Mark C. Henrie
The scene was fantastic.
In the center of the viewscreen, its intensity reduced to tolerable levels by the screen's automatic light dampeners was the great star Antares, thousands of times the size of the puny Sol. Dancing around the giant at distances' of one hundred thousand to five hundred thousand megameters were the flaming bright clouds of ion storms, one of the oldest and most dangerous scourges of spacefarers throughout history, Circling the red star at distances of three hundred thousand to six hundred thousand megameters was an asteroid belt unequaled in the known galaxy. It was a menacing maze of meteoroids of all sizes, forever shifting, colliding, deadly. Throughout this section of the system were peppered other unexpected dangers--magnetic anomalies, hard radiation, a thousand different deaths. Only at a distance of six hundred-twenty thousand megameters was the orbit of the safe haven, Antares IX, the only inhabited planet in the system and a Federation member. All of these fantastic sights as well as the three gas giants, Antares III, V, and VI were there on the viewscreen, silently challenging all comers. This was the fabled Antares Maelstrom, and the midshipmen marveled at the task before them.
"What do you think of it, Jim?" a two meter tall Andorian asked his blond, ruggedly handsome companion from Terra.
"I don't know, Thrax," Midshipman First Class James Tiberius Kirk responded to Thrax K'al Kevaran's question with uncertainty as he bit his lower lip dubiously. "This looks tougher than it did in simulation, dangerous, too. " Suddenly, his eyes gleamed brightly and he turned to his companion with a boyish smile. "But, then, that's what Starfleet is all about, right?"
"Right," Thrax agreed with the painful Andorian attempt at a smile, an attempt which reminded Kirk of a predatory animal baring its fangs before the kill.
In another part of the room, other midshipmen were sizing up the Maelstrom as well. One of them was a tall, slim Vulcan, older than his fellow midshipmen both by virtue of his Vulcan physiology and his late decision to abandon the Vulcan Science Academy for Starfleet and the stars. For him, the four year program of Starfleet Academy had been one of the most difficult times of his young life--the sole Vulcan castaway in a sea of aliens, none of whom seemed even to approach logic. More disturbing than this, however, was the storm-tossed sea of emotion which constantly inundated the halls of the Academy. Most disturbing of all was the emotion he sometimes felt swelling in his own breast, a disgrace to his Vulcan heritage.
"What do you think of it, Spock?" a slender and attractive Terran female asked this stone statue whose eyes were intent on the screen of the outpost briefing room.
"It does appear to be a difficult exercise, Lystra," the young Vulcan responded, tainting his voice with feigned emotion. He had learned early that speaking with the cold computer-like voice normally used by Vulcans often irritated his fellow midshipmen. For the sake of maximum efficiency in operations and relationships, he effected this change in his habits. "But we are ready. And I have calculated that we have fully sixty-eight percent probability of winning this race."
Davis smiled. "Only sixty-eight percent, Spock?" she queried playfully.
Throughout the room there were other murmurings of a similar nature from the rest of the competitors: a Tellarite, a couple of Centaurians, a Rigelian, an Antarean, Humans, a total of twelve competitors to man six craft. It was the culmination of a long eighteen months of preparation. Finally, Commodore Von Steuben entered stiffly from the corridor. All the midshipmen snapped to attention as the Commandant of Starfleet Academy proceeded to the podium. Observing him closely, Kirk was always impressed with the military bearing and confidence of the man.
"At ease," the Commandant said. He looked sternly into the eyes of the twelve midshipmen before continuing. "Here we are, at long last, at the final major exercise of your Academy experience. The Antares Two Million project began at the start of your senior year when you were selected by your peers as the twelve finest members of your class of seven hundred. At once you began work on your vessels, building spaceworthy crafts by hand and with only the minimum of help in the form of your 'pit crews.' The work you have shown, both in being selected and in the design and construction of your ships, is commendable in itself. Now we come to the great race, the senior exercise for you. The thousands of hours of work which have gone into your vessels and into the improvement of your minds and bodies will now pay off. You will test your crafts, and more importantly, you will test yourselves.
"Two million megameters await your conquest. Twelve 'gates' to pass through on the way to the finishing line of standard orbit around Antares Nine. It will be a hard race, and remember that the record time, established four years ago, is that of ninety-seven point ninety-seven eighty-six standard Earth hours. That's an average speed of more than twenty million kilometers per hour.
"The purpose of this race, as so many have questioned in the past, is to test the finest of each year's crop at the Academy in a real-life situation. I would remind you that in the eighteen years we have run this race, we have lost seven fine midshipmen, a terrible loss, but one required if we are to continue to provide Starfleet officers who can contribute a significant positive impact in our dealings with the unknowns of deep space. The reward for the winners of the contest is great: a commission as a full lieutenant for each member of the winning team. Even the finishers shall be commissioned as lieutenants, junior grade. None of you who survive this exercise shall be an ensign after commencement." At this, all in the room smiled to themselves. This was the cream of the crop of the Academy, and all were very ambitious people. Only Spock remained unmoved.
The Commandant, Commodore Von Steuben, finished. "Are there any questions?" His iron gaze, practiced from his early years at the German Space Preparatory Academy, shone around the room and bore down into the eyes of the midshipmen. There were no questions. "Very well, then. The race commences at oh-eight hundred hours tomorrow. I wish you the best of luck, and more importantly, the best of judgment."
With that, the Commandant stepped down from the podium, momentarily scanned the viewscreen's image of the awesome Maelstrom, then moved purposefully out the door and down the hall to his temporary office. As he left, some of the twenty-four "pit crew" members came in to talk with their fellow midshipmen who were to pilot the crafts. These midshipmen were hand-selected by the twelve pilots to help build the individual racing vessels and to see that they were at one hundred percent ability at launch time. They were, in essence, the "pit crew," except that once launched, there were no pit stops in space.
The conversations that went on throughout the briefing room were much the same.
"What's the efficiency rating on the engine now?"
"Is the onboard computer problem fixed?"
"Did you run that check on the structural integrity?"
A thousand questions and their answers, all necessary for the potentially deadly game.
Later that night, as the clock showed nearly 2300 hours, Midshipmen First Class Kirk who had been tossing and turning for hours, unable to even feel weary, roused himself, dressed, and moved silently through the dimmed corridors of the outpost to the hangar bay which housed his and Thrax's ship, the Victory, named in honor of the flagship of Earth's Admiral Nelson and one of the most renowned ships of Andor's legends. As Kirk opened the door, he was greeted by the noise of a laser drill, and the whir of diagnostic computers. Looking down beneath the craft's five kilotons (the maximum mass a vessel in the race could boast), he found Thrax busily adding another fractional percentage of strength to the hull of the Victory.
"Hi, Jim," Thrax smiled, this time emanating less of a predatory feeling. "I guess you couldn't sleep either, huh?"
"You're right there, Thrax," Kirk replied. "How does the lady look down there?" he asked in reference to the vessel.
"She looks good, Jim. Real good. Why don't you grab yourself some tools and tune her up a bit? I've rigged some last minute selective deflectors up there so we might be able to ward off the big stuff in the belt without having to dodge it."
"Great idea," Kirk interjected with admiration for his partner's technical ability. Thrax would go far. Not only was he a superb tactician, but his mechanical ability was also sometimes a little short of astounding. "I was thinking that maybe I should take a look at the baffle plates. One small rupture there and we could be leaking charged particles like a sieve." The Andorian nodded in agreement, and Kirk set about methodically sweeping the protective plates of the ion engine with the appropriate tools. Kirk had never enjoyed this work very much. He greatly preferred the feeling of space on the other side of the bulkhead, of hydrogen gas atoms glancing off the forward edge of a ship at warp speeds, and, most of all, the knowledge that he and his decisions caused the beautiful bulk of a spacecraft to go where he willed it, to roam among the stars. Kirk was a romantic.
After several minutes of silence, Kirk decided to strike up some conversation with his diligent friend from another world. "Thrax?" he asked tentatively and proceeded only when the Andorian had nodded his antennaed head in acknowledgment. "Does your planet have stories about sailors? About the salt air and the endless sea? About storms and hanging on against the battering waves?"
Thrax could see the starry look in his friend's eyes. Then the blue-skinned alien blinked his cold eyes twice before attempting an answer. He considered for a moment, put down his tools, thought some more, then said, "No, Jim, not really. " He paused again, uncertain. "We Andorians have never been much for the sea-faring life. We don't have saltwater oceans like you, and you're seldom, if ever, out of sight of land for more than a day's travel. " He paused again, then had an idea. "Jim, you're an incurable romantic, I know it. Well, we've called our ship the Victory mostly in reverence for Nelson's Victory. The Victory of the tale of Kav'Veraza was something akin to a Terran Roman bireme. It wasn't a glorious ship, only a means of transportation. I've seen pictures of Nelson's Victory, Jim, and of the great sailing ships of Earth's eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were magnificent, I'm sure, but we Andorians have a completely different culture, one I don't think you could comprehend, just as I cannot really comprehend the majesty and wonder you must feel when you see any sailing ship."
The Andorian pulled a sliver-like piece of metal out from beneath his tunic. "This is a K'frez, one of the ceremonial instruments given every Andorian boy when he reaches the age of seven. I know you've seen them before, even seen mine before, as each one is slightly different. For us Andorians, this has all the majesty, mystery and wonder of a clipper chip, or Nelson's Victory."
Thrax fondled the ornately decorated piece of metal tenderly. It was smooth, and its high ornamentation did not detract from the simple and exquisite lines of its form. Kirk could appreciate its beauty on an aesthetic level, but he could not feel as Thrax felt. Suddenly, Thrax threw the K'Frez swiftly with a sweeping motion of his left arm. It struck a nearby bulkhead and imbedded itself deeply. "Remember, Jim, that we Andorians have the Great War in our past. Over a period of more than ten thousand years, we fought a genocidal war with a race more advanced than we were. While that's a hundred thousand years in the past, the ways of the warrior are as magnificent as the salt seas of Earth--for an Andorian. Do you understand, Jim?"
Kirk nodded his acknowledgment, though he really didn't understand Thrax's alien traditions at all. He had barely made any attempt at understanding the nuances of the non-Human cultures--the brash confrontment of the Tellarites, the stoic logic of the Vulcans, the war-like aggressiveness of the Andorians--all remained a mystery to this young man from Iowa. Content to leave it at that, as Thrax returned to his work, Kirk got up, retrieved the K'Frez from the wall after some difficulty, and then also became absorbed in his work. Long into the night, the bay echoed with the sounds of tools and tricorders as the midshipmen worked vigorously in preparation for the race.
In another part of the outpost, in the privacy of the dorm rooms, Spock sat stiffly in the darkness, the only light in the room coming from a centuries old peat-burning Vulcan meditation lamp. A faint scent permeated the room from the burning peat and the incense which burned with it. It was a weak scent, but strangely powerful. In it was mingled Vulcan itself, the unbearable heat and the thin, withering air, the level desert wastelands and the high volcanic mountain chains, the vicious savagery and the stoic ways of Surak. It was all there in the darkness of the room with a lone Vulcan and his lantern.
Slowly, as minutes became hours and eternity remained unchanging, Spock's mind reached out for solace amid the fury of the universe. With mathematical precision, he assumed an almost calculated rapport with his surroundings. Rapport with his room, his partner, Lystra Davis, his ship, the Sandrak, the outpost, an outreach into the infinity of space. Only for Spock, the finality of the total outreach, the oneness with the universe which was his discipline's goal, eluded every attempt. And the reason lay quite simply in the undeniable emotion which kindled like a cancer in the half Vulcan's soul. Still, while the oneness eluded him as it always did, Spock felt that with the heightened awareness the discipline was still able to yield to the practitioner. Even with the intrusion of his mother's heretic heritage, he was able to reach above time to the beyond-state of S'Thaupi. As the body of Spock sat still stiffly, eyes riveted to the low frame of the lamp, the mind of Spock refreshed itself in a timeless contemplation of logic and The Order.
After more hours and an eternity, Spock returned to time and stared at the V'Kree'Zals meditation lamp as he summoned his inner strength for the struggle ahead. Finally, his meditation complete, he dismounted the stiff, meagerly-cushioned stool he used and lay down in his cot. As he drifted to sleep, he noticed the tossing and turning of Davis in the other cot and knew that for all his competitors, this would be a troublesome night, one without peace. Then he mused to himself that such a state might not be different from every night of the half-Vulcan's existence.
The morning finally arrived. At 0500 hours, James Kirk was up and in the shower, as Thrax had been only moments earlier. After dressing, the two raced for the hangar bay to run last minute checks and tuning on the Victory. This, too, was part of the Antares Two Million exercise, the lack of sufficient time to fully prepare, even after an eighteen month preparation, the development of the intuitive ability to "know" certain events before they happened and therefore to prepare for them and not the others of less importance. This was one of the most important qualities necessary for command in Starfleet, and this race was designed to embed such abilities deep into the souls of the participants.
As Kirk and Thrax reached the hangar bay and their ship, they were greeted not only by the four members of their pit crew who were already diligently at work on some final preparations, but also by the smiling face of Montgomery Scott, formerly the youngest engineering instructor at the Academy and the engineering advisor of the Antares Project. "Greetings, lads," the Scotsman beamed as he saw Thrax and Kirk arriving at the hangar bay. "Ye've got a fine specimen of a ship, there, lads, an' I've come to wish ye the best o'luck." The Scot was now Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
"Why, thanks, Professor," Thrax and Kirk said in unison. "How do you like our 'bairns'?" Kirk continued coyly.
"They're splendid, lad," Scott replied. "Looks te be a sound design all the way around, and I guess ye know by now that ye've got the finest engine of the lot here, which is always worth a lot. Well, I've got to be inspectin' the rest of the ships, so I'll see ye at the finish line. Be careful, lads, an' mind yerselves." The engineer turned and strolled out of the bay to continue his inspection in the next bay. As he left, the workers, now numbering six with the inclusion of Kirk and Thrax, began to preflight the Victory with lightning speed. It was a terrible commotion, with questions, answers and commands being shouted time and again and tools flying all over the ship. The race would begin in less than an hour and every member of the crew knew it fully.
In another bay, the Sandrak rested serenely on her support pylons. Beneath her worked six people, each silent and intent on his work. The presence of Spock always seemed to subdue even the most noisome of midshipmen, and with the added pressure of the upcoming race, sweat was dropping from the brows of the pit crew. Even Spock and Davis found themselves hard-pressed to finish work on the portions of the ship they had deliberately left untouched until today. Still, work continued methodically in a very Vulcan manner, and when the initial warning siren rang in their ears, the ship was essentially ready for the start. Davis and Spock stepped back to appreciate the Sandrak's clean lines with the rest of their pit crew. It was a beautiful ship, surely the most aesthetically pleasing in the race.
Spock had made the initial designs with Lystra Davis in the first month of his junior year, and he had not deviated once. While others of the competitors soon saw flaws in their plans which required some form of repair, Spock's design had been essentially flawless. In comparison, the Phoenix III, the ship of the Tellarite midshipman, Brachi, and his partner, the Antarean midshipman, D'Hortaf kem G'valfeen, looked like a loose pile of nuts and bolts. Even when Montgomery Scott had come to inspect the Sandrak he had been impressed by her beauty. While he disapproved of Spock's decision to install a smaller-than-usual ion engine, he had to admit that the Sandrak was the most beautiful craft ever designed for The Two Million.
Soon the preliminaries were over, and the crews cleared the bay, their purpose over for the present until the ships returned to their resting places in something over a week perhaps. As the pilots took their places tightly locked into their cockpits, the tension built rapidly.
Kirk and Thrax eyed the cockpit compartment, a room roughly five meters wide and seven long. At the front of the room was the main display screen, now partially obscured by the containers of foodstuffs they had stored there for the flight. To either side of the room was a computer/sensor/command terminal which was vital to the efficient operation of the ship with any chance for a successful race. To the back of the room was the lone bunk for their shared use as well as the sanitary facilities. As one person would always be awake and on watch, only the single bunk was necessary. In the center of the room, however, was Kirk's pride and joy, a manual operational control system unique in the history of the race. It somewhat resembled a large gyroscope, but actually it was an ingenious combination of two great steering wheels reminiscent of the sailing ships of old. The two locked together in a peculiar arrangement, but this was necessary for handling the craft in three dimensions. Kirk petted the steering wheel fondly and felt at home.
In the Sandrak, Lystra Davis and Spock set about their preparations for launch at once. The cockpit of the Sandrak was somewhat different from Kirk's and Thrax's ship. Neatly in front of the six by eight meter room was a large, high quality display screen. Directly in front of the screen were the two manual control stations. Beside each of these were the computer control stations. In the center of the room, just before the personal compartment in the rear was an extra station, built to accommodate the extremely powerful sensors Spock had equipped the Sandrak with. In all fairness, the sensor idea had been Davis', and Spock had agreed with her wholeheartedly when he heard her argument. That had been the incident which had sealed the partners' friendship. Now they were a real team tempered with almost a hundred hours of simulation experience together, and they were ready.
Slowly, the tractor beams and antigrav units of the hangar bays worked together to pull the ships into their starting position well away from the fleet notables who had gathered to view the exercise and were watching tensely as the countdown commenced. As the numbers inched by, pressure built on each vessel as they drifted in space and prepared their ion engines for the task ahead. After what seemed like hours, the last ten digits had been reached.
10--9--Kirk frantically checked the ion status of the engines, priming them for immediate takeoff. --8--7--6--Thrax carefully and deliberately worked to lock in the bearing for their initial stretch, a relatively clear area of space for about ten million kilometers. --5--4--Lystra Davis scanned over the controls at her station on the Sandrak; she and Spock were ready. --3--2--Spock glowered into the powerful sensor station in the center-aft portion of the cockpit, assessing their route for the next fifteen million kilometers, satisfied with his calculations. --1--Six hands in six vessels pressed the launch device for their respective crafts. --0--The eighteenth Antares Two Million began.
Scott and Von Steuben watched with interest from the observation deck of the outpost. All six ships accelerated rapidly, their ion engines spewing power from the nacelles. As they watched and the minutes slipped by, they could clearly see the Victory take an early lead and the Sandrak lose ground rapidly. It was as Scott had predicted, and he could almost see the hundred credits from his bets coming in already.
"Look at that, Thrax," Kirk exclaimed to his partner. "We're already in the lead, four hundred kilometers beyond the nearest rival!"
Thrax smiled. Both of the two pilots were riveted in their seats by the intense artificial gravity caused by the acceleration, nearly 1400 G's. To save weight for their extra-powerful ion engine, they had sacrificed the luxury of a completely sufficient inertial dampener. The one that they did have would do the job when they reached cruising velocity, but right now they were building speed too fast for it to work effectively. Rigidly, they sat in their cushioned chairs trying their best to weather the four G's built against them. Kirk hissed through his clenched teeth how happy he would be when they had reached their terminal velocity in a little over two hours.
On the Sandrak, Davis and Spock sat at their stations comfortably. Their inertial dampener was proving sufficient for the task, thought they were accelerating at a reduced rate from the rest of the vessels. Spock silently made notes of his sensor observations while Davis kept a watchful eye on the readings at the computer command console. They were losing distance rapidly. Soon they would be more than five thousand kilometers behind Kirk and Thrax's Victory. Neither of the teammates minded, though, for their plans had called for a great loss of distance in the early running and in all of the relatively clear areas of space. In the belt and among the ion storms, they hoped to make up this distance and eventually take an even more commanding lead.
There were four ships stretched out between the Victory and the trailing Sandrak, the Phoenix III followed by the Gorgon followed by the Stellax followed by the Raven. They were like a string, all connected by the whispery ion trails left by their powerful engines. And the hours passed.
At the end of the fifth hour, the ships were just beginning to enter the thick of the asteroid belt, and tensions on each ship mounted again as they saw the hurling meteoroids of the belt appear on their screens. "Quick!" Kirk shouted to Thrax who had been preparing some navigational calculations for the second gate (they had already passed through the first one). "Get that selective deflector going!"
Thrax looked up from his work, saw the rocks drifting about on the viewscreen, and jumped across the room in a fluid leap to land at the console with the activator for the selective deflectors. Immediately they heard the slight hum of the anti-tractor beam deflecting some of the more dangerous missiles surrounding them. Kirk was able to keep the Victory steered straight through the belt, a feat the other competitors could not hope to match. Both Kirk and Thrax felt even more confident than before as they saw their lead increase over the others. "Hey, Thrax," Kirk mentioned as an aside, "I can't even pick up the Sandrak on the sensors any more. They're completely out of our range!" Both Kirk and Thrax laughed a happy joyous laugh together as Kirk jolted slightly from the impact of a small meteor against the deflector shielding of the hull.
"Now it's time for our move," Davis announced to Spock as their vessel approached the densest part of the belt.
"Indeed," Spock replied. "With our sensor readings and computer analysis, I've found a relatively clear route through the belt which should require only one evasive maneuver. Lay in these coordinates... " And Spock read off to his partner the bearing he and the computer had devised to take them through the belt without much difficulty. The Vulcan looked into the sensor display and saw the other craft dodging large asteroids as they made their way through the belt by little leaps and jumps. He looked with particular note at the Phoenix III which had dropped to fifth place and whose velocity was down to less than ten million kilometers per hour. In minutes, the Sandrakwould overtake her. Spock's only concern was the Victory of the Terran Kirk and the Andorian Thrax. It seemed to be able to ward off the larger chunks of asteroid and maintain its speed. He directed his sensors in a tight scan of the Victory and saw that it was powering its deflectors and life-support functions not with its ion power tapped from the engines, but rather with a tiny fusion reactor located directly behind the bridge compartment. Very clever, Spock mused to himself, but predictable--Andorians had always led the Federation in fusion technology.
"Lystra," he brought his companion out of her vigil at the computer console. "We may have encountered a difficulty. The Victory is navigating the belt as easily as we and at a greater speed. They seem to have anti-tractor beams powered by an independent fusion reactor. Unless we deviate from our plan of attack, I have calculated that we cannot possibly surpass the performance of their ship."
The two looked at each other blankly. Davis' eyes shone with disappointment and dismay. "Kirk," she said aloud.
"Yes, Midshipmen Kirk and Thrax," Spock replied.
Davis smiled. "It would be Jim Kirk of all people to thwart us, Spock."
"I wasn't aware of your relationship with Mister Kirk," Spock stated with a raised eyebrow.
"We had an...encounter or two...during our freshman year. But then again, I'd guess just about every Terran female at the Academy had a similar encounter with Jim Kirk. He's quite something, Kirk," Davis finished with a strange look in her eye which Spock took to be frustrated love mixed with jealousy and longing.
"This development is remarkable," Spock announced, snapping Davis from her wandering. "But the race is far from over just yet. I think perhaps you should get some rest now in preparation for your watch. I'll handle things here. It will only be routine."
Davis looked stubborn, not wanting to leave the bridge for a moment.
"It would be best that you...sleep on this random factor we had not calculated... and try to devise a manner of defeating the Victory...and Kirk," Spock tried to persuade her.
Davis thought for a moment, considered that the next few hours would be routine, and decided that sleep might not be a bad idea. "All right, Spock. You win. I'll take a catnap, but wake me if we run into difficulty."
"I could do no less. To operate this ship alone during a period of difficulty would be terribly illogical."
Content with his answer, Davis retired to the small, enclosed cot at the rear of the cabin and satisfied herself with memories of Kirk and her wild freshman year at the Academy. Then she snapped herself out of such unproductive thought and began to think of a way of beating the seemingly indefatigable Kirk. In a few minutes, she was fast asleep and dreaming a chaotic dream in which she tried by every method she knew to defeat her former lover.
"Jim!" The cry rang through the cabin of the Victory, a throaty cry from the blue-skinned Thrax. Kirk flung himself from his cot and was instantly thrown to the floor by a jolt. The Victory lurched momentarily, and the lighting in the cockpit dimmed.
"What is it?" Kirk asked the darkness as he got to his feet uncertainly. The artificial gravity had stopped functioning.
"We've been caught in a fast-moving ion storm," came the reply from the darkness before the ship was rocked again, flinging Kirk and Thrax to the floor once more. "She's a bad one, too. "
Suddenly the lights came on again, and Kirk saw Thrax working frantically beneath one of the computer consoles to bring power back to the rest of the ship. Kirk rushed to the navigational terminal and checked their coordinates. "We've been thrown off course. We've lost five thousand kilometers already."
The ship lurched again, and Kirk threw himself to the steering wheel for support. "I'm switching to manual," he told Thrax as he threw the connection switch and held tightly as the wheels lashed out quickly with another lurch of the ship. Carefully and with every ounce of his strength, Kirk pulled at the wheels to bring them back to course. Thrax meanwhile busied himself with bringing the ion engines back up to full power so that Kirk's efforts would be more effectual. Seconds became minutes, and Kirk was periodically pulled at and thrown by the wheels as he held their ship to the corrective course plans.
"Whew," Thrax let the air whistle between his fangs. "That was a close one, Jim. What's our status now, race-wise?"
Kirk looked into their sensor display before commenting. "Our lead over the number two ship has slipped to twelve thousand kilometers, but...the number two ship is the Sandrak!"
Kirk couldn't believe his eyes. From sixth to second in a matter of hours. "That's unbelievable! And they are a good seven thousand kilometers ahead of the Gorgon! We'd better keep an eye on them. "
Kirk's words would prove to be prophetic.
Something more than twenty hours had passed since the start of the race.
Davis sat quietly at the command console of the Sandrak, keeping watch over the pre-set course which would take the Vulcan and the Terran to the fourth gate in about an hour. It was her watch, and Spock was apparently sleeping soundly in the rear compartment. With the superb sensor and computer power in their hands, they had managed a flawless run through the belt and past the ion storms. The gates so far had only helped the Sandrak in her quest for the first position in the race as at each one the Victory found it necessary to slow somewhat for safe passage.
Now came the infamous Gate Four. Davis peered into the viewscreen and cross-circuited with the sensor display to make the gate visible. There it was the most challenging of the gates. Instead of four satellite buoys to mark the gate, this one had only two, and the laser beams which formed the gate showed that the competitors could choose to travel within a very large area. The trick, of course, was that the gate rested "on top" of one of the three gas giants of the system, and the best, shortest route through the gate was at the giant's surface, an impossibility. The vessels would attempt the lowest passage possible, but because of the planet's immense gravity and magnetic field, it was a very hazardous procedure.
Suddenly, she was tapped on the shoulder by the cold green-tinted hand of Spock. "Good morning, Spock," Davis greeted her co-pilot.
Spock did not return the greeting. "I think I may have devised a plan which will enable us to take the lead from the Victory." Davis' eyes blazed, and Spock laid out his plan, which would be implemented at the sixth gate.
Kirk sat squarely at the computer command console. He was looking at the wheel of the manual control and longed for an excuse to use it. He had never felt more alive than the fifteen minutes of the ion storm when he pitted his body, his reflexes, against the forces of nature. It was wonderful. But Kirk pulled himself away from his wanderings. The fourth gate was only minutes ahead, and he had to wake Thrax so that they would be ready for any possible error.
Thrax, however, had gotten up on his own and made his way to his station to prepare for the most dangerous part of the voyage so far. The Victory was fully twenty million kilometers ahead of the Sandrak, but neither Kirk nor Thrax trusted that lead against the mind of the Vulcan coupled with what Kirk called the "irrepressible will" of Lystra Davis.
"How do things look?" Thrax asked Kirk.
"Not bad. That course you laid in appears to be taking us right to the very edge of the danger zone, but not into it. Computers have detected no discernable difference from our pre-ordained safe course."
"Good," Thrax smiled.
"We should be entering the critical period in thirty seconds," Kirk said as the atmosphere of the cabin thickened with tension.
The seconds slipped by, and soon they were barely skimming the atmosphere of the planet. Their velocity was proving enough to take them through the gate and around the planet without succumbing to the "gravity well." But then, without warning, the Victory lurched wildly, flinging the two men to the floor.
Thrax managed to pull himself into his chair first and gave a cry. "Magnetic anomaly! We're falling in!"
Kirk clenched his teeth and pulled himself up onto the wheel. "I'm going over to manual," he cried over the squeal of unevenly heating metal and straining reflective hull coating. "Give me full throttle."
The Andorian obeyed Kirk's shouted request, throwing the full power of the Victory's awesome engines behind Kirk's struggle to free their ship from the huge gravity potential of the now far-too-near planet. In less than a minute, their actions paid off as Kirk could feel the strain on his arms lessen and the ship return to normal control.
"I'm switching over to computer control," Kirk told Thrax reluctantly. "How do things look?"
Thrax remained silent a few moments, busily feeding new coordinates into the ship's flight computers. Then he turned to the other instruments on the console to answer Kirk's question. "It doesn't look very good. That extra power blast sapped our fuel reserve pretty low. Also, the engines are now down to ninety-three percent efficiency. We took a structural beating as well, but we've made it though the fourth gate, and so we should have pretty smooth sailing from here on. I don't think we lost too much distance on that little problem, only a hundred thousand kilometers or so, which we can easily make up with our engines. We've made it, Jim, so relax."
But Kirk couldn't relax. Not with the Vulcan and his former girlfriend on his tail. He still had a bad feeling that something would go wrong, that somehow they would not win this race. That feeling made Kirk extremely uneasy, and he went about repairing what he could of the ship's structure with a feeling of dread.
The Sandrak had reached the fourth gate now and was preparing for its own critical period. Spock had watched the drama of the Victory in his sensor display and knew that there was a magnetic disturbance at exactly the crucial point of the gate. Avoiding that, he and Davis had targeted their vessel only ten kilometers higher than Kirk and Thrax had gone. With this slight difference, the passage went smoothly, and the slingshot effect which Antares III provided for them increased their speed by almost a million kilometers per hour. Things were looking brighter for this team since the Victory's difficulty had prevented it from fully utilizing the boost of the slingshot.
"Look, Spock," Davis announced with glee. "We're gaining on them. We should be able to catch up in the next layer of ion storms and then pass them out through the sixth gate."
"Are you sure you want to risk my plan for the sixth gate?" the Vulcan asked warily. "It will be very dangerous. "
"I know, Spock, but it's the only possibility we have of winning if they don't run into any more troubles with the Victory. We can't gamble on Kirk and Thrax messing up. We've got to gamble on us doing something right."
Spock raised an eyebrow at the passion in the Terran's voice. She was as much a competitor as any in the race, and just how deeply her feelings had run Spock could not have guessed until that moment. "Very well, in another hour we face the fifth gate, and then we make preparations for the sixth."
Davis smiled a hungry smile, then voluntarily went to take a nap in preparation for the trial of the sixth gate.
The next hour passed quickly and gave both Kirk and Thrax an uneasy feeling. Because of the magnetic anomaly at the fourth gate, the Sandrak was rapidly gaining on the Victory. Gate Five was only minutes ahead, but it was shrouded in ion storms, which didn't sit well with either pilot of the lead ship. It had been a game of cat and mouse for an hour, the Victory not daring to use up its last fuel reserves while the Sandrak steadily increased its speed, making its move to take the lead away from Kirk and Thrax.
Thrax sat eyeing the gate ahead while Kirk's thoughts wandered, not knowing how to prevent the Sandrak from overtaking them. He could not guess their plans, for they could not keep up their present speed indefinitely, and it would take precious fuel reserves for them to decelerate for Gates Eight through Eleven which were on the far side of the star Antares in its asteroid belt again. Finally, as they neared the ion storms, Kirk decided he'd try drastic measures.
Before he knew what was going on, Thrax heard Kirk saying, "This is James T. Kirk of the Victory hailing the Sandrak. Come in Sandrak."
"What are you doing, Jim?" Thrax asked bewildered.
"Just let's see what happens," Kirk reassured his partner. Then the face of Lystra Davis appeared on the screen.
"Hello, Kirk," was Davis' opening. "Are you having difficulty? Do you need assistance?"
"Well, no," was Kirk's considered reply. "I know you won't believe I just used the radio for an idle chat, so I'll get right down to it. What do you think you're doing accelerating like this? You can't have that great a fuel reserve."
The tone of Lystra Davis' voice sounded quite satisfied with Kirk's answer. He was obviously worried about their move. "Oh, I don't know about that, Kirk," Davis answered indifferently. "I guess we'll just have to see. Sandrak out."
Kirk gnashed his teeth. This got them nowhere. Very well, they'd wait and see what their opponents were up to. "All right, Thrax, let's get through this gate. " The operation went relatively smoothly. With some fancy maneuvering by Kirk at the manual control, they had gotten through without encountering an ion storm. Unfortunately, their vectoring had reduced their speed, and the Sandrak had managed to lessen the distance between the ships. Things were not going well for the Human and his Andorian partner.
"Look, Spock!" Davis exclaimed with joy. "We're paralleling them now. Now! And we're only twenty minutes beyond the fifth gate!"
Spock remained intent on his sensors for a few more seconds before turning to Davis and announcing, "We are now in the lead. "
Davis gave a wild shout of glee, and she would swear later that she had seen the warmth of a smile in the Vulcan's cold eyes.
"They're past us, Jim," Thrax announced in dismay. "However I wouldn't throw in the towel just yet. We might be able to take them through Gate Six. What do you think?"
Kirk thought. Gate Six was at least four hours away. It was a small gate on the far side of the giant star. The trick with this gate was to get as close as possible to the star for the smallest possible distance without getting so close that your ship burned to a cinder. If the Victory could make a small enough circuit of the star, they could cut as much as 700,000 kilometers from the course. This would be extremely dangerous, but with the added power of their non-standard engines, it would propel them into a commanding lead by the time they had rounded the star.
"Let's do it," Kirk said. "Let's set our angle of approach so low we'll shoot beneath them by taking a more direct route. It's risky, but I think we can pull it off."
"Good," Thrax agreed. "I'm throttling up. " As he said that, Kirk could feel the deck rush out from beneath him and could feel the pressures of acceleration building. After two minutes at full throttle, they had matched the Sandrak's speed.
"Okay." Kirk got ready for the maneuver. "We don't want them to know how we're going to pull this little trick off, so we'll wait until they're committed to their approach before we start ours."
Thrax became intense, as was the custom of Andorians. His eyes became glassy, and his antennae became erect. He was in the Andorian "berserker" phase. His abilities were increased by as much as fifty percent, and he had a heightened awareness of his surroundings. He would act with flawless precision as long as he remained in control of the phase. In times past, the Andorians had used this physiological ability to make them ruthless at hand-to-hand combat, something they still sometimes displayed. Now, however, Thrax would use it merely to run a race.
Suddenly, Kirk was caught unaware. The Sandrak was making its move--by diving in at a lower approach angle than even Kirk had plotted. Thrax grunted, and Kirk gasped. It seemed almost suicide to try something so stupid as that. The gravity could be controlled, but the heat could not. Finally managing to disregard this new development, Kirk stated, "Execute," and the Victory swooped into a low approach angle as well, however not as low as that of the other ship.
With Thrax in his berserker phase, Kirk felt alone. He knew that Thrax would not speak to him as long as he remained in the phase, and since Thrax was a perfect sailor in his present state, Kirk would not rouse him. This development, however, was very disturbing. Now, instead of the Victory catching and passing the Sandrak through Gates Six and Seven, the Sandrak would merely extend its lead. The headache which had built for more than a day reached fruition and the analgesic Kirk got from the medikit didn't help. Kirk perched himself before the main viewing screen and watched as each minute passed and the Sandrak widened its lead.
In the lead ship, Davis shouted with glee. "Look, Spock," she said with excitement and joy. "We've done it! We're going to win." Spock, however, saw that Kirk's ship was also banking for a low run to the sixth gate, so he was not yet ready to proclaim victory.
"Let's first get past this critical period, Lystra. You've got to bundle yourself into the rescue capsule with full padding. The temperature in here is already thirty-nine degrees Centigrade and rising. Within the hour, it will be forty-five degrees. You must protect yourself."
Davis reluctantly agreed. She didn't enjoy the prospect of being trapped and helpless inside the self-contained space rescue pod which the race's regulations required each craft to contain, however, she knew that the temperatures inside their ship would rise as high as fifty and sixty degrees during close passage to Antares, and these temperatures were intolerable for Humans. Spock would be able to function in the hot climate, but, in a matter of minutes, a Human would be incapacitated by the heat.
In a few minutes, Spock had helped her into the capsule and sealed it. The race continued, and Spock sat gazing at the sensor displays, making sure that their precarious position was not rendered more dangerous by the unknown.
Minutes stretched into hours, and Kirk became more dismayed than before. The Sandrak had managed to build an almost insurmountable lead. The heat in the cockpit of the Victory was becoming uncomfortable, just to add to Kirk's irritation. "I think I'll channel more power into the deflectors, Thrax." Kirk said to the intent figure of the Andorian huddled over the computer console. Thrax, Kirk was certain, did not mind the heat. Andor was often hotter even than Vulcan, so Thrax was at home in the higher temperatures. Just as Kirk was diverting more power to the deflectors, the idea hit him. It was simple! Their independent fusion reactor would enable them to power their deflectors to an even higher degree. With that done, they could approach even closer to the red star than even the Sandrak dared. Kirk instantly set about increasing the rate of the fusion reaction in their generator. The extra power was immediately channeled into the deflectors. Then he and Thrax angled their ship into an approach so low, no other craft its size could have attempted it. In minutes, the ship was so close to Antares that were it not for the added deflector power, the Victory would have been a blackened cinder in a moment. So great was the power from the fusion reactor that Kirk and Thrax managed to override the safeties and channel the excess power of the reaction into the ion engines. The ship accelerated, and the race was resumed. It was no longer a foregone conclusion.
Spock was alarmed to see the maneuvers of the Victory to his rear. Already, the Antares Two Million had become a two ship race as the other four competitors were millions of kilometers to the rear. Spock, however, had not anticipated such power from the small fusion plant. With the added screening and the increased speed, the Victory would pass the Sandrak within the hour. And they had not yet reached the crucial point where they passed closest to the intense heat of Antares. Spock considered for a moment, then angled his craft as well, descending lower toward the great ball of fusion fire. Soon enough, the temperature in the Sandrak had reached seventy degrees, and it was hot even for the Vulcan. Inside, the protection of the rescue pod, Lystra Davis could feel the angling of the Sandrak and knew that Kirk had tried something. Even inside the protection of her capsule, Davis could feel the heat building up.
Only moments after Spock had lowered his angle, however, the small ship was rocked violently with a searing burst of hard radiation, a "fire" which ran through every circuit in the ship. An unanticipated solar flare had erupted on Antares, nearly destroying Spock's ship with its fury. When Spock managed to pull his injured body into the command chair, he began to realize how bad their situation was. The boards were completely dark, the systems in the ship fried except for the triple-protected life support which was borderline, nevertheless. The Sandrak was careening through space out of control. Worse, Spock knew that in less than an hour, the body of a prominence which usually accompanied such a powerful flare would consume the ship like a corpse on a funeral bier. He would have to consider that later, however, for the lack of deflector power had left the ship vulnerable to the heat. It was 87 degrees Celsius already, and the temperature was rising quickly.
Kirk saw the intense heat of the flare register on his sensors. The stream of radiation flashed right through the section of space where the Sandrak was sailing. Good, thought Kirk, that should slow them down. But when he focused his sensors on the lead craft, other instincts than the will to win took over. He saw that it was dead in space, and knowing that the prominence would soon devour the helpless ship and its precious cargo of life, Kirk acted at once.
The Vulcan worked frantically trying to reestablish some form of protection for the exposed Sandrak. The heat was building rapidly, and sweat dripped from the Vulcan's brow. Inside the rescue capsule, Davis had already fainted from the heat. Finally, making a shaky connection from his engines to the deflectors, Spock found some protection against the heat. The situation stabilized, if only for the moment. Now all he could do was wait for the end, for a cursory examination of the radio showed it completely destroyed. It was the most vulnerable part of the craft. Spock sat and considered this no-win situation. No hope for survival, no way of contacting another ship, doomed to death. He could stoically accept his fate, but for Davis' sake, he racked his mind in a search for a way out. He could think of none.
Kirk committed the last of their fuel reserves to the engines, bringing their speed to the highest in the history of the race. The sleek Victory shot toward the crippled Sandrak hoping against hope to be of use. Thrax had roused himself from the berserker phase and was intently at work trying to jury-rig a docking outlet on the Victory, a most difficult procedure. Kirk controlled the craft on manual now, zooming toward a parallel course.
Minutes ticked by. The prominence and its fusion fire reached toward the Sandrak. Kirk kept the Victory en route to help the dead ship. Finally, they were coming into range. The only difficulty lay in matching speeds for a docking. Using all the power that the fusion reactor could yield, Kirk used the anti-tractor beams of the selective deflectors to move the crippled craft faster and faster to match their speed. It worked! And in minutes the craft were traveling together, linked by the ingenious work of Thrax in the form of a flexible boarding dock. Since the docking structure was not protected fully by either ships deflectors, Thrax traveled between the ships to retrieve Spock and Davis.
The hatch of the Sandrak hissed open. Thrax saw the Vulcan standing beside a rescue pod. "I've been expecting you," Spock commented on the Andorian's arrival, and he had been ever since he felt the directed movement of his ship under the anti-tractor beams of the Victory. "We must hurry. We have mere minutes."
No other words were spoken as Spock and Thrax lifted the protective canister of the rescue pod through the hatch and into the Victory. Once both Spock and the pod were in the safe confines on Kirk's ship, Thrax and Kirk set about blasting free of the potential danger of the coming prominence and shot through the sixth gate on their way around the star. Spock meanwhile busied himself in extricating Lystra Davis from the pod and attending to her medically.
Finally out of danger's reach, Kirk and Thrax leaned back from their instruments to meet their new passengers. "Hello, Spock," Kirk greeted the Vulcan who stood impassively. The two had many encounters with each other over the past four years together. "I'm sure you know Thrax K'al Kevaran, by name and reputation at least."
"I must say that you arrived at a most propitious time," Spock commented. "And I believe the Terran custom is to say thank you. I thank you."
"It was our pleasure," Thrax said, and Kirk's smile echoed his sentiments.
"How's Lystra?" Kirk asked Spock.
"She appears to be functional. Given rest and minor medical attention, she should be able to resume full responsibilities within three days. As I said, your arrival was most propitious. I would estimate that only three point eight two minutes later you would have been too late. And I feel that I should attempt to compensate in some way for your...kindness?...so I would be honored to aid you in this race."
Kirk and Thrax were somewhat taken aback. They hadn't really thought what they'd do with Spock and Davis just yet, but then, they thought, why not? The Vulcan's computer-like mind would certainly be an asset. So the new team of three, with the exhausted Davis resting in the rear of the cabin, set off to win the Antares Two Million. However, with the elimination of the Sandrak from the competition, the race was indeed a foregone conclusion.
Before they had passed through Gate Seven, they held fully a twenty-four million kilometer lead, the Raven futilely giving chase. Few ion storms were encountered on the way to Gate Eight thanks to Spock's calculations, and Gates Eight through Eleven through the asteroid belt were likewise passed with no difficulty, both by virtue of Spock's calculations and Thrax's selective deflector installed the night before the race. Only one gate remained before the final stretch toward standard orbit around Antares IX, and spirits aboard the Victory were high.
Spock sat at one of the computer consoles, using it for a sensor display as well as a main computer bank. Thrax sat at the other display, using his instruments for a navigational computer. Davis remained on the rear bunk under sedation, her condition stable but still requiring rest. Kirk stood in the center of the bridge, one hand on the great wheels of the manual control. He had come to enjoy this position over the past few hours and days. He felt as though it was the position he was destined to hold. Through the hours and the passing days, Kirk had slowly, unintentionally, and by universal consent, assumed command of the Victory, and he was bringing her to the finish line. By this time, they had widened their lead to forty million kilometers."
"Approaching Gate Twelve," Spock announced from his station.
"Coordinates for final stretch laid in, Jim," Thrax added.
The Victory sailed effortlessly and majestically through the final gate, and Spock and Thrax worked together to push the last drops of fuel into the ion engines of the ship, speeding her on her last thirty-five million kilometers to Antares. With the aid of Spock's vectoring calculation, Kirk could feel victory in his hands, victory of the best kind, that which breaks records.
Kirk looked around the cabin and saw the sleeping Davis. He mused over the reckless affair he had had with her and a dozen other girls during his freshman year. The heat of desire long burnt out. He marveled at that Kirk of three years earlier, the brash, undisciplined Kirk always in need of proving himself. In a way, he thought his ways of demonstrating his manhood were no less mysterious and unfathomable than Thrax's warrior attitudes or Spock's passionless logic. Still, he smiled.
The minutes ticked by, and victory was at hand. Using the coordinates provided by Spock to vector into orbit, Kirk indulged himself by taking her in on manual. With the far-away look of Hornblower of old, Kirk played the wheels of the ship like a marvelous instrument. Thrax smiled happily at Kirk's satisfaction. Spock sat and watched the Human's satisfaction as well, impassive to the uninitiated, but in Kirk's eyes, responding with a smile as well. More minutes slipped away in silence as Kirk blissfully steered his tall ship by a star's directions.
"Finish line in five--four--three--two--one--finish line," Spock announced mechanically to Kirk and Thrax. "We have completed the course in ninety-six point nine-nine-seven-nine hours, a new record," Spock said without apparent feeling.
At once, Kirk leaped into the air with a shout wide as the endless plains of Iowa. Thrax made a peculiar, bittersweet, whining sound, the Andorian expression of happiness. Spock quietly busied himself in shutting down the racing systems and preparing for the reception they would soon be getting from the Starfleet notables assembled at the Antares outpost.
"We've done it!" Kirk announced to space itself if no one else as he popped open the cork of a bottle of drink and poured the blue-tinted contents into two glasses. "Here," he handed a glass to Spock. "It's an Andorian drink that both Thrax and I find delicious."
Spock looked at the proffered glass. "I'm afraid I don't..."
"Oh, come on, Spock," Kirk insisted, and Thrax backed him up.
"We have just beaten the record for the Antares Two Million. Let your hair down! And as a teacher of mine in high school used to say, 'Enjoy Life!'"
Spock considered for a moment more and then accepted the glass. He felt unnaturally warm toward Kirk. More easily than he would have thought possible, he had begun to respect the Human as a potential Starfleet officer. And in his breast, he had felt the touch of...rapport?...friendship, there was no denying the disgraceful emotion. He lifted his glass with the two comrades, Thrax with the other glass and Kirk with the bottle.
"To Victory!" Kirk shouted.
"To Victory!" Thrax echoed.
"To Victory," Spock's voice and demeanor were not suited to a hearty toast. All three downed the brew in a gulp, and Kirk and Thrax smacked their lips with contentment. Spock, however, looked as though he might be sick.
Then as words of congratulations came in on the intercom from Commandant Von Steuben. Professor Scott, Admiral Benjamin, and others, Kirk refilled their glasses and proposed yet another toast. "To friendships," he began with his glass raised. "Both old," he raised his glass toward Thrax. "And renewed!" And Kirk raised his glass toward the Vulcan who was looking greener than usual after his first drink.
Thrax and Spock repeated Kirk's words, and the three drank again as they began to fade with the transporter effect, being beamed to the welcoming party in their honor at Antares Central.
Thrax K'al Kevaran, in the course of his Starfleet career, earned virtually all of the Federation's most prized honors, rose to the rank of full Admiral, and was responsible in a large part for securing peace with the Gorn after a year long series of violent battles between the reptilian race and the Federation.
Lystra Davis also rose through the ranks to Commander-Starfleet. Her most fabled exploits were as the commanding officer of the United Star Ship Yorktown for a five-year deep-space mission.
The friendship between Vulcan Spock and the Terran James Tiberius Kirk did indeed grow and blossom, and together on the United Star Ship Enterprise, they had adventures beyond imagining...but that is another set of stories...
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2229-2265 THE BEGINNINGS1
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