It was very early morning on Babel when Kirk arrived at the Newsmen’s Lounge. The first stirrings of the breakfast cooks could be heard from the kitchens, but the only ones abroad to appreciate the stray aromas were the retiring night shift and the earliest maintenance crew. Among these were a few representatives of species who couldn’t adapt their sleeping rhythms to Babel’s day.
The lounge itself was typical of Babel. Spacious, plush and quiet. At wide intervals, chairs, perches, and resting racks dotted the blue carpet. There was even a network of silvery strips to accommodate the unipedal, slug-like M-III Swamp-dwellers.
Sooner or later, everybody who worked for a news service would pass through this room. It was located at the central hub of a spherical cluster of editorial offices, transmission-reception rooms, and computer facilities assigned to the various news agencies that were covering the convention.
Around the perimeter of the lounge, bars and restaurants nestled behind latticeworked partitions and at intervals, labeled archways led to the newsrooms.
Kirk located the Newsnet Interstellar sign, a large triangle with curving sides as if inscribed on a spherical surface. Then he settled down to order his favorite breakfast, Korfidian Toast and Terran Coffee, while waiting for Suhav to appear.
When Kirk had checked the __Galileo VI__ into the parking tower, the clerk had told him that Newsnet Interstellar had called Suhav to their office. Kirk figured that either that was a code message from some other infiltrator, or Spock had been right and the "Suhav" identity was well established.
In any event, he had no other lead. So he sat, munched, sipped and watched. People were coming and going constantly and Kirk noted that here, at least, there appeared to be no preponderance of humans. It was a profession where Andorians walked shoulder to shoulder with Tellarites, Vulcans or humans. Ziturians, Schillians, Coridians, and even a Medusan riding in his opaque pram, painted with the Newsnet Interstellar symbol, and escorted by two Vulcans, a Schillian and a K-II class sentient in his spherical life-support chamber moved through the lounge as ignored as if they were part of the furniture.
Kirk finished his coffee and ordered a refill, but before it arrived, Suhav emerged from the Newsnet offices and headed for the main exit, striding purposefully.
The captain tossed a one-credit piece on the counter and took off after the retreating pseudo-Vulcan.
By the time Kirk reached the main corridor, Suhav had mounted the moving strip and was walking along adding to his speed. There were so few people about that Kirk hesitated to follow too closely, but he couldn’t afford to lose the Romulan now.
He stepped on to the strip trying to seem like a casual wanderer with time to kill before some meeting. Eventually, the corridor crossed another at a wide intersection. In the middle of the intersection were two ramps, one leading up, the other down. Suhav took the down ramp so quickly that Kirk was whisked past and had to double back.
On the next level down, there were more people and Kirk almost missed the pointed ears and smooth black hair that bobbed above other heads. He jumped off the down ramp, sidled between two Andorians with a muttered apology and took off after what he hoped was his Romulan.
At the next intersection, he caught a glimpse of the familiar profile disappearing down another descending ramp. Suhav seemed to know where he was going, but Kirk was thoroughly lost. He drew out his communicator and flipped it open, but after the comforting twitter, there came a steady C# tone . . . Scotty was into the communications board already.
Kirk stowed his communicator in his belt and swung off the ramp, hurrying along another corridor. He’d almost lost sight of his quarry among the growing crowd. Babel’s day was about to begin and in a few hours, all these people would learn of Cunard’s murder. It would probably bring the convention’s work to a complete standstill.
When he reached the next intersection, Kirk looked around for Suhav, but the Romulan was nowhere in sight. Peering over the railing at the down ramp, Kirk spotted several heads that might have belonged to the spy. He played a hunch and went down.
On the next level, there was an arrow over the down ramp labeled, "To M-IV levels only" . . . and a smaller sign hinged under the arrow, "Restricted to Authorized Personnel."
Kirk knew that the air in much of the M-IV section was still unbreathable by anyone’s standards, but he also could see that Suhav was nowhere in sight on this level . . . and the Romulan __had__ been heading steadily downward.
Decisively, Kirk plunged downward, authorizing himself to enter the M-IV level and all the while wondering what he’d say if he bumped into Suhav . . . or started to suffocate.
But neither event came to pass. Instead, he passed through the force-field pressure barrier and found himself in another long, spacious, Babel corridor. But this one curved lazily into the distance in both directions. There was an acrid mist hazing the air and the lighting was a dim blue . . . Vulcan emergency lights. At intervals along the floor and walls, the decorative murals, mostly Vulcan as far as Kirk could see, were broken where access panels had been removed and hardware strewn out onto the canvas-covered carpet. But, oddly enough, there were no workmen in sight.
Mentally flipping a coin, the Captain moved right. A hundred yards on, he rounded a curve and found himself up against an air-tight bulkhead.
Coughing on the sharp fumes, Kirk jogged back to the ramp he’d come down on and continued along the corridor in the other direction. His throat still felt raw from breathing tetra-lubisol smoke and the fumes here made his lungs burn.
Before long, he came to another bulkhead, but there was a down ramp on his side of the barrier.
Without breaking abide, Kirk went down, breasting the force field pressure barrier like an Olympic runner breaking the tape. But the air was little better on this new level. The smoke was thinner, but there was a cloying sweet odor alarmingly like phosgene.
Blinking away tears, Kirk surveyed the corridor. It seemed just like the last one, except here there were no Vulcan decorations. Kirk wasn’t familiar enough with the other M-IV races to be sure, but he thought this corridor might be for natives of Rigel V. He crept along the wall to his left, tried a few doors but found them all locked, and finally came to another down ramp.
He had no idea where he was going, or if he was on the right trail at all, but he was committed now. He took the ramp down and found that it led to a section whose gravity was markedly stronger . . . strong enough to make his knees buckle. The air was still bad and much abandoned repair work was scattered about. Apparently, the crews had searched vainly for the malfunction and moved on.
The Captain chose to go left again and was unsurprised to find yet another down ramp, but this one had an arrow labeled, "M-III levels only," and an additional warning dangling from the arrow, "Authorized Personnel Only." Unhesitatingly, Kirk went down and crossed the force field barrier into clean but hot and oppressively steamy air. But at least it was breathable, even if somewhat rank with the effluvium of mudflats. The gravity, too, eased off, leaving his stomach full of butterflies.
There was nobody in sight here, either, and come to think of it, Kirk couldn’t recall seeing many M-III’s around Babel. The Regulus system was a Federation Member, but they rarely participated in politics.
Cautiously, Kirk made his way left along the corridor. He came to the expected down ramp before he realized that this area must be maintained in M-III condition for somebody. At that thought, he strode rapidly down the ramp, certain he wouldn’t find what he sought on an inhabited level.
At the bottom of the ramp, he found himself in a cooler darkness, probably an M-II level but not in service. The sweeping curve of the dim corridor ended in a gaping doorway opening on a cavernous room sparsely lighted by an occasional green glow panel.
Suddenly, he crouched low, hugging the wall and wishing he could melt into the shadows . . . voices were coming from the big room ahead.
Eyes darting in every direction, Kirk inched his way along the wall until he could peer around the door jam. It was an enormous room with a high ceiling hidden by festoons of cables, the typical M-II’s idea of a jungle-gym.
That gave Kirk the clue to identify the otherwise featureless room. When in use, the plank floor would be picked up opening a deep swimming pool, probably honeycombed with grottos and caves equipped with underwater versions of Hilton luxuries.
Kirk could just make out where the planking ended, leaving a wide deck around the edge of the room where guests could lounge or stroll or climb into the overhead net for exercise or diving practice. Here, he was certain, he’d find no signs imposing ‘unreasonable’ restrictions.
He searched the wall beside him, trailing his fingers over the rough surface until he found a plaque. Using his fingers, he read, GQX-1983-II.
A movement caught his eye and he turned his attention back to the big room as five shadows moved into the light cast by a glow panel. With one raking glance, Kirk identified Suhav and saw that he was talking to four other Vulcans . . . no, Kirk corrected himself . . . they must be Romulans. A woman and three men.
"Yes, of course I brought it!" said Suhav. "Here’s the key to the locker," he held his hand out to one of the men, "go get the package. I couldn’t bring it here because I had to file a story before coming. I’m supposed to be a legitimate newsman, remember?"
The Romulan took the key and disappeared into the shadows on the opposite side of the room, his feet raising echoes from the planking. It sounded to Kirk as if the pool must be filled with water.
"You did well, Suhav," said one of the other men, "the probability of your being caught . . ."
The woman interrupted, "Enough of your probabilities, S’Dak." She faced Suhav and Kirk admired her severe but very feminine profile, "Well, did you bring our instructions, too?"
"Yes, of course, I did. Do you think I’m totally incompetent, Djuel?" Her name sounded almost French to Kirk.
Looking Suhav up and down, she paced a little circle around the men, "All right, then, tell us. How long do we have before pull out?"
"The computer estimated another four days in order to . . ."
S’Dak interrupted, "At least five days will be required . . ."
"Quiet, __Vulcan__." Djuel hissed "I’ve had enough of your logic for one day." She turned back to question Suhav more closely.
The import of what she’d said hit him. Vulcan! Could it be? What logical advantage could there be for a Vulcan in supporting a Klingon-Romulan hate mongering operation? Bewildered, he turned his attention back to the conversation.
"Nevertheless, our orders are clear," said Suhav. "We must determine the optimum dosage for Vulcans and then introduce it at the key points on our list. Our failure with Sarek can still be redeemed if he is convicted of the Cunard murder. Which may happen thanks to S’Dak. That dagger business was a stroke of pure genius."
S’Dak moved into the light and Kirk saw he was a tall, thin man with an ascetic face that gave the pointed ears a very natural look. "It was merely a logical extension . . ."
"And I suppose," interjected, "your logic should be credited for the rape, too?"
"Negative." It was your assignment to foment an incident . . . and it was pure accident that involved Sarek."
Suhav interrupted, "As long as we’re passing out commendations, don’t forget Kort’s brilliant improvisation in Raphael’s yesterday. That eliminated the half-breed quite elegantly."
"I must admit," said S’Dak, "I would not have considered the risk factor acceptable."
"I know," crooned Djuel, "Vulcan cowardice is no secret."
The third man in the group spoke, "Djuel, on whom are we going to test the drug for dosage? All it did to Sarek was send him off into solitary contemplation. We aren’t even sure he knows he was drugged."
Djuel turned and walked away from the group, head down as in inspecting the planking for Vulcan made defects. Then she turned back to them, "The dosage we slipped into Sarek’s liktyeu would have turned any Romulan into a berserker. The effect on Vulcans must be the same, but Vulcan disciplines nullified it. We must determine what it takes to overcome the Vulcan disciplines. It will be tricky because thresholds will differ between individuals, and an overdose would simply produce obvious insanity."
"Then," said S’Dak, "we need an experimental subject. Someone fairly close to the norm . . ."
Spellbound by this exchange, Kirk didn’t hear the footsteps behind him until the hair on the back of his neck vibrated to the warmth of a foreign body. He spun around, ducking under the blow he’d only sensed descending. But it was too late.
The rigid hand chopped into his shoulder like a ram paralyzing his right arm and sending numbing shock through his neck. He went down on one knee, grabbing for the Romulan’s legs and knocked the man off balance. The Romulan fell with a thud, clutching Kirk’s head, but Kirk rolled forward, driving his skull deep into the other’s abdomen.
The Romulan exhaled past Kirk’s ear and the package he’d been clutching flew across the corridor where it landed with a muted thud. Kirk dived toward the package, knowing it must be the drug supply they’d sent the messenger for. If he could get free with it, the drug would be evidence enough of what had happened to Sarek . . .But as he landed, the sizzling crackle of a stunning beam sent him pitching forward unconscious.
Auxiliary Control was the one habitable place aboard the __Enterprise__ which gave access to the main computers, so Spock volunteered to stand watch for the next three hours freeing Scotty to start work on the main communicator board and on the __Galileo VI__. Once alone, the Vulcan fed the tricorder’s tape into the computer, set up the analysis program and sat back to wait. Since he was on duty, he couldn’t sleep, but he could rest effectively enough.
Three hours and ten minutes later, the computer signaled end-of-run and produced a cleaned tape. Beneath the squealing and squawking, he was just able to make out a conversation.
What he heard set a deep frown between his eyes as he transferred the filtered, reconstructed and translated recording back into his tricorder along with the original recording. Then he set the library’s circuits to wipe themselves clean while simultaneously transferring the complete data set to the top security memory bank under a voice print and code phrase lock.
He was almost out the door by the time the computer signaled that the top security memory bank was inaccessible.
He took a deep breath and returned to the control desk. Scotty’s overhaul was becoming a nuisance. There was only one thing to do, take the only copy of the data with him. If he left a copy lying around in the open, he’d be liable to court martial for negligence and breach of security.
As he set the library to wipe the recording, his relief man came in, muttering apologies for being late. Spock scarcely heard as he went through the formalities of turning over the deck. Then he was speeding toward the Engineering Hull’s cargo transporter where he could signal the Babel Transporter Chief to beam him down into Babel’s early morning crowds.
As soon as his vision cleared, the First Officer stepped briskly off the pad, thanked the technician for his nice work, and headed for the nearest intercom unit, thumbing his tricorder to home on the square wave signal from Kirk’s communicator. The directional reading he got caused him to halt in mid-stride, checking the tricorder for malfunction.
When he was satisfied his instrument gave a true reading he consulted a wall map, but his memory was correct.
The Captain was in the M-II levels.
He zeroed his tricorder against the map’s coordinates and estimated the Captain’s position. GQX-1983-P or Q. According to the map, that would be the aquatic gymnasium which was now closed. The Captain had no business there, unless he’d found Suhav.
And, thought Spock, he himself was bound by Oath to behave as if Kirk were his Warder Liege.
With a wry glance at the intercom unit, he passed on, heading for the turbo lift. He could not take time to report to Hilcron and convince him of the seriousness of the enemy penetration of Babel. However illogical it might be, his first duty was to Kirk, personally, and to none other.
He rode the turbo lift as close as it would take him and then switched to the moving strips. When he came to the first big intersection, he took the down ramp and continued down in a zig-zag pattern parallel to that which Kirk had followed and eventually stood at the head of the ramp marked, "M-IV levels only" and "Restricted to Authorized Personnel."
Without considering authorization, he advanced downward holding the tricorder before him like a mine-sweeper. He read the atmosphere on the other side of the energy screen, decided it wasn’t lethal and went through. Following the tricorder’s directional fix, he turned left, went down, turned left, went down again and again until he found himself in the lower M-II corridor.
And right ahead of him the tricorder reported six humanoids . . . five Vulcans . . . or possibly Romulans . . . and one human who was probably Kirk.
Spock advanced through the shadows planting each foot on the canvas covered carpet with great care. When he was about fifty yards from the dim, green opening, he set his tricorder down in a tiny recess designed for hanging art works. He couldn’t risk exposing that recording to danger. It might be the one piece of concrete evidence that what the invaders were doing here was more than ordinary intelligence gathering.
When he’d made his way to the door, he stationed himself so he could not be seen from within and risked a glance around the doorpost.
To his left, along the curving wall, he could see Kirk, unconscious. His hands had been chained together behind his back and the chain looped around a standpipe that protruded from the wall about three feet from the floor and extended upwards another six feet, way above the Captain’s head. Kirk’s limp body hung down between twisted shoulders and his head sagged forward onto his chest.
The five Romulans stood before the human as if expecting him to wake at any moment. Spock could just make out the conversation as the woman was saying, "Never mind how he got here. He’s here. And now we have to dispose of him, preferably before our esteemed allies arrive, making brave Klingon noises. Any brilliant suggestions, S’Dak?"
"Logically, we should attempt to make it seem as if a Vulcan had killed him, but I can’t think of any reason . . ."
"Logic!" Her voice rose as she vented her frustration on S’Dak, "‘Reason!’" If I hear that once more today, I’ll . . ."
"Djuel, he’s coming to."
Spock recognized Suhav’s accent although his face was lost in green shadow as he bent over the Captain. The First Officer wished he had a phaser, but within Babel, only SP’s carried weapons. And, weapon or no, he could not allow the situation to develop any further. The proper course would be to retreat and bring reinforcements, but he was Oath-Bound and the choice was not his to make.
Anxiously, he surveyed the room. And then he had it. If he could creep around the wall to his right and release each of the lines that held the exercise net, the net would fall on the four Romulans.
Probably, the cables were fibre wound on a metallic core, heavy but not heavy enough to run more than a 60% chance of fatal injury to a Romulan, and that would be an acceptable risk under the circumstances.
While the Romulans were watching Kirk revive, Spock edged around the doorpost and slipped silently into the deep shadows. Hugging the wall, scarcely daring to breathe, he slithered toward the first of the lines. When he reached it, he seized the cable with both hands and put all his weight into pulling down enough slack to unhitch the cable. Then, cautiously, he released his grip letting the other anchor points take up the strain.
High over his head, the net bulged downward, then held its position. He moved on toward the next anchor point. A Vulcan engineer would have balanced the net so that any single one of the eight anchor lines would hold it aloft but, Spock reflected, it had probably been engineered by a human.
When he released the next anchor line, he watched the overhead bulge downward with some misgivings. The net held its place and his confidence index began to climb as he moved on.
Now he was at the line diametrically opposite the group of Romulans. As he released it, he could see they were questioning Kirk but that the Captain was recalcitrant enough to draw the violent attention of his captors. Ordinary drugs wouldn’t work against Star Fleet conditioning and violence never worked against the Captain. It would be a convenient diversion were it not for the Oath that forbade him to allow Kirk to suffer discomfort. He made hastily for the next anchor point, released it and trotted toward the fifth.
As he released that one, he could see that the net was forming a canopy around the central support, but peer as he might, the shadows would not reveal whether that last support was controlled by the eighth anchor point alone. On that line hung the Captain’s life and he had no choice but to take the risk.
The sixth and seventh anchors were the hardest to release, requiring all his weight and strength to counterbalance their loads. Then he was close enough to the Romulans to hear the conversation.
Suhav was still closest to Kirk who was standing now, though unsteadily. The reporter’s open hand slapped Kirk’s face with a crack that reverberated in the empty chamber. "Now, Captain, let’s have that again. How did you find us?"
"Would you like it any better if I said I followed you?"
"Nobody followed me. Let’s have the truth."
"All right," said Kirk with an air of genuine defeat, "It was S’Dak. He told me everything."
Spock took advantage of the momentary uproar that announcement caused and moved in close to the eighth anchor point. By the time the Romulans had decided that this was another of Kirk’s facetious improvisations, Spock was in position and setting his weight against the last, taut cable. For a split second, the Vulcan glanced toward Kirk just ten yards from him in a pool of dim, green light while he himself stood in deep shadow.
With that uncanny intuition that had come to characterize the Captain in the last few years, Kirk chose that moment to glance toward Spock’s position. The Vulcan was certain he was well enough concealed so that Kirk could not possibly recognize him, but Kirk nodded ever so slightly and turned back to his captors, "All right, all right," he declaimed loudly, "I’ll show you how I did it."
When he had their attention, he continued, "If you’ll all just step out into the middle of the room, you’ll see what I mean."
(RBW Note. Someone with a stiletto stepping on a net.)
As the Romulans moved dubiously out onto the planks that covered the pool, S’Dak walked suspiciously toward Kirk, alternately eyeing the group of conspirators and the captive human.
Straining with all his might, Spock pulled down on the one remaining anchor, heedless of the possibility of dislocating a shoulder. He called forth the last bit of strength that flesh could yield and finally, as S’Dak frowned at Kirk and the other Romulans eyed each other curiously, the cable came loose and whipped upward carrying him fifteen feet off the floor before he could let go.
Plummeting downward, Spock saw Kirk’s boot connect with S’Dak’s chin sending S’Dak flying backward to land amidst fallen cables and Romulan bodies.
Spock rolled to his feet and dashed to Kirk’s side where he attacked the chains. "Captain, are you all right?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Spock. The girl has the key to these," he indicated the chain’s lock. "We better leave before those Klingons get back."
Spock waded into the net where the four Romulans lay and searched the woman’s clothing. "Their allies __are__ Klingons?"
"Right. It’s a coordinated operation."
Spock came back carrying a key. "This looks promising, Captain."
Kirk moved so that his First Officer could get at the chain and a few seconds later the fetters fell away, leaving Kirk rubbing tender wrists and shoulders. "That one," he jerked a toe at S’Dak, "is a Vulcan, not a Romulan. What do you make of that?"
Spock eyed the unconscious form with raised brows, "Fascinating. Many Vulcans do believe the galaxy would be improved by dissolving the Federation, but there are very few who would aid a regime that is even more militaristic than the Federation."
"Did you get a good analysis of that recording?"
"Then that’s our objective evidence. Let’s go."
Spock hesitated, looking down at S’Dak thoughtfully, "I’d like to argue with this one, Captain. Perhaps we could take him with us? He probably knows more about this operation than we do and if he can be convinced . . ."
"Spock," reproached Kirk, "we’ll never make it carrying dead weight. Let’s move."
"Yes, Sir. I left the recording over this way . . ." he started for the archway where he’d entered, but before they’d covered half the distance, a group of men boiled from the entrance, weapons ready, braced for action. Then one world rang out across the planking, "Hold!"
Arrayed in battle formation, the men advanced until Kirk could count. Only four of them but in their skillful spread, it would be suicide to jump them. These were no doubt the Klingon allies Djuel was expecting.
Spock said mildly, "Good morning, Mr. Bart."
One of the Klingons stepped forward and Kirk could see he was carrying a tricorder, a Federation model tricorder. Bart thought Kirk, that was the name of the Klingon Spock had tangled with in Raphael’s.
Dangling the tricorder negligently. ‘Bart’ said, "Lose something, Mr. Spock?"
"Apparently, Mr. Bart."
"Not ‘Bart’ . . . Kort. My name is Kort. Bart to the sheep. Kort to a worthy enemy."
"Thank you, Kort. I am deeply honored to be your enemy."
Kort examined the tricorder. "Let us just see what it controls, feigning ignorance to prolong the prisoner’s ordeal.
Kirk seethed with barely suppressed fury. It was a hopeless situation. The Klingons all carried disruptors, and Kirk knew that Klingons wouldn’t bother to point a disruptor at someone unless it was set to kill.
Finally, Kort found the interesting recording and miniature voices carried on a tiny conversation amidst enough background noise to drown out a Drill Instructor. Kirk listened tightly. It was Suhav receiving the package of drugs and a briefing concerning the remainder of the operation on Babel.
"Yes," Kort said, "I see. I’d certainly like to know where you got this. But," he made a negligent gesture with the tricorder, "it really doesn’t matter. We’ll just eliminate this small complication by erasing the tape." With a savagely expert gesture, he wiped the tape and hurled the tricorder into the darkness where it landed with a clatter that raised echoes that faded slowly away to silence.
"Of course," said Kirk levelly, "you understand there is another copy."
"Of course," said Kort genially, "And we’ll get to that in due time."
Spock remained silent.
It had all happened so quickly, Kirk found himself not quite sure how it had been done. One moment he’d been a prisoner under interrogation. Then Spock had rescued him leaving the Romulans sprawled under several layers of fallen rigging. And then, suddenly, he was a prisoner again. Only this time, Spock was lashed to the standpipe with him as they watched the Romulans come to, one by one, and start to push back some of the cables to make a clear space around the standpipe.
Suddenly, another Klingon appeared out of the shadows.
The instant Kirk saw his face, he recognized Kang, the Klingon Captain who had been transported aboard the __Enterprise__ by the energy being who fed on emotions. The Klingon’s bushy eyebrows and beard were gone and his wife, Mara, was not at his side, but the overbearing manner remained unaltered as he sauntered up to his captives ignoring the disgraced Romulans. "Captain Kirk. What an unexpected pleasure."
Kirk wanted to spit in his face but pulled himself together and answered, "I’m sorry I can’t say the same. The sight of you is never unexpected nor a pleasure." It was a retort that would have done credit to Spock at his best, and that delighted Kirk.
But Kang failed to appreciate it. He stepped in front of Kirk and looked him up and down as if inspecting a shoddy piece of merchandise. "And you’re still __only__ a Starship Captain?" He turned to Djuel, "You let him get away. That was very careless of you, Sub-commander. If we hadn’t happened along in time, you’d be up for execution right now. I can’t allow . . ."
"__You__ can’t allow . . .?" Djuel all but spluttered. Then she collected herself and went on with cold indignation. "Just who do you think you are to allow or not allow anything with regard to me or my command? We informed you of Kirk’s capture as a courtesy to an ally, not as a report to a superior. If we chose to release him, that’s our business."
"Yes, of course, Sub-Commander," But it was plain Kang didn’t buy that bluff. "Just remember that I am in charge of this operation. I conceived it and organized it. I’ve staked my career on its success. Your cooperation is convenient, nothing more. Any further blunders and I will see that your superiors take appropriate action."
Barely controlling himself, Kang turned to Spock. "Well, Vulcan," he started acidly, "now tell me where are the other copies of that recording?"
For a moment, Spock held Kang’s eyes steadily. Then he shifted his gaze over Kang’s shoulder, locking eyes with S’Dak as if desiring to say something, yet somehow inhibited.
Twisting to catch a glimpse of Kang, Kirk thought the Klingon was on the verge of apoplexy. He’d been dismissed by his prisoner as unimportant.
But then, the Klingon broke into one of those unexpected laughs, little more than a feral bark. "All right, __Vulcan__, I’ve been told you’ve had some experience with our mind sifter. We have a new improved model we’d like to test and you’ll be the perfect field subject."
Without looking away from S’Dak, Spock said casually, "That will be unnecessary. There was only the one copy."
Djuel laughed, "Vulcan cowardice."
Spock’s gaze drifted back to S’Dak but he addressed Djuel, "Do you then doubt . . . everything . . . that S’Dak has told you?"
"And what do you know of what S’Dak has told me?" She snapped with such intensity that Kirk felt spurred to
comment, "Oh, you’d be surprised."
Unmoved, S’Dak said, "Very clever, Spock, but it won’t work. I have never given them reason to distrust me, whereas you have never given them reason to trust you."
"But," argued Spock, "Klingons and Romulans accord as little weight to reason as do humans."
"Your views are held by many. But very few of these would attack the Federation by destroying Vulcan’s reputation."
"Destroying Vulcan’s reputation in the eyes of . . . humans . . . is far better than allowing them to destroy Vulcan."
Djuel stepped between the verbal combatants and spat, "No. Let us not be distracted by Vulcan argument."
Eyes still riveted on S’Dak, Spock asked, "Are you afraid I might convince S’Dak that he is acting on fallacious assumptions? On Vulcan, the coward is one who refuses to expose his rationale to logical argument."
S’Dak answered, "I stand ready to defend my actions before the Legions if necessary. However, I doubt if you will live long enough to bring the matter to that stage."
"In that case," said Spock, "yours will be the greater loss, S’Dak."
Kang roared, "Enough!"
The echoes of the bellow cascaded into silence and all eyes turned to the Klingon. But before he could take advantage of the attention, Kirk interposed, "You must feel very safe here to risk such a great amount of noise."
"S’Dak, observe," murmured Spock aside, "the people you have allied with." He chinned toward Kang, "He cannot claim the attention of his underlings by the quality of his words and is reduced to screaming like a starving primate . . ."
Kang’s gloved hand whipped across Spock’s mouth, snapping the Vulcan’s head onto his left shoulder. Kirk felt the blow vibrate the standpipe and twisting around, he caught a glimpse of Spock’s face, a trickle of green blood forming at the corner of his mouth and the green lighting from the glow panels lending a ghastly hue to the Vulcan’s complexion.
"Now," said Kang, "S’Dak, I want you to make the rounds of the guards. Make certain they stay alert. I don’t want to be disturbed."
Unmoving, S’Dak looked at Djuel, his immediate superior. But she dismissed him with a wave of her hand, obviously very glad to get rid of the Vulcan, even on command of a Klingon.
Kang turned to her, "As I see it, our problem is how to make it seem that these two have killed each other in hand to hand combat. You may yet salvage something of your prestige if you can devise a method that will convince the Vulcans that humans can’t be trusted . . . while, at the same time, convincing the humans that Vulcans are too dangerously unpredictable to make good allies."
Thoughtfully, she approached Spock, picking her way through the network of fallen cables while searching his face. When she reached him, she placed a hand on his cheek, forefinger caressing his temple. He didn’t flinch from her touch, but met her eyes steadily, his expression chillingly remote.
"Yes," she whispered, "I understand what the Commander saw in you. Do you find all Romulan women attractive?"
His eyes remained focused on hers.
"Attractive?" the Sub-commander pounded on that eagerly. "Attractive enough to induce you to join us? In the last few years, many of your compatriots have come to us as Vulcan’s only hope. We are of one blood, you and I. Should not our race be reunited under one banner? With your name as a rallying cry, the ancient grandeur of All Vulcan could be reestablished in Top-of-World. You would have your choice of women, Romulan or Vulcan. None could deny you."
For one fleeting moment, Kirk thought he saw temptation flicker in Spock’s eyes, but then the Vulcan said, "Grandeur, Djuel? There was nothing grand in my family’s history until we took the banner of Surak and obliterated all but the memory of Top-of-World. Now only gubmendik graze the slopes and the pillars of Surak rise from the ruins at Crest of World. I and my family are Guardians of a new tradition."
She removed her hand from his face, "And is that new tradition in complete accord with all your inner needs, Spock?"
"Yes, Djuel, it is."
She sighed turning to Kang, "He’s unreachable."
"Perhaps," said Kang, "but you give me an idea, woman. Come," he gathered the group with a gesture, "we will discuss this."
The five Klingons and three Romulans picked their way over the cables and out onto the planking that covered the pool. They piled up heaps of cables and seated themselves in a circle while Kirk stretched his neck, trying to relieve the cramps, "She’s a tempting little package. Spock, you’re harder to please than I thought."
"Humans place a strange emphasis on the value of pleasure, especially false pleasure."
"Do I detect a note of regret?"
"Regret, Captain? Certainly not. Thoughtfulness, perhaps."
"Their weakest link? Yes? What do you suppose they bribed him with?"
"He was not bribed."
"Then, why . . .?"
"He genuinely believes the Federation to be a menace to our way of life."
Kirk tried to change the subject. "I overheard Djuel say that S’Dak helped engineer the murder-frame they put on your father."
"Is that all you have to say? Not even the slightest impulse toward revenge?"
"Revenge, Captain, is illogical. Respectfully suggest employing our energies in more fruitful ways."
"Fine. Any ideas?"
"Do you still have your communicator?"
"No. They pried up one of the planks and dumped it in the water."
"Then we are reduced to our bare hands and our wits, which may prove inadequate for the task. Our only other asset is a certain square-wave which should survive for several hours yet."
"In fact," finished Kirk, "it will probably outlive us. Not that it matters. There’s nobody to read the message."
"So it would seem."
They fell into a glum silence which was presently broken by Kang’s bellowed laughter. Then the five Klingons and three Romulans rose and came toward their prisoners. Kang, brimming with hearty spirits, put an arm around Suhav’s shoulder saying, "It will be the biggest story you ever filed. Might even get you a promotion. Can you use their tricorder to make the tape?"
With evident distaste, Suhav pulled away from the Klingon, "Of course. I was trained for this mission in a __Romulan__ espionage school."
Kang halted his group facing his prisoners and looked around, "Where’s S’Dak? You," he pointed to one of the Romulans, "go get S’Dak. I want to know if a Vulcan reporter would tape such a fight without attempting to stop it."
"I told you," Suhav repeated as if for the tenth time, "it would be perfectly in character. Haven’t I been a Vulcan for the last three years?"
"But your Romulan judgment may yet be faulty in this one area. We pay S’Dak to point out errors before we make them."
"This time," said Djuel, "I would use S’Dak for the experimental subject."
"Oh, we will, Sub-commander. But we wouldn’t want to damage him permanently. He might yet be useful. This one, however," he eyed Spock, "is a liability. We will find out how much it takes to create . . . obvious insanity . . . in him first." He turned to his men. "Kort, bring the light projector to the lab . . ."
Djuel stepped between Kang and the Klingons. "And after he kills the human, what will you do with him? The effect will pass . . ."
"Oh, no. We won’t let it pass. We’ll determine the lethal dosage." He inspected the Vulcan critically. "The autopsy will show that he died of natural causes and Suhav’s tape will support that conclusion. The drug leaves no trace other than a perfectly natural chemical imbalance . . ."
She spoke to Kang’s back, "The other Vulcans he’s spoken with in the last few days will know it wasn’t natural."
"Ah, but he’s half-human. And the evidence will be incontrovertible . . . with the aid of Suhav’s tape." He chuckled, turning toward her, "Now go and prepare for your rendezvous with your ‘Captain’. Meanwhile, Mara will have her opportunity to test her new mind-sifter on a notoriously resistant mind."
Kang looked at his prisoners and roared with laughter that cascaded off the vaulted ceiling and drenched all of them in chill echoes.
Now that Spock had gone, the lone Watch Officer, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, Senior in Command of the majestic starship, __Enterprise__, paced nervously back and forth from the main Engineering Deck controls across the hall to Auxiliary Control, checking one chronometer against the other and mentally converting from Stardate to hours and back again.
Finally, his patience deserted him, and he stalked into Auxiliary Control and threw himself into the command chair activating the intercom, "Doberman!"
"Bridge. Doberman here."
"Why haven’t you tracked down that malfunction yet?"
"Sir. It appears that there is no malfunction. We really are receiving a square-wave beep at ten second intervals."
"No, not __that__ malfunction. The computers, lad, the computers!"
"McClintok is working on that one, Sir, but I don’t think we can lick it without Mr. Spock. McClintok says there’s some sort of recording caught in an infinite read-loop between unit K on deck seven and the PT module on deck eight. Nobody up here has any idea what could possibly cause it. None of us have used that section . . ."
"Well, you better find out . . ."
"Sir, you __know__ how Mr. Spock is about his computers. I wouldn’t dare authorize anyone, even McClintok, to open up the PT banks or probe into those units without Mr. Spock’s explicit instructions. However, if you’d care to issue an order, maybe McClintok could get away with it since he’s on such good terms with . . ."
"No," the Chief Engineer interrupted, "never mind. I’ll call Mr. Spock . . . in the morning. You may as well knock off and get some sleep. With Mr. Spock and McClintok tearing into the computers tomorrow, it’s going to be a busy day."
"Aye, Sir. Bridge out."
Scotty leaned back in the swivel chair and rocked from side to side thoughtfully. Square-wave beep? And he couldn’t even call down to see if Babel Control was putting it out. But if they weren’t, where was it coming from, and why?"
All this trouble had started just after Mr. Spock had come aboard, thought Scotty morosely. If it was all caused by something that Vulcan had done, a question would clear it up, but how to get in touch with the Science Officer?
Someone would have to go down in a shuttle, and admit to the Vulcan’s face that something was wrong with his beloved computer system.
That set the Engineer’s heart to racing. Never was there a task which he faced with greater reluctance. It wasn’t that the Vulcan would be angry, oh, no, not Spock. But Scotty would rather face a rampaging human than a Vulcan’s unremitting logic.
But it would have to be done. He’d take McClintok down with him. The lad had a natural aptitude for computers that Spock respected. And, McClintok, the newest addition to the __Enterprise’s__ crew, was the only one aboard, next to
the Captain, who could consistently beat Spock at tournament chess. Maybe the lad could also out-maneuver the First Officer in a verbal confrontation if he could ever be induced to say anything at all that wasn’t related to chess.
When Lieutenant Fisher came to relieve him, Scotty hit the sack for three hours of well earned sleep. But he woke to find the situation unchanged and could delay no longer.
Briefly, he considered calling Babel Control on a different frequency but discarded the notion. The __Enterprise__ was now in populated space and the Federation’s laws on spectrum-slot assignments were explicit. This was no emergency.
Five minutes after he decided he had no choice, he paraded his crew of clean cut, eager young men and women on the Engineering Deck. Hands behind his back, he paced up and down in front of the line, "Doberman, Cooper, McClintok. You three know the most about the problem. You come with me. Fisher, you’re in Command. I’ll expect you to button-up Fire Control Alpha and complete the work on deck eleven by the time I get back. But don’t touch any of the Communication/Computation circuitry. Clear?"
Fifteen male voices joined by nine female ones chorused, "Aye, Sir."
Scotty nodded brusquely and marched off, followed by Doberman, a lanky blond with a prominent nose. Cooper followed, running stubby-fingers through his short black hair and wishing Uhura were here to take his place. She seemed to have a better sense of humor where Spock was concerned. Last in line, came the downy-faced chess champion of the __Enterprise__ whose watery blue eyes made people feel that, when he focused his attention on someone, he was swimming up from the ocean bottom to peer out like a sailor using a pair of badly focused binoculars.
The trip down to Babel in the shuttlecraft was passed in a queer silence. Each was certain that none of his own actions had caused the breakdowns, but each knew that, with one glance, the Vulcan First Officer could transform any human imperfection into a major character flaw.
Doberman and Cooper counted themselves lucky that their Vulcan was half human. Some of the harrowing tales told by the humans from the __Kongo__ were enough to make anyone contemplate resigning from Star Fleet at the mere suggestion of transfer to a Vulcan command.
To McClintok, on the other hand, Spock was only an unimpressive chess amateur. He spent the ride mentally playing rapid transit against himself to check his memory of the latest analysis of the Tallman Improvisation that had won against the Vulcan Grand Master, Simnor, at the Finger Lakes Congress on Centaurus IV. He didn’t even see Scotty sign the shuttle into the Babel parking tower nor was he particularly aware of Scotty’s methodical efforts to locate the Vulcan through Babel’s paging service. But he did hear Scotty sigh, "Well, lads, I’d rather not bother the Captain with this just yet. Let’s go find a bite to eat and then tackle Babel Central’s Communications Chief. By then, perhaps Mr. Spock will turn up."
Scotty left a message for the First Officer and took his men upstairs looking for a suitable restaurant. After much rubbernecking on the excuse of searching for the missing Vulcan, they settled on a Rigilian cafe just off the Concourse of Planets.
It was a small place but lacked the cozy feel of the crowded cafes Scotty frequented when on Rigel II. It was noon here, but the Hearings had not yet recessed for lunch so there were only five occupied tables and a handful of Star Fleet uniforms in evidence.
Standing in the entrance, hands on hips, Scotty surveyed the place. He felt he could lose half the __Enterprise__ crew in here and still hear echoes if he dropped a depolarizing spanner. But the steaming food smelled good and so did the hot Rigilian burgamead that was almost as good as real scotch.
Perhaps it would be more logical to eat someplace where Spock would be likely to turn up, but Scotty’s stomach wasn’t in a logical mood. His overhaul was well ahead of schedule and he saw no reason to hurry in finding the Science Officer, so he led his group on through the aisles of tables until he spotted one for six in a back corner.
It wasn’t until he was almost on top of it that Scotty noticed there was already a steaming lunch set out for one person, and that the lone occupant was just returning from the restrooms.
"Scotty!" cried the erstwhile occupant.
"Dr. McCoy! I didn’a expect . . ."
"Well, neither did I. Sit down, all of you. Plenty of room. Funny, I was just thinking of you. Doesn’t this place remind you of a certain dancing girl . . .?"
"That’s not why we came down, Doctor. We’ve been wanting to talk with Mr. Spock. Have you seen him about?"
"Well, no, not for a couple of days. I was just talking with Amanda . . ."
"Would she be knowing where to find him?"
"Uh, no. I don’t think so. What’s the big rush?"
They sat down and Scotty told him.
McClintok settled himself and positioned his tricorder unobtrusively. Within thirty seconds, he was totally absorbed in a match that had been played on Regulus II less than a year ago. It involved the Eel Bind Variation of the Vegan Defense against the White Queen’s Gambit and McClintok wanted to play the variation against Spock who had certainly not heard of it since he rarely followed the competitions.
When Scotty finished talking, McCoy hid an incipient grin behind a cough, "I’d like to hear you explain all this to our First Officer."
"There’s nothing funny about it, Mon."
"There’s nothing funny about what’s been going on down here, either," snapped McCoy. "Your problems would provide the comic relief we all need."
"I havna had time to follow all the news . . ."
"Then," said McCoy, "Let me fill you in." The Doctor talked until the waiter came to take their order, and then continued confidentially, "So, I’m going to bend security regs a little and tell you that the Captain found Sarek and now the Ambassador’s in the brig charged with murder. Spock’s in the brig, too, for brawling. That’s top security, too. Leak it and we’ll all be court martialed."
"Brawling!" Scotty’s eyes twinkled in a way that declared the Vulcan would never live this one down.
"We’re keeping it from Amanda, for the present," continued the Doctor gravely. "She’s had enough shocks for the time being. All she knows is that Sarek has been found and is well."
"In that case," said Scotty, "I guess we canna talk to Mr. Spock."
When they finished the meal, Scotty sent Doberman and Cooper to check with Babel Central and they returned to report a complete negative.
Scotty set his mug down with a splash, "Give me that tricorder." Doberman handed it over and the Engineer worked the instrument as if he’d wagered a bottle of hundred year old Scotch on his skill. After several minutes he exclaimed. "That beep originates from a point source . . . right doon there." He pointed to the floor beneath their feet. "Let’s go." He was in no mood to wait for the spectrum monitors to catch the intruder.
Holding the tricorder at arm’s length, Scotty followed it out of the restaurant until he had a precise directional fix. His men gathered around him, forming an eddy in the traffic flowing through the corridor.
"How far down?" asked McCoy.
"A wee shade more than," Scotty eyed the ceiling and then the floor estimating the distance, "twenty levels."
McCoy led the way to the nearest wall map, tracing a route with his finger, "We’re here. Twenty levels down . . . would be here. But that’s closed," he said tapping the glowing red warning lines, "There’s no way to get down there."
"We’ll find a way," promised the Scott.
"And if we do, we’re likely to be asphyxiated," said McCoy, "or thoroughly lost. This is a big . . ."
Scotty frowned, "If my memory serves me right, you told me a week ago that you’d been an Explorer Scout . . ."
"I did? Well, I was, but this . . ."
"So come along."
Suddenly, streams of delegates poured onto the Concourse from the Hall of All Planets and Scotty ploughed his way toward the first down ramp. After a moment, McCoy hurried to catch up with the group. Wherever they were going, they might need a doctor.
In the green shadowed darkness, deep in the bowels of the Tower of Babel, Kirk shook himself awake at the sound of feet stumbling through the tangled cables that still lay on the planking. He’d fallen asleep still chained to the standpipe. Now, he climbed to his feet, his shoulders afire with the effort of forcing his benumbed hands down behind his back.
Before he could focus his eyes, a limp body fell on him and slid to the floor at his feet. Blinking away his sleep, he saw it was Spock at his feet and Mara who had delivered him.
She motioned and one of the guards held Spock up while the other secured him to the standpipe. Then, wordlessly, the Klingons marched away leaving the prisoners alone among the sinister shadows.
Kirk twisted around to look at his First Officer. The Vulcan’s eyes were closed, a sure sign he wasn’t well. And his head lolled forward on his chest as if he were dead.
It seemed like hours but could only have been minutes later when Spock stirred, proving at least that he still lived. Now Kirk had only to worry about the Vulcan’s sanity. From their experience on Organia, the Klingon mind-sifter was perfectly capable of ripping even a Vulcan trained mind to shreds.
"Spock. Wake up. It’s all over. They’ve gone. You can come out of it now. Spock."
One of the Vulcan’s eyes opened. Then the other. He appeared to assemble the components of his personality until he could say, "Captain . . ."
"Spock . . . are you all right?"
Painfully, the Vulcan climbed to his feet. "Functional, Captain."
"They didn’t penetrate your mind?"
"I believe not, though they believe they did."
"Let’s keep it that way. How did you manage to resist the machine?"
"I did not resist. I told the truth. That they destroyed the only copy of the tape . . . except the one in my mind."
"Which may as well not exist as far as the law is concerned," said Kirk gloomily.
"But even so, I’d expect they would have ransacked your mind, digging for anything that might be useful to them."
"Indeed. They did try. However, I’ve, matured, somewhat since Organia."
At that moment, a party of seven men marched through the archway, arguing among themselves heatedly. As they neared, Kirk identified Kang, Kort, S’Dak, Djuel, Suhav and two of the Klingon guards. S’Dak was moving back and forth between Djuel and Kang, saying, "But you can’t just kill him. He’s a youngest son of a youngest son. Necessity or not, you can’t kill them both on the same day."
"Quiet, Vulcan," said Kang. "We didn’t ask your opinion on his ultimate fate, only whether Suhav’s part is being staged correctly. Suhav’s story must be perfect. We don’t want him to lose his cover when we withdraw."
"Yes, yes. I explained that. It will work if you report it as I said, but it would be better at least to allow . . ."
"No," said Djuel, "and that is final. He will die and they will find his body. That is the way it must be. Surely your logic shows you that."
"It does not. If he must die, then Sarek must survive as was originally planned."
By this time, the party had reached the captives and S’Dak turned to Spock, hands outstretched beseechingly, "Surely, you agree."
"Your logic is flawless," said Spock, "However, your premises are unsound, hence your conclusions are fallacious. Nothing Vulcan can survive if the Romulans prevail."
S’Dak turned to Kang. "You said you deep probed his mind, that your machine reached the levels of cultural conditioning and implanted . . ."
"Quiet, S’Dak," the Klingon growled and then addressed Spock. "You did not resist. The mind-sifter took you apart synapse by synapse. Yet you say this?"
"Perhaps I put myself back together again."
"Enough of this," roared the Klingon leader. "Kort, inject him."
As Kort adjusted an air hypo and approached Spock, Djuel confronted Kirk, a thin smile stretching her lips. She was dressed in a softly feminine drape of material that revealed enough to set any man’s blood afire. He’d seen the style on Vulcan, but it was usually worn over a modest undergarment.
"Thus ends the legend of Captain Kirk," she said. "It may make quite a ballad one day."
With a flourish that wafted the hem of her fragrant sleeve under Kirk’s nose, she circled around to face Spock, inserting herself between the Vulcan and Kort who was just finishing the injection. She looked into brooding Vulcan eyes. "In a few moments, Spock, you will begin to become agitated. Your mind will open to any suggestion we make. And we will suggest that you desire me . . . for your own. Does that seem unlikely?"
"It does indeed. You might have had greater success had you dressed properly for the occasion."
She pirouetted demurely revealing even more of her shapely self. "Does my costume disturb you?"
"Disturb? Negative. Repel, perhaps."
"The garment is never worn thus in public."
"But the Captain doesn’t know that and it is for him I dressed. The drug will guide you through your part. And those who see the tape will believe I dressed for a private meeting." She mocked him. "Would you have me meet my lover robed to serve KirTon?"
Spock’s eyes narrowed, "It was you who drugged Sarek."
Kirk twisted around to catch a glimpse of the scene being played behind him. Djuel’s hands covered her mouth and her eyes darted to the watching Kang. But Kang dismissed her blunder with a wave of his hand. Plainly, he thought Spock wouldn’t live to use that information.
Straining his neck, Kirk could just see Spock’s face set in a ferocious grimace. The drug, whatever it was, was working.
Djuel moved in closer to Spock. The top of her head was on a level with his nose so that his lips were buried in her loosened hair. After a heartstopping pause, the Vulcan averted his face and sucked in a ragged breath. Kirk could feel the standpipe between them vibrating with Spock’s trembling.
Suddenly, Djuel flung her head back and placed both her hands on his cheeks, turning his head toward her. "Look at me, Spock. You desire me. Your mind is locked to mine, for all eternity. Our destinies are twined; our souls mingled. It is to me that you MUST come . . ."
"No! It . . . is . . . NOT!"
"It was to me that you were linked . . ."
Kang broke in, "Kort, double the dose."
As the Klingon moved to obey, S’Dak said, "Need I remain? I have duties . . ."
Spock turned on him, suddenly livid with a suppressed fury that halted Kort in motion, hypo scant inches from Spock’s shoulders. "Duties? Your duty is here. It is written. ‘Suffer the death of thy enemy and the anguish of thy liege. The hand of the accuser shall boil in the blood of the accused and his oaths shall drape the necks of the living unto and beyond the wards of death.’ " He chinned toward the Klingons, "They know not the measure of honor, but thee call thyself Vulcan. Are thee Vulcan or are thee . . ." he spat the word at S’Dak’s feet, "gubmendik?"
Kirk had never heard his First Officer so impassioned. It lent the cryptic speech the air of a challenge on the field of honor and indeed, S’Dak recoiled as if slapped by a feudal gauntlet. But, after facing his challenger for a few
moments, he relaxed. "It is the drug that speaks through your mouth. If you did but see with clear eyes, the vision that haunts me, threatening to devour all Vulcan within my own generation, you would join us, and there would be no need to end your line."
"Then your duty is to stay and convince me . . ."
"It is too late. Action has been taken by the leaders of our common cause. A life must be sacrificed, but that is no reason to allow other affirs (sic RBW affairs) to languish."
"There is death and there is Death. Would that your allies grant you the Death of Surak."
"The legend of Surak and the thousand bells has no relevance, it is pure fabrication."
"As Guardian of the tradition handed down to me through all my father’s father’s generations, I assert that the thousand bells has every relevance, though it may indeed be pure fabrication." He eyed S’Dak speculatively, "However, I do not expect you to see the connection immediately. That would require a certain skill in the logical disciplines."
Kang stepped between the two Vulcans, "Enough!" he bellowed pouring all his frustration into decibels. "Kort, give him one and a half units more."
S’Dak seemed to wake from a daydream, shook himself, and departed hastily. As the Vulcan’s footsteps echoed and died, Kang reared back and loosed waves of mocking laughter. Presently, the Klingon leader sobered and leveled his gaze at Spock. "Vulcans have no stomachs."
But the insult had no effect. The First Officer stood, head lowered, eyes squeezed tightly shut, jaw muscles bunching under the sallow akin. Kirk could feel the trembling in the tense body and he twisted around to watch Djuel move close to Spock’s chest, suggesting, taunting until finally, he lunged at her.
Kirk stumbled backwards, off balance as the standpipe was wrenched a good five degrees off vertical. The Captain held his breath prayerfully as a rending protest deep inside the wall cut through the eerie silence. If something broke, it would activate an alarm, that would bring help.
But the screech died away without apparent effect.
Kirk shifted his weight and eyed Spock. The chains had held and Spock’s shoulders had been wrenched back cruelly by his lunge. The pain had sobered him once more, and now he stood quietly surveying the Klingons through slitted eyes.
Djuel stood far back as if confronted by an enraged Denevian lythma. "I believe he would have killed me."
"Your mistake," said Kang, "was telling him about your role in the Kirton."
"I didn’t tell . . ."
"You told enough." He ordered, "Kort, bring that light. Suhav, set up your tricorder to filter the light out . . . we don’t want it to show on the final tape." He motioned his men forward, "Untie the earther and put him over there," he gestured toward the area they’d cleared of fallen cable, "but watch him. He’s the hero type earther who knows how worthless his life is."
By the time the guards had Kirk unchained, Kort had returned with a compact hand projector no bigger than a man’s forearm. Taking the projector, Kang ordered two more units dosage for Spock then turned to Djuel. "Over there beside Kirk now. Give it a good forty seconds for the tape. And, Captain, my men have Klingon disruptors, instantly lethal when desired, but a wound in the thigh or shoulder is slower than disembowelment, and more painful."
Kang motioned the guards away from Kirk to give Suhav an unobstructed view that showed only Kirk and Djuel alone in the dark. With a skill that surprised Kirk, she presented herself to be kissed, maneuvering with her back to Suhav so that Kirk was clearly identified while she remained anonymous except for her bared ears.
After a few seconds, Kirk found himself responding automatically and had to fight not to lose himself. He’d never been so adroitly seduced before and he found himself wondering how Spock had resisted her.
Finally, she broke the kiss and clung to him to whisper in his ear, as if she’d been reading his mind, "I was trained to handle human males, Captain. Would you congratulate my instructors?"
Abruptly, she broke away from his arms and leaped back, crying out in what seemed genuine surprise. An instant later, Kirk was knocked over by a hundred sixty five pounds of Vulcan fury and then he was fighting for his life.
Dry fingers closed on Kirk’s neck and his eyes bulged before he could get his knee up far enough to boost the Vulcan over his head. Then, momentarily, Spock’s entire weight descended on Kirk’s throat and he thought he was dead.
But, then the pressure vanished and Kirk rolled to his feet, crouching to face his crazed opponent. His only hope against that strength was his agility, if the drug would rob Spock of coordination as well as reason.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk saw Suhav dancing around trying to get a close shot of Spock’s face. He was probably recording body-functions, too. Behind Suhav, Kang was pointing his light projector at Kirk, but there was no visible effect.
Suddenly, Spock was on him again, ignoring the threat of Kirk’s fists and closing to envelop the human in a spine-snapping bear hug. Kirk could hear the joints cracking, bones grinding against one another, and a sudden pain lanced down his legs. He gouged savagely at the Vulcan’s eyes, pushing his head back until he thought he would break Spock’s neck.
But the relentless pressure on Kirk’s back increased steadily. The drug had left Spock no interest in self defense. The sacrifice of vision or life itself was trivial to him compared to success in this battle. Berserk was the only word Kirk could think of. Clearly, it was kill or be killed.
The Captain’s back gave another searing protest and his unarmed combat instructor from the Academy whispered in his ear, and Kirk knew it was his only hope.
It would have to be a hard-driven knee to the groin, a blow that might be lethal. Kirk’s whole being shrank from the savage tactic. He’d have to put his whole strength into it. He’d certainly get no second chance.
Laboriously, he shifted his weight onto his left leg, which was growing numb from the pressure on his back. In one last, desperate hope, Kirk drove his fingers into Spock’s eyes. But it did no good. The crushing of his ribs had emptied his lungs and he was blacking out. "Spock," thought Kirk silently, "don’t make me do this. I don’t want to do this." He put all the anguish of his human emotions behind that plea while he concentrated all his strength into his right leg. It was a technique Spock had taught him while trying to teach him the nerve pinch.
Suddenly, Kirk felt his left leg buckling. Now or never. He drove his knee up in a brutal attack. But instantly, he regretted it. Eye screwed tightly shut against the grinding agony in his back, Kirk waited for his knee to connect with soft tissue and crunch into hard bone.
But, then, the pressure on his back was gone and his left leg crumpled under him. His right knee met . . . thin air! Momentum carried him back and his skull cracked against the planks. He skidded into a pile of cables like a discarded rag doll.
Dazed, he peered into the darkness. Spock had thrown himself backwards to avoid the blow. His motion had been so abrupt that Suhav had been caught off guard. In what seemed to Kirk like surrealistic slow motion, the Vulcan ploughed into the reporter and the two figures tumbled in a graceless heap.
Kirk rubbed circulation back into his leg and the whole scene snapped back to normal tempo. In a flash, the Klingon guards were disentangling Suhav from Spock and setting the Vulcan back on his feet while the reporter retreated to a safe distance.
But, the kill crazed Vulcan lunged at the reporter, grabbing a handful of his tunic and nearly strangling him.
Swiftly, Kort moved in with his light projector and aimed it at the floor just within Spock’s field of vision. Like an automaton, the Vulcan turned, led by the puddle of light, until it settled on Kirk again.
The Captain scrambled hastily behind the pile of cables at his back. He didn’t understand why the light controlled the direction of Spock’s hostility, but he wasn’t going to stand still while it singled him out again.
Crouching low in the green shadows, Kirk kneaded his back. It was sore, but apparently not too badly injured. Spock was fighting the drug. His full strength could have severed a human spine in seconds.
Then he heard the booming tattoo of running feet and abruptly he was smothered under Spock’s weight again. They rolled and Kirk came up on top. He scrambled free and ran back into the cleared arena, searching the shadows for the onlookers.
The reporter was maneuvering for an angle that would include Djuel and the Captain. Kirk measured angles, estimated momentum and braced himself.
Spock leapt over the cables and charged the Captain. Kirk moved his right leg back to brace himself better, and took the impact with his arms against Spock’s chest. He grabbed a double handful of blue velour and swung his whole body around in a shot-put wind-up that sent the Vulcan hurtling toward the line of spectators.
Spock crashed into Djuel carrying them both into Suhav. The reporter stumbled into Kort and the light projector sailed high into the vaulted shadows landing somewhere out of sight with a hollow clang.
Kang’s voice bellowed, "Kort, get him!"
But Kort wasn’t fast enough. Spock picked himself up, shook his head dazedly and dove at Kang who was obliged to dance back into the shadows while the other guards swarmed onto Spock.
Then Kirk joined the melee, elbows and knees flailing with telling accuracy. It felt more natural fighting with Spock instead of against him.
Out of the corner of his eye, the Captain saw Kort trying to aim a disruptor at Spock who was busy throttling Kang. Hastily, Kirk finished off another guard and waded toward Spock.
But before he’d taken two steps, a man in Star Fleet red came sailing out of the shadows landing squarely on Kort’s back.
A second red uniform followed, then another and a final one topped with shining blond hair. With a shrug, Kirk narrowed down his concentration to deal with the nearest Klingon. But for all his size, the guard was quick. He dodged the blow and launched a drop-kick that sent Kirk down among shuffling feet clad in steel toed black boots from which a forest of muscular legs writhed. Someone stepped on the Captain’s shoulder, grinding a boot heel into the aching joint and then stumbled away. Testily, Kirk fended off a Star Fleet boot that was descending towards his abdomen. The owner of the boot fell heavily to the planking beside Kirk and a white face turned toward him in the shadows. "Captain!"
Kirk gripped a Romulan leg and shoved it away, "Scotty! What took you so long!"
A limp Klingon body dropped out of nowhere and landed across the two Star Fleet officers, knocking the air out of both of them. A gangling, red shirted youth landed on top of the Klingon. Two blue clad arms reached down to pluck him off the pile and Kirk heard Spock’s voice, "A brilliant application of basic chess principles, Mr. McClintok."
As the feather weight youth was lifted, Kirk heard him say, "Chess, huh?"
"Klingons and Romulans versus the Federation. Chess is basically a war game."
"Oh. Oh, you mean . . . no, it wasn’t __my__ idea . . . it was S’Dak’s . . ."
"__He__ calculated the voltage?"
"Yes. I only rigged the pool controls to flood."
Kirk’s back was damp. He pushed the Klingon body off his chest, "Scotty, S’Dak is a Romulan agent!"
"Not any more," said the Engineer. "He’s going to . . ."
Abruptly, shock slammed through Kirk’s body, stiffening every muscle, exploding in his head as his eyes bulged . . . a disruptor beam split the darkness, someone far away screamed, and the last thing Kirk knew before the darkness claimed him was the forest of stiffened bodies toppling on him, burying him.
Kirk sank deep into the chair, rocking gently to ease his strained back and admitted to himself that he was getting a bit old for sudden acrobatics. As he sipped the bright flavored Vulcan drink Amanda had provided, he felt he should be annoyed at McCoy for hovering behind his chair like a fussy mother Horta. But it was impossible to sustain jangling emotions while immersed in a Vulcan family reunion.
Even the argument Sarek and Spock were having around the viewscreen in the corner of the suite’s main room was intense without being tense. It was a Vulcan argument; emphatic but devoid of any personal conflict. To a Vulcan, losing an argument was no disgrace but an occasion for rejoicing.
It was odd, reflected Kirk, the way such nuances only became apparent in total relaxation. His euphoria, he knew, was partly due to the analgesic Bones had given him and partly due to some subtle effect of the non-alcoholic but potent Vulcan drink.
The Captain’s eye came to rest on Spock and Sarek, still bent head to head over the screen, apparently oblivious to the chairs Amanda had placed behind their knees. They’d been at it ever since he and Bones had arrived. For once, the humans had been punctual and the Vulcans unprepared for their dinner engagement. And the Kirton Tsu’ wouldn’t wait. Still, the murmuring exchange continued like a chanted duet.
Amanda had cautioned them not to interrupt. Sarek was trying to determine whether Spock’s behaviour under the influence of the drug had been a violation of his Oath-Binding. As a Senior of the Vulcan Scientific Legion of Honor, Sarek was empowered to make an on the spot decision that would be respected. And it was, Amanda had assured them, a very difficult evaluation in spite of the fact that Spock had appeared before Larkin at the specified time.
The argument had ranged through the last thousand years of Vulcan Literature and now centered on challenging the interpretations of several well-established scholars.
From Kirk’s viewpoint, Spock’s behavior had been irreproachable. The Captain couldn’t imagine the basis of the disagreement between father and son and he resolved that, as soon as his head floated back down from orbit, he’d go and tell them to forget the whole thing. Meanwhile, he would enjoy the languorous mood.
On the whole, the affair had turned out very well indeed. Ensign McClintok’s propensity for chess had distracted him from catching the substitution of tetra-lubisol for penta-lubisol in the Deck Seven computer access panels as well as aboard the Shuttlecraft. The tetralubisol had caused the library computer to retain the recording Spock had analyzed and ordered erased.
Spock’s square-wave broadcast from Kirk’s communicator had been amplified by the seepage of pool water into the circuitry . . . thus attracting Scotty’s attention.
Then, Spock’s recording, together with the captured spies and their supply of drugs had cleared Sarek and alerted the authorities to the fomenting techniques of the infiltrators. Also, with Mara’s gang of agile saboteurs out of the way. the M-IV levels would be habitable again in less than two days thus removing one more source of irritation.
The intricacies of cause and effect bemused Kirk’s drugged mind. He could visualize the future scene in which Spock would chastise McClintok, over a chess board, naturally, for his failure to prevent the lubrication errors. The Vulcan was the only man aboard who could hold McClintok’s attention long enough to drive a censure home. Kirk chuckled at the absorbing passions of youth. Then he grimaced at the shooting pains that lanced outward from his back and took another sip of his drink.
At length, McCoy accepted a drink from Amanda and settled down in a chair beside Kirk. Kirk sighed. That was a welcome relief. He could almost hear the repetitious liturgy in the doctor’s head, "Back injuries can be serious. Jim isn’t as young as he used to be. This is the third time he’s injured his spine in three years. That numbness in the left leg bothers me . . ." over and over.
At long last, Spock straightened, "Yes, you’ve found it, Father. Grandfather told me about it, but I’d never seen it done before."
Deactivating the viewscreen, Sarek nodded, "I’d never have thought to search the original text. Brilliantly done, Spock."
"Thank you, Father. But the clarification would not be definitive were it not for your application of Surak’s Fiftieth Lemma which revealed the composite nature . . ."
Amanda interrupted the post mortem. "Would My Husband care to reveal to me the Honor Status of our son?"
Sarek looked around as if suddenly aware there were others in the room. He blinked twice, then came toward the humans, hands behind his back as if about to face an audience. "My wife, it has been obvious for the last three hours that Spock retains his Legion Status. The problem has been to establish the fact with the maximum elegance."
"Well, now," beamed McCoy, "I think that calls for a celebration."
The remark fell into the silence like a sour note at an Altairian concert.
Hands behind his back in unconscious imitation of his father, Spock looked down at Kirk and sniffed curiously. Abruptly, he took the glass from Kirk’s hand, smelled it and then handed it to Sarek while accusing his mother with an unwavering gaze.
Sarek examined the contents of the glass and then handed it to Amanda, "You should not have . . ."
She took the glass, "But . . ."
Spock said, "Captain, I believe you’ve had enough tsurlitsh for one day. It is not something I would recommend for you." He turned to Amanda, "Perhaps the Captain would care for some purnvifh?"
Amanda looked from husband to son, but met only stern disapproval. "I don’t understand, I thought . . ."
"You thought incorrectly." Sarek assured her.
"If my judgment has been faulty, I must apologize I’ll bring the purnvifh." She retreated to the bar to dial for the antidote to the mild stimulant of telepathic awareness.
"Tell me once again, Spock," said McCoy, "what you said to S’Dak that turned him inside-out like that. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man in such a state as he was when he ran into us . . ."
"Of course, you haven’t seen a ‘man’ in such a state," said Spock, the lines of his face softening in a way that bespoke a polite amount of amusement. "S’Dak is Vulcan. His previous actions were based on logical conclusions drawn from a model of the situation as he saw it. When I pointed out the flaws in his model, he amended his position, logically."
"But what was it exactly that you said?"
Spock recited the conversation verbatim, then added, "He understood there was an Oath-Binding on me that was about to be violated. I might have phrased it differently had I been in full control of myself, but apparently, the phrasing was effective."
McCoy shook his head appreciatively, "Amazingly effective. Do you think the Federation authorities will press charges against him?"
Sarek said, "I doubt it. Ssarsam tells me that the Jurisprudence Committee indicates they are going to adopt the ‘Telepathic Evidence Clause’ and that most members are favorably disposed toward the ‘Cultural Values Amendment’. I believe the literal enforcement of the current laws will be suspended for the interim. S’Dak’s only serious problem will be with the Cunard murder."
Kirk said, "It would be unprecedented, even unconstitutional, to allow ex-post-facto . . ."
"Indeed it would," agreed Spock, "but then it is the Constitution which is under reform because it is as riddled with injustice as are Star Fleet Regulations."
"I’m beginning to see that," said Kirk, "but should we believe everything the Klingons and Romulans tell us?"
Sarek settled himself in a chair across from Kirk, "We should be grateful to our enemies for pointing up our weaknesses. What is the function of an adversary if not to search out inadequacies?"
McCoy chuckled and waved his glass at Spock, "Now I know where you get it. At least you come by it naturally."
Pulling a veil of angelic purity over his face, Spock seated himself opposite McCoy.
When Amanda returned with Kirk’s new drink, Sarek handed it to him, "I would advise you to drink it down quickly, Captain. The flavor may not please you, but I assure you it will do you no harm."
McCoy intercepted the blue crystal goblet and sniffed, "If you don’t mind, Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to reserve the right to prescribe for my patients." Wrinkling his nose at the smell, McCoy held the glass at arm’s length, "What in it?"
Spock answered, "Purnvifh, Doctor, is certified for human consumption by the Federation Medical Association whereas tsurlitsh is not, mainly because of certain side effects." He gestured toward the viewscreen. "You may check that if you wish."
Reluctantly, McCoy handed the glass to Kirk who tossed down the pale blue liquid holding his breath against the pungent fumes. Being a Vulcan concoction, it could hardly contain slimy sea creatures and rotting skunk. It was just his brain associating strange odors with familiar ones.
"Spock," said McCoy, "do you have any idea why that light beam caused you to attack Jim?"
"I don’t remember anything after they untied the Captain and led him away . . ."
McCoy hopped on that, "Isn’t that rather unusual? Hysterical amnesia isn’t a Vulcan . . ."
Sarek said, "Such amnesia is not entirely unknown, Doctor. There have been drugs tested in the laboratory that suppress the brain’s ability to record permanent memories. Such drugs have side effects not unlike those both Spock and I experienced."
"But," said Amanda, "you didn’t seem drugged."
"If I’d known about it, I’d have been able to throw off the effect sooner."
"When," asked McCoy, "did you begin to catch on?"
"Only after the dose I received in Kirton Tsu’. Before that there was nothing unnatural."
"But the blacklight effect?" McCoy persisted.
"That was an ingenious exercise in misdirection," said Spock. "When they put me under the mind-sifter, ostensibly to determine how many copies of the recording I’d made, they really implanted the conditioning that made me respond to the light. I’ve expunged the last vestige of that from my mind, but it was no easy task."
"I hope you’ve been thorough!" said McCoy. "I’ll be sure to check that out before I certify you for duty."
Spock turned to Sarek, "Father, the Klingons may have stumbled on something important there. I’ve a theory that the common Parent Race we share with the Romulans came from a planet of an F-type sun. The salient clue is in the perception sensitivity curve of the Vulcan eye compared to the Romulan, and especially in the inner lid reflex." His words began to tumble over one another until he slipped into Vulcanir.
Listening, Kirk remembered his own father with deep affection. Between them had been an easy-going kind of love that the adult Jim Kirk had learned was very rare. Until recently, he’d been baffled by the closeness of the Vulcan family bonded, somehow, without emotion. But now he could see his First Officer come alive under Sarek’s guidance in a way that transformed him from the coldly reserved Science Officer into a small boy eager for a weekend fishing trip with his father.
Slowly, as the purnvifh took effect, Kirk found himself again on the outside looking in and he began to realize how his friendship with his First Officer had transformed the meaning of the word, Vulcan, for him.
If the rest of the Federation was still thinking in the terms he had grown up with, Kirk mused, they were missing nine-tenths of the reality of Vulcan. And if that were true for Vulcans, who were nearly human, it must be even more true for other races. It was a miracle that the Federation had lasted this long.
But there would be great changes made before he retired. There would be fleets of starships named by non-humans. Scores of new regulations. He hoped he’d retire before things got too complicated. But, he figured he had another ten years left if his back didn’t give out. He could still take the __Enterprise__out on one more map-and-explore mission . . .
SSARSUN’S ARGUMENT takes place in the Kraith Series between Kraith I, __Spock’s Affirmation__ and Kraith II __Spock’s Mission__. The lead character in this story, Ssarsun, was an important subordinate character in Kraith I, where we first met him. He is a Schillian, one of the newer members of the UFP.
The Schillians are bisexual, reptilian-like amphibians who are fully telepathic. Their normal mental state includes a constant telepathic contact with another telepath. Deprived of this sensory input, they suffer hallucinations, and eventually, insanity and death. They are humanoid in appearance, scaly-skinned, thick necked, with webbed fingers (vestigial, really), and ‘gill slips’ located at the join of neck and shoulder. The underwater breathing apparatus is termed "gill" only by vague analogy. They retain a small amount of the mildly saline seawater in their lungs to moisten the ‘gill’ apparatus while living dry. Periodic immersion in good breathing water is a must for health. The Schillians are noted for fiery temper and unbridled emotional display. They are apt to become violently offended by any mention of gender identity, and all three sexes prefer to be called ‘he’ as a matter of formality.
Kraith I was the story of the consequences of the theft of an important Vulcan artifact, the Kraith. The Kraith Series continues to explore outgoing ripples of those consequences. "Ssarsun’s Argument" is only the beginning of one line of exploration. With help from the Kraith Creators, we should have many more stories about Ssarsun.
Admiral Pesin spread his fingers flat on the recessed desk-screen before him. The lighted screen turned his hands a translucent red, the red of blood --- the red of --- guilt? He drew a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the transporter plate centered in the floor on the other side of his desk. In the years since he’d moved into this office, he’d never had to face anything quite so distasteful.
It was politics, he told himself, just filthy, dirty politics and nothing to concern a military man. He was in charge of an outlying border region. The infighting among Federation Council Members was none of his business.
__They__ had made the decision, but __he__ would have to implement it. It would be his hands soiled, not theirs. __He__ would have to face that Schillian.
The warning chime sounded and the image began to build before the desk. In seconds the iridescent splinters coalesced into the stocky, uniformed Schillian. Pesin waved him to a seat. He saw no point in "breaking the news gently" to a telepath. He said, "Ssarsun, your request for transfer from Starfleet Security to Starfleet Command has been denied."
The Schillian didn’t even blink. Pesin couldn’t read the Schillian face for expression, but he could perceive the disappointment as if it were his own. After a long pause, the lizzard-like (sic RBW lizard-like) mouth opened and the crisply cultured voice said in flawless English, "Yes, Sir."
Pesin cleared his throat. "You have, however, been promoted from Lieutenant Commander to Full Commander in the Starfleet Security." He couldn’t bring himself to add the traditional congratulations.
"Thank you, Sir."
Pesin paused. He’d expected the man to submit his resignation on the spot. It was an awkward moment that stretched into embarrassment.
Ssarsun broke the silence. "Ordinarily, I would seriously consider resigning. However, I believe the Admiralty will rectify its error given time. I would like an opportunity to demonstrate that I do have the requisite . . . temperament for command."
Pesin found the oddly stilted, Vulcan phrasing of the Schillian somehow both reassuring and disturbing. Schillians were noted as the most unpredictably emotional species in the Federation. Ssarsun’s restraint was somehow unnatural. Pesin said, "You and I both know it’s prejudice, Commander. You can’t argue against prejudice."
"Begging the Admiral’s pardon . . ."
"Sir, I don’t think they act out of prejudice, exactly. At least not in the classic sense. There is a great deal of fear involved in this decision. Some of it is legitimate fear, and it is possible to argue that out of existence. I would like to try."
"You’ll get that chance, Commander." He flicked his viewer to the next item. "You have been assigned to command the Security Convoy which will accompany the Federation Council’s Commission which is investigating the theft of the Kraith. There will be three Council Members on that Commission plus a number of very important people representing various governments and interests. The Vulcans have already assembled an investigating commission of their own under one of their Chief Envoys, Stovam. You must know his reputation?"
"For thoroughness? Yes."
"I wouldn’t call it thoroughness, exactly. A human who was that meticulous would be classed as a compulsive neurotic, or worse."
"It’s considered a normal and admirable trait in a Vulcan. That’s why some Vulcans consider most humans . . . hmmm, scatterbrained, like a computer with randomized gates."
Pesin harumphed in the time honored tradition of the discomfited bureaucrat and returned to his subject. "Yes, well, the furor among the nonhumans over the theft of the Kraith is enough to make the internal security of the Federation’s Investigatory Commission a nightmare by any species’ standards. And, as if that weren’t enough, the Commissioners are planning to travel out toward the Neutral Zone to go over the territory step by step themselves!"
Pesin paused. Ssarsun would have nodded had his thick, reptilian neck allowed the gesture. Instead he blinked all his eyelids in succession. For the instant that both the Schillian’s eyes were closed, Pesin allowed himself a grimace. They both knew that the officer responsible for security on such an expedition was more likely to be court martialled or at least cashiered by the time the dust settled. __Something__ violent was bound to happen. Ssarsun would take the blame.
The Admiral shoved a stack of tapes toward the Schillian. "It’s all here. Good luck. Commander."
Ssarsun rose, collected the tapes, and moved to the transporter pad. "Thank you, Sir."
"Dismissed," said Pesin.
Ssarsun shook out a communicator. A moment and he was gone as quietly as he had come. Pesin stared at the empty space.
* * *
Commander Ssarsun, Starfleet Security marched the length of the pearl gray corridor of the specially built Federation Council Cruiser, __Oritz__ The last of the Commissioners had beamed aboard and now the ship’s Captain was preparing to break orbit. Ssarsun was well satisfied with the ship itself. The Cruiser had been constructed to house and transport important personages. She was fast, roomy, and armed to the nacelles with enough defensive top secrets to outlast a siege. The special accommodations for Internal Security were the most streamlined, modern facilities he’d ever worked with. There was only one thing left that bothered his thorough-going mind. And he would have the Captain correct that in a few minutes.
He rounded a corner and swung into Briefing Room Three where he would meet with the Captain. The door whizzed open. Ssarsun stopped short on the threshold. A human would have gaped in surprise.
The two Schillians rose from the chairs turning to face him. Slowly, as if melting out of a fear-stance, Ssarsun advanced into the room so the door could shut behind him. "Your pardon. I did not realize the room was occupied."
The nearer of the two groped for a telepathic link. Ssarsun shied back for a moment, then allowed a surface contact. //I am Zimr. We work for Councilor Valdai.//
//Known.// answered Ssarsun guardedly.
The other one, identifying himself as Itn, probed Ssarsun’s guard. //With whom are you now linked? You were to form with us, no so?//
Zimr said, //He’s isolate; I feel it.//
//True,// admitted Ssarsun. //I am Vulcan trained and can tolerate isolation for short periods.//
The two Schillians exchanged amazed glances, then Ssarsun felt their minds join, holding open a place in their meld-net for him. He felt the trembling compassion in that offer. The two were shaken to their very core beings. Their emotions resonated, reinforcing one another until together they were imploring him to come into their meld, to share their perceptions.
Their intensity instantly repelled Ssarsun. In a flash, he perceived that these two were lovers. Together, they would form a triad, and that was the last thing Ssarsun wanted with these two strangers. Deeply shaken, he barricaded his mind against them, saying aloud, "A moment, please."
His rejection threw the pair into confusion, their offer disintegrating until it was a mere shadow. Itn moved to stand beside Zimr as if seeking security in the other’s strength. Zimr said, //He hallucinates. We shall have to take him.//
The two moved as one toward Ssarsun who stood paralyzed in the middle of the floor. As their arms reached out to embrace him, Ssarsun managed to speak, "That . . . won’t . . . be necessary."
They paused and he continued, "The Vulcan’s disciplines I use to retain sanity during isolation require a period of adjustment before entering a meld. I am ready now." He knew he had to do it. He could not live without the telepathic contact. He cursed Starfleet and himself for the circumstance that had brought him into dependence on these two. He had no business in trying to complete a love-meld. He’d left too much of his soul on Vulcan.
More cautiously this time, the invitation was extended again. He allowed their surface contact to grow and deepen while he showed them carefully through his conscious mind. With a mechanical precision that startled the pair, Ssarsun opened the channel to his perceptual centers and began to draw upon their perceptions of reality to balance his own. He had to admit it was a relief. He’d been isolate only a matter of minutes. He wasn’t drunk enough to stand it very much longer. In fact, the encounter with the others’ raw emotions had sobered him unpleasantly.
He let them understand his feelings in the matter, and then systematically closed them out of his conscious mind. He knew he was hurting them. Their disappointment was almost tangible. "Please try to understand. I was raised outside the large meld nets of Schillia. I can’t tolerate an open-meld."
//We grieve for you.// The sadness that overlay that simple statement overwhelmed Ssarsun like a palpable wave. Sudden dizziness overtook him, but before his knees could collapse, Zimr’s arms were about him.
Itn spun a chair around and Zimr carried Ssarsun to it. The Starfleet Commander had to admit, privately to himself, that Zimr’s strength felt __good__. That goodness was amplified into something frighteningly intense by Itn’s gentle fingers stroking his gill slips. Suddenly, he ached to swim with these two.
At that moment, the door flew open admitting Captain Rifflard and Federation Council Member Keith Valdai of the Conreid Stars. The two humans had their heads together, Rifflard in patient attendance and Valdai arguing earnestly, "So you see, Captain, we must provide swimming facilities for him, even if he is the only Ziturian aboard. And I’m sure the Schillians would be only too glad to breathe water for a change."
"Councillor, you shouldn’t have brought a Ziturian clerk. Certainly, you could have found a human to . . ."
At that moment, they spotted the trio near the table. The two humans stopped dead in the doorway. There was no mistaking the nature of the scene before them, and Schillians were notoriously sensitive about such things. The Captain was outraged, petrified, and embarrassed all at once. Valdai recovered first, moving into the room to let the door close. "I hope we are not intruding, gentlemen. Zimr, I don’t believe I’ve met the Commander."
Zimr and Itn rose. "Counsillor, (sic RBW "Councillor,) this is Ssarsun, Chief of Security."
Valdai gave a formal bow, "My pleasure, Sir."
Itn said, addressing the Captain as well as Valdai, "The Commander suffered a brief attack of vertigo due to our clumsiness in establishing a meld with him."
Ssarsun rose, stepping away from the pair. "I’m quite all right, now. Captain, I’d like a word with you, please."
"Certainly." He looked expectantly at Valdai. The Councillor said, "Zimr, I’d like you and Itn to inform Frel that the swimming facility will be rigged down in the Engineering gym as soon as the Chief Engineer gets around to it. Tell him it won’t be long. And maybe you’d better stay with him a while. He’s feeling rather bad. I’m sure you understand."
"Yes, Sir," said Zimr, and the two Schillians departed.
The Captain cleared his throat meaningfully, but Valdai said, "As ranking member of the Council present, and head of this investigation, I think I should hear your Security Chief’s report."
Rifflard moved to the head of the table, obviously reluctant to admit a civilian to his privy council. Stubbornly, the Councillor took a seat at the side of the table apparently prepared to stay a while. Ssarsun decided he liked this man.
"Captain, if you don’t mind, I think Councillor Valdai should hear this."
Rifflard suppressed a squirm by sitting ramrod straight in his chair. He was a short, wiry dark-skinned man with a fringe of white hair around his shiny pate. He knew he either had to reject his Senior Officer’s advice and throw the Councillor out, or take the advice and allow the man to stay. He couldn’t argue in front of an outsider.
"Very well, Commander, proceed."
"Captain, Councillor. My report is very short. The ship is functioning perfectly. The crew has been screened and double checked and rated reliable. The passengers are, at least for the moment, refraining from killing each other . . ."
That last brought an appreciative chuckle from the Councillor.
". . . and that brings us to the one item which I would like to see amended, the course."
"Yes, sir. As it stands, we will be passing through a region of space which I cannot rate as secure." He touched controls and the triangular screen on the table lit up with a schematic of their course, arrowing straight for the Neutral Zone and the last known location of the Kraith, before it had been recovered by the __Enterprise__. He touched another control and a portion of the course line was encircled in a red glow. "This area . . . I don’t trust it. During the last fifty years, three ships have mysteriously disappeared between here," an ‘X’ appeared, and then another ‘X’, "and here."
"Certainly," said the Captain. "The Romulans have been known to raid that deeply into our territory. No mystery. They haven’t done it lately though. The last ship to disappear in there was five years ago."
"Nevertheless, I don’t like it, sir. It has been so long since one of those disappearances that I suspect another is due any time now. We would do well to skirt the area, so." He put another line on the schematic, looping around the zone.
All rights reserved to the authors and artists. Not intended to infringe on copyrights held by Gene Roddenberry or Paramount Corp.
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