Kirk looked at the chronometer built into the arm of the command chair. Brevan was due to contact them soon, and the message had made it clear that the admiral wanted Spock and McCoy present on the bridge when he called. The Vulcan, as always, was absorbed in some task at the library computer, trying to make good use of the time spent waiting for the admiral. The doctor, as usual, looked like he was going to be late. Kirk looked over at Uhura; before he could speak, she did.
"I informed him of the time, Captain." Uhura shrugged. "If you wish, I can open a channel to Sickbay so you can remind him."
"Hes probably just wrapped up in some medical urgency he doesnt want to turn over to anyone else." Kirk swiveled back to the mainviewer. "I just hope he "
Kirks comment was interrupted by the doctors arrival on the bridge, with less than a minute to spare. "Got wrapped up in bureaucratic paperwork, Jim, sorry. If Ben hadnt arrived to remind me, Id never have made it."
Further conversation was forestalled by Uhuras announcement of "Incoming transmission, sir."
"Visual, Commander," Kirk ordered.
Admiral Brevans face appeared on the mainviewer, the Starfleet banner displayed on the wall behind him. "Greetings, gentlebeings."
"Greetings, Admiral. Im curious to know what my ship and I can do for you," the captain replied.
Brevans face displayed a significant degree of annoyance and discomfiture, which gave Kirk and McCoy considerable concern. Brevan finally broke the short, but increasingly uncomfortable, silence. "I trust that you are familiar with the Vharang negotiations?"
All three nodded.
"Excellent. As you know, the Vharang occupy a strategically critical star system, but have preferred to remain separate from the United Federation of Planets. What you dont know is that the negotiations have reached a critical point: the Vharang are on the verge of joining the Federation. Bharii Shandar, the individual who has brought this to pass, insists that he have his pet with him at all times during the negotiations. Unfortunately, as he and his pet were being brought to the site of what the Federation had hoped would be the final round of negotiations there was...um...an incident involving the creature."
The admiral sighed deeply before continuing. "At this point, the whereabouts of the creature are unknown. Starfleet Command has made it clear that we need to locate this pet and return it to its owner as swiftly as possible." The admiral looked up at the ceiling. "Since you have a reputation for succeeding in the most unlikely situations, I am hopeful you will be willing to go on this mission."
"What was the incident, Admiral?" Bench-marking, as they had been doing recently, was hardly exciting; Kirk was secretly hoping for something exciting, like an abduction and a rescue mission.
"The full details will come via subspace shortly after this discussion has ended, Captain, but the basics are simple. Somehow, the creature made its way into an emergency escape pod, triggered its launch, and disappeared with it. Oddly enough, the disappearance seems not to have been noticed for some time; there is no precise record of when during the transfer it happened. Worse yet, the pods subspace rescue beacon failed to trigger, so theres no way of tracking it."
Spocks eyebrow launched toward his hairline. "We are to find an escape pod, launched from an unknown position in an unknown trajectory, without the assistance of a subspace directional beacon? The sheer odds..."
Brevan held a hand up. "Spare me, Captain Spock. You sound like youre going to recite back to me, no doubt in greater detail, the same mathematical analysis that I gave to Starfleet Command: this is a classical wild goose chase. Given the volume of space to be searched, and the diminutive size of a one-person escape pod, the odds of finding the pod are infinitesimal. The odds of finding the pod with the pet in it, still alive, are even slimmer."
The admiral shook his head. "Starfleet Command spent days trying to convince Bharii Shandar to continue solo before they ordered the search. Unless, by some miracle, the pod landed on a habitable planet, there isnt a chance, if you ask meand the odds of that are almost nil. Given the situation, however, we have to make a good faith effort. A very good effort." Brevans irritation was written clearly on his face. "All Im asking is that you do the best you can, and generate plenty of records to prove it."
Kirk nodded. "I understand, Admiral. I trust the entire log and the ships black box record relative to this trip have been transcribed and will be transmitted for analysis?"
"Of course." Slowly, Brevan seemed to be relaxing. "I presume Captain Spock will want to go over it himself, to find whatever clues he can."
"Naturally, Admiral. It is my experience that, with sufficient care and determination, one can often find indications that have been overlooked by others."
"Were counting on that, Captain. Do you have any other questions?"
"Just one request, Admiral." To Kirks surprise, it was McCoys voice. "Any chance we could get the psychological and physical profiles on the crew of the ship, and an idea of who was where during the time that the pod might have been released? Never know what might be of use, after all, and I suppose my being here has more to do with that kind of thing than it does with finding this needle in a haystack. Id like to go over them to see what I can find."
"The information will be sent to you, Doctor, along with the transcript of the entire debriefing of the crew relating to the incident and the limited data we have on Shandars pet. I have no doubt that you will want to go over all of it. I must point out that your involvement will be primarily if and after the pet is found. Youre looking for a creature that looks very much like a three-meter long python with moths antennae. Youre going to have to figure out how to sedate it so it can be safely transported, unless, of course, you relish the thought of having to work with a live, possibly hungry, snake."
Kirk suppressed an urge to roll his eyes. He looked at his two compatriots. Neither seemed to have any other issues. "I think that wraps it up, then, Admiral. We will do what we can, and will report as soon as we have something worth your time."
Brevan nodded appreciatively. "Thank you, gentlebeings. Thats all that I can ask of you."
The mainviewer went back to displaying the starscape in front of the Enterprise. "The data is being transmitted as the admiral promised, Captain."
"Excellent, Uhura." Kirk turned to his senior officers. "Spock, Bones, you have your work cut out for you. Get to it. I expect a report with preliminary plans at 08:00 tomorrow." He swivelled back to his original position. "Commander Uhura, has the admiral transmitted coordinates for the approximate location of the start of the search?"
"He has, Captain."
"Good. If youd transmit them to Lieutenant Jaeger, and Ensign Marsden, if you would take us there?" Happily, Kirk settled into the command chair. A search and rescue that seemed doomed from the start wasnt much, but it was better than bench-marking. Almost anything was better than bench-marking.
Kirk moved to the VIP lounge, planning to arrive a few moments before the other two, only to find McCoy already there, coffee at his side, pouring over a readout. "This is the first time in years that Ive seen you arrive early for a meeting, Bones."
The doctor looked up at his friend. "Oh, dont be impressed, Jim. Marie figured that she had to kick me out before I started seeing patients, or Id never get here, so she shooed me up here the minute I arrived in Sickbay. Ive spent the last twenty minutes studying the limited material weve got on this critters anatomy. Its truly weird, if you ask me, especially the nervous system. Looks like there are three separate brains, two smaller ones under the oversized antennae and then a larger one further back in the skull. Ive never seen the like of it."
"It is not as unfamiliar as you take it to be, Doctor." The two men looked up to see Spock entering the room. "Several of the larger Terran dinosaurs, for instance, have skeletal remains strongly suggestive of a secondary brain in the mid back area. Furthermore, the Human retina performs relatively sophisticated preliminary processing of visual inputs before the information courses along the optic nerve. On top of that, the Vulcan eel birds "
"Thank you, Spock." Kirk feared that the lecture would go on interminably if he didnt interrupt. "Im sure that there are hundreds...if not thousands...of other analogous situations you could cite. With all due respect, however, that seems to me to be totally beside the point. Im interested in what you two have discovered."
Unruffled, the Vulcan shifted to the new topic. "I went over the ships recorder with particular care, Captain. The creature had been on the bridge briefly with Captain Bruce, and "
"Wait a minute, Spock, run that last sentence by me very slowly, would you?" This time, it was McCoys voice interrupting.
"Bharii Shandars pet had apparently been on the bridge with Captain Bruce."
McCoy shook his head, as if to clear cobwebs from it. "I could swear youre saying this overgrown garter snake was cavorting with the captain."
"Well, he didnt say the creature was cavorting, Bones, but it seems pretty clear that the two were sharing the bridge. Theres nothing in Starfleet regs that say thats not allowed. If youll recall, the Enterprise has even had a cat or two..."
"Oh, no, Jim, perfectly permissible, I agree. However, Captain David Bruces medical record includes the notation that hes virtually phobic about snakes. The man couldnt bear the creatures near him, near as I can make out. Its just about as likely as you inviting a couple of Khmyr Klingons over to the Enterprise for tea."
Spock nodded. "Indeed. Perhaps, Doctor, Captain Bruce chose to have his phobia treated."
"Possible, but without it showing up on the medical record?" McCoy shrugged. "Thats even less likely than him getting over it spontaneously."
"Which is not impossible, Bones. Spock, go on, will you?"
"Of course. Shortly after the creature left the bridge, there was a drain on the power supply that exactly matches what would be expected if a single individual escape pod was launched. A few microseconds later, the record indicates that a correction of attitude and course occurred. The correction, according to modeling done last night, is exactly what would be needed to correct for the ejection of the pod. Based on last evenings computations, I have estimated the pods trajectory with reasonable precision."
"Thats great, Spock. That means we should be able to find the pod fairly easily, then."
"Perhaps, Captain. However, it may be more difficult than it appears. The trajectory would have taken the pod to an Earth-like planet in a nearby star system, Tragan. Records indicate that the second planet is inhabited by a hexapodal, intelligent lifeform rating a Class A minus on the Richter Scale of Cultures, at a developmental stage approximately equivalent to the Human mid-Stone Age, perhaps on a par with the Clovis culture of North America. If the pod has landed on the planet, the creature may well have survived the landing, exited the pod, and have disappeared into the planets ecosystem."
"To say nothing of making it necessary to sneak this little beast off the planet, once we find it. Bench-marking suddenly sounds fun, Jim." The doctors total lack of enthusiasm was obvious.
"Well worry about that when we find it, Bones," Kirk responded. "Have you anything to add?"
"Not much. It appears that the beast was given free reign in the ship. Near as I can make out, theyd taken on a load of foodstuffs from a colony to restock their food dispensers, and had managed to transport a handful of rodents on board. Bharii Shandar suggested letting the thing hunt them down and eat them. It would make a lot more sense if Bruce werent normally totally averse to snakes. And since the rodents were mainly down in the hold, Im still trying to figure out why the critter spent as much time on the bridge as it did. The way I read the logs, Bruce had developed an active liking for Shandars pet, which surprised him as much as it did me. While were at it, last time I looked at one of those old pods, I recall that they werent exactly a pushover to launch. How the thing fired off defeats me."
"The theory, Doctor," Spock offered, "is that the serpent inadvertently triggered the ejection switch, perhaps by striking at it believing it was one of the rodents peering out of an orifice. Given the age of the Kineepikwa, Captain Bruces ship, it is not entirely surprising that the directional beacon on the pod malfunctioned."
"You havent read Bruces psych profile, Spock," McCoy countered. "He was a stickler for being sure things were ship-shape before he left dock, almost as picky as Scotty. I just cant feature it."
"Whether you can feature it or not, Bones, it happened. Spock, how far is the Tragan system from the start coordinates Marsdens moved us to?"
"Approximately 1.432 light years, Captain."
"Get the coordinates to Jaeger, have her plot a course, and get Marsden to get us on our way. Bones, get working on that injectable sedative. Spock, as soon as were in position, get started hunting. Maybe we can make Admiral Brevans day after all."
Hours later, McCoy, Spock and Kirk materialized on the surface of Tragan II. "I still dont like this, Jim," McCoy hissed. "The dark may hide us, but it hides everything else, too. I still think we should have just tried beaming this blasted boa up, then sedating it on the transporter deck. Scotty could have rigged a ketamine blow-dart or something, and I know Spock could have hit it."
"I am sure we all share your preference, Doctor," Spock whispered in return, consulting his tricorder as he spoke. "However, it is clear that the creature is currently residing deeply enough in a cavern that transporting him was not feasible. The dominant species rarely, if ever, ventures out at night, and there are no other lifeforms on the planet large enough to be dangerous to us."
"Except that snake."
"Look, you two, knock it off. The dominant species isnt deaf, you know, and their village isnt even thirty meters from here. Spock, lead us to our quarry."
"Well, I still wish we could just have stunned it with phasers, from a respectable distance."
"Shut up, Bones." Kirk didnt like the conditions any better than McCoy did, but the sooner the job was done, the sooner they would be back, safe on the Enterprise, heading to the Vharang negotiation.
Spock looked up from his tricorder, pointing. The other two nodded, following the Vulcan as he strode, quietly, confidently but swiftly toward the mouth of a cave nearby. Hardly slowing, he entered it and began moving through a series of branched corridors, a small but powerful light in one of his hands ultimately providing all the illumination they had. After a few moments, the threesome stepped into a larger chamber, in which a large snake was coiled.
"Three meters my foot," McCoy hissed. "That critter must have been eating awfully well since the last time Brevan saw him; hes got to be four and a half, maybe five meters long. If Id known it was that large, Id have had Scotty make us a cart to carry it on."
"Even so, Doctor, I believe that between the three of us, we can easily carry it to where we can transport up and effect the rescue. Once, of course, you have sedated it." Spock moved toward the beings head. As he did, the moth-like antennae lifted, followed by the boa-like head.
In all three of their heads, a voice whispered, "I would think, Vulcan, that you might have the courtesy of asking me whether or not I wanted rescued."
All three stepped back, McCoy still holding his hypospray loaded with ketamine.
"The ketamine, Doctor, will be unnecessary," the voice continued. "Frankly, I have no desire to have you rescue me and return me to Goldsteins care. I went to great lengths to get here, and I have no intention of leaving."
"We werent going to return you to anyone by that name; we were going to take you back to Bharii Shandar." The present situation made Kirk distinctly uneasy, but he was determined to bluff his way through.
"Bharii Shandar, bah. The sniveling little creep was named Ben Goldstein when he stumbled across my home world and I left with him. He just took on the new name because he thought it made him look more mysterious or something." The reptile turned to face Kirk squarely. "Let me make myself perfectly clear: I like it here, and I really dont want to leave. The silly looking creatures that seem to run this planet believe Im some sort of deity or another, I thinktheyve been feeding me livestock, letting me feed my own way rather than killing it before they give it to me. Delicious stuff. Better than what Goldstein of the changing name ever fed me. Except for the rats on Captain Bruces ship. Now, they were good, just a bit on the small side."
"Look, snake," McCoy started.
"No disrespect intended, Doctor, but I have a name."
"Nor any intended from my side, but I dont know it."
"Touché. I mustnt complain; Im sure Goldstein never bothered to share it. You can call me Ssuhsch."
"Good enough. Look, Ssuhsch, no one warned us that you were sentient. If you come with us, and help Shandar finish up the Vharang negotiations, well take you back to your home world." McCoy returned the hypospray to his medikit.
"I think not. At my present size, I wouldnt fit in; the ecology just couldnt support me. I can still communicate with my own kind," Ssuhsch waved his long antennae, "so I wont be lonely. As for the Vharang and their strategically positioned little star system, I couldnt care less. What I need, I have here. Go away and leave me alone. Manipulating the crew to disable the tracking device on the escape pod and finding a suitable system within range caused me a miserable headache, and triggering the pod made it worse. After all that, do you honestly believe Ill abandon this place on your whim? Anyway, the natives here seem intent on having a huge extravaganza tomorrow night, and I intend to be present. As near as I can tell, theyre throwing the feast in my honor. It just wouldnt be polite to disappoint them, now would it?"
"May I presume that you have established equally clear mental contact with the intelligent lifeform of this planet?"
The large head turned to Spock. "I have not; at the moment, the best I can do is get their general emotional drift, but thats plenty for me: they think Im wonderful. In fact, I believe that they think I am some sort of fertility god or other. At least, theyve got only one thing on their mind when they look at me, and it isnt warp drive engineering, trust me."
Ssuhschs head swivelled to point towards Kirk. "Since you seem to be in command of this little troupe, I will address myself to you specifically and using a few of the charming idioms Ive learned from Goldstein: Bug off. Get lost. Vamoose. Disappear. Go play somewhere else. Find another sentient being to annoy. Do you get my point?"
Kirk had one more card to play. "Quite clearly. If it should happen that you change your mind, however, how do you propose to let us know?"
"I forgot; youre not a telepath, you poor little creature. Just dont lose your Vulcan, okay? Ill connect with him and let you know. Now, do be good little creatures and go back to your ship, will you? The locals seem to be waking up, and you probably dont want to be here when they arrive. Ugly little thingsthey look like six-legged centaurs with a fat, trunk-like tail and a bugs face. Better hurry."
Ssuhschs antennae folded back, and he lowered his head back onto his long, coiled body. There could be no doubt that, as far as Ssuhsch was concerned, the conversation was at an end. Disappointed and somewhat frustrated, the threesome hurried to the entrance of the cave, and transported up without further comment.
Kirk stepped onto the bridge, taking his place in the command chair. "Uhura, get me Admiral Brevan." He sighed. "Its time I made a report. We have a new problem, and I dont think hes going to like it."
"Yes, sir. On the mainviewer, sir."
Brevan filled the forward screen. "Greetings, Captain Kirk. I had not expected to hear from you so swiftly."
"I did not expect to have results so swiftly, either, Admiral. However, against all expectations, we have found Ssuhsch, Shandars associate."
"His pet, Captain, and the creature has no name."
"Unfortunately, Admiral, the creature is sentient, and Ssuhsch has made it clear that he has no desire to be rescued." Kirk winced. "He made it abundantly clear."
"Are you certain that you have found the correct creature, Captain? Shandar was quite clear about his pet being non-sentient and nameless."
"With all due respect, Admiral, Ssuhsch was perfectly clear about his association with Bharii Shandar, and about his sentience. He even claimed to know Shandars original name: Benjamin Goldstein."
Slowly, Brevan nodded. "You win the point, Captain, or perhaps I should say Ssuhsch wins his. You realize that this complicates matters considerably?"
"I do, Admiral. We cannot force the being, and despite our pleading with him over the Vharang negotiations, Ssuhsch was adamant in his refusal to be rescued."
"It would have been much easier if you had found the creature dead." Brevan took a long, slow, deep breath.
Spock tilted his head to one side. "There is a possible solution Admiral. Ssuhsch is a highly intelligent being with full knowledge of the United Federation of Planets on a world that is currently under the protection of the Prime Directive. As such, he represents a threat to the normal development of the indigenous intelligent species."
"Good thinking, Spock. Under the laws of the Federation, we can arrest him and remove him."
Kirks brow furrowed. "Only one problem, Admiral. Hell probably be very annoyed by the action, and probably uncooperative. Very uncooperative."
"As a highly intelligent telepath, that could be troublesome." Spock nodded pensively. "He has already shown the capacity and willingness to manipulate Human minds to a significant degree."
"No kidding." It was McCoy. "And even if we didnt end up telepathically bamboozled by the creature, hell probably refuse to return to Bharii Shandar anyhow. Im not seeing how arresting him is going to work, Admiral."
"As it stands, I have no alternative but to ask you to extract Ssuhsch from the planet. Perhaps you can find some offer to make himwhen the Vharang negotiations are done, we could reward him, if you can find something he would want. At this point, I think the Federation would authorize a bribe about as large as the price of a starship. The Vharang system is that critical strategically. How much time do you need?"
Before Kirk could respond, Spock did. "Ssuhsch indicated that there was a feast planned for the approaching local evening, in which he was intent on participating. I had the strong impression that he felt that the feast was in his honor. If Ssuhschs metabolism is similar to that of Terran snakes, it is quite possible that he will be somewhat sedated after gorging, and thus possibly more open to persuasion. This might provide the best window of opportunity."
Brevan looked Kirk in the eye. "There are civil rights lawyers in the Federation who might choose to point out that if Ssuhsch made such an agreement in a sedated state, the agreement would not be a binding one." He sighed. "And the last thing I need right now is the likes of Samuel Cogley coming after me or you." The admiral sighed even more deeply. "I will expect a progress report in twenty-four hours, Captain. Get Ssuhsch off that planet, and well sort out the details later. Brevan out."
The captain turned to his Vulcan companion. "How long until local sunset, Spock?"
"Approximately nine point four hours, Captain; the planetary day is, for an inhabited world, comparatively short."
"Then plan to transport down in twelve hours, to see if Ssuhsch is open to reason. Ill have Bones join us, just to be sure that we can sedate the creature if we need to. In the interim, we all need to see if we can cook up a suitable bribe. Maybe hed like his own personal supply of livestock, or something."
The Vulcan nodded, turned to his science station. "I will see if there is a cognate situation, and try to extrapolate from there."
The yellow-orange sun of Tragan II had made its way below the horizon, its last rays turning the clouds a deep magenta. In the center of the Traganian village, a roaring bonfire cast flickering shadows on the walls of the simple, hive-like huts that surrounded it. In the background, there was the steady, throbbing sound made by a group of older Traganians, pounding rhythmically on hollowed logs of an assortment of lengths and diameters, creating an effect reminiscent of drumming. At the edge of the fires light, several creatures, obviously livestock, were tethered.
Between the livestock and the fire, several pair of Traganians were moving to the rhythm of the beating on the hollowed logs, their long, almost trunk-like tails stretched tautly behind and above their backs, swaying and weaving as the Traganians wove around each other in their increasingly frenzied dance. Between the huts, half-hidden in their shadows, there stood other Traganians, some clearly younger than those in the dance, others seemingly much older.
As the stars began to peek through the clefts between the clouds, the dance reached a fever pitch. When it seemed that the ecstatic dance of the Traganians could not reach a greater intensity, Ssuhsch slithered into the firelight, weaving his long, sinuous body between the dancers, his large, feathery antennae quivering in the maelstrom of emotion around him. Incredibly, the Traganians frenzy reached even greater pitch.
A Traganian outside the dance loosed one of the tethered creatures. Ssuhsch pounced upon it, wrapping coil after coil around its body, slowly crushing it into suffocation. When the beast lost consciousness, Ssuhsch stretched his maw widely, slowly swallowing it. He had no more than finished ingesting the first creature than the second was released and driven before him, to suffer a like fate, then a third beast.
With each creature swallowed, the intensity of the dance around the fire and the serpent grew in fury and frenzy, to the point that the sound of their dancing feet thundering on the ground drowned out the impassioned throbbing of the log drums.
Gorged to repletion, Ssuhsch stretched his body out to its full length at a comfortable distance from the blaze before him. A fourth animal was brought to him, but he ignored it, too drowsy and happily full to care. Two pair of the Traganians pounced upon it, driving their tails against its skin, the creature suddenly becoming limp and the Traganians quivering in sublime ecstasy, then staggering, exhausted, to the wall of a hut near the edge of the firelight, leaning against the wall, too tired to support themselves. Spurred on by their fellows, the other Traganians moved toward other tethered livestock, half a dozen pair moving toward Ssuhsch.
Kirk had just stepped out of the shower and was toweling himself off when the wall communicator chimed. Glancing at the chronometer on the wall, he saw that it was still nearly two hours before he, Spock and McCoy planned to transport to the surface of Tragan II. Running his fingers through his still damp hair, he faced the communicator. "Kirk here."
Spocks voice came from the communicators grille. "Captain, Ssuhsch has suddenly decided that he wishes rescued, preferably immediately."
"Very well, Spock. Is there a problem?"
"It appears so, Captain. He is currently surrounded by almost the entire Traganian village. Although I am not able to be certain from his mental contact, it appears that Ssuhsch has sustained significant injury."
"Get Scotty to the transporter, Spock. Ill meet you on the bridge in ten minutes, and I want you to have a more detailed assessment of Ssuhschs status when I get there. Kirk out."
Hurriedly, Kirk began throwing his uniform on. "Sickbay! Get me McCoy, now." Kirk pulled his shirt over his head.
"McCoy here, Jim. Whats the problem?"
"Get to the transporter deck now. Spock says Ssuhsch wants rescued immediately. My guess is that hes probably gotten himself injured somehow."
"On my way, Jim. McCoy out."
Kirk pulled on his boots and was out of his cabin heading for the bridge.
As the captain stepped out of the turbolift onto the bridge, he turned to Spock, who sat hunched over the science console. "Spock, what have you learned?"
The Vulcan turned. "The situation is rather more complex than it appears to be, Captain. It seems that the Traganians method of reproduction is similar to that of several forms of Terran wasp. An appropriate victim is identified, and the fertilized egg is injected into the creature, to feed on its tissues until it matures and breaks free. In the case of the Traganians, the male simultaneously injects a paralytic venom and fertilizes the egg as it is injected."
"Thats all very interesting, Spock, but beside the point. I need the status of Ssuhsch."
"Unfortunately, Captain, it is very much to the point. Ssuhsch has been paralyzed, and is now incubating sixteen fertilized Traganian eggs. Given the best estimates of the metabolic demands involved, it is improbable that Ssuhsch will survive after the Traganians hatch. With the Traganians being a sentient species, however primitive they may be, simple removal and destruction of the eggs is not a permissible option."
"Just when I thought things couldnt get any worse. Uhura, get me McCoy. Hes on the transporter deck." Kirk turned to his Science Officer. "What about the Traganians, Spock? Are they still where they can see Ssuhsch?"
"Yes, Captain. It does not appear that they are likely to move away before sunrise. Particularly those who have laid eggs have collapsed in exhaustion, watching Ssuhsch and the other livestock that have been turned into living incubators. Transporting Ssuhsch up does not appear feasible at this point, and based on his current status, not long after local noon, the venom will have achieved irreversible results."
"McCoy here, Jim. Whats the matter now?"
"It looks like Ssuhsch is sort of pregnant, Bones. The Traganians have laid eggs in him, turning him into a living incubator. We need some medical genius, here, preferably fast, and if Scottys there, we need to figure out how to get Ssuhsch out without the Traganians noticing. Youve got until Spock and I get to the transporter deck to find a solution. Kirk out." He turned. Spock was already heading toward the turbolift. Kirk joined him.
The turbolift door was still opening when Kirk started talking. "Scotty, have you figured a way to get Ssuhsch up here without causing a ruckus?"
"The problems the Traganians seein us do it, Captain. I was thinking that the easiest solution would be to lock onto the beastie, then transport something into the fire to create a smoke screen." The Scotsman nodded at McCoy. "The doctor and I have been discussing alternatives; we dont want to damage the Traganians and their livestock, just hide our snatching Ssuhsch."
"If you time your activity correctly, Captain Scott, it is entirely possible that they will believe Ssuhsch was consumed by the fire."
"Good thinking, Spock. We can dump some stuff that looks like charred bones into the fire. Im sure the ships dietician can scrounge something up." McCoy grinned. "Theyve probably got a lot of charred meat down there."
Kirk shook his head. "How quickly can we get this going, gentlemen? Ssuhschs time is limited."
"On your order, sir." It was the engineers turn to smile. "Indris got things ready for the fire on the cargo transporter, and Ive this transporter locked onto Ssuhsch."
"Then get going, Scotty. Now."
Scott touched a contact on the control console, waited a few moments, then energized the transporter. Instants later, Ssuhsch materialized. McCoy was at the reptiles side seconds later.
"My apologies, gentle beings," Ssuhschs voice boomed in their heads. "My current predicament is the result of my own, selfish arrogance, and I am well aware of it."
"Save that for later," McCoy snapped, his mediscanner in his hand. "Brace yourself; this may hurt. This hypospray was rigged for Human skin, not scales; Ive had to jack the power up a tad to be sure I get through your hide."
"I quite understand, Doctor." Ssuhsch lay motionless as McCoy delivered the medication. "Aaah, that seems better. Would you tell me if my tail is moving at all?"
"Not much, Ssuhsch," Kirk responded, "but its moving."
McCoys hypospray hissed again. Ssuhschs tail moved considerably more.
"Im really impressed with your tail motion, Ssuhsch," McCoy offered, "but Id like to see some of the rest of you move, too."
"Under the circumstances, Doctor, I quite agree, but the discomfort of moving is quite considerable. These little creatures dont appreciate it, you understand."
"Bones, get a litter and get him to Sickbay, for pitys sake." Kirk moved to the wall communicator. "Sickbay, get someone to the transporter deck with a litter big enough for a five meter python. Kirk out."
"Good thinking, Jim; should have thought of that myself." McCoys hypospray hissed again. "Hows that?"
"Better, thank you. However, there is the issue of the creatures injected into my flesh."
"One thing at a time, Ssuhsch. Lets get you stabilized before we deal with them."
"With all due respect, Captain, they may be parasitizing my tissues, but they remain immature forms of an intelligent creature." Ssuhsch produced the reptilian equivalent of a sigh. "I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to destroy them, no matter how primitive their culture. They should not suffer for my arrogant stupidity."
"There is still the issue of the Vharang negotiations and Bharii Shandar, Ssuhsch," Kirk pointed out. "Although the negotiations may not be relevant to you, they are very important to us."
Ssuhsch lifted his head, his antennae folding forward. "Naturally, Captain. However, as far as I am concerned, Bharii Shandar is irrelevant. I believe that, with the assistance of your Vulcan companion, I should be able to finish the negotiations without that wretch. In this context, however, I would hope that your medical team would be willing to do the best it can to sustain me as I sustain these creatures. Once they are ready to function on their own, they can be removed and returned to their home world. Consider that a condition of my completing the Vharang negotiations, if you wish."
Webb arrived, emerging from the turbolift with a large litter. She eyed Ssuhsh. "Is there any possibility this creature can make its way onto the litter on its own? Im not sure that we can coil it properly, you understand, without help."
The serpents head turned toward the nurse. "If you can just get my head and a bit of my body onto the litter, madam," the voice offered, "I believe that I can handle the rest."
Gently, Webb picked up Ssuhschs head, guiding it more than carrying it onto the litter, doing her best to aid and abet his climbing into place, with McCoy across his body from her. Once Ssuhsch was loaded onto the antigrav litter, the twosome guided it to the turbolift.
Kirk looked over at Spock. "Now for the admiral. Lets head for the bridge."
Spock led the way to the turbolift.
Brevans face filled the mainviewer before Kirk, a combination of amusement and irritation written across it. "Let me see if Ive understood you clearly, Kirk. This creature, Soosh or whatever, has been impregnated by the Traganians, like an ichneumon fly does a caterpillar. However, it has agreed to finish the Vharang negotiations, as long as he doesnt have to put up with Bharii Shandar, and as long as we deposit the little vermin infesting him on Tragan Two when they hatch, or whatever they do."
The captain nodded slowly. "That seems to be the situation in a nutshell, Admiral. Under the circumstances, we probably ought to send a support team with Ssuhsch, to oversee his medical status and lend support."
"Of course." Brevan sighed. "And after the Vharang negotiations? Has he discussed any reward?"
"No. At this point, I think hell be happy just to be alive."
Brevan nodded. "If the Vharang enter the Federation, well have to do better than that; hell deserve it. Captain, your task is clear. I will transmit the location for the closing negotiations with the Vharang. Report there immediately." The admirals face disappeared.
Kirk looked at the helm. "Ensign, as soon as you have the coordinates, take us there with all reasonable speed."
The Enterprise entered a parking orbit around the airless planet Brevan had indicated was to host the final step of the Vharang negotiations. The captain turned to his Vulcan science officer. "Any sign of a meeting place, Spock?"
"No, Captain." He looked up from the science console. "Perhaps the plan is to complete the negotiations on the Enterprise or their ship."
"If so, I would have hoped that the admiral would have told us."
Spock nodded, preparing to reply, but was interrupted as two, tall, thin figures appeared on the bridge, appearing to stand on the navigation and weapons consoles. Though they had a head, body, and paired arms and legs, there were a brilliant white, devoid of other features. Spock turned to his science console.
"Do not bother, Vulcan," one of the apparitions said. "We will not register on your sensors. What you see is merely a projected image. We are here to talk to your negotiator."
"You are the representatives of the Vharang?" Kirk realized that he had been told essentially nothing of the beings appearance; it was a guess, but a reasonable one, under the circumstances.
"A moment. Let us consult."
Kirk looked at Uhura, who nodded to indicate that she had summoned Ssuhsch.
One of the apparitions spoke. "At your primitive level of comprehension, you may consider us such. Where is the negotiator?"
"Bharii Shandar will not "
"Not the negotiators petwe will commune with the negotiator himself: Ssuhsch." The two images began to pulsate. "If the negotiator is not here, there is no point in prolonging this meeting."
Spock entered the conversation. "Ssuhsch has been summoned, Vharang. He is coming."
"We will wait." The voice held a degree of finality that brooked no reply.
Though it lasted only a moment or two, it seemed to take forever for the turbolift to arrive, bringing Ssuhsch, McCoy and Webb in tow. As the reptile moved forward, Kirk was surprised to see how large the Traganians incubation cysts had become. Spock joined Ssuhsch at Kirks side. The two images moved toward, then along Ssuhsch, ultimately returning to their original perches.
"You are injured, Ssuhsch. Have your new pets harmed you?"
Ssuhsch voice registered softly. "They are not my pets, Vharang, as Bharii Shandar was. These are my friends and rescuers."
"Not pets?" There was a hint of puzzlement in the voice.
"Not pets." The reptiles silent voice was firm. "Friends and rescuers. I would not have lived to return to you if they had not come for me."
"How can they be intelligent? They do not have The Speech."
"They have speech of their own, Vharang. Each is a complete being, not a part of a whole being, as you are." Ssuhschs feather-like antennae rotated slightly toward Spock. "This one is on the verge of having The Speech, but has not fully learned it. Imagine this: billions of them, each able to act independently, and all intelligent."
What had started a brilliant white went through a sequence of colors, slowly returning to the initial white. "But they rely on machines to survive, to limp through the universe."
"Even so, Vharang, but they are as intelligent as we are. They have taken a different route than we. Who am I, who are you, to say that this route is better? Yet they are good, Vharang, rescuing me without any hope of return. Join with them. Perhaps you can gently lead them to true understanding."
Rather than immediately answer, the two images moved, one toward Spock, the other toward Kirk. Without warning, the images suddenly enveloped the beings, then as quickly as it had happened, they resumed their position over the consoles. "You speak much that amazes us, Ssuhsch. We did not believe this could be."
To Kirks amazement, the two images slowly changed, taking on a Human appearance. One of the images looked at the captain, its mouth moving as it spoke. "Accept a humble apology, Kirk. If your people will have us, we are willing to walk beside your United Federation of Planets as members and as your partners. Until you have The Speech, our contact will be limited, but we respect and are astounded by your accomplishments without it."
Slowly, the captain of the Enterprise stood, extending his hand to the apparition before him. "On behalf of the United Federation of Planets, welcome."
There was a vague sensation of touch as the images hand grasped the captains, shaking it. "Thank you. With your permission Kirk, we will communicate with your Admiral Brevan. Please take care of our friend, Ssuhsch."
"Of course." Before Kirk could say anything else, the Vharang were gone. The captain looked down at Ssuhsch. "Well done."
"Thank you. Your crew, particularly Doctor McCoy, have done well, too." Ssuhsch coiled up on the antigrav litter. "No disrespect intended, Captain, and Im sure none taken, but it might be prudent if we returned to Tragan soon. From such indications as I can understand, I shall be unburdened of these creatures soon. It might be more prudent if I were in Sickbay when that came to pass."
"Understood. Bones, if you and Webb will do the honors?" He turned to the helm. "Lieutenant Jaeger, plot a course for Tragan Two. Mister Marsden, take us there."
Kirk stood in the transporter room, Montgomery Scott at the controls. Ssuhsch slithered off the antigrav sled on which McCoy and Webb had brought him to the room. As the snake moved toward the transporter, even Kirks medically untrained eye could see the scars where the Traganian infants had once been in Ssuhschs flesh. Ssuhsch coiled himself on the transporter, looking Kirk in the face. "It looks far worse than it is, Captain. I can move with neither hindrance nor pain."
"Im glad to hear it. Doctor McCoy seems to have worked wonders. Are you ready to beam down?"
"Eager. If I have the information correctly, the uninhabited planet below has an abundance of small- to moderate-sized herbivores for me to dine on, with little in terms of large carnivores and no intelligent lifeforms to threaten me." Ssuhschs head bobbed slightly. "From my point of view, if thats not Heaven, it certainly could, as you Humans say, pinch hit for it." The antennae fluttered. "Its a pity Ive grown too large to fit back in with my own people, but thats what I get for living the high life, I suppose. At least I shall be in telepathic contact with them, so my solitude will only be physical. Im rather surprised that your kind do not plan to colonize such a lush planet."
"Its the beryllium dust in the air, Ssuhsch; youre apparently immune to it, but breathing it would do major damage to the lungs of most if not all of the members of the UFPwell, thats what McCoy said anyway, and I believe him. If you ever change your mind, Ssuhsch, and want to come back and visit or something, just let us know." Kirk smiled, nodding to Scott. "Energize, Scotty."
The Scotsman obeyed, watching as the reptile disappeared. He turned to the Captain. "Well, I guess yon beastie proves a point."
"He does?" Kirks curiosity was piqued.
"Aye. The Klingons have always said that Starfleet negotiators could be snakes "
Free counters provided by Andale.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES --
2285-2293 The Third Mission.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES On-Line Fiction.
Click Here to Return to the Orion Press Website