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Mike Bagneski



2269

Deena Collins took a deep breath, and tried to think happy thoughts.

One foot was on some kind of ledge, and her left hand seemed to have a fairly good grip on...something. She held her breath, listening for leaks, but could hear none. Her suit still held air.

Relax, Deena, you're okay, she kept telling myself. And it was true enough, if one can call hanging for dear life over a black, bottomless crevasse, deep in the bowels of an uninhabited planet light-years from the nearest medical facility "okay."

Not the best of all possible okays, she decided, but it would have to do.

Ever so slowly she lifted her head, training the beam of her helmet lantern upward to try to see how far she'd slid. There! She could just make out the passageway about six meters above her. There were a few handholds along the way; not many, but enough.

Maybe.

No sudden moves, she thought as she inched upward, testing each handhold carefully before putting any weight on it. The gloves on her suit were good--she'd had them specially made--but still Deena wished fervently that she could take them off and feel the damned rocks!

Ever so slowly, she crawled up the rock wall, her limbs still trembling slightly from the adrenaline.

Got to stay focused, she told herself. Got to...

Reach...grab...test...pull...

That's it...now find a toehold, then...

Reach...grab...test...pull...

After several agonizing minutes, she hoisted myself over the ledge into the relative safety of the passageway, and collapsed, content to listen to her own ragged breath.

It was music to her ears.

So she sat for a while, listening, resting, and giving thanks to every deity she could think of. Then she checked her pack to make sure she hadn't lost any of her treasures, shouldered it and continued on her merry way.

*****

Collins had to do a fair amount of climbing and squirming before she made it back to the surface, and since it was nearly sunset, she was anxious to get back to base. But as she picked her way through the broken terrain to her shuttle, she paused to take one last look around. The fault line ran right under this area, so all around her fractured, twisted masses of rock and lava dominated the landscape. Most of the craggy peaks and ridges still shone in the cold, unfiltered light of Omega Serpentis, the star that was this world's sun. The view was glorious; a stark, austere beauty wherever she looked.

Then Collins turned toward the setting sun and, shielding her eyes from its glare, saw something she hadn't noticed before. Though the sky overhead was black and many stars were visible even now, a faint, glowing band of red mist hugged the horizon. In all the months she'd been on this world, this was the first time she'd actually seen any sign of an atmosphere. Of course, she knew it was returning; it lay all around her, frozen on the ground. But to really see it made her stop and realize that despite the timeless quality of the scenery around her, change was coming. And it would be change on a scale so vast that her mind couldn't quite grasp it.

Sure, she had seen worlds change before, but not like this. She almost regretted having to leave; after all, this place was a geologist's paradise. But, as every geologist knows, there are times when things can get too interesting, and when they do, the best place to be is somewhere else. So Deena Collins reluctantly boarded the shuttle, carefully stashed her pack and set the coordinates for "Homedome," her base here on the planet Persephone.

As the dome crept into view over the horizon, she spotted Kili's shuttle, and knew there would be trouble. He was such a worrier--a typical Kiloni. He would take one look at her scraped-up suit and she'd never hear the end of it.

So, as she parked her shuttle and headed for the airlock, Collins tried frantically to formulate an acceptable "alternate hypothesis" for her suit's condition.

Failing that, she decided she would have to settle for a lame attempt at flattery.

*****

Kili was standing in the lab area, staring intently at the readouts from his portable scanner, a device supported by a tripod, which could do a moderately deep scan of any object placed directly beneath it. Seeing him thus involved was a bad sign, because it meant that Kili, their team biologist, was frustrated.

"What gives, Kili, Eldest of Siblings?"

Collins knew the instant she said it that it wouldn't work. Kili took one look at her grimy, dusty suit, fixed her with those big, golden eyes and replied, "Very little gives with me, Deena, Most Distant of Cousins." Uh, oh. Not good. "But much, much too much, gives with you, I think. Soon I will be prying your remains from between two large, ugly rocks, I believe! You have a wish to die, perhaps?" English was not his first language, but he got his point across.

He moved toward her with that peculiar bobbing gait typical of bipeds with reversed knees, and as she removed her gloves, he took them and examined them with the Kiloni equivalent of disgust. "Another excellent pair of sensitized pressure gloves, unrepairable!" He tossed them into the waste recycler. "I am baby-sitting a middle-aged Terran female!" He bobbled back to the scanner table, shaking his knobby head.

Now just hold on there! "Forty-five's not middle aged! Not any more." By this time Collins had removed her suit, and, holding it so Kili couldn't see, got a good look at the backside.

It had been close, very close. A nasty gash about two millimeters short of oblivion for yours truly. But the last thing she wanted to do was admit that to Kili-man. So Collins nonchalantly threw the suit into the recycler, and changed the subject.

"Really, Kili. You worry too much. Here, take a look at these crystals I found. I went deep this time. Found some real beauties!" She grabbed her pack, carried it to the table and broke the seal. There was a dull clatter as the crystals poured out.

Kili rolled his big, gold peepers. "Extraordinary! Too good! Contamination is another effective form of suicide, yes?"

He was definitely grouchy, Collins surmised. Best not to argue. "Okay Kili, I'm sorry. I'll run them through the decon-unit." She started to gather up the samples.

"No, wait... Never mind, Deena," Kili sighed and clicked off the scanner. "We both know that your rocks are clean." He sighed again. "I am simply frustrated."

Collins peered at the stuff in the scanner tray. It looked like mud. "What's that?"

"Mud," he confirmed. "I thought I had detected life signs in the ocean sediment, but it was just goofy mineral concentrations. It is official. This ball is dead."

That was Kili's way of saying that there's no life on this planet.

Collins sighed. "So, it's just like you figured then. Persephone spends too much time in this comet-like trajectory too allow for any sort of life system to develop."

"Yes, but I would like to be wrong some of the time. This is getting bored."

"Boring."

"You said it!"

He looked at her rock samples with scant interest. She chose one about four centimeters across and held it up to him. "Look at this one. Kind of pretty, isn't it? I found a bunch of these down deep."

He took it and held it to the light. He sniffed. "Quartz. Extensive internal cleavages indicate much impurities."

Damn, she thought. He was getting too good at this! "Well, I've got extras of those, Kili. Want one?"

"Hmm..." He squinted again at the potential gift, then put it down. "No, but thanks, Deena. I have too much mass as is. All dead stuff, you know. Not worth the shuttlecraft fuel..." Kiloni were a frugal bunch; pretty rocks were not worth hauling around.

She left him and climbed the ladder to the central observation platform. There she had mounted her antique optical telescope in the center of the small transparent bubble projecting from the top of the dome. It was a perfect location. Stars were visible here even during the day, and there was virtually no atmosphere to blur the image. Tonight she was hoping for one last view of Hades, the other major planet in this system.

Collins peered out through the bubble and found it first with the unaided eye; it had been growing noticeably brighter lately, so it wasn't hard to find. She swung the little 90 centimeter scope around, centered Hades on the cross-hairs of the finder and switched to the main eyepiece.

Wow! She'd seen it many times before, yet it never failed to amaze her.

Hades was a gas giant, like Sol's Jupiter, only much bigger. Jupiter would make a respectable sized moon for Hades, but that was about it.

Viewed from this angle, it was about thirty percent illuminated. The sunlit side displayed dozens of cloud bands, storms, swirls, and festoons in a riot of colors: reds, browns, blues and yellows. And the night side was no less spectacular. It was always clearly visible because lightning danced constantly within the cloud layers, bathing them in a pearly, flickering, eerie luminescence. It was a beautiful, yet frightening, sight to behold.

She looked away from the eyepiece and gazed out at the darkened landscape. My poor Persephone, she thought. No wonder you carry so many scars from your encounters with this brute! She knew it wasn't very rational, feeling protective toward a planet, but this was an unusual case. And although she didn't always see eye-to-eye with Starfleet, in this case she felt good about what they intended to do here. If all went well, the next close encounter between the two worlds would be the last. Then, with a little more help from the Federation, Persephone would soon become capable of supporting life.

The Kerlovec Mining Corporation of Terra 5 had petitioned the Federation for ownership of Persephone and had struck a deal with the Federation to assist in the terraforming project. This planet, relatively close to Terra 5, would be their purvue as that colony's population had expanded to the limits that the finite resources of Terra 5 could provide. Kili and Collins had been hired by the Kerlovec Corporation to assess Persephone, to make sure that the planet could be terraformed, and that there were no indigenous lifeforms hanging around. They had scanned, poked, prodded, and sniffed a fair-sized chunk of this planet, and had come to the conclusion that it was just about perfect. Plenty of the right kind of minerals, and no life.

The sound of Kili moving below roused Collins from her reverie. She heard him enter his cubicle and close the hatch. Bedtime. She returned to the eyepiece, peered at the monster a little longer, then disassembled the scope (one less thing to do tomorrow), and climbed down from the bubble.

Crossing to the table, she picked up one of the crystals like the one she'd offered Kili. He was right, of course, it was quartz, and it was full of impurities. A thorough scan of its molecular structure might prove interesting, but she was way too tired to do it tonight. It would just have to wait until she found some time on the Enterprise. So Collins turned off the scanner, and made a bee-line for her own cubicle. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

*****

They were up before local dawn, had all their gear and samples stashed in transport canisters, and got Homedome packed by the time the Enterprise made standard orbit. When all their equipment was beamed up, they boarded their two shuttlecraft and flew out.

All the way up, Collins took every opportunity to examine the surface. At first the rift to the north was the dominant feature. But as she rose higher, more rifts became visible, until it was clear that Persephone's crust was a collection of relatively small plates defined by a grid-work of rift zones. The rifts were visible from this attitude as deep crevasses or long, thin isolated ridges of rubble like the one she'd visited the day before. Only the frozen oceans, which covered about forty percent of the surface, appeared smooth, as the faults were hidden under the ice. Collins tried to imagine what it would be like under those oceans during the orbital shift, when cubic kilometers of lava collide with an equal quantity of ice. The power of it--the violence of it--made her shudder.

Enough of this place, she thought, and was actually relieved when the Enterprise came into view.

*****

They were met inside the shuttlebay by a young officer--a Lieutenant Kevin Thomas Riley. As Deena Collins stepped from her shuttle, she could see him greeting Kili, and when she approached he smiled and shook her hand.

"You must be Doctor Collins! It's a pleasure to finally meet you both."

Kili looked surprised. "You know of us?"

"Sure do! Heard of you two when I was still a cadet."

"Ah, your ears must then surely be very wet!"

Riley looked puzzled at first, then cracked a smile. "Yeah, I guess you could say that! I've only been on this ship a little over four years now." He gestured expansively. "Well, what do you think of her? The U.S.S. Enterprise, the pride of the fleet!"

"Wonderful," Collins exclaimed.

"Large," Kili noted.

"Large ain't the half of it, my good Kiloni friend."

As he talked, they began moving up the ramp to the turbolift doors. Riley's easy manner and way with words soon put Collins in mind of an old Earth term she hadn't thought of in years: blarney!

"Now loath as I am to neglect my regular duties, which are, of course, critical to the smooth operation of this wonderful and 'large' ship, I have nevertheless accepted the equally important responsibility of seeing to your needs for the duration of your visit. Now, are there any questions so far?

Kili wasted no time. "Yes. Is there a holovid on this hop?" Kili was something of a movie buff.

"My friend, this is indeed your lucky day!" Riley stopped and ticked off with his fingers. "You have your choice of either Veronica Mulberry in That's Not Funny, or Elu Glomac and the Morlock Players in their remake of that timeless classic, The Hypersonic Seven."

"Poor Elu," Kili said, shaking his head. "If only he could sing, he wouldn't have to dance so much!"

Riley froze in his tracks, gave Kili a look of utter astonishment, then they both broke out laughing with abandon. Collins herself didn't know or care what they were talking about, but it was good to see Kili in such good spirits after a disappointing couple of months, so she laughed right along with them.

With Riley's help they found their accommodations, and discovered, much to their delight, that they each had their own stateroom. Talk about luxury! Collins hadn't had 224 cubic meters of pressurized living area all to herself since she left Nebraska! Kili was glad to see the environmental console in his room. Now he could enjoy that cold, swampy atmosphere that Kilon was famous for.

Riley informed them that the captain requested their presence at a briefing to be held at 0900 hours. Collins asked Riley if he was going to attend. He shook his head. "No. It's a meeting for the senior officers only, but I'll connect up with you afterwards." Then he darted off.

She checked the chronometer. They just had time to stow their stuff, get cleaned up, and head for the briefing.

*****

It didn't take them long find their way, and as they approached the briefing room, a crewman emerged. Collins and Kili walked in, unnoticed, before the doors closed.

Four men were seated at the table. One, command division, had to be Kirk; two science division, a Vulcan and a Human; and one from engineering. The Human science officer had a good-natured sneer on his face and was addressing the Vulcan. "Well, Spock, I'll bet you're just tickled pink over this opportunity to play God with that computer of yours!"

Spock! Of course! Sarek's son!

"As you of all people should know, Doctor, Vulcans are neither ticklish, nor are we pink, and as far as playing God is concerned, I believe that privilege is reserved solely for faith healers, quacks, and other practitioners of the medical arts."

"Spock, you pointy-eared..." the doctor fumed, rising from his chair.

At that instant, Kirk, who seemed to be enjoying the exchange, finally noticed the new arrivals and cut in with a loud voice, "Gentlemen, it would seem our...guests have arrived!"

Suddenly, all eyes were upon them, and an embarrassed silence hung over the group. To Collins, it was as though they were a bunch of kids caught in the act of committing some prank. Except for the Vulcan. He just seemed to look more...Vulcan.

As the medical officer slowly sank back into his chair, Kirk continued. "Gentlemen, may I present Doctors Deena Collins and Kili--"He took a breath. "--Kililino...Kililomo--"Another breath. "Doctor Kili Kololo..."

It was Kili's turn to cut in. "Doctor Kili Kilili-lonono-molono-lomoni, Captain. But please, simply to call me 'Doctor Kili.'"

Collins suppressed a smile. She noted that Kili always graciously suggested that people simply call him Doctor Kili. He always graciously suggested this after they'd tried at least three times to pronounce his decidedly difficult family name. How he loved watching them humiliate themselves!

"Thank you, Doctor Kili," Kirk said with obvious relief. "I'm Captain James Kirk. This is Science Officer Spock; Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy, and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Please," Kirk indicated some chairs, "be seated."

Before Collins had met Kili, she wondered how Kiloni could sit with those tricky knees of theirs. No problem, she learned. They simply swivel their chairs 180 degrees and plunk themselves down. Their elbows always wind up on the table in front of them, but no one seems to mind.

Kirk looked around at his officers. "We four represent the Federation in this matter. It has been our responsibility to evaluate the data you've collected relating to Project PirithoŘs. The purpose of this briefing is to give everyone a chance to ask questions before we make our final decision. Spock, since you've been involved with this project from the start, why don't you give us a brief overview of the situation?"

"By all means, Captain."

The Vulcan paused, collecting his thoughts. "The planet Persephone is a unique specimen indeed. No other planet in the galaxy combines such Earth-like characteristics with such an unusual orbit. This orbit is classified as bi-stable, meaning that it has two stable modes: one nearly circular, the other highly elliptical."

Spock flipped a switch on his console, and a speeded-up graphic of Persephone's dance appeared on the screens in the center of the table. "The circular mode is made up of 312 revolutions, each lasting slightly more than one year standard. The elliptical mode, despite the fact that it consists of just one revolution, is approximately 1124 years in duration. The orbital shift is brought about by a close encounter between Persephone and an exceptionally massive class-C planetary body called Hades."

He crossed his arms. "I assume that you all can appreciate just how delicate the balance of forces is in this situation. Any significant deviation in the orbit of either body will upset the bi-stable harmonic relationship, resulting in either the destruction of Persephone, or its insertion into a mono-stable orbital pattern. Obviously, it is the latter which we will try to achieve, if the decision is made to proceed."

"But why the big hurry, Spock?" asked McCoy. "Why is it so important for us to act quickly? We're still weeks away from the encounter."

"It is our intention to use that encounter to our ends, Doctor." He toggled another switch on his console. The display switched to a slower time-scale and began to zoom in on the two planets as they approached each other.

"By shifting Persephone's course just one tenth of one degree, we will drastically alter the geometry of the encounter. This will have the effect of inserting the planet into a lower orbit, which can easily be stabilized by minor adjustments in the future."

Two representations of Persephone were visible on the screens now, each slipping around Hades' bulk a little differently. The proposed orbit was definitely lower and faster, carrying the world further from Hades and closer to the sun.

Spock turned off the display. "That concludes my summary. I do, however, have one related question concerning the survey."

The Vulcan looked to Kirk, who, with a slightest elevation of his eyebrows, gave Spock the go-ahead. Spock turned to face Collins.

Uh-oh, she thought. It's quiz time.

"Doctor Collins, you state in your report that you are confident that the volcanic activity triggered by the close encounter will last about seven months. Yet there are numerous accounts of similar near-collisions in which the planet involved was tectonically unstable for as much as a century. On what do you base your estimate?"

Inwardly, Collins breathed a sigh of relief. She was ready for this one. "It is the uniqueness of Persephone, as you pointed out earlier, Mister Spock, which is the key. The planet has been through this ordeal thousands of times and has, in a sense, adapted to the situation. The network of rifts which divide the planet's crust into hundreds of plates are a result of tidal stresses occurring during the close encounters. These loosely connected plates allow this planet to do two things a normal planet can't do:

"First, it responds more readily to seismic stress. You must think of each plate as floating more or less independently atop the more fluid molten interior." Collins did a kind of hula-hula motion with her hands to try and illustrate her point. "As the crust is more flexible, it is able to adjust with less initial damage. Second, that same flexible crust serves to damp out the internal turbulence much more quickly than would normally be the case. You looked at planetary models, Mister Spock. That was your error. Look at large natural satellite models instead. Satellites are more typically subject to periodic tidal stress. The standard simulations support my conclusion."

"I see. Thank you, Doctor." Spock looked vaguely distressed.

Oops, Collins thought. Perhaps I should have been a little more tactful.

Doctor McCoy, on the other hand, was gazing at her with something akin to worship in his eyes.

Kirk saw the look on McCoy's face and smiled. "Doctor? Doctor McCoy?"

"Yes, Jim? Er, Captain?"

"Any questions for our guests?"

"Ah...Oh, yes." He roused himself. "Yes, I have a question for Doctor Kili. Your final report states unequivocally that there is no life on Persephone. I would like to explore the methodology that led to that conclusion, if I may."

"Yes, you may," answered Kili.

"How extensive were the deep scans? You didn't have equipment for long range deep scans."

"No, Doctor McCoy. Deep scanning was done by the Vulpecula, the vessel which deposited us on the planet. One hundred percent of the surface we scan to Level Five. No by-products of metabolism detected."

"And precisely how many short range deep scans did you do?"

"Precisely did we do one hundred fifteen short range deep scans at precisely forty-seven various locations."

"All right. So maybe there's no ongoing metabolism. But what about the possibility of suspended metabolism? Did you perform the complete spectrum of short range scans, including optical, electron, and quark structural tetrascan?"

Kirk raised his hand. "Wait, Doctor. This is starting to get a little thick--"

"Ya' see Jim, there are two ways to detect life on a planet-wide scale. One is to look for by-products of metabolism: some kind of energy reading or unusual chemical concentration. These things can be detected quite easily from orbit, using ship's sensors."

"Yes, I understand that part, but these other scans you mentioned..."

"If the organism is in a suspended state, there's no metabolism to detect. So we have to go in and close scan as many areas and samples as we can, looking for specific molecular, atomic, and subatomic traces--a sort of structural signature common to all life-forms."

"I see." Kirk nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you, Doctor McCoy. Doctor Kili, please continue."

"I do short-range scans, to above one thousand kilos of samples from many and many of locations of this planet. I was looking for life, Doctor McCoy, but there was no dice. I've come up empty-handless."

There was a short pause as everyone tried to figure out what Kili had just said. Finally, Kirk spoke. "Well, it looks like you covered all the bases, Doctor Kili. I think we can safely assume that the planet is barren. Did..." Kirk extended his hand toward Collins And Kili. "...either of you have any questions for us about the project?"

Collins had one. "Yes, Captain. I'd like to know more about the procedure for adjusting Persephone's orbit. What about these Delta-Vee devices?"

Kirk turned to the chief engineer. "Scotty, why don't you take this one? I understand that you were involved in the development of Delta-Vee technology."

"Aye, sir, but only as an advisor. I was assigned to the Kerlovec Corporation offices on Terra Five to help them find a way to boost the efficiency of their operation. They had just set up shop in the Epsilon Serpentis asteroid system, and it quickly became clear to us that the only way to work a claim of such proportions was to 'bring the mountains to Mohammed,' in a manner o' speakin'.

"So we started with a standard fifty meter cylindrical trititanium hull, fitted one end with a small matter-antimatter engine, and the other end with a large, dispersed-field tractor beam. It wasn't much to look at but, aye, could it catch fish! Of course that was a wee toy compared to these new beasties! The type-D Vees can stop a fair-sized asteroid in its tracks and insert it into a new orbit in a matter o' days!"

"But Persephone's no asteroid," said Kirk.

"Aye, Captain. We've figured that it will take one hundred twenty-eight type-D Delta-Vees seventeen days to perform the necessary orbital adjustment."

"But, Scotty," McCoy interrupted, "didn't I hear somewhere that previous attempts to use multiple units to move large masses only resulted in making a lot of little rocks out of one big one?"

Collins nodded. "That's what I had heard, too."

Scott smiled. "Aye, but we've found a way around that little problem, haven't we, Mister Spock?"

"We have indeed, Mister Scott. You see, Doctor, previous attempts relied on maintaining the relative positions of the units to an unrealistic level of accuracy. Vessels nearly the size of this ship simply can't retain their relative positions to within a fraction of a millimeter. The breakthrough came when researchers found that the tractor beams themselves could be coupled under computer control so that stresses within the mass would be held to a minimum. All of the beams combine to form a tractor field which supports and stabilizes the mass as it changes its momentum. So far, experimental networks of up to thirty-two type-D units have been successfully linked in this manner."

"But nothing of the magnitude of Project PirithoŘs has been attempted thus far, right Spock?" asked Kirk.

"That is correct."

"Yet you seem confident that it will be successful."

"Of course, Captain. The computer model which I have developed is a significant improvement over previous models. The main computer here on the Enterprise will concentrate solely on the task of maintaining and manipulating the field as a whole, while the individual computers on board each Delta-Vee will continually monitor local field phase, allowing almost instantaneous micro-adjustments in individual beam output. This hierarchical approach will insure that we have the optimum balance of flexibility and control to assure success. Exhaustive analysis of the software and intensive simulations have convinced me that my system is accurate and error-free."

"Boasting, Spock?" asked McCoy, a gleam in his eye. "Human pride?"

"Information, Doctor," replied Spock dryly. "Simple fact."

The anger was back in McCoy's voice. "Well, there's one more fact I'd like to mention. I want to go on record as stating that we didn't have enough time to adequately evaluate the survey data. I feel as though we're being railroaded by the Kerlovec Corporation."

"I agree," said Spock, which seemed to surprise McCoy. "Though unfortunately, there is little we can do about it now."

Kirk turned to Collins and Kili. "You two had direct dealings with the Kerlovec Corporation before you began your survey as I recall. Can you give us any...insight into what their motives might be?"

Collins glanced at Kili, who shrugged his consent. "We have no doubt that they deliberately delayed approaching the Federation until the last possible minute, Captain. But as to motives?" It was her turn to shrug. "Most likely they just want to keep us off balance, so we won't make trouble for them. That would certainly be their style."

Kirk leaned forward in his chair as if to pursue the point, but then seemed to change his mind. He leaned back. "Well, as Mister Spock said, there's little we can do about it now."

That was that. Kirk thanked Collins and Kili, and they left.

*****

Having nothing better to do, they went in search of Kevin Riley. They found him in a rec room on Deck Five, embroiled in a hot game of poker. He was doing rather well for himself, too.

Kili's pupils dilated ever so slightly. "Ah. This is poker, yes?"

Riley cast Kili an appraising glance. "It is indeed, my Kiloni friend. Do you play?"

Kili favored him with his best 'I was born yesterday' look and replied. "But little."

At that moment, the hand ended. Riley pulled a pile of chips toward his already good-sized collection of stacks, as several poverty-stricken crew members rose and stole silently away.

Kili swiveled a chair and sat. "But I enjoy the game. Could I perhaps play?"

Riley looked like the cat who was about to eat the canary. "By all means!" he said as he dealt.

*****

About an hour later, a dazed Kevin Riley emerged from the rec room, followed by Collins and a rather smug-looking Kiloni.

"Kevin Riley, I enjoyed our game of poker. Did you also?"

"Um, yes, well." Riley squinted at Kili. "You've got some kind of system, don't you?"

"I? No. Just watch cards."

"But--"

Collins knew where this was going, and she didn't want any part of it. "Listen," she said. "You two go on ahead. And I'll catch up with you later."

She left them and headed back to her quarters, feeling somewhat sorry for Riley. She had the distinct feeling that he was going to lose a bundle trying to figure out Kili's "system."

The fact of the matter was there was no "system." Kili's knack with cards is just a Kiloni thing. They have incredible memories and a keen intuitive grasp of probability. Lieutenant Riley was about to learn those facts the hard way.

When Collins got back to her quarters, she saw a message on her console. It was from Captain Kirk. He wanted to see her in his quarters. The message was marked urgent.

*****

"Thank you for coming, Doctor Collins." Kirk rose as she entered his quarters. He had been seated at his desk, reading some kind of report. He indicated the seat across from him.

"It's my pleasure, Captain," she said as she sat. He smiled, and she smiled back, briefly. "What can I do for you?"

He paused, choosing his words carefully. "At the briefing, it was my...impression that perhaps you knew more about this matter of the Kerlovec's stalling than you were saying. Could this, in fact, be the case?"

It was her turn to pause. Okay, Kirk, she thought. I'll show you mine, if I can see yours. "If you'll forgive my asking, why do you want to know?"

Kirk considered her for a second, then smiled. "Frankly, Doctor, I'm in a bit of a bind. The Federation contract with the Kerlovec Corporation is up for renewal, and their Board of Directors is, well...playing hard ball, shall we say? They seem to be holding out for a better deal. But if we can prove that the Kerlovec Corporation are up to something shady, it might strengthen our hand at the negotiation table. Is there...anything you can tell me? Anything at all that might be useful?"

Collins studied Kirk briefly. She was not, by nature, the trusting type, but she sensed that he was being honest with her. His sincerity appeared genuine. So, although she'd intended to keep her little secret, she decided to confide. "We found evidence that the Kerlovec Corporation were on Persephone before Kili and I arrived. It appeared that they had conducted their own survey, months before we got there."

Kirk was suddenly very attentive. "How do you know that?"

"Well, you know how the Kiloni are..." By his blank stare, Collins could tell that he didn't. "When they see something out of the ordinary, they lock on and they don't stop till they've figured it out."

Kirk nodded. "I have heard they are a very curious race."

"Curious isn't exactly the right word. You see, Kiloni are unique among sentient races in that they evolved not as predators, but as prey."

Kirk looked puzzled. "But how can that be? How can...being the victim be turned into an adaptive advantage?"

"Well, you become very good at it. You evolve an array of defense mechanisms that totally overwhelm the abilities of those predators."

"I understand that they're excellent runners..."

"They can run, jump, squeeze themselves into some pretty tiny crevasses, and that's just the beginning..."

"But what has this all got to do with curiosity?"

"Not curiosity, Captain. But an acute sensitivity to anything out of the ordinary."

"Ah," Kirk was catching on. "And Doctor Kili found something."

Collins nodded. "It was about five weeks into the survey, and one day he just disappeared. He didn't return to base. He didn't call me on the radio. He didn't respond when I tried to call him. He just...disappeared!"

"Couldn't you track his beacon?"

"Um-hmm, well, that's what I did. And I found him all right, nose to the ground, about fifteen kilometers south of our base. He'd seen something from his shuttle. The area had been disturbed, he told me. I thought it looked natural and untouched, but I knew better than to ignore a Kiloni when he's on to something!

"After running some scans, we were able to confirm that there had been a base there, and a survey had been made at least as extensive as our own. It must have been Kerlovec. No one else has shown any interest in this planet."

"That would appear to be a misrepresentation on their application for taking possession of Persephone and as such a clear violation of Federation law." Kirk studied her for a moment. "Why didn't you include this in your report?"

She shook her head. "Our evidence wasn't the sort of thing that could stand up in a hearing. If you want to go up against the Kerlovec Corporation, you need more than what we had." Like perhaps a dead body! she thought.

"But you're sure that they were there?" Kirk was thinking hard.

"No doubt in my mind, Captain."

"All right...That just might come in handy. Very handy. Thank you, Doctor."

"Glad to help, Captain." She whipped him another quick smile and made for the door.

"Wait," Kirk said, as he rose and ambled toward her. "Do you have...plans for this evening?"

And there it was; the big smile, the charming, pretty boy smile that he was famous for. Gads, he was awfully cute, but Deena Collins knew better than to buy it.

"I'm afraid I'm busy, Captain...Oh, I forgot to mention, I ran into a friend of yours on the Vulpecula. A science officer named Mara Simon."

Suddenly, Kirk looked as though he was having a great deal of difficulty swallowing. "Mara?" Kirk croaked. He coughed, then seemed to recover somewhat. "And...and how was she?"

"Oh, fine. We had a nice chat. She's really a wonderful person!"

"Yes...isn't she?...Well, Doctor, thanks for stopping by. You've been...very helpful." He managed a faint smile.

She smiled back broadly. "My pleasure, Captain. Good-bye!"

*****

The next couple of days were busy ones. The exact placement of the Delta-Vees needed to be tied in to the tectonic structure of Persephone, so they went over the research carefully, looking for just the right support pattern for the planet's crust.

Consequently, Collins wound up spending a lot of time working with Mister Spock. She was concerned about this at first, recalling their initial meeting. But, if there was any hard feelings over her pointing out his error, it certainly wasn't evident. Of course, with a Vulcan, you couldn't always tell.

Spock was quite the computer expert. They spent several hours together at the computer, and he played it like a fine violin. Collins couldn't believe it; he actually programmed in PriMus! She'd had to learn about it in school, and it had taken her several days just to get the damned machine to say "hello."

"Mister Spock, why do you use PriMus? Why not Sae-gol or P'tanta?"

Spock spoke as he typed. "Only PriMus allows me to configure memory on the molecular level, Doctor. This enhances storage capacity and access speed, both of which are critical to the successful completion of this phase of the project."

"You are a master programmer, Mister Spock. I commend you." Collins hoped that she'd put that right.

Spock looked at her, and for the first time since they began working together, she felt that she had his complete attention. "Thank you, Doctor. You honor me."

Collins couldn't tell you how she knew. Nothing about his expression had changed that she could see, but somehow she sensed that she had made a friend.

Spock turned back to the screen. "Doctor, there is something about which I am...curious. Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?"

This should be interesting, Collins thought. "Not at all, Mister Spock. What is it you wish to know?"

"Most Humans value contact with their own kind, yet you choose to spend much of your time with an alien being. Would you not prefer to work in the company of other Humans?"

"That's a tough question, Mister Spock. On the one hand, I do miss being with Humans when Kili and I are on a mission. There are some things only others of your kind can understand or appreciate. On the other hand, Humans have a knack for rubbing each other the wrong way sometimes. But Doctor Kili and I are just different enough that doesn't seem to be a problem. I think we're different enough that there's always a little mystery in the relationship. And I think that sort of 'psychic distance' is a good thing."

"Hmm. Interesting...but disturbing."

"How so, Mister Spock?"

"I frequently find maintaining a harmonious relationship with the Humans on board the Enterpriseto be...challenging. When examined from your perspective, one would have to conclude that the disharmony comes not from our differences, but rather our similarities. A very disturbing notion indeed."

He paused, then tapped the run key. Collins' graphic of Persephone's tectonic structure appeared, looking like a broken crystal ball that someone had painstakingly glued back together. Then, slowly, one by one, the Delta Vees popped into view about one half radius out from the surface of the globe, in no obvious pattern.

Spock glanced at her, then back at the screen. "The devices will be deployed around the planet in positions that provide maximum support to the planet's crust. The underlying magma and core will be adequately supported by the induced tractor field."

At that moment, the last Delta-Vee appeared on the screen and the network of devices began to flash, indicating end of program. There on the screen was Persephone, sheathed in all the technology and power that the Federation and the Kerlovec Mining Corporation could muster. Collins should have been gratified. Here was the final stage of her work, the culmination of the project. They were saving Persephone, after all. Yet as Spock blanked the screen, the image retained in her mind's eye was not of a world being rescued. It looked instead like a world being captured... trapped...enslaved.

I'm just tired, she thought, as she leaned back and rubbed her eyes. I just need a good night's sleep.

*****

Collins woke early and suddenly the next morning. It took her a moment to realize that her com-console was chirping repeatedly. Assuming that it was some dire emergency, she flung myself out of bed, ran to the unit, and tried to focus sleep filled eyes on the screen as she flailed at the switch. After several attempts, she finally found it.

"Deena! Deena! Deena!" He sounded unusually screechy.

"Kili! What's wrong? What happened!"

"The Vees come! Today! One hour!"

"What?! Is that all it is?! What..." She shook her still groggy head. "So what?

"Deena! Chairman Kerlovec comes as well!"

"Fredor Kerlovec himself!?" Collins felt a chill run down her spine. "Why?"

"My guess is no better than yours. Deena, he wants to be met by us when he beams in! His order!"

"Wonderful. Just wonderful. Give me a couple minutes to get ready."

"Okey-donkey. Am in rec room on Deck Seven. We be watchin' the Vees roll in! See you?"

"See you, Kili." Collins rubbed her eyes and sighed. It was not shaping up to be an altogether nifty day.

Fredor Kerlovec. The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Kerlovec Mining Corporation. Their boss. A true pioneer. A great man in many respects. And, the most God-awful son-of-a-bitch this side of the Neutral Zone!

Question is, she wondered, what's he doing here? Well, guess I'll find out soon enough.

*****

Collins staggered up to the rec room and found Kili. Riley was there, too. Someone had set up a big viewscreen, and the place was crowded.

"This is a momentous occasion," Riley expounded. "The U.S.S. Reliant, with the Delta-Vees in tow, will constitute the largest total mass ever to be transported together at warp speed. It's history in the making!" Bleary eyed, Collins looked around her. Everyone seemed absolutely "gaga" over the event. To them it was a big deal--to her, it was still bedtime. Someone must have noticed her state, because a mug of hot coffee mysteriously appeared between her fists. She took a sip. Slowly, but surely, she began to give a sehlat's backside.

Riley studied her for a moment. "Doctor, you seem less than enthusiastic this morning."

"I'm not what you'd call a morning person, Kevin. Besides, Chairman Fredor Kerlovec is not what you'd call a close friend. Does anyone know why he decided to show up?"

"Nope. But I'll tell you about another person who doesn't care to have the chairman here, and that's James T. Kirk."

"Oh? Why's 'at?"

"Well, I've been doing some reading about Federation law, in preparation for an officer's training course I hope to get into. Anyway, according to the Federation-Kerlovec contract, we're to extend to the Chairman all due courtesy and respect normally afforded a Federation Undersecretary."

We're all doomed, Collins thought as she took another pull on her coffee mug.

On the viewscreen, she was told, was a low-magnification view of the point where the convoy was to come out of warp. One of Persephone's polar regions was just visible on the bottom of the screen. The ship's computer was even providing a countdown, and as it reached T-minus sixty seconds, the room grew silent. All eyes were on the screen as the final seconds ticked away.

"Three-two-one-mark," and at that instant a new star cluster sprang into existence. Swirling like a swarm of fireflies, the cluster expanded, seeming to reach out and engulf the planet like a colossal, ghostly hand. Within seconds of coming out of warp, the Delta-Vees were already assuming their positions around the planet. Collins suspected that the Reliant's captain knew that there would be a crowd on hand, because the sequence of maneuvers was clearly calculated to be as graceful as it was efficient. They were all duly impressed, and cheered as the maneuver was completed and the Reliant made its approach to the Enterprise.

*****

Collins and Kili rushed down to the transporter room. Kirk and Spock were already there. Just as they entered the room, Chairman Fredor Kerlovec materialized on the pad.

He was a tall, slender, imposing figure. And grim--with the face of an undertaker. A direct descendant of the Ivan Kerlovec family. They spaced out from Earth in the early 22nd century, set themselves up in the Epsilon Serpentis system, and became a major corporate power to be reckoned with before there even was a Federation. They survived one catastrophe after another, though cleverness, determination, and in some cases, sheer numbers. They endured everything from space-borne viruses to large-scale explosive decompression. Always they bounced back, always they triumphed, till even the United Federation of Planets had to deal with them, largely on the corporation's own terms. An astounding bunch of folks--from a distance. Up close, they could best be described as, 'difficult to love.'

Fredor Kerlovec walked with a cane, but in spite of that, he moved briskly off the pad. Right past Kirk's outstretched hand. And being the renowned xenophobe that he was, right past Spock and Kili, to come to a stop in front of Deena Collins. He favored her with a microscopic smile that she could have done very well without, thank you, so she did the same for him.

He spoke, as usual, without courtesy or tact. "Doctor, you have completed your survey, I take it. It was to everyone's satisfaction, I presume?"

She nodded. "Yes, Chairman Kerlovec. The Federation has given us the go ahead, and..."

"Excellent," the Chairman interrupted. "I'm here to oversee transfer of all materials taken from the planet into our possession."

"No problem," she said. "It's all in storage. I just have to sort out a few items that I'll retain as part of my personal collection--"

"No items are to be retained, Doctor!" Kerlovec's voice was icy. "All indigenous materials in your possession are to be transferred to my custody immediately!"

Oh no you don't! Collins thought.

"Mister Chairman, I am entitled, upon completion of my duties, to collect specimens for personal--"

Kerlovec stepped closer to her and looked even scarier then usual. "While on the planet, Doctor, you are under contract with the Kerlovec Mining Corporation. Our contract is quite clear in pertaining to property rights. Under that contract, all materials remain ours."

Collins sighed. As much as she hated to admit it, the big goon was right. She knew enough about interplanetary law to know she couldn't win. Mineral rights were an area of the law that the Kerlovec Corporation had down pat! After all, miners have always been paranoid about claim jumpers.

Kerlovec turned to Kirk, who looked slightly relieved at finally being noticed. "You will see to it, Captain."

To Kirk's credit, he hesitated and scowled at the Chairman before turning and hitting the com button. "Mister Scott!"

"Scott, here."

"I'd like you to personally see to it that all materials taken from the planet's surface be moved to a secure location until such time as Chairman Kerlovec takes possession."

"Aye aye, Captain."

Kirk looked at Kerlovec. "Will that satisfy your contract?"

The Chairman smiled a triumphant little smile. "It will, Captain."

*****

After several more days of double-checking systems and running simulations, Kirk invited Deena Collins and Kili to the bridge to witness the beginning of the next phase of the project: the establishment of the tractor field.

Fredor Kerlovec was there, too, of course. And from what Collins had heard, he'd been practically living on the bridge ever since he arrived, much to the dismay of Captain Kirk. There was no particular reason for him to be there, but he was used to being in the center of things, where the action was. As they entered, he was seated just to the left of the viewscreen, in the process of waxing poetic about how he would transform Persephone once she was safely out of harm's way. "Then, when the initial planting is done, we will begin work on our cities. There will be seven of them, and each will be vast!" Kerlovec's eyes gleamed as he turned and looked at the image of the planet on the screen.

Kirk, who was seated in the command chair, looked up from his datapad. "But Mister Chairman, seven vast cities? The entire population of Terra Five is only about thirty thousand."

Kerlovec turned to Kirk, a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. "We've been forced to keep our population at that level for generations, Kirk! It is all our life support domes would support. But when we move to our new home... " He looked back to the screen. "...our people will be very busy. While our men build cities, our women will build families. They shall 'be fruitful and multiply'." Kerlovec beamed proudly at his quotation from the old Earth Bible.

"Sounds wonderful," Collins said dryly. "Where do I sign up?"

Kerlovec squinted at her, apparently noting her presence for the first time. "I suspect you'd be unsuitable, Doctor. But we...appreciate the offer."

She smiled sweetly. "Well, a girl can always dream."

Kili had ignored the entire conversation and was instead standing at Uhura's station talking to her as she worked. From where Collins stood near the lift doors, she watched Uhura route five independent lines of communication simultaneously, and still have time to chat pleasantly with Kili! Collins was impressed. Here was a woman clearly destined for better things.

To Collins' left sat Lieutenant Commander Scott, scowling at his displays and turning from time to time to glance at Spock, who stood across from him on the other side of the bridge, bent over his viewer. The Vulcan's eyes were bathed in an eerie blue glow.

"All Delta-Vees are in position, Captain," Spock announced.

Kirk glanced at Kerlovec. "Mister Chairman?"

Kerlovec paused and glanced around the bridge imperiously. "Fly your ship, Captain."

Kirk turned to his chief engineer. "Rig for slave mode flying, Mister Scott."

"Aye, sir." Scott tapped his console. "Slave mode initiated."

Spock consulted his viewer a moment longer, then straightened and faced his captain. "I will proceed to initiate the tractor field shortly. Our main computer will bring each device on line, one at a time, and phase-link that unit to the network. I should point out that even though we're several thousand kilometers from the planet, we will nevertheless feel some residual effect from a field of this magnitude. It should not be too unpleasant, and the effect will dissipate once the final harmonic is established."

He turned back to his viewer, and began tapping his console. The blue light streaming from his viewer started to flicker and pulsate, and Collins became curious as to what it was that he saw. As casually as she could, she began to stroll over toward his station. Collins intended, if the opportunity presented itself, to take a peek.

When she was about half way there, she began to feel slightly uncomfortable, as if she was suddenly wearing a wool suit. Without realizing it, Collins started to tug at her clothing, trying to ease her discomfort, when she noticed that everyone on the bridge was doing the same thing.

It was weird to watch this crack team of Starfleet's finest twitch and scratch as though the bridge had suddenly become infested with insects. Everyone, including her, was doing a kind of silly little dance. All except for Spock, of course. He appeared totally at ease. Suddenly, a light sprinkle of laughter and chuckles passed through the room, as people realized what was going on. It was that residual effect Spock was talking about! It was giving them all a cosmic case of static cling!

Collins looked over at Kili, who was looking around himself in alarm. Human laughter sounded too much like a Kiloni kin-pack's warning call, and it always startled him. She caught his eye and smiled. He relaxed and rolled his eyes as if to say, 'The things I put up with!'

"Thirty-two units on-line and phased," Spock reported.

By this time, Collins had reached his station, but he was so absorbed in his task that it took a while for him to notice her. When he finally did, he looked up at her with a questioning look. She smiled back, raised her eyebrows, and glanced at the viewer. Spock hesitated, and seemed on the verge of denying her implied request, but then he relented. He straightened and stepped aside, allowing her to bend down and gaze into that strange blue glow.

Waves. Pulsations. Oscillating patterns of light washing against her retina like waves on a shore. And there wasn't just one wave pattern; there were many. Some small and subtle, some large, slow, and almost overwhelming in their intensity.

Then Collins saw a new wave appear. At first, it seemed to clash with the other pulsations, but as she watched, its frequency increased until it appeared to flow into the larger prevailing pattern. She wasn't sure, but she thought she had just seen a Delta-Vee come on-line.

As she gazed into the blue glow, Collins sensed vast amounts of raw data flowing directly through her eyes and into her brain. So many waves, all connected, all flowing together, colliding, blending. It was... like seeing music.

Suddenly, it was too much. She felt giddy, lightheaded. Her mind was swimming, floundering, drowning in a sea of data! She had to pull away.

Collins stood there, rubbing her eyes and swaying slightly.

"One does not behold the face of the Gorgon and live, Doctor."

She opened her eyes, struggled to focus them, and finally saw Kirk, standing just below her. He had spoken. Although he was smiling, there was just a hint or concern in his eyes. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine." She managed a small smile.

Kirk leaned casually against the railing. "The interaction of wave-forms..." He squinted and seemed to stare off into the distance. "The ancient Polynesian sailors back on Earth used a similar method to navigate between islands. As they sailed, they would note the wave patterns, the direction that they came from, their amplitude, the way the various waves interacted. It allowed them to... process a lot of complex information in a simple, straightforward manner. From what I understand, Spock's viewer in wave mode--as it is now--works very much the same way."

Spock looked impressed. "A very apt analogy, Captain. You surprise me."

Kirk smiled warmly at the Vulcan. "Why, thank you, Mister Spock."

Collins glanced at Spock. What?! Is that the hint of a smile? Do I detect a trace of affection in his eyes?

At that instant, the ship shuddered.

Kirk glanced around. "Spock!"

Spock's eyes returned to his viewer. "We are feeling the effects of an anomaly in the tractor field, Captain." The shuddering intensified into a bucking motion. A deep rumble sang through the framework of the ship itself. A low whine became audible; the sound of distant machinery straining.

If it's this bad here, Collins thought, what's it like on Persephone?

Spock must have been reading her mind. "Registering seismic activity on the planet's surface."

"What level?" Collins shouted.

"Four point five and rising."

Kirk raced to the engineer's station. "Scotty, is this a malfunction in one of the Vees' propulsion systems?"

The chief engineer scanned his readouts intently. "All operating within spec, Captain. All in position and holding."

Collins had to grab a railing; it was getting difficult to stand. She glanced at Kerlovec. He was sitting forward, his cane firmly planted on deck before him; a look of grim determination on his face.

A deep, uneven groan began to fill the room. It seemed to come from everywhere at once and was growing louder by the second.

Kirk had to shout over the din. "Shields up! Divert all available power to shields! We've got to maintain hull integrity!"

That helped. The bucking subsided somewhat, and Collins was able to stand by bracing herself against the railing. She took a look at the image of Persephone on the screen. No! She turned to Kirk. "Captain, look! I can see signs of volcanic activity!"

He hurried to her side and stared at the screen. "Is that serious? I thought this planet was used to this sort of thing."

It was Spock who answered. "Captain, our tractor field is several orders of magnitude stronger than Hades' gravity. If we don't identify and alleviate the problem soon, the turbulence will tear the planet apart!"

Collins scanned the room wildly, looking for something, anything, that would save her planet. She noticed everyone in the room looking in the same direction. She looked in that direction herself, and there was Spock bent over his viewer, his back rigid with determination. His fingers flew over the keyboard, seemingly of their own accord. There, if anywhere, lay salvation.

She wanted to scream at him, Spock, save her. Save my girl! But she didn't. She just stood and stared and hoped.

Spock typed and scanned, typed and scanned, then...froze. "Mister Scott, the disruption originates in Sector 3G. It is...a faulty field inducer."

Scott typed frantically, then: "Got it, Mister Spock!"

"I am unable to correct phase. We must take that unit off line."

"Aye, Mister Spock. It'll disrupt the field, but that'll be nothing compared to what we've got now!"

The bucking shook Collins to the deck. It was a long, rapid oscillation now. She wondered how the ship's structure could stand this intense shaking. Hang on, Enterprise, she thought.

"Agreed. Prepare to take unit sixty-one off line on my mark... Three--two--one--mark!"

The severity of the shaking subsided almost immediately. As Spock and Scott labored to compensate for the missing unit, Collins got up and ran to the vacant engineering subsystems monitor station and called up the surface sensor readings.

"What's the planet's status, Doctor Collins?" Kirk shouted.

She examined the readout. "Only the tectonic plates in the immediate vicinity of the defective unit appear affected, Captain. Seismic and volcanic activity are significant, but not serious. The rest of the planet appears stable." She breathed a sigh of relief. "Apparently, she'll be all right, Captain. For these southern highlands..." Collins tapped an area on the screen. "...spring has just come a little early, that's all."

The bucking had relaxed to a dull shudder. It looked as though they were going to make it. Kirk turned to Spock. "The cause, Mister Spock?"

Spock keyed as he spoke. "It was a computer subsystem malfunction, Captain. An extremely low probability occurrence."

"All the same, Mister Spock, perhaps it would be best if we were prepared for it, should it happen again."

"The detection and compensation subroutines are in place and..." Spock tapped one last button. "...operating, Captain. Though the probability of another such occurrence is approximately 5,180,672,853 to one."

Collins glanced at Kirk, who now seemed to be suppressing a smile.

"Thank you, Mister Spock. Unlikely in the extreme, though it...never hurts to be prepared."

"Agreed, Captain." Spock returned to his work.

Collins looked around at the other crew members. They all had private little grins on their faces. She didn't know what to make of it, so she glanced at Kili. He glanced back at her, looked around, and shrugged what passed for his shoulders.

A short time later, Spock looked up from his viewer. "All remaining Delta-Vee units are on-line and fully functional. The field is fully established."

Kirk returned to his command chair. "Initiate orbital shift, Mister Scott."

"Aye, Captain. Orbital shift commencing. Field is steady. Planet stable. Smooth as glass, sir."

Kirk smiled. "Good...Excellent!"

Collins looked up at the main screen. Persephone looked pretty good, a small smudge on the southern hemisphere: the volcanic outgassing that would likely continue right through the encounter. But except for that, she looked none the worse for wear. But something else was bothering her. She couldn't quite put her finger on what it was, but suddenly she wanted to know something very badly. "Mister Spock, now that we've begun the shift, when will we reach the point of no return?"

Spock looked at her quizzically. "'The point of no return?' Ah, yes. You are referring to the instant in time after which we will be unable to return Persephone to its original orbit. One moment, please. I will compute it." He turned back to his console.

Kerlovec rose from his chair. "Don't bother, Vulcan. It is an absurd question. Do not waste systems resources..."

Spock interrupted. "My apologies, Mister Chairman. But I have already entered the request into the computer. At this point, cancelling the request will actually consume more system resources than letting it go through."

Kerlovec scowled, but said nothing and sat down.

Kirk approached her, an intense look in his eye. "An interesting question, Doctor. Might I inquire as to your reason for asking it?" He smiled pleasantly, but his eyes glistened.

Collins couldn't tell him why, she didn't know myself, so she just shrugged. "Curiosity, Captain. No particular reason."

At that moment, Spock completed his calculations. "In 37 hours, 15.67 minutes, we will have altered the planet's orbit such that the return to its original orbital mode will be impossible."

Kirk looked surprised. "That soon, Spock? I don't understand it. We're only shifting the planet's orbit one tenth of one degree."

"True, Captain. But we are upsetting a very delicate balance here. It involves gravitational interactions, momentum along various vectors..." He folded his arms. "It is much like a house of cards; many times easier to destroy than it is to create."

Collins looked over at Kili and saw that he had been listening closely to their conversation. He caught her eye and headed for the turbolift. She joined him. He seemed agitated, as though there was something on his mind.

As the turbolift doors closed, Collins turned to him. "What is it Kili-man?"

"This entire deal smells of day old jheesta."

"Why do you say that?"

He touched the top of his head in a gesture that she'd come to know as the Kiloni equivalent of 'I feel it in my guts.'

"Well, it's out of our hands now, Kili. There's nothing more for us to do."

The turbolift stopped, and she got out. "Where're you headed?"

Kili smiled broadly. "Riley's inducing another round of cards! Hah!" The doors closed.

*****

Instead of returning to her quarters, Deena Collins went in search of something she'd heard existed on the Enterprise. Something that existed, as far as she knew, on no other starship in all of Starfleet: a ship's library. Well, it was more of museum, she supposed, as it consisted entirely of real books! She'd heard about the place, and given her interest in antiques, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to check it out.

Collins ran into Lieutenant Uhura there. They had met earlier, on the bridge, but hadn't had a chance to talk. The lieutenant seemed quite proud of the Enterprise's store of ancient lore. "We have more than one hundred books here, and most of them are originals, though a few have been replicated."

"Are they the property of Starfleet?"

"Oh no, they belong to us, the members of the crew. I've placed several books here myself--ones that I've picked up here and there."

Collins looked at the shelves. She had never seen so many books in one place! "But why do you bother? You have all this and more in your computer banks."

"It's simply not the same, Doctor Collins."

"Oh please, call me Deena."

Uhura smiled and nodded. "All right, Deena. There's something about holding the book in your hands, feeling the pages, seeing where they're worn from countless hands flipping through them. You feel more connected to them somehow."

"Actually, I know what you mean! I've got an old telescope, and every time I use it, I can't help but think of all the others who have looked through it before. I had it with me on Persephone."

At the mention of the planet, Uhura eyes lit up. "Have you ever read the story of Persephone? The mythical Persephone?"

Collins shook her head. "Not really. I read the summary in the original survey report, but..."

Uhura walked over and slid a book off a nearby shelf. "Here's one of my books. I think you might find this interesting."

She handed it to Collins, and she opened it to the first page. "The Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch. Hmm. Is Persephone's story in here?"

"Yes. It's rather brief, but I think you'll find it interesting, and I'm sure it will give you insights you won't find in the computer file."

Collins hesitated. "I can... take this?"

Uhura laughed. "Of course! Why do you think they're here? Just don't forget to bring it back."

Collins smiled back. "I won't. Thanks!"

*****

That evening, Collins crawled into bed with her book. Finally, she was going to read the tale of the mythical Persephone.

She hadn't used a book in quite some time, so it took her a while to find the appropriate "page."

She read about how the maiden, still a child really, was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the Underworld, and taken to that land to dwell with him as his queen. After much strife and negotiation, it was decided that Persephone should spend part of each year with Hades, but she could spend the rest of her time on the surface of the earth among the living. The book tells us nothing at all about how she felt--about what she wanted. She probably wasn't happy with the arrangement, not one bit! But she was powerless to do anything about it.

Ah, the 'Good Old Days'! When men were men, and women were property. Collins had to laugh at the realization that, given her disposition, if she had been born in ancient times, chances are she would've been either revered as an oracle or burned as a witch!

A passage from the book struck her as interesting. It said, "She was sad, but no longer showing alarm in her countenance. Her look was such as became a queen--the queen of Erebus, the powerful bride of the monarch of the realms of the dead." Apparently, she'd made the best of the situation.

Collins lay in bed, trying to imagine this young maiden, dwelling among the dead, struggling to come to grips with that grim reality.

*****

She steps through the lock into Homedome. The lighting is muted; the air is warm and thick. The hangings above her sway in the leisurely breeze.

Hangings.

Her eyes are drawn upward. Dozens of long, gray, silken curtains stream down from high above the center of the dome. But the ceiling is too high, much too high, lost in the slow swirl of fabric bathed in a pearly light from windows. Windows that shouldn't be there. Old-fashioned glass windows with sliding panels, and those panels are open to the breeze.

This isn't right, she thinks. This place has been changed... somehow.

It must have...

It must have been...

Kili! She smiles. That goofball. What's he up to now? But Deena has to admit as she looks up, up into that lazy swirl, that it is beautiful.

What planet is this? she wonders. Oh dear, I'd better remember before Kili gets back, or he'll never let me hear the end of it.

She steps to the middle of the dome, still gazing upward. A breeze stirs her hair. Her gaze drifts slowly down from the hangings and comes to rest on the child.

It is the maiden, Persephone, dressed in a flowing robe of the same material as the hangings--her long, wavy hair flowing back from her small, lovely face. She's sitting on the lab table, swinging her legs leisurely over the side, as any child would.

Deena approaches her.

The child smiles sweetly, and Deena smiles back. As she gets a bit closer, Deena can see her more clearly and she looks into Persephone's eyes.

Oh, such sad eyes! Deena thinks. Such sad eyes for a child. Eyes that have seen too much--eyes that know death.

Deena wants to take her in her arms, to hug her and hold her and gently squeeze the sadness away. To give the child back her youth, her innocence. But Persephone shakes her head and Deena understands. It's too late--far too late for that.

Deena is still several steps from her, and Persephone turns away and begins to manipulate the controls on Kili's scanner. Deena can't quite make out what she's trying to do, so she moves closer. As the child's hand continues working the controls, she turns, and Deena can see apprehension in her face.

Deena nears the table and Persephone repeats her actions with mounting urgency. Her hand is frantically stabbing at the panel now, her head snapping back and forth between the panel and Deena's eyes.

Just as Deena reaches her, she turns away, her little fists pound on the scanner, tipping it over and sending it crashing silently to the floor.

Deena reaches out, takes Persephone by the shoulders, turns her around, and stares, point blank, into the face of a rotting corpse.

The eyes are yellow, pussy masses. The wrinkled, puckered skin is pulled back from brown teeth rattling in dry, gristly gums.

Suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed, Deena falls to the floor, and gazes upward in abject horror, as the putrid cadaver leans over her and begins to fall.

"Aaaaaghh! Awah-ah-gah-gah!" Collins sat in bed, bolt upright, quivering with terror... And feeling slightly silly.

One of the first sad realizations Deena Collins had in her youth was that she would never make a good "Mystery Romance Heroine." The reason she knew this was because she didn't seem to be capable of the right kind of scream. She listened to, read about, even attempted that wonderful, keening, shrill, animal cry known throughout humanity as a woman's scream. But it was to no avail. Other women, she imagined, awake from nightmares and pay fair homage to the memory of Fay Wray or Linnea Quigley. Not her. Not Deena Collins. No, sir. She has a bad dream; she wakes up grunting like a pig.

But despite the silly sounds, Collins was pretty rattled. So she got up, got a drink of water, and took a look at herself in the mirror, trying to figure out what that was all about! Too much work? Too much processed food? What?

She couldn't shake the conviction that the dream was a message. A message from the maiden herself.

Something about the scanner, that's obvious. But what? She splashed water in her face, trying to clear her head. Something about the control panel, something odd...

She struggled to retain the image in her mind, but could feel it slipping slowly away.

Think... THINK! she urged herself. What was it...

With a snap that she actually heard, the image popped into her conscious mind. Yes, there's the panel. It's the standard layout: frequency level, scan resolution, particle type, power switches. But something about it is decidedly weird, non-Euclidean. Her head hurt as she tightened her focus on the image.

Power switches. Switches. Wait. There were two switches! Two power switches! Where there should only be one!

Time to visit Mister K.

*****

"But, why would the damned thing have two switches on it, Kili!?"

The Kiloni are characteristically light sleepers. But Kili had overcome that instinct long ago. And was he grouchy!

"Humans awake make no sense. Humans asleep makes fewer sense."

She started to pace. Kili squatted on his bed and wished she was elsewhere. Collins sighed and pushed the hair back from her face.

"When is one switch not enough?"

Kili snorted. "Easy one. When there is a Human near."

"Come on, Kili. You're not being much help."

"Am, too."

"Are not."

"Am, too!"

"How, Kili, how?! How does that help?"

He tilted his head and blinked at her. "Ask any sentient being 'Who would need two switches?'"

Huh? "What...what would they say?"

"They would say 'Human.'"

"Why?"

"Humans...do things, and not think. Everyone knows that."

"Well, we all make mistakes, but..."

"No. Not as Humans do. What about joke, 'How do you destroy a starship?'"

"I've never heard that one."

"No, I propose not..."

"Well, how do you destroy a starship?"

"Put sign on door, 'Earthers only.'" Kili cackled at his "joke", bobbing up and down on the bed.

"I don't get it." Now Kili was laughing hard. "What's that supposed to mean?"

It took a while for him to calm down. He recovered and gave her his "oh-you-stupid-Deena" look.

"Humans are screw-ups! All beings know this! If it wasn't for the rest of us, you Humans would blow yourselves high-sky! Doom!" He looks at her with great sincerity. "Screw-ups."

"I don't get it?! I mean, everyone makes mistakes!"

Kili shook his head. "Not like Humans. Everyone forgets. Everyone miscalculates. Everyone stumbles, falls, stubs toe-let. Humans, only Humans, act without thought. Only Humans read left and go right. Only Humans put nodules in deep freeze. Only Humans screw-up."

"That's absurd, why, lots of aliens goof up!"

"No!" He was emphatic. "Humans are experts! They put tri-tonium in coffee, they thinklessly switch off important machinery, they tighten five bolt, loosen six, they..."

"Now hold it! Hold it. Switch off machinery... "

Suddenly, Collins recalled the last time she touched Kili's scanner. It was the last night on the planet. She had done her observing, came down to the lab area, and turned the scanner off without thinking about it. But now she recalled quite clearly that Kili himself had turned off the scanner, earlier, when they had argued. That was what the dream was about! That's what's been bothering her all this time!

She had seen the scanner get shut off twice! Two switches!

My God, she thought. Kili's right! Humans are screw-ups! "Kili, do you remember the last night on the planet?"

"Yes. Why would I not?"

"After I went up the ladder to stargaze, did you run a scan?

He shrugged. "Yes."

"Of what?"

"Of what? You know what."

"No, Kili, I don't know what. What did you scan?"

"Ya see? Ya see? You're all stupid minds...stupid...stupid! I scanned rock! Deep crystal! I started scan and sacked out. You finished scan, right?"

"I finished scan, wrong, Kili! When I saw the scanner, it was on standby, and there was nothing in the tray."

"Rock."

"Nothing."

"Rock!"

"Come on, Kili-man! I found nothing! How did the rock get out from under the scanner? You think it walked?!"

They paused. She looked at him, and he looked at her.

"Kili, where are the scan logs, hmm?"

*****

They spent about a hour rummaging through Kili's data wafers.

"Kili, why didn't you label these?!" There were dozens of them, all in disarray.

"Why bother I? They're all negative...dead stuff. Was going to wipe."

"Fine, and Humans are screw ups!" She popped another data wafer into the console. "Here it is!"

She dumped the last scan and started scrolling though the numbers, doin' it the old fashioned way...

Kili sniffed. "Dead... Rock."

"Yes, but it's only the start of the scan. And look, Kili, look at the level of symmetry!"

"It is crystal! It should scan like, maybe, beetle dung?"

She shook her head. "Mister K, there are crystals and then there are crystals..."

Kili rolled his nostrils. "And I am goofy talking?"

"It's too perfect. It... Whoa!"

They bumped heads trying to look at the last set of numbers as they shot by. Collins reversed scroll, and froze the screen. "Well, Kili, what do you make of that?"

The Kiloni stared and made those peculiar smacking sounds his race makes when they're thinking really hard.

"Very odd. Still...rock. But very, very odd."

She consulted the program diagnostic. "The scan aborted. See? There was suddenly nothing left to scan."

Kili stared intently at the final batch of figures. "Not life."

She sighed and shook her head. "Not rock. Information matrix?"

Kili rose and stared bobbing around the room. "Not enough scan! Could be random!"

"I don't think so."

"You think...I think. Not know, Deena."

"Damn! If only we had my samples. If only Fredor hadn't confiscated them. If only..."

Her tirade was nipped in the bud, as she stared at Kili's outstretched hand. It held a crystal. One of thosecrystals.

She sighed. "Okay, Kili. I give up. Where did you get this."

Kili's eyes were full of innocence. "You gave it to me, remember? On planet."

"But you didn't want it then. You didn't take it."

"I changed mind! Is that a Federation defense?!"

"Kili..."

"Okay, simmer up. Riley...owes me favor. Actually, he owes me several." He cackled to himself. "So, he did favor. He knew a Human who knew a Human who had access to several storage areas, and..."

She took a good look at the crystal. It didn't seem all that unique. Just a blob of quartz. Essentially transparent, but it was so full of cleavage planes and impurities that she couldn't look all the way through it. The central portion was completely obscured.

She got up. "We need to scan this. A deep scan. Level Ten. There's a big scanner up in the Geology lab and..."

"Problem."

"What?"

"Big scan sucks big juice."

"So? This ship's got lots of power..."

"Which is monitored by engineering station on bridge. They will know what we do as quick as we do."

She considered the implications. "Fredor."

Kili bobbed his head. "He will figure things fast. He will shout that we break law with rock."

"So. We've got to do this very carefully, Kili. We'll have to split up. I'll head up to the bridge, and see if I can't distract Mister Scott. You head to the lab and scan the rock, and hope that no one wanders in unexpectedly."

"I'll get help to stand guard."

"Who?"

"Riley. He..."

"...owes you a favor. I know, I know."

They synchronized chronometers, gave each other the secret handshake, and proceeded to put their half-baked scheme into action.

*****

The moment Collins arrived on the bridge, she knew that something wasn't right. Kirk was there, as were Spock and Scotty, all the usual crowd, but it was too quiet, too...tense. She glanced at Uhura, expecting to get a smile. But Uhura just stared gloomily at her console and ignored her. Captain Kirk sat slumped in his chair, his back to her.

Kerlovec was in his usual spot near the main screen, and seemed, by contrast, in good spirits. He noticed her. "Ah, Doctor Collins! Welcome!" He had this funny looking thing on his face. It was twisted in an odd way. It was a smile!

Deena Collins was stunned. "Um, hello. What's...up?" she inquired tentatively, stepping down to stand near Kirk's chair.

Kirk stirred and looked up at her listlessly. "You're just in time for the 'Big Event,' Doctor." Kirk's manner was alarming. He was...fidgeting. His palms were sweaty, and he looked pale.

Collins couldn't quite figure it out. "What 'Big Event' would that be?" She looked around the bridge, wondering who would answer.

Spock turned to her. "The event which you yourself inquired about earlier, Doctor. We are nearing the point of no return. The point beyond which we will be unable to restore the planet to it's original orbit."

She felt faintly ill. "How long?"

"Thirty-three minutes, seventeen seconds from now." He turned back to his viewer, his stance tense and rigid.

Kerlovec was gleeful. "Isn't it wonderful?! There is no turning back now. Soon this planet will be mine, and..."

"Don't you mean, Terra Five's?" Collins inquired.

Annoyance clouded his otherwise smiley, and ghastly, features. "Yes, yes, of course, whatever. We will have our world, and no one can stop us!" Kerlovec chuckled to himself and tapped his cane on the deck at his feet.

Then it hit her. She understood why there was so much tension here! Kerlovec had been here, virtually without a break, for nearly a week now! He was driving these people crazy!

Collins looked at Kirk again. Yes, She could see it clearly now. The way he slouched in his chair, the gloomy glazed expression on his face. His hands tapping, tapping incessantly on the chair arms. The captain was ready to space the old geezer!

As casually as she could, Collins moved to the engineering station, and saw that the chief engineer was equally affected by the mood on the bridge. He sat stiff and erect, his mouth drawn into a fine line as he scanned his board and made occasional adjustments. As she studied him, it occurred to Collins that he might be more than willing to help them with their little scheme. But she needed to act quickly. "Mister Scott, umm, hi." She smiled sweetly.

He managed only a faint, grim smile in return. "Doctor."

"I'm planning on going out to do a quick reconnaissance run of Persephone, but I'm having trouble with one of the thrusters on my shuttle. I was wondering if you could take a look at it."

Scotty's face lit up and he started to rise. "Sure, Lassie! I'll bet it's one of the coils, I kin..."

"Doctor, you will stop harassing this ship's crew, or I will terminate your contract!"

Calmly, Collins turned to Kerlovec, faced him dead on, paused, took a breath, and prepared to commit an act of wanton verbal assault. But before she could get the words out, she heard an electronic chirping sound to her left, followed by Scott's voice.

"Captain, I read a power drain in the science labs section."

They had run out of time.

Kirk rose from his chair, faced his chief engineer, and opened his mouth to speak, when suddenly, all hell broke loose. The lights flashed. A wailing siren screamed in their ears.

"Red alert! Red alert!" Uhura had to shout over the din.

Kirk rushed to the science station. "What is it, Spock?!"

"Containment field breach in the primary Geology lab on Deck Two. I'm reading strong, unknown life signs signature in the lab, Captain."

"How strong?"

"Readings are off the scale."

It's Kili! Collins thought. It has to be!

She rushed to the turbolift as Kirk shouted, "Enhance the field! Try to isolate the lifeform! Uhura, get a security containment detail down there, on the double!"

Collins was in the lift. The doors closed. "Deck Two!"

Deck Two was immediately below the bridge, but it still seemed to take forever to get there. She closed her eyes, took one long breath.

The lift stopped, the doors opened.

The door to the lab was to her right. Collins hurried to it and bumped against the door panels trying to step through. They wouldn't open! Frustrated, She hit the door switch. Nothing!

She hit it again. The door wouldn't budge.

"Kili," she called. "Kili, answer me! Are you all right?! Kili!!"

"He can't hear you, Doc. These lab doors are too thick."

She twirled and saw Riley standing by the turbolift. She'd been in such a hurry, she hadn't noticed him there.

"Kevin! We've got to get in there! How do you open this snarking..." She gave the door switch another swat, as if that would do any good.

"Doctor Collins. Deena!" Riley's voice was urgent. He grabbed her arms and swung her around to face him. "Listen to me! The room is contaminated with an alien life-form!"

She took another deep breath. Get a grip girl, she told herself.

"All right, Kevin, look. There's nothing more you can do here. You'd better get out of here and lay low 'til this--whatever it is--blows over."

"But--"

"Go!" He hesitated, then hopped into the lift, and was away. And no sooner was he gone, when suddenly the lights stopped flashing, and the siren stopped its infernal howl. All was peaceful and calm. Feeling like she was in a dream, Collins stepped to the door, and watched it slide obediently aside.

She crept slowly into the quiet lab. To the left were a several worktables, piled with containers of samples, pieces of machinery, computer terminals. To the right was a large lab table extending out from the wall. On that table, wreathed in the shimmer of a cylindrical containment force field, was a large scanner. But Kili was nowhere to be seen.

Maybe he got out, she thought. Maybe he's safe. But then where did he go? He should have been right outside the door, with Riley.

Just then Collins caught a bit of motion to her right, coming from the containment field. She stepped closer. She could see the scanner platform in there, beneath the large, permanently mounted scanner. Off to one side was the crystal. It had opened into sections, like a Terran orange, but the sections still remained attached at one end. It must have opened with some force because it was no longer directly beneath the scanner. The scanner itself was on standby.

A swirl of motion caught her eye, and adjusting her focus, she could suddenly see myriad sparkling points of light within the field. Instinctively, she checked the shield settings on the panel above the scanner. Kili had set the shields on standby. He probably wanted to see the crystal clearly while it was scanned. Whatever happened must have happened so fast that the system hadn't had time to react. Now, because of the containment breach, the shield was on maximum, and set to allow objects to enter the field, but not to leave. Standard settings for this situation. Whatever these little 'bugs' were, they had gotten loose, flown around the room for a while. When they returned to their source, they had become trapped. As far as Collins could tell, she was safe.

She squinted to get a better look at the 'bugs.' They were difficult to see through the field, but looked for all the world like small crystalline insects--like tiny glass bees trapped in a jar. As she strained to see them, she noticed that they weren't completely transparent. Each seemed to contain a small grain of color; some green; some yellow, some a pinkish red. They appeared at first to be flying about at random, but then she noticed one of them land on the crystal. It crawled around as if it was looking for something, then it...disappeared. It just sort of melted into the rock. Then she saw another one do the same thing. Then another, and another. All the little bugs were returning to the rock. She'd never seen anything like it.

Collins tore her eyes away from the field, and took another look around. She was looking at the room from a different angle, and this time she saw him.

He was lying motionless in the far corner of the room, curled up in a pool of thick goo. He was covered with the stuff, too, but it was partly transparent, and through it she could see that he had lost his skin. She could see connective tissue, muscle, gristle. He didn't move, he didn't breath, he didn't twitch.

"Oh, dear...Kili..."

Suddenly, the door swished open, and Collins looked up in time to see Kirk rush in, with Kerlovec just behind him. At that instant, she knew what she had to do.

"He's dead. My friend is dead! And it's all because of you!!" Her finger shot out toward Kerlovec. Kirk came toward her, spotted Kili and froze, a look of shock and horror passed across his face.

The Chairman saw him, too, but he turned immediately and hurried over to investigate the contents of the field. He peered intently into the field, spotted the crystal, then looked at her, his face contorted with rage. He seemed on the verge of exploding, but instead he forced himself to calm down, and merely said, "Just what is this thing, Doctor?"

So that's his game, she thought. Of course, deny everything! "You know damned well what it is! You've known all along!"

That caught the chairman off guard. For an instant, Collins saw surprise and fear on his face. Then, he was in control again. "What are you talking about?!"

"These crystals are dormant lifeforms! You confiscated them to prevent us from finding out!"

Kirk approached the scanner table. "This is a lifeform from the planet?"

"Yes, Captain. I gathered that crystal myself."

He turned toward the wall intercom. "Then we must reverse the orbital shift."

"No, Kirk," Kerlovec shouted. "She's lying!"

Kirk hesitated. "Why? Why would she lie?"

Kerlovec looked at her. "Perhaps part of a Federation conspiracy to undermine our claim here. I do not know. But I do know that this woman is making wrongful accusations."

"Look, maybe she's lying, maybe she isn't, but until I sort this out, Persephone must be returned to its original orbit." Kirk turned back to the intercom.

"I can't let you do that, Captain." Kerlovec spoke so calmly that Kirk looked toward him, and froze in his tracks. The Chairman held a phaser in his hand, pointed at Kirk's head.

At that moment, McCoy walked in with Riley right behind him. They both saw the phaser at the same instant and froze.

Kerlovec quickly moved to include them in his line of fire. "Who are you, and what in blazes are you doing here?!"

McCoy favored Kerlovec with a cold stare. "I'm this ship's chief medical officer, Chairman Kerlovec, responding to a medical emergency."

Kerlovec poked his phaser at Riley. "And who is this?"

The doctor looked at Riley and grimaced. "This is my assistant...Nurse Riley." He looked around, saw Kili and put his hand on his medikit. "Now if you don't mind, Mister Chairman, I've got a patient to examine."

"By all means, Doctor, examine away, for all the good it will do you."

McCoy and Riley rushed to where Kili lay. Collins joined them. The doctor look at Kili, then at her. "What happened here?" He was appalled by what he saw.

"Kili was attacked by some kind of lifeform contained in one of the crystals he was scanning," she explained. Tears welled up in her eyes. "He's dead."

As McCoy began his scan, she turned to Riley. "Kevin," she whispered. "What are you doing here?"

He whispered back. "Kili's my friend. I couldn't just run off and hide. I met Doctor McCoy on the turbolift, and convinced him to let me come along."

McCoy rolled his eyes. "Convinced me? I just couldn't get rid of him. Well, as long as you're here, Nurse Riley..." McCoy handed him the medikit. "Hand me the, um, little silver thing."

"You mean, this one that looks like a salt shaker?"

"Right. Now..."

As they worked, Collins got up and looked toward Kirk and Kerlovec. The chairman had sealed the door to the lab using the biohazard-present switch. They were trapped with a deadly alien lifeform and a madman.

Kirk was moving toward Kerlovec, holding out his arms in an imploring gesture. "You can't get away with this, Chairman Kerlovec. Look, do yourself a favor and..."

Kerlovec jabbed the phaser at Kirk, warning him off. "No Kirk, I do you the favor. I am in command here! You have already given this project the Federation 'Seal of Approval.' It is out of your hands, and this..." He nodded toward the crystal. "... changes nothing. I save you from yourself, Kirk. From your headstrong, insubordinate self. Come away from the wall, and relax." The Chairman looked at his watch. "Another twenty minutes or so, and it will all be over. Kerlovec pulled up a chair and sat, cane in one hand, phaser in the other. There was a look of utter contentment on his face.

"Chairman Kerlovec, we have found a lifeform indigenous to the planet!"

"You have found nothing! This...crystal was planted either by the Kiloni, this woman, or someone on this ship. Such will be my report to the Kerlovec Board of Directors. It will be my word against yours. Who do you think will prevail?"

"The Federation will mount their own investigation."

Kerlovec shook his head. "No, Kirk. Not if the Federation wants the topaline mined by my corporation. What do we provide the Federation? Twenty percent of the topaline used by Starfleet per year? And ten percent of the dilithium?"

"You're risking the destruction of an entire species. And this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Chances are, there's an entire eco-system down there. You would allow it to be destroyed, just so your people can live here? If you want another class M planet, the Federation will be glad to help you relocate the entire population of Terra Five."

"Unacceptable! All other suitable planets are too far from the systems we are presently mining. Make no mistake about it, Kirk, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to secure this planet. Yes, I would do all this and more, for the good of my people."

He wasn't fooling anyone.

"I swear, Chairman Kerlovec. You will pay for this! No one...no one...holds me at gun point on my ship!"

"There is a first time for everything, Captain."

Riley, who had given up all pretense of assisting McCoy, rose and beckoned to Kirk. "Captain, can I speak to you a moment, please?"

Riley took Kirk aside, and they began whispering quietly.

"Here now," Kerlovec interrupted. "No secrets." He looked at his watch. "It won't be long now."

Not long indeed, Collins thought. Not long to save a planet--a world and its lifeforms. Well, it's my turn, and I have to act--now. First, the truth. "We...I know about the Kerlovec base on Persephone, Mister Chairman. I can prove that your people were there before we arrived, in direct contradiction of your report to the Federation."

His face dropped and he stared at her intently. "That's a lie."

"I have evidence to prove it."

He shrugged. "So? What of it? It was an unintentional oversight. I'll fire someone, and we'll pay the fine."

And now comes the lie, Collins thought. I must be convincing! "When we found the evidence of the base, we flew to the nearest rift area, and found plenty of evidence that your team had done some crystal hunting of their own. They left many duplicate samples behind, and some of them were identical to that." She nodded toward the crystal, then faced Kerlovec and stared at him with great conviction. "They knew, Fredor. And if they knew, you knew."

The chairman's face darkened, then began to grow pale.

Kirk walked to Kerlovec and stood over him ticking off on his fingers. "There's your odd insistence on confiscating apparently unimportant crystal samples; your denial being contradicted by Doctor Collins' evidence. It all adds up to a substantial body of evidence, Chairman Kerlovec, albeit mostly circumstantial. Do you want to risk it?"

Kerlovec's eyes began to flick back and forth. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, but then he looked at Kirk defiantly. "The Federation would never imprison me! Not for a minor felony! I am the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Kerlovec Mining Company of Terra Five!"

Riley walked over to stand next to Kirk, looking down at Kerlovec. "But Mister Chairman, I believe that among the charge would be one of murder."

"Murder? Impossible!"

"Oh, very possible, likely, in fact. If you are found guilty of knowingly transporting a hazardous lifeform, and that lifeform kills someone, you will be charged with murder."

Terror slowly crept into Kerlovec's eyes now.

Way to go, Riley! thought Collins. Even the Chairman of the Kerlovec Corporation can't get away with murder.

Suddenly Kerlovec rose, shouted something unintelligible, and threw his phaser to the floor, hard.

Kirk leaped to the wall intercom. He slammed his fist against the button. "Kirk to the bridge! Spock, are you there? Security alert: Deck Two Geology Lab." He disengaged the biohazard isolation control.

"Scott here, Captain. Spock is..."

"Never mind, Mister Scott. Reverse orbital shift, Scotty! Do it now!"

"Och, Captain! I dinna think I can! Chekov, get me a readout of..." His voice became inaudible as he moved away from his station.

Well, here I am, once again, helplessly standing by while forces beyond my control decide the fate of Persephone. She wanted to scream at the walls, tear bulkheads to shreds. But she couldn't, so she chewed her fingernails instead.

Kirk banged on the intercom button again. "Mister Scott. Report!"

They could hear more mumbling in the background, then Scotty's voice could be heard approaching the station. "How many decimal places? How can that be? Captain, if Mister Chekov's numbers are accurate enough...Och, well, initiating reverse routine as per your instructions."

"Does that mean we can do it?"

"Aye, Captain, with about...fifteen seconds to spare. You couldna' cut it any closer with one of Doctor McCoy's scalpels."

Thank you, Mister Scott. Kirk out." The captain punched the button, and turned to face Kerlovec whose face was grim.

"What do you want, Kirk?"

The captain strode up to Kerlovec, and stuck a finger at the Chairman's nose. "Your head, sir! On a platter! But...if you agree to waive all rights to the planet Persephone, and renew the contract with the Federation, I'll agree to keep your name out of...this." He indicated Kili.

Kerlovec paused a long while, then, unexpectedly, he laughed. "See, Kirk? You are no better than me. Since it is expedient, you are prepared to let someone you consider a murderer go free."

The captain ignored him, and turned to McCoy. "See to the disposition of the body, Doctor. Whatever is...appropriate for Kiloni."

"Of course, Captain."

Then Kirk and Kerlovec turned, stepped out of the lab, and right into a phalanx of tense, armed security guards, led by none other than Commander Spock. "Captain, I...anticipated that you might require assistance. Is everything quite all right?"

Kirk smiled pleasantly. "Everything's fine, Mister Spock, though I appreciate the concern."

As Kirk and Kerlovec moved to the turbolift, the door to the lab closed. Wiping away tears, Collins walked back to where Kili lay and knelt down beside him. McCoy was crouched beside her.

"Well, Kili," she said, sighing. "This is some fine mess you've gotten yourself into."

For a moment, there was silence. Then one eyeball forced itself open, and from the depths of the slime, a gurgling voice replied, "You are some fine mess, also."

And she probably was, too, Collins suspected, what with all the crying she'd been doing. "But you must admit, Kili-man, that it worked like a charm. The Chairman of all bastards bought the show, hook, line, and sinker."

Collins looked up at McCoy who had an odd smile on his face.

"That was some performance, I must say. Your grief seemed so real." The doctor glanced at his tricorder. "I almost doubted my readings."

She bowed her head theatrically. "Thank you...Thank you...Thank you very much!"

They laughed.

"I took some drama back at the Acalß University on Serenidad. Discovered that I was real good at cranking out the tears. I just have to keep telling myself that something terrible has happened, even though I know it hasn't."

McCoy frowned at his tricorder. "I don't get it. This slime registers as highly toxic."

Kili started to gurgle, but Collins stopped him. "Kili-man. You rest, I'll explain." She smiled at McCoy. "It's a defense mechanism--one of many, of course, and this is one few outsiders have heard of. The Kiloni don't talk about it much."

"Defense against what?"

"The planet Kilon has a nasty insect population."

"How nasty?"

"Very nasty. There are several species of insects which can swarm around you and pick you clean to the bone in under a minute. They're relatively rare, only appearing when the conditions are right, but they're common enough that the higher forms had to come up with some kind of defense, or they didn't stay higher forms for long."

"How does this defense mechanism work?"

"Quite automatic--a reflex response, basically. A chemical stored in the epidermal layers is released onto the skin. His skin, and the underlying connective tissue, are immediately transformed into this inert, semi-solid, disgusting yuck."

"Yuck you!" gargled the Kiloni.

"Hush, Muckety-man! It's something like the defense mechanism of Terran sea cucumbers."

McCoy cocked his head. "You've seen this before."

"Yup. A couple of years ago a rather hostile lifeform got out of hand on another survey we were doing. Not quite this bad, though."

McCoy snapped his fingers. "It's an ideal defense for someone in his line of work, isn't it?"

"You betcha! But I must say, I'm surprised at Captain Kirk." She gestured to the captain who was issuing orders to the security team. "I mean, letting Fredor off like that while believing that he had killed Kili. He's a pretty cold fish."

McCoy smiled. "The captain knew Kili wasn't dead, Deena."

"Huh?...How?"

"Riley told him."

"When? Oh. I remember now. When they were whispering." She shook her head. "Boy, you folks sure are a crafty bunch! I'm impressed!"

It was McCoy's turn to bow. "I thank you."

She looked down at Kili. "Well, we should get him to Sickbay."

Kili's one functional eye was staring at her balefully. Collins guessed that they were moving too slowly for the Kiloni.

McCoy rose, scratching the back of his neck. "How the heck do I treat this?"

"Actually, you don't have to do anything. He's capable of growing himself a whole new skin. But a high-protein, nutrient I-V will help."

McCoy started for the intercom. "I'll get a stretcher down here."

*****

It took Kili a little over a week to grow his skin back. During that time, Spock and Scotty began to put Persephone back where she belonged, while McCoy and Collins began to unlock some of the secrets of the mystery crystal. And, of course they had to report their findings to Kili on a regular basis. It was the only way they could keep him in bed.

"The mechanism, the mechanism, what is the mechanism!"

"All right, Kili, calm down." Collins sat on his bed.

McCoy remained standing. He was too excited to sit. "You should see this thing, Kili, it's amazing! It appears to be a kind of 'reverse fossilization' process. The crystal flyers seek out a suitable location, land, burrow into the soil, and dissolve. Contained in each flyer is the crystalline equivalent of the unicellular form, and..."

"Yes, yes. As it dissolves, molecule replaces molecule! This I know! But how do crystals form? This I don't know!"

McCoy was starting to lose his cool. "Now listen just a damn minute! While you've been taking up space in my Sickbay, we've been working our tails off! If you..."

The door to Sickbay swished open, and in walked Kirk, Spock, and Scotty.

The captain smiled. "Well, and how is our patient today, Doctor McCoy?"

"About to be thrown out on his ear!" McCoy peered intently at Kili's skull. "That is, if I can find one."

Kirk mouthed a tiny little 'oh' and shrugged. "Well, you'll be happy to know that the Kerlovec Corporation and Terra Five have officially relinquished their claim to the planet Persephone. Apparently, the Chairman's willingness to 'do anything for his people' did not extend to doing hard time."

"What about the contract?"

Kirk smiled. "Signed, sealed, and delivered."

Spock turned to Collins. "Doctor Collins, how have you and Doctor McCoy been coming with your research?"

"Slow!" piped Kili. "Slower than molasses in Kentucky!"

"That's January," Collins corrected.

"I'm not caring where it is, I..."

"Kili," she warned.

Kirk shrugged again. "I...suppose I can wait for your report later. But I do have a couple of quick questions, if I may?"

"What's that, Jim?" McCoy prompted.

"Why did the crystal come to life, as it were, in the lab? Why did it attack Doctor Kili?"

Collins knew this one. "The scan set it off, Captain. Certain types of radiant energy are refracted by the outer shell of the crystal, and brought to focus on the inner mechanism. The higher energy level we used for the level prime scan was just what the doctor ordered, so to speak."

"And the same thing happened on the planet when you ran the original scan?"

"Right, but that was Kili's portable scanner, with a lower energy output. It only partially triggered the mechanism. It just must have popped out from under the beam, aborting the scan. But it didn't have enough energy to deploy the fliers."

"Which was indeed fortunate for you, Doctor," remarked Spock.

"I can think of better ways to die, Mister Spock. What was your other question, Captain?"

"Why didn't any ship's sensors detect this lifeform? How did we... manage to miss it, time and time again?"

Collins sighed. "Well, Captain, this crystal is not, strictly speaking, a lifeform."

"Not a lifeform?" Kirk glanced at each of us in turn. "Are you...joking?"

McCoy smiled. "We almost wish we were, Jim. You see, the crystals, while underground, have no ongoing metabolism whatsoever. Undisturbed, they can sit there 'til doomsday, perfectly stable, completely unchanged."

"So this...creature lives out part of it's lifecycle as a..."

"A mineral, Jim. Just a pretty crystal."

"But we've encountered crystalline lifeforms before, and sensors had no difficulty detecting them."

"Jim. This isn't a lifeform."

Kirk scratched his head, looked around him as if he were lost, then turned with desperation to his first officer. "Spock, can you understand...any of this?"

Spock crossed his arms. "Doctor McCoy, if the crystals are not a lifeform, then how would you describe them?"

McCoy shrugged. "I don't know, Mister Spock. I've never seen anything like it before. You see, this crystal contains some kind of mineral equivalent of DNA, and..."

"But that is nothing new, Doctor. Horta eggs are as much mineral as organic, and Tholians, as far as we know, are entirely crystalline. How is this different?"

McCoy spoke with a quiet intensity. "Because this crystal, and all the other crystals like it down on the planet, don't simply contain the blueprint for one organism, Spock. As far as we can tell, each crystal contains the blueprint of life for the entire planet!"

The room grew quiet, and for the span of several seconds, no one moved. It was an odd sight, watching them as they tried to grasp the concept...as they struggled to get their brains around the idea of a world of life fitting into the palm of your hand. Collins could have sworn she heard gears grinding.

Then, into this frozen tableau crept the tiniest of movements. A motion so small, in fact, that under normal circumstances, it would have gone unnoticed.

Slowly--very slowly--with the kind of grace and stateliness that would have made a glacier appear hasty by comparison, a single eyebrow ascended. "Fascinating."

"Aye, Mister Spock, that it is!"

With that, the spell was broken.

Spock crossed his arms. "But, Doctor, how is it possible to store all that information in such a small package? Granted, it is at the molecular level, but so is naturally occurring genetic material. If all the genetic coding for all the life-forms for an entire planet were included, it would require a much larger crystal. Unless..." Spock's voice trailed off. His mouth hung open briefly, which was quite a thing to see on a Vulcan. He must have realized it because he quickly clammed up.

McCoy smiled and shook his finger at the Vulcan. "You guessed it, Spock. The crystals don't store all the genetic information for each creature. Apparently, it stores one master matrix, defining the basic chemical structures common to all of Persephone's life. Then you have myriad sub-structures, one for each of the orders, families, genera, and species in this ecosystem. Only that part of the code that is unique to a particular subspecies is actually stored. None of the genetic code is repeated!"

Scotty's eyes lit up. "That's why none of our scanners could spot it. It's just too different! None of the repeated structure of a typical lifeform."

Spock looked graver. "Doctor, what you have just described is an algorithm used in computer technology. It is a highly advanced form of data compression."

Kirk looked around at his men. "Well, gentlemen, our patient needs some rest, and...we've got a ship to run. Perhaps we could continue this conversation at another date?"

As they turned to leave, Scotty laughed and patted Spock on the back. "I wonder, Mister Spock, if this discovery would be of interest to the scientists at the Daystrom Institute?"

"Indeed, Mister Scott. This may very well be the first known case of a naturally occurring 'zipped' file."

They filed out the door; and Kirk smiled, nodded, and turned to follow. But Collins had one quick question for him.

"Captain?"

He paused. "Yes, Doctor?"

"It's about Persephone. Since the Kerlovec Corporation and Terra Five have withdrawn their claim, I assume that she falls back under Federation jurisdiction?"

Kirk smiled. "That's right, Doctor, as a matter of fact, she does. Why do you ask?"

"Well, this unique ecosystem is going to require lots of study." She babbled, "And while I understand that a survey like this would normally be under the direction of an exo-biologist, given the fact that it spends part of its time in crystalline form, and given the fact that..."

Kirk held up his hand. "Given the fact that you already have extensive knowledge of this planet, Doctor, I've decide to recommend that you be placed in charge of the research team."

"Thank you, Captain! I was also wondering..." She indicated Kili, who lay there blinking his big, golden eyes at Kirk. Kirk glanced at Kili and shrugged.

"Frankly, Doctor Kili poses something of a problem. Right now, we have the upper hand with Fredor Kerlovec, but should it become known that a certain dead Kiloni is not, in fact, dead, well--" Kirk shrugged.

"But, Captain, there must be some way Kili could stay here with me. I mean, he's essential! I couldn't do the work without him. Isn't there something we could do?"

Kirk pursed his lips. "Well...I could, I suppose, simply name you as head of the project, and recommend that you be supplied with whatever materials--and personnel--as you may require." The captain nodded and smiled. "Yes, that should work. And I think I can arrange to bury the details deep enough in the Federation paperwork, so that no one will learn our little secret."

"Thank you, Captain, for both of us!"

"My pleasure, Doctor." He turned to leave, then hesitated. "Of course, knowing the Kerlovec Corporation, they'll probably be monitoring your communications. They're famous for that. You'd better make sure that Doctor Kili's name is not mentioned in any research or personal communication." With that, he turned and left.

Collins looked at McCoy. "Do you think that will work?"

"Madam, if Jim Kirk says he can do it, it's as good as done. "He shook his head ruefully. "I must admit, I envy you two. Sounds to me like you'll be having a gay old time sorting things out here."

"It is not 'a gay old time' for me! I must be 'Kiloni Incognito'! What of my kin?"

"Relax, Kili," Collins soothed. "We'll get word to them somehow. It just wouldn't do to have the Chairman discover your name on any of our reports, at least 'til this thing blows over."

Kili blinked disdainfully. "Sounds like I do all the work; I get none of the credit."

"Well, if you're not interested, I could always get Farkus..."

"Ach! You would be death-on-a-rock without me! Use your noodle! I must stay." He look up at her earnestly. "As you said, Deena, I am essential."

Well, Collins had to admit, he had her there.

*****

The Enterprise stayed on another week, and they made good use of the time studying the emerging organisms. Once the "seeds" were planted by the flyers, Persephone's ecosystem developed very quickly. It was like witnessing the planet's organic evolution at a highly accelerated rate. Aquatic microorganisms emerged on the first day, and by the third day simple vertebrates appeared. One species seemed to give birth to the next, until even the Enterprise's resources were stretched to the breaking point as they struggled to provide the emerging life-forms with suitable bio-chambers. They couldn't track the entire process, but they were hoping to extend the process far enough so that they could answer the one question that everyone was asking: How do these crystals form, containing genetic material for all the world's life?

At first, all they knew for sure was that, from a mineralogist's standpoint, the crystals were just quartz with a lot of impurities mixed in. The problem was, of course, that a crystal like that can only form in a medium of molten rock.

Then Kili found his 'latent virus', common to all Persephonian life-forms, at least the ones they'd studied so far. He saw signs that the virus was constantly "stealing" DNA from the host; not enough to do it harm, but more than enough to keep tabs on any changes in the host's genetic structure. And this virus, it seemed, had mineral components.

So Doctor McCoy, Kili, and Collins butted their heads together and came up with one possible scenario. They were all seated around McCoy's desk in Sickbay, which was strewn with various reports and charts pertaining to their research. Kili was his old self, except for being somewhat pinker than usual.

McCoy leaned back and locked his fingers behind the back of his head. "So while the orbit is in its circular mode, life goes on pretty much as usual; you're born, you procreate, and you die. Then along comes Hades, and suddenly Persephone has a spell of really, really, bad weather."

Kili bobbed his head. "Correct. This virus is triggered and reproduces, killing host, which is good like dead anyway. Millions of organisms each making billions of viruses, each with the DNA segment of host. I see these viruses to become spores, scattered by the huge winds blowing."

"Right," Collins chimed. "And while that's happening to the biosphere, Persephone's crust is being torn apart. These huge rivers of lava well up from the rift zones, and some of the spores--not all, but some--land in the lava."

McCoy nodded. "That's reasonable. There are probably quintillions of them floating around. But you would expect the spores to be destroyed at these high temperatures."

She shrugged. "The organic part would, sure. Poof, it would be gone, but the mineral part..." She grabbed one of the reports. "...can withstand temperatures in excess of 5000 degrees Kelvin. The outer coating is similar to ceramic. But..." She shook her head. "How do these crystals form? It boggles the mind! The process would be complex, very complex. It would be as tricky as..."

"Life," Kili interrupted. "Life is as tricky. This crystal grows in lava, cell grows in water. Same deal."

"Different deal, Kili. The temperature..."

McCoy shrugged. "It happens somehow. We know it does because we have the proof right here." He tapped his fingers on the reports. "The crystals exist."

"Good point," Collins conceded.

"Okie, I finish picture. Planet shoots away from star, like comet. One millennium later, back it comes, has encounter, more bad weather. Volcanos then shoots rocks up to world's surface, and they are warmed by star, 'til flyers pop up, and go spread life all over again. Summer is back..."

"...And all the flowers are in bloom." McCoy beamed. "Well, this calls for a celebration." He rose, and headed for his medicine cabinet. "Either of you ever tried any Saurian brandy?"

*****

Scotty and Spock finally got Persephone back on course, and shut down the field. The Reliant collected the Delta-Vees and Chairman Kerlovec, then warped out. Collins believed she could hear the cries of joy ringing throughout the ship! Strangely enough, no one seemed the least choked up to see the Chairman leave.

Several days later the scout-class vessel, U.S.S. Louis Pasteur, arrived. It would remain in the Omega Serpentis system and be Collins and Kili's research platform until they could return to the planet. Sadly, the Enterprise would be leaving. Since this was no longer a major mission, they didn't rate that kind of attention.

Collins regretted their leaving. She was really starting to like it here. There was all that room, this wonderful crew, those nifty labs. She had to admit, as they boarded their shuttles and flew out, that part of her wanted to turn around, right then and there. But then as they approached the Pasteur, she took a good look at Persephone, and realized that it was the first time that she had seen her with the unaided eye for weeks now. And it was like running into an old friend.

But Collins looked at the world now with new eyes. This was not the face of death--it was the face of wisdom. It was the noble countenance of the sad queen of Erebus; who knew only too well that life leads to death, but that death just as surely leads right back to life. Here was a golden opportunity to explore a completely new manifestation of that great mystery. What more could anyone ask for?

And she'd almost missed it, that's the scary part. In her efforts to save this world, Collins had almost destroyed it.

Oh well, she thought. Live and learn.

There was just one part of this that worried her. Though she was named head of this operation due to her previous experience here, Deena Collins was not a biologist. Technically, she was in charge, but she wasn't going to kid herself. She knew darn well who would really be the boss...

Hmm, she thought. Maybe I should have stayed on the Enterprise after all.


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