"We'll contact you as soon as we arrive, Scotty," James Kirk said as he climbed into Galileo's small cockpit and reached for the hatch.
"Aye, sir," replied the engineer. "But I do wish ye'd let Mister Spock an' the doctor take care o' this. After all, it's just a public relations stint. No need for ye to--"
"Exactly why I need to go, Scotty," Kirk interrupted, smiling. "Starfleet made it clear that the governing body of Nihal Four teeters on the edge of joining the Federation. That calls for as much brass as we can muster."
"And Jim's got more brass than any of us," remarked McCoy dryly, shrugging when Kirk narrowed warning eyes at him.
The captain returned his gaze to Scott. "Anyway, this area of space is relatively safe. Just the two planets around Beta Leporis and one of those barely inhabited." He patted the dubious engineer's shoulder in reassurance. "I'll let you know when we get there. You've got enough on your mind with the rendezvous with Potemkin to pick up the Federation Ambassadors. Don't worry. And Scotty..."
"Keep my ship safe."
Scott grinned suddenly and nodded as the shuttle hatch breathed closed, crewmen hastily evacuating the bay for depressurization. The doors opened, revealing the vastness of space.
"Galileo ready for departure," sounded Spock's cool voice over the speakers.
"We read you five-by-five, Galileo," responded Scott. "You are go for departure. All systems show green."
"Acknowledged. Spock out."
The little ship lifted gently from Enterprise's deck, eased past the small mound of soil containers from their last planetfall, through the heavy doors, and zipped from its cozy nest into the unpredictable reaches of the galaxy. Inside, Kirk settled down for the relatively brief flight to Beta Leporis IV, better known as Nihal IV, mulling over the speech he had specifically designed to persuade the Nihali to enter the Federation. They had chosen to take the shuttle to avoid having to orbit the planet, thus allowing Scott a quicker recovery of the ambassadors.
Admiral Komack had stated in no uncertain terms the importance of that planet with its rich veins of dilithium, an unquestionable temptation to Klingons and Romulans alike. It was as much to keep them from obtaining such a prize as it was to claim it for the Federation that Komack desired a successful conference, and it was Kirk's job to insure such a success. The captain sighed, feeling the diplomatic burden settle onto his shoulders. More accustomed to the straightforward contests of the Kh'myr Klingons, he did not particularly enjoy practicing the delicate verbal ballet necessary in these situations. Nevertheless, he had managed before, and he knew that Starfleet trusted him to do his best again. His reverie was interrupted by Spock's urgent tone.
"Energy reading, Captain. Almost directly on us."
"What?" Kirk shook himself to alertness. "What kind of reading, Spock?" But the churning in his stomach hinted that he already had a good idea.
"Very faint and inconsistent. Most probably a cloaking device, indicating either a Klingon or Romulan vessel."
McCoy rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "Just what we need."
"One blast, and we're space dust," Kirk mused, not allaying the doctor's fears in the least. "They'll have to decloak to fire." His mind whirled with their choices, which, unfortunately, appeared quite limited. "Spock, how far are we from Nihal Four?"
"We are approximately ten point three-five solar minutes from orbit, Captain," the Vulcan answered promptly.
Kirk thought fast. "All right. Here's what we'll do. We'll continue on as usual, not let on that we are aware of their presence--"
"Oh, that's a marvelous idea. Ignore them, and they'll go away, huh?" McCoy raised his hands in supplication.
Kirk glared at him. "I'm not finished, Doctor."
McCoy mouthed an "Oh," and looked appropriately chagrined.
"And as soon as they lower cloaking to fire, zip into Nihal Four's atmosphere and lose them." He paused to get reactions. "What do you think?"
"What if they decide to fire now?" McCoy braved.
Kirk scowled at him, but realized he had a point. "Okay. We're close enough to Nihal Five that we could hide in its atmosphere until they get tired of waiting for us and...go away." He shrugged weakly. It was not one of his more inspired plans, but they had few choices and even less time.
Before any comments could be voiced over this suggestion, the small craft heaved, and Kirk found himself in McCoy's arms, both of them sprawled in an undignified heap on the shuttle's deck. Spock, somehow able to keep his seat, cocked a sharp brow at them.
"God knows I like you, Jim," McCoy said, "but this is carrying it a bit too far."
Ignoring him, Kirk untangled himself and leaped to his feet, worried eyes on the control panel. "What happened?"
"The vessel decloaked and fired on us," Spock informed them.
"Brilliant," muttered McCoy, dusting off his tunic and regaining his seat.
Spock paused. "It is imperative that we remove ourselves from the range of their weapons."
"Thanks again for the news flash, Spo--" began McCoy, but Kirk's sharp motion cut him off.
"Give it a rest, Bones. We've got to get out of here." The captain scanned the flashing panel before him. "No choice," he decided. "We're losing power. We have to go down."
Spock lifted a pensive brow. "It seems unlikely such a hit was purely coincidental. The area damaged is basically the only section of this vessel which would not explode upon impact. Perhaps they only wish us disabled."
Frantically working the boards, Kirk remarked fiercely, "Well, they got their wish. Spock, send out an emergency signal. We're going in. Hang on!"
As the shuttle plummeted toward the tiny planet below, all three officers clutched the chairs and gritted tense jaws, hoping Jim Kirk's ability in earlier years at the helm of a starship remained within his talents and that he could pilot them safely in. The ship vibrated violently upon entry into Nihal Five's atmosphere, friction heating even the interior of the craft. Kirk spared only a second from guiding the Galileo to wipe sweat from his eyes. Even Spock acknowledged the discomfort of the cabin, and McCoy was thoroughly drenched.
Finally, they emerged into a bluish-green sky, their craft intact but limping visibly. Apparently, the attackers considered their job completed or either they simply did not like the odds concerned with plunging their craft into the searing atmosphere after such a tiny vessel. In any case, the Galileo glided alone in Nihal Five's aqua sky and, for the moment, the three officers breathed a trifle easier. Far below, Kirk spotted a clearing, its wheat-colored surface indicative of a sufficiently flat landing area. He nursed the vessel down, increasingly aware of its deteriorating condition. If I can just ease her in there...
And then they were down, with a tremendous jolt which threw them again to the deck, but down nevertheless. With a relieved sigh, Kirk heaved himself up, helped McCoy to his feet and turned to his first officer, whose appearance betrayed no clue that he had just been tossed fifty ways about the tiny cabin. Indeed, for all his serenity, he might have just awakened from a restful meditation safe about the Enterprise. Kirk took in his own disheveled state and muttered a grunt of disgust before confronting their next survival steps. "Spock, what's the air like out there?"
Glancing away from dimming instrument panels, the Vulcan noted, "According to previous surveys, oxygen rich, class M planet, Captain. Close enough to Earth for our survival."
"Good." He eased toward the hatch and cracked it a fraction, peering cautiously outside. "So far, so good." Stepping slowly onto the planet's surface, he tested it before motioning the others to follow. "Spock, do we have contact with the ship?"
"Negative. Communications are completely out. Repairing them is possible, but the natural radiation field around this planet prohibits the escape of normal frequencies. In fact, our universal translators will not function either." He leveled his gaze on Kirk. "For the moment, we are stranded."
Frowning, the captain worked on wearing a path the length of the shuttle from bow to stern. "Hopefully, Scotty received our emergency beacon and is looking for us even now," he said as he paced, arms folded and one hand pressed against his lips.
"Let's hope he finds whomever hit us before they find him," said McCoy with concern.
Kirk nodded grimly. "At least if we stay here, we'll be by the beacon when someone does hear it."
"Actually, there is no beacon." Spock's bombshell whipped around the heads of both Kirk and McCoy in one jerk.
"What?" they snapped in unison.
"The indestructible power pack reserved for emergency beacons has been...destroyed, Captain. The energy burst fused its circuits during your forced landing," Spock explained ironically, then added, "which was admirably done, sir."
"Thanks," Kirk muttered, sitting back on his heels, preoccupied with this new crisis. "So we're stranded here and no one even knows where to begin to look for us?"
"They should have known we were in the vicinity of Beta Leporis Five. Other than that...you are correct."
McCoy slumped against the cooling outer hull of the Galileo. "Great. What do we do, now?"
After a moment's consideration, Spock said, "This planet is lightly inhabited. I suggest we attempt to locate some natives. It is possible some of them had contact with earlier Federation expeditions to their world. They may be of help."
Kirk slapped his thighs and rose. "That sounds like our only chance." Glancing back toward the shuttle, he said in a command voice slightly modified for present company, "Gather up phasers and communicators and rations. Bones, you get a medikit and whatever else you need, but remember, we're traveling light."
Within minutes, the three were outfitted and prepared to meet whatever awaited them on this alien world: phasers, their non-functioning communicators, and rations all attached to the old standby utility belts. McCoy's extra burden included a tricorder slung over his shoulder and a med-kit packed full of every supply he could think of. They began walking westward to get as much sunlight out of Nihal's harsh rays as they could before darkness descended. Trudging side-by-side across gentle plain, they attempted not to dwell on their slim chances of being found. Even Spock declined to quote their odds. A short time later, they chanced upon a worn path, clearly indicating recent travel.
"We'll follow it," decided Kirk. "After all, it seems the logical thing to do."
Almost three hours later, rushing water teased their ears and their pace quickened as they easily dodged the growing number of trees on the landscape to emerge on a river bank peering across the wide tributary. The trail ended at the water's edge and resumed on the other side--all the way on the other side, across a quickly-flowing branch.
"Care for a swim?" Kirk asked lightly even as he pondered how to breach the stream.
"It appears quite formidable, Captain," noted Spock, but did not try to dissuade him.
McCoy shook his head. "It's been a long time since I took a plunge, but I'm willing if it'll get us out of here." He looked again at the churning water at his feet.
"All right," said Kirk, "secure all materials and brace yourselves." He waded gingerly out into the cold water, drawing in a quick breath as the chill settled up to his waist. The current tried to coax him downstream, but it was not strong enough to dislodge him. He motioned back to the bank. "It's okay. Come on out, Bones. Spock, you bring up the rear."
Nodding, the doctor eased out toward Kirk, followed cautiously by Spock who still held a wary eye on the current. Bracing his legs with each step, Kirk crept toward the center, prepared to retreat at the first indication of rapids. He had just allowed himself a smirk of satisfaction when a sudden undercurrent curled around his legs and tugged with determination. Too late, he realized the anterior streams had belied the river's true strength, luring them into its fatal, watery clutches.
"Bones!" he called over the sudden roar. "Go back!" But McCoy struggled in the contradictory currents as well, his head pulled beneath the surface more than once.
Kirk sputtered as the river swirled around him, catching his body and sweeping his feet from beneath him. He swam fiercely against the current, utilizing strong shoulders to fight the tow. McCoy sailed past, clutching desperately at the rugged boulders which protruded sharply amid the churning spray. With a powerful lunge, Kirk snagged the doctor's arm and felt them both being dragged under helplessly. He choked and fought back to the surface. His grip still firm around McCoy, he worked sideways to the current, knowing he could not fight it head-on.
"Mister Scott!" Uhura called, the alarm in her smooth voice stiffening the engineer's spine immediately.
"What is it, Uhura?"
She turned from her station, face taut with anxiety. "I'm receiving a distress signal." She paused, double checking her facts. "From the Galileo, Scotty."
"Damn!" Scotty breathed. "Are ye sure?"
Uhura nodded, wishing she were not so sure. "Heading two-zero-two. Ten light minutes from Nihal Four. There's no message with it, just--" She stopped, horrified.
"What is it, lass?"
"It's stopped, Scotty. I'm not receiving any more."
Numbed, the chief engineer slumped heavily into the command chair. They still had to rendezvous with Potemkin; his orders were firm. Those ambassadors had priority. Things had proceeded on schedule until Uhura's revelation floored him. He knew the implications of an abruptly terminated emergency beacon.
Frowning, Chekov said, "But de only thing dat could stop a distress signal is--" He, too, faltered, comprehending.
"Destruction of the craft," finished Scott, still staring, unseeing, at the deck. Teeth gritted, he shoved his body from the chair and forced it to move to Uhura's station.
Face grim, the engineer issued his command. "Mister Sulu, proceed on course to rendezvous with the Potemkin."
"But Meester Scott!" protested Chekov. "The kyptin and--"
"We have our orders," snapped Scott, anguished that he could do nothing. "Starfleet made it clear that we've got to get Nihal to join the Federation."
Sulu obeyed, as he knew he must, but like Chekov, his stomach sank while he watched the area where the captain disappeared shrink from view.
Scott turned to the communications panel, his voice soft with despair for himself and sympathy for the others. "Keep tryin' anyway, Uhura. Maybe some kind o' interference blocked us, or..." They all knew the weakness in that argument, yet every heart on the bridge lifted with the thin suggestion of hope Scott's words inspired. "Contact Nihal Four to have them monitor for th' shuttle, and hail the Potemkin. Advise them of the situation." He smiled suddenly. "Who knows, maybe it was a mistake an' the captain just...turned the beacon off." This was really stretching credulity, but Scott refused to surrender to the obvious until presented with proof of his friends' demise.
Fatigue washed over his body in waves now. Kirk gagged on the water he continuously swallowed, vaguely aware that, somehow, McCoy hung on in his spasmed clutch. He felt a sudden exhaustion claim his strength, and they were slapped back as an impregnable wall of foam buried them. They foundered. This is it, Kirk thought with whatever consciousness he had left. This is where we die.
As the cold waters closed over them, Kirk felt an iron hand snag him from behind, grasp his tunic collar, and with an impossible strength encountered sometimes in traumatic situations, drag them to the opposite side and wrench them from the river onto the relative safety of a grassy bank. Coughing, he fought back to consciousness, aware of Spock's tall form towering above, shiny black hair tangled and dripping, his tunic torn by the branches and brambles ripping by them in the water. The Vulcan knelt, and with effort, pried Kirk's hand from around McCoy's arm, the convulsive grip finally broken. The doctor stirred, spitting up water and swearing feebly.
"You must be recovered, Doctor. I see that you are your usual expressive self," Spock noted, straight-faced, but even McCoy heard the relief in that deep voice. He just smiled.
Massaging savage cramps from his hand, Kirk shook excess water from his hair and luxuriated in deep breaths of air. "Thank you, Mister Spock," he said, when he could manage it.
"You are quite welcome, Captain," Spock replied simply, but the unspoken words between them clearly communicated the relief they all felt.
McCoy sensed it, too, and for a long moment, the three sat in silence before the doctor grew uncomfortable enough to break it. "Well, we've had our swim for the day. How about dinner?"
"Actually," Spock noted, "judging from the time of day, the correct term would be 'lunch'."
McCoy smiled. "Maybe on Vulcan, but in Georgia, it's 'dinner'." He turned to Kirk and cocked an eyebrow. "How 'bout it, Jim. What do you Iowans say?"
Kirk thought for a moment, then answered evasively, "Time to eat. When do we eat?"
"The more appropriate question would be 'what do we eat?'"
"True, Spock." Kirk looked ruefully back toward the river. "Somewhere in there are my phaser and communicator and any survival rations I had. What about you?"
The Vulcan shook his head. "I, too, am without weapons, communications or sustenance." They both peered hopefully at McCoy.
The doctor shrugged. "Sorry. Not only did I lose all that, but my medikit opened, and all our emergency supplies washed downstream...except for a roll of bandages so primitive they haven't been used in decades. I don't even know what there were doing in there."
Testing rubbery legs, Kirk pushed himself into a standing position and surveyed their surroundings. This side of the river was much like the other, with patches of grass, rough gravel and scattered, gnarled trees stretching for kilometers. "We'll have to make it to a village somehow and at least get food. I haven't seen any animals, and without the tricorder we can't take a chance on the plant life."
"Captain," Spock said, "several years ago, a science vessel mapped part of this planet for future Federation colonization. Although nothing has materialized in that aspect, communications relay units were established and most likely remain. These would be capable of piercing the interference. If we could reach one--"
"We could contact the Enterprise and get the hell out of here," Kirk finished, eyes suddenly gleaming. "Good thinking, Spock." He turned to McCoy. "Bones, you feel like going on?"
The doctor struggled to his feet, but waved away any assistance from his two friends. He cast a wary glance behind him. "Well, I'm sure as hell not going back! Lead the way, gentlemen."
Looking quite the worse for wear, the three Starfleet officers set out, following the churning river, just moments before a deadly enemy, now an ally. They had a lot of ground to cover before nightfall. Needing every ounce of energy just to keep their feet, they continued mostly in silence, the strange noises of the alien world their sole companion.
Eventually, they approached an abrupt change in landform. Before them, stretching to the horizon in either direction, towered a great forest, almost jungle-like in its mass of tangled vines and undergrowth. With no other choice, Kirk shrugged and cautiously led the party forward, barely resisting the temptation to intone dramatically, Once more into the breach, dear friends...
Sweeping the iridescent robe about his shoulders, the tall, stately Romulan commander peered into his weapon's panel. A twitching centurion flanked him, sharp brows pinched in worry.
"It appears sir," he explained, striving for a confidence he did not possess, "that, instead of a direct hit amidships, we struck a glancing blow in a relatively innocuous area."
The commander frowned and spun to his right. "Position of the shuttle?"
"Entering the planet's atmosphere, sir," replied the science officer. "Exterior hull is overheating. Unless their helmsman is experienced, they will probably not survive." He focused again on the console, an eerie blue glow bathing the angular features of his face. It was best not to face Jarius directly when his anger flared, but the commander merely sighed and eased his large bulk into the center chair.
"Amarcus," he said, voice strictly matter-of-fact, "make a notation that the accuracy of the phasers after using the improved cloaking device is considerably diminished. Supply the exact variables." Turning slowly in his chair, he surveyed the crew. They were a good group, he thought, loyal--unusual on a vessel directly linked to the Praetor. A flare of pride washed over his expansive chest.
"Commander?" It was the navigator. Jarius inclined his head in acknowledgment. "The starship from which that shuttle came will undoubtedly return. She would be a worthy target to challenge."
Jarius' noble frame straightened. "Indeed." A gleam sparked behind the dark eyes. "After we adjust our targeting computer, we can further test this device. Good, Marcus, good."
The navigator returned to his position, pride in pleasing his commander warming him, although his expression remained carefully neutral.
"We will wait," Jarius breathed. "We will wait."
The dense foliage closed in around them as Kirk wielded the thick branch he had acquired earlier and slashed a path through choking emerald vines which twirled infinitely upward. It seemed the deeper they sank into the forest, the thicker the growth became. The captain reached out toward a particularly obstructive branch to clear the way and drew back with a yelp and fierce exclamation. When he glanced down, he grimaced at the well of blood from an evil-looking gash across his palm.
McCoy heard the curse through the leaves and struggled forward to investigate. "What is it, Jim?"
Glancing up, Kirk shrugged. "Just a scratch, Bones."
Unconvinced, the doctor grunted and grabbed Kirk's hand for a closer examination, not missing the flinch his action produced. "Scratch, my eye!" Grumbling something about carelessness, he whipped out the outdated pack of bandages, the only survivor of their encounter with the river, and proceeded to wrap Kirk's hand snugly, finishing with an artistic tuck around his wrist.
"My kingdom for a protoplaser," he muttered, appraising his handiwork.
Kirk flexed the hand gingerly, then decided to leave it alone. "It'll do, Bones. Thanks." He looked back to see Spock joining them. "How's it going, Spock?"
The Vulcan raised a sharp eyebrow. "It is going slowly, Captain. I had assumed you were aware of that fact."
McCoy sighed heavily.
Kirk smiled. "A figure of speech, Spock. You ready for a rest, or shall we go on?"
"I am quite willing to continue at this pace. Our chances of reaching either civilization or a communications bench mark increase with each step." He paused. "Also, a rest might allow the predators tracking us to close in."
"Predators!?" McCoy exclaimed. "What predators?"
Kirk paid attention, too.
Spock eyed them innocently. "The rather large and possibly carnivorous mammals approximately a kilometer behind us."
"Damn!" Kirk spun and resumed slashing with inspired enthusiasm. "Spock, why the hell didn't you tell us before?" he snapped as McCoy joined him frantically.
"I only moments ago noted their presence."
"Jim," McCoy growled, "remind me, if we ever get out of here, to schedule a new round of physicals and put Spock at the head of the list. I have some experimental techniques I want to try on him."
"Doctor," returned Spock, offering his own services to clear the undergrowth, "I have come to suspect most of your techniques are experimental and you experience a certain disturbing amount of pleasure at inflicting them on hapless crewmembers."
McCoy's retort disappeared under Kirk's sharp command. "Gentlemen, I suggest we cut the witty repartee and get the hell out of here before we're breakfast for one of the indigenous species of this world."
An echoing howl initiated renewed effort on the part of each officer, and, to their infinite relief, the vines seemed to part easier, a clearer path spreading invitingly before them. They practically sprinted now, eyes casting warily back, dreading but expecting to see the dripping fangs of their hunters. Even Spock was panting when they stumbled to an abrupt halt, teetering precariously at the pinnacle of a ragged cliff. As Kirk peered over the edge, his boot dislodged some pebbles and with a gulp, he watched as they cascaded downward, crashing off wicked boulders and overhangs.
"Now what do we do?" McCoy pondered to no one in particular.
"I suggest we fashion a device which allows us to descend this precipice safely," Spock offered.
McCoy shook his head in wonder. "It was a rhetorical question, Spock. I figured we'd have to do something like that! You don't answer a rhetorical question."
Spock cocked his head curiously. "Then why ask it in the first place?"
The doctor threw up his hands in defeat. "I give up, Jim. There's no hope--"
"Listen." Kirk's uplifted hand silenced him. "Hear that?"
"Our predators," noted Spock, his Vulcan hearing even better than the captain's.
Kirk braved another look over the cliff and shrugged. "Well, we don't have much of a choice, do we? Any suggestions?"
"Perhaps if we possessed several strands of fibrous material, we could rappel down," Spock said. "Otherwise, I fear we must attempt a free climb. Extremely hazardous even under favorable conditions."
Kirk paced as much as time and space would allow. "If we just had something to anchor us, just long enough to get close to the ground. Then we could jump--" He snapped the fingers of his good hand. "Bones! Have you got any of that bandage material left?"
McCoy nodded, producing the thick roll. "Yeah, but what--oh! I get it! Good idea, Jim." He began unraveling it immediately while Spock reconnoitered the area for a secure anchorage.
After they had affixed one end of the bandage roll to a formidable boulder, the three gathered at the top of the cliff, peering dubiously over the edge. Kirk sighed and tossed the fluttering sash out as far as he could, watching in satisfaction as it reached nearly to the valley floor.
Hands extended in an invitation, he said, "Spock, you have first honors. Bones, you go next, and I'll take up the rear."
"Since you are the captain, perhaps you should be first down," Spock protested. "I will come last."
McCoy piped up, "You two go first, and I'll be caboose. I don't trust this apparatus, anyway."
With a smile, Kirk shook his head. "I know what you're doing, gentlemen. It won't work."
"But, Jim," McCoy argued, "those animals'll be here any minute. You could be stuck up here alone to fend them off. With that hand, it's gonna be hard for you to hang on anyway."
"No discussion. That's an order," said Kirk, suddenly harsh. "Go, Spock. Now!"
Silently, the Vulcan lowered his long body over the side, carefully grasping the tenuous thread which separated him from certain death, and slowly descended, bracing his feet against the side of the cliff before his grip loosened enough to slide a few more centimeters. The ground softly vibrated now with the sound of hungry animals closing on their prey. With a curse, McCoy followed Spock, muttering constantly as his hands fought cramps and closed against the material. Worry for his captain increased his agitation and he called out more than once to assure himself Kirk still lurked above.
At the precise moment Spock's boots grazed the gravel at the bottom, a fierce growl burst from the jungle, its hideous scream stabbing right through the captain's heart. Forcing a calm he did not feel, he lowered himself over the edge even as three great beasts plunged into the clearing. Their massive bipedal bodies reminded him of some weird mutation of the ancient boars of Earth and heavy humanoids of Ganar, sharpened tusks like swords protruding menacingly from their snouts. Look kind of like a Tellarite ambassador I once knew, he thought with fleeting humor. Tangled hair matted to their bodies as sweat glistened on their coats and saliva frothed from their snouts. Kirk drew in a ragged breath and flattened himself against the cliff wall, praying with all his might that his stronghold remained safely secured around the boulder. Rolling clouds of dust and dirt plummeted over the edge and choked him as the pounding screeched to a dead stop above and three furious, frustrated creatures glared down at him, their lost dinner.
With pounding heart, Kirk concentrated on easing down the material, noting along the way that McCoy had reached the ground also. His boots slipped on the rocks and loose dirt while he searched for a toe-hold, grimacing as the tight fabric zipped through his hands, the friction igniting his flesh and searing across the gashed palm. It ached deep within, to the bone, but with gritted teeth, he ignored all except his chosen path.
He dangled only fifty meters above his anxious comrades when the fabric in his hands abruptly dropped him several centimeters with a savage jerk. Adrenaline surging, he glanced upward, and his heart stopped when he spotted the yawning rip in the material. The rend widened with a sickening sheer, and Kirk fell farther, aware of McCoy's violent curses from below. Instincts told the captain that one more tear would send him plunging downward. Decision made instantly, he carefully secured the toes of his boots into adequate niches and ran his fingers over the rough area, locating sufficient ledges for them. Then, with a resigned grunt, he abandoned the faltering material and began his free descent.
"What the hell are you doing?" demanded McCoy from the ground.
Kirk blocked out all sounds, all distractions and concentrated every ounce of direction on the cliff wall. He had climbed mountains before, for fun and adventure, but this was the first time this daring hobby had become necessary to save his life. Rocks tumbled past him as his hand displaced a loose cluster he had mentally designated as a brace. This forced reliance on the injured hand to support him until a new hold could be located. As pain shot through his arm, Kirk fought desperately to hang on, not even aware now of how much farther he had to go. Finally, his cramping hands distinguished a shallow dimple in the rock and he clutched it, relieved. The injured limb fell limply to his side, shaking with the incredible effort recently demanded of it. It was a long moment before he gathered enough strength to lift it again and continue.
What seemed hours later, he lowered one more niche and felt strong arms grasping at his ankles, pulling him from the mountain. Exhausted, he allowed his body to collapse back into the arms of Spock and McCoy as they eased him to the ground. Slowly, the trembling in his limbs ceased, and the pain which throbbed in his hand subsided. He opened his eyes to slits, observed McCoy's worried face above him, and gave his friend a weak smile.
"Piece of cake," he mumbled, gratified to see the hint of a smile on the doctor's lips.
McCoy forced a frown. "Damn fool. What did you call yourself doing?"
Kirk shrugged. "Trying to stay alive, Bones." With a grunt, he shifted his stiff body and propped on his elbows, careening around to gather Spock in his gaze. "How does it look, Spock?"
"Green, Captain," the Vulcan replied promptly.
McCoy scanned the scenery. It was indeed green--such a vivid green that the doctor was forced to shield his eyes against its brilliance. But the sight did not deter him from the ever-present battle of wits with Spock. "He means 'Are we safe?' you thick-skulled elf."
"Actually, Doctor, the Vulcan cranial measurements are--"
"Spock," Kirk said quickly, "are there any immediate dangers in this area?"
The first officer of the Enterprise turned his attention to his captain. "Not that I can determine." A long pause followed. "Considering your present condition, sir, I would suggest we terminate our forward progress until such time as you are sufficiently rested to continue."
The captain opened his mouth for a denial, but suddenly became aware of the combined effects from his injured hand, stiff limbs and numerous other scrapes and bruises collected during their trek. He demurred to his exec. "All right, but just a few minutes. Just until I get my wind back."
McCoy smiled, satisfied, and all three padded out a bed in the soft grasses spread out before them. Kirk leaned back into the natural pillow and closed his eyes. Just for a few minutes...
"They have not arrived!" exclaimed the extremely agitated governor of Nihal Four, red eyes flashing angrily from the viewscreen at Montgomery Scott. "And we have been waiting several hours! If this is your idea of how important our planet is to your Federation, then they may as well never arrive." He nodded his head curtly. "There are others with which we can deal."
It took ever bit of patience Scott owned to respond evenly, but he managed. "I'm sorry about the delay, Governor, but we have indications that Captain Kirk and his party are in some distress. I'm afraid they've had difficulty and may have been forced to land somewhere besides the prearranged area."
The governor's eyes narrowed, but he remained silent as Scott continued.
"If ye could help us by checkin' yer planetary sensors while we use those on th' ship to locate them, we would certainly appreciate it." This strategy of becoming indebted to such an obnoxious hothead irked Scott, but it produced the desired effect. The governor loosened visibly.
"Well, I am certainly, ah, disturbed to hear of this mishap. We will, of course, do what we can to help you find your captain." He gnawed at a slightly protruding lower lip. "Will you be sending anyone else in the meantime? I ask because our council is anxious to begin negotiations."
It was Scott's turn to narrow suspicious eyes, but he said calmly, "As soon as we can determine what happened to...where th' captain is, we'll send someone to meet with you. Until then, thank you for yer assistance."
"Our pleasure." The governor nodded once more and cut communications with Enterprise, the screen returning to its usual brilliant starfield.
Spinning to face Uhura, Scott ordered, "Tight beam on planet, Lieutenant. I want every centimeter o' that surface covered."
The communications officer frowned. "But that will take--"
"Do it now, Uhura," Scott snapped, then, seeing her face, softened his voice. "Before it's too late."
When Kirk reopened his eyes, it was dark. The nocturnal creatures of the planet sang their curious tunes through the trees, the unique patterns plaiting a canopy of sounds around him. He sat with a start, unable to suppress a low groan at the spiderweb of pain his sudden movement triggered. Instantly, McCoy was by his side.
"Jim? You all right?" he asked, voice cautious.
"What time is it?"
McCoy told him.
"Damn!" Kirk swore. "I told you to wake me in a few minutes!" He struggled to rise, but the doctor's persistent pressure on his chest deterred him.
"No, you did not, Captain, sir," said McCoy smugly. "You said we'd stay until you got your wind back." He sobered. "Jim, you needed that sleep. Besides, Spock's keeping watch. He says we're safe." He leaned conspiratorially close to Kirk. "Don't tell him this, but I really trust that green-blooded computer."
"I am gratified to hear that, Doctor."
As the Vulcan joined them, McCoy muttered something incoherent, then rose, grumbling. "Just 'cause you've got better hearing than an old country dog, don't think that means I like you any better."
"Never," said Spock solemnly as McCoy stomped off. Turning to Kirk, he knelt beside the captain. "At dawn, I believe we should resume our course directly west. From limited studies of this area, I have determined that at this time of year, small bands of nomads gather where the three rivers meet. According to the map we had aboard the shuttlecraft, that would lie approximately twenty kilometers due west."
Kirk stared at him for a moment. "Spock, you're unbelievable."
A sharp eyebrow rose. "Of course, Captain, it is your prerogative to dismiss my analysis if you doubt its veracity, but--"
Kirk laughed. "No! Certainly not, Spock. I trust you implicitly. If you say west, then west it is." He chuckled lightly, not even aware when he faded once more into exigent slumber, Spock keeping careful watch by his side as McCoy rested, too.
Oru'g felt his way along the path, practiced movements cloaking his tracks in silence and darkness. To all the world, he was invisible. With spear at the ready, he crept toward the grassy clearing below the cliff, eyes wide in the blackness, engulfing any glimmer of light. He had waited until nightfall to approach, uncertain of these strange beings who wore alien materials on their bodies and were either powerful enough or sly enough to have outwitted the dangerous feelan.
Creatures who mastered those great beasts deserved serious consideration, Oru'g knew, and provided himself plenty of escape room as he neared their camp. One of them did not sleep, his tall frame straight, dark eyes reaching into the night. Oru'g's skill would be tested by that one, certainly. When he reached close enough to see them well, he paused and motioned once, quickly, for the others. Their journey was silent as well, and soon four natives prepared their assault on the interlopers.
Oru'g cried the high-pitched signal, propelling them onto the unsuspecting group. The watcher spun around, meeting a native with deceiving strength. The two asleep instantly leaped to their feet, fighting stance obviously so ingrained in them, they fell into it instinctively. Oru'g thrust his spear toward one of them, but he dodged it and threw his body against the native leader. They struggled on the ground until another native crashed the blunt end of his weapon on the stranger's neck. He collapsed on Oru'g who rolled the dead weight onto the ground and tackled another one. This man fought with less strength and it was easy for them to render him unconscious. But it took all four of them to hold the watcher down long enough to deliver a blow to the head.
After the considerable struggle, Oru'g caught his breath, bent, heaved the man onto his shoulders and led their party through the valley toward camp, the other two strangers burdens for his companions.
Jim Kirk dreamed he was being hanged. The horrifying visions of distorted faces leering at him danced through his tortured mind as he clutched desperately at the noose which insistently choked out his life. He clawed his throat, trying to open up the air passage for at least one more breath. Something grabbed his wrists and held them firmly, then, mercifully, loosened the strangling cords. Taking great gasps, Kirk drew in the sweet oxygen with greed before he concentrated on clearing his gaze and meeting his savior.
Above him, peering down with a concerned frown, a dark face loomed, its expression curious. The body that went with it was rough, coarse and rugged. Kirk swiped a weak hand across his eyes and focused them. The onlooker still stared, attempting no move or gesture toward him. Dropping to investigate the hangman's noose, Kirk discovered it was a simple rope which had, from the burns along his wrists, once bound his hands. It had become tangled somehow during their journey, for he realized they were no longer by the cliff. They--were Spock and McCoy there, too?--had been brought to a camp of some sort. And these lumbering, silent creatures surrounding him now must be Nihal Five natives.
With a starship captain's audacity, he decided to take matters into his own capable hands. Untangling the rope, he pushed, not without effort and a muffled groan, his body from the ground, stood with legs firmly planted, shoulders straight and chin up and addressed the closest native.
"I'm--" It tumbled from his lips almost as a growl, wrenching through his throat with a guttural effect, protesting vocal cords in rebellion. Gingerly, he swallowed, cleared it and tried again.
"I'm Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise." That was a little better, but it still sounded as if he were in the throes of a nagging chest cold. It didn't matter. It would have to do. "I demand to know why you have captured me and my crew," he still held hope that Spock and McCoy lurked somewhere nearby, "and brought us here in this hostile manner."
Noting their uncooperative scowls, he switched tactics, spread his arms and displayed the most charming smile he felt he could muster under the circumstances. The response was immediate. Four of them dived on him, twisted already aching arms behind his back and bound him again with quick, decisive motions. In seconds, he lay, immobile, where he had been earlier, sufficiently detained and bewildered.
In confusion, he watched as every one of the natives grinned ridiculously at him, their expressions giddy and completely incongruous with their actions. He scowled, frustrated, and was baffled to find himself gently raised to his feet. Dawning like a tiny light in his brain and slowly expanding into a pulsar was realization. He tested his theory.
With his fiercest glare, hazel eyes dark and piercing, mouth set in a hard line, body aimed menacingly forward, he growled, "Who the hell are you sons of bitches?"
The native who had freed him from the hangman's noose stepped forward, loosened the ropes from around his wrists, and grunted back harshly, gripping Kirk's arm with powerful hands. His face screwed in the appearance of passionate, searing hatred.
Kirk softened his countenance only minutely, until he discerned a similar expression begin its journey across the native's face, and with it, a stiffening, as if anticipating violence. With haste, Kirk resumed his acid gaze, gratified to sense, incredibly, a lessening of tension from the Nihali.
At that moment, from behind several crude huts, a haggard McCoy and amazingly composed Spock emerged, encouraged by the brutal shoves of their captors. They stumbled forward toward Kirk.
"Jim!" cried the doctor, visibly relieved. "You all right?" He smiled at the sight of his friend and received a harder push for his efforts. "Damn Visigoths," he mumbled as they reached Kirk.
The captain observed Spock for a moment, then watched the Nihali reaction to his first officer. If he had not feared reprisal, he would have chuckled at the sight. The natives obviously did not know what to make of Mister Spock. His expression neither smiled nor frowned; his body language spoke of nonchalance. Kirk bit his lip to maintain the scowl.
"Bones," he snapped in a scolding tone, "listen to me. This is really important. You too, Spock."
The Vulcan's eyebrow rose, but he remained silent. McCoy raised his, too, but blustered, "Well, look who got up on the wrong side--"
The doctor stopped, stunned. Even Spock managed to look surprised.
Continuing in the hard, growling voice, Kirk explained, "I'll clarify later. For now, just know that these people view expressions opposite from us." He paused to throw a sharp glare toward the crowd, which watched, their own faces fortunately harsh. "Right now, I'm giving them the friendliest smile this side of Wrigley's Pleasure Planet. And I'm showing them you are my companions, my friends."
"What?" McCoy shook his head, trying to comprehend.
"Whatever you do, don't smile," snarled the captain. He looked wryly at Spock. "I didn't think I'd ever hear myself saying this, but...Mister Spock, can you look...more stern?"
The Vulcan sighed. "I will do my best, Captain." The sharp eyebrows drew together in a credible scowl.
Kirk nodded. "Good. McCoy?"
"My face just falls that way, Jim. No problem." He frowned menacingly.
Within minutes, all three stood, unbound, facing the Nihali, who glared in welcome at them, their eyes sharp and voices low. It was one of the most unusual greetings Kirk had ever experienced. Forcing his unaccustomed reflexes to maintain his glower, he extended a tentative hand and snapped, "How the hell are you, you damn aliens?"
With equal diplomacy, Oru'g offered his own hand, a fierce scowl across his face, and gripped the hand of the strangers' leader. It was firm and dry, signifying confidence. Oru'g was glad. Perhaps they could reason with these men, deal with them in a friendly manner. They had seemed cordial enough after a few tense moments and the Nihali sensed power in these three. He did not wish to create enemies where allies could be as easily cultivated.
Hoping he matched their leader's expression, he growled back, "We welcome you to Kohe'g. Let us become acquainted."
"What did he say, Jim?" spat McCoy.
"How do I know?" the captain cut back, tiring of the constant frown. He grew aware of an increasing headache, which at least made the irritation easier to generate.
Oru'g motioned brusquely for the officers to sit, and with villainous glares flashing their good intents, the group settled down for a friendly get-acquainted session.
Uhura turned for the hundredth time from monitoring the science station. As usual, they refused to relinquish any evidence that the captain and his party remained on Nihal IV. In disgust, she shook her head at Scott, and his hopefully raised brow fell, dejected.
They had returned in record time, ambassadors in hand, to the captain's original destination, figuring that was the best place to begin their search. Scott, reluctant to send the diplomats into the unknown danger which befell the senior Enterprise officers, had kept the illustrious group on board until he determined the safety of the area. They had protested, but deferred to the engineer's firm stand. With waning hope, the bridge crew kept sharp eyes on their instruments.
"Nothing," Uhura said, putting voice to her disappointment. "Scotty, we've searched almost all of this area. What if they're not here? We lost contact near Nihal Five. They could have--"
The engineer nodded impatiently. "Aye, I know, but let's give it a little more time before we abandon this sweep. If they're here, I don't want to miss 'em." He did not mention that something in the governor's manner bothered him, something he could not put his finger on, but it seemed somehow to concern the missing men. He was not eager to leave before confirming or disproving the theory. His tone softened. "We'll find 'em, lass. Just a little while longer. Then we'll change our search area to the other planet."
Uhura nodded. She understood. Scott couldn't just run from one place to another. They would never find the captain that way. Fumbling for patience, she dived once more into the tedious task of scanning every millimeter of Nihal IV.
After several hours of what amounted to be galactic charades, the tired group of Starfleet officers and natives of Nihal V decided to call it a day. They had progressed slowly from the initial attempt at communications and Kirk, frustrated and fatigued, found little difficulty in maintaining a pleasant scowl. He noticed as well that everyone's patience was wearing thin. Even their host's happy frowns gave way more frequently to ominous smiles of irritation. It was most definitely time for a break.
As he rose stiffly, McCoy dusted his clothes of the clinging underbrush ever-present in the native camp. "My kingdom for a functioning universal translator," he growled, so accustomed to the accepted harsh expressions that he forgot he was not addressing Nihal V inhabitants anymore.
"What about the protoplaser?" asked Kirk, with only a bit more civility.
"You said before you'd give your kingdom for a proto--" Kirk had attempted the joke, but he was so tired that suddenly it wasn't worth it, and the words died on his lips. "Never mind."
The doctor shook his head, stretched aching limbs and ducked into the tent indicated by Oru'g. It was made of a material which seemed to be a loosely woven fabric underneath with an oilskin tarpaulin thrown across the top. The sides fell to the ground, spilling into gathered foothills so that no curious creatures could breach their sanctuary. Kirk and Spock followed, the captain collapsing onto a rough pallet while his first officer sat, composed, near the entrance.
"Jim," McCoy complained, "we're getting nowhere fast. All we've accomplished is growling at each other half the day. My head feels like a dozen woodpeckers have been hammerin' away on it. I don't think I can go through much more of that anytime soon."
"How do you think mine feels? We have no choice," Kirk snapped, irritated at McCoy's grumbling. When he saw the doctor's expression, he let his ire ease, realizing they were all exhausted. "Sorry, Bones," he mumbled. McCoy nodded and smiled weakly.
"Captain," Spock said from the corner, "we must not abandon all hope of communication. In fact, if you consider what we have accomplished, it could be regarded as quite significant."
The captain raised his brows in question and realized that it felt good to pull them from the constant glower.
Spock continued, taking Kirk's silence as assent. "First, we know the Nihali inhabitants of this planet have a different set of social patterns than those of Nihal Four. We know that these natives speak a form of Nihalese that has similar rudiments to that of Nihal Four. Further, we know that their leader's name is Oru'g. He seems to be quite willing to establish a relationship with us even if none of us knows exactly what the other is saying. We have developed a number of body gestures which we both understand. Overall, at least we have begun a sort of diplomatic dialogue with these Nihali."
"Was all that worth this headache?" McCoy wondered aloud. "I'll bet even that thick Vulcan skull of yours, Spock, has to ache at little."
A fine eyebrow rose. "My mental healing techniques aid in reducing any discomfort, Doctor. I could instruct you in those methods if you wish."
McCoy did not repress a visible shudder. "No, thanks. I'd rather have the headache."
"I had no doubt that you would."
McCoy opened his mouth in retort, but before the verbal battle could escalate, Kirk raised a hand and silenced them. "We don't have time for this, gentlemen," he scolded. "We have to find a way to contact the ship and get to Nihal Four for those negotiations."
"You mentioned a communications relay unit, Jim," McCoy reminded helpfully. "Maybe Oru'g and his group know where one is."
Suddenly, the pounding between Kirk's temples diminished. "Yes." He pounced on the idea. "Yes. Good, Bones." He paced the narrow confines of their tent. "But how do we let them know that's what we need?" Basic communication was one thing, but describing a specific, technologically-complicated instrument like a communications beacon presented a major obstacle. A light path formed beneath the captain's boots.
Spock and McCoy listened to Kirk's redundant steps for a long moment. Abruptly, the Vulcan broke their silence. "Perhaps we could construct a two-dimensional replication of the beacon, Captain."
McCoy chuckled for the first time in days. "You mean draw 'em a picture." He smiled up at Kirk. "I hate to say it, Jim, but Spock's got an idea there."
The pacing stopped as Kirk turned and allowed a slow grin to spread across his face, lifting the lines which had begun to etch themselves more deeply into his youthful features. "A picture's worth a thousand words. I can sketch a crude facsimile in the dirt out there." He marched from their tent, purpose in his stride. As he followed hastily, McCoy barely heard the last remarks floating across the captain's shoulder. "I just hope none of them are art critics."
"Mister Scott, I am sorry, but we must insist that negotiations begin immediately. We have waited entirely too long, already." The Nihali governor's scarlet eyes glowed angrily from the forward viewscreen.
Scott sighed. "Governor, I'm afraid we have not yet located our captain. I have decided to change our orbit to Nihal Five and focus our search efforts there. This will cause some delay, but I assure you we will return--"
"No!" The fat lips seemed to quiver as the leader interrupted Scott. "You cannot leave orbit. We must begin our talks!"
The suspicion which had nagged at Scott's conscience earlier returned in full attack. Something more than met the eye was at work here. He narrowed his dark eyes at the screen. "The Enterprise's presence is not required here, Governor."
For a moment, the redness of the alien's face drained white, then he seemed to regain a semblance of composure. "There is nothing on Nihal Five to interest the Federation, I assure you. Its inhabitants are primitive creatures, members of our society who fled a war here countless centuries ago. They live in tents, hunting and gathering for their subsistence. You have an advanced people here, eager to join your Federation. Why do you wish to place that in jeopardy?"
"Governor," Scott assured, "we value your potential relationship with the Federation, certainly, but my first duty at this moment is to locate my captain. You have my word we will return as soon as possible. Our ambassadors will be beamed down before we leave orbit."
"But, as I said, there are--"
Scott cut his hand sharply toward Uhura, and she closed communications in the agitated face of Nihal Four's governor.
"I don't think he liked that, Scotty," she observed.
"Aye," the engineer replied, eyes still focused on the screen as if he could see through the alien's mind, "neither did I." With a sigh, he looked down at Navigation. "Chekov, lad?"
"Yes, Meester Scott?"
"Plot us a course to orbit Nihal Five. As soon as he has it Sulu, get us there."
Chekov grinned. "I haf already plotted that course, sair."
"Oh." Scott couldn't blame him. They all wanted to find the captain. "Sulu--" he started.
"On our way," replied the helmsman quickly, and Scott was left to sit back in the command chair and wait until they arrived. No wonder the captain leads so many landing parties, Scott thought. This waiting and wondering was much more frustrating than diving into potential danger. He drummed his skilled fingers on the control panel impatiently and tried to think of an interesting article from one of his technical journals.
Oru'g watched carefully as the alien who called himself K'rk traced a series of odd lines in the ground. The Nihali leader had gathered his men about him when their three visitors excitedly motioned everyone toward them. For a terrible moment, Oru'g feared their good humor had vanished, for they approached with menacing upturned mouths and lifted brows. Then, abruptly, K'rk's face dropped into a amiable glare and he turned to his companions, gesturing. Immediately, their expressions drew into cordial frowns and Oru'g released a relieved sigh. Certainly they were tired, as was he, from their difficult encounter. He received them with a genial grunt.
The lines which formed at the end of the narrow branch K'rk used seemed to meld into a pattern vaguely familiar to the leader, but he could not definitely distinguish it. Apologetically, he shrugged against the hope in the alien's face. K'rk attempted more lines, but they only confused the effect and Oru'g smiled fiercely to acknowledge his incomprehension. He sensed great disappointment and frustration in K'rk, as one of the other men spoke with him.
Oru'g peered from one to the other, wondering what they had said. This drawing was apparently quite important to them, as was his understanding of it. Grimacing to reassure them of his good will, he took the branch from K'rk's hand and placed it firmly in the hands of the one with strange ears, motioning toward the ground. The tall alien seemed to comprehend immediately, for he nodded and scowled and bent to make additional marks.
This time, the lines separated themselves more clearly. Oru'g's mind recognized a familiar picture. He grabbed the branch himself, added several more lines, then stepped back, hands raised in question.
K'rk's face flashed in inexplicable anger for a moment. Oru'g was afraid he had crossed some taboo, but just as suddenly, the alien's mouth turned down again, and he nodded rapidly. This was what he had been trying to draw. The Nihali leader knew exactly what they wanted, now. Several seasons ago, one of his men had discovered unusual stones, made of a strange shiny substance and placed strategically throughout the land. Afraid at first, they had avoided them, but the alien devices became curiosity pieces among the rest of his people. Uncertain of their function, Oru'g decided to gather them up and store in them in a safe place to avoid endangering the ignorant among them. In a moment of inspiration, he had used another strange alien device, only recently discovered, to provide the perfect disguise.
Looking into the encouraged faces of their guests he realized that these stones must be significant to them. Perhaps they were the ones who left them in the first place. He would be only too happy to be relieved of them. Taking several guards with him, just in case, Oru'g led K'rk and his party into the woods.
"The starship returns, Commander."
Jarius' proud head snapped up at the sound of his navigator's voice in time to see the Federation vessel circle with silver majesty from behind the arched horizon of Nihal Five.
"As predicted," added the commander in subtle praise. Marcus preened.
"Shall I target the engines, sir?" the weapons officer asked eagerly from his left.
Jarius rested his chin in his palm and contemplated the graceful lady before them. Deliberately ignoring the question, he addressed his science station. "Which ship is she, Amarcus? Can you tell?"
For a moment the younger man's face gazed into pastel light, then, with visible excitement, he turned toward his commander, his voice hardly more than a fierce whisper. "The Enterprise," he breathed, and the entire bridge froze.
Although he fought it, the Romulan commander could not hide the anticipation which flashed from his eyes. Enterprise. Kirk. Of all the Federation's captains, he was the most hated, most feared and most admired by the Empire. Jarius had long imagined the moment he met the infamous captain. Only with concentrated effort did he force his heart to beat normally, sweep a cool facade across his face and return to the weapons officer's earlier request.
"Target engines, Centurion, but do not fire until I give the word."
The officer blinked, but obeyed. "Yes, sir. Engines targeted."
Jarius pondered a particular paradox. He knew their chances of defeating the starship relied on surprise, but curiosity clamored at his breast. He yearned to meet Kirk face to face, to see this legend before he gained galactic fame as the one who bested the captain of the coveted Enterprise, to look into his eyes and see if they revealed the unique components which made this one the best in his class. The pragmatist in him screamed for instant annihilation, but he couldn't order it--not just yet. As his crew looked on uncertainly, the proud Romulan commander simply held his prize with dark, greedy eyes, and waited.
They arrived, breathless, at the foot of a small cliff, its sides not insurmountable, but imposing nevertheless. It appeared they would have to scale it. Kirk groaned inside, his muscles still aching from their earlier, perilous descent. But Oru'g surprised him and veered sharply left just short of the arduous barrier, his bestial glower revealing triumph as he gestured. The captain peered hard into the scattered stand of bushes their companions had indicated, but he saw nothing--only a few emerald leaves stirring gently as the breeze touched them. Then, as Oru'g drew them closer, Kirk's vision blurred lightly. He passed a hand over his eyes to clear it before he realized that it was not really him, but the air in front of the trees wavering like liquid.
"Spock," he called in a low voice. "Look. What do you make of that?"
The Vulcan's reply merely confirmed Kirk's suspicions. "A cloaking field, Captain. It would appear the Nihal Five natives have access to a device similar to that of the--"
"Romulans," Kirk finished, lips tight.
"Yes. Perhaps we have misjudged these people. They may be more advanced than previous expeditions indicated."
The captain grunted in agreement, then ordered quietly, "Bones, Spock, stick close. They could be working with the Romulans. This could be a trap, and we--"
Before he could finish, Oru'g knelt, gathered a generous handful of dirt and tossed it into the undulating air. As the particles scattered to a halt, they spread across a bulky mass whose lines soon disrupted the field and the three officers found themselves staring at a pile of familiar, Starfleet-issue communications beacons. The trees behind the beacons had seemingly shifted several centimeters. The Nihali leader stood beside them, glaring happily.
"How did you conceal these?" Kirk asked, amazed, before he remembered Oru'g had no idea what he was saying. He sighed and dropped his arms against his sides in frustration.
With a smirk, McCoy stepped forward, a sturdy branch in his hand. He extended it toward Kirk, who shrugged, sat back on his heels and proceeded to create more lines in the ground. Oru'g, immediately grasping his attempt at communication, squatted beside him, eyes raised in concentration.
Again, the one named K'rk, whom Oru'g had determined to be their leader, scratched asporous marks in the black soil. The native strained to recognize their meaning, having gotten a better idea from before where their interests lay. Over and over K'rk drew coarse replicas of the stones, then pulled the branch across to distort his picture. After watching this for the fourth erasure, Oru'g understood. With an encouraging growl, he nodded, rose and disappeared into the surrounding foliage. K'rk sat back on the ground, exhaling forcefully.
"Now where the hell is he going?" McCoy wondered aloud.
Spock looked at him with long-suffering patience. "It was apparent, Doctor," he said evenly, "that Oru'g comprehended what the captain was attempting to relate. I anticipate his precipitous return."
Kirk nodded and rose, dusting the dark earth from his uniform. "In the meantime, Spock, let's get one of those beacons, and see if we can reactivate it." Almost staggering, he swore as his face flashed with sudden horror. The Romulans!
"Jim?" McCoy asked, alarmed. "What's wrong?"
"That ship!" With all that had happened, Kirk had lost track of time, except to note they were running out of it. "If Scotty returns, and that ship is still there..." He left the rest unspoken. He did not have to say it; the others understood only too well.
"We have to warn them," McCoy declared, as if none of the others had thought about it.
Wading through the thick pile, Spock selected one beacon, hefted it and rejoined the captain and doctor. "I believe I can activate this one with enough capacity to override the interference field from the magnetic soil and contact the Enterprise if it is in orbit around this planet." He stood, waiting for some nod of approval from Kirk.
"Do it!" the captain urged and Spock settled cross-legged onto the ground, his slender fingers working in as much haste as McCoy had ever seen them.
Jaw muscles grinding, Kirk lifted his hazel eyes to gaze into Nihal Five's turquoise sky, wondering where his ship was and praying that Scott had his eyes wide open. A rustle drew his attention back to earth and he looked down in time to see Oru'g crashing through the brush, a device cradled in his arms. He placed the unit before the captain, gesturing toward it eagerly. Kirk peered at it with wide eyes. It looked quite similar to the cloaking device he had stolen years earlier.
"Well, that looks a little too familiar," observed McCoy, who had joined them.
The captain raised his arms in question. For a moment, Oru'g looked puzzled, then the accustomed frown fell onto his face. The Nihali flipped a switch, and, grasping Kirk's unbandaged left hand, he thrust it near the device. "Amaku!" the Nihali explained.
A cool, tingling sensation flooded the captain's arm. With no small amount of alarm, Kirk watched as his hand faded in front of his eyes. After a moment, it was as if it had been neatly severed at the wrist, but he knew his hand still remained--at least he hoped it did. He wriggled the fingers, balled his fist, reassuring himself.
The three Starfleet officers watched for a long moment, nonplussed. Finally, Spock rose from his crouch, studied the space where Kirk's hand must have been, and said, "Fascinating."
Kirk faced the Nihali leader. "This is certainly...amazing, Oru'g, but...I would really appreciate having my hand back." He was extremely uncomfortable watching part of his body disappear, even if common sense told him it was still there.
Oru'g must have sensed the meaning of Kirk's request, for he released Kirk's wrist. The captain drew his arm back, and, instantly, the hand reappeared, solid and visible.
"This is obviously a cloaking device, Captain," Spock decided. "On my brief observation, I can say with 89.93 percent probability that this is an advanced model. It is possible a Romulan vessel crashed here recently, or perhaps they established a research facility here. Oru'g has a primitive notion of what it does, but not how it does it."
"Well, that sounds plausible," breathed McCoy. "I just hope we don't have to worry about the Romulans being involved in it anymore."
But Kirk shook his head slowly, an unpleasant idea forming. "I think you're hoping in vain there, Bones."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean...what are the Romulans doing slinking around Nihal Five, anyway? We all supposed it was Nihal Four which interested them, but we encountered that ship before we landed here." Kirk pursed his lips in thought. "Spock had no indication of a Romulan vessel. No deBroglie wave transforms?"
The Vulcan shook his head. "None, Captain."
"This cloaking device is virtually impossible to detect," continued Kirk.
"As far as we know," Spock amended.
"As far as we know," conceded the captain. He swung around and stared at the device. "This is what they want, and what they most probably already have several of. I suspect if we concentrated our surface probes we would find the remains of either a crashed Romulan vessel or an abandoned research station."
McCoy's long fingers snapped. "Of course. They're looking for this. It wouldn't do to have it fall into someone else's hands," he paused pointedly, then added, "again."
Kirk rubbed his chin. "When Oru'g threw soil at the beacons, the field shorted, probably from contact with the magnetic soil. But the trees behind the field shifted abruptly."
"A distortion, Captain?" offered Spock.
"That could explain why they didn't destroy us with that shot," McCoy mused. "This distortion works both ways! It interfered with their weapons systems! They simply missed!"
Kirk nodded, things falling into a workable pattern, now. "Spock, got that beacon ready?"
Without looking up, his first officer made several more adjustments. "I believe in approximately three point four-two minutes it will be."
"Good. We've got to warn Scotty before it's too late." He returned a worried gaze toward the sky, eyes piercing the brilliant blue-green as if he could see past the atmosphere and lock onto that steadily moving point of light above. He whispered a little prayer and waited.
Jarius' weapons officer came to a decision. With a deep breath, he turned from his station to face the stoic commander, eyes still fixed on the viewscreen. "Commander," he braved before his courage escaped him, "this is a rare opportunity, to surprise a starship the calibre of the Enterprise." If Jarius heard him, he gave no indication. The centurion plunged ahead. "May I respectfully suggest, sir, that the prudent course of action is to fire first and, as the Humans say, 'ask questions later'." He braced for the angry eruption from the command chair, but Jarius merely sat, apparently unaware that he had even spoken.
The bridge waited in pained silence. Finally, the commander stirred, resignation on his noble face. "You are right, of course, Centurion," he said simply, and the younger man could not quite keep the astonishment from his eyes.
Jarius had contemplated this decision for a long time. As much as his own selfishness urged him to confront Kirk face to face, he realized more was a stake. The wrecked vessel on the surface of Nihal V must remain a secret until they recovered their sister ship's advanced cloaking device. They had been searching the planet's surface for months and still had not located it. To allow even a minute possibility that the missing cloaking device or his ship be captured would invite certain disaster. Duty, above all, drove a Romulan. With a rueful sigh, he raised a hand. "Prepare to fire, Centurion. On my command."
Scott turned the increasingly uncomfortable command chair back to face Uhura. They had already made several sweeps of Nihal Five's northern hemisphere with disappointing results. He knew this time her lovely head would shake again in negative reply, but his impatience and frustration demanded he ask anyway. Before he could form the words, however, the communications officer's face brightened, and she slapped several buttons on the console gleefully.
"Scotty!" she said, almost unbelieving, "I've picked up a signal!" Listening for another brief moment, she spun around, eyes shimmering. "It's the captain, Scotty!"
A broad grin split the engineer's face. "On speakers, lass." And before he even finished a familiar, confident voice warmed them all.
"--to Enterprise. Kirk to Enterprise."
"Captain," Scott greeted, his brogue lilting. "It's good to hear from ye. Are ye all right, sir? We were afraid--"
Kirk snapped brusquely. "Raise shields!"
"Raise them now!"
"Aye, sir," replied Scott, all business. The captain always knew what he was doing--well, almost always--and Scott never doubted his orders--well, almost never.
No sooner did Sulu throw up the shields than a wicked bolt seemingly from nowhere slammed into the starboard nacelle, rocking the ship, but otherwise inflicting no major damage. The klaxon blared "red alert" and Second Science Officer Hadley intently examined sensor readouts.
"Good Lord," Scott breathed. "What the devil was that?"
Kirk's voice boomed through the intercom. "You've got a ship out there somewhere, Scotty. Romulan, unless I've missed my guess. And she can fire as she decloaks. No sensor contacts prior to decloaking either."
Scott leaned forward onto his knees. "Mister Hadley, find us that ship."
"Yes, sir," replied the young man, as he studied sensor data. Only seconds later, he called back, "Mister Scott, coordinates seven-three-zero mark one."
"Chekov, aim and fire at will," Scott order quickly.
The fiery bursts shot from the Enterprise, spraying wildly and harmlessly into space. Chekov turned, incredulous. "I don't understand it, Meester Scott. I could not have missed."
"The ship re-engaged its cloaking device and activated its warp drive. The ship is no longer where it was when it opened fire," reported Hadley.
"Aye, lad. That's apparent."
On the surface of Nihal V, James Kirk slapped the ground next to the communication beacon Spock had reprogrammed. Frustration etched lines across his forehead. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair. Damn!
Heart sinking, Kirk realized they were running out of time. As long as the Enterprise's shields were up, he, Spock and McCoy were stranded planetside and as long as that warbird's cloaking device functioned, the Enterprise couldn't get a firing lock on her. He sat down heavily next to the beacon.
"Captain," Spock began and his very tone drew Kirk's head up with a start. Spock had an idea. He had been examining the Romulan cloaking device with his tricorder.
"What is it?"
"Our sensors cannot penetrate the cloaking shields, but perhaps something else can."
"If you've got a plan, spit it out," growled McCoy.
"You have something specific in mind, Spock?" Kirk asked, urging the Vulcan's logical explanation forward.
"M rays, Captain. They are low energy cosmic rays and should penetrate their cloaking shield, and make the Romulan ship visible by disrupting this new cloaking device's circuitry, just as the magnetic soil of this planet did with this cloaking device."
Kirk grinned. "A fatal flaw? Great, Spock. Get on the horn, and help Scotty and Hadley get it ready. And hurry!" He resisted the urge to give his first officer a congratulatory slap on the back, and instead resumed his steady pacing.
The Enterprise knew they were there, Jarius realized, his heart sinking, but they could not see them. And, even as the improved cloaking device distorted their own aim, it must also create a false image to the starship's sensors. He still had the advantage. He would still defeat Kirk. A smile touched his lips. As he waited for the weapons officer to recalculate their aim, Amarcus turned from his science station quickly.
"Commander, photon torpedo approaching."
His smile faded as he watched the torpedo near them. They braced for impact, but the deadly pulse of light slowed curiously. For a moment the crew held their collective breath, then the torpedo exploded in a violent burst hurling destruction directly toward them. Stunned, Jarius prepared for the inevitable conflagration to engulf him, but moments passed and nothing happened. He opened bemused eyes. They had not been damaged. The Enterprise still hung before them, silver and stark against the black of space.
"What was that?" he asked to no one in particular.
"Their weapon seems to have detonated prematurely," advised the weapons officer. "Perhaps a faulty circuit."
"Perhaps." The commander was not convinced it was something that simple. A gnawing fear crept into the pit of his stomach. Never underestimate Kirk, he had heard countless times. Slowly, he suspected he had.
"Commander," reported Amarcus, his voice ominously low. "I am picking up strange readings from the cloaking fields. Low energy cosmic rays have apparently overloaded it. I do not understand exactly what this means.
Jarius paled. He understood. Somehow, impossibly, Kirk knew. There was no way he could have, but that devil Human had discovered them. Their hand was called. The proud Romulan commander observed the next few proceedings with the detachment of a corpse just waiting to drop.
On the Enterprise's viewscreen, a clear, beautiful outline of the Romulan warbird popped into focus, M rays washing across the expansive wings.
"There she is!" cried Chekov before he could contain himself.
Without hesitation, Scott said, "Fire phasers. Concentrate on starboard engines."
After they watched a barrage of explosions pelt the empire's vessel, Chekov reported, "Romulan engine failure imminent."
"Get me that ship, Uhura," Commander Scott ordered.
The limping hulk disappeared in favor of a smoking, chaotic scene from inside. Scott grimaced as he viewed the destruction. Even though this was an enemy ship, it still hurt him to witness the demise of a proud vessel. Raising his voice he greeted the Romulan commander.
"This is Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Surrender your vessel, and we will beam you aboard."
Through the carnage surrounding him, Jarius managed to discern the Federation commander's face. "Where is Captain Kirk?" he asked.
"Captain Kirk is not on board at the moment, Commander," Scott replied. "I am in charge."
The irony of the entire situation lowered itself onto Jarius' tired shoulders. The man for whom he had waited, pondered meeting, wasted time was not even on his ship. His plans, his ambitious dreams collapsed around his ears. A strange, eerie laughter bubbled at his lips, building until it bordered on the hysterical. Those of his officers left to watch simply stared, knowing their end drew near, and too numb to care much about anything else.
As Scott watched in fascinated horror, the commander lunged forward, still cackling weirdly, and slammed his hand against a console. The brilliant flash almost blinded those on the Enterprise's bridge. They peered through shielding fingers as the Romulan vessel exploded into millions of space particles and was gone.
With a heavy sigh, Scott turned back to the intercom. "They destroyed themselves, Captain," he said quietly.
Kirk let out the breath he had held for an eternity and exchanged relieved glances with Spock and McCoy.
"Not unexpected, Captain," the Vulcan observed. "As you probably recall, previous Romulan actions would indicate this pattern."
"Yes," Kirk agreed. "Still..." He turned toward the natives, who had been watching with unconcealed curiosity, to smile his thanks. Just in time, he remembered and pulled the grin into a frown, fierce enough, he hoped, to relay their gratitude. Oru'g responded with a favorable glower.
"We are grateful for your support, Captain Kirk," the governor of Nihal Four said sincerely, voice slightly raised to be heard over the general noise of the gathering.
Kirk nodded in response. "Just know, sir, that the Romulans may make tempting offers, but they cannot give you honesty. The Federation can." He glanced across the recreation room at his crew, mingling happily with Nihali and ambassadors at the culminating banquet for the diplomatic talks.
"We discovered that in a most difficult manner," agreed the governor. "They offered great riches for our dilithium, but when we attempted to limit their mining activities, they threatened us with force. We could not prevent them from taking what they would." His red eyes wrinkled in disgust. He snorted disdainfully. "When I spoke with your ship, I tried to intimate their control but feared directly telling your man that over our communications because of a possible reprisal." He sipped the fizzing drink, then sighed.
"Well, governor," said the captain, setting his own empty glass down on a passing tray, "we certainly look forward to continued good relations with your planet."
"As do I." The governor spotted someone over Kirk's shoulder. "If you'll excuse me."
Kirk stepped aside, a satisfied smile on his lips until he noticed the man approaching him. Instantly, his countenance fell, brows drawing into a disagreeable frown, mouth becoming a grimace.
McCoy strolled up to his side, bemused. "Jim, what's wrong? Has something--"
"Nothing, Bones," Kirk growled, not even glancing at him.
Then McCoy looked up and saw the reason for Kirk's expression. It was walking toward them in the form of a familiarly nasty face.
"Greetings, Captain," Oru'g said through the translator, his frown matching Kirk's.
"Chief Oru'g," Kirk returned with a pleasant scowl.
"Doctor," the leader of Nihal V added, turning toward McCoy. The physician nodded and glowered simultaneously.
"This is an amazing village you have, Kirk," said Oru'g in wonder. "We have made powerful friends."
Kirk inclined his head. "Friends, Oru'g," he said, "who will remain friends, and not scavenge your planet without permission as the others."
"Yes," Oru'g acknowledged sadly, and for a moment his face lifted with the unpleasant thought. Then, he frowned again. "We must return to our own village, Captain, but we have brought you a gift."
At Kirk's raised brow, he motioned another native forward with the cloaking device they had seen on the planet. "At first your interest in the amaku puzzled us. It is a simple trick on the eyes."
"But," Oru'g continued, "we have decided that since it is not available to you and useless to us, we give you this amaku to satisfy your unhealthy desire for subterfuge." He held out the unit graciously.
Kirk opened his mouth in retort, but decided suddenly to accept the innocent remark in the spirit in which it was given. As straight-faced as possible, he accepted it, and nodded solemnly. "We thank you, Chief Oru'g."
McCoy, barely maintaining his own somber frown, added his gratitude. "I believe Mister Spock, especially, will enjoy playing with this." Kirk allowed himself a brief sidelong reprimanding glance before he refocused his attention on the alien.
"You are always welcome in our village," Oru'g assured them, then gathered his entourage and left proudly.
"Oh, boy," McCoy cackled gleefully when the natives were out of sight. "I can't wait to get that thing into the astrophysics lab. I'm gonna hook it up and render invisible every one of Spock's blasted instruments--"
"Oh, no," said Kirk quickly, gathering the device close so the doctor could not get his hands on it. "I'm not going to let you antagonize poor Spock anymore. You two nearly drove me crazy down on that planet." He smiled wickedly, "Besides, if you took this, all my Saurian brandy would disappear."
McCoy grinned. "You would think of that."
The captain cradled the mixture protectively. "This thing's going to a starbase for complete analysis. No buts!"
The doctor shook his head balefully. "What a waste." After a long pause, he cocked his head toward Kirk and noted, "You know, Jim, it always amazes me how you manage these things."
"What things?" Kirk asked, a bit disarmed by McCoy's sudden shift.
"Well, I mean there we were, shot down by Romulans, abandoned on a primitive planet, no communications. Looks bleak, right?"
Kirk raised a brow, but remained silent.
"And you," he continued, "come out with a destroyed Romulan ship, brand-spanking new cloaking device, and two new Federation members, smelling like a rose." McCoy raised his hands. "Now they'll pin another medal on you, and still no one will realize you are just a lucky son of a--"
"Bones," Kirk interrupted, looking hurt, "where's your faith in your captain? I had the whole thing planned all along."
McCoy turned a dubious blue eye on him and said, conspiratorially, "Uh-huh. Well, I won't tell." He smiled and took Kirk's arm, guiding him from the crowded room. "Now let's talk about this cloaking unit. You know, a complete analysis is really needed. I'd be happy to..." As the two disappeared into the corridor, the captain's hand crept more securely around the device.
James Kirk relaxed in his command chair, the cuts and bruises collected over the past days healing, a satisfied smile on his lips. As he pondered the outcome of their latest adventure, the captain noticed his first officer and chief medical officer emerge from the turbolift and assume their customary positions to his right and left, respectively. He smiled up at them.
"Well, gentlemen," he greeted lightly. "The cows are in the barn and we're back to business as usual."
"Business as usual, Captain?"
"Yes, Mister Spock. After dealing with intrigue, peril and last-minute valiance, it is relaxing to get back to normal. Don't you agree?" Above his head McCoy and Spock exchanged glances. Kirk's eyes narrowed warily.
"Actually, Captain," Spock began, his smooth expression never wavering, "I have observed through the years that 'business as usual' for you generally includes intrigue, peril and last-minute valiance."
Kirk turned to look at him, as if determining the intent behind that remark. Finally, he asked, his voice tinted with a slightly insulted tone, "Why Mister Spock, are you insinuating that I am a...thrill-seeker?"
"If the shoe fits, Jim..." McCoy chimed in, for once apparently on the Vulcan's side.
"Gentlemen," Kirk said, hands spread in supplication, "I cannot imagine what could persuade you to consider such a idea. I have not at any time given you cause to believe I am anything but an average, hard-working, by-the-book starship commander. Have I?" He opened the question to the entire bridge crew.
Suddenly, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, who had been blatantly eavesdropping, discovered extremely important duties at their stations. They swung around, abandoning their leader.
An expression of pure betrayal shadowed Kirk's smooth features. With a great air of injury, the captain sighed, raised his hands and accused, "Gentlemen, if I didn't know you better, I'd suspect you two of conspiring together."
McCoy's face remained angelically innocent. Spock lifted a wry brow and retorted, "Indeed, Captain. I see no reason for you to be verbally abusive." His lean face acquired an expression so mischievous, for a Vulcan anyway, that Kirk's response died on his surprised lips.
The smirks which had hovered near the surface all across the bridge, paused just momentarily as grins, then grew into laughter. And laughing hardest of all was James T. Kirk.
Observing them, a tall, stoic Vulcan stood, a paragon of solemnity in a sea of hilarity, but if one of the gleeful Humans had taken time to study the calm face, he might have glimpsed the momentary indulgent twinkle behind those black eyes.
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