The woman fought against the pain that threatened to consume her. She had far more pressing business to attend to than pain. Namely, keeping her head on her shoulders.
Her assailant thrust his long knife at her again. Again, she managed to misdirect the blow, but not enough. What had been meant for her heart grazed her upper arm. Breath whistled between her teeth as yet more pain razored her.
She took her hand away from the wound, staring dumbly at the green-black stain on her palm. This oaf! This oaf had shed her blood. He would not live. Their eyes met, frozen for an endless moment.
"Bitch!" the man grunted. "You'll pay now. Think you can use your high and mighty name now? 'Fair fight,' they said. 'Honor by death in the arena,' pah! Killed in the dirt by a woman. Now, die, whore!"
The man lunged, and the woman returned his words with an inarticulate scream. She knew she had no time. Gathering her last reserves, she leaped aside as he attacker reached her, grabbing him by the neck and around the head. Using his own momentum and what strength she had left, she pulled back as hard as she could. The resulting "snap" was enough. She had won--again. She slumped against the wall in the filthy alley, conscious once more of the pain arrowing through her belly. This was her last battle, and she had to find the place before it was over.
She staggered down the alley, trying to remember the directions. There! The mark on the door. The knock--it had to be given exactly. She tapped out the code, wondering how she managed to remain standing. The door swung open, and she fell through, would have fallen to the floor if two strong arms had not reached out to catch her. She was helped to a pallet and eased down. For the first time in weeks, she felt safe, but with safety came the pain, again, stronger, more insistent, and not far behind it, the blackness that threatened to consume her. Not yet!
She grabbed for the hands that tucked the warm blankets around her, struggling to sit up. "Wait, wait, I have to tell--"
"Say nothing. I know why you are here, Consul."
The use of her title caused her to fall back with relief. She motioned the hooded figure to her side. It approached, and knelt beside her.
"Closer," she whispered, knowing that at last she could rest.
The figure pushed back the hood on his robe, revealing a long, thin face which only served to accentuate the upswept ears and brows so typical of their race. But the reddish hair and golden flecks in his eyes told another story.
She gasped. "You, too?"
He smiled gently. "Why do you think I do this?"
Her grip on him tightened convulsively. "My baby. No one must know. Keep... safe."
The man disentangled her hand from his clothing. "It will be well," he said. "Rest now. Rest."
She lay back and let the blackness fall.
The coat on the dummy moved a fraction. The stick whacked a wrist already sore from other such blows.
"Ayeeyah!" The urchin jumped away from the stick-wielder, holding the bruised appendage close and sputtering.
"Softly, now. Softly." The man came out of the shadows, tapping his stick lightly against his palm, a small smile lingering on his severe face.
"You hit me again with that thing, and I'll bust it into splinters and scratch your face!" The child's anger was reduced to pouting.
"You be glad you've only got a sore wrist. When you're in the street doing your real work, and someone catches you, you'll be lucky to draw back a hand at all!"
That sobered the dirty little creature who squatted on the hard, packed-earth floor of the practice room. The man sat beside her, ignoring the filth, and put his arm around her shoulders in rough affection.
"Don't be so hurt, Tiki. I chose you for this because you are quick--and little. But this is a skill that requires patience and practice--practice until you cannot think of anything else. It's not only jewels and money belts you have to come away with; it's your own life. So you must be good. And if I can see the coat move when you touch it, you're not good enough, eh?
The man took his arm from around Tiki's shoulders and dangled his prize in front of her.
"No!" she screeched. "It's mine!" She didn't know why she felt such fear seeing her necklace in her teacher's hands; she only knew that it was the first time it had been off her body since--since forever. It was the one permanent thing in a life where friends and possessions were as fleeting--and as rare--as a full belly.
The man slipped the necklace into a pocket, his face resuming its usual stern countenance. "Hush. Squawking will get you nothing. I know it's yours. I put it on your scrawny neck when you couldn't even hold your head up."
He looked at the half-dressed urchin in front of him. He knew she was a female because he had brought her naked and bawling into the world, but anyone looking at her skinny form and the thick, tangled hair that fell over her eyes and ears in greasy locks, would only have seen another beggar boy darting in and out among the crowds of Worlds' End.
S'rael fingered the necklace in his pocket. "You'll have your trinket back when the coat stays still. Now you'd better get to your spot and relieve Yuki. Smear some more dirt on your face and keep that left leg bent the way I showed you. People will take more pity on you, and you'll eat well tonight."
"I want my necklace back. It's mine."
S'rael was surprised at the low fury in the child's voice. He decided to use it. "Indeed. Remember your feelings well. That is how those you stalk will feel when you rob their pockets. It's more incentive for your hands to be light and quick. We'll try again tomorrow. Now, go!"
The days passed for Tiki in a blur of sameness. She woke, cold and hungry, in a tangle of arms and legs with the other children of her warren. She begged at her place on the corner of Fairlight and Narys Roads, ate what she could scrounge or buy with what S'rael gave her out of her take each day. After the begging were the lessons. She worked hard because she knew the pickpockets had their fill to eat everyday, and she was tired of being hungry. She worked, too, because she wanted to please her teacher, the closest thing to a parent she could remember. And now she worked to get her necklace back.
The practice room was silent, breathless. Dim sunlight filtered through cracks in the walls, and dust motes floated on the beams. S'rael's stick was poised, ready to spring on an unprotected wrist at the slightest motion of the coat. Tiki moved quietly around and around the dummy, the concentration she had developed in her months of training falling on her automatically. She did not realize it, but her movements slowed, as did her breathing, as she found the gold pieces that S'rael had hidden in the garment for bait. Finally, the last pocket was empty, and the stick had not descended. Tiki danced back, jingling the coins in her hands.
"Twelve, S'rael! All of them this time!" She held them out for him to see.
"You did it once. Now you must strive to do it all the time. No more room for mistakes."
Her face fell. "I thought I did right."
S'rael relented. "So you did. Come," he pulled her to him in an unaccustomed hug. He always tried not to show how special Tiki was to him, but sometimes his guard dropped, and he knew she sensed it. "No more begging today. Roam as you will. Try your hand, but carefully. The old women or careless youngsters. No one important, and no centurions."
Tiki wriggled out from his protective arm, the small smile on her face as close as she ever came to laughter. "See? I did it! I fooled you, S'rael!" She reached her hands behind her neck and showed him her necklace, newly clasped.
S'rael frowned. He truly had not expected her to get it, although he had known she would try.
Seeing her teacher's serious expression, Tiki's mood shifted. "What is it, S'rael? You said you'd give it back to me..."
"Yes, girl, I said that. Have your bauble. Tiki, I must tell you some things. Things you may not want to hear. I chose you for this skill not only because you are quick and smart, but because soon--not immediately--but soon, you will have to leave here."
Tiki moved back as if he were after her with a stick. "Leave? Have I been bad? S'rael, I never cheated you--if the others have lied--"
"Softly, Tiki, softly. No one has accused you. But soon you will be a woman."
"Yes, I know. Grow tits and hips and bleed and have babies. So?" Children in the Old City of Worlds' End had no illusions regarding the facts of life.
"An urchin can run and melt into the crowd if the mark catches him with his hand in a pocket. They may give chase for a bit, but soon they give up. It's just a thing that happens. But a young woman with tits and hips...well, I know men who wouldn't give up. And you must not lead anyone here--you all know that. That's what the warrens are for, to hide those like us, the ones the centurions like to kill. If they followed you here because they wanted your body, it would mean death for us all. You know it."
"But I'd never..."
"Not on purpose. But centurions and merchants with money--they're used to getting what they want. You might get away once. But they'd be looking. And sooner or later, they'd catch you."
Tiki nodded, knowing in her quick mind that soon she would lose the only family she had ever known. S'rael, teacher and guide, who handed out rare hugs and frequent beatings, money and lessons. Yuki, the best beggar. Razak and Tal, the twins, and all the other dozen or so children that begged, stole, pickpocketed and conned a living of sorts from the people of Worlds' End.
She had spent most of her days cold, more than a few hungry, and all of them dirty, but in S'rael's warren, there was usually a warm body to cuddle with in the common at night, and someone would almost always share a few crumbs with her. They were hers as much as her arms and legs were. She turned her large, clear-green eyes on S'rael. "I have to leave? Alone?"
"Not now, Tiki. Not even by year end. And not alone, if we are lucky. I will do what I can to make arrangements for you. But leave that for now. That is not the only thing I had to tell you. There is another. I helped you mother give birth to you."
Tiki didn't think she could listen to any more "things" that S'rael had to tell her. She knew she had been with him for a long time, just by the way he referred to her, but she had never known this! He knew her mother, her dreamed about, cried about, cursed mother?
"Who--S'rael, oh, who?"
The tall man was rummaging in a trunk by the wall. He pulled out a small parcel and handed it to her. "You mother came here one night with you heavy in her belly. She had found out that I sometimes help women who cannot afford a midwife."
Tiki knew this was true. She had seen a number of such women come to S'rael.
"She was far gone, with little strength. She made me promise I would keep you and these things until you were old enough to have them. Have you been practicing your reading, the way I showed you?"
"Yes, much. But I've never told--I swear!"
"Never mind that. This letter is for you. I've not read it. That's for you to do now."
"She died." It was not a question.
"Even as you drew your first breath."
"Why did you keep me? Others come and some have died and you send the little ones away with wet nurses. Why keep me? Not just because she said."
A smile played about the man's harsh mouth, lightening the severe effect of pointed ears and brows.
"It pleased me." He could say no more to a child. Perhaps one day, if, when his plans came to fruition, he could tell her exactly why she was so important to him. But for now... "Read your letter. I'll wait in the common." He left her alone.
Bringing it to her face, Tiki sniffed the expensive parchment. A faint, spicy odor tickled her nose as she broke the wax seal. The words jumped out at her.
I, Szarin R'el'ikian, Consul of the High Command of Worlds' End of the Romulan Star Empire, do state for all records that I have given birth to a daughter. She is the child of my body, come to term by my own choice and as such is sole inheritor of my position, powers and possessions. I say this is true. Let no one challenge it.
The letter was signed in bold writing. Tiki sat unbelieving. What was a Consul? She had heard of the Praetor, and everyone knew that Centurions worked for the Praetor, and you spoke softly around them or stayed out of their way altogether, but she was as ignorant of politics as the cattle who stood in the marketplace waiting for slaughter. She noticed a smaller document folded into the one she had just read. Carefully, she opened it. It was to her.
One day you may learn the story of how you came to be, but others will have to tell you. It is not good that we will never meet, but Fate is not kind. Know that the blood in your veins is full of courage and intelligence. You will do what you must do to survive, and you will not give up. Learn all you can, fight well, live bravely, die with honor. You must make your own way. All I can leave you is your name. You are Saavik. Be strong.
The letter was signed in the same bold hand as the first. The only other thing was a jagged stone that winked up at her, and looked somehow familiar. Suddenly, as though burned, Tiki--Saavik--yanked her necklace off and looked at it. Yes. The bit of jewel in the leather thong was dull and dirtied with years of wear, but the shape was unmistakable. She brought the two halves together. There was a tiny click, and the two pieces were one sphere. It was true.
Saavik folded the letters and put her necklace back on. She sat, holding them, and cradling the stone against her throat, until the sun faded and the room grew cold. Finally, when her cramped legs began to protest, she rose and went to the common, the room where all her "family" gathered when their day's work was over.
S'rael was there, alone. She knew he must have sent the others off somewhere, and she was glad. She felt his eyes on her as she crossed the room.
"It must have been a long letter, eh, Tiki?"
"My name is Saavik."
Year end approached, and S'rael was worried. Saavik had grown, but the changes in her body were less troublesome than those in her attitude.
She had become the group's master pickpocket, passing even Razak in skill. Razak, who could lift a single coin from under a centurion's body armor.
But the marks she chose! Rich merchants, powerful courtesans, even the dreaded centurions--in groups! It was as if she wanted to be caught. That was bad enough --increasing the risk that S'rael's warren would be found out, but the worst was Saavik's change in mood toward the others. Before, she had been serious, but mischievous, quick to learn, ready to share her gains with the others. True, she had her bad times, her temper fits, but no worse than any of the others--motherless children who were growing up half-starved and ignorant.
Now, she had turned cold. She kept apart from the rest, huddling in her pile of rags alone at night, even if it meant freezing. She shared no more, but insisted the others give her part of their earnings before turning them over to S'rael. S'rael heard all of this from the other children, and saw the evidence of fights with his own eyes--the bruises, the black eyes, and last week, he had stitched a knife slash on her thigh.
Saavik had maintained a stoic silence during the process, then left without speaking to him. He did not push her; he hoped she would reach her breaking point soon, and he could use it to his advantage. Then, yesterday, she had slapped Yuki. Little Yuki, the beggar girl with one foot, who would never be able to do anything else. Yuki had always been able to coax a smile from Tiki, but not from Saavik. Time was running out. That evening, S'rael called Saavik to his private warren, a place the children were never to go except in moments of extreme discipline. It was a measure of how much she had changed that even this failed to subdue her. She faced him defiantly in his own quarters.
"Why am I still here?"
"I beg your pardon?" S'rael looked up from his stool, where he had been in light meditation. Saavik was early for their "appointment."
"You knew who my mother was. She was important! Important people don't leave their children in places like this. Did you kill her when she came to you for help?"
Saavik's fists were clenched, and S'rael knew that there was a weapon on her somewhere. Eleven years old or not, he knew he must be very careful.
"Child! I did not kill your mother. As for why you are still here, bring me that box."
Distracted by the order, Saavik did as she was told. S'rael opened the box and pulled out a small hand mirror. Such trinkets were rare in the warrens of the Old City. He doubted that Saavik had ever seen her own image for more than a few minutes in her entire life. He held it up to her.
She gasped. Reaching for the mirror with one hand, she lightly touched her face and hair. Then she saw.
"My eyes..." Eyes that reflected back the light in clear green, not the black, light absorbing eyes of every native, pure-blooded Ch'forrah on Worlds' End.
"Saavik, you are of mixed blood, even as I am."
Her eyes, still wide with shock, flew to his. "You--"
"No, I am not your father. But in the latter part of the year you were born, there were tales of a high-born woman who had strayed, brought disgrace to her family and her office. So when your mother found me, I was not surprised. And when you were born with those jewel-eyes, I knew the tales were true."
"I know no more. But none of the true blood Ch'forrah have light eyes like we do--at least, I've never seen them. I myself am the product of a centurion and an Orion courtesan. I know that much because I had six years before my mother died. No one would have me then, so I used my wits to live. Use yours now, Saavik. Leave off your bitterness. The others are beginning to fear you, and when warren mates cannot trust each other, chaos is close behind."
"It's not fair," she whispered, with the same barely controlled rage he had heard in her voice the day he took the necklace. "Not fair."
"No," S'rael agreed. "But that changes nothing. Go now. Apologize to Yuki. Give back what you took from the others. Sleep warm with them tonight."
Saavik gave him a searching look, as if she would go into his head and cut out the truth if she could. What a woman she might be if he could make sure she lived that long. She nodded and left him alone.
S'rael sighed deeply, an uncommon gesture for him. He had hoped he would never have to do what he was about to. Reaching under his bed, he drew out a small, battered trunk. Open, it seemed empty, but he pressed a series of small buttons on the inside of the top, which dropped down to reveal the complex circuitry of a subspace field radio. Frowning, he dialed up the frequency that had become his only hope.
"I don't like it, Spock. Not one damned bit," Captain Kirk stated flatly. He and his first officer were alone in the main briefing room of the Enterprise.
"That is not surprising, sir, however, the orders are very specific."
"How did you get into this mess, anyway?" Kirk wanted to know.
Spock paused, as if gathering exactly the right words. "I first met S'Terek before I joined Starfleet. There were several anthropology and sociology courses I was required to take at the Vulcan Science Academy. S'Terek was in one that spent some time on the history of the Vulcan and Romulan races, their common ancestry, and the ancient splitting of the two sub-groups." He stopped for a moment.
"And?" prompted the captain.
"He was fascinated by the subject. We had numerous discussions, and at the end of the course, he made the decision to specialize in that area, and planned to join the Special Services branch once he had written his dissertation."
"Special Services? That sounds very military."
"Not at all. Perhaps a better translation would be 'specialized' services. In that branch, it involved going to the world chosen and living as a productive member of the society there in order to learn as much as possible about the culture. S'Terek chose Worlds' End."
"I've never heard of it."
"You world know it by the name it is called outside the Romulan Star Empire--Hellguard."
"He went to Hellguard? As an observer? He must be a glutton for punishment, if any of the tales I've heard are true."
Spock frowned slightly. "The planet was originally colonized as an outpost to protect the inner worlds of the Empire--hence the name: Worlds' End. The first colonists were, as is so often the case, conscripts and a large complement of centurions as their guards and masters. The governmental structure was similar to that on the interior worlds; a Consulate, with Consuls and Senators, all eventually reporting back through channels to the Praetor. Unfortunately, distance, biology and Federation expansion were the main factors in the failure of the colony."
"Distance, biology and us? I don't follow you, Spock." Kirk had almost forgotten his annoyance in listening to Spock; he was rapidly becoming confused.
"The colony, while still within the boundaries of the Romulan Empire, was too far away to be governed effectively by the Praetor. Problems arose in dealing with conscripts--virtual slaves--that had to be dealt with immediately. Then, the colonists were a mixed group--male, female, young, old, infirm--the Romulans are not known for their mercy to criminals. In any event, the population of the conscripts and their descendants rapidly outgrew the number of guards. For all intents and purposes, the Hellguard colony was a failure. Then, when the Federation expanded and established the Neutral Zone, the Empire made the decision to abandon Worlds' End. They pulled out all personnel they considered 'valuable.' Those that were left, discarded citizens and slaves alike quickly developed their own hierarchy, based on power, crime and deceit. They assumed the roles abandoned by the Centurions, Consuls, and Senators, and meted out a new brand of government. The culture was one of true survival of the fittest, while retaining a loose association with the Romulan Empire."
"And your friend, S'Terek, chose to go there. Why?"
"S'Terek's circumstances were somewhat like mine--he, too, is of mixed blood. I was fortunate enough, however, to have parents of some influence on Vulcan. S'Terek did not have that advantage. To go to another world, like and so unlike our own, I believe it was attractive to him."
"But he still has to report back, channel information, keep contact, doesn't he? I mean, he just doesn't drop out of sight and become absorbed into the Romulan Empire?"
"Indeed. S'Terek's reports have been of great value in understanding the workings of the Empire, particularly in noting how proximity to the Federation has affected those left on Hellguard. For the races that trade and travel there, it is a dangerous, but seductive port of call. Anything is available--for a price.
"It was S'Terek's last contact that caused such a stir on Vulcan, and eventually led to the orders you received."
"Spock, why don't you just tell me the whole story. As briefly as possible." Kirk was resigned to the fact that he would be in the briefing room for the next several hours.
Spock nodded slowly. Kirk could tell the Vulcan was trying to synthesize facts in that head of his so that he could give the most succinct report possible. For that, Captain Kirk was grateful.
"Whenever possible, the Special Services branch prefers to send out its observers in pairs. Though their 'covers' would, of necessity, be totally different, in the event of emergency, it would be easier to get a message to someone on the same planet. This was the case with S'Terek.
"His partner, Scopal, was an experienced veteran of several such observations. Since it was S'Terek's first field assignment, it was thought best to have him be with someone who had a great deal of past experience to draw on."
"So far, so good," interrupted Kirk, "but there's one thing that bothers me. How long are these assignments?"
"They are of no set length, but the shortest has been ten standard years."
"But what about..." Kirk trailed off, not wanting to tread on delicate ground.
Spock understood. "Whenever possible, individuals are chosen who have either passed through that phase of their life, or to whom it would not be a burden. Many of the best field agents are unbonded females. In S'Terek's case, his mixed blood was an advantage in that area. He is sterile and not subject to the rigors of pon farr. As for Scopal, according to calculations, he was past the age where the biological drive would have been a problem."
Something in Spock's voice caught Kirk's attention. "And calculations have been known to be wrong."
"Indeed. Scopal had found a place within the Consulate, as a servant to one of the Consuls. Apparently his drives were kindled by the change in planetary conditions. He attacked the Consul, one Szarin R'el'ikian, the daughter of an influential house on Hellguard. He was killed, but not before he had--impregnated--the Consul..." Spock's voice trailed off.
Kirk didn't want to cause him any embarrassment, but he was intrigued now, and wanted to know the rest of the story. "How did S'Terek find out about this?"
"S'Terek's position is more nebulous, and allows him greater freedom. He is positioned in the Old City, a maze of alleys and warrens where children grow up without supervision and crime flourishes. He is considered a...'jack of all trades.' One of those trades is delivering babies--particularly for women who do not want it known that they are to give birth. Scopal's crime and subsequent death were known quickly all over the Old City. S'Terek merely had to put in a word with one of the servants in the House R'el'ikian, and when the time came, the Consul showed up at his place of operation."
"So he delivered this half-Romulan, half-Vulcan baby. How long ago was this?"
"Eleven years! Damn it, Spock, why is S'Terek just now getting around to contacting you?"
"We have known about the child for eleven years, but the mother died at birth, and so it had to look as if the child did as well. To try to get her away too soon would bring suspicion on S'Terek, and if he were apprehended, the child would be lost. She has lived in his warren since birth."
"So, he's raised her?"
"To do what?" asked Kirk.
"To survive in the Old City, as any Ch'forrah born there would. Vulcan's position is not to interfere."
"Fine. So why the plea for help now? Why not just let her grow up and turn into whatever she would be?"
"She is half-Vulcan, or almost a full-Vulcan if you choose to ignore the cultural differences. Once she reaches puberty, as a mixed blood, she has few alternatives. Become a household drudge, a bonded slave, a street thief, or, if she is attractive enough, a courtesan. None of those professions offer a viable future. Vulcan feels its responsibility. Also, S'Terek has told her of her parentage--at least who her mother is. She will soon ask questions, which could lead back to S'Terek. He is in danger of exposure, and she is in danger of being killed."
"Yes, but why us?"
"We're on a routine patrol of the Neutral Zone. Maintaining that mission will allow me to take a warp shuttle to Hellguard. I have the coordinates to reach S'Terek. If it is done quickly, no one will be wiser."
"Easier than snatching a cloaking device, eh, Spock?" Kirk held up his hand at Spock's raised brow. "All right, all right. Not that I had any choice anyway, with orders from Admiral Nogura via the Vulcan High Council, but it's nice to know the whole story. When do you want to leave?"
"As soon as the shuttle is prepared."
"Let's do it, then."
Spock landed the shuttle right on target. He was five miles outside the Old City, in a wooded, rocky area that would distort any sensor scans. Much of the military-type technology the colony had started with had deteriorated from disuse. There were simply not enough soldiers or guards left to watch over the colonists and still maintain equipment. Very inefficient and, for him, very convenient.
Spock stood up from his pilot's seat and checked his costume and equipment. He had spent the last few days studying S'Terek's reports from Hellguard and learning the language. He hoped his accent would not be too attrocious. His clothes were nondescript, of common cloth that would attract no attention. He carried no tricorder, no phaser to attract the wrong eyes. The sociologist had reported that technology, while erratic, was used very efficiently for surveillance, and use of improper or illegal devices was punishable by death.
Kirk had made it clear to him that this was to be quick and clean. He was no xenoanthropologist; he was First Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, who could become a valuable political prisoner. So, no risks. Drawing his hood up to protect his head from the fine mist that fell outside the shuttle, Spock set out for the city, to rescue a child of two worlds.
The walk took him longer than he expected. While he always kept in condition, Spock quickly learned the difference between workouts in a controlled environment and a five mile hike through cold, wet air over sharp rocks. He was grateful for the thick-soled boots the ship's stores had issued him.
The Old City rose up from the rocky landscape like a blight. There was no order to it. By looking closely as he approached on foot, Spock could see remnants of what must have been the original pre-fab forms of the first settlement, but later structures, thrown up hastily and without thought, almost covered them. There were no buildings over four stories, and everything seemed connected. He wondered if there was one back door in the whole place. S'Terek had no locator devices, so he hoped Fairlight and Narys Roads were not too far away.
Although there was no wall around the city, Spock knew immediately when he stepped inside its boundary. The air seemed to thicken, pressing down on him with a weight of its own. Smells assaulted his nose: cooking grease, rancid from long overuse, questionable foodstuffs being cooked in said grease, animal smells, dirty, unwashed odors that seemed like they must have been there even before the city's inhabitants. Spock strode forward, trying to ignore the ragged children who ran up to him, hands outstretched, pleading for a bit of money, some food, anything he could give them. For the first time in his life, Spock felt like cursing. These were his people! His cousins, if the stories he had studied were true. How could they have slipped so far away? His determination returned, forcing out his disgust. At least one of these Hell-spawned children would have a chance.
Although he had studied S'Terek's maps, he was rapidly becoming confused. His sense of direction told him where he needed to go, but, increasingly, he could see no way to get there. The streets, if they could be called that, were narrower than his outspread arms, and bent in crazy turns and switch backs. It was no use. He could wander here for days and not find the place he needed. He would have to find a guide.
Stopping at a streetside cookstand, he purchased some fried bits of something he hoped was not meat. The spices were so thick they almost choked him, and he asked the vendor for some water.
"No purzhyk sissy stuff here. We've ale if you've got the stomach, or bit'a. What'll it be?"
He decided not to be conspicuous. "Ale, then, and be quick," he said gruffly. He tossed the extra coins at the man's feet. Courtesy here was a liability, and the sooner he fit in, the better. One of Kirk's phrases came back to him: When in Rome...
The ale trailed blue fire down his throat into his belly, but at least it was liquid. He paused for a moment, looking around, seeming more bewildered than he was.
The cook didn't appreciate it, and told him so. "You've made yer buy; I've got others waiting. Get on, then, purzhyk!"
Spock didn't move. "I might want to buy something besides food."
The man's face closed as if a door shut. "I got nothing but what you see. I need no Norther bringin' trouble." It was a clue.
Spock took it. "You're right; I'm not from here. I'm on a mission for my mistress. She seeks the one at Fairlight and Narys." As he spoke the street names, Spock made a subtle motion with his hand, showing the vendor what it contained.
The man's eyes lit at the sight of more money than he made in a good six months. If this gullible Norther wanted to find that hellhole at Narys and Fairlight, it was his pleasure to show him. "The old trouble, eh? Women can't keep their legs shut! I know the one you want. Quiet he is. Your mistress will be none the worse. N'yak!"
At his screech, a sliver of a boy slid out of the depths of the cook shop. Speaking in a dialect that Spock could not follow, the man rattled out a series of orders. The boy's dark, liquid eyes darted back and forth between the two men, but he said nothing.
When the man was finished with his harangue. he turned back to Spock. "N'yak will guide you. He knows some of the Fairlight warren mates. That'll make it easier for you. Not that I care one way or another," he said, his courtesy finished.
Spock dropped the pouch in his outstretched hand and looked toward N'yak. The boy started off without a word. He was on his way.
It did not seem like a long journey, time-wise, but Spock felt as if he had left the current century behind and traveled backward in some barbaric time-warp. The squalor that N'yak led him through was unbelievable. Beggars and cripples lolled about; children played in mud and filth, running between the feet of soldiers, shoppers, workers. Here and these, an opulently dressed man or woman would descend from a sedan chair to point out this or that trinket. Lackeys ran and fetched, money was thrown on the ground, and the procession proceeded. As they went on, Spock began to notice women standing beside doorways, posed in a manner that was evidently meant to be alluring. He was sickened. Again and again, the brutality of this world struck him, and he knew he was only looking at everyday life on Hellguard. How could they let this happen?
N'yak had stopped suddenly, and Spock almost fell over him. The boy glared at him and pointed to the beggar girl lying by the intersections of two of the narrow walkways (he refused to call them streets). She was nearly blue with cold, dirty, with one leg ending in a dirty stump. A grubby basket sat beside her with a few coins in it.
N'yak spoke. "Yuki. Works for S'rael." His voice was harsh, as though unaccustomed to speaking. Spock remembered that S'rael was the name S'Terek had taken on Worlds' End. N'yak went over to the girl and bent down to her, saying something Spock could not hear. The little girl's eyes flew to his face, and she nodded once.
N'yak came back to him. "She take you. Give money, no purzhyk. Go now." And he melted into the dirt and mud and cold as if he never existed.
Spock went over to Yuki. She raised her spindly arms to him. "Carry," she whined, "No walk. You carry." He picked her up. She weighed nothing. Holding her basket clutched to her chest, she pointed to a dark opening off the street. "There. Take me in there."
Spock went, glad to be out of the oppressive mist. They went down a hallway that opened out into a fair-sized room. By the standards of the street, it was opulent. Though the floor was hard-packed earth, there were rugs and pallets around the edges, and colorful hangings covered the walls. There was a fire pit in the center of the room, and ventilation came from somewhere, for the room was not smoky, but warm.
Yuki pointed to one of the pallets. "Put there," she said.
Spock did so gently, and asked, "Where is S'rael?"
"Money first," Yuki demanded.
Spock wondered if this was how S'rael dealt with all those who sought his services. It would certainly be difficult to argue about payment with a child who barely spoke. A small pile of coins grew in Yuki's basket. She laughed delightedly, a sound so out of place with her surroundings, that Spock was startled.
"Pretty, pretty! Eat now! Good!"
"Now. S'rael?" Spock controlled the urgency he felt with difficulty. His descent into Hellguard had been easy--too easy. He did not believe in luck, but odds favored a complication occurring before he left here.
Yuki nodded. "You wait. Tiki come soon. She take you to him."
Spock had no choice but to take a seat on the floor by the fire and do just what Yuki said. He waited.
If Spock had not been Vulcan, he would have found himself fidgeting. As it was, he was distressed at how impatient he felt. He was not sure where his pressing sense of urgency originated, he simply knew it was there, telling him he must find this girl and get her out as soon and as quickly as he could, or he might find himself being S'rael's unwilling partner in sociological observation.
The fire was beginning to fade in the brazier, and no one else had arrived. Yuki lay on her pallet, swathed in rags, dozing. There was no preceding sound, but one of the hangings moved slightly, and then someone else was in the room. Even with his acute eyesight, Spock could not make out the features in the murk. The figure moved to Yuki and knelt down. The little beggar girl sat up, and Spock caught bits of a whispered conversation, but he could not understand the few words he heard. Like the street vendor and his boy, they spoke in an odd dialect.
After a moment, the figure rose and came toward him, still keeping to the shadows. "You seek S'rael?"
It must be Tiki. "Yes. My business is urgent--and confidential." He moved his hand under the cloak that covered his shoulders. "I can pay in full."
"You're not from the Old City." The tone was guarded, suspicious.
"The Northern province," said Spock, remembering the cook's words. "It was necessary for me to travel far from where I am known to conduct this... business." That much was true, at least.
The tense figure in front of him relaxed slightly. "S'rael has been within his chambers all this day. He may not wish to hear about your urgent business, but I will tell him. Come with me, but stay five paces behind." With that, this new guide turned and went through another hanging. Spock followed at the correct distance, wondering just how many entrances and exits to this room there were.
The two of them went down a narrow corridor, lit badly with flickering bulbs. There is marginal technology here, he thought. Electric lights, but no heat. He had yet to see plumbing. The path twisted, plunging into darkness. A small flash flared ahead. His guide had a hand light. Still they went on. Finally, they reached a doorway that led them out into a narrow, stinking alley. It was full dark, and, from what Spock could tell, the place was deserted but for a bevy of Hellguard's equivalent of rodents. His guide kicked them aside as if they were simply inanimate objects. They came to an ornately carved door, with runes and symbols cut deeply into the wood. The door was at odds with the rest of the dilapidated structure, but, for a 'jack of all trades,' Spock thought it was appropriate. His quiet companion knocked a pattern on the door, paused, and repeated with a variation in the middle sequence. They waited. No answer.
The guide knocked again, striking the door slightly harder, and at the added pressure, the door moved open slightly. Instantly, he was shoved back against the wall, while S'rael's go-between assumed a crouch and slid into the room around the jam.
Spock recovered quickly, chagrined at having been taken off guard by one so small. He listened intently, and hearing no outcries or signs of struggle with possible intruders, slowly moved through the door, closing it behind him. What greeted his eyes was a scene beyond his imagination.
S'rael's corpse swung lightly in the middle of the room. Tied from a ceiling beam by his feet, a pool of green-black blood was congealing under the sociologist's head. His throat had been slit. Spock did not move, but his eyes scanned the room constantly, looking for another exit, for his guide seemed to have disappeared.
Then he saw. She, for now he could see that it was a female, was crouched down in a heap between the man's bed and a large trunk. He saw by the dim light of the room how thin she was, ribs showing from beneath the tears in her clothes, feet bare and dirty, a livid scar running down the outside of one thigh. He made a move into the room, and she turned wide, terror-struck, hate-filled eyes to him. Then he knew. Her eyes glittered clear green, and he knew why S'rael--S'Terek--had been killed, and that this was Saavik, the one he must take out of here.
He moved to cut down the pitiful body, but before he could take a step, Saavik was in front of him, pressing a long knife uncomfortably into his midsection. He was not afraid, but he knew that he must do nothing to further alarm this half-wild creature. He froze.
"You!" Her voice carried violent emotions, barely checked. "What do you know of this? Tell me, or you'll get the same as he did," jerking her head in the direction of the still turning body.
"I know nothing about this unfortunate incident." His voice was perfectly calm.
The knife pressed harder, cutting through one layer of clothing. He knew she was only eleven years old, and felt the rage and pain and questions that flooded through her. She made no attempt to control them; his answer only caused her emotions to intensify.
"Liar! If you won't tell..." Again, the pressure on the knife increased.
Spock made a decision. He couldn't ease into this. "My business with S'rael concerned you, Saavik." The knife clattered to the floor. Too many shocks, too soon.
"You! From the North...come to take me away? Are you my mother's people?"
So, she knew who she was. That might make things simpler. Spock shook his head. "I am an--old friend--of S'rael's." He moved past the trembling child and examined the rest of the room. It was in shambles; boxes of papers strewn about the room, tools broken, bed linens shredded, shelves broken and overturned. He saw the trunk. The lid had been beaten and dented, the lock snapped. It was empty, the top ripped out, but there were enough wire shreds left for Spock to know what S'Terek's killers had found. They were probably wondering what a half-breed con man was doing with a powerful subspace field radio...if they hadn't already guessed.
"We must leave at once. I have transportation outside the city."
"Go? Where? How?"
Spock could tell that the shock was setting in. He knew she had had no training in mind control, and if she had even the vestiges of telepathy, what she had been through in the last few minutes might send her into crisis. He took her shoulders. "Think, now, think. Do you have possessions, belongings? Can you get us out of the Old City without notice? I know why he was killed, and I know they'll be back, to watch this place, to see who else comes here. You are in danger."
That seemed to get through to her. A shiver went through her small frame, and she spoke more coherently. "We can go now. There's no one else here, and what I have, I carry with me." She showed him a little pouch strapped to her stomach. "I know all the ways of the Old City. We'll get out. What direction is your transportation?"
"North." He was relieved to see her thinking clearly again. He looked around the room, but there was nothing of S'Terek here. Only S'rael. He would remember.
They were almost out the door when Saavik stopped and looked back. Spock wanted to carry her out of the room, to shield her young eyes from the sight of her dead mentor, but he realized that in her short life, she had probably seen more violence and death than he had in all his years in Starfleet. She went back to the body, and gently picked up one of the dangling hands. She pressed it to her forehead and breast, then dipped two fingers in the spilled blood and marked herself in the same places. It was a primitive, ancient ritual, the only way she knew of saying goodbye. Then they were out the door.
The Enterprise's first officer prided himself on his observational powers and his memory, but whenever he thought back to that wild run through Hellguard's Old City, his thoughts were never exactly the same each time. Led by the child, he had ducked through alleys, scrambled through shops, threaded his way through corridors, kicking rats out of his way just as Saavik had. Rarely was there any discernible light to be had, yet Saavik's steps never faltered. When at last they paused, Spock saw that they were back at the cookstand he had started from. The edge of the city was meters away, then a short hike to the shuttle. By wasting no time, they had been able to elude whatever pursuit there might have been. Random factors, he thought, Kirk's voice echoing in his mind--"You were damned lucky!"
They covered the distance to the shuttle quickly. Saavik kept up with him even though she only reached the middle of his chest height-wise. She had not spoken since they left S'rael's rooms, and Spock left her alone with her thoughts. It was not the Vulcan way to 'let it out.' He knew she must reconcile what had happened in her own mind.
The shuttle loomed up, dark and inviting. Spock made a thorough check, determining that there had been no discovery. Still Saavik did not speak, did not ask about this strange vehicle, but he felt her eyes on him and knew that nothing was escaping her gaze.
Then they were strapped in, lifting off the ground, and heading into orbit, preparing for warp drive.
At last, Saavik spoke. "You're not from the Northern Province."
He noticed her penchant for making statements rather than asking questions. She trusted her own observations. "You are correct. I am from another world. It was S'rael's world, too, and it will be yours, if you choose to accept it."
Saavik continued to study him as he piloted the shuttle. Being in space, leaving the planet seemed not to phase her at all. Perhaps, he thought, she was simply not aware of how she was traveling. She looked out the side port, continually fingering a grimy leather thong around her neck. Glancing over, Spock could see there was a bit of stone on it.
As she fingered it, her lips moved, as if in prayer. Spock focused on hearing what she said.
"I am brave," she whispered. "I will not give up. I will learn all I can, I will fight well, I will make my own way. My name is Saavik. I am strong." Over and over, she repeated the litany, until her voice faded away. She caught Spock looking at her and returned his gaze steadily.
"Those are wise words," he said. "Are they S'rael's teachings?"
She shook her head, her eyes suddenly opaque with the first tears of her life. "No," she said, her voice steady, "something my mother told me once."
They flew on to meet their rendezvous with the Enterprise.
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