|Home||Story Index||Stories by
|ScoTpress History||Zine Archive|
James Kirk couldn't help smiling a little as he stepped from the transporter pad. All things considered, there was little else Nogura could have done, but it was nice to have things straightened out. There had been a few rumblings in Starfleet Command about his 'taking off' with a brand-new Starship, but Kirk had saved Earth and he let them know it. Politely, of course.
For an instant he wondered at himself. There had been a time when the use of his rank privileges would have been unthinkable, but those days were behind him. Sure, he had changed, but he preferred to think of those changes as good ones. Only time would tell, of course.
Lt. Rand received a dazzling grin as he left the dark room, and then he was out in the corridor, sensing the vibrant life in this new Enterprise. He pondered over his instructions as he waited for the turbo-elevator to arrive. The fact that he was here on trial irked considerably, but it had taken enough argument to get the Enterprise captaincy at all, never mind another mission. There had never been a case of a Starship captain returning to his ship after his five-year mission, even though that captain had returned with his ship and crew almost intact, an unheard-of thing. Some were not at all sure of his ability to continue coping with the constant stresses inherent in a deep-space voyage, especially after his time on Earth.
Kirk squared his chin at the memory of their doubtful expressions and the arguments he had used to change those doubts. Hadn't he proved with the V'ger affair that he was as competent as ever? A man never lost his ability to command, and he would prove that.
"Um, Captain Kirk? Sir?"
Kirk came out of his self-congratulatory thoughts and back to reality. He suddenly realised that the lift had not arrived yet and there was a nervous young technician hovering at his side.
The youth nervously indicated the tightly-closed doors. "Er...turboshaft eight is non-operational at the moment, sir. Minor repairs. If you'd like to use shaft seven..."
Probably his first tour of duty, thought Kirk. He smiled.
"Some things never change, Ensign," he said lightly. "Even in a new ship. Thank you."
The ensign watched him stride away with round eyes and a slightly dazed expression before turning back to his assigned task - putting an 'Out of Order' notice on the door.
As luck would have it, Spock was entering the lift as Kirk rounded the corner. The Vulcan kept the doors open until his commanding officer had entered, then looked quizzically at him. "Bridge, Captain?"
"Bridge, Mr. Spock."
As the lift gathered speed, Kirk unobtrusively watched Spock, comparing the Vulcan now to the utterly different alien who had arrived on the Enterprise nine brief days ago. He seemed much more relaxed, but stronger too. Strong within himself, Kirk realised. He's come to terms with his dual personality, and he's accepted it.
The shadowed brown eyes looked in his direction, a faint note of curiosity sounded in the voice. "Was your meeting with the Board satisfactory, Captain?"
"Very satisfactory, Mr. Spock," replied Kirk, unable to hold back a grin any longer. "I have command for a trial period only, but it won't be long before they lose their doubts about my abilities."
Spock raised one eyebrow, an act which added to Kirk's exuberance. "I admire your confidence," he said coolly.
Kirk only grinned wider. "It's got me this far."
Spock lifted the other eyebrow, well aware of the word game they played.
Strange how such an illogical way of speaking could add to one's feeling of 'belonging'.
"Our first job is to transport an Ambassador to a planet name of Gairm. Another diplomatic job, it seems," Kirk continued. He made a face. "Light duties first..."
"They know your tendency to attract trouble," Spock observed drily. The lift doors opened before Kirk could reply, and the Captain bounced down the steps to his chair. Spock continued at a more dignified pace to his.
Uhura correctly interpreted her captain's happy expression. "New orders, sir?"
"Correct," beamed Kirk. He pushed his chair round, resisting the urge to spin it around full circle. "Navigator, compute a course for Starbase 16, and the most direct route from there to Gairm, Delta Capporum system."
"Mr. Sulu, prepare to leave orbit."
* * * * * * * *
With her increased warp-drive capacity and brand new engines, the Enterprise made short work of the journey to the Starbase, and it was not long after their departure from Earth that Kirk and Spock were waiting patiently as Ambassador Shondar beamed aboard.
Kirk straightened his shoulders as the figure materialised through the sparkling beam. He had heard before of Maria Shondar, and knew of the many peaceful missions credited to her name. If anyone could sort out the troubles on Gairm, she could.
Kirk stepped forward to greet his passenger. "Ambassador Shondar, welcome aboard."
She took his hand in a confident, firm grip. "I'm happy to be here, Captain. I've heard a great deal about your adventures."
"All good, I hope."
Ambassador Shondar was a small, middle-aged woman, and she wore a cream and orange outfit, stylishly cut to fit her slightly plump figure. Long blonde hair was left to hang down her back, and sparkling brown eyes etched with laughter lines revealed a sense of humour uncommon in most diplomats. Above her eyes her eyebrows arched slightly, an inheritance from Vulcanoid stock generations back in her family line. She looked from Kirk to the tall Vulcan waiting unobtrusively at his rear.
"0h. My apologies...Ambassador Shondar, my second-in-command, Mr. Spock."
They nodded to each other and exchanged pleasantries, then Kirk claimed the Ambassador's attention again. "Ma'am, your quarters are all ready for you. Would you like to freshen up, perhaps change, or would you like to see round the ship first?"
A gleam came into Shondar's eye. "I know I sound like a little girl, but could I see the ship first? I don't often get the chance to tour a completely up-to-date Starship."
"I understand the feeling," smiled Kirk. "I felt like that when I first arrived on board. Everything was completely - "
"Bridge to Captain!"
They waited while he answered the urgent call and returned from the console, shrugging philosophically. "I'm sorry, Ambassador, I'm needed elsewhere. I will have to leave you in Mr. Spock's capable hands. He is an excellent guide."
Shondar nodded understandingly. "That's all right, Captain. You're a busy man."
"Unfortunately, you're right," grinned Kirk. "I'll see you again later, I hope."
"I should think you will," replied Ambassador Shondar. She waited until the door had closed behind Kirk, then turned to Spock. "Well, Mr. Spock, lead on. Perhaps on our travels we can discuss our mutual heritage, though I think I am further removed from Vulcan than you are..."
* * * * * * * *
At 1600 hours, ship's time, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott met with Ambassador Shondar to go over the delicate situation on Gairm. As Shondar went over her notes it soon became apparent just how sensitive the situation was.
"The Gairmites are a touchy race, given to frequently changing their minds at the drop of a hat. They themselves have lost count of the number of international wars through the ages.
"The planet consists of nine separate island states ruled by the High King and their own representatives in the High Council. At the moment High King Vorda is in power, and for the past fifty years has quite happily done business with the Federation, trading in minerals, artifacts, general things of that sort."
"A mining company set up business near the capital not so long ago, didn't it?" asked Kirk.
Shondar nodded. "That's correct. The Centurian Mining Corporation, run by Mr. Andrew Meersham. They mine pertimite, which Gairm has in plenty. Gairm used to trade with the Klingons, and it's a sign of Vorda's faith that he let the company onto the planet. As you no doubt know, he changed sides when he inherited the throne and after a lot of argument managed to get his own way. Now we're on the way to keeping Gairm on the right side of the neutral zone."
"If I am correct," commented Spock, "a sudden return to dealing with the Klingons would put a considerable strain on the other Federation planets in that area."
"Security would have to be stepped up," Kirk mused. "It could cause quite a lot of repercussions over a fairly wide area."
"Exactly," agreed Shondar. "The trouble is, Vorda may not be able to sway Council opinion much longer. His son Menon'ar is pushing for change. Recently, there's been some bother with the miners - general ignorance of local customs, rowdiness, that sort of thing. The Gairmites have stood it well enough, but a few weeks ago a group of men destroyed a shrine."
"Let me guess," said McCoy. "They're highly religious too."
"Very. They worship their ancestors, and this particular shrine belonged to Vorda's family. That, as far as the Gairmites are concerned, was the last straw. Ignorance they could accept, but not the desecration of a shrine. There have been murmurings of driving out the alien devils, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if a few Klingon agents haven't been sniffing out the land."
"A ticklish problem in diplomacy, Ambassador," murmured Kirk.
"But not an unsolvable one, I hope," replied the woman.
* * * * * * * *
"We refuse to be intimidated!" cried the young Gairmite, his lime-green crest rising in anger. "You come here wishing to fool us, to trick us, but we will not be taken in by your lies!"
The elderly alien seated behind him blinked his double eyelids impatiently. "Menon'ar Neeth Krel, be silent!"
As the heir-apparent to Gairm's throne angrily subsided, Vorda settled himself further into the hammock-like arrangement that served as a seat on Gairm. He looked sideways at the group waiting before him.
"I seek forgiveness for my son's brashness. He knows little of etiquette, and ignores what he has learned."
Ambassador Shondar bowed respectfully. "The impulsiveness of the young is common to all races, High King. There is naught to forgive."
Vorda clicked shut his beak and glanced at Menon'ar. A few seconds passed, then the youth spoke reluctantly. "You are generous in your forgiveness, Ambassador. I hope I am worthy of such generosity."
Seemingly satisfied by this token apology, Vorda looked back to Shondar, and behind her Kirk and Spock traded looks. It was obvious where Menon'ar's sympathies lay, and they would have to guard against giving him any ammunition for his arguments.
To prevent any awkwardness or misunderstandings with the difficult Gairmite language, all four Federation representatives wore small, compact translators, and it was into this that Shondar spoke. Vorda listened intently, perceiving her words in the clicking, gurgling speech of his people.
"High King, we come not to intimidate you or trick you, but to help our people and yours to understand each other. There have been too many unfortunate incidents in the past. We wish only to smooth out any animosity caused by these insults and create harmony between us again."
"In truth, I wish it to be so," sighed Vorda, "but sometimes I fear the voice of trust is not heard by my people, or by yours. Why else do you come in numbers, in a great ship which can destroy our world?"
"Majesty, the Enterprise is a tribute from the High Council of the Federation. She is the finest ship in her fleet, and before all other duties, she was sent here." As Vorda digested the meaning of her statement, Shondar pointed at the three men behind her. "These men are heroes. They have fought injustice many times, and respect the customs and honour of other races."
The High King fixed the heroes with an unnerving stare, then Menon'ar spoke from his corner. "They are..." then a sharp gurgling click the translators could not deal with. Vorda struck him across the face, sending him reeling.
"May your feathers be oilless! Boorish lout, how dare you insult our visitors thus!"
"I beg forgiveness," Menon'ar muttered sulkily, but his father had had enough.
He came to his feet, crest raised to its full glory, one withered hand pointing imperiously down the long hall.
"Begone from my sight!"
The young prince hurried away, his small, useless wings twitching against his broad feathered back. He disappeared through the main door as Vorda resat, his crest bobbing up and down in agitation.
"Ambassador, gentlebeings, my most humble apologies are offered to you," he said anxiously. "My son...there can be no excuse for his behaviour."
"We accept your apology, and already forget the matter," the Ambassador assured him. "He is doubtless upset by the desecration of your shrine."
"Ah yes..." Vorda's eyes clouded and the three claws on his right hand flicked in and out again. "My shrine... The leader of the miners, Mee'am, promised most faithfully to deliver to me the culprits of this most insulting deed. This has not been done."
Kirk stopped forward, "High King, I assure you that when we have spoken with Meersham, we will find the culprits."
The alien's double eyelids slid up, and his topaz stare settled on the Enterprise's captain. "It would not go well if you did not, Kirr'."
* * * * * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, a rather disgruntled Andrew Meersham found himself giving audience to three Starship officers and a persistent, if not hard-headed, Ambassador. He sighed, rubbing his chin as he prowled round his office desk.
"You mean I have to hand over my men for them to do with as they please because of some stupid high jinks? Christ, I offered to pay for the damage!"
Maria Shondar moved into his path, fixing him with her direct stare. "Mr. Meersham, I am sure you must be aware it is not only a matter of a damaged shrine, though that's bad enough. To Vorda it's a matter of honour and pride to punish the desecrators of his ancestors' tombs."
Meersham dodged round her and walked into Spock, who gave him an unfathomable look as he backed away and finally sat down, "Yeah," he said. "But who would have thought a lean-to with a pile of stones and evil-smelling plants was a royal shrine?"
"This is an alien planet," Spock pointed out. "Customs are bound to be different."
Kirk sighed and leaned on the desk, his hands gripping the edge. "Meersham, why don't you give up the men? I don't know what the local punishment for this crime is, but I'm sure Ambassador Shondar will be able to ask for leniency, since it was done out of pure ignorance of the customs."
"Otherwise," put in Shondar, "you might not have mining rights here for much longer."
Meersham drummed his fingers on the chair arm for a moment, then threw up his hands in disgust. "Okay, okay, I'll do it if it will keep the peace."
"It'll help, at any rate."
They left the office in silence, with Meersham's promise that the culprits would be found and sent to the palace the next day. Kirk glanced at Ambassador Shondar, who was deep in thought.
"That ought to placate Vorda a little," he said.
"Let us hope so. Captain, were you thinking of going back to the ship just yet?"
"If there is nothing else we can do," Kirk answered. "Would you prefer - ?"
Shondar shook her head. "No, just the opposite. I think I'll go on to the palace, tell Vorda what's happening. If I go myself, he may speak a little easier about the situation. I think he's frightened of losing his hold over the Council. With luck, I may be able to quell any doubts he may have about backing us."
Kirk grinned,. "It might just work. You have your communicator?"
She raised an arm to reveal the wrist-band beneath her long sleeves. "All present and correct. I'll call the ship when I want to beam back, Captain. Until later, gentlemen..." She walked swiftly away, and McCoy took the opportunity to tease Kirk a little.
"Just your type, eh, Jim?"
"Who, me?" Kirk protested. "Bones, I may like women who know their own minds, but I don't go chasing after every one who proves she can charm a High King or two. Besides, she's married!"
McCoy harrumphed loudly, pleased that their friendship was as strong as before. The fact that he had been pulled willy-nilly from his comfortable civilian life rankled a little even yet, but for now he was reasonably happy. Perhaps he would reconsider his life's route in the near future, but until then he was Leonard McCoy, ship's doctor, and that suited him fine.
Like a well-fitting glove, Kirk thought as they walked back to the beam-up point. That's their friendship. Always dependable, strong... I should have listened to Bones then. Why did I throw this away?
He thought back over his years as chief of Starfleet operations. They had been empty years, he realised. He had been half alive, the vibrant, questioning part of him submerged under planet-side pleasantries. This was where he belonged; in the contrasting alienness of Starfleet life where the bitter-sweet taste of danger was always present.
And what of Spock? What did he think of as they walked together in the same close companionship that had held them secure throughout countless trials?
He thought of the past, and of the future; his future, on the Enterprise. He felt more at peace now than he had ever been, even after the deeply cleansing meditation of Kolinahr. The trials, the doubts...it had all become a dream which finally ended when he was given his answer. There was a certain amount of irony in the way he had found the truth.
"Hey, you! You Captain Kirk?"
The harsh voice broke into Spock's thoughts, and his head lifted as Kirk halted in answer to the call. He confirmed his identity, his gaze stonily cool and forbidding towards the miner who had shouted.
A small, wiry man wandered over, looking Kirk up and down with an insolence that spoke of habitual bravado. His breath reeked of the local equivalent of beer, the source of his sudden courage.
"Thought you were him," he said at last. "I wanna talk to ya. Name's Norsen - Kurt Norsen. Me an' the boys are wonderin' what's goin' on."
"I don't follow you," Kirk murmured, eyeing the miners drifting towards them.
Norsen spat on the floor, wiped his hands on his trousers. "We heard the guys who broke up that shrine are bein' handed over to the Gairmites. What're you gonna do 'bout it?"
"Mr. Norsen, I will make sure they are handed over."
"Zat so?" Norsen swaggered closer to Kirk, but stopped uncertainly as Spock moved very slightly forward. He said nothing, but managed to convey a great deal. Norsen shuffled back. Kirk folded his arms and stood with a deceptive calm which bothered Norsen even more. He looked towards his fellow workers, but found no support there.
"Uh...we don't want no trouble," he said at last. "It's just..."
"Don't worry, Mr. Norsen," Kirk assured him. "The men responsible will be defended by Ambassador Shondar and myself. There will be no trouble."
"Yeah. Well, thanks," Norsen mumbled, walking uneasily away, while keeping an eye on Spock. The other miners drifted away as quickly as they had gathered, and the Starfleet men left the planet unhindered.
"The local spokesman, it seems," McCoy remarked as they rounded the corner.
Kirk nodded. "All mouth and bluster, but dangerous just the same. Somehow I don't think the trouble will end with the punishment of these men."
"Knowing Human nature," said Spock, "I suspect it may just be beginning."
* * * * * * * *
The very next day, Meersham kept his promise and - to both the prisoners' and Kirk's relief - Shondar persuaded Vorda to let them off with a light sentence.
This consisted of three Gairmian years in their squalid prisons and a light whipping of fifty lashes. When one of them protested at the sentence, Vorda eyed him critically. "Be glad you receive this little, Human. In the old days, offenders had their feathers shaved off and their wings cut from their shoulders. They were then blinded... Since you have no wings, the Council wished your hands cut off - I persuaded them to reduce it to the whipping. You are indeed fortunate."
The miner subsided rapidly. Unfortunately, Mr. Meersham did not, probably because he was not under the piercing gaze of the High King.
"You said he'd be lenient, Kirk!" he roared, thumping the desk in his anger.
"He was," Kirk said pleasantly. "For a Gairmite."
"Surely you realise that in order to live on this planet you must be prepared to abide by its laws," Spock put in.
Meersham glared at him. "But three years, dammit! That's the equivalent of ten Earth years! Four of my best men incarcerated in their dirty little prisons..."
"It was the best Vorda could do," Kirk said firmly. Meersham leaped to his feet, ready to hit Kirk before he remembered who he was. Angrily, he sat again, breathing heavily.
"The men will be angry..."
"Then you had better keep them calm. Mr. Meersham, perhaps you don't realise just what is at stake here. If your men anger the Gairmites too much, they may leave the Federation, and that would have repercussions all the way across this sector. The Klingons are just waiting to get a toehold in here again, and if Vorda says he wants them, there's nothing we can do. Perhaps it would have been better if the men had been tried by a Federation court, but that would have insulted Vorda even more. You see my point?"
The mine owner grudgingly agreed. "Okay, I'll do my best to calm them down, but don't expect too much."
Kirk breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "Just stop them from insulting the natives," he said. "That's all I ask."
Kirk and Spock left the mine slowly, walking along the busy street outside.
Both noticed the respectful, if wary, looks the Gairmites gave them. The bird-like people admired the obvious trappings of wealth displayed by rich merchants and the like, and to them the crisp, well-cut uniforms signified a great deal of wealth behind these strange aliens. Traders watched them hopefully, but they showed no sign of stopping to examine their wares, so the Gairmites turned their attention back to their own kind.
Kirk came to a sudden halt and followed the Vulcan's gaze. Across the dusty road a familiar figure was just leaving a tailor's shop, swaying slightly as he did so. His thin, sinewy body was covered in a suit made of venkr, an expensive fabric made on Gairm for those who could afford it. The tailor watched from the shop door as his customer wandered away, his clawed hand still clutching a wad of money.
Kirk frowned at the sight. "I wouldn't have thought he could afford clothes like that."
"It is unlikely," agreed Spock. "A month's pay from the mine would buy only a metre of venkr, yet Norsen has a complete suit. He is also drunk, and to become that intoxicated takes a great deal of money."
"It depends what you're drinking..." Kirk said absently. "However, it may be worth finding out where Mr, Norsen got his sudden riches."
It was easy enough to follow behind Norsen, and the miner never noticed his two shadows until he was firmly hustled into an empty doorway. Worriedly, he looked from one to the other, his eyes widening as he recognised them. Kirk let go his arm and pushed him against the door, while Spock loomed silent and foreboding over the unfortunate man.
"What...what do you want?"
Kirk looked at him with an expression of complete innocence. "Why, nothing, Kurt. I can call you Kurt, can't I? We just noticed your fine outfit from across the street, and wanted to see it closer at hand..." He lightly fingered the neatly-stitched material, standing back to admire the cut. "Fine work, fine work. Hand-tailored, of course. Must have cost quite a lot."
Norsen could not resist a little bragging. He looked down at himself proudly. "You bet it did! 2000 kquatas!"
Kirk whistled, shaking his head in wonder. "2000... Let's see, that must be 900 credits, at least. I never realised miners were paid that much. You must be favoured, Kurt."
"Yes, well, I do have..." Norsen trailed off as he realised what he was saying. "Er, that...that is... I saved up for it! Yes, that's what I did. Saved up. Quite easy if you..."
Spock fixed him with an unnerving stare. "Fascinating."
"Wh...what is?" asked the miner, swallowing nervously. He was rapidly sobering up.
"The fact that you were able to save so much from what is obviously a low-paid job. Did your diligence not interfere with your drinking habits?"
Norsen shook his head in bewilderment and Kirk moved in for the kill. "Come on, Kurt. Are you trying to tell us that a low-grade worker like you saved up enough money to buy clothes only nobility can afford? Where did that money really come from?"
"I saved it, honest I did!" wailed Norsen. "I'm very thrifty that way..."
His knees began to quiver as Spock moved menacingly closer. Kirk turned slightly away, examining his fingernails minutely. He spoke in a nonchalant tone as if he was discussing the weather.
"Kurt, you may have noticed Mr. Spock here is a Vulcan... Now I don't know if you have met any before, but I'm sure you've heard of their great strength, at the very least."
Norsen nodded furiously, and Spock raised an eyebrow very slightly at his captain.
"Good," Kirk continued in the same tone. "Did you also know that Vulcans have a very barbaric past? I didn't think so... You see, Kurt, the point is, as a Vulcan Mr. Spock knows many ancient techniques used for punishing wrongdoers. Now those can be quick and painless, or they can be the exact opposite. You get my drift? It's been a long time since Mr. Spock had a chance to practice..."
"I...I thought Vulcans were peaceful!" Norsen gulped, trying unsuccessfully to edge further away from Spock.
"You don't want to believe everything you hear, Kurt. Whoever told you that?"
"Stop!" Norson shrieked. "Stop, for pity's sake. Don't hurt me, please..."
"Where did the money come from?"
A new fear came into the miner's eyes. "I can't tell you. They'll find out and - "
"Who will find out?" snapped Kirk.
"I don't know for sure. They send money...tell me what they want done... Don't kill me!"
By this time the miner was almost on his knees, and curious Gairmites were pausing slightly as they passed, eyeing the three aliens. It was unlikely that Norsen would say any more, torn as he was between fear of injury now or later, at another's hands.
Kirk took pity on him and stood aside. "Go on, get out of it."
Hesitantly, Norsen edged past them and hurried away for the safety of his quarters. Kirk watched him go, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "It sounds as if someone is deliberately trying to stir up trouble," he said. "The Klingons, for example..."
"It is likely," Spock agreed. He was about to go on when Kirk's wrist-com bleeped demandingly. The Captain answered it at once, and listened with a sinking heart.
"Scott here, sir. Uhura's just intercepted a message from Gairm. It's a wee bit garbled, but by the sound o' it there's a fire at the royal palace!"
As Kirk replied and switched off he looked at Spock. "Ambassador Shondar may still have been visiting Vorda. If either of them is hurt..."
* * * * * * * *
The palace was surrounded by a milling crowd, and over their heads Kirk and Spock could see wisps of grey smoke still emerging from windows. The Enterprise men weaved slowly through the curious aliens, but were brought to a halt at the main gates by a royal carriage leaving the palace. It stopped as it reached them, and Prince Menon'ar glared menacingly from his seat.
"Kirr'!" he bellowed, angry at his inability to pronounce the Human's name properly. "Now you show your true colours, as I knew you would!"
Kirk glanced worriedly at Spock, then bowed respectfully. "Your Highness, I - "
"Do not patronise me!" interrupted the prince. "You and your people have planned this from the beginning. You hoped to kill my father and myself and take over our planet, but you have failed! We now have proof of your treachery and I will stand by no longer."
"Silence! I hear no more lies. I go now to the High Council to tell them of this deed. We shall belong to the Federation no longer!" The carriage lurched away before Kirk could utter a single word of self-defence.
"He does not seem to want to listen to reason," observed Spock.
"No, more's the pity," Kirk said grimly. "Let's hope he cools down before he does too much damage. Come on, we'd better find out what's happened."
Getting into the palace was not as easy as Kirk thought it would be. As soon as they entered the large entrance hall a line of royal guards appeared from nowhere and surrounded them, weapons levelled at their chests. Several tense moments passed, then Vorda's chancellor came up and explained who they were to the guards, who then, grudgingly, let them pass.
Neemarr led Kirk and Spock through the smoke-filled corridors to Vorda's private chambers, where the High King waited for his visitors. In the midst of carefully draped cloths and jingling windchimes the aged Gairmite lay in his bed, blinking irritably at the flustered administrations of his physician. When Kirk and Spock entered, he pushed the doctor away, muttering that he was not a weak nestling to be cossetted. Ambassador Shondar, who sat at Vorda's side, smiled in welcome to them, but said nothing.
Vorda sat up as Human and Vulcan approached and bowed respectfully. "Captain Kirr'! I wished to speak with you again, but I did not mean it to be in my bedchamber!"
"We are both glad to see you are well, High King," Kirk answered, relieved to hear no trace of anger in Vorda's voice. "The message we received gave no indication of your welfare."
Vorda tossed his head, raising his crest a little. "I am well enough, though my foolish doctor will not believe me!"
Kirk grinned. "I know a doctor very much like that too, your Majesty."
"May we ask what happened, High King?" asked Spock.
The crest rose imperceptibly higher. "Treachery, Mr. 'ock, most despicable treachery! A fire was begun deliberately in the throne hall but a short time ago, and had my son not seen the culprit leaving the palace, I would be dead!" He clicked his beak sharply and lay back, waving a hand at Shondar. "Ambassador, you continue, please..."
Ambassador Shondar nodded and carried on with the story. "His Majesty and I were in a small room next to the throne hall, but we didn't know anything until Prince Menon'ar rushed in with the news that a fire had started behind the throne. Luckily we had enough time to get out, but it was a close thing. If he hadn't seen a miner leaving by a side door and become suspicious, we might both have been trapped. There was only one door to that room, and that led into the hall."
"A miner?" echoed Kirk. "That sounds bad."
"The trouble is, there's proof he did it." Shondar rose and handed Spock a blackened round object. "That was found where the fire began."
Kirk looked to Spock for an explanation, and the Vulcan obliged. "A K7B localised incinerator, Captain. Occasionally used to burn off pockets of inflammable gas found in pertimite mines. It can be set to a timing device, which this one obviously was."
Now Kirk understood Menon'ar's angry words. This was a deliberate attempt to harm the High King, and would very likely cure any doubts about leaving the Federation. Tho miners would never be accepted on Gairm now.
Vorda pushed himself upright again, absently smoothing down his feathers as he did so. He cocked his head at his visitors. "I know what you think, Kirr'. Menon'ar goes to speak with the High Council, and I will join him in wishing our planet rid of the Federation. I will not."
All three looked in surprise at him. This was not the reaction they had expected.
"Majesty?" Shondar said hesitantly.
"I will not deal with the Klingons!" Vorda cried resolutely, "I distrust their sly ways, their silent lies... I will not be ruled by such as they! Let the High Council shriek and moan - my word must be given to such a decision, and I will not change my mind. I may agree to the miners going, but I will not desert the Federation!"
Kirk's gaze met Shondar's. There was hope for peace on Gairm after all, but would the members of the Council accept Vorda's ruling?
* * * * * * * *
As things turned out, they did not, but the High King's word was still absolute, and they could not change planet policy without his consent. Arguments raged fast and furious in the Council chambers, but Vorda would not be moved. The Ambassador stood up for the miners, fighting a losing battle against the hatred stirred up by the shrine desecration and now by the fire. Councillors called for the imprisoned men to be executed at once, but that notion was firmly squashed by Vorda, and the men were left to serve their sentences. However, there was no way Meersham would be allowed to continue mining on Gairm, and Vorda ruled that all excavations should stop immediately. Meersham refused.
Both Gairmitos and Humans were at loggerheads when the mysterious saboteurs struck again, this time at the mining plant.
"There is no proof that this was done by the Gairmites," said Kirk, looking through the office window at the chaos outside.
"What proof do you need?" cried Meersham. "Dammit, Kirk, it's revenge for the fire! They want us out of here, and they think blowing up my computer will do that. They'd better think again. I sank all my money in this place, and I'm not giving up now!"
Kirk nodded grimly, able to see the mine boss's viewpoint as well. If he could just find out who was really behind all this - give both sides some positive proof either way. Relations on Gairm were as bad as could be, and if he didn't find Norsen's 'benefactors' soon...
"Where's Kurt Norsen?"
Meersham looked up in surprise at the unexpected question. "Norsen? I don't know for sure. Why?"
Kirk left the window and crossed the room. "Because a few days ago he was flashing money around like it was out of fashion. From what he told Spock and me, he was being paid by someone for work other than mining. I'd like to talk to him again."
He did not see Meersham's eyes narrow slightly at his words. So Norsen had been opening his mouth too much, huh? The mine boss shrugged carelessly. "Norsen's a small fish, a nothing. Who would pick on him to do dirty work?"
"That's what I want to find out. Where is he?"
"I'll send one of the men to get him. Excuse me...." Meersham left the office, and Kirk walked back to the window. The mine's main computer lay directly across from where he stood, a large area of grey flooring between him and the group of computer experts brought down specially from the Enterprise. Spock was among them, of course, carefully replacing a panel he had removed moments before. Kirk watched him, confident of his ability to have the computer working again within a short time.
The Vulcan stood, writing something on the clipboard he held, and Kirk's eyes shifted to take in the rest of the group working around and in the wide machine. Something about one caught his attention, and he ignored Meersham's return to the office as he focused on that shadowy figure. The man was crouched in a darkened corner, his back to Kirk. He moved stealthily, glancing over his shoulder as he edged slowly away from the corner.
Kirk left the window, heading for the door. He crossed the wide floor, his thoughts going over the furtiveness of the man's movements, that suspicion of something wrong. What had he been up to? Even as the only possible answer came to the fore, he saw Spock begin to walk towards that deserted corner.
The Vulcan turned in surprise as Kirk strode quickly towards him. In the dark corner, something began to glow, lighting up the area about it. Kirk broke into a run, calling to Spock even as his disbelieving eyes saw the glow flare into brilliant orange. His legs carried him the last few feet, then the room exploded into shards of red light. Something - someone - caught him, but his mind continued into the black crevasse opening at his feet...
Dazed, his ears still ringing from the blast, Spock found himself flat on his back, a heavy weight sprawled across his chest. He blinked rapidly, trying to focus his eyes while easing the weight away so he could push himself up. A few seconds passed before his eyesight cleared enough for him to see the limp form of Kirk.
Fearfully Spock edged himself from under Kirk, his eyes taking in the badly-cut face and torn uniform. There was blood spattered over Kirk's side - a sliver of metal had been hurled by the explosion into his side. Spock slowly eased the torn cloth away from the wound and rolled the Captain onto his uninjured side.
Drops of green blood mixed with the red on his uniform, and Spock suddenly realised that the side of his face was raw and bleeding. He dismissed the pain without another thought.
As if in a dream he heard others run up, their exclamations sounding like so many mice to his blasted eardrums. A voice replied, calm, steady - his voice.
He had no idea what he was saying, for his world had shrunk to the sight of a pale white face and a cruelly-torn side. He remembered Jim's cries, the lunge to save his friend... Was this how it ended? Had he found peace only to have it torn away so abruptly?
An eternity passed - or was it only a minute? A hand firmly gripping his shoulder. A gentle, well-known voice speaking to him from somewhere miles from where he crouched. Jim? No. No. McCoy. Only McCoy... Disjointed words drifted through the haze.
"...shock...there may be...help me get him on..."
Babbling voices echoed behind the familiar tones. Slight pressure against his upper arm. Jim's face blurred, and then the voices followed.
* * * * * * * *
When Spock woke to find himself in the sparklingly clean sickbay, he sighed resignedly. A part of his mind wondered at the intricacies of fate which had put him here twice in so short a time. He said as much to McCoy when the doctor strolled over to check his readings.
"Believe me, it's a situation I wish I could remedy," McCoy said drily, but his heart was not really in it. Not long before, he had operated on Kirk, and Leonard McCoy had been brutally reminded of the continual dangers in this life. He felt that until now he had been playing a game of 'let's pretend', going through the motions of a return to his old career. He had forgotten the ever-present wings of death.
He shook himself from the morbid thoughts and returned his attention to the readings above Spock's bed. The Vulcan watched him steadily, undeceived by the doctor's jocular manner.
McCoy, he thought, has come back to earth with a thump. He raised a mental eyebrow at his turn of phrase. Human sayings were catching.
"Well," McCoy said cheerfully, "you'll live, thanks to my excellent care and careful nursing. You're still recovering from shock, of course, and you might find your hearing acting up a little, but that will pass. There are enough cuts and bruises to last you a lifetime, but they're no problem. Even the mess the blast made of your face will heal soon. Tell me if you have any headaches."
Spock lifted a hand and gingerly touched the plasti-skin covering one side of his face. "Vulcans do not have headaches, Doctor," he said, suddenly weary of the conversation. His eyes met McCoy's. "The Captain...Jim..."
"I had to operate, but he's recovering well enough," McCoy reported non-committingly. He pointed to the patient in question, lying asleep a few beds away. "He should be coming round soon."
The ward door opened and Ambassador Shondar entered. She raised a quizzical eyebrow at McCoy as she approached Spock's bed. "Is visiting allowed, Doctor?"
McCoy shrugged. "Sure. He'll be trying to get up in a minute anyway."
The woman smiled and turned her attention to Spock. "I was sorry to hear what happened, Mr. Spock. How do you feel?"
"Well enough, Ambassador," Spock replied, ignoring the quiet snort from McCoy. "How is the situation on Gairm?"
Shondar shook her head sadly. "Bad. The miners want revenge for the loss of wages while the computer was out of action, and Meersham is not trying very hard to talk them out of it. On the other side, Menon'ar is crowing about the damage and is saying it's a sign from his ancestors that the Humans must go. Tempers are running high down there, and all it needs is one more incident to spark off a riot."
Spock nodded in agreement, then sat up, heedless of the dizziness caused by the sudden movement.
"0h no you don't," McCoy said firmly, pushing him back. "You will stay in that bed if I have to strap you down!"
"You may have to," the Vulcan replied with equal determination, "because I am getting up."
"Not in my sickbay."
"In yours or anyone else's, Doctor."
They glared at each other, eyeball to eyeball, then looked round in surprise at the stifled laughter from Ambassador Shondar's direction. The dignified diplomat giggled like a small plump schoolgirl, trying in vain to hold back the laughter.
"I...I'm sorry..." she spluttered at last. "This isn't really the time to laugh, but you...you looked so funny. Both of you so determined to have his own way, no matter what. If you could see yourselves...!"
McCoy harumphed loudly and looked back at Spock, whose eyebrows were lost in his fringe.
"In retrospect, our argument is slightly illogical, Doctor," the Vulcan said at length.
McCoy waved him to silence before he could continue. "Spare me the whys and wherefores... At least you'll be out of my way down there. Let me tell you, Ambassador, there is no worse patient in this universe than a Vulcan. Especially this Vulcan."
Shondar returned his world-weary expression with a knowing grin. "I'll wait for you in the corridor, Mr. Spock," she said.
They watched her go, then McCoy made to find a medikit. "If you're going to argue the toss with Meersham or Vorda, I had better come along."
Spock stopped him with a hand on his wrist. "McCoy, I have only recently regained my only friends. I would not wish to lose both again so soon...perhaps permanently. It would be better if you were to remain here with Jim."
Their eyes met, then the doctor nodded understandingly. "Okay...but you be careful. That explosion was pretty close, and it may still be affecting you."
"I shall take all due care," Spock answered solemnly.
* * * * * * * *
Spock gazed steadily about him at the silent mining plant, his stony visage giving no indication of the momentary disorientation he had experienced after beaming down. He walked away from the main entrance, aware of the decreased sensitivity of his hearing and a light, throbbing pain down one half of his face. He could do nothing about the hearing, but brief concentration took care of the pain, and the stiffness in his limbs would soon pass.
Mentally he made a note of the time. He had arranged to meet Maria Shondar at the palace in one hour, where he would help her argue the Federation's case with the High Council. It would be difficult at best, impossible at worst. The councillors were past persuading.
Ahead and to the left lay Meersham's office and the computer block, where a few technicians were still repairing the explosion damage. Spock veered away from there, heading for the deserted mine shafts and tunnels. Work could not be done while the computer was inoperative, so there was no-one to stop the Vulcan as he entered the first levels.
If asked, he could not have said exactly why he was in the mine, but some instinct had guided him there and he found no need to give himself a logical reason. He would know the answer when he saw it.
The lighting was still on, illuminating the narrow tunnels with a dull yellow glow which reflected strangely against the bright green rock. These first diggings were played out, but here and there Spock could see traces of the pertimite Meersham's men mined. He continued deeper into the mine, his thoughts on the jigsaw puzzle their mission to Gairm had become. The shrine, the palace fire, the computer explosion, Norsen's sudden fortune - it all added up to deliberate trouble-making which was succeeding famously. The Klingons were the obvious suspects, but their direct intervention was unlikely. It was easier to bribe men like Norsen to do their work for them, but it would take a lot of money to make the miners throw away their jobs. There had to be more to it than that; what?
Black on green. Dull ebony running crookedly through the pertimite where none should be. Spock turned back to the anomaly his subconscious had noted and examined the minute vein running along the green wall. His mind sifted through all the possibilities and came up with tirthanum, a rare mineral occasionally found in pertimite. One finger traced the black line thoughtfully. There had been no reports of tirthanum here, even though Meersham must know such a find must be filed at once. Once purified, tirthanum was a much desired ingredient in numerous drugs and antidotes to rare diseases. It was rarely found, and all deposits were only mined by Federation-owned companies. Doctors would pay a small fortune for a minute sample, and black marketeers were always on the lookout for fresh supplies.
Amongst a pile of water-worn rubble at the foot of the tunnel wall lay a few reasonable-sized rock pieces with traces of the black mineral, and Spock collected them into a pile on the floor. It took only a few seconds to contact the Enterprise and have the rocks beamed up for the geology section to analyse.
The transporter effect had barely faded when a phaser beam sliced through the air, stunning Spock even as he registered the sounds from behind. Three men walked forward to surround the unconscious Vulcan - Meersham and his two most trusted men, M'Buto and Kneale.
M'Buto slipped off Spock's communicator, handing it to his boss. "What do we do with him?"
Meersham's expression hardened. "We can't be sure what he's found out, and we can't afford any mistakes. No way am I giving up this close. Take him down to Level 12."
M'Buto looked dubious. "You sure about that? There'll be awkward questions."
"I'll handle them," snapped Meersham. "With the Gairmites being so unfriendly his disappearance will be easy to explain away. Kirk will never know. Just do it, M'Buto." He dropped the wrist-com, carefully grinding it into small pieces with his heel.
* * * * * * * *
The quiet clinical silence of the recovery ward was broken by an almost inaudible sigh, the patient responsible shifting his position and grunting softly. Duty Nurse Spence noted his movement and briskly checked his condition before going to the doctor's office.
"Dr. McCoy, the Captain is coming round now."
McCoy nodded, put down his pen and went into the ward. He picked up a prepared glass and strolled across to Kirk's bed. His patient blinked blearily up at him, still dopey from the anaesthetic.
"Bones, I feel terrible. I can't... What happened?"
"Someone set off another bomb. You got in the way," McCoy said briskly. "Here, drink this."
The anaesthetic had worn off enough for Kirk to be wary of the seemingly innocent glass. "What is it?"
"Don't be so suspicious. It'll clear your head, and it's good for you. Drink it down like a good Captain."
Kirk downed the liquid in one gulp, launching into a coughing fit as soon as it was down. "Phew!" he spluttered. "It clears more than your head! What poison extract did you get that from?"
"If you're gonna insult me, I'll leave," McCoy said self-righteously. "That is your reward for being a hero."
Kirk smiled, wondering at the same time about the injuries he was becoming aware of. The drugs dulled the pain, but he could still feel a familiar numbness about his side. He would find out more in a minute. Right now...
McCoy saw his concerned glance over the beds and anticipated the question. "Spock's okay, thanks to your fool stunt. He got off relatively lightly and is already back on Gairm trying to smooth things over."
Kirk's eyes widened in joking astonishment. "You let him go? That isn't like you, Bones. You're losing your touch!"
"He's more determined since he did that Kolinahr stuff," McCoy replied. "However, just because he walked out does not mean you can go just when you feel like it."
"Would I do that?"
The intercom interrupted their bantering, and McCoy kept a medical eye on Kirk as he answered. It was Chekov enquiring if the Captain was awake. Kirk was throwing back the covers even as McCoy replied, "Uh, that depends... Is it important, or can someone else handle it?"
"Mr. Spock has not reported in for over two hours," the security chief answered. "Neither has he kept his meeting arrangement with Ambassador Shondar. She has seen no sign of him. If the Captain is not well enough I will..."
"I'm all right, Mr. Chekov," Kirk said firmly, pushing past his angry friend. "What's this about Spock?"
"Will you get back to bed?" cried McCoy. "Scotty can deal with this - he would have to if you were still under. Now will you - "
The doctor's mouth snapped shut and he stood with arms folded, glaring at Kirk's back. The Captain sighed, returned to the screen. Chekov continued as if nothing had happened.
"Three hours ago, Mr. Spock beamed down to Gairm to speak to Mr. Meersham. He sent up a rock sample soon afterwards, but he did not arrive at the palace as arranged, and he has not called us since then. There is no reply from his communicator, and it is virtually impossible to trace him on Gairm because of interference from the pertimite."
Kirk digested the information, only partly aware of the growing pain in his side. "Chekov, do you know what the sample consisted of?"
"No, sir, but geology will know. Will I have Uhura put you through?"
Moments later the basset-hound face of Lt. Mannings replaced that of Chekov. "You were enquiring about the sample sent up by Mr. Spock, Captain?"
"Yes. What was so special about it?"
Manning's expression became a mixture of disbelief and excited curiosity as he replied. "All the rocks have traces of tirthanum, sir, which is strange. There have been no reports of any traces on Gairm, although tests were carried out. If Mr, Spock has found an unreported source..."
"It is a possibility, Mr. Mannings," Kirk answered. "Thank you."
He turned round deep in thought and almost bumped into McCoy. Blue eyes met hazel.
"Bones, I have to go down."
The doctor shook his head;. "Not if I can help it."
Kirk sighed. Why wouldn't Bones understand? Spock was obviously in trouble of some sort, or else why the silence? He had to be there himself, find out what was wrong and piece together the puzzle that was so near to resolving itself. If Spock had discovered the final vital pieces, he could be in danger from whoever blew up the computer. Kirk dodged around McCoy.
"Spock hasn't reported for two hours - it may be because he found out something he wasn't supposed to. He may be in danger."
"So might you," McCoy said stubbornly. "Look, the metal splinter I took from your side a few hours ago was damn near piercing a lung. You have barely come to, yet already you want to rush off and damn the consequences. I won't let you risk internal bleeding when Scotty and Chekov can go instead."
Kirk rounded on him with characteristic determination. "I couldn't sit here waiting, you know that. No matter what you say, I'm going. If the wound starts bleeding, that's a risk I'm willing to take. Something is wrong down there, and I have to find out what."
McCoy stared at him, sighed heavily. "I might have known I was fighting a losing battle. I don't know why I bother... Just hold on till I get a kit, will you?"
"You don't have to."
"It's partly my responsibility for letting Spock leave here," McCoy told him wearily. "You know, he said he didn't want to lose both of us. I'm not sure we could stand losing him."
Kirk nodded, gripped his arm lightly, then went for his uniform.
* * * * * * * *
It was a while before Spock came round; a phaser on heavy stun was not easily shaken off. The vibrating gongs assaulting his ears quietened to the drips of water they really were. After a moment he rolled onto his back and sat up, testing the rope binding his wrists. It was thin and should have been fairly easy to break, but his arms lacked their customary strength and he could not snap the rope.
Attributing his weakness to the phaser stun, Spock put aside the task of getting free and looked about him instead. His eyes had adjusted to their limited night vision, and through the darkness he could make out the rough cut walls closing in on three sides like a tomb. It looked like a small cave or perhaps the end of a tunnel left when the seam ran out. Dirty water ran in rivulets down the stone, collecting in small puddles on the dirt-strewn floor. In the middle of one of the pools a body was sprawled in the anonymity of death. Spock pushed it lightly with his foot, hut no foul smell arose. Apparently the body had not been there long enough to begin decomposing. The man had also been bound, but he had suffered physical abuse before he was left in the dark to die. Even so, he was still recognisable as Kurt Norsen. He had outlived his usefulness.
Spock strained against his bonds again, but they still refused to break.
He took a deep breath, intending to stand up, but was overtaken by a choking fit that left him weaker than before. Waves of nausea and dizziness washed over him, then another bout of choking worse than the first. His lungs struggled for air, but somehow he managed to control his breathing long enough to come to his feet. There did not seem to be enough air in the cave.
Ahead lay a narrow tunnel barely two men wide. Spock stumbled along it, his senses reeling. The ground seemed miles away, his legs curiously leaden.
He laboured for every breath. In the distance he could hear the roaring surge of his blood, a regular thumping that was his heartbeat. Then the tunnel floor leaped up to meet him and he slid without warning into unconsciousness.
* * * * * * * *
Kneale threw open the office door, quiet fear in his eyes, "Mr. Meersham! Kirk's here with a load of his men! If they search..."
"Keep your mouth shut!" ordered Meersham. "Get out of here and keep out of sight. I'll deal with Kirk."
He arranged himself at his desk, a prepared look of complete surprise on his face when Kirk and Ambassador Shondar entered. The jovial greeting died on his lips as Vorda and Menon'ar followed them in. One hand adjusted the translator at his throat. "Well, well, quite a distinguished group, I see... I certainly didn't expect to see you here, High King."
"It is not my wish, you can be sure of that," Vorda answered sourly. "I came only at Kirr''s request."
"And I thank you for doing so, your Majesty," Kirk murmured diplomatically.
Dr. McCoy slipped quietly past Menon'ar, taking up a position behind Meersham. The mine owner eyed the small box in his hand, fought back the compulsion to demand what he was doing there, and turned on the charm instead.
"Well, I'm sure you all have a good reason for being here, so I won't waste time. What can I do for you, Captain?"
"More than you think," Kirk replied. "For a start, where is Spock?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Meersham said blandly. "He left quite a while ago. I thought he was going back to the Enterprise."
Kirk's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "He spoke to you recently?"
"For a while. Sorry I can't help you further. Is something wrong?"
"No, not really..." Kirk told him just as blandly. "Maybe you can help us in something else, though. Have any of your men ever found tirthanum in the mine?"
Meersham was taken aback for a second, but recovered quickly. He made a pretence of thinking deeply about the question. "Tirthanum... It is likely, but no. Not that I know of. Has one of the men been trading illegally in it? If so, I - "
"No, not your men," Kirk assured him, glancing at McCoy as he spoke. A negative headshake answered him. Meersham noticed the look and followed Kirk's gaze to the insignificant box McCoy held. When he looked back, Kirk was perched on the desk edge, his eyes intent on Meersham's face. It suddenly seemed uncomfortably hot and crowded in the office.
Kirk's next question increased the unseen pressure. "Okay, Mister, you can finish with the innocent act! Start telling the truth. Where is Spock?"
"Before you waste your breath any more," put in McCoy, "I ought to tell you that this little gadget of mine can tell when you lie. Saves a lot of time, doesn't it?"
Meersham shot him a look of pure hatred, and stared defiantly at Kirk. "So you've got me. It won't do any good, Kirk. I still won't talk."
Vorda strode majestically forward. "If you do not wish to talk with Kirr', I shall take you to my prison warders. They know many interesting ways of obtaining information without killing the prisoner."
"All we want is the truth," said Kirk. "Tell me now - or later."
The mine owner looked round at the intent faces, decided to give in - for the moment. "I'll tell you... The Vulcan was snooping... We had to stop him somehow."
"Where is he?"
"The mine. Level 12. We didn't hurt him, Kirk - remember that."
McCoy frowned worriedly. The readings did not indicate a lie - but neither was it the entire truth. His concerned gaze met Kirk's, but there was still the question of the tirthanum.
The questions continued, and Meersham quickly admitted finding a seam of the mineral on Level 13. He seemed eager to tell everything now, which aroused Kirk's suspicions even more.
"Fine," said the Enterprise captain. "Then you won't mind showing us it after you take us to Spock."
They left the office, Meersham leading the way with a security man at his side, Kirk and McCoy behind, and the two Gairmites at the rear. Ambassador Shondar excused herself with the explanation that she rarely saw eye to eye with enclosed spaces. She watched the party enter the levels, prepared for what might be a long wait. Behind her, the rest of the security men began searching for further evidence, as ordered previously.
No words passed between the men as they sped downwards in the mine elevator. Spock had explored the tunnels on foot, but this group had a definite destination in mind. Meersham avoided Kirk's eye, staring angrily at McCoy instead. He contemplated making a break for it when the lift doors opened, but the guard had a phaser pressed firmly against his side. He led the way quietly for a short distance, then came to a halt.
"Where now?" Kirk asked with thinly-veiled impatience.
Meersham glanced insolently at him. "Find out for yourself, Captain."
Kirk stepped forward, ready to take him apart if need be, when McCoy gripped his arm. "It's okay, I have a trace. The tricorder isn't operating one hundred percent, but I am getting Vulcan readings."
The doctor moved into a badly-lit section of tunnel, watching the tricorder readings carefully. His eyes widened at one point, and he called back to the others. "Don't come any further. This says there is an odourless gas about here - pockets of it up ahead. I'll go on alone. Spock's not far away now."
Kirk nodded reluctantly. "As you say, Bones. The tunnel is getting too narrow anyway. Be careful - if that gas is inflammable and a spark is created..."
Meersham and Menon'ar exchanged looks. The Gairmite prince edged one hand towards his waist pouch.
* * * * * * * *
McCoy hurried on, trying not to fall as he stumbled across unseen debris.
He could hardly see a thing, but he kept going. The Vulcan readings were stronger, but so were the gas indications. He had no guarantee he was not breathing the poisonous fumes at that very moment, An ankle gave way suddenly; he fell forward into the dirt. The swimming sensation in his head as he got up made it clear he was breathing gas, but he had to keep on.
Something he had touched registered in his mind - he reached out again, mouth close to the floor to catch a thin current of air coming from the main shaft.
There it was again - soft, rumpled hair, a body lying limply in the dirt.
"Spock! Thank God..."
He crawled further on, pushed his hands under the Vulcan's arms. The tricorder lay forgotten on the tunnel floor as McCoy strained to pull Spock away from the pocket of gas and back to safety. Halfway there, Kirk joined him, too anxious to wait any longer. Together, they carried their friend.
Light seeped into the darkness and McCoy breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes more, and he would have Spock up in sickbay.
Kirk exploded into action, throwing himself in a flying tackle as the prince made to throw a K7B incinerator at the Starfleet men. Vorda, who had seen his son's swift movement but had been too shocked to move, now stood by in ashamed disbelief as Menon'ar was disarmed by Kirk and the security guard. Kirk pushed the alien unceremoniously over to Meersham, trying to ignore the increased pain in his side where the sudden twisting movement had reopened the wound - he could not consider that now.
"Get over there with your friend!"
"He's no friend of mine!" cried Meersham. He glared at Menon'ar. "You would have killed me too, and yourself, you son of a - "
"Be quiet!" roared Kirk. In gentler tones, he spoke to McCoy. "Bones, how is he?"
"Can't say for sure," the doctor answered. "I'm beaming up now, and I want you in sickbay as soon as you come up."
As the bright dazzle died away Kirk turned to his two prisoners. "I don't care if you are a potential High King, Menon'ar. If Spock dies, I'll hold both you and Meersham responsible, and then your lives won't be worth living!"
Behind him, Vorda nodded in quiet approval.
* * * * * * * *
"Captain, I have much to thank you for. If you had not come here, my unworthy son would have achieved his plan to rob me of my throne and give my people to the Klingons. When I think of how close he and the miserable Mee'an were to victory, I shiver."
"The lure of riches is a powerful thing," said Kirk. "The Klingons would have given a great deal for a planet rich in tirthanum."
"Ha! They have cut their own throats, for none of my ilk will welcome them here," Vorda declared. "As for Menon'ar, I no longer know of him. I have no son."
"Your punishment is just, High King," said Ambassador Shondar. "Rest assured Meersham and his accomplices will be dealt with just as severely."
Vorda nodded contentedly. "I have confidence in Federation justice, else I would not have given them to you... Captain Kirk, tell me of Mr. 'ock. Is he well?"
Kirk smiled broadly. "He is, sir, although it was a close thing. He's already up and about - against doctor's orders, I might add."
"And what of your own injury?"
A knowing smile spread over Shondar's face as Kirk replied, "It is mending, your Majesty. Dr. McCoy has treated me, and I will be all right."
The High King viewed him shrewdly. "I think...like Mr. 'ock, you too go against doctor's orders! I sympathise with your plight."
Vorda nodded slowly, blinking once or twice as he turned again to Maria Shondar. "Ambassador, I thank you also for your help. You convinced the High Council most magnificently."
"Your Majesty is too kind... However, I feel my talents were wasted here. Captain Kirk is as good a diplomat as I."
"Ah!" laughed Vorda, "it is so. I have noticed. Kirr', do you become an ambassador also?"
Kirk shook his head ruefully. "High King, I have enough trouble with my ship. I'll leave diplomacy to the experts."
* * * * * * * *
Closeted from the laughter and quiet chatter of the rec room, Captain and First Officer enjoyed a quiet game of chess in Kirk's quarters - the first in too many years. An atmosphere of peaceful companionship pervaded the cabin, mingling with a sense of completeness both men had missed in their time apart.
Kirk considered the board carefully, savouring Spock's company. He lifted his queen, slowly moving it nearer Spock's bishop. The Vulcan made no visible reaction.
"Hmm... You know, I think we didn't do too badly on Gairm. Starfleet Command certainly can't complain."
"0ne would assume so," murmured Spock. "However, the bureaucratic mind frequently finds something which is not to its satisfaction."
"You can't please all of them," Kirk agreed. Silence fell for a long moment then he spoke with a faint tone of puzzlement in his voice. "Spock, that was a very illogical, Human move you made!"
"It was meant to be," Spock answered blandly. "Your move, I believe."
The captain studied the board again, his mind on other matters. "Do you know something - for the first time in a long, long while, I actually feel at home. I should never have left the Enterprise."
"I concur. It was the single most illogical thing you have ever done... Mate in two."
It was a few seconds before Kirk's eyes left Spock's and actually looked at the pieces. The nonplussed expression changed to a broad grin. "Well I'll be - you sneaky devil! I never even noticed that knight. When did you...? I have to concede the game."
The delight in Spock's face matched his. They smiled, each relaxing in his new understanding of the other. Friends - and brothers.
"I won't give this up again," Kirk said softly.
"I wouldn't let you."
The half-teasing smile played about Kirk's lips. "Why, where will you be?"
"At your side - as always."
Copyright Lorraine Goodison