This can't be happening! Kirk's mind screamed.
Doctor Elizabeth Dehner crumpled to the ebony rocks and bluish dust of Delta-Vega, spent from her battle with the esper-mutant that had once been Gary Mitchell.
"Sorry, Captain! There isn't much time!"
Deja vu. It couldn't be; this had all happened years ago. A dream? But the choking dust seemed real enough, and the jagged boulder felt heavy in his arms as he hoisted it over the thing that had once been his friend. He paused, gazing down into Mitchell's eyes, brown once more, filled with remorse at the thought of the terrible thing he had to do.
"Forgive me, Gary."
But it was too late.
Mitchell's eyes and flesh again underwent their quicksilver transformation. The awesome psionic powers that had been drained by the struggle with Dehner had replenished themselves.
"I will forgive you for a moment, James. But your moment is fading!"
He flung his arms up and stopped the rock in its downward arc, and, with an easy thrust, propelled it and Kirk several yards away.
The captain of the Enterprise scrambled frantically to his feet as the Mitchell-creature ruthlessly, relentlessly stalked him. Even though he knew all that would happen next, Kirk once again felt the desperation, and yes, the stab of fear, as though he were experiencing it for the first time. He watched in horrified amazement as Mitchell bent and picked up a huge boulder that had to weigh at least half a ton, lifting it into the air as though it were a bale of hay.
And he felt the breeze brush his cheek as he ducked out of the way just in time.
It gave him the opening he was looking for. Mitchell was slightly off-balance, teetering near the edge of the grave that had been dug for Kirk. Lunging into action, the captain landed a drop-kick on his adversary's chest, knocking him into the open pit.
Even as the silver man slowly got to his feet, Kirk dived behind a jumble of rocks, coming up with the phaser rifle cradled in his arms. He aimed desperately and a little too quickly from his prone position. The shot went high.
He missed the gleaming creature climbing from the grave, but it blasted loose half of the cliff face behind him, including the huge granite slab with which Mitchell had intended to seal the tomb.
Mitchell fell back into the hole, flattened by the earthquake rumble as the avalanche of rock bore down on him in seeming slow motion. And knowing as he did that Mitchell had to die, that the mutant was a threat to the entire galaxy if he was not stopped, memories of the years of friendship and affection he felt for the real Gary Mitchell forced a shout from Kirk's lips.
"Gary, look out!"
The warning went unheeded. A shower of rock roared over the grave with a sound like thunder, tons and tons of stone sealing the man who would be a god into an unexpected sepulchre.
Kirk stood watching, sickened, until the sound subsided and the acrid cloud of dust dissipated. The agony of guilt and sorrow squeezing his chest into a tight knot seemed even stronger this time around, almost overwhelming him with grief. Then he turned, and the pain tore at him even more savagely as he watched Elizabeth Dehner dying a lonely death on an alien, rock-strewn planet, the victim of a force from beyond the galaxy.
The beautiful woman vainly tried to raise her head to face him. He dropped beside her, his uniform tunic a shattered ruin, his body bruised and sore from the fighting, and caked with sweat and grime and blood. She was attempting to speak, and he bent closer to hear her.
"I...I'm sorry," she whispered. "You can't know what it's like...to be almost a god!"
And then she died, her head sinking into the gritty azure sand.
Kirk rested for a moment, breathing heavily. Gently, he smoothed down her golden hair. Then, with a deep sigh, he rolled to a sitting position and wearily pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Mitchell and Doctor Dehner are both dead, Mister Spock. Beam me up."
Perhaps now this bizarre vision will end, Kirk thought distractedly.
But it didn't.
The familiar transporter hum commenced momentarily; the mighty starship reclaimed her captain and the body of one crewmember. But the images remained. He watched them as he would the playback of a tricorder cassette. They remained focused on the rock pile that marked the final resting place of Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell.
The sky gradually darkened into late afternoon; sparse shadows lengthened and deepened. Twilight died, and night began to fall.
And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the stones began to vibrate, to move. They rolled back, one by one, until finally they exploded outward, clearing the grave.
A trembling hand tentatively thrust upward, feeling along the edge of the blue soil. Then a gold-clad arm followed, an arm whose sleeve was encircled with the braid of a Starfleet officer.
Kirk sat bolt upright on his bunk, his tongue cleaving to the roof of a dry mouth.
It was night period, and he was off-duty in his quarters on the U.S.S. Enterprise, sweat coursing down his body. His heart pounded like a triphammer; his breath came in short, terrified gasps.
Slowly, the iron control of Kirk the Starship Captain reasserted itself. Another nightmare, the second such vision of Gary Mitchell he had experienced since the Enterprise had begun a rim survey in the quadrant which contained an obscure little planet named Delta-Vega.
Kirk arose slowly and stretched, trying to untie some of the knots in his neck and shoulders. He had not returned to that forbidding planet since the Mitchell incident. Indeed, the Enterprise had been the last ship to visit there. Soon after, starship engines had been converted for use with the more stable dilithium crystals, and the old, automated lithium cracking station had been rendered obsolete. There was no reason for a space vessel to stop at Delta-Vega. It was a barren, useless world. Besides that, it was extremely remote, located at the so-called "edge" of the galaxy.
But why the nightmares? He had never been plagued with bad dreams in his life, save for that dark, terrible, brooding period after the visit to the Guardian of Forever and Edith Keeler's subsequent death. And, of course, Miramanee. And these were so real, so crystal clear. He shuddered involuntarily. Could I be hallucinating? Could the strain of command be getting to him, could he be losing his grip? He knew better than that. Got to stop this, he thought to himself. Pretty soon they'd be locking him in a little room with rubber walls. With a shake of his head, he dismissed that train of thought.
What he couldn't dismiss, however, were his nightmares, try as he might. Why Mitchell? Had the Enterprise's proximity to Delta-Vega triggered graphic subconscious memories that manifested themselves in dreams? Or was it guilt? Did he blame himself for Mitchell's tragic mutation and death? A lot of water had gone under the bridge since then. The Enterprise had gone on to complete its legendary five-year mission, and he and his crew had returned to a tumultuous heroes' welcome. But while his beloved starship had been dry-docked to be redesigned and refitted with the latest technology, engines, and weaponry, he had been condemned to two and a half years in limbo as an admiral in the hierarchy, a living symbol of the heroism of Starfleet. Then, by a twist of fate, he was returned to the Enterprise along with his original command crew to successfully counter the V'ger menace.
In gratitude, Starfleet had given him back what he wanted most in his life: permanent command of the Enterprise once again. His ship, his old crew, back in the only place he belonged: in command, sure of himself, confident in his abilities and those of the crew of perhaps the mightiest space vessel ever to span the stars. And not in the front office, where he was a miserable, desk-bound misfit.
But what about back then, years ago? Maybe it was his fault that Mitchell and Dehner had been destroyed. He had been less experienced then as a starship commander. If the Enterprise had not probed the galactic energy barrier on his orders, Gary Mitchell might still be alive...
Kirk slammed a fist against the top of his bureau. No, damn it! They had been duty-bound to press on. All crewmembers were expendable on a priority mission, even the captain. He had known from the day he left the Academy that he would someday be forced to give an order that might cost a life...or lives. It made no difference whether the price of that command was a personal friend, or a green recruit he did not even know.
The clammy sleepsuit clinging to his body reminded him that he needed a shower, even though it was in the middle of the "night". Kirk stripped off his perspiration-soaked clothes. He tossed them into the recycle chute and stepped into the sonic shower in one smooth motion.
The invigorating, needle-sharp spray brought him back to life, driving away the tensions. He began to relax, lost in thought. What about the Mitchell dreams? Was he becoming played out, overwrought? He had to find out, for his own sake, and the sake of his command. And he would, one way or another.
"If you ask me, it's that high-falutin' sense of responsibility of yours," Doctor Leonard McCoy growled. He poured two cups of coffee, one for himself and one for Kirk, as it was just a mite too early in the day for Saurian brandy.
"You really believe that's what it is, Bones?"
McCoy nodded vigorously as he joined Kirk at the small table in the otherwise empty mess hall. He had gotten over his initial irritation at being roused out of bed an hour earlier than he was accustomed to when he realized that the captain was disturbed. The total well-being of the Enterprise's commander was his primary responsibility.
"The way I see it, Jim, you've always had a healthy guilt quotient. If a sensitive diplomatic mission fails and you're in any way involved, if you lose a crewman in a landing party, if the Klingons attack an unprotected outpost settlement, you personally take all the blame. For Christ's sake, I wouldn't be surprised if you took the responsibility for a local sun going nova!"
Kirk smiled. The crusty physician was just the tonic he needed. "Seriously, though, Bones. I amthe captain."
"Of what? The galaxy?! You are the commander of a Federation starship. You are responsible for four hundred and eighty Starfleet personnel. It's your job to ensure their safety and the safety of this heavy cruiser...but only to the best of your ability, and while your ability is tremendous, you are not responsible for controlling all the independent variables of the universe!"
Kirk thoughtfully sipped from his steaming mug. "The dreams bother me, though. Last night it was Delta-Vega. A couple of nights ago it was Dimorus. We encountered a race of rodent-like humanoids. There was a skirmish, and four of my landing party were killed by the poisoned darts these creatures used. Gary took one meant for me, and it almost killed him."
"Aha!" McCoy almost shouted. "There you go again! How the hell do you know it was meant for you? If you want to look at it philosophically, or even theologically, you could say it was Fate that Mitchell was supposed to be there, he was supposed to take that dart, just as he was supposed to be affected when you hit the energy barrier. It's not your fault he was susceptible to the energy discharge because he had a high esper rating."
The chief surgeon paused. "Jim, you've been told this a thousand times, and it's true. You are unquestionably the finest starship commander in the fleet, maybe the best in history. But it wouldn't lessen your ability if you eased up on yourself a bit. You thought these dreams might be a sign that command pressures were getting to you. You weren't sure, and it was right for you to tell me about them. But the answer is simple; you arrived at it yourself."
"Not quite," said McCoy as he shook his head. "Misplaced guilt feelings. You did everything you could, and more. Gary was your friend. The two of you went back a long way. And you were the one who had to kill him. The fact that our survey is in the same region as Delta-Vega is raising hell with your subconscious, and your subconscious is kicking up a fuss and causing your nightmares. It's a lot like an infection causing an abscess."
Kirk grinned at his friend. "You ought to change your name to Leonard Freud."
"C'mon, Jim, cut the bull!" McCoy grumbled good-naturedly. "I could run a whole series of psychological tests, but it would only waste your time and mine. I know what I'd find. Besides, there's been no evidence that your ability to command is anything less than excellent right now."
"Thanks, Bones," Kirk said fervently. "I think I've got an idea for my own kind of therapy, too. Spock says we'll be finishing this bench-marking run about five standard days early. We'll be off-call, and I've had this idea for the last couple of days to divert and stop off at Delta-Vega. I'd like to visit the gravesite."
Kirk's face darkened. "Poor Gary. Buried on a speck of dust thousands of lightyears from home. It won't hurt to stop and pay my respects. I owe him that much."
McCoy's eyes narrowed. "Okay, Jim. If it'll make you feel better, go ahead. Maybe it'll assuage those guilt feelings you're going to carry around on your shoulders, even though I've told you that you don't have to! Just don't let it become an obsession."
Kirk chuckled. "Don't worry, Bones; it won't. I'm just going to pay a visit. C'mon, let's grab some breakfast before the rest of the day shift gets here. All this psychoanalysis has made me hungry."
"I wouldn't worry about any of the crew showing up for a while yet," McCoy grumbled. "They're still sleeping like most sane people are while off-duty at this time, or they're busy working the late shift, and don't have the time to come down to eat."
The two men laughed heartily as they made their way to the food dispensers, but McCoy's mind was in high gear. He made a mental note to check the library comp when he got back to Sickbay. He wanted to examine the ship's logs for a time-period commencing Stardate 1312.5.
It was on that date the Enterprise, with Gary
Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner aboard, had probed beyond the frontier of the galaxy, where
no man had gone before.
Captain's Log, Stardate 7475.3
First Officer Spock recording.
The bridge of the Enterprise was a study in controlled boredom. Helmsman Sulu and Navigator DiFalco sat listlessly at their stations, trying to stay awake. Uhura monitored the infrequent bursts of subspace chatter in an attempt to look busy, while Lieutenant Chekov ran the weapons control station through endless battle simulations.
Only Mister Spock was truly occupied. The Vulcan hovered over his slide-out console at the sciences station as his cameras scanned and photographed computer-enhanced images of selected starfields.
Star mapping. It was important, necessary. It was also routine, and dull, screamingly dull. But it was a basic function of a starship, even an elegant, completely refurbished, pride-of-the-fleet vessel like the Enterprise, and though unwelcome, it had to be tolerated.
Chekov was stifling a yawn as Kirk bounded through the turbolift doors onto the bridge. Everyone became suddenly alert.
"Mister Spock, how much time is needed to complete the survey?" the captain asked.
The science officer replied distractedly, concentrating on his scanner. "Just a few more plates, Captain." He was silent for a time, then he straightened and faced the command chair. "Concluded."
Sighs of relief were heaved by certain bridge personnel.
"Good. We're to proceed to Starbase Twelve for debriefing and data processing, and we're not due for another five days," Kirk said. "Since we've got a little extra time, Chief DiFalco, plot and lay in a course for Delta-Vega. We're taking a little side trip."
Spock's right eyebrow rose. "Delta-Vega, sir? Would I be considered impertinent if I inquired as to the purpose of this 'side trip'?"
Kirk swiveled to face his Vulcan friend. "No, Mister Spock, you would not. Let's just say that we're going to pay our respects to the dead."
DiFalco was puzzled by the captain's unusual request. "Course plotted and laid in, sir," she said uncertainly. "Bearing nine-three-zero mark eight. Our E.T.A. is one point two standard hours at Warp Two."
The pretty, dark-haired navigator shook her head in bewilderment. Why does the captain, or anyone else for that matter, want to visit such a desolate world? It meant nothing to her.
But it did mean something to Sulu. He had been a green lieutenant then in the astro-physics section, on his first deep space assignment, and he had seen the tragedy that befell poor Mitchell and Doctor Dehner. Why are we going back to that grim planet? He looked apprehensive as he began to pilot the Enterprise to her destination.
Kirk sat back in the command chair. There. It's done. They would go to Delta-Vega, and he could square himself with his conscience. He could lay his guilt feelings to rest at that lonely tomb, and bury the entire incident along with them.
He sat back, trying to relax and enjoy the ride, and found his mind drifting back to the time when a brash, charming young cadet named Gary Mitchell had 'fixed up' an instructor, one James T. Kirk, with a stunning little blonde lab technician named Carol Marcus!
Doctor Leonard McCoy switched off his comp terminal and sat back in his lounger, astounded by the information he had just gathered from the Enterprise log extracts. He had always heard that the "Mitchell Incident," as it was commonly referred to in Starfleet circles, had been an incredible event, but if he himself had not gotten the facts directly from the starship's main computer, he would have sworn it was the stuff of a drunken dream induced by a little too much Canopian flamewater. The psionic power infused into Mitchell and Dehner via contact with the energy barrier was awesome, and coupled with the deluded dementia of godhood, it did indeed make such a creature a menace to intelligent life anywhere in the galaxy. He or she could wipe out an entire planet with the wave of a hand, and bring it back again if he or she so desired. The chief surgeon shook his head. A mutated superior being, one who considered Homo sapiens sol as little more than an insect to be brushed aside--or squashed, according to whim. What Jim Kirk had said in the logs was enough to make him reach for a bottle of the aforementioned Canopian intoxicant!
"Did you find what you were looking for, Leonard?"
Doctor Christine Chapel had come up quietly behind McCoy so as not to disturb him. So successfully had she done this that the physician nearly fell out of his chair in alarm.
"Oh! Goodness--I'm sorry..." she began.
"Whew! That's okay, Christine. I think I was just a little too preoccupied with those tapes. I didn't hear you at all. I was trying ta get some background info on the Enterprise's barrier probe of a few years ago."
"Oh, you mean the one where the captain's friend was killed?" Her handsome, mobile face clouded as she recalled the things she had heard about the tragic accident.
"Yeah. Gary Mitchell. I'm sure you know enough of the details. At any rate, even though he realizes that it was his duty to order the probe, Jim blames himself for the death of Mitchell and the others, and he's carrying the guilt around with him. He's been having nightmares, mostly from subconscious suggestion, I think, because we're so close to Delta-Vega. He's trying not to show it, but I think it really bothers him. In his dream last night, he relived the struggle on the planet that resulted in his being forced to kill Mitchell, and the dream ended with Mitchell digging his way out of the grave after the ship left orbit."
Chapel frowned. "Hmmm. It's as though he's trying to ease his guilt feelings by 'wishing' Gary Mitchell back to life."
McCoy nodded. "That's what I think, too. But that's not all. He's going to divert the Enterprise to Delta-Vega and beam down to the grave. He wants to purge himself of the bad feelings, but that could make it grow worse. Christine, I'm worried that this thing could get blown out of proportion. You know how much of a strain command puts on a man. It's easy for something like this to really get to you, especially when it's something you thought you'd put behind you, and especially when it had to do with your best friend at the time. You think you've gotten over it, but you've only buried it just under the surface all these years, and it comes back to haunt you." He glanced up at his colleague, his expression thoughtful. "Chris, I'd appreciate it if you'd personally monitor Jim's perscan very closely until this thing gets cleared up. If you notice any drastic changes in his stress readings, take the appropriate action immediately, or call me right away."
"Of course, Leonard. But I hope it doesn't come to that." She hurried away to reprogram a special channel in the med computer which would enable her to monitor Kirk via the personal scanner implanted in his belt ornament.
McCoy turned back to his viewscreen. He was about to punch up Doctor Mark Piper's medical logs covering the incident when the intercom page interrupted him.
"Bridge to Doctor McCoy." It was Lieutenant Commander Uhura.
"McCoy here. Go ahead."
"Sir, Captain Kirk requests that you report to Transporter Station Three for landing party duty."
"Acknowledged. I'm on my way. McCoy, out." He sighed and stood up.
They had reached the scene of Kirk's nightmare.
The landing party materialized into a virtual paradise.
"Remarkable," Spock said, his tricorder instantly out and scanning the vast jungle of plant life. "There is a profusion of vegetation covering an area of approximately forty-one point thirty-six square acres, fruit and orchard trees from over a hundred planets in the galaxy. The dominant species appears to be Kaferian apple trees."
"Gary's 'Garden of Eden'," murmured Kirk.
It would take a miracle to survive here, she had said.
Then I shall make one, he had replied.
"Yes," Kirk said. "Kaferian apples. They were Gary's favorite. He created this garden spot just before he...well, anyway, it seems to have spread far beyond its original boundaries."
"But this isn't the way this planet was the last time ye were down here, Captain," Scotty put in.
"He's right," Sulu added. "Geology is one of my hobbies, and I read the surveys on Delta-Vega. It was listed as being composed almost entirely of igneous rock and vitrified sand, with very little scrub vegetation. "And the climate..." He gestured at the trees, which stirred to balmy breezes under a warm, sunlit sky. "It's supposed to be cold and extremely hostile. Not like this. This is like a resort planet."
"I know," Kirk returned. "It doesn't make any sense to me, either. Spock?"
The Vulcan sighed with something like mild exasperation. "Unknown, Captain. The temperate zone extends over the range of the garden area, after which the climate reverts to the colder norms of Delta-Vega. Also beyond this boundary, the terrain once again becomes rocky. The underground springs which Mitchell 'created' at the time he produced his small garden would sustain the immediate vicinity, but it seems unlikely that they could support the spread of such a large area of verdure, particularly in such a short span of years. And there is no known meteorological phenomenon to account for the existence of a small site of temperate climate in one specific locale on an otherwise hostile planet."
He looked up from his tricorder. "Indeed, Captain. I am at a loss to explain it."
"Well, I'll be! The Vulcan computer is stumped," needled McCoy. "I never thought I'd live to see the day!"
Spock shot him a glance of mild annoyance. It was just the response the doctor had hoped for. Irritation crept into the science officer's voice. "I take it, Doctor, that you are deriving amusement from my puzzlement?"
"You're damned right!" McCoy chortled. "Better watch it, Spock. As I always used to say, you're becoming more Human all the time. One of these days you're going to throw a temper tantrum and stomp the hell out of your tricorder if you can't figure something out!"
The landing party erupted into gales of laughter. The image of an enraged Spock jumping up and down on his scanner was priceless. Even the Vulcan allowed himself a slight smile. He was not averse to a mild display of feelings when the occasion warranted. His mind-link with the V'ger probe had revealed to him new dimensions of the concept of emotion, and while there was still Vulcan dignity to be maintained, this 'new' Spock was a much warmer personality than he had been in the past.
And that was why Leonard McCoy enjoyed their classic verbal skirmishes all the more. There was more of a chance than ever that his jabs would get to the Vulcan, and McCoy wouldn't rest until one day he had the staid first officer rolling on the floor in helpless hilarity.
Besides, he thought wryly, laughter is good therapy, and not just for Vulcans. His watchful gaze fell on Kirk, who held his sides as he gradually regained his composure.
"All right, gentlemen," he finally managed. "Mister Spock, we'll research your little problem more thoroughly with the ship's sensors when we beam up. Right now, there's something else I've got to do." He sobered as he thought of the nameless grave that lay beneath the summit of a cliff that was visible in the middle distance.
They started toward the jagged face of rock when Kirk abruptly halted. He turned and looked back into the grove of apple trees. Chekov knelt under one of them, scooping up handfuls of the ripe, delicious fruit.
Kirk grinned fondly at the sight of his young security chief. "Lieutenant Chekov, would you care to join us?" he called.
The young Russian started. He sprang to his feet and hurried to join his companions, stuffing as many apples as he could into the pockets of his duty jacket. "I'm sorry, Kyptin," he puffed. "I am partial to Kaferian apples myself."
"Quite all right, Lieutenant Chekov. We aren't here in an official capacity, so relax."
"Thank you, Kyptin," the Russian returned. "Did you know that Kaferian apples are actually of Terran origin? They vwere dewveloped by a Russian horticulturist from Kiev and transplanted to the stars!" He bit into one of the golden orbs as his shipmates broke up again.
McCoy nodded in approval. They were all trying to keep it light, to keep Jim Kirk's mind off the grim memories the place evoked. And they were handling it well; the humor was natural, unforced. It was so easy to become too heavy-handed at a time like this.
They had gone a little way when Scotty suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. "Captain! Would ye look over there!"
The chief engineer pointed excitedly to a small field, a field that was ripe, not with exotic, wild-growing fruit trees, but with plowed, cultivated rows of domestic crops.
"Fascinating," Spock said. "Those obviously have not occurred naturally."
"Could some group of settlers have come here to take advantage of this pocket of mild climate?" This from McCoy who stared incredulously at the neat stands of wheat and corn and soybeans. Terran crops, on a planet half a galaxy removed from Earth.
"I don't know," Kirk answered. "But this reminds me of some of the surface farms I saw in Iowa when I was a kid. This place is turning into a real enigma. I think we'll look around a little bit after we go to the gravesite."
They rounded an outcropping of rock, and they were there.
And James T. Kirk suddenly felt as though someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on him.
For instead of a crude grave covered over with tons of stone, they found an empty, gaping hole in the ground.
"Oh, my God!" Kirk whispered. "Just like in my dreams!" He whirled around wildly, trying to look everywhere at once, whipping out his phaser as he turned. "Phasers on maximum!" he snapped.
"Jim!" McCoy rasped as the men drew their weapons. "Take it easy! There's a logical explanation for this! There are obviously settlers on this planet. They came across the grave, realizing what it was, and moved Gary's remains to a more suitable resting place! The dead don't walk again!"
"Unless they never died, Doctor! I'm not feeling very logical just now!" Kirk's eyes swept the rugged terrain warily, looking for...what?
"Captain," Spock said quietly. "There is a life form, apparently Human, coming toward us from that direction." The Vulcan indicated a low hill off to their left.
Kirk followed his science officer's pointing finger, and his blood froze.
"Hello down there!"
The man was moving at a dead run. His dark brown hair was fairly long, almost shoulder length, and his beard was full. He was about medium height and built with
an athletic frame. His attire consisted of loose-fitting shirt and slacks, and a pair of soft, comfortable Arcturian desert boots.
Even at this distance, there could be no mistake. He was a ghost.
"Jim! Spock! My God, is it really you?!"
The man was Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell, officially listed as killed in the line of duty, Stardate 1314.7.
"That's about all I can tell you, Jim," Gary Mitchell finished.
He lolled on McCoy's body scan table in the gleaming new sickbay, his warm, brown eyes wide with admiration as they took in the assortment of sophisticated and exotic life sciences equipment.
"Hold still for just a few more minutes, Gary," McCoy snapped. "We'll have you out of here in no time."
"Okay, Doc," Mitchell chuckled as McCoy and Doctor Chapel consulted medical monitors and console viewers. "You're the boss."
"And you never once had another flash of that psionic power after you got free of the grave?" Kirk persisted. He and Spock stood watching as the two physicians completed their examination. Mitchell could see the two officers at the edge of his vision as he lay on the scanner rack. What he couldn't see was the trio of helmeted, heavily armed security guards just outside in the hall.
"Yeah, just like I told you. I managed to keep that avalanche from crushing me, but it still had me pinned down for quite a while. It took me all the rest of that day, pushing at the rocks with all of that weird power in me until I could blow away the opening of the grave. And when I climbed out, I was exhausted. I could feel the esper power draining out of me, and somehow I instinctively knew that I wouldn't be able to get it back. So with the last bit of my strength, I altered the climate in the area around the cracking station. I willed the orchards to spread out, I willed cultivated crops to grow. I even willed the cracking station to convert itself into self-sustaining unit, with food synthesizers, running water, heat, entertainment, the works. I knew I had to survive, so the last thing I did with my dwindling psi power was to convert the area into a paradise. Food, shelter, I thought of everything." His eyes suddenly took on a haunted look, and his voice cracked. "Well, almost everything. I was so damned lonely all those years! You can't know what it's like..."
He stopped for a moment to compose himself, his body trembling. Finally, he continued. "Sorry. Didn't mean to get carried away. Anyway, the climate stayed mellow, and the plants kept growing, and I lived like a king, when you consider the circumstances. But there wasn't even anyone to talk to!" He stopped again, his face a mask of anguish. "I don't think I could have gone on much longer like that if you hadn't come along. My physical needs were all compensated for, but I think my mind would have started to go in a little while. At any rate, that was it. I never once even had the briefest glimmer of the esper strength after that. It was as though escaping from the tomb and altering the environment took every last ounce of the power. I collapsed after I finished that; I slept for two and a half days. It came awfully close to killing me."
He laughed at the irony of it. "Funny, isn't it? Trying to stay alive almost did me in!"
"All right, Gary, you can get down now," McCoy said. "You're in excellent shape. You don't have the textbook readings Doctor Piper found when your esper sense was heightened, but you've kept yourself in fine shape all these years."
Mitchell grinned disarmingly. "I try, Doc. Thanks for the exam."
As he swung his legs over the edge of the scan table, Kirk whispered to Spock. "I think we can dismiss the guards, Mister Spock, but have Security monitor his movements for the time being."
"Affirmative. On the surface, however, it would appear that Mister Mitchell has returned to normal in every sense of the word."
"Just the same, I'm going to stick with him for a while," Kirk rejoined. "Give him a tour of the ship. Take command for now."
Spock left Sickbay as Mitchell strolled over to Kirk. "What next, Jim? I'm kinda anxious to take a look at the ship. She sure has changed!"
"Well then, why don't we look her over? But first we'll get you settled into quarters on Level Five; you can shower up before we take the tour if you like."
"Sounds good," Mitchell enthused. "When I was a hermit down there, the Robinson Crusoe look was fine, but now that I'm back on board, I think I'll get a regulation shave and haircut!"
"Fine," Kirk said. "I'll arrange for it. I'm going to reinstate you as a Starfleet officer, lieutenant commander grade, but you'll be on active reserve, no official duties for the time being. We'll update you on all the stuff you've missed out on the past few years, as though you were a trainee again. It might be a little tough for a while, but I know you can do it. I'll have McCoy feed your vital stats to stores. They'll fabricate a complete set of standard duty uniforms for you, and they should be ready by the time you get cleaned up."
The captain extended his hand to his longtime friend. "Welcome back, Gary!"
"It's good to be back," he said softly. "God, I never thought this could happen!"
"It's good to have you back," Kirk said with sincerity.
"Well," Mitchell sighed and slapped his palms against his chest. "Let's get to it! I can't wait to check this baby out!"
Kirk laughed at his enthusiasm. "Okay, okay! We'll head on down to five and scare up a bunk for you. Bones, I'll come back while Gary's making himself presentable and go over his test results with you so I can officially reactivate his commission."
"Stay with him, Gary," McCoy called out as the two men exited. "It's easy to get lost around here. I still don't know where the hell I am half of the time!"
Their laughter trained behind them as the sickbay doors hissed shut.
"Well, Bones, what do you think?"
McCoy sighed as he ejected a cassette from the biocomp. "If you're asking if I think he's a menace to the galaxy, a monster, I'd say no. I couldn't find any traces of abnormalities in his brain scan; EEG's read normal. There were no engramic impulses or energy discharges that would indicate extraordinary esper ability, and there's always at least residual energy traces with even minute psionic capability. Power of the magnitude Gary had would have overloaded my sensors, blown 'em to smithereens! I'd say forget about it."
The physician paused, scowling.
"What's the matter?" Kirk asked anxiously.
"There is a potential problem," McCoy continued. "Physically, he's in great shape. Psychologically, he's going to need help adjusting. He's been desperately lonely all this time, and now he's suddenly thrown into a situation where he has four hundred eighty-five people to interact with. He needs to mingle with people for the sake of his mental health, but he's got to do it gradually; if he tries to make friends with everybody at once (which I might add, is a common occurrence in many cases where someone's been isolated this long--remember Charlie Evans?), it could be as bad for him as the loneliness. He's a very resilient individual, but I'm going to keep my eye on him all the same."
Kirk chuckled. "I wouldn't worry about Gary too much, Bones. He's more interested in one-on-one relationships, specifically with the distaff side. If I know him, the first blonde or brunette who sweeps him off his feet will be sweet-talked into stealing away to a privacy cubicle in the engineering hull, and nature will take its course. And that will be the end of his loneliness problem!"
"Now I know why the two of you have always gotten along so well," McCoy said, smiling. "Birds of a feather, love 'em and leave 'em, and all that."
Kirk screwed up his face in mock anger. "Why Doctor McCoy! How dare you insinuate such a thing!"
"Insinuate, hell!" McCoy needled. "Sickbay is the nexus for all the gossip and scuttlebutt that goes on aboard this ship! I know everything that goes on around here!" He paused, and stared directly at Kirk for effect. "Everything!"
The captain actually blushed. "Yes. Well, uh, don't go repeating idle rumor, Chief Surgeon. It's unbecoming to your profession!"
McCoy's grin was absolutely devilish. "Oh, don't worry, Captain, sir. My lips are sealed."
He could hear the doctor collapse into a machine-gun chuckle as he hurriedly escaped into the corridor.
Gary Mitchell had just left his new quarters when Kirk caught up with him. Like the captain, he was dressed in a class A standard uniform, short-sleeved, white knit tunic and oyster-colored pants. He looked ecstatic, like a little boy who has just been given free run of the toy store. His clean-shaven face beamed, and he brushed back a stubborn forelock of his freshly shorn hair. Kirk was glad of his decision to reinstate Mitchell's commission and get him involved in the ship's activities, if only peripherally at first. And the misgivings he had upon seeing Gary Mitchell alive and well were rapidly vanishing. After all, Mitchell was his friend, and he would need help re-entering everyday life again. And Kirk felt he owed him something for all those lonely years on Delta-Vega.
"Well, Commander. I see you're ready to go."
"You got that right, Jim! I've been champing at the bit!"
Kirk conducted the tour with all the pride of a new father, explaining in detail the staggering amount of redesigning and modifying that had been carried out while the mighty starship had been in drydock. He smiled as he watched Mitchell gape in awe of the shiny, sleek new hardware. For his part, Mitchell was a good student. His attention span was broken only when particularly curvaceous crewpersons ambled by, but since Starfleet personnel were required to be in prime physical condition, the interruptions were a bit more frequent than Kirk would have liked. He tried to be indulgent. After all, the man had not even seen a woman in years, and Kirk, imagining himself in the same situation, could sympathize with his friend.
"Well," Mitchell remarked after one very delightful distraction, "it's good to see some things haven't changed!"
They both laughed, and then Mitchell, to his credit, tried to get back down to business. "Now, what was that you were saying about increased engine efficiency, Jim?"
"Well, since her uprating with the new engines, the Enterprise now has a cruising speed of Warp Eight, with an emergency factor of Warp Twelve. We can also tie warp power into our weaponry now, which makes a refitted Constitution class cruiser just about the most formidable ship in space. And it happened none too soon. The Klingons have also upgraded their battlecruisers. The old class D-7 ships are being replaced with something called the K't'inga class. We got our first good look at them when a cordon of cruisers unsuccessfully tried to blast the V'ger-being out of space. Station Epsilon Nine managed to launch a probe drone right in their midst without being detected. They are big, mean-looking vessels, but I think we can handle them. Not by much, but I think we can."
"So the Klingons are still causing trouble," Mitchell mused.
"That's putting it mildly, Gary," Kirk laughed. "Starfleet has gone into a crash program to uprate all the starships in the fleet as soon as possible. You see, the Klingons have also developed a new type of warrior."
Mitchell did a double-take at that news. "A new breed of Klingons?"
"That's right," Kirk said. "About thirty standard years ago, Klingon geneticists successfully completed a program of selective breeding, a program in which they hoped to develop the ultimate Klingon warrior. They selected all the traits their culture deemed desirable: courage, strength, ferocity, cunning, ruthlessness, savagery, you name it. The result was a sort of Klingon superman, the Kh'myr warrior, or, as they're called in the vernacular, the Maximum Defender. And they make any Klingon you've ever known seem about as dangerous as your old silver-haired grandmother!"
"Whew!" Mitchell whistled softly. "That sounds just peachy."
"Yeah, to say the least. Anyway, they're bigger and stronger than the other two sub-races you're familiar with, about twenty times as vicious, and totally amoral. Their appearance is bizarre, also. They resemble the darker race of Klingons: swarthy complexion, dark hair and beards, bifurcated eyebrows. But the top of the skull is completely bald, with the hair growing thick and long on the sides and back. The strange part is the ridge of bone on the head. It's an extension of the spinal column and goes completely over the top of the skull, ending at the bridge of the nose. It seems to suggest to our xeno-anatomy experts in the surgeon general's office that they have a stronger, harder, thicker skeletal structure under a musculature that's almost as powerful as a heavy-planet alien's."
"Just the kind of guy I wouldn't want to meet in the dark!" Mitchell exclaimed.
Kirk laughed. "You and me both! Anyway, these supermen started filtering into Klingon starship crews about five years ago, and now they make up the majority of the personnel. Starfleet's extremely concerned. This new breed has a total lack of concern for the Organian Treaty, and violation of it could lead to interstellar war."
"Wait a minute," Mitchell asked. "I heard a couple of guys in the barbershop talking about that. I thought they said that the Organians were these super-beings who would intervene in any hostilities between the Federation and the Empire."
"Not quite true," Kirk returned. "It's something of a misconception. As powerful as they are, the Organians are not omnipotent. They cannot sense individual skirmishes and battles, but only major conflicts where there is a massing of the two fleets. Then, they would put a stop to it."
"So the Klingons could pull off small raids and engage starships from now until doomsday."
"That's right," the captain replied. "If you add up all the damage they could cause with those raids, they could pose a dire threat to the Federation even if war was never officially declared. On top of that, the Klingons are allied with the Romulans, and the Romulans are not bound by the Organian Treaty. We do ostensibly have a peace treaty with them, but we always seem to be tangling with Romulan warships. I'm sure that they'll soon be supplied with K't'ingas."
Kirk paused, a frown tightening his handsome features. "If the Romulans ever declared all-out war, the Organians would not interfere, and if you add the Klingons' little smash-and-grab tactics to that, we could really have our hands full."
"Jeez," Mitchell said. "That doesn't sound like much fun at all."
"No, it wouldn't be," Kirk agreed. "The bad part is, our military brains are positive it will happen someday. It might be tomorrow, or it might be a hundred years from now, but it's coming, so we've got to stay on our toes."
They had reached the massive new engineering complex. The Enterprise was still orbiting Delta-Vega, so the monstrous warp engines were not quiescent. Even so, the intermix chamber tube was an awesome sight, rearing up through an entire seven levels of the vessel. When in operation, it would be alight with the fire of a giant blue sun.
The two men walked past rows of gleaming new consoles, which purred quietly in harmonious operation, a testimony to the efficiency of the man whose domain this was. He was leaving his office when Kirk and Mitchell approached.
"Ah, Scotty, we've got an 'old' new man here, and I'd like you to take him on a tour through your private kingdom here."
Scotty's expression could only be termed a frown. "Mister Mitchell, it's good to have ye back."
But the Scotsman's tone indicated he was anything but pleased.
It was Kirk's turn to frown. All the men in the landing party had been taken aback by finding Gary Mitchell alive, but Scotty had been especially distant. He had hoped that the engineer would unbend if he conducted this tour in his own environment.
He had miscalculated.
Scotty warmed to his subject as he described his "bairns," but not to his intended listener. It was as though he was speaking only to Kirk, as though Mitchell was not even there. And Mitchell himself was a study in tension. He walked stiffly, his back straight as a ramrod, his face pale with stress.
When the tour mercifully ended, he mumbled his thanks to Scott and hurriedly exited with Kirk in tow. The captain made a mental note to find out what was eating his chief engineer the first chance he got.
Mitchell heaved a sigh of relief and sagged against a wall.
Kirk noticed that his friend was trembling, clenching and unclenching his fists. "Gary, what the hell was that all about? Are you all right?"
"God, I'd managed to forget about it, until just now. And he made sure I won't forget it again!" Mitchell rubbed his eyes, as though trying to erase a horrible vision. "I used to wake up nights screaming when I was first on the planet. It tormented every waking moment, until I gradually purged it from my memory in self defense."
"What are you talking about?" Kirk demanded.
"Jim. When I was...affected before, I killed Lee Kelso down there. I willed the power cables to move from the floor and strangle him. When I returned to normal, I almost killed myself when I realized what I had done. I couldn't live with it; it was too horrible to accept, and my mind eventually blocked it out to keep me from going over the edge."
Kirk gripped his friend's shoulders reassuringly. "Gary, listen to me. You weren't responsible for your actions. You can't blame yourself! Believe me, I had a hell of a time coming to grips with my guilt over what happened to you. You can't blame yourself."
"Scotty does," Mitchell countered. "I can see it in his eyes. Kelso was his best man, and he holds me responsible. He forgets that Lee was my friend. I had that to live with."
"Gary," Kirk said tersely, "nothing that happened while you had the esper power can be held against you. You were not in control of your actions. And if you're going to live a normal life again, you've got to put those past years and memories out of your mind altogether! They never happened. If not, you'll be unable to function, not only as a member of my crew, but as a Human being as well! Do I make myself clear, Commander?"
His sharp words had gotten through to his morose friend. "Yes, sir," Mitchell replied. Then he managed a small smile. "Shall we continue with the tour?"
McCoy himself couldn't have prescribed better medicine. As they moved on, Kirk watched his companion slowly recover from his traumatic experience. By the time they reached the enormous new rec hall, he was himself again. Mitchell was so taken with the recreation facilities that Kirk had to promise several matches of free-fall handball to get him out of there.
After they visited the weapons control and security complex, Kirk realized that they had been at this for several hours. It was getting late, and by mutual consent, they decided to call it a day.
"We'll get up to the bridge tomorrow, Gary. I promise you, you will not believe it!"
"Well, if it's anything like what I've seen today, I'm prepared to be absolutely floored!" Mitchell said.
They got off the turbolift on Level Five, and Gary Mitchell almost bowled over a slim, graceful form coming down the corridor.
"Oh, Jeez, I'm sorry..." he began.
And then he stopped in mid-sentence.
They stared at each other, Mitchell and Uhura, their eyes inextricably locked. All the old clichés leaped into Jim Kirk's mind: the crackle of electricity, sparks flew, time stood still, et cetera. There was no mistaking the chemistry that was there. "Gary, this is Lieutenant Commander Uhura, Chief Communications Officer and member of my command crew. Miss Uhura, Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell. Uh, Gary? Uhura?"
Kirk might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy. They were almost totally oblivious to him, and it was several seconds before Mitchell finally found his voice.
"Charmed, I'm sure," was all he managed.
They both seemed to be entranced, neither of them moving, just staring. Kirk was struck with the thought of how radiantly beautiful the Bantu woman really was as he watched them. Finally, realizing that they must be making a spectacle of themselves, Uhura spoke. "Umm, excuse me, Mister Mitchell. I didn't mean to get underfoot like that. I was just on my way to the officer's lounge."
"Care for some company?" he queried.
"Why don't you join us, Jim?"
Kirk realized that neither of them had given him so much as a glance, even when Gary Mitchell had invited him along.
"No, that's okay, Gary," the captain replied. "I've got same work to do, and I want to check in with Spock. You two go on, and have a good time." Besides, he thought wryly, I don't enjoy conversing with walls.
They left without a backward glance. Kirk watched them go, noticing that they had only walked a few yards before Mitchell offered Uhura his arm. And she took it.
"Really moves fast, doesn't he?" Kirk muttered under his breath to no one in particular.
As he strode briskly to his cabin, Kirk was disturbed by the little nagging feeling that gnawed at the pit of his stomach, It was an unfamiliar emotion, one that he couldn't quite put his finger on, either because he really couldn't...or because he didn't want to. But Leonard McCoy would have singled it out right away.
He would have called it jealousy.
Uhura nervously checked the wall chronometer, mentally chiding herself for behaving like a giddy schoolgirl. It had been quite awhile since she had prepared dinner for anyone besides herself; it was so much easier to just make a trip to the mess hall when you were dining alone. But tonight she had company. He'd be along any minute now, and she wanted everything to be just right.
She involuntarily glanced at her reflection in the full-length mirror. The sheer, ice-blue wrap-around gown she had picked up on Aldebaran IV fit snugly on her trim, shapely figure. She was proud of her body; she worked hard to stay fit. Her classic beauty was of the kind that many women of her ancestral people possessed, an ageless, timeless loveliness that remained with them all their lives. She patted smooth an unruly curl of her soft, natural hair. Uhura, you are one fine-looking woman, she thought, even if I do say so myself. And if this is vanity, so be it!
Uhura's thoughts returned to her first meeting with Mitchell just the night before. The welter of emotions that had overwhelmed her almost frightened her with their intensity. The man exuded a sort of magnetism, a charisma, if you will, that had struck her with the force of a physical blow. Just seeing him had elicited a response so strong it had seemed almost sexual in nature, leaving her weak-kneed and light-headed. She wasn't sure at the time if she had liked that. Here was a man who had a reputation, according to some of the older hands, of being something of a Casanova. She could not stand the type. It was a wonder that some of them still existed in the twenty-third century. But after talking with Mitchell, she could instinctively sense that he was a much more complex individual than what had once been referred to almost three hundred years ago as a "male chauvinist pig." He was handsome, brash, and almost insufferably self-assured, but he was also intelligent, kind, and very considerate, qualities that she admired in a man. There was also, of course, an extremely strong physical attraction there, and much as she hated to admit it, she found herself intrigued by the roguish side of his nature as well.
Uhura tried to put it all in its proper perspective. She considered herself to be, for want of a better term, quite a liberated woman. She was a lieutenant commander in Starfleet, and, with Sulu, was fourth in the chain of command aboard the Enterprise. It was an odds-on bet that she would someday be captain of her own starship. She was comfortable with and enjoyed her sexuality; she was flattered when she turned heads while walking the corridors, but woe to the man who dared to look upon her as a sex object! She would cut him to ribbons! But she was accustomed to having control of her personal relationships, and she had no control over this one. Gary Mitchell had come along and within minutes he had literally swept her away.
It shouldn't have been that easy for him, but it had. And what disturbed her even more was that she liked it! Of course, it was gratifying to know that she had a similar effect on him. Maybe in an unconscious sort of way, she considered it a challenge, a true reversal of roles: the hunted stalking the hunter, the woman pursuing the predatory male. The thought had popped into her mind several times during the hours they sat and talked in the officer's lounge, but he had wiped it away with that deep, lingering kiss when he left her at the door of her quarters. As she watched him leave with a cavalier wave of his hand, she was shocked by the hunger she felt.
Her door buzzer sounded, and she jumped, startled. He was here! She made one last check in the mirror and let him in.
He stood there in a casual after-hours uniform, the bunch of flowers he had picked up at the arboretum gripped tightly in his hand. It occurred to Uhura, as incredible as it seemed, that he was nervous! He reminded her of a jittery high-school beau she had once had.
"Aren't you coming in, Gary?"
He still had not spoken, seemingly struck dumb by the lovely vision of her again, and Uhura smiled when she realized that his attention was focused on an area somewhat south of her chin.
"Uh, Gary? I'm up here, remember?" she teased.
He grinned, and seemed to recover some of his aplomb. "Sorry, ma'am. I always have been a sucker for girls with big...uh, eyes!"
"Why you officious skunk!" she said with mock fury. She embraced him and gave him a quick kiss, prying the flowers from his death grip. "Here, let me put those in water before you crush them to death! And, thank you."
"My pleasure." He sat down on a sofa as Uhura deposited her bouquet in a vase of carved African design. "Something smells good in here."
"I hope so. Last night you said you really could go for a nice, thick, Terran sirloin, so that's what we're having. They should be out of the microtherm in a couple of minutes...just plain, old-fashioned steak, salad and potatoes," she finished.
"Nothing plain about it, pretty lady. That's right down my alley. Anything I can do to help?"
"No, just stay parked," Uhura replied. "Would you like a drink before dinner?"
"No, I think I'll pass for now," Mitchell said. "Scotty looked me up when he got off-duty. He insisted that I go get a few 'belts o' scotch' with him; it was his way of apologizing for giving me the cold shoulder. Said Jim talked to him for a while and made him realize the 'error o' his ways.'" He chuckled. "Of course Scotty had a few more belts than I did! I had to give him a little assistance getting back to his quarters. I didn't have the heart to tell him his singing was atrocious."
Uhura laughed with him. Dear old Scotty! "And how about you, Gary? Are you adjusting to all this okay?"
He became momentarily pensive. "I'm getting along. I still have problems when people stare at me like any minute they expect me to spout hair and fangs and start baying at whatever moon we happen to be passing. But I think they're all getting used to me, too. I saw a little less of that today." He brightened. "Besides, just seeing you has done a lot for my adjusting."
She returned his smile as the microtherm timer went off. "Soup's on!" she sang out. "Come and get it."
Dinner was pleasant and enjoyable, with Mitchell heaping countless compliments on the 'chef'. They cleared away the dinnerware, consigning it to the recycle unit, after which they retired to the cabin's 'living room' space.
They talked on, and Uhura became aware that there was a vulnerable, almost tragic quality to Mitchell that he concealed beneath his swaggering exterior. The loneliness of the years on Delta-Vega had affected him more than he might want to admit.
She also realized, as they snuggled together on the couch, that this physical closeness was having a definite effect on her. Mitchell seemed to feel it also, but for some reason he was restraining it, as though it might offend her. On impulse, Uhura pulled his head to hers and kissed him long and hard.
His response was something less than she expected. "Mmmm, very nice," he said.
"Gary," she said huskily. "What is it with you men? If you want me, why are you just sitting there? Don't you think women ever get aroused?" She breathed in his ear and nibbled on the lobe.
And with that, the dam broke.
He responded with all the heat of a man who had been deprived of release for many years. He stood suddenly and pulled her to her feet. He was all over her, wild, almost savage, but instead of being frightened, she found that she was strangely thrilled.
"See," she gasped. "Look at all the time we wasted talking!"
Uhura felt her head spinning as Mitchell covered her with kisses. Finally, she pulled away, took his hand, and led him to her bedroom.
She couldn't exactly remember when they began to make love.
All she could remember, as her universe melted into a golden mist of passion and pleasure, was that she hadn't felt this warm and happy in a long, long time.
"Your move, Captain."
Kirk studied the tri-D chess board for a moment before making a decision, the wrong one, as it turned out.
"Checkmate," Spock said. "It would appear that your mind is definitely not on your game tonight, Jim."
That was an understatement. Kirk was the only Human Spock had ever met who could hold his own in a chess match against the Vulcan. Their games were usually long, protracted affairs of brilliant strategy and frequent brilliantly reckless gambits by the captain which snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, much to Spock's consternation.
Tonight, however, Kirk had dropped three games in the time it usually took them to make the opening moves of their initial contest. He grinned ruefully. "Sorry, Spock. I've got a lot on my mind, and it shows in my chess game."
"Indeed. Is something specific troubling you, Jim? It would appear that Mister Mitchell is adjusting quite well to his new surroundings. The Enterprise is en route to Starbase Twelve, a routine flight. On the surface at least, everything appears to be quite placid." He paused for a second, and Kirk could have sworn he saw a twinkle in his science officer's eyes. "Would it have anything to do with Mister Mitchell's budding relationship with Miss Uhura?"
"Touché, Mister Spock," Kirk said sheepishly. "Is it that obvious? I swear, you're starting to get as bad as McCoy! Between the two of you, I can't keep anything a secret." He squirmed in his chair. For some reason, he felt uncomfortable discussing such a personal problem with the Vulcan, even though they were as close as two brothers, probably closer.
"Well, uh," Kirk began groping for a reasonable reason for his concern. "I have to be concerned to a certain extent. I've got to make sure that this relationship doesn't interfere with the efficient performance of a member of my command crew. And I think this whole thing is getting blown out of proportion. All they've done so far is meet for a drink last night in the officer's lounge."
Kirk neglected to mention that he knew that Uhura had invited Mitchell to her cabin that night for dinner, that the only way back to Mitchell's quarters was past his own door, that it was quite late. And that no one had come down the corridor all night. He also realized that it was none of his business. Even on a ship the size of the Enterprise, it was almost impossible to keep anything a secret, but the right to privacy was the most respected law on board. And while a clandestine rendezvous might be common knowledge, nothing would be said about it.
Kirk looked at Spock and started when he saw the slightest ghost of a smile quirking the corners of the Vulcan's mouth. "All right, all right!" Kirk exclaimed, dropping all pretense. "I might as well tell you. What really bothers me, Spock, is that last night when I watched the two of them leave for the lounge I couldn't help noticing the way they kept looking at one another. It shocks me, because it dredges up feelings I wasn't even aware of! I mean, Uhura. I've never even consciously considered it, but...is it possible?"
Spock lifted his right eyebrow ever so slightly. "I would not even presume to have a working knowledge of the psychology of that peculiar, illogical behavior system known as Terran mating, Jim. However, it would seem that the conditions to evoke such a feeling on your part are possible, even probable. Commander Uhura is an extremely beautiful, highly intelligent individual. She is a fine officer. The two of you have much in common and seem well-suited to each other. However, there is one variable..."
"The Enterprise," Kirk said wistfully.
"Precisely. You are, in effect, 'married' to the ship, which excludes the likelihood of all but the most casual of relationships with the opposite sex."
"But it doesn't exclude the likelihood of wanting more than a casual relationship, Mister Spock. It gets awfully lonely sometimes. Maybe I just haven't realized that I felt this way, and seeing the two of them brought it all to the surface." He looked pensive. "It disturbs you to find out you don't know yourself as well as you thought you did. I've always had to keep my relationships casual; if I don't, sooner or later I'll get burned. I don't know if you're aware of it, Spock, but a few years ago there was speculation on the part of Starfleet's female contingent that my middle initial 'T' stood for 'Tomcat'!"
Spock's eyebrow shot up at this. "No, Jim. That I was not aware of."
Kirk smiled. "It's true. You can see what I'm up against. In order to maintain my ability to command at peak efficiency, I have to strike a fine balance between finding release from sexual tension and remaining unattached. So I end up with people calling me 'Tomcat,' and McCoy saying I 'love 'em and leave 'em.' If they only knew the loneliness. If it wasn't for the ship..."
Kirk stopped, realizing that he was revealing a little too much of an area of himself that was best left unexplored. He glanced up, and was surprised to see the expression on Spock's face, an expression that was a mixture of sympathy and the understanding of what it meant to be lonely. An expression which disappeared the instant the Vulcan realized it had been unmasked.
"At any rate," the captain continued quickly, "I guess I envy Gary because he isn't bound by the constraints of command. He's free to pursue any kind of interaction he wants, while command might demand every last drop of your blood. But it's a burden I wouldn't give up for the entire universe!"
He checked the chronometer and stood up, yawning. "If you don't mind, my friend, I think I'd like to call it a night. Three losses is enough for one session! But I warn you, next time, be prepared to have your ears pinned back, if you'll pardon the expression!"
Spock got up also, trying to keep a smile off his face. He realized that the captain just might make good his promise, for Kirk was a fierce competitor at chess, as he was in all phases of his life. The Vulcan hoped that having one's ears pinned back was not an inordinately painful experience. "Good night, Captain. Sleep well. I sincerely hope that you can resolve your little problem to your satisfaction."
Kirk grinned. "I wouldn't worry about it, Mister Spock. The experience is still just a little too fresh. I think I'll be able to come to grips with it given a little time. You sleep well, also."
He watched his Vulcan friend disappear through the chess alcove that adjoined their quarters, then quickly prepared for bed as he realized how weary he really was. As he settled comfortably between the sheets, an unbidden thought leaped into his head. He wondered how much sleep Mitchell was getting tonight.
The envy he felt was quickly replaced by anger, anger at himself for even considering such a thought. As he slowly drifted off to sleep, Kirk realized that it might take him just a little longer to 'come to grips' with this thing that he had first thought.
"Come on, Gary. We've got to get moving, or we won't have time to eat breakfast together before my shift starts!"
Uhura finished putting on her earrings. They had showered together, the steam and heat easing the stiffness of a long night of pleasurable rigors. She hadn't slept much, that was for sure, she thought dryly. But somehow, she felt more relaxed this morning than she had for months.
She looked herself over one last time and caught a glimpse of him in her mirror as he rushed to the room, pulling on the white tunic of his freshly recycled uniform. How strong and handsome he looked, standing there with the catlike grace of a trained athlete as he tightened the shirt's interior belt. It occurred to Uhura that she might be falling in love with this man. The thought both pleased and unsettled her. It was like receiving a gift that you just were not quite ready to accept. It was crazy; she had known him a little more than two days. Yet there was no law she was aware of that said a relationship had to take X amount of time to develop. It felt genuine to her, and she hoped she could handle the situation. She had never believed in the concept of 'love at first sight,' considering that idea to be, at best, a hackneyed old cliché. Yet here she was, rushing headlong into this thing. She couldn't help it. And she could only pray that she wouldn't regret it later.
He came up behind her suddenly and planted a kiss on the nape of her neck, then moved up to nuzzle behind her left ear. She shivered with delight; his lips felt like a live wire brushing her soft, velvety skin.
"Think we've got time for...?"
"Ohhh, you stinker!" she gasped. "Don't tempt me! I think the boss would fire me if I showed up late for work, though. Besides, I'd have thought you'd be exhausted after last night!"
"Madam, you wound my pride!" he said, grinning. "I'll have you know I once had the reputation of being the second best lover on this entire starship!"
"Only second best?" she needled him.
"Your illustrious captain held the first place trophy!"
They both laughed. Uhura suddenly found herself hoping he had changed his old ways, realizing at that precise second that she would hate very much to lose him. She wondered if he would be back again that night.
"Sure I will, pretty lady," he said aloud. "It goes both ways, you know."
"What?!" she exclaimed. "How did you know? I mean..."
"I was just thinking...I was hoping you'd be back tonight. To myself. But, you..."
He grinned, but she noticed he suddenly looked uneasy. "It was written all over your face. I just sort of had a feeling that's what you were thinking. Besides, I do have a high ESP rating, but normal ESP! I'm not going to turn into a silver-eyed monster on you. Somebody who has a high rating like mine is liable to have flashes of insight when he's in a highly emotional state. And I'm in a highly emotional state right now."
He gripped her shoulders and gazed directly into her large, beautiful eyes. "See if you can guess what I'm thinking."
She didn't trust herself to speak.
"I love you, Uhura. I know it sounds crazy. I mean, I hardly know you, but I'm as sure of this as I've ever been of anything in my entire life. I've never felt this way about anyone before. It's a funny feeling, like I can't make up my mind whether I want to be ecstatic or miserable. But I dolove you. And I hope you can put up with that."
He saw the tears shining in her eyes then, and he knew he had his answer. She hugged him tightly, softly weeping for joy. Mitchell smiled at her. He gently wiped away one large drop that trickled down her cheek. "Hey, come on now. I can't stand it when girls cry! Besides, do you want everybody in the mess hall to think I beat you?"
She laughed, and he handed her a tissue from a recessed bureau dispenser. She daubed at her eyes and checked in the mirror again. "No damage done," Uhura said, turning to him. "Oh, Gary...I'm so happy!"
"I'm glad," he whispered softly. "You mean a lot to me. It makes me feel good to know you're happy."
She checked her wall chronometer and gasped. "Oh, Lord! We'd better get going, or I'm going to work on an empty stomach!" She grabbed his hand and dragged him out of her cabin.
They must have made quite a sight, the two of them laughing and talking excitedly, hand in hand as they bounded down the corridors to the mess hall at a dead run.
It was approximately two point six solar days later when it happened.
James T. Kirk would remember it as the time when all hell broke loose, in more ways than one.
The Enterprise was a little more than eight hours away from Starbase Twelve when she skirted a small asteroid field. Sulu smoothly maneuvered the great cruiser around the last of the hazardous masses of icy, jagged rock. The Enterprise was in the clear once more.
Suddenly, the deflector shields automatically snapped on, and a heartbeat later, the main viewscreen glared white as a sun as the ship rocked in a mighty concussion.
"Incoming fire, Kyptin!" Chekov shouted. "I count six Klingon K't'inga cruisers in battle formation! They vwere vwaiting for us!"
"Sulu, go to evasive!" Kirk shouted over the 'Red Alert' drone of the master computer. "Chekov, tie in phasers and torpedoes to full engine power! If they want us, they're going to have to come and get us!"
Space around the Enterprise swam with Klingon torpedoes as all six enemy cruisers opened fire. But Sulu worked the helm like a master concert pianist. The starship danced and pivoted in warp maneuvers.
Only one energy bolt found its mark, and it glanced harmlessly off the aft starboard shield.
"They have us bracketed, Captain," Spock announced calmly.
Gary Mitchell had come to stand by the command console. "Six of them, Jim. Think we can handle 'em?"
Kirk grinned at his friend. "We're about to find out, Gary. We can't outrun them until we cut down their numbers a little." He barked crisp orders to his command crew. "Cease evasive maneuvers, Mister Sulu. Bring her around and heave to. Mister Chekov, open fire at will!"
"Aye, sir!" Chekov exclaimed, grinning. The refitted Enterprise had engaged an enemy craft only a few times before, during the recent tragedy on the planet Neural. This was Chekov's first opportunity in several weeks at the weapons control station under battle conditions, as he had been in the landing party during the skirmish above Neural.
The console responded flawlessly.
The warp power enhanced phasers screamed out across space, and one of the Klingon starships blossomed into a brilliant orange fireball. Helm control had been released to the weapons station, and Chekov pivoted the Enterprise to face three K't'ingas that were bunched a little too closely together.
"Like ducks in a pond!" Chekov enthused.
The three ships seemed to be following a very erratic, disorganized course. Their commanders had been roaring down on the Federation cruiser, sure of victory. But their confidence had been dashed when they had seen one of their comrades so easily destroyed, and now they were trying to drop back and reconsider the situation.
They never got the chance.
Chekov cut loose with a spread of photon torpedoes. An annihilating cloud of plasma engulfed the battlecruisers. Two of them were blown into shreds of metal while the other slowly limped away, mortally wounded. Its escape was terminated by another blast of phaser fire. The K't'inga went completely dark. It drifted helplessly in space, tilting drunkenly to one side. A cheer went up from the entire bridge personnel.
"Nice shooting, Mister Chekov!" Kirk exclaimed. "That's four down..."
But there were still two to go, and they had found the Enterprise.
The ship jarred alarmingly as salvo after salvo of disruptor fire impinged against her shields like an invading army trying to break the gates of a fortress. Kirk had elected to stand and fight, knowing the law of averages was against him. And while they had lowered the odds tremendously, that law had caught up with them. The two remaining cruisers had slipped above and behind the Enterprise while she engaged the four other ships, and now battered the starship mercilessly.
A photon torpedo slammed home, and the bridge lighting momentarily winked out. When it came back up, it glowed a dim, feeble red.
"Divert full power to deflectors!" Kirk yelled. "Engineering, shut down all but absolutely vital systems! Those shields have got to hold!"
"Captain, we are down to fifty-eight percent power," Spock stated levelly. "We seem to be out of options, as we have only enough power to divert to one system at a time. Either we can keep the shields up for as long as we have the power and let the Klingons continue to fire upon us at their whim, or we can divert full power to the engines and try to cut and run. However, there is a high probability that the Klingons would obliterate us the second we dropped our screens. Our other choice would be to channel all remaining power to our weapons and attempt to destroy the remaining cruisers, but this would also seem a dubious alternative."
Kirk nodded. "I agree. Those two are spread out pretty far apart. We might get one of them, but his partner would be almost certain to get us."
The bridge rang again to the impact of another torpedo.
"Captain, I have Mister Scott on the 'com!" Uhura sang out.
"Go ahead, Scotty."
"Captain!" came the Scotsman's excited burr. "We canna take but two or three more o' those blasts at the most. The shields'll go down, and we'll go right behind 'em!"
"Acknowledged, Scotty. Do the best you can. I'm going to try to get us out of this," the captain said. "Kirk out."
He turned toward the communications console. "Uhura, get me a channel to that lead cruiser."
"Aye, sir." The Bantu woman's nimble fingers flew over her board, but she stopped suddenly, frowning. "Captain Kirk, the Klingons are hailing us!"
"Put it on visual, Commander."
Kirk studied the main viewscreen as the image of the two K't'ingas winked out, only to be replaced by the awesomely fierce features of the Klingon commander. He was a Kh'myr warrior whose uniform bore the insignia of a full admiral. His knobbed head was shadowed by the low light of the cruiser's bridge as he twisted his face into a ghastly smile.
"Greetings, Federation scum! I am Admiral Khalian,
commander of the Imperial Cruiser Tor'an and next Emperor of the Klingon Star
Empire. The re-design of your puny starship is most interesting. I intend to escort you to
the nearest Klingon base so that your vessel can be studied by our engineers. Your crew,
Captain Kirk, will, of course, be disposed of, with the exception of yourself, and your
immediate command crew."
"You underestimate us, Admiral," Kirk returned. "You are encroaching on Federation space. I will escort you to the nearest starbase where you and your crew will be processed and released. The same holds true for your wing mate. Your vessels, of course, will be confiscated."
Khalian's grin turned smug. "I'm terrified, Captain. Just how do you propose to do this? Our sensors indicate that your power reserves are critically low."
"You'll just have to find out for yourself, Khalian. Haven't we already destroyed four of your cruisers?"
The Klingon's face lost its guise of false humor. His already ugly visage became positively hideous. "Those idiots!" he spat. "They would not listen to me! They charged you like berserkers, keeping their deflectors on absolute minimum in order to maximize power to their disruptors and torpedoes. You would not have destroyed them so easily had their shields been at standard setting, Kirk!"
"You'll never take this ship, Klingon!" Kirk grated. "I'll destroy her first."
"Your bluffing leaves me weary, Captain," Khalian sighed. "Prepare to be boarded, or I will annihilate you."
"Go to hell, Admiral," Kirk said sweetly.
The Klingon's face faded out. It was immediately replaced by the two cruisers which were now moving relentlessly forward.
So much for my applied Klingon psychology, Kirk thought grimly. "Engineering, divert all available power to warp engines! Mister Sulu, prepare to pivot ninety degrees at Warp Twelve, on my order!"
"Kyptin, look!" Chekov exclaimed.
Kirk blanched at what he saw on the screen. The Tor'an had unleashed a glaring scarlet sphere of photon energy from its forward tube. The torpedo seemed to float lazily toward them. "Scotty, belay that last order!" Kirk bellowed. "Full power to forward shields immediately!"'
"You were right about one thing, Jim," Mitchell said tensely. "These Kh'myr are real sweethearts!"
The Enterprise shuddered as the bolt hit home. Automatic restraints snapped into place on the console chairs as everything went completely black.
This time, only telltales and indicator lights came back up. The bridge was as dark as the natural caverns Kirk had once seen in New Kentucky whose only light came from the phosphorescent moss that clung to the cave walls.
"Battery power, Captain," Spock said quietly. "We have life support only; shields are down."
The picture on the viewscreen was garbled on low power, but it was clear enough for them to see the second torpedo fired by the Tor'an's sister ship. DiFalco gasped involuntarily as the red globe of death spiraled toward them, looming larger and larger.
"I gambled that they wanted the ship bad enough to keep from blasting us to atoms," Kirk muttered. "Looks like I guessed wrong."
He was startled to feel a hand on his shoulder. Spock had come to stand by his captain in this moment of imminent doom. "You did what you could, Jim," the Vulcan said. "No one could ask for more."
"Yeah, it was a ballsy shot, Jim. But you had to take it." Gary Mitchell's voice came from the direction of the communications console. "No one can predict how these lunatics'll react!"
Kirk turned and felt a pang as he saw Mitchell throw his arms around Uhura, embracing her protectively. He kissed her gently and stroked her cheek. "Looks like this is it, babe," he said softly. "I wish we were half a dozen light-years from here!"
Kirk was suddenly aware of what felt like a falling sensation. It ended after a split second, and with that, the bridge lighting came back on at full power. He dazedly looked at the main screen again.
It held only empty, star-studded space. No K't'inga cruisers.
And no photon torpedo.
"Mister Spock, report!" the captain snapped.
The Vulcan science officer was already back at his console. "I am scanning now, Captain. The Klingon cruisers are nowhere in evidence."
"Captain, Mister Scott is paging you," Uhura said.
"Captain!" the chief engineer fairly shouted. "I've got full power back to all systems! I dinna understand it at all! It's like we were never attacked!"
"Hang with it, Scotty," Kirk rejoined. "We're trying to piece it all together right now."
It took several seconds for that to sink in. When it finally did, Kirk reacted violently. "Gary!" he shouted. He whirled out of his command console just in time to see Mitchell's back as the left turbolift doors hissed shut behind him.
Kirk bolted for the right turbolift. "Spock, Chekov, Sulu, with me!" he shouted. "Uhura, take the conn, and monitor Turbolift One! I want to know where Mitchell gets off! Patch into the channel on my wrist communicator!"
The bewildered communications officer slipped into the center seat as Kirk impatiently punched an override button, trying to summon the car. It was useless; someone was coming up to the bridge. The doors finally parted after what seemed like an eternity.
Leonard McCoy started to get off, only to be roughly shoved back into the car by Kirk. "Jim!" he sputtered. "What the hell's goin' on? I come up to see if everyone's okay after that pounding and..."
"Stow it, Bones!" Kirk barked. "If what I think happened has happened, we are in deep, deep trouble."
"What are you talking about?" McCoy demanded. "We got away from the Klingons. What could be wrong?"
"The captain is referring to the manner in which we escaped, Doctor," Spock said. "As the Klingons' last torpedo bore down upon us, Mister Mitchell expressed the desire to be 'half a dozen lightyears away.' We were instantly transported that exact distance from our previous location."
"Yes," Kirk put in. "Bones, I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid Gary has somehow regained his psionic powers!"
They were interrupted by the beep signal of Kirk's wristcom. "Captain, this is Uhura. Gary has gotten off at Level Five."
"Acknowledged, Uhura," Kirk said. "Have a squad of ten security specialists meet us at the lift terminus on Level Five. I want them armed with phaser rifles and complete body armor!"
There was a long silence.
The Bantu woman's voice was small. "Captain, why do you want them armed?"
"Are you questioning my orders, Commander?" Kirk exploded. "You're wasting time! Just do as I tell you!"
"Aye, sir. Uhura out," came the forlorn reply.
Meanwhile on Level Five, the object of all this frenzied activity had bolted blindly into his cabin. He stood before the mirror, panting, not daring to look at his reflection, yet unable not to.
"Oh, no," he whispered."No! Not again!"
A sob choked in his throat. He backed away in horror, vainly trying to blink away the nightmarish apparition in the glass.
It did him no good.
Molten tears coursed down the cheeks of Gary Mitchell in the mirror, tears that streamed from gleaming silver eyes!
"Stay close together," Kirk quietly ordered.
The security team slowly and deliberately edged down the main corridor on Level Five. They had been searching for their quarry a full half hour to no avail. Kirk had ordered all decks cleared as a precaution and had instituted a room-to-room scrutiny of the deck which housed the crew's living quarters, where Mitchell had last been spotted.
"Still no vword from Charlie Curb, Kyptin," Chekov said gravely.
The squad was a man short. Ten men had been ordered to report, and ten men had acknowledged.
Only nine had assembled.
Ensign Charles Curb was missing.
"He might have been unavoidably delayed," Kirk said, his face grim. He didn't want to think about that. If Mitchell had regained his esper powers and had run across Curb, he may have considered the security man to be just another insect to swat.
But Curb had been lucky.
They came to an intersection in the corridor, but before they could ease out into the open, they heard a low moan from around the corner.
Chekov held up his hand. "Vwait just a second. Collins, you cover left; Blanchard, take the right. I vwill back you up. On the count of three, vwe roll out."
The young Russian ticked off the numbers under his breath, and the trio tumbled out into the connecting corridor, phaser rifles at the ready. The hallway was empty, save for a dazed Ensign Charles Curb. He sat on the floor, his head was propped in his hands. An ugly, discolored bruise decorated his right temple.
"Charlie!" Sulu exclaimed.
McCoy rushed to the side of the battered security specialist, medikit instantly out. "Let's have a look at you, Ensign. You look like you've been stomped on by a Vegan Titanosaur." He quickly ran his medical tricorder over the miserable crewman.
Kirk knelt beside him.
"How is he, Bones?"
"Mild concussion...He'll be okay, but he'll need to be off the track for four or five days."
"Can I talk to him?"
"Yeah. But not too long, and go easy," McCoy admonished.
"Ensign Curb," Kirk said.
The young man looked up and tried to focus his eyes. He finally succeeded to a greater or lesser degree, and recognition lit his features. "Captain. It was...weird. I got the call from Commander Uhura to meet you here. I had to make a trip to the armory to get a phaser rifle first. I...I was on my way there when this friend of yours...comes tearing down the corridor." He paused momentarily as everything started to reel crazily about him. Then he continued.
"It was strange, really spooky. This Mitchell guy's eyes...they were silver! Cold silver! He started screaming at me to kill him before it was too late. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. When I didn't do anything, he tore my phaser pistol out of its holster." He stopped again, shuddering. "I must have been dreaming. He held my phaser against his head and fired it full force. And it didn't even singe his hair! He just held the trigger down and fired and fired and fired, all the while crying and screaming that he wanted to die, that he couldn't go through it again! When it didn't do any good, he crushed my phaser in his bare hand like a lump of clay. He started to run off, and when I tried to stop him, he just reached out and clubbed me. Knocked my helmet clean off!"
"It's a good thing you had it on at the time," McCoy said. He held up the ensign's security helmet, pointing to the deep dent in its surface. "He would have crushed your head like an eggshell without it!"
"Ensign Curb, did you by any chance notice in which direction Mister Mitchell headed?" Spock asked.
"I'll do you even one better, sir. I rolled over when I hit the floor, and just before I blacked out I saw him duck into the observation lounge down at the end of this branch of the corridor.
"He might still be in there, Kyptin."
Kirk nodded. "If he is, he picked one hell of a good hole to crawl into, Mister Chekov. There's only one way into that place: through the front door. He'll be waiting for us to come through. We might as well broadcast over the intercom that we're coming in to get him!"
Sulu had looked thoughtful. He woke up suddenly. "There is another way in, Captain. Through the ventilation ducts."
"Yes, but you'd have to be small and slender..."
"Exactly," Sulu grinned. "I'll go."
"It does have the advantage of surprise, Captain," Spock put in. "If you'll recall our earlier experience with the heightened esper power, the only way we brought him down before was when we surprised him. He is too powerful otherwise. In fact, it would appear that Mitchell's own underlying sense of self-preservation protected him from himself. He could not kill himself with the phaser because he could not surprise himself."
Kirk frowned. "I don't know, Spock. It's risky, awfully risky...but it may be the only chance we'll get." He came to a decision. "All right, we'll do it. Mister Sulu, we'll give you a ten minute head start. There's a duct by the observation port on the far left in there. Signal me with three beeps on the wristcom when you're in position. We'll go in and draw his attention and try to maneuver him around for you if necessary. This'll give you a chance to drop him from behind--hopefully, before he blasts us all out of existence."
McCoy had finished tending to Curb just as the medical techs he had called to escort the ensign to Sickbay arrived. Now he faced the others. "Just what exactly do we do with him after we catch him?"
"That's where you come in, Bones. We keep him under. I want him heavily sedated until we can get him back to Delta-Vega."
"You mean you'd strand him there again after what he's been through?" McCoy flared.
"It's either that, or I kill him," Kirk said flatly.
"Doctor McCoy, surely you recognize the necessity for this," Spock added.
The chief surgeon nodded sadly. "I know you're right. It just offends my sensibilities to do this to a man."
"He is no longer a man, Doctor," the Vulcan said.
Kirk thumbed a button on his wrist communicator and paged Uhura on the bridge. He quickly outlined the situation and told her of their plan. "I want you to monitor what goes on in Observation Lounge Five. And Uhura..." He paused, taking a deep breath. "If he gets us, you are to carry out the self-destruct sequence."
"That's what I said. If Gary should get to an inhabited planet in his present state, that world would be doomed. As his powers grow even stronger, the entire galaxy will be in danger! The sacrifice of four hundred eighty-four lives is justified when balanced against the untold billions who would be menaced were he allowed to run free. Can you understand why I have to do it this way?"
When she finally answered, he could hear the tears in her voice. "Aye, sir."
"Oh, and one more thing..." Kirk paused. "I'm sorry about before. I shouldn't have snapped at you."
"It's all right, sir." Uhura stifled a sob.
"Captain, I...I love him," she said brokenly. "If it's at all possible to take him alive..."
"I'll do my best," he promised. Kirk snapped off the communicator and looked at Sulu. "It's your show, Commander."
The Oriental helmsman flashed a grin and started off down the corridor while the rest of the men positioned themselves outside the observation lounge. Spock scanned its interior with his tricorder.
"Someone is inside, Captain. The readings would approximate a man of Mitchell's stature."
"All right, then," Kirk said quietly. "Now we wait for Sulu."
It seemed like hours before the three short pips sounded over the captain's communicator.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, tensing. "Let's hit it!"
They prepared to blow down the doors, expecting resistance, but they surprisingly opened on their own when Kirk activated the sensor. The security team rushed into the spacious lounge, weapons up.
He stood still as a statue, his back to them, hands clasped behind him. He was staring out the viewport at the vast and infinite beauty of space.
The stentorian, thunderous voice reverberated around the empty hall, its amplified timbre chilling Kirk to the bone. "Look at the stars, James! It is fitting that I travel among the stars; a god who belongs to the stars! It is for him to conquer them at his whim..."
He turned to face his adversaries, his eyes and hair shining like chromium. "Or it is for him to destroy them. Yes, a god truly belongs among the stars." His upper lip curled in a snarl. "He does not belong dallying with the likes of you insects!"
"Open fire!" Chekov commanded.
The air screamed with phaser fire, all of it engulfing the ominous apparition by the viewport. But it had about as much effect on him as a gentle spray of water. He smiled menacingly. "Your buzzing annoys me, insects! You will cease fire at once!"
But the barrage continued unabated. Mitchell angrily raised his right hand. A crackling bolt of lambent blue-white energy arced from his fingertips, and the nearest security man, Lang, screamed and vanished in a dazzling flash. The mutant being waved his other hand. Another guard was picked up bodily by an unseen force and brutally slammed against a bulkhead. He was killed instantly, the impact splintering his neck and spine.
"Cease fire! Cease fire!" Chekov shouted.
Kirk was desperate. He knew Mitchell was standing too close
to the viewport for Sulu to get a clear shot. He would have to be drawn further out into
the room somehow. His mind seized upon a dangerous plan.
"Very impressive, Gary," Kirk growled. "You can do anything you want with your esper power, can't you? But I bet you can't take me one-on-one using just your hands. Come on, let's see if you can! Is the god afraid?"
"Jim! You can't!" McCoy pleaded.
"Shut up, Bones! C'mon, Mitchell!" Kirk taunted, standing his ground.
"So the king of the insects flexes his puny muscles," Mitchell retorted coldly. "I need no supernormal power to destroy you, James, but I do need your ship! I will dismember you with my bare hands, and then the Enterprise will be mine!" He suddenly rushed the captain with a charge almost too fast for the eye to follow, and his balled fist whistled through the air. A startled Kirk barely managed to duck in time. The blow glanced off his shoulder, but even so, the agonizing flash of pain made it feel as though his arm had been severed by an axe. Unnerved, Kirk realized that if Mitchell had connected with his chin, his head would have been torn clean off his shoulders.
He did not have much time to ponder his situation, however. Mitchell was on him like a cat, his powerful hands locking around the captain's throat. He pressed his thumbs inward, completely shutting off the windpipe. Flashing pinwheels of red and blinding white danced before Kirk's eyes as he futilely gasped for air, and he realized with sickening suddenness that he was finished. There was no way he would defeat this creature, and he would die. Through the roar of blood in his ears, he heard Mitchell's voice coming from a long way off.
"You are a fool, Kirk, and now you have paid the price of your foolishness."
Suddenly, he heard the demonic howl of a phaser and felt a blow like a sledgehammer transmitted through Mitchell's body as the blast caught him between the shoulders. Kirk's would-be executioner grunted, his hands relaxing their death grip.
Kirk dragged himself from beneath the inert form, his lungs greedily drinking in draughts of air. He waved off an anxious McCoy as the rest of the group gathered around him. Somehow he managed to speak. "I'll be all right, Bones," he rasped. "See to Gary. Make sure he stays out until you can get him to Sickbay."
McCoy nodded. He quickly prepared a hypospray with a double dosage of his strongest anesthetic and administered it to the fallen 'god.' Then he activated a wall intercom station. "Christine, I'm bringing Mitchell down to Sickbay. Set up two IV's of megachloropromazine inside a stasis chamber, and have Security rig up a double force field around the chamber. Also, make sure we can replenish the IV's from outside the chamber." He paused for a moment, thinking furiously. "You might also tell Security to set up force fields at all the entrances. And have any patients moved to the auxiliary sickbay in the engineering hull."
He broke off as Chekov motioned to two of his team members. "Take him down. Vwe vwill begin your preparations, Doctor."
McCoy turned to Kirk, who was now sitting up, gingerly massaging his tortured throat. "Let's have a look at your gullet, Jim."
Before the captain could protest, the doctor was scanning with his medical tricorder. "You're lucky," he said finally. "No internal damage or bleeding, but you are going to have one hell of a bruise at the base of your throat." He quickly sprayed an antiseptic foam on the lacerated flesh.
"Thank you, Doctor. Now would you please get down to Sickbay?"
"On my way, sir," McCoy returned, grinning. He hurried off to overtake Chekov and his men and the burden they carried.
Kirk turned to the sound of a metallic clang as Sulu kicked the ventilation grid out of the wall. It had taken him several minutes to loosen the restraining bolts around the screen, but now he finally dropped through the duct opening to the floor. He hurried over to join Kirk and Spock, who was helping the captain to his feet.
"Good shooting, Mister Sulu, but what took you so long?" Kirk asked, grinning.
"Sorry, sir. I couldn't get a good, clean shot at him until he started to strangle you," the Oriental helmsman replied. "I didn't want to hit you by mistake. Are you all right?"
"Fortunately, yes. You saved my life. But a few more seconds..." Kirk shuddered involuntarily, then quickly stepped to the wall intercom. "Kirk to bridge."
"Uhura here, Captain."
"Have DiFalco plot a course back to Delta-Vega at emergency warp, Uhura. Tell Mister Scott he'll have to maintain Warp Twelve all the way, even if it means cutting back on the auxiliaries. I don't know how long or even if we can keep Gary sedated. Also, inform Starbase Twelve of our situation; tell them we'll be a little late. You'll remain in command. Spock and I will assist Doctor McCoy and Lieutenant Chekov in monitoring Gary, and I want Mister Sulu to stay with us just in case. He's an expert at hand-to-hand combat." He softened his command tone. "I'll see if I can get someone up there to relieve you later so you can come down to see him, Uhura."
"Thank you, sir. Uhura out," came the reply.
Kirk switched off and turned to a frowning Spock.
"I sincerely hope that it is possible to keep Mister Mitchell under, Jim. I doubt that we would easily be able to surprise him again were he to escape."
"I know, Spock. He's become more powerful this time than he was when we encountered the energy barrier," Kirk returned, straightening. "Gentlemen, I suggest we get down to Sickbay. They may need our help."
As the three men left the observation deck, Kirk found that he could no longer ignore the cold, leaden lump in the pit of his stomach.
"What I can't understand is how Gary got his psionic powers back in the first place," McCoy mused. He sat with Kirk and Spock in his office in Sickbay. The trio had been keeping an around-the-clock vigil over Gary Mitchell, and except for Spock, they were beginning to show the strain. They gratefully sipped the hot coffee that had been brought in for them.
"I have been formulating a theory along those lines, Doctor, and it seems to fit the facts," Spock said.
"Go ahead, Spock," Kirk encouraged.
"Very well. I believe the power operates on the principle of an old-style dry cell battery, with Mitchell serving as the battery. His struggle to survive the avalanche, and the creation of his life support systems drained him of his power. However, we took him away from the planet where there apparently was no way for his power to be replenished, and took him out into space. And it would seem that esper force was once again available to him when he was clear of the inhibiting influence of the planet's atmosphere."
"So you're saying that this power floats free in space like an energy source?" McCoy asked.
"Apparently so," the Vulcan replied. "Someone like Mitchell, who has been affected by a discharge from the galactic barrier, attracts it like a magnet and is susceptible to it. He was, to put it quite simply, recharged."
"And now we've got to deal with him," Kirk said grimly.
They looked at an overhead monitor screen which gave them an unobstructed view of the stasis chamber. Inside the cubicle, Gary Mitchell lay strapped securely to a cot, an IV of a high-powered sedative in each arm. Through the subdued glow of the double force screen, they could see his open eyes which wavered between gleaming silver and their normal brown color.
"Satisfactory," Spock said. "His esper capacity is at a very low level at present."
"But for how long?" Kirk asked, glancing at McCoy.
The physician sighed, rubbing his chin.
There were dark circles under his eyes. "I dunno, Jim. I have to keep increasing the dosage by the hour to keep him at that level as his powers increase. I've got the rate plotted, though, and unless there's a sudden, unpredictable jump in that rate, I think I can keep him like this for you 'til we get back to Delta-Vega."
"Another twelve hours," Kirk whispered. "If we can just hold on that long! Okay, Bones, if you think he'll stay like that, I'm going to send Sulu up to the bridge to relieve Uhura. I know she'd like to see Gary." He snapped a button on the monitor panel, and Mitchell's image was replaced by Sulu and Chekov, who stood off to one side of the chamber with six security specialists, vigilantly watching the patient for any sign of trouble.
"Mister Sulu, would you please go up and take the conn for a while so Uhura can come down? Also, I think you can dismiss all but two of your men for the time being, Mister Chekov. Give 'em a breather of about one hour, then when they come back, send the other two. Kirk out."
The screen once again focused on Gary Mitchell, and Kirk leaned back in his chair. "We might as well make ourselves comfortable, gentlemen," he said. "We've a long twelve hours ahead of us."
Uhura stood in the shadows of Sickbay, watching. She had fought off the tears while in command on the bridge, but now that she saw Gary Mitchell again, it was harder to maintain control. The Enterprise was streaking through space toward Delta-Vega at over seventeen hundred times the speed of light. Soon they would arrive there, and Mitchell would be marooned there for the rest of his natural life. And she might not be allowed to so much as touch him again. That thought was impossible to accept. Her eyes misted over as she finally gave in to the strain.
Her sorrow was suddenly brushed aside as his voice abruptly, chillingly sounded in her mind. Uhura. Can you hear me? Do not answer aloud; just think of what you want to say.
Yes, Gary. I can hear you, the Bantu woman thought.
Good. They are restraining me needlessly; I'm not dangerous. I've managed to bring the esper power under control now.
Oh, Gary, that's wonderful! Let me tell the captain. I'm sure he'll release you when he finds out, she returned.
No, Uhura. James will not believe you, he projected. But you can help me. The drug is slowly wearing off, although it will be some time before I have recovered enough to move. Your hand is in close proximity to the force field switch; no one can see you if you deactivate the screen. Then later I will be able to come out of the chamber on my own and convince James that I am no longer a threat to him. Please, Uhura. If you love me, help me. Throw the switch.
I don't know, Gary, she thought doubtfully. It occurred to her suddenly, that he should not be lucid enough even to think with the amount of tranquilizer being pumped into his system, so how could it be 'wearing off'? She saw his eyes then, and a chill coursed through her veins. Something was wrong! His eyes were a bright, icy silver!
It was then that Uhura noticed the kink in one of the IV tubes. She hurriedly rushed over and straightened the obstructed line, then thumbed the wall 'com unit. "Doctor McCoy! Emergency! One of the IV's was blocked, and Gary wasn't getting enough of the dosage!"
McCoy cursed under his breath and burst out of his office, with Kirk, Spock and Doctor Chapel close at his heels. The crusty Southerner quickly adjusted the IV setting to compensate for the lessened dosage as Chekov and his two guards trained their phaser rifles on the recumbent Mitchell.
The silver stare that the mutant fixed upon Uhura was filled with undisguised
hatred. "You will pay for this treachery," he said aloud. "You will die slowly and horribly, I promise you. Before I finish with you, you will beg me for death!"
His head dropped back on the pillow as the drug took effect once again. When Mitchell looked back to her again, his eyes were brown once more.
"Uhura. I'm sorry, baby, I didn't mean that. That wasn't me! I love you!" He addressed Kirk. "Jim, you've got to kill me! If I get loose, I'll kill Uhura. I'll kill all of you. You can't take that chance!"
"He may be right, Captain," Spock said. "In this condition, he can be killed."
"I don't know, Spock," Kirk rejoined. "I know that, logically speaking, you're right, but I don't think I could bring myself to kill Gary."
"If he should become strong enough to counteract the drugs, I doubt that we could handle him. Now would be the optimum chance, Doctor," the Vulcan said. "Perhaps an air bubble in the intravenous tube. It would be painless."
McCoy went white with rage and horror. "You go to hell, you cold-blooded bastard!" But he was shocked to see an expression of genuine hurt flash fleetingly across the cold, unemotional mask that was Spock's face. "My God, what am I saying? I'm sorry, Spock!"
"Doctor, consider yourself on report!" Kirk snapped.
"Please, Jim," Spock interposed. "That is quite unnecessary. It was merely the doctor's reaction to prolonged stress, a way of easing the tension." He turned to McCoy. "Doctor McCoy...Bones, it is not my wish to see Mister Mitchell suffer or die. I am merely pointing out that, as powerful as he is, it is logically expedient to kill him while we have the chance. If you think that I would enjoy such an eventuality, you are grossly mistaken. I am not so 'cold-hearted' as you might think," he finished enigmatically.
McCoy was still taken aback by the Vulcan's use of Kirk's nick-name 'Bones'. He spoke haltingly. "I apologize again, sir. It was unthinking of me. I should have realized that you were only trying to do what's best for the ship."
"We've all been under a lot of pressure," Kirk added, smiling wanly. "At any rate, it's my decision. I'll take the responsibility for getting him back to Delta-Vega."
Uhura breathed a sigh of relief, "Thank you, sir!" she said feelingly.
But they heard a groan from the stasis cubicle. "No...Jim, m-mistake..." Mitchell mumbled thickly, about to succumb completely to the megachloropromazine. "Should kill me...now...sorry...for all the trouble...I've caused...Uhura...love you..."
He was out.
Uhura turned away so the rest of them could not see the tears streaming down her lovely face, but Kirk had caught the movement. "Mister Chekov, call in two men to replace the ones still on duty here. They look like they're ready to drop. And while you're at it, call in six more fresh replacements, four to replace the ones who went on break, one to replace Sulu, and one to replace yourself; you could use some rest too."
The young Russian began to protest, but Kirk held up his hand. "That's an order, Chekov," he said. He looked to Uhura as Chekov resignedly shuffled to the wall 'com to reassign his men. "Uhura, I'm putting you off the track for a while, too. I'm not going to risk having my best people falling apart in the middle of a crisis. DiFalco will be coming back on in a few hours. I'll send Scotty up to relieve Sulu 'til she comes on, then I'll get that thick-headed engineer to rest, even if it means I have to send a security detail up there to bodily drag him to his quarters, strap him in his bed, and give him a dose of knock-out drops!"
Uhura smiled at that, and Kirk grinned back. It was the response he had been hoping to see in her. "You take it easy a while, you hear? That's an order, too!"
"Yes, sir," she said. "May I stay here though?"
"Just so long as you rest, yes."
Christine Chapel took the Bantu woman's arm. "Come on, Uhura, let's go back into Leonard's office. There's a cot in there where you can lie down, and I can give you a little something to relax you," Chapel said.
Uhura stiffened. "You're not going to put me out, are you, Chris?"
"No, no! Come on, it's just a relaxant." The two women walked into the office.
"What about yourself, Jim?" McCoy asked.
"Stimulants, Bones. I'll be all right."
The physician shook his head. "You've been going on stimulants too long already. You're going to burn yourself out!"
"Stimulants, Bones! I've done it before, and I'm not going to conk out in the middle of this," Kirk said.
"In the middle of what?" McCoy queried. "There's nothing to do until we reach the planet. God knows Spock can go without rest a lot longer than we can. He can stay right out there by the chamber and baby-sit Mitchell."
The doctor was about to continue, but he saw the dangerous glint in Kirk's eyes. "All right, all right. Here you go!" He produced a hypospray, coded a dosage. It discharged with a hiss against Kirk's arm.
Almost immediately the captain felt incredibly drowsy. He could barely keep his heavy-lidded eyes open. He swayed unsteadily and felt Spock hold him up. "You double-crossing...what was in that?" Kirk demanded.
"Oh, my goodness," McCoy said in his best innocent manner. "I must've grabbed the wrong hypo!"
"To quote Chris Chapel, 'come on, it's just a relaxant!'" McCoy gestured to the Vulcan science officer. "Let's go tuck him in, Spock. We've got a bed in there for him, too!"
"My compliments on your efficiency, Doctor."
"Sneakiness, you mean!" McCoy chortled.
They bodily dragged the unwilling Kirk into the office as he incoherently mumbled threats and imprecations. By the time they had him 'tucked in,' however, the captain was snoring lightly.
Kirk was awakened several hours later by Spock, who tapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Captain, we are assuming orbit around Delta-Vega. It is time to prepare to transport Mister Mitchell down to the surface."
Kirk rolled abruptly to a sitting position, a look of alarm on his face. "My God, Spock! How long have I been out?"
"Eleven hours, nine minutes, and twenty-three point four-six seconds," the Vulcan replied drily.
The captain sprang off the cot, running a hand through his hair. He strode briskly out of the office, Spock unhurriedly keeping pace with him. "Everything all right?" he asked the Vulcan.
"All is secure. Mister Mitchell is barely semi-conscious. It should be easy to transport him down without incident."
McCoy had Mitchell strapped to a wheeled stretcher. Two fresh IV bottles hung on racks attached to the rails. Uhura stood alongside the cart, looking very rested and refreshed, but infinitely sad. She clung tightly to Mitchell's hand.
McCoy looked up when he saw Kirk and grinned mischievously. "Why, hello, Captain! Did you enjoy your rest?"
Kirk glared at the physician, refusing to rise to the bait. But he had to admit that he felt better than he had in days. He looked around. Chekov and Sulu were there with a twelve man security detail, and Doctor Chapel stood by to assist McCoy. They were ready.
"Let's go," Kirk said curtly.
The corridors were empty as they wheeled him along, and after what seemed like an interminable turbolift ride, they reached the transporter station. Scotty and Transporter Chief Janice Rand manned the controls, grimly watching as Mitchell was rolled onto the platform.
It was time to go.
Uhura reluctantly let go of Gary Mitchell's hand. She bent and kissed him one last time. "Goodbye, Gary," she said softly.
"So long, babe. Take care of yourself," he managed against the drug-induced torpor.
She was surprised that she had no tears. But then, she knew she was strong, and besides, she had already cried herself out. Maybe later they would come again.
"Energize," Kirk ordered.
Mitchell disappeared in the sparkle of the transporter effect and was gone.
They all stood staring at the platform for a long moment, numbed. It was Spock who finally broke the awkward silence. "He will materialize at the site of the cracking station that he had previously converted into his living quarters. His arms are not strapped down, so he will be able to release himself when the bottles run dry."
"What about his esper powers?" Kirk asked.
The Vulcan lifted an eyebrow. "He will have some of his psionic capabilities, but they should not be well-developed. He has been using his powers to overcome the effect of the drugs, and they will be quite weak. He also has no manner in which to replenish them now that he is back on the planet," Spock concluded.
"Just the same, I'm going to take some precautions," Kirk added. He strode to the intercom, "Chief DiFalco, set course for Starbase Twelve and warp us out of orbit at maximum speed. We've got some lost time to make up for. And inform Starfleet Command to interdict spaceflight in an area of four square parsecs surrounding Delta-Vega. We can't risk having Gary get back out into space again."
"Yes, sir," the young woman replied.
"I'll be back on the bridge momentarily to relieve you. Kirk out." He faced the group in the transporter room. "All right, everybody back to work," he said matter-of-factly, trying to hide his own pain at having to once again strand his friend on that lonely planet. They began to file out of the transporter room, and Kirk stopped Uhura.
"You all right?"
"Yes, sir, I'm fine," she smiled.
"Why don't you take the rest of this shift off anyway? You've been through a lot here lately."
"Thank you, sir. I'd appreciate that," she returned gratefully.
He took the turbolift to the bridge, resolutely determined not to dwell on the incident. At least Gary's alive, he told himself. That's something, anyway. The doors hissed open and he took over from a grateful DiFalco. Spock, Sulu, and Chekov were back at their stations, and Lieutenant Kris Jansen had taken over for Uhura at the communications console. The Enterprise was already under way. The elongated stars of sub-space seemed to stream towards them on the viewscreen. Kirk sat down in the center seat, thankful that it was all over.
The ship suddenly jolted with a sickening lurch, coming 180 degrees about. Automatic restraints again snapped into place, holding the bridge personnel in their seats. The Enterprise began to accelerate alarmingly back in the direction from which it had come some six hours earlier.
Captain Kirk realized that neither Fate nor Gary Mitchell had finished with them.
"Captain!" Sulu shouted. "I have no helm control! Speed is climbing off the scale! Warp Thirty! Warp Forty! Forty-five! Fifty!" He looked helplessly at Kirk. "I can't read it anymore!"
"Captain," Spock interjected. "We are on a direct heading back to--"
"I know!" Kirk exclaimed in horror. "Delta-Vega! It's Gary! But how?!"
There was little time to wonder, however. The planet loomed large on the viewscreen suddenly.
"We're entering the atmosphere, sir!" Sulu yelled. "We'll burn up!"
But they didn't.
Kirk suddenly found himself face down on a ground surface, spitting sandy blue dirt out of his mouth. He sat up dazedly. McCoy and Spock were with him, as was a bewildered, nightgown-clad Uhura. They seemed to be in heavy shade, and as Kirk looked up, his jaw dropped in amazement.
Barely a hundred feet above their heads, the starship Enterprise hung majestically suspended in the air, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight like a beautiful alabaster sculpture.
"Captain," Uhura said tremulously. "I was asleep in my quarters. What's happening?"
"I don't know yet, Uhura, but it isn't good," Kirk replied grimly.
"Captain, we have been relieved of our personal phasers and communicators," Spock reported.
"Naturally," came a booming voice from behind them.
They whirled in astonishment, and Uhura gasped in horror when she saw him. Gary Mitchell was transfigured. His eyes, skin, hair, even his clothing were silver, and shone with an almost unbearable brightness. "How nice of you all to come back for a visit," he said icily.
"Gary...how?" Kirk finally asked.
"Behold, James!" He pointed to an area of the sky almost directly overhead.
"Fascinating," Spock breathed.
Far above them was a perfectly square patch of jet-black, star-spangled space seemingly cut out of the flawless blue.
"I finally recovered from the effects of your infernal drugs, McCoy, and I still had enough power to establish this tap into space itself. Once that was opened, my esper ability grew again, until I was finally strong enough to summon you all back here for your executions!"
An evil grin lit Mitchell's glowing face. "After all of you have been removed to your graves, I will take the Enterprise wherever I please. I think Earth and Vulcan shall be first on my list of conquest, after which I will destroy the feeble empires of the Klingons and the Romulans. After the three so-called galactic superpowers are gone, the galaxy is mine!"
"You won't get away with it, Mitchell!" McCoy raged. "Someone will stop you!"
"Well, it certainly won't be you three gentlemen!" Mitchell sneered. He waved his hand, and the trio of command officers dropped to the ground in agony. "Your hearts, insects. Very inefficient. They couldn't stand much strain!"
Uhura stared in horror as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy writhed in the dirt.
"M-my God!" McCoy gasped. "H-h-heart attack!"
"Gary, stop it!" Uhura screamed.
The creature of silver whirled on the young woman, and the pain stopped. The three officers lay gasping for breath, their nervous systems numb with shock.
Mitchell stared menacingly and stalked the Bantu woman. "Ah, yes! You lovely, treacherous whore! Perhaps it is fitting that the others watch as you suffer the consequences of your betrayal! I would have spared you had you freed me in Sickbay, but now it is too late! Your death will be bloody and terrible. In fact, I think I shall have Captain Insect participate in your execution!"
Uhura's eyes went wide with terror as Mitchell sprang upon her with lightning speed. His left hand knotted in her hair; with his right, he tore her nightgown down the front, stripping her. He forced her to her knees in front of him, naked and helpless.
"Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Andromeda, James?" Mitchell asked. "Andromeda was a royal princess whose mother, Queen Cassiopeia, offended the sea nymphs. In retaliation, the nymphs sent a ravaging sea monster, Cetus, to destroy the coastal cities. The nymphs demanded that Andromeda be fed to the creature as a sacrifice. This would appease their wrath." He turned his terrible glowing stare skyward. "Legend has it that poor Andromeda was chained naked to a rock to await the monster. She was saved at the last second by the great hero, Perseus, who slew Cetus."
He looked down at Kirk again, his smile ghastly. "It is perfect, James! Uhura here shall be Andromeda, and you shall be Perseus. I will provide Cetus for you. However, I doubt very much that you will be able to defeat the creature; I shall see to that. It will undoubtedly kill you, and things will be quite messy when it grinds Uhura to a pulp between its fangs!"
Kirk suddenly found himself standing on a rocky promontory overlooking a great rolling blue sea. The sword in his hand felt heavy and clumsy. He whirled around to see a very frightened Uhura chained in a sitting position between two stakes driven into the ground. Further down the slope stood the grinning Mitchell-thing; behind him lay a stunned Spock and McCoy.
"Behold Cetus, Captain Kirk!"
Uhura shrieked and shrieked in abject terror.
The thing loomed above them, rising higher and higher out of the sea, until its huge, terrible head towered several stories above them. It looked like an extinct, aquatic, Terran dinosaur, the pleisiosaurus. The reptilian head was balanced on a long, muscular, slender neck. Jaws that looked large enough to swallow a shuttlecraft whole opened wide, and the creature emitted a deafening roar that rivaled the explosion of a dozen photon bombs. Then it struck, swiftly and suddenly, like a snake.
Kirk waited until the last possible second, then dodged. The monster had missed, its mouth snapping shut with a sound like a thunderclap. Kirk struck at the monstrous snout with his sword.
It was like trying to cut stone. The sword glanced off the armored, leathery hide. Kirk fell heavily, off-balance. His right elbow smashed against a stone, and he cried out in pain. He had hit his crazy bone, and his right arm would be useless for several minutes.
It was several minutes he didn't have.
Fighting back the pain, Kirk transferred the sword to his left hand, his right arm hanging numb at his side. The sea beast reared up and struck again. Kirk swung the sword clumsily, but the creature ignored him this time; it was after the tender morsel that cowered in chains behind the swordsman. Its long, sinuous slimy tongue, thick as a man's leg, shot out past Kirk and wrapped around the terrified young woman's arm. It seemed that Uhura was just beyond the reach of the giant reptile's gaping maw, and it intended to pull her forward.
Kirk continued to strike desperately, but ineffectively at the huge skull. He could not quite reach the vulnerable eye. The sword struck sparks as it clanged down again and again.
Irritated, the great sea beast tossed its head, slamming it into Kirk. The captain flew through the air, feeling as though he had been hit by a runaway tram car. He fell hard into a jumble of rocks several yards away. He heard a loud, sickening crack, and the searing stab of pain told him beyond a doubt that he had broken his left leg. Tears came to his eyes. He bit through his lower lip, fighting to stay conscious against the agony. He knew it was all over now. Through a blood-red
mist, he saw the reptilian monster yank on the screaming Uhura. The wooden stakes pulled out of the ground easily; Mitchell was seeing to it that the woman's arms would not be ripped off by the chains failing to yield.
"Uhura!" Kirk screamed.
There was nothing he could do.
He was unable to move. She slid, shrieking, into the cavernous mouth. Kirk caught one last glimpse of her before the hideous, slavering jaws clamped shut.
And then everything blurred for a second...
...and he was suddenly sitting once again in the center seat of the Enterprise bridge, fighting back the waves of pain that washed over him to see a shaken McCoy. With him stood Spock, as imperturbable as always.
A sob sounded to his left. He whirled and gasped, not willing to believe his eyes. Uhura stood near the turbolift access, naked, bewildered, covered with reeking slime from the creature's mouth, but unharmed. He couldn't remember when she had looked more beautiful. McCoy swiftly moved in, gallantly removing his lab tunic. He raised the benumbed woman's arms and slid the smock over her. It came midway to her knees, but it would serve the purposes of modesty for the time being.
"Uhura!" Kirk managed, struggling against the fingers of unconsciousness that tenaciously plucked at him.
She looked at him, and the terrified wildness left her face. She smiled shakily. "Captain...you tried to save my life. You could have been killed!" He saw something in her eyes that he had never seen before, something that was more than gratitude. Or perhaps it was just a trick of light that his pain-numbed mind had misinterpreted. He couldn't be sure.
McCoy gently took the woman's arm. "C'mon, Miss Uhura. You've just been through quite an ordeal."
"I'm all right, Doctor," she said. "Take care of the captain. He hurt his leg badly when that thing hit him."
"Pain killer, Bones," said Kirk, white-faced. "I think it's broken."
"God!" McCoy exclaimed. "I almost forgot! This is not my day!" He dropped beside the command chair, breaking out his tricorder.
Kirk looked at the main screen. They were in a standard orbit around Delta-Vega. He had to rouse his stunned bridge crew who stared uncomprehendingly at the planet's image, wondering why they weren't all dead, wondering what had happened in the past several minutes. And wondering why Uhura had appeared on the bridge in such a disheveled state.
"Mister Sulu, take us out to maximum range. Mister Spock..." He turned to the Vulcan first officer who had come over to stand by the command console. "I want you to go down to Engineering and assist Mister Scott in the preparation of five planet-wrecker missiles, but before you leave, I want you to tell me how you managed to pull this one off. I assume it was you who got us out of there."
"Just a second, Jim," McCoy broke in. He had finished his tricorder scan. "You've got a simple fracture of your left leg. No big deal, but it's painful. I'm going to take you down to Sickbay and knit the bone for you with a microlaser. You'll have to stay off your feet for six to eight hours, and it'll be kinda stiff and sore to walk on for a few days, but you'll be okay. You better let Spock take the conn."
Kirk shook his head furiously. "No go, Bones. I've got to destroy that planet before Gary comes around. I need Spock to help balance the missiles. You're going to give me a pain killer to get me through this, and no tricks! That's an order! I promise, I'll be down after this is all over."
McCoy saw the look of grim determination on Kirk's face. He shrugged resignedly and selected a hypospray.
"Now, Mister Spock?" Kirk queried as the soothing pain reliever coursed through his system.
"Quite simple, Captain," Spock said over his shoulder, moving toward the left turbolift. "As gods go, Mister Mitchell has much to learn. He is not omnipotent, and he is extremely proud. He was so intent upon destroying you and Lieutenant Commander Uhura that he discounted the fact that I was still behind him. I recovered from the shock he had administered to the doctor and myself, slipped up behind him, and administered the Vulcan neck-pinch.
"Mister Scott overrode the helm and brought the Enterprise back into orbit, and he had Chief Rand beam everyone up. The doctor and I brought you and Uhura to the bridge, knowing you would prefer to analyze the situation from here."
"Damn, I must have been out for ten minutes."
"Eight point four-three, sir."
Kirk grinned. "Good work, Spock. Get down there and help Scotty, and tie into Mister Chekov's board the second you're ready. Gary should be out for a while, but we can't take any chances. God help me, but I've got to blow this planet out of space!"
He turned to Uhura as the doors slid shut behind the Vulcan, remorse in his voice. "I'm sorry, Uhura; it can't be helped. He's no longer the man you love."
"I understand, sir," she said. She shuddered involuntarily. "H-he tried to kill me..."
"Maximum range, Captain," Sulu sang out.
"I have plotted an oblique course to keep us away from the explosion flashback, sir," DiFalco reported.
"Good. Mister Chekov, stand by for your signal from Engineering. Tie into the computer to select the point where the surface crust is the thinnest, and as soon as that signal comes in, be ready to cut loose with the fireworks!" Kirk punched a button on his command console. "Engineering. Scotty, how soon will they be ready?"
"About five more minutes, sir," the Scotsman answered. "We canna be too careful with the intermix!"
"Understood. Do it as quickly as you can though. We don't know how much time we've got!"
McCoy had been speaking on his wristcom. He signed off and stepped over to Uhura. Producing another hypo, he gave her a dose of a mild tranquilizer. "Something to help you unwind, Uhura," he said, smiling. "I promise, it won't knock you out!" His gaze shifted to Kirk. "Christine is up to her elbows in fractures and concussions, Jim. It seems a few of our people weren't nailed down when Gary yanked the ship back, and a lot of them got banged up. If you don't need me, I'm going on down to help her out."
"Go ahead, Bones," Kirk nodded. "I'll be fine." He glanced at Uhura as McCoy exited.
"If you'd like to go to your quarters..."
"I'm all right, sir," she smiled. "I'd like to stay." She noticed the grin that was playing across his handsome features. "What is it, sir?" she asked quizzically.
"I was just thinking," he replied. "I hope that doesn't become standard Starfleet issue uniform."
They both laughed, and Uhura felt her ears grow warm as she realized how incongruous she must look in McCoy's oversized tunic.
"Kyptin!" Chekov exclaimed. "Meester Scott is ready!"
"Coordinates," Kirk ordered.
Illuminated cross hairs appeared on the viewscreen. They centered on a spot in Delta-Vega's southern hemisphere. Chekov turned and looked expectantly at Kirk. Sulu, DiFalco, and Communications Officer Jansen followed suit when the captain delayed giving the final order.
Kirk's mind raced; he wondered one last time if there was any other way, if they could somehow help Mitchell. He looked up at Uhura, but she gazed fixedly at the viewscreen, a tear running from the corner of her eye. It had to be this way, he realized sadly.
"Fire One, Mister Chekov," he said quietly.
The viewscreen filters blanked down the blinding glare as the first planet-wrecker was launched. A cluster of photon torpedoes combined into one awesome, lethal missile, it streaked through space and slammed into the small planet dead-center between the cross hairs. Its impact explosion flared brighter than Delta-Vega's sun, and the screen momentarily blacked out.
"Fire Two and Three," Kirk commanded. "Sulu, cut into evasion course...now!"
On the screen, the other two planet smashers impacted in the crater formed by the first. The third one tore through to the planet's core. It set off a chain reaction that shredded Delta-Vega in a cataclysmic, cosmic fireball that knocked out the screen again.
When the image came back, all that remained of the planet was a drifting, miasmic cloud of rubble and fragments.
Uhura remained staring at the screen, white-knuckled, her fingers digging into the palms of her hands. Tears flowed freely and unashamedly now, but she could not tear her eyes away. Kirk was about to say something to comfort her when Lieutenant Kris Jansen cut in.
"Captain, it's Mister Spock paging you from Engineering. He wants to know if the remaining missiles are to be disarmed."
Kirk was about to reply when Sulu gasped in amazement. "Captain, look!"
The dissipating mist that had been Delta-Vega was coalescing, reforming into a rough sphere. The globe began to rotate, faster and faster. Then it slowed.
In a matter of seconds, Delta-Vega once again placidly spun through space, as if nothing had happened.
And then their eyes widened with horror.
Gary Mitchell, or rather, the creature who had once been Gary Mitchell in another lifetime, seemed to be standing in space. But now he towered thousands of meters high, dwarfing the Enterprise as though it were a child's toy glider.
There was something even more alien about his face than before, however. He spoke, and the voice that sounded on the bridge was that of hundreds of metallic monotones sounding in unison. "We are the Ph'ecdalyns, Captain Kirk. We have been growing and evolving in this host body until we have become powerful enough to subvert the feeble consciousness that once owned it. Even now, his mind refuses to accept what is happening to him. All along he thought that he controlled what you so quaintly call the 'esper' power, never dreaming that this so-called power was itself a conscious, living entity."
Kirk's jaw dropped in amazement. "A parasite!"
"A rather undignified term, but an accurate description. We Ph'ecdalyns are known to Humans as the energy barrier that surrounds your galaxy."
A murmur of shock rippled among the bridge crew. "The energy barrier...a living being!" Kirk exclaimed.
"Yes, Captain," the voices confirmed. "We came here on a mission of conquest eons ago from the sector of space that you call the Large Magellanic Cloud. We had completely conquered that area of the universe. At that time, we had corporeal bodies much like your own. Hundreds of thousands of us came here on one vast mothership; however, when we entered your galaxy, our ship was destroyed, as were our bodies. But our minds were extremely powerful. We linked together into a being of pure energy which now forms your galactic barrier. We joined consciousnesses, much like the entity you once encountered and called the Lights of Zetar. But our consciousness is much more vast."
Kirk's eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. How is it that you know so much about what happened to us?"
"Simple, Captain. We have scanned your computer banks. We know everything that has happened to this ship from the time it was launched, everything about Starfleet deployment, every scrap of knowledge contained therein. We have also scanned the minds of everyone on board. For example, we know that you are contemplating firing your last missiles at us, Captain. We cannot allow that."
The gigantic apparition flicked its wrist, and everything went dark again. Only the viewscreen remained activated. "There! That is much better!" the voices exulted. "It is good to have a physical body again. In the form of energy, we are somewhat helpless. We can attack ships attempting to pass over in hopes that there are suitable hosts aboard. As with the Zetars, only certain individuals, those with what you call high esper ratings, can be chosen to receive us. Those who are not compatible die from the neural overload, as you are well aware. No other ships have passed through the barrier since the Enterprise attempted it, Captain. Your warning has steered all traffic clear of us."
"But the Enterprise has been back to the barrier twice since you...I mean, since Gary was affected!"
"We said no other ships, James Kirk!" buzzed the voice. "When the Kelvans modified your ship to make the crossing to the Andromeda galaxy, they strengthened your deflectors past the point we could penetrate. Besides that, your speed was too great at that time for us to stop you."
"And what about that incident when we were transporting the Medusan ambassador, and an insane Lawrence Marvick took over the ship and threw us out of the galaxy?"
There was a long, long pause, and an astonished Kirk swore he could detect embarrassment on the part of the entity. "We were not ready for you. At that time we were using our collective consciousness to scan the galaxy for ships that might stray into our sphere of influence. This scanning drained our energy reserves, and since you had no intention of crossing the barrier, we were totally taken by surprise when you suddenly appeared there. Before we could regroup and build up our strength again, you had left." The voice took on an even more menacing tone. "You will not take advantage of us again, however! This time we have you!
"We knew that the Mitchell host was still alive on this planet, but the part of us that had been infused into him was too weak to hold on after he freed himself from the rockslide. That part was forced to vacate his body before it had a chance to grow powerful enough to control him. We had no way to affect him again unless he traveled in space, so when your ship came within our sphere of influence on its survey run, we planted subconscious suggestions in your mind, Captain, hoping you would be curious enough to come back to Delta-Vega and rescue Mitchell."
"Then those weren't dreams!" Kirk exclaimed.
"No, Captain. We had to lure you here in order to be free to conquer once again! Our race is born to battle; it was frustrating, maddening, to be forced to float in space with no way to fulfill our destiny! Now you have given us the chance once again! The so-called superpowers of your galaxy will fall before us like sand before a tidal wave!"
A strange expression passed over the giant's face, and suddenly the lighting came back up as full power returned to the starship. The creature spoke again, this time with Gary Mitchell's voice, the Gary Mitchell that Kirk knew of old.
"Jim! They're having a hard time taking over my mind! They can't achieve full control! I'm fighting them, but it isn't easy! Fire the missiles now before they can overcome me! It's your only chance; it'll destroy their host body, and that part of the Ph'ecdalyns' consciousness will be forced to disperse out into space, powerless!"
"Gary! No!" Uhura shouted.
"It's the only way, Uhura!" Mitchell said urgently.
"Mister Chekov, fire the remaining planet-wreckers!" Kirk snapped.
The cross hairs centered on Mitchell's chest, and the ready light flashed on Chekov's display. Before he could fire, however, the transformation seized Mitchell's face once more.
"No!" shouted the multiple voice. A jagged bolt of energy flared from the gigantic mutant's fingertips, and the Enterprise was tossed about like a toy boat on a mill pond, almost turning completely over. Crewpersons flew through the air, screaming, smashing into bulkheads and consoles.
And on the bridge, Kirk tried to pull himself into a sitting position beside his command console. In the dim red emergency lighting, he could see no one anywhere near his or her assigned station. He had been gripping the armrests of his chair when the bolt had hit, and fortunately for him, he had been the only one who had not been thrown completely clear of his seat.
But the others had not fared well at all.
Chekov lay atop an unconscious Sulu. Blood spattered from a deep gash in the young Russian's forehead, and he moaned incoherently in his agony. A sobbing DiFalco sprawled beneath the engineering station, unmoving.
Kirk called anxiously out to her. "Chief! How badly are you hurt?"
"M-my back, sir! I landed flat when I fell!" An edge of panic came into her voice. "Sir, I can't move my arms, my legs, anything! I-I'm paralyzed!"
The terrible image on the screen laughed in a mocking, multi-toned shriek. "How frail you Humans are! It will be child's play to conquer you! We no longer need your ship for mobility, Kirk, and since this next bolt will destroy it, consider as your dying thought that you made possible the destruction of your entire galaxy!"
It laughed once more, and another streak of energy licked out at the starship. But it disappeared before it could reduce the Enterprise into a disassociated cloud of atomic flotsam.
"Jim!" Mitchell shouted, "I've got them again! For God's sake, fire now! I haven't got the strength left to drive them down anymore!"
Kirk looked desperately at Chekov's weapons console. The red light flashed enticingly beyond his reach, for he could not move on his now throbbing leg. Of Uhura there was no trace; his only hope now was Communications Officer Jansen.
"Lieutenant Jansen," he called. "Can you get to the weapons complex?" He craned around to look in the direction of the communications station, and his heart sank.
Kris Jansen's ankle had been trapped in the base of her console chair when the initial bolt had hit. She had not been thrown across the bridge. Instead, her body had been mercilessly slammed to the deck. Her head hung limply on her shattered neck, and a fine ribbon of blood trickled from the corner of her gaping mouth. Her glazed, staring eyes seemed to drill into him accusingly. Why did I have to die? they seemed to say.
Kirk groaned, remorsefully staring at the young woman's broken body.
"Jim! I can't hold them off much longer! It's got to be now!" Mitchell shouted again.
Kirk looked helplessly at the screen, at Mitchell's face, tortured and twisted from the effort of fighting back the Ph'ecdalyns' influence. "I can't do anything," the captain began brokenly. Then he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.
A slim, trembling hand reached up on the other side of the weaponry station, and then a bruised, battered Uhura pulled herself up. She slumped into the chair. Shakily, but rapidly, she made some fine adjustments. The cross hairs once again centered on Mitchell.
Her finger poised over the firing button, hesitating, and for a wild moment, Kirk thought she would not do it.
Then she fired.
The mortal remains of Gary Mitchell hurtled outward into space in an explosion to rival a supernova. There was a many-voiced scream of terror, then silence.
When the image of peaceful space reappeared on the viewscreen, the voice of the Ph'ecdalyns came one last time, weak and distant. "You have won, Captain Kirk. You have defeated us...for now. But others will come to us. There will be others..."
Spock and McCoy came rushing onto the bridge just as the Enterprise's systems came back to full power. It was also at that precise instant that Kirk's pain killer wore off completely. The agony was beyond sense; his brutalized system could take no more. He felt himself passing out.
The last thing he heard was Uhura, sobbing quietly to herself in a mixture of sorrow and relief.
Three days later, the beleaguered Enterprise pulled into Starbase Twelve, flawlessly docking with the orbiting station. Kirk released the ship to Dock Control Central, then rose from the center seat. "Good job, Mister Sulu. Commander Uhura, the crew is now authorized to commence shore leave immediately. They've really earned it."
That was an understatement, Kirk reflected. It could have been worse, but it had been bad enough. Kris Jansen had not been the only crewmember to die in the Ph'ecdalyn attack. Kirk had later learned that eight others had been killed, and twenty-two others injured, six of them seriously. And that was not counting the assorted bumps, bruises and contusions. The ship itself had suffered no structural damage, save for loose items that had been thrown about after they had been hit. Nevertheless, Scotty and a team of Starbase technicians would go over the Enterprise with a fine-toothed comb while they were docked here for the next standard week. Kirk realized that the Scotsman would derive more relaxation from examining his beloved starship than he would have on shore leave.
The bridge crew had already left, leaving only Spock and McCoy. Kirk joined his two friends on the turbolift. "How's the leg, Jim?" McCoy asked as the car dropped toward Level Five.
"About the way you said. It's stiff, and every now and then I get a twinge, but it doesn't feel any worse than a muscle pull," Kirk replied.
"Well, don't complain. As little as three hundred years ago you'd have been flat on your behind in bed right now. And you'd have had a plaster cast on that leg for months!"
"I'm not complaining, Bones, and I'm not going to let it stop me from going on the bender of the century. I think I've earned that," Kirk said soberly. "Poor Gary, what a way to die!"
"He made a noble choice, Captain," Spock put in. "He sacrificed himself in order to save the galaxy. It could not have been an easy decision."
"I'm sure it wasn't," the captain agreed. "And I wonder if I could have done the same in his position."
They exited the car as it came to a stop on Level Five. "Well, you're not going on that bender without your personal physician along as a professional consultant," McCoy growled. "Spock, would you care to join us?"
"Why thank you, Doctor, I believe I shall this time," the Vulcan replied, much to the amazement of his companions. "Humans are extremely entertaining when under the influence of alcoholic beverage."
"Well, gentlemen, let's go get ready," Kirk said. "We'll all meet at the transporter
room in forty-five minutes."
"Affirmative, Captain," Spock returned. "I believe I am actually looking forward to the spectacle." Kirk chuckled, and he and Spock continued on to their adjoining quarters as McCoy left them.
As they rounded a corner, they saw Uhura standing in the corridor across from Kirk's cabin. The captain looked around and saw Spock discreetly duck into his own quarters. He strode over to his communications officer uncertainly.
"I haven't had much of a chance to talk with you lately, Uhura," he began. "How are you doing?"
"Better, sir," she said, smiling sadly. "It's going to be awhile before I get it all out of my system. I mean it all happened so fast. I met him, fell in love with him, and now..." She shook her head. "Now he's dead."
Kirk gently spoke. "He died so that we could live. That took a lot of courage. Remember the things you loved him for, and not for the creature he became. That wasn't him. He was a good man, a brave man. That's what you should remember."
Her eyes shone brightly. "I will," she said softly. "Captain, I...I never got the chance to thank you properly for what you did on the planet."
Before he had a chance to react, she stood on her toes and kissed him. It was a warm, lingering kiss, and Kirk felt the blush rise from his toes to the tips of his ears. He was somewhat breathless when she finally pulled away. "Um, you're welcome, I'm sure," he mumbled.
She smiled at his red complexion, but made no comment. "Now what's this I hear about a big drinking party?"
Kirk started. "Uh, well, we all got together and decided we were going to cut loose for a little bit," he stammered. "McCoy let Chekov out of Sickbay for it; the only aftereffect he's had from his concussion is a slight headache, which won't be any better after this. Even Spock'll be there. Would you like to come?"
"Wouldn't miss it! It's too bad DiFalco couldn't get out yet; she and I would drink all you big, strong heroes under the table!" Uhura exclaimed. She thought of the navigator. Her paralysis had only been temporary, caused by a damaged disc. She'd be as good as new in a couple of days.
"Is that a fact?" Kirk said, grinning. "Uhura, you're on! We'll have Spock judge the drinking contests; he'll be the only one sober enough to tell what's going on!"
She laughed, and started down the hall. "I'll be there with bells on!" she called.
Kirk watched her go, admiring her lithe, supple grace. He sighed. If only the job of captain weren't so demanding. But then, there was no law that said he couldn't change, couldn't ease up a little every now and then.
He took one last look at her as she turned a corner, then stepped into his cabin. After all, he thought, tomorrow is another day.
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