Donna S. Frelick
The wind slicing over the slick, black rock was cold and smelled sharply of the sea. The heavy sky lowered to the leaden water at the horizon, threatening rain. Below, the dark, furious waves disintegrated against the rocks, booming and hissing in unending rhythm, breaking themselves into microdrops of salt spray that stung his skin where the thick robe didn't cover him. It felt wonderful.
She turned to him as they climbed to the sheltered plateau that was their destination. "We're almost there. You okay?"
"Fine," he answered, gratified to find it was actually true. He had just begun to feel comfortable in his body again after the long weeks of regeneration and therapy. He was tired from the climb and aching all over, but he welcomed the pain; it meant only healing now.
At the top of the bluff, the geothermals bubbled and rolled in pools hollowed by the sea in the volcanic rock. The day was too far gone, the sea too angry, for the pools to attract many visitors. The two of them were alone.
He stripped off his robe and lowered himself into the nearest pool. The water washed hot and healing over his body, dissolving the knots in his overused muscles. Kate, laughing with wild exhiliration, bared herself to the biting wind long enough to raise goosebumps on her naked skin before she slipped into the water beside him. "Oh, that feels incredible," she breathed, stretching languorously in the soothing cauldron.
He watched the steaming water lap at her breasts and shoulders, noted with delight the way the cold had hardened her nipples.
The diffuse sensual pleasure of the heat on his skin give way to the sharper focus of gathering arousal. He reached for her and found she was already moving toward him.
They kissed, his tongue slipping past her parted lips to explore her soft mouth. She withdrew, teasing him; he pursued, withdrew, pursued again until he broke off to bring his lips to the hollow of her throat, to her shoulder. He let his tongue run over the sensitive peaks of her breasts, licking the salt from her skin, and felt her hands grip his shoulders in response. When he lifted his head to kiss her again, her lips were open, vulnerable; her mouth was like a sun-warmed peach, ripe and tangy-sweet.
His hands traveled down her belly, up the inside of her thigh, seeking her tender secrets with a confidence born of long practice. She smiled beneath his kiss and caressed him in return. He felt himself swell under her touch until he could think of nothing but burying himself in her.
She didn't wait for more of the simple pleasuring he would willingly have given her, but straddled him and took him in, sighing his name. For a moment it was all he could do to hold on to his climax in the wet heat of her body. He willed himself to think of something else, to feel the wind on his face and the rock against his back until the urgency subsided.
Then he began to move beneath her, rocking in and out of her, matching her rhythm, positioning her hips and buttocks with his hands to increase her pleasure. She responded hungrily, her need building until it finally overtook her and she arched away from him in violent orgasm.
After a time her demanding thrusts quieted to a gentle, sustaining ebb and flow. He moved to change places with her and sank between her thighs, chin-deep in the fizzing water. He spread her gently, opening her to the sweet attentions of his tongue. She tasted like the ocean, like life; her taste and the liquid fire of her response made him shake with desire. But he denied himself a while longer, persisting until she gave herself up to his skill and his devotion to her body and drowned again in a wave of joyful passion.
He was very close himself now, aching with the need to join her. He drew her out of the water, the steam rising from her skin, and covered her body with his on a pallet of their robes at the edge of the pool. With a smooth, unifying thrust he was deep inside her, pulling almost all the way out before beginning the next stroke, strong and slow as if he had all the time in the world. He could feel his climax mounting at the base of his spine, but still he held back.
"Come with me, Kate," he whispered fiercely.
Her only answer was a breathless moan.
"Come with me. Feel how much I want you and you won't be able to stop it."
He slowed his movements to an irresistible circular grind and waited until he heard her breath come in short, soft moans. Then at last he let go and his triumphant shout joined hers as they both washed over the edge of climax. He exploded inside her, calling her name as he spasmed a final time into her welcoming flesh.
"Oh, my sweet starman," she whispered, rolling out the last of her shuddering orgasm. Her fingernails raked his back just hard enough to make him shiver. "I'm going to miss you so much."
James T. Kirk, UFP Starfleet Captain (Ret.) found himself abruptly alone, curled against his pain in the narrow ship's bunk. He didn't know when he'd slipped from warm memory to awake, stone hard and sobbing, in the cold reality of the dark cabin. It took a moment for him to realize the images fading from his mind lacked even the substance--and the comfort--of memory.
The place in his dream was real enough--an R&R colony on Pacifica--but he'd been alone when he'd experienced the sensual draw of the place as a young lieutenant. Pacifica had been a locus of fantasy for him ever since. He'd always meant to take Kate there one day; making love to her there had been a gift of pleasure he'd always meant to give her when they finally had the time.
But now it was too late and Kirk couldn't stop the tears. He was aboard a Federation courier ship loaned by a sympathetic Commanding Admiral named Bill Smillie, headed for the fourth planet in the Delta Aurigae star system. In the morning, he would disembark on that lovely planet for the purpose of attending a funeral--Kate Logan's funeral. And he would finally have to admit that the woman who had filled his dreams for twenty-five years was lost to him forever.
The Vulcan and the doctor filed into the transporter room, expressions somber, the evidence of their long service to their captain and the Federation carefully in place on their dress uniforms. As they stepped onto the transporter pad, McCoy turned to Kirk. "You okay?"
"Fine," Kirk said shortly.
"You know, the galaxy wouldn't come to an end if you let your feelings show a little bit, today of all days," McCoy said.
"Bones, please." Kirk tried in vain to keep the strain out of his voice. "Let's just get this over with."
The transporter chief looked to Kirk for word that he was
ready. Kirk took a deep breath and gave it. "Energize," he said.
Laria and Dartha Allen were both waiting for him when he stepped off the transporter pad. The Deltan woman had hardly added an extra line or kilo in the twenty-five years since he'd last seen her. Allen, however, being only Human, looked every bit of sixty. Kirk noted the changes, and noted, too, that Kate Logan's two lifelong friends were comparing him to the Jim Kirk they'd met briefly so long ago. He wouldn't have been surprised if they'd found him wanting in the comparison. He was sure he'd aged ten years in the three days since he'd received the message about Kate.
Laria held out both hands to him. "Captain. Thank you for coming."
He took her hands, felt the cool strength in them. "It's Jim, please." He dropped her hands and took the one Allen offered him. "Thank you both for thinking of me."
"Kate left instructions for, well, in case..." Allen said. It was all too clear how much she disapproved of this particular instruction.
Kirk merely nodded. "My First..." He stopped and started again. "My friends--Captain Spock and Doctor Leonard McCoy." He tried to be patient as they murmured the required greetings, the condolences meant to help carry the weight of a grief that could not yet be borne. But questions had burned in him for days, and he blurted out the first of them before they had even left the transport facility.
He touched Laria's arm as they walked, leaving Spock and McCoy to distract Dartha Allen. "How did it happen?"
She shook her head. "We don't know exactly. A Federation scout on patrol in the Sector 16 found Roxanne derelict and drifting. There was evidence of a firefight."
"Pirates? or Klingon renegades?" he said, his jaw tightening.
"The investigation was not able to determine that," she replied. Perceiving his next question in his face, she added, "Nor were they able to determine the cause of death. In fact, they brought us no body to put to rest. There was only..." She struggled to collect herself. "...the blood in the cabin to show she'd not given up without a fight."
"Gone, of course."
Kirk swallowed, hard. The evidence pointed to a boarding party in search of loot. If Kate had given them any trouble they wouldn't have hesitated to eliminate her. Disruptors left no bodies behind.
Still, Kate Logan had one advantage no other trader had--the sentient being that was an integrated part of her ship. "Surely Roxanne could tell us what happened," Kirk said.
Laria sighed. "Jim, I can't tell you how hard it was to lose Kate. She was our closest friend; Dartha and I owed everything to her. But to lose Roxanne as well..."
"But you said they found the ship...?"
"Yes, and the engineers tell us her computer systems survived almost intact. They can detect Roxanne's presence in the matrix, but she won't release the ship's log, and she refuses all attempts to communicate. I've tried--we all have--but she won't talk. Whatever happened on that ship is locked up in her memory until she decides to reveal it."
"Maybe I should try--or Spock," he suggested.
Laria stopped in front of a gate leading off the public walkway. "Perhaps," she said and led the way through the gate, down a path landscaped with a holo of tall Terran wildflowers and flowing Deltan grasses. A low, rounded cottage of textured thermocrete stood at the end of the path. "Welcome to our home. Kate always thought of it as hers--I hope you will, too."
They sat awkwardly in the sunlit front room, trying to keep the circumstances that had brought them together from overwhelming any attempt at conversation. Laria spoke quietly of the last time they had seen Kate Logan, of the relationship they had shared over the years. While Laria talked, Dartha Allen's dark eyes took Kirk and his companions apart piece by piece. Her hostility darkened the room, though she tried to be polite for Laria's sake. McCoy shot him a questioning look, but Kirk had no idea why she was so distrustful and answered with the merest shrug of his shoulders.
Kirk grew more anxious by the minute--to be through this, to be left to wrestle his grief alone. After a while he simply couldn't contain it and got to his feet to begin a restless prowl around the room. McCoy and Spock watched him protectively from their seats, picking up the conversation to cover for him.
The room was full of delicate, beautiful things, objects chosen with love from planets throughout the galaxy to soften the impact of Allen's many absences. They were displayed side by side with her awards from a long career as a newsnet reporter--two Pulitzers, a Bernstein, the Sontnu she'd won with the holovids of a secret arms depot taken at close range, with Kate Logan at the helm of the Roxanne.
There were photos and holos, too--Dartha and Laria together, numerous friends and family members, a gaggle of young girls at a birthday party. He found himself staring at a recent holo of Kate, and several that appeared to be Kate as a child. Something about the older images wasn't quite right, but he was hardly in a mood to sort it out. She had been so beautiful, and now she was gone. He realized with a flush of renewed grief that he didn't even own as much as a photo of her.
He felt the room go suddenly quiet and looked up to see his friends rise to their feet. He turned and saw a young woman standing in the doorway, and for a crazy moment he thought he was seeing Kate Logan as he'd first seen her, standing over his table in a bar outside Starbase Twelve.
The woman in the doorway was a bit younger than Logan had been then, and her hair was much lighter than Logan's dark chestnut. But her eyes were the same startling green, her compact body conveyed the same lithe strength. And her face--if it weren't for a certain stubborn set to the jaw, she would have been the very image of Kate. Kirk understood instantly that the photos he'd been looking at were of this young woman growing up. And he realized he'd stopped breathing to stare at her.
McCoy was somehow at his elbow, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. "Well, I'll be," he said, his voice pitched for Kirk's ears alone. "Damn, Jim, if you don't do good work."
He half-turned to the doctor, his eyes never leaving the doorway. "What?"
Laria stood and took the young woman by the arm. "Gentlemen, this is our daughter..."
The young woman gently disengaged herself and held out a hand to Kirk. "I'm J.T. Logan."
Spock's eyebrows both disappeared into his bangs in the closest he ever got to an expression of astonishment. McCoy clasped his hands behind his back and began to rock back and forth on the balls of his feet.
"J.T.?" Kirk said, hoping his hand didn't shake as he took hers.
"Juliette Tamara," she said. "J.T.'s just a little easier to handle."
Kirk cleared his throat and glanced from J.T. to Laria and back, looking for an explanation. "Logan?"
Laria hesitated. "It's a long story, Jim. There'll be plenty of time to tell it after the services."
"There aren't going to be any services," J.T. said. As everyone turned to her, she added, "My mother isn't dead."
The ambient sound machine filled his cabin with the rush and retreat of the ocean, overlaying the ever-present thrum of the Enterprise's engines. In the dim light, she could just make out the details of his quarters--the few precious books on the shelf by his desk, the meditation sculpture from Vulcan, the discreet scatter of their clothes at the foot of the bunk.
There had been the slightest moment of awkwardness between them after the long weeks of separation, a moment quickly overcome in rekindled passion. No crisis on the bridge had interrupted them--they'd had hours to rediscover each other. Nothing she had imagined in their time apart had been sweeter than this reunion. Her body still hummed with pleasure in the afterglow of their lovemaking.
He emerged from the shower and toweled off. Then he stood, unselfconsciously naked, smiling at her from the doorway. She smiled back, and he dropped the towel behind him to join her on the bunk, his skin still damp and deliciously warm, smelling of soap.
"Planetfall at 0800 tomorrow, and we'll have ten days ahead of us," he sighed. "Now that you're on permanent contract with Starfleet and I'm at HQ, I can regularly bribe the duty officer to schedule all our leave time together."
"Since when do you take leave without someone beating you over the head with a club?" She laughed, but her heart wasn't in it. The weight of what she had to tell him still pressed on her, despite the comfort of their intimacy.
He rolled over on one elbow and kissed her. "Since my leave time includes opportunities to make love to you everyday, twice a day, three times on Sunday."
In the face of his playfulness--his evident happiness--she almost lost her nerve. It would be so easy to deal with the problem on her own; he would never have to know. But she wasn't entirely sure she could pull it off; she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to take the easy way out. She needed his help. And he deserved a chance to offer it.
She was suddenly aware that he'd fallen silent, watching her. She looked up at him with an embarrassed smile. "Welcome back," he murmured. "Want to tell me where you were?"
"Are you sure you want to know?" she asked him. She was so tired of thinking.
His hand went to her face, touched her cheek. "If I'm pushing too hard, you need to let me know. Maybe I'm expecting more from this relationship than I should be."
"No, it's not that," she said. "It could never be that."
The emotion she read in his face was honest, open. It was easy to see, now that she was with him. The icy fears she'd conjured up in her time apart from him melted just enough in the warmth of that honesty to give her courage.
She took a deep breath. "I'm pregnant, Jim."
For a long moment he was very still, gazing at her with an expression she couldn't interpret. Whatever thoughts were running through his head were unreadable in his eyes. She rushed to fill the gap of silence that threatened to swallow her. "I knew my implant was close to replacement level. I should've had it done at Starbase Twelve, but with all that happened--the ship and Dartha and the trip to Rho Orionis...Well, I let it slip..." She trailed off, wishing he would say something, anything.
His hand stole to her belly, stroked the skin over the taut muscles that as yet gave no hint of the change in her body. "It's early," he said, not a question. "Have you made a decision?"
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
"Did you know I'm already a father?" He gave her an ironic little smile when she looked at him in surprise. "Twice, that I know about. My son David would be about 15 or 16 now. He's with his mother. She's made it clear she doesn't want me in his life and I guess she has her reasons. I have a feeling I'll never have a chance to know him."
He paused, then continued in a voice thick with regret. "There was Mirimani's child. He--or she--died with her. I don't remember much about it--McCoy says it's because of the head injury."
"Jim, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"No." He shook his head. "Those things are in the past; I can't do anything to change them. It's the future we have to think about now."
"You don't have to feel obligated," she said. The last thing she wanted was for him to be trapped by her mistake. "I just didn't think it was right not to tell you."
He shook his head again, as if she had misunderstood him. He struggled to find the right words. "Kate, I can't ask you to make the sacrifices you'd have to make for this child. I won't ask you. It's your body--it's your choice--not mine."
He looked at her then with a need she'd never seen in
him, a need she'd seldom seen in anyone. "But if I could, I would do anything just to
hold this child, knowing she's ours. I would give anything to watch her grow up, to be a
part of her life. I've lost so much in my life, Kate. Please don't tell me I have to lose
this chance with you, too."
Kate Logan woke with a start, her face wet with tears, the darkness around her profound and stifling. The dream still gripped her--a reality that might have been, but wasn't. Jim Kirk hadn't been within a hundred parsecs when she'd found out she was pregnant. She had been alone, except for Roxanne, and too far from medical facilities to safely make any choice but the one she'd made. There'd been no steady job with Starfleet; she'd made her living as a lone wolf trader at the time, without even a partner to back her up. And Jim--recounting losses he could not even have imagined in those early days together.
The dream washed back over her, and Logan rocked back and forth on the hard bunk, sobbing. "Oh, Jim, I'm sorry; I'm so sorry." She prayed, as she had prayed for twenty-five years, for him to forgive her. She'd had so many chances to tell him. She still couldn't explain why she hadn't told him at Tarsus. They'd been facing death, then; surely it had been a time for honesty.
She had hoped to spare him the pain that she felt, a pain she'd lived with so long it had become a permanent part of her, a scar she was forced to examine every day in the mirror. She had hoped to spare him, as she had hoped to spare J.T.
She was no longer in a position to shield either of them from the truth. By now, J.T. would know everything. By now, J.T. would think her mother was dead, and Kate Logan, confined alone with her misery on a ship bound for God knew where, almost wished she was.
Kirk found J.T. on the broad back porch, staring out at the deepening darkness of nightfall. She glanced up at him, defiant, but said nothing.
"That was quite a scene you caused in there today," he said, nodding in the direction of the living room. The shouting was finally over. The room was empty now, the people and the emotion that had filled it earlier had scattered. "I think Bones has persuaded Dartha to go to bed, but I don't think she's going to be any readier to listen tomorrow."
J.T. closed her eyes. "I didn't mean to hurt them."
"I know." He moved to lean against the railing next to her. "Would it help if I said I believe you?"
She looked up at him and smiled. That smile, the first he'd seen on her face, was so like Kate's it was a stab in the heart. "Thanks."
Kirk took a ragged breath, made an effort to shut down the emotions that had threatened to overload his control all day. He told himself there would be time later to feel. Right now, he needed to think. He needed to know whether he believed J.T. because she might be right, or just because he wanted to so badly. "Run through it again for me, J.T. What do you think happened out there?"
"Kate had just landed a contract to deliver neutronium to Rigel Seven," J.T. began. " I guess it was just the last straw for Ostyr Tyro."
"Ostyr Tyro is Orion," Kirk said, puzzled. "Reputed to be a slave trader. Why would he be interested in legitimate business?"
"Clan Tyro is poised to move up in the Orion Syndicate," J.T. answered. "Ostyr apparently believes he can extend the Syndicate's influence by covering their activities with a legal front. He's telling the media that he's a businessman, out to reform the leadership of the Orion system."
"Like hell," Kirk muttered. He'd had enough experience with the Orions to doubt any impulse to "reform".
J.T. nodded. "And Kate wasn't helping. Every time he'd get a legitimate deal worked out, there she'd be. Kate must've snatched half a dozen fat pieces of work right out of his jaws over the last couple of years. People warned her about him--Laria and Dartha were frantic about it. Everyone tried to convince her to let one of her partners take this run. But she'd just negotiated the deal--she liked to take the first run of a new contract herself."
"But Kate must have beat out competitors like Ostyr before. She wasn't exactly new to this business."
"Oh, sure, there were plenty of others. She didn't get those Federation Merchant citations for nothing."
"So even if this was something more than murder in the course of a robbery, there could have been any number of suspects," Kirk pointed out, wondering how he would ever find the right one.
J.T. disagreed. "Most of the old rivals are dead or serving time on Tantalus. A couple have left the businesses to their offspring, but they've steered clear of Kate. No. If anyone did this, it was Ostyr Tyro. He's the only one with both the guts and the resources."
"Okay. Let's assume Ostyr wanted to kill Kate. If he'd wanted to do it quietly and without witnesses, he would've done it in deep space," Kirk said. "Attack the ship someplace where ion interference and distance would have made it impossible for Kate to call for help."
"There's a six-month ion storm in progress in Rigel," J.T. said. "Kate had to fly blind through it or lose a week going around it. It was the perfect spot for an ambush. But whoever did this didn't just attack the ship. They took Kate and the cargo, and left the ship behind deliberately."
Kirk was skeptical. "Why--when it would've been so much easier just to destroy the ship, or to steal it?"
"So the authorities would read Kate's death just like they have--as murder in the course of a robbery," J.T. argued. "The ship was a decoy. You notice there's no one out there searching for Kate now."
"All right," Kirk acknowledged. "But you still haven't told me why you think Kate is still alive."
"Ostyr is an Orion," J.T. explained. "If he could get Kate out of the way and make a profit at the same time, he'd do it. There was profit in Kate, as much as in the cargo."
Kirk nodded, sick at the thought of how Kate might be profitable for an Orion slave trader. J.T.'s argument was following an inevitable logic. "What about an alibi? If Ostyr was trying to polish his image, it would hardly do for him to attack Kate directly."
"Oh, Ostyr covered his own butt, all right," J.T. said. "He was here on Delta Aurigae Four at a trade conference when Roxanne was attacked. The authorities won't even consider the possibility that he was involved. But he's got a fleet of ships and any number of allies who would have been glad to do the job for him. Not to mention his heir, Cestyr."
Kirk was willing to believe Ostyr Tyro was in this up to his fat neck, but he knew they didn't have enough evidence to force an official investigation. "We have to know what happened on that ship, J.T."
"Only Roxie can tell us that."
"And she's not talking. Why?"
J.T. shook her head in frustration. "If I knew that I could answer the big question. Where is Kate? Damn it, Jim, where did they take her?"
The facade she'd managed to prop up all day suddenly dissolved into trembling tears. She seemed so young, so like the little girl in her pictures, with a need for comfort that triggered every protective, paternal instinct in Kirk's soul. Maybe he hadn't been there for all the bumped knees and childhood disappointments, but he was here now, and he wasn't about to hold back even if they were strangers.
He gathered her up and held her close, let his own tears join hers, though he could not have said what those tears expressed. He only knew the mix of regret and pride, hope and fear and joy that this day had stirred in him was too much to hold in.
After a long time, he spoke. "J.T....if I had known...Kate never told me."
She pulled away from him, wiped at the tears on her face. "She never told me either. She left a letter for Dartha and Laria to give me in case anything happened." Her short laugh was more like a sob. "It's funny how the mind works, isn't it? I don't know why I never caught on. All I had to do was look in the mirror."
Kirk had to smile; eyes Kate's particular shade of green were not at all common.
J.T. sighed. "I don't blame you. Maybe she owes us both something."
"No. She doesn't owe me anything," he answered. "She offered me the universe and I never got around to taking her up on it."
J.T. considered for a moment, but Kirk could sense she was unconvinced. He could almost see the walls going up around her again. "So what was it between you two?" she said. "A one-night stand, a passionate weekend? You'll forgive me if I want the details."
It was a direct question. It deserved a direct answer. "I loved her, J.T. I still love her. Maybe that's why I want so much to believe you."
Relentless, J.T. asked again, "And did she love you?"
He started to answer that it was for Kate to say, but he knew better. She had told him in a hundred different ways, not just in the beginning when J.T. must have been conceived, but again every time they had met since. She had had her life and he had had his, but they had shared love across both years and distance. That had never changed. "Yes. I believe she loved me."
"How could two people love each other so much and spend so much time apart?" she said, bitterness clouding her voice. "I don't understand it. If you loved each other that much, why weren't you together?"
"I don't know, J.T." He tried to find a way to explain what he himself had only just begun to understand. "I don't think either of us knew what we had at first. It was fifteen years before we found each other the second time. I was sure, though, after what happened on Tarsus. Since then we always seemed to pick up right where we'd left off, as if nothing that had happened in between mattered."
"I happened in between," J.T. shot back.
"No," he said firmly. "You happened before we were sure. I guess Kate just couldn't trust me with something that important."
"But there were others," J.T. said. "Kate was married once."
She was still testing him, probing for dishonesty. He took her up on the challenge. "I was, too, for a while," he admitted. "In fact, McCoy could probably tell you I've never lacked for female companionship."
"Dartha already told me," J.T. said. "She says you're famous for it."
He shrugged; he'd never been particularly embarrassed by what others described as his "reputation". "I loved most of the women I was with, J.T., in my own way. Most of them loved me back. But none of those relationships held up over time. When I saw Kate again on Tarsus I understood why. What we shared I never found with anyone else."
Disarmed at last, J.T. looked at him for the first time without the suspicion he'd felt from her since they'd met. "If that's true, then you need to find her as much as I do," she said. She gave him a brief, reticent smile. "I'll take you to see Roxanne tomorrow."
She took the steps down into the back garden, deciding perhaps to walk off a little of the edginess Kirk knew she was feeling. God, she even walks like Kate, he thought, though he recognized the nervous energy in her step as his own.
A sound at the doorway behind him made him turn to see Laria watching him, tears welling in her wide brown eyes. She joined him at the railing. "When Kate came back from that run to [Meissa] and told us she was carrying your child, Dartha wanted to kill you. I almost agreed with her. I never understood what Kate saw in you until today."
"Laria, you must believe me--if I had known..."
She put up a hand to stop him. "Kate had already made her decisions by the time she came back from [Meissa]. It was too late by then to safely end the pregnancy, and, truth be told, I think she loved the child too much already."
Regret crushed Kirk's heart once again. Why didn't you tell me, Kate? You never gave me a chance.
"J.T. was a part of you, maybe the only part of you Kate would ever have," Laria went on. "Still, Kate knew she couldn't keep the child, with or without your help. It would have meant the end of the life she had worked so hard to make for herself."
"So she left J.T. with you," he said.
Laria nodded, smiling. "That was the greatest gift of trust any friend could give another. And we were so grateful. Kate was here with us whenever she could get away. J.T. grew up loving her--the great, glamorous Aunt Kate. I think J.T. decided to be a starship pilot like Kate the minute she could say the words."
"J.T. grew up believing she was yours?"
"We told her she was adopted. When she asked about her parents, we told her we didn't know anything about them. Kate thought it would be better that way, at least until J.T. was old enough to understand."
"But J.T.'s a young woman now. How long was Kate going to wait?" Kirk quelled an urge to pace. He forced himself to keep his voice low and calm, but he couldn't keep his exasperation from bubbling to the surface. "Was she ever going to tell me?"
Laria placed a cool hand on his arm. "Try not to be too hard on her, Jim. She meant to do it. She kept waiting for the right time--until time finally ran out for her." She looked away, the tears in her eyes threatening to spill out onto her cheeks.
Kirk sighed, feeling his anger subside. Who was he to judge Kate anyway? He hadn't exactly been a model of familial responsibility in any of his relationships, unless you counted the crew of the Enterprise as family.
He reached out to touch Laria's shoulder. "You don't believe J.T., do you?"
She shook her head. "I want to, Jim. But I can't help thinking her plan to search for Kate is a tragic waste of time. She needs to face her loss and get through the grieving. We all do."
Doctor McCoy stepped out onto the porch, looking as worn out as Kirk felt. Spock followed, a Vulcan rock in a storm of Human emotion. Yet Kirk could see the strain even in him.
"Laria's right, Jim," McCoy said. "It's not healthy for J.T. to keep denying the truth. God knows we all wish this hadn't happened, but we need to acknowledge that it did and get on with living."
"Is that what you think, too, Spock?" Kirk asked him.
The Vulcan was silent for a long moment. When he spoke it was evident he was choosing his words carefully. "It would hardly be...appropriate...for me to suggest how best to respond to the emotion this situation evokes. As a Vulcan, I have the ancient disciplines to rely on during a time of mourning. Without those disciplines, Humans are often vulnerable to self-deception."
"Unfortunately true," McCoy agreed.
"However," Spock continued, ignoring McCoy, "I would say in this case there may be a logical basis for believing Kate Logan is still alive."
Bless you, Spock, Kirk thought.
"Spock, there's a logical basis for believing my Aunt Minnie is still around, too, but I happen to know she died when her cruise ship was lost in an ion storm back in '46," McCoy said. "Just because we didn't recover the body doesn't mean the death isn't real."
"Jim, you have to convince J.T. she should drop this," Laria pleaded. "Let us bury Kate in peace."
"I can't do that, Laria," Kirk answered, his mind made up. "I think she may be right."
"I should've known," McCoy groaned.
"Her argument makes sense, Bones. And if there's a chance Kate's still alive, no matter how slim, we have to take it."
Kirk drifted away from the group and stared unseeing at the stars rising over the horizon. If she was out there somewhere, he knew, the circumstances of her life were likely much worse than death. But if there was the possibility that she lived, there was also the possibility that he could bring her home. "I have to know, one way or the other," he told the sky softly. "I won't give up on Kate until I know."
Logan was thirsty, so thirsty her tongue clung to the roof of her mouth and had no relief to bring her cracked lips. Her temple throbbed dully under a mat of dried blood. She couldn't remember when she'd eaten last--had she had something before they went into the ion storm in Rigel? She couldn't remember, but she knew it was of only passing importance. If she didn't get something to drink soon, she'd never live long enough to starve.
How long had it been? She didn't know that either. She'd lost track of the hours, drifting in and out of a sleep that gave her neither rest nor peace. She'd seen no one; heard nothing but the constant muttering of the ship's engines.
Just when she had decided that her solitude was a good sign, footsteps rang out in the corridor. Logan struggled to stand, despite the dizziness the movement caused her. She had just about managed it when the heavy cabin door swung open to admit two of her captors. They were Klingon, renegades without the insignia of clan, creche or battle group. One of them held a disruptor; the other held the tray from a standard food replicator.
The one with the disruptor put a massive hand in the center of her chest and shoved. She felt her body leave the deck and jerk backwards to slam against the far wall of the cabin. Pain lanced through her shoulder and hip; breath escaped her lungs in a convulsive wheeze. Logan wanted more than anything to get up and put a fist through the Klingon's yellow teeth, but she stayed where she was, slumped against the bulkhead. If she was to live, she had to stay where she was long enough to get that tray.
The Klingon grunted. "Not much fight left, eh, Human? Too thirsty! Too hungry!" He laughed, not a pleasant sound.
"Maybe we should just take this back and feed it to Zgar," he other suggested, showing his incisors. "I don't think the Human wants it."
Logan forced herself to remain still. She started to lick her lips, clamped down viciously on the urge.
"Oh, I think she wants it," the first one answered, too softly. "Don't you, Human?" He moved closer, his bulk nearly filling her sight. The other moved closer, too, and waved the tray in her direction.
The smell of the food, the thought of the water, was unbearable. Logan shook with the effort not to show it. "I don't want anything from you," she said, hoping he would find her spirit amusing.
Instead he growled and slapped her with the back of a gloved hand. Her head snapped back against the bulkhead and blood erupted from an inch-long split in her lip. He pulled the hand back again--she couldn't help watching it with a kind of detached horror--but stopped as his communicator beeped. Cursing, he yanked it off his belt. "Kragh."
"Commander, the Shipmaster instructs me to inform you that we are on orbit approach. You are ordered to the bridge."
Kragh clearly wasn't happy, but renegade or not, he followed orders. He aimed a desultory kick in Logan's direction, then motioned his companion to leave the tray and come on.
They bolted the door behind them, but Logan was no longer interested in the chance of escape through their carelessness. She wiped her bleeding mouth with her sleeve and got shakily to her knees. All she wanted was to be left alone with the contents of that tray.
The glacial plains of Rura Penthe stretched for a hundred kilometers in any direction. An impossibly distant wall of blue-green ice broke the horizon, twelve hundred meters high and a day's walk wide. There was the wall of ice and there was the plain; there was nothing more.
The wind cut at his body, screaming in his ears, scouring at his vertical form in an endless effort to grind it level with the ice at his feet. Overhead, the anemic suns bathed the plains in a cold glare, blinding him through the tiny slit in the cloth covering his face that allowed him to see.
He put one numb foot before the other and kept moving, grimacing with the effort to accomplish even that much. To stop moving meant death in this vast, white, frozen sea and despite everything he was determined to live. He moved, he breathed, he lived. He refused to consider anything else.
Ahead on the unforgiving ice, a form took grotesque shape. It had lived once, but now was frozen into torturous death in the path ahead of him. He changed direction slightly to avoid it; he'd already seen enough of the kind of death this planet could deal out. But when he looked again, the corpse was at his feet, demanding recognition. The wind ripped at the rags that covered the face--and, oh, God, it was David! His son's blue eyes stared sightlessly at him from a face rimmed with frost. Sweet Jesus, what was David doing here?
He stumbled, fell, got to his feet again and staggered on in terror, tears freezing on his cheeks. He moved again, though time itself seemed to have stopped. He moved, though the wall of blue ice drew no nearer, and he could no longer remember why moving was important.
Another dark blotch appeared on the plain ahead of him. He hesitated, afraid as he had seldom been in waking life of what lay ahead. Another form appeared beside him, and another behind, until he was surrounded by corpses on this glacier of white death, corpses whose faces he knew--Mirimani, clutching a bundle that he knew held his stillborn child; Edith, her body crushed, but her face still innocent, trusting; his brother Sam, his face a mask of unendurable agony; the men and women of his command who had given their lives on his orders; the hundreds on the Farragut; the thousands on Tarsus IV.
They stared up at him, faces glazed with the ice of early death, accusing him. He ran, fleeing that place of horror with the last of his strength, guilt clutching at the back of his neck. He ran until the frigid air sent shards of pain into his lungs with every breath and his heart faltered in his chest. When he could run no longer he sank to his knees, eyes closed against a vision of blood and bitter responsibility.
An eternity later he opened them again and saw redemption: a room, warmed by a fire, filled with the small artifacts of a lifetime of love. He lay, cleansed of all the blood and the filth of his ordeal, between clean sheets that smelled of lavender, under the layered weight of woven wool and quilted cotton. And there, in the bed next to him, was Kate, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she watched him.
He reached out with a hand still unsteady with shock. Her skin was warm and smooth under his fingertips. Her chest rose and fell gently with each breath; her heart pulsed regularly under his hand. "Oh, Kate, thank God," he whispered. "Thank God."
Her arms opened to take him in, enfolded him as he pressed his battered body to hers. Drained and weary, he had nothing left in him but need. It was no matter. She wrapped him in her strength and held him close, murmuring comfort, until his grateful tears at last ran out and he slept without fear.
Kirk started out of a sound sleep, jarred, he finally realized, by the chime of the doorpad announcing a visitor. He pushed himself into a sitting position and grabbed his chrono off the bedstand. It was 0930 already; he'd slept half the morning.
The doorpad chimed again. He fumbled into the standard hotel-issue robe and swung open the door before his impatient visitor could hit the pad another time. McCoy and Spock stood in the corridor.
"Were you gonna sleep all day?" McCoy said, pushing past him into the room. "I thought you were so anxious to get started."
"And good morning to you, too, Bones," Kirk replied, closing the door again. "Spock."
"Captain. I trust you rested well."
Kirk took a second to assess his status. "Yes, thank you, Spock, I believe I did."
McCoy peered at him, making his own assessment. "Well, you look a sight better than you did yesterday. But then you always look your best when you're about to take a flying leap off the deep end."
"Anyone else hungry?" Kirk said, tapping his breakfast order into the hotel comlink.
"We ate," McCoy informed him. "Hours ago."
"Sorry." Kirk was not the least bit abashed. He felt too good this morning to let Bones get to him. "I'm starving."
He headed for the shower, talking as he went. "Spock, you relayed my message to the captain of the Mercury?"
"Yes. Captain Uma sent her respects and indicated she planned to resume her standard duties as of 0800 today."
"Good," Kirk answered under the stinging rain of hot water. "No sense holding them up while we sort this out. Smillie had to pull enough strings to get us this far."
"Yeah, and if we can't get Roxanne out of her coma we'll be taking commercial transport home," McCoy groused.
A Vulcan eyebrow shot upward. "An interesting analogy, Doctor."
A softer chime announced the arrival of Kirk's breakfast in the replicator slot. Still tingling from the shower, Kirk wrapped himself in the robe again and sat down to eat. It occurred to him that he hadn't actually enjoyed a meal since...
"Are you gonna eat all that?" McCoy hovered over the tray, disapproval in every line of his face.
"You want some?"
"No! Somebody's got to stay healthy enough to do the surgery you're going to need when all that fat and salt gets to your heart."
Kirk smiled and took another bite of bacon. "Spock? You have some ideas about Roxanne?"
"Perhaps." Spock nodded slowly. "Doctor, what would your course of treatment be for a patient who is unconscious and unresponsive?"
"Well, Spock, that would depend. Has this patient sustained any injuries or am I just assuming he or she keeled over for no apparent reason?" McCoy said irritably.
Spock merely looked at the doctor, annoyance a shadow across his face that Kirk had no trouble perceiving.
McCoy sighed. "Okay. My first step would be to check for head injury. If concussion, cerebral hemorrhage or more severe brain damage was indicated and the patient was otherwise stable, I'd probably begin with a cortical stimulator. That is, assuming the patient is Human."
"The patient in this case is not Human, doctor," Spock rejoined. "However, I believe we can draw certain parallels based on your medical knowledge."
"You want me to use a cortical stimulator on Roxanne?"
"Not at all. I have designed a computer program that should provide the equivalent stimulation to Roxanne's 'brain'."
Kirk looked up from the last of his breakfast in surprise. "Spock, you haven't even had a chance to examine Roxanne."
"The program is rudimentary, Captain, little more than an outline. If my theory is applicable, I can refine it based on what I find within Roxanne's data banks."
"Then I think it's time we saw our patient," Kirk said, standing up from the table. He clapped McCoy on the shoulder on his way to get dressed. "Don't you, Bones?"
"I'm beginning to hate these medical metaphors," McCoy grumbled.
"And you are entirely too cheerful this morning. Should I check your blood chemistry?"
Kirk finished dressing before he acknowledged McCoy's question. Shrugging into his jacket, he finally looked at the doctor and grinned. "Kate's alive, Bones. Don't ask me how I know, but she's alive. And we're going to find her. Let's go."
Juliette Tamara Logan stood in the transparent catwalk of Level Seven of Delta Spacedock and looked out at what was hers by the strangest turn of fate. Cradled in the massive gantry, swaddled in temporary scaffolding and fed by repair umbilicals, Roxanne slept in the yawning bay of the repair facility. Slept, and would not waken.
More than a ship, Roxanne had been partner, companion, friend--even sister--to Kate Logan since the day a telepathic creature on Rho Orionis V had merged with the ship's systems to create a new lifeform. Roxanne and Kate had spent twenty-five years together in space--all of J.T.'s life. It didn't seem right that the rest of the galaxy still considered Roxie just a ship to be passed on from mother to daughter as part of a lucrative commercial trade business. Yet the flimsy that J.T. held in her hand said just that--Roxanne was her ship now, along with all the headaches and profit of her mother's business.
Just for a while, Kate, J.T. promised. Just until we bring you home. Her head still swam every time she thought about it. As a child she'd imagined her parents as a beautiful couple tragically killed on their way back home from some exciting adventure. She'd pictured them--the ideal mother and father, heroic and loving and noble--torn by accident from their tiny child.
J.T. had long ago given up that particular dream. What a shock to learn it was true. Well, at least the part about the couple, if not about the accident. Hell, her mother was the sainted Aunt Kate, adventurer extraordinaire. And her father? James T. Kirk, hero of the galaxy. Yep, those are some formidable forebears,all right.
And theirs had been no sleazy affair, either, oh, no! Jim and Kate were the real thing. J.T. had believed Kirk when he'd said so, but Laria had confirmed it later, without being asked. So that's good, right? I'm a product of true love, J.T. thought with some irony. So why didn't we all just live happily ever after?
J.T. knew why, of course. Her mother's choice had been the only sensible one. And her father had been given no more choice than J.T. herself had. She just couldn't help feeling the teensiest little bit of resentment about the whole damn thing.
"Fifty thousand credits' worth of talking ship, and she's all yours."
The voice was gratingly familiar, and too close to her ear.
J.T. moved to put some distance between it's owner and any part of her anatomy. What is it about some guys, anyway? J.T. thought. You have a lapse in judgment one night, and they're all over you for the rest of your life.
"Chaz. Aren't you dead yet?"
"Ooh, baby, if looks could kill, I'd be lying here as we speak."
"Let me try again then."
Chaz tilted his head, letting the long black hair fall in his eyes. "Aw, c'mon J.T. Don't tell me you're letting all this new-found wealth go to your head."
What in the worlds did I ever find to like in this guy? Well, there are those big, blue eyes and ...like I said, a lapse in judgment. "Whatever happened to 'sorry about your loss, J.T. I'll say a rosary for you'? Or did you just overlook the fact that someone I loved died to leave me this ship?"
Chaz shifted one scruffy boot and at least had the grace to look embarrassed. "Oh, hell, J.T." He sighed and started over. "Well, I am sorry about Kate. It must be tough for you."
J.T. softened--fractionally--and let him off the hook. "Yeah. Look, I've got some business to take care of. Maybe I'll snag you later."
"Hey, what's the rush? I haven't seen you in weeks--I missed you."
J.T. rolled her eyes and started in the direction of the nearest turbolift. "Like I said. I've got business."
"I was hoping you'd give me a tour of the new ship," he said, stepping too casually into her path.
Something about his tone or the way he moved--could he actually be threatening her? "You've seen the ship before," she replied shortly and brushed past him.
Chaz rocked back on his worn heels and called out after her. "Oh, J.T., can this mean you don't love me anymore?"
She spun to face him. She didn't know where this new bizarre streak was emerging from, but she'd had enough of it. "I think you're finally getting the message, Chaz. Keep out of my way. Are we clear on that?"
Chaz tried out a disdainful laugh, but it lacked something in the delivery. "Sure, babe. I already got what I needed from this relationship anyway."
J.T. took a step toward him and had a palm strike to Chaz's smirking face already lined up when she felt a restraining hand on her arm. She whirled to see who it was connected to. Oh, terrific! Daddy's here to save his little girl!
"Now, Juliette, we wouldn't want to lose our tempers, would we?" Kirk said calmly.
"Who the hell are you?" This from Chaz, who plainly didn't realize how close he'd come to a broken nose.
"My name is James T. Kirk," he said. "I'm Juliette's father."
J.T. was mad as hell, but the look on Chaz's face was almost worth the aggravation. She had to admit Kirk had timing.
"I believe I heard my daughter ask you to leave," Kirk continued, turning to her for confirmation. "Didn't you, dear?"
"Actually, I..." J.T. began. She stopped when she felt a squeeze from the hand that still held her arm. She nodded.
Chaz shook his head. "Scuse, must've stumbled into the wrong holo, man," he mumbled, and shambled off down the corridor.
J.T. looked from McCoy, who was trying to keep a straight face, to Spock, who was impassively examining the bulkhead, to Kirk, who looked ready to catch hell. She shook off his hand and obliged him. "You blast in here after twenty-five years and think you can..."
"J.T., I don't plan to make a habit of interfering in your affairs," he said quickly. "In this particular case I'd say he probably had coming whatever you were about to hand him. But we don't have time to sit in the 'dock security office all morning explaining why you saw fit to assault a law-abiding citizen. We need to talk to Roxanne. Now."
She imagined he'd used just that combination of reasonableness and command thousands of times in his career. It was too damned effective to be anything but well-practiced. She suddenly smiled. "You know, you're good. You're very good."
He smiled back. "Shall we go?"
J.T. nodded and led the way to her sleeping ship.
"Run it for me again, Roxie."
"But Kate...let's watch that old war holo instead. I love the part where the ship makes that 180-turn and--"
"No. And besides, it's the captain and the helmsman who make that maneuver."
"Whatever. Shall I cue it up?"
"No. Play the newsnet piece again."
"We've already seen it twice today. How about a game of Black Friday?"
"Oh, all right. But I'm getting a little tired of watching you wallow in self-pity."
"I'm not wallowing."
"All these years, Kate, and I still don't understand. How can you love someone you see maybe once every three or four years? I mean, I have access to information on this subject, and this is just not typical of Human relationships."
Logan grinned. "No, I guess not. But then, Jim Kirk is not your typical Human either."
"Au contraire! From what I can tell, he's your prototypical Human--emotional, impulsive, idealistic, not to mention, shall we say, the Dobie Gillis of the galaxy?"
"A mid-20th century Terran reference to a fictional lovesick adolescent."
"A very obscure reference."
"Admittedly. But apt."
"If you say so. Anyway, I never said he wasn't Human. I said he wasn't typical. Just look at the career he's had."
"As if we had to watch a retrospective of Jim Kirk's career to learn anything about him. We already have copies of every newsnet report ever filed about him."
She watched the images flash across the screen like memories from her own life. Overlaying the newsnet pictures that billions of beings saw, were the personal visions only she could claim. "Starfleet's youngest starship captain" and his wary smile the night they'd met on Starbase Twelve. "Chief instructor at Starfleet Academy" and the regret in his eyes when they met again on Tarsus III. "The triumph at Khitomer" and his reborn confidence--and passion--when they met for a few precious days together the following summer.
So much of his life had been spent as a public hero. So little of it had been spent as a private man. And now retirement--as good as a death sentence for a man like Jim. Unless she herself could grant him a reprieve. "I made a promise to myself twenty-five years ago, Roxie," she said. "I swore that if I ever heard Jim Kirk had given up the Enterprise I would be the first one at his door with an offer. Looks like now's the time."
"Yeah, well, hold that thought. We have company."
"Someone else is crazy enough to track through this storm? How close?"
"One hundred thousand kilometers and closing. They're on an intercept course."
"Intercept? Any identification?"
"Damn." Logan didn't like the feel of this. She was too far from the main trade routes. The ion storm raging for ten parsecs around her ship muffled her communications and blurred her sensors. Plotting their course through the storm had been a gamble. Something told her they'd just thrown snake-eyes. "Raise shields."
"What? It's probably just an old lone wolf too low on supplies to go around the storm."
"Just do it, Roxie."
Logan got to her feet and paced slowly on the ship's compact bridge. "Range?"
"The ion storm is causing too much interference. I can't read anything."
"Let's make it a little harder on them. Come about to seven-zero-mark two-one."
"Seven-zero-mark two-one it is, though I don't..."
"Roxanne, who's the captain of this ship?"
"Thank you. Warp three, please."
"Warp three. Aye, aye, CAPTAIN."
"Where are they?"
"Changing course to follow. They've gone to warp four. Remind me to look up this intuition thing sometime."
"Plot an evasive course--as random as you can make it. And push it up to warp six."
"You DO remember my port warp nacelle is overdue for repair?"
"I remember. Give me warp six."
"Warp six. They're still closing. Sixty thousand klicks."
"They must be close enough to scan by now. Who the hell are they?"
"Orion design--a marauder. Klingon surplus weaponry, including two nearly new disruptor cannons."
"Typically thirty, but I can't read them through this soup."
"Jesus. Can we outrun her?"
"I'd say not."
"Jettison carriers," Logan commanded.
"You heard me!" Logan hissed. "We can pick up the cargo later, if I'm wrong."
"In this storm? Better just kiss your new contract goodbye,"
Roxanne replied. "They're hailing us."
The extravagantly pierced face of a young Orion male filled her viewscreen. "I am Cestyr, son of Ostyr Tyro, captain of the Deathwatch. Surrender your ship to me and I will spare your life."
"If you want anything from me you'll damn well have to take it," Logan countered evenly.
"It will be my pleasure," Cestyr replied. His image on the screen winked out, replaced by a view of the Deathwatch coming about to bring disruptors to bear.
"Arm phasers and target that ship," Logan said.
"Armed and locked on."
The thin stream of phaser fire arced from ship to ship, dissipating harmlessly against the Deathwatch's starboard shields. The Orion finished his turn and fired disruptors. Roxanne rocked with the impact.
"I'm losing port shields! They're down to thirty percent!"
"From one hit? That's impossible!"
"Kate, they're all going--I can't compensate!"
"Auxiliary power to the shields. Give me manual control." Logan fired phasers again, watched the plasma splash against the Deathwatch's forward shields. Then she hurled Roxanne directly at the Orion ship and punched in the commands to drop her under the enemy's hull. She came up behind the marauder and fired aft phasers. "Bet that hurt," she said, watching the sensors report Deathwatch's aft shields dropping to forty percent, then twenty.
She fired again, but the Orion spun about, and the shot glanced off his bow. He brought his weapons in line once more. Logan slammed Roxanne to port, but she could see it was no use. Disruptor fire hit Roxie's starboard flank, creasing her from stem to stern. The ship groaned, bulkheads twisting under the blow. Alarms blared as fire control systems fought the sparking panels and fused switches on that side of the ship.
"Where are those shields, Rox?"
There was panic in the ship's voice. "Dropping! They're all dropping! We're losing auxiliary power. My programming..."
"Logan! You have no shields. Prepare to be boarded." The Orion glared smugly at the screen.
"Go to hell! I'll kill your people as they reintegrate."
"Too late," she heard someone say behind her.
Then a mailed fist struck her temple, and she heard nothing more.
Hours after the dream left her, Kate Logan finally opened her eyes. Light stabbed at them, filling her head with screaming pain until she closed them again. She made a move to sit up and realized quickly it was impossible. The least movement brought on a maelstrom of pain and nausea. Her head seemed swollen and ponderous, her neck a mass of twisted, splintered cable too weak to support its weight. She felt a tide of sickness rising in her throat, but she fought to keep it down. If she allowed it to happen, she really believed the act of retching would be enough to kill her.
The food, she thought. Of course. It was common Orion practice to drug slaves before they were unloaded. Drugged, slaves were no more difficult to handle in port than a shipment of machine parts--and, when necessary, no more noticeable. Through the haze of sickness, Logan could perceive that she was no longer aboard the ship that had carried her. She'd been delivered, she guessed, to whom and where she had no idea.
She dozed off for a while and when she woke again the light coming through a small, high window into the room was more tolerable. She felt well enough to sit up, and if she didn't move her head too fast, the pain stayed within bounds. She attempted to take stock.
The light in the window was bluer than the normal range of solar radiation that any Terran would be used to--a B-type star, possibly a B3 like Achernar. The window itself was a simple opening in the wall--no glass. So, an M-type planet, requiring no special adaptive measures for Humanoid life. Well, that narrows it down, she thought. Only a few million places I could be.
Of course, it was possible she was on some planet in the Orion territories, like Xantharus, but she doubted it. Cestyr Tyro wasn't likely to take the chance the Feds would find her where the weight of suspicion would land on his father. And with so much to choose from, Orion labor contractors were generally pretty picky. She was too old to bring him much profit at home.
But some backwater colony planet off the main trade route--that was a different story. Women of any description were valuable on those planets. She looked from the dirty mattress on the floor to the sink and toilet in one corner; from the single door to the high window. It was ugly, filthy, but ultimately unrevealing. If she'd been sold to that fate, the room held no clue to it.
She went to try the door, just in case, but before she could reach it, the door burst inward to admit her captor. Her worst fears were realized in a single glance.
He was Human, mostly, with the dress and tattoos of a Rigel colonist. And he was huge, mountainous, the fat collected in fleshy rolls at his neck and waist. His pale, watery eyes stared at her out of his bloated face, and when he smiled Logan knew why his appearance sent a chill of revulsion through her.
"Good. You're awake." His voice was a dusty wheeze. "I've brought food and water."
Logan looked at the tray he held and said nothing.
The man entered the room--filled the room, crowding her into a corner--and locked the door carefully behind him. He set the tray down and waved at it. "Eat. It's not drugged." He laughed, and Logan shivered. "The customers like it better if you are--uh--yourself."
"What is this place?" she demanded.
The man spat in a corner. "You are in my place of business in Port One, Tantua. But what does it matter to a whore where she is? The view is always the same." This struck him as funny. He laughed again.
"I'm no whore."
"You are now, be'!" the man snarled. "You are my whore! My name is Rondo Hadley and I own you. I bought and paid for you with solid Fed credits. And my customers will gladly pay me to show you your place."
"They'd pay more for a chance to win me for themselves."
Logan barely recognized her own voice, strong and sure despite her crushing fear. It was as if she was listening to herself from across the room. She couldn't wait to hear what she would say next. "This is one great armpit of a planet," she argued. "Men outnumber women ten to one and half of those women are whores. What would your customers give for a woman of their own? How much would they drink in your bar trying to win the favor of the bartender? Use me as a prostitute and they'll pay as they always have--no more. Use me as a bartender and you'll have them lined up six deep every night."
"Ha! They'll cut you into individual pieces that they can each take home. Then I'll have nothing for my pains."
Logan shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I warn you I have nothing to lose. I'll kill the first man you send in here. And the second. And every one I can after that until I am dead myself. Then, again, you'll have nothing. And even on this backwater rock someone's going to start asking questions when a bunch of your customers end up dead."
Hadley scowled, sending ripples through his heavy jowls. "You won't kill anyone. And they won't have to kill you to get what they pay me for. Eat. The customers are waiting."
He unlocked the door and backed out. Logan heard him secure the lock once more. Then she turned to eat what she fervently prayed would not be her last meal.
It had been ten years since Jim Kirk had been on Roxanne's bridge. Ten years since Logan's ship had snatched them out of the suffocating darkness of the blasted Tarsus shuttle and saved his life for the second time. God only knew how many times Roxanne had saved Logan's life since they first linked up. Might as well try and count the times the Enterprise--and the crew that made her what she was--had saved him.
The bridge was unchanged in every way but one--the most important one. Kirk could no longer feel Roxanne's presence. Without Roxanne, without Kate Logan, the ship felt lifeless. Without the living spirits of her captain and crew, she was a ghost ship.
"Your analysis, Spock?" Kirk asked.
Spock turned from the computer interface and folded his arms across his chest. "Roxanne's memory banks and operating programs have been erased. Her duotronic circuits and core program matrix, however, are undamaged. Unusual energy readings at the program core indicate the living being we call Roxanne still exists and retains a minimum of information."
"Can you access that information? Or should I say, can you contact Roxanne?"
"You correctly assume the two actions are related, Captain," Spock replied. "We determined at Rho Orionis that Roxanne is essentially a living information matrix. I am detecting within the ship's computer hardware what remains of Roxanne's consciousness."
J.T. nodded. "We knew she was there. But we haven't been able to contact her. Will your program allow us to do that, Mister Spock?"
"Roxanne's living matrix is currently tied to the ship's computer systems," Spock explained. "I believe the first step in helping Roxanne back to full consciousness would be to reprogram those operating and memory systems. Once that has been accomplished, the stimulatory program will feed new information through the circuits continuously, with informational complexity increasing at a logarithmic rate every twelve point one four minutes."
"How long before we know whether it's working?" Kirk said.
"Given the limits of information available and Roxanne's processing capacity, I would estimate the maximum benefit to have been reached within eight point one five hours."
"Eight hours?" McCoy snorted. "If I'd seen no results from a cortical stimulator in ninety minutes, I'd declare the patient brain-dead."
"As we have noted before, Doctor, this patient is not Human."
"Then I guess we can skip the hand-holding, too, huh? I mean, since the patient has no hands."
Spock turned and raised an inquiring eyebrow at McCoy. The doctor sighed. "If the patient was Human, I would recommend someone stay with her, preferably someone who knows the patient well. It's been well-documented that the touch or voice of a loved one--or even just a caring being--has a positive effect in these cases."
"Of course," Spock said. "Vulcan healing techniques often involve members of the patient's family. But the use of the hands is not absolutely required."
Kirk discerned the slightest relaxation of certain muscles in the Vulcan's face. "Spock, I do believe you're developing a sense of humor in your old age," he said.
"Your old age, perhaps," Spock answered blandly. "I am not even middle-aged by Vulcan standards."
J.T. guffawed, but recovered immediately at the look on Kirk's face. "Uh, maybe you could try talking to Roxanne, Jim," she said. "I've already tried, and I got nowhere."
Kirk looked at McCoy, who shrugged. "Why not? Maybe the shock of hearing your voice would make a difference."
Kirk sat down at the communications console and faced the control board. What could he say to bring Roxanne back to consciousness? What combination of words and phrases would bring Kate Logan back to life? He cleared his throat and hit the intercom pad.
"Roxanne, it's Jim Kirk," he began...
He talked for hours--steadily, quietly, shutting out the distractions on the bridge and in his mind. He talked to Roxanne as if she were laid out on a diagnostic bed in McCoy's sickbay, as if he could actually take her hand and pull her out of the isolating depths of her trauma. He spoke in a voice pitched so low only a ship's sensor could pick it up, confiding the secrets of his heart to an old friend, his lover's closest companion.
He described how Kate had looked the night he'd met her. How she'd smiled all the way to her green eyes. How her confidence had shown in her walk. How her courage had warmed him beyond the power of a cold world to touch him.
Kate Logan had become his lover and his only friend at a time when duty compelled him to give up everything that had once sustained him. When his duty was done and his life restored to him, he found Kate had created a space for herself in his heart that no amount of excitement at the helm of a starship or warmth in the company of friends could fill. Most days he was too busy to notice it. Most nights he was too exhausted to feel it. But once in a great while, in the quiet hours between the last brandy and the beginning of first watch, the emptiness her absence had left in him widened into a dark canyon large enough to devour him.
Those moments had come more and more often lately. Retirement had provided fewer diversions--hell, it had provided no diversions. He had been forced to look deep within himself and he'd come to realize there was an important piece missing.
"I don't want to believe Kate is dead, Roxanne," he murmured. "I have too much to tell her, too much I want... Please, I need your help. I can't find her if I don't know what happened during that ion storm."
Kirk was suddenly aware of McCoy's hand on his shoulder. "Jim, it's been almost five hours. Why don't you take a break?"
"My God, has it been that long?" Kirk asked, but now that his concentration was broken, he could feel the stiffness in his muscles and the dryness in his throat.
McCoy handed him a tumbler of water and grinned. "I think you must have gone into some kind of trance. I always thought of you as a man of few words."
Kirk smiled. "Oh, I don't know. I've been known to give a few speeches in my day."
"True, but those are usually delivered with plenty of body language to back them up. Not to mention volume. This quiet introspection is not like you."
"Sounds like you're about to launch into a speech of your own."
"Well, since you brought it up, I do have a question for you."
"I figured as much."
"What do you plan to do if Roxanne never wakes up? Sentient beings of all kinds have been known to retreat into catatonic states or comas that last for years--effectively forever. It's beginning to look like that's what's in store for Roxanne."
"You don't know that," Kirk snapped.
"No, I don't," McCoy admitted. "But if this were a medical case, my duty would be to prepare the patient's family for the consequences of the injury. Raising false hope is never a kindness."
Kirk looked up. "Are we still talking about Roxanne?"
"Jim, you must know the chance that Kate is still alive is remote, to say the least. It's very easy at a time like this for people to lose their sense of perspective."
"Do I take it, Doctor, that you think I'm losing my mind?"
"Not in any permanent sense, no. But you had unfinished business with Kate. Things you always meant to say. Time you'd always meant to spend. A daughter you didn't even know you had. It's painful to realize you'll never have a chance to resolve any of that with Kate, but you know as well as I do that you can't hide from the pain. You can't pretend it doesn't exist. You just have to go through it."
The concern was so evident in McCoy's face that the rush of anger Kirk felt was gone before he opened his mouth to answer. His old friend was trying to help him the best way he knew how; Kirk couldn't blame him for that. But McCoy was wrong. Kirk knew it the way he'd always known the right move to make. His intuition had seldom failed him. It was important that he trust it a while longer.
"Bones, I know how crazy this must seem to you. But if I don't see this through I will never be able to resolve anything." He leaned forward, as if he could bring some of that famous body language to bear on the argument. "I believe there is a chance--all right, a very small chance--that Kate is alive. Believing that, how could I live with myself if I abandoned her now? And J.T.--do you think she could ever forgive me for walking away from this? If you're right and there is no hope, then we've only postponed our grief for a while. We'll have the rest of our lives to grieve. But if we're right, then we have to act now, or Kate's death will be on our hands."
"Damn it, Jim, you are the only man in the galaxy who could be lightyears away from a tragedy and still blame himself for it!" McCoy exclaimed. "If Kate is dead, it's not because you couldn't save her. This horrible thing did not happen on your watch."
If I had been where I wanted to be, where she wanted me to be, it would never have happened at all. "I should have been with her, Bones."
"Jim, I'm reading an increase in energy levels in the core matrix," Spock broke in.
"She's strengthening by the minute, Mister Spock," J.T. confirmed. "We must have hit some kind of threshold with the information feed."
"Perhaps if you tried again to speak to her, Captain."
Kirk held McCoy's gaze a moment longer. McCoy simply shook his head, unconvinced.
Holding on to his hope, Kirk turned and spoke to the ship again. "Roxanne, it's Jim Kirk..."
The turbolift doors shot open onto the Enterprise bridge, dark now except for the emergency deck lights, and unnaturally quiet. Even with all the crew on shore leave and half the ship in pieces for a refit, Kate could feel the energy of this place.
Beside her, she felt Jim take a deep breath. This was home to him, more than any place he'd actually owned or dreamed about. Here was his heart, in a circle of carpeted decking and duotronic control panels, in a place that housed so much more than what could be seen.
He turned to smile at her and gave her hand a quick squeeze before he left her to key in a few instructions at the engineering station. She heard the obliging beep that meant the lift doors had locked, then watched the viewscreen go on to display the view outside Spacedock, courtesy of the 'dock commnet. The bridge filled with stars.
"That's better," he murmured, taking her hand again to pull her to him. They kissed, exchanging a taste of Saurian brandy, a promise of stolen pleasure. The combination made her head spin and suffused her body with a burn that began deep inside her and spread to her fingertips, her ears, her skin.
Her hands slid down his back and over the swell of his hips, holding him close to feel his warmth against her breasts, his heat against her belly. Their kisses deepened, insistent now and breathless, igniting a fire that surged through her veins like a pulse of molten metal.
"What exactly is the penalty for doing what we're about to do on the bridge of a starship?" she breathed, knowing she couldn't stop even if the damn ship was under attack by a fleet of Klingons. They had long since passed the point of logical decision-making.
"That depends on what we're about to do," he said, daring her.
She told him, whispering the delicious details in his ear until she could feel him shiver in anticipation.
"Whatever the penalty is, it'll be worth it," he answered at last. His hands framed her face as he brought his lips to hers, teasing her this time with the lightest touch at her mouth.
She rested her hands on his chest; his heart was racing, as hers was. "Take this off," she commanded softly, lifting the gold uniform shirt at the bottom so she could feel his skin. He complied, revealing the contours of his body in the light and shadows thrown from the viewscreen. She pulled back half a step to appreciate them, watching her hands trace the muscles of his shoulders, his chest, his stomach, following the oblique lines down from his ribs to the waistband of his pants.
She stopped there for the moment, bringing her hands back up to run her thumbs across his nipples. She felt them tighten in response, heard his sharp intake of breath, and smiled. "Hold on, starman," she whispered. "I'm just getting started."
Slowly, so slowly her body throbbed in protest, she removed the rest of his clothes, and her own. She knelt to caress him, savoring the feel of his velvet skin and smooth, hard length in her hands, in her mouth. She let the feel of him feed her own desire, even as she fueled his with her touch, until they moaned together, desperate with need.
She pulled him down on top of her, arched to meet his joining thrust. She urged him deeper, responding to him with every nerve, every sense, every cell. He moved inside her with the sure strength that was his alone, moved until she could stand it no longer and let him take her past all restraint, all reason, all conscious thought. In the end, her fire consumed him, too, in a final flare of exploding passion, leaving them spent and satisfied at last in each other's arms.
She lay with him on the bridge of the ship that was his
life, watching the stars wheel around them in the endless night, and felt safe and warm
and wonderfully alive. As though nothing could touch them or separate them or stand in
their way. As though the protection of his arms and the power of that ship running through
him would be enough to keep her safe and warm forever.
Logan awoke with a start in the humid darkness of her room. She had time to smile at the remnants of her dream--the thought of Jim Kirk agreeing to a tryst on the bridge of his starship was pretty outrageous--before the reality of her situation came crashing in on her again.
Dark. It wouldn't be long now. She could hear the customers carousing in the bar on the other side of the wall, drinking up the courage to try out the new whore. There was no doubt in her mind that she was the main topic of conversation. Logan had been in enough downplanet spacers' bars to know.
She rolled off the mattress and moved to the door. Then she yanked open the front of her jumpsuit and reached for the seam that ran down the inside of her leg. She felt for a tiny tab of fabric, found it and gave it a tug. Just behind it her fingers detected the tip of a thin, flexible polymer cord. She pulled it all the way out of the hidden sheath sewn along the inside of the seam.
Logan had learned the trick from a courier pilot with whom she'd shared a raucous two-day shore leave once an infinitely long time ago. She'd learned a few other tricks from him, too, but this had been the most useful one. In her younger days as a lone wolf trader she'd had plenty of uses for a tool--or a weapon--that couldn't be found in a quick search . Lately she'd only carried it out of long habit. But the Klingons on Cestyr's ship, like others before them, had missed it in their search and now Logan planned to put the garotte to its original deadly use.
She wrapped the cord once around either hand and flattened herself against the wall beside the door. Then she waited, concentrating on her breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Expand the diaphragm, contract it again. Rhythm, focus, clarity, power. She would only have one chance. If she was going to kill somebody she had damn well better be centered.
A roar of laughter in the bar followed by an expectant hush gave her warning. A moment later the latch lifted, and the door opened a crack, then a space large enough for a man to fit through. The figure stood uncertainly in the doorway for a second, unable to see into the darkness.
Logan uncoiled in a fury of movement and struck the man from behind, looping the cord around his neck and driving him to the floor with a crippling kick to the back of his knee. He struggled against the tightening noose, tried to roll against the weight on his back, but Logan held on. She gripped the cord with brutal, unthinking determination until disparate pieces of information from her hands, her eyes, her ears came together in a coherent picture in her brain. "Jesus!" she gasped. "You're nothing but a kid!"
She released the cord a fraction, enough to allow her victim to drag in a breath between fits of coughing. He put his hands to his throat and curled into a miserable ball, but made no move to attack her. She backed off from him carefully and watched him for a moment.
When he'd finally caught his breath he sat up, leaning against the wall for support. "Please. Don't kill me!" His voice confirmed what Logan had perceived. He was young, no more than a teenager. Most likely Human. And scared as hell.
"If I was going to kill you, I'd have done it the first time," she answered. "Just how old are you, anyway?"
"Fifteen. Well, I will be in a couple of months."
"Fourteen?! What the hell are you doing in a place like this? Where are your parents?"
"I, uh, they work one of the big ag complexes in the T'var Valley. I'm on my own down here."
"In other words, you ran away from home."
"You'd have run, too. I couldn't take it anymore."
"Uh-huh. So you wound up in this drainage ditch of a bar with a bunch of idiots for friends." He didn't try to defend them. She suddenly realized something else. "Please don't tell me this was going to be your first time."
"Well, uh, not really..."
"Never mind," she groaned. "I don't want to know." She considered him for a moment. She had promised to kill the first man who came through the door. Technically, she guessed, he didn't qualify. "You go back into that bar and tell your idiot friends that I will kill the first of them that steps through that door. You know I can do it, too, don't you?"
She could see his head nod in the darkness.
"I'll work to earn my keep, but not this way. I need a man; given time I'll choose one. But I won't be forced. I'll die first and I'll take as many of them with me as I can. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he answered, but he made no move to go.
"Okay, that's it. You can leave."
Still he hesitated. "I...do you want to get out of here?"
"Oh, hell, no! I love it here!" she muttered.
"I'll help you!"
She almost laughed, but stopped herself just in time. "Son--what's your name?"
"Rafe Cardoza. Well, it's Rafael, really, but I hate that."
"Rafe. I'm Kate. And thank you, but I'm not ready to make a break for it just yet. You can help me by convincing your friends I really mean it when I say I'll kill them. If you want to help them, keep them out of here. Because, by God, I'll do what I have to do."
"Okay. I'll try. But it's like you said--they're a bunch of idiots."
"Wish me luck, then."
"Good luck, Kate," he said and shyly shook her hand. Then he turned and went back through the door into the din of the bar.
Life was good for Ostyr Tyro, clan ruler and Worldlord of Xandor. His trade empire stretched from the Federation homeworlds to the Romulan Neutral Zone, from Cestus to the Klingon border. It was regrettably true that his rival Planyr Tor, Worldlord of Xantharus, had a larger fleet. But Ostyr felt confident his many alliances would soon loosen Clan Tor's claw-hold on power.
The Worldlord of Xandor let his eyes roam lovingly over the data on his viewscreen. The figures confirmed his "legal" trade in dilithium and precious ores was showing nearly as much profit as his traditional market in slaves and prostitution. It had taken many years and much hard work to establish his credentials as a legitimate businessman. But, in fact, he'd been so successful at convincing the Feds of his sincerity that nothing he did now to secure the Directorship of the Orion Syndicate was likely to create a stir. Who knew? They might even help him take over from that incompetent Chelas Brok.
And now, the hyrsta that had been the one obstacle to his happiness had been removed. The bitch Logan and her fancy ship were no longer a factor in his calculations. They were merely another mark in the profit column. He would return to Xandor with all the business she had stolen from him, and fat contracts with the Deltan Business Council, too. They had little choice but to use him now. Ostyr smiled, the expression sliding across his broad green face like an oil slick on water.
Ostyr saw the smile reflected on the face of his son, the eldest of his first wife's children, his heir. "You have done well, hanTyro. I give you the profit from Logan's sale."
Cestyr brought his hands to his face briefly, a gesture of respect. "I am grateful, P'tyr."
Ostyr squinted into his son's eyes, looking for any trace of sarcasm in him. If the son was ambitious enough to usurp his father's place in clan or councils, he gave no sign of it. Ostyr was satisfied, for the moment. "And, now, what is the response of Belingor on Deneb Kaitos Five? Will he use our services?"
"I have convinced him to sign the contract. We make our first delivery before the tenth sun."
"Excellent." Ostyr devised a sly test. "You are so efficient at serving your father's needs that I am constantly amazed you have time for your own business."
"It is my business to serve your needs, P'tyr."
The Orion laughed. "A clever answer, my son. But tell me, how goes the great real estate project on Tantua?"
For the briefest of moments, Cestyr's eyes flashed with resentment.
Good, Ostyr thought. It is not well to take criticism too meekly, even from your father.
"I own half the planet outright and control the profit on another thirty percent," Cestyr replied. "The plan is nearly complete."
"What keeps you?"
"A few farmers in the T'var are holding out. But I have plans to change their minds when I return."
"Be certain you do," Ostyr warned. "If you allow some to resist, others will begin to grow spines." The father cocked his head to consider the son. "I have yet to understand why you go to this trouble for such a miserable place. Psi Eridani is a system without profit or pleasure, that I can see. Is there some part of this story yet untold?"
Cestyr appeared to come foolishly close to sighing, but caught himself just in time. "I have explained, P'tyr. There is great wealth in iridium on Tantua."
Ostyr snorted. "Iridium! What kind of trade is that for an Orion?"
"It was the foundation of our clan."
"Oh, yes! Until the disaster at Haole. You do not intend to repeat our ancestor's folly, I hope?"
Cestyr laughed lightly. "Our honored ancestor chased a dream of glory down a wormhole. I dream only of profit."
There was something behind his son's eyes that Ostyr could not name. What is he up to? "Well, a son must make his own way in some things," Ostyr said finally. "Profit to you. Have we other business today?"
"One other matter, P'tyr. The one who helped us with Logan-- Krishnamurthy."
Ostyr spat through his teeth. "That slime-sucker. What of him?"
"He has something of importance to tell you. He insists on seeing you personally."
"Oh, he insists, does he?"
Cestyr merely smiled. "I thought you might enjoy making an example of him after you hear what he has to say."
Ostyr grinned and heaved his green-skinned bulk out of his chair. "Ah, my hanTyro. Always thinking of my happiness. I have trained you well!"
"It is my pleasure to serve you," Cestyr said.
Again, Ostyr thought he detected a trace of deviousness, but he didn't bother to pursue it. His spies would let him know if Cestyr posed a real threat. There was more pleasant business to take care of first. "Bring him in."
Cestyr left and returned with the hyrsta-borne Human. Gods, but these Human males were weak--and so pink! He had seen far too many of them during his stay on Delta Aurigae IV. "You have something to tell me?" Ostyr boomed at him and was pleased to see the Human tremble.
"Uh, yes, sir. That's right. I'm Chaz, remember, I gave you the codes for Logan's ship?"
"Of course, I remember. You think I'm an old fool?"
"No, no, 'course not. It's just that you're such an important man and all..." Chaz was beginning to sweat. He shifted from one foot to another in front of the towering Orion.
"Yes. Tell me what you came to say."
"I thought you might like to know who came to Logan's funeral. Turns out he's J.T.'s father--man, was I blown!"
"Who? And why should I care?"
"Well, that's what I mean. It wasn't just any old geez. It was Captain Kirk--you know, James Kirk of the Enterprise? At least he used to be."
Ostyr's eyes narrowed. Kirk was known to him, of course. One of the Federation's most prominent warlords. There was no accounting for these Humans--why would a man of Kirk's power choose an old woman like Logan for a lover? But then he'd heard Kirk had many lovers. Perhaps the man just liked variety. "He came for the funeral, you said."
"Well, yeah, I guess. But I ran into them in Spacedock. I thought that was really sinister. I mean, what if they suspect something? And that Vulcan, Spock, he was with them, too, and you know he's one unbelievable cyberman. He's got the highest computer rating in Starfleet."
Ostyr felt his good mood unraveling. A computer specialist and a former starship commander--and clearly bent on seeing Logan's ship. He had questioned Cestyr when he returned--why hadn't he destroyed the ship? His son had argued for leaving the ship behind to deflect suspicion. Stupid, Ostyr had thought. Simpler to leave no evidence at all. But the ploy had worked with the officials; perhaps it would work with Kirk as well.
At any rate there was one link in the chain of evidence that Ostyr would enjoy eliminating. "I imagine you think you deserve a reward for bringing me this information?"
Chaz smiled eagerly. "Well, I was hoping..."
The Orion grabbed the weakling Human by the throat and squeezed until he could feel the bones cracking between his massive fingers. He watched the Human's face turn red, then purple as he struggled for breath. Ostyr lifted his victim off the ground and shook him gently. "We are most grateful for your help," he whispered with a smile. "Oh, yes. Most grateful."
But by that time, Chaz was much too busy dying to hear him.
"Jim, is that you?"
Kirk was instantly alert, despite the long hours he'd spent at the console. "Yes, Roxanne, it's me. It's good to hear you."
"I...feel so confused. Where's Kate?"
"There's been an accident, Roxanne. Don't you remember?"
"No, I...but where is Kate?"
McCoy touched Kirk's arm. "Probably just momentary confusion," he explained. "Best not to tell her anything much now. Let her get her bearings first."
"Kate can't be here right now, Roxie. I'm taking care of you for a while. J.T. is here, too."
"Hi, Rox," J.T. said. "How are you feeling?"
"I don't know. I feel...scattered. I'm receiving information from the ship's systems--are we in Spacedock?"
"You're at home, Rox," J.T. answered. "Delta Spacedock B, Slip Seven-Three-Two, just like always."
"But how did I get here? Kate and I were on our way to Rigel Seven, transporting...the ion storm. There was an ion storm."
"Yes," Kirk responded. McCoy frowned at him, but he couldn't help pushing just a little bit. "You suffered some damage to your systems. Do you remember what happened?"
"We were watching the newsnets. It was a report about your retirement, Jim."
Kirk felt a flush of embarrassment, as if Roxanne had revealed some intimate detail of his life in a roomful of strangers. He suppressed it and went on. "What happened then, Roxanne? Do you remember what happened?"
"No, I...I don't remember anything. I was there...now I'm here. Did something happen to Kate? Please tell me. Is Kate hurt?"
Kirk looked at his companions, seeking advice. "What is her status, J.T.?"
"Readings are in the low-normal range, Jim," she answered. "The program has done its work. The rest is up to us."
The hope in her face reflected his own. He turned to the dispassionate Vulcan. "Spock?"
"I agree," Spock said. "My readings show Roxanne's systems and memory banks are operating at 93 percent of capacity."
"What's your assessment,Bones?"
McCoy shrugged. "We're way out of my league here, Jim. If this was a Human patient, I'd advise waiting a few days to discuss anything serious. But somehow I don't think that would be the best course now. I can't keep Roxanne from worrying with a sedative. Maybe you'd better go ahead and tell her."
"Jim? Are you still there? What are they talking about?"
Kirk turned back to his console. "Roxanne, something happened to you and Kate while you were in that ion storm. A week ago, you were found drifting and derelict near the location of the storm. Kate was no longer on board."
"Not on board? But where...she can't be..."
"We don't know, Roxanne." Kirk tried to reassure her. "We don't think Kate is dead. J.T. thinks Ostyr Tyro may have kidnapped her to get her out of his way. But we have no way of knowing unless you can remember what happened."
"But I can't remember--I can't!" There was an edge of panic now in the synthetic voice. Kirk had never heard anything quite like it.
"Roxanne," Spock spoke calmly. "Search your core memory. Are there any parts of it that you cannot access?"
The bridge fell quiet while Roxanne searched deep within her core being. "Yes, Spock. I can access almost everything, but there is an area that is...not responding to my attempts to access. Do you think the information is stored there?"
"It is possible that you placed the information under special protection to keep it from being retrieved by an external probe."
"Or possibly to keep from facing an unpleasant memory," McCoy pointed out. "Humans do it all the time."
Kirk swiveled in his chair, an idea breaking in a grin on his face. "Spock..."
The Vulcan nodded. "I believe the mind-meld would be useful, Captain. I will prepare myself."
Logan waited behind the door, the blood pounding in her ears. Above the roar of her fear, she could hear voices in the bar--first the boy, then others, arguing, laughing, boasting. They would have to test her, she knew. She wasn't sure herself whether she was capable of carrying out her threat. She only knew that this time, she wouldn't have the advantage of surprise.
She thought she was ready, but still she started when the door latch lifted. She crouched, waiting for the man to come past the threshold, but he stood protected by the door until his eyes adjusted to the dark. Logan froze, willing herself to stay where she was.
Then she saw his hand extend beyond the door. The hand held a phaser. Cursing, Logan threw herself against the door, slamming the man's forearm into the jamb hard enough to make him drop his weapon and howl. She swung the door open, grabbed the damaged arm and yanked the man inside, smashing his face with her forearm as he fell past her into the room.
He was big, though, and tough. Only slightly inconvenienced by the blow, he grabbed at her and caught her arm. She came up with her other hand and jabbed at his throat. Not a killing strike, but enough to make him let go in a fit of coughing.
One end of the garotte was still wrapped around her wrist. Logan leapt on the man's back and throttled him with it. He bucked and twisted; Logan clung to the cord. She could feel him weakening, but he kept his head. He rushed for the nearest wall and slammed backwards against it, crushing the breath out of her. She slumped to the floor, gasping for air.
Through a muffling fog of pain and oxygen deprivation, Logan could hear the man laughing as he rose and turned to face her. She knew she had no more than an instant to move or it would be too late. He lunged, she rolled and scrambled to her feet. She kicked at his face--once, twice, again--until he sprawled out on the floor. Then she raised her knee and brought her heel down on his neck. Instinct and the long years of martial arts training took over--the blow shattered the crucial vertebrae below his skull and ended his miserable life.
It was finished. She had actually done what she had threatened to do. She let her legs go out from under her and sank to the floor, trembling with shock. Now what the hell do I do?
Hadley and his customers saved her the trouble of deciding. They burst through the door and hit the lights, illuminating the grim scene for everyone's benefit.
"What the hell is going on here?" Hadley shouted.
Logan got to her feet and backed into the room's far corner. If she was going to have to fight them all...
"Damn, she killed that sucker!" somebody said.
"Is he dead?"
"Shit, I ain't going in there!"
"What'd she do, slit his throat?"
"No, you idiot! She strangled him!"
"As little as she is? Naw, she musta hit him with somethin'"
"Looks like the Vulcan death grip to me!"
"There ain't no Vulcan death grip, asshole."
"Shut up!" Hadley glared at the blinking crowd of gawkers. "Somebody get this pile of shit out of here."
A couple of the dead man's companions came forward. "What the hell are we supposed to do with him?" one of them demanded. "I don't want to have to talk to the Feds about this."
"Take him out and dump him in the river for all I care," Hadley said. "Just get him out of my bar."
The two struggled to pick up the dead man. The crowd parted for them as they hauled him out, then closed back in again, waiting to see what would happen next.
"You might get away with one body," Logan said as calmly as she could. "But any more and the Feds will be down on you like my heel was on that jerk's neck. Anyway, I'm not sure any of your customers are interested in fighting for it. Are you, boys?"
Heads shook all around. Logan thanked God that the crowd was made up of support workers and low-level techs. A gang of criminal hard-asses would have jumped her without a second thought.
Hadley exhaled loudly. "Okay. You win. Boys, meet the new bartender."
Logan saw Rafe Cardoza standing at the doorway, his eyes wide with something approaching awe. She winked at him. "First round's on the house," she offered brightly and followed the cheering crowd to the bar.
After so many years of study and practice, Spock was adept at the mind-meld techniques of his home planet. He no longer verbalized the mantras that less-experienced Vulcan youths spoke to ease one mind's approach to another. He simply prepared himself and reached out. And Roxanne, who had once used her ability to touch the minds of others to torture and kill, opened her matrix to him willingly. Kirk, watching from Spock's side, marveled at his skill--and her trust.
The two of them spoke in the same voice:
"The ion storm is causing too much interference. I can't read anything. Kate's worried... Warp six. They're still closing... Who are they? Orion design. A marauder. What the hell do they want with us? ... I am Cestyr, son of Ostyr Tyro, captain of the Deathwatch. Surrender your ship to me and I will spare your life... Arm phasers and target that ship. Fire!...I'm losing port shields! They're down to thirty percent! Kate, they're all going--I can't compensate! ...Dropping! They're all dropping! My programming ...they have the codes, they have our frequency codes! ...Logan! You have no shields. Prepare to be boarded...Go to hell! I'll kill your people as they reintegrate. Too late...Kate, Kate! It's my fault--I must have revealed the codes somehow... Kragh, you and Koregh transport her to the ship and confine her in the cargo bay. I have found the computer interface, Lord... No!... Excellent. Dump the files... No! Remember! Survive!... Be thorough. I want the soul of this talking ship. And don't leave anything for the Feds to find. NO!! SURVIVE! NO!!STOPSTOPSTOPSTOP!!
"Spock!" Kirk shook him to break the contact, but he all could see was a deep well of horror in Spock's eyes as the Vulcan shouted the helpless words over and over again. "Roxanne, let him go! Spock!"
Kirk hesitated a second longer, then struck the Vulcan full in the face. Spock shook his head slightly and the film clouding his eyes cleared. He looked up, fully present once again. "Thank you, Captain."
"My God," McCoy breathed. "It sounded like..."
"Rape," J.T. finished, her voice sharp with anger. "I'd like to strangle Cestyr Tyro with my own hands."
Kirk found his chair and dropped into it. He turned to the console. "Roxanne, are you there?"
"Yes, Jim. Is Spock all right?"
"I am unharmed, Roxanne," Spock said. He murmured a long phrase in Vulcan, a prayer for forgiveness and healing.
Roxanne spoke the ritual response, gleaned from his mind in their moment of oneness.
Spock turned to Kirk. "Jim, it is as you suspected. Cestyr and several members of his crew boarded the ship. From the images in Roxanne's mind I can tell you that they rendered Kate unconscious and removed her from the bridge."
"Then Cestyr obviously intended something other than killing her." Kirk tried to tell himself this was an encouraging sign, that Cestyr was after profit, not pleasure, in keeping Kate alive.
Spock nodded. "Cestyr then ordered Roxanne's data banks stripped, hoping to get at her living core. He failed--Roxanne was able to protect it. Her mental disciplines are quite advanced."
"The word you're looking for is courage, Spock," McCoy said.
"But you have it all wrong," Roxanne protested. "It was my fault. They had our shield frequency codes. How could I have let him have them?"
"Who?" Kirk asked.
Spock turned to look at J.T. Kirk's eyes followed to see his daughter's jaw was set in a familiar grim tension. "Chaz," she replied. "It had to be him."
"That character we saw you with this morning?" Kirk could hardly credit the boy with that much intelligence.
"It wasn't your fault this happened, Roxie, it was mine," she said, biting off the words. She glanced at Kirk. "I got a little carried away one night and invited him up to see the ship."
Kirk had no trouble imagining how she might have gotten carried away. After all, she was an adult and, well...but with that little weasel?
"He was like a kid, poking and playing with everything on the bridge," J.T. went on. "Kate had asked me to check a few systems with Roxie, but every time I turned my back, Chaz got into something else. I finally got fed up and kicked him off the ship."
"But not before he had a chance to steal the codes out from under you," Kirk noted, feeling suddenly like he was upbraiding a wayward cadet.
"Who knew he had half a brain?" J.T. shot back. "That certainly wasn't what interested me about him. I refused to see him again after that, but I guess he was right when he said he'd gotten what he wanted out of our relationship."
"Clan Tyro must have paid him well for that information," Kirk concluded. "I think we should have a talk with young Chaz--do you know where to find him?"
"Yes," J.T. said tightly. "I know where to find him."
"Good, let's go," Kirk said. "Bones, you and Spock stay with Roxanne. We won't be long."
McCoy groaned. "Roxanne, do you have any supplies on board? At least I could get some sustenance."
"Certainly, Doctor," Roxanne replied. "What would you like?"
Kirk smiled and clapped a hand on McCoy's shoulder on his way off the bridge. He followed J.T. down the ladder to the transporter bay and watched her set the controls to send them downplanet. As she took her place beside him on the transporter pad he finally gave up trying to resist asking her, "What did you find to like in that guy anyway?"
J.T.'s face hardened into stone. "Nothing you can see with his clothes on."
Kirk had just enough time to regret asking the question before the transporter beam disassembled him into his component molecules.
He awoke in the still hour before dawn, momentarily disoriented by a sense of space that did not match the confines of a ship's bunk or his apartment bedroom. He floated, untethered, in a cradle of sighing leaves, borne up by a breeze that carried the perfume of archerwood and night rose. For a long moment, he simply drifted there, content to feel the whisper of air on his skin, to breathe in the smell of growing things. After a while, he put out his hand to touch the smooth wood of the sleeping platform beneath the futon and felt full consciousness returning.
He looked up and recognized the stars through the obscuring canopy of trees. Nippon-ni Colony, Arcturus III. An inn fashioned after what the owner imagined was an ancient Terran Japanese style, surrounded by terraced gardens. A small, spare room, the delicate rice-paper wall panels folded back to let in the softly scented night.
Coming here had been Kate's idea, an idea he was only now beginning to appreciate. They had spent the first afternoon of their leave together making love in the room, the dappled sunlight diffused by the closed rice-paper screens. He had noticed the way the light played on her skin, the way she smiled in invitation, the way her body welcomed him despite the months apart. He had noticed nothing else.
It had always been like that for them; so little time together, so much love to share that they could barely speak until they'd fed their hunger for each other. That hadn't changed, though the years had had an undeniable impact on him in other ways. Kate could still create a desire in him so strong it was as if she'd managed to turn time inside out and they were thirty-five again, just beginning.
He could feel an echo of that desire resonating in him even now. He smiled--there were limits, after all. Foolish to think he'd be able to act on the impulse after the demands he'd made on his body that afternoon.
He reached for her, wanting only to touch her, to hold her. She was there beside him, warm and gently breathing beneath the light cover. How many times had he reached for her, knowing she wasn't there? How many nights without her in twenty-five years?
He lifted the cover and moved closer, pressing his chest against her back, his groin against her hip. He brushed the hair from her neck and kissed her there, inhaling her sweet, earthy musk. She stirred, murmuring his name sleepily. His hand slid across her shoulder to her breast, cupped her briefly, tenderly, before withdrawing to rest on her side.
She moved, inviting his touch, and he began to think perhaps he wouldn't go back to sleep right away. She moaned, stretching languidly, and he discovered he wanted her again, wanted her with a deep longing that was so much more than merely physical that his body easily broke the bonds of time.
He caressed the satiny skin of her belly, the silky mound between her thighs. He felt her open under his hand as she turned toward him. God, she was as ready as he was; her flesh was melting under his fingers.
"I've been dreaming of you," she whispered, tilting her head up to kiss him. He covered her eager mouth with his, drinking in the taste of her, the feel of her. With his hand he traced tantalizing circles around the heart of her desire until he could feel the slow, hot pulse overtaking her with inexorable momentum.
She gave in to it and came as he entered her, her face transcendantly beautiful in the moment of her rapture. In a heartbeat he was coming, too, losing himself in the heat of her body, in the heat of her passion. It was a climax like no other, born from some hidden emotional womb deep within him. It was as if he poured his life, his heart, his soul into her in that instant of indescribable ecstasy. He gave them all willingly, unafraid, holding nothing back. After all their years of love and loss, after all the nights they'd spent dreaming of each other from uncountable lightyears apart, he had no doubts. If there was one woman in the universe who would keep his heart safe for him, it was Kate Logan.
"Are you really here or am I still dreaming?" she said after a time, a smile in her voice.
"If this is a dream," he answered, "I
never want to wake up."
Kirk awoke in the darkened hotel room, the blood still surging in his veins from the power of the dream. He could almost feel the warmth of Kate's body in his arms. Their last leave together--was it only three months ago? We were so close that time, Kate. How could I have let you go again?
He sat up, rubbing at his face with his hands. He was exhausted, and one glance at the chrono told him why. It had been a scant four hours since he'd thrown himself across the bed to sleep. The trip into the city to find Chaz had been a waste of time. The boy hadn't been at his sleeping cubicle, and no one at his usual sleazy haunts had seen him.
After a very long night, Kirk had finally put J.T. on a transit for home and headed back to his hotel. He'd checked in with Roxanne to find Spock was tinkering with her computer systems while McCoy had sensibly found a bunk in the ship's living quarters. Convinced at last that there was nothing more he could do, Kirk had given in to his body's demand for sleep.
A demand his body still made--insistently. Kirk lay down again and was just about gone when the shrill beep of the comm unit dragged him back into the waking world. He swore and slapped at the audio connect pad. "Kirk here."
"Captain, I'm sorry to disturb you."
"Yes, Spock. What is it?"
"Roxanne's autorover program has picked up a reference to J.T., logged at a police precinct office near her home."
Kirk heard the words, but they didn't begin to make sense to him. "I'm a little groggy, Spock. Explain."
"Understandable," Spock said evenly. "The hour is quite late."
"Yes." Kirk tried hard to be patient. "Yes, it is, Spock. Now, what is this all about?"
"Roxanne's autorover program is functioning now, as are all her computer systems. The program scans the newsnets, public records nets and specific targeted commnets for the names of certain people known to Roxanne."
"Roxanne uses information as the basis of her growth as a sentient being, Jim. She uses her access to various computer networks to--I believe 'graze' would be the proper term. The information she seeks through this particular program also allows her to watch over those she considers to be her friends and family and to keep their personal files up-to-date."
"I see." Kirk massaged his temple in an attempt to forestall the massive headache that threatened to bloom there. "And the scan picked up something on J.T."
"At 0315.2, the program detected a computer entry for Juliette Tamara Logan in the event log of Police Precinct 32."
"Are you saying J.T.'s in jail, Spock?"
"Not precisely. The entry states she is being held for questioning in the murder of Charles H. Krishnamurthy."
"So, let's run through it again, shall we?" The police inspector favored J.T. with a little smile, a smile that plainly said I've got all night--how about you?
J.T. felt like she wanted to rip off her skin. She was tired, she had experienced the full gamut of emotions known to Humans in the space of thirty-six hours and she had a hell of headache. She, most decidedly, did not have all night.
"When did you last see Charles Krishnamurthy?"
"Yesterday morning," J.T. said dully. "About 10:00."
"In Delta 'B' Spacedock. Where you two had an altercation."
"We had a conversation."
"Several witnesses described it as an argument that might have come to blows if not for the intervention of a bystander."
"They exaggerate. The conversation was not pleasant, but it wasn't a fistfight. And that bystander was my father."
"Yes, so you've explained." The woman squinted at her notes. "This man was also with you when you visited Krishnamurthy's apartment this evening."
J.T. ignored the slight. So what if Jim Kirk's name wasn't included in her family records? "We were looking for Chaz. Not something I'd waste any time doing if I'd killed him."
The inspector looked up in feigned surprise. "Ms. Logan, please understand we have not charged you with anything."
J.T. stood up. "Right. And according to the law, that means I'm free to go."
"Of course," the woman said. "Just one more thing." She held her hand out to the chair J.T. had just vacated.
J.T. sat down again. The top of her head felt like it was slowly separating from the rest of her skull.
"Do you have any idea who might have wanted Mister Krishnamurthy dead?"
"You mean besides half the population of Delta Aurigae Four?" J.T. replied. The inspector smiled briefly. "Sure. Try the Orion Trade Delegation. Ask for Clan Tyro."
The inspector looked at her like the top of her head actually had come off. "That would be Ostyr Tyro--head of the Orion Trade Delegation, intergalactic trade tycoon, one of several Orion worldlords in line for the Directorship. That Ostyr Tyro."
"Ostyr Tyro--slave trader, kidnapper and murderer. That Ostyr Tyro," J.T. snapped. "The rest of it is just for public consumption."
"You're suggesting Ostyr Tyro murdered an unemployed dock worker for no apparent reason and dumped his body in an alley near your home. Would you care to explain why he would want to do that?"
"Chaz was working for Clan Tyro; I explained all that in my statement."
"Yes, so you did. It's quite a story," the inspector said. "And as proof you offer not an official ship's log, but the scrambled memories of a creature integrated with the ship, memories recalled under Vulcan mind-meld." .
"That about covers it."
"I don't suppose you have any corroborating evidence?"
J.T. stood up again. "You're the police inspector. Don't you get paid to find it?"
The inspector stood and glared at J.T. "I get paid to find murderers, not to harass wealthy and respected businessmen. You can go. But while this investigation is ongoing, I'll have to ask you to remain onplanet. I have a feeling I'm not done with you."
J.T. turned on her heel and walked out. She made a good show of it, too. But when the inspector's door closed behind her she sagged like a circuit-fused android. She leaned for a moment against the smooth corridor wall, trying to find the strength to face Laria and Dartha. They were such worriers; they'd be sure to blow this all out of proportion. She wondered foggily how many times Kate had put on a brave face for their benefit.
With a sigh, she pushed off the wall and squared her shoulders, preparing herself for what she'd find in the waiting room. What she found was beyond anything she was prepared for.
Laria wasn't there--a bad sign, J.T. knew from past experience. Without Laria's cooling influence, Dartha Allen's temper was hot enough to blister paint. J.T. had fully expected that blowtorch to be turned on her, but it seemed Jim Kirk had walked into it first.
"You son of a bitch!" Allen hissed at him. "Where the hell were you? She was with you--you were supposed to be taking care of her! How could you let something like this happen?"
Allen's hands flew at Kirk's face. He grabbed her wrists just before she made contact. "Dartha, I ..."
"I tried to tell them," she said. "I knew as soon as you showed up, trouble would be right behind you. As if we didn't have trouble enough!"
"I'm trying to help," Kirk responded evenly. J.T., immobilized at the doorway, could only admire his courage. He hadn't even broken a sweat in the face of all that heat.
Allen shoved Kirk's restraining hands into his chest and took a step back. "We don't need your help. Not now. Kate needed your help twenty-five years ago--did we see your sorry butt then? Were you anywhere to be found when your six-year-old child nearly died of Vegan choriomeningitis? Did I miss you pulling out the credits when it was time to send her to school? No, I don't think so. So don't expect me to welcome your help with open arms now."
Something in the set of Kirk's jaw, something in the measured way he doled out his response, tipped J.T. off. She could sense the anger in him, an anger as white-hot as Allen's, but banked, waiting for an appropriate outlet. "That's not fair and you know it, Dartha," he said finally. "That was Kate's decision, not mine."
"What choice did you leave her?" she fired back. "She loved you, you bastard. She waited for you all these years. So here you are. But it's too late, baby. Kate's dead, and you are just too damn late."
"No!" J.T. broke in, stung out of her passivity. She moved to face Allen, a position that left her at Kirk's side. "Kate's not dead. My father is here to help me find her. And what he can't do for me, I'll do for myself."
From the corner of her eye, she saw Kirk turn his head to look at her. When she had a moment, she'd have to think about the expression she saw on his face.
Allen's reaction was not nearly so positive. "Oh, I see," she sneered. "It's the old 'blood is thicker than water' trip, huh? Well, let me tell you something, sweetheart, something you just haven't lived long enough to know. When it comes to raising a child, biology counts for shit. Time counts. Heartache counts. Worry and plain old exasperation count. In your case, Laria counts, mostly. I guess you know she was too upset even to come down here."
"There was nothing here to be upset about. This was a routine interview," J.T. said. "And I haven't been a child in a long time."
"Okay, then you can stop acting like one," Dartha's answer came back. "You can stop running with trash like Chaz in the first place. You can accept the fact that we're all going to have to go on without Kate. You can start living up to your responsibilities."
"My responsibilities?!" J.T. shouted. "As I see it, my first responsibility is to Kate. When I've discharged that one--when I've found her, dead or alive--then I'll move on to the others. Not before."
Allen turned to Kirk. "This is your doing. You're encouraging her."
"I believe her, Dartha," he said. "Is it so hard to believe?"
"Now you're going to tell me how I ought to feel?" Dartha glared at him, her fire suddenly frozen at the heart of a diamond of ice. "You?" She shook her head slowly. "Never."
She turned to include J.T. in her cold condemnation. "You obviously don't want to hear what I have to say. Okay, you do what you have to do. But leave me out of it; leave Laria out of it. We've had a death in our family. Leave us alone to grieve in peace."
J.T. watched Dartha leave the room, regret settling over her like a sodden blanket.
"Maybe I should go after her," Kirk offered.
"No," she answered. "Let her cool off. Laria will take care of her."
J.T. became aware of Kirk's hand resting lightly on her shoulder. "You okay?" he said.
She looked up at him, registering the concern in his eyes. She nodded. "Yeah. You?"
He grinned. "I think I still have all my vital organs. Thanks for the rescue."
"It was the least I could do," she said. "After all, I'm the one who got you into this mess."
Kirk merely smiled and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Let's get back to the ship. We have a lot to talk about."
His hand dropped to his side as they passed through the door, but J.T. could still feel its imprint on her shoulder--warm, comforting. Dartha was right, really, she thought. I don't even know this man, and I've already thrown in with him warp, impulse and thrusters.
But then, there'd been that look of secret pride on his face, that quick second of unguarded emotion. Her trust was a small price to pay for what she'd seen in that glance. Looks like we're in this thing together, old man. Just don't let me down.
"This Kirk worries me," Ostyr Tyro said to his firstborn.
Cestyr lifted his head from the massage table and peered at his father through the soupy mist of the steam room. "He is a toothless old slimedevil."
Ostyr snarled at the young girl who kneaded his aching calves. "Take care, you misshapen hyrsta, or I'll have your ears cut off." The girl lightened her touch and the Orion returned to his gloomy thoughts. "Not every old slimedevil is without teeth. You, especially, would do well to remember that, hanTyro."
"Surely, P'tyr, you do not suggest any comparison between yourself and that Federation slave?"
Ostyr laughed in spite of himself. "Ah, Cestyr, of all my children you are my favorite. You should have been a diplomat!"
"Oh, but I am, P'tyr! An ambassador of your empire."
The old Orion harumphed good-naturedly. Perhaps the blessed heat and the massage were having a mellowing effect. "Still, this son of a Federation whore is a smart one. I can feel his breath on my neck."
"So we eliminate him," Cestyr said with a shrug. "Along with the others in his clan."
"Yes, but not on Delta Aurigae IV," Ostyr warned. "Too many curious officials."
Cestyr sat up and waved off the servant who had been attending him. "Kirk is known to value vengeance. He personally killed the Klingon who murdered his son. It should be easy to lure him into space with the hope of learning who killed his lover."
Ostyr smiled. "I see you have been attending to your studies."
"You have always said one cannot gut an enemy without the proper knife."
"So I have. How do you propose to wield this knife?"
"If Kirk suspects us, he will be watching us," the son replied. "The Terrans have a proverb: the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. I will file a trade itinerary with Delta Spacedock that includes the sector where the ship was found. With a stop on Netherworld."
"Netherworld!" Ostyr rose to a sitting postion so quickly the masseuse snatched her hands back and trembled in terror. The Orion jerked his head to dismiss her. "Masterful, my hanTyro! Who would notice the disappearance of a few unlucky travelers in that hellhole!"
"I have enough brothels on Netherworld an eyeless cripple could stumble into one," Cestyr said. "And no one in Federation space will even realize Kirk is missing until there is no hope of recovering any evidence."
Ostyr barked out a laugh and slapped his son on the back so hard he left a dark green impression on the younger man's skin. "Perfect! But what if the Terran is too stupid to follow your trail?"
"He will follow," Cestyr assured him. "Kirk is stubborn and blindly loyal, even for a Human. He will follow even though he knows it may end in a trap. The bait will be irresistable."
McCoy greeted Kirk's return to Roxanne's bridge with typical perceptiveness. "You look like hell," he commented.
"Thank you, Doctor," Kirk replied. "Is that a medical opinion?"
"Just an observation. Spock tells me you spent the night in jail."
Spock opened his mouth to protest, but J.T. cut him off. "No, but the police station was one of the nicer places we visited on our little wild goose chase."
"I assume the police were no help," McCoy said.
"You assume correctly," Kirk said. Fatigue grated like sand in his voice. He leaned against a bulkhead and rubbed at the back of his neck.
"So what do we do now?" McCoy said. "March into the Orion Trade Delegation office and demand that Ostyr tell us what happened to Kate?"
"Such a strategy would be unlikely to yield positive results," Spock remarked.
"It was a joke, Spock," McCoy replied. "If you want a serious suggestion, I'd say drop this fool's quest right now." He pinned Kirk with a pointed stare. "It is my considered medical judgment that you are jeopardizing your mental and physical health with this."
"That's enough, Doctor," Kirk snapped. He knew his anger was misdirected, but he was too tired and too frustrated to keep it in check another minute. "I'm no longer captain of the Enterprise and you no longer have medical authority to question what I do. If you want out of this 'fool's quest,' then go. No one's stopping you."
Kirk wanted the words back as soon as he'd said them, but the way to recall them eluded him through the stretch of tense silence that followed.
"My responsibility to you has always been based on something more than Starfleet regulations," McCoy said at last. "Unless you intend to end our friendship, you'll just have to put up with my attempts to keep you alive and healthy, however disagreeable they may be."
Kirk nodded, accepting the rebuke. "Sorry, Bones. I'm old, I'm tired, and I'm not sure what to do next. I'd appreciate it if you could make allowance for all that."
"I usually do," McCoy said drily.
"Let me try and put it another way," Kirk said. "I may be going crazy, but you're not obligated to go there with me. I wouldn't blame you if you dropped out now in favor of a good night's sleep."
McCoy shook his head. "If you're determined to do this, I'm bound to go along. How else can I save your fleabitten hide?"
Kirk smiled. "Thanks. I have a feeling it'll need saving before this is over."
"Captain, I have some information that may be of use." Roxanne spoke quietly into the fresh silence. Of course, she would have been following the conversation on her bridge, Kirk realized, though he had nearly forgotten about her. "Cestyr Tyro has filed a trade itinerary with Delta Spacedock. It is not very detailed, but it does list the Rigel system as his destination."
Kirk's mouth opened in surprise. "He intends to return to Rigel? Does he list any stops?"
"One. On Netherworld."
McCoy groaned. "That figures."
"Convenient of him to post an itinerary," J.T. said acidly.
Kirk began to pace the ship's crowded bridge. "Yes, isn't it?"
"It is a deliberate ruse, of course," Spock pointed out.
"Of course," Kirk agreed. "But is he leading us away from the evidence or toward it?"
"I'd say he's planning another ambush in deep space--and we won't have any better chance of surviving it than Kate did," J.T. said.
"Actually," Roxanne noted, "the Deathwatch's armament and shielding is no better than ours."
"But this time our shields will be intact," Kirk added.
"Oh, that makes me feel a lot better," McCoy drawled. "What happens if both father and son gang up on us?"
"It would be difficult for Ostyr to engage in a battle in space without jeopardizing his status as a legitimate businessman," Spock said. "That is presumably why Cestyr was chosen to attack Kate in the first place. I would say they mean to waylay us on Netherworld instead."
"Yes." Kirk stopped pacing to look at the Vulcan. "What are the chances that Kate is on Netherworld, Spock?"
Spock's eyebrows lifted in an indication of interest. "That would depend on the number of planets in the sector which would also serve Clan Tyro's purposes."
"Their purposes?" McCoy said.
"From their point of view, the ideal planet would be characterized by little or no organized government," Spock replied. "Haphazard law enforcement; undeveloped resources; a high ratio of males to females; a lax system of societal mores. And, of course, a basis for profitmaking."
"Sounds like Netherworld to me," McCoy agreed.
"In fact, Doctor, many colonies go through such a stage early in their development, though as the colony grows older and more established such characteristics change."
"Spare me the lecture, Spock."
"There are twenty-three such planets within one hundred parsecs of the coordinates where Kate and I were attacked," Roxanne offered. "All but two support primarily Humanoid colonies. Netherworld is located somewhat further away--at a distance of 550 light years around Tau Orionis. But it is larger and. . . well, wilder than many of the others. Cestyr is known to run much of the prostitution on the planet."
"I'd say one chance in twenty is good enough for a start," Kirk said. "If Ostyr doesn't make his move there, at least we can snoop around a little and maybe pick up some information."
"Or a social disease," McCoy muttered.
J.T. dropped into the helm seat and began to power up. "Set course for Netherworld, Captain?"
"Why not? Since we're all up, we might as well get an early start," he answered, settling into the jump seat next to her with a familiar buzz of anticipation. "Roxanne, inform Spacedock of our intentions, please."
"Aye, sir," Roxanne replied. After a moment, she added, "Spacedock has cleared us for immediate departure."
"Very good." Kirk suddenly felt far better than he had any right to. "Take us out, J.T."
"Aye, Captain," she acknowledged. "We're on our way."
Dawn was not far off. The darkness was thick and still, awaiting the first stirring of the morning air. A single flying lizard peeped in the clutch of dusty shrubbery under the window. The last of the bar's customers had stumbled home hours ago. Hadley lay snoring in his own bed. If she was to have a chance at all, it would have to be now.
She rose from the mattress and gathered the few things that would be of value--one or two items of clothing, some food and water saved from her rations, the credit chips she had pilfered from the pockets of drunken dock workers. Then she stuck the makeshift knife in her belt and took the garrotte from its hiding place.
The door to her room was no longer locked every night. There was no need; the locks on the bar doors couldn't be disabled from the inside without the encrypter. Hadley kept the encrypter on a chain around his fat neck. She had decided she might well have to kill him to get it.
She crossed the dim, deserted bar with her bindle and left it by the door to the alley. Silently she climbed the stairs to the second level, where Hadley slept. A floorboard creaked on the landing. She stopped, heart slamming against her chest, and waited. There was no break in the rumble of Hadley's snore.
Hadley had never allowed her upstairs; she didn't know the layout of the rooms. Still, there was no mistaking where Hadley was. She followed the sound of snoring to his room and felt for the door latch. It was locked; no surprise. Hadley may have looked like a slob, but there was nothing slovenly about his security measures.
The lock was not part of the sophisticated security system, however. It was just an uncomplicated mechanical device meant to keep out pilfering servants. She had thought ahead and fashioned a tool to pick the lock from part of a container she found in the trash. The trick would be opening the door without waking Hadley.
She stood in front of the door, struggling to control her breathing, and ran through the steps in her mind. Finally she brought her right hand to her breast pocket, found the slim, twisted piece of metal that would do the job, positioned it carefully in her fingers. With her left hand she gently grasped the door latch and turned it until it caught, securing it against a betraying rattle. She felt for the keyhole with the tip of one finger, then inserted the metal pick.
Sweat beaded on her forehead and the backs of her hands as she turned the tool first one way, then another, feeling for the tumblers within the lock. A tiny scratch of metal on metal sent her heart into her throat. She froze, listening, but the snoring inside the room went on without a pause. She shook an errant lock of hair out of her eyes and started again. Damn it, the thing wasn't turning--there! The latch opened with a muffled snick.
This time the sound made some impact on Hadley's slumbering consciousness. He snuffled noisily and rolled to his side. She stood at the open doorway, not daring to breathe until she heard the snores begin again. She could see his massive form in the light from the sputtering lightcell outside the window. She had planned the next step as carefully as all the others, but on the threshold of carrying it out, she hesitated. It was no easy thing to kill a man in cold blood, even a man as repulsive as Rondo Hadley.
She crept closer and stood over the bed. His snores thundered in her ears. If only the encrypter--yes, there it was! Hadley's mountainous back was turned towards her and she could see the dark thong hanging slackly against the lighter background of his undershirt. The encrypter itself, the size of a data card, was invisible in the shadows of the rumpled bedsheets, but she was certain she would find it at the end of the thong.
She slipped the knife out of her belt and took a deep breath. She reached for the thong, caught it in one hand and sliced it in two with the knife. Hadley snorted and shifted. She brought the knife within an inch of the artery just below his ear and waited, breathless, adrenaline flooding her body. After an eternity, he began to snore again. She exhaled silently.
She felt carefully for the encrypter, clutched it in a shaking hand and began to slip it off the severed thong. But it wasn't going to be that simple. Hadley awoke with a start, turned and saw her, rose up quicker than any thought and snatched at her. There was no option. She held the knife as she'd been trained to do so many years ago at the Academy and slashed down and away at his vulnerable throat. Blood erupted darkly from the fatal gash as Hadley's angry growl degenerated into a choking gargle.
She grabbed the encrypter and pelted back down the hallway. She stumbled and slid down the stairs, fumbled to insert the encrypter in the control panel and disable the locks. At last the panel lights flashed green and the locking mechanisms shot back, allowing the doors to be opened. Willing her weak legs to carry her, she scooped up her belongings and raced for the end of the alley.
As she rounded the corner to the street, she collided with someone in the darkness--a Starfleet uniform; a muscular body, not tall, but discernably male; the slightest hint of a familiar shaving lotion. "My God! Jim?"
"Kate!" His hands reached to steady her. She could just make out his smile in the darkness. "Looks like I'm a little late to be the hero."
She allowed herself to lean on him. "Just get me out
of here," she told him. "I'll give you all the credit."
"Kate?" The voice clamored for attention, a little louder than necessary.
Logan started and nearly fell off her stool behind the bar. On the other side of the slick bar top, Rafe Cardoza watched her anxiously. She grinned at him, embarrassed. "Sorry. Guess I dozed off. I haven't been getting much sleep lately." She got up and stretched. "Can I get you something?"
The boy tried to take a surreptitious look at his credit chit. When he saw Logan watching him, he blushed. "No, I, uh, guess not."
There was no one else in the bar, though it was long past noon. The heat and the dust outside must have kept everyone on the job in the comfort of environmental control. Hadley, too, had disappeared for the moment. Logan pulled Cardoza a glass of Flavrwater and set it in front of him. "On the house," she said.
He smiled shyly at her. "Thanks."
"Not working today?"
She'd seen enough of the boy in the days since he'd been her first "customer" to know something was wrong. "What's the matter? They put you on night shift?"
He shook his head. "They jerked my ticket."
"You got fired? What for?"
He shrugged, then winced. Logan noticed that he carried his left arm a little closer to his side than usual. "Rafe, what happened? Are you hurt?"
The boy refused to meet her eyes. "I fell off a loader and banged myself up some. I couldn't lift anything after that so they jerked me."
Logan didn't know whether to be angry at a scrape-and-run mining operation so exploitative it discarded injured workers rather than taking care of them or glad that the boy had been given a chance to evaluate his situation. "Maybe it's time you thought about going back home, Rafe," she said.
"I'm not going home!"
The outburst cost him, Logan could see. She judged he'd broken a rib, at least. "Rafe, you're hurt," she said. "You can't work. How do you expect to live?"
"I've got some credits saved up."
Logan let pass for the moment that she already knew he didn't have the price of a beer. "Good. That ought to just get you back to the T'var Valley." She watched him sulk for a while, then covered his hand with hers. "Come on, things can't be that bad at home. Your parents must be worried about you."
"They're not worried about me," he said bitterly. "They're worried about how to get the crops in. They're worried about paying back their debts. They're worried about losing their precious piece of dirt. But they're not worried about me. I'm just another farmhand to them."
A smile threatened to escape Logan's control. The adolescent's lament, Logan thought. She could remember the same speech dropping from J.T.'s mouth a few years back. But it never would have occurred to J.T. to run away from home. Not with Dartha to contend with. "Surely you've made your point by now, Rafe." She grinned at him. "At least they'd be happy to get their farmhand back."
His head snapped up, but he saw she was kidding and smiled. "Yeah, I guess so."
"How much is on that credit chit?"
"Huh? Oh, not much," he said, pulling it out to peer at it. "But that's okay. I can rip what I need from any computer access."
Logan stared at him. "You can break into the banking net?"
"Oh, hell, no!" he said, laughing. "Even in this dump security on the banking net is impossible. I just hack into some supply depot--into the inventory, you know? Then I trade around on certain private commnets--my load of dunsels for somebody else's load of whatevers--until someone is willing to give me credits for what I've got."
"You do this on a regular basis?" she asked him, mildly horrified. Obviously Cardoza wasn't quite the innocent she took him for.
"Nah," he said. "I used to watch netsharks doing it on the terminal at home when I was supposed to be doing my homework or figuring the farm accounts. I stopped a shark from trading a load of our four-three right out from under us one time."
"Quadrotriticale. It's a special kind of--"
"Wheat. Yeah, I've hauled some in my time." Logan tried to imagine the skills of a teenager whose idea of fun was to "watch" those kinds of transactions taking place on the commnets--and learn enough to stop a robbery in progress. Whaddaya think? she asked herself. Good enough to disable Hadley's system?
"But if I was going to do it, I wouldn't stick around for the fish to find me," Cardoza was saying. "The trick is to hit it once for a big bite, then get out so they can't trace you."
The heat and the dust swirled outside the bar doors. Logan watched it, thinking. She could hear Hadley clumping around upstairs. She didn't have much time. "Rafe, you wanted to help get me out of here. Looks like now's the time, kid."
"You mean right now? Just walk out?"
"If it was that easy I'd have been gone days ago," she said, keeping her voice low. "The transponder in my arm would set off the alarm the minute I hit the door."
"Hadley has a bitch of a security system. Do you think you could disable it?"
Cardoza shrugged. "Most of them are pretty simple. Uses an encrypter, right?"
"How did you know?"
He pointed behind the bar at the smooth plasteel panel that shielded the system controls. "Baringa Barrier Mark Four. We used to have one like it on the coop stores." He looked at her arm. "Personal transponders were an option for disabling the system. Guess Hadley had one adapted."
"Yeah. Creative guy. So, could you do it?"
"Sure. I could go in through a public BelComm terminal."
"How long would it take to do that and get us a few credits to work with, too?"
He thought about it. "An hour. Maybe two."
"Hadley usually locks up about 0300. Give him an hour to get to sleep."
The boy grinned widely and nodded. "Zip easy."
"Now, tell me where to meet you," she said quickly, imagining that she heard Hadley's heavy step on the stairs. "You're going home tonight, Rafe. And I'm going with you."
At 0415 hours Hadley was still in the bar arguing over the price of repairing his malfunctioning replicator. The repair tech must have known Hadley was desperate; the riot that ensued when the crashing mechanism started serving up something that tasted like mushroom water could be heard clear down to the dock warehouses. Still, Hadley wouldn't pay the woman what she demanded.
So they argued--and Kate Logan paced her tiny room with an agitation she didn't bother to conceal. Damn it, just shut the hell up and pay the woman! It's not like there's another repair tech down the street, you cheap bastard.
Through the door, Logan could hear Hadley haggling, alternately browbeating and cajoling the unmoving tech in a vain hope of lowering the price. She prayed Rafe would encounter some minor obstacle in his search for access to Hadley's security system, just enough to hold him up until the quibbling in the bar was resolved. God knew what would happen when Rafe's codebreaker came through. Shit, for all I know the damn thing could announce Open, Sesame in twelve languages before it opens the door, she thought. Then Hadley could ease his pain at paying to fix that replicator by breaking my neck.
At last she heard Hadley say, "Okay. Just so it's working by tomorrow night." They talked a while longer--the details of schedules and payments. Then the repair tech walked out and shut the door behind her.
Logan heard Hadley chuckle to himself as he set the security locks. He obviously thought he had the better end of the deal. Logan froze as his step approached her door, hesitated, retreated. She had only begun to breathe again when she heard the security alarm.
"Son of a bitch!" Hadley hissed as he ran to the control panel. "I told that asshole a million times this thing is too frigging sensitive." He punched at the disable, and the alarm died.
Logan crouched at her door. God, Rafe, let up for a minute. If you set it off again, Hadley will stomp me flat.
Hadley waited, making sure the system was set properly. Logan waited with him, her heart beating rapidly in her chest. She heard him move, but he wasn't shuffling off toward the stairs--he was coming back to her room. What the hell could he want? He seldom bothered her after she'd closed down the bar. Jesus, why tonight of all nights?
She stripped off her shoes, unzipped the front of her jumpsuit and prepared to make a dive for her pallet. But the door slammed open before she could take a step. Hadley loomed drunkenly at the threshold.
"You're still awake," he wheezed.
Oh, God, not this. Not now! "It's a little hard to sleep when somebody's shouting in the next room." Logan shifted, trying to find a defensible position in the close space. There wasn't one.
Hadley took a step forward. She could smell the stale beer and old sweat on him. "Maybe you just need a little something to relax you."
Logan brushed roughly past him into the bar. As casually as she could she grabbed a glass and poured herself a beer. "Don't mind if I do." She had room to manuever now, and a weapon, should it come to that.
Hadley turned unsteadily and blinked at her. He was profoundly drunk. Another point in my favor. "Hey, you're drinking up all my profits," he said.
His idea of humor, she guessed. But it did give her a glimmer of hope. "Well, I can't do it all by myself. Why don't you give me a hand?"
He smiled and pulled himself a tumbler of syn-gin. Logan willed herself not to recoil as he sat on the barstool next to her, though it was as if her skin shrank against her bones to get away from him. She didn't think she could wait until he got drunk enough to pass out on his own--how much could a man that size ingest anyway? And Rafe's signal could come through any second. Think, Kathryn, think!
"You know, it's really too bad I don't trust you, be'," Hadley snickered. "I could make you a lot more comfortable--upstairs."
"Why, Rondo," she said in her best purr, "what's not to trust? Don't I work hard for you here in the bar?"
He shrugged, his eyes glittering in their pockets of flesh. "You haven't stolen anything yet, as far as I can figure."
"And you're making twice as much as you were before I came." She used every relaxation trick she knew to keep from gritting her teeth through the next line. "I just don't know what more I could do to earn your trust."
Predictably, Hadley leered. "Oh, I could think of a few things."
Logan laughed softly, as if he'd said something wonderfully provocative. She moved slightly to draw his attention to the breasts that threatened to escape the cover of her jumpsuit and gestured him closer. "I have a few ideas myself."
He leaned in, his eyes focused on her chest. She smiled--and hit him square in the temple with the heavy beer glass. Glass and blood exploded over his face as he dropped heavily to the floor.
Logan made sure he wasn't moving, but she didn't wait to determine whether she'd killed him or just knocked him unconscious. She ran for her room, shoved her feet into her boots and grabbed what little she needed from underneath the pallet.
Something red and sticky dribbled from her wrist; she looked down with some surprise to see she was bleeding. The glass, she thought, examining the wound. It opened jaggedly along the meaty outer edge of her palm, deep enough to be worrisome. Shock blocked the pain for now, but she was shaking as she rinsed the cut under a stream of water from the bar faucet and wrapped it in the cleanest towel she could find.
A tiny click registered somewhere on Logan's conscious mind as she tightened the cloth around her throbbing hand. The signal. Oh, Rafael, you are an angel! She checked--the security panel lights read green. She stepped over Hadley's motionless body, yanked open the door, passed through it and closed it again behind her. She took a last look at the bar. Then she ran into the waiting arms of the night, with a barely suppressed shout of triumph rising in her chest.
The streets were dark and featureless at this hour, but Cardoza's directions had been accurate. Logan found the transport depot where she was to meet him with little trouble, though it took more than an hour of walking to reach the place. The hectare of broken light and thermocrete that defined the transport park clung scabrously to the edge of town. Behind the park sprawled what passed for civilization on this newly colonized planet. Before it, the red sand began and stretched for endless empty kilometers.
Battered vehicles crouched in the shadowy encampment of the park, surrounded by clusters of hopeful passengers, like so many weary beasts beset with parasites. Dim, hissing arc lights reared their heads here and there to throw a pallid circle of light over the ground, but the feeble illumination only confused the eye further. There was no way of knowing where the facility began except by the increasing number of vehicles; no way of knowing where it ended except by the crunch of the desert sand underfoot. Logan stared at the scene in despair, fighting shock from her injured hand and an irrational sense of panic. Where the hell was Rafe?
"Are you lost, little girl?" The voice came at her out of the gloom to her left, gruff and tinged with an unidentifiable accent. The laughter that followed it revealed three or four men around a crumpled vehicle half-buried in the sand.
Logan clamped down on the quaver in her throat and projected all the strength she had left. "Where's the transport chief?"
The men laughed again. "You must have mistaken this shithole for a civilized planet," the first man said. "It's every being for himself in this garbage heap. Which way you headed--north or west?"
How the hell should I know? "T'var Valley."
"North. Try that end of the park." He gestured toward her right.
"Thanks." Logan was distracted by the pain in her hand or surely she would have resented feeling grateful that he hadn't hit her in the head and carried her off. She picked her way through the maze of vehicles in the direction he'd indicated, but found it hard to keep to a straight path. Everyone she stopped to ask gave her a slightly different route, their voices obscured with the burrs and sibilants and hiccups of a dozen different planetary species. Oh, yeah, nothing like a border colony for diversity,she thought. I'd pay big credits for a universal translator right now, if I had any to spend.
She had nearly come to the outer boundary of the depot when she caught sight of Cardoza's rail-thin form lounging beside a hulking anti-grav hummer. He was busy following an argument in three languages between several unhappy travelers and someone who appeared to be in charge.
Logan drew Cardoza away from the crowd before she spoke. "I thought I'd never find you," she said with relieved grin.
"It was a little harder to get through to Hadley's system than I thought it would be," he said. "I was starting to get worried that maybe it hadn't worked."
"Your timing was perfect," she assured him. "What about credits?"
He showed her the card.
"Very impressive," she said.
"Hey, what happened to your hand?"
She waved dismissively with her uninjured hand. "Cut it pouring a beer for Hadley. How's the rib?"
"Better," he replied, though she could see he was still a little stiff.
Logan nodded in the direction of the argument. "What's going on?"
Even in the murky light of the hummer's single lightcell, Logan could see the boy's face fall. "The driver says he's not going today."
"What? Why not?"
Cardoza shrugged. "They're trying to talk him into it, but he's being pretty stubborn."
"So we get another driver."
He shook his head. "His vehicle."
"Another vehicle, then. There seem to be plenty."
"Sure, but he's the only one who goes to T'var. These guys are pretty serious about their routes."
Understanding dawned in Logan's mind. The system worked a lot like her own trade transport business. Ostyr Tyro had taken enough offense at her inroads on his business to have her hauled off to this pit. She imagined the disputes over taxi routes here were simply more to the point. People got killed over them.
Suddenly light-headed, she sank dejectedly to her haunches in the sand. "Rafe, we can't hang around here another day. I may have killed Hadley--that'll bring the authorities into it. They'll be on this place like a thruster suit."
"Jesus--you killed him?"
She ran a hand through her hair, exhaustion beginning to settle on her like the sand on the vehicle behind her. "I don't know. Maybe."
"But I don't know how we're going to get out of here. The driver doesn't want to go."
Logan took a minute to find a last reserve of fortitude somewhere inside. Then she stood up. "I'll talk to him."
The argument fell off as she approached the driver. The group turned to look at her with something like hope. The driver--a little Humanoid of mixed ancestry and irregular hygiene--favored her with a hostile squint.
"I understand you run the route to the T'var Valley," she said.
"I want to go to the T'var Valley. Today. Right now."
"No. I go tomorrow."
"Is the vehicle working?"
"You can get power packs?"
"Getting married? Going to a funeral?"
"What? No! Are you crazy?"
"Then we can go to the T'var Valley. Today."
The driver gestured at the tiny group of passengers. "There aren't enough of you--I lose money! Tomorrow there be more."
Logan nodded. Passenger fees were commonly regulated; if the driver overcharged them, he could lose his route. "I have money. I'll hire you as a private charter."
At this the other passengers began to protest loudly, afraid they'd be left behind. "These people can pay me and come along," Logan offered. "But only these--no one else."
The crowd seemed mollified, but the driver still wasn't happy. Cardoza supplied the reason sotto voce in her ear: "He wants to take the hire, then wait around for some more passengers to fill up the vehicle. More for him that way."
"Eight hundred credits," the driver said finally. The passengers groaned and shook their heads.
"I'll give you five hundred if we leave within the hour."
"Give me six hundred, and I go buy the power packs." The man sighed as if this was a great sacrifice.
"Five-fifty, and I go with you to buy the packs," Logan replied.
The passengers held their collective breath. Abruptly the driver nodded and stalked off in what Logan assumed was the direction of the fuel stores. She and Cardoza followed in his wake, leaving their fellow travelers laughing and congratulating themselves behind them.
The process of getting the power packs installed and loading up the old hummer seemed to go on forever. But at last, as the first rays of Tantua's blue sun touched the desert hills, they were ready. The passengers found their places along the hummer's torn bench seats, the vehicle lifted off it's worn pads and Logan, delivered from Babylon in this unlikely chariot, drifted uneasily off to sleep.
Tantua's red-brown bulk filled the Deathwatch's viewscreen, but on the bridge all eyes were on the smaller computer monitor.
"The find is confirmed, Lord," the engineer said. He pointed at the bright blue splotches on the screen--the underground pockets that held the treasure. "There. And another massive deposit there."
Cestyr Tyro brought his hands together in an explosive clap and laughed. "I knew it! It was a risk, but my ribs told me it was worth the trouble!" A blur at one edge of the scan corridor caught his attention. He squinted at it. "What is that?"
"Incomplete data," the engineer replied. "Perhaps a slight sensor malfunction. It will be corrected."
Cestyr grunted, dismissing his concern. After all, the find was too exciting to be worried about a sensor malfunction. "You are certain there is no geological survey in the Federation record?"
"There is no geosurvey on record, Lord. Tantua barely rates a mention in the official starmaps."
Cestyr giggled. "Yes, really it's a wonder colonists ever found the place. It's a wonder I ever found the place!"
"Tantua is within your trade territory, Lord," the engineer said slyly. "Of course, you would be aware of any resources the planet might offer."
Cestyr's smile froze on his face as he considered the technician. Perhaps the man was becoming ambitious. It was one thing for a servant to work willingly in the hope of buying back his contract, quite another for the servant to take such active interest in the affairs of his master. "How long have you served me, Falon?"
The engineer bowed. "Fifteen--"
Cestyr grabbed the man's throat and bent to look into his startled eyes. "Long enough to know how I hate ambition in my underlings. I need you at the moment, slave. Do not consider that you would remain alive another second if you were of no further use to me."
He released the man reluctantly, surpressing his desire to consummate the moment by completing the kill. The engineer scrambled away from him, coughing and gasping.
Cestyr calmed himself and turned his attention to the viewscreen once more. A fortune in tritium lay revealed in the computer scans, not as valuable as dilithium, perhaps, but profitable, even by itself. Ah, but this is not just any tritium deposit, oh, no! Cestyr thought. This was the motherlode--tritium-6 in high concentrations and associated with kyris. The constellation of elements which existed in only one other place in the known galaxy, or so the legend said. The nursery of the invisible sun.
And I have already laid all the groundwork to make it mine, Cestyr gloated. Ostyr Tyro, beware! Your hanTyro grows to manhood this day. I will kill Kirk for my own pleasure and let it be my last act of filial duty to you. For once I find the source of this power, you will grovel at my feet. I will be the vengeance of our ancestors and ruler of all the Orioni.
But first, of course, there was the trivial matter of the last holdouts in the T'var Valley. "Pilot, you have the bridge," Cestyr commanded, striding toward the ladder that led to the transporter deck. "I'm beaming down to the Valley. Call Kragh and Koregh to the transporter. This is one business negotiation I am sure they will enjoy!"
The Orion strolled the length of the musty coop meeting hall with his Klingon bodyguards at his back, enjoying the open hatred he read in the faces of the men and women who waited for him. They stood huddled in a dejected clump at one end of the hall, unwilling, Cestyr guessed, to extend their enemy the courtesy of moving to meet him. A useless gesture when he held all the advantages.
The wind howled around the flimsy eaves of the thermocrete shelter, threatening to upend the structure and send them all scattering. Another of this hellhole's duststorms, Cestyr thought with a kind of elated disgust. Nothing compared to the storm he was about to unleash.
"Nasty weather you're having," he remarked pleasantly. "I hope it is not hindering the harvest."
"Your profit is safe," a man muttered near the center of the group. The rest stood obstinately silent.
"Good," Cestyr said with a smile, taking note of the man who had spoken. "Well, I see we are all here. Can we begin? I'm afraid I have an urgent matter awaiting me on Netherworld."
A woman stepped forward from the group. Cestyr felt the Klingons behind him stir tensely. They were so protective! "We have nothing to discuss, hanTyro," the woman said. "You may have bullied every other farmer in this valley to sell to you, but we don't need you. We have other agents who will buy our grain."
Cestyr bent slightly at the waist. "And you are?"
"Ah, yes, Cardoza. You and your husband own the majority share in the coop, I believe. And no doubt you speak for these others?"
"I do." The rest of the group nodded. One man put a supportive hand on the woman's shoulder--her husband, Cestyr assumed.
"I am sorry, Muriel Cardoza, but I am afraid I must correct you on two points," Cestyr said. "I am called Cestyr by my associates. HanTyro is my clan name and birthright, properly used only by my family. But don't worry. It is a mistake many Terrans make."
"We aren't Terrans! Some of us never were. And we're all Tantuans now!" someone said from the back.
The Orion laughed. "I applaud your spirit. Especially in light of these difficult circumstances."
"No one ever said it would be easy colonizing a new planet," Cardoza said.
"It is about to become somewhat harder," Cestyr replied. He drew a roll of flimsy out of his tunic. "You'll recognize the contract you recently signed with Ilsac Manz of Rigel." He passed it to Cardoza and watched her face harden with the grim realization.
"He's bought out Manz's contract," she informed the group.
"Yes. And I also took the liberty of discussing your situation with a number of other agricultural agents in this sector," Cestyr added. "No one seems interested in taking over this particular contract. They all agreed I would be the best partner for you."
"I'd rather have a snake as a partner," another woman yelled from the back. Now she is young enough to have some use, Cestyr thought.
Cardoza's husband turned on the woman. "What the hell kind of choice do we have? If we don't sell this grain somewhere..."
Cardoza touched his arm to warn him before he could complete the capitulation. He choked back his words, red-faced.
"Of course. If you don't sell the grain to me, you will be ruined," Cestyr finished for him. "You may even starve. But you must know I wouldn't think of putting you in that position. I am ready and willing to buy the entire harvest."
Cardoza straightened and looked directly into his face. In that instant Cestyr made up his mind to kill her no matter what she agreed to. "How much?" she asked him.
"Eighty credits per kiloton."
The group erupted in angry shouts. Cardoza motioned for quiet. "You must be kidding," she said finally. "The lowest price we've ever gotten was one-twenty. The open market price on Port Aegean is one-fifty."
"Yes, but that is on Port Aegean. You are on Tantua. Your grain is on Tantua. And I am the only agent you will ever see again."
"Damn it, you paid the Southern Valley Coop one hundred just this week!"
"The Southern Valley Coop was smart enough to deal with me last season. You thought you could do better. That has proven not to be the case."
Cestyr could see the desperation in their weathered faces. Most of them were already in debt, of course, and the low price would force them into his trap.
Cardoza lined it out for him, as if he were simply unaware of the reality of their situation. "The harvest isn't that great to begin with. Eighty per kiloton won't cover our costs for this season, much less give us anything to start up with next season."
Cestyr tugged thoughtfully at one of the tiny gold rings in his cheek. "That is a problem. But perhaps I can help. I would be willing to loan you the necessary credits, based on your land and next season's harvest."
"And let you take the land right out from under us like you did the Zhuangs and the Linzer kibbutz?" It was that young woman again. Cestyr decided to make a gift of her to his father's second son. That should help take the edge off the rivalry that was sure to develop once Cestyr hanTyro returned to Xandor with such success.
Cestyr shrugged. "Some families are simply not cut out to be farmers. I'm sure everyone here will be much more successful."
"What is it you really want, Cestyr?" Cardoza asked him. "You're not a farmer. And there can't be that much profit in moving grain."
Damn the hyrsta! I will tear her throat out myself! "On the contrary, moving grain is one of the more profitable aspects of my business."
The younger woman laughed. "Business must be worse than we thought!"
Cestyr crushed an impulse to impale the woman on the blade he wore at his hip. Instead he put out a hand to stop Kragh, who had taken a step towards her. Not yet. Soon, but not yet. "Perhaps you're right." He rolled up the flimsy and tucked it back into his tunic. "I'm wasting my time here."
"No, wait!" A man with skin the color and texture of worn leather stepped away from the group. He glanced nervously around at his peers, as if he expected them to beat him. "I'll sell. I'll lose the farm anyway if I don't. And I got ten people depending on me at home."
The Orion could not resist the temptation to play. "No. I couldn't take you on individually. It wouldn't be worth the trouble."
The man took another step. "Please."
A pair of his companions joined him. "We're in the same hole," one of them said, looking at Cardoza. "We have to sell."
"Oh, very well. I hate to see a promising enterprise fail for lack of support." Cestyr turned to Kragh and took a datapadd from the Klingon's gnarled hands. "I've had the standard contract drawn up. Shall I add a rider for a loan?"
The man who had first stepped forward nodded and hesitantly took the stylus that Cestyr offered. Cestyr smiled reassuringly at him and said to the group, "I'm so glad we could do business."
Cardoza, seeing that the momentum had shifted, shook her head. "We won't sign, Cestyr. We may starve, but at least we'll starve on our own terms." She looked up at her husband. "Tantua needs grain, too. Maybe it'll be enough to get us through this season."
The husband smiled at her. "We'll get by somehow. Let's get the hell out of here."
They gave their neighbors a last regretful glance and left the hall. Four or five of the others followed them out.
Cestyr watched them go with placid indulgence, noting with particular pleasure that the attractive young woman had been among the group that left. He didn't really mind that the decision hadn't been unanimous. The Cardozas and their stubborn supporters would provide a useful example for the others. No one would think to default on his contract once he had seen what Kragh and Koregh had done to them.
One after another, the remaining farmers signed Cestyr's datapadd and gave him the weapon he needed to destroy them. Cestyr could not keep the smile from his face. He was so absorbed that he barely noticed when the Klingons left his side and slipped out into the raging dust. They were eager to begin. And why not? Cestyr Tyro wasn't the only one who enjoyed his work.
J.T. watched Jim Kirk try to pace Roxanne's confining bridge and wondered where all that restless energy came from. And the anticipation lighting his face--he was actually looking forward to this little excursion into Hell. If she didn't know he was too old to be so eager, she'd have sworn he was spoiling for a fight.
"Spock, you and McCoy will take Southside," he was saying. "J.T., I still think you'd better stay with Roxanne."
J.T. exhaled loudly. "Look, for the tenth time, I'm not a virgin. There is nothing on this planet that I have not seen before."
"It's not your sensibilities I'm worried about," Kirk said. "It's your neck."
"I can take care of myself," she fired back, irritated. "Can you?"
Kirk opened his mouth to reply, but Spock intervened. "Captain, this planet is not a safe environment for anyone alone. I believe it would be sensible to explore it in pairs. It is, after all, standard landing party procedure."
J.T. could see Kirk arguing with himself over it. Damn that stiff neck of yours, old man. Can't you just trust me a little bit?
Finally, she saw him bend. "Right. Standard landing party procedure. We'll take the Venusian Quarter, J.T. But stick with me! I don't want you taking off on your own."
"Didn't I hear you tell Doctor McCoy that you're no longer captain of the Enterprise?" J.T. grinned at him to let him know she didn't hold his protectiveness against him. She saw him take a breath before he grinned back.
"I don't know why we're going through all this in the first place," McCoy grumbled. "Why don't we wait for Cestyr to show up and make his rounds? Who knows? He might lead us right to her."
"Right now we've got the advantage," Kirk said. "There's a chance he hasn't had time to set up his trap. We can't afford to wait for him to make the first move."
"Do you have any idea how hard it'll be to find one woman in a planetful of sex-for-hires?"
Spock offered to help him out. "I estimate the odds at approximately..."
Kirk turned on them. "Bones, I won't leave Kate behind on Netherworld if there's the slightest chance she might be here. I'll eliminate that possibility if I have to look in every brothel on the planet."
"And you're just the man to do it," McCoy muttered.
Kirk ignored him and picked up with his instructions. "Keep your phasers out of sight. We don't want to give some drunk a reason to start a brawl. Roxanne, we won't be able to check in without calling attention to ourselves. Just keep track of our location and be prepared to beam us up if things fall apart." He adjusted a metal mesh patch on the left breast of his tunic. "You know, I like these panic buttons. There were a few times in my life I could've used one."
"I'll be standing by," Roxanne replied. "Just don't get caught with your pants down!"
"In this place?" McCoy drawled. "Even Don Juan here isn't stupid enough to unzip on Netherworld."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bones," Kirk said. "Let's go before I get my feelings hurt."
Before the transporter effect had fully dissipated, J.T. knew she was in over her head. Sure, she had seen some pretty rough places. Trader crews took a kind of perverted delight in showing green apprentice pilots the sights at every port of call. But Netherworld was no Wrigley's Pleasure Planet or Argelius; J.T. had never experienced anything on this scale.
The tide of filth that ran through the planet's twisted streets washed up to the very edge of the transporter pad. Holographic images of males and females of a variety of species greeted them as they stepped off the pad and followed them as they moved through the transport complex, sophisticated advertisments for not very sophisticated diversions. They made J.T. nervous, as if she could feel them catching at her sleeve or licking the back of her neck. Their very number was somehow threatening, even if she succeeded in ignoring the details of what they offered.
J.T. saw Kirk give her a quick glance. "You okay?"
She was actually shaking, but she was determined not to let him see it. "Fine. Let's go."
He put an arm around her and steered her toward the street. "It's going to get worse," he said quietly. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
She shrugged him off. "We're wasting time," she said, and pushed ahead of him through the door.
Outside, the riotous street was awash in the garish light of Netherworld's blue sun, lowering now to an unseen horizon. Everything in the Quarter was lit with the color of cobalt--the beings wandering or carousing through the town in search of sin; the advertising holograms with their exagerated genitalia and impossible desire; the barkers in various states of undress luring passing customers into open doorways; the buildings patched together from thermocrete and salvaged plasteel.
J.T. expected heat to match the flaming light, but the air was cold, driven by a moaning wind. The sound of that wind ran under all the blaring music, all the shouting and screaming, the hysterical laughter, the patter of the barkers. J.T. shivered under it, knowing it for the true voice of this planet.
She felt Jim Kirk's protective arm around her shoulders once again, and allowed herself to be grateful for it. "We're supposed to be having fun," he reminded her, his lips close to her ear. "Let's make it look good."
She laughed, partly to fit into the role they had chosen for themselves, partly to express the irony of the situation. She slipped her arm around his waist as they wove their way through the crowd, avoiding the drunken and the drugged as best they could.
Their fellow revelers surged through the street, some of them naked despite the cold, some barely able to stumble from one club or drug kiosk to another. In their stupor, they were strangely homogeneous, though they represented every species, race and gender in the galaxy. All wore the same expression of lurid excitement, bloodthirst, lust. And Netherworld was happy to supply whatever needs they might have, no matter what their planet of origin.
J.T. wondered how she and Kirk would avoid standing out like a pair of gawky tourists.
"I thought Netherworld was off-limits to Starfleet," she commented as she noticed the distinctive sideburns on five or six young men gathered in front of a brightly lit doorway.
Kirk smiled grimly. "It was, even when I was a lieutenant. Didn't stop me from hopping a transport from Rigel Seven on leave one time." A couple brushed drunkenly past them interrupting him momentarily.
"I had a friend in those days who figured it was his sole purpose in life to loosen me up. Spending leave on Netherworld was Gary Mitchell's idea."
J.T. was...well, shocked could hardly be the right word in their present circumstances. Still, she was having a lot of trouble imagining Jim Kirk--even a much younger Jim Kirk--whooping it up on Netherworld. "Did you have a good time?"
He shook his head. "I drank up half the Romulan ale in the Quarter trying to get in the spirit of things, but it was no use. I was still sober when I caught the first shuttle out."
"And your friend?"
"He stayed a week and never let me forget it," Kirk said. The look on his face was one of loss. "Guess that should've told me something."
He stopped in front of a tri-D display outside a doorway draped in silver webbing. The falling night had deepened to violet, throwing his frown in shadow. "What the hell is that?"
J.T. peered over his shoulder at the image--a Humanoid female, seductively posed on silver satin, wearing a shiny black jumpsuit. No, not a jumpsuit. It was chitin, encasing her curves in a hard exoskeleton. Only her face, the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet showed exposed skin. Oh, and one other strategic area, barely visible in the display. "She's a native of Arachnos, in the Beta Quadrant," J.T. said. "We ran a load of magnetic tubing out there once. Not my favorite planet."
"A Black Widow," he said. "I'd never seen one."
J.T. shook her head. "I've never understood the appeal."
"Well, I can think of worse ways to go," Kirk replied as they moved on.
J.T. looked up quickly, just to make sure he was kidding. His smile confirmed it, thank God. She was willing to concede that a man Kirk's age might have some kind of sexual life, but the thought that he might want to die in the act was too much. She sighed. Visiting a place like Netherworld with your father raised a few too many disturbing questions.
"I'm beginning to think Doctor McCoy was right," she said. "We'll never find Kate in all this." It was difficult to focus on anything in the sensory tumult of the strip. My God, was there anything you couldn't get on Netherworld? Drugs, gambling, deathsports, sex with anything from a semi-sentient quadruped to a Klingon adolescent. And all of it without conscience or judgment--unless you counted murder as an act of judgment. "What kind of a place are we looking for, anyway?"
"We'll know it when we see it," he answered. His expression indicated nothing more than casual interest, but she suddenly realized he'd been scanning both sides of the crowded street since they'd left the transporter station. Apparently he wasn't having any trouble focusing.
Something in that circle of awareness alerted him seconds before the street erupted in violence a few steps ahead of them. He shoved her into a protected pocket against the building to their right as a brawl boiled out of a packed bar and sent bodies flying on the sidewalk. From inside the bar, J.T. heard a scream --inarticulate, not quite Human. Someone was thrown through a window; three or four others scrabbled over the broken glass to get at each other. A few of those who'd been knocked to the ground by the brawlers jumped into the fray themselves, until it was impossible to tell who was battling whom.
The fight swept first one way, then the other, on the street, crushing anyone in its path who might have stopped to watch or simply hoped to get around the fracas. A pair of fighters staggered into Kirk; one turned to take a swing at him. The man was big; he would've been well over two meters tall had he been able to stand up straight. But he was obviously drunk and before he could connect, J.T. saw Kirk bloody his mouth with two quick punches. He blinked and took a step back, but showed no sign of falling down completely. Kirk grabbed the second fighter by the arm and launched him at the man, then snared J.T.'s hand and dove into the crowd. They emerged on the other side of the street, out of breath, but otherwise unscathed.
"You okay?" he asked her.
"Fine." She grinned. "Nice combination."
"Thanks. I'm not sure he even noticed." He flexed the fingers of both hands, a gesture that looked like an old habit with him. He glanced around, trying to get his bearings, until the display in a barfront a few meters away brought him to a horrified stop. "Oh, my God," he murmured, his voice softened in shock as if he didn't dare allow himself to speak aloud.
J.T. followed his gaze and saw the children dancing in the display window. They looked Human, a boy and a girl about nine or ten years old. They wore desperate smiles and very little else--the intention was clear.
Kirk seemed rooted to the spot, unable to move, as if walking away would make him personally responsible for what went on in that bar. J.T. could read it in his face; just seeing those figures had made him responsible.
She touched his arm. "They're Rigelian hypnoids, Jim, not even fully sentient. Look." She pointed at a tiny plaque beside the window, certifying that any sentient beings inside were of legal age. As if that made it all right. J.T. had no doubt a pying customer with this kind of sick interest could find the real thing somewhere on Netherworld.
She pulled Kirk away. "Come on. I think we could both use a drink."
"Jesus," he whispered, and turned to follow her.
She started into a bar in the next block, but Kirk stopped her.
"No, not here." He went a few steps further to the next doorway. "Here."
She looked up to see the sign over the door: Eurydice. "How appropriate."
"The benefits of a classical education," he said as they ducked inside.
"Just goes to show it's never wasted."
They stepped carefully down the rough, thermocrete stairs. A poor ventilation system had sweated puddles into the uneven surface. The stairwell stank of mold and urine.
The bar itself would have smelled no better, if the overwhelming yeasty odor of Romulan ale hadn't permeated everything. God, who can drink that popskull? J.T. thought. You practically get the hangover before you finish the glass.
The long, narrow space was unevenly lit and crowded with the riffraff of a dozen star systems. Several sodden customers turned to ogle them.
J.T. heard Jim Kirk's confident voice behind her, answering a question she'd long since forgotten she'd asked. "I think we may have found the place to start."
McCoy could practically see the space around them expanding, as if the questions Spock asked were a stone dropping in a still pond. The ripples carried bartenders, waiters, bar patrons and prostitutes away from them in a steady progression of cold shoulders and averted eyes. The reaction had been the same in all the bars, brothels, thrill shows and sex shops they'd visited. McCoy was tired, his feet hurt, he'd seen more to turn his stomach in one night than in a lifetime of medical emergencies and they had absolutely nothing to show for it.
"Spock, you are definitely cramping my style," McCoy said. "Maybe you could just watch me work from another table."
"Doctor, I do not intend to leave you for a moment," Spock replied. "I would not enjoy explaining to the captain how I managed to lose you on this expedition."
"As the captain is well aware, I can take care of myself. Besides, we're getting nowhere. The minute we walk in the door everybody goes on red alert. Who's gonna believe a Vulcan is out looking for a good time in a place like Netherworld?"
"Approximately the same number of people who would believe an elderly Human such as yourself would be in search of cheap sexual gratification."
"I'm old, Spock, but I'm not dead. I enjoy a little 'cheap sexual gratification' as much as the next guy."
"Be that as it may, Doctor, I agree with you that our current approach has not been effective."
"Well, that's a first. Do you have any other ideas?"
"In fact, I do. Are you aware that we are being followed?"
"What?" McCoy's head swiveled to take in the room.
"Please endeavor to be more discreet, Doctor." Spock lowered his voice. "The individual in question is of mixed heritage, primarily Andorian, small, dressed in a green tunic."
"I see him," McCoy confirmed, spotting him at the bar. "He looks harmless enough. What makes you think he's following us?"
"He has appeared in each of the last three establishments we have visited. And I am quite sure I saw him on the street behind us as we walked."
"Hmm. I take it your plan involves our little friend there?"
McCoy waited. "Well?" he prompted.
"Let us see if our friend follows us outside. Perhaps we will find an opportunity to speak with him privately."
"Yes, Mister Spock, I would say that is quite likely," McCoy said with a grin. He pointed to the red "Pay" light on the table. "I think this round is yours."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "I believe I already explained that I carry no credit balance chit."
"Yes, you did, Spock. But this bar doesn't take chits; it takes thumbprints. There's the scanner--pay up."
A shadow of consternation crossed Spock's face, or at least it seemed so to McCoy. But he pressed his thumb to the table's scanner without another word and they rose to leave. As they made their way through the crowd to the door, McCoy noticed the Andorian had left his barstool.
"He's right behind us," McCoy said quietly.
Spock nodded and passed through the door to the street. The sidewalk was only slightly less crowded than the bar had been; the pair had to jostle and nudge their way down the street. When they reached a narrow alleyway, Spock pulled McCoy in after him and they waited in the rustling blackness for their stalker.
Seconds later the Andorian appeared where the alley opened to the street. He hesitated, looking first up the street, then into the unrevealing darkness of the alley. He took a step into the alley, just close enough for Spock to snag his arm and force him up against the nearside wall.
"Do not call out," Spock warned him, emphasizing the point with a hand at the much smaller being's throat. "You have been following us. What do you want?"
"N-nothing!" the man sputtered. "It must be mere coincidence!"
"Vulcans do not believe in coincidence!" Spock said.
"Huh?" McCoy tried to see Spock's face, but there was too little light in the alley to illuminate his friend's purpose.
"You intend to rob us!"
"No! I swear!" The Andorian's voice was reduced to a squeak. McCoy couldn't tell if it was simply fear or a squeeze of Spock's hand on his trachea that accomplished it.
"Then you are a spy! Who do you work for? Starfleet Security?"
"You know I can take everything I need from your mind if I so choose," Spock said coldly.
"No, no, please!" McCoy could hear the Andorian struggling against Spock's grip and began to wonder just how far Spock would take this charade. The Vulcan was fully capable of forcing a mind-meld if the circumstances warranted it; McCoy had seen him do it. Mind-rape wasn't something the doctor wanted to witness a second time.
"Uh, don't you think you're going a little overboard?" McCoy suggested.
"I want the truth from this creature," Spock said. "I will get it one way or the other."
"All right!" the Andorian said. "Please, let me explain!"
"I do not have time for long explanations!"
"I overheard you asking for something special," the Andorian stammered. "I-I just thought perhaps I could help, that is all."
"If you thought you could help, why didn't you approach us three hours ago," McCoy said, wishing now he'd stopped drinking about the same time.
"I was simply practicing a sensible caution." The little man laughed nervously. "It is not profitable to be too helpful to members of the enforcement establishment!"
"Good point," McCoy muttered.
"Surely you are aware," the Andorian went on, "that it is not every day a Vulcan and a, well, a mature Human are seen seeking pleasure on our accomodating planet."
"We are not typical for our species," Spock said.
"Speak for yourself," McCoy rejoined.
The Andorian evidently sensed he was making some headway. At least, he recognized that Spock was no longer threatening to kill him. "So. May I ask what, exactly, you atypical gentlemen are interested in?"
"We are very particular," Spock answered. "How do we know you can help us?"
"Oh, I am the one to help you. You can be certain of that! My name is Ashtorath. I was born and came to age here on Netherworld. There is nothing I cannot find for you."
Spock paused, as if considering whether to trust Ashtorath. Finally, he confided, "We are told the most versatile prostitutes are to be found at the houses owned by Cestyr Tyro of Xandor."
McCoy heard the Andorian take a breath. "I-I have heard much the same, but..."
"But Cestyr's establishments are very exclusive," McCoy finished helpfully.
"Yes, yes, very exclusive!" Ashtorath sounded relieved. "Usually they are open by invitation only. I'm sure you understand..."
"Understand this," Spock said, finding the Andorian's throat once more. "I wish to visit the best and most exclusive of the Orion's establishments. I will accept no substitute. If you take us there, I will pay you well. If you do not, I will take the knowledge from your mind by force and leave you a mental vegetable."
Ashtorath was squeaking again. "All right! I can take you there. But I cannot guarantee that you will be allowed to enter. That will require credits."
"Credits are no problem," Spock said.
Easy for you to say when we're using my chit, McCoy thought. He was certain he could detect a smile on the Andorian's face now.
"Then I will be pleased to serve as your guide," Ashtorath said. "Shall we go?"
Spock released his hold on the man and the three of them left the alley to merge with the throngs on the sidewalk. "Didn't I meet you once in a mirror universe?" McCoy muttered over Spock's shoulder.
Spock ignored him in favor of keeping a close watch on Ashtorath as they wove in and out of the crowd. Neither did Spock reply when McCoy asked him if he was aware the credit balance on his chit wouldn't be enough to get them into a decent restaurant, much less the classiest brothel on the planet. Eventually McCoy subsided with a mumbled, "I hope you know what you're doing," and they walked on.
By the time they arrived at their destination, McCoy was thoroughly sober, chilled to the bone and tired enough to sleep where he stood. He couldn't remember ever approaching a brothel in quite the same condition before, or with anything like the dread he felt now.
Ashtorath stopped in front of a small building, set apart from its neighbors as if it had been built later. The place was relatively clean and in good repair, lit by a pair of discreetly glowing lightcells. Compared to the shouting tackiness of its neighbors, the sign over the doorway was almost tasteful. When viewed head-on, the lettering was English. From another angle, the holographic image revealed Klingonese. Step to the side and the image changed again, to Orioni hieroglyphics. "The Huntsman. A Private Club," it announced, presumably in all three languages.
Ashtorath stepped up to the door and pressed his hand against a recognition plate. The door clicked open to admit them into a small anteroom, warmly lit and comfortably appointed, more like the lobby of a neo-European hotel than the waiting room for a house of prostitution. A door on the other side of the room, locked and devoid of a handle, was the only other exit.
A tiny, black-haired woman, Terran Oriental in heritage, impossibly young and blindingly beautiful, came out from behind a desk in one corner of the room. "Good evening, gentlemen," she greeted them with a smile. She gestured toward another recog plate to one side of the interior door. "May I ask you all please to log in?"
Ashtorath stepped forward and bowed. "These gentlemen are my guests tonight."
The tiny woman frowned sweetly. "Oh, I'm afraid that is not allowed. Only members may enter."
"Perhaps if you would mention my name to Fantyr. Tell him Ashtorath has some special customers for him."
The woman looked at him with an expression that clearly conveyed disdain. Then she nodded. "Come with me. These others may wait here."
Ashtorath glanced at Spock as if he feared the Vulcan would kill him for the delay. When Spock nodded assent he visibly relaxed and followed the woman through the interior door. McCoy just caught a glimpse of the room beyond the door--burgundy leather and deep carpeting meant to evoke an ancient style of decadence, a cluster of semi-clad Orioni women at a table with two Klingons --before the door swung closed.
"Sp- " he started to say, before the Vulcan put a warning hand on his arm. He followed Spock's gaze upward to a small, glowing sensor in one corner of the room.
"Leonard, I believe we may have found the pleasure we are seeking," Spock said, steering McCoy roughly toward the opposite wall. "I particularly favor this example of feminine beauty."
McCoy stared at the holo in a frame on the wall--one of many in the display of celebrity customers and lavish parties. He swore under his breath, unable to contain his despair. There, in a group of women surrounding the smug-countenanced, exquisitely pierced Cestyr Tyro, was Kate Logan. The women in the holo fawned over Cestyr, as if he offered them a world of pleasure and wealth rather than a life of hideous slavery. To McCoy's deep embarrassment, Kate smiled as widely as the others.
"Is it possible she was drugged?" Spock asked softly.
McCoy shook his head. "No way to tell. I'm praying this holo's computer-generated."
"Cestyr has obviously placed it where it would be seen."
"But how could he know we'd happen onto this place? Unless, of course, Ashtorath is part of the plan."
"That is possible, but the answer is probably simpler. I suspect there are holos like this one in every one of Cestyr's establishments. He must have known we would eventually end up in one of them."
"So he's dangling the bait, hoping to hook Jim. I just hope he plans to throw us little fishies back in the pond."
Spock looked at McCoy with an expression the doctor had long ago learned to recognize as puzzlement. "If you are implying that we are in danger, I agree," he said. "You must be prepared to follow my lead."
"I'm right behind you, brother," McCoy replied. "But shouldn't we let Jim know we've found this place?"
"No time. And it would do no good unless we can confirm that Kate is actually here."
At that moment, the inner door slid open, revealing an Orion male with a pierced scar on his chin, a hulking Klingon, the hostess and Ashtorath, cowering behind. The Orion stood in the doorway and assessed Spock and McCoy. McCoy began to sweat. Must be checking us against a description. Damn, I wish I'd stayed at home.
The Orion scowled. "They're Fed enforcement, you idiots. You think a Vulcan and an old man would make good customers?" He gestured at the Klingon. "Get rid of them."
Before the Klingon could maneuver around his boss and the others standing in the doorway, Spock had his phaser in hand and pointed at them. McCoy, at once relieved that Cestyr's henchmen had not been brought up to date on the master plan and fearful of becoming dinner for the Klingon, fumbled for his own weapon in the folds of his tunic.
"On behalf of the United Federation of Planets, Department of Criminal Investigation, Vice Bureau, established by authority of Universal Penal Code Section 10347.52, I am declaring this establishment in violation of Penal Statute 2873.11 and demand to inspect the premises and interview all employees for evidence." Spock barely paused for breath before crowding the Orion, the Klingon, the hostess and Ashtorath back through the inner door and into the central atrium.
McCoy followed him and loudly announced to the customers and prostitutes, "This is a raid." Everyone looked at him as if he'd just announced his Aunt Minnie wore pink underwear. "Federation authorities. Sit where you are, put your manipulative limbs on the table in front of you and don't move."
That much, at least, they seemed to understand. Or maybe, McCoy thought, they just knew enough to do whatever a being waving a charged phaser in the air told them to do. They put their limbs on the tables in front of them and waited.
"Look, we paid our protection credits!" the Orion said, outraged. "What gives you the right to come in here and disrupt my business?"
Spock put the phaser to the Orion's head. "You may lodge a formal protest at the nearest Federation outpost. Until then, I would suggest you follow my instructions precisely and without objection."
McCoy decided to reinforce the point with the crowd. "That goes for all of you!" He thought about sending a phaser shot into the wall for further emphasis, but concluded that would be slightly over the top.
"All right," the Orion growled. "If you think you can get away with slapping Cestyr Tyro in the face, go ahead. Your life won't be worth the copper in your bloodstream when he finds out about this."
"Oh, Cestyr will be so busy dismembering you, it'll be ages before he gets around to us," McCoy said.
The Orion's green skin paled markedly.
"You will accompany me to each of the private rooms in this establishment," Spock said. "Law Officer Jones, you will make certain no one leaves this room or attempts to communicate with the outside."
McCoy nodded and gave the room his best impression of a steely-eyed glare. The Klingons at the far corner table looked for a chilling moment as if they were going to rush him, but McCoy pointed the phaser directly at them and they subsided, gnashing their teeth in frustration--for how long, McCoy couldn't say. Now that Spock had left the room, McCoy was beginning to feel as naked as one of the Orion's employees.
Ashtorath collapsed into an anxious heap at the nearest table. "Oh, why didn't I heed my hortath? My inner voice warned me, but I refused to listen. I was that desperate for credits! And now see what has passed--I have joined the walking dead."
"Cheer up, Ashtorath," McCoy said. "Take this as a sign it was time to change careers."
"A dead man has no career," the Andorian moaned.
Before McCoy had a chance to think of an answer, Spock and the Orion returned, herding an unhappy flock of prostitutes and their customers before them. One or two of the customers still struggled to put their clothes on; most of the employees hadn't bothered. Spock gave McCoy a little shake of the head. Kate Logan wasn't here.
"All of you are liable to prosecution under the most severe penalties of Federation law," Spock intoned. "However, we are in a position to offer clemency to anyone who can give us information concerning this woman." Spock took out the holo of Logan that Roxanne had produced for them and expanded it to life-size.
The crowd looked at the image of Kate Logan standing in their midst. Some of them shrugged, some laughed; the Klingons shouted guttural insults and spat. The Orion, his hostess and his bodyguard all stared without expression and said nothing.
"You mean, we tell you something about this female and you let us go?" someone said.
"In essence, yes," Spock replied.
"Well, then, I know plenty," said the man, a Human seated with four others at a center table.
"If your information is verified, you will be released," Spock appended. "If you are certain you have valid information, you may come forward."
The man muttered something that his companions found amusing, but he stayed where he was.
McCoy was about to suggest that they forget it when a young Andorian female stepped out of a huddle of women at one end of the room. She was naked--evidently she had been among those Spock had found at work in the private rooms--and frightened. One glance at the Orion's face was enough to say why.
"Please," she begged in a voice so small she could barely be heard. "If I tell you what I know, will you take me with you?"
McCoy moved to take her by the arm and bring her closer. "Don't worry, darlin'. We'll make sure you get out of here."
"What is it you know?" Spock said.
"That woman. I-I can't be sure, but I think she was working here."
"Shut up, hyrsta!" the Orion shouted.
McCoy leveled his phaser on the Orion. "Go ahead, darlin'."
"I never met her, but I think I saw her once in one of the back rooms. They never let her out and they beat her because she wouldn't work." The girl hesitated.
"Where is the woman now?" Spock wanted to know.
"I...saw them carry her out," she said, looking at the floor. "She was dead--they must have killed her."
The Orion roared and took a step toward the girl. McCoy's hand moved, the phaser was ready, but it was Spock that squeezed the beam off first and dropped the Orion in his tracks. The room erupted in chaos as all saw their chance for escape in the confusion.
McCoy thought too late of the girl, turned back to see the hostess take the girl's head in her delicate hands and snap the neck vertebrae in one clean motion. The girl's body jumped once, then hung limply at an impossible angle from the broken neck to the floor.
The hostess smiled, her eyes as dead and cold as a shark's.
McCoy stared at the scene in shock, unable to unlock a single muscle in reaction, unable to formulate a single thought beyond the emptiness of his promise to protect the girl. He felt a hand on his arm. "Escape is imperative, Doctor," Spock said urgently. "There is nothing you can do now."
McCoy suddenly became aware of the Klingons fighting their way through the crowd in their direction. He nodded numbly and followed Spock into a corner that provided some protection from the melee. Then they hit the recall buttons on their communicators and let the curtain of the transporter effect close on a last vision of Hell.
"You have your mother's talent as a pilot, J.T." Kirk was looking at her with that mixture of pride and regret that she'd come to think was typical of him. "Why weren't you working for her?"
They'd been in a dozen bars, drunk more than a sensible amount of alcohol in various forms. Despite their best efforts to appear appropriately sleazy, no one had yet offered to give them what they said they wanted. They'd spent so many hours together now that J.T. wasn't suprised the real questions were starting to pop out.
"Kate wouldn't have me--and believe me I tried," she answered. "I started bugging her before I was even out of secondary school, but she wouldn't give me any kind of encouragement. I got my license and pestered her for months afterwards; she still wouldn't take me on. She found me a place with one of her partners instead. It was the only help she ever gave me."
"You never thought of Starfleet?"
She looked at her glass, flustered by the emotion that still clung to that lost dream of her childhood. "I thought about it a lot. But Dartha wouldn't even consider it. We fought over it constantly for a while. Eventually, she just wore me down."
"Dartha is...formidable," Kirk admitted. "It's too bad, though. You'd have made a good officer."
J.T. wanted to believe that so badly she had to test him. "What makes you think so?" she said with as much attitude as she could muster.
He smiled. "Just a hunch. Besides, it's in the genes."
She found herself smiling back, though she really didn't want to. Damn it, why did she find it so easy to like him when she had so much reason to hate him? Why should she care whether he approved of her dream to join Starfleet? He was a stranger. And, genes or no genes, Starfleet had been her dream, chosen freely from among the millions of possibilities open to her. Hadn't it?
When she had worked up enough resentment, she threw a question back at him. "Was there ever anything other than Starfleet for you?"
As obvious as it was to J.T., the answer seemed to elude Kirk for a long, difficult moment. He started to say something, stopped, started again. "I..."
"Hello," the creature said, though it sounded more like "hurrowrr". "My name is M'Ourrwa. M-m-mmind if I join you?"
Kirk and J.T. looked up, mildly startled that there was anyone else in the bar at all. The creature was a Caitian, with the triploid breast of a female and coloring not unlike a Terran calico housecat.
Kirk slipped back into his role of lascivious thrill-seeker as easily as putting on a jacket. "Well," he said with an evil grin, "why not?" He moved closer to J.T. to make room for M'Ourrwa at the small table.
"Ooh, may I?" J.T. reached out to touch the silky fur. The creature extended a shoulder in friendly acquiescence. Ourrwa felt just like the cat Dartha had brought home when J.T. was ten. Only bigger--and much more dangerous, J.T. reminded herself.
Kirk was more direct. He leaned closer, traced a finger around M'Ourrwa's ear to just below her jaw and stroked her there with his knuckle. "To what do we owe this pleasure?" he murmured.
The Caitian lifted her chin and closed her eyes briefly. J.T. could hear the beginning of a purr in the creature's throat. "I heard you were looking for something special."
Kirk smiled seductively. "And what if we were?"
"I know a place that many consider most special," M'Ourrwa said, her tail twitching. "Very exclusive, very private."
"Oh, but is it an Orion house?" J.T. insisted, turning to Kirk with a little pout. "I did so have my heart set on visiting one of Cestyr's clubs."
With her tongue the Caitian casually smoothed the fur on her shoulder where J.T. had petted her. "I would offer you nothing less," she said haughtily. "Cestyr is a personal friend."
J.T.'s heart started a slow thumping in her chest. Showtime.
Kirk knew it, too. She could see it in his eyes. "Well, then," he said. "This promises to be a very special experience. Shall we go?"
M'Ourwwa had a private hummer parked in an alleyway outside the bar, a fact that raised the hairs on the back of J.T.'s neck. Even in an extravagant town like this, private anti-gravs were an uncommon luxury. She'd seen maybe half a dozen all night. .
Three in the little vehicle made for a tight fit, but they managed it. No time for second thoughts now. J.T. had made a brave noise about joining the expedition, but if Kirk had asked her at this moment, she would have confessed to being absolutely, mindlessly scared to death.
The club was not too far away. In fact, given the congestion of the streets, they might have reached it faster walking. But then Cestyr was making a point--he wanted to make sure they arrived at his trap efficiently.
They climbed out of the vehicle and passed through a doorway and an anteroom into the club. The decor was distinctively Orion--thickly woven carpets, plush pillows, ornate carving marking the surfaces of screens and tables inlaid with shasyrta ivory. There was a pungent, but not unpleasant, scent in the room that J.T. couldn't quite classify. She sniffed at it--something like Terran citrus, something like Antarean archwood. As she stood breathing it in, she felt her body warming, her skin tingling. Her face flushed red to the ears and her pulse raced, but this was definitely not the effect of adrenalin. Oh, no, the effect was much too localized; her earlobes, her breasts, her...
She glanced around, wondering if she was the only one who had suddenly melted into a puddle of sexual desire. Every male in the place seemed incredibly attractive--did they pay these guys to sit around and look beautiful? They were certainly not your average crowd of barflies. She made eye contact with one of them, a muscular young Human sporting Starfleet sideburns. Security, she thought dreamily. Or maybe Engineering. How about checking out my Jeffries tube, babe?
It became nearly impossible to remember what she was there to do. She turned to Kirk, who was lost in an amorous embrace with M'Ourrwa. She found them fascinating--funny how she'd never noticed how good-looking he was. He looked up after a moment and took a deep breath. The Caitian nuzzled his neck as if they were quite alone. "Uh, why don't you look around, darling?" he suggested pointedly to J.T.. "See if there is anything you like. I'll catch up with you later."
The creature wrapped herself around him and growled something in his ear which made him smile. Then she took him by the hand and led him off down one of the corridors that opened onto the central atrium.
J.T. thought hard about it. What was it he wanted her to do? She tried to work out the logic step by step, but whatever was fueling her sexual appetite was just as efficiently clouding her judgment. That scent--an airborne aphrodisiac? She supposed it was possible, though the drug was certainly not a common one. Yes, that must be it. Nobody could look as good as that engineer--security officer--whatever.
But what about Jim? she thought in a mild, detached sort of panic. Given this drug and the appeal of the Caitian, he could be distracted for hours, certainly long enough for Cestyr to realize they had arrived. And hadn't he just suggested she find herself a new friend and have a good time?
No, J.T. decided after a long and difficult argument with herself. Kirk had let the Caitian seduce him purposely, to give her time to investigate. She smiled regretfully at the young Starfleet officer--oh, she could see his little heart was broken--and left the room.
She ducked down the first corridor she came across that led off the main room, with only the vaguest idea of what she would do once she got there. But Cestyr had thoughtfully provided her with the opportunity to peruse his stable at her leisure. He'd equipped each of the half dozen rooms on each side of the darkened hallway with viewscreens revealing what was going on inside. His idea of advertising, J.T. assumed.
Three or four of the viewscreens on this hallway were blank--either the rooms weren't in use or the customers had insisted on privacy. J.T. steeled herself to inspect the others closely; the drug was making it difficult for her to distance herself from the images and God knew she didn't really want to see Kate Logan in one of those rooms. She had to fight her own body for every step she took; she almost envied Kirk his "task" of keeping the Caitian occupied, though she'd heard that could be a dangerous undertaking for a Human in the best of circumstances.
J.T. made it down the corridor without finding what she was looking for and was relieved to discover the passage opened onto an outer ringway connecting all the hallways at their far ends. She could explore each of the corridors leading off the main room without returning to the center, where she'd be sure to attract attention. The ringway was busier, though, full of customers and employees alike bent on the business of pleasure. She tried her best to look just like one of them and succeeded in reaching the entrance to another corridor.
She took one more step before a Klingon with a jagged scar bisecting his crest snatched her by the hair and slammed her against the corridor wall. "If I did not know with certainty that Cestyr would have me tortured to death for the deed, I would open your belly now and spill your rotten insides on the floor," he hissed, his face inches from hers. "Could there be any greater pleasure for a Klingon in the employ of Cestyr Tyro of Xandor than to kill the bastard offspring of the bitch Logan and the coward Kirk?"
J.T. brought her hand up and jabbed two knuckles into the Klingon's unprotected throat. He gagged and loosened his hold on her long enough for her to dive under his arm and make a start down the corridor. But her shaking knees betrayed her; she couldn't get up any speed and he caught her in mid-flight, cutting her down with a blow to the back of her head. Her face met the floor before she even knew she was falling. She tasted blood.
The Klingon dragged her to her feet. "Cestyr has other plans for you and the piece of Terran shit that sired you. Come."
The Klingon clutched her arm in a ferocious grip and pulled her after him down the hall. She didn't struggle, though everything in her wanted to resist. Conserve your strength, she told herself. Wait for your chance. Breathe, BREATHE. Oh, God, she was scared.
Two Orion males, nearly as massive as the Klingon, were waiting outside a door near the middle of the corridor. They were laughing at something on the room's viewscreen, but straightened and sobered as the Klingon joined them. Three against two--and they outweigh us by a hundred kilos. Jesus, Jim, I hope you at least have your pants on.
"Phaser!" the Klingon ordered in a harsh whisper. One of the Orions drew his weapon from his tunic and stood to one side of the door. His companion put a beefy shoulder to the flimsy barrier and bashed his way through into the room.
The Klingon hung back with J.T., evidently planning to make a grand entrance. But inside the room, an unholy, screaming chaos erupted. M'Ourrwa, furious at being interrupted, launched herself at the first man through the door and began ripping his skin into ribbons with ten-centimeter claws. The Orion holding the phaser hesitated, looking for a clear shot, horrified at the gouts of green blood splattering the room. Kirk threw his weight against the man's outstretched phaser arm, knocking it aside, and drove an elbow into the man's mouth. The Orion slumped against one wall and the phaser skittered across the room.
Snarling, the Klingon dove for it, but J.T. tackled him from behind and the two of them slammed into Kirk. Kirk recovered first, took the Klingon by the front of his tunic and jerked him into a head-butt that stunned him into semi-conciousness. J.T. looked up at Kirk with a grin, but he was in no mood to celebrate.
"Get to the ship, J.T.," he shouted over the Caitian's yowling.
J.T. picked herself up from the floor. "Not without you."
"Now, damn it!" he commanded. "I'll be right behind you."
She noticed finally that he was shirtless, claw marks streaking his chest and back lightly with red. "Your communicator..."
He tossed his head. "In the corner. Go!"
His tone left no more room for argument. She touched her own panic button to signal Roxanne. As the transporter effect shimmered around her, she saw the Orion who'd handled the phaser hit Kirk from behind, saw M'Ourrwa turn from her dead victim to swat at the man attacking her mate, saw Kirk crumble under their combined weight.
J.T. was swearing in frustration when her molecules were reassembled on the transporter pad. "Roxanne! Send me back! Damn it, you have to send me back!"
"She'll do no such thing!" McCoy said, taking J.T.'s arm to pull her gently off the pad.
"Where is Kirk?" Spock demanded.
"He's in the middle of a bloodbath, and he's lost his communicator!" She shook McCoy off violently and scrambled back onto the pad. "Send me back there now, Roxanne, or I swear I'll rearrange your transporter circuits permanently!"
"Roxanne, scan the coordinates from which you just retrieved J.T.," Spock ordered.
"I'm trying, Mister Spock," the ship answered. "The readings are very confusing. At first, I read several lifeforms, now I read none. I'm getting a clear signal from the communicator, but nothing nearby."
"Shit! Shit!!" J.T. sank to her knees on the pad. She had left him and now he was dying down there.
"It is possible he has escaped from that location," Spock pointed out calmly. "Widen the scan."
"Widening... Now there are too many. There's no way of knowing which of these Human readings is Jim."
"We have to go after him, Spock!" J.T. pleaded, tears streaming through the sweat on her face.
McCoy sat down next to her and put his arms around her. "We can't, darlin'," he said. "Not until we know enough to do some good. We just have to trust Jim to find a way out. But don't you worry--he always does."
Kirk offered up a hurried prayer of gratitude as he saw J.T. engulfed in the sparkle of the transporter effect. Then something heavy hit him between the shoulder blades and he pitched forward, frozen with pain. The enraged Caitian shrieked and vaulted on top of the Orion who'd hit him, driving all three of them to the floor in a splintering, spitting heap.
The Orion began to scream as the creature's claws raked his face and the hands he'd thrown up to protect it. They thrashed and rolled on top of Kirk, pinning him under a fury of blood and bone. Kirk scrabbled for a position that would allow him to get out from under the pile, but before he managed it the room was abruptly silent. The weight was pulled off of him and he squinted upward into the blunt snout and tiny black eyes of a Tellarite.
"Up, Human!" the Tellarite grunted, thrusting a phaser under Kirk's nose. "Ostyr Tyro of Xandor summons you!"
Kirk got unsteadily to his feet. He hadn't heard the phaser, but there was no sign of M'Ourrwa and he could smell the sharp odor of vaporized carbon. She was gone. Kirk spared a second for regret; she had saved his life, after all, though had they finished what they'd started earlier, he might have ended up just as dead. The preliminaries had been rough enough.
The Klingon was just coming around in the center of the room. The Tellarite snorted at him. "The son would do well to follow the father in the matter of soldiers. Cestyr's Klingon trash serve their master poorly."
The Klingon glared, but said nothing. The Tellarite was not alone and the son was not yet ready to challenge the father.
Kirk looked to the corner of the room. His tunic was still where he'd tossed it after M'Ourrwa had playfully ripped it open. He could only hope the panic button hadn't been damaged. There was no getting to it now, though. One of the Tellarite's goon squad gathered Kirk's arms roughly behind his back and clamped on a restraining device. Then he pushed Kirk out the door.
They moved down a series of corridors until they reached a high, narrow door, intricately carved out of heavy heartwood and black metal. More guards there opened the doors and ushered them into a room so excessively appointed, it could only have served as the throneroom of Clan Tyro.
It was hot in the room, and oppressively humid. Kirk immediately broke out in a sweat. "What's the matter?" he said to the Tellarite. "Boss forget to pay his environmental control bill?"
The Tellarite punched him solidly in the ribs in response. Kirk, breathing tightly against the pain, decided humor was definitely not in order.
The door at the far end of the room swung ponderously open. Ostyr Tyro, the bulky muscles long since layered over with fat on his huge frame, filled the doorway and even seemed to diminish the room as he entered. He took Kirk's measure as he paced closer, a smile of cruel anticipation curving his thick lips. Kirk could see it was going to be a long night.
Cestyr followed respectfully behind his father, backed up by a phalanx of renegade Klingons. Beside Kirk, the Tellarite snuffled derisively.
"Well, my hanTyro," Ostyr boomed. "See what a famous visitor your fine house of pleasure has attracted tonight!"
Cestyr moved up beside his father and frowned in mock disapproval. "A celebrity, indeed, but a very rude and ill-behaved guest."
"Really? Why, I'm shocked! Captain Kirk is a hero of the galaxy!"
"Ah, but no hero of the bedroom, I'm afraid," Cestyr replied with a laugh. "He not only left his lover unsatisfied, but quite dead, as it happens."
"I'm so disappointed," Ostyr said. "But perhaps our hero's heart was not in his work tonight."
"Oh, the Logan woman, you mean," Cestyr answered, tugging pensively at an earring. "Do you suppose he still pines for her?"
Ostyr smiled venomously and moved closer to Kirk, using his height to force Kirk to look up at him. "Oh, I'm quite sure of it," he said softly, menacingly. "In fact, I would wager that he came here tonight looking for her." He grabbed the hair on the back of Kirk's head and yanked backward. "Didn't you, Captain?"
"If she's not here," Kirk said through clenched teeth, "then you know where she is. And before you kill me you can at least do me the honor of telling me."
"Honor?" Ostyr asked. He looked to his son and smiled indulgently. "Honor."
Ostyr whirled on Kirk and sent him to his knees with a vicious backhand. Then he kicked hard at Kirk's unprotected midsection, driving the air from Kirk's lungs and any thought of standing up from his mind. Ostyr leaned over him and grinned. "You see, Captain, we Orions find your Terran sense of honor somewhat ridiculous."
Kirk took his chance and aimed a kick up between the Orion's legs. It connected, though not with as much force as Kirk might have hoped. Ostyr grunted and fell on top of him, but with his hands still clamped behind him, Kirk could do nothing more to damage the Orion. Ostyr smashed a ham-sized fist into his face twice before he dragged him to his feet and sent him reeling in Cestyr's direction with a crackback kick to the base of his spine.
Cestyr caught him with a knee to the head and he went down again. He took another kick in the ribs before he could roll out of Cestyr's reach. Blood filled his mouth and ran freely into his eyes, but he wanted to get up. Nausea cramped his stomach, but it was important that he get up. He was desperate to get up and he tried to find his feet, but the room was heaving and twisting around him and his muscles wouldn't hold him. He struggled to his knees and stopped, gasping for breath against the pain in his side where he was certain the ribs were broken.
Cestyr and Ostyr loomed over him, laughing. "Careful, my hanTyro," Ostyr warned. "He is a dangerous one."
"So I see," Cestyr replied. "Perhaps if we tell him what he wants to know, he will stop attacking us."
"Yes, we really should tell him now," the older one laughed. He drew a long, slender knife from his belt and placed the tip just behind Kirk's earlobe. "Once we cut off his ears, he won't be able to hear us."
"Once we burn out his eyes, he won't be able to see what we have to show him," Cestyr said.
Ostyr could hardly speak now, he was laughing so hard. "And once we start carving his tiny Terran tumyr into even smaller pieces, he just won't be paying attention."
Kirk's head had cleared enough for him to notice that the Tellarites and the Klingons in the room also found this howlingly funny. "I'm listening now, Ostyr," he hissed, just to shut them up. "Tell me what I want to know."
"Ah, but are you certain you want to know?" Cestyr giggled. "The details are somewhat painful, after all."
"Oh, yes," Ostyr agreed. "It would be rather difficult for a man to hear how we used his lover--I hear Humans are sensitive about such things."
"Well, I don't know that he has anything to be ashamed of," Cestyr said. "She fought quite bravely for a while."
Kirk's heart tore loose from its moorings and began to bleed into his chest. Behind his back his useless hands clenched into fists.
"Yes, well, I hated to beat her so thoroughly, but she just wouldn't keep still for the ritual piercing. Here." Ostyr slipped the knifepoint under the skin of Kirk's chest, carving a line two centimeters long just below the left nipple. "And here." He repeated the action on the right side. Kirk drew in a breath and exhaled slowly as this new pain joined the throbbing of a dozen other hurts.
"Oh, and a few other places that unfortunately don't exist on the male body," Cestyr added.
"You do know, Captain, that such piercing is a prelude to fucking for an Orion? Oh, and what a sweet fuck your lover turned out to be! I see now why you are so anxious to have her back!"
"Yes, I think we would all agree," Cestyr said, turning dramatically to include the Klingons and Tellarites in the room. They were all enjoying the performance. "She was the best any of us had ever had."
Rage and horrible shame flooded the space where Kirk's heart had been. I'll kill you, you fucking bastards.
Ostyr leaned in confidentially. "Don't worry, my friend. She remained faithful to you to the very end. She cried out for you, over and over. As if you could help her from so far away!"
Oh, God, Kate. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
"How many of us were there that night, my hanTyro? Ten? Twelve?"
Cestyr shrugged. "I lost count after a while. Anyway, it hardly matters. She's had hundreds by now."
"If she still lives," Ostyr amended. "Old whores seldom last long on such backward planets."
What was left of Kirk's awareness flared into new life. Where, you bastard--tell me where!
"Unfortunately true," Cestyr agreed. "The dust, the heat, all those filthy farmhands. Of course, I shouldn't speak so harshly of the place--it is nearly all mine. But it is hard on the employees. Logan lasted less than the time it has taken for her tardy lover to arrive here--I received word of it today."
That's a lie! You may kill me, but J.T. is out of your reach. She has Spock and Bones and Roxanne to help her and they're going to find Kate. Alive, damn it!
Kirk stood up and looked into the eyes of his enemy. "You better kill me quickly, you son of a bitch, because if you give me any chance at all, I'm going to tear your throat out with my teeth."
Ostyr smiled, and raised his knife.
"No, wait," Cestyr interjected. "You forget I've made a study of this Human." He circled Kirk like a hyena, looking for weakness. "Did you know he has been wounded in battle? Oh, yes, a number of times. In fact, there is one part of his body that has sustained injury more than once. Koregh, lend me your tunfa."
The Klingon stepped forward and drew a heavy, studded club out of his belt. Cestyr took it and circled a minute longer. Kirk closed his eyes and waited. "The right knee," Cestyr said and Kirk heard the sharp whistle of sound before his leg splintered into a million shards of broken bone and shattered cartilage.
Kirk screamed, he couldn't help it, the knee was a blinding agony of unyielding pain. He collapsed on the floor, completely open to the stomp kick that slammed into the side of the ruined knee to shred the ligaments and turn the muscles to mush. He writhed, desperate to find the presence of mind to protect himself, but the pain was winning, he couldn't move, and each new blow--cracking an elbow, dislocating a shoulder, bruising a kidney--only sent him deeper into himself.
Until, all at once, the blows stopped. He drew in on the pain, sobbing for breath, and waited until he could open his eyes. Through a red haze he could see Cestyr talking with another Orion, someone Kirk hadn't seen before in the room.
Cestyr turned with a frown on his face. "There is a matter of some importance that I must attend to, P'tyr. Please continue without me."
"Nonsense, my firstborn! Kirk is your bounty; you must have the pleasure of his blood. Besides," the Orion turned Kirk face up with his foot, "the pain will work on him in the meanwhile." Ostyr placed his knife just below Kirk's navel and looked directly into Kirk's eyes. Kirk tried to move to save himself, but managed only to pull back a few centimeters from the hungry dagger.
"Do you know how long it takes to die from a knifewound in the belly, Captain?" Ostyr purred. He moved the knife slightly. The metal of the blade was cold on Kirk's skin. "Even a small wound will kill you if it is not attended to. But it takes days sometimes." Smiling, he thrust the tip of the delicate blade through the abdominal muscle and buried it an three centimeters into the gut. He sliced ruthlessly sideways the length of a thumb and withdrew the bloody weapon.
Kirk watched the blood spill out over his belly, heard himself cry out, as if the belly and the blood and the pain and the scream belonged to someone else. Then he felt himself being hauled up and moved roughly along the corridor until a door crashed open in front of him. The floor rose up to meet him, the door slammed behind him. He was alone.
Live, damn you! he told himself, though he could barely force his burning lungs to expand and contract. Move and find something to stop the bleeding. He rolled to his side and inched across the floor using one shoulder and his uninjured knee. Blood gushed out of the wound in his abdomen and left a smear on the carpeted floor. He stared at it, appalled. There was so much; it had soaked deeply into the carpet and splashed thickly onto the pillows. He squinted. Some of it was green.
He used a precious breath to utter an inarticulate groan of triumph. Life--and revenge--were suddenly a real possibility. They had thrown him back in the room he'd shared with M'Ourrwa.
He moved in earnest now and made faster progress, though the corner of the room that was his goal seemed endlessly distant. He blacked out--for how long, he didn't know--and woke in a panic that they would return before he found what he needed. He crawled on, sweating and shaking with shock, until he could see his discarded tunic just within reach. He rolled over and clutched the fabric in his bound hands. Just before the wave of black nausea carried him into unconsciousness, he found the communicator with his trembling fingers and squeezed the recall button.
"I've got him! I've got him!" Roxanne's computer-generated voice was an almost-Human squeal. "A signal on the panic button!"
"Quickly, Roxanne." Spock needn't have said it. Roxanne had initiated the transporter beam and Kirk was already materializing on the pad.
"Oh, my God!" J.T. breathed. He was covered in blood. There was blood everywhere. How could he possibly still live?
McCoy was bent over him almost before he'd fully rematerialized. He took the ragged tunic and pressed it into the hole in Kirk's stomach while he passed his free hand expertly over his patient's head, neck, ribs, arms, legs.
"J.T., I have to get him to the living quarters," he said. "Do you have a cargo lift between decks?" His voice was so calm, so casual, as if he were asking where the bathroom was, or if it was dinnertime yet.
"A sling," she stammered. "I'll run it down."
As J.T. climbed the ladder to the upper deck, she heard McCoy murmur reassurance to his patient. "The equipment's almost as good as what we had on the Enterprise, Jim. I'll have what I need. Just give me a chance." He looked up through the hatch. "How about that sling, J.T.?"
"Coming." J.T.'s hands were shaking so badly she couldn't unhook the catch that held the sling in place over the hatch. She slapped at it in frustration, wrenching it open finally with a maneuver that left her knuckles raw. She swung the boom out over the hatch and lowered the sling to the deck below.
Spock had joined McCoy at Kirk's side, wearing the same expression of controlled emotion that lined the doctor's face. He snapped the restraints off Kirk's wrists with his bare hands, but otherwise gave no indication of the depth of his anger. J.T. saw McCoy exchange a look with the Vulcan, a look that expressed both fear and unyielding determination. Then together they lifted Kirk's body the few centimeters from the transporter pad to the sling's platform and steadied it as J.T. started the winch.
In seconds Kirk's bruised, pale face was nearly even with hers as the winch lifted the sling through the hatchway. She didn't want to look, but she couldn't take her eyes off that face and the marks of the hour he had spent since she'd left him. She could read every torturous blow--the fist that had smashed into his mouth and left those lacerations, the crack on the head that had left that gash, the kicks and punches that had left him swollen and bleeding. She closed her eyes and she could still see him; she could even hear him screaming, though he was as quiet as death.
McCoy and Spock unhitched the sling platform and carried him down the narrow ship's corridor to the living quarters. They laid him in the spare bunk, the one equipped with the medical diagnostics.
"Doctor, I must take the ship out of orbit and away from this planet as quickly as possible," Spock said. "Can you manage without my assistance?"
McCoy answered him without looking away from the medical readouts. "J.T. can help me. And Spock..."
The Vulcan waited.
"Set course for the nearest starbase or planet with decent medical facilities. He's going to need more help than I can give him."
Spock nodded and started to move away, but a ragged whisper from Kirk stopped him. "No!"
"Now, Jim, you just lie quiet," McCoy ordered. "You're too busy bleeding to be doing any talking."
"Spock..." Kirk put out a hand to grab the Vulcan's sleeve.
"Jim, the doctor is right. Now is not the time for a debate over our next step." Spock gently freed himself from Kirk's grip. "I must move the ship out of orbit--and you must have medical attention."
"I think I may know where Kate is," Kirk insisted.
"They told you something?!" J.T. exclaimed.
Kirk looked at her and the lines of strain around his eyes relaxed briefly. "An agricultural colony...hot, dry."
"I said quiet!" McCoy commanded, emptying a hypo into Kirk's shoulder. "We can all have a nice, long argument once I've succeeded in patching you back together."
"No new course, Spock," Kirk said, his eyes closing and the muscles in his face beginning to go slack. "That's...an order."
The cave as close and comforting as a womb, offering shelter from the storm and escape from the fear that stalked them. She lay with him in the darkness, their bodies as intimately entwined as any twins', her breasts still warm with the memory of his touch, her thighs still wet with the lifestuff of their passion. In her belly she could feel the promise of new life taking hold; in her heart, she could feel the reality of his love taking over. A change was coming. Her life would never be the same.
He stirred and kissed her forehead. "We have to go now."
"I don't want to leave," she said, sitting up to look at him.
The sadness in his eyes was visible even in the dark of the cave. "We can't stay here, Kate. They're coming."
A sense of danger, imminent and life-threatening, grew in her consciousness. Why hadn't she perceived it before? They were no longer safe here.
All at once they were running, scrabbling over loose rock and dirt up a steep incline. It was impossible to see the hazards in their path, the outcroppings that tripped them and bruised their shoulders and elbows. Still they ran, because the threat was looming behind them, unseen and grimly present.
"I can see some light up ahead," he said. He stretched out a hand to her to help her up the sloping passageway. She took it; his hand was warm and strong, lifting her to the top of the rise. Behind them she heard a demonic baying, a shout of discovery. The rockface above them exploded in a spray of choking dust and a furious hail of fractured stone. In an instant, they were falling, carried along with an avalanche of dirt and rock into a bottomless black pit.
She knew in some corner of her mind that this was only a simulation of death, that she had only to open her eyes to be free of the falling and the desperate fear. But the dream messenger was not done with her yet. She could not open her eyes and save herself until she had seen what she was meant to see.
The endless falling finally had an end and she waited for the pain that did not come. Now she began to understand and a blast of sudden fear swept through her like a cold wind. "Jim!" She crawled in the suffocating darkness, feeling for him with shaking hands.
She found him broken and bleeding under a crushing weight of rock and--inexplicably--tangled metal. He was older than he'd been in the beginning; his face, under the bruises and the blood, was marked with the years that had passed since they lay together in that cave on Rho Orionis V.
"Oh, God, Jim, hold on. Hold on." She clawed uselessly at the slag covering his body. Beneath it, she could see only blood.
"No, there's no time. I want...I want to talk."
He held out a hand to her. She stopped her frantic work; she could see it was doing no good. She took his hand and knelt beside him.
"Kate, if I never see you again, I want you to know something."
"Don't talk like that. We'll find a way."
"It doesn't matter. I have to tell you."
She brushed the hair from his forehead, wanting only to soothe him. "You'll have a lifetime to tell me. Just lie quietly now."
"Please, Kate. You have to listen to me."
"All right." She fought to block out the blood and the darkness, tried to rein in the panic that threatened to run away with her. "I'm listening."
He struggled to find both the words and the breath to say them. "All these years, I never stopped loving you. Even when I believed I'd never see you again. Even when it would have been easier to forget you. I couldn't stop."
"I know," she said, trembling. "It was the same for me."
"I'm sorry, Kate. I should have come to you years ago. I always believed there would be time."
Tears spilled out of her eyes and ran down her face. "There will be. There has to be."
"Stay safe, Kate. While I live, I'll never give up trying to find you. But if I don't..."
"You will. I'll wait for you," she sobbed, though he was fading from her grasp as she spoke.
"I love you," he said, and was gone.
Logan jerked awake in the hot, dusty confines of the rattling hummer. She rubbed at her face, embarrassed by the tears she found there. Grief still twisted her heart, as fresh and deeply painful as the throbbing cut in her hand. God, the blood. Could he be so awfully hurt? Was he dead already? The tears started again and she couldn't hold them back. She buried her head in her arms and let them out, grateful for the noise of the old vehicle to mask the sound of her sobs.
She had cried herself out when she felt a touch on her shoulder. She swiped at her eyes with her sleeve and looked up to receive the blessing of a toothless smile from the tiny, shriveled being in the seat next to her. The being was female and ancient, with a round, sun-creased face and bright awareness in her dark eyes. The fingers of the hand that patted Logan's arm were connected with vestigial webbing, the skin was a smooth gray-green. Logan didn't know the creature's species, but she was obviously a long way from a watery home planet. She looked like a hybrid--half-dolphin, half-Buddha.
He lives, the creature said--only the voice didn't come out of her mouth in the conventional way. Do what he asks, and you will join again.
Logan stared at the dolphin/Buddha with suspicion. What the hell are you doing in my head?
What you would say, I can hear without your saying. What you would not say, I cannot hear.
Logan sighed. Not only a telepathic Buddha but a speaker of riddles. And why me?
She heard the creature's high, silvery laughter in her mind. Of course you. Your heart is open, and others have been invited in before me.
Just so. And him that you mourn without need. Now in their absence let me offer help. I am called A'ma."
A'ma took Logan's injured hand and gently unwrapped the rough bandage. She took water from a pouch at her side and a clean cloth from a bag at her feet and washed the dried blood and dirt from the wound. She took a tiny jar of salve from a pocket in her threadbare robe and spread it tenderly over the injured skin. Logan felt a thrumming in her hand, as if an electrical current was running from the creature's fingertips into the area she touched. After a moment, the pain that had lived in the wound all day suddenly died, leaving behind only a strange warmth.
Thank you, A'ma. Are you a healer?
A'ma smiled and wrapped the hand in a clean swath of cloth. I am many things, as are we all. You are hungry. Share food with me.
She took bread and dried fruit out of her bag and passed some to Logan. Logan reached across the vehicle's center aisle to give some of the food to Rafe Cardoza, who looked ravenous. A'ma smiled and offered more. The boy would be your protector, A'ma commented.
I'm not sure who's protecting whom, Logan answered. The simple food was delicious. Logan couldn't even remember the last time she had eaten. What is your home planet, A'ma? I'm not familiar with your people.
Home is everywhere and nowhere to my people. The waves roll no more under an untroubled sky and Haole requires penance.
If her people were anything like A'ma, Logan couldn't imagine what they could possibly have done to require penance. The myriad natural disasters that molded the universe were explained in as many different ways as there were species and cultures. But for now the explanation A'ma's people had for the loss of their home planet would remain a mystery. The elderly being had closed her eyes and her mind and appeared to be asleep.
The kilometers ran past the vehicle's grimy windows for interminable, unmarked hours. The sun rose high in the sky to sear the stark landscape to the wavery horizon, overloading the limited environmental controls in the decrepit hummer. Still the hummer droned on without a pause while its passengers sweated and shifted their cramped limbs in a futile attempt to find a comfortable position.
It was late in the afternoon when a shimmer on the horizon slowly resolved itself into a cluster of rough buildings, the first town they had come across all day. The driver pulled into a market plaza off the main route and announced an hour's break. Then he disappeared, leaving Logan to speculate that he had some slightly shady business to transact, or maybe a lover somewhere in town.
Logan and Cardoza helped A'ma out of the hummer and stretched stiffly, blinking like owls in the bright, hot afternoon.
"I feel like I'm still moving," Cardoza complained. He stomped his feet, trying to restore circulation.
Provisions are necessary, A'ma said. I will return.
"Not a bad idea," Logan agreed. "Rafe, let's try to find some food and water. I have a feeling we won't be stopping again for a while."
"Yeah. We probably won't stop for the night until we hit Ardennes," he replied. "But I'm not looking for anything until I find a bathroom."
An hour later they were back at the hummer, fully relieved and provisioned. A'ma and the other passengers were all there, lounging in the meager shade of a single tree at the edge of the square.
"Where's the driver?" Logan asked them.
The passengers shrugged or shook their heads.
He will not return, A'ma said. The road takes a turn.
Logan looked at the old one, wondering if she was the source of the warning chill that had lifted the tiny hairs on the back of Logan's neck. Are we in danger?
A'ma's expression did not change, but Logan felt the agreement. Much will be required of us soon.
Logan pulled Cardoza aside. "What kind of comm setup would this place have?"
"Standard connections," he said. "If you're asking whether they could have heard news of a fugitive, I'd say yes."
He shook his head. "Maybe a local deputy. District supervisor's in Ardennes."
Logan relaxed a bit, but she couldn't shake a sense of foreboding. When she saw the two men emerge from a doorway on the other side of the plaza and head their way, the lingering worry ballooned into full red alert.
"I don't suppose there is any other way to get out of this dump," she asked the boy.
"Other than the way we came in? Not a chance."
The two men were Human, large, and dressed to hide what Logan guessed was a formidable arsenal. She'd seen the type before; they were death for hire.
"We're relieving your driver," the taller of them informed the group.
"That's a little irregular, isn't it?" Logan demanded.
"He's ill," the second man said with a grin. "He asked us to fill in. It's either that or you're stuck in this muckhole until he recovers."
"Which is likely to be a while!" They both laughed at this.
"Oh, I don't know." Logan was determined to brazen it out. "He didn't look that sick to me. I think I'd like to get the story from him. Or maybe we should take this to the local deputy and let him sort it out."
The tall one stepped up to her. "I don't think you want to do that, girl. You want to get out of this town as soon as possible. You don't have a choice."
Bounty hunters, Logan thought. That confirms it.
Most certainly, A'ma answered. And just as anxious as you are to work discreetly. They have competition.
Can you warn the others? This is likely to be a short ride into the desert for all of us.
I will do what I can, but most cannot hear what they do not want to hear.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Logan finally said to the mercenary in her face. "We're wasting time."
The big man grinned and turned away to ready the hummer.
"Are you crazy?" Cardoza whispered. "Do you know what these guys are?"
"Rafe, I want you to stay behind here with A'ma. There'll be another taxi along in a day or two. These guys want me; they're not interested in you."
"No way! At least if I'm with you it'll be two to two!"
"If we fight them, we'll both end up dead. They're professionals and we're unarmed. Stay here."
Let the boy come with us, A'ma said. We will then be three against two and we are not as unarmed as you believe.
Logan glared at A'ma, but got only the beatific dolphin/Buddha smile in return. I suppose you have a couple of phasers in that bag of yours?
My weapons are much more useful.
I can't imagine anything more useful in this particular situation.
My defenses cannot be taken from me. Neither can they be left behind or used against me.
"Are you coming with us or not, old witch?" the shorter man snarled. "And what about you, boy?"
They climbed into the hummer and slid along the seats to their places. All but three of the other passengers had elected to stay behind, whether warned by A'ma or their own good sense, Logan didn't know. At least the hummer was roomier now.
Once the passengers had settled in the taller man got into the driver's seat. His partner climbed into the back where he could keep a wary eye on Logan and the others. They took the route out of town that would have led them eventually to Ardennes and the T'var Valley, but Logan suspected it was only to throw their competition off the scent. They would soon be turning back to the capital, where the bountymen could expect their reward for returning a fugitive.
As purple night fell across the wide desert, the hummer slowed and came to a lurching halt in a shallow draw off the transport route. "Everybody out!" the driver announced cheerfully.
Logan saw the disruptor in the other man's hand and decided against quick action. They would have to wait for an opening.
Patience, A'ma cautioned.
"This woman is a criminal and a fugitive from justice," the driver bellowed. "We are taking her back to Port One. The rest of you may go."
"Go where?" one of the passengers shouted back at him. He was a young man, a trader of some sort, and not a very pleasant personality. "We're in the middle of the desert!"
The shorter bountyman raised his disruptor to the man's face and squeezed the release. Nothing happened. "Hunh!" he grunted in surprise. He reached into his jerkin. "Oh, well. I have another one right here..."
But the objecting trader and the rest of the unlucky passengers had already beat it into the bush. The bountymen laughed.
"So, old hag," the taller one said, "are you leaving, or should I tell Tso to find a disruptor that is fully charged?"
Tell them I am too old to walk. I will return to the city with you.
"She's obviously too old and sick to strike off across the desert on foot," Logan argued. "She can go back to Port One with us."
As short as he was, Tso towered over the old one. "Is she an idiot? Does she not speak?"
"She is mute."
Tso grunted and turned to Rafe. "What about the boy?"
"Kill him, since he was too stupid to run," the other replied.
Logan launched herself at Tso before he could draw a weapon. She had him down on the ground and was poised to deliver a throat jab when something hit her hard at the temple. The force of the blow sent her sprawling in the dust and it was a moment before she could shake herself back to full consciousness. By that time, Tso had gotten to his feet and his partner had fended off an attack from Cardoza by knocking him senseless.
She got up slowly, watching the disruptors that both men now pointed at their captives. "We don't want to kill you," the tall one said. "You're worth more alive than dead. But I won't be bothered with fighting you for 2000 klicks." He turned to Tso. "Finish it and let's get going."
Tso pointed the disruptor at the boy and squeezed the trigger. Again, nothing happened. He began to curse.
"Oh, for Chrissake!" The other one tried his own weapon. Nothing.
Tso pulled a knife from his jerkin and advanced on Cardoza's prone body. But before he could strike, he cried out in pain and dropped the weapon. "The friggin' thing is hot as hell!" he shouted. Enraged, he turned to A'ma. "It's the old witch! She's doing something! I'll break her fucking neck!"
He reached for the old one, but she stepped calmly aside and took his arm at the wrist and elbow. He went down in a heap on the desert sand--and didn't get up again.
Logan grabbed her chance and tackled the tall bountyman from behind. He fell, but he swept Logan's legs out from under her and she landed within reach of his hands. She got in a good kick before he smashed her face and clamped his thick hands around her throat. She tried every escape she knew, but he held on. She couldn't breathe. Her vision began to narrow, to fade...
Abruptly, the man collapsed on top of her and was still. Logan rolled him off of her and struggled to sit up, coughing against the constriction in her throat. When she finally caught her breath, she looked up to see A'ma watching her benignly from her commanding 1.3 meter height.
How the hell did you do that?
It's a chi thing. You wouldn't understand.
You come from a race of Shaolin priests?
Some say they learned from one of us, in the time before, A'ma laughed. We were great travelers, even then.
Logan got to her feet, holding her head against the dizziness. Speaking of traveling, I think we'd best be gone before these guys wake up. You didn't kill them, did you?
They live, but you are right. We must go.
Cardoza groaned and sat up, putting a hand to his swollen cheek. Logan brushed the sand off her clothes and went to check on him. "You okay?"
"I think so. Did you do that?" He pointed at the bountymen.
"Nope. She did."
"Huh? That little old grandma?"
Logan helped the boy to his feet. "If I've learned nothing else in thirty years of wandering the galaxy, it's that appearances can be deceiving. You and I both owe that little old grandma our lives."
"Well," he said, struggling to cover his awkwardness as he took A'ma's hand. "Thank you."
A'ma beamed at him until he reddened and turned away.
"I suppose we should look around for our fellow passengers before we take off." Logan jumped into the driver's seat of the hummer and looked over the controls.
They will not be found. Do not waste time. A'ma took up her place in the back of the vehicle.
"Why not what?" Cardoza replied.
Logan stared at him for a moment as understanding dawned. "You can't hear A'ma, can you?"
"Who? I don't hear anything."
He has no ears to hear me as you do.
"Oh, this is going to be fun. A thousand kilometers in a cranky hummer translating between a telepathic Buddha/dolphin and a teenage male. And I don't suppose anyone else can drive?"
"Sure I can drive!" the boy asserted.
Logan considered him. "Good. I'll remember that in case I have a heart attack or suddenly go blind. Let's go."
Logan watched the shadowy draws and moonwashed hills for signs of the other passengers as she put the hummer on course for Ardennes, but A'ma had been right. They were nowhere to be seen. Of course, they would still expect the two bounty hunters to be driving the hummer and would be exercising the better part of valor.
"How far are we from Ardennes, Rafe?"
"Not sure. Maybe an hour?"
"We'll need fuel and extra provisions."
"No problem. It's a big town. I know a place where we can stay for the night."
"No. The word's out on us; we have to keep moving. How long will it take us to get you home if we drive straight through?"
"Twelve hours from Ardennes. Over the Mahoc Pass."
"You know the way?"
"We'll need a map. The guidance system on this piece of junk is shot."
"Yeah, along with the EC and God knows what else. You're a farmboy--you know anything about these engines?"
"I've been taking them apart and putting them back together since I was twelve."
"That long, huh?" Logan flashed a grin at him to let him know she was teasing. "Okay, let's look her over when we stop. We can probably get whatever we need to keep her going in Ardennes."
Cardoza nodded and they fell silent. Tantua's second moon rose to flood the empty plain with silver light. The falling night had driven out the heat of the day, but Logan was grateful for the cold that blew in the holes of the drafty vehicle to keep her awake. She had no time for sleep. She could sense all the bounty hunters on the planet baying at her heels, like the demons of her dream. Her only thought was to reach the ag station in T'var before they caught up with her; beyond that she dared not speculate.
"What is his condition, Doctor?" Spock asked quietly.
"Fine, for a man who's just been through four hours of surgery," McCoy replied. "It's a miracle he's still alive. Concussion, internal injuries, broken ribs, significant blood loss. And that's just the good news. The bad news is if we don't get him some expert orthopedic attention within seventy-two hours, he'll never have full use of that knee again. He needs massive tissue regeneration; the ship's equipment just isn't up to the job."
"The nearest facility is at Starbase Sixteen, in the Beta Quadrant," Spock said. "But even at maximum warp we will need the full seventy-two hours to make the trip."
"Just get us there, Spock," McCoy muttered, his attention on lifesigns monitors above the bunk.
J.T. wrapped her arms tightly around her chest, as if that alone could keep her from flying into a thousand guilty pieces. She had tried to convince herself this wasn't her fault, but every time she looked at him her heart turned inside her. She had set him on this quest. She had left him behind on Netherworld. God, she couldn't stand the thought of what had happened to him there.
"I should have stayed with him." Anger and guilt were thick in her throat.
"So Ostyr Tyro could kill you, too?" McCoy said. "How would that have helped Jim? You had the good sense to get out when you could. He made it back alive. It's time to put all this behind us and go home."
Something about the way he'd chosen his words stole her breath. J.T. looked from Spock to McCoy, denial already building in her mind. No. Don't say it. "But Jim said he thought he knew where Kate was."
"That is unlikely," Spock said. He seemed reluctant to continue.
McCoy took up the task. "Kate's dead, J.T.."
She could see how much it hurt him to say it, but she still couldn't believe it. "How do you know?"
McCoy sank onto the spare bunk, as if the burden of what they knew had finally worn him down.
Spock explained, "We spoke briefly with a young woman who may have been a witness to her death."
"May have been? Then you can't be sure!"
"We're sure, damn it!" McCoy hissed, his pain surfacing with a suddenness that shocked her. "God knows I didn't want to hear what we heard, J.T., but there is no denying the truth. The girl identified Kate's holo. It's the closest we'll ever get to finding her."
The fire of hope that had sustained J.T. for so long abruptly died, leaving her chilled and numb. It was over; Kate Logan wouldn't be coming back with them. And all of this--all of Jim's sacrifice, all of their desperate, dangerous search--had been for nothing. "I was so sure I was right," she whispered. "How could I have been so wrong?"
McCoy stood up again and put an arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry, darlin'. I'd give anything to have it otherwise. But at least one good thing has come out of this. You have your father now--and he has you. I can tell you that's more than Jim has had for most of his life."
J.T. looked at the man in the diagnostic bed, looked at his hair that was like her hair, though it was shot with gray, his jaw that was like her jaw. After all they had been through together they were still strangers. She wasn't sure they were even capable of comforting each other. "I almost got him killed," she said. "He might never recover."
"Jim Kirk has more fight in him than any ten ordinary Humans," McCoy replied. "He'll survive this--and so will you." He released her with a little smile, a smile weary with more than just a long, difficult day's labor. Years of caring lay behind that smile and weighed it down with sympathy.
The doctor turned away finally and rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. He swayed slightly; Spock reached out to put a supportive hand under his elbow. "Doctor, you are in need of rest."
McCoy waved off the Vulcan's concern. "I'll be all right. He's not completely stable yet."
"His lifesigns are strong, Doctor McCoy," Roxanne assured him. "You should sleep. I'll wake you if there is any change."
McCoy nodded, but he still looked doubtful.
"Go on," J.T. said. "Use Kate's...use the captain's cabin. I'll stay here with him."
"Wake me as soon as he's conscious," McCoy ordered. "If he hasn't come around in an hour, call me anyway." He put a gentle hand on Kirk's shoulder, a gesture that seemed well-worn in him, an old habit of communicating what J.T. sensed the gruff doctor might never have said any other way. Then, reluctantly, he surrendered the care of his friend to others and left the cabin.
McCoy's tenderness was no surprise to J.T., but the unexpected warmth in Spock's eyes as he watched McCoy go was another matter. His concern for the doctor was much more perceptible than any Vulcan should have allowed. J.T. was suddenly curious.
Spock turned and saw her watching him. He straightened slightly.
"You've all been together a long time," she began.
"Your father and Doctor McCoy are my closest friends."
J.T. knew what that kind of friendship meant to Kate and Dartha and Laria. She could guess what it meant to McCoy and Kirk. But what it could mean to a Vulcan was not so easy to fathom. "That kind of friendship demands a lot of emotional energy."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "If you mean that that it is sometimes difficult to meet the requirements of friendship, I would agree. However, I have always found that my efforts were more than counterbalanced by the benefits of the friendship."
"What do you mean?"
"Simply that I have always received much more than I have given."
"Most of the Vulcans I've known would never admit they have anything to give." J.T. flashed a devilish grin. "We are, after all, talking about emotional energy."
Spock looked at her without discernable expression. "Vulcans are quite capable of sustaining friendships based on mutual interest and intellectual compatibility alone."
"That hardly explains the kind of attachment you three seem to have."
"Some things cannot be fully explained," Spock replied, "even with the most rigorous logic."
Before J.T. had a chance to respond to this extraordinary statement, Roxanne interjected softly from the speaker near the lifesigns monitor. "Spock, forgive me, but surely the mind-meld is an emotional bond."
Spock nodded. "Between mates or family members, or in extreme circumstances, the joining of minds is accomplished on all levels--emotional as well as intellectual."
"And that establishes a permanent bond, doesn't it?" Roxanne asked.
J.T. was astonished. "You have that kind of bond with Jim and McCoy?"
Again, Spock nodded.
"It was the same with Kate and me," Roxanne agreed. There was a small pause before she continued. "Spock, if Jim had died on Netherworld, would you have been aware of it?"
"The link that we share would have been broken by his death," Spock answered. "I could not have failed to be conscious of it."
"I've always believed that I would know if Kate died." There was an unmistakable sadness in the computer-generated voice and J.T. felt a welling of fresh grief in her chest. "But I still feel her presence in my matrix. I know there was damage from what happened in Rigel... or was I just wrong to expect a change when Kate died?"
Spock's chin lifted slightly as he considered the problem. "I do not think the damage you sustained would have this particular effect," he concluded finally. "A memory lapse, perhaps, but not an imagined link with another consciousness."
"Then why do I still feel Kate so strongly?" Roxanne protested.
"It is possible the mindlink you shared with Kate is not of the same nature as the one I share with Jim Kirk." His answer, though precise as always, seemed to come from somewhere outside himself. He suddenly seemed absorbed with some intractable problem. One eyebrow lifted slowly on its own, as if he had forgotten to control it in his concentration.
"Spock?" J.T. said. "What is it?"
His eyes flicked briefly in her direction. "I must make the appropriate course corrections for Starbase Sixteen. As Doctor McCoy has pointed out, time is of the essence." He got up without further preamble and left for the bridge.
"Was it something I said?" J.T. wondered.
"Mister Spock has a marvelously intricate mind," Roxanne said. "But I find the tricks I use to understand Humans tend not to work with him."
"In other words, you don't know what he's thinking either."
"Haven't got a clue," the ship responded.
J.T. sighed and dropped into a chair at Kirk's side. The reality of what McCoy and Spock had told her settled like a fall of ash on her spirit. "Oh, Roxie. She's really gone, isn't she?"
Roxanne's voice was barely audible. "I don't believe it. But I must believe it. I will never see life through Kate's eyes again. Grief is the last lesson she will have to teach me."
Regret poured out of J.T. in a torrent of new tears. She'd had all those years with Kate, but she'd never learned the most fundamental truths about her. And now she would never have the chance; their relationship was over before it had ever truly begun. "I'd give anything to have just one more day with her," she whispered.
"J.T., some questions simply have no answers," Roxanne explained gently. "Kate did what she did because she thought it was the best choice for all three of you. There is nothing more she could tell you, no matter how much time you had with her."
"No, I don't need any explanations from her. That's not what I mean." J.T. couldn't find the words to express the loss she mourned, the loss of an opportunity that was irretrievably gone with Kate and could be just as easily missed with Jim.
She looked down and saw her father's hand, motionless on top of the thermoblanket, the knuckles bruised and scraped from his latest fight for life. Hesitantly, as if he might sense it and withdraw, she reached to take his hand in hers. "I just wish I'd had the chance to tell her, Roxie. I don't think I even knew before now...how much I loved her."
Roxanne's voice was soft and reassuring. "She knew, J.T., even if you never said it. And so does he."
Ostyr Tyro felt a disappointment as sharp as dueling razors. His firstborn son, his hanTyro and soon to be heir to his great trade empire, the one in whom he had placed all his hopes for the future, had fallen so short of his expectations. He had failed not once, but twice. The enemy had escaped out of Cestyr's very teeth and left the father no choice but to discipline the son.
"I trusted you, Cestyr hanTyro," he said. "I gave you a sacred task--eliminate the enemies of your father. Any of your brothers would have been glad to have the task, but I chose you. Now I see I made a mistake. My enemies live while my firstborn is mocked by his slaves. I should kill you where you stand for causing me such embarrassment."
"Yes, P'tyr, I deserve to die," Cestyr agreed, his head bowed properly.
Ostyr was touched, but he slammed his fist into the side of Cestyr's head anyway. His son fell to the floor and Ostyr clamped a foot on his neck. "You are much too clever for your own good. Now, tell me why I should not torture you to death."
"As you said, your enemies still live, P'tyr," Cestyr gasped. "I beg for another chance to kill them before I die."
"You have already had your chances," Ostyr growled. He did not remove his foot. "You could simply have blasted the hyrsta Logan and her ship to hell. Instead you left the ship behind to carry the cursed Kirk to our doorstep. You left Logan alive when you could have brought me her blood in a drinking flask. Now she has escaped her captivity and even Kirk and the bastard daughter have slipped from your limp grasp. Is this how you would manage my business?"
"Forgive me, P'tyr! I thought it would please you to think of the hyrsta's bondage. I hoped to give you the gift of Kirk's pain as a sign of my loyalty. Had I thought there was any chance he would escape before you could taste the pleasure of his torture I would have killed him outright. But my servants failed me--and I failed you."
"Hmm, yes, the servants," Ostyr said, releasing the pressure on his son's neck a fraction. "Who was responsible for Kirk after he was removed from here?"
The Klingon Koregh stepped away from the wall at the far end of the room. "I was, Your Excellency."
Ostyr stepped over his son and approached the soldier. He admired the man's spirit; even now Koregh stood straight without trembling. "You alone?"
"I was responsible, Your Excellency," Koregh answered. "Two others were posted to the duty."
From the corner of his eye, Ostyr could see the other guards begin to quake. They were Klingon also, but lacked their commander's courage. "You have failed in my son's service. You have caused me to lose confidence in him. How will you pay for this disgrace?"
Koregh said nothing, but went immediately down the line and pulled out the two guards who had served under him. He drew his dirk, extended its shredding blades, and buried it deeply in the chest of the first of the subordinates. The guard groaned loudly and crumpled to the floor, where his blood began to form a glistening fuschia pool.
The other guard sank to his knees in fear, prompting Koregh to spit on him before he slashed his throat with a swipe of the dirk. The man fell forward, the blood spouting from his open neck.
Koregh faced Ostyr then and sheathed his bloody dagger. Ostyr merely waited--it was obvious the Klingon had something else in mind. Koregh removed his armored jerkin and ripped open his tunic. Then he redrew his dirk, snapped open its blades and thrust it upward into his own belly. His eyes, still looking Ostyr boldly in the face, glazed over and he dropped lifeless to the floor. An appreciative murmur went through the ranks of Tellarite guards. The other Klingons were as silent as their fallen leader.
"Admirable," Ostyr said. He turned to his firstborn. "Your servant has bought your life, Cestyr hanTyro. Get up before I forget his sacrifice."
Cestyr rose, struggling to maintain a measure of dignity.
"So. Kirk and Logan," the elder continued. "Tell me how you will solve this problem."
"I have the coordinates and heading of Kirk's ship," Cestyr replied. "The Deathwatch can catch him within a day."
"She cannot escape Tantua," Cestyr said. "Once I dispose of Kirk, I can return there to find her."
"Cannot escape Tantua?" Ostyr barked. He pulled back a hand and slapped his firstborn's forlorn face. "You thought she could not escape Hadley! Only a fool underestimates his enemy."
Ostyr thought a moment longer. "I see I still cannot trust you to finish this. You stay with Kirk. I will go to Tantua myself. Logan will die under my own hand."
"As you will it, P'tyr," Cestyr said, dipping his head respectfully. Then he lifted his eyes and Ostyr was proud to see the hatred that burned in them. "I only regret that I cannot bring you Kirk's dismembered body as trophy. For I plan to blast him, his ship, his clan brothers and the daughter of his old age into pieces so small no sensor could detect them."
Ostyr was pleased. "You may yet earn the title of hanTyro, my firstborn," he said. "But first you must kill this vipercat in his own den. Take care he does not sink his fangs in your throat--James T. Kirk is not nearly as old and toothless as you once thought."
"Jim, don't you think it's about time you went home and spent some time with Mom?" Sam looked at him with that steady, big- brother concern he always seemed to carry now that Dad was gone. "You've been out here since the funeral."
"I like it out here," he said, running his hand over Molly's neck as he checked the harness. "Uncle Jack isn't constantly asking me how I feel."
Sam ignored the dig and pressed his argument. "Mom needs us, Jim. And you know I can't take much more time away from the lab."
"Mom'll be all right."
Sam grabbed his arm and jerked him around to face him. "Will you stop and think about someone else for a change? You weren't the only one who lost somebody when Dad died, you know."
He ripped his sleeve out of Sam's grasp. "Think about someone else? I've come in second all my life. Take care of your Mom while I'm gone, Jimmy! Try harder, Jimmy! Why can't you be more like your brother, Jimmy! Just once I'd like to be first. Is that too much to ask?" He glared at his brother. Sam smiled at him. He was so damn condescending lately. "Just when it looks like I might have a chance to do something on my own, this happens!" He stopped just short of saying it wasn't fair, realizing how selfish it sounded. The way it sounded made him furious.
"Whining, Jimmy? That's not like you."
He tugged on Molly's cinch so hard the usually patient mare snorted in protest. "So what if I am? To hell with you anyway."
Sam put a hand on his shoulder. "I know it hurts, Jim. It's supposed to hurt. Why don't you just admit it? Why don't you let somebody help you?"
He shrugged off his brother's hand without a word and swung into the saddle. He kicked Molly in the side and tore off across the green, late-summer meadow as fast as she could take him. He didn't want Sam's help. He didn't want to go home ever again. He didn't want to see that look on his mother's face, the look that told him she was devastated and trying not to show it. He just wanted to run forever on the back of that horse, until he could no longer feel his angry longing for the way things had been and could never be again.
Molly knew the path he usually took, across the shoulder of the upper pasture and down into the narrow vale that led to the ravine. But she also knew he wasn't paying sufficient attention to take the dangerous jump at the far side of the lower pasture. She slowed as they approached it and finally balked at his command to take the jump. She reared and threw him to the ground not four meters from the edge. Her act of willfulness saved his life, a fact he would have recognized had he been thinking at all.
But he wasn't thinking; he was crying, the shock of his fall finally loosening the tight hold he'd kept on his emotions. Lying in the sun-washed grass where there was no one to see him, he gave in to his grief and sobbed like the scared child he was.
God, it hurt. It hurt so much he wanted to lie in that meadow until he died of heartbreak, rather than get up and face a life marked by loss, each new grief more scarring than the last.
But Kate wouldn't let him. "Come on, Jim," she
said, holding out a hand to help him up. "You can't stay here. We're all waiting for
Kirk opened his eyes and for a moment it was Kate's face he saw above him. Kate's eyes, green as wild grassland. Kate's smile, welcoming and warm. Her name was in his mind and was almost on his lips before the face above him underwent a subtle change. It wasn't Kate; it was J.T.
The realization frightened him. How could she be here? She was supposed to be safe aboard Roxanne. His racing heart echoed loudly in his ears. Too loudly. At last he understood: they were both on the ship. That exaggerated thumping was the diagnostic monitor. To his amazement, he discovered he was still alive.
J.T. squeezed his hand. She had been holding it all along, he realized. Maybe she'd been holding it a long time. "Hi," she said. "Welcome back."
He smiled in return, not quite willing to trust his voice. He suspected he was in pretty bad shape, though his efforts to assess his condition were yielding few clues. He wasn't in pain, exactly, but one leg was completely immobilized and his chest and stomach were constricted somehow--dressings, perhaps. He wanted to check himself over, but he couldn't summon the will to fight what seemed like five times Earth-normal gravity.
"Lie still," she commanded. "You'll ruin all of Doctor McCoy's handiwork. He was slaving over you for hours. Here, have a sip of this."
She placed a straw in his mouth and he tugged at it. The water felt cool on his inflamed throat.
"I'll just go call McCoy."
"No," he murmured, with some effort. "Wait..." His mouth and ears, his entire head, felt like they were full of cotton. Painkillers, he realized finally--which probably explained the dream he'd been having, too.
J.T. watched him and even through the drugs he could read what was in her heart. "I'm sorry if I worried you," he said, though it was a poor substitute for what he really wanted to say.
"Worried me?" She laughed softly. "I was terrified. We all were."
"I was a little terrified myself."
"You should have let me stay and help you."
"It would only have made it harder."
She dropped her gaze and nodded. "I'm sorry--I guess I'm kind of new at this father-daughter thing."
He smiled. "Me, too."
"Well, anyway, I'm glad you made it back." She coughed to cover a tiny tremor in her voice. "It would've been a shame to lose you just when I was starting to get to know you."
"I wouldn't have let that happen."
She suddenly found her grin again. "Are you always so damn sure of yourself?"
"Yes," he said, his humor returning as his head cleared a little. "I figure I must be doing something right to have survived this long."
"I see your point."
He shifted minutely, setting off a riot of complaint from a dozen parts of his injured body. It was bad this time, all right; a rush of dizziness behind his eyes confirmed it.
"I should call Doctor McCoy," she said, concern edging her voice.
"Your readings are still pretty low."
"Not yet. Bones will only fuss over me and make me more miserable than I am. Tell me first--what's our heading?"
She got the same closed look on her face that Kate always got when there was something she didn't want to tell him. "I'm, uh,...I'm not really sure..."
"Just tell me, J.T. My body may have taken a beating, but at least part of my brain is still functional."
She hesitated a moment longer, then gave in. "We're headed for Starbase Sixteen. McCoy says you need a specialized surgery right away."
"Damn! I need to talk to Spock."
"Jim, it won't do any good." She discouraged his struggle to sit up with a firm hand on his shoulder. "You're badly hurt. Spock and McCoy are only trying to do what's best for you--and I agree with them." She took a breath. "Besides, there's nothing left for us to do here."
"No, Kate's not on Netherworld, I'm sure of that," he agreed. "But she's not far. With the information I have, Roxanne and Spock should be able to locate the planet. We'll find her soon, J.T."
She shook her head and he could see now she was crying. "Damn it, Jim, we're not going to find her."
His heart began a labored thudding, a measure of dread revealingly amplified by the monitor. "What is it, J.T.?"
"Spock and McCoy spoke to someone on Netherworld who saw her," she said, her voice breaking. "She told them ...Kate's dead."
For a moment, Kirk was sinking, drowning in confusion and doubt. Could he have misread the Tyros? Reluctantly, he reached into his mind for the details of what they had said to him, sifting among the jagged memories of his torture for the clues in their words, their faces. He experienced it all again now, raw and humiliating. He reviewed every taunt, every blow, though it knotted his guts to do it. And in the end he was certain that he'd interpreted the information correctly. Kate Logan was alive --there could be no other conclusion.
He spelled it out for J.T. "If they had killed Kate on Netherworld, they would have used it to break me. They bragged about what they'd done; they enjoyed telling me the details. But they didn't show me her body. They didn't have any holos or tapes. They didn't show me any proof. And, believe me, J.T., if they could have, they would have."
"But the woman that Spock and McCoy talked to recognized Kate from the holo; she was sure Kate had died there more than a week ago."
"It wasn't Kate. She was never on Netherworld. Cestyr took her directly to a buyer on an agricultural planet somewhere in this sector. I know we can find that planet!"
Anger battled hope in his daughter's face. Kirk could see the anger was winning. "How can you be so sure?"
He lifted his hand to touch her cheek. "I just know, J.T. The same way you knew when we started this."
"But I was wrong!" She shook off his hand. "I was wrong and it almost got you killed!"
She jumped up and began an agitated pacing between the bunk and the door. "Damn it, we drag you in here all torn to pieces, Doctor McCoy works his skinny little butt off to save your life and you wake up talking shit! I'm tired of chasing this fantasy, Jim. McCoy is right. Kate is dead, and if you keep pushing Ostyr Tyro, you'll soon be dead, too. I won't have anything left of either of you!"
Kirk looked at J.T. and saw himself the summer after his father had died--so alone, so uncertain, so very, very young. At the center of that vortex of grief, the only emotion he'd been able to express was anger. His dream came back to him now as he watched her fight her own fears with the same blind rage. And as Kate had done for him in the dream, he held out a hand to help her up.
"I know you're scared, J.T.," he said quietly. "So am I. You don't know how scared I was that I would die in that place and never see you again. But I didn't die and I learned something we can use. We're close, J.T.. I can feel it. I could see it in Cestyr's eyes. We can't give up on Kate now."
The speech exhausted the last of his reserves. A wave of weakness washed over him and dragged him under. Despite every effort, he could not speak. He struggled to keep his eyes open. He would have to sleep soon; he didn't have much time.
Somewhere above his head an alarm was sounding. J.T. looked up at the monitors and Kirk saw her eyes widen. She sat down again beside him and touched his arm with a trembling hand. "Okay, Jim, okay," she said, her voice calm, soothing. "Just relax."
McCoy's face suddenly appeared above his. The doctor wasn't happy. "What the hell's going on? How long has he been conscious?"
"I don't know. Maybe five or ten minutes?" Kirk couldn't feel J.T.'s hand anymore; she must have moved aside to give McCoy room.
"I thought I told you to call me when he woke up! Roxanne!" He grabbed a hypo off a tray at Kirk's side and punched it home.
"I'm here, doctor. His readings were perfectly stable until 30 seconds ago. I didn't think it would harm him to speak with J.T. for a moment."
"That's what you all get for thinking," McCoy rasped, watching the monitors intently. "Next time just do what I tell you."
Kirk felt a salving warmth spread from his chest out towards his hands and feet. His focus widened to encompass the cabin and he began to reclaim his sense of reality. He gathered his fadeout had been due to more than fatigue. McCoy's professional game face was barely adequate to hide his fear. Even Spock had appeared from somewhere to hover with the others at his bedside.
"I told J.T. not to call you, Bones." Kirk was surprised to hear how weak he sounded.
"Oh, so this is all your fault, is it?" McCoy replied as he scanned the diagnostics. "I might have known."
"I wanted to talk to my daughter," Kirk explained. "It was important."
There was suddenly fire in McCoy's ice-blue eyes. He took J.T.'s arm and led her to the far end of the room. It wasn't far enough to prevent Kirk from overhearing. "You don't mean to tell me you were discussing Kate?" McCoy hissed. "In his condition?"
"I didn't plan on it, Doctor," J.T. argued. "But he asked me. What was I supposed to do--lie?"
"That's not a bad option. I knew he wouldn't be sensible enough to stay away from something that was going to upset him, but I figured you would be."
"Bones, let her be," Kirk said. "I insisted on knowing our heading. If she hadn't told me, those monitor readings would have gone off the scale."
"Don't you think coming within a cat's whisker of checking out twice in one day is enough?" McCoy came back to the head of the bed. "Am I going to have to sedate you to make sure you don't finish the job?"
"You can do whatever your medical judgment requires, Doctor, as soon as I've had a chance to talk to Spock."
"Jim, the doctor insists you need specialized medical care," Spock said. "Your condition certainly warrants his concern."
"My condition is secondary to this mission."
"I do not agree. Even if we had incontrovertible proof of Kate's whereabouts, your condition would have to take precedence."
Kirk took a deep breath and thought hard. It wasn't likely he'd have another chance to get his point across. "Spock, how many agricultural planets are there in this sector? Trade records would help us identify the ones Cestyr has an interest in. We could be there and back in a matter of days."
"Oh, no, you don't!" McCoy insisted. "You are going to Starbase Sixteen, where you will be admitted to the orthopedic regeneration unit of Titus B. Nichols Hospital for a period of not less than ten days. If I am not mistaken, you will spend at least seven days of that time completely immobilized, undergoing tissue regeneration. All of this will be followed by a lengthy period of outpatient physical therapy for that knee you effectively destroyed on your little sorty to Netherworld."
A sudden memory of ravenous, howling pain brought tears to Kirk's eyes, an echo of his own screams reverberated in his ears and left him shaking. He shoved the images to the back of his mind and collected himself to answer, making an effort not to grit his teeth. "Yes, Doctor," he said. "As soon as Kate Logan is back aboard this ship."
"Jim, didn't you understand what J.T. was trying to tell you?" McCoy was uncommonly soft-spoken and the strain of having to convince his friend of a painful reality showed in his face. "You have done all you can do for Kate. It breaks my heart to say it, but she's gone. Spock was there; he'll tell you the same thing."
Kirk looked at the Vulcan and saw him hesitate. You aren't certain. Something is nagging at you. What is it? "Spock?"
"All the evidence we were able to assemble on Netherworld points to Kate's death. There is no other logical interpretation for what we learned."
"But Roxanne says she can still feel Kate's consciousness, Spock," J.T. said. "Doesn't that count for something?"
Spock nodded slowly. "The link is undeniably still present. I searched my own memories of my meld with Roxanne to confirm it. If Roxanne were Vulcan, there would be no question that Kate is still alive."
"Oh, God!" J.T. breathed.
"But Roxanne is not Vulcan," Spock cautioned. "Her link is not with a Vulcan. It is possible that her connection is of an entirely different order. The evidence is simply not strong enough to contradict what we learned on Netherworld."
"Forget what you think you learned on Netherworld, Spock," Kirk said. "What I heard came from the source--and I paid dearly for it."
McCoy was incredulous. "You believe Kate is still alive because of what those butchers said to you in a torture session?"
"No. I believe it because of what they didn't say." Another wave of dizziness swamped him and he was forced to wait for it to pass before he went on. "Cestyr and Ostyr set out to hurt me in the cruelest way possible. Do you think for a moment they would have hesitated to use the one thing that would have hurt me the most?"
"Maybe they were just saving the best for last," McCoy replied, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Something interrupted them and saved my life," Kirk admitted. "But they had finished talking by then--they were starting to have some real fun."
McCoy moved closer and put a hand on Kirk's arm. "Jim, I was the one that had to put you back together after what they did to you. I think I know how awful it must have been. A man's mind just doesn't function clearly under that kind of stress. Your perceptions can't be trusted."
Kirk looked directly into McCoy's eyes. "Yes, they can. I'd bet my life on it."
"Well, that's good, Jim, because that's just what we're talking about here--your life," McCoy shot back. "Oh, you probably won't die now, as long as I can keep you strapped to that bed. But if I don't get you to Starbase Sixteen in the next seventy-two hours you will most likely lose that knee. Regenerative surgery will no longer be an option; we'll have to replace the joint the old-fashioned way--with an artificial implant and servos. The soft tissues will have started to heal all the wrong way; scarring and permanent pain will be the result. This injury, which would normally be one hundred percent correctible, will instead take ten good years off your life. It will make you old before your time. Is that what you want?"
"That's a chance I'll have to take." Kirk sensed victory. He played his ace. "Because what I really want, Bones, is to spend whatever time I have left with the woman I love. Is that so much to ask?"
McCoy's shoulders dropped in surrender. "Jim, you are the stubbornest damn fool I have ever had the misfortune to know."
Kirk smiled, though it seemed to take the last of his energy. "Why, thank you, Bones." He shifted his gaze to Spock, who looked as if he still needed convincing. "What about it, Spock? Can we find that planet?"
Spock opened his mouth to answer, but Roxanne beat him to it. "I've examined the trade and economic data for planets in this sector," she said. "I believe our best bet is an agricultural colony planet in Psi Eridani called Tantua. We could reach it in about two days at maximum warp."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "It occurs to me there is a certain redundancy in the crew of this particular ship."
Kirk would have laughed if it hadn't hurt so much. "Nonsense, Spock. I still need you. Who else is going to keep McCoy in line?"
"I've had just about enough from you, Jim Kirk," McCoy muttered. He hit Kirk's shoulder with another hypo. "Go to sleep."
Consciousness began to slip from Kirk's grasp. He clutched it for a moment longer, enjoying the absence of pain, the withdrawal of worry, the comfort of the warm thermoblankets and the little group gathered around him. But the drugs and his need to heal conspired to loosen his grip. "Wake me up when we get to Tantua," he murmured, and gratefully let go his hold on the waking world.
"Well, that's it!" Cardoza threw the ratcheting tool into the smoking guts of the hummer in disgust and began a long string of exotic curses.
Logan admired his creativity, but his anger was not particularly helpful. "Maybe if we patch in some conduit from the envirocontrol system. That's shot anyway."
"Forget it! The pressure valve is blown. It won't do any good to patch up the line now."
The two of them stared at the burned-out coils of the hummer's engine as if the parts would regenerate on their own. The cooling system conduits were slit in a dozen places, leaking fluid onto the dusty ground under the vehicle. Logan could see at least two places where the lines had been patched before. "Sorry, old girl," she said to the battered hood. "Guess I pushed you a little too hard."
Cardoza shrugged, generously refusing to let her take the blame. "It wasn't your fault. This piece of junk wouldn't have made it over the pass at any speed. I don't know what that driver was thinking."
Logan stretched the kinks out of her back and took a moment to breathe in the sharp mountain air. The sun was almost directly overhead, but it had left its withering heat back in the desert. Up here, fifteen hundred meters above the desert floor, the blue orb had mellowed in the cool temperatures and simply felt good on Logan's shoulders.
Tantua has few places of real beauty. This is one. A'ma smiled contentedly from her perch on a rock beside the road.
Logan followed the old one's gaze across the tree-covered ridge above them, out to the valley below buttered in green fields and warm blue light. The view was like a healing balm on vision seared by the sand-blasted desert they had left behind.
"It's beautiful," Logan said out loud. "But I hadn't planned to explore it on foot."
Cardoza had gotten used to Logan's frequent nonsequitors. He merely grunted in acknowledgment.
That will not be necessary, A'ma said.
Oh? I didn't realize transmigration of souls could be used to get around the planet.
A'ma's light laughter rippled in Logan's mind. Not yet--give us time!
What, then? Time travel? Positive imagery? Magic carpet?
No. Conventional anti-grav vehicle, I should think. Someone will be here soon.
How do you know?
I can hear them.
Logan shielded her eyes and scanned the road up to the ridge.
Cardoza looked at Logan curiously. "What?"
"A'ma says she can hear another hummer coming. You hear anything?"
The boy ran up the road to where the crest of the ridge obscured the view back across the scalloped crease in the overshadowing mountains. "She's right," he shouted down at them. "I can see something climbing out of the pass."
For a long moment, Logan was frozen in place. Half the planet was searching for them. If they stopped the approaching vehicle to ask for help, they took a chance it might be their last request. If they let it go, they were stuck on this mountain with no way down.
We must take the risk, A'ma told her. We do not have the time to walk to T'var.
Cardoza trotted up to them. "They'll be here in twenty minutes or so. We should hide, right?"
"No," Logan answered, the logic of the situation finally revealing itself. "If it's someone looking for us, the hummer would be enough to give us away. Better to flag him down and hope he's just a local on his way back home."
"And if he's not?"
"Then let's hope he's alone." Logan scanned the rocks on either side of the road for a decent vantage point. When she'd found one she took the disruptor from her belt and handed it to the boy. "Here. You know how to use this?"
His eyes got very big and very round. "I-I guess so."
"Go up there behind that patch of shrubbery. If we get in trouble down here, you'll be our backup."
He started up the slope, but Logan pulled him back. "Do not come out waving that thing around like a raw redshirt. Just let them know you're there, and you're armed. And if I give you the high sign, put the disruptor away and come down like you were just admiring the scenery. Got it?"
"Aye, aye, captain!" he said with a grin and clambored up to the overlook.
"Smartass," Logan muttered.
One must lead. Others must follow.
Do I look like Jim Kirk to you?
Logan exhaled loudly and went around to the back of the hummer to wait for the other vehicle--alone. She was tired and dirty and so scared her nerves sputtered and flared like a shorted circuitboard. She wanted to stop moving. She wanted to eat sitting down. She wanted to make love and fall asleep in Jim's arms and sleep for a week. She wanted someone else to be responsible.
But first she had to survive the next ten minutes. She waited and tried not to think about what she couldn't have.
Before long a battered green hummer topped the ridge and slowed as it came down the slope toward them. Logan stepped into the road, waving both arms. The vehicle slid to a stop in a billow of red dust. The driver stuck his head out of the open window and grinned. He was surprisingly handsome. "Having a little trouble?"
Logan put on her best helpless-female face. "Cooling system quit on us and burned out the coils. If you've got a shovel I can give her a decent burial right here."
He laughed and got out of his hummer. He was tall and muscular and very young. My, my! Logan thought. And me without my makeup.
Very pretty, yes! A'ma agreed. But dangerous.
Don't I know it!
"Mind if I take a look?" he asked her, indicating the corpse of the old taxi.
"Please. Maybe you can do something with it."
He bent over to examine the scorched engine housing and poked around in the damaged conduit for a while before he declared the situation hopeless. "Yep. She's blown, all right. Might as well push her off the embankment right here."
"That's what I was afraid of."
"Where were you headed? Can I give you a lift?" He smiled sweetly, as if unaware of the impact it might have.
Be careful, Kate. I do not trust him.
Logan was beginning to feel the same way. She was suddenly grateful for Cardoza, hidden in the rocks above them. Mister Right was just too good to be true.
"Well, I hate to take you out of your way. We're trying to get to T'var."
"No problem. That's my hometown. I've just been over to pick up some supplies in Ardennes and I'm on my way back. Besides, you could wait a long time out here for another taxi!"
Logan smiled. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Thanks. Aunt Bea and I will just get our things."
"Sure. Need some help?"
"No, thanks. We don't have much."
She took A'ma by the arm and went to the back of the fallen taxi.
Never mind. Do you see Rafe?
He is just where he should be.
Logan looked at the old one in exasperation. Then she heard a scuffle in the direction of Mister Right's vehicle and Cardoza's slightly reedy voice. "Don't move, slimepocket!"
Logan ran around the hummer to see the boy holding the disruptor on the man. Cardoza leaned over and ripped something out of the control console of the vehicle. "Get out! Now!"
"What the hell is this? If you're planning to rob me you won't get much!" Mister Right said, aggrieved.
Logan came closer and saw the circuitry clip in the boy's hand. "The bastard was trying to call the district office in Ardennes."
"Really? Now why would you be doing that, mister?"
"I wasn't calling Ardennes. I was just trying to let my wife know I'd be late. Is this guy with you?"
"Your wife? I'm so disappointed." Logan made sure Cardoza had a steady grip on the disruptor, then she went to the back of Mister Right's vehicle and peered inside. It was empty--except for a case that looked suspiciously like a weapons locker.
"Didn't you say you'd gone to Ardennes for supplies?"
Their would-be rescuer scowled, but said nothing.
Logan stepped back in front of the man and looked up into his face. "I must say you're the best-looking bounty hunter I've ever seen. What an ugly profession for such a handsome fellow."
"Yeah? Well, the pay is good," he spat. "I could have bought my way off this asshole planet with what they're paying for you, bitch!"
"Tsk! Now all the ugliness comes out!" What are we going to do with him, A'ma?
Allow me, the old one answered. She stepped behind him and placed two long webbed fingers at the side of his neck. Mr. Right collapsed unconscious at her feet.
"Damn!" Cardoza exclaimed. "How'd you do that?"
Practice, practice, practice.
"You simply must teach me that technique, A'ma," Logan told the old one with a grin.
The student requires focus. The teacher requires patience.
Is that a no?
"Rafe, help me get handsome here into the taxi," Logan said. "The least we can do for him is make him comfortable. He might be here for a while."
They wrested the limp body into the old hummer. "He didn't complete that call did he?" Logan asked.
"No. I got there before he had a chance to get through," Cardoza said.
"What made you think to come down when you did?"
"I heard him say he was from T'var," the boy answered. "T'var is a very small place. I would have recognized him."
Logan slapped him on the shoulder. "Well done, cadet. You may make a Starfleet officer yet."
He stuck out his bony chest and grinned. "So. I guess we're going to take this guy's hummer, huh?"
"You guess right," Logan replied, slipping behind the wheel of the vehicle. "Get on board, children. Next stop, T'var Valley."
Cardoza helped A'ma into the front seat and jammed himself into the back. "Yeah, you know," he said as they lifted and started down the mountain. "I'm almost looking forward to getting there."
Logan was happy for him. He was going home. But the eagerness in his voice caught at her heart. Home was still so far away for her, so impossibly far she might never make it. For the first time she began to think of what might lie beyond T'var--and the endless, unattainable galaxy stared blackly back at her.
"Jim, if you do not get back in that bed immediately, I will personally hog-tie you and sit on your chest." McCoy, standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips, looked perfectly capable of carrying out his threat.
"Doctor, you said yourself it was time I moved around a little bit," Kirk replied, not the least bit intimidated. "Now give me a hand up to the bridge."
"Jumping up on your own and perambulating all over this ship is not my idea of moving around a little bit. You'd be doing well just to stand up and get to the end of the bed at this stage in your recovery."
In truth, the simple act of swinging his legs over the side of the bed had already left Kirk light-headed, but he wasn't about to admit that to McCoy. "Come on, Bones. Lying here all by myself is driving me crazy. Get me up to the bridge, and I promise I'll just sit quietly and heal."
"Are you saying my company is not stimulating enough?"
"You've been snoring for the past half-hour."
"Well, I'm old, dammit, and keeping you alive is wearing me out."
"All right, all right," the doctor grumbled. "You always were the worst patient on the Enterprise. Stay there for a minute and let me get this field generator on your leg."
Despite his bluster, McCoy had anticipated Kirk's impatience. He had the portable field generator assembled and close to hand. The doctor strapped the device to Kirk's thigh just above the damaged knee and switched it on. A green glow enveloped the wounded leg as the force field stabilized.
"Aren't these things authorized for Starfleet use only?" Kirk asked.
"They were released for commercial production years ago. Where have you been?"
"In Starfleet. What the hell do I know?" Kirk supposed it wasn't surprising that such a useful piece of equipment would find its way so quickly into the marketplace--or that Kate Logan would be among the first in line to equip her ship with one.
"Okay," McCoy said. "Lean on me and let's try it. Easy now."
Kirk put an arm around McCoy's shoulder and placed his weight tentatively on his good leg. He stood up, wincing at the pain that tugged at the rip in his stomach, the cracks in his ribs, the dozens of bruises, both inside and out. Slowly, he transferred a portion of his weight to his right so the force-field on his injured leg could take it. The generator hummed and did its job efficiently.
"Now, walking with that thing isn't a piece of cake," McCoy warned him. "You still have to use the muscles in your hip and thigh and they're pretty banged up. Just take it real slow."
Kirk began to think moving had been a bad idea. He struggled to swing his field-supported leg out in front of him and felt a clench of crumpling pain in his belly and upper leg. He gasped and fought an urge to curl up into a whimpering ball.
"Told you," McCoy said. "You still want to do this?"
Kirk answered with another tortured step, and another, until he gained the cabin door. He stopped there and waited for a tide of dizzy nausea to wash over him. Sweat ran in his eyes and even his uninjured muscles were trembling with the strain. The bridge seemed like a kilometer away, though he could see it through the open hatch at the end of the corridor.
Spock was there, monitoring sensors at the auxiliary station. He spotted Kirk and was down the corridor in an instant. "Jim, surely it is too soon for you to be out of bed."
"Tell him, Spock. He won't listen to me."
"We are still a full day from Tantua. You have plenty of time to rest."
"Are you going to stand there and lecture me all day, Spock, or are you going to help me to the bridge?" Either that or step aside, because I may crash and burn any second.
Spock put a strong arm around Kirk's waist and steered him the few steps to the vacant captain's seat. Kirk eased himself into it, inhaling against the pain.
In the pilot's seat next to his, J.T. frowned at him in concern.
"What do you think you're doing out of bed?"
"I am surrounded by a flock of mother hens! Leave me alone--I'm fine."
"Yeah, you're fine," McCoy growled. "And in about two minutes I'm going to be mopping you up off the deck."
Kirk shifted in his seat, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. "So," he said, as brightly as he could. "What have you boys and girls been up to while I was away?"
"A search of contract activity and real estate purchases in this sector confirms Tantua is our most likely target," Spock reported. "Cestyr Tyro has registered several large land purchases on that planet in the past solar year and he recently signed a number of grain brokerage agreements with residents of Tantua."
"Tantua can't be the only planet in this sector where Cestyr has interests," Kirk said, trying to eliminate any other possibilities.
"He has conducted various kinds of business on several planets in the sector, but Tantua has seen the most activity. It is also the only planet that qualifies as primarily agricultural."
"Sounds like the place," Kirk agreed. "And you say we'll be there within twenty-four hours?"
"In twenty-one point four-two hours, to be precise."
"Of course. Thank you, Spock. Now all we have to do is figure out how to find Kate once we get there."
"If you think you're going to go traipsing around down on that planet looking for her, you've got another think coming," McCoy put in.
"You have another suggestion?"
"Yes. Go back to bed and stay there. Let Spock and J.T. do the traipsing."
The pounding in his head certainly supported that course of action, but Kirk knew himself well enough to recognize he probably wouldn't take it.
"The ship may not be the safest place to be, Doctor," Spock argued. "Clan Tyro will undoubtedly think to intercept us if Kate is on Tantua."
"You mean you're taking this ship into battle, Spock? It's not bad enough that this man should be in a hospital, but you've got to put him in the middle of a dogfight, too?"
"And sooner than we thought, I'm afraid," Roxanne said. "I'm reading a ship at the extreme limit of sensor range. She's on an intercept course." The automated alarms sounded yellow alert.
"Oh, great!" McCoy exclaimed. "I don't guess I have a chance in hell of getting you off this bridge now!"
Kirk simply looked at McCoy. The doctor had seen the look before--he didn't bother to take the argument any further.
"She's still too distant for identification," Spock said, his eyes riveted to the sensor readouts.
"What's our position, J.T.? Any place to hide?"
J.T. shook her head grimly. The coordinates she read off put them in a featureless sector of deep space. "Nothing out here but us chickens," she said.
"Looks like we're in for a fight, then," Kirk said. As he spoke, the blood seemed to leave his head in a desperate rush. Darkness crowded his vision, and he almost blanked out where he sat. The hand he put up to support his head was shaking. What the hell?
McCoy hit his shoulder with a hypo. "An initial reaction to the release of adrenalin in your weakened system," the doctor explained. His voice was low and intense, the voice he'd always used on the Enterprise bridge in times of crisis. "Jim, I'm begging you. Spock can handle this. Let me get you back to bed."
"No. I'm all right." The stimulant would at least keep his head clear.
The doctor sighed but said nothing more.
"She's coming up fast," Roxanne announced. "Two hundred thousand kilometers and closing."
"No identification beam," Spock said. "She appears to be somewhat larger than raider class..." He straightened from the sensor hood. "And of Orion design."
"It's the Deathwatch," Roxanne confirmed. "I recognize the configuration." New klaxons sounded as alert status advanced to red.
"Shields up. Maximum warp." Damn, it hurt to breathe.
"Shields up," J.T. said. "We're at Warp 6."
"They are also increasing speed," Spock said. "Estimate they will be within weapons range in twelve point four minutes."
"What kind of weapons does she carry, Roxanne?"
"Klingon-design disruptor cannons. Two of them. Plus whatever Cestyr may have added since our last encounter."
"Spock, what's our shield capability?"
"I'd say we could withstand three, possibly four direct hits before system overload would cause full collapse."
Jesus. "What do you know about evasive maneuvers, J.T.?"
"I've run the standard Starfleet patterns," she answered. "And I know a few of Kate's old tricks."
Not a waver in that voice. Good girl. "Good. We're likely to need them."
"Range 120,000 and closing," Roxanne said. "I can't keep up this speed for very long."
"Reduce speed to Warp Two," Kirk answered. "Come about to 182 mark three. Let's make it our fight."
"Warp Two. One eighty-two mark three, aye," J.T. confirmed.
Roxanne swung gracefully about to face the oncoming enemy.
"Visual range, Captain," Spock said.
"Screen on. Maximum magnification."
The screen over the main console flickered on to reveal the Deathwatch, growing relentlessly as she ate up the kilometers that separated them. Several minutes ticked silently by while they watched her, time that only gave Kirk a chance to acknowledge all the damage reports coming in from various parts of his body.
He straightened in his seat to take some of the pressure off his ribcage. He saw McCoy watching him and tried not to show how much it hurt. "Arm phasers, Roxanne."
"Phasers armed and ready."
"She's hailing us, Jim. Shall I respond?"
"Put them on screen."
Cestyr Tyro's murderous smile filled the screen. "Kirk. It is gratifying to see you again. We had such fun together the last time we met. Do you remember the tunfa, Kirk? I so enjoyed the look of pure agony on your face. Does your leg still ache?"
In fact it did, it ached like hell, and the sight of his torturer had a greater impact than Kirk could have thought possible. He clamped down on the tremors that shook him and glared back at the screen. "I'm still here, Cestyr. You should have killed me while you had the chance."
He put a hand on J.T.'s arm below the range of the communications sensor and pointed to the weapons array. J.T. dipped her chin a fraction to indicate she'd understood.
"Oh, but I am here to remedy that oversight, Kirk," Cestyr said. "And now you will not be the only one to die. You ran like the coward you are and put your entire clan under the knife. What a pity. I could have made much better use of your beautiful daughter."
Kirk tapped the console and J.T. hit the firing panel. A sizzling blue line of phaser fire scored the gap between Roxanneand the Deathwatch and splashed against the Orion's forward shields. They could see the bridge of the Deathwatch rock with the blast before the comm link winked out.
"Now, J.T.! Evasive One."
J.T. punched in the commands to pull Roxanne sharply to starboard as the first of Cestyr's cannon bursts rent the space they had just occupied. The blast buckled the bridge and sent McCoy sprawling. Kirk managed to keep his seat, but couldn't keep a cry of pain from escaping his control. He felt like some unseen giant was ripping his body into quivering pieces.
"Shields are holding," Spock informed him calmly.
"Roxanne, take over weapons," Kirk commanded. "Fire at will."
Roxanne let loose a barrage that covered the Deathwatch with blue flame. The Orion ship shrugged off the attack and brought its cannons to bear once more.
J.T. took Roxanne down thirty degrees and skimmed by the larger ship at close range. Roxanne fired and hit the Orion amidships, but the Deathwatch was not about to let it go unanswered. An arc of phaser fire lanced out from the Orion's port side and slammed into Roxanne's flank as she passed. Stabilizers whined and sparks flew from overloaded consoles on the bridge as Roxanneslew to starboard under the battering.
"Starboard shields down forty percent," Spock reported above the noise.
"Keep our forward shields to him, J.T."
Spock looked up from his sensors. "Captain, I'm reading significant damage to their shields--fifty percent of maximum and dropping."
"Orions don't like to waste credits on defense," Kirk said. "If we can just keep him off long enough, we might be able to punch through."
"He's vulnerable from behind, Jim," J.T. pointed out. "I can line us up."
"Do it. Be ready, Roxanne."
J.T. veered out and away. She waited for Cestyr to start his turn, then brought Roxanne around behind him, giving her a clear shot at his engines. She took it and they saw the aft shields collapse under a storm of blue plasma.
Kirk leaned forward. "Fire again, Roxie. Now!"
But Cestyr wasn't going to make it that easy. He sheered away from them and came around to lower the cannons on them once more.
She jerked the ship up forty-five degrees and poured on speed, but it wasn't enough. Disruptor fire streaked across Roxanne'sunderbelly and shoved her roughly to starboard. This time everyone on the bridge was thrown to the deck. Pain flashed and burned in a hundred places in Kirk's body as he fell. He fought for consciousness against the assault and tried to move, but he was pasted to the deck. Whether it was his injuries or a failure of the inertial dampers that kept him there hardly seemed to matter.
"Forward shields are down sixty-five percent," he heard Spock say. "Only the port shields are still at full strength."
"Those will be gone in less than a minute at this rate, Spock," Roxanne reported. "I'm losing power."
"Lie still, Jim." McCoy had somehow appeared at Kirk's side and was reaching for his medkit. "If you're bleeding again I'll have to open you up right here on the bridge to stop it."
We have to survive this first, Kirk thought, but he saw no point in saying it out loud.
J.T. studied her readouts. "I think I can bring her around for one more hit."
"It had better be a good one," Roxanne replied. "Phasers are almost gone."
"Come around to 141 mark four-five," Spock ordered.
"No! Belay that!" Kirk found the strength somewhere to put the steel of command in his voice. Spock and J.T. swiveled to look at him in surprise. "He'll come in for the kill. Cut power and wait for him!"
"Cut power? Are you crazy?" J.T. clearly thought he was delirious.
"Cut power. Play dead," Kirk said firmly. "I didn't get to be an admiral in Starfleet without learning a few tricks."
"Yeah and this is the oldest one in the book," J.T. replied. But Kirk heard the engines power down.
They didn't have to wait long.
"He's coming in. Range 5000 klicks and closing."
"I can't believe they're falling for it," J.T. said.
"Orion bloodlust. They can't help themselves," Kirk answered. He'd counted on it. "Use the ion signature and lock phasers on his engines."
"Locking phasers. Optimum firing position in seven seconds...six....five....four...three...two..."
The phasers streaked through the black of space to explode in a blinding actinic nova beneath the Deathwatch. Within a heartbeat, a second blast bloomed in the Orion's engines and devoured the ship from the inside out.
Roxanne shuddered under a hail of debris, then it was over. The viewscreen revealed nothing but some bits of drifting debris where the Deathwatch had been.
"Roxanne, is it absolutely necessary to have those damn alarms blaring?" McCoy said. "I can't hear myself think."
The alarms died and the bridge fell eerily silent.
J.T. knelt beside Kirk on the deck. "Oldest trick in the book." She grinned. "Guess some things never outlive their usefulness."
Kirk found a smile to answer her with, but somehow couldn't put together a coherent sentence. He kept quiet and tried to slow the spinning of the bridge above his head.
"Damage control systems are functioning, Captain," Roxanne announced. "We do not seem to have sustained any serious damage. Engine power is returning to minimal levels. Resuming course to Tantua at Warp One."
Spock turned from his console. "And the captain's status, Doctor?"
"Well, it's a damned miracle, but he's still holding together." The doctor scowled at Kirk. "I don't mind telling you I wasn't looking forward to another round of surgery."
"Quiet! Spock, help me get him back to bed. And this time, Jim Kirk, I swear I'll put you in restraints and sedate you to keep you there."
That won't be necessary, Kirk thought as Spock and McCoy lifted him to his feet. He'd had enough. If he managed to make it back to his bed, he didn't plan to move, speak or even open his eyes again until they hit Tantua orbit.
Maybe I'm just tired, Logan thought, but something about this town just isn't right.
It is the smell of despair, A'ma answered her. It is everywhere.
Logan wasn't sure how despair was supposed to smell, but it was clear the town of T'var was no thriving metropolis. The failing light of dusk was only occasionally warmed by the glow of lights along the main street. A fuel station and a tiny store were open for business, but boasted no customers. The streets themselves were deserted--not a hummer or a wheelhorse, not a sentient being of any age or description, not even a stray dog or cat.
"I've seen more people out under a Klingon curfew," Logan noted softly. "What's going on, Rafe?"
The boy looked stunned. "I don't know. Maybe it's a holiday or something."
"It could be Federation Day for all I know. I couldn't tell you the date on a bet," she replied. "Should we stop in that store and ask?"
"I just want to go home."
He looked uneasy, rattled by the unfamiliar appearance of a once-familiar place. Logan would have told him that was a common reaction to returning home for the first time except for the fact that the town didn't look quite normal to her either.
"Okay. Home it is. Just tell me where to go."
His directions took them out of town again, on the major route north into the valley. The commercial buildings and the low-slung houses thinned and the fields crowded close to the road as they drove on. To the west, they could still see the mountains they had just crossed, looming as a dark, undifferentiated mass in the deepening twilight. To the east, there were only the rows of crops and a light winking here and there to mark a homestead or a coop compound.
The boy was unnaturally quiet. He sat hunched by the passenger door, chewing anxiously at a thumb. Logan thought it best not to break into his thoughts. She had little distraction to offer anyway.
They had covered nearly twenty kilometers from town when Cardoza sat up and indicated an access road just ahead. "There it is. Take a right."
It was fully dark now, and the hummer's lights revealed nothing beyond the rutted road. But Logan sensed an undefined threat in the darkness surrounding the hummer's headlights. I've got to get some sleep, she thought. I'm blowing this all out of proportion.
You are not, A'ma told her. Something has happened here. Rafe will need our help.
A hundred meters further along, the road rose to carry them over a low ridge. On the other side, the sky was ablaze and the fields beneath it were under attack. Logan jerked the hummer to a stop and gawked at the activity in the bottomland below the ridge. "What the hell is this?"
Cardoza laughed. "Never been on a coop at harvest time?"
"My God! It looks like a Starfleet Marine training exercize."
Gigantic roaring machines crisscrossed the verdant fields, consuming the crops in hungry mouthfuls. Smaller vehicles zipped in and out among the larger ones, like so many service birds attending a herd of elephants. Half the population of the valley seemed to be milling around in the dust and noise of the operation.
"Just your normal everyday harvest party," Cardoza explained. "You have to work twenty-four hours a day when the crops come in."
Logan craned her neck to look upward at the glaring lights hanging above the fields. "Sure. Why let a little thing like lack of sunlight stop you?"
"Superphosphor klieglights on antigrav. Expensive as hell, but useful!" The boy was grinning now. Here was something familiar at last. "Everybody works the fields at harvest time. Bet we'll find my parents down there, too."
Logan started the hummer up again and glided slowly down the road into the valley. "You've got plenty of harvesters out." She was a little worried that one of the huge machines would suck up the hummer on a close pass. "Why do you need all these people?"
"We can't afford robot harvesters; these all have drivers. Then something always seems to break down, so you need somebody to fix things. You've got to have people to manage the lights and people to manage the trucks taking the crops to storage..."
"And more people to manage the people..."
"And I guess that ends up being just about everybody."
Logan laughed. "It certainly seems like it." She maneuvered the hummer between the vehicles parked along both sides of the road until it finally became impossible to move any further. As they settled to the ground between two battered brown farm haulers, one of a pack of men overseeing the work detached himself from the others and sauntered in their direction.
Cardoza grinned broadly and leapt from the hummer. "Dustin!"
The man stopped and stared, then shouted back, "Rafe? Is that you?"
Cardoza came around the back of the hummer and the two gave each other a rough hug. Dustin stood back but kept a hand on the boy's shoulder while he looked him over. "It's good to see you, kid! We've missed you around here."
"I guess I've missed you, too," the youngster admitted.
Dustin glanced narrowly at Logan and A'ma. "Who is this you got with you?"
"Oh, these are my friends," Cardoza said, waving his hands awkwardly in introduction. "Kate Logan, A'ma--uh, she doesn't talk-- Dustin Ang. I don't guess I would have made it here without Kate and A'ma."
Dustin nodded cautiously. "Welcome."
Logan had the craziest feeling that he didn't mean it. Was it just an example of rural reserve or had her fugitive status been broadcast planetwide?
Cardoza looked around. "Have you seen my mom and dad?"
Dustin hesitated. "Well, Rafe, uh..." It was obvious he didn't know how to continue.
Uh-oh, Logan thought.
Yes. Here is the problem. The wheel turns, A'ma answered.
The boy was just beginning to notice Dustin's confusion when another man approached them. Tall and loose-limbed, he might have been lanky in his youth. Now he was the proud owner of a considerable paunch. He wore a patch over one breast pocket of his jumpsuit and a phaser on his hip. He bestowed a wide, fatherly grin on the little group. "Well, I'll be damned. It's Rafe Cardoza. Thought we'd seen the last of you!"
Cardoza smiled uneasily. "Yeah, well, it just seemed like time to come home."
"Uh huh. And you brought some friends with you."
Logan stepped up to save the boy the stress of another introduction. "Kate Logan. This is A'ma."
"A Howler," he said. "Don't see many of those around here."
That is as it should be, A'ma said.
It is easier for us to think 'Haole' than it is for a Human of limited intelligence to say it.
"And Logan, is it? Now where have I heard that name lately?"
"It's a common name among Terrans," Logan answered. "And you are?"
The man offered a handshake. "Chip Terry. I'm what serves as law enforcement in this part of the valley."
"Um, I think I'd better get back to work," Dustin said nervously. "Nice to see you, Rafe."
"Yeah," Cardoza replied. Logan noticed the boy had begun to worry again. "Have you seen my parents, Mister Terry?"
Terry put a thick hand on Cardoza's shoulder and an expression of sympathy on his long face. "Rafe, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you got home just a little too late. There was a horrible fire out at your place almost a week ago now. I'm afraid both your parents were killed."
Cardoza shrugged off Terry's hand. He had suddenly gone very pale. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm sorry, boy. We tried to find you, but you didn't exactly leave a forwarding address."
"Oh, Rafe." Logan moved closer to put an arm around him. "I'm so sorry."
"Where are they?" Cardoza demanded. Logan could feel him trembling. "I want to see them."
Terry frowned. "Well, we never expected that you'd be back here, Rafe. When we couldn't locate you we went ahead with the services."
Cardoza stumbled to the hummer and sat down on the hood. A'ma stayed with him, stroking his arm gently.
This asshole is either the coldest son of a bitch on the planet or a total social Neanderthal, Logan thought.
He is hiding something, A'ma said.
"Are you telling me you buried this boy's parents without notifying the next of kin?" Logan said. "Rafe had a job under his own name in Port One. It should have been possible to find him."
"Job record searches take time," Terry said defensively. "We couldn't wait. There wasn't enough left of the Cardozas to put in stasis."
Logan took a step forward and it was all she could do to keep from slugging the man. "It seems to me you could use a few lessons in public relations, Sheriff. I'd appreciate it if you'd speak of the dead with a little more respect."
Terry pursed his lips. "Well, the Cardozas weren't the most popular folks around here, but I meant no disrespect. I'm just giving it to you straight, is all. The fire destroyed just about everything."
"Do you know what caused it?"
"Faulty lightcell in a storage area. They must've been storing inflammables in there." He suddenly found something of interest to look at in the neighboring field.
You bastard. Did you set the damn thing yourself?
"Kate, I want to go home," the boy said from the hummer. "Can you take me out there?"
"Now, Rafe, there's no point in going out there," the sheriff answered. "It'll only upset you."
"I want to go home!" Cardoza shouted. "Kate?"
Logan looked directly into Terry's eyes. "Sure, Rafe. We can go."
The sheriff glared back at Logan with clear malevolence. "All right. I'll go with you. We've got it roped off to keep the kids out." He stalked off to retrieve his hummer, parked at one edge of the field.
The thought of being nearly alone with this man on an isolated farmstead made the tiny hairs rise on the back of Logan's neck, but there didn't seem to be any alternative. She turned and touched Cardoza's hand. "Come on. I'll take you home."
They climbed into the hummer and lifted off. Cardoza, tense and withdrawn, said nothing as they rode slowly between the busy fields and the jumble of vehicles. Even A'ma seemed subdued.
A'ma, are you all right?
A storm gathers. I am listening to the wind.
He is not the only one. He is simply the nearest one.
Logan saw Terry's shiny new anti-grave lift and pull out in front of them, a warning light flashing on the top. The sheriff wasn't going to let them out of his sight.
What do you bet he's on the comm unit now, checking on my background?
So how do we get rid of him?
There is time. He is not certain yet. The old one folded her hands in her lap and appeared to go to sleep, cutting off further communication.
Logan shook her head--how could anyone sleep in these circumstances? Breathing was difficult enough with the knot in her stomach that just kept getting bigger. None of her relaxation techniques were working. She was too tired; their prospects were too dismal. She couldn't get over the feeling that she was driving herself to her own execution.
At least she didn't have long to wait. The sheriff's hummer turned into a little compound not far from the harvest fields and stopped at a barricade that had been erected across the driveway. Up a little hill from the barricade, Logan could see the burned-out remains of a house and several outbuildings. Nothing was left standing.
Terry unfolded from his vehicle and greeted the deputy at the barricade. The man looked curiously at the strangers in Logan's hummer and nodded as the sheriff explained the situation. Then he moved the barrier aside and waved them through.
The sheriff watched them narrowly as they passed.
Logan stopped the hummer at the top of the hill, beside the scorched skeleton of a broad-limbed tree. Cardoza got out without a word and stood staring blankly at the ruins until, shamed by tears he couldn't control, he ran for the relative privacy of the nearest outbuilding.
Logan let him go. What could she say to console him? She no longer believed everything would be all right.
A'ma moved to join her, but she said nothing. Her silence was beginning to worry Logan.
"I wish there was something we could do to help him." Logan spoke more out of a need to break the oppressive quiet than out of any real desire to talk.
He must have time to encounter his grief alone, first.
"But where will he go, A'ma? He's only a boy. And it looks like I won't be in a position to help him much longer."
There are many who can help him, but he must find his own way to them. Your path is no longer his.
"My path is a dead end," she said, kicking at a charred stump in the yard. "This was supposed to be a safe haven, but it's beginning to look like just another stop on the Underground Railroad."
It is a gateway for those who know the secret.
"It's likely to be a gateway to the afterlife for me unless I can think of a way to get rid of that sheriff."
Logan could see Terry coming up the hill on foot, his deputy in tow. He'd left his hummer blocking the drive at the barricade, cutting off any escape by vehicle. She had to stand her ground now, though every instinct told her to run.
"Where's the boy?" Terry asked as he reached them.
Logan nodded in the direction of the devastation. "I think he wanted to be alone for a while."
Terry turned to the deputy. "Go find him, Reese. And watch yourself."
The deputy ran off, and when Terry turned back to Logan and A'ma, he was holding a phaser. "Kate Logan, wasn't it? Just up from Port One by way of Ardennes."
Logan took a deep breath. Yeah, that's me. Public Enemy Number One.
"You know, a woman fitting your description is wanted for murder over that way. She's a suspect in two murders, as a matter of fact--one in Port One and another in Ardennes."
"I don't guess you'd believe me if I told you it was all a misunderstanding?" Logan said.
"Well, I'm sure you have your version of the story," Terry answered. "And I wish I could say you'll have a chance to tell it, but I kinda doubt it."
"Is this an arrest, Sheriff, or the prelude to a lynching?"
"Oh, it's an arrest, but I have a sneaking suspicion His Excellency Ostyr Tyro will arrive sometime before the Circuit Judge holds court next month. The Worldlord of Xandor has offered a very generous award for one Kate Logan. That works out fine for me, you see, because I get to see justice done and I get a nice little personal nest egg at the same time."
"Ostyr Tyro," Logan said. "He pay your salary, too?"
Terry grinned. "No. But his son does. Pays pretty good."
"Let me guess--the Cardozas somehow got on Cestyr's bad side. Is arson also part of your job description, or was that a separate contract?"
"Cestyr brought his own boys in to do this, but I'd have been glad to help. The Cardozas were standing in the way of progress."
Logan felt a warning buzz in her head from A'ma just as a shriek of rage ripped through the darkness. "You bastard, I'll fucking kill you!" Rafe Cardoza was a photon torpedo aimed at Terry out of what was left of his home. He dodged through the broken rubble, kicking up clouds of still-warm ash in a single-minded effort to cover the ground between them and get his hands on the sheriff's throat.
Terry turned and raised his phaser. Cardoza pelted across the grass, still twenty meters from his goal. Terry smiled and aimed his weapon. It won't fire, Logan thought, but she threw herself at Terry anyway. He sidestepped her charge and clipped her on the back of the head. From the ground, she saw A'ma step up behind the sheriff and take him down with a neck pinch.
Cardoza was steps away and Terry wouldn't fire now; he was unconscious and he couldn't fire and yet Logan heard a phaser whine. She screamed, "No!" but the deadly white-orange flow of plasma caught the boy in mid-stride and swallowed him, leaving behind only the smell of ozone and a lingering image of his anguished face in Logan's mind.
"Don't move!" The deputy emerged from behind a pile of shattered thermocrete, his phaser leveled at them. He approached them cautiously and Logan noticed his hands were shaking. "Move away from the sheriff. Now!"
Logan got slowly to her feet and moved off a few paces. There she found she had to sit down again. Her legs simply would not hold her under the weight of her grief. Numbly, she watched Reese check the sheriff for a pulse.
"What did you do to him?" he demanded.
I did not kill him, A'ma said, though I wanted to.
"He'll wake up with a headache in a few minutes," Logan told the deputy. She looked up at him; his smooth face revealed all of his fear and guilt. "You didn't have to kill him."
Reese covered up with a show of bravado. "He was threatening the sheriff's life. I didn't have a choice."
"You always have a choice, Junior."
"Yeah, well, you don't," he answered, approaching her with a set of restraints. "You're under arrest."
At the edge of her vision, Logan could see A'ma moving. "I don't think so," she said as A'ma touched him and he fell unconscious to the ground.
A'ma showed none of her usual peaceful calm. Even her dolphin-like grin had disappeared under a shroud of sorrow. I did not perceive him until it was too late. The voice in Logan's mind was deep with regret. When beset by enemies one must see with more than the eyes. I am truly sorry.
"You did what you could," Logan said. "Everything happened so fast." She stared dully at the two men on the ground and couldn't bring herself to move. They wouldn't stay unconscious for very long, she knew, but the logical next step just wouldn't present itself to her.
We should bind them so they cannot use the comm unit, A'ma suggested. It will give us time to escape.
"Escape to where?" Logan wanted to shout in exasperation. "We have no place left to go!"
There is one place left, A'ma said, using the deputy's restraints to hobble both men. The Children of Haole will welcome you.
"The Children of Haole? Your home is near here?"
It is not far.
"But it's far enough that the sheriff was surprised to see you in his territory."
A'ma smiled. The mouse may live under the cat's whiskers if she does not sneeze.
Logan shook her head. "If you're trying to keep a low profile, then I'm the last thing your people need. Ostyr Tyro is looking for me. If he finds me in your village, he'll make sure your people pay the price for protecting me."
The destruction of evil always demands a price, the old one answered. My people understand this. We do not seek the battle, but if the battle comes to us, we will do what is necessary.
"But I can't be responsible for bringing the battle to you, A'ma," Logan insisted. "Thank you, but I think you should go home alone. I'll try to find my way back to Port One and get a ship off this planet."
Someone must fight this evil, A'ma said. If you fight alone, you cannot win. If we do not help, others who are less able to defend themselves will be left to face the foe. You are not responsible. The battle is here, with or without you.
"Well, since you put it that way..." Logan admitted with a weary grin. "But if we're going to fight Ostyr Tyro, I'd feel a lot safer behind a wall of Starfleet marines." Or maybe on the Enterprise, with Jim Kirk at the helm.
All things are possible in time.
"A'ma, you are in danger of losing your sense of humility," Logan replied. "The Children of Haole must have some limits."
True. But even we are not certain what they are.
Ostyr Tyro stared at the viewscreen in disbelief. What the marauder had told him could not be true. "You are certain of this, Athys? You have proof?"
"There can be no mistake, Your Excellency," the captain of the unallied slaveship Slaughter told him. "The last words from the Deathwatch described the battle. Victory was expected. But when we attempted to contact Cestyr Tyro to offer congratulations, we could not raise the ship. We came within scanning range soon after and found the debris..."
"The ship's signet." My son.
"As you see, Your Excellency." The scorched and twisted signet from the hull of the Deathwatch filled the screen briefly. Then the captain of the Slaughter faced the screen once more. He raised a ritual blade in one hand and slashed a grisly griefmark across the opposite forearm. Teal blood ran down his arm and splashed his tunic. "I grieve to bring you this news."
Ostyr nodded in grave acceptance of the tribute. "Your father taught you well, Athys. Profit to you."
The captain of the Slaughter bowed his head and signed off.
Kirk, the Orion thought, standing motionless on his bridge. I will make you pay for the death of my son. I will hunt you down like a runaway slave. I will rape your lover before your eyes and force you to watch while my soldiers take your daughter. I will carve your clan brothers into pieces and feed them to my razorhawks. Then you will die--as slowly and painfully as it is possible for a Human to die. I swear it. "Stop all engines," Ostyr commanded.
His crew moved to do as he ordered, fear in their eyes.
"You have heard. My son, Cestyr hanTyro, heir-apparent to all I own, is dead at the hand of the Terran James T. Kirk. I will undertake the Nalys-ta-Mortyra, the Purification before Vengeance."
There were gasps around the bridge.
"I will need you all in the battle to come," Ostyr continued.
"Therefore I release you from the obligations of grief." Again there were breaths taken on the bridge, this time in relief.
"But hear me!" His face was black with rage. "We will not move from these coordinates for the thirty cycles required for the Nalys. And while I boil in the purifying mud of Orion you will think of nothing else but the destruction of Kirk and everything that is his. While I endure the white-hot piercing awl you will envision Kirk's torture and his death. The pain I suffer in the rituals will be visited on him a hundredfold. My loss will be paid for by his losses many times over. You will all pledge it with me--on your lives!"
"We swear it, Lord!" the crew shouted back.
Satisfied, Ostyr turned to his Shipmaster. "Prepare the baths."
The sun was just clearing the horizon when Logan finally understood they'd have to abandon the hummer. Around them the gray mist rose to meet the brightening sky. The fetid air was beginning to buzz with unseen life and to dance with swarms of hovering midges. The tall reeds and sharp emerald sawgrass crowded in on all sides, and there was water standing everywhere. Here beside the creaking vehicle, it was only ankle-deep, but Logan didn't care to guess how deep it might be a few meters ahead.
"A'ma, any semblance of a road faded out two kilometers back." Logan was already starting to sweat. "We must have taken a wrong turn."
This is the correct path.
Logan could just see a parting of the tall grass that might have allowed the passage of an animal at some point in time. But there was no way a vehicle could ever have used it. "The anti-grav can't lift over this grass and it can't push through. This is not a road."
Nevertheless, this is the path we must take.
Logan swatted at an insect that had settled in for a long feed on her arm. "We are almost out of water," she explained patiently to the old one. "We are out of food. We have no map, no directional computer and only one charged phaser. I haven't slept in days, and you expect me to slog through a stinking swamp on foot? Exactly where is this village anyway?"
It is not far.
"That's what you said eight hours ago."
It is still true.
"Well, if it's going to take another eight hours, I will have to respectfully decline your offer of sanctuary." Logan swiped angrily at another hungry insect and collapsed into the hummer's seat, her legs hanging out the door. "I'd rather meet my fate on solid ground."
We cannot stay here. This area is known to the local Humans. We will be discovered.
Logan lowered the seat and stretched out, her eyes closing. "Good. Maybe they'll take me to a nice, clean jail."
No! We must move now. Logan felt the old one's hand on her arm. Here, eat this.
Logan lifted her head to squint at the shriveled organic matter in A'ma's hand. "What the hell is that?"
It is dried opa'a root. It will give you energy.
Logan sighed and sat up to take the root. It smelled like slime mold and tasted even worse. "Oh, my God, that's awful!"
Yes. Few are tempted to abuse it.
"That, I believe," Logan testified. But before the taste had faded in her mouth, she began to feel a slight burning in her chest. The trek ahead of her suddenly seemed less daunting. "Okay, A'ma, you win. Help me unload the hummer. We'll have to ditch it."
They took the last of the water, the phaser and A'ma's bag. Logan considered changing clothes, but decided the ones in her tiny bundle were no cleaner than the ones she had on. She left the bundle in the hummer's back seat--the lighter she could travel the better.
She started the engine and steered the vehicle toward what looked like deep water. While the hummer hovered expectantly over the black surface, Logan looked down at the oily muck with distaste. She couldn't see below the surface; there was no telling what might be in there. In fact, it really didn't pay to think too much about it.
"Shit, I hate this," she muttered and cut the engine. As the hummer began to sink, she jumped into the water and swam. It was repulsively warm, and deep; she couldn't feel the bottom until she got within a few meters of the hummock that A'ma occupied. She floundered out of the water there, the mud of the swamp bottom sucking at her feet. By the time she turned around to look, the hummer had disappeared beneath the surface.
Logan blew a few drops of swamp water off her lips and checked herself over for hitchhiking wildlife. She didn't find any, thank God, but she was covered with revolting green sludge. She groaned in disgust. "Remind me never to go camping with you, A'ma."
"Yes. Believe it or not, some idiots actually seek out this kind of experience." In fact, Jim Kirk is one of them.
Interesting. For what purpose?
"Don't ask me. I like my landscape well-manicured."
They walked while the sun climbed steadily in the sky and the heat began to shimmer in the air around them. They splashed through stagnant pools and pushed through the heavy grass until Logan carried a kilo of mud on her boots and her arms were scratched and stinging. A'ma never showed a moment's hesitation, though there seemed to be no landmarks to guide her and no visible path under her feet.
Creatures rustled in the grass ahead of them and slithered away from their feet. Twice they heard a harsh coughing and loud splashes in the grass several meters ahead, but whatever it was refused to reveal itself. Logan thought it was just as well--she didn't want to see what was out there. She kept the phaser close to hand, ready to fry the first reptile or rat-thing that made the wrong move.
By midday, Logan had had it. The opa'a root had run its course and the fatigue of days of running was beginning to weigh down her legs and arms. When she didn't think she could take another step she called a halt.
"A'ma, I've got to rest." She dropped to the ground where she was. The earth in that spot was relatively solid, for which she was grateful.
A horde of tiny, humming insects immediately took up a position around her head and began to harass her with kamikaze assaults on her eyes and ears. She cursed irritably at them and buried her head in her arms.
"Just give me a minute, A'ma. I just have to have a minute."
You have slept for more than an hour. We are losing daylight.
Logan looked up with a start. "What?"
I have found food. Eat quickly. We must be on our way.
The old one offered a long, purplish root. Logan took the vegetable and sniffed at it suspiciously. "Are you sure this is safe?"
A'ma smiled. I am not dead yet, and I have eaten more kuliti than I care to remember. When you have finished that, there is more opa'a root also. You will need it for the last leg of the journey.
Logan made a face, but she ate the purple root without complaint. It had a slightly salty taste and a satisfying crunch that calmed the grumbling of her empty stomach. She suffered through another bite of the opa'a and washed everything down with the last of their water.
"How much further, A'ma?" she asked. "And give it to me in kilometers or hours or something else I can understand. If I'm going to be spending the night with the snakes and slimedevils I want to know now."
We must reach the village before dark. Only the Children of Haole may sleep in this place once the sun falls.
"And welcome to it," Logan agreed. She got to her feet and stretched.
A'ma put a warning hand on her arm. I must tell you this will be the most difficult part of the journey.
"Why? We're almost there." The opa'a was working again; another few hours of hiking didn't seem so bad.
The old one set off, trundling from hummock to hummock at a steady pace. You will see things on this part of the journey that may frighten you.
"A'ma, everything about this place frightens me," Logan said, trailing her. "I've spent more than thirty years in space just to avoid places like this."
This place and the creatures that live in it are nothing to be feared. The marsh is only a natural feature of this planet's ecology.
"Then what is there to be afraid of?"
Only what is in your mind.
"Okay. I'll try to keep my imagination in check. Just steer clear of deep water, will you?"
Your imagination will provide the shape and color of what you see. But it will be the Children of Haole who will reveal it to you.
Logan stumbled over a hidden root and sighed. "A'ma, sometimes I wish you would be just a little less obscure."
Understanding grows with experience.
"I thought you were trying to warn me before I had the experience."
I meant to warn you that this is no ordinary marsh. It has become a place of fearful legend among the Humans that live in the T'var Valley. It is not the creatures or the heat or the lack of clear pathways that make it so. The Humans fear this place because of what they see here. They fear it so profoundly that no one from the Valley dares to cross the sea of grass to find the sea of water that lies beyond.
"And your village...?"
Remains undisturbed at the edge of that great sea. It is not Haole, but it is a peaceful place and we have come to love it.
Logan took a minute to work her way around a huge thornbush before she asked her next question. "Are you telling me your people somehow create visions in anyone who comes into the marsh? How do you do that?"
We call it the shield of A'aole--a chi shield. Our energy reflects the negative emotions of the curious back at them. The things that they see are only a reflection of what they fear in themselves. Without our guidance, no one has yet overcome his fears enough to break through the shield.
"The shield extends out in all directions?"
Yes, though no one has ever approached us by sea.
"But surely sensors would reveal the existence of your village."
Sensor malfunction is not uncommon. No one has yet been curious enough to look beyond that explanation. Tantua is a young colony, however. We do not expect to remain undetected forever.
Logan ran a hand across her dripping forehead. "Why go to all this trouble, A'ma? Is it so difficult for your people to live openly among other species?"
It is not difficult for us, but it is apparently very difficult for the others. We have wandered from planet to planet for two generations since Haole was destroyed. Few have welcomed us.
Logan wasn't surprised. The fate of a peaceable people in those parts of the galaxy controlled by the Klingons or the Romulans wouldn't be hard to predict. She was ashamed to admit that it might not be much better on many planets in the Federation. "What happened to your home planet, A'ma? How was Haole destroyed?"
It is said that where there is life there is hope. Yet a life that serves evil smothers hope as soon as it is kindled. Some choices cannot be made without regret.
A'ma's mind closed like the drawing of a thick curtain, and Logan, sloshing through the foul black water behind the old one, wished she hadn't asked. The mystery of the Haole was no clearer and Logan suddenly felt desolate without A'ma's conversation.
An hour passed while they walked and the sun's heat beat unrelentingly through a bluish haze. Though the grasses towered over Logan's head and refused her a view of the sky, they provided little shade. The insects swarmed around her in a maddening cloud and sucked greedily at her exposed skin. Still A'ma led her on in silence and the grasses closed in until she wanted to scream with frustration.
They reached a place where the water ran deeper, dark and brown like day-old coffee and stinking like the sewers of Deneb Kaitos V. Fatty globules of organic matter floated in greasy colonies on the surface and washed up against Logan's legs as she pushed through. She lost her footing and fell into the horrible stuff up to her neck. The stench caught in her throat and gagged her.
With every step her apprehension grew until she was trembling with fear. Something unnamed, unimagineable, lurked in the water, in the shadows of the reeds. She could feel it; it was waiting for her, watching her. There was a splash behind her, and she turned, gasping. In a tangle of growth at the edge of the open water something, someone, struggled to escape. Vines as big around as a tree trunk writhed and whipped with feral strength, coiling around a body that must have been Human. Logan screamed and heard an echoing cry from the throat of the dying man as he was dragged under the boiling water.
On every side now, Logan heard the screaming as the swamp itself devoured victim after victim, impaling them on blades of sawgrass ten centimeters wide and tempered like steel, trapping them in cages of whipcord reeds, crushing them in an avalanche of mud that flowed like steaming lava. She thought of the phaser at her waist, but she could not move her arm to retrieve it. She stood frozen in the center of a tableau of death and could not act, though the faces of the dying pleaded with her to help them.
Kate Logan! Look at me! Look only at me!
Logan turned to look at A'ma, turned as if the gravity of a hundred worlds was resisting her. The old one, as commanding as Moses, was standing on an island of dry land on the other side of open water.
Remember the shield! What you see is only a reflection of your fears. There is nothing in the water but the innocent life that calls it home.
"A'ma, I-I can't move." The strangling vines lay in wait for her. The razor-sharp grass sliced the air behind her. The trapping reeds and the suffocating mud blocked her escape. "I'll never get out of here!"
Come. Take my hand. What you think you see cannot harm you. It is an illusion. Look only at me and walk.
Logan could not feel her legs in the tepid water, could not trust her feet to find a path among the indescribable horrors of the swamp bottom. So afraid she could not take a breath, she stretched out and swam the few meters to high ground. She crawled out of the oozing shallows like a primordial lungfish, unable to stand on legs paralyzed by terror.
A'ma lifted her to her feet. Forget what you have seen. It is a nightmare fading in the daylight.
"I have to get away from here, A'ma," she whispered, the horror of what she had seen convulsing her body.
The old one took her hand and led her away from that place. And though the fear clung to her like the stink of the yellow mud, each step brought Logan further out of her paralysis. Soon her head began to clear, and her chest relaxed enough to allow her to fill her lungs once again. She walked, refusing to look to either side, refusing to remember what she had seen, until all that remained of her nightmare were a few shreds of memory in the corners of her mind.
Logan pulled up and stood blinking at the grass that now was simply grass, the water that held no skulking terrors. "My God, what the hell happened to me back there?"
It was the chi shield. We have passed it safely now.
"A reflection of my fears," Logan said, running a hand through her hair. "I had no idea this place scared me that much."
This environment is not comfortable for you, but it is not what you fear most. Do you not perceive the meaning of the visions?
"No. Enlighten me."
The coiling vines? The cages? The mud that blocks your path?
"Traps," Logan acknowledged, as if she was revealing a guilty secret. "Obstacles. No escape."
Logan sank to her haunches on a tuft of low grass. The opa'a root was still working its magic in her body, but her will had just about given out. "How am I ever going to get off this planet?"
Sometimes the best way to escape is to wait until the door opens.
"Wait," Logan said with a tight little laugh. "I used to be pretty good at waiting--wait for the right time, wait until he's ready, wait until she's old enough, wait until all this hard work pays off. But the minute Cestyr Tyro fired on my ship, I began to think maybe I'd waited too long. I'm running out of time, A'ma."
You are still a young woman. When you are old like me, you can say you are running out of time.
Logan shook her head. "You know, years ago Jim Kirk asked me if I had any regrets about my life. I said no. I think I lied. The older I get, the more regrets I seem to have."
Logan looked up at her in surprise.
You think of her often. You have been rehearsing what you would say to her--and to Jim. Surely you know that is not necessary. They do not want your apology; they want your love.
"I may not get the chance to offer either one now."
Oh, ye of little faith.
Logan would have answered, but the sound of something moving in the grass a few meters away brought her to full alert. This was no nightmare vision; she could hear the stealthy footsteps of some creature coming closer. She jumped to her feet and drew the phaser.
Then she heard the tinkle of A'ma's laughter in her mind. Your weapon is never more ready than when it is not needed. Behold the vicious swamp beast!
A Haole male much younger than A'ma emerged from the surrounding reeds and smiled his version of the dolphin/Buddha smile at them. The two Haole greeted each other with warm hugs and much touching and stroking of arms and hands and shoulders. This is my son, Umu.
Logan relaxed and put away the phaser, though her heart still thumped wildly. "Your son? A'ma, you never told me you had a family."
You never asked. In fact, I have three children, seven grandchildren, fourteen nieces and nephews and only my elderly grandmother knows how many cousins.
"Your grandmother? How old do you people get, anyway?"
The oldest in our village swam with the iliani, Umu said, laughing. His voice was much deeper in Logan's mind and his laughter positively boomed.
A'ma waved a hand in dismissal. An old Haole joke.
"You might have told me we were almost to your village before I wasted all that time moaning," Logan said.
The village is still a short distance. Umu will take you there.
"Aren't you coming with us?"
I must go back beyond the shield for a while.
Logan picked up the tiniest hesitation in the old one's thoughts. "What is it, A'ma? What's going on?"
It is nothing. My skills are needed for a special task.
"What task?" Logan pressed her.
I am known among my people as i'ila--I can both 'hear' and 'speak' at a great distance.
I'ila is our word for a creature with big ears and a loud voice--I think you Terrans would call it a donkey, Umu said with another huge laugh.
A'ma smiled indulgently. We have need of both now that Ostyr Tyro may be seeking us.
"Then I should stay with you," Logan argued.
You would be no help to me without sleep. There is still much time before Ostyr can find us. Go. I will return before morning.
Logan didn't want to go, but A'ma had it right. She was so tired she was seeing double. "All right. But you have to promise not to try and fight this battle alone."
You will fight side by side, I promise.
Logan squeezed the old one's shoulder. "Be careful," she said. Then she turned to follow Umu through the swampgrass to the sea.
"Captain. I do not wish to disturb you, but you asked to be informed."
Spock's voice reached him from the other side of a vast gulf. Kirk struggled to locate it. "What?"
"We are approaching Psi Eridani. We should reach Tantua in less than three hours."
"Tantua," Kirk repeated and forced his eyes open. "Already? How long have I been out?"
"Twenty-three hours and forty-seven minutes."
"Twenty-three hours, Spock? I seem to recall an estimated arrival of twenty-one hours just before our little run-in with Cestyr."
Spock cleared his throat. "Roxanne's engines required some minor repair."
"I see." Kirk suppressed a smile. He made an effort to sit up and was rewarded with a backwash of pain. Spock helped him find a tolerable position. "McCoy has always said you had a good bedside manner, Spock."
"The doctor can be quite perceptive at times," the Vulcan answered. "How are you feeling?"
Kirk took another moment to check. "It only hurts when I move. And I'm hungry."
"Of course, Doctor McCoy is the medical expert, but I would say those are positive indications of healing."
Kirk flexed his neck and shoulders to loosen the muscles stiffened by his long sleep. "Where is the good doctor?"
"Resting. He insisted upon remaining with you until just a few hours ago. J.T. is manning the bridge."
Kirk glanced at the chronometer on a nearby bulkhead. "Almost first watch."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "That is hardly relevant in our present circumstances."
"No, I suppose not. But it provides me with a familiar reference point in time--an aid to reorientation," Kirk said in mock-seriousness. "Almost first watch means the beginning of a new day, preparing oneself for new challenges after a restful night-- breakfast."
"Ah," Spock said, crossing to the replicator at the far end of the crew quarters. "Allow me to assist you. I'm afraid your usual unhealthy combination of animal-derived proteins, simple carbohydrates and caffeine would not be advisable so soon after surgery."
"No?" The way Spock put it, his egg sandwich and coffee sounded almost lethal. "Surprise me, then. But I have to have some coffee even if it's decaf."
He inched closer to the edge of the bed and cautiously slipped his legs over the side. God, I'm a mess, he thought, taking in the stabilizing splint on his leg, the dermoplast across his stomach, the cuts and bruises on the rest of his body. His injuries were painful even to look at, but at least he could hold his head up without unleashing a tidal wave of dizziness. That was progress.
"Jim, I do not think it is wise for you to be out of bed," Spock observed, returning to his side.
"Come on, Spock, it looks worse than it feels," he lied. "Where's that field generator?"
"I do not wish to be responsible for Doctor McCoy's reaction when he sees you out of bed again."
"Well, help me, and I can be back in bed before he gets up."
"Very well," Spock replied, reaching for the generator. "But I will say I acted on direct orders from a superior officer."
"Consider yourself ordered," Kirk said, watching Spock place the unit on his leg. "Now give me a hand."
Twenty-four hours of sleep had made a world of difference. He was stiff and brutally sore, but the pain was within bounds and he could move without the fear of shattering like so much brittle china. He found it was easier than he'd expected to manage the mechanics of basic hygiene. He was clean, dressed and sitting down to his breakfast in only twice the time it usually took him, feeling very pleased with himself.
"Now all I need is one of McCoy's hypos and I'll be ready for anything," Kirk said, eyeing with suspicion the yogurt Spock had selected for him.
"I would caution you to avoid overexertion, Captain."
"Thank you, Mister Spock, I will keep that in mind. Now, let's get down to business. Ship's status and position?"
"Repairs are complete, and all ship's systems are fully operational. We will enter standard orbit around Tantua in another hour and forty-two minutes."
"Any sign of Ostyr Tyro?"
"No, but I suspect we will not have long to wait. Word of his son's death should have reached him some time ago. If we are correct in our assumption that this is where Kate Logan can be found, Ostyr will also expect to find us here."
"I agree. We'll have to be very lucky to find Kate and get out of here before he catches up with us." Kirk looked up and saw a familiar shadow cross Spock's face. "You're concerned about something else."
"It may be nothing."
Kirk had known the Vulcan too long to think so. "Let's have it, Spock."
"Several hours before we reached this star system, I began to sense some sort of . . .energy . . .emanating from the direction of Tantua."
"Energy? What kind of energy?"
"I cannot say for certain, Captain. Roxanne and I have been attempting to analyze it without success."
"Sensor report, Roxanne?"
Roxanne's voice responded from the nearest comm unit. "The sensors do not seem able to detect this form of energy. I can get no additional information from the ship's equipment."
"Then, how...?" Kirk eyes snapped back to the Vulcan's face. "Do you mean to say you're picking up some kind of telepathic message?"
"I would hesitate to characterize it as a message. There are no specific images or words associated with it," Spock replied evenly. "I am simply aware of a source of--for lack of a better term--psychic energy on the planet."
"Psychic energy," Kirk repeated. "From what--or whom?"
"Unknown. I do know, however, that it is getting stronger as we approach the planet."
Hope kicked Kirk's pulse into high gear. "Roxanne, could you be sensing Kate's presence?"
"I don't know, Jim. For a while, as we got closer to Tantua, I could feel my link with Kate getting stronger. But now I can barely feel it. It's almost as if this energy is creating interference."
"A force field," Kirk suggested.
"I am increasingly certain that the source is not mechanical," Spock answered. "I believe some intelligence is attempting to contact us. It is not unlike the call I perceived from V'ger on Vulcan, though it is much less powerful."
"But this is a Terran colony planet," Kirk said. "Does any of the data on Tantua indicate an indigenous telepathic culture?"
"Tantua has no indigenous cultures, Captain," Spock replied. "Colony records are not exhaustive, but they do not seem to indicate large numbers of colonists from telepathic species. In any case, there are only a handful of known species capable of this kind of range."
Kirk considered the information, but could draw no conclusions. With Ostyr closing on them and so little time to find Kate, this was a complication they didn't need. "All right," he said at last. "Something or someone is trying to contact us from Tantua. We don't know who and we don't know why. Do we know where?"
"I have scanned the planet using ship's equipment, but I can find nothing out of the ordinary," Roxanne reported. "There is one area of the planet that did not resolve well on the scan. I'm rechecking the sensors now."
Kirk tried hard to control his frustration. "Let's try another tack, then. Do we have any idea where to start looking for Kate?"
"I knew it!" McCoy said from the doorway. "I knew if I left you alone for a minute you'd be running around like a damn fool."
Kirk and Spock exchanged a glance. "Morning, Bones," Kirk greeted him. "Join me for some coffee?"
"The only stimulants that should be in your system are the ones I prescribe," McCoy answered tersely. He picked up a mediscanner and pointed it at his patient, frowning at the readings.
"Well, I hope you're planning to prescribe some soon," Kirk said. "We've got a busy day ahead."
"For your information, I don't administer medication based on my patient's priorities," McCoy countered. "I'm glad you're feeling better, but my readings show you're only starting the healing process; you haven't finished it. If I were you, I'd revise my plans for a busy day. Your doctor is in no mood to argue."
"All right, Bones. I promise I'll take it easy."
"Too late for that," McCoy muttered, shuffling to the replicator for some breakfast. "And I bet you had the Farmer Brown special for breakfast, too."
Kirk changed the subject. "We were just discussing our strategy for finding Kate on Tantua."
"The logical starting point would be the planet's largest population center, Port One," Spock explained. "And yet I do not think Kate is there."
"A hunch, Spock?"
"I am not certain, Captain. Perhaps the influence of the energy source..."
"There is also objective evidence that Kate's not in Port One," Roxanne offered. "I've been monitoring communications on Tantua since we entered the Psi Eridani system. Someone fitting Kate's description was last seen in a town called Ardennes, nearly two thousand kilometers northeast of Port One."
"Why would Kate's description be on the commnets?" McCoy asked, sitting down with his breakfast plate.
Roxanne hesitated. "Because this woman--whoever she is--is wanted for murder."
"Murder?" Apprehension and wild elation warred for Kirk's heart. Kate was down there with Ostyr Tyro and half the planet after her--but she was down there. Alive. "Maybe they've already caught up with her..."
Spock anticipated his question. "It is unlikely that a standard prison force-field would interfere with the mindlink, Jim. The energy source must be causing the interference."
"Then we have to locate that source," Kirk said tightly. He wanted desperately to act, to move, but his ruined knee precluded even the release of pacing. He felt like a caged animal. "Roxanne, you said there was an area of the planet that the sensor scan missed."
"Yes! The sensors still can't resolve it." Excitement ratcheted her voice a tone higher. "Do you think that could be the source of the interference?"
"I think it's our best chance," Kirk said. "Spock?"
Spock's eyebrow lifted with a sudden realization. "I believe that is where we are being directed, Captain. In fact, I am convinced this is the proper course of action, though the conclusion is not supported by any facts or argument of logic." He looked at Kirk. "Is this what you experience as a hunch, Jim?"
Kirk had to smile. "That about describes it."
"Most disturbing," Spock said.
"Sometimes," Kirk agreed.
"I feel it, too, Spock," Roxanne concurred. "Whatever this thing is, it wants us to go there."
"Can you give us coordinates?"
"I can extrapolate from the nearest clear scan corridor," the ship answered. "I can get you pretty close."
"Now, hold on just a damn minute!" McCoy interjected. "You are not going anywhere, Jim."
"Bones, I feel fine," Kirk said, though that was an exaggeration. "We'll be down and back in less than an hour if we're right."
"If you're right, Spock and J.T. could have Kate back up here with you in no time," McCoy argued. "But if you're wrong, you could be schlepping around down there for hours. Or worse, trying to launch some kind of rescue."
"No, I know my limits."
"No, you don't," McCoy disagreed, leaning across the table at Kirk. "I know you, Jim. You wouldn't take yourself out of it no matter how bad you felt. But I'm telling you any exertion could start you bleeding internally again. And that leg won't take any extended walking, field generator or no field generator."
Kirk's fist slammed the table. "Damn it, Bones, I'm not going to sit here like an invalid waiting to hear whether we've made it in time!"
He and McCoy glared at each other like snarling wolfhounds until Kirk finally managed to get his anger under control. He sat back and lowered his voice. "Your points are well taken, Doctor, but I'm going to look for Kate, with or without your approval."
"Well, it'll damn well be without, Captain," McCoy retorted. "But I'm not letting you out of my sight. The minute I think you've had enough, I'll knock you colder'n a mackerel and drag you back up to this ship."
Kirk grinned. "Fair enough, if you think you can do it."
"You just try me."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, Bones," Kirk said. "I'd like nothing better than to find Kate and get the hell out of here. Roxanne, what's our current position?"
"We're just entering Tantua orbit, Jim," J.T.'s voice answered from the nearest comm unit. "Still no sign of our friend."
"Good. Standard orbit, J.T. Have you been listening?"
"Yeah." Kirk could hear the hope in her voice. "You'll need someone to stay with Roxanne."
"Are you volunteering?"
"Somebody has to do it," she said. "Besides, I think you and Kate might have a few things to say to each other without the kids around."
Kirk laughed. "Bright girl. Now if I could just explain that to Spock and McCoy."
"Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?" McCoy suggested.
Kirk ignored him and pushed himself carefully to his feet. "Right. We'll need the usual equipment, Spock--whatever you can find. What kind of conditions are we facing planetside, Roxanne?"
"Wet, marshy terrain. Temperature thirty degrees Centigrade. Oh, and it's dark. Local time 0320 hours."
"Oh, great! You're landing us in a swamp at night," McCoy groused. "I don't suppose you'd care to wait until daybreak so we can see the creepy-crawlies we're stepping on?"
"Ostyr Tyro is right behind us, Bones," Kirk said, making his way down the corridor. "Every minute counts." He paused at the ladder to the cargo deck, momentarily stymied.
"See? Can't even get off the ship," McCoy badgered him. "Want to think about this some more?"
"You know what they say about necessity." Kirk gripped the cargo sling and swung out over the open bay. "Lower away."
The doctor sighed and activated the sling to send Kirk to the lower deck. "Just wait until you get out in that mud. You'll be wallowing like a water buffalo, and I'm not going to help you."
Kirk found his place on the transporter pad and took his phaser and communicator from Spock. He noted that Spock carried a standard survival pack and two portable torches. "All set?"
Spock and McCoy confirmed they were ready. Kirk was about to give the order to beam down when J.T. slid gracefully down the ladder. She turned and smiled at him, but he could see the tears poised to overflow her eyes. She stepped up on the pad and wrapped her arms around him. After a moment she pulled back. "Good luck," she said. "And be careful."
He nodded. "Have Roxanne keep the sensors on maximum. Contact us if you see any sign of Ostyr." He smiled confidently in spite of the lump in his throat. "We'll be back soon."
"Godspeed, Jim," Roxanne said. "Energizing."
The transporter whined in his ears as Kirk's view of Roxanne's cargo bay dissolved and reformed itself into a vision of black and silver. Tantua's two moons floated serenely over the spiky silhouettes of the tall grass, pouring quicksilver down the shafts to be splashed across the standing water and soaked up by the heavy shadows along the ground.
The air was hot and close and smelled like the caverns of Rura Penthe. Breathing it was like trying to suck syrup through a straw. Kirk immediately found himself gasping like a landed carp.
McCoy had his medkit out and a hypo in Kirk's shoulder almost before Kirk had a chance to get his bearings. "Triox compound--no sense your having to work that hard for a little air."
Kirk nodded gratefully as his chest relaxed. "Tricorder readings, Spock. Are we in the right neighborhood?"
"It is difficult to tell, Captain," Spock said, his face outlined in the blue glow of the tricorder screen. "I'm getting a multitude of lifeform readings. There is a great variety of wildlife in this environment."
"No doubt," McCoy agreed. "And all of it ugly as sin."
"One moment, Captain. I am detecting intermittent readings of a different order."
Kirk took an uncertain step in his direction, registering for the first time that he was standing in ankle-deep water. "What is it, Spock?"
"A single lifeform. Humanoid, and small, no more than one point three meters tall."
"A child? In this place at night?" McCoy objected.
"On the contrary, Doctor. The tricorder indicates considerable age--on the order of slightly more than 100 years. But the species is not one I recognize."
"Less than two kilometers in that direction," Spock said, pointing. "And Captain..."
Kirk turned to look at him.
"The creature is the source of the energy I have been sensing."
"Are you sure, Spock?"
"I am certain of it."
"The source of your mysterious vibrations is a four-foot-tall, elderly Creature from the Black Lagoon?" McCoy said.
Kirk ignored McCoy's arcane reference and nodded in the direction the Vulcan had indicated. "Lead on, Spock. We won't find out what it is by standing here."
Spock led the way, his lightcell dispersing both shadows and frightened night creatures ahead of him. Kirk followed painfully behind him, grimly determined not to slow the group down. Less than two kilometers, he kept telling himself, but he had to fight for every step. The mud pulled at him and wrenched his tortured muscles. The grasses reached out to scratch at his face and hands. The uneven ground swelled and dipped under his feet to make walking a jarring agony.
Before they had gone half a kilometer, he was wishing he had followed McCoy's advice and stayed behind, but he said nothing. He wasn't about to give McCoy the satisfaction.
Spock called a halt after nearly a kilometer of this torment. Kirk found a half-submerged log and eased himself into a sitting position while the Vulcan checked his tricorder.
McCoy was immediately at his side with the mediscanner. "Jim, this is insane," the doctor muttered as he studied the readings. "I'm in perfect health and this is killing me."
"It's no picnic, I'll admit," Kirk replied. There was a new pain deep in his side and his leg and hip burned with overuse. The dizziness was back to stay now, churning his stomach with nausea.
"I won't even bother to tell you what I'm seeing here," McCoy said. "Trust me, it's not good. Let me get you back up to the ship. Maybe Roxanne can set us down a little closer and save you all this."
"That will not be necessary." Spock looked up from his tricorder to peer into the darkness. "I believe the creature is coming to us."
"Is that good or bad?" McCoy wanted to know.
Kirk resisted the temptation to fold in on the pain in his belly, realizing it probably wouldn't look good to greet their "host" curled up like a hedgehog. On the other hand, pulling himself upright hurt like a son of a bitch.
"Here," McCoy offered, sympathy softening his tone. He pulled out a hypo, checked it in the beam of the lightcell, and punched it into Kirk's shoulder. "You weren't going to ask for anything, were you?"
"What, and let you say you told me so?" Kirk felt his muscles relax as the drug hit them, and the pain retreated back to manageable levels.
"Better?" McCoy had a hand on his shoulder and was watching his face.
"Thanks, Bones." He looked up at Spock. "Where is our creature now?"
"Less than half a kilometer from our position," Spock replied. "She is moving very quickly."
"Yes, Captain. I am getting very clear signals from her now. She is known as A'ma, one of the Children of Haole."
"The Children of Haole? I thought they were only a space legend."
"Oh, they are quite real, Captain. There are so few of them now, however, that they are rarely encountered, especially in the more populous parts of the galaxy."
"Oh, come on, Spock. Next you'll have us believing in leprechauns and Santa's elves," McCoy said. "That old story of the lost planet is just so much Starfleet Academy bunk."
"On the contrary, Doctor. I have seen the original reports of the scout ships. The descriptions of Haole's floating cities, and agricultural atolls were quite detailed. The reports indicated there were considerable resources of interest to the Federation, including deposits of both iridium and topaline."
"Yes, and when survey ships went back just ten years later there was no evidence of any planet ever having been there," McCoy said. "The reports must have been falsified. They make Haole sound like some kind of galactic El Dorado. And it doesn't make sense--a people devoted to peace, with no natural enemies, and they build a weapon big enough to reduce their planet to dust?"
"According to the legend the weapon was used as a last resort," Kirk argued. "Even a peaceful people could be driven to drastic measures in desperate circumstances."
McCoy snorted. ""What circumstances could force someone to destroy their entire planet deliberately? IF there was a planet there in the first place, it's far more likely that some kind of natural disaster destroyed it."
"I admit there are a number of unanswered questions about what happened to the Haole homeworld," Spock countered. "And yet, the Children of Haole are a documented species."
"Just because they call themselves the Children of Haole doesn't mean the legend of their origin is true, Spock. Lots of cultures have invented colorful pasts for themselves."
"Doctor, the Children of Haole are famous for not discussing their planet of origin. That is what makes them the subject of so much mythology."
"Gentlemen, I suggest you simply wait and ask A'ma when she arrives." Kirk struggled to his feet. "If I'm not mistaken, that's her now."
A light wove its way through the waving reeds toward them until finally the grass parted and the light bearer was revealed. She was tiny and bowed with age, with a smile that was immediately engaging. She nodded to Spock and McCoy, then she stepped up to Kirk and took both his hands in hers. I am A'ma. Come. I will take you to Kate.
Ostyr Tyro was a mass of oozing pain. The skin of his back and chest, his arms and legs, was on fire where he had lain in the scalding red mud of Orion, burning away everything but his lust for revenge. His eyelids stabbed him with every blink, his tongue clicked against his teeth with the new studs of the ritual piercing.
For you, my lost hanTyro, Ostyr thought, and marveled at the ritual's ability to focus the mind. In his fevered consciousness, there was only one thought now. Find Kirk and make him suffer. Endlessly.
"Position, helm!" he roared, impatient to begin.
"We approach Psi Eridani, Lord," the navigator replied. "We reach Tantua orbit in four cycles."
Four cycles. Then you are mine, son of a Terran whore!
"Your Excellency, we are receiving a transmission from Tantua," the man at the communications station said. "A Human who describes himself as a servant of Cestyr Tyro wishes to speak with you."
"From Tantua? Name him!"
"He names himself Terry, Master. Sheriff Chip Terry."
Ostyr frowned. He knew no such Human, though it was true Tantua had been Cestyr's province. "Very well. Put him onscreen."
The Human's image filled the viewscreen. He was tall. He smiled inappropriately. And he was uglier than most. "Your Excellency," he drawled in greeting.
"Your master is not here. Cestyr Tyro is dead."
The Human showed surprise. "Well, I'm sure sorry to hear that, Your Excellency. And wasn't I just talking to him a couple of days ago? He told me to expect you. That's a damn shame."
Ostyr shook with rage. The Human refused to show proper respect! When Kirk had been eliminated, this one would be next. "Speak, you piece of Terran shit!" Ostyr shouted. "Do you have information that will help me or not?"
"Cestyr told me you'd be looking for Kate Logan," Terry replied blandly. "I wish I could say we had her in custody, but we're having a little trouble putting our hands on her just now."
"Idiot! What keeps you? Do you not have her transponder frequency?"
"Well, yes, sir, Cestyr did give us that information and we tracked her as far as Madman's Marsh. Then we lost the signal."
"How could you lose the signal, you drooling cretin? Even if she were dead, the transponder under her skin would still function."
The Human shrugged apologetically. "Strange things happen in those marshes, Your Excellency. Half my men won't even step foot in there and most of the ones who do come out screaming their heads off. If she's in there, she's got to be dead--or insane."
"Keep looking! I will instruct my men to begin a sensor scan as soon as we are in range."
"Whatever you say, Your Excellency. I do have one piece of good news, though."
Ostyr wanted only to choke the man to death and end his blathering. "Tell me."
"Those samples that Cestyr asked us to get? Tested out to be eighty percent iridium, seventeen percent topaline. Looks like your son would've been a very rich man if he'd lived."
Iridium. And topaline! Oh, my hanTyro! "You are aware his trade now falls to me," Ostyr warned.
"Of course, Your Excellency. We're only here to serve. I do hope, though, that you'll remember our service when the time comes."
"Oh, yes," Ostyr assured him with a vicious smile. "Devotion is always given its just reward."
The Human grinned. "I'll see you when you arrive, Your Excellency."
Ostyr signalled for the connection to be broken and sat brooding over what he had heard. His Shipmaster approached cautiously. "Lord, can it be possible? Iridium and topaline?"
"The constellation of the invisible sun," Ostyr marveled. "A legend reaches out of our past to haunt us."
"Cestyr hoped to find the lost weapon of Haole here on Tantua?"
"He was obsessed with it!" Ostyr could see it clearly now. "My spies could tell me only that he accumulated land holdings here. 'Iridium,' he said. 'I am only securing the iridium deposits.' Yes, I understand his true purpose now, the disrespectful bastard."
The Shipmaster glanced at Ostyr anxiously. "Perhaps he meant to confirm the find before he told you. He would not want to appear foolish if it was only common ore."
"Cestyr hanTyro was his father's son," Ostyr said, torn between familial pride and the anger of betrayal. "He planned to use the weapon to take the leadership of Xandor and launch a coup for control of the Orion Syndicate."
"How can you know that, Lord?"
"Because that is what I would have done," Ostyr rejoined. "Because taking the power of the Syndicate is what I intend to do now that my son's trade--and his glorious dream--have fallen to me. Best speed to Tantua."
Someone was nudging her shoulder, but Kate Logan refused to wake up. She was clean and dry and comfortably asleep for the first time in days and she was determined not to wake up.
But the nudging wouldn't stop.
Kate. You must come quickly. They are here.
She tried to roll away from the relentless shaking. "Who's here?" she murmured.
Umu knelt beside her pallet with a softly glowing lightcell in his hand and a look of urgency complicating his Haole smile. A'ma has returned. And James Kirk is with her.
Finally the words penetrated. She sat up and tried to clear the fogginess from her mind. "Did you say Jim Kirk?"
Yes. He and his companions are with A'ma at the home of the elders. You must come quickly.
"The last time I saw Jim Kirk, he was on the other side of the galaxy, Umu." Her heart was pounding and her hands shook as she reached for the clothes the Haole had left her. "How can he be here?" I must be dreaming. Any minute now I'm going to wake up back in that damn swamp.
You are not dreaming, Umu answered. Unless, of course, I am dreaming, too. His deep laughter echoed in her mind. Come, before we both wake up.
Logan got to her feet and followed Umu out of the room, down some broad, smooth stairs and out into the sea-scented night. The ocean swept the shore somewhere close by and sand skittered across the stone pathway they walked, but she could see little beyond the circle of light thrown by Umu's lightcell. The moons had set, leaving the beach and the seaside homes of the Haole in obscurity. There was a stillness, an expectancy in the dark that told her it must be close to dawn.
Logan shivered in the night air and drew the loose fitting shift around her, but it wasn't the cold that was causing her to vibrate like a Vulcan lyrette. Every muscle was taut with anticipation. To see him, after all this time. To touch him, after all she'd been through. To come back to life, when both of them had thought her dead.
God, what will I say to him? Where do I start? But she knew it really didn't matter. He was here and it could only be because he was keeping the promise he had made to her in her dream. She put aside the vision of his broken body as he made that pledge--he was here. He had survived, as she had, and he was here.
Umu turned and passed under a wide arch into a cavernous opening beneath the home of the elders. Warm light from within the house spilled out of a wide, transparent wall and pooled across a platform of pebbly stone at the entry. Umu ushered Logan inside.
They crossed a large common room and approached another open door. Several elderly Haole crowded the doorway. Beyond it Logan could hear voices. Her heart threatened to break through the walls of her chest--one of the voices was Jim Kirk's.
The Haole suddenly turned to look at her, grins nearly splitting their aged faces. They stepped aside and gently pushed, pulled, bumped and guided her into the room. Kirk stood at the far end, balancing himself with one hand on the back of a tall chair. His leg was supported by a field generator, his face was drawn and pale, and he was covered with mud, but...Oh, God, it's really him.
He turned and saw her and the look on his face broke her heart wide open, letting loose a storm of emotion in her chest. The tears were falling through her laughter before she could even move. He took a step toward her and she rushed to meet him, wanting so much to hold him, to feel him holding her.
They stood wrapped inside each other for a long, speechless moment, while she soaked his chest with tears and listened to the sweet sound of his heartbeat. It was a long time before she remembered that there were others in the room. She drew back to smile at him. "You look like hell," she said when she could find her voice.
"You look wonderful," he answered. He cupped her face in both hands and kissed her. "My God, you look incredible."
His face suddenly went dead white and she felt him catch himself. She could see he was a lot more seriously injured than he let on, but she tried not to show how much it scared her. "Come on," she told him. "You're giving that field generator a workout."
McCoy and Spock both moved to help as she put a shoulder under his arm and an arm around his waist and steered him to a low couch against the far wall. She put his feet up and perched beside him on the couch.
"I'm all right," he insisted.
"Nothing a hot shower won't cure," she concurred, laughing softly. She shook her head. "How in hell did you find me, starman? Any sensible person would have given me up for dead."
"I'm not a sensible person." He grinned. "And neither is our daughter."
"J.T.," she said, tears threatening again. "How is she?"
There was an unmistakable note of pride--and love--in his answer. "She's beautiful."
"Oh, God, Jim, I'm so sorry," she whispered. She couldn't bear to look at him. "I always meant...It was so wrong and so unfair, but I just didn't know how to make it right."
He turned her face back toward him. "You couldn't have known how I would feel about her. I never gave you any reason to think I would welcome that kind of news."
"I should have told you anyway. You deserved to know. And so did J.T."
"You had your reasons. J.T. and I both understand that."
Could forgiveness really be that easy to come by? She looked into his eyes and saw that everything she needed was there for the taking. I love you so much, she thought and would have said it if she could have gotten the words out around her sobs.
And there was McCoy, hovering anxiously just out of earshot, waiting for an opening so he could check Kirk's condition. Jim was badly hurt and trying bravely to hide it, but McCoy wasn't interested in joining the conspiracy. Logan looked up and nodded at the doctor. What she had to say to Jim could wait a little longer.
The doctor gave her a grateful glance and knelt next to the couch. He ran the scanner over Kirk's torso, frowning at the readings. "Jim, I'm going to call Roxanne and beam you back up to the ship."
"Roxanne!" Logan said. "I thought...but I hoped--she made it, too?"
McCoy nodded. "J.T.'s on board, waiting for us."
Kirk's eyelids fluttered closed. "Just let me rest a minute, Bones. I'm tired..."
McCoy got up stiffly from the floor and joined Spock on the other side of the room. Logan released Kirk's hand and went with him.
"He's in bad shape, Spock. You'd better call Roxanne right away."
She gripped McCoy. "It's not just his leg, is it?"
"Those Orion butchers beat him nearly to death, Kate," he told her. "There were internal injuries. I'm afraid he may have started to bleed again."
"Oh, Bones," she breathed, shocked.
McCoy gave her a reassuring hug. "Kate, darlin', he's been through a lot, but seeing you alive made every bit of it worthwhile. He'll be fine once I get him back to the ship." The doctor turned to Spock. "What's the holdup? Let's get the hell out of here."
"Beaming out is impossible, Doctor, given the interference of the chi shield. We would have to carry Jim beyond the shield for the transporter to work correctly. However, A'ma and the others have suggested an alternative."
A'ma. Can you help him?
Yes. We have a ceremony that we use in such emergencies. We do not use it often, for it requires much energy. But I believe it is necessary in this case.
He's not going to die...?
No. Doctor McCoy would be quite capable of caring for him on the ship. However, traveling outside the shield would take time. And his healing would be even slower. We may have need of his leadership--and his full capabilities--right away.
"You mean these people are capable of healing him just with the power of their minds?" McCoy was saying. "They're empaths like Gem's people?"
"Empaths?" Logan answered. "I don't think so. A'ma explains it as a projection of the lifeforce."
McCoy scowled skeptically.
"Why are you surprised, Doctor?" Spock asked him. "You saw the healing powers of the Kanutu on Neural. You yourself underwent the Fal-tor-Pan on Vulcan to bring me back from death."
"Well, yeah, but that was different. Your body was perfectly healthy. It was only your mind that was missing."
"It was hardly 'missing.' And it was my katra--my soul--that you held in safekeeping for me, not my mind."
Several of the Haole had gathered around the couch where Kirk lay. They began to gesture now with alarm.
The doctor is needed. A'ma grabbed McCoy and pulled him in Kirk's direction. Jim's lifeforce is dangerously depleted.
McCoy was instantly at Kirk's side with the scanner. He looked up sharply. "Whatever we do, it has to be now," he said. "He's hemorrhaging."
A'ma, help him!
A'ma patted her arm briefly then took her place in the circle of Haole that had just formed around Kirk. The elders placed their hands on him and closed their eyes in concentration.
The room had become so silent that Logan's own heartbeat crashed deafeningly in her ears. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of disturbing the Haole at their desperate work. He looked so lifeless lying there and she couldn't get the image of him buried under a landslide of rock out of her mind.
She knew he couldn't hear her, but she spoke to him anyway, the words echoing like a prayer in her heart. Come on, Jim. Don't leave me now--not now! Fight, damn it! We've got too much life ahead of us for you to give up now.
She had no way of knowing how long they all stood, hushed and unmoving, in that room beside the sea. Outside the home of the elders the darkness thinned into daybreak. And eventually McCoy looked up from his tricorder with wonder in his smile.
"The bleeding's stopped," he reported. "His blood pressure is nearly back to normal."
Kirk opened his eyes as the Haole fell back from him and allowed Logan to come nearer. She grasped his hand and smiled shakily at him. "Kate. What's wrong?"
She had to swallow her tears to speak. "Nothing," she replied. "Just don't ever scare me like that again."
I will assemble the village for the healing ceremony, A'ma said.
You mean, this wasn't it?
We have only stabilized his lifesigns. Healing his injuries will require a convocation of all our energies. You and his companions must go and ready yourselves. We will prepare him for the ceremony.
But, A'ma, I'm no mystic. How am I going to help?
Your love and your faith are all that is required. The old one smiled and followed the other elders from the room.
"I guess I'm going to learn what it feels like to be on the inside of a miracle," Kirk said quietly.
Logan smiled at him. "Not for the first time."
"No, I guess not," he admitted. "I've seen more than my share."
"Well, the Haole certainly made a believer out of me," McCoy said.
"Yes, a fascinating people," Spock agreed. "Apparently they have combined an inherited telepathic talent with generations of learned skills in the manipulation of mind-body energy. Vulcan healers would have much to learn from them."
"Did I just hear you admit Vulcans could learn something from another species, Spock?" McCoy was grinning. "My God, this day is just full of miracles!"
Umu approached them from the other side of the room. We must prepare Jim for the ceremony, he said. You must wait for us outside.
Logan nodded and squeezed Kirk's hand. "It's time."
"Kate..." He stopped, started again. "There's so much I want to say."
"I know." She bent down to kiss the corner of his mouth. "We'll have time. I'll see you on the other side, starman."
God, why couldn't I just say it? I love her. It shouldn't be so hard to tell her, Kirk thought.
Your body is distracting you, Umu answered as he puttered about preparing some kind of tea. Your need for healing outweighs all other considerations now.
Kirk had to admit the pain and weakness were demanding most of his attention. It was as if he had think about every breath.
Once you are healed, it will be easier, Umu said. Then your body will present other distractions! His infectious good humor invited Kirk to join in his laughter. Here, you must drink this.
Umu supported Kirk's shoulders so he could drink the bitter liquid. "That's, um, well, it must be an acquired taste," Kirk said, trying to be diplomatic. "What is it?"
Something to help you focus your energies. Umu began to remove Kirk's muddy clothes as a younger Haole male set a basin of steaming water and some towels next to him.
Kirk tried to sit up, thinking he should be able to do this himself, but Umu pushed him down again. Don't be rude. This is part of the process.
"Sorry. I don't do a lot of rituals."
That is unfortunate.
Kirk had never particularly thought so, but the Haole offered a lot that might make him change his thinking. Perhaps their form of mysticism, tempered as it was by humor, would be more accessible than the Vulcans' ascetic self-denial. He wanted to ask a million questions, but right now he didn't seem able to formulate a single one. A soothing heat was stealing into his arms and legs, a comforting blanket of contentment was settling onto his chest.
The tea, he thought, but it didn't seem to matter. It felt good to be so warm and cared for. He floated placidly while the Haole washed his body clean of the night's exertions. He was aware of every touch, every face, every thought shared, but he no longer felt the need to respond. The Haole removed the stabilizing splint from his leg and the dressings from his wounds. He understood that it was painful, but somehow the pain never fully reached him.
When the Haole had bathed him and laved him with some sort of light, sweet-smelling oil, they laid him in a sling strung between two long carrying poles and covered his naked body with a gauzy shroud. A'ma's face appeared above him, smiling reassurance. We are ready to begin. You must trust us now and turn your thoughts inward.
She didn't wait for an answer, but turned and motioned to others in the room. The Haole elders took up positions on each side of his sling and picked him up, cradling him as easily as a child, though they were nearly as small as children themselves and well past the age of physical strength. Then they carried him out into the dawn.
From deep within himself, Kirk looked out at a world made new by the approaching light of day. The sun was only minutes below the horizon, turning the blushing sky the color of apricots and streaking the wide, empty ocean with coral. At the water's edge, where the Children of Haole waited, tiny waves washed gently onto the sand, bringing the smell of fresh salt with them and the sound of peace.
Fantastic structures were strewn along the wide ocean strand, as if the retreating tide had cast gigantic treasures out of the sea onto the wet sand. Here was a fanciful crab squatting on sturdy legs, there the exuberant crash of a wave against a rocky shore, somewhere else the delicate shell of a departed sea creature. All were splashed and limned with the muted pinks and fragile corals, the creamy tans and surf-washed grays of tropical seashells.
At first Kirk thought the sea must have carved the outlandish shapes in the shore. But there were no seacliffs here to be fashioned into the frozen arch of a breaking wave or the hollow of a cove scooped out by pounding surf or the swirling spiral of a whirlpool. The Haole alone had created these sculptures to serve as their homes and the visible expression of their yearning for what they had lost. In the Haole minds that touched his he felt the grief for their lost world; he saw the irretrievable moment of its destruction and grieved with them.
The elders bore him across the sea strand toward the water. Kirk saw Spock and McCoy take the place of the bearers at each front corner of the sling. As their minds joined the community of concern that held him, he recognized Spock's familiar strength, McCoy's fierce protectiveness. Kate met them at the water and took his hand, and there was such love in the touch of her mind that he wanted to lose himself in it. He felt A'ma pull him back, directing him to focus on the task ahead.
His companions carried him into the sea until the cool water slid over his body and lapped at his chin. They removed the shroud and the sling and let him drift, buoyed by the caressing waves. He was aware of the touch of hands--his friends, the elders--and that the rest of the Children of Haole stood in the water around them. He even knew the precise moment the sun cleared the horizon and poured molten cobalt over the waiting sea.
But his consciousness was dropping, collapsing in on itself to shut out the external world. He closed his eyes and let himself fall inward toward the core of his being. Down he spiraled, through the many levels of his awareness, through the old hurts and the memories of triumph, through the self-doubt and the stubborn confidence, through the knowledge of himself that he held securely and those insights that still eluded his grasp. When he faltered, the others were there to strengthen him--Kate and Spock and A'ma, McCoy and Umu and dozens of others standing behind them. Together they sought the fire of his lifeforce, banked now beneath the ashes of injury and emotional exhaustion.
He pushed through doorways until he had no more doors to open. He shoved aside barriers until there were no more obstacles blocking his path. Then at last he brushed away the obscuring cinders and uncovered the glowing heart of his life, burning with tenacious will. There was warmth in the fire of his being, and light, but the shadows of pain and desperate injury were crowding in, waiting to rip away the warmth and smother the light forever.
Alone, he could not have held the darkness off. But he was not alone; the love of his friends and the power of the Children of Haole poured through him to fuel the fire of his renewal. The light of life expanded to fill him up, rushing the healing power to every broken bone and battered muscle, every damaged organ and ruptured blood vessel, every tendon and ligament, nerve and cell.
The energy coursed like baptising fire through his body and it was agonizing, terrifying, transcendent. It was like burning in the flame of God, like dying in the heart of a star. Enduring it took all of his courage and the last of his strength of will.
But when at last it was over, he was reborn. And the peace he felt was like the peace at the beginning of the world.
Over the floating city of La'kili a sadness had spread like a stain of oil on clear water. The sun of Haole refused to shine that day and the spires and domes of the city were draped in a cold, gray mist. There was no color in the air, no warmth in the water, no life in the streets. Even the children felt it; in every home their crying could be heard, giving voice to the silent tears of their elders.
In the Great Hall of Iliani the Council of Elders met with the Orion Norestyr Tyro. "What you seek is not ours to give," they told him again, combining their thoughts so he could hear them with his limited ability.
"I will take it whether you give it or not!" the Orion snarled. "The legend of the invisible sun is known all over this sector. We are told to look for iridium and topaline, the fuels that power the weapon, and Haole is rotten with them."
"Iridium may be found on many planets."
"Iridium, yes! But that element associated with topaline is a rare combination. I have search half of this sector for it and found it only on Haole. It is said that where this constellation is found there is a power that can move worlds. Is the symbol of that power not hanging there over your shrunken heads even now?" He gestured at the graceful radiating lines of the sculpture of A'aole that adorned the chamber.
"A'aole is the heart of our people," the elders explained. "All may share it, but none may possess it."
"I will possess it, if I have to kill all of your people to find it!" Norestyr shouted. He calmed himself, and spoke again in what pretended to be a reasonable tone. "My armada orbits your planet as we speak--weapons, troops, marauders, slaveships, all at my command. I will take everything of value from this planet
--your art, your treasure, your wealth of minerals, the harvest of your sea. I will sell your people into slavery and grind your cities to dust. When I am done your lovely planet will be scoured of anything useful and I will be rich enough to castrate these upstart Federation bastards who would tame the galaxy.
"But do not worry! I could be happy with only my usual tribute--a few slaves, some baubles from your treasure houses. Give me the weapon that will make me invincible, reveal the secret of the invisible sun, and I will spare your planet and your people."
The elders looked at each other in perfect bafflement. How could they make him understand? There was nothing on Haole that could make a man invincible except the secrets of his own heart. Yet it was clear he meant what he said. He would kill them all and devour their home for something they could not give him.
When they said nothing to him, the Orion swept up one of the fragile artworks that lined the chamber and hurled it against the wall. "Idiots! Is the answer so difficult to find?" He shook his head, making his cheek rings jingle. "I leave you to your counsels. Perhaps there is one among you that has heard me and can convince the others. I give you twelve cycles to consider." Then he stalked out.
"I do not understand." The youngest member of the council, Apua, looked to the others for explanation. "He seeks to use the power of A'aole as a weapon?"
"It is even more bizarre than that," I'ima answered. "He believes the invisible sun is a weapon."
"And he believes the ores we use in our filtration systems are fuel for the weapon!" someone said in disbelief.
The council members smiled, though their eyes remained hooded with worry. "I would laugh if I did not think he was capable of everything he threatened," Ulu remarked.
"Oh, he is certainly capable," I'ima assured him. "He has too many ships, too many men for us to control if he launches the attack. Our power would be too scattered to be effective."
"We cannot allow him to destroy Haole!" Apua cried. "All our people sold into slavery--and our beautiful planet despoiled?"
"If we were the only ones who would suffer because of this delusion, we would be forced by our beliefs to offer only enough resistance to save our lives," I'ima said.
"But there is more to consider," Ulu pointed out. "Iridium and topaline are not the only ores of value on Haole. Norestyr would use our resources to unleash his war against the Federation. The organization is young and may yet be too weak to effectively resist him."
"Billions of lives in this sector of the galaxy would be at risk," I'ima agreed.
"Then what are we to do?" Apua asked.
"We must prepare to leave Haole."
"Leave? What do you mean--all of us?"
"The children and their mothers and fathers. One or two of the elders from each community. Some who are treasures for all of our people, to keep Haole in our hearts. Some who will help our people survive on their journey."
"A journey to where?" Apua objected. "And how? We haven't enough ships for those who are chosen to go, and so many others will be left behind. Would we abandon Haole and its elders to Norestyr?"
"The final destination can only be known to those who make the journey," I'ima explained patiently. "We will use what ships we have. Norestyr's slavers will take the rest, though the Orions will quickly find they have lost control of their ships!" I'ima and several of the eldest laughed.
"And then what?"
"Then we will use the weapon Norestyr so covets to destroy this planet," I'ima said, "and swallow the Orion invaders whole."
With breaking hearts, the elders carried the word to their communities. When all was prepared, they gathered again in the Great Hall and spoke with Norestyr of Orion once more.
"We will give you what you want," I'ima told him. "You will see the power of the invisible sun."
"No tricks!" Norestyr warned. "If my ships detect any buildup of power I will burn your planet to ashes."
The elders looked at each other. The power they planned to use would not be revealed on any sensor scan. "No tricks, Your Excellency. We will open Haole to you," Ulu said. "We are already prepared with our required tribute. A portion of our population waits to board your slaveships."
Norestyr scowled. "You would line up to board the slaveships like a herd of boromyrs?"
"Have you not said that you would destroy us all if we resisted you?"
"So I have. You are wise to choose the easy path." The Orion smiled, avarice glinting in his eyes. "Now, the weapon."
"We beg for time to prepare A'aole for transport. It should beready by the time the slaveships depart."
Norestyr did not look happy, but he agreed to the delay. "In six cycles, then," he said, and turned to leave the hall.
In the cities of the Haole, the emigration began. The chosen lifted their few belongings, took their children's hands and beamed aboard the ships that would carry them to a new future.
The elders who had stayed behind waited to hear that the ships were safely on their way, under the control not of Orion slavers, but of Haole "slaves." Then, as they had promised, they showed Norestyr Tyro the awful power of the weapon at their command. They joined their minds and tapped the energy of A'aole, their invisible sun.
The power of their conjoined lifeforce speared the heart of the planet, split the very earth to open a gaping fissure through the crust to the molten core. The concentrated force of their souls destablized the core and tipped the delicate balance of dynamic energies irrevocably toward destruction. In seconds the planet was eating itself alive, disintegrating from within, roiling the seas and blackening the skies in its death throes.
The cities, bright with the color of seashells, collapsed like so many sand castles in the onrushing tide and sank beneath the raging seas of the dying planet. The planet's crust reached up to snatch the living things that grew upon it. And in the end, the old ones whose life energies had unleashed the death of the planet found their own deaths in Haole's agony.
The chosen watched the final moment from their ships at the outer boundaries of the solar system. They saw the beloved planet of their birth shudder and convulse and finally shatter in a blinding nova of unfettered energy. The blast engulfed Norestyr's flagship and his armada in fiery cataclysm. The superheated gases and the radiation wave expanded in a blossoming cloud to scortch the nearest planets and rock the escaping ships.
Then it was over. In the orbit path of the planet Haole
there was only dust and drifting debris. And safe behind their shields in the many ships
of their exodus, the Children of Haole wept, and remembered.
Kate Logan awoke suspended between sea and sky, between past and present. The tears of the Haole still echoed in her mind, still ran down her own cheeks. Yet above her the shell-like roof opened to reveal the stars drifting in the blue velvet night of a new world. Below her the living ocean of Tantua advanced and retreated in a ceaseless sigh of love, breathing salt spray upward into the echoing chamber. Here and now, life reasserted itself, and the memory of what was lost began to fade.
When they had come to this place to rest after the healing, it had been morning. The sunlight coming through the opening had fractured into multicolored rainbows on the mother-of-pearl surface of the Haole home. Now all was dark, leaving only the stars above and the waves below, and the two Humans curled together on the sleeping platform.
She reached out to touch him, half-afraid that he might have disappeared while she slept. She let her hand slide over his shoulders and chest, exploring the smooth skin for lingering evidence of his injuries. There was none, but she could hardly believe it, even now. In his mind, she had seen what Cestyr and Ostyr had done to him; she remembered every blow, every humiliation as vividly as he did. And though in the healing she had seen him remade, her hands sought their own confirmation.
"Kate?" His voice, low and close to her ear, set off a reaction that ignited at the base of her spine and radiated heat to her belly, her breasts, her thighs.
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep."
"How do you feel?"
He laughed softly. "I think I can honestly say I've never felt healthier in my life. Or happier."
She'd never heard him use that word--happy--before. She'd never actually seen him happy except on the bridge of the Enterprise. If the Haole had finally healed the restlessness that had always stalked him, truly there was no miracle they weren't capable of.
Logan felt the need for some healing of her own now. She had been alone for so long; she had spent so many days running in fear and desperation, so many nights longing for the simple comfort of a touch. Their minds, even their souls, had joined in the intimacy of the healing meld, but her body still yearned for a more primal connection.
She leaned into him, seeking his warmth against her naked skin. He gathered her in and pulled her close so she could feel the throb of his pleasure in the hollow of her hip. She lifted her lips to his, demanding a response. He answered with a kiss as deep as her desire. His mouth was juicy and sweet, his body hard against hers and suddenly all the need that she had held back for so long washed over the dam of her control and flooded into her. She wanted him so much she ached with it, she shook with it, she was swollen and slick with it.
She wanted no polite preliminaries, no breathless anticipation. She had already waited too long for him. He understood, or perhaps he just felt the same need. Without a word, he rolled her onto her back, pinned her hands to the bed with his own and plunged into her.
She cried out and tightened around him, countering his long, strong strokes with her own insistent thrusts until she lost the will to hold back anything of herself. Drowning waves of orgasm surged through her body, so powerful that the first tide of her desire had only just ebbed when the next one rolled in. He felt so good, sliding slowly now in and out of her, that she never wanted to stop, she couldn't stop, and she arched desperately under him again and again, helpless and sobbing his name.
After a time his movements quickened, and he found his own release, moaning as his climax drove him deep inside her. She rose to meet him, opened to welcome him completely, receiving the gift of his passion with hungry joy. His soft, delighted laughter caressed her ear. "Oh, God, I love you." His voice was full of awe and gratitude. "I love you. Say you love me, too, Kate. Say it."
"Yes, I love you, starman," she whispered, her heart overflowing. "I'll always love you." They lay there long afterward, his body molded to hers, rocking gently. They bathed in the starlight and rode the soothing rhythm of the ocean and murmured to each other of love and promise until at last her lips sought his to begin again.
"Where the hell are they? They can't have just disappeared!"
J.T. paced the bridge, feeling the panic tightening around her throat. "If they found her, Roxie, why haven't they come back?"
"We don't know how far they were from the village when they went under the shield," Roxanne said. "Maybe it was still a long way. Jim's not moving too fast, you know."
"Shit, Rox, don't you think I know that? That's what worries me."
"He seemed okay when they checked in. They had made contact with the Haole. Everything was fine."
"But that was more than twenty-four hours ago! What is going on?" She glared at the image of Tantua in the viewscreen. "You still can't break through that shield?"
If Roxanne had had the hardware to accomplish it, she might have sighed. "I have tried, J.T. Something about the shield scrambles the frequencies and I can't get a lock on them. We can't beam Jim up and we can't talk to him. We just have to wait."
"Well, I'm through waiting. Something must have gone wrong and I'm going to find out what. I'm going down."
"You can't do that. They need you here on board."
"You can handle yourself just fine."
"Yes, as long as I don't have to dodge the odd phaser shot from Ostyr Tyro's battle cruiser."
J.T. slumped in resignation and dropped into the pilot's seat. "Oh, I know, Roxie. This is just so...so..."
"Frustrating," Roxanne suggested.
"That's the word. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't go into Starfleet. I would've made a lousy starship captain. Waiting for the landing parties to report in would've made me crazy."
"Oh, I don't know," Roxanne replied. "Your father wasn't too good at delegating the action to his subordinates, either, and I hear he made a passable ship's captain."
J.T. allowed herself a smile. "Yeah, I guess he did. But that was in the wild old days--the original twelve Constitution-class starships, five-year exploratory missions, battling the Klingons and the Romulans at every turn. You have to go out of your way to find excitement like that these days."
"That has not been my experience," Roxanne said dryly.
"Well, just look at us." J.T. waved a hand at the bridge. "We've had more adventure in a month than a starship crew would see in a year of mapping star clusters and running diplomats to conferences."
"Uh, J.T., do you know the Terran proverb that goes 'Be careful what you wish for...'?"
"No, I don't think so..."
"Well, an Orion-design cruiser just dropped out of warp on the outer fringe of this system."
J.T.'s pulse was suddenly running off with her. "Ostyr."
"That's confirmed; it's the Conqueror. He's running an ID beam. Guess he wants us to know he's here."
"Shields up," J.T. said calmly. "Let's get those phasers online."
J.T. watched the status boards as the systems reported yellow, then green. "You take the weapons and give me manual control at the helm. That seemed to work pretty well with Cestyr."
"One hundred fifty thousand and closing at full impulse."
J.T. wiped her sweaty palms on her pants and tried to breathe normally. "Still no contact with the planet?"
"That'll work to our advantage now. If we can't find Jim and Kate, neither can he."
"It would be even better if we can make him think Jim's still onboard."
J.T. looked up sharply. "Why?"
"He's out for revenge. If he thinks Jim is commanding, he'll come after us first--and he'll try to disable and board us."
"So he can finish the torture he started," J.T. agreed. "All right--how do we do it?"
"We refuse visual communication. I can simulate Jim's voice pattern."
"Okay, it's worth a try. Is he within range?"
"He's hailing us now."
"Federation Merchant Ship!" The Orion's voice filled the bridge. "I am Ostyr Tyro, Worldlord of Xandor, sire of Cestyr hanTyro. I seek retribution. Prepare."
"Ostyr. This is James T. Kirk commanding Roxanne," J.T. said, as boldly as she could. She only hoped Roxanne's simulation carried the appropriate weight.
"Are you so wounded, son of a Terran bitch, that you refuse to show yourself? Or are you merely a coward?"
"Now why would I want to see your ugly face on my viewscreen, Ostyr?" J.T. retorted. "I just ate dinner. What is it you want?"
"What do I want? I want to see you die in excruciating pain--you and all those you love. I will name the price you will pay for the death of my heir."
"He's almost within weapons range, J.T." Roxanne said.
"Target phasers and stand by to fire on my command," J.T. told her and signalled for the frequency to be opened once more. "Your son brought on his own death, Ostyr. He attacked us. We were only defending ourselves."
"Then defend yourself again, Kirk! I mean to destroy you!"
"He's powering up weapons!"
"Fire!" J.T. shouted. The phasers discharged, splashing against the Orion's forward shields as J.T. pulled her helm hard over. Roxanne broke to starboard, just dodging the lethal stream of return fire from the Conqueror.
The Orion ship disappeared from the forward viewscreen, but J.T. could see it in the rear view, turning to bear down on them from behind. She slammed Roxanne into a dive to drop below the Conqueror's line of fire, and the Orion's phasers probed the black of space over their heads in vain for a hit.
J.T. cut power for a nanosecond and slid under the cruiser, coming up to fire at the Orion's aft shields. The Conqueror rolled away from their fire and hit them with aft phasers. Roxanne bucked with the concussion as the phasers pounded her forward shields.
J.T. scrambled to starboard to escape the draining fire, but couldn't entirely avoid the damage. Stabilizers screeched under the strain and control systems sputtered and popped all over the bridge as their circuits overloaded.
"Forward shields down forty percent," Roxanne said. "Port shields are weakening."
"Power!" J.T. shouted, desperately trying to wrestle the sluggish helm into another turn.
"Dropping!" Roxanne answered. "I've already lost twenty-five percent."
The Conqueror was huge in their rear viewscreen as the cruiser came around to target their engines. J.T. ordered z-minus thirty degrees as fast as Roxanne's overtaxed engines would take her, but it wasn't enough. Phasers sliced through the shields protecting the aft quarterdeck and buckled the primary hull.
"Another hit on that shield and we're dead!" Roxanne said. Fire alarms blared all over the ship and smoke billowed from every console on the bridge.
On the engine monitors, J.T. could see their power sliding toward critical levels. "We've got to get out of here! Give me someplace to go, Roxie!"
"Lunar orbit. Heading 124 mark 57."
J.T. swung Roxanne into the heading and watched Tantua's largest moon appear in the forward viewscreen. She punched in the numbers for the most complicated evasive maneuver she knew--if Sulu's Retreat didn't get them out of this nothing would.
Roxanne fired aft phasers, then port phasers, then aft phasers again as they sped for cover, but the Orion kept coming. "He's got some damage on those forward shields now, J.T.!"
"Hit him again! If we can break through somewhere, it'll at least slow him down."
"Can't do it! I've only got partial charge on aft phasers now."
"We'll have a shot from starboard in fifteen seconds. Lock on to his weakest shield and give him what we have left."
But they didn't have fifteen seconds. Phasers lanced out from the Conqueror and burned through their port shields. Roxanne lurched and skidded drunkenly to starboard, knocking J.T. to the deck. "Damn it, we've got a hull breach!" Roxanne yelled over the static of disintegrating control circuitry.
"Damage control!" J.T. ordered, dragging herself to her knees against the pull of the inertial controls.
"He's coming around to fire again!"
J.T. didn't bother to regain her seat. From her knees she reached for the console and punched in a tight 180-degree turn to bring the starboard phasers to bear. "Target his forward shields and fire!"
J.T. looked up to the starboard viewscreen, saw the Conqueror bearing down on them like the wrath of God, waited for the phasers to discharge until it had to be too late. Then, at last, the weapons fired. Blue plasma blazed over the Orion's forward shields, and they collapsed like coals consumed in the heart of a flame.
The cruiser was hurt, but she kept coming. "God, if we only had one more shot!" J.T. muttered, slapping at the monitor that showed the depleted phasers at zero charge.
"Not a chance!" Roxanne said. "We've barely got enough engine power to get our butts out of here."
J.T. nudged the reluctant ship back on course, using their faltering engine power to limp out of the Conqueror's path. She prayed they had damaged the Orion enough to slow him down.
"He's lost phaser power!" Roxanne crowed suddenly. "He's hailing us again."
J.T. tried to urge more speed from her engines. If they could only get on the other side of that damn moon, they could hold him off for a while. "What the hell does he want now?"
"Maybe he wants to surrender," Roxanne joked. "Putting him on speakers."
"Kirk! Your engines are failing. Your shields are nearly gone. In moments I will order my gunners to sever your nacelles from your primary hull and leave you helpless. Surrender, and I promise a quick death to your clan brothers, at least."
"Your promises are as hollow as your threats, Ostyr," J.T. shot back. "You'll have to kill me now--if you can." Come on, babies, come on! she urged her engines. The monitors indicated only three-quarters' impulse power, and the bridge shook with the strain. The sheltering bulk of the moon was still ninety long seconds away.
"You cannot hide, Kirk! I will have your head on the point of my dagger before this moon circles its planet."
"Still no power to his phasers," Roxanne said softly.
"You'll have to catch me first, you green bastard," J.T. taunted him. Sixty seconds to lunar orbit. Roxanne's engines howled.
"Catching you will be the easy part," Ostyr replied. "Your power reserves are nearly gone."
"He's got them back, J.T.!" Roxanne yelled. "He's powering up phasers!"
Forty seconds...thirty! J.T. punched in a sequence to take her around the dark curve of the moon to the far side and temporary safety.
"I've still got what I need," she told Ostyr, hoping to distract him a few seconds longer. Fifteen seconds--we're going to make it!
Then with a groan that rolled through the guts of the ship, Roxanne's engines exhausted the last of their power reserves. As J.T. watched in horror, the power indicators plummeted to zero. The helm refused to answer. Roxanne drifted helplessly--just short of the protective arms of lunar orbit.
Ostyr Tyro laughed. "Gunners!" J.T. heard him say. "Target engine nacelles!"
"Your Excellency! A message from the planet surface--the sheriff reports his men have located the transponder signal!"
Ostyr Tyro turned in his command seat to glare at the crewman manning the communications station. "What? Are you certain?"
The man swallowed nervously. "I have confirmed it, Lord. I can track the signal's movement just outside the area of sensor malfunction."
Ostyr looked at the ship in his viewscreen. Kirk was in his phaser lock. Or was he?
His Shipmaster drew near his elbow. "Why would Kirk leave the woman on Tantua, Your Excellency? He arrived many cycles ahead of us. Could he still be searching for her?"
"If he is, he would not be searching from a ship in orbit," Ostyr growled.
Ostyr slammed a meaty fist down on the arm of his seat, ignoring the pain it caused him. "The cursed ship! A trick to keep us from finding Kirk on the planet. Gunners! Re-program phasers. Target the main body of that ship--I will blow it out of space!"
"Lord," the Shipmaster said urgently. "The phasers will drain the last of our power reserves!"
"So be it! "
"But, Your Excellency! Logan and Kirk are on Tantua! We must have the transporters if we hope to capture them."
"Let the sheriff do his job and hold them for my pleasure."
"The sheriff has failed you before, Your Excellency. And there is also the weapon. The invisible sun waits on Tantua, Lord!"
Ostyr snatched the Shipmaster's neck and yanked his face closer. He wanted nothing more in that instant than to kill the voice of reason that kept him from his revenge. The man gazed steadily back at him. His courage--and the fact that he was right--saved his life. Ostyr released him with a snarl.
"We will deal with Kirk first, then. And once we have him we will find the weapon." He laughed suddenly. "We can test it on Logan's stinking ship! Communications! Do you still read the transponder signal?"
"Scan the area around it. How many lifesigns?"
The man at the comm station began to sweat. "I cannot be certain, Your Excellency. There is still some interference. There may be as many as five, but not all of them read Human."
Ostyr leapt out of his seat and crossed to the station. He struck the cowering crewman a glancing blow to the head. "Hyrsta-borne fool! Boost power!"
"I am trying, Lord," the man whimpered. "I cannot get a secure lock on the signal."
Ostyr bellowed in rabid frustration. "If we cannot bring Kirk here, then I will flay him where he stands! Let us see if the god-cursed soil of Tantua can soak up the ocean of blood I mean to spill!" He turned to his Shipmaster. "Assemble the Tellarite guard in the transporter room and inform this 'sheriff.' We beam down to the planet at once!"
"Logan to Roxanne. Come in, Roxanne." Logan shifted her feet in the coffee-colored soup of the marsh, trying to keep her balance in the slippery mud. Her heart thudded ponderously in her chest. Why weren't they answering? "Roxie, are you there? J.T.? Come in, Roxanne!"
Logan glanced up at Kirk and saw the same worried expression she knew she wore on her own face. "Nothing," she said. "Are you sure we're far enough outside the shield, A'ma?"
The old one nodded. Your equipment should function normally.
"Could they be out of range?"
"If they are, it's because we've run out of time," Kirk noted ominously.
"Ostyr!" Logan said. "My God, Jim, J.T. can't handle him alone!"
"She'll have to," he answered. "Even if she was in range, we couldn't ask her to lower shields to beam us up." He smiled reassuringly. "Besides, J.T.'s a better pilot than you may know."
"Well, what are we supposed to do now?" McCoy wanted to know. "Wait around here in this muck for J.T. to finish him off?"
"You have a better suggestion, Bones?"
"Well, yeah, I..."
No! We must leave here at once! A'ma said. Danger is at hand!
Logan surveyed the landscape, but the rustling reeds offered no clues. "What? Here?"
Our enemies seek us on foot, and they are nearly upon us. We must retreat behind the shield. A'ma was already moving, motioning to her companions to follow.
"Ostyr's troops must have beamed down to look for us," Kirk said as he turned to follow the old one.
"I'm reading multiple lifeforms at point four-two kilometers and closing rapidly," Spock confirmed.
"That's pretty good work with a transporter," McCoy grumbled, batting at a swarm of insects as he moved. "They're practically on top of us."
Kirk agreed. "Either their sensors are better than I'd have thought or they hit us by plain dumb luck."
"It is possible they anticipated an escape attempt on Kate's part," Spock suggested.
Oh, Jesus Christ! That damn chip! Logan stared at her arm as if it had just reached up on its own to smack her face. "An implant," she said finally. "I thought it was just part of Hadley's security setup--and all this time I've been leading them right to us!"
"Here. I can take care of that," McCoy offered.
"There's no time, Doctor," Spock said. "They are closing too fast."
"How many, Spock"?"
"Twelve. Readings indicate several Humans, several Tellarites, one Orion."
"Ostyr's private guard--and the big man himself," Kirk concluded.
"Probably backed up by the local sheriff and his boys," Logan added.
"A sheriff?" McCoy exclaimed. "This is a backwater planet!"
"He's a throwback, all right," Logan agreed. "And he's got a personal interest in putting my ass in custody."
"Darling!" Kirk frowned disapprovingly. "Have you been yanking the bad doggie's chain again?"
Logan smiled with bitter satisfaction. "Oh, yes. A very well-deserved yank."
Kirk grinned. "You'll have to tell me about it sometime."
They were moving quickly now, despite the obstacles in the water and the uncertain footing. Logan found her fear growing as they approached the shield. She knew the terrors of the mind no longer had the power to paralyze her. They had come through the shield with no more than a passing gloomy thought just a short time before. And yet her heart pounded, her lungs labored, her legs were reluctant to move in the swirling, muddy water.
This time the source of her fear was not a dream or an illusion or a monster of her imagination. This time the terror was real, and it threatened more than just her life. Because if Ostyr is here on Tantua, what has happened to J.T.?
Try again to contact your ship, Kate, A'ma said in answer.
We will be under the protection of A'aole soon. Lay your mind to rest before we reach the shield.
Logan retrieved the communicator from her pocket and flipped it open as they waded through a scummy pool of black water. "Logan to Roxanne. Come in, Roxanne."
A burst of static, then silence. Logan took a precious second to stand still and adjust the gain. Kirk dropped back with her and waved the others on ahead. "Roxie, are you there? Come in, Roxanne."
More static--then, very faint, a garbled word. Logan adjusted the settings once more and heard, "Kate, is that you? This is Roxanne."
"Roxie, thank God!" Logan grinned widely and clutched Kirk's willing arm. "Are you all in one piece? Is J.T. there?"
"I'm here, Kate." J.T. sounded like she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Logan wanted to do both. "God, I can't believe I'm really talking to you! Are you all right? Is Jim all right?
"We're both fine. What's your status?"
"Ostyr suddenly lost interest in us--guess he figured out Jim wasn't on board. We think he may have sent someone down to find you."
"Agreed. He's on our trail right now, but we have ways to handle him."
"The bad news is our power reserves are flat," Roxanne interjected. "We're just barely maintaining shields. And the Conqueror is still within phaser range."
"Keep your shields up," Logan commanded. "We'll be all right down here until you get back up to full power."
"Give us two hours," J.T. said. "Roxanne out."
Logan looked up to see Kirk wink at her. "Come on," he said, taking her hand. "We don't have time to enjoy the moment."
They started out as fast as they could make it. A'ma, Spock and McCoy were already out of sight. Suddenly Logan pulled up. "Jim!"
He looked back. "What is it?"
"If we go under that shield, Ostyr will lose my signal."
"I think that's the idea."
"Yeah, not a bad one for us, but what about Roxie and J.T.? What if he drops the search before Roxanne is back up to full power?"
"He'll pick up where he left off with them as soon as he figures he's lost us." Kirk thought for a brief second. "We'll have to keep him busy down here for a while."
"If we can get him under the shield, his own imagination will keep him busy enough," Logan said. "We just have to make sure he follows us in."
The communicator in Logan's hand beeped. She flipped it open again. "Logan here."
"Kate, my readings indicate Ostyr is nearly within earshot," Spock reported. "You must pass through the shield at once."
Kirk took the communicator from her and spoke quickly, "Spock, get back to the Haole village and see if you can mobilize some help. We're going to try and lure Ostyr under the shield."
"Jim, I would advise against it," Spock replied. "Ostyr's behavior under the influence of the shield will be unpredictable at best."
"We don't have a choice, Spock," Kirk said. "We'll try to stay out of sight until you get back. How far is it to the shield boundary from our location?"
"Approximately ninety-six meters due east."
"Acknowledged. We're on our way. Kirk out."
They picked up the pace, fighting for speed against the clinging vegetation and the grasping mud. Logan heard shouts in the distance--Ostyr's troops were nearly within sight. She staggered up on higher ground and broke into a run behind Kirk, dashing for the unseen edge of the Haole's barrier that she knew must be just ahead.
Kirk slowed to a trot and looked around for a landmark. "We came out through a deep pool. This looks like it."
Logan recognized the place where she had fought her own demons on her first trip through the shield. "Yes. He'll feel it here for sure. The only question is, how do we get Ostyr to follow us in without getting our heads shot off?"
"He won't shoot to kill," Kirk said. "He wants us alive."
"We'll be in just as much trouble if he stuns us from outside the shield."
Behind them the voices were growing louder. They were only seconds away.
Kirk stripped off his shirt and threw it back the way they had come. "Take your clothes off."
"Now is hardly the time, darling," Logan laughed, but she'd caught his meaning. She tugged off the belt that cinched in her loose Haole shirt and draped it around a low-growing shrub a few steps deeper into the swamp.
Almost out of time, they moved hurriedly on, leaving a tattered trail of torn clothing for their eager enemies to follow. When they had gone far enough to be certain Ostyr and his troops would feel the full effect of the chi shield, they found a hiding place behind a concealing curtain of heavy sawgrass. Then they waited.
They heard the sound of blows and several Humans staggered into the extreme edge of their field of vision. "By my gods and ancestors, you will do as you are told!" Ostyr shouted and cuffed one of the Humans on the back of the head. "Terry, what have you brought me? A pack of whining, cowardly dogs?"
The sheriff emerged from the reeds behind Ostyr, his face as white as milk. "I-I told you, Your Excellency! This place is evil! You're lucky I could even convince this many guys to come with us."
Ostyr whirled on the Human and slapped him into stunned silence. "Lucky?! When I speak to my servants, I expect my orders to be carried out without question!"
"But don't you feel it, Your Excellency?" The sheriff didn't seem able to stop talking, despite Ostyr's looming threat. "It's getting stronger the further we go!" His eyes darted from side to side, as if he feared death could reach out to them at any time.
The Tellarites that had been bringing up the rear of the column filed into the shallows at the far end of the pool and stood there uncertainly. Several had their phasers unholstered, ready to fire at anything that moved.
Suddenly one of the Humans began to scream, raising his arms to protect his head from some invisible threat. "Oh, my God, my God!" he shrieked, setting off a panic among Humans and Tellarites alike. "Can't you see it? It's huge! It's..."
Whatever else he said was lost in the terror that choked him. He turned and tried to run, stumbled and fell against his companions. They reached out to steady him, then all started to run.
Ostyr growled and pulled out his own phaser. He took aim at three of those who were running and blasted them into nothingness with a single stream of blue fire. "Stand!" he commanded. Two more Humans bolted and were cut down by fire from his sturdiest Tellarite guards. Only Sheriff Chip Terry remained to represent his species and his planet in the ranks of Ostyr Tyro's loyal troops.
And he was holding on to his position by his emotional fingernails. "We must retreat, Lord! There is danger here! I can feel it--I can feel them!"
"Them?" Ostyr roared. "There is nothing here but mud and a skinful of fucking insects--may they carry you to Hell! Kirk and Logan cannot have gone far. I will not abandon the search because you are pissing yourself with cowardice!"
"But, Lord, we have lost the transponder signal." The Tellarite was trying desperately to speak without trembling. "Perhaps we have gone the wrong way."
"Impossible! You saw the clothing!"
"Then they're dead," Terry wailed. "They have to be! Nothing can live in this fucking place. There's nothing but dead people here!" He stared into the thick air, eyes wide with horror, and pointed. "There! Don't you see them? Oh, God! They're all dead--all of them!! Jesus, there must be hundreds of dead people!"
Terry turned to Ostyr and touched the Orion's arm, eyes pleading for help. Ostyr shrugged out of the Human's grip and spat in disgust. "Are you all insane on this cursed planet?"
Moaning incoherently, Terry reached out to Ostyr again. The Orion lost patience. "Shut up!" he shouted and grabbed the man's head between two massive hands. He twisted, and the sheriff's tortured babbling ended abruptly. Ostyr dropped the broken body in the black water. "Insane!" he barked. "And useless! Tarv!"
"Lord!" The Tellarite stood to attention smartly, but his tiny black eyes threatened to roll back in their sockets.
"Spread out and search this area. They are here; I can feel it!"
Logan's heart jumped into her throat and threatened to choke off her breath. She looked at the phaser in her hand, realizing it would be of little help in the open terrain. She might kill one or two of the guards, Kirk might get another couple, but that left at least two others unimpeded. Given the celebrated loyalty of Tellarite troops, shooting Ostyr first didn't guarantee that she'd get out of this alive.
As the guards spread out, she felt Kirk squeeze her shoulder. He used hand gestures to indicate he was going after the guards one by one and that she should keep low. She nodded and watched him go, not intending to stay put at all. She drew out her garrotte--she was downright superstitious about the weapon now--and slipped around the nearest stand of reeds.
Logan spotted a guard, younger and somewhat smaller than the rest, standing hesistantly at the edge of the deep water just ahead. He was turned sideways to her, searching the grasses for any sign of movement. There was a splash up ahead and to his right--Jim?--and he pivoted in her direction looking for the source of the sound. She ducked under the water, refusing to think what might be in there with her.
After a second, she cautiously lifted her head just enough to be able to see him. He'd turned the other way again and was stepping slowly in that direction. Then he froze--one of his companions was screaming in burbling terror, the sound of his squealing receding as he ran. The young guard started to run after him, but Logan caught him first, wrapping the thin cord of the garrotte around his fat neck, gripping it fiercely as he writhed against the throttling pressure.
He fell face-first into the water, dragging her down with him. Her chin bounced off the back of his broad furry head and blood spurted from her lower lip, but she held on, tightening the noose around his neck and jamming a knee into his shoulders to keep him under water. He thrashed and rolled, but gradually his movements weakened and his muscles finally went slack. She released him and slipped the garrotte off his throat.
Off to her left there was a shout, splashing, phaser fire. How many phasers? Oh, God, Jim! She didn't think, she just put her feet under her and moved, scrambling over the ridges and overgrown hummocks in the direction of the sound. She ran, until a huge, green mass reared up in front of her, a fist smashed into her temple and she careened sideways to her knees.
Ostyr Tyro laughed as he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up to face him. "Tarv! Look at the fish I've caught here in this stinking slimehole!" He leaned closer until she could smell his breath and trace the line of every scar in his face. "Where is Kirk, you fucking hyrsta? Tell me where he is or I'll rip your eyes out!"
She spat in his face, clapped both her hands over the fist that gripped her hair and pivoted, driving her arm into the back of his elbow until he was forced to let go of her or lose the joint. Then she grabbed the back of his neck and brought her knee into his face. He staggered backwards, his nose streaming green blood. She reached for her phaser, but he recovered before she could take aim and he tackled her, slamming her to the ground beneath his bulk and knocking her nearly senseless with a backhanded swipe at her face.
Black unconsciousness hovered at the edges of a shrinking circle of awareness. Her eyes refused to focus. She could feel herself sinking into the yielding mud under Ostyr's unrelenting weight, and she struggled to keep her mouth and nose out of the water. He moved and she flinched, trying to avoid the blow she knew must be coming. But the blow never came. Ostyr was listening, eyes riveted on the shuddering reeds at the edge of the pool.
"Tarv, you pig-nosed idiot! Come here and secure this spitting whore!"
No one answered. No one appeared from out of the reeds.
"Tarv! Is that you?" Then Ostyr grinned as if he'd had a sudden inspiration. He got to his feet and hauled Logan up after him, clamping his arm around her throat in a chokehold that precluded any resistance. "Kirk! If that is you stumbling about in the mud, then you can see who I hold in my warm embrace! Perhaps you would like to watch what I am about to do to her--or would you prefer to try and shoot me?!" He laughed and swung Logan from side to side. "Be careful! Be certain your aim is steady!"
He waited and watched, slowly crushing Logan's throat with one fleshy arm. Despite her best efforts, she was losing her battle for breath. She almost wished Kirk would take a shot at Ostyr no matter what the consequences.
"Very well, then! We will begin with the ritual piercing--perhaps that will bring you out to enjoy the show!" Ostyr put away his phaser and pulled out his dirk. Logan dug an elbow into his ribs, but they were more than adequately padded. He laughed again and threw her to the ground. He straddled her, pinning each of her arms with a wide, impossibly heavy foot.
Logan thought she heard a sodden crashing in the reeds, and she saw Ostyr look up with a triumphant smile. No, Jim! He'll kill us both!
But the Orion's grin dropped off his face like a branch severed from a dying tree. He stared uncomprehending into the distance. Logan heard him gasp, and he took a step backwards, freeing one of her arms. She couldn't feel it, but she didn't think it was broken.
"Cestyr hanTyro," Ostyr breathed, his voice hushed with something like fear. "How can it be?"
Logan squirmed under him, trying to see what he was looking at. He staggered again, and she rolled away from him, scrabbling in the glutinous pond bottom to get as far from him as she could. The Orion didn't come after her--he was transfixed by whatever he saw rising out of the swamp, and his eyes were full of disbelief.
"My son! How is it you are here? You--they told me you were dead! I saw your signet!"
Cestyr here? Logan couldn't believe it any more than Ostyr could. Jim said he'd killed him! She didn't have the strength to get to her feet; she swung her body around so she could see what Ostyr saw.
And saw nothing. The reeds waved gently in the humid breeze; the sun covered everything with a cloying plaster of heat. But there was nothing in the water or the grass or the river of mud except the terrors conjured by Ostyr's mind.
He fought them even now, murder in his eyes. "You betrayed me, Cestyr hanTyro! You found the weapon of our ancestors and planned to keep it for yourself!!" He jerked the phaser off of his hip and pointed it at the air. "Ungrateful pig of a hyrsta's litter! Where is the invisible sun? Give me the weapon, and I will kill you quickly!"
He raised the phaser and fired, stumbling backwards as he squeezed the trigger again and again. "You cannot run from me, you devil-spawn. I will gut you and take what is mine!!" He fired wildly now, eyes wide with madness, searing the reeds and burning the grasses to smoke. He fell to one side, then turned and fired in the opposite direction, screaming curses at his unseen son.
Logan crawled, desperate to get out of the line of his fire before he killed her in his blind rage, but her arms felt bloated and weak; her legs pushed unproductively against the gelatinous muck; there was nowhere to hide.
She saw him turn towards her, the fire of death in his eyes. He raised his phaser. She tried to move, but she couldn't get out of his sight. She hugged the ground and closed her eyes. She heard the phaser whine...
...She breathed. Her heart hammered crazily against her ribs. The blood crashed in her ears. She lived. Jesus God! she thought. He missed!
There was a loud splashing behind her. "Kate?"
"Jim!" she whispered, unable to gather enough strength to shout. It didn't matter, he was beside her now, lifting her out of the water and into his arms. He was holding her, cradling her head against his chest, rocking her as he sat cross-legged in the mud.
She let him hold her like that for a long time, let a rain of unembarrassed tears wash the grime from her face and flush the venom of terror from her body. She let him comfort her until she finally stopped shaking and she could find enough breath to speak. Then she let herself ask for the one thing she'd thought she'd never need.
"I'm tired of running, Jim. I want to stop. Let's just pick a planet or a moon or the bridge of a ship and call it home and stay there for the rest of our lives. Take me home, Jim," she said. "Please. I just want to go home."
On the beaches of Tantua, the houses of the Haole rose in layered fragments, floor laid upon foundation, wall upon floor. The chosen were building anew now on a world lightyears away from home, a world so unlike lost Haole that only the sea and the ores used to filter it seemed familiar.
Apua stood in the foaming surf and hardly knew whether to smile with pride or cry with pain. It had been so long since he had allowed himself either emotion. Refusing to recognize his feelings was not healthy, he knew, and it had kept him from the growth that should have been his due as an elder of the community. But he could not help himself. All the years since he had watched his home disappear in the consuming power of the invisible sun, all the years of wandering and struggling and longing. He had suffered so much he could not admit it even to himself without falling apart.
And yet they had found this place, this haven. Not Haole, but beautiful in its own way. His people were prepared to call it home. Could it be that the ages of lonely exile were over?
Apua heard a silvery trill of laughter in his mind, and he turned with the smile of pride and the tears of pain both on his face. His great-granddaughter splashed in the surf, following the wavelets in and out, chasing the tiny birds that searched the sea strand for food. She was his favorite, though he was perfectly aware he wasn't supposed to have one among the many offspring of his prolific family. Her parents and grandparents, like most of the others of the village, were working on their homes at this time of day. He and the other oldest ones had the youngest in their charge. That was as it should be, for the oldest had much to teach, and the youngest much to learn.
He called to her now, and she came running to him, an eager light in her dark eyes. Today, he decided, he would tell her the story of lost Haole. He would share with her the secret of the invisible sun so she could keep it forever safe in her heart.
With a turn of his head, Jim's perspective shifted. He found himself back in his own skin, watching the ancient one and the tiny child. Beside him, A'ma smiled her dolphin-Buddha smile and kicked a little of the sea-foam in his direction. "Can you guess who is the little one?"
Her laughter echoed down the beach where the little Haole played. "Of course! And can you guess why I have let you see me and my home with Father Apua's eyes?"
He thought about Kate's tear-stained face, her open heart. He thought about J.T., her arms around them both in reconciliation and love. He thought about all the years he had lost, and all the years he still had to live. Joy and regret and hope--Father Apua's legacy.
"Father Apua was witness to the death of
planets," A'ma said. "He carried the weight of his people through all the years
of suffering and disappointment. He hid his fear and his need for their sake. And yet the
fire of life burned in his heart. The power of A'aole nurtured him and kept him warm. In
time, all things grow in the light of that invisible sun. Goodbye, Jim."
"Goodbye, A'ma," he said and found himself awake in the dim light of shipboard night. The smell of Tantua's green ocean still lingered in his nostrils, the bright laughter of a child still sounded in his ears, but there was no confusion in his mind. A'ma's message had reached him clearly, though the old one herself was safe with her family and friends two parsecs and more behind him.
His own family and friends slept without fear in the sister/ship Roxanne--Spock, McCoy and J.T. in the crew quarters, Kate happily entangled with him in the captain's cabin. They rode the warp of limitless space on course for Delta Aurigae IV with no one in pursuit and nothing worse than the strain of watching Dartha Allen contort herself into an apology ahead of them.
They had some loose ends to tie up on Delta Aurigae IV. Kate had offered to sort out the real estate claims and mineral rights on behalf of the T'var Valley farmers. J.T.--with his encouragement--was applying to Starfleet Academy. A cadet her age wasn't the norm, but it wasn't unprecedented, either, and as long as she was determined to do it, Kirk was determined to see that the bureaucracy responded appropriately.
Delta Aurigae IV was just a stopover for Spock and McCoy, of course. His two friends had already disrupted the routine of their lives long enough for him. The doctor had plans to badger his friends in high medical research places into funding a study of Haole healing methods. And Ambassador Spock had diplomatic obligations that he mysteriously refused to elaborate upon.
As for Jim Kirk, there were a few obligations he intended to meet before he dedicated himself exclusively to his duties as lover, shipmate and lifelong partner of one Kathryn D. Logan. Weeks before, in some other life, he had agreed to attend a hopelessly dull ceremony organized by Starfleet's overpaid public relations staff. The christening of the newest ship of the line to bear the name Enterprise would be his last official duty for flag and Federation. After it was over, he intended to set a course for a star so distant even Starfleet couldn't find him.
In the comfort of the night, Kate stirred and drew his arms tighter around her. "Are you really here, or am I still dreaming?" she murmured, contentment in her voice.
He smiled and kissed the warm, soft hollow of her shoulder. "If this is a dream," he answered, "I never want to wake up."
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