Instead of following the control beam down, the shuttle came in at a sharp angle. It hit the landing area at a speed not even the protective crash mechanisms could keep intact. The shuttle went up like a fireball, visible the entire distance across the port.
Robot fire crews were still trying to put out the chemical blaze when the chief of port security arrived.
"There's no damn way that can happen!" the port master had only a few seconds to spare for him. "Even if their automatic controls failed, even if they never had any to follow the control signal, our ground beams can bring down a ship. You can't fight a tractor beam. You! Get those spare units moved up!"
Laker moved over to the monitor screens, frowned. The fire units were spreading foam over half the area, where the liquid from the shuttle spilled. Whatever it was filled with went up like a bomb.
Rapidly, he ran through the shuttle's manifest and scowled deeper. Nothing in the list was volatile enough to destroy a shuttle or burn with that ferocity. That and the fact that the tractor beams failed to stop it, made him believe the thing was intended as a bomb. Had the Thrithian peace delegation been on it as the passenger list declared, they would now be a part of the conflagration lashing across the landing pad. Or five of them would. God only knew where and how the sixth one was coming in. Not even he was told.
Laker left the confusion in the port control room and made his way swiftly through the dim-lighted, sunken maze between the landing pads. The small cargo shuttle carrying the ambassadors in secret was landing, according to plan, all the way across the port. He had already detailed a full security team around its base, but with the crash of the decoy shuttle, he wanted to be there personally.
His shadow pooled long and narrow across the high walls of the trench, and he muttered a curse under his breath for the engineer who created the glow-strips as shadowless lights. They were as bad as spotlights. At least if he had a glaring shadow arrow pinpointing his position, anyone else would be instantly visible too. His boots echoed in the silence. Overhead, ships were landing, but down here the sounds were muffled, the acoustics of the walls intended to keep noise out.
The soft whisper behind him echoed like a gunshot. He whirled sharply. Nothing. His quick eyes scanned the smooth wall behind him, then along the top rim. The sky was a black, featureless rectangle, the glare of the lights blotting out stars. The corridor stretched behind him into dimness.
He turned and started walking again. Something was following him. The sensation persisted, and it was not his imagination. The sixth sense that swept him upward to Security Chief of a free port tightened his muscles. But he still saw nothing. An invisible something watched him and drew closer.
The lights on the right hand wall went out.
He whirled, shadow drawing a replica of the weapon in his hand. Nothing was there. He began to walk backward, as swiftly as possible, phaser and eyes darting into the half-shadows behind him. In an instant, the sensation shifted to the wall top, then down again, rapidly, like liquid flowing toward him.
He turned and ran for the end of the tunnel, reached it, and threw himself into the first ground car, almost sobbing at the sight of it. The car moved onto its tracks, and he punched the destination, falling back as it shot forward.
He sagged on the seat, aware that fear sweat was pouring down his body, his lungs dragging for breath. He was Security Chief, for God's sake! Not supposed to go to pieces like that. What was that...
The blackness slammed into the transport and crushed it, hurled it off its tracks thirty feet away. Laker was dead in the first second.
On board the Enterprise, Spock watched his captain pace, with the tolerance of a Vulcan for useless human activity.
"There has been one open attempt on the Thrithian delegates already. Yet they refuse to travel by transporter! From Admiral DeFoe's terseness, I take it they're quite a handful,"
"'Arrogant and overbearingly demanding' were his exact words, Captain. Apparently their position as priests puts them above all other laws on their planet. They will be extremely difficult passengers. I have small hopes for the successful outcome of any peace conference with the T'trellin."
"Ours is not to reason why, Spock. Kirk here," he said, in response to the whistle of the com. His face altered at the relayed message, and he exploded with a wordless noise. "Drop orbit. Inform Port Security we're picking them up ahead of plan. I want them on board as fast as possible." Cutting off, he turned to Spock.
"An attempt was anticipated, Captain. The decoy served its purpose."
"That decoy was supposed to be security-tight. It was only a long shot, a million in one chance on a leak, and it happened. What if the real shuttle security was breached too? No. We abandon any more double-blinds and get them on board." He punched a button. "Security. The Thrithians are coming on board sooner than expected. Are you set up?"
"Aye, sir," she answered. "We'll alter ship's phasers to cover the new flight path. The shuttle has a triple shield, and Sellin Farr is the best battle pilot we have, if anything gets by the phasers. Port Security informs us that all six are present. Have you an ETA?"
"Co-ordinate with helm. We're wasting no time and getting up as close as possible."
"Spock, I want you on the bridge." He went out and Spock followed.
Kirk leaned forward, watching the screen.
"Shuttle on visual," DiFalco reported, then frowned. "It's not flying right, sir. Coming in at wide angle."
"On the screen."
The image did not appear to be in distress, even if it was on an unusual flight path.
"Shall I break radio silence, sir?" Uhura questioned.
"Bay doors open," Sulu stated. The shuttle circled wide, and the rear screens followed it. It seemed to travel erratically for a computer-locked flight, but maybe Farr was bringing it in manually to keep the craft instantly maneuverable if anything attacked.
It suddenly reeled drunkenly, missed the bay doors, and sheered off at the last instant, only avoiding collision by blind luck.
"What is that fool doing!" Kirk was on his feet. The shuttle came in for a second pass, as drunkenly as the first. "Get a tractor beam on that thing."
"It's too close, sir."
"Static on the channel," she said, fast. "I can't raise him."
"Medical and crash units to the shuttlebay." Kirk was racing for the lift.
The shuttle crashed onto the floor of the bay at an angle and skidded on its side into the emergency wall, spraying sparks in a tortured shriek of metal. Its pilot turned on the forward and port screens at the last second, cushioning the crash that otherwise would have splintered them across the walls. A piece of incredible piloting skill that made a mockery of the asinine approach. Kirk was in the bay the instant it was pressurized.
Emergency teams in suits were already there, pulling the shattered pilot from the wreckage, and onto a stretcher. The Thrith merely walked out and stood, unconcerned, while humans boiled around them.
"Why?" Kirk cried at the barely conscious pilot as they carried him off. "What happened?"
The oxygen mask muffled the sound of the man's bleeding mouth. "No sensors... don't know...came in blind...No sens..."
Kirk straightened, incredulous, and watched the medics rush him to Sickbay. No sensors! If that were true, Farr did the most unbelievable piece of flying he had ever seen. By visual alone! "Strip that shuttle. Find out why the sensors failed," he lashed.
"The Mask disrupts sensor functions."
Kirk turned sharply to the group of six ambassadors. None of them appeared concerned or overly worried at their landing. Nor were any of them so much as bruised. For an unreasoning second, Kirk resented them hotly for that. "Mask?"
One of them held a grotesque mask in his three-fingered hands, a flat 'tragedy' mask, of garnet-red glass or jewel. It had not been in the effects of the five on the port shuttle, so the sixth must have carried it. "An ancient symbol worn by our Chosen delegate. It is a necessary part of the Thrith ritual, and its loss or destruction would result instantly in war. Its properties, however, have an interfering effect on the workings of your sensors."
For a second, Kirk stood, breathing harshly, at the bald statement, delivered without interest. "Do you mean," he said slowly and brittlely. "That you knew the sensors in the shuttle would be inoperative when you got aboard?"
"Then why didn't you tell the pilot?"
"We do not speak with minions, save to give orders."
Kirk shook in a rage he barely controlled. Farr was almost killed because of the arrogance of the beings in front of him. "Why was I not told?"
"The effects of our relic are not for outsiders to know. It is unfortunate that we are forced to show its properties to such a multitude of lesser beings."
"Unfortunate," he forced between his teeth. "If you had been killed because the shuttle pilot had no sensors..."
"We have no such worry. The Mask protects us. We will go to our quarters now."
The unmitigated gall of the Thrith choked Kirk for a second, and he forced himself to realize these were alien beings. Their morals were not Human ones. And he was forced to cater to them. He lifted a hand. "Lieutenant Ch'yin'tul will escort you to the rooms allotted you."
"We will not be led by minions. You will show us."
"Lieutenant Ch'yin'tul will escort you. I will have other duties to perform if we have to fly blind to T'trell."
"Captain Kirk to the bridge immediately."
He thanked a providence that kept him from assaulting one of their superior faces, and went to a wall com. "Kirk here."
"Captain! We have--" Spock began.
"Sensor malfunctions across the board."
A brief pause. "May I ask how--"
"Our guests," he spat the words, "are responsible. As long as they're on board, we're totally blind."
"Not totally. Visual and computer functions still operate, but the analogy is basically correct. An extremely dangerous condition."
"Check everything. See what's out and what we have left. Shields?"
"Intact. A curious selectivity of functions, Captain. Port authorities mentioned no similar problems. What is the cause of the disruption now?"
"Some kind of ritual mask worn by the sixth delegate. And just how he managed to reach port without incident--"
"The precise delineation is 'it,' Captain. The Thrith priests are androgynous."
Kirk backed out of his appointment as tour guide and personal flunky by claiming the sensor blindness required his full attention on the bridge. They were not pleased. "Sirs," he gave a polite, tightly controlled bow. "It is my foremost duty to see you reach T'trell safely. These people will see you to your quarters." He made his escape, still seething.
His call to Starfleet didn't wait until he reached the bridge. He sent it from his cabin.
"Kirk, I can't impress on you the importance of the safety of the ambassadors. Their sector and the T'trellans' lie opposite the Dead Zone. The Thrith are making an attempt to sue for peace, or both sectors will go to war over their respective territories. If we can be instrumental in that peace, we have a chance to add buffer allies on this side of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Normally, our own people would be present to facilitate things, but both sides refuse intervention."
"Other than a free ride...without sensors! We could be attacked by anything outside visual range."
"The difficulties are...unprecedented. Nothing was stated to me about the properties of this Mask. I'm sorry, but your ship is the best equipped to handle an impossible task. You'll have to rely solely on a computer course and hope nothing unforeseen is in the way. There is no space traffic in the area other than Thrith and T'trell ships, and those are sublight vessels. Kirk, I'll overlook the complaints the Thrith are going to log with Starfleet. Admiral DeFoe explained the cultural problems. But don't neglect your duty out of antagonism. Someone is violently opposed to the ambassadors ever arriving on T'trell. This message just reached me; I'll relay it."
An Andorian in the uniform of Haralou Port Security came on the screen, with time of relay flashing underneath the image. "This is Chell, Acting Security Chief. I wish to report the death of Chief Urich Laker in a transport crash of unknown origin. The car was found torn from its tracks and crushed. The body... "
The admiral cut off and stated, "Laker had to be identified by chromosome prints. There is nothing, and I mean nothing that can break the seal between those cars and the track short of an antimatter bomb going off directly underneath it. The tracks weren't touched, and the vehicle was struck from the side. Chief Laker was in sole charge of the Thrithian security in port."
"After the fact," Kirk said, puzzled. "They were already in port at that time. If it was murder, it doesn't make any sense."
"To us. The Thrith don't think like us, and likely neither do the T'trell. Somebody out there has an unimaginable source of power in their hands, and doesn't want the delegation to succeed. With sensors or without, you must get them to T'trell. Good luck."
Luck! He made a quick detour to Sickbay on the way to the bridge.
"Chapel is operating," McCoy said. "Internal damage, but repairable. He won't be in any shape to face shifting G-forces for awhile, though. I hope you have a few spare shuttle pilots floating around if you need them. Want to fill me in?"
When he finished the terse report, McCoy was glowering. "Those bastards knew he'd be flying blind and deliberately let him half kill himself trying to bring that shuttle in?"
"And we had strict orders not to break radio silence for any reason. I'm glad we're only a glorified taxi in this, Bones. If we had to deal with the Thrith personally, I'd be stoking boilers in short order."
"Here." McCoy shook out pills into his hand and held them out.
"For a headache. I think you're going to need them."
In the first half hour, Kirk realized transporting the Thrith, even under ordinary conditions, was impossible. Seventeen reports came to him from Security. The priests ignored all attempts to keep them in a confined area. They went where they pleased. Only once, when Wss'kan, a Beruntian massing at 800 kilos, showed her lethal, four-inch fangs, did they alter their route. But there was only one Beruntian and six ambassadors, and she couldn't be everywhere. Each time the Thrith were thwarted, they lodged a complaint with Starfleet. Kirk now had seventeen counts in his log book of 'deliberately offering insult to the persons and status of the priests of Thrith.'
Kirk swallowed two of McCoy's pills and turned to Spock.
"Captain, we are following the Thrith visually and have succeeded in somewhat restraining their movements by making the lifts inoperative when they approach. This is not a complete solution, for our own crew must use them also. They ignore any restraining orders, save those issued by Ensign Wss'kan."
"Spock, this is the first time I've ever pulled captaincy to avoid a dirty job, but an emotional human simply can't handle them without the urge to put a fist through their teeth. Claim a rank equal to me to satisfy their refusal to deal with 'minions.' I wish you luck," he said fervently. "How long until we reach T'trell?"
"At the speed we are forced to travel, six days, eight point seven hours."
Sulu was at Spock's station, coordinating computer-extracted maps of the area and visual data with helm control. It was involved and tricky, the loss of sensors leaving the ship naked this close to the Neutral Zone. An entire fleet of Romulan vessels could be half a lightyear from them and be totally invisible. The bridge was unnaturally quiet and tense. Uhura was still fuming. One of the Thrith commandeered her lift and made her late for duty when she had to wait for another one.
"Bridge. McCoy here," a voice reported in such a terse tone that Kirk knew something was wrong immediately.
"Jim, I have an accidental death from engineering down here. Damn fool fell down the length of an access ladder, and must have hit some electrical conduits on the way down. Looked like he was hit by lightning. Scotty's in there now, assessing the damage. Thing is, he says the idiot wasn't supposed to be in there in the first place."
"Acknowledged. Kirk out. Damn!"
Nobody turned around at the angry invective. Because certain lifts were frozen to keep the Thrith penned, some of the crew had taken to short-cuts up the interdeck tubes. Accidental or not, the death was one more thing laid at their feet. If one of those priests was able to reach Haralou Port without Federation intervention, then why couldn't they all?
"Captain, message incoming," Uhura touched her ear unit. "Unofficial channel on a broad band, repeated, requesting answer by any Federation cruiser or starbase within reach. Sir! It's coming from within the Neutral Zone..." She turned to Kirk. "Romulan!"
The barely accented Romulan voice broke in. "...of war. To any Federation star cruiser or base, we request reply. This is not a declaration of war. To any Federation star..."
She cut it off at his gesture.
"Captain, if they know we're here and without sensors--" Sulu began.
"At this range, we'd be an unidentifiable blip on their screens. If they know we are helplessly blind, they wouldn't waste time in talk." Romulans didn't talk, he knew that. They had been relatively quiet for years, but still maintained a frozen wall of war between themselves and the Federation. To call like this was unprecedented. He had the Thrith delegates' safety to consider, as much as that galled him, but also that of the Federation. "First inform Starfleet we're taking the message." The Enterprise was the only ship in the sector capable of putting on a formidable front. "Then identify and answer it, broad band."
"Repeated message stopped, Captain. New one coming in, with visual."
"On the screen."
The Romulan face was unfamiliar, but the name, when he spoke, was not. "Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, I am Fleet High Commander Elyan." Kirk stiffened, a knot in his stomach. Warlord. The Warlord of Romii himself. A declaration of war? Even as his brain reeled, he saw the Romulan smile thinly. "It is strange fortune that your ship is the one to answer. Within two days, we commemorate a significant date in our history, the meaning of which does not concern you. It is the only time we will consider the breaking of war to form alliances. On this date, we forged one with the Klingons, an act which, with the creation of the Kh'myr abominations, we have come to regret immensely. We will consider a dissolving of all hostilities with the Federation. Since it is familiar to us, the Enterprise is the only ship we will accept as liaison."
A trick, Kirk thought wildly. It has to be a trick. If the Romulans disrupt the Thrith delegation... But it's too obvious a trick for them to pull. He hedged. "I'm honored by that choice, Commander. The Enterprise, however, is not available at the moment for such a reception. I'm certain a substitute and proper ambassador..."
The Warlord showed his annoyance. "I am certain, " he said stiffly. "You do not intend insult. We will tolerate none of the soft-brained ambassadors you inflict upon others. No! You are a warrior, Kirk. If you refuse this offer, the next date such a proposition can be made does not occur for," he glanced at a panel, "fourteen point eight Earth years. If I have a say in it, the offer will not be made again. We do not crawl to those who fling our words back in our faces. Choose, Kirk."
He was out on a dead limb and the Romulan knew it. "I have no assurance that this peace delegation is real. Once Romulans were aboard my ship..."
The Warlord smiled, a predator's smile of satisfaction. "It is gratifying to know how much Humans fear us. Do you think we would steal your secrets as you did ours?" The smile vanished, and the gray eyes smoldered. "Were it not for the Kh'myr threat, I would never be a party to this! But the Praetor commands, and we obey. You have devices to screen a delegation, do you not, to determine if anything dangerous had been brought aboard? The Praetor knew you would not believe our motives, so he offers hostages, for you to hold as trust. Both I and my son will be a part of the delegation."
Kirk's breath went out all at once. The Romulan Warlord in Federation hands! The implications were staggering. If they chose to capture and interrogate him, most of the enemy's secrets would be in their possession.
"I am well aware of my value as a prisoner of war, Captain," he said, amused. "We will give you time to contact your Starfleet. I await your reply within a three hour period. After that, no message will be answered."
"Why not contact us sooner if this date was approaching? We'd have had time to set up a genuine contact, to plan--"
"Deceit?" One eyebrow went up, in a ghost-image of Spock. "You do not know the difficulties this decision had in passing Council, even at the Praetor's command. This way was chosen to placate those who fear Human treachery. It does not permit time for a war fleet to be brought into the area."
"Any treaty will not be made quickly."
"No. You could take us to a prison while the debate proceeds...or we could be plotting to destroy your ship. Risks on both sides, Captain. I await reply." The screen blanked.
Uhura exploded a phrase in Swahili.
"Commander, that may be an understatement. Get me Starfleet Admiralty. Priority One."
The fastest debate in Starfleet history took place in the time of Kirk's call to the High Command and to the Warlord. The Thrithians aboard had priority, if this was a Romulan trick. If the offer was genuine, the pressing need of a buffer ally would not be necessary. Fleet was dispatching an ambassador and staff as soon as possible despite Romulan refusal to deal with them. The Enterprise could divert to the Zone with little lost time. To do so without making the Romulans aware of their sensor loss would be tricky. They decided to wait on this side of the Zone and let the Romulans transfer to an uninhabited planetoid then be shuttled aboard. The sensor effect would only affect the last few seconds of the landing. As for the Thrith...
"We should be able to keep them apart until we reach T'trell. It's a big ship." Famous last words, Kirk thought.
"I do not know if I'm pleased or not," the Warlord said when he answered. "But we accept. We have only one request: do not allow a Vulcan near us. Romulans still carry...unfortunate memories of one."
"Agreed." Spock could handle the Thrith and he the Romulans.
Any security checks had to be made down-planet. They had equipment that examined the Romulans down to their eyeteeth, and every part of their personal belongings.
"Nothing here, sir," Chekov reported. "Everything's clean. We even ran a computer check to see if any of this stuff could be recombined as a weapon. Negative."
"Apologize to the ambassador for the inconvenience and stand by to...be picked up." He almost said 'beamed aboard' and remembered that was impossible with the Mask's disruption.
"Sir? The Warlord has a dog with him. Actually, the damn big thing looks more like a wolf. But the Romulans insist it come along. Says it's symbolic in treaty negotiations. It's obedient. We checked it for concealed weapons, too."
"A dog?" Not another blasted symbol! Why can't anybody keep things simple? "Bring them all on board. But that beast better be under strict control, or I'll have it restrained. Clear?"
The Romulans stepped out of the shuttle. Instantly, the security guards lifted their weapons as a huge black beast jumped from the shuttle and crouched, hair raised, and teeth bared in a snarl.
"Those are unnecessary." Elyan commanded, "Sit." The beast obeyed instantly, though its formidable fangs still showed. The Warlord's hand reached out to caress the great head, though his eyes never left Kirk's. In person, the Romulan's presence was almost physical, power coiled in deliberate control. Even if he hadn't known his face from the tape, Kirk would have guessed who he was. Again the slanting look of amusement he had seen before. "It will obey me; you need not fear it."
"Our facilities are...limited in the way of pets, Commander."
"So are ours, and Ayen has been with me on warships. We will make do. I see you come heavily armed to meet us. Good. You do not disappoint me. A worthy liaison. May I present our ambassador, S'rann, and staff."
"Ambassador." Kirk bowed. "We are honored and overjoyed at the prospect of a Romulan/Federation treaty."
The older Romulan gravely bowed his head in acknowledgement. "I hope we may come to mutually acceptable terms. Our mutual fears are justified in the Kh'myr threat. I trust your sensor scans have deemed us safe?"
"Yes. May I show you to your quarters?"
"A moment, Captain. One of my staff has also been named a hostage to our intentions. Is Triann permitted to remain with us or be imprisoned with his father?"
"Both the Warlord and his son will join you," Kirk said stiffly. "You are guests on the Enterprise, as long as you follow certain restrictions. You will have free use of the recreation section and the gymnasium. I ask only that you report your intentions beforehand." So we can detour the Thrith... "Will Vulcan food be digestible?"
"Acceptable, though not palatable."
"Our dietician will discuss a more suitable diet."
In the Romulan quarters, Kirk glanced at the beast with them. The damned thing does look like a wolf, and dangerous. Elyan was fondling its ears, and its slanting yellow eyes were half closed, but it was still growling softly. The Warlord shrugged at its antipathy to Kirk. "Is there a place where she can run?"
"We can section off a corridor. Ah...I would prefer it if you were not the one to exercise her."
He smiled. "No, I would not want you loose on my ship either. Both you and I are men of war, Captain. We find it difficult to trust."
Kirk met his eyes, then bowed to the ambassador. "We have a formal reception planned for eighteen hundred hours. The Enterprise has a wide library of music and literature tapes for your use." He smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid we know little about your tastes."
"A mutual feeling. I hope we both learn much about each other in the time allotted."
That sentence had a double meaning, and again Kirk's suspicions stung. He glanced at the Warlord. The Romulan was laughing silently. He knew exactly what Kirk was thinking. Alike...
"I will let you settle in and return in an hour for preliminary negotiations."
On the bridge, he checked the positions of the Thrith. The entire deck where the Romulans were staying was declared off-limits and relayed to their security people. He pitied Spock.
They were back on course for T'trell at the fastest speed relying on computer and visual tracking alone would allow.
"Captain? Scott here."
Kirk felt a twinge of guilt. Scott had been trying to report for half a day. "Go ahead, Scotty. I'm finally listening."
"I have the reports on the tube the crewman fell down. Captain, I canna find any loose or exposed connections in that tube, and one of my people went over it with a fine-toothed comb. There was no way the lad could've been electrocuted there."
"But he was. Go over the tube yourself, Scotty. No, belay that; you have enough to handle juggling the engines and navigation."
"Aye, and playing games with the lifts and repairing things every time that Mask goes out for an airin'. I'll be glad when the thing's off this ship. I'll send Chief Cleary in to check the tube."
"Let me know the results. Kirk out."
The reception for the Romulans went off astonishingly well considering the stupendous feat of juggling the lifts. After the hour passed when the Thrith retired, Kirk breathed a sigh of relief. He drank with the Warlord's son, Triann, and, as in the afternoon negotiations, found him to be shrewdly intelligent, as he would have expected from a sire of that caliber. "That...er...wolf you have with you. Is it common?"
"They are extremely rare. Very seldom can one be tamed to the hand. Like the bird of prey painted on our ships, it is an ancient symbol."
"We are a warrior race, Captain. Any treaty between us will have to take that into account."
"Will your father resent it?"
The Romulan smiled. "Do you mean will he be obsolete? No. Even with free interchange, we will still have defensive fleet."
"Excuse me, Captain, could I have a word with you?"
"Of course, Mister Scott. If you will excuse me?"
Triann lifted his glass in assent, and Kirk went aside with the chief engineer.
"Captain, I've had three engineers dismantle every connection in that tube. There is no possible way Sanders could've been electrocuted fallin' down it."
Cold touched Kirk's spine, until he realized the crewman died before the Romulans came on board. "Go over the corridor above and below it. He had to touch something."
The next day, diplomatic disaster struck. Two of the Romulans were eating in the common room when a Thrith strode in followed by two frustrated guards, and seated itself royally at a table.
Even if they did not know them, the Romulans could not be blind to the importance those guards gave to the alien. They turned.
The Thrith stiffened as if it had eyes in the back of its head, then it arose. Its lighted slits of eyes met the Romulans as if it had homed in on them, and instantly its head went up, nostrils expanding. "Remove these persons," it commanded coldly.
Both the Romulans slowly stood, muscles bunched and dangerous. Both sets of security guards' weapons abruptly showed. A fast-thinking officer close to a wall com hit it. "Security to Cafeteria Three, Emergency!"
One of the guards put himself bodily in front of a Romulan, when the Thrith intoned, "They offend me. Remove them."
Emergency security consisted mainly of a huge and angry Beruntian. If there were more, they went unnoticed. Her roar froze both sides in their tracks. "Out!" she bellowed to the priest, and indignantly, it obeyed. "Sit!" to the Romulans. Both they and their guards sat down fast. She stood, tail lashing, grimacing inwardly. The Thrith would make yet another protest of outrage to Starfleet. She would be an enlisted person for the rest of her life.
"How in Hell could that have happened!" Kirk's roar was only a few decibels less than the Beruntian's. All of the guards in question were ready to die.
"The lift was open, sir. We thought..."
"We were juggling six lifts at once, Captain. The laddie with the Mask was playin' havoc with the boards."
"Captain, the damage is done," Spock said. "The Romulans may not know who the Thrith are, but they now know they are on board."
"Romulans not know?" Scott made a disbelieving face. "They may skulk behind that Neutral Zone out of sight, but you can bet your bottom credit they know everthin' they want to know about this side."
Including the delegation? Kirk needed another of McCoy's pills. After those insults, he'd have his hands full trying to calm down Romulan fury. The Thrith, of course, had already lodged a complaint. Perhaps if he told the Romulan ambassador the Thrith was mad, and they were taking it to a mental rehab colony?
Razevich worked in the dimly lit engineering decks, checking panels. Odd, this shift never bothered him before. Now he found himself glancing in corners and every so often holding his breath, listening for...what? That funny crewman's death must have worked on his nerves. Weird. They had gone over every inch of that tube and the two decks, and found nothing that could have electrocuted him. He dropped his stylus then, curious to realize his palm was sweating and it had slipped.
He came up sharply. "Parker?" No answer, but he could have sworn he heard a sound. His relief hadn't come yet, and he checked the time. Not like her to be late.
He stiffened. All he heard were the normal sounds of the engines...and his own harsh breathing. He put his back to a panel. "Parker?" Something's out there! The sensation was so strong, he unconsciously backed toward a com unit. He could hear the rapid terror of his own heart. For no reason! Call shift watch. Eagerly, he pressed the com. Call the watch and see where his relief was...and hear a Human voice when suddenly he needed one.
The blackness caught him and crushed him against the panels. The shift watch station heard his cut-off shriek, and the sounds of his bones snapping.
"Two deaths!" Kirk shouted. "As soon as the Romulans come aboard, two deaths! There is no chance in Hell that is a treaty delegation!" A fist struck the com. "Tell the Warlord I'm on my way to see him now."
When the enraged Kirk entered, the wolf snarled. Triann's hand stilled her. "My father is meditating, Captain. May I be of assistance?"
"Get him out here. Now." Triann held the wolf with both hands, pulling it back. A guard with Kirk covered it with his phaser. A command in Romulan sent one of the staff into the inner rooms. He returned moments later with Elyan.
"Why are you on my ship? To destroy it from inside?"
The Romulan's face remained motionless. "May I ask why this--"
"Two of my crew were murdered!"
"I know nothing about it."
"We'll see how much nothing you know. And if you don't hold that beast back, I'll have it stunned."
"How thin trust is between Humans and Romulans," the ambassador spat.
"Two of my crew were crushed to death in engineering, an engineer and his relief."
"And one of us did this with our bare hands?" Elyan asked sarcastically.
"I don't know how you did it, but I'll find out. Commander?"
Stiffly, the Warlord went with them.
Normal interrogation procedures would not work, not with the disrupting Mask aboard. The computer-probes used sensors to detect body changes. Kirk took the Warlord to Sickbay where the medical machines could be employed to administer some old-fashioned truth serum.
They stepped in, and Chapel was unexpectantly leaving.
In a blinding motion, the Warlord seized her wrist and swung her around in front of him as a shield. The guards lifted their phasers to stun both when Elyan spat. "I can crush her neck first!"
"Stop!" Kirk held their fire. The Vulcan-like strength was capable of shattering the doctor's neck. "Let her free, Elyan."
"Don't be a fool. It is the only way you will stand and listen to me. We are not responsible for your deaths, Kirk!"
"Then what is?" he lashed back.
The door hissed open behind the backing Romulan and a hand swift as thought reached for the Warlord's neck. He fell at Spock's feet.
"You all right, Chris?" Kirk ran to them. At her shaken nod, he ordered, "Medical Security Room. Full restraints. Spock! Where did you come from?"
"The Thrithian ambassadors refused to speak with me. Security had you on visual."
"Small favors. Go put the other Romulans under house arrest," he ordered security.
Spock frowned, bothered by conflicting data.
Kirk stood in fury over the Warlord's couch. Their failure to elicit any information from any of them confirmed Spock's suspicions. "I see now why they wanted no Vulcan near them. Each of them possesses a truly disciplined mind-shield."
"Mind-shield? So no one could learn their plans? You are here to destroy my ship!" he accused.
"I care nothing for your ship, Kirk!" Elyan retorted. "My concern is not with you!"
"The Thrith." Realization thudded home. "You want to start a war."
The Romulan laughed. In fury, Kirk stopped himself from lunging forward and striking him. Then it slowly seeped in that the Warlord was not laughing in triumph, but in defeat. As if they were blindly unaware of some knowledge, some crucial piece of the puzzle. "Your ship will die, Kirk, and you yourself will be the cause of it."
"How? Tell me!"
This time Elyan smiled thinly. "If I tell you, you would die." The gray eyes gleamed. Perhaps I should then, eh? I would have the coup of your death, Captain. Before we all die."
"No more of my people will be killed. All the Romulans are now in the brig, along with that wolf of yours."
Elyan's head leaned back against the pillow, his eyes closed. "You fool, you fool..."
The wolf whined sharply. In the corridor outside, the guards shifted nervously. One fingered his phaser, casting quick glances down the empty corridor. "Weird. I've got the willies all of a sudden..."
"Yeah. I..." His companion was breathing hard. "I..."
The entire corridor plunged into blackness. Security Officer John Riker shouted in surprise, blinded by the lights of the force screen behind him. He slammed home the emergency alarm, the last act he would ever make.
The Romulans pressed against the far wall, away from the raging blackness outside the cell, though not surprised by it. Their mind shields kept back the waves of terror the thing used to disorient its victims. The wolf ran from side to side, bellowing, helpless.
A black wave touched the force field, and in the crackle of light, sucked back on itself. Then it boiled forward. The entire door blazed, and the Romulans covered their eyes at its white fury.
The thing boiled from wall to wall...then it intelligently smashed into the door control. Three of the Romulans screamed as a tendril lashed inside the broken door.
Then it rolled back on itself, retreating like black, oily smoke, as teams of security guards came running to the alarm.
The Romulan ambassador and two others were dead, the Warlord's son was suffering from secondary shock, and the wolf was gone. All of them were in medical security, under restraint.
"Your murderous ally tried to get you out, and something went wrong. It killed your men instead. Is your control weakening here, Commander?"
The Warlord shook his head, eyes closed and pained. "Captain, Captain... This is not our doing. Hatred blinds you. Perhaps it will not matter at all soon. It no longer conceals itself."
"It? What is killing my people! That wolf of yours is missing. If any of my crew die because of it..."
"No! The Pakari is..."
"Pakari?" Kirk asked softly, turning to the Romulan who spoke. The man had his head up arrogantly and refused to answer, but he had just made a fatal mistake, and he knew it. "I see." Kirk's smile had no humor in it. "Shall we see what that means, since you seem to have suddenly gone mute?" He pressed a tie-in with the computer. "Give me a definition and pertinent information of the word, 'Pakari.'"
"Working. Word not in data banks. Cross-checking with Memory Alpha computer." After a brief second of humming, it answered, "Pakari Warrior: race of shape changers. Home world: unknown. Basic humanoid form, but lacking rigid cell structure. Ability to reform body into animal shape, corresponding closely with Earth species, Canis lupus. Data insufficient on physical strengths and weaknesses. Romulans rumored to employ them as mercenary warriors. No corroborating data."
"We have that data here, don't we?" Kirk smiled at the Warlord, a mere stretching of his mouth. "Another werewolf. No wonder she vanished so completely. She's in humanoid form. Or Romulan! The humanoid lulls the victims' suspicions, and the Pakari kills them."
"No!" The Warlord heaved up so sharply that a restraining strap snapped. Kirk's phaser came up.
Elyan froze in the attempt to free his other wrist. He hunched in fury, grasping the strap. "Kirk, hear me! If you stop the Pakari, this ship will die! It is the Mask, you fool! The Mask!"
"The--" When did the first man die? Stunned, he turned sharply as the com broke in.
"We've got the wolf, sir. Level Four." The visual showed the wolf running. It stopped, circled fast, nose down, in a corner, then bounded off in a different direction. It looked like the thing was following a trail. "Seal off that section. On my way."
"Kirk!!!" the Warlord cried behind him.
He was still in the turbolift when security called. "Captain, the beast is on Detention Level now. It ducked into an access tube and swarmed up the ladder. We didn't think a dog could..."
"That's not a dog! Secure decks above and below it. I want that thing captured!"
The Pakari almost evaded them. But to Beruntian nostrils, the scent of the woman in the corridor was wrong. She warned the guards. The woman dropped down; one hand touched the deck.
"Don't try it," Kirk snapped, his phaser directly on her. "I don't think you can move faster than this. Get up."
Slowly the woman arose--black hair, dusky skin, the slanted, amber eyes of the beast. Striking beauty, animal-like, but not the smoldering sensuousness of an Orion animal-woman, but the cold, sharp aloofness of a falcon...or wolf.
"You'll come with us on your own accord or be stunned. Your try for the Mask is finished."
"The Mask is Death," her voice carried over the space between them. "It is not finished with you."
"Come here--carefully!" he commanded.
The Pakari's head went up, jerked to the side. At the same time, Kirk felt incomprehensible terror. It was dark at the end of the corridor, but suddenly the darkness passed between the Pakari and them. He heard a snarl of rage and pain as the beast changed. Then he saw the Pakari curl over and go down. The dark boiled forward.
"Fire into it!"
Phaser beams tore across the blackness with no effect. They backed rapidly, their aim thrown off by terror that roiled in front of the cloud. Three of the guards screamed as they were engulfed and crushed.
It came too fast to hit an emergency com. Kirk heard an alarm dimly, as he ran, and he knew they were seen on visual. Help would come too late; it was overtaking them now.
He was suddenly seized--but not by the thing, but by Wss'kan, and he was hurled into a brig cell. She slammed on the shield. Kirk's head impacted the wall, and he fell, unconscious. The next instant, Wss'kan screeched as the thing rolled over and shattered her.
Kirk came to in Sickbay, hearing McCoy's urgent voice raised in the background. "Bones...?"
"Jim! Get another IV in there, and hold it open. Easy," he turned back to the captain. "Wss'kan nearly cracked your skull throwing you in that cell."
"Dead, Jim, as are all the others who were with you." Spock was at his side. "The doctor is trying to save the Pakari. We saw only part of the battle before the visuals were destroyed by the unknown blackness."
"Battle? That was a slaughter! Nothing stopped that thing...Why aren't you on the bridge?!"
"My way is barred by two Thrith. Without Ensign Wss'kan's influence, they will not go elsewhere. If I enter the lift, they will come with me to the bridge. In light of the Warlord's accusation, I did not think that wise. If untrue, stunning them would spark a diplomatic..."
"Damn the Thrith!" He sat up, holding the back of his head in pain. "We have to get that killing thing off my ship!" The Mask is Death... His head came up at the memory of the Pakari's words. Then he was up and moving.
"Jim! You can't--"
"Spock, come with me." He ignored McCoy and went fast to the Warlord.
"What is the Mask? What does it do?" he demanded.
"It is a parasite. It feeds on the wearer's mind energy and becomes a separate physical entity. It will seek out those with knowledge of it with hunger. Only a shielded mind can prevent its learning of that knowledge. You and the security man will die. Mister Spock may have a chance to live. Yet it is likely too late for all of us now. The thing no longer hides."
"Where do you fit in this?" he snapped.
"At first, admittedly, merely to prevent the Federation from a diplomatic hold on the area. Our spies told us of the delegation and the Mask's supposed importance. Our first impulse was to steal the Mask."
"When we sought knowledge of this Thrithian race, however, a scholar informed us there was no history of such a mask in their possession. Puzzled, we sought further." His eyes met Kirk's. "The Thrith were not the first to possess the Mask. It has been used in other conquests, long ago. Most of those victims ceased to exist. Some, protected by mind-shields, fled. Those ancient exiles have kept legends of its power. We are irrevocably bound by oath to our allies to destroy the Mask."
"Then why not destroy this ship?"
The Romulan laughed in grudging respect. "This ship is not so easily destroyed. A fleet could not be brought into this area without war. Nor were we certain that the Mask beast would not be sent hunting onto our ships if we attacked."
"Then how did you propose to stop it?"
"The Pakari. Once we were among the enemy, the shape-shifter had a slim chance of penetrating to the Mask wearer, and surviving. No one would suspect the actions of a beast." He closed his eyes. "Now that surprise is lost. You lived, Captain. You will tell others what you saw. They cannot allow any of us to escape."
Kirk struggled whether to believe or not. Yet the thing was on his ship, killing his crew, and had to be stopped. "Why you?"
"We would never have been able to set foot on your ship otherwise. I am prepared to die."
"We could stun the Thrith delegates," the security guard said.
"It would only take a moment for the Mask wearer to don it," Elyan said wearily. "Could you guarantee you could move that fast? If the Mask is already on, you are dead men."
"The door, my father..." Triann murmured from the medical couch. Tersely, he told the Human captain the true story of the attack on the brig.
Kirk went white. If the Beruntian hadn't shoved him into that cell, he would be dead now. "We may have a weapon..."
"The Pakari?" Triann asserted anxiously. "Does she live?"
"Did you doubt, my son?" Elyan was amused.
"She's dying..." Kirk began.
"No. Unless she was totally destroyed, a Pakari is almost invulnerable. She will repair herself if a breath of life remains."
"Is it permitted to see her?" again Triann asked.
"She's still heavily sedated. But we must find out what she knows; she was closest to this thing than any of us and lived. If you can speak with her, to help us, we may have a chance to fight it. "
To Kirk's surprise, the Warlord said, "Go with him, my son. Do as he asks."
A look passed between the two Romulans, level calmness on one side and a surprise equal to Kirk's own on the other, then a look he couldn't fathom. "I obey, father."
"Tell McCoy to come in here and see if his patient can be mobile."
In Sickbay, the Romulan demanded the doctor pump six times the amount of stimulant into the Pakari that a Human could stand.
"Do it," Kirk ordered shortly.
A few minutes later, the wolf head on the pillow shimmered, reformed.
"Fascinating," Spock said. "Are they related to the Lyndraxians?" The Vulcan asked, referring to the alien intelligent species which were the source of the legends of werewolves on Earth.
"The Pakari do not go into your space, Captain." Triann said flatly. "They are from beyond our Empire." The woman stirred. Oblivious to the guards behind him, Triann hastened to her side, stretched out an anxious hand, and softly stoked the midnight hair. He ended by curving a palm along the side of her jaw. "Ayen?"
The Pakari turned her head into it, the way a dog would when caressed. Her eyes opened, revealing weak yellow slits.
Triann touched two fingers to her face. "It is good to have thee back." The translator above the bed altered the Romulan words. "Are thee well enough?"
"Soon..." Her eyes slid to the others.
"The Humans know why we are here. They have seen the thing strike thee down. They believe now."
"It could not pass the barrier..."
"Triann told us." Kirk came forward. "We may have a weapon there. What of the thing itself?"
"Formless, energy incompatible with the force screen. It has no substance until it kills with shock. Then it solidifies to crush. I do not know if it drinks blood or feeds on life-energy itself. It may control the Mask wearer instead of the reverse. It was senseless to show itself on this ship. Hunger may have driven it to carelessness."
The security chief of the port put in, "We could put a force screen around the Thrith and keep it in."
"They would know the reason for it and strike," Triann stated. "What if the Mask thing can be formed anywhere, even outside such a screen?"
"Then lure it into a fully screened room and turn the screens on to trap it."
"Momentarily." The woman disconcerted Kirk. The wolf-person was visible only in the eyes, the rest was a totally intelligent being. If they had had time to learn from such an incredible alien! Triann did not budge from her side. "You must also remove the Mask so it cannot reform."
Kirk was thinking fast. "The heavy-load transporter platform is shielded. We'd have to change the screens to manual control, independent of the transporter."
"McCoy to Kirk...Jim!"
Kirk slammed on the com. The doctor's hair was in his eyes, his hand at the back of his neck. "Damned Romulan got me with a nerve pinch! The Warlord's gone, Jim! Took one of the guard's phasers. He said..."
Kirk's brain flamed in rage at being tricked, Until McCoy said, "He said, 'Tell the captain I give him both excuse and time.' Now what--"
"I understand. Kirk out." The Warlord was giving him the chance he had to have. He first called security, then Scotty. At last he turned to Spock. "I hope all the years with Humans have given you the ability to lie through your teeth."
The Thrith had to be kept confined and unsuspecting, or as unsuspecting as possible. If they controlled the creature, they knew knowledge of its existence was not now confined to the Romulans and Kirk alone.
Spock knew the risks he was taking. The two guards with him had not been told of the creature's presence. The danger lay in the perfection of his mind-shield, or in its imperfection.
He bowed politely as he met two of them in the corridor, the same two which had prevented his ascent to the bridge. "I bring unwelcome news. One of our Romulan passengers has escaped and is now armed and extremely deadly. He has already killed several of our people. An animal trained by him is also loose. For your protection, we must ask you to go to your cabin and remain there until we recapture them."
"Refuse." Odd, Spock thought, watching those lighted slits of eyes, how much inner state is revealed by a Human's eyes, but the Thrith's thoughts are an unreadable wall. "You will see to our protection."
"I fear guards alone will not be sufficient. The Romulan seems able to kill silently and from a distance. We cannot take chances with your safety. It will be only for a short time."
The alien eyes went to the guards', then back to Spock's, silently and unnervingly assessing. Spock stood impassive. The guards had been told the same story and believed it. Spock played his final card. "Of course, the captain and I will be in our quarters, also. Only the menials will be risked in the corridors." They agreed instantly, and he left them in their quarters.
"Shall we go help with the search for the Romulan, sir?" a guard asked when they were a deck above.
"No. The Romulan has told us where he is."
Kirk called engineering on a secure channel. "Scotty, are you set up yet?"
"Almost finished on the screen. I've got this thing almost ready for the assault on the door."
"I want you to head that team. How long?"
"Ten minutes. What the--?"
A second voice came over the channel, and Kirk jerked up sharply. "How did you get on this secure channel?"
The Warlord laughed low. "I told you where I would be; I did not say I would remain idle. Your men watching me are safe; they merely decided to sleep suddenly."
In answer, the Warlord astonishingly switched the com to shipwide. "Captain Kirk, this is Fleet commander Elyan. I have full knowledge of the nature of the real killer on board your ship. I am at Transporter Platform Four. The Romulans are not the murderers. Something else is, and I will tell you that. Come to me." He cut off.
"What in the...What is he doing?" Come to me. He stopped short, stunned. That message was not for him. The Thrith heard that also. Bait...
Kirk came up on the Warlord's side, pressing his back to the wall, phaser ready, but unaimed. The Romulan was in front of the transporter arch. None of the engineers were in sight.
"Captain?" The Warlord did not look at him, or move. "You forgot a Romulan's ears are as good as a Vulcan's. I am not certain that it is you, but I would have come alone in your place."
"Where are my crewmen?"
"Stunned. In the hold behind me, where they will be safe."
"I am a better target than they are. The Thrith know of my knowledge. They will not resist the bait."
"It will kill you!"
The side of his face that was turned to him showed a half smile. "You do not understand a Romulan's honor, Captain. If you will look near your feet, you will find a device that will trigger this shield at a distance." Kirk looked. "When the thing comes, you must choose the instant to use it. I am directly between the terminals. When it seizes me, it will be solid between them also."
"Commander, you can't!"
"I have already done so. We all expected death on this mission, Captain. Let me choose mine with honor."
He shrugged for a long moment. "I won't stop you."
The Romulan smiled fully. "A shame we are not allies, Captain. You and I would have made worthy friends."
Kirk felt a prickle of fear down his spine. "It's coming..." He fastened his phaser and opened a channel on his wrist communicator, bending fast for the control device. "Spock!" he warned rapidly.
"On our way. Triann and the Pakari are already halfway down."
"Keep back! It has to go between the force screens." He realized he was speaking in a panicked voice, the fear wave of the cloud encompassing him.
He was in a side corridor and could not see the thing directly. The Warlord stiffened, but stood still. The space in front of him seemed to go dark, as if the lights were extinguished as the cloud boiled past, obscuring them. It came fast, so fast Elyan did not even cry out as the thing churned over him, and flashed the killing electrical shock.
Elyan fell outward, away from the barrier, and the thing engulfed him. The cloud roiled darkly, sensing Kirk. The captain did not hear the door hiss open.
The Pakari hurled forward and up.
The cloud solidified as it struck, impact rolling it backward. Kirk slammed the button home in the same instant.
With cloud and wolf outlined in flames, both shouting fury in the screen, Kirk covered blinded eyes. The door blinked out, and the Pakari fell with a thud. The cloud was gone.
"Now, Scotty, now!"
Scott blew the door mechanism on the Thrithian cabins. Three went down in phaser stun. The Priest with the Mask still on was sprawled on the floor, stunned in the backlash.
Chekov ripped off the Mask with his bare hands, then screamed as they were seared. Chapel pushed past the security and began to treat the burns. "I should be used to this by now," he bemoaned as she smiled shakily at him.
Scott moved fast, clamping jet and explosive charges onto the Mask. The metal began to heat. "Stand back, lads." He lifted it with tongs, chucked it fast into the corridor disposal, and ejected it. The jet pack carried it at top speed away from the Enterprise. At its limit, he detonated it.
The Enterprise rocked sideways with the explosion. In the lower corridor, Triann used his body thrown across the Pakari as an anchor. The ship righted. For a second, Kirk ignored the rapid shouts over the com of damage control. He stood, staring at the two Romulans in front of him, one lying in a dark green pool of his own blood, the other bent over the unmoving body of the Pakari. His stomach wrenched in a cultural shock to realize a Romulan could cry.
"By rights, she should be dead. But once we started her heart and got her breathing again, both have been working on their own. The readings indicate a deep healing coma. We've been pumping in stimulants for shock."
"Call me when she regains consciousness. I have a more immediate problem on my hands."
"What in blazes am I supposed to do with them, Bones? They entered Federation territory under false pretenses, but if they hadn't, the Mask creature would have wiped out the T'trell planet and this ship as well. The Romulans will probably go to war now that the Warlord and Ambassador are dead, and we have Elyan's son. One hell of a diplomatic mess! Starfleet's been on the com for the last hour."
"What about the Thrith? They were supposed to go to war, too, if the Mask was destroyed."
"The whole delegation was a ruse to get its killing power to their enemy. And if they complain, the synthesizers can make a replica. They can't say it's not unique without proving how and why, and they won't."
Kirk hated this. By rights, the Romulans were enemy prisoners now, and had to be treated as such. Yet if they were willing to go on a suicide mission into Federation territory, he did not think they would be lacking in methods to kill themselves, even though they had been searched. Triann's first words attested to that fact.
"We are still at war, Captain. A Romulan would never step forward with terms of peace first. We are prepared to die rather than become prisoners."
All of them turned to look at the Pakari.
"The ambassador is dead, but you still have a representative of Pakarr, and we are not at war with you, Captain." A brief smile that made the eyes look like those of a contented cat. "Perhaps we can discuss mutual benefits. I claim the Romulans as part of my entourage."
Triann blinked, but did not change his expression.
Kirk's mind raced through a thousand diplomatic meetings, seeking a precedent, then groaned silently. It would take months to sort that one out. Behind him, he heard McCoy choke, amused, "Checkmate, Jim."
Triann bowed, and his mouth had the unmistakable twitch of a smile. "Captain, my lady, the ambassador of Pakarr gives you greetings and hopes you will extend your goodwill and hospitality on the remainder of her visit."
"Neatly done," Kirk said, smiling in spite of himself. "I don't make light of the gravity of this situation, but you may have just opened such a diplomatic can of worms, that Starfleet will be glad to see you dropped across your borders again." He glanced at the Warlord's son, weighing him, and liking what he saw. "If the Romulans will not present terms for peaceful coexistence first, would they accept an attempt by our own ambassadors? We have too much to offer each other to remain at war forever."
Triann was silent for a long while. Then the wolf-shaped Pakari padded to his side, he gave her head a caress the same way his father had done. He did not look up, but his words had the eerie echo of another momentous decision.
"Captain Kirk, I will consider it..."
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