Jim Kirk darted through the dark streets of the silent city, gasping for breath as he listened for the sounds of footsteps behind him. Damned Klingons! They showed up in the strangest places. This was supposed to be a peaceful planet, and his mission here was routine, a simple investigation to help determine whether to grant the Stradiths admission into the Federation. The last thing he had expected to run into was Klingons. There had to be more to this planet than he had expected if the Klingons were interested, and this would have to be much more than the routine investigation he had planned. Damn! He wished Spock were with him, but he was on his own this time, and the Enterprise wouldn't be back for a week. Nogura and his stupid 'routine assignments'--why did they always turn out to be the most trouble?
He darted around another corner and ran flat out into a tall, young Stradith. Why were they all so tall? This one looked pretty much like all the rest, only he had surprisingly blond hair. Still, his eyes were the dominant black found on Stradia.
"Come with me." The young man looked past Kirk in the direction of the Klingons and then beckoned him into a nearby doorway. "It's all right. You'll be safe with us."
Kirk was wary, but he followed the young man anyway. He didn't have much choice; despite the low gravity, he couldn't run anymore. His lungs burned as he gasped for oxygen, and his legs felt like jelly. Once they were inside, the young man closed and barred the sagging door, signaling to Kirk in the faint light that filtered through the cracks to remain still and silent. He complied instantly, leaning against the wall next to the door, staring sightlessly into the darkness of the room beyond, and listening to the footsteps run past the building and on down the street, the sound gradually diminishing until all was quiet again.
Kirk jumped and reached for his phaser when he heard a sudden scratching noise, then he stopped, still crouched in a defensive position, and smiled sheepishly as he noticed someone touch a small, burning stick to a tiny cord extending upward from a glass container filled with some kind of amber liquid. A match and a lamp! He had seen both in museums and antique shops, but never in use.
"You are from the Federation?" The young man broke the silence.
"Yes, how did you know?"
All four men straightened up and grinned at him. The shortest was almost two meters tall. Tilting his head back to look up at them, Kirk grinned back.
"Okay, so you knew. I'm Jim Kirk, captain of the Federation Starship Enterprise."
The Stradiths introduced themselves. The one who had rescued him was Aran. The others were Trall, Egan, and Brill. They all appeared young to Kirk, but that no longer surprised him when they explained who and what they were. Resistance fighters usually were young.
"The elders were afraid to fight; they never have had to do so, and they are too old to learn," Egan, the 'short' Stradith explained. "They merely gave in to the Klingons and agreed to allow them to set up a base here and mine the crystals."
Dilithium! That explained it.
"They didn't realize that once here, the Klingons would take over power, killing more than half our population when we finally began fighting back, and then would make us a virtual slave planet, the youngest and healthiest of those who survived the initial takeover forced to work the mines for them. Bah!" The volatile Stradith spat on the floor. "That for their lack of understanding. They are the elders; they should have understood."
"Easy, Egan." It was yellow-eyed Brill who tried to calm him down. "Please excuse my brother, Jim Kirk. He is young and hot-headed. The important thing is that you are here. Stradia applied for membership in the Federation before the Klingons came, and we have been waiting a long time for your arrival. Now that you are here, you can help us fight the devils. With your ship and weapons, perhaps we can successfully rid our planet of this pestilence."
"It must be done soon." Trall entered the conversation. Tall even for a Stradith, he had a dark, menacing appearance. "Their battlecruiser is returning in five days, with reinforcements and plans to transport the more 'troublesome' of us away from here, to work us elsewhere."
"Can you contact your ship now?" Aran couldn't hide his eagerness.
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid we have a small problem." Kirk hated to disillusion them. "My ship isn't here; I'm all alone."
"Alone! In the name of Strai, what are you doing here alone?" Egan began to pace the room.
"Sorry." Why should he feel guilty? It wasn't his fault the Klingons had invaded. "This was supposed to be routine, and we had other duties to take care of. I came to Stradia to evaluate your request for Federation membership and sent my ship on to handle the other matters. They're due back in seven days."
"Seven days. Zhai! That will be too late!"
"Calm yourself, Egan." Again, it was Brill who interrupted his brother's tirade. "We'll just have to go ahead with our original plans." He paused and turned to Kirk. "At least we have one more who will fight."
Kirk returned the look and sat at the table with the Stradiths to learn their plans for defeating the Klingons in five days or less. It would have been amusing if it weren't potentially so tragic.
Actually, the Stradiths had a pretty good plan. They had fallen to the Klingons in the first place because they had so few defenses. Theirs was a strange culture, a mixture of up-to-date and archaic technology like Kirk had never seen before. Sparsely populated and peaceful for generations, Stradia had no need for either a military or an armed police force. Although the Stradiths had developed a small civilian space agency, they had only a handful of spaceships used solely for scientific expeditions to nearby planets within their own star system. It had been strictly by chance that one of their scientific teams had met with the landing party of a Federation vessel exploring the Stradia system and learned of the possible advantages of membership in the UFP.
Stradia was basically an agricultural world, with only three urban centers, two of which were demolished in the doomed attempt to repel the initial Klingon takeover. The space program also was a casualty to that takeover, with the ships, their crews, and even the planet-based scientists and technicians, all destroyed, along with Stradia's limited industrial centers. The Klingons spared only the scattered farms, Stradia City, and the nearby dilithium crystal deposits in their conquest of the once-peaceful planet.
The Stradiths had no armed forces, no weapons other than primitive guns and bows and arrows used for hunting and protection from the planet's wild animals. Therefore, all of the real weaponry was in the hands of the Klingons, but it wasn't hopeless. Despite their lack of military experience, the strong, intelligent natives were learning through necessity what they had never needed to know before--tactics, strategy, even deceit and aggression. A Stradia agent had learned the location of the Klingon weapons. There was a stockpile of explosives in an old warehouse a few blocks from the house in which the resistance group was holed up, and reportedly there were more sophisticated weapons aboard a Klingon fighter ship, which was hidden, cloaked, somewhere in the desert north of the city.
The first part of their plan was for the group in the house to steal some of the explosives from the warehouse, not enough to be noticed too soon, but enough to supplement their primitive weapons, enabling them both to create a diversion and to eliminate as many Klingons at one time as possible.
Once they had the weapons, they were supposed to locate the Klingon fighter. Initially, they had planned to blow it up, but Kirk's presence brought a change in plans. If he could fly the thing, they would steal it, take it into orbit and be ready to attack the battlecruiser when it arrived. Their group, with a couple more to help operate the fighter, would be responsible for that part of the campaign, while a second group took the stolen explosives and demolished the building where the Klingon leaders were housed, a second where most of the rest of the alien contingent was supposed to be staying, and the ammunition stockpile, all simultaneously. The three explosions would draw the attention of the guards at the ship, along with any other stray Klingons, enabling them to steal the ship and escape from Stradia.
Even if they couldn't destroy any incoming Klingon ships, perhaps they could hold them off for the two extra days until the Enterprise returned and joined the battle.
It had promise, but Kirk was a bit dubious. In the first place, he doubted they could rid themselves of the Klingons on Stradia so easily; there were bound to be some who escaped, possibly enough to be a continuing problem. As for the plan to steal the fighter, it was true that he knew how to handle just about every station on a Federation starship of any class, but he couldn't do it all alone, and there would be no time to adequately train the resistance men to be any real help. Plus, he wasn't sure he could operate a Klingon ship. He couldn't read their language and might have real difficulty figuring out what controls did what.
Still, at least it was a plan, and it was better than just waiting for the additional Klingons to arrive, take them prisoner, and either put them to work in the mines or transport them off-planet for slave labor elsewhere--or maybe even kill them. For Captain James T. Kirk, any action was better than none at all.
A while later, when all had been dark and silent for several hours, Brill extinguished the lamp, and the five men slipped quietly from their hiding place, stealthily running down the deserted street until they reached the warehouse where the munitions were stored. After they observed the building a few minutes from all sides, Kirk took his phaser and stunned the single guard at the rear door. He hesitated only briefly. With Klingon disruptors already on this planet, it was hardly a true violation of the Prime Directive to use his phaser. Leaving Aran as lookout and to keep an eye on the stunned guard, the other four men entered the building and examined the stockpile, finally taking the plastic explosives after Kirk informed them they were both the most lethal and the most portable, their small bulk making it unlikely that their absence would be noticed so long as the more massive weaponry remained intact.
Minutes later, they left the building. Aran already had the Klingon guard propped up against the side of the building, a bottle of the local intoxicant in one hand, with most of its contents poured on and in him. No one would believe him when he tried to tell them he had been attacked. He hadn't seen anyone, and the obvious evidence of his drunkenness was more likely to earn him some time on a work gang, at the very least, than to convince his superiors that there was an organized resistance on Stradia.
Carrying their cache, the five men hurried down the streets, not back to the house where they had spent the first part of the night, but in the opposite direction. As the sun rose in the sky, Kirk followed the others as quickly as he could on his shorter legs, thankful once again for the low gravity and the fact that at least he was in good shape. He hoped they would reach their destination, wherever it was, soon.
Finally, they left the city behind them, slowing to a walk as they headed for the hills to the west. They had gotten out none too soon. More and more people were appearing on the streets, and they had drawn more than one curious stare as they hurried on their way.
"Are you all right, Jim Kirk?" It was Brill, the oldest and steadiest of the group who was concerned for his welfare.
Kirk managed a weak grin as he fought to fill his aching lungs. "I will be now. Just let me catch my breath a bit. And, Brill, just call me Jim."
The Stradith smiled back. "Whatever you say--Jim."
Suddenly, the group stopped, and Trall made a strange whistling sound that had to be an imitation of some kind of indigenous bird. An answering echo started them moving again, through the trees and across yet another hill into a small, open valley. There they found the rest of the Resistance.
It was a curiously contradictory group, both impressive--mostly for their physical size--and unimpressive; they seemed unorganized and undisciplined to Kirk's Starfleet-trained eyes. They all quickly dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to greet the newcomers, eyeing Kirk suspiciously.
"Friends, I bring help." Brill gestured to Kirk. "This is Captain Jim Kirk of the United Federation of Planets. He will join us in defeating the invaders."
The other resistance fighters exchanged relieved looks, but one showed only disdain for the Enterprise officer.
"He's going to help us? This puny specimen?"
Kirk was surprised at the question coming from what looked to him like the smallest Stradith in the group. This one was only a little taller than he was and much slighter of build. He couldn't be more than a teenager.
"Now, Ghia, give him a chance. He may be small, but he's smart, and he has knowledge of the Klingons we can use. You do want to get rid of the bastards, don't you?" Obviously, it was just a rhetorical question. The youth glared at Aran, but gave no reply.
Kirk was still more surprised when he saw Aran approach the doubter and put a gentle arm around his shoulders, which looked narrow even in the bulky jacket the kid was wearing. Then he looked closer and realized his mistake. This was no youth; it was a woman.
"My sister, Ghia," Aran introduced her, and Kirk immediately saw the resemblance. She had the same black eyes and blond hair, only hers was cut a little longer than her brother's. Up close, however, she appeared several years older and outwardly much tougher than the youthful Aran, who was apologizing for her outburst. "Please excuse her, Jim. She tends to be rather fierce; I guess it comes from all those years of protecting her 'little' brother from the older boys."
Ghia, who was dwarfed by her brother, obviously wasn't cowed by him. She answered his taunts with a hard fist in his belly. He grunted and immediately stopped his teasing, although he continued to grin at her.
Ghia walked over to Kirk and eyed him carefully, slowly circling him to gauge his strength and fitness. Finally, she stopped in front of him and met his eyes squarely for several long minutes. He found her stare disconcerting; it was almost as though she could read his mind, but he felt no presence there, so he ignored the tingling feeling between his shoulder blades and simply met her gaze, look for look. After a few minutes, she nodded and turned to walk away. "He'll do," she pronounced, and everyone went on about their business, as though that settled everything.
As Ghia walked away from him, Kirk turned to Brill who still stood nearby. "What was that all about?"
"Ghia has the sight."
"The sight? You mean she's telepathic?"
Brill appeared as confused as he was. "Telepathic?"
"Yes, does she read minds?"
"Not minds, characters. She can read the essence of a man, tell if he is honest, brave, trustworthy, or if he is evil. You passed inspection. No one will question your presence now."
"I'm flattered." The tone of his voice told Brill he wasn't anything of the sort.
The big Stradith laughed gently, then led Kirk over to an open fire. "Come on, Jim. Let's get something to eat, and then some sleep. We've got a big night ahead of us."
They left at dusk, the same four Stradith men, Kirk, and Ghia, slipping silently through the dark streets to a large house, where the Stradith men stood guard, and Ghia led Kirk to a basement doorway, quickly entering the building, barring the door behind them. She led him up a back stairway to the second floor and down a hallway to a tiny, sparsely furnished room. There was a bed, a small table, a rocking chair, a few articles of clothing hanging on hooks on the wall, and nothing else. Tossing her jacket on the bed, Ghia pulled back a tiny rag rug on the floor and directed him down. Then he saw it, a hole in what was the floor of this room and the ceiling of the one below.
"They'll come in there when they finish eating. Brill says you have a device in your arm that enables you to understand us and the Klingons."
"Yes. It's called a universal translator, a very useful device." He was beginning to understand his presence here.
"Good. I listen every night, but I don't understand their language very well, and I can't ask too many direct questions." Her eyes avoided his. "Maybe you'll be able to learn where their ship is hidden." She stood back up and settled cross-legged on the bed, waving him into the chair. "We have a little while to wait. We might as well relax and be comfortable."
So she wanted to talk. That was fine with him, but it wasn't going to be casual conversation. There were other things he wanted to learn.
"You work here?"
"Yes, I clean, not that they notice much when I do."
He laughed. "I can believe that. Back home on Earth we have a saying, that 'cleanliness is next to godliness.' I can't think of anything less godly than a Klingon."
She laughed, too, but the sound was a little hollow.
"How do you manage to get away for the entire day if you're supposed to be cleaning?"
"I told them it was my day off." Her eyes twinkled. "It's the third time this week. They don't seem to notice much how I spend my days."
"I can believe that. The cleaning woman is the last person a Klingon would show any interest in--unless he had other uses for her." His laughter died when he saw the cold look come over her face.
Ghia stood and walked to the window, staring out at the darkness. Despite her height, she looked curiously vulnerable standing there, and even slighter than he had at first thought. Without the heavy jacket, he realized, her feminine curves and surprisingly delicate bone structure were evident. Pondering her cold expression, Kirk began to understand her fierceness and hostility. He stood and walked over behind her, touching her shoulder with a gentle hand, attempting to convey the sympathy and compassion he was feeling. She flinched and pushed him away.
"You'd better stay away from the window. Someone might see you." It was just an excuse to make him keep his distance, but he accepted it without question. She was entitled to her privacy if she wanted it. Still, he could see the anger building inside of her. Someday soon, she was going to explode. He just hoped it would be in the right direction.
A sound below them drew their attention to the hole in the floor, and they knelt side by side to listen to the Klingons.
The minutes ticked by and turned into hours as the Klingons talked about everything but the one thing they needed to know--where the ship was hidden. Then finally one Klingon stood and stretched. Ghia jumped to her feet and quickly pulled the rug back over the hole, signaling Kirk to stand as well.
"Hurry, we've got to get you out of here before they find you." She spoke in a whisper.
That cold, forbidding look was back on her face, shutting him out, so he didn't argue, merely followed her from the room and back down the stairway to the basement door. She opened it, and he started through, then turned back to her, studying her a moment with a mixture of concern, compassion, and respect. Finally, he reached up and took her face between his hands, pulling it down and holding her still while he kissed her once, gently but firmly. Then he was gone.
She stared after him only a second, then shut and re-barred the door, hurrying back up the stairs, then pausing before starting down the hallway. She squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and raised slightly trembling fingers to wipe the sudden moisture from her eyelashes. With a deep breath, she began moving again.
Kirk left the building in a crouch, darting across the vacant lot behind it and into the shed where the Stradiths were waiting for him.
Egan immediately demanded to know what they had learned.
"Nothing of importance."
"What do you mean?" Egan grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. Kirk met the Stradith's eyes calmly, showing neither fear nor anger at his harsh treatment.
"I mean," he began in level tones, "that we learned nothing of importance. All they talked about was food, women, the quality of the dilithium deposits, and how soon they could get away from here. They never mentioned the ship. Then they broke up for the night and headed for bed. Ghia thought it would be a good time for me to leave."
"I guess she didn't want to take a chance on you being found." Kirk turned at Aran's words, carefully keeping all expression from his face. "She said they sometimes check the servants' rooms at night. I don't know what they expect to find, but it sure wouldn't be you." He grinned unselfconsciously, and Kirk relaxed a bit. Then a more thoughtful look came over the young Stradith's face. "I was concerned when she first took the job, but we had to have someone in the house, to find out what they're up to, and it was easier for a woman than a man. The Klingons don't trust us, but they seem to feel a woman isn't a threat to them. Besides, since the first fighting ended, they seem to leave our women alone. I guess they're just not their type. Thank Strai! No matter how much she learns from them, if I thought--"
"Let's get out of here for now," Brill interrupted before his young friend could finish the sentence. "We'll take you back at dark tomorrow, and you can listen again. Maybe you'll learn something then."
"I think we'd better try something else," Kirk suggested, still carefully watching Aran. He had a feeling Ghia's brother was more suspicious than he admitted. He was rationalizing everything a bit too much, as though he were trying to convince himself rather than simply explaining the situation to the Terran. "We don't have a lot of time, and we could just be wasting what little we do have waiting for them to drop us a hint in their after-dinner conversation." Kirk's words brought a look of relief to Aran's face, further contradicting his earlier comments.
Trall obviously didn't share Aran's suspicions. He laughed. "He just doesn't want to have to spend another evening with Icy Ghia," he teased his young friend.
Almost glad to find an outlet for his simmering emotions, Aran grabbed Trall by the collar and glared directly in his face. "Don't call her that!" His anger surprised the bigger man.
"All right, you two, break it up." Once again, it was Brill who served as the peace-maker.
Aran stared at Trall a minute longer, then released him and turned away without apology. He looked at Kirk uncertainly. "She's not really icy," he tried to explain, once again coming to his sister's defense. "She's always been very gentle, loving... It's just, well...After all, she does have more reason than any of us to hate the Klingons." He ended on a note as fierce as any heard in Ghia's voice.
He had Kirk's attention again. "What do you mean?"
"Didn't she tell you?"
There was a cold knot in Kirk's stomach.
"They killed her husband, and her little boy. It was the first battle after they arrived, almost six months ago now. She saw them, and she couldn't do anything to stop it. I found her hiding a little while later. She was just sitting there in the closet, staring in the darkness, and outside, in the other room..." Gentle Aran's face grew harder and colder as he described the bloody scene in his sister's house. "I'll never forget the sight of little Degan..."
Brill squeezed his young friend's shoulder. "We all lost family and friends to the Klingons," he told Kirk, "but I think what they did to Ghia's family was the worst. There was barely enough left of the baby to bury. And Rhill... He must have fought fiercely to save his son."
"Ghia blames herself," Aran resumed his explanation, the hard edge still in his voice. "She thinks she should have fought, too. But then they would have just killed her as well. It was better that she live...to fight with us now, when we have a chance to defeat them. We'll make them pay for what they did. I swear it."
"We will defeat them." Trall attempted to reassure Aran, in partial atonement for his earlier teasing. "Together, we will rid our planet of these animals. And we'll never be caught so unprepared again. We're learning to fight now, and with the Federation's support..." He turned to Kirk. "At first it was the scientific and cultural benefits of Federation membership that interested us. Now we understand that the military advantages of such an alliance can be just as important--if not more so."
Kirk was saddened, as always, to see a naturally peaceful people corrupted by the interference of more militaristic societies, but that was part of the reason for the Federation's existence--to protect such people from invasion by warrior races like the Klingons. There was no need to voice such sentiments, however. Trall's own words had shown that the Stradiths understood. Kirk felt anything he said would be just empty platitudes, so he just kept silent and then moved out with the other men when Brill suggested again that they leave.
Once again, he had trouble keeping up with the Stradiths, but he almost welcomed the stitch in his side that came from the too-strenuous pace; it helped ease that knot still in his stomach. Obviously, Aran at least suspected what went on in the Klingon house; he just wouldn't admit it. It was easier to live with that way, but Kirk was tempted to force him to acknowledge what his sister was going through. Then, maybe they'd get her out of there, before what she was doing destroyed her sanity. Her activities weren't that unusual in espionage operations, but they obviously were tearing her apart. He understood even better after hearing Aran's story. More than patriotism and hatred for the Klingons drove her. It was her own sense of guilt. Unfortunately, once it was all over, her actions were likely to intensify those feelings instead of relieving them. Damn! There had to be another way to get the information, one that would get her out of that house--fast.
The arguments continued back at the resistance camp until Kirk had finally had enough. Rising to his feet, he stalked a short distance away from the others and stared up at the stars. Unable to resist, he faced northeast and measured a distance precisely thirty-five degrees up from the horizon. There it was. At precisely that very moment, his ship was orbiting that particular star, completing the other routine mission Nogura had assigned him. He had never wanted so badly to be on board the Enterprise.
He shook his head and turned back toward the still-arguing Stradiths. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn't know the first damned thing about fighting Klingons. Prime Directive or no Prime Directive, he was going to have to take charge. Otherwise, this planet was going to stay under the domination of the Klingons and some very nice people were going to be hurt, probably killed--and he might be one of them! Rolling his neck to release the tension he knew soon would blossom into a major headache, he strode back to the campfire and stood silently over the men grouped there, waiting patiently until Brill noticed him and gestured to the others to be quiet.
"You have a suggestion, Jim?"
"No, I don't have a suggestion. I have a proposition to make you." All eyes were on him now; he had to do this right. "I'm impressed by your efforts so far, but you're running out of time. If you had months, hell, even weeks, you might defeat the Klingons using your tactics. But you don't. You've barely got a couple of days, and guerilla attacks won't win a war in a couple of days." He paused, then added, "And we'll never find out exactly where that fighter is by listening through a hole in the floor.
"You've got to stop playing soldier and start acting like you really are professional fighting men. Otherwise, we might as well just give up now and let the Klingons have Stradia."
"Where do we start?"
Kirk was surprised when the cool, level-headed question came from Egan, surprised but pleased. If he had reached this one, the rest would follow. He hunched down next to the fire, the Stradiths gathering around as he began to outline the new plan. No one seemed to notice that he had taken over the leadership role without anyone questioning his authority.
The sun had already been up for several hours when Trall and Egan strolled along the streets of Stradia City, blending in with the crowds heading to work, matching their strides to those of the other pedestrians and glancing around casually, trying to search for something without seeming to do so.
"There!" Egan nudged his partner's arm and nodded ahead and across the street. A Klingon soldier was just turning to the right, down a side street, away from the crowd. The Stradiths quickly crossed the road and followed him, staying just far enough behind to keep from being noticed until the crowd had disappeared completely.
Then Trall took out Kirk's phaser, checked to be sure the setting was as the Terran had shown him. He aimed the weapon and fired point blank at the broad back. The Klingon crumpled to the ground, and they hurried forward to pick him up and drag him off the street and toward a seemingly empty building only a few meters away.
When they reached the door, it opened quickly, and other hands reached out to drag the captive inside the building. He was lifted from the floor and placed in a chair, his hands bound behind his back, a gag forced in his mouth, and his weapons removed. Then the three Stradiths and one Terran sat down to wait.
Aran hurried through the streets for the house where his sister worked, approaching it from the rear and knocking on the door. Luckily, it was the native cook who answered his knock, and she didn't question him when he told her he needed to see his sister immediately. Ghia answered her call right away, and Aran hurried her away from the house, mumbling something to the cook about a family emergency.
Ghia kept silent only until they were out of sight of the house, then she stopped dead in her tracks. "All right, Aran," she demanded. "What's this all about?"
"We need you, Ghia. Kirk sent me."
"He sent me to get you."
"In the name of Strai--"
"Come on, Ghia. We don't have time to argue. I'll explain when we get there."
Ghia hurried along with her brother, her anger growing with each step. How dared he! He had no right to interfere. The graesch! It was none of his business, none of his business at all. By the time they reached the abandoned building, she was in a towering rage and stomped inside and up to Kirk, demanding an immediate explanation. He was genuinely puzzled and glanced at Aran quizzically.
"Didn't you tell her?"
Aran shrugged. "There wasn't time."
Kirk sighed. "We need your help, Ghia. We've captured a Klingon, and we're going to question him as soon as the phaser stun wears off. We need you to read him and tell us if he's being truthful."
She turned to Brill. "This is the truth?"
"Of course, Ghia. Why else would we have sent for you?"
Ghia glanced around the room at her friends and brother, realizing it was the simple truth. She looked back at Kirk and flushed a little in embarrassment.
"I don't know," she mumbled, then approached the Klingon, who moaned softly at exactly that moment. It gave her an excuse to change the subject, but not before she caught the knowing look in Kirk's eyes. "I believe he is regaining consciousness," she noted.
Trall moved in back of the Klingon and grabbed him by the stringy hair, jerking his head back with enough strength to give even the mighty warrior whiplash. The Kh'myr grunted with pain and opened slightly unfocused eyes to find a woman staring into his face. A woman!
"All right, you graesch! Where is it?"
Her furious question only seemed to puzzle the Klingon. He didn't know what "it" was, and he certainly didn't know what a "graesch" was. Even if he had understood the woman's question, however, there was no way he could have answered with the gag in his mouth--even in the unlikely event that he might have considered it. Kirk almost laughed, but he knew it would only make matters worse, so instead, he approached Ghia, touching her gently on her arm.
"Let me," he suggested softly. She opened her mouth as though to protest, then seemed to think better of it, moving aside to let him handle the questioning.
Kirk stood over the Klingon silently a moment, then nodded to Trall, who grinned and yanked again on the captive's hair--even harder. The warrior gave a strangled yell around the gag and strained against the ropes holding him in the chair. Eyes filled with pain and hatred met Kirk's, which were completely devoid of any compassion.
"Remove the gag, Trall," he ordered, his cold eyes never leaving the Klingon's face. "I think he knows better than to yell now." He handed the phaser he had retrieved from Trall to Egan. "Take this and point it at him, just in case he doesn't. Oh," he took the weapon back a moment, adjusting the setting. "we'll set it on kill first."
The Klingon's glance slid from Kirk to the weapon he had handed Egan, moved on to the hot-tempered Stradith, then went back to Kirk.
"What do you want to know?" The words seemed cooperative, but his eyes remained defiant.
"I knew he would cooperate," Kirk told the Stradiths with a humorless grin, deliberately ignoring the look. "What is your name?"
"Krager." He was waiting for a more important question to demonstrate his defiance.
"Very well, Krager. What we want you to do is to tell us where your ship is."
"Our ship is in orbit, AGGHHH!" His sentence ended in a yelp of pain as Kirk nodded to Trall and the Stradith yanked again on his hair, pulling his head back at a painful angle that strained the tendons in his powerful neck.
"Come now, Krager. We know better than that. I want answers, I want them truthful, and I want them now. Or he," he nodded in Trall's direction, "will do more than pull your hair." Responding to the threat, the Stradith took out a sharp-edged knife and placed the steel blade against the Klingon's throat, while still holding his head back by the hair.
"Show him how sharp it is."
Trall instantly complied, pressing the knife just enough to draw a single drop of blood. The Klingon's eyes narrowed with increased hatred and fear as he felt the razor-edged blade bite into his flesh. Yet his head remained unbowed, and his shoulders squared. The warrior was ready to meet his death rather than submit to Kirk and the Stradiths.
"Where's the ship?" Kirk asked the question, not really expecting a straight answer.
"In the desert, to the north." They already knew that, and Krager knew that they knew.
"Yes, but where?"
Still Krager refused to answer, his eyes blazing with hatred. "Kill me, if you like, Earther. It would bring me much honor." It would take more than pain or the threat of death to break this Kh'myr warrior.
Kirk sighed, then he caught the look on Trall's face as the huge Stradith calmly set his knife aside, reached all the way around Krager's shoulders with his right arm to grasp the warrior's left shoulder, then placed his left fist squarely between the Klingon's shoulder blades.
"I have a better idea, Jim." His matter-of-fact voice made his words somehow even more menacing. "There is a technique known to my people, seldom used, but very effective. All I have to do is press here..." He demonstrated with his left hand. "...and yank back here..." His right hand tightened, and he flashed a feral grin. "He won't die, but he'll wish he had. Life as a quadriplegic isn't much fun for anyone, but for a Kh'myr warrior..." His voice trailed off as he let the idea sink in. Then he smiled again. "Besides, who would ever believe he had remained silent through that? I'm sure his friends could find many ways to make him pay for his weakness."
The Klingon's eyes darted from man to man, settled on Ghia, then, accurately deciding there was even less chance of pity there, moved back to Kirk. He gave it up as hopeless. He could face death, but not the existence Trall promised him. As long as he had the use of his hands, he still had the option of suicide to regain his honor. But a life of total dependence, scorned as a traitor... He began talking.
"Slow down!" Kirk ordered the Stradiths.
"What's the matter, little man, can't you keep u--" Egan's taunt was cut short as he ran into something invisible in the darkness.
Kirk laughed. "Yeah, I can keep up, big man. But we've reached the coordinates Krager gave us. That thing you just ran into is their ship."
Egan rubbed the side of his head where it had connected with the cloaked vessel, thanking Strai that he had turned to look at Kirk before running into it. Otherwise, he'd probably have a broken nose instead of just a lump on his hard head. He grinned sheepishly.
Kirk eased closer to the ship, reaching his hands out to touch the invisible metal and then slide along its surface, searching for the release mechanism Krager had told them about. Finally he found it, depressed it, and watched as the ramp slowly lowered to the ground, granting them access to the alien ship. He directed the others inside, then followed, closing the doorway behind him and moving forward onto the bridge and to the controls. There was a bridge, an engine room, phasers, a small storage area containing just two photon torpedoes, and little more inside the compact fighting ship.
He was a little disappointed. The fighter was smaller than he had expected, little bigger than a shuttle. But, still, it was armed, and it did have at least minimal warp power. If he could figure out how to pilot it and handle its weaponry, they had a chance. A big "if."
It had been a pleasant surprise when Krager told them there were no guards at the ship. That made their job easier, and enabled them to be already on board when the explosions came. At the sound of the first blast, Kirk looked up. Right on time, but how the hell did he operate this damned alien vessel?
Ignoring the commander's chair, Kirk settled into the helmsman's position. The rest of his "crew" wouldn't be much good at this; it was going to take some fancy flying to get them into orbit and keep them there, especially when the fighting began. This time it was Sulu he wanted with him instead of Spock. No, make that in addition to Spock. He grinned ruefully. He could use Chekov, Scotty, Uhura, and Bones, too. He had never appreciated their various talents half as much as he did right now.
Eying the controls carefully, Kirk tried to decide logically what each was for, then, with a mute apology to his Vulcan friend, he gave up and just trusted his instincts. He knew he worked best that way, and, besides, no amount of logic was going to help him with this jumble of Klingon hieroglyphics. He gave the controls a last, careful appraisal, then started pushing buttons. The ship came to life beneath his fingers. A surge of adrenalin swept through his body as he felt the engines begin a low throb.
"Brill, take that position," Kirk ordered, indicating what obviously was the primary weapons station. He needed Brill's level-headedness there. His hesitation so slight the Stradiths didn't even notice, he took time for only a quick sideways glance at the weapons console, before resuming his rapid-fire orders. "Flip both levers at the top of your console, then be ready to push the buttons beneath, but only on my signal. We just have a couple of torpedoes, and we don't want to waste them."
"Ghia, you'll be next to him. You have two buttons to be concerned with, the forward and aft phasers. But don't get an itchy trigger finger."
"Don't fire unless I give you an order. We don't want to shoot the wrong thing." Kirk didn't notice the glare she gave him in response, his attention already shifting to the next station.
"Aran, you take the communications position and monitor all the frequencies." He continued to delegate responsibilities. "Don't say anything, just listen-- if you can figure how to turn the damned thing on. I want to know the minute a ship of any kind approaches us, theirs or mine.
"Does anybody know anything about navigation?" Silence. He hadn't thought so. He'd have to take care of that, too. "And I don't suppose we have an engineer on board." He sighed and waved a hand in resignation. "The rest of you, just find some place to sit."
Still acting on instinct, Kirk moved his hands over the ship's controls, trying to decide exactly what each one did, hoping he wouldn't make a serious mistake. "Aran, activate the viewscreen."
"I don't know. Guess."
Aran shrugged and began pushing buttons. Nothing happened with the first two, then a loud squawk came out of the speakers on the bridge.
"Not that one!"
"Sorry." Aran pushed another button, and this time the viewscreen came to life, just in time to be filled with a gigantic flash of light.
"There goes the munitions warehouse." There was a note of glee in Egan's voice.
Kirk couldn't help but empathize with the Stradith's reaction. He pressed another button and felt the power surge in the compact fighter, preparing it for take off. Then, another explosion filled the viewscreen.
"That's the third one!" Egan was still excited.
"Hang on," Kirk warned them, and the little ship lifted from the ground, easing slowly upward. They watched the ground drop away from them gradually, then Kirk pushed yet another button and the fighter seemed to leap forward with a sudden burst of speed, moving beyond the planet's atmosphere and into the void of space beyond. The human's face took on a rapt expression as the viewscreen was filled with a field of black and countless dots of light. He was back where he belonged, even if it was in an alien ship.
"Now what?" It was Trall who demanded the answer.
"We wait for someone to arrive, and we figure out better how to operate this ship, so we'll be ready for action when the fighting begins."
Almost twenty-four hours passed while they waited for the Klingons to arrive. They took turns resting, all but Kirk, who spent the intervening time teaching the Stradiths how to operate the various controls as best he could, all the time keeping one eye alternately on the viewscreen and the sensors at the science station, fearful that the Klingons might arrive sooner than scheduled.
At least the Stradiths were naturally intelligent. They learned quickly and well, and Kirk began to feel a little more confident about their chances in a battle situation.
The best thing they had in their favor, though, was the element of surprise. Cloaked, they wouldn't be noticed by the Klingons until it was too late--he hoped! He planned to have Brill ready with armed torpedoes and Ghia with hands on the phaser controls, prepared to shoot, when they emerged from the cloak. Hopefully, they could fire and cripple the Klingon ship before its commander realized what was happening.
Kirk's hands played over the helm controls as he moved through various maneuvers, twisting and turning the little ship in space, testing both himself and the fighter. It had been a long time since the starship captain had flown anything so sophisticated on his own, but the skills were so deeply ingrained, they quickly came back to him. He found an almost sensual pleasure in his personal control of the ship.
Kirk swung his chair around to face Aran.
"I'm picking up something, but I can't understand it."
"Put it on speakers."
Instantly, Aran complied. Although young and inexperienced, he was quick. He had picked up the basics of the communications system sooner than Kirk had either expected or hoped.
What had been only gibberish to the Stradith came through loud and clear to Kirk, who was aided by his translator.
"It's the Klingon ship. They're...about three hours away and trying to reach their base on Stradia. They can't understand why they're not getting any response. Let's hope they think it's some kind of equipment malfunction."
Intently, all humor and teasing forgotten, Kirk and the Stradiths went through their drills again and again as they waited for the enemy to arrive. The tension had built almost to the breaking point, when Trall at the science station reported a blip on his screen.
"Switch it to the mainviewer, and put it on maximum tactical."
The Stradith instantly responded to Kirk's order, and the exterior view disappeared, replaced by a computerized image of the Stradia system and an approaching blip that could only be the Klingon ship. They watched the blip gradually grow in size, its design taking shape on the tactical display--a K't'inga-class heavy cruiser. Damn! Kirk ordered a switch back to the main view, knowing that the deadly vessel would be visible there now.
As he watched the battlecruiser glide into orbit, its crew apparently still unaware of the fighter's presence, Kirk maneuvered the little ship outward into a slightly larger orbit and slowed it down, letting the bigger vessel drift past before taking up position behind it.
"All right, everyone, get ready. On my order, Brill, you will disengage the cloak and raise shields. Ghia, you start firing phasers as soon as you have full power, and try to hit something." Once again, she glared at him.
"Brill, be ready to fire the torpedoes on my order. And the rest of you, just sit tight, okay?"
There were echoes of assent from throughout the bridge--the Stradia equivalents of okay, all right, sure, and fine. Damn! What he wouldn't give for just one "Aye, Sir."
"All right, Brill, NOW!" The ship emerged from its cloaking and the shields snapped up in place. At the same time, Ghia started firing the phasers and caught a glancing blow off the huge battleship. Although the Klingons had been caught off guard, they quickly returned the attack, letting loose with a salvo from their own phasers that barely missed the stolen ship. Kirk took the little fighter past the cruiser on the port side, Ghia firing away with the phasers, sheering off the tip of one wing.
Kirk swung the fighter into a wide turn and came back, headed directly at the bigger ship, darting quickly from side to side, narrowly avoiding its more powerful weapons.
"Ready, Brill. FIRE!" The first torpedo left the fighter, headed for the bulbous leading section of the cruiser. Again, he ordered, "FIRE!" Another torpedo followed the first, just as it reached the ship and detonated, tearing away half of the mighty warship. The second torpedo reached its target seconds later, and the blast of impact was echoed almost immediately by a larger explosion that lit up the entire screen. Kirk pulled back hard on the controls, lifting the fighter up and over the larger vessel, barely getting away without getting caught in the gigantic matter-antimatter explosion. When the light from the blast cleared from the viewscreen, there was nothing left but fragments of debris.
Immediately, a cheer spread around the bridge of the little fighter, and Kirk felt a wide grin stretch across his face. He turned to Ghia and, finding a similar silly smile plastered on her face, gave her a thumbs-up sign. Although it was an unknown gesture to her, she guessed at its meaning and returned it, glowing with triumph.
"Congratulations, gentlemen, Ghia. We did it. Now. Let's see if I can land this thing."
They all laughed.
Minutes later, Kirk landed the fighter and lowered the ramp. Suddenly, a figure darted toward them from the shadows of a nearby outcrop of rock. He ran up the ramp and gestured to Kirk to close it quickly.
"Get this thing back in the air." There was a note of desperation in his voice.
Examining the man's face quickly, Kirk reached a decision in seconds and turned back to the helm controls, firing up the impulse engines and lifting from the ground in a matter of seconds, ordering Brill to re-engage the cloaking device at the same moment. A loud explosion rocked the ship just as it disappeared from view, and Kirk's hands quickly moved over the controls, maneuvering the fighter in a one hundred eighty degree turn, taking it in the opposite direction and hoping he could get away before they figured out where he was headed. At that moment, another explosion sounded, but far behind him. It had worked!
Glancing at the new man who had joined them, Kirk recognized another of the resistance fighters he had met at their base camp. He turned back to his controls, circling the little ship around the city to the west and re-landing, under the protection of the cloak this time. He shut down the controls and turned to the newcomer.
"Some of the bastards got away, and they had another stockpile of munitions we didn't know about. The first place they headed was for the ship. When they found it was gone, they set up an ambush for you. I was sent to warn you."
"How did you evade capture?"
The Stradith shrugged massive shoulders, dismissing the question as unimportant. "Just lucky, I guess."
"How lucky were the rest, Taveer?" It was Ghia who asked the question, a slight tremor in her voice. Please, no, she thought. Don't let it all have been for nothing.
He shrugged again. "Some were, others not. We lost about a third of our people."
"Zhai!" She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them. "What now?"
"We've moved our headquarters, back into the city. I'll lead you there, and those of us left will decide what to do next."
"Aran, you and Egan stay here." Kirk was issuing orders again. "Keep the communications system scanning all frequencies, Aran, and send Egan to let us know if you pick up anything at all, but be very careful not to transmit anything. We don't want to let the Klingons know where you are."
Taveer gave Egan directions to the new resistance hideout, then led the others back to the city.
The Stradia resistance fighters had set up their new headquarters in yet another abandoned building in the central part of Stradia City. The Klingon takeover had left many such empty and damaged structures throughout the city, and Kirk was beginning to believe the resistance knew where each and every one was.
It was a discouraged group that gathered in that building. While Kirk's team had been successful in their part of the battle, the ground forces had been somewhat less than victorious. Although the three structures identified as being held by the Klingons had been demolished by the explosions, most of the Klingons had somehow escaped, set up headquarters elsewhere, and were holding the last two surviving planetary elders as hostage against further attacks. And they had still more explosives and weapons hidden in yet another warehouse, the location of which the resistance had not yet determined.
"Ghia learned the first location. Without her to report on activities within the Klingon stronghold, how will we learn anything?" asked Trall.
"I can go back."
Kirk sat up straight in his chair, staring at the pale face. "No."
"Why not? She was successful before."
"No. It's..." He hesitated a moment, uncertain how much to say. "...too dangerous. They might already have figured out that she's working with us."
"They might not, and we need the information." She glared at him.
"I said no."
Ghia jumped up from the table and paced around the room a minute, then grabbed her jacket and pulled open the door, leaving the room without further discussion. Kirk stood and started after her, only to be yanked back by Taveer.
"Let her go."
"This is her world, not yours. It's her choice if she wants to place herself in jeopardy. Every step we take is dangerous; this one is no more so. We each must do our part if we're going to free our world from this tyranny. This is hers. Let her do it."
Kirk's eyes circled the room, seeing agreement on the faces of the men and women there. There was understanding, too, and even a little reluctance, but they knew they were right. It was Ghia's choice. In silent acknowledgement, Kirk sat back down heavily. Then he made a silent vow. The Klingon bastard would pay. Before this was all over, the bastard would pay for the pain he was causing Ghia.
Ghia slipped silently through the dark streets, heart pounding, and not just from the exhaustion of running. She had thought she would never have to face him again, and here she was going back by her own choice. It wouldn't be for long this time, however. She promised herself that. Just as soon as she found out where the munitions were stored, she was going to get out and never go back. She'd do anything else necessary to free her people from the Klingons and to avenge the deaths of Degan and Rhill, but never again would she do this.
She reached the house, stopped a moment, taking a deep breath to give herself courage, then hurried on up the steps to the front door, pounding on it until another servant opened it.
"Ghia!" The old man was genuinely surprised to see her.
"Let me in!" She pleaded. "Before they see me." She glanced back over her shoulder nervously, as though afraid of someone following her.
"Ghia!" It was Korath standing in the doorway to a room full of other Klingons.
Steeling herself against the nausea that threatened to rise in her throat, she hurried to him, grabbing his powerful arms desperately.
"I came as soon as I could," she explained breathlessly. "I was in the marketplace when the first explosions occurred. At first, I thought you were all dead, and I was so afraid. I didn't know what they would do to me if they knew--"
"ghuy'cha!"(1) The Kh'myr silenced her with an oath, glancing back over his shoulder at the curious Klingons watching and listening to their conversation. He turned to them. "This is the cleaning woman from the other house. She was buying food when the attack came. She has returned to us and wants to continue serving us."
An even more evil-looking Klingon than Korath said something in his own language that Ghia couldn't understand, but she knew it was uncomplimentary--by the tone of his voice, the twisted grin on his face, and the dark look on Korath's. He shoved her away from him.
"Go," he ordered. "Have someone show you to your quarters. You can resume your duties tomorrow."
Korath glanced back into the room again. Finding the others deep in conversation, no longer paying them any attention, he continued in a harsh whisper. "Leave your door cracked. I'll find it." Then he turned his back on her and re-entered the room, closing the door behind him.
Ghia stood a moment, hesitating, then jumped when someone touched her arm. It was the same manservant who had let her into the house.
"Come with me. I'll show you to your room."
She met his eyes warily, wondering how much of the conversation he had heard, decided it didn't really matter and followed him up the stairs.
Kirk, Brill, Taveer, and a woman named Veela sat around the table in the resistance headquarters, discussing what action to take next when they heard a soft knock at the door. With phaser in hand, Kirk gestured to the others to extinguish the lamp, then he moved to the door, opening it a crack.
In the faint pre-dawn light, he recognized Ghia. Shifting the phaser to his other hand, he swung the door wide and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her inside, then quickly closed the door behind her. He stopped, still holding her by the arm, his back to the others as he searched her face intently, not missing the dark smudges beneath her eyes or the trapped, wild-animal look in them. Unable to stand his scrutiny, she pushed past him and approached the others.
"The weapons and explosives are housed in a warehouse just three blocks from the other one, due east." Her message given, Ghia turned away from them and pushed through another doorway, into the empty room beyond, closed the door behind her, leaned against it and then slowly slid to the floor, resting her head on her shaking knees.
"Let's go!" Brill ordered, and Taveer moved to a third door, calling to the men inside to join them. Their plans were complete; all they had needed was a location. Now they were ready to move out. "Let's go!" He repeated when Kirk hesitated, staring at the closed door. "Jim!" Kirk turned away from the door and moved to join the Stradiths. There would be time for Ghia later.
The resistance fighters moved through the city streets by twos, some heading for the warehouse, others for the Klingons' new headquarters. Kirk was with the latter group. He hoped he could find the right man. This was one death he would never regret.
Traveling with Brill, he rounded a corner and found himself facing the Klingon headquarters. The two men circled around the house and approached it from the rear, entering through the door Ghia had left ajar and moving up the back stairs. It was their job to rescue the hostage elders. Silently, they walked along the hallway at the rear of the building, easing open doors until they found the right one. The elders were tied to chairs, but unguarded, so they hurried in, cut their bindings and hauled them to their feet, gesturing to them to remain silent.
As they started back for the stairs, Kirk noticed the slightly open door across the hall, with the sound of heavy snoring coming from inside. Unceremoniously shoving the old man he was helping toward Brill, he gently pushed the door open further and saw the ugly Kh'myr lying flat on his back, a sheet pulled to his waist, his broad, hairy chest bare above. The sheets were half off the bed, the pillow next to the Klingon's dented, and there was an unmistakable heavy, musky odor in the room.
Something small and shiny on the floor caught Kirk's eye. He bent over and picked it up. A tiny golden earring. He recognized its design.
Kirk moved silently across the room to the window and watched a minute until he saw Brill and the two elders dart across the back yard to safety, then he raised his phaser and pointed it at the Kh'myr.
"Up!" He barked the order, and the Klingon's eyes popped open, the heavy body heaving upward from the bed, landing in a crouch at its side. His look met Kirk's defiantly despite the fact that he was both naked and unarmed, but his defiance seemed to die and be replaced by fear as he saw the cold hatred deep in the hazel eyes. Without lowering the weapon, Kirk adjusted the setting on the phaser deliberately, moving it from heavy stun to kill, his cold eyes never leaving Korath's.
"This is for Ghia," were the last words the Klingon heard.
"What took you so long?" Brill demanded when Kirk finally joined him and the elders.
"Some unfinished business. Let's get the hell out of here." He turned and led the others away from the house just seconds before twin explosions rocked most of the city. A quick glance over his shoulder told him the house was gone, and a look in the opposite direction revealed the destruction of the warehouse. Maybe this time it really was all over.
Suddenly, the streets were full of people armed with small hunting weapons, clubs, kitchen knives, anything they could find. After six months, the Stradiths at large had finally decided they had had enough and were going to join the resistance movement--just when it was no longer necessary. Kirk laughed so hard he had to sit down in the middle of the street. Brill stared at him a minute, glanced around, and then sat next to him and laughed just as hard. If only the others had joined them sooner, maybe so many would not have died. Still, they had been victorious.
Kirk's hysterical laughter was finally easing off when he heard a soft beep from the communicator attached to his belt. The calvary had arrived, a little late, but no less welcome. He pulled out his communicator and opened it.
"Enterprise to Captain Kirk." Never had Lieutenant Uhura's voice sounded so beautiful.
"We are in orbit, Sir. Are you ready to beam up?"
He glanced at the others. "One minute, Uhura.
"Brill, I need to return to my ship for a while. You can handle things now, but I'll be back down before we leave."
The Stradith nodded, then hurried the confused elders along the streets. Kirk opened his communicator again. "Lieutenant. I'm ready now. Energize."
When Kirk returned to Stradia two days later, after sending a message to the Federation Council and receiving a surprisingly quick reply, he was accompanied by Spock and McCoy. The Enterprise officers were horrified by the desolation they witnessed, although the Vulcan, as usual, hid his reactions well.
"Jim, this is awful. We never should have left you alone here."
"Never mind, Bones. Most of the destruction was over before I even arrived. The tragedy is that we didn't get here sooner, in time to stop the Klingons before they caused any of this. But they're gone now, and since Stradia has been granted protectorate status in the Federation, the planet will be given protection against another invasion. Hopefully, this will never happen here again."
"Are you all right, Jim?" Spock sensed there was more that was bothering his friend, but Kirk denied it.
"I'm okay, Spock. C'mon, you two. We've got a meeting with the new Council of Elders, to formally welcome them into the Federation."
At precisely that moment, they arrived at the planet's temporary government house. The original had been destroyed by the Klingons, and a new one would be built soon. In the meantime, this somewhat modest residence would serve.
The Starfleet officers walked up the steps and entered the building, where they were greeted by a tall, blond man. Spock's right eyebrow rose a fraction as he noticed the Stradith's tremendous height.
"Jim, welcome." Aran stepped forward to clasp Kirk's hand, smiling happily. Kirk introduced him to the others, and Aran then led them into the council chambers, where the ceremony was about to begin.
The ceremony lasted for more than an hour, and McCoy was fidgeting long before it was over. Finally, however, it was over, and they were leaving the hot room. A group of Stradiths, including two of the new "elders," gathered around Kirk, thanking him for his assistance and promising permanent loyalty to, and support for, the Federation.
Kirk glanced around the room, but he couldn't find a second blonde head. He turned to Aran. "Where's Ghia?"
"She wouldn't come." A shadow crossed over the young Stradith's face. "I don't understand it. Now that everything is over, she just stays in the house, refusing to talk to or even see anyone but me. It's like she's drawn into some kind of shell, and I can't get her out."
Kirk sighed. "She's probably still grieving over Degan and Rhill. She didn't really have a chance to deal with her losses before."
"Yeah, we all have some grieving to do." There was a new maturity in Aran's voice and manner. "But, with Ghia, there's somehow more. She..."
Kirk interrupted before the Stradith could continue. "Where is your house? I'll try to talk to her."
A hopeful smile spread over Aran's face. Maybe the Terran could help. He seemed to understand Ghia, and maybe she would talk to him when she wouldn't, or couldn't, talk to her brother. Aran took Kirk by the arm, hurrying him out of the building and down the street to an even more modest house a couple of blocks away. Then he complied with Kirk's request and left him there alone.
Kirk walked up to the door and knocked. When there was no answer, he took out the key Aran had given him and opened the door, entering the building quietly but without stealth. He didn't want to frighten her. He walked through the house, searching. Then he found her, sitting in a low chair in a second-story bedroom, staring out the window.
"Ghia." There was no sign that she heard him. He walked across the room, and hunched down next to her chair, taking her chin in his hand and turning her face toward him. The devastation cut him to the bone. She jerked her chin out of his hand and turned back to the window.
"Leave me alone."
"No, not this time. I'm not going to let you crawl into some hole and stay there until you die. You've got too much to live for."
"I have nothing to live for. No husband, no child, not even my self-respect."
"Stop it!" he ordered. "I don't want to hear you talking like that."
"No." He hesitated a minute. "Ghia, you did what you had to do."
"You didn't think so two days ago. You tried to stop me."
"Only because I didn't want you hurt any more. But it was your information that enabled us to destroy their weapons and defeat them. Without you, the plan never would have worked."
She turned to face him. "But I..." She paused, and a cold mask slid over her face. "I was nothing but a who--"
"NO!" He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "Never that."
Her eyes searched his face and found no condemnation there, only compassion, and her composure cracked, a single tear sliding down her cheek. "I am," she whispered brokenly.
"No, you aren't." He continued to hold her shoulders, gently. "You're a brave, strong, loyal woman who did what she had to do to save her people. There's no shame in that."
"But I just stood there and let them kill my husband... my child, and then he-- I let him--" Shuddering, she couldn't finish her sentences.
"You did what you had to do." He repeated his earlier words. "You couldn't have stopped them from killing your family. The first rule is survival; you had to live before you could do anything to stop them or to make them pay for what they did. As for the other, you're not the first person who did that, nor will you be the last. Sometimes we all have to do things we find...distasteful, disgusting, to accomplish a greater good. Forget what you did, and just remember that you helped your people. That's all that matters."
She met his eyes, not really believing him, but accepting his word for the moment. He saw another concern deep in her eyes.
"What if he survived?" she whispered.
"He could have. He lived through the first explosion; there might be survivors of this one, too, hiding out somewhere. He could come after me, to kill me...or worse."
"He won't come after you, Ghia." His voice was gentle, reassuring.
"But how can I be sure?"
"Because I killed him myself."
Her head snapped up, and she met his eyes incredulously. "You killed him? Why?"
"Because he put that hunted, haunted look in your eyes, and I couldn't bear it."
She lifted a hand to touch his face. "You did that for me?" She still didn't quite believe it.
He nodded silently. Her hand slowly slid down the side of his face and neck, stopping to rest on his shoulder, and she bent her head, hiding her face from him. The shoulders he still held in his hands began to shake, and suddenly she began to sob. He drew her close and rocked her in his arms, letting her cry out the pain and sorrow. Finally, she lifted her head and met his gaze again.
"I still don't understand." She really didn't.
"I'm not sure I do, either, except that it mattered. In the midst of everything else that was going on, what happened to you seemed to matter more than anything." He grinned wryly. "I don't know. You seemed more 'real' than the thousands of faceless people. I guess it's just the old 'knight-in-shining- armor syndrome.'" He laughed when she obviously didn't understand that reference either. "Sorry, it's just an old Earth tradition. Saving the damsel in distress and all that." He sighed at her continued confusion. "It's hard to explain. Just call it...one friend helping another."
She gave up; she'd never really understand, but somehow it didn't seem to matter any more. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek softly.
"Thank you, Jim Kirk."
He hugged Ghia one last time, then rose from the floor and left without further comment, glancing back to see her still sitting, staring outside once again, but with a look on her face that was just a little less tragic. She had a long way to go, but he knew she would be all right now.
Kirk left the house and returned to the government building where Spock and McCoy were waiting. His friends peered at him carefully.
"Everything okay, Jim?"
"Yeah, Bones." He glanced around him, took a deep breath, and looked up at the sky. "Let's go home."
1. A guttural phrase, roughly translated as "Show some balls."
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