thepresent.gif (2478 bytes)



Kirk took the center seat as the alpha watch began without feeling any of his usual pleasure, due to that extremely unpleasant interview with Claudia Dickens. She was not the first admiral to tear a strip off him, it was not even the first time she had done it but this time, Dickens had not only handed him a severe reprimand, the admiral had informed him bluntly that she would be recommending that Starfleet court martial him and remove him from command of the Enterprise. Kirk had tried to tell himself that Headquarters would not listen to a senior officer known to have a personal dislike of him but he could not deny even to himself that this time, he had given Dickens enough ammunition to call his continued command into question. He had put the Enterprise at risk; Kirk rather thought Spock’s deductions that the Chasmanthia were too pacifist to harm anyone was the only reason they had left the system alive.

McCoy and Spock had been unable to offer any comfort when he had returned from his meeting. Neither of them had hidden their conviction he had made a serious error in ignoring the Chasmanthia when all the mysterious aliens had done was to say they did not want any contact and to ask the Enterprise to leave.

Kirk knew he could only hope he would be able to repair the damage he had done to the unity and trust he needed between himself and his officers. Things had eased since but Kirk did not consider they were anything close to back to normal or that he had the friendly, off duty relationship with his officers he preferred; he just hoped that once he got the opportunity for field work the last of his sour mood would vanish. Any thoughts over what Dickens would say, when she learned he had assigned himself to landing parties once more in the face of her strictures, Kirk pushed aside on the principle that he might as well be ‘hung for a sheep as a lamb’ but he had not yet tried out that interesting theory on his chief medical officer and first officer. If he could only manage some sound achievements during this patrol, Kirk considered, it would lessen any arguments Dickens might put forward over his continued captaincy.

Their current assignment looked promising enough. They were heading out from Starbase 14 to continue the exploration of the sector that had been so interrupted by recent events starting with the double mission to Platycodonia IV and Abutilonia II. The area ahead of them now was completely unknown, and Kirk felt the familiar excitement stir within him at the thought of what they might find. He just hoped that if they discovered any class M planets, the all too persistent argument over whether he should beam down would not rear its unwanted head again. It was not only the admiral who thought the captain’s place was on the bridge and Kirk had heard all he wanted on that subject.

“Captain!” Chekov’s attention was suddenly fixed on his board as their journey into this unknown region suddenly took on an alarming twist. “I’m picking up the signatures of six unknown ships heading in our direction at warp five! Time to interception eight point three minutes. I don’t recognize their configuration but they’re definitely warships and their approach is between us and the Federation border!”

“Red alert!” Kirk ordered, as the relaxed atmosphere on the bridge vanished at those ominous words. Civilians might argue a claim that the captain of a Starfleet ship had only to step onto the bridge to know immediately if things were routine or not; the captains and the rest of the bridge officers knew differently. Without anyone ever taking their attention from their consoles, a routine watch proceeded in a relaxed atmosphere; the moment the ship went to yellow or red alert, the level of concentration became intense. “Can you tell me anything more, Mister Chekov?”

“The ships are a little smaller than we are, Captain, about the size of a Miranda class cruiser and I’d estimate about as maneuverable,” Chekov answered soberly as he gathered data as rapidly as possible. He knew as well as everyone else on the bridge what bad news that was. The Miranda class cruisers might be smaller and less well armed than a Constitution class cruiser such as the Enterprise but they regularly outperformed the larger ships in war games where they could use their greatest weapons, their speed and maneuverability. The Enterprise could not stand against six Mirandas and it sounded as though she would not have a chance against their unknown opponents. That any possible retreat had already been cut off argued the most hostile intentions and the Enterprise was the only Starfleet ship in this area; they could not summon reinforcements. “And I’d estimate they’re faster than us. Mister Lethende, can you confirm that?”

“Agreeing.” His friend waved a tentacle. “Trying to get more data.”

“Are we near enough to any systems to be considered to have invaded someone’s territory?” Kirk sought for enough information to enable him to make sense of this.

“I wouldn’t think so, Captain.” Chekov put their present position on screen. “Unless someone’s claiming a very large area, of course.”

“I’d have thought in that case we’d have heard of them already,” Kirk mused. “We’re not that far away from the Federation’s border.”

“Indeed, Captain,” Spock agreed. “And I can only concur with Mister Chekov and Mister Lethende that their speed probably exceeds ours. However this situation resolves itself, retreat does not seem to be an option.” The Vulcan saw the elevator was disgorging the chief medical officer.

“Well, there’s no need to sound so calm about it!” McCoy had studied the viewscreen with utter dismay. If they had trespassed, his first suggestion would have been a swift apology and a withdrawal , especially after their recent encounter with the Chasmanthia, but these unknown aliens were already between the Enterprise and the Federation.

Spock merely raised an eyebrow. “I fail to see what useful purpose could be served in sounding excited, Doctor.”

“It might make you sound more Human.” McCoy knew he had led with his chin the moment the words were out of his mouth.

“How, in the unlikely event I should wish to do that, would it serve any useful purpose either?” the first officer inquired. Why McCoy had to come to the bridge where he did not have an assigned station or any reason to be there had eluded the first officer since the doctor had joined the ship; why the doctor thought an emotional response was more valid than a considered and logical one Spock doubted he would ever understand.

Spock knew Kirk might have an entirely illogical determination to lead as many landing parties as possible and prove extremely reluctant to admit it was time he remained on the bridge. As far as his first officer was concerned, the captain had an even more regrettable tendency to allow his chief medical officer to come to the bridge whenever the mood took him; every other line officer on the ship when left in command had thrown McCoy off the bridge as promptly as he arrived but for some reason Spock had yet to fathom, Kirk seemed to like the doctor there. When a red alert sounded the doctor could be guaranteed to arrive in order to satisfy his curiosity; Spock just hoped McCoy would not promptly display his other most irritating habit of demanding an immediate solution to whatever they were facing.

Kirk did not even hear the familiar exchange. He might have noticed if his first officer and his chief medical officer had agreed on a course of action; he had stopped noticing when they disagreed. They had been doing that since Spacedock and they showed no sign whatsoever of running out of things about which to argue. “Ensign Uhura, open hailing frequencies.” As he waited, he studied the alien ship. Unlike the Enterprise and the Federation’s other designs for starships, this ship had only one function; Chekov had been right about that. They were looking at a warship with weapons of unknown power, a warship that could call on five more ships as reinforcements at any moment she chose. She was beautiful, Kirk could admire her design, even as he wondered what she meant for his own ship but every line proclaimed elegant lethality.

“Aye, sir. Opening hailing frequencies now.”

“Captain, I’m not entirely certain, as the emissions aren’t anything I’ve encountered before, but I don’t think those ships have their shields raised or that they’ve got weapons on line.” Chekov had not paid any attention to the disagreement either. The only thing McCoy’s visits had produced in him was a firm resolve that if he ever attained a command of his own, his chief medical officer was going to stay in sickbay where he belonged.

“Confirming,” Lethende added.

“I can only agree, Captain.” Spock nodded.

“And five of them have dropped out of warp,” the navigator said.

“Take us out of warp too, Mister Sulu,” Kirk ordered, as matters seemed to take a turn for the better. If these unknown aliens were prepared to offer friendly overtures, he was only too ready to show friendship too. He had just been about to give Sulu a quite different order, to ensure the alien ships did not encircle the Enterprise.

“Aye, sir. Taking us out of warp.”

There was a tense silence before they all saw the remaining alien ships drop out of warp. She was only a short distance away but that was out of phaser range and the watching officers assumed she had stopped out of the range of her own weapons. It was still a relief when Uhura turned and said, “Signal coming in, Captain. Visual.”

“On screen.”

Whatever they had been expecting, it was not to see that the face on screen belonged to a Human male but that vanished in relief as they saw he was smiling. They were still not prepared for what he had come to say. “Good day, Captain Kirk. I am Captain Hrrosbon of the Astelia. I realize we must have caused you considerable alarm and I apologize for that but it was essential to stop you before you continued into the unknown space ahead of you.”

“Good day, Captain Hrrosbon.” Kirk concealed his surprise that the man on the other ship knew his name and the destination of the Enterprise. As the Astelia were apparently fully Human it would not have been particularly difficult to find out at Starbase 14 who was the captain of the Enterprise and their mission was widely known. “Are you saying you know there is danger ahead of us?”

“Not at all. The space is as unknown to us as it is to you,” Hrrosbon promptly added to the bewilderment of the officers on the Enterprise’s bridge. It was an enormous relief to see that the fight with six alien ships towards which they had seemed to be heading had dissolved into nothing but even seeing Hrrosbon smile had not induced anyone to relax. They still did not have any idea what was behind the sudden appearance of the Astelia and no one needed to be told the whole situation could still turn around and leave them facing a fight they could not win. “And it is not our intention to interfere with your desire to explore it. That is entirely your concern. Our concern, the whole reason for us being here was to speak to you before, I do not want to sound too pessimistic, but before your ship perhaps vanishes for ever. What that would mean for Astelia…”

“Captain Hrrosbon, I confess to not understanding a word of this conversation,” Kirk informed him frankly. The chance of a battle the Enterprise would inevitably lose seemed to have vanished but he needed to make sense of this. Spock had already split the screen to say their data banks had never heard of the Astelia yet the intensity gripping Hrrosbon was easy enough to read. Whatever the Astelia wanted with the Enterprise, they wanted it desperately. “Could you tell us what it is you want from us?”

“I need to speak with one of your officers, Captain Kirk, an Ensign Chekov.” Hrrosbon looked at them in surprise as a ripple of amusement ran around the bridge. “But why you should find that amusing, I cannot think!”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Kirk apologized. Hrrosbon did not look offended, merely puzzled but the captain of the Enterprise opted to provide a prompt explanation all the same. “It’s just that since he joined the Enterprise straight out of Starfleet Academy, Mister Chekov has displayed an unparalleled talent for becoming embroiled in whatever is going on! You may have surprised us by turning up like this, but somehow none of us are surprised to learn who it is you want.” He gestured to the navigator to come and stand next to him. “This is Ensign Chekov.”

“Ensign, I must speak to you on a matter so important for the Astelia, our whole civilization depends on it.” Hrrosbon seemed to take a deep breath. His words did nothing to ease the tension on the bridge of the Enterprise. The Astelia might not be hostile but their reason for sending six warships in pursuit of the Enterprise had suddenly become clear. If the Astelia believed so much rode on whatever their chief navigator had done, it might yet be impossible to extricate Chekov and perhaps the Enterprise herself from the situation. “Ensign Chekov, let me make it perfectly clear from the first that we are not accusing you of anything. We would not so insult someone we have no reason to believe anything but an honorable warrior. We are aware you acted entirely innocently in this matter and no blame accrues to you at all but you have inadvertently become involved in the most heinous crime ever committed on Astelia Three.”

The captain paused for a moment, and the Enterprise officers waited in silence. Something of monumental importance to the Astelia had clearly happened; it was all too easy for Starfleet personnel to become involved in alien customs without ever knowing they had committed a major offence and it had been something of a relief to hear Hrrosbon say from the beginning the Astelia did not hold Chekov responsible. It was still worrying to hear he had somehow become so involved in Astelian matters they had sent six warships in pursuit of the Enterprise. The mention of the ‘most heinous crime ever committed on Astelia Three’ was not the most reassuring thing anyone had heard.

“Nineteen years ago, an… artifact was stolen from Astelia. It is crucial to the choice of our next monarch. We have been searching for it ever since. Many Astelia have died in the search, others have been lost to slavery or simply vanished but the price was paid willingly.”

“And you think Ensign Chekov now has this artifact?” Kirk asked cautiously. How Chekov had come to possess something of such vital importance to a totally unknown race his captain could not think. Of course, if anyone could, Pavel could. What has the boy been up to this time?

Hrrosbon nodded. “After nineteen years of searching and following many false trails, we tracked the artifact to your Starbase Fourteen but before we could obtain possession of it, it vanished again. When inquiries were made, the shopkeeper informed us Ensign Chekov had purchased it. Ensign, you may ask any price of us you wish if you will only let us return the artifact to Astelia.”

Kirk found himself rubbing a hand across his forehead, a nervous gesture which had begun with the arrival of his chief navigator on a midshipman training cruise when he captained the Shenandoah. Nothing in the intervening years had done anything to change it. “Ensign, did you buy something at Starbase Fourteen?”

“Yes, sir,” Chekov answered readily.

“And do you still have it?” Kirk thought that was worth asking. If the navigator had been looking for a present for someone in his family, he might already have sent it back to Earth. And isn’t that going to introduce some complications into this conversation! Kirk had a sudden horrible vision of Hrrosbon’s ships heading for Earth; he doubted very much they would accept any promise Chekov would ask for the artifact to be sent straight back. It meant too much to the Astelia for that and they would be afraid it would be lost again.

“Yes, sir.” Chekov removed one worry from his captain’s mind before it had time to really form.

“Before we continue the conversation, Captain Hrrosbon,” Spock observed. “Perhaps it would be prudent if Ensign Chekov fetched from his quarters the purchase he made in order to determine if it is indeed the object you have sought for so long.”

“Good idea, Mister Spock.” Kirk saw that it was not just Hrrosbon who had turned white at the very suggestion Chekov might not have the artifact for which they had been searching for nineteen years, so had every other Astelia in sight on the bridge. “Off you go, Ensign.”

“Aye, sir.” Chekov headed for the elevator only to smile in thanks as he saw Maxton had one waiting for him. That changed to a grin as he saw the expressive look the chief petty officer was giving him.

“And should it not prove to be what you seek,” Kirk added, “I can ask the rest of the crew if they bought anything at the starbase. Your informant might have got the right ship but the wrong person.”

“Not being likely and captain should be knowing that,” Lethende put in. “If anyone on ship buying something for which Astelia having been looking for nineteen years Chekov being one.”

Lethende was out of view but the Astelian captain caught a glimpse of a waving tentacle. “Who is that, Captain Kirk?”

Kirk waved the Salixa to stand by him. “This is Ensign Lethende, one of my engineers, Captain. It is also a very close friend of Ensign Chekov’s.”

“Being at Academy together,” Lethende agreed. “Being kind to poor lonely Salixa. Getting poor innocent Salixa into lots of trouble too. Liking quiet life. Chekov not recognizing quiet life if being hit over the head with it. Setting record at the Academy for number of times being in commandant’s office. Being in there on first day of term, last day of term and most of days in between.”

“No, I wasn’t!” Chekov reappeared, carefully carrying a shabby leather box about eight inches in height. The gasp from the Astelian ship could be heard plainly. “So I wish you’d stop saying that!”

“I gathered you do not lead a peaceful life, Ensign.”

Hrrosbon was only looking amused, and Kirk could imagine the conversation had at least eased the waiting for the Astelia. Spock’s suggestion they make certain the purchase Chekov had made was indeed the artifact for which the Astelia were searching had been logical enough but just the thought they had once more failed to retrieve it must have been more than they could bear.

The navigator returned to his position next to his captain, and carefully opened the box to reveal a delicate, egg-shaped object. “Is this your artifact, Captain Hrrosbon?”

“It is! It is!” Captain Hrrosbon surged forward, his face alight, as if he would reach through the screen and take the ovoid. After a moment he regained control and sank back into his seat. “Are you willing to return it to us?”

“Of course,” Chekov answered.

“Then it only remains to settle the price.” Captain Hrrosbon wondered what the Starfleet officer would ask for the Egg of Succession. He had debated with his officers whether to inform the Starfleet officers how much the Egg meant to them but his aide had simply pointed out that the very fact they were sending six ships to get it back would proclaim that to even the most stupid. “What do you ask for returning the Egg of Succession to Astelia?”

Chekov could feel the tension around him as the Astelia waited for his answer; everyone knew how important it was when the Astelia could still destroy the Enterprise; they might not choose to act until they had their artifact back but if he offended them seriously enough they might attack once they had. He knew what he wanted to say but he simply dared not reply until he knew a little more about the Astelia. If he had not know before how tragically even the most innocent seeming decision could wreck a contact, Lithodora II would have taught him. “Captain Hrrosbon, I’m not avoiding giving you an answer but would you bear with me if I don’t give you one immediately?”

“Why do you not wish to do that?” Hrrosbon asked. All he wanted was to pay the price the Starfleet officer wanted and take the Egg safely back to Astelia. “If you are thinking of bargaining, there is no need. I have already told you we will pay any price you ask.”

“It is not the price which concerns me. I know the answer I intend to give you and I have from the moment you explained how important the Egg of Succession is to you,” Chekov explained carefully. “What might be more difficult, and what I wish to do, is to ensure my answer is acceptable to you. I’m not sure how much you know about us but Starfleet is the scientific and exploration arm of the United Federation of Planets, a group of planets who have agreed to live together in peace. When we meet people such as you of the Astelia we hope to meet you in peace too but it is all too easy to give great offence through simple ignorance. Since I don’t know anything at all about Astelian customs, my answer could even end any chance we might ever be able to meet in friendship.”

“I had not thought of that,” Hrrosbon replied thoughtfully. They were on the verge of solving the problem which had occupied the thoughts of every Astelia for nearly two decades but it seemed that problem was about to be replaced by others. As he understood the young officer’s doubts, Hrrosbon found he could only agree with them. They knew where the Egg of Succession was after so many years of searching and the person who possessed it had promised to return it; they could take the time to handle the situation with the care it deserved. The Federation was clearly large and powerful and far closer to Astelia than anyone had known before the long search for the Egg began; it would be pointless to antagonize them without due cause. The more he thought about Chekov's request to talk before he gave his answer, the more reasonable it seemed. “It has been impossible to think of anything else but the search for the Egg. As you have no doubt deduced, we have sent in small teams to ask after it. They have had some contact with beings of other races but we have not pursued that. It has not been important to us. You have met such difficulties before?”

“Captain, you would not believe some of the situations in which I’ve ended up because I didn’t either know or understand what was going on,” Chekov informed him with considerable feeling. Not to mention what the captain had to say afterwards!

“Thinking plan being to turn captain’s hair completely grey by end of five year mission,” Lethende contributed happily, a couple of tentacles curled around its friend. “Because what is worrying captain is what price Chekov asking from you because last time aliens asking that, friend asking for and filling rec deck with ten thousand deadly venomous snakes at time when Enterprise having one hundred and thirty two diplomatic delegates on board. Most of them not being happy at news!”

“I can see where that might cause you some concern, Captain Kirk,” Hrrosbon managed after a moment’s stunned silence. He might have told Chekov the Astelia would meet any price he asked for the return of the Egg of Succession but it had never crossed his mind anyone would ask for something so incredible. The Starfleet officer had asked for time to understand if his price would be acceptable, the very thought of what Chekov might ask left Hrrosbon’s mind reeling. It was not only the Starfleet officer who needed to learn more, he decided, he did too. “Whatever reason did Ensign Chekov give you for doing such a thing?”

“One of the ways in which Mister Chekov is definitely adding to my grey hairs, Captain Hrrosbon, is what I can only term his deplorable tendency to get himself into situations such as that, where he is the only the one who can explain what is going on, but to be flat on his back in sickbay and quite unable to tell us,” Kirk informed him tartly.

Hrrosbon shook his head. “I did not think anything could turn my mind from retrieving the Egg of Succession, Ensign Chekov, but I must ask, how could you possibly want ten thousand venomous snakes? Why did you want them?”

“I’d managed to get myself kidnapped, along with Lady Amanda, Ambassador Sarek’s wife, by some very unpleasant people called the Sparaxians, Captain. Once we were on their planet, they made us endure a series of tests, one of which was to throw us into a series of underground caverns where they left us overnight after informing us no Sparaxian had ever survived a night there. By then, since Lady Amanda was ill and I was badly wounded, we weren’t sure we’d survive the night anyway. We were just resting when we heard this slithering sound and a lot of very large snakes appeared. They proved to be the original inhabitants of the planet who’d almost been exterminated by the Sparaxian invaders and were entirely ethical and friendly. They were telepathic, so I was able to communicate with them, and they helped us.”

“The Sparaxians did you call them, did not care they were exterminating another intelligent race?” Hrrosbon did not know it but he earned himself a lot of points with the crew of the Enterprise by asking that question.

“The Ajani couldn’t make a telepathic contact with the Sparaxians and since their civilization was entirely of the mind there was nothing on their world to indicate intelligent beings lived there,” Chekov replied. “I can only judge the Sparaxians by the few I met. I only liked one, who was considered a criminal by the others because he was leading a movement to stop the environmental damage they were doing to the planet. Col Dace would have cared very much if he’d known about the Ajani. I don’t think any of the others I met would. The Sparaxians had been using them as a method of executing their criminals but the few remaining Ajani had decided to let their race die out rather than endure that. When Ton Karr, the Sparaxian leader, offered me three things as I’d passed their tests, once I’d asked that Lady Amanda and I be returned to the Enterprise, and that she be free to leave the system, I chose to rescue the few surviving Ajani.”

“Which even the most fractious diplomat was pleased about, once Mister Chekov had recovered enough to explain!” Kirk added feelingly. “Until then, things were a little tense!”

“I can imagine.” Hrrosbon looked awed by the picture Kirk had created. “And what did you do with the Ajani?”

“The Federation won’t do anything to aid the Sparaxians, who’ve already ruined two planets by their destructive practices, but we are willing to aid people such as the Ajani, who were in trouble through no fault of their own,” Kirk told him. “And since the diplomats we had on board were being taken to a major conference, there was a great deal of sympathy for and interest in the Ajani. We were sent to assess a suitable planet but since I managed to land myself in sickbay during the first day of exploration, I’m not really the best person to describe what happened. I will say that when I woke up, learning what Mister Chekov had been up didn’t do anything for my blood pressure. Ensign?”

Chekov had caught the nod from Spock which told him the first officer was ready with any illustrations he wished to use. “These are the Ajani. It was essential to find them a planet where they could eat the creatures there as they’re obligate carnivores…”

“I think I am beginning to understand why no one on your bridge was surprised to learn you were the one for whom we were looking, Ensign!” Hrrosbon told him as the story ended. He knew his bridge officers had been as fascinated by the tale as he was. They were all beginning to relax a little as they understood Chekov’s purpose behind the conversation. “And why you are concerned that you might offend us without meaning to, despite the fact you agreed very readily to return the Egg of Succession to us.  But surely when we clearly come from the same race, such misunderstandings are unlikely?”

“Quite the opposite, Captain,” Chekov replied frankly. He patted the tentacle curled around him. “When you meet a race as alien as Mister Lethende, you expect them to be just that, alien, to have very different customs and ways of living. By contrast, when someone looks just the same as you, it is all too easy to think they understand customs so central to your way of living it does not even occur to you to mention them. I’m not the only Starfleet officer to end up in difficulties because of that. I managed to survive but not everyone is as fortunate. I would certainly hope, for example, not to find that returning the Egg of Succession to you, I’ve filled some kind of religious prophecy. I must bear in mind too our most important law, the Prime Directive. That states that we do not interfere in any way with the people of another planet. Some aspects of it don’t apply to you, but there are still some I must consider.”

The Astelia captain looked curious. “I would have thought either a law applied in its entirety or not all, Ensign?”

“The Prime Directive was formulated to ensure that when we contact someone such as yourselves, we don’t do harm by revealing knowledge for which you’re not ready,” Chekov explained. He knew this could be another tricky point; some races were mortally offended when they learned their technology did not match that of the Federation. “The time we usually think we can contact people without doing that is when they have developed the ability to leave their own system, so that part of the Directive doesn’t apply to you but imagine, if you would, that we discovered your planet when your people had just developed powered flight. Can you visualize what a devastating effect it would have on your scientists and researchers if we revealed that everything you might develop in the next four or five hundred years had already been thought of by someone else?”

“I can.” The captain nodded.

Chekov looked over to the first officer. “Mister Spock, would you show the encounter with the Friti?” He returned his attention to the screen. “This occurred during my training, when we discovered a slave ship. I won’t show you the whole incident, as it’s very long, but the Friti were at such a primitive level they would never have been contacted by Starfleet and you can see the effect such a premature contact could have on beings at such a level of civilization.”

“I can indeed.” Hrrosbon nodded once more. “I understand.” He looked curiously at the screen. “But I am intrigued to know what parts of your directive would still apply to us, given that we have met your most important criteria of developing the ability to leave our home system?”

“It’s a little involved, but basically that we don’t have the right to criticize your society or to tell you to change something so that you follow our ways,” Chekov continued his careful path. He could have wished some of the questions were directed at his captain but the Astelia had chosen to speak mainly to him probably because he was the one who had bought the Egg. “When Humans explored our own planet, for example, the people from one race thought they had the right to tell people less developed that their way of life was wrong, even that their religion was false. Some groups even took the children of what they considered the inferior group away from their parents so that they could be raised in a way the dominant group thought best. The worst aspect of all of this is that their intentions were good. They truly thought they were doing the best for the people under their control but instead they did a great deal of harm. We have learned better now but because it is still possible to interfere when you can see something wrong, it was formulated into the Prime Directive. Starfleet officers have died because they refuse to break it.” Chekov decided he needed to try for a lighter note. “One apparent difference between us, to use another example, is that the crew of the Enterprise consists of both male and female personnel, while I can only see males on your bridge. We find a mixed crew works for us but if you prefer your way, we won’t give ourselves the right to tell you to change.”

Hrrosbon chuckled. “I can think of one person who would very much like you to tell us to change, Ensign.  My daughter! We have equality in most things and there is a strong movement among the women of Astelia that they should be allowed to serve in space. When Dillea learns women are allowed to serve on Starfleet ships she will become even more vociferous on the subject!” He shook away the thought of his much loved daughter. “But we can talk more of this later. I appreciate why you wish to be so careful before naming your price, Ensign Chekov. I cannot think you would offend us by the price you ask nor that it would be something we could not forgive now that our long search has come to an end but if it is something we find hard to accept, would you explain your reasoning behind it?”

“Of course,” Chekov agreed readily.

“Then the price you ask of us for the return of the Egg of Succession?” Hrrosbon thought everyone around him was holding their breath as they waited to hear the answer. The young Starfleet officer had impressed him and the captain had meant it when he told Chekov if he did offend them, they would do their best to forgive him.

Chekov smiled at the screen. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Hrrosbon and the rest of the officers around him became utterly still .

Chekov and the rest of the Enterprise’s bridge crew watched worriedly. It was impossible to tell from the motionless Astelia if they were offended beyond any chance of saving the situation, utterly relieved, or simply too stunned to say anything at all.

Another man moved forward to stand next to Hrrosbon. He wore robes, not a uniform like that of the rest of the Astelia, and it was not difficult to deduce he was a priest, a complication everyone on the Enterprise felt they could well have done without. “That is not what we expected to hear, Ensign Chekov. Would you tell us the reason behind that answer, as you told Captain Hrrosbon you would?”

Hrrosbon shook himself out of his shock. “This is our chaplain, Father Cherschar.”

“I have two reasons, Father,” Chekov explained. He found the priest’s face quite unnerving; Cherschar’s expression was so forbidding, he looked as if he would sentence the entire crew of the Enterprise to the Inquisition without a second thought. “Firstly, after what you have told us about how important the Egg of Succession is to you, so important you have searched for it for nineteen years, and how many Astelia have willingly died as you tried to find it, I don’t want to obtain any personal advantage from that. You have described the theft as the most heinous crime ever committed on Astelia. I’m grateful you don’t consider me culpable. It still wouldn’t be right for me to gain any advantage from a crime.

Secondly, again, because the Egg of Succession is so important to Astelia, I have to consider that you might feel it is tainted or its value is lessened if you have to pay to get it back. I would rather return it freely to you. You told me you would pay any price I chose to ask but surely such an artifact as the Egg of Succession can’t be considered to have a price? Something so important transcends any monetary value because it is irreplaceable. It may be made of gold but that is not where its value lies, is it?”

“Both reasons do you credit, my son.” Cherschar’s grim face broke into a smile. “You want nothing from us at all?”

Chekov smiled too, enormously relieved not only that he had finally managed to give the Astelia their answer but that it was one they could accept. “I’d like to think that next time we meet it might be on friendly terms, Father, but I won’t ask even that of you.”

“I would hope for that too.” Hrrosbon nodded. Once the Egg was returned safely to Astelia he would have to find something else to do with his life and he had already decided what that was going to be. He wanted to travel in space simply to explore, without having to think of the search which had ruled almost his entire adult life.

“As would I,” Cherschar agreed. “My son, you have been very patient and satisfied Captain Hrrosbon’s curiosity on several points, would you satisfy mine and tell me why you bought the Egg of Succession in the first place?”

“Of course. When the Enterprise returns to Earth in two years, I wanted to give my maternal grandmother something special,” Chekov explained. “So whenever we dock at a starbase, I look for something I think she’d like.”

“And you thought the Egg of Succession would be such a gift?” Cherschar looked puzzled. “I would not have thought a work of art created on one planet would hold any attraction for those of another world?”

“On a lot of worlds you’d be right, Father. The reasons behind the creation of an alien work of art can be too alien for another race to appreciate them as they’re usually tied strongly to the culture there and aliens simply can’t understand the message behind them but that doesn’t hold true everywhere. In this instance though, I had a reason for thinking my grandmother would be delighted by the Egg, apart from the fact it is beautiful in its own right.

We have avians on Earth who lay eggs to reproduce…” He paused as the transmission from the Astelian ship split the screen to show a hen and a cockerel. “Yes, avians such as those.”

“If I might interrupt your explanation for a moment,” Cherschar requested. “We learned, when our scientists deciphered DNA, that we and most of the animals we domesticate, such as the avians, did not originate on Astelia Three but we have no knowledge of how we came to be there. Do you?”

“A partial explanation, Father,” Chekov replied. “When Humans from Earth, where we originated, began to explore space, we were certainly surprised to find people who were clearly Humans on a number of planets. Two of the other space faring races, the Vulcans and the Klingons, found their people on different worlds too. We’ve deduced that at some time in the past, so long ago people such as yourselves don’t have even legends to explain it, a race we don’t know anything about but whom we’ve called the Preservers, decided that as the people of all three planets were leading very violent existences, the best chance for their survival was to settle people of those races on different planets in the hope that if they exterminated each other on their planets of origin, the races would still survive elsewhere.”

“You told us you would wish to meet us in friendship,” Hrrosbon said carefully. “So have you left the violence in your past, as we have?”

“I rather think we are alike in that we value peace so highly we will fight to preserve it,” Chekov replied equally carefully as the conversation took another ominous twist. The Astelia could react equally badly to the news the Federation sought peace as to the news they would fight when they needed to but he stuck with the one factor to which he had always attributed his remarkable record in first contacts: honesty. “I described Starfleet as the scientific and exploration arm of the United Federation of Planets, which is perfectly true but we are also her naval arm. When it is necessary to defend the Federation, then Starfleet will fight to the death.”

“You are right, Ensign.” Hrrosbon smiled. “That is indeed a concept we share.”

“Indeed.” The priest nodded. “Please go on with your explanation of why you chose such a gift.”

“Because the eggs were laid in our northern hemisphere in spring, that coincided with the most important celebration of the major religion at the time and became associated with it,” Chekov continued, “Eggs and egg-shaped objects were given as gifts at that time. Most were made of confectionery but some were more elaborate. Nearly four hundred of our years ago, the area of Earth from which I come was ruled by an emperor. The imperial family commissioned eggs from the court jeweler called Faberge. They were so exquisite that even now his name is synonymous with something beautiful.” He nodded his thanks to the first officer as Spock put some illustrations on the screen. “As you can see. When I saw the Egg of Succession, it reminded me of those and I knew it would remind my grandmother too. We don’t follow that religion but we are all interested in history.”

“I am only pleased, my son, that all you saw when you looked at the Egg of Succession was something of beauty which would give pleasure to someone you love, something to be cherished,” Father Cherschar told the navigator, smiling. “During our long search, as the tales have come in, we have heard only of thefts, murders and treachery as everyone who possessed her sought only to gain from owning her. You are the first since she was stolen from Astelia to see only her beauty.” He looked at Hrrosbon, who nodded.

“Please grant us a little while to discuss this,” the captain requested.

As the screen blanked, Kirk gave a groan, which produced an instant and anxious question from McCoy. “Jim, don’t you feel well?”

Kirk waved him away. It was not any feeling of illness which had produced that response but his chief navigator’s activities. “Bones, if finding myself in a situation such as this wouldn’t produce even a moan, as my stress levels rocket, I can’t think what might. Mister Chekov, how it is you can turn buying your grandmother a present into a major incident?”

Chekov had sunk limply back into his chair as he released some of his own stress. It had been a long and very difficult conversation and he did not think for a moment it was over. “I know, Captain. I don’t think we’re half way to sorting it out either.”

“I can only agree, Captain.” Spock came over. “And I believe the last exchange to be of particular significance.”

The Enterprise’s navigator nodded. “I hoped when I’d managed to tell the Astelia I didn’t want anything for their Egg, I’d satisfy them but I don’t think I have. Why I bought the Egg is as important to them as the fact I haven’t asked anything from them for returning it.”

Kirk found himself rubbing his hand across his forehead once more. The fact the Astelia had concentrated on Chekov had given him plenty of time to study the contact from a little more distance. As Chekov had talked to the Astelia, he had tried to decide how much danger their six ships posed to the Enterprise. This could still end in disaster. “I know. Well done, by the way, for the manner in which you worked around the question of the price. If you’d just come out and told the Astelia you didn’t want anything, you could have offended them so much they’d have started shooting once they got it back.” He rubbed his hand across his forehead once more. “And despite there's been no indication that they've been anything but benevolent, I’m still not entirely sure they won’t do that.”

“It is a possibility but I believe it to be remote,” Spock replied. “Mister Chekov has made too good an impression on them for that.”

“Mister Spock, Hrrosbon might just decide he doesn’t want any witnesses to this.”

“If Mister Chekov had been the first buyer of the Egg of Succession, perhaps, Captain, and certainly if he had been the original thief, but this story is too widely known for that to be feasible. I think our problems will start when the Astelia resume contact,” the first officer said.

“Spock, don’t you think we’ve had a week’s worth of problems already?” McCoy snorted.

“Mister Chekov has handled a difficult conversation admirably, Doctor, with some input from Captain Kirk.” Spock almost smiled. “And Mister Lethende. I will admit we did seem to be facing problems when six unknown ships appeared but that situation eased very quickly.”

“Captain, the Astelia are coming back on line,” Uhura warned. She thought Spock was right; the situation was about to become more delicate, not less.

“On screen when they’re ready,” Kirk told her. “Let’s hope they just wanted a break to get their breath back! I certainly did.”

No one on the Astelian bridge seemed to have changed position but they were at least smiling as they looked at the Enterprise officers. “I must apologize for our somewhat abrupt request, Captain Kirk, but we truly had to consider the situation in which we find ourselves. Father?”

Cherschar gestured to the Egg, which Chekov still held. “When we take her back to Astelia, she will go home to the temple where she belongs. It is how she returns home which concerns us now. Ensign Chekov, you showed you understood that it might be possible to… I suppose shame the Egg is as good a way of putting it as any. She is not responsible for the deeds of the men who stole her, who fought and murdered and stole and died simply because of their greed, but we must return her with as much honor as possible. You mentioned you would be dismayed if you found you had fulfilled a religious prophecy. Is that because of the Prime Directive?”

“Partly, Father.” Chekov could feel how the tension around him had increased again at the mention of religion. It was not only the personnel who served on the front line of exploration who knew that the most difficult situations in any contact were when there was a religious factor involved. “We are certainly specifically barred from either commenting on the religion of another world, such as Astelia, and even more stringently barred from talking about other religions as superior or even at all but mainly because anything to do with the religion of another people can soon become such a minefield. Does that term translate?”

“A field filled with explosive devices,” Hrrosbon supplied.

The ensign nodded. “I told you how easy it is to give offence when people know little of each other. Anything to do with religion is usually not only the easiest way but also gives the worst offence.”

“Then I hope you will not find this too difficult or painful to hear,” Cherschar told him. “But when the Egg was first stolen, an ancient prophecy was recalled. It was foretold that if the Egg ever left Astelia, she could only be returned by someone who saw only her beauty. At the time, which was long before we developed even powered flight, let alone space flight, no one could understand why such a tale was told.”

“But when I return the Egg to you, won’t that fulfil the prophecy?” Chekov asked carefully. “Because surely her beauty is all that you see?”

“No, we do not,” Hrrosbon answered bluntly. “We cherish her, of course, and see her beauty, just as we would die to protect her, as I told you, but when we look at the Egg of Succession we also see the stability she has brought to Astelia for two millennia. You are the one who saw only her beauty, and since you have agreed to return the Egg of Succession to Astelia, I invite not only you but your ship to come as our honored guests. I realize how little you know of us but the other five ships will take up position within the weapons of Starbase Fourteen as hostages for your safe return.”

Chekov turned to look at his captain. That was not a question he could answer but it was clear enough that Spock was right, as usual. The complications of the contact with the Astelia were only beginning. The six ships around them would not be the entire fleet of the Astelia; quite apart from any other considerations, they had to do all they could to ensure that such a powerful race at least were prepared to coexist with the Federation peacefully, even if they did not prove to be interested in becoming members. Kirk nodded. “Could you give us some idea of where we’d be going, Captain Hrrosbon?”

“Of course, Captain Kirk.” Hrrosbon turned to speak to someone out of sight of the viewscreen. Within a few moments, a star chart appeared which Spock quickly matched with those of the Enterprise to show that the Astelian System bordered the area they had been planning to explore. “At the speed with which we approached you, it will take four days to reach Astelia.”

He did not say if that was the maximum speed of his ship, which the captain of the Enterprise duly noted but Kirk knew Hrrosbon was already displaying a great deal of trust in revealing the location of his home world to them when he had no idea how many ships Starfleet could send to Astelia, if the Federation proved to be intent on conquest. “That’s fine, Captain Hrrosbon, but as I’m sure you’ll realize, I do have to clear this with my immediate superior. Lieutenant Uhura, get me Admiral Dickens. I need to tell her about our invitation to visit Astelia.” And to warn her to expect five warships will soon be sitting off her space station. Still, I can’t think of an admiral I’d rather do that to!

main.gif (11611 bytes)

Free counters provided by Vendio.
banner.gif (2815 bytes)

Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES -- 2266-2270 The First Mission
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES On-Line Fiction
Click Here to Return to the Orion Press Website