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Jim Ausfahl

set shortly after Star Trek V: The Final Frontier


It had been only a few weeks since the Enterprise had returned to Earth following its encounter with Sybok and the subsequent trips to the Great Barrier and then to Vulcan. Though the damage the ship had taken was minor, numerous internal problems had become all too apparent during the shakedown cruise. The Enterprise crew was slated for another week of downtime before spaceworthiness trials were to recommence for the starship.

With the prolonged idleness, Captain James T. Kirk had begun to get restless. All the places he’d promised himself he’d visit had been visited, and all the people he’d promised he’d call had been called. The itch to be back in space commanding a starship had begun to grow increasingly intolerable, and odd as it seemed to be invited to Starfleet Training Simulator Research, he was glad for even a slim chance at action, even if it was only simulated action. When he’d received the invitation via CommNet, he’d jumped at the opportunity. As he approached the building, Kirk saw what appeared to be a familiar figure approaching from a different direction. For an instant, he paused, waiting for the figure to move close enough to be recognized. Before he could be sure of the identity, a familiar voice called out.

"Kyptin? Kyptin Kirk?"

"Pavel!" Kirk broke into smile and a gentle run. "It’s good to see you!"

The two men met just outside the entrance, trading bear hugs. "Da, Kyptin! Is wonderful to see you, too. Did you get the same request I did?"

"If it was a very tantalizing, almost cryptic request from Admiral Gragar to test out a new simulator, yes. You’re looking good, Pavel. I hear you’re up for an executive officer posting under Captain Matterson of the Kongo. I hope that you put me down as a reference, so I can sing your praises. She’s going to have to watch her back, though. It won’t be long before you’ll have a command of your own. You’ll make a fine captain, Pavel."

"Spasebaw, Kyptin, but is still very strange having to make decisions that affect the lives of the people for which I’m responsible. I spend a lot of time wondering if I should have done things differently. Do you ever stop second guessing themselves once you’re a kyptin?"

Kirk shrugged. "I don’t know about anyone else, but I still haven’t. At least not the major decisions, especially if someone got hurt or killed. There are decisions I made when you were first on the Enterprise that I’m still second guessing, Pavel. Second-guessing my decisions is healthy, if not downright important, I think, at least up to a point. Knowing that I’ll be living with the decisions I make keeps me scared about half stiff when I’m making them."

"I can’t believe it, Kyptin. You were always so confident, so decisive on the bridge."

"So? On the bridge, especially in combat, you have to decide, and decide quickly. No matter how unsure you feel, you have to appear sure for your crew. On the whole, your crew will draw their confidence, their courage from how they see you. You have to look confident, courageous, and totally in control to keep your bridge crew pulled into a cohesive, coordinated team. The second-guessing has to wait until after the heat of the moment is over, when you’re alone in your cabin, where nobody has to see. If you ever stop second-guessing yourself, you’ve become too arrogant to be trusted with other people’s lives." Kirk opened the door for his friend.

"Is easy for you to say, Kyptin. You’ve always been fearless, even in combat. I’m not. I just don’t think I can handle it." As he spoke, Chekov started through the door.

Kirk shifted blocking Chekov’s path. "Belay that, Mister Chekov," Kirk snapped, purposefully denying Chekov his rank. The two men were almost in contact as Kirk spoke. "The only way to be fearless in combat is to be a complete idiot. Are you calling me an idiot?"

"Nyet, Kyptin! But the courage you always showed..."

"Courage isn’t freedom from fear, Pavel, and don’t you ever forget it," Kirk said firmly, stepping aside. "It’s choosing to be the master of your fear, rather than letting it master you, no more and no less. Perhaps remembering that will make command easier for you when you sit in the center seat."

The Russian nodded. "Da. I hope so."

"Trust me, Commander Chekov. It will. It has for me."

The two men moved swiftly to the room indicated by the message. As they entered, familiar voices greeted them.

"Jim! Pavel! Good to see you!" McCoy grinned.

"Captain Kirk, Commander Chekov, good to see you both," Uhura agreed. "I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have join me in testing out a new training simulation."

"Da," Chekov commented cheerfully, joining in the mutual greetings. "If Spock, Scotty and Sulu were here, it would be like old times again!"

Through the doorway, another familiar voice joined the chorus of hellos. "I estimate that the probability of prying Captain Scott away from overseeing the work being done on the Enterprise is at least two orders of magnitude lower than the probability of being struck by lightning." Spock entered as he spoke.

Kirk turned to greet his friend. "Spock! All we need now is Sulu."

From another direction came an unfamiliar voice. "Regrettably, Captain Sulu indicated that he had better things to do aboard the Cooper. I believe it is his first command, or at least so I have been told." The source of the voice was a surprisingly unremarkable individual, the sort of person that could easily disappear into a corner and not be missed, or even noticed. Indeed, whether it was his nearly nondescript appearance or the busy exchange of greetings, the man’s presence had escaped everyone’s notice. What little hair he retained was an almost steel colored salt-and-pepper gray. Pudgy, with a slightly stooped forward posture, he looked to be only of average height. His face had a slightly vacant appearance, with a hint of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, as if he had spent too much of his life squinting. Had he not been wearing a long white coat that sported the emblem of a senior research scientist, he could easily have been mistaken for a janitor. For a few moments, there was a strained silence.

It was Chekov who finally broke it. "Being promoted to Kyptin seems to have swollen Hikaru’s head. Is a pity. He will find hats very expensive at this rate."

The researcher’s head bobbed in agreement. "Indeed, it is a great pity. To test out the new simulator, I had hoped to reassemble the entire, legendary bridge crew of the Enterprise. Still, I am most thankful for your willingness to spare me an afternoon of your time."

"Being in port gets awfully tiresome after a while," Kirk observed dryly. "A point that, I’m sure, was factored into the timing of your request. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask what you have in mind?"

"I wouldn’t mind knowing your name, either, if it’s not classified or something," McCoy drawled. "Makes talking to you easier."

"Of course, of course," the fellow responded. "Please forgive my oversight. Too much time spent in my researches, too little time in more social settings, I fear. One tends to forget the civilizing graces after a while."

After a brief silence, Uhura stepped over to him, extending her hand. "Hello, I’m Nyota Penda Uhura. What’s your name?"

The man blushed before answering. "Dear me, I forgot again. I’m Doctor Uvalgt, Hamish Uvalgt." He shook Uhura’s hand with grave solemnity. "I am most honored to meet you."

One of Spock’s eyebrows lifted. "Doctor Uvalgt? I have read several of your papers on the theory of ten-dimensional projective geometry as it might be applied in Basis Field holography. Your work is quite remarkable. I was under the impression that your field was advanced theoretical physics, not training simulator development."

Uvalgt turned to face the Vulcan. "I am most flattered to know that you are familiar with the trivial results they have let me publish. They are minor side-issues to my real work." He shifted his stance to face the whole group. "As you know, the process of building a new simulator, and constructing training sequences for it, is an incredibly costly and difficult effort, as well as being extremely time-consuming. Too often, by the time the needed simulation systems are built and debugged, the ship they are designed for is almost obsolete. My area of focus has been to develop a training simulator based on a computer generated virtual reality."

McCoy shook his head. "They’ve been playing with that for a couple of centuries, man, and it’s never amounted to anything. With the goggles, and the earphones, and the sensor/tactile feedback suits and all, it’s just too unreal to be successful. And the holodeck we had on the original Enterprise was a joke. It was just visual imagery, sounds and tricks with the environmental controls."

Uvalgt nodded his head vigorously. "Exactly, Doctor McCoy, exactly. Those things are barbaric atrocities, utterly useless. But they aren’t really a unified, computer generated reality, you see: they are merely a handful of splinters of simulated reality, piled into an unconvincing stack, like trying to simulate a tree by gluing together toothpicks. The force fields and holograms of a holodeck are only marginally better. Federation technology has simply not been able to match that of the Xyrillians. I am doing away with all that claptrap and clutter with an artificial bubble of reality that I generate."

"Is impossible," Chekov opined. "Imitation reality is self contradiction."

"That is exactly I’ve been hearing from the higher echelons in Starfleet," Uvalgt sighed. "My sole remaining hope of preserving my research work is to convince them that it is possible. Without Admiral Gragar championing the effort, it would have died long ago. Hearing about experiencing it from a group as esteemed as you are..."

"I’m not exactly the most popular person in Starfleet right now," Kirk interrupted. "Only too recently, I was demoted from Admiral to Captain, in case you've forgotten."

"Yes, yes, yes, I know that." Uvalgt’s voice registered both frustration and anxiety. "That does not reduce the weight of your opinion, of your collective opinions. You stood your ground, stood for what you knew was true, what was right, not caring about the cost. Despite that, in fact because of that, your opinions carry considerable weight. With me, anyhow, and Admiral Gragar, and I hope with Starfleet Command."

"Is nice that you value our opinions so much, Doctor," Chekov said. "But you still have to convince me is possible."

Uvalgt’s forehead furrowed in thought for a moment. "Of course, of course, Commander Chekov. You are exactly right, I have failed to address that issue. You are, of course, familiar with holographic animation?"

"Da. Convincing to eyes only. We even had a holodeck aboard the original Enterprise. Was more like watching a two dimensional movie instead of reality."

"Can you imagine an animated hologram, using the unifying, basic field, to create the image? Not only would you have light, but also all the other relevant forces generated. From the sensory level, it would seem real."

Spock nodded. "Ingenious. However to be truly convincing, the simulation must also respond to our movement. This has been one of the major impediments to such an approach. I conjecture that the energy demands will be large, as well."

Uvalgt smiled, an act that transformed his face. "The energy demands are, indeed, remarkably great at the moment; we ended up having to construct our own matter-antimatter reactor to power our work; Admiral Gragar says it eats more power than a Constellation class starship. However, responding to the movement was indeed the most challenging part. Using the reference beam of the hologram as a sensor solved that; the system merely interprets the interference the person generates, conceptually similar to a medical scanner."

"That would, however, engender some degree of degradation of the image quality," Spock commented.

"Superficially, yes, but by reading off the changes happening in the adaptive, phase-conjugate reflection field used to..." Uvalgt’s voice trailed off into silence as he realized he was losing his audience. "This is all very technical, and somewhat hard to explain. Would it be sufficient for you all if I am able to convince Captain Spock that it can be done?"

There was a chorus of agreement, culminating with McCoy remarking, "Far as I’m concerned, the proof is seeing it done, and I’m in on this whether you convince Spock or not. But I’ll feel better knowing ol’ Cap’n Logic-Happy believes you."

"Excellent." Uvalgt rummaged in the desk. "Let me see, there is an analytical padd in here somewhere."

"A vwhat?" asked Chekov.

"A relatively new invention. It's a more powerful compuclipboard allowing the user to interface directly with the nearest Starfleet computer."

"I haf read about them. They vwere invwented in Russia," Chekov said authoritatively.

The others watched with some amusement as he hunted, finally finding it on the seat of the desk’s chair. Uvalgt turned to the Vulcan. "If I might show you the mathematics? Since you seem to be somewhat familiar with some of what I have been allowed to publish, this should not be overly difficult."

The Vulcan stepped over to the doctor, looking at the padd. The discussion became an interchange of mathematical relationships very rapidly, leaving the others feeling as though the two of them were talking an arcane, foreign language. The two beings conversed for several minutes before Spock returned to English. "It is most ingenious. I have no doubt that it will work, and that it will be a most unique experience."

"I’m in, then," Kirk asserted. "How about the rest of you?"

Agreement was unanimous. "Wonderful," Uvalgt beamed. "Please, follow me. As we leave this room, please understand that everything is classified. Ah, that would include our exit, too." Confidently, Uvalgt walked toward the wall, stepping into the space between two wall-height bookcases. As he walked through the wall, he turned back to the others, only partially visible, most of his body being hidden by the wall he had entered. "Come along. The wall is just a hologram. It seemed to be a better solution than building a concealed door. Amazing, isn’t it? You see a wall, and never question its reality." Uvalgt completely disappeared through the wall.

Chekov looked at Kirk. "Is amazing." He walked to the wall. "It looks perfectly real. The clock is even keeping accurate time." Chekov put his hand through it, his face showing the amazement his voice expressed.

From behind the wall, they heard Uvalgt again. "Oh, it was perfectly real, once. I imaged the wall before I had it removed. We use our little computer system to generate the wall, and keep the clock hanging on it updated. Consider it a sample of what’s coming." Without warning, the wall disappeared. Uvalgt was standing in a large cargo lift. "Please join me."

Once everyone had left the small office, Uvalgt tripped a small switch. The image of the wall reappeared, then the lift doors slid shut. They had just closed when the turbolift walls disappeared, revealing a huge room, its walls covered with machinery both familiar and strange, and with manned workstations. In the center of the room was a large, clear area, with seven, half-meter diameter circles, equally spaced on the circumference of a larger circle. One individual looked up from her workstation. "They’re here," she announced. The others turned as well. Spontaneously, a cheer broke out.

Looking a tad embarrassed, Uvalgt called for order and quiet. "Please forgive their exuberance. It’s just that your presence is the first ray of hope we’ve seen since Starfleet Command wanted to eliminate our funding." He scanned the room. "Houston!" he called, "Houston, could you join us?"

A thin brunette who looked to be in her late thirties or early forties detached herself from a desk. "May I introduce Doctor Houston Sumimoto?" Uvalgt announced. "She’s our chief programmer, my second in command, and our all around cheerleader. Bringing you all here was actually her idea, and she was the one that convinced Admiral Gragar to invite you all."

The woman arrived and gave Hamish a hug. "Hi, Daddy. I told you they’d come." She looked at the group, her face suddenly becoming serious. "Only five. We’re set up for seven."

"I know, Houston, honey." In his own element, Uvalgt suddenly seemed different, more the master of the situation. The scatterbrained academician they had met in the office seemed to have mentally solidified, if not metamorphosed into a different person. "I’ve not taken time to discuss that with our esteemed guests." He looked Kirk in the eye. "I hope you won’t mind an impromptu addition to your crew, Captain, but as my daughter said, the simulation is set up for seven. Reprogramming it for five would take days. If you will have us, we would be honored to join you."

"I’m sure you’re welcome," Kirk responded. "In all honesty, knowing you’re both willing to come along in the simulator is, um, reassuring."

"Good." Hamish stepped to the center of one of the circles, his daughter taking the one beside him. "If each of you would take a circle?"

The others complied.

"There will be a few moments of darkness, as the field intensity rises. We will be in extreme environment suits, on what will appear to be the surface of Venus. The mission is simple: locate and retrieve a disabled probe, believed to be less than ten kilometers from our point of arrival."

"May I presume," Spock remarked, "that there will be an unexpected challenge or two?"

"It’d hardly be useful for training if we didn’t throw a few surprises in," Houston confessed. "And the suits won’t exactly be standard issue, either, or all quite alike. I had a little fun with their design. You’re going to want to take a little while to familiarize yourself with them, you know, sort of get used to their feel."

"Excellent point, Houston. Are we all ready?" Uvalgt asked.

"Da," Chekov said, answering for the whole group. "Is time to see your stuff!"

Uvalgt gave a signal. For an instant, there was total darkness, followed by an awareness of the chin-controls and heads-up display of an extreme environment suit. Slowly, the light became bright enough to see their environment. Around them there was a cliff, perhaps twelve to fifteen meters tall, hemming them against a shoreline. Rather than a cluster of individuals in protective suits, the troupe looked like escapees of a nightmare. Uvalgt’s voice entered the scene. "Houston, I think we have a problem."

"It ain’t half the problem a certain pimple-faced teenager we both know is going to have when I get my hands on him, Dad. This batch of monsters is right out of one of the kiddie holobooks he used to dote on, one he dug out a few days ago. I am going to kill your grandson." Sumimoto was clearly angry.

"Doctor Sumimoto, as impressive as this scene is, I would strongly advise against such an act of violence." It was Spock’s voice.

"The Vulcan is right, dear," Uvalgt agreed. "I believe torture might be more to the point. Something singularly cruel and painful, I think. Given the remarkable quality of this product, perhaps grounding him for the rest of his life, and enslaving him as part of the project?"

Kirk decided to butt in before things got too far out of hand. "Okay, this isn’t what you’d intended, but I’m impressed, very impressed. Despite the fact that I can see the interior of a standard suit, I can feel the breeze from the ocean behind us. And am I the only one that can smell it?"

"I just thought I was smellin’ my own sweat, Jim, but since you mention it, yeah, and I can feel the breeze and I can even feel the sand squishing up between my toes. Hamish, my boy, I’ve seen enough to write a rave review of your little machine that’ll have Starfleet command burying you alive in funding."

"I hope," came Uhura’s voice from above, "That you’re not hinting that you want to terminate this sequence, because I’m curious to see what might be over the cliff. This could be fun."

"Da, Uhura, I’m with you. Let’s explore!" The Russian was clearly enthusiastic.

"I am glad you take that attitude," Spock observed wryly, "Because I suspect that we must complete the training exercise to exit the simulator."

"Well, it’d be a poor excuse of a training sequence if you could quit whenever you got tired of it," Sumimoto agreed. "The only way out is through."

Kirk groaned inside. Being caught inside of an adolescent’s version of a children’s fantasy wasn’t exactly how he’d expected to spend the balance of his day. His conversation with Chekov at the door came back to haunt him. It was time, Kirk decided, to take control of the situation.

"I think we need an idea of who’s who in this zoo," Kirk said, in a voice that made it clear he was taking command. "Doctor Sumimoto?’

"Call me Sumi. Everyone but Daddy does."

"Sumi, then. I assume that you are still vaguely familiar with each of the characters from this story. You’ll identify each character, and give us an idea of what they’re capable of. After we’re through with that, we can all get used to the, ah, new suits we’re wearing."

"You’re assuming the adolescent didn’t change things, Captain," Spock pointed out.

"I’d go with that assumption, knowing Philip," Sumi replied. "Too much effort to change it around."

Kirk forged forward, figuring it wasn’t worth debating. "We’ll be able to check it out soon enough. Spock, let’s start with you. Everyone else, hands down. Spock, lift one hand high."

What lifted its hand was a creature, perhaps a meter and a half tall, and almost as broad as it was tall. In its dark green, nearly black, skin there was a roughly reticular pattern of cracks, at the bottom of which was an ember red line of brightness. The face had scant features: heavy, almost Neanderthal brow ridges, with a pinpoint of brilliant, burning white where eyes should have been, and an almost invisible slit for a mouth. Neither nose nor ears were visible.

"Captain Spock," Sumi announced, "You’re a Gargoyle, or Stone Man. You can hit like a photon torpedo, and you’ve got muscle to match."

"Okay, Uhura, you’re next."

A very human appearing, four-meter tall man, clad in light body armor and carrying a long sword slung in a sheath across his back lifted an arm.

"It figures," Sumi commented. "The one definitely masculine character of the lot, and it’s a woman that gets it. In the story, you would be the Giant Warrior. Just be careful with that overgrown machete you’re toting; about the only thing it can’t cut through is its sheath."

"This is great," Uhura chuckled. "Getting to be the big, over-muscled fighter is a major change of pace for me."

Kirk rolled his eyes, wondering if anyone else could see his avatar do likewise. "Bones, your turn."

An almost skeletal hand raised; the figure that raised it was equally thin, and cloaked in a long, hooded robe that left nothing other than hands and feet showing. In the unraised hand, the character held a very businesslike scythe.

"Why does it figure that you’d be the Grim Reaper, Bones?" Kirk’s amusement was obvious in his voice.

"Hey, this could be some sort of conflict of interest, couldn’t it?" the doctor asked.

"I’m afraid not, Doctor McCoy," Sumi informed him. "In here, you are indeed the Grim Reaper, and I expect that your healing skills will be useless. Sorry."

"A pity. Chekov?"

The hand that raised was attached to a winged creature, with taloned feet. "Well, what am I?" Chekov demanded.

Uhura giggled. "Well, whatever else you are, you’re obviously a girl, Pavel! If you were a little taller, I could flirt with you."

"Slava Bogu for my being short, then, something I never thought I’d be thankful for! I don’t think I could handle having a male flirt with me. Would be terrible blow to my male ego."

"Enough, you two," Kirk interrupted. What is Chekov, Sumi?"

"A harpy. Flies, and with those talons, can be nasty."

Kirk raised a hand. "My hand’s up. So what am I?"

One leg was raised on a slate colored creature that looked like an almost featureless square coffee table with a large, squat, unadorned bowling pin in the middle of it, one that might have been designed by a potchkied Picasso, or a drunken Dali.

"You’re a petrok. Actually, in the story, you were the giant warrior’s pet. That leaves Daddy and I. Daddy, you look like a purple orangutan. Me, too?"

"Precisely. That would make us the diggers and throwers. Kobolds, I believe, are we not?"

"Yup, kobolds. Captain Kirk, I think your suggestion of a moment ago is still excellent. It would be most appropriate to look over all the heads-up menu displays you have in your helmets, and to accustom yourselves to your current status. Especially Commander Chekov, I think, and you, Captain Kirk."

"I hope I’m not going to have to learn how to walk all over again," Kirk responded. "I don’t think there’ll be enough time for that."

"I wouldn’t worry about it too much, if I were you, Captain," Houston interjected. "The programming, at least the way it was before Philip started meddling with it, should handle all the housekeeping for things like that. Move like you normally would, and things should work out fine. Frankly, Uhura, you might want to get the feel of that overgrown sausage-slicer you’re carrying, and Chekov, you might want to try out your wings. The rest of us should be fine. I hope."

Each of the individuals began putting their avatars through whatever paces they could find. Chekov’s harpy unfurled great, leathery wings and took off. After a few moments, it was clear that Chekov had achieved surprising mastery of the harpy. "Is pushover to fly this thing! Pimple faced adolescent Philip may be, but he knows how to rig sweet flight control system."

Uhura sheathed her long sword. "He’s not bad with weapons control, either. Handling the sword is easy—I look at what I want to clip, pick, slash or stab or whatever with it, and it goes to town. Even if it is male, it feels like this body is almost natural to me. I’d bet we’re all finding our new selves equally comfortable and natural."

There was a chorus of agreement, much of it surprised.

"Anyone have an idea how we’re going to get out of here?" Kirk demanded, deciding that it was time to get the team rolling. "The only one of us that’s going to have an easy time getting over that cliff is Chekov."

"Kyptin," Chekov began.

"We’re not on a ship, Pavel; this is civilian turf. It’s Jim," Kirk interrupted.

"Nyet, Kyptin. Even if is only simulated, is a mission; someone needs to be Kyptin. Later, once we’re out of here, is time for calling you Jim. For now, you are still Kyptin."

Kirk realized Chekov was right. "I’ll grant you that, Pavel. Maybe after we’re done with this, we can get some peace and quite camping somewhere; I’ll have a few more days before Gragar wants me doing the publicity stunt on the refitted Enterprise. As you were saying?"

"I’ll hold you to camping trip, Kyptin! Now, since this harpy can fly, I can scout out situation over edge of cliff, while rest of you figure out how to get out of here."

Kirk nodded, invisibly. "Go to it, Chekov."

As the harpy took flight, Spock’s avatar turned to inspect the cliff. "The cliff appears to be somewhat fractured." A green hand pointed to one place where the face of the cliff sported an oblique fissure that ran from the beach to the top of the cliff. "I believe that a few sufficiently powerful blows just above that fissure will break enough of the rock to create a steep ramp."

Kirk nodded, forgetting that no one could see him do so. "Sounds reasonable. Give it a try."

Spock’s character broke into a gentle, lumbering lope that accelerated into a brisk, then a fast run. A meter or so away from the cliff, the green creature leapt into the air, kicking the cliff-face, rebounding back and landing on the beach. Where the gargoyle’s feet had impacted, the stone had shattered, and was cascading toward the water.

"Nice work," Uhura applauded. "The rubble should make a nice ramp, too."

"As loose as it is, the risk appears excessive. However, a few more blows should clear an adequate pathway." Before the Vulcan could move forward, the beach undulated briefly. Where the cliff had been shattered, a second, vertical fissure had appeared in the cliff face, from which a narrow stream of red-hot molten rock was flowing at an increasingly rapid rate. Everyone started moving backwards, away from the lava.

"Houston, I think it’s time to see how rapidly and accurately these kobolds we’ve become can throw water. I see a switch in this helmet marked ‘pump.’ How about you?"

"Got it! Let’s see if we can chill out that lava. Last one in’s a purple monkey!"

The two kobolds moved to the water’s edge. A moment later, first one then the other kobold began spinning their arms at the shoulder. A veritable geyser of water began to pour over the lava flow, hissing and steaming as it did. Slowly, the flow began to thicken, its progress coming to a stop. As it cooled, the lava formed a rough, wide ramp.

Kirk heard the leathery flapping of Chekov’s return. "What’s over the cliff, Pavel?"

"Mostly meadow, with forest a couple of hundred meters back. Is lava ramp cool enough to use?"

"I doubt it. The way the water’s hissing when it hits, so the stuff’s got to be a hundred fifty centigrade or more."

"Is problem, then, Kyptin." Chekov pointed out into the water. "Company is coming. Is probably adolescent version of Cossacks with major hangover."

Kirk looked where Chekov was pointing. Several sets of ripples were approaching the shore rapidly, seemingly converging on the two kobolds. "Bones, Uhura, Spock! Intruders approaching! Time for defensive action around the kobolds. Uvalgt, Sumi, keep cooling the ramp. The sooner we’re out of here the better."

Uhura unsheathed her sword, and McCoy hefted his long-handled scythe as the three waded into the water. There was a tense moment or two of waiting as the ripples closed on the shore. Tentacles erupted from the water, grabbing at the kobolds. As suddenly as the tentacles erupted, the sword and scythe came into play, but to scant avail: at the stump where one tentacle was cut off, two more sprouted.

"Obviously, Doctor Sumimoto," Spock commented, "Your son Philip is familiar with Greek mythology." He began to wade toward the source of the tentacles, brushing aside any that tried to grasp him. "Since there are no convenient boulders to roll on this monster, as Jason did to the Hydra, perhaps this will do." Spock’s green-skinned avatar grasped two large tentacles close to their base and heaved. Out of the water rose a giant squid. Spock shifted his grip on the struggling behemoth, hurling it onto the cooling lava. With an almost deafening sizzle, it landed on the hot stone. Within seconds, the writhing of the tentacles ceased.

Kirk looked over the water. More ripples were converging on the beach. "That’s our way out, folks. Time to climb the cooked calamari." The captain took the lead, as quickly as his four stumpy legs would carry him. Chekov’s harpy landed at the top, helping the others as best he could. A pair of heavily fanged heads, reminiscent of a plesiosaur with an overbite, exploded out of the water toward the fleeing forms. Beside it, several more sets of tentacles began looking for someone or something to grasp. McCoy’s Grim Reaper and Uhura’s Giant Warrior slowly backed toward the squid, trying to keep the assault at bay.

"McCoy, Uhura, terminate your rear guard action and run," Kirk called out. "You’re all that’s left on shore." The two kobolds were just making their way off the scorched squid as he called out. As they tried to obey, Uhura’s avatar tripped, and tentacles were enfolding her. McCoy’s scythe was making precious little headway in releasing her.

Spock’s green clad monster moved past Kirk, saying nothing. Once at Uhura’s side, he snatched the sword from her grasp, and with a prodigious blow, severed all the tentacles at once. Lifting her, he ran for the ramp, McCoy at his heels, swinging the scythe to keep marauding heads and tentacles at bay. Setting Uhura’s struggling form down on the stone ledge, Spock turned to the assault, bringing her sword back into play. Whether drawn by the thrashing at the shoreline, or by the scent of the wounded creatures created in the battle, swarms of new creatures began to move toward the cliff, each more obnoxious in appearance than the last. With a final heave, the Giant Warrior broke free of the enfolding tentacles. "Spock, give me back that sword, and see what you can do to prevent this hoard from getting any closer."

Surrendering the sword, Spock let McCoy’s skeletal avatar past him. He dug his hands deeply into the charred mass of the giant squid, and heaved. Reluctantly, the squid pulled loose from the lava beneath it, to be sent flying toward the beach. The small mountain of meat distracted the hoards coming in from the ocean just long enough for Spock’s green foot to slam down on the cooling lava, shattering a huge section of the ramp. Satisfied, the Stone Man made his way up to the top of the cliff, where the others had gathered. As Chekov had said, they found themselves in a small meadow, with trees off to one side.

"According to a readout in my helmet," Kirk announced, "Our target is on the other side of that batch of trees over there." Although Kirk pointed with his hand, the others saw the top of the bowling pin bending off to one side. "Spock, how’s that foot of yours? That lava was probably still hot."

"Although it was quite hot, Captain," the Vulcan responded, "My avatar was unharmed. Perhaps the ‘stone’ in ‘Stone Man’ is more literal than we had supposed."

"Either way, good job, Spock. Uhura? You and Bones did fine, too. How’re you doing after the bear hug from the squid?"

The Warrior stretched out a little. "I’m okay, Captain. Minor aches, that’s all. Being the over-muscled front-line fighter isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, I guess. The feedback in this simulation is marvelous, though—I could feel this thing cutting through the tentacles and all, and the ache is amazingly realistic." She restored the sword to its sheath.

"Before you ask, Jim, I’m fine," McCoy chimed in. "And I agree: I like the back lines better. Sumi, Hamish?"

"We’re both fine, thanks," Sumi answered.

"Good. I’m glad there’re no injuries, yet. Okay, folks, let’s head toward that forest." The four stumpy legs on Kirk’s character began moving rapidly, propelling him forward, toward the forest.

The distance from the cliff side to the forest was only a few hundred meters, and the troupe made their way to it quickly, weaving their way between numerous large boulders incongruously sticking out of the ground, Kirk’s stumpy-legged avatar in the lead. Kirk stopped before entering forest, staring at it.

McCoy’s avatar stopped beside him. "I agree, Jim. Something about that forest looks bogus. Notice anything funny about the moss hanging from the trees?"

Kirk stared at the forest for a moment or two. The trees themselves were mostly old and gnarled, with huge masses of what looked like Spanish moss hanging from their branches. Smaller trees interspersed themselves, as well, but clearly at a respectful distance from the other trees. "Something looks wrong, Bones, but I can’t quite put my finger on it."

From behind him, Kirk heard Uvalgt’s voice. "In the shaded areas, Captain. Do you see a faint, bluish glow?"

"That’s it!" McCoy agreed. "The blue glow. Looks like the glow that Scotty gets sometimes around high voltage lines."

"A corona effect, Doctor," Spock’s voice added. "If the simulation is as accurate as it has been up until now, that indicates a substantial electrical charge. Should that be the case, it would make traversing the forest quite dangerous."

"Is only about fifty meters or so to other side," Chekov announced, landing next to the others. "But if it is charged like over-sized capacitor, it might as well be fifty parsecs."

Kirk stared at the forest, for a moment, thinking. "Well, folks, unless anyone has an overwhelming urge to find out what being electrocuted is like, I’m open to ideas on how to short this forest out. Suggestions?"

"Inside my helmet, I have a switch labeled ‘fire control,’ Captain," Uhura’s voice observed. "Since I’ve got another one labeled weapons control, maybe this switch runs some sort of fire extinguisher. Maybe it’ll produce a fluid that would short out the forest."

"Anyone see a significant risk with that?" Kirk demanded.

"Considering that Philip is an adolescent male," Uvalgt observed, "There are a couple of non-lethal risks that come to mind, yes." His remark generated a round of laughter. "In terms of real risks, if the stream of fluid is electrically conductive, and still connected to your avatar, Uhura, it might ground the forest out through you. I would counsel only a short burst of whatever your avatar uses for fire control."

"Good point, Hamish," Kirk returned. "Willing to risk it, Uhura?"

The Giant Warrior nodded. "You bet. How about the rest of you backing away a bit, though, just in case this is programmed to do something bizarre." Uhura’s avatar backed away a few steps as the others did likewise. "Here goes!" Uhura triggered the fire control switch. Before her, a set of cross hairs appeared on the screen, and a choice between large and small fires. Selecting the small fire alternative, she moved the cross hairs to center just behind the edge of the forest and triggered the fire control system. The others saw her avatar twist its head to one side, whip it forward and spit. The saliva flew rapidly, landing exactly on target. There was a blinding flash, followed almost immediately by what sounded like a tremendous clap of thunder. When their eyes cleared, was obvious that the forest had discharged. Before they could move into the forest, the bluish glow had already begun to regenerate.

Kirk pondered the situation for a few moments. He turned to face Spock’s avatar. "We passed a number of boulders on the plain coming here, Spock. Think you could get one out of the dirt and roll it through the forest?"

"Possibly, Captain," Spock responded. The green-skinned monster moved toward a modest sized boulder, taking a moment to decide where best to grip it. When he laid hands on it, there was a sudden explosion of activity. What had appeared to be a moderate sized boulder unfurled huge, leathery, gray wings, exposing a serpent-like head with leonine teeth. Before anyone could react, the creature had Spock’s avatar in its jaws, stretching its body into the air as its wings flapped.

Almost as quickly as the monster had seized Spock, the others ran to the defense. Uhura’s sword dug deeply into the monster’s side, with little obvious effect other than causing the monster to coil its body around her. McCoy’s scythe bounced off uselessly. The two kobolds were hurling stones at the monster’s face, but to little avail. Chekov’s harpy avatar was flying around the creature’s head, harassing it with his wings and claws, without making any headway in getting Spock loose. Spock’s avatar was holding the jaws of the beast open, barely managing to keep the fangs away.

Feeling impotent, Kirk scanned his heads-up display, hoping to find a way of joining the fray. Only one option appeared useful, a switch marked "LEAP." Having no better idea, Kirk triggered it. Cross hairs appeared, and he centered them on the back of the creature’s neck, roughly where he hoped its skull attached to its backbone. He tripped the switch a second time, to find himself hurled at the creature, landing firmly on its back. He could feel long talons digging into the monster’s flesh, but there was no apparent reaction. Thick-skinned monster, isn’t it? Kirk thought to himself. He scanned his heads up display again, hoping against hope that there would be something obviously useful. Nothing hopeful caught his eye.

Conditions were rapidly worsening. McCoy, Uvalgt and Sumimoto had shifted their efforts to trying to free Uhura’s avatar from the coils of the beast’s body, but were having little success. Chekov was still flying around the monster’s head, but it was largely ignoring him; with its eyes shut, the monster seemed impervious to the harpy’s claws. Spock was clearly tiring; powerful though his avatar may have been, it couldn’t keep going forever, and Kirk could tell that the Vulcan wouldn’t be able to keep the monster’s jaws open for much longer.

Wait a minute, Kirk realized, his ingenuity fueled by the desperation of the situation, This beast of mine is almost featureless. Maybe that means its mouth is on the underside, between its four legs. Where’s that food tube? He turned his head to one side, and triggered the mechanism, receiving a small block of field rations in return. As he did so, he heard a tearing noise, and felt as well as saw great gouts of black, foul blood spouting around him. The beast’s grip on Spock and Uhura loosened only marginally. Kirk triggered the mechanism again, receiving another bland block of nourishment.

With the second bite, the beast suddenly went spastic, then limp. Its jaws released Spock, and its coils released Uhura. Kirk turned to his heads up display and arranged to leap to the ground, as Uvalgt, McCoy and Sumimoto dragged Uhura from the limp coils and as Chekov caught Spock.

Kirk moved to Uhura’s side. "Nyota? Are you okay?"

"So-so. I’m hurting places I never new I could hurt," she responded between clenched teeth. "And in a few I’ve never had hurt before. Think anyone has something like a medical kit?"

One of the purple monkeys looked like it was grooming itself. "I haven’t," came Uvalgt’s voice. "Houston, dear, I expect that you’ll have the vial of the healing cordial since I don’t."

Sumi’s avatar searched herself, and produced a small, stoppered crystal bottle. "Got it!" Her avatar hurried over to Uhura’s. Sumi drew out the stopper. On its pointed end, there formed a tiny drop of a transparent, almost golden fluid. Sumi let the drop fall into Uhura’s mouth. Almost immediately, her breathing became easier.

"Thanks, Sumi," Uhura said. "I’m about back to normal, or at least what passes for it here."

"Hey, while you girls are busy cheering each other, how about getting over here with a little of that stuff? I think Spock needs it, too." The voice was McCoy’s. His avatar was kneeling next to Spock’s. McCoy had ripped part of his avatar’s flowing robe loose, and was pressing on a large wound on Spock’s leg. "Looks to me like one of that monster’s fangs got Spock a good one. I’m barely keeping the bleeding under control in this gash."

Sumi hurried over, administering a drop of the cordial of healing to Spock’s avatar. McCoy released his pressure on the wound; as he removed the rag he’d torn from his robe, he could see the rent in Spock’s dark green flesh closing.

Spock sat up. "Thank you. I believe the cordial has restored my avatar to its normal state. Fascinating."

"Strictly fantasy, Spock," McCoy chimed in. "I doubt it’ll do any good once we get out of this nightmare. Think you can stand?" The concern for his Vulcan comrade was obvious.

"Indeed, Doctor." Spock rose to his feet. "We still have the issue of getting to the other side of the electrically charged forest to solve."

"Should be no problem, Spock!" Chekov asserted. "Throw the carcass of this creature across the forest. Even if it doesn’t discharge the forest, we can walk across its back."

"Excellent, Pavel," Kirk responded. "Think the monster is long enough, Spock?"

"Insufficient data, Captain. The easiest way to find out is to throw it across and see if there is enough. I do not relish the thought of having to battle a second of these creatures." Spock’s green-skinned avatar moved back to the head of the now dead beast. Dragging it to the forest, he hurled the head in a long, shallow arc. Chekov took flight to reconnoiter.

"Is all the way across," the Russian reported. "Good throw!"

Spock nodded his acknowledgment, and began to move forward, climbing onto the carcass of his assailant, the others following. Within moments, they all were moving as rapidly along its back as they could, but their pace was slower than they had hoped. This time, the forest had not discharged, and the Spanish moss seemed almost to be reaching across the space opened by the carcass, trying to electrocute them. Worse yet, although Kirk could feel the talons his avatar sported digging into the beast’s dead flesh, it was obvious that the others were finding it harder to maintain their footing, the kobolds most of all. His concentration on the issue at hand was interrupted by a noise off to one side.

Kirk looked down toward the forest floor. Practically climbing over each other to get at the carcass they were traversing, Kirk saw an assortment of creatures, all of them looking like they were little more than appetites with very large teeth, feeding on the sudden bounty of carrion. Even in the short time he watched, the tide of hungry scavengers seemed to rise. He looked back at his team. One of the kobolds was helping the other regain its footing. Turning toward their goal, Kirk guessed that they’d never make it before the scavengers were high enough on the corpse to attack them, and he was sure that the way the simulator was programmed, they would attack at the first opportunity.

"Hamish, Sumi, do you think you both would fit on my, uh, my flat surface?" Kirk called out, moving toward them.

"I believe so, Captain," Hamish answered for them both. "Hopefully you won’t mind if we hold onto that projection in the middle. I think we will need to." The two climbed on. As they did, Kirk noticed that near the edge of the forest, the scavengers had already stripped the lower portions of the beast’s body to the bones, and were almost meeting on the top. Kirk turned and started moving forward again, as rapidly as he could. "McCoy, Uhura, the scavengers are getting too close for comfort. Be ready to discourage them if they get too close."

McCoy flipped his scythe end for end, and shifted so he could watch the side as he moved. "Uhura, you take the other side. Think you can keep your footing?"

"These boots I’m wearing seem to have cleats; I should be fine. Let’s keep these scavengers reminded that we’re not lunch."

Rapid though their pace was, it felt to Kirk that they were barely moving toward the end of the forest. Several times, McCoy’s scythe and Uhura’s sword swept scavengers that got too close back into the forest. It seemed to matter little; for every one they drove back, it seemed that a dozen returned. Ahead of them, Kirk could see the scavengers closing the path. Before he could say anything, McCoy moved ahead and began clearing a path.

"Kyptin," Chekov’s voice suddenly announced, his avatar landing next to Kirk’s, "Let me take one of them. At rate you’re going, there isn’t going to be time to get out of this electrical nightmare before scavengers are on us."

Before Kirk could answer, Uvalgt’s voice did. "Take her first, then, Commander Chekov." The purple monkey pointed at its companion. "You can come back for me, if you’ve the energy."

Without giving Sumi a chance to argue, Chekov grasped her avatar in his talons and took flight. Kirk moved a little faster, but still not as fast as he needed. It seemed to take forever for Chekov to return to take Hamish with him. Even with the second kobold off his back, Kirk could tell there was no way they could reach the end of the forest and get off their carrion bridge before the scavengers closed their exit. He turned to Spock. Before he could speak, the Vulcan’s voice expressed his concerns. "I do not believe that we will be able to get off this carcass in time, Captain. Chekov should be able to carry Doctor McCoy to safety, and since both of us are made of what appears to be stone, we should be reasonably immune to the assault of these creatures. My concern is for Uhura."

Kirk nodded, forgetting that Spock couldn’t see his head move. "I agree. Think you could borrow McCoy’s scythe and cut a path for her?"

McCoy cleared an area in front of himself, then turned. "Give it a try, Spock. Here." McCoy’s avatar extended the handle of the scythe. Spock attempted to take it, but McCoy was unable to release it.

"So much for that," Kirk lamented. "Think you could carry her, Spock?"

’s voice broke into the conversation. "I suppose I could sit on Spock’s uplifted hands, Captain, if you wouldn’t mind letting me rest my feet on your, uh, upper surface and hold onto your, well, whatever that thing is sticking out of the middle, so that I can keep my balance."

"Spock? Think you can do it?"

"I believe so, Captain," the Vulcan responded, reaching his hands above his head. Uhura obligingly sat on them. Kirk sidled his avatar into position. Gently, Uhura put her cleated soles in place, then wrapped her hands around the top of the bowling-pin like structure. All of Kirk’s sensors suddenly blanked.

"Uhura, could you hold on a little lower? You seem to have covered whatever it is this thing uses for eyes." She shifted her grip to a spot lower on the bowling pin. His vision cleared. "Much better, thanks. Spock, let’s get going."

The two made their way forward, slowly picking through the onslaught of scavengers. As they had hoped, the scavengers found them distinctly distasteful, and appeared disinclined to climb up them to reach the Giant Warrior. Once they reached the now nearly stripped skull of the monster, Uhura picked her feet up off of Kirk’s avatar, planted them on a bare patch of bone, and stood up, jumping nimbly to the ground. Kirk and Spock clambered down after her. The others were clustered not far away, staring at what looked like a wheat field dotted with wild roses.

Kirk consulted his helmet readout to see which direction they had to go. "Anyone have any idea what’s in that field? Because our path leads straight through it."

"There are, of course, only limited means for finding out what manner of unpleasantness Philip has planned for us, I’m afraid," Uvalgt asserted. "Knowing Philip, I doubt that he would set up anything thoroughly lethal without giving us some sort of warning. Obnoxious, and perhaps painful, yes. Lethal, no." Before anyone could stop him, Uvalgt grabbed a handful of the wheat-like grass. Nothing happened. He shrugged, and reached for one of the rose-like plants. As his hand neared the plant, one of the flowers shot out a spray of pollen onto it. Uvalgt yipped in discomfort, and drew his hand away. "Painful, as expected. And obnoxious." He turned to display his hand and arm, which were rapidly changing appearance. "I doubt that the rest of you would fare better. I appear to be morphing into..." He stared at the extremity for a moment, which was becoming quite claw like. "...into some sort of crab or lobster."

"Bones," Kirk ordered, incongruously realizing how appropriate his nickname appeared to be at the moment, "We’re going to have to cut a path. See what happens when you apply that sickle of yours."

McCoy flipped the Reaper’s Sickle into position and swept it through the plants at ground level. Uvalgt ran his un-morphed hand over cut ends. Nothing happened. He reached for one of the fallen flowers, and was sprayed again. His second hand began to morph.

"Looks like you’re going to have to clear out what I’ve cut, Hamish. This could be uncomfortable." McCoy’s voice carried clear signs of concern.

"Obnoxious, Doctor, nothing more; I think I can bear it without trouble. Let’s get going." Uvalgt lead the way, clearing the path as McCoy cut it. Within a few minutes, Uvalgt was covered in pollen, and transformed into a large, obviously powerful crab like creature. As McCoy’s scythe moved forward again, one claw waved it gently aside. "That may not be needed, Doctor. In my current shape, I seem immune to this, and if I might be so bold as to suggest it, these claws seem admirably well suited to clearing a path." One claw snapped at the plants before him, bringing them down. With a quick flick of the claw, the toppled plants were sent flying to one side. Another claw snap and flick cleared more of the path. Soon, Uvalgt was rapidly clearing a path wide enough for all involved to tread without risk.

Chekov landed behind Kirk’s avatar. "This is almost a kilometer across, Kyptin. Shortest route requires us to bear a little to the left."

Kirk pondered the information. The shorter route might be a trick to tempt them into walking into another disaster. On the other hand, following the path indicated by the directional readout in the suit could equally easily lead to a trap.

"Pavel, did you notice any change in the terrain or the appearance of the vegetation in any direction?"

It was Chekov’s turn to think. "Da. Now that you mention it, is a clump of different appearing flowers off to left, across shortest path. Is also across path we’re on. To avoid it, we’ll have to veer to the right by about fifteen degrees, which involves rougher terrain, including a steep uphill climb."

"With what we have seen so far," Spock interjected, "I would suggest that the more difficult appearing path would be the safer one."

"I agree. Hamish, could you aim a little more to the right?" Kirk called out.

The oversized crab shifted his path.

"A bit more?"

Quietly, Hamish adjusted his path further. "Will that be sufficient?"

Kirk looked at the Harpy. Chekov’s avatar nodded. "Looks like it, Hamish," Kirk announced. "Straight on, until Chekov says it’s time to turn."

The Russian took Kirk’s hint. The harpy took flight, Chekov’s voice providing guidance to the crab that cleared the way. Progress was slow, but steady. It seemed to take at least two hours to get through the grass and flowers, weaving to and fro, avoiding anything that looked unfamiliar or new. Relieved, they all made their way onto what looked like a swath of sand. McCoy plopped down. "Ladies and gentlemen, or whatever we are, I propose we take a brief rest. Fifteen minutes, resting however you can. Doctor’s orders."

Chekov’s avatar lay down next to McCoy’s, his wings spread to catch the sunlight. "Da, doctor’s orders, coming from Grim Reaper," he chuckled. "Makes me wonder how safe orders are, but I need the rest. Flying is tiring business."

Within moments, the others followed suit, except for Kirk.

"What’s the matter, Jim?" McCoy demanded. "Too proud to take a rest?"

"Hardly, Bones. I just can’t figure out how this fool thing could lay down. Anyhow, don’t you think that someone needs to keep watch, just in case?"

McCoy sprawled out. "Fine, just don’t complain to me if all of your feet hurt later on."

Kirk scanned the horizon, ignoring McCoy’s gibe. Almost at the horizon, there seemed to be a heat-induced haze, with large birds lazily cruising the updrafts. The sandy plain that seemed to stretch to the horizon looked like it was pock marked with hundreds, if not thousands, of holes. He wondered what manner of surprises lurked there, but decided to save his efforts until the rest period McCoy had ordered was over. Looking back at the forest they’d just left, it was obvious that the scavengers were still feasting, but were making slower work of it than they had earlier. In part, that seemed to be due to larger creatures having arrived and claiming large sections of the beast as their own territory.

Kirk shook his head. He was all for doing a good job of anything that was worth doing, but the simulation was starting to feel too realistic for his tastes. He checked his display. It was clear that their path lay across the pockmarked sand. It was equally clear that the fifteen minutes of the rest period McCoy had ordered was gone. Turning his attention to his comrades, Kirk found them sound asleep.

"Rise and shine, troops!" No one moved. Kirk moved toward Spock’s green-skinned avatar, poking it with one of his legs. "C’mon, Spock. Up and at ‘em." The Vulcan twitched, and stayed asleep. Kirk kicked harder. One eye opened, and then closed again. Concerned, Kirk kicked even harder, repeating it when the green monster opened its eyes. Before a further kick could be delivered, the Vulcan’s avatar stood up.

"I seem to have been unaccountably overcome with drowsiness, Captain," Spock apologized. He looked around himself. "As, it would appear, have the others. I suspect that this is another of the little tricks programmed into this training sequence."

"No kidding. Let’s get everyone else wakened and let’s get out of here." Kirk moved toward Sumi and Hamish, and began prodding their avatars. Spock started shaking Uhura. Only after several minutes’ concentrated effort were they able to awaken the rest of the group.

Rather than needle the doctor, Kirk focused on the issues at hand. "Chekov, time for another reconnaissance. I’ve got a listing ‘View Reconnaissance’ on my heads up display. Check and see if you’ve got a ‘Transmit Reconnaissance’ option."

There was a moment of silence. "Da, Kyptin. I assume you wish me to share the data?"

"Precisely, Pavel. Anyone have a record feature?"

"I have, Captain," Spock announced. "It is engaged."

Chekov spread his wings and took flight. Kirk triggered his ‘View Reconnaissance’ option. In a screen just to one side of his heads-up display, he saw the ground falling away. Below Chekov, he could see the pattern of the holes in the sand; clearly, it was a maze.

"The maze seems fairly simple, Captain," Spock announced. "There should be no trouble making our way through it; the shortest pathway out was relatively easily found."

"Take the lead, then, Spock," Kirk ordered.

"I think it might be prudent, Captain Kirk," Uvalgt interrupted, "To see what the consequences of falling into one of those pits might be. If they are harmless, you understand, we might be able to save a great deal of time by taking a straight course, making our way along the narrow strip between them."

Kirk felt chagrined that he hadn’t thought of it first. "Good thinking, Hamish. Spock, see if you can grab one of those scavengers and toss it into the nearest pit."

Wordlessly, the Vulcan’s avatar moved down the path through the meadow toward the carcass they had recently traversed. Selecting one of the larger scavengers, Spock went to the rim of one of the closest pits and dropped the struggling creature in. Despite the creature’s efforts to climb out and return to the feast lying across the forest, it slowly and inexorably slid down toward the bottom. When it was within a meter or so of the bottom of the pit, what looked like a boulder suddenly moved forward and snapped the scavenger up in a single bite. The green-skinned creature nodded. "It would appear, Doctor Uvalgt, that your grandson is familiar with the Terran ant lion. I conjecture that the pits are just close enough to make it impossible to walk between them without the sand giving way and dumping us into the pit."

The remaining kobold nodded. "It figures. That’d be too simple, wouldn’t it?" It was Sumi’s voice.

"Well," Kirk interjected, "That just proves that we need to stay in a tight group. Everyone keep your eyes on everyone else as we go through. Spock, lead on!"

Thankfully, the space between the rows of ant lion pits was wide enough that the troupe were able to stay in a reasonably compact group, and still have plenty of room on either side. Confidently, Spock’s green skinned avatar led the way through the twists and turns of the maze. After barely half an hour, Spock stopped. Several moments of uncomfortable silence followed before he spoke.

"Commander Chekov, would you be so kind as to do a repeat reconnaissance? According to the map in my heads up display, we should have a long, open corridor in front of us, rather than the row of pits occluding our travel."

"I can’t believe it," McCoy chortled. "Spock, lost in a maze!"

"I suspect, Doctor," the Vulcan responded levelly, "That the maze may have changed."

Chekov took flight, scanning the ground and feeding back his reconnaissance data. As the data flowed in, it was clear that the maze had, indeed, changed significantly. His harpy avatar landed next to the group again. "Is hard enough to get through this maze without it changing," he announced, annoyance clear in his voice.

"Houston, my dear," Uvalgt said, "I think I see a pattern."

"I’m glad to hear it, Daddy. Care to share it with the rest of us?"

"With you, mostly; the others might not understand. I seem to recall Philip commenting that every time he turned over a stone, he found an obnoxious surprise."

"Yeah, I remember that. As I recall it, I told him that his nasty surprise might well be what gave him a solution to some other problem he…." Sumimoto’s voice tapered off.

"Indeed, turn over a rock and find a nasty surprise that is the solution to another problem. Does that sound at all familiar? And as I recall it, we both have heard him comment that trouble comes to him every time he puts his foot in the water, so to speak. The moment you and I began spraying the water, trouble arrived, rapidly. Have I not heard you claim that his adolescent appetite makes him eat like a pack of scavengers swooping on a dead dinosaur carcass?"

"Seems to me that I’ve heard you say that as well, Daddy."

"Indeed so. We have also both remarked that every time he sits down to rest, he seems to fall asleep, and becomes impossible to awaken. And I have listened to him complain that no matter how hard he tries to find the way through the maze of life, it seems that the maze, or the rules we expect him to live by, keeps changing on him. There is, I think, a distinct parallel here."

McCoy jumped into the conversation. "I heard my daughter make the same sort of comments, Hamish, and made pretty nearly identical comments as well, although I think I compared her adolescent appetite to locusts landing on a ripe wheat field. That’s all pretty normal adolescent attitude. Trust me."

"I would not question you at all, Doctor McCoy," Uvalgt responded. "I vividly recall Houston at that age, and hearing or making similar remarks myself. Indeed, I recall hearing such remarks about myself, many years ago."

"Didn’t Grandpa and Grandma comment about packs of cave men and mastodons when they talked about your appetite, Daddy? That was a really long time ago, wasn’t it?"

Uvalgt chuckled. "That’s what I used to tell you, anyhow, my dear. I’m amused to find that you almost believed it."

"As interesting as this analysis of adolescent psychology is," Kirk interrupted, "And as much as it reflects assorted details we’ve faced or that we are facing, would it be out of line for me to ask how this pertains to getting out of this simulation?"

"It would appear, Captain," Spock commented dryly, "That Doctor Uvalgt’s comments suggest that we should try getting out of the maze by taking what appears to be an utterly illogical route, based on what we see."

"Precisely so, my good Vulcan," Uvalgt agreed. "Also, given what I see on the horizon, I was giving thought to another of Philip’s little comments. The one you hear, Houston, when he wants to go somewhere that you won’t let him."

Houston’s avatar threw its purple head back, staring at the sky in agony. "You don’t mean the one where he claims it’s like trying to jump across a crevasse full of fire to go anywhere?"

"Indeed, my dear, and also the one where he claims that going anywhere around us is like crossing a thin bridge with pterodactyls trying to knock him into the river. We may well face something of that nature soon." Uvalgt’s crab-like avatar nodded its antennae. "I believe he may be subconsciously expressing what it feels like to him, being an adolescent. If so, it certainly matches with what I remember of my own, and what I watched of yours."

There were general groans of agony from all but Spock. "Fascinating. If this simulation sequence reflects what Humans feel during their adolescent and pubescent years, I am deeply thankful that I was raised as a Vulcan. We suffered no similar phase."

"It figures," McCoy gibed. "You’re all too logical for that. Until, of course, pon farr hits. At least Humans only go through this mess once."

Before Spock could reply, Kirk jumped in. "Save it for later, Bones. You, too, Spock. For now, see if you can get us through this maze."

"Of course, Captain." Kirk was sure he saw the brow ridge over one eye on Spock’s avatar elevate in imitation of Spock’s habitual facial gesture.

Within moments, Spock led off again, moving through the maze. Progress was slow, and often punctuated by stops during which Chekov reconnoitered again. Finally, the exit came in sight. Just before the troupe crossed into the open plain beyond, the way was blocked by a series of pits that formed. Some distance to one side, a new pathway to freedom opened. They moved toward it, only to see it disappear just before they could make use of it. A third exit formed, some distance away, only to disappear before they could exit. When the fourth one formed, Spock led away from it.

"Excuse me, but isn’t the exit over there?" Uhura asked, gently.

"It is, Uhura," the Vulcan responded. "However, since the first three disappeared, I assume that the fourth one will, too. It seems logical to expect that refusing it, and trying what looks like the most illogical place possible might be more logical."

"The logic of illogic! Spock, my boy, you’ve risen to new heights!"

"Stow it, Bones," Kirk ordered. "Spock, if you would lead on?"

Amazingly, just as Spock walked toward a line of pits, they disappeared, letting the troupe out before they re-formed. Kirk consulted his directional display. As he expected, it pointed toward the shimmer of heat toward the horizon, across an almost featureless rocky plane. Since the ground appeared to be reasonably clear, he led the way.

To everyone’s surprise and relief, the trek across the rocky plane was uneventful. As they came closer to its edge, it became painfully obvious that they were approaching a crevasse. What they had taken for hawks, lazily soaring in the sky, were what seemed to be pterodactyls cruising over the crevasse. Once they reached the edge of the crevasse, they could see that it was filled with flames, and that it was spanned by a narrow bridge, scarcely wide enough for Kirk’s four-legged avatar to cross.

"Good guessing, Daddy," Sumi groaned. "Looks like we get the pit of fire and the pterodactyls both. Any idea how to get to the other side? Chekov might be able to fly, and Kirk’s squat enough they probably won’t be able to knock him off, but the rest of us are sunk."

"Don’t bet on it, Sumi," Uhura responded. "All we have to do is get rid of those flying lizards, and we’ve got clear sailing. Maybe if we bait them, I can get them with this sword."

"It’s the baiting that I don’t like, Uhura," Kirk interjected. "I’m not interested in finding out if we can get killed in this simulation. I’m willing to bet that we’re going to have to have someone on the bridge before those beasts swoop down."

"I quite agree, Captain." It was Spock. "However, Doctor Sumimoto had an excellent point: your center of gravity is quite low, and given the width of the bridge, it is quite probable that you could hold on despite anything that the pterodactyls do. The risk is, I believe, minimal. Also, I could use some of the stones littering this plain as projectiles, possibly bringing the creatures down before they come close to you. The rest, Doctor McCoy and Uhura should, I believe, be able to deal with. If, of course, you concur that the risk is acceptable, Captain."

Kirk studied the bridge carefully. "It looks reasonable enough, Spock. Why don’t you collect up an arsenal of rocks before I make my way out on that bridge?"

The remaining kobold started moving rapidly, along side the slower stone man. Before long, a large cache of modest sized stones was collected. Spock’s avatar moved beside the stones, and Kirk inched his out onto the bridge. As expected, the pterodactyls swooped down at him. Kirk dug his claws deeply into the bridge, just in case. One pterodactyl came close. There was a whizz, then a loud thwok as Spock hurled a stone against its body.

The beast was scarcely noticed, continuing its dive. Neither Uhura nor McCoy could reach it with their weapons. Kirk saw Spock throw another stone, this one hitting the flying lizard squarely on one eye only an instant before it struck Kirk’s avatar, forcing the beak to one side. Despite the blow, there was no other damage.

Realizing the futility of the effort, Kirk inched off the bridge. "I’m open to further ideas, ladies and gentlemen."

Sumi picked up a rock and rolled it across the bridge. One of the pterodactyls swooped down on it. Her father picked up another rock, tossing it in the air, near the bridge. As the stone flew in a gentle parabola, another pterodactyl swooped at it, barely escaping hitting the edge of the crevasse before it righted its flight after hitting the stone.

The harpy donned a lopsided leer. "Kyptin, I think I see how to deal with these ugly beasts. Is trick Sulu once talked about, used by pilots in early jet aircraft. Sumi, Spock, if you would stand ready to cover with rocks, just in case any get too close?" Talons flicked out of the tips of the harpy’s fingers, similar to the ones on his clawed feet.

Before Kirk could ask Chekov what he had in mind, the Russian was in flight. The others watched as Chekov climbed higher and higher, without straying over the crevasse. As long as he stayed away from the crevasse, the pterodactyls appeared to totally ignore the harpy. Without warning, Chekov flew into the airspace above the crevasse and began flying toward it as hard as he could, the whole flock of pterodactyls in hot chase.

Kirk shook his head, amazed. "What on earth is Chekov doing?"

It was Spock that responded. "I believe that it would be called a power dive, in the old flight vernacular, and he is targeting the crevasse."

"Thanks, Spock, but that much I’d figured out." Kirk was thankful his avatar had no face to betray his frustration at Spock stating the obvious. "But since I’m inclined to doubt that Chekov is in a hurry to find out whether or not he can get killed in this simulator, I was wondering what he was trying to achieve with his power dive."

No one gave an answer. Rapidly, the distance between Chekov and the flames lessened, with the space between him and the pterodactyls lessening at only a slightly slower speed. For an instant, it looked like Chekov would ram into the bridge, but he missed it narrowly, disappearing from sight. Between their great mass and almost equally great speed, the flock of pterodactyls were unable to pull out of their dive, flying head-first into the flames at the bottom of the crevasse. Everyone rushed to the edge of the crevasse to look for Chekov. Although the mangled corpses of the pterodactyls were in clear view, Chekov’s avatar was nowhere to be seen.

"Jim, I don’t see Chekov anywhere," McCoy lamented. "Hamish, have you got any idea whether or not someone could get themselves..."

"Is not to worry, Doctor," Chekov’s voice rang out. "If some of you would give me a hand getting off the under side of this bridge, I think I just might avoid having chance to find out."

Everyone turned to face the bridge. Suddenly, it was clear what had happened: Chekov had grabbed the edge of the bridge and managed to swing himself under it, catching the far side with his taloned feet. Sumi and Spock hustled over to help Chekov back up.

"You all right, Chekov?" McCoy demanded. "Both arms working?"

The harpy stretched both arms out, then above its head. "Nothing worth worrying about, Doctor, spasebaw. Let’s get across bridge before more flying fiends arrive."

No one quarreled with Chekov’s advice, choosing to hustle across the bridge instead. Once across, Kirk consulted his directional display. It pointed straight toward a moderate sized mound that looked like a haphazard dirt pile. Shifting position a few meters, Kirk realized that his display still pointed toward the mound of dirt. "It looks like that’s our target," he announced, pointing the best he could.

Warily, the troupe moved forward, uncertain what to expect next. As they approached, the air was split with an almost deafening, shrill shriek, followed by a deep-throated rumble. Before them, the mound of dirt fell to the side, and a huge, hideous head emerged from the soil. Although its face had clearly been deformed to begin with, it was clearly rotting, with sections of flesh hanging by mere threads. Uhura drew her sword and charged the face. Its great, bloodshot eyes fixed on her for an instant, then it spat at her, covering her arm and sword in a green ichor. The sword began to dissolve; the Giant Warrior drew back, gasping in agony. Sumi’s avatar moved forward, putting a single drop of the Cordial of Healing on Uhura’s blistering arm.

"Talk about a tough weapon to beat," McCoy’s drawl said. "Get within range, and that rotting gargoyle dissolves you in saliva."

"No joke. I’m open to any idea that doesn’t involve one or more of us getting within range of that thing’s weaponry." Kirk’s comment was greeted with silence. The whole troupe looked at the leering gargoyle.

Uvalgt finally broke the silence. "Doctor McCoy, I understand one of your fields of specialty is psychology. I should like to consider a possible approach, if you concur that my reasoning is psychologically sound."

"Fire away, Hamish. No one else seems to be offering any thoughts."

"Did you have acne as an adolescent, Doctor?"

"Nope, but my daughter sure did. I remember her saying that she felt like..." McCoy’s voice trailed off into silence for a moment before he continued. "Of course. She felt like her face was rotting off, and that she was as ugly as a warthog. Are you suggesting that the gargoyle we’re facing is some sort of projection of how Philip feels about his face?"

"I am glad to see that you have reached the same conclusion as I have, Doctor," Uvalgt replied. "If our deduction is correct, there is only one logical course of action."

Spock’s avatar moved to Sumi’s. "Indeed so, Doctor Uvalgt. Doctor Sumimoto, if I may have the bottle of healing cordial?"

"Wait a minute, Spock," Sumi retorted. "We may need that if one of us gets hurt assaulting that monstrosity."

"Dear child, I wouldn’t worry about having to assault it," Uvalgt commented. "Our good Vulcan has reached the same conclusion I have: the only way to eliminate this rotting visage is with the healing cordial."

Reluctantly, Sumi gave Spock’s green-skinned avatar the vial. Spock stood for a moment, judging the distance, then hurled it into the gargoyle’s face. The vial shattered against the center of the face, spewing the cordial across it. As the face began to resume some semblance of normalcy, the whole scene went dark, and a voice began sounding in their helmets. "Congratulations. You have successfully completed the training exercise. Please remain in your positions until released by your commanding officer." An instant later, the seven of them found themselves standing exactly where they had been when they left on their odyssey.

"Okay, folks," Sumi announced. "Don’t any of you move until we get recorded who’s standing where."

"Is danger if we move?" Chekov demanded.

"Hardly," she responded. "But I want to know where each of us stood. I think we need to run through this again, with young Mister Philip along. And I intend to make sure that he’s where I want him. Sound like a good idea, Daddy?"

Hamish chuckled. "Indeed, my dear. I think I should like to be the character Spock used. Shall we make Philip the harpy?"

Kirk laughed, as much out of relief as amusement. "It’d serve him right. Doctor Uvalgt, Doctor Sumimoto, I agree with what Doctor McCoy said when we first found ourselves in that little fantasy world. This thing is magnificent, and I intend to tell Starfleet Command that your work here is the most promising bit of research since Zefram Cochrane invented the warp drive." There was a chorus of agreement from the others. "If there is nothing else you need?"

"Not unless you wish to accompany Sumi, Philip and I as we go through the simulation again," Uvalgt returned.

"Not a chance. I have the feeling that you’re going to have much too much fun at his expense."

"Well, I, for one, intend to stick around and meet Philip," McCoy asserted. "Singing the praises of this project can wait until I’ve gone through this thing a second time, and until I’ve done something about that boy’s acne. If that gargoyle at the end of the sequence is any indication, he is in need of treatment, if for no other reason than to improve his self image!"

"Is good you don’t want to go through second trip in simulator, Kyptin Kirk. You owe me a camping trip, remember?" Chekov was grinning broadly. "Is time to pay up! I was thinking of Ural Mountains..."

Kirk looked up at the ceiling in mock despair. "I know when I’m trapped." There was a general chorus of laughter. Kirk extended his hand to the scientist. "I’ll have my recommendation in to Starfleet before I start packing for the trip, Doctor Uvalgt." Chekov pretended to tug at Kirk’s arm. "And I’ll see to it that this Russian lunatic does the same."

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