A MATTER OF
Anna Mary Hall
The planet was dying. In a short time, using the scale by which planets measure time, the last of the moisture and atmosphere that supported life would escape into space. Then the only changes would be those wrought by forces from space; the slow weathering caused by alternating heat and cold; the more sudden changes inflicted by meteor bombardment. But all that was in the future.
The changes made by the present visitors from space were minimal. However, even these minute changes were resented by a large four-legged herbivore. He was the lead male of a small herd, one of the remnants of the herds which had ranged from coast to coast. Now they huddled around the remaining sources of drinkable water and did not know their real danger.
Lt. Leslie viewed the male's sharp hooves with respect and watched him closely. Leslie checked to see that his phaser was set on heavy stun. He was careful to remain between the animal and the other members of the landing party.
When the animal charged, Leslie shouted a warning. He took careful aim and pressed the firing stud. Nothing happened. Since Leslie hadn't allowed time to dodge, he and his phaser were badly trampled before the nearest person stunned the animal.
Leslie was beamed back to the Enterprise and his worried compatriots continued the survey. Just before they finished, Yeoman Barrows slipped while descending a steep bank. She tumbled to the bottom much more quickly than she had intended. She was unhurt, but her tricorder, which had been pinned beneath her, was damaged. It made horrible grating noises and refused to either play back or record.
The gloomy party beamed back to the ship where they were met with the news that Leslie would recover. They were in a very lighthearted mood when they made their survey report (necessary because of the broken tricorder). The scientific observations were accurate enough but somehow it came to be recorded that Barrows' tricorder expired "under stress exceeding design specifications."
It was assumed that Leslie's phaser was broken when it was trampled. Leslie was the only one who knew it had been trampled because it was broken. The Enterprise was well on her way to the next stop by the time Leslie was well enough to talk, and, since no one knew anything unusual had occurred, he wasn't questioned about the incident. He didn't mention it himself. He knew Barrows had caught the whole action on her tricorder.
At the next planet, the landing party had been down less than twenty minutes when they requested in calm but slightly garbled terms to be beamed back to the ship. Scotty complied, pulling the transporter control toward him with slightly more force than necessary. It hit the end of the slot and broke off in his hand. He regarded it dispassionately, then favored it with a few carefully selected words that Kyle later swore blistered its surface.
Scotty and Kyle replaced the handle and completed the beaming up. The landing party had a broken phaser, two nonworking communicators, and a tricorder that was emitting faint tendrils of smoke.
Scotty regarded it with amazement. "There's no way for it to do that!" He took it gingerly. "What ha you been doing to the wee thing, lass?"
Yeoman Jamal was near laughter from Scotty's concern for the small machine. "All I did was turn it on, sir. And I did shake it, once, when it wouldn't work, but not very hard," she hastened to explain when he glared at her.
"Where were these instruments stored?"
"They all came from the locker out in the corridor," reported Lt. Johnson. "I picked them up myself."
"Kyle, run a complete check on the transporter. The rest of you, get all the equipment from that locker. We're going to find out what's going on around here."
An hour later a perplexed Scott sought out Kirk and Spock on the bridge. "Captain, Mr. Spock, we have a problem." He held out his hand flat, revealing a communicator, normal in all outward appearances. "Mr. Spock, what would happen if you took this and squeezed it as hard as you could?"
"It would be crushed," Spock said patiently.
Uhura had swung her chair around and was watching the action by the captain's chair. "Suppose Uhura tried the same thing?" asked Scott.
"I'd hurt my fingers, Scotty," she said.
He tossed her the communicator. "Try it," and his tone of voice made it more than a suggestion.
Uhura closed her hand and squeezed. She opened her fist to stare at shards of plastic and gleaming metal components.
Spock stirred the mess with a careful finger. "Interesting. Is this the only one?"
Scott shook his head. "Every instrument in the locker by the main transporter room is like this. I have a general check started. We'll see if anything else has been affected."
"Captain, with your permission, I'll begin checking for cause," Spock announced as he left with Scott.
Kirk nodded his agreement to Spock's back and returned to the report he was checking.
Uhura moved to answer a beep from her board. Doing it left-handed required enough concentration that she spilled some of the pieces of communicator on the floor. With an exaggerated sigh she crouched to retrieve them, then straightened with a softly uttered, but heartfelt, "Ekos!"
"What?" Kirk asked, turning to face her.
"Sorry, sir. I didn't mean to say it out loud. But look," she twisted and pointed to the back of her thigh, "a run. And that's the third one in three days."
Kirk looked, his enjoyment spoiled by some fact that was clamoring to be recognized. "Uhura, aren't those hose made of the same basic material as the communicators?"
With a look of startled concern she agreed.
"Better get those down to Spock, then check . . . no, I'll do that. Go."
She went, dumping the communicator at the first opportunity. After replacing the hose she paused. Spock had not mentioned which lab he was headed for. She had no desire to wander from one to another looking for him. She flipped on the intercom. "Computer on."
"Voice check. Is First Officer Spock employing your help?"
"His present location?"
"Deck 3, Lab C."
Kirk skimmed through the rest of the report, scribbled his initials on it, and moved over to Spock's station. Lt. Brent started to move, but Kirk stopped him. "Don't bother, Frank. I don't need the scanner. I just have a question for the computer. Computer on."
"Working," came the stilted reply.
"Check records for a recent increase in use of replacement parts."
"Checking. Such an increase does exist."
"When did it become apparent?"
"Five days ago."
Kirk glared at the speaker. The computer had known something was wrong for five days. But no one had asked the correct question, so the information had merely accumulated. If they would just make computers with a little initiative. He checked that thought abruptly. He didn't like computers with minds of their own, either.
"That would be right after Leslie got hurt," commented Brent.
"You might check the survey reports from that planet. See if anything unusual turns up." Kirk didn't consider it too likely. Normally, they poked into some strange places. In the months since Sarek's disappearance and presumed death, they had checked any world where a Vulcan could possibly survive. He had realized that Vulcans were less breakable than humans, but some of the worlds Spock had considered possibilities were well nigh unbelievable. Some of them were much likelier sources of trouble.
"If you don't find anything there, work your way backwards, stop by stop. There will be information coming in from the various labs. It might give you an idea of what you're looking for."
Only the senior officers met in the briefing room to discuss the situation. Several
hours had passed and Kirk had been informed that enough preliminary reports were in to define the problem. "What have you found out?" he prompted Spock.
"Something is breaking down the heterocyclic unsaturated halogenated polymers that are used in the ship. The damage is wide-spread, but superficial, as of now."
Scott reported next. "The check turned up instruments broken, ready to break at the first touch, just barely weakened, and completely unaffected. We aren't finished, but one possible clue had emerged. There are three areas with unusually high breakage: the main transporter room, one of the storage areas in engineering, and the security watch room.
Spock's eyebrows rose at this information. "What does the computer make of it?"
Scott shook his head. "Insufficient data to establish a significant trend. But I think it is significant."
McCoy spoke before Spock had a chance to comment. "Life Sciences has nothing but negative reports. No change in the health of the crew has been noted. We haven't found any organisms not usually present on board, but we're running cultures anyway."
Spock considered, then submitted, "All three locations of high incidence are near the outer hull. There isn't enough data to know if that has any importance, but if it does, the cause might be some form of radiation."
Spock turned to the computer. "Assume the Enterprise had been exposed to a large amount of an unknown type of radiation within the last two months. List most probable sources of such radiation."
"Star Grissom 72. Klingon Battle Cruiser Korab."
"Basis for choices?"
"Star Grissom 72 is of a type not studied closely before. Unknowns possible. Four days spent in vicinity.
"Korab is identified as enemy vessel. Enemies seek to do damage. Korab paced this vessel for 3.7 standard days while both were paralleling the Klingon-Federation border."
"Any other information that we need to take into consideration?"
"Aye, Captain," replied Scotty. "Brent reminded me of this. About two weeks ago we made a brief unscheduled stop. We loaned a group of Federation scientists some equipment. Theirs kept breaking."
"The planet would have been certified safe . . ." began McCoy.
"All that really means is that you're not going to drop dead from breathing the air a few minutes. We've proved that often enough," interrupted Kirk. "How long had they been there?"
"Almost two years," Scotty said. "I was in the transporter room when Nemenyi brought up the list of what they needed. We served on the same ship once, so he stopped and told me his troubles while the equipment was assembled. Things just started falling apart about a month before."
"If we'd been exposed to something there, our equipment shouldn't be showing any effect for 23 months," McCoy figured.
"That is not necessarily true, Doctor," Spock stated.
McCoy started to respond, then limited himself to a nod and a simple, "You're right, Spock. Even if it is some form of radiation, a ship would receive different amounts than a planet surface."
"The radiation is only a theory, Doctor, based on very few facts."
"How long have heterocyclic unsat . . . halomers been in general use?" inquired Kirk.
Spock slanted one eyebrow. "Vulcan has been using them some five standard centuries."
"Earth about two and a half," decided Scotty. "Couldna' say for the other Federation races, but they've been independently developed many places."
"No trouble such as this ever reported before?"
"No," agreed his experts. Kirk considered his next question carefully, then asked, "Just how much trouble might we be in?"
Kirk considered his next question carefully, then asked, "Just how much trouble might we be in?"
"Quite a lot," Spock said. "Except for the outer hull, the main framework, and wires carrying currents, the Enterprise is 87.3% synthetic materials, 92.1% of which are halomers of one type or another."
Kirk blinked. He hadn't realized they were that dependent on one class of material. "Damage control had better be alerted. They are going to be quite busy, it seems. Scotty, has everyone been warned to keep an especially close watch on vital systems?" At Scotty's nod, he continued, "Then we can concentrate on finding the cause."
"The labs are working. There will be more facts available soon," Spock stated. stated.
"We have one more assignment, a data pick-up from some border sensors, before heading back to Starbase XII. In your opinions, does the situation warrant a change in these plans?"
McCoy shook his head.
Scotty frowned. He felt this was more serious than the others seemed to be considering it, but he had no facts to substantiate the feeling. After only a brief pause, he agreed with McCoy.
"There should be no immediate danger to the ship. The problem can be studied whichever direction the ship is travelling. It will even give us a few extra days to work on the problem," Spock stated.
If I didn't know better, I'd have suspected him of joking, Kirk thought as he headed back to the bridge.
During the next few days, facts did accumulate, but they were not very useful. X-ray diffraction patterns showed that the molecular structure of the halomers was being changed. The molecules weren't just coming apart; the bonds within the individual molecules were failing.
The trouble spread throughout the ship, and the patterns of its spread eliminated radiation as a possible cause. Where humans went, equipment broke. The more a piece of equipment was handled, assuming the width of the halomer involved remained constant, the more likely it was to break.
Nothing broke in Spock's quarters. Equipment used only by him did not break. Even the panel of the library computer required fewer replacements than other bridge equipment.
With radiation eliminated, the search for some foreign substance or organism on board ship intensified.
The crew had at first treated the situation as a joke, albeit a bad one. After the first injuries occurred a certain air of caution crept in. It was rapidly being replaced by outright alarm as conditions worsened.
After McCoy finished treating the acid burns on Ensign McQuady's legs he decided something could be done about this type of injury. (McQuady had been splashed by acid when the bottle of it she was carrying came apart in her hands. Normally her hose would have protected her legs, but the hose developed runs so quickly that the women had stopped wearing them.) He tracked down Scotty in auxiliary control examining the latest piece of broken equipment.
McCoy leaned against the wall and waited. It was a technical discussion and largely incomprehensible to him, so he listened to the voices rather than the words. He reluctantly admitted to himself that he could hear strain in them. In the four days since the problem had been defined, Damage Control had been rapidly losing ground. With no improvement in sight, overwork and discouragement were beginning to affect them.
Scott left as soon as the method of procedure was decided. As he headed back for his office, McCoy fell in step with him.
"You're getting a little tense, Scotty."
Scott glanced at him, then considered the statement. "Aye," he admitted. "`Tis almost as though she's tryin' to keep us from helping. You try to fix something and the tool you need to use breaks in your hand. Have you ever had a patient like that?"
McCoy smiled, remembering a young lady named Eleen and a right cross that had helped cure her. "Yes, I've run into patients like that. But I'm afraid the method of treatment can't be adapted to machines. However, I have a problem I need some help with and you're the man who can give it."
Uhura removed the earpiece and stared at it suspiciously. She'd already had four major problems with her board, but the earpiece was metal and should be trustworthy. "Very well, Doctor, I'll inform them." She cleared her throat. "Captain, Mr. Spock, everyone, the Senior Ship's Surgeon requests that all bridge personnel report to Sickbay when they go off duty. He requires our help."
The party was in full swing when they arrived. On McCoy's shelves and overflowing to the desktop was a truly cosmopolitan collection of beverages. Kirk accepted a Finagle's Folly from McCoy, plucked a canape from a tray carried by Nurse Chapel. He sampled them both, then asked. "Why?"
Scott appeared out of the crowd. He handed a small glass of Saurian brandy to Spock. "The Enterprise," he offered as a toast and drained his glass. The others drank, even Spock, though his was a mere diplomatic wetting of the lips.
"Why?" repeated Kirk to McCoy.
"We need the glass containers for use in the labs. There are substances there that I do not care to have sloshing around in suddenly breakable containers."
"Where did all this come from?" asked a delighted Uhura.
"Scotty and I provided a lot of it, but we think we've got every bottle on board and we're going to empty them tonight."
"Couldn't one of the labs . . ." Chekov began, then answered his own question. "They do have more important things to do than make glass containers."
Kirk sipped his drink, letting the party swirl around him. If he concentrated, he could forget the trouble and pretend everything was all right for a few minutes. He was considering having his glass refilled when a raised voice attracted his attention. He worked his way toward it.
"I did not!" The slender girl in blue was obviously angry. The two ensigns she had backed into the corner outweighed her by 200 pounds, at least, but they seemed to be the ones who needed help."
"Which one of you doltish, fumble-fingered, infantile cretins did it this time?" The ensigns cringed. They seemed cowed not by her rank, or their guilt, but simply by her blazing display of righteous indignation. "Come on! Speak up, you lily-livered, addlebrained, shiftless louts! Who did it?"
"Perhaps if you gave them a chance to speak?" Spock suggested quietly from behind Kirk.
Lt. Patz clamped her lips together and forced herself into a similitude of calm. In a pleasant voice she asked, "Well?"
The ensigns, still looking innocent to Kirk's experienced eye, made no use of their chance to speak. Struck dumb again, this time by their high- ranking amused audience, they merely shook their heads.
Kirk, finally taking pity on them, asked, "Lt. Patz, what is it you think they've done?"
Dori, aware for the first time who was standing behind her, turned to face Kirk. "I shouldn't have started this here, Captain," she said contritely. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . they should realize there's a time for fun and a time to settle down and work. Four times I've started a test culture of this one strain of Staphylococcus. Each time, just as the culture is growing well, the plates dissolve."
"Lieutenant, we didn't . . ." one of the ensigns began.
"Why do you think they have something to do with it, Dori?" asked McCoy.
Dori's brown eyes widened in honest surprise. "The grapevine on board evidently isn't as efficient as I had judged it to be." She paused, gave a sigh of regret, and didn't tell McCoy and Kirk her version, but what they needed to know. "It stems back to several overly officious actions on my part right after I joined the ship. And some well thought out guerrilla tactics on their part to show me the `right' way of doing it. They have never interfered with any important work. I let my temper get the better of me. I owe them both an apology."
"It happens to the best of us," McCoy said blandly, eliciting a wide grin from Kirk.
The excitement evidently over, the small group that had collected began to drift off in search of fresh drinks. Dori started to leave with a muttered, "If you'll excuse me . . ."
"Wait a moment before you go. The test you were running. What made you think there was some outside agent affecting it?"
"There hasn't been any observable reason for what happens. The first time I thought I'd found what we were looking for, but had the sense to check before telling anyone. Nothing but plain old staph bacteria."
"Thank you, Miss Patz. Go get a drink; enjoy yourself." Kirk aimed her toward Sulu and applied gentle but firm pressure. "Sulu, take care of her."
"Bones," he called to McCoy, collected Spock with a tilt of his head and worked his way to the door and into the relative quiet of the examining room. "How capable is she?"
"Lt. Patz is one of our most promising young bacteriologists. If she said the culture was set up properly, it was," McCoy explained.
"As her own statement showed, she still has a lot to learn, but she knows it. As far as her work goes, she hasn't had much experience working with complete unknowns. She was stuck in some lab running quality control tests on drugs purchased by Starfleet."
"Is there a chance she has found what we're looking for and didn't realize it?"
"It's worth checking!" McCoy ploughed back into the crowd. He reclaimed Dori from Sulu, turning his host duties over to him at the same time.
A confused Dori Patz found herself walking swiftly down the corridor between the Captain and Chief Medical Officer, and closely followed by the First Officer. Emboldened by her one drink, she considered stopping and demanding an explanation, but then she thought again and didn't.
"Why are you certain this is the correct strain of staphylococcus, Miss Patz?" inquired Kirk.
"I checked it under the microscope. It has the proper growth rate and pattern. The things that should kill it, do," she listed quickly.
"If the bacteria has changed, it seems to be a minor, internal affair. That will require slow, painstaking testing to pinpoint," Spock said.
"We only need to know if this is what's causing the trouble. Time can be taken to discover precisely what's wrong after we have it under control."
"If I may make a suggestion, Doctor. A comparison with the stock culture might . . ."
"Of course! Dori, you get the bacteria out of the freezer. Spock and I'll prepare the growth media. Jim, we'll know in a couple of hours."
"Bacteria will only grow so fast. We'll call you, Captain." McCoy hadn't stopped work. When Dori returned with a freeze-dried sample of the stock culture, they were ready. A second flask containing the bacteria Dori had been working with was prepared. When Kirk called back, they had two flasks holding cloudy liquid to show for their work.
McCoy explained as Dori worked. "She's mixing some of the bacteria she's been working with into the flask with the stock bacteria. If there has been a change in the bacteria, the liquid should clear as the bacteria die. There will be a 30 to 40 minute delay before any change is evident."
At the specified time the solution cleared. Kirk drew a deep breath. Now he had something he could fight, even if it was only a bacteria.
The next days were hectic ones aboard the Enterprise. All possible means of killing the bacteria were employed. Antibiotics were blown through the ventilation system. Radiation was employed where it would not harm the crew. Ultraviolet lights were used. Antibiotics were added to the water used for washing. Finally, to the indignation of a good part of the crew, they scrubbed down the ship with antibiotics.
Things continued to break during this time. Equipment already weakened gave out under the slightest strain.
Kirk attempted to call the bridge as soon as he woke. He wasn't really too surprised when the intercom failed to respond. It was a wonder it hadn't quit sooner. He dressed hurriedly and went straight to the bridge. He received two shocks immediately. The helm and navigation positions were unmanned, and Uhura wasn't wearing a uniform.
She was barefooted. Her sleeveless dress was a bright turquoise of the same length as her uniform, but made of some thin clingy material. She had her usual swinging earrings, and had added a thin gold armlet to each arm.
"Good morning, Captain," she glanced at her costume. "The clothing processor was an overnight casualty. This outfit is real silk; it isn't going to fall to pieces." She followed his gaze down to her bare feet. "They are bare by doctor's orders. I wore a blister on my heel. M'Benga said to go without shoes until it was healed. You don't mind, do you?"
Kirk shook his head as he settled cautiously into his chair. The arm had been replaced, but none of the buttons worked. "What's the status this morning, Uhura?"
"We are travelling at Warp 2 in the general direction of Starbase XII. Neither direction nor speed can be changed at the moment, though Mr. Scott is working on it.
"Subspace radio is still out and the intercoms are inoperable. Turbo-elevators are mostly working. Engineering advised their use whenever possible," Uhura glanced up from the checklist she was consulting. "The ladders are not reliable. There have been two serious falls."
"A broken leg and a badly wrenched shoulder," she replied without looking at her paper. "Communicators sealed in some plastic that the lab says won't be affected by the bacteria are available in limited quantities. They are reserved for emergency use. Messenger service is operating to all parts of the ship."
"Where is Spock?"
"In his quarters. The library computer got to the point where he was spending more time fixing it than using it."
"How do we know our direction and speed? Most of the sensors leading from the hull to the computer were out last night. Spock thought they would all be gone by this morning."
"They are. Hansen and Chekov hooked a `corder into a sensor lead just where it comes through the hull. They take the tapes to Spock, who feeds them to the computer.
"I have a list accurate as of twenty minutes ago on every system not working. I've mentioned the important ones, but if . . ."
"No, Uhura. I don't need to hear it all. Why are we still co- ordinating from here?" he asked, looking around the almost deserted bridge.
"No one gave me the authority to move to auxiliary, sir," she said formally.
"Seal the bridge when you leave. It'll be a while before we have time to get it back in order." Kirk started for the elevator, Yeoman Jamal on his heels, pad and pen ready in her hands. Kirk turned back to Uhura, "I'll use the messengers to keep you informed of my location."
"Very good, sir. Captain, Dr. McCoy wanted to see you as soon as possible. He sounded as though it was urgent." She and the one yeoman left on the bridge began gathering the data they had been working with to maintain an overall picture of the ship's condition. In fifteen minutes the bridge was sealed and deserted.
McCoy turned the patient he was working on over to Nurse Chapel as soon as he saw the captain. "Jim, come into my office, please."
"What's the matter now?"
"It's Scotty," McCoy stated grimly. "He's decided this whole mess is his fault. And he's out to correct it single-handed. Or die of exhaustion in the attempt!"
"How did he arrive at that conclusion?"
"Remember that general check he ordered when the trouble was first diagnosed? He says that's responsible for most of the breakdowns occurring now. Equipment is breaking that would never have been exposed except for that."
Kirk nodded slowly. "He's right about that."
McCoy's eyes widened in surprise. "With that attitude you're going to be a lot of help."
"Yes, I will. But why do you need me?"
McCoy sighed. "I didn't catch him in time. We've gotten into the habit of depending on these machines to keep track of things for us. He's been getting pills from M'Benga and me to keep him going. We've both been keeping written records of what we gave him, but no one got the two records together until a few hours ago. He won't listen to us. I'd have to use a couple of security guards to force him to follow my orders. He may still obey you."
Yeoman Jamal sent the first messenger they encountered to tell Lt. Uhura where the captain would be for the next few minutes. She decided as she trailed Kirk and McCoy down the corridor that as a short term condition only, this was rather amusing. It was much more challenging than just carrying a tricorder around.
Kirk considered the equipment inoperable at the moment. He decided correctly that Scott would be working on the steering. They were in an area where Warp 2 was a safe speed if they could guide the Enterprise at all.
Scotty handed the Feinberg block to Leslie when he saw Kirk and McCoy. He moved to meet them, marshalling the arguments he expected to need.
"Can they get along without you for five minutes, Scott?" Kirk asked, in a voice that indicated the answer had better be yes.
"Aye, Captain. Should we go to my office?"
"That'll do," Kirk said brusquely. He didn't speak again until they were in the office, then he wheeled to face Scott. "How much of the mess you caused do you have straightened up?" Kirk snapped.
Scott blinked. "We're beginning to gain on it. Nothing major has given out for ha' a shift now."
"Has the general check been repeated? Decontaminating everything this time?"
"Aye, sir," Scott answered, with a little more life in his voice this time. "I know ma job."
"And when something breaks it's your job to check and see if anything else is going to break?" Kirk's face was hard and his voice harsh as he asked his questions.
"That it is!"
"Then why do you feel guilty? Because a procedure that is correct 99 times out of 100 turns out to be wrong this time?" Kirk's voice was soft and slightly amused now. "Or is it because you discovered the problem first and started the check before I had a chance to give the order?"
Scott was confused. These were the charges he'd been prepared to convict himself of, but somehow it wasn't turning out as it should. "But she's hurt! And I did it!" Scotty wailed.
Kirk shook his head. "The damage is being caused by bacteria. They're the only villains we're going to find in this incident." Crisply, then, he ordered, "As for working yourself to exhaustion; no new damage means you have repairs started on all major items. Your engineering staff is well- trained. Let them do the work. That's an order. They'll call you if they need you."
"I'll see he gets to bed, Jim," McCoy said softly.
Kirk nodded and started down the corridor, Jamal trotting along behind. He slowed and motioned for her to catch up. "Spock's quarters, then I'll get some breakfast."
"Yes, sir," she acknowledged. She sent a messenger to inform Uhura all the while marvelling at Kirk's ability to notice everything going on around him. She had been sure he hadn't noticed her send the first messenger.
Chekov was waiting outside Spock's quarters when Kirk arrived. "Captain, I just gave him the latest set of readings. He'll be right out."
"Isn't he letting people in?" Kirk inquired half-jokingly.
Chekov frowned doubtfully. "Actually, I don't think anyone has wanted in. He has the temperature and humidity set at Vulcan normal. And the pressure high enough that air doesn't rush in when the door opens."
The door slid open. Spock stepped out, accompanied by a wave of heat. When he saw Kirk he moved to allow the door to close. He handed the position report to Chekov who hurried off. "Captain, we are gradually shifting off course. Each time the deflectors nudge something out of our way, it has an infinitesimal effect on our course. The cumulative error is growing."
"Engineering is working on it. I had Uhura shift command down to auxiliary. That way they only have to check the circuits to Deck 8."
"Logical, Captain." Kirk had to struggle to suppress a smile as Spock continued. He always felt as though Spock were pinning a medal on him when he said that. "Lt. Patz brought word twenty minutes ago. They have pinpointed the change. She will have the formal report ready in the bacteriology lab in an hour. McCoy is coming and I'm sure they would be honored if you would attend, sir."
Kirk decided that while Lt. Patz might be honored by his presence, she was also made nervous by it. Part of the problem was that she had been caught short of uniforms when the clothing processor quit and was wearing a white tennis outfit with none of the sang-froid Uhura had shown. Her hair, which she usually piled on top of her head to add a few inches to her basic height of five feet, hung down her back in a heavy braid. She looked about sixteen, and knew it, Kirk decided. He realized he was staring and had made her even more nervous.
"I understand the tennis outfit. Lt. Uhura doesn't have any uniforms either. But why is your hair down like that?" He asked in an attempt to ease her self-consciousness.
It worked. She relaxed and even produced a faint smile. "The clips I use to fasten it are . . . were made of a halomer." She saw Spock and McCoy enter the lab. "We're ready to begin, sir."
Once she began to report, any impression that she was only sixteen disappeared. "The problem is caused by a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria. This one, that we've named Neyi, attacks a strain of staphylococcus. It is a latent virus; it hooks on to the genetic material of the bacteria and becomes part of it. Its presence causes the production of the enzyme that attacks the heterocyclic unsaturated halogenated polymers. The enzyme is released when the bacteria dies and the cell membrane disappears.
"We picked it up when Professor Nemenyi came aboard. Three of his men went down to the storage area to select what they needed. Two of our security guards helped move the supplies. They even transported down to the planet with one load."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Kirk said when she finished. "At least we know exactly what we're fighting. Is it likely that our recent activities have destroyed the bacteria?"
"No, it isn't, Captain. Bacteria are hardy. They develop resistance to antibiotics and adapt rapidly to new ones. Oh, it isn't impossible to get rid of them; it's just unlikely that we'd manage to do it alone. We are handicapped--we must limit our choices. It wouldn't really help if we got rid of the bacteria but killed the crew."
"Uhura says she'll have the subspace radio fixed sometime tomorrow. Starfleet will send the help we need." Kirk headed for auxiliary control to check progress.
Spock left the lab, then waited until McCoy, who had stopped to compliment Dori, emerged. "Doctor, may I talk to you, now?"
"Of course, Spock." McCoy glanced at him. "Will my office do? Or should I come to your quarters?"
"Your office will suffice," Spock decided.
He silently accompanied McCoy to his office. There, to McCoy's consternation, he accepted a seat, an offer of hot tea, and courteously waited to be served. McCoy knew Spock considered these human amenities a waste of time, and only observed them on ceremonial occasions. He was afraid to even try to imagine what Spock had to say that would drive him to employ these measures to postpone saying it even a little while longer.
McCoy sipped his tea, wishing fervently for something stronger. He braced himself and inquired softly, "What is it you need to discuss?"
"Have you given any thought to Starfleet's reaction when we succeed in informing them of our trouble?"
"Why they'll . . ." McCoy stopped. "No, I haven't." He settled back in his chair and slowly sipped his tea. After several minutes, he glanced at Spock with a wry grin and drawled, "This here's a plague ship, ain't it?"
McCoy settled further down in his chair. "Starfleet's gonna be as glad to see us as a tribble is to see a Klingon." He sat up straight and the accent disappeared. "They'll probably order the ship into the nearest star. I hope they take the crew off first," he added thoughtfully.
"Logic indicates they will," Spock said. "After all, it is the ship that has the plague, not the crew."
"Why hasn't Jim . . . ?" McCoy burst out.
"Would you hesitate to treat . . ." Spock paused to select the proper disease, "a crewman who had contracted Quell an's Rot? Remember, the Rot is contagious and the treatment entails more expense than the person could possibly repay in service."
"What does that have to do . . . ?"
"Considering how well you know the Captain, that is a foolish question. The connection should be obvious," stated Spock.
McCoy considered briefly, then his face froze into a professional mask of non-expression. "He considers the Enterprise a living being, at least his subconscious does. And you don't let an intelligent being die just because it is an economically sound decision." He sipped at his tepid tea, then scowled at his cup. "What will Jim do when Starfleet orders him to . . . to kill the Enterprise, Spock?"
"I am not at all sure, Doctor. But my experience with human captains who have lost their ships leads me to believe Jim's actions will be reprehensible from Starfleet's point of view.
"That is what will happen if we do nothing. With a little time, and our help, he will argue calmly and logically in her defense, accept his failure quietly, and receive an immediate replacement."
"Are you sure?" McCoy inquired sarcastically.
"As sure as one can be when working with human beings. He is capable of reaching logical decisions even when they cause him great pain. I have seen him do it. Given time to think the problem through, he will make the logical decision."
McCoy eventually agreed. "What did you want from me, Spock? So far I've merely confirmed your reasoning."
"That was part of what I wanted, the assurance that I was correct in my assessment of the humans involved. The other part was . . . when should we tell him?"
"We delay as long as possible." McCoy didn't even pause to consider. "It will be much better if he figures it out himself. We can help turn his thoughts in that direction. If nothing else works, we tell him, before Starfleet does."
Late the next day Uhura got a message off to Starbase XII detailing their troubles. "We should have a reply within 24 hours, sir, unless we are so far off they can't reach us."
"That's not likely. We can navigate now, and Scotty says they sealed each connection in something the bacteria can't hurt, so it shouldn't go out again. Is the list of priorities complete?"
Uhura flipped quickly through the lists. "Yes, we've agreed on a rating for everything. I'll get the lists in better order. Send a copy down to Mr. Scott and post the other one?"
"Right. I'll be in sickbay when they're ready to be initialled," Kirk said. In the intercomless ship it had become second nature to keep Uhura informed of his location.
Two days crept by. The crew had been working long shifts and while the ship was not back to normal, it was no longer existing in a continual state of emergency.
The helm was once more under complete control, but still had to be handled from engineering. Uhura was alone in auxiliary control when the reply from Starbase XII arrived. When she had it decoded, she frowned at it, then wrote it out. It looked no better than it had sounded.
PROCEED TO STARBASE XII AT WARP 1. MAKE NO STOPS. MAINTAIN RADIO SILENCE. POTEMKIN WILL INTERCEPT AND FOLLOW IN THREE DAYS' TIME. NO PHYSICAL CONTACT TO BE MADE.
The captain had left orders to be awakened as soon as the message arrived. Uhura checked the chronometer. He had gotten five hours of rest at least. She stopped the first person to pass, a yeoman, and left him in charge of auxiliary control.
There was no immediate response to her signal. She had almost decided the doorcom was broken when Kirk opened the door.
Kirk read the message with a strange lack of surprise. McCoy's vague mutterings had prepared him for this reaction from Starfleet. "See that all department heads read it, Uhura. Then post a copy on the Deck 7 bulletin board."
When the intercom had gone out, the bulletin boards had suddenly assumed new importance. Along with the usual club and special interest announcements, poetry, art work, criticism or praise of the poetry and art work, there was now a section labeled OFFICIAL NOTICES. Daily reading of its contents was required to learn what equipment wasn't working, duty assignments, and current emergency measures. It, plus the messenger service, was so successful that the intercom was very far down the list of things to be repaired.
Kirk stood sleepily blinking his eyes after Uhura left. There was no use in trying to go back to sleep. He'd just lay there and worry. If he avoided McCoy for a couple of hours, there wouldn't be another lecture about overwork. One more day should see auxiliary control fully functional. Then he would feel as though he were really in control again.
He sauntered down to a rec room for a cup of coffee and had the unpalatable luck to discover the food dispenser wasn't functioning properly. After reporting it, he really needed the coffee to dispel the chill that he kept telling himself wasn't caused by fear.
That marked the beginning of the second wave of malfunctions. These bacteria, descendants of the survivors of the first scrubbing, were resistant to the measures used before. The labs continued working on the problem of finding substances that would kill the bacteria without harming the crew.
The turbo-elevators went out for almost a day. The ladders hadn't been fixed from the
previous time. Travel between decks was restricted, but still there were some falls. Cracks developed in a few of the corridor walls. The decks themselves were suspect in several areas.
For a wild three hours, the gravity was off. Many members of the crew learned to their sorrow and discomfort just how long ago their training in weightless maneuvering had been. McCoy and his staff did a brisk business in anti-nausea medications. Spock recognized the period of weightlessness for what it was: the ideal time to fix the ladders. He commandeered every able-bodied crewmember Scotty didn't need. It developed into a race with the last ladder being fixed a scant ten minutes before the agreed-upon fifteen seconds of red alert gave warning of the resumption of normal gravity.
Decks 3 and 4 had to be evacuated for several hours until the air- circulating equipment for those levels was repaired. Deck 5's machinery was also off, but for only twenty-three minutes.
During all this new flurry of trouble the small group that had been working steadfastly got auxiliary control in full working order. As soon as the last connections were made, the room was cleared of people, sealed, and flooded for an hour with a gas guaranteed to kill the bacteria. A decontamination chamber was set up in the corridor and everyone entering had to pass through it.
When the sensors were activated, they discovered that sometime during the blackout period the Potemkin had joined them. She was slightly behind and just beyond maximum transporter range. She was a comfort for a time, then her silent accompaniment became an irritant. More than one person reread the message from Starfleet and wondered exactly what orders the Potemkin had.
Kirk was standing in front of the bulletin board in a fog composed of exhaustion and despair. He had crossed out one of the entries on the TO BE REPAIRED list. As he filled in the time of completion he glanced down the list. There were three new jobs since he had last seen the list. He slumped briefly, then straightened at the sound of footsteps. He peered down the dim corridor, realizing as he did that it shouldn't be that dim. He was wearily making another entry when Dr. McCoy reached his side.
"Evening, Jim. Add one lab equipment processor, Deck 7, Lab F while you have the pen in your hand." McCoy gauged Kirk's exhaustion and judged it to be caused by more than hard work and lack of sleep. He peered over the captain's shoulder at the list. "Hmmm, still losing ground, I see. We should get remission soon enough though."
"What?" Kirk asked out of his daze, certain something important had been said, even if he hadn't understood.
"Remission. The disease abates. The patient gains strength. Then the disease returns stronger than before. Each time the cycle repeats, the disease is stronger; the patient weaker. Leukemia used to exhibit a pattern like that. Old age often does yet, with a different illness each cycle."
"Are such patients ever cured?"
"Sure, nobody ever dies of leukemia any more. That only took thirty years' research and several billion dollars. But, of course, expense isn't considered when dealing with a disease infecting intelligent beings." McCoy moved down the bulletin board reading various items until he found the one he was looking for. "That's a gloomy poem," he commented, poking a small piece of graph paper.
"I haven't read it yet."
"You'd better. I'm not sure we should even leave it up. It can't be doing morale any good," McCoy said indignantly.
Kirk moved down to McCoy's end of the bulletin board and forced his eyes to focus on the handwritten poem.
Kirk nodded. "It's right. It's her right! I'm supposed to supply what she needs. But . . ." he shook his head, ". . . not doing very well, am I?"
McCoy scowled. That wasn't the reaction he'd hoped for. No indication there of a realization that a machine had no right to make such demands. He sighed. "Sometimes there's nothing a captain, or a doctor, can do. All things end," he added gently.
"But not now! Not so soon! Not this way!" It was a plea for reassurance.
McCoy held his silence. It would be so easy to give Kirk the encouragement he needed now. But if he did, the facts would just have to be faced some other day. "You need rest, Jim. Come on, I'm going that way, too."
Kirk accompanied McCoy to Deck 5 in a bewildered silence. He felt as though he'd tried to step up a stair only to discover it wasn't there. He collapsed on his bed and was asleep before the lights had a chance to dim.
McCoy talked to Spock after he left Kirk. "I've got him thinking in the right direction. Unfortunately we seem to have been correct. He isn't going to realize that from Starfleet's point of view the easiest, safest, cheapest thing to do is scrap the Enterprise and start over.
"We'll have to talk to him, Spock." McCoy wiped the sweat from his brow as he glanced around Spock's quarters. It was years since he'd been in them, and they didn't seem to have changed at all. T'Rruel hadn't had time to make any impression on Spock's arrangements. Or did logical Vulcan women rearrange furnishings as did their less logical sisters from other worlds? He longed to ask, but didn't quite dare. "Tomorrow, as soon as he gets up?"
Kirk was conscious of an aching, bruised feeling deep inside when he woke. He felt as if someone very precious to him had been destroyed. Fear flared briefly in his mind, then subsided as he came fully awake.
He lay calmly accepting the knowledge in his mind. It had been growing there, like an ugly weed, for days. During the night, it had reached fruition.
The Enterprise was dying.
She was rotting, falling apart, crumbling inch by inch. With every failure she became more dangerous to her crew, to the technologically advanced planets of the Federation, to anything with which she came in contact.
He himself, with the resources he had to command, could not save her. A starbase, however, could do it.
Kirk began in his mind a sketchy outline of what would be needed. As he considered equipment, material, time, and personnel involved, he realized Starbase XII was ideal. The main part of the base was on an inhabited planet, but there was an experimental station on the nearer moon, and a larger-than-average ship repair facility between the two.
As Kirk drifted back to sleep he was almost content. A small thread of worry, a feeling that he'd failed to consider some statement of McCoy's persisted, but he suppressed it firmly.
Kirk had barely seated himself at a table for breakfast when Spock and McCoy entered. They picked up trays and joined him. He studied their solemn faces. "Yes, gentlemen. It's time for a conference. The briefing room, as soon as we've eaten."
Kirk gazed at his three senior officers and let Spock's words echo through his mind. McCoy had known. Scott looked as stunned as Kirk felt, but even as Kirk looked at him he reluctantly nodded.
"Aye, Spock, they'll no want to risk letting it spread. Are you sayin' there's no chance o' savin' the Enterprise . . . from Starfleet?"
"There is perhaps 1 chance in 5000 that we might save her, if we choose to try." to try."
"If?" Kirk asked flatly.
"The Enterprise has an excellent service record, full of incidents in which she risked her destruction in order to preserve the order and safety of the Federation." Spock paused. "Now you are suggesting that she be saved, even though her salvation would risk the technological collapse and permanent quarantine of the planet that attempts to save her. Starbase XII is situated on a planet with a population of nearly one billion. I estimate the resultant accidents as buildings collapse and famine sets in as the transportation network fails would cost . . ."
"No! No. No more logic, Spock. I acknowledge the possibilities," Kirk was speaking quietly now, "but she deserves a chance. We'll proceed on the assumption Starfleet will decide to renovate her. Scotty, you and I will work out a complete schedule for stripping the interior, decontamination, everything.
"Bones, whatever they decide, the crew will have to be evacuated and placed in quarantine. What will they be allowed to take with them?"
McCoy considered briefly. "Nothing made of halomers, of course. No clothing of any kind. A few metal or glass objects," he said, thinking of a certain Vulcan artifact resting beneath the Culling Flame in Spock's quarters, "if they are of sufficient value to make their cleansing worthwhile. I'll post a bulletin and have people begin clearing articles with the medical staff."
At last Kirk faced Spock squarely again. "If they order her destruction," he managed to say it as though it were some minor training schedule to be planned, "we'll want to salvage some things. Spock, that is your job."
Kirk worked long hours the next five days. If he was exhausted, he could sleep. He and Scott finished their plan and plunged back into the fight to keep the Enterprise working.
When the call from Starbase XII came, Uhura reacted quickly. "Tonia, inform the captain, then Spock. Hurry!" Only after Yeoman Barrows was on her way did Uhura acknowledge the call.
"Enterprise, Lt. Uhura."
"Commodore Lazinski, Starbase XII. Where is Captain Kirk, Lt.?" The commodore was taking careful note of her costume, which was cut vaguely like a Starfleet uniform but was a bright chartreuse.
"He has been summoned, sir. He should arrive in a few minutes."
"Summoned?" Commodore Lazinski asked.
Uhura paused fractionally. She had received no orders concerning statements about the ship's condition. There was no use evading, she decided, and caught Sulu's nod reinforcing her own decision. "The intercom is inoperable, sir. A messenger has been sent to inform him of your call. Communicators are available, but are used only in case of an emergency."
Sulu struggled to keep his face expressionless. He wondered if Uhura were really unaware of the impression she made sitting there in her Aegean gown icily informing a commodore his call was not an emergency.
Lazinski cleared his throat and said in what seemed to be an attempt at friendly conversation, "You are controlling from auxiliary, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir. The captain is here, Commodore Lazinski," she said with an internal sigh of relief.
By the time the formalities of introduction had been taken care of, Spock had slid into the room. Scott and McCoy came through the decontamination chamber together, practically on his heels. The size of auxiliary control turned this group into a crowd. Sulu was wondering if he and Chekov should leave when the question was settled for him.
"Captain, why not adjourn to the briefing room? It would be more appropriate," Admiral Kellay suggested.
Lazinski widened the pickup on his end to include the two admirals seated beside him.
Kirk's voice and face were as expressionless as Spock's. "This is the only part of the ship with fully effective communications, gentlemen. Our discussion must emanate from here. It is also the bridge for now. These junior officers are on duty and must remain at their stations."
The inquiry lasted three hours. Spock dissertated on the bacteriophage. Scott and Kirk reported on the condition of the Enterprise. McCoy answered questions about the crew's physical and mental condition.
Lazinski and the admirals listened carefully. They asked intelligent questions. After they requested and received copies of the evacuation and decontamination plans, they called a three hour recess to give them time to study the plans.
Kirk took one of the cups of hot coffee Yeoman Barrows had ready. "Well, at least they listened. They didn't act like people who had already made up their minds."
"They have two days, Captain. They do not need to hurry their decision."
"Yes, Spock," Kirk added with a sign of exhaustion. "I'll try not to hope. Uhura, I'm going to get some food, clean up, and rest until they call back." He glanced down at the engineer's coveralls he was wearing. "At least I'll be wearing my uniform when they tell me my ship has to die."
When it was time for contact to resume, everyone in auxiliary control was in uniform. Uhura had borrowed Lt. Palmer's last one. It was a bit tight and she was afraid to take a deep breath. Sulu had scrounged one from an ensign. It had the wrong rank markings, but it did fit. Chekov, who hadn't worn a proper uniform since the second day the clothing processor was broken, wouldn't tell where his came from.
There was a fourth member on the board when they made contact. He was an admiral wearing the familiar caduceus of the medical profession. "Anderson," muttered McCoy. "Epidemiology is his specialty."
Commodore Lazinski acted as chief spokesman once more. He made no attempt to soften the decision. "The risk is too great; the gain too small, Captain. It would cost almost as much to renovate the Enterprise as to build a new ship. The difference is more than offset by the danger. The safety of a planet must have a higher priority than the life of a ship." His face was closed. It was plain no argument could be allowed to influence the decision. It was also plain one was expected. At Kirk's nod of acceptance, an expression of surprise crossed his face.
"Your evacuation plan is acceptable. It will be put into effect as soon as you are within beaming range. The crew will go directly to the moon base. The quarantine time may be cut to a week. The base has some ideas they've been wanting to try out.
"Captain," and here for the first time Lazinski seemed uneasy, "I don't enjoy asking this
of you, but . . . Please prepare a plan for the salvage of information and noncontaminated materials. Also deactivate the necessary systems so there will be no explosions or radiation hazards during her . . . when she is being scrapped."
Kirk didn't even try to speak. He just motioned to Spock.
Spock handed a tape to Uhura. "Transmit this, Lieutenant." He glanced at the view screen. "It is based on the use of Enterprise personnel. Those needed have agreed to stay aboard the two days necessary to complete the work. The first six steps will be completed before we reach beaming range. Can you have the equipment to receive the radioactive material and the anti-matter ready when we arrive?"
A flabbergasted Lazinski requested time to study the plan.
"Spock, you'll talk to him when he calls back. I couldn't do it without yelling at him," Kirk said in a voice under obvious control.
Kirk slept very little during the next two days. He worked wherever he could be of the most help in keeping the Enterprise livable until they reached Starbase XII. He prowled the corridors for hours when he should have been sleeping. He seldom spoke and when he did it was only about the job at hand. He was unfailingly polite and courteous and he worried the hell out of McCoy.
After his third abortive attempt to talk to Kirk, McCoy went to Spock. "He's at least spoken to you, Spock. How is he?"
"He is bereft," Spock said after due consideration.
"Why will he talk to you?"
"I do not try to `cheer him up.' He has a loss to adjust to. I am willing to let him do it in his own way."
"Meaning I'm not?" asked McCoy. "Well, you're right. This time I just can't put myself in his place. I can't understand how someone can care so much about a piece of machinery. The crew is safe. He'll get another command; they've already promised that." McCoy stopped pacing and faced Spock. "Do you understand how he feels?"
"Yes." Spock's manner did not invite further questions, but McCoy was determined.
"Do you feel as he does?"
Spock gave McCoy a look of utter disbelief. "No."
McCoy, intrigued now, tried again. "Do you feel anything about losing the ship? This is the only place you knew T'Rruel."
Spock gritted his teeth. Plainly the only way, short of throwing him out, to get rid of the doctor was to answer him. "Vulcan memory does not depend on mnemonic assists. What T'Rruel and I had, was. Therefore, it is mine any time I choose to remember. Now I have work to do."
"Thank you, Spock," McCoy muttered at the Vulcan's retreating back. "It's a shame you empathize so strongly with Jim."
Starbase XII was ready for them. The major part of the crew beamed to the decontamination station on the moon. The Enterprise took up her final station in the spaceyard and the skeleton crew began the final steps of turning the Enterprise into an empty, powerless hulk.
McCoy finally refused to accept Kirk's evasions any longer and ambushed him as he was entering his quarters. Kirk admitted defeat and waved McCoy in.
"Bones, there isn't anything wrong with me. I know the Enterprise is just a ship. Starfleet isn't murdering her." He swung to face McCoy. "I know this! But I don't feel it yet. It's going to take me a while to work it out. You've been throwing medical metaphors at me for weeks; let me use one on you." His words came with the fluency of something long considered.
"Someone I love has a terminal illness. She is in a coma; there is nothing more to be done for her. I can't talk to her to comfort her, or be comforted by her. I can't reminisce about her because she isn't gone. I can only wait until it is over; then I can begin again . . ."
"Yes, Jim," McCoy said, and turned to leave.
"Bones, it isn't supposed to be easy for us to lose a ship. If you're the right type of human to be captain, it always hurts like this."
"All right, Captain. I won't intrude again, but when you are ready to talk . . ." McCoy looked back over his shoulder.
". . . I know where to find you." concluded Kirk.
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