nice girl like you doing on a deserted planet like this?"
"Mind you, Captain, Im not terribly partial to field rations," remarked Lieutenant Jake Foster, Chief Security Officer of the Shenandoah.
"Really? I hadnt noticed," answered Kirk, inwardly laughing at the affable security man who had eaten not one, not two, but three of the field ration packs. "Want me to have the ship send down a shuttle with a pizza?"
Foster nodded. "With a few bottles of beer, too, if you dont mind."
"Idve thought some smores wouldve been your preference."
Foster, who was probably one of the heaviest men Kirk had ever seen serving in Starfleet, shook his head and chuckled in deep laughter. "Yeah, you can send down a box of graham crackers, chocolate bars and marshmallows for me, too."
Smiling, Jim Kirk looked at the group gathered around the large camp fire. Eighteen of Starfleets finest had found no trace of life, nor any sign of anything natural that might account for the warp dampening field. At least, Gary Mitchell had had the foresight to have the additional shuttle crews bring down several dozen synthetic fire logs to take the chill off the night air, as well as thermofans to blow heated air into the campsite.
Kirk frowned, and realized that he was chilled even though the campsite was surprisingly warm. He glanced around, and thought he saw a shadow moving. A trick of the light, he convinced himself. The situation must be getting on my nerves.
Again he looked around at his group, and noted a general unease among the landing party. All of them seemed unaware of it, but they each kept casting glances over their shoulders. Kirks eyes narrowed at the realization that the entire landing party was affected by something tenuous, something unseen, something just on the periphery of perception.
He stood quickly, dusted off his trousers, and walked to the edge of the encampment where two security officers stood on guard. "Anything?"
Paul Giotto shook his head. "No, Captain," but the look on his face said something else. "Nothing I can put my finger on."
"Or hoof," remarked the Tellarite Gret. His snout twitched. "Something just doesnt smell right tonight."
Kirk smiled. "Stay alert. Call me if you see anything."
"Thats just the problem, Captain," Giotto answered. "I havent seen anything. Not really. Just shadows..." He shook his head, incredulous. "I just...I just...its like being five again...and being scared of the bogey man."
Gret snorted. "I dont know what the bogey man is, but whatever it is out there, Captain, if it is out there, it has no smell."
"And thats not natural," concluded Kirk.
"Quite so. Everything has a smell, every person an aroma, even a machine smells of tetralubisol or ozone or plastic. This...whatever...has no smell at all."
"Stay on your toes...or hooves," Kirk ordered. "Call out if you see or smell anything at all."
"Good night, gentlemen," the Shenandoahs captain said as he headed for his bed and what was certain to be a troubled sleep.
Kirks dreams were indeed troubled. Shadows kept reaching at him. So when he heard his name called, he had no trouble rousing himself.
Kirk snapped to a fully alert state instantly. "Yes, Gary?"
"Weve got a crewmember missing. Yeoman Brigette Austin."
The Shenandoahs commander unzipped the sleeping bag and sat up. "How long?" He gazed at his first officers face intently.
"I dont know, Jim. She and I..."
Kirk rolled his eyes upward. "Gary, if this is a repeat of that"
"Jim, its not like that."
Kirk sighed and pulled himself out of his bag. Slipping his boots on, he tugged his tunic down from where it had ridden up on him. He stepped out of his survival tent. Several landing party members were gathered around the re-ignited fire. He nodded in response to a few "Good morning, sirs" and smiled at Jake Fosters "I want some hot chocolate and doughnuts."
"All right, ladies and gentlemen. Weve got a missing shipmate. I want search parties to divide up in the same groups as yesterdays search."
"What about the warp dampening field?" asked Sulu.
"The life of one of my crew comes first. Well deal with the warp field problem later. Mister Mitchell, I want you with me this time." The look of disapproval on Kirks face was plain. He glanced around at the landing party. Most of them were security officers and pilots, and none of them were higher ranked than... "Mister Kelso."
"Sir?" Lieutenant j.g. Lee Kelso piped up from where he was serving coffee.
"Lee, I want you to stay in camp, coordinating our search efforts. I also want you here in case Yeoman Austin returns."
"Yes, sir." Kelso didnt look hopeful.
And to be honest, neither was Jim Kirk.
"Captain, Im detecting a deposit of organic material," announced Security Officer Paul Giotto. "And, sir, it wasnt there yesterday. That Im sure of."
"Location?" asked Kirk.
"Half a kilometer, that direction, sir." Giotto pointed toward the rising sun.
Gary Mitchell had to ask. "Life signs?"
The commander and his first officer met each others eyes. "Well, lets hope its not our wayward yeoman, but well head for it," Kirk decided.
The walk was not easy going. Tall boulders were strewn everywhere seemingly in their path. Giotto kept his tricorder in active scanning mode, and soon they rounded an enormous outcropping of rock to find something...
"Unbelievable!" gasped Giotto.
Surrounded in a ravine of rock was a rock-hewn temple of sorts, Druid-like perhaps, or even akin to some of the ceremonial stone rings Kirk had seen on Andor. In the center, a glowing red crystal nearly a meter wide was ensconced in a stone setting. Around it were five obelisks, each four meters from the crystal, and beyond the obelisks, a series of columns supported stone cappings.
"Lasers at ready," suggested Gary Mitchell.
"Agreed, Lieutenant," said Kirk as he and Ensign Giotto pulled their laser pistols.
They walked slowly, cautiously into the temple.
"Sensor readings?" asked Kirk.
Mitchell shook his head. "My tricorder is still detecting organic residue." He pointed at the base of one of the obelisks. "There it is."
Giotto cautioned, "I dont like this, sir. Too exposed."
"Well have to be more careful then, Ensign. Watch our backs."
The three men stood at the base of the pillar. Mitchell ran his tricorder over the residue. "Jim, Im not much of a scientist, but this stuff is clearly organic."
The material looked to Kirk like the clippings of a lawnmower that had congealed into a gooey mess. Except these "clippings" were brown, gray and white. "Lets get Mister Sulus opinion." He pried open his communicator. "Captain Kirk to Ensign Sulu."
"Ensign Sulu here, sir."
"Your scientific advice is needed here, Ensign. Im transmitting my coordinates to you."
"Be right there, sir. Youre only three hundred meters from where we are now."
Kirk closed his communicator and glanced up at the security officer. Giotto kept looking around. "Something wrong, Paul?"
"I dont know, sir. Somethings not right, thats for sure. I feel like were being watched."
Mitchell stood up suddenly. "I feel it, too, Jim."
Kirk nodded. "Im not immune to it, either."
At that moment, Ensign Sulu, Security Officer Gret and Yeoman Maggie Adams entered the temple. "Wow!" Adams exclaimed. "We were like twenty meters from here yesterday, and we never knew all this was here."
Kirk nodded. "It seems to be intentionally well-concealed."
Sulu approached the pillar and looked at the organic debris. "My...God," he said after a moments examination. "Weve found Brigette, Captain. Theres Human DNA in here that matches hers."
Kirk had suspected as much. "Any idea what happened to her?"
"Id say that the molecular bonds that hold a persons body together were suddenly and violently liberated. Imagine all the energy of each cell ripped from your body. The heat from the energy vaporizes the water in your body, and your body literally falls apart."
"Then how can you tell its her DNA?"
"Because the process was incomplete. Theres about five percent of her remains here that are intact. Im even detecting algae-based xenylon from her uniform, and a rubidium crystal from her communicators transponder."
Kirk stared at the remains morosely. "Is it a disease that did this to her?"
"Jim, not that Im anI-told-you-so kind of guy, but I warned you that we might"
"Belay that, Gary," Kirk snapped.
"Hey, what?!" blurted someone.
Kirk whirled to see Yeoman Maggie Adams scream in outright terror and abject agony as she melted before his eyes where she stood at the base of an adjacent pillar.
"My...God!" gasped Sulu.
Kirk looked back at Mitchell, but there was...something...someone standing over the crystal. "Lasers!" he ordered his crew.
The search party all aimed their lasers at the...creature? man?...that now stood before them.
"Stop where you are," commanded Kirk, "or my crew will open fire." To his relief, the being didnt move. Kirk pulled open his communicator so that the translating device back at the shuttlecraft would convert whatever was said into something each of them could understand. "Im Commander James T. Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S. Shenandoah."
"Qxl%," the thing answered. It seemed to Kirk to be more shadow than substance, more man than monster, more evil than good. It was somewhat transparent to sight, but clearly had some substance. It was as though it was a projection, perhaps, or some horrible thing caught in a transporter accident. It was black, but it was from an absence of light, from an absence of substance. It was as though it was a hole in the fabric of the universe itself. It had no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth, no features on its head that Kirk could discern. It had four limbs and appeared to be bipedal, but there were no manipulative digits at their ends.
"What is it you want?"
"I need more," it said simply, sinisterly, threateningly.
"More life." It seemed satisfied with the answer, and satisfied that they would have to die in order to satisfy its needs.
"Well, you cant have it."
"I can. I will."
"I wont let you."
"You cannot stop me." It wasnt a threat. It was a damnable, inescapable fact.
"Were getting the hell out of here," Kirk decided. He clicked the comm button on his communicator. "Kirk to search parties. I want everyone back at the shuttles in five minutes. Were leaving, and were leaving now, and were leaving this Kicksulpop being behind."
"No argument from me," Mitchell said in agreement. "Lets leave before anyone else suffers this...oh, God..." He looked at the remains of the woman hed made love to only last night.
They quickly made their way back to the shuttlecraft.
"What do you mean we cant leave until two days from now?" Kirk demanded. "Weve got some...thing...out there, and it wants us dead."
"Youll be dead if you leave the planet's surface now, Captain," came Lieutenant Samsons voice over the communicator. "Ive not seen a solar flare like this in years, sir. Were being buffeted by it already, and were in danger by staying in orbit ourselves. If you attempt to leave the safety of the planet's atmosphere, your shuttles will be utterly destroyed."
James T. Kirk made his decision. "Then take the Shenandoah out of orbit. I wont run the risk of any more deaths. Report back as soon as stellar conditions permit."
"Doc, that was an order."
"Yes, sir. Samson out."
The youngest starship commander in Federation history closed his communicator and looked at the landing party. Ensigns, Yeomen, Crewmen and Technicians, most he knew, some he did not, and some of them would die here. "Well, it seems as if were trapped here. Mister Mitchell, have the shuttlecraft rearranged into a triangle, entry ports facing the inside. Mister Sulu, re-pitch the survival tent in the middle of them. Mister Kelso, rig a forcefield from the shuttles engines. Mister Giotto, break out the laser rifles. I want us so protected from this...being...that itll think twice about trying to take another crewmember from our midst."
Yet somehow, Kirk knew that it wouldnt be enough.
He was right.
"Captain!" called a security man he didnt know from one of the open points of the triangle.
Kirk, Mitchell, Kelso and Giotto rushed to his side.
"Captain, I see...something...I think..."
Kirk peered out into the evening twilight. "Too dark to see anything."
Mitchell flipped open his communicator. "Let there be light." Instantly, high powered landing floodlights clicked on, and the area was bathed in light.
Kirk turned to Mitchell. "Not bad, Gary," he said approvingly.
"I love saying that," the navigator answered.
"Ill just bet you do," the commander said wryly. He peered out into the darkness, and sure enough, ...it... was there. "Lasers at ready."
The...being...continued its approach, as if oblivious to their drawn weapons.
Kirk was not going to risk another crewmember. "Fire."
Laser beams shot into the night and struck the...creature...dead center. And still it came.
"Maintain firing rate," Kirk ordered.
It mattered not one bit.
At the forcefields perimeter, the...thing...paused and then stepped right through. Sulu had his tricorder out, scanning desperately, obviously searching for a weakness in the...entity. And found none. It barely registered as energy, and seemed to exist more on a subspace level than a physical one.
At five meters, one of the security men had had enough. He ran forward and struck blindly at the...whatever...and it picked him up like a rag doll. Taking the security man with it, it retreated from the encampment, lasers still striking its back.
Mitchell looked at Kirk, accusation in his eyes.
The rest of the night passed without incident, but James T. Kirk could not sleep. He stared up at the top of the survival tent, arms behind his head, and wondered what he could have done differently, if there had been some clue hed missed, if there was some sign that should have warned him of the danger. He felt guilty. Gary blames me, he thought. And maybe I should have listened to him when he said not to bring the additional shuttles down.
He had a decision to make now, and it was one not to be taken lightly. Lives stood at risk, to be sure, but doing nothing would result no doubt in more loss of life as well. More, it had said. Kirk wondered how much more would satisfy it. And he was going to find out.
At daybreak, he sat up, pulled on his boots, and checked his laser. Glancing around at the encampment, he nodded to the security guards on duty. "Ill be back in a few minutes," he said casually. Too casually.
Giotto stepped forward. "I think Ill join you."
"Me, too," said a voice from behind Kirk.
The starship commander turned to face his executive officer. "Gary, I"
"No need to explain, Jim," Mitchell said with a grin. "I know you too well."
Kirk nodded and smiled. There was a throat cleared behind him, and he turned to see three more of his crew: Sulu, Kelso and Foster. All three had tricorders and lasers, and all three wore heavy duty field jackets. "Gentlemen, I see that were all of the same mind this morning."
"If you mean were going to take on that monster, Id say were all for it," answered Foster. From over his shoulder, he pulled out a Andorian-manufactured Mark II Disruptor rifle. Not exactly Starfleet issue, but an extremely effective weapon. The Andorians were a warrior race; they knew how to make effective weapons, very effective weapons.
Kirk looked at the bloodlust on Fosters face, and for a moment, considered ordering the security lieutenant to remain behind. But, no, he knew what it was that Foster was feeling...intimately. He felt it himself. This monster would be made to pay for the three lives it had taken.
"Lets move out. Tight formation. Foster, take the rear. Ill take the point."
"No, sir. Ill take the point," said Mitchell. "First Officers prerogative."
Kirk nodded in agreement. "All right, Gary. After you."
The approach to the rock-hewn temple was eerily quiet. Even on a dead planet such as this one, there were always sounds, either the wind blowing, the sand rustling, something, anything. But not this morning. The Shenandoahs officers had their weapons drawn, five lasers and one disruptor rifle, for what little good it would do, but they had to try something, anything, to stop the creature from killing again.
Kirk, Giotto and Sulu approached from the direction of sunrise. Mitchell, Foster and Kelso approached from the opposite direction. Each team crawled atop one of the crags that overlooked the temple. From their positions, they all could plainly see Qxl%, if that was even the things name, standing in the crystalliterally standing in the crystal, as though neither were solid, and yet both seemed to be.
Sulu whispered, "Captain, it seems to be solid if you look at it and the crystal gaseous or even some sort of holographic projection, if that were possible. But if you look at the crystal, then the...thing seems to be gaseous, or a projection of some sort."
Sulus eyes narrowed. "I think its extradimensional, existing in this plane only as it needs to. That would explain why the laser beams passed right through it."
"So its out of phase?" asked Kirk.
The astrophysicist nodded. "Yes, sir. I believe it is. And this temple may exist in our plane, appearing as something right out of ancient Great Britain, but be something completely different in its plane."
"Like equipment designed to create a warp dampening field?"
Sulu agreed, "Its possible. The only problem is that our weapons at present are not extradimensional. The new phasers weve all heard so much about might be more effective as they concentrate lasers using a phase shift, but all we have are these old laser carbines." He held the bulky weapon as though it were useless.
"What about the photon grenades?" asked Security Officer Giotto.
The young ensign from the sciences section shook his head. "We might destroy the stone temple, but wed have no effect any the extradimensional mechanisms, even assuming they exist. For all we know, perhaps Qxl% is using some sort of mental power to prevent us from escaping."
Kirk considered Sulus words. "Ill take it under advisement." He glanced back down into the center of the temple and at the crystal. "Now that presents a greater problem."
The entity had vanished completely.
Mitchell from twenty meters away had noticed it, too. "Jim, I think were in trouble!"
There was a sudden screaming, as Qxl% was dragging a wildly thrashing Ensign Jonathan Weight into the arena. It was as though the shuttle pilot couldnt even land a punch on the shadowy figure that held him securely with its intangible grasp.
Kirk stood up, laser pistol at the ready. "Stop where you are!" The others stood and took aim with their weapons as well.
It ignored them completely and placed Weight at a pillar where the young man, like the others before him, was reduced into a constituent elemental slime.
"Damn you!" Kirk screamed in anger. "Fire!" he ordered.
Five lasers and a single disruptor beam struck the thing in the chest, the head, the abdomen. It was a complete waste of energy.
"Maintain firing rate!" Kirk called over the whine of the energy weapons.
Three full minutes later, all the weapons energy cells were exhausted, and the...nothingness...was unharmed. It stood atop the crystal and seemed to look at Kirk.
It spoke. "I need more."
The captain was unafraid for his own life. "How much more?"
Suddenly, Qxl% was behind Mitchell, Kelso and Foster.
"Gary, look out!"
Foster turned and gave a drop kick at the...things head. He stuck as though held by a tractor beam. "Oh, shit!" said the burly security chief. "Oh, God!" Foster swung at it as hard as he could, but his arm was held as well. "Oh, God! Oh, GOD!"
Mitchell and Kelso tried to put themselves between the creature and the temple, but it walked right through them. They grabbed Fosters arms, but an electrical jolt sent them flying backwards.
"Oh, GOD, NO!!!"
Qxl% forced the security chief against the last obelisk, and Kirk watched in horror as his chief security officer melted before his eyes, screaming in the most abject agony one could ever imagine. Unmoved by the pain it had caused, the shadowy form moved to the center of the crystal and again seemed to reside within it and without it. The five obelisks glowed, and five beams of light shot into five facets of the crystal.
And the crystal and Qxl% were gone.
It was the worst day of James Kirks young career.
Captains Log, Stardate 0912.3
U.S.S. Shenandoah, NCC-571
Commander James T. Kirk, recording
Following the deaths of five of my crew, Qxl% and the crystal which seemed to be the center of his power, disappeared completely. Two days later, the solar flare had dissipated, and the Shenandoah returned to orbit. The three shuttles returned to the ship with all survivors aboard. From orbit, we have thoroughly searched the planet with our sensors but have found nothing of Qxl%, nothing of the crystal, and aside from the remains of his victims in the rock-hewn temple, no trace that he was ever there.
The ships warp drive is now operational, and Chief Engineer Samson reports we are ready to leave orbit. First Officer Mitchell has suggested two more days searching is in order, if not to actually expect to find Qxl% and extract revenge, then at least for the crew which seems to be disinclined to give up the search for revenge. I have, however, decided against this course of action. I have no doubt from what I witnessed that should Qxl% return, we would be as helpless as before, and I have no desire to lose any more of my crew to this enemy.
But I make this promise: one day, I will see to it that Qxl% pays dearly for the deaths of my crew with every resource that I can muster.
Please note: This story continues in Spider's Lair 2, a Captain Sulu story by Randy Landers.
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