FOOLS IN A
by Anna Mary Hall
It drifted toward a star still so distant it was merely the brightest object in space, decades beyond the time It had had fuel to use Its engines. It drifted, hoarding the tiny store of fuel until It could be used to obtain more fuel. It drifted with the patience of non-living things, using minute amounts of precious energy to scan the surrounding space at intervals. It drifted into the cometary cloud of the star and decade by decade built up Its store of fuel, finally daring to use energy to chase and engulf a comet, a comet that had been considered an omen of good fortune by the people on one of the planets it had sailed by on its century-long circuit of their common star. It processed the debris into useable form, ran a complete scan of the area of space in which It floated, chose Its next target, and fired Its engines for a scant ten minutes to establish a trajectory that put It on a collision course with the outer planet. Estimated time of intersection: eight years, four months, and five days.
Biologist Christine Chapel of the Vulcan Science Academy Ship Otsud said her goodbyes, accepted her filled specimen cases from the hands of Dulfoil, Chief of the Treign Academy of the Biological Sciences himself, and spoke one word into her open communicator. "Engergize!"
The dry heat of the Otsud's Vulcan environment hit Christine as she materialized, paradoxically cooling the simmering anger that had built during her stay on the planet. By the time she'd taken two deep breaths the texture of the long-legged, long-sleeved green jumpsuit had adjusted to keep her skin cool and moist, comfortable despite the dry heat. Moving carefully in the higher gravity, Christine stepped down from the transporter platform and smiled at the tall, dark operator. "I have to get these samples to the Lab. Meet me in our quarters in ten minutes?"
"You weren't the last one to beam aboard. I'll be there as soon as I finish." Karm, the Klingon Assistant Engineer, watched his human wife leave, then began setting up the coordinates for the next transporter pickup. Strain had been visible in Christine's face. Today must have been as bad as she had feared it would be.
Kaleth, the third occupant of the Transporter Room, had also noticed the strain on Christine's face. He had merely stopped to talk to Karm after being beamed up himself, but . . . "If you want to go ahead, I can handle these last two."
Karm continued adjusting controls. This was not a military vessel with strict orders to be followed, no one would care if he left before the task was finished as long as someone else was there to do it. "No, I'll finish. She will be better for a few minutes alone, solitude in which to come to grips with the problem." He half-smiled at Kaleth, the only other Klingon on the Vulcan ship. "You told me that the first time she and I had a fight. By the time I'm finished she will be ready to discuss the problem--as a Klingon would."
T'Duv nodded from her seat where she was preparing this morning's specimens for X-ray microscopy. Her pictures of the minute internal structure of the plants would be matched with Christine's reports on the chemical and biological properties of each specimen, and both would fit into Shirom's complete picture of Varrein's biosphere. The report would be available for use as a guide to any trader who planned to deal with the planet.
Christine stored the specimens in the preserver, replaced her tricorder in its compartment, and left. Even after four months of working with the young Vulcan woman, she felt odd about leaving without saying something to T'Duv, but she had learned to do it. T'Duv was aware of her leaving but could see no reason to mention it every day when Christine's section of their overlapping shifts came to an end.
She met Karm just outside the door to their quarters. Silently they passed through the door, then as it slid shut Christine turned to hug Karm and rest for a moment against his shoulder. He guided her to the cushions piled in one corner and pulled her down beside him. After one kiss, he settled back on the pillows so he could watch her face.
"What did you find out today, Christine?"
"This group was just like the other two." She sounded tired as she continued, "Whoever recommended this planet for full membership in the Federation needs to have their head examined. Varrein is literally ready to explode with hatred, distrust, prejudice. Each of the three continents is united--united against the other two--and they all have nuclear weapons that they are hoarding for an 'emergency' rather than disassembling them and using the radioactive material for energy."
Karm ran a hand across his chin. He wanted Christine to be sure of her facts before they took the next step. "There's been no mention of any of this in Syluth's reports, and he is an expert on cultures."
The stocky Vulcan was certainly an expert, Christine admitted. "He's also a scientist, who would never consider falsifying data while talking to politicians who want the freedom of the stars. I think he's being deliberately lied to." Christine considered her sources of information: whispers, half-finished statements, flashes of expressions, deliberately encouraged gossip. "It is possible he and his staff simply haven't asked the right type of questions to get this information. I'm sure when all their data is compiled they'll catch the discrepancies, but I know it now!"
"'Know?'" Karm questioned softly. "I've caught no hint of this hostility either."
Christine drew a sharp breath, her jaw set, then released it slowly with a softening of expression. "Did you truly talk about anything but machines?" Seeing acknowledgment of this point in Karm's eyes she continued, "I think my suspicions are strong enough to be brought to T'Keel's attention."
"Why the Captain rather than Syluth?" Karm's eyes gleamed with amusement. He no longer doubted Christine had reached the correct conclusions, he just didn't particularly care. A war on this planet, or any trouble the Varreins managed to spread to other Federation planets would not touch him, but he would support any action his wife chose to take.
"T'Keel regards us 'as colleagues, not captive specimens of aberrant societies to be studied at leisure." Syluth's analytical approach had made her feel like she was trapped under the all-seeing lens of a microscope. "She'll listen!"
Karm rubbed Christine's hand absently. They were accepted on the Otsud, even welcomed by a few people, the Captain being one, but the majority of the Vulcan crew still considered them emotional, unreliable, and had made little effort to learn more about them. Following the example Helen and Kaleth had set, they had accepted the situation--doing their work efficiently, developing cautious friendships with the individuals they worked closely with, meeting any other advances freely, but making none of their own. They had welcomed this time of semi-isolation to deepen and strengthen their knowledge and feeling for each other. They had known the situation would not last, but Karm had not expected it to end so soon.
"Very well," Karm agreed. "We begin to use our differences."
Christine rose, smoothing the wrinkles from her jumpsuit as she moved to the intercom. "T'Keel."
The screen cleared to show the slender dark-haired woman sitting at the computer terminal in her office. Her narrow face held its normal expression of alert interest. "Yes, Christine?"
"I have some - suspicions - I want to discuss with you. May I come now?"
T'Keel thought of the work she had in progress. There was nothing that could not be delayed. "Yes. Does your husband accompany you?"
That seemed more of a suggestion than a question. Catching Karm's gesture of agreement Christine answered, "Yes, Karm will be with me." Christine turned off the intercom and wondered aloud, "Now why does she want you there, too?"
Karm laughed. "She sensed your disturbance when you beamed aboard, and wants me there to protect her if you lose control."
Christine bounced a fist off a hard bicep, then paused at the door to smooth the emotions from her face, and so far as possible, from her thoughts before venturing out of their quarters. The habit of suppressing emotions when in the presence of the Vulcans was another they had copied from Helen and Kaleth, and it was not without its personal hazards. It required them to balance delicately between too much suppression and too much release in the privacy of their three-room suite, which was sometimes much too small. It had caused numerous misunderstandings, three of which had developed into quarrels--one of major proportions. After the first quarrel Christine had gone to Helen, the psychiatrist, who had lived with her Klingon husband on this ship for three years. Helen, her friend, had laughed at Christine's distress, then had explained, "Two strong willed adults from different cultures, you'll fight often Kaleth and I do. It keeps grievances from building up." She had patted her belly, swollen with her advancing pregnancy. "And making up is so much fun." She had stopped laughing then and laid a firm hand on Christine's arm. "I'm always ready to listen when you need to talk, but there's a price. You have to listen to me in exchange."
The clear golden tea arced into the nearly invisible cup, seeming to gather itself into a half-sphere by its own choice. T'Keel handed the steaming cup to Karm, then poured her own before settling back in her favorite chair. She closed her eyes and inhaled the delicate fragrance of the spicy tea. This was a welcome break. The three days since their arrival had been busy ones for the entire crew, and her duties had been the type she found particularly tiring. The first two days, as they followed light around the planet, had been taken up with round-the-clock conferences with planetary officials. Today had been a similarly crowded, if less stressful, schedule of meetings with the department heads of her own crew. She was tired. She was a hundred years old, and her endurance was not as great as it had been twenty years ago.
A faint chime rang out as T'Keel set her empty cup in the tray. It was followed by two other notes as Christine and Karm returned their cups. The notes sounded a minor chord that shivered around the room for seconds. A proper beginning to this discussion, T'Keel thought. The couple sitting with her had certainly brought trouble. "Tell me of your suspicions, Christine."
"For the past three days," Christine began calmly, finding it possible momentarily to match the serenity of her Captain, "I have visited the three continents of Varrein, talking to their biologists, bringing back samples of the plants they think most likely to be of interest to us, taping the data they already have, and mapping out our own sampling plan." A frown crept unnoticed across her face as she reached the unpleasant part of the past days. "Each group of scientists knew I was going to, or had visited the other continents, the other political powers. In each place I was warned of the treachery to be expected in the other," the frown deepened, "and they impugned the scientific abilities of the others, urging that their studies be ignored. That I found very hard to stand."
"There is more?" T'Keel questioned softly, though with certain scattered facts from Syluth's preliminary report suddenly forming a pattern in her mind, she thought she knew where Christine's suspicion had led her.
"These were highly trained scientists. They should be the least biased segment of the population, yet they exhibited prejudice, intolerance, even hatred of beings who share the same planet with them."
Karm added his bit. "I've visited two of their spaceports checking on the level of their space technology. Their space ships are little more than ballistic missiles modified to carry a different payload." Karm smiled, a wolfish expression that T'Keel had noted held amusement at irritating moments. "They are much like us," his hand touched Christine's, "cunning, wary, with long memories. I find it impossible to believe that they modified all their missiles to carry passengers."
"The planet survey has turned up large complexes, deep underground, on all three continents," T'Keel said. "Syluth was going to ask about them tomorrow."
"They are ready to start a war at a moment's notice. Who ran the original survey?" Christine asked in dismay. She had accepted scattered missiles, but had not been ready to hear of large missile complexes. "There shouldn't be any added stresses on them now until they work out their own problems."
"A well-trained team composed entirely of Bankonians," said T'Keel, her expressionless face hiding some of the same dismay Christine's face showed, even while she was mentally wording a stiff message to the Federation Council concerning the cultural blindness of one-species survey teams.
Karm shook his head. His knowledge of Federation affairs was increasing rapidly, but he hadn't covered everything. "Never heard of them."
"They have had no group conflicts on their planet for at least five thousand years, and they never had anything large enough to call a war. No wonder they missed all the signs," Christine muttered.
"How did they ever reach space with no conflict to inspire progress?"
"They didn't," T'Keel said dryly. "We, the Federation, gave them ships. A few of their people will work for some branches of the Federation government, but not Starfleet, or any other branch that has to do with overt or covert conflict."
Karm considered several courses of action, doubted any of them would work even if the Vulcans would consider them, wondered if the Vulcans would even have the same goals he visualized, and finally asked, "What are you going to do, Captain?"
T'Keel looked up from her steepled fingers. "Continue gathering information for the time being. Syluth will have some new questions to ask. There will be conferences with all the department heads, and with Kaleth, our military expert." T'Keel recognized their worry and tried to erase it. "This is not a starship, nor a battle cruiser. I do not have to find an instant solution and try to enforce it. We will think about the problem, after verifying that there is a problem." T'Keel considered the facts she had. "My first estimate is that we will do nothing, except withdraw. Unless the Varreins should ask for our intervention in their internal problems?"
Christine and Karm consulted silently, then shook their heads. "That is very unlikely," Karm said.
"They're a proud, suspicious people," added Christine.
T'Keel rose, indicating the visit was at an end. "I estimate that your insight has saved us a week of ignorance. You are beginning to justify your inclusion on our staff."
She stood by the door, marshalling her strength, her mind still on her visitors. They gained such strength and comfort from each other, such pleasure. They made her regret she hadn't sought another husband after Sletil's death sixty years ago. But, no, she could not have successfully combined the periodic fiery exultation of Pon Farr, children, and the career that had lead to the Captaincy of this ship. This life she had chosen held its own rewards, its own sources of strength.
Still using Its small store of fuel carefully, It carved hunks of the frozen atmosphere free of the rocky core of the outer planet and pulled them into Its maw. Slow work, balancing energy expended against fuel gained, but each carefully calculated chunk allowed It to show a small gain in energy available. A little over a year after It began Its work, there was an unexpected bonus. A small construct of refined metals, including five pieces of radioactive material, sailed into Its defensive sphere. The construct resisted but was unable to withstand the tractor beams and was engulfed, providing enough energy to allow It to shift to Level Three size chunks. In hope of finding another such windfall, a scanner was aimed back along the construct's path and activated at regular intervals.
Christine pushed the buzzer at the door of Helen and Kaleth's quarters. The door opened and she staggered through it to see Helen's laughing face. "Damn! You might have warned me. Stepping into a lower gravity is like stepping up when there's no step."
Helen grinned and shook her head. "Too much fun this way." She made a lazy pirouette in her loose gown before Christine's disapproving eyes. "I never knew Earth gravity could feel so good, and we're gradually lowering the temperature and raising the air pressure and humidity."
"Why?" Christine asked worriedly.
"They've been planning to do it all the time," Helen soothed. "All three of my doctors have decided the baby will be born at about seven months gestation--less than a month from now--as Klingon babies are, but since he's half-human, they think he'll have to go into an incubator. They are engaged in taking all the strain off me they can, to prolong the time I can carry him. I've been confined to the ship. I think when we reach Earth-normal conditions in these rooms they'll confine me here, and probably to bed for the last few days."
"How do you feel?" Christine asked, professional concern in her voice as she reverted to the years of nursing experience.
Helen laughed, a little raggedly. "That makes one hundred seven times I've been asked that question today! Everybody's asked me, but me. Well, you get the truth. I feel miserable, I feel wonderful. I feel pregnant!" She paused, taking in Christine's startled face, realized the Vulcan accuracy mixed with human hysterics was unusual, and sank to the couch laughing and crying.
With a definite wish that in addition to her training in obstetrics she'd had some practical experience in dealing with pregnant women, Christine sat beside Helen and pulled her over against her shoulder to cry. From the reading she had done, she didn't think this rapid shift in moods was unusual. She'd have to ask M'Benga when she had a chance.
Helen sniffed one last time and leaned back against the couch, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "There, that's over for the day."
"You do this every day?"
"Nearly. M'Benga says that, considering the circumstances, my behavior is quite normal. I'm trying to suppress my emotions; I'm a medical oddity that every doctor, every scientist on board wants to test for something. The baby is my first--and a crossbreed, making the possibility of trouble greater." She thought of the very efficient, unemotional care she had received from her Vulcan doctors. "I don't know what I'd have done if M'Benga hadn't come when T'Keel requested him." She drank the glass of water Christine handed her. "It's usually Kaleth's or M'Benga's shoulder I cry on." She smiled damply. "Haven't you noticed how soggy they're both beginning to look?"
Christine chuckled. "Kaleth looks like he invented babies, and M'Benga is almost as bad."
The door slid open and Kaleth and Karm stepped carefully into the lower gravity under their wives' watchful eyes.
"How did you. . . ?"
"I adjusted the artificial gravity," Karm laughed at his disappointed wife. "T'Nala went to Varrein today, and Shimrah was busy finishing the scan of the missile complexes, so we can break orbit and visit the outer planet."
Christine started a question, then firmly closed her lips. Helen had been taking a scientific interest in Varrein, but she hadn't gotten emotionally involved with the troubles the way Christine had, and she didn't need to. The question could wait until she and Karm were back in their own quarters.
The food processor pinged. Kaleth motioned the other three to the table as he served the dinner his wife had programmed. Christine grinned at the selection: Klingon vegetables, Terran meat, and a frothy Vulcan fruit whip for dessert. Conversation was light during the meal, and Christine and Karm excused themselves as soon as it was over. Helen had yawned her way through the meal and obviously would be happier in bed than entertaining guests.
"Why are we going to the outer planet?" Christine demanded as soon as they were inside their own rooms. "I was so busy today I didn't hear any news from Varrein."
"Councilor Riddinal announced today that they'd lost contact with a manned ship sent to investigate some strange signals apparently coming from the outer planet. The ship radioed back that they had sighted another vessel of some type, then the rest of the message was drowned in static. They haven't heard from it for seven hours." Karm delivered the news, then waited for Christine's reaction.
"Riddinal immediately accused President Hung'fo and King Gridnor of being responsible, either singly, or together," she guessed. Karen nodded. "They both denied it, and threats are flying fast and furious."
"T'Keel spoke to all three of them, and for the first time they all accepted one of our offers of assistance. It would take one of their ships several weeks to reach the locality where they lost contact. We'll be there almost as soon as we start." Karm hesitated. They had never allowed their work to spill over into the time they both had free, but tonight. . . . "I want to be in the engineering room when we investigate."
"I'll go too," Christine said. "Do you really think there will be another ship?"
"No. I think their primitive ship failed, and we'll find it drifting around some piece of debris." He crossed his arms and looked bored in the beginning move of a familiar game. "What shall we do with the two hours?"
"We'll lose a lot of sleep tonight," Christine said thoughtfully. "We should each go to our own bed and rest until the two hours are up." She dodged his first grab, then collapsed, laughing, in his arms when the second was more successful. "Oh, Karm, if you could have seen your face! You believed me for a second, and you know that the Varrein books I'm using took over that bed as well as my desk a week ago."
"You lie very well, my love," Karm whispered as he guided her toward the bed they shared.
"Practice," Christine grinned as her fingers found and released the closure of his jumpsuit, "makes perfect, and you are an excellent teacher. Shall we lie together?"
Later, when it was almost time to dress again, Christine moved so she could see all of Karm's face. A question had been bothering her since they had boarded the Otsud and had found Helen and Kaleth were expecting. This seemed like the ideal time and place to get an answer. "Karm, do you want a child, or possibly, children?"
He ran a finger around her soft lips as he thought. "Yes, my love, I want a child, someday. In two years, three years, when a tiny bit of the novelty of having each other has worn off. Then I'll want a child." He lay back and studied Christine's face. "I wonder what our children will look like. Will they be blonds and have my dark skin? Or will they have pale skins, with dark hair?"
"Shhh," Christine ended his speculations with a kiss. "We'll find out, someday."
Karm and Christine were not the only off duty personnel who had decided to be on hand when the Otsud made its circuit of the outer planet. It's a strange crowd, Christine thought as they sought a place where they could see the screen. Despite the number of people in the limited area, only she and Karm were touching.
Shimrah was apparently ignoring the crowd, but as the time drew near for the ship to reach the last known position of the Varrein ship, he activated a large screen so that everyone might see. At first there were only stars visible, then a planet, dim and featureless, swung into view. Shimrah shifted to a different scanner and the features on the planet became visible. Mountains, craters, canyons, all covered by the frozen gases that would have been the atmosphere on a warmer planet. The ship circled farther around the globe, and suddenly the features were free of their white covering. For a moment Christine thought Shimrah had once again changed scanners, but she realized something was wrong when Karm muttered a curse and pushed through the crowd so he could see the telemetry data as well as the picture. The picture gave an abrupt jerk and began to drift more rapidly, and in a different direction.
"Why are we drifting, Shimrah?" Christine started. The Captain's voice over the intercom held a tone of command she had never heard in it before, and she had not realized it was the ship that was moving, rather than just the scanners.
"A tractor beam, Captain," Shimrah said. Karm and T'Nala were both at panels now. "Origin coming into view now." The screen held stars for an instant, then they were blotted out by a fiery maw. The magnification was stepped down to show a rough, oviod shape, at least two kilometers in length.
"It's another doomsday machine," Christine said in a frozen calm, a crystal clear memory of the broken and battered Constellation sailing into a similar maw rising in her mind.
T'Keel heard the remark on the bridge as she was assessing the problem. The impulse engines even at full power could not break the pull. "Warp One," she ordered. The engines strained, then with a jerk, the ship broke loose and sped away. "It's not following. Ease back toward it. All scanners gather data."
The voice had been Christine's. "Christine. Shimrah. Karm. Assemble in the briefing room."
"A computer search has shown that the method used by the Enterprise to destroy the first robot ship of this type is not in the Otsud's memory banks. An inquiry is on its way to the nearest star base," T'Keel raised an eyebrow at the relaxation of tension this statement produced in some listeners. "An answer can be expected in three weeks."
Christine looked at the viewscreen. Helen had been called to attend this conference, and was doing it from her quarters. She sat beside Kaleth, still in her nightgown, but with all traces of sleep gone from her eyes. "I doubt if we have three weeks," Christine said. "The other ship demolished planets. It had eaten the planets in two or three solar systems before the Enterprise and the Constellation stopped it."
"It was coated with neutronium, impervious to phaser fire and photon torpedoes." Helen's memories of those few hours was strong. She had studied all the tapes on Commodore Decker while helping Dr. McCoy prepare a report on his behavior for the Surgeon General. "Its task was to destroy planets, and It ignored ships unless they got too close to It, then It treated them like any other piece of debris. To destroy It, Mr. Scott and Captain Kirk rigged the Constellation's impulse engines to explode--using a thirty-second delayed-action timer, and fed the ship to the doomsday machine. The resulting explosion blew out the robot ship's interior controls. . ."
"I doubt if anything more is known about It." Christine's own memories were of a crowded Sick Bay and the injuries they'd had to deal with. "The Enterprise was damaged and we did not stay and try to do any investigating after the radiation had reached safer levels."
"What was the power of the explosion?" Karm asked. Christine shrugged. "Around one hundred megatons."
"Less than a hundred. Ninety something," Helen corrected. "But this ship has no weapons." It made her feel naked and defenseless, even though the Enterprise's weapons had not affected the first one.
Kaleth spoke from beside Helen. "Varrein has weapons, all the fissionable material we would need, and we will be destroying the doomsday machine for their benefit."
T'Keel felt trapped. This was not the sort of task the Otsud was supposed to handle, but the data they had gathered in just the last hour showed that the robot was gaining strength. The sooner It was dealt with, the easier It would be to handle. It was their job simply because they were here and it had to be done. "I will try and procure the explosives for you. How do you propose to deliver them?"
Karm rubbed his chin and met Shimrah's eyes, the same thought in both their minds. "Our shuttlecraft is the fastest, most maneuverable vessel."
"It is for your own protection, gentlemen." T'Keel was developing a logical aversion to the men on the three screens: King Gridnor, President Hung'fo, Councilor Riddinal, each with a scientist to back him. "You have seen the tape of the robot ship. The probe we left is still sending back information. The robot is now carving up the solid portion of the planet. Logic dictates that it is best to dispose of It now, before It gains full power and moves to the next planet."
"Why can't you use your own weapons?" Gridnor asked impatiently.
"This is a research ship. It is not armed," T'Keel said shortly. The scientists had already asked that question twice. Hadn't any of them listened to her? Gathering her patience, she tried one more time: "This robot does not menace us. We can retreat to a safe distance and watch the entire solar system being destroyed while we wait for a starship to come and deal with this intruder."
"Do so!" snapped Councilor Riddinal. "I do not believe in this convenient 'doomsday machine.' You have been trying to get us to disarm, to leave ourselves open to attack almost since you arrived, I think you're lying, either about this robot ship, or about the intentions of your 'Federation,' or maybe both." He glared at the other heads-of-state, judging their reactions with the skill gained by experience. He had them, if not convinced, at least unsure. "If you're determined there's a danger there, go defend us from it yourself."
His picture vanished from the viewscreen. President Hung'fo switched off immediately. She thought for a moment King Gridnor was going to speak, but then his picture disappeared, too.
"Paranoiac," Helen said it softly, but with no doubt as her picture took their place. "It's almost a requirement for being the head of a government like Riddinal's or Hung'fo's. Gridnor is a little saner, I think, but he's not a strong enough character to defy the other two and give us the fissionable materials."
T'Keel controlled her irritation. These people were making it very difficult to help them. "We'll just have to think of some other way."
Karm watched his quivering indicators intently. They didn't want the purposely unstable magnetic container to rupture until the anti-matter was close to the doomsday machine. He controlled the condition of the container while Shimrah guided the probe carrying it.
This is like an attack carried out by the Klothar, he thought. Same concentration on a single goal. Same low-voiced, calm commands. The tension isn't as great. Of course, no one's shooting at us. He could see T'Nala's serene face from the corner of his eye. It was hard to imagine it changing. They might be just as calm as if It were shooting at us. They certainly didn't get shook when we were caught by the tractor beam.
The probe sailed straight toward the robot ship, its deadly cargo weighing less than the equipment it normally carried. It entered the defensive sphere, a pale blue beam touched it, and it was drawn into the maw. The anti-matter did not explode on signal. "Logical," Shimrah muttered. "The beam it cuts with is anti-proton. Of course, it can detect and protect itself from anti-matter."
"Why wasn't the anti-matter in our pods deactivated?" wondered Karm.
"The robot's power was still low," T'Nala suggested.
"It was still a good try," said Karm. "What do we do next?" His respect for the Chief Engineer had gone up in the last few hours. Shimrah might be logical, but he did not allow his logic to interfere with brilliant improvisations.
"You checked on our fissionable materials."
Karm had questioned, but finally accepted the possibility of this solution when it was first proposed. The Otsud could be maneuvered with relative safety on warp drive alone. Planetary approaches were easier done on impulse, and he did not like the idea of being in a ship without a backup method of propulsion, but Shimrah and T'Keel were willing to accept the risk. "It will take too long to locate, mine, and refine raw ore. Making the radioactive elements in the lab would be many times slower than mining, so we are left with the few samples being used in various labs, and the fuel for the impulse engines. We have enough fissionable materials for a blast in the thirty-five to forty megaton range."
Shimrah raised an eyebrow at the degree of variance but accepted it. Karm was trying to calculate the strength of samples that had never been utilized in actual explosions. "Much less than the power of the explosion the Enterprise used, but there is no method of calculating how much stronger than necessary it was."
Almost certain it would be rejected, but determined to at least have it considered before the impulse fuel was used, Karm offered one more alternative: "We could take what we need from the planet with the transporter."
"Steal it?" Shimrah sounded shocked. "The theft would be discovered immediately. They would never trust us after such a deed." Shimrah continued, not certain he understood Karm's motive behind suggesting such an action. "It would defeat our purpose here."
Karm controlled the urge to curse. If he did it in his own language, Shimrah would not understand what he was saying, and he did not yet know the English or Vulcan words to express his feelings. "But they would be alive! It is obscene to destroy a planet, no matter how stupidly its people are behaving." Karm clamped his mouth shut, aware he had been almost shouting, as he would have at another Klingon.
"I will mention your--idea--to T'Keel," said Shimrah, well pleased, "but I do not expect her to allow it. We will have to manage with what we have."
The Otsud halted well beyond the defensive sphere of the robot ship. The hangar door opened and the shuttlecraft slid out, remotely controlled from the bridge engineering panel, and closely monitored in the engineering room proper. The shuttle circled, allowing Shimrah and Karm time to become accustomed to its sluggish handling. At T'Keel's soft command, its path straightened and the shuttle accelerated toward the robot ship. It entered the defensive sphere, and the tension eased a bit when its speed increased as the tractor beams caught it and began pulling it in. The shuttle disappeared into the maw, but telemetry signals were still being received when T'Keel gave the order and Karm's finger pushed a button. A spear of brilliant white light shot out, contained and directed by the sides of the machine.
"Radiation dropping. . .dropping. . .slowing. . .holding steady." Shimrah watched the instruments for a few seconds more, then turned to face T'Keel. "We damaged it, but we did not destroy it. It will finish the destruction of this planet in a few hours and move on to the next."
"The next planet is a gas giant. Its destruction will alter the orbits of all the other planets." T'Keel looked around her bridge, at the people, and beyond them to the ship. "That must not happen."
The four non-Vulcans had gathered again in Helen and Kaleth's quarters. Karm looked at Helen relaxing on the couch and wished there was an easier way to deliver his news: "T'Keel is going to use the Otsud to destroy the robot ship. She calculates that the shields will hold long enough for a straight dive down its throat. She means to take the ship in herself."
Shock held them silent for seconds, then a calm voice said, "No, she can't do it." Helen shook her head, very aware of the growing life within her. "I've been treating this as a game, an exercise in logic whose outcome didn't really affect me, but I've learned a lot about those people down there." She caught Kaleth's hand. "I've been looking forward to having our son, but not on that planet! Without the medical equipment this ship contains, he may not live. If he survives his birth on that planet, he is still not likely to live until another Federation vessel reaches this planet."
She smiled at the horrified faces around her. "No, the strain hasn't been too much for me, I just have an added incentive to see the future. Varrein is only barely holding together now. What will happen when over a hundred highly trained scientists are transported down there to live until they can be picked up?"
Christine's face paled as she remembered the questions she had been asked, the half-veiled threats when she would not answer, and that with the ship overhead. "They will try to get information from us."
"They are paranoiac," Helen reminded. "If we all are in the same country, the other two will be certain we're giving them information. If we split up, each country would still be suspicious of what the other two were learning. Did they get more cooperative ones? What are theirs talking about?"
Kaleth's hand tightened on Helen's. "If the questioning didn't kill us, we would not survive the war." His face grew even darker. "Even if they avoided a war, they would not dare let us live to tell the Federation how we had been treated. We would all have 'died' with the Otsud."
Christine tried to tell herself they were frightening themselves with horror stories, but she did not succeed. Such things could have happened on her own world two centuries earlier. "Then we have to get the fissionable materials from the planet."
"We'll need one of their spaceships, too," Kaleth added. He drew a deep breath and turned to Helen. "How do we do it?"
Helen leaned on Kaleth's arm, keeping her promise to M'Benga to exert herself as little as possible. "I'd forgotten what a difference there was in the gravity."
Kaleth didn't want to play the anxious father-to-be, but his lips tightened at the amount of weight she let him take. "Go back to our rooms. Let us bring T'Keel and Syluth to you."
Helen shook her head. "This is much more effective as a gesture to underline our concern. With the Vulcan attitude toward children, my risking the child will have an effect, even if they recognize it as a gesture."
The small delegation gathered before T'Keel's door, exchanged last grim glances before Karm touched the buzzer. The silent door slid aside, and the four entered to range themselves alongside Syluth before T'Keel's computer desk. She looked up at them and an almost-smile relieved the somber cast of her face.
"We have an alternative plan to suggest before you resort to using the Otsud to try and destroy the robot." Christine paused, but there was no denial that such a plan was being considered. "The Varreins did not respond to your logical presentation of the facts. We would like to try other methods of getting what we need."
T'Keel managed to stifle the wild leap of hope--she did not want to die--and asked calmly, "What methods?"
"Threat," Karm said smilingly.
"Bluffs," said Helen sweetly.
"And blackmail," added Kaleth with a grin.
"It's for their own good," Christine added seriously. "Our long term, enforced presence on the planet would be disastrous. It would destroy the small amount of trust they now have in each other."
"In the weeks we've been here, a vast amount of information has been gathered, much of it dealing either directly, or indirectly, with the leaders of the governments of the three continents." Helen sank into the chair Syluth pushed into place behind her. "I've studied it carefully, and with your cooperation, I think we can talk them into giving us the materials."
"What will it cost?"
Helen met the tired dark eyes and told the truth. "There will have to be many lies told, but we four are willing to do that. It will cost the Federation the trust and belief of the people of this planet, but they will be alive, and so will we. Another ship can continue this mission after the scientists of Varrein have had time to study the situation and explain to their governments what did happen, and what could have happened."
"A failure that does not end in death need not remain a failure," Syluth said, throwing his support to their side. "Explain what needs to be done."
Four figures sparkled into golden life in the middle of the pale green carpet in Councilor Riddinal's private office. His shout of alarm brought a guard, Karm stunned him as he came through the door, which Syluth then closed and locked. Christine stopped Riddinal's attempt to reach the communication devices on his desk.
T'Keel took her place in front of the desk. "You will not be harmed," she said. "We merely want to talk to you, and we do not think you will want anyone else to hear this conversation. Our attempts to destroy the doomsday machine did not succeed, so we still need the fissionable materials we asked for before."
Christine, maintaining her position between Riddinal and his outside contact said, "The list please, Captain."
Slowly and clearly T'Keel began to recite a list of map coordinates for positions inside Treign. Christine watched Riddinal until his face slowly grayed, then signaled T'Keel to stop. "We have a complete list of the exact location, size, and type of warhead, and assigned target of every nuclear missile in your country. Unless you let us have the few we need, the list will be given to Hung'fo and Gridnor."
In the silence Riddinal looked from one to the other of the alien faces. The dark man by the fallen guard grinned--a fearsome expression. The one by the door looked at him as though he were some crawling thing; the black-haired woman showed no emotion he could read. Most horrible of all, the tall blonde woman looked at him as he looked at his own children when they had a choice to make. Hung'fo and Gridnor with complete data on Treign's missile sites? Every missile would have to be relocated. . .by his successor, because he would no longer hold this job, even if he still lived. "Yes. Yes! You may have them."
"We will take the warheads from these missiles." Christine laid a list before him. "Notify the proper personnel. Syluth will stay with you until we have the warheads."
Syluth stood beside Riddinal as the three transported back to the ship. "Your first call should be to Wogansk, should it not, Councilor?"
At this final proof of their knowledge, Riddinal touched his head in assent and punched the button to call the scientist to his post.
Karm, Kaleth, and T'Keel's appearance in Hung'fo's breakfast nook caused one maid to faint, and cost another a sprained wrist when she tried to fight her way past Kaleth to get help.
T'Keel moved the intercom beyond Hung'fo's reach as she explained, "We still need the fissionable materials we asked for before."
"The answer is still no." Hung'fo tried to stand, his face red with rage, but Karm's hands on his shoulders prevented it. "Get out!"
Kaleth had dragged the maid over to the wall where a relief map of the continent hung. "They are fools fighting in a burning house, Karm, too foolish to save themselves." He studied the map. "They have a monotonous country. Wouldn't it be more interesting with a canyon running from this lake to the ocean?" He traced the proposed location of the canyon across the inner plain with his sirp, leaving a jagged slit in the map.
"A nice deep one," agreed Karm, "like Edge-of-the-World on Skikof."
"You said you had no weapons!" Hung'fo screamed.
"True, we do not permit ourselves to use weapons because--" T'Keel began.
"Warp-drive ships hold a great deal of power," interrupted Karm. "Just a 'little accident'--one it would be so easy to prevent."
"Yes," Hung'fo whispered, seeing in his mind the barren canyon that threatened to cut across the richest farm lands on the planet. "Yes, you can have the warheads."
"We also need that large spaceship currently in orbit, the Pride of Home," T'Keel explained. "Her crew will be returned here. Kaleth will go to your office with you to make the arrangements."
The bedroom was dark and cool. Christine tiptoed to the windows and opened the drapes so the gray dawn light could shine in. Gridnor and his queen were sleeping soundly, and neither stirred while Helen locked the door and T'Keel removed the caller from the table beside the bed. "Your Majesty," Christine said softly. "Your Majesty, we need to talk to you." The dark queen sat up abruptly. Her eyes flew from one invader to the other. A grim smile flicked across her face as she turned to shake her husband's shoulder. "We have visitors, Norrie. Wake up." She absently pulled her gown up on her bare shoulders as she surveyed the three women standing around the bed. "You've come back for the bombs?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," T'Keel said.
The king had made his own survey of the room. "No weapons to back your demands?"
"We can have them here in seconds if we need them," T'Keel said promptly. It was a very small lie, and she felt she should share the burden.
Helen shifted, bringing the royal couple's attention to her. Her tight jumpsuit made her pregnancy very evident. "If our request is not honored, our ship, and my Captain," she touched T'Keel's shoulder, "will have to be sacrificed to save your planet. My child will die here, because he will not be able to get the care he needs to help him survive."
The dark queen sat straighter, searching Helen's face for the truth. Her first born had died when he was five days old. "Help them, Norrie. You wanted to the first time."
"Riddinal and Hung'fo--"
"...have already agreed to give us what we need from their lands." Christine smiled at the king. "We were not able to ask them so politely."
"And if I do not agree, your politeness with me will end?" Gridnor managed to look regal sitting half-naked in his bed. "No need. You may have the missiles."
"I have a list of the size and location of the warheads we need, Your Majesty. I will stay until you have given the orders releasing them to us." Christine saw the amusement in his face and smiled again. "We believe you will do as we ask, Your Majesty, but there is very little time, and we cannot take a chance on you changing your mind."
Karm and Spolark transported the last warhead into orbit beside the Pride of Home. Spolark locked the controls on the one communicator still on Varrein while Karm activated the communicator on the Otsud's transporter console. "Christine, we have the last warhead."
With a deep sigh of relief, Christine bowed to King Gridnor. "You are a man of your word, sir; thank you." She stepped away from the polished desk "Karm, I'm ready to come home."
He was waiting at the edge of the platform as she materialized. There was time for a hug and one quick kiss--which Spolark observed with mild curiosity--then Karm stepped up on the platform. "I have to get over to the Pride of Home." He activated his life-support belt as Christine backed to the door, waiting until he was gone before reporting to T'Keel, "Energize."
The Pride's crew and the Otsud's engineers were fitting the warheads into the cargo space. Even with tractor beams to help, handling the warheads was hard, dangerous work. All the maneuvering inside the hull had to be done by hand, and it was much easier to get the heavy bombs into motion that it was to stop them at the proper place. Four long, weary hours after Karm, Christine, and T'Keel had materialized in Councilor Riddinal's office, the ship and its precious, deadly cargo were ready.
After the help they had given, the Pride's crew demanded the right to see their ship die. Helen, the logical guide, had been ordered to bed by her angry doctors, so Christine found herself on the engineering deck with the Pride's seven crewmembers, watching as Shimrah engaged all the tractor beams and pulled the Pride closer to the Otsud. When he was certain the spaceship was in the best possible position--the transition from orbit speed to light speed was going to be sudden--he informed T'Keel that they were ready to move. The warp engines were started. After three anxious minutes of watching the stress gauges on the tractor beams, the Otsud's engineers relaxed. The Otsud and her tow were moving smoothly toward their rendezvous with the robot ship. T'Keel brought the Otsud in on a gentle curve, halting well beyond the defensive sphere. The Pride's engines were fired by remote--by her own Captain--and she moved slowly away from the Otsud. Christine noticed she was clenching her hand on someone's arm as the robot's tractor beam touched the Pride of Home and began dragging her in as her engines fought against the pull. As she slipped tail first into the blazing maw, Karm sent the destruct signal. A sheet of white-violet flame shot out, and the strained wait began again. Christine loosened her fingers and muttered, "Sorry," without ever taking her eyes off Shimrah. The absent "Why?" attracted her attention. It had been Syluth's arm she was clutching, not that of one of the Pride's crew.
"Radiation count is dropping," announced Shimrah. Remembering the disappointment of the second try, no one commented. "No energy is being produced," he said after an endless four minutes. There was a soft sound, the result of many people exhaling at the same time, and the watchers began to disperse.
"'Third time's the charm,'" Christine heard someone say and realized it was her. "Superstition," she muttered. She had begun to feel superstitious about that monster. There was no noise, no shouting or cheering as there would have been on a human ship, but the Vulcan faces she could see did look pleased. A logical plan had been followed to a favorable conclusion.
Karm and Shimrah turned away from the panel they had been examining. Without thinking, she smiled impartially at them. To her amazement they both responded, Karm with his own wide grin, and Shimrah with an inclination of his head that acknowledged the feeling behind the smile, and the comment: "It will be good to return to our normal routine. Do you think this accomplished any good on the planet. . .beyond just saving it from outside destruction?"
Christine blinked, then admitted that she had been posing as an expert on the culture. She gestured toward the area where Syluth and the Pride's crew had been joined by T'Keel. "Maybe. If they will listen to that crew, they'll know how the supplies we stole were used. Even if it was against their will, all three countries had a hand in saving their world. Maybe they will have learned something."
Christine sighed softly and snuggled against Karm. She was tired, but her mind was still too busy to allow her to rest. A warm arm slid around her back and tucked her into a more comfortable fit against Karm's body. "Did I wake you?" she whispered.
"Yes, my heart." She could feel the smile on his lips as they touched her forehead. "Why aren't you asleep?"
"I've been thinking. Regretting that I'll never know exactly how things work out on Varrein. There'll be reports, but all they'll say is what happened. They won't tell how Riddinal, Hung'fo, and Gridnor worked it out. I'll never know if Riddinal learned to care about anything but the power he had. . .or if Hung'fo realized he had a responsibility to the entire world, not just his own country. Will Gridnor learn to work out a way to do what he thinks is right rather than just what is politically wise? It's like reading one chapter of a book, then never getting to finish the story." She had turned so her head was against Karm's chest. His heart drummed in her ear, and she could feel him chuckle.
"You had a chance to stay and see how the story ended," Karm reminded her. "But you worked very hard to avoid that fate."
"I want to know how it ends, not be a part of it." She breathed slowly and regularly against his chest, but the tension in her body said she wasn't asleep.
"Did you learn anything?" Karm asked. If he could turn her thoughts to an area where there were some answers rather than just questions, she might sleep.
Christine stretched lazily, moving away from him, ending up with her head back on the pillow beside his. "Of course," she said, then realized he wanted a list. What have I learned? she thought. Not just facts, but something to do with me, or with us. She almost lost herself in the still new warmth of being part of an "us," but her buzzing mind insisted on reviewing the last week. "We've been so busy, I don't think I've thought about myself since the doomsday machine was discovered," she said.
"It was fun," Karm chuckled. "Remember the look on Hung'fo's face, when Kaleth drew that canyon on his country?"
"I rather liked Gridnor and his queen. They were nice people. And T'Keel. . .did I tell you she told a lie during our visit to them?" Christine recalled the dimly lighted room and the calm, Vulcan face. "She did it well, too. Never twitched an eyebrow." A montage of Vulcan faces flashed through her mind, calm, interested, thoughtful, relaxed, but not disapproving, not withdrawn. Christine sat up, her drowsiness dispelled. "I reacted emotionally during this problem. I was wholeheartedly involved." She frowned. "We worked the problem through logically, then solved it by working on the emotions of the Varreins."
"I almost yelled at Shimrah," Karm said, picturing the Vulcan's face at that moment. Shimrah had been interested, then pleased. . .
"They don't mind," Christine said dazedly. "We don't have to suppress all our emotional reactions the way we've been doing."
Karm isolated a memory and smiled at it. "Remember what T'Keel said when we first went to her about conditions on Varrein? 'You are beginning to justify your inclusion on our staff." She wants us to be Klingon. . .and human."
"They need us to help them predict emotional responses." Christine settled back beside Karm, suddenly relaxed and at peace. "We do have a useful place here," she muttered. "I've just begun to feel a part of the ship, and I was afraid they'd decide we didn't fit in and would ask us to leave, but they need us." She smiled, and fell asleep with the smile still on her face.
Get Kraith, Showcase, and Jean Lorrah's NTM fanzines on paper: