Just one...bring me her head.
The man in black stared out the window at the dingy Xantharus city that served as his headquarters. It had been almost a year since he had issued that order to Haldar, but the assassin had yet to succeed in his quest. Had it been luck, or cunning, that had kept the blonde bitch alive?
The director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium turned away from the window, the folds of his black cloak swirled around him as he moved, the heavy material concealing all but the whiteness of his face and hands from view. He paced the room, his long, bony fingers testing the sharpness of the blade in his hands. He yearned to exact his revenge himself, but the price on his head prevented him from entering Federation space, and Caren Hollis had not ventured out of that safe territory in the months since she had exposed his plot to discredit the United Federation of Planets and its elitist Starfleet. He had ordered her death in the first heat of anger, but his assassin had so far been unable to carry out that sentence. As the months passed, and the bitch continued to live, the director had felt his anger cool--cool, but not wane. Now, it was an icy fire that lived within him, slowly consuming all of his attention and passions, until he would no longer be satisfied to merely have the newswoman killed. No, he wanted that pleasure for himself--the pleasure of her death, and the pain that would precede it.
His mind made up, the director strode across the room and
activated the comm unit on his desk. "Get me Haldar," he ordered.
"Any questions?" Admiral James T. Kirk eyed the fresh-faced cadets in his battle tactics class and sighed mentally when he saw Weingart's hand pop up. Suppressing his impatience at the cadet's never-ending questions, Kirk nodded at the eager youth. "Yes?"
"Sir, what would you say is the most important thing to remember in a battle situation?" Weingart asked, standing, as always, at military-perfect attention.
Kirk's lips twitched, but he fought back the urge to smile at the young man's grim earnestness. It reminded him of another young cadet whose ambition and desire to succeed had made him the butt of all-too-many practical jokes--not to mention one memorable attempt at match-making.
Kirk mentally shook his head, returning his thoughts to the present. "Always expect the unexpected," he answered in a suitably solemn tone.
"Sir?" an equally young, just slightly less eager woman asked.
"Cadet Loomis," Kirk answered her without having to check his seating chart. "Any enemy you might engage in battle is unlikely to have the same cultural background as you. Therefore, it is highly improbable that you will be able to anticipate every possible scenario." Kirk paused and allowed himself to grin briefly now. His lectures were sounding more like Spock's all the time. He controlled the grin. "So, always expect the unexpected. Stay on your toes." Now that sounds like Bones. "And be prepared for anything that might happen. Your life, and the lives of your crew, may well depend on it."
Kirk glanced at his chronometer, considered a farewell speech, then decided against it. "Class dismissed." The students filed out of the room in a semi-orderly fashion, while the admiral collected the holotapes and other items he had used for the class. He looked up at the sound of someone clearing his throat, expecting to find another cadet with just one more question before the upcoming examinations. Instead, he saw Commodore Harrold Morrow standing there.
"Another term over?" Morrow commented conversationally.
Kirk nodded, continuing to gather together his equipment. "Except for the final exams next week."
"Very promising. They're all quick and eager to learn. A couple even show indications of being command material."
"Good. Good." Morrow glanced down at the tapes in Kirk's hands, then looked back at his face. "The old man wants to see you."
"Nogura?" Kirk suppressed the rush of adrenalin combined with a slight uneasiness that the summons brought.
Morrow nodded solemnly. "He's waiting for you."
Kirk's uneasiness grew. "Let's go then." Kirk strode quickly through the door.
The admiral's aide waved them through the outer office and deactivated the security lock to allow the inner doors to open automatically at their approach. Kirk's brisk strides continued four full steps into the room, and then he came to a full stop to stare at the man who sat in one of the three chairs grouped in front of Commanding Admiral Heihachiro Nogura's desk. Neither Nogura nor the civilian stood, and Kirk found himself shifting nervously from one foot to the other before he caught himself and stiffened his spine. The man was familiar, but he couldn't quite place him. Kirk's uneasiness grew, but he refused to allow it to show as he faced Nogura, awaiting his orders.
"Jim, Harry, let me introduce you to Bradford Bashaw. Brad, this is Admiral Kirk and Commodore Morrow."
Kirk and Morrow took their seats at a nod from the admiral, Kirk carefully placing himself in the chair most removed from Bashaw. He studied the other man carefully, trying to remember where he might have seen him, but unable to come up with a single clue. Bashaw had the slick, well-groomed, expensive look of a successful opportunist. He was tanned and fit, his even features accentuated by a well-groomed mustache and a decided cleft in his chin. Clad in a hand-sewn, custom-tailored suit, with rare gems sparkling in the rings on both hands, Bradford Bashaw was an anachronism, a relic of a time long past, when Humans measured success by the accumulation of wealth. A few still did, but now, most contented themselves with more modest collections, considering a display like Bashaw's both ostentatious and vulgar. Still, the Bashaws of Kirk's time tended to be not only wealthy, but also very powerful men, controlling vast empires of business, transportation, communications...
Kirk's eyes narrowed. He remembered where he had seen Bashaw.
"I demand that you do something...and now," Bashaw told Nogura in accents slightly reminiscent of McCoy's. "It's because of your people that this has happened, and I insist that you recover her immediately."
"Recover who?" Kirk asked, his earlier uneasiness settling into a sickening certainty that he didn't really want his question answered.
"Caren--as if you didn't know." Bashaw turned to Kirk. "It's your fault. If you had handled matters properly yourself so that she wasn't forced to take things into her own hands, then they'd have never been interested in her. But, no, you had to screw up the entire affair, trying to cover up for your friend's ineptitude, and Caren had to take action herself. Now that evil bastard has her, and God only knows what he intends to do with her."
"Kill her, I'm sure," Morrow muttered under his breath so only Kirk could hear.
Fighting down the icy dread that was spreading throughout his system, Kirk stood to face Bashaw. "Who has Ms. Hollis?" he asked in a deceptively soft voice.
"That...Director, I think he calls himself."
Kirk swallowed. "The director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium?"
"Yeah, that's the one. When are you going to go get her?"
Kirk glanced to Nogura, then turned back to Bashaw. "What makes you think I'm going to retrieve your misplaced reporter? And why are you so sure the director has her?"
Bashaw shrugged. "I have my sources." He gave Kirk a piercing stare. "As for you, you're responsible for this entire thing, so you--"
"I'm responsible for nothing. Ms. Hollis was on that mission at her own insistence and against my recommendations. Again and again, she refused to do as she was told. If she hadn't refused to follow my recommendations, she would never have been on Xantharus, and the director would have had no reason to wish her harm." Kirk ignored the nagging sense of guilt that reminded him how he maneuvered the newswoman, perhaps not entirely against her will, but to his own, not completely altruistic objectives.
"You, sir, were in charge. She was your responsibility."
"I'm afraid he's right there, Jim." Nogura's comment drew a cold stare from Kirk, which he ignored for the moment. "Mister Bashaw, if you'll excuse us, we'll finalize the necessary details for this mission. Rest assured, we'll do all we can to recover Ms. Hollis...unharmed."
"Thank you, Admiral." Bashaw rose smoothly from his chair and exited the room, without bothering to speak again to either Kirk or Morrow.
Kirk fumed silently until he heard the doors slide shut behind the news executive, then he exploded. "What the hell do you expect me to do?"
"I expect you to rescue Ms. Hollis," Nogura responded blandly.
"Just like that, I suppose." Kirk snapped his fingers impatiently.
"No, not like that; with great care and preparation...but all due speed." Nogura clasped his hands together on his desk top and leaned forward, his brown eyes pinning Kirk in place in his chair. "Jim, I don't like this any more than you do, but we don't have much choice. Bashaw's a powerful man--not just as a businessman, but as a behind-the-scenes manipulator who has the ear of more than one high-ranking member of the Federation council. Budget hearings are coming up, and we can't afford any enemies right now."
Kirk stared at the admiral. God, how I hate this job; stuck here on Earth, pandering to a bunch of rich businessmen and politicians. I'd much rather be out in space, leading a mission...he allowed the thought to trail off. Nogura was handing him a mission...on a silver platter. It might not be a mission he would have chosen, but...and I owe Caren. He finished the thought, conveniently forgetting for the moment how the manipulation had worked both ways, and how angry he had been at Hollis.
"When do I leave, and who goes with me?"
Nogura leaned back in his chair and allowed himself a small smile. "As soon as you can get ready, and I recommend you use the same team as last time. They seemed to work well together, and I believe they're all assigned to Headquarters right now, which means they're available."
Kirk nodded thoughtfully, refraining from commenting on the fact that Nogura was already aware of where Ras, Gabler and T'Sidra were at that very moment. Instead, he said, "If the director has her, I'd better take one other team member."
"Who do you have in mind?"
"McCoy?" Morrow asked in surprise.
"We're likely to need a doctor...and he's the best," Kirk replied.
Nogura nodded. "All right. He's yours."
Without further comment, Kirk stood and left the room. Nogura watched him thoughtfully.
"Admiral?" prompted Morrow, awaiting instructions.
Nogura smiled. "I was just thinking...I don't think I'd want to be the director."
The adjutant smiled back. "Me neither."
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE ORION BARRIER
She sensed the darkness even before she opened her eyes...the darkness and the cold. Even so, she lay silent, unmoving for long minutes before she dared to curl herself into a tight ball in an attempt to conserve as much body heat as possible. Only then did she open her eyes. Carefully, slowly, she allowed her gaze to sweep the small compartment where she lay on the hard, cold floor. A low-pitched hum beneath her ear told her she was in a vessel of some kind. Subdued lighting marking the juncture of walls and floor gave her a rough idea of the size and shape of the room, but revealed little of its contents.
Convinced she was alone, Caren Hollis pushed herself into a sitting position and then struggled to her feet, swaying a little dizzily. She stumbled across the deck and leaned against the bulkhead. Slowly, she made her way around the room, searching for an exit. When she found it, she was not surprised to find it locked, preventing her escape from what she had already realized was her prison.
But who was her jailer? And why?
Suddenly, the doors slid open, and Hollis jumped backward, startled by the movement. She stumbled and fell, then looked up at the huge man of light-green skin who towered over her. Her blood turned to ice water in her veins.
Hollis didn't know the man who stood before her, grinning with cold humor. She didn't know whohe was, but she had no doubts as to what he was. She had met his kind before; a cold-blooded Orion assassin who answered to just one man.
Caren scooted backwards across the deck until her back was pressed against the bulkhead. Using it as support, she struggled to her feet, eying the big Orion warily. Her heart pounded furiously, and every breath was an effort, but Hollis refused to allow her fear to show. She was determined to meet her jailer as an equal.
It was a vain determination. The Orion knew just how scared she was. But her attempt drew a brief flash of something, not quite respect, in his pale eyes. Then he laughed. It was a cold, grating sound that sent shivers along her spine.
"Do not worry, slut," he told her. "You won't be harmed--at least, not yet."
"Why?" It came out through dry, cracked lips as a harsh croak.
The Orion shrugged massive shoulders. "I do not know. Those are just my orders." He paused, then grinned evilly. "Perhaps he wishes that pleasure for himself."
"But why?" Hollis repeated. "Why did you kidnap me?"
Again, her jailer shrugged. "That, too, was a matter of orders. I do not question them." His eyes held her steadily in place. "However, I am sure you can find the answer to your questions yourself...if you try." Again his mouth split in that travesty of a grin.
Hollis shivered once more, although the temperature of her prison had risen perceptibly since its doors had been opened, allowing the controlled atmosphere to spill inside. The Orion was right. She knew who had ordered her capture and why. She had foiled his plot, ruined his plans. This wasn't a man willing to lose. He had lost before, but now he had her. Which, if not victory, is yet revenge. Hollis wasn't sure where that thought came from. She couldn't place the context, but thought it must have been something she had read in a Terran literature class. It sounds Terran. Definitely not Centaurian. She shrugged off the thought. It didn't really matter who had originally written the words. She knew they accurately reflected the plans of the director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium. She had been in his clutches once before, and had escaped...with the help of someone she wasn't entirely sure was more friend than foe.
This time she was all alone. After nearly a year of constant care, always watching over her shoulder, she had become restless, anxious to pursue a real story for a change. In its pursuit, she had become careless. Here she was now, captive of this evil creature who feared only one thing, the wrath of the man who had ordered her capture.
The Orion laughed again, then backed out of the compartment, allowing the doors to slide shut once more, leaving Hollis alone in the near-darkness that was rapidly becoming bone-chillingly cold again. Leaning back against the bulkhead, Hollis slowly slid down to the deck and hugged her knees, staring across them at her empty prison. She wondered how long her imprisonment would last, half hoping for a brief incarceration while half dreading its end.
Damn you, Jim Kirk, she thought. Where the hell are you when I need you?
"Mmph. 'ery oph, 'oanth."
"Damn it, Jim, shut up. I can't work with you trying to talk."
Kirk glared at his friend, the only reaction he could manage at the moment. Every time he tried to talk around the hands and instruments in his mouth, all he managed was an unintelligible mumble. He suppressed a sigh and waited another minute and a half. Finally, Leonard McCoy removed the instruments from the admiral's mouth and stepped back, a look of combined satisfaction and disgust on his face.
"Okay, it's done," the doctor said. "Although I don't understand why you wanted it. It would have been much simpler to just inject one beneath your skin." McCoy picked up a small container.
"No, thanks, Bones," Kirk replied absently as he gently tapped his teeth together.
McCoy turned his back on Kirk as he replaced his instruments in a sterilization unit. He rarely had a use for these particular tools, but they'd be ready for his use before he stored them in their sterile container. "Just be careful you don't accidentally activate it ahead of time." He turned back with a grin.
Kirk frowned, then pulled the protective bib from around his neck and got up from the chair.
McCoy crossed his arms. "Now, Admiral, would you explain to me what this is all about? Direct orders from Nogura aren't an everyday occurrence for me."
Kirk shrugged. "Just a simple little mission. Shouldn't take but a couple of days."
"Right. Simple little mission. A couple of days." McCoy shook his head. "The missions you and Nogura cook up are never simple, and that thing in the place where your tooth used to be tells me this one's gonna be nothin' but trouble." He narrowed his gaze. "Where are we going, Jim?"
"Xantharus! Whatever the hell for?"
"Caren Hollis has been kidnapped."
"Should've known it would involve a woman." McCoy's eyes widened at a sudden thought. "Hollis? Isn't that the holovid newswoman. The one who--"
"Yeah, that's the one."
McCoy released his breath in a long, soft whistle. "I didn't think you even liked her."
Kirk shrugged. "I don't...well, not particularly. She's smart, and she's beautiful, but she's trouble--through and through." He smiled ruefully. "But then, I didn't cut the orders. Nogura did. Brad Bashaw is kicking up a fuss, and the old man wants to shut him up. Seems like getting his star reporter back for him is the easiest way."
"Way I hear it, she's more than his star reporter."
Kirk shrugged. "Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me. But his private motives for demanding her return don't concern us, only his public ones."
"Sure you don't like her?"
"I'm sure." Kirk carefully shifted his jaw back and forth a couple of times and winced. "I think that stuff you gave me is wearing off."
"Right on schedule." The doctor pressed a hypo against Kirk's jawline. A brief hiss, and the admiral's tense jaw relaxed again.
"Thanks, Bones. That's better."
"I'd better take a supply of this stuff along. Don't want anything to screw up this mission, and that thing's going to hurt until I can replace it."
"A couple of days," Kirk repeated his earlier assessment of the mission. "That's all I need it for."
"Right...a couple of days." There was no conviction in the words.
"I'm goin' to hold you to that one, Jim. The Braves are in the Series next week, and I intend to be in Olympic Stadium to watch. Don't know why I even bother," he added in a grumble. "They only make it once every half-century or so. Hardly worth rooting for them."
"Yeah, but it's your hometown team," Kirk teased gently.
"Well, at least I have one. What did Riverside ever produce?"
Kirk flashed him a look that was pure, unadulterated innocence. "Me?"
"Right. My point exactly."
Caren Hollis stared at the floor, breathing slowly, and evenly, trying desperately not to react to the pain. Both arms ached, as well as her knees. Being dragged across the floor was both painful and humiliating, but Hollis was determined to allow neither her pain nor her mortification show. A low, evil laugh finally brought her head up.
A single glance was all it took for Hollis to recognize the heavily robed and hooded figure that towered over her--despite the fact that she had never seen him. A good reporter always does her research, and Hollis had read everything that was available on the director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium. Although there were no holopics or even old-fashioned flat photographs of the man, he'd been described often enough, and in sufficient detail for her to know exactly who he was. It took a real effort for her to suppress the urge to shiver. She forced herself to meet the steely eyes that were the only feature visible from within the hood that covered his head and behind the mask that covered his face. She concentrated on those eyes, trying to discern the color, but all she could tell was that they were some hard, cold hue that wasn't even a true color--probably a steely gray. As a focusing exercise, her attempt was more successful. By concentrating on the color of his eyes, she managed to ignore the malevolence they contained, as well as control her own pain and fear.
At least, she thought she had her fear under control...until the director took another step forward and grabbed her by her hair, jerking her head back further. The mask over his face shifted slightly, and she knew without seeing that his mouth had spread into a smile, a smile without mirth, if she were to judge by his eyes. This time, she couldn't conceal the shudder that swept through her.
He laughed again, and she trembled once more, finally breaking the contact with his eyes, gazing downward.
"That's more like it," he commented almost conversationally. "A much more appropriate demeanor for a woman."
Hollis' gaze snapped back up at that, and she stiffened her backbone, glaring at him once again.
The director laughed again--this time with true amusement. "So, she has spirit." The laughter subsided into a chuckle. "Too bad. It's wasted on a mere woman."
Hollis refused to respond further to his baiting. If she was going to die, it would be with dignity. Why doesn't he just get it over with? she asked herself. The man who had captured her had insinuated that the director wanted the pleasure of that task for himself. She had been thankful for the reprieve at the time, hoping it would give her time to effect an escape--or to be rescued. Those hopes had died over the ensuing hours, though. Escape was an impossibility, and the only man she knew who was likely to manage a successful rescue probably wouldn't bother. Her reprieve had become nothing more than a delay that gave her time to contemplate her impending death, and to become increasingly fearful that it would be neither quick nor painless.
"Why don't you just kill me now?" She didn't realize she was going to speak until the words were out of her mouth. Unfortunately, they didn't get the reaction she expected.
The director chuckled again, low in his throat, and reached out his right arm. His pale, green-veined hand extended outward to gently caress her cheek with his index finger. Hollis shivered again. There was neither kindness nor desire in that caress. It was more the touch of possession--the playful tap of a predator that likes to toy with its prey before killing it.
"All in good time," he replied. "You'll die when I have no more use for you." He gestured to the two green-skinned giants who stood on either side of her, and they took her by the arms and began to drag her out of the room.
Hollis bit her lip to hold back the cry that threatened to escape as her shoulder joints protested the renewed abuse. Ignoring both the pain and the droplet of blood on her lip, she called out to the Director. "Why?" she demanded. "For what use?"
Jim Kirk stepped into the warp sled shuttle to find his crew already waiting for him--with only one exception, and he knew Leonard McCoy would arrive momentarily. The doctor had been grumbling ever since Kirk had explained the nature of their mission, but he had finally relented and made a quick trip back to his office for a few items he insisted might be needed.
"Admiral." The Vulcan pilot, T'Sidra, greeted Kirk's arrival aboard the Solzenheitzen with just his rank, and Kirk acknowledged with a nod.
"Here we go again," he told the three-member crew, smiling a little ruefully.
"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Ras lisped from the navigator's station.
"Why us?" the engineering specialist, Gabler, asked from the rear of the shuttle, a frown on his dark features. "You'd think they could find someone else to handle this rescue mission."
"You mean someone who doesn't know her quite so well?" Kirk asked with deceptive calm.
"Yeah." Gabler grinned. "Begging your pardon, sir, but the woman's a pain in the ass."
"Noted, Lieutenant," Kirk said. "Believe me, people, this mission wasn't my idea. But we go where the old man sends us--all of us."
"Aye," Gabler agreed with a mournful sigh.
"Besides," Kirk added, a little sternly, "even Hollis doesn't deserve to be in the Director's hands."
"No, sir." There was little conviction in Gabler's voice. Kirk decided to just let it go, then he remembered something and turned back to Gabler. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Lieutenant, but didn't you volunteer for this mission even before you received the orders?"
Gabler's usual mournful expression metamorphosed into a sheepish grin at the question. He shrugged. "I've been pulling double shifts at space dock for the past month," he explained. "I figured I could catch up on lost sleep at least on the trips out there and back. After all, there's not much else to do on this fancy little play-toy."
Kirk suppressed a grin as he noticed T'Sidra's back stiffen minutely at the mockery of her sleek vessel, but the Vulcan woman refrained from rising to the bait. The admiral opened his mouth to reply to Gabler's taunt, then closed it again when another figure appeared in the hatch.
"All right, Jim, I'm here. We can leave whenever you're ready." McCoy stepped onto the shuttle carrying an old-fashioned black medical bag. "Just let me store this stuff away until we need it."
"If we need it," Kirk commented.
McCoy shook his head. "Oh, we'll need it all right. We always do."
Kirk ignored the doctor's sarcasm and turned to T'Sidra. "At your discretion, Commander."
"We must await the arrival of our final passenger," the Vulcan returned without shifting her attention from her controls.
"Passenger?" McCoy stepped forward. "I thought this was everybody."
Kirk frowned. "Me too, Bones. T'Sidra?"
"I do not know who the passenger is, Admiral. I just received notification a moment ago from Admiral Nogura's office that a sixth person would be accompanying us."
At that moment, they heard a feminine voice call from the open door to the shuttle. "Hello!"
Kirk groaned. He wouldn't, he begged silently. Oh, yes, he would. The contradictory thought came quickly on the heels of the first.
While T'Sidra continued to check over her instruments, the four men turned to the doorway to watch a dark-haired woman board the shuttle, followed by an antigrav holocam, floating obediently behind her. "Admiral?" she inquired of McCoy, flashing an easy smile.
The doctor grinned and shook his head. "That's the admiral," he told her while gesturing at Kirk. "I'm Doctor Leonard McCoy. And you're...?"
"Kitty Hunter, Intergalactic News Service." She held out her hand to McCoy, who reached to shake it only to have her hand him a cream-colored case. As his hand instinctively closed around the handle, he realized it was heavier than it looked.
"What do you have in this thing?" McCoy demanded.
"Oh, just some things I'll need." She stepped all the way into the shuttle, and Kirk groaned again as he spotted the holocam hovering at her left shoulder. "Miss Hunter." He stepped forward with a forced smile. "I understand Admiral Nogura approved your assignment to this mission."
"Nogura?" She shrugged. "I guess that's the name Brad mentioned. Someone important, he said."
Kirk exchanged a pained look with the doctor, who quickly set Hunter's case aside and turned away from the others to hide the grin he couldn't suppress.
As for Kirk, he felt no inclination to grin. Hunter was every bit as pretty as Caren Hollis--prettier,he admitted to himself--and had the air of someone who knew that fact very well. Perhaps too well, Kirk told himself, then pasted on his best diplomatic smile--the one that was friendly without inviting intimacy. "Were you briefed on our mission?" he asked.
Hunter flashed him that bright smile again, the one that showed every one of her picture-perfect teeth. "Oh, sure. We're going to rescue Caren, somewhere in the area of the Orion Neutral Zone or some such thing."
"The Orion Barrier," Kirk corrected amicably. "It's the Romulan Neutral Zone, but this is just a barrier with the planets under the control of the Orioni Worldlords."
"Whatever." Hunter waved a hand in dismissal of the details. "Anyway, Brad said the administrator had--"
"Director," Kirk corrected patiently.
"...Director had Caren kidnapped." She hardly missed a beat. "We're being sent to rescue her."
"We're being sent for the rescue." Kirk tilted his head toward his crew. "You're just going along to observe. And you'll follow orders." Or else.
"Sure, anything you say." Hunter made her way to the front of the shuttle and reached out a long-fingered hand tipped by perfectly manicured nails to tap at one of the controls at the navigation station. "What does that do?" she asked Ras cheerfully.
The Andorian quickly shoved her hand out of the way. "That," he explained, "regulates our course."
Kirk groaned and rolled his eyes upward, much to McCoy's silent amusement.
Kirk groaned again and shook his head, then turned to face the front of the shuttle. "Yes, Ms. Hunter?" Does she ever stop smiling? he asked himself.
"Is this place all right?" she indicated the empty seat immediately behind the navigation station, the seat Kirk had intended to occupy himself. He suppressed a third groan.
"That will be fine," he bit out, forcing another smile onto his own face. "Anywhere you're comfortable."
"Oh, I'll be just comfy right here." She plopped down and dropped her shoulder bag onto the adjacent seat, with the holocam hovering just above the cushion. She looked up and caught T'Sidra watching her calmly. "This is going to be great," she told the Vulcan. "It's my first field assignment in space. I can't wait." She swiveled her head to face Kirk again. "Do you think there's likely to be any fighting?"
Kirk closed his eyes and counted to ten to keep from groaning yet again. He opened his eyes and pasted one more smile onto his face. "I hope not."
"I'll be surprised if somebody doesn't get violent before this is over--even if we never find the director," McCoy spoke sotto voce in Kirk's ear.
"Bones," the admiral admonished, then turned to Hunter again. "We'll do our best to keep you safe," he promised.
"Oh, don't worry about me," Hunter dismissed the pledge airily while rummaging through her shoulder bag. She pulled out a hand mirror and a comb, and began to fluff her short, dark curls. "I always land on my feet."
"Meow," McCoy muttered. This time Kirk just flashed him a warning glare. The doctor lifted one eyebrow in innocent inquiry, but Kirk decided not to respond to the provocation. Instead, he took the seat across the aisle from Hunter, settling immediately behind T'Sidra. He leaned forward.
"Just get us there as quickly as you can, Commander," he urged, speaking as softly as he could.
"Acknowledged." The Vulcan flipped a couple of controls. "Please take your seats," she ordered McCoy and Gabler, who hurried to comply.
"We have clearance," Ras informed her, and she
expertly piloted the shuttle out of the bay and into open space.
The Solzenheitzen was midway through its three-day journey to the Orion Barrier when Kirk finally managed to take his turn at one of the built-in bunks provided for sleeping. Warp sled shuttles weren't noted for their comforts, but they were the fastest type of transportation for a mission like this one. Unfortunately, there were only two bunks available for the six people on board, and, true to his word, Gabler had occupied one of them for most of the voyage so far. At the moment, however, he was seated up front, immediately behind Ras, carrying on a spirited conversation with the Andorian in language so technical that Kirk, despite his more than casual knowledge of engineering, had difficulty following.
Abandoning the effort, Kirk settled back on the bunk and let out a soft sigh, unwilling to allow their passenger to hear the sound. Kitty Hunter was definitely getting on his nerves. He had thought that Caren Hollis was a pain in the ass. He sighed again. At least Hollis had a few redeeming qualities--like intelligence and a fairly adequate grasp of the situation she had talked herself into. Hunter, on the other hand, had little to recommend her other than her pretty face, and Jim Kirk had learned years earlier that pretty faces were a dime a dozen throughout the galaxy. Hunter hadn't learned that lesson yet. She still thought she could achieve success in the cutthroat field of journalism on her looks and personality alone. At her age, she might think a wide smile and seductive laugh would win her entry anywhere, but she'd soon learn different. Kirk idly thought it might be a pleasure to witness that lesson, or even to be a part of it, but then he rejected the idea as being more trouble than it was worth. One Intergalactic News Service reporter in trouble was more than enough to handle at one time.
Kirk yawned and closed his eyes, remembering the many kinds of trouble Caren Hollis could bring. That woman knew more ways to make him angry than he cared to recall--not excluding her physical charms. He grimaced at the way he had been attracted to the blonde reporter in spite of himself, and how he had used the mutual attraction to manipulate her. Of course, the manipulation, like the attraction, had gone both ways, and Kirk was self-aware enough to admit, at least to himself, that it was that fact that irked him the most.
At least the mission had been successful. They had investigated the mystery of the Star of Acadia and learned that Dave Bailey and the Nelson had been tricked into attacking the passenger liner, believing that it was an Orion pirate ship powering up to attack them. With Hollis' help, they had cleared Bailey of any wrongdoing, and discredited the evil director of the Orion Barrier Alliance, who had masterminded the entire bizarre plot.
Despite her private admission to Kirk and the even more private session that followed, he later learned to his dismay that she had duped him again. In her broadcast, she had cleared Bailey, but then turned around and intimated that he was less than competent as a starship commander, actually labeling him as the tool of the director's plot. She had designated Kirk as a gallant hero at the same time she criticized his investigative techniques, and accused him of allowing personal loyalties to interfere with a messy mission. All in all, she had managed to damn Kirk, Bailey and all of Starfleet with faint praise, while claiming the bulk of the glory for solving the mystery for herself.
Yet, despite the many reasons he had for despising the woman, Kirk realized his dominant emotions at the moment were guilt and concern. Intellectually, he knew Hollis was at least as much to blame for her present circumstances as he was, but any blame was too much. No matter how angry she made him, Hollis didn't deserve to be in the hands of that cold-blooded killer, and Kirk owed her his best effort to get her out.
Kirk groaned and turned onto his side, punching his pillow as he tried to find a comfortable position.
"Will you please settle down?" McCoy grumbled from the opposite bunk. "If you need a sleeping pill--"
"No, Bones, I'm okay," Kirk replied quickly, hoping no one else had heard. "Go to sleep."
"I'm trying," the doctor muttered. "Believe me, I'm trying."
Caren Hollis sat huddled in a corner of the tiny room where she was being held prisoner, staring wide-eyed at the locked door, trying desperately to stay awake. Every time she fell asleep, one of her jailers would rudely awaken her with a kick to her ribs or a backhand across her face. She rubbed the back of one hand across her mouth, wincing as she touched her split lower lip. At least the blood had dried. Briefly, she considered her appearance, thinking no one--not Brad Bashaw, not Jim Kirk, not even a green ensign--would find her attractive right then. She discarded the thought. What did bruises, a dirty face or matted hair matter? Survival was the issue.
Damn it, Jim, where are you? she thought, then tasted blood as she bit down on her injured lip when the door began to open.
ON BOARD THE SOLZENHEITZEN
"Huh?" Kirk looked up from the three-dimensional chess board at the Vulcan pilot.
"I believe it is your move," T'Sidra prodded.
"Oh, yes. Sure." Kirk glanced at his chronometer, realizing that nearly fifteen minutes had passed since his opponent had made her last move. It was unusual for him to take so long for his response. When T'Sidra had suggested it, he had jumped at the chance, but he was finding it difficult to concentrate on the game.
Anything to relieve the boredom of this trip...and keep Kitty Hunter away. For someone with so little knowledge about Starfleet, space exploration and military tactics, it amazed him how many questions the reporter had. Unfortunately, they were nearly all inane. He shuddered to think what she might do with whatever answers he gave.
"Captain?" T'Sidra prodded again.
"Right," Kirk replied and lifted his rook, moving it up one level. T'Sidra raised one eyebrow in surprise, then repositioned her queen.
"Shit," Kirk said beneath his breath, then gave T'Sidra a sheepish grin in response to the twinkle in her eyes that told him she had heard him, even if no one else had. "Congratulations, Commander. You play an excellent game."
She nodded acknowledgment of the compliment. "So do you...usually."
Kirk grinned again. "Sorry." He shrugged. "My game's a bit off today. Maybe later." He glanced toward the front of the shuttle, where Hunter sat casually buffing her nails, waiting with apparently endless patience for the interview he had so far managed to avoid. He returned his gaze to T'Sidra. "On second thought, how about a re-match right now?"
The Vulcan's gaze followed his before she met his eyes with that twinkle even more obvious. Ras was piloting the ship and didn't need any help at the moment. All he had to do was maintain the present course for another twelve hours until they reached the rendezvous point. Turning her head to face the rear of the shuttle, she noted that Gabler was once again making use of one of the bunks, snoring softly, while McCoy was just rising from a brief nap. After a stretch and a yawn, the doctor made his way forward, pausing before proceeding to an empty seat.
"How's the game?" he asked.
Kirk shrugged. "She's beaten me three in a row."
McCoy's right eyebrow rose. "And you're beginning a fourth? Glutton for punishment, huh?"
Kirk glanced toward Hunter with a frown. "Not much else to do, and it sure beats the alternative."
McCoy's gaze followed his, then the doctor leaned closer to ask softly, "Still pushing for that interview?"
"It wouldn't be so bad," Kirk replied in the same tone, "if she had any idea what's going on, or even what Starfleet's all about. But..." He shrugged. "I get the feeling I could tell her we're on our way to overthrow the Romulan government after assassinating the director and picking up Hollis, and she'd accept every word of it."
McCoy nodded sympathetically, then raised that eyebrow again, a smile slowly spreading across his craggy face. "Jim," he whispered. "I have an idea..."
"Bones..." Kirk warned.
"Don't worry," McCoy reassured him. "I'm not going to do anything really bad; just have a little fun. Sit back and enjoy the show."
Kirk frowned. He knew exactly how much trouble McCoy's idea of a little fun could cause. On the other hand...
"Mind if I join you?" McCoy gestured at the seat next to Hunter, flashing her his most charming smile. The reporter smiled back and picked up the manicure set that was occupying the seat, making room for the doctor to sit.
"Well, how do you like your first trip into deep space, Miss Hunter?" he asked conversationally.
"Rather boring at the moment," she answered with a small frown directed at Kirk, who quickly turned his attention to the chess board. "He's avoiding me."
"Now why would he want to do a thing like that?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I guess he just doesn't like answering probing questions." Hunter met McCoy's gaze head-on. "I'm just trying to do my job. Can't he see that?"
The doctor smiled again. "Sometimes," he drawled, "people avoid questions because they don't know the answers."
Hunter frowned again, then quickly smoothed out her expression. "What do you mean?"
This time, McCoy shrugged. "Oh, nothin' really. Just, maybe you're asking the wrong person."
Hunter stared at him a moment. "He is in charge of this mission, isn't he?"
She thought about that one for a moment, then leaned forward to ask softly, "Who's really in charge?"
McCoy glanced first at the back of Ras's head, then at the chess players, and finally at Gabler, who was still snoring in the rear of the shuttle. Satisfied that no one was paying them any attention, at least not openly, he leaned toward Hunter. "You're lookin' at him."
"You?" she squeaked, then lowered her voice when T'Sidra turned her head at the sound. "You?" Hunter repeated more softly. "I thought you said you were just an old country doctor."
"Nothin' wrong with your memory," McCoy muttered, then continued in a whisper that just managed to carry to Kirk's ears, "Officially, I work for Starfleet Medical, but in reality, I'm one of Nogura's special assistants. You know how it is; the doctorin' gives me a good cover..."
"I see. So you're not really a doc--"
"Oh, I'm a doctor all right. I have to do a little practicin' to keep up the pretense. I'm supposed to be Admiral Kirk's private physician. But that just means I have to patch him up every time he gets himself into another brawl. Otherwise..." Again, he shrugged.
"Do all Starfleet admirals have private physicians?"
"Sure. Cushiest job in the fleet...with plenty of time left over for...other duties."
"Such as working as one of Admiral Nogura's special assistants?"
"Well..." McCoy hesitated modestly. "To tell you the truth, darlin', I'm his chief special assistant."
"I see. And Admiral Kirk?"
"Window dressin'," McCoy snorted. "His reputation draws their attention, and if they're watchin' him, they won't notice what I'm up to. But you, darlin', keep your pretty blue eyes on me if you want to see some fancy, fast-talkin'."
"You're going to talk that director or whatever he is into letting Caren go?"
"Sure, why not? It works every time."
Hunter frowned again. "What every time?"
"You know that mess with the Klingons? I just barely managed to pull Jim's acorns out of the fire on that one. There was that time a few years ago when the Romulans were planning an invasion of Earth. I convinced them we had three times the ships in the fleet that we really have and stopped a war...and then there was the little matter of the Organians."
"Yeah. The official version is that they're the ones who prevented all-out war with the Klingons?"
"Official version?" She leaned even closer. "What's the real story?"
McCoy glanced at Kirk, who had one hand over his mouth and his eyes closed. The doctor turned back to the reporter. "Well, they're really just this meek little group of people on an out-of-the-way planet. If I hadn't shown up when I did, the Klingons would've wiped them out, and used Jim and Spock to clean up the mess."
"You convinced the Klingons that the Organians were some kind of threat to them?"
"Yep." He sat back in his seat. "By the time I finished talkin', those Klingons were shaking in their boots, dead-certain that those meek little people could kill them all without liftin' a finger. You should've seen the looks on their faces."
"You've never told anyone the truth?"
"Never. Until now." He looked at her in sudden concern. "Now, you wouldn't repeat anythin' I've told you, would you, darlin'? Remember, this was all in confidence. If it leaked out, I'd be in real hot water with Nogura. He'd bust me down from chief executive assistant so fast, it'd make your pretty head spin. Not to mention what the Klingons might do to me."
Hunter smiled at him innocently. "Don't worry, Doctor McCoy. I won't breathe a word of it to anyone."
"Call me Leonard, darlin'."
McCoy caught a choking sound from behind them and turned just in time to see Kirk disappearing into the head, a stoic T'Sidra remaining in her seat calmly contemplating the chess game. The doctor frowned and stood up.
"I'd better go check on Jim. Sounds like he's having trouble with that mutant pneumocholeptera virus he picked up on Wrigley's a few years ago."
McCoy leaned down to her. "Don't repeat that either, please. It's very embarrassin' for him when it gets out. Plays havoc with his reputation with the ladies."
Her eyes widened. "You mean it's a vener--"
"Shhhhh, not a word, darlin'. Remember. You promised."
"Oh, don't worry." She drew an imaginary "x" across her chest. Cross my heart."
"I knew I could count on you." He headed for the rear of the shuttle.
"I ought to kill you!" Kirk lit into his friend in a harsh whisper. "What was that crap you were slinging out there?"
McCoy grinned and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. "Just a little harmless misinformation."
"A little...harmless...mis...information." Kirk rubbed his hand down across his face. "Bones, you're going to be the death of me yet. If Nogura ever gets wind of what you've been up to--"
McCoy's grin widened. "I wouldn't worry about Nogura if I were you, Jim. Just don't mention Wrigley's next time you try to pick up a woman." With that parting shot, he returned to his seat next to Hunter.
AT THE ORION BARRIER
"Permission to come aboard?"
"Permission granted, Admiral." The younger man's face split in a wide grin, and he held out his hand in greeting. "Welcome aboard, Jim."
Kirk grinned back. "Good to see you again, Dave." He sobered. "I just wish that for once it would be under more pleasant circumstances."
"Yeah," Dave Bailey agreed. "Do you think he really has her?"
"That's what our intelligence sources indicate."
Bailey sighed. "Even she doesn't deserve that."
"No, she doesn't." Kirk stepped to one side to allow the rest of his crew to join them as they exited the shuttle into the huge bay aboard the U.S.S. Nelson. "You remember Doctor McCoy, don't you, Dave?"
Bailey grinned again and once more held out his hand. "Sure do. Good to see you, Doc."
McCoy returned the handshake. "Yeah, me too, Dave. You've done well."
"With a little help from my friends," the commander agreed, casting a quick glance at Kirk. "How'd he rope you into this mission?"
McCoy shrugged. "You know Jim."
"I certainly do," Bailey laughed easily. "But--" He broke off at the sight of the brunette who stepped out of the shuttle with a hand of assistance from Gabler. "Who's the woman?" he asked.
Kirk groaned. "Haven't we had this conversation before?"
Before he could finish, Hunter stepped forward, hand outstretched, mouth wide with her most disarming smile. "Hi, I'm Kitty Hunter, Intergalactic News Service. And you're?"
"Commander Dave Bailey."
"Oh." She sounded disappointed. "I was hoping the cap--"
"Dave is the captain of the Nelson," Kirk interrupted.
"Oh!" Hunter brightened again and reached to snake her arm through one of Bailey's. "Tell me, Commander Bailey, do you think you could show me to my quarters? Then perhaps you could allow me to send a subspace message back to Earth. I have a preliminary report to file with Intergalactic."
Bailey glanced at Kirk, who nodded and mouthed the words, through Nogura's office. "I'd be happy to escort you to our best guest suite," the commander told Hunter with a smile, turning her towards the door while gesturing to a crewman to bring what was obviously the reporter's gear. "You just record your report and give the disk to me. I'll have my communications officer send it off right..." His voice trailed off as they disappeared through the doorway. Kirk's gaze followed them, then he exchanged grins with McCoy.
"Yeah, poor Dave. But lucky you."
ABOARD THE NELSON
Kirk stood to the right and slightly behind the command chair of the Nelson bridge. It was the same spot usually occupied by Spock back on the Enterprise. The admiral turned his head and met the amused gaze of Leonard McCoy. "Anything wrong, Jim?" the doctor asked.
Kirk shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, then shrugged. "No, not really. It's just..." He let the sentence trail off, unfinished, then exchanged an understanding smile with Dave Bailey.
"Doesn't feel right, does it, Admiral?" the commander asked..."not to be sitting here."
Kirk shrugged again. "I'll get used to it." He grinned sheepishly. "You'd think I would have by now. It's been a while."
"True," Bailey agreed. "But you've been on Earth most of that time, at the Academy. It's not the same when you're actually on the bridge of a ship."
"No, it isn't," Kirk acknowledged.
"Approaching Xantharus Four," the helmsman informed them. "ETA in four and one-half minutes."
Four minutes, twenty-nine point six three seconds. Kirk could hear the more precise estimation in his head and found himself wishing the Vulcan were with him. He had brought a good team, and Bailey's crew was second only to the one Kirk had led himself as captain of the Enterprise. Still, he always felt more confident with Spock at his side.
"Slow to one-quarter impulse power," Bailey ordered.
"One-quarter impulse. Aye, sir," the helmsman replied.
All eyes were trained on the viewscreen, watching as a small dot gradually grew in size until it became clearly a class-M planet, with its typical pattern of water, land and vegetation, along with occasional clouds sweeping over all.
"Xantharus Four," Bailey said.
"Yes," Kirk acknowledged.
"Couldn't be," McCoy said from his place at Bailey's other shoulder. At a quizzical look from Kirk, he added, "It's too damned peaceful looking. That couldn't be the headquarters for those Orion bastards."
Kirk shook his head. "No, Bones. I assure you, that's Xantharus Four, and that--" he pointed at the screen as a large, land mass, much of it covered with desert, came into view "--right there, in the middle of that continent is Gracchos." McCoy noted the dark patch that denoted an urban area.
"That's where they are?" McCoy asked.
"Most likely," Kirk answered. "That's where the Alliance headquarters are, and it's where the director can usually be found."
"So that's where Caren is?"
Kirk turned at the sound of the feminine voice. He'd been so intent on the viewscreen that he hadn't heard the turbolift doors open. He frowned. "Probably," he admitted.
"So when do we go get her?" Hunter asked.
"Oh, no," Kirk objected. "We're going to get her. You're staying right here on the Nelson where it's safe."
Hunter shook her head. "No. I'm going down there with you. I can't report on what's happening if I'm stuck up here."
Kirk groaned and rolled his eyes. "Here we go again," he muttered, then gave Hunter a stern gaze. "All right, Ms. Hunter. You can go along, but..." He pointed a finger at her. "You stay with us at all times. No wandering off on your own, no matter what. And, you follow orders. The minute you don't, I'm going to have you beamed back up here. Understand?"
"I understand," Hunter said. "So, when do we go?"
"Right now." Kirk headed for the turbolift. "Let's go, Bones."
Bailey turned the conn over to his science officer, an Andorian named Thiel, and joined them.
Moments later, they were in the transporter room, Kirk having a final few private words with Bailey, while McCoy and Hunter waited on the transporter platform, a holocam unit sitting on an extra pad.
"You'll be ready?" Kirk asked the commander in a tone pitched low enough that no one else could here.
"We'll be ready," Bailey acknowledged, then shook hands with Kirk, and took over the transporter controls as Kirk stepped up onto the platform.
"Energize," the admiral said, and the three figures and holocam disappeared in a sparkle of light.
They materialized in a darkened alley across a dingy street from the official headquarters of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium and its director. Actually, it was a front for a number of illegal businesses, but the Orions maintained the building as though it were the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets. Lush plants, trititanium gates, automated sentries, gushing fountains...the trappings all added to the deception.
Kirk started across the street at a brisk walk, McCoy and Hunter hurrying to keep up. "You're just going to walk in?" McCoy demanded.
"You have a better idea?" Kirk answered without breaking stride. "'If you do, I'd be happy to hear it. Otherwise, we'll follow my original plan."
Hunter glanced from one man to the other. "I thought..."
"Never mind," McCoy answered brusquely. "Just do what he says."
The reporter clamped her lips shut, and followed them into the building. Ignoring the various Orions scattered inside, Kirk made his way to the nearest stairwell and began to climb. As he made his way up the flights of stairs, a number of guards joined him on each side.
A few minutes later, he and his "honor guards" emerged into a deserted corridor, McCoy and Hunter following moments later, both fighting to catch their breaths after the climb, and trying not to panic at the sight of additional "honor guards" behind them.
"You'll be the death of me yet," McCoy protested.
"Maybe you need to work on getting yourself into shape," Kirk suggested mildly.
"Now where?" Hunter demanded, brushing a damp curl from her forehead.
"That way." One of the Orions pointed down the corridor.
Kirk, McCoy and Hunter quickly strode down the corridor, coming to a sudden halt when a door opened and a big, green Orion stepped into the corridor.
"Admiral Kirk," the new Orion said almost genially. "Won't you come inside? We've been expecting you."
"So I see," remarked Kirk casually.
"Shit," McCoy mumbled. Kirk flashed him a warning look and followed the Orion without comment.
When Kirk entered the room, he found himself face-to-face with one of the most hunted beings in the galaxy. The director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium was every bit the personification of evil he had been described as. Clad all in black, including his cowled robe and a mask hiding his face, the only relief was in the stark whiteness of his hands that played absently with a long, curved blade and the small portions of his face visible from around the mask. His imposing height added to his aura of danger, and even Kirk had to suppress a shiver in his presence.
For long moments, no one spoke, then the Director carefully placed his blade on the table that dominated the room and turned to face Kirk.
"Welcome to Gracchos," he said, the softness of his voice belying his nature. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
Kirk met his gaze unflinchingly. "You have something that doesn't belong to you. We want it back."
The director lifted his hooded head, as though in surprise, although Kirk knew the astonishment was feigned. "You want the whore? But why? Surely there are plenty more where she comes from."
Kirk bit back the retort that sprang instinctively to his lips and instead merely shrugged. "Her employer requests her return. We're simply here to oblige him."
"So...she has no value for you...personally."
"Why should she?"
"She came to Gracchos before...with you."
"But not at my invitation."
"If she means so little to you, then I suggest you depart from here and leave her to me."
Kirk's mouth tightened involuntarily, but he forced his lips to relax. "I would, but, as I said, her employer requires her return."
"And you're merely his envoy?"
"Something like that."
The director turned away from him and stared out the window for a moment, then turned back. "We will discuss this further at a later time, but first, we must dine. I can't have you thinking I'm a poor host."
"We're not hungry," McCoy protested.
The director stiffened. "Your underling dares to object?"
Kirk glared at McCoy for a second, then turned to the director. "He didn't mean it that way. It's just that we'd like some assurance that the woman is all right before we indulge in your hospitality."
"Assurance? Is my word not enough?"
Again Kirk shrugged. "For me, yes. But my associate is not so trusting." He offered a smile. "Let's indulge him, shall we?"
The director hesitated for a moment, then stretched his arm out in a gesture to one of his men, who crossed the room to activate a small viewscreen. Kirk half-clenched his teeth at the sight, then remembered and forced his jaw to relax, swallowing to contain the rage that threatened to take control of him.
On the screen, a woman lay curled in a ball on the bare, cold, concrete floor of a cell that looked no more than six feet square. There was a tiny window so high up one wall, that it's light did little more than keep the cell from total darkness. The woman's clothing was in shreds, and she shivered from the cold, or the dampness, or her own fear. It made no difference. The shiver was the only movement she made, other than the slight rise and fall of her barely covered breasts from her shallow breathing.
"My God!" McCoy hissed. "Jim, we've got to get her out of there, now!"
Kirk silenced him with a look, and swallowed again to hold back the nausea that rose in his throat. Her skin was covered with bruises than ranged from the purple of new ones to the yellow-green of those almost faded, and her blonde hair was matted with dirt, sweat and God only knew what else.
Kirk swallowed again, trying to regain control, and turned to the director. Something seemed to snap within him. "Release her," he demanded in a deceptively quiet voice.
"You order me?"
Kirk took a step closer to the larger man. "You heard me. Release her--now."
"And if I don't?"
"Just do it!"
The director eyed him coldly for a moment, then gestured to one of the huge guards who ringed the room. "Bring her here," he ordered, and the henchman moved to obey. "As previously arranged," the director added, and the other man nodded once in understanding.
Kirk continued to glare at the director, who gestured toward the table that was rapidly filling with a variety of what normally would be tempting dishes from a number of worlds throughout the galaxy. But Kirk knew he'd gag if he attempted to eat from any of them.
"Please, Admiral, won't you join me?"
Kirk shook his head. "As Doctor McCoy said, we're not hungry."
"Well, I am," Kitty Hunter protested and moved to take a seat at the table. One of the director's henchmen moved to block her approach, but stepped back at a signal from the man in black. The reporter sat and reached for a brightly colored piece of fruit that smelled deliciously sweet. "I assume this is safe to eat?" she asked while holding the delicacy inches from her mouth."
"Completely," the director answered. "Enjoy."
Hunter bit into the fruit, her eyes widening in delight at the taste and chewed slowly, savoring the flavor.
Suddenly, the door slammed open, and the Orion who had left the room moments earlier entered carrying a huge, covered silver platter. He sat it in the middle of the table, directly in front of Hunter, and removed the cover with a flourish. Hunter spit out the fruit she was eating and began to scream, while Kirk and McCoy both swallowed convulsively to hold back the bile that was rising in their throats.
Sitting squarely in the center of the silver platter was the once lovely head of Caren Hollis, features now twisted into a travesty of her previous beauty. Although her death had obviously come swiftly, Kirk knew it hadn't been without pain.
With Hunter's screams ringing in his ears, Kirk was unable to continue the charade a second longer. He bit down hard on the "tooth" that protruded slightly higher than its neighbors, and sudden chaos broke out in the room.
Dave Bailey and a dozen Starfleet security men materialized, weapons already drawn and backed the Orion guards against the wall.
The Director grabbed for the blade that still rested on the table and swung his arm as though to throw it in Kirk's direction. Before he could finish the movement, however, Bailey raised his phaser and sent a lethal burst of energy into the huge Orion.
Kitty Hunter screamed even louder as the director's body disintegrated before their eyes. Before anyone else could react, Bailey raised his communicator and barked into it, "Beam us up, now!"
In seconds, they were all in the transporter room of the Nelson. Bailey quickly made his way to the transporter console and gave orders to return to Federation territory at maximum warp.
Hunter was still screaming. Kirk grabbed her shoulders and shook her, once. "Will you shut up?" he spit out between bloodless lips. She bit back another scream in surprise and stared at him from eyes that seemed to fill her white face.
"Take it easy, Jim," Bailey protested, slipping a comforting arm around Hunter's shoulders. "Let her alone."
Kirk stared at him in surprise, then turned away to stare at the blank wall as the commander led the woman from the transporter room.
"Jim?" Kirk looked back at McCoy. "Are you okay?"
Kirk took a deep breath, then let it out slowly in a shaky sigh. "Yeah, Bones, I'm okay." He shook his head. "Damn it! You saw what they did to her!"
"She didn't deserve that," Kirk insisted. "No matter what, she didn't deserve that."
"No," McCoy agreed. "No one deserves that."
"Except maybe that bastard."
"He's dead now, Jim. He won't hurt anyone else."
"Right. He's dead." He looked at McCoy with tired, pain-filled eyes. "But I can't help but wonder who'll take his place."
"Come on, Bones. I promise you'll like it here," Jim Kirk told his friend as they approached a small tavern. "They have the thickest steaks in Iowa, and the best brandy."
"Which isn't saying much," McCoy grumbled as they stepped into the dimly lit building. "I don't know why I let you talk me into coming here in the first place."
"Because I sat through the entire Series with you, so you owe me one."
"I thought you owed me...for that miss--" McCoy broke off at the pained look on Kirk's face. The admiral sure was taking a long time getting over the death of someone he kept insisting he didn't even really like.
Of course, McCoy admitted to himself, liking didn't really have anything to do with it. This was the same sense of responsibility that made Jim Kirk grieve so intensely for each crewman lost during the original five-year mission of the Enterprise, as well as the aborted second mission and the tragedy at Serenidad. It was part of what made Kirk such a good leader, and much of what kept him so lonely. It hurt enough to lose just another crewman. When it was someone you genuinely cared for...
"Hey, why so gloomy?" Kirk demanded with a grin, obviously determined to have a good time...if it killed them both.
McCoy smiled back as they took their seats at an empty table. "No reason. Bring on those steaks, and let's sample that fantastic Iowa brandy."
"Actually," Kirk confided in an undertone, "the brandy's not from Iowa; it's just served here." He lifted an arm to wave at the bartender. "Hey, Joe! How about two steaks, rare, and a bottle of your best brandy."
The bartender approached their table with a welcoming smile. "Jim Kirk, what are you doing back here? I thought you were living in San Francisco these days. An admiral, aren't you?"
Kirk shrugged. "We're on vacation, taking care of some family business. Joe Tate, meet a good friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy."
Tate held out a hand to shake McCoy's. "Nice to meet you, Doc. Any friend of Jim's..."
"Same here," McCoy clasped the other man's hand. "If your steaks and brandy are as good as he claims, you'll have a friend for life."
"Welcome to Riverside, friend," Tate countered before heading for the bar.
Kirk and McCoy glanced once at the giant holovid screen playing over the bar, but finding nothing of interest, settled back in their chairs to talk.
"Wonder what ever happened to Ms. Hunter?" McCoy offered conversationally.
"I haven't the slightest idea. She hasn't shown up on an Intergalactic newscast since we got back." Kirk frowned. "Bones, about that report she filed. Nogura said there were some things in there--"
"Aw, don't worry about it, Jim-boy. I knew the admiral--not to mention Starfleet Legal--would never let it see the light of day. Your reputation's safe."
"Yes, but exactly what did you tell her about--"
"Good evening." The smooth, feminine tones caught their attention at once. "This is Kitty Hunter, reporting to you live from the Riverside Civic Center where today the circus came to town..."
Kirk and McCoy stared at the screen a moment, then looked at each other, wide grins spreading slowly across their faces that dissolved into uncontrolled laughter just as Joe Tate arrived with their brandy.
"Hey," the bartender protested. "Did I miss anything?"
Kirk shook his head. "Not really." He laughed again. "Just someone getting their just rewards."
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