Nomad, Thomas Harden and Randall Landers
In the midst of the ruins of the ancient city, Kirk, Spock, Palamas and McCoy each worked a corner of the rectangular excavation. The sides of the site were eight and twelve meters long, and it had been dug down to a depth of two meters. They each sat on the ground next to a mound of extruded soil, picking out and examining objects of interest. Spock and Palamas were hard at work, while Kirk labored at a methodical pace. But McCoy was more or less grumbling instead of digging.
"I don't see why I'm down here doin' this sort of thing," he growled. "I should be up on the Enterprise instead of playing in the sand."
"Doctor," began Spock, "I fail to see your disinterest in what we've found here. As a scientist, you should find this a discovery of some importance. The medical records of this culture are intact."
"That means a week of hard work with a linguistic analyzer and several sessions with the universal translator," he countered.
"We're almost finished at this site, Doctor McCoy," said Palamas, slightly irritated by his grumbling. The beautiful scientist had left Starfleet on pregnancy leave after the Apollo incident. Tragically, she had miscarried her child by the "god" of the sun, and after a long, long recuperation, she had returned to the service as Assistant A&A Officer aboard the U.S.S. Republic. But when the Enterprise had been refitted and launched, Kirk had her transferred back aboard. She was the best in her field, and Kirk expected only the best from his people. He was determined to have her among his crew once again, and, as the venerable Admiral Nogura had discovered, when James T. Kirk wanted something, it was best to let him have it, or be prepared to get out of his way. Fast. For her part, Carolyn Palamas was thrilled to return. Now a lieutenant commander, she would head up her own department, with all the latest and finest equipment at her disposal.
Kirk suddenly realized they'd almost finished their shift without contacting the Enterprise. He shielded his eyes, casting an anxious glance toward the sun. Tinue was a class G yellow dwarf star much like Earth's Sol, but now it glared with an ominous blood red color. Astro-Sciences had noted extremely intense solar prominences on its surface when the starship had entered the system. The ether between the planets fairly crackled with severe electromagnetic disturbances and killer ion storms. As he raised his wrist communicator to his lips, Kirk realized that Scotty may have had to break out of synchronous orbit to escape the hellish energy displays. If so, the starship would be out of range of their communicators as soon as she went farside, and they would be incommunicado for thirty minutes.
"Kirk to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Scott here."
"Just checking in, Scotty. I assume you've already dropped out of synch to circumnavigate the storms?"
"Aye, sir. It was all we could do to stay aloft. If you and the others are ready, though, we could leave orbit for a few minutes and re-establish synch."
"No, Scotty," Kirk returned. "It'd just be a waste of impulse power."
"Aye, but I figured the doctor would be anxious to get back."
Kirk grinned. "He is, but never mind about that. Just keep an eye on the storms; if they get serious, leave orbit and even the system if necessary. We'll be fine down here."
"Aye, sir." A note of worry crept into the Scot's voice. "Cap'n, it may be more than just solar activity. Lieutenant Xon is running a stellar spectral and chemical analysis on the star. He's particularly interested in the hydrogen to helium conversion ratio."
Kirk felt a chill crawl up his spine. "Scotty...Is she getting ready to blow?"
"We canna say for sure yet, Cap'n. All Xon knows so far is that Tinue is about as unstable as an unbalanced warp engine." Kirk could hear someone speaking to the engineer. "Cap'n, Xon has picked up an immense solar flare approaching the planet. We're leaving orbit immediately."
"Very well, Mister Scott. Take care of my ship," said Kirk. "Hope to hear from you soon. And find out as much as you can about the sun's status."
"Aye, sir. Scott out."
"Captain." It was Spock beckoning to him from the mound of soil he was examining. Kirk tried to hide the concern he felt over the solar activity and walked over to kneel beside his first officer. Spock showed him a small skull.
"What was it?"
"Noting the shape of the skull, the teeth and the jaw, I would say that it is a native version of the classification Felidae," remarked the Vulcan.
"You mean a cat," said McCoy drily. "I could've told you that."
"Hardly a cat, Doctor. Merely an example of similar evolution," corrected Spock.
"Captain!" Palamas shouted as if she'd been startled.
Kirk turned to see what she's found, and his jaw dropped as he saw it was a perfect, crystalline sphere about two-thirds of a meter in diameter. It resembled nothing so much as the receptacle/globes they'd once found on the dead planet Arret, globes which contained the life forces of Sargon and his companions, Thalassa and Henoch. It was thought that the three energy beings had been the last of their race. But perhaps they were not.
"Fascinating," commented Spock.
"Aside from what we're all thinking, could it be some sort of meteor?" asked McCoy.
"Extremely unlikely, Doctor. Meteors are never perfectly spherical. However, it could be a form of sculpture, or a device of some sort."
"Provided it's not a receptacle," put in Kirk.
"Agreed." Spock reached for his tricorder at the edge of the pit. Holding it to the object, he activated the minicomputer. His lean, hawklike features creased in a frown. "Erratic readings," the Vulcan said distractedly.
"Probably the solar storms," Kirk returned. He looked up to see that an aurora now filled the sky, and his apprehension grew.
"There might be more of them!" Palamas said excitedly as she resumed her digging.
The others decided to help, and it wasn't long before they had unearthed several more.
All the while, James T. Kirk kept one eye on the angry, coruscating sheets of shifting colors which now stretched from horizon to horizon.
"Have ye gotten any results on your spectral analysis yet, Lieutenant?" asked Scott.
Second Science Officer Xon looked up from the hooded viewer. "Computations are almost complete, Commander," the young Vulcan replied. "However, all data received thus far is of a very disturbing nature." He did not elaborate further as he returned to his scanner. Finally, he straightened and turned somberly to the chief engineer. "Confirmation, Mister Scott. Tinue is in the primary stages of hydrogen depletion."
Scott felt his blood freeze as a clamor of horrified exclamations echoed around the bridge.
"My God!" said DiFalco. "You mean the star is going to explode?"
"Not precisely, Navigator," Xon returned. "Its hydrogen fuel supply is dwindling; thus, it is sending out less energy from its core. As a result, the core cools, its pressure decreases, and the star collapses on itself. The sudden influx of collapsed matter to the core greatly increases pressure and temperature once again, although only temporarily, and the star's mass will expand a thousand-fold as it becomes a red giant. In the case of Tinue, I would estimate that the star will swell beyond the orbit of the fifth planet."
"So it won't explode, it'll just incinerate half the planets in this system!" Sulu remarked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Including the one vwhere the kyptin and the others are!" Chekov exclaimed.
"No matter how you look at it, the end result's the same!" Uhura said sharply.
"On the contrary, Commander, a stellar explosion would be much more catastrophic. I would estimate..."
"Never mind, Lieutenant Xon!" Scotty cut in. "We're talkin' about lives here! The landin' party's down there, and unless the solar disturbances ease up, we canna get them off!" He turned toward the communications console. "Uhura, kin ye set up a booster like we did over Phylos thot time? We've got to try to raise them!"
"I haven't gotten that well acquainted with the new circuits, Scotty, but..."
Suddenly, an amber warning light flashed on Xon's board. He quickly checked it, then turned firmly to the Scotsman. "Mister Scott, the storms have jumped from force two to force seven. Estimated duration: one point thirty-five standard weeks."
"Oh, my God!" Uhura cried.
"They're stranded down there without food and water!"
"Thot's the least of their worries, Uhura!" Scotty said. He faced the young science officer again. "Laddie, how long before the star expands?"
Xon sighed. "Unknown at this time, Commander. It might be a few weeks, or several days." He gazed levelly at the chief engineer. "Or it could only be a matter of hours. At this point, I can only speculate. I shall monitor the star continuously until I can provide you with a more accurate estimate."
"Good. And in the meantime, we've got to find a way to get them back aboard," Scotty said. "I dinna ken if we can launch a shuttle to pick 'em up. We're havin' a devil of a time just keepin' the Enterprise steady. An' all this electromagnetic and ion activity is bound to be raisin' hob with the transporter circuits. We canna risk beamin' anybody aboard right now."
"Scotty, we can't even get a fix on their communicators," Uhura added. "The solar imbalances have completely cut off communications!"
"Aye," said Scotty quietly. The hopelessness of the situation was dawning on him, and he sat down dejectedly in the center seat. "I dinna ken what we can do, but we've got to try!" He flipped a comlink on the arm of the command chair and spoke into it. "Engineering, Chief Rand."
"Janice, run some simulations with the transporters. Try beamin' some mathoms down to the surface of Tinue Three. If ye kin yank 'em back, check the integrity of the re-integration. An' have Chief Kyle round up some techs to see if they kin rig up some heavy duty shielding for a shuttlecraft, enough to withstand a force seven solar storm."
There was a long moment of silence. Then Rand replied. "I'll get right to work on the transporters, sir, but, Scotty...You're not serious about the shielding, are you?"
"Au've never been more serious about anythin' in me life, lassie," he answered, his Scottish burr thicker than ever.
"But it'd be suicide to send a shuttle out in this!"
"If the time comes, it'll be my decision to make," Scotty snapped. "Now, if ye don't mind, Chief, ye're wastin' valuable time!"
"Yes, sir, the engineer said, properly rebuked.
Scotty mentally chided himself. He hadn't meant to be so rough on her, but his own anxiety was beginning to take its toll, and he didn't have the time to worry about hurt feelings. He stood up abruptly.
"Mister Sulu, you have the conn. I'll be in Engineerin' if ye need me." He glanced at the main viewscreen, which displayed the ugly, billowing disk of the sun rising over the limb of Tinue III.
"If we canna work somethin' out, and the storm doesn't abate, then all we can hope for is a miracle!"
The Enterprise landing party continued to unearth more of the strange spheres as they dug deeper into the excavation. McCoy placed another globe on the pile at the edge of the pit. "That makes eighteen of 'em," he remarked to Palamas. "Odd that they're all centered around this same spot."
"It is unusual," the young woman agreed. "Let's keep digging; maybe we'll come up with an answer."
Spock, meanwhile, had come over to kneel beside Kirk. He spoke to his captain in a whisper, so that the other two officers could not hear. "Captain," the Vulcan said, "I must apologize for a lack of alertness on my part. I have been so engrossed in this excavation that I failed to notice certain atmospheric changes taking place." He indicated the shifting auroral patterns and the deep, ruddy tinge of the normally yellow star. "This is most disquieting, Jim. It would seem that this system's sun is undergoing drastic physical transformations. However, my tricorder is almost useless due to the energy displays, and I did not wish to unduly alarm the others without substantial data."
"I appreciate that, Spock," Kirk returned. "Lieutenant Xon is running a spectro-chemical analysis on Tinue right now. He's looking into the possibility of hydrogen depletion."
The science officer's features tightened. "I feared as much. It may become necessary to evacuate the inhabitants of this planet."
"Do you think we could pull it off?" the captain asked.
"Affirmative. This is a dying race, Captain. Biosensors indicate only two main population groups totalling a little over two hundred-sixty, clustered in the two villages we noted approximately eight point two kilometers distance." The Vulcan paused. "It would put a strain on ship's stores, and conditions would be somewhat crowded, but we could reach Starbase Twenty-Eight in a little more than one point three standard weeks."
"Well, we won't know anything for sure until Xon completes his investigations," Kirk put in. "Let's hope we don't have to do anything drastic. In the meantime, Mister Spock, do you have an explanation for these spheres?"
"Not as yet, sir."
"Well, how about a guess? I don't care if it's logical or not, just try."
Spock stood up, "At one point, I thought them to be materials for a foundation, as they were layered so meticulously."
"But what kind of building would be gone while the others still stand?" Kirk queried.
"Precisely. It seems illogical that a culture capable of architecture such as that in the city around us would construct a building from an easily rotting material such as wood."
Kirk turned with a start as the Vulcan raised an eyebrow. The pit was rapidly filling with brutish-looking humanoids wearing animal skins. There wasn't even time to put up a struggle. Kirk saw them pile on Palamas and McCoy as he and Spock were lashed together. Then, under the persuasive prodding of crude spears, the Enterprise officers were unceremoniously herded through the jungle.
"Captain," said Spock, as he walked with Kirk. "This is obviously the primitive culture we were to avoid."
"Obviously," Kirk returned drily.
Kirk thought for a moment. "If we made a break for it, do you think they'd catch us?"
"Quite easily," the Vulcan said. "This planet is mostly jungle, and these people seem well-suited for travel here. We would not get far."
"Are you suggesting we let them take us? We still have our phasers..."
"We do not seem to be endangered for the present," reminded Spock.
"For the present," McCoy echoed sourly from behind them.
After hours of walking, they came to a clearing where ragged shacks of wood and vines had been crudely constructed. Clearly visible at the rear of the village was a small cave opening set into the side of a cliff.
Their captors melted back into the brush, except for eight who herded the landing party into the cave. The inside was well-lighted, a lambent glow emanating from two spheres resting on pedestals.
"Like Sargon?" asked Kirk.
"Quite possibly..." Spock directed Kirk's attention to the eight who had brought them in. They cowered at the entrance of the cave.
"Afraid of us?" asked McCoy. "They could've killed us!"
"I don't believe they're afraid of us," said Kirk.
"Probably those things," Palamas put in.
"English," echoed a strange and powerful voice.
"A simple, yet versatile language," boomed another.
"You understand us," Kirk stated. "Telepathy?"
"Yes," said the voice emanating from the sphere on the left. "To both questions." Kirk noticed that this one's pedestal was slightly higher than his companion's. Perhaps he was a leader, or ruler of some sort.
"I am Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. This is my first officer Spock, Doctor McCoy and Lieutenant Commander Palamas. We represent the United Federation of Planets."
"What is your purpose on this planet?"
"Our mission is one of historical research on the dead civilization of this planet," Kirk said.
"You mean dying civilization," corrected the sphere on the lower, right hand pedestal. Lambent golden color flows sparked and crackled inside the crystalline globe as its words resounded in the chamber.
"We were also to leave a small satellite in orbit to monitor the progress of the less advanced civilization which seems to be on the verge of extinction," the captain finished.
"You said 'dying'," said Spock. "Am I to gather that you are the last members of the group that built the city near here?"
"Yes," said the second sphere. "There was a war, long long ago."
"Do not tell them any more, Bezhd!" snapped the globe on the higher stand.
"Why not, Aleph?"
"Because he is lying! They are planning to attack us!"
"I believe their intentions are non-hostile," returned Bezhd.
"But they are a military detachment! Note that they bear weapons!" Aleph retorted.
"Only for self-defense," Kirk said uneasily, "and only in the most vital of situations. As evidence, I submit to you that we haven't used them..."
"Yet," added Aleph. The golden globe of light obviously distrusted Kirk.
"But the point is they didn't!" argued Bezhd.
"Your words have merit, but we must be on guard against them. If there is no protest, Bezhd, I move that we deliberate on their guilt or innocence."
"No protest," returned the second sphere.
"Very well," boomed Aleph. "Those judged will be held in detention to await our decision."
"Just a minute!" Kirk protested.
"Silence! The prisoners will be detained until judgment. Remove their weapons and take them!"
"Judgment!" McCoy paced about in the confines of their hut. "For what?! Have we broken one of their laws?"
"Quite possible, Doctor. Obviously, we have intruded here on the planet without their consent," answered Spock. "They may have taken it as an invasion."
"Well, anybody could see that we meant no harm." He glanced at the Vulcan. "Why didn't you use some of that renowned logic of yours on them?"
"Because I thought it necessary not to antagonize them further. They have obviously taken advantage of their situation and made themselves rulers of the primitive people. Despite the fact that this 'Stone Age' culture seems to be dying, they are interfering."
"Perhaps you should explain the Prime Directive to them," McCoy shot back sarcastically.
Palamas turned to Kirk. "Doctor McCoy has a point, sir. What have we done wrong?"
"Commander," said Spock. "The spheres in the dig were of identical proportions to the ones in the cave."
"Are you suggesting that we disturbed one of their burial grounds, Spock?" queried Kirk. "That we disinterred dead spheres?"
"We have seen primitive cultures that sentence those who trespass on sacred burial grounds to death."
"But they weren't always primitive!" McCoy blurted. "I remember one of the spheres mentioning a war."
"Then these primitives would be the losers," McCoy mused. "And the sphere-beings?"
"The winners," Spock said. "They rapidly developed into noncorporeal beings while the others devolved into the neanderthal-like humanoids."
One of the primitives appeared at the hut's entrance and waved them out.
"I guess it's time for the verdict," said Kirk.
From his position on the higher pedestal, Aleph's voice reverberated through the cavern. "Your fate has been decided," he echoed, his tone ominous.
For the fiftieth time, Janice Rand uneasily checked her readings on the transporter matter-scan panel, her pretty face knitted in a frown. She turned and looked into Scott's office, where the chief engineer and Chief Kyle huddled in earnest conference over a thick sheaf of schematics.
"Mister Scott, the readings are about as stable as they're going to be," she called. "It still doesn't look good on the simulator."
"Give her a try anyway, Janice," the Scot returned. "If we kin get it to work, we'll be able to beam up the landin' party, and Kyle and I won't have to rig up a shuttle for a suicide mission."
"Yes, sir," the woman sighed. She looked out at the collection of useless junk that had been placed on the transporter pads, glanced at her board one last time, and slid the glide path switch to the 'energize' position.
And all hell broke loose.
There was a sound like a thunderclap; sparks and flame shot several feet into the air, and Janice Rand froze to the blood as a blue aura of energy engulfed her. She shrieked in agony as lethal voltage coursed through her slim body. The stench of ozone and burnt flesh filled the air.
Scott was on his feet and moving before the echoes of the explosion had died away. He took it all in with a glance, and without breaking stride, launched himself in a body block that knocked Rand free of the deadly transporter controls. They collapsed in a heap, and as Scotty shook the cobwebs out of his head, he heard Kyle shouting into the intercom.
"Medical emergency! Doctor Chapel to Transporter Room Three immediately!"
It was bad, Scotty knew. Rand lay still as death, eyes closed, her face chalk-white. The flesh of her charred, blackened hand still sizzled from the charge that had hit her. A fire control team had extinguished the blaze from the ruined transporter console as Christine Chapel burst into the room.
Scotty gave way as the physician knelt beside the unmoving form and made a quick pass with her medical tricorder.
"Oh, my God!" Chapel exclaimed. "No pulse, and she's stopped breathing!" Swiftly, almost frantically, she prepared a hypospray and jabbed it into her patient's arm. Scotty stood by and watched helplessly as she grimly tried to revive his dead transporter chief.
Chapel waved her tricorder again. "Pulse is coming back, but, damn it, there's no respiration!" She bent down quickly and began applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to no avail.
Cursing, Chapel whipped another hypo from her medikit. "Megacordrazine," she said to Scotty as she administered the injection. She looked the chief engineer right in the eyes. "I'm sorry, Scotty, but if this doesn't do it..." She left the rest unsaid.
"Oh, no!" The Scotsman moaned. They watched in silence, waiting hopefully for the drug to take effect.
But there was no change in the pale, still face.
"Damn you, Janice, start breathing!" Chapel yelled.
Suddenly, a deep, rattling sob shook Janice Rand. Her chest began to rise and fall evenly, and her eyelids flickered open. She was breathing on her own again.
"Thank the Lord!" Scotty said fervently.
Christine Chapel sighed wearily and sat down on the deck. She gently gripped Rand's right arm and sprayed a liberal application of medifoam on her horribly burned hand. Miraculously, the ruined flesh began to heal before their very eyes.
"There," she said to the fallen technician. "That'll kill the pain and promote the growth of new tissue. In a couple of days, you won't even have a blister."
"Whew!" Rand mumbled thickly. "What hit me? I feel like there's a colony of Arcturian desert ants crawling around in my nervous system!"
"You're a very lucky lassie," Scotty said. "Ye took a megavolt charge, and ye're still here to talk about it!"
"Thanks to you," Janice Rand said weakly.
Scotty looked embarrassed. "It was the least I could do," he murmured. "It looks as if we're gettin' ion feedback from the storms. Thot means all the transporters are useless!" He glanced at Chapel. "I should be gettin' back to work, Christine," he said apologetically. "Will she be all right?"
The doctor smiled reassuringly. "She'll be fine, Scotty. I'm going to keep her in Sickbay overnight for observation, and she should be back on track late tomorrow. But she'll have to be on light duty for about a week with that hand."
"Go ahead, Scotty. I understand," the chief whispered.
The engineer nodded and walked over to the smoking remains of the transporter control bay. He shook his head dolefully as he examined the damage, and then walked out the door to his office across the hall.
"He's really worried about the landing party, particularly Carolyn Palamas," Rand said. "He's still carrying the torch for her after all this time."
"I can understand how he feels," Chapel said distantly. Rand caught the note of worry in her voice and gripped the doctor's hand.
"Don't worry, Chris. Spock will be fine. They'll all be fine. We'll get them back, you'll see."
Chapel blushed a bright red. "Is it still that obvious, Janice? After all these years, I still can't shake it. Spock has changed since the V'ger encounter. He...he seems more Human, more..."
"Accessible?" Rand finished.
"Maybe that's it," Chapel murmured softly, her face turning an even deeper shade of crimson. She reached into her medikit again and produced a plastiskin applicator. She sprayed a layer of the protective protein compound on the young woman's injured hand. This finished, she spoke into her wrist band communicator.
"Chapel to Sickbay. I need a medical team to Transporter Room Three with an antigrav stretcher."
"I'll be okay as soon as I shake off this numbness," Rand protested. "I can walk." She tried to raise up on her elbows, but Chapel put a firm, gentle restraining hand on her.
"Doctor's orders, Janice," she said. "Just lie still and rest. And while we're waiting, maybe you can satisfy my curiosity. Now that you're assigned to the Enterprise again, how are you handling seeing the captain...unless you don't want to talk about it, of course."
Now it was Rand's turn to blush. "You're right, you know. You and Scotty aren't the only ones carrying torches." She sighed. "I transferred off the Enterprise before because I couldn't deal with the fact that James T. Kirk was married to his starship, that there would never be room in his life for a woman...not on a full-time basis anyway. I applied myself to my career, advanced and worked my way up through Engineering, got damned good at my job."
She paused, a faint smile crinkling the corners of her eyes. "It didn't bother me when I was transferred back for the V'ger mission. It was an honor because they wanted the best people available to fill in the vacancies and supplement the old, regular crew. Besides, Kirk wasn't the captain anymore. But when he replaced Will Decker, I thought, 'What the hell, Jan. You can handle it; you're over him now, anyway.'"
Chapel smiled understandingly. "But you weren't, were you?" she asked sympathetically.
Rand shook her head emphatically. "I was only kidding myself. When I saw him for the first time again, as strong, confident, and handsome as ever, I just...just melted. It was as if I'd never left."
"How are you doing now?"
"I'm handling it," she answered. "At first, I wanted to transfer out again, but I realized I'd only be running away. I'm learning to live with it. Believe me, it isn't easy, but I'm doing it."
"How well I know!" Chapel exclaimed ruefully. She looked up as the med team entered the transporter room. "Here comes your ride. You'll need some sleep to shake off the aftereffects of the shock, so I'm going to give you a little something to help you along."
Janice Rand yawned as the hypospray hissed against her arm. "To tell you the truth, Chris, I don't think I'll even need your knock-out potion. I'm bushed." She closed her eyes and felt herself being gently lifted onto the stretcher.
Christine Chapel's voice seemed to be coming from a long way off. "Take her down to Sickbay and put her in the observation ward. I'll be along shortly."
Rand heard the distant hiss of the transporter room door as the techs carried her toward the turbolift. She felt incredibly, pleasantly drowsy, but she could not suppress a tinge of worry. The landing party was in a lot of trouble. The transporters were inoperable, and no one could fly a shuttle out into that maelstrom of ion storms and solar activity. She wondered if she would ever see Jim Kirk alive again.
As the warm, comfortable blanket of sleep settled over her, Janice Rand reflected on the vagaries of a universe that could be so beautiful and so deadly at the same time.
It was totally dark, pitch black. Had the sun gone out instead of swelling into a red giant? No, wait...there was a pinpoint of painfully bright scarlet at the center of the darkness. It began to pulse and throb and expand and expand and...
Consciousness returned to James T. Kirk, and with it, the terrible, excruciating pain. He found himself tied to a tree, stripped naked. It all came back to him now: the pronouncement of 'guilty of charges', then the awful beating as Aleph sentenced them to die. He cleared his mind and looked around him as best as he could. He saw that Spock and McCoy were in the same predicament as he was. But where was...?
He remembered then, and a flash of white-hot fury surged through him. He had been fighting against unconsciousness as the sturdy, wooden clubs smashed him again and again, gasping against the agony as he felt ribs cracking from the force of the blows. He heard Carolyn Palamas screaming, but screaming in terror and despair, and not from pain. He had watched helplessly through a crimson haze as the primitives bore her naked and struggling to the ground.
They had other things in mind for the helpless young woman besides punishment.
And he was her captain, and he had been unable to so much as lift a finger to help her. He remembered hearing his own voice screaming, screaming at them to let her go. He remembered the feeling of hopelessness in the pit of his stomach as he was forced to watch them take her again and again, brutally, remorselessly relieving their vile, animal lusts.
And then the blackness as one of the clubs found his skull.
"Here, Captain," she said, extremely quietly. Kirk craned his neck around painfully to look past his right shoulder. Her naked body was staked spread-eagled to the ground. They had left her like that in case they decided to come back and...
Kirk fought down the savage rage welling up inside him. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"No, sir." She sobbed softly for several minutes as no one spoke. "They didn't beat me," she continued with a forced calmness, as though giving a report. "I wasn't beaten, but their regenerative organs and methods of reproduction are very similar, if not identical to, the Terran Human. They..." The facade of artificial control crumbled. "Oh, God! Oh, God! They...they raped me, Captain!"
"I'm sorry," Kirk muttered softly. "Spock, where are we?"
"They took us out of the cave and deep into the jungle. I estimate we are several kilometers from the cavern."
McCoy groaned and said, "This hurts worse than what the Vians did to us."
"I know," Kirk answered. "I think I've got a couple of broken ribs, but aside from that, and a vast assortment of bruises and contusions, I'm not in too bad a shape, all things considered, that is. Bones, Spock, what about you two?"
"The only thing that feels broken is my left wrist, and I can't be sure about that, the way my hands are tied," the doctor returned.
"Fortunately, Captain, my Vulcan physique was able to withstand the punishment somewhat better, although I must admit that I am a bit sore," Spock put in.
"Well, they left everything behind for us." McCoy nodded toward the neatly folded stack of uniforms and duty jackets on the soft grass, a marked contrast to the rough treatment they had received. "They left our clothing, tricorders and my medikit."
"But no phasers or communicators," Kirk added.
"Interesting," said Spock. "It's almost as though they were put there to torment us."
"So near, and yet so far," McCoy remarked bitterly.
Kirk squirmed uncomfortably as he began to feel the full effect of the heat from the blazing, swollen star. He did not even want to think of the hard radiation they might be absorbing. "Then they've left us here to die," he said finally.
"I concur, Captain."
"Carolyn," Kirk said gently. "Don't worry. We'll get out of this yet." But his words sounded hollow to his own ears, and his only answer was the quiet sound of her weeping.
It got hotter and hotter, and soon Kirk saw that his skin was turning almost as red as the slowly metamorphosing star. He tried to ignore the burning thirst that tormented him. After several hours, they had all given up trying to slip their bonds. The natives had used green jungle vine to make the ropes, and even Spock's superhuman Vulcan strength could not budge them. The heat was taking its toll; Kirk realized with sudden horror that he had stopped perspiring. They were quickly becoming dehydrated, except, of course, for Spock. A day like this on Vulcan would be considered somewhat chilly, although that did the rest of them absolutely no good whatsoever.
"Thirsty," Palamas sobbed. "So...so thirsty."
"Damn that bloody sun!" McCoy exclaimed. "It feels like a blast furnace! I never did have any use for jungle planets!"
Kirk felt his head spinning. If they didn't get out of the sun soon, they wouldn't have to worry about the star vaporizing the planet. They would all be past caring by then, except for Spock, who would probably spend the last minutes of his life dispassionately observing the spectacular, fiery end of Tinue III. He heard McCoy mumbling again.
"Damnedest thing I've ever seen, Jim. All this ion activity, and those auroral displays, And I've been noticing the sun for the past few hours. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it's turnin' red!"
"Probably a side-effect of all those storms, Bones," Kirk rasped. "Try to keep quiet and save your strength; we're going to need it." No sense letting McCoy and Palamas know about the hydrogen depletion. They had enough to worry about without adding that burden.
Time passed with agonizing slowness. No one spoke, and Kirk felt himself growing weaker and weaker. They couldn't last much longer now. Maybe it was just as well.
Suddenly, he heard McCoy attempting to shout. "Jim, someone's behind me!" the doctor wheezed. "They're..." His voice was abruptly cut off.
Kirk couldn't see his chief medical officer. "Bones! What the hell are..."
Without warning, a hand clamped over his mouth as someone cut him free.
Their rescuers were a beautiful race of people who took them to a large dwelling constructed in several trees deep in the jungle. They appeared to be quite Human, very friendly, and eager to please. The tree-dwellers wore animal skins, but were otherwise quite different from the savages who had brutalized the landing party.
Their knives and spears, though primitive, were finely-honed and beautifully crafted. They brought food and drink for their charges, and prepared a place for them to sleep. McCoy broke out his medikit and applied a dosage of a healing, anesthetic salve to their over-done skin, and they gingerly donned their uniforms again. Fortunately, the doctor's wrist had only been sprained and he bound Kirk's broken ribs to give the captain some temporary relief. He would tend to them with a bone-knitting laser when they got back to the starship. This done, Spock and Kirk tried to establish communications with a strapping, handsome young man who appeared to be the chief of the natives. Palamas sat despondently on a pile of skins in one corner of the huge hut. She was still crying.
Several minutes passed, and Kirk noticed that Spock and the chieftain were now gesturing vigorously at one another. Finally, the Vulcan turned to his captain. "They have a complex sign language," said Spock. "It is quite similar to the American sign language used by the deaf for several decades on Earth before the invention of the artificial ear."
"What have you learned?" asked the captain.
"That they are a group of refugees from the rule of the sphere beings. Their leader, Brand," Spock indicated the smiling young man he had 'spoken' with, "says that they know we come from the sky, and they also have some knowledge of the cataclysm that nearly destroyed this world."
"Continue," said Kirk.
"There was unequal evolution on this planet, and the more advanced race enslaved the less advanced one. After countless centuries, the oppressed people revolted against the more advanced race, which by then, had lost need of their bodies and had evolved into the sphere-beings. Almost everyone was killed, save for twenty of the spheres and three thousand slaves."
"Genocide," Kirk said bitterly. "How many times have we seen that pattern duplicated throughout the galaxy?"
"The twenty were unable to control three thousand slaves," Spock went on. "They arranged for all the conquered humanoids that they did not need to leave, saying that all had their freedom. Those that were freed developed into these people. They are highly intelligent, and believe in a simple life in complete harmony with nature."
Spock paused, and a fleeting expression of distaste crossed his features. "The others that were left behind were, for some reason or another, interbred to produce a race of mental defectives. Idiots, who could be easily controlled."
"Diabolical bastards! I'll kill them all!" Palamas raged from her corner.
McCoy reached to comfort her. "There, there, Carolyn..." he began.
"Keep away from me!" she screamed."Don't touch me! I'm...dirty. If Scotty finds out..."
"You're not dirty, or soiled, or anything else like that. What they did to you was undeniably wrong, and they should be punished. But you shouldn't get upset and angry with yourself," McCoy said.
Spock, meanwhile, made several gestures, and one of the natives poured Palamas a drink. A few minutes later, she was asleep.
McCoy looked quizzically at the Vulcan.
"I had them induce a sedative, Doctor," he explained,
"Practicing medicine without a license again? Did you check out that potion first?"
"Have no fear, Doctor. I did so immediately. I adjusted the filters on my tricorder to make it workable again. The 'potion', as you so quaintly call it, is quite safe. It was fortunate our captors abandoned our instruments with us."
"Fortunate?" asked Kirk, "Spock, you're forgetting that they didn't leave our weapons or communicators."
"No, I did not, sir," the Vulcan replied. "I merely point out that the sphere-beings have no use for our tricorders because the natives cannot read or work the units for them, but the phasers were kept because they can be used for destructive purposes. Our communicators were obviously kept to prevent the ship from locating us."
"But our communicators are useless with these solar storms," McCoy returned. "Speaking of which, have you gotten any readings on 'em? I've never seen anything like this! It's worse than the auroras on Dramia Two!" he said, referring to the planet in the Dramen star system where the auroras had initiated a plague that McCoy was blamed for at one time. But that was in the past...
Spock hesitated, and looked guardedly at Kirk. "The disturbances are extremely severe and will be quite lengthy, but they should not unduly affect the weather of the planet, at least for the present. We, of course, cannot be rescued until the Enterprise can assume orbit."
Kirk felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He hadn't realized it until just now; the Enterprise could not achieve orbit unless the disturbances abated; likewise, the transporters could not be activated unless the activity died down. And it was not too likely that they would get a break any time before the sun expanded. If anything, the storms would get worse.
By then it would be too late.
McCoy looked suspiciously at Kirk's stricken expression "Wait a minute!" he said. "What the hell's going on here? You two know something, don't you? I need to know how long it'll be before we can get back to the ship. This young woman needs help!"
"We may be here for some time, Doctor," Spock replied, hedging.
"C'mon, Spock! You're hiding something!"
The Vulcan glanced helplessly at Kirk, who nodded resignedly. "Very well," the science officer sighed. "Doctor McCoy, this system's sun is in a state of hydrogen depletion. My tricorder is not sensitive enough to indicate just how long this condition has existed. However, at some point in time, the star will expand from its present mass into the size of a red giant. When this occurs, of course, most of the inner planets will be incinerated."
"Why in hell didn't you tell us?" McCoy ranted, his eyes widening. "Here I thought that red coloration was just being caused by the storms, except it seemed so strange! Didn't you think we could handle it?"
"I thought we all had enough to worry about as it is," Kirk said lamely. "We would have told you..."
"Bullshit!" the physician exploded. "You were trying to spare our feelings, weren't you? Damned decent of you!" He paced the floor, trying to calm down. "Well, this puts a whole new light on things. Scotty can't use the transporters, so we're stranded here waiting for the sun to blow up. Any chance of the activity easing up just long enough to beam us up?"
"None," Spock said solemnly.
"What about launching a shuttle with ion shields?" Kirk asked tightly, although he was afraid he already knew the answer.
The Vulcan shook his head. "The storms are rated at about force seven-point three at present. The Enterprise is no doubt using all her energy reserves simply to prevent her being thrown completely out of this system. A shuttle would have an extremely remote chance of surviving the storms, and even if one somehow achieved a soft landing here, the odds are approximately six thousand five hundred three point four to one that it could not lift off again."
"That's it, then," McCoy said quietly. "We're finished. Thanks for all the good news, Spock!"
"Gentlemen, I sincerely regret that I cannot be more optimistic," Spock countered. "However, we must bear in mind that Mister Scott is an extremely efficient officer. He might be able to arrive at a solution to our predicament."
"Well, I wouldn't hold my breath," returned McCoy. "This one might even be too much for Scotty."
"We can hope," Kirk said. "That's about all we can do for now. It might be quite a while before the star blows, and we've got to carry on in the meantime. Bones, about Palamas...how is she?"
"Rape isn't pretty, Jim. It messes up the psyche, and there's usually some internal damage. In Carolyn's case, the physical damage wasn't extreme, but it's her emotional health I'm concerned with. Something as ugly as this can scar a woman for life...but if we don't get off this rock in time, the question'll be academic, won't it?"
"I'm hoping it won't be," Kirk rejoined. "Do what you can for her, Bones. Now, as I said before, we don't know how long we'll be here, so it's business as usual. We've got to recover our phasers to prevent their use on the locals, and while we're at it, we ought to pick up our communicators, too, just in case the ship can get through."
"It will be dangerous, Captain, but I concur," stated Spock.
"All right, then. Spock, talk to Brand again." Kirk paused thoughtfully. "Tell him we need to go into the village of the sphere-beings and recover some important property."
Chief Engineer Scott sat tensely in the Rec Room listening to one of Uhura's medleys. He wasn't there by choice; Scotty had been working around-the-clock shifts, and his section chiefs threatened to put him in energy cuffs if he didn't get some rest. When that didn't work, they went over his head to Doctor Chapel, who made it an order. Scotty had protested mightily, but to no avail. It was argued, and rightly so, that the planning stage of designing the shuttle shielding was over; any team of competent engineers could fabricate and install the hardware, and the Enterprise staff was the best in Starfleet. So there was no reason that Montgomery Scott couldn't take some time off for a little R&R.
Scotty glumly took a pull on his scotch. Not that he actually expected the blasted contraption to hold up against the ion activity and solar storms. And the transporters were out of the question; Number Three had long since been repaired, but any attempt to engage any unit would only cause a recurrence of the accident that had injured Chief Janice Rand. No, laddie, he thought to himself, ye blew it good this time. For all your trainin' an' experience, ye canna find a way to get the landin' party back. It's only a matter o' time 'fore ye'll unwillingly become the new cap'n of the Enterprise...unless ye decide to take a shuttle out anyway and get yourself blown to holy hell an' back.
The mood in the Rec Room was one of enforced relaxation. Only Engineering and Sciences had to work full time on the problem, so the rest of the divisions were forced to sit on their hands and wait. Many of the crew had come to listen to Uhura sing, hoping to calm their frayed nerves.
The talented communications officer was playing a number of requests, including the medley. She was on the selection, "The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond," when Lieutenant Commander Kevin Thomas Riley, head of the Primary Alien Contact Section, spilled his bonnyclabber all over the Scotsman.
"What de ye think your doin', lad?" Scotty shouted as the alcohol and buttermilk drink poured into his lap.
"I'm sorry, Scotty. It was an accident," the Irishman said meekly.
Scotty became aware that every eye in the enormous Rec Room was on them. "I'm sorry for jumpin' on ye, lad. It's jest thot I feel so helpless sittin' up here without anythin' we kin do to help 'em down there."
"S'alright, Chief," said Riley. "Lemme get you a man's drink."
Uhura resumed her singing, and Scotty listened until Riley returned. He nodded thanks and took a sip. Riley smiled and winked at Uhura.
Scotty suddenly sputtered like a man who had just drunk poison. "What de ye call this stuff?" he demanded. "It's nae scotch!"
"Of course not, Scotty. It's Irish whiskey!"
"Seein' thot ye wanted 'a man's drink,'" mimicked Uhura.
"Lassie," threatened Scotty, without saying anything else. His communicator beeped suddenly. "Scott, here," he said into the wrist-com.
"Lieutenant Xon, sir. Tinue will begin its primary expansion in approximately six point forty-three standard hours," the young Vulcan said without preamble.
A hush fell over the crowded room. It was the news they had all been dreading, even though they knew it inevitably had to come.
"Thank ye, Lieutenant," Scotty mumbled hollowly. "Ye're very thorough." He thumbed another button on his communicator. "Engineerin', Chief Kyle."
"How soon will the shieldin' be ready?" the chief engineer queried.
"As a matter of fact, sir, we're ready to test it now," the filtered voice answered.
"Make it a quick one," Scotty returned. "We've got only about six an' a half hours before the sun's fuse burns down. An' run somethin' through the computer for me; see how long we could keep the Enterprise's shields around the shuttle after it launches without endangerin' our power reserves."
"Aye, sir. Kyle out."
The Scotsman flipped his communicator to intraship broadcast. He had to call a quick meeting of the chain of command...or what was left of it. "The followin' personnel are to report to the briefing room at once: Lieutenant Commanders Sulu and Uhura," he nodded to the communications officer as he called her name. "Lieutenant Chekov, Chief DiFalco and Doctor Chapel." He stood up quickly. "Let's go, Uhura," he said. "We got a lot to do, an' not enough time to do it!"
"The House of Forgotten Secrets" sat almost directly in the middle of the village dominated by the powerful sphere creatures. Kirk and Spock had slipped inside undetected...or at least they hoped they had...while McCoy stood guard outside. The pathetic little hamlet was extremely quiet, almost too quiet for Kirk's liking. But Brand had told them this hut would most likely contain their phasers and communicators, so they stealthily pushed on. They found what they had been looking for in a large bare room; they also found much more than they bargained for.
Spock and Kirk examined the artifacts with interest. It was quite an arsenal. Arrayed on long wooden tables, along with their four new design phasers, were several weapons resembling energy beam generators, pneumatic pistols of some sort, and hundreds of hand-sized devices that looked like grenades. There were also a half-dozen obsolete Federation laser pistols, which had been standard issue only twenty-five years earlier. Apparently, they were not the first Starfleet team to contact Tinue III. Kirk wondered why there were no prior reports on the planet, but put it aside as he remembered there was no sub-space radio at that time and each ship captain was given a free hand on his missions. For that reason, a number of ships vanished without a trace, as the U.S.S. Valiant had. Perhaps one ship's landing party had been captured. The captain shuddered as he contemplated the grisly fate that had almost certainly befallen the unfortunate men and women.
Spock's own thoughts had been following the same lines as Kirk's. The Vulcan regarded the old pistols with a cocked eyebrow.
"Interesting," was all he could say.
"I wonder why they've got all these weapons here?" Kirk queried.
"It is quite conceivable that they are for self-defense. However, it is more likely that the sphere-beings intend to have their subjects annihilate the tree dwellers." He paused, frowning. "I must admit that I cannot fathom why this action has not been carried out sooner. The weapons have apparently been stockpiled here for quite some time."
"I don't know why, either," Kirk said. "But I think it's time we did a bit of judicious 'bending' of the Prime Directive."
"On what grounds, Jim?"
"These weapons are not a normal byproduct of the technology of this planet, at least not in its present state," Kirk replied. "It's not nice to leave toys like these lying around. Someone might get hurt. Right, Spock?"
Spock smiled faintly. "Indubitably, Captain."
Kirk picked up one of the old Federation lasers as the Vulcan scooped up their weapons and communicators. "Let's go get McCoy and move out before the fireworks display begins," Kirk said, grinning.
But when the pair left the building, McCoy was nowhere to be found.
"Bones?" Kirk called cautiously.
Spock pointed to a patch of disturbed earth. "There are indications of a struggle."
"We'd better find out what's happened to him," Kirk said.
"If he has been captured, the natives may begin a search for us," Spock remarked.
"Then why don't we give them something else to think about?" the captain queried. "Make a quick scan with your tricorder, Mister Spock. See if there are any of the natives within proximity range of a laser pistol overload blast. If not, I'm going to melt the spheres' arsenal down into a huge lump of slag!"
The Vulcan activated his 'corder and checked his readings. "The area is clear, Captain."
Kirk nodded wordlessly and clicked the wide barrel of the old pistol to its farthest position. Almost immediately there was a keen whine which began to increase alarmingly in intensity. The captain tossed the smoking weapon into the House of Forgotten Secrets as he and Spock bolted into a frantic run for cover.
As the pair made a headlong dive into some scrub growth, the ground seemed to heave up to meet them as the crude hut simply vaporized in an awesomely powerful explosion. Kirk and Spock buried their faces in the ground, and the captain felt the hair by the base of his neck being singed by the hellfire blast of heat that washed over them.
Then it was safe to look up.
Of the House of Forgotten Secrets there was no trace. All that remained was a wide, six meter deep crater that belched red-orange fire and black smoke like the mouth of an active volcano.
"Most satisfactory," Spock commented as the sound of voices and running footsteps reached their ears. "I suggest we leave the village for a time."
"Logical," Kirk agreed. "They've probably taken McCoy back to the cave of judgment. Let's go check it out."
The Enterprise officers took one last glance at the conflagration, then cautiously edged back into the jungle.
McCoy had once again been dragged before the two sphere-beings.
"You are one of those sentenced to die," rumbled Aleph.
"Well, I'm not Tinkerbell!" growled the doctor.
"Tinkerbell?" asked Bezhd, bewildered.
"Go to hell, you damned sadists! I know what you've done to the people in this village, and I know what you did to us! You had them rape that girl, didn't you? Go ahead, string me up like that again, you filthy bastards!"
"The fear of sexual abuse came into the female's mind as she was stripped. It was simply a matter of letting our subjects' primitive impulses have free rein. After all, she was being punished. And your name-calling and comments are only worsening the situation," warned Aleph.
"Really?" McCoy raged. "Let me tell you what I think of you! You immoral heathens, playing God here in this village, playing eugenics experts to produce inferior specimens who could be easily subjugated! Enjoy your power while you can, 'cause I think the day's coming that y'all are gonna get what you deserve!"
"And what do you feel we deserve?" asked Bezhd.
"Everything you've done to all the people you've sentenced to die!"
"Is that all you have to say in your defense?" Aleph boomed.
"Oh, I'm on trial again, am I?" McCoy asked, livid. "Why don't you put yourselves on trial? Afraid to, aren't you? Because you two and your kind have interfered with these people so badly that their entire species is doomed to extinction...and with them, you! The final judgment won't be yours, and it won't be long until judgment." He laughed bitterly. "I, for one, feel some satisfaction in that!"
Suddenly, the cavern trembled from a violent concussion.
"The village!" Aleph exclaimed. "His companions have found the arsenal! Search the village for the others!" He returned his attention to McCoy. "You were afforded the easiest way to die, last time! This time I sentence you to be thrown in with the miaow! Their bite is extremely venomous, their claws like crystallized carbon; you will suffer a slow, agonizing death! Guards!!"
"Wait!" ordered Bezhd. "This alien speaks with some conviction."
"You fool! Is it our fault that we had to interbreed them much?"
"Yes, it is!" Bezhd countered. "We could have done many things to help save the people here."
Suddenly, McCoy launched himself in a flying leap at Aleph before the guards could restrain him. His desperate gamble was cut short as a jagged streak of golden energy flashed from the sphere-being. With a scream of pain, the physician was hurtled bodily across the cave. He collapsed in an unconscious heap on the stony floor.
"I will listen no further!" Aleph shouted. It launched another energy bolt which enveloped Bezhd, and the subordinate sphere-creature's inner glow dimmed considerably. "I sentence you, Bezhd, to the same fate that awaits him. Guards, remove Bezhd and the alien!"
One of the brutish guards lumbered and grabbed McCoy's ankles. He dragged the doctor's limp form out of the cave as one of his companions removed the darkened, crystalline globe from its pedestal.
Kirk and Spock were perched on a hill overlooking the village. "Well, Captain, according to my tricorder readings, the good doctor is being moved to another location," said Spock.
"When he settles down again, let me know," Kirk returned, frowning. "We'll try to rescue him without using force, but if necessary..." He waved his phaser meaningfully. "I won't let McCoy be tortured again!"
"Understood, Captain." The Vulcan resumed his instrument scan.
McCoy awoke in an underground chamber lit only by phosphorescent rock and Bezhd's pastel glow. They were not alone; scrabbling about the floor of their prison were several small, catlike creatures that looked to be no more than a foot long.
"Be careful," said Bezhd. "Do not move. I will try to keep up a mental screen around us, but I cannot do so for any great length of time. The miaow are quite dangerous; their claws could destroy my body despite it being crystalline in nature, and their poison is fatal."
"Daniel and the Lion's Den," mused McCoy. "Fortunately, I've got a version of my own angel." He anxiously but cautiously craned his neck to take a look at the door of their tomb, and his heart sank. It was a slab of solid rock.
Suddenly, he heard the familiar, shrieking whine of phasers, muffled somewhat by the thick stone. Nothing happened for several minutes; then the door began to glow red, then white. Finally, a huge jagged hole appeared in the slab, and the barrage stopped.
Kirk and Spock entered the chamber through the makeshift opening, carefully avoiding contact with the molten rock.
One of the cat creatures hissed menacingly and coiled to spring.
"Phasers on heavy stun, wide field!" snapped Kirk. "Make sure we get them all, Spock!" They rapidly fired their weapons at the small, but deadly animals; the one that had crouched to attack crumpled in mid-leap.
McCoy grinned, relieved. "Well, if the Devil had joined Daniel in the Lion's Den..."
"They probably heard our phasers," Kirk said quickly."C'mon, Bones! Let's get you and your friend out of here!"
The command meeting was brief indeed. Scotty filled in his fellow officers with a few terse sentences.
"The shieldin' for the shuttlecraft is ready," he began. "I'm gonna take 'er down an' try to find the captain and the others. Once we get below the atmosphere, we should be able to home in on their communicator signals." He turned to Sulu. "I'm sorry, lad, but you're the best pilot in Starfleet. I'm gonna have to ask ye to fly me down."
"I've already gotten my gear together, Mister Scott," the Oriental helmsman returned, beaming.
"Uhura, ye'll be in command," Scotty continued. "Stick close to Xon; the minute he tells ye the sun's swellin' up, ye hightail it outta here at Warp Twelve. We'll not be losin' four hundred an' eighty-five crewmen over a handful of us."
"Yes, sir," Uhura acknowledge sorrowfully.
"Jus' one more thing," Scotty said. "In case these heroics don' come off exactly as planned, I jus' want to say that workin' with all of ye has been the greatest experience of me life. That's all I've got."
Uhura sat forlornly in the center seat. She had bid Scotty and Sulu an emotional farewell as they headed off toward the shuttle hangar. The tears hadn't came until she entered the turbolift, and she had savagely fought them off before she came on the bridge. She felt as if a big, lonely hole was about to be torn from the fabric of her life. It was almost a certainty she would never see the pair of them again, as well as the captain, Spock, McCoy and Palamas. It would be a miracle if the shuttle survived the storms intact, and when the sun expanded...
As if to punctuate her thoughts, the Enterprise rocked violently as it was buffeted by a particularly strong plasma wave. It was getting harder to maintain the great starship at station-keeping.
"Shuttlecraft bay signals ready, Commander Uhura," called out Lieutenant Taryn Spring. The lovely blond communications officer had reported to the bridge as Uhura's relief amid her usual share of turned heads and appreciative male glances.
"Acknowledged," Uhura replied. Taryn had been a big help to her since Lieutenant Kris Jansen's tragic death over Delta-Vega.
"Lieutenant Xon, what is Tinue's status?" she asked.
"We are now one-half standard hour from expansion point, Commander."
That was cutting it close. Uhura punched a button on the conn's armrest display. "Shuttlecraft Bay."
"Sulu, here," came the reply.
"You're go for launch, Sulu," Uhura said. "We'll keep our shields around you for as long as we can. Good luck!"
"Thanks, Uhura. We'll see you in a little while," the helmsman acknowledged with his usual indefatigable cheerfulness. One would have thought he was going on a picnic instead of a suicide mission!
As she closed the channel, Uhura realized with a start that she was mumbling an ancient Bantu prayer in Swahili.
In the cockpit of the warp-modified shuttlecraft Tycho, Lieutenant Commander Sulu flipped a toggle on his control panel, and the great clamshell bay doors slowly opened. Instead of the star-studded blackness of normal space, however, they were treated to a horrifying, multi-colored display as galvanic, roiling sheets of energy danced angrily before their eyes.
"It's like lookin' down into the mouth o' hell!" Scotty whispered.
"Well, hell or not, here we go!" The helmsman nudged the throttle glide forward, and the sleek little craft slid smoothly out into the inferno.
Almost immediately, the Tycho began to vibrate alarmingly, as if a giant's hand were savagely shaking it.
"Rough ride!" Sulu commented, gritting his teeth.
"Thot's not the half o' it, lad!" Scotty exclaimed. "Wait 'til the Enterprise has to let go o' us wi' her shields!" The chief engineer's gaze was riveted on the starboard viewscreen as the shuttle lurched and bucked crazily. He could not tear his eyes away from his beautiful, beloved starship, and he watched it for as long as it stayed in range. His eyes misted over as he realized that this would most likely be the last time he would ever see the Enterprise.
Sulu snapped another switch on his panel. "Engaging our shields, Mister Scott. The Enterprise should be cutting us loose any time now."
As if on cue, Lieutenant Xon's voice crackled over their receiver, "Enterprise to Tycho. We will disengage our shields in ten seconds...nine...eight...seven...six..."
"The least ye could do is wish us good luck, ye pointed-eared hobgoblin!" Scotty muttered.
Sulu took a deep breath, steeling himself. "Here goes..."
On the bridge of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Taryn Spring turned away grimly from her board, her angelic face clouded with sorrow. "Commander Uhura, I have lost all contact with the Tycho!"
Kirk and Spock hastily returned to the tree dwellers' village, with McCoy and the sphere-being Bezhd in tow. The sun was now an angry, glowering red. Strong gusts of wind began to whip through the trees.
"Not much longer, I would say," Spock intoned.
"Always the bearer of glad tidings, huh, Spock?" McCoy bristled as they climbed into the tree house, where Brand anxiously awaited them.
"What are you discussing?" Bezhd asked curiously.
Kirk turned toward the sphere-being. "The sun of this system is about to expand into a red giant, and it goes without saying that this planet will be burned into a cinder, along with all life forms here."
"You are serious?" Bezhd asked, shocked. "I have no sensory organs; our race has had no need of them for many millennia. Spock, would you join your mind to me so that I may have the use of your eyes?"
"I will, Bezhd," the Vulcan affirmed. He placed the fingertips of both hands on the sphere for a long moment, then pulled away.
"So it is true," the sphere-being said sadly. "It is finally at an end. But you Humans are doomed also...and you are not of this world. It is not fitting that you should die."
"Tell us about it," Kirk said wryly.
"You bastard," Palamas screamed suddenly. "Why this sudden concern for our welfare? I've got a good mind to take my phaser and..."
"Kill him?" McCoy asked. "Why? We'll all be dead soon anyway."
"But at least I'll have the satisfaction of destroying this...this thing! If he hadn't agreed with the other one, we wouldn't have been strung up, and I wouldn't have been...have been..." She couldn't finish.
"Commander, surely you can't blame him," said Kirk.
"She is right, though, Captain Kirk. I voted with Aleph to have you put to death."
"What?!" exclaimed McCoy.
"I must beg forgiveness. It is difficult to break the habits of countless eons. Aleph has always been the Prior among us, and as such, his word is law. It is only in the past few centuries that we began to lose our energy potential and he has become sadistic. He claimed to be stockpiling all those weapons as a defense against these tree dwellers, but I think he had intended to exterminate them. Now, of course, you have made this impossible. He may come here with his villagers to retaliate. Again, I must ask for your pardon. It was not until today that I realized just how vindictive Aleph had become."
Kirk stood up. "That's all in the past now. And it appears that our future can be counted in minutes."
They suddenly heard a familiar, far off whistling sound outside which seemed to grow in volume every second. Kirk stuck his head out the door of the tree hut, and his jaw dropped in astonishment.
Skimming drunkenly above the treetops was a Federation shuttlecraft, or more properly, what was left of one. She was badly battered and scorched. Countless dents and scars decorated her hull. The starboard warp nacelle was crumpled beyond repair. The small ship was falling at an alarming rate of speed, but her pilot was incredibly skillful. Somehow, he feathered her descent, and the shuttle pancaked down in a small clearing in the jungle. There was an earth-shaking thud as the demolished craft finally came to a stop.
Kirk tore through the jungle at a dead run. Two people were climbing out of the wrecked Tycho.
"Sulu! Scotty! What the hell's going on here?" Kirk demanded.
The Oriental helmsman grinned ruefully as a white-faced Montgomery Scott jumped to the ground, his lips drawn in a tight line. "We were supposed to be a rescue mission, sir," Sulu explained. "Unfortunately, she'll never lift off again. We're lucky to be here at all."
"Thot was the most brilliant piece o' flyin' I've ever seen, lad!" Scotty exclaimed, his voice trembling. "Only the next time ye do somethin' like this, don't take me along for the ride!" He sobered suddenly as he realized that, for them, there would be no next time.
"I'm sorry to see you here, gentlemen," Kirk said. "How much time is there?"
"Only about fifteen minutes, sir," Sulu said, somber for once. "I'm sorry, too."
"Scotty, the Enterprise?"
The Scotsman managed a tight smile. "She'll be all right, Cap'n. Uhura has orders to blast out o' here at Warp Twelve the second Tinue starts expandin'."
The rest of the landing party had arrived as Brand and his villagers curiously brought up the rear. Spock cradled the crystalline sphere-creature Bezhd in his hands.
But Montgomery Scott had eyes for only one person. "Carolyn!"
He rushed forward, and she fell sobbing into his arms. "Oh, Scotty! You're not here, too?"
"Afraid so, lassie," he returned. "An' sorry I am thot we canna get back to the Enterprise."
"At least we'll be together," she said softly, and he hugged her even more tightly to him.
"How very touching!" came a cruel taunt.
In all the excitement of the shuttle landing, they had been surrounded by a group of the brutish humanoids from the sphere-beings' village. And one of them carried a vengeful Aleph in his arms. "How considerate of you all to congregate in one place! I can now destroy all of you with a minimum effort!"
A hissing tongue of energy licked out at them, but it was blocked by a similar bolt from Bezhd.
"Spock!" Their new-found ally shouted. "Join your mind to me again! Together with the combined power of our minds, we can defeat him!"
"No!" screamed Aleph. Another jagged streak knifed through the air, but now it was no contest. Aleph had only his backward villagers to rely on, and now Bezhd, with his newly acquired power, easily drove down the hostile sphere-being.
"Now you will listen to me!" Bezhd snapped. "In a short space of time, our world and all upon it will cease to exist. Look into my mind, and you will see that it is true!"
There was a long moment of silence. Finally a stunned Aleph's voice rang out again. "Yes, I see. You are right. It is the Endtime." He paused. "I am ready,"
"But these Humans are not!" Bezhd exclaimed. "It is not their destiny to die here! But we can help them. Will you join with me?"
"Yes, I will," Aleph replied. "It is futile to bear old grudges at this time. Let us prepare."
"Captain," Spock said. "The sphere-beings can transport our people back aboard the Enterprise. They are linking their minds now to accomplish this."
"Are you serious, Spock?" asked a stunned Kirk.
The Vulcan canted his right eyebrow. "Captain, Vulcans are always serious."
"Wait a minute, Spock!" McCoy exclaimed. "Ask them to save these people, too!"
"They belong here," Bezhd said slowly. "It is their fate to become one with the sun again."
Spock had been conferring in sign language with Brand. Now he turned to Kirk a curious expression on his face. "Captain, I mentioned before that Brand's people believe in a Oneness with nature. So, it turns out, do the natives of the sphere-beings village...at least as much as their stunted minds can comprehend it. They would not want us to try to save them, even if we could. Indeed, they would oppose any rescue efforts. He says that it is their destiny."
"They want to die?" Sulu asked incredulously.
"It is the way of their people, Commander," Spock put in.
Brand smiled sadly at them. It was as if he wanted to thank them for their concern, while at the same time, pleading for understanding of his tribe's cultural beliefs.
"They are very brave," Palamas said.
"Aye," Scotty agreed. "A noble people."
"It...is...time..." Aleph said thickly, as if in a trance.
Kirk opened his mouth to thank him, but before he could say anything, the world winked out around them.
Uhura wiped a sleeve across her tear-streaked face. It was hard to believe that the captain and the others were really gone. But death was something they all had to live with every day; it was an all too common occurrence out here in the trackless wastes of interstellar space. It was said that time heals all wounds, but the lovely Bantu woman wondered if she would ever recover from this one.
She heard Taryn Spring sobbing quietly at the communications console, and noticed the ramrod tension that gripped Sulu's replacement, the Andorian Lieutenant Silan, as he waited for her fateful order. DiFalco wept silently and stared unseeingly at the viewscreen, her course out of the system already laid in.
Uhura felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Security Chief Chekov standing behind her, his own eyes wet. She smiled at him through her tears and squeezed his hand.
Transporter Chief Janice Rand sat at the engineering station with Maintenance Chief Kyle standing at her side. His superfluous presence was unexplained but also went unnoticed. All eyes were glued to the screen. Even Doctor Chapel's, who had just come on to the bridge. They were losing their friends. It was as though they were attending a memorial service. They were.
Only Lieutenant Xon seemed unaffected.
"Fifteen seconds to expansion," the young Vulcan reported calmly. "Mark...now, Commander Uhura."
"Acknowledged," came the tearful reply. "Helmsman, stand by."
"Helm standing by," Silan answered.
"Departure angle on viewscreen," she ordered, but could not bear to look at the screen which now showed the entire system. The spectacular view replaced a schematic diagram showing the rate of expansion.
"Departure angle on viewer, acknowledged," sobbed Taryn Spring. She could not bear to look either. Her eyes avoided the screen as much as possible.
"Primary expansion has begun," Xon said. "First planet is gone, photosphere is now encroaching on second planet."
"Helm..." Uhura began.
"Uhura, look!" Chekov said excitedly.
A bright, sparkling shimmer had suddenly appeared on the bridge before the viewscreen, a shimmer which rapidly coalesced into the figures of the landing party and the shuttlecraft crew.
"Hang onto something quickly, sirs!" Uhura screamed, almost hysterical with joy. "Helm, get us the hell out of here! Warp Twelve, now!!"
On the viewscreen, Tinue III flared up and disappeared like a twist of hair held over a candle flame. The huge, burgeoning surface of the now giant red star swallowed its planet whole, returning the world and all its inhabitants to the elemental star-stuff from which they had been formed countless billions of years ago.
And then the star shrank and shrank as the Enterprise streaked away from the doomed system at over seventeen hundred times the speed of light. As the starship screamed through the black vastness, it overtook light waves that had left the star many weeks earlier.
Tinue shone once again with its former placid yellow light.
"Funny thing about warped spacetime," Kirk said sadly as they all stared transfixed at the screen. "Out here, it hasn't even happened yet."
"Sir, what happened? How did you--" began a sputtering Uhura.
McCoy came up and gently took his arm. "C'mon, Jim. We've all got a date in Sickbay. Explanations can wait until later...much later," he added crossly.
The landing party wearily shuffled over to the left turbolift access with Chapel and Kyle. McCoy thumbed the sensor, and they gratefully filed on. But Kirk stopped and turned back to the viewscreen one more time. Uhura was giving orders to decelerate and proceed to their next destination. As he gazed at the insignificant little star again, it struck him how much Tinue resembled another sun, a sun that warmed and nurtured the planet of his birth.
Then he got into the car with the others, and the doors slid silently shut behind him.
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