Penda Nyota Uhura paced the huge, empty, cave-like room. The gray, featureless walls surrounded her oppressively. It reminded her of a tomb. There was no opening anywhere. No light, except what was cast by the field lamp. The sharp staccato tattoo of her footsteps echoed loudly as she made her way about the square perimeter of the room. Her hands skimmed over the cold smooth walls, desperately looking for something, anything.
"Nothing!" she said in frustration. "No cracks, no seams, not even any evidence of how this place was constructed! And no way out."
"A highly advanced civilization," Hikaru Sulu added. He was seated, leaning up against one of the four walls that surrounded them. "That's what Mister Spock said in the briefing. They had massive transporter systems, so maybe they didn't see a need for a conventional exit. Don't worry, Scotty will be scanning for us, and the rest of the landing party are no doubt looking for us, too. Sooner or later, they'll lock on and beam us up."
"The others will be looking for us unless they're in a similar situation," she countered. "And forgive me for saying so, but if a transporter malfunction was what separated us from the others and sent us here--wherever here is--then hoping for the transporter to get us out seems a little optimistic."
"There is another possibility," he said slowly. "I know that our scanners read this as a dead civilization, no life as we know it. But someone lived here once. Maybe they just evolved into something we can't read with our tricorders. If that's the case, maybe they picked us up and sent us here."
"That's reassuring," she said with a touch of sarcasm, sinking down beside him with a defeated sigh. "How long has it been now?" she asked.
Sulu checked the chronometer on the tricorder. "Nearly eight hours, well past the check-in point. Even if the others are in the same fix, the Enterprise will be searching for us by now."
He reached out and adjusted the field lamp down to conserve energy. It would last for about twenty-four hours, and he hoped they wouldn't need all that time, but it was better to play it safe. He shivered. "Are you cold?"
"I'm too mad to be cold," she replied tersely, flipping open her communicator and attempting for the umpteenth time to hail the ship. When it became apparent that she was getting nowhere, Sulu reached out and gently took it from her, closing it and clipping it onto the back waistband of his trousers.
"Nyota, you've cursed the transporter, worn a path around this room, and nearly talked yourself hoarse trying to hail the ship," he said mildly. "Now, will you please tell me what's really bothering you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said flatly, avoiding his gaze.
He sighed. Something was wrong, that he knew. Just like he could recognize the most infinitesimal change in the Enterprise's maneuverability beneath his skilled touch, he sensed the change in Uhura toward him. It had begun nearly two weeks ago, when they were completing negotiations with the Halkans. The trip to the alternate dimension had unsettled all of the landing party, perhaps Uhura most of all.
Since her return, she had been subtly different. The smiling, singing Uhura who filled the bridge with warmth was hidden beneath a barrier of some kind. He had respected the self-erected wall, thinking that she needed time to deal with her experience, telling himself not to take it personally. But gradually it became glaringly apparent that she was going out of her way to avoid him. She traded meal breaks when they were assigned together, left the rec room when he entered, and her smile faded whenever he addressed her. She was polite, but coldly distant, a tense, aloof stranger. This morning, when he had leaned over her communication board to acknowledge a message from engineering, she shrank away from him like he was a slime devil.
"Have I said something, done something wrong?" he asked, turning to face her.
"No, of course not," she replied tensely, starting to rise again. He reached out to stop her.
"Please," he said softly. "No more pacing. You're starting to remind me of the captain!" He was astonished at the way she stiffened beneath his touch, and he withdrew his hand from her shoulder. What on Earth is wrong with her?
She moved away from him, trying to disguise it as a mere shifting of position, but he recognized it for what it was.
"How is Chung doing on communications?" he asked, hoping to divert the conversation to something neutral.
"Fine," she replied, her voice still sounding strained. "She's a little in awe of Mister Spock, but that will pass. Our first officer can be pretty intimidating when one doesn't know him."
Sulu nodded. "Did I ever tell you about Pavel's first day watch at the navigation console?"
She frowned, considering. "I don't think so."
"You were off that day," he said. "The night watch crew knew Pavel was moving to days, so they decided to set him up. Washington told Pavel that Mister Spock was a full telepath and that he could hear every thought anyone had. He even went one step farther and told him that Spock preferred his bridge officers to report to him nonverbally. He insisted that Spock would be really offended if Pavel spoke out loud to him, as that was a privilege he granted only to officers he had worked with for a while."
"Oh, no!" Uhura giggled in spite of herself. "That's awful!"
Sulu grinned. "Well, Pavel bought it. Everything was fine while the captain was on the bridge, but about halfway through the morning he went down to Sickbay and left Spock in command. A few minutes later Spock gave Pavel an order to adjust orbit. He executed the adjustment perfectly, but he didn't repeat the order, at least not out loud. I didn't know him very well then, but I remember thinking he looked tense. At the time, I just attributed it to bridge-baby jitters. Spock didn't say anything about it; maybe he thought the same thing.
"About fifteen minutes later Spock told him to go to the science station and take a simple reading, nothing very difficult. He jumped right up and went to the scanner but never said a word.
"Now Spock is usually pretty patient with new ensigns, but after a few minutes and no report, he repeated the order. Pavel turned and stared at him, his face turning red with the effort of trying to project his mental report so Spock could hear it. By now everyone on the bridge was staring at him.
"Spock repeated the order again and then noticed the anguished expression on Pavel's face. He frowned and asked him if he was all right, but Pavel didn't answer."
"Poor Pav!" Uhura murmured in sympathy. "What happened?"
The more Spock tried to get him to talk, the redder he got. Finally, Spock got a thoughtful look on his face, hit the intercom and called Washington out of a sound sleep to report to the bridge.
"Washington must have run all the way, because he was there in no time. Pavel was still standing like a statue by the science station, sweating and probably wondering if his career was about to go down the tubes.
"Spock gestured Washington to the center seat and leaned forward. He asked Washington if he had ever had any difficulty getting Pavel to follow an order. Washington said no. Then he asked if Washington had any recollection of Pavel having trouble talking. By now, Washington was sweating. Spock fixed him with his drop dead stare and held it for a full minute. Then he spoke.
"'Mister Washington,' Spock said. 'I trust that you know my opinion about the hazing of new ensigns. I also trust that you would never allow such a thing to occur under your influence. It is now time for Mister Chekov's break. You shall accompany him. In fifteen minutes I shall expect him to return to his post. If he is still incapable of speech at that time, I shall require an explanation from you as to why you have given me a mute officer. Is that clear?'"
"Oh, my goodness!" Uhura gasped. "What did Washington do?"
"What could he do?" Sulu asked with a smile. "He grabbed Pavel and towed him off the bridge, blushing like a schoolgirl. Fifteen minutes later Pavel reappeared, looking kind of sheepish, but he marched right up to the center seat. I didn't catch what he said to Spock, but I heard his reply: 'In the future, Ensign, do not believe all that you hear, and rest assured that your secret thoughts are quite safe with me.'"
"That's priceless," Uhura breathed, sounding like herself again.
"And true," Sulu replied with a contented yawn. "I'm getting sleepy. How about you?"
He saw the tension come back into her eyes and wondered what had caused it. "No, I'm not a bit tired," she said stiffly, leaning forward to adjust the lamp down more. "But go ahead. I'll wake you if anything happens."
The walls and ceiling of their prison fell away as the circle of illumination closed in around them. The cold blackness absorbed the artificial light hungrily so he could barely make out her expression, but the wall had gone back up between them; that much he could sense.
He shivered and curled into a ball on the hard slab of floor, knowing better than to suggest they share their body heat. As troubled as he was, he drifted off to sleep almost immediately. He did not dream.
Sulu woke hours later, stiff and sore. The cold was bone chilling now, but there was nothing to do about it. Their phasers were useless in here. The walls, ceiling, and floor of this place absorbed the energy of their weapons completely, but did not grow warm.
His throat was dry, and the thought of a cool drink haunted him. Nearly sixteen hours now, he realized, checking his chrono. How much air is in here? How long before we use it up? Surely help will arrive soon. He looked over at Uhura. She was sleeping on her side, one cheek cradled against her elbow.
He rose, somewhat stiffly, and started moving about, trying to warm up and restore circulation. He moved out of the circle of light, not wanting to disturb Uhura's sleep, kneading his neck muscles and stretching out the kinks in his back. He did a few light warm-up exercises, his compact, well-conditioned body loosening up, the stiffness easing.
Sulu glanced back at Uhura, so serene in her slumber. She looked like a portrait painted by a romantic artist, framed by the soft light of the lamp. The realization that she had somehow changed toward him, a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach, overwhelmed him.
He had considered every conversation they'd had for the past three weeks, gone over and over each word, each phrase, trying to find something to explain the change in her. It had been an exercise in futility. Only she knew what had changed her, and she was not telling, not yet. He had not realized how much her friendship meant to him until the past few days. He had many friends, but there would be no consolation for him if she had really ceased caring for him. There was only one Uhura.
Once, he had harbored a secret desire for her. Probably all of the bridge crew had at one time or another, with the possible exception of Mister Spock. Sulu had fantasized about her as a damsel in distress and himself as her knight in shining armor. He smiled. He had lived that one, partially. When the Psi 2000 virus had infected him, he had protected her, holding Kirk and Spock at bay with his saber. For one brief, glorious moment, she had been his fair maiden.
He chuckled. The youthful crush had long ago faded. He had come to know her as an individual, a friend. He had watched her flirt with other men, go on leave and return with a contented smile, and realized that she would never risk becoming involved romantically with a fellow officer, especially a bridge officer. He had accepted that, pushing the desire aside and making room for a different kind of love, and now that had somehow been taken from him.
Sulu tore his gaze from her and turned, moving farther into the darkness, waving his arms and stretching. His stomach growled its discontent. He was hungry, thirsty and cold. It's so damned cold!
Behind him Uhura stirred and woke. She sat up, looking about her in bewilderment for a moment. When she realized that he wasn't there, she gasped and stood up.
He turned at the sound, and, seeing the expressing on her face, started to reassure her. Before he could speak, she burst into tears. "Hikaru!" she gasped. "Oh, please!"
In a moment he was at her side, and she hugged him tightly, shivering, partly from the cold and perhaps from fright as well. She clutched at him like she feared he might be transported away, sobbing against his tunic and soaking it with her tears. Sulu held her, patting her back and murmuring reassurances. He knew that this was not just from fear of being trapped here alone. She was too good an officer for that to affect her so profoundly.
As her sobs subsided, he lowered her gently to the floor. He sat down beside her, and this time she did not object to his touch, leaning weakly against him as he put a protective arm about her. They sat that way for a long time, and finally he broke the silence.
"Tell me what's wrong," he pleaded, his voice sounding strangely hollow as it echoed against the bare walls.
"Nothing," she whispered, attempting to pull away.
"Please," he begged, not relinquishing his hold on her. "What did I do, Penda? Tell me. I never meant to make you angry with me."
"You didn't do a thing," she insisted, but the ice had crept back into her voice. He could feel her tense up, pull back from him.
His patience snapped, and he released her abruptly, standing up and turning away from her, his hands clenched into fists of frustration. He realized vaguely that his eyes were watering and his throat felt hot and dry. Heaving a deep breath, he felt strangely lightheaded and wondered if they had somehow used up all the oxygen already.
"Damn it, Penda, if you hate me, the least you could do is tell me why," he whispered bitterly, whirling back to face her. "I thought I was your friend, and this...this...hurts..." His voice faltered, and he gasped again for air. Maybe he was suffocating, he thought dully. Maybe he would die never knowing what was wrong between them.
"No," she choked. "Oh, I never meant to..." She stood, slowly meeting his gaze, her expression stricken. "It wasn't you at all; it was him."
"Him who?" he asked, convinced that they were both going mad.
"The alternate," she explained. "The other Sulu."
"Oh, God," he whispered, realization dawning. "Did he...I mean..."
"No," she replied, dropping her gaze. "But he wanted to. If we had been trapped there, it would have been just a matter of time."
"I'm sorry," he said, knowing how inadequate it was. "God, I'm sorry. No wonder you've been avoiding me. Every time you look at me...oh, God!" He sank down to the floor in exhaustion, cradling his head in his hands.
She watched him, sensing his despair and suddenly realizing how badly she had hurt him. This was her Sulu, gentle, sweet, the dear companion and comrade through so many missions. He was no more like his savage alternate than any of the others. And she had hurt him with her foolish fear, made him miserable because she couldn't separate him from the nightmare that had haunted her waking hours since that trip through the transporter.
"Hikaru," she said, her voice unsteady. "I know it wasn't you. Rationally I can tell myself that, but he was you... I mean, his voice, the way he looked, his mannerisms, they all struck a responsive chord in me. That's what made it all so terrifying and horrible. To see the image of someone I cared about, someone I loved, and know that he was capable of such brutality..." She shuddered.
She sank down beside him and put one had under his chin, lifting it up so he would look at her. "I have been a fool," she whispered, her voice husky. "Please forgive me, my dear friend."
He stared back at her for along moment, his eyes wide in the dim light, his smooth, handsome, unscarred face so familiar and reassuring. Suddenly they were hugging again, both of them near tears.
She pulled back from him, a relieved laugh escaping as she kissed him, her soft lips brushing against his. Caught by surprise, Sulu stiffened, and she laughed again, snuggling closer to him.
"Come on, Hikaru," she teased. "I know you can do better than that!" Her mouth came down on his again, and this time she found him responsive, his lips warm and inviting. His arms curled around her more tightly, and she could feel the pounding of his heart against her breast. She finally released him, and he grinned, the open grin that was his alone.
"Apology accepted," he said with a satisfied sigh. "And feel free to apologize anytime you like in the future, whether we argue or not. I've always wanted you to do that," he confessed, his voice dropping to a whisper, slightly embarrassed.
"Me, too!" she admitted, moving into his embrace again, feeling safe and secure for the first time in nearly two weeks. The burden of fear was gone. "Rest assured that your secret thoughts are quite safe with me," she added, doing her best imitation of Mister Spock.
Sulu's distinctive chuckle filled the room, echoing about them. Now they would wait together, she thought. And if help did not arrive, at least they would not face the end alone.
Twenty-eight hours after Uhura and Sulu appeared in the cold, silent tomb of a cavern, two figures materialized beside them. The lamp had gone out an hour before, but Spock carried another one, and its light illuminated the unconscious officers. Uhura was curled up in the helmsman's embrace, her head cushioned on his chest, a contented smile on her lovely face. They were both still breathing.
McCoy knelt beside them. His medical tricorder whined loudly in the silence, echoing off the bare walls.
"They're suffering from hypothermia--too damn cold in here," he grumbled in concern. "Electrolytes are off, blood sugars low... They've used up nearly all the air; another hour, and we'd have been too late." He looked up at the Vulcan and smiled. "But they're gonna make it."
Spock nodded, his communicator already out. "Enterprise, four to beam up. We've found them."
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