Donna S. Frelick
James T. Kirk pushed through the crowded corridors of Starfleet Headquarters with the single-minded determination of someone who knows hes late. The throng parted in front of him like waves before the prow of a ship, reforming in little eddies behind him to comment on the maverick Starfleet admiral who only recently had come out of a court-martial with a captains rank and command of the finest new ship in the fleet.
Kirk ignored the stares and the murmuring; after years of haunting the halls of Command, he was almost used to them. He checked the chronometer in the corridor and frowned. The captain increased his pace. The Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet was not a man who liked to be kept waiting, and Kirk had his own reasons for wanting to make sure this meeting went off without a hitch.
As he turned the corner and headed into the home stretch, Kirks race against the clock hit an unexpected hurdle. He sighed and gave up any hope of making it to Admiral Cartwrights office on time.
The former captain of the starship Excelsior folded his arms across his chest. "Well, if it isnt Starfleets favorite starship captain," Captain Styles drawled. "Im surprised to see youre still here. Is Command afraid to let you loose with your new toyor arent you happy with the assignments theyve offered you?"
"My orders are no concern of yours, Styles." Kirk made as if to step around the taller man, but Styles moved again to block his path with his riding crop.
"Oh, of course, excuse me. The great Captain Kirk writes his own orders," Styles remarked acidly. "And, lets see, when last I checked they included sabotage, hijacking a starship, inciting fellow officers to mutiny, entering a forbidden sector of space and bringing the Federation to the brink of war with the Klingons. Quite an impressive record."
The Excelsior had been the jewel in Starfleets crown until the old Enterprise had left herand her foppish captainsputtering uselessly behind in SpaceDock. Kirk hadnt meant the act as a personal affront; as Styles pointed out, the sabotage of the Excelsior was only one of many crimes Kirk had committed to reunite the body and soul of his executive officer and friend. The risks he had taken had been more than worthwhileSpock had been restored to him. But Captain Styles wasnt likely to forget the insult to his ship any time soon, especially since after the incident hed been relieved of command of the Excelsior.
"Frankly, Im surprised theyd give you any kind of ship after the stunts youve pulled," Styles continued. "The brass must not think much of this new Enterprise if theyd give her to the man who ditched the old one."
Kirk simply smiled. "You forgot the part where I saved the planet."
"Oh, yes, the alien probe." Styles lips drew back in a bitter smirk. "Kirk rides gallantly to the rescue of Planet Earth in a hijacked Klingon cruiser while the rest of us poor mortals wait out the crisis in stasis."
Seeking shelter in that part of a starship normally reserved for storage of tissue samples and the occasional dead body wasnt exactly dignified. But since the probe was sucking the energy out of every ship in SpaceDock and disrupting the ecology of an entire planet, Styles choice for survival could hardly be called cowardice. But some had...
Kirk didnt blame him for his bitterness. More importantly, Kirk didnt have the time to trade insults. "Captain Styles, if you dont mind, Im on my way to see the C-in-C. Id hate to have to tell him you delayed me."
"Oh, by all means, Captain Kirk." Styles finally stepped aside and let Kirk pass. "I wouldnt presume to keep you from your destiny."
The officers unpleasant laughter followed Kirk down the corridor as he made his escape. Why do I have the feeling he knows something I dont? Kirk asked himself.
The encounter improved neither Kirks mood nor his timing; he arrived in Cartwrights office a full ten minutes late. But his luck hadnt run out completelythe admiral was still closeted with an earlier appointment. The captain had time to take a breath before the door to the inner office opened and a slightly harried adjutant exited. Cartwright followed at a more deliberate pace. In all his years in Starfleet, Kirk had never known a C-in-C to be in a hurry. The top brass expected others to hustle for them.
Cartwright turned to Kirk with a handshake and an apologetic smile. "Jimsorry to keep you waiting. Come in." He took a seat behind his desk and indicated a chair for Kirk.
The captain remained standing for a moment, his gaze held by the spectacular view of the sprawling Starfleet complex and the San Francisco skyline that could be seen through the transparent aluminum wall behind the desk. The complex still showed evidence of the destructive power of the probe; here and there robodozers moved mountains of debris and construction crews labored to repair buildings damaged by the hurricane-force winds and flooding.
"Ive always admired your view, Admiral," Kirk said finally.
"You couldve had one just like it, Jim, if youd behaved yourself."
The captain grinned and shaved a few years off his no-longer-boyish face. "Ive got what I want, thank you, sir."
"Yes, you fell in it and came out smelling like a rose this time," Cartwright laughed. "Just remember your friends may not always be around to put in a good word for you."
"Surely youre not considering retirement yet?" Kirk asked as he settled into the chair beside Cartwrights desk.
"Well, I damn sure ought to be. Ive got a couple of years on you, and youre no spring chicken."
"Admiral Nogura was in his eighties when he retired," Kirk pointed out. "And then served on the Federation Council almost another eight years before retiring to his stone garden in Sendai."
"Ah, but the Old Man was no mere mortal, as we both know," the admiral replied. "So. Hows the new ship checking out?"
"Judging from my captain of engineerings level of grumbling, Id say hes just about got all the gremlins out of her. Shes just about ready for a real drive, and not just around the neighborhood." Kirk watched the admirals face expectantly.
Cartwright would not be rushed. "And the crew?"
"Couldnt ask for better," Kirk said. "I had to do a little arm-twisting to get McCoy to agree to sign up for another tour. Uhuras coming along. Sos Chekov. Sulus gone to the Cooper. Of course, most of the crew is still a little green..."
"The older we get, the greener they look, Jim," Cartwright laughed. "But never mind. I take it youre ready for some real orders, and not some only ship in the quadrant nonsense from Bob Bennett?"
"Ready and willing, sir." Here it comes at last, Kirk thought.
Cartwright got to his feet and paced slowly down the length of the room. Kirks heart sank. He recognized the signsthis was going to be bad news.
"Theres a nasty situation developing on Epsilon Crucis Four," the admiral began. "Some bad blood between neighboring states. One side is accusing the other of using biowarfare and the two governments are close to all-out war."
"Epsilon Crucis Four...thats Sarva, Councillor Harrkets home planet?"
"It is, and thats the problem," Cartwright answered. "Harrket was very influential on the Federation Council, quite the political operator. He managed to keep the Peacemaker contingent in line by sheer force of personality, I guess. Since his death, the dynamics of Council politics have been highly unstable. A lot of the Council members still look to Sarvas representative for some form of leadership, but that poor soul is in no position to offer it with his home planet approaching Armageddon."
"And the votes on admission of new planets come up...when, in four months?" Kirk mused.
The captain shrugged. "Well, it makes good cocktail conversation, but whats this to do with Starfleet? Sounds more like a job for Diplomatic Services."
"Indeed it is," Cartwright replied. "Since the warring parties have asked for Federation help, the Diplomatic Service is dispatching a special envoy to Sarva to mediate the dispute and make sure the Councils ducks are all in a row for the admissions votes." The admiral paused. "Your job is to take him there."
Kirk stared at Cartwright in disbelief. "Admiral, any ship in Starfleet could do this job and you know it," he said hotly. "Are you seriously going to assign a brand-new Constitution-class starship to babysit a Diplomatic Service table-jockey?"
"Need I remind you, Captain, that you are in no position to choose your assignments?" Cartwright snapped. "Youre lucky youre not commanding a desk in the lower-level operations section. Youre technically still on probationand there are plenty of people in both Starfleet and Federation headquarters whod like to see you take just one more step out of line."
Kirk was well aware that Captain Styles wasnt the only one who resented his being given command of the new Enterprise. He was convinced there was something about the bureaucratic mind that simply could not tolerate independent action, no matter how well it turns out.
He took another approach. "Admiral, this is an insult to my crew. Ive got some of the best people in Starfleet on that ship. Some of them have given up a lot to stay with me. Theres no reason they should suffer because Im on some bureaucrats hit list."
"Your crew is part of the reason we picked the Enterprise for this job," the admiral said. "Since a medical problem is at the heart of this dispute, Doctor McCoy is going to be invaluable." Cartwright put a conciliatory hand on Kirks shoulder. "Dont take it so hard, Jim. Given your career of late, things could be a lot worse. Ill try to dig up something more interesting for you before you get back."
Kirk nodded. He could see this was an argument he wasnt going to win. "Thank you, sir," he said, resigned to it. "Well get your envoy where hes going. But once weve got him home safe and sound, I want the hottest ticket in town for the Enterprise."
"Ill try my best, Jim. Now, if youll excuse me, I have a few papers to push."
Kirk headed for the door, but slowed and finally turned before reaching it. "I guess I have you to thank for having any command at all."
Cartwright dismissed the thanks with a smile and a wave of his hand. "You still have a few friends left around here, Jim," he said. "Just dont pull the rug out from under us, okay?"
"Ill try to behave myself in future, Admiral," Kirk promised drily. Then the captain of the Enterprise turned and set off for his ship, his smile fading as he wondered how to break the news of their less than glamorous assignment to his waiting crew.
As the captain of the Enterprise was ending his meeting, in another part of the vast Intergalactic Government Complex, the Special Envoy to Sarva was just beginning hers. The topic of conversation was the very officer who had just left Starfleet Headquarters for his ship.
"Frankly, Elena, Im not too happy about the ship Starfleet has offered for this mission," the Federation Director of Interplanetary Relations said with a frown. Jarawhal Chandra Singh lowered his stout body into the chair behind his desk. "Admiralrather CaptainKirk is not exactly the most predictable character." The director paused and chuckled to himself. "Though I must admit hes never dull."
Ambassador Elena Christopher smiled across the desk at her rumpled mentor. "So I hear. Actually, Im looking forward to finally meeting Starfleets bad boy after all these years." Her eyes, the same pale gray as her diplomatic tunic, sparkled with private amusement.
The director stopped fidgeting with the pile of data tapes on his desk. "Now, Elena, you just watch yourself," he said, waggling a warning finger in her direction. "Kirks reputation with women is just as bad as his reputation for following orders."
Christopher scowled affectionately in return. "Oh, stop clucking. Imwell, never mind how old I am, but Im certainly old enough to take care of myself."
"I know perfectly well how old you are," Singh replied. "I was there the day you were born. And the day you entered the Diplomatic Service. Im the one who got you the job in the first place, as I recall."
"Yes, and youll never let me forget it either, even if it was twenty years ago." Unable to resist teasing him, Christopher smiled wickedly. "Besides, I hear the captain goes for the young, sexy, alien princess type. Thats hardly my style."
"Oh, yes, you with the blond hair and the beautiful face, Im sure he will find you repulsive," Singh countered. "Anyway, you have other things to think about."
"Im sure the job on Sarva will keep me busy enough," Christopher agreed, her smile dissolving. She had seen the kind of madness that was drawing Sarva into war before. A memory, poised to intrude on her conscious mind, was savagely repressed.
"There is also this." The director took a sheet of flimsy from his desk and flipped it into her hands.
Christopher knew without looking that it was a job description. Shed been expecting this. "But, Jari, weve been over this before. Im perfectly happy with the job I have now."
"Elena, you are a twenty-year veteran of Diplomatic Services with a list of special distinctions as long as your arm," Singh argued. "How long do you think you can keep refusing positions before you lose all opportunity for advancement? You need to move on. Zipping around the galaxy may be fun, but its doing your career no good. We need your experienceand your good sensehere at headquarters."
He indicated the packet in her hands. "Now this is a very interesting position with a lot of potential for doing some real good. You wont find a better scope of work in the entire Diplomatic Services. Promise me youll take time to consider it on this trip."
Christopher sighed. He was right, of course; it was time to hang up her wings and come down to Earth. But, God, to think Id have to sit and stare at these four walls all day! "Okay, Jari, Ill think about it." Singh looked as if he didnt believe her. "ReallyI promise."
"Good. Now are you all set to go?" He rose and began walking her to the door.
She laughed at his fussiness but decided against teasing him about it. He was the closest thing to family she had left, so she indulged him. "Were scheduled to leave at 1630 today." She gave him a hug. "Ill see you in a few weeks."
Christopher turned back and caught a glimpse of the older mans expression of pride and concern before he had time to hide it successfully. "If I didnt know you were the best person for this job..." he began.
She put a hand on his arm. "I know," she said. "Ill be careful."
The announcement of their mission to the Enterprises senior officers had not gone well. Only Spock was keeping his opinion to himself as Kirk and the others made their way through the business-like bustle of the ship to the aft transporter room.
"Taxi service for the Diplomatic Services!" Chekov complained. "And to the dullest planet in the Federation!" His accent became more impenetrable the angrier he got. "No doubt there vwill be a small army of dried-up old apparatchiks yelling, My cabin is too small, Mister Chekov! Im not used to this type of computer, Mister Chekov! What? The replicator is not programmed for Arcturian slime puffs, Mister Chekov? I thought Id been promoted beyond this kind of duty, Captain."
"I havent had time to look over the duty roster for a protocol officer, Pavel," Kirk said. "Until I can find some lowly ensign with a talent for making difficult people happy, Ill just have to rely on your charm."
"Ill look over the duty roster myself, Captain, and make some recommendations," the Russian grumbled. As Third Officer of the Enterprise, what else could he do? Tell his captain no?
"Be my guest," Kirk answered.
Kirk knew his chief medical officer was just as unhappy, but he doubted anything he could say would mollify Leonard McCoy. "Im with you, Chekov," McCoy said. "This is the finest ship and the best-led crew in Starfleet. I cant believe all that talent is going to be spent herding a bunch of blasted table-thumpers."
"I suppose youve forgotten the Trill delegation we had to deal with? Or the Cygnetian amazon women? Or that the time we had a delegation from Diplomatic Services on board and you ended up with a knife in your back?" McCoy told Kirk. "And dont try to tell me that trip to Babel was different. We may not have enemy agents to deal with this time, but youre still gonna need eyes in the back of your head!"
Just before they reached the transporter room, Kirk stopped and said sharply, "I dont like it any more than you do, Doctor, but those are our orders." His voice was low enough that none of the crewmen in the corridor looked twice, but his tone made it clear the discussion was ended. "Now, I expect youall of youto show our guests the courtesy and respect they are due."
The doors to the transporter room opened to admit them as Kirk looked up at Spock, who had yet to offer any kind of comment. "That goes for you, too, Spock," he added unnecessarily.
The Vulcan blinked once. "Of course, Captain."
Captain of Engineering Montgomery Scott was already in his place at the transporter control panel, fine-tuning the control settings. "Starfleet Command says they have one standing by to beam up, Captain."
Kirk turned to him, puzzled. "One, Scotty? Are you sure?"
"Aye, sir. I just spoke with them five minutes ago."
"I guess that means were still waiting for the rest of them," Kirk said, wondering with some irritation how long that would delay their departure. He sighed. "Well, lets get this one aboard, at least. Carry on, Captain Scott."
The others waited impatiently while the captain of Engineering made the necessary adjustments to bring their passenger on board. The transporter beam established itself in the center of the platform and gradually a Human form materialized in its midst. When the beam had completed its work and switched off, Elena Christopher was left standing on the pad, her smile at the ready.
The effect on the group assembled to greet the special envoy could not have been greater if the president of the Federation Council had emerged out of the beam. Kirk felt the rumble as their carefully constructed assumptions about diplomats collapsed, but he tried hard not to show it. From his face, no one would have known he expected the same "dried up old apparatchiks" that Chekov had describedand no one could have guessed the effect the contradiction of his own prejudice was having on his heart rate.
The special envoy stepped gracefully off the platform and extended a hand to Kirk. "Elena Christopher, Captain. Permission to come aboard?"
Kirk grasped the ambassadors hand and answered her smile with one of his own. "Permission granted, Ambassador. Welcome aboard the Enterprise."
Only after he had introduced his officers did he think to ask, "Will your staff be beaming aboard separately?"
Christopher laughed affably. "Im afraid Im all there is, Captain. I prefer to work alone."
Well, theres another assumption gone, Kirk thought. If this keeps up, Ill be revising my estimates of Klingons before long. "I see," he said at last. "Well, good, then well get under way."
The captain turned to his acting protocol officer, who wasnt doing the best job of hiding his new opinion of the Diplomatic Service. "Mister Chekov, will you escort Ms. Christopher to her quarters? Once youre settled, I hope you will join us for dinner, Ambassador?"
"Id be delighted, Captain." She gave Chekov a nod. "Lead on, Mister Chekov."
Kirk looked around at his spellbound officers. "Well, gentlemen, I believe we all have work to do."
Grinning, McCoy joined Kirk and Spock on their way to the bridge. "Well, Id say this trip is beginning to look up!"
"Werent you the one who was just complaining to me about Federation Diplomatic Services table-thumpers?" Kirk remarked.
"Can I help it if Ive never met a diplomat that didnt set my teeth on edge?" the doctor replied. "Excepting your father, of course, Spock. Ambassador Christopher is something else again."
"Indeed," Spock replied. "The ambassador has an unparalleled record in the Diplomatic Service, including five special citations and the Federation Medal of Honor for her work in negotiating the peace treaty on Stratos. Her reputation in the service is that of someone who prefers field work. She has reportedly refused a number of appointments to Federation Headquarters."
"Something else entirely," McCoy agreed.
Kirk looked at his executive officer with curiosity. "You seem to have followed the ambassadors career rather closely, Captain Spock."
"Not at all, Captain," Spock answered with equanimity. "She is well known in diplomatic circles."
Kirk exchanged a smile with McCoy and waited as the turbolift delivered them smoothly to the bridge. He took his place in the command chair. "Mister Hennessy, I believe we are scheduled for departure at 1630."
"Aye, sir. Commencing departure sequence now."
After the last of the dishes had been cleared away, the group in the senior officers lounge lingered over brandy and coffee. While the conversation took a political turn, Kirk watched the guest of honor with quiet, intense interest. Elena Christopher certainly knew her stuff. She was more than holding her own against Spock, who, with uncharacteristic garrulousness, was putting her knowledge to the test.
"Public opinion has it that the upcoming admissions debates will be among the most acrimonious in recent times," Spock said. "Would you agree with that assessment, Ambassador?"
"Yes, unfortunately, I would, Captain Spock," she replied. "I wouldnt exactly say the Council is in disarray, but certainly its members no longer speak with one voice. And, of course, the Klingons are taking advantage of the situation to win friends among the non-aligned planets."
"I take it Councillor Harrkets influence is missed," Kirk ventured.
"More than you know," Christopher agreed. "Its a bad time to be without his leadership. The problem is that the Sarvans still carry a lot of weight in the Council, and they are waffling dangerously on several key votes."
"Odd that a man like Harrket could be so influential coming from a system a hundred parsecs off the main trade routes," McCoy commented.
"Epsilon Crucis Four was one of the earliest of the Federation-sponsored colonies in that sector," Spock explained. "The colony was established primarily for agricultural and emigration purposes, before the main trade routes settled into their present configuration. Low population density and the cultural norms of the colonists have limited the growth of large cities. Sarva has no natural resources of interest to other systems. In fact, most of the planet is covered with water. The only landmass is the size of Australia."
"Thank you for the lecture, Spock," McCoy interjected. "Its no surprise to me that Sarva has never quite taken off as a colonywhod want to go all the way out there for their forty acres and a mule? But I still say its unusual for someone who comes from that kind of a planet to have as much power as Harrket apparently had."
"You wouldnt think it unusual if you had met Councillor Harrket, Doctor," Christopher said. "He was an extraordinarily gifted statesman. Im sure he would have been heartbroken to have seen what has happened to his planet in the short time since his death."
She knew him, Kirk thought, probably worked with him. This is all personal for her. There was something in the tiny lines that appeared when she smiled, something behind the pale gray eyes that hinted at a great depth of commitment. He felt a few more false assumptions come crashing down.
"Well, Ive read all the briefing tapes, and I still cant get this mess straight," McCoy was saying. "Now, weve got two major political blocsthe Sankiang in the northern part of Sarvas main continent and the Arged in the south, right?"
"That is essentially correct, Doctor, except for some minor, largely autonomous city-states on the coast of the island continent of Dimor," Spock added precisely. "Councillor Harrket was a native of one such city."
McCoy ignored him and continued: "Relations between these two governments are so bad that one is accusing the other of using a biological agent against themthis damarr fever."
"Damarr fever..." Kirk repeated, weighing the exotic syllables in his mind.
"Apparently a local word, meaning shadow," Christopher explained. "It refers to a characteristic pallor associated with the final stages of the disease."
McCoy would not be distracted from his line of inquiry. "What started the fuss between these two countries in the first place?" he insisted. "This was just one big happy colony a hundred years ago."
Christopher smiled sadly. "The two factions formed very early in the colonys history, but Im afraid no one is really sure why the enmity developed," she said. "At any rate, the epidemic is the focus of hostilities now. We wont know much about the actual situation until we can view it for ourselves, but the Argeddans have filed a formal complaint saying that the geographical distribution of the fever along the border with Sankiang directly implicates the Sankianis."
"There have been no cases of the fever outside the border area?" Kirk asked this for clarification, but for some time his mind had been resting only lightly on the subject at hand. He was finding that the merest smile or glance from the other end of the table was enough to nudge his thoughts in another direction entirely.
"None beyond the Argeddan side of the Bakarr River valley, to be specific," Christopher replied. The expression in her eyes when she looked back at him didnt quite match her professional tone. Kirk felt the temperature in the room jump ten degrees.
"But this sounds like a medical problem to me," McCoy protested. "If the Argeds medical establishment hasnt been able to isolate the cause of the illness, why doesnt the Federation just send out a medical research team?"
Christopher was blunt. "The first priority is to keep the two parties from blowing each other to kingdom come until we can resolve the issue, Doctor. The Sankianis deny that the epidemic even existsand youve seen the reports the Argeddans sent to the Federation."
McCoy snorted. "Theres not enough data in those reports to tell whether this is the plague or a bad case of the common cold."
"If the epidemic turns out to be real, the Federation is prepared to send in medical helpas soon as the political situation is stabilized," Christopher said. She smiled winningly at McCoy. "Until then, Doctor, Im afraid you and your staff are it."
"So what else is new?" McCoy muttered.
Trying to follow the conversation on more than one level, Kirk had lost all track of time; only the intercom tones announcing the end of the second watch reminded him of his duties as host.
"Gentlemen, Im sure our guest would be grateful for a little rest after the grilling youve given her tonight," he said. "No doubt there will be plenty of opportunities to continue this discussion at another time."
As the officers pushed back from the table, Kirk turned to Elena Christopher with a slightly self-conscious gallantry. "May I see you to your cabin, Ambassador?"
"Why, thank you, Captain," she accepted. If she thought his offer a little old-fashioned, she gave no sign of it. She walked with him slowly down the corridor as the others bid them goodnight.
"You seem to take your work very seriously," Kirk said conversationally.
"Well, Ive invested twenty-odd years in it," Christopher admitted with a laugh. "I suppose I must enjoy it."
"Your reputation certainly shows it," he said. "Your work must take you away from home a lot." He was fishing; she knew it immediately.
"I have no family, Captain," she said, answering the unspoken question. "I have some long-suffering friends, but Im afraid I rarely get a chance to see them. I guess you could say Im married to the job."
There was no trace of regret in her tone, no hint of defensiveness or expectation of sympathy. Yet her words resonated in Jim Kirk, deep in that place where he locked away his own loneliness. "I think I understand," he said.
"In a way I envy you, Captain," she went on. "You carry your family with youSpock and McCoy and the others."
Kirk smiled. "Weve been together a long time."
"Its not hard for me to see how youve been able to command their loyalty," she told him.
Kirk looked up warily, but nothing in her face indicated she meant to flatter him. Either she was sincere, or she was very, very good at her job.
"For the record," she continued, "Im not one of those at headquarters who believe you should be hung out to dry for helping Spock. I truly admire you for it."
"Spock would have done the same for me," he answered. "Has done as much for me a dozen times."
As they reached her cabin door, she turned to face him. "Look, I realize this is not exactly a plum assignment for you and your crew. But as far as Im concerned, I couldnt have drawn a better ship in Starfleet for this mission."
Her faith in his ship was another surprise. Kirk found that he was genuinely grateful for the unexpected support. Maybe all the headquarters backstabbing had bothered him more than hed been willing to admit. "Thank you, Ambassador," he said. "I think my crew will feel much better about this assignment once theyve met the Federation special envoy herself."
He suddenly realized she was standing quite close, close enough for him to inhale the spicy scent of her perfume with every breath, close enough for him to imagine the softness of her skin under his hand. She seemed in no hurry to move; perhaps she knew the effect she was having on him.
Finally, she smiled, whether in response to his compliment or to a subtler message, Kirk couldnt tell. "Well, it has been a long day," she said. "Goodnight, Captain Kirk."
He nodded. "Goodnight, Ambassador Christopher."
The image of her upturned face and the warmth in those gray eyes stayed with him as he headed back to his own cabin. When he passed the ships communications officer a few minutes later, Kirk was still smiling. He was beginning to think that this diplomatic support mission was just what his new shipand her seasoned captainneeded.
The young ensign sitting beside Commander Nyota Uhura in the F Deck mess hall gazed with rapt attention at a muscular fellow crewman across the room. "You know," she said, her fork poised halfway to her mouth, "I think maybe Engineering should be my next rotation."
Uhura laughed. "Well, I certainly cant offer anything in Communications that would compete with that!"
Ensign Teresa Garcia grinned and turned back to her fruit salad. Garcia was a command officer, fresh out of the Academy. She had only just begun her six-week rotation in Communications, but she felt she already had a sympathetic mentor in Uhura. The communications chief was tolerant and approachable, and she seemed to know everything there was to know about this ship and its unusual crew.
Garcia decided it would be a good time to ask a question that had been on her mind since shed first received her assignment to the Enterprise. "Commander Uhura, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"Oh, hes a little young for me," Uhura dead panned.
The ensign laughed and dismissed the subject of the crewman from Engineering with a small wave. "No, its about this ship. Its a little out of the ordinary to have this many senior officers aboard, isnt it? I mean..." Garcia began to sweat. How exactly am I going to put this? she wondered. "Well, look at Captain Spockhes a captain, but doesnt have his own command? And Mister Chekov, he could have had his own ship by now. And Captain Scott in Engineering..."
"Not to mention a certain commander whos still a comm chief, right, Ensign?" Uhura said with a smile.
Garcia turned the color of her uniform jacket, sure she had destroyed whatever hope shed had of surviving her tour of duty in Communications.
Uhura put a reassuring hand on Garcias arm. "Well, I have to agree with you, Teresa. It is most unusual. In fact, Id say its a situation that doesnt exist anywhere else in Starfleet. Thats because the Enterprises captain is an ex-admiral by the name of James T. Kirk. All of us old-timers have been with him off and on since he first got command of the old Enterprise."
Old is right, Garcia thought. She hadnt been much more than a baby when Kirk received orders for his first five-year mission. Oh, shed read about it in school and later in her Academy classes. In fact, the Enterprise and her legendary captain and crew figured in case studies in almost every class from Strategy and Tactics to Xenobiology. Garcia had mixed feelings about being assigned to a legend. It was intimidating, for one thing. And she couldnt help but wonder if the best days of this captain and his loyal crew might be past.
"Ive even held the center seat of an escort-class vessel for a few years, Ensign. Did you know that? Not many do, and one day I may return to the center seat. But for right now, the captain needed a crew for his new ship, and he asked me...us to come back," Uhura was saying. "For me, thats all it took. Right, Mister Chekov?"
The security chief, tray in hand, pulled back a chair and sat down. "Da. Vwhat are vwe talking about?"
Lieutenant Jeff Hennessy, the new helmsman, also joined them. "Yeah, whats todays mess hall subject?"
"The ensign here was just asking why the Enterprise crew is so top-heavy," Uhura teased.
Garcias embarrassment deepened. Talk about intimidation! Pavel Chekov was just possibly the best navigator in Starfleet, and yet now served as Chief Security Officer and Third Officer. Hed been Executive Officer for a few other ships, and his record was exemplary. He still held some records at Starfleet Academy even. Jeff Hennessy had been positioned aboard the Enterprise straight out of the Academy, replacing Hikaru Sulu at the helm. He was the fifth highest rated cadet in his class. Her own rating from the Academy was less than impressive.
The third officer flashed a grin that transformed his entire demeanor. "You mean, vwhy arent vwe all climbing the career ladder in some other part of Starfleet?" He leaned forward confidentially. "Well, Ill tell you, Ensign Garcia. Im happy here. The Enterprise is no ordinary ship, and Jim Kirk is no ordinary captain."
"But youre a command officer," Garcia blurted without thinking. "Dont you want..." she stopped, horrified by what shed been about to say to a superior officer.
"My own ship?" Chekov finished for her. He didnt seem to be offended. "Not yet. Perhaps someday, but I like it here. Besides, Captain Kirk asked me to join him on this mission. I vwould never let him down."
Hennessy mumbled, "Got that right," through his Katarian egg salad sandwich.
Uhura put a cap on the discussion. "If we see any action on this mission, youll find out for yourself why were aboard this ship with Captain Kirk."
"Not much chance of that!" Chekov snorted.
"Are you still sulking?" Uhura asked him. "I thought the ambassador changed your mind about all that."
The Russians eyes lit up. "About the Diplomatic Service, yes." Then, just as quickly, his face fell. "About Sarva, no."
"Whats so bad about Sarva?" Garcia wanted to know.
Chekov paused to consider. "Oh, nothing muchif your idea of shore leave is a tour of some precolonial ruins or perhaps a mud bath at the hot springs. If, on other hand, you prefer a little nightlife, Sarva is not for you. The largest city on the planet is no bigger than the average village in Russia. The citizens of Sankiang are under strict curfew at night, and the population of the south believes firmly in that old Russian proverb, Early to bed, early to rise..."
Surely its not that bad, Garcia thought. "What about art, music, theater?"
Chekov, Hennessy and Uhura shook their heads.
They shook their heads.
Garcia was beginning to lose hope. "Beautiful scenery?"
"The northwhere the hot springs areis practically a desert," Hennessy replied. "The south is practically a swamp. The mountains in the westand the ruinsare not too bad. The beaches are covered with rounded stones. Very little sand, and the rocks get almost too hot to walk on. The seas are slightly saltier than Earths and very oily."
"The oils are a natural by-product of an algae-like colonial lifeform which lives in the surf. They are very smelly," explained Chekov.
Uhura finally stepped in to change the subject. "Come on, guys, youre having a negative effect on morale. Who knows, we may be so busy we wont have time to worry about shore leave. Now tell us about the ambassador. Ive been hearing all sorts of intriguing rumors."
"You should have seen his face vwhen she stepped off that platform!" Chekov laughed.
Garcia offered a comment before Uhura could come up with an adequate reply. "I heard she was awarded the Medal of Honor."
The security chief nodded. "I looked it up after Spock said something about it. Apparently she vwas the target of three separate assassination attempts vwhile negotiating the Stratos Accords. The last attempt vwas made at the signing ceremonieskilled two of her bodyguards and put her in the hospital vwith a mortae in her back. They say she vwouldnt let them med-evac her until shed seen the Troglytes sign!" He grinned and shook his head. "And the agreements have stood up despite everything."
"Sounds like a very determined woman," Uhura said.
"And wvery beautiful," Chekov added with conviction.
"Pavel, you have such a limited view of the universe." Uhura scowled at him as she pushed back from the table. "Are all Russian men like you?"
"Vwell, of course, they are not as handsome and intelligent..." Chekov began, but was cut off by a chorus of groans. He grinned and joined the others filing slowly toward the passageway.
"By the way, hows it going with that lieutenant in Engineering?" Uhura asked him in a low voice.
Chekov smiled slyly. "That was yesterday, Nyota. Today, Ive set my sights a bit higher."
Uhura, walking just slightly behind him, put a friendly hand on his shoulder. Garcia strained to hear what she said to him. "Pavel, dont ask me how I know," Uhura said, "but I have a feeling youre going to be outranked on this one."
Hennessy laughed heartily, but the meaning of their conversation was lost on Garcia. She figured Chekov and Uhura couldnt possibly be talking about romance. After all, they were just so damn old!
"I said File Twelve, not File Twenty-one, you blasted hunk of microcrystals!" McCoy snarled at his comm terminal and punched in the codes for a second time. The doctor had always had mixed feelings about the technology that was so vital to his work, but this particular morning his feelings were definitely more negative than positive. He and the computer were both downright cranky.
Elena Christopher appeared at the lab door, looking as if she wasnt sure whether to laugh or offer sympathy. "Are we still on for this morning, Doctor, or should I come back when your patient is feeling better?" She indicated the terminal.
McCoy grinned in spite of himself. "Better come on in before Im forced to put it out of my misery."
The ambassador settled into the chair beside McCoys desk and got right to the point. "Have you had a chance to look over that medical data from the Arged?"
"Yes, not that it tells us much," McCoy replied.
"What kind of thing is this anyway?" Christopher asked him. "It sounds like a cross between Rigelian fever and simple influenza."
"Well, the symptoms resemble a lot of other common illnessesfever and severe headache, lung congestion, joint inflammation. The tremors are a little unusual." McCoy frowned. "But the Argeddans have done all the standard tests for the known diseases and apparently came up empty."
"And did I read that mortality rate correctly: ninety-two percent?"
McCoy nodded grimly. "Whatever it is, this thing is not responding to treatment. It looks like theyre losing people to fever and pulmonary edemawell, technically, left-sided heart failure, but basically a direct result of the symptoms of the disease. Something like this should be relatively easy to treat, but I cant tell from this report whats been tried."
"What are the chances this is due to a biological agent, like they claim?" the ambassador asked.
Something about the way she said it brought McCoys eyes to her face with a snap. She looked back at him evenly enough, but he sensed a smouldering fire banked behind that outward calm.
After a moment, he shrugged. "Impossible to tell from this. Hell, I cant even figure out how many cases theyre getting every week. If they cant give us some more to go on, were going to have a tough time helping them."
Christopher ran a hand through her loosely styled hair. "So I take it our chances of walking in on a full-scale biological war in progress are about even with our chances of discovering a lot of smoke and mirrors."
"Just about," McCoy agreed.
"Thats what I figured," she said briskly and rose to go.
"Thats it?" McCoy said. "Thats all you needed to know?" The doctor wasnt sure if he should be offended or grateful for the briefness of the meeting.
"You knew all this before you even came in here," he concluded. "What did you need me for?"
"Confirmation, of course." Christopher smiled at him, and the doctor found himself smiling back.
"Just like someone else I know," he muttered.
"Never mind. Glad to be of help, Ambassador."
She smiled again and turned to leaveand came within a centimeter of colliding with the captain in the doorway. "Oh, hello!"
Kirk grinned broadly and stood aside for her to exit. "Ambassador." He glanced at McCoy. "I hope the doctor was able to provide whatever assistance you needed?"
"He was indeed. Thank you, Captain." She flashed another smile at McCoy and ducked out the door. Kirk watched her for a moment, then turned to his chief medical officer. "What was that all about?"
"Just once I wish someone would ask me a question they dont already know the answer to." McCoy looked up and caught sight of the lively interest in Kirks eyes. Hed seen that look before. "Uh-oh, here we go. Id watch it if I were you, Captain. I have a feeling that woman is at least one step ahead of the rest of us mortals."
"Me, Doctor?" Kirk said, wearing his most innocent smile. "I assure you my relationship with the ambassador is strictly professional."
"So far." McCoy sat back and folded his arms across his chest. "Now what can I do for you?"
Kirk momentarily looked blank. "Oh, uh, dietary supplements. There was a nasty little message on my comm terminal that Im in need of Vitamin C."
"Look, I cant answer for the tone my computer uses to talk to your computer. Im barely on speaking terms with the thing myself." McCoy stood up and crossed to the supply cabinet. He returned with a sealed package of orange tablets. He handed them to Captain Kirk. "Youd think a Starfleet captain would know enough to make sure he eats enough citrus in his diet. Whats the matter? You dont like the fruit salad?"
"Ive told you to never use those words with me, Bones," Kirk said. He flinched at the memory of the months hed been forced to eat fruit salad on Nu-2 Canis Majoris VI as a lieutenant aboard the Farragut. Hed been stuck there for two months waiting for pickup, and the only thing the racoon-like Nutoos ate was fruit salad. With lots of tangy and sour citrus. There were no meats, no starches, no steak and potatoes, no dairy, no chicken salad. Just fruit salad. To this day, Kirk hated the stuff. He cast a slightly resentful glance at the doctor.
"Right now, Id settle for the Dixie Belle Café back in my home town of Toccoa Falls." McCoy sighed. "I should never have let you talk me into another tour; Im getting too old for this."
Kirk clapped a hand on McCoys shoulder. "When I think youre ready for the rocking chair, Doctor, Ill let you know." The captain turned with a grin and left the lab to McCoy.
The doctor shook his head, then dropped into the seat in front of his comm terminal. "Not you again," he groaned. The terminal hummed benignly in reply.-4-
Three days later Kirk was in the gym, locked in his regular death struggle with the progressive resistance machine. The pace of life on the ship had slowed to a predictable routine, punctuated only by the occasional drill required on a deep-space shakedown cruise. For the first time since the Enterprise had left SpaceDock, her captain had a little time to himself.
He shifted positions on the machine and started a new count. His straining muscles were fully engaged, but his mind was free to wander and he found himself thinking about Elena Christopher. She was an extraordinary woman. Kirk had always appreciated extraordinary women, but there was more to his fascination with her than that. He could recognize it, but he couldnt yet define ita sense of something shared, perhaps, or some kind of chemistry that went beyond the obvious physical attraction.
Whatever it was, he hadnt had much opportunity to pursue it. His duties around the ship and hers preparing for her work on Sarva had provided few chances for them to be together. But now that things were slowing down a bit...
Kirk went another round with the machine, then called it quits and headed for the locker room. He paused in front of one of the glassed-in exercise rooms to wipe the sweat from his face with a towel and looked up to see the room had an occupant.
Elena Christopher was absorbed body and soul in the complex, powerful movements of the Tai Chi, a discipline nearly as old as the Chinese culture that had developed it on old Earth. Both mental concentration and physical agility were required to perform the strictly orchestrated series of postures and steps. And Kirk was finding it a thing of surpassing beauty to watch.
So much so that he wasnt aware of the presence of his executive officer beside him until the Vulcan spoke. "Beautifully executed," Spock commented. "The ambassador seems quite proficient."
"Hmm?" Kirk responded absently, transfixed by Christophers willowy melding of grace and strength.
"I refer to the Tai Chi, Captain."
Kirks eyes flicked in Spocks direction. "Yes, Captain Spock. In fact, I was just admiring the ambassadorsuhproficiency myself." He made an effort to give the Vulcan his full attention. "Im surprised to see you here, Spock. I thought Vulcans had no need of the more rigorous forms of physical exercise."
"Quite correct, Captain," Spock agreed. "The exertion you Humans seem to find so pleasurable is neither necessary nor healthy for the Vulcan metabolism."
"I dont know that Id call this pleasurable," Kirk said, dabbing again at his face with the towel. "Were you looking for me?"
Spock nodded. "Ships sensors have picked up a very faint reading at extreme range," he explained. "Most curiousI was inclined to dismiss it as an echo at first, but the readings have registered consistently for more than one standard hour and appear to be growing stronger."
Kirk looked up, instantly on alert. "Any idea what it is?"
"Negative. I have been unable to achieve adequate definition at this range."
"Speculation? Something tailing us?"
"I would resist any attempt to draw conclusions from the limited data available, Captain," Spock said. "At times, the readings even seem to disappear completely. In fact, given the number of minor defects in the ships systems, I am not able to eliminate from consideration the possibility that it may be a sensor ghost."
Kirk felt the apprehension that had touched him briefly fall away. The new ship had been full of bugs; Scott had spent weeks repairing most of them, but that was what a shakedown was for. This sounded like another in a long list of "things the design engineers didnt quite get right." And since it wasnt likely to be serious, Kirk couldnt resist the opportunity to tease his conscientious executive officer.
The captain frowned at Spock in mock severity. "Your information seems somewhat imprecise, Captain."
The effect on the Vulcan was just what Kirk had been looking for. He cleared his throat and stared straight ahead. "I apologize, Captain. The phenomenon is inexplicably disturbing. I believe you would say I am following a hunch in pursuing it."
Kirks jaw dropped. "To think Ive lived long enough to hear that," he marveled. "Storing your katra with McCoy seems to have had some permanent effect." He grinned and started to walk away, but something tugged at his memory. What was it McCoy said about that trip to Babel? Eyes in the back of my head. "Continue monitoring, Spock," he ordered. "Let me know if theres any change. I suspect the new equipment is to blame, but lets be sure."
Kirk turned into the locker room and tossed a final comment over his shoulder. "Far be it from me to ignore a hunch, especially one of such historic proportions."*****
It was nearly midnight when Christopher finally switched off her comm terminal and rubbed her burning eyes. The ambassador had been at it for hours, reviewing the tape records from Sarva, committing to memory the names and faces, the titles and politics of the players in the game she was about to enter.
She looked around the cabin and realized shed hardly left it all day. "This is ridiculous," she muttered.
She considered her options. The idea of sleep was appealing, but she decided what she really needed was contact with living, breathing sentient beings. Interacting with the computer had its limitations. She took a few moments to freshen up and headed out in search of more stimulating company.
The corridors were quiet and dimly lit; the activity at this time of night was to be found in the recreation deck on G Deck. Once there, Christopher avoided the noisier game platforms and found her way to the upper deck, a balcony around the entire rec deck with huge windows overlooking the warp engines of the starship. The windows, filled with the compelling velvet and diamonds of deep space, served as a cosmic backdrop for a lively scene of Human interaction.
Christopher crossed to the food servitor at one side of the lounge and punched up a drink. The selection, she noted, was considerably better on a starship than on the smaller ships she often traveled. She treated herself to Argelian starspirit; the food servitor delivered the rare liquor without a hiccup. Drink in hand, Christopher turned to survey the balcony and almost immediately spied a familiar face.
Leonard McCoy was deep in conversation with someone on one of the closer loungers. It wasnt until she almost at the table that Christopher made out his companion to be Jim Kirk. She suddenly realized with a tiny thrill of anticipation that shed been hoping to find the captain here.
The two men looked up as she approached and met her smile with an enthusiastic invitation to join them. Christopher slid onto the sofa beside McCoy and hoped that she looked more composed than she felt.
"Well, Ambassador, what do you think of our view?" Kirk said, nodding at the windows. "I think the new Enterprise has a few advantages over the old one."
"Its spectacular," she agreed. "But, please, when Im not sitting around a negotiating table, I prefer Elena."
McCoy beat Kirk to a response. "Yes, even the captain of the Enterprise has a first nameits Jim. If I ever had one, Ive forgotten it."
"Now, Bones..." Kirk began.
"See what I mean?" McCoy finished. His wristcom suddenly beeped, and a female voice called for Doctor McCoy to report to Sickbay. McCoy scowled. "Now, what could be so damned urgent at this hour?" He reached for the signal pad and buzzed the duty nurse in the medical section. "What is it, Marie?"
"We have an injury from Engineering, Doctor. Nothing critical, but Doctor Dushayne thought you should be informed."
McCoy and Kirk exchanged puzzled looks. "All right, Nurse Webb. Ill be right down." To the pair on either side of him, he said, "What the hells going on in Engineering that weve got an injury?"
Kirk was already on his wristcom as the doctor excused himself and headed for Sickbay. "Engineering, this is Kirk. Whats happening down there?"
"Lieutenant Indri here, sir. We had a faulty circuit on the Number Two impulse engine control panel. In attempting to repair it, Ensign Camara received a minor shock and burn."
"Any idea what caused the circuit to fail?"
"Apparently a flawed microcrystal, sir. We have replaced the crystal, and we are just starting tests on the panel now."
"Very good, Lieutenant. Does Captain Scott know about this?"
"Yes sir, he has been informed and is on his way to the section at this moment."
"Well done. Have Captain Scott report to me once hes had a chance to look things over. Kirk out." He shook his head. "Thats a routine repair procedure. Some of these kids are so green they dont know their..." He stopped and grinned. "Lets just say its a good thing we have some time for them to learn the ropes," he explained, moving to the lounger vacated by McCoy.
Christopher laughed. "You dont have to be so delicate for my sake, Captain. Believe it or not, the language of diplomacy is not alwaysumdiplomatic."
"Come to think of it, youre right," Kirk replied with a smile. He settled back in his seat. "What made you decide on the Diplomatic Service in the first place?"
"An old family friend pulled a few strings to get me a start. I wasnt very enthusiastic, but he insisted the Diplomatic Services was the place for me." She smiled, remembering how Jari had badgered her. "I suppose he thought he was protecting me. There was this ensign, just out of the Academy. He and I were pretty serious, and Jari was afraid Id make a big mistake if he didnt take matters in hand."
She sipped her drink. "Well, it worked. The ensign and I put off making any commitments for a while. I took my first assignmenttrade negotiations on New Parisand the job sort of grew on me."
"And the ensign?"
Christopher hesitated for a second before answering. "He went to Zargassaand he didnt come back.
"Im sorry." Kirk paused. "I was at Zargassaa lieutenant aboard the Farragut."
He stared at the viewscreen, his face betraying his feelings. Christopher watched him wordlessly. She had seen this reaction before. It had been almost twenty-five years, but the mention of the disastrous peace-keeping mission in Arcturus still tapped a well of anger and pain in everyone who had been there. "You were decorated for your part in the action," she remembered.
Kirk shook his head. "We barely escaped the Battle of Three Moons with the ship intact. I spent a month in a regeneration tank. And I was one of the lucky ones."
"Ive never forgotten that it was a diplomatic failure that set the stage for Zargassa," she said. "I guess its been a kind of motivation for me."
Kirks anger burned in his voice. "Lives were lost at Zargassa because we failed to analyze the military situation correctly. We had a chance to avoid fighting at Three Moons altogether; we just didnt see it in time."
She laid a hand an his arm and said gently, "We, Jim? Surely you dont blame yourself after all these yearsa lieutenant aboard one ship in a battle that involved squadrons? Admiral Joseph paid the price for what was his mistake."
"Ive never forgiven him for that mistake," Kirk said, turning his glass thoughtfully in his hands. "Maybe I should, now that Ive made a few of my own." After a moment, he looked up at her. "Im sorry. I havent thought about it in yearsguess you pushed a button I didnt know I still had."
"Dont apologize," she insisted. "Im glad to have a chance to see whats behind that uniform."
"Am I that hard to read?" he replied, smiling. In his eyes, anger had been replaced by warmth of a different kind.
Christopher wanted to soak it up like a cat in a sunny window. She smiled back at him. "Maybe not. Maybe its just that you are not at all what I expected, Captain."
"I could say the same of you, Ambassador." He leaned closer and covered her hand with his own.
She sensed the pleasure he felt in the simple touch, recognized the current of shared excitement between them. She waited, barely breathing, for what might happen next. The mood was abruptly shattered by a voice from the ships intercom.
"Engineering to Captain Kirk."
Kirk winced, took a deep breath and tapped the wristcom. "Kirk here."
"Scott, here, Captain. The Number Two impulse engine checks out fine now, sir."
"Very good, Captain Scott. Whats the report on Ensign Camara?"
"Doctor McCoy says its nothing serious," the engineer said, "but Ill be giving the entire section the standard safety lecture tomorrow morning."
Kirk flashed a grin at Christopher. "That should bring your section back up to its usual efficiency, Captain Scott."
"Uh, aye, sir. Except for one or two little things..."
Christopher saw Kirk close his eyes and offer up a prayer to whatever gods might oversee the smooth operation of a starship.
"What things are those, Scotty?"
The Scots brogue thickened. "Well, sir, I was going to wait until first watch...."
"That bad, huh?" Kirk sighed. "Ill be right down." He switched off and smiled regretfully at his companion. "Something tells me Id better go have a look. Im afraid well have to continue this another time."
As he rose to go, she gave him her most inviting smile. "Ill try to remember where we left off."
He accepted the invitation with a smile of his own, then reluctantly turned to make his way to the nearest turbolift. Elena Christopher watched him until he disappeared around the far bulkhead, trying hard to ignore a sharp and very physical sense of disappointment.
Engineering was always busy, even on third watch. Scottys "bairns" needed babysitting at all hours and Kirk had known for years that the captain of Engineering did his best tinkering when his captain was not around to make unreasonable demands.
Still, Main Engineering buzzed with more than the usual energy as Kirk strode through in search of Montgomery Scott. It looked as if someone had stirred up a hive of bees. Overlaying everything, Kirk could still detect the acrid smell of blown circuitry. What the hell is going on?
When Kirk finally caught sight of him, the engineer was shaking his head over an exposed control panel. "Well, lads," Scott was saying, "youll have to pull this one, too. Theyre falling like dominoes now."
"Trouble, Captain Scott?"
The engineer straightened from his work and acknowledged the truth with a nod. "Aye, sir. That flawed crystal in Number Two impulse was just the start of it. Weve got control relays burning out all down the line."
Kirk discounted Scottys exasperation and tried to get a reading of the true scope of the problem. "How bad?"
"Well, weve just about got a handle on this one now, sir," Scott admitted. "But Im having the lads take a look at all the main control circuits, just in case weve got another crystal ready to give up the ghost. When one of these flares out, the strain on whats left can raise quite a ruckus."
"Is her design that faulty, Scotty?" Kirk had put the old Enterprise through every kind of engineering hell, and she had saved their lives many times over. He hated the thought that his new ship might not be capable of taking the same punishmentor providing the same protection. "I thought wed worked out all the gremlins by now!"
His engineer grinned proudly. "Ah, no, sir. Shes a beauty, dont you worry. We just have a few adjustments to put her in fighting trim."
Kirk scanned the engine room, which showed evidence of more than a few adjustments. "Stay on it, Captain Scott. We dont want one of those panels to blow when were in a tight turn at full impulse."
"Aye, sir." Scott looked as if he might say something more, but apparently he thought better of it.
The captain made it easy for him. "Anything else I should know about?"
"Well, you might as well hear it now, Captain," Scott sighed. "We may be short a shuttlecraft or two when we get to Sarva."
"We only have two shuttlecraft to start with, Engineer," Kirk said, his voice carefully modulated to conceal the fact that he was very nearly at the end of his patience.
"Aye, sir, thats true," Scott said uncomfortably. "But theyre both on the repair manifest presently. Captain. Sir."
Kirks voice dropped another notch in volume. "They are new shuttlecraft, Captain Scott. How can they both be on the repair manifest?"
"Well, sir, a couple of the lasses were looking them over and discovered a few glitches in the navigational computers."
"In the navigational computers of both shuttlecraft?"
Scott swallowed nervously. "Aye, sir."
"And how long do you estimate it will be before these glitches are repaired?"
"Well, thats the problem, sir," Scott admitted unhappily. "It shouldnt take too long to do the jobthat is, if I can find a couple of lads or lasses with some experience to do it but getting to it is another thing. Unless you want me to put it ahead of the work on the control circuits?"
Kirk refused to believe the Starfleet brass had deliberately given him command of a lemon. "No, Captain Scott, the control circuits are more important. If you dont get to it before we reach Sarva, well just have to do without the shuttles. As long as the transporters are working." He fixed his engineer with a warning glare.
"Oh, aye, sir. No problems there! I fixed those while we were in orbit above that planet in the center of the galaxy."
"Good. Now, if there is nothing else, Im going to bed."
Scott nodded confidently. "Well have her shipshape in no time, Captain. Sleep well."
"Thank you, Scotty," Kirk mumbled as he turned to leave. "I certainly hope so."
Kirk returned to his quarters tired and more than a little uneasy. First Spocks sensor ghost and now the problems in Engineering. For a routine taxi run this was turning out to be one hell of a trip, reminding him of just how bad that mission with Sybok had been. He considered calling the bridge to check the ships status one last time but thought better of it. Let them do their jobs, he told himself. Nothing worse than a nursemaid for a captain...
He knew there was nothing wrong on the Enterprise that a few days of monitoring and adjustment wouldnt fix. Still, Kirk couldnt shrug off his sense of foreboding as easily as he slipped off his uniform tunic. Sighing, he threw the jacket over a chair and sat down at the desk to make an entry in his personal log.
There was a lot to report, and the process of committing it all to record was not making him feel any better. The buzz at his door made little impact on a train of thought that was headed steadily downhill. He responded automatically with a distracted "Come".
He looked up, expecting to see one of his senior officers with yet another piece of bad news. His visitor came nowhere near meeting his expectations.
Elena Christopher, a bottle of what appeared to be Saurian brandy in one hand and two glasses in the other, smiled at him from the doorway. "My timing is either very bad or very good," she said. "Which is it?"
She had changed her simple diplomatic tunic for a long, black bodydress in a soft jersey. The dress covered one arm from wrist to shoulder with a modest sleevebut the other it left completely bare.
Kirk felt the full effect of the change in a rush of sensation along his spine. He smiled. "In fact, your timing couldnt be better." He moved to take the things from her hands and set them on the desk. At the same time, he checked to make sure the corridor was empty before the door slid shut behind her.
She laughed. "Dont worry, I wasnt followed."
He colored slightly. "Well, its not every night a beautiful woman walks into my cabin at almost two in the morning." He poured out the brandy and offered her a glass.
"Really? With your reputation?" Her soft smile took the edge off her words.
"Dont believe everything you hear," he said quietly.
She met his gaze long enough for him to recognize sympathy and the beginning of understanding.
He could feel the pull of the loneliness they had in common, drawing him in. He wanted to touch her, but he held back, waiting. She would make the first move, when she was ready.
She took in the scattered data tapes on his desk, the abandoned log. "Looks like the news from Engineering is not good."
"Scottyll have it straightened out in a few days," he said. "Weve just got a few more gremlins to chase out." He chuckled. "You shouldve been here over the past few months during our missions to Tellus and Nimbus Three. These problems are nothing by comparison."
"Youre worried about it anyway."
He shrugged. "Thats my job."
She looked at him with a sudden seriousness. "Its not easy for you to get away from all this, is it?" She somehow included the maroon Starfleet jacket thrown carelessly across the chair, the cabin, the ship, the whole fabric of his life in one small gesture.
"No," he admitted. "But I welcome the opportunity once in a while."
"Thats encouraging," she said. She moved closer. "You know, there are at least a dozen regulations that govern relationships between professional colleagues in Starfleet and the Diplomatic Services. Were probably violating a few of them right now."
That had occurred to him, though he hadnt yet figured out who would be considered the transgressor and who the "victim" in this case. "Does that bother you?"
"Not particularly," she answered. "You?"
Her nearness melted whatever reservations he might have had. "Not at all," he said.
"Good." She closed the distance between them and rested both hands on his chest. There was no hiding his reaction; he knew she could feel his heart leaping to meet her touch. She smiled. "Then since Ive caught you at least partly out of uniform, I just may have a chance."
He answered her smile and traced a delicate line from her cheek to her bare shoulder with his fingertips. Oh, yes. "Id say your chances..." He paused to kiss the soft hollow of her neck. "...for getting just about anything you want..." He brushed her ear with his lips. "...are excellent."
She raised her mouth to his, and he kissed her, lightly at first, an exploration. She led him deeper; he followed eagerly. He felt her arms encircle his waist, her hands slide across the muscles of his back to pull him closer. She whispered his name, and suddenly, he wanted her with an intensity beyond all conscious thought, a need beyond all control. She moved against him, slowly, deliberately, and there was no longer any reason to hold back. She wanted him as much as he wanted her.
He lifted her and carried her to the bed; in his mind there was nothing but the silken warmth of her skin, the sweet taste of her mouth, the contours of her body revealed in the half-light, the music of her voice in his ear, urging him on. In the universe, there was nothing but his building passion for her and hers for him, nothing but the long, delirious unfolding of their intimacy and the final, shattering realization of their ecstasy.
There, in the dark of night, in the warmth of closeness, Jim Kirk let go of the wider world and his place in it. There, in her arms, the captain of the Enterprise allowed himself to be nothing more than a man like any other.
Kirk awoke in the darkened cabin some time lateralone. The chronometer read 0530well before the start of the first watch. He relaxed again, determined to catch another hour of sleep. Warmed by the memory of last night and the promise of another ten standard days of relative ease before they reached Sarva, he had almost drifted off again when the intercom buzzed urgently.
Jolted, he reached for the pad and responded, "Kirk here."
"Spock, Captain. Sensors are showing a small vessel matching our course at extreme range."
Kirk shook off sleep. "A ship, Spock? Not your ghost?"
"Negative. The vessel is now close enough to determine that it is a scout ship of current Klingon design. Its speed is great enough to bring it within phaser range in thirty-nine point two five minutes."
Kirk was already reaching for his clothes. "Im on my way."
The captain reached the bridge a few short minutes later and went immediately to Spock at the science station. "The ship has increased speed and is closing," Spock informed him. "Anticipating phaser range in twenty point four five minutes now."
His expression grim, Kirk turned to the ensign on duty at the communications station. "Signal yellow alert." He surveyed the bridge and saw only the younger faces of the inexperienced third watch crew. "And get the first watch up here now."
Kirk noted that some of the new crewmen were disappointed to hear theyd be relieved before the fireworks started, but the majority looked glad to be let off the hook. And he saw that his communications officer, a command ensign on rotation, was making a brave, but not very effective attempt to keep her voice level as she called Chekov, Uhura and the others to the bridge.
When she had located each of first watch officers, Kirk took a step closer and said quietly, "Hang in there, Garcia. This isnt the first time the Enterprise has faced the Klingonsand it wont be your last."
His comment had the desired effect on the nervous ensign, but Kirk realized even as he spoke that it wasnt quite true. The encounter would be a test for this Enterprise. He suddenly felt like a stranger on his own ship, dangerously exposed by the absence of that gut-level rapport hed built with the old Enterprise through dozens of situations just like this one.
He pushed the thought aside and focused instead on the faint image of the Klingon ship growing steadily clearer on the viewscreen. "Range, Mister Dixon?"
The novice helmsman glanced at his panel. "One hundred twenty thousand kilometers and closing, sir."
"Slow to impulse," Kirk ordered.
Hennessy and Chekov appeared on the bridge, struggling to get the juices flowing as they picked up the situation from the duty officers and took over their stations. By the time Captain of Engineering Scott arrived, most of the third watch had left the bridge, but Ensign Garcia was still at the comm station briefing Uhura.
"Stick around, Mister Garcia," Kirk told her. "You may learn something this morning." He worked to conceal a smile as Garcia acknowledge his order. The ensign looked like shed much prefer to skip this particular lesson. "Uhura, open a channel to that ship."
Uhura punched in the command and replied, "Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"This is Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. We request your identification code as per Section Twenty-eight, paragraph twelve of the Organian Treaty. Please comply."
Uhura listened for a moment, then confirmed the obvious. "No reply, Captain."
"Range fifty thousand kilometers. We are being scanned, Captain," Spock broke in.
"Repeating. This is the U.S.S. Enterprise. We have noted your course and speed. Unless you identify yourself immediately we will be forced to view your actions as hostile."
"Range thirty-five thousand kilometers and closing," Hennessy said levelly.
"Still no reply, Captain."
"Shields up. Signal red alert, Chekov. Battlestations."
Spock looked up from his monitors. "Sensors show they are arming phasers. Range twenty thousand kilometers and closing."
"Evasive maneuvers, Mister Hennessy!" Kirk clenched a fist and brought it down on the chair arm in frustration. "Are they crazy? They must know we outgun them ten to one."
"Picking up a transmission from the Klingon vessel, Captain," Spock said urgently. "Subspace and scrambled."
Kirk whirled in this seat to face the science station. "Get me a fix on the direction, Spock."
"Calculating now, sir."
"Eight thousand kilometers and still coming at us, Captain."
"Ready phasers, Mister Chekov."
"Armed and ready, Kyptin."
"Hold your fire, Chekov. I cant believe theyre really going to do this. Spock?"
"Transmission completed and recorded, Captain. We have no key for this code as yet. The message was, however, aimed in the direction of Epsilon Crucis." Spock straightened from his sensor monitor and cocked an eyebrow at Kirk.
Kirk looked at the Vulcan in surprise, but he had no chance to ponder the significance of the information he had relayed. The Klingon ship was nearly on top of them.
Chekov looked over his shoulder at Kirk, waiting for the order to fire.
Kirk shook his head minutely. "Not yet, Mister Chekov. Stand by."
"Aye, sair. Standing by."
Hennessy called out the numbers. "Range five thousand kilometers and closing. Four thousand...twenty-five hundred...fifteen hundred...five hundred kilometers...contiguous space."
On the viewscreen, the ship swept past so close that the crew on the bridge instinctively ducked. In actuality, the fly-by was so close the warping effect generated by the Klingon ship rocked the Enterprise violently as the fabric of space around her rippled like a sheet in the wind.
Those crewmen who were unlucky enough to be standing as the ship absorbed the impact were thrown roughly to the deck or slammed against the bulkheadsalong with anything else that wasnt bolted down.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the scout was gone.
"Heading directly away from us, Captain," Spock reported. "They are on an evasive course, speed approximately warp nine."
Neither ship had fired a shot, but the officers on the bridge, with the exception of Spock, were as shaken as any battle could have left them. Even Kirk took a moment to find his voice and order the ship to secure from red alert.
He scanned his bridge. No casualties, thank God. And no damage. The young command ensign was struggling to her feet beside the comm station. "All right, Garcia?" he asked her.
She was as gray as the bulkhead, but she nodded. "Fine, sir."
He smiled. She would do. "Well done, Ensign," he said. "Uhura, Ill need damage reports as soon as you can get them."
Uhura went to work and the reports began to filter in. Damage to the ship had been minimal, but there were a higher number of casualties than usualthe price of inexperience for some of the newest members of the crew. Kirk listened silently, controlling his expression to give no sign of the angerand the guilthe was feeling.
When the reports were in, he called McCoy in Sickbay. "How is it, Bones?"
"Were busy, but the injuries are mostly minora few broken bones. What the hell went on up there anyway?"
"Never mind, Doctor. Make sure your staff has everything under control and meet me in the briefing room as soon as you can get away. Kirk out."
The captain stood and made a terse announcement. "I want to see senior officers in the briefing room in twenty minutes. Uhura, inform Ambassador Christopher that her presence is also requested."
He left the bridge without another word, leaving Ensign Garcia, among others, one more thing to think about for the rest of the morning.
Exactly twenty-four minutes later, Leonard McCoy rushed through the doors of the briefing room, looking like hed taken the fifteen meters of corridor from the turbolift at a dead run. "Sorry, Jim, I got here as soon as I could..." His voice trailed off as he got a look at the captains face. "Uh-oh," he muttered as he slid into the last empty seat at the table next to Elena Christopher.
The ambassador gave him a brief, sympathetic smile. Shed been on time to the meeting, but the tension in the room had been enough to make her feel vaguely guilty anyway. Captain Kirk was in full professional display this morning. The man whose bed shed shared the night before was nowhere to be seen.
Kirk looked at Christopher and began without preamble. "Ambassador, less than an hour ago, as the rest of us here are only too aware, the Enterprise encountered hostile action from a Klingon scout vessel. The ship approached us at a very high rate of speed, refused to respond to our communications and gave every indication of initiating an attack."
Christopher watched his face as he spoke. He was trying hard to keep it submerged, but his anger was running very close to the surface.
"Fortunately for us and certainly for them," he went on, "the Klingons did not fire on us. They simply overtook us and disappeared, leaving us to wonder what the hell their intentions were in the first place."
Kirk got up and began to pace. "Was that crew acting on its own? Or is there something about the Enterprise the Klingons find so interesting they would send a ship this close to the heart of the Federation to track us at extreme range for dozens of lightyears? And if it was a spy ship, why the last-minute charge? Thats hardly the best way to avoid detection. Comments, anyone? Ambassador?"
"I would suggest that it is not so much the ship the Klingons are interested in, Captain, as her mission," Christopher said at the risk of stating the obvious. "The Klingons are surely aware of the deteriorating situation on Sarva. They may see it as an opportunity to wrest at least one planetand quite possibly several morefrom Federation control. The Empire would do almost anything to disrupt the admissions votes; and if that were my objective, I would certainly start with Sarva."
"That hypothesis would seem to be corroborated by the evidence of the transmission, Captain," Spock said. "As you recall, it was directed at Epsilon Crucis, not back to the Klingons home base."
Kirk turned to his executive officer. "Are you suggesting the Klingons have people on Sarva?"
"Very likely, Captain," Christopher answered. "There is a Klingon embassy on Sarva, and per the Organian Treaty, they are not prohibited from visiting the planet. Frankly, Id have been surprised if they havent been up to some mischief."
Kirks jaw tightened. "So they tracked us long enough to be sure of our destination, then sent a warning to their friends on Sarva. But what about our little game of tag?"
"A feint, Captain?" Hennessy suggested.
"Perhaps they thought wed miss their transmission in all the confusion," Uhura added.
"And maybe they couldnt resist a closer look at your ship after all, Captain," Christopher said with a smile.
The humor was lost on Kirk, who stood at the opposite end of the table, visibly trying to put the pieces together so that they made sense. "With all due respect, Ambassador, I find it hard to believe the Klingons would risk playing cat and mouse with a starship over something as elusive and intangible as diplomatic influence," Kirk argued. "The Klingons are not usually so subtle. And it was sheer luck that no shots were fired this morningwe could just as easily have blasted them out of space."
Christopher suddenly found her own temper rising in response to Kirks dismissal. You can underestimate the importance of this mission, Jim Kirk, but youre making a big mistake if you underestimate me. "Captain, I realize diplomatic escort missions are not generally considered to be the height of military excitement," she said, "but if you thought this was going to be a picnic you were sadly mistaken. You better believe the Klingons would gladly sacrifice the lives of the crew of a scout ship to influence the outcome of negotiations that affect their interests. The battle of wits around a negotiating table can affect the lives of thousands just as surely as a battle between starships. If I lose this one, the Sarvans will destroy themselves in a senseless war, and the Klingons will be right there to pick up the pieces."
The ambassador no sooner finished speaking than she regretted it. She could tell from the look in Kirks eyes that shed hit on the true source of his anger. He blamed himself for being caught unpreparedthat the encounter had been relatively harmless hardly matteredand she had just thrown it in his face.
She glanced quickly around the table and saw that the point hadnt been lost on the others, either. Damn it, Christopher, she thought, cant you keep your mouth shut? She saw Kirk take a deep breath.
When he spoke his tone was coldly professional. "Thank you, Ambassador. I wont need to be reminded of that again." He held her gaze a moment longer, then turned to his officers. "The performance of this ship and its crew in the last twenty-four hours has not even come close to the standard I normally expect from the Enterprise," he said in a voice that seemed unnaturally calm. "Before we are faced with another situation like we had this morning I want to know what every crewman, every piece of equipment, every last nut and bolt on this ship is capable of. Im ordering full station and weapons drills for all watches until Im satisfied every member of the crew knows this ship inside out."
He paused to let the message register. Christopher saw Chekov and Hennessy exchange a look that spoke volumes about the meaning of Kirks orders.
"And Scotty, I want the Enterprise in peak operating condition," Kirk continued. "We cant afford to be in the middle of replacing control relays the next time the Klingons show up."
The captain of engineering looked properly chastised. "Aye, sir."
"I believe all of you have your work cut out for you," Kirk snapped. "Dismissed."
The officers stood and slowly filed out into the corridor. Christopher hesitated before leaving, wanting to say something, but only too painfully aware of the barriers that were up once again around the private man behind the captains uniform.
McCoy grabbed her elbow, deftly steering her into the corridor before she could act. "Take my adviceas someone whos offered a few too many brutally honest comments in his day," the physician said kindly. "Give him some time to cool off."
"I guess I hit a nerve," Christopher admitted with a faint smile.
"Well, maybe your timing wasnt the best, but you were right and he knows it," the doctor replied. "It would be a little hard for him to admit right now, but Jim would rather have the truth, even if it hurts." McCoy smiled. "Frankly, Im glad to have someone else around to play the gadfly for a change."
Christopher didnt answer; her thoughts were on another track. "Its almost as if he was angrier with himself than with me..."
"Hes harder on himself than on anyone else on this ship," McCoy confirmed. "Its part of what makes him so good at what he does, but it takes a toll. I think you know as well as anyone what I mean."
"Then I should have seen this coming," she said bluntly. "Instead I missed it by a lightyear. Some diplomat, huh?"
"Oh, I dont know," McCoy said. "You seem pretty perceptive to me."
Christopher smiled and squeezed his arm, grateful for his friendship on what had become a difficult morning. "Thanks, Doc." She turned to go. "Now Im going to take my fine perceptions and my diplomatic language back to my doghouse, where I expect to stay for the rest of this mission."
Teresa Garcia ran a hand through her black hair and exhaled loudly. Then she punched in yet another response to the "Request for Data Analysis" command that appeared with monotonous regularity on her panel at the communications station in auxiliary control. She was almost afraid to look at the computers evaluation of the analysis she had supplied. Nothing had been good enough for Uhura and the rest of the brass on the bridge since theyd started these confounded drills.
Garcia turned to her partner on the second watch, an Australian who had been a year ahead of her at the Academy. "Ive never been so impressed with the vital role Communications plays during battle," she said sourly. "I thought once Id gotten the hang of hailing frequencies open I had it made."
Lieutenant Murphy laughed. "Just be glad youre not on rotation in Engineering," she said. "And Weapons is no party, either."
Garcia had to agree. She had been watching Murphy fire imaginary photon torpedoes at imaginary Klingons for hours. She looked down and scowled when she saw the computers response to her last input. The rating was only slightly above adequate. "When are they going to get tired of this, anyway?" she complained. "Weve been at it for three days. If we dont know what were doing by now, were never gonna know."
Murphy shrugged. "I hear the old man was really ticked off by our little brush with the Klingons the other day. I guess when hes happy well get a break."
"I was on the bridge that morning," Garcia said. "Ticked off isnt the phrase Id use." That had been afterward, of course. During the attack hed been as calm as a priest. She didnt think shed ever achieve that kind of composure under pressure.
"Yeah, Captain Kirk can be a tough old bird," Murphy said. "But then he needs to be to keep you youngsters in line."
Garcia sighed. The computer was asking for her input again. "He doesnt have to worry," she said. "Im too tired to get out of line. If this watch ever ends, Im going to sleep for eighteen hours."
"This watch is never going to end," Murphy said brightly and blew up another Klingon ship.
On the bridge, Leonard McCoy stood at the science station, kibitzing while the Enterprises executive officer monitored the drill responses coming in from various parts of the ship. The crew was tiredthe doctor could hear the fatigue in their voicesand from what he could see the limits of performance improvement had been reached long ago.
"Dont you think weve had just about enough of this, Captain Spock?" he asked when the drill sequence had been ordered yet again.
Spock looked at him expressionlessly. "Its not a question of whether I think its enough, Doctor. Undoubtedly Captain Kirk will inform us when he feels the crew is sufficiently prepared."
"The crew is not going to be any better prepared after the next drill than they are right now. Listen to them: theyre exhausted and rapidly becoming demoralized. We are past the point of diminishing returns here."
"As usual you exaggerate the situation, Doctor." The Vulcan kept his voice low to avoid being overheard by others on the bridge. "However, I agree with you. The captains reaction to the encounter with the Klingon ship seems to have been somewhat...excessive. In fact, I find his behavior puzzling in more than one respect."
McCoy was intrigued. Despite all their years together and the bond that had been created by their mind-meld in the last moments of what the doctor thought of as Spocks first life, it was still rare for the Vulcan to confide in his friend. McCoy smiled to himself and prompted Spock to go on. "What do you mean?"
"The captains mood seems unusually depressed. He has not taken time for his usual recreational activities."
The doctor shrugged. "Thats not uncommon for a man whos intensely involved with his work."
"True," Spock admitted. "But the captains reaction to hard work is normally one of enjoyment. He does not seem to be enjoying this. And I have noted something else. On a number of occasions, I have observed that the captain avoids contact with Ambassador Christopher."
McCoy was floored. "Surely you havent taken up the dynamics of Human interaction as a hobby, Spock?"
"Not at all, Doctor," the Vulcan replied. "I merely observe that the captains behavior is neither logical nor efficient. The ambassador is a highly competent professional. Her opinions and observations are of value to our mission. I fail to understand why the captain would not seek them out, even if he did not find her to be attractive as a female companion."
"A female compan..." McCoy interrupted himself with a huge grin. "Spock, I do believe I must have had some effect on you!"
"I suppose that was inevitable," Spock said.
McCoy thought he sounded resigned to the fact, if not exactly happy about it. "Well, Spock, since you brought it up, Ill tell you what I think," the chief medical officer began, "I think he does find her attractive, perhaps dangerously so. That is precisely the reason he has been avoiding her."
Spock shook his head slowly. "That is not logical."
McCoy sighed. "No, and its not sensible, either, Spock, but its very typical of the Human male."
Of course, the doctor thought, it isnt Spock who needs to hear this. He decided it was time to have this discussion with the captain, no matter how risky it might be for himself. Kirks stubbornness was affecting the mental health of the crew and that made it McCoys responsibility. He left Spock to his work, and, squaring his shoulders, headed for the captains quarters determined to do his duty.
The cabin door slid open in response to his buzz, but McCoy lingered in the doorway, considering Jim Kirks appearance. "You look like hell," he said at last and crossed over to the littered desk.
Kirk looked up at him. "Nice to see you, too, Doctor."
"Ill bet you havent been out of this room in three days." McCoy cleared a space for himself on the chair in front of the desk and sat down. "And youve been working at that damn terminal for so long you have little squares where your eyes should be."
Kirk smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Bones, why is it I get the feeling Im in for one of your lectures?
"Maybe because you deserve one?" He waved the bottle hed brought with him at the desk full of data tapes. "Now, come on, turn that thing off and lets have a drink." He poured out two small glasses and handed one to his friend, who waited stoically for the doctor to say his piece.
The familiar kick of the brandy renewed McCoys courage. "Jim, dont you think youre being a little hard on your new crewnot to mention your old friends?"
"Doctor, its my responsibility to see that this ship and her crew are ready to respond to any situation."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all about that," McCoy broke in. "Ive only been listening to it for twenty years. I just think three days of drills might be too much of a good thing."
"You didnt seem to think it was excessive when your Sickbay was overflowing with injuries from a minor encounter." There was an edge to Kirks voice born of fatigue and not a little defensiveness.
McCoy studied his glass. "If youre trying to build loyalty in a young crew, this is a damn poor way to go about it. I can hear the grumbling all the way to my quarters."
"Two-thirds of the members of this crew have never been in deep space before," Kirk countered. "Lack of experience could get them more than a few bumps and bruises next time around. Theyll thank me if they survive long enough."
McCoy looked at him. "Is it really the crew youre worried about, Jim? Or is it yourself? Are you sure youre not pushing them because you were caught short?"
Kirk left his chair and slowly paced the length of the cabin. "I should have been ready for this, Bones. A new ship, a green crew. And Elena was rightthis mission only looks like it might be an easy one. If Id done my homework Id have known that. I let my guard downand we were just plain lucky the consequences werent more serious."
"For Gods sake, Jim, you cant anticipate every eventuality!"
"The evidence was there," Kirk said sharply. Then, as if to himself, he added, "I was just too...distracted...to see it."
McCoy knew an opening when he saw one, and he didnt hesitate. "Sometimes a little distraction is good for you, Jimgives you some perspective on life. And Elena Christopher is the best distraction youve had in a while. Shes beautiful, shes brilliant and, for once, she doesnt seem to be asking anything of you. Theres no reason to think that spending a little time in her company will get in the way of your concentration. This is hardly the first time youve had a romantic interest on the job."
Even as he added the last line, McCoy felt a quick stab of contrition. The scars from a few of those encounters, he knew, were only freshly healed; some would never close completely. Another man might have favored his injured heart like a bad leg; Jim Kirk constantly tested histo strengthen it or to make sure it was still functioning, McCoy was never certain.
The doctor expected a curt order to mind his own business. He was surprised when Kirk answered quietly, "This one is different, Bones." he captain straightened. "At any rate, on board ship in deep space is not the appropriate place to pursue my own personal interests, whatever they may be."
McCoy looked at him incredulously. "And where the hell else are you going to pursue them, pray tell? Youve been a starship captain for twenty years; youll probably be a starship captain for the rest of your life. When are you going to take some time for yourself? I mean, youve got relationshipsGillian Taylor, Kate Logan, even Uhura. But you cant seem to make time for them, or for yourself."
The doctor leaned forward earnestly. "I promise you the crew will not mutiny, the ship will not fall apart, if you and Elena Christopher share a few quiet moments together. In fact, I dare say your crew would be grateful for a reprieve."
Anyone else looking at Kirks expression would think the doctor had pushed his captain too far. But McCoy recognized that hed accomplished what he came for. He stood and moved toward the door. As he reached it, he turned and pointed in Kirks direction. "If I were you, Id cancel these infernal drills and enjoy the rest of what should be a quiet cruise to Sarva. And relax, will ya, Jim?"
Elena Christopher was trying hard to lose herself in her work. The low, steady drone of the drill responses from the intercom provided a slightly irritating accompaniment to the hum of her scanner as she reviewed the remaining data tapes on Sarva. She sighed. Whether she liked it or not, she was going to know everything there was to know about this assignment a week ahead of planetfall.
Christopher hated to admit it, but somehow Jim Kirk had infected her with his doubts about the Klingons motives. Now she found herself looking for something else in the datawhat she couldnt sayand it was driving her crazy.
Of course, that wasnt the only thing that was driving her crazy. The captain himself was doing a pretty good job of that as well. Hed been avoiding her for daysnothing else could explain the fact that they hadnt so much as run into each other in the corridors since "the morning after."
And that was some night before, too, she thought regretfully. Jim Kirk might have a reputation, but part of it, at least, was well deserved.
She sighed again. This wasnt the first time her outspokenness had cost her. Usually she just chalked it up to experience and forgot about it. But this time she was left with a strange sense of loss, as if she had missed an opportunity or had somehow turned down the wrong path. That night with Jim had had all the earmarks of a Significant Event. She laughed to herself.. Your Significant Event isnt likely to be repeated, Elena. I think they call that a one-night stand.
She turned back to the data tapes and had summoned enough concentration that the buzz at the door a few minutes later made her jump. Annoyed, she answered with anything but welcome in her voice. The last person in the galaxy she had expected to see walked through the door with an apologetic smile.
"I can come back another time if youre busy," Kirk said, looking as if he was ready to bolt at a word from her.
"No, no, please," she managed to say, caught somewhere between the last of her irritation and the first of a confusing onslaught of emotions of a different nature. "Come on in."
She moved to the bunkthe only place in the tight cabin where they could sit without a desk between themand waited, outwardly calm, for him to sit down next to her.
"I think I may owe you an apology," he said, finding a spot on the edge of the bunk just close enough to jack up her pulse.
She tried to focus on what he was saying. "Ill accept yours if youll accept mine. I was out of line the other dayIm sorry."
He shook his head. "You were right. Im sorry it took me so long to admit it."
"Well, for what its worth," she said, "Ive been spending the last three days looking for another reason why the Klingons would be interested in this God-forsaken planet."
He grinned. "Find anything?"
"No," she replied. "But that doesnt mean youre wrong well just have to keep our eyes open when we get there."
"Agreed. I dont think theyll be back before then," he said. "They got the information they needed. Now theyll keep a low profile for a while."
She found she couldnt resist teasing him just a little. "How are the drills going?"
"Ive canceled them," he said with an embarrassed smile. "Doctor McCoy seemed to think the crew was on the brink of mutiny."
"You have a good crew, Jim," she said earnestly. "Your experience will get them through any rough spots. Dont worry."
He nodded, acknowledging her attempt to reassure him, but he didnt answer. A small, awkward silence fell between them. In the quiet, the question that Christopher had been asking herself for days came noisily to mind again.
"Jim, how do you feel about what happened between us the other night? Do you think we made a mistake?"
He looked startledand guilty. "Im not sure. Do you?"
"No, I dont," she decided. "Maybe the timing wasnt quite right, but people like us cant always wait for the right time to make a connection. Sometimes right now is all you have. I dont think thats wrong."
"No, its not wrong," he said. He reached out to touch her hair. His thumb brushed her ear, setting off little tremors of pleasure along her spine. "Risky, maybe, but never wrong."
Risky? Yes, thats possible. There was something about her reaction to him that was unexpected, unpredictable. She wasnt sure where it might take her. "I dont mind taking a few risks if thatll get me what I want," she said playfully.
He laughed softly. The sound, coming from deep in his chest, sent another charge ripping through her. "And what is it you want?" he asked.
Smiling, she pushed him down onto the bunk and stretched out on top of him. She could feel his response even through the heavy cloth of his uniform and shifted her position to encourage it. She kissed him, lingering over his taste and the delicious feel of his mouth until she was nearly out of breath.
Then she drew back to look at him. "I want to feel the way you made me feel the other night," she said, the sensations rushing along every nerve as she spoke. "I want to feel that way for hours, maybe even for days."
He ran his hands down her back to her buttocks and pressed her warmly against his rising hips. He smiled at her sharp intake of breath. "That," he said, "can be arranged."
"Standard orbit in two minutes, Captain." Hennessy keyed in the last of the trajectory code and watched his monitor for confirmation that the Enterprise had achieved orbit. On the viewscreen the dusty blue and brown of Sarva loomed against the inky backdrop of space.
Kirk, in the command chair, replied automatically, "Very good, Mister Hennessy. Commander Uhura, inform our hosts that weve arrived and were ready when they are."
"Aye, sir. And, Captain, Doctor McCoy and Ambassador Christopher are standing by in the transporter room."
Kirk nodded and left the chair to join Spock at the science station. "Anything unusual, Captain Spock?"
"Negative, Captain. The only other ships in the system are commercial vessels, predominantly mid-sized freighters."
Kirk frowned. "I dont like it. Somebody received that message from the Klingon ship."
"Two possibilities, Captain," Spock said. "Either there was another Klingon ship in the vicinity which has since left..."
"Or someone on the planet is cozy with the Klingons," Kirk finished for him.
"There is also the possibility that the scout ship contacted the Klingon Embassy."
The Enterprises commander considered a moment, then let it go for the time being. "You have the conn, Spock. Let me know if anything turns up." He sighed. "Frankly, Id rather be up here than stuck in that conference hall below, listening to the Argeddans blow off steam."
"I do sympathize, Captain," the Vulcan replied. "The Sarvans discourse is distressingly emotional, even for Humans."
Kirk could think of nothing meaningful to say in reply, despite an urge to come to the defense of his species. He shook his head and retreated to the turbolift, leaving the bridge to his executive officer.
The transporter beam shimmered and left the three from the Enterprise in the softly lit coolness of the State Hall of the Directorate of the Arged. Kirk had scanned the data tapes and knew that the room was the largest of any in the complex housing the Directorate. Yet the impression created by the rooms designers was one of intimacy, of shelter from the harshness of a hostile environment. Rich textiles in deep red, purple and royal blue softened the contours of the room, covering the floor and the walls with sensuous color and texture. For Kirk, used to the clean lines and Spartan interior of the Enterprise, the decor seemed more appropriate to a bedroom than a government reception hall.
At the near end of a low table of light, highly polished wood, a small group of Argeddan officials stood ready to greet them. The short, dark Argeddans were as colorfully dressed as their surroundings, but their grim expressions were a poor match for their bright clothing.
With the barest of polite smiles, one of the group stepped forward and extended a hand. "I am Atu Soborr-Taal, Director of the Arged. I trust all is well in your household?"
The ritual greeting, a holdover from the Terran cultures that had first settled Sarva, demanded a ritual response. Christopher grasped his hand lightly and provided it. "All is peaceful there. I am Ambassador Elena Christopher." She indicated her companions. "Captain James Kirk and Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy of the starship Enterprise."
"You are most welcome," the Director said with a slight bow. That he omitted further greetings signaled a great sense of urgency. "I regret that the circumstances which bring you to our planet are...as they are. Please." He led the way to the table. "The situation is very gravewe have much to discuss."
A low, padded bench circled the table, which Kirk now saw was set into a shallow well a step below the level of the floor. He was mildly surprised to find that the arrangement allowed him to sit comfortably with no fear of scraping his knees on the underside of the table. Not exactly practical, he decided, but functional.
Kirk turned his attention to the Director, who was introducing a member of his senior staff. Defense Bureau Head Lai Ndarr was an older woman whose deeply lined face showed no sign of either humor or compassion. She was not one to waste time on formalities. "Sankiang is clearly initiating a course of events that can only lead to all out war," she said, as if daring anyone to argue the point. "They intend to weaken us and stretch our resources to the limit with the fever before they mount a direct attack across the border."
The Federations Ambassador absorbed the outburst impassively. "You are convinced this is their intention?"
"Even as we speak, the Sankianis are amassing troops on the border in preparation for the conflict," Ndarr replied. "Our only defense is to act decisively." She almost sneered. "I find this...palaver...pointless."
The jowly Prefect of Bakarr State joined his voice to hers. "My people are dying by the hundreds along the border with Sankiang, Ambassador. We stand by and do nothing while the Sankianis wait to pick our bones. I demand that the Federation assist us in putting a stop to this bloody atrocity!"
"I assure you, Prefect, I will do all I can to effect a solution,"Christopher replied evenly.
"I sincerely hope so, Ambassador," Ndarr said icily. "Otherwise we will be forced to solve this problem ourselveswith a preemptive strike over the border to eliminate the threat of invasion!"
"Ndarr!" The Director was livid. "Your opinions do not reflect the official position of this government, as I have pointed out before."
Ndarrs face was a mask; she said nothing more.
The Director turned to Christopher. "We do not seek war, but we will not fail to gain redress for the suffering of our people. You must use the power of your starship to make the Sankianis understand"
Christopher cut in sharply, just ahead of the captain of the starship in question. "The Federation does not use its starships to threaten or coerce, Directorfor any purpose. The Enterprise is here as my escortand I am here to determine where the truth lies in your dispute in the hope of avoiding open war."
"The truth is that Sankiang is guilty of biological warfare!" the Prefect growled.
"The government of Sankiang denies any involvement in the epidemic which affects your people," Christopher pointed out. "In fact, they insist the plague is a creation of your Bureau of Information."
"Thats a lie!" the Prefect shot back.
In the confusion of angry murmurs around the table, the young science bureau head was almost inaudible. "I assure you, Ambassador," she said with quiet conviction, "the fever is no propagandists tool. It is horribly real."
"And Sankiang is directly responsible!" the Prefect added.
Christopher ignored him and spoke to the young scientist. "Convince me," she said. "If you can convince me, I will bring the full weight of the Federation to bear on the Sankianis."
The woman swallowed nervously, but Sobarr-Taal indicated a pile of data tapes at the foot of the table. "The evidence is before you, Ambassador."
"Very well, Director," Christopher replied. "I would ask that you allow us the remainder of the day to review the medical and military tapes. We can discuss an appropriate course of action tomorrow morning."
The Director nodded briefly. "As you wish."
Kirk looked across the table to where Ndarr sat, her face a study in contempt. She would be a fierce obstacle to any agreement, he decided. Any accommodation with Sankiang would have to go throughor overher. He hoped Elena was up to the challenge.
Christopher pushed herself back from the conference table in their quarters and blew out her cheeks. "Theres nothing here, am I right?"
"Well, theres no doubt these people are suffering from some kind of an epidemicwe already knew that much from the tapes they sent the Federation," McCoy replied. "But where it comes from..."
Kirk had reached the same conclusion. "Its certainly not clear that Sankiang is involved. Either the Argeddans are not showing us all the data or the Sankianis have found an ingenious new method of delivering the disease agent without leaving a trace on the sensors."
"But what about the geographical limits of the epidemic?" the ambassador asked. "What could account for its concentration along the border?"
McCoy considered. "The area is isolated and has been under quarantine since the early days of the outbreak. Could be the quarantines working, but its more likely theres some locale-specific component to the disease. On Earth back in the late Twentieth Century, for instance, there was an outbreak from a virus that only grew in the water used in the environmental control systems of buildings." He shrugged. "Unless, of course, the Sankianis have just poisoned the water."
Kirk answered distractedly, his mind turning over the pieces of the puzzle. "Waters been testedno results."
"Looks like theres only one thing to do," Christopher said. "We have to go and take a look for ourselves."
"Out of the question!" Kirk snapped.
But McCoy came in on the ambassadors side. "Shes right, Jim. We just dont have enough to go on here. For all we know the Argeddans could be blowing the whole thing out of proportion for their own purposesI certainly wouldnt put it past Ndarr to use this as a convenient excuse to test her new toys. If I were to visit the valley myself, I could come back with some hard evidence one way or the other."
"Its too risky, Bones," Kirk argued. "I cant have my chief medical officer coming down with the disease hes here to investigate."
"Captain, Im afraid we have no choice," Christopher said formally. Kirk looked up to see the warning in her eyes. "I must goI cant represent the Argeddan case to Sankiang without having seen the situation. And I need Doctor McCoys expertise."
"And what happens to your mission, Ambassador, when you yourself become a victim?" Kirk shot back. "We dont have the first clue as to what causes this thingor how to cure it. Theres practically nothing we can do to improve the odds. We cant even use isolation suits for more than a few hours."
"Well, now, Jim, the situations not that dramatic," McCoy drawled. "We do know the fever isnt spread by casual contact. Theyre using universal precautions in the hospitals. The chances are pretty good we can stay clear of contamination if we dont stay too long."
Kirk wasnt convinced. "Define pretty good, Doctor."
"Jim." Christopher placed a hand on his arm. "I understand your concern, but this is my joblet me do it.
It was beginning to be obvious to Kirk that hed lost the argument. Despite deep misgivings, he surrendered the fight. "All right, Ambassador, but youll need a military observer."
She smiled. "I cant promise itll be fun, but Id be glad to have you along, Captain."
Kirk nodded and reached for his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Spock here, Captain."
"Ships status, Captain Spock?" Kirk requested. "Any sign of our friends?"
"Ships systems all report green, Captain," Spock assured him. "As for the Klingons, sensors still show no sign of any hostile ships in the area."
"Good. Keep your scans at maximum range. I dont want any surprises when they do show up."
"I dont suppose Scotty has either of the shuttlecraft repaired?" Kirk would have preferred a quick trip in and out by transporter, but the information his team required meant theyd have to see the border area firsthand.
"Negative. From what Captain Scott has told me, that task is rather low on his list of priorities."
Kirk nodded wearily. "Yes, it would be, Captain Spock. Have him free up a few technicians to get to it anyway. In the meantime, well try and borrow some transportation from our hosts."
"For what purpose, Captain?"
"Were taking a little fact-finding tour of the Bakarr Valley."
There was a pause at the other end of his comm link. "Captain, the Bakarr Valley is a quarantine area," Spock said at last. "I would urge you strongly to avoid it at all cost."
Kirk looked to McCoy, who folded his arms stubbornly across his chest. "I would like to oblige you, Captain Spock, but Im afraid thats impossible," he replied. "McCoy and Christopher are the expertsand theyre telling me they need to see the valley for themselves."
"Jim, the location-specific nature of damarr fever is its most notable characteristic," Spock argued. "You would be putting yourselves at considerable risk of contracting a disease with a 92.7 percent mortality rate."
"Dont bother giving us any damn odds, Spock," McCoy interjected. "Were going anyway."
Spock responded as if the doctor was on the bridge with him. "So little is known about the disease, Doctor, that I cannot reasonably calculate the probability of your contracting it."
Kirk sighed. "Thats probably just as well. Odds or not, weve got to get a look at this thing up close." He made an effort to throw off the band of apprehension that was tightening around his heart. "Were going to the ball, Spock. Lets just hope the Red Death doesnt show up. Kirk out."
The skimmer swept over the flat, colorless Argeddan landscape, tracing a direct route over the swampy plain from the Argeds capital city of Anwakerr to the Bakarr Valley. The vehicles viewports offered an unending vista of well-ordered fields and stretches of low vegetation, punctuated only occasionally by a cluster of residential or industrial complexes.
Though there was little of interest to see, McCoy found himself staring out the window as minutes passed into hours aboard the dependable, but frustratingly slow craft. His companions were quiet, self-absorbed, preparing privately for the challenge that would meet them in the valley. The doctor was left to his own thoughts.
Somehow, McCoy found it hard to shake a feeling of impending disaster. A fragment of verse echoed in his mind Yea, though I walk through the valley of death... Hang with us, God, he thought, were gonna need all the help we can get.
McCoy had seen other epidemics, plagues of all kinds on a dozen different planets during his long career with Starfleet. Not one of them had been an easy sight to take. There was an element of panic, of primal fear and despair, in the reaction of sentient beings to the threat of disease that struck outside the realm of experience. All too often the response to that threat was uglier than the disease itself, turning the fear and resentment on those least able to bear the brunt of it: the victims.
At least the Argeddans found another target for their anger, McCoy thought.
It was never easy to work in the emotional bedlam of a medical emergency that affected so many and the Arged was no exception. The Directorate had dug in its collective heels at the ambassadors request to be allowed to visit the valley. McCoy was certain it was more because they were afraid theyd be held responsible if anything happened to the party than because they were genuinely concerned for the Terrans welfare. Of course, cynical bureaucrats were only too happy to parade the specter of the fever to support their political purposes. But let someone propose taking direct action against the threat and they performed the C.Y.A. dance.
Christopher had prevailed in the end, partly out of sheer stubbornness, partly by convincing Ndarr that Kirk would be able to attest to the reality of the military buildup across the river if they were allowed to see the area firsthand. At last, they had been given a skimmer, a desultory aide as escort and a less than rousing send-off in the gray dawn of the Sarvan day.
There was another quotation that applied, McCoy recalled. Onward into the valley of death rode the six hundred...or the three, as the case may be.
Presently the terrain began to grow rougher, dropping in broad terraces of contoured hills from the plain to the winding river valley. The ride got rougher, too; the utilitarian skimmer followed the ground too closely to smooth out the larger bumps. McCoy set his teeth and endured; he was getting too old for this.
The valley spread out below them showed evidence of a greater concentration of population. Between the towns and villages the agricultural belts ebbed and flowed in broad swathes of green and gold, the rainy season grains nearing harvest.
The skimmer pilot straightened at the controls and watched her monitors intently; the traffic heading into the valley was heavy. At a curt word from the government official who served as their guide, the pilot programmed a course to follow the tortuous river bed east.
"There, you see, Captain," the aide said, pointing along the distant bank opposite them. "Those installations have appeared within the last six quadrenesuh, one hundred twenty days." As the skimmer lurched its way downriver, he pointed again. "Troopsand personnel carriers."
McCoy saw Kirk taking note of the Sankiani attack craft and the squat outlines of the military complexes on the other side of the expanse of water. The sensors in his tricorder confirmed their purpose. But the doctor knew he also saw what the escort did not point outvast numbers of the Argeddan armys black cruisers and what appeared to be shielded fortifications on their own side of the river.
McCoy caught the captains quick glance, and he could see the ambassador hadnt missed the point either: if there was a military buildup in this area, the Sankianis werent the only ones participating.
The river bank to their right was growing steeper, the course of the river strewn with fair-sized boulders on either side of a broad central channel. Here, where the river narrowed it was as if the banks had given way, spilling their foundations into the swift current. What remained of the banks was covered with a dense mat of vegetation, flowers of an odd shade of orange barely visible among a tangle of dusty green leaves.
Negotiating a route along the roiling riverbed was becoming more difficult, though the pilot gave no indication that she minded. The skimmer bounced and pitched from one side to the other, stabilizers whining.
"Jim, I dont know how much longer the old body can take this kind of punishment," McCoy protested. "Havent you seen enough?"
Kirk grabbed the arms of his seat as the skimmer leaped over an outcropping of rock. "Yes, Doctor, I believe Ive got all the evidence I need." He looked questioningly at their escort, who seemed to be having an equally unpleasant time.
"Take us to the medical complex, Adnaan," the aide barked to the pilot. "And for the Beings sake, take us up on the commercial route. It may be crowded, but at least its smoother."
The pilot nodded and put the skimmer in a savage turn to the right to scale the craggy river bank. As he clung to his seat, McCoy could have sworn he saw the flyer grin.
When the skimmer finally settled on the pad in the quadrangle of the huge regional medical complex, its passengers debarked gratefully. "To hell with the tour," Kirk muttered to his companions. "Next time we take the transporter." He stretched in a vain attempt to take the kinks out of his cramped muscles.
Kirk noticed a wiry Argeddan of approximately middle age hurrying toward them from the nearest entrance to the complexthe regional medical officer, he assumed as theyd been scheduled to meet him next. He barely had time to nod a brief acknowledgment to the introductions before the communicator at his waist beeped stridently.
Hanging back as the others entered the building, he flipped the unit open. "Kirk here."
"Spock, Captain. You are approximately fifty-nine minutes past due for your check-in. Are you in difficulty?"
"No, no, were quite all right, Captain Spock." He winced. "Just a bituhsaddle sore. Whats the situation on board?"
"Scanners show a Klingon ktinga battlecruiser entering the system on orbit trajectory, Captain. We have intercepted a number of routine transmissions to the planet surface indicating they are on an official visit to Sankiang."
Kirk swore silently, convinced now hed been wrong to agree to this tour of the quarantine zone. With the Klingons circling the planet ominously, his place was on the Enterprise bridge. On the planet's surface, Kirk felt trapped, vulnerable.
He ignored his accelerating pulse and tried to think of a way to turn his problem into an advantage. "How soon do you estimate orbit?"
"Approximately thirty-nine minutes," Spock replied. Then, anticipating Kirks next question, he said, "The transmissions indicate they are planning to arrive at the beginning of the next solar cycle. They seem to be ignoring the Enterprise altogether."
"Good." Kirk grinned. "Well see if they can ignore a few extra visitors in the Sankiani capital. Well be arriving in Nifan ourselves after we finish up here in the valley."
"Jim, I would urge you to limit your time in the quarantine area as much as possible."
Kirks mouth quirked up into an ironic grin. "That is certainly my intention, Spock. Well be leaving as soon as McCoy can make a reasonable medical evaluation. Ive already seen enough of the military situation to know both sides are just looking for an excuse to start the party."
"Unfortunate," Spock said. "I do not envy Ambassador Christopher her task."
"No, Spock, neither do I," Kirk replied. "But in the meantime, weve got our own job to do. Batten down and keep a close watch on that cruiser. Ill be in touch. Kirk out."
Pushing his lingering worry aside, Kirk walked quickly through the entranceway and cast about for evidence of the direction the others had taken. A nurse at the receiving station waved him down one of the corridors leading off the open waiting area.
The corridor was bustling with men and women in the pale green of the medical branch of the Arged; they were businesslike and calm. They went about their work deliberately, presiding over a scene that was not so much one of horror or chaos as of quiet desperation. The atmosphere was not unlike that on his own bridge in moments of extreme emergency. Kirk had always won the battles he fought from that bridge. But the ashen faces of those gathered in the rooms that lined the corridorthe families and friends waiting for some word of hope or finalitymade it clear that for some this battle was already lost.
Kirk caught up to McCoy and the others in a ward toward the end of the long hall. Every bed in the ward was full; every face on every pillow was darkened with the shadow of the fever.
"There are more coming in every day," the Argeddan was saying. "Nearly a hundred a week if you take all the medical facilities in the area into account." He shook his head. "And were losing almost all of them. Weve tried nearly every test and possible course of treatment known to our science, but were still losing them. We have been unable to learn anything from those who do survive; they show nothing unusual physiologically or clinically. Our only hope is that your more advanced computers will reveal a pattern we have failed to see."
McCoy frowned. "If there is a pattern to detect, the computer will find it. But itll take timeand the data the Federation was sent is not nearly detailed enough. I need to have access to every scrap of information you can come up with."
The regional medical officer smiled bitterly. "The Directorate is more concerned with the political aspects of this disease than its epidemiology, Doctor. I have all the data ready for you."
McCoy followed the Argeddan out of the ward toward his office, but Kirk suddenly stopped and put a supportive hand under Christophers elbow in concern. Her face was chillingly pale. "Are you all right?"
A shaky smile came and went on her face without leaving an impression. "Im not much for hospitals, I guess." She took a last look at the double row of diagnostic bedseach with its nearly lifeless form and its monitors reading criticaland shivered. "Lets get out of here."
Kirk gave her no argument. Hed seen enough for one day himself.
McCoy emerged from the doctors office with a case full of data tapes and joined them as they found their own way out of the complex. "Jim, Id like to get these tapes up to the Enterprise right away and let the computer have a crack at them."
The ambassador cut in before Kirk could reply. "Doctor, I realize how important the data is, but I need you to help me make my case before the Sankiani government tomorrow. Your expertise is crucial."
McCoy bristled. "My expertise is needed to help put an end to this epidemic. I cant waste time with a lot of useless talk."
Christopher stopped and put a hand an his arm. "Believe me, I know how you feel, Leonard," she said. "But if we cant convince the Sankianis that this epidemic is for real, the disease will be the least of this planets worries. Please..."
McCoy scowled, but Kirk could see his resolve was caving in. "Well, I guess I could just transmit the data up tonight," the doctor offered. "Cant work until its loaded anyway..."
The ambassador smiled her thanks.
Kirk looked slightly offended. "You two will let me know if you need anything, wont you? I mean, as Captain of the Enterprise, Id like to help."
McCoy and Christopher exchanged a grin as the group exited the building and walked toward the waiting skimmer. McCoy looked at the vehicle with something approaching dread. "I dont suppose theres any chance the guest house is within walking distance?" he muttered.
The guest house had been only a short hop from the medical complex, a matter of convenience for the many researchers and visiting officials who spent time at the facility. When McCoy had stepped stiffly out of the skimmer, hed nearly crowed with excitement. Surrounding the modest little house on three sides was a structure that the old Georgia boy swore was the "closest thing Ive seen to a veranda in years."
Now, relaxing up against the railing, the light of Sarvas two small moons filtering through the odd latticework that served as an awning for the deck, Jim Kirk was beginning to understand why McCoy had reacted with such pleasure. Too bad Bones wont have a chance to enjoy it himself, he thought. The doctor was inside, deeply involved in an intimate conversation with the ships medical computer.
He took a deep breath. "Well, thats one benefit of this planets low affinity for urbanization," he said with satisfaction. "Fresh air."
"Mmm, gorgeous," Elena Christopher murmured. She smiled, but Kirk could tell her mind was elsewhere.
He tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "Worried about tomorrow?"
"Hmm? Oh. No, not really. Nothing to be gained by worrying now. Well just have to deal with the situation when we get there." She refused to meet his eyes.
He remembered her face, starkly white in the artificial glare of the fever ward. "What, then? The hospital?"
That got her attention. She raked him with a glance but said nothing. She suddenly seemed impossibly remote, out of reach beyond a gulf of warning silence.
He ignored the warning and plunged into the icy waters. "Elena," he said, reaching out to take her hand. Her fingers were cold, despite the warm night air. "What is it?"
She withdrew her hand and her voice was hard, controlled. "Lets just say I have personal reasons for avoiding any more scenes like todays. I want to put an end to this thing."
"If anyone can find an answer, McCoy can," he assured her. "Ive seen him beat tougher problems than this one."
"Yes, and what then, Jim?" She turned to him with sudden vehemence. "The Klingons cook up another batch of deadly microbesa little tinkering with the gene structure should provide a suitable mutationand the Sankianis try again. Or maybe theyll just dispense with the fancy dancing and bring out the big guns."
He covered his surprise at the depth of her anger with a quiet protest. "We still havent seen anything to indicate the Sankianis are involvedor the Klingons, for that matter, much as I hate to give them the benefit of the doubt."
He paused, then tested the waters again. "This isnt about Sarva." It was a statement, not a question, but he was looking for an answer just the same.
"Have you ever seen the full effects of biowarfare, Jim?" she asked, her voice edgy, her face a coiled spring. "A whole planet of people reduced to a handful of guilty survivors, any hope of rebuilding blasted by the lack of hands or strength to start again. A civilization destroyed because presumably intelligent beings were unable to see the consequences and those who could help them were unavoidably detained half a galaxy away."
She stopped, her back rigidly straight, her hands clenched with the effort to deny her emotion an outlet. He waited for her to go on, knowing that emotion would find its way no matter how she tried to stop it. "The planet was Xiban in the Gamma Geminorum system, originally a Terran colony. My home planet," she said finally. "It was scheduled to be my next mission after trade negotiations were completed on Alpha Centauri Three. We arrived too late to prevent the war."
"Your family?" he said softly. He thought achingly of his own son, lost on a planet that had no name and no longer existed. A daughter he never got a chance to know. His brother, so long ago. How many others?
She hunched her shoulders in a bitter parody of a shrug. "A niece survived. Everyone elsemy mother and father, two sisters and their familiesdied choking on their own blood. Victims of diseaseor of the riots." Unwelcome tears were slipping down her cheeks. Angrily, she brushed them away. "You know, theres seldom any need to resort to conventional weapons once an effective biological agent has been found. People will kill each other for you."
She looked at him for the first time and what remained of her fragile control shattered. "I wasnt there; I couldnt help them. I couldnt even stay to help pick up the pieces." She let out a deep, shuddering breath and added miserably, "I was on my way to another assignment in four days."
He touched her cheek, his face a mirror of her pain. "Now whos trying to take the blame for someone elses mistakes?" he said, interrupting the flow of her tears with gentle fingers. "The ones who started that war have to bear the burden of their own actionsyou cant carry that cross for them."
He broke off and pulled her to him, offered with a touch the comfort that words could never give. So many mistakes. So many lives that could have been saved. And, no matter how blameless she was, nothing he could say would make her feel the responsibility any less.
So he held her, there in the fragrant darkness of an alien night, and let her tears soak his chest. When the tears stopped, he took her inside. He made love to her until her sobs of pain became gasps of pleasure, until he drove the searing memory of Xiban into the furthest corner of her heart. With tender skill he held her sorrow and his own at bay until the fear retreated and they slept, free of dreams, in each others arms.
When the transporter beam winked out and left him standing in the Sankiang Council Chamber, Kirks first reaction was a wide grin. Perfect timing. The look of consternation on the Klingon captains face was worth a weeks shore leave on the nearest pleasure planet.
Enraged, the Klingon took a step forward and growled, "You!"
"Captain KZar." Kirk smiled his most irritating smile and inclined his head a fraction. "Its been a few years since we had the pleasure."
"I see you have guests, Paramount," Ambassador Christopher said sweetly before the exchange could go any further. "I was certain your assistant had confirmed the time for our meeting. I hesitate to interrupt, but as you know I am here on a matter of the greatest urgency."
"I am quite aware of the importance of your visit, Ambassador," the Sankiani leader said with a frown. Paramount Mara Najang was tall and angular, as darkly austere as the geometric thermocrete and glass of the massive hall. Kirk tried to read her face. Is that a shadow of relief or is it simply annoyance?
"The captain was just leaving," Najang added and glared pointedly at one of her advisors, a man of more than middle age, graying and parade-ground straight.
The man nodded. "Ill see you out, Captain KZar," he said and led the way toward the door.
But KZar would not be removed without comment. "Kirk," he taunted, "have you lost your manhood that they send you on this childs errand?"
Kirks eyes flashed, but he answered calmly enough, "My business here is not your concern, KZar. Unless, of course, your own intentions are something other than peaceful."
"You continue to meddle in the affairs of the Klingon Empire. Your crew interfered with my plans for the Royal Stones of Yaine-Mizar. You will not be afforded the opportunity"
"Captain KZar, please!" The man who had been designated to show KZar out made it clear there would be no more discussion. He steered the Khteb Klingon to the door, speaking to him in a low voice before returning to take a place at the conference table.
Kirk was intensely curious about KZar and his business with Sankiang, but he knew it was useless to wish for an excuse to escape the long day of wrangling that lay ahead. KZar was free to proceed with whatever plan he might have, but Kirk was condemned to diplomatic duty. He stifled a sigh and settle into his seat for a protracted session.
Many dull hours and gigabytes of computer data later, the Sankiani Council remained aggressively unconvinced. The Defense Minister had let Kirk off rather easily, but the Interior MinisterSonko Mankende, who had earlier escorted the Klingon from the roomproved to be a formidable interrogator. The Health Service was a part of his branch of government, and the minister had insisted on asking the questions himself, grilling McCoy mercilessly on points both major and minor, until the chief medical officer of the Enterprise was livid with frustration. Kirk guessed it was only Christophers light touch on McCoys arm that was keeping the doctor in his seat.
Now Mankende addressed himself to the Paramount. "We have seen nothing to convince us that this fantastic story is anything but a paranoid exaggeration of the Southern propaganda machine," he scoffed. "This data has obviously been fabricated for the benefit of the Federation computers. I am sure my fellow ministers have more pressing matters to attend to than defending our polity from the groundless accusations of our enemies."
Najang frowned in apparent disagreement, but Kirk noted more than one head nodding around the table.
Christopher attempted to force a wedge between the Interior Minister and his superior. "Paramount, I cannot believe you would consider the maintenance of peace between your two nations a trivial matter."
"Ambassador, Sankiang does not want war, but what would you have me do?" Her face was impassive, but her voice revealed her exasperation. "If the Argeddans are suffering from this unknown malady, we can offer no more than our sympathy and regret. The government of Sankiang is not responsible."
"If the Argeddans are suffering," the Interior Minister parroted, "it is from an overactive imagination!"
The knife of Christophers voice sliced through the murmur of amusement that followed Mankendes remark: "The epidemic is real, Minister, and I must warn you that the Argeddans are absolutely certain their people suffer and die as a direct result of the actions of your government."
"I protest!" the Defense Minister responded, with what seemed like genuine outrage. If Kirk had to trust anyone on the Council, it would probably have been Modou Kebbe. The man didnt seem given to complicated notions or the delicate maneuvers of diplomacy.
But it was Mankende who held the real power here, and he was skilled in the art of the negotiating table. "Surely you do not mean to imply a threat, Ambassador? You and the Arged will find we are prepared to defend our people and our interests with force, if need be."
"We will resort to force only if we have no other recourse," Najang said firmly, her eyes set hawkishly on Mankende.
"I sincerely hope it does not come to that, Paramount," Christopher said quietly. "I think you will find such a show of force will serve neither your interests nor your people."
She stood, and Kirk noticed with a start that she looked exhausted. "We will return to the Arged tomorrow with your position statements."
The Paramounts face reflected the weary resignation so evident in Christophers voice. "You are welcome to share our hospitality tonight." Christopher began a protest, but Najang cut her off. "I insist. My aide will show you to your quarters."
McCoy leaned in close to Kirk to hiss, "Jim, I have to get to those computers!"
The captain shook his head. "This could work to our advantage, Bones. Well make sure you get access to what you need." In fact, I may yet get my chance to find out what KZar is up toand maybe put a good old-fashioned Starfleet spanner in whatever elaborate plans he has this time.
The quarters were as drab as the council chamber had been, a few pieces of functional furniture the only ornaments in the high-ceilinged rooms. Christopher looked around in distaste and threw her case full of data tapes and notes on the desk in the corner.
She felt drained, close to defeat. Despite her best efforts the Argeddans and the Sankianis were drifting toward a war that would rip the planet apart and send shock waves through half the galaxy. The ambassador gave her performance before the Council a critical mental review, but she could find no fatal errors. I did a good job, damn it, she thought. What more do they need?
The image of the crowded hospital ward was like a stone in her heart, adding its weight to the burden of memories she still carried from another time and place. Yet in that stone was a crystal of hope, a slim chance for redemption. Christopher was fiercely determined to seize that chanceshe refused to allow the possibility of failure.
A wave of fatigue washed away her motivation, and she sank into the nearest chair, just as there was a knock on the door. Too tired to get up again, she simply called out, "Come," and found her smile again as Jim Kirk stepped into the room.
He smiled back, but his eyes signaled his concern. "Thought you could use some moral support right about now," he said lightly. "You look tired."
"Right on both counts," she sighed. "Must be time to retire. Im feeling my ageand then some."
"Well, you certainly, dont look it," he said, crossing the room to stand behind her chair.
Oh, you charming liar, she thought, grateful for the lift anyway.
"I have the feeling the day you retire will be the day they carry you out in a pine box." His hands found the knots in her tight shoulders and applied just the right amount of gentle pressure.
She closed her eyes and relaxed. "That feels terrific."
"Whats your assessment of the meeting today?" he asked.
"In a word, disastrous," she replied. "If we dont come up with some kind of overwhelming evidence to sway these people, were sunk."
"I had the feeling the Paramount wanted to be convinced."
Christopher agreed. "But Mankende seems to carry a lot of weightshes afraid to cross him." The shoulder rub was allowing her humor to make a comeback. "We might be able to get somewhere if it werent for all these uppity subordinates. I dont know whos worse, Mankende or old Madam Ndarr. What good is it being leader of the country if you cant control your own people?"
Kirk grinned. "Thats what I like to think, too. But McCoy soon puts me in my place."
She laughed. "Where is the good doctor?"
"In his room, wrestling with the comlink. Hes anxious to get back to the ship."
"I couldnt agree with him more, but there didnt seem to be any graceful way to refuse the Paramounts invitation. She was rather insistent."
"She wants something," Kirk speculated.
"Yes, but what?" Christopher sighed. Thinking about it was giving her a headache. "Can we talk about something else for a while? Ive had my fill of trying to second-guess the Sarvans today."
He smiled and bent to wrap his arms around her. He spoke softly into her ear. "Have you ever been to Pacifica, Ambassador? One of the most beautiful worlds in the galaxy. An entire planet of nothing but gorgeous scenery and romantic little towns." He nuzzled her neck. "Miles of empty beaches." He pulled her loose tunic aside and kissed her shoulder. "Moonlight." He turned her face to him to kiss her lips, but a hurried knock at the door intervened.
"Great," Christopher said with considerable annoyance. "The perfect end to a perfect day." Kirk straightened and took a step backward as she ordered, "Come."
The door opened to admit a slight, youngish man in the uniform of the Sankiani Heath Service and a much older, much taller woman, the Councils Minister of External Affairs. Both had suffered through the days conference as part of the Paramounts stafflargely in silence, Christopher recalled.
The woman bowed slightly. "Ambassador. Captain."
"Minister Jenkeand Doctor Hakim, isnt it?" Christopher replied.
The young man nodded but said nothing. Jenke got right to the point. "Ambassador, we are here at the express order of Paramount Najang. She wishes you to know that she does not share Minister Mankendes viewpoint. She is very anxious to preserve the peace between the Arged and Sankiang."
"The Paramount gave little evidence of support for our position at the conference this afternoon," Christopher replied wryly.
"You must understand that the Paramount is under pressure from an element in the government that insists on a strong stand against the Arged. She would risk much by opposing Mankende in public." The minister offered no further elaboration.
But the young doctor exercised no such restraint. "The Interior Minister controls what few resources exist in Sankiang," he said. "His National Security forces have grown so powerful in recent months that they openly defy the Paramounts authority. Mankende even has allies within the Ministry of Defense who would not hesitate to oppose their own minister."
Hakim took several steps closer and spoke as if he might not get another chance. "There are many of us in the government who feel war with the Arged would be a catastrophe. If only the Paramount would move against Mankende before it is too late"
"Hakim!" The older woman silenced him, then turned to the two Federation representatives. "The Paramount will act to contain Mankende in her own time and in her own way. At present, she does not wish to provoke a conflict within the government. I am instructed to make it clear, however, that Sankiang will not act the aggressor in a war with the Arged. We are open to a peaceful solution to this conflict."
The Federation special envoy offered an ironic smile. "That is certainly a more positive attitude, Minister. However, I am currently at a complete loss for a solution. The Argeddans remain convinced that the epidemic is a biological attack from Sankiang."
"Kebbe would never allow such a thing to happen if he was aware of it," Jenke insisted.
"That I can believe," Kirk interjected. "But if Mankende has supporters in the Defense Ministry, Kebbe may have been kept out of the loop."
"Those of us in the Health Service have no doubt the epidemic is real," Hakim argued. "But Mankende and the other warmongers in this government are not doctors. They cannot be convinced by medical data."
"What will convince them, then?" Christopher insisted, her voice strained with frustration.
"And is it even worth the attempt?" Kirk added. "Or is Mankende so set on war that he would ignore any evidence?"
Hakim shook his head. Jenke stood motionless and silent.
Kirk addressed the External Affairs Minister squarely. "Only the Paramount has the power to control Mankende. She may have to use it to avoid this warwhether she wants to or not."
Jenke straightened. "Power can be extended using the proper tool, Captain. We had hoped you would provide us with the lever we need to move this weight."
Christopher suddenly felt as if that weight was pressing on her own shoulders. "We will do our best to fashion one, Minister. Lets just hope we have the time to complete our handiwork before all of Sarva crashes down around our ears."
"Ambassador. Captain Kirk." External Affairs Minister Jenke nodded briefly and made her way to the door of the guest quarters. When she noticed Doctor Hakim had not followed, she turned and looked at him questioningly.
"I would like to stay and discuss the medical data further with Doctor McCoy, Minister," Hakim explained. "If that is permitted."
"Be brief, Doctor," Jenke warned. "I am sure our guests are fatigued." She swept from the room.
Hakim turned immediately to the captain of the Enterprise. "Captain, there is something else you should know."
Kirk and Christopher exchanged a quick glance. "Go on," Kirk replied.
"You must have noticed the interchange between Mankende and the Klingon this morning," Hakim said. "It was the Interior Minister who invited the captain herewe suspect he may be offering to collaborate in return for the Klingons support in the war. What do you know of their mission here?"
"Virtually nothing," Kirk admitted. "But anything is possible where the Empire is involved."
The ambassador cut in. "What does Mankende have to offer them?"
Hakim frowned. "That is what puzzles us. Sankiang is quite poor in those things the Klingons usually find valuable. We do know that Mankende and the Klingon captain have spent several days outside the capital. In fact, I am told they left immediately after the meeting for the Serrekan Mountains." He laughed harshly. "They are supposedly visiting the ruins at Ba-Serrekan. I hardly think KZar is a tourist."
Kirk found himself pacing and stopped short. "Ba-Serrekanthats a precolonial site, isnt it?"
"Sarvas indigenous civilization had died out long before the first Federation surveys," Hakim explained. "Ba-Serrekan has provided most of what small knowledge we have of those people."
"But what could possibly be of interest there?" Christopher broke in. "The site has been officially protected and virtually undisturbed since before the establishment of the colony."
Kirk couldnt hide the surge of enthusiasm that suddenly hit him. "I dont know, but Im going to find out," he said with a grin.. "Doctor Hakim, can you get me the coordinates for Ba-Serrekan?"
"Coordinates, Captain?" The doctor looked confused.
"Yes, location codes for the ships transporter."
"Well, I suppose I could find someone who could," Hakim answered tentatively.
"Captain, please tell me youre just going to send someone to take a look at this place," Christopher said. Her expression clearly said she was not happy with the direction events were taking.
"I am going to send someone to take a look at this place, Ambassador," Kirk replied. He smiled innocently at her. "Me."
"And just when were you planning to take this little jaunt?" she asked, her tone conveying the additional message that Kirk was out of his mind.
"Tonight, if possible. Can you suggest a better time, Ambassador?" Kirk smiled again, a smile that said he knew if she had truly been opposed to the idea she would have wasted no time telling him.
The ambassador merely looked at him and shook her head in mild disbelief.
"Uh, if youll excuse me," Hakim said quickly, on his way to the door. "Ill get those ...coordinates...for you.
Kirk flipped his communicator open and immediately heard the Vulcans voice respond. "Spock, we have a little reconnaissance job to do down here. Bring a tricorder and two phasers and stand by to beam down when I get you the coordinates. Oh, and see if you can locate any geophysical data on the Ba-Serrekan site."
"Ba-Serrekan, Captain? I was not aware your mission was going so well that you had time for tourism."
"Not tourism, Captain Spock," Kirk said with a grin. "Fishing." He could almost see Spocks eyebrow arch in astonishment. "Leave Scotty in charge and stand by. Ill get back to you as soon as possible. Kirk out."
Christopher regarded him from her chair with a smile that was somewhere between admiration and amusement. "Are you going to tell me what this is all about or do I have to guess?"
His grin grew even wider. "A hunch. Anyone on the Enterprise will tell you Im famous for them."
"Youre really enjoying this, arent you?" She laughed. "Well, I have to admit it sounds like more fun than sitting through another meeting like todays. If I had the energy, Id go with you."
He looked at her closely. She looks so tired. "Are you all right?"
She waved a hand in dismissal. "Fine. Its just been a long day."
He took the hint. "Id better break the news to McCoy; his reaction should be even better than yours." He headed for the door.
"Jim." He paused and their eyes met. "Be careful." She suddenly smiled. "Id hate to have to explain to the Paramount why you snuck out of the house in the middle of the night."
He grinned wolfishly. "Wouldnt be the first time," he said and turned to go.
What was left of the city that had once been Ba-Serrekan clung with grim tenacity to the sheer mountainside, a haunting jumble of jagged shadows in the obscuring light of Sarvas moons. The remains of the citys lower districtsbroken skeletons of homes and markets, temples and shops and municipal buildingslay strewn along the mountain slopes below or piled in a heap at the bottom like the bones of some ancient genocide.
The end had come within seconds for many of the people of that ancient city. Those who survived let the rubble bury their dead and fled the fires and the aftershocks to try and start life over in the plains below. They failed, and the planets native people became extinct.
Now only the empty husks of those buildings that still stood with their backs to the mountain recalled the life that had once been lived in Ba-Serrekan. Of the new life the survivors had struggled and failed to build, there was no sign now at all.
The transporter beam shimmered briefly and left Kirk and Spock in a narrow side street in the old heart of the city. Kirk looked up at Sarvas moons framed by the canyon of the buildings on either side. "Have you ever seen this place in daylight, Spock?"
"Yes, Captain. Some years ago, when Captain Pike commanded the Enterprise. It is quite impressive. We came here to do a follow-up survey on these very ruins."
"I can believe it," Kirk said softly. There were ghosts whispering in these ruins. He could almost hear them.
Spock adjusted the tricorder and immediately put the instrument to work. "Exactly what are we attempting to locate, Captain?"
"Im not sure. But if the Klingons find this place of interest, I want to know why. Lets start by finding them."
Spock pointed. "Life form readings in that direction, Captain."
The two headed cautiously toward the area Spock had indicated. They soon found there was no easy route through the broken city. Even before the earthquake the streets had been little more than sinuous footpaths. Now many were blocked with debris or followed new paths to unlikely destinations among the shattered buildings. In the half-dark, mere sensory information was misleading, and both Vulcan and Human were forced to rely on frequent readings from the tricorder to find their way.
At length, the route led them to the very edge of the line that divided the living from the dead on the day of Ba-Serrekans destruction. The street before them abruptly ended at the lip of a deep scar across the face of the mountain, its contours now softened with time. The drop had once been sheer and the slope barren; now a dense growth of scrubby trees and low vegetation covered all but the last few feet of rockface directly below them.
Spock pointed down the slope to their left. There, at what appeared to be a service entrance into the protected area that surrounded the ruins, was a small thermocrete shed. A larger administrative building was set into the mountainside behind it. Yellow light spilled into the paved lot around the tiny building.
Kirk crouched to take a look. "How many, Spock?"
"Two in the shedboth Klingons," Spock told him. "Possibly four others in the larger building, at least one of whom is Sarvan."
Spock set the tricorder for wider scan and almost immediate found something of interest. "Captain, the geophysical data you requested on this site did not indicate any caverns or underground structures," the Vulcan said. "The tricorder shows an opening in the mountain face just beyond the complex below. I can only conclude that it has been recently excavated. It was not here when I helped conduct the survey twenty-six years ago."
"Archaeological diggings?" Kirk suggested.
"The dimensions of the opening do not resemble the shallow terraces that characterize archeological excavations," Spock responded. "The opening seems to extend directly into the mountainside, rather like a tunnel."
"Or a mine shaft."
A smile crossed Kirks lips as he considered the next stephe was close to solving this particular little puzzle. "Captain Spock, lets take a look at that hole in the ground. I think we may just find out why the Klingons are so interested in this piece of real estate."
They gave the entrance compound a wide berth, circling through the trees on the slope below to a point some way beyond it on the other side. A dusty roadbed had been cut into the mountains shoulder, widening into a flat half-moon in front of a symmetrical hole gouged out of the rock.
Plasteel girders a foot thick framed the tunnel entrancea stack of them lay to the side ready for use as the excavation advanced deeper into the mountain. Two of the disruptor generators Klingons commonly used in their mining operations and a scattering of other kinds of equipment filled the area between the roadway and the mountainside.
Spock approached the tunnel entrance, head bent over the tricorder. "This appears to be an exploratory shaft, Captain. It is not very extensive, and there is no indication of any large quantities of material being removed."
"But what are they after?"
"Unknown. The tricorder is not picking up anything of interest in the mine tailings, as I believe they are called." Spock looked up from the tricorder to consider the problem. "The 2256 geophysical survey did not indicate mineral deposits of any kind. The survey, however, was not very thoroughthe area had already been designated a protected site and the usual survey procedures were curtailed to avoid disturbing its archeological integrity."
Kirk looked at the blasted rockface and said wryly, "Whoever did this didnt seem to have much concern for the archeological integrity of the place. Would it help to take some samples?"
Spock nodded. "Analysis of material from inside the shaft by the ships geology lab would tell us if there is anything of interest here. Of course, this particular exploration may not have yielded the material the engineers were seeking."
"Well, only one way to find out," Kirk said with finality. "Go ahead, Spock. Ill keep an eye out for our Klingon friends."
The Vulcan slipped into the shaft, leaving Kirk in the quiet darkness outside. For a time, the captain was left to his thoughts, but the distant sound of a door banging and voices echoing in the compound brought him to full alert. He waited a split second to be certain the voices were slowly coming nearer, then flipped his communicator open. "Spock, weve got company. How much time?"
"I shall need approximately two minutes thirty seconds to complete the work."
Kirk glanced sharply toward the compound. "We dont have that long, Spock. Get what you can and get back to the ship."
"Now, Spock. Ill try to create a diversion to give you some time, but make it fast."
He snapped the communicator shut and scrambled as quietly as he could up the slope above the road. Clambering over the rocky hillside, he ducked behind a wide outcropping as the three Klingons passed below him on their way to the shaft.
Kirk grabbed a fist-sized rock and hefted it once before sending it sailing back toward the compound. It hit some bushes with a satisfying crash. The Klingons whirled to locate the source of the noise. Two of them headed back up the road to take a look; the third turned to continue on the path to the shaft.
Certain he wouldnt get a better chance, Kirk plotted an approximate trajectory and launched himself into the darkness of the pathway below. He collided heavily with his target, knocking the Klingon off his feet and nearly knocking himself senseless as they rolled downslope with the impact.
Kirk found his feet first, but the Klingon aimed a kick at the back of his knee that sent him sprawling. A pair of huge, mailed hands grabbed his jacket and hauled him to his feet, setting him up for the roundhouse punch. Kirk came in under it and delivered a staggering uppercut of his own.
The alien shook off the blow and returned to the attack, his fist crashing explosively into Kirks mid-section. Struggling for breath against the splintering pain in his ribs, Kirk snatched the offending arm and pivoted, throwing the Klingon over his right hip. The Klingon landed in an ungainly heap downslope but gave every indication of getting up to come at him again.
Kirk took a step down to finish him off. Too late he recognized the sound of movement behind him. Then a savage blast of pain seemed to take the back of his head offand Kirk dropped abruptly into the deep dark of unconsciousness.
Kirk struggled back to awareness some time later in the yellow glare of the service shed. As his eyes began to focus, he slowly realized he was lying on a bunk in one corner of the room. He hadnt been there long, he knew, the arms that were tied at the wrists behind his back were not yet numb. In fact, they ached like hell.
He moved to sit up, but the blinding pain in the back of his head made him drop back onto the cot with an involuntary gasp. He waited, then tried again, this time with more success. It was a moment before he could concentrate enough to remember why hed wanted to sit up in the first placeespecially when being in this position sent a bullet of pain shooting through his ribcage.
Voices sounded in the compound outside and the door swung open to admit Captain KZar, surrounded by his officers, looking extremely pleased with himself. Kirk breathed a silent sigh of relief to see that Spock was not with them.
"Captain Kirk. I can hardly believe my luck," KZar said with a cold grin. "What fortune is it that brings us together in such an unlikely place?"
Kirk mustered every ounce of strength to respond in the same bantering tone. "I was just about to ask you the same question, Captain. Of course, I might have found out for myself had I not been so rudely interrupted."
KZars grin widened. "I am here by invitation, Kirk, but somehow I doubt that you are. I believe espionage is an offense punishable by death in Sankiang."
The Klingon moved slowly closer until he stood inches from Kirks awkwardly bound form. "I shall enjoy watching you die, Kirk. The Empire still has a handsome bounty on your head."
Kirk answered, "Many have tried to collect it over the years. None have succeeded, and I doubt youll be the first. After all, during our last encounter, we discovered you were little more than a petty thief."
The Klingons face contorted in rage; the back of his gloved fist cut viciously across Kirks jaw with an impact that slammed him back against the wall and opened a gash along his jawline.
Kirk smiled slowly and delivered an approximation in English of a time-honored Klingon taunt: "Your hand is soft like a womans, KZar. Ive taken worse in my nights of pleasure."
His Khmyr officers laughing, the Khteb Klingon captain snarled and drew back for another blow, but a sharp command from the doorway stayed his hand.
"KZar!" Mankende barked. "What is the meaning of this?"
The Klingon straightened, and replied in a voice still ragged with hatred, "My men discovered this Terran pig outside the compound. He is obviously a spy."
Mankende effected a subtle shift of manner and said with an apologetic smile, "Nonsense, Captain. The ruins at Ba-Serrekan are open to all visitors. Though I do wish you had let me know you were interested in visiting the ruins, Captain."
Very smooth, Kirk had to admit. You are a very dangerous man, Mister Mankende. Kirk met the Sarvans eyes to show his understanding, but he said nothing.
Mankende moved quickly to release the Humans bonds. "This has been a dreadful misunderstanding, Captain. Im sure my Klingon friend simply thought he was being vigilantyou see, we have recently made a significant new archeological discovery here, and we are a bit security-conscious."
He paused as Kirk concentrated on getting the blood moving in his arms again. "Of course, it does seem as if you two have your own reasons for conflict. I must warn you both that Sankiang will not serve as your private battleground, and Sarva will not become another Neural, Serenidad or Stradia."
Kirk gave the minister an A-1 rating for inventiveness in an embarrassing situation and took up his own role in Mankendes little play. "Perhaps I did strain your hospitality by seeking the Klingon captain out, Minister Mankende. We have a great deal of unfinished business between us." He glared a challenge at the Klingon. "But youre quite right that this is neither the time nor the place to display our personal antagonism."
Mankende allowed the corners of his mouth to turn up minutely. "Im gratified that you have come to that conclusion, Captain Kirk. Captain KZar?"
"Ill find another time and place to deal with you, Kirk," KZar growled.
"Captain, I am certain you are anxious to return to your starship," the minister said. "Please do not allow us to detain you further." He held out Kirks communicator with a faint smile.
Kirk didnt wait to be asked twice. He may still have had questions, but it was nothing short of a miracle that he was getting out of this intact. He took his communicator from the minister and hailed the ship, waiting a bit unsteadily for the beam to take him up.
When Kirk had disappeared in the transporters sparkle, Mankende turned angrily on the Klingon. "You idiot! What did you hope to gain by holding a starship captain against his will?"
"He was found not a hundred meters from the shaft," KZar snapped back. "Should I have let him discover for the Federation what only you and I know now?"
The fool has no subtlety, Mankende thought. He is worse than a bush boar in the house. "How could he have discovered anything? He carried no sensors; you found no samples on him. If he did happen to stumble onto the shaft, I have provided him with a plausible explanation. He would have been no threat at all if you hadnt overreacted."
"James T. Kirk is always a threat."
Mankende laughed derisively. "Are you afraid of this Terran, KZar?"
The Klingons voice was low, menacing. "Dont push me, old man. You have something I want. For the time being, I am willing to deal for it. But bewareI can just as easily snap your neck and take it!"
Mankende had already decided KZar was no threat, but he made an effort to calm him anyway. "Your purposes are better served by following the plan just as mine are," he said, smiling slyly. "Be patient, my friend. The pot begins to boil; the feast will not be long in coming."
As the beam faithfully reassembled his atoms in the Enterprise transporter room, Jim Kirk had the alarming feeling that something had been left out. For a second, he wavered dizzily on the transporter pad, not trusting his legs to carry him off the platform.
Spock took several steps toward him, displaying a most un-Vulcan concern. "Captain, are you all right?"
Kirk steadied himself and nodded. "A little the worse for wear, but basically in one piece, Captain Spock. I think maybe Ill let the new residentwhats her name, Dushayne?get a little practice patching me up." He walked stiffly toward the corridor, suppressing a smile at the look of mild horror on the face of the young lieutenant at the transporter controls.
Spock discreetly placed a hand under his elbow. "Captain, are you sure I shouldnt call for a stretcher?"
Kirk waved him off. "No, Ill make it. Have you analyzed those samples yet?"
"Yes, sir. The material shows a significant concentration of unbound topaline. There is certain to be a deposit of the element in pure form in the immediate area."
Kirk stopped and stared at his executive officer. "Well, that explains why the Klingons are so interested in Sarva. Funny that nothing ever showed up on the surveys before this, archeological integrity or not.
"Apparently there have been several additional hectares annexed to the Ba-Serrekan site in the last solar year," Spock explained. "The Interior Ministry undertook new surveys shortly before annexation."
Kirk nodded. "Putting the Minister of the Interior in a perfect position to use the results to his own advantage. But if the Klingons are after the topaline, why instigate global war to get at it why not just deal with Mankende?"
"Perhaps because it is not certain the deposit lies totally within Sankiang. The Ba-Serrekan site is less than five kilometers from the Argeddan border."
"A detail I seem to have overlooked," Kirk said with a slight frown.
"Captain, I remind you we have no proof that the Klingons are involved in instigating the conflict between the Arged and Sankiang," Spock said pointedly. "In fact, if I read Doctor McCoys data correctly, we have no proof that anyone is instigating the conflict, at least not by biological means. We have discovered nothing of how the biological agent may have been delivered. I believe we must accept the possibility that the fever may be a natural phenomenon. The Klingons may simply be taking advantage of a very convenient situation."
"Convenient is the word, Spock," Kirk acknowledged as they reached Sickbay at last. "But if that is the case, Im not sure I like it any better. If this epidemic is not a result of a biological attack, then what is causing it?"
He stripped off his jacket and tunic and climbed painfully onto the nearest diagnostic bed as Doctor Holly Dushayne emerged from her office. She took in his condition with a glance and moved smoothly to examine him further. "Rough night, Captain?"
Kirk, taken aback by the doctors informality, raised an eyebrow. "I guess you could say so," he mumbled.
The sensors pulsed and scanned, each according to its appointed task. Dushayne gazed critically at the readouts and recited, "Two broken ribs, no lung damage, fortunately. That gash on your jaw will require closure. Multiple contusions and abrasions. A blow to the head that miraculously did not result in a severe concussion. What did you do, take on the whole Klingon Empire?" She started work on his jaw. "Honestly, Captain, at your age you should know better."
Kirk looked at her quizzically. "Do they teach the patented Leonard McCoy bedside manner in Starfleet Medical these days? Or do you have a natural talent for it, too?"
She laughed. "Captain, I didnt even start med school until my kids were grown. Guess I never took the time to develop that professional attitude. This is just another skinned knee to me."
Kirk noticed for the first time that she did seem older than the usual resident. It was actually a pleasure to see a face with some experience on it in his young crew.
The doctor sprayed his bruised ribcage with a coolant compound, instantly relieving Kirk of both a great deal of pain and what seemed to be most of his body heat. He shivered gratefully.
Dushayne indicated shed finished with him. "Thatll take a while to dry, but if you want to get cleaned up, the sonics shouldnt hurt it."
Kirks eyes widened. Age or not, that was a little presumptuous.
Spock, however, agreed with the doctor. "I would advise it, Captain. You do appear to besomewhat disheveled."
Kirk looked from his dusty pants to the bloodstains on the neck of his once-white turtleneck and saw the point. He headed for the door, but Dushayne held up a hand. "Then Ill see you back here for a nice, long rest, Captain. I want to keep an eye on that head injury."
"Sorry, Doctor, but if Im not back in my cozy little room in Nifan tomorrow morning, people will talk. Im afraid you just lost a patient." He grinned winningly at her, hoping it would do the trick. "Spock, Ill meet you in the transporter room in fifteen minutes."
Dushayne opened her mouth to protest, but Kirk was already turning to go.
Kirk actually made it to the transporter room in something under twelve minutes, but the usually proper captain arrived carrying his shirt and uniform jacket in one hand, dabbing experimentally at the sticky residue on his chest with the other.
"How long does this stuff take to dry, anyway?" he asked Spock irritably. He glanced sidelong at the transporter officer, who was now not only horrified but red-faced with embarrassment as well. She fixed her eyes resolutely on her console.
"Approximately forty-five standard minutes, depending on air temperature and humidity," Spock answered evenly.
Kirk regarded him. "Ive got an hour to get some sleep, and youre telling me if I lie down Im going to wake up stuck to the sheets?"
Spock looked slightly uncomfortable but said nothing.
Kirk sighed. "This is the thanks I get for having the stuffing knocked out of me. Beam me down, Lieutenant. I can see Ill get no sympathy up here."
Whether it was due to a minor glitch in the system or to the lieutenants uncertain touch on the controls wasnt entirely clear, but the transporter chose that particular moment to display a fit of temper. The captain faded, then reappeared on the transporter pad. He was no longer amused, and, from the lieutenants reaction, he knew his expression showed it.
Spock immediately stepped to the controls to send him efficiently on his way before he had a chance to say what was on his mind. Kirk almost felt sorry for the transporter chief, who would be spending the rest of her shift running a full diagnostic sequence on the transporter. Her unhappy face was the last thing he saw as the beam took him back to Sarva.
Kirk awoke with a start in the gradually lightening room, for a moment not quite sure where he was. He shook his head to clear it and was quickly reminded of how hed spent the previous eveningthe back of his head screamed at him to be still. He checked the chronometer and gave up any hope of more sleep. Two hours would have to do.
A soft rap at the door confirmed it. "Jim, its Elena. Are you awake?"
"Just barely," he admitted, slipping into his pants. "Come on in."
"Breakfast is laid out in my room, if youre interested," she began as she came through the door. One look at Kirks battered body stopped her in her tracks. "My God," she gasped. "What the hell happened?"
He smiled ruefully. "Well, last night wasnt quite as much fun as I thought it was going to be, but I did learn something interesting."
She reached out hesitantly to touch him. "Are you all right?" she asked softly, her face reflecting an odd mix of sympathy and outrage.
"A few bumps and bruises," he said casually. He moved closer and put a finger to his lips. "It doesnt hurt here."
She smiled and kissed him lightly. Her hands brushed the film that covered his ribs, the remnants of the coolant spray. Catching the short, sharp intake of breath he couldnt quite stifle, she looked up at him narrowly.
"A couple of cracked ribs," he admitted. "Doctor Dushayne patched me up on the ship last night."
Christopher took a step backward and looked at him with what now clearly qualified as anger. "Exactly what went on last night that you nearly got yourself killed?"
"Ba-Serrekan is sitting on top of a significant deposit of topaline, a mineral that both the Federation and the Klingons use in our life-support systems. We have our source on Capella Four. The Klingons have found one here." Kirk enjoyed the effect of his news. "Mankende has apparently offered the Klingons a deal, in return for what we still dont know."
"Topaline!" she exclaimed. "But the surveys never showed anything. How do you know?"
"Spock took samples from the exploratory shaft," Kirk replied. "In fact, thats where I got into troubleKZar didnt take kindly to my poking around. Mankende showed up before things got really nasty and politely sent me on my way. I guess hes not quite ready to make a scene."
She nodded. "It would tend to tip his hand if he was caught holding a Federation starship captain. But whats the game?"
"My guess is war," Kirk said grimly. "Ba-Serrekan is less than five kilometers from the border, and Spock says the deposit could easily straddle the two countries."
"And Mankende obviously feels the Paramount cant be trusted to ensure that this wonderful resource stays under the exclusive control of the Sankiani Interior Ministry," Christopher concluded. "Hes out to take her job, too."
She frowned, absently rubbing her left temple. "Which leaves us more or less at square one. Before Mankende makes his move, weve got to come up with something that Naiang can use against him."
Kirk raised an eyebrow. "You mean something besides the evidence that Mankende is suppressing information on a matter of national import, collaborating with an alien power and possibly plotting a coup."
"That information will undoubtedly be very interesting to the Paramount herself," Christopher allowed. "But unless you managed to get a computer tape or a signed affidavit on your little expedition last night, she wont be able to do a damn thing with it openly. The best we can do for now is find a way to get the message to Najang and carry on as if we dont know from nothing."
He nodded. "McCoy ought to he able to get in touch with Hakim without attracting too much attention."
"Lets just hope the Argeddans dont get wind of thisNdarr would love to use this as an excuse to send in the troops."
There was a brief silence, then Christopher suddenly smiled. "Boy, you dont fool around when you go looking for information, do you?" She slipped closer and hooked her arms around his waist. "But in future, would you please do me a favor? Try and keep yourself in one piece. This is going to put an awful crimp in our love life."
He grinned, ready to come back with an appropriately suggestive line. A glimpse of something in her eyes made him stop, an electric thrill shooting up his spine. For the briefest moment a channel had been open, communicating a depth of compelling emotion so utterly unexpected he wondered whether he had created it somehow out of his own need. Seeking confirmation, he bent to kiss her, but a polite cough at the door intervened before he found his answer.
"A little early for that sort of thing, isnt it?" McCoy drawled from the doorway. His grin shut down as soon as he caught sight of Kirks ragged jawline. "What the hell happened to you?"
Kirk grimaced. "Now, dont you start, Bones. Between Dushayne and Elena here, Ive already had the full treatment."
The doctor turned his friends face to the light and peered at the healing cut with professional interest. "Looks like Holly did a good job on your jaw. What else ails you?"
Christopher piped up before Kirk could deny any further injuries. "Cracked ribs and a very nasty bump on the head, not to mention scrapes and bruises in a couple dozen places."
Kirk shot her a warning glance, but she just smiled innocently.
"Damn it, Jim, I told you chasing after KZar was a bad idea..."
McCoy was just getting wound up when Kirks communicator beeped urgently. "Saved by the bell," Kirk muttered as he reached for the instrument and flipped it open. "Kirk here."
"Spock here, Captain. Im afraid I have bad news."
Kirk felt his heart clench apprehensively. "What is it, Spock?"
"After the temporary difficulty we experienced with the transporter earlier this morning, I ordered a complete systems check," the executive officer reported. "The computer simulation indicates failure of certain critical elements is imminent. We will have to effect repairs before the transporter can be used again."
Kirk frowned. "What exactly is the problem?"
"Scott here, Captain," the captain of engineering cut in. "Its that new alloy in the transporter coils, sir. I told those headquarters snotnoses that the damn things wouldnt hold after I fixed them. They told me that it was just coincidence that the coils failed the first time during our mission to Tellus."
"How long to replace the coils, Scotty?"
"Its tricky, Captain. Well have to rip apart the whole assembly to get at the things. Id say twenty hours minimum."
Jesus, twenty hours! "And the shuttlecraft?"
"Another twelve, at least, sir."
The captain of the Enterprise rubbed his tired eyes and said resignedly, "Okay, Scotty, get on it. Keep me informed. Kirk out." He turned to the others with a wry smile. "Remind me never to try to accomplish any kind of mission without a ship thats already passed a thorough shakedown."
"Jim, we have to get back to the Arged," Christopher insisted. "We cant wait for the transporter."
"I agree," Kirk said. "Well have to rely on the kindness of strangers once again."
"Oh, great," McCoy groused. "Another pleasant skimmer drive in the country,"
Kirk gave McCoy a sympathetic nod as he shrugged stiffly into his uniform. This was not going to be a comfortable trip for him either.
The doctor watched him appraisingly. "Well, I hope whatever you learned last night was worth all the punishment."
"Worth every bruise," Kirk grinned, leading the way to the door. "Ill catch you up over breakfast."
Kirk overheard McCoys inquiry of Elena Christopher as the three adjourned to the next room. "You didnt sleep a wink last night, did you?"
The ambassador smiled wanly. "Do I look that bad?"
"Even when youve had a bad night, you look better than most people," McCoy said smoothly. "But you are not your perky self this morning."
"Please, Doctor, I have never thought of myself as perky at all," she said, offended. "Just a headache is all."
"Ill get you something for it," McCoy answered simply, but his face was set in a worried frown.
Kirk had seen that frown before, and it distracted him for the rest of the morning. Whats Bones thinking?
As Kirk had expected, the long overland trip in the borrowed Argeddan hovercraft was no easy ride. He shifted positions every minute or so, but his bones still felt like a pile of broken sticks, sharp ends jutting out at odd angles to bruise him from the inside.
McCoy, at least, was trying to put the hours to good use. Tied in to the ships medical computer through the tricorder in his lap, the doctor searched intensely for some kind of pattern. After a while, he broke off and shook his head. "Something about this epidemiological profile is significant," he said, "but Im hanged if I can figure out what."
"No luck, huh, Bones?"
"Its the damnedest thing Jim," the doctor said. "We have so few recognizable characteristics to go on. Oh, the symptoms and the progress of the disease are more or less the same in every case. Theres just nothing in the clinical datanothing in the blood or tissue samples, nothing in the mediscanner readingsthat can tell us what biological agent is causing it or how its transmitted."
"Spock believes its unlikely this is the result of a biological attackKlingons or not," Kirk told him.
"Id have to agree at this point, Jim," McCoy answered. "Beats hell out of me how theyd have done it. This is no ordinary bugin fact, I dont even know if its a bug at all. The only thing that stands out in all this besides the geographical distribution is a slight seasonal variationcases increase in the wet season, fall off in the dry season. Even thats not confirmed. We only have three seasons to look at."
"Not much there," Kirk agreed.
McCoy exhaled. "I just havent had enough time to run all this data through the computer. Ill be glad to get back to the ship. Any word from Scotty?"
Kirk rubbed a hand across his throbbing forehead. "Nothing good."
McCoy considered him. "You could use some sleep."
"Yeah," he admitted with a pained smile. "I guess that knock on the head rattled me a little more than I thought."
The doctor reached for his mediscanner and ran a quick survey. "Looks like nothing worse than a headache. Ive got a doozy myself. Want something for it?"
Kirk shook his head and stretched out as far as the cramped seat and his aching ribs would allow. "A nap should take care of it."
As the doctor turned back to his work, Kirk looked across the narrow aisle at Elena Christopher. She was already asleep against the far viewport, a slight flush on her cheeks.
He thought again of the morning, of that almost illusory trace of something deep in her eyes. He was certain now that what he had perceived was real. The way his heart was kicking in his chest as he gazed at her now was enough to confirm it. He wondered if the ambassador would acknowledge the emotion hed glimpsed so briefly, if she could afford to open her heart and let it out.
It was already too late for him, he knew. No matter how much it was likely to cost him, he couldnt deny his feelings. He was falling in love with Elena Christopher. He only hoped for both their sakes that Elena would not admit she was also in love with him. That always made it so much harder.
Elena Christopher, Federation Special Envoy to the planet Sarva, had put every ounce of strength, every scrap of knowledge and skill into her arguments before the Director of the Arged. She could see none of it had had any effect.
Soborr-Taals position had hardened since her first audience with himthe Director was no longer prepared to give the Sankianis the benefit of the doubt. "The internal politics of Sankiang do not interest me," he stated flatly. "I am more concerned about their external politics. Their troop strength continues to build on the border. My own people continue to die. Obviously you have failed to convince them of the seriousness of the situation."
Christopher clamped down on the urge to tell Soborr-Taal all she knew. Some of the details simply had to remain confidential, no matter how useful they might be at the moment. "Director, I believe it is still possible to convince them," she said finally.
"How, Ambassador?" the Argeddan snapped. "Should we ship them the bodies?"
His voice fell and his shoulders sagged in resignation. "The point is nearly moot in any event. Their military forces along the border would be a threat even without the epidemic. We must prepare to meet that threatand I do not know how long I can argue against the advice of my own counselors to strike first."
Christopher fought to maintain the concentration that was slowly fragmenting under the merciless pounding in her head. She tried to focus on the Argeddan leader through a thickening haze of withering pain. "I beg you to hold them off a while longer, Director," she pleaded. "Najang assures me she will not move against the Arged first. If you could give us some time..."
"Time is the one thing we do not possess, Ambassador," Soborr-Taal replied. "Before this yuadrene is ended, the time for diplomacy will be past. Ndarr will not wait longerand neither will I."
"Director, allow us to meet again with the regional medical staff in the valley," Christopher said, a tightness in her chest constricting her voice. "Perhaps they can help us find a way to present the case so that the Sankianis will have the justification they need to back off from this confrontation."
The Director sighed. "Ambassador, you are free to do whatever you want, but, pleasedo not come to me empty-handed again. The Arged prepares for war. I have much to occupy me."
The ambassador bowed slightly, her face a waxy mask. She turned and headed for the door, but only sheer effort of will got her through it and out into the corridor, where Kirk and McCoy were waiting. A wave of dizzying weakness finally brought her to a stop.
Kirk turned to her in alarmand caught her just as her knees buckled under her. "Bones!"
The doctor was already at her side, taking a reading with the mediscanner. "Temperature thirty-nine point two," he murmured. "Elevated pulse rate...some lung congestion..."
She struggled to sit up against the searing pain behind her eyes. The eyes themselves refused to focus; she saw everything through an eerie, gelatinous blur. From a long way off she heard Kirk tell her to take it easy. Blearily, she watched the doctor give her a hypo. As the stimulant began to take effect, she felt some of the fog clear away.
McCoy gave her his best bedside smile. "Any better?"
She nodded. "Im okay. My head..."
Kirk and McCoy helped her to her feet. "Never did get you that painkiller, did I?" the doctor said, a little too lightly. "Come on, lets get you to bed."
The three moved silently down the passageways to their quarters, weaving a path through the aides and uniformed officers hurrying between offices. Christopher was shaky with fatigue, and every bone in her body seemed to ache. She couldnt breathe; every step was an effort despite the strong arms that held her on either side. The walk was not a long one, she knew, but it seemed an eternity before they finally reached the rooms that had been assigned to them. She sank gratefully onto the bed and waited for her mind to clear.
McCoy hovered over her with the scanner, taking time now for detailed readings. Christopher didnt need the instrument to tell her what was wrongshe could read it in the doctors face. Her heart was thrashing against her ribs, but she managed to keep her voice calm. "Something tells me Im going to need more than aspirin, Leonard," she said quietly.
McCoy looked up and almost smiled in response to her attempt at humor, but nothing could shake the regret she saw in his eyes. "Its too early to be certain without a complete blood scan." He paused, looking first at Kirk standing tensely to one side, then back at the woman who had suddenly become his patient. "It doesnt look good, Elena."
Her jaw tightened, and she swallowed hard, her fear booming like an angry ocean in her ears. She wanted to ask, How long? What are my chances? What can be done? But she already knew the answers from weeks and days spent reviewing the data on this particular disease.
She glanced up at Jim Kirk. He looked stricken, as if someone had carved out a piece of his heart and laid it in front of him. Seeing him almost made her lose what little control she had, but she gripped it tight and fought to hold on. There was too much to do to give in to her terror just now.
"Jim," she said. "You have to get me back to Nifan."
The idea hit Kirk like a bucket of cold water. He stared at her in shock. "What?!"
"They need evidence," she said. "What better evidence can they have than the Federation special envoy with a full-blown case of damarr fever? It may be our last chance to save this situation."
"The only place youre going is the Enterprise Sickbay," he said adamantly. "Bonestell her."
"Ambassador, in your condition you wouldnt make it down the hall, much less across half a continent," McCoy agreed.
Christophers eyes snapped and she pulled herself to one elbow using the strength of her determination to make it look good. "Im not dead yet, gentlemen, and my mission still has Class One priority," she hissed. "I have to do something while I still can to prevent this planet from blowing itself to hell!" She stopped, took a ragged breath and finished softly, "Now, come on, guys. I cant do it without you. Please help me."
McCoy looked from Christopher to Kirk and back, smiling in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "Jim, I didnt think it was possible, but I believe she is nearly as stubborn as you are."
Kirks expression indicated he was not in the mood for one of the doctors folksy observations.
McCoy shrugged. "I have to agree with Elena that this may be the only kind of evidence that will be dramatic enough for the Paramounts purposes, Jim. And quite frankly theres not much I can do for her at this point anyway." He hesitated before adding bleakly, "A few hours arent likely to make much difference."
Christopher appreciated his honesty since it served her purpose, but for an instant the fear threatened to crush her. With an effort she pushed it back enough to breathe.
She saw that Kirk was wrestling with some demons of his own. For a long moment, he stood silent, his expression unreadable. She knew better than to think he was merely weighing objective facts, but she didnt think he would allow his personal feelings to get in the way of the mission. In fact, she was counting on it.
Finally, the captain shook his head and reached for his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
The replywhen it camewas weak and distorted with static. "Spock here, Captain... Experiencing some difficulty...communications." He faded out, then back in. "Repeat: interference appears...from Klingon..." Static drowned his last words.
"Spock! Come in, Spock! Ships status!"
"Under yellow alert, Captain...Klingons jamming communications...no hostile...as yet."
"Please repeat, Captain."
"The transporter, Spock. Status of repairs on the transporter?"
There was a pause as static took over the link with the ship. Then Scotts voice came through in mid-sentence. "New coils are in place, but without reliable communications, we darent..." The static increased and finally precluded any further discussion.
Kirk slammed the communicator shut in a white heat. "What the hells going on up there?" He paced the length of the room, agitation evident in every step. "Why would the Klingons choose this particular moment to make a move on the ship?"
"My guess is it means we dont have a second to lose," the ambassador said with certainty. "We have to get a skimmer."
"Forget it. Neither the Argeddans nor the Sankianis are going to let you travel now," Kirk replied distractedly.
Christopher could see his mind was on the danger to his ship, the possibly fatal delay in their being trapped on the planet surface, the impossible fact of her illness. Still, she refused to give up her objective. "I had no intention of asking them for permission."
Jolted out of his concentration, Kirk gaped at her. "Now I know youre out of your mind," he said finally. "You expect to just waltz out of here, steal a skimmer out of the middle of an armed camp and cross a heavily guarded border with no trouble whatsoever?"
"No, Captain," she said with the ghost of a smile. "I expect you to do it for me."
Ensign Teresa Garcia sat at her station next to Uhura in the bridge communication bay and tried to disappear. A greenhorn always did well to disappear when her superior officers were unhappy. Commander Uhura had just lost communications with the captain and was very unhappy; Garcia could feel the frustration that was coming off her like heat, despite the commanders professional demeanor.
Captain Spock, on the other hand, was impervious to happiness, one way or the other. He stood motionless beside the captains chair, considering his options with no more indication of anxiety than a deck plate. Garcia had gotten so used to him standing there without a word that she jumped when the Vulcan abruptly turned in her direction.
He spoke to his communications officer. "Commander Uhura, the ships sensors, weapons systems and propulsion units are unimpaired, but without communications the Enterprise is unable to affect or even to accurately follow events on the planet. It is imperative that we restore our capability in this area."
Uhura looked at him as if hed just said the Terran sky was blue. "Agreed, Captain Spock, but the interference from that Klingon ship is effectively scrambling all my frequencies. Theres no question its deliberate."
Spock nodded. "The jamming is directly related to whatever is happening on the planet surface. At least the sensors do not yet indicate the outbreak of actual hostilities on the planet."
"If the Klingons are mixed up in that conflict, I dont see how it could be avoided, Captain Spock," Uhura pointed out.
"Indeed," Spock said. "However, at this moment the Klingons motives and probable next moves are not entirely predictable by rational means."
"No, but we do know that the captain and his party could be in real danger down there," Uhura said. "Theyre completely cut off."
Garcia knew Uhura didnt experience this reality as a cold, objective fact, even though her tone remained calm.
"Commander, without communications and in the absence of working shuttlecraft, we are helpless."
For a quick, unguarded second, Uhuras face showed the anguish she was feeling. Seeing it froze Garcias heart. The captains not just the captain for them, the ensign realized. Its their friend stuck down there. And Doctor McCoy, too. Somehow the fear and uncertainty Garcia felt at the captains absence wasnt the same. Until now, she hadnt been afraid for the captain. Shed been afraid for herself. Even though Spock gave his orders with just as much assurance, the Vulcan didnt have nearly the power to calm her nerves that Captain Kirk had.
"I believe it may be possible to break through the interference by focusing all of the ships power on one or two selected frequencies," Spock was saying.
"Yesif we reassembled the entire communications panel," Uhura said doubtfully.
Garcia cringed. Cmon now, you cant be serious!
"If you begin now you should be able to complete the work in approximately ten point three nine standard hours," Spock said helpfully.
"Sir," Uhura said formally. "I feel I should point out that the strategy you are suggesting would have only the slightest chance of succeeding."
Thatta girl, you tell him! Garcia thought.
Spock raised an eyebrow and answered with typical precision. "The probability of success is on the order of thirty-one point four percent. However, I submit that taking some sort of action is infinitely preferable to simply waiting for the Klingons to stop broadcasting the jamming signal of their own volition."
Uhura actually smiled! Garcia knew she had not a hope in hell of making it to her bunk at the end of this watch.
"Logical as always, Captain Spock," the commander said. Then she turned to Garcia. "Lets get to work, Ensign."
Once a decision had been made to get to Sankiang, the captain of the Enterprise put all his thought and energy into solving the problem of how to do it. In a way he was grateful for the opportunity to actspeculating about the future was at present both pointless and painful.
A brief sortie to scout the resources at hand in the government complex had provided him with an idea at leastnot the most original scheme, but one that he hoped had a fair chance of success.
"Looks like our best bet is the staff parking bay," Kirk told the others when he returned to the guest quarters. "A private skimmer will be much harder to trace; and with any luck, the owner wont even know its gone for a few hours yet. Im afraid some poor bureaucrat is going to have a very bad afternoon."
He looked at Christopher. Her skin was so pale it was nearly translucent, and the strain of trying to see and think clearly showed in her face. "Can you walk?" he asked her gently. "Well have to put on a good show if we expect to get out of here without attracting attention."
"Ill make it," she said, all her armor intact. "Another shot of that stuff your ships surgeon has been giving me, and I could do handsprings down the hall. Lets go." She stood up slowly, breathing deeply to counteract the abrupt drop of blood from her face.
Kirk took her arm, McCoy positioned himself on her opposite side. Together, they made their way through the corridors and out a side door to the parking bay; none of the harried officials they passed gave them a second glance.
The bay was deserted; it was a good two hours before the end of the normal working day at the complex. Kirk took a quick visual survey of the area farthest from the door and chose a likely target for larcenya nondescript skimmer of fairly recent and not very imaginative design, probably the family vehicle of some mid-level clerk.
Kirk took a chance and used his phaser on the door locks. His method was considerably noisier than he liked, but it had the advantage of being quick. They were soon inside the vehicle, its antigrav units humming expectantly, and no alarms were screaming at the violation.
The captain rummaged through the storage compartment and located a series of navigational holocharts that would get them out of the city. From the chart labels, it looked like they would be on their own beyond that pointthe vehicles owner was not the adventurous type.
Kirk inserted the first of the charts into the skimmers computer and engaged the forward drive with a jerk. At a look from McCoy, he grinned apologetically. "SorryIm a starship captain, not a chauffeur."
The skimmer floated slowly through the parking bay, pausing only briefly at the narrowly bracketed exit. The scanner picked up the authorization code on the vehicles bumper and allowed them through the gate with a routine beep.
"This is too easy," McCoy muttered.
"Just wait until we get to the border," Kirk answered, one eye on the navi-director as he steered the vehicle through the citys crowded routes. "I think Ive identified a hole in the fence, but who knows what kind of patrols theyve laid on since the alert began?"
"Well, just take it easy, will ya?" The doctor looked back at his patient stretched out in a rear seat, eyes closed.
Kirk spoke just loud enough for McCoy to hear. "How is she, Bones?"
"As well as can be expectedmaybe a little better," McCoy replied.. "Fever is rising slowly, lung congestion is increasing. Ive got her on tetraminomorphate to control the painshe wouldnt admit to it, but her K-Three readings are practically off the scale. I cant do anything more to help her until we can get access to the ships computers." He paused and glanced back at her again. "Ill tell you one thing: this is a very gutsy lady. Most people in her condition wouldnt even be able to get out of bed."
Although he knew he had no right to claim it, Kirk was suddenly intensely proud of the ambassador. He had often admired courage in the women around him, in members of his crew or among the players in the dozens of dangerous games he had played for planetary stakes. But he had never realized before now how much it was a quality he had soughtand foundin those few women he had truly loved.
When Kirk didnt answer, McCoy continued reflectively. "Ive been a doctor a long time, Jim, but I will never begin to understand how these things happen. Here I am, a rambling old wreckand healthy as a horse. And there she is, as full of life as any Human could be..." His voice trailed off and he shook his head.
Kirks hands gripped the controls as if by holding them he could hold on to some part of himself. His voice could barely be heard above the hum of the antigravs. "I dont want to lose her, Bones. Notnot like this..."
McCoy considered his friend for a long moment. "You havent told her how you feel, have you?"
Kirk took his eyes off the traffic long enough to glare at him. "How the hell do you know how I feel?"
McCoy ignored the implied order to mind his own business. Kirk figured he knew it was only half-intended. "Ive known you too long not to recognize the symptoms, Jim," he said. "But Elena may not be the mind-reader I am. And as her doctor, I have to tell you the way you handle this could make all the difference."
"Bones, I cant push this on her," Kirk insisted. "The last thing she needs right now is to have to worry about how I feel."
"You are what she needs right now," McCoy fired back. "My God, Jim, all shes got to fight with is her heartthe disease is going to take everything else. Maybe you cant see itmaybe she hasnt even admitted it to herself yetbut I can read the signs from a mile away. She loves you. And if the two of you dont own up to your feelings and begin to use them to help each other through this, youre a couple of damn stubborn fools."
McCoy folded his arms and stuck out his chin. From past experience, Kirk knew the conversation was over as far as Leonard McCoy was concerned. Sighing, the captain turned his attention to the skimmers circuitous route through the citybut his thoughts took their own separate path.
Some hours later, Kirk slowed the skimmer just below the top of a low ridge and punched the "Hover" button. He rubbed his stiff neck and pored over the conventional maps hed found with the charts in the vehicle. Night was falling with the swiftness of the tropics. The last of Sarvas sun glinted redly off the surface of the river in the distance.
McCoy roused himself from a brief nap and surveyed their surroundings sleepily. "Lost, Jim?"
"Not unless that body of water below is the ocean," Kirk answered with a grin. "Things get tricky once we cross the borderthis map is going to be pretty useless on the other side. At least the terrain is more open; we might be able to get by without specific route coordinates for a while anyway. Thats assuming we get across in one piece, of course," he added casually.
"Of course." The doctor looked as if he didnt believe in that possibility for a minute.
Suddenly the skimmers comm unit crackled into life. "YOU ARE ENTERING A RESTRICTED MILITARY ZONE. STATE YOUR AUTHORIZATION."
Kirk whipped around to locate the source of the transmission and saw the heavy military cruiser topping the ridge about a kilometer to the west. He didnt wait to talk it out with the cruisers captain; in a quick sequence of movements, he snapped off the comm unit, punched the skimmer into drive and shoved the power levels all the way to the right.
The skimmer shot off down the steep hillside, then banked sharply to the east to follow the curve of the ridge away from the cruiser. The military craft sped after them, kicking up a fiercely billowing cloud of dust from the eroded hillside behind it.
Kirk saw a cleft in the belt of treelike vegetation that followed the river to his left and made for it, swerving abruptly just as the first of the phaser trails blew away the scaly rocks to his right. Two, then three shots cut close enough to blister the paint on the skimmer as Kirk slammed the little vehicle down the narrow forest trail.
He battled the controls to negotiate the tight curves at full throttle, only too aware that while it might be scientifically inaccurate to think of the vegetative growths as trees, they were every bit as solid as their Terran counterparts.
There was a flash ahead and to his left as the cruiser fired another shot. His concentration faltered for a split-second, and he nearly missed the wrenching twist in the path just ahead. He put the skimmer into the curve at maximum thrust, praying the stabilizers would take the strain. They screamed at him, but they held the turn.
The trail straightened in front of him. Kirk could see the tantalizing sparkle of water through the last of the vegetation. But just now the wide, open path was no blessingthe cruiser would have a clear shot at them as soon as it came around the last turn. He risked a quick look behind himand saw the cruiser, out of control, cut its own fiery path through the stand of dense growth, disintegrating with a bone-jarring roar.
Heart crashing, Kirk brought the skimmer to an unsteady halt along the trail, waiting for a more normal sense of perception to replace the adrenalin rush that the need for survival had called up.
"Not bad for an old man," McCoy muttered.
Kirk took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Why, thank you, Doctor."
"I see were taking the scenic route." The voice from the back was weak and followed by a deep cough, but Christopher had managed to sit up and smile. "If you dont mind, Id just as soon do without the excitement."
"Some people are never satisfied," Kirk said, aggrieved. "Next youll be telling me you want to get the hell out of here before the border guards send in the reinforcements."
"That thought had crossed my mind," McCoy offered drily.
With a grin, Kirk eased the skimmer back into drive, ignoring the protesting whine of the overworked antigravs, and followed the trail to the river bank. The opposite bank was awash in shadow now, the night fully descended. Hoping fervently for an opening in the darkness, Kirk took the skimmer out over the rushing water and sped for the other side.
Minister of the Interior Sonko Mankende rose in the council chamber of Sankiang, his face stone, his voice ice. This is the moment, he told himself. Take what is yours. "By the rights of the Founding Charter, I ask you again, Paramount. Will you or will you not take action?"
The Paramount rose opposite him. "And by my vow to defend Sankiang, I tell you I will not be cursed throughout history as one who led her nation to ruin."
"No, Madam!" Mankende thundered. "You would rather be known as a coward who stood by while Sankiang fell under the bootheels of an Argeddan army! Their footsteps can be heard approaching even now. You must declare!"
"While there is still hope, I will not."
Mankendes mouth turned up in a cruel smile. "Then by your inaction you threaten the security of the nation. According to our laws, I challenge you to the leadership of this council." As if on cue, three other members of the council rose silently to stand with him. Minister Jenke and one other remained seated at the table, waiting uncertainly. The fools!
"Mankende, this is an outrage!" Najangs voice quivered with fury. "Even if your claim was just, you couldnt issue challenge in the absence of any council member."
The Interior Minister shrugged. "Unfortunate for you that Defense Minister Kebbe was detained. However, it is a minor technicality which Im sure the people will easily overlook."
"The people!" Najang exclaimed. "What can it matter to you what they thinkthere will be few enough of them left when you are finished anyway. It is the Federation that you must answer to! And Kebbes troops."
Mankende laughed. "I hardly think either task will prove to be overly difficult. The Prime Directive will prevent Christopher and Kirk from interfering in what is quite obviously an internal affair. And should they require a further incentive to accept my authority, Captain KZar stands ready to defend our right to self-determination."
The Minister circled the table slowly as he spoke until he stood directly in front of Najang. "As for Kebbe," he added ominously, "my supporters in the Ministry of Defense will have eliminated that threat by now."
A guard entered the chamber with a hurried murmur of apology and spoke urgently into Mankendes ear. Oh, this is perfect! He couldnt help gloating. He gave the guard a terse order and turned to the Paramount with a broad grin. "Well! It seems we shall not have long to wait to learn the Federations reaction." Mankende turned back to the door, just as it opened to admit Federation Special Envoy Elena Christopher, Captain Kirk and Chief Medical Officer McCoy of the Enterprise at her side.
"Paramount Najang..." the ambassador began with some effort.
"Ambassador, Im afraid ex-Paramount Najang is no longer in authority," Mankende said pleasantly. He was enjoying this. "She has been removed from office under the established procedures of the Founding Charter. I am Acting Paramount of Sankiang now."
"He has twisted the law to his own ends!" Najang countered.
Mankende remained unperturbed. "Nonetheless, the challenge was issued and could not be successfully overcome. I speak for Sankiang at this moment."
The ambassadors knees abruptly seemed to give way, and she slumped against the supporting arms of her companions. "Too late," she whispered, stabbing Mankende with a fierce stare. "You bastard."
"Why, Ambassador! You dont seem at all well. Please sit down." Mankende gestured toward a chair, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. What kind of act is this? he wondered. And what does she hope to gain?
McCoy moved her awkwardly to the chair as Kirk turned on the new Sankiani leader. "She is suffering from a disease that does not exist, Mankende. A mere figment of the Argeddan imaginationor perhaps your own."
"Captain, I hardly think this is the time for riddles," the minister said blandly.
"The Federation is not prepared to recognize a change in government based on biowarfare and interference from the Klingon Empire, Minister," Kirk stated firmly.
Mankende saw the captain check with the doctor. To make certain his subordinate does not contradict his story, no doubt. Well, it was no matter. The doctor wasnt listeninghe was bent over his patient with his instruments.
Kirk took a step closer and continued, "Surely you dont expect us to accept your motivations as purely patriotic when an inconveniently located deposit of topaline crystals is at the heart of the matter. I dont believe you would hesitate to use any means biological agents and a Klingon warship includedto get access to that deposit."
Well, well, Captain. We were paying attention, werent we? Mankende had to admit a grudging admiration of Kirk. Perhaps KZar had been right. He moved quickly to repair the damage Kirks revelation had done among the council members. "Captain, your resourcefulness is truly amazing, but Im afraid you give me both too much and too little credit," he said smoothly. "You will observe there is not a single Klingon in evidence herein fact, there is not a single one on the planet at this moment. This change in government has been effected entirely with my own considerable resources. It is an internal matter."
He met Kirks gaze evenly. Yes, I see you understand, Captain. He smiled. "As for the epidemic in the valley, Im afraid that was just a convenient accident of nature. It would have been a brilliant tacticbut I must confess I had nothing to do with it."
"Youll have to prove that to the Federation!" Kirk snapped.
"No, Captain, I wont," Mankende replied with the air of one explaining simple concepts to a child. "The onus is on the Federation to prove that I am responsibleand there is no proof for that contention. My claim to authority will be accepted without question once it has been shown that I acted within the law. The Federation will even find it impossible to hold me responsible for the war that will soon erupt between my country and the Argedsince I intend to wait for the Argeddans to make the first move. I have no doubt they will oblige me soon."
Kirk would have spoken, but his physician interrupted with hushed insistence. "Jim!" Ambassador Christophers motionless figure lay draped across the chair, unconscious. "Weve got to get her back to the shipnow!"
"Im afraid thats quite impossible, Doctor," Mankende said. The woman did look genuinely ill, but he had his priorities. "Im sorry, but I must take steps to ensure your safety in the event of hostilities between Sankiang and the Arged. I am correct in assuming that thermonuclear devices could interfere with the proper functioning of your transporter mechanism?"
Kirk was seething, but what could he say? Mankende knew he had covered every possible angle. A Federation review board would be forced to admit his actions were within the regulationsand Kirk could do nothing.
"You will have the complete cooperation of our medical establishment in providing for the ambassadors needs. Im afraid I must ask you to remain in your quarters, however. Oh, and you also, Najang. Protective quarantine, of course."
"For Gods sake, Mankende," Kirk pleaded. "Shell die if we dont get her back to the ship."
Mankende put on his best expression of regret. "If the ambassador is suffering from the ailment you have described, then there is little that can be done in any case," he said. "I must protect my own citizens." He motioned to the guards to clear the room and watched smugly as Kirk was removed in defeat.
Once the door swung closed behind his prisoners, the new leader of Sankiang had the council chamberand the future of his planetto himself.
The quarters were similar to those they had occupied some days before and comfortable enough, but Kirk recognized a prison when he saw it. The guards outside the door had strict ordersthe same strict orders the guards in the corridor and the guards outside the building had received. Kirk paced and worried at the problem like a terrier in a rathole.
For what must have been the hundredth time, the captain pulled the communicator off his belt and tried to hail his ship. If hed needed any proof that Mankende was collaborating with the Klingons, the fact that the Minister hadnt bothered to order the communicators confiscated would have provided it. The Sankiani leader was apparently so damn sure of himself he hadnt thought it worth the troubleand so far hed been right. Kirk snapped the unit shut against the deafening static with an exasperated sigh.
He took up his pacing again, but soon paused beside McCoy, unable to keep from hoping for some improvement in Christophers condition. The doctor sat with his patient, reading the grim data from the mediscanner with tense concentration. Christopher trembled lightly at intervals, as if some unseen hand tried to shake her out of her sleep. But her eyes did not open.
McCoy looked up. "Second stage tremors, Jim. Ive given her something that should help a little, but Im just about out of tricks. Weve got to get her to the ship if were going to have any chance at all."
Kirk looked at him helplessly. "Bones, I..." He shook his head.
The Sankiani Paramount approached the little group from across the room where she had been talking with her own tiny contingent. "Doctor, is there nothing our own medical people can do to help? Mankende can hardly deny us access to medical assistance."
"I wish I could say there was, Maam," McCoy answered. "Frankly, theres not too much more that can be done without the ships computers and lab."
"I am sorry, gentlemen." Najangs face was dark with guilt. "It seems the ambassador will have to pay the price for my stupidity."
"Theres more than enough blame to go around, Paramount," Kirk said softly. Then, decisively, "But that wont get us out of here." He began to pace again.
"There is still a possibility that Mankende can be stopped," the Paramount speculated.
Kirks head snapped up. "How?"
"Defense Minister Kebbe is still unaccounted for. I take it as a sign he may yet be free to oppose Mankende with force of arms. He commands a certain loyalty among his troops," she explained. "As long as he is not a prisoneror a corpsehe may be able to organize a campaign of opposition."
"A campaign of opposition is likely to take a great deal more time than we have, Paramount," Kirk said wearily. He considered a moment. What was that shed said earlier? "What if we were to ask for medical helplets say we asked to transfer Elena to a hospital. Would that give us an opening?"
"We cant risk moving her that far, Jim," McCoy warned. "Even the beam-up to the ship is going to be diceya trip across town in one of those damn skimmers would kill her."
"Bones, weve got to do something or..."
McCoy cut him off. "Shes coming around, Jim." The doctor got up and gripped his friends arm gently. He spoke so only Kirk could hear. "If you want to talk to her, better do it now."
Kirk held his gaze for a moment, then sat down on the bed and took Christophers hand. He could feel her hand and arm tense periodically in the clutches of the barely controlled tremors. Her skin burned with the fever.
When she spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper. "Fine mess Ive gotten us into."
"You let me worry about that." He smiled at her and brushed a wisp of hair back from her forehead.
She searched his face, held him with her eyes as though she could ignite something deep inside him with a spark from the fire that burned in them. "Jim, I..." She stopped, steeled herself to start again. "Theres something I have to say to you."
He shook his head. "You dont..."
"Yes, damn it," she broke in angrily, "let me say it. I wont go down holding this inside."
Struck silent by the force of her determination, Kirk waited while she struggled for breath and the strength to go on. She was so pale, now, washed nearly clean of life. It hurt to look at her.
"From the first moment I saw you," she whispered intensely, "there was a part of me that wanted to be that one womanout of all the women youve knownthat one you wouldnt give up. Deep down, part of me believed that if I loved you long enough and hard enough youd never let me go."
The ache inside him grew until he thought it would shut out everything else. Every word she breathed at such cost was torture to him, but she wouldnt stop.
"I couldnt admit itnot even to myself," she rasped. "All that...control...got in the way. I couldnt take the risk. Well, Im down to the bare essentials now. Im not in control any more. All those things I thought were so important suddenly dont seem to mean much. All I can think about is you."
She was in tears now, emotion triggering a renewed onslaught of the tremors. She clenched her teeth and put her thoughts into speech through sheer effort of will. "I may fall flat on my face, but, damn it, I want my chance at you. Im not ready to give it up."
He cupped her wet cheeks in his hands, for a moment unable to trust his voice. He swallowed hard, finally spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Youll have your chance, Elena, I promise."
He gathered her up and held her close, knowing with heartbreaking certainty that he could do little more for her. "Just hold on," he murmured, the words a desperate incantation against the power of death. "Well find a way. I love you. Just hold on."
"You idiots!" Mankende jumped up from the conference table and stalked the room furiously. "You had quadrenes to prepare for thisyou should have had everything in place to move at a moments notice. Instead, you delayed and let the one man who could mount a counter-offensive slip through your fingers. I told you I wanted Kebbe neutralized!"
"But, Paramount!" One of a small group of men at the table spread his hands in protest. "Kebbe was warned before we could make the first movesomeone knew of our plans and betrayed us."
Mankendes eyes burned with hate as he realized with certainty how the tables had been turned. "Kirk."
A stout, sweating officer in the uniform of the National Security forces wheezed an accusation. "Paramount, you assured us this would be a legal takeoverthat it would be accepted without opposition. We never expected armed resistance."
Mankende turned on him. "There would have been no armed resistance if you had done your job, Brigadier. You failed to find Kebbe. Now the streets of the capital have become a battleground! We must put an end to this immediately or risk losing Federation support."
"That is more easily said than done, Paramount," said another at the table. "The National Security forces are no match for the armyand we cannot hold on to the men we have. With every moon, more strip off their uniforms and disappear into the countryside."
Mankende considered in smoldering silence. "Very well. We still have a card left to play. As the legitimate head of this government, the Federation cannot deny my right to request the assistance of outsiders in putting down a rebellion against duly constituted authority." He suddenly smiled. "Our dear Captain Kirk may even be called to task for not providing that assistance himself! Better and better!"
The men around the table exchanged dubious glances, but none offered a comment. Mankende moved to dismiss them. "When the details have been arranged, I will inform you. Until then, lets at least try to maintain a defensible position, shall we?"
"I dont think Ill ever work the kinks out of my back," Uhura muttered. "And if I drop another one of these crystal cells Im going to scream."
Ensign Garcia winced sympathetically. The communications chief had been crammed into the tiny space under the communications console for hours, working doggedly to reroute the power circuits on the master panel hanging a few inches above her face. Reaching upward from the deck to insert the reconfigured components into the panel had to be hell on the arms. Garcia was amazed the old girl had lasted this long.
The ensign, thanks to her inexperience, had the easy part of the job. At the comm station monitors, Garcia announced the readouts as each new circuit was laid in. She tried her best to be helpful and encouraging, but she was beginning to think Spock had been out of his Vulcan mind to order this. "LC 5027-B reading green, Commander. Only threeno, twomore to go!"
At the science station, Lieutenant Krishnan suddenly looked up from his monitor in surprise. He cross-checked against his other sensors and quickly confirmed the readings. "Captain Spock. There is some unusual activity on the Klingon ship."
Spock swivelled in the command chair to face the young officer. "Please be more specific, Lieutenant."
"Im not sure, sir, but they appear to have ordered general quarters. Movement within the ship indicates first-stage alert status."
Spock left the chair and joined Krishnan at the science station. He adjusted the sensors for finer resolution, but he could tell little more than the lieutenant had already noted. "Curious," he murmured. "They have not raised their shields. There seems to be no threat to the ship. What could be causing the alert?"
Spock straightened and turned to the comm station. "Estimated time to completion, Commander Uhura?"
"Patching in the last circuit now, sir."
Spock stepped back to the command chair and keyed Engineering. "Captain Scott, work on the communications panel is nearly complete. We will be directing ships power through the new circuits in approximately two point four minutes. Are you ready?"
"Standing by, sir."
Uhura dragged herself out from under the panel and stood up stiffly. She punched a few keys on the control board and smiled at Garcia when she saw the readouts. "All set, Captain Spock."
"Very well, Commander." Spock touched the keys on the chair arm that would put him in contact with the planet surface. "Enterprise to Captain Kirk." A pause. "Enterprise to Captain Kirk. Come in, please."
For a long moment, nothing. Then, faintly. "Spock?"
Ensign Garcia let out an involuntary squeal of delight and continued to grin widely even when Spock turned to look inquiringly at her.
"Captain, can you read us?"
The signal was gaining strength as Uhura zeroed in on the frequency. "Loud and clear, Captain Spock! You can tell me how you did it later just get us out of here. We have six to beam up, one casualty. Have a medical team meet us in the transporter room with a stretcher."
"Acknowledged. Spock out."
Uhura was already alerting the transporter room and Sickbay, her smile replaced by the furrow of worry between her eyebrows.
One casualty, Garcia repeated to herself. Who is it? And what the hell happened down there?
The captain of the Enterprise stepped onto the bridge of his ship and allowed himself half a second to breathe. He hadnt left any of his grinding worry on the surface of the planet below, but somehow it was easier to bear up here, on the bridge. He acknowledged the welcoming smiles of his crew and confidently took over the command chair from Spock. He had a job to do; no one would guess the depth of his grief, if he could help it.
Spock remained standing at Kirks elbow. "Welcome back, Captain."
"Thank you, Captain Spock. Ships status, please."
"Maintaining standard orbit. Engine and weapons systems functioning normally. We are still experiencing interference from the Klingon ship, but have restored limited function to the communications and transporter systems."
Kirk flashed a relieved grin. "So I noticed, Captain Spock. How did you manage it?"
"Commander Uhura was able to channel ships power through a small range of frequencies to break through the interference."
Kirk turned in his seat to look at Uhura with open admiration. "Seems to me you saved my hide that way once before, Uhura. Thank you."
Uhura smiled warmly in his direction.
"It mustve taken hours."
Her smile broadened. "Oh, a little less than we expectedonly about nine hours. I had some help from Ensign Garcia."
Kirk turned a little further to look at Garcia. The ensign was struggling to maintain a professional expression over her blush of pride. "Well, I want you to know your efforts are much appreciated. Good job, both of you." He turned back to his executive officer. "You, too, Spock."
"Thank you, sir. Captain, am I to understand from your request for a medical team that one of your party was injured?"
"Not injured, Spockill." Kirk kept his eyes and mind carefully fixed on the fuel consumption report he was reviewing. "Its Ambassador Christopher."
"The fever." It wasnt a question, and the captain didnt offer an answer. Spock hesitated for the slightest moment. "Regrettable. The ambassador is a most accomplished diplomat." Then, quietly, "Im sorry, Jim."
Kirk looked up and gave Spock a sad smile in recognition of the effort it had cost his friend to add those three words. "Thank you, Spock. Anything else?"
"Yes, Captain. Sensors report the Klingon ship has gone to general quarters, first-stage alert. They do not seem to be responding to any threat to the ship, however. Their shields remain down."
"Not responding to a threat to the ship? Something on the planet surface, then." Kirk considered. "Any evidence the Klingons are beaming down?"
"None as yet, Captain."
"I have a hunch Mankende may have bitten off more than he can chew," the captain ventured. "Uhura, open a channel to that ship."
"Ill try, sir." She worked for a few moments before she was able to claim some limited success. "I have audio, sir, no visual link."
"Thatll do, Commander." He signaled her to put him on. "Captain KZar. This is Captain James Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise. As you are no doubt aware, the government of Sankiang is at present in the midst of a political crisis with an uncertain outcome. As representative of the United Federation of Planets, we must insist that the Sankianis be allowed to resolve this crisis without outside interference. You are warned that any attempt to influence events on the planet will be considered a hostile action and dealt with accordingly. Please acknowledge."
"Kirk!" came the reply. "I should have killed you while I had the chance. But perhaps this will be more pleasurable after all."
"Captain, they are raising shields," Spock broke in.
"Shields up, Mister Chekov. Red alert, battle stations."
Spoke had more news. "They are leaving standard orbit and changing course to intercept us."
"Fifteen thousand kilometers and closing rapidly."
"Evasive maneuvers, Mister Hennessy. Mister Chekov, phasers on standby."
"Phasers ready, Captain."
"Range eleven thousand kilometers and closing," Spock announced calmly.
The green flash of disruptor fire erupted from the Klingon ship a split-second before the Enterprise reeled from the impact. The ship took another hit before Kirk could give Chekov the word. "Fire!"
"Damage reports from Decks E through H, and K and L, Captain," Uhura reported. "Control parties are responding."
"We only clipped him, Captain," Chekov said. "Hes moving too fast."
"Range five thousand and closing," Hennessy added.
"Hennessy get us out of here," Kirk ordered. "We need fighting room."
Hennessy punched in a series of sharp banks down and away from the pursuing Klingon cruiser and held on tight as the Enterprise screamed through the maneuvers, tossing its crew to first one side, then another.
"Position, Mister Hennessy," Kirk gasped.
"Theyre now at one-oh-four mark two. Range twenty-five hundred. Theyll have to turn to take another run at us, Captain."
"Good. Chekov, ready phasers."
"When they come around again, well have them."
"Here they come, sir!"
"Fire at will, Mister Chekov."
The bright blue beams shot through the blackness of space exploded on the cruisers port flank. The Klingon ship appeared to lurch to starboard, but she slowly righted herself and came at them again, starboard shields forward. The emerald brilliance of disruptor fire lanced out at the Enterprise, disintegrating in a shower of supercharged particles against her forward shields.
The bridge bucked under the impact, rupturing control panels at several of the auxiliary stations in a spattering of broken connections. Crewmen leapt to activate damage control systems before the fire and smoke got out of hand.
"Forward shields at thirty percent capacity," Spock informed him.
"Hard over, Mister Hennessy," Kirk responded. "Give him our port shields. Chekov, ready photon torpedoes."
Chekov recalibrated and, at a word from Kirk, emptied the torpedoes against the ktinga. The red tracers blazed across the vacuum between the two ships and burst spectacularly against the Klingons hull.
"Direct hits, sir!" the security chief crowed.
"They are down to fifty percent of impulse power, Captain," Spock reported. "Forward shields are heavily damaged; port shields completely destroyed." Spock looked up briefly from his monitor. "They are, however, still approaching us at the maximum speed they can manage. Range fifteen hundred kilometers."
"Any power left for their weapons, Spock?"
"Negative. Their engines are approaching overload."
"Open that channel, Uhura," Kirk instructed. "No sense wasting a shot on a crippled ship."
The communications chief keyed in the commands to open hailing frequencies to the Klingon vessel. The answer was a blinding white light that filled the viewscreen and lit the Enterprise bridge with an unholy glare. The vicious blast that followed a second later took out the rest of the forward shields and half of the port shields, leaving shattered control panels and twisted bulkheads in its wake all over the ship. On the viewscreen, only debris remained in the place of the Klingon cruiser.
Kirk struggled up from his knees and took a quick look around the bridge. Crewmen had been knocked off their feet like the pieces of an overturned chess board, but no one appeared to be seriously hurt. The captain found his seat again and called for damage reports.
Uhura pulled herself together at her station and surveyed the console. "Light casualties, sir. Moderate to heavy damage in the port and forward sections of C and D Decks in addition to the damage reported earlier. Damage control parties working now, sir."
Kirk breathed a sigh of relief and punched up Engineering Section. "Everything holding together down there, Captain Scott?"
"Aye, sir. Its a bit of a mess to look at, but you have full power if you need it."
"I guess theres something to be said for those new alloys after all, eh, Scotty?" Kirk said with a grin.
"Aye, sir, shes solid all right. That was a near thing."
"Indeed," Spock added. "Another two hundred kilometers, and the Klingons would have accomplished their objective."
Kirk grunted. "I shouldve known KZar would want to go out in a blaze of glorylucky for us his math was never too good."
The captain left his chair and stepped up on the catwalk with Spock. "Our business is not finished on Sarva, Captain Spock. Ive got to go back."
The Vulcan looked at him. "The repairs to the ship should present no outstanding problems," he said. "However, I doubt that either the Sankianis or the Argeddans would be particularly happy to see you at this point, Captain."
Kirks face creased in a wry grin. "Youre right, Spock, but Im afraid I have no choice. If the Argeddans launch their attack while Mankende still holds Sankiang, everything will have gone for nothing." I wont allow that. Not after everything Elena has been through.
The muscles in his jaw tightened. "Im going to try and convince Najang to go with me. I think its time for a little face-to-face negotiation."
Spock raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Kirk headed for the turbolift. "You have the conn, Spock."
An hour later Kirk was ready to leave the comforting solidity of the ship for the more uncertain future that awaited him on the planet surface. Najang had not been hard to convincein fact, she was anxious to go. She had reached the same conclusion Kirk had come to: Despite the loss of Klingon support, Mankende still had resources to draw on. The fight for the leadership of Sankiang might last a dayor a yearand while the fighting raged, Mankende was still in nominal control. They had to try and stop the Argeddans from taking the first step toward war while he still held power.
Kirk had one more stop to make before he left his ship. He turned the corner into Sickbay and made his way through the crowd of crewmen waiting to be treated for minor injuries. Doctor Dushayne was directing the flow and waved him back to McCoys office, where he found the doctor bent over his computer terminal.
"How goes it, Bones?"
"Well, before you started generating all these casualties, I had some promising leads."
Kirks heart leapt to the bait, but he cautioned himself against overreacting. A lead was just a lead. "Doctor Dushayne seems to be handling things pretty well without you."
McCoy smiled faintly, but the smile faded completely before he spoke. "Elenas condition is deteriorating, Jim. I cant seem to do anything about it."
Kirk didnt trust his voice above a murmur. "How long?"
The doctor shook his head. "A few hoursmaybe a day or two if were lucky."
"Can I see her?"
"Shes not conscious, Jim," McCoy said gently. "I wouldnt advise it."
"Im leaving the ship, Bones. I may not get back..."
McCoy nodded. He put a hand an Kirks shoulder and walked with him into the intensive care ward where Christopher lay at the pale, silent center of an array of life support equipment. With a final, brief squeeze of his shoulder, the doctor left him alone with her.
He glanced up at the life signs monitor; the readings were devastatingly low. Everything in the room confirmed that she was dying. She was bone white and so still it was almost as if shed already gone. Damarrthe Shadowfell across her face like a shroud.
Death was imminent and all but inevitablebut somehow he couldnt accept it. He refused to believe it. He had seen certain deatheven actual deathturned into new life so many times, how could he believe Elena would die?
He stepped closer to the bed, took her hand, gripped it as if he could pump his own life into her. "Fight, Elena," he whispered fiercely. "Dont let go. I wont let you give up. Fight!"
Her eyes remained closed, her hand limp. The monitors showed no change. But he knew she had heard him; she would try with everything she had left to do as he asked. He knewhe could still read the courage in her face.
He kissed her softly, then he turned and left the room, determined to finish the task she had started on Sarva.
McCoy rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the dismal readouts from the bacterial and viral analysis of Elena Christophers blood samples. They only confirmed what the Argeddans had already discovered. The diseaseif you could call it that at allwas not caused by a bacterium or virus or protovirus or any other life form of any known configuration.
The latest printout showed the computers analysis of the cellular dynamics of the illness. McCoy had hoped to identify changes in the cells or cell bodies that could provide a clue to the mystery. Even a cursory reading of the data showed that this was a blind alley like the others.
"Well, only one more place to look that I know of," the doctor muttered and instructed the computer to run a real-time graphic analysis of the molecular construction of the sample. He watched intently, though without much hope, as the complex molecular models formed and reformed on the screen.
For some minutes, the constructs were the familiar forms of the proteins and amino acids, the sugars and enzymes, the drugs he had administered, fading in and out, following each other in a predictable parade.
McCoy sighedthis was going nowhere.
He reached to order a printoutbut his hand never hit the key. Something on the screen caught his eye, something unrecognized, out of context.
The doctor punched a command to hold the image and peered at it closely, hardly daring to breath. The lengthy identifying formula at the bottom right corner of the screen was as unfamiliar to him as the model. He reached for the intercom button. "Spock, this is McCoy. Can you come down here for a minute? Ive got something on my comm terminal Id like you to take a look at."
"Doctor, I am fully occupied with other matters at this time. If the problem is not urgent, I would suggest"
"Spock, I wouldnt be asking if it werent important," McCoy replied testily. "I need your help."
"Very well, Doctor. I shall be with you momentarily."
As Spock entered the medical lab, McCoy couldnt help but show his excitement. "There, Spock." The doctor pointed at the screen in triumph. "What do you make of that?"
The science officer absorbed the data from the terminal with intense concentration. "Fascinating. A very complex chemical structure."
"Yes, Captain Spock, and one that appears to interfere with various essential functions in the Human blood cell," McCoy exulted. "In fact, according to the computer simulation, it acts like a toxin of some kind."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "Doctor, if I recall correctly, a toxin is an end product of the metabolism of a living organism. You have already eliminated as a possible source any unusual life form in the bloodstream."
"Yes, thats the problem," McCoy frowned. "That would seem to argue for an external source of some kindbut what?"
The Vulcan considered silently for a moment. "Perhaps a fungal source, Doctorsimilar to the Aspergillus species an Earth or the Porterius on Deneb?"
"Aflatoxin?" McCoy said dubiously. "The clinical data doesnt fit. They cant be ingesting the toxin, Spockits affecting too many people and there are no gastrointestinal complications at all. The symptoms are primarily related to the respiratory systemits more likely were breathing something that carries it."
McCoy ignored the Vulcans slight tone of condescension and turned back to the computer. "Ill try to get a list of possibles from the databanks."
"Keep me informed, Doctor," Spock told him. "Ill be on the bridge."
Kirk had hardly expected a warm welcome when he and Najang materialized in the State Hall of the Argeddan Directorate. Still, the rank of guards facing him with weapons pointed resolutely at his chest was something of a surprise.
"Captain Kirk! How accommodating of you to deliver yourself up for judgment!" Defense Bureau Head Ndarr smiled predaciously. "Though I am at a loss to explain how you would dare to appear in the Arged in the company of this Sankiani butcher."
"What I have to say Ill say to the Director," Kirk insisted. "I want to see himnow." Kirk projected every bit of his considerable presence into the demand, but in the back of his mind he wondered how in hell Ndarr had known they were coming.
"Out of the question!" Ndarr replied. "You will be held in custody pending trial by military tribunal on charges of espionage."
Anger put a razors edge an Kirks voice. "This is an official Federation diplomatic delegation. Surely you are aware that interfering with our mission constitutes a violation of intergalactic protocol."
"Captain, you have stolen private property, destroyed a military vehicle and killed its crew, crossed a hostile border without proper authorization and openly consorted with the enemies of this government," Ndarr pointed out caustically. "Your companion is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Argeddans by methods which are outlawed by the Federation itself. I hardly think that qualifies you to claim diplomatic status at this point. I can only hope for the sake of the Federation that these actions have been undertaken at your own initiative and not with the complicity of Ambassador Christopher."
Kirks rage erupted, and he took a step forward, ignoring the nervous reaction of the guards. "Ambassador Christopher is at this moment in the sickbay of my ship, dying of the disease that afflicts your own people!"
Ndarr smiled bitterly. "Casualties are a price of war, Captain. Many families in the Arged have already paid that price. The ambassador was warned against visiting the valley. Perhaps now the Federation will accept the fact of this biological attack on my country by Sankiang."
"Please believe me, madam," Najang pleaded. "Sankiang has had nothing to do with the epidemic."
"Our lifeblood is drained, our youth taken in the fullness of life by this cursed fever," Ndarr accused, her voice ominously low, "while you sit within sight of the valleysafe and untouched. I will find a way to make you share our pain."
Kirk grew suddenly still and looked closely at the old womans face. Out of his own pain came the beginning of understanding: Ndarrs motivations were more than political; her fight with Sankiang was a personal one.
Najang was undeterred. "We wish only to maintain peace between our countriesif you do not allow us to meet with your Director, it may be impossible to avoid a conflict that will destroy us all."
Ndarr sneered. "You would have me believe you are here to negotiate peace? You must know I have my sources of information in your government. They have kept me quite well informed." She smiled again, the smile of the shark. "I know, for example, that Mankende must have had something of value to offer the Klingons or they would not have considered it necessary to attack your ship in his support, Captain. I also know that you, Najang, no longer rule Sankiangin which case you are in no position to speak on its behalf."
"The question of who speaks for Sankiang is still unresolved," Kirk insisted, though he suspected further argument was useless now. "In any case, the Arged would do much better to deal with those in Sankiang who are still interested in peace."
"I am no longer interested in peace, Captain Kirk," Ndarr replied coldly. "And before this day is out, I will make sure the Director shares my opinion." She waved a hand at the guards. "Take them to Holding. Ill give you more detailed instructions later."
The guards formed a hollow square around Kirk and Najang and moved silently toward the door of the Hall. Before they reached it, Ndarr spoke again. "I do not know why you have taken the Sankiang side in this conflict, Captain, but I intend to find out. You may be assured that unless you cooperate fully, the process of discovery will not be a pleasant one for you."
Kirk said nothing but straightened defiantly and followed the guards out the door.
"Damn!" McCoy threw the printout across the desk and rose to pace the lab. Oh, the computer had come up with a list of likely fungi all righta very short list limited to a very specific number of vegetative hosts found on a mere handful of planets. None of which were anywhere near Epsilon Crucis IV. McCoy was fresh out of ideas.
Wearily he returned to the terminal and called up his mystery molecule again. "Okay, so we dont know where you come from," he mumbled. "Lets see if theres anything thatll get rid of you." The doctor gave the computer a few instructions and leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, to wait for the results.
"Doctor McCoy!" The young duty nurse appeared suddenly in the doorway, flushed and breathless. "Its Ambassador Christopher. Cardiac arrest. Doctor Dushayne is with her now."
McCoy was at his patients side in seconds. Dushayne had already begun emergency procedures and was administering a hypo of triox compound as he arrived. A cardiac unit was in place over Christophers chest, artificially maintaining the flow of blood until heart function could be restored. The life signs monitor told the storyheartbeat, blood pressure, respiration all flashed blue.
"Two ccs of cordrazine, Nurse," he ordered. The hypo was already prepared; a nurse slapped it deftly into McCoys waiting hand. In the back of his mind, the doctor was grateful yet again for the efficiency of his staff. Seconds passed, but the monitors continued to flash blue; the cordrazine was having no effect.
"Cardio-stimulator!" McCoy barked and grabbed the instrument from the nurses hand. He flipped the switch and waited desperately for a sign that the stimulator had done its work. "Come on, come on!" he urged, teeth clenched. Still nothing.
"Marie, were going to have to risk another cc of cordrazineand get me a cardiac hypo." The amount of the drug he had already given her should have been enough to put a full-grown man back on his feet. Injecting another milliliter of the compound that had once sent McCoy himself screaming into the past in a psychotic rage directly into his patients still heart was a dangerous gamble.
Dushaynes face reflected her alarm, but she said nothing. It was only a moment before Webb returned with the intricately designed hypo. At a nod from McCoy, the nurse removed the bulky cardiac unit. Dushayne positioned the hypo over Christophers chest and injected the powerful stimulant deep into the heart muscle. Christophers body went instantly, totally rigid, as if shed been hit with a jolt of raw current.
McCoy looked up to see the shock had finally kicked the heart into reluctant action. As Christophers muscles gradually relaxed, he could see the cardio-stimulators tiny pulses were converting the unbridled power of the drug into a steady, rhythmic stimulus to the struggling organ.
Erratic and weak at first, the hearts contractions gradually took on a more normal rhythm of their ownfaster than usual due to the stimulant, but strong. McCoy switched off the stimulator and felt his own pounding heart slowing as he watched the monitors slide up to the low end of the normal range.
"Another one like that, and well lose her," he said, knowing it would not be long. Doctor Dushayne and Nurse Webb could only nod in sad agreement. McCoy watched the monitors a moment longer before he decided to trust the readings. "Good work, folks," he told his staff. "Stay with her."
The doctor walked back to the lab, limp with fatigue and spent emotion. He wanted nothing more than to drop into bed and sleep until a week from Thursday. He was at the end of his ropehe didnt know how to save this one patient, much less the whole blasted planet. Christopher wouldnt survive another twelve hours. How the hell am I going to tell Jim I lost her?
The last thing McCoy wanted at this particular moment was company, but he arrived in the lab to find Spock bent over the computer terminal. "The computer has apparently provided a solution to your last problem statement, Doctor."
"Oh, yeah?" McCoy had little faith in the answer. "What is it, Spock, antimatter elixir?"
Spock looked momentarily perplexed, then said, "No, Doctor, zinc sulphate."
"What...?!" McCoy swung the terminal to face him and stared at the screen in amazement. "Are you telling me the antidote for this killer fever is a God-damned dietary supplement!?" He sank into his seat and looked at Spock in disbelief.
Spock raised an eyebrow and offered a reply that was somewhat beside the point. "I am not telling you anything, Doctor. The computer is telling you."
The doctor considered. "Well, it would explain a few thingslike why Jim and I got nothing out of this but a headache. Were both pumped full of standard-issue supplements, like every other poor bastard in Starfleet. But, damn it, Spock, none of this makes any sense. The toxinif thats what it isseems to have appeared suddenly out of thin air. Theres nothing native to the planet that couldve produced it."
"Youre quite right, Doctor," Spock agreed. "No native species is host to the fungus that produces the toxin. However, I have done some research of my own. A quantity of legume seed was imported into Arged two standard years ago from Hansons Planet to be used as a ground cover to prevent erosion."
"Bluethorn vetch!" McCoy exclaimed, recalling the name from his short list of hosts.
"That is the English common name," Spock confirmed. "Not coincidentally, the plant was intended to stabilize eroding river and stream banks in the Bakarr Valley."
"So they intentionally planted a host for a deadly fungus all over their beautiful little valley. Unbelievable!"
Spock nodded and went on. "As is not unusual in these circumstances, what was a relatively rare and therefore harmless life form in its own environment thrived unchecked when transplanted into an entirely new one. The vetch interacted with native life forms in entirely unexpected ways, There is no record of a medical condition associated with the fungus on Hansons Planetand there are no agricultural restrictions on the export of its host."
McCoy frowned. "But that still doesnt explain why people on one side of the river valley were affected by the toxin and those on the other side werent. The prevailing winds wouldve carried the fungal spores even if the hosts were confined to the Argeddan bank."
"I submit that we do not have enough data to answer that particular question, Doctor," Spock argued. "However, we surely have the means to resolve a more immediate problem."
"Spock, I have no idea what dosage would be effective against a developed case of the fever," the doctor protested. "Zinc itself can be toxic at high dosages. I dont even know if it can be used as a curative at all, no matter how effective it may be as a preventative."
"Logically you do not have a choice," Spock said. "If you do nothing, the ambassador will die within hours. Hundreds more will die on Sarva before formal test procedures can be completed."
"And if I kill the ambassador with an overdose of zinc, well know no more than when we started," McCoy snapped.
Spock regarded him dispassionately. "Doctor, we are wasting time."
McCoy could think of nothing more to say. He had been given a chance; he had to take it despite the risks. He looked back at the comm terminal, took a deep breath and set to work.
The Sickbay intensive care ward was bathed in an ethereal blue glow. In the spectral light, Elenas form on the diagnostic bed seemed to have no substance at all; her face against the pillow was washed out, featureless.
The room was profoundly silent, absent even the hum and beep of the life-support equipment. The group of medical personnel around the bed dared not even breathe into the silence; there was no murmur of voices exchanging the information vital to the saving of a life, no orchestrated sequence of actions calculated to stave off death.
McCoy turned away from the bed, shattered the fragile hush. "We did all we could, Jim."
"No," he whispered, wanting to scream. "Elena..."
Jim Kirk sat bolt upright on the bunk, the horrifying vision retreating into the darkness. His heart hammered in his chest; he was drenched in sweat. He shuddered, threw back the thin blanket and got up, pacing to dispel the awful sense of despair the dream had left him.
He hadnt meant to sleep, but the quiet and isolation had worked like a drug on the body that had gone too long without rest. It had been full day outside when hed been left in the cell; now the only source of light was a thin pool of gold seeping under the door to the corridor.
Shadows fell across the light, and Kirk heard voices in the corridor. He swore silently, angry with himself for losing the time he could have used to find a way out of his situation. He watched apprehensively as the door slid back to admit a pair of guards. They were none too large or aggressive, but the phasers they held steadily in their hands precluded any direct action. Kirk forced himself to relax and followed them quietly out of the cell.
The guards left him, disoriented and blinking against the bright light, in what appeared to be a medical examining room. Kirk knew with heart-chilling certainty that the rooms purpose was not nearly so benign. He searched for something, anything that could be turned to his advantage, but the rooms users had made sure there would be no such thing.
The door suddenly slid openand this time the guards were not alone. Defense Bureau Head Ndarr swept into the room behind them and stood to consider her prisoner.
She spoke brusquely. "Kirk, I will not waste time with you. I have more pressing mattersmy troops will cross the Bakarr River before the moons have set. You will explain your actions to me in every detailvoluntarily or under extreme duress, I do not care which."
"I came to offer your Director an alternative to war with Sankiang," Kirk answered. "But I believe that is a message you dont want the Director to hear just now."
"Captain, you must consider me a fool," Ndarr replied. "I assure you I am anything but." She motioned to the guards, who grabbed Kirk and slammed him into a chair at one end of the room. In seconds, they had locked the chairs restraints around his wrists and ankles. A collar around his neck held him motionless between the smooth metal plates on either side of the headrest.
Kirks body remembered what his mind refused to acknowledge and betrayed him with sweaty, breath-stealing fear. Still, he wasnt going to give up without a fight, even if his only weapons were words and his only hope was to gain time. "Ndarr, how long has it been since your people have experienced war?" he asked her. "Your ancestors settled this planet more than one hundred years ago; there had been no war on Earth for a hundred years before that."
"We are prepared to do what is necessary," she said.
"Yes, but can you imagine the cost of your actions?" he pressed. "Are you prepared to lose everything your people have built because you cant resolve your differences peacefully? Is it not enough for you that people are already dying by the hundreds in the Bakarr valleymust you add the blood of thousands killed for the sake of your personal pride, Ndarr?"
"Sankiani blood must pay for those who have already fallen in the valley." Ndarrs voice shook with hatred. "They must suffer as we have suffered. I have sworn it on the body of my dead son!"
Kirk saw the glimmer of a chance. "Your son is dead," he said softly, urgently. "My colleaguemy friendis dying at this very moment. They and hundreds more have succumbed to a disease we know nothing about. We dont know what causes it; we dont know how to cure it. The one thing we do know is that it is a natural phenomenona horrible, frightening act of naturenot an attack from a Human enemy."
Ndarr sniffed at him in contempt. "The Sankianis have done a very thorough job on you, Captain."
Grateful to have engaged her in the debate even this far, Kirk went on quickly. "Do you think I would ally myself with them if I believed they had murdered Elena Christopher? She risked her life to save your people from devastation."
He watched in despair as her expression hardened but tried again to make her understand. "The cataclysm you are about to unleash will not bring back your son, Ndarr," he said sadly. "It can only pile the bodies of more innocent victims on his grave. Believe meit will be no comfort."
Ndarr opened her mouth to reply, but a clamor of voices in the corridor prevented it. The door burst open to admit the Director of the Argedand the executive officer and chief medical officer of the Enterprise.
With typical bluntness, McCoy was the first to jump into the awkward silence. "What the hells going on here, Jim?"
Kirk couldnt find his voice in the storm of relief that blew through him. He waited while the guards released him, then, rubbing his chafed wrists, he stood up stiffly. When he had accomplished that much without collapsing, he answered the doctor. "Its a long story, Bonesone Im glad Ill have the chance to tell later."
"You are under arrest, Ndarr," the Director said with poorly contained anger. "The charge is treason. You have taken matters into your own hands once too oftenand I am not nearly the toothless lion you think I am."
He waved at the guards, who exchanged puzzled looks between themselves and took the proud old woman into custody. As they led her out the door, she paused to look at Kirk, then turned without another word and let the guards take her away.
The Director addressed Kirk, his face tight with embarrassment. "Please accept my most abject apologies, Captain. My government in no way sanctioned Ndarrs actions. I had no idea you were even in the capital until your officers came in search of you. I trust you are not hurt?"
"Thank you, Director, your arrival was well timed," Kirk accepted. "Paramount Najang was with me when Ndarr intercepted us. We were sent to different cells"
"I shall see to it right away," the Director interrupted crisply. He stepped quickly into the passageway to give the required instructions.
Kirk turned to his friends with a grateful smile. "Gentlemen, you just earned your pay for the month."
McCoy stuck out his chest and positively beamed. "Well, Jim, rescuing you is the least of our accomplishments for today. I always said I could cure a rainy day and this time I think Ive really outdone myself."
Kirk looked at him intently, the question forming on his lips.
McCoy couldnt wait. "Weve not only identified the cause of the feverwe seem to have come up with a cure, too!"
"Bones!" Kirk grabbed his ships surgeon by the shoulders. "Elena?"
"Shes not completely out of danger yet," McCoy said. "But shes responding to treatment."
"Thank God." Kirk gave the doctor a final, affectionate shake before releasing him. "Good work, Bones." He turned to his executive officer, who had been watching with somewhat less than his usual detachment. "The ship, Spock?"
"All systems at peak operating efficiency, Captain. No problems to report. Commander Uhura informs me that broadcasts from Sankiang indicate Defense Minister Kebbe has succeeded in restoring authority on behalf of Paramount Najang."
"Good... thats good, Spock." Kirk suddenly felt the blood drain from his face as the room began to tilt drunkenly.
McCoy reached out to steady him. "I make it something close to seventy-two hours since youve had any sleep, Jim. Well take over down here you go back to the ship and get some rest."
Kirk shook his head. "Now that Ive got these people together, I have to find a way to get them to talk without killing each other."
"Even Spock couldnt get in the way of an agreement between those two leaders with all the goodwill thats floating around now," McCoy argued. Spock looked at him impassively. "You need restthats an official prescription. And dont think I wont have Dushayne enforce it."
Kirk gave it up. He doubted hed be much help in working out a settlement between Najang and Soborr-Taal anywayat least until hed had some rest. "Okay, Doctor, you win," he sighed. "Tell Scotty to beam me up."
He waited for the familiar tingle of the transporter beam to take him home, and for the first time in days, he thought only of sleep.
Kirk was feeling almost Human again by the time he walked into Sickbay some sixteen hours, a long sleep and a decent meal later. He found Doctor Dushayne monitoring the patient he had come to see.
"Shes sleeping now, Captain," Dushayne told him in a low voice. "Fevers dropping slowly, and shes breathing better, too. In fact, Id say shes doing quite well for someone who was in critical condition thirty-six hours ago."
"Thats the best news Ive had all week," Kirk replied with a smile.
"Doctor McCoy should be coming on duty in a few minutes. Im sure hell want to give you all the details."
"Mind if I wait in here? I promise to stay out of the way."
Dushayne grinned at him. "Well, you make a better visitor than you do a patient. How can I say no?" She headed for the door. "Ive got a report to get to anyway."
"Doctor..." He caught her arm as she started to leave. "Thanks."
Dushayne simply smiled warmly in return, then turned and left him alone in the quiet room.
Kirk moved the chair closer to the bed and reached out to touch Christophers face. She looked drawn, tired to the bone, but the skin where he touched her was no longer unbearably hot. At his touch, she opened her eyes and smiled in recognition. "Hi."
"I didnt mean to wake you," he apologized softly.
"Oh, thats all right. Ive only been asleep for about four days now." She stretched and sat up slowly, running a hand through her tousled hair.
Kirk grinned. "Yes, Ill have to speak to Federation Diplomatic Services about having to take over your job."
"Howd you do?" she asked with interest.
"There for a while I thought my career as a negotiator might last about two minutes," he admitted. "I might be facing an Argeddan firing squad by now if it hadnt been for Spock and McCoy. The doctor saved both of our necks in one dayand Im sure hell never let us forget it."
She laughed. "As far as Im concerned, he can remind me daily."
The sound of her laughter touched him somewhere close to the heart, and he froze, entranced by it. Puzzled, Christopher raised a questioning eyebrow. He shook his head, smiling self-consciously. "It just...felt good to hear you laugh again."
In truth, he was having trouble sorting out just how he felt at this moment. Love and joy and relief warred with something else within him. After all he and Elena Christopher had been through together, why did he suddenly feel so reticent? It was as if the old walls were trying to reestablish themselves of their own accord.
Christopher watched his troubled face somberly for a time, understanding reflected in her gray eyes. Then without a word she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. They kissed, and he felt her warm reassurance begin to melt through his doubt.
"No, dont," she murmured, her lips brushing his ear. "Dont say anything. I just want to feel you holding me." She sighed. "I didnt think Id ever have the chance to feel it again."
He held her close to him, caressing her neck and her shoulder with gentle kisses. She seemed so fragile, despite the strength he knew she possessed. She had come so close to slipping from his grasp. His heart twisted with fear, as if he had only now snatched her back from the cliffs edge, as if the abyss still yawned at their feet. He held on tight, to keep them both from falling.
A discreet cough at the door brought him back to full awareness. McCoy stood in the doorway, trying hard to look stern. "I leave Sickbay for a few hours, and hospital discipline goes completely to hell. I dont remember authorizing any visitors for this patient."
Kirk pulled back and smiled at Christopher. "Just doing my duty, Doctorchecking on your performance," he said. "Id say youve done a pretty good job here."
"Why, thank you, Captain," McCoy replied. "Now Id appreciate it if youd get out of here and let me get on with it. Uhuras been looking all over for youshe has a message waiting from the Paramount."
"All right, Bones, Im going." Kirk squeezed Christophers hand and headed for the door.
As the turbolift delivered Kirk to the bridge, Spock relinquished the command chair and stood expectantly by while the captain took over. "Ships status continues unchanged, Captain," he said. "I trust the ambassadors recovery is progressing?"
Kirk just barely managed to repress a broad grin. Spock would never admit to anything but a professional interest in Christophers recovery, but Kirk knew better. "She seems to be doing extremely well, Captain Spock. In fact, I would say she is very nearly her old self again." The smile stubbornly refused to leave his face.
Spock merely nodded in acknowledgment, but Uhura exclaimed, "Oh, thats wonderful news, sir!"
Kirk swivelled to face his communications officer. He returned her warm gaze and said quietly, "I thought so too, Uhura." He noticed Uhura was alone in the communications bay. "Wheres our ensign today?"
"Ensign Garcia is taking a well-deserved onboard liberty." Uhura laughed, but Kirk could hear the pride in her voice.
"Yes, Im afraid weve kept her rather busy on this rotation," Kirk said. "Maybe we should give her a nice, quiet spot in Support Services next time out."
Uhura smiled at him, then apparently remembered she also had a job to do on this ship. "Captain, the Paramount of Sankiang has been asking to speak with you when you returned to dutyshe insisted I not disturb you earlier."
"Thats very thoughtful of her," Kirk allowed. "Put me through, Commander."
"Frequencies open, sir."
"Paramount, this is Captain Kirk."
Najangs lined, angular face appeared on the viewscreen. Kirk noticed that for the first time since hed met her, she actually looked happy. "Captain, I am glad to see you well. I understand the ambassador is recovering also?"
"Yes, thank you, Paramount. Im glad to see you also survived our mission to the Arged unharmed. No doubt you have matters well in hand in your own country by now."
Najang smiled thinly. "We are endeavoring to return to a state of normalcy as quickly as possible. However, one problem remainsMankende."
Kirk frowned. "I thought Kebbe had taken care of him."
"His forces were soundly defeated, that is true, but the man himself has disappeared. As you might guess, we are quite anxious to find him and bring him to justice."
"And you want my help," Kirk finished for her uneasily. A formal request for assistance would put him in a difficult position with the Federation. Much as he himself wanted Mankende, this was arguably an internal affair best left to the Sankianis.
"Whatever assistance you are able to provide will be appreciated, Captain," Najang replied. "However, we dont expect you to join the searchsimply to be aware that we consider Mankendes capture a matter of the utmost importance. We will insist upon our jurisdictional rights in this case."
Kirk was grateful not to have been asked to help with the search, but that business about jurisdictional rights sounded too much like a threat. What the hell is she warning me against? He suddenly realized she was waiting for some kind of answer. "I understand, Paramount. Your...uh...candor is much appreciated."
"Good. By the way, Captain, we are ready to begin our discussions with the Argeddan government at any time. Will you be sending a representative to assist?"
Kirk groaned inwardly. "Yes, Paramount. I myself will be attending until the ambassador is well enough to take over."
"Very well, Captain. We will see each other shortly. Until then." Her image faded from the viewscreen.
Kirk stared after it for a long while, wondering what new game the Paramount and her former Interior Minister were playing now.
Leonard McCoy was enjoying playing the simple country doctor again, after his long stint as ace medical researcher. Research required too many hours wrestling with a computer and not nearly enough passing the time of day with recovering patients.
The doctor moved to the side of Elena Christophers bed to take a look at the monitor record of the last few hours. "Well, this is a long sight better," he announced. "How do you feel?"
Christopher sat up hopefully. "Ready to get back to work."
"Oh, no, you dont. Youre not leaving this bed until that temperature reads a consistent thirty-seven degrees."
"Well, at least tell me whats going on down there," she insisted. "I feel like some kind of Rip van Winkle."
McCoy frowned in concentration and added some notes to the chart. "To put it in a nutshell, thanks to your bullheadednessand Jimsit appears Sarva is no longer in immediate danger of blowing itself to hell. Najang has regained her position as Paramount and is preparing to begin actual negotiations with Soborr-Taal over such minor matters as how the two countries are going to divide up the booty from Ba-Serrekan."
"You left out the part where you find a cure for the epidemic," Christopher said with a playful smile.
McCoy dismissed the compliment with a shrug. "Frankly, dealing with two separate medical establishments on this thing is a royal pain. Bring somebody a miraculous cure for what ails them, and youre a hero. Try to suggest they work together to set up a program to prevent the disease in the first place, and you can hear the complaining all the way up here."
Christopher laughed. "I dont know anyone better suited for the job, Doctor."
"I do," he said, smiling at her. "But youre not available."
"Who is handling the negotiations, by the way?"
"Didnt Jim tell you anything?"
"We had other things to talk about," she answered with a grin.
"Well, I certainly hope you two werent trying to sort out anything substantialyou can hardly afford to expend that kind of energy at this stage." McCoy tried without success to look like he meant it.
Christopher smiled conspiratorially. "Im going for broke. Put in a good word for me when you get the chance, will you?"
"I hardly think you need any help from me," he replied and paused to look seriously at his patient. "However, since you insist on discussing this highly charged subject with a fever of thirty-eight point two, Ill tell you something. Ive known Jim Kirk for going on twenty-five years. Its not easy for him to make room in his life for something other than the Enterprise, even when he cares very deeply. Damn it, Elena, he cant afford to sacrifice another relationship to this infernal hunk of exotic alloys. Dont let him do it."
"Thanks, Doctor McCoy, thats all I wanted to hear." She touched his arm. "And thanks for giving me the chance to take another crack at him. You may try to pretend that computer delivered the answer to the fever on a silver platter, but I know who brought me back from the gates of hell. I wont forget it.
McCoy blushed. "Thats what they pay me for," he mumbled. He looked down at her. "And it was my distinct pleasure to be of service."
Satisfied with the evidence of the monitors and his own, more personal, examination, McCoy started for the door. Once there, he turned and tried one last time to act like a doctor. "If you dont get some rest, all my hard work is going to go right down the drain. Now forget about setting the world on fire and go to sleep, will ya?"
Doctor McCoy soon lost all control over his patient. Her strength returning, Elena Christopher spent hours reviewing the tape records of the negotiations on the planet below. The parties were all acting in good faith, and Kirk was doing his best to help them reach common ground, but it was clear the momentum would soon be lost if the ambassador herself didnt take a hand in the process. Despite McCoys protests, she signed herself out of Sickbay to return to Sarva.
For his part, Jim Kirk was relieved to escape diplomatic duty and devote himself to his ship again. There was plenty on board to keep him occupied, what with half the ships science division busy at Ba-Serrekan or in the Bakarr Valley and the routine paperwork of the last few weeks piled up on his desk.
The captain tried, but he couldnt keep himself busy enough to avoid thinking about Elena Christopher. She checked in from the planet every twenty-four hours, but their discussions were mostly brief and strictly professional. He was beginning to miss her. He almost wished the Klingons would show up again to distract him from what he considered to be a dangerous preoccupation with his feelings for the ambassador.
Kirk knew the two of them were headed for a fall; hed been through this before. In a few weeks, she would be back in San Francisco, and the Enterprise would be hopping around the galaxy. Then shed go on to another assignment, and theyd never see each other again. He couldnt give up his life, and he wouldnt ask her to give up hers. He had never before been able to fashion a solution to this dilemma; there was no reason to think hed be able to do it this time. Still, he couldnt let it go. He kept turning the problem over and over in his mind, trying to find a loophole, some purchase for his hope.
He had given more than twenty years of his life to this ship; he was as committed as any man could be to the world of a starship captain. But it had cost himhis son, his relationship with Carol Marcus, Kate Logan, and any number of others he would less readily admitand now he was as alone as he had been when he first came on the Enterprises bridge as her captain. The Enterprise had been his home, but today she felt more like a prison.
Finally, tired of wrestling with it alonetired of thinking about it at allKirk sought out McCoy. He found the doctor staring at the comm terminal in his quarters.
"Bones, you seem to have developed a new appreciation for the tools of science," he said with a grin.
McCoy scowled in reply. "All those people seem to think Im good for is correlating data on this blasted thing. Youd think the Federation could find a way to donate some up-to-date equipment to this backward place."
"Why should they when they can offer the services of the chief medical officer of the Enterprise?"
"Because hes damn tired of it, thats why." He exhaled wearily. "I guess were just about finished. Not much we dont know about this thing now."
Kirk cleared a space for himself on the chair in front of the desk. "Then tell me, since I havent had time to wade through your reportshow is it the disease never spread to the Sankiani side of the river?"
McCoy waved a hand as if the question was unimportant. "Simple. The Sankianis get their water primarily from wells. Their drinking and irrigation water is loaded with all kinds of minerals. Thats part of the appeal of their famous mud baths, too. Actually the water tastes terrible, but it tests out very high in zinc."
"And the Argeddans?"
"Get their water from surface sourceslakes, rivers and so on," the doctor explained. "Tastes greatbut its no help against the fever."
Kirk shook his head. "The answer was so obviousand yet no one saw it."
"Its difficult to think clearly in an atmosphere of hysteria, Jim," McCoy said with a shrug. "Elena was right to attack the political problem first."
Kirk frowned. It seemed there was no way to avoid thinking about Christopher after all.
"Uh-oh," McCoy muttered. "Looks like trouble."
Kirk held up a hand to stop him. "Please, Bones, spare me the lecture this time. Im definitely not in the mood. How about a drink insteador have you sworn off the stuff since you became a slave of the computer?"
McCoy signed off the terminal and reached for the brandy on his shelf. He gave his friend a long, thoughtful look while he poured, but he said nothing.
"To a job well done, Bones," Kirk said, lifting his glass. "Cheers."
McCoy smiled in return and tossed the shot down his throat. The pleasurable effect was instantly readable in his flushed, blissful face. "God, do you realize how long its been since weve had time to do this?"
"Too long," Kirk said. "Lets have another."
Elena Christopher sat blinking at the terminal, the last of the days transcripts blurring into an incomprehensible jumble on the screen. She was tired, it had been a long, not very productive day, and she had to admit she was not quite back up to full strength. "So to bed, Elena," she told herself and switched off the machine.
She stood and turnedand gasped sharply in surprise. A figure moved in the shadows of the outer room, tall, parade-ground straight, imposing. Christopher knew she had locked the door opening onto the corridor from the outer room of her quarters, but the figure was there nonetheless.
"What the hell are you doing in here?" she demanded in a tone she reserved for obnoxious drunks and the grossly incompetent.
Mankende stepped into the dim light of the inner room, an ironic smile on his lips. "Why, I came to see you, Ambassador. I hope you will excuse my dramatic entranceI am not exactly free to come and go as I please here in the government complex."
Christopher made an effort to mask her shock at the former Interior Ministers sudden appearance on her doorstep, but it was a long, quiet moment before she found her voice again. "Pardon my bluntness, sir, but what the hell are you doing here?" she said at last. "What can you possibly want from me?"
"In a word, Ambassador, asylum." Mankende smiled again, confidently, apparently not the least bit concerned that the woman whose very life he had threatened by his recent actions might call the guard on him.
She was furious and absolutely amazed at the mans audacity. "You must be joking!" she responded.
"Ambassador Christopher, I am disappointed. Do you mean to say you had not anticipated my request?" Mankende fairly dripped with oily condescension. "Very well, Ill spell it out for you. Under Federation regulations and the laws of this nation, I still have a legitimate claim on the leadership of Sankiang. Obviously if I am taken prisoner by Kebbe and Najang, I will have no chance to present my case to a fair and impartial court. In fact, I will most likely be summarily tried and executed for treason."
"Which, in my personal opinion, is no less than you deserve," Christopher replied menacingly.
Mankende remained unperturbed. "That may be your personal opinion, Ambassador, but officially your duty requires you honor my request to be transported to the nearest starbase where I may submit the issue to arbitration by a Federation court."
Christopher slumped into her chair, literally unable to stand against Mankendes impenetrable logic. In a way she had to admire himhe never missed an opportunity and he always stayed just this side of the law. That kind of talent in the hands of an unethical man was just too damn dangerous.
"Youve got it all figured out, dont you?" she said. "What if I refuse to play along and just turn you over to the guards right now?"
Mankende laughed. "Ambassador, you would no more defy Federation regulations and throw your career away thanthan Captain Kirk would destroy his own ship."
Mankendes laughter turned abruptly into a cry of wrenching pain, as his arm was suddenly grabbed by an invisible strength and bent into an impossible angle behind his back. Held nearly motionless, he couldnt see his attackerbut he must have recognized the voice.
"Speak of the devil, eh, Mankende?" Jim Kirk grinned and gave the arm an added twist. "You know, I have been known to destroy my own ship when the circumstances were right. The ambassador may just surprise you."
Christopher took a deep breath. I cant believe Im about to say this. "Let him go, Jim."
Kirk looked at her as if he couldnt possibly have heard her right. "Excuse me?"
"Minister Mankende has made a formal request to me as Special Envoy to provide for his safe transportation to the nearest starbase for presentation before a Federation arbitration tribunal," she said unhappily. "Under the regulations, were both obligated to honor his request." She placed particular emphasis on the words both and obligated.
Kirks hold on Mankende did not slacken. "Are you telling me we are going to be in the position of protecting this characterthe same man who nearly got you killed, by the wayfrom the justice he deserves? You know Najang has already made her feelings very clear on this."
Christopher sighed. "I know, I know. Im going to have to do some fast talking just to keep this issue from scuttling the negotiations." She looked at Kirk in bemused resignation. "Will you please let him go?"
Reluctantly, Kirk released his prisoner, who rubbed his shoulder resentfully. The captain shook his head and flipped open his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Spock, here, Captain."
"Taking an extra shift, Spock? Its after midnight."
"I was just reviewing the data from Ba-Serrekan. It is quite fascinating."
"Ah," Kirk temporized, "of course. Captain Spock, were beaming up a very special passenger. Tell Security to send a detail to the transporter room to escort Mister Mankende to quarters and make sure he stays there. Ill be along later."
Christopher could almost hear Spocks eyebrow lift in astonishment, but the Vulcan replied with typical brevity, "Acknowledged, Captain."
Mankende smiled his unctuous smile. "I am grateful, Captain."
"Just be glad youre not making this trip in the brig," Kirk warned. His kept his eyes on Mankende as he spoke into the communicator. "Energize."
Christopher watched with a frown of distaste as the transporter beam wrapped the minister up and carried him to safety. "Damn, I hate that," she said.
Kirk shook his head. "For half a credit, I wouldve twisted his head off."
"For a minute there, I thought you would," she said with a grin. "Where did you come from?"
His answering grin was just the least bit sheepish. "Well, I...uh...I was just in the neighborhood."
"Uh-huh." She left her chair and moved to link her arms around his waist. "Well, since youre here, you might as well stay a few minutes."
"I was hoping youd say that," he murmured. He drew her in tight against him and pressed his lips warmly to the sensitive spot just below her earlobe. Her back arched deliciously in response.
She offered her mouth for a kiss; he accepted it hungrily. God, how long had it been? She couldnt remember. She could only remember his taste, his smell, the way he filled her with longing until she overflowed with ecstasy. Her body remembered and softened in welcome, aching for his touch.
She wanted him with every nerve, every muscle, every breath and she had to break off the kiss or lose all hope of control. "My God!" she gasped, her body thrumming wildly in anticipation.
He pulled back to look at her, a tiny frown of doubt between his eyes. "Youre still not well. Maybe we shouldnt..."
"Oh, yes," she assured him, taking his hand to lead him to the bedroom. "We should."
The captain and senior officers of the starship Enterprise and six members of the ships honor guard stood stiffly at attention in the huge reception hall. They stood, a part of and yet separate from the pomp and circumstance that filled the hallthe honor guards of two nations and the assembled ranks of officials, aides, representatives and secretaries so necessary to state occasions.
The flag-draped dias at the end of the hall was the focus of attention just now as first the Director of the Arged, then the Paramount of Sankiang signed the documents arrayed in front of them. Though those agreements represented weeks of work, Elena Christopher knew they were merely the bare minimum required to keep the two nations from destroying each other for the time being. The real work would be done later, under the watchful eye of a full Federation mediation team.
Still, Christopher was willing enough to join in the spirit of the moment. She had bought the planet and its people some time, at least, and that was worth a little celebration. Of course, Mankendes little maneuver hadnt made her job any easier. In fact, Paramount Najang had stayed away from the negotiations for nearly a week in protest and had only been persuaded to return to the talks by a special entreaty from the Federation Council.
In the end, Christopher supposed, her diplomatic skills had counted for something. The Paramount apparently hadnt found it too difficult to offer her the traditional symbols of gratitude during todays ceremonies. The old woman had even managed a thin smile.
The ambassador had accepted the honors in recognition of her work with grace and retired to the sidelines to watch the signing, but she found herself watching Captain James T. Kirk instead. He had been Starfleets youngest starship captain; now he was quite possibly one of the oldest. Seeing him at this momentunselfconsciously commanding and surrounded by the most fiercely loyal group of officers she had ever encounteredshe could see why Starfleet had busted him back to captain. Jim Kirk did not belong behind an admiralty deskany more than she herself belonged in a cushy job in Federation HQ.
Christopher thought regretfully of Jari. Her mentor was not going to be happy about her decision. Then, too, someone else would be affected by the course she had chosen, but she had already put her creativity to work on that particular problem. Shed come up with the outlines of a solution. Now all she needed was for a few key people to buy into it. A challenge, certainly, but one the ambassador was more than ready to take on.
She smiled inwardly in anticipation, then reluctantly turned her attention back to the scene on the dias. The ceremonies, at last, were coming to an end and the crowd was dispersing toward the official reception.
She was duty-bound to remain pleasantly accessible for a time, so the ambassador exchanged small talk with all corners for as long as she could stand it. She found a way to disengage herself from the official ranks as the dull affair got fully under way and sought out the officers of the Enterprise.
McCoy grinned as she joined them. "I see youve had some experience with these gatherings, Ambassador."
"Thank you, Doctor," she said. "I thought that was a rather neat escape myself."
She and Kirk exchanged a smile, but it was Spock who took up the conversation. "Congratulations, Ambassador. The recognition you received today is well deserved."
The others murmured assent and raised their glasses in salute.
Christopher smiled graciously. "Thank you, gentlemen, but I think Doctor McCoy is the real hero today."
McCoy, grinning widely, tried to dismiss his contribution with a wave of his hand.
"Indeed, Doctor," Spock added. "Please allow me to congratulate you on the quality of your research concerning the epidemic. Your work was most thorough. "
"Well, I had some help," McCoy replied in confusion, as if he wasnt quite sure he had heard Spock right.
Spock looked just the slightest bit irritated. "Doctor, modesty in this case is unwarranted. The credit, for once, is yours. You deserve it." With that, the Vulcan turned and left to join Scotty and a group of Sarvan geologists discussing the Ba-Serrekan explorations.
"Well, Ill be damned," McCoy said to no one in particular. Before he had a chance to say more, some of his other admirers among the reception guests arrived to pull him away. Christopher found herself momentarily alone with Jim Kirk.
Kirk leaned closer. "You dont really enjoy these things, do you?"
"Well, I guess thats like asking you if you enjoy reviewing fuel consumption reports," she said. "Its the part of the job you put up with to get to the good stuff."
Kirk looked pained, but he nodded. "Good analogy."
She looked up at him with a small, private smile. "Actually, Captain, Im looking forward to three days on a starship headed home. I dont suppose you could be persuaded to take the long way around the rim of the galaxy?"
He was so close to her now his lips nearly touched her ear. "We might never get home," he whispered.
That would be just fine with me, Captain, she started to say as she caught sight of a gaggle of government officials headed their way to offer thanks and congratulations. "Damn," she muttered instead, then turned with her professional smile to do her duty.
Not long after the reception had dragged to a close, the Enterprise, her captain, her crew and her passengers had left the muted blue/brown image of Sarva behind. Now the ship plied the empty darkness of deep space, a course set for the third planet circling a nondescript star some sixty lightyears awayhome.
The captain was on the bridge when the call came through from Starfleet Command, disturbing the quiet of what had been a very routine second watch. Ensign Garcia, manning the communications station, turned to Kirk with a look that told him instantly this was no ordinary communication. "Captain, Starfleet Communications has the Federation Director of Interplanetary Relations on line for Ambassador Christopher."
Kirks mouth fell open in surprise. Even Spock, overhearing from his station, raised an eyebrow. At last, the captain recovered enough to speak. "Well, dont keep them waiting, Ensign. Pipe it down to the ambassadors quarters."
"Aye, sir!" Garcia acknowledged.
Kirk left his seat and joined Spock at the Science Station. "The Director of Interplanetary Relations..." he said, unable to keep a certain amount of awe out of his voice..
"I believe I told you that the ambassador was well connected in the Diplomatic Service," Spock replied blandly.
"Typically understated, Captain Spock," Kirk countered. "Do you suppose he simply called to offer congratulations?"
"That would hardly seem necessary since we will be at Federation Headquarters in approximately two point four standard days."
At that, Kirk frowned. "Yes. Well, its none of our business anyway, I guess."
"Quite right, Captain."
Kirk considered a moment, then headed for the turbolift. "Take over, Spock. Ill be...uh... be around." He tried to ignore the look of hopeless puzzlement on Ensign Garcias face as the turbolift door swooshed shut in front of him.
Kirk could feel his world shift the minute he walked into Christophers cabin. In fact, she looked close to tears, a possibility so unexpected that it took him a few seconds to ask, "Elena, whats wrong?"
Her response was angry, but resigned. "Well, Federation Diplomatic Services with its usual efficiency has found a way to cut short our little vacation." As if on cue, the intercom transmitted Garcias call for the captain. "Thatll be your new orders," Christopher said.
Kirk held her gaze for a moment, then answered the call. "Kirk here, Ensign. What is it?"
"Starfleet is transmitting new orders, sir," Garcia told him. "We are directed to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Kennedy in the Iota Draconis system at 1900 hours tomorrow to effect transfer of Ambassador Christopher. Precise coordinates and full details follow."
Kirk took a deep breath and said quietly, "Acknowledge the order, Garcia. Then give Gnutson the coordinates and relay my order to set course for the rendezvous point. Kirk out." He reached out to cradle her shoulders in his hands. "Well, at least they gave us twenty-four hour notice."
She sighed raggedly. "I shouldve known it was too good to be trueI cant remember the last time I had three weeks to myself." She looked up at him and smiled sadly. "Come on, lets go for a walk."
Confused, Kirk followed her out into the passageway and down to T Deck, to the ships botanical garden, familiarly known as the "park." The huge, elaborately landscaped deck section was as close as anyone on a starship ever came to home. The place was full of the sights and smells of growing things and carefully crafted to foster the illusion of being on planet, down to the grass carpeting much of the botanical gardens deck.
It was officially dusk in the park at this hour, the outlines of what could be seen blurred by purplish shadow. Kirk knew the park was a popular trysting place on board and felt more than a little exposed. Still, he couldnt deny that the smell of warm earth and green plants was having an irresistible effect on him.
They walked for a while without saying anything. Then Christopher stopped and turned to him. "I have to confess I probably had something to do with the way this trip turned out."
He wasnt sure what she meant, and he evidently showed it.
"I never told you Id been offered a job in Federation HQ," she confessed. "A few days ago, I sent a message to Singh turning it down."
"Why? Surely that would have been the logical next step for you."
She smiled. "Youre one to ask me that, ex-Admiral Kirk."
"Space becomes a hard habit to break," he replied, unable to return her smile.
"Maybe," she agreed. "I just think some of us are constitutionally incapable of sitting behind a desk. The Director has never understood that little aspect of my personalityI think he gave me this assignment on Portia out of spite."
"How long will you be there?" he tried to sound casual but succeeded rather poorly.
"Six weeks if were lucky." She looked at him as if realizing for the first time that he was choking down his disappointment. "Jari hinted at some more exciting possibilities coming up after that, but nothing is definite yet. Right now, hes in no mood to be magnanimous but hell come around." She paused and gave him an opening. "You dont have orders for the Enterprise yet, do you?"
He shook his head, but his mind wasnt on what she had been saying. "Elena, I wish..." He stopped, searching for the right words. "Theres a test we give Command cadets at the Academythe Kobayashi Maru simulation. It proposes a no-win situation, supposedly as a test of character. I once told someone I didnt believe in the no-win situation. I think weve found one, you and I."
Christophers eyes sparked with sudden anger. "Now wait just a damn minute, Jim Kirk. Dont think youre going to just disappear out of my lifeI wont let you off that easily. If you want to get rid of me youre going to have to convince me you dont love me. And I dont think you can do it."
He knew very well that was the one thing he could not do, but her anger surprised him. He didnt know what to say.
"What is it you really want, Jim?" she demanded. "Its all or nothing, isnt it? Everybodys vision of domestic blissor a lifetime of loneliness in exchange for the rewards we both know too well."
"Ive always said Id never leave someone behind waiting for me," he said quietly.
"And Im damn sure not going to do it either, even for you," she replied, her voice still hard. "I can offer you something better, something real. It wont be perfectmost of the time its going to be damn difficult. But any solution is better than giving up on the problem."
Finally, at least part of what she said began to sink in. "Just exactly what kind of solution are you proposing?"
"Look," she said, her voice mellowing. "Our work brought us together in the first place. Theres no reason that cant happen again, especially if we throw our combined weight around a little. The Federation will be reaching further out soonwell be needing to put all this new technology to better use than hopping around this tired old quadrant. You dont think they want a couple of fresh-faced kids for that kind of mission, do you?"
He looked at her in frank amazement. The outreach mission had been a tantalizing thought in the back of his own mind since hed gotten command of the new Enterprise. "You really dont give up easily, do you?"
"Like you said, Captain. I dont believe in the no-win scenario."
"What makes you think Starfleet will go for it?" he asked, hoping she had an answer. "The outreach mission is a plum they might not be willing to let drop in the Enterprises lap. Not to mention the fact that an ambassador is not part of the usual ships complement."
Christopher grinned. "Youre changing the subject. But to answer your question, the Federation Director of Interplanetary Relations is not without influence in Starfleet. Jari Singh is that old family friend I told you aboutI should be able to wheedle some assistance out of him. Once he gets over his sulk about the headquarters job, that is."
She pinned him with a determined glare. "When I set my sights on something, I usually get it. The question is, do you want it? If its not what you wantif Im not what you wanttell me now. Ill do my best to learn from the experience and go on as if you never happened." Her face showed she was prepared for the worst, though her hope for the best gleamed in her eyes.
Looking at her face, and the hope in her eyes, the thought of yet another goodbye that rang with finality was simply more than Jim Kirk could take. This was one relationship he would not give up. The outreach mission was a long shot, but it was worth a try. And if they failed, there would be another chance. He and Christopher would manage to do something the others in his lifeKate Logan chief among thembeat the Kobayashi Maru somehow.
He smiled at her, suddenly light-hearted. "How could I not want you, Elena? You give me no choice."
She grinned back at him in delighted triumph. "That was the idea." She slipped her arms around his waist, drew him close. "Now, come on," she whispered, surrounded by the soft darkness and the warm smells of their corner of the park. "Give me something to remember until next time."
At exactly 1900 hours the following evening, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the U.S.S. Kennedy met at their agreed rendezvous at Iota Draconis, Sector Six. The captain and senior officers of the Enterprise accompanied Ambassador Christopher to the transporter room. Kirk stood slightly to the side as the ambassador said goodbye to each of them in turn.
"Captain Scott, you have a beautiful ship. Thank you for letting me have the use of her," Christopher said with a smile.
Scotty blushed with self-conscious pride. "My pleasure, maam."
Spock straightened and spoke before she had a chance to address him. "Ambassador, it has been an honorand a great pleasureto have you aboard. I hope we have an opportunity in future to continue our discussion of the intricacies of Federation politics."
"So do I, Captain Spock," she replied, a glint of amusement in her gray eyes. "In the meantime, I trust you will keep the captain apprized of new developments in that area. Hes very lucky to have youfor that reason, among others."
McCoy watched dispiritedly as Christopher approached. One look at his face, and she knew she couldnt leave without a proper goodbye. She threw her arms around him and hugged him hard. "Ill be back, Leonard," she whispered.
"Im counting on it," he replied. "You take care, yhear?"
She hesitated for a split-second as she came at last to Jim Kirk. They had already said their more intimate goodbyes. The formal manner he maintained now was a defense, one she had to employ herself to get past the pain of this parting. She took his hand. "Goodbye, Captain," she said softly.
Their eyes met briefly, then she turned and took her place on the platform.
"Energize," the captain ordered briskly and watched as Elena Christopher shimmered out of sight.
At his elbow, McCoy made a discreet suggestion. "Jim, Ive got the rest of that bottle of Saurian brandy thats just begging for some attention. Care to join me?"
Kirk wasnt in the mood for conversation. "Maybe later, Bones. Ill be on the bridge for a while."
He took the turbolift up to the bridge alone, needing the time to lock away his raw emotions. Then Captain Kirk straightened his uniform, stepped out onto the bridge of his starship and took his place in the command chair. "Are we clear of the Kennedy, Mister Hennessy?"
"Affirmative, Captain. Clear for warp drive."
"Lay in a course for home, Mister Gnutson."
"Plotted and laid in, sir."
"Very good." He swivelled to see that Ensign Garcia was back at her post in the Communications bay. "Communications. Inform the Kennedy that we are taking their leave."
"Aye, sir," Garcia acknowledged with a snap. There was no hesitation in her movements as she followed her orders.
Yes, he decided. She will definitely do.
Kirk sat back and waited to feel the tiny thrill of excitement that somehow never failed to touch him when the ship shifted into warp drive. Christophers soft goodbye echoed in his mind, but his thoughts were already on the future. Smiling a little in anticipation, he gave the order that would take him there. "Ahead Warp Factor Five, Mister Hennessy. Steady as she goes."
"Aye, sir. Steady as she goes."
FROM THE AUTHOR
Funny the things that happen at Star Trek conventions. Familiar stories are recounted. New stories are written. And sometimes, stories long since given up for dead are resurrected to new life.
Valley of the Shadow is one of the latter. In fact, this was my first Star Trek story, written back in 1987. I had no contacts with the fanzine world in those innocent days, so the manuscript sat where so many lost stories siton a shelf gathering dust. Until I mentioned my little orphan to Ann Zewen at the Shore Leave convention in Baltimore last year.
Ann asked to see it. Ann liked it. Ann insisted we breathe new life into it.
So I went to work making the old manuscript presentable to a new audience. The job was not unlike renovating an old housethe foundation was solid, but the trim had to be stripped down to the bare wood and refashioned. I had learned a lot about writing in ten years, thanks in large part to Orion Press and its readers. I think the revised reflects what Ive learned. Its still an old-fashioned story at heart youll never turn a Victorian farmhouse into a contemporary rancherbut all the fixtures are like new.
My thanks to Ann for seeing the potential in this old property. And my advice to any fledgling writers out there: never give up on a good story. As Star Trek fans we ought to know, sometimes death is only temporary.
Donna S. Frelick
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