Nomad and Elizabeth Knauel
He was running out of time.
Doctor Nathan P. Morris wiped sweat out of his eyes. He peered into the viewer of his microscanner and cursed.
The blood sample was from a woman who had died just ten minutes earlier. It was clean. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, not even a trace of the deadly whatever-it-was that had killed over thirty thousand people in just two standard days.
Morris frowned. Sarnac III was a stable farming colony. It had been established twenty years earlier, in 2267, during a period of burgeoning Federation expansion. A prime agricultural planet, Sarnac III was a friendly, Earth-like world, lush and green, with no nasty microbes, bacteria, or diseases of any kind.
And yet, less than a hundred people were all that remained alive on his salubrious little planet--and they were dying as well.
He was dying.
Morris twisted his chestnut beard between his fingers. His intense blue eyes glistened with feverish desperation as he changed blood specimens. He focused the scanner on the new sample--his own--and found what he was looking for.
He had stumbled upon it by accident. It might have gone unnoticed during a cursory examination, but he tested several samples from living, infested individuals in rapid succession, and had found the same, unknown anomaly in each one. The deadly "X" factor.
What it was, he had no idea.
It wasn't a bacteria. It wasn't a virus. The biocomp said it was completely unknown. It defied description and analysis. And it disappeared totally after death.
But whatever this lethal plague was, it killed quickly, horribly. Patients complained of dizzy spells and a general malaise at first--nothing extraordinary. But then, in the final stages, the victims suddenly turned into mindless, babbling creatures who thrashed about wildly, uttering weird, half-Human cries--then died.
The lab doors hissed open. Lynn Hayden, a communications tech, sagged wearily against the wall. "Managed to punch a hole through all this subspace interference, Doc. Got you a clear channel."
"Thank God!" Morris exclaimed fervently. "At least we can warn whoever finds us." He stopped suddenly and stared at Hayden.
Lynn Hayden was a pretty young woman with an expressive face. But now, that face was ashen and drained of life. Green eyes that normally sparkled gazed dully, unseeing, at him.
"Lynn? Is there anything I can--"
She suddenly swayed and fell backward, hitting the floor, shrieking and convulsing, chewing her tongue and howling. Her body gyrated in paroxysms of pain and uncontrollable nerve impulses. Horrified, Morris grabbed his medikit and rushed to her side.
Even as he knelt beside her, however, she stiffened and shuddered, then relaxed.
Lynn Hayden was dead.
Morris swore softly under his breath. He gently closed her eyes. As he stood up, he experienced the odd dizziness that had become particularly chronic in the past few hours.
Morris waited no longer. His time was short. He had to get the word out, let someone know what was happening here. The dizziness worsened. He had to hang on a while longer. He keyed in the "transmit" program on his subspace console.
"This is...is Doctor Nathan Morris on the Federation agricultural colony of Sarnac Three. An exotic plague of unknown origin has destroyed ninety-nine percent of the humanoid life on this planet. It will kill the few of us who remain within hours. We...are...finished... Under no condition is any vessel to approach Sarnac Three..."
Ariel Cord ran a quick comb through her hair and picked up her gym bag. The shower had felt wonderful. She had worked out an extra half hour today, an extra thirty minutes of running just for the conditioning. An hour a day (an hour and a half today!), every day, religiously. It kept her in perfect condition. At least, she thought that was what kept her in such fantastic shape. But lately, she feared something else was involved, something she didn't understand.
She studied herself in the mirror and frowned.
She was forty-eight years old; she could easily pass for a woman less than half her age. Her body was firm and trim from her rigorous exercise regimen. She drank lots of water to keep her flawless skin hydrated and young and wrinkle-free. She followed a good diet, got plenty of rest, and--her own prescription--lots and lots of sex. And that was all she did--no drug treatments like rejuvenex (too much of a chance of side effects), no microplastic surgery, no biomech enhancements, no magic, no fountain of youth. You'd think someone her age would be thrilled to look so young.
But Ariel Cord was disturbed.
Because she really, truly did not look any older than she had as a fresh-faced medical student thirty years ago!
When she hit forty, she had begun to wonder. As she neared fifty, she began to worry, a little.
It was scary. It was not normal. It was not natural.
Cord leaned closer to the mirror. There was not a sprinkle of grey, not so much as one strand, in her thick mane of platinum blonde hair. Not even the tiniest of wrinkles or crow's feet marred her smooth face. Her splendid body was a taut as a wound spring, without a hint of sag or droop. She looked and felt great. Indeed, she felt as good as she had all those years ago when she had been a spoiled little pre-med student who had snared the affections of the illustrious starship captain, Christopher Pike.
She sighed ruefully. Leave it to her to find the cloud in front of the silver lining! There were other people who had bigger problems than hers, problems she could help them with. Most of them would probably think she didn't have a problem at all.
She shrugged it off, but it still troubled her.
She strode out into the Cooper's gymnasium. As usual, Cord was the object of more than a few admiring male stares. It didn't bother her. It would have bothered her more if they didn't stare.
Cord noticed one of the new crew members they had taken on recently. He was attempting to gesture inconspicuously in her direction as he earnestly questioned one of the Cooper's old hands. She almost chuckled aloud. She knew what he was asking. Hey, isn't that?
Yes, it was. Doctor Ariel Cord was also that Ariel Cord, daughter of the entertainment czar Aaron Cord, and star of over two hundred high-quality, stylishly-produced, white-hot pornographic holovids. Most of them had been made while she had been a pre-med student, although she continued to film occasionally over the years, even after joining Starfleet Medical Corps. In fact, the brass would flip their collective wigs if they knew she had made three triple-X features for her old director friend, Tony Balent, when she had been on furlough last year. He had released them as Ariel Cord "lost classics," but he wasn't fooling anybody. All they had to do was take one look at her co-star in one of the films, aging porn stud "Long Tom" Curtis. He looked good for his age, but he couldn't hold a candle to the dewy, still-youthful exuberance of Ariel Cord.
She had always done the films for fun, and to nourish the exhibitionist streak in her. God knew she didn't need the money. She had enough credits stockpiled in trust funds, and investments to last her six lifetimes. Besides, doing porn films suited her wicked streak of humor.
If nothing else, it made for an interesting résumé.
"Hey, Doc! Tonight's movie night. When we gonna see one of your flicks again?"
It was Lieutenant Commander Jim Sherrod of Security, a Cooper veteran and friend from the tour they had served together aboard Dave Garrovick's U.S.S. Challenger.
Cord chuckled. "I dunno, Jimmy. Whatcha wanna see?"
"Caged and Deadly." Sherrod snickered, his eyes dancing mischievously.
Her own eyes flew open in mock horror. "One of my 'sluts in the slammer' epics? Aw, c'mon, Jimmy! You can do better than that! Besides, I have some rather painful memories from that film."
"The scene with the rock man?"
"Yeah," Cord nodded, rubbing her backside. "I was, and still am, the only Human girl ever to do a B'rythian and stay conscious--but I couldn't sit down for a week!"
"Aw, c'mon, Doc--be a sport!"
"I'll surprise you," Cord said. "See you at the holo-theater."
She was about to leave when the port at the opposite end of the gym slid open. In strode Captain Hikaru Sulu, followed by a dozen new crew members. Sulu carried a pair of cases that contained his fencing epées.
"If it isn't Captain Sourpuss," Sherrod muttered sotto voce. "Wonder what's eating him--as if I didn't know."
Cord shook her head sadly. "He just won't let go of the Xantharus debacle. The other night he told me that Xantharus was his Serenidad."
Sherrod whistled. "That's a little extreme. We didn't get shot up that badly. Serenidad was Jim Kirk's worst defeat as a starship captain. Sulu'd have to go quite a ways to top that mess.
"Nonetheless, that's his perception," Cord returned sadly, "and perception is reality. He's got to learn to adjust to it. He's gonna lose people from time to time. Xantharus wasn't the first time, but it was certainly the worst to date. There'll be others. Maybe they won't be as bad, or maybe--God forbid--they'll be even worse. But if he doesn't learn to put it into perspective, and get on with his life, he's doomed as a starship captain."
And somehow, he's got to get over losing Janet Rachelson, she added silently to herself.
She caught Sulu's eyes. "Hey, Skipper! Whatcha doin'?"
Sulu grinned sheepishly. "Some of the new kids got together and decided they wanted me to put on a little fencing exhibition," he explained. "Guess they heard I wasn't too bad."
"Don't hurt any of 'em," she admonished.
He nodded, then peeled off his turtleneck uniform shirt.
Damn, he looks good, she thought. Eagle-chested, muscular, straight and slim as a reed. Her eyes crinkled in a smirk. Great butt, too.
Sulu stretched and warmed up, then began explaining some simple positions and maneuvers. All the bright young faces watched him eagerly--all except one. A young ensign with wavy brown hair was managing to look extremely bored. Sulu was right in the middle of explaining and demonstrating a lunge when the ensign stretched exaggeratedly and loosed a loud yawn.
Sulu paused, irritated. "Are we keeping you awake, Mister Nolan?"
Ensign Bobby Nolan regarded Sulu with an expression that was very much like a sneer. "Beg pardon, sir. It's just that my own fencing abilities are a little beyond this baby stuff."
"I see," Sulu grated. "Why, then, pray tell, are you wasting your time?"
"Didn't have anything better to do," Nolan replied. "I was the Academy fencing champ my senior year."
"How nice for you," Sulu retorted. "I was fencing champ three years running."
The ensign chuckled. "With all due respect, sir, that was thirty years ago. Granted, you may have been pretty good in your time...."
Oh shit, Cord groaned.
"Bobby!" exclaimed Ensign Beth Hart, shocked.
Must be Mister Arrogant's little girlfriend, Cord thought. At least she's got good sense to be embarrassed.
"Hey, Beth, I'm not trying to make the captain look bad," Nolan said, a condescending tone in his voice. "But let's be real. I'm twenty-five years younger than Captain Sulu. It wouldn't be fair for me to show him up."
Ariel Cord had heard enough. "Listen, stupid. The captain could chew you up, spit you out, and mop up the floor with you."
"Thank you, Doctor Cord, but I can handle this myself." Sulu glared coldly at Bobby Nolan. "All right, Ensign. Let's stage a real demonstration for your shipmates." He checked his fencing foils to make sure the blade guards were in place, then tossed one of the finely-crafted swords to Nolan.
"En gardè," the captain snapped.
Nolan was quick, very quick, even a tad bit faster than Sulu. But, to the ensign's shock and chagrin, he soon discovered that Sulu's years of experience more than offset his slight lack of speed. Blades clanged and rang in the gymnasium as the two combatants furiously lunged and parried. But it was no contest. Within moments, it was obvious that Bobby Nolan was completely out of his depth.
For the next ten minutes, Sulu put on a fencing clinic. Ariel Cord's eyes narrowed as she watched him. Sulu's face was set in a feral grimace; his eyes blazed in fury. He's making a fool out of this kid, embarrassing him, she thought. Not that the little jackass doesn't deserve it, but that's not like Sulu.
The fencing "match" quickly deteriorated into a full-scale rout. Nolan was soaked and dripping with sweat, his chest heaving with exhaustion, and his eyes were wide with something akin to sheer terror. He was on the run now. He backed away steadily before Sulu's inexorable advance. The captain was toying with him, and Nolan knew it. Fatigue prevented him from doing anything about it, kept him from even summoning up the anger he felt somewhere in the depths of his battered ego.
A grim smile suddenly lit Sulu's features. He had his upstart challenger right where he wanted him. Time now to mercifully end this farce.
With a deft twist of his wrist, Sulu disarmed Nolan, got under his guard and flicked his epée away from him. The sword landed with a dull thud on the cushioned gym floor. Sulu raised the sheathed tip of his own foil and pressed it against the notch at the base of Nolan's throat.
"Yield!" the captain of the Cooper growled.
"I yield! I yield! Damn it, I yield!" Nolan gasped.
Sulu stepped forward. Nolan retreated, and suddenly his foot only found air.
Sulu had maneuvered Nolan into the natatorium section of the gymnasium, right up to the edge of the swimming pool. Arms flailing, the ensign tumbled, face first into the water, but not before Sulu thwacked him resoundingly across the backside with the flat of his blade.
Behind him, the new crewmembers hooted with laughter, then broke into applause. Even Beth Hart reluctantly joined in. The sputtering Nolan bobbed to the surface. Sulu reached down to grab his wrist and help him out of the pool. Waterlogged and disconsolate, Nolan flopped on his back like a beached fish, breathing heavily.
Sulu stood over him in triumph. "You really are very good, Ensign," he said. "With a little work, you could be great. Come back sometime--without the chip on your shoulder--and we'll have a real workout." He turned to the other new crew members. "That's all for today. Thank you for coming."
The spectators gave him another round of applause, then dispersed.
Beth Hart came forward and draped a towel over Nolan who had managed to get up on his hands and knees. "I know you don't want to hear this, honey," she said, "but you had it coming."
Sulu strode away before he could hear Nolan's mumbled reply.
Ariel Cord was waiting for him, arms folded. "A little rough on the kid, weren't you, Captain?"
Sulu shrugged. "It served him right."
"Aw, c'mon, Hikaru," she grated. "That was like watching the Atlanta Braves beat up on a team like the Moscow Mudhens."
"With all due respect to the Braves, Ariel, I don't think they could beat a sandlot team right now," Sulu answered with a chuckle. "They haven't even won the division since '79, and--"
"Don't change the subject on me," Cord said bluntly. "You could have beaten the little idiot without humiliating him."
Sulu's eyes narrowed. "Yes. Yes, I could have, Doctor. But you know what? I wanted to humiliate him. I enjoyed it. It felt good!"
"Yes--and that's uncharacteristic of you." Cord's tone softened. "Hikaru, I'm your C.M.O. You've been under a lot of pressure, and it's my job to--"
"Have you noticed a decline in my fitness to command, Doctor?" he snapped, interrupting her.
Cord started. He was really angry! His eyes flashed and his mouth was set in a tight line. "No," she admitted. "I haven't, but--"
"Then this discussion is ended, right here, right now. And I'll thank you not to bring it up again, unless you have proof that my command efficiency is deteriorating. Is that clear?"
"Quite clear, sir," she answered through clenched teeth.
"Good. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to shower and change."
Sulu turned on his heel just as the intercom whistle.
"Captain Sulu and Doctor Cord to the bridge, please." The filtered voice of Commander Xon, the Cooper's executive and science officer, reverberated in the now-empty gym.
Sulu sighed and shuffled to a nearby com panel. So much for the shower, he thought. "Sulu to Bridge. What is it, Xon?"
"We have received a message from the agricultural colony on Sarnac Three, sir, a distress call," the Vulcan replied. "I think it would be best if you and Doctor Cord see the message in its entirety."
"On our way. Sulu out."
The turbolift ride to the bridge was charged with tension and an awkward silence. Sulu was adjusting his turtleneck as he strode through the pneumo doors.
The science officer nodded to the second communications officer, a young blonde Caitian ensign named M'lel.
The starfield on the mainviewer was replaced with the image of a wild-eyed, disheveled, bearded Human male. "This is Doctor Nathan Morris on the Federation agricultural colony of Sarnac Three. An exotic biological plague of unknown origin has destroyed ninety-nine percent of the humanoid life on this planet. It will kill the few of us who remain alive within hours. We...are...finished... Under no condition is any vessel to approach Sarnac Three..."
Morris was obviously struggling to remain focused and coherent. Sweat bathed his face, and his brow was furrowed with deeply etched lines of concentration. "I am uploading the information we...have gathered on this disease. All I know for sure is that it attacks the blood. Can't make...much sense out of...it. Maybe it's because of the disease. Can't clear my...head... anymore..."
Suddenly, Morris threw his head back, and peal after peal of foolish, mindless laughter burst from his throat. It was the laughter of pain, misery and despair. Morris began to cough, then foam at the mouth. His body writhed in spasms and convulsions as he gibbered and screamed and moaned. Then, suddenly, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, he sagged back in his chair. His pain-wracked eyes were already filming with the unconsciousness that immediately preceded death.
Stars came back into focus on the viewer.
"My...God!" Sulu exclaimed.
"Disturbing," Xon agreed. "Computer projections estimate that only seventy-five colonists were still alive at the time Doctor Morris transmitted his message.
"Seventy-five out of thirty thousand," M'lel whispered wide-eyed. "All dead in a little over two days?"
Xon thumbed a touch sensor on his console. A schematic of the Sarnac system glowed on the viewer. "Sarnac," The Vulcan intoned. "A class-G5V sun with twelve planets. Number three is class-M and Earth-like in the extreme. Our E.T.A. at Sarnac Three is fourteen standard hours at Warp Eight. You will note its proximity to the Romulan Neutral Zone."
"Course plotted and laid in, Captain," growled Kre'slyt, the Kzinti navigator.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Sulu to Engineering."
"Maliszewski here," responded the chief engineer.
"Deneice, I need to push your babies at Warp Eight for about fourteen hours or so. What's your status?"
"No problem, Skipper. We're running at one hundred-two percent efficiency."
"Good to hear," Sulu said. "How's your science project going?"
"My amplifier circuit? It's tied in," Maliszewski answered. "Theoretically it'll boost power to all circuits by seventy-five percent for short periods of time. Theoretically. Of course, theoretically my transwarp should've performed five hundred percent better than it did."
"Maybe the amplifier circuits will prove more successful. I've a feeling that we'll get a chance to test it. Sulu out." He turned to Tchenn at the helm. "Warp Eight, Helmsman."
"Warp Eight, aye, sir," the Skorr affirmed. His talons danced over controls, and the Cooper surged smoothly forward, the stars on the viewer transformed into multicolored streaks of light.
Sulu strolled over to the science console. "Xon, I'm concerned by Sarnac Three's nearness to Romulan space, too. I take it you think this plague is not a natural phenomenon?"
The Vulcan arched an eyebrow. "I can only speculate at this time, Captain. However, were I Human, I would be suspicious of a disease that kills so quickly and efficiently and thoroughly. I may know more after I've had an opportunity to review Doctor Morris' data."
"I thought as much," Sulu sighed. "Keep me informed."
"Captain, I've received a message from Starfleet Command," M'lel announced. "I informed them of our situation. As a precaution, they are re-routing the U.S.S. Enterprise to provide support. However, it will be several hours behind us."
"Thank you, Ensign. Let's hope Captain Kirk and his crew won't be needed. Doctor Cord--"
"I'll have Sickbay ready," the chief medical officer confirmed.
"Good," Sulu said. "Commander Xon, you have the conn. I'll be in my quarters." Taking a shower, he finished silently. He stepped into the turbolift with Ariel Cord in tow.
As the car descended, the Cooper's physician cleared her throat. "Captain, you realize by the time we arrive at Sarnac Three, those poor people will probably all be dead."
He sighed. "I know, Doctor, but there's always a chance there may be some survivors. And I'm counting on you to keep this crew safe."
"I'll do my best, sir," she nodded.
"I know you will." Sulu reached out suddenly stopped the turbolift. "Ariel, look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have blown up at you. You're right. I've been under a lot of stress, but it wasn't fair to take it out on you."
She smiled and squeezed his hand. "It's okay, Skipper. If it helped you to let off some steam, I can live with that. If you want to talk about it, my door's always open."
Sulu's face clouded. "We'll see," he said simply. "We'll see. My door's always open, too." He punched the turbocar back to life.
Cord frowned, sensing the tension in his posture, in the set of his jaw. He's really tied up in knots, she reflected.
The car reached its destination, and they both got off.
"Thanks again, Doctor," Sulu said. "I'm sorry--again--that I bit your head off. But I do feel like it helped me blow off some steam. I feel better."
Sure you do, Cord thought as she said, "My pleasure, Captain. Anytime."
As she watched Sulu stride down the corridor, Ariel Cord resolved she was going to get to the bottom of Sulu's problem. A plan was already taking shape in her mind.
She smiled. If that didn't work, nothing would.
Commander S'Klar of the Romulan stormhawk T'Charr could barely contain his excitement. Outwardly, he appeared calm, almost placid, but inside, he was fighting the urge to shout out loud from sheer joy. The experiment was a complete success. Sensors indicated that all humanoid life on the Federation agricultural planet Sarnac III was now dead, killed in over two standard days by Science Officer T'oraq's deadly metagenic blood catalyst. And if T'oraq's lethal discovery worked as planned, there would be no trace of the substance in the victim's bodies. Anyone finding the corpses would conclude that the entire population had simply dropped dead for no apparent reason.
S'Klar contemplated the image of the serene little blue planet on the viewscreen in his cabin. So simple. A single photon torpedo detonated high in the atmosphere (and easily mistaken for a meteorite) scattered its payload of millions of tiny innocuous-looking pellets over the planet's surface. Once the outer shell dissolved, the tidal wave of death was unleashed. It was the perfect biological weapon. S'Klar eagerly awaited a confirming report from T'oraq's landing party down on Sarnac III.
He was startled by the ringing of his door chime. "Yes? Who is it?"
S'Klar smiled as Centurion Tyana, his adjutant and his mate, entered their quarters. As always, he was awestruck by his young wife's beauty. Her flawless, alabaster skin contrasted with her long, soft mane of blue-black curls and her clear amethyst eyes.
But the commander's smile faded when he saw the unease in those eyes. "What is it?" he prompted.
"We have a potential problem, Commander. The Humans were able to send a subspace message describing their plight, including all the data they had amassed about the disease."
S'Klar rose from his chair. "What?! How could Talak be so careless? He is the finest communications officer in the Ch'forrahn fleet."
Tyana closed her eyes. "Centurion Talak expired suddenly while monitoring his communications blackout of Sarnac Three. No one noticed for some time as he remained seated at his post. In the meantime, his jamming program failed. The colonists were able to transmit while it was down."
S'Klar sank back in his lounger, stricken.
"I asked Sub-Commander S'Teron to let me give you the news, my husband," Tyana continued in a whisper. "I know that Talak was your mentor, and the two of you were very close. Second Physician Morlag suspects a massive cardiac seizure. He says it was painless and quick"
The Romulan commander's slate gray eyes were focused on another time, another place. "Talak was my father's best friend," S'Klar murmured. "After my father was killed in the Battle of Morel, Talak practically adopted my brother and me. He sponsored me at the Imperial Academy. I will miss him."
"As will I," Tyana said, fighting back tears. "He truly believed in the old ways of honor."
S'Klar rose and pulled Tyana to him. "He will be given a burial in space, with full honors, as soon as the landing party completes its mission. Dress uniforms for all."
His communications console beeped for attention. "S'Klar here."
"Message from Science Officer T'oraq," Sub-Commander S'Teron reported. "You asked to be notified. And, Commander, you have my condolences upon your loss."
"Thank you, S'Teron," S'Klar responded. "I will take the message now."
The image of Science Officer T'oraq clad in a bulky environmental suit, swam into focus. His saturnine features fairly beamed behind his helmet's face plate. "All humanoid life on this planet is dead, Commander. Preliminary reports indicate that, as hoped, there is no trace of the element in their bloodstreams. These are the first Humans I have ever seen outside of the files. After I dissect them, the anatomy and physiology texts about this species will need revision. With no reliable data, scientists always assumed Humans were much like us, only with rounded ear tips and down-turned eyebrows. While they are similar to us, there are some shocking differences. I want to do some research."
S'Klar rolled his eyes. Scientists! Then he sobered. "We may have to bring you up rather abruptly. The colonists got out a subspace transmission."
T'oraq swore. "Any idea when we can expect a visit from a Federation starship? I need about four ss'likar to dissect these few specimens--and I must do this for the sake of science!"
"Our intelligence reports indicate that the nearest vessel is a science ship about nine and one-half ss'likar away at top speed. So you should have plenty of time--but do not tarry. I'd let you bring them aboard to dissect them, but you indicated that even you yourself do not understand completely how your blood factor works, and I can't risk the crew--even if you perform the procedure in an isolation laboratory."
"Understood," T'oraq responded. "I'll operate here, and we'll dispose of the pieces with disruptors. T'oraq out."
The view resumed its display of Sarnac III's image.
S'Klar sagged in his chair, and Tyana bent to kiss him. "Sleep now, my husband. Everything is proceeding efficiently. You must be clear-headed when the Federation ship arrives."
The commander sighed. "Perhaps you are right, my love. How we will deal with the Federation ship depends upon its commander," he said on his way to his bunk. "If he does not probe too extensively, we will let him pass. But if he detects us..." S'Klar's eyes narrowed. "...we will blow his ship into atoms!"
S'Klar stretched wearily on his bunk and fell almost instantly asleep.
But it was a fitful sleep, plagued with sad dreams--dreams of a kind warrior who had been almost a father to him, and was now gone forever.
Bobby Nolan threw back his head and bit his lip to stifle a cry of sheer ecstasy. He wasn't ready; he wanted to hang on a little longer. Slowly, he brought himself back under control; no mean feat since the stimulus that had brought him to this peak was difficult to ignore. He gazed down and smiled at Beth Hart who was having the same trouble he was.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he hoped they could find their uniforms--and quickly!--in case someone tried to walk in on them. He hoped everyone else on the Cooper (except for the third shift bridge crew) was asleep, as they should be at this time of the ship's night.
They had gotten lucky tonight. A deserted observation desk, romantically lit by a couple of glowpups and the stars themselves. Hart had rushed him into the room, locked the door, stripping as she pulled Nolan to the table.
This was nice and relatively relaxing. They had, up to now, been forced to take their sex on the run. There was no way the two of them could get intimate in their barracks with eighteen other redshirts sleeping in bunk beds stacked three high. The Cooper was not the easiest place to satisfy nature's primal urges.
Hart gasped and shuddered. "Ah! Oh, God, Bobby, I can't take it any more!"
He was more than happy to oblige. Hart suddenly went into convulsions as a multiple climax seized her. She stuck a fist into her mouth to stifle her ecstatic moans. Gradually, she subsided as Nolan bowed his back in his own orgasm.
"Thanks," she whispered.
"My pleasure," he gasped, waiting for his breath to return. "Geez, we really made a mess on the table. We'll have to clean it up."
"It'll keep. Can't you just hold me for a few minutes?"
He smiled as he picked her up and carried her over to a chair. Then he sat down and pulled her on top of him.
Their kisses were slow and languorous, not the hot kisses of passion. But within moments, she was ready again.
This time their climax was quick and furious, and they came together. They sagged back in the lounger in a limp tangle of arms and legs, totally spent.
"Now we're gonna have to clean up this chair, too," she murmured, and they both laughed.
The two lovers sat for a long time, silently watching the streaking stars of subspace slide past the portal, enjoying each other's company.
"Bobby...do you ever think about dying?" Hart suddenly asked.
He stared at her, startled. "God, no! What makes you ask that?"
"I think about it every once in a while," Hart rejoined. "After all, we are in security. There's easily a four out of ten chance that you or I or someone we know is going to go home in a torpedo casing." She shuddered. "If it's me, I hope it's quick and painless. I don't what to end up like the poor girl on that training holo we watched."
Nolan remembered the tape she was talking about. It was a captured Klingon holodisk that depicted, in graphic and gory detail, the fate of a landing party captured by a squadron of Kh'myr warriors. It showed, in particular, with razor-sharp close-ups, the rape, torture, and ultimate bloody execution of a pretty young female Starfleet lieutenant.
Nolan pulled her close to him. "Hey, look," he soothed. "They showed us that holo so we could see the worst case scenario. It does happen, and there can't be anything much worse than getting captured by the Klingons; it's certain death, and for women, it's even worse. But the chances of that happening to you are slim to none. Besides, we're on a science ship. Not much happens on a science ship."
Hart shook her head. "Tell that to the people who died at Xantharus Four. Tell that to the crews of the science ships that were killed during the Kelvan War. We're aboard the Cooper because they had some holes to fill in their Security staff. Tell that to all the people who died while Captain Williams was in command."
Nolan started to say something, then shrugged his shoulders. "You got me there," he admitted. Kissing her on the forehead, he added, "Don't worry. I won't let anything happen to you."
"Just so nothing happens to you," she whispered.
"Let's change the subject," Nolan said. "This is getting morbid." He paused. "So...was I a jackass when I was fencing with the captain?"
She laughed out loud. "What a smooth transition, Nolan!" she exclaimed. "No, you weren't a jackass, but you sure acted like one!"
He nodded sheepishly. "You and ninety-four other people all feel the same way. It would've been different if I would have won, but Captain Sulu waxed my butt! And, I realized that I was being a jerk. I mean, I'm a shavetail, a new crewman. I wanted to find a way to stand out."
Hart chuckled. "Well, you've certainly done that my dear! I don't think there's a person aboard the Cooper right now who doesn't know who you are!"
He hung his head. "Guess I'd better apologize to the captain the next time I see him, huh?"
"Good idea," Hart agreed. "It'll go a long way toward re-establishing your credibility."
Nolan sighed. "We really should clean up the mess we've made."
She snuggled closer to him. "It'll keep," she whispered.
And he decided maybe it would keep, at that.
At least for a while.
Legionnaire T'Ruk stared open-mouthed at the blue-green sky of the planet Sarnac III. Never had he seen such a beautiful, sunny world! His homeworld, Remus, was so gray and cheerless, its skies more often than not were fogged and cloudy. When the small white dwarf sun appeared at all, it was just white light in a pale sky, a poor contrast to this place of light and beauty.
T'Ruk longed to remove his environmental suit and helmet, to hear the breezes ruffling the leaves of the trees, feel the warmth of the sun on his face, smell the scents of nature. Then he stumbled over a body, and he remembered why he was here.
It was a child, a girl, about five seasons old. She looked as though she was only sleeping. But T'Ruk could tell by the bluish tinge of her skin that she had not drawn breath for two settings of the sun.
His jaw clenched.
There was no honor in killing women and children, but it was one of the unfortunate, necessary evils of war. T'Ruk preferred to look his enemy in the eyes--face to face--before he killed.
Not that he had ever killed anyone. Not yet, anyway.
For T'Ruk was a raw recruit, a legionnaire, on the security team, on his first deep space mission. He doubted that anyone aboard the T'Charr, save for a handful of fellow recruits, even knew who he was.
He stepped over the little girl's corpse and strode on, trying to put what he had just seen out of his mind. He could not remove his suit to enjoy this green world; no one knew if it was safe, not even the inventor of this deadly metagenic weapon, Science Officer T'oraq himself. The scientist himself was fairly certain that his lethal element became inert after a few standard hours of exposure to an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, by which time it would have finished fatally infecting the humanoid population of the target planet. But until all the tests were in--and he was absolutely sure--suits were the order of the day.
The Romulan youth wandered on down the path, deeper into the forest, along the edge of a gorge. He gaped in wonder at the raw, broken immensity of the geological rift, at the tale of this planet's history laid out in the chirping and chattering of multitudes of small forest creatures. T'oraq's catalyst evidently infected only humanoid lifeforms.
He sighed. He should be getting back. He wanted to explore some more, but he was simply sightseeing now. The little girl's body was nearly three kilometers distant from the last fringes of habitat on the outskirts of the colony's single megacity. She must have been lost, or a runaway.
T'Ruk cursed. It was unseemly of him to be moved by the death of a child. Humans and Ch'forrah were enemies. She would have grown to adulthood, perhaps becoming a soldier in Starfleet and taking up arms against his people.
And perhaps not...
A sudden, screeching explosion above his head startled him. A winged creature about a half meter high perched on a branch and stared down at him with large, liquid eyes. It was curious mixture of bird and mammal, and its coat was something that was not quite fur and not quite feathers.
T'Ruk smiled. The little animal's plumage was gorgeous. It was iridescent, and reflected every color of the spectrum. He stepped back to get a better look.
The side of the path crumbled under his weight. With a shout of dismay, T'Ruk found himself falling into the chasm. He bounced off the side of a cliff; his plasma carbine went flying. He landed hard on a ledge eight meters below the path at the top of the gorge. His right leg twisted up under him as he rolled toward the brink of the ledge; he heard a loud 'crack,' and then shattering pain ripped through his nervous system. T'Ruk shrieked. Blackness engulfed him
When he regained consciousness, T'Ruk peered over the edge of the precipice and closed his eyes.
Had he rolled just a little further, he would have plunged a quarter of a kilometer to certain death.
As it was, he was badly injured, unable to move. Only his Romulan physique and the cushioning of his environmental suit had saved his life. The fall he had just suffered would have killed a Human, suit or no suit.
T'Ruk took stock of his situation. His rifle was gone, and his radio transceiver had been ruined by the fall. He swallowed hard. Without the radio, he could not call for help, and no one could track him; the suits were designed to reflect tricorder and sensor scans. Any attempt to move his ruined leg caused him to nearly black out. And breathing deeply, he found, was almost as painful as trying to move his leg. Obviously, he'd cracked a few ribs during his roll down the path as well as his leg.
He had probably not even been missed; no one had contacted him after he began his reconnaissance.
Suddenly, this beautiful little planet seemed increasingly hostile.
He knew the voice. It was Janet Rachelson's.
But that was impossible.
"Hikaru! C'mon, lazybones! I'm waiting for you!"
He squinted against the sun. It was surrealistically bright this morning, and golden as liquid butter. It was good to be back on Earth again, especially here in this green, sun-dappled glade at Yosemite. The sky was impossibly blue, with just a few fleecy white clouds.
It was a perfect day.
"Hikaru! Over here!"
He saw her, and he suddenly felt as if he couldn't even breathe.
He'd been here before.
Captain Janet Rachelson of the U.S.S. Samson stood in the meadow in ankle-high grass, heart-stoppingly lovely and wearing not a stitch of clothing. Her perfectly sculpted, naked body gleamed in the sunlight.
He drank in the vision of her; the long, strong, tapered legs, the lush hips, narrow waist, the flat tummy. And those breasts My God, those breasts! They were, to use an overused word, awesome. Very large, very firm, perfectly formed, and seemingly gravity-defying. He had once jumped all over a trio of Cooper ensigns whom he had overheard discussing the merits of then-Security Chief Rachelson's chest, and whether or not they weighed five pounds each.
As always, he couldn't help staring.
She laughed, a musical soothing sound that stabbed his heart like a knife.
God, how I miss that laugh.
"They are pretty impressive, aren't they? If I do say so myself!"
Her dark eyes danced in her beautiful, heart-shaped face, and she flashed perfect, even, white teeth in a vitamin-packed smile. Long, dark hair billowed about her shoulders in the breeze.
A mischievous glint flickered in her eyes, and she took off running across the glade, just as she had on that perfect spring morning.
He followed her as fast as he could, marveling at the way the smooth muscles of her rounded buttocks rippled as she ran. He could never quite catch her.
When she dove into the lake, he jumped right in after her. The golden green waters closed over his head. It grew darker and darker, and he lost sight of her. Still, he forged on, as if he knew where to go, but a growing sense of dread clutched at his soul with icy fingers.
He came to a set of turbolift doors. They hissed open.
He wanted to scream.
He was on a dark, ruined bridge of a destroyer/scout vessel. All the consoles had been blasted to pieces. Smoke hung thick in the stale air, and flames flickered here and there.
And floating over the debris, in the bloody tatters of a Starfleet captain's uniform, was the body of what had once been a beautiful, vibrant young woman. Globules of crimson leaked from dozens of wounds and bobbled in the zero gravity. She was mangled and burned beyond recognition, but he knew who she was. That long, dark hair
Oh, God. No, no, no...
His eyes were drawn to the mainviewer. He recoiled in horror.
Floating in space were more bodies, broken and shredded like hers. He didn't have to count them; he knew instinctively how many there were.
Fifty. But not from the Samson which had been destroyed by the Kelvans.
The fifty people were those he had lost from the Cooper in the Battle of Xantharus IV.
Sulu sat up straight in bed. Icy sweat streamed down his back. His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth, and his breath came in sobs. It had all seemed so real, but it was just a dream, a bad dream. Janet
Sulu blinked back unshed tears. God, it hurts even to think of her. He glanced at a flatscreen holopic on his bureau, and the aching emptiness returned tenfold. She was there, smiling her dazzling smile, attired in her starship captain's dress uniform. Just a few short weeks ago, she had been so happy, so alive. She was going to take the Samson out on a six-month shakedown cruise. When she came back, they had seriously discussed entering a standard marriage contract. Even though they would both likely be out in deep space commanding their own starships, they wanted to formalize the love they felt for each other.
Then the Kelvan War broke out, forever altering his life--and ending Janet Rachelson's.
He glanced at the chronometer on his dresser. It was 0200 ship's time. He was working on another sleepless night. No, he hadn't been sleeping at all well lately. He had no idea when he'd sleep well again, if ever.
He got up stiffly. He pulled on a duty uniform, then strode out into the corridor. He had taken to prowling the corridors of the Cooper in the wee hours of the morning, when he could be alone with his thoughts. Walking was a great stress reducer.
And God knew he needed that.
Ariel Cord was right; he was ready to come apart at the seams. He had gotten no chance to cool off in months. First, there was the Battle of Xantharus IV, which had cost the lives of fifty of his crew. Then the death of his beloved Janet Rachelson.
He had plunged headlong in the Kelvan Wars as captain of the corvette Mugato. The war had kept him too busy to think about Rachelson. As soon as the conflict ended, however, he was sent right back out into space, resuming his post as captain of the up-rated U.S.S. Cooper. He'd served for three years when he got the word from Starfleet; in a few months, he would take command of the U.S.S. Excelsior, the goal he had sought the last several years. Right now, the deep space survey cruiser--although classified by some as a battleship--was ferrying relief crews to the Gorn nestworld, which had been decimated by the Kelvan War.
Sulu shut his eyes. The Excelsior was his dream, his own personal Holy Grail. But God, he needed a break! He needed to deal with his burden of grief. He needed to find a way to cope with Rachelson's death, and the deaths of his crew at Xantharus IV.
Fifty dead. He still couldn't say it out loud.
Again and again, he had relived the horrible fire-fight with the Tholians over Xantharus IV. Rationally, he had decided that, faced with the same circumstances, he would have done everything exactly the same. There had been no other choice.
Emotionally, however, was another story altogether. A peace accord had been reached with the Orion Barrier Alliance. The bean counters in the Federation General Accounting Office considered the losses incurred at Xantharus to be 'acceptable,' considering the Federation-Gorn-Orion Treaty had been secured. But to Hikaru Sulu, who abhorred waste of any kind, the loss of even one life was too much to take.
He himself had found the corpse of Lieutenant Commander Jana Haines, an old friend from his Enterprise days, floating between decks. Of course, he hadn't known at the time that it was Jana. She had died of phaser coolant poisoning; her remains resembled a melted candle, totally unrecognizable. At least, she still had a body to find. Most of those who died had simply exploded when exposed to the vacuum of space.
Sulu reached the doors of the observation deck. He was about to enter when the doors hissed open, startling him.
Out strolled Ensigns Bobby Nolan and Beth Hart. They were extremely disheveled-looking, but appeared singularly satisfied and pleased with themselves. An unmistakable scent clung to them and to the room. Even had he been blind, Sulu would have deduced what the two youngsters had been up to. Even at two in the morning.
Especially at two in the morning!
"C-c-c-captain S-Sulu," stammered Hart.
"S-sir!" Nolan snapped.
Sulu fought the urge to smile. "And what, may I ask, are you ensigns doing here at this time of night?"
They glanced at each other helplessly. "Uh, we were, umm"
"Conducting a standard security sweep, on your own time, at 0200 hours," Sulu supplied. "That's highly commendable."
"Uh...right," Hart squeaked.
Nolan looked Sulu right in the eyes. "Permission to speak candidly, sir?"
"Granted," the captain replied. "We're all off-duty."
"Sir, I, uh, I like to apologize for my behavior," the ensign said. "I was a total jerk at your fencing exhibition. I'm sorry."
"No, you weren't a total jerk," Sulu returned, grinning. "But you acted like one. For my part, I had no business making an example out of you. I'm sorry for that. So what do you say we call it even, and forget about it?"
The captain held out his hand, and the security officer took it. "I'd like that just fine, sir," Nolan beamed. "And I'd like to take you up on your offer of lessons."
"Anytime," Sulu said. "Next time should go a lot more smoothly."
"Thank you, sir."
They started to go. A devilish smile suddenly lit Sulu's face. "By the way, kids," he called after them. "The meditation alcoves in the engineering hull are much better for conducting standard security sweeps. More private."
They both turned red as beets. Nolan nodded in thanks, and they hurried off.
God, Sulu thought. Was I ever that young? He entered the observation deck.
So peaceful. He understood now why Jim Kirk always retired to Enterprise's observation deck when he needed to think. This was about as close as you could get to the stars; Sulu felt a kinship to these great, glowing suns the Cooper was streaking past. He could feel the stress beginning to slip away
"Jesus H. Christ, I thought those kids were never going to leave. They're worse than rabbits!"
Startled, Sulu's heart leaped into his mouth, even as he recognized the voice of Doctor Ariel Cord. He turned to face her, his hands trembling. "Ariel! You scared me out of ten years...My God!"
Hikaru Sulu had seen some of Ariel Cord's infamous holofilms. He had seen her naked. He had seen her performing unbelievable sex acts with three (and sometimes more) men or beings at once. He had seen her having sex with other women. But he had always seen her on the holovid screen.
He had never seen her like this.
Ariel Cord stood before him wearing nothing but a shy smile and a black velvet ribbon around her neck. Bathed in the soft glow of the starlight, she was as lovely a vision as Sulu had ever seen. The ripe contours of her trim, well-toned body glistened with oil. Her smooth, pink-tipped breasts rose and fell gently.
This woman had a relationship with Captain Pike, he thought. Yet she looks as young and as fresh as an underclass graduate. She's a sorceress.
Sulu couldn't take his eyes off her. In spite of himself, he responded. He tried for his best command voice, but it came out more like a strangled croak. "Doctor Cord," he rasped. "Just what is the meaning of this?"
Her smile widened. Sulu cursed under his breath when he saw that her eyes were fixed on his crotch. "You know, Hikaru, sex can be therapeutic," she whispered. "Best tension reliever in the galaxy." She stepped closer. She knew she had him under her spell.
She chuckled throatily. "I'd say you can, son!"
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. Her hand slid down the front of his uniform breeches.
"Ariel" he protested weakly.
"Look, Hikaru," she cut him off almost peevishly. "I can make this a medical order if you like. You are going to have sex--with me! I'm making sure that the captain of the Cooper doesn't blow a gasket from stress." She grinned. "Plus I wanna grab a hold of his firm ass."
"It's too soon," he gasped, realizing he was going to lose the battle. "Janet..."
"Hush," she whispered, placing a finger on his lips while never letting up on her sensuous massage of his organ. "Janet Rachelson would not want you to be paralyzed by memories of her. It's been nearly five years. Life goes on, Hikaru. You've got to dive back into it, or it'll pass you by. Janet's dead. The fifty people from the Cooper's battle with the Tholians at Xantharus are dead. People all over this quadrant of the galaxy are dead as a result of the war with the Kelvans. Hell, the Gorn are all but dead as a race! It's a shame. It's good to mourn them, but if you get tied up in knots over it, or wallow in grief, it'll eventually kill you."
Cord kissed him again. "Let me help you. Let it out!" She smiled wryly. "Besides, I can't believe you'd actually turn down an evening of lust with Ariel Cord, the 'Lean, Mean, Fucking Machine!'"
He actually laughed then, but Ariel Cord said no more. She dropped to her knees; before Sulu even knew what hit him, she had his trousers and undershorts around his ankles.
He released his pain to her, and his sorrow, and they loved through the ship's night.
S'Klar did not remember sleeping.
In the darkness of his cabin, he searched of the illuminated readout of his chronometer. Less than a ss'likar before he was due to rise. Next to him, Tyana sighed in her sleep. S'Klar smiled, brushing his fingertips over the splendid contours of her naked body, enjoying the warmth of her smooth skin.
She had made love to him again and again last night, doing her best to help him forget his sorrow. But after she had drifted off, and he was alone with his thoughts, the past came calling. Talak had been a stern taskmaster while raising S'Klar and his brother, but his discipline was tempered with love. S'Klar had learned much about honor, true honor, which was once revered in the Ch'forrah empire, before the deceit and conniving of the Praetor and his minions had come to the fore.
S'Klar rose quietly so as not to disturb his mate. He closed the door to the bathroom and filled the tub as silently as he could, eschewing the sonic shower for a relaxing soak in a heated bath. He closed his eyes and rested his head on the edge of the sunken whirlpool.
He was startled when, moments later, the door slid open. Tyana joined him in the bath. She sat next to him in silence, and he put his arms around her and pulled her to him. After a time, they bathed each other, then got out, and clothed themselves in their dress uniforms.
They were the first to enter the forward torpedo room. In the center of the forward bay sat a lone, lonely torpedo casing draped in the red and royal purple flag of the Romulan empire, the banner emblazoned with the stylized emblem of the t'liss, the mythical firehawk whose image adorned the prow of every Romulan ship. S'Klar pulled the flag back and opened the forward access plate of the tube.
Talak's face was untroubled in his eternal repose. He looked somehow younger in death, even though the white hair at his temples bespoke his advancing age. S'Klar reached in and tenderly caressed his mentor's cheek one last time.
When he glanced away, his eyes were silver with tears.
Tyana discreetly occupied herself by studying the launch control panel. It was unseemly even for the mate of a great starship commander like S'Klar to witness her husband's grief.
The Romulan commander reinstalled the hatch and returned the flag to its proper position. He sighed. "This will be the most difficult task I have ever undertaken, Tyana."
She embraced him. Her clear violet eyes shone with love and sympathy. "I know, my love. But you will prevail. You will pay homage to the memory of your beloved Talak. You are strong; you will not falter."
He nodded. The bay doors hissed open. The honor guard filed in, followed by the T'Charr's crew.
S'Klar straightened, standing ramrod-stiff and tall. He walked to the podium that had been set up for the ceremony. "My shipmates, we have come here to return the body of a great warrior to the stars, and to pay our respects to his memory. Talak's spirit was indomitable; no doubt he is here with us even now, beyond the ken of our feeble mortal senses, free and unfettered in a higher plane of existence. We will miss him. We will miss his experience, his expertise as a communications specialist. We will miss his counsel, his wry sense of humor. But mostly, we will miss his friendship, and the honor he bestowed upon this ship and crew by his very presence.
"He would not want us to grieve overlong, but it is not easy. We are richer because we knew him, and we are made poorer by his loss. May Vorta Vor welcome him with feasting and revelry."
S'Klar bowed his head and led the assembly in several short prayers and chants. Then he strode back to the torpedo and removed the flag. "It is time now to return Talak to the elements of the stars from which he was born."
Six warriors wearing the wide sashes of the honor guard lifted the torpedo onto the launch track and guided it on its way. It disappeared into the forward launch tube.
"Farewell, Talak," S'Klar whispered. He nodded to Tyana.
She pressed the firing button on her console. Talak's torpedo exploded out of the T'charr's forward tube and streaked toward its target, the blazing yellow star of the Sarnac system.
"Salute!" the captain of the honor guard snapped.
As one, the warriors of the Ch'forrahn warhawk raised their fists against their chests, held position for ten beats then scissored their arms outward away from their bodies. The crew watched until the torpedo diminished to a tiny speck, then disappeared in the filtered glare of the sun.
"Dismissed," S'Klar murmured.
The crewmembers broke ranks and headed for the exits. S'Klar motioned to his sub-commander. "S'Teron," he said. "If our projections are correct, the Federation science ship will be arriving before too long. Put the T'Charr in a parking orbit around Sarnac Three's second moon, as close and tight as you can get. As soon as the Starfleet vessel appears on our long-range scanners, engage the cloaking device. Observe only. Tyana and I will be on the bridge a bit later."
S'Teron saluted and strode briskly away.
S'Klar was about to go when he noticed a decidedly nervous centurion waiting to get his attention. "What is it, Centurion?"
"I abase myself, Commander," the subordinate quavered. "A legionnaire from my squadron is missing. He was apparently left behind on the planet."
"What?!" S'Klar raged. "On the planet? And you are just now reporting this?"
"I did not notice his absence until we assembled for Talak's ceremony. He was a new recruit, just taken aboard. His name is T'Ruk."
"It is your duty to look after all your men, Centurion--even the fledglings! You are reduced two steps in rank and relieved of duty. Dismissed."
The centurion was expressionless, but his eyes mirrored his shame. He saluted and moved off.
"Shall I organize a rescue mission, Commander?" Tyana queried as the crestfallen centurion trudged away.
"No, there won't be time," S'Klar returned. "We shall have to hope the Starfleet ship does not find him. His suit will reflect back all scans; we would not be able to find him either. But if he gets out of the suit and does not beam back through our transporters..."
Tyana's eyes widened. "His self-destruct implant will activate!"
S'Klar nodded. "One ss'ekorr after activation, the implant's explosive device will utterly destroy T'Ruk and everyone and everything in the immediate vicinity."
"By the gods!" Tyana exclaimed. "Then there's nothing we can do..."
"Except wait," S'Klar finished. "We may be lucky. The Earthers may not find him."
"And if they do?" Tyana queried.
"Then we destroy them without a trace." S'Klar clenched a fist. "It is time for us to repair to the bridge and await the Federation vessel's arrival."
Tyana saluted him, and they hurried to the nearest turbolift.
T'kulis sighed sadly as he looked at the clutter on the lab tables. They always left the tables cluttered, expecting them to be shiny, spotless and clean the next morning, as if it would be cleared away by magic. And that was his job.
Shaking his head he picked up his cleaning equipment and began tidying up the lab. One day, he shook his head in reverie, he'd probably be just as messy, and some other poor young lab assistant would be forced to clean up after him.
But not today.
The spray from the bottle covered the bench. Then the rag in his hand made long, powerful sweeps over the bench top. Periodically, he moved the vials and beakers to their proper place, readily available for the senior staff the next day. They relied on him to make their work easier, and though he desired to work with them on their experiments, he was content to help the celebrated T'oraq in any way he could. And if that meant cleaning up after the scientists, then so be it.
He frowned as he moved to T'oraq's table. The tubes were left on the table instead of in their containment field. That was unusual. T'oraq was never this untidy, especially not with his prized experiment. Of course, he recalled, T'oraq had been in a hurry to see how the experiment had gone on the planet below. If all went according to T'oraq's calculations, the planet would be cleared of all the Humans that had settled there, and the wildlife would still be alive and well.
And then, according to the same plan, the planet would be available for the Romulans to claim and colonize. The gods knew they needed more planets like this one for colonization.
T'kulis continued to stare at the small tubes, and the few pellets that were visible, a frown deepened on his face. Something was amiss here. Something that would greatly displease T'oraq. One of the tubes was cracked, and the pellets were slowly dropping out onto the bench top.
Grabbing a pair of gloves from the bench with one hand and a free clean tube with the other he moved to T'oraq's sanctum sanctorum. He put the gloves on as he had seen his mentor do and moving slowly, transferred the pellets into the new tube. Then he gingerly picked up the few rolling pellets on the bench and placed them in the tube as well. Once all the pellets were in the tube, he stoppered it and placed it next to the other tubes. The cracked one he placed into the recycler, followed by the gloves.
Another sigh escaped his lips. He'd have to report this of course.
Tapping the small recorder button, T'kulis related the events that had just occurred, concisely and succinctly, omitting nothing, but careful not to lay blame at the venerable scientist's feet. After all, one of the other scientists could have been ordered to secure the valued items and had forgotten to in the midst of the excitement. Besides, it was not for him, the lowest member of the scientific team to point fingers.
Once he'd finished that task, he moved on to the rest of the lab, cleaning everything to perfection the way that the others wanted and expected.
Finally, he was finished. T'kulis stared at the chronometer. He was still on time, he smiled. S'Tarin would be waiting for him in the crew mess. And who knew what would happen after that?
Dimming the lights to the lab, he left, making his way to the dining area, his cleated shoes ringing a tattooed beat on the metal floor.
He didn't notice, of course, the small silvery beads that were nestled snugly between the cleats on each shoe.
Sulu drew the soft female form closer to his own, luxuriating in the afterglow of their last bout of sex. He remembered that first coupling in the lounge, and then soon after another and yet another. Then somehow--some time much later and after who cared to count how many times they had coupled under the stars--they had made their way from the lounge to his quarters continuing to enjoy each other's body, searching for fulfillment and hoping that no one else had a severe case of insomnia.
Cord lifted her head and began to kiss Sulu yet again, deeply and completely, delighting in his response to her touch, and feeling herself respond to that response. She let him control the moment, allowing him to explore her form as he returned the kiss with as much fervor as she.
Somewhere between the lounge and his quarters, she noted with more than a little pride, he had taken a more active role in their lovemaking. Not in the act of sex, in lovemaking. And she had taken the role of lover, not therapist or simple sex partner. Although, she smiled as Sulu took her yet again, that wasn't a bad role either, especially when the other person was as talented and fulfilling as Sulu was.
She paced herself with Sulu, climaxing with him, resting afterwards, wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling his head close for another kiss. She felt him begin to respond to her again, then pull away, rolling to the side of the bed and sitting up, his palms on the bed, his head downcrested.
Agilely, Cord rolled upright, sitting behind him, leaning her head on his back, her arms wrapped around his waist. "Thinking about Janet again?" she asked softly.
"Sorry, Ariel. I just can't help it," Sulu sighed as he raised his head, his eyes resting on the flat holopic on the bureau across from them. One hand sought and clung to her hands, the other dropped on his knee. "Janet and I--we were two halves of a whole. When we made love, it was just so intense it nearly hurt. We were planning a small wedding, you know, inviting just a few close friends. Then...then she was gone, and I had this huge aching hole where my heart was. And now..."
"And now?" Cord asked, moving herself closer to his body.
"And now, I feel like I've cheated on her. Oh, my head knows that's impossible--she's dead. But my heart says differently." His other hand came up and settled over hers.
"I understand," she whispered softly, closing her eyes as the unbidden memory of Christopher Pike forced its way to the surface.
Once she and he had been the most passionate of lovers. And then one day, he'd gone on a training cruise, and-- for all intents and purposes--had never come home. He'd forbidden her to visit him at the starbase where he had been taken after the accident. She'd tried several times, and each time he'd refused her, finally sending a message by way of the computer to get on with her life. She hadn't wanted to get on with her life. Without him, she didn't have a life. Not really. Unable to see him, to love him even if they could no longer be lovers, she had poured herself into her studies and her work, and when that hadn't filled the aching void, she'd returned to her holovid career.
Many of her pictures had been made then, she reflected. Some of the more bizarre ones had been done then, at any rate. It hadn't mattered what the script called for; she'd done it, even when some said a Human woman couldn't possibly perform such an act and give the partner satisfaction. She managed to prove them wrong time after time.
After one particularly exotic--for want of a better word--scene where she'd practically been turned inside out by her co-star, an Octorol, an octopoid alien, trying to please his non-humanoid alien sexual appetite, she'd been surprised to find her co-star in her dressing (undressing?) room before they got together for the next scene. The octopoid filled the spare chair, his large head resting on the backrest. He'd stared at her out of liquid blue eyes. "The time for mourning your mate is ended. Begin to live again. Then our scene will really come alive, and we will both be sated."
She had stared at him long and hard, then cried for a full hour, and he had sat by, all eight of his tentacled limbs which had not too long ago been used to penetrate any and every orifice, embracing her gently until she'd cried herself out. They had had to postpone the next scene until she got the puffiness out of her face and the redness out of her eyes, but when they got together for the climactic scene (in more ways than one), it was done in one take, and she had felt complete satisfaction and saw the sated expression on his face.
Since that day, she'd never looked back in remorse.
"Believe me, Hikaru; I do understand," she repeated. "But you cannot mourn your loss forever or it will kill you," she murmured into his back. "You have to live again. Or you'll just be a walking dead man." Her hands began to drift up his chest, pulling him closer to her. "Janet would not have wanted that for you. She'd want you to find someone to take her place in your life, to keep you happy and fulfilled. I know damn well that had you been the one to die, she'd have mourned for a time, then found herself someone to ease the pain and loneliness. And finally, she'd have found someone to be a part of her life as you once had been."
Sulu turned to her, his mouth open to speak, and found himself with Cord's mouth over his, effectively quieting him. Soon, he was responding to her, and they were once again joined in heated lovemaking.
He climaxed shortly after she did. He rolled to his side, and she curled up next to his perspiration-sheened body, her head nestled on his shoulder. Soon, she was breathing deeply in sleep.
Sulu kept his arm wrapped around her shoulders. He resisted the urge to let his free hand roam over her lithe form, fearing he'd awaken her. Heaven knew one of them needed their sleep, especially after this little workout.
Still, he reflected as he stared down at her innocent-appearing face, he felt more relaxed, more rested, than he had in a long time. Since before Rachelson's death, in fact. He felt the beginning of a smile touch his lips. Cord had been right, as usual--sex was indeed a powerful tension reliever. And it sure beats walking!
Sulu felt a muscle spasm in his back, and he rolled onto his side, careful not to disturb her until the spasm subsided. He'd be seeing her as a physician in the morning, in all probability. Cord had led him in some very--interesting--variations on the sexual theme, teaching him new ways to enjoy the female body. Rachelson had been quite inventive, he recalled with a ghost of a smile, but not nearly as inventive as Cord was. Of course, Janet Rachelson hadn't had Ariel Cord's background to draw on.
He chuckled softly. Now, K.C. Johnson, the former C.M.O. of the Cooper, had known a thing or two, but when he had taken a temporary posting on the Enterprise--which led to the Genesis affair and the Whalesong Crisis--she had been transferred to the U.S.S. Alliance. Casey Johnson and he had been friends and lovers, but the love of Sulu's life had been Janet Rachelson. Johnson had stepped aside gracefully, and they still exchanged stargrams from time to time...
Sulu's gaze drifted back from the ceiling and his reverie to Cord's sleeping form. Her face, so relaxed and calm in sleep, made her look very young. His finger slowly traced her jaw line, and she smiled in her sleep, making her look even younger.
A frown creased his face as he continued to stare at her.
She really does look young, he mused. Almost as young as the two ensigns that he had nearly interrupted in the lounge. He knew from her personnel file she was only a few years younger than he, yet, if someone were to ask him, he'd have sworn she was twenty-five at the most.
Cord's eyelashes fluttered on her cheeks, and she opened her eyes to meet Sulu's questioning gaze. "What is it, Hikaru?" she asked sleepily.
"How do you do it?" he asked quizzically.
"Do what?" she questioned, confused.
"Stay looking so young?" Sulu demanded almost petulantly.
Cord's gaze dropped, and she let her hand rest softly on his lean strong chest. It was not the question she'd been expecting. It was not a question she was able to answer. Not yet anyway. "Oh well, you know, you start with very good genes, of course," she answered with a laugh. "Then you watch your diet, eat all your fruits and veggies like a good little child, and avoid too much red meat. Drink at least two quarts of water a day, four is even better. And exercise faithfully every day for at least an hour--aerobics and muscle-strengthening ones." Then her eyes raised to meet his gaze, her lips curved in an impish grin. "And have lots of good sex every day--at least once a day. More if possible."
"Ariel--" Sulu complained.
Her eyes drifted up to Sulu's chronometer. She uncurled herself from his embrace and gracefully slid off the bed. "I suggest we get a shower, Hikaru, and then some real sleep before we have to report for duty. Otherwise, neither of us will be worth much of anything."
She disappeared into the refresher section, and soon he heard the sound of running water. It was a luxury that he rarely used, preferring to use the sonics for hygienic purposes, and water for therapy and--
Sulu felt his smile grow wider as he also got out of the bed and followed her into the refresher. Cord's slender form was wet with the water, making her even more tempting than she had been in the lounge. He stepped into the stall behind her, and let the water embrace them both as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
"Want me to wash your back?" he whispered throatily in her ear.
"Mmm, yes," she purred, leaning back into his embrace as he grabbed the soap and began lathering her spine. "Do. And then I'll do yours."
"Promise," she agreed as she turned around to let him lather her chest.
Her hands took the soap from him, and soon he was being lathered by her skillful hands. Then, he was exploring her mouth with his, letting the water wash over them, rinsing them free of the soap.
Gently, he picked her up and carried her out of the stall and back to the main room. He dropped her on the bed, then dropped on top of her, pulling her closer to him, and then entered her swiftly, eagerly, hungrily.
Their climax was the most powerful of the night. Sulu pulled her close to his body, still damp from the bath and their last encounter, with one hand while the other snagged the sheet to cover their bodies. He could feel the strong pull of sleep, finally, calling to him.
A soft chime broke the peaceful silence of the room. "Bridge to Captain Sulu," Xon's voice sounded.
"This is Sulu," he responded.
"We are approaching the Sarnac system, sir. Your presence is requested."
Sulu sighed regretfully. For the first time in too many, nights he was ready for sleep, and now he was unable to do so. Still, although tired, he wasn't exhausted and drained the way he usually was when he reported for duty after a sleepless night. "On my way, Xon. Just have a cup of strong tea waiting for me, okay?"
"Certainly, sir," Xon responded. There was a short pause, then he added, "Please bring Doctor Cord with you. And will she be needing tea as well?"
Sulu's eyes opened wide, and he stared in the direction of the comlink. Cord stirred next to him, a quizzical frown on her face. "Did I just hear what I thought I heard?"
"Yep," Sulu chuckled as he got up. "And people say Vulcans have no sense of humor. Come on, Doc; let's get going."
"Easy for you to say," she snorted. "These are your quarters, after all. Your clothes are here. If you recall, I sort of left mine behind."
"True," Sulu continued to snicker as he pulled on his tunic. "But I suppose my replicator can make up a uniform for you, this once."
"This once?" One eyebrow drifted up.
"After this, we'll make sure there's an extra uniform or two here for you. As well as other items of apparel."
"I see," Cord smiled widely as she padded to the replicator and punched in her size and rank.
Sulu and Cord entered the bridge as the mainviewer flashed Yellow Alert. The day shift was on duty, having been summoned by the ever efficient Xon. Sulu noted that the third science officer, Ensign Marie Tsin, was manning the science station while the Vulcan had the conn.
"Report," Sulu said tersely as he strode to his chair.
"We will be in orbit around Sarnac Three in five minutes thirty-five seconds," Xon began. "To date, long range scans have detected nothing out of the ordinary."
"Nothing?" The captain frowned.
"Nothing," Science Officer Tsin confirmed.
"I still don't like the feel of this," Sulu shook his head.
"I believe I understand what you mean," Xon agreed. "Perhaps we will gather more information when we obtain orbit."
The ship slid into standard orbit a few minutes later. Sulu stood behind Xon and Ensign Tsin while the ship's scanning system played over the planet surface.
"Well?" he finally demanded.
"Nothing, sir," Xon shook his head. "All that we have discovered is where the bodies are lying. Most are clustered, as one would imagine, in the main settlement. There are also others in outlying areas, probably homes and smaller settlements."
"Have you found anything in the environment that could do something like that?" Sulu persisted.
"No, sir," Xon shook his head. "When Sarnac Three was originally explored, there were extensive studies made. According to those studies, the planet was as close to what you Humans would call the Garden of Eden as is possible to get. The microflora and fauna were all beneficial to Human life as well as the planetary life. There was no sign of disease-causing bacteria or virus."
"And that's still the way it is?" Sulu frowned.
"Yep," Cord nodded her head. "According to the scans, there is absolutely nothing there that hasn't been there for centuries before Humans showed up."
"Looks like the only way we're going to get any answers is by going down there and examine it first hand," Sulu decided.
"I agree with you," the chief medical officer nodded. "But to cover the planet, we're going to have to have several landing parties down there. And probably make several trips to the planet. And, Captain, this is a plague planet until I find out otherwise. We're going to follow plague condition protocols. That means everybody is in a Class One EnviroSuit. And when we get back here, full, deep, Level One decontamination."
Sulu nodded, "Very well. However, just in case this 'plague' has phaser or disruptor capability, I want security guards with the landing parties. In addition, we can have two security details in shuttles get closer to the planet surface and do scans." He turned to Xon. "You and Doctor T'Selin will head up one landing party, Doctor Cord and I will head up the other." He thumbed the communication button on his chair. "Sulu to Maliszewski."
"Engineering. Maliszewski here."
"Chief, I need you to mind the store for a while," Sulu said.
"So you and Xon are both going to play detective on the planet, huh?" He heard her chuckle deeply. "Well, good hunting. Just give me a few minutes to tuck the kiddies in."
Sulu shook his head as he thumbed the comm button again. Engineers are alike the universe over, he marveled as Lieutenant Commander Sherrod responded to his page.
"Jim, we're going to the surface of the planet, and while this might be the result of a natural biological disaster the likes of which we've never seen before, it might also have had a little help from some not-so-friendly neighbors," Sulu stated. "I don't want my landing parties to be defenseless."
"Two guards per party enough?" Sherrod queried.
"Should be," agreed Sulu. "In addition, I want at least two parties in shuttles going over the surface of the planet."
"Yes, sir. Briefing Room One in five minutes?"
In the background, he could hear Cord paging Doctor T'Selin and two of her med techs and Xon signaling several science officers for the landing parties. He could almost hear Leon Mandala screaming about Sulu not including the civilian staff, but he was not about to risk civilian lives in a potential battle situation. Once the cause was determined, and the Romulan factor had been ruled out to his satisfaction, then he would gladly let Mandala and the other civilians work on the problem. It's why they were here on the Cooper, after all.
"Ready?" he asked Xon and Cord.
"Certainly," Xon nodded as he moved to the turbolift.
"Well, as ready I'm gonna be and not be in bed," Cord remarked softly as she followed the Vulcan to the turbolift.
She ignored Sulu's sudden blush and the canted eyebrow of the Vulcan as she stepped into the elevator.
"Commander, the Cooper is now in orbit around the planet," the helmsman reported to S'Klar as the Romulan commander stepped onto the bridge.
"Shall I power up the weapons, Commander?" asked the weapons officer, an eager centurion hoping to earn his spurs on this mission.
S'Klar nodded to the young officer. "Yes, Tushin. But that is all you do," he added, his eyes narrowed. "We will wait and see what they do. If they leave after examining the planet, there will be no need to destroy the Federation vessel. Which," he cut of the protest before it could be voiced, "is what we want. Once the Federation is satisfied that their colony was obliterated by natural means, they will abandon this world, and we will then be free to claim it for the Praetor and the Romulan Star Empire."
"Understood, Commander." Tushin bent to his task, hiding the chagrined expression on his face.
S'Klar turned to Tyana at the helm. "Our status?"
"We are still in orbit around the second moon, Commander," she responded. "Despite the drain on our reserves, the cloaking device still functions. The Federation vessel does not know of our existence."
"Good," he allowed himself to give her warm smile before he proceeded on. "T'mek," S'Klar turned to the young officer at the communication station, "have you heard from T'Ruk?"
"Nothing, Commander," T'mek shook his head.
"Keep monitoring for anything from him," sighed the Romulan commander. "And monitor the Federation vessel's transmissions as well. If they find the legionnaire before we can get to him--"
He left the statement unfinished, but everyone on the bridge knew what would happen if that occurred.
Sulu stepped into the main building of the settlement that he had chosen to investigate. He felt a shudder run through his body. It was as though he'd stepped back in time, to the surface of Xantharus IV after the battle with the Tholians had been won. All the bodies...
Shaking himself sternly he studied the scene, forcing the other back into the shadowy recesses of his memory. Another scene came to mind as he dispassionately analyzed the room and the bodies. He'd never been to the planet's surface, but he could recall, quite vividly, the description and the pictures he had seen from Spock and Joe Tormolen's recordings of Psi 2000, the collapsing ice planet's gravimetric distortions that had created a small pseudo-virus that had nearly destroyed the Enterprise crew many years ago. Poor Joe...
There were differences, he realized, trying to shake the terror that was threatening to overcome him. Sarnac III was a beautiful planet orbiting a warm star and would do so for many millennia yet to come, not some icy world whose core had collapsed into a quantum singularity. Nor were there the crystalline Tholians bombarding the planet as a part of their hive's expansion.
But the bodies...
Definitely the bodies were reminiscent of those other times. He could tell that at first, the bodies had been reverently, if quickly, placed in the morgue, then as the deaths had continued at warp speed, the bodies had just been dumped in the room, and finally people just dropped where they were as death claimed them.
Sulu was very thankful he was in the EnviroSuit. He didn't want to think what the room must smell like with the rotting and decaying flesh from the victims of this disaster. Doctor Cord and Med Tech Mia Astarnin were busy autopsying one of the bodies that had not been dead long. Perhaps it was Doctor Nathan Morris.
Sulu shook his head and stepped out of the room back into the sunlight, watching as Ensign Belle Sanders and Lieutenant Alex Roshl, two science officers, collected plants and soil and whatever else they could from the surroundings. His gaze was drawn to the azure sky as one of the shuttlecraft looped overhead before heading out over the planet before he returned to the room avoiding the grisly scene where Cord and Astarnin were working to collect whatever data they could from the dead.
Passing that room, he went to the next room, and began to study the control panels and other readouts. He readied his tricorder to download material from the colony's computer database.
Perhaps he could find something there.
Lieutenant Commander Jim Sherrod sat at the controls, content that the landing party with two of his guards was safe. As soon as he could, he'd check on Xon's party as well. In the meantime, he and his two junior officers, Beth Hart and Bobby Nolan were going to check out the area between the two parties.
He let his gaze wander back to the two young guards for a brief instant. He knew they were involved with each other, and while he wasn't thrilled at the thought, knew better than to interfere. Sooner or later, though, he'd have to talk to them. He hadn't been in the service as long as he had and not learned some hard truths. Truths he preferred to pass on to the younger officers before they found out about them the hard way. The way he had.
And, as long as they did their job when they were on duty, he would not begrudge them the time they shared together.
"Sir," Hart's voice broke into his thoughts, an urgency in her tone.
"Yes, Ensign?" he questioned.
"I saw something near that ledge by the gorge back there. I think it was a body."
"In case you hadn't noticed, Ensign," Sherrod said almost patronizingly, "there are a lot of bodies around here."
"Yes, sir, I know, but this one was in an environmental suit," Hart replied. "And the suit didn't look Federation-issue."
"Hang on, kids." Sherrod turned the shuttle tightly and brought it back over the gorge, showing it to near stalling speed as it neared the ledge. "Okay, eyes open," he told them.
"There it is, sir!" Nolan's finger pointed toward a small lump near the edge of the gorge. "Definitely a body, and definitely in a suit of some kind."
"And definitely not a Federation-issue suit. Well, guess you get the Kewpie doll, Ensign Hart," Sherrod said as he maneuvered the shuttle around the gorge. "Sherrod to Captain."
"Sir, we found something that should not be here," the security chief reported. "I guess you can chalk this disaster up to something other than natural."
"What did you find?"
"Well, right now, all I can tell is that there's a body here that's not Human, and it's wearing a Romulan environmental suit."
"Get that Romulan," ordered Sulu, his voice harsh, "and bring him here."
"Roger that, Skipper," Sherrod acknowledged.
"And Jim," Sulu's voice went on, concerned now, "be careful. We still don't know what they used to kill all the Humans here. And whatever it is might still be able to affect us."
"Don't worry about me, Skipper," Sherrod assured him. "My momma didn't raise no stupid children. I intend to live long enough to spend my retirement money. On Chrysalis."
They could hear Sulu laughing in response as the connection was terminated.
"Okay, kids--you heard the man," he stated. "Buckle up. We're going in and get this character."
After the shuttle had landed, the three of them put their helmets on, then picked up their phasers. Hart took the tricorder. Once the door was open, they exited, using the caution that came second-nature to good security officers.
Beth Hart peered down to the ledge, using her tricorder to examine the body. She frowned as she studied the tricorder. "It's hard to tell what's going on in that suit of his, sir. Seems to have a reflective nature of some kind."
"Romulan suits do," Sherrod told her. "Try increasing your capacity gain."
"There. Got it!" she beamed from within her helmet. "He's still alive, sir," she reported. "But barely. And he's definitely a Romulan."
"Very well." Sherrod looked at her through his faceplate. "Can he survive being brought up on a stretcher?"
"Well, he's got a compound fracture of his leg," Hart answered. "And some cracked ribs. Can't tell for sure, but I think he's also got a punctured lung. Still, if we pack him in the stretcher right, and we don't bounce him too much on the trip up, he should survive."
"Get the gear, Nolan," Sherrod ordered. "I'll anchor--you and Hart go down and get him up. But don't take any chances. Any sign of him trying something funny, blast him or knock him off the ledge, which ever is easiest."
"Understood, sir," Nolan acknowledged as he and Hart rappelled down to the still form with the stretcher.
Some long minutes later, they signaled Sherrod they were ready to come up. More minutes passed as they carried the litter to the shuttle and secured it to the deck.
"Sherrod to Captain. We have a little present for you." He paused. "That's the good news. The bad news is it needs to get fixed up a little. Do you want us to take him home or bring him to you?"
"Bring him here," Sulu instructed. "Right now, the less I bring back to the ship, the better I like it. Besides, all the doctors are here on the planet."
"Copy that. We'll be there in less than five."
Ariel Cord paused and attempted to wipe her face with her arm, then remembered the helmet between her face and her arm. Old habits were hard to break. She and Astarnin had been working non-stop, rapidly performing autopsies on the bodies that hadn't decomposed too much.
She'd have preferred to spend more time on the procedure, but time was a commodity she didn't have, and she knew it. If her pathology professor saw her work now, he'd flunk her in a heartbeat. Still, while moving swiftly, she maintained a meticulousness that guaranteed that she was collecting all the data that was possible to obtain from the bodies. Samples were collected and scanned, then stored in tight containers for a more thorough examination in the Cooper's biohazard lab.
She looked up and saw Sulu standing in the doorway of her make-shift autopsy room. He looked a little green, even behind the faceplate.
"Yes?" she asked, hoping that she could get him to tell her whatever it was that he had to say and then leave. They'd come a long way toward healing him; she didn't want him to have a relapse.
"Sherrod's bringing in someone who needs you," Sulu said.
"Someone who survived?!" Cord's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Good lord, he should have taken the poor sod to the Cooper, not here!"
"Ariel, the survivor is a Romulan, and I'd prefer not to have him on my ship if I can avoid it," Sulu explained. "Besides, he said the guy's pretty bad off, needs a doctor, immediately. The last time I looked, all the doctors were here on Sarnac Three."
"Listen here, Skipper," the doctor moved from behind the table heading toward the door, "don't you or anyone else underestimate Kara. She's one hell of a nurse. I'd trust her with my life."
"Still, he needs medical attention, and we're a bit closer than the Cooper," Sulu went on hoping to appease her. Are all doctors so touchy about their staff? he wondered. "What have you found out?"
"Well," Cord moved from the room and out of the building, Sulu keeping pace with her, "I know they were damned healthy. Should have lived to be at least one hundred and fifty. Whatever killed them left no trace in their bodies. And I mean nothing. That's close to being impossible. Poisons leave residue of some kind, bacteria leave behind bacterial fragments, ditto viruses."
"So you're telling me you don't know what killed them."
"That's what I'm telling you, Hikaru." She waited while the shuttle landed, then stepped on board and used her tricorder on the figure in the litter. She frowned, then fidgeted with a few dials and repeated the procedure. "Unless someone has found a way to really wish someone to death, these people shouldn't be dead." She looked up at Sulu. "And if this poor stupid Romulan doesn't get into surgery soon, he's gonna be as lively as that bunch in there." She waved a hand at the morgue.
"Can you use the facilities here?" Sulu asked.
"No," she shook her head. "The stuff in there is fifteen to twenty years out of date. I'd probably make more mistakes using the stuff, and probably kill him in the process if I try. And Hikaru, we can't wait around for the shuttle to take off and land again. In fact, I think the bouncing around will do more damage."
"Damn," Sulu swore softly. "Transporter?"
"Definitely," Cord nodded. "We can transport directly to the cargo bay where we can undergo the decontamination process. That'll take at least half an hour, which isn't good for him either, but under the circumstances, it's the best anyone can do. And if he goes critical before decontamination is finished, at least I can get my equipment into the cargo bay and work on him there."
"Well then, let's get back to the Cooper," Sulu decided. "You and Astarnin have managed to collect plenty of samples from the victims, and Roshl and Sanders have collected everything from the plant life around here, and so probably have Xon and his party." Sulu opened his comlink. "Sulu to Xon."
"Xon here, sir."
"Pack it in, Xon. Collect all the samples you've got. We're going back to the ship and see if we can find something more there."
"Understood, sir," Xon answered.
S'Klar strode into the medical ward, a worried look on his face. T'oraq had summoned him here with a cryptic message that was most unlike the scientist. He found T'oraq and the doctor, Marek, were standing over a figure strapped on a biobed.
"What is the problem, T'oraq?" S'Klar demanded barely giving the young officer a second glance.
A loud, almost maniacal, pain-filled scream stopped T'oraq from answering his commander for a few minutes.
"Give him another injection of s'relen, one cc," Marek told the med-tech. "And continue to give him one cc every two la'ss'ekor until he is no longer restive."
The med tech placed a hypospray on the young Romulan's neck and soon the scream was quieter. He continued to thrash, in spite of the restraining straps.
"T'oraq," S'Klar demanded again, "what is going on? Why did you summon me?"
"That," T'oraq pointed to the still-kicking youth, "is T'kulis, a junior scientist."
"And he seems to be quite sick. Which is the domain of Marek, not I." S'Klar turned to leave the room.
"He is exhibiting all the symptoms of the metagenic blood catalyst," T'oraq stated roughly.
"What?!" S'Klar roared as he turned back toward the scientist. "How?! You told me there was no way--"
"I don't know how!" T'oraq roared back. "He was not even on the planet surface!"
"He wasn't?" S'Klar stared at his chief scientist, disbelief on his face.
"No, Commander, he was not." T'oraq stared down at the figure as another injection was administered to the young Romulan. "I intend to look into the matter after I see to him..." T'oraq paused, then cleared his throat, and proceeded on, his voice softer, sadder. "He is my nephew, S'Klar. He applied for this posting and was accepted on his own merits. He never used our relationship to get this posting." He stared at his commander, sorrow covering his features. "He was a meticulous worker, a good worker. One day, he would have taken my place."
"Was?" S'Klar continued to stare at the scientist.
"As I said," T'oraq's voice became brusque and businesslike once again, "he is exhibiting all the symptoms of the blood catalyst. Soon the rest of the crew will be as he is now." T'oraq sighed. "I believed I had made the catalyst species-specific, seeking the heme-filled blood cells of the Humans only. Not even the natural fauna were touched by the catalyst, and they have heme in their blood cells. But," he sighed again, and it seemed to S'Klar that he was near to tears, "I seemed to have made some sort of miscalculation. It seems to enjoy our cupric-filled blood cells as well."
The medical ward was suddenly filled with another maniacal scream from the biobed. T'oraq stared as the form arced against the restraints. All at once his form dropped to the biobed, limp. The readings over his body dropped just as suddenly.
T'oraq closed his eyes sadly. Turning to S'Klar, he shook his head. "There is no cure, Commander. And he is now dead. We are all dead. It is just a matter of time."
Ariel Cord paced the cargo bay impatiently, waiting for the buzzer to signal the end of the decontamination process. Not that she thought anything had gotten into the EnviroSuits. It was why she'd insisted on that particular model. Only the microviruses from a few strains of plasma plague could get through all the filters packed in the suit, and this plague on Sarnac III was clearly not a plasma plague.
She looked down at her patient, using her small tricorder to monitor his condition. This decontamination process was not helping his condition one little bit. She bit her lip. Still, considering what had happened on the planet surface, she was not about to break contamination just to save his life, even if he might hold the solution to the puzzle of Sarnac III.
Sulu had also been pacing the deck as well, but staying away from the injured Romulan. His first instinct had been to have Cord fill him full of enough stimulants to bring him around and enough pain-killers so he wasn't in agony, and then hound him until he got the answers to his questions. But he knew what her answer would be to that particular suggestion. She was a doctor first and a Starfleet officer second.
The security team was also pacing, but their pacing seemed to resemble guards doing rounds, rather than impatient ramblings. The team of Lieutenant Commander Sherrod, Ensigns Nolan and Hart were standing guard over the unconscious prisoner. Only Xon seemed to be totally at ease counting down the minutes until the decontamination process was completed.
Cord had decided that Sherrod's security team had to transport up to the ship with them, rather than take the shuttle back to the ship. That way, there would be plenty of security guards with the rest of the party, just in case the Romulan managed to somehow overcome his injuries and try to do something that could endanger the ship. And she could also be sure that the security team, if exposed to anything on the planet surface when they exited the shuttle, were also decontaminated. The shuttle could be brought back to the ship by remote control. It would require a more thorough decontamination process than the other one since the occupants had opened it to the environment of Sarnac III.
When the buzzer finally did sound, Ariel Cord started, then motioned for the two ensigns to pick up the stretcher that the Romulan was lying on.
"Straight to Sickbay," Cord ordered.
"Ariel," Sulu began.
"As soon as he's stable and can answer questions, I'll call you," she told him. "But not until then. I know we need answers," she placed a slender finger on his lips, "but I am still a doctor, and right now, he is my patient. So let me do my job, and then you can do yours. Okay?"
"Okay," Sulu nodded, moving closer to her. "Just be careful."
"Jimmy's gonna be there as well as the two bunny rabbits," Cord assured him softly. "Between the three of them, I should be very safe. Gotta go, Hikaru," she whispered.
Xon followed the security team, a bag of samples in each hand. He motioned the others to pick up their sample bags and led them down the corridor to await the elevator's return. Sulu grabbed a bag to help the crewmembers get their specimens to the biolab.
"Will you be joining us, Captain?" Xon asked.
"No, Xon. The less I see of the venerable Leon Mandala, the better it'll be for the both of us," Sulu shook his head. "Besides, there's nothing I can do there but get in everyone's way. Keep me informed."
"Of course, sir." The Vulcan almost sounded hurt as the elevator doors closed on the party.
Sulu sat down in his chair, trying to find the right words to use in his report to Starfleet. Finding the Romulan on the planet had been one hell of a surprise. He'd suspected the Romulans were behind the annihilation of the planet's population, but he never really expected to be able to prove it. Now he had some pretty damning circumstantial evidence in his Sickbay--a Romulan legionnaire in an environmental suit. He doubted that the Romulan could claim fear of the planetary atmosphere, especially with all the Humans that had been there.
Of course, he sighed deeply, the Romulan could easily claim his ship arrived after the disease--for want of a better word--had struck and his commander had ordered the suits for his men's protection. It was clearly a no-win situation.
Still the presence of one Romulan, especially one so low in rank implied, rather strongly, that there were others around. Probably in a ship somewhere cloaked, observing the Cooper, waiting for the opportune moment to attack. Sulu shuddered slightly. He was glad the ship was still on Yellow Alert.
He frowned, gnawing his lip. There had been an interesting entry in the communications log by the technician. The tech, Lynn Hayden, had indicated that the colony had been trying for several days, since the start of the epidemic, to raise Starfleet for assistance, but had had trouble due to some sort of subspace interference--an interference that had just suddenly appeared.
"Any sign of subspace interference?" he turned to Lieutenant Commander Rand who was now at the station.
"No, sir," Janice Rand shook her blonde head. "Clear subspace and hyperband channels all the way to Earth and back."
"Good. Prepare a preliminary report for Starfleet, encoded," he finally decided. "Initial scans of the planet Sarnac Three revealed no cause for the sudden demise of the colony's members. The landing parties did not find anything either. Samples were obtained from the planet and are being studied in the biohazard lab by our science labs." He'd report the Romulan later, when he knew he wasn't being monitored. Codes could always be broken. "Send to Starbase Twelve."
"On its way, sir," Rand finished tapping buttons.
"Good. Just keep monitoring for anything unusual on the channels," Sulu told her. "If anyone's out there, I expect we'll get some reaction out them. The first sign of anything strange, unusual, I want to know about it."
Ariel Cord was staring down at the Romulan on her table. The low hum of the sterile field generator was almost inaudible as she began to operate on his damaged lung. Besides the injury from the fractured ribs, it looked like he also might have had an embolus, caused, no doubt, by the fractured leg. Cord shook her head sadly, wondering if she really could save this young Romulan's life as Astarnin handed her another Feinberger.
Behind her, and just beyond the sterile field, she heard Jim Sherrod and the two young security guards talking. Sherrod had insisted that the three of them remain in Sickbay until the Romulan was well enough to be taken to the brig.
"So," Bobby Nolan asked, attempting to keep a sober tone, "which film are you gonna show for movie night?"
"Considering the median age of the crew right now is barely twenty-two, I was thinking of a classic film," Cord responded with the same pseudo-sober tone.
"Hate to break your heart, Doc, but I've seen all the classics. Especially the 'lost Ariel Cord classics,'" Nolan sniggered.
"Those films have at least a platinum triple-X rating," Cord snorted. "How did someone of your tender years get to see any of those?"
"Fake I.D.," Nolan replied with a shrug. "Tell me, was that really you in 'In Too Deep' with the Octorol? Or did you use a double?"
Cord stopped her work for brief instant to give him a near-murderous glare. "Listen, son," she said coolly as she returned to her surgery, handing one instrument back to Astarnin and getting another, "I'll have you know that I have never had to use a double for any of my work. Now some of the actors I've worked with used a double--that's how Tom Curtis finally got to be my frequent male lead, by the way; he started out as a double for another leading man who just didn't have what it took to get the scene done." She sealed up the Romulan's chest cavity.
"That was really you with an Octorol?" Hart sounded awestruck. "How did you...I mean... How were you able to..." Hart found herself stuttering and turning a furious shade of red. "Oh hell, wasn't he just a little much, even for you?"
Cord laughed as she moved to the Romulan's broken leg. "Well, let's just say that the title was damned near perfect." She paused and canted her head. "Though," she went on, "I did find that I had to fake my orgasms in the next few holovids I did."
"And in 'And One To Grow On' that really was you with the six Neoliths?" Nolan asked in a faint whisper.
"Well it takes several Neolith males to satisfy one Neolith female, you know, so they think it's that way for all the other species. Anyway, their culture makes sex a real party time for all involved, and they really love to party with a Human female, even more than with their own kind for some cockeyed reason." Cord shrugged. "And if the lady can survive it, it's a party she'll never forget." She smiled at the two young guards, now several shades redder than they had been moments before. She smiled smugly and then went on, "Of course, there are plenty of males who are not Neoliths--Human and otherwise--who also like to double up with a Human female. I never minded more than one of any species, as long as they all knew what they were doing, and how to do it."
"You mean some of them didn't know how?!" Beth Hart sniggered.
"I mean, a lot of them didn't know how to do it right," Cord corrected her primly. "That makes a big difference, you know, especially if you're the one in the middle. One person gets the timing off and ruins it for everybody else."
Cord suddenly stopped speaking and stared down at her patient. A low whining noise was coming from her patient's chest. "Oh shit!" she swore. Moving unbelievably fast, she broke out the field and rushed the three security guards, grabbing her med-tech as she did so. "Get out of here!" she ordered.
"What the--" Sherrod balked, dodging her rush.
"I said," Cord snapped, "get the hell out of Sickbay, and I mean now!" She pushed Astarnin and the two younger guards out of the room, and slammed her palm on the manual override, effectively locking them out.
Then she turned and moved back toward the biobed. Sherrod grabbed her and pulled her back toward the door. "Ariel, what the hell's the matter with you?"
"That damned Romulan is booby-trapped!" she flared at him, trying to break free.
"I know!" Sherrod flared back, grabbing her arms. "Now either we're both leaving, or we're both staying!"
"Jimmy, just get the hell out of here and out of my way so I can remove it and jettison it before it blows Sickbay to hell and--"
There was an actinic flash of light.
The concussion separated the two Humans, flinging Cord against the far wall and Sherrod to the other side of the room. Cord's head connected with the wall solidly, and for a few moments, all she saw was spinning stars in her field of vision.
When the stars faded, she found herself on the floor and staring at a wall of flames. A shadowy figure seemed to rise up from the center of the inferno; then she heard a strangled scream, and the figure melted away.
"Fire!" she murmured aloud. "Sickbay is on fire. Have to get out. No, have to find Jimmy--"
She stared at the furniture in front of her and watched in amazement as the consoles started to droop uncharacteristically. She gasped in shock, and found herself choking on the fumes and smoke that filled the room.
Her gaze wandered to her body, and she noted that her uniform was gone. So were her boots. As she continued to stare at her nude form, she saw the flickering flames dance along her body. She felt a tickling sensation on her head and around her eyes as she heard the unmistakable sound of hair being singed. Blinking she stared as the flames seemed to consume her body and yet, even though she could sort of feel the pain in a remote fantasy sort of way over her entire body, she noted she wasn't burning away.
Cord blinked again, shaking her head to get the sparkling embers from her field of vision. Her arm, which not two seconds ago had been ablaze with the fire and covered with a sooty substance, was now pink again. As she continued to watch, she saw the flames dance down her legs, devouring the flesh, leaving behind a blackened residue that slowly turned pink.
"What is going on?" she whimpered in terror. "What's happening to me?"
Unable to watch the strange sight any more, she raised her gaze to her now-destroyed Sickbay. The bed where the Romulan had been was a large mound of ash, with a blackened area where the readout panel had been. Her gaze continued to move over the destruction, barely able to take in the melting consoles and tables, until it landed on a mound on the floor. A skeletal face stared at her, the jaw dropped open in a macabre scream.
"Oh, God!" She felt panic fill her. "Jim? Jimmy?"
Suddenly, the pain which had seemed so distant and unreal hit her. Cord screamed in agony as the flames danced over her body, hungry for more fuel, delighted to have a seemingly inexhaustible source. She screamed again, louder, then yet again as she collapsed on the floor.
The flames continued their wild caper along her body, flaming brightly as they found new flesh to consume.
"Sir! Sensors are recording an explosion on the Federation vessel!" the centurion practically shouted his report excitedly.
"Indeed," S'Klar frowned and moved to the station.
He had been biding his time since the encoded message had been sent by the small ship, wondering what exactly the ship's commander had included in the message. He'd also been holding the reins in on his crew, stopping the more blood-thirsty from immediately attacking. They were too inexperienced to know that sometimes you let the enemy get a message through to their superiors as part of their strategy.
"Grade Three," the centurion reported from the science station.
"That's the same as" Tyana moved behind the young centurion to check the read-out. She looked at S'Klar, her face pale. Then she gathered herself together and continued on, "The same as an implant's detonation intensity."
"No!" sounded softly from T'mek's station.
"I see." S'Klar's frown deepened. He'd discovered that T'mek and T'Ruk had been together through basic training, and had become fast friends. He turned to his weapons officer. "Weapons at the ready, Tushin. T'mek, sound battle stations. Helmsman, take us out of orbit and maneuver us into a favorable firing position."
Bobby Nolan disengaged himself from the tangle of arms and legs that belonged to Beth Hart and Astarnin, both on the deck and on him. Shaking his head, he turned and rushed for the sickbay door. He slammed into it at full speed, and found himself bouncing off of it seconds before the concussion wave shook the ship.
Picking himself up again, he raced to the nearest comm panel and activated it. "Nolan to Bridge!" he practically shouted. "Explosion in Sickbay! Doctor Cord and Commander Sherrod as well as the Romulan are still in there!"
"Understood," said Sulu's calm voice. "On my way."
Over the ship's intercom system, Nolan heard Sulu's voice, still calm, "Red Alert, battle stations. This is not a drill. All off-duty med teams and damage control parties, report to Sickbay on the double."
Before he had finished speaking, the lighting had changed from the normal daylight tones to the dim red flashing and the klaxons sounded throughout the corridor. Hart was now on her feet, and rushing toward the door, only to fall back as the heat from inside the room radiated through the door.
Nolan rushed to her side and past her to rush the door again, only to fall back to join Hart, beaten by the heat. He stared as the neutral paint began to bubble and slowly run down the door to the deck where it puddled and then trickled down the corridor.
"God, Bobby, the commander and the doctor are both still in there!" Hart barely kept the sob from her voice.
"I know!" Nolan shot back roughly. "I tried--" He turned fear-filled eyes to her. "I tried to get back in there and get them out, honest I did!"
"I know you did, hon," she whispered as they heard the hissing sound of water hitting flames inside the room.
Running feet were heard approaching their position. Soon an entourage of security men and women as well as the rest of the medical teams, civilian as well as Starfleet were surrounding the door. Sulu pushed through the crowd and stared in stark horror at the door, now devoid of paint.
Lieutenant Brice Torres held his tricorder toward the door. "The fire suppression system was knocked off-line by the blast, but I managed to get the computer to open some valves in the emergency sprinkler system," the damage control reported to Sulu. "It's nearly cool enough to enter, as soon as we override the manual lockout."
Chief Engineer Deneice Maliszewski appeared at his elbow. "You let me work the override, Brice. That heat and the blast have probably messed up the mechanism."
"We won't have to hurry," Don Richards, the third med tech on the Cooper reported. "I'm afraid the only folks needing medical attention will be those of us who rush in before the hot spots get cool. There's no way anyone could have survived that fire."
Torres looked at Sulu's stricken face. "Sorry, sir. Don's right," he said sadly. "The fire's probably melted everything in there and turned the rest to ash."
Maliszewski pushed a button and accessed the override panel and punched in a code. The doors groaned, then slowly slid open.
Nolan and Hart were the first two into the room followed closely by Torres and Richards. The blackened room and falling soot met their gazes as the noxious fumes assaulted their noses. Hart gulped then continued on, Nolan close behind her.
Their shoes hit something on the floor as they walked through the room. Their eyes were drawn down to what threatened their steps, and met the blank empty stare of the skull lying by the rest of the skeleton. Hart felt her stomach lurch dangerously, and saw Nolan gulp deeply with her. Hart bit her lip, staring back at Sulu who was entering the room.
Then the sound of whimpering drew her attention to the far wall. Grabbing Nolan, more for support than anything else, she made her way gingerly through the debris-filled room.
Huddled against the wall, wet, bedraggled, and disheveled, sitting in a puddle of water was a very nude Ariel Cord. Soot covered her, and the water from the sprinkler system as well as her own tears had made rivulets down her face through the black material. Her knees were pulled up tight to her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around them, her body rocking back and forth, her eyes wide and unfocused as she continued to whimper softly.
"Doctor Cord?" Hart whispered in disbelief. "Doctor Cord?!" She dropped to her knees on the still-hot floor and pulled her jacket off, dropping it on the bare shoulders. "It's Doctor Cord, and she's alive!"
Sulu pushed past the two guards and was at the physician's side in an instant, his arms gently wrapped around her shaking shoulders. Cord's eyes slowly focused and settled on Sulu's face over hers. Her whimpering continued as her head sought and found his shoulder, then her shoulders shook in earnest as she cried uncontrollably.
Richards came up beside Cord and scanned her with his tricorder. "She's in shock, sir," he reported as he draped a blanket over the jacket that was falling from her bare shoulders. "If we don't get her to the Intensive Care Ward across the hall, we'll lose her for sure."
Sulu nodded mutely as the other two med techs brought in the stretcher and placed it by her body. As they attempted to move her onto it, he suddenly found her arms wrapped tightly around his neck as Cord screamed "No! NO!" As they continued to struggle with the senior medical officer, one arm loosened from around Sulu's neck, and a well-aimed fist, fueled by fear, struck Richards solidly in the chest.
Chief Medtech Astarnin caught Richards as he fell back, and moved in to take his place. A hypospray was in her hand and then at Cord's neck. Then the doctor's body went limp in Sulu's arms. Gently picking her up, he placed her on the stretcher and let the medical teams take her away, the terror still filling his eyes.
"Captain Sulu to the bridge," Xon's voice filled the corridor as he left the rubble of the Sickbay to watch Cord being taken away from him. "Captain Sulu to the bridge."
"Yes, Xon, what is it?" Sulu asked somberly.
"We are under attack," Xon reported.
"Damn!" Sulu swore with feeling, making the simple expletive more shocking than was normal. "Maintain Red Alert. Get the weapons on line. I'm on my way. Deneice," he turned to his chief engineer, "you'd better get back below. I have a feeling you're going to be needed there before much longer."
The ride back to the bridge was a rocky one. The ship bucked and rocked as the phasers from the enemy ship hit it again and again. Once the turbolift ground to a halt and required a manual override to get it moving again. He was only thankful that Cord had made it to the Intensive Care Ward before the worst of the attack occurred.
"Status," Sulu barked as the doors slowly opened admitting him to the bridge.
Xon looked up from his scanning hood, then turned to the viewer. "It is a Romulan ship, Captain. It is a new class of Romulan warbird," he added. "Observe, that while it still resembles the Klingon K't'inga warship, the command section resembles those of twenty-second century Romulan warbirds."
Sulu stared at the ship as the nose seemed to turn straight for him, and another phaser flash arced toward his ship.
"Shields are at fifty percent and dropping," Myron O'Hara announced from the engineering section. "The boss is on it, but it doesn't look promising. Not as long at that," he jerked a thumb at the Romulan ship, "continues to use us for target practice."
As the phaser bolt hit the ship, the lights dimmed, and took longer than the usual second and a half to return.
"Shields forty percent and falling," O'Hara reported.
Sulu moved to his chair and thumbed the comm panel. "Bridge to Engineering."
"Yeah, Skipper, what do you want? And make it quick," Maliszewski answered, sounding a little harried. "I've kind of got my hands full, if you know what I mean."
"Chief, I know you've been wanting to test those new toys of yours under perfect conditions, but I think you'd better try them out now, before we don't have a ship to test them with," Sulu said drolly, adding, "if you know what I mean."
He heard her sigh deeply, then answer, "It's gonna take a little time, Skipper."
"Well, Chief, don't take too long," Sulu cautioned her. "We don't have a whole lot of time left."
"Helm, repeat attack run," S'Klar ordered calmly.
"Aye," the young centurion confirmed as she tapped the panel in front of her.
Without warning, the young Romulan female screeched in agony and arced forward, then leaped away from the panel, her hand striking the surface violently. The screaming continued, then the centurion slumped to the floor, motionless.
As she did so, the T'Charr skewed off course, flying wildly without direction. The last phaser barrage missed its target.
Tyana darted from the science station and slid into the helm seat, her slender fingers flying over the surface as she fought to regain control of the ship. Finally, she was able to move the sleek battle ship back on course.
Looking at her husband, she whispered, "Melis was ill this morning but refused to go to the medical ward, sir. She felt it was nothing serious, at least not enough to miss her duty station."
S'Klar nodded mutely. "Begin the attack run," he ordered.
"Okay, Skipper!" Deneice Maliszewski's voice filled the bridge. "She's on line. Ready when you are!"
"Shields at maximum!" Sulu ordered as the ship, which had wallowed drunkenly only seconds before, righted itself and moved toward the Cooper at attack speed.
The phasers that flashed from the Romulan's wings hit the expanding shields and bounced off harmlessly, barely rocking the smaller vessel. Cheers were heard throughout the bridge, and Sulu felt his face relax into a smile.
"Deneice, get a circuit to the weapons," he barked into the intercom. "Weapons, target the Romulan at the amidships. Phasers and photons. Fire as she passes."
Tchenn's clawed talons tapped the buttons, and his sharp eyes watched both the viewscreen and the board in front of him until the Romulan vessel was in range. A single clawed finger pressed the firing button.
They watched as a small blossom appeared on the ship, and a hole appeared in the long, graceful hull, followed by a few bodies drifting outward before their shields snapped into place, stopping the atmospheric leak.
S'Klar felt himself being hurled from his chair as torpedoes and phaser bolts struck his ship. The lighting dimmed as the rest of the bridge crew were tossed about like rag dolls.
"Damage!" S'Klar bellowed.
"Direct hit amidships," Tyana reported coolly. "Power down to forty percent. Forty dead before the hull could be sealed. Fifty more injured, twenty critically. Marek reports that most will be unable to return to duty until tomorrow."
"How could such a thing happen?" a young legionnaire demanded, frightened.
"Because they have an experienced commander, and a skilled weapons officer," S'Klar barked back at the fear-filled legionnaire. "Worthy opponents for this vessel." Turning to Tushin, he ordered, "Weapons, arm plasma torpedoes."
"Sir," Tyana cautioned, "if we fire the plasma torpedoes, we will have no power reserves left. We will be at their mercy."
"Only if they survive the attack," S'Klar responded tightly. "If we don't, we will be finished anyway."
Tyana bowed her head deferentially toward her husband, and maneuvered the damaged ship to give Tushin the best possible firing position.
Sulu watched as the wrecked Romulan warbird slowly angled around. It was unable to move much, just change its angle, probably trying to keep its shields toward the Cooper. It was dead in the water, so to speak, over the planet that it had killed. Tchenn had managed to hurt the vessel at its weakest link. Still the warbird and her commander were trying to continue the fight.
"Give it up; go home," Sulu breathed. "I don't want to fight you if I don't have to. There's been enough death here already."
Suddenly, his eyes widened as he watched the small bloom erupt from the ship and flow toward the Cooper, blossoming wider and wider with each passing second.
"Helm!" he barked as he recalled another encounter with a Romulan vessel on a different ship a long time ago. "Evasive maneuvers. Full reverse! Full power to forward shields! Damn!"
Fingers, claws, talons and paws responded to his commands, and the Cooper shot away from the Romulan ship at maximum warp. Sulu continued to stare at the flowering weapon in his viewscreen hoping against hope that the Cooper would be able to get out of range of the Romulan torpedo.
The ship was engulfed in the flower of the torpedo, and the shock wave sent everyone to the deck. The lights flickered, then dimmed to low as the ship canted on its side, the force overcoming the gravitational plates briefly.
"Damage report!" Sulu shouted.
"Power is out," Xon responded calmly. "Life support, short range scanners and the emergency lighting are all that are apparently on line. Commander Maliszewski reports all other circuits are shorted out. It will be at least five hours before she can get them back on line."
"What about them?" Sulu stared at his opponent in the distance.
"From what I could ascertain from the scans I took of the vessel, they have similar damage. According to the intelligence and records from past encounters, the plasma torpedo requires more energy to arm and fire than the conventional torpedoes," the Vulcan went on. "Considering the damage that our torpedoes and phasers did to the vessel before they fired the plasma torpedo, I would estimate that his reserves are at zero."
"Then it's a race against time," the captain sighed. "First one to fix everything wins."
Sulu was staring at the viewscreen. He had been staring at the viewscreen for the past four and one half hours trying hard not to get in anyone's way. Especially Maliszewski's. For the past four and one half hours, he had been watching the enemy ship, looking for signs that their damage teams had managed to repair their damage before his could repair the Cooper's. So far, he hadn't seen anything that would indicate that.
The running lights on the Romulan vessel flickered once, then again, and slowly, and with much effort, the ship moved from its stationary orbit.
Sulu straightened in his chair and thumbed the communications link to Engineering. "Status?" he asked shortly.
"Almost there, Skipper," Maliszewski's tired voice sounded from the depths of the ship.
He swallowed as he saw the bloom of another plasma torpedo leave the ship and head toward his own.
"I guess we didn't make it, Deneice," he murmured softly. "Good try."
"Sorry, Skipper," Maliszewski apologized. "We gave her our best."
Abruptly, the sphere burst several thousand kilometers from the ship. The screen dimmed to absorb the extreme light source, and the ship bounced from the concussion wave that continued to roll toward them.
"What the--" Sulu began.
The screen suddenly came back to life, and as it did so, a streak from the far right entered the field, flying by the Cooper toward the Romulan vessel, phasers continuing to fire on the ship, keeping up a steady bombardment.
"It's the Enterprise!" Janice Rand whooped from the communications station. "Message coming in, sir. 'You started the party without us?'"
Sulu leaned back in his chair, his staccato laugh filling the bridge. "Reply, 'I know how much you liked coming over the hill to the rescue. Good to see you still do.'"
They watched as the powerful starship flipped and maneuvered around the Romulan vessel and phasers continued to blast the hull. Then one flashed brightly on the Romulan bridge just as a phaser blast left the Romulan vessel, targeting the Enterprise's left nacelle. The starship peeled away in a graceful arcing maneuver, dodging the streak of light.
"You've got full power, Skipper," Maliszewski sang out.
"In the nick of time, too," Sulu said. "In the nick of time."
S'Klar shook his head as he picked himself up from the deck where the last phaser blast had thrown him. He could hear the sounds of electrical shorts all over the bridge as the arcs of electricity danced over stations. Streaks of black smudged the once-shiny surfaces.
He heard the sounds of his crew moaning in pain from the bouncing, then another crewman screamed in agony. Not the scream of pain. The scream of the catalyst disease. Tushin jerked to his feet and rushed toward the turbolift doors, but collapsed to the deck before he could reach them, breathing once as his body hit the deck, then falling still.
S'Klar gazed at his once proud vessel and sighed deeply. Then his eyes spotted Tyana kneeling by her post. A large piece of the metal framing that had broken loose from the ceiling in the last bombardment pierced her body back to front, skewering her to the metal deck.
"No!" he roared. "No!"
He was at her side, embracing her gently, careful not to touch the metal pike.
"I-I am sorry, husband." Her voice was weak, faint. "I was not quick enough."
"Hush!" he whispered, choking back a sob, touching her face gently.
"We defied many odds, husband," she looked up at him, her eyes filling with tears. "I so wanted to defy all the odds and grow old with you. See our children grow strong in the service of the Empire. But that is not to be."
"Don't say that!" S'Klar rebuffed her gently. "Never say that. We can beat this as well!"
"Remember that I love you through eternity," she whispered.
He gripped her soft hand and she returned the grip briefly. Then her grasp slackened, and her hand dropped to the deck. He closed her eyes and blinked back tears that threatened to flood his eyes.
"Revenge!" he roared as he moved to the helm. His fingers danced over the damaged panel. "All of you!" he blared at the remaining bridge crew who had paused to witness the couple's last moments together in shock. "What are you staring at? Are you weaklings? Have you lost your courage? Man your posts! We attack!"
He moved the ship toward both the Federation ships. The phaser banks powered up, and the weapons officer targeted first the smaller vessel then the larger.
The two ships responded in tandem, causing the T'Charr to rock back and forth wildly. Still S'Klar kept the ship on course, and the weapons officer kept the phasers blasting at the ships.
"Shields to fifty percent," a centurion reported from behind him.
"Increase power to the shields," S'Klar commanded as another centurion took his helm spot, and he moved back to his seat.
The lights flickered as the ship was hit by another blast from both ships.
"Shields at forty percent. Power reserves at thirty percent," the young centurion reported, his voice cracking with fear.
S'Klar took a deep breath and stared at the destruction around him, his eyes lingering on the still form of his dead wife. "Navigator, plot a course to the Neutral Zone."
"Aye, sir," the centurion at the navigation console replied.
"And plot it so we pass close to the sun," S'Klar added. "As we pass the sun, engage warp engines."
"But, sir--" a more seasoned centurion manning the post that had been vacated by the dead Tushin started to protest.
"Do as I say!" S'Klar roared. "Plot a course pass the sun and engage the warp engines as we do so."
"Aye, sir," gulped the navigator.
The Enterprise and Cooper watched as the Romulan vessel darted out of their midst, heading away from the planet. Sulu frowned as he watched the course that the ship followed.
"Sir," Tchenn reported, "it is retreating. If we don't stop it, it will escape."
"Maybe," Sulu frowned, his old skills awakening as he continued to watch the ship's departure. "There's something funny--"
His eyes widened as he noticed the ship heading almost directly toward the sun.
Xon frowned, perplexed, as he watched the ship. "Sir, the Romulan vessel will pass extremely close to the primary."
"I know." Sulu found his breath coming fast. "Helm full reverse, emergency speed. Let's get the hell out of here--now!"
He watched as the Enterprise likewise seemed backpedal as fast as it could go.
"Maliszewski, I hope you've got a spare circuit left to wire the engines," Sulu signaled the engineering chief.
"You've got it," Maliszewski responded. "Ready when you are."
"Hit it, now!"
Both ships streaked past planets away from the system, the Cooper, with the aid of the amplifier circuit, managing to reach top speed before the Enterprise. As the two ships cleared the last of the twelve planets, the sun flared brightly and expanded in size, engulfing the inner planets and moving outward.
Then the viewscreen went black, overloaded by the nova's brilliant, continued glare. Several minutes later, the screen was full of stars. But the sun Sarnac was now missing, and so were the six inner planets. In its place was a gaseous cloud, and a small dull core, all that was left of the star. The outer six planets, now without a primary to orbit, were wobbling along in their orbital planes.
Sulu punched the comm panel. "Damage report!"
"We're all okay, Skipper," Maliszewski's voice sounded from the panel. "And the kiddies are fine, too."
"Good," Sulu breathed. "Rand, any word on the Enterprise?"
The chief communications officer's fingers played over her panel, her face full of concentrated strain. Then her face relaxed and she tapped a button. "Captain Kirk is hailing us, sir,"
"On screen," Sulu ordered, his posture relaxing.
James Kirk's face filled the screen. "Everyone okay over there, Captain Sulu?" he asked, concern filling his voice.
"We're all fine, Captain Kirk," Sulu assured him. "What about your crew?"
"Well," Kirk's eyebrow raised slightly, "our tail feathers are a bit singed, which is not making a certain Scottish engineer we both know very happy, judging from the Gaelic curses I've been hearing, but we're all fine. And, incidentally, he wants to know what you're using for fuel in your little ship. When you passed us, you injured his pride."
Sulu smiled. "Well, we'll see if Deneice is willing to talk to Scotty. It's her toy."
"Any idea what's been going on?" Kirk asked, turning to business.
"Sorry, no." Sulu shook his head. "We know as much as when we beamed down to the planet, which wasn't much then." He sighed deeply. "We were originally going to return to the planet and get samples from other areas. Only that Romulan vessel came out of nowhere and started to use us for target practice. And now that the planet's gone, we have no way to get anything we might have missed."
"True," Kirk sighed just as deeply. "Still, maybe your teams did manage to get something."
"Wishful thinking," Sulu said dourly.
"I happen to have extreme confidence in you and your crew," Kirk smiled at him. "Listen, if it's okay with you, I'd like to come over with some of my crew, and take a look at what you've got."
Sulu smiled back at his old commander. "Delighted to have you."
Cord sat up on the side of the bed, the webbing which had kept her securely in the bed during the battle now gone. Her gaze wandered to the read-out over her head.
Normal, normal, normal.
"No one is that normal," she muttered to herself as she slid off the bed and padded around the room. "No one has a right to be that normal."
Her wandering led her to the small mirror where she stared at her reflection. A hand lifted to her hair and face, then her eyes moved to her hand, then along her arms. A shudder began between her shoulder blades. Grasping her hands, she squeezed her eyes tightly, then opened them again, looking in the mirror, but not seeing her reflection.
She'd been a very healthy child, she recalled as her mind drifted back in time. She'd never been sick a day in her life that she could recall, and the few times she'd fallen, she'd never hurt herself. Unlike her friends who seemed to sprout scraped knees daily from falls off of bikes and horses, and get fixed just as often, she never did, and she had had her share of tumbles.
The beaches with hidden coral reefs did take their toll on most of the swimmers on Chrysalis. Cord never had that problem when she sunbathed. And considering she did her sunbathing with as little covering as possible, including footwear, that was no mean feat.
Until now, she had not really considered herself unusual in any way. Her father was still youthful, and she had believed that she had inherited some very good genes from her sire. Of course, she had begun to wonder when she didn't notice any grey in her blonde hair, or crow's feet around her eyes. While the fact of her not aging had never bothered her until just recently, she now wondered what was going on with her and her body.
She had survived a living hell when she had no right to be alive. Jim Sherrod had died in the inferno. Cord felt another shudder rack her body as she bit her lip and recalled his skull, stripped of all flesh by the flames, staring at her.
Cord stared at her arms again, then at her hair. She let the robe drop from her body and stared at her nude form. She had felt the fire on her body, had seen the fire devouring her flesh before her eyes. She had heard her hair being burned from her body. Yet, Cord held a hand in front of her face, turning it over to examine her soft pink flesh, there was no way that one could tell she had ever been in a fire. No scars, visible scars, were apparent on any part of her body. And her hair--except that it was no longer carefully coifed and now even longer than before--was the same as before the conflagration.
Picking up her robe, she slid back into it, then padded back to the bed.
Cord stared at the doors, wishing them to open and admit a visitor. A special visitor. Still, she knew there had been no way that Sulu could have come and stayed with her. He had a ship to take care of. In spite of her condition, she knew that the Cooper had been under attack. His place was on the bridge, protecting the ship and her crew.
Still, it would be so nice to have him here, by her side, his strong arms embracing her, holding close to his body His presence in the burned-out Sickbay had convinced her that she was not dreaming what had happened--that she was still alive.
Then Cord sighed deeply as she curled into a tight ball on the bed. She had seen the relief in his dark eyes when he'd pulled her to him. But she remembered his question during their lovemaking.
"How do you do it?"
"Stay looking so young?"
He would ask that again, she knew, and then he would want to know how she survived the fire. And Cord didn't have the answers.
Not yet, anyway.
Cord rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, listening to the beeps from the bioscanner. Her eyes drifted up to the read-out. Normal, normal, normal.
Closing her eyes again, she let the beeps lull her to sleep. Before she drifted off, she promised herself that once T'Selin released her from the Intensive Care Ward, she was going to find out what exactly was going on.
Hikaru Sulu sat back from the dinner and looked around the table, letting a smile light his face. It had ben too long since he'd been able to spend time with his old comrades and friends. But with him on the Cooper, and the others on the Enterprise, and both ships with missions in different sectors of space, there was almost no way that they could ever get together.
It seemed to take a disaster to get them all in one place, he realized soberly.
The entire party was relaxed and informal, even though the Enterprise crew had beamed over in full uniform. Kirk, seeing how the Cooper crew was dressed, had immediately taken his outer jacket off, and the others had followed suit.
"Dinner was excellent, Captain Sulu," James Kirk stated as he pushed away his plate. "Tell me, do you folks always eat this well?"
"Only on special occasions," Sulu responded with a chuckle as McCoy, Spock, Uhura and Saavik followed Kirk's lead. Scotty and Chekov, on the other hand, helped themselves to seconds. Several times. His own crew was not chary either, he noted. Well, after the past few hours, he could understand their desire to celebrate.
Sulu let his gaze wander over to Cord, sitting between McCoy and Xon. She was picking at her food, an unusual behavior for her. She looked wan and drawn, and Sulu wondered if she was really ready to be released from the make-shift Sickbay in spite of T'Selin's assurance that she was. He knew that T'Selin had prescribed some medication for her to help with the nightmares, and he also knew that she was not one to take them willingly whether in Sickbay or not. Cord's eyes wandered from her plate of food toward Sulu and she managed to give him a weak smile and nod.
"Are you all right, Doctor?" McCoy asked, noticing her behavior as well.
"Just not hungry," Cord shrugged.
"She was released only a few hours ago," Sulu added. "There was an--accident and she was--injured." Although he'd reported the fire in the Sickbay, he hadn't elaborated upon the extent of the damage in the infirmary.
"Are you sure you were ready to be discharged?" McCoy continued.
Cord glowered at him as a spark of the 'old' Ariel Cord was coming to the surface. "I'm fine," she gritted out. "Just a little tired, and not really hungry."
"And doctors make the worst damned patients in the universe," McCoy concluded. "Your junior colleague had probably had his or her fill of you being a pain in the ass."
Cord stared at the elder doctor, and a small smile curved her lips. "There was that as well," she nodded. "And you know how much it takes to get under the skin of a Vulcan."
"Oh, I don't know about that," McCoy drawled, letting his eyes wander to Spock. "I manage to do it almost constantly and with very little effort."
"You, Doctor, " Spock returned calmly, "have a unique ability to be an irritant with little or no effort."
"You just have a thin skin that I can get under with no real effort," countered McCoy.
"Well, be that as it may," Kirk cut off any further barbs between his two officers. "I'm sorry about being delayed We were on our way when your preliminary report came in, and Starfleet detoured us to pick up the Loki and escort them here."
"The Loki!" Mandala blasted. "Why the hell was that ship being brought in? This is a science ship after all."
"As is the Loki," Kirk responded, speaking carefully, keeping his body language neutral.
"The Loki is a Starfleet vessel," Mandala snarled, "and its only function is to find biological weapons for Starfleet."
Kirk glared at Mandala, his jaw tightening as he straightened in his chair. "The Loki is a ship which specializes in finding the causes of planetary disasters to prevent them from being repeated. The head of the science labs, Doctor Susan Nuress, is an expert in epidemiology and virology."
"And why is it that most of those planetary causes seem to be the basis for a new biological weapon?" Mandala snapped.
"Because," Kirk responded softly, "no matter what, we live in a universe where the good is corrupted to something bad, and something bad is made to be even worse. But for the record," Kirk added firmly, "none of those weapons have never been used in reality, nor are they part of the weaponry of any Starfleet vessel." He turned back to Sulu, "At any rate, when our long-range scanners picked up the battle, we left them behind and came on ahead."
"For which we are all eternally grateful," Sulu said.
"So tell me," Kirk leaned back, relaxing, "what exactly did you find out?"
"Very little, Captain Kirk," Xon admitted. "There was nothing new or changed in the microflora or microfauna of Sarnac Three. There were no unusual chemicals found in any of the water, air or soil samples which might account for a plague or illness in the Human population. Moreover the autopsy samples have not provided us with any clue as to the cause of the illness."
"We know that the blood samples, though showing absolutely nothing when taken from the deceased population, did have something when the people were alive," Cord picked up the conversation. "Doctor Morris did a fantastic job, in spite of the conditions and his own illness, of collecting data from his patients. We know that whatever it is did affect the heme portion of the blood cell. It possibly was a catalyst of some kind that caused the heme to react differently than it normally does. We know that the people had mental aberrations of some sort, which leads us to believe that there was a reduced oxygen capacity to the brain."
"In addition," Xon continued, "the data shows that the people also seemed to have severe physical discomfort."
"Which could all be due to the mental changes," Cord argued.
"Or could be due to the fact that the blood clumped in various joints of the body, similar to the sickle cell condition," Xon argued.
"Except we found nothing in the joints that indicated inflammation or clumping had occurred," Cord refuted. "All the blood cells were perfectly normal in appearance."
"Neither does the evidence indicate that there was any oxygen deprivation to the brain cells, Doctor," Xon countered.
"As you can see," Cord turned to the Enterprise crew, "we don't have a clue as to what killed the Sarnac colony."
"And with the planet destroyed, we probably never will," Sulu added.
"I know this is a science vessel, but you're welcome to use the facilities of the Enterprise if it will help," Kirk offered. "At least, until the Loki joins us."
"Unfortunately," Mandala sighed, "there's nothing left to test."
"What!?" Kirk's eyebrows shot up.
"During the battle," Sulu explained, "there was a hull breach near the biohazard lab. Doctor Mandala dumped the samples rather than risk contaminating the ship."
"I was damned upset when I dumped them," Mandala said. "But, with the Loki on its way here, I'm glad that they're gone. All they're going to get is what we have in the computers. Which is damned little."
"Problem, son?" McCoy asked looking at the expression on Xon's face, an expression he could read after years of reading Spock's face.
"That we will never know what the cause of the colony's demise was does cause me a great deal of concern," Xon admitted. "Although it seems to be species specific in the extreme, there is no reason to believe that the disease, if that is what it is, could not be manipulated to affect the blood system of other Federation species. The deaths of these thirty thousand people could very well be the beginning, if this is indeed a new Romulan weapon."
"I wonder if they understood this thing they created," mused Kirk.
"Do we ever? Did Frankenstein understand his monster?" McCoy commented. "Of course not. Even Zefrem Cochrane never understood the implications of warp drive."
The table was silent for a few minutes as the people pondered McCoy's statement. Then, the com whistled and M'lel's voice broke the silence. "Captain Sulu, there is a message coming in from Starfleet for you from Admiral Smillie."
Sulu groaned as his head dropped and shook sadly side to side. "Bet he's gonna kick my butt halfway across the galaxy again," he said. "'Taking a science ship into a combat situation again, Sulu. Bad boy!' As if I had a choice in the matter."
"Don't be so pessimistic," Kirk stated. "He didn't kick you that hard the last time. Got a few commendations, if I remember correctly."
Sulu just looked at Kirk, then said, "Patch it down here, M'lel."
The viewer flickered a moment, then Smillie's face filled the screen. His face was sober, almost stern as he stared at Sulu. "Captain Sulu, you are hereby ordered to return with the Cooper to Earth at fastest possible speed at the completion of your mission." The silence that followed Smillie's order was full of shock, accompanied by the stunned looks of the officers. Smillie turned to Xon. "You, Captain Xon, will assume command of the Cooper when she reaches Earth." The silence was even more shocked, and the looks more stunned. Some malevolent glares were turned to Smillie.
Xon cleared his throat and stared at Smillie. "If I may be so bold, Admiral, may I ask why you are removing Captain Sulu from command of the Cooper?"
Smillie's face seemed to have a difficult time staying impassive. "Because, Captain Xon," he gave up and smiled at the officers on the Cooper, "Captain Sulu is to assume command of the U.S.S. Excelsior, effective immediately upon his arrival at Earth."
Whoops of congratulations flooded Sulu's ears as he stared in surprise at Smillie's beaming face. He felt a few hands clap him on the back.
Smillie looked at Sulu, shaking his head in mock sadness, "You seem to always find yourself in a combat situation without a combat vessel and damned near get clobbered every time, and needing rescuing. We decided it was time to get you on a ship that can take the clobbering, and dish it out, the next time you find yourself in a combat situation. The Enterprise will accompany you back to Earth."
"And the Loki?" Kirk asked.
"Has been reassigned," Smillie said with a shrug. "Since there is no longer a planet with a possible disaster, it is no longer needed there. I understand the Cooper suffered extensive damage from the battle."
"Nothing we can't repair, sir," Sulu said. "Best speed may not be what it was getting here, but we won't be dragging our heels, I can promise you that."
"We'll be looking forward to your arrival, Captain. Smillie out."
Kirk stood up and reached across the table to shake Sulu's hand. "May I be the first to formally congratulate you on obtaining the command of the U.S.S. Excelsior. It's long overdue."
"Thank you, Captain," Sulu stood himself. He turned to Xon, "And may I be the first to congratulate you, Xon, on the captaincy of the Cooper. They picked the right person for the center seat." He paused, then sighed. "Although," he admitted, "I would have liked to have you as my science officer on the Excelsior."
"I, too, regret that I will not be accompanying you to the Excelsior," Xon admitted as he stood to accept his senior officer's accolades. "However, I find that commanding a science vessel is an intriguing prospect."
"Now, if only the rest of the universe will let it be a science vessel," Sulu quipped. "It sure thought it was something other than that while I was her captain."
Ariel Cord and Hikaru Sulu were strolling along the corridor toward the doctor's cabin, his arm around her shoulders, her arm wrapped tightly around his waist.
"I didn't get a chance to congratulate you earlier," Cord murmured as her lips touched his cheek.
"There were a few bodies in the way," Sulu responded softly, looking in her eyes waiting for her continue the kiss.
She read his expression and shook her head sadly. "Not tonight, Hikaru."
Sulu pulled her closer. "I understand, Ariel."
"Do you?" Her head dropped, her eyes closed.
"Yes. I do." He tipped her head up and kissed her gently on the lips. "Get some sleep."
"I don't know if I can sleep," she shuddered.
"I'm sure T'Selin can get you something to help"
"I don't know if I want to sleep," Cord retorted with vehemence, then started crying. "I...don't know if I can face the nightmares, Hikaru."
"If you want," Sulu offered, "I'll stay with you. If you need to talk..."
"Nonsense," Cord sniffed.
"Not nonsense," Sulu countered. "You haven't said a word about what happened in Sickbay."
"I can't," Cord bit her lip. "Not yet."
"Need a shoulder to sleep on? Or cry on?"
"No," Cord shook her head. "Besides, you need your sleep. The service tomorrow"
"I'll be okay," Sulu swallowed hard. "What about you?"
"I'll take something to let me sleep without dreams," she assured him. "It's not something I'd usually prescribe for any of my patients, let alone myself, but there are times when they're needed. Like tonight." She placed another kiss on his lips, and moved toward her door. "I'll see you for breakfast, okay?"
"Okay," Sulu nodded as she disappeared in her cabin.
Moving toward his own cabin, he shuddered at the thought of the service the next day. It was Jim Sherrod's funeral service, not something he was looking forward to. Sherrod had been a good officer and friend. Of course, Sherrod had been more Cord's friend than his; they had served together on the Challenger. Still, on a ship the size of the Cooper, you were either friends or transferred. Animosities which could be tolerated on a ship the size of the Enterprise could be disastrous on one the size of the Cooper.
But, as bad as delivering Sherrod's eulogy would be in the morning, it could have been worse, he realized soberly.
He could have been delivering two eulogies.
Sulu swallowed tightly and stared at the flag-draped torpedo casing. The tight collar of his dress uniform made breathing difficult. Or so he told himself. He took another deep breath, and walked into the torpedo bay, already full of the Cooper's crew, Starfleet in dress uniform and civilian in formal, dark attire, and the seven guests from the Enterprise in their dress uniforms.
The company came to attention as Sulu made his way to the dais. He let his eyes drift across the audience, stopping when they met Cord's soft gaze. He then met Kirk's gaze full of understanding and strength.
"We are gathered here to pay our final respects to a fallen comrade," Sulu began, thankful that his voice didn't crack. "James Sherrod was a security officer in finest sense of the word. He took his responsibilities seriously, from the beginning of his career until the end. He served with honor on board many starships, most notably the U.S.S. Challenger, and then was assigned to the Cooper. He took his responsibilities here just as seriously as he did in any of his duty assignments. It didn't matter to him if the vessel he was on was one of the line, or just a simple science vessel. His duty was to be a security officer. His final act was one of ultimate sacrifice, saving a fellow officer and a friend." He saw Cord bite her lip to hold back the tears.
"Security officers know when they put on the uniform, their life is on the line," Sulu continued. "Of course, they don't expect to find hazards on a science vessel. A science vessel is not a vessel of the line, after all, and rarely if ever meets anything but other Starfleet vessels. In the same way, a science vessel should never have to be in a battle. It is not equipped for battle. Still, the galaxy is still a volatile place, and we never know what we will be called upon to do. Jim Sherrod knew that. He stayed prepared for the unexpected.
"Now, I could list his accomplishments and his accolades, but then you'd remember the deeds, not the man. Jim Sherrod was a friend and a mentor to many." His gaze caught Bobby Nolan and Beth Hart, two of the honor guards, as they swallowed hard at that comment. "Rather than list his many achievements which led to many medals of commendations, I suggest we remember the man," he went on. "The officer, the teacher, the friend."
Sulu turned toward the torpedo casing again.
"Ten-hut!" Lieutenant Torres' voice sounded from the honor guard.
Everyone stood at attention, and watched as the guard lifted the flag and folded it ceremoniously. Since there was no family members present, Sulu accepted the triangle-folded pennant and held it tightly. He'd deliver it, along with his personal condolences, to Sherrod's sister and brother-in-law when they reached Earth.
Then the casing slowly slid down the launch rail and out of the Cooper toward the gaseous remains of the sun Sarnac.
"Dismissed," Torres's voice ordered.
The members slowly and quietly filed out of the torpedo bay. Ariel Cord left the crowd and walked toward the view port and watched the casing as it traveled into the gaseous cloud. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she stared out the view port.
Kirk stopped by the door, pausing as if to turn back and talk to the younger captain, but changed his mind when he saw Sulu walk over to Ariel Cord and place an arm around her shaking shoulders. Quietly, he moved out of the bay and left the two in their grief.
"He shouldn't have died like that," she shook her head. "He just damn well shouldn't have died like that."
"There are very few good ways to die," Sulu responded.
"God, I didn't think it'd be this hard, Hikaru," she whispered.
"It's never easy saying goodbye to a friend," Sulu murmured back.
"But it's harder this time because...because..." Cord bit her lip and buried her head on his shoulder.
"I understand," Sulu pulled her closer, stroking her hair gently.
"Damn!" she shook her head angrily, pulling away. "I hate cry-babies. And look at me. As bad as, or worse than any cry-baby I've ever taken care of, male, female, Human or otherwise!"
"You have to let it out, Ariel," Sulu tilted her head up to him. "Otherwise you'll wind up like I was several days ago. And you know what it took to cure me."
She managed to smile through her tears as she looked up at him. "The cure wasn't so bad, was it?"
"No," Sulu chuckled. "It wasn't."
"That talk, Hikaru." Cord closed her eyes. "We need to have it, soon. Not now, but soon. I need a few minutes to collect my thoughts."
"All right," Sulu nodded.
"Meet me in the Intensive Care Ward?" she asked.
"Twenty minutes long enough?" Sulu asked her.
"Yes," she nodded.
Her gaze returned to the port and the disappearing casing. Then, with her eyes brimming full of tears again, she left the room.
Sulu stared out at the torpedo, feeling the heaviness fill his chest. Damn, I've finally gotten to where I don't dream of the dead anymore, and now
Yet, he frowned as the casing disappeared into the brightness that was now the Sarnac nova, he hadn't had nightmares about Sherrod last night. About Cord, yes, and what might have been, but not about Sherrod.
He heard the bay door open behind him and turned to see who was coming back. He was mildly surprised when he saw James T. Kirk walk through the door and come to stand by him.
"It still not any easier to lose one, is it?" the Enterprise commander asked as he, too, watched the casing becoming smaller and smaller.
"No, it's not," Sulu agreed. "Whether it's one or fifty, it still hurts like hell."
"Whether it's one or one million," Kirk corrected him. "The further up the ladder you go, you'll find that out. But you learn to live with the loss and go on."
"Yeah, I probably will," Sulu sighed. "That's the bad part about this job, I'm finding out. But, you were right; remembering them as people keeps me Human, and that does help. And I'm learning how to live with the loss. It's not easy, but it's more bearable. A little more bearable."
The two captains stared out the viewport, watching their fallen comrade take his place among the stars.
Bobby Nolan walked along the corridor, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He'd tried to catch Hart after the funeral, but she had rushed away from the torpedo bay quickly once the honor guard had been dismissed. Not that he blamed her. Sherrod's death had hit them both hard.
He paused and stared at the floor. Death had never been something he thought much about. He knew the odds of a security guard making it to retirement age. But he felt that he could beat the odds. In fact he'd bragged once that he, Robert Andrew Nolan, was lucky beyond belief. He never believed that he'd be regretting those words. He really had been fortunate--no blessed, as his grandmother would say--to be alive today. If Doctor Cord hadn't managed to push him and Hart out of the room when she had...
He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the vision of the room when he and Hart had entered, searching for survivors, in spite of the gloomy prediction of Don Richards and Lieutenant Torres. It was part of their job, after all. He could still see the remains of the Romulan, ashes upon the ashes of the biobed, and the skeleton under his feet, all that was left of James Sherrod. He wanted to forget that scene, to remember only the scene of Doctor Cord, huddled in a corner, bedraggled, but alive...but he couldn't.
Since then, he'd been re-evaluating his life and his career. And he finally had come to a decision. But he needed to tell someone. Someone to whom it would matter. Beth.
Only, she seemed to have disappeared from the ship. He knew that was impossible, but he hadn't been able to find her anywhere. And then, he began to recall the last place she and he had been happy together
Hurriedly, he retraced his steps back along the corridor, onto the turbolift, and finally down another corridor to a dimly lit, empty lounge.
Hart was standing by the view port staring at the nova's gaseous cloud and the speck that was Sherrod's coffin as it flew toward its center. She had a pensive expression on her normally pert face.
Nolan approached her, placed a hand on her shoulder, then wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him in a tender embrace. Hart turned to look at Nolan briefly, then returned her attention to the window.
"How you doing?" Nolan asked softly.
"Okay, I guess." He felt her shrug helplessly.
"Beth, I've been thinking about what you said the other day," Nolan began. "I-I've made a decision." He turned Hart so she was looking up at his face. "I don't know if I--if we--are cut out for line duty. There's a lot of jobs available in Starfleet, and we've both studied more than just Security, so I know we can find another posting somewhere" He closed his eyes, then went on. "Or we can both get a base assignment. I know advancement isn't as fast as it is when you're on a ship, but it's not nearly as hazardous either. Beth," he cradled her face in his hands, "I can't stand the thought of anything happening to you. I keep thinking, if Doctor Cord hadn't pushed us out of there, that could have been me in that room. Or worse, you in there with Commander Sherrod. That could have been your funeral I was attending earlier. I can't take it anymore, Beth. I'm going to Captain Sulu and ask for a ground assignment. Perhaps he can help me--us."
Hart's face lit briefly with a smile. "Me, too, Bobby. I just didn't want to say anything. You've always wanted to go to space, serve on a ship of the line, and I didn't want to hold you back." She stared into his brown eyes. "What brought about this change?"
Nolan's gaze drifted to the ground, then back to her blue eyes, his hands moving to her shoulders. "Every time we get assigned a landing party, we run a risk of getting killed. Every time we get assigned any assignment, our odds of living are reduced. And yesterday, in Sickbay, it was just too damn close. When I stumbled over Sherrod's body--what was left of it Beth, every time I close my eyes, I see that scene, and I see you there, not Commander Sherrod. I couldn't sleep last night. Every time I tried, that scene kept coming back to haunt me. And...and I don't want to leave you behind either, not with that kind of memory."
Hart nodded her blonde head vigorously. "Let's do it, Bobby. Let's do it now. Ever since yesterday, I've been having second thoughts about space duty. You know how it is. You think you want something, and once you get it, you find out it's not for you; you've made a mistake. But sometimes you get lucky, and you get to correct that mistake."
"Beth," he took her head in his hands again, "there's one more thing I'm going to ask Captain Sulu, but first I need to ask you." He stared into her eyes, his own full of earnestness, "Will you marry me?"
Hart's eyes widened in surprise and she pulled back from Nolan. "I-I don't know."
"You don't know?" he repeated faintly, then again, angrily, "You don't know?!"
"Oh, Bobby," her eyes started to tear, and she bit her lip, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. "Of course, I want to marry you, but" She turned back to the window, hugging herself tightly. "This time, it's my turn to tell you something. And when I do, you might change your mind." Her voice was small, frightened. "I found out after we had our physical yesterday. You remember, Doctor T'Selin asked to see me alone in her office? Well, she found something on the physical, Bobby." She heard his sharp intake of breath, then proceeded in a small, contrite voice, "Bobby, I'm pregnant." Her head bowed as she hugged herself even tighter. "I had Doctor T'Selin go over my biocontrol program with me, and we--well there was this little glitch in the ovulation inhibition section about two months ago. As a result," she turned back toward Nolan, her eyes full of regret as she shrugged apologetically, "well, the mix was ineffective."
She stared up at Nolan, waiting expectantly for his response. He was staring back at her, his mouth open and moving, with no sound issuing forth. His hands, which had been resting so caringly on her shoulders seconds before, were now gesticulating around her body, never touching her.
"Bobby, did you hear me?" She longed to touch him, to have him touch her, but was worried, and a not just a little angry at his response, or rather, lack of response. "I am pregnant," she repeated, saying each word slowly and distinctly. "As in going to have a baby. Bobby!" She hit him in the chest with her small fist, "I am going to have a baby."
Slowly his mouth closed, and his hands found her shoulders, pulling her closer to him. A funny smile grew on his face, lighting it up. "Don't you mean, we're going to have a baby?" he asked her. "That is, if you'll marry me?"
"You aren't--" It was Hart's turn to be a loss for words. "You're not-- Oh, Bobby! Of course, I'll marry you!" She fell into his embrace, pulling him closer to her, burying her head in his chest. "I thought you'd be mad at me because I messed up and made such a stupid mistake."
"Since when is starting a new life a mistake?" Nolan asked her just before he placed his mouth over hers in a kiss.
The kiss started slowly and grew, becoming more intimate as the two moved as one to one of the nearby lounging chairs. Nolan sat down, pulling her down with him, and continued the kiss for several long moments.
"I'm going to do my best to be a good husband to you and a good father for our baby, Beth," he said when he finally stopped kissing her. "It's not going to be easy," he shook his head. "But we are definitely going to have to get that ground assignment now. I'm not going to make you raise him--or her--all by yourself."
Hart shook her head, a strange smile on her lips. "What happened to you, Robert Nolan?" she murmured, a hand playing with his hair. "Two days ago, I'll bet you'd have been royally pissed to find out you're going to be a unplanned father."
"You're probably right," Nolan shrugged, maneuvering her closer to him, letting his hands enjoy her body through her uniform. "Near-death experiences can sure make you grow up damned fast. Changes your whole outlook on life, too."
Hart's smile grew. "I think I like the new you. A whole lot. Oh, don't get me wrong." She placed a finger on his lips, cutting off whatever he had been about to say. "I've always been attracted to you, Robert Andrew Nolan. You and your devil-may-care attitude, and your wild sexy ways. But, I like this side of you, too, Mister Responsible."
"Yeah," Nolan shrugged, almost embarrassed by her praise, "well, it's okay. And it's necessary, especially now. But," a wicked spark filled his brown eyes, "just don't get too attached to him. Now that he's got his agenda taken care of, the old Bobby Nolan is back! And," his grin grew lecherous as his hands started to work on her uniform, "you know what the old Bobby always wants."
Hart started to push him away from her, then stared into his eyes again, and relaxed, as she saw he was teasing her, laughing softly. Nolan stopped fumbling with her uniform and joined her, laughing gently as he pulled her back into his embrace. He kissed her lightly on her forehead, then stood up and pulled her to her feet next to him.
"Just kidding, Beth," he said, giving her another peck on her cheek, taking one hand in his. "Come on; let's go find Captain Sulu and see about that ground assignment."
Hart held back, holding his hand tightly. He frowned, then turned to look at her, confused. He met her gaze, one full of mystery and glint.
"You know, Bobby," she finally said, her voice a seductive purr, "even responsible people get to...play sometimes." She let a hand trail up his chest, then up toward his face. Then she began to undress him, although not quite as smoothly as she had disrobed herself. He could sense the urgency in her movements, and he smiled.
"My Mom and Dad were two of the most responsible people I know, and they had seven kids!"
She smiled in triumph as she worked his boots off. Her smiled widened when she saw him standing there completely naked now, and visibly, achingly in need of her. "So I suppose even Mister Responsible can enjoy a hot, nasty roll in the hay every now and then."
"Oh?" Nolan pulled her to him, cupping her smooth, rounded buttocks in his hands.
"Oh," she nodded. Then her eyes widened. "Ohhhh!!!!" she exclaimed as his maleness found the most sensitive recess of her supple body. "Ohhh, God, Bobby!" she gasped.
"Hold that thought," he whispered, grinning wickedly. He pulled away from her, and Beth moaned in frustration. She heard the distinct sound of the locking mechanism falling into place.
He walked back to her, picked her up, and carried her to the conference table next to one of the wide, panoramic viewports. He laid her gently on the polished Antarean burrwood, then eased himself down on top of her. She snaked an arm around his neck, pulled his head down and kissed him heatedly. Then she smiled sweetly up at him.
Nolan grinned back. "I think it's time we did a few extra security checks, don't you?"
"Oh, definitely," she breathed into his ear. "Most definitely!"
Cord sat by the biocomputer, scowling at the read-out on the screen. Every time she ran the program, it came up with the same answer. And it didn't make her feel any better.
She turned from the screen for a moment as Sulu walked in. Now out of his dress uniform, he looked a bit more haggard than he had at the funeral. Still, she reflected, he was holding up a hell of a lot better than the last time. Of course, there are fewer bodies to count
"Ready for that talk?" Sulu asked as he sat down next to her.
Cord tapped the screen in front of her, halting the program. "Yes," she turned to Sulu. "I am. Hikaru, there is something strange going on, and I don't know what it is," she began. "I can't explain it, and it's driving me nuts." She licked her lips, and one of her hands reached out and grasped his tightly as she stared into his dark, concerned eyes. "I'm alive today, and I really shouldn't be."
"Ariel--" Sulu began uncomfortably.
"Hikaru, by all accounts, I should be as dead as Jimmy and in a torpedo casing in that giant gas cloud out there. But I'm not." She shuddered.
"When I heard the whining, I knew I'd screwed up, big time. I knew about the possibility of the Romulan being booby-trapped, but I was so busy trying to keep him alive so you could question him and get to the bottom of the Sarnac problem, I just didn't check him out before I started operating," Cord berated herself.
"Ariel, you can't blame yourself," Sulu comforted her.
"Yes, I can," she countered. "Anyway, I got the kids out of there, but I couldn't get Jimmy out fast enough. Hell, he was trying to get me out of there before the Romulan blew up." She closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head. "I believed, I still believe, I could have removed the damned thing in time and gotten it to the disposal unit before it blew up. But" She pressed her lips together tightly, then continued.
"The concussion blew us apart. I hit the bulkhead, hard. All I saw were stars. Jimmy was flung to the other side of the room," she went on. "When I came to, I was on the floor, not under anything. There was a wall of flame in front of me, and the wall behind me. I think I saw Jimmy trying to get through the flames to me," she bit her lip, and willed the tears not to flow, "I heard him scream as the fire got to him.
"But I survived that inferno, Hikaru." She looked into Sulu's dark eyes. "I survived it without a scar or a deformity. No lung damage from the fumes that were in that room. No sign of dehydration, in spite of the heat from the flames. No signs that the fire had even touched me, even though my uniform had been burned off my body."
"I know," Sulu nodded. "I read the reports by Nolan and Hart, and have to believe they reported what they saw. It's incredible!" He shook his head. "They can't explain how you survived it. T'Selin doesn't even have a good explanation of how you survived, or why. That's more in your field than mine. I'm just glad you did."
Cord let a genuine smile touch her face as she squeezed his hand that she was holding. Then she turned to the computer screen, releasing his hand. "The best explanation that I have is spontaneous cellular regeneration," she went on professionally. "I want you to see something."
Instead of tapping the screen to restart the program, she grabbed a large, old-fashioned steak knife that was along side the monitor. Before Sulu could even react, she had the blade deep in her chest between the ribs into her heart. Sulu grabbed the instrument and pulled it out with one hand while the other frantically searched for the intercom to summon T'Selin.
Cord took hold of the searching hand. "Look, Hikaru," she said softly. "Look."
Sulu's terror-filled face turned back to Cord, and his eyes widened in surprise. The skin from which he pulled the knife was already knitting closed, stopping any blood from spilling from the wound. Only a small drop was on her tunic, from the blade when he'd pulled it out of the wound. His hand opened the tunic wider, hunting for the laceration which he knew had been there a short moment before.
"See? Spontaneous cellular regeneration. What you saw on the surface is also occurring under the surface where you can't see it," Cord said. "And it doesn't even hurt any more. Even the nerve cells regenerate. More than we know to be possible." Sulu's mouth opened, and she placed a hushing finger on it, quieting him. "There's more, Hikaru." She turned back to the computer. "Computer, resume analysis on medical report."
"Working. Subject is female, Human. Age, twenty-three Standard years. Condition, physically normal, perfect. No anomalies. No defects. No indication of any illnesses. No scar tissue detected. No sign of any surgical intervention."
"Computer, identify subject." Cord's voice was tinged with tension.
"Working. Subject is Cord, Ariel, Commander, Chief Medical Officer of U.S.S. Cooper."
The computer stopped issuing data, and began an unusual whirring, then the screen began to blink sporadically and near strangling noises came from the audio speakers.
"Error. Error. Facts of report do not match known data. Cord, Ariel, Commander is known to be forty-eight Standard years. Subject is reported to be twenty-three Standard years. Error. Error. Cord, Ariel cannot be twenty-three. Subject cannot be forty-eight. Error. Error."
"Computer, end analysis." Cord stopped the computer. "I've done that analysis at least half a dozen times. Each time, I've had to stop the analysis in the same place. The first time I didn't, and I damn near crashed the entire system." Cord turned to look at Sulu, and he was surprised to see tears glistening on her eyelashes. "Hikaru, I'm scared!"
"What am I? What kind of freak am I?" she whispered, biting her lip, her head bowed. "I don't understand this any more than you do." Her head lifted and her tear-filled eyes fixed on Sulu's concerned brown ones. "I need to talk to Daddy. Maybe he can explain this."
Sulu moved closer, pulling her to him. "As soon as we get on the Excelsior, I'll see what the admiral has in store for us," he murmured to her, burying his face in her hair. "Perhaps we can divert to Chrysalis for a few days, let you see your father. That is," he added, tilting her head up to look into his, "if you come along as my C.M.O. You will, won't you?"
Cord smiled back at Sulu. "I can't think of anything powerful enough to keep me away, Hikaru Sulu. Especially not now."
"Good," he sighed as he got up. "Ariel, I think you've been at this," he waved a hand at computer, "long enough. Get some rest. I want my C.M.O. in top-flight condition." He pulled her to her feet and led her out of the lab. "Come on; I'll walk you to your cabin."
"Gonna tuck me in, too?" she asked.
"Perhaps," Sulu chuckled.
Hikaru Sulu was walking down the corridor toward his corridor, his stride light and jaunty. The sound of scurrying feet behind him didn't bother him; people always seemed to be rushing to and from somewhere on the ship. When they slowed, he felt a strange niggling feeling crawl up his spine. Someone wanted to see the captain, obviously.
He turned to find the two young security guards standing respectfully behind him, their faces trying to be as respectful as their stance. That wasn't easy, he noted. They were both breathless and disheveled, and not from just rushing around the Cooper trying to find him.
"Captain," Bobby Nolan said, pulling himself to attention, "I--we," he nodded towards Beth Hart, "need to talk to you, sir. Now, if that's possible."
Sulu paused, continuing to study them. They had been first on the scene in Sickbay, he realized, and they might be having difficulty dealing with that. But why didn't they go to Brice Torres? He was their immediate superior, and though not as seasoned as Sherrod had been, had seen his share of action and knew what the two would be going through. Still, he nodded at them, leading them to a small conference room not far from his cabin, sometimes it was difficult to talk to someone that close.
He and Hart had barely sat down in two of the chairs when Nolan started talking, standing by Hart. "Sir, Beth and I, well, sir, we want a transfer. We want a ground assignment." His hand drifted to Hart's shoulder. "We want to be together, and we want to be alive."
Sulu sighed, "I'm rather sorry to hear that, Ensign. You're good security officers, both of you. We need good officers on starships, no matter what the size. Besides," he fixed Nolan with his eyes, "I was looking forward to some fencing matches. It's not easy finding a good sparring partner."
Hart's head dipped and Sulu caught the blush rising along her neck. "Well, sir," she said meekly, "I was going to have to ask for a ground assignment soon anyway. I just found out that I'm pregnant."
Sulu looked at Hart who was now blushing, then at Nolan who was looking extremely smug and pleased. "I--see." He leaned back in the chair as a grin erupted on his face. "I gather congratulations are in order." They both nodded. "Well, I'm sure if I can't get you two a ground assignment together, I know someone who can. And he just happens to be in the neighborhood."
"Thank you, Captain," Nolan offered his hand to Sulu. "And, for the record, I'm gonna miss those fencing matches myself. I was hoping to see if one day I'd beat you."
"Oh, Bobby!" Hart shook her head in exasperation. "Thank you, Captain."
Sulu started to get up and leave, when Nolan cleared his throat pointedly. "There was something else, Ensign?" he asked, sitting back in the chair.
"Well, uh, yes, sir," Nolan's head dipped. "There is. We want to get married. Before we leave the Cooper. We'd like you marry us."
"Yes," Hart nodded. "We really would."
"Make this relationship an honorable one," Nolan added. Hart swatted Nolan's hand, blushing furiously now.
Sulu started chuckling, then broke out into a deep laugh. "I'd be honored to perform the ceremony," he agreed. "We have a few days before we reach Earth. I'm sure we can get this thing done right."
The two officers forgot protocol and rushed the captain, Hart encircling Sulu's neck and planting a kiss on his cheek while Nolan grabbed his hand and shook it heartily. "Thank you, sir," Nolan finally remembered formalities. He grabbed Hart's hand, "Come on, honey," he said.
"Thank you," Hart murmured as they left the room.
Sulu watched the two rush out of the conference room, hand in hand, practically running down the corridor, a lightness in his heart.
Sulu was standing in front of the gathering in his dress uniform again. The collar was still tight, he noted, but he managed to not put his finger in the collar and pull at it even once during the ceremony. The rest of the ensemble was also in dress uniform, except for the civilians who were attired in colorful finery.
The two young officers in front of him were also clothed in their dress uniforms. Hart's dress uniform was the most formal dress uniform for female officers. The only alteration was the small veil that covered her short blonde hair, attempting to make it more of a wedding gown than a dress uniform.
"And now, by the power invested in me by Starfleet and the Federation of Planets," Sulu concluded, "I pronounce you husband and wife." He paused a beat, then smiled at Nolan. "You may now kiss the bride."
Nolan smiled widely and pulled Hart to him, kissing her deeply, causing the entire group to whoop encouragingly at the couple to continue the kiss. Sulu smiled, waiting until one of them needed to come up for air. His gaze wandered to the viewport, and he felt a small lump grow in his throat.
Earth was framed in the window, small but growing larger with each passing moment. As they neared it, he realized that soon he would be leaving this crew to captain another. And as much as he wanted the Excelsior, he found he'd miss the Cooper.
As soon as Bobby and Beth Nolan broke their embrace, much to the regret of some the more die-hard romantics in the crowd. Sulu stepped down from the podium and congratulated the couple, then went around the room to mingle with the crew, one last time.
Sulu moved from the viewport to the small buffet and helped himself to some of the food, wondering if he'd find this kind of comradery on the Excelsior. He caught sight of Xon standing to one side. Shaking his head, he joined the young Vulcan.
"You know, as captain of the Cooper, you're going to have to learn to mingle a bit more," Sulu told him.
"I fail to see how it will benefit the crew to have me 'mingle' with them," Xon confessed.
"It's called morale," Sulu answered, "and believe me, unless you transfer the entire crew off and get an entire crew of Vulcans on board, you're going to need all the good morale you can get."
"Ah," Xon nodded. "It is a Human thing, then."
"Very Human," Sulu agreed. "Besides, it's good for the soul. At any rate, now that you're a captain, you'll be expected to participate in more ceremonies, period. It comes with the territory." He looked at Xon. "How you doing getting your new crew together?"
"I am progressing," Xon admitted. "Although, it would be much easier if you were not taking so many senior officers with you to the Excelsior."
Sulu chuckled. "Sorry about raiding the Cooper. Still, you have some damned good officers here."
"Most are junior officers," Xon corrected him.
"They don't have to remain junior officers," Sulu remarked. "Torres has been doing a wonderful job as Acting Chief of Security since Sherrod's death. Get him promoted and let him be Chief of Security."
Xon nodded. "And T'Selin will have completed her last year of residency in a few weeks. She will be an excellent C.M.O."
"And I know Ariel will give her the recommendation she needs," Sulu added. "And Lieutenant Roshl is a fine science officer," he went on.
"True," Xon agreed. "Although it is most difficult to follow his train of thought. However, I find that his sudden bursts of insight are correct."
"As Humans learn from Vulcans about logic, so Vulcans can learn from non-Vulcans about illogical inspiration." Sulu looked at the chronometer. "Two more hours, Xon, and the Cooper will be yours. Are you ready for the next ceremony?"
"Sir, I am always prepared for duty," Xon answered. "The question I am contemplating is, how ready will the crew be, considering that the punch has some of Commander Maliszewski's 'home brew' in it?"
Sulu laughed. "Oh, they'll be ready, all right. The only question is, ready for what?"
"Bridge to Captain Sulu."
"Sulu here," he tapped the nearby intercom.
"Sir, you might want to look out the viewport. I understand there's something special worth seeing."
Sulu and Xon turned toward the viewport. Sulu felt his throat tighten as he looked out the viewport. Earth still hung in the background, but now, they could see Space Dock. And next to the Space Dock, free of all moorings, sat the Excelsior. He moved to the viewport and stared at the majestic ship as she sat in orbit, awaiting her new commander. Nothing else existed for Sulu as he took in her graceful lines that exuded power and elegance.
"Congratulations, Captain," Xon murmured behind him. "Your starship awaits you."
Hikaru Sulu and Ariel Cord stood side by side in the large turbolift. He shook his head, still marveling that this great vessel was his. He unbuttoned the collar of his dress uniform.
"I wonder if this is going to be the uniform of the day," he grumbled.
"Hikaru, this is not a small, back of the galaxy exploring ship," Cord told him. "This is the Excelsior, second only to the Enterprise in the fleet. Of course, this is going to be the uniform of the day."
"Terrific," he groaned. "I'm going to get a chafed neck from this damned collar, I know it."
"If it gets chafed," Cord remarked, moving closer and starting to nibble on his neck, "I'll kiss it and make it better."
"Thanks. I think." Sulu started to return the nibbles. "Three ceremonies in two days is just one too many for me."
"You would have wanted to postpone this?" she asked as the turbolift slowed, approaching its destination.
"Not on your life," Sulu said as the doors opened.
He watched as the officers on the bridge moved rapidly around the large room, making it ready for the arrival of the new captain. As he stepped out of the turbolift, a young security guard, standing near the lift doors, snapped to attention and announced, "Captain on the bridge."
Sulu paused, staring at the young man. The young guard reminded him a bit of Bobby Nolan--young and eager. He looked at Cord, a smile on his face. "Hmm, 'Captain on the bridge.' I like the sound of that. I could get used to that very easily."
Cord smiled at him. "I bet you could."
She stayed by the door as Sulu walked around the bridge, pausing at each station, introducing himself to the ones he didn't know yet, and smiling at the ones that had come with him from the Cooper. He had a lot of new names and faces to learn.
Finally, he moved to the center chair and, after walking around it, touching the back lovingly, sat down. A contented smile lit his face. He was where he belonged.
Then the officers approached him, one at a time, reports in hand. Sulu took a deep breath and accepted each report, asking questions when needed and initialing reports with a flair.
At last he leaned back, noting no one else was waiting to speak to him. He checked his chair, found the button he wanted, and pressed it.
"This is the captain speaking," his voice sounded on the bridge and throughout the ship. "I understand that your last tour of duty was less than ideal."
He noticed that the officers who had served under Captain Styles--including his new science officer, Ensign Dmitri Valtane--grimaced at recalling the last few missions. To say the last few missions had been less than ideal was like saying that the Titanic had a small leak. At least, that was how he'd read the reports.
"I have just received our new mission orders," Sulu went on, watching the officers around him. The older officers from Styles' command took a deep breath and squared their shoulders while the younger ones closed their eyes and shook their heads slowly, almost painfully. "Our first assignment will be shore leave--"
The whoops from the younger officers on the bridge halted Sulu's speech. Sulu let his face break into a grin as the officers did the old "high five" and clapped each other on the back. Sulu could swear that he could hear the same cheers and claps throughout the ship.
"Our first assignment will be shore leave on Chrysalis for two weeks," Sulu finally concluded his announcement.
The whoops and cheers drowned out anything further that Sulu might want to say. He leaned back in the chair, smiling from ear to ear, watching his new crew celebrate. A sharp jab on his shoulder brought him upright as he whirled to view the culprit.
"You skunk!" Cord punched him again. "What's the matter? Didn't think I could keep a secret?"
"I wanted to surprise you, too," Sulu rubbed his shoulder. "Bill Smillie didn't give me the word until an hour ago."
"Uh-huh," Cord snorted. "I don't know if I believe you or not."
"Besides," Sulu's voice dropped conspiratorially, "we were rather busy last night with other--matters--as you recall."
"Oh, yeah," Cord grinned.
"Now I want you to go home, visit your father and get those answers you need," Sulu said softly.
"All right," she nodded.
Sulu sat up straight in his chair and his voice cut through the cheers, "Helm, set out at one quarter impulse speed."
"Helm aye," the helmsman answered. "One quarter impulse."
Slowly the large ship moved from Space Dock, her nacelles gleaming with a pristine blue glow, reflecting the lights from the dock. Gradually, she distanced herself from her recent port and ventured toward the gate.
"We have clearance to depart," Janice Rand stated. She would be serving as Sulu's executive officer during this mission.
"Half impulse speed," Sulu ordered.
"Half impulse speed, aye," the helmsman answered.
"We've cleared the Earth orbit," the navigator informed Sulu a few minutes later.
"Navigator, set a course for Chrysalis," Sulu turned to the navigation station.
"Navigator, aye," the navigation officer responded. "Course plotted and set in."
"Helm, full impulse."
Sulu watched as the planets flew by the ship. When the ship passed the last planet, he leaned back in his chair. "Helm, Warp Five."
The ship jumped to warp speed leaving the solar system in the distance.
S'Klar sat on the floor of the bridge of the T'Charr, staring at the blank screen in front of him. There was precious little power left in the once-proud Romulan vessel. Not enough to run the view port and the life support systems.
The ship had managed to enter the Neutral Zone after their wild escape from the Sarnac system before the engines had gone critical and then failed. His engineer had been working on the engines when the disease had struck him. His last act, during the madness, had been to eject the warp core, leaving the ship stuck where it was.
The sound of another scream and more insane laughter filtered into the bridge from the communications board. T'mek had somehow jammed the controls before he died, and S'Klar had no way to silence the system.
S'Klar got up and walked around the empty room. He'd taken the dead bodies and placed them in the turbolift, save for his wife, not wanting to spend his final hours with any but her. He'd held out hope of deliverance from the disease until T'oraq had succumbed, still working to discover a cure in his laboratory. Once T'oraq had fallen victim to his own creation, S'Klar knew his time was short.
Another light dimmed and went out, making the room duskier. Soon the bridge would be in complete darkness.
S'Klar moved to his wife, sitting beside her limp body. "Ah, Tyana," he sighed. "We were so hoping this mission would be our last. Once the planet was taken, I was going to retire, as were you and we were going to become colonists, and end our days together, living the simple life. It was not to be."
He moved to the science station and tapped a code into the panel. As he walked away, he heard the beeps as the timing device began its count down. S'Klar moved to his chair and punched a button.
S'Klar nodded in satisfaction as he released the buoy with the log entries. At least the Praetor would know what had happened to them. Perhaps he would inform their families. Probably not.
He felt a wave of giddiness as he stood up, forcing him to grab the chair to steady himself. At least, he smiled as the beeps continued, now closer together, he would not die from the catalyst.
S'Klar moved over to his wife again, sitting beside her, taking her lifeless hand in his and held it to his lips, then moved closer and cradled her head in his lap. His lips touched her cold forehead.
"Soon, Tyana," he murmured. "Soon we will be together again."
He was still embracing her, caressing her body, when the beeps stopped, and the ship exploded.
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