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The turbolift doors were sliding shut when footsteps and shouts resounded in the corridor. "Hold! Hold please!" The First Officer complied; the doors parted again and the chief helmsman, panting and grinning, rushed in.
"Thanks, Mr Spock!" he gasped.
"Where to, Mr Sulu?" the Vulcan enquired.
"Er... P deck, please."
As the lift went smoothly on its way, Sulu leaned against the wall and shot a side glance at his companion. He wondered whether his going down to Engineering was raising any speculation in Spock's mind. Difficult to tell with a Vulcan, but Spock was apparently not interested, only absorbed in his own thoughts. So far, so good.
The turbolift stopped several times to load and discharge crewmembers since this was the end of the first shift. But, to Sulu's growing annoyance, the First Officer stayed on, silent and imperturbable.
Damn! Scotty made me promise to come alone and keep mum. What am I supposed to do now?
When the lift finally halted at P deck, only the two of them were left; Spock and Sulu. The doors slid open, and Sulu, as of right, let his superior officer step out first, lingering behind so as to slip unobtrusively to his rendezvous. But the Vulcan had only taken a few steps when he halted, looked round and calmly asked,
"Aren't you coming, Mr Sulu?"
Sulu flushed crimson. "S...sir?" he said.
"I believe Mr Scott is expecting both of us, Lieutenant. Come!" and Spock strode on down the corridor.
"Sorry, sir!" The helmsman caught up with him. "Scotty did not tell me that you were in on it; he told me not to tell anyone. Do you know what this is all about?"
"I don't, Mr Sulu, but I can say that since you and I are both in Mr Scott's secret, I have a fairly good idea of what it might be."
They found the Chief Engineer waiting for them in his office.
"Ah! here you are, gentlemen!" he said genially as he rose to his feet. "Come, I have something to show you."
They followed him out and Sulu, bursting with curiosity, plied the Scott with questions. "Now, Scotty, what are you up to? Why all this mystery?"
"Patience, laddie, all in good time," he replied with a smug smile, "This way, and mind your step."
He led his visitors to the maintenance complex, past the repair section and the fabricator units, to finally stop in front of a workshop secured with a steel door. He punched in a code to open it, and ushered them into a pitch-dark room, then shut the door. "Now, watch!" he whispered in the tone of a conjurer about to produce flowers from his hat. He let a few seconds tick by, to keep the suspense, then called, "Lights!"
At once spotlights sprang to life, cleverly focused onto the centre of the room. There stood, in its pristine glory, a black and silver machine which Spock and Sulu recognized at once.
"My God!" the helmsman gasped. "A Harley Davidson! Where did you get it, Scotty?"
"I did not get it, my lad. I built it. I built it with my own hands," the Engineer proudly replied, not half pleased with the effect produced. "Actually, I put the final touch only last night. No-one outside my Department has seen it, not even the Captain. You two are the first."
"We appreciate it, Mr Scott," the Vulcan declared, "and I must say that you did a remarkable job."
"You certainly did. It's beautiful!" Sulu was walking around the motorcycle and examining it from head to tail. "It looks exactly like those bikes back on Merindol. I am impressed, Scotty. How did you do that? Did you have the plans, or a model?"
"Of course I had, and I'll bet that you knew about it, Mr Spock?" The Vulcan inclined his head in assent. "That's what I thought." Scotty's face split in a mischievous grin. "You see, considering the trouble I had to beam these beauties aboard, it would have been a shame to let them go without first taking their blueprints on my comp. You don't come across antiques of that quality every day, for sure! I could not miss this chance."
"Quite right, Mr Scott. I admit that it was a unique opportunity," Spock agreed. "But, if I am not mistaken, you have here more components of the same model," he remarked with a glance at the various parts neatly stacked on the benches along the wall.
"Aye, sir. I have there enough material to make two more Harley Davidson Softail Classics," Scott announced.
"No kidding?" Sulu laughed. "But, Scotty, what are you going to do with them? Go into business? Set up your own bike shop?"
"Now, laddie, don't you start," the Engineer told him pleasantly. "I am going to ride my bikes at our next stopover, of course. These Harleys are made to be used, and anyone who wants to join in the fun is welcome. We can build as many as we want with our replicators. There will be one for the Captain of course, and one for each of you. I thought it was only fair for you to have first choice."
"Truly? That's mighty decent of you, Scotty." Sulu's eyes sparkled.
"I agree," said the Vulcan.
"Well, it's logical, Mr Spock, seeing that, but for you two, I might never have had the chance to handle a genuine Harley Davidson. You and Sulu have become our H.D. experts after your joyride on Merindol. But what do you say? Are you game for a motocross at our next planetfall?"
"You bet I am!" Sulu glowed with anticipation. "But does it really work?" He patted the machine as he would a thoroughbred. "I mean, have you tested it?"
"Hikaru, my lad, how dare you?" the Engineer countered in an aggrieved voice. "Naturally it works, what do you take me for? What would be the use otherwise? Come, let's take it to the landing bay. You will test it yourself and see if it works!"
Sulu was delighted. "Great! Let's try it... You don't mind, sir?" he asked Spock as an afterthought. A tolerant eyebrow arched in reply.
"Not at all, Lieutenant. By all means, go ahead and indulge yourself."
"Thank you, Mr Spock!" and Sulu gave Scotty a hand to wheel the heavy machine out of the room.
But, before passing the door, Scott looked round. "Aren't you coming, Mr Spock? I need your expert opinion on the special engine I have devised for this bairn. Without flattering myself, I am rather pleased with it. I think you will be interested."
The wily Scot knew well how to arouse the Vulcan's curiosity. Sorely tempted, Spock took a few seconds to consider, and, estimating that he still had time before his meeting with his Captain in the officers' lounge, he readily followed his shipmates to the shuttlebay.
Meantime, Captain James T. Kirk, cup of coffee in hand, was sitting in a quiet recess of the officers' lounge, absentmindedly contemplating the 3-D chessboard set in front of him. He appeared relaxed, but his fingers idly drumming on the arm of his chair denoted a certain impatience.
Presently, he took a sip of coffee and glanced one more time at the wall-chronometer - more than fifteen minutes late! Damn! What was the matter with Spock, whose punctuality was so immutable as to have become a byword on the Enterprise? And not a sign, not a word to apologize and explain the reason for his delay. That alone was so unlike his punctilious Vulcan friend that Kirk began to wonder.
"Mind if I join you, Captain?" a voice broke in on his musing. It was Doctor McCoy who had just sauntered in and noticed Kirk sitting all by himself.
"Be my guest!" replied the latter. The Doctor plumped himself down in the opposite chair, crossed his legs and looked at Kirk with a knowing smile.
"What's so funny, Bones?"
"Sorry, Jim, but you look like a guy who has been let down by his date."
The Captain grunted.
"A pointed eared date, I presume," McCoy added, an eye on the chessboard.
"You presume right, Doctor," Kirk said crossly. "If you want to know, I have been here waiting for Spock for... " he checked on the chronometer "... for the last sixteen minutes, and counting."
"That must be a first. Never known our Vulcan to be late, what with that biological clock he has got in his system. Have you called his quarters? the labs?" the Doctor suggested.
"I did, but he is nowhere to be seen." Kirk stretched, stifling a yawn. "If he does not show up within five minutes, I'll turn in with the book he gave me for Christmas, and he can damn well play chess by himself!"
"Why don't put out a shipwide call and give him a piece of your mind?"
"You think I should?" There was an impish gleam in the Captain's eyes.
"Definitely!" McCoy chuckled. "Never mind his reputation, Jim, you are far too soft with that Vulcan."
"Nah... that's a gross exaggeration, and you know it," Kirk protested mildly. "Yes, Lieutenant?" A young woman had approached and was hovering discreetly nearby.
"Excuse me, Captain, but I hear that you are looking for Mr Spock. I think he might be in Engineering."
"What makes you think that?"
"I met him in the lift going down about forty minutes ago, sir, him and Mr Sulu."
The Captain gave McCoy a meaningful glance. "If Spock has let himself fall into Scotty's clutches, that may account fo... " He broke off and nodded at the officer still standing by. "Thank you for the tip, Lieutenant, we'll check Engineering." He rose abruptly, all but knocking down table and chessboard, and muttered, "In Engineering, is he? While I have been cooling my heels up here! Now, Mr First Officer, you'll have to explain yourself!" and he strode to the nearest intercom unit, followed by a gleeful Doctor.
"Engineering," a male voice answered the Captain's call.
"Kirk here. Is Mr Spock with you?"
"No, sir. He is with Mr Scott, in the landing bay, sir."
"Go and get him for me, will you?"
"Aye, sir!... " A pause followed. "... Captain... I am afraid I can't, sir. Mr Spock is not available at the moment."
"What do you mean, 'not available'? Go get him now!" the Captain ordered curtly. Then as sounds of cheers and laughter reached him through the intercom, he snapped, "Wait a minute! What is that noise I hear, what's going on down there?"
"I... I could not say, sir," stammered the flustered technician. "I mean... er... here is Mr Scott, sir."
Captain and C.M.O. exchanged a bemused glance even as the jovial voice of the Engineer came through. "Is that you, Captain?"
"It is, Mr Scott, and I want answers! I hear that Spock is with you?"
"Aye, sir. That he is. But he is unreachable right now."
"So I was told, and I want to know the reason why!"
At that very moment a roar of exclamations erupted in the background and Mr Scott was heard chuckling. "If you want to know, Captain," he said at last, "I think you had better come down and see for yourself... and I have something special to show you, anyway."
"Have you, now? I don't know what's going on in your department, but I mean to find out. On my way."
"Right, Captain, and believe me, you are in for a wee surprise!"
Kirk signed out and turned to McCoy. "Coming, Bones?"
"Just try and keep me out of the fun, Jim!"
The moment the two men exited the turbolift and set foot on the shuttle-bay deck, they realised that Scotty's promise had not been mere boasting. They had hardly taken a few steps across the bay when a dark, menacing fireball appeared from nowhere and whizzed past them at such a speed that the slipstream all but blew them off their feet.
"What the hell was that?" gasped McCoy, obviously shaken.
"Must be Scotty's surprise," Kirk replied dryly, staring after the apparition. By then, the monster had reached the far end of the huge bay, and before they knew it, it was rushing back again, straight at them.
Kirk had just time to grab the Doctor and pull him back as the machine swerved sharply to avoid them and dashed on with a deep-throated purr. Then, gathering speed, motorcycle and helmeted rider headed straight at a barricade made of piled up crates, and boldly leaped high over the obstacle to land with hardly a thump on the other side, to the cheers and applause of the onlookers.
"Come, Bones, I think the coast is clear now." The Captain and the Doctor ventured across the open track and joined the engineers gathered on the other side of the landing bay.
"Captain... Doctor... " Mr Scott greeted them with a grin. "Well, what do you think of my bairn?"
"Your bairn, whatever it is, has nearly run us over, Scotty," McCoy complained. "Is that a way to treat your friends?"
"Sorry, Leonard, but don't you know better than wander about on a racing track? That was risky!"
"So we noticed, Mr Scott," Kirk remarked, "and I see that you have turned our shuttle bay into a speedway. But can we get a close look at that wee surprise of yours?"
"Of course, Captain. Just look at it... beautiful, isn't it?" Scott said as the Harley Davidson shot past at a reckless speed. "Ask Sulu here what he thinks of my creation."
"It's great, Captain!" the helmsman enthused. "I have just tried it.
"A great improvement on the motorcycles that we had on Merindol." A chorus of approval echoed his words. "Right now," he went on, grinning, "Mr Spock is putting the engine to the test, to see how much power we can squeeze out of it, you see."
"Spock!?" McCoy exclaimed in outrage. "Do you mean to say that it's Spock, that blasted idiot who is tearing along on that monster and who tried to kill us back there? My God! I might have known."
"You can hold yourself lucky that it was Spock and not one of us, or you might well have been run into, Leonard. He and Sulu are our crack riders here, and looks like we'll have some real training to do if we want to reach their level. Ah, here he comes! Stand back, everyone, make way!"
The group parted to let the big motorcycle move slowly forward, its engine growling softly like a tame feline led on a leash. It halted in front of the Captain, and the rider put a foot down on the deck. With slow deliberation, he removed his black helmet, revealing the face of the First Officer, as calm and composed as if he were sitting at his station on the Bridge.
But Kirk, who knew his Vulcan, detected a touch of embarrassment when their eyes met.
"Captain... " Spock acknowledged.
"Mr Spock! Glad to see you are having a good time down here," Kirk said caustically, "but let me remind you, in case you had forgotten, that you were supposed to meet me in the lounge for a game of chess. Any excuse, Mister?"
Silence reigned in the landing bay. The Vulcan dismounted from his motorcycle, then, hands folded behind his back, he faced his captain.
"My apologies, Captain," he said formally. "I have no excuse for this lapse other than my... fascination for this remarkable specimen of Engineer Scott's workmanship."
Here, the Chief Engineer, secretly flattered by the Vulcan's praise, felt bound to intervene. "Och, Captain," he said, "begging your pardon, but if you must blame someone, it's me rather than Mr Spock. I asked him and Sulu to come after shift and help me put my Harley through the tests. Better make sure it's okay before letting anyone less experienced use it. Trouble is, sir, what with one thing and another, it took us longer that I thought," he concluded with a disarming smile.
"I see - so you are the culprit, Scotty," Kirk said, keeping a straight face. "Very well, you are excused, Mr Spock." He and the Vulcan shared one of their looks, then, turning his attention to the Harley Davidson, he nodded. "And you are right, this is a beautiful piece of work. So, that's what you have been doing on the sly, Scotty? Spending your leisure time on this machine? Congratulations."
The engineer beamed with pride. "Thank you, Captain, and... er... with your permission, I intend to build a few more of them, and there will be one for you, of course."
"Really?" The Captain looked pleased, "Well, I appreciate it, Scotty. But what about these tests? I hope they are conclusive?" He looked at Sulu and Spock.
"Affirmative, Captain," the latter replied. "As far as I can judge from this short trial run, this Harley Davidson is fully operational."
"Good. And you, Mr Sulu?"
"I agree, Captain. I find it easy and comfortable, smooth running with fantastic acceleration, perfect for cross-country riding. There is only one thing, however... " Sulu paused, hesitating, and looked sideway at Mr Scott whose jolly face sobered at once.
"What? What is it? Explain yourself, laddie!"
"Sorry, Scotty, but it is the noise," Sulu replied with a rueful smile.
"The noise? What noise? There is no noise in my Harley," Scotty tartly replied. "I'll have you know that my engine runs on a dilithium solution of my fabrication. It's clean, non-polluting and practically soundless as everyone can see for themselves."
"But, Scotty, that's just it! That's what is missing," Sulu argued. "You can't imagine what it was like. Not only the breakneck speed, but the noise - the glorious roar of the engine, the 'vroom, vroom' when we put on speed!"
Sulu became positively lyrical. "I tell you, back on Merindol, it was fantastic, like riding a wild beast... I felt such incredible power, I... I was on top of the world!" His shipmates burst out laughing.
"Well, Mr Sulu," Kirk declared with amusement, "looks like your little jaunt left an unforgettable memory."
"Well, Captain," Sulu smiled sheepishly, "I surely had a great time."
"On top of the world, Sulu?" McCoy wryly commented, "I am sure there is no accounting for taste, but being chased by the police is not exactly my idea of a night out." He turned to the Vulcan who was observing the Human hilarity with his usual detachment. "And you, Spock? Were you also on top of the world?" he asked, blue eyes challenging.
"Not exactly, Doctor," was the deadpan reply, "As I recall, we were on top of a high cliff confined on one side by the sea, and on the other by a police squad."
"Spock! Must you take everything so literally? What I mean is, did you have a good time, like Sulu, pelting along the roads with the police on your tail? Did you find it exciting... exhilarating?"
"If that is what you meant, Doctor, why did you not say so in the first place?" Spock retorted loftily. "As for your question, I must admit that, although having been on the wrong side of the law, I found the experience... " He paused as if looking for an appropriate term.
"Fascinating, perhaps?" prompted McCoy, rising to the bait.
"No, Doctor, I found it stimulating," Spock said with Vulcan smugness.
"Well, if even Mr Spock find it stimulating, it must be an experience worth having," the Captain concluded. "Here, let me give it a try!" and, without more ado, he climbed on the Harley Davidson, grabbed the handles, and looked at his officers with that impish twinkle they knew so well. "Will anyone be good enough to tell me how it works?"
The response was not exactly enthusiastic.
"Ah... just a moment, Captain, let me show you. You press here to start the engine, and that's the brake. But take it easy, sir, this bairn is mighty fast," Mr Scott cautioned.
"Jim, are you sure it's such a good idea?" McCoy ventured.
"Captain, I would recommend extreme caution," Spock advised.
Kirk looked miffed. "Why, thank you for this vote of confidence, gentlemen. What make you think that I can't handle this motorcycle?"
The Chief Engineer and the Doctor had the grace to look embarrassed, but the First Officer chose to speak plainly. "May I remind you, Captain, that the last time you attempted to drive a wheeled vehicle, the result left much to be desired."
"Are you sure, Spock? Funny, I don't seem to recall... " Kirk stared at his friend with wide-eyed innocence.
"I speak from experience, Captain. I was sitting right beside you. The ride was, to say the least, laborious. First, you drove us backward instead of forward, then..."
"Okay, Spock! I think I remember." Kirk cut him short at the sight of the faces grinning all around. "You mean that ride we took in the streets of Iota, I suppose? But you can't possibly compare the rickety old car we had to borrow to this glorious Harley Davidson which Scotty built with his own hands. That 1930 antique moved by jerks and jolts, no comparison with this beauty, Spock."
"Agreed, Captain, and that is just the point. The vehicle we used on Iota moved on four wheels, to an average speed of 30 to 40 kilometers per hour, while this motorcycle runs on two wheels and can reach extreme velocity in record time. It is therefore more dangerous for a neophyte."
"Is it?" Kirk retorted. "Then kindly explain how you and Sulu, who had never before seen a real motorcycle, let alone a Harley Davidson, could handle it from scratch and take that cross-country ride without so much as a crash or even a bruise? How is that, Spock?"
Thus challenged, the Vulcan drew himself up with dignity, allowed an eyebrow to rise fractionally, and replied. "The simple reason, Captain, is that we were pressed by unforeseen circumstances. We had to learn fast; we could not afford to fail. For Starfleet officers it was unthinkable."
"Mr Spock!" Sulu chuckled, "Pressed by the Merindolian police would be more to the point. And that, Captain, is an irresistible incentive; Amazing what you can do when you are chased by the cops!"
The helmsman and the First Officer shared a look of complicity which was not lost on the Captain.
"I always knew that you had a very good time, that night on Merindol," he said. "Anyway, I may not have the privilege of being chased by the police, but I am going to test this bike!" He pressed the starter, and the engine came to life at once. "Good! and now, my friends, here we go!"
The group made way and Kirk moved forward cautiously onto the track.
"Don't forget your helmet, Captain!" Scott reminded him.
"And be careful, Jim, don't go too fast!" pleaded an anxious Doctor.
"Don't you fret, Bones," Kirk flashed one of his reckless smiles then donned his helmet, thus cutting further recommendation short.
"Not that he pays any attention to what I say, anyway," McCoy grumbled irritably. "It's all your fault, Scotty. Damn fool notion you had to make that motorcycle. You know he likes nothing better than taking risks. With that death trap of yours, he is sure to get into trouble."
"Hey!" Scotty protested. "Take it easy, Leonard. My Harley is not a death trap. It's as safe as they come, once you have learned how to handle it. And if there is someone who learns fast, it sure is the Captain. Don't worry, he'll be all right. Look! he is doing fine."
Captain Kirk was indeed doing better and better. After a rather wobbly start, he was improving his style and getting more confident, not to say daring, every minute. Spock and Sulu were watching his evolutions with the practised eye of the connoisseur.
"Not bad... not bad at all!" Sulu commented under his breath.
"You should know by now, Lieutenant, that the Captain always strives to excel in any enterprise he chooses to undertake," Spock said sententiously.
"Just what I was saying," concurred the Chief Engineer. "But that chase by the police you were talking about... It gives me an idea. We could make that motocross more exciting if we could arrange some kind of contest, or some kind of rally with an award to the one who wins the race. How about that, gentlemen?"
Sulu of course was all for the idea. "Sounds wonderful, Scotty, but we'll need several bikes to make it worth while."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of that," Scott affirmed. "The only problem is the location. This is up to you, Spock. Do you think we'll be anywhere near a system suitable for our rally any time soon?"
Spock, who had been listening to Mr Scott's scheme with obvious interest, promptly replied. "No, Mr Scott, not for another ten days at least. There are many factors to take into account. Not only the physiographic possibilities of the planet, but also the social and political conditions."
"Yes, of course! the Prime Directive," Sulu interjected.
"Precisely, Mr Sulu."
Scotty pulled a face. "Damn! I had not thought of that. Never mind! That will give us more time to get all the bikes ready and the team properly trained. Meantime, Spock, you find us a nice little planet where we won't risk disturbing the natives nor endangering the environment."
"I shall do my best, Mr Scott," the Vulcan promised.
But Doctor McCoy, who had been listening to their plans with growing concern, and imagining a succession of catastrophes, crashes, collisions and casualties, decided that it was high time to intervene. "What's the matter with you?" he protested. "Are you out of your minds? To ride these things is bad enough, but to organize a race is sheer lunacy!"
"But, Doctor," Sulu said laughing, "these motorcycles are perfectly safe. The proof is that we all came back unscathed from Merindol."
"That's because you had the devil's own luck!" McCoy countered darkly. "You may not have it again. And what about Starfleet Regulations, huh? Have you thought of that?" he added, snatching at any argument that he could think of. It did not work.
"Starfleet Regulations?" Scotty laughed outright. "What's Regulations got to do with it? There is nothing in Regs against motorcycling; what's more, I'll bet they have never heard of Harley Davidsons, let alone ever seen any. Am I right, Mr Spock?"
"Probably, with the possible exception of your colleague engineers," Spock pointed out. "As for your concern about Regulations, Doctor, which I find surprising, coming from you, let me set your mind at rest. There is no restriction on the official Starfleet Manual on the use of any vehicle by Star Fleet personnel, provided that security is observed at all time and in all circumstances."
"Sure, Spock!" There was a load of sarcasm in McCoy's voice. "And that, I expect, applies to those noxious machines of yours. I wonder what Jim will have to say about your plans. Are you sure he will give you the okay?"
He should have known better than ask that question. All he got was smug smiles from his human shipmates and an ironic eyebrow from Spock.
"Come, Leonard!" Scott chuckled, "you have but to look at him to know the answer. Seems to me that it won't take long to win him over to our project."
"Seems to me that Jim is going too damn fast for a beginner!" the Doctor remarked uneasily as he watched the motorcycle dash past. "Don't you think that we should - " He stopped, caught his breath, "Oh no! He's not going to...? Oh my God!"
A crash followed by a loud curse and a heavy thump told them that Captain Kirk had indeed done it.
"What did I tell you? I knew it!" McCoy shouted as he rushed with the others to the wreckage of the barricade under which the proud H.D. lay, wheels spinning up in the air, with its rider trapped underneath.
Frantically, boxes and crates were flung aside, then Spock, in one smooth motion, lifted the machine upright and set it back on its wheels, while Sulu dropped on his knees by the fallen figure and gently took off the helmet.
"Here, let me see!" McCoy pushed forward and hunkered down beside Kirk, expecting the worst. "Jim! Jim! Are you all right?" he anxiously asked, trying to assess the damage. Much to his relief and exasperation, a sheepish grin and an "I'm fine, Bones," was the Captain's reply.
"Jim! You are incorrigible!" McCoy exploded. "What did you do that for? You might have been killed!"
"Hardly that, Doctor," Spock's calm voice said behind him.
"What were you trying to do, Captain? Outdo Mr Spock and jump our fence?" Scotty, eyes gleaming with mirth, was clearly enjoying himself.
Kirk sat up with Sulu's and McCoy's assistance, and pulled a face. "Sorry, Scotty, I must have miscalculated the distance. I hope I have not messed up your Harley."
"Och, only the fender, Captain, nothing that can't be repaired. But if you don't mind my saying so, it was a rash thing to do."
"I agree." There was mild disapproval in Spock's tone. "It was a daring attempt, Captain, but somewhat premature. I would recommend regular practice before another essay."
"Recommendation noted, Mr Spock, I shall give it due consideration." Kirk's eyes crinkled in amusement. "But, for now, I think I have had enough excitement... ouch!" A gasp escaped him as he stood and felt a sharp pain shoot up his right leg.
"Easy, Jim! Don't move!" The Doctor ordered at once. "Where does it hurt?" He leaned forward and gently felt the leg that Kirk, leaning on Spock's shoulder, held hanging limply.
"Further down, Bones... Yes, that's it!" He winced. "Damn! I must have twisted my ankle."
"Looks like it," McCoy grunted, straightening up. "Anyway, it's sickbay for you, Captain, and don't you dare put that foot down, you'll only make it worse. Scotty, call an emergency team with a stretcher, will you?"
"Unnecessary, Doctor, I shall carry the Captain," Spock promptly offered.
"No! That's out of the question!" exclaimed Kirk, understandably mortified. "I can walk if someone lends me a hand. Will you, Mr Sulu?"
"My pleasure, Captain."
Together, one supporting the other, the Captain and the helmsman walked slowly to the turbolift doors. McCoy cast his eyes upward, shrugged and followed while the Vulcan and the Engineer exchanged a significant glance.
"What about our arrangements, Mr Spock?" Scotty asked, sotto voce, "Do they stand?"
"Certainly. You carry on as planned, Mr Scott. I shall inform the Captain of our project."
"Coming, Spock?" called Kirk from the turbolift. "Oh, and Scotty, I had a great time with your motorcycle. Thank you, that was fun. I'll be back!"
"I hope so, Captain. You need to take more training before you risk any more stunts, sir!"
The answer he received was a self-conscious laugh before the doors slammed shut. Shaking his head, Mr Scott turned on his heel, only to find his men standing about and obviously enjoying themselves. There was nothing that the crew liked better than to watch their dashing Captain being chided by his senior officers.
"Now, what are you all standing there for?" Scotty demanded, fists on hips. "Back to your stations, my lads, the show is over!"
Two weeks elapsed before the mission of the Enterprise, a standard survey of uncharted space, was completed to the satisfaction of the Science Department, and before the Captain at last ordered Sulu to set course to Starbase 15.
On the First Officer's suggestion, however, a detour of a few parsecs was ordered so as to bring the ship to a planet suitable for the H.D. project, as the forthcoming motorcycle race was now officially called.
No need to say that Captain Kirk, when apprised of his officers' plan, had heartily given his consent, provided that he be enlisted in the party.
No need to say, either, that Doctor McCoy was far from enthusiastic at the idea of a motocross, and that he kept predicting all kind of mishaps, to which none of the H.D. ficionados paid the slightest attention.
They were too busy going through an intensive training in the landing bay under the coaching of Mr Sulu and Mr Spock, the acknowledged authorities on the subject. Competition was high among the candidates, because the number of motorcycles being perforce limited, only the best would be selected for the contest. And so, by the time the starship came into visual range of planet Berengaria, the lucky ones were ready and raring to go, and the rest of the crew was quite satisfied at being granted a few days of R & R.
While Mr Scott was running a last check on his precious Harley Davidsons, all lined up in a row like thoroughbreds along the starting gate, the Bridge crew was contemplating the green and gold image of Berengaria on the forward viewscreen. Doctor McCoy, who was casually leaning against the command chair, felt bound to offer a comment.
"Very pretty. Looks like its reputation is not overrated. Ever been on Berengaria, Jim?"
"Once, and only for a brief stopover, many years ago," Kirk replied. "I was a young Lieutenant, serving on the Farragut. Unfortunately we had no time for shore leave, so I have never had a chance to see the famous crystal caves nor the green lakes. That's something which I have always missed."
"If it is such a beautiful world, how come that Starfleet does not use it as a regular port of call?" McCoy wondered. The answer came from Spock.
"Because Berengaria is renowned for its natural wonders and scenery, not for its night life, Doctor," the Vulcan said wryly. "It does not offer the cheap entertainment and dubious establishments which deep space crews usually look for."
"Quite right!" the Captain chuckled. "You won't find casinos, night clubs or strip joints on Berengaria, Bones, that is not their style. But if you are a nature lover, if you like trekking, climbing, swimming, etc, that's the place!
"I remember when we beamed down to their main resort by Lake Major... there are lovely hotels all around there, by the way. There was a group of tourists who had just been shuttled down from a cruise liner for a sightseeing tour. We had not the time to join them but at least we had a nice lunch at a small restaurant by the lake. It was delightful." He smiled reminiscently.
"Did you see the dragons, Captain? Do they really exist or are they but a legend?" Uhura's dark eyes sparkled with curiosity.
"Sorry, Lieutenant. I heard about them, of course, they belong to the local folklore, but I have never seen any. Too bad. But... " Kirk swivelled his chair to face his science officer. "What about you, Spock? You have been on Berengaria, haven't you? Have you ever seen a dragon?" The Captain's voice was laced with laughter.
"Affirmative, Captain," was the tranquil reply.
"Come off it, Spock!" McCoy scoffed. "Dragons exist only in legends and old folks' tales, everyone knows that. You must have seen some kind of giant lizards or iguanas."
"Dinosaurs, perhaps, or Tyrannosaurus Rex?" Chekov suggested hopefully.
"The creatures I saw belonged to none of these species, Ensign, they were definitely dragons," Spock stated coolly.
Chekov and Sulu exchanged knowing smiles but Uhura said wistfully, "I would love to see dragons. Do you think we have a chance, Mr Spock?"
"Perhaps, Lieutenant, if they decide to put in an appearance. These dragons are rather capricious by nature." A piece of information which naturally sent a wave of amusement around the Bridge.
"Are they, Spock?" Kirk said. "You seem to be well acquainted with them. How many times have you visited Berengaria?"
"Three times, Captain. When I first came here, with my parents, we stayed for a week at that old inn I told you about, at the foot of the hills in the district of the Crystal Caves."
"Then you saw the famous caves, Mr Spock? What are they like?" Sulu eagerly asked.
"Very impressive, Lieutenant, but no description would do them justice. You will see them since they are one of the highlights of our rally."
"Which is why we shall take quarters at that old inn of yours, if it still exists," Kirk put in. "How long ago was it, Spock?"
"A long time ago, Captain. I was only seven years old then. My parents had offered me that voyage as a reward, I recall." He paused and cleared his throat rather self-consciously.
"For the Kahs-Wan, perhaps?" Kirk softly suggested.
"What's that?" the Doctor asked Kirk under his breath.
"Some kind of trial that Vulcan children have to undergo in the desert," the Captain told him equally quietly, then he swung his chair back to the front and ordered, "Mr Sulu, begin procedure for standard orbit."
"Aye, sir, standard orbit," the helmsman echoed as he deftly swung the mighty starship into orbit around Berengaria.
"Uhura," Kirk continued, "try and contact their Space Com Center, will you?'
"Aye, sir!" she replied, running nimble fingers over her console.
While the crew was engaged with routine approach procedures, McCoy climbed the few steps up to the Science station. "Busy, Spock?"
"Yes, Doctor." The Vulcan kept his attention focused on his sensor screen. "What is it?"
"Well... " McCoy cleared his throat then, dropping his voice, said. "About those dragons... are you serious, or are you just trying to lead us on?"
Spock's head came up sharply, indignant eyebrows on the rise. "Doctor! A Vulcan merely states facts. He does not try to lead anyone anywhere!" he retorted scathingly. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do."
"Oh... well... if you say so... " McCoy shrugged. "All the same, I'll believe in dragons only when I see them with my own eyes." And he left Spock to join the Chief Engineer who was stepping out of the turbolift.
"Come to see the view, Scotty?"
"Aye, Doctor. So that's Berengaria? Looks like a bonny little planet," the Scot cheerfully declared. "What do they say about our rally? Is it okay?"
"We don't know yet, Scotty," the Captain told him. "So far we cannot get any response to our signal. Try again, Lieutenant."
"That's what I am doing, sir!" Uhura snapped, one hand fingering her ear phone. "I can't get any reply. I don't understand, all their frequencies seem to be jammed!"
"Possibly from the other ships," Sulu suggested with a look at his console screen. "There are already three... no, four other cruisers in stationary orbit, Captain."
"Mmmm, doesn't look like the quiet spot that we expected," Kirk noted.
"I wonder what... "
"Captain!" Uhura broke in, "I have a response at last."
"Good! On visual, Lieutenant!"
"Aye, sir!... Good Heavens!" she exclaimed as a brass band suddenly blared out of the loud-speakers, deafening the Bridge crew, before she hastily turned down the volume.
Simultaneously, the forward screen sizzled with flashing lights, and an amazing pantomime of frisky pink and green dragons, parading along with advertising slogans.
"Welcome to Berengaria, the Pearl of the quadrant!
"Berengaria: its resorts, its sights, its night life!
"Berengaria, the unique place for Rest and Recreation - come and have fun in our clubs, our Theme Parks, folks! Come and try your luck in our casinos!
"This is Berengaria, the one and only Berengaria... " and so forth, and so on... it seemed it would never stop.
The Bridge crew stared agape, as if mesmerized by such a garish display of commercialism. Even Mr Spock had left his station to stand by the central chair, fascination and disbelief evident on his normally composed features.
"Spock!" Kirk said faintly at last. "What is all this? It's not Berengaria as we knew it... or have we perhaps turned up at the wrong planet?"
"Impossible, Captain. This is Berengaria but... " Spock paused, looking perplexed, "but it seems to have undergone a certain degree of transformation."
"Some transformation!" McCoy sounded sarcastic. "No casino, no cabaret, did you say, Captain?"
"I know, Bones. I tell you, this is beyond me. What the hell happened?"
"What about our motocross, Captain?" Mr Scott followed his fixed idea. "Do you think we'll obtain the green light from the authorities?"
"I have no idea, Scotty, but I should think that... " Kirk broke off as the series of commercials stopped abruptly, and the face of a young man appeared on the screen, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
"Greetings, Enterprise! Welcome to Berengaria. What can I do for you? Should you need reservations for a show, a table in our cabarets, or a suite in our de luxe hotels, you have but to ask. I am at your service."
"Thank you," replied Kirk, "I am sure my crew will appreciate your hospitality and take advantage of your facilities, Mr... ?"
"Santini, Captain, of the Public Relations Department. We are delighted to number you and your crew among our privileged visitors. If there is anything in particular that you require for the duration of your stay, you have but to name it. How long will that be, if I may ask?"
"We can only spend three days here, but we mean to make the most of it, of course. And, since you ask, yes, there is something that we require. My senior officers and myself are specially interested in the natural beauties of your world, and we plan to explore the district of the Green Lakes and of the Crystal Caves."
Santini's permanent smile froze on his face. "Terribly sorry, Captain, but that is unfortunately impossible. The Lakes District is now unsafe to visitors. The Crystal Caves have been closed to the public following a landslide about six years ago. They are located in the Dragon Reservation, and our tourists are strongly advised against going into that area."
"Captain," Spock said under his breath, "I find this most peculiar. There never was a Dragon Reservation. I wonder what happened to them."
"You are right, there is something funny about all this," Kirk whispered, then he said aloud. "I quite understand, Mr Santini, but allow me to insist. We have come to Berengaria purposely to visit the Caves and the Lakes District. I trust there won't be any difficulty in obtaining from your authorities a special permit for the Enterprise officers."
"Well..." Santini pursed his lips, hummed and hawed, and finally decided, "I think that can be arranged, Captain. We shall make it an exception, only for you, of course, but you must understand that we cannot assume responsibility for your safety."
"Naturally, Mr Santini, but I can assure you that Starfleet officers can take care of themselves."
"I don't doubt it, Captain. We know the reputation of the Enterprise." Santini smirked. "But I must specify that we won't provide you with transportation. We cannot put our personnel at risk. I hope you understand."
"Quite, Mr Santini. No problem at all. We carry our own vehicles." Someone somewhere on the Bridge stifled a laugh. "But one more thing, please," Kirk continued imperturbably, "I want to be sure that our right of entry into the Dragon Reservation will be duly endorsed by the locals. On no account must we be accused of trespassing into private territory."
"Of course, Captain," the other airily replied. "I suppose you mean the Prime Directive and all that? No problem. Don't let that question bother you, sir. No-one has seen the tip of the tail of a genuine dragon for ages. There is even the question whether they still exist, assuming that they ever did... outside old wives' tales."
"Oh? Really? That does not stop you from using them in your commercials," Kirk dryly pointed out.
"Naturally! Dragons are the trade-mark of Berengaria. Where would we be without our famous dragons, I ask you? But, if you are interested, Captain, why don't you visit our Dragonland Park? It is one of our highlights, with dragons galore, and waterfalls, and crystal caves more spectacular than the originals, not forgetting the famous dragon parade!"
Kirk and Spock exchanged a dazed look while Santini prattled on happily. "Look, Captain Kirk, allow me to offer you and your staff some complimentary tickets for Dragonland. You have but to give your names at the gates. Do come down and see for yourself."
"That's very generous of you, thank you. I believe I'll take advantage of your offer, just out of curiosity. In the meantime I rely on your services to obtain rapidly our safe conducts for the Reservation."
"That will be done immediately, sir," the young man replied brightly. "I shall see to it personally. I wish you and your gallant crew a wonderful time on Berengaria. So long for now, Captain!" With that parting comment, Santini's flashy smile vanished from view.
"Whew!" A collective breath expressed, better than words, the feelings of the Bridge crew.
"Have you ever heard anything like that?" Uhura asked no-one in particular. "It's worse than Wrigley's."
"Indeed, Lieutenant. A beautiful world turned into a commercial venture!" Spock said disdainfully.
"I know, it's a damn shame," Kirk nodded, gazing at the planet shining like a jewel on the dark backdrop of space.
"It's the same everywhere, Jim. Profit comes before all other considerations now," the Doctor noted.
"At least, Captain, you got us the all clear for our race," Mr Scott pointed out, "and it was not a sure thing now that the section is off limits."
"Ah, but you underestimate the reputation of the Enterprise, Scotty. You heard what Santini had to say about us! And you know what?" Kirk banged a fist on his chair arm and stood up. "I am going to take him up on his word." He looked smilingly around the Bridge. "Anyone game for a spree in Dragonland, free of charge?"
"Oh yes! Yes, Captain, please!" came from the central consoles.
Kirk looked down at the eager faces of the helm and navigation officers, "All right, you two, Call up your reliefs and meet me in the transporter room. You are on. Anyone else?... Lieutenant?"
Uhura smiled, shrugged, then made up her mind. "Well, yes, Captain, thank you. Actually I am not that keen on Entertainment Parks, but I am curious to see what they have done with the dragons."
"Same with me, Jim," McCoy chimed in. "If there are no more dragons left except in that Park, I want to see what they look like."
"Come along, then." Kirk went up to the turbolift and looked at his First Officer who had resumed his position. "Spock? Are you interested?"
"No, thank you, Captain," Spock suppressed a shudder of distaste. "I have much to do at the moment, and I am not interested in Amusement Parks."
"That's because you have never seen any, Spock. They can be fun, you know," McCoy told him.
"Doctor, your idea of fun would put an average Vulcan to tears," Spock austerely replied.
"Tears? I thought you Vulcans never cried," McCoy countered.
"Another of your preconceptions, Doctor," and Spock turned back to his station.
"Why, you righteous Vulcan! I..." .
"Bones! You are keeping us waiting," the Captain called from the lift, all the would-be revellers crammed in behind him.
"Coming, Jim! We'll settle that later," McCoy hissed to Spock before joining the party.
The doors slid shut, and peace settled again on the Bridge while the relief officers quietly assumed their duties. After a while, Mr Scott left his console and went to the science station.
"Mr Spock," he said, "I have to go and see to our supplies delivery. If you need me, I'll be in the cargo transporter room."
"Very well, Engineer, go ahead," the Vulcan said absently, his attention focused on his viewscreen.
"Have you located that old inn of yours yet?" Scott asked curiously.
"Not yet, Mr Scott. I am working on it."
"Well, I hope it is still there, since it is supposed to be our headquarters on Berengaria." And Mr Scott departed to the nether regions of the ship.
It was a good three hours later when the communication officer announced, "Mr Spock! A message from the Captain. The landing party is about to beam up and would you please meet them in the transporter room, sir."
The Vulcan officer left at once, and met the Chief Engineer, who had also been summoned, in the transporter room where they found two young technicians in charge.
"Where is Mr Kyle? Was he not on duty?" Spock enquired.
They exchanged a knowing smile. "He went down with the Captain's party, sir. We were called in to take his place," they explained.
Spock merely lifted an eyebrow and joined Scott behind the control panels. "Ready, Mr Scott?"
"All set, sir."
All the eyes turned expectantly to the platform as the transporter effect was initiated. Six columns of sparkling energy appeared on the pads and, as they materialised into six familiar figures, the onlookers' eyes widened in amazement.
"Great Scott!" the Engineer breathed in disbelief.
Spock froze in Vulcan shock. An unmistakable laugh drew them out of their trance. "What's the matter with you?" Kirk exclaimed, stepping down from the stage with his companions.
Spock recovered his voice. "Captain, are you...?" He gulped. "Are you all right?" And well he might ask, for a more extravagant bunch of Starfleet personnel would have been hard to find.
Each officer sported a cap fashioned like a dragon's head and trimmed with gaudy-coloured cockades and streamers in the worst possible taste. More cockades, ribbons and badges were pinned to their uniforms, and their hands were cluttered with dragon dolls, bags of candy, and balloons which danced merrily and bumped against the ceiling.
"Never been better, Mr Spock," the Captain breezily said, "but it was high time for us to beam up or we might have lost whatever was left of our self-respect!"
"As bad as that, Captain?" Scotty chortled.
"You wouldn't believe it!" Kirk replied with feeling. "And this is just a parting gift they gave us with the compliments of the management. Here, crewman!" He snatched off his dragon cap and thrust it, with the dolls and balloons, into the arms of the nearest technician. "Kindly rid me of this stuff. Do whatever you like with it, but I don't want to see it again."
"Captain, do you mind if I keep mine as a souvenir?" Chekov asked anxiously.
"So long as you don't parade with it on the Bridge, I don't care, Mr Chekov. Now, gentlemen... and lady," Kirk continued seriously, "I want to see you in the briefing room in fifteen minutes, you included, Mr Kyle. That will give you enough time to dispose of these gadgets as you please. Spock, any news?"
"Yes, Captain. I have located and contacted the inn. They are quite willing to accommodate our party."
"Perfect! That's all for now. Dismissed." Kirk strode out, followed by the partygoers who filed out somewhat self-consciously.
Doctor McCoy however, halted by the First Officer and the Chief Engineer, rummaged in his paper bag, and produced a couple of oblong packages which he handed them, one each, with a flourish.
"Here you are, gentlemen. A souvenir from Dragonland."
"Gracious me!" Scotty was delighted, "I haven't seen one for ages, reminds me of my young days back home! Thank you, Doctor."
"Thank you, Doctor," Spock echoed, "but may I ask what is the function of that object?" He turned it perplexedly in his hands.
"It's a lollipop, Mr Spock," Scotty explained. "A candy on a stick. Look, I'll show you!" And joining action to speech, he unwrapped the candy and shoved it into his mouth without more ado.
"Actually," Uhura chimed in, "we meant to bring you some candy floss, but we thought that it might not make it through the transporter and so we opted fo... " She broke off and bit her lip, for the sight of the Vulcan officer delicately licking his lollipop with the tip of his tongue was too good to be true.
"Well, Spock, how do you like it?" asked McCoy, blue eyes sparkling with glee. Spock gazed at him, licked his lips with slow deliberation, and then volunteered.
"I find it rather pleasant, albeit very sweet and sticky. I should say it tastes of apple, and some spice... cinnamon, perhaps? "
"Sure it does! I selected apple flavour specially for you. Oh, and better not suck it all at one go, or you'll make yourself sick."
"That was not my intention, Doctor," the Vulcan replied with as much dignity he could muster in the circumstances.
When they all met in the briefing room, the landing party, having shed their fancy trappings, looked presentable again, but they were still full of the party spirit while describing their adventures to their shipmates.
Sulu and Chekov were particularly verbose over their frightful experience on the ghost train, rattling along in the dragons' den, past roaring monsters, artificial waterfalls, and fake crystal caverns.
Uhura admitted to having been a bit disappointed in the Fairies' Palace, and considered its analogue on Wrigley's Planet to be so much better, but she agreed with Chief Kyle that the Grand Parade of the Dragons had been worth watching. All in all, they'd had fun, and could recommend it as good entertainment for the crew. Still, as Uhura put it, Dragonland smacked of the typical tourist trap, and the Dragons - holographic puppets or balloons - were very disappointing.
"But, Nyota, darling! you didn't expect to see real dragons, did you?" McCoy teased. "Dragons have never existed, you know, except in mythology." His sly glance in the Vulcan's direction proved at whom he was aiming with that remark. But Spock remained inscrutable and, to everyone's surprise, it was Scotty who picked up the gauntlet.
"Och, Doctor! How can you say that. If you have only seen fake dragons in that Park, that does not mean that there are not real ones out there. You sound much like those darned Sassenachs, back home, who poke fun at our Nessie for being nothing but Highland superstition!"
"Nessie? Nessie who?... Who is she. What do you mean?"
Pelted with questions, Mr Scott ran his gaze around the briefing table, laughing up his sleeve until he met the dark gaze of the First Officer.
"I presume that by Nessie you mean the Loch Ness monster, Mr Scott?" Spock asked blandly.
"Right you are, Mr Spock." The Engineer beamed with pleasure. "I see that you, at least, have heard of our famous beastie."
"The Loch Ness monster? Of course I have heard of it," Kirk interjected, "but I always thought it was one of those Highland legends. Has anybody ever seen it? Have you, Scotty?"
"Not me, Captain, but a second cousin of my brother-in-law has seen it, one early morning, emerging from the loch; and others have seen it too. But for all the expeditions carried deep under water, no-one, to date, has gotten a real close look at it."
"Could it be a dragon or something similar?" Uhura sounded intrigued.
"A dragon, a sea serpent, a prehistoric creature... who knows?" Scotty shrugged in ignorance.
"In other words," McCoy noted, "it's much like the Berengarian dragons, its existence has never been proved."
"Well, no, it has not," Scotty conceded, "but neither has it been disproved; so, there you are, Doctor!"
This outburst set his shipmates laughing but they sobered down when Mr Spock calmly stated. "Regrettably, Mr Scott, I can do nothing for Nessie, but I think I can prove the existence of the dragons of Berengaria."
"Can you, Spock? Have you found them?" Even the Captain was swept up in the wave of excitement.
"I believe so. While you were planet-bound, I spent time scanning the area of the green lakes, which is where I saw the dragons when I was a child, McCoy's scepticism notwithstanding." The black look he shot at McCoy was received with a sneer.
"As you can see here - " Spock activated the three-faced screen in the centre of the table, "our sensors have detected energy readings indicating the presence of several life forms, some of such considerable proportions that I can but draw the reasonable conclusion that they are indeed dragons."
"Logical, Mr Spock," the captain agreed, "and the only way to make sure is to go and look for them. Gentlemen, we are going to combine business with recreation," he announced. "We shall take a ride across a beautiful country, test our Harley Davidsons, and search for dragons, so as to prove to the world at large, and to our sceptics here, the existence of the legendary dragons of Berengaria. But have we got that permit giving us entry into the Reservation, Spock?"
"We have, Captain. Mr Santini kept his word. As for the inn, they have accommodation for twenty guests, and can take in more if necessary."
"That is more than we need," Kirk decided, "but you never told us the name of the place?"
"The Gasthof, Captain. It is the only guest house in the area, located by a small lake, not too far from the Reservation, I was told. I understand that they have lost customers since the Lakes district has been banned to the tourists. I think we shall be the only guests."
"Good!" Scotty stated decisively. "We'll have the place to ourselves, we won't be pestered by them tourists. Damn nuisance, if you ask me."
"Thank you very much, Scotty, a nice opinion you have of your supporters," Uhura said coolly, pretending offence.
"Pardon me, lassie, I did not mean you, of course!" Mr Scott protested.
"Are you going to watch the race, Uhura?" The Captain looked amused.
"Oh yes, Captain. With your permission, Palmer and I will go with you, if only to encourage our champions." She gave Spock and Sulu a knowing smile. "They got us safely out of trouble on Merindol, the least we can do is to go and support them."
"Ah, Nyota," Sulu declared dramatically, "you touch me to tears!"
"Well, to tell you the whole truth, Hikaru, I am also going because I am dying to see Mr Spock's dragons," she confessed sweetly.
"They are not mine, Lieutenant, they belong to no-one," Spock felt bound to specify.
"Oh, I know that, Mr Spock! But, tell me, are they dangerous?"
"Not to my knowledge. As I recall, the dragons I met, twenty five years ago, were quite friendly, but now, given the present circumstances, I cannot be affirmative."
"Good point, Spock. It means that we had better be on our guard," Kirk decided. "Tomorrow morning you and I will make a preliminary survey of the site and check the condition of the terrain. We'll take a couple of red-shirts with us. Scotty, I believe you have some competitors from Security on your lists."
"Aye, sir. Ensign Dugovitch and Ensign Kincaid. Both have passed the tests with flying colours. Keen as mustard, those two!" Scotty informed them.
"Kincaid? You mean Mary Kincaid, that wisp of a girl? On a motorcycle?" Doctor McCoy was frankly incredulous.
"That wisp of a girl is a Judo black belt, among other things, Bones," Kirk informed him. "Okay, we'll take her and Dugovitch for the survey while the rest of you people set camp at the Gasthof. Yes, Mr Sulu?"
"Permission to go with you, sir!"
"Permission granted, Sulu," Kirk smiled tolerantly. "You and Spock are the first picked, of course. Mr Chekov?"
"No, thank you, Captain." Chekov gave him a rather sheepish smile. "I did not qualify for the rally, so I'd rather spend my leave in the Pleasure Parks. I promised some friends to escort them there."
"Suit yourself, Mr Chekov. Anything else?" Kirk ran a questioning gaze around the circle of officers.
"Aye, Captain!" Mr Scott leaned forward earnestly. "First I'd like to join the survey team tomorrow. I want to see what kind of trails we must expect in that Reservation. We might come across pretty rough ground. And second, there is the question of our riding suits..."
"What!" McCoy snorted. "Don't tell me you need special suits to ride your bikes!"
"Of course, Bones," Kirk said, "we have to wear the complete biker paraphernalia: helmet, leather jacket and pants lined with special padding, gloves and boots, the lot! Might as well do it in style."
"And in comfort, Captain!" Uhura put in. "Believe me, on Merindol, riding a Harley Davidson in evening dress was no picnic."
"I can well imagine." Kirk joined in the laughter, then asked Mr Scott, "Is there any problem about our riding suits?"
"None, Captain. I only wanted to say that there has been a delay in the fabrication, but they will be delivered to your cabins to-night, without fail."
"Thank you, Scotty, good work. Well, I think that's all." Kirk looked around then rose to his feet. "The survey team will meet in the transporter room tomorrow morning at 0700 shiptime. The others can join us, or beam down later, at their convenience. Dismissed."
The officers dispersed, but apparently Doctor McCoy had more to say.
"Jim! One moment, please."
Turning back, Kirk waited for the C.M.O. and the Communications officer who had been conferring together. "Yes, Doctor?" he said .
"If you don't mind, Captain, we'll beam down with you tomorrow morning," McCoy announced.
"I don't mind at all, but are you sure? I thought you disapproved of our H.D. project."
"I do, Jim, but don't imagine that I am going to let you and your fellow daredevils go gallivanting over unknown territory without any medical assistance. I know only too well where those stunts you pull with Spock generally end - in my sickbay. I am taking no chances, Jim. Chapel and I, plus two medics, will beam down to that inn with full field equipment."
"Bones, I truly appreciate your concern, but I am afraid you got it all wrong. There is really no danger on Berengaria."
"No danger? Then why are you taking a couple of Security guards with you?"
"Regulations, Doctor, you ought to know that!"
"I know, but I have also heard Spock say he is not sure if the dragons are friendly or not."
"Dragons? What dragons?" There was mischief in Kirk's eyes. "I heard you say that all that was baloney."
"Yeah... well, so I did," McCoy had to admit. "But what if there are? What if you are attacked by dangerous predators, or if you fall down a chasm? Believe me, better be prepared."
"All right, Bones, do what you think is best. You are the boss where the welfare of the crew is concerned."
"Glad to hear that, Captain. So I and my team will come with you, and I'll bring Uhura and Palmer along with us. Problem is... we'll need a means of transportation on planet side. Do you know of anything we can use?"
"Yes, I heard Spock mention that they have aircars for rent at the inn. Better see him or Scotty about it."
On his way out of the room the Captain stopped again, and said as an afterthought, "By the way, forget about uniforms. You have to be comfortable, so better put on casual clothes. It might be cold since we'll be up in the mountains and uplands."
"Recommendation duly noted, Captain," Uhura said cheerfully. "We shall go prepared for all contingencies."
"Let's hope so!" McCoy muttered as he made his way back to his office.
The young girl standing on the doorstep of the Gasthof looked up at the sky and took in a deep breath. It was early yet, and the air was damp and chilly, but already the rising sun was breaking through the blanket of fog; soon its beams would melt away the mist which drifted over the small lake nestled at the foot of the hills. It was going to be another nice day.
She was going back inside when a faint tingling sound made her look round. Down on the lawn still heavy with dew, six figures were taking shape in the glittering effect of a transporter beam.
As the girl watched the apparitions in silent awe, they took a look around, saw her, then walked up in her direction. She pushed the door open and shouted, "Mama! Mama! here they are!" Then she ran down the steps to greet the newcomers from space.
Stopping in front of them, she bobbed a curtsey and shyly said, "Greetings. I am Liseli Boxberger. Are you the Starfleet officers we are expecting?"
"We certainly are, young lady," replied the young man who walked ahead, and who smiled down at her. "Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise and," he nodded at the men coming up behind him, "these fellows are my officers... and there are more coming."
Even as he spoke, half a dozen more persons materialised on the turf, along with bags and travelling gear.
"Greetings, gentlemen, welcome to our Gasthof," said a pleasant voice from the inn, and looking up the officers saw a young woman smiling down at them from the doorstep, and flanked by two small children, as fair-headed and rosy-cheeked as she was. "Captain Kirk? Happy to meet you. I am Anneli Boxberger, in charge of this inn. Please, come in. I have coffee and cakes prepared for you. Do come in."
"Thank you, with pleasure." The Captain flashed her his best smile. "This is a delightful place, Madame, thank you for putting us up."
"You are welcome, Captain, This way, please, gentlemen... and ladies."
As they all trooped in, Uhura was heard saying, "I love this place! Reminds me of the Alpine chalets - you know, all stone and timber."
"Just what I was thinking," said Nurse Chapel, "and look at the view! Isn't it beautiful? and that fresh air... it smells so good! I think we are going to have a great time here."
"Provided that our madcaps do not run into trouble," the doctor grunted.
Before following them in, McCoy looked down at the First Officer, who was standing some distance away in silent contemplation. Memories of his childhood were crowding into Spock's mind as he gazed at the blue-green forest, the lake dappled with sunlight and the small boat moored at the wooden pier.
"Coming, Spock?" McCoy called out.
Spock gave himself a mental shake. "Coming, Doctor. Don't wait for me," he called back.
A moment later, he turned round to find that everyone had gone, except little Liseli who was watching him with frank curiosity.
"Excuse me," she ventured, "but... are you a Vulcan?"
"Correct," he replied calmly.
"Oh!..." She blushed then informed him, "I have never seen Vulcans for real, but I know a lot about them."
"Yes. You see, my mother and my grandma met Vulcans years and years ago. Long before I was born."
"I see." Spock stood quite still, hands clasped behind his back, patiently submitting himself to her intense scrutiny.
He was touched by her striking resemblance with the little girl he had known in this very place, so long ago. Same rapt attention, same innocent brown eyes, same soft golden hair strictly tied up in a pig-tail. He had the odd impression of being thrown back in time.
Liseli was studying the Vulcan's slanted eyebrows, his deep dark eyes and strange upturned ears in silence, then, apparently satisfied with her inspection, she suddenly broke into a sweet smile and announced, "I like you, and I am glad you came."
Unexpectedly, the dark eyes twinkled in response, and the officer solemnly replied. "Thank you, Liseli. I am glad to be here."
When Liseli and Spock entered the Gasthof, they found the rafted lounge alive with laughter and lively conversation... and the tantalizing aroma of coffee and fresh-baked breads. The Enterprise landing party had obviously lost no time in making themselves at home, relaxing in easy chairs, standing about, coffee mugs in hand or gathered around the fire-place which radiated heat from a big log fire.
Spock stayed just inside the door at first. He was trying to cope with the strange sensations which he had not felt since he was a boy when Kirk came up to him, a mug of coffee in one hand, a slice of shortbread in the other.
"Spock, what are you doing here, all by yourself? Come and join us."
"Sorry, Jim, I was just... " Spock hesitated.
"Trying to deal with your emotions at finding yourself back in your childhood?" Kirk said gently. "I know what you feel, Spock, all these memories surging back; it's sometimes overwhelming. Is it as you remembered it, or has it changed much?"
"No, so far as I can see, they seem to have kept the buildings in their original state, and their hospitality is as unaffected as I remembered it."
"You are right. I have seldom met hostesses as charming and helpful as these ladies," Kirk agreed, following with his gaze the women and the children who were circulating among the guests, offering more drinks and pastries. "And," he went on, "I must commend you for suggesting this inn, Spock, it was damn good advice... don't you agree, Bones?" he asked the Doctor who had just strolled along.
"Mmmmm... " McCoy gulped down a piece of kugelhof, washed it down with a long draught of coffee, and nodded. "Yeah... I hand it to you, Spock, this is the kind of cosy, old-fashioned inn that I like, and these ladies are just charming, and damn efficient. Do you know that they spent the night baking for us?"
"Come to think of it," the Captain suddenly said, "maybe some of these people were here when you came with your parents, Spock. Why don't you tell them you were here before? "
"They would hardly recognize you after all these years!" McCoy noted sarcastically.
Spock was about to demur when circumstances somehow forced his hand. "Excuse me, sir," piped up a small voice, "would you like another piece of cake?" The two children, a girl and a boy, were offering them their basket full of mouth-watering pastries. With a word of thanks, Kirk, who had barely finished his shortbread, helped himself to a hefty slice of kugelhof.
"Jim," McCoy frowned at him, "how many have you had already?"
"It's only my fourth, Bones, and what about you, stuffing yourself with apfelstrudel!" the Captain countered righteously.
As usual, Spock declined, but, when Liseli turned up with a large pot of coffee, and Kirk and McCoy accepted a refill, the shadow of a smile passed on his face and he said, "Nothing for me, thank you... unless you happen to have that blueberry wine which used to be made here."
"Oh, yes, sir, we still make it. It's the specialty of the house."
"Then why don't you go and ask your mother, Liseli?" the Captain suggested with a broad wink at his friends. Liseli nodded eagerly and rushed to her mother who was engaged in a friendly chat with the female Starfleet officers by the fire place.
"Mama, please! Is it allowed to serve blueberry wine instead of coffee?"
"Yes, of course, darling," Anneli replied absently, then as an afterthought, she called her daughter back. "Wait - is someone asking for blueberry wine?"
"Yes, Mama. It is the Vulcan officer. He asked if we still make it."
"The Vulcan officer? But... but... how would a Vulcan from Starfleet know about it? It does not make sense!" Anneli stammered, quite puzzled, then a sudden flush coloured her cheeks; her hands flew up to her face as realization dawned. "Oh, my God!... Could it be?... Could it be Spock?" Strangely moved, with a brief, "Excuse me, ladies," she jumped to her feet, and left her guests staring in blank surprise.
"What's the matter? What's all this about Spock?" Lieutenant Palmer asked no-one in particular.
"Do you think she might have met him before?" Chapel wondered.
"Could be," Uhura replied. "I heard him tell the Captain that his parents brought him to Berengaria when he was a child. I say! Anneli looks like being about his age... I wonder... what if...?" She broke into a smile and stood up. "Come on, girls!" she said, "let's find out."
They found the Captain and the Doctor watching with obvious delectation the confrontation between their fair hostess and the Vulcan.
"But why, Spock? Why?" Anneli was repeating between laughter and exasperation. "Why did you not tell us? How could I guess it was you? You look so dignified, so impressively Vulcan." She regarded him up and down appreciatively and shook her head. "I would never have known you, had you not asked Liseli for that special wine." She smiled quizzically. "That's what rang the bell, Spock. God knows how partial you were to blueberries!"
"Which is precisely why I did it," Spock explained mildly. "I assumed that the mere mention of a Vulcan asking for blueberry wine would suffice to enlighten you... and I was right."
"Of course you were!" Anneli retorted, laughter and warmth shining in her eyes, "but then, you were always right, weren't you? and logical. Lord! How maddening you could be with your logic!"
A candid admission which sparked off bursts of laughter in the Starfleet party.
"Believe me, dear Madame, he is still maddeningly logical," McCoy chimed in. "He has not changed a bit in that respect."
"Anneli, please, Doctor - and between you and me, I am glad he has not," the young woman replied in kind, "otherwise he would not be the Spock that I knew. But, Liseli, what are you waiting for? Go and get a bottle of blueberry wine for Commander Spock!" she said to her daughter, only to realise that, in all this excitement, she had forgotten the children. And there they were, their eyes like saucers, hanging on to their every word.
"Mama, please," Liseli whispered, "is he really the Spock you told us about? The Vulcan boy?"
"Mama! Mama!" shrilled her small son who was tugging at her skirts to claim attention, "is he the Vulcan boy who talked to the dragons?"
"...and who took the boat out on the lake and nearly drowned?" piped up his little sister, dancing in her excitement.
"Hush!...stop it now!" Their mother, pink with confusion, tried to dampen their enthusiasm. "Rudi, and you, Guneli, you be quiet. Yes, this is Spock who talked to the dragons, but he is now an important Starfleet officer, so you behave yourselves. And why don't you go and tell your Grandma? I am sure she would like to know. There, run along with you!" She sent them away, but little Rudi, still a bit doubtful, stood his ground and challenged Spock.
"Is it true? Did you really talk to the dragons?" His blue eyes and the Vulcan's dark gaze met.
Silence came down on the company. Then Spock gravely replied, "Yes, Rudi, your mother was right. I talked to the dragons."
The boy gave him a smile of pure joy and ran away with his sisters.
"Talking to the dragons, eh, Leonard?" Scotty winked and nudged McCoy in the ribs. "What do you have to say about that?"
Assuming at once his role of confirmed sceptic, the Doctor snorted. "I'll say that we are being taken for a ride, Scotty, which makes me wonder whether the reputation of the Vulcans for truthfulness is not overrated." A chorus of protests and laughter answered this provocation.
"Come, Bones!" Kirk shook his head at him, "Will you never lay off? Why can't you believe what you are told?"
"I'll believe it when I see it!" was McCoy's predictable reply.
"I know, Doctor," their hostess said, laughing. "It is hard to believe. Do you remember, Spock, my parents' first reaction when I told them?"
Spock's nod and raised eyebrows spoke volumes. "But," Anneli went on, "I can tell you it is true, Doctor, because I was there, I saw him talk to the dragons. They used to come from the forest at dawn, to drink in the lake. Spock and I would creep out of the house when everyone was still asleep and go down to the lake to watch them. It was scaring but so exciting to see those huge beasts come out of the mist! I would not have missed our morning jaunts for anything in the world. Remember, Spock?" He met her wistful smile with a slight curl of the lips.
"I do, indeed. It was an awesome experience," he soberly replied.
"Mr Spock, sir! When you talked to the dragons, did they ever answer you?" That was Mary Kincaid who, like her fellow-officers, had listened in fascination to the conversation.
"Yes, they did, Ensign, by mean of some telepathic projection," Spock told her, then he asked Anneli, "You heard them too, did you not?"
"I did, but only when you were with me," she replied. "It was the most eerie experience to hear their rumbling voices in my head. Unfortunately, after you had gone, they never talked to me again. They kept coming to the lake every so often, but after that accident at the Crystal Caves, they left and we never saw them again."
"You are referring to that landslide six years ago, I suppose?" Kirk interjected.
"Yes, Captain." She looked surprised. "How did you hear about it?"
Before he could reply, they were interrupted by a new arrival. A little old lady, in long skirts and apron, her white hair neatly tied in a bun, was elbowing her way through the gathering, the three children in tow.
"For Heavens' sake, Anneli!" she said tartly, "I wish you would stop telling the children those Vulcan tales. What nonsense they are talking about now, that the Vulcan boy has returned?"
"That's no nonsense, Mother." Aneli smiled mischievously. "If you would only take a look behind you."
"What are you talking about?" the old lady muttered but she did as she was told, and came face to face with a tall Vulcan who raised his right eyebrow at her.
"Greetings, Madame Laederle. I am pleased to see you again," his deep voice said gently.
Her face changed colour, her mouth dropped open as she stared up at Spock, dumbstruck. At last, she whispered, "Spock? Are you really Spock, the son of Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan?"
Spock looked at her with that tiny smile around the lips which he kept for special occasions, then inclined his head. "Yes, I am Spock," he quietly said, holding her gaze with his own.
"And I can vouch for him, Madame," the captain put in genially. "Captain James T. Kirk at your service. Spock here is my Science and First Officer, and..." he waved around, "all these good people, busy polishing off your delicious pastries, are members of my crew, all delighted with your generous hospitality, Madame." Kirk's charm did not fail to produce the desired effect
"You are most welcome, Captain." Madame Laederle beamed with pleasure. "It is an honour for our house, I am sure." She had recovered her poise, and her cheeks had taken a rosy hue, but, as she gazed at Spock, she could not hide her emotion, and tears welled up in her eyes.
"I can't get over it," she said softly. "Can you believe it, Anneli? That chit of a boy, your little playmate, to have turned into such a fine looking officer?"
"Well," McCoy drawled, "it has taken him long enough to achieve that."
"Yes." She smiled reminiscently, "Yes, it has been a long time, things have changed and we have all grown old, haven't we? I have often wondered what had become of you, Spock, and of your parents. They are well, I hope?"
"They are both very well, thank you."
"And what brought you to Berengaria, if I may ask? Anneli spoke of a trip that you plan to make to the Crystal Caves?" The old woman's eyes shone with curiosity as she looked from Spock to Kirk, and back to Spock.
The two men exchanged a glance and the Captain launched into an explanation of their presence in this remote part of Berengaria, adding by way of conclusion that a special permit to enter the Dragon Reservation had been delivered by the Tourist Bureau Authorities.
This last information brought a strong reaction from the two ladies who exchanged a meaningful look.
"Isn't that typical of these people, Mother?" Anneli said.
"Typical and outrageous, but not surprising." Madame Laederle snorted with irritation. Nothing to do with you, gentlemen," she assured the Enterprise party, "but the attitude of these incompetent fools makes me sick. Not only are they responsible for the dramatic decrease in the dragon population, but they have parked them like criminals in a Reservation. And I see that now they have the nerve to grant or proscribe access to the Dragons' Territory, over which they normally have absolutely no right."
"Excuse me, Madame, but are there still dragons out there?" asked Lieutenant Uhura. "That man from the Tourist Office led us to believe that they have long gone, and might even never have existed."
"He would, of course," Anneli said huffily. "Yes, there are still dragons out in the wilderness, thank Heaven, but the Powers that be don't want to let it be known by the tourists, probably to keep them in their Pleasure Parks.
"For quite some time now, the politics of our government have been reduced to making as much profit as possible, regardless of the consequences."
Kirk shook his head and looked grim. "It seems that you were right, Spock, something has changed on Berengaria, and not for the better, apparently. But could you be more specific, ladies?"
"Oh," sighed Madame Laederle, "it is the sad story of a beautiful planet being spoiled because of greed and poor judgement. The long and the short of it is that Berengaria is on the way to being turned into a pleasure ground for intergalactic mass tourism."
"The Authorities, acting against the will of most of the Berengarians, have yielded to the pressure of unscrupulous entrepreneurs and let them turn our modest tourist activities into a full blown industry," Anneli explained. "For instance, our small inns and guest houses have been taken over by a huge hotel complex to accommodate the shiploads of tourists brought in by intergalactic travel companies. Naturally such an extensive development cannot be accomplished without dramatic consequences to the environment.
"In particular, some districts have suffered from deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, resulting in the extinction of endemic species of our fauna and flora. Actually, gentlemen, we fear that, if nothing is done within the next few years to stop this madness, Berengaria is heading for an ecological disaster."
"You are right," Engineer Scott agreed. "We know from past experience on Terra, how easy it is to ruin an ecosystem. But tell me, what happened to the dragons? How did they survive?"
"They survived because they left," Anneli sadly replied. "What else could they do?"
"You have to know," her mother put in, "that our government, in violation of the agreement reached centuries ago between the first colonists and the dragon community, allowed the newcomers to encroach upon the dragons' natural space. The beasts first tried to scare these people away, but soon realised that they were powerless against the machinery and modern technology capable of building a brand new hotel in three days. So the dragons left. They took to the hills, in the lake district, and sought shelter in the forest and the caves up in the mountains."
"This is a most distressing situation," Spock commented, "but what exactly happened for your Authorities to create the Dragon Reservation?"
"You may well ask, Spock!" Madame Laederle said bitterly. " A terrible accident, that is what happened, for which our government is directly responsible, whatever they say to the contrary! When you allow hordes of tourists to roam at will in unprotected nature, there is bound to be trouble. When my late husband and my elder son used to shepherd their visitors to the Caves, they were very strict: no wandering off the paths, no picking of flowers or touching anything, etc... But the new tour leaders were not so respectful of the environment. They did not care. So some tourists behaved as if they owned the land, casting stones in the lakes, dropping trash everywhere, writing their names on the cliffs and rock formations, even breaking off crystalline concretions to take them home as souvenirs."
"But this is sheer vandalism!" McCoy exclaimed in outrage.
"You are right, Doctor, but no-one seemed to care." Anneli sounded totally disillusioned. "At least not until the accident," she added with a wry smile. "Then, at last, they realised it was time to take drastic measures."
"Yes, what about that accident?" Kirk prompted, well aware of the grievance that the women must have accumulated over the years.
"Well, Captain - " Anneli took a deep breath. "One day - that was six years ago - a group of tourists was flown over to the Crystal Caves in three aircars. One of the pilots, wishing to show off probably, or at the passengers' request, turned off course to go and skim over one of the lakes, well away from the authorised flight lanes. According to witnesses, the craft suddenly sideslipped and dived, but managed to lift off again and land safely on the shore. But when they checked, they found one side of the aircar to be badly dented and smeared with dark blood. The obvious conclusion was that they had hit a dragon in full flight."
"But what kind of a pilot was that?" Sulu scoffed. "How could he collide with a dragon? I mean aren't they big enough to be seen?"
"Not if they are invisible, Mr Sulu," Spock pointed out, "which seems to have been the case..." He glanced at their hostesses who nodded affirmitively.
"The Berengarian dragons," he went on, "possess the ability to make themselves visible or invisible at will. Which makes it imperative for all vehicles to stay within the assigned space on the dragons' territory."
An affirmation which created quite a sensation in the landing party.
"Then we have got a problem!" Mr Scott pulled a face. "If those beasties are invisible, how are we going to manage with our H.D.s without running the risk of bumping smack into them?"
"I don't see where is the problem, Scotty," the Doctor put in. "Given Spock's talking relationship with the dragons, all he has to do is to ask them politely to be good enough to show themselves when you are around, so as to avoid being run into by your Harley Davidsons."
This caustic suggestion was received with perfect equanimity by the Vulcan who coolly said, "Perhaps I will, Doctor, if the situation calls for it!'
"Come off it, Spock! You want me to...?"
"Bones!" Kirk's quiet voice cut McCoy's retort short. "We'll see about that later. Mrs Boxberger, you were telling us about that accident by the lake, but what about the Caves?"
"Yes, well..." Anneli resumed, "That narrow escape by the lake did not teach them caution, on the contrary. They proceeded to the Crystal Caves, all three aircars together, and, in violation of our ancient traditions, they landed on the top of the highest peak for a picnic. You have to know that these hills are sacred to the dragons. No-one has ever dared climb or land up there out of respect for their traditional beliefs."
She paused and Ensign Dugovitch was heard muttering doubtfully, "Never heard of dragons having beliefs."
"Why not?" argued Mary Kincaid. "After all, they are sentient beings, like you and me, aren't they?"
Their aside earned them an ironic eyebrow lift from the First Officer and a quizzical side-glance from the captain who prompted Anneli with a nod and smile.
"So they landed on top of that mountain," she resumed, "and they had hardly settled down for their picnic when the ground began to shake. Just a slight tremor at first, then definitely a quake, more and more violent and frightening. Some of the tourists rushed to their craft, others were rooted to the spot, paralysed with fear, and unable to move as several gaps yawned open under their feet. Two of the skimmers took off in a rush, but the third one could not make it. It sank into a chasm, was caught in the landslide and was never seen again."
The shocked silence which followed the tale was broken by Doctor McCoy. "Were there many casualties?" he enquired.
"We were told fourteen missing," said Madame Laederle.
"There is something curious about all this," Spock thoughtfully noted. "If memory serves, the district of the lakes and the caves has never been subject to earthquakes, and the ship's sensors have not registered the slightest indication of seismic activity, and yet six years ago...?" he looked enquiringly at the innkeepers who nodded assent.
"You are right, Spock," the older one grimly said. "Never the least tremor has been detected in that district, before or since. Only that day when those people decided to have a picnic on the sacred hill."
"Excuse me, but are you implying that the landslide was not a natural phenomenon, but that it might have been engineered by the dragons?" Uhura asked doubtfully.
"It is the only possible explanation," Anneli replied, "but what do you think, Spock?"
"I agree," he replied. "From past experience with the dragons, I believe them to be quite capable of exerting their considerable powers to trigger off phenomena of that magnitude. Which proves that they must have been driven to extremes to resort to that kind of desperate action. But then, considering the harassment that they have been subjected to for so long, such a retaliation must have seemed justified in their view."
"Sorry, Spock, but I disagree!" McCoy countered sharply. "Nothing can justify the death of fourteen innocent victims."
"Innocent, Doctor? Were these people who deliberately profaned a revered site so innocent? And how many dragons were maimed or killed because of the carelessness, the arrogance of these 'innocent' people? Perhaps we shall never know."
There was that edge in the Vulcan's voice which made them stare at him somewhat disconcerted. Engineer Scott cleared his throat.
"Seems to me that you have strong views over this dragon business, Mr Spock," he remarked.
"Perhaps I have," Spock quietly replied, his cheekbones coloured by a slight touch of green, "but I cannot help but be shocked at seeing this beautiful world shamelessly exploited and its dragon population mistreated.
"I thought the days were over when colonists could, with impunity, dispose of native inhabitants by killing them or herding them into reservations, but it seems that I was mistaken."
"Yes, Spock, so it seems," the Captain nodded grimly. "The present Authorities of Berengaria have obviously never heard of the Prime Directive, or, if they have, they choose to ignore it. My friends, this situation is very bad and needs to be looked into. First thing, I shall send a report to Starfleet Command, and I would appreciate having your evidence, ladies, and that of any other reliable witness."
"You will have it, Captain, with our thanks for your help," Madame Laederle replied with satisfaction. "You can rely on our family and our friends to give you all the evidence that you need. "
"Good! This is settled then," Kirk said heartily. "But in the meantime, we shall..."
"Captain, with your permission," Uhura broke in with an apologetic smile, "couldn't we do something more practical now? I mean reports are very well, but by the time they reach Starfleet and someone makes a decision and... see what I mean?"
"Perfectly, Lieutenant, all the more since that is precisely what I was about to say when you interrupted me," Kirk told her. "Mr Spock, I suppose that you will agree with my view that a good report on the present dragon situation demands a thorough investigation of the site."
"Absolutely, Captain, and I propose that the survey team be assigned for the task, as the most qualified to accomplish this important mission."
"My thoughts precisely, Mr Spock." Kirk grinned at him. "Mr Kyle, please contact the ship and have them beam our six Harley Davidsons down immediately. The others can be sent later."
"Aye, sir, right away!" and the Transporter Chief went off to supervise the arrival of Scotty's precious machines.
Then, addressing the company at large, Kirk announced in his command mode. "All right, people! The time of stuffing yourselves with cakes and buns is over. Back to business. Survey team! We meet down on the lawn in fifteen minutes, suited and equipped for the ride. Bones, you are in charge while we're away. Check with our hostesses for our quarters. As for you, Lieutenants - " he looked at his female officers - "you are on shore leave, but if you want to make yourselves useful, you are welcome."
When, fifteen minutes later, the Captain and his second in command came down, both clad from head to foot in fetching black and tan, they ran into an impromptu gathering in front of the house where Mr Scott's motorcycles had been lined up as if for a parade. Obviously the locals had never seen anything like it, for the entire household had joined the Enterprise party so as to see the spectacle.
Kirk shared a look of amusement with Spock at finding Mr Scott holding forth on the superiority of the Harley Davidsons over any other ground vehicle, while Sulu, Kincaid and Dugovitch were giving the audience a free demonstration. They had hoisted the three children up on their bikes, and holding them firmly in front of them, they were giving them a ride up and down the path. And the children, who had never had such a treat before, were enjoying themselves hugely.
As soon as he caught sight of the Captain, Scotty broke off in midsentence. "Ah, there you are, sir," he said smartly. "We are all set. Ready when you are, Captain."
"Captain! Lieutenant DeSalle has confirmed from the ship that they are standing by with sensors to monitor your progress at all times," reported Chief Kyle.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I don't think we shall run into trouble, but you never know," Kirk remarked as he mounted his motorcycle. "And don't worry, Bones, we'll keep in touch and call you at regular intervals."
"You had better, Jim, if you don't want to find us hot on your trail," McCoy replied from his vantage point on the wooden balcony along the facade.
"That would be unwise, Doctor," Spock quietly pointed out.
"Of course, Mr Spock! You want us to kick our heels here while you have all the fun, as usual," the Doctor shot back, adding teasingly, "I hope, at least, that you know the way?"
The Vulcan calmly straddled his machine, looked up at the innkeepers who had joined the Doctor, and said, "I presume it is still that narrow road winding up through the forest?"
"Yes, it is the only way, Spock," Anneli told him. "But be careful! It must be in bad need of repair. No-one ever goes up there now. "
"That's fine with us, Ma'am," Scotty boasted cheerfully. "We can take in all kind of trails with these beauties. Captain? Waiting for the word, sir!"
"Right, Scotty. Spock, since you know the way, you take the lead. Let's go!'
A second later, the still air was filled with the deep throbbing of the six Harley Davidsons. While the officers donned their helmets and gave a last check of their equipment, Madame Laederle called the children who were dancing excitedly around the motorcycles.
"Liseli! Rudi! Come up here. You are in the way, don't you see?" Reluctantly they complied, everyone made way, and on a signal from the Captain, the Survey Team sprang forward, dashed down the road and soon disappeared from view.
The company dispersed, but McCoy and his female colleagues lingered on the balcony to enjoy the morning light and crisp, fresh air, a welcome change from the recycled air of the Enterprise.
Looking down the way the riders had gone, Uhura said wistfully, "I hope they will be all right."
"Don't worry, they can take care of themselves!" was Palmer's rejoinder.
"Yes, but what if they come upon the dragons?" Nurse Chapel argued.
"Do they risk being attacked?" She looked at their hostesses.
"I think their best chance is to have Spock with them," said Anneli. "The dragons are reputed to have great powers of retention, so they should remember him. He is probably the only Vulcan who ever talked to them."
"I'll bet he is!" McCoy chuckled. "But, talking about Vulcans... I am curious... what was it like to have a Vulcan boy for a playmate?"
"Oh..." Anneli laughed softly. "It was quite an experience!" She smiled reminiscently. "Imagine what it was for a six-year-old who had never seen Vulcans in her life. I tell you, with that elfin look he had, his pointed ears, his slanted eyebrows, to me Spock had just stepped out of a fairy tale. Of course my brothers and I were in awe of the Vulcan guests, specially of Ambassador Sarek who looked so imposing, and we used to watch them from afar."
“But it was Spock who fascinated me because he was about my age, I suppose. He was strange, he did not play with us, he was so quiet, so distant. I know that his mother, the lady Amanda, incited him to come and join us, but he would not, he would just sit and observe us from a safe distance, with that dark, intense gaze he has... remember, Mother? "
"Of course I remember." The old lady's face softened in a smile. "He was a beautiful child, so well behaved, so polite. He put me to shame when I compared him to your brothers, my dear. Little rascals, always out for mischief! But I felt better when the lady Amanda told me about the Vulcan upbringing and control of emotions. She said he had just passed the test."
"I know," Anneli nodded. "The rules of self discipline and obedience that he was submitted to seemed truly awesome to us kids. Even the few games he had were educational, and he would spend hours with his laptop computer."
"Then you never actually played together, did you?" Uhura wondered.
"Oh yes, we did, eventually. It took us three days to reach the speaking terms stage. I was very shy, then, and so was Spock, even stand-offish, you see. But we had one thing in common; an insatiable curiosity."
"Nothing changed, my dear! He is still as curious as a cat," was McCoy's wry comment which his fellow-officers confirmed with knowing smiles.
"And so what happened?" prompted Christine Chapel.
"Well, that day, I remember, I was trying to fix one of my toys, but the more I tried, the more it fell apart, and that made me mad and I was in tears. So, out of frustration, I started to break it for good, when suddenly I realised that Spock was beside me. He looked at me and asked, 'Why do you do that?' I tell you, I was so upset that I said something like 'What's that to you? it's broken anyway!'... To which he coldly replied that it was not logical!" They all laughed at that revelation.
"Well," Anneli resumed, "by then I was in no mood to take in any backchat from a boy, even from a Vulcan, so I replied furiously, 'Maybe not in your world, but here it's logical!' That gave him pause, for sure! He stared at me as solemn as a judge, and said, 'Oh, is it? Please, explain'."
Here again everyone burst out laughing. "That's Spock all over, "Uhura chortled. "Then what did you do?"
"Naturally, I could not explain anything, so, I recall, I just stood there, staring at him, not knowing what to do, what to say. Then he asked me if he could have a look at my toy... and guess what?" she smiled. "We ended up repairing the darned thing!"
"And that is how Spock became your playmate!" the Doctor was amused. "How long did Sarek and his party stay here?"
"Almost two weeks," replied Madame Laederle, "and I wished they could have stayed longer. We were all sorry to see them go, specially you, Anneli; you cried your eyes out when Spock took his leave of us."
"Of course, we had shared so much during those two weeks," her daughter said somewhat wistfully.
"Mama! Mama!" Guneli was standing on tiptoe and calling for attention.
"Hush, darling, what is it?"
"What was that toy that Spock mended for you?" she wanted to know.
"Don't you remember?" scoffed her sister. "It's the wooden chariot up on the top shelf in the lounge, isn't it, Mama?"
"Yes! The toy Mama doesn't want us to play with because Spock is no longer here to fix it," Rudi intoned complacently.
"That's not true!" Guneli argued. "He is here now, he can fix it if we play with it."
"A sound reasoning, young lady!" McCoy chuckled and patted her cheek .
"Yes, he is, darling," her mother smiled down at her, "but I am afraid he has more urgent things to do than to repair my old wooden chariot."
Indeed, at that very moment Spock was fully absorbed in picking his way between the potholes, the felled trees, and the rocks which obstructed the road that years of neglect had turned into a hazardous mountain trail.
To make things worse the fog, which had cleared down by the lake, was still dense in the forest, and layers of mist drifted across their path. His shipmates followed doggedly, his Captain right behind him. None of them spoke, intent on staying in line, and on avoiding potential pitfalls.
The rough track was now rising steadily, zigzagging between the trees up the steep hillside, and the Harley Davidsons responded bravely to the effort demanded of them. Mr Scott, for all the bumps and shocks he had to endure, was therefore quite satisfied with them. So far, this test on rough ground was conclusive.
Presently, the fog cleared up ahead of the team, and they finally reached the edge of the forest and the uplands which stretched out all around in the bright sunlight.
With Spock still in the lead, the Survey Team followed the trail for another hundred meters or so, then it petered out by a large wooden board fixed to the remains of a broken-down fence. By common consent, then, the officers paused and alighted, glad to stretch their legs and take a break.
Sulu's first comment after taking off his helmet was short and to the point. "God! That was a rough one! Now I know what it means to be saddle sore... ouch!"
"So do I," laughed Ensign Dugovitch, feeling his backside with a cautious hand. "But it was fun, though."
"That, gentlemen, was but a foretaste of what is to come," the Captain dryly remarked with a comprehensive glance around. "Your Harleys have done very well, Scotty, but look at that stretch of ground. Do you think that they will make it?"
"Sure, Captain. Don't worry, my bikes won't let you down." Mr Scott sounded full of confidence but, catching the eye of Ensign Kincaid who was relaxing, propped against her motorcycle, he felt bound to ask her, "What about you, lassie? Will you be all right?"
"I'll be fine, Mr Scott. I am just a bit stiff and sore, like Sulu said."
"I think we all are," Kirk grinned, "except, perhaps, our resident Vulcan. Spock, found something?" he called out to the First Officer who had walked a few steps away and was now studying the wooden board.
"Yes, Captain. If you would come and look at this?"
They all trooped up around him and peered at the inscription, so faded as to be almost indecipherable.
"Can't make head or tail of this," Scotty grumbled. "What does it say?"
"From what I can make out," Spock replied, "it says, 'Caution. Entering Dragon Reservation. Beware of...' That is all. The rest has rubbed off."
"So this is it," Kirk said grimly. "The Reservation where they parked the dragons, damn them!"
"Must remind you of those Indian reservations that used to be found in the barren sections of your country, back in the twentieth century," the Chief Engineer remarked.
"It does, Scotty, and it is not something that I am proud to recall, believe me. Spock! Any sign of the dragons?" Kirk asked the Vulcan who was scanning the area with his tricorder.
"Negative, Captain. No sentient life forms anywhere around. I suggest that we proceed without further delay."
And so the Enterprise six started again and, deliberately ignoring the warning board, boldly rode into dragon territory. For almost half an hour they crossed some kind of wasteland scattered with prickly bushes, tumbles of rocks, and gutted with ravines which the H.D.s imperturbably took in their stride, to finally climb up a height on top of which the Captain signalled for a halt.
They were actually standing at the edge of the plateau, a vantage point which afforded a breathtaking view. Some five hundred meters below was a canyon which gradually widened into a lush valley stretching out as far as a range of snow-capped mountains which barred the horizon.
That valley was dotted with a series of lakes reflecting the green sky and sparkling in the morning light like a string of precious beads. The last wisps of the mist were fast disappearing, blown away by a light breeze, and the lakes were revealed in all their splendour and the full range of their amazing colours - from pure emerald to a green so deep as to look almost black, lightened by gleams of jade from tones of turquoise to pale shades of aquamarine. The effect was magic and the Survey Team just stood and admired in silence.
After a moment, Mary Kincaid was heard whispering, "It's so unexpected! So incredibly beautiful!"
"You are right, lassie," Mr Scott nodded in appreciation. "This is a bonny sight, for sure; those lakes can rank with some of our Highland lochs."
"So this must be what they call the Lake District, Spock," Kirk observed.
"Yes, Captain, and if memory serves, the Crystal Caves are over there." He pointed at the hills beyond the valley.
"The hills of the landslide? The sacred hills?" Sulu enquired.
"Correct, Mr Sulu."
"Do you think the dragons will let us have a look at the Caves?" There was a wistful tone in the helmsman's voice.
"We shall have to ask them, Lieutenant".
"Oh? Oh yes, of course. Why not!" Sulu grinned. He could never tell whether the Vulcan's peculiar sense of humour was deliberate or accidental.
"That's all very well, Mr Spock," Scotty demurred. "But how do you propose to do that? Look!" He swept an arm over the scenery. "Not a single dragon in sight as far as we can see."
"I can assure you, Mr Scott, that we shall see the dragons, but only when they see fit to show themselves to us," was Spock's unflappable reply.
Scotty pulled a face. He was obviously disappointed, but Kirk reminded them all that it was early yet. Then, fishing his communicator out of the inside pocket of his suit, he flipped it open and called, "Kirk to McCoy! Doctor McCoy, please respond!"
"Jim? That you, Jim?" The Doctor's voice burst out of the com device. "Where are you? Are you all right? It's almost two hours since you left and I was worrying myself sick!"
"Don't, Bones. Everything is fine. We had a rather bumpy ride but it was worth it. We are now in the Reservation and in view of the famous lakes and of the sacred hills. It's beautiful here."
"Can we come and join you?" McCoy sounded hopeful but Kirk, after a glance at Spock's face, denied permission.
"No, not yet, Bones. First we must try and contact the dragons. We'll let you know when it is safe to come over. Just wait for the word, okay?"
"Understood, Jim, but please be careful!"
"We will, Bones, over... And now, gentlemen," Kirk went on, "we had better get going, but first, we must find a way down there." And he looked dubiously at the valley below.
"Captain!... Captain Kirk!" Ensign Dugovitch, who had gone off to investigate, was calling and waving them over.
He had indeed found a way down, a slight depression in the plateau leading to some kind of trail, so narrow and so abrupt that it must have been carved out of the face of the cliff. Kirk and Spock climbed down from their machines, and took a few steps to get a closer look.
The trail was little better than a dirt track, its surface rutted out and strewn with loose stones. They looked at each other, and Kirk made a face.
"Mmmm, it's going to be tough but I think we can make it. Opinion, Spock?"
The Vulcan tested the ground with his foot, looked around, then back at Kirk. "It seems to be the only way to the valley, Jim. I don't see any alternative other than having the ship beam us across to the lakes."
"And miss all the fun? Surely not, Spock! Scotty - " Kirk addressed the Scot who had just joined them. "Do you think we can risk your bikes down this way, or would you rather have us beamed safely over to the lakes?"
"Och, Captain, we have come this far, and we don't have that much further to go... it would be a shame to give up now," the Engineer protested.
"That's what I thought," Kirk nodded. "All right, let's go!"
"Very well, Captain," Spock calmly assented, "but may I recommend that we exercise extreme caution and keep close to the face of the cliff? Also, with your permission, Captain, I shall go first."
Kirk cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "For any specific reason?
"A Vulcan's reflexes are superior, and faster than that of a human, Jim."
"An irrefutable argument, Mr Spock! Lead on, then."
It took them a good half hour to reach the foot of the hill, with no more mishap than some close encounters between their fenders and the rock face, and the great fright of Mary Kincaid when her Harley Davidson slithered suddenly down over loose stones. It was Sulu's swift reaction in blocking her sliding with his own machine which saved her from toppling over the edge. No need to say that the five Humans heaved a sigh of relief when they reached the valley and came upon a bifurcation where they halted for a rest.
"Well, that was a close call, specially for the lassie here," Mr Scott conceded, "but our Harleys have pulled it off, Captain, just as I said."
"Remarkably so, Mr Scott," the Vulcan acknowledged.
"Thank you, Mr Spock. Still, I have to admit that there is no way we can go back up that trail again. We'll have to find another way back, or beam over to the inn."
"You don't mean it, Scotty!" Sulu exclaimed in mock dismay, "I was looking forward to doing it all over again!"
Scotty shook his head at him. "No-one is stopping you, Hikaru, but I'll bet you will be going back that way all by yourself. And now, which way, Captain?" he asked Kirk who was conferring with his First Officer.
"Well, since there are two directions apparently, we'll try them both, which means we'll have to split up. Spock, you take Scotty and Kincaid with you and go down that path to the left. Sulu and Dugovitch, with me. Let us see where this trail leads, along the hillside."
"Be careful, Captain, and make sure you keep to the trail," was Spock's advice.
"Sure, Spock!" Kirk airily replied. "Better not run into invisible dragons if we can help it. We'll keep in touch, anyway." And he set off, closely followed by Security Officer Dugovitch and the Chief Helmsman.
Spock followed them with his eyes, then he nodded to his companions, donned his helmet, and started off at low speed. For the next fifteen minutes they rode in silence along the trail which wound gently down in the direction of the lakes. The contrast was great between the arid plateau and this luscious land of open spaces and leafy copses. Spock frequently checked his tricorder for the presence of life forms but, apart from a number of birds and small furry animals which scampered away at their approach, there was no sign yet of any big creatures, a situation confirmed by their last contact with the Captain.
After a while, the gleam of water shimmering at intervals between the trees proved that the trio was going in the right direction. And indeed, after a last turn, they suddenly came upon a lake so pure that its crystal clear waters reflected the scenery along its banks like a mirror.
Spock duly reported their finding to Captain Kirk, then he and his shipmates proceeded along a level path now wide enough for them to ride three abreast. The Scots and Irish officers were obviously enjoying the peaceful scenery which reminded them of their native countries, but Spock was ever watchful, all his keen senses on the alert. He remembered the Berengarian dragons' propensity for appearing when they were least expected.
The trail skirted the water's edge for some distance, then it turned sharply inland, and suddenly the three officers found themselves surrounded by a dense fog billowing mysteriously all around them. Spock halted at once, as did his companions, and Scotty wondered under his breath, "What's that, Mr Spock? Never seen fog like that before."
"I believe that we have company, Mr Scott," Spock murmured. "Keep quiet and do not move. I shall try to contact them."
He dismounted, took off his helmet, placed it on the seat of his Harley, and walked with measured steps up to a spot where the mist was particularly thick. Then, to Scott's and Kincaid's amazement, Spock raised his right hand, fingers parted in the Vulcan salute, and intoned, "Greetings. I am Spock of Vulcan. May I join my mind to yours?"
There was an eerie silence. The Vulcan officer waited, perfectly still. Then his shipmates saw him reach out, his fingers spread out in the position of the mindmeld, and close his eyes in deep concentration.
Scott and Kincaid shared a bemused glance and watched in silence their superior officer communing with what looked like nothing but thin air. Then, to their stupefaction, the insubstantial mist which enfolded Spock dissolved, and under his hand something solid and tangible slowly took shape, something so enormous that Scotty's jaw dropped, and Mary Kincaid, her grey eyes wide open, could only gasp, "Oh, my God!"
Meantime, Captain Kirk and his officers were picking berries in a clearing by the trail which had brought them to a forest. The site was so pleasant, so inviting, that Kirk had called for a halt in the shade of spruce-like trees. After all, they were on shore leave, so why not take a break and give Mr Sulu a few moments to indulge in a botanic spree?
Therefore Sulu and Dugovitch had started off with their tricorders, prepared to record whatever they could find of the local flora and fauna.
It was Sulu who found a cluster of bushes covered with small blue berries which, when checked with his tricorder, proved to be not only edible, but deliciously sweet and juicy when he tasted them. Kirk, relaxing in the grass, was advised at once of that important finding. Climbing to his feet, he threw away the blade of grass he had been chewing and joined his men for the treat.
"Captain, do you think that might be Mr Spock's blueberries?" asked Ensign Dugovitch, unaware of the dark red juice dripping down his chin.
"Mmmm, probably," was all that the Captain managed to say with his mouth full.
"I am pretty sure they are, sir," Sulu interjected, "and with your permission, I'd like to take some cuttings of these bushes. I would be surprised if hydroponics could not come up with some viable plants."
"Good idea, Mr Sulu," Kirk said heartily. "I am sure that our Science Officer would have no objection."
"If you don't mind, Captain, I'd rather not tell Mr Spock." Sulu grinned apologetically, "At least, not until I have obtained some blueberries."
"That's even better! Go ahead, Sulu, gather your samples, then we'll have to move on."
Sulu was putting the cuttings safely away in his sample bags, and his companions gathering a last handful of berries, when the Captain's communicator chirped loudly.
"Ah, talk of the devil!" Kirk quipped as he flipped the device open, "Kirk here. Report, Mr Spock!"
"Captain!" squeaked a choked voice. "Captain!" It was not the First Officer but a flustered Chief Engineer who took a deep breath and finally blurted out, "Captain, sir! There be dragons here!"
Kirk stiffened. "Dragons, you say? Are they hostile? How many of them, and where the heck is Spock?" he fired off even as Sulu and Dugovitch ran over and joined him.
"Spock is talking to the beasties," Scotty was heard reporting. "Two of them, each as big as a shuttlecraft. So far, they seem friendly enough, Captain, and very curious about us, for sure."
"All right, Scotty. Be very careful. Stay just where you are. We are coming, and keep me informed." Kirk ordered while running back to the place where they had parked their motorcycles.
"Aye, sir, but believe me, we are not going anywhere. The wee lassie is right with me, as excited as a kid in a toy-store. It's unbelievable, I never thought I would... Good Grief! Here are more dragons coming, three... four... six, seven!... Would you look at that!"
With Scotty's running commentary to spur them on, Kirk and his team jumped onto their Harleys, kicked them off, and went tearing along the trail, heading back to the crossroads. Drawing all the power they could get out of their machines, they reached the lake in record time. From there, however, on the Engineer's recommendation, they proceeded at a slower pace and as quietly as possible, so as not to risk upsetting the dragons. As the Captain remarked, this was where they could give Mr Scott full credit for having devised, for his Harley Davidsons, engines that were practically silent.
Actually, Kirk did not exactly know what to expect and, because of his vast experience in deep space, he was ready for anything. But when they arrived at last at the meeting place, he could but stare, lost for words. His two shipmates pulled up beside him and slowly took off their helmets, also awed beyond speech. The sight was simply incredible.
About half a dozen enormous beasts were gathered on the turf, their huge crested heads inclined towards the three officers who looked like mere puppets beside them. Spock was doing the talking while Scott and Kincaid watched a few steps behind him, each one curiously at ease in the presence of these awesome creatures. Awesome? Yes, and gigantic, horrific, fabulous. This was how dragons had always been described in old folklore but, to the Captain, they looked beautiful.
Their bodies were the colour of a rainbow, their wings, neatly folded on their backs, appeared iridescent in the sunlight, and their crests shone like crowns on their heads. After a moment of contemplation, the Captain jerked back to reality. He took his com device from his inner pocket and quietly called Doctor McCoy.
"Bones?" he whispered. "We have found the dragons, Spock was right. No, so far they don't seem to pose a threat, but of course we'll be careful. No, sorry, Bones, not yet. We must first make sure they don't object to aircars flying around. I'll let you know, of course. Kirk out."
With a word of caution to his junior officers, Kirk made his way toward his comrades. The beasts at once swivelled their heads round; their large topaz eyes stared at the newcomers and steamlike breath puffed out of their wide nostrils. The three Humans halted in their tracks, but Spock then looked round and waved them over. Seconds later, the entire survey team was reassembled under the inquisitive eyes of the dragons.
"Are you three all right?" was the first question Kirk asked under his breath.
"Sure, Captain, no problem," Scotty said, likewise. "Mr Spock had told them who we are. Now, what do you think of them beasties?"
"Words fail me, Scotty! Spock, do you think we are accepted?"
"I believe so, Captain," replied his friend, who then remarked, "I see that you have been eating blueberries."
"Damn! Is it that obvious?" Kirk muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand in a vain attempt to rub off the bluish smudges.
"It is, Jim, and I know from experience that the blueberry juice is fast and does not remove easily." Spock's lips curved slightly in amusement. But a loud hiss from one of the dragons called his attention and, looking round, he quietly said, "No, Pingle, these Humans are not intruders, they are officers from my ship. May I introduce our Captain, James T. Kirk; our Chief Helmsman, Lieutenant Sulu, and Security Ensign Dugovitch."
Two of the reptiles lowered their heads to take a closer look at the Humans then, seemingly satisfied, straightened up and blew more steam out of their noses.
"This means that you are accepted, Captain. This is Puff, the head of the clan, and Pingle, his mate, and their family and associates," Spock explained.
"Pleased to meet you." The Captain flashed the dragons his trademark smile, asking Spock, sotto voce, "Are these the dragons that you met as a child, Spock?"
"Yes, some of them, and fortunately, they remembered me."
"Lucky for us," Sulu commented wryly, "but what if we meet some dragons who have not?" To his dismay, the chief dragon opened its mouth wide, revealing rows of very sharp teeth, and he let out a string of sibilant hoots, much like an asthmatic steam engine. "Oh dear! Have I said something out of line?" Sulu asked in trepidation.
"No, Mr Sulu, Puff in only laughing at you," the Vulcan told him. "He is amused by your concern, and... " He broke off a few seconds then resumed. "Yes, Puff says that he and his kin do not harm outworlders who come in peace and who respect their people and their land."
"That's good to know," Kirk noted with satisfaction. "But there is a problem, Spock. They hear everything we say? Right - trouble is that only you can hear what they say, and we need to talk with them. How is this going to work? Are you going to act as interpreter? It is going to take the hell of a time, and we don't have much time, Spock."
"I know, Captain, but I think this can be arranged." Spock then turned to the giant creatures who were following their exchange with great attention and interest. "Puff, and you, Pingle, I have a favour to ask you. Could you communicate directly with my Captain and my shipmates, as you do with me? Yes, I know they are only Humans and their mental powers are therefore limited... but it would greatly facilitate our conversation, and there are important questions that we need to discuss with you."
He fell silent and waited, unaware of the amused glances that the said Humans were exchanging behind his back. The next instant, their amusement turned into amazement at hearing a resonant voice rumble in their minds.
/Your request is accepted, Spock,/ it was saying distinctly. /We also have questions to ask so, exceptionally, we shall communicate directly with your human friends./
Kirk blinked, then looked at his team. "Well," he said, "from that dazed look I see on your faces, I deduce that you have all heard the reply that the dragon gave Spock."
"Aye, I did, Captain. It's... it's positively weird," Mr Scott exclaimed. "How do they do that?"
Kirk looked at his Vulcan friend. "You are the expert in that field, Mr Spock, can you explain?"
"It is a simple example of mind cast, common to most telepathic species, Captain. But their mental powers are particularly strong, therefore they can project their mind speech at a fairly great distance."
"Sir, can they also hear our thoughts from a distance?" Ensign Kincaid looked somewhat uneasy.
"Affirmative, Ensign. They can pick up your thought patterns as well as your voice."
"Oh, I see... " she said, disconcerted by this turn of events.
"That means that you had better think twice before you speak or even think around here," Lieutenant Sulu teased.
"That is exactly what I mean to do, Mr Sulu," she countered with spirit. "I would not want them to know what I think of you!"
A repartee which sparked off the laughter of her shipmates and a series of strident hoots from the dragons.
"Well, my friends," noted the Captain, "looks like we are all on the same wavelength. Perfect! Now that communication has been established, let us talk."
And talk they did, right on the spot, the Starfleet officers sitting cross-legged on the turf, facing the dragons gathered around their chief.
Puff and his associates, both curious and a bit doubtful about their unexpected visitors, wanted to know what reason had brought them to this remote section of the planet, the more so since outworlders had, for years now, steered clear of the Reservation. Actually, the presence of the Vulcan among them attested the good will of the Humans, but the beasts were taking no risks and demanded an explanation.
Captain Kirk, after consulting with his senior officers, opted for the truth. He briefly explained that, the crew of the Enterprise being due a period of shore leave, he and his command staff had selected Berengaria for a few days of rest and recreation, but more specifically, for a chance to test their brand new motorcycles, a project, he added with his famous smile, to which he hoped his eminent friends would have no objection.
Now, Kirk could not have chosen a better approach to win the favour of the dragons. As it happened, the Harley Davidsons had aroused their curiosity and vivid interest as soon as the Enterprise officers had set foot in their domain - an interest which had turned into fascination when they had watched, still invisible to the survey team, the amazing performances of the bipedal beings mounted on their strange wheeled vehicles.
No wonder, then, if Puff replied that they had no objection, and wanted to see a demonstration there and then. Accordingly, Sulu and Dugovitch, having at once volunteered, started parading back and forth in front of their audience with such zest and daring that they had them roaring and hooting in enthusiastic appreciation.
All this excitement was bound to attract the attention of their neighbours, and by and by a dozen more dragons arrived, flying from every direction, to find out what all that rumpus was about.
Once informed of the situation, they naturally joined the party and squatted down by their friends to watch the aliens and their wonderful machines.
The Captain, then, in view of this unforeseen success, and seeing there a great opportunity to furthering what looked like promising relations, formally introduced the Chief Engineer as the designer and producer of the Harley Davidsons. The audience went wild. Never in his career had Mr Scott been praised and acclaimed as he was by the enthusiastic dragons. Quite embarrassed at first, he blushed, and smiled and bowed, then meeting the intent gaze of the Vulcan officer, he realised that his sudden popularity gave him a chance to promote his pet project.
So Scotty stood up, bowed again, and raised a hand to claim attention. Having at last obtained a moment of silence, he declared that he was happy to inform the gracious company that the Harley Davidson Club of the U.S.S. Enterprise would be proud to present a show performed by their crack riders. The show would consist of a motorcycle carousel, a demonstration of jumping, and, last but not least, a cross country race around the lakes to finish at the Crystal Caves of universal fame. In conclusion, he added with a hearty smile, "Of course, the whole dragon community is invited. All we need now is your approval and your agreement over a convenient time, tomorrow, perhaps or the day after. It is for you to decide."
In the stunned silence which followed this speech, Scott resumed his place by his comrades.
Mr Spock's approval was expressed in a murmur. "Good thinking, and good timing, Mr Scott."
"I only hope it will work," Scotty replied in a low voice.
"At least they have not rejected the idea outright," Sulu noted under his breath, "but they take the hell of a time to make a decision."
Apparently the dragons were in the thick of a hot debate to judge by their fierce growls and steam-puffing hisses. It was clear that some of them were raising objections which others were dismissing outright. Moments later, however, one of the newcomers, notable for his bulk and the golden brown tone of his scales, turned his head to the officers, and they heard him growl in their minds. /Greetings. I am Duff, chief of the Daffak. You are welcome with your rolling machines on my land which lies beyond the Sapphire Lake, but on no account must you go near the Crystal Caves./
"Greetings, Duff of the Daffak. Is there any special reason why we should not?" Kirk asked politely, "We are spacefarers who have come a long way to explore your beautiful Lakes and Caves. Could you not make an exception?"
/I am the keeper of the Caves,/ rumbled Duff's voice, /We have in the past allowed too many outworlders into our caves. They have caused much damage, they have destroyed and stolen our property. I will not let that happen again!/
Puff then intervened and the two launched into an argument with fierce grunts and hisses, while Kirk and his team could but summon up their patience. At last, Duff was heard again saying, /I will speak to the Vulcan called Spock./
"I am Spock of Vulcan," Spock stated quietly. "Can I be of assistance?"
/Yes, Spock of Vulcan,/ the dragon replied /Puff here tells us that you are known to him and his kin. He says that you can be trusted. If I grant you and your comrades entry to our Crystal Caves, will you respect them? Can we rely on you to preserve what is ours?/
"You can, Duff of the Daffak. I give you my word as a Vulcan that I and my fellow officers will respect your land, your traditions and those caves and hills which you hold sacred," Spock solemnly declared.
"And I, James Kirk, Captain of the Enterprise, give you my word as a Starfleet officer, on behalf of my crew and myself," Kirk put in no less solemnly.
These promises were, apparently, all that the dragons needed to give their assent to the H.D. Project, including a visit to the Crystal Caves and, without more ado, arrangements were made for the motorcycle show to take place on the same location on the following day. But another problem arose when Captain Kirk announced that their colleagues, who were staying at the Gasthof, would fly over by skimmer to join their party.
At the mere mention of a flying vessel, a great agitation seized the dragons. They flapped their wings, blew off steam, swung their long necks, and Pingle raised her head and gave vent to a horrific, ear-splitting ululation. Her companions took it up and, the next moment, all the dragons were joining in a chorus of wailing and screaming.
This was so sudden, so eerie that the Humans felt shivers run up their spines.
"Good Grief!" muttered Scotty, "they sound like a band of banshees. It's enough to give you the creeps!"
"Spock!" hissed Kirk. "Any idea what's that for? It sounds like a dirge."
"I believe it is, Captain. Your mention of a skimmer must have brought back painful memories. I assume they are lamenting the loss of relatives."
Suddenly the wailing became clear in their minds and they heard voices booming, /Yes, we are weeping over our dead, over our innocent children killed by the intruders in their flying machines... Murderers! They maimed our kin, poisoned our children! They profaned our sacred hills, our Caves!/
Then, in the midst of the uproar, another voice, the deep voice of the Vulcan was heard, calm and soothing, and so persuasive that the screaming abated gradually, to finally cease in a heavy silence.
And Spock was heard saying, "We understand, we know how you feel. We were told of the wrongs that they have done you and we grieve with you. But perhaps some of the harm done can be repaired, some of the wounds can be healed. We are here to serve, to help you. If we can be of assistance to you, and in any way, let us know."
There was a moment of hesitation among the dragons who had never been made such an offer by outworlders, and so Kirk hastened to second Spock's proposal. "Yes, Spock is right," he said. "We are shocked by the shameful way you have been treated. We are ready to help and try to put things right."
The dragons stared at Kirk and Spock in silence, then Puff said sadly, /We thank you both, but what is the use now? Even if we recover the land which they took from us, our dead will not come back to life, our wounded will not be cured./
/And our young will still die of the disease sown over our land by the intruders!/ Pingle exclaimed fiercely. /It is too late, you cannot undo the harm they have done us!/
The Enterprise officers exchanged startled glances.
"Disease? What disease are you talking about?" Scotty enquired.
/A sickness which attacks those of our children who touched the leftovers scattered about by the outworlders,/ Duff explained. /We had warned them to stay away from those strange objects but, alas, they were curious, they wanted to know, and now many are sick and dying./
"Good God! He probably means the trash dumped by the tourists, as Madame Laederle told us," Sulu said under his breath.
"Yes, very likely," Kirk nodded, "with the result that the local population was infected. My friends, this business is going from bad to worse!'
"Indeed, Captain. Their physiology is apparently not immune to extraneous contamination," Spock grimly agreed. "But there might be a possibility. What if Doctor McCoy...?"
"My thoughts exactly, Spock. Yes, we'll have to bring him over here," Kirk decided, then he raised a hand and said loud and clear, "My friends, I need your attention, please. Listen, it is perhaps not too late, perhaps something can be done about your sick children."
/What can you do, Human, that we could not do with our healing powers and curative waters?/ Duff's voice sounded doubtful.
"Not me, Duff. I am a starship Captain, not a Doctor," Kirk replied with a straight face, "but there is in my crew a wise man, expert in healing, who might be able to help you. Let me call him now. Believe me, Duff, if there is anyone around here who can find a cure, it's our healer."
There was silence in the assembly as they pondered over Kirk's proposal. Duff still seemed dubious, but Puff finally convinced his associates. After all, if there was a chance for a cure, why not seize it? The Captain sighed with relief when at last the company agreed to call in the Doctor, but... there still remained the problem of the aircar.
"There is the question of transportation that we must consider," his First Officer calmly pointed out. "Our healer, Doctor McCoy, does not ride wheeled vehicles, as we do. Furthermore, he must come with his medical team and his equipment. Therefore, he has to use his aircar. ...Yes, I know, I am well aware of your strong aversion for flying machines, and I understand your reasons." Spock had to raise his voice to cover the loud protests. "But, please, hear me out! I have a proposal which, I trust, you will find acceptable and which would solve our problem. Please listen to me!" Having at last obtained the dragons' full attention, the Vulcan resumed. "I suggest that you send a couple of your more qualified youths to the border of your territory so as to meet the Doctor's skimmer. Since neither the Doctor nor his followers know the way, your young dragons will escort them here. But, and this is important, your envoys must make sure to be fully visible all the time that they fly in the vicinity of the aircar to avoid any incident and any unintentional collision. You must understand that our pilots, for all their skill and their scanning technology, are at a disadvantage if they cannot see you flying about. So this is what we propose. We await your decision."
Yet again the beasts conferred among themselves, then Puff, acting as spokesperson, enquired, "Is it the only way to transport your healer here?"
"It is the best and fastest way," Spock firmly replied, after meeting the Captain's eye - a reply which sparked off another commotion among the volatile creatures with a tremendous show of hissings and growlings.
"What now?" Mr Scott grunted. "Looks like they have quite an argument over that suggestion of yours, Mr Spock. Wonder what will come out of it?"
"I believe that the debate is not over my proposal but over which of them is going to meet Doctor McCoy at the border, and there seems to be quite a competition among the juvenile dragons," Spock blandly revealed.
Finally two hefty youths were selected for the assignment. They were duly briefed by Puff and Captain Kirk and strongly enjoined to keep clear of the skimmer; after which both, visibly full of their own importance, unfolded their wings and took flight. After taking a turn high above the gathering, they headed to the plateau, and suddenly vanished from sight.
Meantime, Kirk was calling Doctor McCoy over his communicator. "Yes, Bones, this is it. You can come over, but listen! I need you with your medical kit and your team, Nurse, medics, the whole lot."
"My God, Jim! What happened?" The good Doctor sounded distraught. "I knew it! One of you had an accident. How bad is it?"
"No, no!" Kirk laughed. "Nothing of the sort, Doctor. We are all in perfect shape, thank you. Actually the problem lies with the dragons."
"Oh, so you have actually seen them?"
"More than that, Bones. We have been talking with them for the last half-hour or so. The point is that some of their young are sick and dying, and I want you to have a look and see if you can come up with some cure."
"What!?" McCoy's indignant voice erupted from the communicator. "Is that why you are calling me over? You want me to treat your antediluvian creatures? I am a Doctor, not a palaeontologist!"
"Exactly, Doctor! and that's why I need you here. These dragons are sentient beings and some of them are ill, probably from an infection brought in by some damned sightseers. They are helpless and dying, Bones. We cannot leave them in this plight without attempting anything."
"Oh... Hmmm... All right, I see what you mean, Jim. That's different, of course. I'll do my best. Give me ten minutes to get ready and we'll be on our way. Oh, by the way, can I bring the girls along with us?"
"You mean Uhura and Palmer? Sure. Actually they might make themselves useful here. Thank you, Bones. I knew I could rely on you. Now, is Chief Kyle somewhere around? Get him for me, please." As he waited, the Captain caught sight of the Vulcan's eyebrows raised in silent query, and he said with a wry smile, "Yes, of course, he'll do it, but you know McCoy... he had to first do his grousing routine!... That you, Mr Kyle? Right. I want you at the helm of the Doctor's aircar, for we need an experienced pilot to come over here. I understand it is fully operational?"
"Aye, sir. We have been working on it while awaiting your orders."
"Good. Now, listen, Lieutenant. You will fly as far as the limit of the Dragon Reservation. Mr Spock will give you the exact coordinates. Once there, you stop and hold position, understood? You don't go further, you just wait for the couple of dragons we have sent over to meet you and escort you all the way here."
A clearing of throat was distinctly heard over the line, then Kyle's voice, sounding somewhat diffident. "Er... did you say a couple of dragons, sir?... to escort us?"
"Yes, I did," Kirk chuckled. "I know it sounds crazy but, trust me, we are steeped up to the neck in fairy tales right now!"
"Oh?... Very well, sir, I shall carry out your orders to the letter," Kyle replied with commendable sang-froid, adding under his breath, "I'll bet that Doctor McCoy will love it!"
"He will, Lieutenant, he will!... Kirk out."
"I would give a lot to see the doc's face when he realizes who is coming to escort him," Ensign Dugovitch commented with a grin.
"Aye, laddie, so would I," Mr Scott agreed, "but wait till he lands bang in the middle of this pow-wow." He nodded at the dragon gathering. "Then he will have to admit that you were right, eh, Mr Spock?"
"That remains to be seen, Mr Scott," was the Vulcan's caustic rejoinder.
A small aircar, with Chief Kyle at the controls, was sweeping over the dense forest which stretched for kilometers beyond the Emerald lake. The passengers, Lieutenants Palmer and Uhura, and the medical team, Doctor McCoy, Nurse Chapel, medics Castel and Ramanantsoa, were gazing out of the large viewport which offered an extensive vista of the scenery.
"There seems to be no end to that wood. Sure it's the right direction, Lieutenant?" McCoy spoke up after a moment.
"Aye, Doctor. I have set the course on the coordinates given by Mr Spock. Anyway," Kyle checked his flight board, "it should not be long now."
"That must be the way they went," Uhura pointed out. "I can catch glimpses of a winding road under the trees. A rough ride, by the look of it!"
"That's what they were looking for, isn't it?" McCoy snorted. "There is no accounting for taste, after all."
Moments later, the blue-green mass of the forest was left behind and they were flying over the uplands which looked like an endless desert of rocks, dotted with sparse vegetation and slashed by narrow gullies. With a look at his controls, Lieutenant Kyle reduced speed to finally stop altogether and put the craft in hovering mode.
"Well, what are we waiting for, Lieutenant?" the Doctor asked with some impatience.
"Captain's orders, sir. We have reached the limit of the Dragons' Reservation and we must hold position. It seems that we cannot fly over their land without being duly escorted."
"Well, can't say that I blame them," Uhura quietly remarked, "they have had enough trouble with aircars, shuttles and the like, I am sure."
"Sure, but it's no reason to keep us waiting in the middle of nowhere," McCoy complained. "Where is that security fellow who is supposed to escort us?" He peered down in search of a Harley Davidson biker, but Kyle, who kept an eye on his scanner, smiled privately and announced,
"Here are our escorts, two of them, Doctor. Not down below... straight ahead, sir."
"What do you mean, straight ahead!" the Doctor objected. "If it is your idea of... Good Heavens!" He stared in fascinated shock.
An enormous crested head had suddenly materialised on the other side of the front port, and a pair of crystalline eyes was looking in with obvious curiosity. A few tense seconds ticked by as the Humans stared back, as if mesmerized, at the creature. Then it blinked and opened its huge mouth in what was probably meant to be a welcoming smile, after which the monster moved aside, revealing another one, hovering behind him, who had apparently been waiting his turn for a peek.
That broke the spell and the skimmer resounded with rapt exclamations.
"Wow! Look at them! Aren't they gorgeous?" Palmer enthused.
"You know," Uhura put in, "I never thought I would see real live dragons in my life, and here they are. It's fantastic!"
"So dragons do exist on Berengaria. Mr Spock was right." With that sly comment, Christine Chapel stole a side glance at McCoy who found himself, for once, bereft of speech.
During this exchange of views, the two dragons had made an about turn and, spreading out their vast rainbow-like wings, were preparing to fly back the way they had come. As they looked back to make sure that the outworlders were coming along, Chapel exclaimed, "Look! They want us to follow them."
"Sure! That's why they were sent by Captain Kirk, to show us the way. Here we go!" Kyle said as he set the craft on the move again.
Doctor McCoy then heaved a long sigh. "Well, my friends," he declared, "after all these years spent under Jim Kirk's command, I thought I had seen it all. But it seems that I was wrong. If he can assign a pair of Berengarian dragons to escort us as easily as a pair of raw recruits, believe me, we can prepare ourselves for some pretty astounding moments."
"Aha, Doctor!" Uhura teased, "I see that your innate scepticism is finally giving way under such overwhelming evidence."
"Yeah... much as I hate to admit it, it seems that that damned Vulcan was right. There are dragons on Berengaria," McCoy said, with great reluctance. "But," he added fiercely, "if any of you ever dare to repeat that to Spock, you'll regret it for the rest of your life!" A dark threat which raised only hilarity among his companions. "You may well laugh, my friends," the Doctor grumbled, "but we have yet to meet talking dragons, and there, believe me, Spock has carried the joke a bit too far!"
/You are wrong. Spock speaks the truth. Spock is a man of his word./ A deep voice resounded suddenly in the officers' heads.
They stared wide-eyed at one another.
"Did you hear that?" "Where did that come from?"
"I don't know," McCoy said puzzled, "Was that from your com-link, Kyle?"
"No, Doctor, it's not on line."
"I know it sounds weird," Uhura said, "but if it is none of us, it can only be..." She looked at the two dragons who were flying with powerful strokes just ahead of the aircar. She cleared her throat and, rather selfconsciously called out, "Er, excuse me, dragons, but may I ask if you just talked to us?"
Her shipmates stifled giggles, but, to their amazement, one of the beasts looked round and displayed two impressive rows of very sharp teeth in an amiable grin, and the reply boomed in their minds.
/Yes. I am Paff of the Paffak clan, the one who spoke to you./
The Humans exchanged dazed looks and Chapel was heard saying softly, "Well, there you are, Doctor. Meet a talking dragon. Pretty conclusive, don't you think?"
"I know, Christine, I know! Don't rub it in. But, damn it all, why should he be always right?"
The others shook their heads at him and Uhura patted his shoulder, saying gently, "Don't worry, we won't tell him, promise!"
After that, the officers fell silent and settled to enjoy the trip and the beautiful scenery. But their eyes always came back to their incredible escorts who were flying steadily on to the lakes.
As Starfleet officers assigned to deep space duty, they were, of course, accustomed to encountering strange cultures and mysterious phenomena. But here, on Berengaria, it was more than that. Somehow, they had the odd feeling of being thrown back into the fantasy world of their childhood, a world of legends and heroic deeds, peopled with mythical beings and awesome monsters.
It was Lieutenant Uhura who voiced this strange impression by saying pensively, "You know, I can just visualize myself as Queen Mab, or Titania, visiting her domain in a flying carriage drawn by dragons!"
"Exactly my feelings, Nyota," Lieutenant Palmer approved. "The whole thing is just like a fairy tale come true."
They were all startled at hearing suddenly the dragon's voice in their minds. /Who is the one called Titania?/ he was asking.
"Hey! Listening to our conversation, are you?" McCoy objected. "Don't you know that eavesdropping is very rude?"
/I do not. Among us it is permitted,/ came the unruffled reply.
"Possibly with you dragons, Paff, but it is not done among Humans," the Doctor riposted, hardly aware that he was holding a conversation with a mythical being.
/You are wrong. I am not Paff. I am the one called Dong,/ the voice calmly stated.
"Oh, you are the other dragon?" Uhura chimed in breezily. "Happy to meet you, Dong. My name is Uhura, not Titania, and my friends are Chapel, Palmer, Kyle... " and she spontaneously introduced her shipmates to the dragons as she might have done to anyone of her own species. "Better be on friendly terms from the beginning!" she told her companions in an undertone.
"Quite right!" said Kyle, "especially in view of these impressive rows of teeth." Then he asked aloud, "Are we still far from our destination?"
/No, we shall soon fly over the lakes and arrive at the gathering place,/ came the reply. /But you did not tell us... which of you is the healer?/
The Enterprise officers exchanged a glance and McCoy said with some diffidence, "It's me, Leonard McCoy. Why do you ask?"
/Because we wanted to know who will treat our sick ones and find a cure for their disease,/ Paff replied candidly.
"Well, I'll do my best," McCoy muttered, inwardly moved by this simple trust in his abilities, "and thank you both for your confidence." He caught Chapel's eye and replied to her smile with a wry face.
But everyone's attention was drawn to the view-port as Lieutenant Palmer pointed out. "Look! Look down there!" she cried. "That must be the Lakes."
They all stared down as the green valley unfolded itself beneath them. The lakes, of all shades of green and blue, sparkled in the bright sunshine and, as their skimmer circled slowly down on the dragons' tails, they could trace its shadow gliding over the waters.
"Just beautiful!" Uhura said softly.
"You know, the Captain told me it was worth the trip. I'll say he was damned right!" The Doctor nodded appreciatively. "At least, this area does not seem to have been spoiled by an excess of civilisation."
"Or perhaps something that nature has finally overcome, Doctor," Kyle remarked. "Amazing the regeneration that nature can bring about when given the chance and the time." Thus saying, he reduced speed and sent the aircar in a controlled dive right behind the beasts who all but skimmed the shimmering surface of a sapphire sheet of water.
"Wow!" gasped medic Castel. "Where are they going? Taking us in for a swim?"
"I rather think that they want to show off," Kyle wryly said, "and... yes, looks like we have arrived."
Seconds later, the shore appeared in front of them, an expanse of lush grass and wooded copses on a backdrop of bluish hills. Lieutenant Kyle had but time to veer and lift the nose of the craft even as their escorts climbed up again to go and circle leisurely over a wide open space.
/This is the place where you must land, Humans,/ rumbled the voice of Paff - or was it Dong? Hard to tell the difference.
"Acknowledged, and thank you for your guidance," the helmsman politely replied.
/Always pleased to help when you need us!/ was the eager reply.
As Kyle manoeuvred the aircar into position above the landing stage, Nurse Chapel noted, "Looks like we are expected."
"Of course we are, but I have never seen a welcome committee as impressive as that one," McCoy said, peering down at the assembly of reptiles, all craning their long necks to look at the hovering craft. "I wonder where are our people... Ah! here they are."
Two figures had detached themselves from the group and moved to the middle of the turf, and they were waving their arms like old Navy flagmen.
"Apparently Sulu and Scotty have been assigned to tarmac duty!" Uhura chuckled and waved at them through the view-port.
The skimmer, under the expert hand of Chief Kyle, descended steadily to their assigned landing and smoothly touched down.
"Good job, Mr Kyle. That was a nice trip," McCoy declared as he unfastened his safety belt.
"Thank you, Doctor, but we had a pretty good escort team," Kyle grinned.
"We certainly had!" McCoy grinned back. "And most unusual, to say the least!" He got to his feet, collected his inevitable medi-kit, and joined the others at the hatch door. It had barely slid open when a familiar voice greeted them cheerfully.
"Welcome to Dragonland, people!" The jovial face of Engineer Scott smiled at them from the doorway. "And I don't mean that pale imitation which they have the gall to call Dragonland, mind you, but the real thing, the genuine, authentic, bona fide Land of the Dragons!"
"Hello, Scotty! Glad to see you safe and sound." Uhura smiled at him as he handed her out of the skimmer.
"Never been better, lassie. We are all in a great shape. But come along! The Captain is waiting and our dragon friends are looking forward to meeting you. Nothing to be afraid of, they won't harm you."
"Oh, we know that, Scotty," Christine Chapel told him. "Don't forget that we have just been escorted by a pair of charming and friendly dragons."
"Sure! They are all right once you come to know them," Sulu chimed in, "but be careful, they can read your thoughts."
"We have also found that out, Hikaru," Palmer informed him with a laugh as she stepped down but, catching sight of the huge beasts huddled together, she broke off and stared wide-eyed in amazement.
"They are something, aren't they?" commented Sulu who was watching her reaction with a knowing grin.
"You can say that again!" she replied with feeling.
Doctor McCoy, the ever perfect gentleman, had let the ladies alight first. So, when he finally set foot on the ground, he found his fellow officers waiting for him, quizzical smiles on their faces.
"Well, Doctor," Mr Scott prompted with a broad wink at the others, "now that you see the dragons in the flesh, what do you have to say?"
The Doctor well knew that he was in for a ribbing session, so he took his time. He deliberately looked around, taking in the sight of the fabulous creatures gathered around, noted their heads crowned by strange-looking crests and specially their large topaz eyes watching him with curiosity, and, to be honest, he was truly impressed. But he was damned if he was going to admit that to the Scot who had been roasting him for days over that dragon business! Then, assuming his most profound expression, he shook his head, pursed his lips, and drawled, "Well, Scotty, to tell you the truth, I must admit that - " A pause. "I still can't believe it!"
"Get away, Leonard!" the Engineer guffawed. "Who do you think you are kidding?" Their good-natured laughter was interrupted by a deep voice.
"When you are quite finished, gentlemen, perhaps you would care to attend the Captain's briefing?"
"Oops!" They spun around as one to find the First Officer standing, hands clasped behind his back, a few paces away, and regarding them with aloof detachment.
"Sorry, Mr Spock, we are coming," Uhura told him with a bright smile.
"It's our Doctor here," explained Scotty "Do you know what he says? He still can't believe it about these beasties!"
"Does that surprise you, Mr Scott? By now, you should be used to the Doctor's tendency to contradiction," and, turning on his heel, Spock strode across the turf, back to the small copse where Captain Kirk had set up his temporary headquarters.
They followed him, and McCoy, rolling his eyes in exasperation, grunted to Scotty in an aside, "Smart ass Vulcan! What about his tendency to pontificate?"
They found Kirk seated on a tree stump in the shade of tall leafy trees. In attendance were Security Officers Kincaid and Dugovitch, the latter standing at parade rest beside Kirk while the former was relaxing on the grass, hands clasped about her knees. Kirk greeted the new arrivals with a smile.
"Take a seat, gentlemen... and ladies, we have much to talk about. Well," he added as they settled around him, "what do you think of the Lake District?"
Their enthusiastic response was all that he had expected, and he added, with a side glance at the Vulcan, "Yes, that's precisely why we thought of Berengaria as the ideal place for shore leave. But, as it turned out, the situation here is not exactly what we had anticipated, and that's what we'll have to discuss... " He broke off at the sight of Lieutenant Kyle and medic Ramanantsoa carrying two large containers from the aircar.
"Ah, Mr Kyle, that was quite a performance that you and your escorts gave us on arrival. Our friends here were impressed. I take it that you met no difficulty with our envoys?"
"None at all, Captain. They met us at the rendezvous as agreed, then everything went according to plan. Here you are, sir," Kyle said, setting one of the containers down in front of the Captain.
"What's that, Lieutenant? "
"Your lunch, sir, "
"Yes, Jim. That's our picnic, with the compliments of the Gasthof ladies," McCoy explained. "When they heard that you would not come back for lunch, and we were going to join you, they insisted on preparing a cold meal for us all, and..." He shrugged. "We could not possibly refuse, could we?"
"But that's wonderful, Bones, it could not be better!" Kirk exclaimed. "Actually Scotty was going to call the ship and ask for field rations to be beamed down."
"That right. So I was," Scott agreed, "because it's high time for a spot of lunch, Captain. But, of course, given the choice, I'll plump for home made food any time, and if this picnic is anything like the breakfast they gave us this morning... " Without more ado, the Engineer unlocked the container and began to remove boxes and packages and hand them out to Dugovitch and Sulu, who had at once offered their services.
Everyone was soon provided with an appetizing lunch of assorted meats and cheeses, home made breads and cakes, and a selection of salads and fruit.
That is... everyone except Spock, who declined any food and stood by, idly watching his fellow officers settle happily down to their meal. But the slight lift of an eyebrow expressed his disapproval for this waste of time when so much was at stake.
A deep voice resounding in his mind intruded on his thoughts.
/Spock, what happens now?/ Puff was asking. /What are they doing?/
Spock looked round at the chief dragon who had lumbered closer and was observing the Enterprise party with a great deal of interest. Since his shipmates had certainly heard the question as well, Spock deemed it proper to reply aloud.
"Another example of human idiosyncrasy, I am afraid. Their peculiar metabolism makes it necessary for Humans to take sustenance at regular and recurring periods of time."
Puff was intrigued. /Many times a day?/ he asked Spock.
"Yes, they eat many times a day, not mentioning the countless times when they absorb beverages of infinite variety."
Puff thought it over and concluded, /You were right, Spock. Humans do have strange customs,/ and he squatted heavily down in the shade to better observe these strange beings from outer space.
This brief exchange had not been missed by the said Humans and a few stiffled sniggers were heard. It was Uhura who made the obvious comment.
"But, Mr Spock, I don't understand," she said ingenuously, "why our eating habits seem strange to the dragons? Don't they ever eat?"
"They do, of course, but in quantities large enough to last them, generally, a month or even two."
"A month!" Scotty was amazed. "That must be a whale of a meal if they eat only once a month!"
"Maybe they are vegetarians, like the Vulcans?" Nurse Chapel suggested.
"They are omnivorous and they eat flesh like the Humans, Nurse."
Information which gave the Enterprise team pause. They exchanged doubtful glances and the Doctor was heard muttering to no-one in particular, "I wonder how long ago they had their last dinner?"
Kirk stopped munching his ham and cheese sandwich and hissed, with a warning look, "That is a question we had better avoid around here, Bones!"
"I don't think you need to worry about that, Doctor." There was something bordering on wry amusement on the Vulcan's face. "According to Puff, the last time his father tasted human flesh, he was taken so ill that all the dragons gave up eating Humans ever after."
McCoy choked and spluttered, and Kirk's eyes crinkled in an impish grin. "But, Mr Spock, you never mentioned that in your report. Puff, tell me, is that true?" he asked the dragon half in jest, half in earnest.
/It is true,/ was the placid reply. /We no longer eat Humans./
With a collective sigh of relief, the officers resumed eating but Doctor McCoy, perversely, came up with a question.
"What about Vulcans?" he asked, blue eyes alight with a wicked gleam. "Don't you eat Vulcans? Don't you find them to your liking? "
Puff shook himself ponderously, let out a loud hiss and rumbled, /No, McCoy. Spock is our friend. Spock is a Vulcan. We do not eat our friends. We do not eat Vulcans./
"That's dragon logic for you, Bones," Kirk commented. "One does not eat one's friends."
"Aye, Captain, these beasties have good moral principles, that's for sure!" Scotty approved, then he wondered, "Hey, Sulu, my lad! what have you got in that box?"
The helmsman was exploring the content of the second container. "A lot more, Scotty," he said. "Anybody ready for a drink? "
"What kind of a question is that? Of course we are, laddie. What do you have to offer?
"Plenty. There is water, beer, cider, soft drinks, coffee, and... just a minute... " He rummaged at the bottom of the box and emerged again holding up a dark bottle in a wicker case. "And... guess what? A bottle of blueberry wine! That must be for Mr Spock, I suppose." He winked in the direction of the First Officer. Cans of drinks were rapidly passed around and the bottle of blueberry wine ceremoniously delivered to Mr Spock.
"Now, Spock," said the Captain, "I won't take no for an answer. You must come and join us. Frankly, after all the trouble Anneli has taken to prepare this fabulous picnic, the least you can do is to do it justice. Why don't you have a go at that food and at your favourite drink?"
"With your permission, Captain, I would rather..." Spock demurred.
"Oh, for Heavens' sake, Spock!" McCoy cut in irritably, "don't try and make us believe that you damned superior Vulcans don't need 'sustenance' like the rest of us. That won't wash! I happened to notice this morning that you ate nothing of that breakfast at the inn. Believe me, better have some food when we have a chance. God knows when we'll have our next meal in this wilderness. Jim, tell him!"
"Bones is right. We still have a long day ahead of us. We must collect as much evidence as possible, cover a lot of ground, and that might take a while, I am sure. Come and sit down, Spock, or do I have to make it an order?"
Although Kirk had tempered his injunction with a fond smile, Spock knew that there was nothing he could do but to comply. He yielded with his usual show of indifference and, in a fluid motion, sat down cross-legged by his Captain. But, eyeing with distaste the cold meats in Kirk's and McCoy's plates, he repressed a shudder and said under his breath, "Jim, if you don't mind... "
"Of course, Spock, I know. We'll get you some fruit and bread, all right?"
"Thank you, Captain, that would be adequate," he murmured with dignity .
Lieutenant Uhura and Nurse Chapel were offering him an assortment of breads and cakes when an exclamation from Sulu drew everyone's attention.
"Oh, wait a minute! There is something here for Mr Spock. Sorry, sir, I just found this box with your name labelled on the lid. Must be some special lunch for you, I guess." He grinned apologetically.
Spock look at the box and there was indeed his name neatly written on a small tag. Unconsciously, he let one of his rare smiles flitter across his face. Not being used to this kind of attention, he was both surprised and touched, and he allowed himself a fond thought towards Anneli and her mother.
Then, emotions well under control and Vulcan mask back into place, he calmly opened his lunch box and examined the vegetarian menu that they had prepared for him. His brief lapse had not gone unobserved, however, and his friends shared a meaningful grin.
"How about that!" McCoy drawled. "Say what you will, Jim, but some people get preferential treatment here. First his favourite drink, then his special Vulcan diet... What next, I ask you?"
"Who knows, Doctor, who knows?" Kirk wondered.
But Spock, impervious to the Captain's teasing and the Doctor's needling, handed the latter the bottle of berry wine with the cool advice, "Help yourself, Doctor, and see if you find it to your taste; and perhaps you would care to share it with our shipmates," then he calmly proceeded with his meal.
"I don't mind if I do. Thanks, Spock," was McCoy's reply.
"Nice of you, Mr Spock," Kirk smiled appreciatively. "Yes, we might give it a try. Come on, Bones, help yourself and hand it over, I am sure we all want to see what it tastes like. Oh, and will someone be good enough to pass me a flask of coffee?" Ensign Dugovitch jumped to his feet and obliged. "Thank you, Ensign. Make sure everyone is served with wine and coffee, and don't forget yourself." Kirk paused, sipping his coffee, and surveyed the company. Then, meeting the Vulcan's gaze, he nodded. "Yes, Spock, it is time to come back to the matter in hand. Gentlemen, your attention, please!" He waited, then, "Now that we are almost through our lunch, we have to consider our next move. But first, for those of you who joined us by aircar, I had better summarize the situation as we know it at the moment."
In a few words, the Captain gave them a short account of what they had seen and what they had been told by the dragons.
"Which," he said in conclusion, "corroborates the information that Anneli and Madame Laederle gave us. Without being pessimistic, I think that we can infer that the dragon species is in danger of extinction unless measures are taken rapidly to eradicate the disease. I believe we all agree about that." Nods and grunts of assent confirmed his assumption.
"The question is," he resumed, "can we, the Enterprise crew, do something about it, apart from sending a report to Starfleet Command? and, more important, are we prepared to do something about it?"
That question was unexpected and aroused a movement of surprise and confusion among his officers.
"But, Captain!" Uhura blurted out. "Excuse me, but I was under the impression that the question did not arise. Haven't we already agreed to do something about it?"
"That's right," Scotty affirmed. "We came here to investigate, Captain. At least that's what you told us."
"May I add, Captain," McCoy put in dryly, "that it was something like a distress call that you sent me at the inn, because - I quote - 'we could not leave the dragons in their plight without attempting anything to help them'."
"Yes, yes, of course, you are right," Kirk nodded, "but I must make our position quite clear. Officially, we have stopped at Berengaria for a four-day shore leave, and, of course, Scotty, also to test your Harley Davidsons. It so happens that, right from the start, we came upon that dragon problem and... " Kirk paused and looked around at the attentive faces. "We all agree that we cannot wash our hands of the whole affair. Right. But I must make it quite clear that, whatever we do, we'll have no directive, no support from Starfleet Command, much less from the local Authorities. From what we heard, they ignore, or do not care, what happens in the dragon reservation; they might even view our action as some damned interference. In other words, my friends, we are on our own."
A few seconds ticked by... then...
"So what? That would not be the first time!" Mr Scott declared with a broad grin.
"Scotty is right, Jim. As I recall, that has never stopped you before," McCoy pointed out. "How many times have we come upon situations so blatantly wrong that you never rested until you set them right, with or without the backing of Starfleet Command?"
A ripple of amusement and approval ran around his team and that made the Captain feel good. Clearly they were behind him to a man. All the same, he had scruples about embarking on this quixotic venture. He would not think twice about taking risks for a cause, even risk his career, but to risk the careers of his officers was another matter. Kirk cleared his throat.
"Yes..." he said hesitantly. "I admit there have been several occasions when I have - let us say - taken matters into my own hands, and... well... "
"And rightly so, Captain," Spock's voice broke in to everyone's surprise.
The Vulcan officer had, so far, listened quietly to the discussion but, perceiving his friend's hesitation, he considered it now his duty to speak.
"With your permission, Captain, I would like to submit that Doctor McCoy's argument is essentially correct."
"Ye Gods! You don't mean it, Spock. Do you really agree with me? That would be a first!" McCoy's gleeful outburst met only cool detachment.
"Let us say that I find your reasoning less fallacious than usual, Doctor," the Vulcan let fall. "But, to come back to the point," he resumed imperturbably, "there have indeed been many occasions when your determination and your singular ability to make the right decisions at the right time have been determinant factors in clearing up critical situations. For example, let me call to mind the case of Eminiar 7 and Verikan 3, or that of Stratos and Ardana. In both cases, your timely intervention has - I believe the expression is - saved the day."
"We know all that, Spock," McCoy interjected, "but what is your point? Assuming that you have got one?"
"I am coming to it, Doctor," was Spock's austere retort. "If memory serves, Captain, in most cases you acted on your own discretion, without Starfleet Command's backing, let alone instructions... with perhaps the exception of Eminiar 7 where the Federation special envoy, Ambassador Fox, turned out to be more a hindrance than a help. Therefore, Captain, logic dictates that, without any more delay, you make your command decision and give us our orders. I don't need to remind you that time is of the essence. We have less than four days to achieve our purpose. Regarding Starfleet Command, I assume that there will be time enough to notify them of what we have been able to accomplish and of what still needs to be done. And, Captain," Spock's dark eyes held the hint of a twinkle, "should you still have some qualms about the rightness of involving us in this endeavour, I can assure you that they are unfounded because, from what my shipmates have said a moment ago, I can logically deduce that we all volunteer."
When the wave of hefty assent subsided, Kirk, inwardly moved by his officers' support, raised both hands and declared, "All right! All right! Point taken, Mr Spock, and thanks everyone for your support. Naturally all volunteers are welcome! This being settled, let's get to work, and start with the medical team. Doctor, will you state your priorities?"
"Well, I need to see the patients, of course. I must assess the extent of the disease among the population. We shall have to take blood samples for analysis, perhaps skin and marrow samples as well. That might not be as easy as it sounds, Jim. The point is... how do we proceed? Can the sick come over here or do we have to pay house calls?" McCoy looked inquiringly at Puff and Duff of the Daffak who had been listening intently to the conversation. They only stared back at him, obviously nonplussed. Spock intervened.
"Puff," he said, addressing his old friend, "you heard our healer, Doctor McCoy. He must see your sick children; can they come here?"
/No, they cannot fly, they cannot move any more,/ was the forlorn reply.
"Damn! That's what I was afraid of." McCoy pulled a face. "Tell me, are they far away? Are they together in one place or scattered all over the reservation?"
After a show of reluctance from the dragons, it transpired that the four clans of the reservation kept their sick and dying young sheltered in four separate locations, safely away in the hills where they were looked after by some old and experienced female dragons.
"Okay! Only four places to go to, it could be worse," McCoy acknowledged gruffly. "One thing, though, I hope these locations can be easily reached by aircar, because I am damned if we are going to hike all the way there!"
This provoked at once the predictable friction with Duff who haughtily declared that no flying machine would ever enter his territory as long as he drew breath. The Enterprise officers were preparing for a long and time consuming argument when the problem was quickly resolved by Christine Chapel's simple suggestion that Dong and Paff, their former escorts, be appointed again to guide the aircar in the reservation. Duff, faced with the approval of his peers and the enthusiastic response of the two youths, finally gave in.
"Okay! "Kirk said with relief. "Bones, you and your team will be on your own, with Mr Kyle to pilot you, of course. Come to think of it, you had better take Kincaid or Dugovitch along with you... just in case."
"Yeah, might be a good idea, Jim."
"Mr Kyle, you are in charge of the aircar. You will shuttle the medical team around wherever your two dragons lead you."
"Captain... " Spock met Kirk's gaze. "A word with you, please," he asked quietly.
"All right." Kirk took a few steps, then turned round. "Well, what is it?"
"A suggestion, Captain. I believe that it would be more expedient for all concerned that I change place with Lieutenant Kyle."
"Oh? What for? "
"For three reasons, Jim. First, I am a Vulcan and that may be an asset in our dealings with dragons who have suffered most from alien interference. Second, these dragons know me, or have heard of me, and I have a better understanding of their mentality than Chief Kyle or Doctor McCoy. Third, my telepathic powers may come in useful and help McCoy to make a diagnosis, specially if those young dragons, now unable to move or fly, are also unable to communicate mentally like the adults."
"Of course! I had not thought of that! You are quite right, Spock, let's do that. Anything else?"
"Yes, sir. That will give Lieutenant Kyle an opportunity to ride a Harley Davidson in this area. He can take my motorcycle and join the survey team in their investigations."
"And that will also give him a chance to practice on rough ground, and a fair chance for the race. I see what you mean, Spock." Kirk concluded and gave his friend a warm smile. "Nice thought, First Officer."
"Logical, Captain," was the predictable reply.
When apprised of the changeover by the Captain, Doctor McCoy merely raised his eyebrows, Nurse Chapel, secretly pleased, did her best to look unconcerned, and the phlegmatic Kyle expressed his appreciation with a smile and a hearty, "Thank you, Mr Spock. Rest assure that I'll take good care of your Harley."
"I expect no less, Lieutenant. You have evinced enough application to our training sessions for me to have every confidence in your ability."
"Good for you, my lad!" Mr Scott exclaimed as he clapped Kyle on the back. "Captain, I'll take him along with me to locate those trash dumps that the tourists left behind. There must be dozens of them for all we know."
"Sure, Scotty, but I believe that our friends here will help you to find them."
"And," McCoy chimed in, "don't forget that whatever you find, I want some samples, but be sure to handle them with gloves on. I don't want you to catch some infection, I have enough on my hands with the dragons."
"We'll be careful, Doctor, don't fret!"
"The Doctor is right, Scotty, and that goes for each of us," Kirk said in his command voice. "Wherever you go, whatever you do, be on your guard, and for reasons of security, you will go in pairs. I want to collect the maximum of information so as to send Starfleet Command a solid report with foolproof evidence. Everything you see or hear which is relevant to our case must be recorded. Understood?"
"Aye, sir... "
"Captain, what about interviewing some of the dragons, beginning with the chiefs?" Uhura suggested. "They surely have a lot to tell, and I think it is only fair to record their opinions and their grievances. Luckily, Palmer and I have brought our tricorders and came-scopes."
"That is precisely what I mean, Uhura. This is where your expertise in communication will proved invaluable," Kirk approved.
"Yes, but how do you propose to do that?" Sulu objected. "You can't record what you hear in your mind."
"I can, if I repeat aloud what they tell me. Don't worry, Hikaru, we'll manage, leave it to us!"
"Well, Mr Sulu, since you are interested, why don't you pair off with Lieutenant Palmer? She was your partner in your memorable escapade on Merindol, so I am sure you two will get along famously in your quest of interviewing."
"Yes, of course, Captain!" Palmer and Sulu seemed delighted at the idea.
"As for you, Lieutenant, Mr Spock being unfortunately unavailable, perhaps you will accept me for substitute?" Kirk favoured his communications officer with one of his roguish smiles.
"Why, thank you, Captain," Uhura smiled back. "I'll miss Mr Spock, for sure, but I'll be honoured to ride pillion with you, sir."
"My pleasure, Uhura... Scotty, you team with Kyle and find about those dumps and any pollution that they might have caused. Same for you, Ensign," he told Security Officer Dugovitch. "You have your tricorder, go and bring us as much information as you can. But, one moment... Bones," he asked McCoy, "now that Spock is your pilot, you don't need a bodyguard, do you?"
The Doctor gave a side-long glance at his favourite opponent and, "No, thanks, Jim, I guess we'll make do with that skinny Vulcan."
"All right, then. Dugovitch and Kincaid, you two join forces and scout the area, and don't forget to keep your eyes open."
"Aye, sir!" Both officers snapped smartly to attention. "But, sir, with all due respect... " they chorused then broke off in mid-sentence, embarrassed and somewhat red in the face.
"Yes, what is it, Ensigns? Come, speak up... you, Kincaid!" Kirk ordered.
"Aye, sir!" She swallowed hard and began again. "Sir, with all due respect, as per regulations, the Captain, when on a survey mission in unknown and hostile country, must be attended by one or more security officers at all time, sir."
"The Captain is well aware of the regulations, Ensign," remarked a deep voice behind her.
"Yes, of course, Mr Spock," Kirk said with a tolerant smile. "Thank you, Ensigns, your strict observance to regulations is duly noted, but they do not apply here since we are not in hostile territory. On the contrary, we are among friends, don't you agree?" he asked the dragon chiefs who, he had no doubt, were monitoring their conversation.
Puff and Duff hooted and puffed thick clouds of breath, then their deep voices came through. /Yes, we are friends. You will help us and we trust you. You are permitted to travel over our land in your rolling and flying machine but you will be accompanied by one of us who will look after you and show you the way./
"Perfect. Your assistance is appreciated," Kirk told them, then to his team, "All right, gentlemen, you have your orders. We rendezvous back here in four hours, which means - " he checked his wrist chronometer - "at 18.15 local time. As usual we keep in touch at regular intervals, but be sure to avoid beaming up to the ship in the presence of our friends, except in an emergency. Any question?... yes, Doctor?"
"Jim, as soon as we have sufficient blood samples, we'll have to beam straight back to the ship and start work in the labs. We can't waste time."
"Of course, Bones, but try and do it out of their sight. Well, I think that is all. Good luck in your search. Dismissed."
"Aye, sir!" On these words, the H.D. officers dispersed to retrieve their motorcycles and set off in their quest.
Doctor McCoy and Nurse Chapel, walking back to the aircar, noticed that the faithful Paff and Dong had already taken flight, and were waiting for them, with energetic flapping of wings, high above their heads. McCoy was climbing aboard when Spock caught up with them with his long-legged stride, after having entrusted Lieutenant Kyle with his Harley Davidson, and exchanged a few words with the Captain - words of caution, if McCoy knew his Vulcan.
Once aboard, Spock made sure that the picnic box had been duly stored at the back of the craft, for Starfleet personnel, unlike inconsiderate sightseers, knew better than leave their refuse lying about. Then he sat at the controls and, on the 'Okay, Spock, let's go!' from the Doctor, they took off, rose smoothly up to the dragons' level, then flew in their wake in the direction of the hills.
After watching them go, Kirk turned to his communications officer, a twinkle at the back of his eyes. "Now, Uhura, I am all yours. Where do you wish to start?"
"Much obliged, Captain," she replied with a twinkle of her own, "why not start right here with this gorgeous creature? Puff, isn't it?"
"Puff it is, the chief of the Paffak and the friend of Spock."
"You know, I can't get over it, it is so incredible." She shook her head.
"What is, Lieutenant?" he asked, puzzled.
"That name, Captain, Puff... Don't you know the song? 'Puff, the magic dragon - lived by the sea...'," she sang, and, as the Captain and the dragon stared wide-eyed at her, she burst out laughing.
"Sorry, sir, I can see that you don't. It's a very old song that my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. Now, how does it go...?" and her voice soared sweetly in the still air. "Puff, the magic dragon - Lived by the sea - And frolicked in the autumn mist - In a land called Honalee - Little Jackie Paper... " and it goes on and on. I always loved that song, and to find here, on Berengaria, a real dragon called Puff. It's just too good to be true!"
"Yes, see what you mean," Kirk nodded. "Quite a coincidence, isn't it?"
"Is it, Captain? I wonder... " She stared at him, darkly mysterious.
/Captain Kirk!/ Puff's voice boomed in their heads. /What was she doing? What was she saying about me?/
"Meet Lieutenant Uhura, Puff, the best singer in Starfleet. She was singing very nice things about a magic dragon called Puff. That's you, isn't it? Did you like it?"
/Yes, it was pleasant to hear. Will she sing again?/
"Of course, Puff, with pleasure," Uhura put in, "but first tell us what happened when the intruders came to your country. We need to know so as to tell the people in charge. Then I shall sing for you, agreed?"
Uhura's charm and the promise of more singing proved to be irresistible to a Berengarian dragon who had never experienced anything like it.
/Very well,/ Puff replied. /What do you want to know?/
And so, for the next hours, the Enterprise officers, duly escorted by dragon volunteers, explored the reservation far and wide, in search of indisputable pieces of evidence. They made full use of their Starfleet experience and their specific skills to bring together enough elements for Captain Kirk to prove, beyond doubt, that the native Berengarians had been, and were still, the victims of discrimination and contempt on the part of the new colonists.
Moreover, Lieutenants Palmer and Uhura were able, with the active support of the Captain and the Chief Helmsman, to put on record a number of conclusive testimonies obtained from the more prominent members of the dragon community
To everyone's satisfaction, Mr Scott's in particular, the Harley Davidsons proved to be invaluable, the perfect tools for this kind of crosscountry survey. No need to say that, wherever they went, as swift and silent as stalking felines, the motorcycles aroused a great curiosity among the local population.
Likewise, the incursion of the Doctor's aircar in the remote valleys of the hills caused some commotion despite the presence of Paff and Dong, who were only too happy to act as go-betweens. But, to the humans at least, it was also a rather harrowing experience.
They could not help but feel some apprehension when, after leaving the skimmer in the care of the juvenile dragons, they had to climb a steep and narrow path up to the entrance of the cave. That was when Christine Chapel and even McCoy appreciated having an unflappable Vulcan for escort to walk ahead and, when necessary, show them the way with his flashlight.
The first cavern which they visited was to leave everlasting memories in their minds, and a feeling of bitter resentment against those who were the cause, even unwillingly, of such misery. This was the cave where the sick of the Daffak clan were sheltered, and the nervousness that the humans felt vanished at the pathetic sight which met their eyes.
In a secluded part of the cavern, half a dozen young beasts, some no bigger than a terran bull, were lying, huddled together, on the rocky floor, a far cry from the proud and carefree dragons that they should have been.
To the trained eyes of the medical team, they looked very sick indeed, as proof the lacklustre of their scales, the flaccidity of their wings, and specially the dull stare of their half-closed eyes. For all their long experience with disease and death, the Doctor and his staff were all but moved to tears.
"Oh my God!" whispered Nurse Chapel, "this is awful, what can we do?"
"What you always do, Nurse," Spock said quietly. "Devote all your energy and your skills to save lives. You are their only chance to survival."
"Damn right, Spock!" McCoy's gruff voice echoed under the vault of the cave. "Even if it's a chance I would not bet on, we have to take it. Come on, Christine, and you too," he told the medics. "Snap out of it, we have work to do.
But, as they were preparing their material and recalibrating their medi-scanners in the light of Spock's flashlight, a deafening roar brought them up to their feet in a hurry.
/Who are you? What are you doing?/ demanded a voice in their minds, as a big, fat dragon came rumbling out of the shadows.
The First Officer stepped at once in front of his shipmates and faced the beast, hand raised in the Vulcan salutation.
"Greetings!" he said calmly. "I am Spock of Vulcan, Starfleet officer, and these are Doctor McCoy and his staff who have come to assist you. Duff of the Daffak has given his agreement."
There was a moment of silence while the huge creature eyed the visitors with both curiosity and distrust. Then it relaxed perceptibly and exhaled a puff of breath.
/Yes, I have heard of you, Spock of Vulcan, and of the healer who will come to cure our children,/ the voice said./ I am Dingle, mate of Duff, chief of the Daffak. Is this the healer?/
"Yeah, that's me, McCoy. I don't know yet if I can, but I'll do my best. For that I need to take some blood, a very small quantity, from your patients, to find out what disease that they have got. Then we'll work on an antidote, a cure, and if everything goes well, we'll restore your children to health. Okay?"
Dingle stared at McCoy whose blues eyes stared back at her. Apparently, in that brief exchange, some understanding was established between them.
/Proceed, healer, do what you have to do,/ the female dragon said simply.
McCoy and Chapel set to work and it did not take long for them to take enough blood from each dragon for analysis. Their only problem, at first, was to find the chink in the armour, in other words to find a spot on their bodies which was not protected by a thick layer of scales. Finally McCoy opted for the soft spot under the jaw. It was easier to reach and less painful for the patients. Most of them were so weak that they did not even moan when Castel and Ramanantsoa handled them with extreme caution.
Two of them, however, had enough vigour left in them to react in panic at the humans' touch. They whimpered, thrashing about until Spock came to the rescue and calmed them down with a light mind meld.
As he sensed their distress and their fear of the strangers invading their space, he explained by means of simple images projected in their minds what the humans were here for and what they were doing, and, at the same time, he succeeded in easing much of their pain.
As soon as they quietened down, McCoy came, armed with a hypo, and Spock held the head of one dragon, then of the other, while the Doctor took their blood swiftly and painlessly. Nurse Chapel then stored all the samples in a special container, and it was done. They prepared to go.
Dingle, who had watched them work in silence, moved forward. /Are you leaving us?/ she asked.
"Yes, we must go, the Doctor has other patients to visit," Spock told her, "but we shall come back as soon as a remedy has been found."
/What is that illness that we never had before? Where does it come from?/ There was a note of anguish in the dragon's voice.
McCoy sighed and threw up his hands. "If I knew that, my dear, our problems would be solved. But, never fear, we'll find it out. At first sight, I should say it is a malign infection, not unlike influenza, a disease as old as the universe, always cooking somewhere, ready to pop up again."
/But you will find a cure?/ McCoy looked up at the big yellow eyes watching him anxiously, and he turned on his best bedside manner.
"Don't worry, we'll work out something. Expect us back tomorrow or the next day, at the latest." Then, turning on his heel, he picked up his medikit and marched to the cave entrance with a curt, "Let's go!" thrown over his shoulder. The one thing that McCoy always tried to avoid was to let anyone see the true compassion hidden under his cranky facade.
Christine Chapel took her leave in a more gracious manner. "Good bye, Dingle, and take heart," she said with her sweetest smile.
"Peace and long life," was Spock's farewell to which the female dragon replied, /Long life and prosperity to you, Spock of Vulcan!/ Then, moved by a hope that she could not resist, she left her charges for a moment to go and see her visitors off from her cavern.
The Enterprise contingent walked down the trail deep in thoughts and mindful of their steps, but, at the turn of the path, they looked back to the cave, and there she still was, a figure of dragon dignity and expectation.
Instinctively, the humans waved at her and, much to their amusement, Dingle replied with a loud hiss and a puff of steam.
"That is a great lady, all dragon though she be," McCoy declared. "I only hope that we won't let her down."
"No reason why we should, Doctor," Chapel briskly said, "on the contrary, I am sure that we'll succeed."
"Let's hope you are right, Christine," said the Doctor. "By the way, I am getting a bit mixed up with all these dragons. I thought Dingle was the mate of Puff, your pal by the lake, Spock."
"Negative, Doctor, Puff's mate is Pingle, who was with him. Dingle here is the mate of Duff of the Daffak."
"Dingle, Pingle... sounds all the same to me," McCoy grumbled as he trudged down the path. "How can you tell the difference, especially when they all look pretty much alike?"
"They don't, Doctor," Spock coolly rejoined. "If you had paid a minimum of attention, you would have noticed that all the dragons present distinctive features, be it in the colour of their wings, the shape of their crests, or in the pattern of the scales over their noses, which is different in every individual. As for their names, what matters is the first consonant, some kind of identification probably. For instance all the dragons of the Paffak clan have a name beginning with a P, such as Puff, Pingle, Paff etc...The same goes for the Daffak with Duff, Daff, Dingle, and also for the Taffak and the Baffak whose caves we are due to visit. It is all very simple, assuming of course that you know the difference between a P, a T, a D or a B, which I suppose you do, Doctor."
"Much obliged, Mr Spock!" the Doctor snapped, "but I did not ask for a lecture, nor for your damned superior Vulcan comments. And, whatever you may say to the contrary, I still think that all these Puff, Tuff and Buff, and Bingle, Pingle, Tingle, and Bong, Bang and what not, are too confusing and too silly for words!"
"I admit that they must sound strange to human ears, Doctor, but no more strange than our names must sound to the dragons."
"I think they sound just right, Mr Spock," Nurse Chapel said musingly. "Just the kind of names you would expect dragons to have in fairy tales."
"I would have thought you had grown out of that nonsense, Christine," McCoy scoffed, tramping on and indifferent to the sniggers he heard behind him.
"Sorry, Doctor, but I believe that one should never lose one's capacity for dream," she replied softly.
By that time they had arrived at the foot of the hill and the good Doctor was in for another jolt. The aircar was sitting exactly where they had parked it, but Paff and Dong, who were supposed to keep watch, were nowhere to be seen. The officers looked around, up in the air, everywhere... no dragon in sight.
"Damn! Here is a pretty kettle of fish," McCoy groused, hands on hips. "What are we going to do if these two rascals have given us the slip? Don't they know that they are supposed to show us the way to the other caverns?"
"They do, Doctor, and I don't think that they have gone far," the Vulcan somehow looked amused. But the Doctor was not, that much was clear.
"Do you? Then, where are they, for Pete's sake? What kind of a game are they playing at? Tell me that, Spock, since you are so clever!" he demanded, quite worked up now.
"If memory serves, Doctor," Spock replied deadpan, "they are playing at a game that you Humans call hide and seek."
"Hide and seek? What the Hell!" McCoy looked wildly around him while Chapel and the medics broke into laughter.
After their painful experience in the cave, then this ludicrous situation, they could not help it, and, frankly, it felt good just to laugh and relax
Much to their surprise, their mirth was suddenly echoed by a chorus of hoots and whistles, then some vague forms slowly took shape. Large clawed feet, at first, then massive legs and bodies covered with shiny brown scales, then two long necks swinging to and fro, at the end of which the crested heads gradually appeared, mouths wide open in a roguish grin. To all appearance, this was a pair of juvenile dragons quite pleased with themselves and with the effect of their little joke on the outworlders.
In front of such playful candour, the Doctor's irritation could but vanish.
"All right, you two," he said with a tolerant smile, "now that you have had your fun, we had better get going. There is no time to waste."
/As you wish, Healer McCoy,/ Dong's voice said brightly. /Shall we take you to the Paffak's dwelling now?/
"By all means," Spock put in firmly, "and make sure, for your own safety, to remain visible whenever we fly together."
/Understood, Spock of Vulcan./
Moments later, dragons and Starfleet officers were flying swiftly over the tree-tops, bound on their next errand of mercy.
It was a tired and ravenous survey team which returned to the Gasthof at close of day. The setting sun was turning the waters of the lake into flames when the aircar landed on the lawn.
Kirk and his officers had hardly stepped out of the craft, then the Boxberger children came running to greet them and to pelt them with questions, Had they seen the dragons? What were they like? Were they dangerous? and so on, and so forth.
"Yes, we have seen the dragons, and they are very big, very impressive and quite friendly," Kirk told them as he started climbing up the slope.
"Do you think we have a chance to see them, one day? Do you think they will ever come back here?" Liseli looked up pleadingly at Spock.
"Perhaps they will," he gravely replied. "If you wish hard enough for them to come, Liseli, I believe they will come."
"Oh..." She regarded him with huge eyes. "Then I shall make my best wish," she said, most seriously.
Rudi was not so much interested in the dragons as in the Harley Davidsons which had caught his fancy as soon as they had appeared on his doorstep.
"What have you done with your riding machines?" he cried out, quite upset. "Where are they? Have you lost them?"
"Now, don't you worry, my lad!" Scotty laughed, "My Harleys are fine. We left them back with the dragons for safe keeping. Come along! Let's go home!" and, scooping the boy up in his arms, the Engineer sat him, shrieking with delight, on his shoulders.
"Why? Why did you do that?" Rudi insisted, "Are the dragons going to ride them too?"
"Impossible, laddie, they are much too big to sit on the bikes, but they will look after them for us until to-morrow... Hummm... smells really good around here! Do you think we might have something to eat?" Scotty enquired as they passed the door, and he sniffed some appetizing odours drifting in from the back of the house.
"Of course, Mr Scott!" Anneli Boxberger chimed in. "Welcome home, gentlemen. Dinner will be served in thirty minutes."
"Oh, great! I am starving," was Sulu's cri du coeur.
"Wonderful," chorused Uhura, "That will give us time to wash up and change. Coming, Elizabeth?"
As the two communications officers rushed upstairs, the innkeeper looked around her crowded lobby and smiled. "Yes, you all have time to go and freshen up. Looks to me that you have had a hard day out there. But, how come I don't see Doctor McCoy and Nurse Chapel? Did they stay in the reservation?"
"No, they beamed up directly to the ship with the blood samples from the dragons," Kirk informed her.
"Oh, I see. Have they found what disease is affecting the dragons?" she asked with genuine concern.
"Not yet, but McCoy is working on it in our bio-labs. He will let us know as soon as he gets results. Now, if you will excuse me?" The Captain flashed her an apologetic smile.
"Of course, Captain. Don't let me keep you. I'll see you all at dinner. Now, Rudi, that's enough!" she firmly told her son who was sticking to Scotty like a limpet. "Come on, it is time for supper. You too, Guneli, give your thanks to the officer and go with your sister... and no argument, darling!"
Little Guneli, who was parading on Ensign Dugovitch's broad shoulders, knew better than object when her mother spoke in that tone of voice. She allowed herself to be removed from her perch, and meekly followed her brother and sister to the kitchen.
Anneli beamed at Scotty and Dugovitch. "Thank you both for putting up with my little devils," she said.
"Not at all, it was a pleasure," Mr Scott assured her, then both officers, who were longing for a well-deserved shower, took themselves off, leaving the First Officer in a tete a tete with their hostess.
She looked up at the Vulcan with a wistful smile. "Spock, I am dying to know. Tell me, did you see any of our dragons?"
"Yes, we did. Actually the first one we met was Puff, the young dragon who rescued me when I fell into the lake, if you remember?"
"Of course! I am not likely to forget that! Your mother was so upset." She laughed reminiscently. "Your parents decided there and then that you had to learn how to swim, and it was my father who gave you your first lessons, right there in the lake! Oh yes, I remember. But did Puff remember you?"
"He did, fortunately, which greatly facilitated our first contact with the dragons. He is now a pillar of the dragon community, the Chief of his clan, with a mate and several offspring. Unfortunately two of them are very ill and, unless a cure is found rapidly, they may not survive."
"I am so sorry, Spock. Do you think there is a chance to save them? Is Doctor McCoy going to find a cure before it is too late?"
"I do. If there is anyone in this galaxy who can find the antidote, believe me, it is Doctor McCoy. He has a vast experience, and when he sets his mind to a task, he focuses all his powers on to it until he obtains results."
"Then there is still hope for our dragons." Anneli looked relieved. "Thank goodness your ship happened to stop over here. I hate to think what would become of them without your help. But..." She broke off and blushed, realising suddenly that the Vulcan was standing politely at the foot of the stairs. "Sorry, Spock, how thoughtless of me to delay you with my chattering when all you want is go and freshen up before dinner - besides the fact that I am needed in the kitchen. Oh, dear! Excuse me." She rushed away, then, struck by a sudden thought, she turned round in the doorway.
"Oh, by the way," she announced, "Mother has cooked a special dinner for you, she remembers your preferences."
"Most considerate of her," Spock acknowledged. "Please convey my thanks and also my appreciation for the picnic lunch which you sent us. It was quite tasty, specially the blueberry wine."
"Good! I knew you would enjoy it!" she laughed and was gone.
The dinner, served on the Gasthof banqueting table, only used for very special occasions, was unanimously declared to be the best the Enterprise crew had had for a long time.
The first course, a soup of fresh garden vegetables laced with genuine cream, was savoured in reverent silence. Then, as the main dish was brought in and vintage wines were served, tongues began to loosen, and soon the company relaxed in a rambling conversation.
The Captain and the First Officer, placed at each extremity of the table, contented themselves at first with enjoying their meal and listening to their fellow officers' banter over their experience with the dragons. After all, they were on shore leave, as Scotty had not failed to remind them.
But Kirk, with questions and comments casually dropped in the conversation, led it skilfully where he wanted, and by and by the dinner party turned into an informal briefing session.
Spock, sitting quietly at his end of the table, was seemingly giving his attention to his vegetable stew, while actually listening and storing in his formidable memory every scrap of relevant information, in view of the report they were to dispatch to Starfleet Command. A brief glance across the table from Kirk, or a particular stress on a word, were sufficient for the Vulcan to follow his Captain's train of thought. Between these two, whose backgrounds were so far apart, the understanding had become so complete over the years that speech was often unnecessary. It was this kind of subliminal rapport which made for the superiority of their command team and its reputation in Starfleet.
Therefore it came as no surprise to Spock to hear Kirk declare decisively, "Well, to-day's investigation, coupled with the data that you have gathered, tends to confirm what we suspected all along, namely that the disease affecting the dragons is not endemic to this land, but that it has definitely been introduced by the new colonists, or by the crowds of visitors, or both. And that, gentlemen, gives us a strong argument for further action."
A ripple of approval ran around the party, capped by Engineer Scott. "Sure it does, Captain!" he affirmed. "Let's get on with it."
"Right, Scotty, that's exactly what we'll do." Then Kirk connected eyes with his friend. "Opinion, Spock?" he asked.
"I agree, Captain, and I think that a visit to the local authorities at the earliest opportunity is called for."
"Precisely!" Kirk nodded. "All we need now is McCoy's corroboration and an appointment with the Big Shots of Berengaria. I am expecting a call from McCoy any time now; as for that appointment...?" Kirk's eyes never wavered from the Vulcan's gaze.
"I shall take care of that, Captain. I have to beam back to the ship anyway to check on the bio-labs. Would tomorrow morning be a suitable time for that appointment, sir?"
"It would be perfect, Spock. The earlier the better. It's about time these people assumed their responsibilities. But perhaps we should not go empty-handed. What about bringing these officials a small gift, something special, eh, Spock?" Kirk's eyes danced with sheer devilry.
"That would be most appropriate, Captain," Spock's gaze remained steady. "By 0800 hours to-morrow, I can have a tape covering the essential facts and testimony, and including Doctor McCoy's medical report, ready for your approval.
"You do that, Spock. What these Worthies need is an eye-opener, and, by God! that's what they will get... Yes, Uhura? a question?"
Like her colleagues, Uhura had been listening in appreciative silence to the typical exchange between the Captain and his second in command, but, feeling that it was also her job as Chief Communication Officer to bring together enough evidence to convince the Berengarian authorities, she had raised a hand to call for attention.
"Sir," she said earnestly, "permission to go and help Mr Spock with that tape."
"Permission granted, Lieutenant," Kirk approved. "What about it, Spock?"
"Ms Uhura's expertise will be appreciated," Spock acknowledged courteously, "but are you sure, Lieutenant? You are on shore leave."
"And so are you, Mr Spock," she retorted brightly. "Frankly, I don't mind, sir, and if I can, in any way, help to put things right for the dragons, I am all for it. It should not take us long to sort out the more significant excerpts from the dragons' interviews and our reports, and I can always come back here to-morrow."
"Very well. Your offer is accepted, Lieutenant. Captain, with your permission, we should leave..."
"Not before you have had your dessert, my dears," a voice said from the doorway, and in came their hostesses, each carrying an enormous platter which they set down ceremoniously on the table, much to the dinner party's loud appreciation. Anneli Boxberger, armed with a carving knife, began to carve up the pastry while her mother, hands folded across her apron, announced, "This is a specialty of the house, gentlemen, a blueberry tart, which I hope Spock has not forgotten. These tarts were so much in demand that our customers used to order them in advance, I recall. Ah, those were the days!"
"They will come back, never fear, Madame Laederle," Scotty promised with a hearty grin, then, shoving a hefty piece of tart in his mouth, he ate it slowly with relish. "Mmmm...that's it!" he declared. "Do you know that I have not tasted blueberry pies since I was a kid?"
"I'll bet the same can be said of you, Spock." Kirk smiled at the Vulcan who, eyes half-closed in sheer enjoyment, looked like a cat lapping a bowl of cream. Spock surfaced at once and said with proper dignity,
"Indeed, Captain. You can't expect this kind of pastry to be had on deep space starships, let alone on Vulcan. This is a pleasant surprise, Madame Laederle. It tastes just as I remembered."
"It had better, Spock." The old lady gave him a fond smile. "I always follow the same old recipe inherited from my great grandmother, and I had not forgotten that you and your mother had developed quite a taste for my blueberry tarts!"
"I would not mind developing a taste for that dessert!" A comment from Sulu who was licking his lips, blue from the juice, with delight.
"Then why don't you have a second helping, Mr Sulu?" Anneli offered. "There is plenty left for everyone, see?"
The Enterprise team did not need to be told twice, and they all settled down to another helping, even Uhura and Palmer, who were usually mindful of their figures and quite particular about their diets. Coffee was being served and everyone was happily relaxed and replete when a chirp from the Captain's communicator brought all their heads up.
With a murmured, "Excuse me," Kirk stood up and moved a few steps away, followed by Spock, answering to his nod.
"Kirk here," he said.
"McCoy. We got it, Jim. Thought you'd like to know." The Doctor's voice was rough with fatigue and elation.
"You bet I'd like to know. Good job, Bones! What is it?"
"A viral infection, as I suspected, as a matter of fact. Chapel and I have checked and double checked; no doubt about it, all the tests are conclusive. It's flu, Jim, as simple as that. A nasty variety of lung flu, deadly for the young dragons. But curiously it does not seem to affect them past the age of puberty, whatever that is for a dragon."
"I see... " the Captain mused, an eye on Spock who nodded significantly. "Then that would explain why the adults seem to be all right."
"Yeah. Apparently they develop some kind of natural immunization in their system when they come of age, so to speak. Pretty effective since it protects them from that extraneous contamination which has attacked their young."
"That's interesting, Doctor. Do you think it might be used as a cure?"
"Can't say yet, Jim. I first have to identify and isolate that immunizing element, then see if we can obtain some viable antidote out of it. I am working on it now."
"But, since that disease is some kind of flu," Kirk was suddenly struck by an idea, "why don't you draw on your medical supplies, Bones? With the stocks of medication that you have got, I should think that..."
"Sure, Jim," McCoy drawled, "but better think again. The flu vaccines that we have in stock are made for humanoids, not for dragons."
"Oh, of course! I should have thought of that." Kirk made a self-deprecatory grimace.
"Which does not mean," the Doctor went on, "that I won't use them in mixing up some special vaccine for dragon physiology. Everything is possible. As I said, it is early yet. Now, if you will excuse me, duty calls, and I have a long night of research ahead of me. I'll let you know as soon as something comes through."
"All right, Bones. Call me any time. Sorry about that. You have all the work while we are taking it easy down here."
"That's the way it is, Jim, some people have all the fun!"
"By the way, Spock and Uhura are going back to the ship to-night."
"Oh? What for? "
"For the reports, Bones, and Spock wants to see how the lab techs are getting on with the samples collected this afternoon."
"Oh, that! From what I heard, they are getting along fine. They've already got some pretty conclusive results about the pollution of some brooks and lakes, among other things. Okay, Jim, I'll call you back. Over."
The Captain snapped his communicator shut and looked at Spock. "You going now?" he asked.
"Yes, as soon as Lieutenant Uhura has finished her meal."
"I am ready, Mr Spock!" she called, rising from the table. "Just give me two minutes to retrieve my bag, and I'll be right back," and Uhura rushed out of the room while her shipmates looked up enquiringly at Kirk.
"Anything we can do, Captain?" asked Mr Scott.
"No, thanks, Scotty. I'll just see Spock and Uhura off, and I'll be back. We have to talk about our plans for to-morrow."
"Right, sir. You will find us right here."
As the Captain and the Vulcan walked down to the beaming point, exchanging comments and recommendations, a voice suddenly brought them to a halt.
"Spock! Spock! please, wait!" It was Anneli Boxberger hurrying down the stairs, a large container in one hand and a basket in the other. "Spock, since you are going back to your ship, would you mind taking this up to Doctor McCoy?"
"What is that?" Kirk was intrigued.
"Dinner for the Doctor and Nurse Chapel, Captain. My mother says there is no reason why they should miss their meal because their duty called them away. I hope that does not interfere with your Starfleet regulations?"
"Not at all!" Kirk laughed. "On the contrary, I think it is a great idea, don't you, Spock?"
"Madame Laederle's ideas usually are, Captain." Spock expressed his approval in his own subtle way, and taking basket and container from Anneli's hands, he solemnly promised, "This will be delivered without fail to the Doctor - and, please, convey our appreciation to your mother."
"You are welcome, Spock. You will come back to-morrow, won't you?"
"I will, as soon as possible," Spock assured her.
At that moment Uhura arrived, breathless. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr Spock, but I had to make sure I have got all the dragon tapes." Her eyes alighted on the container. "What have you got here? More samples for Doctor McCoy?" she asked.
"It's for McCoy all right, Uhura," Kirk chuckled, "but not that kind of sample. Actually, it's McCoy's dinner, courtesy of these good ladies," he nodded at Anneli who stood smiling at her guests.
"How nice!" exclaimed Uhura. "The Doctor will be delighted, I am sure."
"Lieutenant, it is time to go," Spock reminded her. He had walked a few steps away and was waiting, communicator in hand.
"Oh yes, Mr Spock!" She promptly joined him and took position beside him, adding brightly, "Good night, Captain, good night, Anneli. Expect me back tomorrow for breakfast!"
"Good luck, you two. Spock, you keep me informed," was Kirk's farewell.
"I will, Captain. Spock to Enterprise... Come in, Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Go ahead, Mr Spock!" came a voice.
"Two to beam up," Spock ordered briefly.
Taking advantage of the few seconds it took for the order to take effect, Anneli put in a last word. "See you to-morrow at breakfast! Anyone care for brioches and hot chocolate?"
To which Uhura had just time to reply, "I'd love it!" before the transporter beam took hold of her and she and Spock vanished in columns of glittering light.
As the Captain and his hostess walked back to the inn, the former made a point of expressing his appreciation for the warm welcome that the Enterprise survey team was receiving at the Gasthof.
"Please, don't mention it, Captain. It is the tradition of the house. We always make sure that our guests are well fed and comfortable."
"That we are! No doubt about it. Frankly, I don't know how to thank you for all the trouble you are taking for us," Kirk said earnestly.
"Oh, but you already have, Captain!" Anneli retorted with that ready smile of hers.
"What do you mean I have?" Kirk halted in his tracks to stare at her.
"Well, "she explained, "you brought us Spock and, believe me, that means more to us than all the thanks you could give."
"Oh, really?" he laughed.
"I mean it, Captain." The lady was quite serious now. "Nothing could give my mother greater pleasure that to meet him again. You see, all these years past, she never forgot the lonely Vulcan boy who had won her heart, and so to suddenly discover what a fine officer he has become, can you imagine what it has been for her?"
"Quite a shock, obviously." Kirk smiled, then asked slyly, "But, what about you, Madame Boxberger?"
"Me?" she laughed. "What did you expect, Captain? When I realised that your First Officer was none other than my former Vulcan playmate, you could have knocked me down with a feather!"
"So we noticed," Kirk teased her pleasantly.
"Well, given the fame of Starfleet and of the Enterprise - yes, Captain, your reputation had reached even our little backwater - I admit that Mother and I were a bit overawed at the idea of having the famous Captain Kirk and his officers staying at our inn. And then, when Spock revealed himself, I was so thrilled, I could hardly believe it. As a matter of fact, to think that Spock, the best friend I ever had as a child, is the famous Vulcan second in command of the Enterprise... I still can't get over it!"
Kirk, amused and touched by Anneli's candour, nodded with a smile then, as they crossed the balcony, he remarked, "Do you know that Spock is regarded as the best First Officer in Starfleet?"
"Oh, really? He is that good?" She looked pleased.
"He is more than that, Anneli. He is an exceptional officer. What's more he has earned himself a reputation as one of the topmost scientists of the Federation, and, to cap it all, he is also my best friend. To tell you the truth, I never cease to pat myself on the back for being so lucky." He chuckled. "Not that you can gain Spock's friendship so easily, mind you. It took me quite some time!"
"Don't I know it?" She shared his amusement. "You forget that, on that matter, I have precedence over you, Captain Kirk."
"So you have! Heaven forbid that I ever forget it." Kirk flashed her his most dazzling smile, then pushed the door open, and let her in with an elaborate bow which she acknowledged with a small curtsey and a twinkle in her blue eyes.
As he followed the innkeeper into the lounge where the company was now gathered, the Captain could not but think that Anneli's blonde good looks and unaffected charm, pepped up by a sense of humour, were just the qualities he found particularly appealing in a woman. Of course, she was married, the mother of three children, and that was an obstacle to the game of philandering at which he had become a past master. Not to mention Spock, who had the advantage of precedence, and who had aroused in her an interest which bordered on fascination. Apparently the lady was not immune to Vulcan magnetism, not to say sex appeal. The Captain, however, was not unaware of his own powers of seduction, and, after all, why not try? A little flirtation would be of no consequence and would only add some spice to their shore-leave on Berengaria.
"Captain?... calling Captain Kirk... Spock to Captain Kirk... "
The calm, persistent voice filtered through the layers of sleep to finally reach the Captain's consciousness.
He woke up with a jerk, sat up painfully and instinctively called for the lights. When nothing happened, Kirk remembered that he was not in his quarters on the Enterprise, but in an old-fashioned bedroom of the Gasthof.
If you wished for light, you had to switch the side lamp on, and the call was not coming from the intra-ship com link, but from the communicator he had left open on his bedside table.
As the voice of his First Officer went on calling relentlessly, Kirk groped in the dark, could not find the switch, cursed under his breath, and at last got hold of the damned communicator.
"Spock, Captain. Sorry to wake you up, but you said you wished to be informed at all times," the deep voice calmly stated.
"Yes... yes, never mind, Spock," he yawned. "Something up?"
"Indeed, Captain. That is precisely why I have taken the liberty to call you now."
"What time is it?"
"It is 2 point 17 in the morning."
"A dawn call? No wonder I was fast asleep. All right, Spock, your report!"
"Sir, Doctor McCoy's research for a vaccine has met with complete success. The medical labs are now preparing a number of doses of anti-flu vaccines sufficient for the entire dragon population."
"Good work! I knew that Bones would pull it off. I must congratulate him! Where is he?"
"At the moment the good Doctor is asleep on the couch of his office. He was fatigued to the point of having his powers of reasoning considerably diminished, but despite his evident exhaustion, he refused to retire to bed. Therefore, and since his presence was no longer necessary, I took it upon myself to..." Here Spock broke off and diffidently cleared his throat.
The Captain burst out laughing. "Spock! Don't tell me you put McCoy to sleep! He'll be hopping mad at you when he wakes up. Not that I blame you, on the contrary. What was the point of him staying up all night if he could no longer think straight?" Much amused, Kirk remembered the occasions when he was so tired and preoccupied that he was losing sleep, McCoy's sleep tablet notwithstanding, and Spock had helped him to find it again by means of a simple mind touch. Okay, Spock, what next?"
"Next, Captain," Spock resumed in report mode, "I have arranged for you to have an appointment today at 10.30 local time with the Governor of Berengaria."
"Good. I only hope you did not call his office in the middle of the night!"
"No, Captain. I was able to contact Governor Da Ponte's private secretary before he left his office, and it took but a little persuasion to obtain this rendezvous."
"A little persuasion? Dare I ask what you mean by that, Mr Spock? Did that entail such methods as arm-twisting, brow-beating or perhaps cajoling?" Kirk was now wide awake and in a teasing mood.
"None of those, Captain." Spock's voice was carefully controlled but Kirk could almost detect the rise of a pair of eyebrows. "I merely succeeded in arousing the gentleman's curiosity, after which there was no more difficulty in obtaining satisfaction."
"Is that so? I am curious to know more about your method but I guess it can wait until tomorrow." Kirk stifled a yawn. "Anything else?"
"Yes, sir. Our report to Starfleet Command is ready and awaiting your approval before dispatch; and last, Lieutenant Uhura is putting the finishing touch to the summary of the critical situation in the dragon reservation which you wished to present as evidence to the Berengarian Authorities."
"Ah, yes. I hope it is conclusive enough?"
"It is, Captain. With a selection of reports and interviews, we have included the more significant of the tests and analyses made in the labs on the samples gathered by the survey team. They prove the responsibility of the new colonists and the tourists in the introduction on Berengaria, and in particular on the dragon territory, of several extraneous infections, the most dangerous to date being the virus of influenza. There is no doubt about it, Captain."
"Well done, Spock. You and McCoy and your departments have done a fine job, not forgetting our invaluable Uhura, of course. Tell you what... Now you all go and snatch a few hours sleep before we meet down at the Gasthof at 8 o'clock, for breakfast and a full briefing. Tell Uhura to bring down a copy of her tape. I'll check on your report to Starfleet when we'll go back to the ship for our appointment with Da Ponte, because you are of course coming with me, Spock."
"Very well, Captain. May I suggest that you go back to sleep? I shall give you a wake up call at 7 o'clock."
"Thanks, Spock, but I don't think I can." Kirk sounded restless.
"You can if you use the method I took the trouble to teach you, Captain."
"Which one? The one where you count sehlats jumping over the fence?"
"I never taught you that, Jim." There was mild disapproval in Spock's measured voice. "I mean the sleep-inducing method which consists in conjuring in your mind the image of a bright light, then you... "
"Oh, that one! Yes, I know. Okay, I'll give it a try, but if it does not work, I'll call you down to put me to sleep, like McCoy. Good night, Spock."
"Good night, Jim," came the reply, then the connection was cut off.
Kirk yawned, rolled on his side, punched his pillow into an adequate springiness, pulled the quilt up to his chin and snuggled down with a sigh of satisfaction. Then, having cleared his mind of all intrusive thoughts, he followed Spock's instructions. Within minutes he was sound asleep.
Governor Ricardo Da Ponte was to remember that day for a long time to come... the day when Starfleet officers turned up in his office, bearers of the most unsettling information.
Da Ponte had paid but scant attention to the list of appointments that his secretary had laid on his desk, first thing in the morning. He was too busy studying his last bank report on the computer screen, and checking that the substantial profits that he reaped every month from the casinos, clubs and other Berengarian establishments had been duly paid into his private account.
"Sir, may I draw your attention to the appointment scheduled for 10.30? It seems to be particularly important," the secretary tentatively pointed out,
"Mmmm?... Yes... yes." Da Ponte, engrossed in his scanning of the figures parading on the screen, replied absent-mindedly. "You noted down the visitor's name and purpose on my desk-pad, didn't you?"
"Of course, sir, as usual. But, with all due respect, I think that you..."
"Not now, Ramsay!" the governor broke in testily. "Don't you see I am busy? I'll look into it later... That's all for now."
"Very well, sir," the secretary stiffly replied, and he stalked out, wholly fed up with his boss and his job and more determined than ever to hand in his notice at the earliest opportunity.
Back in his small office, Ramsay shrugged, sat down at his desk and indulged in his usual irreverent review of his employer's shortcomings. After all, if the pompous fool cared so little about his morning appointment, why should his overworked, underpaid private secretary bother at all? Starfleet Brass requiring an audience was no common occurrence on Berengaria.
So far as he knew, it had never happened before... and that officer, last night, had seemed dead serious. "A matter of the utmost importance," he had said.
Meantime Da Ponte was adding up his profits instead of briefing himself for the meeting. If he was in for an embarrassing interview, too bad! He would have only himself to blame.
But, come to think of it, if the governor was not interested, others might be. Surely the High Council should be informed. He had only to spread the word that Starfleet representatives were to meet Da Ponte and the grapevine would do the rest. Ramsay knew perfectly well which member of the Council would be specially interested. The vice-president, Sophie Duranville herself.
The lady was no fool, with a sharp mind and a sharp tongue, and a keen sense of her responsibilities. It was no secret in high government circles that she and the governor did not see eye to eye over the state of affairs on Berengaria, Da Ponte being generally more prone to act in his own interests than in that of the planet.
With these considerations in mind, Da Ponte's secretary keyed his intercom to a private channel and contacted a friend he had at the Council Hall.
"Is your boss somewhere around?"
"Yes, she has just arrived. Why?"
"Do me a favour, please. Go to her office on some pretext, and tell her that it's being rumoured that important people from Starfleet are expected in the governor's office this morning. Perhaps she would be well advised to drop in on Da Ponte about that time."
"Damn mysterious, aren't you? Can't you be more specific?"
"Sorry, I can't. All I know is that the Captain of the Enterprise has insisted on meeting the governor over a very important matter. Just tell her that. That should bring her along - and make sure not to mention my name!"
"Of course. I never reveal my sources of information. But... you said the Enterprise? That's hot! You bet Sophie will be interested!"
When at 10.30 sharp, Ramsay ushered the Enterprise officers in the governor's sanctum, Da Ponte - who had finally taken time to get informed about his visitors - stood up and walked around his desk to greet them. A departure from his usual habit, but perhaps it was a good time to make an exception.
He shook hands with the pleasant-looking Captain, acknowledged with a nod the tall Vulcan who kept his hands resolutely clasped behind his back, and waved them into armchairs. Then, pausing by a side table, He proposed, "May I offer you something, gentlemen? Saurian brandy? Liquors, or whisky perhaps?"
"Thank you, Mr Governor. My First officer does not drink but I don't mind joining you for a brandy," Captain Kirk replied with his most charming smile.
"Splendid! Brandy it is. Here you are, Captain. Cheers!" Da Ponte raised his glass, beamed at his visitors, and sat down at his desk. So far, so good.
While they drank and exchanged polite small talk, the governor covertly observed the Enterprise officers. Good-looking guys in their smart Starfleet uniforms, each in his own way. Curious, though. They seemed in no hurry to broach the subject of their visit, a visit they had requested in the most pressing terms only last night. They looked relaxed and unhurried, but then, you could never tell with the military... or maybe he was only imagining things, after all. Their ship had put in at Berengaria for a few days, their crew was on shore leave, and they had deemed it correct to pay a courtesy call to the governor. That's probably all there was to it. These officers were well-bred and punctilious young men, with a high opinion of their role as Starfleet official representatives. Quite commendable!
Relaxing visibly, Da Ponte sat back in his chair, smiled and chatted, playing the gracious host to perfection. Kirk let him ramble on, responding in kind, nodding and smiling - in short, biding his time.
He knew the type; he had summed him up at first glance as soon as he had set foot in his ostentatious office. He had met this kind of individual, the affluent, well-fed, self-satisfied opportunist so many times and on so many worlds that the species seemed to be universal, no matter what race, culture or people it belonged to. Except on Vulcan, of course!
A flippant thought which prompted Kirk so steal a side glance at his Vulcan officer who had donned his mask of bland detachment. A slight quiver of the right eyebrow revealed Spock's well-controlled amusement.
Kirk quickly turned his attention back to governor Da Ponte, whose verbosity seemed to have reached its limits. Kirk let a few seconds of silence drift by. Then Da Ponte seemed to come to a decision. He cleared his throat, sat forward and folded his hands on his desk.
"Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you? Much as I appreciate this conversation, I believe this is not the actual purpose of your visit. Your insistence on obtaining an appointment at such short notice, and the pressing terms you used to convince my secretary, seem to indicate that this is more than a simple courtesy call. Therefore, gentlemen, shall we come to the point?"
"By all means, sir," Kirk replied readily. "If we asked for a meeting with the highest authorities of Berengaria it is indeed for very definite reasons - but you speak of 'pressing terms'. May I ask what you mean by that? As I did not personally contact your secretary, I am rather at a loss..." Kirk shrugged and smiled disarmingly.
"Oh? Oh, yes, of course!" Da Ponte tittered affectedly. "Well, my secretary must have noted them somewhere... let me see..." He made a show of leafing through his pad. "Ah, here it is! Yes, Captain, strong terms indeed. It is about 'a matter of extreme urgency'... 'of paramount importance'... even 'a life or death emergency'. Rather excessive, don't you think?" The governor put the pad down and continued in a supercilious tone. "I can assure you that neither your ship nor your crew are in any danger on Berengaria, which is renowned for being the safest and most peaceful planet in this system. Frankly, I fail to see the necessity for your secretary to resort to such dramatic methods in order to obtain an appointment."
Keeping a straight face, Kirk even managed to look embarrassed. "Mr Governor," he said, "my apologies. I admit that the methods of my... er... secretary are somewhat unorthodox, but he has, unfortunately, a tendency to react emotionally to critical situations."
"Is that so?" Da Ponte's eyebrows went up in surprise. "I may be wrong, but I always assumed that emotions were frowned upon among the military."
"Absolutely! It is highly disapproved," Kirk glibly replied while studiously avoiding the Vulcan's indignant stare, "but, let us say that he is the exception which proves the rule, and... " he added with a disarming smile, "he is such a damn good secretary that I really don't know what I would do without him! But, Mr Governor, to come back to the matter in hand, those terms which you find excessive are, this once, but the expression of reality. The situation is indeed most serious, not to say alarming."
"You don't say! I am sorry to hear that," Da Ponte politely commented. "In that case, Captain, if there is anything we can do, do not hesitate to name it. Berengaria will be only too glad to give Starfleet assistance."
Kirk suppressed a sardonic grin and prepared to drop his bombshell. "You are most kind, Mr Da Ponte, but I am afraid you misunderstand me. The emergency we are facing does not concern my ship, it concerns Berengaria and it is, I repeat, extremely serious."
The governor smiled complacently. "My dear Captain Kirk, I appreciate your solicitude, but let me set your mind at rest. Our planet is equipped with the most sophisticated array of long-range defence sensors to be found on the market. Supposing, which is highly unlikely - supposing that, for instance, some hostile fleet or some rogue meteorite happened to come within our sensor range, they would be immediately detected and repulsed. Berengaria is, I repeat, the safest world in this quadrant. We receive, every year, billions of visitors, tourists, revellers and the like, and naturally our safety rules are drastic. We must guarantee the welfare of our clients, you understand. We can't afford the least incident, our reputation is at stake. I don't know where you got your information, but it is quite unfounded. Believe me, Captain, if my planet were threatened in any way, I would be the first to know!" and Da Ponte leaned back in his chair, clearly satisfied with his speech.
Curiously, it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on his interlocutors. They exchanged a glance, the Vulcan lifted an eyebrow, and the Captain crossed his legs nonchalantly.
"Very interesting, Mr Governor. I must commend you on the efficiency of your defensive system, but it is, I am afraid, totally ineffective against the insidious invader which is already on your land. Oh, it is not as spectacular as a meteorite impact or an air-borne assault, but it is as deadly, believe me."
"What are you talking about? We have never allowed anyone or anything liable to endanger the population on our planet!" The governor, red in the face, was visibly quite annoyed.
"Spock, would you please explain?" Kirk asked languidly, as if giving up the discussion.
The Vulcan officer nodded, leaned forward and, gazing intently at Da Ponte complied. "What we are talking about, Mr Governor, is something which has been introduced years ago on Berengaria, probably by some of the tourists you are so keen on attracting here. These people constitute, no doubt, a great asset for your planet, bringing in prosperity, easy money, jobs and considerable profits, but they can also bring dangerous diseases against which your state-of-the-art defensive system is powerless. What we are talking about, sir, is precisely that, a viral disease which you have let settle in and spread out, and which has been killing innocent natives of Berengaria ever since."
"No! That's impossible!" Da Ponte retorted hotly. "Our Health Department is one of the most advanced of its kind. Their efficiency and reliability is renowned far and wide. In none of their reports have I seen any mention of lethal diseases or epidemics. We are most careful about the state of health of our people. Gentlemen, I don't know what you want to prove with these stupid allegations, but I tell you they are unjustified and utterly ridiculous!"
In the silence which followed the governor's outburst, a voice quietly enquired, "What is ridiculous, if I may ask?"
A dark—haired, middle-aged, handsome woman was standing in the doorway, amusement touched with irony written on her face.
"Sorry to butt in, Ricardo, but I did knock... twice, actually, but apparently you were too busy shouting to hear me. But I see that you have visitors... " Her voice trailed off as she ran an appraising glance over the Enterprise men who had got to their feet at her entrance. "Well, perhaps I had better come back later... " She lingered, watching Da Ponte's confusion with obvious interest.
The governor took in a deep breath and said crossly. "Yes, you can see that I am busy but, after all, you might as well stay and hear what these men have to say. That might also concern the Council. Come in, then. Shut the door and come in!"
Da Ponte performed the introductions rather ungraciously and drummed his fingers on his desk while the Vice-President addressed Kirk and Spock with pleasant words.
"Please, please, take a seat. Let's get on with it!" he snapped impatiently, visibly upset by the turn of events.
Once they were all seated, Sophie Duranville looked curiously from one to the other. "Well, gentlemen, what seems to be the problem?" she asked.
"You may well ask!" Da Ponte huffily declared. "These Starfleet officers here are as good as accusing me of putting the life of our fellow citizens in jeopardy!"
"What! You can't be serious?" She stared at them with an incredulous smile.
"Unfortunately, we are, Madam Vice-President," Kirk replied soberly. "But I am afraid that Governor Da Ponte misunderstands us. We are not, of course, accusing him personally, we are only reporting what we found out only yesterday, namely that a virus was introduced, inadvertently so far as we can tell, years ago on Berengaria, and which has caused the death of a great many native Berengarians."
"I repeat, this is downright impossible!" Da Ponte fumed. "No-one has ever heard of Berengarians dying from a virus since time immemorial!"
"Wait a minute!" Duranville cut in peremptorily, hand raised to stop further argument. "I think this needs to be clarified. Captain, kindly tell us what viral disease you are referring to, and how and by whom it has been identified."
"Good question, Madam Vice-President." Kirk nodded with satisfaction. Here, at last, was someone clear-headed enough to come straight to the real issue. "The virus was identified only last night by the ship's Chief Surgeon, Doctor McCoy, in his medical laboratory. It is a particularly virulent variety of influenza."
"Influenza?!" The two officials stared, bemused at each other, then Da Ponte guffawed loudly. "Flu? But, my dear Captain, flu was eradicated from Berengaria ages ago. You must have been misinformed, no-one dies of flu nowadays."
"With all due respect, Mr Governor, you are in error," the Vulcan officer said coolly, his eyes pinning Da Ponte with that dark, level gaze that the latter found particularly unnerving. "Unfortunately, there are still native Berengarians who die of flu."
"How do you know?" An abrupt question from Sophie Duranville whose keen gaze never left the faces of the officers. "You keep mentioning the 'native Berengarians'. Why? Who are they? Where do they live since we have never heard of them? How do you know that they are sick and dying?"
"We know, Madam, because we have met them; we have seen their young dying of the flu," Kirk told her. "You ask who they are. Well, they are the only beings who can be considered as the original Berengarians, Madam. They are the dragons, what are left of them, and they live in the Reservation where you confined them about six years ago."
If he sounded bitter, even denunciatory, Kirk did not care. These people needed to be told the truth. They needed to face their responsibilities. He had hopes in Sophie Duranville who appeared to be a level-headed, sharp-witted woman. She was probably wise enough to realize that it was in everyone's interest to save the dragons from extinction. On the other hand, he did not expect anything constructive from the governor. The man was so full of himself, so self-assured that nothing you could say would make him admit that something was wrong on his planet.
Sure enough, Da Ponte blinked, took a deep breath and exploded. "Dragons? That's what it's all about? All that fuss for a few dozens of prehistoric beasts? Good Heavens, Captain, you have come and wasted my time over some wretched animals bound to disappear sooner or later anyway! I am even surprised that there are any left."
"But, Ricardo, didn't you hear what the Captain said? They are dying. Don't you think that something should be done to help them?" Duranville protested.
"My dear Sophie, consider! If we had to look after every lame dog, we would never be done with it!"
"Don't 'dear Sophie' me!" she sharply countered. "How can you be so obtuse? Can't you understand that the dragons belong to the history of Berengaria? They are part of our heritage, can't you see that? If there are indeed any left, we must see to it that they survive. I admit, much to my regret, gentlemen, not having paid much attention to the question. All I know, actually, is that the dragon territory was shut down to visitors years ago, after that landslide up in the mountains, beyond the lake district."
"Exactly!" Da Ponte interjected. "That is precisely why the question was no longer raised. After that accident, a dragon Reservation was created for security reasons, and that was it. The problem was solved and the matter was closed," he concluded with obvious satisfaction.
"Apparently not," the Vice-President objected caustically. "We are facing yet another dragon problem, and I thank you, gentlemen, for bringing it to our attention. I assume that you can prove your assertion?” She looked at them inquiringly.
"Yes, Madam, we can," Kirk said. "We have brought a tape for your edification, a brief account of yesterday's events, summarized by Mr Spock and my Communications Officer, an excerpt from our report to Starfleet Command."
"You mean that Starfleet will hear about this nonsense?" the governor exclaimed. "It is not their concern, Captain, nor is it yours, for that matter. You are meddling with our private affairs, and let me tell you that I don't appreciate it at all!"
"I am sorry to see you take it that way, Mr Da Ponte," was Kirk's cold retort, "but we Starfleet officers are duty bound to report any incident that we might witness to our superiors. Naturally, we are also duty bound to conform to Starfleet non-interference policy, but there are sometimes circumstances which demand that the rule be overridden. For instance, when lives are at stake, when a species is running the risk of extinction, and when the local authorities do nothing about it. Then we have to intervene. That's what it means being a Starfleet officer, Mr Governor."
"Very pretty speech, Captain Kirk," Da Ponte snorted. "Of course, we all know that brave words and high principles are Starfleet's stock in trade. But they are irrelevant in this matter. Here we are dealing with wild predators which have proved to be extremely dangerous for our population.
"If you had any idea of the havoc wreaked, years ago, by the dragons in our beautiful resorts, you would not be so prompt to run to their rescue. No, Captain, you had better trust our experience and let us deal with them as we see fit. It is much better for all concerned to let them die away in their Reservation. As a clever man said once, long ago, 'A good dragon is a dead dragon', and he was damn right!"
"This is perfectly monstrous, Mr Governor! How can you say such a thing?" Sophie Duranville was outraged and did not mince her words.
"Why not?" Da Ponte shrugged. "I am a realist, my dear, not a romantic altruist like you. When one fills a post of authority, one has to be rational."
Kirk, wholly disgusted with Da Ponte's cynicism, was about to throw caution to the winds and give him a piece of his mind when he was anticipated by Spock whose cold anger he could feel, barely suppressed.
"With due respect, Mr Governor," the Vulcan said in a tone of icy correctness, "you are labouring under a grave misapprehension. Beside the fact that your quote from that 19th century general - a particularly cynical and unsavoury character - is erroneous, it was actually about Indians, not dragons, you don't seem to apprehend who the Berengarian dragons are in reality. We have here the irrefutable evidence that they are not the dangerous beasts that you describe, but, on the contrary, sentient beings capable of reasoning and feeling, and of kindly disposition when they are left in peace. As are any living creature, they deserve your respect."
If Spock had suddenly sprouted horns on his head, Da Ponte and Duranville would not have looked more bemused. They stared at him in shock, then the Vice-President blinked.
"Did I hear you correctly, Mr Spock? Did you say that the dragons are sentient beings... like you and me?"
"They are, indeed, Madam. They are intelligent, sensible and they can communicate by mental contact. This is how we have learned much about them. We have recorded the essentials for you on this tape." Thus saying, Spock produced a small tape cartridge and held it out to Da Ponte.
"This is extraordinary!" Sophie Duranville marvelled. "We had sentient dragons on our planet and we did not know it. All right, let us see that tape. What are you waiting for, Ricardo?"
"Don't tell me you believe in this cock and bull story?" he scoffed. "Intelligent dragons, indeed! They think? They talk? Impossible. Seriously, Captain, I hope you don't expect me to believe that you met the dragons and even talked to them, I know it's impossible - you cannot go into the Reservation, it's strictly off limits to all visitors. I suppose that the observance of local laws and regulations is also part of Starfleet policy?" There was a touch of derision in the governor's voice.
"Oh, it is, Governor," Kirk replied blithely. "We would not dream of trespassing into forbidden territory. We did, however, go into the Reservation. You see, a special permit to visit the Lake District and the Crystal Caves was graciously delivered to the Enterprise crew. So we went to the Reservation yesterday, and this is how we met the dragons."
"A special permit? Never heard of such a thing!" Da Ponte looked vexed, to say the least. "Where did you get that?"
"Why, it was given us by your Public Relations Department, very helpful and efficient, I must say. Er... what was the name of that young man, Spock?" Kirk asked, pretending ignorance.
"I believe it was...(a pause)...Santini, Captain," suggested the Vulcan, entering into the spirit of the game.
"Ah, yes!...Santini. A very charming young man, and most helpful, Mr Governor. You are fortunate to have such a resourceful employee in your P.R. Department, I am sure."
If Da Ponte realised that he was being ribbed, he did not let on. "He had no right to give you that permit, Captain, he exceeded his instructions, and I'll make sure that he be duly reprimanded."
"I don't think you should, Ricardo," Duranville put in with a wry smile. "On the contrary, that young man should be promoted for his stroke of genius. Why! but for him, Captain Kirk would never have come upon the dragons, and we would continue being blissfully unaware of their plight. I think he deserves our congratulations. But let's get back to the subject. I want to see that tape, Ricardo, so, please, enough dilly-dallying!" Clearly, the lady's patience was wearing thin. "Look! These officers have taken the trouble to prepare this report, the least we can do is to give it our attention. Now, if you are not interested, I am, definitely, and so will be the Council. Why don't you just give it to me and we'll view it in the Council Hall?" She leaned forward and held out her hand but, just as she had expected, the governor gave in at last.
"All right! All right!" he grumbled. "No need to make all that fuss!" He slipped the tape in the desk unit and hit the start button.
"Thank you, Ricardo," Duranville said sweetly, then, having achieved her purpose, she sat back, a tiny smile of satisfaction on her lips.
No need to say that the exchange had been observed with great interest by the Captain and his First Officer. They shared a meaningful glance punctuated by a wink from the former and the uplift of an eyebrow from the latter. Then as the screen lit up with the Starfleet logo, both men turned their attention, not so much on the video as on the two Berengarian officials who were viewing it.
If the Vice-President's face clearly showed her close attention, Da Ponte's guarded expression seemed to denote a certain uneasiness, even something like apprehension.
Curious... Does he know more than he has admitted? Is he perhaps afraid that some unpleasant facts would be brought to light? Kirk wondered in the privacy of his own mind. Yes... what about these arguments, these continual objections that Da Ponte has raised during our discussion, what if they were attempts to prevent the projection of the tape? Could it be that this self-satisfied governor has something to hide? A guilty conscience, perhaps? That's an interesting question which needs to be looked into. Kirk knew exactly who could do it with discretion and efficiency.
Sophie Duranville had the clout, the intelligence and the determination to carry out such a delicate investigation, to wit, the skill with which she had thwarted Da Ponte's delaying tactics. If the tape was viewed at all, it was thanks to the lady's tenacity.
Emerging from these reflections, the Captain glanced at his Vulcan friend who, he saw with amusement, was unobtrusively observing the governor through narrow eyes. Apparently Kirk was not alone in asking himself questions about the man; Spock was probably following the same line of thought, which proved, once again, that the two were of one mind.
By now the tape was almost half-way through. After the preliminaries and the first encounter with the dragons, the viewers were confronted by the grievances and accusations that Puff and the other dragon Chiefs were pouring into the minds of Uhura and Palmer who were faithfully repeating them in Standard. Sophie Duranville was moved, that much was evident; as for the governor, he looked more embarrassed than surprised.
Then Kirk appeared on the screen, giving orders right and left, and the Enterprise party was seen splitting up in teams, each one going on its way in search of evidence, and each one duly escorted by a dragon flying overhead.
"That's incredible!" the Vice-President said under her breath. "These dragons look so frightful, and yet you all seem to get along so well with them."
"They are no fools, Madam, they know who are their friends, who they can trust," Kirk quietly said.
"Yes, so it seems," she murmured, as she watched Scotty, Kincaid and all stop their motorcycles every so often and collect samples from the soil, the water and the waste dumps. Simultaneously, a voice-over, easily identified as that of Spock, was explaining the purpose of the operation and giving the results obtained by analysis in the labs of the Enterprise.
A number of toxic elements had been identified and found directly responsible for the severe pollution of the ecosystem in several sites of the Lake District. But more alarming still had been the discovery in some of the rubbish heaps of some dangerously infectious bacteria and viruses, one of which had been identified by Doctor McCoy as that of influenza.
"My God!" Duranville said in alarm. "That is where they got the flu! I had no idea. Did you know, Ricardo?"
"What?... No, of course not!" he curtly replied.
As in corroboration, they were treated next to a visit to the dragons' caves. They viewed Spock, McCoy and his medical team facing a huge female dragon, then, in a close-up, several young beasts lying in pain, moaning and obviously very ill. As the Doctor and Nurse Chapel were seen taking blood samples, a running commentary from McCoy described the characteristics of that virus and its lethal effect on the young dragons, further explaining how they had caught the disease while they were playing innocently around the trash heaps left over by the tourists.
Finally, McCoy's face appeared in a close-up on the screen, his fierce blue eyes blazing with righteous indignation, as he blamed in no uncertain terms the Berengarian Authorities, the Tourism and Health Departments for their criminal lack of precaution regards native populations.
"Now," he concluded, glaring straight at the camera, "as usual it is left to us to clear up the mess and try and find an antidote. I hope we succeed, but if we don't and if the ancient race of the dragons of Berengaria disappears, your beautiful, carefree planet will be held responsible for this wanton genocide."
The Starfleet logo flashed for an instant, then the screen went blank.
A heavy silence ensued, no-one moved, then Sophie Duranville heaved a sigh. "Strong words," she commented. "Your Doctor McCoy is certainly not afraid of speaking his mind."
"Strong words? Unacceptable, if you ask me!" Da Ponte gave a dark look. "Damn impudence! Who does he think he is, passing judgement on his betters? How could we know what was happening in the Reservation, it has been declared a no-go area for years. We can't be held responsible. We knew nothing of the dragons' situation."
As he heard the self-justification in the governor's voice, Spock could not help but think that, no matter what, there was a constant in the human race; a propensity to disclaim all responsibility and to pretend ignorance.
"A typical human reaction, Governor," he said loftily. "So much easier to say that one did not know than to face one's responsibility. How many times, in human history, has genocide, from holocausts to ethnic cleansings, been committed with impunity because people looked the other way, then claimed afterwards that they did not know?"
"Look here, Captain!" Da Ponte bristled. "Do you have so little authority over your senior officers that you let them come and insult the representatives of an independent planet? I'll thank you to call your First Officer and the ship's surgeon to order!"
"I shall certainly do so, Mr Governor," Kirk, poker-faced, smoothly said. ”The trouble is that they are not in the habit of mincing their words when dramatic events occurred which could have been avoided."
"Really? You seem to have a particularly emotional crew, Captain. First your secretary, now your staff officers... What next? I wonder how you can run that ship of yours." The governor's voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"Oh, I can manage... " Kirk shrugged unconcernedly.
The Vice-President who, during this brief exchange, had been sitting quietly, head bowed, deep in thought, looked up, and on her face could be seen a deep emotion.
"Your officers are certainly forthright in their assertion, Captain, but I must admit that they are right. True, we did not know what was happening in the Reservation, but that's no excuse. We should have known, we should have taken the trouble to make enquiries. You are right, Mr Spock, we must care, and assume our responsibilities with the dragons. First, and I am sure you will agree with me Ricardo, we must take steps to prevent the contamination from spreading out. Your Chief Surgeon is working on an antidote, Captain, perhaps our physicians from the General Hospital should contact him and join forces with him, don't you think?"
"I am sure that McCoy would appreciate it, Madam, but, as a matter of fact, he has already discovered the antidote, a vaccine specially adapted to the dragons' physiology. At this very moment, he and his team, backed up by a task force of volunteers from my ship, are making house calls to inoculate the entire dragon population with that vaccine."
Kirk's attempt to surprise them was a success. Duranville and Da Ponte both stared at him.
"Do you mean that you have already found the antidote?" the latter blurted out. There was no telling whether he was pleased or not. Not so with the vice-president. She sat back and broke up in laughter.
"Really, Captain, you do enjoy springing surprises on unsuspecting parties, don't you? Well done, gentlemen! My commendation to your Chief Surgeon. But, now that Starfleet has done that much, what else can we do? What are the priorities?"
"Really, my dear Sophie, since Starfleet personnel have taken the matter in hand, on their own initiative, I don't see what more we can do. Let them finish what they have started, it's not our concern," the governor said sourly.
"Sorry, Governor, but the Enterprise is due to leave in three days' time," the Captain pointed out. "There is still much to be done which must be your concern. It is now up to Berengaria to follow up what Starfleet has only started. For instance, the dragon patients must be looked after and visited at regular intervals, the toxic wastes must be destroyed, the pollution must be eliminated from the entire dragon territory. That should keep your Health and Sanitation Departments busy for a while, and that's only what comes to mind at the moment. I am sure that you will find plenty of essential things claiming your attention as you proceed."
"Wait a minute, Captain! That's easy for you to say, but all these grand projects will be extremely costly," Da Ponte objected. "We are but a small planet and our budget is limited. We can't afford to run into these extravagant expenses on our own. What I mean is that the Federation will have to contribute to our efforts - monetary help would be appropriate and... " Da Ponte's voice tailed off as he caught sight of Kirk's ironic grin.
"Monetary help? My dear Governor, you must be joking, or else you don't realise the gravity of your position in this matter. Do you truly expect the Federation to consider sharing your expenses? Better think again, Mr Da Ponte. The Federation will take rather a poor view of your request, considering the amount of money that shiploads of visitors keep pouring into your coffers. The Federation will never believe that Berengaria needs financial help, what with all those de luxe resorts, casinos, pleasure parks, gambling joints on which you cash in... Why! I am told that you cannot go anywhere here, not even to the head, without running into batteries of slot machines! No, Mr Da Ponte, in view of the enormous profits that you reap every day, don't expect us to believe that you cannot spare the amount necessary for the rehabilitation of the dragons' land and the protection of the species. Believe me, governor, even assuming that humanitarian reasons be the least of your concerns, it is in your best interest to put things to right, promptly and efficiently."
Before Da Ponte, bristling with indignation, could find a retort, Sophie Duranville said quietly, "Point taken, Captain. No need to press the issue. We shall take the matter in hand, and from now on, the dragons' rights will be respected on Berengaria. You have my word. Naturally the Council must be informed of the situation and view this tape. But, first, and don't take this amiss, Captain, I want to go and see the dragons with my own eyes. I want to speak with them so as to corroborate your report to the members of the Council."
"Certainly, Madam, and let me tell you how delighted I am to see one of the highest authorities of Berengaria take the trouble of going out on the field to see the situation for yourself. But there might be a slight difficulty." Kirk paused and looked at his Vulcan officer who nodded imperceptibly. "May I ask how you plan to go to the Reservation, Madam Vice-President?
"With my aircar, of course. Any objection?" the lady looked surprised.
"Certainly none from us, but I am afraid that the dragons won't let you in. They are extremely nervous about all flying vehicles, having been too often the victims of accidents caused by careless pilots. What's more, they are wary of strangers, and it takes some doing to be accepted."
"But I don't understand," Sophie Duranville objected. "How come that you were accepted so readily? How did you gain their trust?"
"Because, unknowingly, we had two aces up our sleeves." Kirk grinned. "One was my First Officer, here, who had made friends, years ago, with one of the dragon Chiefs, on the occasion of a previous visit, and they had not forgotten. The other was, most unexpectedly, the interest - better say the fascination - that our motorcycles aroused among the dragons. Actually, that is what first drew their attention to our landing party; then, once the ice was broken and they recognized Spock, the rest was plain sailing."
"Really?" The vice-president was much amused. "You and your First Officer are most unusual men, Captain, and I begin to understand why the dragons could be so fascinated! But to come back to the point, what shall we do about the problem of transportation? I hope you don't expect me to ride one of your... what do you call them?... motorcycles?" Her dark eyes twinkled at Kirk.
"Why not?" He smiled disarmingly. "The pillion seats are quite safe and comfortable, as my female officers can testify, but I have a better idea."
"Let's have it, then." She smiled back.
"I suggest that you and your followers fly in your aircar to the Gasthof which we use at the moment as our survey base. It is an inn located by a lake..."
"I know where it is, Captain," she cut in. "The Laederles' Inn, a very nice place at the foot of some hills. I used to go there, as a teenager."
"Good! So you go to the Gasthof where we wait for you and your escort. We have rented a skimmer from the inn. At the moment Doctor McCoy is using it to go and visit his patients, and the dragons know it well now. Anyway, we cannot fly anywhere in the Reservation without being duly escorted by one or more dragons; it is their rule. But, to continue, we all board our skimmer, and we take you to the gathering site of the Clans, by one of the lakes. There, we introduce you to the dragon Chiefs, and once you are accepted, we leave it to you to debate with them as you see fit, and hopefully come to an agreement which satisfies all the parties concerned."
"Captain, if I may...?" Spock put in quietly.
"Sure, Spock. Something I missed?"
"Only this, Captain. I think that the vice-president should be warned that the dragons not only possess strong telepathic powers which serve them to communicate, but that they also can easily detect thoughts and emotions even from a fairly long distance."
Duranville's eyes widened in surprise. "I see," she said. "Thank you for the information, Mr Spock. Do you hear that, Ricardo? It means that you will have to guard carefully whatever you think of them, or you might well run into trouble! Because you are coming with us, I suppose?"
"Certainly not!" The governor, peeved at seeing the matter taken out of his hands by this damn woman who never missed a chance to pull the rug from under his feet, replied testily. "It is your decision, not mine. I don't know what President Carignan will have to say about it, but don't expect me to back you up. Now, if you want to go gallivanting in the Reservation at the risk of being killed, or, at best, of having your mind turned inside out by telepathic beasts, it's up to you. I don't care, but don't count me in!"
"Very well. If that is how you feel about it, I won't press you," Duranville said quietly. "But I do think that someone from your department should come with us, if only for the sake of the proprieties. The question of the dragons concerns the entire government."
Da Ponte blew out his cheeks in exasperation. He was perhaps considering yet a last ditch attempt to put off the inevitable outcome. Then he gave up and shrugged. "Since you insist, you can have Ramsay, my secretary. I'll bet he will be only too glad to take some time off."
"As you wish." Duranville stood up and shook out her long silken skirts. "Will you tell him, then, to meet me, in one hour, at the landing stage, by my personal aircar. I have first to talk to the President and show him this tape. May I have it, please?" She held out her hand, but, as the governor seemed unwilling to give it up, she looked down at him with ill-concealed disdain. "Don't worry, Ricardo, you will have it back, as soon as we have made all the copies we need at the Council." Then, holding the small cartridge tightly in her hand, she turned to the Starfleet visitors. "It is not goodbye, gentlemen, since we will meet again at the Gasthof. Shall we say..." She looked at the small golden clock ticking on the desk. "...In a couple of hours from now?"
"Agreed, Madam Vice-President, but... one last word, if I may," Kirk said while eyeing appreciatively Sophie Duranville's elegant clothes and high-heeled shoes. "I must point out that the dragons' territory is nothing like your spick and span gardens. There, nature is still in its rough, wild state, and one has to go prepared for all eventualities. So may I suggest that you and your companions wear casual, comfortable clothes?"
"Recommendation noted, Captain." Duranville gave him a small, ironic smile. "Your concern is appreciated, but it was not my intention to go and face the dragons in this attire. See you later, gentlemen. Are you sure you don't want to, come, Ricardo? You don't know what you are going to miss!" and on that parting shot, the Vice-President sailed gracefully out of the governor's office.
A knowing glance passed between Kirk and his First Officer, then the former turned to Da Ponte and said pleasantly, "If you will excuse us, Governor, we shall also be on our way. We have many things to attend to before our rendezvous with the Vice-President. So, unless there is something else we can do...?"
"Something else?" Da Ponte erupted, cutting him short. "I should damn well think not, Captain! You have brought us enough trouble as it is, with your officiousness, your insolent interference in our affairs. We don't need Starfleet's wise guys to come barging in to teach us what to do. Poor Sophie might be dazzled by your fine Starfleet veneer, but I am too old at that game to be taken in. Now, do me the favour of leaving these precincts immediately, and never show up again. And consider yourself personna non grata on Berengaria, Captain Kirk, you and your Vulcan sidekick!"
The governor was now on his feet, quivering with wrath, but, curiously, a certain uneasiness surfaced in his eyes.
"No need to be offensive, Governor," Kirk coldly retorted. "What we have done was but our duty as Starfleet officers. But do not worry, we are not likely to come back to your sham world, a world of wanton waste and shameless profit. Too bad! Berengaria used to be a beautiful planet, renowned far and wide for its natural beauties, its exceptional fauna, and what have you done with it? The worst example of crass commercialism! This is unforgivable, Mr Da Ponte. You and your colleagues have a lot to answer for. Good day! Coming, Spock?" Kirk turned on his heel and strode out, without so much as a backwards glance.
Spock, on the contrary, paused in the doorway and looked at the man who was smouldering with resentment behind his desk.
"Apparently, Mr Governor, you still do not grasp the gravity of the situation. One cannot allow the extermination of an unwanted species, then pretend it never happened. You blame Captain Kirk for interfering, but you don't seem to realize that, but for his and Doctor McCoy's prompt action in finding the means to save the dragons from extinction, your government might well be charged by the Federation with culpable negligence or, who knows? with genocide."
"What... what the hell do you mean?" Da Ponte stammered, his face now drained of colour. He was pinned down by one of those nerve-racking Vulcan stares, then Spock's icy reply came at last.
"I think that you know perfectly well what I mean."
The next moment, the governor was alone, white and shaken. Feeling his legs giving way under him, he sank into his chair and dropped his head in his hands, his thoughts in a turmoil of fear and disbelief. After a few moments, he took in a deep breath, reached out and punched a personal security code in his com unit.
A few minutes ticked by, which seemed like as many hours, then the reply came, terse and blunt. "Yes? What is it? Don't you know better than to call me at this time of day?"
"Cut that out, will you?" Da Ponte snarled back. "Listen, listen carefully. We have a problem."
Vice-President Duranville was as good as her word. At the appointed time, her sleek aircar came flying into view over the forest, skimmed the treetops, and touched down on the turf in front of the Gasthof.
As the Berengarian delegation prepared to alight, they saw Captain Kirk and his First Officer coming to greet them, and a number of people watching from the windows and the balcony of the inn. The visit of such an exalted personage as the Vice-President of the Council was no common occurrence in these remote parts of the planet.
"Welcome to the Gasthof, Madam Vice-President," said Kirk as he helped her out of the craft, "and thank you for coming."
"A promise is a promise, Captain, and, remember, it was my decision. Glad to meet you again, Commander." She smiled at the Vulcan then, with a nod at her party, she said with a sly smile at Kirk, "I hope that our clothing meets with your approval, Captain?"
"Certainly, Madam. Very neat and very sensible," Kirk acknowledged and gave a circular glance at her companions who all sported serviceable pants and parkas not devoid of a certain elegance. But they were no match to Sophie Duranville, whose black slacks and cherry-red quilted jacket, complete with a smart cap of matching colours, were extremely flattering. The lady had style, and obviously the means to afford it.
Much to his amusement, Kirk then noticed that he and Spock were themselves the objects of the others' appraisal.
"Very smart outfits that you are wearing, gentlemen," commented the vice-president who was eyeing with interest their black and tan leather suits. "Is that the new Starfleet livery?"
"These clothes?" Kirk chuckled. "I am afraid not, Madam. They have been designed and fabricated on our ship, courtesy of our Chief Engineer, specially for riding our Harley Davidsons, and we find them eminently practical and comfortable, don't we, Spock?"
"Indeed, Captain," Spock dutifully replied, indifferent to the curiosity that his exotic looks attracted in some of the newcomers. They had probably never met Vulcans before.
"You mean these strange motorcycles that we saw on your tape, I presume? Do you know that these young men, here, are absolutely fascinated by your vehicles... aren't you, gentlemen?" Duranville gave them a sly smile and introduced them formally. "Doctor Jack Talbot, from our Health Department, and his wife Jill Talbot, a veterinary surgeon of repute in our city."
"Ah... a veterinarian, that's interesting." Kirk reacted at once. "Have you ever treated animals twice the size of this aircar, Doctor?"
"No, never." She laughed self-consciously. "But I am dying to meet them, Captain. Actually, my specialty is rather the opposite; pets - cats, dogs, birds and the like."
"I see... " The Captain's eyes twinkled as he envisioned the slim, frail-looking brunette facing the monstrous bulk of Duff of the Daffak. "Well, I think that you must prepare yourself for a very different kind of patient."
"We are ready for anything, Captain!" Jack Talbot assured him eagerly.
Kirk could but smile at their enthusiasm. He nodded approval then looked at the tall, sober-looking man in a brown parka, standing next to them.
"We met this morning, didn't we?" he said.
"Yes, Captain, in the Governor's office." The other bowed.
"Mr Ramsay, private secretary to Governor Da Ponte," the Vice-President specified, "and here is Councillor Chingawah. He will chair the Committee that the President of the Council wants to set up to deal with the question of the dragons. I must add that President Carignan was most interested by your report, Captain, and he would appreciate it if you and Commander Spock could spare a moment to visit him at the Council Hall before the Enterprise leaves Berengaria."
"That would be an honour, Madam, but I am afraid that..." Kirk paused, rubbed his face and tossed a glance at Spock whose mobile eyebrows went up to his bangs.
"A problem, gentlemen?" Duranville asked in surprise.
"Ah... something of the sort, Madam. As a matter of fact, Spock and I have been enjoined by Governor Da Ponte never to show up again at the Government Palace. To tell you the truth, we both have been declared persona non grata on Berengaria." A situation which did not particularly bother Captain Kirk, to judge by the humour twinkling in his hazel eyes.
Quite the contrary with the Berengarians, whose bemused looks spoke volumes.
"What's the matter with Da Ponte?" wondered Councillor Chingawah. "Did you know about it, Ramsay?"
"No, Mr Councillor, but, given the Governor's feelings on the matter, I am not altogether surprised." Ramsay gave a disillusioned shrug.
"This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard!" Sophie Duranville protested hotly. "Has he taken leave of his senses? Captain, my apologies.
"I only hope this is nothing more than some stupid misunderstanding, and please pay no attention to this 'persona non grata' nonsense. I shall see to it that a personal invitation from President Carignan be forwarded to you. Be sure that you will be welcome at the Council Hall." She paused, and looked around enquiringly. "Captain, you did say that you had an aircar to take us to the Reservation, didn't you, or am I mistaken?"
"It is on its way, Madam Vice-President. Doctor McCoy sent it back a moment ago. Mr Spock?" Kirk asked the Vulcan who was talking into his communicator.
"Yes, Captain." Spock snapped his com device shut. "Lieutenant Uhura was asking if the labs have beamed down the supplies requested by the Doctor, and also if we could bring some lunch for the team. It appears that they are yet again in need of sustenance. I gave an affirmative answer to both questions."
"All right, Spock. After all, they have been working hard all through the morning, they deserve a break and some food. The truth is, ladies and gentlemen," Kirk felt bound to explain, "that my officers have developed a taste for the superb meals that our hostesses have been cooking for us. I don't know if..." He broke off, looking up at the house. "Here they are, with our picnic I'll bet!" And indeed, Madame Laederle and Anneli were coming down the steps, followed by two men-servants laden with the inevitable baskets and containers. "Madame Laederle, you are an angel!" Kirk exclaimed. "What would we do without you?"
"You know it is our pleasure, Captain." The old lady gave him a fond smile. "But I see that you have visitors?" She peered past him at the small group standing a few steps away.
"Yes, very important visitors who have come to see the dragons. Let me introduce them... " but Kirk was stopped short by the Vice-President who moved forwards and said somewhat diffidently, a far cry from the confident woman he had seen so far.
"Anneli, Madame Laederle, do you remember me?"
There was a brief moment of expectation as the old innkeeper, as neat as a new pin in her starched apron, stared up at Duranville. Then a strange expression passed over her face, and she shook her head.
"Can you believe it, Anneli?" she said dryly. "Little Sophie who has ignored us for two decades, and who is back again! And she has the nerve to ask if we remember her. Fancy that! Do we remember her, Anneli?"
"Of course we do, Mother. It is not like you to be resentful," was her daughter's mild rebuke. "It has been a long time, Sophie. I thought you had forgotten me, too busy probably with your important functions at the government. But you are back now, and... and I am so glad to see you!" Her voice faltered and tears welled up in her eyes.
"Oh, Anneli, I am so sorry!" Sophie Duranville cried, overwhelmed with remorse and emotion. Impulsively, she threw her arms about her former friend and the two young women, moved to tears, hugged each other warmly, to the surprise and amusement of the interested onlookers.
"For shame, Sophie, you never told us that you had a bosom friend around here," Councillor Chingawah dryly remarked.
"Dear me, it seems so long ago," Duranville said wistfully. On a last hug, the two friends parted, and she explained. "You see, we were schoolmates down at the village, at first, then we went to college together, and after that, we each went our own way and, well, you know how it is, we lost sight of each other, and... there you are."
"Yes," Anneli took up the tale. "Shortly after college, I met Uri, and after we married, we decided to come and help my mother run the inn. And now I am just a housewife, raising my children, while Sophie is pursuing her brilliant career in the high spheres of the government. I must say that I am impressed, Sophie," she added with a teasing spark in her eyes. "Vice-President of the Council, that's quite an achievement for a girl who always managed to skip classes to go riding out with my brothers, remember?"
"Of course!" Duranville nodded happily. "We had such a great time in our carefree, teenage years together. But, please, mind what you say in front of these people, or my reputation might not survive it!"
They all laughed at that, even Madame Laederle whose grudge against the Vice-President simply melted away at seeing her daughter's happiness.
"Well, my dears," she declared, "this is a time to remember, to be sure, and thanks to you, Captain. Yes, I mean it. Didn't you bring back to us my daughter's long lost friends from her past? That is something we shall never forget."
"Well, I am delighted if I helped in any way, but I assure you that I had no idea that they had been Anneli's friends," Kirk protested.
"What's all this? What do you mean?" Sophie Duranville was intrigued by the knowing looks that were exchanged. "Has another of your old friends turned up unexpectedly, Anneli?"
"Oh yes, most unexpectedly, Sophie, and only yesterday." Anneli nodded, a secret smile on her lips. "Do you happen to remember the stories I used to tell in our room at the college, about the playmate I'd had as a child? You always refused to believe me, you used to laugh at me and say that it was nothing but fairy tales."
"You mean those yarns about the Vulcan boy who could talk to the dragons? Sure, I remember. How could I forget, having them dinned into my ears for hours on end!" Duranville chuckled. "You must know, my friends, that this girl here had the most vivid imagination I have ever known. She could spin the wildest tales as if they were gospel truth. As for those stories about the Vulcan boy, really, Anneli, how could you expect me to believe them?"
"Well, you should have, Sophie, because, yesterday, he came back!" Anneli proudly announced, with a hint of triumph in her blue eyes.
"Wait a minute!" Duranville blinked. "You don't mean that it was true, do you? That's impossible!" She caught her breath, looked dazedly around, at her colleagues obviously wondering where this conversation was leading, at Captain Kirk who was watching her with amusement - why, for Heavens' sake? Then her gaze swept on to the Vulcan officer who knew exactly where all this was leading, and was stoically waiting for the painful moment when the revelation would finally strike the Vice-President.
They looked at each other in silence, Spock with his usual calm dignity, Sophie with a wide-eyed intensity as if she was seeing him for the first time. The others held their breath. At last realization clicked into place, and the colour rose up to her cheeks.
"A Vulcan!... Yes, of course... A Vulcan who can speak to the dragons. My God! How could I be so stupid." She turned to Anneli, received an affirmative, smile, then looked back at Spock as if to verify the incredible revelation.
"Commander, do tell me. You are Anneli's Vulcan boy, aren't you?"
Spock inclined his head. "Affirmative, Madam Vice-President."
"Thank you, Mr Spock. Now, I know where I stand." She gave him a bright smile. "But I should have known, I should have made the connection between you and Anneli. Only this morning, you mentioned having been here before, and having met the dragons, didn't you?" He nodded assent again. "Wonderful! Anneli, my dear," she went on, "the truth was staring me in the face, but I was so convinced I was right that I almost missed it. Shall I make up for my lapse if I confess most solemnly that you were right all the time about your Vulcan boy?" This was said so artlessly that Anneli could but laugh and hug her friend again.
"Er... excuse me, ladies." It was Captain Kirk, holding up a finger to claim attention. "Far be it from me to spoil this happy conclusion, but may I point out that Mr Spock is no longer Anneli's Vulcan boy, but my First Officer and the Enterprise's Chief Science Officer?" His twinkling eyes belied his sober words.
"Are you sure, Captain?" Sophie Duranville countered with humour. "Don't you know that once a woman has set her heart on a cause, it is practically impossible to make her give it up?"
"Believe me, Madam, I know that only too well," Kirk replied with feeling. "One third of my ship's complement consists of female officers and crew."
"I see!" She joined in the laughter. "Then we don't need to press the issue, do we?"
Fortunately for Spock, at that very moment their skimmer, piloted by Chief Kyle, came buzzing over the roofs of the inn and landed on the lawn, thus saving the Vulcan from further embarrassment. The hatch slid open, the ramp came down, and the smiling face of Lieutenant Uhura came into view.
"Passengers for Dragonland, all aboard, please!" she announced.
Moments later, the medical supplies and food containers were stored away in the hold, and the Captain and his guests were taking places in the passenger seats. Spock sat up front beside Lieutenant Kyle, while Uhura, after waving good-bye to their hostesses, closed the hatch and took her seat.
"All set, Captain," she reported.
"All right. Take her off, Mr Kyle. By the way, Uhura, have you told the dragon Chiefs about our visitors?"
"We have, Captain, and they are expecting them with great curiosity and anticipation," she told him, looking smilingly at the Berengarian party.
Kirk performed introductions then asked how the team had been getting on with the vaccinations. She replied that the whole dragon population had been vaccinated, except some dragons of the Taffak Clan, because Doctor McCoy had run out of vaccines at his last visit, which was why he had requested an emergency batch of supplies from his labs.
"We have them right here, Lieutenant," Kirk told her, then, looking at the young couple of Doctors, he suggested. "Why don't you and your wife join Doctor McCoy on his last round, Doctor? That would give you a chance to observe his methods, and also introduce you to the dragons' community?"
"Thank you, Captain, that's exactly what we were hoping for," Jack Talbot replied readily. "I suppose it is safe for my wife to come along?"
"Perfectly safe if you go with an open mind and the firm intention for the dragons to survive. They are telepaths, remember, and they are no fools. If you earn their trust and if you respect their ways and their rules, you should not have any problem."
"This is precisely why we have come, Captain," Councillor Chingawah put in. "To assess the dragons' situation and, with your assistance, to try and win their confidence if we can."
"We shall be happy to act as mediators, Mr Councillor," Kirk nodded his approval. "But for the rest, it will be up to you."
At that instant, the skimmer, which had been flying at full speed over the forest, slowed down, then went to all stop.
"What's up, Lieutenant?" Kirk asked sharply. "Why have we stopped? We are not at the border yet, are we?"
"Not yet, Captain. Sorry, sir. Mr Spock's orders." Kyle looked back apologetically, "I think he has a contact. Must be Paff and Dong up to their tricks again, sir."
The Captain heaved a long-suffering sigh, Uhura stiffled a giggle, and the delegation exchanged bemused glances.
"Ah... Would you mind explaining what is going on, Captain?" the Vice-President suggested. "And who are these Dong and Paff persons, if I may ask?"
"They are the two dragons assigned by their Chiefs to escort our aircar, Madam. Nice fellows, really, but with a propensity for playing practical jokes which can be annoying sometimes. They like nothing better than to play hide and seek with us. Easy for them since they can appear or disappear at will. Spock? Do you detect anything yet?"
The Vulcan was putting his mental powers into play to pinpoint the invisible presences that he felt hovering around them.
"One moment, Captain," he said, eyes closed, all his senses on the alert. "Ah... here they are. I have them, Captain. Curious, well out of the Reservation. Most unusual."
"Captain?" Duranville whispered. "How does he do it? I mean, how can he... " She was obviously impressed. Kirk gave her a quizzical smile.
"Spock is kind of attuned to the dragons, and don't forget the most important... He is a Vulcan."
"Ah yes, the Vulcan boy! Now I understand what Anneli meant by that." She smiled back at him.
But now Spock was speaking, in his most stern voice. "Dong! Paff! Listen, I know you are here. Show yourselves now. You are taking senseless risks with your lives by flying unseen so close to our craft. You know it is illogical. How many times must I repeat it?"
To the officials' amazement, a voice suddenly rumbled in their minds.
/We don't want to offend you, Spock of Vulcan, but we don't care to be seen by the intruders that you carry with you./
"They are not intruders," Spock firmly objected. "On the contrary, they wish to know you; they come to help. Your Chiefs are waiting for us by the lake, but if you persist in staying invisible we cannot go further, which means that this important meeting will not take place as planned, and you will be held responsible. Is that what you want?"
/No... but how do we know if we can trust them as we trust you?/ boomed the voice.
"You will have to give them a chance to prove themselves, as we did," Spock quietly replied.
Silence, a silence full of expectation, settled in the skimmer. They all held their breath, the Starfleet officers quiet and confident, the Berengarians with a dazed look on their faces.
"This is extraordinary," murmured the Vice-President. "I never expected anything like this. To think this was here all the time and we never knew it!"
"Because you never took the trouble to go and find out, perhaps?" the Captain remarked. "You shut them up in a Reservation, and now, see what you have missed all these years past, see what could have been irremediably lost."
"I know," she admitted, quite subdued. "It does not bear thinking about."
Finally, as there was still no response from the dragons, Kirk lost patience. "Spock, are they still out there?" he asked sotto voce.
"Yes, Captain, they are right in front of us, I would say about 15.428 meters away."
"Okay! let me try, "Kirk decided, then, in his best 'Captain' voice, he snapped, "Listen, you two, this game has lasted long enough! We can't keep your Clans waiting forever, so let's get going. Come on, boys! Stop your nonsense and show yourselves, dammit! That's an order!"
It worked. In slow motion, as if reluctantly, Paff and Dong materialized a short distance away. They were flapping their huge rainbow wings with insolent ease, and to judge from their broad grins, they were not in the least put out by the Captain's show of authority.
Kirk could not help but grin back at them. "That's better. All right, my friends, we have wasted enough time. Let's go!"
In response, the beasts made a spectacular about-face and set off full tilt in the direction of their territory, the aircar right on their tails.
"Extraordinary! Amazing!" The delegation released their emotions in an avalanche of exclamations. The solemn Councillor himself could not find words strong enough to express his surprise at the easy, even the friendly relations which the Starfleet officers had established with the touchy dragons.
Uhura, finding in their comments an echo of her own excitement on the previous day, said, a quizzical smile on her lips, "They are something, aren't they? but wait!... wait till you have seen the rest of them!"
"Gods! is it me, or have they added steps to that damn stairway?" Kirk complained as he climbed the creaking wooden stairs leading up to the bedroom floor.
"It has been a long day, Captain, you are tired," Spock said by way of explanation.
"Shall we give you a push, Jim?" McCoy proposed behind him.
"Don't, Bones, I am not that old yet!" the Captain grumbled.
The next moment, he breathed a sigh of relief when a strong arm came about his shoulders and hoisted him up the last steps. "Thank you, Mr Spock!"
"How can you tell it was Spock and not me?" McCoy sounded miffed.
"The Vulcan touch is unmistakable, Doctor, don't you know?" A smug comment which sparked him off at once.
"Sure we do, Mr Spock!" he snorted. "You make damn sure that we don't forget it. Listen to him, Jim. Sheer Vulcan conceit, that's what it is!" McCoy's attempt to get a rise out of Spock fell flat. Spock refused to be drawn and walked on imperturbably.
Kirk, on the other hand, silenced him with a fierce, "Sssh! Bones," he hissed. "You'll wake up the others, and stop nagging Spock, it's too late in the night for your wrangles."
It was indeed close to midnight in the Gasthof, and everyone, from the Enterprise survey team to the personnel of the inn, had long since gone to bed. Even Scotty had excused himself and retired, claiming that he needed his six hours sleep if he wished to be in top form for the H.D. race on the following day. He had therefore left the three friends sitting by the log fire in the lounge, discussing the events of the day and the people involved over a bottle of blueberry wine.
One behind the other, the three tiptoed down the long corridor, then stopped by a door which had been left ajar.
"I guess that's my room," McCoy muttered hesitantly. It was pitch dark inside, but a deep, rolling sound revealed that someone was sound asleep and snoring with the clear conscience of a newborn babe.
"You share your room with Mr Scott, don't you?" Spock asked in a murmur. On McCoy's affirmative nod, he added, deadpan, "Then this is it."
"Definitely, Doctor. Remember, Mr Scott's quarters are next to mine on the ship."
The Doctor caught the Captain's eye, and they smothered a giggle.
"Would you rather sleep with us, Bones?" Kirk offered generously. "We have got two beds and an extra couch in our room."
"My! Some people have been given the V.I.P. treatment, around here. Thanks, Jim, but I'd rather not. You two snoring in duo would be enough to drive me nuts. I'll be fine with Scotty. See you tomorrow. G'd night."
McCoy pushed the door open cautiously and slipped in, while his friends went quietly on their way.
They had been allotted the best room of the establishment, a large suite lined from ceiling to floor with wood panelling, and tastefully brightened by the warm colours of the drapes and the lampshades. A couch covered with cushions, a wardrobe and several wooden chests stood against the walls.
Most of the space, however, was taken up by two four-poster beds sculpted from the same dark wood, and covered with drapes and counterpanes in matching colours. The whole effect was overwhelming, and Kirk was amused but not surprised to see his Vulcan officer approach one of the full testers with measured steps, and give it a gentle push while keeping a wary eye up on the canopy hanging over his head.
"It's all right, Spock, it's safe. I slept in this bed last night and, as you see, I survived, it did not crash down on my head." Kirk plumped himself down on the bed. "They are quite comfortable, actually, and I slept like a log, but maybe you'll find your bed too soft for your spartan tastes," he added, pulling off his boots.
Spock, having examined the bed from top to bottom, turned down the coverlet and pressed a hand on the mattress. It was indeed very soft.
A raised eyebrow expressed the Vulcan's perplexity. "It's not the kind of bunk that I am accustomed to," he conceded, "but it might be worth trying as an interesting experience." His decision made, he also prepared for bed, taking off his clothes methodically and folding them with a neatness which contrasted with the more slapdash ways of his Captain.
"You know," the latter said, still following his train of thought, "talking of interesting experiences... you are right, and so is McCoy when he says that we are spoiled. Look at that!" With a sweeping gesture, he drew Spock's attention back to their surroundings. "Looks like a royal bed-chamber doesn't it? It sure makes me feel like a Prince in a fairy tale." While discoursing, Kirk had climbed into his bed, and, propping himself against his pillows, he folded his arms on his chest and fixed his friend with a challenging glare. "And don't you dare tell me that's illogical, Mr Spock!"
The Vulcan favoured him with one of his private, secret smiles which Kirk appreciated all the more that they were so rare.
"Illogical? Not quite, Captain, because there is some truth in your premise. I would rather say inaccurate."
"Oh? And would you care to explain, Mr Science Officer?"
Settling comfortably on his pillows, the patchwork quilt pulled up to his shoulders, Spock assumed his lecturing style of speech.
"If memory serves," he began, "in a fairy tale, the Prince usually... " He never got to the end of his sentence.
"Hey! What do you know about fairy tales, you, a Vulcan?"
Knowing perfectly well that he was being teased, Spock replied with dignity. "I suppose I know as much as the average Terran child, even more, perhaps, considering the amount of literature that I have read on the subject."
"Come on! don't tell me that Sarek never objected to your mother reading you bedtime stories, Spock. I won't believe you."
"Yes, my father strongly objected... at first, but my mother explained to him, with supporting evidence, that fairy tales were necessary for my education. He finally came over to her views. And so I was permitted to read fairy tales and Vulcan legends, but not beyond the age of seven, of course."
"Seven?... Ah yes, after your kahs-wan, you opted for the Vulcan way of life, am I right?"
"By then, fairy tales were out of the question, I suppose."
"Indeed, but I admit to having derived as much knowledge as pleasure from these old tales, if only because, no matter what world or what culture, one finds in them the same eternal themes."
"I know, and that's what makes them so... shall I dare say fascinating, Mr Spock?"
"You have my permission, Captain." Tease for tease.
"Thank you. Now, before turning off the lights - " Kirk yawned loudly and snuggled under the bedclothes. "I want to know what was wrong with me, feeling like a prince in a fairy tale?"
"It is not wrong, but inexact, because here, the situation is reversed. Consider, Jim. In the traditional tales, the hero goes through trials and tribulations to rescue the damsel in distress, usually a fair princess held captive by a terrible dragon. Now, in your case..."
"I've got it! It's the other way round, of course!" Kirk exclaimed
"Precisely," Spock continued his demonstration. "The Prince... you... rescues the dragons in distress... "
"...supported by his faithful henchmen," the Captain put in.
"...and by his great magician who creates a new drug to save them from a mortal disease," Spock went on. "Then, when the Prince is summoned by his suzerain, he leaves the dragons in the care of the mighty princess who rules the country with her councillors. Moved by the plight of the dragons, they promise the Prince that, from now on, they will make sure that the dragons are protected, and that their rights are restored."
"And they all lived happily ever after... at least, let's hope so," was the Captain's conclusion to the tale. "Spock, it's wonderful; you have a real gift for story-telling - inherited from the lady Amanda, I guess."
"Probably. My mother was a good teacher."
"And a lovely lady, Spock. But, speaking of ladies... Sophie Duranville will keep her word, I believe. A good thing that we took them to the Reservation. Did you see their faces when we went into the caves with McCoy and they saw the sick dragons?"
"I did. It was a painful experience but it was necessary. They fully realised then the scale of the harm done to the dragons, and of their own responsibilities."
"Yeah, and I expect that President Carignan is in the same frame of mind or he would not have invited us and McCoy to the Council Hall."
"I think that is a reasonable assumption," Spock agreed quietly.
"Well," Kirk sighed, "I don't mind telling you that I'll be glad to hand the torch over to them."
"We must not leave Anneli, her mother and their associates out, Jim. If the Vice-President and the commission fail in their engagement, our Gasthof friends will certainly come forward."
"Sure! and the more so now that Anneli and Sophie are again close friends. Fancy! after all these years..."
"Sophie?... Interesting! I see that you have dropped formalities with the Vice-President," Spock dryly.
"Stands to reason, Mr Spock. After our little jaunt with the dragons, why should we stand on protocol? She calls me Jim, I call her Sophie. Pretty name, Sophie, which suits her to the ground, don't you think?" Kirk's mischievous look was returned with bland equanimity.
"What I think, Captain, is that it is now high time for you to take some rest. We have this important appointment with the President to-morrow morning. Then there is the H.D. race that Mr Scott has scheduled at noon, then, after lunch, the visit to the Crystal Caves with the Daffak Clan in attendance, then our farewells to Puff, Pingle and the dragon Chiefs, then..."
"Damn! Whoever said this was shore leave? And tomorrow is our last day. Fact is, I had almost forgotten Scotty's competition, and that was the reason we came here in the first place! What time did you say it starts?"
"At 12.00 local time. It should last about one hour, according to Mr Scott. This morning, he and Lieutenant Kyle went to map out the itinerary around the main lake."
"Ah, that won't leave us much time to prepare ourselves, right after our meeting at the Council Hall."
Spock, sensing Kirk's curious lack of enthusiasm, asked quietly, "Jim, would you rather retire from the contest?"
"Retire? I can't, Spock, no, that would be unfair. I can't let them down now. Scotty would be really upset, I can't do that to him. A Captain does not quit, you ought to know that."
"A Captain who, perhaps, entertains hopes of winning the race?" Spock slyly suggested.
"Me? Win the race? I don't care... I'll leave it to the young. As someone said once about some game or other, 'The important thing is not so much to win as to take part'."
"Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in connection with the renewal of the Olympic Games," specified Spock, accurate to a fault.
"That's it, Coubertin," Kirk mumbled, then, struck by a sudden thought. "What about you, Spock? You and Sulu are the acknowledged crack shots in H.D. riding, one of you is surely bound to win."
"Not necessarily; one can never tell, Jim, the outcome is unpredictable in this kind of competition. For instance, Mr Sulu starts favourite. He is quite capable, but so are ensigns Kincaid and Dugovitch, and Mr Scott has a good chance also."
"And you, Spock?"
"Like you, I shall take greater satisfaction in taking part in the race, and in letting one of our junior officers win."
"All right, but how do you propose to do that? Given your virtuosity on a bike, if you want to lose you must not make it too obvious, that would screw up the game."
"Agreed, but it can be done without fuss. I shall inadvertently miss a sign, or take the wrong turn at a crossroads. There are many ways, all perfectly convincing, to lose in a competition."
"Are there? Seems to me that you have seldom put this fine theory into practice, Spock, or you would not rank as the best Science Officer in Starfleet," the Captain commented dryly. "All the same, you give me an idea. If I lose, I have to be convincing too, and I know exactly how to do it. Remember that spectacular fall I had on my first try in the shuttlebay? Well, I think no-one will find it strange if I miss a sharp turn and run headlong into a tree or a bush. Eh, what do you think?" If Kirk was obviously pleased with his brain-wave, Spock was less appreciative.
"Better select a bush rather than a tree, Captain, and try to avoid the spiky variety. The consequences of such a close encounter could be painful."
"Yeah! That would be sure to give McCoy a fit. Remember his reaction at the mere mention of the Harley Davidson race?" Kirk gave a short laugh.
"The Doctor has every reason to be concerned, given your propensity to run into trouble." There was reproach in the Vulcan's voice.
"If you take sides with Bones, now... " Kirk complained, then paused, apparently mulling it over, then, brightening, he said, "Got it! I shall crash into a blueberry bush, a nice, soft, juicy blueberry bush. Any objection, Mr Spock?'
"No objection, Captain, but, perhaps, a recommendation. After the race, a dip in the lake might be advisable to remove the inevitable traces left by your encounter with the blueberries."
While speaking, Spock reached out and switched off the lights, a way of reminding his room-mate that the time for late night conversations was long past. To no avail, for he heard him chuckle in the dark.
"That, my friend, is the best idea you have had for days! Tell you what - after the race, we'll have a picnic on the grass, a long, leisurely swim in the lake, provided that the dragons don't object, then relax in the sun, and whatever a regular R & R commands. Oh, and why not a swimming competition? How about that, Spock?"
"Good night, Captain." Spock's firm tone left no room for further discussion.
"Oh, I see." A yawn... "Okay, good night!"
The Vulcan heard Kirk's bed creak under his weight as he turned over with a grunt, then the rustling of bedclothes, and at last a deep sigh of contentment. Assuming that his Captain had finally settled for the night, he was methodically relaxing from head to toes in preparation for a restful sleep. At once the familiar voice hissed in the dark.
"Spock! Are you asleep?"
"Yes!" The only effect the terse reply had was to set Kirk giggling.
"Liar!" he said cheerfully, "and you, a Vulcan!"
"Jim, it is very late..." Spock began in a long-suffering voice.
"I know, but it is very important, Spock, I could not sleep a wink if I don't have your answer now. Just one word, that's all I ask."
"What about?" Spock asked wearily.
"About our fairy tale, you know. All the characters have been cast but one, or rather two, since you never told me what part you play in the story.
"You said that McCoy is the magician who prepares his magic potion to save the dragons, okay, but what are you, Spock? Are you the Seer, the Enchanter who can read in the minds and talk to the beasts?"
"If you like, but, frankly, do you think this the time for... "
"Please! just one more word and I promise I'll shut up. Now, Spock, in every fairy tale there is a villain, an ogre, a monster. Who would you cast in that role on Berengaria?"
This time, Kirk had his First Officer's full attention. It was clear that the Captain had an idea running through his head, an idea which craved to be aired and to be tested on a responsive mind; the same idea, apparently, that Spock himself had considered as a possibility since their morning visit to the Berengarian Government Palace. Resignedly, he assumed his role as Kirk's sounding-board, and asked the obvious question.
"Do you think there is only one villain?"
"No, I am sure there are others involved. If Bones is right, if that virus could have been deliberately planted, there are bound to be some accomplices at the highest levels, probably in the Health Department."
"Right, but who is the instigator, Spock, the person who derives the greatest benefit from the crime, if it is a crime."
"Captain, without direct evidence, it is ill-advised to bring an accusation against anyone, but I admit to having strong suspicions, and I believe that you have them too."
"You bet I have! Da Ponte, right?"
"I knew it, but I wanted to be sure. The way that man reacted this morning, he must have a guilty conscience. Question is, can we do anything about it?"
"No, Jim. You know as well as I do that we cannot intervene. This is not Starfleet responsibility, but, perhaps, a gentle hint, tomorrow, at the Council Hall?"
"A gentle hint? I should say a broad hint, if only to back up Sophie's argument to President Carignan. By the way, I don't know about you, but I have the impression that there is no love lost between her and Da Ponte."
"Your impression is quite correct. They seem to distrust each other, and I would add that Mr Ramsay, the governor's secretary, does not appear to hold his employer in high esteem."
"Ah, so it seems that Da Ponte is not very popular in government circles. That's very interesting, Spock. Yes, I shall certainly drop hints tomorrow morning. For the rest, it will be up to that Commission to follow the chain of evidence from the virus up to Da Ponte and his partners in crime."
"Providing that our suspicions are justified," Spock felt bound to point out.
"Of course, my cautious Vulcan, but I feel it in my bones that we may well be right. Anyway, it will be for the Commission to find out. And now, what about some sleep? You have been very patient, my friend. Good night".
"Good night, Jim".
Kirk kept his word. A few moments later, a gentle snoring from the next bed confirmed to Spock that his room-mate was asleep. He allowed himself a deep sigh of lassitude, rolled over and, curling up snugly under the warm quilt, soon fell asleep.
On the following day, a party took place in Madame Laederle's establishment, a party such as had not been heard of within living memory on Berengaria. In the silence of the night, the Gasthof was ablaze with lights and alive with laughter.
It was both a complimentary party and a send-off for, within a few hours, the fine Starfleet officers who were standing about and chatting, glass in hand, would be back on duty, and their ship under way. The Gasthof ladies, so as to celebrate with special solemnity the H.D. Project and its incredible outcome, had invited all the people who had been, one way or another, involved in the adventure.
The President of the Council and Councillor Chingawah, being otherwise engaged, had regretfully declined the invitation, but the Vice-President, both Doctors Talbot and private secretary Ramsay had gladly accepted and were now happily sharing the food and drinks and the party spirit.
There were warm handshakes and congratulations, hugs and kisses, and even a few tears for this evening was the last that the Enterprise landing party was to spend on Berengaria.
Curiously, no-one missed Governor Da Ponte, who was conspicuous by his absence, and no-one ventured to comment on the fact. But Madame Laederle earned herself a huge success when, on Scotty's pretence at surprise at the absence of the dragons, she replied with spirit that, after due consideration, she and Anneli had deemed it safer not to ask them in, for fear that their old inn might not sustain the shock.
The children, who had exceptionally been granted permission to stay up late, were making the most of it, scampering around, stuffing themselves with cakes, and regarding their Enterprise friends with admiration bordering on awe. The officers, men and women alike, offered indeed a dazzling sight in their immaculate dress uniforms. Their gold, blue or red tunics trimmed with gold braid and badges, stood out in the gathering, a far cry from the casual clothes or biker suits that they had been wearing during the last few days. Liseli, Guneli and little Rudi had never seen anything like it, and could hardly contain their excitement.
Spock, a glass of blueberry wine in his hand, was standing by one of buffets and looking on with mild interest while his Captain and the Vice-President were piling their plates with hors d'oeuvres, when Anneli Boxberger approached them, two tall, strapping fellows in tow.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," she said. "Sorry to interrupt but my husband and my brother have just arrived from town, and they are dying to meet you."
Kirk and Spock turned round and faced the newcomers, and Anneli formally introduced Uri Boxberger and her younger brother Mattias. Handshakes were exchanged and the Berengarians were at once put at their ease by the easy manners of the Captain.
But the Vulcan was another matter. He stood aloof and favoured them both with his dark, austere gaze.
"I am honoured, Commander," Uri murmured, obviously impressed. Spock responded with a polite nod. Mattias Laederle hesitated, ran his tongue over his lips, then plunged in.
"I don't expect you to remember us kids, Commander, but if you do, I hope you have forgotten the ill-timed jests that I and my brother made at your expense." Spock's gaze did not waver in its intensity. A few seconds went by, a tinge of colour rose in Laederle's face, then Spock broke the silence.
"I am bound to say that such a hope is illogical and ill-founded, Mr Laederle. Vulcans are notoriously endowed with exceptional powers of recall. They can hold in mind every single fact, every single word that they have seen or heard, for as long as they live... " He paused and Mattias began to feel hot under the collar, while the others looked passably ill-at-ease. Kirk, however, was still smiling and watching the Vulcan with impish anticipation.
"... unless, of course," Spock coolly resumed, "they choose to erase the more irrelevant or unpleasant incidents altogether from their memories." Another pause while he kept Mattias pinned under his stare, then the faintest gleam of amusement surfaced in his eyes. "And that is precisely what I intend to do now," he concluded. "I am pleased to meet you again, Mr Laederle."
"Well, that's very generous of you, Commander," the other blurted out with relief. "I am really sorry to have been such a nuisance, sir. Will you do me the honour of calling me Mattias, as in the old days?"
"As you wish, Mattias and, remember, my name is Spock".
"And never was a name more deserving of repute," Kirk said cheerfully. "You are right, Spock. Only happy memories are worth remembering."
"A very sensible thought," said another voice, "to which I fully subscribe. I recall indeed with pleasure the good old days that I spent at the Gasthof." It was Vice-President Duranville who had been watching the scene with amusement. Turning to Anneli's brother, she gave him a teasing smile.
"Well, Mattias, since you are renewing acquaintances, what about me? Don't you know who I am?"
"Of course, I do, Ma'am." Laederle blushed slightly. "You are the Vice-President of the Council."
"Oh, come on, Matty! You used to call me Sophie when we were in our teens and you were taking me out riding. Have you forgotten?"
"No, Ma'am, but that was years ago, and you were Anneli's best friend. Now that you are a big shot in the government, I can hardly call you Sophie!"
"Now, don't be silly, Matty!" Anneli exclaimed. "Sophie may be the Vice-President, but can't you see that she is still the friend that we used to know?"
While the Berengarians were chatting and laughing, Mr Scott managed to catch the eye of the Captain.
"Something up, Scotty?" the latter asked quietly.
"Aye, sir. I am told that all the people expected at the party have arrived, so I think that now might be a good time."
"You are right." Kirk glanced around, made eye contact with Spock, and asked Scotty, "Is everything ready?"
"That it is, Captain!" the Engineer gave a short laugh. "Chekov has been cooling his heels in the transporter room for the last fifteen minutes. He is wondering when he'll have a chance to get near the buffet."
"Then let's not keep him waiting any longer. Tell him to stand by and to hang on to that cup." Thus saying, the Captain moved to the nearest buffet-table, picked up a spoon, and struck the punchbowl with it in a series of resounding bangs.
The effect was instantaneous. At the gong-like sound, conversation and laughter broke off and all the eyes turned in his direction.
"Your attention, please!" he called out, "If you would come over..."
Once the company had gathered around him, and the children had pushed their way to the front, Kirk resumed.
"Thank you. Don't worry, my friends, I am not going to make a long speech."
"Thank God!" drawled the unmistakable voice of Doctor McCoy.
"... But," Kirk continued, unperturbed, "before this wonderful party comes to its end, there are a few words that need to be said, and a small ceremony, but more about that later. You know that the reason for our being here at all was a long overdue shore leave and a test out in the field that we had planned to give our Harley Davidson motorcycles. Well, as far as shore leaves go, I must say that this one has been the most eventful and exhausting that I have had for a long time."
"Damn right!" A fervent comment from McCoy which triggered much laughter.
"You sure know what I am talking about, Doctor," Kirk acknowledged. "You and your team have been on the front line throughout this adventure. Yes, we all know that it has not been easy. Sometimes it has even seemed downright impossible but, somehow, we pulled it off, and now that these good people here have taken up the torch, we can go our way with the satisfaction of a job well done." Loud cheers and applause, but the Captain had not finished.
He held up a hand for silence.
"As for our original plans," he went on, "to-day, luckily, we have been able to carry them out, including some improvised fun and games, all of which, I expect, will find their way into the never-ending saga of the Enterprise."
"That's for sure, Captain." Scotty gave his rich chuckle. "In particular the swimming and diving demonstration that you gave us in the lake. I'll bet that will be recounted for a long time to come!"
"That and the memorable H.D. Rally, Scotty. The route was damn tricky, but it was all perfectly organised and mapped out. You and Lieutenant Kyle did a great job. Too bad, though, that some of those signposts that you had stuck along the track were gone, probably knocked down, otherwise Mr Spock here would not have taken the wrong turn, therefore losing his fair chance to win the race."
Thus provoked, the Vulcan returned Kirk's look of sheer devilment with his most candid gaze.
"An unfortunate combination of adverse circumstances, I admit," he calmly said. "But may I point out, with all due respect, Captain, that I was not the only participant to miss a turn, as the impaired condition of your motorcycle and that of several blueberry bushes can testify."
"Touche, Spock!" Kirk conceded readily. "Yes, I must admit to having negotiated that sharp bend much too fast. Fortunately there were only bushes on the other side."
"Why! I did not know you have had a fall, Captain," exclaimed a much amused Vice-President. "Was it very bad? I hope you were not hurt?"
"No, only my motorcycle... and my self-esteem." The Captain gave her his disarming grin. "But I did run the whole race up to the finishing line, mind you, and so did you, Spock."
"Indeed, Captain. We finished last, but we made it; the important thing being not so much to win..."
"... as to take part," Kirk, a twinkle in his eye, finished the citation. "Quite right, Spock, and, winning or losing, we have had fun with this rally, haven't we?"
He was answered with a roar of approval which rattled the window-panes. He and Scott exchanged a knowing grin.
"Do you hear that, Scotty? Seems to me that this idea of yours was nothing less than a stroke of genius."
"A stroke of genius?" McCoy snorted, "Ye Gods! the most asinine, harebrained notion I have seen for a long time. Any of you could have been killed, at the break-neck speed that you were going, and I hate to imagine what would have become of you, Captain, had you crashed headlong into rocks instead of those blessed bushes. You really have the devil's own luck!"
"Sure I have, Bones. Did you ever doubt it?" came the breezy retort, but, before the Doctor could find a suitable repartee, Spock intervened.
"Captain, perhaps we should now come to the point," he quietly suggested
"Right as always, Mr Spock," Kirk agreed. "Now, my friends, we have wasted enough time with the losers, let's talk about the winner. Scotty...?"
Thus prompted, the Engineer took a step forwards, cleared his throat, and solemnly announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Harley Davidson Riding Club of the Enterprise, it is my privilege and pleasure to proclaim the results of the cross-country race which was run to-day, with the gracious permission of the dragons, in the Autonomous Dragon Territory, as their land is now officially known, since the Reservation has been abolished by decision of the Council of Berengaria." His slight bow of acknowledgement to the Vice-President was backed by sustained applause.
"Well now," Scotty resumed, "I can see you are all dying to know who has finally won the race... All right, I won't keep you waiting any longer. The winner is... " he paused for effect... "Ensign Mary Kincaid. Come over here, lassie, that everyone can see you!"
Cheers and clapping greeted the young Security officer as she came forwards in her smart red and black uniform, her pretty face glowing with pleasure and confusion. Scotty enfolded her in a fatherly hug and planted a big kiss on her cheek, a move which the Captain lost no time in emulating.
Mr Spock abstained, of course, merely saying gravely, "My congratulations, Ensign." Praise indeed from the reserved Vulcan officer.
As the excitement abated, Kirk, seeing on the Helmsman's face the shadow of some disappointment, thought it best to explain.
"Too bad, Mr Sulu, you almost made it. I am sorry. I am told that both you and Kincaid reached the finishing line together, or so it appeared to most of the onlookers. But, as you know, Mr Spock had the race monitored from the ship, and that is how we have been able to determine exactly who arrived first. From the sensors readings, there is no doubt that Ensign Kincaid passed the line ahead of you, not by much actually. How much, Spock?"
"Twelve point two one centimeters, Captain," was the startling reply.
"You see, Sulu? A mere hair-breadth, but enough to make her win. So Ensign Kincaid is definitely the winner, but you make a glorious second, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, sir!" Sulu's face brightened with a broad smile. "That's all right, the game is the game, I understand. Anyway, if anyone deserved to win, it is surely Mary Kincaid. She is first-rate on a bike. Congratulation, Mary."
"Why! Thank you Hikaru, that's real decent of you." She blushed with gratification, and, impulsively, the two hugged each other warmly.
"Good!" Kirk nodded his approval. "You are a good sport, Lieutenant. And now, Scotty, shall we proceed?"
"Sure, Captain!" and the Engineer spoke a few words in the communicator which he held ready in his hand.
"Would you all stand back a few steps, please?" Kirk continued. "We need some space here... fine, thank you. No, not you, Ensign, you stay right here."
Having cleared a suitable area to his satisfaction, Kirk glanced at Mr Scott who murmured a word in his com device. Almost instantly the whining sound and glittering lights of a transporter effect appeared in the middle of the room.
Total surprise for the Berengarians who recoiled instinctively, the children even hiding behind the skirts of their mother. Except Liseli, who knew better, and who stood her ground besides Spock, waiting with bated breath for the apparition which was bound to take shape in the sparkling pillar of lights.
A few seconds later, effectively, a young man materialized, a young officer whom she had never met before. In his dress uniform, he was standing stiff as a poker, and holding in his arms a large, bright piece of silverware as if it were the Crown Jewels.
His apparition was greeted with good-natured cheers from his crew mates, and the Captain said genially, "At ease, Mr Chekov, You are among friends." Then, addressing the Berengarians, "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "allow me to introduce our Chief Navigator, ensign Pavel Chekov. And now," he proclaimed, "as Captain of the Enterprise and on behalf of the Harley Davidson Riding Club, I have the great pleasure of giving our winner, Mary Kincaid, the Enterprise Silver Cup, as a reward for her dashing performance on her motorbike! Now, Mr Chekov, if you would...?"
Chekov, very conscious of his important role, stepped forward and held out the Cup to Kincaid, hissing under his breath, "Watch out! It's heavy," before he let it go.
It was indeed so heavy that Scotty, fearing that the frail-looking Ensign might collapse under the weight of her prize, came to her rescue and helped her set the trophy onto the buffet table.
"There you are, lassie," he said. "It is all yours, until our next competition, that is... unless, of course, you win it again, who knows?" He chuckled, then, picking up a glass, he raised it and declared, "And now, what about a drink to celebrate our winner here, and another drink to give our thanks to our charming hostesses who made us feel so welcome in their wonderful inn, and another one to honour the Vice-president of the Berengarian Council who has..."
"Scotty! ...Scotty, wait a minute!" Kirk cut him short. "You are quite right, it is time to toast, but let's do this properly, and first make sure that everyone has a refill."
Accordingly, drinks were served all around, and many toasts were drunk with great enthusiasm to all the people concerned. Meantime, Chekov was at last taking advantage of the profusion of the buffet, and enjoying the delectable food of the Gasthof that his shipmates in the landing party had been raving about.
The Silver Cup stood in its glittering glory in the middle of the table and many came over to admire it and to enquire about its origin and its making. But no clear explanation could be had from Mr Scott beside the fact that it was the exact replica of a trophy from twentieth century Earth with the exception that the name and the image of the Enterprise had been engraved on its side.
As the reception slowly drew to a close, the lively party spirit gave way gradually to a more sober atmosphere, and small groups began to gather here and there to enjoy some quiet conversation.
Spock, at first, joined the Captain, Sophie Duranville, Anneli and her mother in a discussion about the future of the dragon community, and the steps to be taken immediately in their favour. He was glad to see that the Vice-President of the Council and the inn-keepers shared the same views with regard to the rights of the dragons, rights duly acknowledged at last, on a land which had belonged to them by right since time immemorial.
After a while, however, the Vulcan strolled away, and began to circulate leisurely about the rooms in the pose which he usually affected, hands clasped behind his back.
Although his sharp hearing could easily catch the gist of his fellow officers' rambling conversation, his attention was not particularly focused on what was being said around him, but rather on something outside, something vague, undefined, still out of reach . He was moved by his innate Vulcan curiosity, but also by a strange and definitely unVulcan restlessness, a sense of expectancy which he would have been hard-pressed to explain. He knew somehow for certain that something momentous was about to happen, but, as speculation was out of the question, he was filling in time by sauntering quietly among the groups.
This brought him eventually to one of the buffets where Lieutenant Kyle and Ensign Dugovitch were keeping Chekov company in celebrating and sampling the wines and delicacies provided by the Gasthof personnel.
Spock paused and let his right eyebrow arch in ironic amusement. "I trust that you are enjoying yourselves, gentlemen," he said.
"Mmmm... oh, er... yes, yes, sir!" Chekov, very red in the face managed to mumble, his mouth full.
"This food here beats anything that the ship replicators can produce, Mr Spock," Kyle offered by way of an explanation.
"Indeed, Mr Kyle, even if to improve on the replicators is not very difficult, don't you think? Oh, Mr Chekov, have you tasted this blueberry tart? No? I think you should. It is the specialty of the house," and he moved on, well aware of his juniors choking with suppressed laughter behind his back.
As he was nearing the old-fashioned bar of the establishment, set in a cosy alcove, he noticed the presence of Chief Engineer Scott, seated on a stool, glass of whisky in hand, who was holding forth to a rapt audience, exclusively male, consisting of Doctor Jack Talbot, Mr Ramsay - no longer secretary to the Governor since he had resigned that very day - and Anneli's husband and brother. Overhearing such words as 'motorcycles... unbeatable speed... dragons', he easily figured out what the conversation was about, and he was just passing when a hearty hail halted him in his tracks.
"Ahoy, Mr Spock!" Scott beckoned him energetically, "The very man who can help us. Come over here, will ye?"
Scotty was particularly jocular and exuberant, a condition invariably induced by an excessive ingestion of intoxicating beverages. The Vulcan hesitated. Normally, whenever he came across shipmates in a state of inebriation, he gave them a wide berth. On the other hand, the Engineer could hold his liquor better than anyone else on board, even better than the good Doctor, and this having been a very special day for him, Spock could grant him some excuses for celebrating somewhat immoderately.
There were also the Berengarians to consider. To walk by and ignore them would be extremely discourteous. Spock, therefore, having revolved with lightning speed all these considerations in his mind, approached and calmly enquired, "What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
From the excited explanations which poured forth, it appeared that the four Berengarians had been asking Mr Scott if it would be possible for them to buy four of the Enterprise motorcycles.
"I see. May I ask for what purpose?" Spock politely asked.
They exchanged glances and on the 'Go on, man' from Scotty, Doctor Talbot embarked on his explanation.
"Well, Commander, as we were just telling Mr Scott, Ramsay and I are quite taken with your Harley Davidsons. For the last two days, going with you in the dragon territory, we have seen their amazing performance. No matter what sort of ground you take them on, what speed you push them to, your motorcycles take it on. That gave us an idea, my wife and I. You see, this is exactly the kind of vehicle that we need to pay house-calls to the dragons. Now that you all have to go, Doctor McCoy has left us with his work to carry on and his patients to look after. That is where a motorcycle seems to be invaluable. It can take Jill and I, plus our medical supplies in the baggage chest, everywhere on dragon land, even up to their caves. Another advantage is that these Harleys are quite popular with the beasts, specially after that show you gave them today! That would help us to go anywhere without problem. So Jill and I thought that perhaps you would not mind selling us one of your motorcycles, sir," concluded the young man with a pleading smile.
"Interesting," Spock said thoughtfully. "Your reasons sound logical, Doctor. According to our own experiences, a motorcycle is the perfect vehicle to use in such difficult environment as the dragon Territory. But the question is - do you know how to handle a Harley Davidson?"
"I think I can manage, sir. Yesterday, Mr Scott was kind enough to give me and Ramsay a few explanations, like how to start, to stop, put on speed..."
"Did you, Mr Scott?" An eyebrow raised quizzically.
"Aye, sir. These two lads were so hooked with our bikes that Sulu and I took them for a ride and taught them a few tricks. But, if you don't mind my saying so, Mr Spock, you had taken no training at all when you and Sulu embarked on that merry chase with the police, back on Merindol."
"I concede that you have a point here, Engineer. Very well. Do the same reasons apply to you, gentlemen?" Spock looked inquiringly at the three other men. It was Ramsay who replied first.
"Yes, in a way, Mr Spock. I have been engaged by Vice-President Duranville to work for the Council, in particular with the Committee dealing with the question of the dragons. One of my functions will be to supervise the work of cleansing and decontamination that will be carried out in their land.
"This is why a motorcycle is just what I need to conduct these surveys rapidly and with the least disturbance as possible to the population."
"Good thinking, Mr Ramsay," Spock nodded approval, then, looking at Laederle and Boxberger, he said, "What about you, gentlemen?"
"Well, we have never seen, much less handled, a Harley Davidson," Mattias admitted with a smile, "but the way these two fellows have been raving about them has given us some ideas too. The wonderful thing is that we have also been recruited by Sophie Duranville to work in direct relation with the dragons. She remembered that I have good experience of the dragon land, because years ago, before the Reservation was created, I used to accompany my father and my elder brother on their trips over there. They guided groups of visitors to the Lakes and the Crystal Caves in those days, before the tourist trade was taken over by outworlders and, well, you know the rest..."
"That's right!" Scott interjected, "Madame Laederle told us about it the other day, remember, Spock?"
"Exactly," Spock assented.
"Well," Mattias went on, "as I recall, there never was any problem. My father was on the best of terms with the dragons, he respected them, he respected their ways and their sacred places, and they trusted him. That is why Sophie Duranville thought that taking in local people like Uri and me to deal with the dragons and act as intermediaries between the beasts and the town people might be a good idea."
"A very sensible idea," the Vulcan said, "and I believe that your working together with Doctor Talbot and Mr Ramsay can be but beneficial to the dragon community. I can also see why the Harley Davidsons are so much in demand," he added wryly. "A most logical choice of vehicle. Well, Mr Scott, have you reached a deal yet?"
"Not yet, sir... " Scott hesitated. "Fact is, I was wondering whether the Captain might not object. That's why I wanted to have your opinion first."
"Indeed? Why should he object to your selling these motorcycles? They are not Starfleet property."
"No, but... they were made on the Enterprise, a Starfleet vessel, and... well..." The Engineer shrugged, stuck in his own argument.
"Exactly, Mr Scott, but if we take into consideration the number of hours that you spent on your off duty time in designing and building the machines with your own hands, as you are wont to say, we can come to the logical conclusion that they are, to all intents and purposes, yours by right. If you ask the Captain, I believe that he will share my views and will have no objection to your doing whatever you please with them."
"Well now, if it's logical," Scotty beamed with pleasure, "I think that clinches it. Thank you, Spock, I'll check with the Captain right away!"
But, suddenly struck by a notion, he stopped and muttered, "There is only one thing, though..." His face fell and so did the faces of the Berengarians who had been following the dialogue with rising hopes.
"Another problem, Mr Scott?" Vulcan proverbial patience was put to the test.
"Aye, sir... Well, to tell you the truth, I am not that keen on selling material which is not in pristine condition. After what they have been through to-day, some of the bikes are rather the worse for wear and in dire need of repair. Too bad that I haven't the time to do it."
"It does not matter, Mr Scott," put in Uri Boxberger. "I can make the repairs. I have some competence in mechanics and there is a fully-equipped workshop at the back of the house."
"Have you, now?" Scott brightened visibly then, on second thought, shook his head. "No... it won't work. Sorry, lads, but I can't do that, I have my pride as an engineer. I can't decently sell you Harley Davidsons which will cost you twice as much to fix properly. That would not be fair. A shame, though. If we had only three more days to spend here, I could make you brand new motorcycles the likes of which you have never seen. Trouble is that in an hour we must be gone..."
"In forty eight point two one minutes, precisely," Spock specified.
"Ah, you see?" The Engineer looked at the crestfallen Berengarians and heaved a deep sigh. "Ah well... perhaps we could split the price in half, but damn if I know how much a Harley Davidson Softail Classic might fetch now on the market, not that you are likely to find a Harley for sale anywhere this side of the quadrant, mind you."
Spock was observing the scene with secret amusement and wondering if the qualms of Scotty were genuine, or rather a clever ploy from the astute Scot to rouse interest and raise his price accordingly. Whatever it was, the Vulcan decided that their hosts had been kept in suspense long enough, and he calmly said, "An intriguing dilemma, indeed. These scruples do you credit, Mr Scott, but I believe there may be a simple solution to your problem."
"A solution? Then let's have it, man!" Scotty exclaimed, little imagining what the Vulcan was keeping up his sleeve.
"Very well," Spock resumed, instinctively assuming his lecturing stance, "to sum up the situation: you are in the impossible situation of making four new Harley Davidson motorcycles in the time limit that we have left, and you are justifiably reluctant to sell motorcycles which, at the moment, do not come up to your rigorous standards. Correct?"
"Correct. Go on, Spock, what is your solution?" Scott urged.
"As I said, it is very simple," Spock replied dead pan. "If you cannot sell these gentlemen your four motorcycles, why don't you give them away?"
"What? Give them away?" A chorus of astonished exclamations arose at Spock's outrageous suggestion.
"Why not? I believe that, under the circumstances, it is the logical thing to do, don't you, Mr Scott?"
Thus challenged, the Engineer hummed and hawed then declared, "It's easy for you to say, Mr Spock, but I have made these beauties with my own hands, on my free time, and to give them away... just like that, you know... It's a bit hard to take in."
"I quite understand, but that is precisely what will bring so much more value to your gift. Think of the impact that your gesture will make on Berengaria, think of the effect it will have on your reputation, not mentioning that of Starfleet, think also of the encouragement it will give to the cause of the dragons when it will be known that the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise has generously donated four of his precious Harley Davidson Softail Classic motorcycles. Believe me, Mr Scott, the effect will be considerable."
A breathless silence followed the Vulcan's eloquent speech. The Engineer, the Berengarians, even the young barmaid, standing as quiet as a mouse behind her bar, all stared at him, agape and dumbfounded.
Spock held Scotty's wide-eyed stare with his most intense, compelling gaze. He had just detected the choke of an unmistakable laugh, the presence of someone in the shadow of the doorway, and he knew with certainty who that someone was. Apparently Jim had heard some, if not all, of their conversation. So much the better. He would help Mr Scott come to a decision.
But it seemed that the latter had already made up his mind. Scotty swallowed hard, took in a deep breath, and, all at once, beamed with that bright grin of his.
"My word, Mr Spock, but you can be persuasive when you want," he declared. "I'll bet you could beat those damn lawyers at their own games in court, and you have convinced me, you know. I like that idea of the donation for the cause of the dragons. Good publicity for Starfleet and all that! Okay, my friends!" he added, rallying the dazed Berengarians with hearty slaps on the back, "It's a deal, you can have my Harleys for free.
"I'll have them beamed down from the ship before we leave from here, and, tell you what! I'll give you a bonus, my lads! A box of spare parts into the bargain. How about that?"
The four men, who could not believe their luck, thanked him and Spock profusely, but they were cut short by Scotty who held up a warning hand. "But there is one condition, mind you," he said.
"Whatever you say, Mr Scott."
"I want you to take good care of the beasties and make sure that no-one will interfere with their rights and their freedom ever again. That's my condition, lads," Scotty said solemnly.
"Mr Scott," Doctor Talbot replied in kind, "we shall do our utmost for the cause of the dragons. You have our word."
"Good! That's all I need," Scott declared heartily, "and now, what about a drink to set the seal on our agreement? Here, lassie, another round of the same, please. What will you have, Spock?"
"Nothing, thank you. I shall now leave you to your... rejoicing," said Spock, making for the door.
"Oh, come on, man! Just a wee dram to celebrate the occasion."
"I am sure you can do very well without me, Mr Scott, and I know someone who will be only too glad to join you." The Vulcan beat a hasty retreat, and as he passed the door, the Captain appeared, pretending surprise.
"Why, you here, Spock? Propping the bar, are you? Tut, tut!" He made deprecatory noises.
"I was just leaving, Captain," Spock primly replied, "and I think that Mr Scott has some news for you. If you will excuse me..."
"Has he? All right. I hope he has something to drink as well," Kirk said loudly, adding under his breath, "Quite a speech that you gave them, Spock. I was spellbound."
"May I hope that you will back my argument, Jim?" Spock whispered.
"You bet I will! How could I refute such perfect logic?... Ah, Scotty," Kirk continued more loudly as he entered the bar, "What's this that Spock is telling me, that you have some important information?"
"Sure, Captain, just you wait till you hear... "
Spock did not wait to hear the rest and moved away, glad to have some peace and quiet to assess the sensations that were now crowding his mind.
He was clearly perceiving some presence or approach, still some distance away. Curiously, he was feeling the same kind of excitement, a most undignified sensation for a Vulcan, as he had experienced, some thirty years past, when he waited in the darkness of his room for the mysterious signal. Then he crept silently out of the inn and went down to the lake to meet his ghostly visitors. He used to go by himself then, or with Anneli. Now the situation was different, of course... unless, perhaps... yes, why not?
The Vulcan now went purposefully about the inn, looking for someone who should be somewhere among the guests. In the course of his search, he noticed, in a dark recess of the lobby, two of the children, Rudi and Guneli, both curled up on the sofa and dead to the world. Apparently sheer exhaustion had overcome their fascination for the party. He slipped by, silent as a shadow, and headed to the main lounge, from which a confused sound of voices and laughter was coming.
He could easily identify the voices of his shipmates, engaged in a lively debate to judge from their exclamations and the characteristic 'Ha Ha Ha' of Lieutenant Sulu's laughter. Spock walked in quietly and halted just inside the door, and let his gaze give a rapid survey around the room.
Yes, most of the landing party was here, surrounding Ensign Kincaid, the heroine of the day, and raising their glasses for yet another toast. The Doctor and Nurse Chapel were there, along with Lieutenants Uhura and Palmer of course, not forgetting Sulu, Kyle, Chekov and Dugovitch who, somehow, always managed to stay in the vicinity of the buffet.
As snatches of the conversation reached his ears, Spock noted that it was again revolving around the motocross race and the Crystal Caves. As always, the Harley Davidson jaunt remained a subject of controversy with the good Doctor, who never missed an opportunity to denounce the sheer lunacy and irresponsibility of some people, naming no names, who should know better than run such tremendous risks just for the fun of it.
"Don't believe him! He enjoyed it as much as the rest of us." A revelation from Christine Chapel which triggered roars of laughter.
"Sure he did!" That was now Uhura chiming in. "He was with us, watching the race from that hillock, and if you had seen him clapping and cheering... He was as excited as the dragons, and that's saying a good deal! I have never seen a crowd of supporters as enthusiastic as these beasts. It was incredible! Don't you agree, dear Doctor?"
Spock smiled inwardly and wondered how McCoy would retaliate. To his surprise, the Doctor merely grumbled, "Yeah, I admit that your show was a howling success with the dragons, but to say that I was behaving like them is a gross exaggeration, bordering on libel, if you want to know!"
They all laughed at him and, as Spock moved away, he heard Sulu saying, "At least, Doctor, if there is something that you cannot decry, it's the Crystal Caves. Frankly, they have exceeded all my expectations. I have seldom seen anything as impressive in all our travels."
A chorus of approval echoed the helmsman's enthusiasm. "Absolutely beautiful!... Never seen anything like it... exceptional... the highlight of the shore-leave... etc, etc..." No doubt the Crystal Caves had left lasting memories in the minds of his shipmates. He recalled how emotional their reaction had been when they had been admitted into the Caves, under the escort of Duff and his Daffak Clan. The light of their torches playing on the crystal concretions and refracting into myriad scintillations had brought out gasps of wonder. When, after the first shock of surprise, the small group of officers had dispersed to further explore the lofty chambers of the Caves, they had moved about in a respectful silence; or exchanged comments in a low voice, as people do generally in places of worship; which was quite logical, after all, since the Crystal Caves ranked among the most sacred site in the dragon community.
Such were Spock's considerations as he continued his unobtrusive search across the crowded lounge. He finally found her by the fireside, sitting on the rug, half concealed by her mother's chair. Her eyelids drooping with drowsiness, Liseli was valiantly trying to keep awake, while her mother and grandmother were chatting and gossiping happily with Sophie Duranville and Doctor Talbot's wife. She was at last about to drop off to sleep when suddenly something jolted her awake, the strange sensation of being called, of being needed.
Liseli looked up at her mother... No, she and the other ladies were engrossed in their reminiscences and not paying the least attention to her. She sat up and peeped around the chair, wondering whether she had perhaps been dreaming. At first sight, no-one among the people standing about seemed to be interested in her then, all at once, she saw him. His dark eyes were watching her with that magnetic gaze which brought her slowly to her feet.
"Come," Spock said quietly when she joined him, and together they left the lounge unnoticed by anyone except by the ever observant Chief Communications Officer.
In the hallway, Spock looked down at the girl and explained. "Liseli, I think that we are going to have visitors."
"More visitors?... to the party?" She stared at him in puzzlement.
"No, not here, but outside, and we are going to meet them. Now, do you remember what I said, about making a wish?"
"Yes!" Her eyes sparkled. "You said if I wished hard enough, then I could see the dragons!"
"Then you must have wished very hard indeed, because I believe that they are coming. Come, shall we go and see them?" But, with a look at her pretty frock, Spock added, "It may be cold outside. Do you have something warm to put on, Liseli?"
She hesitated then ran to the coat-rack, pulled down her grandmother's woollen wrap that was hanging on a peg, and wrapped herself in it. Then she joined the Vulcan, bursting with curiosity and excitement.
But, once out in the dark, Liseli did not feel quite so brave. "Where are they?" she whispered.
"Down by the lake. Why? Are you afraid?"
"Yes, a little," she confessed in a murmur, and Spock felt her small hand slip in his own hand. At the contact, he sensed that she was indeed a bit nervous. He squeezed her hand reassuringly and led her through the darkness to the lake that gleamed faintly in the starlight.
It was cold and damp down there. A light mist hung over the still water, no breath, no stir disturbed the quiet of the night.
"I don't see anything. Are you sure there are dragons here?" asked a small, tremulous voice.
"Patience, Liseli. They will appear soon."
Encouraged by the deep voice and the solid presence of the Vulcan, she boldly replied, "Oh, I can wait, you know."
"Good. It won't be long now."
A moment later, Liseli heard him speak, but not to her. He was talking to someone she could not see, hidden in the dark. "Puff," Spock was saying, "I know you are here, and you too, Pingle. Will you show yourselves and meet Liseli?... Gently, please. She has never seen dragons and she is but a child."
Silence. Nothing happened at first then, to her amazement, some enormous creatures gradually took shape on the bank of the lake... two, three, four of them, so huge that they towered high above her head. Not a little scared, Liseli pressed herself against Spock and felt a strong, warm hand touch her on the shoulder.
"Don't be afraid. They won't harm you, they are our friends," Spock told her, then he made the introductions. Such funny names: Puff, Pingle, Paff and Dong. That made her laugh.
Puff, who appeared in the starlight to be the biggest of the lot, swung his long neck and lowered his crested head. His large amber-gold eyes stared curiously at the little girl.
/Spock is our friend. He has been our friend for a long time. Will you be also our friend, Liseli?/ As the deep voice rumbled in her head, she looked up, wide-eyed, at Spock.
"Did he speak to me? I heard a voice in my head!"
"Yes, he did. The dragons speak directly into our minds. Don't you remember the stories that your mother told you? Answer him, he will hear you."
"Then, I can also talk to the dragons? Like you?" She was delighted.
"Of course, like me, like the Captain, like all the people whom they feel they can trust," Spock told her.
Then, all her misgivings forgotten, Liseli embarked on a long conversation with the dragons, closely monitored by the Vulcan to prevent any eventual misunderstanding. But she was such a naive, innocent child, and so taken with the beasts that they responded with great friendliness to her questions. She wanted to know everything about them, their relationship, whether they had children and how many, where they lived, etc, etc. Her curiosity was insatiable. Moreover, she thought they were gorgeous, and they basked in her frank admiration, to the point that the two juveniles, Paff and Dong, began to think a lot of themselves.
To show off to the girl, they paraded up and down, swinging their necks, displaying the rainbow colours of their wings, even blowing jets of steam through their nostrils that soon turned into mist in the cold air of the night.
She was a perfect audience. She clapped her hands, she laughed, as comfortable with the huge creatures as if she had known them all her life.
Then Puff, pleased to hear that Liseli was the daughter of the girl who, many years past, used to come and see him with Spock, said that perhaps he and his family might come back, if she wished them to. He had only come this once, after the long time spent in the confinement of the Reservation, to bid farewell to Spock but, if he was wanted, he would come back.
Liseli was thrilled. Her mother's tales about the Vulcan boy and the dragons had come true. They were right here, with her. Puff's offer was gladly accepted, of course and, their mutual agreement being settled, she asked him if she could touch him, as a sign of friendship.
Surprised at first, Puff accepted and bent his long neck. The trouble was that, even standing on tip-toe, Liseli was too small to reach his head.
So Spock held her up in his arms and she gently ran her hand over the smooth scales of the dragon's nose, a novel experience which he seemed to appreciate. Then it was Pingle's turn to be given a stroke, and she loved it, obviously, so much so that the other two dragons clamoured for their turn.
Since Liseli could not refuse them the treat, Spock kept holding her up patiently while Paff and Dong vied with one another to impress her, and be petted by the girl whose laughter rang clear in the night.
In view of this emotional display, the Vulcan could only be thankful that none of his shipmates, particularly McCoy, could see him in this situation, for he knew that he would never hear the end of it. On the other hand Spock felt secure in the knowledge that Liseli's first contact with the dragons, successful as it was, would greatly contribute to the establishment of a strong link between the Berengarians and the beasts - for another generation, at least. The future of the dragons depended on their mutual trust and understanding.
Meantime, in the Gasthof, the party was drawing to its close. Captain Kirk, having finally emerged from the bar with Engineer Scott and their Berengarian associates, started to round up his troops. Time was running out; duty called and the moment had come to take their leave and beam back to the ship. The shore leave was over.
Mr Scott contacted his department and requested that four of the Harley Davidsons least damaged by the hazards of the race be beamed down immediately, not forgetting the supplies and spare parts that he had promised.
This accomplished, he proposed a last toast - "One for the road," he said, and the others were only too glad to join in, while farewells, kisses and thanks were exchanged.
It was in the middle of this emotional leave-taking that someone became aware of the absence of Mr Spock. He was known for watching unobtrusively from the side-lines on such occasions as parties and receptions, but, this time, he was nowhere to be seen.
"That's all we need, now! Our First Officer is missing. Has anyone seen Spock? Has anyone any idea where he might be?"
"No, Captain. Mr Spock was here just a moment ago, but where is he now? Sorry, sir, we don't know."
"Maybe he has gone AWOL, Jim." A remark from McCoy who added slyly, "That would not be the first time."
"Bones! not now, please." Kirk frowned at him. "Okay, will someone be good enough to find him and bring him back on the double?"
"Aye, sir. We'll have a look around."
In the middle of the fuss, Uhura came up with, "Mr Spock? Oh yes, I saw him leave the lounge about twenty minutes ago, and Liseli was with him."
"Ah...and do you know where he is now?"
"Sorry, Captain, I have no idea."
"They must not be very far," Liseli's mother said; with that, the search started in earnest.
As was to be expected, all this agitation awoke little Guneli and Rudi who, tired and peevish, began to cry. They were left in the care of their grandmother, and the hunt went on, until one of the kitchen maids remembered having seen Liseli and the Vulcan gentleman walk out of the inn, but where to? She did not know.
"They went out? In the night? Whatever for?" wondered Madame Laederle.
"Perhaps to look at the stars?" suggested Nurse Chapel.
"Yes, of course! it's quite possible," said Anneli, recalling the hours that she and Spock had spent in studying the sky, at night. "Why didn't I think of that before? I think I know where they must be. I'll go and have a look."
"Let's go with you," Uhura offered.
"All right, ladies," Kirk chuckled, "we leave it to you. But be sure to bring my First Officer back - kicking and screaming, I don't care, so long as you bring him back to me!"
"Oh, Captain!" Chapel was shocked.
"Aye, Captain, will do," Uhura said, laughing, and the three women went out while the others, much amused by this turn of events, gathered again in the lounge.
Comments about the Vulcan's nonappearance ran around the junior officers, the more so since his punctuality and sense of duty had become bywords on the Enterprise.
Two minutes later, Lieutenant Uhura was back again, a radiant smile on her face.
"Have you found him, Uhura?" Kirk asked sharply.
"Yes, sir, but... oh, Captain, you have to see this! It's... it's just incredible."
"What's up, Uhura?" wondered the perceptive Doctor. "You look as if you have just taken a trip to fairyland."
"Well, something like that, Doctor." Uhura turned on her heel and left the lounge. Her shipmates, quite mystified by now, followed into the lobby and, before going out, she looked at them sternly, a finger on her lips.
"Now, please," she said, "you all keep quiet. Not a word, not a breath, or you will break the spell."
"What are you talking about? What spell?" McCoy wanted to know.
"Come and you will see, Doctor. Now, silence, everyone!".
She opened the door and they filed out in silence onto the balcony.
An ill-timed jest from Sulu and an irrepressible giggle from Chekov were severely hushed. It took but a few seconds for their eyes to adjust to the gloom, and for their ears to perceive a distant murmur of voices down by the lake.
Kirk and McCoy, and Sophie Duranville who had joined them, followed Uhura down the steps to the lawn, and there they found Anneli and Christine Chapel standing, as still as statues, and staring in the direction of the lake
"Good Grief!" the Doctor muttered, "what's happening down there? Is that a dragon that I see by the lake?"
"Yes, there seem to be four of them, so far as we can see," Nurse Chapel whispered, "and that's where Mr Spock is with Liseli."
"So, that's where he was all the time, talking to the dragons," Kirk said.
"Yes, Captain," Anneli looked at him, her eyes shining with pride and joy, "and he has taken Liseli with him to meet them, as he did with me, so long ago. I am so happy for Liseli, that was her greatest hope, her daydream, to talk to the dragons, and Spock made it possible for her."
"But... how did he know that they were here?" McCoy hissed.
"He knows these things, Doctor. I remember, he always knew when they were coming."
"That Vulcan boy of yours is really someone special, Anneli," Sophie Duranville laughed softly.
"That's what I kept telling you, but you did not believe me," her friend reminded her.
"I do now, I really do," replied the Vice-President, staring at the scene by the lake.
"Some kind of Vulcan mumbo-jumbo, probably," was the Doctor's wry comment.
"Bones, don't forget that the dragons are strong telepaths," Kirk told him. "They must have sent him some kind of message."
"That is what I said, some Vulcan-dragon mumbo-jumbo," snorted McCoy.
No need to say that their conversation was held in whispers, so, when Mr Scott turned up and asked aloud, "Is that an illusion; or do I see some beasties over yonder?" he was fiercely hushed by his comrades.
"Scotty!" Uhura chided him, "Didn't I tell you to keep quiet?"
"Sorry, lass." He lowered his voice. "But I wanted to make sure. We can't see much from up there."
A moment elapsed as they all watched in silence, quite struck by the eerie spectacle of the dragons in the mist, then McCoy asked no-one in particular, "What the hell are they doing now?"
Indeed, the dragons were moving back and forth, wings widely spread out, heads swaying gently as if they were dancing to a beat that only they could hear.
"Looks to me that they are putting up a show," Kirk remarked, "and to a captive audience, by the sound of it." They could clearly hear the applause and laughter from Liseli. She was having a great time. "Your daughter does not waste time in making friends, Anneli," he added with a laugh.
"Yes, it's incredible, she is not frightened at all, and, do you know? It is the first time the dragons have come back to our lake, the first time since Spock went away, thirty years ago. It's wonderful."
"Look!" Uhura cut in in a whisper. "Look, she is now stroking their heads, just like pets, and not a bit afraid. Look at that! They are taking their turns, isn't that something?"
"Why should she be afraid?" Kirk said. "She know she is quite safe in the arms of Spock. Maybe we should get a bit closer... "
The little group went down the lawn noiselessly, moving cautiously in the dark and, as they drew close, they heard the voice of Spock saying,
"Now it is time to leave, Liseli. Say goodbye to the dragons and let's go back to the inn."
"Oh no! Not yet! Let's stay a little longer... please, Spock." Silence. The eavesdroppers held their breaths, waiting for the Vulcan's reaction.
McCoy was heard muttering with glee, "Now, let's see how he deals with that!"
It was dealt with calmly and logically.
"No, we cannot stay. Puff and his family must go home now, and I must go back to my ship in fourteen point five zero minutes."
"But can't you stay a little longer? Please, just a little?" she pleaded.
"I cannot, Liseli," Spock voice was gentle but quite firm. "My Captain and my shipmates are expecting me now, I cannot fail them. I cannot fail in my duty. You understand, don't you?"
A sigh, then, "Yes... yes, but Puff does not have to go yet, does he? Do you have to go home, Puff?" Silence. "Oh, all right, if you have to go!" The small voice sounded disgruntled. "But you will come back, won't you? When? How shall I know that you are coming?"
"I think that Puff will let you know in due time, Liseli," Spock said, "just as he let me know that he was coming to-night. Now, let's go. Your mother is waiting for you."
"Oh!" she gasped. "I didn't tell her I was going with you." There was remorse in the girl's voice.
"Don't worry, she knows. She is right there with my shipmates."
The eavesdroppers realised then they had been discovered. The dragons had raised their heads and were staring at them, and Spock, having set his charge back on her feet, was following her up at a steady pace.
"Mamma! Mamma!" She was running, still bundled up in the wrap, the long fringes trailing behind her on the grass. "Mamma!" She threw herself into Anneli's arms. "I have been talking to the dragons, just like you told us!"
"I know, darling, I saw you." Her mother gathered her up in her arms then turned to the Vulcan coming up quietly. "Spock, it's so wonderful. You brought the dragons back, and you made Liseli so happy. How can I ever thank you?"
"It was my pleasure, Anneli," Spock replied simply, then, facing Kirk, he said with due formality, "Captain. Reporting for duty, sir."
"Thank you, Mr Spock. Just on time, as usual." Kirk smiled his approval.
"Tut, tut, Spock, you almost missed the boat," McCoy quipped.
"On the contrary, Doctor, there are still eight point three four minutes before we are due to beam up."
Laughter rippled around the group and the Captain said cordially, "Just time to kiss goodbye to our friends here. Come on, people, let's go."
But, before leaving, instinctively they all looked back to the dragons, but the beasts were gone, and there was only the mist shifting slowly above the lake. Were they gone for good, or only cloaked in their invisible mantles? No-one could tell but Spock and Liseli. She waved and called,
"Puff! Pingle! Don't forget your promise. See you soon!"
Moments later, the Gasthof household and the guests were assembled in front of the inn to see the Starfleet officers off. After the handshakes, hugs and kisses were exchanged, the survey team took position at the beam up point. On a signal from Mr Scott, the transporter beam began to take them up, a few at a time, until only the Captain, the First Officer and the Chief Surgeon of the Enterprise were left.
As they took their place, Kirk called out, "Good-bye, take care of yourselves, my friends, and take care of the dragons."
"We will, Captain, you have our word!" said the Vice-President.
"Spock! I hope you won't wait another thirty years before you come back!" Anneli said, half in jest, half seriously.
"We'll bring him back, my dear, willing or not, but we'll bring him back," was the Doctor's last word.
"Live long and prosper." Spock's deep voice, his hand held up in the Vulcan salute was the last vision the Berengarians had before the three officers sparkled away.
They looked on, in silence, at the now empty area where the visitors from outer space had vanished, then, more moved than they cared to admit, they went back to the inn. Before the door closed, the voice of a child was heard.
"Mamma, when will they come back?"
"I don't know, darling, but they will come back, I am sure of that."
Three weeks later, the Enterprise was sailing at a steady Warp 4 on to her next mission. That evening the Captain, after a late and hasty dinner in the officers' mess, was striding back to his quarters and the pile of papers on his desk, when the intra-ship call halted him in his tracks.
"Captain Kirk... Bridge to Captain Kirk..."
"Kirk here. What is it, Lieutenant?" he snapped into the nearest wall communicator unit.
"A high priority message from Starbase 15, sir."
"Oh, all right. Pipe it down to my quarters, please. I'll take it there.'
The intercom was beeping for attention when Kirk walked into his cabin. Sitting down at his desk, he switched on the recorder, then thumbed the transmitting key, and the message began.
Fifteen minutes later, the three senior officers of the Enterprise were hastily summoned to the Captain's quarters and met outside his door.
"What's the hurry, Spock?" asked the Doctor. "Any idea what it's all about?"
"No, Doctor. All I know is that the Captain has received a priority Communication from Starbase 15."
"But we were there only two days ago!" Engineer Scott protested. "What do they want now?"
"Let us not waste time in vain speculation, gentlemen." The Vulcan pressed the door buzzer. "We shall soon know what the emergency, if any, is all about."
But when they filed in, there was no emergency in view, quite the contrary. The Captain was busy setting glasses and bottles on his desk, which had been swept clear of all papers, and he greeted them with a cheerful, "Come in, come in, gentlemen. Take a seat." Then, uncorking one of the bottles, he proposed, "Saurian brandy, anyone?... Bones?"
"Ah... yes, brandy, please," McCoy replied, nonplussed. "Ah... are we celebrating something in particular, Jim?"
"We are, my friends, we are, indeed!" Kirk grinned at them, "Scotty, what will you have?"
"Same thing, please... thanks... ah, Captain, is it a birthday that we're celebrating or... ?"
"No, not a birthday, but rather... " He chuckled. "You might rather say something like a rebirth."
"You sound damn mysterious to-night," McCoy noted with amusement.
"Patience, Bones, all in a good time. Spock, I have some Altair water for you. Will that be all right?"
"Perfectly, Captain. Thank you."
"Here you are, Spock... and for me, brandy also. Right!" Kirk then sat down and raised his glass. "Now, gentlemen, I propose a toast."
"That's fine with us, Captain, but to whom?" Scotty wondered.
"To us, to the crew of the Enterprise, to the survey team. Cheers!” They drank and he continued. "Now, my friends, knowing through experience how fast news travels on this ship, I suppose that you already heard about the priority message that I just received from Starbase 15?" He gave the three men a meaningful glance and they nodded assent in silence. "Actually," he resumed, "that message does not come, strictly speaking, from the base but from further away. They only relayed it to us on high priority before we got out of range."
"Decent of them," Scott said appreciatively.
"Sure, but where does it come from?" McCoy insisted.
"Can't you guess?" Kirk's eyes seemed to dance with amusement.
"From Berengaria, perhaps?" Spock suggested, cocking an eyebrow.
"Yes, Spock, from Berengaria and, more precisely, from the Vice-President of the Council, no less!"
"How about that!" McCoy laughed then, suddenly serious. "Nothing wrong, I hope?"
"No, only good news that she wants to share with us. First, and this concerns you personally, Bones, Doctor Talbot reports that most of the young dragons are well on the way to recovery. Only two did not survive. It seems that your vaccine is working miracles, and Doctor Talbot has great hopes that all the patients will be definitely cured within a few months. Their parents are singing your praises to whoever cares to listen."
"Well," the Doctor flushed with pleasure, "that is good to know. Christine will be glad to hear that."
"Great job, Bones, and that's what I meant when I spoke of celebrating a rebirth, the rebirth of a race which was doomed to extinction. Another victory over death to add to your credit, my friend."
"A toast to our good Doctor!" Scotty proposed and they all drank to McCoy, who could hardly hide his emotion.
"And now," Kirk said, eyes sparkling with mischief, "to the next great piece of news. I tell you, I really got a kick out of that one." He paused, waiting for their reaction.
"Come on, Jim! Out with it!"
"Okay... There is no more governor on Berengaria."
"What do you mean? What happened? Is he dead? Has he been sacked?" When Scott's and McCoy's outburst subsided, Spock was able to get in a word.
"It would seem that your suspicions were justified, Jim," he said quietly.
"Yep! 'Our' suspicions, remember, and yours too, Bones. It was you who first wondered whether the virus might not have been planted intentionally, the way it was scattered all over the dragon Territory. Well, we were right. I don't know the whole story, of course, but it seems that the Committee has not wasted time. Big scandal, my friends! People in high places, from the Government, the Health and Tourism Departments particularly, who assumed they were untouchable, are now rocked by investigations into bribery, influence peddling, not mentioning all the kickbacks to be had on building contracts."
"And what about that governor fellow, Da Ponte?" asked Scotty.
"He was right in the heart of it, with his chief accomplice, a big shot from the General Hospital, who is... an expert in microbiology and virology."
"Huh oh..." said McCoy.
"Fascinating," murmured Spock.
"Damned bastards!" Scotty grimly said. "Begging your pardon, Captain, but that's how they must have plotted their shenanigans to get rid of the poor beasties!"
"Exactly, Scotty. Da Ponte had strong financial links with the constructors of the new resorts and hotels they were building all over the place. But these people had great problems with the dragons. Remember, Spock? Da Ponte was complaining of the so-called devastation caused by the dragons. So, they looked for a way to solve these problems..."
"...and the solution they found was simple and radical," McCoy interjected. "By eliminating the dragons, they eliminated the problems. Yes, simple and deadly, and no-one would be blamed, of course. An unfortunate incident, careless tourists, no-one responsible. My God! How could they!"
A moment went by as McCoy fumed with indignation and his shipmates listened in silence and understanding. Then Spock enquired, "Do you know how the investigators found out about the fabrication of the virus, and where it was made?"
"Yes, it's Doctor Talbot who tipped them off. What Bones told him about his findings gave him an idea as to what to look for. Then, one of the lab techs thought he had nothing to lose if he talked, so he spilled the beans, and that was it."
Another pause followed while the four friends sat deep in thought, then Kirk refilled their glasses and asked, "No more questions?"
"What will happen to Da Ponte, do you know?"
"All I know is that he has been forced to resign. He is under arrest somewhere with his partners. But Sophie told me also something which I find just wonderful. His illicit gains, which amount to billions of credits, so far as they can tell, will be confiscated, and guess what will be done with them? They will be used to eliminate the pollution and toxic wastes poisoning the dragons' land, and to restore nature to its pristine condition. What do you think of that?"
Scotty and McCoy burst out laughing. "What a joke! That's the best of the story! He must be mad if he knows!" they exclaimed.
"That is what I believe is called 'poetic justice'," Spock stated dryly.
"That's it, Spock, poetic justice, specially after his refusal to spend even a cent for the dragons, remember?" Kirk chuckled then added, "And now, what about a toast to Sophie Duranville and to the Committee?"
The toast was drunk with great enthusiasm, the glasses were refilled again, then Spock had a suggestion.
"Gentlemen, I propose a toast to Mr Scott. But for him and his Harley Davidsons, there would have been no rally, therefore the Enterprise would not have stopped over at Berengaria, with the consequences that you can well imagine."
"That's right, the dragons owe you a great deal, Scotty. Three cheers for our Chief Engineer!" Kirk exclaimed.
"Thank you, thank you." Scotty beamed with pleasure. "And now, what about a toast to the Captain who gave us permission to run the rally?"
And it went on and on, late into the night. Finally, all the bottles that Kirk had prepared for the occasion were drained to the last drop, but, by that time, Spock had long since excused himself and retreated to his quarters, leaving his shipmates to their revelling.