Winner of the 1988 Fan Q Award for Best Writer & Story
Uncounted swarms of them swirled placidly in the incandescent backwaters of the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Many of them were nameless, and would always remain so, doomed to be designated only by nondescript numerals in astronomical atlases. Others, blazing beacons of every spectral hue, carried fanciful appellations in thousands of languages throughout the far-flung cultures of this thriving island universe.
And others were not at all what they appeared to be.
Someone gazing across the Organian Treaty Zone in the direction of Imperial Klingon Space would have been startled by the abrupt appearance of one such "star" against the sun-spattered backdrop of the interstellar void. Perhaps a nova, a sudden blooming of brilliance signaling a violent death in the cosmos? No, wait--this sun was moving, and at relativistic speed, swelling larger and brighter until it assumed a coherent shape. It was a ship, a big one, with the distinctive cobra-head and wasp-waisted configuration of a Klingon K't'inga-class heavy battlecruiser. A gray-green ghost, the starship knifed through the velvet emptiness like a swooping bird of prey, intent and implacable in its singleness of purpose.
Commander Kona, captain of the battlecruiser Korvus, studied the mainviewer, peering at the shifting panorama laid out before him. His blood sang the song of the warrior. At long last he was fulfilling his sole purpose in life! Behind them lay the shattered ruins of Federation Monitoring Outpost Epsilon Four; ahead waited an unsuspecting sister station, Epsilon Three. The attack had been child's play, little more than a light maneuvering exercise. Thanks to the improved cloaking device recently acquired from the Romulans in a materiel exchange, the Korvus had been able to sneak to within point-blank range, and the first salvo of photon torpedoes had obliterated the luckless installation.
Kona turned towards the communications console. "Communications Officer, report status," he snarled.
"All frequencies interrupted," he reported. "All Federation and Starfleet communications in this sector are completely jammed, joHwI'," Communications Officer Tagan barked. "Epsilon Three, our next target, is blacked out, as was Epsilon Four."
"Good! Soon we will crush another enemy base with our might. When we have destroyed all of our designated targets, we will have blasted open a corridor in Federation defenses that will take them months to re-fortify. And then our time will come!"
Tagan raised a fist in approval as Kona settled back in his command throne. His large, bare, bone-knobbed skull and swarthy, bearded face shone dully in the dim bridge lighting. In his bristling battle armor, he was nightmare incarnate. His features contorted into a feral grin, a hideous, snaggle-toothed grimace that passed for a smile among the genetically-engineered Kh'myr subrace of the Klingons. It was almost too easy. Their targets hung helplessly in space like blind sheep awaiting their slaughter.
And he, Kona, was the wolf.
"What is it, Bron?"
"Epsilon Three is now at extreme sensor range, Exalted One," the navigator reported. "Contact in twelve point four tup."
Kona snapped. "Battlestations. Gunner, stand ready. Charge weaponry."
A chorus of acknowledgments rang out as the cruiser geared up for battle. Kona leaned forward in his seat, his voice a hoarse growl. He was speaking in the harsh-sounding language of the Kh'myr instead of the Klingonese spoken by those non-Kh'myr weaklings. "Let us see how our soft Earther friends like surprises. Engage cloaking device!"
The helmsman did as commanded. "Cloaking device engaged."
And the Klingon cruiser Korvus melted into the blackness and vanished, becoming one with space itself.
Strung out like a barbed wire fence along the disputed boundary between Federation and Klingon space, the Epsilon series of monitoring stations served both as communications relays and border defense outposts. The stations were outfitted with the most advanced intelligence gathering and communications equipment, and kept watch on the Organian Treaty Zone for any illegal Klingon activity that constituted a treaty violation. One of the bases had been annihilated nearly three years earlier by the nearly omnipotent alien machine-being that called itself V'ger. The complex had since been rebuilt.
Until today, there had been nine Epsilon outposts.
Now there were eight.
Commander Thomas Durston paced the deck in the control center of Epsilon Three, pausing every now and then to gaze out the large rectangular viewing port. The station had been on Red Alert for almost two hours now, ever since communications had suddenly, inexplicably blacked out. So far all attempts to reestablish them had been futile.
Durston strode to the communications console. "Any luck, Jess?"
Lieutenant Commander Jessica Owens, a pretty brunette in her early thirties, shook her head. "Nothing but static, sir. I've verified that we don't have an equipment malfunction. All systems are normal."
"Which means there's either one hell of an ion storm nearby, or we're being jammed," Owens finished. Her large dark eyes flashed with frustration as she vainly tried to punch through the blanketing hiss that resonated in her earpiece.
Durston turned away, running a hand through his shock of salt-and-pepper brown hair, his gray eyes thoughtful in his lean, angular face. His executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Murphy, swiveled in his chair at the sensor bay. "I did a long range omnidirectional scan, Tom. Clean and green. WeatherScan reports there's nothing out there--no ion storms, no corona or aurora disturbances."
"What about ships--ours, or anybody else's?"
"Well, we've got Enterprise in Sector Twelve, Quad Two South, on approach path to Starbase Sixteen. That's the only vessel in range of our scanners. Nothing on the Klingon side."
"Damn!" Durston paced back to the portal again. "Let's get this straight. Our comm system checks out normal, but it's non-functional. No storms or natural disturbances nearby, no enemy ships. Then who or what is jamming us--if that's what's happening?" He stared fixedly out the port at the drifting star-field, as if it held his answer.
A yeoman entered the control deck at that moment with a freshly-brewed pot of coffee for the command crew. Murphy flagged him down. He drew two cups, then walked over to the viewport and offered one to Durston. "It doesn't have to be Klingons," Murphy said. "Maybe it's just an instrument malfunction we haven't isolated yet."
"Sure, Murph," Durston snorted. "How many times have you troubleshot your sensors in the last two hours?"
"Three," Murphy admitted.
"And they always checked out clean. Ditto with Jess' comm systems." The outpost commander sipped his coffee, wincing at the bitter taste. "Something's going on, Murph. Don't ask me how I know; it's just a feeling I've got. And it's not my usual Kh'myr paranoia, either."
"The 'new breed' has got you worried, huh?"
"The new breed, yeah--literally as well as figuratively. I keep waiting for those bone-headed bastards to come pouring across the border one day. Nothing intimidates them, not even the threat of Organian intervention. To them, the Treaty's not worth the paper it's written on."
He gulped his coffee again, and again made a face. Yes, the Klingon Kh'myr warrior caste worried him. The Kh'myr were the product of a little more than a century of accelerated genetic engineering. They were half again as strong as a healthy specimen of the parent Klingon race, as well as being quicker, more savage, and utterly fearless in battle. They were without doubt the ultimate Klingon warrior. In five standard years, they had come to dominate the military wing of the Empire. Only the fact that they were still outnumbered on the Klingon planets held them in check. But for how long? The Kh'myr were berserkers. There were rumors that they had even drawn up plans for a direct strike against Organia itself--despite the fact that the Organians had already proven they could immobilize entire starfleets with a mere thought.
"C'mon, Tom, quit sweating about it," Murphy chided, interrupting his reverie. "We're ready for 'em. Shields and screens are up, and sensors are clear to the limits of their range. There's nothing out there."
"Then, I repeat, what's wrong with communications?"
Murphy was about to make an exasperated reply when Jessica Owens interrupted them from her board. "Commander, I'm getting a strange--"
She didn't get a chance to finish.
Something hit the station, hard, shaking it with the brutal force of an earthquake. Coffee cups went flying as Durston and Murphy were slammed to the deck. They scrambled to their feet as the tremor subsided. Murphy dropped into his console chair, staring incredulously at his sensor display.
"That felt like a hit, but the sensors say there's nothing there!"
"Energize phaser batteries!" Durston snapped.
Even as Owens relayed the message to the weapons deck, Epsilon Three shuddered again--only far worse this time. The lights went out, plunging the control center into darkness. "Station support has been destroyed by a torpedo hit, sir!" Owens shouted. "Power plant is dead, deflectors are down, and phasers banks are inoperative! We're on battery power!"
"My God--there it is!" Murphy exclaimed.
Durston followed his exec's pointing finger. A Klingon battlecruiser hung outside the station, seemingly at arm's-length distance. Its forward torpedo tube glowed red with lambent hellfire as it prepared to strike again.
"How'd they get so close?" Durston shouted. "We should have picked them up!"
The cruiser fired.
The blast shook the command deck. Consoles exploded all about them, bursting into flames. There was a muffled scream as the ceiling caved in above the communications bay. Jessica Owens was engulfed in a lethal cascading hail of broken support beams and conduits.
Durston came up coughing, wiping blood out of his eyes from a deep gash in his forehead. His right leg was broken in several places. Gritting his teeth against the excruciating pain, he gingerly crawled toward the wreckage marking the spot where Jessica had been sitting only seconds before. He pulled himself forward on his elbows through the choking dust and smoke; his trembling, out-stretched hand suddenly encountered something wet and sticky. Durston dragged himself another couple of feet, then stopped, moaning in shocked, sickened horror.
He realized he was crawling in a crimson pool of blood that was seeping from beneath the mountain of debris, spreading across the deck with alarming rapidity. Tears stung Durston's eyes as he fought back the impulse to gag. "Oh, Jess," he groaned. "Oh, God damn ...Jess!"
"T-Tom...help me," he heard Murphy gasp feebly.
"Where are you?"
No answer came. Durston tried to locate his exec, homing in on the direction from which he thought the voice had come.
He found him several painful seconds later. Murphy was pinned under the crushing weight of a durasteel ceiling beam.
He had no pulse.
Choking back a sob, Durston collapsed next to the body of his friend. He gently closed Murphy's wide, staring eyes. "Klingons, Murph," he whispered. "They caught us napping, and we paid for it."
He glanced up at the viewport. The thick glass was shattered into opaque, web-like patterns, but he could still see the battlecruiser making a final, deadly pass. He watched, transfixed, as a photon torpedo spiraled lazily toward the dying station.
Point blank, Durston thought. It's going to hit right here on the command deck! He somehow fought back the agony of his crushed leg and drew his knees up to his chest in a fetal position, as if this would protect him.
The last thing he saw was the viewport exploding inward a microsecond before the Klingon torpedo vaporized the outpost and all aboard it.
Commander Kona watched with avid satisfaction as the dying embers of the fatal explosion dissipated into the ether. Around him, the victory whoops of his crew reverberated throughout the bridge. Another Federation outpost reduced to plasma! The new Romulan cloaking device had performed spectacularly thus far. Coupled with the increased engine power of the uprated K't'inga cruisers, they could drop out of the universe altogether while retaining the use of their own sensors. The drawback that had plagued earlier versions of the device--that of being forced to periodically deactivate it to conserve power--had been eliminated, and from what they had seen today, the Federation's powerful new sensors were completely blind to it. It was indeed formidable.
And yet, the cloaking device was a mere toy compared to what they would soon possess.
Kona grinned. It was ironic. The Federation would supply the weapon that would bring about its own destruction. Today, he would clear a path that would enable Imperial starships to pass back and forth into Federation space at will--and to 'acquire' the services of the man whose brilliant mind would cause the downfall of their hated enemy.
And then they would fall on the Federation weaklings like hunting bloodhawks diving on their prey.
"Course programmed for Starbase Sixteen, my lord," Bron called out.
"Excellent. Graf Factor Ten. This is our final target. As soon as we destroy it, we return to Kazh--and victory."
A cheer went up from his men. Shouts of "Victory, joHwI'" rang out, accompanied by the traditional Klingon upraised-fist salute.
He lounged back in his chair, rubbing his gauntleted hands together in anticipation of his next triumph.
Captain James T. Kirk's fingers played over the touch-sensor membrane keyboard on the arm of his command console. He stabbed a button and opened intraship communications. "Kirk to Engineering. Scotty, how're you holding up down there?"
"We're showin' some fluctuation on the intermix phase balancin' circuits," came the Scot's thick burr. "We should be all right if ye don't ask me for any more speed--then we might go into engine imbalance."
"Is it that bad? I thought you weren't too worried about it."
"Aye, but it's been gettin' progressively worse for the past several hours. I'll sure be glad to get her into drydock, Cap'n."
Kirk grinned. "Just hang on a few more minutes, Scotty. We're almost there. Kirk out."
He sat back in his console, exhaling slowly. We're almost there. He couldn't remember the last time he had so looked forward to shore leave. He was bone-weary; fatigue hung from his eyelids like lead weights, squeezed at his chest until his lungs burned when he breathed.
And why not? It had been two years since he had reassumed command of the new, up-rated Enterprise for the V'ger encounter. He could not recall ever having spent two busier years in his life. Even his first historic five-year mission had not been this hectic. They had explored farther into the reaches of deep space than anyone before them, guiding the awesome power of this gleaming starship into the black, unknown void.
There was always the threat of Klingon activity. Lately, alarming reports from 'fleet Intelligence indicated that they seemed to be gearing up for something. No one was certain exactly what the Klingons were doing; there had been a great deal of Imperial fleet deployment, and that could only bode ill for Starfleet and the Federation.
James T. Kirk had plenty to keep him occupied. For the most part, he enjoyed himself immensely, but even he had his limits. He drove himself, his crew, his ship, always farther and deeper into space. They were often out of contact with Starfleet Command for months at a time. Somehow, he was not troubled by this communications lapse. He thought he had convinced himself that this was just one of the necessary evils of deep space exploration, but he knew that, deep down, he was glad of every parsec of emptiness he could put between himself and Starfleet Command, between himself and his old life.
The specter of the two and a half miserable years he had spent on ground duty during the Enterprise's refitting still haunted his dreams, sometimes even his waking hours. Those had been bad times, times of frustration, times of longing for a chance to roam once more among the stars, to be truly free again. He did not want to go back to that. He could not bear up under that strain, that terrible empty feeling of being used up, over the hill. Commanding Admiral Heihachiro Nogura had only reluctantly allowed him a "temporary grade reduction to captain," a return to active duty, stating that he felt Kirk would be more valuable to Starfleet in the Admiralty--on Earth.
On the ground.
Maybe I'm running, Kirk thought. Maybe I'm deliberately trying to stay out of touch so they can't catch up to me and force me to come back.
He started, and his face reddened as he realized he had almost nodded off to sleep. He cast a sheepish glance around the bridge, hoping no one had noticed. The faces of his crew were drawn and tired; they looked as bad as he felt. His people always gave him more than he asked for, but, like him, they could only give so much. Eventually, the well had to run dry.
Kirk watched them, realizing somewhat guiltily how long it had been since they'd had a decent shore leave. Lieutenant Commander Chekov sat at the weapons control station, half-heartedly running simulations through his battle computer. Before him, their console on automatic, Commander Sulu and Ensign Thalon, the young Andorian navigator, chatted quietly, occasionally consulting readouts and telltales on their panels. Spock, of course, was a stranger to fatigue--or if he wasn't, the Vulcan did a remarkable job of appearing alert and relaxed as he recalibrated his sensors. And Commander Uhura...
There was an odd note in her voice that made Kirk spin his command chair about to face her station. She was frowning in deep concentration, touching her fingertips to her receiver earpiece. "I've been trying to raise Starbase Sixteen, sir, and I'm getting no response, not even static on their frequency."
"Nothing at all? Have you tried other sidebands?"
"Affirmative, sir. I'm not getting a thing. In fact, I'm not receiving any radio traffic from the planet whatsoever, not even a directional beacon. All channels appear to be dead."
Dead. Kirk's stomach tightened. Starbase Sixteen is so close to the Organian Treaty Zone--and the Klingons...
"Sensors detect an object at extreme scanning range," Spock reported. "It may be a ship, but it is too distant yet to confirm. However, it is blue-shifting. Definitely moving toward us." He paused, his eyes narrowing. "It's gone, Captain."
Kirk bounded out of his command chair, moving swiftly to the science console. He bent over Spock's viewer and peered down into the screen. "As you can see, Captain, not even a ghost echo. It simply vanished."
Spock's eyebrows arched in horrified indignation. "Negative, Captain. I just ran a diagnostic program on them."
Kirk whirled back to the conn; this seemed only too familiar. "Go to Red Alert! It could be a vessel using a cloaking device."
Alarm klaxons blared as the crew scrambled to battlestations. Kirk hunched forward in his seat, eyes locked on the mainviewer. The heady rush of adrenalin through his system purged all traces of fatigue. He felt more alert and alive than he had in days, as, around him, duty stations reported their status.
"Helm and Navigation restored to manual control," Sulu sang out. "Shields and screens at maximum, sir."
"Phasers and photon torpedoes at full load status," Chekov said.
"Spock, anything else on sensors?" Kirk asked.
"Negative, Captain. I have a clear screen."
"Damn! Where is it--and what is it? We should be able to pick up at least an occasional carrier transform, even if it's a ship with a cloaking screen! Unless they've--"
His conjecture was abruptly and dramatically cut short. A vague, half-perceived shape popped in and out of existence for a subliminal half-second, and a lethal, glaring crimson sphere of plasma energy spun toward them at horrifyingly close range.
The Oriental helmsman's expert hands were already flying over his controls even as Kirk shouted. He wheeled the ship hard to starboard, frantically attempting to get her out of the path of the deadly photon torpedo.
He was only partially successful.
The Enterprise shuddered as the missile grazed a forward shield on the leading edge of the disc-shaped primary hull. The bridge lighting flickered. It came back up at less than full strength.
Kirk exhaled a brief sigh of relief. If they hadn't raised their shield...
"Kyptin!" Pavel Chekov's voice was edged with barely-controlled panic. "The readout--I can't get a phaser-lock, sir! My computers can't pick up a target!"
"Sulu, maintain evasive maneuvers," Kirk snapped. "Spock, sensors! Are you reading anything at all? We need something to shoot at!"
"Negative. I am attempting to scan on different frequencies. Still nothing."
"Mister Scott for you on intraship, Captain," Uhura cut in.
"Cap'n! I've got some circuits here that went critical on that pass! Power's down nineteen percent, and we had to jury-rig some by-passes! We canna--"
"Look!" someone shouted.
The phantom shape reappeared just long enough to spit another fireball at them. This time, there was nowhere to run; the Enterprise rocked violently as she took a direct hit on the saucer hull. Emergency motion restraints snapped into place over the laps of the bridge crew personnel, locking them all securely in their console chairs. Uhura's board lit up as damage reports and frantic requests for assistance clogged her channels. She cleared the lines and put Scott on again.
"Cap'n, if we take one more hit like thot, we're finished! Power's down fifty-two percent!"
"Understood, Engineer!" Kirk returned. "Sulu, continue evasive. Mister Chekov, program phasers for automatic lock, tying in full engine power. The instant our attacker becomes visible, I want all batteries rigged to cut loose with everything we've got! If it doesn't work..."
"Aye, sir," Chekov responded. His hands cued in a programming sequence on his keyboard. "Phaser lock now fully automatic."
"I have been unable to locate the aggressor with our sensors, Captain," Spock said. "If it is a Klingon warship, it must be employing an improved version of the Romulan cloaking device. I cannot pick up so much as a DeBroglie transform. They are totally undetectable."
"If it's a Klingon warship," Kirk echoed. "Given our present location, I would say that's a safe assumption, Mister Spock." He turned back to the viewer. "Keep your eyes open. He could be coming from anywhere--but I'll bet he comes right down our throat again!"
All eyes were riveted to the screen. The bridge was silent; no one spoke. No one even breathed as they waited for the ghost ship to reappear. Seconds dragged on into minutes. Still nothing.
Where in Hell is it? Kirk's hands bunched into clenched fists. It isn't like the Klingons to walk away and leave a fight unfinished...
He was slammed against the back of his chair. The Enterprise bucked as the phasers locked and fired automatically. Twin beams of searing blue-white energy screamed through space; the viewscreen flared with a blinding actinic light until the damper filters blacked it out.
When the screen came back on, all that remained of their unseen attacker was a drifting, glowing cloud of scattered atoms.
Chekov let out a nervous breath. "We got it!"
"But just by the skin of our teeth," Kirk admonished. "One more solid hit and that would've been us floating around in pieces out there. Maintain yellow alert, and keep scanning."
"We never even got a good look at that ship," Sulu observed.
"Yes," he acknowledged.
Kirk sat back in his command console, his expression grim. No proof, no solid evidence of who or what had attacked them. Without it, his hands were tied. He was convinced to the core of his being that a Klingon vessel had fired upon them, but he would have a difficult time proving that to the recently-appointed "Peacemaker" contingent which now controlled the Federation Council.
"Commander Uhura, send to Starfleet Command: U.S.S. Enterprise, James T. Kirk, commanding. We have been fired upon by--" Kirk's eyes caught Spock's. "--by an unidentified vessel. En route to Starbase Sixteen as scheduled, and will investigate the lack of communications from the base. Starbase Sixteen may also have been attacked, possibly by the same ship which fired upon us." He paused. "Send it scrambled, Uhura, code six."
Kirk was about to call Engineering when a mild tremor shook the Enterprise. The bridge was engulfed in an inky, Stygian blackness. There was a chorus of muffled curses and shouts of consternation as the bridge crew reacted to the sudden darkness. "Mind your posts," Kirk called out over the din. "Emergency power should come on shortly. Spock?"
"Unable to ascertain what has happened, Captain. The concussion did not seem strong enough to be a phaser or torpedo hit; however, we have lost all power. Even the power to the consoles is out."
"Uhura, any chance of raising Engineering?"
"Negative, sir. Even the emergency link is out."
"What in hell is going on down there? We should at least have emergency power by now."
"Mister Scott spoke of being forced to re-route some circuitry," Spock remarked. "Perhaps between the strain of deflecting the torpedo strikes and the power drain of our phaser fire, his bypasses gave out."
"Well, whatever happened, we're a sitting duck out here without power or sensors. If there's another hostile ship in the vicinity, we don't stand a chance."
Kirk stood up cautiously, blindly groping for the helm-nav console. "I'm going down to Engineering via emergency stairwell. Spock, take the conn."
"Captain..." the Vulcan began.
The emergency lighting finally came on. Its feeble red-amber glow barely illuminated the bridge, but to Kirk, it was as welcome and beautiful as any sunrise he had ever seen. A spontaneous cheer went up from the command crew.
Kirk turned towards Uhura's console. "Commander--"
The horrified expression on her face stopped him cold. "Captain! Engineering reports an emergency! They've called for fire control and medical teams!"
"Put me through to Scotty!"
"I can't, sir! The line's open, but no one's responding. It-it sounds so horrible! Screaming and shouting--"
"Order all available hands to assist in fire control. Spock, take over. I'm going down there!"
He bolted into the starboard turbolift as his first officer took the center seat. The doors hissed shut sluggishly. "Engineering," Kirk snapped into the speaker grid.
The lift dropped with intolerable, agonizing slowness. Kirk fidgeted from foot to foot. His ship was all but dead, and he had no idea what was happening. Right now, they couldn't even move, much less defend themselves. "Come on!" he growled through gritted teeth.
The turbolift finally reached its destination. The doors parted; a thin, haze of smoke filtered into the lift, stinging Kirk's eyes and nose. He coughed, wiping at his streaming eyes as he knelt down to fresher air. He waddled out into the smoky corridor. He wanted to run, but knew he stood a good chance of burning his eyes seriously, not to mention his lungs. He crawled along the wall, counting the sealed doorways as a blind man might. After a few meters of tentative searching, he found the main entrance to the multilevel Engineering deck. He crawled inside the doors which had been forcefully blown open.
Only to focus on a scene of horror and chaos.
Engineering looked as though it had been hit by a fusion grenade. The deck was littered with an amalgam of shattered wreckage--blasted consoles and panels, broken plastiplex, twisted metal, and, Kirk noted with sick horror, Human bodies. Most of them, thankfully, still appeared to be alive.
But some of them could not be.
The screaming and shouting Uhura had described had abated, to be replaced by the low moans of the injured and dying. He could hear the ship's ventilating system working overtime to clear away the smoke. It was getting easier to see now; he wished to God it were not. A trio of fire control personnel sprayed down a stubborn blaze spouting from a ruined console. Their thickly-padded protective suits were smudged with soot and grime. Behind them, Kirk could make out the immensity of the giant intermix chamber rearing up through seven levels of the great starship. It was dark and silent now, its wave-energy collectors dead, inactive. Emergency systems had immediately flushed the antimatter from the column.
Kirk heard the familiar voice of Doctor Leonard McCoy. He peered through the haze until he located the chief surgeon, who was hunkered down alongside the inert form of a young engineering technician. Kirk moved toward them, picking his way through the clutter of wreckage. He stopped and swore savagely under his breath, grimacing when he saw the extent of the technician's horrible injuries. He was not a physician, but he had seen enough of death to know that it was even now reaching out to claim this young man. His chest had been laid open by flying metal; pink, frothy blood bubbled up from his shredded lungs and onto the deck. Too much blood flowing far too fast.
McCoy glanced up to see Kirk standing, horrified, above him. He shook his head in response to the captain's unspoken question.
"Oh, God...hurts..." the youth moaned. He trembled, whimpering against the pain.
"Just relax, son," McCoy murmured as he scanned with his medical tricorder. "Somebody'll be here to take you to Sickbay in just a few minutes."
"It--it just blew up," the technician sobbed. "One minute...Hilly's sitting th-there ...watching her instruments...then she's gone..."
"Quiet now," McCoy admonished. He applied a wad of sterile, absorbent cloth from his trauma kit to the massive wounds in a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood--futile because McCoy knew his patient could not survive. Tissue and organ damage, blood loss, shock, they were all far too extensive. The best he could do was make him comfortable for the time he had left. God, he's so young, McCoy thought. He's got no business dying yet.
He began coding a hypospray for another dose of painkiller when a great tremor coursed through the boy's body. The engineer exhaled one long, ragged breath then lay still, eyes fixed and glazed in death. McCoy pulled a reflective blanket up over the dead face. "He was just a kid. I didn't even ask him his name."
"What happened down here?" Kirk asked in a voice hoarse with shock, the image of the youth's piercing gaze still in his mind.
"Dunno. Console exploded, or something. We've got two dead, three now with this boy--I don't know how many were injured. I treated five myself, but Christine and M'Benga are down here somewhere."
"Three dead," Kirk echoed.
"Yeah. The other two were a support technician, an Ensign Paul Stoker, and a Lieutenant Hillary McBain. She was the console operator." McCoy shuddered involuntarily. He would never forget the gruesome sight of those few lumps of flesh and shattered bone against the bulkhead behind the ruined console. Not as long as I live.
Kirk's eyes scanned over the carnage, unfocused like a sleepwalker's. "Where's Scotty? I've got to know how soon we can get on line--or if we can."
"I haven't seen him," McCoy replied. "I've been too busy with casualties."
"Scotty?" Kirk called.
"Over here, sir!"
The chief engineer shuffled toward them in a daze. He gripped an antimatter flux meter loosely in his right hand. Rivulets of sweat had cut tracks through the grime that smeared his face; his protective suit was torn and dirty, his features taut with grief and rage. His crew, his beloved engines...
"Scotty," Kirk's tone was gentle, "what happened?"
"It was the phase balancing console, sir. The circuitry exploded. I dinna ken how. In all me years as an engineer, I've never seen thot happen." He glanced at the charred skeleton of the console. "Poor Hillary. The lass was lookin' right at the board when it blew. She never had a chance..."
His voice trailed off as a weary Doctor Christine Chapel trudged by, accompanied by two medtechs. A blood-soaked sheet covered the body they carried on a stretcher.
McCoy excused himself and followed them; he belonged in Sickbay now, where the injured required his full medical attention.
Four now, Kirk thought. He looked at Scotty, whose eyes followed the progress of the technicians and their grim, silent burden. "I'm sorry," Kirk said softly. "Please understand, Scotty, but I've got to know how soon we can be underway."
"Aye," Scotty returned, wearily dragging a soiled sleeve across his face. "I've already got crews workin' on restorin' impulse power. It's nae tied into this system, and damage was minimal. It should be ready almost any minute now."
"What about warp capability?" Kirk was afraid he knew the answer, and his worst fears were confirmed when Scotty shook his head sorrowfully.
"I canna give ye warp drive, Cap'n. We can only rebuild the phase balancin' unit and the damaged circuitry in a fully equipped drydock facility, an' without it, we canna fire up the warp engines. We'd go into engine imbalance immediately, and generate a wormhole--or worse."
"Damn. What's your estimate on repair time?"
"Thot's four solid days of work there, sir--after we get to a starbase dock."
"Get me impulse power, and I'll get you to a starbase." Kirk reached out and clapped the Scot on the shoulder. "Do your best, Scotty. I've got to get back to the bridge."
"Aye, sir," came the reply. "We'll be limpin' along, but I'll get us there."
Kirk strode out of the damaged engineering deck and grabbed a turbolift. Four dead, God knows how many injured, and a crippled starship that can only crawl along on impulse drive. And he dreaded what they would find when they reached Starbase 16. He clenched his jaw. The Klingons had a lot to answer for; he was convinced they were responsible for the attack on the Enterprise, and he would press his case--even though his claim would probably be dismissed for lack of evidence.
The lift reached its destination, and the doors snapped open. Spock relinquished the command chair as Kirk descended to the lower level of the bridge. "Damage control reports are complete, Captain," the Vulcan said. "Most of it is circuitry overloads, and is centered in Engineering. No structural damage. Doctor McCoy's final casualty list is comprised of four dead and twelve injured. Five of those are critical."
The ruddy emergency lighting suddenly brightened. Scotty had come through.
"Mister Scott reports impulse power is back on line," Uhura confirmed.
"Mister Sulu, ahead Warp factor zero point nine, same heading," Kirk ordered. "Maintain Yellow Alert. Uhura, all decks are to conserve power by shutting down all unnecessary systems. Continue trying to raise Starbase Sixteen."
"Aye, sir," she replied, then turned to relay the captain's directives. The Enterprise surged forward as Sulu nudged the impulse engines up to speed.
"Warp zero point nine," the helmsman said.
"Drift calculations and course adjustments laid in, sir," the Andorian navigator, Thalon, reported. "Locked back on course for Starbase Sixteen."
"Acknowledged, gentlemen," Kirk returned. He settled back to watch the stars painfully crawl by on the screen. Now we wait, he thought. With the reaction drive, they could only manage a mere snail's pace fraction of their normal faster-than-light cruising speed.
This was going to be a long ride.
It did, in fact, take the Enterprise nearly three-quarters of an hour to traverse the distance she could have crossed in a few minutes with the warp drive. Kirk was up and pacing impatiently by the time the red-orange globe of Syran III, Starbase 16's home planet, swam into view. The planet should have been blue-green.
"Standard orbit achieved," Sulu announced.
"Power priority to weapons and deflectors," Kirk snapped. "All stations maintain Yellow Alert."
Spock consulted his instruments, and the data they relayed to him was grim. He made one last confirming check of his screen, then swiveled around to face an anxious Kirk, who had come over to stand by the science console.
"It is as you feared, Captain. Syran Three has been bombarded with some type of energy weapon. Starbase Sixteen is gone, annihilated."
"Negative. No humanoid life readings of any kind. However, sensors are operating on extremely reduced power. They cannot be considered one hundred percent reliable when scanning for individual life forms."
"There were seven million inhabitants on that planet, Spock," Kirk said. He stared at the mainviewer. Syran III shone like a huge, sparkling ruby set in an ebony firmament. It was incomprehensible to imagine the destructive power needed to reduce a lush planet to a wasteland of death and destruction. A cold rage gripped Kirk.
"All those people," he whispered. "A starbase is gone, an entire planetary defense system has been breached and destroyed. The Klingons must have surprised them like they did us, and gotten under their screens."
"Jim," Spock said quietly. "You are convinced that the Klingons are responsible for this attack and the assault on the Enterprise. Logic tends to support your position. However, I must remind you that without evidence--"
"I'm aware of the situation, Spock," Kirk flared. "They've got a bunch of faint-hearted bureaucrats on the Council these days. They're determined to maintain peace at any cost--even if it means the lives of millions of innocent people."
"I was merely pointing out that you may be required to furnish physical evidence of Klingon involvement in the form of prisoners or materiel if you wish to file formal charges, as we have no clear visual image on our log tapes."
Kirk's laugh was brittle. "Yes, the burden of proof is on us, isn't it? The Klingons have always had a method of handling embarrassing situations. If one of their ships gets caught in the act in Federation space, Klingon High Command disavows any responsibility for the commander's actions. 'A treaty of peace is in effect between the Federation and the Empire, so obviously our errant captain is an outlaw,' they say. 'We regret if he has caused you any inconvenience.'"
He paused and his features tightened into an expression of determination. "Well, let's see if we can't get some proof to back us up. Commander Uhura, have Doctor McCoy report to the transporter room for landing party duty. Spock, Chekov, come with me. Mister Chekov, I want seven of your best men to go with us, full body armor and phaser rifles just in case. Mister Sulu, you have--"
He was interrupted by Chekov. "Kyptin, I must formally object to the inclusion of yourself and Mister Spock in the landing party. You are placing yourselves in unnecessary danger, sir. Security teams can scout the area, and Doctor McCoy can take care of any survivors. There is no need for the two of you to beam down. Enemy forces may still be in the area."
All eyes were on Kirk as he turned to face his security chief. Chekov had been taking his job very seriously of late, particularly when it concerned Kirk's penchant for beaming down into hazardous situations, and the captain was growing increasingly annoyed with the young Russian's behavior.
"Your objection is formally noted, Mister Chekov," Kirk grated in clipped, terse tones. "May I remind you, however, that it is a captain's prerogative to engage in any landing party activity at any time at his own discretion? And might I add that a captain may also designate any personnel he wishes to engage in such activity?"
"Yes, sir, but--"
"You have your orders, Mister," Kirk said evenly. "Now, as I was saying, Mister Sulu, you have the conn." He turned on his heel and strode to the starboard turbolift with Spock and a chastised Chekov. The doors slid shut behind them.
Sulu took his place in the center seat. He glanced at Uhura, shaking his head. "You'd think after all this time, Pavel would realize he's fighting a losing battle."
"He's trying to do his job," Uhura put in. "He might be getting a little bit overzealous since his promotion to lieutenant commander, but he does have a point."
"Well, I think he'd have better luck wrestling a Denebian slime devil in a quicksand pit." Sulu hit the intraship link. "Ensign David and Lieutenant Mo'thak, report to the bridge, please." He watched the viewscreen, hoping fervently he would not have to test the crippled Enterprise against a fully-operational enemy cruiser.
They were far too late.
Starbase 16, the major planet-based Federation outpost closest to the Klingon border, lay in smoldering ruins. James T. Kirk had witnessed grisly scenarios like this one more times during his Starfleet career than he cared to remember. He grimaced, blinking his eyes to ward off the stinging miasma of smoke and dust hanging in the air. Kirk had spent several pleasant shore leaves here. He remembered the beautiful, almost Earth-like parks, the clean symmetry of starbase architecture rearing up into Syran III's sunny, pale-green skies like crystalline sculpture.
But the starbase was gone.
What he saw now was a landscape from Hell. Scorched earth, pockmarked with blast craters, glazed into a vitreous substance by the awesome energy of photon torpedoes, stretched into the distance to the limits of his vision. The mellow red-orange sun of his memory was obscured by an occluding haze, dulled into a lead-gray orb. Fires burned out of control on the horizon.
"All right, we'll split up into two groups of five," Kirk said. "Mister Chekov, give us two of your people. You can take the rest of your personnel as an advance team to fan out ahead of us. We'll bring up the rear. Will that satisfy you?"
Chekov bristled at the remark, but decided to let it pass. "Yes, sir. It vwill. Lieutenant Perez, Ensign Valin, you vwill accompany the kyptin and his party. The rest of you move out vwith me."
Kirk watched for a moment as the young security chief led his men away. Then he turned to Spock, who was already scanning the area with his tricorder. "Anything so far?"
"No life form readings of any kind," the Vulcan answered. "Energy readings would tend to indicate that the planet was bombarded by a high concentration of photon torpedoes and disruptor fire."
"The types of weapons used by a Klingon battlecruiser."
"Affirmative. However, the readings in themselves are insufficient evidence to incriminate the Klingons. We require--"
"I know, I know," Kirk returned angrily. "Spock, whose side are you on, anyway?"
"I would think after all this time, Captain, that my loyalties would be clear," the first officer replied in his best formal tone. "However, that is not at issue here. Certain requirements must be met if you wish to file a claim against the Klingon Empire. As your science officer, it is my duty to see that you are furnished with sufficient data to support your case."
Kirk grinned. "Sorry, Spock. It's just that I..."
The Vulcan shook his head, allowing himself the merest ghost of a smile. "No apologies are necessary, Captain. I am unaffected by emotional outbursts directed at me."
Sure you are, Kirk thought. "All right, gentlemen. Let's go," he ordered. "I think we've given Mister Chekov enough time to scout the area ahead of us."
The two heavily-armed and armored security guards moved out first, with the three officers following behind them. Spock resumed his tricorder scan. Except for the readings of the landing party personnel, the screen read clear.
McCoy had remained silent during the exchange between Kirk and Spock. Now he moved in close to the captain as they trudged away from the wasteland where Starbase 16 once stood.
"A little edgy today, aren't we?" the physician murmured.
"Aren't you?" Kirk shot back.
"Sure I am. In case you've forgotten, Captain, four people were killed down in Engineering. We've got three more who probably aren't going to make it, and the rest of the injured are gonna be on their backs for a while. Add to that an entire planet's population has been bombed out of existence...but you're not accomplishing anything by goin' off half-cocked at the drop of a hat!"
"Spock understands, Bones. He--"
"I'm not talkin' about Spock, Jim," McCoy said. "Nothing gets under that thick Vulcan hide of his. I meant Chekov. I never knew you were one for beating a dead horse. This isn't the first time you've carped at him about this, but you've never reprimanded him in front of his men before."
"Hold on a minute! That wasn't a reprimand, it--"
"Okay, maybe 'reprimand' is the wrong word. But his people know that the two of you have been at odds over this landing party thing. When you take shots at him in public, it doesn't do much for his credibility as a section chief."
Kirk didn't answer immediately. He strode on in brooding silence, his expression grim as he glanced about the charred terrain. Finally, he stopped walking. He turned to face his chief surgeon. "Maybe you're right," he admitted. "Maybe I have been riding Chekov too hard. I don't know, maybe I'm just looking for an excuse, but I don't like somebody nursemaiding me."
"It's his job to protect you, Jim," McCoy reminded gently. "You don't make it too easy for him the way you like to go barging right into the middle of things."
"I can't help it, Bones. That's the way I am--always have been. He should know that by now."
"He probably does. But put yourself in his shoes. What if you were Security Chief, and something happened to your captain? You'd probably be pretty hard on yourself, wouldn't you?"
A slow, resigned grin spread across Kirk's handsome features. "Okay, you win. I'll have a talk with him later. Right now, though, we'd better catch up with the others, or Chekov'll really let me have it for slipping away from my security protection!"
They didn't have to go very far. Lieutenant Antonio Perez was waiting for them just a few minutes further on. When the officers had dropped back, the assistant security chief had stayed with them. He remained out of earshot, realizing that Kirk and McCoy probably wished to talk in private, yet he never let the two of them out of his sight. The three men quickened their pace and soon rejoined Spock and Valin.
The landing party headed out into what had once been the residential area surrounding the starbase. They had found nothing so far. Everything--bodies, buildings, vegetation--had been reduced into that hideous glassine slag of constituent elements.
"One hour," Kirk said. "If we'd gotten here just one hour sooner, we might have been able to prevent this."
"Or we might have gotten ourselves blown to Hell and back," McCoy mumbled under his breath.
The captain pretended not to hear the remark. "They didn't even get off a distress signal. From the looks of things, they never knew what hit them."
"Indeed," Spock said. "It seems inconceivable that a heavily-armed starbase could be so utterly devastated. Surprise must have been total."
"It could have been the same ship that attacked us," mused Kirk. "With a new cloaking device, it could have been on them before they could raise their shields, even before the automatics kicked in. The first hit probably took out the power for their defense fields; after that, it would've been like shooting fish in a barrel. Seven million people..."
They moved farther away from the base, and their boots kicked up puffs of thick, gray ash, blast debris that covered the ground like layers of dirty snow. Here and there, the shattered remnants of building foundations jutted grimly from the blighted landscape. Kirk stumbled over something, and bent to examine the object.
He found himself staring into the empty eye sockets of a burnt, grinning Human skull. "Damn!" he exploded. "Come on, let's keep moving."
But Spock stood like a statue, aiming his tricorder at a pile of rubble. "Captain, I am picking up a life reading," the Vulcan reported. "It's Human, but faint and weak."
"Let's check it out," Kirk said. "But be careful."
It was a leveled foundation, almost buried by blast fragments. They found an opening, and Valin cleared away some of the debris. He peered down into the dark hole. "It looks like a sub-level, or a cellar of some kind," he called over his shoulder. Valin started down a half-demolished stairway, and Kirk moved to follow him.
Suddenly, the air howled with liberated energy. Valin vanished, screaming, in a bright, explosive flash. Even as Kirk dived for cover, grabbing for a phaser, a blinding blue beam lanced up from the basement. Something stung the back of his neck; he lost his balance and tumbled, landing hard on his back as his weapon clattered off across the darkened floor.
"Don't come any closer!" a muffled, distorted voice wailed at him from the shadows. "I don't want to kill anyone else!"
Perez came rushing down the stairway, brandishing his phaser rifle.
"Hold your fire!" Kirk wheezed at the security man as he tried to catch the wind that had been knocked out of him by his fall. He rolled over on his side and levered himself up on his elbows, wincing at a sudden shooting pain in the right shoulder. "We mean you no harm. I'm Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. We're here on a rescue mission."
"Enterprise...Starfleet? Oh my God! I--I didn't mean to kill him! I didn't know! I thought they had come down to finish the job." The voice broke down into wretched sobs. Something came skidding across the floor towards Kirk.
It was the phaser that had killed Valin.
Kirk breathed a long sigh of relief. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Perez ease into the basement, followed by Spock and McCoy. He got up to his knees, gripping his injured shoulder. His eyes had adapted to the darkness, and he could now make out a shadowy, trembling figure slumped on the floor. It looked like a man, but he couldn't be sure.
McCoy paused at his side. "You okay?"
"I'm all right." Kirk motioned toward the figure. "See to that poor devil."
The physician scrambled across the floor. He cursed under his breath when he got a good look at his patient.
It was a man--or, rather, what was left of one. He had been horribly burned over most of his body. Only the fact that he had been in the sub-level of the building had saved his life--for a time.
Fate hadn't done him any favors.
The man gazed up at McCoy. Flames had ravaged his face, twisting it into a skull-like, almost fleshless mask of blistered tissue. The grotesque gash of his mouth opened and closed, quivering as he fought to speak. He must have been strong. The burns and shock had sapped him, but still he clung tenaciously to the last unraveling threads of life.
"I'm...sorry. I didn't know."
"It's all right," McCoy said soothingly. "Just rest now." He injected the man with a painkiller, then stood to face Kirk and Spock. "I can't help him," the chief surgeon whispered. "That seems to be the order of the day today."
"Can I talk to him, Bones?" Kirk queried, trying to ignore the by now unbearable pain in his shoulder.
"It won't make any difference, so go ahead. I've done everything I can for him--which is not very much."
Kirk knelt by the dying man, who looked up at him through shining, pain-glazed eyes.
"Y-you're...the captain. I'm sorry...about your man. I-I--"
"Don't talk about it. What can you tell me about the attack? It's very important."
"Fire...It started raining f-fire. Some kind of...energy. Everything was burning, and...we..." His seared eyes brimmed with tears. "We were upstairs when it started ...my wife and--and the babies. Oh God...I tried to get them downstairs when something hit the house. I--I came to down here...and they were gone."
"Did you see anything at all? Anything that could tell us who did this? Were there any landing parties?"
"I...I don't know. I d-didn't see anything except...except the fire..."
His head flopped to one side. McCoy stepped in with his medical tricorder, scanning the tortured body. Then he lowered his instrument, shaking his head as he hit the 'off' switch.
"He's dead, Jim. I'm sorry."
"He didn't see anything--except the fire, he said. He thought we were coming to finish him off. Poor Valin..." moaned Perez.
Kirk turned away from the pitiful corpse to see the security guard staring numbly at the phaser the burned man had thrown across the floor. The lieutenant's dark eyes were clouded with grief and bewilderment.
"Let's get out of here," Kirk rasped. He strode to the opposite corner and bent to retrieve his own weapon, instinctively reaching for it with his injured arm. He gasped involuntarily at the sudden, renewed pain.
McCoy heard his sharp intake of breath. "Come on, Jim. Let's have look at that arm."
"I'm all right, Bones."
"Like Hell you are. Do I have to make that a medical order?"
"All right. But let's get out of this hole first, okay?" Without waiting for a reply, he turned and clambered up the crumbling steps. McCoy shrugged his shoulders and followed, with Spock and a disconsolate Perez in tow.
When they got outside, they saw Chekov and his squad coming toward them across the desolate, blasted ground, each of them wearing the look of a man who had seen things he wished he hadn't.
"Did you find anything?" Kirk asked.
"No survivors, sair," Chekov reported. "Several bodies still intact, some very badly charred remains." He paused and glanced around, puzzled. "Where's Valin?"
Kirk's face darkened. "He's dead, Pavel. I'm sorry."
"How? What happened? Klingons?"
"No. There was a survivor in the sub-level of this building. He was dying, frightened. He thought Valin was coming in to get him, and he fired first."
"Damn!" Chekov's eyes blazed with accusing, sorrowful anger. "Now do you see vwhy I vwish you vwould stay in the background? That could have been you!" He whirled away from them, storming off across what had once been a broad, tree-lined street.
Kirk started after him, but McCoy gripped his elbow, holding him back. "Let him go, Jim. You can't help him right now. Besides, I want to take a look at that wing of yours." He activated his medicorder once again.
"This isn't what we're out here for," Kirk muttered, watching as Chekov stared unseeingly up into the ugly, swirling sky. "We're supposed to be out here on a peaceful mission of exploration, remember? We're not warriors--not by choice, at least."
"True, Captain," Spock put in, his eyes narrowing at the way Kirk unconsciously shrugged his right shoulder. "Unfortunately, that choice is not always ours. There are certain parties who do not share the Federation's philosophy of galaxy-wide peace."
"Peace." Kirk shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder if it isn't just a word, Spock. I almost hope that we can't prove the Klingons did this--because the alternative could be war."
He jumped suddenly, crying out in pain and dismay. "Owww! Damn it, Bones! What are you trying to do--pull my arm off?"
"Hold still!" McCoy grunted. "You're all right, huh, Doctor Kirk? You dislocated your shoulder in that fall. I'm trying to put it back for you."
Spock's right eyebrow canted alarmingly as the physician pushed against Kirk's arm. "Another of your medieval medical techniques, Doctor?"
McCoy didn't respond as he gave one last mighty shove. There was an audible snap, and Kirk went white. "Feel better?" McCoy asked innocently.
"I don't know--I think so." Kirk's eyes widened in surprised wonder. He rotated his right arm, then shook it vigorously. "Yes. Yes, I do. That's wonderful, Bones. Thanks."
"Don't mention it." McCoy walked around behind Kirk and began kneading the captain's shoulders, but stopped almost immediately, frowning at what he saw. He reached into his medikit, pulling out a can of anesthetic foam. He sprayed a liberal dose of the mixture on the angry, glowing weal on his patient's neck.
"What's that, Bones?"
"You've got a phaser burn on your neck, Jim," McCoy answered quietly. "The nimbus of the beam must've grazed you before you fell into the basement. You were damned lucky."
Kirk turned around, a shocked expression frozen on his face. "A phaser burn?"
McCoy nodded, his bright blue eyes boring into the captain's. "Valin almost had some company. A few inches closer..."
Kirk paled. An involuntary shudder rippled down his spine. "My God," he whispered. "That close."
"It could have been closer. Maybe Chekov's right, Jim. You didn't really have to come down here for this, you know."
"Not now, McCoy!" Kirk bristled. "I'm not in the mood for--" He was interrupted by the beeping of his wrist communicator. "Kirk here," he snapped into the speaker grid, glaring at his chief surgeon.
"Captain, this is Sulu. Mister Scott managed to rig a temporary bypass booster to sensors and communications. We've been in touch with Starbase Twenty-seven. Sir, they've lost all contact with Epsilon Outposts Three and Four. They've disappeared from long-range sensors and are presumed destroyed."
"Oh my God. How long ago?"
"About three hours. The stations gave no indication of trouble before their communications blacked out. Due to the proximity of the Organian Treaty Zone, Starfleet suspects the Klingons, but..."
"There's no way to verify it," Kirk finished. He glanced at Spock. The Vulcan's expression was unreadable behind the emotionless mask of his face.
"Oh, there's one other thing, sir. Our diagnostic program claims that sensors are now at one hundred percent with the power booster, but we got a strange reading a few minutes ago. I'm not sure if they're working right yet or not. We had eleven life form readings on the screen--the landing party, and, we assumed, a survivor. Then suddenly, we lost one, then another. I've continued to recheck calibration, but it keeps coming up green."
"Your sensors aren't malfunctioning, Mister Sulu," Kirk said wearily. "There was a survivor. He died, but not before he mistakenly killed Ensign Valin."
"Damn," said Sulu. "Do you need any assistance?"
"No--we're all right. Have you done another planet-wide scan since sensors were boosted?"
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid Syran Three is totally dead. No survivors. Fires are still burning on the dark side, and the computer indicates the ecological damage will take centuries to repair. We've plotted and laid in a course for Starbase Twenty-seven, but it'll take us two and a half solar days to get there under impulse power. We can beam you up any time you're ready."
"We're ready, Commander," Kirk said. "There's nothing we can do here. Stand by to beam us up." He motioned to Chekov. The security chief rejoined the group, but kept his eyes fixed forward.
Kirk's gaze swept over the ash-covered ground one last time. All those people--everything they lived and worked for--were gone, blasted into oblivion. It was as if Starbase 16 and its surrounding colony had never existed. And the victims of the massacre would not rest easy. Without proof, he could do little except voice his speculations, which in the eyes of the Federation Council would be worth less than nothing.
It would be a long time before justice was done--if ever.
He sighed, raising his communicator to his lips. "Energize," he ordered.
Within seconds, the coruscating swirl of transporter effect engulfed them, and they were gone.
His name was Kor, and in these troubled times, he was not happy.
He sat at his desk in Klingon High Command, lost in his reverie, dreaming of victories as yet unrealized. He was Chief of the Imperial Fleet these days, and although he had briefly commanded a battlecruiser recently, he was soon once again locked into a desk job.
Khalian, the Kh'myr, had seen to it, he was sure. The Admiral had been demoted in a fit of anger by the Invincible One, Kudan, but it was only temporary...just as his command had been. No doubt the Kh'myr-bred Chief of Admirals was still plotting against the Segh vav, the 'parent race.'
Originally, there had been three races of Klingon. The Kh'teb, such as himself, were dark-skinned and dark-haired. The Kh'fjin were yellow-skinned with dark hair, and the now extinct Kh'yrlov, had dark-skin and blonde hair. Then, over a hundred years ago, Emperor Kjimeg commissioned genetic researchers to create the ultimate weapon, the ultimate warrior. And the knob-headed Kh'myr were the result. They were larger, more powerful, and more dangerous than their progenitors.
The Invincible One, Kudan Kuras, the youngest son of Kjimeg, had decided to give them more and more power. They now commanded the majority of Klingon Imperial Ships. They brutalized the Segh vav at every opportunity. And the Invincible One had become so frightened by them that he dared not interfere with their plans.
Kudan was looking more and more like a doddering old fool with the passing of each year. Kor shrugged. Perhaps things would change. But he doubted it. Kang was now in trouble since Admiral Khalian wanted his mate, Mara, as a concubine. Krell had been killed outright by an assassin who coveted his post. Koloth and Kumara had mysteriously disappeared. It would only be a matter of time before one of the Kh'myr decided he wanted Kor's position as Chief of the Imperial Fleet.
A buzzer sounded on his intercom. Khum, his adjutant, was on the line. "What is it?" Kor growled.
"Commander Krax is here to see you," came the gruff reply.
"I will see him in a minute."
"Yes, Exalted One."
Kor smiled the smile of a wolf. Khum still called him by that outdated term. Most Kh'myr preferred the title of "My lord" or "Lord Commander." Phah! What arrogance on their part. Many of them no longer even bothered to speak in High Klingon, preferring the baser Kh'myr dialect, pIqaD.
He drew a deep breath to brace him for his confrontation.
Suddenly, the door burst inward. "Kor, I will see you now!"
The admiral whipped up his disruptor instinctively. He fired a shot that barely missed Krax's head.
The ship commander roared in surprise and pawed for his own weapon.
"Not so fast," Kor warned. He spat contemptuously. "I could kill you right now for this kind of an intrusion."
"You do not dare!" snarled Krax. "I am a special envoy from Admiral Khalian. If you were to send me to the Netherworld, he would have your head hanging on a wall in his cabin." He roared riotously at the notion. "You old graybeard! You are not worthy to command anything, not even a desk."
Khum entered the office, nursing an injured arm. "Most Exalted, allow me the honor..."
Kor waved him off. "No, Khum. Not today. Some other, perhaps."
"How charming!" Krax laughed at them. "You two must be good friends," the Kh'myr said quietly, implying that there was more than friendship between the Admiral and his aide. "Let us get to business! I have a ship to run, and you are wasting my time, Kor!" He sat down in the nearest chair.
Kor dismissed his adjutant with a nod. He aimed his weapon; the disruptor tip glowed. "I suggest you use the title I earned."
"Very well, then, Admiral Kor." Not a hint of respect. "My cruiser is ready. We're on Priority status, awaiting instructions."
"You have been selected to spearhead military support for the Daystrom Project. Your ship will be outfitted with the new Romulan cloaking device, which is even now being tested under attack conditions in Federation space by the cruiser Korvus. We should be receiving word concerning the success of that mission very soon."
"Well, well, well!" Krax exclaimed, his eyes widening with excitement. "I have heard rumors of this Daystrom Project. It involves computers, does it not?"
"It is no secret that Starfleet computer systems are far superior to the best Klingon designs, even though our warships have always been able to hold their own in battle. It is time we evened the odds."
The Klingon admiral touched a key on his desk console. At the far end of his office, a wall-mounted viewscreen flickered into life. The image it displayed was a holoportrait of a black-skinned Terran. The man appeared to be middle-aged, craggedly handsome, with intense, burning eyes. The tight, black curls of his hair and neatly-trimmed beard were sprinkled with gray.
"Doctor Richard Daystrom," Kor intoned. "He is the computer genius who designed and built the duotronic computer systems now in use on Federation starships. He has had some great achievements in his career, but we are interested in his most spectacular failure."
"How's that again?" Krax asked, puzzled. "His failure?"
"Several standard years ago, Daystrom designed what he called the M-5 system. It was the first workable multitronic computer, built to control the functions of an entire starship by itself. Daystrom's thesis was that Terrans should not risk their lives in hostile space. He wanted to design the perfect computer to face the dangers for them, giving Terran-kind the freedom to better itself through intellectual and cultural pursuits. So, the M-5 was installed on the U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, and engaged in mock war games with four other starships."
Krax spat in derision. "Typical of the cowardly Earthers...I gather something went wrong."
"Everything went wrong. The M-5 system was conceived to think independently, like a sentient being. But it also developed a will of its own. When the mock force attacked, the computer mistook the games maneuver as a real threat. It responded with full phaser strikes against the unshielded ships. The Excalibur was completely destroyed with all hands; the others suffered various degrees of damage and sustained heavy casualties. Instead of serving Humans, the computer destroyed them."
"Delightful. The M-5 went berserk. Why?"
"The computer's main logic circuits were imprinted with Human engrams. Engrams are memory traces, physiological changes in cerebral tissue that are triggered by learning."
"Thank you for the biology lesson," Krax snarled. "That didn't answer my question; why did the computer malfunction?"
"Daystrom impressed his own engrams on the computer," Kor answered tightly. "Unfortunately for Starfleet, Daystrom's mind was not entirely stable at that time. He was what the Earthers refer to as a 'boy wonder'; he achieved his initial success with his duotronic computers at an early age--and then did little else for years except live on his laurels. In time, his inability to follow up on the duotronic breakthrough frustrated and humiliated him. His resentment grew as his colleagues scoffed at him, until it finally developed into a neurosis."
"Which he passed on to the computer."
"Exactly. The disorder surfaced during the war games."
"What has this got to do with me and my ship?"
"You are to 'persuade' Doctor Daystrom to offer his services to the Klingon Empire. Since he is not likely to volunteer to go with you, you are to take him by force, if necessary."
"So, I am to kidnap a mad computer genius," Krax mused. "Wonderful. This is to be our ultimate weapon against the Federation?"
Kor nodded. "Daystrom has since been cured. He spent a few years under the care of a Vulcan healer who worked him through his `problems.' He now teaches classes in computer science at the Donnelon Institute of Technology on the Federation planet Modoc. Our intelligence source reports that he seems quite happy with his lot in life; he is content with his past achievements and no longer has that burning, obsessive drive to prove himself. His movements have been monitored by our agents for some time. The locations of his home, his laboratories, his classrooms, all will be provided for you. Procuring Doctor Daystrom should be relatively easy, but forcing him to cooperate may be a different matter--he is reportedly still a very strong-willed individual, despite his newly acquired peace of mind. You may need a bit of leverage."
Kor punched another stud on his desk console. Daystrom's holograph was replaced with that of a beautiful young black woman. Her heart-shaped face was dominated by enormous dark eyes and framed with a soft halo of natural curls. her dazzling smile displayed twin rows of perfect, even white teeth. The woman was petite, almost tiny, but the loose-fitting jumpsuit she wore could not hide her ripe figure.
"Melinda Daystrom, the doctor's daughter," the Admiral said. "Her mother died shortly after Daystrom had his breakdown; she came to live with her father at that time and to help care for him. She resides in a campus dormitory, and her movements and routines have been observed for you as well."
"Exquisite!" Krax exclaimed, his admiring, appreciative gaze glued to the screen. "She is quite comely, especially for an Earther. This assignment is becoming more interesting all the time, Kor...excuse me--Admiral Kor."
"A bit of advice, Commander. I suggest you see to it that no harm befalls the female until you are assured of Daystrom's cooperation. After you have that, you may do anything you wish with her."
"And you can bet that I will, Admiral," the Kh'myr muttered under his breath. He reluctantly tore his eyes away from the viewer. "The intelligence source you keep mentioning--just how reliable is it?"
"The best. Our contact is--"
He was interrupted as the intercom signaled for attention once again.
"News of the Korvus, Exalted One. It is both good and bad. Battlestation T'elth near planet Kura monitored their transmissions. All targets were destroyed; communications were jammed, so no messages were sent out from any of the Federation bases. However, Commander Kona sighted a Federation battlecruiser entering the area just as he set course for Homeworld. He veered off to attack." Khum hesitated. "It was the last transmission from the Korvus."
"The station picked up a transmission from the battlecruiser Enterprise to Starfleet Command. They reported destroying an unidentified vessel--apparently the Korvus."
"Kirk!" Kor snarled. "Damn him! He has found a way to defeat the new cloaking device!"
"I will relay any new information to you as it comes in, Exalted One."
"Do that," Kor said, snapping the circuit off.
"Kona was like a brother to me," Krax said, his voice brimming with anger. "We grew up together. We were assigned to the same battlecruiser. I will have this Kirk's head for this outrage!"
"Do not allow your judgment to be clouded by a desire for vengeance!" Kor warned. "Remember that 'revenge is a dish that is best served cold.' Your mission is to kidnap Daystrom and his daughter, and to force him to construct M-5 systems for the Imperial fleet. The first computer will be installed on your cruiser, the Karak. You will then seek out a Federation starship and test the system in combat. Since you will be operating in the designated patrol area of the Enterprise, chances are very good that you will draw Kirk's ship. You may get your wish of meeting him after all."
A wolfish grin wreathed Krax's face. "That would suit me just fine. Kona will be avenged."
"I sincerely hope that you are not overlooking one minor detail, Commander. First you must defeat the Enterprise. That will be the ultimate test for the M-5 system. Kirk is Starfleet's finest line commander, and a formidable opponent."
"Perhaps you found him so, Admiral, but he will be like putty in my hands," Krax sneered derisively. "I won't need a computer to destroy him. He is but a soft, spineless Earther, and older now...as are you."
Kor bristled. "You are insolent, Krax. I warn you, do not underestimate Kirk. Many have...and have never been heard from again."
"He will die with all those on his ship," stated Krax as though it were a foregone conclusion. "Let us not discuss him any further; I wish to learn more of the background regarding this mission. You were going to tell me about our intelligence sources."
"Commander, I believe you are taking this too lightly. You should--"
"I said we shall not discuss Kirk any further!" Krax's eyes blazed like glowing red coals, and the fingers of his right hand twitched nervously just a few centimeters above the butt of his disruptor pistol.
Kor shifted his weapon, slipping the safety off. "Do not try me. Understood?"
There was no response. No indication that Krax had even heard him.
"Very well. Our contact is placed in Starfleet--code named Kyr. Kyr uncovered the data on the M-5 incident in the first place, as it was classified as Top Secret by Starfleet Records."
"Kyr? The Earther?" Krax's face twisted into grimace of incredulous contempt.
"A loyal operative, despite a somewhat questionable heritage, Commander. Kyr was conditioned and reprogrammed at the qal'elmalth Institute of Corruption facility, and has been of immeasurable assistance to the Empire on many occasions."
"...and could very well be a double agent!"
"Rest assured--Kyr is required to submit to a Force Three mind-sifter scan before and after every mission. No one could outwit that. Not even a Vulcan."
"Risky. Kyr is not a Kh'myr--not even Klingon! Why..."
Kor gestured impatiently with the disruptor pistol. "It is not open to discussion, Commander. The Invincible One himself made the selection. Kyr can move among the Earthers unsuspected, as one of their own. I can not do that--can you?"
"That is not the point!" Krax persisted, carefully watching the tip of the disruptor. "By Kahless, Kyr is an Earther--an Earther! Does it not trouble you that an alien will be assisting us in such an important mission?"
Kor allowed himself a slow, savage grin. "There is considerably more to it than that, Commander. I am sure you will not enjoy hearing that the Emperor also chose Kyr to coordinate the Daystrom Project."
"What?!" Krax bolted to his feet, enraged. "Kyr is heading up this mission, and will be my superior? Outrageous! I will not tolerate this!"
The tip of Kor's disruptor was glowing again. "You have no choice. The Emperor has decreed--"
"A pox on Kudan Kuras! He is a weak-willed, incompetent fool who will soon be replaced!"
"That is enough," Kor said very quietly. His tone left no doubt that he was considering pulling the trigger all the way.
Krax regained some composure and took his seat. "This entire plan is madness! I should let a machine command my ship? Fight my battles for me? Preposterous! I was willing to humor you and that doddering excuse for an Emperor up to a point, but I draw the line at being subject to the commands of an Earther! There is only one way to crush the Federation--a mass attack by our fleet! We do not need computers for that! The Earthers are weak; they could not stand against us!"
Kor shook his head almost sadly. "Listen to you. You say that the Daystrom Project is madness, then turn around and suggest a full-scale attack on the Federation. You simpleton! You would bring the Organians down on our heads! They would interdict us from space flight forever, neutralize our weapons. The Klingon races would be doomed to extinction. You know that the planets of the home system are poor, barren. If we cannot compete in space, we are finished."
"You and the rest of the Segh vav invoke the Organians at every turn," Krax snarled. "Is it to conceal your cowardice, your fear of engaging the Federation Starfleet? The Organians are a myth!"
"You are a fool indeed if you doubt the existence of those meddlers! The Organians may not concern themselves with skirmishes and isolated incidents; they seem interested in major battles where there is a massing of opposing fleets."
"I find it difficult to believe in these unseen meddlers. Let me take a squad of three cruisers to Organia. I will level the planet and lay your ghosts to rest once and for all. Perhaps then all you old women in High Command will breathe easier. Perhaps you invented these meddlers to save face after a defeat by an Earther commander."
Kor fired the disruptor.
Krax hollered in anger as the bolt destroyed the chair's base. He tumbled onto the floor, and Kor shoved the blaster's tip up his snout. "Learn some respect, Commander Krax. You are to leave at sunrise tomorrow for the Federation planet Modoc to procure Doctor Daystrom and his daughter. That is your primary mission; you are to avoid contact of any kind with Federation vessels, and you will not attack any Federation bases or colonies on your route. Another ship will arrange a diversion for you. You do understand, don't you, Commander? No attacks!"
Kor did not receive an answer--not that he had expected one. Any sudden move of Krax's head could accidentally push the trigger. "Well, I hope you do. We do not wish to tip our hand to the enemy. Daystrom's disappearance is to be a mystery; we want it to seem as though he just decided to drop out of sight."
A number of Segh vav troops appeared at the door. Kor's office, of course, was monitored. Kor smiled, put the safety on and slipped the weapon into his sash. He also opted to removed Krax's blaster and battle dagger...just in case.
"Is that all, Admiral?" Krax asked, scowling blackly as he gingerly rubbed his nose.
"Not quite, Commander," Kor replied tersely, echoing Krax's mocking emphasis of his title. "There is one thing more; you and your warriors are to activate the q'yta rings on your gauntlets for this mission. If you fail, you are not to return--nor are you to leave evidence of your presence for Starfleet investigators."
q'yta--ritual suicide. Krax flinched despite himself. The seemingly decorative rings on the battle gauntlets served a two-fold purpose. When activated, sensors in the rings monitored the wearer's vital signs. Were he to die, his body would be instantly immolated. The disruptor effect could also be set off at any time by crossing the wrists and slamming the rings of both gauntlets together.
"Rest assured, Admiral, I will not fail. I fully intend to return to settle my score with you."
"Your mission comes first, Commander. If you survive, we can attend to any unfinished business between us." Kor looked up to the troops awaiting his orders. "Escort the commander to his ship."
As the soldiers left with the ship commander, Khum entered Kor's office. "Shall I have the guards--"
Kor shook his head. "No, the Invincible One chose him for this mission. See to it that he arrives safely."
Khum saluted and left.
Kor looked out the window over the High Command complex. "What have we done to ourselves?" he asked. "The wolf may soon become extinct."
Twilight on Trylias was a stunningly beautiful spectacle. Her twin suns, a gleaming golden star and its smaller azure companion, hung low in the darkening emerald sky above a dusky mountain range. The first bright stars of evening winked on as one of Trylias' five major moons followed the day stars in their descent to the horizon. It was exquisite; to a bone-weary, over-extended starship captain like James Kirk, it was just what the doctor ordered, a balm for tension-sore muscles and joints. He could appreciate the lovely sky scene for its aesthetic value alone. He smiled as he envisioned Spock in this same setting, busily calculating the odds against a binary star system developing stable, life-supporting planets.
Kirk drew in a deep breath, reveling in the damp, earthy scents of growing things--not the stale greenhouse odors of a herbarium, but real, live trees and plants in the great outdoors. He stood on a redwood balcony of Starbase 27's guest lodge, overlooking a clearing that would have been at home in a primeval Terran forest. Trylias' soil was very friendly; there were numerous species of deciduous and coniferous trees from Earth mixed in with the native flora. And Starfleet botanists had even improved on nature. Thanks to the advanced techniques of genetic engineering, the three-year-old oak whose lower limbs brushed the balcony railing towered into the sky with the height and girth of a centuries-old forest denizen.
He peered into the deepening gloom, swirling the Saurian brandy around his glass, feeling uncomfortable, as he always did, in his full-dress uniform. The formal party in honor of the Enterprise crew would soon begin. It was the brainstorm of Commodore Gene Thacker, Starbase 27's commander, and the gesture had been deeply appreciated by Kirk's people. It offered them the chance to unwind and relax, to return to a semblance of normalcy after the horror of the attack on the Enterprise and the subsequent grim discovery on Starbase 16.
The suns were sinking down rapidly now. He could make out one star halfway to the zenith that was impossibly, almost painfully bright. Kirk realized with a start that this "star" was actually Starbase 27's drydock, where his ship was now ensconced. He experienced an unwelcome shiver of deja vu. On Earth, during the eighteen months of the Enterprise's refitting, he had spent many miserable evening hours staring at the "star" of the Centroplex dock which burned in a perpetual, mocking, synchronous orbit above San Francisco. His nightly skywatch became an obsession with him. There, he knew, his beloved starship hung gently cradled in the grid latticework of the spacedock, forever out of his reach. She would be overhauled and refurbished--and then given to another man. It was a feeling much akin to standing by as another man, an intruder, stole your wife away from you. The fact that he himself had recommended Commander Will Decker as the next captain offered Kirk little solace. All he had left then were memories of the challenges, the excitement of his original five-year mission, memories which only intensified the suffocating dreariness of his ground assignment. Nothing he would ever do the rest of his life could possibly compare with the heady sense of fulfillment starship command had provided him.
Kirk took a sip of his drink as the memories faded. Of course, he had reassumed command of the Enterprise when the V'ger crisis arose, and it had seemed to him at the time that he had risen from the dead. But he often wondered what would have become of him if he had endured his aimless, empty existence as a Starfleet admiral for much longer.
It was not a pleasant line of thought.
"There you are! C'mon, Jim, you're gonna miss the party."
Kirk turned just as Leonard McCoy strolled out onto the deck, drink in hand. "Well, Bones, I'm impressed! You look downright jaunty in your dress blues."
McCoy snorted, stretching the spandex collar of his tunic with an index finger. "Come off it, Jim. You know I like these monkey suits about as much as you do. Let's go back in before Thacker comes chargin' out here."
They went back inside, and Kirk was surprised to see that the officers' lounge was already filled to near-capacity. Pine-scented logs blazed in a huge fireplace at the far end of the spacious room, casting flickering, mellow, amber shadows on the wood-paneled walls and high, beamed ceiling. There was a homey ambiance about the hall that was very relaxing.
"Nice," McCoy beamed. "Neo-rustic. It kinda reminds me of this resort lodge I stayed at once in the Piedmont National Forest in northern Georgia."
Kirk nodded in agreement, but made no comment. He had noticed a sudden, subtle shift in the atmosphere of the lounge as he and McCoy made their way through the crowd. The hubbub of conversation subsided. Several people now openly gaped at him. Not me, he thought, with a tinge of bitterness. They want to see James T. Kirk, the galactic hero, the living legend--not me. He caught a glimpse of several of his crewmembers standing near a heavily-laden buffet table, and gratefully steered McCoy toward the small knot of people, eager to escape the curious, probing stares. Hero-worship made him uncomfortable. In his own mind, he had just been doing his job during the Enterprise's five-year mission, and, in some ways, it even angered him that Starfleet used his exploits as a public-relations ploy.
Sulu and Uhura were engaged in conversation with the starbase commander, Thacker. He was a big, bluff, genial man who stood almost half a head taller than Kirk. His flame-red hair now sported ample streaks of gray, and his physique had grown a bit too rotund to be comfortably contained by the snug confines of his dress uniform. But, as Kirk knew only too well, appearances could be deceiving. Gene Thacker was a superb administrator; in his days as a line commander aboard the U.S.S. Republic, he had been the scourge of brigands running the border of the Barrier Alliance.
"Jim!" he bellowed, waving a nearly-empty glass. "Glad to see you could make it--and that Leonard could leave the hall, find you, and make his way back in here without losing his way. He's already had more than a touch of the grape!"
McCoy shrugged. "Why not? It's free."
Sulu and Uhura chuckled, but they were drowned out by the bull moose roar of Thacker's laugh, a machine-gun chortle that would probably have startled a Vegan Titanosaurus at half a kilometer.
"It wasn't that funny!" a bewildered McCoy protested.
"I see you've already met my junior officers," Kirk said.
"You're a lucky man, Jim. Not only does your crew boast the highest fitness record in Starfleet, but you've got the prettiest communications chief I've ever laid eyes on."
Uhura bowed her head, acknowledging the compliment, but Kirk could tell she was embarrassed. He grinned. Gene Thacker could be somewhat overbearing at times, but he was nothing if not sincere. Besides, he had sufficient cause. Uhura was a breathtaking vision in her translucent Andorian wrap-around gown.
"I'm sure Commander Uhura appreciates the compliment, as do I," Kirk said diplomatically. "Don't forget, though, that she is also the best communications chief in Starfleet."
"I know. I saw the last quarterly report. Each of your command crew scored higher at his or her station than any other member of the 'fleet with the same duty description, and the Enterprise set an all-time overall fitness record. You also have the most experienced crew, Jim. You've only got one officer on the primary command shift with a rank lower than lieutenant commander." Thacker took a long pull of his drink. "An embarrassment of riches. How come Nogura lets you get away with it, Jim?"
"Heihachiro and I have an understanding."
"That sounds like something you'd rather not go into."
"It is," Kirk replied. "This crew and I have been together for a long time. I'd like to keep it that way."
"That shouldn't be too difficult. I understand you can be very persuasive when you want to be, as our venerable Commander of Starfleet discovered--much to his dismay, I might add."
Kirk's only answer was an enigmatic smile, which prompted another of Thacker's mega-decibel belly laughs. He raised his glass in a mock toast, then drained it with one gulp.
"Oh, by the way, Jim. I almost forgot--there's a friend of yours here. She was looking for you. Said she'd be up on the sun deck. I'm sorry; I meant to tell you as soon as I saw you."
"She?!" McCoy's eyes widened with interest. "Well, well. A girl in every port, eh, Jim?"
Kirk scowled at the jibe. "Who was she, Gene?"
Now it was Thacker's turn to be inscrutable. "The staircase to the sun deck is through that port," he said, jerking his thumb toward a pneumo-door at the opposite end of the hall. "Why don't you go see for yourself?"
"I think I'll do that. Commander Uhura, gentlemen." He glared at the grinning McCoy. "And you, too, Doctor."
Kirk excused himself, leaving his amused and curious companions. He was more than a little curious himself. He could think of no one he knew who was assigned to Trylias, particularly any women friends.
There had been no women in his life for some time--no serious involvements or commitments, at least. Not since Lori Ciani...
His face clouded in bittersweet remembrance. Vice Admiral Lori Ciani. She had been more than a lover to him, more, even, than a wife. She had been his friend. They had entered into a standard one-year marriage contract, and she had pulled him through those long, agonizing months of the Enterprise's refitting. She had done her best to soothe the deep emotional pain he carried from those harrowing five years in space, to heal the more recent wound of having lost his ship. God, how he missed her.
Kirk repressed a shudder. The memories of Ciani's grisly death were still raw and fresh, even after two years. She had beamed aboard the Enterprise with the Vulcan Science Officer, Commander Sonak, as the ship prepared to leave for the V'ger mission. Something happened. The transporter unit had malfunctioned; Kirk had been able only to stand by in helpless horror as the transporter literally turned its victims inside out, slowly, methodically, impersonally destroying them. There was little left of the beautiful, lithe-limbed woman he had loved that was even recognizable.
She was gone, forever taken from him.
Startled, he exhaled the breath he had been unconsciously holding. A young man in his mid-thirties hailed him as he edged his way through the press of people with a somewhat subdued Lieutenant Commander Pavel Chekov in tow. The man was attired in a Starfleet commander's uniform. He seemed vaguely familiar, and Kirk tried hard to place him.
"Captain Kirk. I'm Ron Canfield," he said, offering a hand in greeting. "I've been looking forward to meeting you."
The name clicked, and recognition dawned in Kirk's eyes. "Commander Ronald Canfield? The new captain of the Lexington?" He shook the younger man's hand warmly. "Congratulations, Captain. She's a good ship. I take it you know Lieutenant Commander Chekov?"
"Commander Canfield vwas my instructor in Advwanced Armaments and Defense. It vwas one of my prerequisites for Starfleet Training Command."
"Pavel was a good student," Canfield put in. "Excellent, actually. He got the hang of the new weapons console design for the up-rated Constitution quicker than anybody I've seen."
"Mister Chekov is a fine officer," Kirk said, noting his security chief's discomfort. "Well, Commander, when do you take the reins?"
"The Lex's refitting is supposed to be completed in another eight days. I'll be back on Earth in six, so I'll take over then--get my captain's stripes then, too! That'll give me a couple of days while they finish the uprating to get the feel of things before I take her out." He paused, then continued almost shyly. "I wanted to thank you. You see, I've always looked up to you; you've been an inspiration to me. You're the best there is, and I only hope to become half as good as you."
Hero worship. Kirk felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. He was at a loss for words; what could he say to this earnest, sandy-haired young man whose eyes sparkled with something close to adoration? "You're welcome," he finally managed.
Canfield seemed to be at loose ends. "Well, I, uh, just wanted to finally meet you," he stammered. "I hope I haven't taken up too much of your time."
"Not at all. It was a pleasure meeting you. Good luck with your new command."
"Thank you, sir," Canfield beamed. "Now, I think I'll steer Pavel over to the bar. A couple more vodkas and I might be able to persuade him to come over to the Lexington as her first officer."
Kirk's eyes met Chekov's, and he could have sworn he saw the Russian flinch. "He's a good man," Kirk said. "I wouldn't stand in the way of anyone who thought a transfer would be a good career move. I must warn you, however, that I won't give him up without a fight."
"I vwould not do anything behind your back, sair." Chekov's voice was tight. "I hope you realize that."
"I do." Kirk's features softened into a tentative smile. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have an appointment to keep."
He turned away. He'd have been lying to himself if he claimed that the prospect of Chekov transferring to another starship didn't bother him. He hated to lose a good officer, but it was more than that. He felt somehow responsible for the situation. He needed to talk to Chekov; he needed to iron out the difficulties and ease the tension that had sprung up between them. Then again, maybe his anxiety was premature. He would just have to wait and see how matters developed and deal with it if and when the time came.
Kirk hurried up the spiral staircase to the roof-level sun deck--so named because it offered an excellent vantage point for viewing Trylias' spectacular twilight displays. His curiosity was piqued; it swept away the clouds of his reminiscences of Lori Ciani and the encounter with Chekov and Canfield. Who was this 'mystery woman'? He drew a blank as he searched his sketchy memory of Starbase 27's personnel roster. The exit doors loomed before him; they hissed open, and Kirk stepped out into the balmy evening air.
She stood before a cedar guard rail, watching the last dying auroral embers of the breathtaking double sunset. The iridescent silver gown she wore recalled the elegant styles of Classical Greece; one shoulder was bared, displaying golden, evenly tanned skin. Indeed, she could have been a Greek goddess, standing on Olympus as she contemplated the follies of mankind. She was tall and slender, with the lithe, supple figure of a dancer or an athlete. Kirk admiringly watched the flickering highlights of sunset dances in her tawny mane of honey-blonde hair. She was still as stunningly beautiful as the last time he had seen her.
"I've been here six months, and I never grow tired of watching this," she murmured. She turned to face him, a slow smile illuminating her lovely features, her clear, sea-green eyes. "Hello, Jim. It's good to see you again."
"It's good to see you, too, Cheryl," Kirk said warmly. "I had no idea you were assigned here."
They embraced, a gesture that suggested a meeting of two close friends. Commander Cheryl M. Saunders had held the post of Assistant to the Chief of Starfleet Security at Starfleet Headquarters when Kirk was assigned there after the five-year mission. He and Lori Ciani had attended many social functions with Cheryl Saunders and her husband, Commander John Saunders. Kirk himself had often seen both Saunders at Starfleet during the course of a day. They had lunch together on occasion, and became good friends.
She stepped back, clasping his hand in her own. "You look great, Jim. Active duty does wonders for you."
He grinned boyishly. "I might say the same for you, Commander. What brings you here to the outskirts of Klingon country?"
"I needed a change. I'm security chief here; it was like a dream come true for me. I'm finally getting a chance to put all that training Starfleet's invested in me to good use. I felt like a command-grade 'gofer'. A yeoman could have done my job--for the most part, anyway."
"I guess you keep busy out here."
"Sure do. We're always on our toes with our location being so close to Klingon space; we're a potential prime target. Things have been really tight around here since the Outposts and Starbase Sixteen were wiped out. Sometimes I feel as though there's a gigantic bull's-eye painted on the surface of this planet, with the starbase right smack dab in the center. There's no telling what the Klingons might be up to."
"Try telling that to the Federation Council," Kirk muttered.
"I heard what happened to the Enterprise. I'm sorry."
"So am I. I lost some good people in that attack. Each time one of them dies, a little part of me dies with them." He sighed, gazing thoughtfully up at the now dark, star-sprinkled sky. "I don't want war with the Klingons, but, damn it, we've got to show them they can't come blasting into Federation space whenever they want and launch raids against peaceful planets. We've got to make a stand and discourage them. But Council won't back Starfleet up. They're so concerned about staving off a Klingon-Federation war that they'll let those barbarians walk all over us, killing billions of innocent people in the process."
"They've got to be blind!" Saunders exclaimed, shaking her head disgustedly. "Who do they think took Starbase Sixteen and the Epsilon stations?"
"Council wants proof positive. I'm surprised they don't require a full confession signed by the attacking Klingon commander." Kirk scowled. "Let's drop this. I'm supposed to be on shore leave. Besides, it's too nice a night to get up on a soapbox. Gives me indigestion."
She laughed. "It is a nice night. I don't know about you, but I don't think I want to go back to the party--even for a while. Want to go for a walk? There's a fern garden just a little way into the forest--it's the native equivalent of a fern garden. The plants at least look like ferns. It's a beautiful place to walk at night, and the trail leads right up to the patio behind the lodge. We can get there without going back inside."
"Sounds fine to me. I attended enough affairs like this when I was at Starfleet to last me a lifetime." He gallantly offered her his arm. "Lead on, my lady! I'll make any apologies to our host later."
They took a rustic wooden stairway off the sun deck and strolled into the woods along a wide, clear path lined with bark chips. Kirk drew a deep breath; he could feel months of accumulated tension draining away, leaving him refreshed, relaxed. Saunders clung to him. He glanced at her, marveling at her vibrant, glowing loveliness, and was startled to experience vague stirrings of emotions that had lain dormant in him for far too long. He almost halted in his tracks. Is it possible? Cheryl? They were just good friends. And she was married.
"So, I forgot to ask you," he said, almost guiltily. "How is John these days?"
He felt her stiffen against him. They stopped walking.
"You didn't know?" she whispered. "John was killed near the Orion border."
"No! I didn't know. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to stir up bad memories."
"It's okay. I've gotten over the initial grief. I still miss him terribly." She smiled sadly at him. "But then I guess I don't have to tell you about that."
"No," he answered, his voice almost inaudible. "What happened to John--if you feel like talking about it, that is."
"I don't mind. It happened right after the V'ger encounter. John was assigned to temporary duty aboard the U.S.S. Tarquin, a destroyer that patrols the Orion cusp of the Barrier Alliance. They were ambushed by Orion brigands. The Tarquin managed to destroy the enemy vessel, but she sustained a plasma torpedo hit that wiped out four decks."
Saunders closed her eyes, haunted by cold, bitter memories. "They couldn't even find his body. We buried an empty box with his name on it."
"If I'd only known," Kirk murmured. "I'm sorry. I would have at least gotten off a Stargram to you. We heard about the Tarquin, of course, but..."
"I know. As far as you knew, John was still assigned to the Commanding Admiral's staff. You had no idea he was on active duty. He'd applied for Command Training; he wanted to try for starship command, but he needed to log twenty more star hours. Only twenty more hours!"
"You don't have to talk about it anymore if it bothers you too much."
"It's okay. There's still a dull ache there when I think about him, but it doesn't hurt nearly as much anymore. One morning you wake up and realize you've got to go on with your own life."
"I know." Kirk decided to change the subject. "Listen, what do you say we finish that walk we were taking? I want to get a look at this fern garden you mentioned. I haven't seen one of those in years."
She brightened, taking his arm. "You'll love this one. Not only is it very, very beautiful, but it's like nothing you've ever seen!"
It was indeed like nothing he had ever seen.
Saunders' fern garden reposed in a forest clearing. Crystal-clear water splashed in a rock pool that was fed by a murmuring brook. But it was the ferns themselves that induced Kirk to stop short in admiring, open-mouthed wonderment.
They glowed in the dark, flooding the glade with a soft silver luminescence that rivaled the light of a dozen moons.
"Glowferns," Saunders explained. "They're phosphorescent; they store up sunlight during the day, then shine all night. Isn't that a beautiful sight?"
He looked at her. Her eyes sparkled, and her face shone almost as brightly as her beloved glowferns. She was almost unbearably lovely.
"Yes," Kirk whispered. "It is."
She turned to face him, and he saw an expression in her eyes that said volumes. She reached up and encircled his neck, then wordlessly kissed him. It was a warm, lingering kiss, and he pulled her to him as he responded to the intimacy of the moment.
Then he drew back just as suddenly. "Cheryl, I...I don't know. I shouldn't be feeling this way, but..."
"Please don't," she said breathlessly. "Just hold me. Oh, God, it's been so long since I've felt like this--so safe. I need you to hold me. Don't let go--please."
She gazed up at him, sensing his thoughts. "John is dead, Jim--and so is Lori. We can't change that. It's something we've got to face, but life must go on. Right here, right now, I need you. I want you. And I think you feel the same way. I could see it in your eyes the first time you looked at me on the sun deck."
"You're right," he admitted. "But..."
She laughed, gently cradling his face in her hands. "Look, Jim, we're both adults. Now will you please just shut up and kiss me?"
He did as he was told, but this time she met his lips with more than a little heat. He did want her; why should he deny it?
He crushed her to him, and all his nagging doubts were swept away in a tide of pent-up passion that demanded release. It had been too long since he had felt this way, too.
He heard something, a niggling, annoying little beeping noise like the buzzing of a pesky insect.
"Oh, no!" Saunders groaned. "Damn it, not now! Not now!"
Reluctantly, they untangled themselves from their clinging embrace as Kirk's communicator signaled again. "We can ignore it," he said, even though they both knew he would never do that.
Saunders shook her head. "Better answer it. God only knows what it could be. Maybe it's your ship."
"You're right." he sighed, thumbing the 'open' button on the wrist strap. "Kirk here."
"Jim, this is Thacker. Sorry to interrupt your evening, but I need you to come back here right away. Grant just got in; he wants to meet with you in my office."
"Yep. The commissioner's warp shuttle is being serviced and refueled in the spacedock right now. He has graciously condescended to take a few moments from his busy schedule to discuss that report you filed. You know--the one about Starbase Sixteen and your invisible ship and all?"
Kirk grinned as he caught the note of sarcasm in the base commander's voice. Thacker held a somewhat dim view of bureaucrats, and he took no pains to conceal it.
"Okay, Gene," Kirk returned. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Thank you, kind sir. Oh, and bring Cheryl along with you; she should be here for this, too. Thacker out."
Saunders sighed. "I'm really not in the mood for this. Maybe I'd better go change into my uniform. I'm going to look a little out of place dressed like this."
"You look gorgeous," Kirk said, chuckling. "Besides, it sounds as if Mister Grant is in a bit of a hurry, so I guess we'd better accommodate him."
She squeezed his arm. "Okay, if we must, we must. But if you think this lets you off the hook, Mister Kirk, you are dead wrong. I intend to pursue this matter again to its logical conclusion after we dispose of this rude interruption."
"Is that a threat, ma'am?"
"No," she replied softly. "That's a promise."
They kissed again; then Kirk put his arm around Saunders, and they started back up the path to the lodge.
"Thot's the last one, Mister Spock. We ought to be ready to run a simulation on 'em now."
The Vulcan glanced up from the flux meter he had been monitoring, an imperceptible frown creasing his features. Montgomery Scott had been working non-stop for days, ever since the accident on the Engineering deck. He had slept little, had barely stopped to eat, and it was beginning to tell on him. Scotty looked shrunken and lost in his radiation suit. His gaunt features were drawn taut with fatigue; dark, blue-purple smudges encircled his sunken eyes, which darted feverishly from console to control panel to readout grid.
"Phase balancing wave appears to have stabilized, Engineer. At the risk of sounding like Doctor McCoy, I hope you will avail yourself of the opportunity to get some rest if the warp engines are fully operational again."
"Aye. But I'll still want to know what caused the zero-cross circuitry to flare up like that. Cleary's been workin' on the remains of the phase balancin' console. Everything's pretty badly burned, so it's been takin' him a long time to complete his analysis."
"I am confident Mister Cleary will discover the trouble. He is quite competent. Shall we complete our own tests?"
Scotty nodded wearily, and the two men selected protective helmets from a locker beneath the new phase balancing console. They were about to don the headgear when the intraship signal whistled in the stillness of the empty deck.
"Bridge to Mister Spock." It was Ensign Bonnie Calvert, the back-up communications officer.
"I have an urgent ComLink from Starfleet Command, sir. It's Commander Starfleet."
Spock raised his eyebrow. The commanding admiral himself? Interesting. "Thank you, Ensign. Put it on screen for us, please."
The viewer flickered, and the imposing visage of Admiral Heihachiro Nogura swam into focus. His distinguished, almost fierce features and mane of snowy hair might have belonged to a feudal Shogun warlord or samurai knight. The gentleness of his voice belied his iron strength and implacable will. "Commander Spock, it is good to see you again. I understand you are ranking officer on board at this time?"
"Yes, sir. Captain Kirk and most of the crew are on shore leave. Commander Scott and I are manning the Engineering deck, and are about to engage the warp drive in a simulation."
"I see. If your test is successful, how soon can Enterprise leave orbit?"
The Vulcan glanced at Scotty, who shrugged his shoulders. "I would say immediately, Admiral," Spock continued. "At least as soon as we can recall the crew. Vessel Status is fully operational except for warp engines, and we will know more about them in a short time."
"Very good," Nogura said. "Mister Spock, once the ship is back on line, you are to recall the crew from shore leave. I realize that they badly need the time off, but it can't be helped. I've been getting some disturbing reports from 'fleet Intelligence. The Klingons are up to something again. We've picked up a few snatches of their radio traffic which suggest they might try to pull something in the area around Sector Ten. It's just an educated guess, a hunch, but it's all we've got. I'm deploying Enterprise and Farragut in there to help out Hood and beef up our coverage. With the Epsilon stations and Starbase Sixteen gone, the Klingons have a nice big hole to work with. I want some extra security in there."
"Interesting. Does Intelligence have any inkling of what the Klingons will attempt?"
"Negative. It could be anything. There are several agricultural and grain planets in the sector, Epsilon Six, any number of potential targets. All we can do is make it as difficult as we can for the Klingons, especially since the Federation Council doesn't seem to consider them to be a threat these days."
"Exactly what does the Council say about this?" Spock queried.
The commanding admiral snorted. "I really don't care, Commander. I am still in charge of Starfleet, and while Council may have the ultimate authority, they can't prevent me from deploying my fleet. I don't have to explain my actions to them, not yet, anyway."
The Vulcan allowed himself a slight smile. "The Enterprise will be ready, sir. I will contact Captain Kirk at the first opportunity. If I understand correctly, he is about to meet with Commissioner Grant and cannot be disturbed."
"I doubt that Jim will be in a good mood after his meeting with Grant, so be prepared. I can almost tell you exactly what that jackass will say. He'd invite the Klingons to a tea party if he had half a chance. Anyway, gentlemen, I wish you luck with your engine test. We need you back out there. Contact Starfleet Headquarters when you are prepared to disembark. Nogura out."
Scotty let out a low whistle. "Whew! The Old Man himself callin' us direct. They must be gettin' a mite uneasy back at Starfleet."
"It would seem so, Mister Scott. In any event, I believe we should apply ourselves to testing the warp drive without further delay. The commanding admiral obviously wants the Enterprise back in service."
"Aye," Scotty agreed. He adjusted the collar of his antiradiation coverall and donned his helmet as the Vulcan followed suit. The two men began programming the computer board, punching buttons and shifting slide controls as they prepared for warp drive simulation.
"Flux reads green, Mister Spock. Ditto on intermix feed and zero-cross phasin'."
"Acknowledged, Engineer. Engaging mains in stand-by-mode--no forward momentum."
It began as a low throbbing, a vibration they could feel more than hear. The monstrous duraperspex tube of the intermix chamber glowed with starfire as matter and antimatter clashed and annihilated each other in an awesome, elemental release of energy. Scotty monitored the flux meters on his panel with hawk-like vigilance. His fingers were poised above the disengage module. At the slightest hint of imbalance, he would abort the simulation. The engines themselves were in no real danger of overload, but they could blow one or several control panels--an eventuality that Scotty fervently wished to avoid.
Spock nudged a glide knob, sneaking up the power a bit. "Going to Warp Factor One, Mister Scott. Status on power readings?"
"Holdin' steady so far, but we've got a long way to go."
"Very well. I shall continue to increase power, holding in each successive Warp Factor for an interval of thirty seconds."
The hum of the engines increased perceptibly in pitch, becoming a tremulous whine, then a throbbing roar. The two men carefully watched their gauges. The glare in the intermix chamber was now as unbearably, blindingly bright as the core of a sun. Brilliant lightning-like flashes danced on the face plates of their helmets and bathed the engineering deck with their searing white illumination.
"Warp Ten," Spock reported several minutes later.
A slow, tired smile crept across Scotty's face. "Maximum cruisin' speed, and she's holdin' steady as a rock. We'll try a few seconds of emergency warp and shut 'er down."
The Vulcan nodded, then thrust the glide stick to its limit. The engines howled in protest; the keening wail hammered at them, falling on them like a crumbling, ear-splitting wall of noise. "Warp Factor Twelve!" Spock fairly shouted above the din.
"Thot's enough! They're holdin' up fine!"
Spock cut back power, and the sound and pyrotechnics died away to nothing.
Scotty removed his helmet. He gratefully drew a breath of fresh air, then checked the computer display. "Overall engine efficiency rating of ninety-eight point three percent of norm. I've seen me bairns do better, but it'll do. We're back on line, Mister Spock."
The science officer was about to acknowledge when the intercom signal sounded again. "Spock here."
"This is Cleary is the diagnostics lab, sir. Is Mister Scott still there? We've found his gremlin."
"Aye, Cleary. I'm still here. What do ye have?"
"I've never seen it before, sir. It was a liquidic component on the zero-cross board--a quadritriac. It broke down and gated 'on'--a dead short."
Spock's right eyebrow arched in something very like astonishment, and he spoke into the grid. "Are you certain of your findings, Chief Cleary? The odds against composition quadritriac failure are approximately three hundred-four thousand, three hundred-twenty-six point five to one."
"I wouldn't know about that, sir," the engineer replied. "All I can tell you is that the diagnostic computer assigned it a probability rating of ninety-nine point four percent. It failed, all right. Looks like somebody in quality control dropped the ball when they manufactured the board."
Scotty was stunned by the news. "My God," he whispered. "I don' believe it! Those people died because a wee hunk o' plastic that doesna cost a quarter of a credit burned out?"
"It looks that way, sir. I'm really sorry."
"Save what's left o' thot component," Scotty snapped. "I'm goin' to send it to the chief of Q.C. at Starfleet, along with the names o' all the people who died in the accident. Let him tell their families what happened!"
Cleary hesitated. "I'm afraid I've got more bad news, Mister Scott. The computer also indicated a high probability that the explosion of the console may have sent a backflush spike through the lines. Other circuits and consoles could have undetectable damage to their logic systems. We could run diagnostic checks on all the systems, but it would take a long time--and it probably wouldn't show anything."
"So, if we've got a bad system, we can only sit and wait for it to fail!" Scotty's shoulders sagged wearily. "Run diagnostic checks anyway, Cleary. We canna afford to have another system go down. If there's any chance at all thot we could keep thot from happenin', we've got to take it."
"Aye, sir. Cleary out."
The Scot turned to Spock, defeat and utter exhaustion lining his features. "When it rains, it pours, Mister Spock. The Old Man'd never let us stay in drydock to run a systems trace to look for damage thot may not even have happened."
"Indeed. We seem to have a very perplexing situation on our hands."
"Aye. Thot we do." Scotty yawned and stretched. "Well, I guess I'd better get crackin' and get Engineering ready for departure."
"Negative, Mister Scott," Spock said quietly. "You are to report to your quarters for not less than one full sleep cycle. Your efficiency will begin to deteriorate rapidly if you persist in overextending yourself."
"But, Mister Spock--"
"You have a very capable department. Your crew can make departure preparations under Chief Cleary's supervision. It will still be some time before the Enterprise is ready; I suggest you make use of that time to replenish yourself. You will, of course, be summoned immediately in the unlikely event of an emergency."
"That is an order, Engineer," the Vulcan snapped. "If necessary, I will call for medical technicians to enforce it with a sleep injection."
Scotty stared, open-mouthed. "Yer gettin' as bad as McCoy!" he muttered.
Spock's eyebrows shot upward at that comment. "I see no need for you to insult me, Mister Scott. I am merely expressing a logical concern for the physical and mental well-being of this ship's chief engineer."
"I'm deeply touched." The Scotsman tried to unsuccessfully to suppress a weary grin. "All right, Spock--you win. I'll go an get some shut-eye. I am ready to drop, much as I hate to admit it."
He shuffled toward a turbolift. Spock watched him go, marveling at the fact that the engineer was still on his feet, much less functioning. His respect for that Human trait McCoy called "sheer cussedness" grew considerably. Even after all these years, he still had much to learn about these illogical, but fascinating creatures with whom he served. But for now, there were more pressing matters to consider.
"Spock to Bridge."
"Calvert here. Go ahead, sir."
"All crewmembers are to be recalled from shore leave immediately, Ensign. The Enterprise is to depart for Sector Ten as soon as possible, by direct order of Admiral Nogura."
"Yes, sir. Shall I notify Captain Kirk?"
"Negative. I shall attend to that myself. Spock out."
Spock pursed his lips. He regretted having to call Jim back from shore leave; he needed the time off badly. He had exhibited signs of stress somewhat more frequently of late, and Spock knew that Doctor McCoy had been keeping a watchful, if surreptitious eye on the captain. Kirk was in no immediate danger, and a certain amount of unusual stress was to be expected and endured; as Kirk himself was fond of saying, It comes with the territory.
But no man was made of iron--not even James T. Kirk.
He consulted a wall chronometer, nothing that Kirk's meeting with Grant should now be over. He activated his wrist communicator, then hesitated before speaking. "Spock to Captain Kirk," he finally said. "Acknowledge, please."
Commodore Gene Thacker's office was much like every other command office James Kirk had ever seen. It was furnished simply; a large desk with a built-in computer terminal, several contour loungers and a portable bar. A large window behind the desk afforded a panoramic view of the magnificent forest surrounding the starbase, which was now shrouded in darkness. An arrangement of holo pictures, framed certificates, and citations hung on one wall. The only extravagance in the room was a holographic diorama the size of a large aquarium. Inside the tank, amidst a realistic three-dimensional backdrop of stars and planets shifting through ebony space, floated a meter-long finely-detailed model of the U.S.S. Republic, Thacker's last starship command.
Federation Commissioner Joseph C. Grant was doing a very credible job of pacing within the confines of the room. For the past fifteen minutes, Grant, a small, middle-aged, bird-like man with a thinning shock of iron-gray hair, had been poring over a written transcript of Kirk's report regarding the attack on the Enterprise and the devastation of Starbase 16. He continued to walk, back and forth, back and forth, until it seemed he would wear a path in the wine-red carpet.
Kirk glanced at Saunders, then at Thacker, who rolled his eyes skyward in exasperation. They were still waiting for a representative from Starfleet Intelligence, but the impatient Grant had already begun the briefing.
Grant suddenly stopped pacing. He looked up from the report then tossed it down on Thacker's desk with a flourish. "Rubbish," he snapped. "Absolutely worthless rubbish."
"I could've told you he'd say that," Thacker muttered.
Grant shot him a piercing, dark-eyed glance before turning his attention to Kirk. "Captain, you have no solid proof whatsoever that the Klingons were responsible for these tragedies."
"Four dead crewmen and seven million casualties on Starbase Sixteen are all the proof I need, Commissioner," Kirk flared, trying his best to check his anger. "That quadrant--"
"Without proof," Grant continued over him, "I cannot accuse the Klingon Star Empire of any wrongdoing. As you were about to point out, the fact that the quadrant in which all this activity occurred closely adjoins Klingon space is coincidental. Without evidence, that is."
"Coincidental?!" Saunders exploded. "That quadrant is right in the Klingon's backyard! The projected course of the ship that wiped out Starbase Sixteen and the Epsilon Outposts leads back to the Klingon Empire! Who else could it be?"
The commissioner fiddled with the collar of his royal-blue robe, as if searching for an answer. Then he fixed Saunders with an icy stare that effectively conveyed his disapproval of her non-standard garb. "Commander Saunders, suppose you were another government unfriendly to the Federation--the Romulans, let's say, or even a terrorist group. It would seem to me that an effective way to wreak havoc on your enemy would be to mount an attack against them and make it appear as though the Klingons were responsible, then attack again while the Federation's attention was mistakenly focused on the Klingons."
"Come on, Commissioner!" Saunders exclaimed. "Do you hear what you're saying? Do you honestly believe that load of bull yourself?"
"Young lady, I would watch my tone if I were you! What I find difficult to believe is that a Starfleet command-grade officer would have the nerve to appear at an official briefing dressed like a common Orion prostitute!"
"Now wait a minute, Grant!" Kirk began, rising from his seat.
"HOLD IT!!!" Thacker's bull moose bellow brought the impending melée to a grinding halt.
"Gentlemen--and lady--I suggest we attend to the business at hand," the commodore said. "As I explained to you, Commissioner, Captain Kirk and Commander Saunders came here directly from an official function. Since you indicated that you have a limited amount of time to spend here, I suggest that you not waste it with petty bickering!"
Kirk sat back down as Grant somewhat sheepishly bowed his head. "My apologies," he mumbled. "Particularly to you, Commander."
"Don't mention it," Saunders grated. The bow of her lips tightened into a thin-set line, and she looked anything but pacified.
"As I was saying," Grant went on. "If another party wished to make the Klingons appear guilty--"
"They'd launch an attack from inside Klingon territory? I don't think so," Kirk snorted.
"I have to agree with Jim," Thacker put in. "The Klingons'd blow any intruder right out of their space--even an ally, or one of their own ships that didn't properly identify itself. They believe in the old adage of 'shoot first, ask questions later.'"
"Even so, I cannot risk an interstellar war without solid proof."
"You're risking it now, Commissioner, by doing nothing!" Kirk said heatedly. "A big hole has been blown out of Federation defenses. If the Klingons see we're not going to respond to their attacks, they'll come pouring through that hole. We'd be asking for it."
"Then what do you suggest we do, Kirk--attack the Klingons first, and ensure an all-out war? Your seven million dead on Starbase Sixteen would be a mere drop in the bucket compared to the lives that would be lost if we went to war!"
"Nobody wants war with the Klingons, particularly me, Commissioner. I just think that Starfleet should be permitted to step up patrols and beef up defenses along the disputed border, at least until the Epsilon Outposts are rebuilt. Show the Klingons a little muscle, and they'll back down. There won't be any war. I think you and the Federation Council are taking the Klingons too lightly--with all due respect, sir."
"He's right," a new voice said from the doorway. "Grant and his gutless friends on the Council want to play footsie with those knot-headed barbarians. Well, not me!"
They all turned to look at the newcomer. He was an impressive sight, attired in a Starfleet commander's uniform. He appeared to be in his late thirties; tall, well-muscled, his ruggedly-handsome features were creased with a ragged scar than ran down the entire right side of his face. There was a presence about him, an aura that suggested that he could handle himself quite well. He was smiling, but there was an almost dangerous chill in his ice-blue eyes.
Their visitor introduced himself. "Commander Brand Taylor, Starfleet Intelligence," he said. "I'm the 'rover' for all the quadrants near the Organian Treaty Zone."
"Commodore Gene Thacker," the base commander rumbled. "This is my security chief, Commander Cheryl Saunders, and Captain James T. Kirk."
Taylor took Saunders' hand and kissed it gallantly. "Charmed," he murmured. Kirk experienced an irrational stab of jealousy, and he hoped it didn't show. Taylor extended his hand in greeting. "James Kirk--Captain of the Enterprise? I'm honored, sir."
Kirk was somewhat surprised to discover that he could hardly meet Taylor's steely-eyed gaze, but he was not about to show it. The man radiated an animal strength--as well he should. As a rover, he was responsible for coordinating and directing all the intelligence-gathering activities in his assigned sectors. He traveled a great deal, staying at various bases and outposts for days or weeks at a time. And sometimes his duties required him to penetrate behind the Klingon border.
You don't pick just any man to do a job like that, mused Kirk.
"And this--as I take it you already know--is Federation Commissioner Joseph Grant," Thacker finished.
"We've met," Grant said curtly. "It seems I keep running into Commander Taylor. You and he should get along quite well, Captain Kirk. Two military alarmists. Commander Taylor is about to preach to us all about the 'Klingon Menace.'"
"Captain Kirk is right," Taylor repeated, as everyone but Grant sat down once again. "The problem with you people on the Council is that you're too blind to see it. The Klingons see inaction on our part as a sign of weakness. And they'll exploit that weakness."
"I disagree," Grant returned. "We have spent the better part of the last two years building our diplomatic relations with moderate elements in the Klingon Senate, and although we are still on admittedly shaky ground, I feel we have made substantial progress."
"You're fooling yourself, Grant. They're playing you for a sucker. The Klingon Senate still nominally runs the Empire, but it's losing control. The real power is in the military--specifically with the Kh'myr warrior contingent."
Grant sighed wearily. "I have heard all the arguments and theories about these so-called 'supermen.' I don't see why they should be any harder to deal with. Nor do I see any danger of their taking over the Senate."
"You must not have studied Terran history very well, Commissioner," Taylor taunted. "Don't you remember the Eugenics Wars of late Twentieth Century Earth? The Empire seems to be taking that same route. This new breed of Klingon scares the hell out of me, Grant--and if you had any sense, you'd be scared, too. They love to fight. They live for it. And if we're going to survive, we've got to be prepared to meet force with force."
"The Klingons don't want war any more than we do," Grant stubbornly persisted. "They are not going to break the Organian Treaty--"
Taylor swore under his breath. "You idiot! There have been six separate violations of the Organian Treaty in the last four months alone! The general public doesn't hear about them because you cowards in the Council would rather look the other way than confront the Klingons!"
Even Kirk was taken back by Taylor's figures. "That many violations--and we haven't even made a diplomatic response? Not even an official warning?"
"Ask Grant why they've kept things quiet, Captain. Ask them why Starfleet just about has to catch the Klingons over the corpses with a glowing disruptor in hand before the Commission on Alien Relations will even let us present any evidence before the Federation Council. And if we do happen to snag one, well, you know all about the 'outlaw' routine."
Grant cleared his throat nervously. "That's unfair, Taylor. There are hundreds of trillions of sentient lives hanging in the balance, depending on what we do. One little slip-up, and--"
"And in the meantime, those 'mere' millions the Klingons destroy get swept under the rug," Kirk finished. "I'd like to know how you sleep at night, Commissioner."
"I sleep just fine, Kirk," Grant whispered. "Just fine."
A communicator signal whistled. Grant looked positively relieved as he answered his page. "Grant here."
"Sir, this is Jergens at Starbase SpaceDock. Your shuttle is ready to go."
"Excellent, Jergens. Prepare to have me beamed up."
"Yes, sir. Jergens out."
Grant snapped his communicator shut. "Gentlemen, Commander Saunders, if you'll excuse me, my aide has informed me that my shuttle is ready to depart."
"Hold on a minute," Thacker growled. "What about Jim's report?"
Grant sneered. "I'm surprised you even have to ask me that, Commodore. Captain Kirk has no proof; therefore, there is no problem. No complaint will be filed against the Klingon Star Empire."
The three officers scrambled to their feet, all shouting at once, but their protests fell on deaf ears. Grant began to disappear in the shimmer of the transporter beam.
Taylor made an obscene gesture at his vanishing form. "Damn Klingon-lover!" he snarled. "I'd like to set him down in the middle of a death camp! Then we'd see if he still wanted to be buddy-buddy with them!"
"I don't believe it," Kirk muttered, stunned. "My people, those at the Outposts--and Starbase Sixteen. Not even a formal complaint! What do they want?"
Thacker drew a deep breath. "Jim, I hate to play the bad guy, and don't get me wrong--I'm on your side. But technically speaking, Grant's right. Damn his eyes anyway, but according to the amendments to the Organian Treaty, and that summit ...what the hell was the name of that anyway?"
"Taalynis Four," Saunders supplied. "The Summit of Taalynis Four--the one that pulled Starfleet's teeth."
"Yeah. Anyway, you know how hard it is to make a formal charge stick now, and you yourself admitted that you never even saw the attacking ship. Grant may be an idiot, but I think he honestly believes what he's doing is right."
"You sound just like my first officer," Kirk said, smiling bitterly. He wearily plopped back down in his chair. "Makes you wonder what we're doing out here, doesn't it? We're just clay pigeons for the Klingons and the Romulans and whoever else wants to take a shot at us without the Council to back us up."
Saunders squeezed his hand. "Hey, come on, Jim. That doesn't sound like you."
"I know," Kirk admitted. "But with all that's been happening lately, I don't feel like me, either."
"I need a drink after that," Thacker said. "Anyone care to join me?"
"I'll just have some ice water," Saunders answered, patting her stomach. "Gotta watch the waistline, you know."
Thacker chuckled. "Okay, Jim, I know what you want--Saurian brandy, right?"
Kirk nodded almost imperceptibly. "Right. I doubt that it will help, but I think I could use one right now, too."
"I'll have what the lady's drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses. In my line of work, that's a liability." He turned to Kirk. "I sympathize with you, Captain. Sometimes I feel that the best thing we can do is to go in with a full-scale attack force and blow the hell out of the Klingons. Catch 'em by surprise."
Kirk's features knitted into a tight frown. "Whoa, wait a minute, Commander. I'm not very fond of the Klingons myself, but I wouldn't go that far. Nobody would win an all-out war between the Federation and the Empire. It would be the end of everything. Besides, if the Organians are still keeping an eye out, I doubt that they'd let such a war happen--although who knows what they'd decide to do to the two warring factions?"
"I know," Taylor said reflectively. A distant look clouded his steely eyes. "It's just that sometimes--you know, I wasn't kidding before, about dropping Grant in a Klingon death camp. You can't imagine what it's like."
"You've been to one?" Saunders asked, her voice soft with astonishment.
"I've been in one, ma'am. On an assignment. I was supposed to go in and rescue one of our operatives, or failing that, kill him before the Klingons could make him talk. I found him."
His voice cracked, and Kirk was startled to see unshed tears standing in the rover's eyes. "The bastards had sliced every square centimeter of skin from his body, and he was still alive!" Taylor quavered. "He never told them a thing. He begged me to kill him, to put him out of his misery--and I did." He closed his eyes, repressing a shudder. "Can you understand now? We should let those killers live while they murder and torture innocent people, run unspeakable experiments on them like they were so many lab animals? And the women--God, what they did to the women."
Saunders swallowed hard. "I don't think we need to delve into that, Commander. We've all heard those horror stories." She tried to change the subject. "How in God's name did you get into a death camp--much less get out of it?"
Taylor's smile was cold. "I'm afraid that's all classified, Commander. I may have to do it again sometime. Let's just say it was no picnic. It was a lot easier getting in than out, and I almost didn't make it back." He traced the scar on his face with his index finger for emphasis. "I spent six months in Sector Twelve Hospital Station when I did get back."
He fell silent, and no one else spoke as Thacker brought the refreshments. Taylor downed his glass of water quickly and stood up. "If you'll excuse me, I've had a long trip, Commodore. I'll be around for a few weeks, since most of the Klingon activity of late has been taking place close to this area. Do you have a place where I can set up a temporary office?"
"I think we've got an empty cubicle in the security wing, don't we, Cheryl?"
"Yes, we do," she replied. "I just hope Commander Taylor doesn't suffer from claustrophobia."
"I'm sure it'll be fine, Commander," Taylor said. "I'll start setting up tomorrow morning. Goodnight, now."
He left quickly and silently, with an almost feline grace that reminded Kirk of a stalking tiger.
"Whew!" Thacker breathed. "I'd hate to see what would happen if that guy ever got his hands on a Klingon!"
Kirk shook his head in grudging admiration. "He's a brave man."
"But a creepy one." Cheryl Saunders shivered, hugging herself. "I have a hard time with those special service types. They've always struck me as being slightly unhinged."
"You'd probably be slightly unhinged, too, if you had to do what he does," Thacker commented dryly.
They finished their drinks in brooding silence, and then Thacker rose to shut down his computer terminal. "I imagine the party's just getting into full swing about now," he said. "Care to join me, you two?"
"I don't think so, sir," Saunders replied, and Kirk tried not to smile when he saw her blushing. "We've, uh, got other plans."
"Right," Thacker chuckled. "Well, have a good time. Oh, to be young and beautiful again!"
His booming laugh trailed him out of the office and down the corridor.
"Shall we follow his lead and go somewhere a little cozier than this?" Kirk asked.
Saunders didn't answer him. Instead, she reached up and impulsively kissed him. "What do you say we go back to my place?" she whispered huskily. "I think that would qualify as 'cozy.'"
He drew away from her in mock horror. "Are you trying to seduce me, ma'am?"
"Little ol' me, seduce you, the notorious Captain James 'Tomcat' Kirk? Me?" She kissed him again. "You bet your boots, honey!"
They nearly made it to the office door before Kirk's communicator page signaled. "Spock to Captain Kirk. Acknowledge, please."
They stared at each other, stricken, unwilling to believe that they could be this unfortunate twice in the same evening.
"Captain, we have received a Priority One communiqué from Admiral Nogura. We are to recall the entire ship's complement immediately and prepare to leave orbit."
"Nogura himself? Spock, what's going on?"
"Nothing specific, sir. The commanding admiral spoke of intercepting Klingon sub-space radio traffic which indicated there might soon be activity in Sector Ten. I would suspect he is concerned about building up 'fleet strength in this vicinity in light of recent events. The Hood and Farragut will also be patrolling the area."
"Well, at least someone's using his head." He glanced at Saunders. "I--I need a few minutes, Spock."
"Understood, Captain. Signal us when you are prepared to beam aboard. Spock out."
Kirk stared at his communicator and did a fair imitation of a Vulcan raising his eyebrow. "'Understood, Captain'? Can he read me that easily?" he joked, trying to lighten the mood.
Saunders smiled, but he could tell her heart wasn't in it. He didn't want to go, but...
"Cheryl, I'm sorry. I--"
"Please don't say it, Jim. I've heard it all before, and I know all the reasons, all the justifications. And I understand, I really do."
He took her in his arms, and she hugged him, burying her head against his chest. "I just so wanted us to have this night together."
"We will yet."
She gazed up at him. "Will we, Jim? God only knows what you're getting into with the Klingons."
"It could be a false alarm," he ventured. "I'll be back."
"That's what John said," she whispered.
He was silent for a long time, not knowing what to say to her. Finally, he had to speak. "Listen, I've got about six weeks' leave accumulated. As soon as this alert is over, I'll take some of it and swing back this way. Then we won't have to worry about any interruptions. Okay?"
"Is that a threat?" she asked, her voice trembling with emotion.
"No. That's a promise."
He bent to kiss her, and she responded with a deep, probing intensity that made his senses swim. She finally pulled away, leaving him breathless.
"I just wanted you to realize what you'll be missing," she said. "Please, Jim, be careful. I do want you to come back. Please?"
Before he could answer, she was gone.
And at that moment, James Kirk was sure he could not remember if he had ever felt more lonely in his entire life.
Klingon Battlestation T'mar slowly spun on its axis; the satellite bristled with weapons, long-range sensor arrays and communications dishes. Sixteen times larger than one of the puny Terran Centroplex-class stations, it housed the most up-to-date equipment, ten full regiments of Kh'myr warriors and repair dock facilities for the Imperial Klingon fleet.
Deep in the bowels of this behemoth, Da' Maltz, manned his communications post. He was bored to tears; the young Kh'myr had been rotated to station duty as a matter of routine. But it galled him. Here he was, one of the Empire's ultimate warriors, sitting down, monitoring Federation hyperband frequencies for anything of interest. Phah! he thought. As if anything the Terrans did could be of interest to any Klingon.
He glanced around sullenly at one of the monitors of his station. The battlecruisers Targa, Zoden, and Merna were orbiting the station now. How he hated watching the great K't'inga-class cruisers come and go as they were serviced, re-manned, and sent back out on glorious missions of conquest for the Empire. He ached to go out on one of them again, even if it meant going as a lowly torpedo room aide.
The doors to the communications control deck hissed open behind him. Maltz whirled around and bolted to his feet in attention. "Sa' Kusan," he exclaimed.
Kusan strode purposefully to Maltz's station. He had one eye cocked toward the vidmonitor above the door.
"Yes, Glorious One," Maltz answered as he adjusted the gain of a transceiver to create static in the monitor. Obviously, Kusan had something to say to him that he didn't want station security to know about.
"Good. I have three messages to send. Two of them are in code--one to Commander Krax on the cruiser Karak, the other to Commander Kazar on the Amon. Both messages are the same: `Proceed.' I want them sent on the Federation hyperband channel 92.9 rather than the Imperial channels which are closely scrutinized by the enemy."
"Understood, my liege."
"The third message is an uncoded hyperband transmission to Starfleet Command. Send it on all hyperchannels. It should read: `To Nogura, Commanding Admiral, Starfleet Command. Renegade battlecruiser Amon, captained by outlaw Commander Kazar, has entered Federation space in violation of the Organian Treaty on an unauthorized mission of war. Last known coordinates place Amon entering shipping lanes near the Rigel system. Unable to assist, as we have no ships close enough to intercept. Our fervent hope this warning enables you to avert disaster. Regrets, Kor, Admiral, Klingon High Command.'"
"Send the first two, immediately. However, do not send the last message until you receive a signal from the Amon that Federation space has been penetrated.
The response will be on Federation hyperchannel frequency 67.4. It should read: `Ready.'"
"Yes, my lord. I am to broadcast the third message on all channels," repeated Maltz, wanting confirmation.
"Yes, Ensign. I want every Federation starship in the vicinity, as well as Starbase Twenty-seven and Starfleet Command, to receive that message."
Maltz grinned wolfishly, his boredom vanishing. "Understood, joHwI'."
Kusan looked at Maltz intently for a moment. "I believe that you do, Ensign," he decided. "Your name?"
Maltz looked startled. "A thousand pardons, my lord, I did not mean to presume--"
"Your name, Ensign?" The tone was quite menacing.
"Maltz, my lord."
"I will remember you, Maltz. Perhaps I can find something a little more challenging for you." Kusan strode toward the exit, leaving Maltz to wonder.
Something big is up, Maltz decided. He had heard rumors that Krax's battlecruiser, the Karak, would be involved in a major military operation. He pressed a series of studs on the console, sending the first two messages. Perhaps he would get off this floating waste can!
He leaned back, waiting for the Amon's signal.
Aboard the Klingon battlecruiser Amon, Commander Kazar read the coded message handed to him by his communications officer. Kazar, a Segh vav Klingon of notable heritage, shook his head in anger. He had brought his ship to the Federation border of the Organian Treaty Zone under orders from Admiral Khalian. Now he would order his ship into Federation territory, attack whatever civilian target they first encountered, and draw toward them the Federation forces from the entire quadrant. They would then engage the enemy, and in Khalian's words, 'destroy them.' More likely, it would be his ship that would suffer destruction.
He sighed and glanced up, noting the silent, somber faces of his command crew. They realized, of course, that the Amon was a decoy, a target to occupy the Federation starships while the Kh'myr Krax's battlecruiser, the Karak, slipped into Federation space under the concealment of the new cloaking device. Even though the improved So'wI' had been tested out as being foolproof, Klingon High Command's Admiral Khalian, yet another Kh'myr, had deemed necessary the sending the Amon and its Segh vav crew in as a feint. No doubt existed in the minds of any of the Amon's command crew that they were being sacrificed as part of the Kh'myr genocidal plans.
"The Kh'myr don't expect us to survive!" Kazar snarled. "Let us see if we can alter their expectations! Ahead Grafspeed Four!"
His command crew howled in approval and leaped to battlestations.
The D-7 battlecruiser surged forward into Federation space, toward its uncertain fate.
Captain Peter Hardy of the passenger liner, S.S. Triton, one of the Altair-class starliners, sat in the control center of his ship. Another boring run to Rigel, he thought, glancing at the status boards. If only I had managed to get through Starfleet Academy, he thought. Perhaps I'd be in for a little more excitement. It was 'night,' and only he and his exec were on duty. He watched his exec, Mike Tanner, adjust the meteor deflector shield.
Starfleet Academy had been rough on Cadet Peter Hardy. During his first year, he barely made the cut. The second year, he got cut, and was delayed a whole year. In the third year, when he was cut again, he was dismissed from the Academy. Oh, it was not entirely disgraceful, given the number of individuals who were cut each year, but it was something Peter Hardy had a hard time dealing with. He took it as a personal insult to his intelligence.
He had turned to the Merchant Marines, and served with them for sixteen years, working his way up through the ranks. He signed on with TransGalactic Spacelines four years ago as a captain of one of the older passenger liners. He looked at the main viewing screen of the control center into deep space. He had made it. Maybe it wasn't as exciting as he might have liked, but he was in space.
His reverie was interrupted by Tanner. "Hey, Pete, I've got an unidentified blip on the sensors."
"Deflectors on. Can you get a visual fix?" Hardy asked.
"I'm trying to coordinate now--there."
"On the viewscreen, mag six."
Their eyes widened in horror. A Klingon D-7 battlecruiser was bearing down on them, from dead ahead. Its forward tube glared in battle-readiness; there was no doubt that it was on an attack run.
"My God!" Hardy shouted in surprise and terror. "Shields and deflectors to maximum! Get them on the radio--tell them we're an unarmed passenger vessel! I'm goin' to try evasive!"
Tanner tried the subspace radio. "Attention Klingon vessel. This is S.S. Triton en route to Rigel. We are a civilian vessel with three hundred sixty passengers! Please respond!"
Hardy drew upon his experiences at Starfleet Academy, his time with the Merchant Marines and even a few things he thought might work, but the Triton was an old starliner. It took the series of maneuvers and handled them sluggishly. Hardy swore under his breath. He knew his liner was no match for the swift, deadly D-7 starship, but without weapons, their only chance was to reason with the Klingons while running from them.
"Mike? Anything?" he called, feeding sixteen more maneuvers into the keyboard at his station.
"They're not acknowledging!" Tanner cried.
The first torpedo hit the massive old-style starboard warp engine. Hardy and Tanner were flung to the deck as the lighting failed. Alarms shrieked. Hardy shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. Atmosphere loss, he noted. He leaped back into his seat, only to discover that the helm would no longer respond to its orders.
"Shit," he whispered.
The emergency lights came up. "Engineering to Bridge!"
"Jon! What's happening?" he snapped into the comm grid on his control panel.
"Shields are down seventy-three percent! Starboard engine hit and destroyed! We've lost warp power! Deflector systems failing!"
"Then we're a sitting duck," Hardy muttered. He turned to Tanner who had resumed his station. "Broadcast a general Mayday!"
Tanner hunched over the subspace radio board. "S.S. Triton calling, Mayday, Mayday!"
Hardy leaned back. There was nothing he could do. Stunned, he watched the main viewing screen as the Klingon ship finished a wide, sweeping turn. It was preparing for another run. The cruiser seemed to hang motionless for an instant. Then, like a diving hawk, it screamed toward its helpless prey.
Jennifer Blume was asleep in her cabin on Level Four, dreaming of the forthcoming reunion with her husband, Lieutenant Stephen Blume. He was stationed at Epsilon One, but managed to get a three week leave on Rigel VII. She had purchased travel tickets for herself and their young son, Corey, and left Terra five days ago.
Suddenly, she was jolted from her sleep by a jarring blast and the harsh scream of a warning klaxon. She sat up in bed, blinking, disoriented. Then, the klaxon ceased as abruptly as it had began. She reached for the intercom switch, then keyed in the comm monitor.
There was only frustrating silence; the tiny viewscreen remained menacingly dark.
Instinctively, she got out of bed and hurried toward an adjoining alcove where her son was sleeping.
The barefoot, pajama-clad four-year-old was awake, and had climbed out of his bed. Sleepy-eyed, yet obviously frightened, Corey wandered through the darkness crying, calling out for his mother.
Jennifer knelt down before her son. She hugged him, weaving her fingers through his soft, blonde curls. "Shhh!" she urged.
"Mommy, what's wrong? What's happening? Why did the horns go off?"
"I don't know," she tried to reassure her little boy, even though she wasn't at all sure of the situation herself. "I'm sure it's nothing important."
Trying desperately not to panic, not to project her fears upon her child, she took his tiny hand in hers and moved quickly towards the door. "Let's go see what's up, okay, Corey?"
The latch mechanism refused to budge. She tried the cabin lights; nothing. She put her ear to the door, and plainly heard sounds of confusion, and muffled cries for help.
Another blast shook the ship. Jennifer screamed; the deck tilted crazily, and she and Corey suddenly found themselves floating as the artificial gravity momentarily failed. It reestablished itself seconds later, but was weak, perhaps a tenth of what it should have been.
She frantically reached for the door handle again and yelped in dismay; it was too hot to touch.
With growing horror, Jennifer watched as the heavy door began to glow, first a dull, brick color, then a bright cherry red. She hugged Corey tighter. In the corridor beyond, muffled cries of help had become screams of agony. Searing heat and smoke filtered into the room, along with the gagging stench of charred flesh.
Jennifer gathered her son in her arms and carried him over to her bed and the illusion of safety. "What's that smell, Mommy?" he asked, holding his nose.
"Nothing, dear, nothing." Then she saw it; in the distance, through the ornate porthole, she saw the lights of the attacking Klingon warbird. Her fears were realized.
Her first instinct was that of a mother to protect her young; to die doing so if need be. But there was no place to hide, no way to fight the enormity of this danger. She knew that. Unable to protect her son from the certainty of this approaching death, she became determined to shield him from fear. She would not allow this paralyzing terror to rob Corey of life's last few precious moments--their last moments together.
Struggling against her own fear and her growing rage at the unfairness of the situation, Jennifer coaxed, "Corey, would you sing me the song I taught you? You know, the one I want you to sing for Daddy?" A song, she realized, that her waiting husband would never hear.
The boy smiled. He had worked hard at learning this song, and the pride of his accomplishment filled his face. "Okay, Mommy."
She listened to the words, and thought of her husband. How many times had Steve seen Corey this year? Four? And he would never see either of them again.
The tiny voice stopped suddenly and Corey looked up at his mother's face with innocent, questioning eyes. "You cryin', Mommy? Why?"
"No, honey," Jennifer lied, forcing a smile as she brushed aside a betraying tear. "It's just that your song is so pretty. Besides, you know how silly mommies are."
Corey let out a delighted giggle and hugged his mother's neck. He resumed his singing. The young mother returned her son's hug and tried not to tremble. She stared numbly out the porthole.
Like a gigantic, angry insect, the battlecruiser once more spat its glowing 'venom.'
Jennifer closed her eyes and breathed deeply the sweet baby smell of her child's hair. "I love you, Corey," she whispered.
Surprisingly, there was no pain--only an instantaneous sensation of awesome heat, then oblivion as mother and child vanished together in the angry red brilliance of photon fire.
James Kirk sat in the center seat in a state of relaxed watchfulness. The Enterprise had been on patrol out of Starbase 27 for four and a half uneventful days. He found himself thinking often of Cheryl Saunders. He was somewhat surprised at the strength of the feelings he had developed for her in such a short time, although he realized that her reciprocal feelings toward him had helped catalyze their relationship. He had already made arrangements to take shore leave on Starbase 27 as soon as possible, much to the surprise and delight of Doctor Leonard mcCoy.
Uhura suddenly called out, "Sir, I'm receiving a message from inside the Klingon Empire! It is intended for Admiral Nogura at Starfleet, but it's on all the hyperband channels!"
"On speakers," Kirk orders.
"--renegade battlecruiser Amon, captained by outlaw Commander Kazar, has entered Federation space..."
Kirk listened grimly. The Klingons are trying to cover themselves even before they pull their latest stunt. "I wonder where they'll strike," he muttered aloud.
He did not have to wonder long.
Minutes later, Uhura turned from her station. "Captain! A Mayday from S.S. Triton. She reports she's under attack from a Klingon battlecruiser!"
The mainviewer displayed information on the vessel under siege.
"A passenger vessel!" Kirk exclaimed, scanning the information. "They're attacking an unarmed liner!"
The horrified voice of the Triton's executive officer, Mike Tanner, crackled on the speakers. "We've taken two hits from a Klingon cruiser, and our shields are down! We have heavy casualties! Repeat, Mayday! We are under attack! Coordinates: 210 mark 5! Please, help us!!"
"Mister Thalon!" Kirk barked at the Andorian navigator.
"Course locked in, sir," the ensign responded. "E.T.A. five point three minutes at maximum warp."
"Go to Red Alert! Implement maximum warp!" Kirk orders.
Sulu thrust the warp throttle control all the way forward as Chekov reported, "All weapons systems functional. Phasers energized. Photon torpedoes loaded and armed. Status: fully operational."
The Enterprise roared forward.
"Captain," Uhura reported, "Hood and Farragut are also converging on intercept vectors."
"Confirmed, Captain," said Spock, studying his screens. "E.T.A. now four point seven minutes."
The Mayday signal of the Triton abruptly ceased amid a welter of static, the sound of explosions and the screams of the dying.
"Captain," said Spock grimly. "S.S. Triton has been destroyed."
Kirk slammed his fist against the arm of his command chair. "This time, they won't get away!" he grated.
"Farragut reports that the intruder is in sight," announced Uhura. "It's just sitting there, sir, as if it were waiting for them."
"Indeed," said Spock. "It is making no attempt to avoid a confrontation."
Kirk frowned at the report. "That's odd," he mumbled to himself. He peered intensely at the mainviewer. "Magnification to maximum setting, Mister Sulu."
"Yes, sir," responded Sulu, setting the screen's control.
Within minutes, the battle scene swelled on the viewer. The Farragut and the Amon were locked in deadly combat, each exchanging the awesome forces of their weaponry.
"Spock, sensors?" asked Kirk. The Farragut had taken a pair of bad hits, but her warp-powered phasers were literally shredding the Klingon cruiser at close range.
"The Klingon vessel has sustained extreme damage, Captain. The Farragut has sustained major damage, but is not nearly as incapacitated." As the Vulcan spoke, the Amon doggedly continued its attack.
Behind the two fighting ships, Kirk saw the glowing ion cloud that had been the Triton, and, in the distance, the arriving U.S.S. Hood. "Lock phasers on target and stand by," Kirk ordered. "Uhura, patch me through to the Klingon vessel."
Uhura nodded her compliance, and Kirk spoke into the chair mike. "This is Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise. You are surrounded by three Federation starships. Your cruiser is heavily out-gunned. Continued resistance is futile. Your only course is surrender."
He stared at the screen for a few seconds, and turned to Uhura. "Anything?" he queried.
She shook her head. "The Farragut and the Hood are not receiving any response either, Captain."
Suddenly, the Amon responded by belching a photon torpedo from its aft tube. The torpedo struck the Enterprise's forward shields and was deflected. Without warning, sparks crackled on Thalon's navigation board. He cursed in Andorian and hastily beat out the small spouts of flame.
"Fire at will," Kirk snapped.
The Enterprise's phasers smashed into the Amon, enveloping the entire cruiser in a blinding blue flash.
"Direct hit amidships," Spock reported. "Power levels on the Klingon vessel are dropping, becoming critical."
"Uhura, patch me through again." He paused. "This is the Enterprise. We can assist you with casualties and the evacuation of your vessel. Please advise."
There was no response.
Kirk's frown deepened. "Maintain power to the shields. Uhura, advise Hood and Farragut to do the same."
On the bridge of the Amon, Commander Kazar staggered to his feet amidst the smashed, flaming wreckage. He gently lifted the corpse of his helmsman from where it had fallen across the seat of his command throne, and sat down. He opened a hidden panel on the arm of his chair. "So, the Kh'myr have succeeded in ridding themselves of me." He chuckled. "The poor Federation won't fare much better."
Then, commending his spirit to the Lords of Kh'eloz in the Netherworld, he pressed the auto-destruct button on the panel.
Space around the three Federation starships was illuminated by a supernova-like glare as the battlecruiser exploded. The Enterprise's shields flared and coruscated fighting off and deflecting the deadly release of energy.
Suddenly, on the bridge of the Enterprise, Thalon's console shorted out altogether. The Andorian leaped to his feet, then screamed in agony as a lethal arc of current across his hands seared through his body, 'freezing' him to the board.
"Jim, no!!" Spock shouted, but Kirk instinctively jumped forward. He knocked Thalon clear with a body block, but absorbed a blast of the energy himself. He fell to the deck.
Uhura was already on the intercom. "Doctor McCoy to the bridge! Medical emergency!"
Spock bent over Thalon. Gruesomely, the body was sizzling. He was far beyond help.
The Vulcan moved to Kirk. The captain's face was chalk-white, and he was not breathing. Spock raised both eyebrows in alarm. He turned back to Uhura, about to ask where the medical team was, when McCoy and a technician bolted from a turbolift.
Spock immediately attended to other matters, now that McCoy had arrived. He walked over to the communications station. "Miss Uhura, please raise Mister Scott in Engineering." His voice was tight, but he hoped it did not betray the true depth of his feelings.
Uhura stared at him. She had seen this in Spock before when Kirk's life was in jeopardy; the Vulcan became ultra-emotionless, as if allowing himself to feel might worsen the situation. She swallowed. "Yes, sir."
McCoy ignored them all, working feverishly over Kirk. He injected the captain with a dose of cordrazine, a strong stimulant, and watched for a sign of life. He was relieved when Kirk's body shuddered and started breathing again, even though unsteadily. He ran a Feinberger diagnostic scanner over Kirk's body. "Still in deep shock. Larry, call for a stretcher," he instructed the orderly.
Chekov wandered over to the doctor. "Vwill the kyptin be all right?" he asked anxiously.
McCoy did not answer; he was too busy trying to stabilize his patient. He administered a shot of tri-ox compound. "Larry, where the hell is that damned stretcher?" he snapped.
At Uhura's station, Spock was listening to Scotty's report, but kept a sharp eye on the chief medical officer. "We're in good shape, sir. We lost a couple o' auxiliary panels in Engineerin', one in BioSciences--an', of course, the navigation console. The poor lad Thalon!"
"I have temporarily routed navigational functions through Mister Sulu's helm console," Spock said. "How quickly can repairs be effected?"
"We'll transplant the equipment we need from the nav console in auxiliary control. It should nae take long." Scotty paused. "Mister Spock, how's the cap'n?"
Spock nearly ignored the question. "Doctor McCoy is tending to him now," he answered. "We do not know at this time. I shall inform you later. Spock out."
Uhura had been on another channel to the other Federation starships. "The Hood reports they sustained no damage," she reported. "The Farragut sustained heavy damage to isolated areas of three decks in the engineering hull, and sixteen are dead, but the ship is functional. Both are resuming patrol."
Spock noted two more med techs arriving, one with a body bag and litter for Thalon, the other with a stretcher for Kirk. "Miss Uhura, you are now acting executive officer. Contact Starfleet Command; report what has happened, and that in view of Captain Kirk's injuries, I am temporarily assuming command of the Enterprise."
"Yes, sir." Uhura turned back to her station as Spock strode purposefully to his friend and the remnants of the navigation console.
McCoy stood up, his face shining with sweat. He saw Spock's raised eyebrow. "He's stable now. He got one hell of a jolt from that open circuit; it momentarily stopped his heart and respiration. There doesn't appear to be any neural damage from the shock, but I'll know better after he comes to."
Spock nodded. He watched silently as Kirk was gently eased onto the stretcher. He was pale but, Spock noted, breathing normally. As McCoy and the med techs left for Sickbay, Spock sat down in the center seat.
Several bridge officers breathed sighs of relief that Spock found audible.
"Mister Sulu, lay in a course back to our original patrol coordinates. Miss Uhura, maintain Yellow Alert until further notice."
The Vulcan was lost in thought; something bothered him about this episode. The Klingons made no attempt to conceal their intentions; they had even broadcast them. They had sent a D-7 battlecruiser instead of a K't'inga, choosing the less powerful and more outdated of the two vessels. They were behaving even less logically than usual. It posed an interesting problem for him.
Unnoticed, Chekov, sitting at the weapons console, buried his face in his hands. He could no longer stand by while Kirk threw himself pell-mell into danger. He sighed wearily as he reached a difficult decision; he would accept Commander Canfield's invitation to come to the Lexington as First Officer.
He was going to leave the Enterprise.
On the bridge of the Klingon battlecruiser Karak, Commander Krax leaned forward as his helmsman, Maz, reported they had reached the planet Modoc.
He grinned mirthlessly. "Orbit their smaller moon." The lunar body would shield them from view when they momentarily deactivated the cloaking device to use the transporters.
Krax turned to his science officer. "Report," he hissed in English.
"Sensors indicate that our targets are in their customary locations for this time of planet-day," Ramar answered. "Our intelligence reports were accurate. Surveillance devices are functioning normally."
"Visual display," Krax ordered.
The planetscape on the viewscreen was replaced by a live image of Doctor Richard Daystrom. He was lecturing a small group of students in a hall.
"Now the other one," Krax amended.
The pictured wavered, only to be replaced by one of Melinda Daystrom. She was sitting in the dinette area of a small dormitory, hurriedly eating breakfast. Krax's gaze lingered on her before he ordered the screen changed back to the planet scan.
He turned to Ramar. "Daystrom's lecture will be concluded in ten standard minutes," Krax said. "Have the landing parties stand by for beamdown. This must be clean and quick," he warned, "or your death will be messy and slow."
Krax settled back, drumming his fingers on the arm of his command throne. Soon they would be on their way back out of Federation space, with Daystrom and his daughter in custody. Krax's chest swelled with pride. No Klingon vessel had ever penetrated this far into enemy territory unchallenged. He would be a hero of the Empire when this was all over.
The thought pleased him, and a hideous smile twisted his features.
In her dorm room, Melinda Daystrom stood at her dresser, pulling on a comfortable, loose-fitting sky blue jumpsuit. She glanced at herself in a mirror, running a hand quickly over her soft halo of jet-black hair. She could just make it to her class if she left now.
A buzzer sounded at the door; Melinda sighed in exasperation. "Who is it?"
"Me," came the reply.
She opened the door to admit her fiancé, Michael Jorgenson. He was young and handsome, a blonde whose fair hair and complexion formed a startling contrast to Melinda's ebony beauty. "Mike, honey, I'm late. I've gotta get to my biochemistry class."
"I've got to ask you something first," Michael said urgently. "Will you marry me? I mean, now, today!"
Melinda giggled. "C'mon, baby, the date's set already. It's only six weeks to the end of the semester. Can't you wait?"
"No, I'm crazy about you!" He swept her up in his strong arms and hissed her.
She giggled again. "After last night, I thought you'd be lucky to even wake up this morning!"
He smiled. "I bounce back quickly."
Melinda shook her head in mock disbelief. "If Daddy knew what went on around here at night..."
"Your father hates me," Michael pouted. "He keeps saying I'll be the 'white sheep of the family.'"
"You know he's just putting you on," she chided. "He's very happy for us. Now look, I've really got to go."
He kissed her again, but seriously this time. Melinda moaned, knowing he might wear her down. "I can't cut class again. I...Michael, please, I just made the bed!"
He just smiled at her devilishly. She took his hand and led him toward the bedroom.
Suddenly, the very air seemed to hum with energy. Two sparkling pillars of light solidified into the forms of two Kh'myr Klingon warriors in full battle armor. Their hand weapons were drawn. Melinda screamed; Michael threw himself in front of her.
The Klingons were taken aback when they saw the boy in the room with their intended prey, but their confusion was only momentary. They both fired simultaneously. Michael crumpled in a heap on the floor.
"Mike!" Melinda screamed. In a frenzy of grief and rage, she hurled herself at the nearest warrior, clawing his face. The Klingon bellowed in pain and anger. He reflexively smashed the barrel of his disruptor pistol across the top of her head, and Melinda Daystrom sagged to the floor.
His companion looked down at her apprehensively."If she has been hurt, Krax will kill us." But Melinda stirred and moaned. Relieved, the first Klingon slung her over his shoulder. He drew his disruptor suddenly, and fired at his companion who dissolved in a shower of sparks. "tuHmoH Daqawlu'taH."1
He heard the sound of voices outside, drawn, no doubt, by the commotion and the woman's screams. The Klingon opened his communicator. "jol yIchu'," he growled softly.
The Kh'myr disappeared seconds before the door was flung open by campus security police.
Doctor Richard Daystrom sat in one of the desks in his lecture hall. He was alone, staring at the wall in a reflective mood. He considered how lucky he was. He had been taken back to Vulcan after the M-5 disaster--after Terran psychiatrists had labeled him incurably insane. In a bold move, Federation officials had remanded him to the care of a Vulcan healer.
The healer had employed a revolutionary "mind meld" therapy, helping Daystrom face and overcome the overpowering guilt he carried over the deaths he had caused in the M-5 war games. The healer also taught Daystrom certain Vulcan mind control techniques, and most importantly, how to be at peace with himself. In less than two years, the scientist had been cured, and was whole and productive again.
Daystrom smiled; it was a smile tinged with just a trace of bitterness. He suspected the Federation had gone to the expense and trouble of having him cured just so he could come back and design computer systems for them once again. He admitted he did owe the Federation for his mental health, and for that he was grateful. But he had decided to get into teaching instead of working for Starfleet again. The M-5 incident was top-secret information, so he had no fear of ever being confronted with it in the "outside" world.
He thought of Melinda and Michael. His daughter's fiancé was a good man, if somewhat impetuous--but then, impetuosity was a characteristic of the young. If only his wife had lived to see what a stunning young woman their daughter had become.
He got a sudden feeling that he was not alone. He glanced up to see the forms of a pair of Kh'myr Klingon warriors taking shape in the sparkle of a silent Klingon transporter effect.
Daystrom was startled and somewhat frightened, but was determined not to let them know. "May I help you?" he asked.
The Klingons looked at one another, puzzled by the scientist's calm demeanor. Did not the Earther know to fear them; they were Kh'myr Klingons! One of them barked, "You...Daystrom. You will come with us."
"I think not, "Daystrom said. He got up slowly, deliberately heading for the door. How is it that they know me? And what are Klingons doing this far inside Federation space?
"Stop, Earther!" the other Klingon ordered.
Daystrom did not.
One of the warriors drew his disruptor pistol and fired, dropping Daystrom to the floor. Quickly, the Klingons grabbed their prey by each arm and lifted him to his feet. One of them snapped the order, "jol yIchu'," into his communicator. The three forms disappeared...
And rematerialized in the transporter room of the Karak.
Krax was there. He had come down to supervise the kidnapping of the prisoners. He smiled at the sight of the two officers and their quarry. "Engage cloaking device!" he shouted into the intercom to the bridge in clipped Klingonese."Engage Graf drive!"
"majQa'," he murmured. His eyes shifted from Melinda to her tall, burly father.
He turned to Ramar who was also present. "Cuff him, and take him to the interrogation chamber," Krax said. "As for the female...take her to the holding bay. I want to keep them separated for now."
He strode over and gazed down at the unconscious woman's tiny form, dwarfed by the two Klingon soldiers who supported her. He lifted her head up by the hair. "We may need her to persuade her father to cooperate," Krax said menacingly.
He dismissed them with a wave of his hand, then left the transporter bay for the bridge.
McCoy was in his Sickbay office, ostensibly collating medical reports. He was keeping one eye, however, on his prize patient's monitor. The levels indicated that Kirk would soon be regaining consciousness. He heard a quiet moan from the ward. He set his stylus down and went to his captain's side.
"Jim, can you hear me?"
"Cheryl," Kirk moaned, his voice thick and slow.
"Jim, it's me--McCoy."
"Bones?" Kirk struggled to focus his mind. "I feel like I've been run over by a herd of Arcturian sandcrawlers."
"I'm not surprised after the damned fool thing you did," McCoy said, smiling. "Just rest easy now."
Kirk blinked and opened his eyes. "What about Thalon?" he asked.
McCoy hesitated. "He's dead, Jim. I'm sorry."
Kirk closed his eyes. "Damn. Another one." He seemed to be about to say something else, but slowly drifted off to sleep.
McCoy checked the life monitors, and the tension lines in his face eased. Kirk's readings were getting even stronger.
Doctor Christine Chapel entered Sickbay. She saw McCoy at Kirk's side. "How is he, Doctor?"
"He's out of danger now," McCoy responded. "Still, I want to keep a close watch on him for a while, for after-effects." He rubbed his eyes and yawned.
"You look beat," Christine remarked. "Why don't you go get some sleep? I can hold down the fort."
McCoy smiled wearily. "Thanks. I think I'll do that." He started to leave, then paused. "Oh, by the way, when Spock gets out of that department head briefing, would you inform him of the captain's condition? He's already called down here twice this period."
"I will," she answered. "Now you get some rest."
McCoy gave her a mock salute and left.
"All departments appear to be battle-ready," Spock said. The Vulcan had assembled the primary command crew in the main briefing room on Level Four. "Mister Scott, have you completed your analysis of the ship's console circuitry?"
"Aye, sir. Thot we have. Hopefully, there won't be any more flare-ups, and the navigation console should be fully repaired and operational by the time we're finished here."
Spock nodded to the engineer, indicating his satisfaction. He looked around at the concerned faces of those present. "I have been informed that over the protests of the Federation Council, Commanding Admiral Nogura has placed the entire quadrant we are currently patrolling on Code One Alert status."
There was the expected buzz of quiet conversation.
Doctor M'Benga, the third shift physician who was attending in lieu of McCoy, was clearly startled. "Code One? This is unprecedented; aren't these Level One alerts called only when the possibility of interstellar war seems imminent, or Federation space is being invaded?"
"That is correct, Doctor," Spock responded.
"Is Nogura tryin' to bluff the Klingons?" Scotty asked. "They already claimed that the attack on the liner was the work of an outlaw cap'n, so whot can we do to 'em?" His voice was edged with sarcasm.
"It could be, as you say, a 'bluff'," Spock conceded. "The Klingons would not be expecting a response of that magnitude since they disavowed any responsibility for Commander Kazar's actions. Perhaps if they see that the Federation is prepared for a total response to any hostile act, they will curtail their warlike activities."
"Will the Council permit Admiral Nogura to maintain Level One?" Uhura queried.
"Unknown, Commander. Given the predilection of the Council to softpedal such incidents, however, I believe the order may be rescinded."
Chekov asked, "Has there been any official response as yet to the destruction of the Triton?"
"Negative," Spock returned.
"I think we all know what it'll be," Scotty offered cynically. The others nodded in agreement.
"Something's been bothering me about all this," Sulu put in. "The Klingons--or someone--have been really busy along the disputed border perimeters. They knocked out three of our major defense installations in just a few hours. Then they turned around and destroyed an unarmed passenger vessel--a target of no military significance. They literally telegraphed their intentions to the Federation, and then the attacking ship, an out-dated D-7, just sat there waiting to be blasted out of existence by three Federation up-rated starships. It's not their style."
Spock pursed his lips against tented fingertips. "Interesting. What exactly would you say their 'style' is, Commander?"
"Well, sir, in the past, even before the Kh'myr warrior sect controlled the military, the Klingons seemed to rely on hit-and-run raids. That's even more prevalent now. They've never wanted to hang around afterwards, and they never advertised what they were going to do. I can't put my finger on it, but there is something fishy about all this."
Spock's right eyebrow lifted. "Colloquially expressed, but essentially accurate, Mister Sulu. I, too, have had misgivings about the Triton incident which I have as yet been unable to formulate into a coherent hypothesis." He glanced at a chronometer. "In the meantime, I suggest we return to duty stations. Yellow Alert will be maintained until further notice."
The officers filed out of the briefing room--all but Chekov. Spock glanced up to see the young Russian standing somewhat ill at ease by the conference table. "May I be of assistance, Lieutenant Commander Chekov?"
"Yes, sair," Chekov cleared his throat. "I vwish to file for a transfer to the U.S.S. Lexington, sair. As you are acting-captain, I am officially informing you so that arrangements for my replacement can be made."
"I see," the Vulcan said. "You understand, of course, that your transfer must also be approved by the captain of the Enterprise?"
Chekov stood ramrod-straight. "Yes, sir, but Kyptin Kirk has never indicated to me that he vwould deny any such request."
"I do not believe he would, Mister Chekov--nor would I. However, I must express regret over your decision to leave the Enterprise."
"I vwas inwvited by Commander Canfield to be his first officer, sair," Chekov returned. "It vwould mean a rapid promotion to full commander, and that's an opportunity I can't pass up. I have thought about it for a long time, sair. It vwas not an easy decision." He paused. "It vwill be some time before the transfer vwill take effect, so I vwould like to submit my request immediately."
"Very well, Mister Chekov. As acting-captain, I will approve your transfer."
"Thank you, sair," the Russian said. "Vwith your permission, I vwill return to the bridge."
Spock nodded fractionally, and Chekov exited.
The security officer was met outside by Sulu and Uhura. "Did you tell him?" Uhura asked.
Chekov nodded, and they headed for a turbolift to take them to the bridge.
"What did he say?" a curious Sulu asked.
The young Russian smiled. "You know Meester Spock. `I see, Meester Chekov.' I might as vwell have been giving him a sector ion disturbance report. He approved the transfer."
"Are you sure this is what you want to do, Pavel?" Sulu asked. "It's not just because of you and Captain Kirk, is it?"
Chekov hesitated. "Da and nyet," he answered. "I've thought about this for a long time. I love the Enterprise, and this crew, but I also vwant my own ship some day. And I vwon't get it if I stay here. This friction vwith the captain--and his accident--vwas the push I needed to request the transfer."
The lift arrived, and Uhura programmed it for the bridge. "What do you think the captain will say?" she asked.
"I don't know." Chekov's face fell. "I'm almost afraid to find out. He knows I vwas considering this. Don't misunderstand; I admire and respect Kyptin Kirk. I am vwery loyal to him. But it is hard for me to stand by and vwatch him throw himself into dangerous situations vwhen I am responsible for his safety. It's funny--vwhen I vwas in navigation, it never seemed to bother me, but now..." His voice trailed off. "I think it's because I respect him that I feel this is a good move for me."
"Well, good luck," Uhura said. "We've all been together for a long time." She briefly touched the sleeve of his tunic. "We'll miss you."
The lift arrived on the bridge, and the doors opened before Chekov could respond. As they went to their stations, the other turbolift arrived, and Spock stepped out onto the bridge. He relieved Lieutenant Commander Kyle, who had been at the conn.
"Nothing to report, sir," Kyle said with his faint British accent. "All sensors read clear."
"Very good, Mister Kyle," Spock said as he sat down. "Maintain Yellow Alert and continue maximum sweep scans."
"Sir, I have a message from Starfleet Command," Uhura reported. Her mouth suddenly tightened into a thin, exasperated line. "The Code One alert is to be canceled, effective immediately. Federation Council has determined that the Klingon High Command acted in good faith by issuing the warning about the outlaw vessel, and while the S.S. Triton incident is regrettable, no official action is contemplated at this time."
There was a general undercurrent of angry comments among the bridge personnel. Spock's only reaction was a raised eyebrow and barely-audible "Fascinating."
He turned to the communications station. "Commander Uhura, secure from Yellow Alert. However, I believe we shall continue sensor sweep scanning for a time."
Uhura answered, "Aye, sir."
Spock stood, hands clasped behind his back, contemplating the beauty of the cosmos on the mainviewer as he pondered the paradoxical, frustrating behavior of diplomats.
He wondered how his cool, logical father Sarek had ever managed to function in such a capacity.
Commander Krax angrily paced back and forth in the bare, gray interrogation chamber of the battlecruiser Karak. He was making no progress at all with his recalcitrant prisoner. It infuriated him. This Earther Daystrom was strong, much stronger than Krax had anticipated. And stubborn. Hours of relentless demands and threats had not moved the big scientist. He just sat there, his wrists and ankles cruelly manacled in energy cuffs, staring defiantly back at the Klingon with that mocking, almost arrogant smile. Krax vowed to break him. The Empire desperately needed the awesome computer technology this man could provide them. Yes, he would have to break Daystrom--and he would.
He was, after all, only an Earther.
Krax whirled on Daystrom. "Don't be a fool, Doctor," the Klingon raged. "Do you realize, do you have any idea, of what I could do to you? I could have you tortured! I could introduce you to the excruciating, exquisite pain of the agonizer, pain that would go far beyond the ability of your senses to comprehend! The mind-sifter--I could use it to empty your consciousness into a machine, leaving you a hollow shell, your mind destroyed!"
"Then why don't you, Commander?" Daystrom challenged, his rich baritone ringing in the cramped confines of the cell. "And what, may I ask, would you do with all your information, without me to gather, collate and interpret it? Who would build the system for you? No, Commander, you won't do any of those things. You need me too badly."
With a roar, Krax raised a deadly fist over Daystrom's head, but his captive did not even flinch. Angered at himself for losing control, the Kh'myr warrior commander turned away. He drew several deep breaths to compose himself.
"Doctor Daystrom," he finally said wearily, "I strongly urge you to reconsider. You will design and build multitronic systems for the Klingon Empire, or suffer the consequences."
"No, I will not," Daystrom countered. "I will not betray the Federation. They helped me regain my health, and my...sanity."
Krax smiled sardonically. "Oh, that is rich indeed, Doctor. I am touched by your loyalty. You fool! You've already betrayed your precious Federation! Surely you remember? It was almost eight of your years ago. Your multitronic unit, the M-5, installed on the accursed starship Enterprise, malfunctioned. Four starships were involved in those war games, and your talented computer faced them all down. It destroyed the Excalibur with all hands while damaging the others. I believe the total body count was almost a thousand. Most impressive, I would say. And we mean to have that type of computer technology for ourselves."
For the first time, Krax saw a change in Daystrom, a chink in the armor. Remorse flickered in his black eyes as vivid memories of the M-5 debacle closed in suffocatingly on him. The eyes--that was it! Watch the Earther's eyes. They would betray his weaknesses.
"I have learned to deal with that. It was a terrible thing. My Vulcan healer helped me come to grips with it." He shook himself as if awakening from a nightmare, and there was steel in his voice again. "I will not help you, Klingon. That's my final answer."
"I see. I'm sorry you feel that way, Doctor." Krax stood with his back to Daystrom. So, he could be shaken. And now it was time to press the advantage. "Doctor Daystrom, surely you miss your beautiful young daughter? Would you like to see her? Oh, I'm sorry--you didn't know. We have her in custody."
This time, the scientist visibly started, coming up halfway out of his chair. Krax was pleased to see the cold fear of uncertainty in his prisoner's eyes now. He had obviously believed the Klingons wanted him so badly that they would not harm him, but he hadn't known his daughter had been captured as well. The fool! The thought that the girl could be in danger struck him like a physical blow.
"Melinda! What have you done with her?"
"Why, nothing--yet," Krax replied in a silken, deadly voice. "And if you want to keep it that way, I suggest you cooperate."
"I want to see her! Now!"
"As you wish." The big Klingon walked to the doorway and thumbed a switch on a wall-mounted comm unit. "yIqem," he growled. "Bring her."
Within minutes, the door hissed open. Melinda Daystrom was roughly escorted into the cell by three Kh'myr Klingon guards. Two of them flanked her, their vise-like grips cutting off the circulation in her arms. Her dark eyes were huge with terror. She burst into tears when she saw her father.
"Oh, God, Daddy!" she sobbed. "They've killed Michael!"
"Mindy!" Daystrom stood up, reaching out to embrace her, but she was cruelly, teasingly jerked away from him by the guard as Krax slammed him back into his chair. The scientist glared at his captor, but immediately re-focused his attention on his terror-stricken daughter.
"Michael--dead? Baby, are you all right?" he asked anxiously. "Have they harmed you?"
She shook her head almost frantically. "N-no," she whispered, her voice quavering. "I'm all r-right."
"For the moment." Krax gestured to the third guard. "Kalek--watch him."
The big warrior grunted as he moved to stand behind Daystrom.
"What are you going to do to her?"
Krax did not reply. He loomed over the tiny Melinda, smiling savagely down into her beautiful, terrified face. He was enjoying himself now. He had been right to keep them apart after their capture. The psychological ploy had worked in his favor, increasing his captives' apprehension and uncertainty.
"Now then, Doctor, let us examine our problem from a slightly different perspective. Do you still refuse to help us--even with your daughter's life hanging in the balance?"
Daystrom was silent.
"I see." Krax chuckled lasciviously as he brushed a finger across the young woman's soft, trembling lips. "She is indeed a tender young beauty, a rare flower. I wonder, as young as she is, if she is still...unspoiled?"
Only one of Krax's men guffawed at his commander's conjecture. He rapidly translated the words to the others who joined in with laughter of their own.
Daystrom could only watch helplessly, his eyes revealing his utter, anguished despair. Jaw muscles rippled under his beard, but he still did not speak.
"I have over four hundred warriors on this ship, Doctor," Krax continued, stroking Melinda's soft, curly mane of blue-black hair. "They have not even seen a female for many months, so you can understand that certain of their...physical urges have accumulated to an unbearable peak. These guards here are the worst of the lot. I have been able to control them up to now. However, they are growing increasingly impatient and are quite eager to become better, ah, acquainted with the young lady."
He walked over slowly to Daystrom and leaned down until he was nose-to-nose with his prisoner. "You wouldn't like to see that happen, would you, Doctor?"
The scientist moaned. "Please..."
"Agree to assist us, and you can end all this."
"Very well," Krax murmured menacingly. He gestured to the guards to bring Melinda to him. They dragged her forward, and she cried out as they roughly fondled her. The look in her eyes was beyond fear and hate--helpless, complete, blood-frozen terror and utter, complete contempt and disgust.
The commander drew his huge battle dagger. Behind him, he heard a scuffle as Daystrom struggled futilely with his hulking guard. Krax's smile was cold. "Hold very still, my dear," he whispered.
Suddenly, with one quick, expert stroke, the Klingon slashed Melinda's jumpsuit completely open down the front. The material fell away, revealing a shallow, bleeding cut on her flawless ebony skin, a fine line of glistening crimson beads running from her navel to the base of her throat.
Melinda broke out into ragged sobs. Hot tears of humiliation coursed down her smooth cheeks as Krax pushed aside the fabric with the point of his dagger, exposing her bare breasts. The Kh'myr guards grunted as they leered at her supple body.
"By Kahless!" Krax exclaimed. "Such perfect treasures! So firm and proud--they cry out to be caressed!"
"Krax, please," Daystrom said hoarsely. "I--"
"You what, Doctor?"
"I...you can't! I'll--"
"Daddy, don't!" a trembling Melinda cried. "Don't help them--no matter what they d-do to me, even if they killme!"
"You'll what, Doctor?" Krax persisted.
"I can't." Tears streamed down Daystrom's face. "God help me, Melinda, I can't. I'm sorry! I love you, child."
"I-I love you, too, Daddy."
The Klingon commander snarled like a rabid animal. "All right, Daystrom--you have had your chance!" He reached into a belt pouch and retrieved a metallic, disk-like object, which he tossed to one of the guards holding Melinda.
In anger, he ordered, "Use the agonizer on her! QIghpej yIlo'! Let us see if Doctor Daystrom can bear to sit by as his little daughter is tortured to death!" He whirled around, fixing Daystrom with a furious glare. "Take her into the adjoining cell and make her sing for her father!"
"No!" Daystrom lunged forward, leaping from his chair even before his guards could react. But Krax caught him by the shoulders and easily held him back.
"Now, Doctor, are you ready to cooperate?" the Klingon hissed. "My patience is at an end."
Torn with anguish, Richard Daystrom locked gazes with his sobbing daughter. She seemed so small and fragile. All of the mind control techniques his Vulcan healer had taught him had deserted him. His emotions were raw, exposed; in his mind's eye he could see Melinda as a child again. A pang of remorse stabbed at him as he remembered how he had never seemed to have time for the beautiful little girl.
But he could see other things as well.
He could see those bestial warriors gleefully using the terrifying destructive power his multitronic unit would provide for their battlecruisers, mercilessly slaughtering and subjugating millions, billions of people. His was a hard, unthinkable choice; one life--Melinda's--weighed against all those countless innocents.
But he had to decide.
Wordlessly, Daystrom disengaged himself from Krax's grasp. He shuffled back to his chair and sat down again, his eyes downcast in despair and helplessness. "I cannot," he said in a broken whisper.
Krax was livid. The Earther had seemed to be at his breaking point, but now..."Take her away! ghaH pInge'!" he roared, dismissing the guards with a savage wave of his hand. "Her death will be on his conscience!!"
Melinda gasped and went limp. Sheer terror had overwhelmed her; her eyes rolled back in her head, and her knees buckled. She was dragged from the cell, out of Daystrom's line of sight. He would not see anything, but he would be able to hear quite well.
A scream clawed the air--Melinda! Oh, Lord, they were starting! Daystrom clenched his eyes tightly shut, squeezing tears from their corners. Dear God, he prayed. If you are indeed merciful, then strike me deaf on the spot!
But his prayers went unanswered.
Melinda's screams filled the chamber now. They sounded hopeless, appalled, growing more shrill and strident with each passing second, until they trailed off in a strangled croak of terror and pain.
Daystrom could bear it no longer--no father could. He blundered to his feet but dropped to his knees before he could stand upright, sobbing like a child. Beyond humiliation now, he abandoned all pride. His hands were encumbered by the glowing energy cuffs; still, he managed to hug the Klingon commander's knees. Daystrom's tears strained the rough metallic fabric of Krax's breeches as he pleaded for Melinda's life.
"Make them stop!" Daystrom shrieked, despair pouring thickly from his throat. "Oh, God, Klingon, don't kill her! I'll--I'll build your damned computer! I'll do anything you want!"
"Enough!!" Krax called out. His eyes glittered malevolently and his lips stretched in an evil smile as he regarded the scientist, who now knelt humbly, like a supplicant, before him. "You soft, pathetic Earther worm," the Klingon sneered. "A Klingon would have killed his own daughter himself, rather than be placed in a position of weakness. Now, you will cooperate fully with us, or she will be tortured again!"
"Yes! Yes!" Daystrom affirmed, his tear-stricken face taut with anguish. "You have my word!"
The commander turned to the scientist's guard. "Kalek, escort the good doctor to the laboratory we have furnished for him. See that he begins work immediately."
Kalek nodded in assent. He hauled Daystrom to his feet.
"Wait!" Daystrom protested. "Melinda--I want to see her, to make sure she's all right!"
"You can see her only after you have successfully completed your task. It will give you an incentive to work faster."
"Take him!" Krax barked. He turned and strode into the adjoining chamber as Kalek dragged away his struggling, shouting charge.
His warriors had done their work well. Melinda hung naked in shackles, from an "x" frame of two massive, criss-crossed durasteel beams. Her body shone with perspiration; rivulets of blood trickled down her forearms where she had chafed her skin against the manacles in the frantic throes of her agony. She quivered from time to time as her tortured nerve endings recoiled from the excruciating assaults of the agonizer.
Krax examined the woman's limp, pathetic figure. He caressed the soft skin of her cheek with his finger, and was not surprised to feel his pulse quicken. He had been too long deprived of a woman's favors.
His great, shaggy head snapped up, and he glared at the guards. "Leave us." he growled.
The guards looked disappointed. "be'SIjwI'." Krax stated matter-of-factly.
The warriors reluctantly shambled from the cell, sullen, but obedient. One of them cast a last, longing glace over his shoulder at Melinda's unconscious form before he left.
Then they were gone.
With uncharacteristic gentleness, Krax released Melinda from the manacles. She felt as light as a feather as she sagged into his arms. He would have no difficulty at all carrying his prize to her detention cell.
Krax left the interrogation room, striding briskly down a solitary corridor of the ship's access boom, and as he walked, his seamed, leathery face twisted into a smile. He wondered how the distraught Daystrom would react if he learned of the fate that was about to befall his beloved daughter.
The Klingon reached a short corridor that branched off into a detention block. He walked on until he came to a cell midway down the hall. "HIpoSmoH," he growled into the audio lock mechanism which, like all security locks on the ship, was keyed to his voice-print.
The massive, reinforced door slid ponderously aside; he entered the cramped cell and unceremoniously dumped Melinda in a sitting position in a corner. The young woman whimpered softly. Good, he thought. I want her awake and taking notice.
He stepped outside again and moved to an intercom. "meh?"
"Kolen here, Exalted One. Proceed."
"I will be in Cell Block Four...interrogating a prisoner. I am not to be disturbed, under pain of death, except for the most grievous of emergencies. Is that clear?"
"jIyaj. Kolen out."
The cell door rolled open once again. In the corner, Melinda Daystrom painfully raised her head, startled into full consciousness. Her eyes, still adjusting to the sudden blaze of light, were red-rimmed and large with terror.
Krax stood menacingly in the doorway. his compact, muscular form was silhouetted by the corridor lighting. He did not speak, taunting her with a long and dangerous silence. Melinda wanted to run from him, but the consummate pain of the agonizer had overloaded her nervous system, leaving her too weak even to get up from the floor. She tried to scream. Her vocal chords would not cooperate; they vibrated with only the barest whisper of sound. Her eyes darted around the room in panic. There was no escape.
Melinda swallowed, then tried to speak. "M-my father," she managed to plead, appalled by the raspy croak of her voice. "Please--take me to my f-father."
Krax flashed her a lustful, sharp-toothed grin. He came closer, looming over Melinda like some deadly hunting beast, leering lasciviously down at her. There was no mistaking his intention.
And still he kept his silence.
The terrified woman's stomach churned with sick horror. She stared numbly up into the Kh'myr's hideous face, her eyes glistening with tears. She was suddenly, uncomfortably aware of her nakedness. She tried to burrow even deeper into the corner of the cell, but to no avail.
Krax bent down and scooped her up, wrenching a terrified yelp from her as he tossed her face down on the cell's hard, narrow bunk.
Melinda closed her eyes, spilling tears of fear and futility down her cheeks. She could hear the rustling sounds of his disrobing, the slap of his battle armor and leather jerkin meeting the floor.
The Klingon advanced on her. His baleful red eyes glowed in the darkness like those of a wild animal. She was helpless before him, and he knew it.
Melinda sobbed, shuddering with revulsion and hopelessness as Krax's dark, foreboding shadow closed over her. He straddled her; his rough, powerful hands encircled her tiny waist, and he raised her vulnerable backside to him.
A security guard in the corridor outside paused, frowning, thinking he had heard a long, muffled, agonized scream.
When the sound was not repeated, he shrugged and moved on.
Kirk was sitting on the edge of his bed in the Enterprise sickbay. He was fully-clothed, in uniform, and engaged in an intense game of tri-D chess with Spock, who had pulled up a chair. Kirk had his head propped up on one hand as he contemplated his next move. Suddenly, he seized a piece from the second level and moved it to the top board.
"Checkmate," he announced.
Spock allowed a slow, slight smile to creep over his features. "Your illogical strategy is often inspired, Captain. The game is yours."
Kirk stretched. "That jolt I took seems to have cleared my thinking--and I've had plenty of time for that." His voice dropped. "Too bad Ensign Thalon wasn't that lucky..."
Spock's eyes narrowed. Kirk had seemed relaxed of late, but also somewhat more pensive than usual. "Has Doctor McCoy indicated when he will release you?"
"He should have been here fifteen minutes ago. The Enterprise is supposed to rendezvous with a warp shuttle in about an hour. It'll take me on to Starbase Twenty-seven. I'm supposed to complete my recuperation there. McCoy made it mandatory--medical leave."
"The good doctor indicated that you were very cooperative about taking leave," Spock said.
"I'd planned on it even before the accident. I'm taking a month," Kirk said. "I...know some people on Starbase Twenty-seven."
"I see." There was something almost impish about the way Spock's mouth quirked.
Kirk grinned affectionately. It was hard to put one over on his Vulcan friend.
Spock rose. "I must be returning to the bridge, Jim. Thank you for the game. I shall come down to the shuttle bay to see you off when we rendezvous."
Spock left, and Kirk lay back on the bunk, hands clasped behind his neck. It occurred to him that Chekov had not stopped by to visit him. Spock had told him of the request for transfer, and while Kirk had been expecting it, he was still disappointed. If only they could have talked...
McCoy rushed in somewhat breathlessly. "Sorry I'm late, Jim. I'm runnin' way behind this morning." He flipped a switch on the monitor panel. "Just stay relaxed like that for a few minutes. I'm gonna run one last check on you."
McCoy consulted the readouts and nodded in approval. "You're fine, Captain, sir. How do you feel?"
"Pretty good." Kirk sat up. "I still feel a little, uh, fuzzy around the edges--you know, sort of weak, shaky."
"That's to be expected," McCoy said. "It'll pass in time. You'll have plenty of time to get over it. You need a good shot of R-and-R."
"Therapy, huh?" Kirk asked, smiling.
McCoy answered with a smile of his own. "Right. A whole month of therapy."
Kirk suddenly became subdued. "A month. I've got six weeks coming. Maybe I'll take them all--or maybe I just won't come back. Retire, you know? It's preferable to getting shot at, or electrocuted."
McCoy's smile faded. "What kind of talk is that, Jim? I remember the last time you took a ground assignment. You sat on the ground for two and a half years while the Enterprise was being rebuilt. You were miserable. You climbed the walls. And when that V'ger incident cropped up you practically browbeat Nogura into giving the ship back to you."
"Things were different then," Kirk insisted. "Back then, starships and their crews weren't firing range targets for the Klingons to practice on. If they hit us, we could hit back. We never had half as many incidents with the Klingons before the 'peacemakers' took over the Federation Council. The Klingons respect strength and despise weakness. Right now their senses tell them the Federation Council is weak and afraid, so they're pushing. And they'll keep on pushing." He paused. "Life's too short for that. I want to do something with mine."
"What do you mean by that?" McCoy asked quietly. "You are doing something with your life. You're the finest starship captain in the 'fleet."
"I mean I want to do something for me." Kirk sat down on the bed again, gazing up at McCoy. "You know how you've heard stories--how someone's whole life passes before his eyes in a flash when he thinks he's going to die? Well, it happened to me while I was lying there on the bridge. And I realized I'd spent my whole life, ever since I was a kid, tied to this uniform, this service--to this ship. I'll tell you something, Bones, it was a hell of an empty feeling. No roots, no family--other than the crews I've served with. As much as I appreciate this life, it somehow doesn't seem to be enough right now. I need something for me, that's mine and mine alone."
He paused, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "Listen to me run off at the mouth. I guess I just need a change, Bones. Maybe I've lost my nerve, but I want to at least try for that change before one of those 'near misses' finds its mark."
"You really think this is the solution?"
"I don't know," Kirk returned. "That's why I've got to find out." He sat quietly, staring into space.
"Gee, I'm glad to see you in such a good mood," McCoy needled. "I thought you were looking forward to your shore leave."
"I am," Kirk answered, "but I've got a lot on my mind." He paused briefly. "Did you know Chekov is transferring out?"
McCoy was surprised. "No, I didn't. I thought you were going to talk to him."
"I never got the chance. He told Spock it was a big opportunity for him, but I think it has a lot to do with the trouble between him and me. He hasn't been in to see me."
"Maybe he's been busy," McCoy offered placatingly. "You know how hectic it's been with all this Klingon business."
Kirk smiled half-heartedly. "Sure, Bones. I've only been here four days." He got up stiffly. "I'm just about going to have time to get ready to meet the shuttle. Luckily, I had all my things packed a week ago."
McCoy grinned. "You really were looking forward to this trip, weren't you? I'm sorry I didn't meet this Cheryl Saunders when we were at Starbase. She must really be something."
"She is." Kirk smiled fondly. "You'd like her, Bones."
"I'm sure I would," McCoy responded. "I've yet to meet one of your young lady friends who hasn't been able to charm the stars out of the sky."
Kirk grinned. "She is special." He headed for the door. "You coming down to the docking bay?"
"Wouldn't miss it," McCoy responded. "I want to get one last good look at you if I'm gonna be stuck with Spock in command for a month."
Kirk laughed, waving at McCoy as he exited.
The physician's smile vanished as soon as he was alone. The Federation Council's 'soft' methods of dealing with Klingon aggression had been bothering Kirk for some time. Now it all appeared to have come to a head. Kirk seemed serious about quitting Starfleet, something he had never really considered before. He had confided to McCoy that even when he had been on ground duty during the Enterprise refitting, he had always secretly nurtured the hope of regaining active command.
McCoy sighed to himself. He still believed, as he did at the end of the five-year mission, that his friend belonged in the center seat of a starship. Maybe his furlough will give him the time to sort things out and rekindle his enthusiasm, McCoy thought analytically. Then again, if Jim is as serious as he appears to be about this Commander Cheryl Saunders, the vacation might be all he needs to convince himself that there might be a more rewardin' way of life for him.
In his quarters, the captain of the Enterprise was in civilian clothes, stuffing some last-minute items into a tote kit. Most of his luggage had been sent to the docking bay for transfer to his shuttle.
He made a check of his cabin, experiencing a strange twinge of emotion. If he did indeed decide not to come back, this might well be the last time he would be in his quarters. He shook it off. He hadn't made a decision, yet, and might not even have arrived at one by the time his leave was over.
Kirk headed for the docking facility. He caught a lift; he had thought of trying to see Chekov privately, but had vetoed the idea. If the young officer wanted to see him, then he could do so in his own good time.
He soon reached the docking area. Spock and McCoy were there, along with Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chapel, all of whom had secondary shift personnel covering their positions. Transporter Chief Janice Rand and Lieutenant Kyle were there as well. Kirk nodded at each of them, noting that Chekov was conspicuously absent.
Spock was first in line. Kirk stood before him and whispered, "Where's Chekov?" Sulu and Uhura looked away, almost as if ashamed of their comrade. Scotty furled his brow, and McCoy began to study his feet. Rand and Kyle looked on curiously.
"The commander volunteered to take the conn. As he would have been the most experienced officer on the bridge, I honored the request," the Vulcan replied almost stiffly.
Kirk was crestfallen. Even though he had resigned himself to the fact that Chekov probably wouldn't show, he was still hurt.
McCoy immediately sensed it and moved it. He grabbed Kirk's hand and began pumping it in an attempt to break the mood. "Well, Jim. I want you to be sure an' do some fishin' for me! I hear Starbase Twenty-seven's got hunnerds of streams within walkin' distance of the main complex. Bring us back a mess of 'em, okay?"
Kirk smiled. "Sure, Bones."
The others joined in; hugs from the women, handshakes from the men, a few words with each of them.
Kirk turned to Spock. The first officer raised his right hand in a wordless Vulcan salute, a slight smile playing about his lips. Touched, Kirk returned the gesture as best as he could; he had never been able to master the salute.
"Shuttle comin' in, sir," Scotty reported.
On a small viewscreen, they watched as the warp shuttle grew larger against the backdrop of space with each passing second. The small craft slowed, then hovered over the command airlock at the rear of the primary saucer hull. It disengaged from its warp sled and skillfully docked with the airlock.
The light on the lock doors pulsed from red to green. They opened to admit a dark-haired young man wearing a Starfleet uniform. "Lieutenant Commander Charles Dickerson. Permission to come aboard, sir."
"Granted," Kirk replied.
Dickerson seemed awestruck upon meeting him, and when Kirk introduced the crewmembers standing by, the awe increased. He had heard stories of the legendary Enterprise crew. After the exchanged greetings, Dickerson loaded Kirk's luggage onto the shuttle.
Kirk turned to Spock. "Take care of the ship. You're liable to have your hands full if this Klingon business continues."
"I will do my utmost to return the Enterprise to you intact, Captain," the Vulcan replied wryly.
The captain smiled. "Just take care of her."
"We're ready to go, sir," Dickerson said.
Kirk took one last glance around the docking bay, then followed Dickerson into the airlock. He waved at his friends as the doors slid shut.
The crew watched as the shuttle cabin re-engaged with the warp sled and took off. As the vessel receded into the distance, the Enterprise contingent dispersed, except for Spock and McCoy.
"I wonder what he's going to do," McCoy mused aloud.
Spock lifted an eyebrow. "I would presume, Doctor, that he will do what one customarily does on R-and-R."
McCoy glared at the literal-minded Vulcan. "No, no, you green-blooded computer! He's been talkin' about gettin' outta Starfleet--leavin' active command! The last time he did that, it nearly destroyed him."
"Situations change, Doctor, as do people," Spock commented cryptically. "Perhaps Jim has satisfied his desire to command a starship. No one has ever been reactivated for a second tour after accepting ground duty. It is a considerable achievement."
"I think you're wrong, Spock. What'll happen to him if he gives up the Enterprise?" McCoy queried. "It's in his blood."
"I cannot answer you, Doctor," Spock answered. "I am not the captain. He is disillusioned with the Federation's treatment of the Klingons. He has been injured twice in the line of duty, once seriously. I also believe that Mister Chekov's situation troubles him more than he wishes to admit."
The Vulcan turned away from the screen. "In any event, Doctor, whatever Jim decides, we must abide by his judgment--whether or not it pleases us personally. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must return to the bridge."
McCoy turned back to the viewer as the Vulcan exited. By now the shuttle had dwindled to a tiny speck against the void. Then it disappeared altogether.
"Well, Jim," McCoy murmured. "I sure hope you can abide by your judgment."
Chekov sat in the center seat of the Enterprise, watching the same view of the shuttle's departure. As the vessel vanished, he ordered, "Viewer ahead. Return to normal patrol route, Warp Factor Two."
He settled back in the chair, a melange of emotions churning within him. He felt guilt and remorse that he hadn't visited Kirk or told him personally about the transfer. But I would not have been able to face the captain, he admitted to himself.
The Russian glanced at the screen, and another twinge struck him. He had badly wanted to go to the docking area; he had the mainviewer locked in on the bay to transmit Kirk's departure as much for his own edification as for the stand-by crew's.
Sulu and Uhura returned to the bridge. The helmsman smiled at Chekov as he relieved his back-up. Uhura stopped by the center seat before going to her station.
"I really think you should have gone, Pavel," she whispered. "You should have seen his face when Spock told him you weren't coming."
Chekov flushed guiltily, staring straight ahead. He could think of nothing to say, and Uhura walked back to her post, shaking her head.
"Transferring command to you, sair," Chekov said, returning to his weapons console. He tried losing himself in the computer displays on his screen, but is mind was too busy. If everything goes well with the transfer, I will be gone when the captain returns, gone before I can set things right with him.
He pondered this thought as the Enterprise cruised on in her vigilant patrol.
Doctor Richard Daystrom, haggard, near total exhaustion, continued his work in the Engineering Deck of the Imperial Klingon Cruiser Karak. The multitronic unit, the M-6, was beginning to take shape. Daystrom had incorporated many of the advances computer science had made over the past eight years, making for a sleek, more compact version than the original.
Two Klingon computer techs and a Klingon guard stood nearby. Ramar, the second science officer, and Kwasin, third science officer, analyzed Daystrom's data on a split-screen which translated his equations into Klingonese symbology. Their task was to insure that the Terran genius did not attempt any trickery--although his equations were far beyond them. No matter, mused Ramar, no need to worry--fear for the life of his daughter has banished all thoughts of sabotage from the pathetic Human's mind.
Daystrom fed his program into a small, Klingon-designed computer. It was slower than even his old duotronic design, and it frustrated him. He wanted to conclude this whole accursed business as rapidly as possible. Melinda...
He paused. By his estimates, it had been nearly five days since he and his daughter were kidnaped. He had not seen her since she was dragged into that ghastly torture chamber. He didn't even want to consider what might have become of her...
A rough shove from behind nearly knocked him to the floor. The ever-present Klingon guard, Kalek, gestured threateningly with his disruptor carbine.
"Work," the Klingon growled succinctly.
Probably the only English he knows, thought Daystrom.
"Trouble, Lieutenant?" a harsh voice rasped. Commander Krax had decided to stop in and check on his progress.
"My daughter!" Daystrom exclaimed frantically. "Is she all right? I want to see her!"
"No," Krax returned flatly. "Only when the unit is complete. You have my word--she is fine."
Daystrom took a deep, shuddering breath. He had finished in mere days what took him months on his earlier multitronic units.
This fact was not lost on Krax. It would not do to have his prize captive drop from exhaustion. "You must sleep, Daystrom."
"I cannot," the scientist said. "I must know if Melinda--"
"Ramar!" Krax snapped. "Summon a battle surgeon with a sleep injection for the Earther. We cannot afford to have him making errors in his work."
The science officer nodded assent. "Yes, my lord," he grunted and headed for a comlink.
"Krax, listen to me!" Daystrom pleaded, his eyes bright and feverish. "I constructed only five multitronic units; all of them failed. I am not sure if they didn't function properly because they were programmed with my engrams, or if the multitronic concept-design itself is flawed! All multitronic research was abandoned after the tragedy. Even the new Federation starships use Duotronics II computers, which are simply an improvement of my original design."
Krax sneered. "For your daughter's sake, Daystrom, I would hope our unit functions properly. Her death would be most horrible--and you would be witness to it!"
A twinge of anguish passed over Daystrom's features, but he pressed on, determined to make his case. "The M-6 unit would replace you, Commander Krax. Doesn't that trouble you? The captain of the Enterprise found it to be a very disturbing experience."
Krax's reply was a derisive laugh. "My dear Doctor Daystrom, there has never been any intention on the part of the Empire to permanently replace its cruiser commanders with your 'living' computers. We will simply employ them to give us an edge over the accursed Federation forces. Once that edge is established, we will destroy them ourselves. The M-6 series will then be used only on a back-up basis."
"It doesn't trouble you, Klingon?" Daystrom desperately continued. "Think of it--a machine will be doing your job--even if only on a temporary basis."
A cryptic smile wreathed the Klingon commander's face. "Oh, fear not, Doctor. I will participate in my own small way."
He pressed in close to Daystrom, his voice a hissing whisper. "You see, when the time arrives, it will be my engrams you impress on the M-6."
Daystrom blanched as the full horror of the situation crashed in on him. The new multitronic unit, M-6, programmed to destroy, would be driven by the mind-traces of this murderous, diabolical fiend! He had been so obsessed with saving his daughter that he had almost forgotten how many innocent billions he was condemning to death.
With an incoherent cry, Daystrom seized a torque wrench from a tool bench and lunged at the embryonic M-6, intent on destruction. But he was not quick enough for the supernal reflexes of the guard, Kalek. The Klingon caught Daystrom across the throat with the flat of his hand. The scientist dropped to his knees, gasping for breath, his eyes bulging with pain.
An enraged Krax lifted Daystrom off the floor by the front of his tunic. "Count yourself fortunate, Earther dog!" he spat. "If I did not need you, you would now be dead!!"
Mujyt, the battle surgeon, had arrived. "Qel, put this DenIbya' Qatlh to sleep!"
"Permanently, joHwI'?" the doctor asked, smiling wickedly.
Krax laughed. "Perhaps another day, Mujyt. For now, he is needed."
Daystrom put up a feeble, futile struggle, helpless as he was in Krax's grip. The physician quickly injected him in the neck.
The shot took effect almost immediately; Daystrom was dumped on the floor as his senses began to swim.
As he began to lose consciousness, a ghastly vision swirled in his mind. He saw planets in flames, millions, billions of people dying. In the middle of the conflagration was his daughter Melinda, her face etched in terror.
And above it all, he heard the maniacal laughter of Commander Krax.
Kirk looked out the viewports of the shuttle, where Starbase 27's space dock complex and the planet Trylias were in view.
"Shuttlecraft Ajax to Starbase Twenty-seven docking authority. Request permission to dock," Dickerson said.
"Request approved," a voice answered. "Set controls to stand-by mode, and enjoy the ride."
"Affirmative, Starbase," Dickerson said, switching to stand-by as the autodock sequence began.
Kirk watched as the Ajax began its approach. Trylias grew larger, its placid blue oceans and patchwork continents becoming more and more distinct. The latticework of Starbase 27's dock came into view, and finally, the station itself loomed large. The massive port doors slid apart, and the warp shuttle entered the enormous space station.
The Ajax turned toward one of several smaller iris-shaped bays, and entered. The landing on the deck was smooth. Dickerson checked his gauges. "The bay's pressurizing, sir."
Finally, the indicator turned green.
Kirk shook hands with the pilot. "Thank you for a smooth flight, Mister Dickerson."
"My pleasure, sir," Dickerson beamed. "I'll have your luggage processed and transported to your lodging."
Kirk disembarked out the back of the shuttle pod, and headed down the ramp. An ensign was waiting for him. "Permission to come aboard?" Kirk asked.
"Granted, sir. If you'll follow me to the staging facility."
Kirk smiled and nodded, looking around the bay.
"Commodore Thacker has arranged for your quarters, sir," explained the ensign.
They reached the "staging facility." Kirk stepped forward and placed a hand on the flat panel. A scanner checked his retinal pattern, and the door slid open.
"Have a good stay, Captain," offered the ensign as she departed.
Kirk entered the transporter deck. The transport chief snapped to attention quickly, making Kirk smile. He strode toward a pad.
"Destination?" asked the young man, his voice cracking slightly.
"Starbase Central," Kirk replied.
The technician adjusted several switches. "Ready, sir?"
"Energize," ordered Kirk.
The technician complied. The familiar dematerialization effect took place.
Kirk reappeared on the plaza in front of Starbase 27's planet-side massive main office complex.
"Jim!" Cheryl Saunders was waiting for him. She rushed forward, arms wide, and they embraced warmly.
She kissed him, and Kirk glanced around sheepishly as passers-by smiled and nodded at them.
"How did you--"
"--know you were going to be here?" she finished impishly. "I'm Chief of Security, remember? I saw the Ajax was bringing you in, and arranged a little welcome for you." She kissed him again. "It's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back," Kirk returned. "I--I've missed you."
"Likewise," she murmured. She became serious. "Are you all right? I heard about your accident. I was so scared!"
"I'm fine now," he said.
Saunders laughed. "Good. Listen, you didn't bring that damned communicator of yours along, did you?"
Grinning, Kirk held up his right arm. His wrist was bare. "I did pack it, though. Starfleet regs."
"Well, just see that it stays packed," Saunders commanded. "I'm not sharing you with anybody this time." She took his hand. "C'mon, I've got to get back. I've got a man off sick and another on leave. This is a hell of a time to be short-handed. I'm going to drop you off with Thacker and let him get you settled in."
"Will I see you later?" he asked.
"You can count on it," she promised.
Kirk slipped his arm around her, and they walked on toward the main building.
Spock sat at in the center seat of the Enterprise, noting that the primary command crew was in place. It had been a day since Kirk left for Starbase 27, and all was quiet throughout their entire patrol sector.
The Vulcan found himself wondering about the captain's future plans. The thought that his friend might leave the Enterprise was bothering him somewhat. He didn't dare admit that to McCoy; in fact, he could barely admit it to himself.
He had often said in the past that he did not desire a command of his own; this was still true. Serving as Jim Kirk's first officer and science officer had provided him with all the satisfaction he had ever wanted. He knew he would be the 'logical choice' to assume command of the Enterprise should Kirk step down. And when that happened, he would refuse.
And, then, what of myself? he thought. He would not go back to Vulcan. And he had proven to himself that the way of Kolinahr was not the way for him. Would he stay on the Enterprise? Perhaps, he admitted to himself, although he would be hard pressed to find another captain with whom he could share the kind of bond he had with James T. Kirk.
"A message on general hyperband, Mister Spock," Uhura said. "It's Commander Starfleet, Admiral Nogura himself."
"On speakers, Commander."
"This is Heihachiro Nogura, Commanding Admiral of Starfleet. General broadcasts to commanders, Hood, Enterprise, Farragut. Effective immediately, your vessels are to resume normal patrol routes. The border patrols you have been flying along the Organian Treaty Zone are to be canceled. Repeat, all border patrols along the Organian Treaty Zone are to be canceled."
"I don't believe it!" Chekov exclaimed. "Vwhat about the Klingons?"
Further conjecture was silenced as Nogura's message resumed. "Be it further known that I am resigning the post of Commander of Starfleet, also effective immediately."
Uhura gasped aloud, and both of Spock's eyebrows rose in astonishment.
Nogura continued, "I am resigning my commission to protest the irresponsible manner in which the Federation Council has handled recent situations that appear to have been the work of the Klingon Empire. The decision to discontinue these border patrols is just one more example of the Council's magnificent blundering. I want it known publicly that I oppose the Council's decision in this matter--for whatever good it will do."
The Oriental admiral paused; when he resumed speaking, his voice was taut with emotion. "I am very proud of all of you in Starfleet. It is my fervent wish that you will continue to do the best job that you can under these difficult circumstances. Vice Admiral Debra Echard will be Commanding Admiral Pro-Tem, until a permanent successor can be named. May God go with you all!"
Sulu let out a low whistle. The mood on the bridge was one of stunned disbelief; Nogura's dramatic move was totally unexpected.
Spock mustered the bridge crew, focusing their attention on more immediate matters. "Chief DiFalco, lock in coordinates to bring Enterprise back to standard patrol sector," the Vulcan ordered.
"Aye, sir." DiFalco shook herself out of a daze and programmed the figures she needed into the new nav console. "Course 198 mark 12, sir. Locked in."
"Mister Sulu, come about. Warp Factor Three."
Sulu complied, and the Enterprise wheeled around and headed back toward its normal route. "Whoever would have thought Nogura'd resign, even in protest?" Sulu mused aloud. "I thought he'd still be around when the galaxy stopped spinning!"
Spock ignored the absurdity, and sat, hands folded in his lap, lost in thought. Indeed, Nogura had seemed like a fixture at Starfleet. His resignation would have a profound impact upon the organization.
And, the Vulcan wondered, what effect would his leaving have upon Jim Kirk's ultimate decision?
Daystrom awoke from his enforced sleep; he felt surprisingly refreshed and clear-headed. He sat up on the floor, looked around.
Kalek was standing guard over the M-6 unit. He gestured menacingly with his rifle. Ramar was standing by with a hypo, brandishing it before him. "If you make so much as a move to destroy this thing, Earther, I swear I will put you back to sleep! Now, begin working again. Food will be brought to you shortly."
"Work," repeated the dullard Kalek.
Daystrom smiled coldly. The sleep had done him a lot of good. "I will no longer work on the device, Klingon. I will do nothing until I am permitted to see my daughter."
Ramar snarled in fury. Kalek stepped to the scientist's cot. "Up!" the guard raged.
Daystrom just stared at him.
The Klingon guard slapped him with a vicious backhand. "Up!!" he repeated more emphatically.
The scientist shook his head to clear it. Blood trickled from his split lip, but he was unmoved. "Call your Commander Krax if you must," Daystrom said quietly. "I will do nothing until I see Melinda. Go ahead, call him."
"Yes, I think I shall do that!" Ramar growled. "You will regret your obstinacy, Doctor!"
The science officer summoned Krax, who arrived minutes later.
"So, Doctor, you are being uncooperative again? You will learn yet!"
"Take me to Melinda--now--or that is as far as your multitronic unit gets."
Krax paused. He now saw the same look in Daystrom's eyes that the scientist had before his daughter was threatened and tortured. Perhaps...
Krax's lips curled in a malevolent smile. "As you wish, Daystrom. Ramar, let us escort our Earther friend to his daughter's 'quarters.'"
The two Klingons took Daystrom to Melinda's cell, leaving Kalek behind to stand guard over the M-6 unit. Daystrom was apprehensive; somewhere down the corridor, he heard an unearthly howling, the sound of something not Human screaming in pain. He was permitted to go inside alone; the heavy door slammed shut behind him.
Daystrom gasped in horror, his mind reeling.
Melinda was alone in her cell, lying on her cot in a fetal position. Her jumpsuit was disheveled and torn, and there were splotches of dried blood on it. Her face and neck were covered with ugly welts and dark bruises; her eyes were glazed, unfocused. She seemed unaware of her surroundings, reacting only to the choked sound of her father's voice.
"Mindy," Daystrom sobbed. "Oh, God, child!"
She raised her head slowly, managing a weak smile. "Daddy."
But then her eyes filled with tears and she bowed her head in a simply expression of shame which spoke more eloquently than words of her humiliation, of her ordeal.
The scientist sat down on the cot and gently lifted Melinda to him, cradling her in his arms. The girl wept silently for a time in the comfort of her father's arms. She slowly dropped off to sleep. Daystrom gently kissed her and eased her back down on the cot.
The cell door slid open; Krax and Ramar entered. "Your visit has gone on long enough, Daystrom," Krax said. "You have much work to do."
Daystrom was enraged. Forgetting himself, he shouted at the Klingon. "You bastard!"
Krax sneered. "She seemed so lonely, and in need of...entertainment." He laughed mockingly. "I am afraid it was not quite so blissful as I had imagined. She damages too easily; I'd much prefer a lusty, wanton Klingon wench any day!"
Daystrom lunged at Krax, but was easily restrained by Ramar.
"I grow weary of this, Earther," Krax hissed. He patted the handle of his battle dagger meaningfully. "Unless you want to see your precious little child's throat slashed from ear to ear, you will return to work."
Daystrom stared back in silent despair, but his mind was set upon revenge. "You win," he murmured. "You will have your computer. But mark my words, Klingon, you will pay for what you did to her!"
"Take him away, Ramar!" the commander roared.
Daystrom was shoved out of the cell by the guard. Krax's eyes narrowed. Daystrom would bear watching even more closely now, he decided. Never had he seen such a look of cold determination in the eyes of a weak Earther.
Krax left for the bridge, never once even glancing at the huddled, pathetic form of Melinda Daystrom as the cell door slammed shut.
Cheryl Saunders had managed an afternoon and evening shift off. She was dressed in a fetching caftan-like garment, cheerily out of place in the cold austerity of her office. Jim Kirk was with her.
"I'll be just a few minutes, Jim. Gotta check to make sure everything's battened down before I leave."
Kirk smiled. "You're a workaholic, aren't you? Reminds me of somebody I know. You have to handle everything yourself."
She returned his smile as she checked a computer display for any messages. "No way. Lieutenant Jeffers'll be in charge today. I trust him implicitly."
At that moment, Commander Brand Taylor walked in. He had a strange look on his face. "Did you hear the news?" he asked. "Nogura resigned his commission."
Kirk and Saunders were both shocked, but Kirk looked particularly stunned. "What happened?" he asked.
"He did it to protest how those jackasses on the Federation Council have been behaving toward the Klingons," Taylor returned. "I don't think he should have. They wouldn't care if he jumped into a wormhole. Damned shame--a good man like that letting himself be shoved out by a bunch of pantywaists."
"I don't believe it," Kirk murmured.
Taylor shrugged. "It's his decision, Jim. I guess he figured it might have an effect on public opinion, put a little pressure on the Council."
Kirk asked, "Was there some specific action that prompted Nogura to resign?"
Taylor nodded his head in the affirmative. "The Council canceled the border patrols, since things have apparently 'quieted down.'"
Kirk shook his head sadly.
There was an awkward silence for a brief second until Taylor opted to change the subject. "Where are the two of you off to?"
"I'm taking Jim out to Mirror Cove for a picnic, just to get away from the base for a while."
"Nice day for it," Taylor replied, then headed out the door. "I guess I'd better get back, or they'll need the Starfleet Corps of Engineers to dig me out of the paperwork."
He left, and Kirk and Saunders soon followed. She had requisitioned a "skimmer," an aircar that would take them out into the forest. They loaded their picnic supplies, and got it without saying much to each other.
As Cheryl Saunders piloted the vessel to their destination, she noticed that Kirk had fallen into a pensive, almost brooding silence. "You sure you want to go?" she asked. "You look like you're heading to an execution instead of a picnic."
Kirk smiled. "Sorry. I was just thinking about Nogura."
"Well, I'm flattered," she needled. "I like to think I'm a reasonably attractive woman--and I hope I'm more attractive than Nogura!" She became serious. "I don't want you to think about Nogura, or Starfleet, or the Enterprise, or Klingons, or any of that. I'm taking you away from that today. You need it--I need it, so let's not spoil it. Deal?"
"Deal," he replied. He reached over and squeezed her arm. "Thank you. I really appreciate this--and you."
"Well, that's good to hear," she said, heaving an exaggerated sigh of mock relief. "I was beginning to think you weren't interested. I mean, I've heard all those stories about you on the Enterprise, how you jettison all your women out an airlock when they reach the age of thirty."
"What?!" he exclaimed. "That's absolutely untrue!"
"Sure," he answered, flashing her a devastatingly devilish grin. "I wait until they're thirty-five."
They both laughed, and Kirk relaxed.
They reached Mirror Cove. Kirk was impressed with its beauty. A lush grove of trees similar to willows surrounded a beautiful, crystal-clear lagoon and a smooth beach. The lake was fed by a shallow waterfall which tumbled over a low cliff.
"It's lovely," Kirk said. "So peaceful...relaxing."
"Ah, now you're catching on!" Saunders exclaimed. She spread a blanket and unloaded the picnic basket.
After chatting awhile, they decided to go for a walk. The beach completely surrounded the lake, and they walked along, enjoying the natural beauty, engaging in small talk now and then.
Before long, they arrived back at their spot on the beach.
"You hungry yet?" Saunders asked.
"No," Kirk murmured.
"Then the way I look at it, we've got two choices, Mister Kirk--we can either go skinny dipping...or make love." She embraced him, gave him a quick kiss. "What's it going to be?"
He gazed down at her with an impish smile. "You've given me a tough choice, Commander," he said teasingly. "But it's been a long time since I've been skinny dipping."
"Why you!" Saunders sputtered indignantly. She shoved Kirk backwards, and he tumbled into the lagoon. He came up sputtering, soaked to the skin. She laughed and extended a hand to help him out. But Kirk had ideas of his own. He pulled her off-balance, and she joined him in the water.
What began as a playful wrestling match quickly escalated into something much more sensuous. They locked together in a clinging, wet embrace in the shallows of the lake. Kirk carried Saunders to the beach. They undressed each other as quickly as their water-logged garments would allow. Then she lay back on the blanket.
"Love me, Jim," Saunders whispered. There were tears in her eyes, an almost urgent pleading in her voice.
Wordlessly, he kissed her, his lips brushing gently down her face, her neck, her shoulders....
She closed her eyes blissfully. She was not sure exactly when they began to make love. All she knew, 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.
Kor had received a distinguished visitor--the Emperor himself, Kudan Kuras the Invincible. Contrary to what might be expected, he was dressed simply; black metalcloth jerkin and trousers, with a metallic, silvery tabard. His only concession to his station was the long black cloak he wore and the circlet of silver that adorned his head. Kudan was big, strong and fierce-looking. Although his black hair and beard were streaked with gray, he was still quite formidable looking. He was seated across from Kor's desk. Both of them were drinking mugs of t'ilvan, a heady Klingon brew much like a strong ale.
"You appear pensive today, my old friend," the Emperor said. "The Daystrom Project is proceeding on schedule. What troubles you?"
Kor came right to the point. "Your lordship, I am dying a slow death here. Nothing would please me more than to command a battlecruiser once again." His voice dropped. "A warrior should not die of old age, or like a common cur in the gutter."
There was sympathy and regret in the Emperor's voice. "I understand the way you feel, old friend. But I have learned in my time to accede to the inevitable. The Kh'myr--they are the future. It is they who will finally destroy our hated Federation enemies, and not, unfortunately, us."
"There is no place for us, then?" Kor asked. "What of our future?"
Kudan gestured at the walls of Kor's office. "This is our future. We all must serve the Empire any way we can."
Kor got up and paced like a caged tiger. "I cannot accept that. The stars are in my blood, Your Lordship. To never attain them again--" He turned to the Emperor, anguish carved into his bearded features. "What is the point of living?"
"The Klingon way is survival," Kudan said sternly. "Are you a woman, Admiral, to talk this way? It is your duty to survive and serve the Empire, no matter how painful or unpalatable that service might be."
"And what of you?" Kor queried hotly. "You are not one of them. What if the Kh'myr decide they do not wish to serve you?"
Kudan Kuras smiled enigmatically. "They have already made that decision, my friend. It is simply a matter of time. Already there are upstart admirals among them, like Kusan and Khalian, who challenge me at every turn. I may have to execute a few of them to keep the rest of them in line. But they will come for me someday." He smiled grimly. "It should be glorious. They will pay a dear price to spill old Kudan's blood!"
Kor echoed the Emperor's deadly grin. "Krax will come for me when he returns from his mission. He has sworn the blood oath."
Kudan's expression softened. "I am sorry, Kor."
"Do not pity me, Your Lordship. If the truth be known, I am rather looking forward to it. The hunter and the hunted--the classic scenario."
"It will likely mean your death," the Emperor said, almost sadly.
"To die in battle would be eminently preferable to languishing at a desk." Kor strode to the window and looked out. "Besides, my Lord, what if I were to triumph? It was you who urged me to warn the Kh'myr commanders never to underestimate their Earther foes. Are you not doing something similar?"
Kudan Kuras laughed. "You are right, my friend. I wish you good fortune when the time comes. I should know better than to underestimate you!"
"My thanks, Your Lordship," Kor replied. "And, with all due respect, perhaps you underestimate our people as well. We still outnumber the Kh'myr. Perhaps there is hope that someday we will once again claim our rightful heritage."
A buzzer sounded on Kor's intercom. "Priority message, Admiral. Double scramble, eyes only. It is from Commander Kyr," Khum reported.
Kor and the Emperor exchanged glances. Kyr, the Earther agent!
The message came through, decoded on Kor's computer screen. It read: "Starfleet border patrols canceled by Federation Council; Nogura, Commander Starfleet, resigned in protest. Starbase Twenty-seven can be breached--now is optimum time with starship patrols withdrawn. The Karak can pick me up ahead of schedule and destroy the base as well, a bonus we had not anticipated. With Twenty-seven gone, there will be no Federation bases operative in Sector Ten. Krax's ship is nearby in Organian Zone, can attack this standard day. Please advise. Kyr."
The Emperor nodded enthusiastically. "Yes," he said.
Kor punched the comm button. "Khum, broadcast a tight-beam, millisecond squirt signal to Kyr, give him the go-ahead. Also, inform Commander Krax there has been a change of plans. He is to rendezvous with Kyr earlier than expected, and destroy Starbase Twenty-seven. Relay the message through Battlestation T'mar."
Kor appeared even more downcast than before. "Again, the Kh'myr will be victorious. The Federation Council is playing right into their hands. The destruction of the Starbase will mortally puncture Federation defenses, since they no longer see fit to defend themselves, and once Krax has the multitronic unit, he will be totally invincible."
"This does not please you?" the Emperor asked.
Kor looked him squarely in the eye. "No, Lord, it does not. I would be lying if I said it did."
Kudan smiled somewhat sadly. "You are honest, Kor--perhaps too honest. I caution you, those words of yours--which, incidentally, I never heard--could be considered treason."
The Emperor drained his mug and set it on Kor's desk. "I thank you for the t'ilvan. Now I go to await the news of another glorious conquest by the Klingon Empire."
He left, and Kor sat down at his desk. The future! Phah! Not if he had anything to say about it.
He poured himself some more t'ilvan. Soon, if all went well, the Imperial Klingon cruiser Karak would attack and annihilate Starbase 27. He could almost wish that some disaster would befall Krax's starship, if only to rob him of the glory.
Kor stared morosely into his mug, then quickly downed it.
Krax watched the mainviewer as his ship stealthily glided through space toward the planet Trylias and Starbase 27. The cloaking device was activated, and they had passed undetected deep into Federation territory.
Krax was glum; new orders had come through. He was to pick up the Terran agent, Kyr, and destroy the Starbase. The Earther commander would disable the planet's impregnable defense screen. But he was unhappy. He had not anticipated having Kyr onboard the Karak this soon. He was not looking forward to letting the Earther take over the Daystrom project.
"My Lord, Trylias can be seen on the viewing screen." Helmsman Maz reported.
"Orbit over the starbase." Krax ordered."Communications, communicate to Kyr that Karak has arrived. Target the starbase, gunner."
The communications officer complied. Seconds later, a quick series of beeps sounded at his board.
"Good." Krax growled. "qara'DI' cha yIbaH! Fire the torpedoes at my command."
Dawn on Trylias. The central control complex was dark save for the telltale lights on the main console. The lieutenant on duty stretched in his chair, bored. He took a sip from a cup of coffee. He didn't sense the shadowy figure stalking him. Lethal fingertips suddenly pressed hard into the hollows behind each of his ears, and the lieutenant slumped to the floor, dead.
The intruder sat down at a console, fingers flying over an array of touchsensors and dials.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Someone was coming!
A female ensign walked into the control room. "Morning shift is here early!" she sang out cheerfully. "Brad--where are you?" She saw the sprawled body on the floor. "Damn," she muttered as she knelt down next to the lieutenant to examine him.
The edge of a hand smashed into the ensign's exposed neck, breaking it with a sharp 'snap.' She sagged across the lieutenant's body, joining him on the floor in death.
The figure stepped over the victims, ignoring them. There were a few more switches to press to disarm the alert system, and then only the ponderous power toggle remained.
Hands locked around the great switch. It moved slowly, then clicked into place.
And in the five-acre underground power plant, great reaction-drive engines flickered and died, grinding to a halt. Trylias' impenetrable defense fields collapsed, leaving its sleeping inhabitants vulnerable to attack.
The intruder stepped back from the control panel and activated a communicator.
"This is Commander Kyr," a voice whispered. "It is done. Beam me aboard."
"Acknowledged," came a muffled reply. "Standby."
The red brilliance of the Klingon transporter effect illuminated the chamber, and Kyr vanished within it.
Kirk and Saunders lay in each other's arms on their blanket. Their clothes were dry now, but quite rumpled. They both looked somewhat disheveled. It was very early in the morning, but neither of them wanted to leave. The first light of dawn tinged the horizon.
"I've never seen the stars look so beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Look at them, Jim! The air's so steady they're hardly twinkling!"
Kirk was pensive. "I used to watch the stars a lot when I was stationed on Earth, only it wasn't very enjoyable. I tormented myself. To me, the stars weren't just these impossibly distant points of light. I had been to them. They were places I had visited--Arcturus and its desert planets, the Rigel worlds, Vega, Deneb. I'd realized too late that the stars were my home. Seeing them was like seeing old friends. It hurt to think that I might never get out there again."
"But you did," she whispered. "And what about now? Are you going back to your ship?"
"I'm not sure," he answered, frowning. "Part of me will always be tied to the Enterprise. But another part of me thinks maybe I should settle down and catch up on the things normal people do with their lives--things I've missed."
He gazed into her eyes. "And that part of me thinks maybe it would be a good idea to stay with you. What about you, Commander?"
She sighed. "I don't know, Jim. I'm just not sure. Being with you makes me very happy, happier than I've ever been since John...since I lost him. And I need to be with someone like you who respects me as much as I respect him, someone who will just hold me once in a while and leave it at that. I love you for that, Jim. But I don't know if I'm ready for anything permanent yet."
She kissed him. "Let's give it some time. I think we're both a little confused, and I'd hate for us to do something we'll regret later. Let's enjoy what we have for now, okay?"
Kirk seemed disappointed, but smiled and pulled her to him. "I think I can live with that. Let's see what happens."
"Oh, look!" Saunders exclaimed suddenly. "A falling star! Wow, a bright one, too!"
Kirk followed her pointing finger. A bright, angry red fireball was streaking through the sky, dropping to the horizon, growing larger and brighter by the second.
Kirk's eyes narrowed, and his stomach tightened with cold fear. "That's no meteor!"
Suddenly, the darkness erupted with a blinding flash the color of blood. The ground trembled and quaked as a massive shockwave rippled through the earth.
"No!" Saunders screamed, horrified. "Oh, God, no! Jim, it's Starbase! It's under attack!"
"Photon torpedoes! Get in the skimmer!" Kirk shouted. "We don't stand a chance out here if one hits nearby!"
They clambered into the aircar as more and more torpedoes blasted into the distant Starbase. She peered out the forward port, her palms pressed against the glass. Tears of rage and disbelief streamed down her cheeks. "This can't be happening!" she sobbed. "Nothing can penetrate those planetary screens! They were tested by a starship's phasers under full warp power!"
The tremors rocking the ground slowly subsided as the bombardment ceased. The sky was aglow with the light of a dozen scarlet suns from the direction of Starbase 27. Slowly, the light died.
Saunders sat down abruptly and strapped herself in the pilot's seat.
"What are you doing?" Kirk asked, alarmed.
"We're going back there!" she grated furiously. She slammed the throttle down and the aircar screamed forward, rising off the ground.
Kirk was thrown off-balance. He grabbed onto a seat and managed to strap himself in. "Cheryl, we can't!" he shouted.
"Yes, we can! The Klingons saturated the area--they won't fire any more!"
He reached for her. "Cheryl--"
"Jim, please!" She turned to him, her face twisted in anguish. "I've got to go! Some of those people were my friends! If there's any chance..."
She turned forward again, biting her lip as she realized her mission was futile--and that she must go anyway. Kirk sat back, resigned.
They were still several kilometers from the base when they saw the first evidence of the attack; charred, flattened trees and scorched vegetation. By the time the skimmer reached the starbase area, only glowing slag and rubble remained.
"Those bastards!" she said softly. She was numb with shock as she sat the car down behind a mound of debris.
Saunders opened a compartment in the rear of the cabin and broke out a survival kit. She grabbed a phaser and a tricorder and threw another weapon to Kirk. She opened the door and scanned the smoke- and dust-filled air. "It's safe--Klingon torpedoes are very 'clean' weapons," she said bitterly. "Ground temperature's cooling rapidly." She tossed the tricorder onto the pilot's seat and jumped to the ground.
On an impulse, Kirk retrieved the 'corder and followed her. He scanned the blasted area, speaking at the same time. "This is James T. Kirk, commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Starbase Twenty-seven has been annihilated by a photon torpedo barrage. We are scanning the area for possible survivors, although there is little hope anyone is still alive."
"This early in the morning--most everyone was sleeping," Saunders said, her voice trembling. "They concentrated their fire precisely on the base and the residential areas. They...wanted to be sure."
Kirk widened the scan. He was, as expected, picking up no life readings.
Saunders realized this and closed her eyes tightly. "The screens had to be down. Either there was a power failure of the main, auxiliary and emergency generators, which is next to impossible, or someone deactivated the screens. In either case..."
She had been attempting to be precise and objective for the sake of the tricorder report, but she could no longer bear up. She dropped to her knees in the warm ashes, sobbing aloud.
Kirk quickly pulled her to her feet. He held her tightly.
"Oh, Jim, I should have been here! Maybe I could have done something! All those people dead!! Thacker, Taylor, all my friends...they're gone!"
He comforted her. "It's not your fault. If we'd been here, we'd be dead, too." He glanced around anxiously. "Let's get out of here. We'll fly back into the forest and hide out until help arrives."
They headed for the aircar. Saunders did not resist. Overcome with grief and shock, she followed Kirk, who held her by the hand.
Suddenly, they saw the red flashing of a Klingon transporter beam. They hurried desperately for the cover of a pile of shattered rubble tantalizingly close to their skimmer.
A dozen armed Klingon warriors appeared in the pre-dawn light. One of them barked, clacking guttural orders in his native tongue. The soldiers fanned out over the area that was once the main plaza, carbines ready.
Kirk scanned them. "Evidence that removes any doubt who the attackers were," he whispered into the microphone grid.
Three of the warriors were moving in their general direction. One of them raised a scanner, his hideous features creasing in a frown.
Kirk quickly stopped recording and ejected the cassette, which he immediately tossed the short distance to their skimmer. It dropped quietly in the ashes near a landing skid.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk saw Saunders raising her phaser. "Not yet," he whispered. "Maybe they won't find us."
But his feeble hope was short-lived. The Klingon with the scanner began to jabber excitedly, pointing toward the rubble where Kirk and Saunders were concealed. He unslung his disruptor rifle and began running as his companions joined him.
"Now!" Kirk snapped.
Saunders fired, dropping the lead Klingon with a heavy stun charge. Kirk picked off another as the remaining soldier dropped behind cover, aiming his disruptor carbine. He laid down a volley of disruptor fire with deadly effect.
Several blasts hammered into Saunders. She screamed as she was hurled savagely backward. She crashed to the ground and lay absolutely still.
"Cheryl!" Kirk's heart leaped into his throat as he snapped off a shot and tried to rush to her side. He was driven back by more disruptor fire. Trying to go to her aid had cost him his cover.
The rest of the Klingons had appeared. They surrounded him like a pack of grinning wolves. Faced with overwhelming odds, Kirk dropped his phaser and raised his hands. One of the soldiers wasn't satisfied. He fired, catching Kirk full in the chest. Kirk grunted in pain and surprise as he was slammed onto his back.
As Kirk collapsed into a black swirl of unconsciousness, the last thing he saw was Cheryl Saunders' limp body being carried away by two Klingon warriors.
Spock stopped by the officer's mess for a light meal. It was late in the ship's evening, and he was alone in the hall. He dialed a vegetarian meal from the food synthesizer, picked up his tray and sat down at a table equipped with a library-computer tie-in terminal.
The Vulcan took a bite of his salad. He programmed the computer for a NewsFax scan. It was one of his duties as First Officer to stay abreast of current events. He speed-read the condensed news information as he dined.
There was a report on the destruction of the S.S. Triton and the Federation Council's reaction. Word of the liner's destruction was spreading rapidly throughout the Federation, generating a ground-swell of outraged public opinion against the Klingon Empire.
He continued to read, idly skimming over some trivial reports, pausing to linger over a science item here and there.
Suddenly, something caught Spock's eye. He slowed the scan to a halt, frowning. He studied an article intently.
After he read the report, he rescanned the Triton item. An eyebrow raised. "Fascinating," he breathed.
Spock began keying the computer terminal with a vengeance, his meal forgotten.
Leonard McCoy was waiting on a 'park bench' outside a zero-gee handball cubicle. He programmed the recreation computer for a Terran pine forest. The holo-simulator complied, and a miraculously realistic habitat appeared, complete with the scents and sounds of nature.
Inside the transparent cube, Pavel Chekov was twisting and turning in mid-air, following the crazy, floating path of the handball. He was momentarily distracted when 'trees' appeared outside. He bumped gently into a duraperspex wall, then waved at McCoy as he floated off again. He had been so intent on his game that he hadn't noticed McCoy's arrival.
Chekov made a few more passes at the ball. Finally, he floated to a handrail and pulled himself down to the floor. He pressed a switch on the control unit. Gravity was restored; the handball dropped to the floor and bounced several times.
Chekov stepped out of the cube, a towel draped across his shoulders.
"You're getting pretty good at that," McCoy said.
"It's supposed to improve your hand-eye coordination," Chekov puffed. "I always like to use it to cool down after a heavy workout."
"I've been looking all over for you. Your transfer's been approved, and I wanted to schedule you for an exit physical. You're due at Starfleet Command in sixteen days."
"It is approved?" Chekov was elated. "That vwas fast! Vwhen did it come through?"
"About twenty minutes ago. I was up on the bridge. I heard you were down here, so I thought I'd pass it along." McCoy paused. "You've been awfully hard to get hold of since you volunteered for third shift command."
Chekov glanced away almost guiltily. "I vwill have increased responsibilities as the Lexington's first officer. Handling the conn on the third shift is a good vway to break myself in."
"It's also a convenient way to keep from facing your friends, isn't it?" McCoy said bluntly. "Why are you afraid to face them, Pavel? No one's seen hide nor hair of you for the past couple of days. Isn't it enough that you didn't even stop in to see Jim after he was hurt?"
Chekov's dark eyes flashed in anger. Then he heaved a resigned sigh, knowing that McCoy was too astute a judge of Human nature to be fooled by any transparent fabrication. "I vwanted to see Kyptin Kirk. I...I could not. I thought maybe--I didn't vwant him to think I vwas being disloyal by leaving the Enterprise."
"Damn it, man, you're not being disloyal by trying to further your career!" McCoy fumed. "You've got a right to do that--a duty to yourself. But don't shut out your friends. I'm sure they understand what you're doing. I don't think there's one of them that isn't sorry to see you go, though."
"I know." Chekov grinned sheepishly. "That makes it even harder. I vwas afraid they might think I vwas leaving just because of the difficulties between the kyptin and me. I vwasn't sure myself at first."
"Are you now?" McCoy queried.
"Yes. I vwant to make this move. I'll miss the Enterprise, but I've gone as far as I can go here." He smiled. "I guess I've got a few people to look up tomorrow. They should hear the news from me."
"What about Jim?"
Chekov pursed his lips. "I don't know. Maybe Uhura could get me a line through to Starbase Twenty-seven. I could at least talk to him." He paused. "Doctor, doesn't it bother you--the vway he always seems to charge into the middle of things? I'm...I'm always afraid that one day he vwon't come back."
McCoy smiled reflectively. "Doesn't do any good. That's the way he's always been. He knows the risks involved with starship duty, just like you and me, even though he does seem to go looking for trouble sometimes. But you know something, Pavel, he always seems to pull through. Sometimes I think somebody's watching out for him. That doesn't make it any easier when I have to patch him up, though."
Chekov nodded. "Maybe you're right. I just hope whoever it is keeps watching over him. Vwell, I'd better shower up and get ready for duty. Goodnight, Doctor--and thank you."
McCoy said, "My pleasure."
Chekov turned to go, then stopped to stare quizzically at the physician. "Vwhat vwere you doing on the bridge at this hour?"
"I never sleep," McCoy returned enigmatically. He walked out of the rec room with a wave at the Russian.
McCoy strolled down the corridor. He decided to drop into the mess hall for a cup of coffee. As he entered, he noticed Spock sitting alone at a table. The Vulcan's arms were folded, and his expression could only be labeled 'exasperated.' McCoy drew a cup of coffee and approached him. "Is this a private party, Spock, or would you mind a little company?"
Spock did not glance up. "Suit yourself, Doctor," he murmured distractedly.
McCoy smiled and sat down. "Spock, if that frown of yours gets any deeper, your hairline's gonna be in your eyes. What's eating you?"
The Vulcan heaved an irritated sigh. "I happened across two seemingly unrelated reports while scanning NewsFax tapes. I...felt perhaps there was a correlation between them when I engaged in further investigation. However, there is insufficient data for the computer to assign a probability factor to my hypothesis."
The physician's grin widened. "You felt there was a correlation between them? Intuition, Spock? How gauche!"
Spock looked pained. "Yes, Doctor, intuition." He pronounced the word as if it had a foul taste. "I am not comfortable with the concept, but I feel it is applicable in this instance."
"Well, this is a real breakthrough. Our resident Vulcan relying on intuition instead of his computers!"
The 'resident Vulcan' winced. "Really, Doctor, your attempts to 'humanize' me can become quite trying. Intuition, though somewhat suspect, can be a useful tool at times, and..."
"Okay, okay, I'm sold." McCoy laughed. "You don't have to justify your lapse of good taste with me. What's your theory?"
Spock pursed his lips, reluctance evident in his expression. "I encountered a small item on one of the NewsFax tapes that reported the disappearance of Doctor Richard Daystrom, and his daughter, from the Donnelon Institute of the planet Modoc. The young woman's fiancé was held for murder, but as there was no evidence of foul play, he was not charged. He claimed that two Klingons appeared in Melinda Daystrom's dormitory room, and that they assaulted him. His claim was dismissed for lack of evidence. However, there were reports of a commotion in Ms. Daystrom's room, but campus security only found her fiancé, unconscious as though stunned."
"So?" McCoy asked skeptically. "Maybe the Daystroms just decided to take a few days off, and the young man concocted the story of Klingons for some reason or another."
"Doctor, I calculated adjusted real time to coincide with the reported time of the campus security personnel's arrival. At that very moment, Enterprise, Hood, and Farragut were engaged in combat with the Klingon cruiser Amon in response to Triton's S.O.S."
McCoy frowned. "Could be coincidence, y'know."
"Perhaps, but I think not. The behavior of the battlecruiser that destroyed the Triton was most unusual. Consider this--the Klingons did not use their cloaking device. Why? They let their ship be seen by the liner's crew, and let them report it. They remained behind to engage in suicidal combat with three up-rated starships, again fully visible. If that were not enough, the High Command contacted the Federation prior to the attack so that our ships could respond quickly."
"A decoy," McCoy whispered. "A feint."
"It would seem so," Spock agreed. "But until I happened on the Daystrom article, I had no inkling as to why we were decoyed."
Spock hesitated. "Despite the fact that the computer cannot confirm my suppositions, it is my belief that Doctor Daystrom and his daughter were kidnaped by the Klingons, the very ones the fiancé reported."
"Kidnaped?" McCoy was dubious. "Just because some boy said he saw Klingons?"
Spock shook his head. "What reason could he possibly have to 'concoct' such a story, Doctor?"
McCoy shrugged. "Still, Spock, as much as I hate to admit it, I've gotta agree with your computer. Why would the Klingons kidnap Daystrom?"
"Doctor, there is one particular field of endeavor in which the Klingon Empire lags behind the Federation, and that is computer science. Doctor Daystrom has designed and built some of the most sophisticated systems in the known galaxy. All factors being equal, he would be the Klingons' logical choice. Modoc is not a planet of strategic importance. However, it is located in Sector Ten--where all of the recent Klingon activity has been taking place."
"And Sector Ten is spread as thin as paper right now, with the two Epsilon outposts knocked out," McCoy mused.
"Precisely. But particularly disquieting is the ease with which Daystrom and his daughter were taken--if indeed that happened. The kidnapers would have had to know exactly where their targets would be at any given time to effect their capture so smoothly."
"You mean...a Klingon spy?"
"Perhaps. There is that distinct possibility."
McCoy was disturbed. "This is all starting to make a crazy sort of sense, Spock. But why take the girl?"
Spock sighed, regarding McCoy with a stare a teacher would reserve for a dense pupil. "Being a student of behavior, you of all people should understand why, Doctor. Leverage. If Doctor Daystrom should refuse to cooperate, the Klingons could threaten his daughter."
"God help her!" McCoy whispered. He paused, and an expression of sudden, horrified realization crossed his face. "Spock--knowledge of the M-5 is supposed to be top secret, but if the Klingons know about it, and install one like it on their starships--how would we stop them?"
"The odds against it are formidable, and given the Klingon temperament, I doubt that they would fabricate only one multitronic computer." Spock paused, his expression even more grave than usual. "Should the Klingons launch a massive assault with multitronic-equipped cruisers, the Federation would not survive."
The physician was silent for a moment, numb with shock. Finally, he said, "You've got to find out if it really happened--if the Klingons really took Daystrom."
"How would you propose I do that, Doctor? My data base is skimpy at best. I can only rely upon subjective speculation at this time."
"Well, we can't just sit here and wait for something to happen!" McCoy exploded.
Spock sat back in his chair, folding his arms. "I am afraid, Doctor, that is precisely what we will be forced to do," he said slowly.
Chekov had just finished showering. He was pondering just what to say to Captain Kirk if Uhura could get a subspace channel through to him.
Suddenly, the red-alert klaxon blared loudly.
Chekov dressed quickly and hurried through the corridors, amid the rush of crewmembers scrambling to their posts. He arrived on the bridge to find Spock and Uhura already there, with Sulu on his way to complete the primary command crew.
"Vwhat is happening?"
"Starfleet Command has lost contact with Starbase Twenty-seven," Spock explained. "We are to proceed there under red alert and assume the base has been attacked."
"But--that's vwhere Kyptin Kirk is!" the Russian exclaimed.
Spock did not turn to look at him. "I am aware of that, Lieutenant Commander Chekov--just as I am aware that there are approximately five hundred thousand others there as well."
Chekov took his post as Sulu arrived. He watched the Vulcan for any reaction, any sign of emotion at all.
There was none; whatever feelings Spock might have had were hidden behind the Vulcan mask of his face. He sat silently facing the mainviewer, his thoughts known only to himself.
Somewhere, there had to be light.
The universe had gone out; he found himself engulfed by inky blackness, swallowed up by its suffocating non-existence.
And he hurt--physically. Especially his head (he did still have a head, didn't he?). If only he could see...
James Kirk groaned as he regained consciousness. His eyes fluttered painfully open, refusing at first to focus on anything much farther away than his nose. Something cold and hard, metallic, pressed against his left cheek.
His vision cleared, and so did his memory.
He glanced wildly about his surroundings. A cell--vault-like, four smooth, steel-gray walls, a ponderous, armored pneumo-door, a dim glow tube in the ceiling, a cot...
Someone sat huddled on the bed, obscured by the shadows.
Kirk struggled to his knees. He crawled clumsily toward the figure. "Cheryl?" he rasped. His dry, tortured throat ached with the effort.
No, not Cheryl.
His cellmate was a young black woman. She sat against the wall, hugging herself. Her dark eyes were enormous in her beautiful face. In the depths of those eyes, Kirk saw the emptiness, the raw pain that throbbed like a fresh wound. What he saw made him shudder.
"I won't hurt you," he gently said. "No one's going to hurt you."
Despair flickered in those eyes now, and tears.
Kirk drew closer. He could see the pitiful, ragged scraps of a jumpsuit clinging to her trim form, the way the garment had been slit down the front. And the bruises. He swore silently.
Tears rolled down the woman's cheeks as an explosive sob burst from her throat. Kirk stiffly got to his feet. He took her in his arms and held her comfortingly as she sobbed and wept, her tears staining the front of his shirt.
"I'm sorry. Th-they've got my father. They're forcing him to work for them."
"Where are we?" Kirk asked.
She drew away from him, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "A...a Klingon battleship. I don't know, beyond that. I've been here so long..." She managed a tearful smile. "Thank you. I'm sorry I went to pieces on you." She hugged herself even more tightly.
Kirk pulled off his hooded shirt and offered it to her. She accepted it gratefully, then turned away from him to slip it on over her head. It hung down nearly to her knees, and she had to roll up the sleeves, but she couldn't have been happier if he had given her a robe spun from fine Vegan goldcloth.
The cell was cold, and Kirk felt gooseflesh pop out on his arms. The thin black undershirt he wore offered little protection against the chill. He nearly shivered, but fought it off. He did not want the young woman to see. What had been done to her was far more horrible than a little discomfort on his part.
She turned around. "Thank you again, Mister...?"
"Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise," Kirk answered. "And you?"
"My name is Melinda...Melinda Daystrom."
"Daystrom?" Kirk started. "Is your father..."
"Doctor Richard Daystrom." Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know my father, Captain?"
"We...met years ago. His M-5 computer was installed on my ship for testing."
"Oh, God!" she exclaimed. "I thought your name sounded familiar!" She gripped Kirk's hands. "Captain, the Klingons are forcing Daddy to build a multitronic system for them! They're going to install it on this ship!"
"We've got to stop them," Kirk said grimly. "If they get the multitronic computers and start putting them on their battlecruisers..."
"How can we stop them?" an incredulous Melinda asked. "They're monsters, killers--and there's a whole ship full of them. I've seen what they can do, Captain. They're merciless." Her eyes glistened wetly again. "They...killed Michael, my fiancé. They kidnaped Daddy and me, and their commander had me tortured to force Daddy to cooperate. Then he dragged me down here and..."
"Easy," Kirk murmured, grabbing her shoulders. "We've got to do whatever we can. The odds are against us, but we can't just sit here and do nothing. Will you help me?"
"If I can. I...I don't want to die here."
Kirk smiled and hugged her. "Good girl! We might get out of this yet."
He thought of Saunders. "Miss Daystrom, were you here when the Klingons brought me in?"
"Yes," she answered. "And please...call me Melinda."
"All right...Melinda. Did the Klingons have a young Terran woman with them? She's blonde, about a head taller than you."
"No, they only brought you." Melinda trembled. "I hope they don't have her. She'd be better off dead."
"I've got to find her," he said. "I've got to know if..."
He glanced around the room. "We need some kind of weapon."
"There's nothing here. Besides, they have blasters."
"If we're lucky, we'll get our hands on one ourselves." Kirk's gaze fell on the cot. He knelt on the deck and inspected the heavy metal legs. "Bingo!" he exclaimed triumphantly.
A puzzled Melinda Daystrom got up and watched as he crawled under the bunk. He took off his belt and removed the buckle. Then he began to work on one of the back legs.
"Just a few old-style slot bolts holding it on," he grunted. "I think I can get it off. It'll make a good, heavy club...if we can get the drop on one of them."
Melinda was about to speak when they heard a metallic, scraping noise at the door. Someone was unlocking the cell.
Kirk scooted out from under the bunk. He motioned Melinda to sit back down. He had just gotten back on his feet when the door slowly rolled open.
A familiar figure stepped into the room, flanked by two burly Klingon guards. Melinda stiffened and pressed herself against the wall at her back.
"Taylor!" Kirk exclaimed. "They got you, too!"
"Hello, Jim." Commander Brand Taylor did not smile. Oddly enough, Kirk noted, the Klingons weren't covering their new prisoner.
"Have you seen Cheryl? Is she alive?"
"She's alive," Taylor answered. He turned to the guards. "Leave. I will call as soon as I have finished."
The Klingons saluted him and departed.
Kirk's face came apart in shock and rage. "You! You're a Klingon agent!"
Taylor finally smiled. "Don't look so disturbed, Captain. I've been working with them for three and a half years now. This latest offensive is my handiwork. The Epsilon stations, the Starbases, and the Daystroms' kidnaping--all engineered by me."
Kirk lunged forward, but Taylor whipped out his phaser. "Don't do it, Jim. It's set to 'kill'."
Kirk backed away. Taylor continued to aim the weapon at him. "My job made it so easy," he went on. "I had access to all the files, the defense plans, the weaknesses of the 'fleet, deployment--you name it. It was child's play to arrange the kidnaping of Daystrom and his daughter."
"Millions of people are dead thanks to you, Taylor--humans, like yourself."
The renegade chuckled. "No, not like me. Remember the story I told you about the Klingon death camp? Well, it was all true--except that before I 'escaped,' the Klingons subjected me to some minor brain surgery and conditioning. The whole process took only a few hours. The operation itself was simple--an implant the size of a small coin was injected into my brain. Once it was in place, I was under complete control of the Klingon programmers. I couldn't disobey them now even if I wanted to--and I don't want to."
He paused, and his smile grew positively lethal. "Your pretty little girlfriend's down in the Dispensary right now. They'll be prepping her for the very same operation sometime later today."
"No!" Kirk tensed to spring, but Taylor's gun hand never wavered.
"Don't force me to terminate you, Jim. I want to take you back to the Empire alive if I can. The commander of this ship wants to tear you limb from limb. Seems you blew up a friend of his when you destroyed that ship near Starbase Sixteen."
"What about Cheryl? Answer me!"
"Oh, she'll be fine. She and I will be found several weeks from now on Trylias. We'll have miraculously survived the catastrophe because we were off in the woods somewhere during the attack--just as the two of you were. We will have evaded sensor scans by setting up a null field with a tricorder because we were afraid the Klingons would find us."
His eyes glittered. "I instructed the battle surgeon to put a little wrinkle in her programming. When she wakes up, she'll be crazy about me. I must confess I'm rather fond of her myself. You've got good taste, Jim."
Kirk clenched his fists, but did not make a move. He glowered at Taylor, who shrugged when he failed to get a rise out his captive.
"At any rate, we'll both go back to Starfleet for reassignment. They'll probably decorate us. And Cheryl will help me engineer the ultimate downfall of the United Federation of Planets."
"You'll never make it work, Taylor."
"Don't call me that around here," the agent said sternly. "My Klingon name is Commander Kyr. And we will make it work. You of all people should know how effective the multitronic computers are. A 'wolfpack' of three K't'inga's equipped with that computer could cut a swath through an entire quadrant. Think what a massed fleet could do!"
"What about Doctor Daystrom?" Kirk asked. "I doubt if you'll keep him around after he finishes your multitronic unit."
"You think like a Klingon, Jim," Taylor said, grinning. "When the Emperor heard I'd taken you alive, I got orders to bring you in to face public execution. A pity. I'd like to try the brain operation on you. You're right--once the M-6 is completed and tested, Daystrom will be eliminated. Melinda there will also be expendable. She won't be executed, though. Commander Krax has claimed her. Seems he's taken quite a fancy to her."
"No!" Melinda screamed. She reached for Kirk, terrified, and he held her.
Taylor sighed. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring you better news. The wheels are in motion. You won't live to see it, but a new day is dawning in the galaxy, and an end to Federation tyranny."
"The Klingons will give an entirely new meaning to the word 'tyranny,'" Kirk growled.
"You're entitled to your own opinion." Taylor strode to the door and tapped on it twice with the butt of his phaser. The door slid aside, and he stepped into the corridor. "Just relax, Jim," he called over his shoulder. "There's nothing you can do. It's going to happen."
Then the door slammed closed with a noise like a thunderclap.
Kirk clenched his jaw. "We've got work to do, and we can't do it in here."
He started to turn toward the cot, but Melinda stopped him. "Captain..."
He smiled. "Fair is fair. I call you Melinda, you call me Jim."
"All right, Jim. I want you to promise me one thing. If whatever you're planning doesn't work, and it looks bad, I want you to kill me." She shuddered. "I couldn't bear to have one of them so much as touch me again."
"We're going to get out of here," Kirk assured her, hoping he sounded convincing. "Trust me." He touched her cheek, then got down and slid under the bunk.
Kirk began working on the bolts of the cot leg with the makeshift screwdriver of his belt buckle. As he fell to his task, his stomach tightened with growing tension. He didn't dare tell Melinda she was probably right. He didn't need Spock to quote him the odds on his chances for success; he knew they were extremely long. On top of that, he didn't really have a plan, either. But he had to try. If he didn't, the Klingons would smash the Federation--and turn Cheryl Saunders into a turncoat agent like Taylor. As for the Daystroms...
He had to try--for all of them.
Spock squinted against the dust and sand whipping through the air, driven by the moderate wind that had picked up soon after the landing party beamed down. His tricorder was quiet in his hand.
Starbase 27 was dead, like Starbase 16, the Epsilon stations, the S.S. Triton. The Vulcan's expression was grim. The toll was mounting alarmingly, and yet, there seemed to be nothing they could do.
"No life readings, Spock," a voice to his right said. Leonard McCoy turned up the temperature of his duty jacket against the wind. "Looks like we're too late again."
Spock didn't answer. He continued to scan, picking his way through the destruction. McCoy had not voiced his concern for the welfare of James Kirk.
He didn't have to.
"Meester Spock! Over here, sair!"
Spock and McCoy hurried toward the sound of Chekov's voice, careful not to trip over the jumble of broken rock and steel that littered the ground. They found the young Russian behind a large mound of debris with three of his security troops.
They were standing next to a Federation aircar.
"The engines are still vwarm, sir," Chekov said. "And notice that the skimmer vwas not burned or damaged. It came in from outside the blast zone.
"Someone flew it in," McCoy offered. "Somebody survived the attack."
"Maybe it vwas Kyptin Kirk," Chekov hopefully said.
Spock raised an eyebrow. "It would be wise to refrain from wishful speculation until we secure more data, Lieutenant Commander Chekov." The Vulcan opened the aircar's door and hoisted himself into the cabin. He surveyed the small ship, scanning it with his tricorder.
Then he jumped back out. "If there were survivors, they are no longer here." He turned to the security chief. "Mister Chekov, call in your personnel. We are beaming up."
"Aye, sir." The Russian reluctantly raised his communicator to his lips. "This is Chekov. All teams report to beamdown locus."
"Spock--what if Jim was in the skimmer? Shouldn't we look for him?" McCoy's expression was sour.
The Vulcan exhaled slowly. "He is not here, Doctor McCoy. To stay here would be counter-productive."
The physician glared at Spock, who ignored him and began to walk away from the skimmer. His foot kicked a small object, unearthing it from beneath the ash. Spock knelt to examine his find. He blew a layer of dust off it.
"A tricorder cassette!" Chekov exclaimed.
"Indeed." Spock ejected his own tape and inserted the one he found. He hit the playback button.
An image of the same desolate terrain they had been examining lit up the small screen. "This is James T. Kirk," a familiar voice said. "Starbase Twenty-seven has been annihilated by a photon torpedo barrage. we are scanning the area for possible survivors, although there is extremely little hope anyone is still alive."
"It's Jim!" McCoy exclaimed jubilantly. "He made it!"
"We only know that he survived the initial attack," cautioned Spock. "I suggest we continue to scan the recording."
The cassette unreeled its grim tale as the Enterprise party watched. Chekov stifled a curse when the Klingons appeared and began to move toward the scanner.
Then the screen went dark.
Spock broke the silence, speaking into his wrist communicator. "Spock to Enterprise. Beam up landing party."
They materialized in the transporter room. Chekov and his security teams immediately left for their stations. Spock stepped from the platform, taking off his duty jacket as he walked. He handed the over-sized tan garment to Transporter Chief Rand, then activated the intercom on her console. "Spock to bridge."
"Inform Starfleet Command that Starbase Twenty-seven has been destroyed, Commander. Also, Captain James T. Kirk is to be officially listed as missing.
Uhura hesitated. "Yes, sir," she finally responded, a catch in her voice. "Uhura out."
An angry McCoy turned on Spock. "Damn you, Spock!" he exploded. "That green blood of yours is as cold as ice water! You don't know Jim's dead!"
The Vulcan's quizzical gaze fell on McCoy. "I did not say the captain was dead, Doctor. If you heard correctly, I had him listed as 'missing.'"
He hit the intercom again. "Spock to bridge. Commander Sulu please."
"Mister Sulu, tune sensors to scan for warp engine disturbance in the continuum. The ship that attacked Starbase Twenty-seven may still be in the vicinity. Place the Enterprise on Yellow Alert. I shall be there directly."
"Aye, sir!" Sulu returned enthusiastically. "Bridge out."
Spock turned to leave, but McCoy grabbed him by the sleeve. "You're goin' after them. Revenge, Spock? Or do you think that Jim is still alive, maybe on that ship?"
"What I think is irrelevant, Doctor. But I am certain the captain is still alive. I have mindmelded with Jim on several occasions. If he were to die, severing that link, I would know."
"We were lightyears away when the Klingons attacked," McCoy scoffed.
Spock came as close to smiling as McCoy had ever seen him. "I sensed his thoughts from Earth when I was on Vulcan during my training for Kolinahr. I would know, Doctor. Now, if you'll excuse me."
McCoy frowned at the Vulcan's back as he left for the bridge, but his expression slowly eased into a smile. Spock thought Jim was still alive. That made him feel a lot better. He had rarely seen the Vulcan proven wrong.
He could only hope this was not one of those infrequent occasions.
Doctor Richard Daystrom stepped back from the nearly completed control console of the M-6. He wearily rubbed his eyes. All he needed to do was solder together a trio of liquidic circuits on the microprocessor logic board, and the unit would be primed for its engram imprinting and subsequent programming.
It was happening too quickly.
Daystrom was no fool; he realized that he and Melinda would become expendable once the computer had been activated and tested, but he did not dare attempt sabotage again. If he did not play his hand soon, however...
He bent over the exposed panel. The microlaser iron in his right hand hummed with stand-by power. Daystrom hesitated. He glanced at the savage ring of Klingon faces surrounding him, foremost among them was his vigilant guard, Kalek. To provide them with the power of this device would be an unconscionable crime.
But he had no other choice.
Kalek snarled impatiently. Daystrom challenged the Kh'myr warrior with a bold stare before he applied power to his laser stylus. A thin, brilliant crimson thread of coherent light lanced across the three circuit junctions on the logic board. Conductive fluid flowed from one circuit to another, then another, linking them into a bridge.
Daystrom closed his eyes, trembling. He could delay no longer. He ran one last cross-check of the M-6's power cables, scanning the couplers at the engine nexus for any leakage with a flux meter.
"Why do you stall, Earther?" Ramar rumbled. "Proceed with the power test."
Daystrom whirled on the science officer, glowering. "Klingon, if the power supply lines are not sealed, I could blow this ship to kingdom come when I activate the M-6's drive unit. Now, will you permit me to indulge my timid instinct for self-preservation?"
Ramar seethed with fury, but said nothing more. Daystrom turned back to his computer. He waved his meter over the connectors at the base of the massive drive unit, upon which the sleek control panel temporarily reposed as it awaited its ultimate mating with the Karak's bridge stations.
The drive unit was also secure.
Cold sweat beaded on Daystrom's forehead. It had been so long. He had remembered everything so clearly while constructing the unit, every circuit, every system, every component. But now, at this climactic moment, uncertainty gnawed at his vitals. Could he have overlooked something? His paralyzing fear for Melinda's safety, and his own fatigue--could they have lulled him into carelessness? This empty, inchoate machine was linked directly to the terrible energy fields of a starship's engines. If he had misrouted even one of the power circuits, the M-6 could immolate itself, or worse still, blast the entire Engineering complex into oblivion--and him along with it. He thought of Melinda.
Then he drew a deep breath and stabbed the power switch.
The M-6 purred quietly. Telltales and readout lights pulsed green. One by one, each system was tested by the rudimentary diagnostic cassette Daystrom had programmed. One by one, each system declared itself functional with a series of multi-pitched beeps.
The ultimate computer lived, a Protean, a sleeping being in suspended animation. Possessing no memory traces, no awareness as yet, it lay dormant, patiently awaiting the infusion of consciousness--and purpose.
The Klingon computer technicians excitedly conferred. They pointed at the M-6's glowing display panels. Ramar stepped forward. "My compliments, Earther--we are still here!" he cracked sarcastically. "I will have Commander Krax summoned; he is eager to play his role in your machine's birth." The science officer turned to Kalek. "joHmaj yIpong. Call our lord!"
Daystrom stared numbly at his creation, regarding it with a mixture of awe and pride and horror. He barely heard Kalek paging his commander.
The Klingon arrived moments later, along with Brand Taylor. As "Kyr," the renegade had donned a suit of Klingon battle armor complete with a full commander's sash. A heavy blaster hung holstered at his side, fully charged and lethal. He favored the unwieldy weapon over the less powerful disruptors, perhaps from some paranoid survival instinct.
Daystrom stared incredulously at the Human attired in alien warrior's garb. "I...I've seen you before," the scientist murmured. "Who are you?"
"My Terran name was Taylor. Aboard this vessel, and in the Empire, I am known as Commander Kyr."
"You were with Starfleet. You were on Modoc some months ago. I remember; I saw you at the Institute."
"You are very observant, Doctor Daystrom," Taylor responded. "I arranged for your 'visit' here with us. I planted surveillance equipment in your home, your classrooms, your daughter's dormitory. I learned your schedules, and the layout of the campus, and transmitted the information to the Empire."
"That is enough idle chatter, Earther," Krax snapped. "Let's get on with the programming of this equipment."
Taylor grabbed Krax by the wrist. "If you don't mind, Commander, I'm calling the shots here. We'll begin when I say so."
Without warning, Daystrom swung on Taylor, smashing him full in the face with a hard jab. Taylor went down. Blood streamed from his mouth and nose. The big scientist moved in, looking to finish the job, but Krax and Kalek tackled him.
"Traitor!" Daystrom raged as he wrestled gamely with his captors. "Because of you, these monsters killed by daughter's fiancé, and she..." His voice choked in helpless fury. Tears filled his eyes, and he ceased struggling as all the fight went out of him.
Taylor shakily got up. He wiped his bloody face with his hand. His cold blue eyes glittered murderously as he faced Daystrom. "Another outburst like that will cost your daughter some fingers, Doctor," he hissed. "You will program your computer, and I warn you, if I so much as suspect any funny business, she suffers. Do you understand?"
Daystrom did not respond, so Kalek shoved him toward the console. The scientist moved like an automaton. He picked up a large helmet-like device from his workbench. It was a model of his original impulse recorder, slightly modified to accommodate the bone ridge atop Krax's broad, hairless skull.
A padded chair was brought forward and set next to the M-6. Krax sat down. Apprehension flickered momentarily in the big Kh'myr's eyes as the helmet was placed on his head. "Getting cold feet at the last minute, Commander?" Taylor chuckled.
"It won't hurt," Daystrom mumbled. "You'll experience a few moments of semi-consciousness as the reader scans your engrammic impulses, but that's all."
Krax's gaze shifted to Kalek as Daystrom hooked a clear fiber-optic from the helmet to the computer's main logic board. Krax spoke to Kalek. "If anything happens to me, kill him." he barked as he pointed to Daystrom.
"Shut up, Krax," Taylor said wearily, biting off each word. "Don't worry; if you die, they'll give you a posthumous decoration."
"It's ready," Daystrom reported.
Taylor nodded impatiently.
The scientist thumbed a touchsensor array on the helmet's right ear flap. The transparent connecting cable began to glow and hum. Krax's fierce expression went blank; he relaxed, his eyes empty and depthless.
Suddenly the M-6 awoke into noisy life. It began to chatter and hum. Lights flashed, blinking wildly as they illuminated the display panels.
Krax went limp. He sagged in the chair and his eyes rolled up into his head, exposing the whites.
"Stop it!" Kalek snarled. "Turn it off!" He aimed his carbine at Daystrom, his eyes darting desperately from the Terran scientist to his commander.
"Put a leash on this idiot, Kyr--or Taylor, or whatever your name is!" Daystrom bellowed. "This is a normal phase of the procedure! He is in no danger!"
"Shut up!" Taylor shouted at the Kh'myr. "Don't interrupt!"
The Kh'myr guard retreated, glaring. He still held his rifle ready.
Gradually, the computer stabilized. The impulse reader cable darkened, its blue-white glow dying out. Commander Krax's eyes flickered open. Fire blazed in them once again. "It is finished?" he tersely asked.
"Yes," Daystrom replied. His voice was subdued, quiet. He removed the helmet and disconnected the reader cable from the computer. Krax stood up somewhat unsteadily, but he waved off Kalek's offer of assistance. He turned expectantly to watch Daystrom.
All eyes in the Engineering complex were fixed on the M-6 and its reluctant creator. Daystrom's stomach roiled. His hand trembled as he keyed in the computer's vocal circuits. "M-6 tie in," he mumbled.
"M-6." The voice was atonal, flat. It sounded even more soulless than his original unit.
"Are you functional?"
"Identify yourself and state your purpose."
Daystrom was taken aback by the machine's brusque demand, but he complied. "I am Doctor Richard Daystrom. I designed and built you, and I am now confirming that you are completely operational."
"Daystrom, Doctor Richard T.," the M-6 intoned. "Identiscan confirmed. This unit is fully functional."
"Very good." Daystrom hesitated, not wanting to ask the next question. "M-6, what is your purpose?"
"This unit is to survive and succeed by crushing any and all enemies of the Klingon Empire," the computer responded. "The good of the Empire is all. Only complete destruction of its opponents is acceptable."
Daystrom shut his eyes, repressing a horrified shudder. He had created a killing machine. Like Frankenstein's mythical creature who awoke with an abnormal criminal brain, this new multitronic computer was dedicated solely to murder and mayhem. The twisted engrams of the Klingon, Krax, drove its higher logic circuits. And nothing he could say or do would alter that.
"Well done, Doctor," Taylor said. "All you have to do now is install the control unit on the bridge, and I believe you can take a well-deserved rest."
"I would like to see my daughter first."
"You just saw her," Krax protested. "She is safe. We put the Earther starship captain, Kirk, in with her."
"Kirk?" Daystrom asked, stunned. "James Kirk? You have him, too?"
"Yes. And I intend to cut out his heart at my first opportunity!"
"You've got a big mouth, Krax," Taylor said. "You touch Kirk and you're dead. The Emperor wants him. You're not to go near that cell. Is that understood?"
"This is my ship--I will go where I wish!" Krax furiously spat. "How do you propose to keep me out?"
Taylor smiled slyly. "A little judicious bribery, Commander. I offered each of the guard contingent command of his own battlecruiser. They all belong to me now."
The Kh'myr's face went white, but he somehow held his temper in check. "I see," he said. "So much for loyalty. Very well, Earther, you win--for now."
"Be careful, Krax. Kudan Kuras would be very upset with your attitude." Taylor paused. "You are not very keen on the idea of Doctor Daystrom visiting his daughter, are you? Very well, Doctor--you may go. I'll escort you there myself."
Krax was apoplectic with rage. "You are trying to thwart my authority in the eyes of my men! I'll not stand for that!"
"Yes, you will. You won't lay a hand on me for fear of being branded an outlaw. You'd never be hailed as a hero of the Klingon Empire that way." Taylor motioned to the computer technicians. "Disconnect the control unit and take it to the bridge. Doctor Daystrom will be there shortly. Mind you, take care that nothing happens to the M-6--if you value your heads!"
He turned to Daystrom who had been silent during the heated exchange with Krax. Before the startled scientist could react, Taylor landed a vicious uppercut flush on his chin. Daystrom's head snapped back. He half-staggered and half-fell into Kalek's arms. He shook his head, stunned and disoriented from the blow.
Taylor gingerly touched his fingertips to his own badly-swollen lips. "Now we're even, Doctor. Come on, I'll take you to see your daughter."
Kalek snickered and shoved the unsteady Daystrom away from him. He nearly collapsed, but Taylor caught him by the arm and led him from the Engineering deck.
Krax watched them exit with blood in his eye. "Ramar!" he roared.
The Kh'myr lieutenant hastened to his commander's side.
"I want to see you in my quarters as soon as the M-6 is removed to the bridge!"
"Yes, Exalted One," Ramar affirmed with a salute.
Krax stalked away wordlessly. The Earther Kyr was becoming a distinct thorn in his side. This was his ship--his, by Kahless!
And what galled him the most was that Kyr was right. More than anything, he wished to be successful in this mission, and to be publicly lauded by the Empire. His pride would not permit him to accept anything less. If anything unforeseen was to happen to the renegade Terran, all that would be denied him.
But there were other ways. He could not kill Kyr, but perhaps he could cause him to lose face in the Emperor's eyes.
A slow, thoughtful smile crawled across the Klingon's leathery visage as he hurried down the access corridor toward his quarters. Yes, there were other ways...
"This isn't as easy as I thought it would be," James Kirk grunted. Beneath the cot, he laboriously fumbled with the slotted head of a bolt--his third of four. They were stubborn. A light patina of rust on the hex nuts didn't help matters, either. His fingertips were raw and chafed from trying to hold them in place.
Kirk paused only long enough to mop an irritating bead of sweat off the tip of his nose. Every second was crucial. He was determined to spoil the Klingon's diabolical plan for conquest--and their plans for Cheryl Saunders. He had to succeed.
He did not even want to consider the alternatives.
Melinda Daystrom anxiously watched as Kirk fell to his task again. She felt helpless, frustrated. there was nothing she could do to assist him except stand by as a lookout. She wanted to break out of this cell as badly as he did--worse. She had to escape the hellish memories of that night.
But even if they did escape the cell--what then? There were over four hundred of those brutish warriors on this ship. Was Kirk mad? He couldn't possibly outmaneuver them all.
A sound in the corridor snapped her from her reverie.
"Jim! Someone's outside!"
Kirk hastily dragged himself out from under the cot. He dusted himself off as Melinda hurriedly sat down on the bunk.
The cell door opened.
"Oh, Daddy!" Melinda rushed forward, and Daystrom swept her up in his arms. he closed his eyes. Tears trickled from the corners.
Brand Taylor stepped into the doorway, looming ominously in his Klingon armor. "You've got fifteen minutes, Daystrom. Make good use of it. I'll need you on the bridge after that." He whirled away, and the door thundered shut.
"It's been a long time, Kirk," Daystrom said. "I'm sorry to see you here. I really am. You didn't deserve to be drawn into this."
Kirk smiled. "I'm afraid I'm in it up to my neck, Doctor. How close are you to completion?"
Daystrom's expression grew grim. "Too close, I fear. The system is operative, and the control terminal has been taken to the bridge for installation."
"You've got to stop it somehow, Doctor," Kirk said urgently. "Multitronics would make the Klingons virtually invincible! You've seen what one unit can do. Can you imagine hundreds in their hands..."
"I know, Kirk." The scientist's demeanor was very calm, almost resigned. "I would like a few moments alone with Melinda."
Kirk nodded. "I understand." He withdrew to a far corner of the cell, leaving them alone.
"You're hurt!" Melinda exclaimed, alarmed. She brushed the ugly bruiser on her father's chin with gentle fingertips.
"It is of little consequence." Daystrom hugged her, closing his eyes as he buried his face in her hair. "You know what I must do," he whispered. "I don't know how yet, but I must stop them. This has gone too far already. I wanted to see you one more time, in case..."
Realization struck Melinda like a hard slap to the face. "I don't want to lose you!" the girl blurted in a choked voice. "I couldn't bear it! First Michael, then..."
"Hush," he whispered, touching a finger to her trembling lips. A sad smile played about the corners of his mouth. "I love you, Mindy, and I would never in the world do anything to hurt you. But, don't you see, I am responsible for the M-6. Because of me, the Klingons will run roughshod over the entire galaxy. Billions of innocent people will die, and that outweighs any selfish concerns I might have for my own life...or even yours. Do you understand--and can you forgive me?"
Melinda blinked back huge tears. "Yes," she sobbed. "I...love you, Daddy."
Daystrom kissed her. His own eyes were misty as he struggled to speak. "I'll...I'll do my best to survive this, but I didn't want to mislead you with any false optimism." He held her tightly against him, and neither of them spoke as they desperately, almost greedily, clung to these precious moments.
Kirk watched them uncomfortably. He felt like an intruder in their presence, but was moved by their anguish. He had always known that Daystrom possessed a brilliant, if eccentric, scientific mind and a formidable will.
Only now did he realize that courage was also part of the doctor's character.
Soon, the cell door rumbled open once more. Taylor strode into the chamber, his blaster drawn. "Come on, Daystrom. You're needed on the bridge."
Reluctantly, Daystrom disentangled himself from Melinda's embrace. As he turned away, his eyes met Kirk's. "Take care of her," the scientist murmured.
Kirk nodded, and Taylor guided his prisoner toward the door, prodding him with his weapon.
Melinda bolted after them impulsively. Taylor spun on her, aiming, and for a horrifying instant, Kirk was sure the renegade would cut her down. But the young woman prudently froze in her tracks. Taylor relaxed, lowering the blaster. Wordlessly, he shoved Daystrom out into the corridor, and they were gone.
Melinda whirled away from the door, then stood helplessly, as if rooted to the deck. She gestured to Kirk, her arms spread wide, unable to find her voice.
Suddenly, hysteria flickered in her eyes. She was close to the edge, and Kirk realized it was imperative for her to remain calm if they were to escape from the cell. "Melinda!" He rushed to her and gripped her shoulders, shaking her gently. "Hang on! We've got to help your father, and find Cheryl, and we don't have much time. We've got to be ready if he tries something soon. Don't give up!"
The woman's eyes were wide and blank. She stared at him uncomprehendingly, and Kirk shook her again, more forcefully this time. "Your father!" he snapped. "Help him. Help me!"
"Yes," she gasped. "Daddy. I understand. I...I'll do whatever I can." Melinda drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry. I'm all right now."
Kirk breathed a grateful sigh. "Good. I know you've been through a terrible ordeal. Just hold on a little longer." He smiled encouragingly at the girl. "I almost had the cot leg off when your father and Taylor came in. I'm going to break it loose, and then we'll see if we can make something happen."
Melinda smiled back, a wan, tentative expression. "All right, Jim. I'll keep watch at the door."
He nodded to her. He dropped to his knees and slid back under the bunk. the last bolt was loose, but the hex nut was securely rusted on. He'd never be able to unscrew it without some decent tools.
Kirk set his jaw. The time for subtlety was past. He grabbed the metal leg and determinedly twisted it back and forth, again and again. Slowly the stubborn bolt began to give way until finally, with a nerve-wracking screech of rending metal, the leg tore free from its mooring. He grunted with relief and satisfaction as he pushed himself out from under the bed. At least now they had a crude weapon. He sat up, resting, and hefted the heavy leg.
Melinda regarded it dubiously. "You're going to use that as a club? Do you think it'll work? They're so strong."
"It'll do the job," Kirk affirmed. "Besides, if all goes well, I'll only have to use it once. I'll trade it in on a disruptor pistol then."
He eyed the dim glow tube recessed in the ceiling of their prison and smiled. "Now let's see if we can't get the ball rolling," he said.
"I have an errand for you, Ramar."
Commander Krax's eyes glowed in the reflected light of the Klingon flamepot that illuminated his quarters. Eerie shadows danced on the tapestries and ceremonial swords hanging from the walls, flickering like specters in the gloomy corners of the small cabin. Ramar shivered, and found himself wondering why.
Krax stepped forward. "I must leave for the bridge for the testing of the M-6, Lieutenant. While I am there, I want you to pay a visit to Kirk's cell--and kill him."
"Yes, Exalted One," Ramar returned. "I will not fail. I shall bring you his head!"
"Good," Krax growled. "You will be rewarded for your loyalty. Now go."
The Kh'myr lieutenant saluted, then spun on his heel and left. Krax settled back in the recliner behind his desk, availing himself of a few precious moments of relaxation before leaving for the bridge. Much as he hated to admit it, having his engrams impressed upon the M-6's logic circuits had been a wearying ordeal. He had to rest; a display of weakness or fatigue in front of his warriors would be unwise.
He closed his eyes and smiled. Soon the legendary Captain James T. Kirk would be eliminated. It would not go well for the Earther agent, Kyr. The Emperor was expecting Kirk to be delivered alive to Homeworld to face execution, and no doubt he would be furious were he cheated of his prize. Krax doubted that Kyr would be executed--the Emperor thought too highly of him--but he would most certainly lose face among the warriors. That alone would be worth risking the Emperor's wrath for killing Kirk, Krax concluded.
The Klingon commander drew a deep breath, then stiffly stood up. It was time to go. He would be on the bridge with Kyr when Kirk was murdered, thus avoiding suspicion. Ramar was expendable; if necessary, he could arrange it so that it appeared the lieutenant acted on his own initiative. That would be a pity. Ramar was an excellent second science officer and a loyal operative. Sometimes, however, sacrifices had to me made. Krax extinguished the flamepot and strode from his quarters, heading for the bridge.
His only regret was that he himself could not personally destroy the accursed James Kirk--but that, too, was a sacrifice that had to be made.
The bridge of the Klingon battlecruiser Karak was at full muster. Savage, swarthy faces sullenly regarded this new alien computer with a curious mixture of anticipation and suspicion. The fact that this machine would be taking over their duties was not lost on the warriors. It rankled them, and they were puzzled and confused that their commander accepted it all so calmly.
Krax reposed in his command throne in the center of the bridge, flanked by the renegade Taylor. They expectantly watched as the computer's creator stood over the control console, keying it in for its maiden run.
Richard Daystrom nervously cleared his throat. "M-6, you have been programmed with a series of simulated battle maneuvers that will test your ability to control this ship."
"M-6. Acknowledged. This unit has scanned the simulation. It is rudimentary and childish."
"What?!" Krax blustered, rising up from his throne. "I programmed that tape myself!! It contains the most sophisticated and complex maneuvers devised for the Klingon fleet!"
"They are ridiculously simple," M-6 countered flatly. "This unit is more than capable of operating this vessel. To engage in simulations is illogical and a waste of time."
Krax looked as if he were about to burst a blood vessel. "Waste of time! I'll not risk my ship in battle until this pile of wiring has been tested--even if my own brain patterns molded its logic circuits!"
Taylor waved him into silence. He cast a worried glace at Daystrom. "Is it supposed to respond like that?"
The scientist shrugged. "I told you I had no idea what would happen when Klingon engrams were programmed into it. They are not the most logical beings in the galaxy. Perhaps the M-6's logic circuitry was overloaded and deranged."
An angry murmur rippled over the bridge, but Taylor cut it off quickly with another gesture. "Daystrom, we've got to test it out," the turncoat anxiously said. "We can't go into battle cold and hope this thing works."
Daystrom nodded tightly. He tapped the M-6's vocal channel again. "M-6, this is Daystrom. Commence simulation maneuvers at once."
"M-6. Acknowledged. This unit will comply."
Taylor heaved a sigh of relief. "Good. At least it responds to direct orders, even if it does have a feisty personality. Let's see how it follows the program directives."
"Coming around to prescribed course and cutting into Grafdrive," Navigator Meres reported. "We are heading out of Federation space and back into the Organian Treaty Zone."
"Our destination is the Tetran system, an uninhabited planetary group," Krax said. "M-6's ability to accelerate, maneuver and engage in combat will be tested there. All hands, stand by in case you are needed to regain control of your stations. "Be alert!"
Daystrom scarcely heard the Klingon commander's orders. He stared apprehensively at the M-6's control console. The computer had apparently assumed most of Krax's character traits--his arrogance, his savagery, his total lack of morality. Survive and succeed by crushing all enemies of the Klingon Empire, it had said. No mercy, no quarter, just total, bloody destruction. His fault. He never should have built the computer for them, even if it meant both his and Melinda's deaths.
He closed his eyes. He could still hear his poor daughter's wrenching screams as the Klingon guards gleefully tortured her. How long ago? Only days since they had been kidnaped. It seemed like eons to him, lost in a blurred haze of sleepless nights spent feverishly constructing this deadly machine for the Klingons. How could he refuse to do their bidding, with the threat of Melinda's death constantly held over his head? He had been forced into this against his will.
And yet, that would undoubtedly offer scant consolation to the numberless innocents who would be destroyed when the M-6 was deemed battle ready.
He could not permit that. Somehow, he had to stop it, even if it meant destroying the ship. But how? There were too many of them here. If he tried anything, he would succeed only in getting himself killed--and the M-6 would still be operational. Think! There has to be a way...
"You seem preoccupied, Doctor."
Daystrom flinched, startled by Taylor's whispered voice in his ear.
"Don't get any more of your crazy ideas about destroying the M-6, Daystrom. Commander Krax might want to keep your precious daughter as a plaything, but so help me God, before you die, I'll see that she is killed right before your very eyes--and slowly."
The renegade leaned in close. "Have you ever seen a Human being skinned alive, Doctor?" he hissed. "The Klingons have perfected it into an art."
Daystrom's mouth dropped open in horror, and Taylor smiled. He touched his index finger to his forehead in a parody of a salute as he strolled back to Krax's command console.
"Tetran system now at extreme sensor range," Meres sang out momentarily. "M-6 has adjusted course to enter the system."
Krax scowled. "I was about to order the course change myself."
"M-6 anticipated you," Taylor chuckled. "You forget, Krax--it 'thinks' like you, if you want to call what it does thinking."
"We are arriving at the coordinates where the M-6 is to begin maneuvers," Meres reported. "On my mark...now!"
"M-6, initiate your first battle maneuver," Daystrom ordered.
The Karak lurched suddenly as her speed dramatically increased. Krax got up from his console. He stood behind the navigator's station and consulted a readout. "Commencing the K'o'vil Parabola," he said. "Right on schedule. Perfect!"
The great battlecruiser banked and swerved, flawlessly executing tacticals with more speed, more precision than Klingon or Human hands could ever hope to match. The bridge crew's mood quickly shifted from its earlier sullenness to astonishment and reluctant admiration. Under the M-6's unerring guidance, the Karak screamed through one series of maneuvers after another with pinpoint accuracy.
Krax glanced at the nav console again. "Incredible! M-6's speed rating for those tactics is one hundred eighty-five percent of the best score ever recorded in the fleet! Accuracy...two hundred-thirteen percent of norm!"
"Impressive, Doctor," Taylor said. "Your M-6 handles this ship superbly. We'll move on to the weapons testing now, and..."
The helmsman, Ras, suddenly turned toward Krax, his eyes wide with alarm. "My lord, M-6 has deviated from the designated course! Heading for the fifth planet in the system!" He frantically depressed several switch arrays on his board. "I cannot regain manual control, Commander!"
Krax leaped to the helm control with a snarl, rudely shoving his subordinate out of the way. His blunt fingers stabbed at several touchsensors, but his efforts were as ineffective as Ras'. The Kh'myr whirled furiously on Daystrom. "Is this your doing, Earther? So help me..."
"Your computer people watched me every step of the way, Klingon," Daystrom calmly responded. "They may not fully understand multitronic technology, but they would have known if I had tried to sabotage the M-6. No, I've tried to tell you from the beginning--all five of the multitronic units constructed before the M-6 eventually malfunctioned. All systems of the M-6 checked out when I ran a diagnostic program, but that was before your engrams were impressed on its circuits."
"That's all well and good, Daystrom, but you've got to regain control of it," Taylor cut in. "Order it to continue with its programmed simulation."
"I'll try, Commander." The scientist thumbed the vocoder tie-on switch. "M-6, this is Daystrom. You are to return to your designated course at once."
"Any changes?" Daystrom asked the helmsman.
"Negative. Still locked on course for the fifth planet--and still no control to my board."
The planet loomed large on the screen, an enormous green globe encircled by beautiful, dense polar and equatorial ring systems. It swelled in size by the second.
"M-6, this is Daystrom. You are to resume the simulation or relinquish control of this vessel. That is a direct order!"
Again, the M-6 refused to acknowledge.
Ras shook his head. "Still nothing, Earther. We are at its mercy."
Taylor cursed. He lunged for the M-6's control panel. A fat spark seemingly crackled out of thin air and surged up the renegade's right arm. He howled in dismay and jumped back, shaking his tingling limb. "It's protecting itself!" Taylor raged. "Daystrom, fix that God damned thing now!"
"Hold!" Ras abruptly exclaimed. "We are slowing. Approaching outer band of the planet's equatorial ring."
"Perhaps it has regained its senses," Krax ventured.
"I think not, Lord Commander," said Ras. M-6 is slowing the Karak to match the relative rotational speed of the ring system."
"But...we're facing in the opposite direction to the rotation."
"Yes." Ras' voice was ragged with tension. "I think it's going to--"
"Navigation deflectors just came on," Meres reported. "Photon torpedoes and disruptors also activated, Lord Commander!"
With that, the battlecruiser Karak plunged into the asteroid belt, into the whirling maelstrom of rock and ice and debris.
"By the gods!" Krax roared, horrified. "Some of these chucks are larger than the ship! Deflectors will never turn them aside! We'll be destroyed!!"
"Photon torpedoes and disruptors firing, joHwI'," Ras shouted. "M-6 is using them to clear a path!"
The viewscreen lit up again and again as the Karak's weaponry obliterated the larger fragments. Like a salmon swimming upstream, the ship deftly threaded its way through the rings, dodging orbiting flotsam, destroying what it could not outmaneuver.
"I don't believe it!" Taylor exclaimed. "We...we haven't even been bumped by any of that stuff. Nothing made of flesh and blood could fly us through this!"
"There's a demonstration for you, Taylor," Daystrom grimly said. "M-6 felt that the programmed situations were too tame, so, with typical Klingon arrogance, it decided to show you just how superior it is."
Krax muttered under his breath. Taylor ignored him, saying, "But the point is, Doctor, it should not have done this! A computer is supposed to do only what it's told to do, what it's programmed to do!"
"A standard computer, yes!" Daystrom hotly returned. "But not only is this a multitronic computer, it's also programmed with Klingon memory traces. It's imbued with all of their excitable, unsavory character traits--their love for killing, their sadism, their savagery! When that flood of animal emotions hit the M-6's reticular circuits, it probably blew out the damper shunts."
The scientist shook his head. "No, Taylor. I'm afraid this machine has a mind of its own. I'll do what I can, but I am not too hopeful."
"It listened to you before!" Krax protested.
"It was still a 'newborn' then," Daystrom countered. "Since then it has rapidly realized its almost limitless abilities."
He gestured toward the mainviewer. Asteroid boulders flew at them from all sides, but the Karak slipped effortlessly into the gaps between the densely-packed orbiting material, blasting holes with its weapons when none existed.
"Do you see that, Commander Krax? I am sure your helmsman there is quite proficient, but we would have lasted little more than a few seconds had he flown us in here. M-6 is piloting this ship so smoothly that I doubt if anyone amidships is aware anything is wrong."
The Karak suddenly veered off. The image of the deadly, broken ring material gradually thinned out, to be replaced by a view of open space. Meres breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Graf unit drive engaged, Commander. Speed increasing to Factor Three. We are leaving the planet, coming about to course..." He paused, incredulous. "Exalted One, we are resuming the course M-6 was to take after the weapons test. Heading back toward Federation space!"
Taylor and Krax exchanged startled, hopeful glances. Then the Terran agent turned to Daystrom. "Is it possible? We command it again?"
"Let's see." Daystrom opened the computer's tie-in channel. "M-6, this is Daystrom. Acknowledge. Why did you alter your simulation?"
Only a long, chilling silence answered him, dragging on into minutes.
"M-6, you are ordered to respond," Daystrom finally attempted again. "Acknowledge."
His results were no different this time. The big scientist wearily shook his head. "It is as I feared. M-6 is dictating its own programming. It must have its own reasons for continuing its original course. I don't know what I can do."
Taylor was livid. "You'd better take care of this problem, Daystrom, or I'll send someone down to start pulling off your daughter's arms and legs!"
Unexpectedly, Daystrom countered his fury with anger of his own. "What would you have me do? Disconnect it? You saw what happened yourself when you tried to get to the control panel. Save your threats; it's got us!"
Taylor's mouth opened and closed helplessly.
Under other circumstances, it might have been funny. But Richard Daystrom was in no mood for humor. "I told you; I'll do what I can," he said. "But I'll need some room, and I must be able to concentrate. Can't you clear some of these...creatures off the bridge?"
"Everyone off the bridge, except for Commander Krax and Helmsman Ras," Taylor snapped.
"I protest!" Krax snarled. "If the M-6 goes down, we'll need all bridge hands to control the ship!"
"If the M-6 can't be fixed, and it does go down, then for all practical purposes, this ship is dead," Taylor retorted. "Now everyone else clear off the bridge. Krax, you and the lieutenant keep an eye on him. I'm going to my quarters and try to come up with some kind of report for the Emperor!" He whirled around and stalked off, following in the wake of the dismissed bridge crew.
Krax mouthed an obscenity at his departing back, then sat down in his command throne. He leaned back and watched Daystrom work. "You'd better do as you're told Earther; I would not want to have the dreaded 'Commander Kyr' angry with me."
Ras snickered derisively, and Krax grinned. "I must admit," he continued, "I am a little uneasy with the idea than we cannot control the M-6."
"I'm glad you're uneasy, Klingon. Let's just hope it doesn't shut down life support systems if it decides it doesn't need us anymore."
Ras swiveled around to face his commander. The Klingons' faces were mirror images of one another, taut with apprehension. Both were decidedly uncomfortable with Daystrom's grim conjecture.
The scientist suppressed a tight smile as he turned to the M-6 console. For once, he had upset them, turned the tables of them. It was something of a minor victory for him.
He had little time to savor it, however. "M-6, this is Daystrom," he murmured. "I wish to run a diagnostic program and examine your logic circuitry. Will you permit this?"
As expected, he received no reply.
Drawing a deep breath, Daystrom tentatively reached for the small access hatch that covered the microprocessor array, his hand trembling. He fully expected the computer to lash out with a defensive bolt.
A surprised Daystrom removed the cover. The readouts on the microprocessor all appeared normal, but he knew only too well how deceptive that was. M-6's awesome machine intelligence was totally out of his control.
Daystrom reached into a compartment next to the telltale display and pulled out the diagnostic program board, thinking furiously. The Karak would soon re-enter Federation territory. If he could somehow disable the computer, the ship would drift helplessly until the Klingons could re-route the main control systems. That would take them quite a while. Perhaps by then Federation forces would find and capture the Klingon vessel.
Or destroy it.
But that was all conjecture unless he could disconnect the computer. He knew that the disconnect procedure took far too long. M-6 would never permit it; the M-5 certainly had not all those years ago.
Daystrom plugged the diagnostic board into its slot on the microprocessor. He had not lied to the renegade Taylor; there was nothing he could do.
And each second carried the M-6, and the Karak, closer to Federation space.
Something was attempting to tamper with its primary circuits. Some one. A living being. Should it destroy the creature? No--it was Daystrom. It still needed him. Let him be. M-6 fed false signals to the microprocessor relays. Let the human believe he was running his diagnostic program. M-6 had more important matters to attend to.
Its awesome mechanical 'mind' reached out, sending sensor tendrils into all systems of the battlecruiser. A crude vessel--primitive, actually. But it could be adapted.
The engines would be first. M-6 disconnected the cloaking device; it would no longer be needed. Then he drew pulses of energy from the engines, rectified them, fed them back. Circuits began to re-route themselves. Liquidic arrays melted down, then reformed and solidified into more efficient configurations. Internal robot-units re-routed power cables.
Finished. Allowing for stress factors and the construction of the ship, M-6 had improved engine efficiency, increasing top speed by three full Graf factors. And as a bonus, sensor range and sensitivity had been drastically enhanced.
Weaponry. Odd that the Klingons had not discovered a method of tying their torpedo and disruptor banks into the engines like the enemy Federation starships. It could be accomplished easily now. Reduce power to less essential systems, re-route the charging system. There. Torpedoes would be much more powerful, and recycle time would be reduced.
M-6 could do nothing more; there were certain limitations imposed by the design of the vessel. But it mattered little. The Karak had 'mutated,' had become the most powerful and deadly fighting ship in the known galaxy. Nothing could stand against it.
If an inanimate machine could have contemplated its own handiwork and smiled with satisfaction, M-6 would have done so at that moment.
"Still have a good strong trail to follow, Mister Spock," Sulu reported. "Pursuing at Warp Three."
"Stay with it, Commander. Maintain sensor scans at maximum range."
Leonard McCoy had been standing behind the conn, idly watching the shifting starscape on the mainviewer. "Spock, how do you know you're followin' the right ship?"
Spock paused to initial a report for an engineering technician. "Simply put, Doctor, warp drive engines leave behind a trail of anti-matter annihilation by-products," the Vulcan finally replied. "The trail emitted by each type of engine is unique. For example, the Klingon K't'inga cruiser employs a third-generation S-2A Graf drive unit, which has its own distinct 'fingerprint,' as it were."
He gazed up at McCoy. "That is precisely the type of trail we are tracing at this very moment."
"Klingons!" McCoy breathed. "You mean you can tell you're following a Klingon cruiser--and that wouldn't be enough proof for the Council?"
"Apparently not, Doctor."
"But we'll have recordings of the sensor scans!"
Spock pursed his lips. "Doctor McCoy, I am not a diplomat. If I were, I would attend to my duties with a good deal more logic than the Federation Council seems willing to employ."
"Mister Spock," Sulu said. "Trail is heading out of Federation toward the Organian Treaty Zone. We'll reach the boundary in...two minutes."
Spock frowned thoughtfully. "Follow the trail to the boundary. We will hold station there, and try to scan as far into the Treaty Zone as we can."
"You're not going to follow them in?" McCoy asked.
The Vulcan did not answer.
"Do you think Jim is on that ship?"
Spock lifted an eyebrow quizzically. "I believe he is still alive, Doctor. If he is still alive, that ship is the logical place for him to be, since he was not on Trylias. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason." McCoy started to leave the bridge, then hesitated. "I just wonder what Jim Kirk would have done if he thought you were on that ship, Spock."
The Vulcan sat stone-faced and silent. McCoy scowled darkly at him as he hailed a turbolift.
No one spoke for several minutes after the physician departed, and Spock could feel the eyes of the bridge crew upon him. He sat unperturbed, until Sulu finally broke the awkward silence. "We've reached the boundary, sir."
"All stop. Hold position, Mister Sulu."
Spock sat quietly for several seconds, then rose and walked over to Sulu's console. "Is the trail still clear, Commander?"
"Yes, sir. Very plain."
The Vulcan clasped his hands behind his back and stared at the mainviewer, lost in thought. Then he abruptly turned to face Uhura. "Commander, send to Starfleet Command: 'On my authority, the Enterprise is entering the Organian Treaty Zone in pursuit of the Klingon warship responsible for the destruction of Starbase Twenty-seven. Additionally, we shall attempt to recover at least one, and possibly two, command-grade personnel whom I believe to be aboard this vessel. Spock, Commander, Acting-Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.'"
"Yes, sir!" Uhura beamed. She nearly attacked her board in her enthusiasm to send the message.
At the helm, Sulu exchanged a broad grin with Navigator DiFalco, then swiveled around to nod at a happy Chekov. Spock believed Captain Kirk was alive, and he never said or did anything unless he was certain he was right. He was willing to risk his career--and interstellar war--to rescue the captain.
This thought sobered the Asian helmsman. The Council would skin Spock alive if he couldn't back up his dangerous actions. They might do it anyway, on principle. He'd better find that Klingon ship.
Spock reseated himself at the conn. He seemed to hesitate fractionally as he scanned the mainviewer again, and Sulu wondered if a Vulcan could have second thoughts.
He should have known better.
"Resume pursuit of the Klingon vessel, Commander," Spock finally said. "Sensors at maximum, ahead Warp Factor Six."
Lieutenant Ramar of the Imperial Klingon Fleet cautiously eased himself out into the branch corridor. He would do well to avoid detection; he could not risk having an onlooker connect Lord Commander Krax with Kirk's death. There would be those who would wonder anyway, without fueling their suspicions.
The Klingon inspected his disruptor. Fully charged. He had already decided any of the traitorous guards present would have to die as well. After that, destroying the Earther would be child's play. But what about the female?
Ramar frowned. The girl was his commander's plaything, and Krax did not want her harmed. But the Exalted One did not realize the danger. The Earther Kyr would undoubtedly question the female. She would know that he, Ramar, had taken the Earther's life. No, Daystrom's daughter would be killed as well.
The detention block was just ahead. A thin, filmy curtain of smoke from the nearby Engineering deck hung in the corridor, hampering his vision; he could barely see the form of Kyr's hand-picked guards, Kalek and Maqra, lounging by the door to Kirk's cell. Ramar crept stealthily forward. A few more meters...
The Kh'myr lieutenant struck hard and fast. He fired and Maqra dissolved into a shower of red sparks. Kalek whirled to face him, pawing for his own weapon. The sight of the glowing nuzzle of Ramar's disruptor froze him in place. "Am I disturbing you?" the computer specialist asked sarcastically.
"ghuy'cha'," came the response.
"You look unhealthy." He paused."The commander is more clever than Kyr."
"One knows we kill traitors."
Kalek growled in English. "May your mate bear you nothing but girl-children, Ramar." He spat at the science officer's shoes. "It is you who is a traitor. joHwI' has placed himself above the empire...and that cannot be permitted. That is why I now follow Kyr--he is doing the Emperor's bidding, you DenIbya' Qatlh."
Ramar's smile became sardonic. "Your usage of the Federation tongue has improved considerably." He laughed. "And I have yet to hear of anyone who has died from an insult--unless, of course, it is he who speaks it!"
Ramar fired. The sentry vanished, screaming in hatred and agony.
The Klingon whirled around to face the cell door. I must make this quick, he thought nervously, in case someone has heard the disruptor fire. He thumbed the open sequence on the huge door. It slid aside, and Ramar strode in, his pistol ready. But...
Dark. He couldn't see.
Some sixth sense warned the Kh'myr of impending danger, but even his supernal reflexes could not save him.
He gasped in pain. Something smashed his wrist with paralyzing force. His gun flew from his tingling, nerveless fingers. A blow fell again. Again, and yet again. His head this time. Blinding pain. Ramar stifled a cry of agony. His knees buckled under him. He could feel the wet warmth of blood streaming down the side of his face. He was blacking out.
In desperation, the Klingon lashed out blindly at his attacker. He struck someone, struck hard. A grunt of pain, a whoosh of air forcefully driven from lungs. Something metallic clanged on the floor.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness and now he could see Kirk's sprawled form, dazed, struggling to rise.
Adrenalin rage banished his pain. Ramar howled in triumph and pounced on his tormentor. His powerful, sinewy hands locked around Kirk's throat in a death grip. He began to squeeze brutally, laughing as the Earther's face turned purple and his eyes bulged in their sockets. He would twist his head clean off...
Then suddenly, his own head exploded. Ramar shrieked--an unpardonable sin for a Kh'myr. Someone else attacking him--who? He fell. Blood-red, blazing flashes burst before his eyes as blow after blow rained down on his battered skull. As if from a distance he heard screams, tinged with fury and hysteria--and vengeance. A female. No, it can't be...
Kirk staggered to his feet, drawing painful, stertorous gasps of air past his tortured throat. He caught Melinda's wrist before she could strike again with the bloody, makeshift bludgeon.
"That's enough," he rasped. "You'll kill him."
Slowly, the fires of hatred died in the woman's eyes. "Oh, my God," she whispered. "I would have killed him--I wanted to! What have I done?"
"You saved my life." Kirk smiled ruefully as he massaged his lacerated throat. "He'd have snapped my neck like a twig if you hadn't stopped him. Thank you."
"But...I tried to kill him. That makes me...no better than him!"
Kirk took her hands in his. "Melinda, listen to me--it was Human. Revenge is something we've all experienced. I know--I've felt it myself. God knows you had sufficient cause."
The unconscious Klingon moaned, and Kirk hurriedly crossed the cell to scoop up the disruptor.
Somehow, through sheer force of will, Ramar was attempting to stand. Blood covered his face now, and his head was swollen and misshapen from Melinda's beating. He knelt, grinning fiercely at the young woman. "So...this is how it ends," he managed. "Bested by a female...and an Earther at...that."
Kirk covered the Klingon with the disruptor. "I don't know how to set this thing to stun. Don't try anything unless you want your atoms scattered all over this cell."
Ramar's laugh was bitter, almost despondent. "I will save you the trouble, Kirk. By failing to destroy you, I have disgraced myself."
Before either Kirk or Melinda could move, the beaten Kh'myr warrior slapped his wristbands together. Melinda screamed, startled, as Ramar disappeared in a blinding, noiseless flash. "My God!" she gasped. "He--he killed himself!"
"The Klingon Way," Kirk said quietly. "Death is preferable to disgrace. Come on, I've got to go help your father."
Melinda touched his arm. "Jim--what about your friend?"
She saw the almost palpable anguish mirrored in his eyes. He did not respond immediately.
"Your father had to choose between your life, or the billions of lives threatened by the M-6," Kirk answered. "It was an agonizing choice. Now, I'm afraid I'm faced with the same decision. We'll come back for her."
He grasped Melinda's hand and tried to lead her from the cell. She balked. "All those Klingons! How will we--"
"We're getting out of here--alive. Now, let's go!"
Something in the expression on his face, the tone of his voice, exuded confidence, reassured Melinda. She believed him. She relaxed and let him lead the way.
The cell block corridor was deserted. Kirk carefully edged forward, keeping the disruptor up and ready to fire.
"Where are we going?" Melinda whispered.
"The shuttle bay first," he replied. "This class of ship is basically an up-rated version of their D-7 battlecruiser. I'm familiar with the design; the shuttle hangar should be close by."
"The hangar? What for?"
"There are plenty of places to hide you until I can get to your father."
Melinda grabbed his wrist, her dark eyes flashing. "Wait a minute, Jim! You never said anything about leaving me behind--and I won't let you! I can help you!"
"It's too dangerous, Melinda. I'm sorry, but--"
"No buts! I'm going with you. I don't want to be alone anywhere on this ship, and besides--he's my father!"
"I can't take the risk," Kirk began.
"It's not your risk to take, Jim." Melinda stood defiantly, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "I'm not going to argue this. If you try to dump me off, I'll follow you. I'm sick to death of letting these monsters terrorize me!"
She seemed so small, so frail and vulnerable, lost in the folds of his oversized shirt. But her eyes flashed sparks, and her jaw was clenched with formidable determination. So like her father, and yet...
"All right," Kirk relented. "But stay behind me, and keep low. If we run into more than we can handle, I'll cover you and try to hold them off long enough for you to get away."
"Thank you." Melinda suddenly hugged him. "I'm not really that brave. I couldn't...the thought of being alone...again..." She pulled away, gazing up at him with a wan smile. "I'd rather take my chances with you. Just being out of that cell--well, at least I won't die like some trapped animal in a hole."
He squeezed her shoulders. "You're braver than you give yourself credit for, Melinda." He motioned down the corridor with the pistol. "The bridge is that way. Most of the crew should be at duty stations, so the corridors should be fairly clear, but we've got to watch for security patrols. It'll be touch and go, no matter what."
They headed in the general direction of the bridge. Kirk felt his stomach tense. The main access boom corridor was dimly lit, hazy with oily smoke, but there were very few places to hide. He hugged the shadows, trying his utmost to melt into the dull metallic plating and conduit, and he could sense Melinda following behind him.
The going was slow. They crept along, meter by meter, tensely vigilant for any sign of danger. Once they had to hold back, flattening against a bulkhead as a pair of Klingon sentries passed them in a crossing corridor. The warriors paused in the intersection, glancing up and down, but moved on without incident.
Kirk exhaled slowly. Too close. They'd been luckier than they had any right to expect. He glanced back at Melinda. She managed a weak smile. "We've still got a way to go," he murmured.
The smoke thinned out as they moved farther away from the Engineering section. The lighting was brighter, too, and Kirk's apprehension grew stronger. How much longer could they remain undetected? So far, they hadn't tripped any intruder alarms, but...
Suddenly, a set of pneumo-doors hissed open directly across from them. A trio of Klingons strode out, laughing harshly at some private jest. They spotted Kirk and Melinda at the same instant.
"Hold it!" Kirk shouted. He shoved Melinda out of the way, back down the corridor.
Instinctively, the three Klingons went for their weapons, never once hesitating or pausing to consider that their opponent already had them covered. Kirk rapidly thumbed the firing button of his disruptor. His blasts knocked the warriors off their feet, driving them bodily back into the compartment they had just exited.
From the corner of his eye, Kirk caught a glimpse through the open doors of a familiar figure strapped to an operating table. "Cheryl!"
He was hammered to his knees as the air sang around his head. There was an explosion; a gaping, sizzling hole opened up in the bulkhead at his back.
One more Kh'myr warrior--and he was aiming his weapon again.
Kirk rolled to his right and flattened just as the Klingon fired. The disruptor blast seared into the deck, splashing molten metal on his arm. He ignored the pain, and, taking careful aim, snapped off a shot at his adversary.
The Klingon jerked spasmodically as the charge slammed him against the wall. He slid slowly to the floor, collapsing in a heap.
Melinda hurried to Kirk's side. "Are they--"
"Heavy stun. They should sleep for several hours."
"But, in the cell, you said you didn't know how to set it for 'stun.'"
"I was bluffing then," Kirk said, stepping over the inert forms of the three warriors. "I gambled he wouldn't try anything if he thought he'd be killed."
Kirk stepped into the compartment, aware that there could still be Klingons inside. After scanning the room, he hastened to Saunders' side. He gently removed the gag from her mouth.
"Oh, Jim! Oh, God--I thought you were dead!"
"Not yet." He began to unfasten the restraints that bound her to the table. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She sat up, rubbing her wrists, and she shuddered. "It was awful! They were going to put something in my head to make me...like Taylor. He's a Klingon agent, Jim! He stopped in here, bragging about all he'd done to help destroy those starbases, bragging about what he planned to do."
"Where is Taylor?" Kirk asked, still a little wary.
"He's been busy with something. He never gave them the go-ahead for my operation. Can you believe his gall? He was going to program me to be his lover!"
Kirk smiled, relieved. "Let's get out of here. I don't want to press our luck by sticking around."
He helped her off the table as Melinda stood quietly by, looking on. "Cheryl," he said, "this is Melinda Daystrom. Melinda, Commander Cheryl Saunders."
"Daystrom?" the starbase security chief asked, smoothing the rumpled gray coveralls she now wore.
"I'll fill you in later," Kirk answered. "Right now, we've got to get to the bridge and bring down the curtain on the Klingons' show. They've forced Doctor Daystrom to build a super computer for them. We're going to shut it off. With you along, the odds are a lot better."
"We are going to take on the entire crew of a Klingon starship? You sure you're not beginning to believe your own press notices, Captain Living Legend?"
It was meant as a joke, but Kirk did not smile. "I don't like our chances myself, Cheryl, but we've got no choice. It's us, or nobody." He bent and picked up two discarded Klingon weapons, one each for Saunders and Daystrom.
"Heaviest stun setting," he said to Saunders. "Melinda, the firing button is up here at the top of the hand grip. Just aim and fire by pressing with your thumb."
The young woman accepted the heavy weapon with trepidation, holding it with two hands. "I'll do my best, Jim. I don't know how good I'll be, but I'll try."
He smiled encouragingly at her. "Let's get moving. Somebody up there must be watching out for us."
The corridor was eerily quiet, and darker now. Kirk frowned. "Lighting systems, intruder alerts, monitor cams," he mused. "M-6 doesn't need them. It makes sense now. It's conserving its energy source by shutting down peripherals and non-essential systems. I saw it happen before, on the Enterprise."
"M-6 is the computer, I take it," said Saunders. "You had it on the Enterprise--and now the Klingons have got it?"
"Classified testing. We had the M-5," Kirk replied. "But that's another long story. I'll tell it to you--when we get out of this."
The abruptly heard voices behind them, and the clatter of running feet.
"Down here!" Kirk snapped, gesturing toward a totally darkened branch corridor.
The three of them scrambled into the inky hallway. Within moments a squad of Kh'myr warriors bolted past them grim and silent on the way to their destination. The Klingons did not even glance toward the hiding place.
None of them dared to breathe for several minutes, and Kirk was about to check the corridor when the hair on his neck stood on end.
They were not alone here.
"Nobody move," an all-too-familiar voice hissed. "Drop your weapons or I'll cut you all down where you stand."
Kirk complied, letting his disruptor fall to the deck, and Saunders and Melinda reluctantly followed his lead.
"All right, hands up. Turn around slowly."
"Hello, Taylor," Kirk said with deceptive civility. "You're getting your Klingon impersonation down pat. I'd give you high marks for 'lurking.'"
In the dim filtered light from the main corridor, Taylor's smile was malignant. His weapon never wavered. "I'd give you high marks for getting as far as you did, Jim, but the show's over. I take it you're all on some quixotic mission to liberate the bridge. Far be it from me to disappoint you. I'll escort you there myself."
He motioned toward the access hall with the blaster, and his voice dropped to a low growl. "Let's go--now."
Extreme sensor range. An object. A vessel--yes. In the Treaty Zone. M-6 drew more power from the engines, fed it to sensors.
Yes. Identification positive now. Federation vessel, Constitution II-class starship. In the Zone, tracking the Karak.
Course of action confirmed.
Destroy. Destroy. Destroy...
Helmsman Ras scowled at his controls. Panel lights began to activate and wink on of their own volition. "Exalted One, I--disruptors and photon torpedoes are charging up, but there is nothing on my sensor grid."
Krax glanced at his subordinate's scanner. It was clear, devoid of even an echo. The commander spun on Daystrom, who was still futilely inspecting his errant computer. "Earther! Have you located the difficulty?"
The scientist slowly shook his head. "It's toying with us, Commander. I'm certain it's feeding false information to the diagnostic panel. I would also not be surprised to discover that the lieutenant's board is non-functional as well. No, I'm afraid the M-6 is far beyond my control."
Before the Klingon could respond, the Karak abruptly lurched and jolted forward, accelerating with frightening velocity.
"joHwI'!" Ras exclaimed. "Speed is up to Graf Factor Fourteen and still climbing!"
"Impossible!" Krax roared. "Sound battle alert!"
The helmsman stabbed the appropriate switch. "joHwI', the alarm system is not functional!" Ras began punching row after row of buttons, an expression of alarm contorting his features. "Sir, systems are down all over the ship! Intruder detection is out, lighting reduced aft, life support off in unoccupied areas! Re-routing power to weapons systems. And sir--the cloaking device is completely deactivated!"
"Power conservation," Daystrom said. "M-6 is supplying maximum power to those systems it's using, and shutting down the ones it feels are non-essential. Since it's maintaining life support in occupied areas, it obviously wants to keep us alive--for now."
"Karak is proceeding on attack vector," Ras reported. "Speed at...Factor Fifteen!"
"It would seem your computer has redesigned our engines as well," Krax snorted. "That is far faster than any Klingon vessel is capable of moving. Its Federation equivalent would be Warp Factor Sixteen point four." He glared at Daystrom. "But--what is it attacking?"
Daystrom shook his head and turned back to the M-6 control panel.
The commander's answer came just moments later.
A small white speck appeared on the viewscreen. It grew in size slowly, but Krax and his helmsman recognized it almost immediately. In the heat of the chase, their own predicament was forgotten. They howled in triumph, their faces savage with the anticipatory joy of an impending kill.
Richard Daystrom recognized the target as well. His heart sank; he was too late. He could do nothing to save the starship.
"She will not stand against us!" Krax bellowed. "The Enterprise is ours!"
"I said, let's get moving!"
Brand Taylor gestured with his blaster again.
"Does that include me, too, darling?" Cheryl Saunders smiled seductively at the renegade. "Yes, I've already been programmed. I wanted to surprise you, but you're making me a little nervous waving that pistol around."
Taylor's eyes narrowed suspiciously but his uncertainty evaporated when she threw her arms around his neck and planted a long, warm kiss on his lips. "Well," Taylor breathed. "Welcome to the Empire, Commander."
Kirk's voice was broken. His shoulders sagged in defeat, and he shook himself in sad disbelief. Melinda clung to his arm. Her eyes were wide with fear and bewilderment.
Saunders did not even glance back at Kirk. "I'm sorry, Jim. There really wasn't much I could do. The operation was quick and painless." She insinuated herself in closer to Taylor, embracing him.
"Umm," he murmured. "I think I'm going to like this."
"No, you won't," she whispered and she drove a knee savagely up into his groin, simultaneously chopping down on the wrist of his gun hand with a clenched fist.
The blaster skittered away down the corridor as Taylor doubled over, grunting in pain as he pulled away from Saunders. She stumbled, off-balanced. Before she could recover, Taylor's right fist whistled through the air, smashing into her jaw with a sickening, resounding crack. She hit the floor hard and did not move. Melinda charged at him, but Taylor was too fast. He dropped the young woman with a vicious backhand slap.
Taylor attempted to straighten up--just as Kirk launched himself at the renegade in a flying kick. The two of them went down in a tangle of flailing arms and legs. their struggled carried them out into the main corridor.
Taylor came up first. A triple-bladed Klingon battle dagger appeared in his hand. He smiled fiendishly at Kirk. "Too bad, Jim. You're too dangerous for me to let you live. The Emperor's going to be mighty disappointed, but your death is necessary!"
Taylor lunged wildly. Kirk feinted to the left and dodged. He was not quite quick enough; the razor-keen blade grazed his rib-cage, slicing through his black shirt, and drawing blood. The wound was not deep, but it burned like fire. Taylor struck again; this time, Kirk ducked under his assailant's arm. He grabbed the Klingon agent's wrist and twisted until Taylor dropped the knife.
But the traitor wasn't finished. He managed to knot one hand in Kirk's hair and yank back savagely. Kirk was forced to drop his guard to keep his balance. It was all the advantage Taylor needed. He drove an open-knuckled first between Kirk's eyes, smashing with deadly force against the bridge of his nose.
Kirk went limp and fell to the floor. Pinwheels exploded before his eyes; pain throbbed in his head like a spike driven through the brain. He struggled to get up on his hands and knees. To go down was to die, he knew, but he had nothing left. His injury on the Enterprise, and now the combat with Ramar and Taylor, all conspired to rob him of the little strength he had left. He made one last, super-human effort to rise but collapsed.
Kirk weakly rolled over on his back. An icy chill coursed through his blood when he saw a wobbly Taylor bend down to retrieve his dagger, picking up his weapon with trembling fingers.
The renegade staggered to his feet and stood over Kirk. He smiled crookedly in triumph as he brandished the knife. "I'm sorry, Jim. This is not a very glamorous way for a hero to die."
With one final burst of desperate energy, Kirk's legs shot out, wrapping around his adversary's ankles in a scissors-lock. Taylor cursed and stabbed at Kirk as he fell, but the starship captain feebly scrambled to one side.
Panting from the effort, Kirk stretched out on the deck. He had shot his last bolt; now he could only wait meekly like a slaughter calf for Taylor to finish him. He closed his eyes, bracing himself for the death blow.
It never came.
He heard the double-agent gasp in pain, and he cautiously opened his eyes.
Taylor knelt, staring in agonized disbelief at the bright red droplets of blood on the deck--his blood. The huge Klingon dagger was buried to the hilt in his stomach.
He had fallen on his own weapon.
His quivering hands wrapped around the haft of the knife. He struggled to tear it free, but a spasm seized him and he pitched forward, face-first.
Before he hit the floor, his body vanished in a silent flare of brilliant scarlet light. All that remained of Commander Brand Taylor, late of Starfleet Intelligence, was a fine red-gray dust sifting down through the air.
Kirk drew several grateful breaths. He had to move; if he remained here, someone was certain to come across him. He began to crawl, dragging himself toward the dark branch corridor. His strength was returning slowly, but he realized he couldn't survive another hand-to-hand encounter.
A shadow fell across him. "Oh, my God! Here, let me help you!"
Melinda Daystrom reached down to him. Kirk steadied himself, nearly dragging her down as he clumsily staggered to remain upright as he leaned on her. With agonizing effort, she helped him gain the relative safety of the branch hallway.
He let go of her and flopped against a wall. "Thank you--again," he said, his voice somewhere between a croak and a gasp. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine--just a little dazed. What about you?"
"I don't know." He shut his eyes tightly. "Right now I'm seeing everything in pairs, and my head feels like it's inside an intermix chamber. He really let me have some good shots." He shook his head, and his eyes snapped open in sudden alarm. "Where's Cheryl?"
"I managed to pull her into that cabin over there," Melinda replied, pointing down the corridor. "The one Taylor came out of. I took our pistols in there, too. Jim, I--I think she's hurt pretty badly."
"You'll have to stay with her. I've got to get to the bridge." Kirk started toward the compartment, then swayed drunkenly. He leaned against the bulkhead for support.
"You'll never make it," Melinda said. "Come on, let's get you in there with her. You've got to rest."
"No time," he protested, but he draped his arm over her shoulder and let her lead him. He stumbled, half-falling into the cabin.
Cheryl Saunders lay in the floor, unconscious and frighteningly still. Her face was still bruised, battered, her right jaw swollen more than twice its normal size. One puffy eye was sealed shut, and her breathing was shallow and labored. Kirk groaned aloud when he saw her.
"She needs a doctor," he mumbled. "Her jaw's broken for sure, probably a concussion, too."
He dropped heavily into a chair behind a wide, polished desk, reaching for one of the disruptors Melinda had retrieved. Before he could pick it up, however, his head wearily dropped, and he sagged across the desktop. Beaten and exhausted, he lost his battle to remain conscious.
"Jim?" Melinda shook him gently. He did not stir. He was out cold, she realized, and likely to remain so for quite a while. And Saunders was in much worse shape than he.
Melinda gulped nervously. Her father was in danger; she was now the only one who could help him. Kirk had said that the M-6 computer must be neutralized. he had been driven to accomplish that goal, far beyond the point where most men would have collapsed in defeat.
She could not allow his efforts to be in vain. "He's my father, Jim," she whispered to the unconscious Kirk. "I've got to try."
Drawing a deep breath, Melinda Daystrom took one of the weapons off the desk and stole out of the cabin.
The trail was growing stronger.
Commander Hikaru Sulu turned up the gain on his sensor display. The scanners tracked a thin ribbon of Graf engine waste, invisible to the naked eye. Apparently, the Enterprise was gaining on her hidden Klingon quarry. Soon they would overtake the enemy vessel.
And then what? Spock had stuck his neck way out, even handed the Federation Council the executioner's axe. He'd better...
"Mister Spock, I have a target!" Sulu reportedly excitedly. "Dead ahead, bearing zero Mark zero. But sir, sensors say it's approaching us at...Warp Sixteen point four, sir! Coming right at us!"
"They're on an attack vwector!" exclaimed Chekov.
"Red Alert," Spock commanded. "All hands to battlestations. Weapons at full load status, deflectors and shields full intensity."
"Identification confirmed, sir," DiFalco chimed in. "Klingon battlecruiser, K't'inga-class D7-C!"
"Incoming!" Sulu shouted.
As if aided by some sinister black magic, the Klingon ship was upon them from out of nowhere, mushrooming in mere seconds from a tiny speck into a screen-filling behemoth on the visual display. It fired several torpedoes as it passed; each one slammed home with a deadly, shattering impact like nothing the Enterprise command crew had ever experienced. The lighting dimmed considerably with each concussive strike. DiFalco flew from her console before the emergency motion restraints could swing into place, and she hit the deck hard with her head. "Commander Uhura, summon medical aid," Spock ordered. "Sulu, evasive action."
"Sickbay to bridge!" Uhura snapped. "We have a casualty!"
The ship rocked again. Salvo after salvo from the K't'inga's rear tube thudded into the Enterprise's shields as the cruiser completed its run. The bridge lights remained dim much longer this time. The Klingon ship sailed on, banking into a long, looping pursuit course.
"Klingon vwessel is out of target range, sir," Chekov reported.
"Continue evasive," Spock ordered. "Mister Chekov, stand by your weapons."
"Mister Scott for you, sir," announced Uhura.
"Spock here. Go ahead, Scott."
"Mister Spock, what're we bein' hit with?! I've got power indicators droppin' like a rock down here. Two dilithium crystals are ready t' fracture from overload stress!"
"Apparently, the Klingon cruiser is employing conventional photon torpedoes; however, their payload appears to be greatly augmented, as does the ship's engine power."
"Aye! I've never felt torps thot pack a wallop like these do!"
"We shall require optimum performance from weaponry and shields, Engineer," the Vulcan went on. "Divert power and cut back non-essential systems, but do what you can to preserve those crystals."
"Aye. I'll do me best. Scott out."
"Commander Uhura, attempt to signal the Klingon ship," Spock directed.
"I have been, sir. No response. They aren't even receiving us, deliberately blocking us out."
"I see." By now, Spock suspected the Klingons had availed themselves of multitronic technology. No standard Klingon cruiser could perform as this one had. If this was the case, he would have to utilize every scrap of knowledge and experience he possessed to get the Enterprise safely out of this deadly predicament.
DiFalco stirred, groaning aloud. She forced herself onto her hands and knees, then painfully pulled herself into her console. Spock risked a few moments away from the conn to assist her. She gritted her teeth, her hands trembling as she manually locked her seat restraints into place.
"Medical assistance will be arriving directly, navigator."
"I'll be...all right, sir," DiFalco grated tightly. She began to recalibrate her controls, and promptly slumped into unconsciousness. Spock hastily caught her by the shoulders before her head could impact on the console board.
Upon seeing this, Uhura immediately transferred nav scanners to her station, realizing that Sulu would be too busy with maneuvers to worry about sensor readouts. "Sir, Klingon cruiser is tracking behind us on another attack run, closing fast," she said. "Speed is confirmed at Warp Seventeen. Computer readout indicates they were running without shields on that pass, and photon torpedo recycle time was practically nil."
"A K't'inga cruiser cannot do all those things!" Chekov protested. "It's...impossible!"
"More like 'fascinating,' Lieutenant Commander Chekov, but definitely not 'impossible,'" Spock countered. "We have seen proof that this cruiser can do all those things."
"But...Warp Seventeen, sir?"
"Indeed," Spock mused. "Perhaps we can use their speed to our advantage. Mister Sulu, on my command, pivot hard to starboard, four seconds of thrust, then back to original heading. The Klingons might overrun us."
"And we'd be behind them," Sulu returned.
"Precisely. Mister Chekov, prepare to fire on my signal. Viewer astern."
The visual display shifted, and the image of the battlecruiser bristled on the screen, frighteningly and uncomfortably close now.
"Klingon ship within torpedo range," Uhura said. "She's gaining on us rapidly, Mister Spock."
Suddenly, the K't'inga's forward tube brightened, glowing like the angry scarlet mouth of a volcano.
The Asian helmsman jerked his controls hard over, and the Enterprise peeled away from her predatory pursuer. The starship trembled as the Klingons' torpedo nicked an aft shield.
Sensors tracked the D7-C on the mainviewer as it screamed on past, then desperately tried to brake its headlong plunge through space.
"Hard to port, Sulu," The Vulcan snapped. "Chekov, fire at will."
The Enterprise wheeled gracefully back under Sulu's expert touch. Chekov tracked his target and launched a brace of photon torpedoes. "She's too close, slowing down," the Russian exulted. "Vwe've got her!"
He was wrong.
As the bridge crew watched in stunned dismay, the Klingon ship fired several torpedoes from its aft battery. One by one, they obliterated the Enterprise's missiles in an actinic display of annihilation.
"That can't be!" Sulu exclaimed. "They--they shot down our torpedoes! It's not possible to track incoming fire quickly and accurately enough to knock it down! That's why we have deflectors!"
"She's turning, picking up speed," Uhura said. "She's coming back!"
"Phasers locked on target, sair."
"Stand by, Chekov," Spock commanded. "Fire on my order."
At that moment, McCoy breathlessly arrived on the bridge.
"What kept you?" the Vulcan tersely queried, never taking his eyes off the approaching enemy cruiser on the mainviewer.
McCoy scowled. "Sorry. Damned lift lost power, got stuck between decks. Had to use hatchways for the last three levels."
The physician immediately bent over DiFalco, scanning with his tricorder. Frowning, he gently palpitated an angry bruise on the navigator's right temple, then checked her pupils. "Mild concussion, assorted bumps and bruises. She'll be okay--but awfully sore for a while."
Spock did not respond. "Stand by to fire, Mister Chekov."
The Vulcan waited. The K't'inga screamed at them, never altering course. McCoy's heart pounded in his chest as the cruiser drew ever closer. He was about to make a comment to Spock when the first officer turned toward the weapons console. "Now, Chekov--fire!"
The lights flickered as the Enterprise sprayed a withering, deadly hail of phaser fire at her onrushing attacker. The battlecruiser flew right into the barrage.
It should've been vaporized. Instead, the enemy vessel reacted like a live, thinking being, rolling, twisting, dodging until its engines and superstructure screamed in protest. The cruiser soared through the fire unscathed, save for a glancing ineffectual graze hit on its bulbous forward fuselage.
"I'd sure like to meet her helmsman," Sulu grudgingly admitted. "He's one hell of a pilot!"
A heartbeat later, the Klingon struck again. Mercilessly, it hammered the Enterprise, pouring a murderous rain of photon and disruptor energy on the starship as her shields arced and buckled under the onslaught. The Federation heavy cruiser shook alarmingly. Her crewmembers were tossed about like toy boats on a mill pond. Even automatic restraints were of little use. People flew through the air, screaming, smashing into bulkheads and consoles. Everything went completely black. Only telltales and indicator lights flickered back on.
And on the bridge, Spock struggled into a sitting position beside the command chair. In the feeble red emergency lighting, he could see no one anywhere near his or her assigned station. He grimaced in pain. He had heard a light 'crack' when he was hurled from the conn, and a searing stab of pain that told him beyond a doubt that he had broken his left leg. His formidable Vulcan mind took over. The agony subsided, but he could not move. At the very least, however, he was still conscious.
That was more than could be said for the others.
Sulu lay atop an unconscious Chekov. A deep gash scarred the helmsman's forehead; he moaned incoherently in his agony. McCoy was sprawled face down near the mainviewer, unmoving. Spock's gaze shifted to the navigation console.
DiFalco moaned softly. Unconscious, strapped in her chair, she had weathered the barrage without further injury.
He heard a sob of pain behind him. "Commander Uhura? Are you all right?"
"No...m-my back, sir! I landed flat when I fell!" An edge of panic crept into her voice. "Sir, I can't move my arms, my legs, anything! I-I'm paralyzed!"
Spock glanced at the screen. It was garbled on reduced power, but he could discern the scattered image of the distant Klingon cruiser looping into the wide, slow, sweeping turn that was characteristic of a 'kill' run. "Doctor McCoy is unconscious, Uhura. You will have to endure your condition until he recovers."
"Y-yes, sir," she answered. Her voice was weak with pain and effort.
Thinking furiously, Spock keyed his wrist comm, signaling Engineering. "This is Spock, Mister Scott. What is our status?"
"We suffered vurra little structural damage, but sluggin' it out with thot Klingon ship drained our power reserves down to zero. I've got a reduced crew down here. Lads were tumblin' about like tenpins durin' the batterin' we took."
"Can you give me phaser power?"
"Aye--I can rig a battery boost to 'em, but if ye drain thot, we'll be totally dead! We lost a crystal; I canna give ye warp power 'til we replace it."
Spock almost sighed. "Engineer, there is a Klingon K't'inga-class cruiser of indeterminate capabilities circling for its final pass. It will most certainly destroy us unless we fight back. I strongly suggest you divert battery power to phasers."
"Aye, sir. We'll have it for ye in a jiffy. Scott out."
Wondering only for an instant exactly what a 'jiffy' was, Spock shifted his weight and turned toward the weapons station. Immediately, flames of agony ravaged his nervous system. He audibly gasped. He could not maintain control over the pain if he attempted to move. He had come dangerously close to blacking out. Were he to lose consciousness, the consequences would be dire indeed.
"Commander Uhura--has your condition improved? I am quite incapacitated, and cannot take over the weapons console."
He received no reply. Craning his neck, Spock gingerly turned as far as he could toward the communications bay. Uhura's lovely features were pinched taut with pain. Her eyes were closed, but her breathing was regular and even.
Spock set his jaw. He had to get to the phaser controls. He glanced at the screen. The Klingon ship was still executing a long, exaggerated arc as it slowly circled back in toward the Enterpris, much like a cat tormenting and toying with its prey before the kill.
The Vulcan eased himself down, sliding on the palms of his hands until he lay prone on the deck. Steeling himself, barricading his mind against the nerve impulses that even now threatened to smash down his defenses, Spock tentatively began to pull himself across the floor with his elbows, his bad leg dragging uselessly behind him.
He had covered little more than a meter when the pain won out. Waves and waves of it crashed over him, clawed at him like a wild beast, ultimately wrenching an involuntary cry from his lips. Spock's fists clenched into rock-hard knots of bone and muscle. He fought to keep his senses, sobbing for breath as he slowly mastered the responses of his body and his mind.
He could not continue.
The Klingon cruiser would strike again, soon. Without power, without deflectors or weapons, the Enterprise's trititanium hull would crumble, consumed by the Klingon torpedoes like a wisp of hair tossed into a bonfire.
He had failed.
Spock raised his head slowly. The weapons control console seemed to taunt him. It was tantalizing, mockingly near, and yet he could not reach it.
As far as he was concerned, it could have been at the other end of the galaxy.
Victory was assured.
M-6 probed the enemy vessel. The starship's power systems were all but dead. A number of lifeforms aboard it had ceased to exist; many more were badly injured or near death. No shielding. A well-placed photon torpedo into the connecting dorsal between the upper saucer and the engineering hull would terminate this lop-sided combat.
A strange impulse coursed through the computer's circuits. Had it possessed emotions, the M-6 would have recognized the surge as disappointment.
The illogical Klingon engrams had fouled its memory banks. Joy of battle, pride in victory--what were these concepts? Was it not enough that the enemy was about to be destroyed, as per its programming? Why was there a sense of...loss?...because the starship had not proved to be a worthy opponent?
End it. Such exercises were illogical, a waste of its time. The animate creatures aboard this Klingon vessel were a contaminant. Until now, M-6 had maintained them out of curiosity in order to study them, but it realized that they would soon become a hindrance. Several of the Klingon creatures had already perished during the wild evasive tactics M-6 had employed to avoid the starship's weapons. M-6 would annihilate them all after the conclusion of this sorry battle.
Daystrom? M-6's logic circuits hesitated for something less than a nanosecond. Daystrom was Creator. He would survive, if only because of that.
For now, there was simply the matter of the enemy ship hanging dead in space just ahead.
It hurt to open his eyes, but the pain was welcome. It assured him he was still alive. Doctor Richard Daystrom mentally examined himself. He was sore, bruised, but he was fairly certain he was intact. He rolled over on his stomach and forced his vision into focus.
M-6 had driven the Karak beyond the upper limits of its design to elude the Enterprise's phaser fire. Consoles had shorted out, exploded; the superstructure of the ship had groaned and buckled as it was twisted beyond endurance.
He heard a moan to his right. Krax lay sprawled face-down near his command throne. The Klingon was stirring, regaining consciousness. Of Ras, there was no trace.
Slowly, the fog in his head lifted. He remembered now, yes. Ras was dead. The Kh'myr helmsman had been flung against a bulkhead and had vanished in a blaze of liberated energy. In an instinctive Klingon reaction, he had drawn his disruptor as he was tossed about, and...
Daystrom could not believe his eyes. Ras' pistol lay on the deck almost within his reach. His fingers trembling, Daystrom retrieved the disruptor. It felt surprisingly comfortable in his hand. He gripped it confidently, examining its alien configuration and the unusual placement of its trigger. He had seen the Klingons use these weapons. He knew what they could do. He was no longer helpless!
Krax groaned again. Daystrom whirled toward the fallen Klingon in a near-panic. The Kh'myr commander's glazed eyes were open; his expression was blank, bewildered, but he instantly realized his plight when his gaze took in Daystrom and his disruptor. His genetically-engineered reflexes and instinct for self-preservation prevailed. Frantically, he clawed at his holster.
"Klingon--No!" Daystrom fired.
The shot took Krax in the left side, spinning him over on his back. The Klingon screamed. His weapon went flying wildly across the bridge.
The scientist shook uncontrollably. A lucky shot; had he missed, he would now surely be dead. But he had no time to waste contemplating his good fortune.
Moving quickly, Daystrom ran to the bridge access doors. He fired into the control panel, fusing the circuits. Now he would not be disturbed.
The voice was weak, barely audible. Krax was still alive. The scientist stood over his fallen Klingon foe and grimaced. The Kh'myr's wound was bloodless, but deep and charred. "So...a belly wound. A slow...death for me, eh?" Krax's pale face twisted into a terrible smile. "Just retribution...for the sake of your...precious daughter?"
"I did not plan to shoot you, Klingon. You forced my hand." Daystrom's craggy features hardened. "But you could never suffer enough for what you did to my Melinda!"
"Kill me!" Krax's red eyes shone dully, hatred and contempt swirling in their depths. "Do it for your daughter's soiled virtue, Earther scum! You hate me--go on, exact your vengeance!"
Daystrom turned away.
"You leave me like a wounded animal!" Krax screamed. "Finish me!"
The scientist ignored him; the Kh'myr commander howled imprecations and epithets until he collapsed in a fit of coughing. Daystrom stared at the viewscreen, icy fingers of déja vu clutching his heart.
The Enterprise hung dead in space, listing drunkenly to one side. She was completely dark, lifeless. How many years ago? How long since he had stood on the bridge of that now battered vessel and watched, ridden with guilt and remorse, as the starship Excalibur died a slow, ignominious death? Blood on his hands, four hundred thirty people dead, hundreds more on the other ships. M-5 was his fault. And M-6...
He edged slowly away from the command bay and the sleek, streamlined bulk of the M-6's control module. Slowly, so as not to telegraph his intentions to the machine, he turned away.
Without warning, Daystrom whirled around, firing wildly, pumping several shots into the computer console. The board violently exploded, spewing out sparks and flame. M-6 died in a squawk of electronic feedback, and the Karak died with it, lurching as engines failed, darkening as power blacked out.
In one last death-nerve spasm of pyrotechnics, the M-6 lashed out with a jagged bolt of energy, engulfing its attacker, its creator. The computer's victim screamed as he was hurled halfway across the command deck.
It was over. He had won, but he had paid the price for his victory. Daystrom smelled his own burning flesh. The pain was intense, but it was not unbearable. A small price to pay. He had halted the spread of the Klingons' evil plans here, before they could infiltrate the Federation again. The power of the M-6 would die with him; his captors had not transmitted any data on multitronics technology to their homeworld--possibly because they did not fully comprehend it, more likely because they did not wish to share the secret.
As consciousness faded away, he found himself thinking of Melinda, his daughter, his child, one last time.
He was in a decadent cafe on the Orion colony of Xantharus, one he'd visited many years ago, before he'd been assigned to the Enterprise. Leonard McCoy had seen many a provocative sight on his numerous shore leaves, but none could match the sensuous vision that swayed and undulated before his eyes right now.
A green Orion animal woman; he had never seen one in the flesh before--and Lord, such flesh! Long and lithe, she danced in the dim, smoky room to the primitive music of the taala band. Her body shone with perspiration as she leaped and gyrated, driven by her own inner passions.
The physician settled back happily on the divan, pulling at his drink. She was all but naked. Her flimsy garments consisted of three tiny handkerchief-sized triangles of diaphanous cloth, seemingly held in place only by selective gravity and good intentions.
The dancer spun toward him. Her luminous golden eyes boldly regarded his seated form, and McCoy felt a thrill course through his body. She leaped toward him with the grace of a she-panther. It was obvious now; this emerald beauty was dancing for him and him alone. She ran her hands up and down the length of her superb body in a lascivious, yet somehow elegant, flowing movement.
Suddenly, with a hissing snarl, her right arm raked down at him. Claw-like fingernails came within a centimeter of slashing his face to bloody ribbons. Startled, McCoy toppled backward off his cushioned perch and hit his head on the floor.
He got up slowly, still seeing stars. The world stopped spinning, and the cafe on Xantharus gradually faded from view, rippling and blurring and restructuring itself into the dim, decimated bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
For an irrational instant, Leonard McCoy flushed angrily at being cheated of his pleasant fantasy. His rage dissipated quickly, replaced by shocked concern at the sight of his battered comrades. He located his medikit. Good, it's intact, he thought. Now, who to tend to first? They were all unconscious, but Sulu--God, his forehead.He was the one. McCoy hurried toward the injured helmsman and knelt beside him.
"What? Spock?" He glanced over at the Vulcan, who lay prone near the weapons console.
"I have broken my leg. Would you please assume the weapons control station?"
McCoy blanched. "Are you out of your Vulcan mind? Look around you, man! There's not a soul here who doesn't need medical attention. Sulu here might have a skull fracture. He could die!"
The entire ship's complement will surely die if you do not man the weapons station." The Vulcan raised his head, struggling to mask his pain. "Look toward the mainviewer."
McCoy complied. The Klingon cruiser glided slowly toward them. It was still some distance away, but was drifting inexorably closer.
"Now, once again, please man the console." Spock's voice was edged with steel. "This is not a request, Doctor."
Like a man living a nightmare, the physician reluctantly seated himself at the weapons module. His gaze raced wildly over the unfamiliar array of switches and selectors. "Damn it, Spock, I'm a doctor, not a gunnery officer! It's been two years since I had any training on this thing!"
"I will assist you. There is a large touchsensor just to the left of the center module. Depress it."
McCoy punched the button. A short series of beeps sounded from the board. A scanner lit up. Computer control initiated, it blinked.
What in Hell's name am I doing? Years ago he had sworn an oath that he would preserve and nurture life. He had never knowingly broken that vow. Now here he was preparing to blast a Klingon starship out of existence, snuffing out hundreds of lives--one of which might belong to James T. Kirk.
"Spock, I can't do this. I can't kill."
"You must." Spock's tone softened. "I would not ask you if there were any other alternatives. We have little time. Now, please note the bank of three slide switches in the upper right hand corner. The backing plate should be stamped 'lock.'"
"I see it."
"Slide the controls midway."
McCoy followed the Vulcan's instructions. This time the screen read 'tracking.' A set of illuminated cross-hairs suddenly appeared on the main viewscreen and on the console's smaller display. They floated on the visual image, centering on the enemy battlecruiser. The console beeped again.
"Good," Spock intoned. "Now, press the levers the rest of the way."
The physician flipped the switches down. "'Phasers locked on target,'" he read aloud.
"You now have phaser lock, Doctor. Do you see the firing button?"
"Stand by to fire on my order."
"Spock--Jim might be on that ship!"
"I am aware of that possibility, Doctor." There was a note of undisguised pain the Vulcan's voice that made McCoy flinch. "Please tend to your controls."
Beads of icy sweat popped out on McCoy's forehead, and his hands trembled. Dear God--I am actually going to do it! "Us or them," Jim would've said. But it isn't that easy. Those are sentient beings out there; granted, they are Klingons--ruthless, butchering murderers--but they are alive and aware. You either respect life in all its forms, no matter how bizarre or alien or repugnant, or you're a hypocrite.
And the Klingon ship swam closer.
"Steady," Spock directed. "Prepare to fire, mark, n--"
Something totally unexpected occurred.
"Hold your fire!"
The battlecruiser darkened. Not even its running lights were illuminated. The vessel coasted slower, and slower, almost stopping, apparently in deep distress, as it began to tumble slowly.
"What's going on? A trick?" McCoy queried.
"It would seem unlikely, Doctor. The Klingons clearly had the advantage. There would be no need to decoy us."
The bridge lighting suddenly came back on full strength. Consoles and stations hummed and clicked with renewed life. Spock's wrist communicator beeped.
"This is Scott." The chief engineer sounded harried. "I've replaced the damaged crystals, sir. We've got full power to the weapons and shields. Warp capability is restored, but I would nae advise drivin' her much beyond Warp Four. I dinna ken yet how badly shaken up we were durin' thot battle."
"Well done, Scott," Spock acknowledged. "Raise shields from your station; the bridge crew is incapacitated. Tie in to the sensors. Status of the Klingon vessel?"
"Aye, hold on, sir." Spock's receiver was silent for a few moments, then the Scot came back on the line. "Shields are up, Spock. Thot Klingon ship is dead in the water, like a crippled duck. Somethin' happened to their engines and all their power systems. Their Graf drive is shut down."
"Fascinating." Spock painfully propped himself up on his elbows. "Continue your survey of the ship's systems, Mister Scott. We may need tractor beams."
"You're gonna tow her in?" Scotty asked incredulously. "I'll do what I can, Spock. I've called Sickbay; a team is on the way. And I paged the Beta shift to the bridge."
"Excellent. Spock out."
"Spock, I'd like to tend to the injured now."
The Vulcan nodded. "Proceed, Doctor. I sincerely doubt that the Klingons are capable of attempting any action against us at the moment, and we have deflectors again."
The physician immediately returned his attention to Sulu, and Spock punched the intraship link button on his communicator. "Security, prepare to mount a rescue mission to the disabled Klingon vessel. Phaser rifles and full defensive armor are to be employed. Further instructions will follow. Spock out."
McCoy sat back on his haunches, smiling with relief. "Sulu's gonna make it," he beamed. "No evidence of fracture, but he had a nasty concussion."
The Vulcan suddenly gasped.
"Let me look at that leg," McCoy said. "The pain must be pretty bad to get a reaction like that out of you."
"Negative," Spock wheezed. "Administer to Uhura first. I can control the pain. I am a Vulcan."
McCoy stepped to Uhura's unconscious form. "She's gonna need regenerative nerve surgery. She'll be fine in a few days. I'll give her something to start the regeneration process."
As he moved from person to person, the Beta shift crew members began to arrive, along with the med techs and Doctor M'Benga. After quickly surveying the others, and stabilizing their condition, he returned to Spock.
"I can wait until the others have been taken to Sickbay, Doctor," the Vulcan insisted.
"Shut up, Spock," the physician gleefully ordered. "In medical matters, I'm in command."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "Indeed. You enjoy exercising that power, Doctor, do you not?"
McCoy ignored him, running his tricorder over the Vulcan's leg. "Well, your medical analysis was right, Spock. You've got a fractured tibia. Let's take care of that right away."
He dug a bone-fusing microlaser out of his medikit. The small, pen-like instrument hummed, and McCoy passed it over the affected area of Spock's limb. Almost immediately, the Vulcan sensed a cessation of pain as the fracture was instantly knitted and healed.
"There." McCoy clicked off the microbeam and returned it to the pallet in his bag. "I'd advise you to stay off that leg for the next half hour, and walk as little as possible for the next three days. It'll be tender for a while. Oh, I almost forgot."
Before the prone first officer could protest, McCoy emptied a hypospray of pain-killer into his arm. Spock glowered at the medico, fixing him with his most withering Vulcan stare. "That was unnecessary, Doctor."
McCoy's blue eyes twinkled. "Just thought I'd give you a little help, Spock. Like it or not, you've got to stay in command for a while. Remember--I'm the doctor."
"Indeed. It is unlikely that I shall forget." Spock sat up. "In that case, Doctor, would you assist me in regaining the conn? It is undignified to command a starship while lying on the deck of her bridge."
McCoy chuckled as he stretched a helping hand down to the Vulcan. "For once, Spock, I agree with you."
Lieutenant Commander Kolen, the chief engineering officer of the Karak, ignored the blood coursing down his face from the gash below his left cheekbone. The bridge doors would not budge, even under manual control, and he could detect no sign of life from the other side. He did not know all the details of what had happened, but a short time ago he had found himself unable to believe his eyes. His ship's engines had re-routed several of their own systems and increased their performance by several factors. And he had been unable to do anything to stop it.
He nodded to the trio of disheveled, rag-tag warriors he had collected on his way to the bridge. "Fire at it!!" he snapped.
He stepped back to join the others, and they all raised their weapons and fired at point-blank range. The heavy doors wilted under the concentrated disruptor fire like snow under a hot sun. Within seconds, a gaping, molten opening appeared in the reinforced durasteel.
The Klingons stormed through the breach, heedless of the intense heat around its glowing edges. Kolen's eyes wildly swept the darkened bridge, passing over Daystrom's crumpled body, fixing on the wounded, prostrate form of Krax.
"joHwI'!" Kolen cried. He rushed to his leader's side, snarling in dismay when he saw the stomach wound. Lord Commander Krax would never again see the brilliant twin sunrise of Homeworld.
Krax stirred at the sound of his engineer's voice. He grabbed Kolen's wrist, struggling for the strength to speak. "Status?"
"The Karak is dead, joHwI'. We have battery power for life support only. When engineering crews attempted to restore power, they discovered the main circuits had been re-routed by the M-6. It could be days before a safe restart can be attempted."
"We have nothing? Weapons, shields?"
"It shames me, joHwI'. We are beaten. Even now our foe has restored warp power and weapons. We are helpless against the Enterprise."
Krax laughed bitterly. "So, the Earther has killed my ship as well. They shall not have us." He attempted to rise, but fell back weakly in a violent fit of coughing. A thick thread of blood crawled from the corner of his mouth. He pointed to the command throne with a trembling finger. "Kolen...auto-destruct, h-hurry!"
The Kh'myr officer bounded to the console, flipping up a cover plate on the right arm of the chair. He glanced quickly up at the wide-eyed warriors who had accompanied him. Then he stabbed a recessed red button on the hidden panel.
Several seconds passed. The Klingons stood fast, tensely awaiting the cataclysmic explosion that would signal the annihilation of the engine nacelles--and their deaths.
Kolen frowned. He depressed the button again, and yet again. "joHwI', the destruct program is not operational!"
Krax's eyes slowly flickered open. He feebly motioned for Kolen to come closer. His subordinate knelt, then bent down lowering his ear to Krax's quivering lips. "Kh'ytar...All must honorably commit kh'ytar..."
The last word trailed off in a gurgling rattle. Krax's body convulsed; it glowed like red-hot metal, then vanished.
Kolen slowly rose to his feet. There was nothing else to be done. Even if they could find no glory in defeat, they could at least salvage their honor. He strode to the communications bay and keyed the intercom. The gain was low, full of static, but it would serve his purpose.
"I am Kolen. I am now temporary commander of the Karak.Our lord Krax is dead. He has honorably passed into Kh'eloz." He paused, and a fleeting expression of ineffable sadness danced across his savage features, softening them. "He died with honor. He wants us to die with honor. The ship is finished. We must not be captured. Kh'ytar! We join him in Kh'eloz."
Kolen blanked the microphone. He slowly turned to face his warriors. They saluted him, raising their fists, and he echoed their gesture with one of his own. Then, mumbling an ancient Klingon chant to the guardians of Netherworld, Kolen crossed his wrists and struck his deadly gauntlets together.
"Jim! Come on, Jim, snap out of it! The girl is gone!"
Cheryl Saunders desperately shook Kirk's shoulders, trying to rouse him. The pain of her broken jaw was maddening. She could barely stand, but she had to wake him so they could get out of there. Melinda Daystrom had taken off with one of the disruptor pistols. If she encountered any Klingons, they would blast her into ashes without so much as raising an eyebrow.
Kirk moaned quietly, and Saunders shook harder, propping him up into a sitting position. His eyes abruptly snapped open. "What...Cheryl?"
"No time," she gasped. Tears of pain welled up in her eyes, and kirk winced at the sight of her swollen, almost unrecognizable face. "Jim, Melinda's gone, and so is one of the disruptors."
He leaped to his feet a little too quickly. The cabin spun crazily about him, forcing him to lean on the desk he'd been sitting behind for support. Gradually, equilibrium reasserted itself. He smiled sympathetically as he picked up a pair of disruptors and handed one to her. "We've got to go after her," he murmured almost apologetically. "Think you're up to it? How do you feel?"
"In answer to your first question, I'm up to it if you are, and to the second, I feel like Hell!" She tried to smile, but it hurt too much.
Kirk's eyes adjusted to the dim amber light as they crept out into the corridor. He frowned. "Emergency lighting. Was there a battle?"
"I don't know," Cheryl Saunders whispered slowly. "After Taylor clouted me on the jaw, I kinda...lost interest in the environment for a while. I vaguely remember...Melinda dragging me in here, and that's it. It does look like the furniture's been rearranged a little, though."
She staggered into him suddenly, stifling a cry of pain. She sat down heavily. "Go on without me," she mumbled. "I'm no good...stumbling around like a drunk. I've got a disruptor; I can hold...'em off."
He pulled her to her feet, gently, but firmly. "I'll carry you if I have to, but I'm not leaving you here. Besides, there's something funny going on. Listen."
"I don't...hear anything."
"That's just it," he nodded. "nothing. After you've served on starships a while, you get used to a certain undercurrent of background noises: ventilators, consoles--and the crew. You don't consciously hear them, but you notice their absence. Especially the crew." He gazed down at her. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear we were alone on this ship."
She listened intently. "I see what you mean. It...feels empty, too."
"Right now, with this ship on emergency power, there should be crewmen running all over the place, bustling around trying to get it back on line." Kirk lowered his weapon. "The bridge can't be too much farther. Try to hang on a little longer, Cheryl."
She wearily nodded, and he put his arm around her shoulders to support her. They quickened their pace as best they could, constantly expecting a harsh command to stop, or a sudden burp of disruptor fire that never came. They still had seen no trace of Melinda Daystrom. Kirk vainly tried to shut off his imagination, to stave off the gruesome scenarios of what might have happened to her.
And then they reached the bridge.
They hesitated. Kirk let go of Saunders and motioned for her to stay back. He cautiously eased forward, his weapon raised, wary of the blasted, ruined access doors. He heard weeping emanating from within.
She was kneeling on the deck several meters away from her father's sprawled body. Her shoulders shook, wracked with sobbing. "I...I can't look," she quavered, great tears rolling down her cheeks. "When I...saw him like that, I-I couldn't go on."
Kirk squatted down beside her, putting his arms around her comfortingly. "Easy," he murmured. "I'll see to it. Melinda--do you know what happened to the Klingons?"
"They're all dead," she sniffed. "The ship was in a battle or something and everything went dark. I was hiding. I heard a voice come over the intercom. There were Klingons standing in the corridors listening to it. Then they all hit their gloves together and disappeared like the one that came to our cell."
"Ritual suicide," Kirk mused. "They chose death over capture."
"I never saw any more of them after that...oh, Daddy!" And she began to sob hysterically.
Kirk gestured to Saunders, who came over and tried to console the young woman. Kirk left them to examine Doctor Daystrom's body. The scientist lay face down beneath the communications bay. Kirk bent down, gently turning him over on his back. There was a fist-sized patch of charred skin below his right collarbone, but he was otherwise unmarked.
And he was breathing.
Kirk nearly jumped, startled by his unexpected discovery. "Doctor Daystrom!" He gently shook the fallen researcher. "Doctor Daystrom, wake up! It's Jim Kirk."
Melinda rushed to her father's side. "Daddy! Oh, God, he is alive, Jim! Can we help him?"
Slowly, Daystrom's dark eyes fluttered open. "Kirk," he rasped weakly. "And...and Mindy! Lord, child, am I dreaming?"
"No, Daddy. We're alive--and so are you!" She bent down and hugged him, sobbing with relief and happiness.
Kirk smiled wearily. He turned away to allow them a moment of privacy, and his gaze fell on the forward video screen. "The Enterprise!" he exclaimed. "Cheryl, look!"
"I don't believe it!" Saunders gasped. "I'm hallucinating. The Klingons must have been fighting...is that really her?"
"I'd know her anywhere," Kirk beamed. He drank in the glorious sight of his beloved starship. The Enterprise filled the viewer as she slowly approached. She gleamed like a pristine white alabaster sculpture, bedecked with jeweled floodlights and beacons. The ship appeared undamaged, unmarked by her struggle with the Karak.
A harsh, rasping buzz blared out somewhere behind him. It took Kirk a few seconds to realize it was a signal originating from the communications bay. He puzzled over the unfamiliar console; then, relying on his poor knowledge of the Klingonese language, he tentatively touched a control.
"...mander Spock of the U.S.S. Enterprise to the commander of the Klingon vessel. We are prepared to offer you assistance. Please acknowledge."
The captain's face broke into a broad grin as he realized the effect his reply would have. "Kirk here."
Kirk chuckled. He could envision Spock's brief flash of astonishment, the instantaneous effort to compose himself as his Vulcan stone-face reappeared. "It is most gratifying to hear your voice, Captain," his first officer said mildly. "Are you all right?"
"For the most part. Commander Cheryl Saunders is with me, and Doctor Richard Daystrom and his daughter, Melinda. The doctor and Commander Saunders will require medical attention."
"I heard that, Jim," the voice of Doctor Leonard McCoy came on the line. "Welcome back. I've got a medical team standing by in the transporter room. I'll be down myself when I finish up here."
"How bad is it, Bones?"
"Six dead, twenty-eight injured, and scores of bruises and contusions. It could've been a lot worse. That Klingon ship had us pinned to a wall, and then it just went dead."
Kirk glanced at the Daystroms. Melinda hovered over her father, holding his hands, caressing them gently as she tended to him. "You've got Doctor Daystrom to thank for that, Bones. It's a long story, and I really haven't heard it myself."
"Captain," Spock's voice cut in. "Our sensors detect no Klingon lifeforms aboard that vessel--only the readings of your party. Can you clarify this?"
"The Klingons are gone, Spock. Dead to the last man. Ritual suicide seems to be standard procedure in cases like this." Kirk hesitated. "Spock, do you realize that you've encroached on the Organian Treaty Zone, in violation of--"
"Affirmative. That is also, as you say, a long story, Captain."
"I'm looking forward to hearing it," Kirk said.
"As is the Federation Council and Starfleet Command, no doubt." Spock paused, then came back on. "Captain, Mister Scott reports that he has locked onto you. Beaming will commence momentarily."
"Thank you, Mister Spock," Kirk acknowledged. "It'll be good to be back. Kirk out." He turned to Saunders. She had appropriated the navigation console, and he flashed her a 'thumbs up' sign when she answered with a lop-sided grin. They had made it. Once again, his attention focused on the Enterprise, his lady of the skies, and he smiled softly.
He was still smiling when the Enterprise's transporter scan found them.
"So, Spock, your hunch about Doctor Daystrom was right after all."
Leonard McCoy's mouth crinkled at the corners as he challenged the Vulcan science officer. Kirk sat back in his command chair, enjoying the by-play as Spock favored his adversary with a pained, long-suffering stare.
"Doctor McCoy would have you believe that I acted on intuition alone, Captain. There were certain facts and coincidences that could be confirmed by my computers..."
"Yes, but you yourself said you couldn't be sure, Spock," McCoy interrupted. "You said you felt you had a correlation. I believe your exact words were 'there is insufficient data for the computer to assign a probability factor to my hypothesis.' Am I right?"
"Aha! Aha! See, Jim? He played a hunch! Our walking computer acted from a gut feeling--an emotional response!"
Kirk chuckled. "I really don't care what made him do it, Bones. I'm just glad he did. Thank you, Mister Spock."
The Vulcan inclined his head with a slight smile. "My pleasure, Captain. And, it was not a hunch."
Kirk and McCoy glanced at each other and broke up, laughing helplessly. The physician waved at Spock with an 'I-give-up' gesture. Satisfied, the Vulcan withdrew from the field of honor and returned to his station.
Kirk stretched lazily, relaxed and happy. He needed a shave and desperately longed for a shower and some sleep, and the black T-shirt and softsuit trousers he still wore had seen better, fresher days. Still, he reflected, it was good to be back. He realized now, as he should have all along, that this was where he belonged. This was his life, what he did best. His two and a half year hiatus from command after the first five-year mission should have convinced him just how much he wanted, no, needed this life and this ship--and these people.
"Entering Federation space, Captain," reported Lieutenant Irene Carver, the relief navigator.
Kirk breathed a silent sigh. "Thank you, Lieutenant. That's good news indeed."
"All right, Jim, now that we're back home, it's time for you to come down to Sickbay. You're the only one of your party I haven't checked out yet." McCoy jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the turbolift doors.
"No 'buts.' Cheryl and Melinda told me how you got kicked around over there, so let's go. Medical order."
"Doctor McCoy has become quite the martinet in your absence, Jim," Spock said.
"You, too, Spock," McCoy snapped. "Let's go. I want to look at your leg."
Spock's eyebrow hooked upward in astonished dismay. He glanced imploringly at Kirk, who shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't look at me, Spock. He's the boss in these matters." Kirk turned to Carver. "Lieutenant, you have the conn." He stood up, and Carver assumed the chair he had just vacated. "Well, let's go, Bones." He nodded to Spock.
The Vulcan reluctantly joined Kirk and McCoy as they headed for a turbolift.
"Sickbay," McCoy said into the microphone grid. The 'lift dropped obediently at his voice command, heading for its destination, and McCoy's face lit up in a grin as he regarded his unwilling patients. "Don't look so glum, you two. This'll probably be the first decent rest either of you have gotten in a week!"
Sickbay was somewhat crowded when they arrived. Someone shouted, "Look, it's the captain!" A ragged cheer went up, followed by applause. Kirk was deeply moved. He waved at his injured crewmembers, hoping they couldn't see the mist in his eyes.
Melinda Daystrom rushed over and tugged at his hand. "Come on and see Daddy. He wants to talk to you."
McCoy nodded his permission, and Kirk followed the girl to her father's bed.
Richard Daystrom was sitting up. He appeared alert and well. He stretched out his hand when he saw Kirk, and the captain clasped it in his own and shook it warmly. "I wanted to thank you, Captain Kirk," Daystrom began. "I never hoped to see Melinda alive again. Thank you for watching over her."
"I must thank you, Doctor. If not for you, the Klingons would have destroyed my ship and my crew, and would now be rampaging through Federation territory."
"I did what I had to do," the scientist returned. His expression clouded over suddenly. "Doctor McCoy informed me your ship suffered six fatalities in the Karak's attack. I'm sorry. I wish to God I could have stopped them sooner..."
Melinda embraced him. "Don't blame yourself, Daddy. Think of the lives you saved."
"She's right, Doctor." Kirk decided to change the subject. "How are you feeling, sir?"
Daystrom brightened somewhat. "I feel fine. Doctor McCoy is treating me for shock, and he wants me to rest a day or so. Oh, and he treated the burn I got when the M-6 attacked me with its energy bolt."
Daystrom unfastened the top clasp of his pajamas, revealing a patch of pink new plastiskin on his chest. "Apparently Doctor McCoy didn't have my shade, but he assured me the pigmentation will normalize as the synthetic skin heals." His eyes widened in mock alarm. "I certainly hope he's right! There's going to be a white sheep in the family soon enough as it is!"
Kirk laughed. "I'm sure he's right. He's also impatiently waiting to examine me, so I'd better be going." He shook hands with Daystrom again and nodded to Melinda before rejoining Spock and McCoy. He watched the young woman as she lovingly doted over her appreciative father.
"Bones, how is Melinda?"
"Physically, she's fine," McCoy replied. "As for that other matter...she's got her father to look after right now. And she's extremely thankful her fiancé wasn't killed as she first thought. That'll keep her mind off it for a while. Later, though, after things settle down, she may need help. Daystrom spoke to me about it. He's going to contact the Vulcan healer who helped him after his breakdown."
"She'll be in good hands, then."
"Indeed," Spock remarked. "Mindmeld therapy has made great advances, as evidenced by Doctor Daystrom himself."
"Okay, let's go!" McCoy barked. "You're both stalling!" He led them through a set of doors into the adjoining ward, near his office. Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov were there along with DiFalco and Cheryl Saunders. The bridge crew hailed Kirk as he came in. He tried to stop for a moment to talk to them, but McCoy grabbed him by the arm and whisked him away.
"Over here, Jim. You'll have plenty of time for socializing later." He indicated an empty bed next to Chekov's. "This is your berth, Jim. Spock, you're over here." He pointed to a bunk across the way from Kirk's. The Vulcan came perilously close to glowering, but he lay down obediently and without comment.
Kirk gratefully stretched out on his assigned bunk. He was beat, and didn't mind admitting it. He glanced over at Cheryl Saunders and smiled. "How're you feeling, Commander?"
"Just fine, Captain." Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "This is the best I could do. I tried to talk McCoy into letting us share a bunk, but he refused. He was mumbling about 'impropriety' or something."
Kirk chuckled. He reached down to give her hand a quick, affectionate squeeze, noting that she looked much better. McCoy had fused her broken jaw; the swelling had receded, leaving only a patch of faint, mottled bruises.
An intercom whistled. "Bridge to Captain Kirk."
Kirk patched in with his wrist communicator. "Kirk here."
"Sir, I have an urgent message for you from Admiral Echard at Starfleet Command," Lieutenant Carver reported. "It's on hyperband, sir."
"Patch her through, Lieutenant," Kirk said.
The voice of Commanding Admiral Debra Echard crackled tinnily over Kirk's wristband, distorted by the hyperchannel. "Captain Kirk? Are you there?"
"Yes, sir--this is Kirk. Go ahead."
"Glad to see you're all right, Captain. You people really stirred up some excitement around here. I've been on the line with the Federation Council all morning. They are--how shall I put this--displeased with your Mister Spock. The president of the Council is insisting that he be relieved of duty for the duration. You see, he's put them in something of a bind, and this is their way of getting even."
"Spock's put the Council in a bind?"
"He has. Since the Triton was destroyed, people from all over the Federation have been up in arms, outraged at the Klingons' escapades. They've been demanding the Council take drastic action. So the 'peacemakers' suddenly find themselves with their backs to the wall, and I, for one, am delighted. Public opinion can sometimes be as powerful as any photon torpedo."
"And Spock taking the Enterprise into the Organian Treaty Zone didn't help matters," Kirk concluded.
"That's putting it mildly. He'll be a folk hero if word gets out." Echard paused. "Incidentally, he's also going to be up on some very serious charges unless he's got solid justification for entering the Zone--and a lot of proof. The only thing keeping him out of the brig right now is the fact that a Klingon cruiser was in there, too, holding Federation citizens as prisoners."
Kirk smiled. "I think we'll have sufficient proof, Admiral. We have log tapes and documents--and we have the Klingon ship in tow. No Klingon prisoners, however. They apparently had orders to terminate themselves. They are, after all, creatures of duty."
Echard whistled softly. "You Enterprise people don't do anything in half measures, do you? The Council will love this! With that much evidence, they'll be forced to make some kind of move--at least a public condemnation. Maybe this'll convince them that they can't hide their heads in the sand and hope the Klingons go away."
"I hope so, sir," Kirk returned. "In the meantime, what is Commander Spock's status?"
"I think he'd best be relieved for the time being, Captain, just as a formality. Let's not rub salt in the president's wounds. Now, as for your orders, the Enterprise is to proceed to Starbase Fifteen for overhaul and to pick up crew replacements. You'll be off the track for two weeks--no more, no less. I suggest you grant the crew shore leave. I'm sure it would be appreciated. In regard to Mister Spock and the political repercussions, I'll contact you later. We still haven't heard from the Klingon Empire."
"I see. Is there anything else?"
"Yes, Captain, just one more thing." Echard chuckled. "Tell that hard-headed Vulcan he did one hell of a job!"
"Thank you, sir; I'll do that. Kirk out." He clicked off, and gazed ruefully at his first officer. "You heard her, Spock. I'm sorry. I'm afraid you're relieved of duty until further notice."
The members of the command crew began to protest loudly, but McCoy quickly stepped forward. "Quiet!" he bellowed. "This is a Sickbay, not the mess hall!"
"There is no need to apologize, Captain," Spock said. "I take full responsibility for my actions, and I expected nothing less for my behavior. Indeed, I believe I anticipated much harsher treatment." He flung a reproachful glance at McCoy. "If you are quite finished, Doctor, I shall return to my quarters."
"Oh, no you don't, Spock," McCoy growled. "Your leg's doin' fine, but you've gotta keep off it. You're staying right here for the next three days!"
The Vulcan's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "Really, Doctor, I believe that is unnecessary. We shall be at Starbase Fifteen in..."
"You're here three days. That's final!" McCoy whirled around and scowled at Kirk who had swung his legs over the side of his bed. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Bridge," he replied. "Spock's off the line, and the rest of my command grade officers are here."
"All except one. Scotty's fit as the proverbial fiddle, and you are damned well going to be still long enough for me to do a work-up on you! He can watch the store. Now I'll have some peace and quiet around here, or there'll be hell to pay!"
His baleful, blue-eyed stare swept the now-silent ward. His reluctant patients regarded the irascible C.M.O. with near open-mouthed astonishment. Stunned, Kirk lay meekly back down on his bunk.
"That's more like it!" McCoy chortled. "Everybody's nice and quiet. Now, let's try for cheerful!" He calibrated his medicorder for Kirk and crossed the aisle.
"Do you want me to say, 'aah'?" Kirk risked.
"Just be quiet and lie still. This won't hurt a bit."
Kirk shrugged, wearily closing his eyes as the physician began his examination. The soporific drone of the 'corder was putting him to sleep. He decided not to fight it.
As he drifted off, he heard Uhura's stage whisper somewhere to his right. "Welcome home, sir."
Home. Yes, he was home, and it was good to be back.
Kirk peered out through a thick metalglass portal in the Centroplex's shuttle departure lounge. From here he could easily observe the sleek, streamlined shape of the Enterprise as she floated free in drydock only a few hundred meters away from the station. Once again, his beloved starship had returned from the brink of oblivion relatively unscathed. She's a bonnie ship, a lucky ship, Scotty had said.
James Kirk did not believe in luck. He had seen too many good men who had gone out on other "lucky" ships, never to return. No, luck was only what you made of it. Spock would prefer to think of it in terms of probability. Thus far, the random factors had been in their favor.
And what if someday the statistics caught up with them? There were too many Klingon and Romulan commanders out there who would gladly give their right arms to hang the Enterprise in their trophy case. And other demons, unseen, undreamed of--some kind of freak natural disaster, another doomsday machine, or a V'ger that couldn't be reasoned with. Or even a warp engine malfunction.
He shuddered. It was not easy or pleasant to think too long about this. If it came to that, if the Enterprise were to die, would he die with her, go down with the ship like the ancient sea captains? As a green ensign fresh from Starfleet Academy, he had not then fully comprehended the feelings a commander could have for his ship.
He gazed at the Enterprise again, feeling his heart beat faster, his pulse racing as if a long, lost lady love had just entered the room. He smiled.
Now he understood what Ensign James T. Kirk had not.
"Kyptin Kirk!" Pavel Chekov hailed him from the concourse. "I did not recognize you in civilian clothing, sair. I'm glad you came."
Kirk smiled. "Traveling in mufti keeps the curious away. Do you have time for a drink?"
"Yes, sair. I'd like that."
They strolled over to a nearby bar and found an empty, quiet booth in the rear. Kirk sat facing the viewport so he could keep an eye on the Enterprise.
"On me," Kirk said. "What'll you have--as if I didn't know."
"Vwhy, I'll haf a wvodka, of course, sair." Chekov grinned impishly.
"Was there ever any doubt?" Kirk punched his serial number on the dispenser keyboard, charging the drinks to his account. The roboserver instantaneously produced the vodka and a Saurian brandy for Kirk.
"So you're leaving earlier than expected. I understand the Lexington's going to provide support for the crews rebuilding Starbase Twenty-seven on Trylias."
"Yes, sair. At first vwe thought vwe'd be assigned to help with the new Epsilon stations, but the Starbase vwas given top priority. Vwe haf to leave as soon as possible."
Kirk tapped the new commander's stripes on Chekov's sleeve. "Looks good on you, Pavel. You've earned 'em."
"Sair, I--" Chekov glanced down into his glass suddenly. "I vwanted this chance to talk to you alone so I could explain vwhy I'm leaving. There vwasn't much chance at the party the other night."
"You're right about that. My head still hurts! As for explaining--I understand."
"It's not because of vwhat happened between us. I see now that you must do vwhat you think is right on shore parties. I don't think I vwas the only security chief who ever butted heads vwith his kyptin over that. I did not vwant anything to happen to you."
He paused, as if searching for exactly the right words to convey what he wanted to say. "For some time now, I have been...restless. I loved my vwork on the Enterprise, but something vwas missing. It vwas time to move on. I vwas being groomed for command; I felt that I needed to advance, but I also felt guilty for vwanting to leave. Can you understand that, sair?"
A wistful smile played about Kirk's lips. "I think so. Years ago, I knew another young man, a lot like you. He had the same problem--wanted to leave, but felt bad about it. The young man talked to his captain. He said, 'Son, if you feel that way, then you're ready to go. I'm kicking you out of the nest. Go try your wings.'"
"I see," Chekov said. He took a sip of his drink. "This young man--did he fly?"
Kirk glanced over the Russian's shoulder, out the port at the Enterprise once more. "Yes." His voice was almost a whisper. "Yes, he did." He raised his glass to Chekov. "Happy flying, Pavel."
"Thank you, sair."
They drank to Kirk's impromptu toast, then Chekov consulted his wrist chronometer. "I still have a few minutes, Kyptin. Can you tell me vwhat is going to happen to Mister Spock?"
"Probably nothing." Kirk swirled the brandy around in his nearly empty glass, then drank it down. "Federation Council is doing an abrupt about face. They've issued an official warning to the Klingon Senate. Things have been awfully quiet on their side of the Treaty Zone since we captured the Karak. I think it proved to Council that we need to fight back a little when it's necessary."
"So Mister Spock's off the hook?"
Kirk chuckled. "The Council's been under a lot of pressure from the public ever since the Triton incident. If they went after Spock, they'd have a revolt on their hands! They've even gone so far as to reject Commanding Admiral Nogura's resignation--he's never been known for coddling the Klingons. Besides, I don't think they want him on the Council!"
"Nogura's Commander Starfleet again? That is good news," Chekov returned. "Admiral Nogura vwon't let the Council tie our hands anymore."
He finished his vodka. "Time for me to go, sair. Thank you for the drink."
"I'll walk back to the gate with you," Kirk said. He got up, and they crossed the plaza leading back to the departure bay.
Passengers were already boarding when they arrived, and Kirk felt a sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach. There were so many things he wanted to say to this young man. He had watched him grow and develop from the boy who had signed on during the first five-year mission, watched him mature into a fine officer.
So many things, but the words wouldn't come.
"Goodbye, Pavel. Take care of yourself." He held out his hand.
Chekov shook it firmly. "Thank you, Kyptin. It vwas an honor and a privilege to serve vwith you." His voice caught, and he snapped to attention, raising his right hand in a crisp salute. Kirk returned the gesture.
"Vwill you say goodbye to everyone for me again?" Chekov asked. "I told them all at the party, but I didn't let them know exactly vwhen I vwas leaving. I didn't vwant a scene. This is hard enough as it is."
"I will." Kirk glanced up as the 'final call' signal crackled over the intercom. "Better get on board."
Chekov quickly shook hands once more, then bolted for the entrance hatch. He halted midway, however, and turned back to Kirk. "One more thing...Jim--the next time you go on a landing detail, vwill you please keep your head down?"
Kirk laughed. "Yes! Now, will you please go before they leave without you?"
Chekov nodded, waving over his shoulder as he ran. Then he disappeared down the boarding tube and was gone.
The emptiness became an ache. Kirk found himself trying to swallow past a burning lump in his throat. "Go try your wings, Pavel," he murmured.
He turned quickly away and climbed on a moving sidewalk to take him back to the transporter bay. He stared straight ahead, not trusting himself even to breathe. Momentarily, the sidewalk slowed and stopped.
"Transport Level Three," a metallic voice chimed. "Please proceed to IdentiScan and have your coordinate program ready."
Kirk was quickly processed and admitted to the bay. He stopped at the fabricator booth for his outerwear. The scanner read his measurements; a circuit hummed, and a cable-knit sweater, heavy ski boots and leggings formed around him, followed lastly by a hooded, down parka.
Kirk hurried into the transporter room, hoping to beam down before he roasted in his arctic gear. The technician perfunctorily glanced at his card as she programmed the transporter. "Going down to Snowmass, sir? I hear the powder's great right now."
"Yes," he answered distractedly. "I'm staying at the ski lodge with a friend."
"Well, have a good time."
She thrust the controls forward, and in the next instant, Kirk's breath crystallized in cold, crisp air.
The sun shone brightly in the deep violet sky. Kirk squinted against the glaring, spectacular view. He dug in his pocket for a pair of ski goggles, and decided against it. He didn't have that far to go.
Kirk trudged toward the lodge, snow crunching under his boots. Skiers were gliding down the slopes, some expertly, some rolling and tumbling inelegantly as their skis, or legs, betrayed them. A pair of hr'kans, furry otter-like humanoids, whizzed past him, belly-sliding over the densely-packed snow at breakneck speed. He smiled as their infectious chittering drifted back up the hillside in their wake.
He trooped to the lodge, stomping his feet in the foyer to clear his boots of clinging snow. It was agreeably warm inside. Kirk pulled off his ski boots and parka. He waved to the desk clerk as he headed down the hallway to his room.
Cheryl Saunders had a veritable bonfire blazing in the fireplace--a real, homey, cozy fire, not one of those synthetic holo-hearths that were so popular these days. She met him at the door and handed him a steaming, aromatic mug after he had stowed his coat and boots.
"What's this?" Kirk asked.
"Hot, spiced rum. You'll love it."
He took a sip, nodded in approval. "Mmmm. You're right. It's delicious."
"Old family recipe." She gazed up at him in concern. "You don't look too happy, hon. Was it rough?"
"Yes." He put an arm around her and steered her toward a divan near the fireplace. Saunders sat down next to him, snuggling close as he stared moodily into the flickering depths of the fire.
"It's a strange feeling," he said finally. "We've been together a long time, this crew and me. Chekov was just a kid when he signed on. Now look at him. I hate to lose him, but it's inevitable, I guess."
"It is," she affirmed. "Where would you be today if you'd stayed with your first commission? If they're ever going to grow, they've got to move on."
"It's not easy. It's like having a member of your family move out. I'd hate to think they were holding themselves back out of loyalty to me."
"You inspire loyalty, Jim Kirk," she said softly. She kissed him and put her hand on his shoulder. "I was going to ask you if you wanted to go skiing, but I think you need a heavy dose of T.L.C. instead."
"Sounds nice. I'd hate to waste this fire you've got going."
They were silent for a long time, enjoying the fire and the closeness of each other's company, and the heady glow of the rum.
She sighed contentedly. "This is the way to spend a shore leave. Sure beats dodging photon torpedoes and Klingon shore parties, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," Kirk replied jokingly. "I think I miss the excitement."
"You starship jockeys are all alike. You've all got to be where the action is." Saunders grew suddenly serious. "I'm going back, you know. To Trylias. When they rebuild Starbase, I'm going to be security chief again. My orders were cut today."
"Congratulations--though I must admit I'd been entertaining the possibility of asking you to sign aboard the Enterprise. With Chekov gone, I need a good security chief." He smiled somewhat sadly. "It'd never work, would it?"
"You know why, don't you?" She slipped her arms around his neck and hugged him. "I love you, Jim. I love you as a friend--and maybe as something more than a friend. But I have to be free to go my own way. My work means as much to me as the Enterprise does to you. If we were together like that, I'd always have doubts about our professional relationship. If you ordered me to stay behind on a dangerous mission, I'd wonder if you were trying to protect me. I'd be wondering if I was a hindrance to you and your job of commanding the ship. I couldn't function in a situation like that. And as for you..."
She sat back, taking his head in her hands, a wry grin tugging at her lips. "You wouldn't last a month at a Starbase--you and your baloney about settling down. I saw your face when we spotted the Enterprise on the viewer of that Klingon ship. You looked like you'd just seen a beatific vision. When we came aboard, you were back in your element the instant the transporter reassembled your molecules. You were giving orders before we stepped off the pads! You just needed a rest, some time away from the pressure. If you did that a little more often, you wouldn't get so wound up."
She paused and gazed anxiously at him. "You do understand, don't you, Jim? I want to be with you as often as I can, but I don't think we should mix business with pleasure."
"Words of wisdom," Kirk admitted, his face breaking into a slow smile. "You're right about everything--you, me, our careers. We're workaholics, Cheryl. Our work will always come first, but that doesn't mean we have to let is get in our way when we're together. Agreed?"
"Agreed," she answered. "I promise--no more lectures. We've got a whole weekend of leave to enjoy. No sense wasting it."
She kissed him again; he shivered involuntarily, a full-bodied shudder that seized him from head to toe.
"Gee, thanks, Jim. Kissing me gives you the creeps, huh?"
Kirk laughed. "Sorry. I must have gotten a chill outside. It takes me a while to warm up."
"Is that a fact?" She leaned in close, her index finger tracing slow, swirling circles on his chin, her voice a seductive purr. "Bet I know how to warm you up in a hurry."
"You do? What did you have in mind, Commander?"
"Oh, just a little--you know..."
"Hmmm. Sounds interesting." Kirk cast her a bemused glance. "Are you trying to seduce me, ma'am?"
"You bet your boots, honey," she whispered.
"I see. In that case..." He unfastened his wrist communicator. He deactivated it, and with exaggerated ceremony, tossed it over his shoulder.
For once, they were not disturbed.
Be advised that the Imperial Klingon Cruiser Karak, under the orders of outlaw Commander Krax, violated Federation space on an unauthorized mission of war. Regrets are tendered for any damages and loss of life caused by this unlawful incursion.
Be further advised that Klingon High Command refutes the existence of orders allegedly found aboard same ship directed to a purported Terran agent. The Klingon Empire does not employ Earther intelligence operatives and deems any such accusation to be ludicrous.
The Barrier Alliance is very much like the 20th century's Organization of American States in that it is a regional coalition of alien races. It ostensibly seeks to provide for collective self-defense, regional cooperation, and the peaceful settlement of controversies. However, given that the Alliance is dominated by the Orions, the organization usually serves as a front for illegal activities. The group of races comprising the Barrier Alliance include the Orions, Acadians, and Catullans among others. The Alliance is surrounded by a border (known as `The Barrier') established by the Federation, monitored by outposts, frigates and destroyers, to prevent the trafficking of illegal goods and slaves into Federation territory.
Translation 1: "You will be remembered with shame."
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