Spock scanned the blighted terrain surrounding the remains of what had once been the Hill People's main village, his tricorder minutely detailing the desolation.
"The war has obviously had a profound effect on the Neuralese ecosystems, Captain," the Vulcan reported. "There are no readings of any substantial concentration of plant or animal life within a radius of five kilometers."
Kirk shook his head sadly. It was so incongruous; the bleak, rock-strewn hillsides, pockmarked with shell craters and the blackened stumps of what had once been trees, reared up grimly into a cheerful, impossibly blue sky. This was the planet he had once called a 'Garden of Eden.'
"Well, Spock. We might as well head in to see what's left of Tyree's village."
Tyree. The leader of the Hill People. A friend of James T. Kirk. Was there a chance that he was still alive?
Kirk spoke into the wrist communicator. "All teams, report back to me. We're going into the village."
They had all reassembled within a few minutes. Chekov had taken his security team down toward the valley, while McCoy, Scott and Sulu had climbed a bit farther up the hill. Neither squad had found so much as a blade of grass.
As they neared the razed village, a terrible odor of decay assailed their nostrils. It was unmistakable, mixed even as it was with the acrid, smoky smell of the burned out log shelters. It was the stench of rotting flesh, of corpses too long unburied, a smell that Kirk had encountered many times in his career.
It was the stench of death.
They entered the village to a scene of unspeakable horror and carnage. Decaying bodies littered the blackened ground, all of them so badly charred or mutilated that it was impossible even to determine their sex. One of the younger, inexperienced security officers turned away retching. Numbly, the Enterprise crewmen continued their silent survey. Clouds of scavenging insects stirred at their passage, buzzing in protest at the intruders.
They had separated into three groups again. McCoy and Kirk were following what had once been the main street. In the ashes of one of the cabins, they found a number of smaller corpses.
"Children!" McCoy raged, his face livid. "My God, they kill children!!" He turned on Kirk. "Is this what you call a balance of power, Captain? Look at this! Soon there won't be a living thing left on this planet, if there's anything left already!"
Kirk's face hardened. "I understand how you feel, Commander, but I need every man in control of himself down here," he said evenly. "If you don't think you can do that, you can transport back to the Enterprise, and I'll have Doctor Chapel handle the medical aspects of this mission."
McCoy's mouth worked. He tried to say something, but couldn't.
Kirk gripped his chief surgeon's shoulders; his tone was softer now. "How do you think I feel, Bones? I'm the one who had to introduce firearms to the Hill People. It was either that or stand by and let them be wiped out by the Villagers."
"Yeah, sure! This way, at least the two tribes can wipe each other out at equal rates of attrition!" McCoy shot back sarcastically.
Before Kirk could answer, he was interrupted by a crackle of static over his communicator. "Kirk here," he said into the device.
"Spock here, Captain. We have found something of interest at the northeast corner of the village. Would you and Doctor McCoy meet us?"
Kirk and McCoy hurried to join the Vulcan. They stopped short when they were confronted with the first officer's grisly discovery. Five desiccated corpses attired in Starfleet uniforms hung impaled on sharpened wooden stakes planted deep in the ground. Three men and two women, their bodies frozen forever in the final spasms of agony of their deaths.
"The Starfleet observation team," Spock said calmly, seemingly unaffected by all the brutality he had seen, a marked contrast to the ashen faces of Scotty and Sulu. "It is interesting to note that they are apparently victims of a simple execution, while the Hill People were subjected to a mass slaughter."
"How nice of you to make that distinction, Mister Spock!" McCoy shouted angrily.
"Quiet, Bones. I think I see what Spock is driving at." Kirk turned and faced the Vulcan. "Do you think..."
"It is not beyond the realm of possibility, Captain. Perhaps the Klingons were impatient with the rate of acceleration of the conflict. By killing our observers, they could supply their forces with more powerful weapons than the Hill People without our knowledge, thus bringing a more rapid conclusion to the war." Spock paused. "It appears that they may have accomplished just that."
"The devils!" Scotty grated.
A voice called to them from the perimeter of the village. "Kyptin! Over here, quickly!"
"It's Chekov!" Sulu exclaimed. "He must've found something!"
They ran toward the sound of the distant voice, their progress impeded by the jumbled, rocky ground. Chekov and his men had uncovered something under a pile of boulders; another body, this one clothed in the garments of a Villager.
"Someone made a crude attempt at burying this one, Kyptin."
"But why go to all that trouble?" Sulu queried. "Everyone else was left to rot where they'd fallen."
In answer, Chekov bent and removed the rough cloth headdress that covered the face. Even in the advancing stages of decomposition, they recognized the alien's dark features. The head was large, bald on top with thick dark hair on the sides and back. The dark, swarthy face was bearded, and had bifurcated eyebrows. The most striking feature, however, was the segmented ridge of bone that ran over the top of the skull and ended at the bridge of the nose.
"A Klingon!" Scotty shouted.
"Yes, one of the Kh'myr subrace," observed Spock. "They were selectively bred by Klingon geneticists to be the ultimate warriors." Spock squatted down and examined the savage face more closely. "If you recall, Captain, the three Klingon cruisers that were initially destroyed by V'ger were crewed entirely by Kh'myr Klingons."
"It seems as though the Klingons have decided to take matters into their own hands," Kirk said. He thumbed a button on his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Uhura here, Captain. Go ahead."
"The village of the Hill People has been destroyed, Uhura. We can't be sure, yet, but it looks as though the Klingons are now directly involved. It also appears that the Hill People have suffered almost one hundred percent casualties, but we aren't certain of that either." He paused a moment before he continued. "Beam down a field phaser. We've got to dig a large enough trench to serve as a mass grave."
"Yes, sir. Uhura out."
The field piece materialized minutes later, and the men had soon completed the grim task of gathering and burying the scores of casualties. Kirk ordered the field phaser beamed back aboard the starship, after which he reassembled his landing party.
"All right, gentlemen," he began. "We'll scout out the area to the north of the village. We'll keep going deeper into the hills until we can discover whether or not there were any survivors of this massacre."
"Captain," Spock said in a low voice. "I believe we are about to have our answer. We are in the process of being surrounded."
Like ghosts, they glided from the shadows, more than thirty men wearing the garb of the Hill People. They encircled the Enterprise party, aiming their blued-steel automatic weapons with deadly intent.
"Phasers on stun," Kirk ordered quietly. "They haven't made any hostile moves yet, but we're not taking any chances. Spock?"
"I believe that they are armed with what were called Thompson sub-machine guns, Captain," the Vulcan replied. "They were standard issue in the armed forces of the United States of America circa 1943, Old Earth calendar. As weapons go, they are primitive, but quite efficient and quite deadly, particularly at close range."
"Isn't thot th' level of technology both sides were bein' supplied with at th' time of th' last report, Mister Spock?" asked Scotty.
Just then, a tall, powerfully built Hillman came out from behind the rocks. "Lower your weapons!" he commanded the tribesmen. "These people are our friends!" He turned to face Kirk, a smile lighting his handsome features. A deep, livid scar that creased the left side of his face was almost hidden under the thick shock of his whitish blond hair. But Kirk had no trouble recognizing him.
"My good friend James!" the man said.
It was Tyree.
Lieutenant Commander Uhura sat brooding in the command chair amid the pristine, streamlined elegance of the bridge of the Enterprise. The captain's news that he suspected the Klingons of direct involvement in the Neuralese conflict was unsettling, to say the least. Such action would be a direct violation of the Organian Treaty, and could bring about the start of the long-dreaded interstellar war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
"Security reports the field phaser has been beamed back aboard and stowed in the Armory, ma'am," sang out Lieutenant Kris Jansen, Uhura's replacement at the communications console.
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Commander!" Sensors indicate a Klingon K't'inga-class battlecruiser assuming orbit around Neural!" Lieutenant Xon, the Enterprise's second science officer said without warning.
"Ensign Bradbury, go to Red Alert! Ensign Selis, Chief DiFalco, keep them in front of us, and Xon, keep an eye out for reinforcements!" Uhura ordered.
Bradbury, who held down the weaponry station usually manned by Chekov, thumbed the alert button on his console, while Selis, the Andorian helmsman, and DiFalco made rapid adjustments of their instruments. Emergency sirens screamed in the corridors of the mighty starship, accompanied by the metallic monotone of the master computer. "Red Alert, Red Alert," it repeated again and again.
"Phasers and photon torpedoes fully powered up," reported Bradbury.
"Good. Now we'll just have to see what our friends' intentions are," said Uhura.
They watched the Klingon ship on the main viewscreen as it seemed to draw closer and closer to them. The K't'inga cruisers were about the same size and almost identical in appearance to the old class D7 ships, although they were more heavily built. That they were more powerful was an accepted fact.
"Interesting," said Lieutenant Xon. The young Vulcan turned from his viewer. "The Klingon ship is undoubtedly aware of our presence, yet its commander has made no attempt to raise his deflector shields or arm his disruptor banks."
"Commander Uhura, message coming in from the battlecruiser."
"Put it on visual, Kris."
The image of the enemy vessel was replaced by the fierce visage of the Klingon captain, a Kh'myr warrior. "Greetings, Enterprise. This is Commander Krath of the Imperial Cruiser Destruction. With whom have I the pleasure of speaking?"
"This is Lieutenant Commander Uhura, temporarily in command of the Enterprise in the absence of Captain Kirk. State your business, Klingon!"
Krath's eyebrows shot up in surprise when he saw Uhura. "A woman, by Kahless, and a beautiful one at that!" His expression changed into a leer as he ran his appraising glance up and down her body several times.
Uhura shivered involuntarily under the Klingon's candid stare, She could recognize the look of lust and lechery even in an alien's expression; she had seen it a thousand times before, on a thousand different faces. "I haven't got time for your mental undressing routine, Krath!" the Bantu woman finally exclaimed. "What do you want?"
"Aside from you, I wish only to assume orbit around the humble little planet. We are here, merely as observers, just as you are ostensibly supposed to be. And I must protest your bringing that starship to battle readiness."
"A little mutual distrust is healthy among enemies," Uhura retorted, grinning mirthlessly.
"Ah, yes. Anyway, I assure you that for now our intentions are peaceful. However, that could change." All humor fled the Klingon's face, leaving it wolf-like and feral. "If such a case should arise, I will do my utmost to have you taken alive. I could make life very interesting for a pretty little piece like you."
"Kill that channel!" Uhura spat furiously. She turned to the science console. "Xon, I want a deep sensor scan maintained! If one of those goons so much as belches, I want to know about it!"
Lieutenant Xon's eyebrows canted in surprise as the Enterprise's interim commander whirled to face Lieutenant Jansen. The Vulcan noted that Uhura was quivering with barely-suppressed rage.
"Kris, open a channel to the captain."
The Enterprise landing party was safely ensconced in the shelter of a large fortress-like cave, which now served as the home of the surviving Hill People. Kirk and his landing party listened with growing horror and revulsion to Tyree's tale of escalating bloodshed and atrocities. The nomadic Hill People and Villagers had waged relentless, savage warfare over the past years. Now their tribes, each of which had once numbered in the thousands, had dropped to an alarmingly low population level.
"Tyree," said Kirk, when he could finally find his voice. "How many of your people did you say have survived?"
"Only thirty-seven, James. But the Villagers now number only twenty-three. It is my hope that we can soon win this war."
McCoy swore silently as Tyree shook his head sadly.
"Once I was a man of peace, Leonard. But I have seen so much death and misery inflicted upon my people that now I can think only of killing again and again!"
Spock had been gazing around the chamber, a frown gradually deepening on his face. He addressed the Hill chieftain. "Tyree, you stated that only thirty-seven of your number have survived. Yet there are thirty-seven Hill People in this cave, counting yourself, and I see no children and only one woman. Surely you have the others hidden safely away."
Tears filled Tyree's eyes as he spoke again. "No, Spock. There are no others, Aside from Kysha, my lieutenant," he said, indicating a small, strikingly beautiful young woman of about twenty, who was supervising the cleaning of weapons. "The women have all been killed, as have all the children."
Stunned silence greeted his revelation. It was Sulu who finally spoke again. "Tyree, how? Didn't you protect them?"
"We did our best," Tyree said with effort. "But we were outmaneuvered. One night while the main body of our troops engaged the Villagers, an enemy force attacked our camp. But they were not Villagers! They were Dark Ones, aliens, the likes of which we have never seen. They executed your observation team after they leveled our village."
It was several minutes before Tyree continued. "These aliens fought with a ruthless ferocity unknown to us. They were animals! They easily overpowered and killed the men we left behind to guard the encampment, and they murdered all the children! Then they gathered all the women together in the center of the camp." Tyree gritted his teeth, his voice was quivering. "They raped them, then slowly tortured them to death, taking pleasure in listening to their dying screams! It wasn't enough for those animals to simply kill our women! They had to butcher their bodies! They set fire to our village and burned it to the ground! I couldn't even risk the small amount of troops I had left for a burial party, so we had to leave the corpses to decay in the sun!" The big Hillman sobbed openly now.
"That's enough, Tyree," said Kirk gently. His own eyes were wet.
Tyree stopped weeping. He smiled bitterly, but there was no joy in his red, swollen eyes. "They paid, Kirk. They paid dearly! After we came back and discovered what had happened, we sent a small squad out to divert the Villagers' troops. Then we descended on their camp and killed everyone, including all of those dark, slimy aliens! We surprised them before they could get to their strange energy weapons." He stopped and looked up, his face now a mask of unrelenting brutality. "I can assure you that there is not even one woman or child left alive among the Villagers! It is as you said, James. All things must be equal!"
Kirk started, horrified. He bolted forward and grabbed Tyree's tunic. "Tyree! You didn't! Not the women and children! Where's your honor, man?!"
Tyree removed Kirk's hands from his shirt. Slowly, he stood up. "My honor, James?" he asked quietly. "It died along with the women and children of my tribe. It dissolved in the hideous bath of their innocent blood!""
McCoy shook his head as the Hill chief angrily stomped off. "Oh my God! Oh, my God!" he said repeatedly.
Spock sat stolidly, his frown even deeper than before, but Sulu turned abruptly to a visibly shaken Kirk. "Captain! Can't we do something about this?"
"I'm afraid that it's already been done, Mister Sulu," he replied, his own voice almost inaudible.
"Cap'n Kirk!" A figure appeared in the brilliant sunlight at the mouth of the cave. It was Scotty. "It's Uhura on th' Enterprise. She couldn't reach ye on yer channel because of the cave, so she called me instead."
Kirk jumped to his feet and quickly moved to the entrance. He punched up Scotty's channel on his own communicator, and Uhura swiftly briefed him on her encounter with Krath the Klingon. "Hmm, that's not good, Uhura. If the Klingons beam a party down and find out that their own observers have also been killed, they might decide to do something drastic. Maintain Red Alert; we'll try to handle this end of the mess."
"Yes, sir," Uhura returned.
"Kirk out." He turned to his first officer, who, with McCoy and Sulu, had followed him to the opening of the cavern. "Well, Spock. We've got a real job on our hands. We've got to try to stop this thing before there is any more killing."
"Indeed, Captain. However, that course of action may well be impossible. I doubt that either the Hill People or the Villagers could be persuaded by such a line of thinking, nor do I believe that the Klingons would be amenable to that suggestion."
"Nevertheless, we've got to try. Scotty, have Chekov and his team reported in yet?"
"No, sir," the Scotsman rejoined. "They went out to survey the Villagers' new encampment from a safe distance. We should be hearin' from 'em shortly."
"All right, Scotty. Let me know when they call in."
Kirk turned and looked at McCoy. "You okay, Bones?"
"No, Jim, I'm not. But I'm trying." The chief surgeon grinned weakly.
Kirk returned the smile and turned back into the cave. He was stopped by the pretty, raven-haired young woman that Tyree had called Kysha. "Do not judge Tyree too harshly, James. He has suffered more than any man should. He is our leader; every time one of our people dies, he dies a little too."
"Yes, I know that feeling very well," Kirk said reflectively. "I'll try to keep that in mind. Kysha, how is it that you weren't killed in the Klingon raid?"
The young woman's eyes flashed in anger and sorrow at the memory. "Tyree realized that it would be necessary to recruit women to bolster our dwindling numbers. I was the first woman to qualify for combat; I was so well-qualified, in fact, that I became Tyree's second in command." She closed her large, dark eyes tightly, as if trying to shut out a nightmare. "On the night the Dark Ones attacked, I was in battle with the men."
"You have fought in these insane, bloody battles?"
"Yes, James, I have. When we raided the Villagers' camp, it was I who shot the leader of the Dark Ones." She continued, her voice taking on an edge. "He didn't die immediately, so I slowly cut his throat while I listened to him beg for mercy."
The young woman turned and walked out of the cavern. Kirk stared after her, unnerved. He shook himself, trying to collect his battered wits. "Spock! Bones! Scotty! Sulu! We'd better have a conference. It's time we try to find a way out of this insanity!"
They never got the chance.
"Sir, it's Chekov calling in!" Scotty called out. "Ye'd better talk to him!"
"Go ahead, Lieutenant," said Kirk, activating his wrist communicator.
"Kyptin! A Klingon beamed into the Villagers' encampment, and stirred them all up!" came Chekov's excited voice. "The whole horde of them is heading your way, and we've got about a ten minute lead on them!"
"Lieutenant Chekov! Do whatever is necessary to protect yourselves! Do you read?" Kirk shouted.
"Yes, Kyptin. Chekov out."
"My God, Spock! This could be it! The final battle! We've got to warn Tyree!"
The Enterprise men scattered into the depths of the cave, looking for the big Hillman, knowing full well that he might be forced to lead the last of his people to their Armageddon.
The tedious game of cat and mouse had dragged on now for five interminable hours. Two mighty starships hung in orbit above the planet Neural, drifting calmly in the ether, thousands of kilometers above the upper fringes of the atmosphere. Routine had reestablished itself on the Enterprise bridge. Uhura had just finished signing an energy consumption report when the boredom was shattered by the voice of Second Science Officer Xon. "Commander, the Klingons are activating their transporters."
"Commander Uhura, a message from the landing party," said Communications Technician Jansen. "A Klingon has beamed down into the Villagers' encampment and has incited an all-out siege against the Hill People! Captain Kirk advises us to beware of possible hostilities on the part of the battlecruiser!"
"The Klingon vessel has erected its screens, and now has full power to its disruptors and photon torpedoes," Xon put in.
As if to punctuate his remark, the Enterprise suddenly rocked to the blast of a disruptor bolt.
"Damage control, report!" Uhura barked.
"No damage, Commander. However, we have suffered a two percent drop in power!"
"Return fire with all forward phasers!"
Twin beams of pure, awesome energy lanced through space, scoring a direct hit amidships. The Enterprise had landed the first blow.
"The Destruction's number three shield has buckled," Lieutenant Xon reported. He straightened suddenly. "Commander, the Klingons are cutting into warp drive. Bearing zero mark zero, on a collision course."
"They're trying to ram!" Uhura frantically punched the intercom on the arm of the command chair. "Engineering, channel full warp power to phasers! Bradbury, fire phasers and torpedoes in tandem, now!"
The great starship unleashed the most terrible destructive forces in the galaxy, forces which even the deflectors of the formidable Klingon cruiser could not turn aside. Seconds later, an actinic glare not unlike the explosion of a dying star lit up the skies above Neural.
Uhura was trying to recover. She sat in the center seat, stunned. "Xon, we didn't inflict mortal damage on the Klingon with our first phaser fire. Why did they pull a suicide ploy? It doesn't make any sense!"
"Klingons are not renowned for their logic, Commander," the Vulcan said drily. "It would seem that they were aware of the Enterprise's ability to tie warp power into its weaponry. Realizing that they could not hold out against us for an extended period of time, they decided to use a maneuver that would cost us dearly in power loss."
Uhura nodded slowly. "Add to that the energy expended by the deflectors when they shielded us from the explosion, and they did a hell of a job of draining us." She got on the com to Engineering. "Engineer, status report."
"That little light show did a number on us, Commander," came the filtered voice of Chief Kyle. "We're down to thirty-two percent power! We can get our potency back up to snuff in a little more than two hours, but if we run into any more Klingon cruisers in the meantime..."
"We'd be sitting ducks," the Bantu woman finished softly. She swiveled around to face the communications console. "Kris, did the Klingons get off any distress calls?"
"Negative, Commander. Either there are no other cruisers in the vicinity, or they were just too engrossed in trying to blow us out of space."
Uhura breathed a slow sigh of relief. She flicked another switch on her command array. "Security, have a twelve-man team armed with phaser rifles and body armor stand by in the transporter room. The captain and his party may need assistance. Lieutenant Jansen, open a line to the landing party."
Uhura fervently hoped that the security team would not be needed.
James T. Kirk sat on a rock, exhausted, his face a mute testimony to the holocaust that had just engulfed the valley. Around him lay bullet-riddled bodies stacked like cordwood. Kirk had seen savagery in its many forms in his travels to the remote corners of the galaxy, displays of ugliness almost beyond comprehension to the mind of a civilized man. But never had he seen anything to match the brutality of the past few minutes.
In that short space of time he had seen two groups of humanoids who behaved more like coldly efficient killing machines literally chop each other to pieces with submachine gun fire. They had come at each other in extremely close quarters, hand-to-hand combat with tommy guns, pistols and knives. Corpses lay sprawled in oceans of blood, some of them almost cut in half by withering fire that had continued long after they were dead.
When the shooting had finally stopped, the forces of the Villagers had been ruthlessly wiped out.
And in the center of the slaughter, only one man stood alive.
One man who bled from a half dozen wounds, but who somehow stood, nevertheless.
As the Hill chieftain swayed unsteadily, Doctor Leonard McCoy worked feverishly over a small, lithe body that still clung to a faint spark of life. The fighting had wound down; Kysha had dispatched one of the last Villagers with a quick burst of her Thompson. The man had staggered forward into her, mortally wounded. But even as he died, he managed to thrust his automatic pistol against her abdomen and fire.
The chief surgeon tried desperately to staunch the fountain of scarlet that gushed from her massive, gory wound, knowing that it was a futile gesture. Kysha writhed in agony, moaning. Her beautiful, but pain-etched face had taken on the hue of putty, and was bathed in cold beads of perspiration. The young woman's breaths came in short, stertorous gasps as McCoy frantically boosted the gain on his anabolic protoplaser.
Suddenly, Kysha went into convulsions; she screamed once, long and piercingly. Then she lay still.
McCoy switched off the protoplaser as Tyree stumbled and fell to the ground by the woman's body. "I'm sorry, Tyree. There was nothing I could do. A young girl isn't supposed to have her guts blown out by gunfire!" McCoy flared, his voice filled with fury. He whirled to Kirk. "You told me once that the war on Neural was necessary, that it 'had to be!' Is this what had to be?"
The doctor angrily strode away.
Kirk tried to ignore the pain inflicted by doctor's accusing tone. He knelt beside Tyree. The Hill man gently stroked Kysha's long, lustrous hair. Then he closed the glazed eyes which stared unseeingly at the cerulean skies.
"Tyree. Come on. It's over; your people are all dead."
"All dead," Tyree echoed numbly. "Yes. And so are the Villagers, and I still live. We have won!"
Kirk stared incredulously at his friend. "Your people are all dead!" he exploded. "All of them, Tyree! Two entire races of people destroyed, and you talk of winning! It's over, Tyree. Nobody wins! You've got to rearrange your life now. You're the last survivor; your way of life no longer exists. You must come with us so we can help you. Come on, let Doctor McCoy look at your wounds."
"I have nothing to live for now, James," he returned brokenly. "My people are gone. My only purpose in life was to destroy the Villagers. I have done so. Now, please let me die!"
Just then, Spock came down the slope into the barren, blood drenched valley. "Mister Scott and Mister Sulu have gone out searching for Chekov and his party, Captain. Still no sign of them."
Kirk sighed. "God, I hope nothing's happened to them! What a waste. All the people dead, and for what? So that two galactic superpowers can play God and lay claim to a 'hands-off' planet because of its strategic location!"
"It is totally illogical," Spock agreed. "The Klingons must have believed that by eliminating the inhabitants of Neural, the tribes, they could take possession of this planet."
"Well, they can have it for all I care!"
Spock frowned. "I understand how you feel, Jim. However, I am constrained to point out that Starfleet and the Federation might believe otherwise."
"I don't give a damn about what they want!" Kirk snarled, his face dark. "Spock, the entre population of this planet has been wiped out! Genocide to the nth degree! And a bunch of bureaucrats, one of whom has never seen even one man die, will probably want us to walk in and take over! It just makes me sick to death!" He kicked aside a now-useless submachine gun, sending it skidding across the dusty ground.
"I did not intend to upset you; I was merely pointing out an alternative. I'm sorry, Jim," the Vulcan finished.
Kirk turned. His expression softened, and a wry grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. Spock had said "I'm sorry." The Vulcan had discovered new dimensions to the concept of emotion since his mind-link with the V'ger construct. And even though it had been over a year since then, Kirk still had not gotten used to this new aspect of his first officer's behavior, this relaxing from time to time of that all-too-rigid Vulcan reserve.
"I'm sorry too, Spock. When I see something like this, I can't help it. I know it's part of my job to handle situations like this--it comes with the territory, but sometimes..." Kirk shook his head.
He gazed at McCoy, who had begun to treat the wounded Tyree. "Sometimes it's even harder for other people to accept," the captain said softly.
They came over the rise above the valley just then, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and his security team. One of them, Collins, limped along badly, leaning on one of his comrades for support. Kirk saw the ugly crimson stain just above his right kneecap.
"Three of their advance guard caught up to us, Kyptin," the young Russian reported. "They managed to put a bullet in Gary's leg before we stunned them. We left them in a glade about a quarter mile back down the path. I thought it best to lay low until their main force passed us by." Chekov's tired, dusty face was devoid of expression. He had seen so much horror in the past few hours that he was now desensitized to it, his feelings numbed.
Kirk was distracted by a commotion behind him.
"No!" Tyree shouted. "Chekov, you say three of the Villagers still live?"
"Tyree," Kirk began.
With a hoarse, incoherent cry, Tyree roughly shoved McCoy aside and lurched drunkenly to his feet, scooping up a Thompson from the ground. He sped past the stunned Federation men with alacrity that was amazing for a wounded man and pounded off over to the path that led to the glade.
"The damned fool idiot!" McCoy shouted. "He'll start bleeding all over again!"
Kirk was already giving chase. "Bones," he shouted back over his shoulder. "Take care of Collins! Spock, secure the area and wait for my orders! As soon as I catch up with Tyree, we're beaming up to the Enterprise!"
He couldn't wait around to hear their replies. Tyree was opening a big lead on Kirk and was threatening to run out of sight. The tribesman was used to Neural's tortuous terrain, while Kirk had to pick his way over the rough, uneven ground much more carefully. It wasn't long before the captain came to a steep hill. He crested it and looked down into the glade.
The big Hillman stood over the unconscious forms of the three Villagers. Tyree raised and aimed his weapon, pulling back the slide bolt.
"Tyree! No!" Kirk shouted as he started headlong down the hill, desperately clawing for his phaser. Just as his fingers closed on the hand grip, a gnarled tree root reached out and snatched at his ankle. The captain of the Enterprise undignifiedly tumbled end over end the rest of the way down the slope. His phaser clattered off toward parts unknown. Even as he scrambled to his feet, he heard the deadly stutter of the Thompson.
He was too late.
Tyree's aim had been unerring. The man who had once angrily thrown aside a flintlock rifle because he would not fight had reduced the heads of his three enemies to gruesome ruins of pulped flesh and bone with a burst of deadly fire.
Kirk felt the gorge rising in his throat. Sickened as he was, though, he could not tear his eyes away from the bloody spectacle. He watched in horrified fascination as Tyree danced and strutted, shaking the submachine gun high over his head. His eyes were wild with triumph.
Suddenly, Tyree's victory cry segued into a choked scream of pain. A splotch of blood flowed in the center of his chest like some hideous exotic flower. He crumpled in a heap.
Kirk whirled around, startled.
The smoking automatic pistol looked incongruous in the Klingon commander's sinewy hand. He pointed it at Kirk, aiming it at a spot precisely between the starship captain's eyes.
"Krath, Captain Kirk, late of the battlecruiser Destruction. He was the last of them. Had I succeeded, I would now be claiming this miserable planet in the name of the Klingon Empire." White-hot fury glinted in his coal-black eyes. "However, my ship has been destroyed by that bitch of a lieutenant commander you left in your stead! My only regret is that I will be unable to strip the skin from her body a slow inch at a time!"
"The way your 'observation team' did to the women and children of the Hill People?" Kirk raged.
Krath laughed harshly. "The fortunes of war, my good Captain. They were casualties, statistics. The Klingon Empire wanted this planet because of its strategic location. However, we underestimated the mettle of the sheep we were fighting. They retaliated and murdered our original planetside squad before they could implement the construction of superior weaponry for the Villagers. The original plan would have had the Villagers annihilate the Hill People, at which time we would have eliminated any surviving Villagers with the weapons at hand, hoping to make it look as though the two forces had wiped each other out with no additional intervention from us. As it turns out, these heathens did an excellent job of killing off each other by themselves!"
"Which means you would have killed your own observation team to make it appear as though the Hill People did it, if they hadn't taken matters into their own hands!" said Kirk, shaking his head in disgust.
Krath nodded, smiling wolfishly. "They, too, were expendable. It would have been so simple if you and your damned starship hadn't meddled! The legendary Captain James T. Kirk of the fabled U.S.S. Enterprise! It was an official day of mourning in the Empire when word reached us that you had been placed on active duty once again. And now I have failed in my mission, thanks to you! The Klingon High Command will denounce my actions as those of an outlaw to avoid entanglements with that accursed Organian Treaty, which is standard procedure in such matters. I must terminate my own existence to atone for my disgrace. However, I will die with the satisfaction of knowing that I have destroyed the most hated and dangerous enemy the Klingon Empire has ever known!"
Kirk watched in stupefied horror as Krath's finger whitened on the trigger.
"I have never killed a legend before. Farewell, Captain!"
The shots rang out, crisp and clear.
Commander Krath's face fell apart in pain and surprise. His unfired pistol dropped to the ground, and he promptly followed it.
Kirk ignored the dead Klingon and rushed to Tyree's side. With the last ounces of his dying strength, he had levered himself up on one elbow and cut down Kirk's would-be murderer. Now he collapsed in pain.
"James," he gasped out past the thick thread of blood that trickled from the corner of his mouth. "There is a place...out beyond the devastation...of the war. You know it...There it...is green and peaceful, the way...my planet used to be. My wife, Nona, lies buried there."
Running footsteps sounded behind Kirk as Spock and McCoy raced to his assistance. The chief surgeon took everything in with one glance and broke out his medikit again. Kirk gripped the Hill chief's hand tightly. "Hold on, Tyree! McCoy is here."
Tyree shook his head and began to cough violently. When the fit subsided, he spoke urgently again. "I am finished, James. I know it...do not try to...soften it for me....Promise me...promise me that you will...bury me beside Nona! Promise!"
"I will," Kirk said somberly.
"Thank you, my friend...James." Tyree sank back, his head flopping weakly to one side.
McCoy sighed. "He's dead, Jim."
Kirk continued to cling to his friend's hand, fighting back memories of younger days and happier times the two had once shared on this planet.
"Captain," Spock broke in gently. "Lieutenant Commander Uhura is standing by with a security team on the Enterprise."
"No need," he finally muttered after a long silence. "Everything is...under control."
"A further communiqué, sir." Spock hesitated. "We have received a directive from Starfleet Command, Should both population groups of the planet Neural be extinguished, the planet's status changes from 'hands-off' to 'open.' We are then to claim Neural by order of the United Federation of Planets, provided the Klingon Empire has no prior claim. Due to its strategic importance..."
Kirk laughed bitterly. "The hopes and dreams of a fledgling civilization have died here today, Spock, and all those stuffed shirts can think about is 'strategic importance'! Tell Uhura to let them know they've got their damned planet! And tell her we're beaming up and getting the hell out of here as soon as we've laid Tyree to rest. Tyree. If only there'd been another way."
He let go of the Hillman's cold hand and stood up, gazing down at the peaceful, smiling face.
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