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Somewhere high in the purple-leaved trees an unseen bird trilled and carolled its song to the lilac sky. The bronze-skinned boy at the foot of the trees smiled as he listened for a brief moment before moving silently on through the thick forest. The bird-song receded into the background as he concentrated all his senses on the task of hunting his family's meal. Since his father's death he had been the sole hunter in his small family group, and he knew he could not afford to go back to the village without some kind of meat. A t'chaca, the long-necked leaf-eater, would be good, or even a fat shoosne - with some of its eggs - would be a filling meal.
The boy came to the edge of a clearing and crouched low in the hushes, readying his bow. He merged into the purple-black shadows, still as the stones littering the forest floor. He could hear animals moving around him, but kept his eyes on the clearing. Sooner or later, an animal would move across that open space, and then he would fire.
Long minutes passed... then the boy blinked, rubbing his eyes in faint astonishment.
There in the clearing was a shape - no, seven shapes - seven vague, sparkling shapes becoming more solid every second. Even as he watched, the shapes changed from transparent to opaque figures dressed in bright reds, blues and gold. The figures stood still for a second, then slowly moved as if coming to life. One of them spoke, and the boy nearly jumped up in his surprise.
He could understand them! He listened in wonder, trying to guess what some of the stranger words meant, then, as one of the men moved towards his hiding place, he back-tracked and ran, fleet as a nareg, from the clearing. He made no sound in his flight, and doubted if the strangers had seen him, but he could not take the chance. He must reach the village and warn Nanathe before it was too late.
Back in the clearing, totally unaware of the youth's departure, Captain James T. Kirk surveyed the surrounding vegetation with acute amazement. He listened with half an ear to Spock's report on atmosphere, gravity and life readings, his mind fixed on the amazing fact that in a region frequented by space vessels, this planet had not been found till now.
The Enterprise had come on it quite suddenly, without warning, a lush purple planet hanging like a jewel in space where no planet should be. A landing party had beamed down, and now here they were, the first Humans - and Vulcan - to set foot on this undiscovered paradise.
Kirk felt the familiar excitement rising in him even as he stood. There was something wonderful about discovering a new planet, something unique; an emotion he had first felt when still a child dreaming of exploring the stars. Each discovery was new and exciting - it sent the adrenalin racing through his blood. A new world... Of course, he himself hadn't really been needed on this first exploration, but if you couldn't order yourself a little shore leave, what could you do? Captain's privilege, after all...
"Readings indicate a small settlement 2.06 kilometers from here, Captain," said Spock, studying the readout on his tricorder. Kirk nodded and savoured the peace about them. He wondered if Spock felt the same way when first setting foot on a new planet. Impossible to tell, of course, for the Vulcan revealed nothing, but Kirk had a feeling that somewhere under that enquiring, scientific exterior some very Human emotions were appreciating the peace as much as he was.
Lost in day-dreams, the Captain suddenly realised his First Officer was watching him closely, his expression one of infinite patience, and the look a scientist might have when observing the antics of a creature he was studying. Kirk cleared his throat hastily, rubbing his hands together and trying to look as if he'd been contemplating a matter of great urgency.
"Yes, well - uh... did you say a settlement, Mr. Spock?"
Spock could not quite conceal the look of satisfaction which momentarily crossed his face. He raised an eyebrow slightly.
"Affirmative, Captain. It seems fairly primitive, well-populated... and it is 2.06 kilometers away."
"Good," said Kirk briskly. He rubbed his hands again - all the time wondering why - and looked at Spock. "Right, we'd better head in that direction. Call the others back, will you?"
Spock complied, and almost at once the five crewmembers - a biologist, three security men and a geologist - emerged from the red undergrowth.
"Landing party ready, sir."
Kirk forced his thoughts back to the real reason they were here. Shore leave, here I come... He began to speak, and was interrupted by his communicator bleeping. Automatically he took it out and raised the grid. "Kirk here."
His relaxed mood shattered instantly as Scott's alarmed voice shattered the peace. "Captain, this is Scott! Something is seriously wrong with the Enterprise - all systems are overloading! The engines are goin' haywire! If it doesn't even out, she'll explode!"
"Scotty, what's happening? Explain!"
The sound of a large explosion blasted his eardrums, a woman's scream mixing with the shouts and moans accompanying the afterblast. Scott's voice cut in again, real panic in his words.
"Part o' the main computer bank has just blown up! A fire started in the cargo levels, but we canna get to it now! Sir, power levels are dropping fast! We've only a few minutes left!"
A cold calm came over Kirk as he listened to the nightmare words. "Get out of there, Scotty. Begin Emergency Evacuation Procedure at once."
"Aye, sir. I'll stay - "
"No you won't, Mr. Scott!" snapped Kirk, guessing his engineer's thoughts. "The ship's had it, and she's not blowing up with you on her! Get down to the emergency transporters. That's an order!"
A wave of static drowned Scott's reply. Kirk switched off the communicator reluctantly and looked up to the distant spot in the sky where his ship orbited...
Scott looked up from the silent chair-com and met Sulu's eyes. "You heard him, Mr. Sulu - initiate Emergency Evacuation."
The helmsman pressed the emergency alarm that would operate even when the computer had failed, and nodded to the engineer. "Initiated, sir."
"Then let's get the hell oot o' here! You too, Uhura!"
They fled down the emergency stairs, flames and smoke rising to meet them. Crewmembers ran swiftly but in orderly fashion towards the 100-personnel transporters which would carry them to the planet below. Scott ignored them, searching the faces for his best friend.
They ran into McCoy on Deck 7, stubbornly going the wrong way. Scott seized his arm while Sulu and Uhura raced on. "Where are you goin', man?"
"Sickbay! There are patients there! They need my help... " The Doctor pulled vainly against his friend's greater strength as the emergency lights flickered and failed. Orange flames replaced their cold light.
"Think, ye fool! Sickbay's on fire - they haven't a chance. They're dead, and so are you if you go back! Come on!"
Self-preservation replaced self-sacrifice, and McCoy reluctantly followed Scott.
They tumbled into the room as the ship shook under another explosion. Sulu was at the controls. He glanced desperately at Scott. "Almost all the power's gone! I don't know if we have enough - "
"Get over!" yelled Scott, pushing the helmsman onto the platform. He ripped off the cover to the console's inner workings and prayed as he crossed some connections to try and conjure up more power. He frantically set the controls, hurrying to join the others.
Goodbye, my beauty, he thought as the process began.
With little time to set co-ordinates, the fleeing crew had had to beam down randomly, but luckily most groups had arrived fairly close to the original landing party's position, and senior officers were already counting heads as the last group beamed down.
Kirk and Scott locked gazes as the tingling died away, and as one they looked up to where the dying ship still circled the planet in a failing orbit. The end came quickly - an abrupt white-hot glow far up in the violet atmosphere... and she was gone. There would be no more last-minute rescues from the Enterprise. A shallow moan rose from the dazed survivors.
Scotty felt unashamed tears prick his eyes, and saw that his Captain felt the same sorrow. Kirk placed a hand on his shoulder. "She was a good ship, Scotty."
"Aye, sir - the best."
McCoy silently joined them. "Sorry, Jim... Scotty."
Kirk turned to face his friend. "Don't worry, Bones, we'll survive." His eyes met Spock's over McCoy's shoulder, and the empathy between them communicated their feelings. The seconds stretched into minutes, and then Spock abruptly broke the contact. He turned to Uhura, who - like most of the others - was still staring up at the empty sky.
"Lt. Uhura, did you manage to launch the pod containing all ship's logs and relevant information?"
Uhura stiffened into attention, tears still running down her cheeks. "Yes, sir. I sent it just before... before... "
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Kirk said quietly. Uhura hurriedly moved away, trying to regain a reasonable amount of control. Kirk broke the silence with an attempt at his normal confidence. "Well, at least that's been done. Shouldn't be too long before someone realises we're missing. When we're late for our rendezvous the alarms will ring... "
"We have to survive till then," said McCoy sourly. "I'll see if I can find my medical staff. There's bound to be injuries."
Kirk watched as he walked towards another group just arriving from where they had landed. Just a question of waiting... He returned his attention to Spock and Scott. "Gentlemen, we have a lot of people to gather together... "
An instant later, Kirk's forced joviality wavered and disappeared as Spock silently indicated the far corner of the crowded clearing.
"We have visitors, Captain. The local natives, I would think."
There were approximately thirty to forty men, each one wearing a loose mauve kilt-like garment reaching to their knees. Their feet were bare, their braided hair alternately copper and pale green. Each held a light, bone-tipped spear, together with a bow and a quiver of arrows.
However, it was not the men who held Kirk's attention but the woman who was now moving through the group, the men bowing slightly as she passed. She stood at least a head taller than the men, dressed in an ankle-length silver robe. She was thin - perhaps too thin - with parchment-white skin stretched tightly over high cheekbones. Her grey eyes held a haunted look, and her long green hair seemed lank and dull.
McCoy left his organising and moved closer, watching her closely. She looked ill, perhaps seriously, and he wondered what disease was eating at her body.
The woman left her followers and walked towards Kirk. She inclined her head briefly towards Spock and Scott before fixing her cool gaze on Kirk.
"My name is Nanathe. I welcome you to Perani, prison planet of the Eteran. I hope your lives here will he longer than is usual on this world."
Kirk decided not to ask how long was 'usual'...
Dr. McCoy clicked his tongue as he surveyed the crowded village around him. Everywhere he looked there were Starfleet men and women lying, sitting, crouching or just standing anywhere they could find space. Silent, capable Peranians moved in and out among the strangers, offering food here, administering medicine there.
They had had to rely heavily on the native herbal medicines, for although most of the medical staff had managed to seize medical kits, there was not nearly enough medication for everyone. Needless to say, every stage of the treatment was carefully tested by McCoy's staff before being administered. Luckily there were few serious cases - most of the injuries were burns and scratches - though one poor girl had been blinded by a blast from an exploding panel. Nurse Chapel was with her, quietly soothing her.
A deep ache filled McCoy's soul as he slowly worked his way into the centre of the village where he knew Kirk to be. Two hundred and forty eight people remained out of a crew of four hundred and thirty. One hundred and eighty two had died with the ship. Too little power, too little time... A little of every survivor had died along with those poor unfortunates...
"A hundred and eighty two people, Jim," he said, his voice suddenly husky with unshod tears. Kirk sighed, closing his eyes for a moment.
"I know. It was - a terrible waste, Bones, If I could - "
"You can't," McCoy interrupted before the conversation led to an outburst neither could handle at the moment.
"Two hundred and forty eight still live, Doctor," said a quiet voice.
For the first time, McCoy noticed Spock sitting in the darkened corner of the room, his long frame bent into a chair too small for it. The Doctor's righteous anger bubbled up, "Spock, do you realise - " He caught himself in time as he met Spock's gaze. "You're right. Two hundred and forty eight to fight for."
Kirk smiled briefly, some relief pervading his sorrow. If his two friends had argued, that would have been just a little too much for him.
He sat at the Vulcan's side again just as Nanathe came through the curtained entrance. Her robe seemed to glow in the filtered light of the main room, and Kirk frowned as he saw her eyes. Weren't they grey before? How they seemed to be blue, even bluer than McCoy's.
"My eyes change with my moods," Nanathe said, as if she had read his mind. "It is so with all my people."
"Fascinating," murmured Spock, and Kirk grinned. Funny how that one word made him feel so much better. He leaned forward as Nanathe sat down opposite them.
"Queen Nanathe," the woman interrupted. Spock's eyebrows lifted a fraction. Even more fascinating...
"I am sorry, your Highness," Kirk apologised. "I was not aware of your title."
"I gave myself it," she said smoothly. "Carry on... "
More unsure than ever of this strange ruler, Kirk continued. "Queen Nanathe, you said before that this is a prison planet of the... Eteran, if I remember correctly. Can you explain what you meant?"
"Was it not clear enough?" queried Nanathe sharply. She shook her head. "No matter. Since you will remain here the rest of your lives, I should tell you more about your resting place. The Eteran are my people. Etera, my home planet. When a person commits a crime on Etera, he or she is sent to this planet, where they live out their lives in primitive squalor."
McCoy nearly muttered something about this being the best squalor he had ever seen, but thought better of it. Instead, he tried to work out why Nanathe looked so much healthier now than she had in the clearing. He sat forward, a concerned frown on his face. "Excuse my interrupting, your Majesty, but isn't this a harsh kind of punishment for one crime?"
Nanathe's eyes flashed in golden amusement. "You are not an Eteran, Doctor. Neither do you understand the crimes involved. There is no room for prisons on Etera, so what better than Perani? What they do not see, they need not worry over."
"That seems pretty callous."
"As I said before, you are not an Eteran."
Spock spoke then, his satanic features heightened by the flickering brands which illuminated the house. "Queen Nanathe... if I may ask, what was your crime?"
The woman's eyes changed from gold to the fiery red of anger, but her anger was not directed at Spock. "I protested! I spoke out against the social customs of our people - I dared to advocate change! As you can see, they silenced my voice quite effectively."
Kirk nodded sadly. "I have heard of people being 'disposed of' because of their revolutionary views, but banishment to another planet... "
"I still live, Captain," said Nanathe quietly. "I keep my dreams of vengeance close to my heart. One day I will leave this prison, and then we shall see who is exiled!"
Kirk swallowed, not at all sure how to go on. "I was coming to that," he murmured. "Your Majesty, within a few days our people will come looking for us. Now, although I sympathise with your plight, we cannot interfere with another race's laws... "
To his surprise, Nanathe only laughed, tossing back her hair. As the peals of laughter continued, the three Starfleet men looked at each other in astonishment.
One minute she was vengeful, the next...
The merriment ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Nanathe's eyes were a brilliant green when she spoke again. "You cannot leave here," she said firmly, glaring at Kirk as he made to speak. "Whoever comes here stays, and your people will not find Perani. The computer will stop then."
Both Kirk's and Spock's eyebrows shot up. A computer, here?
His cat-like curiosity thoroughly aroused, Spock began to ask more, but Nanathe suddenly rose and left the room, her gown swirling in a grey cloud behind her. More than a little annoyed with this prima-donna behaviour, Kirk followed, and found her waiting outside for them.
"Come. I will take you to the computer."
With an almost melodramatic gesture, Nanathe drew back the shimmering blue curtain draped across the dark rock passage. "Enter," she said, "and see."
The three men passed through the curtain, prepared for almost anything but the smooth wall of flashing lights and glowing switches which faced them. Almost reverently Spock approached the alien machine, his mind automatically working out the probable function of each control. Alien or not, all machines shared universal origins, even if the final design was different, and Spock had never yet seen a computer he could not decipher.
Kirk smiled as he watched his science officer examine the machine. If Spock was a Human, he thought, he would be jumping up and down with excitement just now.
He let the Vulcan savour the possibilities of the computer a little longer before saying, "Well, Mr. Spock?"
To Kirk's experienced eyes Spock was as excited as he had ever seen him, though to the uninitiated he was as poker-faced as ever. "It will take a great deal of time to study it properly, Captain, but it is obviously the product of a highly advanced technology."
"It provides our needs," Nathane's voice rang out in the high-vaulted cavern. Her dress clung to her like a second skin as she approached. For one moment Kirk had the impression it was alive. "It is provider, god, mentor... and keeper," the queen continued, fixing the machine with a look of loathing.
Kirk walked towards her. "Queen Nanathe, did you or your people build this?"
"What - them? You are a fool, Captain Kirk! Can you not see it is here to keep us on our prison? How could we build it?"
"My apologies," Kirk said hastily. "Forgive my ignorance."
"It is forgiven, as are your insults." With those regal words the enigmatic woman left the cave, leaving the men to make their own way back through the tunnel leading to the cave.
"I guess you got a reprieve," grinned McCoy.
The Captain returned his smile. "With that lady, I count myself lucky. She must be the most unpredictable woman I've met yet!" He called Spock over from the side of the computer, noting the reluctance in the way he left his new toy. "Bones and I are going back to the village," he began, sensing Spock's thoughts were already miles ahead of him. "Do you want to stay here, maybe find out some things?"
"It would be helpful, Captain," Spock replied gravely. "There are a great many unanswered questions about Perani - I may discover some answers, and also knowledge which may be useful to us. The computer - "
Kirk couldn't hold back the grin any longer. "Okay, go ahead, Spock. I know you're dying to tinker with it."
Spock opened his mouth to query his Captain's last statement, and raised an eyebrow at the chuckling Humans. With proper dignity he returned to the computer, immersing himself in the challenge of learning its secrets.
Kirk and McCoy started for the entrance, but McCoy could not resist one last rejoinder. "Don't play too long," he drawled.
Spock looked up in acute astonishment. "Doctor, I never 'play'!"
Captain's Log, Stardate 5930.33
Two weeks have passed, and there is still no contact from Starfleet. I find this puzzling. Lt. Uhura assures me the ship's log was launched successfully, and as we are situated in the middle of deep space routes, I would have expected some kind of search by now. We were due to rendezvous with the cruiser Miracle three days after the Enterprise blew up - but as yet no-one appears to have found either our beacon or Perani. First Officer Spock has discovered from the computer that there was previously an invisibility screen of some sort round the planet before we found it. Presumably this screen has once again snapped on. If this is so, we can only hope that whoever finds our beacon does whatever we did to make the computer drop its shield. I do not relish the thought of remaining here for the rest of my life.
Food and water are beginning to pose problems. An environment in balance with so few natives cannot cope for long with our increased demands on it, and already suitable animal life is becoming scarce.
The river which supplies all our water is drying up, but the natives do not seem unduly worried. Perhaps this is a natural process for this time of year. If help does not arrive soon, I may be forced to order my crew to break up into suitable numbers for separate settlements further from here. At present the Peranians seem happy enough to let us remain here.
Kirk switched off the recorder and looked down at the crowded village. He could just pick out the ring of security guards patrolling the mix-up of temporary shelters and permanent houses. Nanathe had told him of dangerous carnivores prone to attacking the natives at times, so he had ordered a round-the-clock watch. It gave them something to do anyway. At the foot of the hillside he sat on were small rambling caves much like those of the computer. These housed McCoy's meagre medical supplies and the small amount of equipment they had managed to bring down, plus some of the crew.
Kirk smiled at the thought that some Starfleet officials would say they were in direct contravention of the Prime Directive, but survival was survival, wherever you were.
He glanced up as Dr. McCoy arrived, slightly breathless from climbing the hill too quickly. The doctor sat down heavily at his side.
"Still at that computer, I think," said Kirk with a shrug. McCoy nodded wisely and studied the Captain closely. A little thinner than he would have recommended, but that was to be expected with the necessary rationing of the food available. A few new worry lines creased Kirk's forehead, and he had an air of despondency which was totally unlike him.
"All this inactivity isn't good for you," the doctor remarked cheerfully.
Kirk reluctantly broke his train of thought and brought his attention back to the present.
"You're right," he murmured. "It leaves me too much time to think."
"About the Enterprise?"
"Sometimes. We had some good times on her, Bones."
McCoy nodded silent agreement, unsure whether to let the reminiscences go on or cut them abruptly with a firm comment. He decided to let it go, as long as Kirk did not get too caught up in the 'good old days' and lose touch with the future. He could not fully know what Kirk felt at the loss of his ship, but he knew his own feelings, and he had an inkling of the kind of link there had been between man and machine. Just as long as the momentary sorrow did not grow into depression...
"Jim, there will never be another Enterprise, but there will be other ships."
A flicker of surprise crossed Kirk's face. "Sure," he said. "But not for me."
"Aw, come on. Can you see them giving me another command after this?"
"Why not?" repeated McCoy. "We'll make them give you one. Hell, I'll build her myself!"
Kirk's depression lifted at once. He grinned widely. "You're a doctor, not a shipbuilder!"
McCoy made his customary grumbles and felt a surge of satisfaction as he saw his friend's worry evaporate and the shoulders lift a little. A drip of water landed on his cheek, and he frowned at the gathering clouds above them. "It's gonna rain," he said unnecessarily.
Kirk followed his gaze. "At last. Maybe it'll help the water situation. We'll - Hey, what's up?"
Across the valley floor the natives were running wildly towards the caves, glancing fearfully at the sky as they leaped over obstacles in their haste to reach shelter. Women seized their children and ran into the caves, while hunters left the forest to join the flight.
"Boy, do they hate getting wet!"
Kirk stood and stared at the darkening sky. "I'm not so sure, Bones. There seems to be a lot of panic over a little wet... " He reeled as a man cannoned into him, stumbling on down the slope. Kirk could almost taste the fear in the air. He made an instant decision, shouting to those crew members nearby.
"Get under cover, all of you! Run for shelter! Hurry!"
The men and women obeyed, slowly at first, but gradually they all joined in the mad rush, ducking into wherever they could find space. Kirk took out his communicator, alerting the men on patrol.
"This is the Captain. Get under cover, every one of you! Never mind the animals, Mr. Baillie, just find cover! Move!" Then the two senior officers charged down the hillside, reaching the caves just as the heavens opened.
Life-giving water battered down on the thirsty earth, missing the people who peered out from their safe, dry shelters.
Safe, mused Kirk. Safe from what?
He glanced round as one of the natives - a man named Micnah - pushed through the crowd till he reached the front. Kirk made to speak, but Micnah gasped, pointing out into the streaming water.
"One of your people! He has not found shelter!"
Kirk followed the line of his finger and saw a stumbling figure trying to run through the wet curtain. A chill shot through him when the man's screams of agony reached his ears. McCoy started to move out of the cave, and was pulled back by Micnah.
"Stop!" cried the native, his voice almost drowned out by the drumming torrent. "You cannot help. You will die as well if you leave shelter."
"But he... What is it?"
"The Death Rain."
McCoy's eyes widened in horror as he saw the man fall, his skin red-raw and bleeding. His screams intensified as the rain ate away at his body, but the horrified watchers could do nothing.
"Acid," Kirk said finally, sickened by the sight.
"It does not touch plants or wood, but it will eat at man and animal alike," Micnah confirmed quietly. "It is hard to watch, but harder to bear."
The screams died to moans, then even they ceased. Gradually the acid rain stopped, and the people could leave their havens and walk over to where the man had fallen. All that remained was a smouldering heap of sulphur-smelling dust.
Kirk's stomach heaved, and he found he had to look away. McCoy was at his back, equally sickened.
"Any idea who it was?"
"Someone said Ensign Shore," the doctor said sadly. "It sure looked like him."
A slender, brown-eyed girl left the group of on-lookers and approached McCoy. "Excuse me, sir, did you - did you say Ensign Shore? Robert Shore?"
When McCoy nodded reluctantly, the girl shuddered, tears flowing from her tightly-shut eyes. Kirk watched sadly as McCoy tried to comfort her, then he left quickly, making for the computer cave.
He was almost there when Spock came out of the tunnel, his excitement plain to see. He strode quickly towards Kirk. "Captain, I have discovered something very important! This is not the main compu - "
Kirk stared in disbelief at the empty landscape before him. Spock was gone. Before his very eyes, the Vulcan had disappeared!
Completely flummoxed, the Captain ran to the spot where he had just seen Spock, casting around as if the Vulcan might reappear at any minute. The line of footprints in the red dust stopped abruptly, as if their maker had taken wings, but the area was empty of all life bar Kirk's own.
He ran to the cave. Perhaps a transporter accidentally triggered off... a screen of some kind... But the computer only hummed and bleeped as before, and there was no sign of Spock. He walked out into the open air again, scarcely noticing Nanathe walking up the narrow path.
"Spock! Spock, where are you? Answer me! Spock!"
"He cannot hear you, Captain."
Kirk glared angrily at Nanathe, chafing at the nonchalent tone of her voice. Suddenly his frustration at his seeming inability to do anything concise came to a head.
"Where is Spock? Did you have something to do with this?"
The woman's eyes changed from green to scarlet. "Do not use that tone of voice with me, Kirk! Obviously the Eterans have taken Spock, not I. Be thankful it was not you!"
They stared balefully at each other for a few seconds, and Kirk had a distinct impression of power radiating from that frail body. Then the moment was past, and worry superseded anger.
"Sorry," he said. "I am worried, Queen Nanathe, that is all... Tell me, why should the Eterans want Spock?"
A delighted smile touched Nanathe's lips. "He came too close to the truth, of course. He was too near to finding out the answer to the game."
"Game?" repeated Kirk. "I wasn't aware of a 'game', your Majesty."
Nanathe laughed; "It is the game of life, Captain. To survive on Perani, you must play according to the rules."
"And who decides the rules?"
"I do," she said sweetly. "I - and my power." Before Kirk could as much as open his mouth, she had vanished as mysteriously as Spock. Kirk stared at the empty air, his thoughts troubled. Just what was Nanathe? That there was more to her than he had first thought was apparent, hut just how much control did she have over her 'prison'?
McCoy went through the whole spectrum of disbelief to anger to worry when Kirk told him what had happened. Scotty, who had been with McCoy when the Captain arrived, shook his head and sighed deeply. His concerned gaze met Kirk's.
"Just whit is goin' on here, Captain?"
"I don't know, Scotty," Kirk sighed. "I wish I did. It's like she said, a game, but only she knows how to play it. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was controlling this entire planet."
McCoy looked up from his clasped hands. "Is that so impossible?" He glanced from Kirk to Scott and back again. "Isn't it possible that this is the real reason Nanathe was banished from Etera? Not for speaking out against the establishment, but for something far greater - like misuse of her powers?"
The words sank in, and Kirk slowly nodded. "I've had a feeling sometimes of controlled energy when she is around," he murmured. "Your idea would explain a few things, Bones. Her flat denial of any chance of our leaving, the way she rarely tells us anything useful, Spock's disappearance... "
"But why should she make Mr. Spock disappear?" asked Scotty.
"Because he found out too much?" They could practically see the thoughts racing through Kirk's head as he paced the narrow room. "She misjudged his ability to work things out, so she had to dispose of him before he could tell me. Let's hope she hasn't disposed of him for good... "
"I don't think so, somehow," said McCoy. He shrugged at the querying looks. "Don't ask me why, just a feeling I have."
"Aye," sighed Scotty. "But whit did he find oot that wis sae dangerous to her? Did he no' say something, Captain?'*
Kirk sat down with a thump at Scotty's question; he remained silent for a few moments, running over the scene in his mind. At length he came up with the answer.
"You're right, he did, but I'd forgotten. I was walking to the cave when he came out. He said he'd discovered something very important, then he said, 'This is not the main compu - '"
"This is not the main computer!" Scott cried excitedly. "It has tae be! He was tryin' tae tell ye it's only a wee one, maybe connected to a central computer!"
"That's it!" cried McCoy, caught up in Scotty's excitement. His face fell after a few seconds. "The trouble is, where is the main complex, and what use would it be?"
"Spock thought it important enough," said Kirk. "That's good enough for me. Scotty, are there any computer technicians or operators down here?"
Scotty frowned, searching his brain. "Mr. Spock kent that since he was head o' the science lot, but I'll have a scout round. There's bound tae be somebody."
"Good. Once you've found them, get up to the small computer and see if you can find out anything to give us a clue!"
"Aye, sir - I'll tak' it tae bits if I have tae!"
"Thanks, Scotty," grinned Kirk. He walked over to the entrance. "Meanwhile, I'll have another word with our enigmatic queen."
However, Nanathe was nowhere to be seen, and the villagers could give no clue to her whereabouts in the days that followed. Scott and his team worked tirelessly on the computer, but they could not even find a way of turning it off. There were no clues as to how Spock had operated it, and no information was forthcoming. Kirk had the feeling he was banging his head off a brick wall, and Nanathe held all the aces.
There was no more acid rain, but neither was there ordinary water, and things were getting worse. A state of lethargy fell over the Enterprise crew, and nothing could shift it.
Four days after Spock had vanished Kirk woke from a restless sleep to find Sulu shaking him. He rapidly blinked away the weariness, wondering why the former helmsman had left his post.
The Oriental looked worried and a little shocked. "Captain Kirk, may I speak to you for a moment?"
Kirk pulled himself upright, shivering in the cool night air. "What is it?"
The young man glanced across at the sleeping figures of McCoy and Scott. "Uh, would you mind coming with me, sir? I'll explain in a moment."
Feeling slightly puzzled, Kirk pulled on his shirt and followed Sulu out of the sleeping village. The reason for the secrecy came clear as Sulu explained.
"It's Mr. Spock, sir. Freeman and I found him wandering in the brush. He's kind of dazed, as if he doesn't recognise us or know what's going on. We thought it best you know before we brought him in."
Kirk nodded. If something serious was wrong with Spock, the last thing they needed were the kind of rumours his appearance would create. Morale was bad enough as it was.
Sulu guided him through the rough grass to a slight depression in the ground. Sitting on its edge were Security Guard Freeman and the familiar figure of Spock. Freeman jumped up as they approached, but there was no sound or movement from Spock.
Consternation growing with his every step, Kirk hurried to the Vulcan's side, only to be met by a blank, unseeing stare. Kirk looked deeply into the alarmingly empty brown eyes. "Spock, can you hear me? It's Jim - Jim Kirk."
Spock continued to stare soundlessly at his friend, and nothing Kirk said or did would make him do otherwise.
"He's been like that since we found him, sir," said Freeman, watching his attempts to communicate with Spock. "He won't talk, won't look at you, won't even move... "
"Could he be in a trance?" Sulu suggested doubtfully. Kirk shook his head.
"No, I don't think it's that. Freeman, go and get Dr. McCoy. He's the one we need now." He called after the man had gone a few yards, "And try not to wake anyone!"
Freeman returned after a few minutes the doctor, and Kirk looked beseechingly up at him. "Help him, Bones."
"That's what I'm here for," McCoy muttered testily, but he squeezed Kirk's shoulder lightly before turning to Spock.
He had brought along what equipment he had, and now he thoroughly examined the Vulcan, who sat like a limp doll the whole time, McCoy's frown grew deeper as he checked his instruments, and finally he turned to Kirk.
"Physically there's nothing wrong with him."
"Nothing wrong?" snapped Kirk, worry highlighting his emotions. "Bones, can't you see... "
McCoy waved his hands. "Hold on a minute! I said, physically! Listen, will you?"
Suitably chastened, Kirk fell silent, one hand reaching out to touch Spock's.
"He's fit as a fiddle," McCoy continued. "Too thin, but he always was. No, whatever happened to him only affected his mind."
"Can't you tell what?"
"Not without a brain scan and a study of its activity, all of which is impossible down here. All I know is that something has made him forget everything except how to breathe. He just won't - or can't - respond to outside stimuli."
"Can he hear us?"
"I don't know for sure. I expect so."
Kirk looked at McCoy's worried expression and moved nearer to Spock, speaking directly to him. The shadowed eyes never wavered from their chosen line of vision.
"Spock, I don't know if you can hear me, but if you can, then listen." He paused for a second, still shaken by what was happening. Then he continued, having decided what he would do. "We're going to take you back to the village now, and Bones will take care of you. I'm going to find Nanathe, and I'll make her tell me what she's done to you, I promise. Just - just don't give up hope, huh?"
He might as well have shouted at thin air for all the response he got from the silent Vulcan. Seeing his friend like that caused a wave of despair to engulf Kirk, but it was immediately replaced by a deep, deadly anger. He gave Spock's hand one last squeeze before rising and climbing out of the hollow.
Kirk unwillingly looked back at McCoy's call, but he did not return to Spock's side. McCoy watched his friend worriedly. He could not see Kirk's features clearly in the darkness surrounding him, but he did not need to.
"Where are you going?" he asked quietly.
Kirk's tone was tight and low, almost menacing. "I told Spock. I'm going to find Nanathe if I have to squeeze her whereabouts from the villagers."
McCoy began to speak, but reconsidered. Instead he nodded once, tightly, well aware of what Kirk felt now. The Captain turned on his heel and left, the silver moonlight playing on his head and shoulders.
Sulu and Freeman waited for McCoy to repack his hypos and scanners, then stood hack while he explained to the unresponsive Vulcan that they were leaving now. Like a dumb automaton Spock stood - and was thrown to the ground as an enormous rumbling explosion shook the earth beneath their feet.
The shock-waves continued for some minutes, dying out in intensity until the ground moved no more. The men cautiously climbed to their feet, expecting the ground to shake again any minute. Without a word McCoy pulled Spock up from where he lay, his mind refusing to assimilate what might have happened.
"What... what was that?" Freeman whispered, still badly shaken.
Sulu shook his head, looking back at McCoy. "It came from the direction of the village," he said slowly. "Doctor, do you suppose... "
"Let's find out." Brusquely McCoy pushed past them, Spock in tow. As he pushed through the rough bushes his thoughts were at once fear for the crew's safety and hatred for Nanathe, whose doing this must certainly be. He did not need to look at Spock to see that blank gaze, and the dark landscape in front seemed terribly empty. God, if Jim had been caught up in that...
Silently they walked on, searching in vain for the dark blocks and flickering lights which had signified the presence of the village before. The moonlight showed up huge clouds of dust and earth slowly settling down, and somewhere in the forest an animal howled mournfully. Where once had been houses and rough shelters surrounded by protecting purple and red trees was now a flat plain of chewed soil.
McCoy strode grimly on, his heart leaping at the glad sight of a stocky figure standing at the edge of the turmoil and ruin. The man spun round at their approach, one hand automatically reaching to push back the unruly lock of hair across his forehead.
"The same. Jim... what happened?"
A soul-weary sigh escaped Kirk's lips as he tiredly surveyed the deserted space. "An earthquake... explosion of some kind... the ground just folded in on itself. Everything just... just crumpled up... " His voice died away, and he barely registered the fact that McCoy had quickly pressed a hypo to his arm before making him sit down. Then reaction set in, and Kirk quietly shuddered, the grief for all that had happened finally coming to a head. He did not notice Sulu and Freeman quietly slipping away to look for survivors, nor did he truly register McCoy's comforting arm around his bowed shoulders.
Minutes passed, and he looked up, meeting McCoy's steel-blue gaze. "Bones, they're all dead - every one. Scotty, Chapel, Chekov... every last one... "
McCoy's eyes closed for a brief moment, then he reopened them, pushing his grief away for another time. "I know."
They looked at each other for a long time, then Kirk seemed to remember what had happened in the last hour. The worry in his hazel eyes intensified. "Spock... Is he okay?"
"Same as before," McCoy said flatly, looking over to where Spock sat motionless, apparently oblivious to everything.
"He'd be better off dead."
"Don't be damned stupid!" barked the doctor, quenching an urge to shake Kirk. "He's alive, and when we get off this hell-hole, I'll make him better!"
Relief flooded him as he watched Kirk cope with the sudden loss and rebuild his composure. By the time Sulu and Freeman returned, he was almost back to normal.
The two men had brought someone with them, but it was not one of the Enterprise crew. The moonlight illuminated the man's copper hair, glancing off his long nose and full lips. Micnah gravely bowed to the Starship captain, but Kirk looked instead at Sulu, who shook his head at the unspoken question.
"We couldn't find any survivors, sir. No sign of the other guards or any of the villagers. We met Micnah here coming from the direction of the caves."
"I was in the computer's cave," Micnah explained. "The noise frightened me so I hid until it was quiet again. Where are my people?"
Kirk could not meet his eyes. "They're all dead, Micnah. All of my crew were killed too."
"I grieve with you."
The simple statement gave some heart to Kirk, and he and Micnah embraced, each knowing the other's pain.
After a moment's silence, the native said, "What will you do, Kirk?"
A wan smile touched Kirk's lips. "I don't know... Micnah, do you know Nanathe was probably responsible for this?"
To his surprise the Peranian only shrugged, "It is possible. We knew she had great powers when she first came here, hut even her magic could not tear down Perani's invisible bars. She could not even make the computer work for her."
"Then her story about this being a prison planet is true?" asked McCoy.
Micnah nodded. "Yes, though for many years no more people have been sent here. I was born on Perani, as were my parents, and only the old ones could remember Etera. They said it was very crowded; too many people, too little food. We preferred to remain here."
"But Nanathe doesn't," added McCoy. A sudden thought came to him, and he grabbed Kirk's arm. "Jim, remember what Spock said about the computers? Supposing Nanathe knows where the main one is... She may be on her way there now!"
"That computer is our only remaining hope of rescue!" Kirk said, thinking furiously. "If Nanathe does something to it, we might be trapped here while she goes off scot-free. I'm sure that machine holds the key."
"Machine?" echoed Micnah, looking at them with astonishment. "Do you mean the great controller in the mountains?"
McCoy seized his shoulders. "You know where it is? Why didn't you tell us?"
"I did not know you wished to see it. You saw the small one, so why see the other? They cannot be used for anything."
Kirk posed the all-important question. "You say Nanathe knew nothing about the computers before, but what if she somehow got the knowledge from Spock?"
"Then you must stop her!" cried Micnah. "I will guide you."
Perani had few mountain ranges, its land surface being curiously flat across most of the globe, but here and there splinters of rock had stubbornly pushed through the planet's crust, quietly defying the elements. The largest of these escarpments formed the mountains Micnah had referred to - great forbidding piles of stone sitting astride the main south continent. Like huge red giants they crossed the horizon, their jagged summits seeming to tear at the gentle sky. Each morning the bright young sun rose above them, bringing brief daytime to the land below. When it rose this morning it shone full on the faces of six men steadily walking towards the distant red cliffs.
They had left the remains of the village just as the sun rose, carrying what little food and water they had together with the medical supplies and tricorders. Sulu and Freeman still had their phasers, but their power was depleted, and would not be much use if any large animals came by.
Kirk led now, Micnah close behind. At their backs McCoy walked by Spock's side, relieved that at least he did not have to teach the Vulcan how to walk. Some of Spock's former confusion seemed to have evaporated, and now he walked steadily, if a little haphazardly. Sulu came directly behind them, then Freeman. No-one spoke, each lost in his own memories and thoughts.
Kirk strode steadily through the knee-high grass, his gaze fixed on the mountains so far ahead. When they first started out, his mind had run circles round itself, but now it had centred on one decision, and nothing would make him change it. Somehow he would get them off this planet, if it cost him his life. And, no matter what, Nanathe would pay for what she had done to his ship, his crew - and his dearest friend. She would pay dearly.
Micnah tore his eyes from the resolute gold-shirted back ahead of him and glanced nervously around him. All his people disliked being so far out in the empty plains. It was safer in the forests, for none of the far-ranging monsters could get in there, and there was a comforting closeness about the trees. Out here was too open, too far from cover.
He shivered, though the sun was hot on his head, and then his eyes widened in terror. No! It should not be! Trying not to panic, he caught up with Kirk, pointing in mute fear at the tall, bulky shape ranging across the grassy plains.
"Dangerous?" Kirk asked, trying to gauge how far the animal was from them.
"I think it is a kermark, a meat-eating creature with poisonous fangs and claws. If it sees us... " The Peranian did not tell him that the kermark should not be there at all. Could he be losing control?
McCoy caught up with them, keeping one eye on Spock at the same time. "Something wrong, Jim?"
Kirk indicated the huge creature. "One of our local monsters," he said.
"Point is - has it seen us?"
His question was quickly answered, for as Sulu and Freeman joined them the far-off kermark turned their way and began loping easily across the plain. Micnah was almost beside himself with fear. He clutched at Kirk's sleeve.
"It sees, it sees! We must run for our lives!"
Kirk needed no second plea. Taking one more glance at the approaching animal, he shepherded the others on before running himself. He looked ahead to the mountains. They were fairly close now; could they reach the rocks in time, and would it do any good if they did?
The gap between the outlying hills and the men was narrowing, but so was the distance between them and the kermark. The animal's long-sighted eyes had spotted them for sure now, and it hurried to catch its prey.
Micnah and Sulu had reached the first slopes, and Kirk was thankfully putting on a last spurt, when he heard McCoy call out,
"Spock! Come back, you damned fool!"
Not quite believing his eyes, Kirk saw the Vulcan break away and head off in an entirely new direction - towards the kermark. Instantly, Kirk sped after him, narrowly missing McCoy who had also veered after Spock.
"I told him to run," gasped the doctor. "Not try to... break the... land speed record!"
Kirk waved one arm at him, reluctant to slow down or waste breath speaking.
"Go back, Bones! I'll get him!"
"Damned... if you'll... leave me... " gasped McCoy, stubbornly, but his body could not take him any further and he had to stop and watch as Kirk tried to catch Spock.
The kermark was very near now. He could see its huge slavering jaws and large grasping paws with yellow poisoned claws. The six enormous legs thudded into the soft earth, and as the long sinuous neck bent down Kirk threw himself at Spock, pushing him down into the grass.
The Vulcan struggled to rise, but Kirk firmly shoved him down again. He put his lips close to one pointed ear. "Stay down and don't move a muscle!"
Spock obeyed instantly, lying face-down beside Kirk. The Human could hear the kermark close by, but he dared not look to see what it was doing.
High above their heads the dim-witted beast carefully surveyed the plains. Only a moment ago its next meal had been running towards it, another group of the same kind of creature running away. Now they had all disappeared, and nowhere in the rustling grass could it see them. The kermark shifted uneasily, its feet - had it known - narrowly missing Kirk and Spock. Wide nostrils flared, searching out the unique smell of the bipeds. They were here somewhere...
A few yards away a large orange nareg, too terrified to wait any longer, broke cover, speeding towards the shelter of its forest home. The kermark's eyes fixed on it at once; grunting softly, all thoughts of its former prey forgotten, it moved swiftly after the nareg. It would catch it easily; it always did.
With a sigh of relief Kirk cautiously stood, watching the kermark's retreating back end. "Now that's what I call a close shave!"
A totally unresponsive stare met his joking grin, and with ice-cold clarity Kirk remembered his friend's state of mind. He sobered up instantly, and held out a hand. "Come on. We'll go find the others."
Quietly, like a trusting child, Spock took the offered hand and docilely followed Kirk back to where McCoy anxiously waited.
Dr. Leonard McCoy stared disgustedly at the rock face in front of him and muttered quietly, "Do I have to climb that?" he asked sadly.
"'Fraid so," Kirk told him, smiling at the doctor's reluctance.
"The computer is at the top of this cliff, Doctor," Micnah said seriously.
McCoy threw him a disgusted look and searched the rock for likely handholds. "Here goes nothing... Ow!"
He glared at the offending rocks and then at his grazed hands, muttering a few choice profanities. "I'm a doctor, not a... "
"Mountaineer!" Kirk finished with Sulu echoing him. McCoy grinned sheepishly and gestured at the cliff.
"Come on then, you know-it-alls!"
Somehow they managed the climb, the same way as they had scaled the mountainside so far, with determination, strength and perhaps more than their fair share of luck. Kirk watched Spock anxiously, but the Vulcan climbed steadily, ignoring all else around him. McCoy was having a little trouble, but since Sulu had once taken up mountaineering as yet another hobby, he had enough confidence to guide the doctor while hanging on himself. Freeman was coping admirably and, surprisingly enough, so was Micnah. Kirk glanced ruefully upwards and wondered for the umpteenth time why the Eterans hadn't made a pathway to their computer-jailer. If it was to discourage visitors, they'd done a pretty good job.
The sun sank lower in the sky, but the fresh wind which sometimes threatened to pluck them from the rock showed no signs of abating. By the time they reached the top of the last hurdle, there was a coldness in the wind, and the thin air revealed the altitude they had reached. Kirk scrambled over the edge and looked around the mountain's summit. A large portion of the red stone had been sliced away, leaving a smooth, flat platform before a sheer wall. There was no sign of a cave or anything else which might hold a computer.
The scuffle of feet told him the others had arrived, and he spoke without turning around. "Well, we're here. Where is it, Micnah?"
No-one answered, and yet another unexpected development of Nanathe's game slapped him in the face as the Peranian walked round him to the mountain wall.
The copper hair lengthened, turning slowly to green as the man's body grew tall and slim, his short kilt changing to a silver robe. The green eyes laughed at him, and the thin lips twisted into an expression of contempt. Micnah had been Nanathe all the time.
There was a kind of strangled groan from Sulu, but Kirk remained silent, watching Nanathe with narrowed eyes.
"Well?" he said menacingly at last. "What plans do you have for us now?"
"None for you, dear Captain," Nanathe said smoothly. She lifted a hand to encompass the whole platform. "Thank you for escorting me here, together with my key to freedom. It saved me a great deal of trouble."
"Glad to be of assistance," Kirk said drily. "But what is here, Nanathe? It's nothing but a platform on a mountain... "
In answer, Nanathe nonchalantly lifted one arm. An instant later a section of red stone melted into nothingness, revealing a passageway brilliantly lit by glowing yellow stones. The woman smiled at them all, the taste of sweet success on her lips. "I found the main computer long ago," she said sweetly. "I did not know how to use it then. I do now... I shall say goodbye, Captain. Your help has been most useful. I shall think of you when I destroy Etera."
It was then Kirk found he could not move. His feet felt as if they were embedded in the mountain rock, and his arms refused to lift an inch. He could not even turn his head to check on the others, though they were undoubtedly in the same predicament. His eyes shifted back to Nanathe, and then widened as Spock left McCoy's side and walked towards the entrance.
"No... " he groaned. "No, Spock, don't go with her! Fight her!"
Nanathe turned back at his cry, her eyes shining with triumph. "You waste your breath. He will not hear you."
Kirk struggled against the spell, desperately calling out to Spock, but both figures were gone, swallowed up in the tunnel's glow.
"What the hell is she?" muttered Freeman.
"A very powerful lady, Mr. Freeman," said Kirk angrily, still struggling against his invisible bonds. The cold wind bit into him, and he knew none of them could survive a night up here.
"No," said McCoy from behind his left shoulder. "Not that powerful, not any more."
The Captain automatically tried to face him, and found he could not. Instead he spoke to the empty air before him, concentrating on McCoy's disembodied words.
"What do you mean by that, Bones? As far as I can see, she's been responsible for everything that's happened to us here."
"Exactly, and to do that she uses power. I think she's used too much, spread herself thin. Haven't you noticed, Jim? Do you remember how she looked when we first saw her? Thin, drawn... I would have bet my last credit that she was seriously ill."
"Yet she looked healthy enough afterwards," murmured Kirk, catching his drift. "The way she disappeared for long periods of time... recharging her batteries?"
"It's possible. Think of it - what if she somehow controls this planet, even created the villagers - she must be tired. How long can she control Spock and Perani and us?"
Mentally Kirk nodded. "You're right. She can only do so much. If we concentrate on trying to move, we might just break free... "
For ten long minutes they still stood motionless, every fibre of their bodies straining to move as the wind blew stronger, its icy tendrils working into them. Evidently Nanathe meant them to die of exposure, unable to move from the platform.
Despair was beginning to grip his heart, when Kirk thought he felt his right foot move slightly. Was it working, or just his imagination? He concentrated even harder, and was relieved to feel his whole leg bend easily. A few seconds later the leaden feeling drained from his limbs, and he slowly walked a few steps forwards. One by one his companions freed themselves from Nanathe's dying spell, and they ran into the mountain tunnel as the wind developed into a howling gale.
The tunnel ran smooth and deep, cutting steeply into the heart of the mountain. Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and Freeman ran, swift and silent, alert for the slightest sound from ahead. A sharp corner loomed up, and brilliant light spilled round its curve. Kirk cautiously came to a halt, signalling the others to stay back while he sidled forward.
Round the bend lay the great cavern which housed the central computer, four whirring, flashing walls, and Nanathe's last barrier from freedom. Spock silently walked along each of the walls, expertly gleaning information from the banks of data. For a moment Kirk could not see Nanathe, then he noticed her sitting in a shadowed corner. She looked spent, her features haggard and drawn in the yellow-green light. She did not seem to have noticed him, and he took the chance of calling to Spock.
"Spock, it's Jim. Don't look round, just listen. Keep on fighting her control. Keep on - "
With a scream of rage Nanathe leaped up, her power surging back to project again the image of lustrous youth. Her eyes fixed on Spock, who had stopped his work as soon as Kirk spoke. The woman drew herself up to her full height, pointing imperiously towards Kirk.
"Kill Kirk! Kill him now!"
Spock obeyed, turning to view Kirk with a chilling detachment as he advanced to do her bidding. Relying on his present advantage of independent thought and action, Kirk delayed his flight, appealing directly to his friend.
"Listen to me," he said urgently. "Do not obey her! Fight it all the way! We'll help you. Just don't give in, Spock!"
The Vulcan lunged at him, and Kirk barely managed to dodge away, Spock was not as slow as he had thought he would be. The Human backed slowly away, still talking in the same firm, controlled voice.
"Spock, you've been taken over before - you won those times... don't give up now! She's weakening, she can't hold on to your mind much longer... For our sakes, for the sake of the Eterans - fight her!"
Concentrating as he was on breaking the spell, Kirk did not notice he was steadily being backed into a corner. He stumbled over a rut in the floor - fell against a smooth metal panel. A shriek of victory came from Nanathe as she sent Spock in to kill his captain.
Desperately, Kirk fought off the relentless Vulcan, fending off the hands which reached inexorably for his vulnerable throat. He kept on talking, trying not to believe that his life could end now. No! Not here, not, like this!
A familiar voice echoed dully in the wide chamber. "Spock! For God's sake, don't!"
McCoy's panic-stricken cry broke Nanathe's concentration for one vital second and Kirk saw a flash of life in the previously blank eyes. At that moment he knew for sure Spock was fighting Nanathel's control - and winning.
Nanathe stood in the centre of the cave, her plans in ruins. She looked fearfully from the approaching men to Spock. Which ones should she use her power against? Which ones? So weak... Her eyes merged from the green of power exercised to the light purple of indecision. Suddenly, before her unbelieving gaze, a new factor came into play.
There was no sound, no unusual light. Only a slight thickening of the air as a figure formed a few feet in front of the computer. It was a man of Nanathe's own race, a tall dignified man dressed in a multi-coloured robe of changing hues.
His shadowed eyes alternated from colour to colour constantly, and as they alighted on Nanathe they became a deep crimson. He pointed a bony finger at her.
"Nanathe... " The deep voice reverberated round the cave. Nanathe's reply was weak and frail in comparison.
"Kotorak, I... "
"You do wrong, Nanathe."
"I do wrong!" For a second she seemed to regain something of her former glory then it was gone, leaving the pathetic wreck she had become. "You speak of wrong, Kotorak!" she spat. "It was you who did wrong. You left me here to die!"
"We all die," Kotorak said reasonably. "We gave you a planet to live on until your life was ended. You could do what you wished with your powers here, live as a princess if you liked. Instead, you chose to play with lives as you played on Etera." He turned and bowed to the Starfleet men. "I deeply regret what you have gone through, gentlemen. There was a malfunction in the computer screening system. You should never have found Perani. No matter, you are safe now."
"Safe?" shrieked Nanathe. "No-one is safe on my planet, Kotorak! I will kill you all!"
They felt the mountain move about them, dust and pebbles fell from jagged cracks in the roof, the wind outside howled and shrieked, and the native animals of Perani moved uneasily in their lairs. Kotorak waited patiently, deep pity and sorrow in his grave expression. The mountain stood still again, the winds died down and Nanathe moaned as she felt her powers draining away. Her eyes widened as she suddenly felt them return full force, then she realised what it meant.
"The sands run out, sister," Kotorak said quietly. His eyes turned opaque, refusing to acknowledge Nanathe's agony.
"It's eating her up," murmured McCoy. "Burning out her body."
Nanathe was a shattered hag now, her hair gone, her eyes sunken and dull.
Even as they watched her skin shrank, bones jutting obscenely through their wizened covering. She collapsed on the floor, too far gone even to ask for help.
Unable to stand by any longer, McCoy stepped forward to help, but Kotorak stopped him with a gesture.
"You can do nothing."
The next instant it was over. Nanathe was dead, killed by her own wild power, Kirk looked up from the pitiful remnants of what was once a beautiful woman, and was just in time to see Kotorak make a complicated gesture with his hands. All at once his vision blurred, and a moment later the cave was empty save for the computer and a small pile of grey dust. The winds of Perani, freed now from Nanathe's influence, crept into the cave, a small breeze lifting the dust and scattering it along the tunnel.
Thud... thud... thud... Dark unconsciousness reluctantly let go of his brain, and he realised he could hear again.
Thud... thud... thud... A strange, almost mechanical sound. Rhythmic, soothing... His heartbeat, magnified by the machine above his bed.
Light touched his eyelids, sounds coalesced - awareness returned. A signal sped faster than light from brain to nerves and muscles. Slowly he opened his eyes.
Kotorak moved over and smiled down at the young Human. Kirk frowned, trying to figure things out. Wasn't he in sickbay? No, that was impossible, yet...
He sat up, taking in the welcome sight of standard Starfleet medical equipment. A nurse hurried by, and Kirk blinked. No - it couldn't be. Nurse Chapel was dead! He glanced hurriedly around, saw McCoy, Sulu and Freeman regarding him from three beds to his left, Spock regarding him from the bed on his right. They looked at each other for a moment, then Kirk finally found his voice.
"Spock? What is... " His voice trailed off uncertainly and Kotorak laughed.
"I am sorry, Captain Kirk. In your weakened condition, the process of teleporting you to your ship put some strain on you. However, Nurse Chapel assures me you will recover quickly."
"Nurse Chap... My ship?" He looked incredulously from one to the other, his brain as yet unable to take it in. Spock lifted one elegant eyebrow in silent amusement and looked at Kotorak.
"Kotorak, if you would be so kind... ?"
The alien smiled again, sitting on one edge of Kirk's bed so that the colours of his robe seemed to merge with the muted beige of the bed covers. He took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts. At last he spoke, and both Kirk and Spock could hear the sorrow in his voice.
"Nanathe was my sister. She was born on Etera, and possessed the powers which all our people have. I do not know what names you have for them, but there is very little we cannot do with only a thought. From birth we are taught to control the powers, channel them for the good of the planet, but with my sister, something... went wrong.
"Nanathe's mind became warped, and her thoughts alien to our lifestyle and potentially dangerous. I tried to help her conquer the madness, but it was no use. She wanted absolute power over people, and I could not stop her. She - she killed our parents, attacked the Supreme Leader. From then on she was beyond help."
He paused, his eye colours settling into a pale, pearly grey. They waited in silence until he continued.
"She was too dangerous on Etera, too wilful and unpredictable. We abhor killing, even of one as dangerous as she, so it was decided to exile her. I chose this planet. I was the one who sent her here... "
"So she's been here ever since?" asked Kirk.
Kotorak nodded. "We built the computers - seven subsidiary and one central - to keep her contained and hide the planet. Thus others were protected from her evil, though we could do nothing for the natives she created to serve her here. Unfortunately the screens failed for a short, vital time, revealing Perani to your scanners. I deeply regret the ordeals you have gone through."
"It wasn't your fault," Kirk assured him. He glanced at Spock, making sure he was there, unharmed. Spock nodded slightly as if he had read the Captain's thoughts, and Kirk turned back to Kotorak with a lighter heart. "Kotorak, I... saw my ship explode, my crew died on Perani... What... I mean how, did you... ?"
"Once again, I regret what you had to endure. Nanathe was unlike us in that she would kill without mercy, but we discovered the malfunction in time to stop her. At the time she was still too powerful for us to stop without innocents being harmed, but we found it relatively simple to save your crew, making it seem they had perished - a simple matter of teleportation, even with your ship. Unfortunately, to make Nanathe believe she was still in full control, we had to create the images of death in your minds also. The explosion, your crewman's agonising death - all were illusions, projections of our minds."
Kirk looked at him with a lop-sided grin. "Pretty powerful illusions."
"They had to be. Your pain had to be real... However, you need not worry about the effects, Captain. All memories of the illusions have been erased. Your crew remembers the planet, but little else. Only you two know the full story; even your other friends here are not aware of what happened, of what I have been saying. Ensign Shore is in excellent health, and the girl who was apparently blinded is at this moment hard at work. It is regrettable we had to go to such lengths, but we had to wait until Nanathe had used her strength trying to control too much at once. Only then could I come to your aid, Captain. I am sorry."
"You saved my ship at the expense of your sister's life!" cried Kirk, disturbed at Kotorak's humility. "If anyone should apologise it should be me. It was mostly our fault for beaming down there - "
"Nevertheless, I apologise. From my heart... " Kotorak stood, bowing deeply to Kirk and Spock. The air about him wavered, thinned, and in an instant he was gone, on his way back to the mysterious Etera.
Kirk lay back on his pillows, suddenly tired. He was going to have one whale of a time explaining their two-week disappearance... He closed his eyes thankfully, opening them again as a peevish voice spoke.
"What's going on here? Jim, who was that?"
Kirk groaned, and looked mutely at Spock. A faint smile touched the corners of Spock's mouth.
"Shall I explain, Captain?"
"Please do, Mr. Spock."
As Spock patiently began explaining everything to the confused doctor, Captain James T. Kirk quietly fell asleep.