Donna S. Frelick
The creature fled the dark of the tall growth for the light of the open plain, fled across the heat-shattered grassland to the grove of wind-warped trees that marked the path of the river. Vibrating with terror and desperate guilt, the creature huddled among the twisted roots on the river's edge, seeking solace in the cool mud and sibilant water.
Everywhere on the surface of Rho Orionis V, life existed in wonderful profusion. In the grove where the creature cowered, full of confusion and self-loathing; in the riotous young river; in the endless ocean of waving grass that surrounded the island of high ground and stunted trees; in uncounted thousands of places on the planet, life blossomed and thrived.
But nowhere on this planet was there another like this creature. It was alone, the last of its kind.
When the others had come, the creature had flared with excitement and hope. Their minds were so different from those of the simple beings that shared its world. They were so curious, so full of new information!
But in its clumsiness, the creature had failed to reach them. Its inexperienced touch had left their beautifully complex minds in disarray. Now they, too, had gone; it had driven them away.
And the creature, crushed by sorrow and indescribable longing, drew in on itself and waited for the future--alone.
Thirty-six hours out of Barzac's Planet on a course for Bellatrix XI, the Federation Merchant Ship Diana was running flat out. Warp 4 and nothing on the screens but open space. E.T.A. at Bellatrix SpaceDock: twenty point one-three hours.
Everything was perfect. Perfectly smooth, perfectly boring. But there was a frown creating two tiny furrows between Captain Kate Logan's green eyes. Nothing was wrong. But something was not right.
"Computer, run a fuel consumption projection for me, would you?"
"Projection profile unchanged since last report."
"What last report?"
"Last report offered twenty-two point four minutes ago."
"Jeez, I'm losing it," Logan muttered and stood up to pace her tiny bridge.
This was the job she'd been waiting for, the one that would finally put her over the top. Six years of hustling for work, hauling machine components to Delta Aurigae, Saurian brandy to Canubis, data tapes to Alexandria II. Six years of lone wolf trade based solely on her skill at nurturing relationships in every dockside bar from Earth to Starbase 200. Six years of cheap hotel cubicles and petty sacrifice, saving for a ship big enough and a business strong enough to hold her dreams.
Then the Orion had found her on Barzac's and offered big credits to take a load of medical supplies to Bellatrix XI. 'It could be dangerous,' he'd said. 'There are many desperate people in that unfortunate sector. You have a reputation for being reliable even in difficult circumstances. We are prepared to pay for reliability.' What they were prepared to pay for this one delivery was more than Logan had earned in a year of smaller jobs.
Logan didn't like the Orion. She didn't like the destination. Bellatrix XI was a tough place to find a cargo--she'd probably have to run empty on the return. She didn't even like the idea that there was so much credit involved. Pharmaceuticals would be lucrative trade to a planet where violence was as common as it was on Bellatrix XI. But why pay that much money to protect easily replaceable cargo?
Logan didn't like any of it. In the end, though, the temptation was too strong. She took the risk--but just to make sure, she had the Orion and his cargo checked twice before she left Barzac's. It hadn't been enough to ease her mind.
Logan sighed and sat down again at her console. She called up the communications systems readouts. All green. She browsed through the navigation system checks, the life support readings, the cargo disposition readings, the electrical system backups. All green. Then she started on the engine systems panel. Fuel, coolant, seals, efficiency ratios. All green. Intermix, crystal performance, engine balance. Green.
Logan started to go on to the next panel, but something made her stop and take a second look. She called up the numbers on the intermix chamber and the frown deepened between her eyes. She called up the warp engine balance figures for comparison. The engines were operating within normal parameters, but the readouts indicated a slight imbalance.
"Computer, show me warp engine balance and intermix data for thirteen hundred hours this date."
The data hit the screen almost as soon as the question was out of Logan's mouth. "For eleven hundred hours this date."
The computer complied.
"Damn," Logan said. The imbalance was increasing. "Computer, project engine balance and intermix data for duration of course."
"Projection indicates warp engine imbalance will reach critical levels in approximately four point five hours."
"I knew it. Damn it, I knew it." All the way to Bellatrix on impulse power meant twenty hours had just ballooned to a week. That is, providing she still had impulse power. "Computer, impulse engine status?"
"Currently operating within acceptable parameters."
"Critical overload in approximately six point eight hours."
Logan sat back in her chair, the breath leaving her in one unbelieving gasp. What the hell was going on? The Diana was no shipyard hatchling, but Logan had never neglected her maintenance schedule. There was nothing during the last overhaul that would have indicated this much trouble. Hell, this much trouble was pretty unlikely no matter what kind of shape a ship was in.
Logan didn't waste any time trying to find the source of the trouble herself. "Computer, correlate all engine systems data for duration of this journey and list all possible causes of engine imbalance."
"You're telling me you can list no possible causes of engine imbalance?" Logan knew it was hardly logical to yell at a computer, but she found her voice rising anyway.
"Engine systems data do not indicate any possible cause of engine imbalance."
"Nothing's wrong with the engines. They're just going nova for no good reason."
The computer had no reply for this. Logan could feel the sweat trickling down her back as she fought to control a growing sense of desperation.
She swept an errant lock of dark hair back from her damp face. "Okay, so we don't know what's causing it. Maybe we can fix it anyway." She took a deep breath and started the standard sequence for adjusting the mix of matter and antimatter in the Jefferies tube.
Logan was patient, controlled, efficient. But after two hours of steady work, she was forced to admit defeat. No combination of matter and antimatter would correct the burgeoning imbalance. Readings were fluctuating wildly from one moment to the next, so fast that even the computer couldn't compensate. It was bad and getting worse, and the impulse engines were showing the same erratic pattern.
"Time to engine overload?"
"One point nine five hours."
There was nothing left to do. No page of the manual left unturned. No unlikely possibility left untested. Logan turned to her communications panel and initiated the auto distress signal. Then she got up stiffly and moved back to her living quarters.
There she stopped, suddenly stripped of her power to make the necessary decisions. She stood for longer than she could afford to stand, staring at the evidence of her life, unable to salvage it, but just as unable to let it go.
Then something turned inside her and let a flood of adrenalized rage surge into her bloodstream. She began to swear, eloquently, loudly, in every language she knew. And as she swore she threw the physical artifacts of just over thirty years of Human life into a single much-traveled duffle bag.
When it was full, she hauled the heavy bag to an airlock in the stern, opened the hatch and threw it violently against the back wall of the ship's lifepod. She stumbled in after it, slammed the hatch shut, sealed the locks, strapped herself into the single cramped seat. She powered up and waited for the systems checks to read green. Then she blew the moorings, freeing the lifepod from its confinement in the belly of the terminally-ill Diana.
Exactly thirty-two minutes later, the Diana blew itself to bits in a retina-searing flash of ultra-white light. The blast was observed and duly noted in the logs of three freighters, one passenger ship enroute to planets in Quadrant 17 and the Starfleet scout ship Bowie, which also monitored and responded to the emergency distress call from the vicinity of the explosion.
In the lifepod, riding the shock wave of the Diana's violent death, Captain Kate Logan at last ran out of anger. Silent now, she waited and watched the fading nova of her future through her futile tears.
The planet was a beleaguered island in the luminous, deadly cloud of the Bellatrix Nebula. Officially, Bellatrix XI had five natural satellites. But the icy shards of hundreds of would-be moons surrounded the planet like a vast spherical shoal, a hollow reef of obscuring dust and broken stones.
Within the star system, the chaotic gravimetric pull of the eccentric nebula and its star created whirlpools and eddies, hurricanes and tsunamis of cosmic force. The effects were predictable, after a fashion, but charting the Bellatrix Nebula had taken all the skill and technology the Federation had to offer and then some. Establishing a permanent route through the system with its three stars, dust clouds, sixteen planets, assorted gas fields and asteroids had finally opened the Bellatrix system to the Federation, but it had taken many years, an unbelievable amount of credit and more than a few lives to accomplish.
Very little went through the Bellatrix Nebula except on the designated route. Even communications went through on tight-beam transmission to limit the effect of dust, radiation and magnetic storms in the Nebula. There was just one way in, one way out, and precious little room for error. Doctor Leonard McCoy thought it was well worth taking a few minutes away from an empty Sickbay to watch the show from the bridge.
"Watch for falling rocks," Ensign Chekov intoned from the navigator's seat.
It was an old joke, but at the helm Sulu still grinned. "You better believe it."
"Steady as she goes, helm. Ahead one-quarter-impulse."
"Aye, sir," Sulu answered and started his run.
Spock was giving the orders from the conn, not Captain Kirk. And for once, McCoy was grateful. Jim couldn't resist letting Sulu show off at times like this. Spock would make sure the helmsman took it easy.
"E.T.A. Bellatrix SpaceDock, Mister Sulu?"
"Seventeen point three minutes, Mister Spock."
"Deflectors on minimum, Mister Chekov."
"Aye, sir. Route status information from SpaceDock has been received and laid in. Sensors are currently showing only three ships on approach to SpaceDock."
"Very good. Stay alert, Ensign."
"I always thought the Bellatrix Nebula was one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the galaxy," McCoy said. "From a distance, that is."
Sulu and Chekov smiled. Spock, as usual, missed the point. "Yes. I suppose it is more aesthetically pleasing when seen as a whole."
"It's more aesthetically pleasing when you don't have to worry about crushing your hull on a passing piece of rock," McCoy said.
He turned from the viewscreen to the ship's first officer. "So what's this little detour all about, Spock? You know our devoted captain will have our hides if we're a minute late picking him up from leave. Starfleet practically had to order him to take it in the first place."
"The captain has been delayed on Starbase Twelve."
"Delayed. We have been ordered to Bellatrix Eleven in the interim to take up a new assignment."
McCoy leaned closer to Spock's chair and spoke so that no one else on the bridge could hear. "Are you telling me Jim is allowing Starfleet to hang him up on Starbase Twelve while his ship takes up a new mission without him? I can imagine what he'd have to say about that!"
"I have not been in contact with the captain, Doctor."
"Well, don't you think that's a bit irregular?" McCoy sure as hell thought so. Jim Kirk had a bad habit of interrupting his own leave time to call in to the ship on a regular basis.
Spock merely looked at him. "Not at all, Doctor."
"Making our final approach, Mister Spock."
"Bellatrix SpaceDock confirming our arrival, sir. Lieutenant Sulu should already have our docking coordinates on his board."
"Confirmed. Initiating docking sequence."
"Carry on, Mister Sulu."
"All right, so Jim's stuck on Starbase Twelve," McCoy said. "What are we doing here?"
"Bellatrix Eleven has any number of disputes among rival factions on the planet and in the lunar colonies, several of which have erupted into violence. It faces a planet-wide environmental collapse sometime in the next century due to the effects of overpopulation on this energy-deficient world. What passes for planetary government has taken on a massive burden of debt to pay for development of the Nebula and the price of significant exports has dropped precipitously in the past solar year."
"I didn't ask for a lecture, Spock," McCoy groused. "What are we here to do?"
"It would be useless for me to speculate as to which one of these problems the U.S.S. Enterprise has been called upon to address," Spock said.
"You mean you don't know?"
"I am to meet with the Federation ambassador within the hour. I assume he will enlighten me."
McCoy groaned. "Not another diplomatic support mission." Maybe Jim was smart to stay on Starbase Twelve after all. Their visit to Bellatrix XI gave every indication of being about as exciting as a case of hives.
"We've had a chance to confirm your consignment records from Barzac's Planet, Captain Logan, but if you don't mind we still have a few questions."
"I already told the captain of the Bowie and the merchant review board all I know," Logan said, trying hard to be patient. "I don't understand why it's necessary to go over all this again."
"Bear with us, please, Captain Logan." Commodore Stocker, who was in charge of the panel, glanced left and right at his colleagues. All three wore command gold, but two of them wore the insignia of Starfleet Intelligence. "Commander? I believe you had something?"
A brass nameplate identified the man to the commodore's left as Commander Arnold J. Chartoff. He flashed Logan a grin that appeared unnaturally white against his olive skin and started in. "I understand you were at Starfleet Academy, Captain."
"Yes," Logan answered, jolted.
"But you never graduated. Why?"
"My letter of resignation from the Academy is on record, Commander."
"Yeah, we have it here. Doesn't say much. Your brother was severely injured in a training accident shortly before you left?"
"Yes. What does all this have to do with..."
"Was the explosion on his ship anything like the one you experienced enroute to Bellatrix Eleven?"
Logan nearly came out of her seat. Who the hell does he think he is? She didn't care how much trouble she was in, some things were none of anyone's damn business. "It was nothing like it," she said finally. "But then, nothing beats the bang you get when barion emissions from unshielded protomatter throw your warp engines out of balance. What's your point?"
Chartoff grinned again. "Just covering all the bases, Captain."
Logan would've given plenty to smack that grin off his face.
The woman seated on the other side of the commodore continued. "The record states that six years ago you applied for a trade license. What did you do in the interim, Captain? That is, between the time you left the Academy and the time you applied for your license."
Logan couldn't believe this. What the hell were they after? "I had family obligations. And I'm not about to spell them out for you here." No matter how much it might hurt my case, you bloodsuckers.
"That won't be necessary," the woman said. She didn't have a nameplate. Evidently she'd been brought in from staff on short notice to fill out the panel. "You've had a clean record since then, Captain. That is a point in your favor."
"How much did you know about the man who hired you, this, uh, Ashkaz?"
"As much as the Federation Trade Registry could tell me. He looked clean. I asked around. A few of the other pilots had run stuff for him, but they couldn't tell me much. They did say he paid well--and on time."
"Your report stated you believed the cargo to be medical supplies," the woman said.
"But you were running without external cargo carriers on a ship designed to haul up to ten of them. Isn't it customary to complement a small volume of cargo with additional carriers to the same destination?"
Logan sighed. How many times do I have to say this? "Ashkaz told me he was worried about somebody hijacking the load. He was willing to pay a premium to make sure the stuff arrived safely--and quickly. I didn't have time to scare up any more business to Bellatrix Eleven. It's not exactly the trade capital of the quadrant, you know."
Logan stopped, looked at each of her inquisitors in turn. "Look. I checked the guy out. I checked the cargo manifest and a random sample. I had independent inspectors come in and verify everything. I did all I could do to make sure this was a legitimate job."
"But they used you for a patsy anyhow, didn't they, Captain?" Chartoff said, his grin wider and whiter and more irritating than ever.
"Yeah," Logan answered acidly. "I guess they did. Maybe you can suggest a way I could avoid taking on this kind of contraband in the future, Commander. I'd hate to make the same mistake twice."
"Make the same mistake another time, Captain, and you might not be so lucky," Chartoff replied.
Commodore Stocker shifted in his seat. "Well, I think that will be just about all, Captain. Oh, one other thing. Who was your contact on Bellatrix Eleven? I didn't see that in your report."
"Ashkaz didn't give me a name. He gave me some lame excuse about changing dealers on Bellatrix Eleven and said he'd leave me a message in SpaceDock." It was a lie, the only one she'd told in two long days of debriefing. But she had plans to solve this little mystery to her own satisfaction and that name was something she needed sole possession of.
Chartoff wasn't buying it. She could see it in his eyes.
Logan stared back at him defiantly. You don't believe me? Prove it, you arrogant jerk.
"You can go, Captain Logan," the commodore said. "Thank you for your time. We'll make our report available in a couple of days."
Logan got up without another word and left the briefing room. She brushed past several others in the outer office and strode out into the corridor. There she slumped against the colorless wall, frustrated past tears.
A couple of days! More like a week, maybe two. Then, if she was very lucky, they would certify the explosion of her ship as an accident. The insurance carriers would diddle around with it for another week and after she died of starvation she'd get the credits to buy a new ship and start all over. She uttered a single, elegant word borrowed from the original Klingonese that very closely described what she thought the review panel could do with their findings.
And that business about Ken and the Academy. What the hell was that all about? Logan had done a very good job for a number of years of not thinking about her brother and what had happened at the Academy. She wasn't about to start digging that up all over again.
She pushed away from the wall and headed for the Outer Rings. After two days of interrogatory hell, she needed a drink.
The place she chose was a spacers' bar, located on the outskirts of the starbase. There was nothing exceptional about it. It was dark and noisy and full of petty intrigue--just like dozens of others in the Outer Rings.(1) Like the others, it operated with the tolerance of Starfleet as long as there was no serious trouble.
It didn't look like serious trouble was on tap for this particular night. A few heads turned when Logan pushed up to the bar, not all of them Human--or male either, for that matter. Logan noticed; she always noticed the effect she had on people. But tonight, all of that interest was lost on her. It had been a long day.
"Bourbon and Altair water," she told the bartender and reached into a pocket of her jumpsuit for her card. Someone bumped her elbow and laughed too loudly.
"Oh, Captain Logan. So sorry!" He was tall and bearded and looked vaguely familiar, but Logan couldn't place him. "I hear you had a little trouble on that run to Bellatrix Eleven. Too bad. Maybe your luck has run out?"
Logan remembered now. The guy had always resented like hell losing a job to her. "Screw you, too, Hardison." Luckily, his drunken friends dragged Hardison away to another argument before Logan had to revise her evaluation of the potential for trouble in the place.
"Kate!" A long, slender arm waved from a crowded table near the back of the bar. Logan answered with a wave of her own and retrieved her drink and debit card from the bartender. She made her way through the throng to the table and dropped wearily into an empty chair.
Among the faces around the table were a few familiar ones--another pilot, a couple of engineers from SpaceDock, a comm specialist from the base. The woman who had hailed her was an old friend, a Deltan, coolly beautiful despite the complete lack of hair. "How'd it go today?" the Deltan asked her.
"Looks like they're going to drag this out for another couple of days. At least they're through grilling me. I suspect they'll start in on the captain of the Bowie tomorrow."
"Yeah, tough luck, Logan," one of the engineers said. "A thing like this can really put a crimp in a lone wolf business. Were you hauling any carriers?"
"Are you kidding?" The pilot grinned at her. "Kate never hooks anything on the back of her ship if she can help it. Too hard to do all that fancy flying with a string of carriers out behind."
"Very funny, Niiles. But, as it happens, I was flying clear this time. And a damn good thing, too, or I'd be paying off half a dozen shippers instead of just one. My insurance company would've loved that."
"Too bad about the Diana, though," Niiles said. "She was a beauty."
"Yeah," Logan said softly. She shook her head. "I just wish Starfleet would move its brass tail and certify this as an accident so I can get on with my life."
"What else could it be but an accident, Kate?" the Deltan said. "Do they think you'd blow your own ship to fragments on a paid run?"
"Laria, there is no limit to the stupidity they think merchant captains are capable of."
"I heard this isn't the first time a ship blew in deep space with no apparent reason," the comm specialist--Morton was his name--said.
"Yeah?" Logan sat up.
"There have been two others in that sector in the past three months."
"Yeah, and another on the Vulcan-Rigel line just last month," said Niiles.
"Sounds like the rumor mill is running a little overtime," Logan said.
"No chance," Niiles said. "I got that one from the horse's mouth--maintenance engineer for the ship. The pilot didn't make it back."
"What did the engineer say it was?"
"Unexplained. Just like the others. What about yours?"
Logan looked at him. "Unexplained. So far."
"Well, it sounds like there are a few engineers out there trying to cover their butts," said Sukura, an engineer herself, but the toughest crew chief on the dock.
"Oh, come on, Commander. Slow to impulse," her companion said. "Maybe we need another round here."
The group rowdily agreed and all summoned the bar-bot at once. Logan took the opportunity to give her drink and her surroundings some serious attention. A quick survey of the room took in the two Tellarites happily arguing in a booth near the door, a mixed group of revelers in Starfleet science blue, a couple of deals being concluded with a friendly drink--and one Starfleet command officer sitting by himself at the darkest table in the joint.
Logan drew her friend aside. "Hey, Laria, who's the Lone Ranger in the corner?"
"You're joking, right?"
"Do I look like a comedian? Who is he?"
Laria's classic face held a stern warning. "Persona non grata, that's who. He's being brought up on charges..."
"Oh, good, then we have something in common."
"You didn't let me finish--he's being charged with a Regulation Twenty-eight violation. And the word is the woman isn't kidding."
Logan whistled. "Don't get that every day, even out here in the boonies. He doesn't look the type, though."
"And just what does the type look like, I'd like to know?"
"Oh, don't get on your Deltan high horse about this, Laria. We know all about your code of sexual ethics. I just meant he looks, well..."
"I know what you meant. You want my advice? Leave him alone."
Logan couldn't help it. The grin spread over her face of its own accord. "What?"
Laria just looked at her.
"So who is this bad boy?"
"Somebody named Kirk."
Logan's mouth fell open. "James T. Kirk? Of the U.S.S. Enterprise? Say it ain't so!"
"Oh, it's so, all right," Niiles said. "And are the Starfleet boys hot about it! Doesn't do much for that squeaky-clean image of theirs. They'll have him out of uniform so fast it'll make his head spin, whether he did anything or not."
"Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?"
Niiles laughed. "An antiquated concept, obviously."
After a day with Starfleet Intelligence, Logan had to agree with him. It was bad enough that they'd pegged her for a criminal. But Kirk?
Laria was watching her suspiciously. "Kate..."
"Sorry, Laria. This I just gotta check out for myself." She stood up. "See you later."
Logan made her way across the room to stand at Kirk's table. She had time to notice he'd had more than one drink--the glasses still littered the table--before he looked up. His eyes were clear and watchful, though. He wasn't drunk yet. "Mind if I sit down?" she asked him.
He smiled and gestured to the chair opposite his own. "Getting a little crowded at your table?" he said.
"Sometimes it's better to just get away by yourself for a while--find a little peace and quiet."
The bar-bot came by, whirring solicitously. She ordered another bourbon. "You want another one?" she asked him.
He shook his head.
Logan caught the stares from the nearby tables, the relevant phrases from a few muttered comments. Well, to hell with them.
Kirk had caught them, too, evidently. "Your friend should've warned you this is the hottest seat in the place tonight."
"I like to live dangerously." She smiled at him and found him smiling back. Disarming smile. Disquieting eyes. What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this? "So. Did you do it?"
Those charming hazel eyes turned instantly hard and unreadable. "Do what?"
"Whatever it was they said you did."
"Does it matter?"
"Does to me."
"No. I didn't do it."
"So she's lying?"
"It was a misunderstanding."
"One of those late-night-too-many-drinks misunderstandings? Or one of those I'm-sorry-I-don't-love-you-I'll-expect-your-transfer-request-in-the-morning kinds of misunderstandings?"
He sighed, but he didn't look away. "No. One of those complete misunderstandings."
She looked at him for a long time, assessing the evidence. "Can you prove it?"
"Starman, you are in deep trouble," she said quietly. "Believe me I know the feeling." She shook off the impending silence and offered her hand. "I'm Kate Logan."
"Jim Kirk." Was it just her imagination or did he hold her hand just a little longer than he needed to? If he did, she didn't mind. "You were captain of the Diana?"
"Until three days ago."
"Yes, I heard what happened. I'm sorry." The sympathy in his voice seemed genuine enough.
"Word travels fast."
"Gossip greases all the wheels around a starbase, as my chief engineer used to say." He looked at her for a moment. "So. Did you do it?"
She smiled. "Do what?"
"Whatever it is they said you did."
"Oh, I did it all right," she conceded. "I just didn't know I was doing it at the time."
"We seem to have a lot in common. What's the charge?"
"Well, if I'm lucky, there won't be any charges. But the authorities were just a bit curious as to why I might be hauling protomatter from Barzac's Planet to Bellatrix. I spent all of today trying to explain it to Starfleet Intelligence."
He was obviously surprised, but he recovered well. "Smuggling? You don't look like the type."
"Funny, I was just saying the same thing about you." She grinned and was intrigued by the effect it had on him. "Well, as it happens, I'm not. I'm the stupid enough to be duped by the smugglers type. But I'll tell you one thing, Captain. If I ever get my hands on another ship, I'm going to find out who it was that set me up. And then I'm just likely to turn into the murdering type."
He laughed. "I think I know how you feel."
Logan found herself watching his face and realized suddenly that three stressful days and two quick drinks were beginning to have a predictable effect. If she stayed any longer, she would undoubtedly embarrass herself.
She drained her drink and stood up. "Gotta go. It's been a tough day." She met his eyes again. "Not that it'll help any, coming from a fellow criminal. But I think you're telling the truth."
"Thanks," he said, as he watched her go. "So far, you're the only one."
The Federation ambassador to Bellatrix XI was a Vulcan, chosen as much for his natural ability to stay unequivocally neutral as for his experience, which was considerable. McCoy figured the fractured politics of factions, cults and clans that characterized Bellatrix XI was one of the few situations in which a complete lack of emotional response would be useful. Trying to make sense of it all would have driven any Human mad long ago.
McCoy had insisted on attending this meeting with Ambassador Sunak over Spock's usual objections. Spock had finally agreed, he said, only because the ambassador was a friend of his father's and "atypically adept in the social graces." After that comment, wild dahrmats wouldn't have kept McCoy away. A Vulcan with manners was something he wanted to see.
"Spock, I am gratified to see you," Sunak said, rising to come out from behind his desk. "I will have great need of your abilities on this mission. Your father and mother are well?"
"Quite well, thank you, Ambassador. Allow me to introduce Doctor Leonard McCoy, our ship's surgeon."
The Vulcan bowed to McCoy, but was quick to seek an explanation for his presence. "A physician, Spock?"
"Captain Kirk has always found the doctor's input to be valuable."
"Then you should do no less," Sunak said pleasantly.
Well, Spock hadn't exaggerated. It occurred to McCoy that Sunak was probably considered an oddball back home on Vulcan. Vulcans didn't usually inquire about personal matters, such as family, in front of strangers, but Sunak was downright cordial.
"Captain Kirk is detained by other duties, I understand."
"Yes, Ambassador. I am in temporary command of the Enterprise."
"Very well. The situation is this: Bellatrix Eleven is a violent planet. Perhaps it will always be. Certainly I see no immediate resolution of the problems that plague this world." McCoy was shocked to see that he nearly sighed.
He recovered himself and went on. "But in the last nine months, the violence has increased dramatically. Newer and more destructive weapons are being put to use by nearly all the many warring groups on this planet--with devastating effect. Unless we can find a way to stop this escalating arms buildup, there will never be any hope of resolving this planet's difficulties."
"Where are they getting the weapons?" McCoy said. "Surely they can't be bringing them in from outside the Bellatrix Nebula."
"We are fairly confident that we are controlling any large shipments of arms coming through the Nebula route," the Ambassador said. "But we cannot say that we are intercepting all contraband."
"Is it possible the arms are being manufactured on the planet, Ambassador?" Spock said.
"It is possible. We hope your ship's sensors will be able to help us determine that possibility. But there is one component of these new weapons that we are certain cannot be produced locally."
Sunak paused to make certain he had everyone's attention. Spock said nothing, but McCoy wasn't willing to wait for an end to this dramatic pause. "And what is that, Ambassador?"
"Protomatter, Doctor McCoy," the ambassador said and finally got the reaction he intended.
"My God," McCoy exclaimed. "Who in their right mind would want to mess with something that unpredictable? It wouldn't take much to blow this planet halfway to kingdom come!"
"The material is highly unstable, Doctor, but it does have some useful catalytic properties," Spock said.
"Seems like a few idiots on Bellatrix Eleven are finding it useful primarily for eliminating each other."
"Precisely," the ambassador agreed. "Until recently the conflict here has been bloody, chronic and intractable. But at least it was being conducted on a small scale, consisting mostly of local skirmishes and urban terrorism. The introduction of weapons that utilize protomatter has placed the conflict on another plane entirely. It is only a matter of time before one or another of the factions acquires enough of the material to ignite a system-wide conflagration."
Sunak paused and looked at his visitors with what McCoy could only have described as emotional intensity. "Who is bringing this material into Bellatrix Eleven, Spock, and how are they accomplishing it? That is what we want the Enterprise to tell us."
By the time the outworlders came again, Rho Orionis V had made its long, looping circuit around the giant orange star that warmed it many times. The creature could not say how many times--but it was aware now that there was a way to measure such changes. It had grown while the planet followed its lonely pathway, and was better able to recognize the changes that time brought.
The creature had learned skill in touching the minds of the lesser beings that shared its world. It could sweep through them now without disrupting the patterns of information that allowed them to sustain life in their organic shells. But the creature had long since learned all it could learn from their limited experience of the world. It had begun to understand that it was fundamentally different from these other creatures; it had begun to think perhaps it didn't belong in this world at all.
The creature knew nothing of its beginning. What being can remember its own birth? The creature had wondered about it, of course, developing and abandoning new theories as it added new information to its data array and outgrew the old ideas. Still, no matter how much data the creature collected, it was never enough to bring understanding. It was only enough to show the creature its limitations.
When the outworlders returned, they made brief visits at first, flying over the grasslands and the forests in humming metal shells. To the creature, it appeared as though their primary function was also information-gathering, but they seemed rather slow about it.
The creature hung back from touching their minds, for fear of hurting them again, but it investigated the devices they used to gather data. The arrangement of data in these devices was close to that of the creature's own array, but much simpler. And, as far as the creature remembered, the construction of the devices was very different from that of the outworlders' own minds.
From the instruments, the creature learned new names for the features of its own world, but it learned little about the outworlders themselves. For that, it would have to contact them directly.
By the time the creature was ready to try, the outworlders had become a permanent presence, building shelters at the edge of the grasslands and pathways through the forests. The creature observed their camp for many days before selecting one individual for its first contact.
It waited until the other was alone, well away from its companions, in case anything should go wrong. Then, tentatively, uncertainly, it swept through the other's mind, using all its skill to limit its contact with the contours of the organic mass that held the precious data. Even so, the other felt its touch, and fell to the ground in agony.
The creature was stunned, overwhelmed. The richness of the data in the other's mind was unimaginable! So many different levels of information, such elegant interconnectedness! And something else--not simply sensory input, but interpretation, language, emotion, insight!
The effect of so much new information was addictive. The first contact survived, so the creature tried another. And another. They were all different! The creature grew more skilled in managing the contact, the others suffered less, and the creature found it could not get enough. It sampled their minds regularly, over and over.
The creature learned and grew, losing innocence, but gaining subtlety and perception. Each new being, each new thought or emotion, was a source of wonder. And as it spent more time with the outworlders, the creature began to learn something, too, of horror and pain and emotions that held a darker fascination.
The creature pursued its research with unflagging enthusiasm for months, but eventually every mind began to have a dull sameness. Ships brought new minds to explore, but new information came less and less often. The creature lacked the skill to go deeper into the others' minds without damaging them. And it lacked the courage to follow them away from its home.
The creature grew fearful--what would happen when it had absorbed all the information it could from these others? Without new experience there could be no growth. And without growth there could be no future.
The creature's search took on an edge of desperation. It swept through dozens of the others, frightening them, sometimes damaging them in its frenzy. Until at last a new mind, touched for the first time, presented the creature with an astonishingly original response.
Mindsweeper, the mind said. I have been waiting for you. I am Xhosar.
Jim Kirk drifted slowly in the half-light of the chamber, fingertips just brushing the wall to his left, and waited. When it came, the serve was low and wide. He pushed off the wall and threw himself in the path of the red-orange glow that indicated the target, intercepted it with a quick flick of the wrist. He turned in a hurry, just in time to avoid a full collision with the opposite wall. He hit with his shoulder, grabbed a handhold and whipped himself back in toward the wall.
The target ricocheted off a scoring pad and triangulated a corner to come back at him twice as fast. But this time, it was an easy stretch out from his handhold to bat the target and send it back for another point.
The next shot wouldn't be so simple. Kirk could see it coming. He pushed off the wall with both feet, sending his body hurtling across the chamber to meet the target high and close to the left wall. He made the tag, but there was no hope of slowing or turning before his inertia brought him up against the padded wall with a crunching shock. He missed the handhold that would have saved him and bounced ungracefully back across the chamber. He caught himself on the other side, but not before the target scored on him and took the game.
"Excellent game, Captain," the computer said. "Your score improved substantially this time. Would you like to play again?"
"Not in this lifetime," Kirk said, struggling to pull in enough breath to sustain his pumping heart and aching muscles. He realized he'd probably overdone it as it was--over an hour in zero g was something more than a good workout. It was approaching physical abuse.
"Shall I return the chamber to Earth-normal gravity, Captain?"
Kirk was tempted to stay awhile and float. After all, he had no particular place to go. No appointments to keep, no plans to devise, no orders to give. Nothing to do at all except wait. The idleness was harder to take in some ways than the rest of what he'd put up with in over a week at Starbase 12. And that had been plenty.
But now the endorphins were singing in his bloodstream, blocking out all manner of pain. He thought maybe he was ready to face the day.
"Yes, computer, Earth normal. Execute." He grabbed a handhold and felt the returning drag on his frame as the computer gradually increased the gravity level to Earth normal. When the process was completed, he climbed down the ladder to the door and emerged into the humid, early-morning quiet of the gym.
The place had been deserted when Kirk had gone into the zero-g chamber. A few of the individual exercise rooms were in use now, most with privacy shields on. Early morning was not a time people generally chose to socialize with sports or group activities; most just wanted to be left alone while they worked out the kinks.
But on one of the rooms, the privacy shield had been neglected. Inside, a lone Human carried on the age-old battle of Man versus Machine. The Human kicked and dodged, blocked and punched, in a choreography of fluid movement matched by her android opponent.
Kirk slowed in his circuit of the gym and finally stopped in front of the room to watch. The Human partner in the intricate pas de deux was strong, graceful, intensely focused. She was short and slight, but she moved with concentrated power, even in the difficult combinations. She was quick, too, and smart. Kirk had fought her duotronic opponent a few times himself and he could see she was anticipating the program two and sometimes three moves ahead.
The loser in this particular match up was an android that Starfleet personnel everywhere called Bruce. As a martial arts training tool, the android had its limits--it could only score hits or kicks, not throws, although it could calculate whether its opponent was in proper position to use a certain throw. The newer programs were supposed to be much more realistic. At any rate, it was obvious this woman had already learned all Bruce could teach her. The android's program was set at the highest level, and she'd hardly worked up a sweat.
When the android finally acknowledged its defeat, the victor straightened and brushed an unruly shock of dark hair off her face. Kirk smiled in sudden recognition. It was Kate Logan.
"Very impressive," he said from the open doorway. "I'm glad to see someone finally put Bruce in his place."
"Thanks, Captain. And good morning to you, too," she said. She smiled and Kirk thought maybe someone had turned on an extra light somewhere. "Actually, I hate working out with a 'droid, but live bodies are hard to come by at this hour."
Ignoring his glucose-starved muscles, he jumped in. "Would you like a volunteer?"
She laughed. "Isn't there some rule against tossing a starship captain over your shoulder?"
"Probably, but I seem to have misplaced my gold braid," he said, examining his bare arm.
"Okay, mister, you asked for it. Step right up. Shall we have the computer keep score?"
He sauntered onto the mat. "Oh, let's just play deck rules. Last one standing wins."
Her grin couldn't get any wider. "This is going to be fun."
Facing her across the mat, he felt just the least bit guilty. Despite his fatigue, he had significant advantages in weight and height. Theoretically, those advantages could be used against him, but Logan would have to be a lot better than he gave her credit for to accomplish it. She was good, but he was no slouch at this either. He told himself to go easy on her.
He waited for her to make the first move and easily parried the exploratory hand combination. He threw a few jabs of his own to test her out and was just as easily blocked.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched him. "Come on, Captain. You can do better than that."
She'd no sooner finished the sentence when she was under his defenses with a kick to his side that he only partially escaped. She gave him no time to recover before she had him in a throw that landed him on the mat. He rolled out of it with little harm done, but he had to admit it had been a teeth-rattler.
"Chivalry will only get you tossed on your ear, starman," she said from a neutral corner of the mat. "Or have you already discovered that?"
"Should have learned it long ago," he answered, circling her. I just can't seem to resist putting on the old shining armor every once in a while."
Paying a little more attention now, he worked a combination on her that eventually got through her blocks and connected with a shoulder. That gave him an opening for a throw of his own, but he had to trade holds with her twice before he found the leverage he needed. She took the tumble and came up grinning.
"That's better," she said, and came at him from what seemed like at least two sides.
He fended her off and managed to get back on the offensive, but not before she snapped his head back with hand to the chin.
"Do you always talk so much?" he said, watching for an opening.
"Only when it works." She dropped to the floor, aiming a vicious kick at his knee, but he managed to deflect it to his thigh. It was the opening he'd been looking for. He twisted to grab her before she could get up and put her in a limb-lock. She fought back with surprising strength and almost managed to slip the hold, but he repositioned and held on until she stopped struggling.
For a moment, the only answer he got was her ragged breathing. She didn't move and he imagined he could feel her muscles relaxing under his grip. "Take your time," he said. "I'm beginning to enjoy this."
He eased up--and that's when she hit him. How she'd gotten that elbow free he'd never know, but it was enough to knock the breath out of him. And before he could protect himself, she had him flat on his back on the mat. She was poised for a very effective throat jab--if this had been a real fight, he'd have had about another second to review the mistakes of his life before she killed him.
Both breathing hard, they froze in position. The aggression that he had called up to serve the need of competition dissipated, leaving behind an exhausted, intimate warmth. He was intensely aware of how the salty heat radiated off her skin, how the pulse jumped in her slender neck, how her eyes were a startling, tropical green. He found himself wondering what it would be like to kiss her. Maybe she was wondering the same thing about him.
The moment passed, and he discovered she was watching him, her expression amused but wary. "Give up?" she said.
"What the hell happened?" he asked her.
She leaned closer and told him. "Never underestimate your opponent."
Kirk didn't think he was likely to make that mistake again. At least, not with this particular opponent. "I'll remember that," he said with a grin. "Now, uh, if you don't mind..."
"Certainly." She got up off his chest and offered him a hand up. He found he actually needed it--he was receiving damage reports from every part of his overtaxed body.
He groaned. "I demand a rematch."
"Anytime you're ready, starman." She smiled at him around the towel she was using to wipe her face.
"I think I should be recovered sufficiently by, say, this time next month."
They closed down the exercise room and headed back toward the locker rooms together. The gym was a little busier now that it was close to the beginning of the first watch. The crowd was not particularly friendly.
Logan noticed, too. "Sorry. Guess I kept you a little later than you'd planned to stay."
"What makes you think I mind?"
"I don't think I'd want to face all that hostility before breakfast if it was me."
He shrugged. "I can't exactly stay locked up in my room just because people have the wrong impression."
"No." She stopped at the entrance to the women's locker room and considered him for a moment. "One of these days I'm going to have to hear the story from you."
"How about today?"
She took a second to think about it. "Okay. Sixteen hundred in the arboretum. Section Thirteen."
"Yeah," she said with a grin. "It's my lucky number."
The warm glow from his encounter with Kate Logan lasted Kirk through most of a difficult morning. But by the time he made it back to his quarters, the cold disapproval he'd encountered from everyone else had started to seep inside his skin again. And standing not far from his door, he saw more trouble waiting for him.
A group of Starfleet officers and base workers lounged outside an open door in the corridor. They looked up and a couple of the junior officers snapped to attention as he approached. Maybe he'd get by them without incident after all.
"At ease, gentlemen," he said and stepped past them.
But it wasn't going to be that easy. A Tellarite uniformed as a dock engineer came barreling out of the open door and started up as soon as he caught sight of Kirk. "Hey, is that the one?" he asked his friends. "The one you were telling me about?"
His friends didn't answer. The Tellarite decided to find out for himself. "Hey, you. Are you Kirk?"
Kirk didn't see how he could avoid it. He turned to face him. "I'm Kirk."
The Tellarite swaggered up to him. "Tell me, Captain--was she worth it?"
His companions snickered. Kirk said nothing.
"I mean, I know you Humans put a lot of value on your biological functions, but I never thought you'd give up command of a starship just to get a little..."
Kirk grabbed the Tellarite by the front of his tunic and threw him up against the corridor wall. He clapped a hand around the engineer's thick throat and squeezed until he heard him gag. "Don't," he said.
"Take it easy, Captain," someone said, quite close to his left elbow. "He didn't mean anything by it."
Kirk relaxed his grip, and the engineer sank to his knees in the corridor, coughing. The others stood aside wordlessly and let Kirk pass. Then they collected the Tellarite and moved on down the passageway.
Kirk put a hand on either side of his door and leaned against the threshold, waiting for his racing pulse to slow a little. He wasn't handling this very well, he realized. Maybe he'd gotten himself in too deep this time. But if he had, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it now. He straightened with a sigh and let himself into his room.
The BellComm unit blinked in one corner. Kirk identified himself and checked the messages. There was a coded reference on the first line--a message on the secured channel, probably Chartoff. He wasn't interested in more bad news at the moment.
His eyes lit up when he saw the second line, however. The sender was listed as Lieutenant Commander Leonard McCoy, Chief Surgeon, U.S.S. Enterprise. Great timing, Bones. As usual.
Kirk called up the message and smiled to see McCoy's scowling face on the screen. "All right, Jim. I know I'm always telling you to take some leave time, but I had something more like a pleasure planet in mind. Starbase Twelve isn't anybody's idea of a good time."
Kirk smiled ruefully in agreement.
"Spock is being his usual close-mouthed self, not offering any explanation as to why you might be marooned there. As your doctor, I'm assuming they'd have sent me official notice if you had run into some lethal new form of entertainment.
"All I've got to say is it's a fine thing when Starfleet brass go splitting up starships and their captains to suit their convenience. What could be so all-fired important that we had to start this infernal assignment without you, anyway? We need you here before Spock drives us all crazy with his logical approach to command."
On the screen, McCoy's frown turned thoughtful, and the doctor paused as if unsure how to proceed. "I don't know, Jim. Maybe some of that fine intuition that serves you so well has rubbed off on me. But I have the feeling something's going on with you that I ought to know about."
The doctor shook his head, then looked directly at the screen. "I'll tell you one thing. If this turns out to be some elaborate scheme to get yourself in trouble, Captain, I swear you'll never hear the end of it. I'll order so many tests and diet changes and exercises that you'll think you signed up for the spa from Hell."
Kirk shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I feel faint already," he murmured.
"Well, I guess that's it. Oh, and I'm appending a list of things I need in Sickbay. See if you can light a fire under Supply, will ya?
"Take care, Jim. McCoy out."
Kirk stared at the screen for a long time after the message ended. He'd had no idea how difficult this would be--cut off from his friends, from his ship, from any sense of control. Putting up with the occasional belligerent Tellarite was hard enough; lying to people who cared about him was more painful than he'd ever anticipated.
He put off logging an answer to McCoy and checked the coded message on the secure channel. As he'd expected, Chartoff's ferrety face appeared on the screen. "Good morning, Captain. You just received a message from one Leonard McCoy on the Enterprise? Don't answer it. Same goes for any outside communication whatsoever. Sorry. Check in with you in a few days."
He listened to the message in growing anger. And when it had finished, Jim Kirk, the man who had remained calm and determined in the face of every conceivable disaster at the helm of the Enterprise, grabbed his chair and hurled it across his tiny room in inarticulate, frustrated rage.
It was the moment the creature had longed for, the beginning of communication. The mind that called herself Xhosar had opened before it like a gate swinging wide into a wild, pathless garden. The creature stood breathless before the vista, not sure how or where to look first.
I am Xhosar, the mind repeated, the words of the most accessible level of consciousness accompanied on deeper levels by images and memories. In the name the creature perceived the meaning ascribed to it by the Orion who gave it to her at a young age--an animal, cornered, spitting in fury. There was more information behind the word, but the creature had no time to explore it all.
Why do you call me 'Mindsweeper'? the creature asked.
It is what my troops call you. The creature saw the outworlders who built the camp and flew the ships and served their leader in many other ways. It perceived that the name was one they called on in fear, but that Xhosar herself was not afraid. She was merely--exhilarated. Do you have a name that you call yourself?
No, the creature answered. I will use Mindsweeper now.
The Mindsweeper felt a warm surge of gratification in Xhosar. Or was it simply amusement? The creature had so little understanding of the emotions of the outworlders.
What manner of creature are you, Mindsweeper?
The Mindsweeper was at a loss. There was nothing in its own experience to which it could compare itself. Unsure whether Xhosar would be able to interpret the data, the Mindsweeper merely projected as much of its nature as it understood directly into the processing centers of her mind, bypassing words since it had none to explain itself. Its array flared with delight when she signaled, I think I understand.
The Mindsweeper was aware it could have the answers to all its questions about Xhosar merely by searching for them in her mind. But that would be painful for her and ultimately meaningless for the creature. The Mindsweeper needed to communicate as much as it needed to learn. So the creature went about its information-gathering in a new way--by asking for it.
You are so different from the others, Xhosar. What manner of creature are you?
Again, the surge of amused surprise. And again, the information was transmitted directly, bypassing language. When the creature had had a chance to receive the data, it realized Xhosar could not possibly have known how much she revealed of herself. Perhaps she was even more inexperienced in this form of communication than the Mindsweeper itself, for she allowed the creature access to levels of her mind that it had never explored in any other before.
In an overwhelming rush, the Mindsweeper learned much of what there was to know of Xhosar--the ruthless cunning, the cancerous ambition, the love of blood and of acquisition. There, in the depths of her mind, was the pain of the powerless child she had been when her Klingon bloodline was slaughtered, scattered, and sold to Orion slavetraders. There were the many skills she had learned as the favored mascot of the trader who had bought her--thievery, fraud, slaving, murder, the art of profit and the pleasure of power.
There, too, was the satisfaction of her final revenge on the Orion, the foundation upon which her present success had been built. And there were her dark dreams of the future, dreams which now included the Mindsweeper.
The Mindsweeper absorbed the flood of data in horror and fascination, unable and unwilling to staunch the flow of intimacy from her mind. The creature accepted all without analysis or judgement, condemned by its own innocence to complicity in the crimes to which it was suddenly privy. The infusion of new data was intoxicating, thrilling, beating down and reforming what little core of being the Mindsweeper had of its own.
It was a long time before the Mindsweeper realized what a price it had paid for the privilege of seeing into Xhosar's mind.
"Okay, Laria, give me the bad news. They've suspended my license for the rest of my natural life, right?"
The Deltan looked up from her desk. Her perfect features were pulled into a regretful frown. "I'm sorry, Kate." She stood up and held out a slim data tape.
Kate Logan took the tape wordlessly and started to turn away. Then she saw Laria's grin.
Laria laughed musically. "You should see the look on your face!"
"Very funny, lady. Do I have to get a reader to find out what's on this tape?"
"You have a clean record and a license to fly. Be gone with the full blessing of Starfleet and the Federation Board of Trade."
With a little yelp of delight, Logan scooped up her friend in an exuberant hug. "I am having one hell of a day!"
"You have something lined up already?"
"You mean a job? No, I've still got some unfinished business to take care of on Bellatrix Eleven first. By the way, is Dartha still there?"
"Oh, yes, Dartha is still there. You know Dartha--she won't leave a story until she's recorded the last little detail. Things are just too hot on Bellatrix Eleven for her to come home." Laria sighed. "At least I get to see her regularly--on the newscasts."
"Aren't you getting a little tired of this?"
The Deltan shrugged. "Yes, but what good does it do me? My bad luck to fall in love with a Trans-Galactic News Service reporter."
"Well, I hate to say it, but I told you so."
"You're the one that introduced us!"
"I had no idea you'd get along so well," Logan laughed. "Anyway, I plan to look her up--with all her contacts she's bound to know something that can help me. I'll be sure to give her a stern lecture on your behalf. Let me know if you have anything you want me to take her."
"Thanks, Kate." Laria smiled. "By the way, I've had no less than three male friends ask me if you'll be joining us for drinks tonight."
"Sorry, I've got plans."
"Oh? Anyone I know?"
Kate Logan just grinned and started out the door.
Something apparently connected in Laria's mind. She rushed to block Logan's path. "You can't be serious!"
"It's Kirk, isn't it? Are you crazy? Every female on Starbase Twelve knows that man is dangerous--he already had quite a reputation before someone finally had the courage to file charges."
Warning flashed in Logan's eyes. "It's not like you to condemn someone without giving him a chance, Laria."
"I've heard all I need to know about him. As far as I'm concerned he is the perfect example of why my people call yours a sexually immature species."
"Listen, this isn't some sleazoid asteroid miner we're talking about," Logan said, her voice low and intense. "Jim Kirk is a certified hero, the youngest captain ever to command a starship and one of the best. He's got so many decorations his dress uniform's not big enough to hold them all. I happen to know at least one member of his crew that would willingly follow him directly down a black hole. A man like that might like to play a little too hard, that wouldn't surprise me. But if Jim Kirk says he didn't do what he's accused of, I believe him."
Laria shook her head, exasperated. "Do you think he'd tell you if he had done it? That wouldn't make it any easier to get you where he wants you."
Suddenly, Logan laughed and squealed in mock horror, "Oh, no, Br'er Fox, please don't throw me in the briar patch!"
"What in the name of Pilat's Moons is that supposed to mean?"
"It means, Laria, that what he wants and what I want might turn out to be pretty close to the same thing."
"I can't believe what I'm hearing," Laria said. "I wait years to see you lose your head over someone, and it turns out to be this intergalactic Don Juan."
"How romantic. And who says I've lost my head?"
"I do," Laria said with finality. "Trust me; I'm Deltan. We have a lot of experience with that sort of thing."
In the green and earthy environment of the arboretum, afternoon was winding down toward evening. The simulated sun cast lengthening shadows in the tiny glades and intricate pathways. Broken bits of light fell through the refracting leaves to splash onto the grassy floor.
In the play of light and green shadow could be seen all the glory of a temperate day on almost any class M planet in the galaxy. This particular melding of carefully nurtured plant life was designed to appeal to many species of class M origin, providing some relief from the austere, rocky wasteland that surrounded Starbase 12. But for Kate Logan and quite a few others who lingered in the waning light of a yellow sun, this section of the vast arboretum spoke eloquently, and exclusively, of Earth.
Logan ran her fingers lightly along the frothy edge of what appeared to be a fern, breathed in the smell of growing things. She was used to the canned atmospheres and confined quarters of space work; she'd spent very little time in the wild places of her home planet. But she always responded to the primal call of this place and others like it. It was like a drug, soothing and seductive.
"It's enough to make you feel homesick, isn't it?"
She turned to see Jim Kirk, who was smiling as though he was seeing the place for the first time. "It's as close as I've gotten to home in four years," she said.
"That's a long haul between visits. Your family must miss you."
"They would if I had any." She knew how it sounded, but she wasn't much interested in discussing her family history.
He got the message and changed the subject. "We," he started, then corrected himself, "the Enterprise will have been out five years before she sees home again. And with a rotation of four hundred thirty, it can sometimes be a long time between shore leaves. I've often thought something like this arboretum would do wonders for morale."
She smiled at the audacity of the idea. "It sure couldn't hurt, but it wouldn't exactly be regulation."
"Oh, I don't know. We could just make some improvements to the botany labs...and a few storage areas...and part of the rec deck."
She laughed. "Old Kendrick would have a heart attack if he suspected you were even thinking about it."
"Maintenance and Supply 403, a cadet's nightmare if I ever saw one," he said with a grin. "When were you at the Academy?"
"Five years behind you."
He thought for a moment. "You were in Hikaru Sulu's class?"
"I taught him all he knows." She'd meant it as a joke, of course, but Kirk reacted as if that had been the key to some puzzle he'd been working.
"The Logan twins! I knew I'd heard your name somewhere." Logan was surprised to see his expression change to one of open admiration. "Sulu's saved our tails a few times using something he calls a Logan Loop."
"My brother's specialty."
"From what he says, you and your brother were quite a team."
"Yeah, well, it was fun while it lasted," she said. Kate Logan didn't want to talk about this now, not here, and not with this man. She'd hoped the conversation would take a different turn altogether.
Kirk looked at her silently for a while, as if trying to judge how far he could push. Logan could see he just couldn't leave it alone. "What happened?"
She sighed. Might as well tell him the whole story and get it over with. "We were flying tac maneuvers. I was commanding, monitoring the sensor readouts on all the ships in the group. I read an overload in his port nacelle so I ordered him to sit out. He ignored me, and the thing blew as soon as we hit warp speed. I managed to beam what was left of him onto my ship. Sometimes I think it would've been better if I hadn't. He only suffered because of it."
She stopped, then straightened and went on. "I left the Academy a month later."
He looked like he knew the answer, but he asked anyway. "Why?"
Why? How many hours of therapy had it taken to answer that one? Because she needed the time to develop a whole new identity after Ken left, one that suddenly didn't include him. Because her mother never forgave either of them for letting the accident happen. Because she couldn't stop seeing that red light flashing a warning he wouldn't heed. Because...
"Ken needed a lot of care," she said finally. "My mom couldn't handle it. I went home to help."
"And you blamed yourself because you were in command." His voice was quiet, sympathetic.
Logan couldn't bring herself to look at him. Or to answer his question. "Ken and I were twins--we did everything together growing up. We were still kids when he got hurt. We never had time to grow apart."
They stood side by side for a long moment, watching the golden sunlight shifting into purple twilight. It was some time before Kirk spoke again. "You never thought about going back to the Academy when things improved at home?"
"I thought about it. Things didn't improve--they got worse. After a few years, my brother died; my mom went soon after. By that time, I didn't have the heart to start over with a bunch of teenagers. I took my inheritance, such as it was, and bought a ship and a trade license and went to work." She smiled at him, embarrassed. "My, how I do run on."
"You left out the best part of the story," he said.
"From what I hear, you just might be the best pilot outside Starfleet. A couple of deep space rescues, that scrap with Orion pirates on Herculon. Didn't the merchant service give you a citation last year?
She laughed. "Yeah, they love it when you save them some money." She ran a hand through her dark hair. "I don't know, Jim. I've been at this for six years, and I've got nothing to show for it--not even the ship I started out with. Spacing seems to carry some kind of jinx for me. If I didn't have a burning desire to take an eye for an eye right now, I honestly believe I'd give it up."
Kate Logan hadn't dared to admit that thought before now, even to herself. But she was so tired of trying to make something from nothing. She doubted a starship captain would understand the feeling.
She'd been staring out at the deepening shadow. Now she turned back to see him watching her. She smiled. "What?"
"I was just wondering why a woman with your guts and talent would want to give up something she obviously loves so much," he said. "You have your own ship. You have the freedom to choose which jobs you take and which ones you don't. You can go anywhere in the galaxy you want to go anytime it suits you. God, I envy you that freedom! Why would you give that up?"
"Freedom? Oh, yeah, I've got plenty of that. And what it mostly adds up to is the freedom to fall flat on my face."
She stopped, took a breath, started again. "Jim, I was almost there--I almost had everything I'd been working for in the palm of my hand. This job was going to pay me enough to get a bigger ship, maybe take on a crew. So the cargo turns out to be contraband--unshielded contraband. My ship is blown to nanobits, and I'm back to square one. Somebody used me--they took me for a sucker and I fell right into it. Do you know how that makes me feel?"
"I think I do. I've been there myself."
Logan reddened slightly. He hadn't had it so easy lately either. "Yeah, I guess you have. Sorry. You want to talk about it?"
"Not if I can help it."
There was nothing in his face to show it, but Kate Logan could feel the hurt. A violation of Starfleet's regulation governing sexual conduct was rare and invariably fatal to a career. As gently as she could, she probed for the extent of the injury. "You're going to lose your ship over this, aren't you?"
Something tightened behind his eyes, but he made a brave attempt to deflect the question. "Did you say you were looking for experienced crew?"
She shook her head. "I'm still finding it a little hard to believe you could be in so much trouble. I mean, James T. Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise!"
He smiled. "Is Human like everybody else. Surprise."
God, that smile. "Surprise is right. Though I'm not sure quite what I expected. Something larger than life, I suppose. Jim Kirk, galactic hero. I've been competing against that image half my life."
"It's an image," he said, facing her. "It doesn't have much to do with me."
She looked up at him. "I'm beginning to see that," she said.
He took a step and closed the distance between them, stood so close there was barely room for her to move without touching him. She could feel the energy flowing in from each of them to fill the hungry spaces, connecting them. She rested her hands lightly against his chest, felt his heart beating fast, matching hers.
On the walkway near them, people passed in intimate groups, intent on their own conversations. Kate shut them out with a command to the computer system that maintained the arboretum. "Screen on," she said, and the walkway disappeared behind a view of limitless green spaces. From the pathway the two of them seemed to vanish behind a view of flowering trees, a signature shimmer the only hint that a privacy shield was in use.
"Now where were we?" she said.
"The conversation was taking a disturbing turn." He smiled and touched her face. "I'd much rather talk about you."
His hands moved over her shoulders, traced twin lines down either side of her spine, stopped at her waist to pull her closer. She slipped her arms around his neck, a move that had a warmly perceptible effect on him. "I don't think I want to talk at all," she said softly, her face inches from his. She waited, riding a wave of anticipation, enjoying the delightful unpredictability of this first time with him. Then he kissed her, a kiss full of confidence and tenderness, and Kate knew immediately that this was no uncomplicated physical encounter. Laria was right--Jim Kirk was a truly dangerous man. Not because of what he had done, or what he might do. But because of what he was.
Kate had been prepared for his easy sexuality; in fact, she'd counted on it. But she hadn't expected anything like his vulnerability. It was irresistible, it was compelling, and it threatened to dismantle all of her elaborately constructed defenses. If she wasn't very careful, she would end up pouring herself, heartbeat by heartbeat, into that wonderful, unlikely openness.
After a while, he stopped to smile at her, gauging her reaction. She smiled back, took his hand, pulled him to the ground with her. Kate Logan was no fool. She knew it was all too good to be true--the grass, soft and warm with the memory of sunlight; the night air, sweet and heavy with the scent of earth; his touch; their passion. It was only a dream of love set in an illusion of paradise. But she wasn't about to pass this up. Because, deep in her heart, she also knew it was the closest she'd been to the real thing in a long, long time.
Leonard McCoy was habitually late to staff briefings. They were mostly boring affairs even when Jim Kirk ran them, unless, of course, the ship was in some sort of immediate danger. But when Spock ran a briefing--that's when things got really dull.
McCoy was making a serious effort to be early to this particular briefing, despite the fact that Spock would be lecturing. He wanted to talk to Lieutenant Uhura, and Uhura was always on time.
She was, in fact, alone in the briefing room when the doctor came rushing in. He took the seat beside her. "Morning, Nyota."
"Good morning, Doctor. No, I haven't logged any reply to your message to the captain."
"I didn't know you read minds, too."
"You never call me by my first name unless you want something."
McCoy frowned. "Really? Maybe I should take a refresher course in Human relations."
Uhura took a moment to look closely at the doctor. "You're worried about the captain, aren't you?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm just being an old mother hen. The captain can take care of himself."
"But, damn it all, it's just not like Jim to cut himself off like this. You confirmed that the message was relayed to his quarters on the base?"
"Yes, they told me they'd logged it into his terminal."
"I just don't like it. I can't help thinking there's something going on that I should know about."
"Well, I tell you what, Doctor. I'll run a communications scan for his name. If he's up to anything public, the computer will tell us all about it."
"Why, thank you, Nyota. That is very accommodating of you."
"My pleasure. I was getting a little worried myself," she said. Then she smiled wickedly. "Of course, if the captain is involved in personal business on Starbase Twelve, the computer won't pick up a thing."
"Thank God for that," McCoy muttered.
Spock's arrival promptly at 0900 put a stop to the conversation. When the rest of the ship's senior officers filed in to take their places around the conference table, Spock began--without preliminary, as usual. McCoy had expected as much. Still, a 'good morning' would've been nice.
"I trust you have all had time to familiarize yourselves with the background data for our mission here," Spock said. "I won't waste precious moments repeating that information."
McCoy breathed a sigh of relief.
"I believe we can make two assumptions," Spock continued. "The presence of weapons utilizing protomatter serves as an indication that the weapons are not being manufactured within the system, but must be coming from outside. Secondly, since virtually all factions with the funds to procure them are obtaining the weapons, a neutral party must be supplying them. Our job is to identify that party and discover a means of putting an end to the large-scale weapons trade. Comments?"
"Mister Spock, how do we know that there is only one smuggling operation?" Chekov asked. "Any number of traders could be bringing in weapons to supply the factions. We'd never be able to track them all."
"Quite correct, Mister Chekov. Corruption among SpaceDock and customs officials is not unknown. That would allow for some contraband to get through. Similarly, small ships could carry their cargo through the Nebula itself. But huge shipments would be required to fuel the level of conflict we are seeing in this system now. Such shipments would have been unlikely to escape detection by honest officials for this long. And most freighters are not maneuverable enough to negotiate the Nebula."
"Could they be bringing in the weapons as components and assembling them somewhere in the system?" Sulu proposed.
Spock nodded. "That would be a plausible explanation."
"But that would require quite an organization, Mister Spock." Chief Engineer Scott was as familiar as anyone aboard with the logistical problems of ordering hundreds of parts. "Shipping different components from different parts of the galaxy, finding a source of protomatter, coordinating the assembly and the sale of the weapons among dozens of factions. That's not a job for a petty local trader."
"Agreed, Mister Scott. I believe we are dealing with a very well-organized operation."
"I hardly think anyone on Bellatrix Eleven would be up to it, Spock," McCoy added. "Someone with that kind of organizational skill would've been spotted in that chaos long ago."
"But there would be enough profit in this to attract that kind of skill, Doctor McCoy," Uhura said. "From outside."
"I find it hard to believe that this kind of operation could be going on right under the noses of the officials on the planet," Sulu said.
"There would have to be a depot, an assembly point," Chekov said. "Lots of traffic in an out. How could they miss all of that?"
"Resources are extremely limited on Bellatrix Eleven, Mister Chekov," Spock said. "That is why the Enterprise is required. Our computers and sensors can track the traffic patterns and the ship registries; our sensors can detect the assembly installation, even if it is well hidden on the planet."
"But what if the depot is in the Nebula, Mister Spock?" Sulu said. "Finding it wouldn't be easy, given all the interference."
"The sensors can be recalibrated to eliminate some of the problems," Uhura said. "I've done it with the communications systems before. But it takes time."
Spock considered this a moment. "I would suggest we start with a scan of the planet for the depot and a medium-range scan of the Nebula to detect traffic patterns. That will require only minimal recalibration. If we do not find what we are looking for on the planet surface, then we can recalibrate for a more detailed search of the Nebula. Lieutenant Sulu, you and Chekov will coordinate the sensor scans. Lieutenant Uhura, you will be our liaison with Bellatrix SpaceDock. We will need to log all their traffic and ship identification data into the ship's computers."
Spock stood to dismiss the gathering and, to McCoy's great and lasting surprise, added a personal comment. "I am certain that if Captain Kirk were here, he would encourage you all to do your best. I am confident that will be quite enough to ensure our success in this mission. Dismissed."
Well, will wonders never cease, McCoy thought. Motivational speeches from Spock. What's next, positive feedback? Jim, if you don't get your butt back here on the double, I'm going to have to come to Starbase Twelve and get you.
On Rho Orionis V, in the spare, gray room that served Xhosar as wardroom, public hall and interrogation chamber, the Mindsweeper watched as she paced. The woman was full of venomous energy; she was a flare of heat in the room she kept intimidatingly cold. The Mindsweeper could feel Xhosar's rage, hot and bitter, a well of it deep in her soul that spouted flame when events turned against her, as they had this day.
Once--could it only have been a season's change ago?--the Mindsweeper had fed greedily on the flames, urging Xhosar's conscious mind to open even larger fissures to let the anger through. The creature remembered its eagerness in those early days with Xhosar with something close to guilt. How could it have placed so much faith in that crippling emotion? Her anger, much experienced, seemed useless and empty now. The Mindsweeper no longer learned from it; it led nowhere.
Yet the anger would have its release, this the Mindsweeper knew. The Human that waited in heart-crashing fear for Xhosar's dismissal surely knew it, too.
"So, we have lost yet another delivery. Are you aware how much credit that shipment was worth? Why wasn't it properly shielded?"
The messenger shook. "Ashkaz feared the extra weight would be detected. The pilot was suspicious, and security has been increased at Bellatrix SpaceDock."
"Of course security has been increased, you idiot. Your bungling has made it necessary. You've been so obvious the ambassador has called in a Federation starship."
"Me, Sar Xhosar? But I'm only a second assistant at Bellatrix Eleven!"
"Yes, but your commander is not here to take responsibility for his incompetence, is he?"
The second assistant's mouth fell open in horror. The Mindsweeper damped down its array to block out his pain.
"I think there is something you are not telling me. Something your commander instructed you to keep to yourself, perhaps?"
"Never, Sar Xhosar!" The man shook his head in panic. "I swear!"
Mindsweeper, Xhosar thought. Search his mind.
It is unnecessary, Xhosar, the Mindsweeper replied. He is clearly telling you everything he knows. He is so afraid he would tell you anything. I can feel it even from here.
Xhosar's mind flashed. Will you question my judgment?
It had not occurred to the creature that it was even possible to do such a thing. It was merely hoping to avoid another in a series of experiences that had grown intolerable. The creature had begun to pity the small minds that served the leader. She humiliated them, tortured them, sometimes killed them. The Mindsweeper was beginning to realize that nothing could be learned from their pain but shame.
But these thoughts the Mindsweeper kept to itself. It left Xhosar and entered the unprotected mind of the second assistant from Bellatrix XI. Once inside, the creature went to work quickly, hoping to find enough to satisfy Xhosar without injuring the Human.
But it was no use. The Human resisted the violation of his mind, unconsciously setting up blocks that the Mindsweeper was forced to rip through. The creature tore through barrier after barrier, until it reached the deeper levels of the poor man's mind. There, the man's mind was laid completely open. By the time the Mindsweeper had viewed all of its contents, the man was screaming.
His mind would never recover.
The Mindsweeper perceived that much of the pain it was feeling now was its own. It returned regretfully to Xhosar and communicated to her the meager results of its search.
Unfortunate, Xhosar thought. I had hoped there would be more.
As the guards removed the shell of the second assistant from her presence, Xhosar's mind coldly began to work, measuring the damage, seeking the opportunities that setbacks always provide if you look closely enough.
The operation on Bellatrix XI would have to be shut down; she had already given orders to that effect. Her trade with the factions had been lucrative; she had even enjoyed the Byzantine complexity of it. But with a Federation starship in the area, the risk was too high to continue. Other markets would have to be exploited.
The starship was a concern. How much did her captain know? Xhosar had always been careful to cover her tracks. Even now, she doubted anyone could follow the trail much beyond the Bellatrix system. But there had been problems with this operation, problems that could not have escaped the notice of Starfleet. The arrival of the Enterprise at Bellatrix XI was hardly a coincidence.
The Mindsweeper could feel her anger fade, subsumed in the intricate workings of her rational mind. Despite its doubts, the creature could still admire Xhosar's ability to devise solutions for the problems that her business created. The Mindsweeper itself had very little aptitude for guile or deception. The process by which Xhosar thought was in many ways still a mystery.
But it was a mystery that was beginning to lose its appeal for the creature. The Mindsweeper was no longer interested in the lessons Xhosar had to teach.
Jim Kirk lay in the dim closeness of his quarters and watched the hololight etch ragged shadows on the ceiling. Kate's skin was warm and smooth under his hand, like the lingering imprint of a sleeper's body on satin sheets. He loved the feel of it. He stroked her arm where it lay across his chest, felt the strength of the muscles under the softness. And he wondered how he could have allowed himself the luxury of being with her.
At first, he'd told himself she was just a pleasant distraction, someone to help keep his mind off what he had to do. But her stubborn belief in herself--and in him--had seduced him. Her laughter had consoled him. Being with her had begun to heal places in him he hadn't even known were hurt. Now he found he wanted what she gave him--too much to think of letting her go.
God knew it was the wrong time. He was in the middle of something that was likely to be messy and difficult and ultimately scarring. Even if he succeeded in what he'd been asked to do, he'd already lost the respect he'd spent a lifetime trying to win from his peers. He didn't expect to get that back when the truth was finally known. In fact, he halfway expected to be dead by then.
It wasn't fair to involve Kate in this. He couldn't involve her no matter how much he wanted to. Duty required his isolation--and his silence. But, damn it, he needed to trust someone; even more, he needed someone to trust him. Until that first night with Kate, he hadn't realized how great his need had been.
Kate raised up on one elbow and considered him. In the uneven light, he could just make out her ironic smile--and the question behind her eyes. "You're a million lightyears away, starman. Are you ready to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?"
"How did you get yourself in such a mess, Jim? You don't act like an evolutionary throwback. You don't make love like one, either."
He smiled. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"You should. I can't imagine a man like you could read a woman's signals so wrong she would press charges."
"It's not so hard to imagine," he said carefully. "A little bad judgment can go a long way."
"Sure, I guess it could happen. In fact, I'd believe it in a second--if we were talking about anyone but you."
"Lots of people would believe it--and especially since we're talking about me."
If Kate noticed the bitterness in his voice, she chose to ignore it. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "There are still a few people out there who think you walk on water. Of course, there are also those who have always believed you do your thinking with a part of your anatomy not designed for that purpose."
He laughed softly. "And what do you think?"
She paused a moment before she answered. "I think you would deny yourself anything--maybe everything--to do what is right for your ship and your crew. The Enterprise is the love of your life; no one will ever convince me you did anything to jeopardize that relationship. Not even you."
"For an innocent man, you're trying awfully damn hard to look guilty."
She came so close to the truth that for one desperate second, Jim lost his grip on it. It swept past his defenses and threatened to spill out before he could stop it. He opened his mouth to speak, made an effort to close it again even as Kate put a finger to his lips.
"There's a lot you're not telling me, starman. That's your business. Just tell me one thing. Why are you risking so much to be with me?"
Jim took a deep breath, let it out again. The moment had passed; he could keep the necessary secrets now. But he would not lie about the way he felt. "The Enterprise is my life, Kate," he said. "Everything that makes me what I am is on that ship. But that doesn't mean I've stopped wanting what the Enterprise can never give me."
Kate frowned, not understanding.
"This," he said, touching her face, "contact, connection. Whatever it is that happens between two Human beings. A starship can be a cold lover, Kate. Living with her can make you desperate for warmth. It can make you wonder if you're still capable of real feelings."
"Surely you don't doubt that."
"I never miss an opportunity to find out."
She smiled skeptically. "Never? It's only natural to want to protect yourself, Jim. Love is a lot like personal combat. Let down your guard once too often and you're liable to get decked."
"I'll take that chance." He looked at her, knowing it was wrong to ask so much of her, unable to keep from asking it. "What about you, Kate? Don't you think it's worth taking a risk on someone every once in a while? Just to make sure you still can?"
She shook her head slowly, watching his eyes. "I wouldn't dare."
He reached up again, brushed the hair back from her face. "Wouldn't you?" He paused a long moment, waiting. "Come on, Kate," he said. "I dare you."
She kissed him, and he felt her fierce, sweet courage rising up to meet his challenge. It flowed into him, filled him up, drowned whatever remained of his doubts.
"No," she whispered. "I dare you, starman." She looked at him, no sign of fear or hesitation in her eyes. "Now that I've let you in, how are you going to keep from breaking my heart?"
He pulled her closer and kissed her lips, her cheek, the soft, vulnerable hollow between her neck and shoulder. He made love to her, as eloquently and as honestly as he could. It was the only answer he knew to give her. And he prayed it would be answer enough, at least for now.
When the guard announced the arrival of the Romulan Sub-Commander T'aun, the Mindsweeper detected an immediate change in the quality of Xhosar's thoughts. She remained anxious--her business problems were too vexing to ignore. But she buried her anxiety deep in her mind when she heard the Romulan was waiting to see her and brought aggressive awareness to the fore. She would need all her skills to deal with T'aun.
T'aun had spent many years in the service of the Praetor, though he was only middle-aged by Romulan standards. He was experienced in the arts of trade and skilled in reading those nuances of demeanor and language that held advantages for him, whether his opponent was Romulan, Klingon, Terran, Vulcan or any of a dozen other species. He was a formidable negotiator; no visit from him could be taken lightly.
Xhosar greeted him with a smile that held little welcome. "What a pleasure to see you again so soon, Sub-Commander. Especially since this must surely be a social visit. Or did I neglect some detail at our last business meeting?"
He crossed the room in long, graceful strides and bowed formally. "You neglect nothing, Sar Xhosar. That is why it is such a pleasure to do business with you. In fact, the Praetor is so pleased with what you have been able to do for us that he sent me to tell you so in person."
"How gratifying. You may tell the Praetor that we are pleased to be of service." The Mindsweeper felt her suspicion grow even as she spoke.
"Then perhaps you will not think it too bold of me to ask that our delivery schedule be advanced somewhat? The information we received in our last packet was useful, but we are anxious to expand on what we have learned."
"Sub-Commander, as much as I would like to be able to help, information is not like protomatter. It is not simply a matter of manufacturing more and delivering it on the most convenient shuttle. My contacts must be discreet. If they move too quickly...well, I'm sure you understand our constraints."
"Yes, I can understand only too well. However, my Praetor is not so understanding. Someone has been filling his head with outlandish ideas--he has the impression he can do better elsewhere."
"Indeed? I am not aware of any competition for the information I have been securing from Starfleet. My sources operate at the highest levels of the organization."
T'aun shrugged apologetically. "I have been trying to convince him that you are the best source available, but he can be rather stubborn about such things."
"Well, not to worry, T'aun," Xhosar said. "I am certain the next packet you receive will more than satisfy your Praetor as to the quality of my information."
"I have no doubt you are right, Sar Xhosar. When can we expect to receive it?"
"I can have it to you in three intervals, if that is satisfactory."
"But of course there will be a slight increase in the price."
"Well, let us see what the packet contains," T'aun said with an oily smile. "Then we can negotiate the size of the premium, don't you think?"
Xhosar fought to control her temper. Arrogant targ! The Mindsweeper cringed at the punishments she wished she could heap upon the Romulan. Yet she managed to keep her face and tone bland as sweet milk. "Of course, Sub-Commander."
The Romulan bowed shortly and left the room.
So, it begins, Xhosar told the Mindsweeper. Secrets are like credit, my pet. No matter how many of them one has, one always wants more.
The Mindsweeper perceived that she was not overly concerned--yet. She was confident she could hold the Romulans' interest for a while with the choice tidbits she'd been saving for this eventuality.
But behind her confidence lay uncertainty. It was only a matter of time before the demands of her customers became more than her current network could handle. The Romulans weren't the only ones with an insatiable appetite for the kind of information she had been providing. The Klingons, too, would soon want more.
Xhosar had many sources of information in the dark corners of the galaxy. But the most useful by far had been the Human that filled her thoughts now. If it had not been for him, Xhosar would never have come to the Mindsweeper's planet. She would never have uncovered the cache of ores that made her profitable trade in protomatter possible. And she would never have had the wealth of military secrets that had made her rich beyond her imaginings.
This one had provided the quarantined Rho Orionis V as an answer to Xhosar's need for an untraveled niche in which to build her organization. When she had asked for the secrets that could command huge sums from the enemies of the Federation, he had regularly provided them also. He had been reliable and loyal in return for the credits she paid him.
But now, the Mindsweeper saw, the Human may have outlived his usefulness. Xhosar would soon ask him for more than he could provide. And deep in its own data array, away from the notice of its cruel mistress, the Mindsweeper feared for him.
"There she is," Kate Logan sighed. "Isn't she gorgeous?"
The Federation Merchant Ship Roxanne rested easily in her slip on the SpaceDock, calm in the swirl of commerce around her. The gantries stood just off her hull now; she was finished with the refitting she'd come to Starbase 12 to receive. There was little sign from the outside of the tight spots she'd been in or the adventures she'd shared with her previous captain, now counting his credits in one of the watering holes on the planet below.
In the shuttle that carried her new captain, Jim Kirk looked from the ship to Logan's face and stifled an ignoble twinge of resentment. He envied her this pride in her ship; he'd have given anything to have seen his own ship moored there instead. In the end, though, Logan's enthusiasm was contagious. "She's beautiful," he agreed.
"Well, she's an old gal, but she's bigger and faster than the Diana," Logan said, watching the shuttle close in on the Roxanne's cargo bay. "She can haul up to twenty carriers, not that I'd ever want to be hooked up to that much dead weight. I can't believe Qon let her go for seventy-five thousand. I was ready to pay ninety."
The shuttle drifted into the cargo bay and settled onto the stays. When the pressurizing lights read green, Kirk and Logan opened the hatch and jumped out. "Give us fifteen minutes, Len," Logan called up to the shuttle pilot, who signaled okay and settled back to wait.
Logan grinned back over her shoulder as she climbed the ladder to the upper deck. "Fifteen thousand can pay for a lot of refitting."
They moved forward through the living quarters and storage areas to the bridge. Kirk could see at a glance where Logan had put her money.
"New computer systems, enhanced sensors, duotronic navigation--the deluxe package!" Logan said, beaming. "Oh, and I had them overhaul the engines, too."
Kirk had been turning admiringly from one station to another around the bridge. Suddenly he stopped and looked up sharply at Logan. "Weapons systems?"
"From what? Killer asteroids? Seems to me the Roxanne is carrying a little more than the standard for commercial ships."
"I plan to do a little more than standard business." Logan busied herself with a test of the computer system.
Kirk crossed the bridge to lean against the panel in front of her. "And just what did you have in mind?"
"I intend to find out who set me up."
This was trouble. Jim Kirk tried hard not to show it. He knew he didn't have much chance of changing Kate's mind. But if he overreacted, he had no chance at all. "What happens after you find them?"
"I haven't got that far yet." She gave him a sarcastic grin. "Maybe I'll turn them in to Starfleet authorities."
"Seems to me the whole thing is best left to Starfleet in the first place."
"Right. They do such a good job of identifying the bad guys."
"Kate, they have access to a lot more information. It's their job to put it together."
"Well, I don't have time to wait for them to do their job. I have to get on with my life. I have one piece of information they don't have and that's where I intend to start when I get to Bellatrix Eleven."
"Bellatrix Eleven is out of the question!"
Her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?"
He knew he had crossed the line, but he couldn't pull back. She obviously had no idea what she was getting into. "The people who were waiting for your delivery on Bellatrix Eleven aren't going to be too happy that you lost it--or that you talked to Starfleet Intelligence about it either. At best, you'll end up in a scrap that'll cost you your license permanently. At worst, you'll end up dead."
"Look, you think I haven't thought through all this?" she said, standing up to pace the tiny bridge. "I know it's dangerous; I'd avoid it if I could. But I can't afford to be looking over my shoulder all my life, waiting for these bastards to tie up one last loose end. This is no bunch of Kzinti raiders, Jim. These people are organized--and organization hates a random element."
"All the more reason to let Starfleet take care of it."
She turned to face him. "If you were in my place, would you let Starfleet take care of it?"
"Kate, you're a skilled pilot, but we're not talking about a cargo run to Antares."
"I was a year away from graduation at the Academy with the best command record in my class," she said hotly. "I've carried dangerous cargo on some of the roughest routes in the galaxy. I routinely do business in the midst of con men and thieves. I'm hardly a virgin."
"Maybe not, but you're in over your head on this."
"And maybe you've put me in a neat little category that has nothing to do with how well I pilot a ship," she shot back.
"What are you talking about?"
"You know damn well you wouldn't be trying to talk me out of this if you weren't sleeping with me. If I was anybody else, you'd be cheering me on. Have you forgotten I can take care of myself? Or do you just think my talents start and end between the sheets?"
Jim Kirk didn't know how to respond to what she felt. A voice in his head that sounded eerily like Leonard McCoy's was telling him she might even be right. He knew Kate Logan was hardly the kind of woman to need him to come to her rescue, between the sheets or otherwise. But it was either that or let her jump into something his instincts told him was far more dangerous than she guessed.
He reached out to touch her arm. "Kate, I have to try and talk you out of this. My career might be in trouble, but I'm still a Starfleet officer, and this is Starfleet business. I can't let you risk taking the law into your own hands."
Logan's eyes turned hard and cold, her voice as bleak and frigid as any tundra. "This is my business, Captain. The Roxanne is my ship. She's not the Enterprise, but at least I'm her captain and I give the orders. I don't have to justify my actions to anyone, least of all you.
"So as soon as you take the shuttle back to the station, I'm going to finish my systems checks. Then I'm going to get in my bunk marked 'captain' and go to sleep--alone. At oh-six hundred, I'm going to set course for Bellatrix Eleven. And there's not a damn thing you can do about any of it. That is, unless you intend to have starbase security throw me in the brig."
Kirk's jaw tightened. "Of course not." As he stood trying to find a way to salvage the situation, Logan sat down and began to study her readouts as if he'd already gone.
Resigned, he finally turned to go. "Good luck, Kate," he said. But she didn't even look up.
"My God," McCoy said quietly. "I knew there was something wrong, but I never would've guessed it was this bad."
He and Uhura stared for a long time at the information on the comm screen, unable to believe what her scan had finally picked up. The reference was from the daily log of Starfleet Command's Chief of Personnel office:
Kirk, James Tiberius, Captain, commanding U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701, placed on indefinite administrative leave as of Stardate 3743.1 pending investigation of charges of sexual misconduct and other violations of Starfleet Order 28, Section A, Paragraphs 1-6. Hearing date undetermined. Depositions on restricted access file.
Uhura folded her arms across her chest and shook her head. "You know, Doctor, this makes me so mad I could spit. How many mapping cruises and patrols do you think I've been on with the captain? How many delivery runs and diplomatic missions and battles where we've been down to one shield and that man's talent for survival? I'll tell you how many--hundreds--and I've never seen him treat anyone with less than full respect."
McCoy had never seen it either, but that didn't mean Jim Kirk hadn't let his emotions get the better of him from time to time. "I don't know, Uhura," McCoy said reluctantly. "The captain's not exactly shy when it comes to women."
"No, and why should he be?" Uhura said. "He's Human, too. But not on the Enterprise. He won't allow himself to be like other men when it comes to his ship and his crew. It's not just a matter of Starfleet regulations. It's one of his own rules and I've never seen him so much as bend it. I can't believe he'd be the first starship captain in twenty years to be brought up on this kind of charge--not Captain Kirk."
McCoy didn't want to believe it. He wanted to believe Jim had an explanation for all of it. But Jim wasn't talking. "Then why the hell didn't he tell me, Uhura? Why won't he answer my messages?"
The lieutenant shook her head.
McCoy sighed. "Maybe he figured I'd give him another one of my patented lectures on the dangers of wearing his heart on his sleeve. I don't blame him if he wasn't in the mood to hear it."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Doctor." Uhura laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "You and Spock are the best friends he has--I'm sure he would have told you if he could."
"Spock!" McCoy exclaimed. "I'll bet you a month's pay he knew about this all along and never said a word." McCoy didn't even wait for her reply. He reached for the comm unit and called the bridge.
"Bridge. Spock here."
"Spock, I need to speak with you in my quarters."
"Doctor, the first watch is due to begin in four point three minutes. Unless the matter is urgent..."
"Yes, I'd say the matter is urgent. And I don't think we want to be discussing it over the comm."
"On my way, Doctor."
When the Vulcan stepped through the door into McCoy's cabin, the doctor tossed the data tape into his hands. "You knew all about this, didn't you?"
Without a word, Spock placed the tape in the terminal and dispassionately absorbed its contents. He looked up at the others. "May I ask how you obtained this information?"
"The data was in the open record, Mister Spock," Uhura explained.
"Yes, Lieutenant. But it would have required a guided search through Starfleet's open channels to isolate this particular piece of information."
"Yes, sir. I initiated a communications scan for the captain's name," she answered.
"Under my orders, Spock," the doctor added. "I was worried about Jim, since no one had bothered to tell me what was going on. Turns out I was right to be worried. I could maybe forgive Jim for not telling me. But I can see no reason in God's great universe for you to refuse to tell me he was in trouble."
The hurt was visible in McCoy's face, and, for a moment, it seemed even Spock was affected by it. He squared his shoulders minutely and said, "I was under direct orders to reveal this to no one."
"Not Jim's orders."
"The captain is no longer in a position to give orders," Spock said bluntly.
"No, I guess he's not," McCoy hissed. "And that suits you just fine, doesn't it, Spock? Though I suppose there is the remote possibility that Jim will be cleared of these charges."
"That seems unlikely at this point, Doctor."
"With all due respect, sirs," Uhura interjected. "There is a great deal of objective evidence that you haven't even considered."
"Well, now, Nyota, you know we don't believe the captain could be guilty..."
Uhura stood up to face her fellow officers. "Doctor McCoy, I'm telling you these charges are false and Starfleet Command knows it. The only question is, what are we going to do about it?"
"You mean you think Jim's being railroaded by Starfleet?!"
"Interesting. How did you come to this conclusion, Lieutenant?"
"Mister Spock, if this was a legitimate complaint from a current member of the crew, I would have had to file it myself through the proper comm channels. There have been no communications to Command from anyone on this ship except senior officers. Except for promotions, there haven't been any transfers off the ship in nearly a year, so I doubt the complaint could have come from a former crew member. And no matter who registered the complaint, don't you think we would have been called on to testify at some point? Instead, we've been sent out on a new mission as if nothing at all was going on."
"Well, I'll be damned," McCoy murmured. "But why would Starfleet want to destroy one of its best officers? That just doesn't make sense."
"Why indeed, Doctor?" Spock asked rhetorically. "From my perspective it is apparent that Starfleet Command has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep this incident quiet, even going so far as to order me to keep the information about the captain from his crew. Perhaps they hope to resolve the issue quickly and return Captain Kirk to the Enterprise without alerting the entire fleet--or the ComNets."
"But Uhura said she hasn't filed any complaint."
"Lieutenant Uhura pointed out that there has been no complaint from a member of the crew. The captain has regular contact with any number of Starfleet personnel off the ship. I can only assume one of them has filed the complaint."
Uhura sank onto McCoy's bunk with a barely audible exclamation of despair. McCoy, deflated, could think of nothing else to say.
"I'm certain the captain has access to the most expert advice available in conducting his defense," Spock said. "Although he undoubtedly wishes he had access to yours, Doctor."
McCoy was so surprised by the Vulcan's awkward attempt to offer comfort that he found he had to take another minute to organize any coherent response.
Spock turned to Uhura before the doctor succeeded in finding his voice. "Lieutenant, our search for a likely site for the weapons assembly operation on the planet has been unsuccessful. We are obliged to recalibrate the sensors to make a more thorough search of the Bellatrix Nebula."
"We'll get on it right away, Mister Spock."
With a glance at McCoy, Spock followed the communications officer out the door, leaving the doctor alone with his thoughts.
The blue-white sun that warmed Bellatrix XI was setting as it emerged from behind the obscuring shadow of the third moon. Filtered through the dust and smoke of a hundred smoldering cities, its last rays flared across a violet sky and finally subsided below the broken horizon.
The skies of Bellatrix XI were full of superstitious wonder for a species from a planet with a yellow sun and a single, mythic moon. Eclipses, meteor showers, sunsets the color of amethyst and neon-purple night skies triggered a long forgotten warning system in Logan, a primal inheritance from ancestors who had lived in awe of the universe. Or maybe it was just the real trouble she faced that was making her so nervous.
Jim Kirk had been right about this little escapade, of course. Logan admitted she was out of her depth. She wasn't a spy or a cop, for God's sake. She was just a lone wolf pilot. And if she wasn't very careful, she was going to be a corpse.
But Logan couldn't see how she could have played it any differently. Waiting for someone else to solve her problems was just not in her repertoire. She'd have thought Jim Kirk, of all people, would have understood that. Damn patronizing, bull-headed, rule-pushing, Dunsel-brained, brass-tailed Neanderthal. She hadn't asked for his authorization, she didn't want his protection, and she was damn well going to make him eat his retrograde attitude!
In different circumstances, Logan might have forgiven him after the first sleepless night. But right now, she needed to stay angry--it was the only way to keep from thinking of how scared she was.
Tartarus hadn't been much of a city before the most recent clan wars. On a planet of hundreds of failed urban experiments, it had merely been the largest. For that reason, Tartarus had been chosen to serve as the seat of what passed for planetary government, and some improvements had been made. But the clans had quickly gone back to their ceaseless and indecipherable bickering. Now Tartarus was just another battleground.
The section of town where the population with any interest in what happened off-planet congregated had seen the worst of the fighting some months back. The streets were deserted and dark, the landmarks unrecognizable. There were no lights, no shops open. Empty doorways gaped in abandoned storefronts. The tops of most buildings had been blown off; the pieces still littered the street.
Logan had begun to think the whole trading community had relocated to a safer neighborhood when she saw the ragged holosign that she'd been looking for. Looked like the White Dwarf was still going strong. Logan had done business in this bar before--it was as good a place as any to find the trader whose name she'd withheld from Starfleet Intelligence.
But now that she had found the place, she wasn't sure she had the guts to go in. If she had to die, she didn't want to do it in a bar with a stupid name on a planet where the sun wasn't even the right color. Her thin undershirt was soaked with sweat, her pulse was pounding, but she had come a long way, and she couldn't back down now. She gritted her teeth and pushed open the door of the bar.
The place was dark--it might just as well have been midnight as early evening--and there were lots of corners where anyone might be waiting and watching. There was one male sitting at the bar--obviously drunk but of undetermined age and origin. There was one bored and slightly hostile Bellatrixi bartender and the usual crowd of spacers, dock workers, dealers and for-hires. Everything was as it should be, but that didn't make Logan feel particularly better.
She slid into a seat at the bar and ordered beer. "The neighborhood's gone downhill a little since the last time I was here," she said to the bartender.
"Yeah, being in the middle of a battlezone can be hard on property values."
"Couldn't help but notice. Business doesn't look too bad, though."
The bartender, who had yet to crack a smile, shrugged. "People still get thirsty. You need anything else?"
"I'm looking for a guy named Intep Hal. Seen him today?"
"Nope," the bartender said shortly and moved off.
Logan drank her beer and took the time to look around again now that her eyes had adjusted to the dark. She'd begun to attract some attention. Two guys grinned back at her from a table near the bar. She ignored them. It was the three sitting near the back exit that concerned her. They looked away quickly when she turned in their direction. Logan definitely didn't like the look of them--heavy, overdeveloped, and dumb as dirt. One was a Tellarite, and they could be hell in a fight. If they all caught her at once, she wasn't completely sure she could handle them.
She was contemplating her next move with more than a little apprehension when the barfly at the end of the bar got brave. "Hey, beautiful lady, let me buy you a drink. Hey, where you from?"
"Shut up, Johnson." said the bartender.
Logan paid no attention, but found herself drinking far too much of her beer.
Johnson moved a couple of seats closer and expanded his harangue. "I bet you have your own ship, don't you, lady? I can tell a real flyer from a klick away. Hey, fly me to the moon, baby, ha, ha."
She gave him a look that read warning in any language.
"Oops, sorry, shh," he giggled into his hand.
"I said shut up, Johnson, or I'll kick your butt outta here."
"Come on, Dak. I'm just trying to be friendly. Here, here," he fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a card. "Let me buy you a drink, lady, just to show I'm a friendly guy."
Johnson moved very close and shoved the card in Logan's face. "Here, help me out, lady. Does that say fifty credits or five hundred?"
Dak reached across the bar to grab for the bum, but the drunk managed to dodge his arm long enough to make sure Logan got a look at the card. Instead of a credit balance, she saw a message: "Danger. Meet outside." She looked at Johnson--his eyes were clear. Logan wasn't sure what he was, but it wasn't drunk. She didn't have time to find out before Dak came out from behind the bar to throw Johnson roughly through the door to the street.
Logan joined in the laughter the eviction had ignited in the bar, and made sure to thank Dak for his trouble. She took a few minutes to finish her beer. "Guess my man got held up," she said to the bartender on her way out. "I'll check back later, see if he's shown. Thanks."
Outside, the sun was already down, the evening moons beginning to rise in the vividly purple sky over the ruined skyline. In the alley next to the bar, one of the shadows abruptly came to life as Logan turned the corner--Johnson.
Logan stood off from him, expecting trouble, but he was faster than any drunk had a right to be. He grabbed her arm and shoved her against the wall, the rubble shifting beneath her feet.
"I don't have much time, so shut up and listen," he said. "Your pals aren't very happy with your performance as delivery girl. Hal's already dead, and, if I were you, I wouldn't go back to your hotel tonight."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Darlin', I know all about you and the man who hired you on Barzac's, and what happened to the stuff you were carrying. I got all the answers, except maybe why you're so stupid as to show up here on Bellatrix Eleven."
He still had her by the arm; she shook him off. "What I do with my time is my own business. Who the hell are you anyway?"
He grinned, a flash of white against the dirty face. Something about the grin was familiar, but Logan was too distracted to make the connection. "I think this is where I say 'a friend' and disappear into the night."
"I see. Am I supposed to say 'thank you, masked man' or just swoon now?"
"'Thanks' will do since I just saved your lovely ass. Now get yourself back up to the Roxanne before I have to do it again."
"Sorry, hero, but I still have business to take care of on this God-forsaken piece of dirt. Unless, of course, you're here to arrest me for something. You don't look like much of a cop."
"Appearances can be deceiving, darlin'. But take my advice--get the hell off this planet, and forget about whatever screwball plan you have to bring the bad guys to justice. Or I'll make sure you lose your license for good."
"Damn! I knew I'd seen you somewhere before." The threats brought it all back. "The Intelligence debriefing."
"That's right, sweetheart--Starfleet Intelligence. So will you please get the hell out of my way, and let me do my job?"
"How about you guys earn your paycheck so us lowly citizens don't have to do your job for you?"
Commander Arnold J. Chartoff appeared to be in danger of losing his irritating sense of humor. "Well, one thing's for sure. My job does not include babysitting a smart-mouth freight jockey who has no idea how big a hole she's digging for herself. Maybe I should just put you in custody to make sure you don't get in my way a second time. I could charge you with perjury--you lied to the inquiry board about Intep Hal. Maybe you lied about the rest of it."
He had her there. Logan didn't see much point in continuing the argument. "Okay, okay, I'll leave it alone. I have other business to take care of anyway. You wouldn't happen to know where I could find a Galactic News Network reporter named Dartha Allen, would you, Mister Answer Man?"
"What do you want with her?"
"She's a friend of mine. I promised I'd look her up when I got to Tartarus."
"Yeah, that figures. She's another one that likes to stick her nose in where it doesn't belong."
"Do you know where to find her or not?"
"I can tell you, but you'll have to get there by yourself. I don't have time to serve as escort."
"Just tell me how to get there."
"Take the C tram to Uberville. Walk along Black Street. They'll find you."
"Who'll find me?" she said, but he was already gone.
Logan kicked disgustedly at the broken tiles. So much for taking matters into her own hands. Her contact was dead; no doubt Intelligence had already sent whatever help she might have had on Barzac's Planet running for cover. There was no place left to look. Nothing to do but wait and hope the professionals stumbled onto the bad guys before they caught up with her.
Swearing softly, Logan gave it up. She would deliver Laria's message to Allen and head back to Starbase 12 in the morning. Maybe she could drum up some work there. Maybe she would even let Jim Kirk say he told her so.
Logan came out onto the street and turned in what she remembered to be the right direction for the nearest tram stop. The holo for the White Dwarf receded behind her, leaving Logan to find her way slowly through the featureless dark. She walked past the street she was looking for and had to backtrack to find it.
Just as she turned the corner and saw the thin light over the tram stop, she heard a step behind her. She didn't stop to look, she just squeezed into a narrow passage between two buildings. A microsecond later a phaser shot shattered the shop window a pace ahead. Her hiding place was little more than a trap. She left it and dove for a pile of rubble as another shot chewed up the pavement beside her.
Logan couldn't see where the shots were coming from, but she couldn't wait for another to find her. She made a dash for the next corner, turned it and ducked inside the first open doorway. Stairways up and down. She chose up, but soon ran out of running room--the top of this building was gone, too. Fighting panic, she flattened out against the wall at the top of the last flight of stairs and waited.
She listened carefully, but for an agonizing moment Logan could hear nothing but the sound of her own stuttering breath and the blood pounding in her ears. Then a tiny scritch on the stairs just below. And another, closer. She held her breath, forming an image of the man on the stairs moving toward her.
Her pursuer slowed as he came closer. He led with his phaser hand around the corner at the top of the stairs. Logan grabbed it and struck it against her knee, sending the weapon clattering against the wall, then turned and aimed a power kick at the man's throat. He was shorter than she expected. He took it in the head and fell backward down the stairs to the bottom with an ugly crescendo of cracking sounds.
Logan ran down the stairs, pausing only briefly to confirm what her ears had told her. The body she found at the bottom wasn't moving and probably wouldn't again. She noted with mild surprise that the body was female--one of the for-hires from the White Dwarf. Apparently sex wasn't the only thing this one could be hired for.
At the door, she leaned out cautiously to check the street--no one in sight. She slipped up to the corner and saw there was a tram pulling up to the stop. She waited, then broke across the street and swung up into the vehicle just before it pulled out again.
The few passengers glanced at her with disinterest as she slumped into a seat and tried to breathe. This was crazy--Logan admitted it fully now. She was still shaking when she got off at the Uberville stop fifteen minutes later.
At least this street was livelier than the ones she'd just left. The trash had been cleared from the sidewalks, and the lights were on in the shops and residential buildings. A few bars called out for attention with signs offering all manner of fun. Quite a few patrons had actually been brave enough to take them up on it.
Logan had had enough excitement for one night. She opted for a quieter cafe with a few outside tables. The waiter was Human, but he was just as suspicious as the bartender at the White Dwarf had been. When he brought the coffee she'd ordered, Logan asked him, "I'm looking for a friend. Someone said I might try this side of town. Is there a bar or a hotel around where media types get together?"
The waiter shrugged. "We get a few in here--ComNet reporters, people like that."
"Do you know a woman named Dartha Allen--tall, thin, speaks with a Rigelian accent?"
"Nope," he said and left.
Logan took this as a bad sign. First the bartender at the White Dwarf, now the waiter. The service had never been particularly friendly in Tartarus, but she'd never had this much trouble starting a conversation.
She took a sip of the coffee--why was it so hard to find a decent cup of coffee in the galaxy?--and looked up to see three hefty Bellatrixi crowding her table. She sighed. "Evening, boys. Something I can help you with?"
"You will come with us." Logan could see the snout of a phaser pistol sticking out of a fold in his coat. "Without argument."
Logan got up slowly. "Far be it from me to argue with a phaser," she said. "Lead on."
They left the cafe quietly and turned into a grimy alley. Logan refused to think about what they planned to do. She cleared her mind and let the adrenalin build, watching for an opportunity. When the first of the trio escorting her turned the corner at the end of the alley, she made her move.
An elbow to the solar plexus and a quick two-handed uppercut took the one with the phaser out of action temporarily. Then she planted one foot and kicked sharply with the other to catch the one who'd been in front of her. She'd hoped to knock him out, but the kick merely staggered him. He came back at her just as the third of her captors peered around the corner to see what had happened.
She took another two-handed swipe at the second man, knocking him into his companion. But as she turned to run, she saw the one with the phaser had regained his feet. She hesitated just enough for the third man to clip her from behind. She felt something pop in her neck and sank to her knees, dazed. By the time she shook it off, the phaser was pointed directly at her forehead.
"It is set for stun," the man panted. "But if I shoot you now, the damage is likely to be permanent."
Logan didn't move. The nerves in her neck were on fire and she could barely breathe. She felt them tie her hands behind her and pull her roughly to her feet. Then they added a blindfold.
They took her through a long series of twists and turns, leading her stumbling through the filthy, unlit streets. Logan gave up trying to keep track after a while. She hadn't had the slightest idea where the hell she was to begin with.
She'd been walking long enough to get tired when they led her down five stairs and inside a building. The room was cold and smelled of damp rot. Logan could see a light through the blindfold.
There was a small commotion, then a familiar voice. "Oh, for God's sake, it's Kate Logan! Let her go, guys! Let her go!"
The blind was stripped from her face and Logan stood blinking stupidly in the light. It was a moment before she realized she had the use of her arms and hands now and another moment before she could focus on Dartha Allen, pushing her way through a knot of people to hug her.
"These guys have been telling me some woman was trying to track me down--I never dreamed it'd be you!" Allen said with a laugh. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"It's a long story," Logan finally managed. "Have you got any coffee?"
"Coffee? Sure we got coffee, if you don't mind how it tastes. C'mon and have some, and we'll try to sort all this out."
The crowd--about ten Bellatrixi and Humans--separated to let the two women pass, then closed in behind them and followed them down a long, narrow passage. After a while, Logan could see that it was part of a labyrinthine system of underground storage and living areas, heavily fortified and well stocked with food and weapons. Headquarters of some clan, she concluded--one that hadn't lost too many battles recently.
Allen finally stopped at what appeared to be a communal dining hall--at least there were a couple of old food synthesizers and a battered table that led Logan to think it could serve the purpose. She collapsed at the table and someone pushed a cup of steaming liquid in front of her. It didn't particularly taste like coffee, but it would have to do.
Allen was busy making introductions, but Logan didn't pay much attention until she introduced a very tall, very broad, extremely ugly and absolutely commanding Bellatrixi by the name of Casselline. "This is the leader of the Calline clan," Allen explained, "as of eighteen hundred hours today."
Logan raised an eyebrow. "Congratulations."
"You are a trader. You have a ship?"
"Casselline," Allen said quickly, "Kate and I have some personal matters to discuss before we talk business. Perhaps you could give us a space of time to clear our minds?"
Casselline responded with a scowl. "We have little time, Dartha. My enemy grows stronger by the hour. If this one cannot help us, we must look for another."
"I understand, Casseline," Allen said. "I will explain everything."
Casseline's expression didn't change, but he nodded and left the room, taking most of his contingent with him.
"What was that all about?" Logan said, trying the coffee again. She was desperate.
"Sorry. These guys don't believe much in small talk."
Logan dug in her pockets for the tape from Laria. "Remind me later. I'm supposed to give you a lecture."
Allen took the tape with a shy grin. "I miss her, too. Thanks."
A muffled laugh from outside in the corridor brought Allen back to business. "Look, Kate, they won't give us much time so let me run it down for you. This world is about ten days away from a total meltdown. I've got contacts all over the planet, and everybody's scared silly. Somebody's been selling the factions weapons using protomatter."
"Believe it or not, Casselline does have a brain in his head," Allen said. "He wants to negotiate an end to the conflicts in this region at least. But he suspects his rival may be stockpiling protomatter in order to dictate her own terms."
"Where are they getting the stuff?"
"Everyone has the same supplier, but he's been very mysterious about where he's getting his supplies. Casselline has information that there may be a depot hidden somewhere in the Nebula. He figures if we can find it and tip off the authorities, his rival gets screwed, and his plan has a chance."
"Well, until you walked in the door, we were planning to hire another ship. Talk about perfect timing!"
Logan shook her head. "Are you nuts? There have to be a dozen pilots who know the Nebula better than I do. And besides, I am currently under direct orders from Starfleet Intelligence to butt out."
"Starfleet Intelligence is in on this?"
"I don't know." Exasperated, Logan ran a hand through her hair. "All I know is they're here looking for whoever is responsible for bringing protomatter into Bellatrix Eleven. And they've warned me to stay out of their way."
"But if Intelligence is involved, what's the Enterprise doing here?"
"Yeah. Kirk and company have been here about ten days. Just sitting, as far as anyone can tell."
"Well, the Enterprise may be here, but Kirk's not. He's doing his sitting back at Starbase Twelve." Logan couldn't bring herself to tell her friend why. "Looks to me like the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing here. Why don't you just take Casselline's tip to Starfleet, and let them handle this?" She couldn't believe she'd said that.
"No way. Casselline won't deal with Starfleet. Besides, I want the pictures."
Allen leaned forward, excitement animating her dark face. "If I get the first scan of this depot, it'll mean a Bernstein Prize for sure. Maybe even a Sontnu! And, damn it, I deserve it! I've been in this pit for Trans-Galactic for all of nine months, and this is the first chance I've gotten for something other than pictures of blasted buildings and severed body parts."
Logan could feel herself being sucked in, tempted by a chance to do what she'd come to do, a chance to get back what she'd lost to the gang that had played her for a fool. It was either do this or slink back to Starbase 12 with her tail tucked between her legs. Not much of a choice, as she saw it.
"Okay. But I get paid in advance."
Allen just grinned.
Jim Kirk sat in the officers' lounge on Starbase 12, nursing a glass of Saurian brandy. He'd begun to lose count of the number of nights he'd spent there, waiting. Kirk figured he was a lot of things, but patient was not one of them. Everything in him hated this. Every nerve was stretched, humming in agitation.
Every night he spent like this increased his sense of alienation. He felt cut off, lifeless, like a ship drifting without sensors. He missed McCoy's comforting drawl. He missed Spock's well-honed detachment. He missed the familiar rhythm of life on the Enterprise.
But most of all right now he missed Kate Logan. He missed everything about Kate.
And everywhere there were the furtive stares, the averted faces, the cold politeness. He hadn't had any more incidents like the one with the Tellarite. But then, except for his argument with Kate, he hadn't had a conversation with anyone for days. The bait had been well cast, but the fish had yet to nibble. And Captain James T. Kirk had never been fond of fishing.
He was so deep in thought that he jumped when someone slapped him on the back and slid into the seat beside him. "I heard you were around, Jimmy. Should've known I'd find you here." The accent was Lunar colonial, the face familiar, the smile apparently sincere.
Kirk responded with an enthusiasm he didn't feel. "Les Thorkelson, I'll be damned! What are you doing here? I thought you'd feathered yourself a cozy nest back at Starfleet Headquarters long ago."
Commander Thorkelson ordered a drink from the bartender. "Got bored fetching coffee for Old Ironpants. Transferred out here over a year ago--head of communications. Not bad, huh?"
Communications at Starbase 12 was a coveted position for officers like Thorkelson, who had never felt comfortable aboard a starship. The raw-boned recruit had seemed just as eager to cruise the galaxy as Kirk had been when they'd shared a room that year at the Academy. But Ensign Kirk had gone on to develop a craving to push the outside of the envelope, while Ensign Thorkelson had gotten his fill of the emptiness of space not long after leaving the Academy.
"Congratulations. I guess it was a relief getting out from under Komack at that. How's the family?"
"Well, fine, I guess. They're back in 'Frisco. Pela and I split up a few years ago, and the kids stayed with her."
"Tough luck." There was a pause that soon threatened to become uncomfortable.
"So what are you doing here, Jim? This is hardly the place for a couple weeks of shore leave."
Kirk's smile was forced. "Not my first choice, no. Debriefing."
"Yeah? Must've been some dustup if they brought you in for a face-to-face."
"Much ado about nothing if you ask me."
"Typical." Thorkelson wrapped his long fingers around his glass and contemplated them. "So I guess there's no truth to the rumor that's going around about you."
Kirk took a deep breath before answering. "What rumor is that, Les?"
"Oh, from what I can tell, it's just an overblown version of one of those stories we kept hearing about you at the Academy. You always did have a way with women!"
Before Kirk could stop himself, he snapped back, "What the hell do you mean by that?" He managed to keep his voice low, but a few heads turned in his direction.
Thorkelson was unaffected. "Nothing, Jimmy, not a thing. I just meant it didn't seem very serious, that's all."
"Sorry. Guess this thing is getting under my skin more than I realized."
"I don't blame you. I mean, how many times have you been decorated? God, you got the Enterprise when most of us from our class were still polishing brass on some asteroid-hopper. I can't believe your career would go down the tubes because of a little indiscretion. Is it true they're bringing you up on charges?"
"We don't know yet. They've put me on administrative leave, and they haven't set a hearing date. I guess they don't mind letting me twist in the wind for a while before they cut me down."
Kirk looked at his glass, calculating his next move. Something about Thorkelson made him take the risk. "I tell you, Les, this really burns me. Even if they don't charge me, my career will never be the same. I might as well quit and find a way to make some real money on the outside."
Thorkelson laughed, but in his eyes Kirk detected a narrow shrewdness. "Yeah, you'll never get rich in Starfleet, that's for sure. 'Course, I never thought that made much difference to you, Jimmy."
"Neither did I," Kirk replied and downed his drink. "Before now."
Thorkelson finished his own drink and got up to leave. "Well, hang in there, Jim. You never know how things might turn out."
Kirk nodded and watched Thorkelson weave his way through the bar toward the door. In a way, he was grateful now that no one much had spoken to him in his fortnight of hell on Starbase 12. This one conversation had cost him more than he could have imagined.
He pushed his glass across the bar in disgust and headed back to his quarters, feeling a sudden need to take a long, hot shower.
Logan stared for a long time at the navigation charts--the whorls of gravitic force, the filigreed patterns of projected motion, the trajectories, densities, route markers. Even with the computer's help, finding a route through the Nebula was not going to be easy. Especially since Casselline's best guess at the location of the depot had consisted of the navigational equivalent of "turn left at the third moon."
Allen was trying to give her the space she needed to work on the problem, but Logan could tell she was itching to go. She fidgeted in her seat, fussed with her equipment, sighed frequently. Logan had given up reminding her to concentrate on learning the sensor displays. Allen just didn't have the patience.
Logan made a few more calculations and the screen finally showed a route that would work. "Well, I think I have an idea where we can start looking," Logan said. "But you're really going to have to ride those sensors if we're going to have any chance of spotting this thing."
"Sure, yeah. I've been practicing. Are we ready?"
"As ready as we'll ever be." Logan hit the comm button. "SpaceDock, this is Roxanne. Requesting final clearance for departure."
"Roger, Roxanne. Routing information received and approved."
"Away all moorings."
"Moorings away. Have a safe trip now."
"Roger that. Roxanne out."
Logan took a deep breath and touched her controls lightly, nosing the little ship out of SpaceDock and into the swirling currents of the Nebula. The route they followed at first was part of the main external channel and relatively clear this close to SpaceDock.
As they got further into the Nebula and shifted to secondary routes, Logan expected things to get a little hairier. The deflector shields would protect the ship as long as they held up, but the more obstacles they pushed out of the way, the greater the disturbance to the orbits of neighboring bodies and the more unpredictable the route became. Better to draw the shields in as tight as possible and dodge any obstacles as best she could.
They made a wide, slow loop around Bellatrix XI's largest moons, weaving in and out of the traffic that clogged this major local route. As they left the two satellites behind, Logan caught a glimpse of something standing just off the route.
"Dartha, take a look at the starboard screen," she said softly. "Ain't that a sight?"
"The Enterprise." Logan couldn't help glancing away from her controls to stare at the graceful hull, the smooth, powerful lines, the warm lights shining out from the bridge. God, no wonder Jim's so proud of her.
"What's the Enterprise doing out here?" Allen said. "They've been in SpaceDock for days. They're not on their way out are they?"
Logan shook her head. "This isn't the main route. And she's at station-keeping. Beats me what they're up to."
They left the Enterprise behind and made the first of several course changes that would take them onto a secondary local route leading into the heart of the Nebula. The traffic dropped off, and the asteroids crowded into their path with greater frequency. Logan closed her mind to everything but the helm controls, ceased to think with her conscious mind at all. The Roxanne bobbed and weaved, slid and dodged, an extension of Logan's own reflexes.
The route grew narrower, the obstacles more frequent until the Roxanne seemed to be clambering over boulder after boulder on a rocky slope. Logan slowed to one-half impulse power, but the proximity alarm continued to wail until she finally turned it off. She could see the things, damn it! She was even managing to miss them, though once or twice the ship rocked violently as the deflectors shouldered through a tight spot.
"Kate! I think I have something. Uh, bearing 127 mark 4. There's a big asteroid there."
Logan licked her dry lips. "Put it on screen. It's that blue pad on the right."
The image of an asteroid half the size of Earth's moon filled the central viewscreen. It was dark on this hemisphere as they approached and, sure enough, Logan could see lights.
"Call up the position on the computer; see if there's a colony registered."
Allen hesitated for a moment, then found the panel she needed. "Nothing listed for these coordinates."
Logan glanced over and double-checked. Allen had the coordinates right--and the computer had nothing on it. "This must be the place." She slowed to one-quarter impulse, slipping between several smaller asteroids to find an orbital approach.
"Hey, Kate. There's a light blinking on this panel. What's it mean?"
Logan didn't have to look. She could hear the comm panel beeping. "Damn! They're hailing us from that asteroid."
"What do we do?"
"Open...oh, never mind." Logan punched in a station-keeping command and reached across to hit the comm control.
"Repeat, this is Alpha Century, Incorporated, calling..."
"Hello, Alpha Century. This is Roxanne. Captain Kate Logan here."
"Captain Logan, we don't show a Roxanne on our delivery schedule. We're very busy here, and as you know, there is very little room to maneuver. You're a danger to other ships in your present location."
"Sorry, Alpha Century, but there must be some mistake. I have a ship's manifest here that specifies delivery to this location."
"What? Okay, hold on, Roxanne, while we check it out."
Sweating, her heart thrashing in her chest, Logan laid in a course that would take her as close as she dared to the asteroid surface. She motioned for Allen to get ready to record--there wouldn't be much time once they started their run.
At the first squawk from the comm panel, Logan hit the sequence and sent the Roxanne plummeting toward the lights on the asteroid below. "Shut that thing off," she muttered. The bridge fell abruptly silent as Allen hit the comm control, cutting off the protests from the surface.
The asteroid loomed ever larger in the viewscreen as Logan dropped out of orbit, stabilizers whining. The gravity systems struggled to maintain a buffer against the rapid changes in g-force, but to little avail. Logan's stomach lurched and she could see Allen had turned an evil shade of green.
"Get those recorders rolling, Dartha. We'll be over the site in less than a minute."
"Longest damn minute of my life," Allen moaned in response.
Logan gripped her seat and watched the altitude monitors--one thousand kilometers, eight hundred kilometers, five hundred, two-fifty. At one hundred, she kicked out of navigational control and went on manual, correcting her angle of descent to a more tolerable twenty degrees. That would put her about thirty klicks up when she skimmed past the collection of lights on the surface.
She checked the sensors--all clear. So far Alpha Century hadn't mounted a defense. She put it down to surprise. They'd be up and after her before long.
"Approaching our target. Are you ready?"
"Ready and rolling, babe. Sensors are picking up the first buildings now."
Logan cut her speed as the lights shot by below them. She wanted to make sure they got as much as they could on one pass. There wouldn't be another chance.
"Uh-oh. If I'm not mistaken, this monitor is telling us we've got company," Allen said.
Logan glanced at the tactical display. There were two of them, scouts, scrambling from the surface below. "Yep. Hang on; I'm hitting the boosters."
The Roxanne's impulse engines responded to Logan's command with a throaty roar, accelerating so quickly the inertial dampeners couldn't handle it all. Pilot and copilot were slammed against their seats as the ship climbed out of the asteroid's gravity well and flung itself out into black space. Logan fought the erratic g-forces to punch in a course for home and sighed with relief when the gravity systems finally began to compensate for their speed.
Allen let out a triumphant whoop as the asteroid receded behind them. "We did it! I can't believe we did it! Bernstein here I come!"
Logan, grim-faced, checked the tactical again. "We're not out of this yet." As she spoke a clean, white-hot stream of phaser fire split the vacuum of space to shatter a fragment of rock on the Roxanne's port side. The pieces bounced harmlessly off the deflector shields, but Logan could already see the ripples the displacement caused in the nebula densities along her course.
Three quick moves--starboard, port, starboard--then a drop 30 degrees, as fast as she dared. Logan checked the rear viewscreen. The maneuvers had confused one of her pursuers, but the other was stuck tight to her tail. She looked back to the forward screen just in time to squeak by a broken bit of rock in her path. The displacement was just enough to slow the ships behind her a fraction.
Logan slapped at the weapons board to arm phasers and set the tracking system. Then she told Allen, "When I say fire, I want you to hit that pad twice. Got it?"
Allen nodded, too scared to speak.
Rear screen--the two were close together, trying to follow her path through the circling pieces of rock. Logan tracked them--closing at 2000 meters, 1500 meters, 950 meters. Front screen--feint to port, slew to starboard to miss the next obstacle. She felt the jar to the deflectors as she slid past, then took it up to half-impulse. The pursuers dropped back to 1800 meters, but the Roxanne would have a clear shot.
"Now, Dartha. Fire!"
Allen hesitated, then hit the pad once, twice. On the rear screen the phaser sliced between the two ships, shearing through the starboard shields of the lead ship. The second shot bit through the damaged shields to blast the hull in a flare of explosive light. Logan saw the ship list abruptly to starboard and drop off the trail.
But the wing ship was undamaged and came at her hard, closing the gap between them with frightening speed. Ahead, the path was a gauntlet of rock. Logan cut out of navigational control, went on manual and led her ship through the dance. Shift to port, dodge to starboard, swing out wide to port, cut in tight to starboard, keep up the speed. Behind her the wolf nipped at her heels all the way, pushing as close as 750 meters, then falling off as Logan nudged her speed up.
Logan hit an uncluttered straightaway and gunned it, taking her up to full impulse. But it wasn't fast enough. The ship behind got off a shot that skimmed the aft shields and knocked Logan and Allen out of their seats. The Roxanne pitched and rolled for a long second before the stabilizers regained control. Logan climbed back into her seat to see her pursuer lining up for a second shot that would finish her.
Dead ahead and growing massively in the viewscreen was an asteroid big enough to destroy both of them. Logan threw the Roxanne at the rock at full impulse power, straight on and as fast as she could go. The ship behind her fired, missed, came after her at full speed.
Allen screamed at her, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Hold on to your seat, partner," Logan said calmly. She watched the asteroid grow on the screen, twenty-five hundred meters, fifteen hundred meters, a thousand meters. Just before the deflectors would have made contact, Logan punched in her maneuver. The Roxanne dove below the asteroid, pulling in as close as the deflectors and the nav controls would allow. She followed the curve of the rock down, around, up and over, one complete orbit, so tight the engines keened, and the dampeners fluctuated wildly.
The ship behind her was off the screen. But the sensors told Logan he'd done just what she'd planned--followed her down and around the bottom curve of the asteroid, then straightened and shot away from the rock along the narrow navigational channel. Logan came out of her loop and closed in behind the ship. She was nearly at point blank range, but she figured if she gave him any distance at all, he'd dodge her. She lined up and fired the phasers herself at 500 meters. The actinic blue line of phaser fire pierced his shields and fractured against his aft engines.
Logan slammed the Roxanne into a roll away from the target, but she was still too close. The pursuer's engines exploded, sending a shock wave ripping into the Roxanne that blasted away half her port shields. Before the stabilizers could right her, the ship pitched wildly, skidding out of the navigational channel and into a thicket of tiny asteroids. The deflectors flared, and the ship bucked with the impact, throwing Logan and Allen to the deck again.
Logan fought to regain her seat and control over her unbridled ship, but the Roxanne plunged crazily on through the clutter of rock. The deflectors flared again and again as the ship careened into the jagged net of asteroids. At last Logan cut power to the engines and the ship slowed. She boosted power to the stabilizers, and the dizzying roll and pitch calmed to a tolerable rocking.
But the Roxanne was still sliding slowly to starboard. Logan had no time to correct before a huge curved mass pushed into view at the edge of the front viewscreen. She swore and hit a sequence to roll off to port, but it was too late. The asteroid plowed past them, as inexorable and as unaffected as a glacier, taking the starboard deflector shields and pieces of the outer hull with it. The ship groaned, then shrieked as she absorbed the blow. The panels around the bridge crackled and snapped and smoked as the electrical systems overloaded and finally blew.
"Engage the fire control systems," Logan shouted through the red haze of the emergency lights.
"Where?" Allen screamed at her.
"To your right. No, further. Okay, that's it. Watch the readouts and do what they tell you."
Allen nodded, her face lined with fear in the ochre glow.
Damage control was normally a priority, but right now Logan had to get the ship back to navigable space before the next orbiting iceberg blindsided them. She eased the ship into one-quarter impulse power and guided her gently back in the direction they had come. She danced again with the asteroids, favoring first her bleeding starboard side, then her bruised port side until, after what seemed like years, they found the secondary navigation route.
Logan had just begun to breathe again when the fire alarms blared a second time. Allen looked at her in confusion. "I did everything it said! What could be wrong now?"
"Damn it to hell! It's a slow cooker--fire in the bulkhead somewhere." Logan looked desperately from the navigation console to the damage control panel. "I can't come over there. Call up a schematic and find out where the damn thing is."
Allen worked feverishly. "Got it! It's in the rear storage compartment of the living quarters."
Watching the viewscreen intently as she wove her way through a cluster of rocks, Logan told her, "You'll have to put it out by hand. The extinguishers are in a locker right behind us."
Allen jumped up and tore into the locker for the equipment.
"Don't forget the mask!" Logan shouted over her shoulder, but she didn't have time to check whether she'd been heard. The clogged route demanded all her attention.
Logan forced herself to focus on the route ahead. She had to avoid any brush with an obstacle now. Without shields, the ship was as raw and vulnerable as an open wound. The fire would be the least of their worries if they hit anything. For two long minutes she saw nothing but the viewscreen, heard nothing at all. The fragments of rock swam in and out of view, threatened and backed off time after time, until at last the route widened and cleared.
Logan pried her cramped fingers off the controls, willed the bunched muscles in her neck and shoulders to relax.
That's when she heard it--a deadly silence behind the hiss and crackle of collapsed circuitry. The hatch to the next compartment--the living quarters--was shut. Behind it there was no sound at all.
"Dartha?" Logan hit the panel to put the ship on station-keeping and jumped up from her seat. The emergency locker stood open--one extinguisher was gone, but the respirators were undisturbed. Logan counted them, praying she was wrong. They were all there.
"Oh, God," she breathed. She grabbed two masks, slipped one roughly over her face and activated it with shaking hands. Then she punched the stud to open the hatch into the living compartment.
The smoke boiled out of the hatch, so thick Logan instantly lost track of where she stood. New alarms blared on the bridge, and with them, Logan could hear the emergency ventilation systems kick in. Through a haze of stinging tears, she could see flames licking the jagged edges of a hole in the bulkhead.
The fire was small; Allen could have put it out quickly. But the smoke, toxic with oxidized organics, had gotten to her before she could do more than break open the bulkhead. Her body lay slumped on the deck, her jumpsuit still smoldering in half a dozen places where the fire had caught her as she fell.
Logan grabbed the extinguisher and stifled the blaze. Then she dropped to her knees beside her friend. Allen was still breathing, still had a pulse. Logan lifted her head gently and slipped on the respirator. She activated it, then steeled herself to do something about the burns. She pulled gingerly at the singed fabric of Allen's sleeve, but stopped when she realized with a sickening jolt that the burned skin was coming away with the cloth.
Panic roared in her ears, drowning out the sound of her own ragged breathing in the respirator. Kate looked at Dartha, but she saw Ken through a blinding fog of sweat and tears--broken, burned, his life and hers horribly transformed. This time it was even more certainly her fault. Allen should never even have been here.
But blaming herself was not going to change what had happened. And if Allen was going to live, she had to have help fast. Logan grabbed a blanket off the nearest bunk and spread it over her friend. "Hang on, girl," she whispered. "We're getting the hell out of here."
Then she sprinted for the bridge and prayed the Enterprise was still close enough to help them.
Recalibration of the Enterprise's complex sensing systems was a challenging undertaking. If it had not been for his duties as acting captain, Spock would have gladly done the work himself. But, as much as Spock would have enjoyed the task, he knew Uhura, Sulu and Chekov were quite capable of accomplishing it. He had patiently observed their work for ten point three hours now and had only found it necessary to make occasional, minor suggestions.
The Humans did seem to be growing increasingly irritable, however. Perhaps fatigue was having an effect.
Sulu snapped the last panel into place under the console and got stiffly to his feet. "I think that's got it, Lieutenant. Recalibration complete."
Uhura sighed. "At last. Thank you, Mister Sulu."
At the science station, Chekov watched as each of the sensor readouts came back on line. After a moment he looked up. "Ready for systems test, sir."
Uhura looked at Spock.
"Carry on, Lieutenant," he said. She had directed the recalibration; she deserved to see it through.
"All right, gentlemen," she said. "Let's see if we did any good. Initiate systems test, Mister Chekov."
"Aye, aye." Chekov began the test sequence and watched the monitors intently as the sensors began to register. "Range increased sixty-six point three percent. Interference patterns down to twelve percent of maximum. All sensors operating at eighty-nine point two percent of capability."
Uhura, Chekov and Sulu grinned at each other in triumph.
"Excellent," Spock said. "I believe we can leave the task of beginning the scan to the third watch crew, Lieutenant. Dismissed--and thank you."
Uhura favored the Vulcan with a weary smile on her way to the turbolift with Sulu and Chekov. Behind her the third watch personnel slipped into their places as Spock gave the orders that would begin the sensor scan of the Nebula.
Lieutenant Palmer had no sooner sat down at the communications station than she turned toward Spock. "Incoming message, sir, ship-to-ship."
The trio in front of the turbolift stopped and waited to hear the news.
Ensign Hadley at the helm confirmed, "A ship at 104 mark 7, on intercept course now, at fifteen hundred kilometers."
"Put the message on audio, Lieutenant," Spock ordered calmly.
"Repeat, this is F.M.S. Roxanne calling the Enterprise, do you read?"
"Acknowledge, Lieutenant Palmer."
"Aye, sir. This is the Enterprise. We read you loud and clear, Roxanne."
"Requesting emergency medical assistance as soon as we are within transporter range."
Sulu looked at Chekov, puzzled. "Must be some emergency if she can't make it to SpaceDock."
"This is First Officer Spock, currently commanding the Enterprise. We are standing by to assist you, Roxanne. You should be in range in--" The helmsman supplied the numbers. "--one minute, seventeen seconds. Ship's status?"
"Extensive damage to the shields and some minor burnouts. No need for a tractor, she'll hold her station. There are two of us--tell your surgeon the patient is unconscious and critical--third-degree burns and smoke inhalation."
Spock picked up the collective intake of breath on the bridge. Everyone present knew the dangers of fire on a ship the size of the Roxanne. Under the circumstances, Spock thought the Roxanne's captain was displaying a remarkable degree of calm.
"Lieutenant Palmer, have Doctor McCoy report to the transporter room with a full medical team," Spock said. He punched the button for the transporter room himself. "Transporter room, this is Spock. We are in contact with a ship bearing 104 mark 7. She should be within transporter range. Do you read?"
"Aye, sir. She's well within range, Mister Spock. Reading two lifeforms aboard."
"Lock on and beam them aboard."
"Acknowledged. Beaming now, sir."
Spock turned to the ensign now manning the science station. "Ship's registry, Mister Rodriguez?"
Esteban Rodriguez had been on the Enterprise long enough to know the routine; he'd already called up the data. "Clipper-class merchant ship, Mister Spock. Recently registered to Captain Kathryn D. Logan out of Starbase Twelve. She doesn't list any crew, sir."
Behind Spock, Sulu gasped. "Did you say Kate Logan?"
Spock swivelled to look at the helmsman. "An acquaintance, Mister Sulu?"
"I knew someone by that name at the Academy. But it's been a long time..."
Spock stood and joined the group at the turbolift. "Come with me, Mister Sulu. Captain Logan has a few questions to answer. Perhaps she will be more forthcoming if someone familiar is present when they are asked." He pivoted to the science station. "Lieutenant Rodriguez, you have the conn," the Vulcan stated as the lift doors closed.
At first glance, Sickbay seemed deserted. There was no one in the outer offices. All the action was in the ship's tiny surgical ward. The room's antiseptic seal had been engaged and inside, McCoy, Chapel and two other medical personnel were intent on their work. Even through the glass, Spock could see the body on the gurney was badly burned. The lifesigns monitor barely registered.
Spock found Kate Logan standing in the monitoring room next to Surgery, arms crossed tightly in front of her chest as if she could use them to hold herself together. She stared through the glass to the operating room, anguished, but unable to look away.
Her expression was one Spock recognized--grief, loss, a burden of responsibility, as if something she'd done or failed to do was to blame for what had happened. He'd seen the same look on Jim Kirk's face. Spock was aware that not all Humans in similar circumstances felt the weight of command quite so heavily. The best of them, however, like Kirk, like Logan, always took the loss of one of their own hard--and personally.
Sulu took a step toward her. "Kate?"
She turned from the window and smiled a little when she saw him. "Hikaru. Word travels fast, even on a ship this big, huh?"
"I was on the bridge when your call came in."
Logan took both his hands and squeezed them. "Thanks for coming."
He nodded toward the next room. "How bad is it?"
"About as bad as it gets," she said, her voice nearly inaudible.
Sulu put a hand on her shoulder. "Doctor McCoy is the best there is. He'll pull her through."
Logan brushed the tears from her cheeks and smiled shakily. "I'm counting on it."
"Mister Spock has some questions--are you okay?"
As Logan turned to face him, Spock saw that her jumpsuit was smeared with blood. It was impossible to tell whether any of it was hers, but a few rips in the suit revealed ugly burns and bruises.
"Perhaps we should wait until you have received medical attention," Spock suggested.
"No. We need to talk now," she said. "I just risked two lives to get proof of an arms transshipment point in the Nebula. I think you should look at the tapes."
Spock merely raised an eyebrow, but Sulu couldn't keep from blurting out, "You found the depot?"
"Either that or somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to protect an oversized dock facility."
"Captain Logan, you are registered as a private trader," Spock said. "As such you would have little reason to be engaged in a military surveillance mission. Are you operating under official authority of which I am not aware?"
Logan's chin lifted. "No. I had private reasons for undertaking this mission, if that's what you want to call it. I'll be glad to give you a full report, and you can throw me in the brig. But first I suggest you do something about that depot. I don't think the guys who are running it will stick around while we swap stories."
"She's right, Mister Spock," Sulu said. "If they're as smart as we think they are, they'll be dismantling that operation already."
Spock nodded. "I agree. If you would provide us with the coordinates for the site, Captain Logan?"
"Of course, Commander. I'll give you the codes, and you can take both the navigational and the recon data directly out of the Roxanne's computer banks."
Logan looked into the next room where McCoy and the others worked methodically to save her friend's life. Then she looked back at Spock. "I don't think I can be of much help here. I'd appreciate a chance to do something useful."
"Oh, no, you don't!" Doctor M'Benga stood in the doorway of the waiting room, armed with a hypo and a husky nurse. "I'm sorry, Captain Logan, but you're overdue for a medical exam."
"I'm fine!" Logan said, waving him off.
"Your injuries may be minor," M'Benga said, "but we won't know that until I've had a chance to look you over. Even from here I can tell you're suffering from shock. I'm under direct orders from Doctor McCoy to make sure you stay put until he's certified you. And I intend to follow my orders."
Logan started to protest again, but Spock held up a hand. "Captain Logan, no one would dare countermand Doctor McCoy's orders in his own area of expertise, not even I. I suggest you submit to whatever examinations he thinks are necessary."
"What about that depot?"
"I assure you we will put your information to the best possible use."
"Okay," Logan said finally, turning to go with the doctor. But as she reached the doorway she turned back. "Just do me one favor," she said. "Just find a way to get those bastards. I'm damn tired of getting my butt kicked."
Sulu insisted on following Spock back up to the bridge. "You could use an extra hand on the sensors, Mister Spock," he said. "I'd like to have a shot at these guys."
"Very well, Mister Sulu," Spock said, taking his place in the command seat. "As soon as you have the data from Captain Logan's log, you may begin scanning."
The helmsman replaced Lieutenant Rodriguez at the science station and punched in the codes to access the Roxanne's computers. After a moment, Sulu had the information he needed. "Scanning now, Mister Spock."
Sulu looked up almost immediately. "They're moving, sir. Energy levels at the installation are at forty percent of projected normal; ships on at least three vectors away from the asteroid."
"Plot an intercept course for the closest of those escape vectors, Mister Hadley--outside the Nebula. Mister Sulu, are the auto-maintenance systems on the Roxanne operational?"
"She'll hold her station while we're gone, Mister Spock," Sulu assured him.
"Three ships approaching outer boundary of the Nebula at 340 mark 9, Mister Spock. Intercept course plotted and laid in."
"Very well, Mister Hadley. Engage."
"Aye, sir. Contact in two minutes, fifty-seven seconds."
"Red alert, Lieutenant Palmer. Battlestations."
"Aye, sir, battlestations."
"Arm phasers, Ensign Haines."
The young woman at navigation replied briskly, "Phasers armed and ready, sir."
"Stand by, Ensign. Our aim will be to capture one of these ships. I don't want to fire on them if we can avoid it."
Spock pressed a stud on his chair arm. "Engineering, this is Spock."
"Scott here, sir."
"We will be needing power for a tractor beam shortly, Mister Scott. How soon can you be ready?"
"Ready whenever you are, Mister Spock. Just give the word."
"Very good, Engineer. Stand by."
"We have visual contact with those ships now, Mister Spock," Palmer said from the communications station.
"Put them on screen, Lieutenant."
The three ships moved in tight formation, shaking free of the last of the Nebula's asteroids. They were corsair-class vessels--small, fast and maneuverable.
"Target that formation for tractor beam, Mister Hadley."
"Aye, sir, locked on."
"Mister Scott, initiate tractor beam--now."
But it wasn't going to be quite that simple. On the screen, the ships broke formation and scattered in different directions. The tractor beam lanced out from the Enterprise--and skewered nothing.
"Choose one ship, Mister Hadley, and lock on as soon as you have him," Spock ordered.
"I'm trying, sir, but they're too quick."
"Come about to 175 mark 7, helm--stay ahead of them," Spock said. "Perhaps the phasers will slow them down. Ensign Haines, try to impede one of them if you can. Target and fire at will."
"Aye, sir." Jana Haines tracked the movements of the ships on her screen, waiting for an opportunity. "Firing phaser one, sir." Clean miss. "Firing phaser two." A hit!
"Their starboard shields are down to forty percent, Mister Spock," Sulu reported from the science station. "Slowing to Warp One."
"Tractor beam--quickly, Mister Hadley."
Sulu suddenly looked up from his monitors. "One of the companion ships just lowered its shields, Mister Spock."
"Engage tractor beam, Mister Scott." The beam engulfed the drifting vessel and held it fast. Spock swivelled to look at Sulu at the science station. "Lifesigns aboard that ship, Lieutenant?"
He shook his head. "Negative, sir. They beamed aboard the companion ship."
"Heading away at Warp Four, Mister Spock."
"Set course and speed to close on the nearest one, Mister Hadley."
"Aye, sir. Bearing 204 mark 32. Closing at ten thousand kilometers."
"Match him closely, helm."
"He's moving too quickly to get a clear fix, sir."
Spock felt the first stirrings of frustration and repressed them ruthlessly. "Mister Haines, arm photon torpedos. Target manually and set for detonation two kilometers from the target."
"Armed and ready, sir."
"Fire torpedo one."
"Torpedo one away, sir."
A brief, brilliant flash told them the torpedo had detonated, exactly two kilometers from the target ship. "Dead stop, Mister Spock," Sulu called out. "Their shields are down to twenty percent; power output minimal. Significant casualties."
"Tractor beam, Mister Hadley."
"Locked on, sir."
The flash this time was much bigger and ten times brighter, knifing through the filters on the viewscreen to light up the bridge. The shock wave from the explosion hit a second later, knocking half the bridge crew out of their seats.
"What the devil was that?" It was the voice of the chief engineer, coming through the channel that had been left open to Engineering.
Spock took a moment to check the condition of the bridge crew before he answered. "I fear we have just lost our last chance to interrogate anyone from that depot. Mister Sulu?"
"Confirmed, sir. Sensors are showing only debris."
"Damage reports, Lieutenant Palmer?"
"Minimal damage, Mister Spock. No casualties."
"Position of the third ship, helm?"
Hadley shook his head in disgust. "Out of sensor range, Mister Spock. We've lost him."
Spock sat back in the command seat and stared at the viewscreen, empty now except for the treacherous reef of the Nebula. He knew his mind should be on the next steps to be taken to solve the problem. But instead, at this moment, he was fully occupied with the mental disciplines required to control a totally inappropriate desire to vent his frustration on the nearest inanimate object.
"They sure don't make it easy for me to work my miracles around here," McCoy grumbled as he came through the sickbay doors. "I come out of two hours of surgery and find my office full of cuts and bruises. What the hell's going on up there, anyway?"
"Something good, I hope, Doc," Logan said from her bed. "How's Dartha?"
"Your friend's going to make it," McCoy said, smiling at her. "Thanks to you."
Logan felt a rush of relief so strong she was grateful she wasn't on her feet. "She's really going to be okay?"
"Well, she'll be spending a few weeks in a regeneration tank, but, yes, she's going to be fine." The doctor looked critically at the lifesigns monitor. Then he loaded a syringe from a cabinet nearby and punched it into her arm. "Stimulant. Another five minutes, though, and it might have been a different story. You did the right thing bringing her here."
"Jim told me his ship's surgeon never gave up on a patient. That's all I could think about when I saw how badly Dartha was hurt."
McCoy smiled. "Now, why doesn't it surprise me that you know Jim Kirk?"
"We met a couple of weeks ago on Starbase Twelve." Has it only been a couple of weeks?
The doctor looked up sharply. "You saw him on Starbase Twelve? Recently?"
"The last time just a couple of days ago. Why?"
"Then they don't have him in the brig--or under house arrest?"
"No," Logan said carefully. "He's in trouble, all right. And with all the abuse he's taking he probably wishes he was confined to quarters. But he's still free to come and go."
McCoy was deeply worried--Logan could see it in his face. Jim must've known how his situation would affect his friends. She didn't think he was the type to be insensitive to that kind of pain. But he'd never mentioned it to her. How much more was he keeping to himself?
"As far as I know Starfleet hasn't even scheduled a hearing yet," Logan said, trying to find a bit of good news to relate. "But then I would think you'd be the first to know when they do--you'll have to testify, won't you?"
"You'd think so, now, wouldn't you? Did Jim tell you anything about his case?"
Logan smiled faintly. "It's not his favorite subject, no."
"That doesn't surprise me either." McCoy let out an exasperated sigh. "Well, all I know is that no one from the Enterprise has been called to testify. And none of us can figure out who could have brought these charges against him. Uhura's convinced someone in Starfleet is trying to frame him, but I can't for the life of me understand why."
"Uhura--the communications officer," Logan said, rubbing the skin on her arms that had just turned to goose flesh. "She would've had to log a complaint from the ship."
"She says there wasn't one."
"That's damn strange. Have you talked to Jim?"
McCoy shook his head. "He hasn't answered any of my messages. I thought maybe they weren't getting through--that he'd been transferred somewhere else. Oh, hell, I don't know what I thought."
Logan had a head full of questions, but this was one she thought she probably had an answer for. "Maybe he's just trying to protect you."
McCoy smiled again. "How long did you say you'd known Jim?"
"Long enough for that overdeveloped sense of responsibility to kick in," Logan said with a sigh.
"It doesn't take long, especially if he cares about you." McCoy held her gaze for a moment. "You don't believe he did it, either, do you?"
"No," she said, more certain than ever that Jim Kirk was no common criminal. "But I sure as hell would like to know what's really going on."
"Well, if you find out, be sure to let me know. I've just about run out of theories." The doctor made a notation on his pad. "Is there someone I should notify about Dartha?"
Logan gave him the information, unhappily aware of just how difficult her return to Starbase 12 was likely to be. She'd have to see Laria and try to explain how all of this had happened. That would be wrenching enough. But she'd have to see Jim, too. And unless he was willing to tell her the truth, that was likely to break both their hearts.
Xhosar was waiting, not for the message, but for the messenger. She had already heard the bad news--she merely wanted to confirm the details. Perhaps there would be something in the messenger's report that would save the situation, though Xhosar doubted it.
Damn Starfleet! Another four hours and the depot would not have been in the Nebula for them to find. She could only be grateful that her staff at the depot had at least had the sense to avoid capture. She would have killed them herself had they shown up at Rho Orionis.
She could absorb the loss of business with Bellatrix XI. There were other markets for the protomatter Xhosar's operation could deliver. But the loss of security was much more serious. Now she would have to be very discreet or risk complete exposure. And every day she was forced to delay deliveries of valuable contraband put a bigger hole in her profits.
Something else would have to serve to keep the credit flowing. There was always profit in information, of course. But her contact in Starfleet Command would not be up to the increased demands of his task. The spy she'd sent to observe him had already indicated as much. Oh, it was maddening!
The Mindsweeper monitored her mood from a remote corner of her mind, increasingly unhappy. It dreaded her meeting with the intermediary from Starbase 12. She was likely to take her frustration out on him, no matter what news he brought.
When the man finally arrived to brief his leader, Xhosar wasted no time. "Issan, you have seen the commander?"
"Yes, Sar Xhosar. I came directly from my meeting with him to you."
"And has he found a way to get the information I need?"
The man squirmed; the Mindsweeper hurt for him. "No, Sar Xhosar. He argues that he is not a command officer and has no access to the data you seek. He begs for time and permission to recruit another to your service."
"Time? I'll give him time! He may have all eternity in hell, for all the use he is to me! And I don't need the risk of another idiot running around Starbase Twelve calling attention to us. Kill him. I'll look for another way to get what I need."
Her voice was cold, collected. But the Mindsweeper felt the fear and desperation in her mind. Time, time! she thought. The Romulans slipping away, the Klingons so impatient they might explode in violence at any time rather than wait for what she had promised them. The fiasco on Bellatrix XI was bad enough and now this! Xhosar could see all of her goals receding in the distance, her plans scattering like leaves before the wind.
"But Sar, the commander has suggested a way. He is a fool, but the idea has merit. Will you hear it?"
"Be quick, Issan. I have little patience today."
With a little bow, the man handed her a datapad. Her face and her mind lit up with fierce delight as she read the display. "What a bad boy! Who would've thought a starship captain would be capable of such a thing! Oh, this is delicious!"
"These are serious charges, Sar. The matter will surely ruin his career," Issan said unnecessarily.
"Of course. That is what makes him valuable." The Mindsweeper felt her excitement surge into exhilaration as she turned the new information over in her mind. "Kirk was not on the Enterprise at Bellatrix Eleven, then?"
"He has been placed on administrative leave--he's been at Starbase Twelve for several weeks."
"Indeed? How convenient." Xhosar considered this curious news. Surely Starfleet had learned something of the operation at Bellatrix--that damned trading ship had caught them only part way through the shutdown. Was it only a coincidence that the captain of the ship that had been assigned to Bellatrix XI was now dangled in front of her as bait? Could it be that Starfleet suspected a power behind the Bellatrix XI operation? That would imply a far more damaging breach in her security--one she would have to close immediately.
If Kirk was a spy, meeting with him would be risky. But just think what she stood to gain! A starship captain like Kirk would have unlimited access to the kind of information her customers demanded. There in his mind would be all the many details of Starfleet strategy and ship deployment and weaponry, ripe for the plucking. Yes, the Klingons and the Romulans would give a lot to know what this one starship captain knew.
Spy or no spy, let him come, she thought. I'll turn him inside out and be gone before those who follow can save him.
Xhosar looked at Issan with death in her eyes. "Tell the commander to make the contact. Once he is successful, he will no longer be needed."
"I understand, Sar Xhosar." The messenger bowed gratefully and left the hall as quickly as he had entered.
Xhosar turned with a smile and addressed the comm unit on her desk. "Shankar, the security of our operation within Starfleet Command has been compromised. When Issan completes his current assignment on Starbase Twelve, take care of him. And pray that I do not order the same for you."
To the presence in her mind that was the Mindsweeper, Xhosar directed a different sort of thought. Isn't it exciting? I know you can feel it, too! A starship captain--that should be a dainty dish for you, my friend. So much we can learn from him!
There was an eagerness and a complexity in Xhosar's thoughts as she contemplated her encounter with this being that the Mindsweeper could not immediately account for. It was not unlike the stimulation she felt at the prospect of any such challenge, but beneath it was something altogether different.
Carefully, so as not to disturb its host, the creature probed for what was behind her excitement. It moved quickly past the disdain that overlay Xhosar's conscious thoughts, recognizing this as a pretense like many others it had felt in her before. The answer, the Mindsweeper suspected from the experience of a hundred other minds, was hidden where Xhosar herself could not retrieve it. Deeper than the greedy dream of success, deeper than the horrible anticipation of forbidden pleasures, lay the core of a myth that even the cynical Xhosar believed in the unconscious depths of her mind.
Finding this secret in the familiar territory of her mind was like discovering an emerald valley hidden high in barren, windswept mountains. Here was a lush virgin landscape of concepts and emotions to be explored. The Mindsweeper had never felt the emotions associated with loyalty, courage, heroism from within Xhosar before. In some of the smaller minds, yes, but not like this. What was it about this figure that called forth such emotions even in Xhosar?
The analytical processes of the Mindsweeper's own data array had never been exceptional. The astounding connections between apparently unrelated information components that the outworlders made so easily did not come to the creature without deliberate effort. Yet understanding this new complex of information could not be achieved by understanding only what Xhosar knew of it. Her mind could provide the key concepts, the referents by which to guide its search, but the Mindsweeper would have to sift through the data it had collected in all of its experiences to build a complete picture of what the term "starship captain" meant.
The creature scanned its array for any information it had stored on the United Federation of Planets, its Starfleet and its starship captains. Much of what it retrieved had been learned from the station databanks. The computers that Xhosar and her servants used were not sophisticated; they were designed mostly for recordkeeping and communications. But there had been enough general information in their banks to provide the Mindsweeper with the basic understanding it needed.
The dry recitation of facts from this part of its data array took on a completely different aspect when correlated with the emotional responses the creature had stored from Xhosar and others in its experience. The impact was so much more than the sum of its parts! The Federation was not simply the enemy which Xhosar fought--it was a symbol of stifling authority. Starfleet was not simply an obstacle in her path--it was a symbol of discipline and dangerous skill in battle.
And a starship captain was not simply the intelligent commander of a well-armed ship. He or she was a symbol of leadership--a symbol that most of the minds in the Mindsweeper's experience treated with a great show of scorn but inwardly accepted almost universally as an object of admiration and respect.
The databanks yielded up without emotion the goals and purpose of the Federation and of Starfleet, the significant dates and numbers of members and official titles. But the Mindsweeper saw beyond these to the dream that led the Terrans and the Vulcans, the Andorians and the Tellarites and hundreds of other species to leap unknowing into the blackness of space--a dream of hopeful exploration that seemed to the creature to be forever out of its own limited reach. And in that moment the Mindsweeper began to yearn for something it could never have imagined was possible when it began its quest.
The starship captain was the key--for the Mindsweeper no less than for Xhosar. If this captain--Kirk--was a traitor, then there was little chance he could help. But if Kirk was what a starship captain was supposed to be, then he was the Mindsweeper's last hope of escaping what had suddenly become a life of unbearably empty confinement.
It was past midnight of a long day and the sensible thing to do would have been to go back to the ship and get some sleep. Logan had covered three parsecs and a lot of emotional ground already that day getting back to Starbase 12.
Laria had cried as much over Logan as she had over Allen; in some ways her understanding had been harder to take than any number of recriminations. In any case, Laria was in no shape to handle travel schedules and leave requests. It had taken hours for Logan to make arrangements for the Deltan to get to Bellatrix XI where Dartha Allen would be spending four lonely weeks in a regen tank.
Logan was beat, but she knew sleep would be impossible. She was wound too tight and the questions in her mind had already kept her up the better part of two nights. It was time to get some answers.
She stood outside Jim Kirk's door in the dim residential corridor, waiting for him to answer her knock, holding on to her resolve. He opened the door, half-dressed and half-asleep, and she wondered where she would find the strength to do what she had to do.
He didn't say anything. He drew her inside, shut the door behind her, kissed her. It would have been so easy to forget about everything. She wanted him so much her skin was catching fire under his hands. For a crazy moment, all she could think of was falling back into his rumpled, still-warm bed and losing herself in him.
"Kate, I was wrong," he said, his lips close to her ear. "I'm sorry."
She pulled away, shaking. No matter how she longed to put them aside, the questions just wouldn't wait. "No, you were right. I was in way over my head--and my friend paid the price for it. If it hadn't been for the Enterprise and Doctor McCoy, my stupidity would have cost Dartha her life."
"That's not the way I heard it. The story around the base is that you're a hero."
"Yeah, and you know how much that's worth." She collected herself a moment, searching for a way to begin. "McCoy's worried about you."
His expression hardened, but he didn't answer.
"Your friends don't believe these charges against you are legitimate. They have good reason to think the way they do. And I agree with them." Logan stopped, took a deep breath, plunged on. "I think you're lying to them. I think you're lying to me."
"I never lied to you."
"You never told me the truth either. I need you to be honest with me, Jim. If you can't I'm going to have to walk out of here and never look back."
"Don't do this, Kate. You must know by now I'd tell you if I could. You have to trust me."
"Trust you? And who do you trust, Jim? You won't trust me, you won't trust McCoy. Either one of us would gladly go through Hell with you, but you seem to want to make the trip alone."
He looked at her. "You think I'm enjoying this?"
"No, I think it's killing you. What I can't understand is why you won't admit it. Why won't you let us help you?"
"Kate, I'm sorry..." He reached for her, but she brushed him off.
"Damn it, Jim. I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to be mad, I want you to cry, I want you to get drunk and scream and break the place up. That's what I'd do if Starfleet was using me the way they're using you."
His head snapped up. "Using me for what?"
"You tell me. All I know is for some reason they've asked you to throw away your life with both hands, and I bet it never even occurred to you to say no."
"They needed me, Kate." He dropped his hands from her shoulders and stepped back. "I couldn't say no."
She pursued him. "They needed you. How about what you need? How does it make you feel to see your career and everything you ever worked for go up in flames? To have to lie to the people who love you?"
"How does it make me feel?" he said. "Like having the heart ripped out of me piece by piece. Like trying to breathe without oxygen. Like it was for you watching your ship blow itself to bits." He stopped, started again, biting the words off as if they threatened to choke him. "But I can't think about how I feel, Kate. I can't afford to."
"Believe me, starman, you can't afford not to." She moved closer so she could touch him. "Don't you think I know? I carried my anger around with me for years. I hoarded it like it was worth something. But when you made love to me that night in the arboretum I could feel it slipping away. I couldn't hold you and hold on to that baggage at the same time. I let it go."
His hands gripped her arms again, locked tight now with tension. She could feel the rage coiled in every muscle of his body. He was shaking with the effort to control it. "I can't do that, Kate. If I let go now, I'll fly apart," he whispered.
"No, you won't," she said. "I won't let you."
He pulled her to him, and she could finally feel his control give way, crumbling under her assault. His embrace was not gentle. His kiss did not ask; it demanded. In a moment, she knew, he would hold nothing back--not anger or hurt or impossible need.
But she didn't mind; she was ready for him. If he needed a battle he could win, she would give him one. If he asked for all she had to give, she would let him take it. She would match him move for move, strength for strength, until, at last, he won and surrendered his pain to her.
The chrono read 0300 when Jim Kirk was shaken out of an exhausted sleep. Beside him, Kate Logan stirred, but didn't wake. He pulled the sheet up around her shoulders and rolled out of bed, trying to figure out what it was that had awakened him.
The sound intruded a second time--a sharp knock. Kirk slipped on his pants and opened the door to find Les Thorkelson standing in the darkened hallway.
"For God's sake, let me in, Jim, before I wake up the whole corridor."
Kirk stepped aside to let him in, but didn't bother to turn on the light. "Little late for a social call, isn't it, Les?"
"Well, I wanted to make sure you weren't busy," he said with a smirk. "I see you haven't had any trouble getting a date despite your reputation."
"Are you here to check up on my love life?"
"No, this is strictly business. And it's between you and me--why don't you send her home?"
Kirk was instantly alert, his heart responding to a quick shot of adrenalin. "She's a very sound sleeper. What kind of business can't wait until duty hours, Les?"
Thorkelson laughed and draped his painfully angular frame over the only chair in the room. "Well, it ain't Starfleet orders, Jimmy. I don't think they'll be giving you any of those for a while. They're not even gonna give you a hearing for thirty days yet--I saw the papers on that myself this morning." He paused to assess the impact this information had had on Kirk.
When Kirk said nothing, Thorkelson went on. "Opportunity is knocking, Jimmy. Are you gonna answer the door?"
"If you've got something to say to me, Thorkelson, get on with it."
Thorkelson picked up a holo of the Enterprise from the desk and examined it idly. "I can help you, Captain. I hate to see an old friend in trouble. In fact I wish I could make this thing go away--but I'm afraid it's much too big a screw up for that. Starfleet is mortally offended by your actions--and not for the first time. Too bad about the Enterprise--you can kiss that one goodbye." He set the holo back on the desk and looked up. "But there may be a way for you to keep your rank, maybe even get command of another ship."
"You're telling me you have that kind of influence?"
"You don't think so? Oh, you'd be amazed at all the dirty little secrets I'm privy to in my job, Jimmy. You'd better think again."
"And what if I'm innocent?"
Thorkelson laughed his unpleasant laugh again. "Please. You said it yourself--your career will never be the same no matter how this turns out. I'm here to give you a chance to salvage something for yourself. Are you interested, or would you rather let Starfleet screw you over altogether?"
Kirk took deep breath and struggled to keep a howl of triumph from escaping his lips. When he answered, his voice was low and appropriately diffident. "What do I have to do?"
"Get a ship to take you to these coordinates." Thorkelson tossed a scrap of paper on the desk. "It shouldn't be hard to find one for hire, if you ask around. I can fix it so no one notices that you've gone for a couple of days. Someone will meet you at the rendezvous point and take you to see Xhosar."
Thorkelson stood and sauntered to the door. "You'll find out soon enough who she is, Jimmy. Right now, she wants to know who you are. If you pass the test, you're in like Flynn."
"And if I don't pass the test?"
"Then all your troubles are over, Captain," Thorkelson laughed. "You won't be coming back." Still grinning, he turned and went out.
Kirk turned from the door to see Logan sitting up, looking at him. "This is what you've been waiting for," she said. "You were bait for this mole."
He sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hand down her bare arm. There wasn't much point in denying what she obviously understood. "There's been a slow leak in Starfleet Command for at least two years--maybe longer. They couldn't find it any other way, so they set me up."
"That was some gamble."
"I was beginning to wonder myself if it would ever pay off."
"What happens now?"
"Well, Starfleet Intelligence might just decide to pick Thorkelson up and try to get him to tell them what they need to know."
"But if they net the small fry, the big fish gets away."
"That's why I have to convince Chartoff that I should make my meeting with this Xhosar."
"It's risky as hell. What makes you think Intelligence will let you go?"
"They don't have much choice."
She paused a moment before she said, "You need a ship. Repairs on the Roxanne should be complete by eleven hundred."
He started to say no. This was not much better than a suicide mission--he wasn't even sure he could save his own skin. But they'd had this argument before and he had been wrong. Kate Logan was perfect for the job; her ship was clipper class; there'd be no doubt he'd simply hired her for the trip. But the Roxanne was also well armed, and Jim Kirk knew for certain he could trust her captain.
Logan was watching him, waiting for him to make up his mind. He nodded. "I need a ship. I need you. You're hired, Captain."
The Federation Ambassador to Bellatrix XI turned from the window of his office, his face betraying far too much of his feelings in Spock's opinion. "Spock! Please forgive me for not seeing you sooner. We are very close to opening negotiations between two major factions here in Tartarus, and I have been quite busy."
"Perfectly understandable, Ambassador."
"I haven't had an opportunity to thank you personally for helping to make this breakthrough possible. Had it not been for the presence of the Enterprise, I am certain the supply of arms from that depot would have precluded these negotiations entirely."
"That may be, Ambassador. But I would argue the Enterprise actually had very little to do with the favorable outcome of events here."
Sunak considered Spock for a long moment. "I sense that you are not satisfied with the results of your investigations here, Spock. Or is it that you are unhappy with the performance of your crew?"
"The crew has done everything that has been asked of them with skill and alacrity."
"Then what disturbs you?"
"In that I have so far been unable to discover who established the depot in the first place, I have failed to complete my mission, Ambassador. The Enterprise was unable to capture a single ship--a single individual--from that depot. The dismantling of the depot was very thorough--the staff left behind nothing which would lead us to the syndicate of which they are undoubtedly a part. Our investigations on the planet have yielded nothing. In effect, Ambassador, we are perplexed."
"I see." The Ambassador placed his hands behind his back. "And you consider this to be a personal failure?"
"I am responsible for the successful completion of this mission."
"Of course. Could it be that you are lacking in some skill which is required to resolve this difficulty?"
Spock raised an eyebrow. "I shouldn't think so."
"Neither would I. If you have exhausted all the possibilities for finding an answer, perhaps there is no answer to be found. Or, rather, perhaps there is no answer to be found here. You are, to employ a colloquial Terran expression, barking up the wrong tree."
This time both eyebrows shot up in the closest Spock ever came to an expression of astonishment. The Ambassador was no doubt a talented diplomat, but his eccentricities bordered on the embarrassing. Spock was glad McCoy was not here to see this.
"I'm not sure I understand, Ambassador."
"If the approach you have been using is not working, Spock, find a new approach. Look at the problem from another angle, use another set of analytical tools to examine it. Another member of your crew might be able to suggest a new avenue of investigation--that physician, McCoy, perhaps."
Perhaps not, Spock thought. "Indeed. Thank you, Ambassador."
"Spock, before you go." Sunak paused, as if wondering how best to phrase his question. "I understand Captain Kirk is facing the possibility of severe disciplinary action."
Spock straightened slightly. "Captain Kirk has been charged with a violation of Starfleet regulations. He has not yet been given a hearing."
"Yes. The situation is very unfortunate--for everyone involved. I must admit I find it difficult to believe that a man with Captain Kirk's reputation for integrity would make such a mistake."
Spock failed to see why Sunak was considered to be among the best of the Federation's diplomats. He really was not very subtle. Of course, even Sunak could be part of the breach in security Kirk's sacrifice was meant to uncover. That possibility required Spock to offer an ambiguous answer, one that a conspirator might find encouraging.
Yet Spock found it impossible to do what was required. He chose instead to reply from his truest sentiments. "I have the highest respect for Captain Kirk as a commander and as a person," Spock said. "I do not believe he is capable of making such a mistake."
Sunak very nearly smiled. "I am glad to hear you say so."
"Well, we're here. Now where are they?"
Logan frowned slightly, head bent over the navigation panel in concentration. On the viewscreen, the gas giant, 32 Orionis V, floated like a bilious, spherical cloud. Figuring close orbits around these coalescing planets could be tricky for a ship as small as the Roxanne. It was easy to burn out a navigation system trying to compensate for the fluctuations in magnetic fields generated by the giants. But the fluctuations were regular; they could be programmed in manually with a little skill.
Not wanting to interfere with her work, Kirk kept his voice low. "They'll be here."
He checked the sensors again, but there was no sign of the ship they had been sent to meet in this lonely corner of the galaxy. Even at maximum range, the sensors lacked enough power to punch through the interference of the magnetic flux. The ship they were waiting for would be nearly on top of them before they could detect it.
The sensors weren't the only problem. The Roxanne's shields had only recently been repaired and her weapons were no match for anything larger than a scout. They were not only blind but practically naked.
"I don't like this, Jim. I feel like a terrier teasing a bull dog on a short chain. If that chain breaks we're dog meat for sure."
"They want information. They can't kill us until they've gotten it. That gives us an edge."
"A very thin, very slippery edge. And how do you propose to explain all this to the big boss?"
There was the slightest upturn at the corner of his mouth. "We'll figure that out when we come to it."
"Easy for you to say. Did you test out those subspace circuits--everything working okay?"
"The equipment tests out fine. Should do the trick--that is, if the transponder range is long enough."
"And if the bad guys aren't monitoring that particular frequency."
"And if there's still someone back at Intelligence listening for us."
"Too many ifs, if you ask me," she concluded with a sigh.
Kirk started to make a comment, but a blip on the port sensor grabbed his attention. "Here they come."
Logan's command was quick and confident. "Visual?"
Kirk smiled as he answered, "Just barely." He put the image on the main viewscreen--an indistinct blotch, growing rapidly more visible. "Bearing 321 mark 7. Distance one hundred thousand kilometers and closing."
"We're in luck. Just one."
"Thank God for small favors. You want to do the honors or shall I?"
"She's your ship, Captain."
"Thank you, Captain." She flipped a switch on the comm board. "This is the F.M.S. Roxanne, Captain Kate Logan commanding. We extend greetings and request that you please identify yourself."
"This is the Marek, Captain Stoth commanding. ID code: 'Slow Death.'" The face on the screen was Andorian, the delicate cranial appendages and blue skin apparent despite the static blur.
Logan responded as they'd been instructed to do. "Roger, Marek. I believe the proper response is 'Long Life.'"
"Let me talk to Kirk."
Logan gave Kirk a nod, and the Enterprise captain took over. "Kirk here. What's the next step, Stoth?"
"We'll be within transporter range in two minutes. Prepare to leave your ship."
"And my pilot?"
"She stays with the ship."
"Stoth, I don't think I need remind you that your superiors are very interested in talking to me. And I don't go anywhere without Captain Logan."
"Your devotion is touching, Kirk, but my orders don't include keeping you happy. Now prepare to leave your ship--alone."
Kirk waited just long enough to convey his dissatisfaction. "Acknowledged," he said curtly and cut the link. He turned to grin at his shipmate, but she was busy entering codes again, this time into the weapons console. "You're programming manually?"
"Harder for their sensors to tell we're arming. I'll engage the tracking systems at the last minute."
Kirk swallowed his objections. He'd wanted her here because of her abilities; he had to allow her to use them. "They're within transporter range."
"Just say when, Captain."
Kirk watched the sensors tensely, praying they were sensitive enough to tell him what he needed to know. "Stand by," he said quietly.
From the other ship came the command, "Stand by for transport, Kirk."
They waited another long moment--until the sensors finally indicated the Marek had dropped her shields. "Now," Kirk said.
Logan hit the sequence, and a blue arc of phaser fire flashed through black space to splash against the starboard nacelle of the Marek. Without shields, the smooth metal skin of the ship was instantly flayed, leaving the vulnerable engine beneath a blackened mess.
"Beautiful!" Kirk murmured. Logan allowed herself a brief, satisfied smile.
On the viewscreen Stoth was speechless and sputtering in rage. The first coherent words out of his mouth were a long string of curses in at least four different languages. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Kirk! We had an agreement!"
"Sorry, Stoth. My agreement with your boss doesn't include keeping you happy. Now, unless you want to face your superiors empty-handed after a very, very long trip home, I suggest you prepare to beam over immediately."
"Give myself up to you? Are you crazy?!"
"Well, I suppose we're open to suggestions. But since the Roxanne is the only warp-capable ship in the vicinity, I think we may have the advantage here."
There was a long pause while Stoth tried to find an alternative. He was not successful. "All right, Kirk. Stand by to accept transport."
When the shimmer of the transport beam died out, a sullen Stoth stood on the Roxanne's cramped bridge. Kirk greeted him, phaser in hand. "I hope we can expect good behavior, Captain Stoth?"
"I won't give you any trouble," the Andorian growled.
As the Roxanne reached the outer edge of the system unromantically known as 32 Orionis and flared into warp, near the fourth planet a brief, blinding nova marked the destruction of the Marek by the remaining members of its crew. Kirk and Logan looked from the viewscreen to their captive guide.
"You had better hope you have something very valuable to offer to Sar Xhosar when we arrive at Rho Orionis," Stoth said. "Otherwise you are a dead man--and so am I."
On the bridge of the starship Enterprise, Spock sat uneasily at the command station. There was nothing about his appearance that suggested he might be troubled. Outwardly, he was calm, motionless, his long fingers steepled in front of his face while he idly watched the stars on the viewscreen.
His Vulcan mind had full control of his nervous system--the muscles and bones, the respiration and heartbeat. There were none of the twitches and sighs, the shifts or tapping of fingers that would have given away a Human's thoughts. But behind the mask the Vulcan wore so effectively, the Human who was also Spock wrestled in growing frustration with a particularly convoluted problem.
Somewhere in the symmetrically ordered, indefatigably compiled, inexhaustibly catalogued databanks of the Federation's computers lay the answer to his problem. Of this, Spock was certain. There was a single source of the protomatter that had flooded Bellatrix XI. There was an individual or an organization that controlled that source. And the databanks held the information that would make it possible to find the source and those who controlled it.
Spock knew the horizonless landscape of the Federation's computer system as well as he knew the decks of his own ship. He had traveled the endless, crowded byways, the sinuous footpaths, the warren-like alleyways of its programming any number of times, both as science officer of the Enterprise and as the scientist with Starfleet's highest computer rating. Yet, alone, even he could no more find the precise bits of data he needed in the densely featured topography of the databanks than he could have found dilithium in the unyielding icebanks of Rura Penthe by searching for it on foot and without sensors.
Given a program that was thorough enough, detailed enough and clear beyond all possibility of misinterpretation, the computer could find what he needed. And this was the problem that occupied Spock's mind while to all appearances he attended to his duties as commander of the Enterprise. What invocation of the programming codes, which mantras of duotronic synergistics could guide the search for the proverbial needle in the haystack?
As a very young man, Spock had once accompanied his mother on a trip to her home on Terra. There in the windswept fields of a farm in Minnesota he had stood for hours and admired a wall built of stone pulled from the grudging patch of earth it delineated. Each piece of granite had been chosen to match the space it filled in the wall, slab upon slab in perfect rough-edged harmony. The wall had endured for centuries without mortar, a tribute to the mind as well as the hands that had chosen each rock and lifted it into its predestined place.
How could he communicate to the computer that ability to recognize the proper shape and weight of each relevant bit of information, to find the proper niche for it in the structure? Indeed, how could he be certain that the information would fit together into any kind of recognizable form?
Spock told himself with some severity that such a program came close to asking the computer to develop intuition. He had little enough of that quality himself--it had always been Jim Kirk's unique talent to take the disparate pieces of information that Spock provided and weld them in the heat of insight into something greater than the sum of the parts.
He felt the lack of that talent now. And though he would never have admitted it, even to himself, he felt even more keenly the absence of the friend whose intuition he had come to rely on.
The turbolift doors slid open behind him, breaking into the silence of the bridge and rescuing him for the moment from the need to suppress an unnecessarily emotional line of thought.
McCoy appeared at his elbow, displaying the full range of behaviors that usually indicated the doctor was in a combative mood. "Well, Spock, just how long are we going to sit here doing nothing while the captain waits for the ax to fall back at Starbase Twelve? We're through here, aren't we?"
"We will have completed our mission on Bellatrix Eleven when Starfleet Command determines that we have completed it and not a moment before, Doctor."
"Blast it, Spock," McCoy hissed, "even the crew is beginning to wonder what's going on. This is a ship without a mission or a captain, and that's asking for big trouble."
"Are you offering your professional opinion of the mental health of the crew, Doctor, or simply projecting your own emotions?"
"I'm telling you as ship's surgeon that morale is dropping faster than Newton's apple, and performance can't be far behind. At least, if we were back at Starbase Twelve, the crew could blow off a little steam on shore leave."
"Doctor, I have no authority--"
"Mister Spock, we have a message from Bellatrix SpaceDock," Uhura broke in. "They're forwarding a request for transporter clearance."
Spock barely glanced in Uhura's direction. "Who is it, Lieutenant?"
"A Commander Arnold J. Chartoff, sir."
Spock felt an unwelcome surge of apprehension as he heard the name--the Starfleet Intelligence officer. He smothered his reaction as quickly as he recognized it. Speculation was futile. If Chartoff was here to deliver bad news, Spock would learn it soon enough. "Inform SpaceDock that permission is granted for the visitor to come aboard, Lieutenant. I will meet him in the transporter room myself."
Spock started to get up from his seat, but McCoy held him with a whisper. "I'm coming with you."
"Doctor, that is impossible."
"Spock, you're not leaving me out of the loop this time. I want to hear for myself what's happened to Jim. "
The doctor's anguish emanated from him in waves, beat against the defenses that Spock's Vulcan training and Human heart had raised against such destructive emotion. Spock glanced at Uhura and saw McCoy's fear reflected just as clearly in her face.
For weeks, Spock had done his duty to keep the truth from them. But now he found himself unwilling to cause them any more pain. The captain's friends deserved to know their faith in him had not been misplaced. They had deserved to know it from the beginning. In the face of their honest need, Spock could summon none of the logical arguments that would have made it possible to continue his deception any longer.
"Very well," he said quietly. "Lieutenant Uhura, if you would join us, please? Mister Sulu, you have the conn."
The sprawling grassland shimmered in the midday heat of Rho Orionis, buzzed with torpid life. Above the plain the unbounded sky hung shrouded with humid haze, thickening toward the horizon in the promise of rain. Here, where the scrubby trees and deeper green marked the path of a lonely stream through the desert of nodding grass, the Mindsweeper waited.
Of all the places on this small planet, the Mindsweeper knew this one best. The grove was a place of solace, a home the creature returned to when troubled or in need of reduced input. Here the creature had become aware of itself for the first time, awakening eagerly to the environment which would contribute to its growth, bit by uncountable bit over the years of existence.
From here, the creature had gone out in hope to meet the outworlders for the first time and to this place it had fled in guilty horror at the result. The Mindsweeper had stopped processing input for a long time after that agonizing encounter, hiding in the grove from itself as much as from the outside world.
Sar Xhosar had come here seeking contact with the creature that had haunted her dreams since she arrived on the planet. The Mindsweeper had called to her in a way the creature still could not fully explain. Under the twisted trees near the roiling water, they had made their bargain, an exchange which had recently come to benefit only one partner. Perhaps it had always been an unequal exchange. The Mindsweeper had only now begun to recognize the devil's bargain for what it truly was.
Waiting alone in the grove, the Mindsweeper had never felt so desolate. Despite its long search, the creature still did not know how it had come to be abandoned at the natural end of its species' life cycle, left here to find nurturance from another, alien species or to waste away, starved of input. The creature only knew it would not have survived this long without the sustaining presence of the outworlders. Their intricate and curious minds had brought the creature back from the edge of starvation. And even though contact with the most intelligent and far-reaching of those minds had become painful beyond enduring, living in this disconnected isolation was terrifying.
The creature could not--would not--reestablish its contact with Xhosar. The Mindsweeper was no longer willing to be the instrument of Xhosar's will. Their long relationship was over. But a confrontation with her now would only serve to put the starship captain and his companion at greater and more immediate risk.
If the Mindsweeper was not in contact with her, Xhosar would send her victims here to the grove. She would expect the creature to serve her needs for information as it always had--violating the minds she sent, extracting the vital knowledge and feeding it back to her.
But this time, the Mindsweeper intended to take no more than it was given freely. The creature would pass none of what it learned on to Xhosar. This time, contact would lead to true communication or to permanent exile. This time, contact would finally mean salvation, or it would mean the creature's end.
In Logan's mind, the scene had taken on that surreal crystal clarity that is a side effect of too much adrenalin in the system. The way the gray walls seemed to shimmer, the broken sound of her own breathing, the metal-edged smell of fresh blood--all just the normal physiological reaction of the Human body to mortal danger. Logan felt an almost overpowering urge to bolt. She considered this a sensible feeling, given the circumstances. Standing here, in the presence of what was clearly a madwoman, was as close to suicide as she ever hoped to be.
The woman the guards called 'Sar Xhosar' was pacing the width of the room in front of them, burning white-hot with consuming anger. Her face--marked by the brow ridges of a Klingon and the scars of some nearly-forgotten torture--was twisted into a scowl. The death of Captain Stoth--spectacular and spattered with gore as it had been--had not been enough to placate her. Xhosar wanted her death and Jim Kirk's as well, Logan was certain. That the woman couldn't have what she wanted in this moment only seemed to fuel her fury.
Beside her, Kirk was steady, controlled, his face revealing nothing. He seemed unimpressed, willing to wait forever for Xhosar to speak. But while he waited, Logan knew, he calculated the odds, projected the next moves in the game. Only a hardness deep in his eyes betrayed his concentration.
If he felt vulnerable, carrying this fight into the enemy's camp without his ship or his crew, he gave no sign of it. But Logan figured he felt it just the same. The responsibility for putting them in this position had been his and he would bear the responsibility of getting them out of it, too. Never mind that she had volunteered for the job. If there had been room for any emotion other than terror in her heart at that moment, Logan would have been proud as hell of him.
At last, Xhosar turned to speak. "It seems good help is increasingly difficult to find," she said, indicating the mess in a corner that had been Stoth. "I have somewhat higher expectations from you, however, Captain Kirk."
"You won't be disappointed."
"Good. By the way, is the woman necessary to our discussions?"
"Captain Logan is my partner in this venture, Sar Xhosar. She's much too valuable to cut out of the deal. And, believe me, much too dangerous."
"Really? I don't much like the idea of keeping a dangerous pet in my house, Kirk. It's usually best to get rid of such an animal quickly."
Logan took a fast step forward and felt Kirk's restraining hand on her arm. "Careful," she said with a feral smile. "The captain forgot my leash this morning."
Xhosar's face settled into an expression of studied boredom. Logan knew only too well there was little reason for the woman to be concerned. The guards, after all, were just outside the door.
"If you want my cooperation," Kirk interjected smoothly, "you will leave Captain Logan to me."
Xhosar shrugged, and Logan stepped back, feeling better for having released a little nervous energy. She glanced in Kirk's direction and caught the slightest implication of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
"Your cooperation is optional for my purposes, Kirk," the woman said.
"Of course. But if you torture me to death for the little information I can give you now, you lose the information I can give you for years from within Starfleet Command."
Xhosar resumed her pacing. "And for just how long do you estimate you can be useful to me, Captain? Your career seems to have taken a downturn lately."
"I won't lose my security clearance. Chances are I'll be reassigned to a desk job, where I should be even more useful to you than I would have been as a starship captain. After all, field staff are usually the last to know whenever anything is happening."
"Oh? So you probably wouldn't know anything about what I'm interested in at the moment."
"I didn't say that. But, of course, it would depend on what it is you're interested in."
"Yes, wouldn't it." Xhosar paused, then moved slowly closer until her face was within inches of Kirk's own. Even from where she was standing, Logan could see that her eyes were full of relentless, untouchable hate. The woman had enough of it to destroy worlds.
"But you see, Captain, I am interested in so much," Xhosar said, her voice a knife in a velvet sheath. "I am interested in absolutely everything you know, down to the last, most insignificant detail. And I intend to dissect your mind, slice by slice, until I have it all."
The minute he stepped into the turbolift, McCoy's heart began a slow, labored thudding in his chest so loud he was sure his two companions could feel it. The trip to the transporter room had never seemed so long--or so ominous. He had told Spock he wanted to hear for himself what their visitor had to say. But he wasn't sure he was ready to hear that his friend and captain had lost his command, his career, everything that meant anything to him.
"Does this mean Command is finally going to ask us to testify on the captain's behalf, Mister Spock?" Uhura asked. "Or have they just sent someone to give us the bad news?"
Spock grasped the turbolift control and gave the command to stop. For once, McCoy noted, the Vulcan did not avoid eye contact when he answered. He turned to face Uhura and said, "The officer we are meeting in the transporter room is not an investigator from the Judge Advocate General's office. He is an officer assigned to Starfleet Intelligence."
This was hardly the reply McCoy had expected. "Starfleet Intelligence?" he said. "Why do I get the feeling you're starting this story in the middle, Spock?"
The Vulcan paused just long enough to make McCoy wonder what he could be so hesitant about. Then he said, "Captain Kirk has been on special assignment for Starfleet Intelligence. His mission has been to uncover and gain the confidence of an agent within the ranks of Starfleet who has been passing sensitive information to unknown parties on the outside. Commander Chartoff is the captain's contact at Intelligence."
The silence which followed Spock's dispassionate review of the facts was huge, a bubble expanding to fill the turbolift and choke off the air. McCoy found himself unable to speak into it, tongue-tied as much by outrage as by relief.
It was left to Uhura to speak first. "Then the charges against the captain..."
"Are part of a plan to draw the interest of the agent and whoever is behind him."
When McCoy finally found his voice, it was little more than a venomous whisper. "You lying, soulless son of a bitch," he said. "You knew. You let us think God knows what and all the time you knew."
"How could you do it, Spock? Surely you could see how we felt, even if you didn't feel it yourself." McCoy clenched his fists in frustration. "You know, I'd always believed up to now that somewhere underneath all of that ice you had some kind of heart. But I was wrong. Anyone with a heart would've told us the truth long ago."
Something in the way Uhura was looking at him made McCoy stop. "I'm sorry, Mister Spock," she said softly. "I'm afraid we've put you in a very difficult situation."
"The captain never intended for you to hear the story Intelligence had spread about him," Spock said. "I'm sure he never anticipated your...ingenuity."
"Maybe not, but he should have known we'd suspect something when he suddenly went incommunicado," McCoy said. "And the least you could have done was to give us the real story once we stumbled on that damn decoy."
"I had no choice in the matter, Doctor," Spock said. "Just as Jim had no choice."
The last of McCoy's anger sputtered and died under a smothering blanket of reality. The doctor had spent enough years in Starfleet to know the kind of security an Intelligence mission required. If he'd only gotten enough of the story to make him crazy, it was his own damn fault for being so nosy.
He let out his breath slowly. "Okay. But why tell us now, Spock? I don't suppose Intelligence has just lifted all the security on this mission?"
"Security may no longer be the overriding concern," Spock answered. "That Commander Chartoff is here indicates something significant has occurred with regard to the mission. I can think of only two likely scenarios at the moment. Perhaps Captain Kirk has succeeded in contacting the spy and has requested our assistance in completing his mission. In that case, speed and efficiency would take priority over security."
McCoy grinned in spite of himself. "In other words, you need our help."
Uhura made it clear she hadn't been distracted. "And the other scenario, Mister Spock?"
The Vulcan regarded the smooth gray walls of the turbolift. "Under that scenario, Lieutenant, I am afraid we must assume that the captain is dead."
The interview with Xhosar hadn't gone all that badly, really.
But Kirk had to admit being manhandled out of her chamber and down a dingy corridor by a couple of well-muscled guards was not treatment usually reserved for a trusted guest. It was beginning to look like Xhosar was going to make good on her threat. Kirk left off struggling against the guard and took up an intense mental search for a way out.
A few feet from a narrow junction in the corridor, Logan turned to give him a tight smile. "Looks like we overplayed our hand a little, partner."
The guards growled a warning, and Logan gasped with pain as her captor strengthened his grip. It wasn't much of a distraction, but it was all they might get. Kirk tensed for a sudden move against the guard behind him--and heard the thin whine of a charged disruptor in his ear.
"I wouldn't if I were you," said the guard, enforcing the point by twisting Kirk's arm even higher behind his back. The starship captain swallowed his reply, recognizing that, for the moment, he had few viable options.
Beyond the turn in the corridor, an exit bay led them out of the cool building into a searing sun. Through the assault of blinding light, Kirk caught the glimmer of a reprieve. A skimmer was waiting for them on the sun-baked launch pad outside, the Tellarite pilot ready for takeoff.
Kirk was suddenly able to breathe again. If they were to be bled for the information Xhosar wanted, at least it was not going to be immediately and it was not going to be here. They had just been given a gift of time--and Kirk was confident a lot could happen before they reached their destination.
Kirk and Logan clambered awkwardly into the cramped body of the skimmer, the guards pushing inside with them. With a jolt, the craft was airborne, antigravs keening as it launched into a hard starboard turn.
The skimmer made a terse loop around the base complex, displaying clearly for anyone trained to see it the huge scale of Xhosar's operation. Kirk was able to get little more than a glimpse out the skimmer's ports, but it was enough to show him the magnitude of what they were up against.
Laid out below was a small city of warehouses and barracks, ranks of skimmers and shuttles and not a few atmosphere-capable battle cruisers. If the planet-hoppers were any indication, Xhosar had a fleet of considerable size. This woman had people and materiel in quantities some planets couldn't claim. And Kirk had no doubt Xhosar's troops were well trained and dedicated--out of fear, perhaps, but more probably out of greed. There was more than enough credit in this operation to keep everyone happy.
Kirk was suddenly aware of a menacing presence above and behind him. "What's so damned interesting?"
Kirk turned his head to look up at the guard. "I don't suppose you'd like to tell us where you're taking us?"
The reply was short, sharp and delivered at the base of Kirk's neck with the butt of a disruptor rifle. The pain was intense and paralyzing--Kirk could only hope not permanently. Every muscle in his body had contracted into a single impenetrable knot. Nothing would let go enough for him to move--he lay twisted in the seat like a mass of steel cable.
Logan jumped to her feet despite the two disruptors that instantly pivoted in her direction. "You idiot! How do you think your boss is going to take it when you deliver damaged goods? She isn't likely to get the information she's looking for if you bash his brains out before we get where going."
The guard tilted his head a fraction and glanced from Logan to Kirk and back. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he said. Then he raised the rifle again and brought it down over Kirk's left kidney. "Should've hit him right about there. I'll remember that next time. Now shut up." He shoved her into her own seat with a slap on the head.
Laughing, he settled down into the opposite corner of the craft with his cohort. "Wouldn't want to give the Mindsweeper damaged goods, eh, Tamaz?"
His friend laughed back at him. "I don't think you have to leave much for the Mindsweeper. That thing can read the last thoughts of a dying cockroach."
Slowly, Kirk began to emerge from his cage of pain and looked up to see Logan watching him, pale with concern. He managed a shaky grin. "Thanks for nothing," he whispered.
Her seat was facing the corner where the guards were sitting, so she didn't chance a reply. But she looked stricken. "I'm okay," he said with a little shake of his head. Then he sat up, and a backwash of dizzy nausea forced him to be quiet. He closed his eyes and rode out the wave.
When he opened his eyes again, the skimmer was out over an oceanic expanse of grassy plain, green-gold and undulating in the wind as far as the eye could see. It was absolutely featureless--not a tree, not an outcropping of rock, not a ditch or a road for endless kilometers.
Kirk watched with a sinking heart as kilometer after blank kilometer of undifferentiated prairie rolled by below them. It was all too clear now what Xhosar had in mind. Her prisoners could have been interrogated just as efficiently at the base, but even with a scanner it would take time. There would always be the possibility her prisoners would escape. Xhosar was thorough--she had eliminated that possibility. A prison set in this chartless sea of grass would be as isolated as any Alcatraz--and just as inescapable.
The Mindsweeper was growing more anxious with every passing hour. Perhaps it had underestimated Xhosar's impatience. If that was so, then the captain and the woman were in grave danger. Xhosar had clumsier methods of extracting information than the one the Mindsweeper afforded. Sometimes she even preferred to use them.
The creature had almost resolved to return to Xhosar when it sensed the vibrations classified in its data array as peculiar to the skimmers the outworlders used for transportation. In a few moments, the vehicle was close enough to reflect light rays. The Mindsweeper monitored the craft as it grew nearer, watched with skittish eagerness as the skimmer found a level spot and settled gently to the ground.
The skimmer was no sooner down than the side door swept open, and the guards unceremoniously tossed a man and a woman to the ground. The guards laughed and threw a few sealed packets after them. "Your dinner--compliments of Sar Xhosar," said one. "Just in case it takes the Mindsweeper a while to find you."
"Better eat it now," the other said. "You probably won't be too hungry after the Mindsweeper gets through with you!"
The creature's data array flared with shame. The two it so hoped to reach would be prepared to flee from it in terror. Yet they didn't seem to be frightened at present; the others in its experience had radiated a fear powerful enough to be sensed from outside their minds. The Mindsweeper counseled itself to be patient. There would be time enough to approach them in the right way.
The pair stood to watch the skimmer rise and dart towards the horizon. The man turned to survey their surroundings--and winced.
"How's the neck?" the woman asked him, reaching out to offer support.
He turned his head from side to side, one hand gingerly exploring the site of an ugly bruise. "Still in one piece, but don't make any sudden moves."
She smiled and touched his arm, then bent to pick up the packets at their feet. "Nice of them to think of food--I was getting a little hungry."
He nodded. "That line of trees means water, unless I'm very much mistaken. At least, we can get out of the sun while we figure out what to do next."
The Mindsweeper followed them as they walked through the tall grass to the grove by the river, watched as they worked their way over the muddy tangle of roots to the water.
"Looks like the least little rain brings that stream over its banks," he said.
She looked at him curiously. "Not exactly the kind of thing you're likely to learn at the helm of a starship."
"No." He smiled. "More like something you pick up on a farm in Iowa."
She shook her head. "Gee, Toto, I don't think we're in Iowa anymore."
"Whatever." She hunkered down at the water's edge and brought a cool drink to her lips in cupped hands. Then she splashed double handfuls of it over her face and neck and shook her wet hair out with delight. "God that feels good!" she laughed and sat back against the bank, watching the swift water. "Little too fast for a swim, though."
"Yeah, too bad," he said, grinning back at her from the stream's margin. When he'd had his fill of the water, he joined her on the sandy bank. They cracked open one of the food packets and ate in companionable silence.
The creature watched them, fascinated and intensely curious. In its long and lonely search it had learned much about pain and greed and treachery, but little about courage and respect. And in all the time it had spent investigating the minds and databanks of the outworlders, the Mindsweeper had learned nothing at all of love.
"Well, I must say this is the strangest prison I've ever been in," she said after a while. "No guards. No fences. Just a lot of wide open spaces. Suppose they just hope we'll get lost?"
Her tone was light but he didn't smile. "I suspect they hope we'll die eventually. I don't intend to oblige them."
"The key word being eventually," she said. Her voice became playfully dramatic. "First we must experience...the Mindsweeper."
"'The Mindsweeper,'" he repeated slowly. "Odd, isn't it? I'd assumed they were talking about some sort of mechanical mind probe--the Klingons have one I wouldn't like to come up against. But here we are in the middle of nowhere--no camp, no interrogators. It's almost as if we've been left out...."
"As bait," she finished.
He shook his head. "Quarry."
Her face registered grim understanding. "But what kind of creature would hunt people down, strip their minds and report back to the boss when it was done?"
"An intelligent one," he said and looked around to take more careful note of their surroundings. "We're exposed here. Maybe we can find a little cover upstream. Then we can at least give this thing a run for its money."
The Mindsweeper drew in on itself in despair. This thing, he had called it. How would it ever approach them?
She looked out through the thin glade of trees at the glowering plain. "What does your Iowa farm boy education tell you about that sky?"
He stood to follow her gaze and took a deep breath. "Rain. And soon. Let's get moving."
They scrambled out to the edge of the grove and searched the horizon. She pointed upstream to where a hazy smudge in the distance hinted at higher ground. "Don't ask me how I know, but I think that's our best bet."
He nodded and they set off, the Mindsweeper close behind, awaiting its opportunity.
The Klingon Gort loomed in the doorway of Xhosar's hall. Gort was massive, even for his Kh'myr sub-species, and he habitually wore an expression that struck terror in the hearts of lesser beings. His expression this day, however, was even grimmer than usual. Xhosar could see she would have to deal with him, whether she wanted to or not.
"Commander Gort. You were not expected."
As usual the Klingon ignored the niceties. "We have business, Xhosar. Your 'messenger's' excuses were growing tiresome."
"Oh? That is unfortunate. I will have him killed if that will mollify you."
Gort's face contorted into a grin. "That would be pleasant, but it would not meet my needs. You promised me something, Xhosar. You said I would not be disappointed. I waited, but still I have not seen that which was promised. I begin to think you are playing me for a fool."
Xhosar affected a manner that was at once defiant and flirtatious, a combination she was aware appealed to all Klingons, but attracted Gort in particular. "How could I expect to deceive you in the slightest detail, my lord? Gathering the kind of information I know you require takes time--and patience."
He growled and grabbed her by the arm. "My patience is wearing thin."
"Haven't I always given you what you want?"
His growl was softer now, but no less menacing. "You have managed to satisfy me more than once, Xhosar. But of late, you have grown somewhat cold. Can it be you've found another?"
"What do you mean?"
"I smell Romulan spoor in this place, Xhosar. Perhaps you hoped to sell my information to a higher bidder."
Cornered, Xhosar turned fear to fury. "You are a fool, Gort, if you think I peddle my wares like some common market broker. I choose my customers carefully, but I think perhaps I chose badly after all."
Before she could move the Klingon had his dirk at her throat. "Do not play with me, be'. Do you have what I want, or do I simply kill you and end this relationship?"
She smiled, knowing she had him now. "What would you say if I told you I had access to all the knowledge of a Starfleet captain? And what if I told you further that my captain--for he is my captain now--would soon have his hands on even more for us?"
"And who is this fountain of knowledge that he comes to you?" Gort slipped the knife back into its sheath at his belt and waited.
"Oh, a wounded eagle, my lord, a tragically flawed hero of epic proportion. Perhaps you've heard of him? James T. Kirk of the Enterprise."
The Klingon looked at her for a long moment, then burst into raucous laughter. "Kirk? Kirk of the Enterprise turned traitor for you? I'd sooner believe my own mother had sold herself to the Federation! Kirk is a lying, scheming, dishonorable son of a whore, but he is no traitor!" He laughed again, then laid a rough hand on her throat. "He is a spy, my lovely idiot. And while he lives, you and I are both at risk."
She knocked his hand from her throat and took a step away, coldly confident. "Spy or no, he will yield everything to me. Everything he knows, I will also know before this day is out. You may stay and grow wise, or leave and remain a fool--that is your choice."
Gort's dark eyes narrowed as he considered her. "You are a mystery, Xhosar, that is certain. Some believe you are a witch--they say you draw on the Guardians of Kh'eloz for power."
Xhosar's smile was smoky ice. "And what do you believe, my lord?"
The Klingon grinned in anticipation. "I believe you are evil enough on your own to get anything you want."
Xhosar relaxed, then, and even tolerated the crude attentions of Commander Gort for a time. But all the while there was only one thing on her mind--where was the Mindsweeper?
"Entering the 32 Orionis star system in seven point three minutes, Mister Spock."
"Thank you, Mister Sulu. On screen, please. Full magnification."
"Full magnification, sir."
On the viewscreen the five planets of the star system lay in a semi-circle of sunlit orbs across the plane of the Enterprise sensors, the gas giant a bloated queen attended by her court.
Spock had not expected to see anything but what the screen showed him--the Enterprise was a full day behind Captain Kirk by Commander Chartoff's reckoning. Nonetheless he found the lifelessness of the system somehow disturbing.
Spock turned to his communications officer, who, despite Chartoff's overbearing presence, was efficiently engaged in a focused communications scan. "Have you located the captain's transponder signal, Lieutenant?"
"No, sir. The frequency Commander Chartoff gave me is at the extreme range of our equipment. I'll have to make some modifications."
"Should've brought my own damn equipment," Chartoff muttered. "I told Command it was a waste of time to send a starship out on a simple pickup cruise."
To her credit, Uhura simply ignored him. Spock was at least grateful that the man had stopped grinning. It seemed to the Vulcan that Chartoff grinned entirely too much.
Chartoff's mood did not improve when the turbolift opened to admit Doctor McCoy to the bridge. The Intelligence officer stared incredulously as McCoy took up his accustomed place behind the captain's seat. "The bridge is hardly the appropriate place for the ship's surgeon during a command mission, Doc. You do tend to stick your nose in where it doesn't belong, don't you?"
"As I believe you explained, Commander, our mission is to rescue the captain of this ship from a dangerous situation," McCoy shot back. "The captain's health and well-being is my responsibility, unless you intend to take over my job, too."
Chartoff stepped closer and lowered his voice. "Look, Doc, the only reason you're not contemplating your responsibilities from the inside of the brig is that I would have had to throw Spock and Uhura in there with you. You're all equally guilty of a major security violation, but I need them. I don't need you. Don't press your luck."
"Gentlemen, please," Spock interjected. "I believe we would all perform more efficiently if we could attend to the task at hand. Sensor report, Mister Chekov."
Chekov straightened from the display at the science station, his face pale. "Sensors indicate scattered debris, traces of free dilithium and an unusually high concentration of organics, Mister Spock. "
Spock swivelled to look at him. "Conclusion?"
The ensign swallowed nervously. "Evidence of warp engine implosion within the last twenty-four to thirty-six hours, sir."
The comment fell into a well of stunned silence on the bridge. Even Chartoff was mute. No one missed the implications--all eyes were riveted on the young officer at the science station.
"Estimated volume of debris, Mister Chekov," Spock said quietly.
Chekov called up the numbers. "Allowing for drift and mass-energy conversion--consistent with a scout-class ship, Mister Spock."
McCoy stepped down beside Spock and steadied himself with a hand on the back of the chair. "We've come all this way and you're telling me we won't even have a body to take back?"
Spock looked impassively at McCoy. "As usual, Doctor, you have made the wrong conclusion."
"Well, please excuse me if my logic has slipped, Mister Spock," McCoy said vehemently. "We Humans find it a little more difficult to be so cold-blooded. We arrive in an obscure part of the galaxy, at the last known location of our captain and friend, and what do we find? Evidence that the ship he was in has been blown to microbits. From everything I see, Jim is most likely dead. If there is another conclusion I could jump to, I'd appreciate hearing it."
"Doctor McCoy, you have been through any number of combat situations with Captain Kirk. In each of these encounters, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have emerged--as you would put it--the winners. And, in each of these encounters, there has also been a loser. I believe we are seeing the result of yet another such encounter here." Spock had almost convinced himself it was true.
McCoy saw the flaw in his logic and called him on it. "You don't have any more evidence for your conclusion than I have for mine, Spock," he said. "But I must admit I like it a hell of a lot better."
"Hold on a minute. I think we've got something here." Chartoff was hanging over the communications station, watching the readouts intently.
Uhura looked up with an exultant grin. "The transponder signal, Mister Spock! Bearing 237 mark 9."
Spock squelched his own sigh of relief and turned back to his helmsman. "Set course on that heading, Mister Sulu. Go to Warp Four as soon as possible."
McCoy shook his head and smiled shakily. "Sometimes I envy you your lack of emotion, Spock. This roller coaster ride is about to kill me."
"What do you mean, Doctor?"
"I mean, Spock, that my poor Human psyche has had to absorb the possibility of Jim Kirk's death twice in the last twelve hours. And I don't suppose I'll be able to relax until he's been permanently resurrected and back here where he belongs--on the Enterprise."
Spock nodded and looked out at the stars on the viewscreen. "For once, Doctor McCoy, I'd have to say I agree with you."
The captain and his companion kept outside the trees for as long as they could, jogging along the margin between the grove and the tall grass where the going was easier. The Mindsweeper followed them anxiously.
Ahead of the runners, the land rose to a series of bare bluffs overlooking the river. Behind and to the side, the clouds were rushing in on them. The lightning slashed through the dense air to the ground as the storm approached, the once-distant thunder becoming a booming roar overhead. Under the low banks of clouds, the rain marched in ordered waves across the welcoming grassland.
As the land rose to meet the hills, the two were forced to turn inward and make their way more slowly through the maze of low trees. Within minutes, the gusting wind brought the first heavy drops of rain, a spattering that quickly became a torrent. The weary trees provided little protection; before the couple had gone another fifty meters, they were soaked to the skin.
They paused, peering through the curtain of drenching rain in search of any shelter. The ground was rising steeply now, the mud giving way to slippery rock tufted with low bushy growth. The river was well below them, coursing through high, narrow banks.
The Mindsweeper knew this place. When it had been very young, it had watched the many lesser minds that came and went here. They had been simple creatures; the Mindsweeper had not learned much from them. But they shared a need for shelter from the rain and cold with these more fragile outworlders, and the Mindsweeper knew where to find it.
The creature knew it could help them, but it hesitated. Which one to approach? There was no time to ponder. The creature made its choice and swept through her mind as quickly and lightly as its experience allowed, leaving behind the critical data.
"We've got to go up!" She shouted to be heard over the crash of the storm and pointed.
He shook his head, dubious. "No cover!"
"Trust me!" She turned and headed up the slope as if she had a spot in mind, leaving him little choice but to follow.
On the bluff, the unencumbered wind threw chilling rain over them in sheets, blinding them and slowing them to a crawl up the scrabbling slope. Every few steps a slip would bring one of them to their knees, scraping skin and bruising bone. They were nearly halfway up to the top of the bluff when they were forced to halt again and catch their breath.
From the spot where she lay clinging to the rock above him, she saw something and gave a muffled shout. He looked to where she pointed, up and to the right--a dark cleft in the rock. "Go, go!" he shouted back and followed her up the last few meters to the cave entrance.
They pulled each other inside a passage barely wide enough to accommodate his shoulders and through to where the cavern widened into a rough high semicircle. It was dark and smelled of damp earth, but it was warm and dry. They leaned against the rocky wall, breathing hard, until they could make out the outlines of the place with the light coming through the entrance.
She nodded toward the back of the cavern where leaves and grass lay piled in a haphazard heap. "You don't suppose we've broken into something's cozy home, do you?"
He pushed off the wall and approached the pile slowly. After a few tentative kicks aroused no response, he poked around and assured himself there was nothing hiding in the grass. "Looks like the owner's not at home."
He turned to her with a puzzled smile. "Not that I'm complaining, but how did you know this place was here?"
The Mindsweeper felt a tingle of apprehension. Was this the time? Would she remember--and hate--its intrusion?
She shrugged and brushed the wet hair back from her face. "What do you mean?"
"You seemed to come straight for this place, as if you'd been here before," he said, pulling off his soaked uniform shirt. The tee shirt underneath was not much drier; he stripped it off and wiped his neck and face. Then he sat on the pile of grass and leaves and tugged at his boots.
"Pure blind instinct," she answered, watching him a moment before a violent shiver convinced her to get out of her own sodden clothes. She was thoroughly chilled and shaking by the time she burrowed into the soft pile next to him.
He pulled her back against his chest and fluffed up the dusty grass around them to hold in the heat. "Not exactly deluxe accommodations," he said, "but they'll do."
"Damn lucky to find them, I'd say," she said, drawing his arms tighter around her.
The Mindsweeper was satisfied that she didn't remember its passage through her mind. Yet it held back from revealing itself now. There was something charging the air between these two, something so powerful it drew the creature in with them. The creature longed with desperate curiosity to experience their reality, so different from the violence and hurtful need it had sensed in the outworlders before.
Being with them would be a violation, but the Mindsweeper could not stay away. With infinite, guilty care it slipped into her mind, dispersed its data array as widely as possible to avoid detection. The creature was instantly awash in the sea of emotional and sensual anticipation that flooded her mind.
She had stopped shivering, wrapped in the envelope of warmth they'd generated in the insulating hay. It was a comfort so intense she could feel it in her fingertips.
On the thin, frightened surface of her mind, she was thinking that this was crazy--they were lost and in danger, far from any hope of rescue. But in the older, less articulate depths of her mind a primitive strength assured her they were warm, they were safe, they would survive! For now, at least, the uncertain future could wait.
He whispered her name, and the Mindsweeper shared her breathless rush of sensation. As she turned into his embrace, the Mindsweeper felt with her the warmth of his skin, the curve of his back, the comfortable weight and gentle movement of his hips. With her, it heard the pounding of the storm outside, the pounding of her heart in her chest.
Soon there was no room left in her mind for fear. There was room only for him, partner in a ritual affirmation of life as old and hopeful as Humanity itself. Together they joined to outwit death, fought back in a flash of instinctual need, a rolling rhythm of response, a deep and primal power, a firestorm of passion quenched at last under a shower of sweet, satisfying joy.
And in the smallest, warmest corners of her mind, the Mindsweeper wept in lonely silence.
Hours later, in the last moments before the sky began to lighten outside, Kate Logan awoke in a cocoon of darkness. It was the deepest blackness she had ever experienced, so dark it was as if her own body had disappeared. She moved a fraction, just to be certain it hadn't.
The movement brought a better sense of reality--sore spots on her hip and shoulder where the matted grass had thinned above the hard earth of the cave floor, cold where her skin emerged from the protective cover of the grass, an irritating prickle where the grass did cover her. But there was also the reassuring warmth where Jim Kirk's arm circled her waist and held her against him--she decided to focus on that and try to get another hour of sleep.
Logan lay listening to Kirk's steady, quiet breathing in the darkness, waiting for sleep. Then, just as she was letting go of conscious thought, she snapped abruptly awake again. There was something in the cave with them--no, not in the cave, in her mind! She sat up, fighting panic.
Please, the Mindsweeper thought, don't.
"Kate?" Kirk's voice was fuzzy with sleep.
She held her hands to her head. Who are you? What do you want? What is this?
I am the Mindsweeper. I won't hurt you. Please.
"Kate, what is it?" Kirk raised himself on one elbow, reached out to touch her. "What's wrong?"
"Wait," she told him, impatient with the distraction. She tried to focus on the voice inside her. It hardly seemed as vicious as it was made out to be.
I won't hurt you.
Why are you here, then?
I want to...communicate.
She almost smiled. You could have done that without scaring me to death.
I didn't want to frighten you. I have no other way to reach you.
Logan could feel Kirk's grip tighten on her shoulder. In the barest glimmer of light from the cave entrance she could almost see the tension in his face. "It's the mind probe, isn't it?" he said softly.
No! the Mindsweeper thought.
"Yes," she said. "But it's not what we expected. Wait and I'll tell you."
I won't hurt you, the Mindsweeper insisted. I'm no longer with Xhosar. I want to be with you.
Logan exhaled slowly. Maybe you better start from the beginning, she thought.
The Enterprise was only four hours out of 32 Orionis when the trail abruptly ran out.
Uhura shook her head, clearly frustrated. "I'm sorry, Mister Spock. I've tried everything I know how. The signal just isn't there anymore."
Chartoff cursed loudly and paced the bridge. "I could've had my own ship, my own equipment, but no, Command says take the Enterprise, it has greater resources."
"Commander Chartoff," Uhura said coldly, "The communications systems on this ship are state of the art. They are in perfect working order."
"And Lieutenant Uhura is the best communications officer in Starfleet," McCoy added. He'd had more than enough of Chartoff and his egocentric grumbling. "I'm no expert, but even I could think of a few good reasons for that signal to fade. Maybe the transponder your people installed was defective."
"Yeah, and maybe, thanks to you, we're already too late to save Kirk's bacon," Chartoff retorted.
"Look, Commander," McCoy hissed. "This may be just another job to you, but every one of us has a personal stake in saving Jim Kirk. Why don't you just get out of the way, and let us do our jobs?"
"That will be quite enough," Spock said, moving to come between the two officers. "I have not invited speculation on this subject from either of you."
McCoy folded his arms across his chest. "All right, Spock, you're the captain. What do you suggest we do at this point?"
Spock turned to his helmsman. "How many course changes have we made since we first began following the transponder signal, Mister Sulu?"
"So we cannot be certain our most recent heading is the correct one. Whoever provided the course for the captain's ship must have suspected he'd be followed and did their best to throw us off."
"Where are you going with this, Spock?" Chartoff asked dully.
"I want to be certain we all understand there is little point in continuing on our present course."
"Surely you're not suggesting we give up?"
"On the contrary, Doctor. I am suggesting we set a new course for the system in which we are most likely to find the captain."
McCoy nearly exploded in exasperation. "And where might that be, Spock?"
"There is a sixty-five point three percent certainty that the system is Rho Orionis, at heading 720 mark 35."
"Of course. Makes perfect sense." McCoy guessed even Spock could be feeling the effects of their frustrated effort to find the captain. For whatever reason, the Vulcan's logic was slipping badly.
"Why not Epsilon Indi or Wolf 424 or Romulus for that matter?" Chartoff offered. "Hell, we only have a thousand degrees to choose a course from--we're bound to hit it sometime."
"The Rho Orionis system is hardly a random choice," Spock said. "It is the result of a full databank search for a planetary system that meets certain narrowly defined criteria. The original object of the search was the source of the protomatter that exacerbated the violence on Bellatrix Eleven. But it has become apparent that the computer's response to the initial problem could also provide a solution to our current dilemma."
McCoy opened his mouth to protest, but Chartoff cut him off. "What criteria did you use?"
"The factors of major importance were that the system provide the raw materials for the manufacture of protomatter in large quantities and that it be far enough off the established trade and patrol routes to escape notice yet near enough to facilitate trade with customers in the Federation and the Romulan and Klingon empires. The computer indicated that there is an acceptable probability that Rho Orionis Five is the source of the protomatter and thus the likely base of operations for its distribution."
"Well, I'm so glad you solved that problem for Starfleet, Mister Spock. I do hate to leave any loose ends," McCoy said acidly. "Now would you mind telling me what the devil any of this has to do with the captain?"
"Xhosar," Chartoff muttered.
Spock nodded. "It is highly unlikely that any private individual would have stumbled onto Rho Orionis Five by chance. It is a quarantined planet--officially it has not existed since its first planetary survey thirty-four years ago. Only a thorough search of classified databanks would uncover its location--and the fact that it has commercially exploitable quantities of trihalimide and lynite for manufacturing protomatter."
"And Xhosar had a willing mole inside Starfleet to do the search for her," Chartoff said.
McCoy remained unconvinced. "Okay, let's assume these two wildly different problems are somehow connected. The woman Jim is meeting is the supplier of protomatter to Bellatrix Eleven. What makes you so sure this is the right planet, Spock? A thirty-five percent margin of error could leave plenty of other likely candidates in this quadrant alone."
It seemed to McCoy that Spock came dangerously close to a sigh. "Doctor, my instructions to the computer were as specific as I could make them. The computer has not identified any other planetary system with a greater degree of certainty than this one."
"Spock, I can't believe I have to be the one to bring up all the logical objections," McCoy said. "You know as well as I do there is no guarantee that Xhosar is meeting Jim on Rho Orionis Five, even if it is the right planet. She could have chosen to meet him in a bar in Podunk for all we know."
"I admit that all the variables cannot be accounted for, Doctor," Spock said. "But unless you can make a case for Podunk that provides a better than sixty-five percent chance of saving the captain, I submit that we have no choice but to try Rho Orionis Five."
The Mindsweeper watched as Xhosar paced from one side of her private chamber to the other, from the bed to the door and back again. Even from a distance the Mindsweeper could tell Xhosar was impatient, distracted. She was a whirlwind of undirected energy in the confinement of the darkened room.
The creature was desperate to glean some usable data without being discovered. There was no possibility of entering Xhosar's mind for what it wanted--the woman was far too perceptive. But if Kate Logan and Captain Kirk were to escape Rho Orionis V, they would have to know what was on Xhosar's mind. The creature could only hope Xhosar herself would somehow reveal it.
A knock at the door of the room startled both of them. Xhosar turned irritably. "What is it?"
"Report from the inspection team, Sar."
She took a deep breath. "Come."
The Human whose unenviable job it was to deliver the report was tall, heavy, sullen. Unlike so many of the people who served Xhosar, she did not seem particularly afraid. Perhaps, the Mindsweeper speculated, the woman was new to the organization and did not know what to expect from Xhosar. But it seemed more likely that the woman might simply be too stupid to realize her danger.
"Well?" Xhosar demanded.
"Sar. We have completed our inspection of Kirk's ship. As you anticipated, there was a transponder mechanism hidden in the sensor banks."
Xhosar let off a string of loud curses. "I should have known!" She howled in frustration. "And you! Why did it take you so long to find it? Half of Starfleet is probably at our door by now, you idiot! Sixteen hours lost--I ought to have you sold into slavery on Xantharus Four for this!"
The big woman looked at her commander with bovine detachment. "Sar, the transponder was extremely well hidden. We had to disassemble the entire sensor transtator piece by piece to locate it. It was the size of a single transtator bit."
"I didn't ask to hear your stupid excuses. Consider yourself lucky that I'm only going to withhold your wages for a month for your incompetence. Now, take that ship out of the system and blow it into a million tiny pieces. And send Pierce in here. I'm going to find Kirk and his whore and tear them apart myself, whether or not the Mindsweeper has done its work."
The Mindsweeper quivered with panic. It could not allow this to happen, but what could be done to stop it? Frantically it searched its array for some answer, rummaged through the new information that it had gained from contact with Kate. Oh, how it wished it could synthesize new thoughts with the speed of the Humans. The process it used was so slow and inefficient!
Yet, before the inspection team's leader had come out of the low building that housed Xhosar's quarters, the Mindsweeper knew what it must do. Cautiously, so as not to alert the woman, the Mindsweeper entered her mind.
As it had predicted, the woman was not a deep thinker. Her thought processes were even slower than the Mindsweeper's own, if that was possible. Her main concern as she crossed the compound to the transporter pad was how to pay her considerable gambling debts without her month's pay.
The Mindsweeper had never experienced the transporter system, and its array flared again in terror as the big woman prepared to beam up to the Roxanne. What if the transporter was unable to read the creature's matrix--or worse, what if it was unable to translate the information correctly and the Mindsweeper found itself scattered in bits and bytes all over the planet's surface?
But there was little time to consider the possibilities. The woman stepped up on the pad and in an instant, the Mindsweeper was reconstituted with its host on the pad in the Roxanne's cargo bay. The Mindsweeper's array danced with excitement! It had never been this far away from its home before, had never even thought of following the outworlders to one of their ships before. This was a new experience beyond imagining!
The woman paused a moment as she stepped off the transporter pad, shaking her head to clear it. The Mindsweeper sensed her uneasiness and left her mind immediately. The woman appeared not to give it a second thought and went directly to the bridge, where her team was unenthusiastically sorting through pieces of the sensor assembly.
"Okay, let's get this bird ready to fly," she told them. "The boss wants us to take her out and use her for target practice."
"Why can't you just tow her out," one of them said. "You know it's going to take us an hour to put enough of this back together to fly her."
"When I want your opinion I'll ask for it, Dayne. I said get her ready to go. Get off your ass and do it."
The Mindsweeper tried to wait patiently for the men to finish their work. The creature wasn't sure its plan would succeed, but certainly there was no use making the attempt until the ship was space-worthy. While it waited, the creature accumulated all the data it would need from the information stored in its array. The Mindsweeper had no way of knowing if the data it had would be enough or whether it would be able to put the information to proper use. But the creature could think of no other way to help Kate Logan and the captain; it had to try.
By the time the crew was ready to take the Roxanne out of orbit, the Mindsweeper had collated the necessary parts of its experience. The leader of the investigation team left two of her men behind to pilot the Roxanne and beamed back to her own ship. The pair on the Roxanne's bridge began to run through the sequence that would take them out of the star system.
The Mindsweeper, drawing on all the strength it had learned from Kate and all the courage it could muster on its own, made its move. The creature slipped into the Roxanne's computer and spread its array out to match and enhance the computer's complicated transtator circuits. One by one, it overlaid the operating programs, the memory banks, the maintenance levels--engines, communications, life support, sensors, deflectors, weapons. And when it had finished its work, the Mindsweeper experienced new life in a furious rush of input.
The Mindsweeper breathed and saw and moved with the ship, a sensation that was at once cybernetic and physical, like the sensations of a Human body. As limited as they were, the computer's circuits imparted a sense of freedom and mobility the Mindsweeper had never felt before. Here was power--the power to move when and where it wanted, constrained only by the parameters of the engines; the power to affect the physical world directly, simply by activating the appropriate circuit.
The Mindsweeper was delirious with the possibilities--why had this never occurred to it before? The opportunity to do this had always existed, but the creature had never realized it. Kate! Kate was the reason this was possible. Her input had allowed this leap into the unknown. The Mindsweeper thanked her with all its being.
"Hey, Dayne, I'm getting no response from the helm."
"Power levels are normal. Navigation reads normal. Did you punch in the course?"
"Of course, you idiot. She's just not moving."
The two men instituted the proper subsystem checks, studied all the readouts, but failed to find an explanation before their team leader's voice broke over the comm unit. "Roxanne, this is the Destroyer. What the devil is going on? Let's move it."
"Sorry, Captain, she won't answer to the helm, and we can't find the problem."
"Oh, hell. You goons probably put something in backwards. Stand by for tractor beam."
But the Mindsweeper had other plans. With a thought the creature activated the helm and navigation systems, turned on the power and shot away from the Destroyer at full impulse.
The Humans on the Roxanne's bridge went completely white with shock. "What the hell? Cut power, cut power!"
"I can't--she won't respond! It's like she's got a mind of her own!"
The Mindsweeper whooped with joy--and suddenly found it had a voice.
"What was that?!"
"It came out of the computer!"
"Good morning, gentlemen."
"Holy..." The men snatched their hands back from the console as if it had burst into flame.
"Come in Roxanne, this is Destroyer. Dayne, what in Argot's blue ass are you doing?"
The Mindsweeper activated the communications system. "I regret to report, Destroyer, that Dayne is no longer able to respond."
"Who the hell are you?"
"I doubt that you would believe me if I told you. It may be simpler to call me 'Roxanne.'"
"Very funny. Well, take this, Roxanne!"
A stream of blue phaser fire hit the aft shield. It caused no damage--it was just a warning--but the Mindsweeper/Roxanne perceived the potential for damage to the ship no less. It could not allow the ship to be destroyed. The creature had invested too much in taking over the Roxanne--avoiding damage was now quite possibly a matter of its own survival.
The creature searched the data it had acquired from Kate and found a maneuver that it judged might work. Roxanne cut power, dropped below the pursuing Destroyer and came up behind. With another thought the ship's phasers fired, hitting the corsair's power nacelles. The Mindsweeper/Roxanne realized with a little shock of guilt and elation that the other ship hadn't bothered to put up its shields.
"Damn it, Dayne, what has possessed you? I can't wait to see what Xhosar will do to you when she finds out you tried to steal this ship. You can run, Dayne, but you can't hide!"
Dayne made no move to reply. He and his Human companion sat on the bridge in mute paralysis. Together, they watched the crippled Destroyer recede in the viewscreen until the great curving bulk of the planet hid it from view.
The Mindsweeper/Roxanne cut off the big woman's voice in mid-curse and spoke again to her passengers. "Gentlemen, your presence aboard this ship is no longer required. Please move to the transporter pad."
The men looked at each other in bewilderment. "Please move to the transporter pad," the creature repeated. "Or I may be forced to cut off life support."
The two stood and walked blankly through the ship to the cargo bay. They stepped up on the pad and obligingly disappeared in an iridescent shimmer. The Mindsweeper/Roxanne estimated they would remain in their state of dazed semiconsciousness at least until they found their way back to the station from the forest clearing where she'd sent them.
With another little squeal of triumph, Roxanne swung around to a new heading. It was time to pick up Kate and the captain.
Jim Kirk sat with his back against the gritty rock of the hillside and let the breeze lift the warmth of the midmorning sun from his skin. The air was cool and sweet with the smell of last night's rain; it set up a soothing rustle in the leaves of the trees in the grove.
Kate Logan had already given in to the conspiracy of the elements; she slept sitting up in a splash of sunlight at the entrance to the cavern. She was so beautiful in that moment of peace that it took Kirk's breath away. He wanted to stop time, to freeze the sun in the sky and rush of water in the gorge below, to live in this moment forever.
He wanted to hold on even though he knew something fundamental had already changed between them. From one hour to the next, life had taken some sort of turn. Kirk had long ago learned to trust his intuition; he had trained himself to use it. He was attuned to the subtle changes in his perception that signaled the beginning or the end of something. Their encounter with the Mindsweeper, Kirk knew, had been both.
He'd watched Kate as she communed with the creature, translating its thoughts for him from time to time. She'd been wary at first, appropriately so. The creature had gained access to her mind so easily, slipping past her defenses to invade the privacy of her thoughts with terrifying competence. It was clear that nothing could be kept from the Mindsweeper if it chose to ask.
How much had it asked? And how much had Kate been willing to give? Within minutes, her fear had turned to fascination. The sudden expansion of personal horizons that came with first contact was a heady feeling; Kirk could hardly blame her for giving in to it. He'd felt the same rush of feeling himself more than once.
But there was something more in Kate's face than intellectual curiosity. He wasn't sure he understood that look--and he wasn't willing to admit how it made him feel.
He found it easier to think about the more immediate problem of their survival. Even if the Mindsweeper had been converted from a threat into an ally, their situation remained precarious. Their food supply had been minimal to start with and was exhausted now. There was water here, but they had no way to carry it with them. And between them and escape was a vast treeless wasteland, an army of thugs and the blackness of space.
Kate's drowsy voice broke the silence. "God, it would be so easy to just drift away here forever." She stretched and turned to smile at Kirk. "How long have I been out?"
"Not long." He smiled back, shifted position so he could be close to her. "Are we alone?"
She laughed. "Yes, for the moment. The Mindsweeper seems to have had business elsewhere."
"We need to talk."
"You're wondering if the Mindsweeper can be trusted," she said.
"I believe it can. There was nothing about it that suggested deception. I'm not sure it's even capable of that kind of thing. In any case I don't think we have much choice."
Kirk agreed, though he still had questions. Some of them were simpler than others. "What kind of creature is this, Kate? Does it have some way of concealing itself or is it just--not there? In a material sense, I mean."
"The Mindsweeper itself isn't sure what it is. It describes itself as a collection of information, a data array--the image that came to me was a computer without hardware. If we had a tricorder, we could probably pick up some kind of electromagnetic energy from it, I guess."
"And there are no others like it here?"
"The creature believes it's the last of its species. The others disappeared so long ago the Mindsweeper doesn't remember them."
"Before Xhosar arrived. Did it tell you anything about Xhosar?"
"Not much. I got a few images--apparently there were others here setting up the camp and the mining operations before she came."
"Mining? For what?"
"The Mindsweeper didn't say, but I gathered whatever was in the mines was what brought Xhosar here in the first place."
Something clicked in Kirk's mind. "Trihalimide and lynite."
"Some of that complex we saw must house the labs," he murmured. "What a setup--an obscure little planet in a sector of space close to the Romulans and the Klingons, well off the regular patrol routes. I wonder how she found it?"
"I wonder how she managed to keep her operation so quiet. If she found this place, why hasn't anyone else?"
Kirk shrugged. "It's a big galaxy. Starfleet mapped this area over thirty years ago. They probably just classified this system and forgot about it."
"Or quarantined it. The Mindsweeper communicated a lot of pain about its first contact with Humans. I get the sense some of them might not have survived the experience."
"That would explain a lot." Kirk was quiet for a while, thinking it through. "But I still don't understand the connection between Xhosar and the Mindsweeper. She was using the creature as an instrument of torture. How could it have agreed to that?"
"The Mindsweeper was desperate for contact," Logan said. "Xhosar was receptive--she had uses for the Mindsweeper's abilities. I don't think the Mindsweeper realized for a long time what the implications were."
"But something's changed. The Mindsweeper hasn't done its job with us."
"Yes, but why? And why now?"
"I don't know how to explain it, Jim, but the Mindsweeper is more than just intelligent. It's...searching for something." Kate paused uncertainly, started again. "The Mindsweeper is a creature that lives on information; it grows by acquiring new data. Imagine what it must have been like for it to live alone, without interaction, without communication. When Xhosar and her crew came to this planet it was like they'd brought water to someone dying of thirst. They offered the Mindsweeper a whole new level of experience."
"Not a great bunch of role models," Kirk said. "But without a basis of comparison, how would the creature know that?"
"We provided the comparison," Kate said. "Our coming here created a kind of crisis--an attack of conscience, I guess you could say. The Mindsweeper wasn't able to communicate this very clearly--but it had a lot to do with you." She teased him with a piratical grin. "Something about starship captains and truth, beauty and the Federation way."
"Me? Seems to me the creature's much more interested in you." He grinned back at her, pulled her playfully over on top of him.
She looked down at him, understanding mixed with the laughter in her green eyes. "Jealous?"
"Should I be?"
"Not a chance."
She pressed closer, molding herself to him. He could feel the warmth of the sun on her lips, on her skin, drawing him in. But he held back. He had to ask one more question, even if he was not sure he wanted to hear the answer. "What does it want from you, Kate?"
She pulled away from him slowly and sat up. It was a moment before she said anything and when she did there was an edge to her voice that Jim Kirk hadn't heard since their first time together. "It wants what all of us want, Jim. It wants love."
She shook her head with a hard, angry smile. "I told it I wasn't interested in being its mother. I said I already had a lover. And you know what it said?" Her voice shrank to a whisper. "It said, Be my sister, then." She looked at him, the tears poised to spill onto her cheeks. "How do you like that?"
He understood suddenly what he'd seen in her face when she talked with the creature. And he didn't mind so much now that it didn't include him. She'd been without it for so long, he couldn't begrudge her the chance to regain what she'd lost so many years ago. And it struck him, as it had many times on the bridge of the Enterprise, that the closest family is not always the one you are born with. It is more often the one you create.
He reached out to touch her arm--and saw her dissolve into a column of sparkling energy. Before he realized he, too, was being transported, he was already standing in the cargo bay of the Roxanne.
Kirk took in the transporter pad, the cargo bay, Logan, pale and shaken, on the pad next to him. He had no idea where he was and even less of an idea who was speaking to him.
Logan stepped off the pad and touched a bulkhead as if to assure herself it was real. "It's the Roxanne," she said.
"Okay," Kirk said slowly. "Now tell me how the devil we got here."
"I brought you here." It was that voice again, the one that didn't seem to have a body attached to it. It was coming from the nearest comm unit.
"And you are?"
The voice hesitated. "Well, I used to be called the Mindsweeper. But I think I prefer 'Roxanne' now. Yes. Yes, I definitely prefer Roxanne."
Logan sat down abruptly on the steps of the transporter pad. "Things are moving a little too fast for me today."
"I've overlaid the ship's computer systems, Kate. I stole the ship from Xhosar's crew. I can't tell you how exciting this is! I have access to so much more information, so much power! To think it never occurred to me to do this before I met you!"
The nominal captain of the Roxanne, nonplused, had no response.
"But this form of communicating is rather limiting, isn't it?" the voice in the computer said. "It's so slow--how do you do it? Taking the time to find and speak the words..."
"Uh, Roxanne, if you don't mind," Kirk said. "If you stole this ship, someone is undoubtedly looking for it. Let's go up to the bridge, and you can show us what your sensors are picking up."
Logan looked at him as she started up the ladder to the bridge. "You've adjusted to this rather quickly."
"Relief," he said, climbing up after her. "An eccentric computer I can handle."
On the bridge, Roxanne had activated every viewscreen and sensor display for the benefit of her Human companions. "Is this what you wanted, Jim?"
It occurred to the captain of the Enterprise that he'd never been addressed by a computer in quite so familiar a tone--at least not since he'd joined Starfleet. He wasn't exactly offended, but his face must have revealed his surprise.
Logan laughed. "It's customary to address the captain of a ship by his title, Roxanne."
"My data array indicated you were the captain of the Roxanne, Kate. Jim is identified as captain of the Enterprise."
"That's why he's going to be captain of the Roxanne for a while--at least until we can haul our butts out of here," she said. "Orders, Captain?"
Kirk studied the displays. "Looks like our luck is holding for the moment. I count ten ships in orbit, but nobody's moving yet. Kate, get on the comm board and monitor any transmissions from the surface."
She nodded and sat down at the communications station. "Let me do this, Roxie," she muttered. "You're getting in the way."
"I am inefficient," Roxanne agreed. "It takes so long for me to find the data I need."
"You'll learn," Logan said, punching in the codes manually.
Kirk pored over one particular sensor display. "Roxanne, give me some data on the ship at bearing 230 mark 52."
"Klingon light battle cruiser, registered as the Kormagk. Crew complement: twenty. Commander Gort in command. Two forward disruptor banks..."
"Thank you, that'll do." Kirk knew well enough what weapons a Klingon ship of that size carried. If the Klingon was working with Xhosar, there wasn't a chance in hell the Roxanne would get out of orbit in one piece.
Logan looked at him. "That's cheerful news."
"Anything in the transmissions?"
"They still think those two crewmen stole the ship. The commander of at least one ship out there is cussing a blue streak. Nobody's had the guts to tell Xhosar yet. But back at headquarters, somebody named Pierce is getting organized for a surface search."
"Xhosar has gotten tired of waiting for me," Roxanne said. "She's looking for you."
"Well, starman, it's your call," Logan said. "What's our move?"
"It's only a matter of time until somebody puts two and two together. If we run, we'll be cut down before we can hit warp drive. I say we attack while we still have time."
"Attack," Logan said. "With one souped-up cargo hauler, two half-starved Humans and a space-happy brainpicker."
"We have the element of surprise--and we have access to the base computer system."
Comprehension broke in a grin across Logan's face. "I do like the way you think, Captain."
"You want me to sabotage Xhosar's computer system?" Roxanne's voice, even through the filter of the computer interface, was uncertain.
"You'll have to scramble the communications system and disable the sensors and defense systems. How long would it take?"
"A moment to disengage from the ship. A few seconds to accomplish the sabotage. But how will I get back to the planet surface?"
"You're going to take us there."
"Banzai," Logan said quietly and punched in the program that would take them into the atmosphere.
"Sector three-alpha is clear. Moving on to sector three-beta."
The technician made minute adjustments in his equipment, sweat beading thickly on his upper lip. His hand trembled as he pressed the panels on his board.
Xhosar gave up watching him work and turned to the man observing with her. "Where are they, Pierce? Surely they can't be that hard to find."
Pierce swallowed nervously. "I have a squadron of skimmers over the grove and every sensor technician on the base looking from here. We'll find them, if they aren't dead already."
Xhosar glared at him. "If they are dead, I want to see their rotting bodies. But you had better hope they are found alive, Pierce. Otherwise I might have to use all the techniques I had planned for them on you."
Pierce turned a shade paler. He pushed the technician out of the way and took over the sensor monitors himself. The display responded to his more expert touch with a spurt of fresh data--and then went blank. Pierce looked up in horror.
"Your incompetence, Pierce?" Xhosar said brightly.
"No, Sar Xhosar. I swear. Look--all the displays are dead!"
Xhosar turned from one station to the next. All the screens were blank. She slapped a panel on the nearest comm unit. "Shankar, report!" Her only response was static. She tried base security, the troop barracks, the flight line. Nothing.
Outside, the explosions began, advancing in deadly cadence toward the bunker where she had gone to monitor the search for her two prisoners. Xhosar looked at her lieutenant. "We're under attack--and they've sabotaged the computer systems."
"It doesn't matter how, you idiot! They've managed it." The real question was who--Gort? the Romulans? Or had Starfleet finally found her? "Use the personal communicators. Get some ships in the air, now!"
A thunderous explosion rocked the bunker, shaking a cloud of dust loose from the ceiling and walls. Pierce and his technician scrambled out the doorway. They seemed eager to brave the smoke and flying debris outside rather than remain with Xhosar.
Xhosar herself took the more protected underground passageway to headquarters. The explosions were bigger and closer now. The munitions stores had begun to blow, she realized. Who the devil was out there?
She pushed open the heavy door to her command center and found chaos. Guards and technicians alike were completely unnerved, running in all directions with no apparent purpose. Outside the transparent aluminum windows, several buildings blazed and a black billow of smoke obscured whatever additional damage had been done. Xhosar could see several of her own skimmers aloft in the distance, but the attackers were no longer visible.
In one corner of the vast central hall, one harried Orion was struggling to maintain some sort of order. Terrified, those who surrounded him fell back as Xhosar approached. "Report, Shankar!" she demanded.
"Communications, weapons control, sensors nonfunctional, Sar Xhosar," Shankar said. "Using personal communicators, I have instructed pilots to launch whatever vehicles are operational. Munitions stores were the first targets--then the space-capable ships and the labs. It is as if they knew exactly where to hit us to cause maximum disruption."
A hundred meters away, an explosion tore out the side of a warehouse and sent the flaming pieces spinning across the compound to shatter against the portals of the hall. Xhosar ignored it. "Who? and how many?"
"We still do not know, Sar. In the confusion..." He shook his head. "Someone even thought they saw a single ship--a trader, no less--fire on the perimeter munitions dump."
"Idiots! The Klingons must have had a hand in this--I want to talk to Gort." She snatched a communicator from the Orion and started across the room. "Find the traitor who helped them, Shankar. I want to deal with that one personally."
In her private chamber, the conflagration outside and the confusion inside could be shut out and Xhosar could think. The attack seemed limited, despite the destruction. If this was a full-scale assault by Starfleet, where were the ships, the security troops?
She flipped open her communicator. "Commander of cruiser Destroyer. This is Xhosar. Report."
"This is the Destroyer, Captain Roos here. Well, uh, we've been having a little trouble here, Sar Xhosar. But I expect to have it cleared up shortly."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Well, uh, with the Roxanne, Sar, I..."
"I'm not interested in the Roxanne, you idiot! I'm interested in the enemy ships in your sector."
"Enemy ships, Sar?"
"Roos, I am going to have you chopped into a million bits of quivering flesh as soon as you return to base. I do not have time for any more stupidity. Are there any Federation ships in range of your sensors?"
"Well, I do have some sensor damage, Sar, but I don't think--no, no Federation ships on short range scan."
"Has the Klingon ship Kormagk fired its weapons or launched shuttlecraft?"
"Uh, not that I know of, Sar Xhosar."
"Fool! Get off my frequency." Xhosar paced the tiny space of her room, waiting for the frequency to clear. "Klingon ship Kormagk. This is Xhosar."
"Kormagk here. Speak."
"I will speak with your captain, you insolent pig. Now!"
"This is Commander Gort. You have news for me, Xhosar?"
"Your communications officer needs better manners, Gort."
"He is learning that lesson from his grub-stealing ancestors. He will not trouble any of us now. What was it you wanted, Xhosar?"
"We are under attack. Are you responsible?"
"Me? If I were responsible you would already know it. I told you I would wait. I am waiting. Who dares attack you?"
"A traitorous, green-skinned, slime lizard," she spat, suddenly aware of what she must do. "He has sabotaged the computer systems. I am blind here. Give me one minute, then beam me up to your ship."
"If you want what you came here for, you will help me regain control of this situation. Those who hope to overthrow me have no idea what I promised you--and they have no way to get it for you."
Gort considered a moment. "I will initiate transport in ninety seconds. Will that be sufficient?"
"I should think that would be quite enough," she replied, snapping the communicator shut.
She went to a storage compartment and took out the disruptor she kept there. Then she walked out into the central hall.
The big Orion looked up from the hardcopy charts he had spread across a desk. His eyes widened. "Xhosar, surely you don't think--I am your loyal servant, Xhosar!"
Xhosar fired the disruptor and watched dispassionately as the lines of force entwined Shankar's body and carried him screaming into nonexistence.
"You are now, Shankar," she said. "And so are all of you, aren't you?" She swept the room with the disruptor, laughing as the others ducked and ran for cover. She was careful not to kill more than one or two.
She caught a glimpse of someone familiar cowering behind a scorched support pillar. "Pierce!" she called out. "Take over--and get this place cleaned up."
Xhosar smiled with satisfaction and strode from the hall. She still had time to freshen up before Gort beamed her aboard the Kormagk.
The Roxanne streaked away from the burning compound and swept into the sky. Behind the straining ship was nothing but smoke and flame and the limitless green plain of Rho Orionis's grassland, receding in the viewscreen until the wide arc of the planet appeared against the curtain of space.
Logan exhaled shakily. "We must be dead--we just don't realize it yet."
Kirk squeezed her shoulder and leaned over her to check the power readouts. "Nice flying, Captain. They never knew what hit 'em."
"And a good thing, too. Sensor report, Roxie?"
"Showing significant damage to eighteen percent of the facility, minor damage to another nine percent. Eighty percent of the shuttles are undamaged, but they are all still on the ground."
"And the Klingon ship--the Kormagk?"
"She is at...station keeping, Captain. Her shields are down."
Kirk nodded. The creature was learning fast. "Anyone else moving?"
"Clearing atmosphere now, Captain," Logan said. "I presume you want the quickest way out of the system?"
"You presume right. With any luck we can hit warp before anybody knows we're gone."
"Setting course at 164 mark 7. Full impulse power."
"Captain! One of the ships is moving."
Kirk swivelled in his seat to scan the sensor displays. "Give me a schematic on screen two, Roxanne." A blip, identified as a corsair class gunship christened Destroyer, had left orbit and set a course to match their own. And it was closing fast.
"Looks like we're in for a fight."
"Roger. Arming phasers."
"She's calling in reinforcements, Captain!" Roxanne said.
On the sensor screen two more blips left orbit and came after them. "They aren't as fast," Kirk muttered. "If we can take out the Destroyer before they reach us..."
The comm unit crackled into life as the Destroyer hailed them. "Well, I hope you had fun on your little joy ride, Dayne," the Destroyer's captain said. "Party's over, sucker. A few repairs and I'm good as new. And this time I have my shields up."
Kirk and Logan exchanged puzzled glances. There was an odd squeak from Roxanne's computer interface. But there was no time to reply. "She's arming phasers," Logan said. "Range eleven thousand kilometers."
"Evasive maneuvers. Ready phasers, Roxanne."
"Aye, Captain. Standing by."
The Destroyer locked on and fired first, hammered the Roxanne's shields with a blast of blue-edged phaser power. Alarms screamed on the Roxanne's bridge. "Shields holding at eighty percent," Logan said.
Kirk made sure the Destroyer got an answer. "Fire!"
Roxanne responded with a bolt of molten light, but the shot went high and wide.
Logan looked up at Kirk. "Clean miss."
The bridge rocked under the impact of another round from the Destroyer. Kirk's voice was calm, soothing. "Try again, Roxie. Set the tracking system, and wait until you're lined up. Fire when you're ready."
"We've got another ship almost in range, Captain," Logan said. "Closing at 50,000 klicks."
Roxanne took another hit, and alarms shrieked again on the bridge. "There goes our starboard shield," Logan said. "Coming about to 820 mark 80."
"Come on, Roxie."
Roxanne fired again. The phaser streamed across 10,000 kilometers of black space, washed over the Destroyer in a spray of fragmenting plasma.
"Direct hit!" Logan crowed. "Her forward shields are gone. She's dropping back."
"Come back to our original course, Kate. Let's get the hell out of here."
Grimly, Kirk watched the tactical display. There were two corsairs behind them now and they were pouring it on. He couldn't take time or power for the phasers. Everything depended on speed.
"Full impulse power. Approaching system boundary."
Behind them, the corsairs were in disruptor range. One shot skimmed the port shields, another passed harmlessly below them.
"Preparing for warp drive in twelve seconds."
Kirk counted the seconds down--11, 10, 9--but the corsairs weren't giving up. Twin vectors of disruptor fire converged on Roxanne, ripped away her aft shields, sent her Human crew reeling from their seats on the bridge.
Roxanne's voice was thick with static as she gave them the report. "Aft shields at ten percent, warp drive nonfunctional. Fires in cargo bay and engine room--automatic systems compensating. Estimating loss of life support in three point seven minutes."
"Kate, show them our forward shields! Come about, now!"
Logan didn't even bother to regain her seat. She staggered to her feet and punched in the maneuver. Roxanne pivoted slowly in time to take another hit on her port shields.
"Roxanne, lock phasers and fire at will."
The crippled ship lurched and bucked as the stabilizers crumbled under the strain. Smoke began to leak into the bridge compartment. The ventilation system struggled to clear the air, but Kirk knew it was a lost cause.
Roxanne fired and gained them some time, connecting with the lead ship not once but twice.
"Let's go, Kate. We might have a chance in the lifepod."
She looked up at him. "No."
Kirk grabbed her arm. "We don't have time to discuss this. Abandon ship. Now."
She shook him off. "I'm not losing another ship. If I have to I'll suit up and ride this out until there's nothing left but the hull. You can go if you want to. I'm not abandoning Roxanne."
"Kate, please go," Roxanne said. "If I can shut down the life support and environmental systems, I might have enough power to get out of this."
Logan hesitated, then shook her head. "You don't have the experience. You need me."
"I need you to stay alive," Roxanne said. "Don't worry. I'll be right behind you. I'll just take another minute or two to draw the ships off, then I'll disengage."
"Come on, Kate," Kirk said gently, steering her toward the lifepod bay.
"Goodbye, Roxie," Logan whispered.
Roxanne was too busy to answer.
"Approaching Rho Orionis system, Mister Spock. E.T.A. three point four minutes."
"Thank you, Mister Sulu. Slow to impulse power."
"Slowing to impulse, sir."
"Put the system on screen, Mister Chekov."
"Aye, sir. Magnification two-five."
"My God," McCoy said. "What the hell's going on out there?"
"Lieutenant Uhura, order yellow alert," Spock said. "Full sensor report, Mister Chekov."
Chekov struggled to sort out his readings. "One clipper class trade ship--it's the Roxanne, sir! She's under attack--she's lost most of her shields and all of her life support and environmental systems."
Spock interrupted him to speak to his communications officer. "Open a channel to the attacking ships, Lieutenant. Warn them off. Red alert. Shields, Mister Sulu."
"Jim's on that ship with no life support, Spock!" McCoy said desperately. "Are you just planning to leave him there?"
Spock ignored him. "Continue your report, Mister Chekov."
"Seven ships in orbit around the fifth planet--mostly corsair or scout class, but of various design and origin. And one light cruiser, sir. Klingon."
Spock's eyebrows arched, but he gave no other indication that the information he'd received was of any particular interest. "Lieutenant Uhura, try to raise the Roxanne."
"I'm trying, Mister Spock," Uhura said quietly. "No response."
"They could be hurt, Spock!" McCoy insisted.
"Mister Spock! I'm picking up an emergency beacon," Uhura said. "A lifepod from the Roxanne, bearing 97 mark 34."
"Lifeform readings, Mister Chekov?"
"Two, sir. Both Human."
"Stand by to lower shields, Mister Sulu." Spock punched the button on his chair. "Transporter room. Lock on to the signal from the lifepod bearing 97 mark 34 and prepare to beam the two passengers aboard."
McCoy was already headed for the turbolift. He debated whether he should stop by Sickbay first to grab his medikit, but decided that would take too much time. Better to go straight to the transporter room so he could assess the situation as quickly as possible.
McCoy refused to acknowledge his fear. To acknowledge it would be to let it paralyze him. If he was going to help Jim Kirk he had to think of his friend now as just another medical emergency. Of course, it was conceivable his services wouldn't be needed at all. But the doctor had been part of too many rescues to think so. As he burst into the transporter room he was fully prepared to see two critically injured patients. He was ready to deal with blood and burns and broken bones.
He was not prepared to see the captain of the Enterprise--muddy and unshaven, but perfectly healthy--jump off the transporter pad to greet him.
"Bones!" Before McCoy could react, Kirk had wrapped him in a massive bear hug.
The doctor couldn't seem to find his voice. After the last forty-eight hours, he could hardly believe they'd found the captain still breathing, much less strong enough to be cracking his ribs at this moment. "Damn it, Jim..."
Kirk pulled back and grinned at him. "I missed you, old friend."
"Yeah, well, I was just getting used to the peace and quiet around here," McCoy said gruffly. He looked away and spied Kate Logan.
"Don't tell me he dragged you into whatever trouble he's been up to."
"Hi, Doc," she said, smiling big enough to break his heart.
McCoy looked from Logan to Kirk and back, shaking his head. He'd never been so happy to see anyone in his life. He turned to Kirk. "Don't think for a minute she's going to get you off the hook, Captain. I haven't even thought of all the ways I'm going to make you pay for keeping me up nights."
Kirk just laughed. "Later, Bones, later." He stepped up to the comm unit on the transporter console and called the bridge. "Bridge, this is Kirk."
"Captain?" Spock's voice gave him away, but McCoy resolved not to bait him about it. Even a Vulcan could be expected to show a little reaction at a time like this.
"Spock, I'm on my way up," Kirk said. "Maintain red alert and stand by to assist that clipper."
When Jim Kirk stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise, he felt something inside him relax for the first time in weeks. There'd been times when he thought he'd never see any of this again--the bridge, the crew, the smiles on their faces.
"Welcome back, Captain." Spock said, carefully formal.
Kirk grinned. "Thank you, Mister Spock."
Uhura didn't even try to hide what she felt. The tears pooled in her eyes as she smiled at him. "Welcome home, Captain."
He touched her shoulder briefly on his way to the captain's station. "Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Well, I'm glad to see we didn't come all this way for nothing."
Kirk swivelled to see Commander Chartoff, oddly lacking his trademark grin. The man looked liked he'd just arrived on the run--and wasn't too happy to be there at all. "Your timing was perfect," Kirk said. "Another ten minutes, though, and you might as well have saved yourself the trip."
Kirk looked up at the viewscreen. The corsairs had broken off their attack on Roxanne and were taking separate courses out of the system. A quick glance at the tactical display on Sulu's board showed him the Klingon ship and several others were still in orbit around Rho Orionis V.
"Open a channel to that clipper, Lieutenant."
"We're not exactly reading any life signs over there, Kirk," Chartoff said. "Who the hell do you plan to talk to on that derelict?"
"She's no derelict," Logan said. Chartoff looked as if he wanted to say more, but apparently thought better of it. At Logan's side, McCoy beamed.
"Roxanne, this is Captain Kirk on the Enterprise, do you read?"
"Captain! Is Kate there with you?"
"I'm here, Roxanne."
"The Enterprise picked you up?"
"Yes, thanks to you," Kirk said. "What's your status?"
"Power levels at fifty percent impulse. Most of my shields and internal systems are nonfunctional. And I could use a new paint job."
Kirk laughed. "I'll ask my chief engineer what he can do. But you'll have to wait a bit. We still have a few loose ends to tie up. Kirk out." He turned towards his communications officer. "Lieutenant Uhura, open a channel to the Kormagk."
"Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"Commander Gort, this is Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise."
"Gort, here." The mountainous Klingon dominated the cruiser's bridge, but just behind him Xhosar could be seen glaring at the viewscreen.
"Sar Xhosar," Kirk said. "This is an unexpected pleasure!"
Xhosar brushed Gort rudely aside to address the screen. "Kirk! I should've killed you myself while I had the chance! But no matter. A Klingon battle cruiser will serve me just as well!"
"This ship serves no one but me!" Gort bellowed.
Kirk shrugged. "I doubt that Commander Gort would be anxious to initiate any hostile action, Xhosar. After all, his presence in orbit around a quarantined planet is a violation of intergalactic treaty and the Organians do tend to take those things rather seriously. Of course, we also outgun him by a considerable margin."
"I have no quarrel with you, Kirk," Gort said.
Furious, Xhosar turned on him. "I have a quarrel with him--that should be enough for you! Let him escape, and we lose everything!"
"Be silent, woman!" Gort shouted. He tried again to speak to the screen. "When I am finished with my business here on Rho Orionis Five, I intend to leave the system in peace."
"I'm sorry, Commander. I'm afraid you will have to conclude your business and leave the system immediately," Kirk said blandly. "But first I'll have to ask you to hand over Sar Xhosar for prosecution at the nearest starbase on charges of arms smuggling and quarantine violation."
Xhosar went rigid with rage. "I'll see you in hell first, Kirk!" she spat. "I'll see your bridge in flames, your ship in pieces, your crew burned to cinders! Gort! Blast this Starfleet scum back to the Federation hellhole he came from!"
"Arm phasers, Mister Chekov," Kirk said quietly.
"Phasers armed and ready, sir."
Kirk watched as the Kormagk's bridge crew apprised their captain of the Enterprise's status. He saw the expression on Gort's face change as he absorbed the information.
Xhosar grabbed the Klingon's arm. "I said fire on him! Why do you hesitate?"
"Do I take orders from you? Shut up and let me think!"
"I should have known you wouldn't have the belly for a fight," Xhosar sneered. "You're old and soft!" She looked around to his lieutenants on the bridge. "Aren't any of you Klingon enough to take this ship into battle? Or are you all too frightened of the great Captain Kirk?"
Gort roared and grabbed Xhosar by the throat. "Shut up!"
"You're a coward, Gort," she hissed.
Gort snatched the dirk from his belt and sliced her neck from ear to ear in a single, vicious stroke. Bathed in blood, he waited until the life had left her eyes, then dropped her body to the deck. The crew on his bridge and the crew on the bridge of the Enterprise watched in stunned silence as Gort turned to the address the viewscreen.
"I trust you no longer wish to prosecute Sar Xhosar," he said. "Is there any other reason you would detain me here, Kirk?"
Kirk shook his head. There was little point in continuing this discussion. "No, Commander," he said wearily. "You're free to go. Kirk out."
Kirk sat for a moment, trying without much success to clear his mind of the image of Xhosar's gruesome death. He could see his companions on the bridge were having the same trouble.
Only Spock seemed unaffected. "Orders, Captain?"
Kirk straightened in his seat. There was still plenty of work left to do. "Assume standard orbit around Rho Orionis Five, Mister Sulu," he said. "Mister Spock, put Security on alert. We're going to play a little cops and robbers."
On the bridge of the Enterprise, Kate Logan sat at the auxiliary engineering station, following the progress of Roxanne's repairs on the monitors. Chief Engineer Scott and Roxanne herself were providing a running commentary through Logan's earpiece.
"Well, I don't want to discourage you, lass," Scotty said gently, "but it looks like you'll need a tow into Starbase Twelve. I can restore your internal systems, but I can only do so much with your poor engines."
Logan wasn't sure whether his sympathy was directed at her or at Roxanne. Either way, a tow into Starbase 12 sounded just fine to her. "Suppose your captain will agree to throw us a line?"
She could almost hear the grin slide over the engineer's face. "I've already talked him into it," he said. "Though I must admit it wasn't too difficult."
"Thanks, Scotty. We owe you."
"Nonsense. It's my pleasure. A ship that not only seems alive, but actually talks back to you--now that's an engineer's dream. Would you mind if I did something for the technical journals on Roxanne?"
"Oh, I'd be delighted, Mister Scott. I've been following several of the technical nets through the Enterprise computer. There was a very interesting piece on intermix modification...."
Logan tuned out while the ship and the ship's engineer spoke their arcane language of power ratios and implosion matrices. On the bridge around her, the Enterprise hummed with efficient energy. The ship, her crew, her captain were a seamless, interdependent whole.
Logan thought it was just about the prettiest example of teamwork she had ever seen. And it struck her that for the first time she was seeing Jim Kirk as a complete person--happy, engaged, at peace.
"I said, Mister Scott and his team have been extremely helpful, don't you think, Kate?"
"Huh? Oh, sure, Roxie."
"What were you thinking about?"
"You seemed preoccupied. I wondered what you were thinking about."
"Well, nothing. Are you going to be asking me what's on my mind every five minutes?"
"I'm used to direct contact. Communicating through a medium like this is difficult for me."
"Roxanne, you'll have to learn to let people keep some thoughts to themselves."
"You're worried about what happens after Starbase Twelve, aren't you? About leaving Jim."
Logan whispered fiercely into the comm unit, "Roxie, this is one of those thoughts I was just talking about."
"But I heard Mister Scott tell someone the Enterprise would be at Starbase Twelve for ten days."
"Just a long goodbye, Rox," Logan said, half to herself. "An exhaustingly passionate, warmly intimate and indelibly memorable goodbye to be sure, if I have anything to do with it, but goodbye nonetheless."
"You can't join the Enterprise--could he come with us?"
"No," Logan said firmly. "He's where he belongs." She didn't want any man who would give up that kind of belonging. If she ever found that sense of belonging herself, she knew she would kill to keep it.
"But you will miss him."
"Yes," she sighed. "I'll miss him." A piece of her heart would always be with him here on the bridge of the Enterprise. And that would hurt like hell for a long time.
"Knowing me, I'll be looking for him in every spacers' bar and trading station from Mars to Orion," she said. "I'll jump at anything that even mentions the Enterprise. And I'll tell you something else, Rox. The day I hear he's given up the Enterprise--even if it's thirty years from now--I'll be the first one at his door with an offer."
"What about us, Kate? You haven't changed your mind about letting me come with you?"
Logan smiled. "No, Roxanne. I haven't changed my mind. You still want to go?"
Roxanne paused before she answered. "There is nothing for me here now. Perhaps there never was anything worth having. I won't miss it."
"Especially not Xhosar."
Logan opted to change the subject. "So what d'you think--should we go to work for Chartoff?"
"I don't like him much."
"Neither do I, but Starfleet Intelligence could be interesting." Logan considered a moment, then dismissed it. "Never mind. We don't have to decide now. There are hundreds of worlds out there, a thousand different ways of looking at life, a million possibilities. Maybe we should just strike out on our own."
That was how Kate Logan had always envisioned her future would unfold. Maybe it was time to pick up that dream again.
"I read something as I was gathering data on Starfleet that I didn't understand at the time," Roxanne said. "It was from the Enterprise mission statement. It said their purpose was to boldly go where no one has gone before. Do you suppose we could do something like that?"
Logan laughed and caused a few raised eyebrows on the bridge. "Why not, Roxie?" she said. "It has a nice ring to it."
Kirk looked up at the sound of Kate's laughter and smiled. He watched her for a moment, the smile lingering, until he noticed McCoy at his elbow.
"Now where have I seen that look before?" McCoy said. "How bad is it this time?"
"She's an extraordinary woman, Bones."
"Yes, she is. Strong, smart, beautiful. So what are you going to do about it?"
Kirk tried to focus on the security report in his hand. "There's another woman that needs my attention right now, Doctor."
"The Enterprise is a ship in case you hadn't noticed," McCoy said.
Kirk glanced up at him and returned to his report.
"Just how many chances do you figure you're going to get in this life, Jim? You won't be captain of the Enterprise forever. One day you'll be just plain old Jim Kirk, Starfleet Admiral, retired. You might wish you'd kept some of your options open."
Kirk put down the report and grinned at McCoy. "Who says I haven't kept my options open?"
"You expect a woman like that to wait for you?" McCoy said.
"No," Kirk said. But he knew she would. Just like he knew a part of him would always be waiting for her.
McCoy shook his head. "Why do I get the feeling we'll be having the same conversation twenty-five years from now?
"Keep trying, Bones," Kirk said. "Someday I might start listening."
McCoy snorted. "Highly unlikely."
Still grinning, Kirk turned to the auxiliary engineering station. "Captain Logan, are we ready for departure?"
"Ready when you are, Captain," she replied.
"Engineering, this the captain. Stand by to engage tractor beam."
"Aye, sir. Standing by."
"Mister Sulu, set course for Starbase Twelve. Ahead Warp Factor Two."
"Aye, sir. Warp Factor Two."
At her captain's command, the Enterprise came about, gathered herself and leapt eagerly for the stars. And held fast in her grip, the good ship Roxanne left her lonely home behind and began her own bold journey into the unknown.
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1. Starbase 12 is located on a class M planet relatively near the Romulan Neutral Zone. The starbase itself consists of a planetary base and an orbital spacedock, but most of its functions are carried out in the ground-based facilities. The base employs monorails for transportation. The outlying areas of the starbase are known as "the Outer Rings," as they are located on the outer rings of the monorail loops.
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