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Jim Ausfahl

 

2262

 

Director’s Log, Research Base 1853
Stardate 1063.61
Jacob Bokir, Base Director, recording
We are about to make the attempt to generate a small, stable wormhole...

Jacob Bokir sat at his desk, staring at the blackboard-sized computer display on the wall opposite him, running over the equations, derivations, data, graphs and theory that were to culminate in the attempt to generate a stable wormhole. The furnishings of the office were Spartan: the desk, a handful of chairs, and the wall-sized computer display, controlled from Bokir’s desk. The only decorations were a picture of Bokir’s wife, and his two grown sons. The annunciator chimed. Grateful for the interruption, he bade the being enter. It was the Andorian, Tevran. "What can I do for you, Tevran?"

Tevran looked at the wall display. "Still sweating the subspace targeting equations, aren’t you?"

"Yes, I’m afraid so." Bokir looked squarely at the center of the Andorian’s forehead. With the Andorian’s antennae and slightly forward bend at the neck, it was the closest equivalent he’d ever found to looking Tevran straight in the eyes. Bokir couldn’t help remembering that his hair had become as white as the Andorian’s had always been. "I know you and Datok have checked them a dozen times, too. I just have this itching feeling I’ve missed something."

"Not even Sebuk could find a thing to quibble about. He thought your work was up to Vulcan levels. Considering the source, that’s saying something."

Bokir laughed. "I’ve climbed up to the level of Vulcan mediocrity? I’m definitely complimented!" Bokir’s face became serious again. He looked back at the wall display and sighed. "I just wish I felt reassured." Bokir shrugged, tiredly. "Either way, you’ve still not answered my question. What can I do for you?"

"Let someone else command the team on the observation shuttle, Jake. I want to be here, on the base when we create the wormhole."

Bokir shook his head. "Tevran, I can’t. You know that. You’re the best mind I’ve got, and I need you where you can spot trouble before it happens."

Tevran snorted. "Since when was an Andorian brighter than a Vulcan?"

"Nice try, Tevran, but no winner. Surral had to ship out yesterday. Pon farr hit him suddenly and hard yesterday afternoon, and by now, he’s half way to Vulcan. I had to let Sebuk pilot; I wasn’t sure Surral could handle it in the state he was in. With both our Vulcans gone, there isn’t an entity on the ship within a parsec of you, myself included. Frankly, I’d rather have you at my side when the wormhole forms, on the off-chance something goes wrong, but there isn’t anyone else on the base that I’d trust to command the observation shuttle. I’m sorry, old friend. I need you on that shuttle."

Tevran straightened his neck from the bowed position he used for listening. "I could argue about which of us was brighter, Jake. You were the one that found this discarded colony ship, and refit it on a shoestring budget, then did the work to convince the Terran university to fund the project, after all."

Bokir chuckled. "Finding this ship was a bit of luck, no doubt about it. It was never used. There are whole holds full of cryostored grain, seeds, animal embryos and whatnot. If this project fails, we can always go find a planet to colonize. We’ve got the stuff for it. But that doesn’t change a thing, Tevran. I can’t be on the shuttle when the hole triggers, and you can. You’re still the best being I have for the post. And if something goes wrong, you’re the only one I’ve got left that really understands the copied files stored on the shuttle. That includes Sebuk and Surral, in my opinion."

"I understand, Jake. I guess I was hoping you’d see it differently this close to the test."

Bokir stood up, looking his blue-skinned friend squarely in the face. "So was I, Tevran, so was I. If something goes awry, you’re the one being in all the Federation I’d want at my back, but I don’t feel that I have the liberty to keep you with me." He stood, and extended his hand. "Thanks for understanding the situation. My home is ever open to you, and my family is in your debt."

Tevran smiled. "Spoken like an Andorian, Jake. As you Humans say, ‘You owe me one.’" Tevran took the offered hand. "I intend to collect after today’s experiment is through."

"Count on it. You know I’ve never welched on you yet, and I don’t intend to start now." Bokir watched as the Andorian left his office. Bokir sat down, staring at the wall display, again. Fifteen years of theoretical work, the last ten including experimentation and development, were coming to a climax. Three hundred and eighteen of the brightest and best minds in the Federation were gambling their survival on one wall display filled with numbers and equations. Bokir told himself it was just opening-night jitters. Deep inside himself, he knew it wasn’t.

*****

Tevran went directly to the observation shuttle bay from Bokir’s office, intent on running through his last-minute checklist. As he arrived, the other individuals who were part of the observation team were filtering in. Over the last twenty-four hours, he’d hand-picked the team himself, respecting Bokir’s input along the way. The crew was a mixed bag: Andorians, Tellarites, Centaurans, and even a couple of Terrans. All that remained on the base were Terrans and Centaurans. As he watched his crew take their places, it drifted across his mind that the Centaurans and Terrans on ship with him were exactly the ones on board the research base with spouses elsewhere. That Bokir had insisted it be that way struck Tevran as being odd, but he put it out of his mind for the moment: he had other concerns. As was his habit, he ran through the final checks, and piloted the shuttle to its observation point himself. Once there, he and the team with him waited to hear from the main base. Only a few moments passed before Bokir’s voice came across the head sets. "Reactor crew, are you ready?"

"Estimated matter and antimatter needs, plus twenty percent margin, ready to go, Jake. The mix chamber is up to temperature and cookin’ fine. When you need power, we’ll have it for you."

"Thanks, Bill. Field generation, are you balanced and ready to run?"

"On line, ready to charge and go, chief. We’re just waiting for Bill to start feeding energy to us."

"Good, Envac. Targeting, what’s your status?"

"Locked in on Iota Orionis, as per plan. If you could find me a telescope powerful enough, I could watch the stellar corona."

"I’ll look into one for you, Datok. They make ‘em that good on Centaurus?"

"No, Jake. Not yet."

"That’s a pity. I guess I’ll make do with your subspace targeting. Tevran? You and your crew at the observation point?"

"We’re synchronous, at 1000 kilometers separation. We’ve got enough sensors focused on you to keep the entire Klingon secret service busy sifting data for a month. Set and ready to go, my friend."

"Hopefully the Klingons aren’t watching. I didn’t invite them, did you?"

"No way, Jake. We’re itching to get this thing going. The Klingons would just get in the way."

"Good. All non-essential personnel on base in emergency pods? All loose objects strapped down?"

"Everything’s secure, Bokir, your wife especially. Anchoring tractors are at full power. Give the order, and I could move a planet with ‘em. Ship’s tight enough to handle anything this wormhole can dish out."

"I hope you’re right, Govral. We’re not all as well padded as you are, you know."

"Hey, that’s not my fault, boss."

Bokir laughed. "I’m not going there, Govral; I’ve watched you chow down at meal time. Gentle beings, we seem to be prepared."

There was a chorus of agreement across the headset.

"Bill, get the dilithium array charged."

A few moments passed. "Charged."

"Envac, get the initial field going."

Tevran watched the indicators on his screen. He could see the field forming, reaching the calculated minimum intensity.

"Datok, Tevran, how do we look?"

"We’re on target, Jake," Datok answered.

Tevran made one last sweep of the readouts before him. "Looking good, chief; less than a part in ten million deviation from theoretical prediction. I think you’re ready for full power."

There was a moment of silence. Tevran could almost see Bokir, standing in the middle of the control room, communications headset in place, his head bowed. Only a handful of people on the base knew what Bokir was doing, and Tevran was one: Bokir was in prayer, invoking the blessing of his God on the moment. Tevran could almost feel the tension rising in the observation shuttle; he could only imagine what it must have been like on the base. Bokir sighed. "Envac, take it to full power. Slowly, Okay?"

Tevran looked up from his monitor screen and looked out the forward viewport. As far as he was concerned, instruments were fine, but there was someone monitoring every sensor system on board. Tevran trusted his own senses more than any machine. Although few other beings on the base could have sensed it, between his eyes and his antennae, Tevran could dimly see the distortion of space forming by the base. Slowly, its intensity grew, and with the intensity, its dimensions. Without warning, the distortion swelled, flared brilliantly and disappeared. When the ship’s sensors and Tevran’s senses cleared, the wormhole and the base had disappeared. Tevran’s headset exploded in a cacophony of reports. None of them mattered, really; he knew what they would find when the records were reviewed. The only thing they’d see would be the anchoring tractors blowing, and the wormhole swallowing the base whole. Staring at the empty void, Tevran took off his headset, the blue skin of his face wet with tears. "You suspected, didn’t you, Jake? You had to be sure we were safe. May your God protect you, my friend, wherever you are. My family is forever in your family’s debt. If you’re out there to be found, all the devils in Andor’s hell won’t keep me from finding you." Tevran triggered the emergency beacon, threw his head back, and filled his cabin with the shrill, keening wail of Andorian grief. He knew he would look for his friend, but in his heart, doubted he would ever find him.

2274

Captain’s Log, Stardate 7474.37
We are in a parking orbit around Iota Orionis I, preparing for a cultural survey...

"Ouch!" Chekov flinched under McCoy’s ministrations. "That hurt, Doctor! Be careful, vwill you? Pay attention to vwhat you’re doing!" The process of coloring Chekov’s skin to match that of the Lodahl, the people inhabiting Iota Orionis I, was nearing completion; all that remained was part of Chekov’s face.

There was a soft hiss, as McCoy’s hypospray anesthetized another section of Chekov’s skin. "Sorry, Pavel. But with you and Spock gabbing with each other it’s hard to remember where it’s been numbed, and where not. If you’d just hold still, I could finish painting you a nice, jaundiced yellow a lot faster."

"Excuses, excuses!" Kirk snorted, more in jest than anger. "Tell me, Bones, did you get top honors in your class in sadism at Starfleet Medical Academy?"

"Nope! Never took it, Jim. I proficiencied out. They decided that I was sadistic enough that I could have taught the class." McCoy donned a mock evil grin.

Spock sat by, patiently. Although he failed to understand the interchange between the Humans, he had seen it before, and had learned that the sparring was a reflection of their friendship, rather than of the anger and irritation that seemed to be present. At his first opportunity, he resumed talking with Chekov.

"Again, Lieutenant, what is your identity?"

Chekov dropped into the Lodahli tongue. "What identity do I need other than being Socath, Seeker of Wisdom? Do not the machines recognize my retina and hand prints without need for anything else?"

Spock nodded his approval. "Socath who?"

"Do I need more of a name?"

McCoy finished applying the yellow tint to Chekov’s face. "Enough of the Lodahli babble, you two. I still can’t believe that we missed finding them in the survey of the area, and now that we’ve stumbled over them, we’re suddenly all fired up to see if they can handle contact with the Federation."

Spock returned to English. "That Lodahl was missed is not surprising, Doctor. Iota Orionis is classified as O9III. Planets around blue-white giants are rare, and usually incapable of supporting life. Rendering the task more difficult, the ionization layer created by the intense ultraviolet output of Iota Orionis is sufficiently intense that it reflects over 99% of the radio frequency energy that the probes look for to detect a technical civilization. Had it not been for the intense search of the area looking for remnants of Research Base 1853, the civilization might well have escaped detection until the Lodahli developed space flight."

"Which they probably wouldn’t have done," Chekov added. "The same ionization layer that holds their radio broadcasts in also produces a nocturnal glow that blocks their seeing any stars. They haven’t the vaguest idea that there’s anything else out there. As for the sudden interest, I guess the energy they might have put into research in astronomy, astrophysics and space flight went into other things. Like automation. They’ve got almost everything automated, from manufacturing to agriculture to grounds keeping. Can you imagine what the Romulans or the Klingons could do if they turned that kind of automated production to warlike purposes?"

"Definitely an unpleasant thought, Pavel."

"The difficulty is aggravated by the fact that the Lodahli are an extremely peaceful people. As far as we have been able to trace their history from the broadcast teaching channels we have used to master their language and study their culture, their people have not experienced warfare since the beginning of their recorded history."

"Meaning they’d be pushovers for any invader, Bones." Kirk added. "What I don’t understand, Chekov, is how you mastered the Lodahli tongue, accent free."

"It was no trouble, Kyptin. It’s barely harder than the English I learned back home in Russia," Chekov stood up as he spoke. "What I don’t understand is where all of you picked up your strange accents."

McCoy suppressed a snicker, picked up a loose, flowing robe and helped Chekov into it. Kirk stared at the ceiling, biting his tongue as he helped McCoy with Chekov’s robe.

As Chekov was finishing adjusting his robe, Scott arrived carrying a large medallion. "Here ye are, Lieutenant!" Scott burred cheerfully, carefully affixing the medallion to Chekov’s left shoulder. "It’s not much t’look at, but it’ll provide a three-hundred sixty degree, low resolution scan around ye at all times, and visual for two hundred seventy degrees, wi’ the results continuously transmitted to the Enterprise via subspace. In front of ye, there’s a high resolution scanner that’ll look at anythin’ served ye, to see if it’s safe t’eat. The wee dilithium crystal in it holds enough power to run it for nearly a year."

"Indeed," Spock agreed. "It will also provide continuous audio monitoring, Lieutenant. You will be able to communicate with us at any time, just by speaking normally, or by using the gesture signals. Any reply will be audible only to you, via bone conduction."

"Wonderful! How do I look?"

Spock responded in Lodahli. "You are clearly of the People, Socath. You are ready."

Chekov bowed slightly, responding in the same tongue. "Will you then lead me forward?"

Kirk smiled in approval. "You look perfect to me, Pavel. Good luck. Don’t let those sociologists trip you up."

"Good luck, Chekov," McCoy added.

"I’ll try to outwit the Cossacks, Kyptin," Chekov responded, "And thanks for wishing me luck, Doctor. I think I may need it." He and Spock entered the turbolift. Chekov turned to his Vulcan friend. "Who has Starfleet sent to be sure I’m ready for the survey on Lodahl, Mister Spock?"

"Three sociologists: Sezahn, of Vulcan, Gogin of Tellar and p’Kaso of Andor. Sezahn and p’Kaso will be more interested, I think, in your knowledge of Lodahli customs and manners, particularly in how well you manage to maintain your role as a Seeker of Wisdom. The Tellarite is the one who will be your greatest problem; he will no doubt try to debate you on some obscure point in Lodahli culture. The other two are likely to watch how you deal with Gogin more closely than how you handle their own questions."

"I get the hint: don’t forget that Seekers of Wisdom only talk in questions. Believe me, that’s the hardest part of the role."

"Doubtlessly, Lieutenant. However, since the Seekers of Wisdom are considered somewhat eccentric by the rest of Lodahli society, it is the easiest caste to learn. Most social gaffes other than a straight answer will be overlooked."

Chekov nodded, grinning. "I figured that the Doctor and the Kyptin were just giving me a hard time when he said they’d picked that caste because it was celibate."

"Indeed. It is, however, advantageous."

Chekov was spared the need to respond by the turbolift doors opening. He stepped forward, into the hall, Spock at his side. "Wish me luck, Mister Spock," Chekov said as he approached the door of the conference room.

"Good luck, Lieutenant. However, you appear to have mastered the nuances of the Lodahli culture and language well enough not to need luck."

Chekov stepped up to the door and triggered the annunciator. In English, he heard what he supposed was the Tellarite say, "Come in, Chekov." Chekov remained motionless. Spock’s eyebrow raised momentarily, until another voice said, "Please enter," in Lodahli. Chekov stepped forward as the door swept aside, smiling. He knew he’d passed his first test.

As he entered the room, Chekov was confronted by a table with the three sociologists seated behind it, Sezahn, the Vulcan, on his left, Gogin the Tellarite in the middle, and the Andorian, p’Kaso, to the right. Chekov looked all three squarely in the face, but remained silent, waiting for one of them to make the first move. Finally, Sezahn broke the silence. "Welcome. How are you called?"

"Am I not Socath, of the Seekers of Wisdom? Given your appearance, would I be right in guessing that you are all Seekers of Laughter and Thrills?"

Gogin sputtered, apparently quite upset. "How dare you call me a clown, Chekov?" he bellowed in English.

Chekov turned to Sezahn. "Is your associate drunk, or is he ill? Or is there another reason why he does not speak the Language?"

"Drunk? Ill? Are you trying to be obnoxious?" The Tellarite was clearly becoming angry.

"He’s not ill or drunk, Socath," the Andorian said, apparently trying to rescue the situation from further deterioration. "He merely speaks in a language unknown to you."

"Are there languages other than the Language of the People? Who speaks them? Animals? Insects?"

Gogin leapt to his feet. Both Sezahn and p’Kaso grabbed one of his arms, restraining him. "So now I’m an animal, am I? Let GO of me, so I can wipe the deck with his face. How DARE he insult me that way? I’ll strangle the wretched...."

"Is there a Healer you can call? Is there any aid I can offer?" Chekov interrupted, looking as concerned as he could for Gogin’s welfare. "Does the hog-faced one have this problem often?"

As suddenly as the fury had exploded on Gogin’s face, it left. In accentless Lodahli, he looked at Chekov and said, "No, Socath. I only do it on rare occasions. It seems that my fit has passed me. I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be all right now." The Tellarite sat down, smiling. The Vulcan and the Andorian released their grip on Gogin’s arms. He slapped the Andorian on the back, still speaking in Lodahli. "You win the bet, p’Kaso. I couldn’t trip him up with the anger act. I owe you dinner."

The Andorian’s face registered annoyance more than rejoicing. He remained silent, favoring the Tellarite with a look that Chekov suspected could have frozen Vodka.

"May I assume that the stage show is over and the serious efforts will begin, now?" Chekov asked, taking the only other chair in the room.

"Yes, indeed, Socath," the Vulcan answered. "Let us begin."

For over two hours, the three sociologists grilled Chekov on every aspect of the behavior of the major castes of the Lodahli culture, of Lodahli history, language, and other issues they thought important. Although he found it exhausting, Chekov kept up with his interrogators, handling their assault without severe difficulty. It was the Andorian who finally ended the session.

"Socath, you have done well. We commend you for your mastery."

Gogin stood up, extending a hand, again speaking in English. "Congratulations, Chekov. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they brought you up from the planetary surface." He switched to Russian, "Hareshah, gospodin Chekov, bolshoi hareshah."

Chekov turned to Sezahn. "Is your companion having another one of his fits? Has your examination of me tired him too much?"

Gogin answered for the Vulcan, this time in Lodahli. "No, Socath. It was just a last test, to see if I could catch you unaware. You didn’t fall for it. You’re ready."

"I agree, Socath. Would you mind letting me speak to Lieutenant Chekov, now?"

Chekov thought he caught a hint of a smile on the Vulcan’s face as he spoke. Returning to English, the lieutenant responded, standing as he spoke. "I trust that a Wvulcan wouldn’t try to trick me, like Gogin did."

"I would not, Chekov," Sezahn agreed. "Yet you must admit that Gogin’s little test was reasonable. You will need to be able to remain in character, even under stress and surprise."

"No quarrel, Sezahn. And no hard feelings, Gogin. Just make sure the dinner you owe p’Kaso is fit for a Tsar."

The Tellarite laughed. "Indeed I shall, Chekov. It’s on Starfleet’s tab, after all. We might as well enjoy ourselves, eh?"

Ignoring Gogin, p’Kaso stood up and extended his blue-skinned hand. "I congratulate you, Lieutenant. You have successfully withstood the onslaught of three beings determined to catch you in an error, and you have passed the test perfectly. If the tables had been turned, I don’t think I could have fared any better, if indeed I would have done as well. You honor your family."

"You honor my family and me by your generous assessment, p’Kaso," Chekov responded, shaking the offered hand. Gogin, and finally, Sezahn offered their hands in congratulation as well.

"One of the three of us will be monitoring your activities at all times, Chekov," Sezahn promised. "Should you need advice, you need only stroke your chin with your left hand. We will do the best we can. Touch your face anywhere else to acknowledge our message."

"I’ll count on you. Hopefully, you won’t mind if I don’t always acknowledge you."

"I shall be offended to the bottom of my being!" Gogin asserted, mock seriously. "I plan to maintain a running commentary on everything around you, to be sure that your arms are never away from your face for a moment."

Spock entered the room as Gogin spoke. "I will be monitoring as well, Lieutenant, as much as possible."

"I’m glad to hear it, Mister Spock. Let’s get this mission moving."

"After the ordeal of having us examine you, Chekov, wouldn’t you rather rest and start tomorrow?" Gogin asked, with what Chekov assumed was sincere concern.

"If Mister Spock has Mister Scott put me down somewhere that’s just before local bed time, I can just find somewhere to doss on the planet. That way, you folks can get started watching things around me."

"A most excellent plan, Lieutenant," Sezahn responded in English. Switching to Lodahli, he continued, "Good fortune to you, Socath!"

Chekov bowed slightly, responding in the same tongue, "What kindness could ever repay your generous and merciful words?" He and Spock stepped out of the room and into the turbolift.

*****

It was only a few moments later that Chekov materialized on the surface of Lodahl. He looked around, finding himself surrounded by trees. "Mister Spock, are you there?"

"Yes, Lieutenant. You are currently facing due west. Approximately three hundred meters in front of you, you will find a road. Follow it to your right, and in approximately three kilometers you will enter a Lodahli settlement. Lodgings will be available in the Public Building, usually at or near the center of the city."

Chekov began walking. As he exited the small copse of trees, his attention was arrested by the night sky. "Bozhe moi, Mister Spock, are you sure this is near evening?"

"Yes, Lieutenant. Local time, it is approximately one point three hours until sunset. The high ambient light levels are due to the ionized layer of the atmosphere interacting with itself and Lodahl’s magnetic field."

Chekov admired the ribbons, veils and sheets of delicate green, occasionally highlighted with reds that reminded him of the Northern Lights he’d seen on Earth a few times. Behind, or above it, there was what appeared to be endless discharge of lightning high in the atmosphere, creating a background of brilliant, almost white blues and sunset oranges. "Can you see the sky, Mister Spock? I’d bet this would become a tourist’s paradise quickly, just over the sky alone."

"You are no doubt correct, Lieutenant. The image on the screen here is, by Human standards, remarkable. However, the Lodahli are quite accustomed to the display; it is no stranger to them than the night stars are to you. I would recommend that you keep moving, and concentrate on your destination. It would also be advisable to refrain from speaking to us until you are in a secure location."

Chekov swept his right hand across his forehead in acknowledgment and moved forward. In a few moments, he came across three parallel rows of white stones marking off a pair of paths filled with what looked like a well-kept lawn.

"This is the road, Lieutenant," p’Kaso’s voice whispered. "The narrower track created by the stones is for pedestrian traffic. The wider one is for ground transport. Since the Lodahli use suspension fields to support their loads, and foot traffic is sparse, they don’t need to pave things; all the roads are grass."

Chekov began the trek to the nearby settlement. Only a few moments passed before he heard the sound of an approaching machine. p’Kaso’s voice echoed in his head again. "You need to step off the track for a few minutes. An automated lawn maintenance machine is approaching from behind you." Chekov obeyed, watching the machine approach. Along the bottom, there was a wide deck, clearly covering a mowing apparatus. He smiled to himself inwardly; the walk was pleasant, but hitching a lift would save a great deal of time.

Before he could move, p’Kaso’s voice interrupted. "If you’re thinking of hitching a lift on the maintenance machine, Lieutenant, don’t. The power consumption is continuously monitored, and the additional load you create would be read out as a mechanical problem. The machine would probably end up in a repair shop for days, trying to figure out what the non-existent problem was."

Disappointed, Chekov stood his ground until the machine lumbered on ahead of him, then resumed his walk, maintaining a brisk, but comfortable pace. As he crested the ridge before him, Chekov saw the nearby settlement laid out in the plain ahead of him. From his vantage point, about a kilometer away and a hundred or so meters above, it seemed that the buildings of the settlement were efficiently laid out according to a carefully crafted and well integrated plan. Each of the buildings seemed to be slightly different in color, creating a harmonious whole that guided the eye to the building in the center of the community. It was significantly larger, and several stories taller than any of the others. Chekov assumed, as he made his way there, that it was the Public Building.

Entering the outskirts of the settlement, Chekov was fascinated by the degree of variability among what he assumed were people’s homes. Although the schemes blended, each dwelling’s color clearly reflected the tastes and personalities of the individual inhabiting it. Leading off to either side of the pathway were roads and cul-de-sacs of groomed grass. Periodically, there were large, open areas that looked like carefully cultivated gardens and parks. Inwardly, Chekov hoped that the Lodahli would be ready and able to join the Federation; the planet almost appeared to be a paradise. Only a few moments passed before Chekov reached the tall, central building.

"You’ll want the northernmost entrance, Chekov," p’Kaso informed him. Chekov moved off to his right, but before he had gone more than a few paces, a Lodahli stepped out of the shadows and approached him. "Enforcer, coming toward you. Be cooperative, and try to be as non-committal as you can." Chekov scratched his cheek in reply.

"Please, Citizen, I need a word with you," the Enforcer called out. Chekov turned to face the man.

"Have I transgressed some local regulation, Enforcer?" Chekov asked, as politely as he could.

"Not at all; I just need a little information, if I might. Who are you?"

"Doesn’t my medallion declare that I am a Seeker of Wisdom? Would calling me Socath suit you? And would you mind sharing your own name with me?"

The Enforcer smiled. "Name’s Robpiel, Socath. You’re already aware that I’m an Enforcer. Glad to meet you. Are you from the area?"

"Since you’re expected to know all the local population, would you have needed to ask my name if I were?"

"Good point, but under the circumstances, I have to ask. Merely a formality. Please, come with me."

p’Kaso’s voice buzzed again. "Better find out what’s going on, first. We might not want to get involved."

Based on his knowledge of Lodahli society, Chekov doubted he could evade the Enforcer’s summons, but he decided to humor p’Kaso. "May I be so bold as to inquire what need you would have of a wandering Seeker of Wisdom, far from his home?"

"You’re the final element I need for a Panel of Inquiry, actually. Come on, the others have been waiting for a good while."

Chekov knew there was no way out of the predicament. He’d been chosen to serve as a member of the local equivalent of a grand jury. As he followed Robpiel into the building, p’Kaso’s voice whispered again. "They go for as diverse a group as they can on the Panel of Inquiry, presumably to make sure every reasonable viewpoint is covered. If this is a major inquiry, we’re in for an even more major delay." Chekov decided there was no need to respond, and concentrated on following the Enforcer through the corridors of the Public Building. The Enforcer gestured to a small cubicle. "Again, just a formality, Socath, but if you would please step forward for positive identification. Before him, Chekov saw a retinal scanner. He scratched his chin with his left hand.

"There will be no difficulty, Lieutenant," Spock’s voice reassured him. "A Lodahli of about your height and weight was located; the file was duplicated, adjusted to reflect the fact that you are a Seeker of Wisdom, and your retinal prints, finger prints and other personal information were substituted. The system will identify you correctly."

Chekov stepped up, putting his face in place, greatly relieved.

"Lost a little weight, I see, Socath," the Enforcer commented as he looked at the readout nearby.

"As much as I’ve been walking lately, are you surprised?"

Robpiel shook his head. "Guess not; you’re really a long way from home." Just to Chekov’s right, a door swept open, and Robpiel gestured that they should enter. Chekov went through the door, Robpiel at his heels. The room they entered was large, roughly octagonal in shape, with a high, vaulted ceiling arching far above him. It was of dressed stone, cut and fit so perfectly that, were it not for the slight differences in color and grain in the stone, the seams would have been invisible.

Eight other individuals were in the room, besides Chekov and the Enforcer, as was a large, oval table with ten chairs. Chekov scanned their faces; only one stood out. Not only was she the only female in the group, she was dressed in a clown costume, wearing a wig, with a face covered in grease paint. Clearly a Seeker of Thrills and Laughter, Chekov deduced. She was the first to speak.

"You can call me Emkel, if you like. It’s what everyone else calls me. When they’re being nice, anyhow." She extended her gloved hand, giggling. Chekov shook it briefly and let it go. "Welcome," she continued. "Perhaps with your arrival, we can get the Inquiry going, and all be about our other business again."

Robpiel smiled. "His name is Socath, and he’s a Seeker of Wisdom. If the rest of you would introduce yourselves, before we get started?"

A large, older, and somewhat grizzled man reached for Chekov’s hand and wrung it forcefully. "Name’s Olmac. I’m a Food Producer. Glad to meet you."

Chekov extracted his hand, bowing slightly, only to have it grasped by a younger, thin individual. "Hello, Socath. My name’s Lorite; I coordinate and design buildings."

A tall, muscular, darker skinned individual stepped forward, before Lorite let Chekov’s hand loose. "I go by Tahmed; I’m an Innovator. My main field of interest is in manufacturing processes." Chekov was thankful to be spared having his hand swallowed in Tahmed’s. Tahmed pointed to a small, thin, almost inconspicuous looking individual, seated at one end of the table. "That’s Jonax. He’s a quiet one. A Holder of the Hidden Knowledge, and he’s holding it pretty closely." Jonax nodded, saying nothing. Tahmed pointed to another individual. "That’s Hefor; he’s in Manufacturing. We’ve been having a good chat, waiting for Robpiel to find someone to complete the Panel. Farsto over there is in Small Machine Repair. You’ve already met our Enforcer."

"Would I be correct in assuming that this is the whole group?" Robpiel nodded in answer to Chekov’s question. "Then may I express my pleasure in serving with you, and my curiosity concerning when we will get going?"

"Good question," Lorite agreed. "How about it, Robpiel? Shall we get started?"

"It’s a bit late, I’m afraid; this is a murder inquiry, and probably not what any of you want to be studying before trying to sleep. We can review the information I’ve got in the morning."

"That being the case, Robpiel," Chekov interjected, "how about something to eat? Or have you forgotten how far I’ve walked and how much weight I’ve lost?"

Chekov’s comment was greeted by general agreement. Robpiel ran his fingers across a control pad in response. A door slid open, and a low-set machine trundled up to the table, setting it with plates, fruits, breads, cheeses, and flasks of beverages. Everyone began moving toward the table. As he approached it, Chekov realized that, between getting his skin colored to match the Lodahli, being interrogated by the sociologists, and hiking to the settlement, it had been several hours since he last ate.

Spock’s voice buzzed as he sat down. "The food will all be safe to eat, Lieutenant, but the brown fruit just to your left, and the green fruit next to it are likely to be too spicy for Terran tastes. According to the scanner in your medallion, they would be hot even for Vulcan tastes."

Remembering the last time he’d eaten Vulcan cooking, he decided to avoid the indicated dishes.

"As far as I can tell, the food should all be Kosher," Spock added.

The lieutenant made a mental note to remind Spock that, even though he was Jewish, he wasn’t particularly orthodox about his eating habits. He also noticed that Olmac had, somewhat pointedly, managed to take a seat as far away from Jonax as he could. Conversation was sparse, and the meal disappeared rapidly. Once the table was cleared, Robpiel conducted everyone to their quarters.

The cubicle Chekov was ushered into was comfortably large, including not only a pallet on which to sleep, but other furnishings clearly intended to make him feel comfortable. One wall contained a door that led to a quite luxurious-appearing shower facility. p’Kaso’s voice sounded. "You’ll find a small drawer next to the shower, Chekov. You can put your robes in it, and they’ll be laundered while you shower. Just thought you’d like to know that." Chekov rubbed his cheek in acknowledgment, and took advantage of the facilities, leaving the medallion on the other side of the door. He wasn’t sure how well Scott and Spock had planned for his privacy, and decided that he wasn’t taking any risks.

Some time later, he returned to the room, donned the medallion again, and lay down. "I assume you folks will keep an eye on things for me, so I’m going to get some sleep." He reached for what appeared to be the control for the lights, shut the room lights off, and went to sleep.

*****

It seemed like only a few moments later when Chekov awoke to Gogin’s voice. "Chekov, according to the scanner, everyone else is waking up. You might want to get up and get ready for your day. I’d guess you’ve got about an hour before you’re summoned to get going on the panel of inquiry. Offhand, I’d say that you’ll probably get breakfast there."

"Thanks, Gogin." Chekov got up, and started for the lavatory. "Catch you in a couple of minutes?"

"No need to ditch the medallion, Chekov. Scotty says he’s got your privacy taken care of. Thought you’d like to know that, especially for later in the day."

"You’re a good man, Gogin."

"Hey, don’t insult me, Chekov. I’m not a man; I’m a Tellarite. How you creatures manage to walk on the pitiful excuse for hoofs you use escapes me."

Chekov shook his head, and proceeded to get his day started.

As Gogin had guessed, it was about an hour later that Chekov heard a rap on the door, and Robpiel’s voice coming through. "You up, Socath? Time to get going. Breakfast is served in the main chamber."

"Are you ready to get going?" Chekov asked as he exited the room.

"Will be soon. Grab a chair."

When Chekov entered the chamber he had been in the night before, he noticed it had changed. During the night, the table had been removed, being replaced with what looked like a large viewscreen. All of the chairs had been moved to face the screen; each of them had a small table beside it. Chekov seated himself near the middle of the arc of chairs and waited. Several minutes passed as the remaining individuals collected. Chekov took advantage of the time to use the control surface on the table to order himself breakfast.

Once they were all seated, the Enforcer stood by the screen. "As you hopefully recall, this panel has been convened to investigate what appears to be a murder. A formal evaluation of the cadaver indicates that his death was due to violence." Robpiel turned the screen on. "Here is the victim as he was discovered yesterday morning."

Chekov’s first impression of the image was that the body crumpled on the ground looked like a rag doll discarded by a spoiled child in a fit of anger. Next to the body, there was a gray stone bench. From the appearance of the environment around the body and bench, Chekov guessed that the location was one of the numerous parks that seemed scattered through the area. Other than the contorted position of the body, only one other feature of the dead man arrested Chekov’s attention: a large, somewhat ragged wound on the exposed cheek. He wasn’t sure why, but there was something about it that looked wrong. Perplexed, Chekov got up and walked to the screen to get a closer view. After a moment, he turned to the Enforcer. "Is it possible to zoom in on a part of this image?"

"No problem. Where?"

Chekov pointed to an area just above the victim’s face. "Could you center the zoom around here?"

Under Robpiel’s guidance, a set of cross hairs appeared on the screen, rapidly moving under Chekov’s finger. The scene jumped closer. "Can you zoom tighter?" Again, the scene jumped closer. "How about once more?" With the final zoom, the picture began to look a little granular. Chekov got as close to the image as he could, still unsure what it was about the image that bothered him. Bloated by the magnification, the man’s face and wound took on an almost surreal appearance. Troubled, Chekov studied the wound minutely. When the realization hit, he blurted it out. "Where’s the blood? Shouldn’t a wound like that have bled all over the place? Do any of you see any sign of bleeding anywhere?"

Olmac joined Chekov at the screen. "You’re right, Socath. I’ve seen plenty of livestock butchered or wounded. Should have been a big puddle of blood on the ground, all right, even if the wound was less than half that size. The man must have been dead when he was dumped there."

Lorite shook his head. "We’re still missing something, Olmac." Lorite moved to the screen. "Look--no blood on his face, either. I’d bet he was dead before it happened. How about zooming in on the corner of the stone bench nearest his face?"

Under Robpiel’s control, the screen zoomed out, then back in on the corner in question. A ragged bit of skin appeared, stuck to it.

"See?" Lorite crowed gleefully. "The face wound must have happened when he was dumped here."

Satisfied for the moment, Chekov returned to his chair, taking a swallow of the Lodahli equivalent of coffee. He turned to the Enforcer. "Who was he, Robpiel? What was his career?"

"He was a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge, like Jonax; he was called Yanhus."

"Is it possible to look at the original reports and scans of Yanhus’ body?"

"It’s pretty unusual, but it’s possible. On the whole, folk figure it’s enough to know that the death was due to violent assault without getting into the grisly details."

"Are you surprised that I want to check for myself?"

"I shouldn’t be, with your being a Seeker of Wisdom. Anyone else want to go along with us?"

There was a chorus of different refusals. Just as Chekov began to suspect that he and Robpiel would go it alone, Jonax spoke up. "I think I had better go along. I’d rather not, but..."

Robpiel triggered a control on the screen’s side. "Enjoy yourselves while we’re gone. You should be able to get whatever form of broadcast entertainment you can agree on." He turned to Chekov and Jonax. "You two come along."

He led them to another door, keyed in a code sequence and led them through. A few strides further, they walked up to another door that opened, after the Enforcer keyed in his code sequence, into what looked like a standard turbolift. Only a few moments passed before the doors opened onto another hallway. Confidently, Robpiel led the pair through a nearby doorway.

"Hey, Bowil," Robpiel shouted, "Where are you?"

"Back here, doing my job, Roby. Out in a sec." It was a woman’s voice that responded.

Chekov stroked his chin with his left hand. Gogin’s voice echoed in Chekov’s head. "If you’re expecting me to get you out of this mess, forget it. If you get yourself into a harmless but annoying situation you can just suffer." Chekov rubbed his forehead, then his chin again.

Robpiel looked at Chekov. "You all right? You’re going to scratch your face off if you don’t watch it."

Chekov seized the opportunity. "Would you believe it’s an old tic I get once in a while? Don’t I wish I could talk to the healer I usually see so he could help?"

Gogin jumped in. "Ahah! You want McCoy here, right?" Chekov scratched his head in acknowledgment. He realized Robpiel had said something that he’d missed because of Gogin’s talking. He rubbed the side of his face to acknowledge Gogin, then turned to Robpiel. "What’d you say?"

"I just was expressing the hope that you’re not contagious."

"I doubt that he is, Roby." Chekov turned to the new voice, which he assumed belonged to Bowil. "Looks more like a nervous tic to me. Down here, people do tend to get nervous, and develop that sort of thing. I’ve seen it too many times. There’s just something about being in an area where the dead are that spooks some folks. What brings you and your little parade down here?"

"Socath here seems to think he can find some wisdom by looking at your investigation of the body. Jonax, he just figured since Yanhus was one of his own or some such, that he’d better be along. How about it?"

"Hello, Pavel, McCoy here," buzzed in Chekov’s head. "I’ll try to help the best I can, but if their scans aren’t up to modern standards, it might be tough."

While McCoy had been talking to Chekov, the Handler of the Dead had been scanning through her files. "Ah, there we are. Yanhus. What do you want to see first?"

Chekov thought a moment, hoping McCoy would make a suggestion. He didn’t. "Where would you start if you had to prove your point about the death being violent, madam?" Chekov responded.

"Cervical area. Look at this." Several cross-sectional scans of the neck appeared on a viewer on the wall. "Amazing, isn’t it? First cervical vertebra shattered, and the odontoid process sheared off the second cervical vetebra and driven into the foramen magnum, compressing the cord. Yanhus would have died almost instantly, poor soul."

"Pavel, you got trouble, big trouble. I’ve seen that kind of fracture before. The only thing that causes that is a Romulan Death Grip. Looks like you’re not the only non-Lodahli on the loose there."

Chekov tried to conceal his shock at McCoy’s revelation. "Ever see anything like that before?"

"Can’t say that I have, actually. Did a simulation, based on the fragmentation of the bones. As far as I can see, there was an incredible force forward then downward, driving the odontoid into the foramen magnum and shattering the first cervical vertebra, then a rotational force that snapped the odontoid off, trapping it in place."

"This woman’s good, Pavel. If they join the Federation, I want her teaching Forensic Pathology at Starfleet Academy. She’s described the Romulan Death Grip perfectly, without even knowing about Romulans. Most humanoids don’t have the hand strength to do it. Humans don’t, and neither do the Lodahli."

"Anything else unusual? Are any other organ systems impaired? Are there any other fractures? Is there anything else that could help us?" Chekov wasn’t sure how much of the question was to learn more, and how much was to divert attention from the fracture.

"Not much. Bit of a burn here." The viewscreen shifted to an area on the dead man’s back. "Heart, lungs, et cetera, were in pretty good shape. A little bit of atherosclerosis here and there, but not more than you’d expect for an individual of his age."

Chekov sat, staring and thinking. "Have you reached any conclusions about how long Yanhus had been dead when he was discovered?"

"Judging from the body temperature, and the stage of rigor mortis, and..."

Jonax looked at the Handler of the Dead, his face changing color from a jaundiced yellow to a sickly green. "Look, I’m already having trouble with the details I’ve seen so far. Just give us an estimate of the time, would you? I’m not sure I can handle any more details without losing my breakfast."

Bowil’s face registered an almost maternal look of concern. "Poor baby! Please forgive my lack of consideration. I forget that most folks are more squeamish than I am." As quickly as the maternal appeared, it disappeared, and she was all business again. "The body was discovered a little after the sky brightening; the death happened something like five, maybe six hours before. The cadaver was too fresh when it was found for much in the way of putrefaction, so the main determinant of the time of death would be the body temperature. You have to realize that’s an estimate; it could have been longer, if the body had been near something hot, as the burn suggests. If I were you folks, I wouldn’t build my entire decision on the timing of the death."

"Considering that we haven’t even the beginnings of a theory as to who killed him, I wouldn’t worry about that," Robpiel commented wryly. He turned to Jonax and Chekov. "Either of you have anything else you want to check?"

"Pavel, don’t you dare leave until you’ve looked at the dead man’s hands. Might be some blood under the finger nails you can use to help identify the killer--maybe the victim scratched his assailant in the fight, or something."

Chekov pretended to be deep in thought. "Was there anything you noticed about his hands? Perhaps something under Yanhus’ fingernails?"

Bowil swept into a mock bow. "For not being a Handler of the Dead or an Enforcer, you ask the most interesting questions. You’ve found the most puzzling thing of all, and the one thing I thought I’d better keep under wraps." The viewscreen was suddenly dominated by a picture of the dead man’s hands. Under the nails of two fingers was a small amount of something that was a green so dark it almost looked black. "Any of you have any idea what to make of that?"

"What would I know about it? Have you reached any conclusions?"

"That’s the puzzling bit, Socath. If it weren’t for the copper in the hemoglobin instead of iron, I could almost believe it was blood. I guess there are a handful of deep ocean starfish with hemoglobin like that, but the ocean’s a long way off."

Robpiel looked at the floor, obviously trying to control himself. Finally, he looked up. "Ah, well, that solves the mystery altogether. He was killed by a giant, copper-blooded starfish that managed to learn to breathe air. We will all have to be on the watch!" Robpiel chuckled, obviously pleased with his facetious comment.

"Not funny, Enforcer," Jonax said, with a firmness that seemed out of character. "No mention will be made of the material under the nails. Is that clear?"

Chekov turned, rather surprised by Jonax’s reaction. Simultaneously, Gogin’s voice buzzed. "Keep your lip zipped, Chekov. These Holders of the Hidden Knowledge seem to be the great high priestly authority over everyone, remember? They’re empowered to kill without having to account for their actions to anyone but others of their own kind." One look at Jonax’s face convinced Chekov not to question the mandate. Chekov mopped the back of his neck with his hand, more out of tension than to acknowledge Gogin’s comment.

Bowil faced Jonax squarely, her voice soft, almost subservient. "I’m more than happy to keep it to myself. It isn’t even in the official records on the case."

"Good." Jonax was obviously not about to be crossed.

"If you two have achieved all you intended to, maybe we can go back to the rest of the members of the Panel of Inquiry?" Robpiel sounded eager to leave.

"Will I be able to check the occasional point or two later, if I want to?"

"Call at your convenience, Socath," Bowil answered. "But there’s nothing of interest left to tell you. Better yet, find an excuse to drag Roby back and leave him with me."

Robpiel opened the door to the hallway. "Let’s go, then. Talk to you later, Bowil, after this is all resolved. Perhaps over dinner?" Bowil winked at Robpiel and blew him a kiss as the three of them exited the morgue. Chekov’s face registered curiosity. "Bowil’s my fiancÚ, Socath. And you’re not invited to the wedding. Yet, anyhow. Once we set a date, maybe you’ll get an invitation, depending on how fast we can solve this little mystery." A grin split Chekov’s face. Somehow, seeing something so universal and familiar made the place seem a little more friendly.

Back in the chamber, the other members of the panel were obviously having a good time. Tahmed, Lorite and Hefor were deeply engrossed in watching some sort of team competition on the viewscreen. Olmac and Farsto were off in a corner apparently trading stories with Emkel, laughing uproariously at something she had said. It almost felt like a meeting of old friends. Everyone turned to the new arrivals.

"Pick up any useful tidbits, folks?" Farsto asked. "Have you solved our little mystery, perhaps?"

"No solution, I’m afraid, and we didn’t really learn anything that I couldn’t have told you all. Do you want the details?" Robpiel looked at the others in the room.

"Spare us!" begged Farsto. "If I had wanted to stare at the gory details, I’d have gone with you."

Lorite added his voice in agreement. "I want to be able to enjoy my lunch."

Robpiel smiled, obviously not surprised. "Thought not. The only thing I think you folks need to be told is that the Handler of the Dead estimated that the death happened around the sky’s dimmest; he was found about five or six hours later. There was a burn on his..."

"Thanks, but no thanks on the rest," Farsto interrupted. "Lorite is getting off color, and I’m feeling that way."

Tahmed rolled his eyes. "Look, the big thing is whether or not you’re convinced his death was an act of violence, and whether or not you have clear details on how he was killed."

"There’s no doubt about it being a violent assault that killed him," Robpiel asserted.

Before he could continue, Chekov butted in. "Would we have come back without the perpetrator if we knew the full details of the death, Tahmed?"

Olmac nodded. "Good point, Socath. Guess it’s time one of us started scrounging for more details. You got any other information, Enforcer?"

"Would Yanhus have had any enemies? Do we have any information on who he’d seen or talked to in the hours or days before his death?" Chekov asked.

Robpiel consulted a palm readout. "Yanhus was a loner, actually. Correct me if I’m wrong, Jonax, but that’s not unusual among Holders of the Hidden Knowledge, right?"

"It’s almost a requirement for the role," Jonax replied, clearly glad to be on something other than the details of Yanhus’ death.

"Good enough. He’d been in this area only about two or three weeks, not really doing much of anything other than wandering through the city, and enjoying the parks. Unfortunately, it looks like he’d have been safer enjoying something else." Robpiel shook his head. "That’s about all we know about him." Robpiel restored the readout to his belt pouch.

Several moments passed in silence. Chekov began to become frustrated. "Do you have any other information about this?"

"Not yet, at least not that you don’t know, anyhow. There’s a reason why we call this a Panel of Inquiry, Socath."

Frustration was clearly written on Chekov’s face. Knowing the answer in advance didn’t improve his attitude as he asked, "May I assume that finding out the rest is our job?"

Robpiel nodded. "Exactly. I’m just here to assist."

"Do I have to stay here?"

"Don’t be ridiculous, Socath. You’re stuck with us until this is solved. You know that as well as I do." It was Hefor speaking.

Chekov looked Hefor square in the face. "What makes you think I’d welch on a social responsibility? What I wanted to know was, can I go looking for evidence, or do I have to sit around here waiting for it to condescend to wander in to me?" The thought of a Romulan loose among the peaceful Lodahli didn’t make Chekov particularly happy about being trapped in a building.

Robpiel rescued the situation. "Most people are satisfied with guiding remote sensors and teams of Enforcers in the investigation, but if you want to go hunting yourself, it’s perfectly fine. I assume you want to do some investigation on your own?"

"How’d you guess?"

Robpiel smiled. "It’s written all over your face." He turned to the others. "How about it? Anyone else interested? Anyone want to pilot a mobile sensor?"

"I suppose I could pilot a sensor, but I’m not sure where to hunt," Lorite commented. "How about letting me loose at a readout, and letting me hunt the archives?"

"As you wish. The readout made available in your sleeping chamber will be given the needed access; you’ll probably want the quiet. Anyone else? Jonax, do you want to come along?"

"No."

No one else expressed any interest, which seemed odd to Chekov. "What’s with you folks? Am I the only one that wants to get this solved?"

The others looked at each other for a few moments before Tahmed broke the silence. "I’m every bit as anxious to get this solved as you are, Socath. However, it seems that you’re the sharpest wit among us. None of the rest of us realized that there hadn’t been bleeding from the wound, nor had any of us seen the significance of it. I think I speak for us all when I say that if any of us knows where to look, and what questions to ask, it’ll be you. Bring back what information you can find, and we’ll work with you on it."

The chief medical officer’s voice whispered to Chekov. "See what happens if you do things right? You get stuck doing more! If you’d just get over doing your job properly, you could end up goofing off as an admiral."

McCoy was obviously going to enjoy being able to talk without receiving any answer, Chekov decided. He hoped Gogin would keep the doctor at bay a little bit.

Chekov looked around at the others in the chamber. It was obvious that he had been de facto elected to deal with hunting for clues. He turned to Robpiel. "Well, why don’t we get going? Do we have anything better to do?"

Emkel’s laughter tinkled cheerfully. "I can think of lots of better things to do!" She mimed singing, pretended to dance to the music, then began inspecting her fingernails as if she were going to trim them.

Chekov looked at the Enforcer. "Shall we?"

Robpiel checked his wrist readout. "We’d better wait a while. It looks like the sky is almost at its brightest; you wouldn’t want to get heat stroke in those heavy robes, would you?"

Chekov looked around. The others had arranged for a table, and were sitting down for a quick lunch. Emkel was getting some laughs by miming the servitor putting the food and drink on the table, using exaggerated gestures and pretending to be revolted by handling the food. Jonax, as was his habit, was sitting off by himself. "What about a quiet lunch, then? Any chance we could plan out a little strategy over food?"

"I suppose. What would you like?"

"How about simple and plentiful?"

Robpiel keyed the request, smiling. "Easy enough. Looks like our tastes are pretty similar."

"Don’t great minds think alike?" The two pulled a couple of chairs over, and sat down. As the servitor delivered table and food, Chekov looked squarely at Robpiel. "Have you given any thought to a possible motive for the crime? What would cause someone to want Yanhus dead?"

Robpiel scratched his head. "That’s a good question, actually. The short length of time he was in the area wasn’t enough to really make any major enemies, as far as I can tell, and he was a pretty mild-mannered individual, from what the records show. Like most of his kind, he had little or nothing that others would envy or want to steal and, frankly, as unattached as the Holders of the Hidden Knowledge seem to be to the things of the world, I’d guess that anything he had that you wanted, he’d probably be willing to give to you. Well, except the Hidden Knowledge, whatever that is. As far as I can tell, no one cares about what it is, anyhow, except the Holders of it."

Chekov took a couple of swallows from the beverage on the table before him, dropping into thought for a few moments. "Did he have any hobbies, perhaps?"

"If he did, there is no record to indicate it. I’d already run that thought down, looking at his acquisition history in the archives. Other than an occasional book, his entire record is focused on buying food, beverage, lodging, and the like. He had severely ascetic tastes, frankly. He must have been a terribly boring person to talk to, if you ask me."

"Would you say that Jonax is the life of the party?"

"Point made. It’s probably something that comes with the role."

The two ate in silence for some time. Finally, as Chekov was finishing a large piece of what seemed to be a melon of some sort, he looked at Robpiel. "Think it’s safe to get out there and do some hunting?"

The Enforcer consulted the wrist readout again. "Probably, at least by the time that we get out there. It’ll take a few minutes to summon a flitter, unless you think walking’s the best way to travel."

"How far is it to the place where the body was found?"

"Probably an hour by foot, but a few minutes by flitter."

"How about taking a flitter, then, and heading to where the body was found? Will the site be undisturbed?"

"It should be. There hasn’t been any rain in the last couple of days, either, so things should be pretty fresh." The Enforcer tapped the control surface near him. "An open flitter will be at the door waiting for us. Let’s go."

After tracing a path through areas of the building Chekov didn’t recall seeing before, they emerged to find what looked like a Roman chariot without wheels, floating six or eight inches off the ground. Robpiel stepped into it, Chekov following suit. Under the Enforcer’s guidance, the flitter rose and moved off down the grassy streets, followed by a bevy of what Chekov assumed were recorders to photograph anything they found. Below, Chekov could see the buildings moving by, and people walking on their way to do some errand or other. Idly, he wondered what sort of errands might need running in a society where automatons seemed to cater to every need. Before he could do more than think the question, the flitter began to descend. Chekov recognized the area in front of them from the picture on the viewscreen. Only a few meters in front of the flitter was the bench near which Yanhus was found. "Does this thing have any headlights?"

"Yes. Why? I mean, it’s broad light out here, after all." Robpiel was obviously taken a bit aback by the question.

"Any way you can get some light across the area near the bench, so I can look for footprints?"

Robpiel nodded. "I get it; use the light at an angle to bring out any indentations. I feel like a fool for not having thought of it myself." The flitter dropped even lower, barely clearing the ground. Chekov hopped off, followed by the Enforcer. Robpiel fiddled with the controls for a moment. Suddenly, the flitter turned on its side, with the bright light on its front cutting across the ground at a shallow angle. "Will that do?"

"How can I tell unless I look?" Chekov got close to the ground, almost pressing one cheek into the dirt, looking into the light, seeking any hint of a shadow that might be present. Near the bench, he could clearly see the indentations where Yanhus’ body had been found. Robpiel joined him, taking the same posture. The two men slowly spiraled closer and closer to the bench, staring at the ground for any sign of footprints. Despite their slow, painstaking effort, nothing showed up. Finally, Chekov sat on the bench and scratched his chin.

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant," buzzed in Chekov’s ear. "This is Sezahn; Gogin is taking a break. I assume that you are looking for advice as to where to go from here. It is my deduction that the lack of footprints suggests that a flitter, such as yours, might be the means of transport to the site. Since the flitters are considered communal property, you may well be able to check for one having come through this area in the Lodahli archives."

Chekov’s slapped his hand against his forehead. Robpiel righted the flitter and brought it up to him. "Well, Socath, it looks like we didn’t learn anything. What’s on your mind now? Or are you just swatting a bug on your forehead?"

"Haven’t we learned that Yanhus’ body was carried here by something that left no marks on the ground? Is there any way you can look to see if there was a flitter that came through this area at around the right time?"

Robpiel bowed slightly. "You’d make an excellent Enforcer, you know it? But for once, I’m ahead of you. I checked that last night. There wasn’t a flitter in the area the whole night long. It’s almost as if the body dropped out of the sky."

"How likely is that, Robpiel?"

"Well, there were no long distance flights going over the area, either, if that’s what you’re hinting at. The area was apparently totally peaceful. Except, of course, for whatever it was that killed the man and dropped him here."

Chekov stared off into the distance. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by the wish that he could speak openly to Spock, to have the Enterprise scan the area. Knowing that the murder had been committed by a Romulan made Chekov suspect that there was a Romulan scoutship parked somewhere, maybe hovering at a dozen meters or so, definitely cloaked, and ready to come when its owner called. Try as he might, Chekov couldn’t think of any other way the body could have been dumped other than having been thrown out of the lock of the Romulan ship. Solving the murder would be simple, Chekov realized. All he had to do was find the only Romulan in a population of several billions. He shook his head.

"Any good thoughts, Socath?"

Chekov snapped out of his reverie. Before he could answer, he heard a deep throated rumble behind him. He turned. Slowly approaching them was one of the automated lawn maintenance vehicles. He hooked a thumb toward the approaching behemoth. "What about that machine?"

Robpiel stood up, looking at it. "What are you thinking?

"Did any grounds-keeping machines come past this area on the night of the murder? And did any of them register a malfunction?"

The Enforcer slapped Chekov on the back. "You’re right. There’s really no other possibility." He foraged in his belt pouch, producing a communicator. "Get me Tobah, please." There was a brief pause.

"Tobah here, Robpiel. What do you need?"

"Information on the grounds-keeping machines. Do you have my location?"

"Of course."

"I need you to do a little scrounging for me. Did any grounds-keeping machines come by here day before yesterday, between the dimmest of the night and an hour or so after brightening?"

"Yeah, a handful. Mowers, garbage collectors, that sort of thing. Why?"

"Any of them register a malfunction? Specifically, the kind that you’d expect from someone hitching a ride on it?"

There was a brief pause. Tobah’s voice finally came across the speaker. "Now that’s odd, because there was one that suddenly seemed to have returned to normal function exactly where you are. It was one of the ones that picks up stray papers and such, then incinerates them. What’s up?"

"Found a body right here. Does the collector in question have a ledge or a flange on it that would be big enough to hold a body?"

"Well, you’d have to lean it up against the incineration chamber, so it’d have a burn on it somewhere, but yeah, you could do it. You want to know where it started malfunctioning?"

Robpiel almost swallowed his ears with a smile. "I have a better idea. How about your tracking me until I get there?" Robpiel moved back to the flitter, and stepped aboard. Chekov followed suit.

"Can do! Move about heading two hundred seventy six degrees." The flitter began moving slowly forward. "Okay, keep going. You should see a large open area just in front of you, with a couple of clumps of bushes between you and a small stream. Got it?"

"I have."

"The nearer bunch of bushes, the clump with..." There was a brief silence. "Looks like it’d have some red flowering going on it. See anything like that?"

"Red flowers. I see it. Go on."

"Well, it was close to that bush that the machine began its malfunction. Anything else you need?"

"Tobah, you’ve helped more than you know."

Chekov twitched Robpiel’s sleeve. "Hey, is there anywhere the sensor inputs from those machines are stored? Don’t they have sensors to keep from ramming into things, and for recognizing things that need to be picked up?"

"Yeah, they do, whoever you are," Tobah’s voice responded. "But they’re pretty crude. You’re not going to get much from that source, especially since the memories tend to self-wipe every few hours. You’re out of luck. Anything else?"

Robpiel looked at Chekov, who shook his head. "I guess not, Tobah. Hey, thanks, thanks a lot. I owe you one."

"Later, Robpiel."

Chekov hopped off the flitter. "Can you do the trick with this thing again, and get me some cross-lighting?"

Robpiel dismounted and repeated the performance of earlier in the morning. As the two men began examining the ground, a mixed message of footprints began to emerge. The Enforcer pulled another device out of his pocket. "Just summoning tools to make a permanent record of this." Within minutes, what was obviously an airborne photographic squadron convened on the area, making recordings from multiple angles. One slowly swept to and fro over the area, obviously making a detailed record. Once they were done, Chekov and Robpiel entered the area.

"Lieutenant," Sezahn’s voice buzzed, "I have taken the data and had it run through the Enterprise’s computers. There are two distinct sets of footprints; one was an individual smaller and slighter than you. It is this one whose tracks suddenly disappear. The other set is about your size, or a little larger. Those tracks lead off to a stream nearby. Implicitly, those would be the tracks of the killer; the smaller would be the tracks of the victim. The pattern looks like there was a brief, but violent scuffle, whose outcome you already know."

Based on the information Sezahn had offered, Chekov walked up to one of the clearest of the large prints. He planted his own foot next to it. "Wouldn’t you say that the person making these prints was close to my size?"

"Yes, or maybe a tad taller. Try stepping to the next print, will you?"

Chekov obeyed. The stride was almost exactly the same as his own.

"Any chance you can get a comparison between the smaller prints and Yanhus’ feet?"

"Oh, I’m sure I can sweet talk Bowil into doing a formal comparison for me, but I’m about the same size and build. Let’s do it the quick and easy way." Robpiel found a couple of the smaller prints, and stepped from one to the other. "Fits me like a glove. No guarantee, of course, but it’s pretty certain that these are Yanhus’ footprints. And you’re standing in the murderer’s footprints."

Suddenly uneasy, Chekov stepped off the prints. Chekov could feel Robpiel’s eyes locked on him. "Interesting, isn’t it, that you’ve had so many useful insights into Yanhus’ death. It’s almost as if you were there."

Chekov was taken aback by the remark. "Would I have ended up on the Panel of Inquiry of a murder I’d committed?"

"Why not? It wouldn’t be too hard to arrange, after all, and might be advantageous. You could keep the suspicion off yourself easily, you know. You could lead us up false trails to the point that it was declared beyond solution."

Chekov shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Would I have led you to the scene of the murder?"

Robpiel sighed. "No, I guess not. And frankly, if I’m any judge of character, you’re not the type to kill someone else, unless it was a kill-or-be-killed situation." Chekov relaxed as the Enforcer added, "Is there anything else in this area you want to check?"

"How closely did your machines check the bushes?"

"I’m not sure."

"Hadn’t we better look?" Chekov moved toward the small copse. A few of the branches were broken; some stained with a dark red, almost black material. Others were stained by an equally dark green. "Can you get a shot of this, Robpiel?" Chekov pointed.

Robpiel moved close to where Chekov was pointing. "Jonax isn’t going to like this, Socath. I’ll make a record, but we may have to keep it hidden."

"What’s more important, finding the killer or keeping Jonax happy?"

"Both, frankly. Would you move back? There seem to be footprints behind the bush, too. Yanhus’ prints, I think." The floating recorders swarmed the area for a few moments, then retreated.

"Any conclusions, Robpiel?"

The Enforcer stood, thinking. After a few moments, he inspected the tracks again. "Well, here’s how I read it. The killer had to be the bigger tracks because here," he pointed to a large dent in the ground, highlighted by the tangential lighting provided by the flitter, "near where it looks like Yanhus hit the ground, the bigger prints change: they’re a little deeper, and the width of the gait is wider. I expect that’s where the killer picked up the body trying to carry it off. There," Robpiel pointed to another place in the trail of prints, "is where I’d guess he put the body on the trash collector. The tracks disappear, off in that direction." He pointed to the stream. "Probably walked up the stream until he could get out without leaving any further tracks. Following the tracks to the source probably won’t help any; they probably appear out of nowhere. This killer knows the tricks, no doubt about it. I’ll go over the record more formally tonight, and confirm my suspicions, "

"Can you think of anything else we can learn here, then?" Chekov’s left hand rubbed his chin as he spoke.

Sezahn’s voice buzzed gently. "I believe you have exhausted the scene, Lieutenant."

Chekov wiped his brow.

"I guess not, unless you know how to make the soil and trees tell us what they saw," Robpiel said, almost looking like he half believed Chekov could find a way to do it.

"Would I have fiddled around with footprints and such if I could?"

"Good point. Back to the rest of the panel."

*****

Returning to the room they had left earlier in the day almost felt like returning home to Chekov. As they entered the room, Chekov noticed Lorite had disappeared, presumably into his cubicle to hunt the archives. Jonax, as appeared to be his habit, was seated by himself, watching the others. Tahmed, Hefor, Farsto, Olmac and Emkel were deeply involved in what looked like a card game. Everyone’s eyes turned to Chekov and Robpiel as they entered.

"I’ll get Lorite," Hefor offered. "I’d guess he’d like to hear what you’ve learned, and I, for one, would like to know what he’s learning out of the archives." He disappeared into the hall leading to the sleeping cubicles. The others cleared the table. Chekov sat in the first open chair, between Emkel and Olmac.

"You’ll be thirsty, man," Olmac asserted. "Hungry, too. Here, try some of this." He reached for a pitcher that had been sitting on the table, and for an empty glass.

"Be cautious, Lieutenant," Sezahn’s voice buzzed. "The beverage appears to contain ethanol. It is doubtlessly intoxicating."

Chekov smiled at Olmac. "Would you mind if I just stuck to water?" Chekov tapped on a control pad, thankful for Sezahn’s warning.

Jonax joined the group at the table just as Lorite and Hefor returned to the room. "Perhaps Socath would rather rest for a while. It is late enough in the day that I do not feel the need to proceed further with the inquiry." Jonax’s words were those of an expressed opinion, but the tone was that of a command. "I would be interested, however, in hearing how you were proceeding, Lorite."

"I can’t say I’ve achieved a lot. I was thinking that I might find some evidence of the murderer inappropriately hoarding resources for some reason, or perhaps being involved in some forbidden activity. I struck out there, but I’ve turned up one anomaly. There is one resource use record of a middle-aged adult that has had virtually no activity up until a week or two ago. Of course, I’ve no idea as to the person’s identity--Robpiel gave me broad access, but it didn’t extend to knowing folk’s names. Whether or not that has anything to do with the murder, I don’t know, but the person’s current activity is pretty much limited to this area. Other than that, I haven’t achieved a thing. I’ve got a few other things I need to check out, though, especially about that anomalous record."

"Tell you what, Lorite," Robpiel said, "Tomorrow morning, we check into the exact name; you can try to finish off whatever checking you want to do between then and now. As for Socath and I, we picked up some useful information; we found out that Yanhus fell off a trash collection and incineration servitor. I’m going to check things out with the Handler of the Dead, but I’ll bet the burn on the body is exactly what we’d expect from being up against the machine’s incineration module. We’ve also found the site where the murder was committed. Based on the footprints we found there, we figure that the murderer was about Socath's or Tahmed’s size, give or take a bit, and probably weighed a bit more than you, Lorite, but less than Olmac. That’s not a lot of help, but it gives us something."

Jonax turned to face Robpiel. "Very well. Let us adjourn for the day, then, and let you and Lorite return to your various researches." Jonax turned to Chekov. "I suppose the others would prefer to return to their little tournament. Would you care to join me for a quiet supper, Socath?" Again, Jonax’s voice made it clear that his request was a command.

"Why not? Your cubicle or mine?"

Emkel tittered, and pretended to be horrified at the suggestion.

"Mine," Jonax responded, giving Emkel a sharp look that totally failed to suppress her antics. The two left the main chamber and headed down the hallway.

Once they were in Jonax’s cubicle, the Holder of Hidden Knowledge keyed in a request for a meal. "I hope you don’t mind simple fare, Socath; I’ve ordered breads, cheeses and fruit, with just water to drink. Stomach isn’t as tough as it used to be, and it’s about all I can handle."

"Isn’t simple fare the most satisfying? But I doubt you took the time to get me away from the others just to discuss food, so what’s on your mind?"

"Actually, I was wondering if you and Robpiel found any more of the green material at the site of the murder. All things considered, I didn’t feel like asking about it in front of the rest."

Chekov took a glass from the servitor that was setting out the food and took a deep drink, then planted himself firmly in a chair. "Will you forgive me for being a bit uncertain, without getting a formal report from the Handler of the Dead?" Answering with nothing but questions was becoming inconvenient.

"Of course; without a detailed analysis you should be a little doubtful. Did you?"

"Would you believe there was both the green stuff, and what looked like Yanhus’ blood as well?"

There was silence while Jonax chewed on a bit of cheese as he digested the information. "Did the scene show signs of a fight? Could you tell who it was that started the fight?"

Chekov reached for what looked like a slice of cantaloupe, using the time it took to eat it to think out a reply. "Would it surprise you if I said there was, and that it almost looked to me like Yanhus had started it?"

Jonax leaned forward, cupping his forehead in one hand, almost as if he were in pain. After several uncomfortable minutes, Chekov broke the silence.

"Are you all right, Jonax?"

His head lifted out of his hand. "Oh, I’m not ill, not at all. I was just, ah, lost in thought." By the look on Jonax’s face, Chekov was sure there was more of an inner struggle going on than Jonax was admitting.

"If it’s not prying into areas I shouldn’t know about, why would a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge attack someone?"

"Only one reason, Socath. To keep the Hidden Knowledge hidden, until the time comes that it is safe to reveal it." Jonax sighed, a wave of tiredness washing across his face and his body hunching downward a little. "Before I became a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge, I was a Seeker of Thrills and Laughter, like Emkel, you know? I loved it, especially making the children laugh. Best of all was when the children would come running up to me and hug me after I was done performing, and tell me how wonderful they thought I was. Folks would be glad to see me coming. Now, well, most folks are about a half afraid of me, and the children avoid me. Some folks actively hate me, just because I’m a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge, like Olmac seems to." Jonax sighed. "I miss the children’s laughter, Socath."

"Why are you telling me this, Jonax? And if you enjoyed being a Seeker of Thrills and Laughter so much, why did you become a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge?"

"There wasn’t much choice, really. I stumbled on something, long years ago, something I should never have been allowed to see. Marlu, a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge that lived near me at the time, found out about it. As it turns out, I’d stumbled across a bit of the Hidden Knowledge. It was a case of join their ranks, or be executed."

"Again, why are you telling me this?"

"Just a word of warning, I guess. You may face the same decision, Socath. So may Robpiel. If you share too much information with the others, they may, too." Jonax stood. "I guess that’s all I really needed. You can go back to your sleeping cubicle." Jonax opened the door. Chekov took the hint and left, to return to his own quarters.

As he returned to his quarters, Chekov found Olmac in the hallway, obviously waiting. "Socath, care to spare me a minute? In privacy?"

"Why not?" Chekov opened his cubicle, and stepped in. "Care for a chair?"

Olmac seated himself near the small table in the cubicle. Chekov joined him. "Look, Socath, watch that Jonax fellow."

"Why? Is he particularly interesting?"

"He’s one of those Holders of the Hidden Knowledge. Don’t like ‘em myself, and I don’t trust ‘em. Killers, the lot of ‘em, that’s my thought, and always butting in where they’ve no business being. Bunch of annoying busybodies, that’s what they are. Frankly, I’m glad someone killed this Yanhus fellow. Let ‘em have a taste of their own medicine. Hope several more get killed. It’d be just fine if they were all wiped out, for all of me."

"Are you trying to help me understand why you’ve been so obviously avoiding him, or do you have some other reason for telling me this?" Olmac was making Chekov decidedly uncomfortable.

"Just reminding you of the obvious. With Jonax getting all chummy with you, I thought I’d warn you, that’s all. Wish we were rid of the lot of them."

"Have you ever noticed that when someone feels it necessary to state the obvious, there’s usually a reason that’s not so obvious that causes them to do it?"

"Meanin’ I’ve got an ulterior motive, right?" Olmac’s voice had taken a somewhat annoyed tone.

"Do you? Is there a reason why you’re so obvious in your hatred of the Holders of the Hidden Knowledge? Have you got some sort of grudge against them, or a personal vendetta?"

Olmac was silent for a few moments. "Guess I’ve got a grudge, and a bit of a vendetta. My older brother, Enfer, he was the bright one of the four of us. Atmospheric physicist, actually, specializing in the plasma layer at the top of the atmosphere. He’d heard the legend of the Pillars of Fire that are supposed to exist at the world’s magnetic poles. Now, for my part, that’s all myth. It’s not like anyone goes up there to know. Anyhow, Enfer, he worked out this theory that they had to exist, and figured that if he could just get to them, they might not quite reach the ground, and maybe he could get a peek at whatever existed on the other side of the plasma wall. Six folk went--Enfer, four of his colleagues, and a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge named Filmel. Only Filmel came back. He gave some cockeyed story about the rest of ‘em getting too close to the plasma layer, and getting electrocuted by a lightening bolt. Only reason he survived was that he didn’t go that close. Me, I didn’t believe it at all. I think he murdered the lot of ‘em. He was never right afterward, anyhow, and was found dead a week or two later. I heard it was suicide, but I bet that his fellow Holders killed him."

"Do you have any proof, Olmac?"

"Nothing I dare let be known. Just some half damaged notes Enfer left, talking about the end of the Pillar of Fire, and Filmel being remarkably upset about what he’d found. Don’t understand most of it; Enfer sounded like he’d lost his mind when he was writing it."

Chekov heard Sezahn’s voice. "The plasma layer comes down to less than a kilometer of the surface, Lieutenant, in a modified hyperboloid cylinder. There is an opening of several hundred meters diameter, through which it is possible to see the stars. I conjecture that seeing the depths of space would be enough to destabilize a Lodhali’s mind."

Chekov scratched his forehead. "May I express my gratitude for your kindness in telling me this? Do you have anything more you feel I need to know?"

"Guess not, Socath. Just keep your door locked, and watch Jonax, that’s all." Olmac left the cubicle. Chekov made a point of locking his door, unsure whether he was more afraid of Jonax or Olmac.

*****

When Sezahn relieved Gogin, and assumed responsibility for watching the inputs from Chekov’s medallion, Spock decided that his fellow Vulcan could manage well enough on his own. He entered a turbolift. "Bridge," Spock requested, when the door slid shut. With Chekov being on the Panel of Inquiry, it looked like the Enterprise was likely to be in orbit around Lodahl for a long period of time, and Spock had decided to suggest to the captain that he order a full check of every system on the Enterprise performed. It had been too long, in Spock’s opinion, since it had been done, and it was an excellent way to keep the crew from becoming too idle. Spock remembered only too well how prone Humans were to finding trouble to get into if they were not kept busy.

Almost as if to answer his thought, Spock heard the intercom blaring, "Mister Spock to Rec Deck! Emergency, involving civilians on board!"

Spock’s reaction was immediate. "Emergency override! Rec Deck." Spock triggered the wall communicator, bracing himself against the sudden acceleration of the turbolift. "Security, four to the Rec Deck, phasers on stun. Sickbay, team to Rec Deck, with full resources for Tellarites and Andorians." A swift calculation convinced Spock he would arrive at the area a full two and a half minutes before the security team, and a little over four before the medical team. The turbolift door opened, almost directly across from the entrance to the recreation area. As he strode forward, Spock could see Gogin, suspended in the air by p’Kaso, p’Kaso’s hand around Gogin’s throat. Gogin was trying to pry himself free, but with little success. The few members of the crew present were standing at a respectful distance, obviously unsure how to handle the situation; p’Kaso was clearly furious, and the strength of an angry Andorian was nothing anyone wished to face. "p’Kaso, release Gogin immediately," Spock commanded, levelly but firmly.

"I will not. He has insulted my family’s honor."

Spock’s eyebrow raised slightly. "I doubt that he has impugned your family’s honor nearly as much as you will tarnish it by killing an innocent being, p’Kaso. Put him down."

"No!"

Spock noticed that Gogin’s struggles were becoming feebler. His hand went to his phaser, his thumb setting it to stun before he lifted it. "Do not force me to use my phaser, p’Kaso."

"You wouldn’t dare. Starfleet would bob your stupid pointed ears for it."

Kirk arrived on the scene just as p’Kaso made his remark. "Vulcans don’t make threats, p’Kaso. They give warnings. Have you forgotten what you wrote in your own paper on starship culture? ‘Like the captain of a tall ship of the Terran 18th century, the captain of a starship is the absolute authority on the vessel after it has left port, being answerable only when the ship docks again. This authority extends even to the life and death of all those on the ship.’ Mister Spock, you have my full permission to stun p’Kaso if he doesn’t release Gogin."

The phaser in Spock’s hand pointed at p’Kaso. "Drop him. Now."

p’Kaso released his grip on the Tellarite, who collapsed in a heap on the floor, just as the security team arrived. In response to a gesture with Spock’s phaser, p’Kaso stepped away from Gogin.

Kirk turned to the security team. "Confine p’Kaso to his quarters until further notice."

Spock knelt next to Gogin, checking his carotid pulse. Gogin’s skin was turning back to its usual shade of pink, and the pulse was strong. When the medical team arrived, Spock stood up, allowing the medical team to reach the Tellarite.

"If Gogin has been injured, p’Kaso, you will face a Starfleet tribunal," Kirk warned p’Kaso.

"Oh, don’t be a bore, Kirk. And get these butchers off of me." The voice was Gogin’s.

Spock turned to face the Tellarite, who was swiftly returning to an upright posture. "Your recovery, Gogin, is unexpectedly swift."

"I was never in any danger. p’Kaso wished to do a little first hand observation of how a Starfleet crew handled an emergency situation. It was all staged."

Kirk turned to p’Kaso. "Is this true?"

"Yes. Starship social structures are one of my specialties, you know. I thought that it would be remarkably useful to get first hand information." He turned to face Spock. "You are a scientist, too. I’m sure you understand." p’Kaso’s voice had a distinctly conciliatory, if not wheedling, tone.

The Vulcan remained impassive.

Kirk’s voice, however, was tinged with anger. "You also understand that I cannot tolerate further...experiments of this nature. You will not be permitted to disrupt the ship’s function. I will not confine you to your quarters at this time, but any further such activities will see you both in the brig. Is that clear?"

p’Kaso and Gogin both registered disappointment and mutely signaled acknowledgment, each in his own way.

"However," Kirk continued, "I think you might find the engineering deck interesting." He reached for a wall communicator. "Engineering."

"Scotty here, Captain. I’m glad ye’ve called. I’ve been doing some routine checkin’ on the ship’s systems and found a thing or two that I’ll be needing to talk to you and Mister Spock about, in private, at your first opportunity."

"Very well. Mister Scott, I believe it has been several weeks since the engineering crew has faced one of your simulated emergencies."

"Aye, Captain; it’s been ten, maybe twelve weeks. Would ye be thinking it’s a good time to be doing such a thing?"

"Perhaps so. Gogin and p’Kaso were interested in seeing the warp engine room. p’Kaso is an authority on starship social structures, and they would be most interested in seeing how your team functions on a routine basis."

"Aye, sir. I think I understand yer meanin’. Could they be down here in about an hour or so? I’ve been a wee bit worried about a couple areas here."

Kirk turned to the two sociologists. Both signaled agreement. "I believe so, Mister Scott. If you could give them the grand tour?"

"That I could. Would ye be able to spare me a moment or two before the tour?"

"I shall be down immediately."

"Good. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you, and in an hour or so, yon sociologists. Engineering out."

Kirk turned to Gogin and p’Kaso. "I suggest that you make any preparations for observing the emergency in Engineering, and report to the Engineering Deck in the next hour or less."

"A simulated crisis wasn’t what we had in mind," p’Kaso commented.

"With Mister Scott overseeing simulation, it is extremely unlikely that you will be bored. He is known for stressing the Engineering crew to their limits, to be sure that they can handle real emergencies." Kirk and Spock turned, and entered the turbolift. "Engineering."

Moments later, they both stepped out of the turbolift into Engineering.

"Ah, Captain, Mister Spock, thanks for droppin’ in on short notice. I’ve a wee problem I’d like ye to take a peep at," Scott burred. He led the Vulcan to a readout. "What would ye make of this?"

Spock studied the screen for a moment. "It appears that someone on the Enterprise has established a tight beam communication with someone on the surface of the planet. The modulation is definitely distinct from what we are using to communicate with Lieutenant Chekov. Considering that Doctor McCoy is of the opinion that the victim whose murder Lieutenant Chekov is trapped into investigating was killed by a Romulan, it raises the suspicion of a Romulan spy on the Enterprise."

"Aye, Spock. An’ the most likely candidates would be yon sociologists, d’ye not think?"

Spock nodded. "Indeed. Sezahn, however, I know personally from Vulcan; it would be either Gogin or p’Kaso that I would suspect."

The Scotsman nodded in return. "Ye might ought to let Chekov know about this."

"I shall do so this evening. Please see to it that Gogin and p’Kaso will be too tired to take observation duty tonight."

"Wi’ pleasure, Mister Spock!"

Kirk noted Scott’s grin, and deduced that it boded nothing pleasant either for the sociologists, or for the Engineering Crew. "Thanks, Scotty. Is there anything else?"

"I don’t believe so, sir. Unless ye’d mind assistin’ in our wee demonstration for the sociologists."

"I won’t be in the way?"

"I’ll see to it, Captain." Scott grinned more broadly than before. "Ye can join us, and keep an eye on the pair of ‘em."

"I assume, Mister Scott, that you will not be needing my assistance," Spock suggested.

"Ye’re welcome to get on with whatever ye had in mind before I interrupted ye, Mister Spock. Thanks for comin’ down wi’ the captain."

"You are most welcome, Mister Scott." The Vulcan stepped into the turbolift. "Bridge." Within a few moments, the doors of the turbolift opened on the Enterprise’s bridge. As Spock stepped out, Lieutenant Commander Hikaru Sulu stood.

"Will you be taking the helm, Commander?"

"No, Mister Sulu. I will be at the library-computer console exclusively."

Sulu nodded. "Very well, sir." Gratefully, Sulu settled back into the captain’s chair, as Spock slid into his accustomed position at the science console. Lodahl’s intense ionization layer was a distinct impediment to scanning the surface, but Spock had a sharp idea of what he was seeking, and roughly where he expected to find it. Finally, after only about an hour’s effort of penetrating the ionized atmosphere, he located what he sought: the neutrino scatter from a cloaked Romulan scoutship.

A few moments more of checking confirmed what Spock had already deduced; the scoutship was only a short distance away from where the murder had occurred, hovering a few hundred meters above the ground. He looked at the time, and did a quick calculation. Chekov would likely be returning to his sleeping chamber soon, Spock decided, and would be more easily contacted. He cleared the console. "Mister Sulu?"

"Yes, Mister Spock?"

"I will be relieving Sezahn shortly. If you need me, I will be available."

"Thank you, sir."

Spock stepped into the turbolift again.

*****

Gogin and p’Kaso made a brief trip to their quarters, and arrived in Engineering, looking forward to watching the engineering crew handle a staged emergency. When the turbolift door slid open, Kirk and Scott greeted them.

"Welcome t’Engineerin’ gentle beings. We’ll be stagin’ the emergency for ye shortly. In the interim, I’ll show ye a thing or two." Scott ushered the pair down a short corridor and through the door into a railed balcony overlooking a large room, full of people engaged in assorted tasks. He scanned the room, obviously looking for someone that was not in evidence. "T’Vann!" Scott shouted, "Lieutenant, could you come here a moment?"

A young Vulcan female left a console and joined the foursome. "Yes, Mister Scott?"

"Where’s Gabler? I was expectin’ to meet him here."

"He became concerned about the apparent, anomalous rise in density of larger particles impacting the hull. Given the expected clarity of the area, he was concerned that there was a malfunction in the deflection fields. He has gone extravehicular to inspect directly."

Scott nodded his approval. "Good enough. We’re here to watch the simulated disaster drill, T’Vann. Did Gabler leave instructions?"

"Yes, Mister Scott. On your order."

"Shall we begin the drill, then?"

"Excuse me, Mister Scott, T’Vann, but before you start the drill," Gogin interrupted, "Are we in any danger? I mean, if there is an increased amount of material impacting the hull, aren’t we facing a substantial risk of the hull being breached?"

"It is most improbable, sir," T’Vann responded before Scott could answer. "The majority of the asteroidal material is made of iron and nickel. The magnetic deflection system will divert it from the hull without difficulty. The small proportion of silicate and chondritic material is generally barely larger than dust. The trititanium hull will handle an impact from such material without sustaining damage."

"Still, silicate and chondritic debris can be far larger, can’t it?" Kirk asked. "Fist sized to mountain sized isn’t all that rare, as I recall it."

"And aren’t we awfully close to the hull?" p’Kaso demanded.

"Yon wall is all that lies between us and hard vacuum," Scott responded cheerfully, pointing to the ceiling arched high above them. "But she’s two layers of trititanium, reinforced with a transparent aluminum honeycomb sandwiched in between. In the rare event of a large chondrite impactin’, the honeycomb would reduce the thing to powder. It’d take something larger than my head to breach the hull an’ not be totally powdered."

"Furthermore, such an event would be remarkably improbable," T’Vann continued. "There is less than one chance in a hundred billion that a chondrite or a silicate asteroid of a size large enough to penetrate the hull would hit the Enterprise, and even less chance that it would depressurize a compartment."

"If you are ready, can we commence the simulated emergency?" Kirk asked.

p’Kaso looked at Gogin. Both nodded.

Scott turned to T’Vann. "Initiate the simulated emergency, then."

T’Vann nodded and walked to a console. "Now hear this. Simulated emergency drill initiating. Failure of antimatter containment. Initiate response."

From their slightly elevated vantage point, p’Kaso and Gogin watched the engineering crew begin moving to their stations, calmly taking the steps they would have had to take had there been a real emergency. p’Kaso looked over at Gogin. "Not very informative, is it?"

Gogin shook his head. "Hardly worth watching. I’ve seen simulations like this before; there really isn’t anything much to learn." He turned to the Chief Engineer. "Mister Scott..."

Gogin’s voice was interrupted by a loud klaxon followed by an automated voice. "Impending hull impact! Half meter diameter silicate, approaching Engineering at high speed. Breach precautions!"

Suddenly, Scott was all business. "Impending breach!" he bellowed at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs. "Civilians on deck! T’Vann! Richardson! Initiate protective procedures for non-Engineering personnel! The rest of you get yourselves into your..." In the domed ceiling, about a hundred meters away from where Scott and the sociologists were standing, there was a blinding flash as a fast moving object perforated the hull and exploded into hundreds of pieces, some of which hit other areas of the engineering deck. Over a dozen secondary impacts occurred, setting off a deafening barrage of alarms announcing damage and destruction to multiple critical systems, the loudest of which announced "Hull breach! Depressurization occurring! Emergency precautions!" Almost before the shriek of air exiting through the fist sized hole and the pressure bulkheads slamming shut became audible, T’Vann had a pressure hood over her head, and was unfolding an emergency bubble. Kirk and Scott were likewise donning emergency breathing gear. Richardson was leaping up the stairs three at a time carrying a second one. p’Kaso and Gogin were clearly on the verge of panic.

Scott grabbed Gogin by the arm. "Into the bubble. We’re losin’ pressure."

"I can’t. I’m claustrophobic. I’ll suffocate in that..." T’Vann reached forward to help the Tellarite enter the bubble. Gogin resisted.

Scott grabbed the edge of the protective bubble before Gogin knocked it over the side of the catwalk. "Get in, d’ye hear me? I’m an Engineer; I can breathe a vacuum for two minutes an’ not notice, but ye’re nothin’ more than a civilian. Ye’ll pop like a soap bubble, an’ that’s for sure. Now get in."

Gogin was clearly not going to cooperate. T’Vann looked over at Kirk and Richardson. p’Kaso was already safely cocooned in his bubble. She turned to Gogin, who had begun to flail in panic. Without warning, her hand flashed forward. Unable to position her hand for a Vulcan nerve pinch, she took second best and hit Gogin square in the mid abdomen, doubling him over. Before the Tellarite could catch his breath, she and Scott had him in the bubble and sealed the hatch. It inflated rapidly, cocooning him in a clear envelope.

Down below, the engineering crew had donned their pressure suits, and were moving in a swift ballet aimed at closing the breach in the hull, and stabilizing the ship’s function while the damaged subsystems were repaired. T’Vann, Richardson and Kirk donned their suits as quickly as they could, and Richardson hurried down to the deck.

Scott closed the final seal on his suit, and turned to the sociologists, both of whom were obviously terrified. "Ye wanted to see how we handled an emergency, did ye? It looks like ye’ll get your wish, doesn’t it? One of these days, ye’ll learn what my Granny always told me: Be careful what ye ask for, ye just might get it."

As Kirk tethered the bubbles to the railing, Scott vaulted over the side of the catwalk, shouting orders into the communicator in his suit. "If the gravity isn’t off before I hit the floor, the lot o’ ye are going to spend the rest of your miserable careers tendin’ the engines of garbage scows! An’ if there aren’t four of ye gettin’ a hull patch in place ninety seconds after I hit the floor, all of your miserable hides will be adorning the wall o’ my office. Move!"

As the captain protectively stood by, overseeing them, the two sociologists watched in horrified fascination as the engineering crew began to function almost as if they were a single organism, obeying Scott’s shouted orders, addressing the multitude of problems that had arisen.

*****

Chekov returned to his cubicle, realizing that he was more tired than he thought. "Sezahn," Chekov announced, "I’m going to take a shower and get some sleep. You can take a break if you need one."

"Your consideration in telling me is most appreciated, Lieutenant, but I will be relieved shortly. Spock indicated he would assume responsibility for a while."

"Are the other two ill?"

"No. Apparently p’Kaso and Gogin wished to observe how the crew of the Enterprise would handle an emergent situation, and Spock prevailed upon Mister Scott to provide an opportunity for them. I understand that the experience was exhausting."

Chekov chuckled. Chief Engineer Scott’s simulated crises were legendary, and invariably exhausting for all involved. He wondered what the chief engineer had pulled this time. "I’ll bet that pair won’t be asking to see another one of Scott’s shakedowns. I’m heading for that shower."

***

Barely less than an hour later, Chekov emerged from the shower, feeling much refreshed and thoroughly impressed with the assorted amenities the Lodahli shower offered. He wondered how difficult it would be for Scott to rig one or two of them on the Enterprise, especially the ones that shaved his face and trimmed his hair. Before he was able to pursue the thought, Spock’s voice interrupted it.

"Lieutenant, we have a minor problem."

"Sezahn told me that Mister Scott tired Gogin and p’Kaso out." Chekov shut off the room lights and lay down on his bed as he spoke. "After the grilling they put me through, I can’t say I’m as sympathetic as I guess I should be. What did he do, anyhow?"

"He had Gabler detonate a small charge on the Engineering hull, perforating it. Gabler then fired a silicate asteroid into the Engineering Deck through the breach. I am told that Gogin and p’Kaso were thoroughly terrified, and feel they have learned more than enough about how Starfleet personnel handle crises. Unfortunately, there is another, more important issue. Mister Scott detected a tight beam from the Enterprise to the surface; it appears to be communicating with someone in your general vicinity. I scanned the area where the Lodahli was murdered, and have identified a cloaked Romulan scoutship hovering in the area."

"Great. We’ve got a homicidal Romulan loose down here, with a disguised Romulan or a Romulan spy on the Enterprise. And here I am, the ship’s chief of security, trapped here where I can’t be mingling with folks so this little medallion can scan people to see if they’re the Romulan we’re hunting for. Bozhe moi."

"Unfortunately, Lieutenant, that would not help. Mister Scott had to sacrifice some precision in general scanning to allow it to identify food and beverage that might contain potentially toxic, irritating or intoxicating substances. The medallion’s scanning ability cannot image the anatomy of a being’s internal organs."

"Oh, well, I guess that would have been too easy. Have you been able to make any progress on finding the Romulan on the Enterprise?"

"Not as yet, Lieutenant. As you intimated, it is entirely possible that it is a non-Romulan in the pay of the Romulans, which would complicate matters quite considerably. Mister Scott is continuing to make attempts to trace the source, but he will have to await further transmissions to do so."

"At least we’ve got a reasonable guess at the motive for the murder. Given the evidence of the prints on the ground today, I’d guess that poor Yanhus had the misfortune of seeing the Romulan appear out of nowhere, either by stepping out of the cloaking field or being transported down from the scoutship. Killing Yanhus was probably the fastest solution to preserving his..."

"Lieutenant," Spock interrupted with some urgency, "You need to be silent. It sounds like someone is attempting to pick the lock to your door, and enter your quarters." Chekov rubbed his forehead in acknowledgment, then scratched his chin hoping Spock would understand it as a request for a commentary on the status of his nocturnal visitor. Thankfully, Chekov heard Spock continue. "Your door has been opened, Lieutenant. The entity is moving toward you. Separation, three meters. Two meters. One and a half meters, one meter... Lieutenant, I believe some response is indicated immediately; the intruder is reaching for your face."

Chekov sat up abruptly, turning on the room lights as he did, leaping out of his bed. Without thinking, he dropped into a defensive posture, facing the intruder, ready to do battle. Before him stood the clown, Emkel. In the instant before she swept her ungloved hand behind her, Chekov caught a glimpse of it. Rather than the Lodahli yellow, it appeared an off green.

As Chekov looked at her, he realized that she was close to his height, that her loose fitting clown suit effectively hid her build. She could easily have been the source of the larger set of prints. Warily, Chekov stepped back, straightening out of his defensive posture. The two stared at each other uncomfortably for a moment or two before Chekov broke the silence. "Are you confused as to which room is your own, Emkel?"

"No. I just wanted some time alone with you."

Chekov gestured at one of the chairs. Emkel sat down; Chekov pointedly sat across the table. When her hand reappeared on the table, he noticed it was gloved. "Don’t you think that picking the lock on my door is a bit on the forward side, Emkel? Have you forgotten that I’m a Seeker of Wisdom, and therefore celibate?"

"I had not forgotten, Socath. Not all Seekers keep their commitment to celibacy, you know. Most of them are dissolute drunkards, as well as being sexually profligate. You’re an interesting exception."

"Does that bother you?"

"Actually, it is rather refreshing. You have a sharp wit; noticing the lack of bleeding from the wound was marvelous. Now, you seem to have tracked your way back to the site of the actual murder. You have no interest in alcohol--you turned Olmac and his wine down flat. You are altogether unusual, but pleasantly so. I appreciate that, and wanted to express it, privately."

"May I express my gratitude? Did you have anything else on your mind?"

Emkel shifted in her chair, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "I suppose not. Perhaps I should go, now."

"Would you join me for breakfast tomorrow?" Chekov was unsure why he made the offer, given what he’d seen, but it was too late to retract it.

Emkel giggled, obviously at ease again. "Like I have any choice! But yes, I shall. Be awake early, and we can share food and conversation in the great room before the rest are stirring. I’ll let you get your beauty sleep, now!"

"Do you think I can get enough of that to do me any good?"

Emkel winked playfully. "Not if you stay awake chattering, silly. Sleep well!" She slipped out the door, closing it behind her.

Chekov walked over to the door, and made sure it was locked tightly. "I wonder how many other nocturnal visits I should expect?" Chekov returned to his bed, doused the lights and lay down again. "Please wake me if anyone else decides to pay me a visit, Mister Spock. Sleeping’s going to be tough enough without knowing you’re going to be watching."

"I will be watching, Lieutenant. Spakoyanoche, Pavel Andrievich."

"Spasebaw, and a quiet night to you, too, Mister Spock. One last thing. Lorite found a record that had only a couple of weeks worth of transactions. It wasn’t me was it?"

"No, Lieutenant. I copied the entire record of the other Lodahli; your record contains purchases dating from your achieving adulthood. I conjecture that it would be the Romulan’s record."

"Well, if you get a chance, could you see if you could find it?"

"I will try, Lieutenant. Again, spakoyanoche."

"And again, thanks, Mister Spock." Chekov rolled over, touched by Spock’s use of Russian. Before he could wonder what had motivated the Vulcan to do it, Chekov was fast asleep.

*****

It seemed like only a few moments later when Chekov was awakened by Spock’s voice in his ear. "Lieutenant, if you still plan to meet Emkel in the common area before the others arrive, it is time you were awake."

Chekov sat up, feeling uneasy. He looked around the room, seeking a reason. He saw none. "Thanks for the wake-up call, Spock. Anything unusual happen while I was asleep?"

"No. Why do you ask?"

"I don’t know. Things just feel wrong, that’s all."

"You appeared to sleep well, Lieutenant, and no one else entered your room. I am at a loss to explain your feeling of disquiet."

"Maybe I’m just nervous about meeting Emkel for breakfast."

"I have never observed you to be bothered by the prospect of meeting with a beautiful woman, Lieutenant."

Chekov shook his head, as if hoping to clear cobwebs from it. "Not that you’ve seen it happen, that often, anyhow. I’m probably just still nervous over all of last night’s secret meetings, or maybe I had a nightmare. A shower will help."

Chekov showered, but found no relief from the disquiet he felt. The color of Emkel’s ungloved hand continued to haunt him. Once in the larger chamber, between there being no one else in the room, and the sense of size produced by the high, arched ceiling, Chekov’s disquiet seemed even worse. Emkel’s arrival did nothing to reduce the feeling. Chekov offered her a chair.

"I hope you’re not upset over last night," Emkel said softly, almost apologetically. "I guess it did look a bit odd, my sneaking in without warning."

"Why should that bother me? Do you think pretty ladies throw themselves at me so often that I’ve tired of it?"

She smiled. "I wasn’t sure. You looked out of sorts, like something was eating you. I was just worried that it was me. What is bothering you, Socath?"

Chekov ran his fingers over the control patch and ordered what he thought he remembered seeing Emkel eat. "Wouldn’t I like to know that myself? Did you have a sense of doom or foreboding or something when you woke up?"

The clown nibbled on a piece of fruit, obviously thinking out her answer carefully. "More of a sense that something was terribly amiss, really, but otherwise, yes. I can’t pin it down, either."

The two ate in silence. One by one, the others began to filter in. To Chekov’s surprise, Bowil entered through another door, followed by several servitors. "What brings you here, Bowil?" Chekov asked. "Planning breakfast with Robpiel?"

"Here on business, I’m afraid."

"Over the burns on Yanhus’ body?"

"No, Socath." It was Robpiel’s voice. "There has been a death. When I went to Lorite’s cubicle, he wouldn’t answer the door. When I overrode the lock, I found him dead, lying near his readout. Bowil will give us an idea about what happened in a couple of hours."

There was a stunned silence. Bowil had left the room, and returned, her servitors in train. She broke the silence. "Robpiel, I’ll need you down in the morgue in about twenty or thirty minutes. My preliminary exam raises some important issues we need to discuss." She turned to the others. "Any of you are welcome to come as well, of course; Jonax, Socath, I’d appreciate your coming, particularly."

Jonax turned pale. "I think not. I’m a bit squeamish, remember?"

"Would I be in the way if I came with Robpiel?" Chekov asked.

"Hardly, Socath." Robpiel turned to Bowil. "Half an hour, then, Bowil. Unless Socath takes too long eating breakfast with Emkel."

The Handler of the Dead left, her mechanical retinue in her wake. Robpiel pointedly sat down at a small table at some distance from the rest, and gestured at Chekov to join him. Emkel decided she wasn’t likely to be welcome and joined the others.

Chekov took the chair opposite Robpiel, noticing that Robpiel looked as sickly as Jonax had when Bowil asked him to join them in the morgue. "What’s up? Did you see a ghost or something?"

"Closer to a death’s head. The search history on Lorite’s readout was totally wiped out. Whatever he turned up, and however he found it, the information’s gone."

"Does a computer malfunction scare you?"

"You don’t get it, do you? It wasn’t a malfunction. Someone purposely wiped it. Any guesses as to who and why?"

Chekov was stunned. "Are you suggesting that..." His voice trailed off without finishing the question.

"Look, if someone wanted to assume a new identity, it wouldn’t be all that hard, if they were sharp enough, you know." Chekov inwardly flinched at Robpiel’s remark. "Maybe our murderer is trying to change identities for some reason. Either way, it seems that we may have our murderer in our midst after all. My half-joke yesterday is beginning to look very un-funny.

"Are you still sure you trust me, Robpiel?"

"I’ll trust my instincts on this, at least for the moment. You realize that after yesterday, you could be at risk, too."

"Do you think you’re safe?"

"Safer than you are, Socath. I don’t sleep here. Like Lorite, you do."

Chekov remembered Emkel’s visit the night before, her reaching for his face, and the color of her bare hand. For the moment, he decided to table it. Her size would have matched the footprints well enough, but he still doubted she had the strength to pull off the Romulan Death Grip. Despite that, a chill found its way up Chekov’s back. His appetite disappeared.

Robpiel consulted his watch. "Might as well get to the morgue. Bowil will be waiting."

Chekov didn’t find the thought particularly comforting.

*****

Down in the morgue, Chekov was struck by the drawn look on Bowil’s face. Without even asking, she put the scans of Lorite’s neck on the screen. "Look at that, will you? As close to identical to the fracture than killed Yanhus as you could want. You’ve got a murderer among you."

No one spoke for a while. Chekov finally broke the silence. "Well, is there anything odd under Lorite’s nails? And, what do we tell the rest of the Panel of Inquiry?"

Bowil shrugged. "I don’t know what to tell the others, but obviously Yanhus had more warning than poor Lorite. There wasn’t anything unusual under his nails. Our green blooded murderer must have surprised the poor man."

Chekov and Bowil both stared at Robpiel, waiting for his decision. "One thing’s for sure, we don’t tell the Panel we think the murderer is one of us. I’m not sure they’d be able to function. Could we say you were waiting for specialized studies to be sure of the cause of death?"

"How about saying ‘further investigation’ instead? They don’t have to know that the further investigation is locating the murderer, do they?" Chekov asked.

"I agree with Socath; tell them I’m wanting further investigation. It’s the truth, after a fashion."

Robpiel nodded. "Sounds good to me. The question is how do we find our murderer? Either of you have any ideas?"

Chekov shook his head. "Don’t you think I’d have offered it if I did? Do you think you could find an excuse to prick each of us in the finger to see what color we bled?"

Robpiel shook his head. "I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it’s an idea."

Bowil shrugged. "Whoever did this knows they have green blood, you know. You start looking for it, there’s going to be trouble. Do you want to have to defend yourself against someone who can break necks like we saw on Yanhus and Lorite?"

"Not a chance. Yet." Robpiel looked over at Chekov. "Seen enough?"

"Did I really want to see what I’ve already seen?"

"Then let’s go."

"Be careful, Roby. Please?"

"You can bet on it, Bowil." Robpiel took the lead, and Chekov followed.

*****

As Chekov and Robpiel entered the room where the Panel of Inquiry was convened, they could hear a lively discussion in progress from the other side of the viewscreen. For the moment, the two men were shielded from the other’s view. Olmac’s voice was booming as they entered.

"Y’know, those garbage collecting incinerators don’t run all the time; they wait until they’ve got a decent load, then they start the burn. Anyone here think of a reason why this Yanhus couldn’t have been riding the gadget, got gassed by some fume produced when the machine started burning the trash, got burned and fell off? That’d explain things about as well as this fruitless effort to find a murderer. And with poor Lorite dying here, I’m in a hurry to get out of here before something happens to me. I think this place is jinxed."

"I don’t believe in jinxes, and I don’t really believe that you do, either. The Handler of the Dead did express the opinion that Yanhus had died by violence, Olmac," Hefor responded. "Doesn’t that count for anything?"

Tahmed jumped in next. "Getting gassed, then burned, and then dumped off the garbage handler, then sustaining a major face wound on the way to the ground sounds pretty violent to me. What do the rest of you say?"

"It seems to me that the Handler of the Dead intended us to understand that the violence that killed Yanhus was inflicted by another person. We wouldn’t have been called together if it had looked like violence inflicted by a combination of non-living things," Hefor said firmly.

Tahmed shook his head. "I’m still not convinced this is anything other than a freak accident--someone being foolish enough to hitch a ride on a lawn maintenance vehicle, and getting killed falling off it. I mean, none of us have even come up with an alternative explanation as to how he broke his neck."

Chekov stepped forward to where Tahmed could see him. "Why do you say he broke his neck?"

Robpiel stepped into view as well. "Indeed, Socath asks a good question. Of us all, only Jonax, Socath and I knew that. But you’re right--Yanhus’ neck was broken, and Lorite’s was broken the same way, suggesting he was killed by the same means. However, the Handler of the Dead didn’t feel that the fracture was of the sort that comes from a fall. She’d never seen a fracture like it, and the only way that she could see that it could happen was to be assaulted by someone. I’d like to know how you knew the cause of death was a broken neck, Tahmed."

Tahmed maintained a stone-faced silence.

"How else could he know, unless he was the killer, Robpiel?" Chekov asked.

Tahmed stood up, barking the back of one hand against the sharp edge of the table. "Are you accusing me of the murder, Socath?"

Chekov met his gaze without flinching. "Are you denying it?"

Before Tahmed could answer, Olmac interrupted. "Will you look at that? He’s bleedin’ green. There, where he’s scraped his hand."

All eyes riveted on the back of Tahmed’s hand. Spock’s voice echoed in Chekov’s ears, "A Romulan, Lieutenant. I believe it is safe to assume that it is with him that the scrambled tight beam from the Enterprise was communicating."

Chekov made a mental note to thank Spock for stating the obvious. He shifted his position and stance, preparing to take action.

"No one will leave this room until I am satisfied that it is safe. Especially you, Tahmed." It was Jonax’s voice. Chekov turned. In Jonax’s hand was an object that was obviously a weapon, pointed at the center of Tahmed’s chest.

Tahmed glared at Jonax and his weapon. "You will find me harder to hold than you think, Jonax." He reached for Emkel, obviously intending to use her as a shield. Events suddenly seemed to be in slow motion. The little clown’s hands flashed forward, grasping Tahmed’s extended forearm. She pivoted on it, launching herself over Tahmed’s head. When she landed, her right leg was wrapped tightly around Tahmed’s throat, her left knee digging into his upper back. Even through the tint applied to the Romulan’s skin, Chekov could see that Emkel was successfully strangling the being. Despite his trying to claw her leg loose from his throat, the little clown maintained her grip. Chekov noticed that her wig had slipped, revealing a pointed ear. Chekov caught her eye, and stared pointedly at her ear. Emkel adjusted her wig to cover it.

"Do not kill him, Emkel," the Jonax commanded. "He must be questioned."

"Trust me, Jonax. I won’t kill him."

The Romulan finally collapsed, Emkel leaping aside as he fell.

Jonax gestured to Robpiel with his head; Robpiel produced manacles from his belt pouch, and applied them to the ankles and wrists of the unconscious Tahmed. Having done that, he applied his ear to Tahmed’s chest. "I hear no heart beat."

"Go for the carotid pulse, Robpiel." It was Emkel.

Obligingly, he did. "It is fast, but still there. He lives."

Nodding, Jonax turned to the clown. "Do you also bleed green, Emkel?"

"What kind of question is that?" Chekov demanded.

"I saw her ear, Socath. And that you saw it, and were unsurprised. Do you also bleed green?"

"Do you want to prick one of my fingers and see that I bleed red?" Chekov responded, hoping to divert attention from Emkel.

"No. It wouldn’t prove anything, whether you bled green, red, or not at all. You are not of our world, either. Move over with Emkel, please." Chekov obeyed. "None of us can leave this room until I am satisfied that it is safe for the outside to be aware of us. Do I have your word that you will not leave until then?"

"Do we have a choice?" Chekov asked.

"Only to cooperate or be killed on the spot. What do either of you know of the Holes of  Worms that Eat Research?"

Chekov was visibly puzzled. Spock’s voice buzzed behind his ear. "Perhaps this is a garbled reference to the wormhole swallowing Research Station 1853, Lieutenant, the event that caused the search that revealed the Lodahli.."

Chekov figured there was nothing to lose. "Do you mean the artificial wormhole that swallowed Research Station 1853 about twelve years ago? "

Jonax thought for a moment. "Perhaps. Who led the research?"

Prompted by Spock, Chekov responded, "Wasn’t it Jacob Bokir?"

"What color was his friend’s skin? Yellow?"

"Bokir’s closest assistant was Tevran, an Andorian, Lieutenant," Spock prompted.

"How about blue, Jonax? Would it help if I told you his hair was brilliantly white?"

Jonax sat down, heavily, dropping his weapon on the table before him. "Yes, it would. Thank you, off-worlder. We need hide no longer. The risk of a paradox loop has ended."

Emkel removed her wig, using it to wipe the grease paint from her face. "Then I need not maintain my clown act any longer, either." She turned to face Chekov, shifting to English. "I am T’Lira, a Vulcan planetologist, marooned here about seven of your years ago. I presume you’re from the ship with which I have been communicating. If you hadn’t awakened, I would have mind melded with you to find out directly. I hope you will be willing to return me to Vulcan, despite last night’s invasion of your privacy."

Chekov smiled, responding in the same language. "Lieutenant Pavel Chekov, of the Starship Enterprise, at your service, madam." He bowed slightly as he spoke, realizing that he and Spock had jumped to the wrong conclusion. "Always ready to help a beautiful woman in distress."

"Will you allow us to come into contact with you?" It was Jonax, again. "As a Holder of the Hidden Knowledge, I have known of the existence of worlds beyond ours. That is the knowledge we have kept hidden, fearing that premature discovery would cause a temporal paradox loop. Ever since I found what I suppose was a part of Emkel’s ship, I have waited to contact you, to see our people reunite with the other peoples of the Galaxy."

Chekov turned to face Jonax. "I believe that reunion can be arranged." Chekov shifted into English again. "Mister Spock, could you beam down with the sociologists?" Within a few moments, the four beings materialized near Chekov. "Jonax, let me introduce Sezahn of Vulcan, p’Kaso of Andor, and Gogin of Tellar. They’ll spearhead your contact with the Federation, and I’m sure they will help you and your fellow Holders of the Hidden Knowledge break the news to the rest of the Lodahli people. This is Mister Spock, my fellow officer on the Enterprise. T’Lira, may I assume you’ve been in contact with Sezahn?"

"She has, Lieutenant," Sezahn responded. "Before you left, I would have requested your assistance in rescuing her."

Jonax looked at the Andorian with an expression bordering on awe. He reached into a pouch. "I have something for you, to deliver to one of your kind named Tevran, if he still lives. Holders of the Hidden Knowledge have carried these for uncounted generations, waiting for your arrival." He extended his hand, a round, almost featureless silvery disk in it.

Puzzled, the Andorian took it. He looked at it for a moment, turning it over a time or two before he handed it to Chekov. Chekov stared at it, then handed it to Spock. "What do you make of it?"

Spock turned his tricorder on the disc. "It appears to have an embedded memory chip, Lieutenant." There was a few moments' pause. "It contains a series of subspace targeting equations with an unfamiliar exponential correction factor allowing for a time lag as a function of distance. Although I cannot be completely sure without comparing it to the records from Research Base 1853, it would appear to indicate the possibility that incorrect targeting might cause a backwards slip across time." Spock paused a little longer. "There also appears to be a personal message."

Spock handed Chekov the tricorder. On its screen, Chekov read, "Tevran: You owe me one. Jake."

Chekov looked at Spock, a lopsided grin on his face. "I guess we found Research Base 1853 after all. Mister Spock, if you could have Scotty beam you, T’Lira and I up? I think our task here is done."


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