ALTERNATE UNIVERSE 4
ANNA MARY HALL
...to all those who gave us moral support and kept us from sinking under the weight of writing and (shudder) publishing.
There are also a few people who deserve special mention for adding their own sweat to the writing itself. The criticism by Bill and Susan Denham, and by Sharon Emily was all invaluable. And all of our readers are in debt to Alison Walker, who patiently accompanied us on each of the thousand and twelve trips to the print shop and helped us carry a good many pounds of paper. And, of course, credit is due to Cathy Minks, who helped create Light Fleet in the first place.
But our special thanks goes to Philip Maiewski, who put up with the myriad phone calls, the days of typing, the incessant debate, the paper-strewn house and the all-night conferences with great good humor and patience, and who kept our cars running during the rush, panic, expense and general hysteria of the last two weeks of publication.
ｩ 1974 All rights reserved to the authors. ALTERNATE UNIVERSE 4 is a fan-produced amateur publication and this copyright is in no way intended to infringe on the rights of Paramount, Gene Roddenberry, Norway Productions, or any other holders of Star Trek copyrights.
On the Bridge on the Ship and in Space
The nucleus of the humming Bridge
Officers deep in concentration
Around the Perfect Circle
Reports placed in his hand Signing
JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK
JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK JTK
In the pageantry of the passing Galaxy
For a few precious minutes
Not noticing his friends' quiet nods and signals
That preserve the quiet for him
Just a few
Precious minutes more.
What lies beyond where he goes
In Space and in Time
As he tries to describe his dreams.
Loving and hating being the
Struggle Joy Pain
Fighting despair as his ship demands
Pledging his death to save his crew
Again and Again and Again
SOMETHING crushing his chance for love
Wrong place or wrong time or the Enterprise
Learning to face being alone and
Feeling the loyalty, the love
The respect of his crewmen
And watching them die.
Struggling through a haze of pain
On his shattered Bridge
Save the ship. Save the ship
Pushing past exhaustion
On the Bridge on the Ship and in Space.
To this man
We dedicate the following pages
In salute to what he is
And to what he could be.
DEDICATION by Virginia Tilley
Chapter I 覧 NO TOMORROW by Shirley Maiewski
Chapter II 覧 TOMORROW by Anna Mary Hall
Chapter III 覧 THE MERCHANT by Anna Mary Hall
Chapter IV 覧 RECRUITMENT by Virginia Tilley
Chapter V 覧 THE AGENT by Virginia Tilley
Chapter VI 覧 COMMITMENT by Virginia Tilley
Chapter VII 覧 LOOK AT YESTERDAY by Virginia Tilley
Alternate Universe 4? It could be. It could also be our own universe; the creators of "Alternate Universe 4" leave that to you.
We count our familiar Star Trek Universe 覧 Television's Star Trek 覧 as number one; The "Mirror, Mirror" Universe as number two; the KRAITH Universe as number three; and Light Fleet's Universe as number four. Alternate Universe 4.
"Alternate Universe 4" was created to honor a man often overlooked or treated as a minor character in much of the world of Star Trek fandom writing: Captain James T. Kirk. You will find the other Star Trek characters; they have their place in "Alternate Universe 4." You will discover the world of Light Fleet. We invite your comments and criticism.
Shev aer lo!
Anna Mary Hall
The Court-martial was only a formality. It didn't take long. Sam Cogley tried, tried valiantly, but to no avail. Spock, McCoy, the entire bridge crew volunteered to appear as witnesses for the defense, a petition signed by eighty percent of the crew was offered in evidence, but all the witnesses and the petition did was reflect the loyalty owed to an old friend.
The charge was culpable negligence.
Captain James T. Kirk was found "Guilty as Charged."
He was through. Finished.
James Kirk had made the first and only mistake of his career. It proved sufficient.
He had misjudged the power of an alien, a "doomsday machine" type intruder, which had entered Federation space. An excruciating headache, caused by exposure to a faulty phaser connection, had distracted his attention when a crucial course change was made. The alien, apparently slowly following the retreating Enterprise, suddenly flashed into violent action and destroyed the Stanless Star System, including three heavily populated planets. James Kirk ordered the Enterprise after the alien and did, in fact, destroy it. Too late. The damage was done. The Stanless System was dead.
Kirk offered no excuse, no one ever knew what had distracted him; he told no one. The charge was based on the fact that he had ordered a course, which led the alien to Stanless. He did not deny it. He was completely convinced of his own guilt. This belief helped convict him.
Now it was over. If not for his past outstanding performance, if his lawyer, against Kirk's wish, hadn't thrown his client on the mercy of the court if pressure hadn't been brought by Ambassador Sarek, and finally from T'Pau herself, it would have been highly possible that James T. Kirk could have been sent to a penal colony for life. As it was, he was stripped of his honors, heavily fined 覧 a most unusual occurrence in a military trial but called for by the few survivors of the star system. These survivors, mainly diplomats who had been off-planet at the time of the disaster, had demanded Kirk's immediate execution. They were only barely placated by the fine, which was turned over to them in token payment for their losses. Finally, if not in fact, at least in the Federation press, Kirk was "drummed from the service" and forbidden to ever again set foot on a Star Fleet installation.
He was left with practically nothing. The fine exceeded all his resources. He might still have been imprisoned, except that Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock managed to come up with the rest, which put him heavily in debt to them. He tried to refuse their help, but they paid it without his knowledge and then it was too late for him to object.
James Kirk was given three days to leave the Star Base after the trial, and the last night, while packing the few things he would take with him, the door buzzer sounded. At first he didn't acknowledge it, hoping whoever it was would go away, but the buzzer persisted and he finally opened the door.
Spock and McCoy stood there. Kirk stepped back into the dimly lit room and started to close the door.
"Jim, let us in, please!" McCoy begged.
"Go away, leave me alone," and again Kirk moved to close the door.
"No! Jim, we're coming in, whether you like it or not." McCoy pushed his way past Kirk into the room, followed quickly by Spock, who closed the door and stood, arms folded, in front of it.
"Well, you're in, what do you want?" Kirk asked, trying not to care. He turned back to his packing, not looking at them.
"Jim. Jim! Turn around and talk to us, we want to help you..." McCoy's voice threatened to break. He moved to the side of the dresser that Kirk was taking his clothes from, trying to see his face, but again Kirk turned away, carrying some things to the case on the bed.
"Spock, you talk to him," McCoy said desperately. "He's got to listen to us."
"Captain..." Spock began.
Kirk whirled savagely toward him, his eyes blazing.
"Don't you ever call me that again, Vulcan!" he grated, his voice threatening.
"No, I will not, Jim, but at least I made you listen. Doctor McCoy and I have come to endeavor to assist you; you could at least extend us the courtesy of listening to what we have to say."
"I'm not interested in what you have to say, and I don't want your help. It's enough that I'm in debt to you two for 15,000 credits 覧 don't do me any more favors, I can't afford it!"
McCoy tried again. "Jim, listen to me."
Kirk didn't answer him, just went back to folding and packing some things into the case on the bed.
"You must let us help you," McCoy continued. "We know you have nowhere to go and no money. We can't just let you go off like this."
"Yes you can, you must. Don't you think I have enough on my conscience without being more in debt to you two? You know what I am, you know even being seen with me after today will put you and your careers in jeopardy! Please, Bones, Spock 覧 if you have 覧 if you can possibly have 覧 any feeling for me left, go away! Stay away!"
McCoy had finally had a good direct look at James Kirk's face.
"Oh, God. Jim, what are you doing to yourself?"
Kirk's face was haggard and drawn, he had large, dark circles under his eyes, he hadn't shaven since the court-martial and probably hadn't slept or eaten either. Gone was the young, dapper, always correct Star Fleet captain. The tormented man who stood before them was only a poor imitation of the friend they had known. McCoy's mind flashed back to another tormented face: that of Commodore Decker of the Constellation. James Kirk's eyes were as haunted as Decker's had been.
"Done? Nothing I don't deserve, many times over. I shouldn't be here, Bones, they should have locked me away where I couldn't hurt anyone else..."
"Jim, stop it!" Spock snapped.
Kirk winced as though he'd been slapped, and he turned to gaze at the tall Vulcan, who moved now from his place at the door and stepped toward him.
"Why, Spock? It's true. You know it and yet you interfered. Why didn't you let it alone? You had no right to bring in your father and T'Pau. For all I know, even they will suffer from this 覧 something else on my conscience. Damn you, Spock! I should be dead!" Kirk turned and moved to the window. He stood there, looking down at the ground, far below.
Spock moved after him and, reaching out, gently put his hand on Kirk's shoulder. "Jim," he said, very quietly, "look at me."
Kirk turned slowly and looked up into the face of his old friend. Tears were streaming from Kirk's eyes. Spock's grip on his shoulder tightened; he had never seen James Kirk cry. There had been times when he thought he might 覧 when Edith Keeler had been killed, when Kirk's Indian wife had died and with her the unborn child Kirk never had 覧 but those times Kirk had hidden his grief behind a stony exterior and a crushing load of work.
Now, at last, Spock knew to what depths of despair his friend had descended. He didn't say anything at first, just stood gripping Kirk's shoulder, tighter and tighter. Human emotions had once been a mystery to him; he had grown to know what joy, happiness, was. He had felt love, anger, even hate in himself, but this 覧 this utter loss of hope and black despair, shocked him to his very core.
Finally he said, "Jim, you must get a hold on yourself, you must! You have to go on, make a life for yourself; you can not let one mistake..."
Kirk wrenched himself from Spock's grasp and fell back against the window ledge. A wild look of absolute horror grew in his eyes 覧 he was trembling visibly 覧 his clenched fists came up 覧 for a moment it seemed he would attack Spock. Then the words tumbled out 覧 carrying with them all his feelings of guilt and remorse and self-loathing: "One mistake? My God, Spock! Wasn't that enough? All those lives! All those people 覧 dead: Because of me! How can I live with that?" He whirled around to the window, flung it open and started over the sill.
"Stop him, Spock!" McCoy shouted. "Stop him!"
McCoy's shout of warning would have been too late; Spock had already moved, thrown his arms around Kirk's body, pulled him back away from the opened window. Kirk struggled and fought against Spock's hold, completely distraught, all control gone. Great wrenching sobs shook his body; there was nothing of the trained fighter in his actions, just a frantic compulsion to get back to the window.
"Let me go! It's the only way," he cried desperately.
Spock released one hand and placing it on Kirk's shoulder, pressed the right spot and Kirk slumped, unconscious, a dead weight in Spock's arms. McCoy moved quickly to Spock's side and between them they put Kirk on the bed. The two Star Fleet officers then stood back and looked at each other.
"What are we going to do?" McCoy asked. "He'll just try again when we leave him. Can you do something? You've helped him before with the mind-meld."
"I can try, Doctor. I cannot erase his memories, his guilt, but perhaps..." Spock hesitated, deep in thought. Then he moved to the bed, knelt down beside it. He put his long fingers gently over Kirk's forehead, closed his eyes and concentrated. McCoy stood silently by, hardly daring to breathe. He had seen his miracle work before; maybe 覧
For a very long time all was still. Then Spock began to murmur, words McCoy couldn't catch, didn't try; this was too personal a thing between Spock and Kirk. Then one or two words came through. "Not... your fault... try... forget... Jim! Try! ...must live!" Spock took his hands from Kirk's head and rose to his feet. He was sweating and his face was almost as haggard as Kirk's. He glanced at McCoy, a look of anguish on his face.
"What is it, Spock?" McCoy asked anxiously.
"His mind, Bones, his mind. He is in agony. It is no wonder he tried to kill himself."
Spock's use of Kirk's nickname for him was enough to prove to McCoy how shaken the Vulcan was. Again McCoy was reminded of how very close these two men had been and his gentle heart bled for both of them.
"Were you able to help him?" he asked quietly.
"I do not know. I tried. We will see when he wakes up."
Spock stood back against the wall near the bed and McCoy, for something to do, moved to the dresser and took out some more of Kirk's clothes and began putting them in the case. There wasn't much. All of Kirk's uniforms had been confiscated; there were only a few shirts he had had for shore leave, a sweater... McCoy remembered with a pang how Jim had proudly shown it to him; his mother had made it and sent it for his birthday one time. It had followed the Enterprise over half the galaxy before it caught up with them, four months after the special occasion it was to celebrate. Kirk's mother had died shortly after that 覧 now he was truly alone.
There wasn't much more, Kirk had been almost finished when they had arrived. McCoy put the last things into the case and
stood back, looking down at it.
Small as it was, the case wasn't full.
"Look, Spock, that's all he has. Eighteen years in Star Fleet and all he has left is a half-filled case of old clothes! Oh, damn it, Spock!" McCoy's eyes filled and he swung away from Spock.
"Bones... don't... please don't."
It was Kirk, he was awake, lying there watching him.
"Jim, it isn't fair."
"Bones, it is fair, you know it; I know it. Star Fleet owes me nothing."
Kirk was quiet now. Whatever Spock had implanted in his mind was working, helping. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
He looked up at Spock a wan smile crossed his lips. It didn't reach his eyes. "Thank you, Spock, you've saved me again, from myself this time. Don't worry. I won't try that again. I promise you that."
Spock nodded, but didn't speak. There was nothing left to say between them.
"Jim, where will you go?" McCoy asked desperately. "What will you do?"
"I'll be all right, Bones. I'll find something." He tried a feeble joke. "I'm still a pretty good space ship driver, you know." It wasn't much, but McCoy could see his mood had changed. "Sam Cogley gave me the name of a freightline owner who owes him a favor. He is sure I can get a job with them. Don't worry, my friend, I won't starve." Again Kirk tried to smile, but it didn't work out very well.
He stood up then and, putting his hands on McCoy's shoulders, gripped them tightly. McCoy responded, his hands on Kirk's arms, almost an embrace, as close as these two men could come. McCoy blinked, his eyes filled. Then he asked, "Do you need any money?"
"No, Sam advanced me enough to get to Antares Three, where his friend's business is located. I'll be all right."
Kirk's voice suddenly strengthened, became sharp, intense. "Bones, take care of yourself! I'll never forget you. Spock? Both of you 覧 do one more thing for me 覧 take care of each other. That is all I can ask of you, all I have the right to ask. Now, will you get the hell out of here?" and he pushed McCoy toward the door.
Spock stopped just outside the door, turned, looked squarely into Kirk's eyes, held them, then, raising his hand in the Vulcan salute, he said, "Peace and long life, James Kirk."
Kirk raised his hand slightly. "Live long and prosper, Spook," then, stepping back, he closed the door.
The freighter Amsterdam left the planet, worked its way slowly through the asteroid belt, and shifted from impulse to warp drive once it was in clear space.
The now unfamiliar sound and feel of warp drive engines brought James Kirk upright in his bunk. For an instant he was once more captain of the Enterprise, but even before the lights came on and he could see the cabin, he remembered. He surveyed the small cabin that was temporarily his. It was drab, but clean and tidy. If he stayed long enough he would do something about the drabness. He checked the chronometer set into one wall. It was 3 hours 29 minutes until he was due at his post. He did not lie back down. He was rested enough to know what would happen if he went back to sleep. This change was enough to bring the nightmares back for weeks.
On this new ship his usual refuge of work was not yet open to him. When he had proved he was competent it would be, but now it would be useless to volunteer for extra duty. He was not ready to face his new shipmates, so he must stay in his cabin, which left nothing to do but think.
He would not consider the future. It would come and he had ceased to attempt to change its course. Or had he? Wasn't this new job a conscious choice?
Realizing it was something that should be done, that would
have to be done sooner or later, for the first time, Thomas Baroner sought to assess his new life. He forced his mind to slide back in time, back to when he had been James Kirk. He went no further than the night he had died, for in reality that was what had happened. His entire life had been taken from him, and they had only omitted the final stroke that would have killed his body. (For months he had cursed them for that omission.)
He thought of McCoy with affection, and of Spock with affection tinged with awe. What that man had done for him! No one else could have done it, and he had often wondered what it had cost the Vulcan. He no longer worried about it. It had been a gift of love freely given and he had learned to accept it the same way.
It had been months before he had consciously realized what Spock had done. First, and most simply, Spock had made it impossible for him to take his own life. That inhibition had weakened with time and worn away, but by the time it was gone he had no longer felt the burning need to die. Death would come, and he might welcome it, but he would not actively seek it.
That he could face living was also Spock's doing. Stanless had been every captain's nightmare come alive. He could suppress, control the memory to some extent while awake, but sleeping... God! There had been a time when he thought he would never dare sleep again. It had become a condition to be avoided, even at the cost of life. Then Spock had reached deep into his mind and sorted through the nightmares. He had not tried to change the truth on which the nightmares were built; he had put them in a perspective normally gained only by a long stretch of time.
When the nightmares showed screaming people dying in pain and fear Spock's cool voice stated, "It was so swift that they felt nothing." When Kirk saw the Stanless planets shrivel and die he also saw Deneva, still cool, serene and lovely because he had refused to settle for any other solution.
They balanced enough that he could live with them. He had been forced to admit that he was neither God, nor devil, merely a man who made mistakes. It had not been easy in the past; it was not easy now. He was only just becoming able to go back before Stanless to remember the good times.
He thought back, again, to his last night as James Kirk. His farewell to Spock and McCoy had been his last reasoning act. After they had gone, he had given up and mechanically obeyed orders. He stood by the door until Sam Cogley came and got him. Sam had taken matters into his own hands and it was Thomas Baroner, not James Kirk, who boarded the passenger liner for Antares Three.
He spent the entire trip in his cabin. Habit reasserted itself enough to keep him well groomed. Food was placed before him, so he ate. He managed to sleep a few hours each night. The rest of the time he sat, keeping his mind as blank as possible.
Sam's friend had met Baroner's liner and removed him from it. He read the letter from Sam that Baroner had been told to deliver, thought briefly, wrote a letter of his own, and put Baroner on another ship.
The second ship, like the first, was headed away from the human-populated section of the galaxy.
The journey ended in a small four-planet system. The natives were a bustling race that knew of the Federation, had cordial but limited relations with it, and preferred to find their own way to the stars. There was a brisk trade among their four planets, and they were willing to accept a trained navigator, regardless of his race and the lack of any papers detailing his qualifications.
The training school discovered that their new student required careful handling. Assuming his lack of initiative to be a peculiarity of his race they studied his behavior carefully and provided the explicit directions he needed and asked the detailed questions necessary to draw answers from him.
After several weeks of force-fed training, Baroner began to change. The nightmares decreased in frequency. He discovered that the best aids to Spock's mental therapy were an exhausted body, and a busy mind. He threw himself into his studies. He had to learn their language, their solar system, and the capabilities of their vessels. The ease with which he assimilated the material was evidence of his former training, but he never spoke of his past and they were too wise to ask.
As the days, then weeks passed, Baroner found it easier and easier to absorb the new information. He went on a training flight, then another, and another. His employers had discovered that it was difficult to get Baroner to assume responsibilities, so they neglected to tell him the third flight was his graduation and that only his figures were being used to guide the ship.
He accepted the accomplished fact quietly when he was informed. He followed orders and took his place as junior navigator on a freighter, and only he knew that each night Stanless once more died in his dreams. He fought back this time. Extra shifts, long language lessons with anyone willing to talk to him, extra duty at any post they would let him fill while someone else took a break, anything to keep his mind busy and his body tired.
The nightmares faded again and Baroner realized another change had taken place in him. He was no longer willing to blindly follow orders; the directions were as carefully carried out, but some initiative began to creep into his work. The work wasn't just done; it was done quickly, with care, and with pride in its quality.
His natural curiosity began to stir and he found, almost against his will, that all the bits and snippets of information he picked up talking to the Flayflayonah were fitting themselves into patterns. They were turning from strange though intelligent creatures into people who ambitions and motives he could understand and admire.
The runs on the freighter became routine, though never dull. The Whia-keen was the oldest vessel in the fleet and it fell to her to act as the experimental ship. Equipment was changed from trip to trip in a lively search for improvement and few parts remained long enough to make them reliable.
It was halfway home on Baroner's fifth trip that a new component in the navigation computer failed, taking all the stored information with it. Baroner regarded the computer stonily, then moved quickly to call Chanallaon, the senior navigator. Chanallaon had the basic figures they needed in his head. Baroner worked out a method, slow, uncertain, but hopefully adequate, to do the calculations on the computer that normally controlled the firing of the engines. Engine control then had to be done by hand. Weary, late, and 300,000 kilometers from their destination, they ran out of fuel. But now they had reached a distance from which they could call for help. Fuel was brought, navigation data was fed by radio, and the reconnected engineering computer brought them safely to port.
Chanallaon and his assistant were heroes to be honored and rewarded. Baroner shunned the honors and almost refused the reward. But it amounted to nearly a thousand credits in Federation currency and Baroner suddenly remembered he had a debt to pay.
The company tried to move him to a better job on a passenger liner. That he flatly refused; he would not accept the responsibility for so many lives. He did accept a job on a larger freighter, the Shog-yat. She carried cargo to the outer planet where it was transferred to an interstellar freighter. They had made the run several times before their arrival coincided with that of the interstellar ship. The Amsterdam had a mixed crew, and Baroner learned in the terminal that it included a few humans.
Without giving himself time to think about what he was doing, he set out to find them. He located them in the Dragon's Lair, his favorite restaurant.
He moved slowly across the room, then found himself unwilling to break the silence that fell over their table as he stopped beside it. He turned and started blindly out of the restaurant. Something of his pain reached the three men watching him. Harrison, the engineer, caught him before he got out of the door and brought him back. Jazlein watched with compassion. He had been working the edges of human territory for a long time and had seen other men with eyes like those. Gogleona ducked his head for a moment to hide the knowledge that shown in his face. To run into that man in this place was luck he had never expected. The knowledge of the man's identity was something he'd keep to himself until he had time to send a report to the right people.
They asked Baroner his name, then gently ignored him while they continued their conversation.
Baroner listened gratefully to their discussion on the difficulties of dealing with the Flayflayona. The sense of their words hardly registered at first. He had to reaccustom his ears to the sound of human voices, so different from the high clear piping of his present shipmates.
He missed the surprised expressions on the faces of the three men as he gave his order in the native language. They also noticed the speed with which he was served and stored it away to discuss later.
Baroner finally began listening to what they were saying. His face reflected his surprise at one of the statements, and Gogleona caught it. "What's wrong?"
Baroner's face settled back into its expressionless mask and Gogleona thought he wasn't going to answer, but Baroner said slowly, "Your report was accurate, but the motivations you ascribe to them were all wrong."
Gogleona ignored Baroner's strained expression and asked, "Then why did they do it? They cut their profit, and ours, by 15 percent when they refused to accept the shipment."
Baroner shook his head. "They have very little concern for individual profit. If they had put those instruments on the market it would seriously damage the industry that makes similar ones here. They don't compete the way humans... the way we do." The three men glanced at one another and they all realized that this quiet stranger understood the Flayflayona better than they ever would.
The speaker set in the ceiling emitted an attention getting
rumble,then announced, "Shog-yat lift-off in 30 minutes. All personnel return to duty stations."
The terminal workers streamed out the door as Baroner also rose to his feet. "My ship." He looked at them gratefully. "It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Thanks for the information. Will we see you again?" Gogleona asked.
Baroner considered the possibility, which hadn't occurred to him. "Do you make this run often?" At their nods he said, "I'll look for you again the next time both our ships are here."
He almost smiled as he walked back to the ship. It had been pleasant seeing humans again, even if he would have to pay for it. This would certainly bring back the nightmares, but he'd known that when he started out to find them.
They had been 覧 understanding 覧 as though the situation was not new to them. He was not that unique, of course. Many men ended up here along the fringes, and most of them had reasons, varying from his to... to ones like Harry Mudd's. He refused to let memory of Stella lead to anything else and concentrated on trying to figure out when the Shog-yat and the Amsterdam would both be here again.
The trio of humans looked after Baroner as he left. "Wonder what he's doing here?" mused Harrison.
"That's a very fast way to get into trouble in an area like this," cautioned Gogleona. "You'd better drop the question, now." He forced his dark face into lines of disapproval. He certainly didn't want an inquisitive trader prying into Baroner's background. That might set him running and it had already taken a year to find him. But the look of disapproval was hard to keep up; he felt like turning handsprings. He had found James Kirk, however changed the man might be, and a large number of people would soon be as overjoyed as he was.
Harrison nodded. He did know better, but his curiosity still got the better of him occasionally. "Can you read his uniform's insignia well enough to know what he does?"
"No," Jazlein answered for both of them, "but from the service he got, they know him here. We can ask."
Since the owner of the Dragon's Lair had a brother who worked on the Whia-keen they received a highly favorable report on Baroner's history in the system, especially of his actions after the accident. They were impressed with the story, appreciating the skill it had taken. "We'll have to keep an eye on him," suggested Jazlein. "His knowledge would be useful in any case, and he seems to have made a favorable impression with the Flayflayonah."
Back in his cabin on the Shog-yat, Baroner managed to fall asleep, but not for long. He woke with a shudder, the nightmares fresh in his mind. He flung out his hand, searching for a solid tie with reality. His knuckles banged against the cool, smooth cabin wall and he relaxed. The vibrations transmitted by the walls were those of small impulse engines, not warp engines. This was the Shog-yat, not the Enterprise; he was navigator and not captain, and Stanless was a year in the past. He wiped the cold sweat-from his brow and considered what had happened. The nightmares had come, as bad as any he had ever had, and Spock's help was gone! His help had always tended to be like that, withdrawn the moment he thought it was no longer needed. Baroner knew how Spock had succored him, so with a shaken sigh he reluctantly thought about the nightmare, mating each scene of disaster with one where things had gone properly, hoping the association would hold.
He was not at all sleepy when he finished the task. He could go to work; there was always someone who could use another pair of hands. That had often been a refuge in the past, but this time it felt too much like a retreat. To sleep again might mean a return to the nightmares, but it was the correct action.
Why had Spock's therapy failed? It hadn't faded gradually as had the block against suicide. Spock's calm voice had been as strong the last time as it had been in the beginning, now it was gone. Had this time been different in some way? Yes, of course! This was the first time he had, of his own choosing, done something that was sure to bring the dreams. He thought back to the brief meeting, stubbornly certain it had been worth the price.
He was less sure by the time he went on duty. Each time he had fallen asleep the dreams woke him and they got worse as the night wore on. He resisted sleep, staying on duty, until he could no longer remain awake. For a time exhaustion worked as a barrier, but it failed as his body got the rest it needed. He finally woke with Spock's accusing, "It was your fault, Captain," ringing in his ears. That had always been the worst nightmare, but he hadn't had it since that night at Starbase 11.
He climbed wearily from his bunk and went back to work. It was two weeks before he got anything close to a full night's sleep and over a month before he was sure the dreams were gone for this time.
It was with a sense of relief that he discovered that the Amsterdam, was not at the port when they put in with their next load. He hadn't been sure he could face another siege so soon.
He dropped the journey tape at the operations desk and was heading for the outside door when he heard his name called. One of the clerks was motioning for him to return. With an unkind thought about red tape he turned back to see what he had missed.
"Baroner, there's a letter for you. It will only take a minute to get it, if you will wait?" Taking Baroner's silence for assent the clerk hurried behind the screen to emerge a moment later with an envelope.
Baroner looked at it, then released the breath he had been holding. The handwriting was unfamiliar. He wasn't sure what he had been bracing himself for, but this wasn't it. This was only 覧 he opened the envelope and scanned the page rapidly 覧 a note from the men of the Amsterdam. It said nothing of importance, but he found the mere fact that they had thought to leave it, warming.
The Shog-yat's next run was a long one that took her on a swing to all four planets. Baroner was disappointed when he saw the Amsterdam was not in port when they finally returned.
But she was due in and he was still in the terminal when her arrival was announced. Giving in to an impulse, he left a note inviting the three men to join him at the Dragon's Lair for a meal. As time dragged and they did not arrive, he realized how much the thought of seeing them had come to mean. They didn't know who he was, or what he'd done, though they had known there was something in his past to send him here. They had, that first time, not seemed to care...
He felt his blood turn to ice. They had found out who he was! They wouldn't come, or if they did it would only be to heap deserved abuse on him. He struggled to his feet and stood motionless, unable to decide what to do.
"Baroner!" Gogleona's call brought his head around. The tall Black officer was coming across the room toward the table. "The others will be here in a few minutes." Gogleona's voice failed as he got a good look at the face of the man standing by the table. Guessing what was wrong he forced himself to continue talking. "The red tape gets worse here every trip, it seems."
As Baroner sat back down he gave a shaky laugh so close to a sob that Gogleona only deduced which it was from the words that followed it. "They just discovered last week that someone's been smuggling Saurian brandy in for three years without paying the local taxes. They're still furious."
A normal conversation was going well by the time Jazlein and Harrison arrived. It continued during the long, deliberately slow meal. By mutual, but unspoken agreement, talk was confined to general topics. But even in such a conversation one learns about the others taking part.
Harrison was amazed. He had felt superior to the "poor wretch" they had befriended. He found it necessary to make some very major adjustments in his attitude.
Jazlein had been too wise to judge Baroner after the first meeting. He was aware of the wide variety of flotsam and jetsam that collected in these backwaters. Baroner's every comment revealed that he had had many and varied experiences and the necessary training to profit from them. Jazlein began to suspect where he had received that training.
Knowing Baroner's real identity and background, Gogleona was learning what a change there had been in this man. Listening to Baroner's diffident comments he regretted the report he'd sent to his friends. This man would be of no use to them, not as he was. But... Gogleona considered. There had been an improvement in his behavior since the first meeting. It wouldn't do to lose track of him again. If he hired Baroner to work for the shipping line it would be easy to keep an eye on him.
They left the Dragon's Lair together when the party broke up. At the corner the Amsterdam's crew turned right, back to the ship and a little rest.
Baroner turned left, away from the terminal. He was tired, but not tired enough to sleep without dreaming and he knew the dreams would be bad. Memories were boiling up; even awake it was difficult suppressing them. When he slept the control would be gone and they would come, as nightmares.
He walked, exploring sections of the port city he had never visited. He thought objectively for the first time about the three men he had just left. Harrison was a capable engineer who was just beginning to understand how much more complex people were than machines. Jazlein was a trader, pure and simple. He worked for a profit, but always tried to leave a customer satisfied so he could return. Gogleona... he almost smiled as he though of Gogleona. Ship owner and merchant he might be yet there was more. A reaching, a grasping for other viewpoints he'd not encountered since 覧 he resolutely finished the thought 覧 since he was kicked out of Starfleet.
He turned at last toward the terminal. There was work to be done before they left and he could help with it.
"Baroner!" Gogleona panted as he trotted across the square in front of the terminal building. "I've been looking for you.
I need to talk to you for a minute." He drew Baroner out of the stream of traffic into a quiet alcove.
"Would you accept a job with the B.S.& G Freight Lines?" he asked.
"NO!" Baroner stammered, "That is... Doing what?" he asked carefully as he fought the near panic brought on by the thought of leaving his safe haven.
He was rushing things, Gogleona realized. "For right now, just acting as a kind of consultant." Baroner's face showed his lack of comprehension and Gogleona continued. "You know the Flayflayonah better than our agent here. You could offer an opinion on some upcoming deals, maybe make suggestions for things you know they would be interested in."
"It wouldn't interfere with your job on the Shog-yat. You'd just stop in our office every time the ship puts in. Go through the proposals and make recommendations. There would be a flat salary, small, and a commission for each idea that worked out."
Baroner paused, still fighting the panic. It was a step back toward the old life. He would have to think about the Federation, something he had tried to avoid doing. He wasn't sure he was ready to do it, but if he refused this offer, accepting the next time might be even more difficult. "When do I begin?" he asked abruptly.
"Now, if you don't mind," Gogleona said in relief. There had been a moment when he feared Baroner was not only going to refuse the job, but to bolt. "I'll have some outlines delivered to you before the ship leaves. If you drop them at the office next time the Shog-yat makes port, the agent will pay you."
Baroner nodded, then met Gogleona's hand in the ancient symbol of agreement. He remembered once more the debt he had to pay and was glad he had accepted before recalling it.
He paced the Shog-yat's corridors for miles during the trip. It helped wear him out so he could sleep without dreaming. The nightmares had returned, and lingered worse than usual; the effect of his working on Gogleona's trade proposals, he decided. And the walking gave him time to think about what he was doing. He did his own work, helped train the third navigator, assisted the engineering staff, worked on new ideas for Gogleona, and was bored.
The Shog-yat had been enough of a challenge to occupy his mind at first. There had been so much to learn, but he could now fill any post on the ship 覧 had, in fact, done so 覧 with the one exception of taking command. She had been a safe haven, but he was nearing the time when he needed to break away.
He endured one more cruise on the Shog-yat. The machinery worked perfectly, the customers were pleased with the service, the third navigator didn't make a single mistake, and Baroner decided to quit.
He dropped the journey tapes off in the terminal office, then paused irresolutely. He had never before asked for a job, and found himself suddenly worried about the proper procedure. He headed quickly for the Amsterdam before he could talk himself out of the whole idea.
The crewman at the cargo ramp recognized his name and directed him to the bridge. Baroner moved easily through the corridors. The Amsterdam was not arranged like any Starfleet ship he had ever served on, but she had been designed and constructed by human beings. He felt at home.
He paused before entering the bridge with a silent prayer, that it not be too much like that of the Enterprise. He gave a sigh of relief as he stepped through the door. It was smaller, several of the stations were missing, and others had been put in different places.
Gogleona turned from his study of the report Jazlein was holding. "Baroner, Lee'felan said you were on your way up. We're almost finished. Go ahead and look around."
Gogleona kept more than half his attention on Baroner, who, unaware he was being treated like a shy child in a new classroom, puttered around the bridge identifying the various instruments. He made a wide, unconscious circle around the captain's chair and paused behind the navigator's seat.
"Go ahead and sit down," Gogleona urged softly.
Baroner dropped into the chair with no acknowledgement. He automatically checked to see that the board was not engaged, then began studying the function of each button.
Gogleona and Jazlein finished their conference and Jazlein retreated silently from the bridge. Gogleona sank quietly into the captain's chair. "Can you navigate her?"
"Aye, sir," Baroner answered.
"Take us home then. Set up a course for Earth," Gogleona ordered.
Baroner paled at the order, but "Earth it is," he said
steadily. "Any preference in type of course? High warp, straight run? Or will we be stopping for cargo along the way?"
"There will be cargo stops," Gogleona said, and named four widely separated colonies. "Top speed should not exceed Warp 3."
Baroner's fingers flew, yet he did not seem to be trying for great speed. "Course plotted."
"Show it on the main screen," Gogleona ordered. He studied the plot carefully, then stepped down by the screen. "Why this, instead of this?" he asked, tracing an alternate route.
Baroner froze, realizing he had added a third again the distance to one leg of the flight to avoid coming near a starbase. He faced Gogleona and came as close to talking about his past as he ever had. "No reason that I'm willing to talk about. It won't happen again."
Gogleona nodded. "Your past is none of my business. Just remember we want to make a profit. When can you come to work?"
Baroner's lips twitched. "Right now, if you wish. I quit my other job before I came over."
Gogleona smiled, and again their hands met in that ancient symbol of agreement.
Gogleona scowled at the account tapes. The B.S.& G Trading Stations on Logum had ended up in the red for the second straight year. As a commercial venture it was just not paying off. He skimmed through all the related tapes, but there was no hint in them of what had upset the originally profitable trade.
He realized that when his partner, Blanchard, got a look at these figures, he would recommend that the B.S.& G pull out of Logum altogether. If making a profit were the only consideration, it was the logical thing to do.
Unfortunately, it wasn't his only consideration. With a caution that over the years had become second nature, he first checked to see that the door to his office was locked. Then he spoke the proper code words into the computer, activating a memory bank whose existence was known only to himself and to the Light Fleet special agent who had helped him install it. "Play the latest Light Fleet intelligence report concerning Logum." He sat morosely through the report; his memory of it had been accurate.
Logum, a planet just beginning to mechanize, was a relatively unimportant part of Light Fleet operations, which were aimed at bringing interstellar peace to this section of the galaxy. When Light Fleet anthropologists had studied Logum they found that trouble was brewing. The dominant intelligent race was reptilian and amphibious, organized into large clans, each of which held carefully delineated territories in the vast ocean of their planet. Although the clans were mutually hostile, there had been little trouble so far due to the abundance of space and food. But now the population was expanding, and so were the clans' territorial boundaries. The anthropological team was afraid that when those boundaries met, the resulting clashes between the clans would be so sudden and violent that the race would never recover.
The solution they submitted was to open the planet to outside trade. The experts predicted that the forcibly peaceful contact between clans at trading stations would bring about a gradual disappearance of the traditional hostility. With the help of a Light Fleet agent on the Federation Trade Board, the planet was opened to trade, and within five years five companies were well established, among them the B.S.& G. Within another 15 years the contact with the fourteen trading stations scattered around the planet was having the desired effect. If the change continued at the expected rate, the clans would be ready to fraternize rather than fight when their territories began overlapping.
But if the B.S.& G pulled out of Logum, it would disrupt the delicate balance of the process. Gogleona ordered the computer to do an extrapolation of the situation, assuming only the other ten stations continued to trade. The results indicated that even that small variation would slow the cultural change to the point where the expanding clans would clash.
He switched off the computer and sat back, deep in thought. Light Fleet had supplied him with the money to buy his partnership in the B.S.& G., and he often wondered why; there seemed to be so little he could do to justify it. But this was one of the rare times when his services were urgently needed; he had to devise a financial reason to keep the company on Logum.
He checked a few more items with the computer, then switched on his desk viewer. "Blanchard." The computer identified his voice and routed the call straight through. The screen cleared to show the graying hair and unlined face of the B.S.& G痴 founder.
"Got time to discuss my next trip?"
"No appointments for an hour. Come ahead," invited Blanchard. He didn't try to guess what Gogleona was planning. They both worked for the good of the company, but their plans seldom ran parallel.
"Where are you going this time?" Blanchard asked as Gogleona entered.
Gogleona's teeth shone white against his black skin as he grinned. "Logum."
"Why? I've been thinking we should just pull out." Blanchard leaned against a padded windowsill ready to enjoy another of Gogleona's explanations. They were always works of art, the pieces of data fitting together beautifully, yet they always left him feeling there were gaping holes if he only knew where to look.
"The stations were showing a good profit until two years ago," Gogleona said, stacking the relevant tapes on the desk one by one. "That fossil resin sold well, and there was a growing market for the perfumes. The Logans still need the equipment we were selling them; their stock of resin and perfume could not be exhausted so soon, but they won't trade with us. I'm afraid our personnel is at fault. I don't want to pull them out until we discover their mistake. They might repeat, or compound it, on the next planet."
Gogleona waited for Blanchard's nod of agreement, then continued. "The Sidney starts her regular run in three days. I'll hitch a ride to Logum, straighten out the problem, and be ready to return in a month when she comes back."
Blanchard noted that Gogleona looked as though he believed his description of how things would happen. They had both been in this business too long to believe in fairy tales, but Gogleona didn't always act like it. "Do you plan to accomplish this miracle by yourself?"
Gogleona's eyebrows climbed in innocent surprise as he sat on the edge of the desk. "Miracle?" his voice was plaintive. "I'm allowing a whole month. Miracles happen much faster. Usually seven days." He suppressed a sigh of exasperation when he realized his clowning hadn't sidetracked Blanchard.
"Who are you taking?" Blanchard asked, aware of the evasion, and already sure he knew the answer.
"Baroner," Gogleona said flatly, in a tone of voice only Blanchard ever opposed.
"Why him? You know I don't trust..."
"Why not?" Gogleona asked reasonably. This was an old argument, but he had never pushed it before. There were too many good, or bad, answers to that question. "He's never caused any trouble; he does his work perfectly; and he was a lot of help the other times I took him along."
Blanchard turned his back and gazed out the window. He too was tired of the argument, and this time he was goaded into trying to explain his feelings. He whirled to face Gogleona and said caustically, "Because he isn't what he should be! If he's in a group of people he's so inconspicuous he might as well not be there. Yet on board the Amsterdam his suggestions are
followed more quickly than the captain's orders.
"He's never had a fight! I'd swear some of these roughnecks that work for us would tackle the devil himself but they walk around Baroner.
"He doesn't want anything! He won't accept a promotion, and he's not interested in money. Those other times you pulled him off the Amsterdam to go with you; sure he was a help, but I've studied those tapes. He wasn't trying to turn a profit for the company; he was just solving problems."
Blanchard halted his tirade. Gogleona had slid from the desk and was facing him as though to meet a physical attack, a look of shock on his face. Blanchard swung away, back to the window.
Gogleona looked worriedly at his partner. Surprised as he was by Blanchard's anger he understood it, having felt similar twinges himself. Baroner's behavior aroused frustration in anyone who could visualize, even dimly, what he should be. Blanchard's skill in judging people had enabled him to sense the genius beneath the mask Baroner presented to the universe. Gogleona pushed his own feelings to the back of his mind and concentrated on soothing Blanchard.
"You know we have to take what we can get. He's the best navigator we've ever had. And he has a real knack for dealing with other races." Mentally begging Baroner's pardon he continued in a slighting tone, "Of course there's something wrong with him or he'd never be out here working for what we can afford to pay. But is that any reason to deprive ourselves of his services? You just have to..."
"...keep an eye on him." Blanchard faced Gogleona, his calm regained. "Go on! Take your waif and redeem him, but do be careful," he advised, concern apparent in his voice.
"I'll be careful," Gogleona promised, feeling like a child promising to stay away from the cliffs when he knew that was where he was going to play.
He was busy the next three days. He finished his paper work. He met the Amsterdam, collared Baroner and told him the plans. For once he appreciated Baroner's fatalistic attitude. It made taking him off one ship, putting him on another, and stranding him on a backward planet for a month merely a matter of logistics, not a project that had to be argued out, or justified.
* * * * *
Baroner stepped outside into the cool breeze. The discussion inside had become heated, and he had taken the simplest method of disassociating himself from it. His job was to remain detached, and he had been close to taking sides.
With a skill learned during many long nights, he deliberately stopped thinking about the meeting.
The wind pushed, and he let it urge him further from the long, low building. He climbed to the top of the slope, then turned to take his first good look at Logum. He and Gogleona had spent the trip here studying tapes, but there was the usual gap between tape and reality.
It wasn't an attractive world to human eyes. Grey sky, milky grey sea, bare brownish-grey soil, even the rocks along the shore were grey where the waves did not darken them. A sudden swirl of dust forced him to close his eyes. He left them that way and used his other senses to judge Logum. The breeze was fresh with the scent of the sea, and of growing things, even if they weren't visible. He could hear the waves beating against the rocks, birds crying far away in the sky, and the shrill of an insect from near by.
Gogleona climbed the hill toward Baroner, then stopped when he was close enough to see his expression. He wasn't smiling, but at least he looked relaxed and peaceful. Baroner's nightmares (whose existence Gogleona had deduced) always returned during these trips. Now the strain that had been growing since they boarded the Sidney seemed to have eased.
Examining Baroner's face in the clear light of day, Gogleona decided he looked younger now than he had two years ago when they first met. A lot of lines had disappeared from his face.
The door opened behind them. "Food's ready," Lou Chi called.
Gogleona waited for Baroner, a slight smile on his face. "You did it again. When you walked out we realized we'd gotten to the point where everyone was just defending his own stand. We weren't exchanging information any longer. We won't try to talk again until after the post closes at sunset."
"Will we get to meet any of the Logans today?" Baroner inquired as they joined the post staff at the table.
Lou Chi nodded. "We're expecting Rung-gura this afternoon. He's been coming in on a regular basis."
"A double name?" Baroner said in surprise. "He's a clan head? I didn't know any of them ever came in anymore."
"He's the only one," Chi admitted. "And it's a poor clan
he's head of. Their farms take in only one inlet, and the shelf outside it. They have to have the beacons and locators.They'd go hungry if any of the fish herds were lost."
An hour later Baroner watched from the door as a group of five Logans made their way from the water up the gentle slope to the trading post. They were reptiles, and resembled Earth's iguanas. Their skins were a greenish-grey; the crests on their large heads were a phosphorescent green. They walked on four feet, but could sit up to free the front ones for work. In the water, where most of their time was spent, their tails propelled them, leaving their hands free to carry and handle tools. The resemblance to iguanas faded as they approached. The small packs on, their backs, their air of intelligent curiosity, and their voices all indicated that here were intelligent beings.
Gogleona hung back, leaving the Logans to the regular staff and Baroner. He was much more interested in watching for a phenomenon he had seen once before. If Baroner lost himself in dealing with aliens his manner changed. All the hesitancy, the diffidence, the self-effacing that kept him a part of the background when he was among humans disappeared.
As had been arranged, Baroner maneuvered until he was talking with Rung-gura. He thought wistfully of universal translators, but those expensive instruments were priced beyond the reach of backwater traders. He concentrated, and discovered he had no trouble understanding the clan head. The instruction tapes had been well prepared. Since human throats were incapable of reproducing the sounds used by the Logans, he hadn't had to learn to speak their language, nor could they speak human language.
Baroner paid little attention to the trade he was conducting. His mind was centered not on what Rung-gura said, but how he said it. Little could be detected from his voice; it was as well trained as that of any experienced trader. His crest, which wasn't completely under voluntary control, gave a better indication of his feelings. It was tight against his head as the discussion began, as flat as if he had been engaged in physical combat. It relaxed during the talk, but even at its greatest expansion only a flash of the bright color could be seen.
Trying to judge the attitude of an alien is a chancy business, but one in which Baroner had much experience. The impression he received was that he was dealing with a being whose pride had been injured, and who was trying to ignore it.
Baroner watched with a frown on his face as the last of the formal farewells were said by Lou Chi and Rung-gura.
"How did it go?" Gogleona asked softly.
"Arrange a visit with one of the important clanheads," Baroner ordered absently. "I think I may be on the trail of something."
Gogleona's wide grin faded as Baroner realized what he had done and actually seemed to shrink in stature. Gogleona longed to shake him, either physically or mentally, but he had been warned that it was wiser not to try and force a sudden change. The Light Fleet psychologist he had consulted had warned him that the change was all too likely to go the wrong direction. Gogleona had followed Embar's advice, but the feeling was growing in him that Baroner had been underestimated.
"I can set something up for tomorrow, I think," Gogleona answered immediately. "I'll get busy on it right away."
He turned away, leaving Baroner looking wonderingly after him. Gogleona sometimes acted as though he 覧 Baroner 覧 was in charge. Baroner thought back through their relationship; and could not recall a time when his suggestions had not been acted upon. The idea was almost frightening. But, he reassured himself, the decisions never dealt with lives.
Gogleona was successful in his attempt. The sun was barely past its zenith the next day as he brought the flitter to a gentle landing on the hard packed sand at the edge of the water.
The pyramid that had looked so massive from the air no longer seemed that way on closer inspection. The base and second level were constructed of heavy stones; they had to withstand the pounding of the waves. Free of that need the builders had turned to lighter materials.
Now, at high tide, the ramp stretched gracefully across 15 meters of churning water to enter the building at a point well above water. Baroner knew from the tapes that the lower levels were the most important sections of the pyramid. The base, always underwater, contained the tide operated generators that provided each clan house with its electricity. The second level was the Logan's main living area. It was partially filled with water and had underwater entrances. The depth in any section could be varied by raising or lowering the floor.
Rrorh-ush greeted his visitors at the foot of the ramp, his crest half-raised in the proper greeting to strangers known to be friendly. He welcomed them graciously and offered them the freedom of his house. They accepted and pledged their friendship to his clan.
The third level used wood where strength was required, but the rest of the walls were made from translucent panels. The panels were round, and various sizes had been used to cut the overlapping to a minimum. As they moved up the ramp Baroner identified the origin of the panels. They were the shells of a sea creature the Logans raised for food.
At the top of the ramp a door, inlaid with a green opalescent panel, slid easily aside at Rrorh-ush's touch, admitting them to a wonderland of green plants and flowing water. In some places sheets of water fell from the ceiling to provide dividers. In other places plants grew to the ceiling with the same effect. Low moss-covered troughs caught and carried off the falling water. The floor was a carpet of green grass. Attendants placed beautifully polished wooden boards on the troughs as seats for the guests. This was the only alteration necessary to change a sleeping area into a room suitable for entertaining off-worlders.
Rrorh waited until his guests were seated before allowing interested members of his family to join them. A dozen Logans of varying sizes entered quietly and took their accustomed places on the soft carpet. Rrorh-ush then began the conversation, during which he intended to learn all he could about these aliens and their reason for visiting him.
Gogleona once more managed to make himself inconspicuous, leaving Baroner to deal with Rrorh-ush. As the talk continued he had to fight the urge to cheer. The effort to evade Rrorh-ush's questions and get his own answered was taxing even Baroner's abilities. (The Logans, when questioned directly, contended that trade was proceeding as it always had. Baroner couldn't contradict this without calling Rrorh-ush a liar.) The Baroner impersonation was slipping; that was James Kirk talking to Rrorh-ush! This man would receive his share of attention even in the dynamic Federation Council.
At last the discussion ended, and before Gogleona's disappointed eyes Kirk forced Baroner to return.
"Was any more ever found out about why the Logans ordered Alexander Moxly off the planet?" Baroner asked abruptly as he piloted the flitter back to the post.
"Nothing more than what was on the tape," Gogleona admitted, wincing as the flitter skimmed the top of a wave. "Moxly, without invitation, took his goods to one of the clan houses to conduct trade there. The Logans immediately ordered him, and his entire post, off Logum. No one else has dared try it. Being ordered off a planet makes the Federation Trade Board very reluctant to give you a permit to another planet."
"Sounds like territorial jealousy on the Logans' part," Baroner commented as the flitter slid past a rocky crag with inches to spare under his usual straight-line-between-two-points navigating. "That ties in with the circumscribed clan pattern. That, incidentally, seems to be loosening up. Rrorh-ush expressed some concern during the talk about the plight of the hrek clan."
Gogleona relaxed his white knuckled hold on the panel in front of him and wiped the sweat from his brow. He wished he had remembered this tendency of navigators to handle flitters the same way they handled starships before he had let Baroner take the controls. "That's interesting," he agreed. But not at all incidental, he thought to himself. Light Fleet had been working toward such a goal for 20 years.
"I wonder how the Federation happened to open this planet to trade?" Baroner mused. "It seems odd."
And expensive, Gogleona's thought continued. The Light Fleet Field Agent who had okayed the opening was dropped from the Federation Trade Board, a position it had taken half his lifetime to reach.
* * * * *
Baroner slipped out of the post before trading began the next day. He was almost sure he had all the data he needed. It was now merely a matter of putting the pieces together in the correct pattern. If he stayed in the post people kept talking to him, and he just wanted to think.
He wandered down to the shore, and after trying several locations found a comfortable seat on a rock. The waves broke against it, but his perch was too high for the spray to reach.
To his eyes the milky water held none of the beauty of his own oceans, but it was a sea, and it held his interest. It appeared to be without life at first, then he learned to watch the wave crests, the sides of rocks as the water swirled away, or one of the shallow tidal pools.
By the end of the afternoon he had spotted seven different forms of life, one of which looked so much like an Earth crab it had brought on a bad case of homesickness.
In his dreams that night, it was Earth, not Stanless, that died because of his error.
* * * * *
The next day he headed for his perch as soon after lunch as possible. He would have gone earlier except for the questions that would have prompted. He made no attempt to think at first. He let the sun bake the last of the nightmare-caused chill from his mind, then began assembling his data.
A check of the records showed that the losses had begun at this post, then spread up and down the coast to the other three B.S.& G stations.
The Logans were very protective of their territory. Those areas belonging to a clan were carefully marked, and any encroachment upon those rights was quickly punished. That explained why Moxly had been ordered off the planet. But why was the B.S.& G gradually being shut out?
They were not intruding. This land had been given to the first team of traders Blanchard had sent to Logan. He had played the tape just last night of that agreement. He glanced along the shore until he found the ruins of the first building. The local clan heads had met the traders there. The Logans had walked out of the sea just between those two rocks to his right. Their spokesman had sat back on his hind legs and waved an arm at the point of land. "This area is yours to use." Then he had dropped back to all fours and stamped both front feet in their gesture to lend emphasis to a statement. "Build the post here."
A shout from up the hill brought him back to the present. He was surprised to see the sun dipping into the ocean and to feel the chill of the evening breezes.
* * * * *
It was windy the next day and the waves were breaking high on the rocks. Baroner took his old seat with the thought that his feet might get a little wet today. He was gazing out to sea trying to reconstruct the chain of thought he'd been following the day before when there was a sudden scraping noise on the other side of his crag.
He climbed gingerly to his feet and peered over the top into the bright golden eyes of a Logan. He nodded his head in greeting. The Logan bobbed in return and climbed up over the top of the rock to the sunny side. Moving over the rough stone with an ease Baroner envied, the Logan settled down on a narrow ledge just above Baroner's seat.
They gazed silently out to sea for several minutes until an unusually large wave splashed spray over them. Baroner commented, "The waves are breaking high today. Is there a storm coming in behind them?"
The Logan bobbed again, then said, "Yes, they are storm-pushed. It will not strike the coast. It is swinging back to sea. I am Mishalete, of the clan 蓉sh," the Logan announced.
"I am Baroner, of the clan Blanchard," Baroner responded automatically.
"You spoke to clan head Rrorh. You spoke of traveling between the stars."
"Yes, I spoke of this to Rrorh-ush," Baroner admitted cautiously. "Would you have me speak more?"
The voice remained calm, but the crest reached full expansion. "The words caused my mind to stir as the smell of fresh fish does my belly. I hunger for more."
"I will satisfy your hunger," agreed Baroner. "And since I am a trader, and new knowledge also stirs my mind, may I trade my tales for questions?"
No shout interrupted this time. The sun was long gone when Baroner stumbled through the door, blinking in the sudden light, and shivering from the chill. Gogleona guided him into a seat by the heating unit while Lou Chi brought a cup of hot coffee.
Gogleona studied Baroner's face while he drank the coffee. "You found the answer," Gogleona suddenly stated. "What is it?"
Baroner nodded, and refusing to be hurried, began at the beginning. "Trade was good here at first, then a storm washed the first building into the sea. Most of the goods were saved, and stored in a temporary building some distance from the shore. Trade continued as usual until construction of the new post, this building, was begun.
"Why did you put it so far from the water?" he asked Lou Chi.
She thought for a moment before replying. "We wanted to be sure it didn't fall into the sea, too. We did a little drilling, and found a solid ledge to put the foundation on here. What difference does it make?"
"I can show you," Baroner explained, getting a tape from the files and putting it in the viewer. They crowded around as he ran the first part through swiftly, then slowed to normal speed as the Logan clan heads met the traders. Their speaker dropped to his feet, stamped, and said, "Build the post here."
"They meant that literally. They wanted the post close to the water, on that spot where there is good underwater mooring for their rafts, and an easy exit for them. When you moved the building up the hill, you insulted them."
Lou Chi blanched.
Baroner nodded at her reaction. "Yes. If you had been a Logan, it would have meant a blood feud. They made allowances
since you were nonLogan. They have been very polite and patient, waiting for you to rectify your mistake."
"So all we need is an architect who can design a building that won't sink the first time we have a storm," said Lou Chi.
"You can get started on it immediately. We'll send you one as soon as we get back to the main office," Gogleona agreed enthusiastically.
"Which will be quite a while. The Sidney won't be back for three weeks," reminded Lou Chi.
Gogleona looked at her blankly for a moment, then nodded wearily. "I'm not accustomed to being on planets you can't get off of any time you wish. Oh well, three weeks on this... this pleasantly drab world won't hurt me."
The post staff endured Gogleona's boredom for two days, then started trying to find him a way home. Lou Chi, who had friends at every post on the planet, succeeded.
"...if you want to chance it," she qualified her offer. "The shuttle conked out here last year. They ordered parts for it, but by the time the parts arrived, the pilot had gotten sick of the planet and shipped out. Now Yamazito needs someone to take it to the Nestro system."
"Baroner?" Gogleona inquired.
Baroner hesitated. He, too, was getting bored with Logum. "I'll have to see it first. That's a long trip for a shuttle, especially one that isn't in good condition."
Two days' work reassured him. The shuttle was basically sound, and he'd been able to fix all of the trouble spots he'd found during his examination of the craft. The new parts for the propulsion system were now correctly installed. Baroner wiped the lubricant from his hands and walked around the ship to the open door.
Gogleona looked up from the panel. "The last light went green five minutes ago."
Baroner nodded. "She's ready. How about supplies?"
"Water and air tanks are full. Food lockers, ditto. Leave in an hour?"
The ship was in space before Baroner gave voice to one last precaution. "I'd feel easier if we didn't head straight for Nestro. If we aim for Lepercot first, that will give us two days' travel near inhabited systems before we swing toward Nestro. It only adds a day to the travel time."
They were three days past Lepercot when a light on the panel flickered, and flared a bright red.
The wind droned through the high cliffs and canyons, long, low, eternally lonely. It moaned unceasingly, as it had every day for centuries, and would for millennia. The sky was grey with high layers of cold clouds that neither snowed nor rained, but covered the hills with a drab closeness. All of the world was dead, long dead, forever dead. Bare rocks, stark and lifeless, lay tumbled on the hillsides on the cold dirt and sand. The only sound was the wind, wailing in eternity.
Had there been any to listen, the far distant, almost inaudible whistle would have been more felt than heard. Only a faint disturbance, growing on the consciousness so gradually that it would have been impossible to tell just when it had started. Gradually it grew louder, adding overtones and undertones, and finally growing to a shriek and a tearing of air, a screaming of vast power in great engines. The earth trembled, sending small avalanches sliding down from their beds of centuries.
A large, silver-grey body shot over the hill, swept across the sky with a scream of sound, and disappeared over the edge of another hill. For a moment more the air trembled with noise, and then there was a rending crash, and dead silence.
A few moments later, two men came stumbling over the hill from the direction of the crash. They ran down the slope into the gutted remains of a riverbed, and threw themselves headlong to the ground. Even as they fell, a great, unnatural glow burst out from over the hill behind them. It shimmered to a great height and went out in all directions, but it made no sound, and in another moment it trembled and vanished.
The wind droned on. One of the men jumped to his feet and brushed himself off, looking around. Then, for the first time in countless ages, the air was stirred to the sound of intelligent communication, as the man spoke.
"You all right, Gogleona?"
The other man was climbing to his feet. "I think I've sprained my wrist." He held it tightly as he too looked around at the bleak landscape. "Not my idea of paradise."
"It's better than the molten lava of the other planet in this system."
Gogleona sighed, and looked down at his small pack. "I got some food and water, and a blanket. How about you?"
"About the same. Someone took the radiant heater out of the storage compartment, so I didn't get that. We'll have to build a fire, if we can." Baroner examined their surroundings. "We may as well camp here. We'll be easy to find if someone comes looking."
If. Gogleona faced the facts; there wasn't much chance of rescue, not on this forsaken world, so far out of the main line of merchant traffic. They had food for maybe two weeks, but no more.
But there was another chance, one he couldn't tell Baroner. For Gogleona was no more a merchant than Baroner was. His real function lay in the operations of the galactic organization known as the Light Fleet.
It had been his membership in Light Fleet and the resulting knowledge of Starfleet personnel that had let him recognize Baroner that first day on the Flayflayonian Terminal. Gogleona had been shocked, confused, disbelieving. Of all the places in the galaxy, Kirk had turned up there! He had sent the news to Light Fleet, had reluctantly informed them that the man didn't seem to have the spirit that had set him apart before the court-martial. He had seemed confused and silent, and even though, in the two years that Gogleona had known him, he had had brief moments when the light returned to his eyes and the straightness to his stance, they were all too brief.
He couldn't remember ever seeing Baroner more his old self than during the desperate moments on the small shuttle. The engine malfunction had struck with the perverse suddenness of space disasters, hurling them both to the floor with its force. Gogleona, even with his special Light Fleet training, couldn't have reached the controls in time. It had been Baroner, with the swiftness of thought and action that went beyond training; who had reached the panels and gained some measure of control over the craft. His orders had flowed smoothly and quickly, and despite Gogleona's ostensive seniority, he had found himself obeying those orders without hesitation.
But even now, as he watched him, Baroner was losing that commanding air. He was turning back into his merchant identity, and it was with almost frightening silence that he began gathering fragments of ancient wood to make a fire. Gogleona watched him for a moment uncomfortably, then, favoring his hurt wrist, began to help him.
* * * * *
It was night. The wind had died somewhat, and most of the clouds had cleared. Gogleona sat on the hillcrest and looked at the stars mournfully.
Somewhere out there flew a Lightship. Somewhere, not too far away, was a beautiful, clean-lined ship that could take them both off this dusty rock and back to safety. He had only to flex his jaw a certain way and speak the right words into the subcutaneous communicator... He looked down at the dark figure crouched by the small fire below him, and his spirits sank. Not with a civilian. The codes were all too clear; even at the cost of his life he couldn't call for a ship as long as Baroner was a civilian. He had been resisting it, but now the idea forced itself upon him; he must try to bring Baroner into Light Fleet.
He stirred uneasily. Light Fleet had refined recruitment to an art, but he knew little of the proper techniques. He had never even read a manual on recruitment procedures, and the idea of trying his amateur hand on James T. Kirk, of all people, was hardly a prudent one. He had heard about recruitment failures, and they usually meant death for the recruiter.
But then again, what did he have to lose?
With part of his mind still against it, he made his way down the steep slope and went over to the fire.
It gave off precious little heat. Baroner was slowly feeding its small flames, his face lit unsteadily with red. He didn't look up, and not all of his attention was on the pan of reconstituted food he was holding over the heat. The fire itself held his attention, as though a whole world were in its patterns. Gogleona had seen him like this before, but rarely to such a degree. He chewed on his lip for a while, feeling something of the pain of Baroner's memories. What memories the man must have! He remembered the shock that had swept Light Fleet when the news of the court-martial reached Base Indel, and felt again some of the incredulity that they should have destroyed this man of all the great men in Starfleet.
Baroner was aware when Gogleona crouched down on the other side of the fire, and tried to show his indisposition to talk by not looking up. He knew the crash had been his fault; he didn't need Gogleona to remind him. It had been his responsibility to check out the shuttle; Gogleona didn't have half his knowledge about spacecraft. And yet here they were, stranded on a bare rock, the shuttle 覧 that he had okayed 覧 blown to its component atoms. Now Gogleona's name might very well be added to the list of his victims. Gogleona, the only man in years whom he might venture to call a friend. He shuddered inwardly.
God, the nightmares had been bad enough on Logum, but after this crash 覧 and that involuntary surge of authority following it 覧 he knew they would be far worse. He almost hoped that this accident would mean his death, just to escape them. Starfleet would never even know what happened to him, but of course it wouldn't care. And if it did find out, he thought bitterly, there would probably be parties to celebrate.
"Is it about done?" Gogleona said, gesturing to the food that Baroner was still automatically stirring.
"Almost." Somehow, it didn't seem as though Gogleona were intending to blame him; he put it down to the man's magnanimity. But the trader did seem to have something on his mind. Baroner finally glanced up at him; saw him studying the earth under his feet.
"I have these friends, Kirk..."
The pan crashed into the fire, and food sprayed in all directions. Gogleona threw himself back and stared at Baroner, who was standing over him with clenched fists.
"What did you call me?"
Gogleona got slowly to his feet, watching him warily. "I called you 'Kirk.' I know who you are. I always have."
Kirk's hands unclenched slowly. He no longer had the strength to face the ridicule certain to come. There was only one solution: to walk away into the hills. He turned in silence, and, reaching down, picked up his pack.
"Where are you going? Now wait, Kirk..."
The repetition of the name stopped him 覧 it had been years since he had heard it 覧 and he stood with his head down, his face obscured by shadows.
"Do you think I would have invested two years in you," said Gogleona firmly, "if I didn't know you to be a man I deeply respected?"
The impossible nature of those words made Kirk look at him narrowly. "What are you talking about? You'd be insane to respect me."
"No, Kirk! You were... you are a great man. We knew that Stanless couldn't change that, just as your officers did."
He wished Gogleona hadn't mentioned his "officers." Three years of nightmares had made any thought of them too much to stand. Gogleona must have seen his change of expression, for he spoke quickly.
"Look, I've never done anything like this before. You're going to have to listen to me, because it will take time. I know a place where you can be free, where a million people respect and honor you because they know the truth. Where you can serve a great cause and even serve Starfleet. Will you hear me out?"
He had known Gogleona for two years now, and had never known him to lie. His words sounded wild, but Kirk could read men well and believed the trader was sincere. He hesitated, then dropped his pack to the ground. "Start talking." He didn't feel very receptive, but it was enough for Gogleona.
At first the words came clumsily, as though the man didn't know quite how to start. "It's an espionage group, I guess you might say, except that espionage isn't its purpose. It's designed to further the interests of peace between the main powers, and to prevent destruction of cultures and worlds by ignorance in those powers. We have a lot of ships, and we patrol most of the galaxy. Our technology is higher than yours by a good bit; it has to be in order to..."
The words kept coming. Kirk's interest grew, and finally he interrupted. "Who is 'we'?"
The simple question dropped like a stone on the frail thread of continuity that Gogleona had established. The question was obviously a good one simply by the fact that it was hard to answer. The trader sat down by the fire and thought for a moment, and finally, speaking slowly and deliberately, he began a long, strange tale.
For the first time, James Kirk heard of the Velonians, of the great empire they had built 10,000 years ago throughout the galaxy, of the peace and beauty of their race and of the races they encompassed. He heard of the great technology, of the ships that turned light years into miles, and the communications that tied the ends of the galaxy together. He heard the Organians and the Metrons described as their peers, and began to grasp the scope of their power.
Then had come the Great War. The mysterious enemy had seemed like corporate bodies, but traveled space as well as the Velonian ships, and destroyed the beautiful Empire. The crippled remnants of the once vast race were reduced back to the single star system of Shev before they achieved their final, bitter victory. The tattered remains of the Velonian fleet searched for a new planet on which to settle, outside the area of destroyed worlds and dead suns, and at last found the planet Velona. But the old planet, Shev, was lost, and with it were lost all the records of their great wealth of knowledge that had been stored in its cool interior. For 300 years they searched for it, but never found it. Gradually their life spans and technology declined, and the other races of their Empire were separated and lost.
Finally, at the dawn of a new wave of intelligent races, they founded Light Fleet. They took the planet Indel as a central base, and started a careful vigil to nurture the new races out of their infancies. They were forced into secrecy when Humans and Vulcans and other races found the secrets of warp drive, and became powers in their own right. The patrol had continued to the present, the swift Lightships captained by Velonians but crewed by brilliant minds carefully recruited from races all over the galaxy. Diverse, tolerant, a close brotherhood of love and purpose, with a great goal: the peaceful unification of the galaxy.
The trader talked until dawn, sometimes apparently losing himself in the vision that meant so much to him. Kirk studied him as he listened, hearing the sincerity in his voice, and feeling, despite his efforts at dispassion, some of the compelling nature of this "Light Fleet." It drew on something inside him, something exciting and new...
The sky was growing light when Gogleona stopped. His voice had grown hoarse, and his eyes were red from the sleepless night, but Kirk seemed untouched. Gogleona looked at Kirk wearily and wondered what lay behind that absorbed stare that was directed at the black fragments of the long-cold fire.
The minutes crept past. Finally Gogleona could stand his cramped position no longer, and got stiffly to his feet and began walking up and down. Kirk didn't move. Just when Gogleona felt he had to break the silence, Kirk's quiet voice broke it for him. But Gogleona thrilled at the tone it held: commanding, assured, the voice, however quiet, of a Starship captain.
"I have some questions. You will have to answer them." Gogleona nodded assent.
The questions were good: how military a group was Light Fleet; what limits did it follow in regard to contact with alien cultures; what kind of contact did it have with Starfleet; how was it governed; what position would Kirk hold; what kind of people did they recruit...
"I must see a Lightship," said Kirk at last.
"But first you must..."
Kirk was firm. "All you've given me is words. I can't believe just words, I must have proof. I must see a Lightship in action."
Gogleona hesitated. "Jim, rescue by a Lightship is ours for the asking. I just can't call them unless you join us. Regulations."
Kirk smiled his rare smile. "So you had to tell me all this before you could call for help? Don't you fear that I might agree to join just to get rescued?"
For a moment Gogleona looked taken aback. But then his features smoothed. "You were Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise," he said evenly. "I won't doubt your word."
It was Kirk's turn to be taken aback. The words sounded sincere, but how could they be? That kind of respect had not been his for years. He recovered, and, relying on his instincts that had failed him only once before, he spoke slowly. "I will join you. If you are all you say you are."
And, firmly, they shook on it.
It was almost seven hours later before Gogleona suddenly started out of his doze and seemed to listen intently. Kirk watched him, saw the relief come into his face.
"They're here," he said. "We're to prepare to beam up."
Kirk got to his feet uncertainly. It had been years since he had been beamed anywhere; the last time had been when he beamed down from the Enterprise to face the court-martial. His thoughts froze in horror. Transporting, military rank, missions 覧 What was he getting into? He felt a wild urge to run, but there was nowhere to go. He clutched his pack and waited, suddenly sure that he was doing the wrong thing.
But when it came, the beam was gentle and swift; a quick flick instead of the Enterprise's smooth fades. And he wasn't standing on a dais, but simply on a patterned surface along the side of a large room. Facing him was a small group of people, headed by a tall man.
Gogleona took a step forward. "Commander Carthur, this is Jim Kirk, formerly of Starfleet."
Dark, deep, slanted eyes, light bronze skin, long black hair, gravely commanding, Carthur was Kirk's first look at a Velonian. The man stepped forward and bowed slightly, then held out his hand in as natural a gesture as would a Human bred on Old Earth. The words were precise but with no trace of accent. "Welcome aboard the Comscin, Mr. Kirk. I am honored to meet you, and we are all glad that you have joined our forces."
Carthur's sharp eyes were taking in Kirk's appearance. He had aged since Carthur had last seen him on his view screen, but Kirk had been a captain then, a man Carthur deeply respected. Now Kirk had experienced a court-martial and all that went with it; the isolation from his friends, the misery to his family, exile from the world to which he belonged. Only time would tell whether he could return to his former self; he looked dreadfully unsure of himself now.
But Kirk's hand was firm and strong, and his short acknowledgment was smooth. "Commander, I am honored."
"Captain Colbon is waiting for you in the Control Center," Carthur said. "We will walk; it will give you a chance to see some of the ship."
Kirk nodded; he had learned silence.
He could not help viewing the ship with the eye of a professional. Too many aspects of it touched deep chords within him that he had long thought 覧 hoped 覧 were dead. The quiet efficiency of the crew in the corridors, the delicate, almost unnoticeable smell of green things growing, the space allowed to the corridors and lounges, the smooth carpeting and pleasant decor, the respectful and friendly nods from the crew 覧 the thousand little details that distinguish a starship from a freighter were here. He looked for sullenness in the crew and found none. He looked for anxiety, rebellion or nervousness in the faces he passed, and saw none, except in those small doses that mean rich lives of action and thought, that McCoy used to call "vital sins." God, now he was thinking about McCoy... Gogleona walked by his side, making no introductions yet somehow managing to convey an impression of being entirely at home. Yes, Kirk thought, he too might be able to call this ship "home" 覧 someday.
They turned a corner, then another, and suddenly they were on the bridge.
It flowed over Kirk with a rush of color and emotion. It was basically circular, but was at least twice as large as a Starship bridge and was broken by consoles and multiple levels. From where he stood he could see every station, and could watch the bridge officers checking and controlling the panels. For a moment his heart quickened. Yes, he could serve here! He could again move a cruiser through space and know the "family" feeling of close friends serving beside him.
Friends? Was he to endanger still more "friends" with his presence? The beautiful bridge was suddenly cold and threatening, as another bridge came up from the choked wells of his memory.
He felt Carthur and Gogleona watching him, and pulled himself back to the here-and-now with an effort. A woman was approaching him, a woman with dark, slanted eyes and golden hair, tall and slender, and with as assured an air of command as he had ever seen. She was Velonian, and he knew even before she spoke that she was the captain.
"You are James Kirk," she smiled, holding out her hand. "I am Captain Sharna Colbon."
Her clasp was firm and warm. He smiled back into her clear eyes, murmuring a reply. He took a moment to glance around, feeling the life in the ship around him, and seeing its beauty and grace. Perhaps he could not serve here, but he could serve the Fleet of which this ship was a part. Gogleona's description had been no exaggeration. Even though he would subject his decision to further tests and checks, he knew it was already made.
A new life? Perhaps. It was a beginning.
He stood at the large window and looked out over the City of Indel. The view was spectacular, but he hardly saw it. This was the interview that would determine his future. After a month of tests, he was now to the point where his formal training must commence, and Councilor Fonder, the Light Fleet Personnel Director, had arranged to conduct the interview himself. An ironic smile twisted Kirk's lips; fair and open though the Light Fleet people were, there was still enough such special treatment for him that he was sure his Starfleet rank was by no means forgotten.
"Cadet Kirk?" a gentle voice said behind him. "The Councilor would like to see you now."
He followed the yeoman through the office door, and found himself facing a tall Velonian, whose silvered hair added even more dignity to his erect carriage. The man was rising to greet him.
"Councilor Fonder, this is Cadet James Kirk."
"I'm very glad to meet you, Cadet. Please sit down."
There was no intervening desk, just four comfortable chairs around a low table. Kirk sat down across from Fonder and took the drink that the yeoman put in his hand before quietly slipping out the door.
"Well, Kirk, what do you think of Indel?"
Fonder's voice was warm and friendly, and Kirk relaxed a little. "I'm impressed, sir. But I've seen little of the City, and less of the planet."
"You have plenty of time. We'll sign you up for a personal flitter and you can cruise at your leisure."
Kirk murmured thanks. He didn't yet fully understand the Light Fleet's confusingly simple economic system; the total absence of money took some getting used to.
Fonder looked down at the reports on his lap. "You did very well on your preliminary testing, Kirk. In some cases even better than we had expected. If you like, we could arrange your training to point you toward a command position."
The Velonian's dark eyes sharpened at the slight loss of color from Kirk's face.
"Sir, I would prefer not to be put in a command position," he said deliberately.
Fonder didn't seem surprised. "Very well. But should you change your mind, the offer remains open."
Kirk was silent. Fonder sat back and regarded him thoughtfully. "What kind of position would you prefer?"
"I'd like to work alone."
Fonder looked down at the notation on Kirk's file that read "Solitude Unwise," and cleared his throat. "Well, we have several occupations in that category. Private research is always available, and we could arrange for an isolated planet 覧 but that doesn't seem to appeal to you."
Kirk was remembering Bob Crater, and the lonely desperation that had overtaken him on M113. "Is there anything else?"
"There's maintenance. Checking automated stations and ships, and making repairs..."
"Uh, no, sir."
Fonder smiled inwardly; he wasn't surprised, and Kirk's negative reactions to such work reassured him. "Outpost supervisors are alone, often for months. Their duties include scanning space and supplying passing Light Ships."
Kirk was staring into his drink. Fonder studied him for a moment, then decided to play his trump card. "There are also
The former Starship captain looked up. "Action Agents? I've never heard of them."
"Not surprising. An Action Agent is one who is involved in espionage work most directly, and even here on Indel discussion of them and their missions is discouraged. Command Officers can be Action Agents, but most work independently." He thought for a moment. "I believe you already know some of our solo agents. Gary Seven was one..."
"What!?" Kirk's quiet calm exploded.
"Why yes," said Fonder. "I would have thought you'd have guessed that Gary Seven was from Indel. Of course, we've changed some since then..."
Of course, it made sense! Seven's technological level, his mysterious home planet that they couldn't find, his interstellar transporter beam, the nature of his mission... Many old questions that had bothered Kirk for years now suddenly found answers, and he sat grinning to himself and fitting in the details. He was even familiar with the Beta-5 computer, or its 23rd century equivalent.
"Kirk?" said Fonder. "Are you listening to me?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Of course."
"Action Agents," Fonder continued, stifling a smile, "are usually involved in physical action such as robbery, calculated intervention, impersonation, infiltration, and so forth. Physical training is therefore emphasized, along with extensive study of personnel, cultures and languages of the involved powers." He paused. "I might say, Kirk, that with your knowledge of Starfleet codes and classified data, you would be invaluable to us as an agent in the Federation."
Kirk was silent as a conflict of loyalties clashed within him. To work against his own people... But as quickly as the clash came, it was gone, for he realized that there was no conflict of loyalties. Working for Light Fleet he would be working for the Federation, and even though he might work against its wishes he would be serving it to its best interests.
"Tell me more, sir."
And Fonder knew he'd succeeded.
By the time Kirk walked out of the Councilor's office he
was enrolled in a three-year basic training program. A small crescent-star gleamed on his shirt, proclaiming him an Agent cadet. An Action Agent; he would never have thought anything could excite him so much again. Up to the moment Kirk had entered Fonder's office he still had not known the full nature and depth of the Light Fleet's efforts, but now he wore the small insignia with a great sense of honor. For the first time he understood the deep, quiet confidence he had seen in Gogleona, in Sharna Colbon, and even in Gary Seven. He was going to be part of their world, and maybe someday he would share their strength.
The city was deserted at this hour, the darkest, quietest hour of the night. He walked slowly down the silent, carpeted avenues. The crystal buildings glowed dimly with their internal activity, but not so brightly as to obscure the stars, and he glanced up frequently at the radiant arc of the galaxy.
It was a long walk to the Training Center, but he didn't regret not having taken the subway. The night air was refreshing, and he was enjoying the stars. He was also beginning to understand the Velonian psychology: never ride when you can walk 覧 or, in their case, run. It was hard to stay true to this value in a city the size of Indel, as the spacious avenues were designed for much swifter being than he, but on nights like this it was less difficult. He could take his time, looking up at the huge crystal buildings that reached delicately in glowing, translucent silence toward the stars that had been their inspiration, and finding it easy to feel the unity between this city and the galaxy it served.
He wanted to be alone. It was not easy to live on Indel, even with its beauty and advanced culture. The close camaraderie, the cosmopolitan milieu, the demands on language and cultural knowledge, every detail was another pressure. And for him there was an added burden; his former identity, which was a source of friendly interest and respect from all sides, and which he still found a painful subject. Six months in the Light Fleet had been a heavy challenge. People expected more from him, often treated him like a celebrity. James T. Kirk was a famous name with, for the Light Fleeters, a famous face. He was still not prepared to accept Indel's informal socializing, and yet hardly a day had passed without someone recognizing him
and opening a conversation full of questions about Starfleet, the Enterprise... and even Stanless. He had learned to control himself at such times. He had learned to smile, to murmur laconic replies, to ask questions of his questioner until the original subject of conversation was diverted. But he couldn't control himself at night, and the nightmares were always there. Some worried members of the Mental Health Services had suggested that he visit their offices, but he would rather put up with little sleep than trust his memories and psyche to alien Light Fleet analysts, however capable they might be. Until he could no longer carry the strain, he would keep his tight schedule, and his tight control.
He took a deep breath of the cool night air, glanced again at the sky before turning through a large doorway. The quiet hush of the normally lively building told him that this place too was sleeping, and he relaxed even more as he made his way through the broad halls toward his favorite gymnasium. He would work out for a couple of hours, release the tension and replace it, to some extent anyway, with healthy fatigue. The large, vaulted gym was loosely partitioned into eight smaller sections, and he dropped his jacket by one of them.
The mats felt hard and refreshing as he threw himself over in shoulder rolls and twisting falls, warming up and stretching his stiff limbs. Each motion came easier, and soon he rose panting and sweating and quite a bit happier than when he had started. He jogged for a while on the running track, then turned to the combat rack.
He went into motion as the punching bag began its steady, muted attack. The blows jolted his arms all the way through his shoulders into his back. His muscles tensed and flexed, driving blows against the shuddering pads, and gradually he smoothed into a flowing rhythm. Motion became thought, and thought motion. All of Light Fleet, all of Indel, all of himself was wiped out in the concentration of his body on the moving machine that challenged it. The minutes went by until at last his muscles reached their limit, and he stepped backwards, leaning his hands on his knees, drawing in great lungfuls of air. When he finally looked up to check the score counter, it was the final satisfaction to see it read, "803," twenty points above his previous high.
"Very good," said a strange voice behind him.
It was the closest thing to a whirl that his tired muscles could manage. But when he saw the visitor his surprise wasn't relieved.
She was standing by the partition with her arms comfortably folded, and from her settled look he guessed she'd been standing there for some time. She was dressed in black leotards, a blue tunic held closely around her by a white sash. It was the exercise uniform of a Command Officer, a startling fact in itself. But what struck him like a blow was her face: the slanted eyebrows, pale skin and self-possessed expression of a Vulcan.
He realized he was staring, and masked his surprise. "Captain? Commander?" he said politely.
She seemed surprised at the question 覧 Command Officers are usually easily recognized 覧 but answered quietly. "Commander. Are you new on Indel, Cadet?"
"Almost six months now." He relaxed a little. At least she hadn't recognized him; there would be no uncomfortable questions. Now he just wished she would go away, but he would avoid being abrupt. "How long have you been standing there?" he couldn't help asking.
Kirk had known many Vulcans, but even in Indel's relaxed atmosphere he had never seen one smile as this one now did. The expression clashed with her slanted features as she spoke quickly. "I see I've disturbed you, and I'm sorry. I was only curious to know who else would be practicing combat here at this hour."
"Are you familiar with the current combat programs, sir?"
She hesitated. "Yes, I am. I... I teach classes occasionally." She gestured to the punching bag. "You're very good. You show a smoothness and assuredness that's rare for someone without full Light Fleet training. Have you had professional training before?"
This was getting too close for comfort. "Yes," he said reluctantly. "Starfleet Academy."
She nodded thoughtfully. "But your style goes beyond the Academy. Perhaps I could spar with you some time. I rarely get a chance to work with a new style; we might both learn some things."
He was intrigued in spite of himself. "What kind of combat do you teach, Commander?"
Suddenly her self-possession seemed to falter. "I, uh, have my own style." Briefly, a look of regret passed over her features. "I guess further anonymity would be impolite. I'm T'Ares Malon."
He stared at her in amazement. Malon, the Action Agent to whom his instructors were constantly referring? He certainly had heard of her; Commander on the Light Fleet Cruiser Comscin, the best fighter the Light Fleet had trained in recent years. She was usually as remote and unapproachable as she was well known. He had heard she was due back from a mission 覧 one of his instructors had hoped he could meet her 覧 but he hadn't expected this quiet woman to open a conversation in the gym in the middle of the night.
Then he remembered something else, and a chill came over him; Malon was half-human. He remembered hearing about her heritage and deciding he didn't want to meet her, but there was no escape now; he would have to control his uneasiness. He felt torn between the fear that at any moment she would remind him of Spock, and a pressing desire to learn more of her. His words came cautiously. "You're Commander Malon? Yes, I've heard of you."
"I suppose everyone has," she said quietly. "I'll confess to you that I was hoping you hadn't."
He managed a crooked smile. "I know how you feel. I'm James Kirk."
Her eyes grew wide, again in an honest emotion that startled him. "Jim Kirk? I should have known! Yes, I guess you do know how I feel. I'm honored to meet you, Kirk. I've been hearing about your work here." She bowed in a light salute, and he returned it. But as he straightened, he saw her draw a deep breath in a way that made his gaze sharpen with concern. Then her voice grew firm with an imposed control. "Would you come with me, Kirk? I'd like to talk to you."
She waited while he got his jacket, then led the way toward the exit. She moved with a swift, purposeful stride that he guessed was the product of a hundred difficult missions, but, still on the alert, he began to identify a deep, underlying weariness in her motions. He controlled his curiosity,and they walked across the gym in silence to the turbo-lift.
A few moments later they stepped out onto the open roof of the building, and Malon led the way to the edge. From this height the circular pattern of Indel was easily seen, the twelve main avenues converging on the Central Court where the great fountains rose in a silver mist. Then Malon touched his shoulder, and he looked up, following her pointing hand. With the city's glow below him he could see the glimmer of spacecraft passing overhead in a steady stream, toward the landing field outside the city's borders.
"There are some tired people in those ships," said Malon. Her voice dropped, and she spoke almost to herself. "There is enough ignorance among the Empires to keep us all tired."
Again he sensed her fatigue, but when he looked at her in
the dim light he saw no trace of it. "I know the burden," he said. "I hope to do my part in bearing it, when my training is over."
"When your training is over," she muttered under her breath. Then she turned to him almost challengingly. "You were a man of skill and courage by Starfleet standards, Kirk, and I assume you intend to be the same by Light Fleet's standards. But it isn't easy to meet those standards; it's a heavy challenge, and you can struggle for years to meet it. Yet when we finally give you a mission, it will only prove to you that the pressure will never end. It will always be a struggle and you'll always feel inadequate to the job, no matter how long and hard you train."
Kirk studied the harsh control in her face, and made a discovery that chilled him with old memories. "You lost someone on your last mission, didn't you, Commander?"
She looked startled, then abruptly turned away, staring out across the city. "Yes, I did. And it was such a small thing; a slow decision, a misplaced step... and suddenly he was dead." She hesitated. "But you know the pattern. Anyone who has commanded a crew knows the petty pattern of the loss of a life."
He was on the verge of trembling. The petty pattern of the loss of a life... or of a star system; yes, he knew. He mastered himself with an effort, masking his feelings behind the same impassivity, which suddenly was all too transparent. With a start he knew the bond between them, for he too had been a Command Officer, and there must be a hundred Stanlesses in the history of Light Fleet's efforts. Had Malon known such a loss? As her words came smoothly and steadily he realized that he would probably never know.
"You've joined the Action Agent program with the idea of taking on independent and difficult missions, haven't you?"
"What you may not know is that there are different classes of Action Agents. For a select few there are special training programs that can enable those few to take on the most difficult missions we have. The training is exhaustive, the pressure constant, but the result is a top level of achievement." She paused, studying him. "From what I've heard of you, I'm ready to offer you such an opportunity."
He stared at her doubtfully. "You have the authority to grant it?"
"Yes. Those who have completed the program are authorized to recruit others into it. In any case," she added a little
sharply, "did you think I would offer you something beyond my power to give?"
"No, sir," he said hastily. "I just wasn't sure whether you were offering to recommend me or to actually place me in the program."
She smiled slightly. "I forgot that you are used to Starfleet bureaucracy. Make no mistake, Kirk; this is a direct and formal offer to change the nature of your career. It will mean hard, intensive training. You'll learn combat and other talents to a level you would never have thought possible. You'll learn to control you mind, your metabolism. And if you succeed in mastering this training, you'll be assigned a host of missions that will push you to your limit of skill and endurance. On some you will fail, but on most you'll succeed, and if you are who I think you are, then the rewards of such successes will outweigh everything else." She paused, gazing at him steadily. "What do you say?"
He knew that in Starfleet he had glimpsed the kind of life she had described. He also knew that the Light Fleet, with the nature of its work and the inadequate number of its agents, made that life much harder. And there was another consideration; the dread responsibility 覧 to Light Fleet, to the missions, to himself 覧 that he would carry if he accepted Malon's offer. There could be no question of its weight. He had only to look at Malon's Vulcan mask of stoicism that veiled its heavy toll. He knew that look; he had seen it on Spock, at Deneva.
"I'll have to think about it," he said, hoping the quaver in his throat wasn't audible.
She nodded. "I'll meet you at breakfast in the Center for Officers of Command, at hour 3, day after tomorrow. Can you make your decision by then?"
"I think so."
She bent in a quick salute and was gone, dropping down the turbo-lift back to the gym. But he stayed on the roof for a long time, looking out over the city, and at the silent ships overhead.
* * * * *
He spent the next day doing exhaustive research both on advanced training programs and on Malon. He found very little on Malon; most of the data regarding her was classified to Class III personnel, and he, as Class VI, was a long way from being able to hear it.
The special training programs were another matter. There too, much of the information was classified; it seemed that only those already in the Programs could fully know what was entailed. But he did learn several things. First, there would be extensive psychological training for fortitude, rapid observation, total recall, inability to reveal information under force, and many other talents not specified. The physical aspect was heavy; a concentrated and carefully planned system of physical discipline ranging from metabolic control to combat. The data to be absorbed, languages learned and talents mastered were simply staggering. He also noted that Action Agents trained in these Programs were a high-priority group, and could even attain Class III security status; the level of most Command Officers.
The night was sleepless, a long soul-searching that he had resisted since the day he left Starfleet. This was the opportunity to enter a new stage of his life; challenging, rewarding, but with a high price. Not only would he be committed in time and energy, but he would have to dare to venture out on a limb, a very shaky limb of self-confidence and determination. Now he had to decide who he was, and what he was going to be. If he passed this by, could he really face living out his life, as he had half-planned to do, in quiet self-limitation? But on the other hand, how could he possibly handle the responsibilities and pressures that the new life would demand? Hadn't Stanless burned that quality out of him? Or had it?
He paced slowly around his apartment, the debate raging within him, until dawn. Tired and discouraged at his own indecisiveness, he walked out onto his veranda and looked out at the light sky. The city was already active; the avenues were sprinkled generously with running and walking figures, and the crystal buildings sparkled under the morning sun. It was an encouraging sight, this city that kept working despite the great odds against it. The galaxy owed more to Indel than it would ever know, but this city felt only the strain, the unending burden, and only occasionally the golden joy of success.
He looked up at the landing pattern of ships; almost a celestial landmark in itself, visible as a curved progression of shining blue twinkles. As he watched, the weary stream of his thoughts was interrupted by a strange variation in the pattern; a small ship pulled out of the line and hovered motionless for a minute. Then it turned and rose quickly, ascending into space the way it had come. It was evident to Kirk that it had received orders from Control regarding a new mission, and he imagined that its occupants were now trying to reorient their homeward-bound thoughts to handle the new directive.
And suddenly, he knew. It was time to reorient his own thinking. This was no time for fear, for self-pity and apprehension. This was a time for action, for performance. It was time to force himself, as he had a thousand times before, to pursue a goal that he couldn't imagine attaining, to demand achievement despite conditions. And something was reborn inside him: a spirit of command, this time over himself.
He looked at his chronometer; just ten minutes until his meeting with Malon. He grabbed his jacket and put it on while he was dropping down the turbo-lift. He didn't even think of the subway; he took off in true Velonian fashion at a steady run, down the long avenue, over on a street, cut through one of the science buildings, down another avenue, and at last pounded breathless up to the Center for Officers of Command. The door computer read his flashed card, heard his panted reason for entering, and let him pass.
The restaurant was circular and framed with glass, and he looked anxiously over the many small chambers before he saw her. For a moment he didn't recognize her; she looked very different in full Command uniform. She waved him over to her table, and rose as he approached. As he came closer she saw his expression, and her own formal air was transfigured by a sudden smile.
"I'm glad, Kirk. Sit down. Let me recommend some instructors."
LOOK AT YESTERDAY
He sat deep in a shadow in a far corner of the tavern, the noise and confusion of the place swirling around him. His throat was sore from panting, and his legs weak from running, but he kept his face and gestures calm despite his exhaustion and apprehension. He might be seized any minute, but he could only hasten it by revealing his fear.
The gloom of the tavern obscured the faces around him. But the shadows of the people walking by outside were clear through the tinted glass windows, and he kept a closer watch on those shadows than on the faces inside. Somewhere in this melee was the Light Fleet agent who was his contact (he touched the small packet inside his shirt at the thought), but it was impossible to find him; the contact's nature was to be undetectable. He would just have to wait.
He raised his glass to his lips and sipped, then studied the views reflected in its many facets. No one seemed to be watching him, though that really proved nothing. If the guards saw him, he would have no chance to escape, and if the contact were watching him, he was probably doing so with the help of another faceted glass.
As the minutes went by he gradually relaxed, and soon began musing over the events of the past 24 hours.
He had been in the middle of a meal in his apartment on Indel when the silvery emergency tone had sounded. He had reached his desk in two fast strides. "Kirk here."
The screen had lit up, Councilman Fonder's grave face in its center. The words came out with the quick hardness of emergency orders that Kirk had heard only a few times before. "Lieutenant, you have a mission. The Rigel IV Starfleet Base has found material evidence of our existence, and all of the Federation has been notified. Our entire security is threatened. Our taps on their communications are inadequate; we must know what the Base has found. The tapes recording their information are located in the central vault of the Information Center; you must find and copy them, then get the copies to a contact in the Robesque Tavern. The Alianti is waiting now."
The screen went blank, and Kirk was out the door in another second.
The Indel landing field had gone on A-1 priority, and the special Courier ship Alianti had leapt into space the moment Kirk was aboard. At its flashing warp 25, the travel time to Rigel IV had been reduced to a few hours. Kirk had been on Rigel IV many times, so detailed briefings were unnecessary 覧 as Fonder had no doubt known.
But still, it was a strange mission to send him on. It was, in effect, a mission against the Federation, and though Kirk didn't let if affect his determination; it still gave him an uneasy feeling. It was bad enough to enter, disguised as a Rigelian official, into halls where once he had strode confidently as a Starship captain, and to open doors and vaults illegally, for Light Fleet 覧 that his Starfleet privileges had let him master. The situation became macabre when during his escape from the Center he tripped an alarm, and both cameras and guards came into play 覧 guards that once would have jumped to obey him. Fortunately the pictures the cameras caught of him were fuzzy, or he would have been caught long ago. As it was, he'd run for hours through the city streets, guided as much as possible by Gogleona hovering in the Alianti a thousand miles above him and tracking the guards movements by scanning for their phasers.
Kirk paused in his thought to feel grateful that Gogleona had been assigned to accompany him. In the past two years he had come to know the man as an excellent special agent, and it was easier to trust your life to a man with such a record, and under such a bond of friendship.
He took a deep breath, trying to regain his calm. It wasn't easy; Gogleona shouldn't have told him that a starship was in orbit around the planet. A starship! Summoned by Rigel IV to help with the pursuit of the thief, no doubt, but frightening Kirk the way no ordinary threat could. Which ship was it? Kirk still knew all too many captains and senior officers in Starfleet; he was sure that turnover hadn't been frequent among the senior officers. If he was caught by a security team he would be beamed aboard, and he didn't know how he or any of his one-time friends would handle such a confrontation. Which ship was it? Gogleona hadn't told him, though the Alianti had probably found out. Perhaps it was better that way.
Pray God it wasn't the Enterprise...
He put his glass down on the table, and glanced around the bar. Where was the contact? Every minute's delay was dangerous.
A waiter appeared beside him in the gloom, pen poised.
"I already have my..." started Kirk.
"Es tana," whispered the waiter.
Kirk started, then avoided looking up at the shadowed face.
"Dal iverni velena," he said cautiously, asking for another code phrase.
"Oreva Sheven vandile more. The tapes; quick!"
The exchange of the small parcel from hand to hand was so quick and smooth that even someone looking directly at them would have missed it. In another second the waiter had vanished into the dim confusion, and Kirk rose from his chair. There was no time to lose; he had to get somewhere alone to signal the ship to be beamed up.
The door crashed open and he froze.
"Federation forces!" came an authoritative shout. "No one is to move! Raise the lights!"
The lights quickly intensified to daylight brightness, revealing the many details of confused people, scattered bottles and guardsmen standing by the door. Kirk was back, deep in a corner of his booth into what was left of a shadow. Through the grating around his booth he stole a glance at the guardsmen, sizing up their number and ability. He was almost ready to look away, to seek out some other doorway for escape, when the flash of an insignia sent his heart into his throat.
A vertical crescent... This team was from the Enterprise! Even as he stared in shock, one of the guardsmen saw his face through the grille and shouted.
For the first time in Kirk's life, he panicked. With a single surge he had vaulted over his table and was rolling among Rigelian feet and table legs.
Crashes as the security men smashed toward him. "Hold it right there! Federation orders!"
His muscles almost stopped by themselves at that last order, but he scrambled for the door. A figure loomed before him, and he saw the gleam of a phaser. Then the burly guard was spinning into a case of antique glasses with a devastating crash. Kirk's fist sank into another jaw, then felt the grunting resistance of a collapsing stomach before a heavy hand spun him around to meet an iron blow to the face, backed by all the weight of a Starship Security Chief. He rocked backwards, too stunned even to see, stumbled over his own cloak and was down in a pile of broken glass.
Powerful hands pulled him to his feet and held him roughly while he was searched.
"No tapes, sir," said the man to the Security Chief.
The Chief was glaring at his prisoner. "All right, mister. Where are the tapes?"
"What tapes?" Kirk said unclearly through swollen lips. He could feel blood welling from his left arm - probably from the broken glass. He looked at the Chief cautiously, wondering why he hadn't been recognized.
"You won't get away with that line on the ship," said the Chief grimly. "Conrad to Enterprise."
The name confirmed Kirk's suspicion; Conrad was new on the Enterprise, and had never known Kirk's command. Kirk glanced at the others around him, and none of them looked familiar; no doubt the turnover among Enterprise security had been extensive. He felt a momentary relief, which passed almost as soon as it came. He hadn't been recognized but he had been captured, and that meant he would soon have to face those on the Enterprise whom he did know. Who was still there? He had avoided finding out, but now...
"Spock here. Have you found the agent?"
"Yes, Captain. But he no longer has the tapes."
Spock was captain! Spock... But what about McCoy, and Scotty?
"We will beam him aboard for questioning. Continue your search for the tapes on the surface."
"Yes, sir. And, Captain, the agent was wounded in the capture."
"We will have Dr. McCoy standing by. Spock out."
McCoy still there too? Emotion choked his throat. To see him again, after all these years, yet to see him like this 覧 an agent thought hostile to the Federation, wounded, a prisoner...
He was hustled out of the tavern into the street. He clutched his bleeding arm, wondering if he should stand still, leap for escape, or 覧 Before his indecision could end, the world was fading with the old familiarity of the Enterprise transporter beam.
As the once-familiar transporter room took form around him he felt a moment of confusion. Even the hazy outlines of the two familiar figures standing next to the transporter console reinforced the impression that he was beaming up from a routine planet-fall, ready to deliver orders that would move the giant starship according to his will...
But that impression, strong though it was, lasted only a second. Then it shattered with the increasing clarity: Spock's shirt of command gold struck him like a blow, and then, as full detail came clear, the expressions on Spock's and McCoy's faces made the final break. He was again a dirty, tired agent, in pain, staring across six years at the shocked men who had been his closest friends.
He saw McCoy swallow hard, forcing down a shout. Two security men were striding forward to escort him off the platform (and, presumably, to the brig), but they slowed and hesitated as he ignored them, stepping down on his own, his eyes never leaving Spock and McCoy.
Spock's voice broke the silence with uncharacteristic harshness. "That will be all, guards."
"But Captain, the prisoner..."
"I have my phaser, leave yours with Dr. McCoy. Dismissed."
The last word crackled, and Kirk felt a painful thrill at the tone of command that came so easily from the Vulcan. Six years... They, too, had lived through much.
The door slid shut behind the guards. Kirk could see that McCoy was struggling for control, and found himself trembling, his eyes stinging. The tension couldn't be sustained and the word tore from his throat.
McCoy lunged forward. "Jim!"
And they were in a tight embrace; all the pain of six years, the not knowing, the silent memories, all the worry crushed into one tearful moment of joy. Only slowly did they come apart, and Kirk held McCoy's shaking shoulders firmly. His friend's moist eyes searched his own for the story of his life since they had last stood like this, so long ago.
Spock let them have their moment together. Now he moved forward, his own emotion held as firmly as his training would allow. Kirk faced him, reading the conflict in the man who had served him, and finding new pain in seeing it.
The voice was controlled, but the crumpled forehead belied it. "You are the agent." It was not a question.
As Kirk didn't answer, McCoy spoke. He was recovering, and now there was something he had to know.
"What does it mean to you, Jim? Is what you are doing right?"
There were no words that Light Fleet permitted him to say, but he looked McCoy full in the eyes and smiled a little. He knew it was all Bones wanted, and he was right. There was peace in McCoy now, for the first time since he had materialized. "Bones, I think my arm needs a familiar healer."
McCoy took his arm as gently as he would take a wounded bird, finding new joy in his own special kind of care. As he worked, Kirk turned his gaze to meet Spock's. There was more said, wordlessly, between them than could be said aloud, and Kirk's compassion for his friend grew. He remembered when Christopher Pike had needed Spock, and the agony Spock had suffered when he broke his Starfleet oaths to help his former commander. He would not let that happen again. And yet, looking at Spock, he knew what that undying loyalty was ready to do now, for him.
"Spock," he said, "you know your duty."
Spock drew a deep breath, feeling the insistence behind the gentle words. "My duty," he repeated through stiff lips.
McCoy caught only part of the bitterness in his tone, and turned savagely. "Spock, I can't believe it. This is Jim, and you're worried about..."
"Bones." The soft word had an underlying urgency that McCoy heard easily, and he turned again to Kirk. He saw the warning and relaxed unhappily, looked down at the wounded arm that he still held.
"I'm sorry, Spock," he said quietly. "I understand your problem."
Their newfound joy threatened to crumble. But now Kirk was thinking clearly. He couldn't allow Spock to jeopardize his command; loyalty worked both ways. The initiative would have to be his. He remembered the phaser the guard had left, and glancing down, saw that it was within easy reach on McCoy's hip, set for light stun. Again his gaze shifted to meet Spock's, and he saw the sudden tense realization in the Vulcan's face.
He hesitated. He was telling Spock that he would wait, that he would give him time to pull McCoy out of reach if that was his decision.
But Spock did nothing of the kind. With a lifted eyebrow that brought back more than anything yet, he calmly put his hands behind his back and clasped them.
The phaser slid smoothly into Kirk's palm. McCoy jumped back, startled, and looked quickly at Kirk's face, seeking the meaning behind the action. And again Kirk waited, asking a silent question.
With a gentle smile, warm and free from doubt, McCoy gave his short nod. "Take care, Jim."
"Take care. Both of you."
Still, it was hard. He went down on one knee beside them, replaced the phaser at McCoy's side, and gently eased the doctor's head into a more comfortable position. Then for an all-too-short minute he held Spock's hand pressed tightly between his own.
He stood up. "Kirk to Alianti."
"Jim!" came Gogleona's voice immediately. "What happened? Are you all right?"
"I'm in the Enterprise transporter room, and I'm alone. Track my signal and beam me over."
"Give me ten seconds."
Soon the security men would burst inside to find the unconscious bodies and signal the bridge; he couldn't have stayed longer. He backed a few steps to give the transporter beam enough room to clear the bodies of his friends, but his eyes never left the two still forms, even while they vanished from his vision.
* * * * *
He sat in the lounge of the Alianti, staring at the blank table in front of him. He didn't want to talk to Gogleona,
didn't yet want to describe what had happened on the Enterprise. After a few minutes Gogleona took the hint and went forward to the control room. Kirk distantly heard him start a conversation there, and was grateful for the man's tact. Perhaps, for a while anyway, he could be alone.
They had tied in on the Enterprise's message to Starfleet Command, and had even called all the way to Indel for permission to tie in on the visual relay as well. Kirk had watched as Spock entered the bridge, McCoy following silently. With relief he had seen that Uhura was still there, and in a quick view shift he saw that Sulu was in his usual place as helmsman.
Spock had paused beside Uhura long enough to order the opening of the channel to Starfleet, then had proceeded down to the command chair. Again Kirk was moved to see the air of command in Spock; the bridge was tied together by his presence.
Then the short message, Spock's voice smooth and cool, McCoy's sharp eyes never leaving him.
"We regret to report that the agent, though captured, carried a concealed weapon and effected escape from the transporter room. There was insufficient time to establish an identity check through the computer."
"Nothing was learned?" came a stern voice. "Nothing."
And that was that. With one slight liberty regarding a "concealed weapon," Spock had told the truth, with omissions; his final gift to his former captain. Kirk's eyes had blurred, even as McCoy's had, but he had stayed in control.
Now, alone in the lounge that comprised half of the tiny Courier, he activated the library computer, and for the first time since he'd left her, reviewed the reports of the current Enterprise personnel stored there. He grinned, a truly happy grin for the first time in ages, when he learned from the records who on board the Enterprise knew of Lightfleet's existence, and who it was kept them posted on such details. In the old days she'd have been considered a spy; well, maybe she was, but James Kirk now knew how important Uhura's task was and mentally forgave her for deceiving him all that time. Maybe some day...
He reviewed the records. There were a number of changes. Security Chief Garivick had transferred off her immediately after Kirk left, as had Chekov and DeSalle, none of them wanting
to serve on the old ship after their captain had left. The higher officers had stayed; Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Uhura of course, Sulu... They had stayed despite a string of captains the first year and a half, none of whom had succeeded. And when Starfleet Command had finally given the captaincy to Spock, the others had all made their assignments permanent. The camaraderie of Kirk's command had been unquenchable, and the old loyalty to the Enterprise herself had held them all. Spock's command had been successful; he had already added six awards of merit for courage and peace to his record in just the past two years.
The computer record ended, leaving Kirk lost in thought. They knew he was alive; they still loved him as he loved them. They knew who he was and they understood. He could continue in Light Fleet, and through it continue to serve them even without their knowing it 覧 though he had a feeling they would know it; theirs was that kind of understanding.
Now he knew they were all right, and that the Enterprise, was all right. His mind was at peace. Jim Kirk knew he could sleep now, the nightmares gone; knew that the memory of past pain could be ignored in the excitement of a new life.
He rose and went forward to the Control Room, saw the concerned eyes of the four officers there turn toward him.
He spoke with a ring to his voice that Gogleona had never heard before. "What's our speed, Celvant?"
"Warp ten, sir," said the helmsman.
"Increase to warp fifteen. We have a lot to tell the Fleet Council."
The stars had bunched together in the center of the view screen, fading to dim streaks around the edges as the Alianti rushed forward. Jim Kirk watched the beautiful patterns with deep joy, and, at long last, peace.
Alternate Universe 4 Index Page