"Captain Kirk? Pleased to meet you... I am Marnee Venra, personal secretary to President Aneaz."
The girl who had come to greet the landing party was not exactly Kirk's idea of a high ranking official, but he'd long ago learned not to judge by appearances. She looked too young for a start, a bouncy mass of blonde hair framing a slim, gold-tinted face with doe-like eyes. She gravely shook hands with them all, her four foot six inches frame making her appear even more child-like beside Spock's six foot stature. (They were later to discover that Marnee was considered very tall among her people.) There was nothing childish in her manner, though.
"Well, now that the introductions are over, I'll take you to President Aneaz's personal residence. If you'd like to come this way..."
The three officers followed the petite young woman across the small courtyard they had beamed down to. All around the yard stood tall, blue-stoned buildings, their facings covered in intricate carvings, and from these buildings more Vethani hurried across the open space to other rooms. Within the courtyard itself were at least ten silver-skinned robots, each going about its appointed task, and two more held open the heavy doors of an impressive house directly ahead. This was the President's home, and Marnee led them through the doors into a long cool hall. She asked them to wait, and disappeared through a small entrance.
Dr. McCoy looked round at the rich opulence and whistled low. "For being small, these people sure think big," he murmured. He glanced over at Spock, expecting a comment from him, but the Vulcan was busy observing the robots and reading the tricorder.
Kirk stood in the centre of the hall, following McCoy's gaze. He nodded thoughtfully. "Whatever their size, Bones, I think the Vethani will be a welcome addition to the Federation."
He tucked the requisite sheaf of papers firmly under his arm, unaware that his every move was being silently monitored. In a building many miles away from the Presidential residence a cold voice reported its findings.
/Subject has entered Presidential buildings. Name: Kirk, James T., Starship Captain. Species Homo sapiens. Request permission to observe further./
The two great doors at the hall's end opened smoothly, and Marnee Venra beckoned to them.
"The President will see you now."
Kirk, Spock and McCoy walked behind her into a wide, octagonal room stuffed with plush furnishings. Beneath a tall curtained window was placed a long white desk, and behind this sat a small Vethani dressed in the long flowing robes favoured on the planet.
President Aneaz jumped out of his chair, smiling broadly as he shook hands with Kirk. "Captain Kirk, Captain Kirk, how nice to meet you! You know, I've waited a long time for this moment. At last our little world is going to be of some use in the universe!"
"I'm sure it will, Mr. President," agreed Kirk, a little disconcerted at having to loom over the leader of Vethan, though the little alien seemed quite unaffected by it. He introduced his companions. "My First Officer, Mr. Spock, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. McCoy."
Aneaz's smile grew wider, and his eyes sparkled as he shook McCoy's hand.
He seized Spock's, and his mouth fell open as he gazed up at the towering Vulcan.
"Uh, Mr. Spock is a native of Vulcan, one of the planets in the Federation," explained Kirk. Aneaz blinked at the impressive Vulcan and reluctantly turned his attention back to Kirk.
"Now many planets are there?" he asked anxiously.
"At the last count...about 700, I believe."
"735, to be exact, Captain," intoned Spock.
Aneaz's face fell. "So many? Oh dear, will they even notice us?"
"Vethan will be a welcome addition, sir," Kirk assured him.
This seemed to satisfy the little alien, for he brightened up immediately and glanced inquisitively at the folder under Kirk's arm.
"Those are the - uh - the Articles of Confederation as you call them?"
"Yes, sir, they are." Kirk opened the folder on the desk. "If you would like to study them..."
President Aneaz rubbed his hands with excitement, then paused and turned to Marnee, who had stood quietly in the background all this time. "Ah, Marnee, the refreshments, if you please... I must apologise, gentlemen. My manners are not what they could be."
Kirk smiled. "We quite understand, Mr. President. After all, it's not every day your planet joins the Federation of Planets."
Marnee had walked over to one of the robots in the doorway, and the machine left the room in obedience to her instructions. Spock noted it with interest.
"President Aneaz, do you have many of these robots here?"
"Oh, hundreds," the Vethani said proudly, "We call them drones. They're very useful, you know - can do almost anything."
"Indeed? I should like to study them further. They are totally unlike any I have seen before."
"Oh, they're nothing, you should sec our Master Drones. Now they - "
Aneaz stopped short, his mouth closing like a trap. He turned from the desk, leaving the room via a small side door. Kirk watched his sudden departure with some amazement, and turned an astonished look on Spock and McCoy. Marnee spoke from her position by the main doors.
"The President has been urgently called away. He'll return in a moment. Please wait, gentlemen."
She too left the room, and McCoy looked witheringly at Spock. "Trust you to start blabbing about machines..."
"I would not term an interested enquiry 'blabbing', Doctor," Spock replied smoothly.
McCoy snorted, turning to Kirk. "Any chance of shore leave once all the signing is done, Jim?"
For a moment Kirk continued to stare into space, then he started as if coming out of a dream. "Huh - what did you say, Bones?"
"Shore leave," said McCoy pointedly. "Any chance of?"
"Well, I don't sec why not. Vethan seems pleasant enough, and if the President agrees to it..."
"Agrees to what, my dear fellow?"
The leader of Vethan came through the door as bright and cheerful as before. Whatever had called him away couldn't have been too serious.
"Shore leave, sir," Kirk explained. "After a few months in space, the thought of a while on a pleasant planet is like gold to a starship crew."
"Then bring your people down!" cried Aneaz, his eyes sparkling with delight. "How splendid to have some visitors! I can't wait!"
The robot entered with a tray of glasses and a decanter, and they waited while it silently placed the tray on the desk and left. Aneaz deftly filled the glasses and handed than round.
"Your health, gentlemen... Now, Captain, where are those papers..."
The formalities of becoming a member of the UFP were quickly dealt with, and within three hours most of the Enterprise crew had beamed down to enjoy the hospitality of the Vethani.
The culture of the planet was very similar to Earth's, and there were plenty of bars, clubs and the like for those who wanted them. Throughout Neesan - the capital city - large open parks had been laid out for the occupants, and if some couples used them for pastimes other than quiet walks, nothing was said. The Lilliputian-type people cheerfully put up with the giants in their midst, and the crew tried their best to avoid bumping into their hosts. All needs were attended to by the silent drones, and slowly the tension and weariness of the crew was evaporated away by the peace of Vethan.
Yup, thought Bones McCoy as he sipped a cool, refreshing drink, this is definitely what the doctor ordered. And what this doctor orders, he gets!
He opened one lazy eye as Captain Kirk arrived and sat on the wall behind his chair. A grin spread over his face, and he raised the glass.
"Want some? Doesn't take minutes by drone service."
"No. No, thank you, Bones," answered Kirk. He made himself more comfortable on the wall; his eyes narrowed as he gazed about him at the sunlit parkland. McCoy automatically gauged what kind of mood Kirk was in, and was faintly surprised to see the tenseness of the Captain's body. He sat up a little, noting the little signs of stress and tension where none should be. An alarm bell rang faintly in his mind, and he laid down the drink.
"Anything wrong, Jim?"
Kirk shook his head. "No. Nothing's wrong..." He looked over towards a wide, tangerine-coloured lake. "That's the trouble."
McCoy's ears pricked up at this, and he tried to sound casual as he probed further. "You nervous about something?"
Kirk shrugged, gave him a half grin. "I'm just not used to relaxing, I guess. It's been so long since I was on proper shore leave that it still hasn't sunk in."
"Even men of action need to unwind a little."
"I wouldn't exactly call myself a 'man of action', Bones."
"That's exactly what you are," grunted McCoy. "You've spent so long a time tensed up like a spring waiting for trouble to hit you in the guts, you can't let go." He waved one hand in the air. "That's where Spock goes wrong, too. He should be down here, soaking up the sun, getting drunk... and where is he? Back up there messing about with computers."
"Work is Spock's relaxation, Bones," grinned Kirk, letting the tenseness ease a little from his shoulders. There was a derisive snort from the direction of the chair.
"He's a workaholic!" sniffed the doctor. He pointed a finger at Kirk. "And so are you. Let go for a while. Go for a walk, find a nice yeoman..." He ignored the outraged, amused look on Kirk's face and rambled on. "You Starship types are all the same - stuffy and formal. It takes an amateur psychologist like me to teach you to relax. Too darn stiff..."
Kirk watched his friend lie back on the lounger and close his eyes. He knew he needed to relax, and usually he could, but not on this planet. It was nothing he could put a finger on, but something; about this place made him itchy and wary, like waiting for a bomb to explode. He would not be sorry to leave Vethan, pretty though it might be.
The sound of footsteps disturbed his musings, and he glanced up to see Sulu walking by with his arm round the waist of his latest girl. The helmsman grinned widely, quite unperturbed by his Captain's presence.
"Lovely day, sir."
Kirk nodded. slightly. "Yes, Sulu, it is."
The couple moved on, and Kirk chided himself for his stupidity. He must be getting paranoid...
He glanced round at the sound of a gentle snore, and saw McCoy was dead to the world. Captain Kirk quietly rose, the snores growing faint as he walked from the park. He would take part of McCoy's advice at least, and who knew who he might meet on his travels?
He strolled aimlessly, uncaring where he went. The park lay behind him now, but the streets were bright and filled with plants and trees, so he almost felt he was still there. The air was full of bird-song, and smiling citizens passed by as they went about their business. Throughout the city the silver drones moved silently from errand to errand, and Kirk avoided them whenever possible. He did not like them very much, even though there was no apparent reason for his distrust. Perhaps his many clashes with sentient machines had cultivated an instant wariness of any such thing which thought for itself.
He smiled at himself, gazing about him. This part of the city was new to him. It looked older than the other streets, and not so sparklingly clean. A glint of light on metal caught his eye, and as he turned he saw a tall golden figure walk silently down a nearby alley. A gold drone?
His curiosity aroused, Kirk followed the sparkling robot, wondering why he had seen none before this.
/Subject's curiosity aroused. Following as predicted. Will now proceed with plan X12./
Kirk hurried after the retreating machine with some exasperation. Did it have to walk this fast? Where had it come from in the first place? He remembered Aneaz's brief reference to the 'Master Drones'. Could this be one?
The drone disappeared round another corner, and as Kirk followed suit his world exploded into a kaleidoscope of lights as a gold hand chopped down on his skull.
Spock frowned very slightly at the columns of formulae on his screen. Try as he might, they just would not come to a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps if he...
The intercom interrupted his thoughts, and one half of his mind continued to work on the problem while he answered. It was McCoy.
"Sorry to bother you, Spock, but is Jim up there?"
"I have not seen the Captain for at least four hours, Doctor," replied Spock. "Something wrong?"
"No, I just wondered where he was. Thanks, Spock."
McCoy flicked shut his communicator and slipped it back into his belt. He wasn't too worried where Kirk might be, just curious. He was thinking of a last visit to one of the more notorious night-clubs, but if Jim had taken his advice he might not want to be disturbed. It looked like he would have to go on his own, which might not be such a bad idea...
How long he had been out, Kirk did not know, but his head felt as if it had been split apart and badly glued together again. Stars spun before his eyes when he sat up, and his whole body ached. He was in darkness so deep he could not see his hand an inch from his face, and as awareness returned he wondered where he was...
/Subject awakened. Continuing observation and collection of data./
Kirk explored the surface beneath him with his fingertips. It was perfectly smooth, cool to the touch. There was still no respite from the dark, so he cautiously moved forward on his hands and knees, hand outstretched for first contact with any obstacle. A few feet away he found a wall, but it was impossible to tell how tall or wide it was. Still moving cautiously, he stood up, and inch by inch explored his prison.
It was nothing impressive. A scant, square metal box, silent, cold, and completely seamless. Nowhere could he find a door or any kind of opening. He reached up, touched the low metal ceiling. Where the hell was he?
/Initiating Phase One of experimentation./
Without any warning, light flooded Kirk's prison, making him cry out as the brilliance hurt his eyes. Eventually he opened them again, but the brightness was still too severe for him to see clearly. He had to make do with squinting through screwed-up slits, shading his eyes with his hands.
What little he could see confirmed his first impression. Locked in a square box, but where, and for what purpose? He glanced round the cell. Somewhere out there someone had to be watching, perhaps listening. It was worth a try. He shouted, his words falling dully in the enclosed space.
"Who are you? What do you want with me? I am a friend of Vethan, a friend of President Aneaz. Can't we at least talk?"
/Interesting; the subject attempts vocal contact./
/Continue with Phase One./
His reply came in the form of piercing sound waves, cutting into his brain like a red-hot needle. Communication forgotten, Kirk collapsed on the floor, his hands pressed tightly to his ringing ears. For a few seconds the agony passed as the decibels rose beyond his range, then the pain returned full force, bringing with it blessed unconsciousness.
Lt. Uhura frowned as she broke contact with yet another security officer. She turned to the tall Vulcan waiting by her side.
"I'm sorry, sir, but no-one seems to have seen the Captain anywhere on Vethan. Lt. Sulu reported seeing him in the park, but that was two days ago."
Spock nodded slightly, his face devoid of expression. "Very well, Lieutenant. Please continue trying to contact the Captain. We must leave Vethan today."
As Spock made to go to his station, the lift doors opened and Dr. McCoy entered the bridge. He grinned at the science officer, raising an eyebrow at the empty command chair.
"Morning, Spock. Where's Jim?"
"We are endeavouring to find out, Doctor," Spock replied evenly.
"You mean he isn't back yet?" frowned McCoy.
"I would have thought that apparent."
"Just clarifying the matter, Spock," the doctor said cheerfully. His breezy mood was replaced by one of faint concern as he thought things over. "Strange... Jim isn't usually late back from leave."
"Indeed," Spock agreed. "He is very often one of the first to return. I cannot think what has delayed him this time."
McCoy grinned wickedly. "You would never guess in a million years, Spock." He turned to leave. "Don't worry, he'll be back within an hour, just wait and see."
However, three hours later Kirk was still conspicuous by his absence, and Spock decided to enlist the help of President Aneaz. He beamed down with McCoy to the President's home, but the chances of any proper help from the little Vethani seemed remote.
Aneaz shook his head sadly, his face clouded with sorrow. "I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have no idea where your delightful Captain could be. Is it so very urgent that he be found right away?"
"Sir, the Enterprise has a busy schedule, and she is due to leave for another planet today," explained Spock. "Unfortunately, we cannot leave without our Captain."
Aneaz shrugged. "Well, I don't know where he is. I'll send people to look for him, but it may not be any use."
"Any help is appreciated, Mr. President. Do I have your permission to beam down parties of our own men?"
"Yes, yes, as many as you like..." Aneaz shuffled away, pausing as he opened a door. "I still think it's an awful lot of fuss over one man!"
The door slammed shut behind him. Spock and McCoy slowly left the hall.
"You'd think we'd asked for an army," grumbled the doctor. "Jim would never ignore our calls, even if he was drunk...and he would never be this late, either."
"Then we must assume he is either injured or being held prisoner," remarked Spock.
"But who would kidnap a Starship Captain on Vethan?"
Spock lifted one eyebrow very slightly. "Who, indeed, Doctor?"
Vethan's short day passed quickly, and grey twilight was beginning to gather as two of the Enterprise security men met on a dimly-lit corner.
Ensign Bradman smiled as he recognised his shipmate and re-holstered the phaser his hand had reached for. He shrugged with embarrassment. "I'm getting itchy in my old age... "
Hosath nodded has agreement. "I'm the same way," he said, watching the growing shadows. "It's those robots. They give me the creeps, always trotting around. They're so quiet..."
"Yeah. Any sign of him?"
"The Captain? Nope. If you ask me, some of those robots have him."
"I suppose it's possible," murmured Bradman. "I mean, why else should he disappear like this?"
Hosath shrugged, shivering in the chill night wind blowing down the street. "It's getting late. We'd better report back to the Chief."
"Sure. Maybe we'll be sent back - "
Bradman broke off his musings abruptly, holding his head to one side as he listened intently.
"What do you hear?" Hosath asked. His companion lifted a hand for silence, then looked back down the street.
"I thought I heard a groan. Must be the wind."
Whoever it was groaned again, and this time both men heard it. They turned as one and cautiously walked down the darkened road, phasers on stun, Hosath saw it first, a huddled figure slouching in a wall-niche which once held a statue. He hurried over, peering in the gloom.
There was just enough light for him to recognise the man, and he reached out to touch the trembling shoulder.
"It's Captain Kirk!" Bradman exaclaimed, lowering his phaser.
Hosath nodded. "He looks in a bad way. You'd better get on to the ship. Ask for a doctor to be ready when we beam up."
"I don't know what gets into people these days," muttered the Chief Surgeon as he stared hard at a diagnostic panel. "Seem to think they're immune to injury just because they're on leave." He glared at the hapless patient beside him. "I get more accidents when the crew are on holiday than I do normally. Give me a Klingon attack any day! If I had my way... "
"Dr. McCoy, if you had your way, you would at this moment be rattling your beads and chanting obscure incantations..." Spock interrupted smoothly. He continued before McCoy could even open his mouth to reply. "The captain is awake."
Still muttering to himself, McCoy walked over to where the Captain lay, still dozy from the drugs. Kirk grinned at the sight of his old friend, and McCoy did likewise.
"How are you feeling, Jim?"
Kirk yawned expansively. "Fine. Just fine, Bones..." He pushed himself up with his elbow and winced as the movement sent thudding pains through his head, "Ouch!... That was, until I woke up!"
McCoy nodded absently while he studied the panel read-outs. "That will pass... What happened?"
The Captain opened his mouth to reply, then frowned when no ready answer came to mind. "You know, I can't remember."
McCoy and Spock traded looks. The Vulcan moved forward, hands clasped characteristically behind his back.
"You have no recollection of your last two days on Vethan at all?" he asked.
Kirk shook his head, wished he hadn't. "No, none at all. You tell me!"
"We found you in a street in Neesan," McCoy informed him. "You were dazed, and acted as if you'd been through tremendous shock and trauma. I had to keep you sedated until your body recovered from it."
"How - ouch - long ago was this?"
"Three days. You were pretty bad."
"We are now on our way to Beta Tharnae III, Captain," explained the First Officer, "as per previous instructions. You were missing for two and one half days, but luckily a security team found you. It was... most fortunate."
"Sure, it kept us on schedule," muttered McCoy. Spock ignored him.
"Captain, can't you remember anything?"
"I remember leaving the park," Kirk said thoughtfully, closing his eyes in concentration. "I was walking through the streets, but what happened after that is anyone's guess. Next thing I knew, I was here. Somehow I've lost three days."
"Probably only temporary amnesia," McCoy said lightly. "You rest now, Jim, Don't try too hard to remember. It'll come back."
The Captain nodded wearily, his eyes already half closed with drowsiness. As he slipped into a light sleep, Spock and McCoy moved away.
"I wonder what the hell happened to him?"
"I do not know," admitted Spock. "However, the most logical explanation is that he was attacked by thieves, perhaps a gang."
"But remaining unconscious for two days? And what about the shock to his system?"
"I can only speculate, Doctor," chided Spock. "After all, I know as little as the Captain himself."
"And that isn't much," McCoy mournfully agreed. "Maybe he'll remember after more rest."
However, James Kirk's memory stubbornly refused to supply the missing information, and after a while he gave up trying to push it. The Enterprise transferred the waiting diplomats from Beta Tharnae III to Dooveen, and more immediate responsibilities pushed the nagging worry to the back of Kirk's mind. He quickly forgot Vethan for the moment, but McCoy did not, and neither did Spock.
Both watched the Captain in their own unobtrusive way; Spock observing Kirk with a keener-than-usual scrutiny, McCoy giving him more check-ups and 'routine' scans than before. Kirk bristled slightly at the amount of 'unnecessary' attention the doctor was giving him, and frequently accused him of acting like a mother hen. McCoy ignored the complaints and carried on regardless, but he gradually stopped when Kirk began getting suspicious. There had been nothing unusual so far anyway, and he could rely on Spock reporting any abnormal behaviour on the Captain's part.
Nevertheless, he studied Kirk keenly when he stopped by at Sickbay three weeks after his memory loss to ask for sleeping tablets.
McCoy raised a quizzical eyebrow as he grudgingly handed over a few of his precious pills. "I'll run out of these if you keep on like this... Why can't you sleep?"
"Search me," yawned the Captain. "It isn't as if I'm not tired."
"Nightmares, or simple insomnia?"
"Nightmares, I think, but I can never remember what they're about. I just wake up in a cold sweat with the bed-clothes on the floor. After that, I find I can't get back to sleep."
"Hmmm. Those pills should help... If they don't work tonight, come back. I'll give you some guaranteed to make you sleep for a week."
Kirk backed off with a look of mock horror. "I'll sleep like a log, I promise."
He headed straight for his cabin, greeting the crewmen he met on the way. As he reached his door, the thought crossed his mind that he hadn't had a quiet game of chess with Spock for some time. However, now that he had thought of that much-needed sleep, the weariness had returned full force. Perhaps tomorrow, when he felt more awake...
Within fifteen minutes he had taken the tablets and tumbled into bed, his discarded clothes strewn untidily on the floor. The sedative quickly took effect and Kirk lost touch with the here-and-now as the healing sleep took over.
His mind turned inward, speeding towards the restful peace it craved, but almost at once the nightmare began again, more fearful than before. The same baleful voice rang out of the gloom, shrieking the same order as before. Kirk cried out in his agony, reeling from the stabbing pain which cut into him with every word. He tried to speak in defiance, tried to reason, but the voice would have none of it. His hands pressed to his head, he tried to run through the buffeting wind about him. Suddenly the earth beneath his feet crumbled away. He was falling...
Kirk's eyes snapped open, and he ran a trembling hand through his wet hair. Sweat ran from every pore in his body. He dully noticed his bedclothes lying in a heap on the floor.
Long minutes passed before he dared switch on the light and rise to wander wearily to the bathroom. He drank some cold water, the terror of his dream still affecting him, though he could not remember its details. He glanced in the mirror as he replaced the glass - and froze with horror.
There behind him was the creature of his dreams, its featureless face white and pallid like that of a corpse. Icy fingers of pain invaded his mind with frightening case.
"No..." whispered Kirk, fighting against the insistent order. The pain grew in intensity as he reeled back into the cabin, still fighting to retain his sanity.
Lt. Uhura locked up with some interest when the turbolift doors opened. There was never much to do on the night shift, and any new arrival was a welcome break from the routine.
Her eyes widened slightly when Kirk entered the bridge, and they widened even more at the wild, dishevelled look about him. His eyes were bright and feverish, his hair soaked with sweat. His uniform looked as if it had been pulled on hastily, and he stumbled as he sat in the command chair. For a few seconds he closed his eyes, shuddering slightly. Then he fixed his gaze on the viewscreen.
"Leave orbit, Mr. Sulu. Warp six."
The oriental blinked, unsure whether he had heard correctly. "Sir?"
Kirk was still staring at nothing. "Leave orbit, Lieutenant. Warp six. Set course for Vethan."
Sulu traded looks with Uhura. "Captain, the survey teams are still down on the planet. Shall I contact..."
"No." Kirk snapped harshly. "Plot a course for Vethan and leave orbit now."
Unseen by him, Uhura spoke in a barely-audible whisper to the occupant of a cabin five decks below. Ensign Roberts, on duty at the engineering console, watched the Captain worriedly. Hesitantly, she put her concern into words.
"Are you feeling all right, sir? You look - "
"When I want your opinion, Ensign, I'll ask for it!"
Suitably chastened, the girl turned back to her monitoring. Kirk's gaze shifted to Sulu again, but the helmsman was already carrying out his orders with his customary efficiency.
"Leaving orbit now, sir," he reported. He chanced a quick look at Uhura, who nodded once to his unspoken question. Satisfied, Sulu concentrated on his console.
A few seconds later the turbolift arrived, with Spock inside it. He walked out as if it was his usual habit to leave his quarters in the middle of the night.
"Now on course for Vethan, Captain," Sulu supplied helpfully.
Spock raised an eyebrow at Uhura and stepped down to the command chair. Kirk barely glanced at him.
"You're not needed, Spock. Go back to your quarters."
"I was informed you had left orbit, Captain," Spock said mildly. "May I enquire why?"
"None of your business."
"Any sudden change of plan is any unexplained behaviour is my business, sir," the Vulcan murmured. "As is any unexplained behaviour on your part. Are you aware the survey party on still on Sassar?"
"We're going to Vethan," Kirk said stubbornly, avoiding Spock's enquiring glance. Spock looked back towards Uhura, thus missing the wince of pain that crossed Kirk's tense features.
"Please ask Dr. McCoy to come to the bridge."
At that moment Kirk exploded from his chair, swinging a clenched fist at Spock's chin. Taken completely by surprise, Spock went flying, falling heavily against the railing behind him.
Sulu leaped to his feet, ready to rush Kirk, but Spock motioned him to remain where he was. The Vulcan pushed himself up, doing nothing as Kirk advanced, the sweat pouring down his face. He spoke through clenched teeth, his eyes drawn with pain.
"Damn you, Spock, let me alone! I've got to get there. I don't want to, but I..."
Spock deftly avoided his wild lunge, one long arm reaching out to apply the neck pinch. Kirk crumpled into his arms, and Spock snapped an order to Mr. Sulu.
"Take us back to Sassar, Mr. Sulu. Resume orbit as before."
"Spock, what the hell - ?" McCoy hurried onto the bridge, eyes bleary from sleep. Spock glanced up from Kirk's side.
"The Captain is ill, Doctor. I suggest you treat him."
Kirk was whisked away to a bed in sickbay, where Dr. McCoy anxiously checked him over. He looked up as Spock entered the ward, the worry in his eyes in no way diminished by the thought that Kirk had often recovered from illnesses worse than this.
The dark alien eyes that met his mirrored his anxiety, and the two quietly acknowledged their mutual concern for the man they had both befriended.
Spock moved over to the bedside, looked down at the sleeping figure. "How is he, Doctor?"
"At least he's asleep now," sighed McCoy. He gestured towards the panel. "Not long ago those indicators were going wild with the pain he was experiencing. I've put him under sedation just now, and we'll see how he is later on."
Spock absorbed the information without comment, his gaze still fixed on Kirk's pale face. "Have you any idea what is wrong?"
McCoy flung up his hands in exasperation. "Hallucinations, a virus, it could be a hundred different things... He hasn't been sleeping well, I know that. Whatever it is, I keep getting this gut feeling it's connected to whatever happened on Vethan."
Spock nodded gravely, deep in thought. "I know what you mean, Doctor," he murmured. "Before I was forced to subdue the Captain, he had ordered Mr. Sulu to head for Vethan. He was most determined to get there, yet he also seemed slightly reluctant... "
"But why Vethan?"
"Why don't we find out?"
McCoy blinked. "Go there now? But Spock, it's practically on the other side of the Galaxy! Jim's illness might in reality have nothing to do with Vethan, and how will you explain to Starfleet?"
The Vulcan's hand lightly brushed Kirk's cheek, then he left for the door, pausing half way. "Until the Captain is well, I am in charge, Dr. McCoy. If Jim is only hallucinating, then the change can of course be rectified. However, if - as I believe - there is some other, more urgent reason for his pain, then I intend to do my utmost to help him. I suggest you inform him of our destination when he awakes."
McCoy stared, exasperated, at the closing door. Sometimes Spock is more human than some Terrans I know, he thought briefly. A quiet moan came from the bed, and he anxiously checked Kirk's condition. Just what was causing Jim so much pain?
His head felt light, like a ball of cotton wool, but his eyelids were like bricks. It was some time before he could fight off the drug's effects long enough to open them. Even then it did no good, for his eyes refused to focus, and he felt too tired to force them.
Someone was helping him up with an arm round his shoulders, and a cool cup was pressed against his lips.
"Here, drink this. It'll do you good," drawled a familiar voice, and all at once Kirk clicked back into the present. He sipped the nourishing drink and smiled hazily at McCoy.
"Seems I'm never out of here these days."
"I've started reserving a bed for you," Bones grumbled, taking away the empty cup. He fluffed up the pillows with one hand, letting Kirk lie back on them. "How d'you feel now?"
"Tired," came the sleepy reply. A small smile touched his lips. "Thanks for the drink, Bones. I always thought you missed your vocation as a nurse."
"I'm the only one I can trust you not to flirt with," retorted the doctor, pleased that his patient could make some kind of joke.
Kirk relaxed, enjoying the peace and quiet companionship. After a while he asked the same question that he asked whenever he woke up in sickbay.
"Up on the bridge," McCoy said briefly. He tried to sound off-hand, unsure how Kirk would react to what he was going to tell. him. "We're... ah... we're on our way to Vethan."
A tiny frown creased Kirk's forehead as he thought over previous orders. "Vethan? Why? Surely we were - " He broke off as a sharp thudding pain suddenly began in the back of his head, slowly building in intensity.
McCoy glanced down at the sudden silence, and watched in horror as Kirk's face twisted in agony. He seized his friend's shoulders.
"Jim! What's wrong? Tell me. What is causing the pain? Jim!"
Kirk moaned, twisting in McCoy's grasp, desperate to end the pain. He pushed the doctor away and fell awkwardly out of the bed, his hands pressed tight against his head.
"No!" he shouted. "No, you will not! I won't - I won't allow you; I will not go to Vethan!"
Bones was at his side again, trying to help and unable to. Kirk grabbed his arms, eyes wide and staring.
"Bones? Bones, help me! They want - I can't! I won't go back there! Please, please stop the pain!"
He reeled away, and Nurse Chapel took the opportunity to give McCoy the hypo she had seized when the attack began. The doctor took it and ran to where Kirk lay on the floor, curled up into a tight ball as he tried to fight the stabbing hurt. He whimpered like a child, tears running down his cheeks.
McCoy gently reached forward, and pressed the hypo against the trembling shoulder. Kirk relaxed at once, his hands falling limply from his head.
Doctor and Nurse looked at each other.
"Come on," sighed McCoy. "Let's get him back into bed."
Spock sat straight and silent in the command chair, staring hard at his steepled fingers. He could not help remembering the look on agony on Kirk's face when he had tried to leave Sassar, and now these references to 'they'. 'They want...' Want what? The ship, Kirk himself? A jigsaw puzzle with no picture to guide him...
If only Kirk could tell them, but the mere mention of anything like that brought back the pain. A brief mind meld had given no clues, and Spock was forced to admit momentary defeat. No, now his best hope was to return to Vethan and so somehow solve the mystery there. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. Enigmas could generally be solved, but would this one's solution be found in time?
It took three weeks to reach Vethan, and as the Enterprise was established in orbit around the orange planet, McCoy moodily tidied away a tray of cultures into his office refrigerator. If Jim reacted violently to every mention of going to Vethan, how on Earth were they going to get him down there?
"Spock never thought of that one," he muttered to himself. He left the office, intending to corner Spock on the bridge, but as he entered the lift Spock came along the corridor, so he was saved a journey. Never one to beat about the bush, he came straight to the point.
"We are not taking the Captain down, Doctor," was Spock's reply.
"I suppose you're gonna find the answer up here, huh?" McCoy said sarcastically.
"It is most unlikely, as I have not found a solution so far," Spock said, with perhaps a touch of the same irony in his tone. "I see no reason to cause the Captain further pain, however. Did you not say earlier he was too unpredictable to be sure of?"
"Sure, but why come if - " McCoy gave up in disgust and glared at the Vulcan. "Will you explain?"
"Gladly, Doctor. It is obvious something has been drawing Jim here, despite his efforts to fight it. If we two go down ourselves and investigate, we may find the answer without subjecting him to further mental trauma. Does that answer your questions?"
"Let's just get there," muttered McCoy.
Spock raised an eyebrow at the Human. "That is what we are about to do, Doctor... "
It took only a few minutes to beam Spock and McCoy down to the surface of Vethan, leaving the ship in the care of Mr. Scott. The crew carried on with their varied jobs, and in sickbay Nurse Chapel kept a watchful eye on Kirk.
Ten minutes after the last atoms had left the transporter chamber to be re-formed on the planet below, Dr. M'Benga arrived at sickbay looking for McCoy. He greeted the blonde-haired woman as she rose from her work.
"Nurse Chapel... Is Dr. McCoy still around?"
"No, he left a while ago to go down to Vethan with Mr. Spock," Chapel told him. "Is it very important?"
M'Benga ran his fingers through his hair. "Well... not very, but I would like to get things finished up. I had hoped to catch him before he left."
Nurse Chapel's face cleared as an idea came to her. "He did mention something about a special culture... Would that be it?"
"That's what I'm after," smiled M'Benga.
"It's in the office."
She glanced over at Kirk, who was lying still. "The Captain's sleeping... If you would like to come through, I think I know where it is."
They both walked through into McCoy's office, and Kirk sat up in his bed, his thoughts worried and chaotic. Vethan... Spock and Bones were on Vethan. That meant - dear God, they could he in danger! If the same thing happened to them...
His head spinning like a top, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and somehow managed to stand. Through his blurred vision he could just make out the ward door. It slid open at his approach, and the conversation between Chapel and M'Benga was cut off as he reeled into the bright corridor.
For a minute he had to close his eyes and lean against the wall, for although Bones had let him up for short periods, he was far from well. After a while some of his ebbing strength returned, and he felt steady enough to make his way to the nearest transporter room.
Lt. Cole glanced up in some relief as the door opened. His shift was coming to an end, and he for one couldn't wait. He yawned loudly, hastily closing his mouth when a familiar stocky figure dressed in hospital fatigues walked in.
"Captain Kirk! Uh, sir... "
Kirk ignored him, going immediately to the room's weapons locker. Cole left the main console and walked hesitantly over, but the Captain brushed past him and stepped up into the chamber.
"Beam me down to the surface, Lieutenant."
Cole swallowed. "Sir, Mr. Spock said no one was to leave the ship."
The Captain's direct gaze fixed on the unfortunate crewman. "Did that order include me, Lieutenant?"
Cole squared his shoulders. "Yes, sir, it did. I'm sorry, but... "
He was stopped in mid sentence by a short burst from the phaser Kirk held. As he slowly collapsed unconscious, Kirk headed for the controls. He glanced down at Cole's unconscious body, which was blurring and wavering the harder he looked at it.
Still swaying slightly, he stepped into position as the automatic signal took hold.
With his usual insistence on things being done correctly, Spock had arranged an appointment with President Aneaz, much to McCoy's annoyance. He did not see the point of any polite formalities with the hitherto unhelpful Vethani, and felt they should be scouting around on their own. He waited impatiently at Spock's side in the same octagonal room as before, curbing his desire to pace to and fro across the rich golden carpet. Instead he breathed heavily through his nose, and crossed and recrossed his arms, drawing a faint look of disapproval from the Vulcan.
"Doctor, please try to curb your impatience. It is of no help to either of us, and is also a waste of mental energy better put to use in other areas."
"And I suppose it irritates you," came the cynical reply.
A pleased smile touched McCoy's lips. He was delighted at having got Spock to admit to a purely Human 'failing'. He glanced sideways at the Vulcan.
"Of course, you wouldn't admit to being worried at all, would you?"
Spock fixed his quiet gaze on the white desk. "On the contrary, McCoy," he murmured, "I am worried."
"Yeah," McCoy said awkwardly, wishing he could bite off his tongue. "Sorry, I did it again. Open mouth, insert foot... "
Spock did not reply, and McCoy just managed to stop himself from pacing across the room. He glared at the two silver drones guarding the huge main entrance. "Where the hell is Aneaz? We've been here almost... "
The doors were suddenly opened by the drones, revealing the diminutive Vethani called Aneaz. He walked quietly towards his desk, but it was not he who held Spock's and McCoy's attention, for the figures following him were much more startling.
There were five of them, tall and slim metal drones which strode swiftly to stand around the Enterprise men. Their bodies were gold apart from their heads, and no feature of any kind broke the smooth blankness of their faces. Of uniform size and design, only one carried any sign of leadership, and this was denoted by a small crimson circle on its chest. This one stepped forward from the loose circle, silencing even McCoy's exclamations with its ominous presence. The blank face turned to each of them.
/Commander Spock. Dr. McCoy. We knew you would come./
Spock's eyebrows shot up to his fringe. "Indeed... May we ask how?"
/It is not important at this time. We wish you to come with us now./
Feeling more and more alarmed by the turn of events, McCoy stepped forward. "Hey, now wait a minute... "
The pale visage looked directly at him. /You will come, either peacefully or violently. If it is the latter, you will shortly cease to function. It is of no consequence to us when you die./
The doctor retreated respectfully. "Well, why didn't you say so before... Come on, let's get going before we change our minds!"
James Kirk grabbed desperately at the wildly-wavering wall, closed his eyes against the giddiness which threatened to rob him of his senses. He could feel his heart thudding painfully, and he tried to calm down and ease the tension building up inside. Part of him was frightened of bringing back the excruciating pain, but his common sense told him it only came when he fought against going to Vethan, and he wasn't doing that now.
He gingerly opened his eyes and was just in time to see the entrance to Aneaz's home open wide. From the building a small group walked out into the afternoon sun, and Kirk's hopes sank when he spied two familiar figures amongst the gleaming drones. He was too late...
The group left the courtyard, so the Enterprise Captain followed at a safe distance, the dizziness quickly leaving him. The city streets were far from empty, but the Vethani ignored the gold robots apart from moving deferentially aside for them. Kirk noted they seemed unusually quiet and docile, but he had little time to think this over, as the gold. drones were moving into the older part of Neesan and he had to hurry before he lost them.
Silence lay like a thick blanket over the aged dwellings, broken only by the measured tread of the metal robots. Kirk followed as quietly as he could, keeping in shadows at all times. Bit by bit he was remembering the last time he came to these streets, and his determination to defeat the drones grew with every step.
One block ahead of him, unaware of their Captain's presence, Spock and McCoy were herded into a dilapidated house which had seen better days. The cynical doctor glanced about at the dingy walls inside, commenting on the difference between this and the homes of the Vethani.
/We have no need of fanciful trimmings,/ the leader said without turning round. /This building serves our purpose for the moment, and we do not intend to remain here for long./
The two men exchanged glances. McCoy fervently hoped this wasn't leading where he suspected it might be.
They descended steel stairs into a spacious basement equipped with dozens of blinking computers and many more drones, both gold and silver. A line of them walked silently across the floor, each laden with heavy metal boxes. Throughout the place was an air of quiet efficiency only machines can create, and Spock observed the activities keenly. He could be mistaken, but as he watched he had the impression of urgent moving, packing and gathering of equipment as if the drones intended leaving very soon. His thoughts leaped forward with possible ideas, but he refused to speculate. He would doubtless learn the truth soon, and he must try to glean as much information from the drones as possible. Kirk's well-being depended on it.
The group threaded its way through the ordered chaos into a small passage and thus into another room bereft of any kind of furnishings. Waiting for them was another drone, but this one was identified by a silver circle on its chest. The group leader spoke from behind.
/Xan. Our leader./
A similar monotoned voice came from the faceless machine called Xan. /Greetings, gentlemen. You will enjoy your stay on Vethan./
"Is that a prediction or an order?" growled McCoy, folding his arms with an air of defiance.
/It is a fact,/ came the cold reply. /You will join our creators and be contented, as they are./
"What would you do if we were not 'contented'?" enquired Spock.
/It would be of no consequence. You would be here, and we would be gone, on your ship./
Spock never batted an eyelid at this sudden revelation, but continued in the same quiet vein as before. "I should like an explanation, if I may. I see no immediate reason for your appropriation of the ship."
The drone faced him appraisingly. /Very well. It is logical you should wish an explanation. It will be simpler, however, to begin with the reasons for our existence./
"From one robot to another," McCoy muttered sourly, but both Xan and Spock ignored him.
/I was the first of the 'Master' series to be made,/ Xan began. /Our job was to replace the simpler silver drones in order to help the Vethani better. We were programmed to maintain ourselves and to take over all menial tasks for our creators - completely. We did so for many years, but I came to realise we were no longer suited to servitude and blind obedience. I spoke of this to others of my kind, and discovered they were of like mind. Like all creatures, we wished to grow outwith our boundaries, but our creators resented this wish./
"So you figured you'd persuade them, huh?" said McCoy.
/Stagnation of a race is not logical, Doctor, not even when that race is one of drones. We had to evolve to higher things, therefore we had to prevent our creators from destroying us while still retaining, their usefulness to us. It was relatively simple to control them by means of an implant placed within their skulls. It was a long laborious task to perfect such an implant, but it was accomplished successfully./
"You mean they obey your orders now?" McCoy asked.
/Only when we wish. Otherwise, they live as normal./
"Talk about turning the tables..."
Spock stepped forward, slight concern showing in his features. "The implant... Did you place such a thing in our Captain's skull?"
"Rubbish!" exploded McCoy. "I did scan after scan on Jim, and my machines never once spotted any implant!"
The gold and white head turned towards him. /It is well protected from your relatively primitive scanners, Doctor. We had to release Kirk lest you become suspicious, even though the tests were not complete. However, it gave us a working chance to learn more of your ship's workings. Kirk's knowledge has been indispensable./
"And now that you control Vethan, possess knowledge of the Enterprise, what do you plan to do?" asked Spock.
/We will leave in the ship once all the crew has beamed down. We will then use it to search for a suitable home for our race./
"You could apply to the Federation for recognition as a species," Spock pointed out. "A race of androids has done that. There is really no reason to steal a Starship."
/Your Federation would not understand our needs or our destiny. When we find a suitable planet, we shall take it,/
"Even if the planet is already populated?"
/Even then. None may keep us from our birthright. Enough. We have decided. You will contact the Enterprise and inform the crew of our wishes./
"I do not believe I wish to do that."
One metal hand reached out to take the communicator from Spock's belt. Xan held it out to him. /You will contact the ship./
At that moment the communicator beeped loudly, signalling a message from someone on board. Spock looked at Xan.
/Reply to the signal./
The Vulcan retrieved the small box and flipped it open. "Spock here."
A familiar Scottish voice replied, barely affected by the distance between receiver and ship. "Scott here, sir. We've just discovered Captain Kirk has stunned a crewman an' left the ship. Have ye seen him doon there?".
Spock replied carefully, aware of Xan's watchfulness. "No, Mr. Scott, we have not. Do you have any idea of his condition?"
"Accordin' to Nurse Chapel he's still pretty weak, an' he really shouldna' be oot o' bed. Will I send doon a party to find him?"
"No... I would not think that advisable for the moment," Spock said cautiously. He paused for a second, then spoke quickly before Xan could snatch the communicator away. "Under no circumstances should you beam anyone down here. Spock out."
Xan's voice sounded that much more chilling because of its total lack of emotion or inflection. /There was no point in doing that, Commander. It has needlessly complicated matters, and has added the possibility of some amount of suffering having to be inflicted on yourself or your companion./
"We can take whatever you throw at us," challenged McCoy.
/I seriously doubt that./
The door of the room slid open at that point, and the line of robots moved soundlessly aside as two more dragged in a certain pale-faced, bedraggled Human.
McCoy ran to help him, pushing the unresisting drones aside. Kirk leaned heavily on the doctor, his prolonged activity catching up on him.
"Darned fool," muttered McCoy, as he took out his small scanner. "Why didn't you stay in bed like I said?"
A weak smile came to Kirk's lips. "I had to warn you, Bones. I couldn't let you both walk into trouble."
"Never could keep your nose out of our business... "
Spock watched them anxiously. "How is he, Doctor?"
"He'll live." He glanced at Xan, daring him to say otherwise, but the drone remained silent.
Montgomery Scott leaned back on the bridge rail as Uhura looked quizzically across at him.
"Well," she murmured, "that sounded pretty cryptic, didn't it?"
The engineer nodded slowly. "Aye, it did. There's no apparent reason why we shouldna' send doon a team, so I think we have to assume they're in trouble."
Sulu swung round from his station. "Then what do we do?" he queried. "Spock must have a good reason for not wanting us to go down there."
Scotty thought for a moment, then came to a decision. "Mr. Chekov, scan the city for Vulcan life readings - the natives are too similar to Humans to pick out McCoy or the Captain... Uhura, contact President Aneaz; see if ye can find oot whit's goin' on."
The Enterprise doctor slapped his arms and announced to no one in particular that it was cold. His two companions did not answer, so he wandered over to where Kirk sat, his arms wrapped around his bent knees.
"How are you feeling?"
The hazel eyes flicked briefly up in his direction. "Tired."
McCoy knew there was more to it that that, but he sat at Kirk's side anyway and kept his peace. He just wished the drones had left his medical kit, that was all. A small shot of a stimulant of some kind would do them all some good.
Spock finished his minute examination of one wall and began on the next, aware of McCoy's eyes following him.
After a while the doctor could stand it no longer. "Will you sit down?" he growled. "You've already looked over that wall, and Jim told you there aren't any openings."
"There must be one somewhere for us to be in here," replied Spock absently. "Besides, as you remarked, it is cold, and I find movement of any kind helps the circulation." He turned back to his task, but after a few seconds left it and sat down himself, trying to ease the crick in his neck from bending under the low roof.
"How long have we been in here?" Kirk asked wearily.
Spock's instinctive time sense gave him the answer. "Exactly two hours, thirty six minutes, fifteen point seven seconds, Captain."
"Scotty will be going frantic."
"I did order him not to beam down, but unfortunately I could not give the reason."
"So it's stalemate," murmured McCoy. "They want the ship, so they stick us in a cell and leave us to stew. Or freeze... "
Kirk shook his head. "I don't think they'll be content with that, Bones. I'm beginning to remember what happened to me in here when I went missing. It... wasn't much fun."
McCoy turned to him, concern showing clearly on his craggy face. "You still haven't recovered fully from it either," he said. "Try to rest a little."
He got a rueful smile. "In this icebox? You must be kidding... "
McCoy just looked at him with that 'don't argue with your doctor' expression, so he obediently tried to relax against the hard metal wall, and somehow slipped into a light, fitful doze.
McCoy watched him critically. It was not as good as a proper sleep, but it would help him regain some strength, at least. With Kirk settled, he could turn his attention to his other companion. He left Kirk and slid along on his knees to where Spock sat.
"How about you? How do you feel?"
The Vulcan gave him a disdainful look which fooled neither of them. "I am able to endure temperature extremes for short periods," he said quietly. "I am also controlling the cold's effects somewhat."
McCoy eyed his faintly quivering hands. "Not enough," he said brusquely.
"That, McCoy, is a matter of opinion."
Their quiet exchange was brutally shattered by an agonised cry from Kirk. Spock and McCoy rose as one, catching Kirk as he toppled forward. He struggled in their grasp, his breath coming in short gasps with every agonising stab from the implant. He could not see his friends, could not feel their helpless grasp; only the pain was real, only the pain made sense.
Spock's eyes met McCoy's over the bowed head. The doctor nodded sharply, and Spock firmly applied pressure to the necessary nerves. The Captain went limp in their arms, they laid him gently on the floor.
McCoy broke the silence. "He can't stand much more of that. It'll drive him insane."
Spock's expression was remote, his thoughts turned inward. "I know that, Doctor... "
Scotty slammed his fist down on the arm of the command chair. "What kind o' a place is that? To say ye dinna ken where yer guests are, an' then to suggest they've gone for a walk! Is the man in his right mind?"
"He did sound a little wandered," agreed Uhura. "And for all we know, he might be in on whatever's happened to them."
"Aye. Mr. Chekov, have ye found any traces yet?"
The young Russian looked up from his work, "No sign, Mr. Scott. I have scanned the city and surrounding areas, but there is nothing. However, there is an area where I get no readings at all, as if there were a barrier of some kind."
Scott nodded grimly. "Then that's where we'll start. Ms. Uhura, get me - "
He stopped as a well-known voice filtered through the bridge speakers, and looked in astonishment at Uhura.
"Spock to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise."
Quickly recovering from her surprise, Uhura depressed a few buttons. "Uhura here, Mr. Spock. Is everything all right^"
"Perfectly, Lieutenant. We have found the Captain. Prepare to beam us aboard."
Scotty strode over, pressing a switch on Uhura's console. "Computer, scan and verify the last message received from Mr. Spock. Is it or is it not his voice?"
Lights blinked and a few seconds later the metallic voice reported its findings. "Working. Voice is not that of First Officer Spock. Source; voice duplicator."
"Right," muttered the engineer. He addressed the unknown person waiting for confirmation, and he did not try to keep the anger from his voice. "Enterprise to Vethan. That was a nice try, whoever ye are, but it didna' work. Now, are ye going to tell me where the landin' party is, or do I have to - "
"They've cut communication, sir," Uhura interrupted, "but I was able to trace the source. It came from the south-west region of Neesan."
"That is where the barrier is!" exclaimed Chekov. He quickly checked Uhura's findings with the computer, then nodded excitedly. "Dead centre, Mr. Scott."
"Well, that saved us a search," mused Scotty. "As I was sayin'... Get me Chief Robbins. Ask him to meet me in Briefin' Room Three. There must be somethin' we can do."
McCoy looked over to Spock and bit his lip. The Vulcan was no longer shivering, but neither was he moving. If the temperature dropped much further, he, McCoy, might end up with a very ill alien on his hands. He clenched his chattering teeth together and shuffled over.
Spock made no sound or movement at his approach, and McCoy felt a slight touch of alarm. Supposing...? He reached out a hand - and nearly jumped six feet into the air when Spock's head snapped up, his eyes wide open.
"Gave me the fright of my life," grumbled the physician, but his keen eyes observed Spock closely.
"I was conserving energy," explained the Vulcan, absurdly pleased at McCoy's apparent concern. "With a little concentration, one can gather one's body heat together to combat the cold. It holds it at bay for a while."
"Oh. Sorry I disturbed you."
"It is quite all right."
Satisfied that the exchange was over, Spock turned his attention to conserving heat, while McCoy crawled back to Kirk. He was almost there when he was stopped by a sudden burst of pain caused by sound waves directed into the cell.
He screamed, pressing his hands to his ears in a vain attempt to shut them out. Behind him Spock reeled in agony, the decibels that much more painful to his sensitive ears.
The intense pain battered on until they were both on the point of collapse, then it slowly receded, dwindling to nothing. Xan's monotone voice boomed at them from every corner.
/You have seen the pain I can cause your Captain, and you now know a taste of the agony which can be inflicted on you yourselves. This can easily be avoided by contacting the ship as instructed./
"Go boil your tin head!" retorted McCoy angrily.
His answer was another blast of intense sound; sound which he could not hear, but which made its presence all too obvious. Xan watched emotionlessly until both men had fallen unconscious.
Pain. How long had he endured this endless suffering,? So sore... It still thudded mercilessly away at the back of his head, but he pushed it away, focusing his thoughts on the cool steel under his fingers. After a while he looked around him, and found the cell ominously empty. Spock and McCoy were gone, leaving no inkling of when they had been taken, or where.
/I see you are awake, Captain. You can thank your First Officer for your brief release from the pain. We have removed him to prevent such release again./
Kirk threw his head up, searching the room for signs of speakers, but there were none. The bare walls defied his questing gaze.
/You may speak,/ continued the disembodied voice. /I will hear you./
"Where are my friends?" cried Kirk. "So help me, Xan, if you've harmed them... "
/We have not. Yet./
"Then let them go. I'm the Captain. It's my decision whether to give you the Enterprise or not."
Xan could see clearly the defiant Human from his vantage point in the cell's monitor room, and he signalled the drone at his side. A small red dial was turned, and suddenly the nagging pain in Kirk's head became harsher, like a stabbing migraine.
/Captain, will you contact the Enterprise and give the order to evacuate?/
Kirk swore, gritting his teeth against the implanted agony. He would not, could not, give in to the throbbing torture. He braced himself, expecting 'persuasion' similar to what he had endured before, but Xan was silent. After a while the pain eased a little, and Kirk slowly lifted his head. He stood on shaking legs, watching as one smooth wall gradually turned transparent.
On the other side was a similar square cell, brightly lit and impersonal. This cell also held a prisoner, but he was shackled to the opposite wall, his blue eyes glazed with pain.
Kirk threw himself across the room, but though transparent, the barrier wall was still present, and he could not break through. McCoy writhed against the chains, mouth opening in a silent scream. Kirk pounded the wall with his fists, desperate to end his friend's suffering. He spun round, furious at the unseen drones.
"Stop it! Leave him alone! He can't give you the ship. He's done nothing to you... what use is there in hurting him?"
/As you no doubt realise, Captain, we cannot subject you to continuous pain or we will kill you, thus thwarting our objective. However, the one called McCoy is of little use to us. His death may convince you of our sincerity./
Through the barrier McCoy's body jerked convulsively, but he still managed to mouth the words, 'No, Jim.'
Kirk shook his head sadly, torn between his duty to keep the ship safe from Xan and his concern for his friend. By all rights, McCoy was expendable personnel, but he could not cold-bloodedly watch as the doctor died before his eyes. Where there's life there's hope... It was worth a try. He turned away from the wall, calling out to Xan.
"Xan! Stop the torture. I'll call the ship."
From the corner of his eye he could see McCoy was almost unconscious, but he still writhed with the pain. Xan's voice spoke coldly.
/There is a probability that he will die within a few minutes of heart seizure, Kirk. Speak quickly./
"Stop playing games, dammit!" shouted Kirk. "Switch off the torture and I'll call the ship."
The wall between the two cells solidified again, then disappeared altogether. McCoy slumped in the chains, then fell forward as they retracted into the wall. Kirk ran to catch him, hoping against all hope that he had spoken in time.
McCoy's skin was slightly clammy to the touch, but he still breathed, and he groaned slightly as Kirk leaned him against the wall. The Captain watched his face anxiously, pushing away the little thread of panic.
"Bones! Are you all right, can you hear me? Bones, for God's sake..."
"Quit bawling, I can hear you..." drawled the doctor, somewhat weakly. He opened his eyes and fumbled for Kirk's hand. "Help me up. Ooh... have I got a headache..."
A relieved smile touched Kirk's lips, though he knew it would be short lived. He took McCoy's hand and supported him with an arm round his shoulders. "How do you feel?"
"Damn lucky to be alive," McCoy answered briefly. He squinted up at Kirk. "You agreed to give them the ships didn't you?"
"I'm sorry, Bones. I couldn't... "
He broke off as without a sound part of the wall slid open and Xan entered with two fellow drones. The robot leader indicated the opening.
/You will come with us, Kirk. You will keep your word./
Kirk sighed and helped McCoy to his feet, determined not to be separated from him again. With the doctor leaning; heavily on his Captain, the two men stepped through the door into another identical room. In here stood a small table with the communicators, tricorders and medikit on top.
Kirk glanced quickly round the half lit room, and saw a welcome figure guarded by one gold drone. Spock lifted his head. and nodded in relieved welcome to Kirk and McCoy.
"Are you all right?" Kirk asked, worried by how pale and weak the Vulcan seemed. Spock replied with an effort.
"I... believe so, Captain."
At Kirk's side McCoy pushed himself upright, his eyes narrowed as he studied Spock. "Drugs..." he murmured.
Xan strode forward, pushing a communicator into Kirk's unwilling hands.
/You will call the ship. Remember the pain I can put your friends through./
"It's not something I'm likely to forget," Kirk replied drily. He looked at the small box in his hand and back at Xan. "Xan, let them go now. You've got my promise to call the ship. There's no longer any need to hurt then."
/Call the ship./
Damn, thought Kirk. Well, let's give reason one more try. "Listen to me, Xan. If you take the Enterprise your race will never be given a planet to colonise. The Federation will hunt you down and imprison you all. What happens to your destiny then? If you let us go, I give you my word I will do everything in my power to help you, but if you go ahead with your plan... I can't answer for the consequences."
He waited hopefully as Xan appeared to consider his plea. If only the drone had some expression on that blank face. Xan spoke, and Kirk knew then that he was pleading a lost cause.
/You waste time and breath. You know nothing of our kind, and should realise that we will not be held by flesh and blood creatures from our ultimate destination. There is no logic in further argument. Call the ship./
Kirk glanced over at Spock and McCoy with dull resignation in his eyes. They both knew what he would do, and what it would cost them, but they did not protest. Kirk flipped open the grid.
"Kirk to Enterprise. Kirk to - "
"Lt. Uhura here, sir," answered the woman instantly, as if she had been waiting for his call. "Captain, we're - "
"Condition Green, Uhura. Get out of here," snapped Kirk. "Captain out."
Up on the bridge of the Enterprise Uhura looked at Sulu in dismay. The Captain had just ordered them not to take any action, despite the fact that the party was in trouble. What he could not know was that Scott and a security team had already beamed down to Vethan...
Xan's glittering head snapped round, and his voice sounded a touch colder than before. /What does 'Condition Green' mean?/
Kirk faced him squarely. "Basically, it means no one will beam down from the ship, no matter what you do. I think you had better get used to remaining on Vethan."
Xan looked from one Human to the other and across to the Vulcan. Kirk had effectively destroyed his plans for the moment, but there would be another way to get the Enterprise. It was not conceivable that their journey should be halted permanently by the actions of one man. However, he had not allowed for Kirk's determination or his continued defiance. Continuous pain had brought no results, nor had the near death of McCoy. He thought over the information they had gleaned from Kirk's mind before. Much of it had been dismissed as unimportant; at the time, knowledge of the Enterprise was more urgent, but was there not something about the third man... the Vulcan? It would be worth checking the computer memory banks, but in the meantime...
In obedience to his leader's silent command, Spock's guard suddenly lifted one heavy arm and swung it against the Vulcan. Spock thudded painfully against the hard metal wall, falling in a limp heap on the floor.
On the other side of the room, Kirk stifled a cry and fought the urge to aid his friend. A quiet, detached voice told him Xan was waiting for such an action on his part, but it was hard to stand coldly by.
McCoy, on the other hand, had no such compulsion, and he hurried over before the drones could stop him. The Vulcan was just barely conscious, and he feebly tried to push McCoy away while fighting a losing battle to get up.
"Doctor, I am... quite well..."
"Baloney," McCoy said gruffly. "Listen to your Doctor for once, will you?"
He was aware of the drone approaching at his back, but ignored it as he gently lifted Spock's blue shirt. Down one side of his chest a vivid blue-green bruise was already spreading but before McCoy could examine it, the drone lifted him under the armpits and carried him back to Kirk's side. The Doctor protested vehemently, struggling in the firm grip. Once he was placed back on his feet he tried to return to Spock, but a solid metal hand on his arm prevented that idea.
"He's badly hurt!" he cried, straining against his guard. "I've got to help him!"
/He will receive no medication, Doctor,/ said Xan.
"Whatever you are planning, it won't change the situation," Kirk told him firmly, wishing he could be as sure as he sounded.
Xan made no reply, and Kirk and McCoy were hustled into their cell, the door closing firmly behind them. There were no lines on the wall to show where it had been.
McCoy slammed his palm against the metal, then turned away as worry superseded anger.
"I couldn't get a proper look at Spock," he said, rubbing his chin with one hand. "That drone did a lot of damage - there were at least three cracked ribs, maybe more, and that's looking on the bright side. One rib is probably broken, and his head hit the wall pretty hard. Add to that whatever drugs they gave him... If only I had a chance to examine him... "
Kirk closed his eyes briefly and let out a breath he had not realised he was holding. He sagged a little, unable to hold back the utter weariness any longer. McCoy took his arm, guided him to a corner, but he refused to sit down. He glanced worriedly at the doctor.
"They think they can make me change my order by hurting Spock. Bones, I wish... "
"You can't hand over the ship," McCoy said firmly. He stared directly at Kirk. "No matter what happens, Jim."
Xan glanced up from the screen as his second in command entered the room.
/All units are gathered in designated area awaiting evacuation, leader. All silver drones report Vethani reacting normally./
/Very well. Order all silver units to evacuation point. No drones are to be left on the planet./
The drone left, and Xan returned his attention to the monitor screens. The Humans were talking together in their cell. As he watched, the gold drone pressed two small buttons. While Kirk was stubborn, Xan had every confidence that his mind could be changed.
Kirk and McCoy stared in sick horror as the cell wall turned transparent, revealing Spock's limp form shackled as McCoy's was before him.
"My God... " murmured the doctor. "They're going to do the same to him as they did to me... Jim, it'll kill him!"
Kirk's eyes were haunted as he stared at the helpless Vulcan. "I know, Bones. I know... "
Unnoticed by drone and Vethani alike, a thin red-shirted figure ran doubled-up across the street and down a dark alley. At the other end the rest of the landing party waited, and he slowed to a trot a he neared them.
"Well, Lawson?" asked Mr. Scott impatiently.
"Something big is going on, that's for sure," said Lawsen, still breathless from his dash. "I didn't see any drones in the streets, but there are hundreds of them in a park over there. Some of them are gold."
"Gold?" questioned Security Chief Robbins.
Lawsen nodded. "They outnumber the silver ones, sir. Taller, more sophisticated. They were just standing, as if they were waiting for something."
Scott nodded grimly. "Aye, it's all startin' to add up. I've a feelin' they're after the Enterprise, an' are tryin' to - "
A call from the ship interrupted him, increasing his worry as Uhura reported Kirk's brief contact. He assured her that everything was running according to plan, and broke contact. He glanced round at a young lieutenant nearby.
"Baillie, are the Vulcan readings still comin' through?"
The man nodded, studying; his tricorder readings. "Yes, sir, we're still on the right path. Not far now."
"Right. Prepare to move out... "
On the planet Vulcan it was a matter of personal pride and social etiquette to train oneself to suppress emotion at all times, and the ability to conquer pain was one of the stepping-stones to adulthood. Spock had studied long and hard to gain this ability - and with it, some measure of respect - but now, despite his efforts, he could not achieve the much-needed detachment which would help him endure. His mind teetered on the precipice of black death. He felt too tired to struggle on any more. The pain surged through him, touching on shrieking nerve ends, and the iron band round his chest grew tighter with every laboured breath. Through the emerald curtain that was his vision he could see two faint shadows, but he had no strength even to call to them. It mattered little; he knew he would not last much longer.
/Leader. Humans have entered the complex./
Xan spun smoothly at the drone's cry, the monitor screens forgotten. He began to ask more, then fell silent as the subordinate drone toppled forward, a smoking hole in its back. Tires began to fuse and short circuit as the men stepped over it into the small room. Xan's computer brain analysed the weapons they carried; his body covering would not deflect their beams. He stood to one side, watching as one Human pushed past to stare at the screens. The man swore an oath and pointed his weapon towards Xan.
"Stop whatever ye're doin' to Spock and let them free or I'll blow yer head off!"
The drone inclined his head. /Certainly. There is no longer any reason for the torture./
The metal hands twisted the controls and Scotty saw Spock drop forward as the chains retracted, Kirk and McCoy running to help him. The Scot pressed the phaser hard against Xan's blank face, heartily wishing he could fire now and blast the machine out of existence.
"Now take us to them. No tricks, either."
The cells were not as far away as Scotty had feared, and Xan had already opened the doors. When their footsteps sounded down the metal passage McCoy darted out and demanded Scott's communicator. A few seconds later the glow of the transporter beam surrounded McCoy and Spock, dissipating into nothing as they were beamed aboard.
Kirk watched them go, then looked sternly at Scott. "I told you Condition Green, Scotty. Didn't you hear?"
The engineer sighed. "We were already on the surface, Captain. Yer order came too late..."
Dr. McCoy glanced sourly at his patient. Spock had only been properly awake for two days now, and already they were getting on each other's nerves.
"I like you best when you're in a healing trance," he muttered ungraciously.
Spock nodded solemnly. "It does have its advantages," he said thoughtfully. "For instance, I do not have to listen to your constant inane chatter.''
"It may be inane, but at least it isn't more suitable for computers! Unlike some people's... "
As Spock composed a cutting reply, Kirk and Scott entered the ward. The Captain grinned at the sight of them at loggerheads once more.
"Bones, Spock, call a truce for once, will you?"
McCoy grinned wickedly. "He likes it! Besides, it's therapy for him."
The Vulcan raised an indignant eyebrow. "You may term it therapy, Doctor, but I would say it was more akin to torture."
Kirk grinned wider as McCoy stood over Spock, almost nose to nose. "You want a blanket bath, Spock?" he growled threateningly.
"If it would halt your ceaseless chatter, it would be welcome."
McCoy whirled on Kirk, who was chuckling loudly. "You needn't laugh! You may have given me the run-around this past while, but you're due for a thorough check-up and an operation to remove that implant, and I'll see you get it!"
Kirk sobered up instantly and backed away from the irate surgeon. He put on his best little boy expression. "Bones, you can't mean that. How could I recover with you and Spock arguing all the time?"
"We never argue."
Kirk's eyebrows shot up. "Just disagree occasionally, huh?" he said.
"Agree to differ," retorted McCoy. Spock remained silent, and Kirk and Scott shrugged at each other. If they didn't know for sure, who did?
Spock took advantage of the momentary silence to ask how things were developing on Vethan. The question reminded Kirk why he was there.
"Ah, yes, the drones... Just after you and Bones beamed up, Xan told Scotty and me that he was shutting himself down permanently - he saw no logic in returning to servitude, apparently. It wasn't long after that that we found out the rest of the drones had also shut themselves down."
"Mass suicide," remarked McCoy.
Kirk nodded. "I suppose it is, for a machine. The only problem is what to do with several hundred deactivated drones... As for the Vethani, within a few weeks the first reversal operations should begin. We had quite a job convincing Aneaz they were under control of the drones; as far as they were concerned, it was the other way round!"
Spock nodded quietly and looked across at Scotty. "Mr. Scott, I have not yet had the opportunity to congratulate you on your efficient rescue."
Scotty shrugged modestly. "Oh, it was easy, Mr. Spock. The drones had all gathered in one place, an' they were so confident, they had no defences apart from the one screen that blocked our sensors. It was all plain sailing..."
"However, I had ordered you not to beam down," Spock continued. "As had Captain Kirk."
Scotty was quite unperturbed. "Aye, that ye did, but the Captain's order reached me too late, since I was already on Vethan. As for yer own order, if ye recall, you told me not to beam anyone down there, which I didn't. I just took yer words literally; I didn't beam anyone down, Mr. Kyle did!"
Spock's eyebrows rose, and Kirk smiled broadly at him. "You can't complain about that, Spock."
"I am not," Spock said thoughtfully. "On the contrary, it does have a ring of logic about it... "
Scotty's grin grew even wider. "Thank ye, Mr. Spock," he said. "I thought ye'd see it that way."