"Out of the dead cold ashes, Life
--John Banister Tabb, Evolution
Ghia paused outside the closed doorway and took a few deep breaths before raising her right hand to knock, just two short, sharp raps. Then she pushed the door open and stepped inside without waiting for a response. The big swarthy man hard at work behind his desk looked up with an easy smile.
"Ghia! Come on in and have a seat. I didn't expect you back until tomorrow. How was the trip?"
The blonde relaxed and smiled back at him, taking the offered chair gratefully. She hadn't realized how tired she was until now. The inspection tour had been long and grueling, and she was glad to be back in the capital city.
"It was tiring, but very productive," she answered his question, her smile broadening and eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. "It's absolutely incredible, Shael, that so much has been done in such a short period of time."
"Yes, and largely due to your efforts. I'm glad I was able to talk you into this at least."
She shifted uncomfortably, then deliberately ignored the underlying implication of that last comment, instead taking it only at face value. "Thanks, Shael. I appreciate your support and encouragement. Without them, I never could have managed."
"Nonsense. You always had the potential; you just needed a little self-confidence."
"Maybe," she conceded, "but it was hard to be self-confident when I had so little training. What had I ever done to qualify as minister of industry?"
He laughed. "And what did I ever do to qualify as prime minister?" He sobered. "We survived, Ghia. We survived. You and I and Egan and Brill and your brother Aran and all the rest of us who worked so hard to save our world and then rebuild it."
Their eyes met, and they remembered...the horror, the destruction, the cold, paralyzing fear. The time of the Klingons.
Ghia sang softly as she prepared the evening meal for her husband, Rhill, who was busy entertaining young Degan in the other room. The fullness in her breasts told her the baby would soon begin demanding to be fed, but as long as he was happily playing with his father, she could continue her preparations. As she checked the progress of the casserole, she heard an explosion, and then the front door was flung violently open.
Ghia heard a harsh, guttural voice utter some unintelligible words, followed by the crashing sound of furniture overturning. She rushed for the door into the other room, then heard a high-pitched whining sound.
"NO! Don't ple--" Rhill's voice was cut off in mid-word, as Ghia eased the door open a crack just in time to see her handsome husband disappear into nothingness.
Degan sat wailing in the middle of the floor, and Ghia started to push her way through to him, then froze when another of the monsters invading her home turned his weapon on the child and fired. Eyes wide with horror, Ghia could only stare as her baby flared into flames that left only bits of charred flesh and bones in a matter of seconds.
The knot-headed monsters began to tear apart the front room of the house, looking for Strai-only-knew what. Face white and eyes staring in shock, Ghia slowly backed away from the doorway, searching desperately for some place to hide. She ducked into the closet that served as a pantry and sank to the floor, crossing her arms over her knees and burying her head.
She never knew how long she remained there, apparently unaware of the noise and destruction of the Klingons as they tore her house apart and then departed with anything of value they found. Why they didn't discover her, no one could figure out, but Aran had found her still cowering in the closet the next morning. He had lifted her to her feet and led her unprotesting body from the house and to a hiding place where other survivors had gathered. It would be days before she responded to their efforts at communication, and she never spoke of that night.
But others did, and little by little, Ghia had pieced together the story of the Klingon invasion. The aliens had arrived a few days earlier and convinced the pacifist elders to allow them to mine the dilithium crystals found on their world. The Klingons had shown the Stradiths their powerful weapons and told them to cooperate or face annihilation. With little means of defending their peaceful world, the elders had given in without a fight, agreeing to provide the manpower to operate the Klingon mines.
Then had come the real shock. Instead of merely taking the crystals as they were mined, the Klingons had decided that they wouldn't risk the chance of a future Stradith rebellion and had set out to wipe out as much of the planet's population as possible--or maybe they just killed them for kicks, enjoying the pain, horror, and destruction.
Whatever their reasons, they had demolished the tiny space fleet, then the centers of science and technology. Next they had bombed the cities of Idania and Alanna, leaving only the capital of Stradia City standing. There, their death squads had moved through the streets, invading homes and businesses, looting, raping and killing.
In a matter of days, two-thirds of the population was dead, with the remainder either scattered in the rural areas, enslaved to work in the mines, imprisoned awaiting transport off-planet, brow-beaten into working for their invaders, or in hiding, trying to figure out a way to fight back, hoping against hope that a scheduled envoy of the United Federation of Planets would arrive in time to turn back the Klingons before they destroyed what little was left of Stradia. It would be a long five deirets before that envoy arrived, a single man who yet managed to help them organize their resistance and overthrow their oppressors. Many more had died in that time, but enough had survived to begin the painful, lengthy process of rebuilding their world and their society. They still had a long way to go, but they had made much progress in the two deirains that had passed since that time.
The memories faded, and Ghia blinked back the tears that threatened whenever she remembered her husband and son. It had been so long since they had died, and yet the memories were still painful, as were those of the time that followed when she had buried Ghia the woman under Ghia the guerilla fighter and spy. She had done things in that time that she cringed now to remember, things that had made her want to curl up and die with shame once it was all over. She would have, too, if it hadn't been for him, the small, yet somehow compelling Human who had come among them in peace and then helped them throw off the shackles of their captors.
He had done more than that for her. He had made her realize that her shame was bearable, that what she had done wasn't so terrible that she should pay for it with her life, that sometimes the only honorable thing to do was to sacrifice one's own honor on behalf of those one loved. "You do what you have to," he had told her. It had taken time for her to reach full understanding of what he had been trying to tell her, but she did understand now. She knew that her personal sacrifice of pride and ideals had been worth it; she had helped to expel the Klingons from Stradia, and then had helped to rebuild her world from the destruction of their tyranny.
She didn't think of him often any more, the little man who had called her friend and had proved his own loyalty in a way no one else would have, but occasionally she wondered about him, where he was and whether he would ever return to Stradia. She hoped so; she would like for him to see the strides they had made since his last visit, the almost miraculous recovery from the aliens' destruction. She knew he would be proud of them, of her.
"Now," Shael's brisk voice called her attention back to the present. "Tell me about your trip."
"Yes, the trip. Shael, I couldn't believe it, five plants already in full production, and three more starting up. The other six are still under construction. Already the plants have produced enough materials to build and operate the other facilities, and work is well under way on reconstruction of the cities of Idania and Alanna.
"And once these last plants are completed, we can start work on rebuilding our space fleet." She was leaning forward now in her eagerness.
"You're looking forward to that, aren't you?" Shael smiled at her indulgently.
"Oh, yes," she breathed. "I can hardly wait until we have our very own ships, not just those provided to us by Starfleet, but Stradia-built, Stradia-operated ships. And, oh, Shael, Aran's coming home soon. He's completed the accelerated course at Starfleet Academy along with Brill, Taveer, and Veela, and they'll be home, ready to begin training our own crews..."
"Whoa." Shael tried, not to dampen her enthusiasm, but to bring it down to a more realistic level. "We're a long way away from that, Ghia. Seventeen deirets of Starfleet training isn't going to make them ready to lead a space force, much less train one. We still have to take it slow. Aran and the others are going to have to work on Starfleet ships for some time before they'll be ready to branch out on their own, and we're going to have to send our young people to Terra or other planets for training for quite a while yet. After all," he smiled at her, trying to restore some of the excitement that had drained out of her at his words, "we do want the best, don't we? We can't depend on half-trained, poorly equipped forces to protect our world."
Shael stood and walked around the desk, pulling Ghia to her feet and holding her loosely in front of him, his hands clasped on her shoulders. "You've done a wonderful job of restoring industry to our planet, Ghia. A fledgling industry, to be sure, but industry just the same. And with the assistance of the Federation, we'll someday be a thriving world again, but it's not going to happen overnight. We lost too much, not the least of which was the knowledge and technology of those killed. It's going to take generations to train others to follow them, not to mention restocking our seriously depleted population." He grinned at that final thought.
She forced a half-smile in response, repressing her own painful memories. "Speaking of which, when will your son arrive?"
"Avia is due to deliver within a quarter deiret, and the Federation doctors assure us that our son is a strong, healthy one. We look forward with great joy to his birth."
"I'm happy for you, Shael." But neither her voice nor her face showed any signs of happiness. Again, she was remembering her own son.
Shael squeezed her shoulders. "He could have been your son, too, Ghia."
She twisted out of his loose embrace. "No, Shael. I'm finished with that kind of thing. I told you that a deirain ago, and I meant it."
Shael sighed. "Yes, I know you did. If I hadn't believed you, I would never have married Avia. I wanted you, Ghia. I wanted you badly."
Her face softened. "I know you did, but I simply couldn't have given you what you wanted...or deserved. It's not in me anymore. You're much better off with Avia."
"You're still determined to remain alone?"
"Not determined, Shael. That's just the way it has to be. Something died in me with Rhill and Degan. It's cold and dead like the ashes of an extinguished fire. And it'll never live again."
"Never? That's a very long time."
"I know. But I've found, if not happiness, at least contentment, and when my brother and the others come home, I'll have a family of sorts again. It's enough."
"Is it?" There was genuine concern in his eyes.
"It has to be."
"And that reading means?"
"When a scan reveals that particular reading, it indicates that the planet contains traces of hydrocyanine." The deep voice was level, carefully patient with the young man's questions.
If he had been Human, Spock would have sighed. Instead, he answered yet another inquiry. "Hydrocyanine is a gaseous substance found on approximately three point five four percent of the planets within our galaxy that makes an otherwise hospitable world unsuited for Human habitation. It is toxic for all humanoid and vulcanoid life and will render such life forms unconscious within two point one six minutes of inhalation, leading to death within another four point eight three minutes. However, random factors result in the element being found on so few worlds that it is rarely a problem. Still, it is advisable to watch for that reading when scanning a new world. Its discovery after beamdown would be a somewhat unpleasant surprise."
Aran stared at the Vulcan a moment, trying to determine whether Spock was teasing him. He had been told that Vulcans didn't have a sense of humor, but surely such an understatement could only be a joke. He glanced at the back of the man in the center chair. He'd have to ask Kirk later if Spock ever joked. Surely he'd give him a straight answer.
As for that man in the center chair, Captain James T. Kirk was staring at the mainviewer, suppressing a smile at the conversation he overheard between his science officer and the eager young Stradith. He loved it when Spock indulged himself in his somewhat unusual sense of humor. His Vulcan stoicism and completely dry delivery often made his listeners unsure whether to believe what they had heard. Most people thought Vulcans didn't joke. Kirk knew better.
The captain smiled again as he continued to eavesdrop shamelessly on Spock and Aran. It never ceased to amaze him how resilient Aran was. He had rarely shown any signs of the horror he had lived through during the Klingon occupation of his home world and instead tended to act as almost any intelligent post-adolescent would, given the incredible array of knowledge and equipment available on a starship.
The two things that set Aran apart from any of his Terran counterparts were his unusual height and his total lack of awe when it came to Commander Spock. The Stradith saw the Vulcan first officer as an amazing fount of knowledge and came back again and again to drink his fill, trying to cram his brain with as much information as he could before he lost access to this most wondrous of sources. To Spock's credit, he had shown unusual patience with the young man, answering his questions carefully and precisely even when Kirk knew he'd rather be left alone to complete whatever task he had set himself without the distraction of his eager young shadow. In fact, that exchange concerning hydrocyanine indicated just how fond the Vulcan had become of Aran. Spock only teased those people he liked.
Kirk allowed the voices behind him to recede to the low drone of background noise as he returned his attention to the viewer. It wouldn't be long now before Stradia came within range of their sensors. He looked forward to his second visit to the planet. Aran said his tapes from Ghia had revealed the Stradiths had made considerable progress toward rebuilding their world. It could have been greater if they had accepted more help from the Federation and the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, but the Stradiths wanted to do as much of the work as they could themselves, and Kirk couldn't really blame them. Their own passivity had led to their conquest by the Klingons, and they needed to learn to stand on their own feet as best they could if they were going to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.
Oh, sure, Starfleet could offer them a certain amount of protection, but the fleet wasn't a baby-sitting force, and Stradia was going to have to learn how to protect itself. The Stradiths were quick, intelligent beings; he had first-hand knowledge of that. Kirk knew they would learn how to be self-sufficient and take their place in the Federation hierarchy in record time.
Kirk had been glad to see Aran and the others when they had beamed aboard the Enterprise for transport home to Stradia after their year of accelerated training at Starfleet Academy. Once back in their own star system, they would work with the small force provided to protect their world from the possibility of a second Klingon invasion, while a second contingent of Stradiths traveled to Earth for similarly abbreviated training. Someday, there would be enough of them trained to operate the space fleet they intended to build. Then the responsibility for defending Stradia would be given back to them, and they would receive full membership in the Federation instead of the protectorate status they now enjoyed. That was years in the future, but Kirk had no doubt they would reach it quickly.
In addition to providing transport for the Stradiths, the Enterprise was assigned the mission of assessing the progress the planet had made in the previous fourteen months standard time, two deirains to the Stradiths. Starfleet now routinely patrolled the region of space where Stradia was located, just in case the Klingons decided to try to return and recapture the dilithium-rich world. And there were civilian medical personnel and technical advisers from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers who worked with the leaders of the devastated planet in an attempt to aid in its recovery from the three-and-a-half-month invasion. But the Stradiths ran their planet themselves, and there were no high-ranking 'fleet officers stationed there who had the administrative and command experience to adequately assess the sum total of those efforts at recovery. Who better to do that than James T. Kirk, who had first-hand knowledge of just how little had been left of the Stradia civilization by the time the Klingons had been defeated? With the assistance of Spock, McCoy and other appropriate specialists, he would evaluate the situation and make a complete report back to Command as to how much additional assistance the Stradiths still needed and how much responsibility their depleted population could handle on its own. For their own sakes, Kirk hoped the balance scale would be weighted on the side of the latter. The more they could do for themselves, the better off they would be in the long run.
Kirk swiveled his chair to observe Spock and Aran as they continued to work at the library computer. He smiled indulgently as he watched the blond head bent over Spock's shoulder and thought of another blonde who resembled this one so closely. He wondered how Aran's sister was really doing. Aran had filled him in on all the news contained in his many communications from Ghia, but they hadn't discussed her emotional condition. Obviously, she had recovered from her ordeal considerably to be able to handle the responsibilities of serving as her planet's minister of industry. But was she happy? Had she found peace and contentment after such tragedy? He'd find that out when they reached Stradia.
Ghia flew into her brother's arms as his form solidified on the transporter platform, completely ignoring the others who also materialized there.
"Let me look at you, little brother." She stepped back from the tall young man, eyeing him maternally. Aran laughed.
"I haven't grown, Ghia. I promise."
"No, you haven't," she pronounced finally, eyes narrowing. "In fact, you're too thin."
Aran laughed again and squeezed her shoulders tightly. "Zhai! It's good to be home!"
"Don't I get a hug, too?"
Ghia twisted away from her brother at the sound of that voice. "Jim!" She tossed a brief, playful glare at Aran. "You didn't tell me the Enterprise was bringing you," she accused.
Aran held up both hands in surrender. "I didn't know, Ghia. I really didn't. We left Earth on another ship, and they didn't tell us we were going to rendezvous with the Enterprise for the final portion of our journey home, not until they picked us up. Honest."
Ghia returned her attention to the other man and took a step to close the short distance between them, drinking in the sight of his warm, friendly smile. She took another step and felt his arms close around her in an equally friendly hug.
They stepped back and faced each other, both still smiling. "It's good to see you again," she told him. "I can't wait to show you what we've done in the past two deirains."
"Me, too?" Aran demanded her attention.
"You, too, little brother." Her lips quivered with a suppressed smile as her brother straightened to his full height, towering over her by several inches.
Kirk was unable to hold back his own laughter. He chuckled with delight as he looked from Ghia, whose eyes were just slightly above his own to Aran, who dwarfed them both. Ghia's lips twitched again, then her gaze met her brother's, and both gave in to the merriment.
"Come on, you two," Ghia linked arms with the two men and started to lead them from the transport station. "Let's go. I have a lot to show you."
The next three days were busy ones, as Ghia took her brother and the Enterprise officers on a whirlwind tour that was an abbreviated version of the exhausting one she had just completed.
They visited the new cities that were rising from the ashes of the ones that had been destroyed by the Klingons and then moved on to tour a couple of the industrial plants that were Ghia's responsibility as minister of industry.
Finally, when they had seen enough to report back to the Federation that the Stradiths were making rapid strides toward recovery from the Klingon invasion, the Starfleet men returned to the Enterprise. Kirk, however, elected to remain on Stradia a little longer and visit with those who had befriended him on his last visit.
He was especially eager to renew his acquaintance with Ghia, who seemed strong and controlled, happy in her work, and enthusiastically looking forward to the future she and the other Stradiths were carving out for their world. She was such a contrast to the grief-stricken woman he had tried to comfort just before he had left Stradia at the end of that last mission, the woman he had called friend.
At last, he managed to get her away from the others, asking her to give him a more leisurely tour of the industrial center closest to Stradia City. He told her he wanted a more thorough examination of the planet's industrial progress. He told himself he wanted to be sure she really was well and happy. Neither was a lie, but neither was the complete truth either.
"What do you think of my world now, at peace?" Ghia asked him when they sat surrounded by the remains of the picnic she had brought for them to enjoy at the conclusion of their tour. She stared out across the rolling hills dotted here and there with clumps of green trees and riotous collections of wildflowers. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Hmmm. Beautiful, yes." But Kirk's eyes weren't on the landscape. He shifted onto his knees and took her chin in one hand, turning her face toward him. Sparkling golden eyes met fathomless ebony ones for a long moment, then he leaned forward to press his lips gently against hers, tasting the alien sweetness of her mouth.
Suddenly, Ghia jumped up and walked away from him, moving jerkily. When she was far enough away that he couldn't touch her, she turned back to face him. "No, Jim." Her voice was low, but insistent.
Kirk sighed, lifted his hands as though to reach for her in protest, then dropped them back to his sides. "Is it me?"
She swung away from him again, blinking rapidly as tears welled up in her eyes. "No, Jim. It's not you."
"Still feeling guilty?"
The tears were gone when she swung back to face him again, replaced by an anger he knew wasn't really directed at him, but at herself. "What gives you the right to suggest--"
He caught her face between his hands and kissed her again, but she didn't pull away this time. Finally, he broke the kiss and smiled the short distance up into her eyes.
"I won't push you any further, but I had to make you see that there is something between us." He brushed a gentle thumb across her cheek, back and forth caressingly. "I was right, wasn't I? You're still feeling guilty about what happened, and that's keeping you from developing an intimate relationship with anyone."
"Partly." She forced herself to be honest with him. "I guess it is partly guilt, Jim, but--I don't know. It's as though something inside of me died more than two deirains ago, and I just can't face the thought of letting anybody get that close again."
"Whew! A psychiatrist could have a field day with you." He flashed her another quick grin, then reassured her. "Don't worry; I'm not going to try to psychoanalyze you. I'm sure you know as well as I do all the reasons for the way you feel, but, Ghia, it's been a long time now since they died. Don't you think it's time you started living again?"
"I don't know if I can." Her voice was just a harsh whisper.
"Why don't we find out?"
She shook her head in one last protest. "I don't think so, Jim. You'll be gone in a couple of days, and I'll just be alone again."
"Will you be any more alone than you are now?"
"No, but it might hurt more."
"Maybe, and maybe you'll find that you really do want to live again, that you want to reach out to people and build a new life with someone who can give you the love you deserve. You'll never know if you don't take a chance."
"You won't be that someone."
"No." He wouldn't, couldn't be less than completely honest with her now. "I won't be here long enough, but I'm here now, and I'm your friend, and I care about you." He drew her down to the ground and gathered her in his arms. His voice softened, becoming both seductive and somehow wistful at the same time. "You're safe with me, Ghia. No commitments, no heartache. Just two friends giving each other a little joy, pleasure and warmth, a little relief from the loneliness we both feel."
She leaned her head against his shoulder and slid her arms around his body, moving a little closer in his gentle embrace, finally giving in to the persuasion of his words and the needs of her own body. She raised her head and looked deeply into his eyes, moving her mouth closer to his.
"Make love to me, Jim," she beseeched just before their lips met.
Ghia watched the clouds move slowly overhead as she cradled Kirk's exhausted body. Several minutes had passed, and still he hadn't moved a muscle.
Finally, knowing the effect her planet's above-Earth normal gravity could have on a Terran, especially during periods of exertion, she began to be concerned and attempted to rouse him, trailing caressing fingers along the length of his spine as she softly called his name.
"Jim, are you all right?" she asked when he failed to respond except with a low groan.
"No." Face burrowed against her neck, his voice was muffled.
"Jim?" Her concern mounting, she tried to shift beneath his weight so that she could see his face. He groaned again.
"No, don't move. Oh, shit! I think I died and woke up in heaven."
Ghia relaxed again, smiling to herself. "What do you mean?"
He raised up to rest on his forearms. "You are incredible." He grinned, then bent his head, his mouth slowly inching toward hers.
Suddenly, an explosion resounded through the hills, and the lovers tore apart, jumping to their feet to stare in horror at the ball of fire rising from behind the hill that hid them from the nearby plant. Without a word, they dressed quickly and hurried toward the building that continued to pour forth billowing smoke.
"Oh, Strai, no!" Ghia cried when they were close enough to see the workers stumble out of the burning structure, the less severely wounded helping those more badly injured.
"Lugan!" Ghia hurried to meet a tall man who staggered under the weight of the two Stradiths he was trying to get to safety. "What happened?" she demanded, cloaking herself in the authority of her office.
He shook his head, dazed. "I don't know. Everything was going smoothly, right on schedule, and then...I don't know, Ghia. The back-up converter just blew up. Thank Strai it wasn't the primary one."
"Is everyone out?" Kirk demanded, seeing no one else emerge from the flaming building.
"I don't know. There were still a few there I couldn't get to, but I doubt if they're still alive. They were too close to the converter when it blew."
Without further pause, Kirk pushed his way through the crowd of workers and ran into the building, searching through the smoke that burned his eyes for anyone who might still be alive.
Outside, Ghia's eyes were burning, too, from the strain of watching for some sign of the man who had gone inside, risking his own life once again for people he didn't even know. Not for the first time, she wondered what drove him to take such risks.
Moments later, he emerged, coughing and gasping for breath, staggering under the weight of a man almost half again his own size. As soon as he was free of the flames that had seared his skin and singed his hair and eyelashes, Kirk lowered his burden from his shoulders, dropping to his knees in exhaustion as he tried to draw a few deep breaths of fresh air before struggling to his feet and turning back to the plant again.
Before he could take another step toward the burning building, Ghia caught his arm. "No, Jim. Don't." Her eyes begged him not to take the chance, but he shook his head and pulled his arm from her grasp, heading for the flames once again, still stumbling a bit, straining against the heavy gravity and the pain in his own scorched lungs.
Suddenly, the entire entrance area of the building collapsed in a shower of sparks, flames, and thick, black smoke. Kirk froze, realizing for the first time just how great the danger was that he had been in. If Ghia hadn't delayed him those few seconds, he would have been inside the building when it collapsed, and he would be as dead as the poor Stradiths still trapped inside.
"Jim?" He felt Ghia's hand on his arm again and heard the timbre in her voice, but it was several minutes before he could bring himself to turn and face her, looking up into the liquid black eyes. "You did your best," she told him when she knew he could hear her.
He nodded once, then slid a gentle arm around her waist, realizing how strongly she was affected by this latest tragedy. These people were her responsibility, and he knew what it felt like to have those you were responsible for die.
"I..." His attempt at consolation died in a fit of coughing that finally forced him to lean his sooty forehead against her shoulder as he fought to regain control over his tortured body.
Pushing her own sadness into the background, Ghia drew him into her arms and eased him down to the ground, reaching for the communicator on his wrist, praying that it still worked. She heard a beeping, and then a calm voice.
"Enterprise. Spock here."
"Commander Spock, this is Ghia. There's been...an accident. Could you please send Doctor McCoy down here? To these coordinates? We need his help."
"Jim?" There was a fiercely controlled concern in his voice.
"He's all right. Tired, and he's inhaled a lot of smoke, but he's not really hurt. Only there are so many more who are, Commander. Please, can you help us?"
Calm once again, Spock answered. "Doctor McCoy and Doctor Chapel are both on their way now, with additional help as well. Let us know if we can be of further assistance."
"Thank you, Mister Spock. I will."
She broke the connection and looked up just in time to see McCoy and Chapel materialize a few feet away. Immediately, McCoy approached Kirk, medi-scanner in hand, grumbling a bit as he fussed over his captain.
"No," Kirk attempted to push him away. "Help the others...I'm all ri--" He broke off as another fit of coughing took hold.
McCoy took the readings quickly, then, reassured that his captain had not suffered any real damage, he pressed a hypospray against his shoulder and pushed a mini-oxygen bottle into Ghia's hands. "Make him breathe this. It'll help clear his lungs, along with the injection. What happened?"
"An explosion. We're not sure exactly why. But there are so many burned and injured in other ways."
The doctor nodded. "Anything toxic in that smoke?"
"I don't know. Lugan would. Over there." She pointed to the big man who directed plant operations. McCoy nodded and hurried off to treat Lugan's injuries and try to pump him for any information that would help the doctor care for the other casualties.
Ghia watched Kirk breathe the clean oxygen from the bottle a
moment. Then, relieved as his coughing eased and he settled into a more normal
respiration, she squeezed his shoulders and stood, heading for Chapel to volunteer her
services in any way she could help.
McCoy filed the final report and leaned back in his chair, stretching to ease the kinks from his tired back. There had been far too many casualties from the explosion on Stradia. Too many, he echoed his own thought. You're becoming cynical in your old age, Leonard. As Jim would say, even one death is unacceptable, and yet he keeps giving orders he knows will end in death for someone, and I keep doing my best to patch them back up again. The physician sighed, knowing his captain hadn't had anything to do with this particular tragedy. He hadn't sent anyone into danger, except, of course, himself, and that had been pure reflex action. Jim Kirk could no more stand by idly while people died in that flaming building than he could, well, sprout wings and fly. At least his impetuosity had meant one less casualty. The huge Stradith Kirk had somehow carried out of the conflagration was going to live. Twenty-seven others wouldn't. What a waste of life!
The comm unit beeped at him. "Kirk to Sickbay. Are you there, Bones?"
"Yeah, I'm here, barely. Whaddaya want?"
There was a brief pause as though Kirk was taken aback by his CMO's brusque manner, then the voice continued authoritatively, "I've scheduled a briefing in Conference Room Three in ten minutes, and I need you there." The tone softened. "Can you make it, Bones?"
"Yeah, Jim, I'll make it. Just don't make it long, okay? I'm dead on my feet, and you need to rest, too. Smoke inhalation can do a lot of damage."
"I'll rest when we know what's going on. Ten minutes. Kirk out."
McCoy rested his elbows on his desk and leaned his forehead against the heels of his hands, half-dozing as he worried over the situation and waited for the time to report for the briefing. The problem was that Kirk meant it. He wouldn't rest, not really, until they got to the bottom of this mess, and that meant McCoy wouldn't either. It was his job to keep the captain going, on stimulants and nerves alone, if necessary. He just hoped they'd find an answer soon.
McCoy looked up to see Chapel standing in the doorway, concern plain on her face. "Yeah, Chris, what is it?"
"Why don't you get some rest now?"
He shook his head slowly. "Can't. Briefing in ten..." He glanced at his wrist chronometer. "No, make that five minutes now. You go ahead. You're almost as tired as I am. You certainly worked as hard."
"Yes, but I was just going on shift, while you were ending yours."
"Well, I have to make that briefing, then I'll catch a nap if I can. In the meantime, you'd better get some rest yourself. I've got a feeling we're both going to need a lot of it before this is all over."
"You don't think it was just an accident then?"
He shook his head again. "I wish it were that easy, Chris, but Jim's not treating it like one, and you know how uncanny his intuition is about things like this."
"Yes, I know. All right, I'll take my turn resting now. Weller can keep an eye on Sickbay for a while. But, Leonard, as soon as the briefing's over, you take that nap." She glared at him in fierce imitation of his own fiercest look. "Doctor's orders!"
"Humph!" McCoy snorted, then pushed his way past her, heading out of Sickbay and down the corridor toward the turbolift en route to Kirk's briefing, mumbling to himself as he walked. "Give 'em another degree, and they get all bossy. She was never that pushy in the old days, when she was just a simple head nurse, following orders, doing what I told her..."
Chapel smiled fondly as McCoy's voice faded away in the distance. He'd grumble all the way to the conference room, but maybe, just maybe, he'd take her advice and get some rest afterward. If Kirk would let him.
"Anything yet, Spock?" Kirk was demanding of his first officer as McCoy entered the room and eased himself into the chair on the captain's left. Also at the table were Scott and Chekov.
"Nothing concrete, but preliminary investigations by the Stradith authorities indicate the possibility of sabotage."
"Aye," Scott added. "Th' efficiency reports showed no evidence of any weaknesses in th' converter. It shouldna ha' blown. There wasna any reason for it."
"I concur, Captain," Spock commented, while Chekov nodded in agreement.
"All right, then, sabotage. But who? And why?"
Scott and Chekov merely shrugged, while Spock gave no response at all.
Kirk turned to McCoy. "Casualties?"
"Twenty-seven dead, another six still critical, and forty-nine injured seriously enough to require hospitalization."
"Can Doctor Guillaume and his staff handle them all?"
"They can now, with the initial trauma work completed. Thank God the Federation provided the Stradiths with a medical facility and adequate personnel to replace the hospitals the Klingons had destroyed. I'd hate to have to handle this one with just our own staff."
"All right." The captain placed both hands flat on the table and pushed himself up. "If that's all, I'm going back down there and see what can be done to help those people." He turned to the Vulcan. "Coming with me, Spock?" He didn't even wait for the reply, turning toward Scott, "You're in command, Scotty." Then he pivoted and headed for the doorway, Spock on his heels.
"Kyptin!" The security chief's voice stopped them before the left the room.
"Yes, Lieutenant?" Kirk remained at the doorway, impatient to continue on his way.
Chekov cleared his throat. "I don't think it's such a good idea for you to return to Stradia at this time, sir. You could have been killed in that fire, and as chief of security, it is my duty to recommend that you remain on the Enterprise until we know what is going on down there. Or at least allow me to accompany you," he finished in a rush, standing stiffly at attention.
Kirk paused a long minute, visibly bringing his temper under control. Finally--"Lieutenant, I am not headed into battle. I am merely returning to a planet under Federation protection so I can confer with that planet's leaders and determine whether we can be of any assistance." The captain's voice was low and even as he continued, "If it becomes apparent that I am in personal danger, I will either return to the ship or request a security detail to attend me. But I assure you I am in no need of a babysitter."
Chekov refused to back down from the penetrating gaze that held him in place. "With all due respect, sir, I still believe I should accompany you."
"Mister Spock will accompany me, Lieutenant. His is all the protection I need. You will remain on this ship until you receive orders to the contrary." He pivoted on his heel and exited the room, leaving Chekov behind with an expression comprised of equal parts worry and resentment.
McCoy patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Pavel. He's right about one thing. Spock's the best protection he could have."
"I still don't like it, sir. And I don't believe it's advwisable for them both to go either."
McCoy sighed. "I know. I never have, but there's not a damned thing either of us can do about it, so we might as well accept it. Maybe'd I'd better tag along myself--just in case I'm needed." He started after the others.
"I don't think that's a good idea ei--" Chekov broke off when he realized the doctor wasn't waiting long enough to hear him. He shook his head in exasperation. "Chief of security," he mumbled to himself. "Some chief. 'Pavel, stay here.' 'Vwe don't need you now, Lieutenant.' 'Vwe'll send for you if there's anything you can do to help out.' What good is it to be chief of security vwhen no one will take my advwice? How am I supposed to maintain security vwhen everybody keeps running off into danger?" He didn't bother answering his own questions; he knew there weren't any answers.
"Hey, wait for me." McCoy's call stopped Kirk and Spock at the end of the corridor. "You don't think you're going down there without me, do you?" The doctor hurried to catch up.
Kirk eyed him carefully. "You, Doctor, need to rest."
"Now just who the hell is the doctor around here? You need rest as badly as I do--no, worse!"
"I don't have time, Bones." Kirk allowed a little of his weariness to surface, then smiled wistfully at the doctor. "Later I will, but you might not have time then, so you'd better get your beauty sleep in now." He disappeared into the turbolift with Spock.
McCoy refrained from following them. Like Chekov, he shook his head, then just waited for the next lift, knowing instinctively that Kirk was right about him not having time later to rest. By the time this was all over, he'd probably have one or the other or both of them ensconced in Sickbay, which meant he would be working practically around the clock to keep them there. He sighed. He just hoped the captain could stay on his feet long enough to do what needed to be done. At least he had Spock with him. The Vulcan would take care of him.
"In the name of Strai, Shael! You know that was no accident!" Egan slammed his fist down on the prime minister's desk. "You've read the reports. Everything indicates sabotage. What do you intend to do about it?"
"Nothing yet." Shael remained calm under the hot-tempered defense minister's onslaught. "We must have more information before we can decide on a course of action. For now, we don't have any idea who is responsible or why--or even if there really was sabotage. Until we know, all we can do is to strengthen our security efforts and keep alert to any further dangers."
"Aha! You do perceive danger. You know as well as I do that it was sabotage."
"Easy, Egan," Brill broke into the conversation, attempting to calm him. The yellow-eyed Stradith had held grave doubts as to the wisdom of his hot-headed brother serving as minister of defense in the planet's new government. He had felt a calmer individual would better fill the position. Ghia's reports to Aran had revealed that Egan was maintaining remarkable control over his temper, however, for the entire time his brother had been on Earth. For the first time, he wondered if Egan had come to rely too much on the knowledge that Brill would pull him back if he came too close to the edge. Maybe he was better off on his own, without that safety net. It was a sobering thought, but not an altogether unwelcome one. Still, there had been nothing to seriously try Egan's temper or abilities in the past seventeen deirets. The Stradiths had been too busy rebuilding their world to have any major internal strife, and the Starfleet patrols ensured that there was no threat of invasion from outside. But now...
"Shael, we must determine who is responsible for this." Ghia was calmly intense. "Please, Strai, don't let them be back," she added in a whisper.
The others stared at her in shock. No one had to ask whom she meant. They all remembered the five deirets of horror and death.
"There is no reason to believe the Klingons have returned," the other woman in the room said. "Even if it is sabotage, that doesn't mean it had to be done by Klingons."
"You have been away too long, Veela," Egan scornfully accused her. "You forget what it was like. Zhai! Who else would it be?"
"I don't know, but that still doesn't mean it's the Klingons. We killed them two deirains ago, and Starfleet has been patrolling our area ever since. How would the Klingons have managed to get through?"
"They wouldn't have to." All heads turned at the sound of the soft voice that came from the open doorway. Ghia's black eyes lit from within, and Kirk smiled at her briefly before continuing. "There's always the possibility that some of them may have escaped. They could have been in hiding, waiting for the right time or opportunity to strike back. Klingons don't like losing."
"You mean some of them could still be here?" Ghia's face paled, and Kirk took a step closer to her, not touching, just standing near.
"It's a possibility we must consider. Unless..." He turned his attention to Shael. "There's not any chance it could be some of your own people, is it? Some who disapprove of the way you've been running things? Or perhaps some who object to your new alliance with the Federation? Any kind of rebel force?"
The Stradith leader shook his head steadily. "No. I don't believe that is even a remote possibility. I don't pretend to believe everyone is completely satisfied with our efforts to rebuild Stradia, but we have seen no signs of any objections serious enough to lead to terrorist activities. I cannot and will not believe this was done by our own people."
"We'll have to accept your judgment on that then," Kirk said. "For now at least. And since our patrols haven't encountered any other potentially hostile forces approaching Stradia, we'll have to proceed on the assumption that the bombing was done by Klingons who survived the battle two deirains ago. The Enterprise is already scanning the planet now in an attempt to discover any traces of them, possibly in caves in the hill country, or maybe in the rubble of some of the old buildings not yet cleared and replaced."
"Will they find them?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Depends on how well they're shielded. You'll have to conduct a ground search at the same time of all the vacant buildings or any place else they might have used as a refuge after we destroyed their headquarters."
"Zhai! There are hundreds of them!" Egan didn't want to think about the logistics of conducting such a search.
"Then you had better get busy, hadn't you?" Shael suggested with a wry smile.
Egan glared at his superior a minute, as though trying to decide whether to defy him. Then he shrugged and turned to leave, muttering under his breath.
"Jim?" Ghia's eyes begged for reassurance.
"It'll be all right." He squeezed her shoulder
gently, then released it. "We'll find them and get rid of them once and for all this
time. Besides..." He flashed her his most reassuring grin. "...this time we have
She woke to the sound of her name being shouted to the accompaniment of pounding on the front door. Luckily the sounds were muted by the closed doors and windows, so she quickly but silently slipped from the bed, donning a heavy robe, then glancing one last time at the sleeping man before hurrying from the room to answer her brother's summons.
"What is it, Aran?" she demanded as she flung open the door.
"Word just came from the Enterprise. There are unusual energy readings emanating from one of the abandoned mines just outside of the city."
"We can't tell for sure. Their shields are strong enough to prevent accurate readings of life forms, but there are definite energy readings that shouldn't be there. Shael and Egan are meeting now with Commander Spock and the Enterprise security chief, a man named Chekov, to plan our next move. It's funny," he mused. "I'd have expected Kirk to be in on this session, but Mister Spock said he was under doctor's orders to rest while he can. He's expected to arrive soon. I suppose these little Humans are even weaker than we suspected."
"Yes, perhaps." Ghia fought the urge to blush, then sent her brother off, promising to be at Shael's office in an hour for the briefing planned for that time. She closed the front door and turned to the stairs to find Jim Kirk already descending the steps.
"Most of it." He stopped on the bottom step; it gave him enough extra height so that for once he had to look down into her eyes. He lifted her chin with one finger and gave her a lopsided grin. "You're embarrassed."
She pulled away and turned her back. "I...Aran doesn't know...He might not understand..." She stopped, flustered, but made no move to resist when he took her shoulders and turned her back to face him.
"You're not ashamed, are you?" he asked, suddenly serious. "We haven't broken some kind of religious or cultural taboo, have we?"
"No, oh, no!" She shook her head violently, then reached her arms around him, burying her face against his neck. "I could never be ashamed, not really. And there's no taboo...as long as neither of us is married. It's just Aran. He can be funny about things sometimes, a bit overprotective, as though he were the big brother and me his little sister. He might not understand, might think you were going to hurt me or something. And he admires you so much; I don't want to ruin that."
"I'm not going to hurt you, am I?" he asked in all seriousness, gently caressing her tousled hair. "I don't want to do that, Ghia."
"No, Jim, you aren't going to hurt me." She lifted her head and allowed her eyes to meet his squarely. "You're a special man, but I won't be waiting for you to come back." For the first time she smiled a genuine smile. "I'd forgotten how good it could be, to be with a man. I don't want to do without that again. I'm sorry you won't be around, but someone else will. You're not the only man I can find attractive."
"Good for you." He forced a grin, suppressing the small stab of jealousy that he knew he had no right to feel, then leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on her lips. "Get dressed. I'll go ahead to the meeting. See you there." He stepped past her and left the house. Ghia was already hurrying up the stairs, a smile still on her lips, before the door had clicked shut.
Deep within a mine near Stradia City, fourteen Kh'myr warriors and one Kh'teb Klingon were conferring. The Klingons were serious about their discussion, but an eavesdropping Human would have been reduced to helpless laughter by the growling, barking and grunting that filled the abandoned mineshaft. The Klingons were gathered around the table where a map and the floor plan of one of Stradia's newly reopened factories were spread out, but instead of a military briefing, this gathering had more in common with a pack of wild dogs.
"Here," one warrior growled, his meaty finger pointing at a secondary entrance that seemed isolated from the main traffic areas of the facility. "This is their weakest point. They depend on their electronic security systems to guard this entrance. It is mere child's play to avoid their traps and get inside the building. And from there, we move down this corridor to this storage room, and cut through from there to the main converter. We set our charges and leave the same way we came.
"When that converter goes, the explosion will be even greater than the last one. There will be nothing of the factory or its workers left.
"And," he snarled with an evil grin, "the explosion will bring even more people to attempt rescue efforts than the last one did. Additional explosives set here..." he barked, "...here and here can be timed to kill dozens, maybe hundreds of them."
"Yes," Krage grunted in agreement. "It is a good plan, Kranor. A few more attacks like this one, and we will have their forces reduced sufficiently to attack the capital city itself."
"And then we die." The Kh'myr warriors looked with contempt when the sole Kh'teb Klingon among them growled. Kranor spat at him.
"Dog!" he snarled. "What are you? A sniveling bitch? Is it not glorious to die in the service of our Empire?" He stalked the other man, backing him toward the wall of the mine. "Coward!" He spat the word out.
"No! I am no coward. I am as Klingon as you, the descendant of a long line of warriors. And I am as willing to die. So long as our death is truly to the glory of the Empire. We must make sure that the destruction is sufficient to prevent their recovery this time and to make them worthless to the Federation pigs." A sly look crept over his face. "And there is one other thing."
"What is it? Speak!" barked Kranor, grabbing the Kh'teb by the front of his tunic and lifting him until his feet dangled several inches above the ground.
"Kirk." The man managed to yelp past vocal cords squeezed painfully by the strained cloth of his uniform. Kranor slowly lowered him to the ground. "Captain James T. Kirk."
"What about Kirk?" Krage pushed forward to demand. "Is he here?"
"Yes. There was talk of him on their communications network. His ship is in orbit, and he is on the planet."
Krage bared his teeth as a slow, evil smile spread across his face. "And this time we will kill him. To the glory of Kahless!" he shouted.
"To the glory of Kahless!" his men barked in return.
The Klingon terrorists moved stealthily through the forest toward the brightly lit factory, stopping at the edge of the trees to observe the building, scanning it carefully before proceeding with their mission. They had to be certain that they could succeed without being caught and killed or, worse, held prisoner. No Klingon was afraid of death; to die in the service of the Empire was the ultimate honor for a warrior. But to die without completing the mission would be wasteful. This handful of survivors of their earlier invasion was determined to exact revenge for the deaths of their fallen comrades and for the destruction of their plans to make Stradia a possession of the Empire, its people their slaves, its resources, including the valuable dilithium, their property.
Finally, one of the Klingons moved ahead at a gesture from Krage. The simple touch of a few buttons on the small device he carried released both the lock and the security screen at the sheltered doorway, and the twin doors slid open. Krage and two other Kh'myr hurried to pass through the opening and into the long, deserted corridor.
Krage led the way, turning a corner a half-dozen meters from the doorway, then pressing a button to gain entrance into a small room, his men crowding in behind him. One moved past the others and pointed his disruptor at the far wall. In seconds too few to count, the heavy metal simply disappeared, leaving a gaping hole through which the four warriors crawled.
Inside the huge room stood the factory's heart, the power system that kept everything else running. Right then the room was deserted, the fates giving the Klingons an edge they hadn't expected. The two teams of two warriors each moved to either side of the generator, carefully placing and arming their small but powerful explosive charges.
As Krage and one of his lieutenants neared completion of their task, they were startled by the soft whoosh of a door opening a short distance away. Krage motioned to the other man to handle the matter, and finished setting the charge himself.
"I tell you, Gael," one of the Stradiths entering the factory's power center was telling his companion, "when little Dria looks up at me with those big black eyes, I can refuse her nothing. Just wait, you'll see. Once you have a little one of your own, she'll have you wrapped around her little finger, too."
"Yeah, yeah, Ligan. So you keep telling me. I--" The second Stradith broke off and moved forward when he caught sight of the Klingons. "Hey, you! What are you--" A single blast from the Kh'myr's disruptor ended the conversation forever. Ligan hesitated, staring at the spot where Gael had stood for a few seconds and then turned to run from the room. He took just one step before a second blast from the disruptor caught him.
"All right, let's get out of here--now!" Krage ordered his men. They hurried back through the hole in the wall into the storage room, one of the warriors moving quickly to the doorway and checking the corridor. Finding it empty, they continued to the exterior door and started through, the last man turning at a sound behind him and quickly dispatching yet another unlucky Stradith. In seconds, the Kh'myr were outside the building and hurrying through the woods for the safety of their "abandoned" mine.
As his men entered the shaft, Krage turned back to face the direction they had just come from, waiting, watching.
Suddenly the sky lit up. A slow, evil smile spread across the swarthy countenance, but still he waited until the sight was followed by the low rumbling that slowly built to a crescendo that shook the very ground.
"Survive and succeed!" The Klingon warrior proceeded into the mine.
Three Humans and a half-dozen Stradiths sat in Shael's office, discussing the best way to break through the shields protecting the abandoned dilithium mine where they were convinced the Klingons were hiding. Kirk was trying to stay silent, to allow the Stradiths to work out their own plans, but it was increasingly difficult for him not to interfere.
"What do you think, Captain?" Egan's question gave Kirk the excuse he needed to offer his advice, but he had done no more than open his mouth when a sudden flare of light outside lit up the sky, followed by a roar that brought all nine occupants of the room to their feet.
Ghia reached the window first. "No!" she shouted. "Oh, Strai, no! Not again! Doranna." She whispered as she turned back to the others. "It's the Doranna Plant. The people. All the people."
"How many?" Kirk demanded in flat tones as he reached her side.
"I...I'm not sure. Let me think." She drew her brows together, mentally reviewing her recently completed tour. "One...No, two hundred thirty-five. It's one of our biggest plants, Jim."
He squeezed her shoulder with his left hand, then activated his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise--" Before he could say more, a second, smaller explosion flared slightly to the right of the first, then a third a little farther away, and a fourth, and a fifth.
Ghia clutched at Kirk's arm, unable even to cry out as she realized what must be happening. Egan was at Shael's desk, barking questions through the comm unit as he attempted to assess the damage. The answers he received brought a deadly silence to the room as the full extent of the loss of life became apparent. Six official emergency rescue teams had headed for the Doranna Plant at the first explosion; each was accompanied by an unknown number of civilian volunteers. At the same time, three platoons of newly trained security forces had gone in the same direction, intent on finding whoever was responsible for the bombing. The subsequent explosions had caught four of the rescue teams and all three security platoons. The remaining rescue workers reported literally hundreds of bodies littering the woods near the plant. So far, they had found no survivors.
"Enterprise. Scott here." Kirk had almost forgotten his effort to contact the ship. "Cap'n, what's goin' on down there?"
"There's been another attack, Scotty. Hundreds dead, apparently. Scan the area of the explosions and see if you can tell whether there are any more charges set. Then get every man you can spare down here to help with the rescue efforts. And check that mine again!"
"Captain? Lieutenant Tiu here," the soft voice of one of Spock's assistants broke in. "We registered two brief breaks in the shields around the mine during the past hour. They lasted only a few seconds each, but they were definite breaks."
"When?" he demanded.
"Approximately fifty-six minutes and thirty seconds." She attempted to be as nearly accurate as possible, as her Vulcan boss would have been. "Then again just a few moments ago. I'm sorry, sir, but I can't give you an accurate time on that one. It occurred at about the same time as the first explosion. Then so much was happening that I didn't notice the time."
"That's all right, Lieutenant. Close enough. Thank you. Scotty?"
"Get those men down here right away."
"Aye, sir. They're on their way now."
"Good. Kirk out."
He turned to face the others, who were watching him, waiting for some indication of what to do. He knew it. He also knew it wasn't his place to decide, but he'd have to nudge the Stradiths to get them to make their own decisions.
"Shael," he began, "what can we do to help?"
Stradia's sun was rising when Ghia finally made her way through the deserted streets for home. They had managed to rescue the survivors of the explosions and get them into appropriate medical facilities on the planet and the Enterprise orbiting above them. Enterprise personnel were still monitoring the entrance to that mine shaft, too. If there were another break in the shielding...
She allowed the thought to die without completion. They'd go after the Klingons tomorrow, but first they needed rest. When they used the Enterprise's phasers to break through the shields, they'd have to be prepared for a bloody battle, and none of them were ready for that yet; they were too exhausted from the rescue efforts that had taken precedence. The battle would have to wait one more day.
Ghia reached her house and started for the door. She dreaded entering it alone, but Kirk had gone back to his ship to take care of some of his responsibilities there. He'd promised to return for a brief morning meal with her before they joined the others to make final plans for the attack on the Klingon stronghold. Then they would spend the rest of that day resting so they would be fresh, alert when the time for battle arrived.
She opened the door and stepped inside, reaching for the controls that would activate the lights. Instead, her arm was caught in a powerful grip and twisted behind her. Klingons! She could smell them. For a moment she stood there, paralyzed by her fear and her memories, then she began to twist and struggle against the powerful creature holding her captive.
Suddenly, the lights came on, and she found herself nose-to-nose with a swarthy face that made her shudder in remembered horror. He held an ugly knife in one hand, and brushed its sharp point caressingly along her jawline and down her throat, sending a shiver of fear through her body. He laughed at her and tossed the knife aside, grabbing her shirt with one powerful hand and spitting a Klingon obscenity at her. Then he jerked his hand downward, ripping the fabric open to bare her upper torso. One of the other brutes shouted something encouraging to him. Unsure exactly what he said, she could only recognize the words for "cleaning bitch," but she didn't have to understand the words to comprehend their intent. The Kh'myr holding her laughed again in response.
Ghia heard a roaring in her ears and thought for a moment she might faint, then wished she would. She knew well how he planned to use her, and just as well how he would kill her as soon as he and the others were finished. She had thought the nightmare was over, but it was back, and she knew her sanity wouldn't survive this time, even if her body did. Her knees buckled, and she almost whimpered in her terror. Then suddenly she stiffened against the rough hands that held her as a mental vision swam before her. 'You do what you have to,' he had told her. She had to fight them, somehow she had to fight back.
She lifted her chin and spat full in the Kh'myr warrior's face, provoking a mighty roar and a back-handed blow against her face. She felt her lip split and the warm, sticky blood begin to flow down her chin, but still she confronted him proudly, ready once again to face whatever she had to.
And then she had a new horror to face as yet another Klingon approached, carrying a portable version of the most dreaded weapon in their arsenal.
"Wait!" he demanded of the warrior who had struck her. "First, I examine her mind, then you can take anything that's left."
The Kh'myr stared at him in disgust and muttered something she couldn't quite understand, but it was something about damaged goods. The other Klingon laughed at him.
"Damaged a little, maybe, but not much. She'll know what you're doing." He spoke deliberately in her language, letting her know what was in store for her. "Her mind will still be there," he continued. "It isn't necessary to delve that deep. We just need to know when Kirk will return." He turned back to her with an evil grin. "Besides," he continued, "your pleasure will be that much greater if he is forced to watch--all of it. There'll be time for us all to have her once we have our information and are prepared for battle."
Her eyes widened in increased horror as she finally understood. What they really wanted was Kirk, and they were going to use her to get him.
She tried to back away as the Klingon began to check the controls on the mind-sifter, setting them at the low level that was all they needed to learn that Kirk would return to that house in just a few hours. As the other Kh'myr forced her into a chair and held her captive, he placed an attachment on her head and activated the viewscreen to see what images he could pull from her mind. She tried to force all thought of the Human from her mind, reciting a childhood nursery rhyme in an attempt to block the machine's probe.
It didn't do any good.
Jim Kirk materialized on the street outside of Ghia's house and turned toward the building, striding purposefully toward it. There was time for a quick meal and nothing more before they'd have to leave for the government headquarters. He swiftly mounted the stairs and reached for the door chime only to have the massive portal swing open before he had pressed it. He grinned at her obvious eagerness, wishing he had time to satisfy it before the meeting, but it would have to wait until afterwards. They were all supposed to rest today, and they would, but first--
The door swung wide, and he knew it would have to wait a very long time indeed as he found himself staring at a Klingon disruptor clenched in the huge fist of a Kh'myr warrior.
"Please come in, Captain Kirk," the Klingon invited.
Kirk's gaze shifted to one side, and he saw Ghia, sitting tied to a chair with a Klingon standing behind her, a long knife held to her throat with one hand while the other was clenched in her hair, forcing her head back to give him easy access to the arteries that carried her life's blood between brain and heart. Her clothing was torn, face bruised, and lip cut and swollen. And yet there was something magnificent about her as she sat there defiantly, refusing to give in to the terror and pain. Whatever they might have done to her, they hadn't broken her.
"Come in, Captain--NOW!" There was no mistaking this order for anything else, and Kirk had no choice but to obey.
Aran paced restlessly around Shael's office, glancing yet again at his wrist chronometer and then at the deceptively calm expression on Spock's face. The Vulcan didn't need to check his own chronometer to know that Kirk and Ghia were ninety-two point five six minutes late. He had no illusions about Kirk when it came to women, but he had never known his captain to allow his personal pleasure to endanger a mission. Spock was worried.
His communicator beeped, and Spock lifted it to answer the call from Commander Scott. "He still doesna answer, an' Doctor McCoy isna able to locate him with the perscan, Mister Spock."
Spock opened his mouth to answer the engineer, when McCoy broke in. "Damn it, Spock. He's down there somewhere. Can't you find him?"
"I assure you, Doctor, if I could, I would." The tone was carefully neutral. "Mister Scott, please have me beamed up immediately." He turned to the Stradiths just before the transporter beam took hold of him. "I will keep you informed."
McCoy met Spock in the corridor outside the transporter room. "All right, Spock," he demanded. "What the hell's goin' on down there? Where's Jim?"
Spock forced himself to remain calm. "As I said, I do not know where he is. All we do know is where he is not."
"He is not on the Enterprise; he is not at the government headquarters; he is not at the mine where we suspected the Klingons were hidden; and he is not at the home of Ghia." Spock listed the places they had checked, one by one.
"Then where the hell is he?" McCoy shouted.
"I do not know." Each syllable was sounded precisely, the Vulcan's patience wearing thin.
"And just why not? And don't look at me like that. I know damned well about that link you and Jim share. He told me about it...how you picked up his cry for help in that V'ger thing all the way to Vulcan. And now you try to tell me you can't find him when he's on the same planet with you!" he ended in disgust.
Spock had to exert tremendous control not to back away from the Human whose face was only inches away from his.
"That is exactly what I am telling you."
"You do not understand. This is merely a link, a tiny thread of consciousness. I 'heard' his cry for help before; it is possible I might again. But I cannot 'hear' that which he does not send."
"But why won't he call to you if he's in trouble?"
"I cannot answer that. Only he can."
"But if we could ask him, we wouldn't be havin' this conversation. He isn't here." McCoy brightened at a thought. "Maybe he's not really in trouble. Maybe he and Ghia..."
"Perhaps." But they both knew that wasn't true.
"Perhaps he is unable to do so."
"Are you saying he could be dead?" McCoy's tones were flat.
"No. He is not dead. I am certain I would know that."
McCoy let that comment pass unacknowledged. "Then where is he?"
"I do not--" Suddenly the Vulcan doubled over in agony, hands clasped to his head, teeth clenched to hold back the scream that rose in his throat.
"Spock?" McCoy had his medicorder out, immediately checking for signs of illness, but the vital signs all appeared normal--at least for a Vulcan-Human hybrid--except for an unaccountable, swiftly accelerating level of pain. Before he could reach a conclusion, however, Spock had straightened back up, a mask of terrible calm firmly fixed on his face. He activated his communicator.
"Spock to Security."
"Security. Chekov here."
"Select four security officers and meet me in the transporter room immediately, Lieutenant. We are going for the captain."
"You know where he is now?" McCoy asked unnecessarily as Spock deactivated the communicator.
"Yes, Doctor. I know." His voice was calm...too calm.
"He is in great pain. I fear..." His eyes darted around the room.
"Not exactly." One hand trembled, then clenched, relaxed, clenched, relaxed.
McCoy's face grayed. "The mindsifter?"
"Yes." He refused to meet the doctor's penetrating gaze.
"I'll get my medikit."
"No." The single syllable stopped McCoy in his tracks. He scrutinized Spock carefully.
"And just why the hell not?"
"You must prepare Sickbay, in case he is in need of care."
"He may need me there."
"I said you will remain here."
The turbolift doors opened, and Chekov and the other security officers stepped into the corridor. Spock swung on his heel and led the way back to the transporter room. They took their places on the platform, and the Vulcan ordered, "Energize." The six forms disappeared.
McCoy stared at the empty platform a minute, then turned to the technician. "Don't go away," he ordered. "I'll be right back." Then he hurried to Sickbay to retrieve his medikit. Some orders were meant to be disobeyed. An illogical Spock was definite cause for alarm.
Kirk screamed yet again as he tried to fight off the effects of the mindsifter. The pain was excruciating, and he knew he couldn't withstand its probe for long, but somehow he had to resist long enough. Spock would come. He knew that. The only question was, would he be in time? The Klingons had probed Ghia's mind just deep enough to learn of his impending arrival and that the Stradiths knew of their mine shaft. Acting on that knowledge, they had sent word to their warrior brothers to abandon the shaft via the still-secret second entrance and meet them at an old farmhouse in an isolated area. Once there, they had proceeded with their plans to empty his mind of whatever they could find. So far he had managed to block their attempts to find anything but the most trivial of knowledge. But he wasn't Vulcan; he didn't know how long he could hold out. Already, the pain was so intense he could feel his last efforts at control slipping.
The Klingon operating the deadly machine increased the intensity another notch and attempted to probe yet another level deeper. The veins stood out clearly in Kirk's forearms as he gripped the chair arms. He screamed, and his control crumbled, his mind opening to the deadly machine.
Ghia struggled against the Klingons who held her captive, forcing her to watch while they delved into Kirk's mind, his every scream of agony cutting through her to the bone.
Suddenly, the door swung open so hard it slammed against the wall. A figure of righteous wrath stood there only a second, sensing his friend's pain and crumbling control before he jumped across the room, seemingly in a single leap, and grabbed the Klingon operating the mindsifter. In one efficient movement, he snapped the Kh'myr's neck, and the warrior fell, already dead before he hit the floor.
Then all hell broke loose. A Kh'myr pulled his knife from his boot and hurled it at the Enterprise's first officer, who stepped aside just in time to avoid the potentially lethal throw. Instead, the blade buried itself in the stomach of the man who had just stepped into the doorway. Seeing the look of painful surprise on this other friend's face while still fighting against the waves of agony that swept from Kirk to him through the link, Spock gave a mighty roar. He jumped again, grabbing the doctor as his knees buckled and easing him to the floor. Ghia appeared on McCoy's other side, free now that the Klingons were more interested in a fight than in restraining her. Spock's eyes seemed to clear of the madness only a second, allowing them to exchange an understanding glance. She tore a piece of cloth from her tunic and used it in an attempt to stop the Human's bleeding. Leaving McCoy in her hands, Spock yanked the knife from McCoy's body, and turned again to the Klingons. Another wave of pain hit him and wiped out the last vestiges of Vulcan control.
Chekov and the other security officers attempted to stun the Klingons, but everywhere they pointed their phasers, Spock was there first. He held the Klingon's own ceremonial blade in one hand and his phaser in the other, slashing out at the Kh'myr and firing a killing blast in all directions at once, cutting the warriors down before they could gather their wits enough to fight back. He was a whirling dervish of pre-reform Vulcan fury unable to contain his previously controlled killing instincts until all fourteen Klingons lay dead. No one saw the fifteenth warrior crawl through the door, one hand pressed tightly to his abdomen where the deadly blade had caught a glancing blow that would be yet enough to ensure his death. But first, he had a mission to complete.
"Spock!" Kirk shook off the last lingering effects of the mindsifter and grabbed his friend by the shoulders, shook him. "Spock!" he shouted again. "It's over now," he continued in a softer voice when the Vulcan's gaze finally focused on him. "It's over."
"Jim?" Spock's voice was harsh with the remnants of his unleashed emotions. "You are all right?"
"Yes, but..." They both turned to the man on the floor, the Stradith woman kneeling at his side, pressing the rag that had once been part of her tattered tunic against his stomach. The cloth was red with the blood that still flowed from McCoy's wound.
McCoy's lids lifted to reveal pain-filled eyes. "Yeah, I know, Spock. You told me to stay on board. You can put me on report." The eyes closed again.
Kirk knelt across from Ghia. "Is he...?"
"He is alive...for now."
Behind him, Kirk heard Chekov calling the Enterprise for help, and within seconds Christine Chapel was materializing in the room with them, shoving the captain out of the way unceremoniously so she could examine her boss-turned-patient.
She looked up. "I must get him to surgery immediately."
"Aye, Kyptin." The security chief placed the call, and soon they were all back on board the starship.
Krage crawled away stealthily from the scene of carnage. As the only survivor of the battle with the berserk Vulcan, he had two duties remaining to perform. His disruptor set at overload would accomplish one, but he must reach the bunker first to succeed at the other.
Slowly, painfully, the Kh'myr warrior inched his way away from the mine, through the trees and back to the streets of Stradia City. Only when he had left the protection of the forest did he force himself to his feet. Each step was pure agony, but his anger and his sense of honor drove him onward, step by painful step, his right hand almost constantly in contact with the walls of the buildings he passed, while his left provided the pressure necessary to keep his burning guts from falling out of his body.
Finally, he was there, using most of his remaining strength to push open the boarded doorway to the building that housed the secret entrance to the bunker. Inside, he leaned back against the door, using his weight to close it again. He lurched across the room, opened the door to a closet, stepped inside, then shoved against the side wall, at the same time reaching out with a trembling hand to press the tiny button concealed along the frame of the doorway. The wall slid slowly backwards, granting him access to the tunnel. He stumbled through, then leaned against the wall a moment, sucking in huge, rasping gasps of air, desperately trying to gather enough strength to make his way through the long passageway to the sanctuary at its end. Finally, he began to move again.
Agonizingly long minutes later, he had reached his goal, the tiny room buried beneath the rubble of their old headquarters that had meant refuge for him and his brothers two deirains ago and that housed their recently reconstructed communications equipment. It would provide an eternal resting place for his remains once he completed his mission. He staggered across the room and fell into the chair behind the desk that housed the comm unit. He hoped Klaz had done his work well.
Krage opened a frequency commonly monitored by Klingon ships and began the message that would be his last one, hoping only that enough of it would get out to alert the fleet of the failure of the Stradia mission. His brothers would avenge his death on both the Stradiths and the Earthers; he had no doubt of that. All he had to do was tell them what had happened, and who was responsible. Kirk would pay; someday, somehow, Kirk would pay.
Finally, his message completed, Krage set his disruptor on overload and waited for the inevitable explosion that would mean his death and the destruction of the bunker, eliminating all remaining evidence of its existence. But when the explosion came, he didn't even know. Krage was already dead.
Kirk, Ghia and Spock waited unobtrusively at the far end of Sickbay while Chapel and the other medical personnel worked feverishly to save McCoy's life. The two men were silent, avoiding each other's eyes uncomfortably. Ghia looked from one to the other, then finally approached Kirk.
"Jim?" she said softly, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. He slid his arm around her waist, gathering her close to draw comfort from her nearness. "He'll be all right, won't he?" she asked.
"I don't know. Christine will save him if it can be done. He's the only doctor I trust more than her." He looked at Spock and then moved away from Ghia to approach the Vulcan.
Tortured eyes fastened on his face. "Captain. I must place myself on report." He was back where he had been immediately after abandoning the Kolinahr discipline, double-Vulcan again, all emotion gone from his face and voice. Kirk sighed.
"I'm getting sick and tired of all this talk about 'going on report.' First Bones, then you. What the hell is going on?"
"I ordered him to remain on the ship. If he had obeyed, he would be well now instead of fighting for his life because of an injury that was meant for me."
"Okay, that accounts for him. Why are you placing yourself on report?"
Spock looked at him a moment in bewilderment, as though he couldn't believe that Kirk didn't understand.
"I killed fourteen people. Is that not enough?"
"You killed fourteen Klingons, Kh'myr warriors, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Stradiths; who were determined to drain my mind of all Starfleet knowledge and then kill me and rape and kill Ghia; who intended to destroy this entire planet and send out what knowledge they gained from me to Klingon High Command, knowledge they could use to conquer the entire Federation." He shook his head. "I fail to understand your problem. Besides..." he continued more softly, his gaze turning again toward the far side of the room, eyes clouding over with worry and anger. "...they injured Bones, may have killed him."
"Whatever the provocation, I acted in a manner inexcusable both for a Starfleet officer and for a Vulcan. As a Vulcan, I must find my own peace, but as a Starfleet officer, I must answer to regulations. I should have had my phaser set on stun. I should have attempted to take them alive. Instead I--" His voice broke, the shame of his actions overwhelming him.
Kirk forced a gentle smile and placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder. "Instead you were overwhelmed by my agony, trying to make logical decisions through a haze of pain. The cause was sufficient, my friend," he said softly. "I'll hear no more about it."
Spock searched his face a few minutes, then turned away, still unconvinced, but at least a little more accepting. The pain had been intense, and to know it was Jim's made it even worse. If Jim said the cause was sufficient...
A flurry of activity at the other end of the room drew their attention as Chapel stepped away from the surgical area and approached them.
"Is he all right?" Kirk asked when she reached them, then grinned when he saw the small smile on her face.
"Yes, he'll be all right. I'm going to have hell keeping him in that bed long enough to heal properly, but I think I can handle him."
"Let me know if you have any trouble. It will be my great pleasure to order Bones to stay in bed for a change." He grinned again in his relief.
"I'm sure it would." She beamed back at him, remembering the many times he had begged to be allowed to return to duty only to have his chief medical officer refuse to allow him to leave Sickbay.
"Can I talk with him?"
"Not now. He's asleep and will be until morning." She shifted tired shoulder muscles. "Excuse me, Captain, I need to file my..." Her voice trailed off and she turned back to him, suddenly contrite. "No, first I must check both you and Ghia, make sure there are no after-effects of the mindsifter. I'm sorry, sir. I should have had someone do that before, but--"
"Never mind, Christine." He waved away her concern. "As I told Spock, the cause was sufficient. And we're all right; I assure you. They only used the lowest settings on Ghia, and as for me, well, Spock and Chekov arrived in time before they did any damage. I have a slight headache, but--"
"At least you can let me give you something for that?"
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed. "I could use something for that."
She took a bottle from a nearby cabinet and shook out two pills, handing them to him. "Take these and get some sleep. That's a medical order."
"Yes, ma'am," he repeated himself, accepted the pills, then left Sickbay, drawing Ghia along with him.
Christine was left alone with the Vulcan, who was staring across the room to where McCoy lay sleeping. "Mister Spock?"
"I would like to remain for a while."
"It's as I told the captain," she assured him gently, "he'll sleep until morning."
"I do not dispute that. However..."
She sighed. "All right, you may stay for a while," she agreed, realizing his guilt over McCoy's injury. It wouldn't hurt the doctor to have a Vulcan hover over him while he slept, and it just might help that Vulcan. "Excuse me," she said, then sighed when he didn't reply. She knew he hadn't even heard. She headed for the office area to file her report, leaving him to watch over his friend.
Kirk escorted Ghia through the Enterprise corridors to the transporter room. As she started to mount the platform, he held her back, taking her hands in his.
"I'm sorry I have to send you back like this," he told her. "I wish you could stay, or I could go with you, for the little time left before we have to leave, but--"
She smiled at him. "It's all right, Jim. I understand. This is good-bye. I didn't expect it quite so soon, but I did expect it."
"We're not leaving quite yet," he protested.
"I know. I'll see you again, but it's good-bye just the same. There's not going to be any more time for 'us'."
"I suppose not." He cupped her face in his hands and, ignoring the transporter technician, lifted his mouth to kiss her. "Take care of yourself, Ghia."
"I will. You, too, Jim."
She stepped on the platform, and he turned to the technician.
"Energize," he ordered.
McCoy opened his eyes to find himself in near darkness. It was quiet, but he knew instantly where he was. No matter how modern the facility or how advanced the treatment, a hospital still managed to smell like a hospital; and that, after all, was what Sickbay was.
He closed his eyes again and tried to remember why the hell he was the one in that bed, then shifted impatiently when he couldn't. He moaned when the movement sent a sharp pain knifing through his stomach. Knife! He remembered.
His eyes shot open again, and he looked beyond the foot of his bed this time to find Spock standing there, absolutely still, hands behind his back, watching him silently.
"What the hell are you doin' here?" McCoy asked, and was surprised at the weakness of his voice.
"I was waiting for you to awaken, Doctor," the Vulcan replied patiently.
Spock hesitated a moment, then shifted in uncharacteristic impatience. "I wished to ascertain that you were recovering properly," he offered finally.
"Isn't that Christine's job?"
"Doctor Chapel has done everything medically necessary. I was merely waiting to determine whether you were responding properly to that treatment."
"Oh. I still don't understand why."
Spock looked away, as though searching for a logical explanation for his illogical behavior. He finally gave up and told the truth. "Because I am responsible for your injury."
An eyebrow shot up, then the Vulcan stiffened his already military posture even more.
"I fail to understand your reac--"
"And I fail to understand where you got such a lame-brained idea. What makes you think you're responsible for me gettin' hurt?"
"The knife was intended for me. If I had not stepped--"
"And if I had stayed on the ship like you told me to," McCoy interrupted again, "even if it was a damned stupid order, then I wouldn't have been standin' in their line of fire. Besides, how the hell were you supposed to know I'd pick that minute to walk through the door?"
"I should have been paying closer attention to what was happening."
"Spock," McCoy spoke softly. "We both know you had only one thing on your mind at that moment. You can control your pain, but you never could handle his."
Spock turned away, unable to meet the Human's penetrating stare. "That does not change the fact that I should have been more aware of my surroundings. I am Vulcan. I am supposed to be in control of my emotions."
"And we both know that doesn't count for a damned thing when Jim Kirk's in trouble and hurting."
There was no answer.
Still he didn't respond. McCoy sighed, ending with a small moan. That drew Spock's attention.
"You are in pain." Not a question. "I will summon help." He started to leave.
The Vulcan paused and turned back to the bed, one eyebrow raised--in query or surprise; McCoy wasn't sure which.
"It's not bad--'cept when I laugh. Sorry. An old joke...and a bad one at that. I mean it, though. It just hurts a little unless I move too quick, and I don't want them doping me up so much I can't hold an intelligent conversation. Not that any conversation with a pointy-eared computer is 'specially intelligent, but there're a coupla things we need to get straight--right now, before you go off half-cocked an do somethin' stupid, like demandin' Jim court-martial you or somethin'."
Spock stiffened again. "Do not interfere in that which is not your concern," he told the doctor.
"The hell it's not! Spock, when will you stop bein' so damned hard on yourself? You pretend not to have any emotions, but we both know that's a load of bull. You care--about Jim especially, but about the rest of us, too. Hell, even me. Why don't you just admit it, admit that you, too, have your breakin' point?"
No answer. McCoy tried again. "You're just like the rest of us, even if you won't admit it. Push hard enough, and you'll push back. Push too hard, and you'll explode. Your breakin' point may be a little harder to reach than that of the rest of us, but it's there--and it's named Jim Kirk."
Still no answer.
"Oh, hell, get out of here and let a sick man sleep. Go!"
McCoy settled back against his pillows and sighed. He didn't know if he had helped or not, but at least he had tried. Damned stupid, stubborn, green-blooded, pointy-eared Vulcan...He smiled sleepily.
Outside the Sickbay door, Spock was sagged against the bulkhead, eyes closed, desperately trying to cope with the emotions churning inside.
He stiffened immediately and opened his eyes, stoic mask once more in place. "Doctor Chapel."
"Are you all right?"
"I am quite well, thank you, Doctor, but your patient is awake and in pain."
"Oh, thank you. I'll check on him now." She hurried
into Sickbay, and Spock headed in the other direction, escaping before she could return
with more questions, questions he wasn't ready to face yet--not even in his own mind.
Kirk and Spock materialized once again on the surface of Stradia, and the Enterprise captain looked around him in wonder at the peace of his surroundings. It was hard to believe that just a day earlier this planet had been under siege, desperately fighting for survival against the terrorist attacks of the Klingons. Now they were over, and the Stradiths could begin rebuilding once again. At least the effort wouldn't have to be as great this time. The damage was less than from the original Klingon invasion, but the toll in lives was more than the Stradiths could afford. They would have to remain under protectorate status for years before they would be ready for full Federation membership and the responsibility of fighting their own battles.
Suddenly, Kirk became cognizant of the silence that was unusual even for his Vulcan friend. "Is something bothering you?" he asked.
Spock hesitated a few seconds, then answered. "I am still somewhat disquieted by my improper behavior..." he began, allowing the thought to trail off as he couldn't decide what to say next.
Kirk sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you: You did the right thing. Under those circumstances, it was the right thing to do. No one could fault you for it."
"I fault myself."
"All right. Have it your way. Take the blame. Castigate yourself. It was a criminal thing to do, stopping a bunch of Klingon terrorists from killing your captain, not to mention a government official of a friendly world. You should have let them kill us and go on terrorizing an entire peo--" He stopped abruptly when he saw the stricken look on Spock's face, then continued in a softer voice. "I'm sorry, Spock. That's unfair. I understand what's bothering you, but I meant what I told you last night. The cause was sufficient. Sometimes you just have to look at the alternatives, weigh the consequences and do...maybe not what's the right thing, but possibly the only thing you can do under those circumstances. If you remember the alternatives, then maybe you can learn to live with your choice. That's what they call making command decisions. They're not easy, but somebody has to make them, and we've been elected. Besides, there were extenuating circumstances. If it had been you in such pain, and I had sensed it..." He shook his head.
"Perhaps," was the only reply Spock would give, and Kirk abandoned the discussion as they reached the Stradith government headquarters and headed inside for their final meeting with Shael and his ministers.
An hour later they had finished briefing the Stradiths concerning their recommendations on the future status of Stradia. The official part of the meeting over, they were seated in Shael's office, discussing the revised casualty reports concerning the Klingon attacks.
"And you're certain they're all dead now?" Kirk asked finally. "There are no indications that any of them might have escaped? No further explosions?"
"There was one, shortly after you returned to your ship, but it appears to have no connection to the others." As minister of defense, Egan answered the question.
"And what makes you think that?"
"The explosion was underground and caused no injuries or damage to any structures. It occurred beneath the rubble of the old Klingon headquarters building. We surmised that they must have had some weapons that were buried beneath that rubble and were somehow accidentally detonated. All it did was shift some of that rubble around a bit."
"I see. Nothing else?"
"No, except our communications people picked up a brief surge of energy, as though someone were transmitting something. But it ended before we could decipher it, determine where it came from, or even tell for sure that it was a transmission. Then that underground explosion occurred."
"No." Shael answered this time. "I believe it's finally over this time. Jim, thank you. Once again, you and your people have saved ours from almost certain destruction."
"Not me," Kirk refused to accept the praise. "It was Spock who came through when we needed him."
"Yes," Shael turned to the Vulcan. "The estimable Mister Spock. We are in your debt."
Spock looked uncomfortable, but acknowledged the gratitude graciously with a single nod of his head.
"And now," Kirk rose to his feet, "we must leave. We have another mission, more diplomacy..." The Stradiths were unable to detect any signs of his distaste for that duty in his even voice.
Shael held his hand out to Kirk in the gesture he had come to realize meant so much to his Human guest. "Thank you again. We hope you will return to Stradia again. You will always be welcome--you and your Mister Spock and the others from the Enterprise."
"Thank you, Shael...and all of you." Kirk looked around the room, including all of the Stradith officials in his acknowledgment, refusing to allow his gaze to rest longer on Ghia's face than those of the others. "Perhaps someday we will be able to accept your kind invitation. I will always remember Stradia and its people with admiration and affection."
"As we will you."
Somewhere in space...
"Exalted One, I am receiving a distress signal from one of our remote outposts," the communications officer reported.
"Let me hear it," came the harsh reply.
"...met defeat...Earthers...Federate pigs...rk...lcan...pacifist cowards...destroy...not surrender...not give...prisoners...self-destruct...bunker...glory...Empire..." The transmission ended abruptly.
"Stradia, Exalted One."
The commander thought briefly of the last Klingon mission to Stradia. It had ended disastrously in defeat after half a kh'annta of glorious rule. He and other commanders had wanted to avenge the deaths of their Kh'myr brothers then, but there were too many Federate pigs there, providing protection to the cowardly pacifists who had originally been so easily overcome. Cooler heads back on the homeworld, like that traditionalist Kang, had forbidden it. They said only a full-scale war could have re-taken the planet at that time, and they shouldn't risk the wrath of the Organians. The time wasn't ripe. Stradia would remain, the Federates would leave some day, and they could return to rescue their brothers still in hiding and re-capture the dilithium-rich planet. Perhaps now was the time.
"Lay in a course, Kort."
"Exalted One, I am receiving another message."
"Another distress?" He gave a mirthless laugh.
"No. It is from Commander Kalt of the Assassin."
"Put it on screen, scrambled."
The harsh visage of a Kh'myr warrior appeared on the viewscreen.
"I have word from the homeworld," he began without a word of greeting. "A mission is being planned to Serenidad. It is said Kerl will lead it."
"No!" Kral came to his feet with a roar. "Serenidad is mine! They know I swore a blood oath to avenge my cell brother. They cannot give this glory to Kerl."
"Reports are that Kang opposes your appointment to the mission."
"That old woman! He will pay for this!"
"The old woman is an admiral of the Empire," Kalt reminded him.
"Not for long. When we rule..."
"Careful, Kral. Our communications could be overheard. We do not want the impotent bastards to get wind of our plans too soon."
"You are right." Kral forced himself to calm down. "Your message is acknowledged, and I am in your debt, Kalt."
"Acknowledged." Kalt wisely refrained from commenting on that 'debt.' "Survive and Succeed. Kalt out." The Kh'myr disappeared from the screen to be replaced by a view of the nearby stars.
"Lay in a course for Kazh," Kral ordered the navigator, then turned to his second-in-command.
"We return to the homeworld, Koret. Stradia must wait."
"It will still be there, Exalted One, when we have finished with Serenidad."
"Yes, and we will be back. These brothers, too, must be avenged." He stared unseeingly at the viewer a few minutes, lost in his own dark thoughts. Then, abruptly, he turned to Koret again, his face cold and determined. "Remind me to deal with Kalt later."
An evil grin appeared on the second-in-command's face. It wasn't wise to have a Kh'myr warrior in one's debt, even if you were a Kh'myr yourself, perhaps especially then. Kalt would learn that lesson too late.
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