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Stars are not evenly distributed through space. Inside a galaxy there are clusters which have more than their fair share of suns; in other areas the stars are distributed, if not evenly, at least reasonably so, and in the region between spiral arms stars are few and far between.
The United Federation of Planets, with the Klingon and the Romulan Empires barring its route through its home spiral arm, had for some time been considering trying to expand in the other direction, across the space that separated their territory from the neighbouring spiral arm, and colonising there. No matter that it would take a ship travelling at top warp speed almost two months to cross the space between the two spiral arms; the Federation High Council considered that the distance was well within reasonable limits.
Starfleet Command, with more experience of space travel than the members of the High Council (many of whom had never travelled further than was necessary to attend the various meetings, which were held in rotation on the different member planets) protested violently about the unrealistic plans the High Council presented to them.
"Politicians!" Admiral Komack muttered in disgust as he examined the proposals for expansion.
He read the first two pages of the report with increasing annoyance, turned to the third, and slammed his hand down on the buzzer to summon his secretary.
She appeared almost instantly. Indeed - knowing when he had started to read the report - she was surprised that he had not summoned her earlier.
"Set up an immediate meeting of the senior Command officers."
"Aye, sir." Commander Schwarz had served on board the Kongo for some years before an injury had invalided her to a shore posting, and it frequently showed in her speech. She limped back to her desk, and checked the computer for the schedules of Komack's senior colleagues, then returned to his room in time to catch some more uncomplimentary mutterings.
"Admiral Fitzgerald and Vice Admiral Li will not be available until tomorrow morning," Schwarz reported. "Everyone else can be contacted immediately."
"Tomorrow morning will do," Komack growled. "This has to be a full meeting. We have to be unanimous."
By the next day Komack had had time to read the full document and summarise it, although both he and Schwarz worked deep into the night to do so.
Komack reported the details to his colleagues; and found himself for once in the unusual and pleasing position of having complete agreement from them. Although Komack was the senior officer in Starfleet Command, Admiral Fitzgerald was an ambitious man who would, Komack knew, dearly like to replace him and often disagreed with Komack's suggestions - even when his private opinion was known to mesh with them. But this time, not even Fitzgerald raised a voice in disagreement.
The discussion was brief. At the end of it, Komack turned to the computer where Schwarz was compiling the minutes of the meeting.
"I want a message sent to the High Council," he growled.
Komack paused, breathing deeply as he fought for self control, gathering his thoughts.
"Gentlemen. I have read with interest your proposals for expansion of the territory controlled by the United Federation of Planets and I have discussed these proposals with my colleagues at Starfleet Command. I have been directed by them to bring to your attention several facts.
"The region between the spiral arms has never been explored. Although that space is almost empty, it is not completely so. We do not know what dangers might exist there. We therefore believe that it is necessary to send ships into the region to explore the proposed route thoroughly before any attempt is made to cross it.
"To do this adequately will require money; money that Starfleet will find impossible to allocate from its present budget.
"If we are to use our resources to investigate totally unknown space as well as continuing to develop our present territory in addition to maintaining our defence against both the Klingon and Romulan frontiers, we will certainly require more funding.
"This is a simple matter of arithmetic, gentlemen. The resources of Starfleet are already spread too thinly. We do not have enough ships.
"We have only twelve Star Cruisers; the Klingons are known to have at least double that number of vessels of comparable type, and only the Romulans know how many they have.
"Gentlemen of the High Council, you all have the best interests of your home planets at heart; you all wish to see more money allocated for the development of those planets. Many of you look at Starfleet and do not see that we are of immediate use to you, and therefore do not consider our budget to be of great importance. You forget that we are all that stands between the civilians of your home planets, and of all your colony worlds, and invasion by a ruthless and greedy enemy.
"To explore the space between the spiral arms adequately in the time you suggest will require the use of all our scout vessels as well as half of our Star Cruisers. This will leave our home territory seriously under-defended.
"Gentlemen, we do not say we will not accomplish what you ask. However, with our present resources, we cannot accomplish what you ask in the time you envisage."
The opinion of Starfleet Command was, of course, overruled.
Faced with the almost impossible task of exploring the space between the spiral area of the galaxy as well as maintaining a reasonable presence inside Federation space, Komack finally assigned four large survey ships to scout the direct route that would be used en route to the unknown stars of the other arm.
Contact was lost with all four ships, one after the other, relatively quickly.
Urged on by the High Council's demands, Komack sent three eight-man scoutshlps and two four-man scouts into the unknown region. Designed as they were to explore possibly hostile territory, these smaller ships were faster than the larger survey vessels whose primary function was to produce a reasonably full report on newly-discovered habitable or exploitable planets whose presence had been reported by the scout ships. The disadvantage of using scouts for this mission was that they lacked the sophisticated scanning capability of the survey vessels; their scanners were capable only of very basic study,
They, too, disappeared.
It was impossible to say just when four of the five vessels vanished; but as it happened, Starbase 15 was in direct communication with the fifth when contact was lost.
The Magellan was in the middle of a routine report on one of the few star systems in the stellar desert between the spiral arms when, without warning, a crackle of static intervened, blotting out the signal from the ship. The Communications Officer on duty at the time was a highly experienced man recently invalided out of active service due to a heart condition which, although making it inadvisable for him to serve aboard a ship, was not severe enough to render him unfit for a ground posting. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to break through the static interference; and when it cleared, as suddenly as it had begun, he was unable to restore contact with the Magellan.
Starbase 15 immediately reported back to Starfleet Command.
Admiral Komack read the report from Commodore Rosenberg and passed it on to the High Council, requesting additional funding to replace the missing ships. The High Council immediately ordered him to find out what had happened - at the same time, ignoring his request for more money.
When he received the reply, Komack swore, long and imaginatively.
Damn the High Council! Here they were, now missing four valuable survey ships and five scouts, and the High Council was still refusing to admit that it was asking more of Starfleet's resources that Starfleet had to give. In all conscience he could not send any more ships into the area - yet without sending at least one more into the void he had no way of finding out what had happened to them.
At the rate they were going, the Klingon/Romulan Alliance would not need to fight the Federation in order to take it over - the High Council was in the process of handing Federation space over to the enemy by leaving it undefended.
He thought things over for some time, but in the end he came to the unavoidable conclusion that he would have to send in one of the valuable Star Cruisers. Although not quite the nearest, the Enterprise's crew had the best reputation for resolving impossible situations.
He therefore told Schwarz to prepare new orders for the Enterprise, along with what little information was available. Captain Kirk and his crew had been chosen for the unenviable task of discovering what had happened to the missing nine vessels.
"New orders coming in from Starfleet Command, Captain," Uhura announced, breaking the silence that had gripped the bridge for fully half an hour.
Kirk gave a grunt, half of annoyance, half of relief; the current mission - acting as a taxi service for routine supplies to a small mining colony - was not particularly interesting, and he was bored enough to welcome a small diversion; but he knew from long experience that a change of orders like this most likely indicated serious trouble.
"Put it on the screen, Lieutenant."
Komack's face shimmered into view.
"Captain Kirk. Over the past year, a number of ships have been surveying the space between us and the neighbouring spiral arm, in the region designated Quadrant 236/69/846XZ. These ships have all disappeared without trace. You are ordered to abort your present mission and investigate these disappearances. All relevant information is being transmitted to your computer.
"The Federation High Command is particularly anxious that this problem is resolved as soon as possible. Komack, Starfleet Command, out."
As the familiar starfield reformed, Kirk closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. He counted slowly to ten, then stood briskly.
"Mr. Chekov, plot a course for Quadrant 236/69/846XZ and execute immediately, warp factor eight. You have the con. Mr. Spock, Mr. Sulu, come with me. Lieutenant Uhura, call Mr. Scott, Dr. McCoy and Security Chief Baillie to briefing room three immediately."
"Aye, sir." She spoke to the closing doors of the turbolift, sighed, and looked at Chekov as he moved to the command chair, his place and Sulu's being taken instantly by O'Neill and Rahada, who, having called reliefs for themselves, left their own, less important, backup consoles unmanned for the brief time it would take for those reliefs to arrive. "What do you think, Pav?"
"I think the Captain does not like the sound of these orders," Chekov replied gloomily. "If several ships have vanished without trace, we could easily be the next."
Kirk, Spock and Sulu made their silent way to briefing room three. Without facts to go on, Spock, of course, would say nothing unless in direct response to Kirk; but Kirk was obviously deep in thought. Sulu, after a quick look at both faces, decided that speculation - at this point - was not called for.
McCoy, having the shortest distance to go, was already waiting when they entered the briefing room.
"What's all this about, Jim?" he asked immediately, ignoring the brooding expression on the Captain's face.
"New orders," Kirk said tersely as he sat. Beside him, Spock wasted no time in flicking on the computer screen and calling up the information that went with these orders.
The door swished open again, and Scott and Baillie entered together.
"Captain?" Scott was clearly agitated. "Warp eight? What's happened?"
Kirk looked round the table.
"We have a change of orders, Scotty." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Some of this... I've known about some of this for a while. It's not quite classified information, but it's not far from it.
"We all know that the Federation's options for expansion are slightly limited by the Klingon and Romulan boundaries. Without an all-out war, we're stymied in that direction. Not even the Klingons or the Romulans want war - that's why they formed their Alliance. They don't trust each other fully even with the Alliance, so you can guess how edgy they'd be without it. However, it seems that they both trust the Federation enough not to bother with any sort of official treaty other than the Organian one.
"Yes, I know we don't trust them, but they're not stupid. We - we - defeated the ship the Romulans sent into Federation space - they lost face then, and they aren't going to risk that again in a hurry. As for the Klingons - they won't risk clashing with the Organians again. And neither will we.
"So the High Council ordered Starfleet to explore in the other direction; across the stellar desert and into the next arm of the galaxy."
"I'll bet they didn't give Starfleet any more money for extra ships," McCoy muttered cynically.
"I wouldn't take you, Bones," Kirk replied. "The High Council depends too much on the Organian Treaty, and reckoned that they didn't need to bother with any defensive presence other than the Constitution class ships.
"Komack was rather more cautious. Starfleet has sent - to the best of my knowledge - no more than nine ships into that totally unknown space in the past year. Komack's orders didn't tell us how many were involved, but I think my information is correct."
"That's no' bad for an area where there aren't many stars," Scott commented.
"Agreed. But that is the reason for our changed orders. All nine have disappeared."
Spock looked up from the computer read-out. "You are correct, Captain. Four survey ships were originally sent into the area, and after they disappeared, five scout ships were sent in."
"That would be... around four hundred and fifty crew?" McCoy sounded horrified.
"Approximately, Doctor. The survey ships each carried a crew of one hundred and six; three of the-scouts were eight-man, and the other two were four-man." He looked up. "Eight of the ships disappeared without trace; their last recorded reports placed them close to Quadrant 236/69/846XZ, where the ninth vessel positively disappeared in the middle of a transmission."
"What happened?" Kirk asked.
Spock returned his attention to the readout. "There was extended interference from static, which cut the contact; when the static cleared, Starbase 15 was unable to restore the communications link with the Magellan."
There was a short silence as his listeners absorbed the information.
"Any further details?" Kirk asked at last.
"Komack's not asking much, is he?" McCoy said drily. "No information, just the quadrant where one of the ships disappeared. Does he even realise how big one quadrant is?"
Kirk ignored the comment as rhetorical. He looked round the others. "Any suggestions?"
"Until we actually reach Quadrant 236/69/846XZ, I do not believe so," Spock replied.
"Unfortunately, I think you're right," Kirk growled. "The details concerning the number of ships involved is classified, of course, as well as the reason for their presence in that quadrant; but it won't do any harm to let the crew know we're on a rescue mission. Dismissed."
He watched Sulu, Scott, McCoy and Baillie file out, followed by Spock; but he was not surprised when Spock paused and allowed the door to slide shut, turning back towards the table.
"This mission..." Kirk said. "I don't like the feel of it." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Something here is saying, Watch out!"
"I, too," Spock said. "I would be more confident if we knew a little more about the area involved."
Kirk looked at his first officer, his eyebrows lifted. "We've gone into unexplored space before," he said. "It's part of our job to go 'where no man has gone before'."
"Agreed, Captain. But in this case, we are not going where no man has gone before. We are going where nine other vessels have preceded us - and vanished."
As the Enterprise slid into the star desert Kirk ordered the long distance scanners to be put into operation. There was a chance - vanishingly small, but still a chance - that if one or all of the missing ships had been destroyed, they had managed to launch lifepods. There was also the chance that if the ships had exploded, there would still be detectable traces for the Enterprise's sophisticated scanners to pick up.
It took almost a month before the ship approached Quadrant 236/69/846XZ. They were, of course, unable to travel at warp eight indefinitely, but even when they slowed down to rest the engines they never dropped below warp six.
Space was almost totally empty. There were a few stars drifting through the parsecs towards the spiral arm they had just left - gravity pulling them - but there was no trace of either lifepods or ship debris.
As the Enterprise slid into the quadrant, Kirk ordered, "Warp one, Mr. Sulu."
"Warp one, sir. "
"There is one star system in this quadrant, Captain," Spock reported. "A K1 star with six planets."
One of the planets was a dwarf hurtling around the sun so close that had the sun been more active it would have been in danger of being burned by solar flares. Three were so far from the star that they could be nothing but balls of ice. One of the other two was a gas giant, but the last one was situated nicely in the ecosphere, such as it was; Spock estimated that for such a dim star the ecosphere was narrow and temperatures on the planet's surface were likely to be fairly low.
"If there are survivors, and they had any warning of what was happening, they're most likely to be on that planet," Kirk said thoughtfully. "Mr. Chekov, set course for it. Mr. Sulu, assume standard orbit when we get there."
The Enterprise swung into orbit and began a sensor search. Almost immediately, Spock raised his head.
"Life form readings, Captain. Human... Klingon... Andorian... and others. There are also metallic readings which would correspond to the wreckage of ships."
"A Klingon base on our back door?" Kirk asked.
"Possible," Spock replied, a doubtful note in his voice. "There is, however, no indication of advanced technology such as I would expect to find in such a base. In addition, the readings indicate a split into two communities, one much larger than the other - each of them consisting of mixed species." He bent over the scanner again. "Captain, there are also some life form readings of at least two, possibly three, species unknown to me."
"Uhura, open a channel. Let's see if they have - " He broke off as the ship jolted sharply.
"We're being pulled down, Captain!" Sulu exclaimed.
"We have been caught in a strong magnetic field," Spock reported almost at the same moment. "You could call it a form of tractor beam."
Kirk reached to punch the intercom just as it bleeped.
"What's happening, Captain?"
"We're caught in a sort of tractor beam, Scotty. Give me warp eight - we'll try to pull away."
"Sulu, try to break orbit."
The ship jerked, pulled away, and jerked again.
"It's no use, Captain!" came Scott's voice over the intercom. "We can resist the pull for at least forty eight hours, possibly even a little more, but after that... After that we'll go down, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"How long could a survey vessel, or a scout, hold out against that pull?" Kirk asked.
"Survey or scout? No time at all, Captain. They'd be pulled down inside - oh, ten minutes, fifteen at the outside, assuming they had any warning. With no warning, probably a lot less."
"Hmmm. That would seem to explain what happened to the missing ships, then. Uhura, send a message to Starfleet - "
"T can't, sir. Transmission is blocked by the magnetic field. All I can get is static."
"Static!" Kirk's eyes blazed. "There's no more doubt about it. Our missing ships are down there - and it's up to us to find out why. Mr. Spock - can we beam down safely?"
Spock frowned slightly. "No," he said. "However, I believe that a shuttlecraft would be able to make planetfall. It would of course be caught in the tractor beam and be pulled down more rapidly than is advisable, but since it is designed to travel through atmosphere and land, it would not crash. That cannot be said for any of the other ships that have been pulled down."
"But we would of course be pulled down to wherever the beam is coming from."
"Worth it. The crews of the crashed ships wouldn't know what was happening; I don't say they'd panic, but they wouldn't be ready to face an enemy; they'd be too busy trying to minimise the damage as they came down. We, on the other hand, will be ready." He pushed his hair back off his forehead, a subconscious action as he consciously braced himself - mentally - for action.
The intercom bleeped again.
"Scott, Captain. We could maybe gain a wee bit more time by reversing polarity on the ship - holding her in orbit by magnetic repulsion."
Kirk glanced at Spock. "What do you think?"
"It could be dangerous, Captain. There are fluctuations in the strength of the beam holding us. And if the landing party manages to cut off the power source of the beam, it would be very dangerous since there would be no way to warn Mr. Scott of the impending change."
"I heard that, Captain. It should be possible to compensate."
"Try it," Kirk decided. "I'll leave it up to your judgement whether it's likely to prove too dangerous or not." One constant in the universe was Scott's unwillingness to do anything that would risk damage to the ship - or, more accurately, the engines. "Now - Spock, I'd like to leave your expertise here, to help Scotty defend the ship, but I'll need you on the surface. Lt. Uhura, contact Mr. Baillie and Dr. McCoy and tell them to report to the hangar deck immediately. Mr. Baillie is to bring two of his best security guards."
"Aye, sir." She turned to her console.
Captain headed for the turbolift, his First Officer at his heels. As he went, he said, "You have the con, Mr. Sulu."
The lift door shut, and Sulu glanced over at Chekov. Chekov shrugged, saying nothing. Sulu opened his mouth, then shut it again.
There was, after all, nothing he could say that was not already obvious to the other senior officers on the bridge. And it would be no help to morale to let the juniors know that their superiors had anything less than complete confidence in the Captain's ability to solve this problem.
The landing party met outside the hangar door. Kirk looked at the two guards with Baillie, surprised to note that one was female - well-built, but female.
"Mr. Baillie?" he asked.
Baillie grinned confidently, knowing what was in Kirk's mind. "Captain, Lt. Helmudsdotter has won the security section's last eight unarmed combat competitions without any difficulty. In total, during those competitions, she has been thrown fewer than ten times. She's also security's top marksman. She's the best I've got."
"That's some recommendation," Kirk acknowledged.
"And Lt. Kralik was runner-up in the last six competitions," Baillie finished.
"Right. Let's get going." Although his own choice would have been for an all-male landing party, Kirk was not going to over-rule the opinion of a section head, especially one as competent as Baillie. He turned and led the way briskly to the Columbia.
The shuttlecraft sank quickly towards the surface. It was a controlled descent, however; Kirk's skill as a pilot, while tested, was not overstretched, and Spock, sitting in the co-pilot's seat, remained relaxed even although his attention did not waver from the readings in front of him.
The landing was not quite as smooth as the descent, however. They came in rather too fast and bumped as the shuttlecraft touched down; it rose several feet into the air and then came down again to hit the ground fairly hard.
Kralik picked himself up from the floor, rubbing his rear ruefully, as Baillie opened the door and jumped out, phaser at the ready; Helmudsdotter was just behind him, and Kralik, remembering his duty, forgot his bruised rear and followed them before any of the senior officers could move.
There was no sign of anyone.
Kirk, closely followed by Spock and McCoy, joined the security guards, two of them looking round curiously. Spock's eyes were fixed on a tricorder.
They were in a big clearing in what could only be called a wood. Around them were the wrecks of a number of ships.
Kirk frowned as he looked round. "The source of the beam must be around here somewhere..."
Kirk swung round. The voice was familiar, but it was not from one of their group.
He knew the tall figure who stood there although it took him a second to recognise him.
"Welcome to Tortuga, Captain Kirk."
"Kang, are you - the Klingons -- responsible for what's been happening to our ships?" Kirk demanded.
"No, Kirk. I, too, am a victim. But quickly - come. While you stand there, you are in danger."
He beckoned them to follow him out of the clearing and among the trees.
As they went, Spock said quietly, "There is a small group of life forms about a mile ahead, Captain - approximately twenty. Mixed races - I read Humans... Klingons... Andorians... Tellarites... and others."
"That is the group of which I am a member," Kang replied.
"Oh." Kirk looked at the tall Klingon. "This quadrant is a long way from Klingon space, Captain Kang - you are still a Captain, I suppose?"
"You could say that," Kang said dispiritedly. "My superiors studied my report on the incident on Beta XIIA; then they studied yours. They decided, most reluctantly, to give me another chance - unusual though it was to do so. A Klingon Captain who loses his ship is normally disgraced for life. However, my new command was much smaller - in fact, it was a scout ship." His face was expressive of conflicting emotions - gratification that he had been given another command, shame that it was such an unimportant one.
After a momentary silence, Kang went on, so quietly that they could barely hear him. "In addition, my superiors chose to give me a mission that carried - that appeared to carry - no opportunity for making a mistake, by sending me to investigate this almost empty space. There wasn't even any reason to send me here - the Klingon Empire isn't interested in a starless void. And then... and then we were caught in a tractor beam and crashed here.
"Even if I should manage to escape from here, I will never get another command."
"My report should exonerate you again," Kirk said. "I don't know yet what has happened, what is causing this - but I have every intention of finding out. 1 do know that no ship smaller than a Star Cruiser has any chance of avoiding being pulled down by that magnetic beam. Even the Enterprise has barely enough power to resist the pull, and - unless Scotty can pull off a miracle - she won't be able to hold orbit for long."
Kang shook his head. "You are generous, Captain, but I will not be given a third chance. It is not the Klingon way." He sounded completely resigned about it; whatever emotion tinged his voice, there was no bitterness. Then he went on, more briskly,
"We do have some idea of what is happening. There are creatures here who control the tractor beam. They seem to be able to detect a ship coming into orbit, but they don't seem able to tell how long it will take for their tractor beam to pull it down. Once it lands - usually crashes - they come to take the crew prisoner.
"A few of us have managed to escape. The creatures haven't bothered with us - we're not even certain that they know about us, though we think that they probably do."
"What happens to the prisoners?"
"They are forced to work for the creatures."
Kang led them on through the trees until they reached another, but much smaller, clearing. A group of people waited there, among them another two Klingons - Kirk was glad to see that one of them was Kang's wife Mara; without realising it, he had been ever so slightly worried about her ever since discovering Kang's presence. There were two Andorians, five Tellurians, three Tellarites, half a dozen Humans and several aliens of species that Kirk couldn't recognise; and a tall girl, recognisable as a Mahlian by her blue-tinted skin and short blue hair.
It was the Mahlian who stood as the little group entered the glade. She moved forward to meet them.
Her Starfleet uniform of science blue made her pale skin look anaemic. She wore a Lieutenant's band, and Kirk wondered at her confident attitude, since she was clearly outranked, by Kang if nobody else. Yet in spite of her obvious self confidence, there was a haunted expression deep in her eyes.
"Vanora, this is Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise," Kang said quietly. "Also Mr. Spock, the Science officer, and Dr. McCoy who, I see, is already at work."
As indeed he was. His trained eye had immediately noticed that several of the group were clearly injured and, ignoring the girl, he had headed straight for the nearest of them.
"I do not know the names of the others," Kang went on, almost apologetically.
"Mr. Baillie, Security Chief, and Lieutenants Helmudsdotter and Kralik." Kirk finished the introduction.
"My greetings," the Mahlian said quietly.
Spock was studying her thoughtfully. "I am honoured to meet you," he said. "I had heard that Mahlians do not readily leave their home planet."
"That is correct, Mr. Spock," she replied quietly. "I am the only one who has ever done so voluntarily. It was not an easy decision, but I had my reasons; they were valid ten years ago, and they are still valid."
"And you are homesick," Spock said softly.
"Yes," she replied. "I do not doubt that I always will be. But I abide by my choice."
Kirk looked at her, puzzled. In his experience, Starfleet personnel were footloose, people who were slow to put down roots; born explorers - the kind of people of whom it had once been said that they would always seek to see what was on the other side of the hill. To meet one who admitted to being homesick was akin to meeting a porpoise who was unable to swim.
On the other hand, what Spock had said was true; as a race, Mahlians - while welcoming visitors to their home planet - almost never left it. Mahlian ambassadors on other planets were mostly hired outworlders; the few native Mahlians who served in that capacity did so only when there were important meetings, and they remained offworld only as long as was necessary for the meetings to take place, rapidly returning home and leaving their interests to be cared for by their employees... who, despite their power, had never betrayed their employers.
"I have heard that Mahlian women are the only ones other than Vulcans to think logically and unemotionally," Kirk said.
"True, Captain," Spock replied before Vanora could. "It is most refreshing to meet someone also who does think in that manner."
McCoy, overhearing, called over. "He thinks that's a compliment."
"It is a compliment," Vanora replied with a slight smile. "The only difference between my race and the Vulcans is that we admit to the existence of what you might call the constructive emotions. However, we do not let those emotions influence our judgement, as I have noticed Humans often do."
McCoy looked disgustedly at her. "Jim, she's as bad as he is!" He turned back to his patient.
Kirk was already impatient with the courtesies. "Vanora, are you in charge here?" It was the only explanation for her attitude - and Kang's attitude towards her.
She answered slowly. "I am the last free survivor of the first ship to be trapped here. As such, I am considered to be the general leader of this pitifully small group who have escaped from the pirates who trapped us. However, we work a system where each of us does what he is best fitted for. The simple matter of surviving and remaining uncaptured means that we co-operate without anything other than token leadership being strictly necessary."
"Without a strong leader, you can't possibly last indefinitely," Kirk said.
She shrugged. "Within certain limits, I agree," she said. "I am handicapped, however, in being outranked by several of the others - Captain Kang among them. They, on the other hand, have had their confidence in themselves damaged by losing their ships - even although their surviving crew members look to them. We have had to be tolerant and work by co-operation, with each small group inside our bigger one acting autonomously. I am thought to have the best knowledge of the Tortugans, therefore I am the general leader; the one who has responsibility for our safety. None of us has thought of the long-term implications of such a mixed group; we have not dared to. We survive from day to day."
"We'll see about that," Kirk said. "All right, give me some background." He chose a fallen log and sat on it, looking round. Most of the group had dispersed, and were bringing in wood, obviously windblown, for none of the party had tools and none of the wood looked as if it had been felled.
Vanora followed Kirk's gaze. "It gets very cold at night," she said quietly.
Kirk nodded; he would not have called the temperature particularly warm even when the sun was shining directly down on them; now it was sinking, throwing shadows. The temperature was already dropping.
"Right, then," he said. "Let's have some facts. You say you were on the first ship to be trapped here. What ship? How long ago? And what happened to the others?"
"Survey vessel Discovery," she replied. "We were sent into this quadrant..." She hesitated, clearly calculating. "It would be eleven months, five days ago in standard time; here, nearly fifteen months, putting the time into seven-day weeks and four-week months. There hadn't been terribly much for us to do - space here is pretty empty - and most of the crew were getting rather bored. Finding this planet was a welcome break in the monotony.
"We had just entered orbit when we were caught in a tractor beam. We didn't stand a chance. The communications officer tried to call the planet, to tell them our ship couldn't land, but he didn't get any answer. That's been the pattern since," she added. "No ship has managed to communicate with the pirates." She shrugged. "We came down fast - too fast. When we hit, it was hard. Only a few of us survived the impact. Out of a hundred and six, only eleven survived, and most of them were hurt; two of us escaped with nothing more than bruising, but everyone else broke one or more bones. There was no pattern to the survivals, either," she added. "Six from the sciences; three from security; and two from command. None of the medical personnel survived."
Kirk's eyebrows lifted. "Sickbay is the best protected part of any ship."
"I know, Captain. But nobody ever thought of a starship being pulled down to the surface - fast - by a tractor beam. When she hit, poor Discovery crumpled like paper. A lot of the casualties were caused by people being crushed in the impact. If Sickbay wasn't crushed, it was cut off and the people there suffocated or died of thirst.
"I guessed that the people responsible for the tractor beam would show up fairly quickly, and managed to get out. Ensign Maire had the same idea. We were hardly out when we heard a group of people coming.
"We knew they wouldn't be friendly; and we thought we'd stand a better chance of doing something to help any other survivors from the outside, so we hid before the pirates arrived.
"They did seem rather taken aback by the extent of the damage, and none of the other ships have hit quite so hard, so they must have some way of controlling the force of the beam. Anyway, they searched through the wreckage, and carried off nine prisoners. We couldn't get close enough to see who they were, but of course we saw the colour of their uniforms.
"We followed the Tortugans. They have a sort of camp - wooden buildings, some of them well constructed, others quite roughly built and little more than shelters - and if it hadn't been for their control of the tractor beam I'd have thought that they were survivors from a crash too. They certainly don't look as if they're anything more than a refugee group, but they're totally ruthless."
"Others in the neighbourhood?" Kirk asked.
"None. Just the one camp of them. There are nearly a hundred in it - we haven't been able to get a full count."
"The tractor beam could have been automatic, and they could have been pulled down by it at some time in the past," Kirk mused. "Then when they explored and found it, they learned how it worked and used it?"
"I thought of that," Vanora said. "But none of them seem to have the technological skill needed to run a space ship. That's what they use their prisoners for -- but I'll come to that.
"The next ship to crash was the Venture. She didn't hit quite so hard. Maire and I had stayed close to the pirates, watching - at the time, they didn't know we were there -- and knew something was happening; so we went back to the clearing where we crashed. We knew we wouldn't have long, and managed to get Sheval, Haster and An'rwn out and under cover before we heard the pirates coming. They pulled out another twenty-eight, again mostly injured.
"The third ship down was the Star. With his broken arm, Haster couldn't help, but he stood guard while the other four of us got five of her crew out, including Commander Varden, the first officer. The pirates got fifty six that time.
"The Beagle was next. Only her senior officers were Human - the rest of the crew was Andorian, Tellarite and Catullan. We only managed to rescue three that time, though; and we were nearly caught ourselves. We just couldn't get the Beagle's crew to realise the danger. The pirates carried off eighty seven prisoners. That was when, for the first time, they had any reason to think that some of us had escaped - Tellarites seem totally unable to keep their mouths shut, even when it would be in their best interests.
"After that there were some Federation scouts. But the pirates were arriving quicker by then; the last five ships down, we've only risked sending one person to try to rescue those of the crew who managed to get out of the ships themselves.
"Mixed in with the Federation ships have been several others; there was Captain Kang's, and we rescued all three survivors; and there have been several strangers." She nodded in their direction. "Two races we just didn't know at all. We haven't been able to communicate properly with them. As far as I can make out they're from the other spiral arm."
Kirk glanced at Spock when he heard that, wondering how the Vulcan would react.
In fact, his reaction was minimal; a slanted eyebrow lifted, but the Vulcan said nothing.
Vanora went on. "None of us has proper medical training, and as you see some of us were injured. I have some knowledge of Mahlian healing techniques, but these are not wholly effective for other races - the best I could do was ease the pain of the injured."
Kirk nodded. "McCoy's one of the best."
"Yes. I can feel his caring."
Kirk watched as one of the group lit a small fire, then changed the subject slightly. "You keep talking about Tortuga and Tortugans. May I ask why?"
"It was Maire who used the name first. He said that the people who pulled us down were pirates and that Tortuga was a pirate stronghold. "
Kirk had never heard of the place, but decided to take it on trust. "You said something about them wanting technology?"
"Yes. We've watched them as closely as we dare, Captain, and as far as we can see they have no technology of their own except the tractor beam and some rather nasty hand weapons. But they do seem to know that technology exists, and they want it. The prisoners have to work; and from what we've seen, the skilled men are closely kept. Only the relatively unskilled prisoners have any freedom, and that, not much. The injured..." She gave a hopeless gesture. "At least there are one or two medical staff among the prisoners. But a lot of the more severely injured died. A squad of security men - closely guarded - come out in the mornings to bury whoever has died during the night."
"What do the skilled men work at?"
"We don't know. They work indoors; we never see them. But I suspect they may be trying to build some sort of ship. The security guards are taken out to the clearing every second or third day and salvage what they can from the wrecks - that's why you didn't see as much wreckage as you might have expected. Every now and then they uncover another body and bury it," she added softly; then, after a moment, she carried on briskly. "They take the salvaged bits back to the camp."
Kirk grunted. "What about the tractor beam?"'
"As far as we know, it operates from a building close to the clearing where the ships have all crashed. We haven't been able to get into it."
"But the - er - Tortugans can?"
"Yes. We haven't been able to get close enough to see how they manage. Or, rather, we dare not go close enough."
Kirk glanced at Spock to see his reaction, and noticed instantly that the Vulcan was looking cold.
"Let's go over to the fire," he suggested. As they joined the group gathered round the almost imaginary heat of the small fire, Kirk noticed that three of the group - Kang, a Human and one of the unknown aliens - remained a little way away, watchful. "Guards?" he asked.
"Of course," Vanora replied. "The Tortugans seem to stay indoors at night, but we daren't assume that they will. We stand guard in threes for an hour at a time during the night."
"Sensible," Kirk agreed. He held his hands out to the fire for a moment. "You say that there's only the one group of Tortugans?"
"As far as we know," she agreed.
"If there is only one group of them, the answer seems fairly obvious," Spock commented.
"That the pirates themselves are not native to the planet?" Vanora said. "We did think of that. But someone built the power house, and these beings lack the technology. The buildings in their camp are similar, of varying sizes - indeed one of them is quite large - but look as if they had copied the design while lacking the skill to do it properly. Yet if it was not the pirates who built the power house, who was it?
"For we have not found any remains as far as we've travelled - not that we have been able to travel far. We have found no other buildings, either intact or in ruins. Just that one. No sign of artifacts, either, except the crashed ships."
"It is possible that the power house was built many years ago by a spacefaring race for some purpose, but was abandoned when that purpose no longer existed," Spock said. "Perhaps the pull of the magnetic field is even incidental, an accident and not the main reason for which which the place was erected. It could have been abandoned when its builders discovered that it was acting as a tractor beam."
"In that case, wouldn't they have disconnected it?" Kirk asked.
Spock nodded. "That would be the logical thing to do," he agreed.
Kirk thought for a minute. "If we assume that the power house was built by someone else, where do the... er... Tortugans fit in?" he asked. "Could they be the survivors of a crash? Of a ship pulled down by the beam?"
"I would think not, Captain," Spock put in. "Miss Vanora said the Discovery was pulled down very quickly; most of the crew were killed. That it seems to have been the pirates themselves who, in some manner, managed to modify the strength of the beam so that fewer crew were killed with each successive crash. If the pirates' ship was pulled down, I would have expected it to crash heavily, with considerable loss of life. Yet there are many of them - comparatively speaking. As if the entire crew of a fairly large ship had escaped with their lives."
"O.K., let's talk around that a little longer," Kirk said. "Let's suppose that they are the survivors of a crash. Or... could they be the survivors of an unsuccessful attempt to colonise the planet? Could we suppose that they found the power house; activated the mechanism inside it in the hope that it was an emergency beacon; and discovered that it pulled other ships down."
"If all they wanted was help, why continue pulling ships down?" Baillie asked.
"And why keep the crews prisoner?" Spock added.
"Wouldn't there be indications of an attempt at colonisation?" Vanora asked. "There would surely be ruins - we found none. And they would have some technology of their own, wouldn't they?"
"A colony of farmers mightn't," Kirk argued. "They would know of the existence of technology - as you said - but how much would they know of how it worked? The crew of the Enterprise all know that the ship is powered by matter/antimatter engines, but half of them couldn't begin to tell you how the engines work. No - take a group of farmers desperate to get home again, discovering the tractor beam..."
"Wouldn't it have been easier to ask for help?" Vanora asked.
"They couldn't if they had no communications facilities," Kirk pointed out. "Then when they discovered that the beam made ships crash - that they had killed - they could have been too aware of what they had done to ask for anything."
"No, Captain." Vanora said. "You haven't seen them. They're... vicious. They remind me of a little rodent that lives in the swamps on Mahlia. Luckily it's restricted to the swamps, for it kills indiscriminately, and slaughters far more than it needs for food."
Kirk grunted. "Have you any idea of their social pattern?" he asked.
"They seem to operate a simple pecking order," Vanora replied. "That much we can be sure of. There isn't much co-operation between individuals but a lot of bullying. The guards at the power house are quite low in the scale - otherwise they wouldn't be there. Such a monotonous task is not for the strong among them. It shows every time the Tortugan manning the power house is changed. The guards positively cringe. The half dozen who operate the place are definitely among the strong ones - strong enough that they only have to show their teeth and the guards defer to them. On the other hand, those six are very obviously competing with each other."
"Could these creatures be mentally unbalanced?" McCoy asked as he Joined them.
"Perhaps, Doctor," Spock said. "But there are races where strength is still the main source of power. We have an example of that amongst us." He indicated the Klingons. Far from being insulted, the two Klingons in the group around the fire grinned their appreciation of the comment.
"How are the injured?" Kirk asked.
"I've done everything for them that I can, down here," McCoy answered. "One at least won't survive much longer, though, unless I can get him up to the Enterprise fairly fast. It doesn't help that they're having to be moved every day," he added, not quite accusingly.
"We have no choice, Doctor," Vanora said. "If we stay too long in one place, the Tortugans will find us, now that they suspect some have escaped from the wrecks. I for one do not wish to be captured."
"Then the sooner we deactivate the tractor beam the better," Kirk said decisively. "Vanora, will you take us to it?"
"Yes, of course," she answered.
Kirk looked round the group, assessing the eagerness of the faces that he could see only dimly in the flickering flames of the small fire. "Bones, you'd better stay here - the injured need you." His lips pursed. "How many guards at the power house?"
"Two. And the operator inside."
"Right. Spock; Mr. Baillie; Lt. Kralik; Lt. Helmudsdotter."
"I'm coming too, Kirk."
Kirk looked at Kang, realising that more time than he had thought must have passed if the Klingon had been relieved. He thought he could guess why Kang was so anxious to be included, and he saw no reason why the Klingon should not get a chance to salvage his pride.
It was decided that it would be better to wait until dawn before making their raid on the power house. They settled to sleep as best they could, curled up against the chill.
It was in a dim half light that the group prepared to leave. "Good luck," McCoy said quietly. Kirk nodded.
The small party disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
It was not quite full light when they came in sight of the building.
Vanora had led them to the back of it; beyond it, through the trees, they could just see the shuttlecraft, still standing apparently as they had left it.
The building, constructed of rough stone, was fairly long and the walls sloped inward until they met. Kirk paused for a moment to admire the skill and workmanship that had gone into it. Vanora was correct; this was no crudely constructed building, it was the work of someone who knew what he was doing.
There were no windows.
Now that they had reached the power house, Kirk moved into the lead, and Vanora stepped back, willing to let him take over as she would have been willing to stand down at any time for any of the officers senior to her, had they been ready to take command.
They slipped round the side of the building, and halted where they could see the two aliens who guarded it.
Kirk saw instantly what Vanora meant when she described them as reminding her of a rodent. They were bipeds, but their faces were muzzle-like; they gave the impression of being a cross between a rat and a fox, and Kirk decided that if he were asked to give a brief description of them, he would have to say that they struck him as having a sly cunning; that he would be chary of trusting them as far as he could see them, let alone out of sight.
Compared to the impression that the Tortugans gave, the Klingons were positively reliable.
"Those beings do not look to be of anthropoid origin," Spock murmured, so softly that Kirk could barely hear him.
"Not all intelligent species are," he pointed out.
"No. But most biped species that we have encountered are anthropoid - according to the biology of their home planets."
Kirk nodded, taking the point. Parallel evolution did seem to be the norm on most M-class planets, and although the build and capabilities of the various 'apes' from each planet varied, they were all, according to the language of those planets, anthropoid.
"That's the case for our spiral arm," Vannora put in. "We can't say the same for the other one. At least one of the alien races in our group is vulpine - and the member of that race who is with us is most helpful. "
"He doesn't know the Tortugans?" Kirk asked.
"As far as we can tell, no. But we haven't been able to communicate freely. We have a translator, but even it has not been able to make much sense out of his language."
"Different spiral arm, different bases for communication?" Kirk suggested.
"Possibly," she agreed.
They crouched for some time, watching the two guards. In this situation, guarding a building in the middle of nowhere on an apparently uninhabited planet, two Humans would have spoken, exchanged the odd comment; two Vulcans would probably have taken it in turns to relax and meditate. These two stood carelessly, slightly crouched, one at each side of the doorway - there were no windows at the front either - pointedly ignoring each other.
There was a shining panel on the upper part of the front wall.
"Vanora - you say there'll be one of them inside?"
"Yes - one of the stronger ones."
"Spock, how long do you think you'll need to disconnect the tractor beam so that it can't be operated?"
"It is difficult to say, Captain, without having seen the unit. Perhaps minutes, perhaps hours."
"All right." Kirk raised his phaser. "Phasers on stun. Let's knock these two out."
Five phaser beams lanced towards the two aliens, struck them...
...and nothing happened for fully five seconds.
It appeared to take the two Tortugans that long to realise that something was happening. Then, without even looking towards each other, each of them acting as if completely independently, they hefted their side arms and rushed towards the hiding group.
Kirk made up his mind instantly. "Kang! Baillie! With me! Everyone else, hide!"
He sprang from hiding and ran, slanting off at an angle. Baillie followed him instantly, and Kang, to give him his due, only hesitated for the barest of moments before he, too, followed.
One of the guards shouted. As Vanora had said, the translator failed to make sense of it. The being for whom it was intended understood it too well, however; the hiding group watched as the door of the building opened, and a third alien appeared in the doorway.
This one seemed to be slightly larger than the two guards, but that could have been a false impression, created by his more upright stance.
He watched the two guards pursuing the three fugitives, and his lips twisted slightly, giving him an even more ugly expression. It gave the impression that he did not trust the two guards to capture the three men, and indeed its next move proved that, for it too began to run after them.
"Not very clever," Spock commented as he watched Kirk disappear among the trees. "Unless there is yet another of those beings in the building?"
"There never has been more than one," Vanora replied.
"Come, then." Spock led the way into the building. Kralik and Helmudsdotter paused at the doorway, watching for the aliens' return. Inside there was a diffuse light - it was impossible to see where it came from. Vanora followed Spock to the bench of controls. The Vulcan glanced at the panel in the ceiling with some interest, wondering how it worked. Then he turned his attention to the controls.
They were almost childishly simple. It took him only a moment to throw a switch, and then remove a single component.
"That will disable it for good," he said softly. He turned to the door, then turned back and removed a second component. He caught Vanora's eye. "Insurance," he said. He could see a touch of incomprehension in her eyes at this, purely Human, action. A logical, pure-blooded Vulcan - or Mahlian - would never have taken that second part.
Kralik and Helmudsdotter fell in behind them as they left the power house. They ducked back among the trees and Spock flicked open his communicator.
"Spock to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Sulu here."
"Is the ship all right?"
"Yes. We had a rough few seconds, but things are all right now."
"Dr. McCoy is approximately a mile from here with a small group of our missing personnel, two Klingons and some aliens. Some of them are injured, and require to be beamed up immediately."
"We'll see to it, Mr. Spock. What about you and the Captain? And Mr. Baillie and his crew?"
"We're staying down here for the moment. There are more survivors, but they are prisoners. We need to investigate further."
"Let me know when Dr. McCoy's party has beamed up."
There was a short silence, then, "They've beamed up, sir."
"We could be in a hazardous situation at any time. Do not try to contact us." Don't call us, we'll call you. The old Terran comment entered his mind with irresistable irrelevance.
"Very well, Mr. Spock "
Spock replaced his communicator. He glanced at the others. "Stay here. I will be back in a few moments."
He turned and walked away. After a few seconds he glanced round. He could still see the others; he went on a little further. This time he could not see them. He moved to one side and carefully buried one of the two components from the tractor beam mechanism, carefully noting landmarks. He might, after all, want to retrieve it. Then he moved on and buried the other. That done, he carefully retraced his footsteps. Now only he knew where the two pieces of the mechanism were hidden.
It was not that he did not trust the others; but what they did not know could not be tortured out of them.
As he rejoined them, the third Tortugan reappeared, striding back towards the power house. It went into the building. A moment later they heard a howl of rage. The pirate came out, screaming almost hysterically. It tried to slam the door, but as a display of temper it was far from satisfactory, for the door seemed to have a spring which controlled its action, and it closed relatively slowly.
The creature strode off, still gibbering to itself.
"Come," Spock breathed. He led his party after the alien.
Kirk, followed by Kang and Baillie, raced through the trees, leading the aliens away from the power house. Kirk wanted to give Spock as much time as possible to sabotage the tractor beam; however luck failed them, for they ran straight into a group of the pirates, and were promptly caught.
The Tortugans who were chasing them caught up with them almost at once, and the aliens chattered together briefly; a few words seemed to be enough to explain to the newcomers what had happened.
Spock hasn't had enough time! Kirk struggled wildly, trying to delay the aliens; the other two were quick to copy him. They all received several deep cuts from the claw-like nails of their captors before they were finally immobilised.
One of the creatures bent and began to lick at the blood running from the gashes on Kirk's arm. The others neither helped it nor tried to hinder it. Kirk sensed that the creature was becoming excited by the taste of the blood, and tried, uselessly, to pull away. Then the beast bit him.
He felt the teeth sinking deep, tearing at his arm, and gritted his own teeth against making any sound, guessing that if he did the alien would become even more blood-crazed.
Surprisingly, one of the others intervened at that point, jabbering fiercely. The creature that had bitten Kirk tried to speak, presumably to defend itself, and was given no opportunity to do so. The alien that had stopped it lashed out; parallel cuts appeared on the culprit's face. It shrank back, no longer attempting to speak, and Kirk realised that they had just been given a demonstration of the 'pecking order' Vanora had mentioned.
Kirk opened his mouth to speak, to try to make contact, but just in time saw Kang's face. The Klingon was mouthing at him, silently and seemingly desperately trying to tell him something. He thought for a moment before realising what Kang meant.
Quiet! If they treat their own kind like that for speaking, what will they do to us? He simply objects to his inferior damaging us.
Kirk nodded, and Kang relaxed.
The three prisoners were dragged roughly through the trees as the alien who had interrupted strode back in the direction they had come from. Kirk saw it go, and could only hope that Spock had had enough time to disable the tractor beam. He wondered if they would be subject to ill-treatment again now that the apparent senior had gone, but the aliens who were left seemed to be completely cowed. They were merely taken to the aliens' camp, ungently but not particularly cruelly.
The Tortugans' camp was very close to a steep, rocky hillside. Vanora's comments on it were correct; although made of wood, the buildings all bore a certain similarity of design to the stone-built power house, and several of them, particularly the largest, were well-built; but the others were crude constructions, looking off balance and as if it would not take much to knock them down.
They were taken through an area where men - and women - of various races were working, pulling apart pieces of twisted wreckage. Even as they passed the workers, a closely-guarded party of eight prisoners, of three different races - Human, Andorian and one of the unknown races - brought in a large piece of metal, which they dumped close to the workers. Then they were hustled away again, their captors ignoring their very obvious exhaustion.
Kirk stared after them, unable to keep his disgust at the Tortugans' callous treatment of their prisoners from his face; Baillie's expression matched his Captain's, and even Kang looked as if he, too, thought that the pirates were being unnecessarily brutal.
The pirates hustled the three of them on, through the camp and towards the hillside.
There, they saw a cave mouth. They were pushed into it.
It was a large cave, lit by a diffused light; they could not see where it came from. Several pirates were gathered near the entrance, probably guarding it, for there were prisoners working here, too, building what looked like parts for a space ship. Humans; Andorians; Tellarites; a Catullan; two Klingons; three or four of the various alien races that they had already seen - and several who were obviously of the same race as the pirates themselves. Kirk looked curiously at them, noting that these Tortugan-race prisoners had a subtly different general appearance from the pirates. Where the pirates had a look of cunning, these prisoners of the same race looked somehow gentler, though how a ratty, foxy face could look gentle was beyond Kirk's comprehension; and they had obviously been at the receiving end of a great deal of cruelty, for all of them were badly marked by the parallel gashes left by the claws of their captors.
Now why had the Tortugans imprisoned some of their own people?
Speculation seemed pointless.
Near the back of the cave, resting on a 'couch' of branches and watching the workers, was a Tortugan who looked altogether meaner, more vicious, than all of the others. The guards pushed the three newcomers forward, while, it seemed, trying to keep as far from this king rat as possible.
Strange; to almost any race, it was usually quite difficult to tell individuals of other races apart. These Tortugans looked facially identical to Kirk - only their stance, which betrayed their social position, made it possible to differentiate. But this one did stand out; Kirk knew that he would recognise it again anywhere.
The king pirate - for so it had to be - glared at them, hissing.
"What position you?"
The voice had the unaccented quality that marked it as that produced by a translator, and Kirk's eyebrows lifted as he realised that the pirates had a translator that was better than any possessed by the Federation, for the Federation translator had been completely unable to make sense out of the alien language.
Kirk hesitated only a fraction of a second, watching the creature's eyes. It was no use trying to dissemble; he would only suffer for it, and pointlessly.
"I am a ship's Captain," he said quietly.
He shook his head. "As Captain, I must have some knowledge of all a ship's functions. I have no particular skills."
The creature grunted and looked at Baillie.
"Security guard. No skills."
"Rrrrgh. And you?" It glared at Kang, who glanced first at Kirk, then at Baillie, back at the creature, and kept his mouth shut.
"Tell!" The beast bared its claws, the threat clear.
"Tell him, Kang," Kirk advised. "It's something you Klingons still have to learn - there's a time when defiance is foolish. These... beings... are clearly much stronger than we are." He glared at Kang, trying to send a message with his eyes. Flatter them! Bide our time! Remember we have friends on the outside!
Reluctantly, Kang mumbled, "I also am a Captain."
The pirate relaxed its claws, but with every appearance of reluctance. They were left in no doubt that it would thoroughly enjoy ripping their flesh open.
It looked past them at its cringing fellows and snarled - the translator either failed to cope with the comment or it had been switched off - and they grabbed the three men and pulled them out of the cave again. They were hauled over to the workers who were pulling apart the wreckage their fellow prisoners had pulled in. There was little doubt that they were being set to work with the unskilled prisoners. Kirk could almost admire the single-mindedness of the Tortugans; they certainly did not believe in wasting time.
"See?" Kirk muttered to Kang. "If you'd stayed obstinate, you'd have been in there yet, being cut to pieces by those claws. As it is, you're out here without any more injuries. And you didn't tell them anything of importance, either. Just your rank -- and that's one of the three things any prisoner is expected to reveal."
"1 know, but I don't like it," Kang muttered. "Klingons never like having to surrender to anyone. However, I admit your advice was good. "
That's quite a compliment, Kirk thought even as he said, "No better than yours to me a while ago."
They began to work; but the short planetary day was drawing to a close. Dusk fell quickly, and when it was too dark for them to see properly, the Tortugans herded them to one of the larger buildings.
It was one of the more solid structures. Inside, it proved to be lined with metal, and the three new prisoners looked at each other, startled, in the same diffuse light that they had encountered in the cave.
This race was indeed a paradox, a mixture of the surprisingly sophisticated and the extremely crude.
Two of the pirates carried in a tub of an unpleasant-smelling mash, dumped it in the middle of the floor, and backed out. The door slammed shut.
The prisoners gathered round the tub. Only extreme hunger could persuade anyone to eat that mess, Kirk thought.
The food - if it could be called food - was quickly eaten, and then the prisoners surrounded the newcomers.
By this time, the Federation personnel had registered Kirk's rank. "Captain?" The speaker was a security lieutenant-commander. "What ship?"
"James T. Kirk, U.S.S. Enterprise," Kirk replied.
There was a confused babble of sound for a moment, then the self-appointed spokesman went on. "Enterprise? Starfleet sent out a star Cruiser after us?"
"Of course. We couldn't leave the crews of nine ships unaccounted for."
His very cheerfulness seemed to give them hope. "You haven't crashed... have you?"
"No. We were able to maintain thrust against the tractor beam, though only just. We - " he indicated Baillie - "came down by shuttlecraft along with my science officer. By now, with luck, he has disabled the tractor beam and is working on some way to free us all. Unfortunately, phasers don't work on these creatures."
He was interrupted by an uproar outside. The door was flung open and two of the pirates entered, glaring around them. They were followed by king rat.
"Prisoner new," he snarled. "Speak you."
Kirk stepped forward. "Yes?"
"Speak you. Who with?"
Kirk looked at him, and indicated Kang and Baillie.
"Who other?" The claws twitched threateningly.
"My science officer."
"I don't know. We were seen and caught. He wasn't."
The pirate lashed out furiously, moving too quickly for Kirk to dodge, although he had been expecting a blow. Blood ran from the gashes on his chest, soaking into his ripped shirt.
Kirk straightened, glaring at the king rat, although he said nothing. He was not minded to give ground any further, even although he realised the stupidity of open resistance; the pirate dared not lose face with the others - it would claw him to death if it thought he was challenging - or even appearing to challenge - its position, and while he was willing enough to fight to prove his point, should it be necessary, bare hands against razor-sharp claws were far from even odds.
The king rat snarled, then turned abruptly and strode out, followed by the others. The door clicked shut again.
One of the Federation prisoners pushed forwards. "I'm a doctor," he said. "Duffus, from the Beagle." He examined the gashes across Kirk's chest, and grunted.
"Best to let them bleed," he said. "We've discovered that these gashes often become infected, especially if we stop the bleeding right away."
Kirk nodded, then looked round the group. "Can you fill me in on the situation here?"
"All we know is that the prisoners are split into two groups; the ones who work outside the cave, bringing in the wreckage from our ships or sorting it into bits, and the ones who work inside the cave. Heaven only knows what they do, but all the engineers are in there."
"Figures," Kirk said. "They looked as if they were building bits of a ship - using the parts cannibalised from the wreckage." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Some of the prisoners in there look as if they're the same race as the pirates." He looked round the blank faces and realised that nobody else had realised that. "But they don't look as vicious," he added.
The prisoners were all very tired; despite the excitement of discovering that rescue could be near, they soon settled down to sleep.
Kirk lay down with them, but he was unable to sleep; the gashes on his chest, where the blood had finally clotted, were beginning to ache almost intolerably.
And then he felt a not familiar, but known sensation, of faintness, and realised that Spock had returned to the Enterprise, and had turned the ship's phasers on the pirates' encampment.
He regained consciousness on the Enterprise.
As he blinked his eyes open he realised that McCoy was standing over him, with Spock on the other side of the bed.
"How do you feel, Jim?" McCoy asked.
"Not too bad. A little stiff."
"What about those gashes?"
Kirk considered. "Aching a little, but nothing out of the way." He pushed himself more upright. "Report, Spock."
"The tractor beam was easily disconnected," Spock replied. "As soon as that was done, I contacted the ship and had Dr. McCoy and the rest of the escaped personnel beamed aboard.
"The easiest way to retrieve you and the rest of the prisoners, as well as capturing the pirates, was to stun everyone in the pirate camp. However, as we saw, ordinary phasers are ineffective against these beings. Miss Vanora, Lieutenants Kralik and Helmudsdotter and I remained on the planet until we captured one of the pirates - "
"Were any of you hurt?" Kirk interrupted.
"No. They may be immune to standard phasers, but they are as susceptible to a neck pinch as any other race."
"Of course," Kirk smiled.
"We were able to establish what the difference was in his nervous system that gave the Tortugans immunity against the phaser, and adapted the ship's phasers accordingly. Then we stunned everyone in the pirates' camp."
"Some of the prisoners are the same race as the pirates," Kirk said.
"We suspected that," Spock replied. "However, we did not dare take any chances. All members of the Tortugan race are in the brig, but we kept the ones we thought might be prisoners apart from the others."
"I'll know them," Kirk said confidently.
"Are you sure, Jim?" McCoy asked. "They all look alike to me."
"Certain, Bones. But then, I only really need to identify one, don't I? He'll be able to identify the others."
"As long as you pick the right one," McCoy worried.
"Bones, if when it comes to it I'm in any real doubt, all we need to do is ask the other men who were imprisoned in the cave."
"That's true." McCoy looked round the other beds in the room. "You're the first to come round, though."
"A few minutes more won't make that much difference," Kirk replied.
He forced himself to his feet, swaying slightly, feeling just a little nauseated as a side effect of the unusual stun. Forcing himself to ignore the sickness, he grinned at Spock.
"Come along, Mr. Spock. We have some prisoners to free."
Even though they were unconscious, the members of the Tortugan race who had been prisoners were quite easily distinguished. They had indeed all been correctly identified as different from the main run of the pirates. All were more seriously hurt than any of the actual pirates, even those of the pirates who had been disciplined by stronger ones, and all that strangely gentler look to them. The actual pirates, even in unconsciousness, still had a more rat-like appearance.
Kirk ordered his men to move the 'gentle' Tortugans to proper quarters, but left a guard with them, with orders to report in immediately any of them showed signs of regaining consciousness.
Although he was the first to regain consciousness, Kirk did not remain the only one to do so for long. He assigned Chekov to listing the names of the Federation survivors for transmission to Starfleet; assigned Spock to trying to adapt a translator to cope with the alien languages; then, giving in to his increasing nausea, he returned to his quarters with orders that he be contacted immediately one of the 'good' Tortugans regained consciousness.
He lay on his bed feeling increasingly miserable. The after-effects of a phaser stun were never pleasant, but this time - probably because of the altered frequencies - they were far more unpleasant than usual.
He jumped when the intercom bleeped for attention, sat up, and fumbled the connection open.
"Kirk here. "
"Gomez, sir. One of the aliens has regained consciousness."
"On my way."
He fumbled the connection closed again, and stood, swaying slightly. Then he headed for the door.
By the time he reached the room where the 'good' Tortugans were sleeping off the effects of the stun, several more of them had regained consciousness. As Kirk entered the room, he saw that they were all looking slightly disorientated, and wondered again at how different these beings looked from their pirate fellows.
He opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated, suddenly remembering that Federation translators didn't work with these beings.
One of them looked up, saw him, and came over to him.
Ah. They all had their version of a translator, then. That could be useful.
"Yes. Captain James Kirk. You are on board the U.S.S. Enterprise, a star cruiser of the United Federation of Planets. We have some reason to believe that we come from a different spiral arm of the galaxy from the one that you do." He wondered if the translator would cope with the complexities of that, but it seemed that it could.
"Gratitude. Helped you us."
"Why were you prisoners too?"
He had to listen very hard to follow the explanation, for the translator, although it could cope, did so presumably following the rules of grammar of the alien race.
The aliens' home planet was called H'lsw'rd. Thousands of years previously, their race had been hunters, feared by most species on their home planet. Finally, however, their diet had altered to include vegetable matter, and with the omnivorous diet had come a more civilised way of life.
However, very occasionally, individuals were born with the old, uncontrolled hunger for blood.
It was difficult to know what to do with those individuals. To keep them in prison for life seemed unnecessarily brutal, yet how else to protect everyone else from them?
For lack of any other answer, they had imprisoned these people, but once manned spaceflight had passed the experimental stage, what better way of getting rid of them in such a way that they would bother nobody than take them to an uninhabited planet and leave them there, to live freely in the way that suited them.
They had been doing this for many years. They had built the power house on the planet to provide a source of light and heat as well as the houses of the original camp. What they did not know was that one of the criminals had managed to adapt the power source, producing a magnetic field that was guaranteed to pull down any ship entering orbit.
Their ship was taking a batch of criminals to the planet when they were caught in the magnetic field and pulled down. The crew stood no chance at all against the brutality of the criminals, who were led by one of the most vicious of these throwbacks.
But their ship was designed to land on the planet. The criminals were really surprised when later ships crashed.
"Our ships are mostly designed not to land," Kirk put in.
With luck, they expected this to be the last group of throwbacks to be brought here, for they had discovered the reason for the problem; a genetic fault which could now be predicted through medical examination of the adults, and if such a prediction was made, the couple would be advised either to look elsewhere for their mates or choose not to have children. Since nobody wanted to breed a throwback, everyone affected accepted this restriction. Unfortunately, however, the knowledge that misused the power house would not go away; and how could they disable it and leave these unfortunates here, on a planet where it became very cold at night?
"We might be able to find another planet," Kirk said slowly. "But tell me - are there females among them?"
"Not. Females affected not. Males only."
"What is your life span?" Kirk asked.
Around fifty years... and they were all adult. Say another thirty years at most. "Then there's no problem. We shouldn't have any trouble finding somewhere for them. Then we'll get you home."
Saying he was going back to his cabin to change, Kirk left the H'lsw'rdian with Spock, letting the patient Vulcan discover, through the slow, laboured translations, where its home planet was; Spock was perfectly capable of doing that while still working on improving a translator. His general feeling of malaise had not lessened; if anything, he felt even worse than he had earlier, when he first regained consciousness.
He had originally blamed the after-effects of the heavy stun, but nobody else seemed to have been affected; man after man had regained consciousness, and all of them seemed to be perfectly fit. He was the only one feeling sick; and the Tortugan-inflicted injuries were feeling hot and uncomfortable, particularly the ones on his arm.
Kirk returned to his quarters, intending to have a shower before he changed. He felt hot and sticky, and felt that a shower might just cool him down.
Wearing only a robe, he sat at his desk, toying absently with the reports that sat on it, unable to summon up the energy to do anything positive with them. Finally, he gave up. He dropped the robe on the floor beside his bed, and crawled into it.
Probably all he needed was a good sleep.
A quick check of the H'lsw'rdian translator was all that Spock needed to adapt a Federation one to follow the alien tongue, and, with more fluent language, the problems of communicating with the H'lsw'rdians diminished to almost nothing.
H'lsw'rd was close to the edge of the other spiral arm, and ripe for contact. It was a promising start to the proposed Federation expansion programme, for the H'lsw'rdians had explored some of the systems closest to them and could advise them. And the translator now also worked with the other alien races. They, too, were explorers, and impressed by the apparent ease with which the Enterprise crew had overcome the pirates; Spock took the opportunity to explain to them all the way in which the Federation worked.
The only real problem was the Klingons. Certainly there were only the five of them; and Kang seemed convinced that they would be forever dishonoured by the loss of their ship. Spock did not wholly trust them, for they would surely be anxious for something, anything, to redeem themselves in the eyes of their superiors. He ordered a surreptitious guard to be kept on their movements, then went to Kirk's cabin to report to him.
When he received no answer to his buzz, he used his override and went in.
Kirk lay in bed, tossing restlessly; thinking that his Captain was in the throes of a nightmare, Spock put a hand on his arm to waken him, and stiffened as he felt the fever-heat that burned through the Human. He swung round and punched the intercom.
"Spock to Sickbay. Dr. McCoy, please report immediately to the Captain's cabin."
It seemed an age before McCoy arrived, although his time sense told Spock that it was barely a minute.
"The Captain is running a fever," Spock said. And only he knew the effort it took to make the statement quietly and evenly.
McCoy checked Kirk quickly, his expression growing increasingly worried, especially when he saw that the badly mauled arm was inflamed and swollen.
"How did this happen?" he asked. "His arm wasn't swollen like this when I checked him out earlier."
"I don't know," Spock replied. "The injury must have happened when he drew the Tortugans away from the power house. Perhaps Mr. Baillie can enlighten us." He reached for the intercom again as McCoy gave the Captain an antibiotic injection.
"Mr. Baillie, please report to the Captain's cabin."
"On my way," came the answer. The Security Chief arrived as McCoy, having taken possession of the intercom, was calling sickbay.
"What happened to the Captain's arm?" Spock asked.
"His arm was clawed," Baillie replied. "One of the pirates started licking his blood, then bit him. Then another one chased it off before it could do any more damage."
McCoy grunted. "I suppose there could have been an infection on the claws - " he began.
Spock said slowly, "Perhaps not. Many of the prisoners were clawed, but nobody else appears to have had an adverse reaction. Besides, there didn't seem to be any species native to Tortuga to give rise to harmful bacteria. I suspect the bite."
"You could be right. I will speak to Th'r's - "
"The Captain of the H'lsw'rdians."
Before McCoy could say anything more, an orderly appeared wheeling a trolley. Spock helped McCoy lift Kirk onto it, and watched as it disappeared down the corridor.
"Mr. Baillie, almost everyone taken prisoner by the Tortugans was clawed. Has anyone else complained about their injuries not healing properly?"
"Not to me, sir, but I'll ask round."
Spock went off to speak to Th'r's, and Baillie, as good as his word, went off to speak to the survivors of the crashed ships. He quickly learned that there had been some fatalities - and every one was someone who had been bitten. He hurried to tell McCoy.
Meanwhile, Spock had obtained from Th'r's a sample of saliva, which he took to McCoy.
Testing quickly showed that there was a substance in the saliva that was poisonous to Humans, and Spock promptly set to work searching for a neutralising agent.
Meanwhile, McCoy was busily testing Kirk's blood, seeking to discover if there was anything in it other than the alien substance in the saliva to account for his fever - he had a memory of reading somewhere that a lion's bite could carry an infection.
He found traces of alien bacteria, but they were far from active; it seemed that they were too alien to survive in the Human bloodstream.
So - the poison was the main problem. He wasn't even totally certain that it was a poison - an allergic substance seemed to be just as likely; people in general tended to think of allergies as not being fatal, but they often could be.
Meanwhile, Kirk's temperature was still rising. McCoy nibbled his upper lip for a moment, then injected a broad-spectrum anti-histamine.
Then Spock returned from the lab, carrying a small phial.
"This should be effective, Doctor," he said quietly.
"On a laboratory animal," Spock replied. "It worked perfectly. I cannot of course be certain that it will be as effective on a Human."
"All right." Although he would never admit it openly, McCoy trusted Spock's judgement. He took the phial, and injected Kirk.
Nothing happened for what seemed a very long time. At Last, Spock indicated the diagnostic panel.
"His temperature is dropping, Doctor."
They found a planet in another solar system that was suitable for the Tortugans. The Enterprise crew fabricated enough buildings for them, they were beamed down and left; then the ship headed for H'lsw'rd.
They were half way there when the message from Starfleet, in response to their report on the Tortugans situation, caught up with them.
"We've to wear our diplomatic hats," Kirk complained from the bed (in his cabin) where McCoy was insisting that he still spend part of each day. "Frankly, I'd rather be back on Tortuga!"
Spock and McCoy looked at each other.
If Kirk was complaining, he was all right again. It was a comforting thought.