2267 The massive freighter cracked like an egg. And like the contents of a cracked egg, the contents of the cracked freighter spilled out into the vacuum of space.
A short and terrifying distress call had gone out, and nothing had followed. The crew, living in the superstructure amidships, was killedone assumed and hopedinstantly. But then this sort of thing was not that unusual out there. These sorts of things happened when you traveled in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Hell, they happened when you traveled in the inner reaches.
Even in the 23rd Century, shit still happened.
What was unusual was what she carried. The Aurora Borealis had been carrying gold. Gold dust, actually. It had been ground down by Galactic Gold Dust, Incorporated, to a very specific size, a very particular size, for the very persnickety Ouubins who inhabited the planet Ouubinia, which is where the freighter had been headed.
No one was really sure why the Ouubins wanted it as dust, and with such exacting standards as to size, but the Ouubins had the credits for it, and the Ouubins wanted it that way, so GGD, Inc., was only too happy to oblige and to charge them extra for the grinding of it.
There were still plenty of planets out there that used a gold standard for their monetary system. There were, in fact, still planets that used the gold itself as currency. But what was most important in the end was that gold was pretty stuff, and although gold could be found on many planets and asteroids, it could not be considered a commodity by any stretch of the imagination, and beings everywhere still wanted it for their necklaces and bracelets, for their cutlery, for their clothing, for their teeth and tusks and various holes in their heads.
And so the remains of the Aurora Borealis drifted placidly in place, waiting politely for its post-mortem.
Not that people didnt care, of course. There were the families of the mixed-heritage crew, although they held out no hope whatsoever. They were simply looking for closure. And Galactic Gold Dust, Incorporated, wanted closure, too. Of a different kind. They wanted their valuable cargo to be guarded until they could get there with their own specially modified debris-sweeping Bussard ramscoopers so they could suck up the gold and leave the hulk and the mystery of its destruction to the Federation investigators who would come later.
GGD, Inc., estimated that they could make it to the wreck in three standard days.
They originally had asked the Federation to retrieve the gold for them, but theyd been firmly rebuffed. It was necessary for warp engines to be off-line in order for a starship to use its Bussard collector, and Admiral Komack had simply not been interested in allowing his finest starship to drift around out there without warp capabilities just so it could clean up after a merchant freighter accident, as unfortunate as that accident might have been. It was bad enough that hed have to spare her to sit out there for three days, doing nothing.
So it was that the Enterprisethe closest ship to the disaster, the ship whose sensors had determined the catastrophic nature of the accident, and of its jaw-dropping quickness, and of the destruction and loss of all hands when a baffle plate rupturedwas tapped to be the official debris watchdog; and although Captain James T. Kirk had little patience for the times when he and his ship and crew were required to be galaxy policemen, he was the good soldier, so he and his crew on the great white starship sped at Warp Factor 6 to the coordinates provided by the drone/buoy that had been released automatically by the Aurora Borealis as it had split in two.
The entity was hungry. It was always hungry. That was the center of its existence: hunger, and how to satiate that hunger.
Not that it possessed thought, precisely. It simply was, and had been nearly forever, sucking up cosmic dust and comet excreta and nibbling at the remains of dead stars. There was lots of stuff out there between the stars, and that is what it ate. It wasnt an easy life. It wasnt even a life. It was just what it did, and what it had done, almost forever.
You could kind of see it and kind of not see it, the entity. It was translucent, sort of, but would take on the coloring and texture of whatever it ate for a time. It was like of raft of jellyfish in a saltwater sea; and if you knew what you were looking for, you could spot it. But it was far more likely that a massive seagoing vessel would slice right through a raft of them and never know it. And were it not for their incredibly receptive sensors, a starship could cut through a herd of the entities and never be aware. There would be no howl of pain. It felt no pain.
It had begun life as a floater on a gas giant planet, peacefully grazing on organic molecules; and then something cataclysmic had occurred, and it had ridden an updraft that never ended which had deposited it way out there where it had to adapt or cease to exist.
In its quest for sustenance, the entity raised its head and sniffed the cosmos. It had, of course, no head and no nose and no sense of smell, but that is, essentially, what it did. And it sensed something different out there that was probably comestible and was there for the taking. And the good news was that there was no star or planet nearby to snare it. Others of its kind had made that mistake before and had been held helpless prisoners of gravity, chained to that celestial body until starvation overtook them.
They didnt die, really. They dissipated.
So it took a bearing and changed its course, and at a speed that would leave a starship captain ashen with disbelief, headed for its next repast.
"What I couldnae do with a few minutes in the Galileo," Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott whispered into the cold porthole glass. He and Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy were in the observation room, transfixed by the view. The Enterprise had swung into guard position an hour before.
"And what would you do with the spoils, Scotty?" the doctor asked good-naturedly. "Resign your commission and take early retirement?"
Scott turned to him, frowning, looking as if he might argue. He blinked and gazed out the porthole again.
"Maybe, Doctor. Ye never know. I could retire some day."
"Then Id pity any neighbors youd have with machinery not in perfect runnin order," McCoy drawled. "Youd be bangin on their doors, beggin to fix things. Naw," he dismissed with a wave of his hand, "youre a tinkerer at heart, Scotty, and a tinkerer youll always be." He nodded out the window. "And I dont believe that a whole cargo-hold of that stuff could make you any happier than you are right now."
Scott gave him a slow grin. "Aye," he admitted, turning back to the view. "Ye know me too well, Doctor. But it is pretty stuff. Ye cannae deny that."
McCoy crossed his arms and nodded, gazing out at the golden cloud.
It was beautiful. Even Spock had deemed it "impressive" when the viewscreen had first revealed it. It reminded McCoy of the masses of minute, jeweled insects theyd encountered on the planet Velsia. The gold out in space wasnt moving as the swarming insects had been, but theyd thrown the Enterprises forward spotlights on the mass when theyd approached, and now grains of gold threw back dull and then shimmering sparks in undulating waves.
"Ooooh," Uhura breathed, coming up to join them. "Its gorgeous. So much better than on the viewscreen." She squinted out the window. "Its moving," she said.
"Naw," McCoy said. "Just looks like it."
"Aye, but its pretty stuff," Scott couldnt help but observe with a shake of his head and a heartfelt sigh.
The Orion tossed the drekons on the counter and ordered bolan ale for all five of them. He knew it would taste like excrement. No one on a starbase could make or procure bolan ale as good as the stuff from the colonies. But what was an Orion to do?
"To illicit monetary gain and slow Federation starships!" the Orion toasted, and they all laughed and drank it down and then all coughed and gagged in exaggerated, theatrical manners, calling out to the patrons and the gods about its awfulness. Pretty much everyone ignored them, especially the Andorian traders next to them at the bar who were engaged in an equally dramatic but hushed conversation about what they had overheard on the trader grapevine and about interstellar rules of salvage and about what they might do to outfit themselves for a venture that would make them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. The Orion quieted himself and his crew and listened.
The bartender noted this as he took a slow swipe at the bar with a cloth. He briefly considered interrupting the conversation and warning the Andorians that they were being overheard by a crew of brigands and pirates, beings perfectly capable of cutting off the Andorians heads for far less than a ships hold full of gold dust, but then he dismissed the notion.
He was paid to dispense drinks, not motherly advice.
"Did you hear theyve had holovids runnin for the last three shifts in the recreation room?" Leonard McCoy asked, pouring out two brandies and making his usual mimed offer of a glass of it to Spock.
"No, thank you, Doctor," the Vulcan declined, as usual, politely. "And yes, I have heard."
Jim Kirk took a sip. "So whats been showing?"
"What hasnt?" McCoy wondered. "If its got anything to do with gold, its been shown." He took a small drink and smacked his lips appreciatively. "Lets see," he said, settling down in the remaining chair in Jims quarters, "I heard they started with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at the end of the third shift, and then I dropped in and saw The Mystery of the Golden Asteroid." He grimaced. "It was the Andorian version, and its every bit as bad as youve heard. And then there was Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and dont ask me how they got it, Jim, but somebody had a bootlegged version of that old Klingon propaganda holovid. You know, the one they always showed at parties at the Academy?"
Jim nodded and smiled at the memory. "Ah, yes....The Great Piles of Well-Deserved Gold for the Empire."
McCoy slapped his knee and cackled. "Yep! Thats the one." McCoy glanced at Spock, who remained mute and unmoved. He had either never seen it, or perhaps had never been invited to a party at the Academy. Both possibilities were highly probable. "I heard it was a kick in the pants to watch; everybody yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn." He swivelled his chair and faced the Vulcan.
"Did you enjoy your trip to the holovids, Mister Spock?" he asked with exaggerated politeness.
The first officer leaned forward and took a sip of the water he had brought with him. "I was merely looking for a partner for three-dimensional chess, Doctor," he replied easily. "I happened upon the screening and chose to stay briefly, to study"
"Goldfinger?" McCoy crowed. "You wanted to study Goldfinger? A highly sexist, extremely violent, three-hundred-year old Terran movie?"
Kirk smiled as his friends took off from there. He shook his head and had another sip.
Gold fever had most certainly hit the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Besides the golden holovid retrospective, hed gotten wind of a reading of the epic poem The Odyssey of the Felecian Gold Catchers. It was supposed to be taking place somewhere in a cabin on C deck, and it was being read in shifts, in native High Felecian, by twenty willing crewmembers. The goal, hed heard, was to complete it before the GGD ramscoop arrived, some two days hence.
Theyd have to hurry. It usually took five.
The library, Spock had informed him, had had a run on anything gold-related. The computer was furiously keeping track of borrowed and downloaded materials: Books, jewelry-making instructions, music, fables, the interactive game "Gold for the Pot-Pushers"Sulus current favorite, maps to sunken galleons filled with gold, maps to abandoned mines.
Captain Kirk found it all rather amusing and deeply mystifying at the same time. He was not a man who was driven by money. Starship captains rarely were. Their personal cranks were turned by drives that had little to do with the day-to-day lives that most beings lived. And the day-to-day lives of most beings still had a lot to do with money. With getting it and spending it and then getting some more of it.
"And thats not all," McCoy was saying. "You didnt hear this from me, Jim, but rumor has it theres a bookie operation running out of one of the science labs."
Spock raised an eyebrow, as if he found that piece of information hard to accept, as if the notion might have been barely acceptable if it were being run out of ships stores or the Engineering section or Sickbaybut certainly not acceptable coming from the science labs.
"Theyre takin bets on who might show up first to cause trouble."
"Hmm," Kirk said, turning his glass. "What odds are they offering, Doctor?"
"Well how should I know?" he asked, all innocence, shrugging. "Ive just heard the rumors. I didnt place any bets."
"Oh, of course not, Bones," the captain said quite seriously. "Im just curious."
"Well," McCoy said, frowning and shifting uncomfortably in his chair, "first of all, I hear theres a pool for guessing the total value of the gold. And dont bother checking any of the media accounts of the accident. I did that already. Galactic Gold Dust is mum on that. And our orders didnt say."
"How will its value be determined for purposes of paying off the bet, Doctor?" Spock asked.
McCoy shot a puzzled look at the Vulcan. It was clear that the doctor hadnt thought of that. It was also clear from the look on his face that he had placed a substantial bet in that very pool.
"Well...hmm...well somebodys got to know what its worth!"
"Oh, of course, Bones," Kirk said sympathetically.
"Anyway," McCoy continued, now red-faced, "the other pool is the one on wholl show up first. Right now, its even money on the Klingons, three to one on the Orions, ten to one on the Romulans, and fifteen to one on Harcourt Fenton Mudd." He finished and grinned in Spocks direction. "And Im almost sure youve heard about the other one, Spock."
Captain Kirks cabin experienced a minor glacial freeze. Spock crossed his arms.
"Indeed, Doctor. I have."
Kirk was curious.
The Vulcan remained silent, impassive.
"Oh, no!" McCoy declared loudly, waving his hands at the captain. "Youre not hearin this one from me!"
"Mister Spock." It was a tacit command. Kirk brought his brandy glass to his lips.
The Vulcan took a deep breath, heavy with sainted patience. "It appears that a crewmember thought it humorous to place a bet on Sarek of Vulcan." As he took a sip of brandy, Kirk heard McCoy stifle a laugh. "At fifteen thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven point nine...to one."
James T. Kirk laughed so hard that brandy shot out his nose, something that hadnt happened to him since grade school.
And then, of course, it had been milk.
The entity made a slight course change. It wasnt sure what was out there ahead of it, but the sense of it grew stronger as the entity drew closer.
It smelled rich.
The entity passed by other edibles in its eagerness to get there. It was taking a chance that it might starve in doing so, but it sensed that whatever it was that was out there, there was a lot of it, and the pickings would be easy.
"Captain, sensors have picked up a weak life-form reading in the debris."
Spock delivered the message on the bridge as if he were announcing the current hull temperature, but the words pulled them all up in their seats and set their hearts racing with hope. The drone/buoy had been scanning for readings ever since the disaster, and the Enterprise had done the same as soon as it had been within range; but now, miracle of miracles, as Spock meticulously traced the sensors along a multi-dimensional grid pattern, there had been a blip. There was something out there, and it was alive.
"Can you tell what it is, Spock?" Jim Kirk asked, approaching the science station.
"Negative, Captain," he replied, straightening from his view hood. "According to Galactic Gold Dust, Incorporated, records, their life pods have maximum shieldinga rating of AA plus. That factor is inhibiting our ability to gain an accurate reading. And the gold dust is presenting interference as well."
"Can you tell exactly where it is out there?" Jim asked with a wave at the golden soup glowing on the viewscreen.
"I can approximate, Captain." He stepped down from the station and stood before Kirk, his hands behind his back. "And I wish to volunteer to take a shuttlecraft to investigate."
Jim Kirk bit at his lower lip as he turned and stared at the screen. It looked serene. Peaceful. Non-threatening. Golden. What was his problem, then? Standard procedure demanded they investigate, and the shuttlecraft made the most sense. But there was something about the cloud that made the captain uneasy. Guard the gold for three days. Simple mission, he thought. Yep. Doesnt get much simpler than that. But there was trouble out there somewhere, somehow, and he could feel it coming.
"Me, too, Jim," McCoy said, coming around from his unofficial station by the command chair. "If someone survived, Ill be needed."
"Agreed, Doctor," Spock replied.
"Id like to pilot, Captain," Sulu said eagerly from his position.
Ghosts and goblins, Kirk thought, giving himself a mental shake. "Of course," he said aloud. "Prepare the shuttlecraft." But he still felt apprehensive, and he watched their backs as they headed to the turbolift door.
The Galileo parted the edge of the glistening cloud.
Sulu steered around a boxy construct that could have been part of the superstructure. It was hard to tell. There were pieces of black/gray metal everywhere, like chunks of dark chocolate in a celestial golden milk shake. And the gold dust was mesmerizing. It swirled as it parted, golden curtains opening to more golden curtains.
McCoy had to look away. It made him dizzy.
Spock was not so impacted. He clinically considered golds molecular composition as they swam through it. It never occurred to him that it was worth something. It was inert. It was lifeless. It was what it was, and nothing more. The life-form in the pod was of far more interest to him. He was eager to see what they would find.
There was only one pod that was intact in the debris, and the reading came from that and got stronger the closer they approached. They passed smashed and broken pods on their way, and they tried not to look in them as they slid darkly by the shuttlecraft. It seemed, somehow, indecent to do so.
Sulu expertly moved the shuttlecraft into docking position next to the pod, Spock manned the airlock, and McCoy mumbled to himself as he fussed with his medical equipment.
"God only knows what kind of shape this poor creatures gonna be in," he muttered. He looked up at Spock. "How long ago did this happen?"
"The accident, Doctor?" Spock replied as he waited for the airlock to show ready. "Four point seven three standard days ago."
McCoy shivered involuntarily. Besides potential physical trauma, there was always the emotional trauma to reckon with. He knew that beings survived in pods all the time only to go stark, raving mad from floating alone in the endless black vacuum of space until rescue. More than one poor victim had survived an interstellar disaster only to off himself at a later date.
Spock nodded solemnly at Sulu and McCoy, opened the airlock, and carefully pried the pod portal open.
"Empty," Sulu said aloud after a first glance, the word heavy with disappointment.
There was no head in plain sight, nor feet. They knelt together in the shuttlecraft, straining to see further into the pod. The Aurora Borealis had only carried one-man pods, and they were barely bigger than a coffin.
An awful wail came from the back of it.
Sulu held up his flashlight and aimed it at the noise. Green-yellow eyes blinked back. The being flicked its tail and meowed again.
"Well Ill be jiggered," McCoy breathed. "Its a cat."
"Damn," Sulu whispered in dismay.
"It is not a sentient being, Mister Sulu," Spock said rising and going to the control panel of the shuttlecraft, "but it is, nevertheless, a form of life, and perhaps that is as much as we could hope for under the circumstances."
McCoy watched as the first officer hailed the waiting Enterprise and told them of their discovery. No one, the doctor knew, was as disappointed at their discovery as the Vulcan was, although he would be hard-pressed to admit it.
"Looks pretty damned good for a ships cat," McCoy said, peering back into the pod, trying to put a positive spin on things. He knew that some ships cats had to fend for themselves by searching for vermin in holds and begging for scraps. "Ive seen some scrawny, ugly ones. Looks like he might have actually been fed and cared for."
"Cared for enough, in fact," Spock said thoughtfully as he returned to them, "to have been put in this pod and saved when the owner must have seen the end coming with no hope for him or herself."
McCoy pulled himself up and looked at the pensive Vulcan.
"I hadnt thought of that," he said softly.
They knelt and looked again. The cat was black and white and sported a jaunty mustache, and it looked to still have some kitten in it, but it was hard to tell, since it had nailed itself resolutely to the far end of the pod and would not budge. No verbal coaxing or shiny medical instrument could convince it to come any closer to the shuttlecraft, and after ten minutes of this, the cat began to show some pretty serious signs of aggression: Ears back, tail flicking, fur on the rise.
"It appears," Spock finally said, standing and straightening with the others, "that it will be necessary for one of us to physically retrieve the cat."
The three of them stood in a silent circle.
"Since it obviously will not respond to our stimuli," the Vulcan continued after a pause.
McCoy grimaced as a fresh feline screech bounced around the inside of the shuttlecraft.
Sulu cleared his throat. "I had a cat once," he admitted uneasily.
"Very well, Mister Sulu," Spock said, taking his admission as a request to volunteer.
Sulu nodded, swallowed, and took the sample collection bag from Spocks hands. He knelt and crawled through the pod portal.
It was hard at first to tell the cats screams from Sulus. McCoy and Spock pulled the helmsman back into the shuttlecraft by his legs as quickly as they could, and the cat hissed and wailed, as if daring them to try again.
"Ouch!" McCoy winced sympathetically, looking at the welts on Sulus face as the helmsman scrambled to a standing position.
"My cat was never like that," Sulu grimaced.
McCoy was rummaging through his medikit. "I should have gone in first, Spock," he said. "I should have thought of it before. Ive got some stuff in here thatll knock it right out and have it happily chasing mice in its dreams in no time."
Sulu gingerly checked a ripped earlobe. "Doc, Id think twice if I were you. "I think we need a tranquilizer gun."
"Good God, man!" the doctor replied, aghast. "Its a kitty, not a raging Vegan titanosaur!" He clipped the vial to the hypo and held it before them, grinning. "Just watch me. Easy as pie." He squatted and crawled through the opening, his voiceset on charmmurmuring sweetly the whole time as he made his way into the pod.
"Why hello there, lil kitty cat! Well you must be th most beeeyoootiful lil kitty cat ah evuh did see-eee. Jus look it yoooo! You are purdee gor-gee-ous! Oooo-weee! Ah think you must be th envy of every cat in this here quadrant. Jus look it yoooo!"
Spock and Sulu exchanged a mute glance over the doctors legs.
"See this heah? Ahm gonna give you a lil of this Kickapoo joy juice, and you gonna love me for it! Yes, suh, yull be dreamin in la-la land and yull wake up all cleaned up and spiffy-fied. All yore friends gonna come ta me ta get some of this heah stuff. Its that good, ah do declayer."
Spock and Sulu exchanged a look again, eyebrows included.
"Now this wont hurt atall."
Even Spock started at the hair-raising howl that came from the most "beeeyoootiful cat in the quadrant."
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Here now!" Gone were the syrupy messages. Gone was the rambling patois. "Now stop that! Stop it!" Then finally: "Get me the hell out of here! Spock! God damn it! Get me out now!"
They yanked him backwards, and he fell into their arms. Spock turned him over. The doctor had quite unprofessionally stuck his lacerated fingers in his mouth, and had his other hand over a sliced eyelid.
"Holy shit!" he declared around his fingers.
Spock sighed quietly and stood.
McCoy pulled his fingers from his mouth and sat up. "Spock! Dont go in there!" he shot, worried. "Its space-loony."
"It is merely a frightened Terran house cat, Doctor."
"And its space-loony! Well go back to the Enterprise and get more equipment. Id say Sulu was right. A tranquilizer gun at the very least."
"I agree, Mister Spock," Sulu added, rubbing a painful welt on his forehead.
Spocks eyebrow rose. He considered reminding the doctor that it was merely a kitten and not a raging Vegan titanosaur, but sympathetically decided against it as he watched the doctors right eyelid swell to twice its normal size. In Spocks mind, there was nothing more to be said. It was a cat. And he was going to fetch it. He turned from them, ignored their protestations, crouched, and crawled through the portal.
As he held the flashlight on the object of his mission, Spock had to admit that the cat appeared far more formidable when one was lying, nearly immobile, face first in a coffin.
"Spock? Are you all right in there?" the doctor called.
The cat made itself as large as it could, raised its fur, and successfully attacked one of Spocks high cheekbones. In spite of the pain, Spock remained silent and immobile, and the cat seemed to come to a sudden realization that this was someone differenta kindred spirit, perhapsand it settled back down to a sitting position and nonchalantly and daintily licked a front paw.
The entity reached the edge of the golden cloud and took a taste. It was edible. It was better than that. It was the softest stuff it had ever consumed. Compared to the gritty dust that it had been devouring for eons, this was sheer ambrosia. It did not, of course, possess high-level sentience and think in sentences in this manner, but it did instinctually know it had stumbled onto something very, very good.
When the shuttlecraft emerged from the golden cloud, it seemed, on the bridge viewscreen at least, to be shimmering strangely. After fiddling unsuccessfully with the viewscreen schematics to correct it, they shrugged it off as some kind of weird feedback from the dust, but when Captain Kirk arrived to see the bay doors open, he could see from the adjunct that the vehicle was covered with a layer of soft golden fur.
The Galileo had inadvertently electroplated itself, and James T. Kirk found himself gazing open-mouthed at something that looked like it belonged on the end of a massive chain.
The captain hated the times when the simplest missions found depth and meaning beyond their merit, and as he watched the Galileo touch down in a little puff of gold dust, he knew that this was one of those times.
They pressurized the shuttlebay and advised the rescuers to stay put for the short term as they used one of the wet-dry vacs from the labs to suck the stuff up. And although he felt a bit odd doing it, Kirk ordered some red shirts to stand guard while white-suited lab techs did the job, vacuuming the door first so the rescuers could leave. Not that he didnt trust anyone, but why take the risk? Even he, a man not driven by monetary reward, felt an odd tug as he looked at the shuttlecraft glittering majestically in the lights.
Captain Kirks jaw dropped when the door to the Galileo finally ramped down and revealed the occupants. They looked as if they were returning from a Ginzu knife factory tour gone bad. Painful-looking scratches and angry welts covered them all. Spock seemed the least impacted, but even he bore angry green marks high on one cheek.
"Spock! Bones! What happened?"
"It resisted rescue," Spock said simply, nodding down at the cat purring in his arms.
Jim Kirk was a dog person himself, but he had to admit that the cat was cute. He reached out to give it the official captains skritch on the neck. That was a mistake. The seemingly placid feline stood and arched and hissed and swiped, and Kirk barely pulled his hand back in time to avoid getting sliced.
"Seems that Spock here is the only one itll tolerate," McCoy noted dryly. He formed several other ironic and humorous notions about unemotional Vulcans and furry little kitty-cats and opened his mouth to verbalize them, but as he watched his impassive friend absently stroke the cats backjust like the tribbles, McCoy thoughthis desire to bait the first officer quietly left him.
"All right, you two," he growled at his fellow rescuers. "Down to Sickbay. God only knows what kind of nasty stuff found a home in those claws." As he pushed past Spock, the cat threw a paw at him. "And then we check you," he shot at it, pointing, "even if we have to tie you down to get it done!"
Spock managed to look appalled. "Unnecessary, Doctor. She will comply."
Skeptical, McCoy looked at the Vulcan.
"If I am part of the process," he added.
"You wont get an argument from me. Lets go, then."
The floodlights had been turned on as the techs worked, and it seemed that half the crew had turned out to gaze in rapture at the golden Galileo by the time the rescuers left the shuttlebay. There were no safes on the Enterprise, so when the vacuuming was done, the captain escorted the seven sealed buckets of gold dust to the brig and put two red shirts on it.
There was nothing to see, really, but that didnt stop the crew from parading curiously past the brig doors as they finished their collective shifts.
By the time the captain returned to the bridge, the catdeemed free of disease but not of attitudehad taken up residence in the command chair. It had already made itself at home, he found, and had already made it abundantly clear who it could stand and who it abhorred. And it clearly abhorred Captain Kirk. It also hated Sulu and Chekov. It had taken a bit of a fancy to Uhuraor her earrings; they were not clear on thatand loved the sound of Scotts voice on the intercom. But it was clear that the cat was Spocks, and the captain and the rest of the bridge complement watched in quiet amazement as their normally fastidious first officer allowed the cat to leap in and out of his lap and prowl the railing behind him.
Jim knew it shouldnt be there. He knew that it should be locked away in a lab until the GGD ramscoop came. It had belonged to someone on the Aurora Borealis, and some relative somewhere would offer it a home. But he was so mesmerized by the cats affinity for his first officer, and his first officers ease with it, that he found himself incapable of ordering banishment.
Hed always secretly believed his Vulcan friend was part cat.
"How about a name?" Uhura asked from behind him.
"Life Pod," Sulu suggested. "Or Aurora."
"Goldie?" Chekov said, waving at the viewscreen.
"Spock," the captain said, "she seems to have taken to you. Is there an appropriate Vulcan name we might use?"
The science officer turned in his chair, and the cat, standing on the railing, took this as an invitation and unhesitatingly leapt to his lap. The Vulcan gently and firmly held the cats head and studied its features. White. Black. Smudged black mustache.
"Smudge," he gravely announced, much to the bridge crews surprise and delight.
And it only took another hour before the captain overheard a less-than-charmed Chekov discussing with Sulu various ways they might lure Smudge to the nearest airlock with one of Uhuras earrings.
The Orion absently pounded his fist on the arm of the command chair. He had the mother of all headaches, and he blamed the bad bolan ale. Or it could also, he decided, have something to do with the blow to the head hed accidentally taken during his interrogation of the Andorian traders.
At least they were no longer a concern.
The way he saw it, if they played their cards right, they could find the gold and still have time to make it to the big slave auction that was occurring in a week on the nearest Orion colony. He could use some new dancers and Tellurian spices.
But if the Andorians had been right about what was waiting out there, hed be able to barter for far more than a few Orion animal women with rhythm and some paltry piles of hallucinogenic contraband.
Hed be able to buy a planet.
The Orion raider sped towards the best-guess coordinates of the wreck of the Aurora Borealis.
"Captain, the gold dust seems to be disappearing."
Once again Spock made a stupendous announcement in a voice that sounded nearly indifferent. But one look in Spocks direction and the captain could see that he was far from indifferent. He was sitting ramrod straight and was pushing Smudge off to the side. He looked baffled and curious.
Jim Kirk looked at the viewscreen. "Disappearing?" he asked. There was nothing to be seen except the cloud. No other ships. Nothing anomalous. "How?"
"Unknown, Captain," Spock replied, working the board. "Ive recalibrated the sensors, and they indicate that the gold dust is still there in mass, but a section of it appears to be somehow shielded."
"Spock, theres no evidence of anything happening here," Jim said, gesturing at the cloud as Doctor McCoy came through the turbolift doors.
"This seems to be occurring on the opposite side of the wreckage, Captain."
"Time for a look, then," he said. "Sulu, take us to the other side."
When they first focused the viewscreen, after swinging around to the backside, there appeared to be nothing amiss. There was the golden cloud, looking much as it did from the other side, with chunks of bulkhead in the mix, and with stars glinting in the background. Then the captain thought he saw something shift, but dismissed it as a trick of the eye.
Spock broke the silence. "Captain, do you see it? In the upper left quadrant of the viewscreen."
Jim Kirk squinted.
It was there and yet it wasnt. You could see right through it, whatever it was, and it was slowly obscuring a clear view of the gold dust field ahead of them.
"Its a jellyfish!" Doctor McCoy decided aloud, watching it gently pulse and glimmer and grow.
"Spock, what is that thing?" Kirk asked.
Spock looked at his data before responding. "Unknown, Captain. I have scanned it, but the computer cannot identify it." He paused and added, "And neither can I," as if surprised by the fact that he should fail at this task that a starship computer with millions of kiloquads of memory had failed before him.
"It looks alive," the captain pressed, moving to the science station. "Is it sentient?"
For a moment, McCoy was really excited. He saw a look on Spocks face as his eyebrow rose, and he honestly honestly thought that Spock was going to say to the captain: Now, Jim, how the hell would I know that? Which is exactly what McCoy would have said under the same circumstances.
But the eyebrow came in for a landing as Spock replied evenly, "I cannot answer that, Captain. I have no way of knowing."
"Can you communicate with it somehow?" Kirk persisted. He had seen Spock pull some miracles before. The Vulcan turned from the board and gazed again at the cloud.
"I will attempt a Vulcan mind reach."
Before he did, Uhura threw everything she had at it. She hailed the silent thing in every language the computer carried and in a few that she carried only in her head. She even tried Morse Code and Tellarite Tap just before Spock turned from the console in his chair, breathed deeply, and appeared to go into a trance.
For five strained minutes, nothing changed.
"Kyptin!" Chekov cried suddenly, pointing. "I think something is happening."
The creature seemed to move. Not laterally, but its ghostly form seemed to convulse along the whole length of itself several times. Kirk glanced at his first officer. The Vulcan remained immobile, eyes tightly closed. His body was rigid, his muscles knotted, the strain showing on his face. Kirk felt a pang of regret for being so cavalier about asking Spock to put himself into this kind of position. Again.
Smudge was piteously wailing and rubbing himself on Spocks legs and hopping in and out of his lap.
"Somebody get that damned cat," Kirk shot in his concern and frustration, not really expecting anyone to try.
Doctor McCoy, who had been monitoring Spock with a medical tricorder, reached for the captains arm. "Jim, thats enough."
McCoy had not even finished his statement when Spock brought himself out of it and blinked, pale-faced and open-mouthed, at the bridge crew. The captain and the doctor came to him.
Kirk put his hand on the Vulcans shoulder and was dismayed to find that it was damp with perspiration. "Spock, how do you feel?"
Spock cleared his throat and brought his eyes into focus on the captains face. He canted an eyebrow.
The entity was puttering along nicely, making short work of a fortune in gold dust. Gold dust that had been back-breakingly gained by itinerant miners on asteroids. Gold dust that had been blasted by unscrupulous subcontractors with illegal mining phasers, laying waste to huge chunks of planets in a matter of months. Gold dust that might have been formed into rings and hairclips and painted on hoof nails and spread lightly on the cheekbones of high-priced call girls on Dyrillia. Gold dust that had filled the holds of the hapless Aurora Borealis.
And the entity really, really liked it.
There were chunks of something in this soft stuff, and they were a little harder to manage, but the rest of it was so good that it forced itself onward, breaking down escape pods and metal fragments, large and small, as it went.
The Orions formulated their plans.
They had dismissed towing the gold with tractor beams. That would be like waving a huge golden semaphore, begging Klingons or Federation ships to blast them out of the sky or to try to take them into custody. Their shuttlecrafts were strictly two-man affairs, made for quick strikes and returns home with no room for anything extra.
They decided they would beam the gold dust directly into the holds. Orion spoils were not usually of great mass, as the gold from the Aurora Borealis was rumored to be, so they additionally cleared some cabins and the filthy, dank space they called the rec room in case the holds got full.
And in the meantime, their sensors scanned the heavens. They should be close.
"So its alive, then," Captain Kirk stated/asked as he settled into the chair at the head of the briefing room table.
"It would appear so, Captain," Spock replied, still looking a few dilithium crystals low on the Vulcan side. He raised a scornful eyebrow at McCoy, who was again scanning him with a medical tricorder. "It is alive," he continued, "and it does seem to possess a certain rudimentary sentience. And it appears to be grazing"
"on something weve been charged to protect," Sulu said.
"Any better idea of what that thing is now, Spock?" Kirk asked.
"No, Captain. None of that was revealed to me in the contact. The overriding message was one of acute hunger." Spock, in fact, was currently starving, a resonant memory from the merger, and wanted nothing more than to lean forward and use the briefing room com unit to order up a large plate of leafy greens, but instead he called up his Vulcan disciplines, switched off that part of his body, and spoke again. "It may be a mutated floater, Captain. They are normally found in the atmosphere of gas giant planets, and given the right set of circumstances, they might survive in deep space to become something akin to this creature."
Kirk lifted a hand to his temple. He hadsurprise!a throbbing tension headache. Their job, their mission, was to protect the gold. But hed supposed that this would consist of scaring away Orion pirates and keeping morbid curiosity seekers and media at bay and deterring Klingons who might be looking for honor for a little quvfor the Empire. He hadnt planned on a natural phenomenon, and he struggled with it.
No one had suggested that they blast the thing. It was alive, it appeared to be peaceful, and there were no hotheads in the briefing roomChekov had the connso they needed to come up with other options.
"Doctor McCoy, could ye not administer something ta make the beastie regurgitate what its eaten?"
Disturbing visual images assaulted all of them simultaneously.
"Scotty, even if I had enough of what I neededand I dont, lookin at the size of that thingtheres no guarantee that it would work."
"I agree, Doctor," Spock said as Uhura silently tallied how often shed heard those words. She thought that might make seven. "Its physiology is far too different for us to assume that medicinal solutions concocted with humanoids in mind would be effective."
"How about more attempts at contact?" Uhura asked, and then was sorry that she did when she saw the alarmed look on Doctor McCoys face. "I mean with the Enterprise," she added quickly. "Maybe some kind of electronic pulse, or something else we havent thought of yet. Maybe we could use the ship and go up and nudge it and get it to turn around and take a look at us."
"What if we look yummy?" McCoy asked. "We could look like angel food cake to that thing..."
Spock spoke again. "Captain, I would like to volunteer to take a shuttle"
"Oh, brother!" McCoy cried, slamming his tricorder on the table. "Here we go again! You have simply got to have the biggest goddamn martyr/savior complex I have ever seen in my life, Spock."
"Im serious, Jim!" McCoy argued.
"I dinnae think that we are that desperate, Mister Spock," Scott added over the din of protestations.
"If I am closer to the creature, Captain, I might be"
"a snack!" McCoy shot.
"Gentlemen!" This was not helping Kirks headache at all. He looked at the shot showing on the triviewer.
There was actually very little of the free-floating gold dust left as they bickered, and what was left would be gone very soon. The rest of it had already been consumed, and the creature was now very large and very shimmery, and he noted that at what he assumed to be the rear-end of the creature, the goldness was fading. It had obviously actually assimilated the stuff and had broken it down. If this was so, then all that they had to present to Galactic Gold Dust, Incorporated, for their efforts were the seven sealed buckets down in the brig.
Captain Kirk hoped that GGD, Inc., had excellent disaster insurance, and an insurance adjuster with an imagination and a sense of humor.
The entity was nearly done, but it wanted more. It sensed a very large chunk perched not far away. It was not made of the soft stuff that it had almost completely consumed, but there was some more of that soft stuff inside of it, and if the entity had had a mouth, it would have watered in anticipation.
The Orion looked at the readout, swore angrily in several Orion dialects and added a Giamon expletive for effect.
There was a ship ahead, and its signature made him feel sure that it was a Federation starship. But the good news was that he was certain that it was there to guard the gold. Why else would it be hovering out there in the middle of nowhere? There were also faint hints of something else there, something massive hanging next to the ship in question. It must surely be the gold.
They would use the cloaking device. The Tonkians had stolen it from the Romulans, and the Orions had "stolen" it from the Tonkians, to hear the Tonkian barterers tell it. Indeed, it had been a steal, but they hadnt really used it much. It was very hard on the engines and used a lot of fuel. In actual fact, they had only used it a few times to scare the excrement out of other Orion raiders. Just for fun, they would pop out of cloak and dive within meters of the ships, laughing their volas off.
It was an action that was not universally appreciated.
But the cloaking device would certainly show its value today.
"Kyptin, the entity has turned and is heading for us."
The announcement from Chekov that piped into the briefing room was not entirely unexpected. The captain ordered Chekov to back away on impulse engines, and they vacated the briefing room and headed for their stations.
By the time the turbolift doors had opened, Chekov had turned the ship around and was at Warp Factor 1.
The thing was showing some surprising speed.
Before the Kirks rear had even hit his command chair, he had the engines cranked up to Warp Factor 3, and the being was still with them. Warp Factors 5 and 7 came in quick succession, and just as the captain was beginning to seriously sweat, the thing slowed and halted.
Kirk backed them down to impulse. "Spock?"
The Vulcan straightened from his console. "It appears to be in some distress." A glance at the viewscreen confirmed Spocks conjecture. It was convulsing and swelling and contracting.
"What do you think is causing that, Spock?" Kirk asked.
After a moments thought, the science officer answered. "Imagine, Captain, that all of your life you have subsisted on dried quatrotriticale biscuits, and then you were given the opportunity to consume..." He paused, trying to think of the richest food he himself had ever eaten. "...to consume a large slice of New York cheesecake."
"You mean the thing has a bellyache?" Doctor McCoy wondered.
"Quaintly put, Doctor," Spock replied. "And potentially correct. I also believe that it will get over its bellyache."
"And then what?" the captain asked.
"Given the speed with which it has moved in its current state, Captain, I would suggest that we not wait around to find out."
The starship was moving. The Orion wondered why the starship had chosen this time to move to warp drive. Had they been spotted way back there? Had they already lost the crucial element of surprise? They were cloaked, and the Orion had his crew check the cloaking device for the fifth time as he suppressed a sense of creeping paranoia, fighting down the realization that they had no way of proving their own invisibility. How could they really know they were invisible? Only someone out there could know for sure.
Their sensors had lost the large weak mass that they assumed was the gold, so they set their sights for the starship. They would know where the gold was.
The entity felt horrible. It wallowed in place, the gold dust in the large metal casing still enticing it, but moving away from its position. It was unconcerned. It would rest here and then it would follow. It could catch that thing easily. And it needed to work off some of the soft stuff, anyhow.
Uhura could not believe her ears. "Captain, I have an incoming message from an Orion ship."
The whole bridge complement swung in her direction, concerned. After giving himself a moment to digest this not entirely unexpected turn of eventsI knew something was coming, he thoughtthe captain responded.
"Put it on audio."
"...and we are in a cloaked Orion raider ship, positioned between your warp engine pylons. A plasma torpedo is trained on each pylon, and a third torpedo is aimed at your impulse engines. Do as we say, Captain, or your ship will be destroyed."
Kirk hit the Engineering communications button. "Scotty, did you hear that?"
"Aye, Capn, thot I did. Theyve got us right where they want us."
"Confirmed, Captain," Spock reported from the science station. "We have a massive increase in neutrino emissions from between the pylons. There is indeed a cloaked vessel there."
The Orion began his message again, looking at the viewscreen which had only enough room to show the white belly of the starship above them as both ships sped through space as if attached at the hip. The Orion wiped his chin with his sleeve. These kinds of maneuvers called for precision and nerves of steel. He blinked as he recognized the call numbers on the starship. He had heard of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but he was not interested in its capture or destruction. He would leave that to the Klingons or the Romulans.
He was there for the gold.
"Give us the gold dust from the wreck of the Aurora Borealis," he said, struggling briefly with the awkward Terran name.
"We cant," came the irritating response. The Orion had heard that the captain of the EnterpriseJames T. Kirkfought most effectively with his words. He would have to be careful.
"You lie, Federation do-gooder! We know the gold is here!"
Kirk, on the Enterprise, raised his eyebrows and considered their options. Hed try the truth this time. It had worked before.
"Its not...here," he replied. "Its...following us."
"You have tractor beams on it?" the Orion asked, gesturing to his science officer to check it out. The officer did and shook his head.
"No. No. No tractor beams," Kirk replied.
"Our sensors show gold on your ship!" It was a bluff. Their sensors were not that good. But it is an excellent bluff, he thought, as Kirk responded.
"Yes. We do have some here."
"Beam it to us immediately!"
"All right," the captain replied almost cheerfully. "Send your coordinates." He called the brig and directed the red shirts to take the buckets to the transporter room.
"I feel I must warn you," Kirk said to the Orion when he was done, deciding to continue with the honesty-is-the-best-policy scenario, "that there is a creature back there that has...has eaten the rest of the gold and is in pursuit of us."
The Orion clearly registered what Kirk said in spite of his intense desire to disbelieve him, and he frowned and faced the sensor section. The crewmen there worked the board furiously, and after a moment, looked at him and shrugged.
On the Enterprise at that moment, Spock noted something and actually felt alarm, a rare occurrence. "Captain," he said after he was sure that hailing frequencies were closed, "the entity is moving again and is coming our direction." The captains heart stopped and every hair on his arms stood at attention when Spock added, in an incredibly unSpock-like, imprecise fashion, "And it is coming very, very fast."
"Sulu, Warp Factor Eight!" Kirk called, and added to Engineering, "And Im not kidding, Scotty! We need it all!"
The white belly of the Enterprise was there, and then it was gone in a rainbow. The Orion wasnt sure what that was all about, but he was unconcerned. The rest of the gold was his first priority, and his heart swelled with joy when they confirmed in the transporter room that seven buckets of gold had beamed in. They turned off the cloaking device. No need to tax the engines. They could turn the device back on later, when they went after the Enterprise again. And in a flood of Orion testosterone, he decided that when they found the Enterprise, he would blast off the warp nacelles after all.
The entity was feeling better. There were lots of things happening out there, certainly more than it was used to. Pieces of metal were appearing and disappearing and racing off, but the important thing was that one of the large chunks of metala different one this timestill held some of the soft stuff.
It was hungry again. And at a speed that would literally buckle the knees of a Orion pirate in terror, it raced off for its next meal.
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