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ScoTpress History Zine Archive



Shirley Buck


The rain fell heavily, deluging the fields and soaking the trees and plants. Forked lightning danced along the mountain tops and the rumble of thunder sounded almost continuously. Then almost as suddenly as it had began the storm was over and the sun appeared from behind the clouds as the storm rumbled further down the valley.

The hot rays lay on the drenched land and steam began to rise as the rainwater evaporated into the atmosphere. Soon the villagers of Me-Tan began to leave their houses and make their way to the fields: there was much to be done at this time of year.

Me-Tan was situated in a small, fertile valley, surrounded on all sides by the high mountain ranges. The Kariang who inhabited the village had lived there for many years and knew no other way of life. Sometimes some of the younger folk would journey to other villages in nearby valleys; and occasionally visitors and travellers would visit Me-Tan, but for the most part the villagers of Me-Tan lived content and happy lives in their own valley.

Mandell and Zuhar with their two small daughters, Petara and Zahira, lived in a comparatively large house in the middle of Me-Tan. At the moment it was distinct from the other houses by the names of Petara and Zahira written large on the verandah wall in red dye and surrounded by a gaudy, child like pattern. The two girls had done it in a fit of naughtiness and had been well scolded for it by their parents. But Mandell and Zuhar had let the names stay, secretly proud that the girls could write their own names.

Now, as the storm departed down the valley the two girls were to go with their parents to work in the fields. The outer edges of the fields began at the outskirts of the village, but these were lying fallow and had to be crossed to reach the fields under intense cultivation. These were the fields where the women and children worked, weeding and transplanting the crops.

The men made their way towards the outer edges of the valley, where they were clearing the land for cultivation. Trees were being cut down and uprooted and the underbrush cleared away. Once they had finished, the whole area would be burned, ready to be hoed and planted. It was the Kariang way; the land was their life and their livelihood.

Zahira, who was five, worked contentedly enough alongside her older sister and her mother for well over an hour, then she grew tired and bored and was distracted by the butterflies which seemed to fill the valley at this time of the year. The butterflies were the most gorgeous colours imaginable and even the tiniest ones were like flowers which had flown off their stems. Zahira had always longed to have a butterfly of her own, never realising that butterflies could not be caught and held forever. So she spent the rest of the morning chasing them all over the fields, until at last she had become exhausted and fallen asleep in the shade of one of the trees.

Her mother had picked her up and taken her back to their home, placing her on a sleeping mat in the corner of the main room; leaving her there to finish her sleep. Zahira didn't wake until the rest of the family were having their afternoon rest. Unable to stay still, she crept out of the house in search of butterflies again.

She made her way to edge of the field and found a large cluster of butterflies hovering lazily over the wild flowers growing there. She watched them quietly for a while. They looked so easy to catch, hovering almost in the same position constantly. But Zahira sighed, knowing just how difficult it really was. She had tried to catch one from a group like this before; running towards them with arms outstretched didn't seem to work!

She picked some of the wild flowers and sat down on the grass with the flowers in her hand. She had infinite patience where the butterflies were concerned. Gradually a few of them flew over her head, just out of reach. Zahira waited, experience telling her they weren't near enough yet. A few more butterflies arrived until there were quite a few fluttering near her. Slowly Zahira reached out towards the butterflies...

* * * * * * * *

Chapter One

The door swished shut and for a moment Kirk leaned heavily against it, exhaustion which he had been trying to hide for hours sweeping over him. It had been his first full day back on active duty and, determined not to let anyone know how he felt, Kirk had stayed on the Bridge for nearly an hour over his official duty time. It was not unusual for him to do so normally, but it had cost him a great deal today in pain and tiredness. The wound in his back ached badly and his whole body felt as if he had been beaten.

Slowly he pushed himself upright and walked across his cabin towards the sleeping area. He sat down and pulled off his boots, setting them down carefully at the side of the chair. He leaned back, unwilling to make any further effort. He knew he should have gone for something to eat or at least ordered something sent to his cabin; even now he could have dialled something up on the autoserve. He remained seated for a moment more, but at the thought that McCoy might come along and start fussing over him yet again, Kirk pulled himself to his feet. If McCoy did come, he was determined that the doctor wouldn't find his ex-patient asleep on the bed.

He undressed and showered, the hot water bringing a measure of relief to his aching body. Slowly he dried himself and, dressed in a clean uniform, he sat at his desk to look at some of the routine reports which had accumulated over the past few days. But Kirk's concentration was gone and he sat staring into space, deep in thought.

From the time of his own accident until the Enterprise had reached the Babel planet, Kirk had been forced to rest in his cabin. McCoy had been true to his word and released him from Sickbay after two days, but what he hadn't said at the time was that he wasn't going to allow Kirk back on duty for at least another ten days after that. So Kirk had spent most of those days in his cabin and had been glad to be there. He had developed an infection in his damaged lung and had put up with McCoy's orders and fussing without complaint. McCoy had been surprised and a little worried by Kirk's acquiescence, but was grateful for it too, as he had his hands full with Spock and Sarek.

The operation had been a complete success and Sarek had made a remarkable recovery. But somehow, both Spock and Sarek seemed to think they should be fully fit within a couple of days. But because McCoy had had to use a Rigellian chemical blood stimulant on Spock in order to give Sarek enough blood for him to be able to survive, McCoy had kept them both under strict observation in case there were any side effects. Both men found this irksome and they proved to be difficult patients, trying to insist they were both well. McCoy, however, was adamant and it was over a week before he was ready to let them leave the Sickbay. Spock returned to his duties almost straight away and it was only two days later that Sarek had left the Enterprise for the Corridan Conference. But during that week in Sickbay, father and son had had time together on their own; time to talk and time to bridge the gulf that had stretched between them for so long. McCoy knew that both needed that time and made sure they had the privacy required.

Kirk had seen very little of Spock during this time. And it was not until the Enterprise had left the ambassadors on the Babel planet and was en route to Starbase Twelve that Kirk saw Spock with any degree of regularity. Spock, always the perfect First Officer, had reported to Kirk morning and evening on the routine business necessary to the running of the ship. There was little else to report; and Spock rarely stayed more than the few minutes required to make the report. At first, Kirk had not even noticed, finding the effort to concentrate and comment difficult. But as his health improved and he was allowed back on restricted duties, he realised there was a barrier between them which not been there before. Something was troubling his Vulcan friend and at this moment in time Spock had no wish to talk about it to anyone. Before the happenings on the way to Corridan, the two men had spent many of their off duty hours together. Now this had stopped and Spock was often meditating, either in his cabin or in some remote corner of the ship. But Kirk wasn't worried, knowing that sometimes his Vulcan First Officer needed to be alone and most probably now, after all that had happened on the way to the Corridan Conference, Spock would have much to think about.

Kirk rubbed his hand across his face tiredly. He really ought to go to bed; he had another full day tomorrow and he wanted to be able to meet that day and its problems with his usual efficiency. He switched off the light at his desk; he knew he wouldn't deal with any of these reports to-night. As he did so there was a gentle knock on his cabin door. Kirk sighed. Then straightening his shoulders, he switched the light back on again.

"Come," he called and pressed the button to activate the door.

The door slid open and McCoy stood there, a slightly worried smile on his face.

"Hi, Bones. Come on in."

McCoy stepped into the cabin and the door slid shut behind him.

"Well, Jim, how're you feeling after your first full day on the Bridge?"

"Fine, Bones. Just fine."

"Don't lie to me, Jim. I'm your doctor, remember?"

Kirk gave a wry grin.

"Well, maybe a little tired."

"A little tired!" McCoy gave a snort. "I'd say a lot tired. So tired, in fact, that you don't feel like eating. And why did you stay nearly an hour over your official duty time? You know that wasn't necessary. There was no emergency that I heard about. You wouldn't let any of your crew do that on their first day back after a serious injury."

"It beats me how you find out all this information on my whereabouts," said Kirk with a grin. "What do you use? Flies on the wall?"

"It might surprise you to know that there are a lot of people on this ship who care about you and are concerned about your welfare. At a rough estimate I would say about four hundred and twenty nine of them. I don't need flies on the wall."

Kirk blushed slightly and the knowledge that his crew could read enough about him to worry about his health and welfare gave him a warm feeling.

"You haven't answered my question," continued McCoy, when it became obvious that Kirk wasn't going to reply. "What was the idea of staying an hour longer on the Bridge than was necessary?"

"Pride, I guess," said Kirk somewhat shamefaced. "I wanted to prove to everyone that the Captain was a hundred per cent fit."

"Well, forget the pride for a few days and use some common-sense for a change. Unless you want to find yourself back on restricted duties again."

"O.K. O.K. Don't fuss, Bones, I'm fine."

"In that case you can manage some food."

"I'm not hungry, Bones."

"Well, that's too bad, because I've got an ensign to bring along a supper tray for you. He should be here any minute. And I shall stay here until you have eaten it." There was a certain amount of satisfaction in McCoy's voice.

"Bones!" Kirk said in irritation. "I'm telling you..."

"And I'm telling you, Jim. If you don't eat, you go back on restricted duties."

There was a knock on Kirk's door and McCoy opened it and took the tray which the ensign had brought for the Captain. Kirk had to admit the food did look appetising. He sat down at his desk and McCoy placed the tray in front of him, sitting down himself on the opposite side of the desk.

"I see Scotty has manage to repair your command chair," commented McCoy, as he watched Kirk move the food around on his plate with a fork. Kirk looked up and smiled.

"Yeah, I guess he wasn't too pleased with me about that."

"Well, it took him the best part of a week to get the thing sorted out. The times you thumped that intercom button over the years must have weakened the whole system. And when you were dealing with the Orion attack, you must have really hammered it. Scotty said the whole console nearly came apart in his hands."

Kirk laughed and took a mouthful of food.

"At each meal we would have a blow by blow account of the problems he was having," continued McCoy. "At one time the only place on the ship he could get on the intercom was Uhura's cabin."

"He should have left it like that. I could think of worse places to be connected up to," said Kirk with a wide grin on his face.

"That's what Uhura said," replied McCoy. "But Scotty wasn't best pleased."

"I can imagine the language."

"Yeah. Chekov said he hadn't heard such a wide choice of colourful expressions in quite a while. Scotty must have taken the console apart five or six times before he got it working properly. And it didn't help that the rest of Bridge crew seemed to take it all as a joke. Scotty said he'd close the Bridge down completely and they would all have to run the ship from the auxiliary Bridge."

Kirk grinned as McCoy carried on with Scotty's tale of woe, but as he did so, he was slowly eating what was on his plate, just as McCoy had intended.

"To make matters even worse," said McCoy with a laugh, "just as Scotty had the whole chair in pieces on the floor, someone who shall remain nameless suggested that it might be a good time to install a commode. It would save them all a lot of time and trouble. Chekov said he thought Scotty was going to explode."

Kirk was really laughing now and McCoy was delighted to see that he finished everything on the plate. Now if Jim could get a good night's sleep, he could cope with tomorrow without so much pain as he had had today. McCoy stood up.

"Well, Jim. I think it's about time you turned in."

Kirk shook his head.

"You never stop being a doctor, do you, Bones?"

"Maybe not," McCoy said with a wry smile. "But I'm not taking any chances. Do you want anything to make you sleep?"

Kirk shook his head.

"You were right, Bones. I did need that meal and I feel a lot better for it. I shall sleep just fine tonight."

"Great." McCoy walked to the door, taking the tray with him. "Well, good night, Jim. You know where I am if you need me."

"Thanks, Bones. Good night."

Kirk woke early the next morning. His sleep had been deep and refreshing and he felt better than he had for over two weeks. He swung his legs off the bed and carefully stretched his arms over his head, testing the muscles of his back. The wound didn't hurt at all. Kirk grinned, feeling suddenly hungry. He put in a call for breakfast in his cabin and headed for the shower.

Ready for duty, but with half an hour before he was due on the Bridge, Kirk decided to visit one of his favourite places on the ship, known to the crew as the Enterprise Garden. It was as large as one of the rec rooms and filled with trees, flowers and plants of Earth. The gardener kept it strictly to the Earth year and at the moment Kirk knew it was late Spring in the garden. He also knew that at this time in the morning it would most likely be empty. Kirk paused at the door, drinking in the nostalgic smells of home. Obviously the gardener had arranged for an overnight shower, for the scent of damp earth and freshly watered plants came to him strongly. Slowly Kirk wandered along the pathways between the trees, listening to the early morning songs of the birds who inhabited the garden. Kirk felt the garden was one of the essential places on the Enterprise, contributing a large amount to the well-being of his crew. Trapped inside the hull of the ship for months, maybe years at a time, it was somewhere for a Human to recall what Earth was like and Kirk knew many of the crew came here frequently. Even non-Human crew members liked to visit the place.

Kirk thought again of what McCoy had said last night about the crew being concerned about his welfare. It had never occurred to him that all of the crew would be anxious for his swift recovery and would keep an eye on his movements. He took a deep breath. It felt good to be alive and Kirk knew he wanted nothing else in his life but to command his starship.

He glanced at his chronometer, realising he had just a few minutes before he was due on the Bridge. He quickened his pace and, taking one last look at the greenness surrounding him, he hurried to the Bridge.

Spock was already at the Science Station and nodded acknowledgement of Kirk's greeting to the Bridge crew. Kirk walked over to Spock.

"How are you this morning, Mr Spock?"

"Well, Captain. And yourself? I trust you had a good night."

"Very good, thank you, Mr Spock. In fact, I feel exceptionally well this morning." He paused to look round the Bridge and appreciate again how good it felt to be alive after his close brush with death.

"Anything come in while I've been off duty?"

"I would, of course, have informed you if there had been anything, Captain." Spock's tone was slightly indignant.

"Sorry, Spock." Kirk grinned at him. "It just seems very quiet. Perhaps we shouldn't push our luck eh?"

Spock merely raised an eyebrow at his Human friend.

"We are proceeding at warp three to Starbase Twelve, as directed, and should be there in three point two days."

"Thank you, Mr Spock." Kirk walked to his command chair and seated himself with a slight smile. He depressed the intercom button very carefully. "Kirk to Engineering."

The answer was immediate.

"Scott here, Captain."

"I was just testing the new intercom system you put into my command chair, Mr. Scott. It seems to be working well."

"Aye, Captain," responded Scott drily. "It seems to work better when it isn't constantly hammered."

Kirk grinned.

"Point taken, Mr Scott. I'll try and remember that. Kirk out."

It was half an hour later that the message came in from Starfleet. Uhura put in on audio.

"Captain Kirk? Commodore Wesley. Hi, Jim. Sorry to hear about the accident. How are you feeling?"

"Fine, thanks, Bob. What have you got for us?"

"Well, it's not an emergency and will probably only take you a few days to make a detour and report back. We have had a request from the Governor General of Mercia, Mr Charles Evard. You may recall that it was originally one of our colony planets, settled about a hundred and fifty years ago. They are independent now, but are still members of the Federation, of course. Mr Evard is concerned about the state of his planet. The rains have failed for the last three years and the general climate of the place has altered somewhat. He requests aid to feed some of his people in need. I'd just like you to visit him, ascertain what it is he requires, what the problems are, what we can do to help. You know the sort of thing, Jim."

"Of course, Bob. We'll do what we can and report back to you."

"Thanks, Jim. Wesley out."

Kirk turned in his chair towards the Science Station, knowing that Spock would be computing the time, distance and ETA for Mercia.

"Mr Spock?"

"If we remain at warp three, we can reach Mercia in five point six days."

"Very well. It doesn't seem necessary to increase our speed unduly. Mr Chekov. Lay in a course for Mercia if you please."

"Aye, Captain." And Chekov fed the necessary co-ordinates into the helm computer. "Course laid in, sair."

"When you're ready, Mr Sulu."

"Heading confirmed and executed, Captain."

The mighty starship turned onto the new heading, making for the horror which awaited them on Mercia.

Two days out from Mercia, Kirk called a meeting to obtain the background information he needed for his visit to the planet. Not believing it would involve much time or any of his crew he only asked Spock, McCoy and historian Lieutenant Lee Cunningham.

As they sat around the table in Briefing Room Three, Kirk touched a button to call up a map of the main continent of Mercia.

"I believe this is the only inhabited part of the planet. Am I right?" asked Kirk.

"Indeed, Captain," Spock replied. "There is another, much smaller continent, but the soil is too poor to support any kind of life to make a successful colony. No humanoid life could live on the plants that grow on that continent. However, the larger land mass shown here is ideally suited to provide everything to make a colony self-supporting, which is exactly what Mercia has done."

Kirk looked across at Lieutenant Cunningham. She blushed slightly at his glance. Lee Cunningham had replaced Lieutenant McGivers when she had given up her position on the Enterprise to follow Khan into exile. Lieutenant Cunningham had been on the Enterprise less than a year and so far had had very little to do with the senior officers of the ship. She was greatly in awe of the Captain and wanted to prove to him that she was good at her job. But like a good percentage of the female Enterprise crew, she also found Captain Kirk immensely attractive. It was the combination of the two which had produced the blush.

"Y-yes, sir." Lee Cunningham took a deep breath. She knew all the facts, she just needed to present them in a coherent manner.

"Perhaps you would like to tell us what you know." Kirk's tone was understanding. Lt. Cunningham was young for the post she held on the Enterprise and she lacked confidence in presentation; but her knowledge was extensive and detailed. Kirk might not know her personally very well, but he always kept up to date with all the reports he received regularly on his staff.

"Mercia was discovered almost two hundred years ago," began Lt. Cunningham. She glanced apprehensively at Mr Spock. "One hundred and ninety six years ago to be precise."

Kirk hid a grin and glanced at McCoy. Laughter danced in the Doctor's blue eyes; but both men listened seriously to what Lee Cunningham had to say.

"But it wasn't until forty-two years later that the first Earth colonists arrived to make a home there. The first group were mainly white Caucasians from America and Europe. At that time the Earth was still heavily populated and people were encouraged to move out to a multitude of various planets to ease the problem.

"Mercia proved to be a most hospitable planet and many thousands followed in the next ten years. They settled the southern coastal strip at first, building several cities and establishing farms, fishing communities and mining areas. Mercia was able to provide the raw materials to make the colonists self-supporting in a short space of time.

"Gradually people moved out to the hinterland where they ran herds of cattle and sheep. In some ways it was similar to the development of the north American continent. The main difference was the central area of Mercia. It is mainly a desert area and this tended to limit the northern extent of their expansion."

"So the culture on Mercia is mainly a white, technological society," said Kirk thoughtfully.

"Yes, sir. That is, the southern part of the continent is."

"There was a further influx of people a few years later, was there mot?" asked Spock.

Lieutenant Cunningham glanced at him.

"Yes, that's true, Mr Spock. But they came for different reasons and under different circumstances.

"On Earth, where the boundaries of Thailand, Burma and Vietnam meet is an area known as the Golden Triangle. During the 20th Century there were many hill tribes living in the area – all independent, one from the other, all possessing their own distinct way of life. But the tribe we are interested in are the Kariang; they lived mainly in the remote hilly district of Northern Burma, scratching a living from poor soil. Their method of cultivation was slash and burn..."

"Slash and burn?" asked McCoy. "What does that mean?"

"It means, Doctor," replied Spock, "that the Kariang would clear an area of land – cutting down trees and clearing the underbrush. Then the area is fired, making the soil fit for planting of whatever crops they need. However, with the intense cultivation required, the soil is soon depleted, especially in this case, when the soil is poor in the first place. The tribe would be forced to move on." He paused for a moment. "Sooner or later there would be no land to move on to."

"Thanks for the geography lesson, Spock," McCoy said sarcastically. He looked at Lieutenant Cunningham. "Would you like to continue, my dear?"

"What Mr Spock says is basically what happened. Land began to run out. Depleted soil, overpopulation, limited land and increasing poverty; the tribe faced tribal death. Their plight was put to the Federation Council and it was decided to move them to Mercia."

"The desert sounds like an ideal spot!" interrupted McCoy.

"Hardly!" Lee gave a smile. "The northern area of Mercia is mainly a mountainous area very similar to where the Kariang lived on Earth. The Federation moved them there. It was estimated that two million people were uprooted and sent to Mercia."

"Quite an operation," observed Kirk dryly.

"Obviously it took several years and the Kariang adapted very well," responded Lt. Cunningham. "Their basic philosophy was typical of many minority people who have felt the pressure of having little or no political identity or power. They took the move with stoicism, believing their day had come. This was their chance to leave behind suffering and oppression and live harmoniously in their new environment."

"And has that proved to be the case?" questioned Kirk, "If so, then it would be one of the few to succeed."

"Actually, it proved difficult to find out," replied Lt Cunningham. "The Kariang virtually disappeared into the hills and are rarely seen. The Government in the south has little contact with them and it seems the two cultures live completely independently of each other."

"But the Governor-General and his Council are responsible for the Kariang, I believe," responded Kirk.

"Theoretically, yes. But as they have little or no contact with the tribe, that responsibility is mainly hypothetical."

"Hmmmmm." Kirk ran a finger over his upper lip thoughtfully. "Have you any idea what the problem is there now?"

"Not really, Captain," said Lee. "I have heard that the harvest has failed for the last three years and they have had very little rain. But that is mainly for the southern end of the continent. Whether this has affected the Kariang, I haven't been able to find out. News is very limited out of Mercia."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. That has proved to be most interesting." Kirk gave her a smile. "You've obviously done your homework."

"Thank you, sir." And Lt Cunningham blushed again, but this time there was a feeling of warmth. She had managed to provide the knowledge required of her and earned the praise of her Captain.

Kirk looked at Spock.

"And I believe, Mr Spock, we shall be dealing with the Governor-General."

"Yes, Captain. A Mr Charles Evard, I believe. He resides in Government House in the main city of Mercia, Oceanside. We should be there in two point three four days."

Kirk grinned.

"Thank you, Mr Spock. Your timing is precise, as usual." He glanced round at McCoy and Lieutenant Cunningham. "I think that will be all for the moment."

He rose from the table and headed for the door, but as he went he caught Lieutenant Cunningham's eye and gave her a broad wink, followed by one of his delightful smiles. For a few moments her legs went weak and she was unable to rise from her chair. Then she pulled herself together, gathered up her papers and rose to leave the now empty room.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Two

"Come." Charles Evard's tone was abrupt.

Edward Landers, his private secretary, sighed as he opened the door to Evard's study. Somehow it didn't seem like a good time to give the Governor-General further bad news, but the reports had just come in and contained information that Landers felt Evard should know before the visit from the Federation representatives.

Charles Evard sat at his desk in the study of Government House, looking at an inventory of available food stocks for his own household. They seemed appallingly low to Evard and it was a situation he was not happy with. So far the drought and famine had hardly touched his personal life at all. He paid little attention to all the reports and statistics he received from the various areas of Mercia under his control. But if the situation was so bad as to affect his own household it was just as well he had called the Federation in. Let them sort the mess out. He wished to be inconvenienced as little as possible.

"Well, what is it, Landers? Not more bad news I hope?"

"I'm afraid so, sir," said Landers, handing Evard the papers he had received over the teleprint a short while ago. "I've just received these from Ludnam and Ilston. Twenty–five people killed during a break-in at a food warehouse."

"Really!" Evard's tone was indignant. "The people in these industrial areas don't seem to have any idea of law or order. It's just as well the police have been firm about this. However, I don't think this is something we should mention to the Federation. Understood, Landers?"

"Yes, sir. However, I would point out that the looters weren't shot, but involved in an accident when heavy sacks of flour collapsed on top of them, while they were in the warehouse."

"How did they get in there in the first place? Where were the guards? The police?"

Landers sighed. Somehow Evard just didn't seem to want to understand the predicament of the people of Mercia.

"Well, sir," he replied quietly, "The guards helped the people to get into the warehouse. There was a rumour that food was being hoarded, forcing up the prices in the shops. As it turned out, the rumour was true. Unfortunately, in their anxiety to get the food out, the proper precautions weren't taken and whole stacks of stuff came crashing down."

Evard's face reddened in anger.

"The guards helped them? What is going on in these townships? Just because food is a little scarce, the populace seem to be taking the law into their own hands."

"The people are starving, sir. A lot of men have been laid off from the factories because they are cutting back on production – due to lack of water. So these men have little money. The price of food in the shops has sky-rocketed. They are getting desperate, sir. They are trying to keep their families fed."

"Don't be melodramatic, Landers," retorted Evard. "It seems to me that the whole thing has been blown up out of all proportion. We don't have these problems in Oceanside."

"With all due respect, sir, Oceanside, doesn't have a working class population. People here can afford to pay the higher prices. But it is only a matter of time now. We have had no rain in almost eighteen months. The water table is extremely low, the reservoirs even lower. Already they are using standpipes in both Ludnam and Ilston. I believe you will have to order standpipes in Oceanside in the not too distant future."

Evard laughed.

"God, Landers, what a prophet of doom you are. Things are not as bad as you seem to paint them. A piece of vandalism and you're running scared."

"Am I, sir?" replied Landers earnestly. "I think not. This looting is not an isolated case. It has happened thirteen times in the last two months. This is the first time people have died. Also..."

Evard looked at Landers in exasperation.

"More evil news, no doubt."

"I'm afraid so. This report has just come over the fax... It arrived within a few minutes of the previous one concerning the looting."

Evard heaved a deep sigh.

"Well, come on then, let's hear the rest of the gloomy tidings you seem to delight in giving me."

"I'm afraid there is an outbreak of typhoid in the Camston district of Ludnam."

"So what? It's just the heat. There are always a few cases during the hot weather."

"There are over fifty reported cases. And Camston is one of the poorer districts, where the standpipes were first introduced. There have also been two unconfirmed cases of cholera in the same area."

"Now see here, Landers. This has gone far enough." Evard spoke angrily. "Don't go talking about epidemics and looting as if the whole area is in ferment and trouble. Things like this happen from time to time. I want nothing said of this to the Federation, do you understand?" Evard's voice rose. "Nothing!"

"But sir..." Landers tone was desperate. "You can't hide the facts. These people have to be helped."

"Hide the facts? What facts? A few people killed in a warehouse accident. A few people ill because of the hot weather." Evard laughed without amusement. "Hardly facts the Federation would be interested in. All we need from them is extra supplies to tide us over to the next harvest."

"If there is a next harvest." Landers voice was quiet.

"Keep your depressing thoughts to yourself, Landers. I want nothing of that kind of thing getting twisted around in the telling to the Federation. What kind of fool would they take me for if I couldn't handle a little drought?"

"I believe it's gone beyond anything we can handle. Something has happened to the climate. We've never had such a long period without rain. I believe..."

"I believe. I believe..." Evard mocked. "Keep your damned beliefs to yourself. If I hear you blabbing your mouth to the Federation, you'll find yourself out of a job and with a reputation that will ensure you never get another."

Edward Landers took a breath. The last thing he wanted was to get on the wrong side of Charles Evard. It had taken many years and a lot of pushing for Landers to get where he was now. He enjoyed the wealth and prestige that went with the position he held as the Governor-General's personal secretary. And besides, perhaps the Federation would soon sort the matter out. Now was not the time to take a stand in opposition to Evard. He valued his present life style too much to put it in jeopardy at the moment. But deep down, Landers had a gut feeling that things were a lot worse than even he knew. He pushed the thought resolutely away.

"I understand, Mr Evard." Landers spoke quietly, knowing he was side stepping the whole problem. He pushed the thought resolutely away for the sake of his own skin.

"Good. Good." Evard's tone was genial. "It will all be sorted out before we know it. The Federation are used to dealing with all kinds of problems. That's what they're there for."

"There is one other thing, sir."

"Yes, Landers?"

"It's Camp Meo-Sun. I have the video..."

"God damn you to hell, Landers." Evard snatched the video out of Landers' hand. "Get out of here. I want no-one to hear anything about Camp Meo-Sun. And I have never had a video about it. Now, get out!" His voice was almost a snarl and he thrust the video tape to the back of a drawer in his desk.

Landers left the room hastily. Somehow he felt unclean.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to Mercia and materialised on the steps of Government House. They were expected and a security guard greeted them, before ushering them through the portals and along the corridor to Edward Landers' office.

Government House was a large, comfortable and luxurious mansion set on a bluff overlooking the sea. It was used as the home of the Governor-General as well as the place were he entertained both officially and socially and this was reflected in the sumptuous decor throughout the mansion. The men from the Enterprise were impressed with the good taste and elegance which surrounded them on every side as they followed the guard along the corridors.

"I sure wouldn't mind spending a few days here," remarked McCoy as he glanced into the various rooms they passed. "I reckon I could get used to a little luxury on this scale very easily."

Kirk grinned.

"It is extremely elegant, Bones," agreed Kirk. "But somehow it doesn't have the atmosphere of a home."

"This Mr Evard isn't married, is he?" enquired McCoy.

"I don't believe so."

"Maybe that accounts for it. It needs a woman's touch! And a few kids rushing around the place in kiddicars."

"Maybe you're right, Bones," laughed Kirk

The guard stopped before a white painted door and knocked quietly upon it. A voice asking them to come in was heard and the guard opened the door, allowing the three men to pass inside, before closing it behind them.

Edward Landers came forward to greet them.

"How do you do, gentlemen. Welcome to Mercia." Landers smiled at them. "Mr Evard won't keep you a moment. I'm his personal secretary, Edward Landers."

Kirk shook his hand.

"I'm Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise and at this time representing the United Federation of Planets. This is my First Officer, Mr Spock, and my Chief Medical Officer, Dr. McCoy."

Landers nodded at Spock and McCoy. "I'm glad you're here. We do need your help quite badly."

"Anything we can do to help, we'll do. A starship has a great many resources at its disposal. And if we can't help, we can convey your needs to the Federation." Kirk glanced around at the office, furnished and decorated in keeping with the rest of Government House. "I must say you seem adequately provided for here."

Landers joined Kirk in a small laugh.

"As you'll appreciate, Captain, it is not for ourselves we are asking help, but for many of our people who are in need. Mr Evard will explain the situation to you, I'm sure."

At that moment the connecting door to Evard's study opened and Evard himself came through, smiling genially.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," he exclaimed. "What a pleasure to see you here. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. Come in, come in, do." And he ushered the three men into his study.

Kirk made the introductions and Evard seated them in armchairs round a low circular table. Landers hovered near for a moment, pouring drinks until Evard gestured him away, taking over the serving of the drinks himself.

"Well, Mr Evard," said Kirk, once they had all had drinks. "Perhaps you can tell us about your troubles and how we can help you."

"Yes, indeed, Captain," replied Evard with a nonchalant wave of his hand. "The situation is mainly under control. The weather generally over the past two years has been hotter and drier than normal, resulting in much poorer harvests than we're used to."

"We heard the harvest had failed for the last three years," interrupted McCoy.

"Failed is a strong word, Doctor. I wouldn't say failed." Evard's voice was calm and confident. "The outlying farms and ranches have found it difficult to feed themselves from their crops; and this, of course has curtailed supplies to the cities somewhat. As far as the cities are concerned we have managed to stockpile quite considerable amounts of non-perishable foods. For the farmers and ranchers it is a little different. We have set up two camps, southeast of Oceanside. The people there are fed and housed in tents – the best we can do in the circumstances. It's not an ideal arrangement of course. And it is mainly for them that I require help. Each camp holds about fifteen hundred people and as you can imagine, a great deal of food is required. And food is in short supply."

"How do they manage for water?" queried McCoy.

"We have dug several wells around each camp, tapping the water table. Again not an ideal arrangement, but everything is under control."

"I'd like to visit the camps, if I may," said McCoy. "When you have so many people under these conditions, the health of the individual is very important."

"Absolutely," responded Evard. "I have two doctors and two nurses on each site and they report to me each week. So far, everything has been fine. But of course, Doctor McCoy, you are at liberty to visit them whenever you wish."

"Thank you." McCoy turned to Kirk who was regarding him with an understanding smile. "Just a doctor's curiosity, Jim. I'd like to check for myself."

"Of course, Bones. I quite understand." Kirk turned back to Evard. "So you require food for these camps – total about three thousand people?"

"That's right, Captain."

"What about planting for the next harvest? You'll need seed for that. Will these people return to their farms at planting time?"

"Oh, definitely, I should say, Captain," replied Evard easily. "It's only a question of irrigation."

"If I may ask, Mr Evard." It was the first time Spock had spoken. "If, as you say, it is only a question of irrigation, why were those people unable to make use of it in the previous harvests? It seems somewhat strange that these people should leave their homes to live in tents in a camp, when all they had to do is to dig some irrigation ditches."

"The rains will make the difference, Mr Spock," replied Evard a little shortly, Kirk thought. "Once the rains arrive, the people will return to their farms. In no time at all, Mercia will be back to normal."

"And are you sure the rains will arrive in time for the harvest?" asked Spock, raising an eyebrow.

"I am quite confident, Mr Spock. We just need the Federation's help to tide us over a difficult period." Evard's tone was convincing, but somehow Kirk had the strange feeling that everything wasn't quite as Evard had painted it. Somehow Evard seemed too glib, too full of ready answers. If things were as under control as Evard said, Kirk wondered why he had called in the help of the Federation at all.

"What about food and water supplies in the cities?" questioned Kirk.

"All taken care of, replied Evard. "We've no problems there. Food is a little higher in price, naturally. That's only to be expected. But again once the rains come, the problems will resolve themselves."

"What makes you so sure the rains will arrive this year?" asked Kirk.

Evard chuckled.

"Law of averages, Captain. We've had years before with no rain, but they always return. I've no doubts in my mind at all."

"I'm glad you're so confident," said Kirk drily. "What about the Kariang?"

The suddenness of the question took Evard by surprise and a look which Kirk couldn't quite interpret came over the Governor-General's face.

"The Kariang, Captain?" It was almost as if he was trying to marshal his thoughts.

"Yes. The Kariang. The Hill People who live to the far north of the continent."

"I know who the Kariang are, Captain," said Evard a trifle testily. "I was just wondering why you should ask about them."

"Well, they are your responsibility. And if your outlying ranches are in difficulty, it is reasonable to suppose that the Kariang are affected by the drought too."

"One would suppose so," replied Evard. "But in all honesty the Kariang are independent people. They wouldn't ask for help even if they need it. And in any case, the hills are said to be unaffected; the climate is different in the north. I don't think you need concern yourself about the Kariang. They are quite capable of looking after themselves."

"I see." Kirk was silent for a moment. "Well, Mr Evard, as I see it, you need bulk food for the camps; seed for planting, just a little to help carry you over the next few months. That certainly doesn't seem an unreasonable request."

"I feel I have perhaps called on the Federation for a small matter, but I don't like to see my people suffer."

"Of course not," responded Kirk. "I will however have to make a full report to the Federation. Of course, there'll be no doubt about the supplies; they'll be on their way within a day or so. But I will remain in orbit for a short while. We'll scan the planet in depth, see if we can find out what's caused the change in climate."

"Really, Captain, I don't feel that's necessary. As I told you before, we have had times of heat and drought before. It will pass."

Kirk smiled.

"It's all part of the service, Mr Evard. We will do all we can to ensure that your problems don't get any worse."

He rose from his chair and shook hands with Evard, giving him no time for further protests.

"We'll get back to the ship immediately and contact the Federation Council. Doctor McCoy, here, will no doubt arrange with your secretary for his visit to the camps. We'll be in contact with you before we leave."

"Thank you for your help, Captain. It has been a pleasure meeting you."

Evard rang for Landers and the three men from the Enterprise said their good-byes to Charles Evard. AS the door closed behind them Evard brought his fist down hard on the back of one of the armchairs.

"God damn it to hell!" he muttered in a low voice. "Why did I ever let myself be persuaded to call the Federation. Those men are going to stir up a hornet's nest."

Evard walked across to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a stiff whiskey. He was going to find himself in a lot of trouble very soon, unless he had underestimated the capabilities of the starship now orbiting his planet. When Evard had first called the Federation he had expected the usual deputation of two or possibly three ambassadors; men very much like himself. Men whom he could easily manipulate into providing what he wanted without too many questions asked. He had never expected a starship to arrive and one that was captained by a man of integrity, who would leave no stone unturned to provide all the help he could as he saw it. He was not the sort of man who would take another's word for what was happening. He would have to see for himself

As long as he doesn't find out about Camp Meo-Sun thought Evard.

With a glass of whiskey in his hand he walked across to this desk and took out the video tape he had pushed into the drawer earlier that day. He inserted it into the player and pressed the play button. Then he sat down to watch the film which had been taken a few days ago at Camp Meo-Sun. There was an expression of gloom and anger on his face.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Three

Over the next couple of days, Spock scanned the planet in depth; and Uhura monitored all the news broadcasts put by the media in Mercia. And some very disturbing things had come to light.

Mercia had always been a colony which had been more or less self-sufficient. The huge areas of fertile land which stretched two thousand miles from the coast to the beginning of the central desert had provided all the meat, vegetables, grains and fruits that Mercia needed; fish of all kinds were readily available all along the southern coastline. Minerals and precious metals had been found in the western area and large industrial townships had grown up to serve the mines and quarries which produced a seemingly never-ending supply of raw materials. Steel plants and factories manufacturing a wide range of goods for the consumer market were also located conveniently in the industrial areas of Mercia.

Oceanside, built specifically to house the government and commercial area, was the capital and financial centre of Mercia. For almost a hundred and fifty years the economy had remained stable and the quality of life for the majority of the Southern continent settlers had been good.

But three years ago, the climate had changed quite dramatically, causing the general temperature throughout the land to rise and very little rain to fall. It wasn't long before the whole of Mercia began to feel the effects.

Whilst scanning the planet, Spock had inadvertently discovered the cause of the climate change. For no reason he could ascertain the axis of the plane had shifted by several degrees and the continent was now beginning to turn into a desert-like climate. Added to which the rainy season had failed completely. In some places it had been three years since any rain had fallen at all. Drought and famine and its accompanying horrors began to sweep the land.

The situation was now a lot worse than Charles Evard had realised. The reservoirs serving the major cities were at a critical level and the water table level was low and getting lower all the time. With no rain in the south for over eighteen months and, Spock felt, very little chance of any rain in the foreseeable future, it would not be long before Mercia became uninhabitable.

The first to suffer had been the more isolated farms and ranches. Wells, pools and small rivers which had provided water for both people and animals had dried up quickly in the new dry summer, which seemed to last far longer than it should. The plants withered and died; the earth dried and hardened, cracking with the lack of water. Cattle, sheep and pigs died in vast numbers because the ranch owners were unable to provide sufficient fodder and water for them. The people dug their wells deeper, tapping the water table as it dropped, but the situation worsened.

Their homes could not support them and water was scarce. Two camps had been set up to house the people who had to leave their homes, providing them with the basic necessities for life. Their way of life had been ripped apart and most people found it difficult to continue any sort of normal life in the camps which the Government of Mercia had provided.

In the cities, things were different, but no less critical. The mines, quarries, factories and industrial plants all needed vast quantities of water to maintain their high level of production. And it was well over six months ago that all the industries had started to cut back on production, reducing hours and laying men off, so that water could be husbanded. Promises had been made that the cutbacks would not be for long; as soon as the rains came, normal working would be resumed. But the expected rains never arrived. Now, the men were working even shorter hours and some places had closed altogether. Should the rains ever arrive, it would be years in many places before they could return to the levels of production they had once had. Maintenance had not been carried out in the drive to save water, and material and equipment were rotting where they stood.

It was only in the last few months that the effects of the drought in the farmlands had begun to be felt in the more industrial areas. The people in the cities had been living on stockpiled food; now that had run out and people were hungry. The rioting and looting which Landers had reported to Evard had been the tip of the iceberg. Many instances of looting were never reported as the police and guards joined in, trying to keep their families fed. The situation could only get worse. Cases of typhoid, typhus and cholera had all been reported in the more industrial areas and contaminated water had obviously been the cause.

Kirk and Spock had been somewhat stunned when they realised the extent of the problem. They were unable to understand why Evard had not called in the Federation before. If they had known a year ago, most of the deprivation and suffering which the people were enduring could have been alleviated.

Kirk could feel the sweat trickling down his back and chest. He wiped his hand across his forehead to try and stop the sweat running into his eyes. He looked across at Spock, who sat opposite him, seemingly cool. It was understandable that Spock could always stand a much hotter temperature than Kirk, but still Kirk found it vaguely irritating. He grinned across at Spock.

"Hot enough for you, Spock?"

"Adequate, thank you, Captain. I must admit I would prefer to have the temperature a trifle higher, but I believe you would find it rather uncomfortable."

"I find this temperature uncomfortable, Spock. I shall look forward to the cold shower in a few minutes."

Spock gave a slight shudder.

"A sauna stimulates the circulation, makes you feel good. A cold shower and a rub down afterwards and I feel terrific. It's the right reason to take a sauna, Spock. It's not meant as a place to sit and think about Vulcan."

Spock lifted an eyebrow.

"You sound like McCoy," said Spock, who only had saunas when Kirk had badgered him into having one. "I prefer not to take a cold shower and I really fail to see why you Humans put up with so much discomfort just to cleanse your skin. There must be easier ways of doing it."

Kirk grinned again.

"It helps your whole body, as you well know, Spock." He spoke affectionately, knowing that Spock was only humouring him by coming here in the first place. "Besides, a little suffering is good for the soul, as Bones would say."

"During the time I have known you, Jim, you have had a great deal of suffering of one kind or another; enough, I would have thought, to last a lifetime. It has only been three weeks since you were in the Sickbay and Doctor McCoy feared for your life."

Kirk grimaced.

"Bones was always one to worry too much. I was never in any danger. Anyway, you're just trying to change the subject. What about that cold shower now, Spock?"

"Thank you, Jim, but no." Spock's tone was firm.

"O.K." Kirk gave a laugh. "But I think I'll have one to cool down and then come in for a little more punishment. Will you be staying here?"

"For the moment."

Kirk walked out of the sauna, closing the door behind him. He removed the small waist towel he wore and stepped under the shower. The cold water streamed down his body and he gasped audibly.

Perhaps Spock was right thought Kirk. Doing this is slightly masochistic.

He stepped out of the shower shaking the water from his eyes; he picked up his towel and returned to the sauna. Spock regarded him in some amusement.

"I trust you feel better, Jim?"

"Well, cooler anyway." He put his towel on the wooden slats and sat down on it, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

"I'm not happy about Charles Evard, Spock," he announced. "I had a feeling at the time that he wasn't telling us everything. The thing that puzzles me is why he called us in, in the first place."

"I think Edward Landers had a lot to do with it," responded Spock.

"Landers wasn't giving anything away either! The whole damn thing's a puzzle. Did Evard really think we wouldn't find out the true situation in Mercia?"

"I believe that is exactly what Evard did think. I believe he was expecting someone like Ambassador Baris. Someone who would be only too ready to acquiesce to whatever he wanted without too many questions being asked. The thing he hadn't expected was the arrival of a starship and a very curious captain."

"I'm not sure if I have been insulted, Spock," said Kirk with a laugh.

"I assure you, Jim, it was not meant as an insult," replied Spock earnestly.

"I know, Spock. Just a little joke." He paused, deep in thought for a moment. "There is certainly a lot of things he didn't tell us. The main problem as I see it is to find some way of getting the planet back on its proper axis. Unless we can do that, there'll be no future on Mercia."

"Indeed, Jim," replied Spock. "But moving a planet is something I do not believe is within the capabilities of even a starship such as the Enterprise. I will give the matter my closest attention, however. There might be something of relevance which I have overlooked."

"That doesn't seem likely, Spock," said Kirk with a grin.

"I am glad that you have such faith in my abilities, Captain," said Spock, formally, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes.

"But of course, Spock," said Kirk, smiling. "Let's hope you come up with something, otherwise the Federation is going to be faced with evacuation on an unprecedented scale. Our main concern for the immediate future is to provide food for the cities and the two camps. I have already contacted the Federation and container ships will on their way in a very short time. They estimate the first consignment should be here within two weeks."

Spock nodded slowly. The Federation certainly weren't wasting any time, which was just as well. He looked across at Kirk, who had now been in the sauna for nearly half an hour. His friend looked uncomfortably hot and the perspiration was trickling down his bare chest. It always came as something of a surprise to see how much cooler the temperature was that a Human could comfortably stand, compared to a Vulcan. However, Spock deemed it wiser to say nothing of the sauna temperature knowing that Kirk would soon have to leave anyway.

"We shall need a detailed report of the two camps," said Spock. "Evard provided us with little detail of either of them."

"McCoy will be able to give us that when he returns from his tour tomorrow," replied Kirk. He stood up, rubbing sweat from his face and bent to pick up his towel. As Spock had guessed, Kirk had had enough.

"I don't know about you, but this sauna seems to have got hotter than ever in the last few minutes. I'll shower and rest for half an hour. Are you staying?"

"I believe I will stay a little longer. The temperature for me is most comfortable."

"It's that Vulcan background of yours, Spock. No wonder saunas were never invented on Vulcan; the temperature is such that they were never needed!"

Spock raised an eyebrow.

"And I bet you'll up the temperature once I've gone," Kirk added with a grin.

"That, Jim, is entirely possible."

An hour or so later, Kirk and Spock sat in the Officers' Mess, drinking fruit juice and continuing their talk from the sauna.

"What are you anticipating that Doctor McCoy will find at the camps?" queried Spock.

"Nothing that will help in finding an answer as to why Evard didn't call us in before. Or if he's hiding anything from us. If there was anything incriminating at the camps, you can bet Evard would never have mentioned the camps, let alone allow Bones to visit them."

"What do you think he is hiding?" asked Spock.

"I don't know," replied Kirk, slowly. "I just have this yellow alert going at the back of my neck. Perhaps it's just that he hasn't been completely honest with us and I don't like people who try to use me, my ship or the Federation for their own purposes." He tightened his lips. "But I'm not leaving until I've got to the bottom of it all."

"I will continue my in-depth scanning of the planet, Captain. I've concentrated mainly on the southern half of the continent so far, but I need to collect data on the northern half as well."

"Yes, do that, Spock. I want as much detail as you can get."

Kirk took a sip of his iced fruit juice and replaced his glass on the table. He glanced around the room to find that he and Spock were the only people there. He leaned forward, taking advantage of the empty room.

"Spock?" he paused, uncertain of how to continue.

Spock raised his eyebrow at the hesitancy in Kirk's voice, wondering what could have caused it.

"Spock. I just wondered how you felt generally?"

"Captain?" Spock's voice was puzzled.

"I mean, have you had any after effects from the operation Bones performed on you and your father?"

Spock's face took on a guarded look.

"I have felt a little tired on occasion, but other than that, I am perfectly well, thank you."

"I guess Bones is keeping a close eye on you in case of side effects."

"Doctor McCoy has given innumerable tests and finally came to the conclusion I had come to at least two weeks ago. There have been no side effects. I fail to see why everyone seems so concerned about so straight-forward a matter."

"Because, Spock, we all care about you. And I have had this feeling lately that something has been bothering you. Is everything O.K. between you and your father, now?"

"Thank you, Captain. We have discussed our differences and I believe we have more understanding of each other now. " Spock's tone was polite, but Kirk got the distinct impression that Spock felt he had overstepped the mark.

"I'm sorry, Spock. I didn't mean to pry. But if you ever feel like talking about things to anyone, well, I am your friend you know, as well as your commanding officer."

Spock's expression softened slightly.

"I will bear that in mind, Captain," was all he said.

It was late the following afternoon when McCoy returned to the ship. Kirk invited both the doctor and Spock to his cabin to discuss the situation and to hear McCoy's report on the camps.

"Well, Jim, the situation isn't wonderful," began McCoy, when they had settled around Kirk's desk. "The people aren't particularly happy but I can't really say that there is an awful lot more that Evard can do.

"There are about two thousand people at each camp. Each family or group of workers or friends have a tent each; no more than five to a tent. They have a hospital tent and a large tent where they serve the food. Proper cleanliness is maintained everywhere. The latrines are adequate and although not that convenient for everyone, they all seem to realise the necessity for the measures taken. There doesn't seem to be any risk of contamination or infection from any of the latrines.

"Water is brought round in large containers on trucks twice a day and everyone gets two pints a day. Not a lot by any standards, but adequate. They also have a washing tent and everyone can use that every two days on a strict rota." He grimaced. "Quite honestly, Jim, it's not ideal by any means, but the people are surviving and they're reasonably healthy. It's all just as Evard said."

"I never thought it would be anything else." Kirk drummed his fingers on the desk. "So what is he trying to hide?"

"Captain, I believe I might have found something while I was scanning the northern half of the continent."

Kirk turned to Spock expectantly. "Yes, Spock. Go ahead."

"I was able to pick up the location of both camps quite easily. Both are situated in an area where the water table is comparatively high. Their wells should not run dry for quite a while. However, I believe I have located another camp."

Spock moved to the computer console and called up a map of Mercia.

"Here," Spock pointed to the northern area of the continent, "are the mountain ranges which stretch for almost a thousand miles from the sea in the north until they finally level out towards the central plains. The whole area is full of valleys and areas of cultivation where the various tribes of the Kariang have lived since they arrived in Mercia.

"Here," and Spock indicated an area to the south western edge of the mountain range, "is the largest river on the whole of the Mercian continent. It flows out of the mountains and across the plains towards the sea. On the way it feeds into a large lake, called, I believe, Meo-Sun. It is the only lake of any size on Mercia.

"On the south-eastern edge of the lake, where the river enters the lake is another camp, but it is infinitely larger than the other two. The river, however, has dwindled to a mere trickle and Lake Meo-Sun is more mud than water in many places. The camp there will find itself short of water very soon, without doubt."

"This could well be a camp serving the Hill people, the Kariang," said Kirk in a low voice.

"Quite logical," agreed Spock. "The situation of the camp would suggest the Kariang followed the river from the mountains until it reached the lake. And then finding a reasonable supply of water decided to stay."

There was silence for a moment.

"So despite what Evard says, the Kariang have been affected," said Kirk.

"So it would seem. The scans indicate almost totally infertile areas in most of the habitable valleys. I would say that the hill areas are not able to support the Kariang any more."

"My god," exclaimed McCoy. "They must be dying like flies up there. Evard must have known about this."

"Yes, he must have known," said Kirk, his voice grim. "The first thing we do is visit this third camp and find out whether what we believe is in fact true."

"There is just one other thing, Captain. Nothing of any importance, but an interesting anomaly."

Kirk swung to look at Spock. He was always ready to listen to any anomalies which Spock found interesting.

"It's here. Just a few miles east of this camp. A minute surge of energy barely seen. It happened once for two point three seconds. And although I scanned the area continuously it has not occurred again."

Kirk stared at the map.

"As you say, Spock, interesting. Keep an eye on it and let me know if it happens again."

"Yes, Captain," replied Spock. "When do you wish to beam down to the planet's surface?"

Kirk consulted the chronometer.

"It will be almost dark down there now." He rubbed a finger along his lips, thoughtfully. "We'll go at first light tomorrow. You, Spock, and Bones and two security guards. Give the co-ordinates to Scotty and make sure everything is ready for six a.m. tomorrow morning."

Spock had found Camp Meo-Sun.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Four

The village of Me-Tan lay quiet in the burning heat of the afternoon, but this was no longer a village at peace. The drought which had hit the plains of the south had been even more severe in the hills of the north. During a normal rainy season many inches of rain would fall, swelling streams and rivers, making the land fertile. But with the failure of the rains the streams had dwindled to a mere trickle and in many cases had dried up completely. The Kariang had dug irrigation channels, trying to bring the much needed water to the crops, but the channels too had dried up. The crops began to die and the earth to harden and crack.

Now after three years of drought the moment the villagers of Me-Tan had dreaded was fast approaching. Unless the rains came soon they must leave their village and journey south in search of a place where they would survive. Many of the villagers were sick now and all were suffering from malnutrition. Tonight they were to try and placate their god by holding a special ritual, asking the Lord of the Land and Water to come to their aid, so they would not have to leave the village.

It had been many months ago that a small band of Kariang had entered Me-Tan. They were from a small village in the hills a few miles away. They told the villagers that they were on their way to find the Great River; there was no more water or food to be had in their village. If they had stayed, all would have died. The Great River would provide all the water they needed and along its banks they would find a place to build a new village.

Now the villagers of Me-Tan were to make the decision of whether to try and find the Great River too.

In the house of Zuhar and Mandell, all the necessary cleansing rites were being performed as best they could with the severe lack of water. During the morning Mandell, helped by her two daughters, Petara and Zahira, had unpacked the large wicker basket which contained their best clothes and ornaments. The clothes had been spread out carefully in the sun, while the ornaments had been cleaned to make sure all was spotless. Now as the sun began its fall towards the horizon, the clothes were gathered up and folded into neat piles, ready to be donned by each member of the family after they had cleansed themselves. All should be as near perfect as possible for the rites to be performed that evening.

A small bowl of water stood on the mat in the centre of the room; four small pieces of cloth lay beside it. Zuhar, Petara and Zahira sat on the verandah looking out towards the dry and dusty fields. Mandell, meanwhile had divested herself of all the clothes she had been wearing for many days, and dipping one piece of cloth into the bowl of water she carefully squeezed the water back into the bowl, taking care not to let a precious drop spill. With the damp cloth she wiped the whole of her body; she then rubbed the cloth over her hair, trying to remove as much dust and dirt as possible. She then dressed herself in the clothes placed ready for her. The tie-dye pattern of the sarong in green and yellow was Mandell's own design and she tied it around her waist, fixing it with a deep green belt and allowing the sarong to hang in folds to her ankles, in keeping with the formal nature of the rites. She then put on her indigo-dyed blouse, embroidered with a complicated pattern around the hem. It had been many weeks since Mandell had last worn them and she realized how much weight she had lost in that time. Her strength, too, had failed she knew, but she tried to push the knowledge to the back of her mind. Surely the Lord of Land and Water would be placated tonight; and rain would come soon.

Slowly she bent to pick up the flat copper bracelets she like to wear; they made a pleasant jingling sound as she slipped ten of them on each arm. She tried to ignore the thinness of her arms, but as she lifted her most prized possession, a silver necklace, up over her head she could see the wasted flesh only too clearly. Mandell sighed and slowly fingered her "rice grain" necklace made of delicate, hollow, elongated silver beads. She looked at her husband and two daughters sitting quietly on the verandah and saw them as they really were. They were all emaciated and suffering from malnutrition. Zahira, particularly, was the one who seemed to have suffered the most. She had not developed as a normal young girl should. Now almost ten, she should be reaching maturity, and mentally she was; but her body, starved of the necessities for bone and muscle development, still had the stature of a five year old. But Zahira hadn't been that thin at five. If Mandell had had any more tears to shed, she would have wept at that moment. But the last years had taken their toll of her and she could only shake her head in sadness and carry on with life as best she could.

Mandell went to kneel beside her husband and bowed her head. He glanced at her and smiled.

"You look well, Mandell," he said. "The Lord of Land and Water will be pleased."

Mandell smiled back at him.

"I am glad, my husband." She indicated the bowl and pile of clothes. "Everything is ready for your cleansing, Zuhar."

Zuhar rose and walked to the mat placed in the centre of the only room in the house. Like Mandell, he cleaned himself with one of the cloths dipped in the water and squeezed out. He donned a pair of black, calf-length cotton trousers and a red and white striped shirt with a deep fringe at the bottom.

In turn Petara and Zahira cleaned themselves also and both donned the traditional white shifts worn by young girls. Petara had helped her mother make both shifts and Zahira had helped weave the deep red pattern into the lower half of each shift. The patterns were distinctive and different and both girls felt a sense of pride as they put them on. Surely the Lord of Land and Water would be pleased to grant them rain.

As darkness fell on the village of Me-Tan, the priest began to walk slowly between the houses, stopping at each to allow the family living there to join the procession. Each family brought with them some precious article to lay before the shrine of the Lord of Land and Water; a piece of jewellery, an embroidered cloth, some food wrapped in leaves. The articles brought were varied, but represented a sacrifice on the part of each family. By bringing such articles to the shrine, they hoped that the Lord would grant them rain and the continuance of their family life in Me-Tan.

Some of the people carried burning torches to light the way across the dry and dusty fields to the shrine of the Lord situated at the extreme edge of the cultivated lands. The shrine was almost as old as the village itself and had originally been surrounded on all sides by trees. Now the fields had encroached to within a few yards of it and the shrine had just a line of trees marking its perimeter. It was about thirty feet across and in the centre was a low circular indentation in the bare earth, which was used for any sacrifices the priest placed there. No-one else was allowed in the sacred area, except during times of specific rituals. But just on the outer limit of the area was another, much smaller indentation and this was the one the villagers were allowed to approach and leave gifts within it whenever they asked some special favour of the Lord.

The whole area was regarded as holy ground and the people were always in awe of it whenever they went there. But they silently gathered in a circle around the large indentation, sticking the burning torches around the edge of the sacrificial area. The priest stood quietly, waiting while the villagers arranged themselves, shuffling and coughing, in family groups. One villager came forward, at a pre-arranged signal from the priest, leading an extremely emaciated pig by a piece of garlanded vines.

Zahira stood at the edge of the indentation close to her mother's side. She wanted to laugh when she saw the pig, but as no-one else laughed she hid her smiles behind her hands. The pig lived under the house next door, beneath the props which held up the verandah, and she would often go across to talk to it. It was a likeable pig, but over the last few months it had become bad-tempered because of lack of food. Then, as it got thinner and hungrier it had become lethargic and would spend most of its days lying in the shade beneath the verandah. Zahira would sit for hours talking to it and stroking its rough, pink flanks.

Slowly, one by one, each family brought forward their offering, placing it in the indentation and kneeling silently for a few moment to ask for the blessing of the Lord of Land and Water. Finally they went to the priest who indicated that they touch the pig on its side.

Zahira went forward with her parents and Petara. Slowly Mandell took off her "rice-grain" necklace and placed it with the other things already waiting. They all knelt for a moment and then walked to the priest. Zahira was delighted to see her friend again and stroked its side happily while she murmured a few words to it.

When all had given their offerings, the people stood in a semicircle around the gift-laden shrine, facing the priest. The torchlight flickered over their intent faces, high-lighting the thinness of all of them. The priest moved forward leading the pig, who followed slowly and lay down again, as if glad to rest. Holding a long silver knife in his hand, the priest intoned the traditional prayers for the rites to propitiate the ancestral spirit of the Lord and added a special prayer for rain to return to their village. Then he plunged the knife down and slit the pig's throat. Blood gushed out of the gaping wound, covering the ground of the shrine in a scarlet pool.

Zahira screamed...

Mandell held Zahira in her arms, trying to comfort the distraught child. Zahira sobbed as if her heart would break, the shock of seeing the pig killed so suddenly and in such a way that she could scarcely take it in.

"He was my friend," she sobbed. "I thought everyone else liked him, too; that's why they all went up to touch him. How could they kill him like that? He was my friend."

"Hush, Zahira, hush," soothed her mother. "It was wrong of me not to tell you what was to happen. I didn't realise you even knew about the pig. That pig was the last one in the village and so it was a special sacrifice to the Lord of Land and Water. The pig is now with the Lord and I am sure he is very happy to be there. It won't be long now until the rains return to our land. Then we can obtain more pigs. We'll have one, Zahira. We'll keep it under the house with the chickens."

"I don't want a pig," said Zahira, not to be comforted. "The priest will only take it away again and kill it."

"We won't need to sacrifice another pig once the rains have returned," replied Mandell, but her heart misgave her even as she spoke. Many of the villagers were shocked when they heard Zahira scream and looked upon it as an ill omen. They felt the Lord of Land and Water would not listen to their pleas and sacrifices now. Mandell and her family had been shunned by the other villagers on their way back from the shrine and Mandell felt that many of them would blame Zahira if the rains didn't come.

"I don't want a pig," repeated Zahira. "I wish I had never seen the pig. But I was so tired of trying to catch butterflies, I thought I'd try something that didn't move around so much."

"Oh, Zahira!" sighed her mother. "What were you trying to catch butterflies for? Don't you know even if you caught one you couldn't keep it. It wouldn't survive."

Zahira looked at her in disbelief.

"But why not? They are so beautiful, I wanted one who would sit on my finger, so that I could talk to it."

Mandell shook her head.

"They are beautiful, Zahira. But they would never stay with you. You've been chasing things that are never meant to be caught."

Zahira's shoulders sagged in dejection and she moved away from her mother's arms.

"It doesn't matter now," she said. "All the butterflies have gone from our valley anyway. Still, perhaps one day I may find one that will stay with me."

Slowly she wandered out of the house and Mandell shook her head again. There was nothing she could do to comfort Zahira. Growing up was a hard and lonely business sometimes.

Two weeks later, the villagers of Me-Tan were slowly filing out of their homes, heading towards the high rocky ridge that bordered their valley. Despite the special rites and sacrifices, the rains had not returned and the priest had decided that they must all set out for the Great River and find a new place for their village.

On their shoulders they carried plain canvas bags which held the things that each villager thought would be useful on the journey. What little food they had was packed carefully and carried by the women of each family. Spare clothes, blankets and what jewellery they had filled the other bags. It was little enough they carried with them, but they were all buoyed up by the prospect of finding a new fertile valley to start another village.

Once the villagers had left their own valley, they hoped to find food on the way, to supplement what they had brought with them. But the land they passed through was as dry and infertile as their own valley. The ground was dusty and clouds of it were kicked up by the feet of the people, causing them to cough and choke. It covered their hair and their clothes; it got into their eyes, ears and mouths. It was particularly trying for the young children and babies, making them cry with discomfort.

And water was a constant problem. What they had been able to bring with them, stored in the cleaned stomachs of animals, was soon used up. At each stop the men would dig in the likely looking spots, hoping to find some moisture. Sometimes they were lucky, mostly they were not. The villagers became weaker and suffered from thirst constantly. Their hopes, so high at the start of the journey, began to fall lower each day. The priest found it more and more difficult to make them continue their journey at the start of each day.

And more and more Zahira became the centre of angry looks from the villagers. If she had not screamed at the precise moment when the pig was sacrificed, they would all be home in their valley, watched over by the Lord of Land and Water. The rains would have come and they would never have had to leave their valley.

Zahira became aware that the rest of the villagers were avoiding her. She didn't understand why and at this point she really didn't care. She was exhausted, weak and had never been so unhappy in her life. Every day she hoped to see a butterfly that would be hers. It became almost an obsession and each day when she didn't find one, her spirits sank a little lower.

And then, just when they all felt they could go no further, they spied in the distance a line of trees, marking the edge of a river bed.

"It is the Great River," declared the priest and led them towards it at a quicker place. It was not as far away as it looked and soon all the villagers stood at the line of trees looking across the wide expanse towards the further bank, some hundred yards away.

The villagers of Me-Tan had expected to find a wide, fast flowing river with abundant fertile land on each side. Instead they found the Great River had been reduced to the merest trickle, its bed of pebbles and sand exposed to the hot sun, and what flowing water there was, ran down the centre of the river bed, almost fifty yards away.

The line of trees which they had seen from the distance were almost lifeless and the ground was bare and cracked. All the plants and grass had shrivelled away in the intense heat. There was sick despair in every heart and disbelief on every face as the villagers stood and looked at what remained of the river they believed would be their salvation.

They sat down, men, women and children, just where they were, trying to take in what was before their eyes. As the shock began to wear off, some of the men began to dig in the open bed of the river. Soon everyone was digging with whatever came to hand, cups, plates, sticks, bare hands, and were rewarded with small pools of muddy water. But the people of Me-tan were demoralised; although the river would supply some water, they all knew it would not be enough to sustain them for any length of time. The bare, dry banks of the river told their own story. They all knew they would not be able to build their new village here. And more antagonistic looks were cast in the direction of Zahira and her family.

When Petara and Zahira were asleep that night, Mandell and Zuhar talked the situation over as they sat beside their own camp fire, a little apart from the rest of the group. They both realised that their family was being ostracised but there was little they could do about it.

"I did not realise they would believe that Zahira's scream would affect the Lord of Land and Water. I am sure he is more understanding than that," said Mandell quietly.

"The people are desperate, many are sick. They need someone to blame for their misfortune." Zuhar sighed. "Unfortunately, Zahira provided them with that reason, or so they think."

"You don't believe so, Zuhar?"

Zuhar gave her a hug.

"Of course not, my love. Zahira is a sweet and loving child. Her scream was one of love and concern. The Lord of Land and Water would not punish a whole village for that."

"I know you are right," whispered Mandell, "but it only makes everything so much worse."

"I know," agreed Zuhar softly, "but we must have faith. All will be well in the end." He looked around at the river bed and the desolate land surrounding it.

"However, it is not what we expected," declared Zuhar. "There is not enough water here to supply all of us for any length of time. And look at the land bordering the river. It is as dry and dead as our own valley."

Mandell shook her head wearily. She had very little strength left. What food and water the family had went mainly to the two girls. And often Mandell would carry Zahira when she got tired. Now Mandell felt she could not go on.

"What is there to go on for?" she asked her husband.

"What is there to go back for?" he replied. "We must go on. There is hope in going on. To go back is to die."

Mandell looked at their two girls, asleep side by side, covered with a handwoven blanket of red and white stripes, and knew she would try to go on for their sakes. Surely somewhere there was a future for them. She felt an urge to touch them, to feel the warmth of their bodies as they slept and leaned across, gently brushing the hair back from their faces. She sighed as she looked at them, they looked so frail and thin, their eyes closed in dark hollows.

Zuhar put his arm around Mandell.

"They will survive. Children are tougher than they look."

Mandell smiled sadly.

"They have not had enough food for too long. Their growth has stopped. They look like babies again, but not the healthy babies they used to be."

Mandell's voice broke and she began to cry. Zuhar held her close, unable to offer words of comfort, for he knew whatever words he said would sound hollow and empty. In all the dark days since the drought first started it was the first time Zuhar had seen Mandell cry and it upset him more deeply than he would have thought possible. He rocked her gently in his arms, remembering the times before the children had come, when they been young and life had been good. Mandell had been one of the prettiest girls in the village and Zuhar had counted himself fortunate to have won her love. Now he looked down at her, nestled close in his arms and saw Mandell not as he always saw her, how she had always been to him, but as she really was. Her face sunken and old; and her hair thin and grey. Her body was so thin, the bones felt as they would break.

As he watched she fell asleep, her breathing shallow and regular. Gently he laid her down on the dusty earth and covered her with a blanket. He kissed her softly on the cheek and brushed her hair with his hand. She was so precious to him. Then he lay down beside her and was soon asleep.

The next morning as the sun's rays crept over the horizon, Zuhar woke to find Mandell's body cold and stiff beside him. After the years of want, followed by the long hard trek through the hills, only hope for a better future had kept Mandell going. The discovery that the Great River had almost dried up too, with the land on every side just as bare and dry as their own valley, seemed a portent of doom to her. Mandell had been unable to summon further strength to continue the struggle.

Zuhar, dried-eyed and grief-stricken, had woken the girls. At first they could not believe their mother was dead, they sat beside her holding her hands and calling to her. But she would never answer their calls again. Zuhar knew he must go on for the girls' sake, for that was what Mandell would have wanted him to do, but his heart was heavy and he felt as if a part of himself had died with her.

The priest came and prayed to the Lord of the Dead to look after Mandell in her journey to his realm. He touched her forehead wishing her well in her long journey. Then he told the villagers to rest in whatever shade they could find for the rest of that day. Zuhar must bury his wife; they would continue their journey the following day.

Zuhar spent the morning digging a grave beside the banks of the Great River where Mandell's hopes had died. The girls brought a little water from the thin trickle in the middle of the river bed and cleansed their mother's body, crying silently as they did so. They dressed her in her best clothes and put on her bracelets.

Not one person in the village helped. Mandell was the first person to die and the villagers felt it significant that it was Zahira's mother. No-one wanted to incur the disfavour of the Lord of Land and Water any further and Zuhar and his daughters buried Mandell alone. They sat beside her grave for more than an hour, telling of all the good and wonderful things that were Mandell. The Lord of the Dead should know what a good and deserving woman she was, deserving of admittance to the realm of the dead.

For three more weeks the people of Me-Tan followed the course of the Great River as it meandered out onto the plains. Walking was easier now, as the land flattened out, but it was as bare and as barren as the rest of the land they had walked through.

It was towards mid-day on another hot, dry and dusty day that the villagers saw something on the horizon. It appeared dark, and spread out across a wide area. They could hear the murmur of many voices and there drifted towards them on the faint breeze an unpleasant odour. The villagers stopped for a moment, disconcerted.

"We must go on," declared the priest. "Whatever is ahead of us, we must go on. The Lord of Land and Water will not let us down."

But dark and baleful glances were cast in Zahira's direction and the slow march of the people became slower as the dark stain on the horizon came closer.

The villagers of Me-Tan had found Camp Meo-Sun.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Five

Kirk walked briskly towards the transporter room early the next morning, but early as he was, Spock was before him.

"Morning, Spock. All ready?"

"Good morning, Captain. I have not yet seen Doctor McCoy, but Mr Scott will be here to transport us to the planet surface. I have fed the co-ordinates into the computer."

"Very good, Spock." Kirk turned as the door to the transporter room swished open and Scotty entered followed by the two security guards detailed for the landing party.

"Morning, Captain. Morning, Mr Spock." Scotty walked over to take his place behind the transporter controls. "Ah, co-ordinates already fed in. Thank you, Mr Spock."

Spock merely nodded slightly.

"Where's Bones?" asked Kirk, a touch of impatience in his voice. "I guess he slept through his early morning call." Kirk moved over to the console. "Just buzz him' Scotty, will you. Just to make sure he's actually awake."

"No need to call me, Jim." McCoy's voice sounded somewhat testy as he came through the door. "I'm right here and before you say anything I'm not late. It's precisely 6 a.m."

Kirk grinned at him.

"Well done, Bones. I'm glad you decided to join us."

"I was under the impression it was an order," retorted McCoy as they all made their way onto the transporter pads.

"When you're ready, Mr Scot," said Kirk. "We'll report back to the ship at one hourly intervals."

"Very good, sir."


Slowly the sparkles of light took them away as Scotty activated the controls.

As they materialised on the planet's surface, their first impression was of heat, noise and smell – it was like the outskirts of hell.

Whichever direction they looked in, all they could see were people; people lying huddled on the hard, dusty earth; people shuffling aimlessly from one point to another, causing dust to swirl around their feet and into the faces of anyone they passed; people who moaned in pain, children who cried in bewilderment, voices that babbled in delirium.

The heat was almost overpowering after the controlled coolness of the Enterprise and Kirk could feel the sweat break out on his face and between his shoulder blades. And the smell was indescribable; dirty, unwashed bodies, the sickly sweet smell of disease and the offensive odour of human excrement. For a moment they were all stunned; whatever they expected it had not been anything like this.

Kirk rubbed the back of his hand across his face, unsure for a moment in which direction to go.

"Do you think there is anyone in charge of this...?" He gestured wordlessly at the people all around them.

"There must be doctors here, surely." McCoy's voice held a note of disbelief. "All these people; there must be someone at least attempting to look after them."

But there was uncertainty in his voice as he surveyed the incredible scene in front of him.

"I would say by their condition, that that is extremely unlikely," replied Spock. "Many of them seem to show symptoms of extreme malnutrition, as well as other diseases."

"Well, for once I agree with you, Spock."

McCoy knelt down beside a young woman who lay on the bare earth holding a tiny, fragile baby.

"May I look at her?" he asked.

The woman nodded apathetically.

"How old is your child?"

"She is three years old." The woman's voice was low and husky an devoid of any expression. It seemed to take her a great effort to speak at all.

"Three years!" exclaimed McCoy in horror. "Jim, look at this child – she doesn't look more than six months."

Kirk looked down at the tiny morsel of humanity as she lay in the woman's arms and the expression on his face told of the horror he felt that equalled McCoy's own. The child's eyes were enormous in her thin face; her stomach was hugely distended and her arms and legs merely bones covered with skin.

"There's nothing we can do at the moment, Bones," said Kirk, his voice quiet and grim. "Leave the child with her mother."

"I must do something to help..."

"That's an order, Bones. Look around you. Everyone is like that. We've got to find the person in charge here. There must be some sort of order in all this hell."

McCoy gently replaced the rags around the child and returned her to her mother. The child lay quiet and was as apathetic as the woman. It was almost more than McCoy could bear to turn and walk away.

"I believe I see tents in that direction," observed Spock, pointing towards the south east, where several low canvas like structures could be seen through the swirling dust.

"We'll head in that direction then," agreed Kirk. "I think you can put your phasers away," he added quietly. "I don't believe we'll be meeting much opposition here."

The walk which followed was one of the most horrific any of them had ever taken. They had materialised on the outer fringes of what was obviously an area where people had come in total and final despair. They had no hope of finding anywhere else to go; no-one in their right minds would choose to live in this way. Large, shallow rectangles had been scooped out of the earth, each area inhabited by a small family unit. There were no walls, no roof, no privacy; each rectangle was only a couple of feet away from the next. The earth that had been taken from the holes were just dumped at one side and left – a dry dusty hump.

The people who lived in these holes had virtually nothing but the clothes they wore. Maybe an old pot and a battered can, a stick to help some of the more infirm people to walk. It was a scene of utter and terrible despair.

The eyes of the destitute people followed the men from the Enterprise as they passed, but their expressions were dead; they were without interest, without hope. And wherever they went there flies; great fat ugly creatures, who buzzed and flew among the huddled masses. They could be seen crawling over the faces of the people who were too apathetic to brush them away.

As Kirk and his men moved further into the camp, there were some small tents, providing a little shelter from the heat and dust for the lucky few who owned them. It was Spock who finally saw a large wooden structure with a corrugated iron roof. As they approached they could see that it had a large red cross painted on it; if there was anyone in charge they must surely be here.

Kirk entered the building, closely followed by McCoy and Spock; the two security guards remained outside. After the brightness, it took a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the dim light within. Air and daylight came in through small rectangular openings set high, near the roof. One thin shaft of sunlight filtered through, illuminating the misery of the crowded floor. Lines of people sat or lay side by side on the hard-packed earth; their bodies thin to the point of extreme emaciation, many were delirious with fever. There were many children with the now familiar distended bellies and stick-like legs and arms; some were crying, some too far gone to cry, lay still with their huge eyes staring into nothingness. The smell of sweat, vomit and human excrement was like a miasma and clung to the nostrils of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, making them feel physically sick.

As they took in the scene before them, they became aware that moving amongst these desperately unhappy people were several others who seemed to be doctors or nurses. Even as they watched, one of them, a young woman, came towards them. Her face held an expression of hopeful disbelief.

"Where have you come from?" she asked. "Don't tell me the government are finally recognising that we have a problem here and are sending help?"

Kirk held out his hand.

"I'm Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets. This is my First Officer Mr Spock and my Chief Surgeon Doctor McCoy. No, we're not from the Government, but we are certainly here to help in any way we can. And you most certainly have one hell of a problem."

"You're right there, Captain. I'm Doctor Serena Macauley. I'm here entirely without authority, as are the rest of the team. We're here because we can't be anywhere else when there is suffering like this on such a scale. What can you do to help?"

McCoy shook Serena Macauley's hand.

"I have a fully equipped surgery and hospital on board the Enterprise. I can manufacture what drugs you need. I also have a first class medical team. Tell us what you want."

For a moment Serena Macauley was silent; she seemed stunned. She ran a hand tiredly through her hair and gave the men a somewhat shaky smile.

"I can't quite believe that someone has actually come to help and has something solid to offer."

She sniffed and gave another smile, but Kirk could see there were tears in her eyes. He caught hold of her arm.

"We'll do everything we can, but first we need to know the extent of the problem. Let's go outside and then you can tell us how all this came about."

Serena nodded her head.

"Just give me a moment. I must finish with the patient I was dealing with."

"Of course."

The men watched as Serena picked her way through the sprawling bodies. She knelt beside a young child and wiped the sweat from his face with a small cloth, then gave him a sip of water from a plastic dipper and then helped him lie back on the hard earth. She said a few words to him and then, picking up the dipper and a large plastic canister, she walked back to the Enterprise men and led the way outside.

Adjacent to the wooden building was a small canvas tent. As they went inside they saw it contained no more than a few rucksacks, obviously holding personal belongings and a few sacks and crates of dried food. There were blankets on the ground where people slept.

Serena smiled wryly.

"This is our home. This is where my team and I sleep. Not very impressive I grant you, but it's all we have. The food that you see is all we have left to feed everyone." She laughed mirthlessly. "I just don't think it's going to be enough to go round. Actually, we are expecting a delivery – it's overdue in fact. A couple of trucks are supposed to be on their way to us. They just haven't arrived yet."

"But how did this happen?" asked Kirk. "Where did all these people come from? Why aren't the government helping? I spoke to Charles Evard a couple of days ago and he appeared to know nothing about this. He spoke only of two camps in the south."

"He never mentioned Camp Meo-Sun?" asked Serena.

"Camp Meo-Sun?"

"Captain, this is Camp Meo-Sun and I know Charles Evard knows about it. He just chose not to tell you."

"But why?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." There was a shadow in Serena's eyes that suggested that she knew more than she intended to say. Kirk decided not to press her on the issue, there were more important things right now.

"These people are from the hill area, aren't they?" Kirk asked.

"Quite right, Captain. The Kariang."

"Are conditions so bad in the hills?"

"So bad, Captain, that they prefer to live like this." She gestured to the people huddled outside. "The drought has hit the hill area much worse than the plains. The village land has dried up and no longer supports enough crops to keep the people alive. The wells they dig no longer bring up water; the streams and rivers have dried up. Even the Great River is a mere trickle now."

"But how do so many come to be here? And why this particular area?"

"Mainly they have walked here or they have been carried. Once they left their villages they headed for the Great River, each village tribe hoping to make a new home on its banks. When they reached the river and found conditions hardly better than where they came from, they followed the course of the river and eventually found Lake Meo-Sun. When the first tribes came here, the lake was a reasonable size and as well as being fed by the Great River, it has a smaller river entering at its north eastern end. For some freakish reason for which we are duly grateful, this river has not dried up and so the lake is our only source of water. But with the Great River now down to a trickle and the numbers of people who are constantly arriving the lake is getting lower and lower. The water will not last forever. Our situation is quite desperate, Captain."

"I realise that, Doctor Macauley," said Kirk gravely.

"We are doing what we can," continued Serena. "The camp is spread along the southern and western shore of the lake, so that the people do not have too far to walk for water. No-one has very much stamina. We have dug several wells along the edge of the lake to tap the water table. So far the water is sufficient, but only just."

Kirk looked out over the crowded, dusty camp before him, his hazel eyes dark with concern. There were so many people, huddled close together, trying to survive in incredible conditions that he could scarcely take it in. And they had seen only a small area of the camp. Kirk never expected to see anything quite like this and he knew that in the face of such a problem his starship, despite her immense resources, could only begin to try and help a very small proportion of the people here.

He turned to McCoy, seeing the same expression of stunned despair on the doctor's face as Kirk felt himself. He laid his hand on McCoy's arm.


McCoy turned to him slowly like a man awakening from a nightmare.

"Jim," his voice was the merest whisper. "I can't believe what I'm seeing. All these people... all the suffering..."

"I know, Bones, I know." Kirk gave McCoy's arm a squeeze. "We've got to do what we can."

Kirk could almost see McCoy giving himself a mental shake.

"You're right, Jim." McCoy's voice was louder and more positive. "I'll get a list of medications required."

"Right. I'll leave the medical side to you and Doctor Macauley here. Let me know as soon as possible exactly what you need. Strip the Enterprise bare if you have to. I'll contact the Federation for what we need."

"O.K., Jim. I'll get on to it right away."

Kirk turned to Serena.

"In the meantime, Spock and I will try and work out what food, stores and general goods we can provide immediately. And what the camp needs in the way of emergency supplies from the Federation."

"Just about everything we can lay our hands on," replied Serena. "Thank you, Captain." She heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. "Perhaps there is a god after all. If there is, he's certainly answered my prayers. Now what do you want me to do?"

"I'll need someone to take me round the camp; show me what, if any, facilities you have. What needs to be done. I have a work force of over four hundred people who, if I know my crew, will all want to help. Have you any idea how many people are here?"

"With people arriving constantly and the many deaths which occur daily I can't say with any degree of accuracy, but I would say about sixty thousand."

"Oh my god!" Kirk's voice was quiet and he could now see the enormity of the problem even more clearly; and the odds against which Doctor Macauley and her band of followers had been battling. He could feel his anger begin to rise. It was impossible for the Mercian Government not to know about this camp. Why had they refused to help? And what was worse, why had Evard pretended that it didn't exist and try to prevent Kirk from finding out about it?

Sometime in the near future, Kirk decided, he was going to pay Evard another visit and find out what the hell was going on. But for now his main concern was to get help for the camp started. Serena Macauley watched Kirk for a few moment and saw the play of emotions over his expressive face; she knew somehow that here was someone who would be as good as his word. It felt good to know that soon something positive would be done to alleviate the suffering of Camp Meo-Sun.

Finally Kirk turned to Serena.

"O.K. Let's get started. Have you someone who can take Spock and me around the camp?"

"Yes, I have; his name is Tom Butler. He usually spends most his time walking the camp trying to help those who are too weak or ill to be brought to the hospital. He knows the camp very well. Fortunately at the moment he is working at the hospital. I'll go and get him."

"Thanks, Doctor Macauley. He sounds ideal." He turned to McCoy with a smile. "Well, Bones, I take it you are volunteering to remain at the hospital."

"I sure am, Jim. This place is..." McCoy shook his head. "I just haven't got the words," he finished quietly.

"I understand, Bones. I feel the same." Kirk's voice was quiet. "But we are sure as hell going to do something about it." He nodded in the direction Serena Macauley had taken. "Go ahead. Get your medics down as soon as you like."

"Thanks, Jim". McCoy hurried after Serena's retreating figure.

Kirk looked at Spock.

"You've been very quiet, Spock."

"Indeed, Captain. As Doctor McCoy observed, there are no words. For once he is absolutely right. This whole situation is beyond belief and I am at a loss to explain the behaviour of the Government in allowing this situation to develop in the first place and then refusing to acknowledge its existence."

"Well, that is one thing I am going to find out from Charles Evard. You and I will be paying him a visit as soon as we have some idea what help Doctor Macauley and her team need. He has certainly got a great deal to answer for."

"It would seem they are critically short of every basic requirement. We can supply a great deal from the Enterprise stores and Mr Scott can manufacture more, but..."

"But it's not going to even scratch the surface," broke in Kirk. "Yeah, I know. The sooner we see the camp, the sooner I can inform the Federation. The sooner the supplies get here the better."

Kirk walked out of the tent into the hot sun. The security guards were waiting patiently for him. Kirk could see the shock in their faces.

"It's not pretty, is it?" he said as the guards looked at him.

"Captain," Elmson's voice shook slightly. "I can hardly believe what I'm seeing. It's like some awful nightmare. What can we do to help."

"I want you and Hughes here to return to the Enterprise. It's not security guards that are needed here, but people to help. At the moment I am not sure just exactly what is needed, but Mr Spock and I will be inspecting the whole camp and when we return to the ship I will be talking to the whole crew. Don't worry, there will be plenty for you and everyone else on the Enterprise to do down here before long."

"Thank you, Captain," replied Elmson, reaching for his communicator. Within a few seconds the two guards shimmered away.

Kirk looked round as Spock joined him and saw a small, frail looking child who sat on the dry earth near the tent. She wore a grubby red and white shirt and her legs and arms were painfully thin. On impulse Kirk bent down and picked her up.

"Hello, young lady. What's your name?" he asked smiling into her enormous brown eyes.

"Zahira," she replied quietly, unafraid of this stranger, who had so boldly picked her up. "And I'm ten and I live here."

Kirk couldn't speak for a moment. Ten?! The child looked no more than five; she was tiny and underdeveloped; she seemed to weigh no more than the proverbial feather. He forced a smile back on his face.

"Ten, eh?" he said. "How long have you been here?"

"A long time. I hoped when we came here there would be butterflies, but although I've looked and looked, I haven't found one."

"I don't think you will find any butterflies here. They like flowers and growing things. I'm afraid it isn't the right kind of place for butterflies."

"Oh dear," sighed Zahira. "I always wanted to catch a butterfly but I never have. Have you ever caught one?"

"No, I don't believe I have," replied Kirk in amusement. "I really don't think butterflies like to be caught."

"My mother told me that too. But I still want one."

"Where is your mother?" asked Kirk looking around.

"My mother died a long time ago. And my father and sister died soon after we reached here." Zahira's tone was matter-of-fact, but there was a loneliness and sadness in her eyes which told of pain suffered and borne with stoicism, because there was nothing else to do. Kirk could feel a lump in his throat as he looked at Zahira, knowing she was probably just one of so many; it somehow didn't make it any easier.

Zahira looked at him and smiled.

"You don't have a pig, do you?"

"A – a pig?" Kirk's voice was a little bemused. "I don't believe we do have a pig, do we, Mr Spock?"

"I am afraid, Zahira," said Spock seriously, "a pig is not a creature we have on the Enterprise."

Zahira looked at Spock for the first time. Her eyes widened. She turned in Kirk's arms to whisper loudly in his ear.

"Why are his ears like that?"

Kirk couldn't suppress a smile at the rather indignant expression on Spock's face.

"It's because he's a Vulcan. The ears may look a trifle odd but they hear exceptionally well."

"Oh dear," Zahira whispered even lower. "Do you suppose he heard me?"

"I'm afraid so. But he's used to people making remarks about his ears."

"I wish, Captain, that you would refrain from speaking about me as if I wasn't here."

Kirk grinned.

"Sorry, Spock."

"Why does he call you Captain?" Zahira questioned.

"Because I am a Captain of a starship."

"A starship?"

"It's a little difficult to explain. But it's a kind of ship that sails in space instead of the sea."

There was a puzzled frown on Zahira's face.

"I... see," she said, but it was obvious that she didn't understand at all.

At that moment Serena Macauley came out of the hospital with a young man with a mop of curly brown hair and an engaging smile.

"Captain Kirk. Mr Spock. This is Tom Butler. He'll be your guide around the camp."

Carefully Kirk placed Zahira on the ground.

"It's been nice talking to you, Zahira. But now I have to walk around the camp."

"I know the camp very well. May I come too?"

Kirk looked at Tom.

"O.K. with you?" he asked.

"Sure. We all know Zahira anyway. Don't we, moppet?" And Tom Butler ruffled her hair.

Zahira smile and took hold of Kirk's hand. Zahira felt she had made a friend.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Six

Late that night Kirk paced the floor of his cabin, unable to sleep. The awful scenes he had seen at Camp Meo-Sun played themselves continuously in his mind, making sleep impossible. The suffering he had witnessed was not something to be forgotten and anger at what he had seen added to his sleeplessness. He intended to visit Charles Evard again the next day to try and force some answers from him; to find out the reasons why Camp Meo-Sun had been allowed to happen. But he knew that whatever he found out from Evard would do nothing to help the present situation at the camp.

After he had beamed back with Spock to the Enterprise, they had both quickly made their way to the nearest briefing room and making use of the computer there, had spent several hours trying to work out the best way the Enterprise could help. Supplies of grain, lentils, dried milk, rice were got ready for transporting down to the surface, but the amounts were far too small to be of any real help. Blankets, clothes, small tents, utensils, all were ordered to be manufactured in the highest possible numbers, but again the amounts were meagre compared to the numbers living in the camp. There was a limit to what one starship could do.

Kirk instructed Uhura to open a channel to the nearest Starbase and for the next hour talked to the Commander in charge. Soon materials and provisions of all kinds would be pouring into Mercia, but for many of the people that help would be too late.

Kirk sighed. He was exhausted and he knew he needed to sleep; he forced himself to climb into bed and dim the lights. For the moment he had done all he could. He had called for volunteers to help at Meo-Sun and Kirk was proud and moved when the entire crew of the Enterprise volunteered. Once he had finished speaking to the Starbase he and Spock had worked for several more hours arranging schedules for everyone to help somewhere in the camp, whilst maintaining a skeleton crew aboard the ship. Now it was all finally done and Kirk knew that tomorrow would be even busier than today.

There would be the distribution of the supplies; the setting up of small hospitals around the camp, manned by the Enterprise crew, each in charge of one of the Enterprise's medical teams. He had not heard from McCoy since he had left him at the hospital, apart from an enormous list of medical supplies which he had left with Uhura, adding a message to say he hadn't time to report back in person.

Kirk turned on his side and closed his eyes, willing sleep to come. Instead a small, painfully thin child with enormous brown eyes appeared in his mind's eye. Zahira. Somehow he couldn't get her out of his mind. He had heard part of her story from Tom Butler. She had arrived a the camp about eight months ago with a small group from a village called Me-tan. Zahira was with her father and older sister. And for some reason which Tom couldn't fathom the whole village shunned them. When they had settled at the camp, Zahira and her family had lived at a considerable distance from the rest of the villagers. Zahira's sister had died almost immediately, the long trek south had been too much for her. Zuhar, the father and Zahira had taken the body to the burial grounds alone, none of the villagers accompanied them and Tom had found this extremely unusual. When he had spoken of it to Zuhar, he had shrugged his shoulders and refused to answer.

Zuhar and Zahira had found a small piece of earth near the hospital and had dug the usual rectangular hole to live in. But Zuhar had become more and more apathetic every day and faded quietly away three months after his elder daughter. Tom had helped Zahira bury her father as there was no-one else and from then on Zahira had stayed near the hospital, helping when she could. She was always bright, always cheerful, always hopeful of finding the butterflies.

"It's become a symbol to her," Tom had said. "A symbol of happy times with the people she loved. When she was a child the valley where she lived was full of butterflies – she was always trying to catch them. She remembers those days as happy and full of love, when her only unfulfilled need was to catch a butterfly. Now, she is trying to recapture that happiness and subconsciously she feels if she catches a butterfly she will find herself in the valley with her family again."

Tom had shrugged his shoulders. There were many such sad tales in the camp. Tom spent his days trying to alleviate some of the suffering and much of his time was spent listening to such reminiscences. Zahira was one of many. But to Kirk she was somehow a symbol of Camp Meo-Sun, and what the drought and famine had done to everyone there.

Finally he fell asleep, but his dreams were disturbed by butterflies, pigs and a small girl named Zahira.

The following morning Kirk and Spock had breakfast early. There was no-one in the dining room and they were able to discuss further details of the plans to help Camp Meo-Sun.

Starbase Twelve had been alerted and was already contacting the rest of the Federation with news of the tragedy. It would not be long before help was on its way, but in the meantime the Enterprise had to try and provide as much help as possible for the people at the camp.

Kirk and Spock spent a great deal of time looking through lists of materials which Scotty had provided and deciding in exactly what way they could be used to be of the greatest help.

"I think with the manufactured metallium it would be best to provide hospitals at five positions throughout the camp, rather than individual shelters. At least it means that there is a centre for medical help not too far away from everyone and it will also provide shelter for the most seriously sick where they can at least stand a chance of recovery." Kirk looked down the lists in front of him and his lips tightened for a moment. "Even so, it's little enough. With five hospitals we'll be able to provide five hundred beds or at least sleeping places – out of sixty thousand."

He shook his head and looked at Spock.

"When do you think the first supply ships will be here, Spock?"

"I would estimate at least three weeks, Captain. The ships have to be loaded, the goods made ready. The journey from Starbase Twelve itself is time consuming. The authorities have been told that medical aid and supply is of the first importance."

"Have we enough medical supplies to last until the first supply ships arrive?" asked Kirk.

"I fear not, Captain," replied Spock. "There is a limit to what we can manufacture with the raw materials we have."

"I have advised Starbase Twelve that we must have a complete stock of a starship's supply of raw materials. We cannot afford to be completely without resources."

"Indeed not. I trust that will also be given priority."

"I think Commander Pearson realised that," said Kirk with a grin, remembering that his words to Pearson had left the Commander in no doubt as to what Kirk required and expected.

Kirk finished his coffee and replaced the cup in the saucer.

"Any more news of that surge of energy, Spock?"

"No, Captain. It does not seem to have occurred again. I am at a loss to explain the reason for it."

"Well, don't worry about it. Perhaps it was a fluctuation of the sensors themselves."

"Possible but unlikely. I rechecked the sensors myself. It is most odd."

Spock pushed his plate to one side and clasped his hands in front of him on the table.

"There is something I wish to tell you, Jim." He stopped and looked around the still empty dining room. "I have given the matter a great deal of thought and I want you to be the first one to know of my decision. I know this is not a good time to add to your problems, but in a way the situation we found at Camp Meo-Sun has brought things to a head."

Kirk looked at his friend in concern. He had known there was something bothering him for quite a while now.

"Go on, Spock, " he said quietly.

"I intend to resign from Starfleet at the end of this mission." Spock could not bring himself to look at his Captain as he spoke, knowing the shock and dismay he would see there.

"What!" Kirk's voice was barely a whisper. "Are you serious, Spock?"

"Quite serious, Jim. Let me explain if I can."

"I'd be interested to hear."

"When I thought my father was dying and I was the only one who could save him, it created a special bond between us." Spock shook his head. "When I put my position in Starfleet before the life of my own father I did not hesitate in my decision. I knew it was the only course I could take, but afterwards I had time to meditate. For eighteen years Starfleet had been my whole life. It had been my own decision made in the face of direct opposition to my father. I did not consider how he felt, nor did I consider how my mother felt during those eighteen years when my father and I did not speak. I had all that I wanted and I was content. I was also selfish. Why should I be arrogant enough to live my life while causing deep unhappiness to others. Do you understand, Jim?"

"Not really, Spock. Every parent must face the knowledge that their child must eventually live its own life and it often isn't what those parents want. If the parent are honest enough they must surely realise that if their child is happy that is the most important thing."

"Perhaps to Humans that is true. But for a true Vulcan like my father it would not be so. It had been planned since my birth that I would enter the Vulcan Science Academy and become a true Vulcan despite the Human blood that I carried. Although my father loved my mother, he did not want to accept a half Human child. I must be all Vulcan.

"I thought I was all Vulcan here in Starfleet, but I realise that I am in error. Having spoken with my father in great depth, I can see how much I have deviated from true Vulcanism. Sarek has asked me again if I will join him at the Vulcan Science Academy and he will help train me in the rites that will endeavor to exorcise much of my Human side."

"And what does Amanda think about all this, Spock?" asked Kirk.

"It will not be discussed with her, but she will, of course, be in full agreement with my father."

"Of course." Kirk's tone was slightly ironic.

"It has not been an easy decision to make. I have spent many hours in meditation. It will not be easy to leave Starfleet." He looked down at his hands again. "Nor to leave the Enterprise. I value your friendship more than I can say, Jim. You have supported me in many ways and I will treasure the memory of our time together as Captain and First Officer of the Enterprise; as you have said, the finest Starship in the Fleet."

Kirk could barely hear Spock and he leaned forward slightly.

"You said, Spock, that Camp Meo-Sun brought matters to a head. What did you mean by that?"

"What I saw at Camp Meo-Sun affected me profoundly, Jim. I have never been so moved by so much suffering."

"But surely anyone would feel that, Spock? The conditions down there are appalling. The plight of those people couldn't fail to affect anyone who saw it."

"I disagree, Jim. Vulcans pride themselves on not showing emotion and yesterday..."

"I wasn't aware that you showed any emotion. Damn it, Spock, you can't resign simply because of the pity you felt for the suffering humanity down there. I need you here, on the Enterprise. You are someone I can rely on whatever the situation. You've save my hide and pride on more than one occasion. How can you turn your back on everything we've built over the years?" Kirk's tone was almost pleading. "Besides, you're my friend, my very valued friend, and I don't want to lose you."

"I'm sorry, Jim." Spock's voice was barely a whisper. "My mind is made up."

There was a silence. A silence of anguish and pain at something vital and valuable that was to be lost. Kirk stood up.

"I won't try and persuade you, Spock. I think far too much of you for that. But I will hope that somehow you will change your mind. Life will be pretty bleak on the Enterprise without you." He looked down at Spock's bent head and sighed.

"Mr Spock. I think we have an appointment with Charles Evard that we have to keep."

Spock looked up his face expressionless. He knew Kirk would always go on whatever the difficulties, whatever the pain. It was one of the many qualities of Kirk's he admired. He rose to his feet, knowing they both had their jobs to do.

"Indeed, Captain, it will be... interesting to hear what he has to say."

Kirk and Spock materialised in front of Government House and hurried up the steps and in through the doors. A guard challenged them, but recognising them both from their last visit, he let them pass.

"No doubt he will ring through to Landers to notify him that we are here," remarked Kirk. "Unfortunate. I wanted to confront Evard before he had a chance to concoct some glib story. He's a very tricky customer."

"He will have an explanation ready. I do not think he is such a fool as to believe we would not find Camp Meo-Sun."

Kirk sighed.

"I know you're right, Spock. I just wanted to get some reaction out of him when we first confronted him with what we know. I cannot understand how anyone could let such a situation develop. Do you think he knows what conditions are really like at the camp?"

"I think it unlikely. He will have had reports of course, but reading is not the same as experiencing." Spock was silent for a moment. Kirk glanced at him in understanding. No-one could fail to be shaken to the core by the sights at Meo-Sun. If Evard had been there surely he could not have sat back and let the conditions continue.

They reached the door to Landers office and Kirk opened it and walked in. Landers was just coming out of Evard's office.

"I'd like to see Mr Evard immediately," Kirk announced, striding towards the door.

"I'm afraid Mr Evard is not available at the moment, Captain." Landers gestured towards some chairs. "If you'd like to take a seat."

"I think not," replied Kirk. "When I say immediately, I mean immediately."

He pushed past Landers who tried to block his way, but Kirk was not to be stopped. He flung open the door and walked through, with Spock at his heels. Landers, slightly distraught, followed them in.

"I'm sorry sir," he said worriedly. "They refused to wait."

Charles Evard beamed genially.

"That's quite all right, Landers. I'm always happy to see Captain Kirk and his First Officer, even if their entrance is a little, shall we say, unexpected.

"Unexpected, Evard?" questioned Kirk. "Did you really not expect us to visit you again?"

"Of course I knew you'd see me again," smiled Evard. "I just didn't expect you at this moment. What can I do for you gentlemen? Do sit down."

Kirk ignored his invitation.

"We'd like you to tell us what you know about Camp Meo-Sun."

"Meo-Sun," Evard replied in puzzlement. "I don't think I know what you're talking about."

Kirk came closer.

"I think you do, Evard. How could you possibly fail to know what is happening in all parts of Mercia? You told me the Kariang were unaffected by the drought..."

"Correction, Captain," Evard interrupted. "My words were, I believe, 'the hills are said to be unaffected'. I also pointed out that the Kariang are a very independent people. They do not like interference by the Government in their affairs."

"So you ignore them, is that correct?" questioned Kirk.

"Ignore, Captain? No, we don't ignore them. Of course we would help if they asked us. But they haven't asked."

"And because they haven't asked, you haven't helped. Those people in Camp Meo-Sun are dying in hundreds every day. They are sick, disoriented, unable to help themselves. Why aren't you there?"

"Camp Meo-Sun? I've told you I don't know what you're talking about."

Kirk swung round to Landers who still standing at the door.

"What about you Landers? What do you know about Meo-Sun?"

"I...I..." Landers looked at Evard, a trapped look on his face.

"If Landers knew anything about the camp," interrupted Evard smoothly, "he did not inform me about it."

There was shock on Landers' face.

"That's not true, Captain. Mr Evard knew as much as I did about it. He was given all the reports as they came in."

"Then they must have slipped my mind." Evard's tone was calm. "A matter of no importance. I have a great deal to concern myself with, as you well know. I have a large city here that needs help. That is why I contacted you."

"A matter of no importance," Kirk repeated Evard's words slowly. "There are sixty thousand men, women and children living like animals in Camp Meo-Sun. They are all suffering from malnutrition, many are literally starving. They are ill; they have no homes, no hope, nothing. They are dying every day. There are children being born there, who stand no chance of survival at all. And you call that a matter of no importance." Kirk's anger was cold and implacable. "At some point you must have had the opportunity to help these people, before the whole thing reached such incredible proportions; before the suffering on such a scale had started. At that point you could have helped. Or you could have called us. Why didn't you?"

There was a silence. Kirk looked from Evard and Landers and back again.

"Nothing to say?" he asked. "My god, Evard, you have a lot to answer for. And I am going to make sure you pay for it."

"Pay for what?" Evard began to bluster. "I had my own people to look after. I had neither the supplies nor the people to help. What was I supposed to do? And the news that came through was never detailed or comprehensive. I had no idea that the situation was as bad as you say."

"Then you should have found out. The Kariang are your people too. They are just as much your responsibility as the rest of the continent. If you had called the Federation a year ago, many of the problems you have now would not exist. I am holding you personally responsible for what has happened and I shall make that clear in my report to the Federation."

"You can't hold me responsible, Kirk. I didn't cause the drought." There was a desperate edge to Evard's voice as he began to realise that all he had worked so hard to achieve, the power, the reputation, the Governor-Generalship, was beginning to slip through his fingers.

"No, you didn't cause the drought," replied Kirk. "But by your attitude of doing nothing to help the Kariang, you have brought these people to a level of existence that no human being should have to sink to."

"How could I have prevented it? We have little enough in the southern areas – barely enough to feed the people here."

"You could have given them an equal chance. You could have tried. But most important of all, you should have called the Federation as soon as you realised there were people in need. There are a thousand worlds out there, all ready to help." Kirk spread his hands in an attitude of bewildered enquiry. "I don't understand why it took you so long to call us."

Evard looked out of the window, all his suavity of manner gone.

"Being Governor-General of Mercia means a lot to me. It is something I have worked and struggled for over the years. And I had made a success of it. A real success. Until this damned drought." He shrugged his shoulders. "I thought at first I could manage everything. I made all the plans, set up the camps, endeavored to increase production. I husbanded the resources of the planet. I was so sure that the drought wouldn't last; that I would be able to hold out. But things just got worse as the rains failed again and again; and food stocks got scarcer and scarcer.

"The reports I received concerning the Kariang at first were brief and held little information. There was no formal request for help, so I decided they could manage on their own."

"Without finding out more about them?"

"I was wrong, I can see that now. But at the time, it seemed the only thing to do. I had little to give them anyway."

"But why didn't you call in the Federation?" asked Kirk yet again.

Evard looked at them with despair in his eyes.

"Pride, I guess, Captain." he replied. "Pride and the hope that things would change. A wrong decision made at the wrong time. Has a man to be damned for that?"

"Maybe not, Evard," replied Kirk. "But it isn't that simple, is it? You deliberately played down all the problems you have on this planet." Evard made as if to speak, but Kirk held up his hand. "We've found out a great deal since we took up orbit around Mercia. There's not much you can hide from a starship."

Evard's shoulders drooped.

"What are you going to do now?"

"As far as you are concerned, there is nothing I can do," replied Kirk. He was tired of dealing with Evard. With the lies he had told how was Kirk to know if he was telling the truth now? Besides, finding out why Evard hadn't done anything wasn't important now. That could be sorted out by the Federation Council; what was important now was getting help for the people of Meo-Sun.

"I shall make my report to the Federation," continued Kirk. "If you can find any mitigating reasons for your behaviour, that will be up to the Federation to decide. I shall expect a written report from both of you to be submitted to the Council as soon as possible. In the meantime, I want you to give Spock here every possible help you can in locating and distributing supplies that you have. I will be sending a team from the Enterprise to co-ordinate the storage and distribution of goods and materials as they arrive from the Starbase, for as long as they are needed. Everything will go where it is needed most. I shall expect your full co-operation."

He looked long and hard at both Evard and Landers, wondering just how far he could trust either of them, but realising also that he had little choice in the matter.

"I shall leave you with this thought, gentlemen. The deaths that have occurred at Camp Meo-Sun and the many more who will inevitably die there, will be on your consciences."

Kirk turned on his heel and marched from the room, closely followed by Spock.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Seven

For McCoy the hours which followed his entry into the Meo-Sun hospital took on the aspects of a nightmare. The dust, the heat, the flies were constant irritations that had to be lived with; the pain, the fever, the weakness of all the patients he saw, McCoy did all in his power to alleviate, but always felt he was fighting a losing battle in a life and death struggle for survival.

Within the first hour three patients had died; one, an old man, simply from starvation - he had no strength left to fight.

Another was a teenage girl with malaria and severe malnutrition. She had cut her foot on a sharp stone two days before and septicemia had set in quickly. With no reserves of strength and no drugs to fight the overwhelming infection, she had succumbed quickly. The third was a young baby with gastro-enteritis; with little stamina the baby had died quickly leaving the mother too apathetic to do anything but lie on the earthen floor letting the flies walk over her face, into her eyes, her mouth, without bothering to brush them away. McCoy had been appalled at his inability to save them and had renewed his efforts with the other patients crowded together on the floor.

The first consignment of drugs and vitamins from the Enterprise arrived just after the baby had died. Serena and McCoy had opened the boxes together, Serena hardly able to believe the quantities of everything that arrived. But as McCoy pointed out, these drugs would alleviate the symptoms of the disease in a lot of people, but might not necessarily save the patient. All the people McCoy had looked at were suffering one sort of vitamin deficiency or another; deformed bones, thinning hair, sores, infected gums, rotting teeth, most patients had at least one or more of these symptoms. Eye infections of all kinds were common, the worst being trachoma, which unless caught early enough led to complete blindness.

"We have to do what we can," said Serena, as she carefully unloaded the drugs, setting them on a long table in the doctors' small tent adjoining the hospital. "There are too many people here for us to cope with. We haven't the facilities, the drugs or the time. We look at everyone who comes to us for help; if we can help them with what we have and we know they will survive, then we treat them. If we know that whatever we do they are going to die anyway, then we save the drugs for those who will benefit..."

"But good god, Serena..." exploded McCoy.

"I'm sorry, Leonard, that's the way it is. What else can we do? If we can save some of them, it's worth it."

"But to have to make that decision. Surely it's better to give everyone some hope?"

"And then find that when you've got to the end of the line that there are three patients who will die because you have given the drug that would help them to three other patients. And those three are dead by then anyway. That makes six dead instead of three. Not a nice choice, but with the situation as it is now, we have little choice. With the drugs and vitamins from the Enterprise, we can save more people And once regular supplies of food are coming through we can try and get people on to some sort of regular, nourishing diet. As things stand now, the people in the camp have little or no resistance to any of the diseases that go through the camp from time to time. We don't even have inoculations to give them."

"Well, I can get those from the Enterprise," said McCoy reaching for his communicator.

"What, for sixty thousand people, Leonard?"

McCoy's shoulders slumped and he replaced his communicator.

"You see, Leonard?" she asked. "We have to be hard, it's the only way we will pull at least some of the people through." She put her hand on his shoulder. "I know exactly how you feel. I felt just the same when I first came here. But after working under these conditions for a while, you have to adopt a philosophical attitude to it or go under yourself, and that would do no good to anyone."

McCoy looked at her with admiration in his eyes.

"You're right, Serena. Let's get back to work."

A couple of hours later, Kirk beamed down with a team of a dozen men, plus several large containers of material. After consulting with Serena Macauley, Kirk started the men on constructing a pre-fabricated hospital containing enough space for a hundred people. Serena was almost overwhelmed when Kirk told her that four other identical hospitals were to be set up at regular intervals along the length of the camp. It had stretched the Enterprise's resources to the limit, but Kirk had felt these hospitals to be of vital importance. And Serena agreed with him.

"We can start trying to impress the need for personal hygiene," she said, as she watched the men start the building of the hospital. "Try and cut down on the infections they pick up in the hospital."

Kirk turned to indicate some small boxes nearby.

"These contain disinfectant and fly spray guaranteed to kill any fly stone dead within seconds! These hospitals' windows have fly covers on them, so perhaps we can stop the source of a lot of the infection."

Serena looked at Kirk.

"How can I thank you, Captain?"

"There's nothing to thank me for. When I look around at the people here and know how heartbreaking it must be to have to try and bring some help with what little you have at your disposal..."

Kirk shook his head. His admiration for Serena Macauley and her dedicated band of workers knew no bounds.

"You're very kind, Captain."

"Please call me Jim. And kindness has nothing whatever to do with it. Once you have seen what a pitiable state these people are in, you have to help. And I'm glad to say every one of my people feel the same. The crew of the Enterprise volunteered to a man."

"And they're all helping?" asked Serena incredulously.

Kirk smiled.

"Indeed they are. And there's something I'd like to ask you to do. I have teams setting up four other hospitals throughout the camp. I'd like to visit each one with you, to make sure they are all meeting your requirements."

"Certainly, Jim. Whenever you like."
"I'd like to have one of your team in each hospital working with one of my medics, so that together they can give the maximum amount of help to the maximum number of people."

Serena's eyes lit up and a smile transformed her face.

"That's marvellous."

"It has been worth it just to see that smile on your face," said Kirk gallantly.

At that moment Kirk felt a hand slip into his. He looked down into Zahira's upturned face.

"Hello, Zahira," he smiled at her, giving her hand a small squeeze. He could feel the bones in her hand and was half afraid she would break, she seemed so fragile.

"I hoped you would come again. Have you been in your - starship?" She brought the word out proudly, pleased she had remembered it.

Kirk smiled down at her and picked up in his arms. She felt as light as thistledown and it didn't seem possible that a child of ten could weigh so little.

"Yes, I've been on my starship for a short while. Now I've come down to try and help the people here."

Zahira looked at the men building the hospital; most of the walls were locked together and standing upright.

"What are they doing?" she asked.

"They are building a bigger, better hospital where Doctor Macauley can treat a lot more people."

"Will you treat me, Doctor Macauley?" Zahira asked.

Serena and Kirk laughed.

"If you are sick, I most certainly will."

"I think I'm sick already." Zahira said seriously.

Kirk looked at her thin face and emaciated body and found no difficulty in believing that she was ill. He put her down on the ground.

"Why do you think you are sick, honey?"

"I used to be able to run and jump and I can't do that any more. It makes my head dizzy and my legs feel weak. I have to sit down."

Kirk closed his eyes for a moment, a sickening sense of futility of it all overwhelming him. The child hadn't had enough to eat for years, no wonder she could no longer run and jump. If she contracted any serious illness she would stand no chance of survival.

Serena put her arm around the child.

"You feel like that because you don't have enough to eat, Zahira. But Captain Kirk will be helping to provide a great deal of food for everyone, you included. It won't be long before you are able to run and jump just like you used to." Kirk and Serena's eyes met over the child's head and Kirk raised his eyebrows questioningly. Serena gave a slight shrug of her shoulders and shook her head slightly. All would depend on whether they could build up her resistance before she succumbed to some disease.

"Will the butterflies come back, too?" asked Zahira.

"Maybe," replied Kirk. "But I'm afraid it will take a while before they do."

"Perhaps they will be waiting in the valley when we..." Zahira stopped and an odd expression came over her face. It was all to clear that Zahira had suddenly realised that it was unlikely that she would ever return to the valley where she had once lived so happily with her family. She was now the only one of her family left alive and the immense loneliness she must feel struck both Kirk and Serena as they watched Zahira's face, as she battled against those happy memories.

"We are going to tour the camp," said Kirk, in an effort to distract her. "Would you like to come with us?"

Zahira brightened visibly.

"Yes, please," she said. "But I don't know if I can walk so far. My legs do get tired."

"Don't worry, Zahira," soothed Serena. "We're going to take the jeep." She looked at Kirk. "It's not often we can use it, but I think this is a good time, don't you?"

"It will save us a lot of time," agreed Kirk. And sweeping Zahira up in his arms he followed Serena to the jeep.

It took them nearly the whole of the day to visit each of the hospitals which were being erected. The camp covered a wide area and each hospital was being built at a point equidistant from the next, enabling each one to help as many people in the camp as possible.

It was surprising how quickly the buildings were going up and by the time Kirk and Serena visited the last hospital, work was almost completed. The walls were up, the roof on and a laminate floor already laid. The fly meshes were just going onto the windows and some of the Enterprise crew were loading supplies into the hospital.

Kirk spoke to his men, congratulating them on the swiftness with which they had put up the buildings; while Serena walked around the hospital, marvelling at what she saw. The area for patients was divided into four wards, each capable of holding twenty five people. There were no beds, but plenty of thick, clean blankets were in a pile in readiness against the walls. There was a large kitchen and food storage area; a row of ten chemical toilets; and a small operating theatre. It was almost more than Serena could take in. After months of trying to help these people with scarcely any amenities at all, to suddenly find that she now had the facilities she had longed for, was unbelievable.

She turned to Kirk, her face aglow.

"We'll really be able to do something for these people now," she exclaimed. "And with the medical supplies and provisions coming through soon, we should be able to get many of these people on the road to recovery. Of course, it will be uphill work, and especially so until the rains come again, but at least we have the lake. Why, what's the matter, Jim?"

Serena stopped suddenly, seeing an expression of concern cross Kirk's face.

"To be honest, Serena, Spock and I aren't sure that the rains will ever come to Mercia again."

"What? You can't mean that. The whole planet will die. No-one would survive. All this," she gestured at the hospital and supplies, "will be wasted."

"I'm hoping that it won't happen. Spock has found out that the axis of Mercia has shifted several degrees and it's that which has caused the drought. Unless we can get the planet back into its correct position, Mercia will indeed dry up. But Spock is working on the problem and I have a great deal of faith in Mr Spock's abilities." Kirk grinned at Serena. "Try not to worry about it. We'll do everything we can and as well as the Enterprise Science Department, the scientists of the Federation will be working on the problem too. I'm sure something will be worked out."

"I hope so. I surely hope so." Serena's tone was quiet and there was a look of despair in her eyes. Kirk was quick to notice and he put his arm around her shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Serena. I shouldn't have told you. You have enough to worry about as it is. And it's something which might never happen." He thought for a moment. "Tell me, how long is it since you left the camp?"

"It must be well over a year. I can't really remember the last time I was off camp. Why?"

"I think a change of scenery is in order," declared Kirk with a wide grin. "We'll drive back to the main hospital. You will give the necessary orders to enable you to have an evening off and I will take you to dinner aboard the Enterprise."

For a moment Serena was speechless.

"Oh, that would be wonderful." Then she looked down at what she was wearing – a creased blouse, blue denim dungarees in the later stages of despair and a pair of dirty scuffed sneakers. "But I haven't a thing to wear."

Kirk burst out laughing and gave her a hug.

"It's just what I might have expected. But I think somehow that the Enterprise might be able to rustle up a dress of some description."

"Really?" Serena looked rather sheepish. "Would there be a chance of a hot shower as well?" She asked hesitantly.

"Every chance," replied Kirk "I shall personally make sure that you have everything you want to ensure you a memorable evening."

"Thank you," murmured Serena, looking round for the little girl.

"Zahira is sound asleep in the back of the jeep. She is quite worn out. Poor little kid. We'll tuck her up somewhere when we get back to the hospital."

"I feel as if I'm a princess going to a ball," laughed Serena. "Will I have to be back by midnight?"

"But of course," said Kirk laughing at her. "Or the ugly godmother will turn me into a toad."

"I think you've got the fairy stories muddled somewhere."

"I most probably have." Kirk grinned. "But I promise you a very pleasant evening and I can show you my ship." There was pride in Kirk's voice as he spoke of the Enterprise which was hard to miss and Serena watched the Captain's expressive face and knew that she was indeed going to enjoy the evening ahead.

Serena and Kirk beamed aboard the Enterprise a couple of hours later. Scotty greeted them with a wide smile.

"And how are the hospitals looking, Captain?" he asked.

"You did a great job, Scotty," replied Kirk with a grin. "The hospitals are just about complete and Doctor Macauley here is delighted."

"Delighted is an understatement," said Serena. "Overwhelmed and incredulous maybe. I still can't quite believe it has all happened so quickly. It's certainly given all my team a lift; at last there is hope that we can actually help these people For many months now, we've felt we've been fighting a losing battle."

"I'm glad everything seems to be what you needed, Doctor Macauley," replied Scotty.

He turned to Kirk. "Mr Spock has arranged for a meal to be served in the Officers' Mess in one hour's time, sir, for the three of you."

"You're not going to join us?" Kirk asked Scotty, in surprise. "You are invited you know."

"Thank you, sir. But with all due respect, I still have quite a bit to do. There are still some more supplies to be transported down to the planet's surface. I have a team bringing them to the transporter now. And with all the prefabricated material we've manufactured, I really need to do a bit of maintenance. Much as I'd like to join you, I'd rather get on with what I need to do."

"Of course, Mr Scott," replied Kirk with a smile. "I appreciate all your hard work. But don't forget to get some rest. Tired minds and hands make mistakes. I need to keep everything running smoothly in Engineering."

"Aye, sir. I'll remember."

Kirk ushered Serena to the door of the transporter room and as the door swished open, they stepped out into the main corridor.

"I've arranged for you to use a spare cabin, just along the corridor from mine. The ensign who uses it was detailed to stay with Ambassador Sarek on Corridan, so it's empty at the present time. I'll show you how to program clean clothes and one of my lady ensigns kindly left some make-up on the table in there. Take your time."

As they talked, Serena and Kirk moved into the turbo-life and were now heading for deck five.

"You seem to have thought of everything, Jim."

"I hope so. After a year at Camp Meo-Sun, you deserve a special evening."

The turbolift doors opened and they both stepped out. The ensign's cabin was only a few yards along the corridor and when they reached there, Kirk showed her in and explained how to dial up what she required at the console.

"If there's anything you want and can't get from the computer, press the intercom button here and ask Spock or myself. I think the whole thing is pretty easy to use, though."

He smiled as he walked to the door.

"Enjoy yourself and I'll pick you up in an hour."

"Thank you, Jim."

Left alone, Serena sat in front of the console and dialed up new underwear, new sandals and a long, silky blue dress. It took several minutes to arrive, but Serena was delighted with everything. She laid the things carefully on the bed and then began to undress.

Standing under the shower, feeling the hot water soak over her body, was almost sensual. It had been so long since she had anything more to wash in than just a few drops of water in a basin, she had almost forgotten how good it felt. She washed her hair and spent a while drying it and arranging it to her satisfaction. The hour was up almost before she realised it.

Kirk's eyes widened slightly as he took in Serena's changed appearance.

"It's amazing what an hour can do," he said in admiration. "You look wonderful."

"Why thank you, Captain." She twirled in front of him. "I feel wonderful. I had forgotten how it felt to be really clean."

Kirk held out his arm.

"Doctor Macauley, may I have the pleasure of taking you to dinner?"

"You may indeed, Captain Kirk." And Serena smiled radiantly at the handsome Captain of the Enterprise.

Dinner proved to be excellent. Spock had chosen the menu well and Serena enjoyed the first good meal she had had since she had arrived at the camp.

The three of them talked of many things and Kirk tried to steer the conversation away from Meo-Sun, to give Serena a short time when she could forget just what awaited her on her return to the surface. All too quickly the meal was over and although they talked for a long while over coffee, at last Spock rose.

"If you'll forgive me, Captain, Doctor Macauley. I still have a few more calculations I would like to finish tonight."

Kirk looked hard at him.

"Take it easy, Spock. We still have a long way to go before the end of this mission. A certain amount of rest is essential to all members of the crew."

Spock nodded his head.

"Understood, Captain."

He bowed slightly to Serena and walked quickly from the room. Kirk looked across at Serena.

"Would you like to see over the Enterprise?" he asked and there was an eagerness in his voice.

"Yes, very much," she responded. "it's the first time I've ever been on a starship."

It took over two hours to tour the sections which Kirk felt Serena would be interested in. She was fascinated by all she saw and was amazed at the complexity of the Sickbay, envying McCoy the facilities he had there.

The Bridge was quiet when they visited it, the lighting low and only two crewman manning it.

"It's usually a hive of activity," stated Kirk with pride. "It's the heart of the ship and the place I like best to be. But there are two other places I would like to show you".

Kirk pressed the button to open the door to the Enterprise garden; the smell of damp earth and fresh growing things assailed their nostrils. Serena took a deep breath.

"My goodness, I had forgotten how wonderful plants could smell," she exclaimed in delight. "How do you manage to keep such a place here on the Enterprise? It's just like being back on Earth."

"In some ways, it's an essential part of life on board ship. Sometimes we are away from any sort of planet for months at a time and we see Earth perhaps every two years or so. Humans need to be reminded of home and this is the best way we could think of doing it." Kirk smiled. "I sometimes think it keeps me sane."

As they talked, Kirk led Serena into the garden, along the path between masses of flowering bushes and shrubs. On every side plants seemed to be bursting with life and Serena couldn't help but reflect at the contrast with the planet's surface.

"Sometimes, it's difficult to find a time in here when you can be on your own," continued Kirk. "I think most crew members come here fairly regularly."

"But who keeps it like this?" asked Serena. "It's all so well cared for."

"We have our own Enterprise gardener, believe it or not," replied Kirk with a laugh. "I don't very often see him, but I believe he is quite happy keeping the garden on the same yearly cycle as earth."

"I wonder why he ever left Earth," commented Serena, gently touching one of the flowers and smiling at its fragrance. "If he really loves gardening, space doesn't seem the kind of place to be."

"I guess not," replied Kirk, breathing in the smell of the garden with deep satisfaction. "But I'm glad he decided to. Would you like to sit here for a while? I don't think there will be many to disturb us at the moment."

They had come upon a rustic seat and sat down near some small rhododendron bushes.

Why did you decide to come to Camp Meo-Sun?" asked Kirk. "How did you come to be on Mercia anyway?"

"I was born on Mercia," replied Serena. "As long as I can remember I always wanted to be a doctor. I knew the best possible training I could get was on Earth. So I applied to do my training there and I was lucky enough to be accepted by an English University. My mother was the daughter of an Englishwoman who had emigrated to Mercia before she married. So I had always wanted to go to Earth. I remember the time spent there as some of the happiest days of my life.

"After I became a doctor I worked for a while in one of the big London teaching hospitals. It was during a trip home that I heard about Camp Meo-Sun and of how badly they needed doctors. Tom Butler had come to Oceanside to try and raise money to buy supplies for the camp. He was an old friend of mine and we got together for a meal. It seemed like the first square meal he'd had in months. He told me all about Meo-Sun and I went back with him."

"How long ago was that?"

"Well over a year now. Once I had seen the way people were living there and how much help they needed there was no way I could go away again. I wrote to the hospital back on Earth and explained what I had got involved in and said I wouldn't be returning."

"I wonder why nothing was made known about the conditions in Mercia, back in England. If the hospital knew the situation there, surely they would have done something about it."

"I suppose it was very much a private letter and I made no special request for aid. I wish now that I had. I just took it for granted that aid would be forthcoming from the Mercian government. Even then I didn't realise the extent of the problem or how much worse it was going to get." Serena turned to Kirk. "I can't tell you how marvellous it is that you have arrived to help us. Yours is truly a mercy mission."

Kirk looked down into her large sparkling eyes and slid his arm around her shoulder.

"I'm only too glad we came," he replied softly. He pulled her close and kissed her gently on the mouth. "I'm even more glad I brought you here." He kissed her again and Serena's arms crept round his neck, her fingers ruffling his hair. Eventually they pulled apart and Kirk smiled one of his rare and lovely smiles; it made Serena catch her breath and she tried to slow her breathing a little.

"I believe there is another place you were going to show me," she said in an effort to recover herself.

"Yes, there is." Kirk released her and stood up, taking her hand in his. "I think it is the place where you actually realise that you are on a starship. I'll take you there now."

Slowly they walked out of the garden, Serena with some reluctance leaving the green and growing things behind. It would be a long time before she saw anything like that again, but she was intrigued to know where Kirk was taking her now.

He took her to the observation deck, activating the covers so that she could look out into the darkness of space. From this angle Mercia was hidden and the complete glory of the stars shone, gleaming against a background of darkest night.

"I didn't realise how bright the stars could be," said Serena in wonder.

"There's no atmosphere to mask their beauty," replied Kirk. "Somehow it gives one a new perspective on things – the stars seem timeless. Are our problems so enormous that they can't be solved somehow? I wonder. At the moment, Camp Meo-Sun is like a sore on the face of Mercia. A weeping, suppurating sore that I sometime feel will never heal. But up there?" Kirk shrugged his shoulders. "Here, watching the stars, I feel perhaps that things will get better. Somehow an answer will be found for putting Mercia back on its correct course and we can help those people down there."

"Not all of them." Serena's voice was quiet. "Some of those people are so far gone that nothing we can do for them will save their lives. It makes me wonder why it all happened."

"One of the unsolvable puzzles of our universe. We may not be able to solve the problem why, but we may be able to solve the problem of how."

He looked down at her, his eyes soft and seductive. "But for the moment shall we put our problems aside and just live for the moment. Tomorrow isn't that far away."

He took her in his arms and kissed her long and deeply. Tomorrow would inevitably come, but for a few moment both Kirk and Serena could forget those problems and live these stolen minutes to the full.

They made their way back to Kirk's cabin and he led Serena inside, locking the door as he did so. The lights were low and Serena could only see Kirk's outline standing before her. Slowly he reached out and took her in his arms, pressing her body close to his. She could feel him completely aroused against her and her arms curled round is neck pulling his head down towards her. His lips came down hard on hers and Serena could feel her own excitement rising as he kissed her long and completely. She could feel him shaking slightly and then he suddenly swung her up into his arms and carried her to the bed.

Camp Meo-Sun had never seemed so far away.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Eight

The following morning Kirk escorted Serena to the transporter room.

"Thank you for a wonderful evening, Jim," She said. "I can't remember when I've enjoyed myself so much." She paused for a moment, a wistful look on her face. "And the garden seemed like a little piece of heaven."

Kirk smiled.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. It always seems special to me too. Particularly after Camp Meo-Sun."

They were both serious and then Serena straightened her shoulders and stepped onto the transporter pad.

"And I must get back there," she said. "There is so much to do."

"I'll be down later," replied Kirk. "I have several things to do up here first."

He activated the controls and Serena disappeared in a sparkle of golden dust.

The message came through from Starbase Twelve only minutes before Kirk arrived on the Bridge.

"It seems, Captain, that there are three cargo ships on their way to Regus IV," said Spock, coming to stand beside Kirk as he sat on his command chair. "They are fully automated, no crew aboard any of them; they contain grain, flour and medical supplies. Regus IV have said that in the circumstances they can wait for another consignment. They want the cargo ships rerouted to Mercia."

"That's wonderful, Spock," replied Kirk. "Where are the ships in relation to Mercia?"

"It will take the Enterprise five point seven days to reach the cargo ships' present position. Their close proximity is one of the main reasons for Regus IV asking that the ships being rerouted."

"Very well, Mr Spock. You will take the Enterprise out of orbit at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow, and make all possible speed to intercept the cargo ships. Scotty will go with you and take a skeleton crew to man the ship". Kirk consulted the chronometer. "There should be enough time for Scotty to complete the beam down of supplies and for the crew remaining on Mercia to collect the basic essentials from their cabins to last them for the ten days the Enterprise is away." Kirk glanced up at Spock. "I'll leave that to you to organise, Spock."

"Very well, Captain."

"I have to go down to the planet surface to see how arrangements are getting on. I also want to check on Bones. I haven't seen him in quite a while. Is there anything else before I go?"

"One small thing, Captain," returned Spock. "The power surge I registered has occurred again. In exactly the same place and for exactly the same length of time, two point three seconds." A frown furrowed Spock's brow. "I am still at a loss to explain what it is."

"Show me exactly where it occurs."

Spock went to punch up a map of Mercia at this station's viewer. Kirk came to stand beside him.

"Just there, Captain." Spock's finger indicated a small area, several miles to the east of Camp Meo-Sun.

"Is there anything mapped in that area?"

Spock's hands pressed several buttons, calling up any information the computer had. He raised his eyebrow as he read what the computer had called up.

"There appear to be ruins of a very ancient kind. The computer is unable to give an exact date for them, but certainly older than five thousand years."

Kirk's face showed his surprise.

"Another civilisation then. One which we know nothing about."

"It would appear so, Captain. Unless the Central Library of Mercia has data on the ruins which we haven't."

"Is that possible, Spock?" Kirk's voice held a note of amusement.

"It is possible, sir, but extremely unlikely."

"Oh." Kirk allowed himself a smile. "And these ruins are where the surge of energy is emanating from."

"So it would seem. But again, it is no explanation of what is causing it."

"Well, keep an eye on it, Spock. If I get the chance I'll try and get a look at the ruins. It's probably nothing, but we all know it pays not to take chances."

"Indeed, Captain."

A short while later, Kirk beamed down to the central hospital, pleased to see that already some of the patients were occupying space there. Patients were being moved from the older hospital, so that it could be cleaned and disinfected properly, before putting more people into it. Kirk could see McCoy kneeling beside a sick child who had just been moved and went across to speak to him.

"How's it going, Bones?" he asked quietly.

McCoy looked up, his face grey and haggard.

"Not good, Jim. These people are so sick I don't know if we'll ever get them well. The sheer numbers are so huge, how can we possibly hope to do any good." His voice wavered.

Kirk laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Bones, when did you last have any sleep?"

"Sleep? How can I sleep when there is so much to do?"

"You have to sleep and eat, or you're going to be as sick as they are."

"Don't fuss, Jim," said McCoy testily. "I'm just fine. The whole thing just gets to me somehow." He waved his hand in the direction of the door. "Go on, go on. Get on with whatever it is you're doing and let me get on with my work."

Kirk stood looking down on him for a moment.

"I'm going to make a tour of the camp and when I come back I want to see you resting. You're pushing yourself too hard. I don't want you to crack up."

"O.K. O.K. Whatever you say, Jim. Now let me get on with my work." McCoy turned back to the child, laying his hand on its forehead and murmuring quiet words of comfort.

Slowly Kirk walked out of the hospital and into the hot, bright dusty sunlight. Zahira detached herself from the doorway where she had been waiting for him.

"May I go with you, Captain Kirk?" she asked, looking up at him and slipping her hand in his. Kirk looked down at her and was struck by the child's pallor and she looked thinner than ever.

"Are you all right, Zahira?"

"I did feel a little odd when I got up this morning, but I'm all right now. And I wish the sores on my arms didn't hurt so much."

"What about the ones on your shoulders? Do they hurt as well?"

Kirk shook his head slightly, knowing that most people on the camp had sores due to the lack of vitamins in their diet. Perhaps the tablets and liquids the Enterprise had produced would help.

"I expect Doctor Macauley could give you something for them, Zahira. Shall we go and ask her?"

"Oh, I already did. She gave me a tablet and put some powder on the sores." She held out her arms and looked at them. "That did help a little." Then she lost interest in the conversation. "Can I come with you?"

"How do you know I'm going anywhere?"

"You just look as if you are going somewhere," replied Zahira, knowingly. "Can I?"

Kirk picked her up.

"Yes you can, you cheeky young devil." He carried her to where the jeep was parked and sat her in the passenger seat. "Best behaviour, mind!" he admonished.

"I'll be good," Zahira sighed as she settled herself comfortably in the seat. "I like being with you," she added ingenuously.

Kirk grinned.

"And I like having you along."

He got in beside her and started the jeep.

It was several hours later that Kirk returned from his tour of the camp. He had satisfied himself that all the hospitals were beginning to function well and he had several plans in mind to help those people who were still a long walk from the hospitals. He dropped Zahira off outside the hospital, with a promise to take her with him tomorrow. Then he moved quickly inside to check up on McCoy, knowing in his heart that the doctor would still be there.

Kirk spotted him immediately and walked up to him.

"O.K. Bones. I thought I told you to rest."

McCoy slowly stood up, his back and legs protesting as he straightened. His eyes were bloodshot and seemed to have aged ten years.

"Bones!" Kirk's voice was shocked. "You look terrible. You're coming with me now. And that's an order."

"Order, Jim? How can I obey an order like that?" McCoy's voice seemed strange and faraway. "I've got work to do here. I can't go with you."

Kirk took hold of McCoy's arm and shook it."

"Bones! Snap out of it. Look at yourself. Look at your hands."

He grasped McCoy's wrists lightly and held them out in front of him. "They're shaking so much you can't possibly work with them."

McCoy looked down at his hands in puzzlement.

"Can't understand it," he muttered. "I haven't been here long. Not like me to shake like that."

"You've been here almost three days, Bones. And I'm willing to bet in that time you have given yourself no rest and no sleep. Have you even stopped for food?"

McCoy shook his head.

"I can't remember."

Kirk put his arm around McCoy's shoulder and steered him out of the hospital. Once outside he flicked open his communicator.

"Kirk to Enterprise. Two to beam up."

"Ready to energise, Captain," came Scotty's voice.

As they materialised on the platform aboard the Enterprise, Scotty came forward in concern.

"Leonard, what have you been doin' to yourself? You look terrible."

McCoy gave a faint grin as he stumbled of the transporter pad.

"So the Captain has already told me. Can't say as I feel any better than I look." He shook his head. "But it's hell down there. You'd never believe..." His voice tailed off and a look of horror came into his eyes. "I can't tell you..."

"Don't try, Bones." Kirk's voice was gentle and concerned. "Not at the moment. I'll take you to your cabin and you can have a shower while I order up some food."

"Whatever you say. You're the Captain." But McCoy's voice was weak and there was no trace of his former ebullience. Kirk and Scotty exchanged looks, their eyes reflecting the worry they felt for their friend.

Once in his cabin, McCoy collapsed on the bed. Kirk helped him off with his boots and socks. He looked up at Kirk as he placed the boots by the side of the bed and tossed the socks into the disposal chute.

"Can you manage the rest or do you want me to help you?"

McCoy struggled to his feet, a touch of pride in his demeanor.

"I can manage just fine, thank you Captain." He started to take off his now dirty blue top. "Just punch up a long mint julep, will ya?" His voice was muffled through the fold of his shirt. Kirk smiled and left him to it.

It was a good twenty minutes later when McCoy appeared, dressed now in pyjamas with a short robe over the top. He looked slightly better, but there were still the traces of what he had witnessed etched on his face and dark marks around his eyes. His face lit up when he saw the mint julep waiting on his desk and on a tray beside it a three course meal. He looked at Kirk who sat at the other side of the desk; he too had a tray in front of him.

"I thought you were going to spend the night in there." Kirk inclined his head towards the shower. "Feel any better?"

"Some," replied McCoy as he sat down. "Enough to feel I could eat this now." He took a swallow at the julep and grinned. "One of your better ones, Captain. And don't look so worried. I'm O.K."

Kirk smiled at him, but there was concern still in his eyes. He knew what it was like at Camp Meo-Sun and could understand something of what the doctor must have been through down there.

"Eat up your food and then get some sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."

McCoy sighed.

"I guess so." He picked up his knife and fork and started eating. Kirk watched him for a moment, glad that he was actually eating something. "I'll be grateful if you don't just sit there and watch me as if I were something in a zoo, Jim."

"Sorry, Bones." Kirk turned his eyes to his plate and started on his own meal. They ate in silence for a while, each busy with his own thoughts. Neither of them had expected to find such horror when they had first come into orbit around Mercia. It had seemed just like another standard mission. Now both men knew that they were involved in a human calamity which they must do all in their power to alleviate. As they finished the meal, Kirk looked across at McCoy.

"Do you feel like talking about it?" he asked sympathetically.

McCoy pushed his tray to one side and clasped his hands in front of him on the table.

"I guess I do, Jim. I don't think I could sleep without getting some of it off my chest. It's not pretty."

"I know that," replied Kirk quietly. "I've spent a lot of time down there, too, remember."

McCoy was silent for a moment, almost as if he was gathering his thoughts.

"It's the kids that get to you most, " he said finally. "No energy, don't even want to talk. They don't cry much, they've so little energy. But when they do – oh god – it's enough to break your heart. Do you know, Jim, I've delivered two babies while I've been down there. Neither of them weighed more than four pounds and neither are going to make it past their first birthday."

"You don't know that, Bones. It won't be long before the first supplies start getting through to the people in the camp."

"And you think that is going to solve the problem right away? Like waving a magic wand and it will all go away." McCoy sighed. "I wish it were that simple. This camp is so big, it's going to take years to try and help everyone back to some kind of normal life. These people have been living on a starvation diet for so long that their bodies won't be able to assimilate a normal diet straightaway.

"They're going to need medical care, diet control and advice on how to try and return to their normal diet without killing themselves. And most of these people are so frail, it wouldn't take much to push them beyond what their bodies can take." McCoy put his head in his hands. "I've seen so many die, Jim. But it's the children who really get to me. Some go easy, almost as if life had always been too much for them. Others tried to fight with what little strength they had..." McCoy's voice broke. "And I could do nothing. Nothing! Just sit there and hold their hands. God, Jim, I've never felt so useless." He covered his face with his hands, but not before Kirk saw the tears filling his eyes and spilling unchecked down his cheeks. He walked round to McCoy, going down on one knee beside him.

"None of us can do very much at the moment, Bones. But at least we are here. We're going to be able to help these people soon. I know how you must feel, Bones, but it's not your fault. You've done all you can."

"I've done nothing." McCoy's voice was husky and shook slightly. "Eased their pain a little. Helped them die. Is that what a doctor is supposed to do? I'm supposed to cure people, help them to live, not help them to die." He took a deep breath, trying to control his emotions, but the many hours he had spent at Camp Meo-Sun had to be paid for and finally McCoy broke down completely. Kirk held him close, knowing there was nothing he could say that would help McCoy now. Perhaps just being able to talk about it a little and yes, perhaps crying over it would help more than anything that Kirk could say.

Finally McCoy looked up and gave a shaky laugh.

"Sorry, Jim. I..."

"You don't need to say anything, Bones. Here, let me get you a handkerchief."

"Top drawer." McCoy gestured towards a chest near the bed. Kirk fetched him one and McCoy blew his nose noisily.

"Would you like another drink? What about a Saurian brandy? It'll make you sleep." Kirk smiled at him, understanding in his eyes.

"A Saurian brandy would be fine; I could use one." He blew his nose again. "Sounds kinda funny, but somehow I feel better."

"It doesn't sound funny at all," replied Kirk. "You've been working in hell for three days without a break; you needed some release from all that tension."

"Been reading your psychology books again, Jim?" There was a smile on McCoy's face which this time reached his eyes.

"Well, I don't reckon that's a bad thing, Doctor."

"Really? Well, I reckon if you stick to commanding and I stick to doctoring, we all will get on just fine." He laid a hand on Kirk's arm. "Seriously, Jim, thanks for being here when I needed... someone."

Kirk smiled a special sweet smile.

"What are friends for, Bones?"

McCoy slept late the following morning; Kirk had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. When he finally did awaken, he was ravenous and dialled up a huge breakfast, before heading for the shower again. Somehow the smell of Camp Me-Sun seemed to fill his nostrils and he couldn't seem to wash away the odour that clung to him. Perhaps it was more in his mind than in actuality, but McCoy wanted to make the most of the Enterprise facilities while she was still in orbit.

Ready once more to tackle the problems that awaited him on the planet's surface, McCoy made his way to the transporter room, his mind already busy with all the problems that he knew would be there when he reached the hospital. The crowded wards would be full of people, lying prostrate on the floor, their bodies wasted by malnutrition and disease; they would be suffering and dying, trying to preserve a little of their Human dignity in the face of death and disease on an immense scale. It was their eyes McCoy remembered most; eyes huge in emaciated faces, watching him continuously as he tried to bring some measure of help to as many as possible; eyes that held no hope, unable to believe that he could relieve their pain and suffering. Sometimes McCoy thought that those eyes would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.

He materialised just outside the hospital and stood for a moment in the heat of the forenoon, reluctant for a moment to go inside and take up the burden again. He looked around at the groups of people squatting in holes around the hospital; their faces reflecting the apathy and despair that was part of their lives. To one side several rows of small tents had been erected, providing some sort of shelter from the heat and dust. The tents had been provided by the Enterprise and McCoy knew that Scotty had beamed down as many as he could, but it was only here in the camp, that it became evident just how little a starship could provide in the face of such vast numbers of people.

McCoy sighed and turned back towards the hospital just as Kirk came out with Serena.

"Hi, Bones. How are you feeling this morning?" enquired Kirk with a smile. "You look a good deal more rested than last night."

"I feel just about human again." McCoy smiled at Kirk and laid a hand on Kirk's arm. "Thank you, Jim."

Kirk shook his head.

"Glad you feel that I was able to help. You've certainly done it for me enough times."

They exchanged a smile of deep friendship and mutual respect. Then McCoy turned to Serena.

"How are things down here this morning?"

"Not good, Leonard. We have an outbreak of influenza in the camp."

"On top of everything else!" exclaimed McCoy.

"On top of everything else," repeated Serena, a note of despair in her voice, "These people have so little resistance to any disease that any infectious condition can become a killer on a wide scale."

"What can we do to help?" asked Kirk.

"Well, I'd like to try and isolate as many as possible in the old hospital. We've moved everyone into the new one now and the old place is being cleaned and disinfected at the moment. It seems that the outbreak is mainly at the south-eastern end of the camp, so we are the nearest hospital. If we can try and isolate those people who have flu by bringing them to the old hospital, we may stand a chance of containing it."

"I'll get a team of my men to bring some gurneys down from the Enterprise," said Kirk. "How far away are the victims?"

"Fortunately, only half a mile or so," replied Serena. "But you'll have trouble with the gurneys, the ground is so uneven."

"Leave that problem to me," stated Kirk. "You concentrate on getting the flu patients comfortable when we get them here." He turned to McCoy. "Bones, I'll need you to tell us who are flu patients and who are not. You come with us and we'll get these people to the hospital as soon as we can."

For the next few hours, Kirk, McCoy and the team from the Enterprise which Kirk had called down, worked in the searing heat trying to isolate those people who were suffering from flu. It was heartbreaking to realise just how ill many of these people were and how many really should be in a hospital. It was hard to only take those who had flu and leave others, just as desperately sick with other diseases, in their holes and makeshift tents.

Just before fourteen hundred hours, Kirk's communicator bleeped. It was Spock.

"I thought I should inform you, Captain, that I shall be taking the Enterprise out of orbit in twenty point two minutes."

"Thank you, Spock, I'll beam up immediately. He turned to McCoy, kneeling on the ground beside him. "I shan't be long, Bones. Anything more you need from the ship?"

McCoy looked up from examining an elderly woman.

"I think the Enterprise is just about cleaned out, Jim. Just tell Spock to hightail it back here as soon as he can."

Kirk grinned

"O.K., I'll do that. All your personal stuff down here? We'll be living rough till the Enterprise returns."

"I guess we can stand it," replied McCoy wryly. "We have a lot more than these people have."

They both stood for a moment looking out over the vast extent of the camp, lying breathlessly in the heat of the day. The dust was like a choking curtain that covered the camp in all directions and people could be seen moving slowly, their figures wavering in the heat.

"Makes you wonder how they stand it, doesn't it?" McCoy said quietly.

"I guess they have no choice, " replied Kirk. "When they arrive here, they are just about at the end of their strength. There is literally nowhere else to go."

Kirk took out his communicator. The sooner the Enterprise departed, the sooner she would return with those much needed supplies. The grain and medications were badly needed and Kirk was grateful that they would soon be here. But until a regular, long term supply of help for the camp was established they could do only a limited amount. There were more people arriving every day, adding to the problem of survival; some so weak they had to be carried by their marginally stronger family or friends. Some he knew would die before they had been in the camp many days. Kirk sighed and wondered how Serena had managed to maintain such a hopeful attitude in the face of such despair.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Nine

Spock was waiting for Kirk, when he materialised aboard the Enterprise. They walked quickly to the Bridge, discussing the final details as they went.

"You're sure there will be no problem rerouting the ships?" queried Kirk.

Spock lifted one eyebrow in surprise.

"Certainly not, Captain," he replied with some indignation in his voice. "The code of each vessel is known to me. It is just a question of reprogramming the computer with the new route and destination."

Kirk smiled at him.

"I never doubted you, Spock."

"Then your question was quite superfluous."

"I am just anxious to have the supplies from those ships. The medical supplies are desperately needed."

"I understand, Captain. And I have some good news. A message from Starbase Twelve has just come in. They have been able to despatch twelve ships to Mercia at four hundred hours to-day. They contain medical supplies, food and raw materials for the Enterprise. They should be here in fourteen point two four days."

"They certainly haven't wasted any time," replied Kirk, a smile lighting up his face. "Serena will be delighted."

"Unfortunately, one disturbing factor has just come to light, Captain."

Kirk followed him and came to stand in front of the Science console.

"I have continued scanning the planet ever since we came into orbit. And the small river which feeds the lake shows signs of drying up."

"Are you sure?" Kirk's voice mirrored his concern.

"At the moment the drop in the level of the water is small, but the flow of the river has decreased also and I believe that the river is beginning to dry up. This particular river starts as a spring from an underground source. The level of the water table throughout the planet is falling and I believe that it is so low now in this area," he indicated the foothills to the north of the camp, "that it can no longer supply the river. Within a very short time, the lake itself will dry up and water supply will be virtually nil."

"How short a time?" demanded Kirk.

"I estimate ten point five weeks."

Kirk's voice was grim.

"And if the camp has no water..." He fell silent as the two men considered the all too real possibility. It was Spock who finally said the words.

"The camp will die, Captain."

A few minutes later Kirk and Spock were back in the transporter room. Kirk looked at Spock, standing quiet and still by the transporter controls. There was a wistful look on Kirk's face.

"Have you thought any more about leaving Starfleet, Spock?"

Spock looked across at his Captain, his eyes reflecting for a moment the turmoil he felt about the decision he had made.

"I have not changed my mind, Jim, if that is what you mean. I will not send in my resignation until our present mission is complete, however."

Kirk gave a small sigh. It would be difficult if not impossible to replace Spock. As well as being the best First Officer a starship captain could have, Spock was a loyal and well-loved friend – a combination which Kirk knew he would never find again. He gave a smile and stepped on the transporter pad.

"Rest assured, Spock, I will respect your wishes in this matter and I'll not do anything to stop your resignation going through. And please remember I am always your friend."

"Thank you, Jim." Spock's voice was quiet and controlled, but his heart misgave him as he watched his Captain and his friend shimmer out of existence. There had been a look of vulnerability on Kirk's face which Spock found hard to forget.

The following day McCoy rose particularly wearily after snatching three or four hours sleep. He was concerned about the flu patients, who seemed to have great difficulty in coping with the symptoms. It was not surprising. All the patients were already suffering from malnutrition to some degree; many had other illnesses too. The flu virus itself was not a particularly virulent one, but McCoy cursed the lack of his laboratory and supplies; it was impossible to come up with a vaccine without the necessary facilities.

He entered the old hospital where the flu patients were, wondering anew how Serena Macauley and her medical staff had ever managed to help anyone with just this one dilapidated shed. McCoy couldn't grace it with a better name; it was just too primitive, despite the clean up it had received. Now the sun came through the high openings, falling in long shafts onto the lines of bodies lying prostrate on the hard dry earth.

McCoy's heart sank. There was a faint but definite smell of death in the air and he quickly made his way to the doctor who was at present on duty. Justin Bickers looked from where he knelt beside a victim. He had just closed the eyes in death and his face registered his despair.

"That makes thirty two in the last four hours, Doctor McCoy." His voice was ragged with tiredness.

"Thirty two!" exclaimed McCoy. "That makes a total of sixty five since the epidemic started yesterday."

"I know," Justin agreed. "They're dying like flies. They've no resistance; no stamina; nothing to fight with. Whole families are dead." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "We'll have to arrange for their burial. And quickly too. Most of the ones who died during the night I haven't had time to move out yet."

"Oh dear god." Said McCoy quietly. "And I thought things were bad before. If it goes on like this the whole hospital will die."

"No, doctor," said Justin in an expressionless voice. "There are always more victims waiting to fill the empty places." He rose unsteadily to his feet. McCoy grasped his arm and steered the young man out of the hospital.

"Go and get some sleep, Justin! And that's an order," said McCoy. "I'll take over. Serena will be along soon and I'll get Jim to arrange about the burials."

"Water," a husky voice murmured. "I'm so thirsty."

McCoy picked up a large plastic container by the hospital door and carried it to the patient who had spoken. He tipped a little into a disposable beaker and kneeling on the floor he held the cup to the man's lips; wasted almost to a skeleton, McCoy was surprised he was still alive. His breathing was short and McCoy could hear his wheezing lungs as he gasped for each breath. The man drank the water greedily and then lay back, his eyes grateful. McCoy placed his hand momentarily on the man's shoulder and smiled.

"Try and sleep now," he said gently.

He got up and moved back to the door. He could see Kirk standing just outside the doctors' tent, talking to Serena. Zahira stood beside him, holding tightly to his hand.

"Jim. Serena," McCoy called. "I think you'd better get over here." His gaze rested on Zahira. "And I think it would be better if Zahira kept away from this hospital for a while."

Kirk looked at the expression on McCoy's face and knelt on one knee beside Zahira.

"I think to-day it would be a good idea if you stayed near your own place, Zahira," said Kirk gravely.

Zahira nodded her head solemnly.

"The people in that hospital are very sick," she said matter-of-factly. "Doctor Bickers said a lot of people have died already."

"Well, we don't want you to get sick," said Kirk seriously. "I should rest quietly to-day. I'll see you again very soon."

Zahira smiled up at him trustingly and walked slowly away. Kirk, McCoy and Serena made their way over to the hospital.

"It's bad news, Jim. We've got over sixty dead from flu."

"Sixty!" said Serena in a resigned voice. "I guessed it would be quite a few."

"Is that since yesterday?" asked Kirk.

"Yeah! And I still have quite a few bodies in the hospital who haven't been moved out to the mortuary tent yet. Justin just hasn't had the time."

"Is he around?" asked Serena.

"No. I sent him to rest. He was practically out on his feet. I now know the value of taking rest despite what we have to deal with in here." McCoy glanced at Kirk with a slight smile. "Whole families have been wiped out and there is no-one to bury them."

Kirk wiped his hand across his face.

"Leave that to me, Bones, you take care of the living. I'll make sure the dead are buried."

"It's a helluva job."

"What job isn't in Meo-Sun," replied Kirk.

Serena looked at him.

"You haven't been to the burial ground, have you, Jim?" she asked.


"It's an awful place."

Kirk gave a half smile. "I've been to burial grounds before."

"This is different. I..."

"Serena, just get on with trying to save the living," Kirk said gently. "That's more important. I'll see to the dead."

She stood for a moment more, wanting to warn him of what he would find, but Kirk smiled and said,

"Let's get on with the job."

Kirk made his way to the mortuary tent. He had arranged for four of his crewmen to help with the bodies of those who had no family left to bury them; and Kirk's men were moving the bodies from the hospital to the mortuary tent.

Kirk paused at the opening of the tent, his arms full of empty food sacks. Already many of the bodies had been removed by family or friends, but many still remained. He dropped the sacks into a heap beside the doorway, and then picked up the first on the pile. He stood for a moment, looking down at the bodies on the floor; all emaciated, almost skeletal. It seemed impossible that they had been dead for only a few hours. Serena had told Kirk to remove all the clothing and shoes; they were all things which could be used again to clothe other unfortunates who arrived at the camp with little or nothing.

Kirk felt a sickness gather at the pit of his stomach as he knelt before the first body and removed the clothes and sandals. Carefully he edged the body into the food sack and knotted the ends. He move onto the next one. Lieutenant Hughes and Ensign Cordova entered the tent and stopped in horror. Kirk looked up at them, his face pale and grim.

"Just take a sack, strip the body and tie it up in the sack." His voice was low. "Try not to think about what you're doing. It's something that just has to be done." He stopped, looking at the body he was just putting in the sack. "But be gentle – these were people who were loved and cared for. Their lives shouldn't have to end with such indignity."

The three men worked silently on their grim task; it wasn't long before two other crew members brought the remaining bodies from the hospital.

"Are they the last?" asked Kirk.

"For the moment, sir."

"How are we going to get the bodies to the burial ground, Captain?" asked Hughes, quietly.

"There are several large tarpaulin sheets outside. We load them on those and drag them." Kirk's voice was expressionless.

"Drag them, sir?" repeated Cordova. "But surely, sir..."

"There's no other way, Ensign," replied Kirk.

An hour later the five men, led by Kirk, headed out of the camp along the well worn path to the burial ground. Just where the path left the camp a small figure approached Kirk.

"Captain Kirk."

"Zahira!" exclaimed Kirk. "I thought I told you to rest today."

"You're going to the burial grounds, aren't you?" She ignored what Kirk had said.

"Yes, Zahira. A lot of people have died today. Whole families. These people," he gestured at the bodies on the tarpaulin, "don't have any family left to bury them. We're going to do it for them."

"I would like to come with you." Zahira looked at him with large solemn eyes.

"No, Zahira," Kirk's voice was firm. "It is too far for you to walk and besides the burial grounds are no the place for a young person like you."

"Captain Kirk, I buried my father and my sister," said the ten year old child sounding as if she was a hundred. "There was no one else to help and I could not leave them. Nothing will ever be as bad again, after that." She stopped, her eyes full of a pain which could never be assuaged. "It is an awful place and I would like to be with you. It would help to have a friend with you."

Kirk felt a lump form in his throat. He swallowed hard. He knelt beside her and put his arm gently round her shoulders, drawing her close.

"Zahira," he said gently. "I am glad that you look on me as a friend; and I appreciate that you are willing to come to the burial grounds to help me. But, Zahira, you're my friend and I would not want to make you suffer any more than you already have. To have to bury your father and your sister is more than anyone your age should have to do. It would be better if you waited here for me. Will you do that for me?"

"Wait here for you?"

"At the camp, yes, Zahira. Would you?"

"Yes, I will, Captain. If that is what you really want."

"Yes, Zahira, it is."

He stood up and picking up the ropes of the tarpaulin he began to drag the grisly burden along the path, following the steps of his crewmen.

And watching him go was the small figure of Zahira, who sat down in the dust to await his return.

The heat was almost overpowering as Kirk walked slowly along the path. He could see his men a little way ahead, their shoulders bowed. Kirk shook his head and wiped the sweat from his face. He felt light-headed, unable to quite believe he was actually here on the path, taking bodies of unknown people to be buried.

Wherever he looked there was only desolation. The heat shimmered, caused the figures of his men to become distorted in the distance. And they weren't the only people on the pathway; following behind him and further in front of him, people carried their tragic burdens to their last resting place.

It was three miles from the camp to their destination, but it seemed to Kirk as if he had been walking forever along the hot dusty pathway. He saw his men stop and realised they must have reached the outer limits of the grounds. As he came up to them he saw the horror written clear on their faces. And he knew that the same look of horror was on his own face.

There were many more people there than Kirk had expected. Some had already dug the shallow pit that was all they could manage to scrape from the hard, barren earth and had placed the body in it carefully and covered it with as much earth and stone as they could. They sat murmuring in low voices, telling the Lord of the Dead the many good things about their dead relations.

Others were trying to scrape the earth up with whatever implement they had; stones, pieces of pottery; some were lucky enough to have an old spade. Kirk took a deep breath and straightened his aching shoulders.

"We'll take the bodies over there." He gestured away to the left. "It seems a little emptier over there."

And indeed there were fewer people and beyond the line of mounds there seemed more space. But as they reached the area to which Kirk had pointed, they saw that the mounds had been disturbed. Jackals and hyenas had come to scavenge at the graves. Bones of all kinds lay strewn around, white and gleaming in the sun; skulls lay with sightless sockets glaring upwards at the pitiless sky. Further along the rows they could make out shapes of animals moving between the mounds, pawing, digging and gnawing as they went. And when Kirk glanced upwards he could see the wheeling shapes of vultures which swooped near the ground, scavenging anything the hyenas and jackals left.

And over everything flies hung like a miasma, their buzzing loud in Kirk's ears. They crawled over the bodies waiting to be buried and on the faces of those that dug. Kirk could feel them on his own face, trying to creep into his mouth and eyes. He brushed them away almost absentmindedly.

"Oh my god." Kirk's voice was a whisper.

Ensign Cordova moved to one side and was quietly sick. The others just stood, stunned, unable to believe what they were seeing. For a moment Kirk was too dazed to do anything. He felt sick and disoriented; the strength seeming to drain from his body. It was like a nightmare of hell.

"We can't bury them here," he said at last.

"It won't make any difference where we bury them," said Lieutenant Hughes, his voice hard. "Those devils will get them sooner or later."

Kirk wiped the sweat and the flies from his face. He looked round almost in desperation.

"There's got to be somewhere," he said. "If we bury them near the pathway, the people passing will keep the animals away."

"Not at night." Lieutenant Hughes voice sounded strained.

"There are a lot of fairly large stones around; we'll gather as many as we can and put them over the earth after we've buried them. It might deter the animals for a while." Kirk's voice was low and firm.

So for over two hours the five men laboured in the hot sun and gently laid the bodies to what they hoped would be eternal rest. They managed to gather a good many stones and when they had finished, the graves they had made looked as if they would withstand the depredations of the scavengers. But Kirk was under no illusions. Sooner or later the animals would get to these graves, too.

He stood silent for a moment, his head bent, his men standing alongside him. How could he lay these souls to rest in the way their religion demanded? He should tell the god all the many good attributes of each, but he had known none of them in life. He looked upwards towards the sky, away from the heat, the stench and the dry, barren earth and slowly in a voice husky with fatigue and emotion, he tried to give them in death what had failed them in their life at Camp Meo-Sun.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters,
He restoreth my soul...

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Ten

Slowly Kirk and his men, grim, covered in dust and sweat, and weary to the point of exhaustion, made their way back towards Camp Meo-Sun. None of them would ever forget the sights they had seen at the burial grounds. They had all been taught to honour life, to do all in their power to save life, and if death came to try and give some semblance of dignity and care to it. Somehow the desecration they had witnessed had been hard for all of them to take. It was little they had been able to do and each man had felt it keenly, Kirk most of all.

He looked round at his men, their Starfleet uniforms covered with a fine dust, lines of strain etched into every face. He sighed and straightened his shoulders, trying not to feel the tiredness which had seeped into his very bones.

Then, just ahead, Kirk caught sight of a small figure at the side of the road. As he looked the figure rose and walked towards him. All the hours they had been gone, Zahira had kept vigil at the roadside, watching for the one person who had come to mean so much to her. James Kirk had somehow taken the place of her family who had died and she knew what an awful place the burial ground was. She knew only too well how he must feel, and she wanted to be there to comfort him.

As he came near her, Kirk dropped to one knee and held out his arms. Silently Zahira walked into them. Her face grave, her eyes searched his face and saw sorrow and horror there. Her arms went round his neck and she laid her face against his. He stood up, holding tightly to the tiny scrap of humanity who clung to him in sympathy and silent support.

They made their way to the Central Hospital and Kirk made arrangements for his men to be taken by jeep to their various posts around the camp. As the men got into the jeep Kirk stood beside it, still holding Zahira in his arms.

"Thank you all for your help and support in doing a most unpleasant task," Kirk said quietly. "I'm sorry I had to ask you to do it."

"How can all those people take their friends' and relatives' bodies to that awful place and do nothing about it, sir?" questioned Cordova.

Kirk laid a hand briefly on Cordova's shoulder.

"Their ways are not our ways, Ensign. Their view of life and death is fatalistic. If the bones of their people are dug up, it is because it is the will of god."

"What sort of god can they imagine him to be, if they can accept the burial grounds as part of the demands of their god?" Cordova's voice sounded angry and distraught.

"Is it really so very different to how other religions have viewed their gods? How many gods expected sacrifice, pain and suffering from their followers?" Kirk spoke tiredly. "However, I'm in no mood for theological discussions. Get some rest, all of you, and try and put today out of your minds."

He gave them a slight smile and moved Zahira to a more comfortable position.

"I'll try and find out if anything can be done."

As Kirk walked slowly to the doctors' tent, he felt Zahira's arms tighten around his neck and a kiss, light as thistledown, touched his cheek. He turned to look at her and a smile touched his lips as he saw her eyes, large and brown, fixed on his face. How much this tiny scrap of humanity had had to endure.

Taken from her village because they were starving, she and all the people she had known had walked for many miles in hope of salvation, only to find that salvation was a living hell. She had lost her mother, her father and her sister and for some reason that Kirk couldn't quite understand, her village people had turned against her. It seemed that Zahira had nothing to live for, but tenaciously, in spite of everything, she clung desperately to her hold on life, and Kirk knew somehow he must try and give her a future. Camp Meo-Sun meant pain and suffering, and suffering on a large scale, and it could not be allowed to go on.

He thought briefly of Spock and wondered if his Science Officer had managed to find some way of saving Mercia. So much depended on being able to put Mercia back on its correct axis; because if it were not possible, the whole planet would have to be evacuated – an operation on a scale almost unimaginable in the time they would have available.

Kirk entered the tent, ducking under the opening and setting Zahira on the ground. She took him by the hand and led him to one corner in which a blanket was folded neatly. A few small pots and a neat pile of clothes were beside it.

"Look, Captain Kirk," she said, and there was pride in her voice. "This is my special corner. Doctor McCoy and Doctor Macauley said this is especially for me."

Kirk smiled down at her.

"I'm delighted, Zahira. It will be much better in here for you than living outside."

"I will look after the tent and keep it tidy, so that you and the doctors won't have to do anything. I would like to do that."

He ruffled her hair, smiling and then glanced round.

"I wonder where Doctor McCoy is," he said aloud.

"Shall I find him for you?" asked Zahira.

"No, it's OK. I'm sure he is busy in the hospital." He felt drained of strength suddenly; images of the burial grounds seemed burned into his mind and he longed just to sleep and to forget. He walked across to his bedroll and lay down on his back, resting his arm across his eyes.

Zahira watched him for a moment, then she moved across to where the small water jug stood on a table, beside some small beakers. She half-filled one of them and came to kneel beside Kirk.

"Captain Kirk?"

Kirk opened his eyes and turned to look at her.

"This will make you feel better," she said, offering him the beaker.

He sat up and took it gratefully and swallowed the contents in one gulp. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

"Thanks, Zahira."

He handed back the beaker and lay down again, his eyes closing almost immediately.

Zahira knelt beside him, watching him quietly until she knew from his even breathing that he was asleep, then she quietly made her way back to her corner and curled up on the blanket.

After only a couple of hours sleep, Kirk began to have nightmares. Vivid, appalling dreams in which hyenas and jackals were eating his friends alive. He tried to go to help them, but his legs wouldn't move; he tried to shout but no sound came. Then an enormous vulture landed on Spock's chest and began to tear at his face.


Kirk sat up with a jerk, the sweat pouring from his face. He looked around the tent, expecting to see scavengers tearing the sleeping bodies to bits, but all was quiet. He became aware of Serena kneeling beside him, concern on her face.

"Are you all right, Jim?" she asked. "I heard you call out."

Kirk wiped a hand shakily over his face.

"I was having a nightmare. That damned burial ground! I don't think I shall ever forget what I saw there."

He could feel himself starting to shake and tried to control it, but in his mind the scenes at the burial grounds began to replay themselves again and he could see the animals gnawing at the scattered bones.

"Jim." Serena shook his arm gently at first. "Jim! Come on, snap out of it!" She raised her voice a little and shook his arm harder.

Slowly he turned his head to look at her.

"God it was awful!" His voice was a mere whisper. "How can you allow that to go on? They are just providing food for the scavengers. It's a wonder they haven't attacked the camp."

"It goes on because there is no other way," replied Serena, gravely. "The people will not permit their dead to be anything but buried in the earth. The burning of bodies is something they will not even consider. I know, I've tried to persuade them."

"But they must see the hyenas and jackals..." Kirk's voice was husky and he could feel himself shaking again.

"They ignore them... and so must you. There is no other way." Serena put her arm around Kirk's shoulders. "Come on. What you need is rest and sleep. You can't even think straight at the moment."

She helped him lie back down on the blanket and covered him with another. He lay on his back, staring into space. She watched him for a moment and then rose to her feet.

"I'll get you something to drink," she said.

Within a few moments she was back with a small glass of water. Kirk propped himself up on one elbow and took the glass. He resisted the urge to drink it down in one gulp, but instead sipped at it, savouring the wetness as it slipped down his throat.

"We've got to do something," Kirk said at length. "There are bones and skulls just lying around everywhere..." His voice tailed off, as his memory replayed the frightful scenes in his mind. "Oh god..." His voice broke.

Serena pushed a hypo against his arm and the hiss made Kirk look up sharply.

"What's that," he asked abruptly.

"Something to give you a deep, untroubled sleep with no dreams," she replied. "I think you need it. Badly."

Kirk's eyes closed for a moment, as drowsiness began to seep over him. He finished the glass of water and handed it back to Serena.

"Thanks," he murmured and slid down onto the blanket. Within seconds he was sound asleep.

The following morning Kirk woke to find McCoy sitting on a blanket near him.

"Hi, Bones," he murmured sleepily. For a few moments he didn't remember all the previous day's happenings.

"Hi, Jim. Had a good sleep?"

"Mmmm, yes." He sat up and ran a hand over his face and through his hair. Then as awful memories came flooding back, he gave a sigh.

"Did Serena tell you?

"That you were in quite a state last night? Yes, she did. And before you say anything, Jim, there's nothing any of us can do. Serena and her helpers have been through it all many months ago. You'll just have to forget it. Put it out of your mind."

"Easier said than done, Bones," replied Kirk ruefully. "Surely there must be some way of getting rid of the bodies besides burying them."

"Serena said that all the people in the camp believe in the Lord of the Dead who welcomes everyone who dies into his kingdom, but their bodies have to be cleaned and then lie in the earth for him to summon them. If they don't, the Lord of the Dead will never call them and they will never reach his kingdom and see their friends and families. How do you combat beliefs like that?"

Kirk shook his head.

"I don't know, Bones. It's just that seeing those animals desecrating the graves was a shock, especially when there were people around who were burying their dead there at the same time. I just didn't think it would be like that." He gave a sigh. "I suppose I should have done, if I had given the matter any thought."

He pulled the blanket off and stood up, looking down at himself in dismay. The dust of yesterday still clung to him.

"I wish the Enterprise was still in orbit. I could use a shower and a change of clothes."

McCoy grinned.

"Well, we can't provide a shower, but Serena and I have managed the next best thing. We made several trips to the lake this morning and in the corner over there, is a small tub, a very small tub of water. Cold, I grant you, but I reckon it'll serve."

His grin widened as he saw the look of delight on Kirk's face.

"Bones, you're a miracle worker after all."

The next three days were among some of the worst that Kirk and McCoy had ever spent. The flu epidemic was over relatively quickly and altogether over five hundred people died. Serena was relieved at what seemed to her the low numbers of fatalities.

"We could easily have lost five times that number," she said to McCoy one morning as they counted up the newly admitted flu victims. "Do you realise that only five patients were admitted during the night?"

"And seven died," returned McCoy.

"Which is twenty six less than the night before, Leonard. You have to think positively here. We had an epidemic of measles here eight months ago and over seven thousand people died! And we were lucky that the flu didn't spread to the whole camp."

McCoy sighed.

"I know you're right, Serena. But it's pretty hard to accept. I suppose I've become used to being able to slap the right drug into someone at the right time and know they'll get well. It's not too often I have to deal with epidemics, especially on this scale."

He walked slowly to the door and looked out over the camp. The smells, the flies, the sheer horror of the camp were just the same as when Kirk had first beamed down with the landing party. Nothing seemed to have changed, despite all the Enterprise could do. He looked round at Serena.

"The Enterprise's visit doesn't seem to have made very much of an impression, does it?"

"Don't fool yourself, Leonard. There are a lot of people walking around now who would be dead and buried but for the Enterprise. As I said, you have to be positive. With the number we have to deal with we have to do what we can. We have to accept that we can't reach everyone; that people are going to die because we can't get to them in time. But if we can save some who would otherwise die, that's something we have to hang on to. It's the only way to function out here. If you thought about all the suffering that goes on in the camp that we don't know about, we'd all go insane."

"I guess so." McCoy looked at Serena and smiled. "You're quite a girl."

Serena laughed and looked down at her dusty brown sneakers, her creased and worn trousers and the man's shirt she wore.

"I sometimes wonder, Leonard, I really do." She was thoughtful for a moment as she remembered the evening she had spent aboard the Enterprise. The clean cool shower; the swirling dress she had worn; make up and perfume. She sighed; she really had felt like a woman then. Abruptly she changed the subject.

"How's Jim? I haven't seen him for a couple of days."

"I haven't seen much of him either," replied McCoy. "He's got one of the lousiest jobs of all. He's taking bodies up to the burial grounds. I know he's been up there four times already."

"Not on his own, surely?"

"No, he usually takes two or three of the crew with him. They took their phasers with them, the second time they went, so Jim said. Must have killed about a hundred of those scavengers. Jim said that the last time they went none of the new graves had been disturbed. But he knows that once they stop phasering them to death, they'll come creeping back. If only there were some way to stop the devils getting in. Or better yet, if we could cremate the bodies the whole problem would be solved."

Serena shook her head.

"The Kariang would never agree to that. Burning would destroy their immortal souls and they would never be called by the Lord of the Dead."

"I don't reckon that would be such a bad thing myself," said McCoy with a grim smile. "So you reckon this flu epidemic's just about over then, Serena?"

"Yes, I do. It won't be long before we can use the old hospital to take in some eye patients. There are so many suffering from trachoma – they only need the right treatment at the right time and we could save so many going blind." Serena sighed and a look of despondency came over her face. The odds against them were great even now.

McCoy glanced at her in sympathy.

"Look, why don't you have a break, Serena. The flu epidemic is just about over. I can look after things here for a day. Why don't you and Jim take off in the jeep somewhere – anywhere away from the camp. Jim could do with a break too. He's been doing a lot of physically hard work. Now normally that wouldn't bother me – he's usually pretty fit. But he's not long got over a severe stab wound and I don't want to have to treat that again."

"Stab wound?" Serena looked startled. "What happened?"

McCoy gave her the full story of Thelev's attack on Kirk and how Kirk had managed to hold himself together long enough to enable Sarek to be operated on. McCoy shook his head as he finished. "He's lucky to be alive. A couple of centimetres to the right and that knife would have gone into his heart, and then the best Starfleet surgery couldn't have saved him. Even so, it was a pretty deep wound and it punctured his lung. Mind you, it was all healing nicely when we came on this mission. I was hoping for R and R, so that Jim could recover fully. I tried to talk to him about it, but he said he's fine. But I'd feel happier if he had a day to rest."

Serena smiled.

"Put like that, how could I refuse. Although I do feel I should stay, there's so much to do at the hospital."

"Doctor's orders, Doctor!" said McCoy with a grin.

So McCoy and Serena hatched their plan, but said nothing to Kirk about it. When he arose the next morning and left the tent, he was therefore surprised to see the jeep parked nearby with a small basket of food and a folded blanket on the back seat. He stood for a moment, puzzled, as the jeep was only used occasionally and it was kept at the back of the hospital under an awning. As he stood there, McCoy and Serena came out of the hospital.

"Good morning, Jim," called Serena. "How are you feeling?"

Kirk pulled a face.

"I'm OK. Just not looking forward to another trip to the burial grounds."

McCoy came up and put his arm around Kirk's shoulder, smiling.

"I've got news for you, Captain. You've got a day off."

"But, Bones, I can't..."

"Doctor's orders, Captain. And I want no arguments. Besides there are only three bodies to go up there this morning. Your men can take care of that. The other four who died are being buried by their families."

"But there are plenty of other things to do," retorted Kirk.

"Nothing that can't wait," replied McCoy firmly. "By rights you should have been on R and R a couple of weeks ago, not down here working like a labourer in all this dust and heat. It's not so long since you were flat on your back in Sickbay and I don't want you there again."

"Bones, for god's sake, stop fussing. I'm fine. Just let me get on with my job, will you."

"There's another thing, Jim."

Kirk sighed.

"What is it now?"

"Serena. She hasn't had a day's break from the camp since she's been here. She could use a break and has been looking forward to it ever since I mentioned the picnic."

"Picnic. I see. We're supposed to picnic in the middle of the desert. Sounds just great, Bones," Kirk's tone was sarcastic.

Serena laughed at the expression on his face.

"It's not as bad as that, Jim," she said. " A few miles to the east of the camp are some ancient ruins – a palace or temple, I don't know which. It's an intriguing place, one I know you'd enjoy visiting. Come on, what do you say?"

Kirk looked at the determined looks on both McCoy's and Serena's faces and knew he was beaten.

"O.K. O.K. I can see I'm outgunned," he relented. "When do we start?"

It was as he climbed into the jeep that Kirk remembered the unexplained surge of energy Spock had monitored, which he seemed to think emanated from some ruins to the east of Camp Meo-Sun. Maybe the trip would be of value as well as providing him with a day of rest he knew he badly needed, although he would never admit it to anyone else.

Just at that moment, Zahira came out of the new hospital carrying a small bucket. Her face lit up when she saw Kirk. She set the bucket down and ran to stand beside the jeep.

"I hope you enjoy the ruin, Captain Kirk," she said, smiling up at him happily.

"Did everyone know about this except me?" asked Kirk with a grin.

"No, Jim. It was cooked up by the three of us," McCoy smile and rested his hand on Zahira's shoulder. "She's getting to be my little helper in the new hospital to-day."

Kirk reached down and rested his hand under her chin.

"Don't let him work you too hard, Zahira. He can be a slave driver."

"I like helping. It's nice in the new hospital."

Kirk's eyes met McCoy's over Zahira's head.

"Keep an eye on her, Bones," he said quietly.

McCoy was serious for a moment.

"You can count on it, Jim." Then he smiled. "Have a good day."

Serena engaged the gears and the jeep started off.

"Thanks." Kirk smiled and waved to McCoy and Zahira and then relaxed back into the seat. It would be good to have something else to think about besides the burial grounds. And he might well find something which would prove useful to Spock.

The drive proved longer than Kirk anticipated. There was no road as such and the way was mainly stony which stopped the jeep achieving any great speed. The heat was intense and the air seemed breathless.

"I hope there's some shade in the ruins," remarked Kirk.

"Oh there is," replied Serena. "You will be surprised at what you find there."

The hills came down to meet the sandy plain, the bony ridges throwing out long spurs which buried themselves in the brown desert earth. The landscape was desolate, with no tree or bush to break the monotony of the barren land. Serena followed the trail of what once must have been a river bed, which twisted and turned its way across the plain.

"I should think this must have been quite a fertile area at one time," remarked Serena, gesturing towards the dried up river bed. "A river of that size would have watered a good area on each side."

"It must have been a long time ago," replied Kirk, looking round on all sides as they travelled along. "There's no trace of any vegetation, not even weeds or shrubs. And not a trace of habitation.

"Are the ruins we are going to visit the remains of the palace?"

"Yes, I've been there a couple of times and I can't think of anything else it could be."

"Is there no record of it at Oceanside?"

Serena laughed.

"Oceanside isn't interested in ruins. It is a city of the present and the future, not of the past. The Government wouldn't waste money looking at ruins." She paused and looked at Kirk, smiling. "But I'm willing to bet you'll be as intrigued as I am when you see the ruins."

Before long, Kirk could see tall towers in the distance, some broken, but some raising their heads high over the surrounding plain. As they drew nearer he could make out a single archway, directly ahead of them and Serena drove towards it and parked the jeep in its shade. Kirk got out of the jeep and stared upwards, shading his eyes with his hand. The archway soared nearly seventy feet above him, intricately carved with animals he had never seen before.

"It's enormous," said Kirk, stating the obvious. "Is it all on this scale?"

"More or less. And it's surprising just how well the ruins have survived when you realise just how much time must have elapsed since it was first built."

She walked under the archway.

"Come on."

They wandered slowly along, amidst the towering stones; courtyards, terraces, colonnades, vast echoing chambers, everything on an enormous scale. There had been carvings and paintings on the walls, but unlike the carvings on the archway these had faded or worn away, until it was almost impossible to decipher any of the original design.

Everything had been touched with the hand of time and decay; the openings to the chambers were crumbling, littering the floor with broken masonry. Almost everywhere the roof had caved in, allowing the wind and sand to destroy the carvings and filling everything beneath with rubble. The terraces and colonnades were littered with debris, too, adding to the general air of sadness and dilapidation.

Kirk felt, as Serena said he would, intrigued. There was something to learn here, but Kirk couldn't quite grasp what it was. There was an air about the place, almost of expectancy. But expectancy of what and of whom?

"Is there no clue as to who used this place?" asked Kirk at last.

"Well, there is one chamber, very close to the rock of the hills themselves. It's difficult to get to, almost as if it were a sacred place And it's in a much better state of repair than the rest of the ruins. The drawings on the walls are... eerie, somehow. I feel they depict something, but I'm not sure what. Some friends I knew visited the ruins several years ago, long before the drought and the settlement of Meo-Sun.

"What did they make of it?"

"They felt that there had been another race of people living here on Mercia, who for some unknown reason had died out. They dated the ruins as being about five thousand years old."

"Quite a time ago," commented Kirk. "Are there any other ruins on Mercia?"

"None that they have been able to find."

"It's surprising nothing else has come to light," said Kirk. "They surely can't have only lived in the palace area."

"I would have thought it extremely unlikely," replied Serena. "It's all a huge puzzle, seemingly without an answer."

"Have your friends been able to give any clue as to what purpose the original place served?"

"Not really. They are convinced, however, that Mercia was inhabited by a race of beings several millennia before Earth colonised it. They believe the ruins were once a place of habitation, but whether rulers or priests, they just don't know. They are back on Earth, trying to raise money to excavate the ruins and try and find the answers."

They came at last to a large courtyard with a broken, circular pool in the centre. No water was there now, nothing but the sand and stones which the wind had brought. Leading from this courtyard was a corridor, narrower than any they had walked along before. The only light came from the ceiling where here and there some of the roof had fallen in, leaving slabs of masonry on the floor, which Serena and Kirk had to negotiate with care.

Then, a series of windowless rooms, small but with high ceilings, each darker than the one before. They led one from another through high arched openings.

"Are you sure you know the way?" asked Kirk. "It doesn't seem a good place to get lost in."

Serena laughed.

"It's quite easy really and we're almost there."

She stopped before the only door they had seen in the whole of the ruins. It was over twenty feet in height and made of hardwood several feet thick.

"It's lucky it was open when I found it. We'd never be able to move it on our own."

A flood of light poured through the gap where the door was open. Serena went through first and Kirk followed close behind, eager to see what lay behind the door.

He stood in amazement. One side of the chamber was part of the living rock of the hill, the other three walls were smooth and covered in paintings. The light came from above and when Kirk looked up, he saw the chamber had no roof. Down the rock wall ran a small gully which opened into a small rocky indentation in the floor.

At one time water must have trickled along here, filling the pool with clear water.

Beside the pool was a hole about a foot in diameter; the sides were as smooth as glass and Kirk stooped down to look more closely. A groove ran round the outside of the hole and Kirk ran his finger along it, curiously. A faint ringing sound echoed lightly around the chamber.

Serena started.

"Jim, don't do that!"

He looked up, surprised.

"Why not?"

"I don't know. I just feel it is the wrong thing to do. Come and look at the paintings. Perhaps you'll understand what I mean."

He stood up, pulling down the back of his gold top and came to stand beside her, gazing up at the paintings.

The walls of the chamber were covered with paintings of humanoid figures, tall and thin with extremely long legs and arms. Their heads were elongated, tapering almost to a point at the back and their ears, long and flat, curved along the skull, almost meeting at the back. Their faces gave an impression of aestheticism, with two widely spaced eyes, a sharply pointed nose, and a wide mouth with no lips. Kirk guessed they must have been about twelve feet tall.

Each painting contained no more than three of the humanoids; and it seemed as if there was some sort of ritual taking place which involved the hole in the floor. Two of the figures knelt one on each side of the third humanoid, who sat cross-legged close to the hole. The positions were almost the same; but the humanoid nearest the hole was different in some paintings. It seemed as if they each took turns at whatever it was they were doing.

Kirk stared at each of the paintings for several minutes, completely at a loss to even hazard a guess at what was going on. It seemed as if the humanoid sitting nearest the hole ran a finger along the groove, then the two humanoids who were kneeling beside him placed their fingers just above the long, tapering ears of their companion; and then just sat with their eyes closed. Kirk shook his head.

"Have you any idea what they are doing?" asked Serena.

"Not really," he said, standing back to look at the paintings with his arms crossed. "I would say they are listening to something, but what it is, I have no idea."

Of all the paintings there, two contained one humanoid. In each, it was a different creature, but in both, each sat quietly beside the small indentation near the rocky wall. The indentation was filled with water and the creature sat cross-legged with his hands on his knees and eyes closed. It was all most puzzling.

Kirk walked back to look at the hole again. He knelt on one knee beside it and ran his fingers around the groove. Immediately the ringing sounded again.

"Jim, don't! Please!" Serena's voice was raised slightly.

Kirk looked up at her and grinned.

"O.K." he said getting up. "Let's go and find somewhere to eat."

Serena led the way back out of the chamber. But Kirk's curiosity was aroused and he knew he would have to come back here and bring Spock with him, as soon as the Enterprise returned. There was a mystery here and Kirk wanted to solve it. Perhaps now, with Serena, was not a good time. For a brief moment Kirk thought of the surge of energy which Spock had seen on the scanners and wondered if there was any connection with the chamber they had just left.

Serena led the way back to the high archway where they had parked the jeep. They picked up the blanket and basket and Serena led him to a small walled in area, which could once have been a garden. She spread the blanket on the dusty earth and sat down. She patted the rug and Kirk sat down beside her placing the basket in front of them.

"I'm afraid there is little here, except what we have every day, but at least it's refreshment of a sort."

"I'm not really all that hungry," replied Kirk, looking at the rather unappetising piece of bread with a thin slice of salt beef on it. "Is there any water?"

"Just a cupful each."

"Feast fit for a king," laughed Kirk. "Will I be glad when the Enterprise returns."

"It's more than some of the people at the camp are getting," said Serena.

"I know," replied Kirk soberly. "I guess we're lucky at that." He bit into a sandwich. "You're right about that place. It is eerie. It makes you wonder what happened in that chamber. I can't even hazard a guess, can you?"

"I've thought about those paintings for months, but I still can't think of an explanation for it. I suppose it will be one of those mysteries that are never solved."

"Maybe." Kirk's voice was quiet. He didn't like unsolved mysteries.

Serena looked at him as he sat propped on one elbow, his face serious. His classic good looks appealed to her and she remembered the night aboard the Enterprise. She stretched out her hand and ran a finger down the side of his face. He looked up at her, startled for a moment and then caught her hand in his, bringing her fingers to his mouth to kiss them. He smiled at her - the special smile which had melted the hearts of many other ladies Kirk had known all over the galaxy.

He saw in Serena's face an open invitation and remembered, as she did, their night aboard the Enterprise. Desire for her came quickly and he moved nearer to her, reaching out to pull her close. He ran his fingers through her hair, loving the texture and feel of it. His lips found hers and he pushed her gently onto her back. Seductively he parted her lips with his tongue and pressed his body close to hers. He could feel her shaking with desire. He pulled his mouth away for a moment to smile at her.

"Did you bring me here with this in mind?" he asked softly.

"Purely doctor's orders," she replied, her hand lifting the command gold of his tunic. She ran her fingers delicately over his chest and Kirk gave a low moan of delight. His lips sought hers again and for a while all memory of Mercia was swept away on a tide of passion...

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Eleven

Charles Evard was an extremely worried man. Since Captain Kirk and Mr Spock had visited him at his residence in Oceanside, the situation in Mercia's cities had worsened. Looting and robbery had increased and many of the food warehouses were now empty. Law and order were breaking down and many of the cities' populations were starving and desperate. Water levels at the reservoirs were almost unmeasurable they were so low and the water table was still falling. Water rationing was in operation everywhere now, even in Oceanside.

Evard had called an emergency meeting of the Mercian Council to pass edicts to try and bring some sort of order to the cities. However, the general feeling was that things were too bad and unless the edicts could be backed up with hard evidence that more food was immediately available, they would do little good; and Kirk had told Evard that the supply ships would not be here for about two weeks.

It felt as if everything that Evard had worked so hard to build for himself, the power, the prestige, the control, was slipping through his fingers.

Evard looked down at the landscape passing beneath them, as he flew in his private helicopter on the last stage of his journey to Camp Meo-Sun. The earth was bare and brown as far as the eye could see; the distant horizon shimmering in the heat. He knew they were flying over part of the planet's desert centre and the landscape was always the same, but the desert area had expanded considerably over the past few months. It was depressing and demoralising.

But Evard was determined to salvage something from the wreck of his broken dreams. Never before had he been able to make any contact with the Kariang. He had met them, yes, but had never been able to bring them under the jurisdiction of the Mercian Council. Now, Evard felt, was his opportunity. Many tribes from the hills had come to Camp Meo-Sun. They were all starving, diseased and with very little resistance. Their fierce independence would no longer be a barrier to Evard's dominance of them, or so he thought. He was going to Camp Meo-Sun for one reason only – to bring the Kariang under his rule and to be able to say he had done it alone. This way, Evard believed he could save his position on Mercia; this perhaps could be the mitigating reasons of which Kirk had spoken.

As the helicopter droned on its way, Evard's thought went back to a time many years ago when he had been appointed Agent for the Kariang. He had been young, enthusiastic and determined to succeed. So determined, in fact, that he failed to keep a very important fact in mind – he was dealing with people. People who were independent and unused to the ways of the rest of Mercia. Evard had been appalled at the way in which they lived and determined to change it, never even realising that the Kariang were entitled to live in whatever way they chose. That had been the whole reason for them coming to Mercia. For someone in Evard's position it was a fatal miscalculation; but one which, even now, he didn't realise.

They had been an obstacle on his power drive to the top. They had, literally, turned their backs on him, refusing to answer questions, ignoring him. At each village he had met with the same attitude. They would tolerate no stranger coming to try and interfere with their lives; and their communication appeared to be better than the telephone and infinitely more secretive. As he moved from village to village, he realised they already knew of him and what he had come to say and he could do nothing but return to the Mercian Council to report his failure. It had caused a bitterness which had increased with the years. And the Kariang had remained enigmatic and remote and far from the civilisation of Mercian cities both in distance and outlook.

Evard's failure at this point had another unexpected result. He had been madly in love with Madelaine Chester and she with him. Daughter of a trader in Oceanside, who would be able to bring nothing to their marriage except her love for him. But this had not mattered, until, with the failure of his mission to the Kariang, he had been forced to face the fact that marriage to Madelaine would never bring him any nearer to his heart's desire – to be Governor-General of Mercia. Whereas marriage to Angela Prescott, daughter of Oceanside's present Governor-General, might well push him high on the ladder to the top. He knew that Angela adored him and would marry him if he asked her. The choice was his – love or power. And Evard had made his choice. He had never seen Madelaine again.

Now, after all these years, he wondered again what his life would have been if he had chosen love instead of power. It was too late now to even hazard a guess.

The helicopter pilot gestured ahead. Like a large sore on the surface of the planet, Camp Meo-Sun sprawled in the distance. Evard gestured for him to make a low circuit over the camp and the helicopter began to descend.

Kirk and Serena were on their way back from the ruins. Kirk drove the jeep slowly; both were filled with the afterglow of their love-making and reluctant to return to the reality of the camp.

"That chamber you found was intriguing," commented Kirk as he headed the jeep towards the dark stain on the horizon that was the camp. "Spock would probably find it fascinating. I'd like to take him there when he returns and if we have time."

"I'd like to know the answer," replied Serena. "I find myself trying to solve the puzzle at odd moments during the day."

"The figures we saw must be the race of beings who lived in the palace at one time. But were they natives of the planet or merely visitors? And I'm sure that the hole we found is significant. But how?"

"Perhaps it was a means of communication," suggested Serena. "After all, as soon as you touched it, it gave out a faint ringing sound."

"Communicating with what? And how? The ringing sound doesn't seem to mean much on its own."

"Perhaps it would help if the small pool was filled with water, as it was in the paintings."

"Maybe." Kirk watched a small dot high in the sky. He gestured in its direction. "I wonder who that is. It must be someone coming to the camp. There's nothing else for miles around."

They both watched as the dot dipped lower and they were able to recognise it as a helicopter. Kirk frowned.

"It's coming in very low," he commented. "And heading toward the camp." He pressed the accelerator and the jeep leapt forward. "Surely he's not going to fly over the camp! He'll cause a dust storm! Doesn't he realise those people have no protection!" Kirk's voice rose in anger as it became clear that to fly over the camp was exactly what the pilot intended to do.

"Has the man no sense at all?" he exclaimed as he pushed the accelerator to the floor, fighting to control the jeep as it bucked and jumped over the stony ground. "Those people won't be able to breathe in the dust that helicopter will raise."

Serena gripped the side of the jeep in concern, as the helicopter began to rise over the camp. They watched helplessly as the helicopter continued its low sweep over the camp. There was nothing they could do. As they neared the outskirts of the camp Kirk slowed the jeep, knowing he couldn't enter at his present speed.

"Do you think he is going to land?" asked Serena.

"He has to," replied Kirk grimly. "Wherever he's come from, he's not just flying over the camp. He's having a look before he actually lands. And by god, when he does, I'll make him wish..."

Kirk's words were cut off as they entered the stifling dust the helicopter had thrown up. The air was full of sand particles, making a thick swirling fog. They started to cough as the sand entered their mouths, their noses and filtered into their eyes. Kirk cursed as he tried to steer the jeep through the murk. On every side they could see figures cowering down, trying to cover their faces and escape the cloying dust.

Eventually they came to the Central Hospital and Kirk parked the jeep to one side of the main building. Even after just a few minutes in the dust their noses and throats felt sore and their eyes gritty. As they entered the hospital, they met Tom Butler coming out.

"What the hell is going on?" he asked. "Who's the lunatic flying around up there, causing all this?" He gestured at the dust and the stand still flying in the air. "Has he no idea what he is doing down here?"

"Apparently not," replied Kirk. "But he'll find out when I get my hands on him. Of all the unfeeling and senseless things to do."

"Even so," said Butler. "the damage is done. Think of all those people out there. This will only make their condition worse." Have you any idea who it is?"

"I think I have," replied Serena somewhat reluctantly, Kirk thought. "I think I recognised the markings on the helicopter. If I have, then the person on board is Charles Evard, Governor of Mercia."

It was half an hour later that Charles Evard arrived at the Central Hospital. His helicopter had landed on the outskirts of the camp and he had asked at the first hospital he came to for the leader of the camp.

Walking through the camp had shaken him considerably. He had never seen people living in conditions such as these people did, but it had only reinforced his view that it would be easy to bring them all under one aegis, where he could have them all firmly under his control. Although the condition of these people had appalled him, he felt no compassion for them, no urge to help them, no need to try and end their suffering. His main thought was that the whole business would be that much easier for him.

He walked slowly towards the Central Hospital holding a large handkerchief to his face to protect himself from the sand which still hung in the air. To some extent the dust and sand had settled but the damage had been done.

McCoy and Serena anticipated many more patients at all of the hospitals because of the dust storm, and together with Kirk they were furious with whoever had been so thoughtless and insensitive as to fly so low over the camp. They stood outside the hospital making plans to cope with the influx of new patients they expected. And it was while they were talking that Evard finally arrived.

Both Kirk and McCoy looked grim, although Serena looked almost resigned – it was not an expression Kirk expected to see on her face. The smile on Evard's face froze as his eyes travelled from Kirk and McCoy to Serena.

"Serena!" His voice sounded stunned.

"Hello, Dad. I scarcely expected you to visit Camp Meo-Sun. What is it? A salve to your conscience at last? If so, it's been a long time coming."

Kirk and McCoy looked at each other, speechless.

"Why should I have a conscience about Camp Meo-Sun?" Evard blustered. "I came here to inspect the camp and to see in what way I could help."

"Like hell." Serena's voice was abrupt. "You had the opportunity to do something months ago and instead you stayed in your cosy, air conditioned house in Oceanside and just opted out. What's brought the change? Has the fear of the Federation breathing down your neck finally pushed you into action?" She looked at Kirk. "What on earth did you say to him, Jim, to bring about this change?"

"Well, I..." Kirk began, but was interrupted by Evard.

"Just watch what you are saying, Serena. I'd like to know what you're doing here. I expressly forbade you to come here."

"Forbade me!" Serena gave a bitter laugh. "Did you really expect me to obey that order? With people suffering and dying here in their hundreds, you really expected me to turn my back on them just because you told me to?"

Evard sighed.

"No, I don't suppose I really did. You never did do what I told you anyhow."

"That is because we are so different. I just never understood your way of thinking and you never understood mine. Or tried to either."

Evard shook his head and turned towards Kirk.

"Forgive us, Captain, this is a continuing family quarrel as you must realise. I have no wish to involve you in it."

Kirk looked from Evard to Serena, puzzlement on his face.

"I just never realised that you were related in any way."

"Why should you?" replied Serena. "Our surnames are different and I have no wish at the present time to make it known to people that Charles Evard is my father. The reasons why, I wish to keep to myself. As for the names, well, I was married once, for just over a year, while I was working in a hospital back on Earth." She looked defiantly from Kirk to McCoy and they both realised they were seeing a side of Serena they had never seen before. Up until then she had been the compassionate and caring doctor and for Kirk, the willing and passionate lover. This embittered, contemptuous woman came as a shock. But no more so than the fact that Charles Evard's presence in the camp.

"Your past life is your own business, Serena," said Kirk gently. "You don't owe me any explanations. However," he glanced at Evard, "I would like to know what in hell you were thinking of when you flew over the camp, Evard." His voice rose. "Can't you see the damage you've done? Don't you have any idea what sort of result flying so low over the camp would have?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," replied Evard in a loud voice.

There was a short silence.

"My god! You really don't, do you?" exclaimed McCoy. He gestured around him. "All these people are starved, ill, with no homes and no protection against the elements. Many of them have painful eye problems, as many again have open sores caused by a bad diet. Then you fly in, send all the dust and sand whirling into the air, into eyes, noses, mouths and open wounds! Have you any idea of the damage you have done?"

An expression of comprehension crossed Evard's face.

"I didn't think..."

"That's your trouble, Dad," interrupted Serena. "People have never bothered you, have they? That's why I wonder what has brought you here at all." Evard was silent, looking angrily at his daughter.

"Yes, Evard," repeated Kirk. "I'd be interested to hear just what you are doing here.

"Somehow, like Serena, I don't feel it is just to see what you can do to help. I would say you already had more than enough problems on your hands back at Oceanside."

"I have matters in hand," Evard's tone was brisk. "This area is under my jurisdiction as well, don't forget."

"We certainly don't forget," said McCoy grimly. "It just seemed to us that for a while you had forgotten. What jogged your memory?"

"I didn't need any reminding." Evard sounded indignant. "I came to make sure that the supplies that were needed for the camp were in hand."

Serena snorted in derision.

"God, what a liar you are, Dad. An accomplished one, I grant you. Captain Kirk has already made all the necessary arrangements for supplying the camp, as you must have known. What's the real reason?" There was a silence for a moment and then Serena gave a low laugh. "Got it!" she exclaimed. "What a good time to visit the camp and catch these people while they're at their lowest ebb." She gave another laugh. "You really think you can get these people under your jurisdiction once and for all. And then you think you'll save your own reputation with the Federation. My god! You'll never understand, will you? These people may be sick and dying; they might have lost their lands and their homes, but they haven't lost their pride in family and tribe. These Kariang - " She flung her arm wide, encompassing the whole of the camp. "The Kariang would rather die than be herded like cattle into one of your 'reservations'."

"Herded like cattle?" exclaimed Evard. "What in hell do you call this, may I ask? These people are living like animals and dying like animals. They are a blot on the landscape."

"And what would you do with them? Exterminate them like some sort of vermin?"

They faced one another, their eyes flashing and anger hot in their faces; for a moment Kirk could see the resemblance between them. He stepped forward grabbing them both by the arm.

"I think this has gone far enough," he said firmly. "Hurling abuse will do neither of you any good and will certainly do nothing to help these people." He looked at Evard. "Evard, you can do nothing here. Your presence has not been requested and is not needed. Whatever your reasons for coming here, they are not important. You will return to Oceanside and there make sure the arrangements for the arrival of the supplies are adequate. You no longer have any jurisdiction over Camp Meo-Sun."

"Just who the hell do you think you are, Kirk? Giving orders to me..."

"I am Captain James T Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise and as such I represent the Federation here on Mercia and I am telling you," and Kirk poked his finger at Evard's chest, "to get the hell back to Oceanside. There is no room here for your callous, thoughtless attitudes. I can't believe that anyone could come to Meo-Sun and be so completely unmoved by the plight of these people as you so obviously have been."

The two men glared at one another. Kirk had rarely felt so angry as he did at this particular moment and he determined not to let Evard off the hook. The man had to leave the camp and the sooner the better. There was a brief silent battle for supremacy, but it was Evard who finally dropped his eyes.

"I shall take this matter further once this emergency is over," Evard muttered.

"Do that," replied Kirk and turned on his heel and marched back into the tent, leaving McCoy and Serena staring after him.

Kirk lifted the flap of the tent and stepped outside into the hot, seemingly breathless night. Everywhere he could hear the sounds of the multitude surrounding him; the whimpering of a child, the moaning of someone in pain, could be heard now and then above the murmurous background of thousands of people trying to sleep in a pitiless environment.

Kirk looked up at the stars, finding solace in their bright beauty and an escape from the nightmare of Meo-Sun. He remembered the many times he had looked at the stars from the Observation Deck on the Enterprise and wished desperately he was on board his ship again. Despite many missions and assignments which had taken him away from the Enterprise over the years, he had never overcome his feeling of homesickness for his ship whenever he was away from her.

There was a movement away on his left and he turned to look, thinking it was another sick person come to the hospital for help. He was surprised to find it was Serena Macauley who had walked round from the side of the hospital and was now leaning against the wall. He could see her outline, quite still now, her face turned upwards. Quietly he walked over to her and she turned her head towards him as she heard his footsteps.

"Hello, Jim," she murmured. "Can't sleep?"

He came to stand alongside her.

"No. I guess the heat got to me. It's almost unbearable in the tent." "Not much better out here." Serena gave a sigh. "Somehow the heat seems to be getting worse. It used to cool off a little at night. Now..." She gestured almost helplessly. "Sometimes I feel the whole thing is so hopeless. Once our water supply dries up, this camp will last hardly any time at all."

"Try not to despair," replied Kirk. "I know how you feel, but I'm sure we'll come up with something."

"But will it be in time? These people are failing, they have so little reserves of strength now. There is so much they need. Your starships won't be able to bring everything."

Kirk put his arm around her shoulders.

"No, they won't, I agree. But they will only be the first. There will be many ships, supplies and manpower coming here to help. Somehow the Federation will make sure all these people don't die. I think perhaps you might be underestimating the power of the Federation. Part of the reason for its existence is to bring aid to planets in need."

"I know, Jim. I do understand all that. But even so it will be too late for many of them. Some of the older people are too weak now to benefit from anything the Federation might bring; their bodies are too emaciated, too fragile ever to recover. But it's the children who concern me most. So few of them survive their first few months in camp; and for those who do the future is grim."

"Why do you say that?" questioned Kirk. "All the resources of the Federation..."

"You don't really understand, do you? Most of the children born at Meo-Sun will become mentally subnormal."

Kirk stared at her.

"You see, the brain cells are 'programmed' to multiply during the first few months of life, using vitamins, minerals and energy from the food they eat. With what these babies and children have had in the early months, normal mental progress is impossible. So even if the Federation do manage to take control and improve the conditions here and give the children the food they need, the damage has already been done. And it's irreversible."

There was a silence as Kirk tried to take in the full horror of what Serena was telling him.

"Of course, the blame isn't altogether my father's," she continued. "I guess I'm just using him as a scapegoat, because there's nothing else tangible I can rail against." She gave a soft unhappy laugh.

"Do you feel like talking about it?" asked Kirk quietly.

She leaned against him slightly and he could feel the tenseness of her body. He tightened his arm around her, trying to give her comfort and support.

"I came back from Earth almost two years ago. I had trained to be a doctor in England and when I qualified I worked for three years in a big London teaching hospital."

"Did you never go home in that time?"

"There was no point really. Dad and I had never got on. After Mum died, his whole life was his work. I was just an encumbrance. I can remember as a small child following him around Government House, waiting for him to notice me, but he rarely did and if he did it was always to tell me I was in the way or making a nuisance of myself."

"How old were you when your mother died?"

"I was seven. But it was only as I grew older that I began to see the reason for his attitude towards me. He had always used people. He even used my mother's love for him to help him get the Governor-Generalship of Mercia. He knew that by marrying her, the only daughter of the then Governor-General, he would help his own career immensely. But I was no use to him. There was nothing I could bring him, or give him, that he needed.

"He used people, manipulated them to get what he wanted. He never saw people as human beings with feelings and needs of their own. They were there to be used to gain whatever he wanted. I could give him nothing, therefore I was no use to him."

"But surely he didn't ignore you?" asked Kirk.

"Oh he made sure I was well looked after, well educated, well groomed. But even that was just another means to an end, I discovered. As I grew older he realised I was intelligent and passably attractive and would be an asset as his hostess at all the many functions he gave during the year. I was like a doll he paraded out at the appropriate moment and put away again until next time.

"I was eighteen when I finally told him what I intended to do with my life. He flew into a terrible rage, forbade me to leave the house; even tried to keep me under lock and key. But even he realised that wouldn't work for long. He tried being reasonable, but my mind was made up and I guess I can be as single-minded as he can." Serena gave a rueful smile. "I like to think we're not alike, but I guess we are in some ways. Despite everything I left, and I don't think he has forgiven me. He never said goodbye, never contacted me. Never even sent me a message of congratulations when I graduated."

"What happened when you came back to Mercia?" asked Kirk. He realised that behind Serena's words lay a life almost totally devoid of any family love. He compared it with his own childhood in Iowa and the love he had shared with his mother, father and brother Sam.

"He was too busy to see me, so he said, so it didn't bother him if he saw me or not." She took a deep breath. "Then when I heard about the Kariang starting to come down from the hills to Lake Meo-Sun, I came here with Tom Butler. Somehow I could never bring myself to leave again. There was always too much to do, too many people to help. I guess I was subconsciously trying to make up for the way Dad had used people. Now it's a way of life."

"Did you never try to see him again?" Kirk asked. The unhappiness that Serena had suffered from her father was perhaps not an unusual tale but still her father's attitude was scarcely understandable. So much had been wasted.

"Just once," replied Serena. "I went back to Oceanside to ask for help for the camp. He told me to mind my own business and not meddle in affairs which did not concern me. He forbade me to go back to the camp." "And I see that had just as much effect as the last thing he forbade you to do." Kirk gave a slight smile, and Serena smiled back at him.

"What else did he expect?" she replied. "I half expected help and supplies to come even so, but none ever came through him. Tom had a contact in Lodnum and we managed to get quite a bit from there. But in the last few months, even that had begun to dry up."

She turned within his arms and put her hands on his shoulders, looking into his face. He stood in the shadows and she could just see the faint reflection of starlight in his eyes.

"Captain," she said seriously. "You came just in the nick of time."

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Sarek and Amanda closed the door of their hotel room behind them with relief, savouring the quietness. The last few days had been hectic and busy. Despite the fact the Corridan conference had finished, many of the delegates wished to talk to Sarek about the issues involved and Sarek had been willing to spend as much time as was necessary with everyone who wished to talk to him.

Amanda had worried and fussed, but Sarek had calmly ignored her attempts to try and coddle him. Sarek felt better than he had done for several years, but he seemed unable to convince Amanda of this. He could hardly blame her; he had kept the secret of his ill-health from her, not wanting to worry her, and now she was reluctant to believe him when he assured her he felt well.

However, now they had come to Starbase Twelve to await the ship that would return them to Vulcan, it was a relief to be alone together and able to relax without the possibility of interruption.

"I am glad that you and Spock are closer now," remarked Amanda, as she sat on a low sofa in their room.

"It was... interesting to see Spock in Starfleet surroundings." Sarek's voice was non-committal. "I did not think he would fit in so well with a Human crew."

"He is half Human, Sarek," said Amanda with a smile.

Sarek looked at her, his eyes expressionless. "I realise that, my wife, but it is not just your genes which affect Spock. His close friendship with the Captain has made a marked impression on him. I am surprised that someone of Captain Kirk's type would become Spock's friend."

"But why, Sarek?" asked Amanda indignantly. "James Kirk is a very exceptional man and I believe that they both need one another in the dangerous life that Starfleet demands of them. I am glad that Spock has such a friend."

Sarek made no comment.

"And you must remember how impressed T'Pau was with Captain Kirk. And it takes a great deal to impress her."

"Indeed, Amanda," Sarek sighed. "I don't need to have T'Pau's views to make a judgement on Captain Kirk. I agree with you, he is a most exceptional man. However I believe that Spock is reaching the end of his career in Starfleet."

"What!" exclaimed Amanda. "Whatever makes you think that? He seems so happy with his life on board the Enterprise."

Again, Sarek did not answer.

"Sarek, what have you been saying to Spock? You haven't tried to persuade him to leave Starfleet, have you?"

"Would it be so wrong if I had?"

"Sarek, you know that Spock wouldn't be truly happy on Vulcan. Even I can see that with his life on the Enterprise he has found his place in life. To be half Human and half Vulcan can't have been easy; to know that he has found contentment at last, has made me feel less anxious of his welfare."

"Amanda, Spock and I talked only of the possibility – The Vulcan Science Academy has much to offer Spock."

"How could you, Sarek? How could you?" Amanda's face was flushed with anger. "Even now, you have not learned. You still want to direct Spock, to make him lead the kind of life you want him to lead. Can't you understand, Spock must make his own life; he must fulfil his own destiny. He is not a child anymore."

"I have left the decision to him. I only pointed out that there are possibilities other than Starfleet."

At that moment, there was a knock on the door. Amanda rose to answer it. A man waited outside with a letter for Sarek which bore the official Federation stamp. Amanda took the letter and closed the door. Slowly she walked across the room and handed the letter to Sarek.

"I just hope you haven't caused Spock any further unhappiness. There has been too much unhappiness in Spock's life."

"Amanda!" Sarek's voice was quiet. "Enough. I will discuss this matter no further. Spock will make his own decision."

With deft fingers Sarek opened the letter and read the contents, while Amanda returned to her chair. She fingered the edge of the scarf which was draped around her shoulders, wanting to say more, but she knew that when Sarek spoke in that tone, there was nothing more to be said.

Sarek looked across at her.

"It is a letter from the United Federation of Planets asking me to travel to Mercia and assume the temporary Governor-Generalship of the planet. There has been some trouble there and the situation is fast becoming critical." He glanced down at the letter. "A ship will be leaving Starbase Twelve in two days and arrangements have been made for us to be on it.

"It seems I am to relieve Mr Charles Evard of his post and put him aboard the starship, together with a Mr Landers, for a return journey to Starbase Twelve. Full details will be given to me on board."

A frown creased Amanda's forehead.

"Whatever is happening there, I wonder?" she said. "Mercia has always been such a backwater sort of planet."

Sarek looked at her in surprise.

"You've heard of Mercia?"

"Why, yes," she replied. "it is a planet which has been settled by Humans for well over a hundred years."

"You must tell me all you know about it. I will need to know as much as possible if I am to be of value there."

Spock knelt on the meditation pad in his cabin on the Enterprise and steepled his fingers. Only another nineteen point five hours until they reached the rendezvous point with the transport ships. Spock had received the codes which would allow him to board the ships and alter their destination programs and increase their speed. It was all quite straightforward and needed very little planning or thought.

But Spock felt in great need of meditation as far as his own personal life was concerned. He was content now that he and Sarek were speaking again after all the years of silence; but the talks they had during their time together on the Enterprise had disturbed him more than he would care to admit.

He remembered his father's words while they were in Sickbay a few short weeks ago - words which had caused him to face a future which he had never wished to contemplate. "Spock, you have served twenty years with Starfleet. Do you not feel that now would be an appropriate time to consider returning to Vulcan and taking up the tasks which were once appointed for you at the Vulcan Science Academy? It would mean a great deal to both your mother and myself if you were once again on Vulcan – living your life as a Vulcan, as we both wished you to."

Spock had remained silent for a moment, unable at first to even consider such a thing. He looked across at his father and had seen an expression in his eyes which spoke more than a whole volume of words; a need not to be denied out of hand; the need of a father to be close again with a son with whom he had not spoken for eighteen years.

Spock gave him the only answer he could give at the time - the promise that he, Spock, would give the matter his deepest thought. It was not a decision he could take lightly and quickly. There had been a flash of disappointment in Sarek's eyes and then the usual, calm expressionless veil had fallen and Sarek had nodded.

"I did not expect an immediate decision," he replied. "I will await your answer with... interest."

They had spoken no more on the subject, but Spock had thought often of it in the days which followed. His decision to enter Starfleet Academy was one which had angered and disappointed Sarek. They had spoken bitter words, words which would have been better left unsaid; words which once spoken could not be recalled, and Spock had left his home, never expecting to return.

He had entered Starfleet Academy within a few months of leaving home and had found very few Vulcans in his year at the Academy. He found the work demanding, but well within his grasp, but more and more he missed the long discussions he used to have with Sarek, when he had always felt he was learning as much from Sarek as he did from any of his teachers.

But he quickly learned to cope adequately with the gap that Sarek had left in his life and had gone on to a brilliant career at the Academy. His only disappointment was that Sarek refused to acknowledge anything he did.

The years aboard the Enterprise had been just as full and just as demanding as life at the Academy – and just as lonely. Until the day Captain James T Kirk had taken command of his first starship. A smile touched Spock's lips as he remembered that day. He had been almost aghast at the youth of the Enterprise's new Captain. He seemed more like a young boy and Spock felt misgivings at the young Captain's ability. Misgivings which had disappeared within the first week.

Even now, Spock could remember that eager, excited look which was often in Kirk's eyes; eyes which were infinitely more expressive than Sarek's. And that look had never really lessened. For Kirk, life on the Enterprise was all he had ever dreamed it would be. Captain of his own starship was a destiny which he had attained early in his career and it was the only one which Spock could ever see him being completely happy with.

During those first six months Kirk and Spock had grown to know each other as brother officers and had quickly come to rely on one another in the many emergencies which happened in deep space. Later the friendship had developed, deepening and maturing over the years until Spock, too, felt his destiny was beside his Captain on the Enterprise.

Now Sarek had come back into his life and Spock was once again torn with a decision which tore at his Vulcan and Human halves, making his dual heritage doubly difficult. He felt he owed his father time at the Vulcan Academy; after all, as Sarek had said, he had spent twenty years in Starfleet. But the thought of leaving Kirk and the Enterprise was almost unbearable. Loneliness he had always known, until Kirk had taken command of the Enterprise; and Spock knew that the loneliness would never be filled by anyone else. Could he return to Vulcan and all that it entailed?

Kirk had made him see that being half Vulcan and half Human was a good thing. He was unique and should take delight in that fact, bringing the best of both worlds to his life. Sarek had always tried to keep Spock's Human side hidden, wanting his son to be as much like a pure Vulcan as possible.

Spock had given the matter so much thought that he scarcely knew what decision to make, but in his mind he could see the expression in his father's eyes when they had talked together and he knew what decision he had to make. Now he was trying to come to terms with that decision.

This would be his last mission aboard the Enterprise; his last mission for Starfleet. And he tried to forget the expression he had seen in Kirk's eyes when he had told him of the decision Spock had never wanted to make.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

The results of Charles Evard's disastrous flight over Camp Meo-Sun became evident the following day, as people began to make their way to the hospitals. Long queues formed outside as people sat patiently waiting to be seen. Those suffering from trachoma could hardly open their eyes, which were red and tear filled, aggravated by the flying dust particles. Babies, so thin that they seemed like skeletons, had little resistance to the sand which had entered their eyes, their noses, their mouths and were now in an even more pitiable state. Some people had T.B. and lung infections and the sand had irritated their already inflamed membranes.

All the doctors worked throughout that day and far into the night without a break, trying to bring some sort of relief to the suffering of these people. The drugs which the Enterprise had been able to supply had seemed a vast quantity at the time; now all the supplies were running low and there were no antibiotics at all by the end of the day.

The heat seemed more intense, the air more breathless and inside the hospital McCoy could feel sweat running down his back. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand and gently took a tiny baby from its mother's arms. The mother explained that the baby had coughed all night and although he had stopped now, she wanted the doctor to look at him. The baby was wrapped in a cotton shawl and as McCoy unwrapped him he could see the sharp outline of the baby's ribs, his stick-like arms and legs, but worst of all was the glazed look in the baby's eyes. Even as he felt for the pulse, McCoy knew it was too late. The baby was dead. Slowly he wrapped the tiny child in the shawl again and laid him gently in his mother's arms.

"I'm sorry," said McCoy for perhaps the fifth time that day. "There's nothing I can do. The coughing was too much for him."

The mother looked stunned for a moment, utterly unable to comprehend what McCoy was telling her.

"You can help him. Give him some medicine. Please. I beg you. Make him well."

"I'm so sorry. There's nothing I can do. Your son is dead." McCoy felt as if a knife was twisting in his heart as he saw the expression in the mother's eyes.

She looked down at her tiny son.

"Dead?" she whispered. "Dead." She tightened her grip on the tiny baby and stood up. "I did not understand." Silently she drew her cotton head cover across her face and stumbled out of the hospital.

McCoy watched her go with an agonised expression on his face. There was nothing he could do to help her; and there were so many in a similar situation. He looked across to where Serena stood, examining the eyes of a young girl. She glanced at him briefly, her eyes meeting his in sympathy, and shrugged her shoulders.

Kirk meanwhile had been visiting all the hospitals, trying to help in any way he could to lessen the discomfort of the people who waited. He had rigged blankets outside the hospitals to provide some sort of protection against the heat of the sun; he arranged for some of the stronger, younger people to take water along to the waiting crowds. And there were as many people, both Kariang and helpers who wanted to talk to him, as if his presence gave them some sort of comfort in itself. He visited all the members of his crew who were at the camp, making sure that they were well and listening to their ideas and suggestions concerning Camp Meo-Sun.

At least once during each day, he went to the mortuary tent and if anyone had died, leaving no relatives to bury them, Kirk would do it. Sometimes he went to the burial grounds alone, sometimes he would have to take a few of his crew with him. And although the animals were not so much in evidence since Kirk regularly used his phaser on them, he knew that at night they still came back. But it seemed to Kirk that it was little enough that he was doing; the immensity of the problems at the camp seemed almost overwhelming, and he longed constantly to be back on the Bridge of the Enterprise, doing the job he did best.

On the day after the dust storm, a pain developed in Kirk's chest and back, and he began to tire more easily than was usual. He tried to ignore it, told himself it was the heat that was so debilitating, but the pain and tiredness persisted.

On the seventh day after Spock had left with the Enterprise, Kirk awoke with a start just as dawn was beginning to break. The pain in his chest was severe and he knew that the stab wound was beginning to trouble him again. He sat up and stretched carefully, trying to ease the pain. He was sweating profusely and he wiped his hand over his face, feeling the sweat trickling down his chest and back. He hadn't realised it had become so much hotter during the night. He thought briefly of how wonderful a long cool shower would be right now and then pushed the thought resolutely to the back of his mind.

He rose and padded out of the tent, his eyes resting for a moment on the tiny figure of Zahira curled up on her blanket in the corner. He had seen very little of her during the last few days; he had been away from the Central Hospital quite a bit and hadn't taken Zahira with him as he had travelled on foot. It seemed to Kirk that Zahira had become frailer, her strength diminished. But her large dark eyes always lit up with pleasure whenever she saw him and she would bring him a cup of water when he sank down, exhausted, onto his blanket at the end of each day.

Dawn was beginning to brighten the eastern sky as he left the tent and he knew it wouldn't be long before the hot, hammer blows of the sun would creep over the horizon to devastate the land with its heat again. He wondered what Spock was doing right now. The Enterprise should have reached the transport ships by now; in fact, if Kirk's estimate was right, Spock should be well on his way back to Mercia with them and he expected them in orbit around the planet in three or four days time. He smiled as he thought of the Vulcan's precise definitions of time and how he would raise his eyebrows at Kirk's rather casual estimate of their arrival.

Kirk longed to see the Enterprise again; she was so precious to him. She was a dream fulfilled, and unlike many fulfilled dreams, she was not a disappointment. Sailing through limitless space with his ship was everything he had thought it would be. Maybe it was a tough and lonely life, but it was the life he had chosen and he had no wish to change it.

He ran his hand through his hair, feeling its dampness – he couldn't remember when he had last perspired so much. He turned as he heard a movement in the tent and he saw McCoy coming through the opening.

"Hi, Bones. Can't you sleep either?

"Hell, Jim, I reckon I'd sleep more comfortably on a bed of nails than on that hard packed earth. I'll sure be glad when the Enterprise returns and I can sleep in my own bed again. My old bones don't take kindly to this rough living."

"I'll be glad when the Enterprise returns too," said Kirk with a sigh. "I sure as hell miss her."

"That's not the reason you're not sleeping though, Jim, is it?" asked McCoy. "Are you feeling O.K? You look kinda peaky to me."

"Peaky!?" Kirk gave a short laugh. "Well, I suppose it's as good a description as any. No, seriously, Bones. I'm just a bit tired – not used to all this manual work in the sun. I guess we're all tired. How the medical staff have put up with it all for so long, I don't know. It's not just the hard work and the heat, it's the emotional commitment, too. To see the suffering of these people and to live with it day after day! I tell you, Bones, I don't think I could do it."

"You sure as hell could if you had to, Jim. You're as deeply committed to the Enterprise and her crew as the doctors here are to Camp Meo-Sun. And I bet there are a lot of people who wouldn't want your job."

"That's different, Bones."

"Not really. Just a matter of viewpoint. But you haven't answered my question. What got you up this early?"

Kirk looked at him out of the corner of his eye, wondering just how much he could get away with.

"The heat, I guess, Bones," he replied. "It seems to get hotter every day."

McCoy looked at him squarely.

"Sure there's nothing else? No pain? No breathlessness or coughing?"

"Bones, will you stop fussing. I'm fine - or I will be once the Enterprise gets back. I wonder if Spock has come with anything on the Mercian problem while's he's been away."

"What particular problem did you have in mind, Jim?" asked McCoy. "It seems to me Mercia has more problems than you can shake a stick at."

Kirk grinned, glad to have got the subject away from himself.

"The particular problem I have in mind was getting Mercia back on its correct axis, so that the climate can return to normal." Kirk shook his head. "Unless that happens, Mercia hasn't got a future."

"It's not that simple though, is it?"

"No, Bones, it isn't. It will take months, years even, before Mercia can return to what it was before the drought started. But with that lake ready to dry up in a few weeks, we've just got to pull something out of the bag."

As Kirk spoke the first rays of the early morning sun lifted above the horizon, flooding the camp with heat and light. Kirk squinted in its direction, holding up a hand to protect his eyes.

"Well, here it comes again. It's like a heavy burden, the heat's so intense." He rubbed his hand across his forehead. "What wouldn't I give for a long, cool, refreshing shower."

"You and me both!" exclaimed McCoy. "When do you think the Enterprise will return?"

"According to Spock's 'rough estimate', I would expect her back within the next four days."

"Well, it can't be soon enough for me."

"Uhmmmm." Kirk's voice was faraway. "Do you know what I keep thinking about, Bones? The garden of the Enterprise. The last time I was there it was early summer and the garden had just had a shower of rain." He shook his head at the memory. "The smell was unbelievable! So fresh and cool... And the flowers..." He sighed. "And then I look around at the ugliness and desolation of this camp. And I see the suffering of these people who must have once known beauty and freshness in their lives; and I feel so helpless... and so angry..."

He fell silent unable to express exactly what he felt. He looked up as McCoy's hand rested for a moment on his shoulder.

I know, Jim," he said quietly. "It all seems such a goddamn waste! But we do the best we can." He gave a small mirthless smile. "Ours not to reason why..."

"I guess you're right, Bones. But this is one mission I shall never, ever forget."

Zahira sat on the bare earth, leaning against the wall of the hospital. She was tired and hot; and she hadn't seen her friend Captain Kirk for two days. He had been up and out somewhere in the camp before she woke in the mornings and did not return until after she fell asleep at night. But she was determined to see him today. Somehow life seemed a little brighter since he and his friends had come to Camp Meo-Sun; and Zahira always felt happy when she saw him. The Captain was always friendly and pleased to see her and somehow she didn't seem to miss her family quite so much.

She traced patterns in the dry, dusty earth with her fore finger and tried to imagine what a starship looked like. It must be something very special because Captain Kirk always seemed so proud of his ship – The Enterprise. Zahira had made a special note of the name and said it over to herself sometimes just to hear the sound of it.

At that moment Kirk came striding along the pathway towards the hospital. He stopped and smiled down at her.

"Hello, Zahira. How are you to-day?"

"A little tired," she replied, looking up at him with a touch of hero worship in her eyes. "Have you got time to tell me about the Enterprise?"

Kirk's smiled broadened and he sat down beside her leaning his back against the wall and stretching his legs out in front of him, glad to sit and rest for a moment and try and ease the pain in his chest.

"You remembered her name," he said. "Yes, I think I have a few minutes, Zahira. What do you want to know?"

"What does she look like? Why do you call her 'she'? Does she go very fast? Do you drive her?"

"Hey, hey," laughed Kirk. "Wait just a minute. Give me time to answer. Now, what does she look like? She's shining white and has her own special number – NCC 1701." Kirk was silent, remembering. "It's difficult to describe her shape."

Zahira dusted her hands over the surface of the surface of the earth where she had drawn her patterns earlier.

"Draw it there," she commanded.

"Yes, ma'am," said Kirk solemnly and he carefully drew the Enterprise outline with his finger.

"I have never seen a shape like that before," said Zahira in wonder.

"She's designed to travel through space, she never lands on a planet."

"How do you get here then?"

Kirk thought of the difficulties of trying to describe the transporter system to someone like Zahira, who had never really come into contact with the technological world and decided to take the easier way out.

"We have much smaller ships called shuttle craft and they bring us to the planet surface." He drew a small shuttle beside the Enterprise.

Zahira looked at it critically.

"I prefer how the Enterprise looks," she said candidly.

Kirk dropped a kiss on the top of her head.

"So do I, Zahira."

"Do you drive her through space yourself?"

"No, I have a helmsman who steers her and a navigator who plots the course and tells the helmsman which course to follow."

"What do you do?" asked Zahira innocently.

"What do I do?" laughed Kirk. "I'm the Captain. I give the orders."

Zahira smiled, not really understanding, but happy to be with her friend once again.

"Tell me about you, Zahira. About where you used to live."

"It was a large valley and we lived in a village called Me-Tan. Our house was one of the largest in the village. I loved our house. One day, Petara, my sister, and I got some red dye and we painted our names on the wall on the front." Zahira gave a giggled at the memory. "And then we put a pattern round – like this." And Zahira drew a pattern around the Enterprise. "Mother and Father were very cross at first, but they let us keep our names there."

Zahira's eyes filled with tears and she rubbed her knuckles into them. It hurt to remember but she wanted to explain her life to Captain Kirk, because she wanted to share her memories with him.

"It was lovely there." Zahira managed to smile again as she remembered to happy times. "There were so many flowers and we used to pick lots of them and make crowns and necklaces out of them. Sometimes in the summer, we were allowed to swim in the river. I liked that. I wish I could swim again. Do you know..." She looked up at Kirk, who looked at her questioningly. "I sometimes dream I'm swimming and I look down through the water and I can see fish swimming along with me. The best things of all were the butterflies. They seemed to be everywhere for a long time. But then the flowers died and the butterflies went away. I don't know why."

Kirk took her tiny, fragile hand in his and tried to explain why her world had changed so much.

"The planet moved out of its usual path and the rains stopped coming," he said. "And because the flowers didn't have rain, they died and so did the butterflies."

"Are you going to put the planet right?"

"Well, we're going to try. Then perhaps the butterflies will come back to Me-tan."

"Yea." Zahira's voice was quiet. Much as she loved the Captain, she couldn't explain even to him that Me-Tan would never be the same again because her mother, father and sister would not be there. But she guessed he understood anyway; there was something about the way he looked at her. But the hurt of her loss was still deep and she closed her mind to their deaths because she couldn't bear to think about them. Instead she told Kirk about a friend she had had at Me-Tan.

"In the house next to ours they had a pig. The pig was my friend and the village priest killed it." Zahira's eyes filled with tears again. Nothing had gone right since the pig had been killed.

"Why did he kill it, Zahira?" asked Kirk gently.

"I don't know. All the villagers went to the holy place and we gave special presents so the Lord of Land and Water would be happy and send us rain. Then we all touched the pig and then the priest stuck a knife in it and he bled an awful lot. He squealed too and I know they hurt him."

Kirk slipped an arm round her shoulder and hugged her tightly.

"I'm sorry, Zahira. I didn't mean to bring back unhappy memories."

"It's all right," murmured Zahira. "I just sometimes wish I had that pig as my very own friend now."

Kirk looked down at her, realising for the first time just how lonely the little girl was. She had lost everything and there was nothing and no-one to replace what she had lost.

"One day, when the Enterprise returns, I'll take you to see her and you can go wherever you want on board."

"Oh." Zahira was speechless, her hands clasped tight together. "You really mean it?"

"Of course, Zahira. There are lots of thing you might like to see, including a garden."

"A garden! There's a real garden on the Enterprise? Oh, Captain Kirk, are there butterflies as well?"

"Yes, Zahira." Kirk's voice was quiet, remembering what Zahira had said about butterflies. "I'm sure we'll see one or two."

At that moment Kirk suddenly saw Chekov walking quickly along the path from the eastern hospital. Kirk stood up, dusting his trousers and pulling down his uniform top. Zahira stood up as well and held onto Kirk's hand.

"Ah, Captain, there you are," exclaimed Chekov. "I'm afraid I have bad news from the eastern hospital, sir."

"Report please, Ensign."

"Yes, sir. There have been three deaths in the camp this morning. The doctors have made their examinations and can find no cause for any of the deaths. Two are Kariang, sir; and although suffering from malnutrition were still reasonably healthy. The other was Peterson from Engineering, on the Enterprise.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

It was an hour later that Kirk, McCoy and Chekov arrived at the Eastern Hospital. Tom Butler was already there and showed McCoy the bodies.

"It was the damndest thing I've ever seen," commented Butler. "The two Kariang were among the healthiest in the camp. O.K., they were suffering from malnutrition, but not to a marked degree. They both came from the same tribe and had only been in the camp a couple of weeks. They had no identifiable disease that I could find; there as no reason for them to die. As for Greg Petersen, well, you must know yourself he was in tip-top condition."

"Well, I'll make my own examination first and then we'll have to do autopsies on each of them," said McCoy. "We'll have to make it snappy. No hanging around in this heat. Well, I don't have to tell you that." McCoy gave Butler a wry grin.

But the examinations and autopsies brought no new information. The three men had died, but from what cause neither McCoy nor Butler could say.

"But there must be a reason, Bones!" exclaimed Kirk when McCoy reported negative results. "Men like that don't just die from no known cause. There must be something you've overlooked; some tiny detail..."

"Jim, there's nothing. Tom and I have checked each other's findings. The only thing we haven't done is give them a brain scan and as they are already dead, it seems a little pointless..."

"Do it, Bones."

"But, Jim..."

"Do it anyway. There might be something."

McCoy turned back into the hospital with a disgruntled air, muttering about starship captains with delusions of having medical knowledge. Kirk grinned to himself and then sank wearily down onto the ground near the hospital wall. His head ached, and the pain in his chest and back had worsened. He knew the stab wound inflicted by the Andorian must be the problem but he kept hoping it would clear on its own. His legs and arms ached, and he hoped he hadn't caught the flu virus which had been going round the camp.

A few minutes later McCoy and Butler came out of the hospital, both looking somewhat sheepish.

"Well, Jim," said McCoy, "it's a good thing you insisted on a brain scan. The first one we did showed nothing, then I set my scanner for a deep probe and it was the same in each case. The synapses of the brain were completely destroyed."

McCoy stopped, obviously waiting for the impact to hit Kirk.

"I'm sorry, Bones. I don't understand."

"Jim, the synapses of the brain are the tiny junction boxes which pass messages along the brain paths. It was as if every synapse had been overloaded by too much power going through – too many messages. So much that the brain couldn't handle it and the synapses just blew."

"But what would cause that?" asked Kirk

"We just don't know, Captain," replied Butler. "Neither of us have ever seen anything like it before. And to have it happen to three men at approximately the same time..." Butler shook his head. "One hell of a mystery."

Kirk was silent, deep in thought. Then he looked at both men in turn.

"And neither of you have any idea what could have caused it?" They both shook their heads.

Kirk ran his finger along his lips and then rubbed his eyes, trying to relieve the headache. In his mind he could see the tiny blip of energy which Spock had pinpointed to the east of the camp. And these three men had been in the area of the camp nearest to those ruins. There might not be any connection; on the other hand...

He looked up sharply.

"Well, Bones, you and Tom keep your eyes open for any more mysteries. In the meantime I'll be gone about two or three hours."

"Gone?" queried McCoy. "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to the ruins that Serena took me to a few days ago."

"What are you going there for?"

"Just playing a hunch."

Kirk drove quickly over the dun-coloured, dusty terrain on his way to the ruins. He didn't really know what he expected to find when he got there, but the mysterious deaths of the Kariang and his crewman had to be solved and he had to start somewhere.

The sun poured down on his unprotected head and neck and his headache worsened. He began to feel slightly sick and the hazy horizon blurred and shimmered in the distance. He began to wish he hadn't rushed off in such impulsive haste on what now began to seem like a wild goose chase. Then ahead he could see the outlines of the shattered ruins. Thankfully he drove the jeep towards them and parked in the relative coolness of the shade beneath the deep high arch. He sat for a moment and leaned his head on his hands as they clasped the steering wheel. A feeling of unutterable weariness came over him and he longed only to be aboard his ship again away from the devastating misery of this planet. It seemed as if he had always lived in the camp with the heat, the squalor and the suffering. Never had he felt so helpless; doctors and nurses were what were badly needed at the present moment, not a starship captain without his ship.

But what Kirk didn't realise was that he brought something very special to the workers at the camp. Hope. Hope that an end to the suffering was now in sight; and help, too, in the physical form of medicines, shelter and clothing. But there was something else, something almost indefinable; something which was within Kirk, making him the person he was. The very qualities which made him such an outstanding starship captain were the qualities which made him so invaluable at Camp Meo-Sun. Kirk was able to lift people's spirits by his very presence, and encouraged them with just the right amount of command and humour. Leadership and compassion were a very potent combination when used in the right way.

But Kirk did not see things in this light. He sighed and heaved himself out of the jeep, appreciating the coolness of the deep shadows after the heat out in the plains. The hot sun wrapped the shattered ruins in a silent heat-ridden atmosphere as he slowly began to make his way, almost instinctively, towards the ceilingless room with the strange, painted walls.

At first, everything seemed the same as when he had last visited the ruins with Serena. Nothing had moved – in places he could still see his and Serena's footsteps in the dust. But as he went deeper into the ruins he became aware of a significant difference. Before, both he and Serena had been aware of an air of expectancy about the place, almost as if they might turn a corner and come face to face with one of the humanoid beings they had seen in the paintings. This time, there was nothing. The whole place was dead, just a pile of ancient ruins forgotten by time.

Kirk frowned slightly, puzzled by the significant change in the atmosphere. It was not something he could explain in words, it would sound incredible, foolish even. Kirk felt he would not have believed it himself, if he was not actually experiencing it. But he also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that his hunch would not now pay off.

He forced himself to go on until he came to the room with the paintings. He stood in the doorway; nothing seemed to have changed. He walked slowly over to the hole and knelt beside it. He ran his finger along the groove, waiting for the faint ringing he had heard before. The silence was absolute. He tried again but there was nothing. The silence was almost uncanny and he stood up, uncertain what to do next. He started as a slight noise echoed in the chamber, but then he saw a few stones trickling down the side of the rocky face, where they had broken away from the rock itself.

Kirk shivered and began to retrace his steps through the ruins. He felt low and depressed; he had been so sure that he would find some kind of answer here. He reached the jeep and stood for a moment looking around, almost as if he expected to hear or see something even now. But the ruins towered up behind him in mighty solitude and in front the brown desolate landscape shimmered, holding out elusive promises of pools of crystal water which would never be fulfilled.

Wearily he climbed into the jeep and started back in the direction of Camp Meo-Sun, the sun hitting him like hammer blows as he drove out of the shadow of the archway. Once he turned to look back at the ruins, as they brooded silently in the haze. Somehow he knew the ruins were important to the planet, but he couldn't even begin to guess why.

The journey back to the camp proved to be a distinctly uncomfortable one for Kirk. He felt sick and ill and he would have given anything to lie down somewhere cool and dark. His throat felt dry and raw and he foolishly had brought no water with him in his haste to get to the ruins. The pain in his chest had returned with renewed force and every bump in the road sent a jolt of pain through his body.

He clung desperately to the wheel with sweat-damp hands, every so often wiping the perspiration away as it trickled into his eyes. He could see the dark sprawl of the camp in the distance and pointed the jeep in that direction. He drove straight to the Eastern Hospital where he had left McCoy and Butler. McCoy heard the sound of the jeep's engines and came out of the hospital as Kirk came to a stop.

"Hi, Jim," called McCoy as Kirk clambered down and walked towards him. "Did you find anything?"

Tiredly, Kirk shook his head.

"Not a thing, Bones. I don't even know what I expected to find. Last time, both Serena and I felt... I don't know... something! An air of someone being there. If it had just been me I would have said it was imagination, but Serena felt it too. This time there nothing. It was just a heap of ruined stonework." Kirk looked down at his dust covered boots and crossed his arms. "A complete waste of time."

McCoy looked at him in sympathy.

"And I'm afraid I've no better news for you here, Jim."

Kirk looked up.

"What's happened?"

"There have been two more deaths in the camp since you've been gone and both from the same causes as before – burnout of the synapses. I can't explain it, neither can Tom." McCoy's voice dropped a little lower. "And I'm afraid, Jim, that one of the dead is another Enterprise crewman – Cousens from the Catering Section."

"Oh my god." Kirk's voice was quiet. "What the hell is happening here?" He looked around. "Is it just this area of the camp that's affected or have there been further reports from anywhere else?"

"As far as I know, these five are the only ones, but any reports would have gone to the Central Hospital first anyway."

"We'd better get back there," said Kirk abruptly. "We might have to evacuate this section of the camp if the deaths are confined to the area. If not..." Kirk spread his hands. "We've got one hell of a problem."

He turned back towards the jeep and then stopped as everything began to spin around him. He staggered slightly, grabbing McCoy's arm for support.

"Hey, Jim," exclaimed McCoy in concern. "Are you all right?"

"I think the heat is getting to me. Driving out to the ruins in the heat of the day was not a good idea. I guess I have a touch of heat stroke." He grinned slightly at the concern he saw on McCoy's face. "Don't look so worried, Bones. All I need is a rest out of the sun." He stopped as a wave of nausea swept over him. "I regret I have all the symptoms." The smile was wiped from Kirk's face and he turned pale as he hastily retreated to one side of the hospital where he was violently sick.

McCoy followed him, putting his arm around Kirk's shoulders. Kirk leaned against him, glad of support. He was dimly aware that McCoy had produced his mini-scanner and he could hear it whirring as the doctor ran it over him. He turned to look at McCoy, his face white and glistening with a sheen of perspiration. He wiped his hand over his face and gave a shaky smile.

"Not the best of times to be suffering from heat stroke – my own damn stupid fault."

"Come on, Jim. I'll take you back to the Central Hospital. You need to rest."

Kirk allowed himself to be led back to the jeep without protest.

"You did autopsies on the two dead men?" asked Kirk as he sank down into the passenger seat.

"Of course, Jim," replied McCoy. "First thing I did when they came in, but as I said, the cause of death was exactly the same as the other three."

McCoy walked round and got in the driver's set. "I sure hope I can drive one of these things. It's been years since I tried."

Kirk gave a brief smile and looked across at his friend.

"It's pretty straightforward. I'll drive if you like, Bones," he offered.

"No, no, Jim. I'll be fine. Just relax." The engine shuddered into life and after a rather jerky start, they set off towards the Central Hospital.

"Bones!" exclaimed Kirk suddenly. "Have arrangements been made for the funeral of the two crewmen? I don't want them to be taken to the burial grounds."

"It's O.K., Jim. I've made the necessary arrangements. Chekov is going to cremate the bodies to-night. We can't afford to wait until the Enterprise returns."

"That's what I was concerned about. Thanks, Bones." Kirk leaned back and closed his eyes. "God, I feel so tired."

McCoy glanced at him with worry in his eyes. Kirk was far sicker than he realised. The scanner had shown that the stab wound had re-opened and was bleeding directly into the lung; infection had set in.

McCoy believed it had been caused by the dirt and dust thrown into the air when Evard had flown over the camp in his helicopter; and he knew it wouldn't be long before Kirk would be coughing and probably causing more damage to his infected lung. But what concerned McCoy more than anything was the lack of medical supplies at the camp. On board the Enterprise he would have had Kirk back on his feet in a couple of days. Here, with the dirt, the lack of proper nursing care, and the inability to do anything about the wound, Kirk's condition could become critical.

And Kirk had been right, he was suffering from heat stroke. A couple of hours driving in the heat of the day, with his head and neck uncovered, especially when he was already ill, had worsened his condition considerably. The sooner he got Kirk to the Central Hospital the better. At least he could rest and McCoy could look after him as best he could.

In a very short time, McCoy had Kirk as comfortably settled as it was possible to be in the doctors' tent. He had seemed happy just to lie on the blanket while McCoy fussed over him, too unutterably weary to make any protest.

Zahira had been in the tent when they had arrived and had come to sit silently at Kirk's side, careful to keep out of McCoy's way. Her eyes fixed themselves on Kirk's face and timidly she brushed back the damp forelock of hair on his forehead. He opened his eyes to look at her and smiled.

"Hello, Zahira." His voice was husky and low.

"Captain Kirk, why are you ill?" Zahira's voice was troubled.

"I think I have been out in the sun too much, Zahira. I'll rest to-day and I'm sure I shall feel better tomorrow."

McCoy placed a small bowl with a little water in it beside Zahira.

"I know you would like to help with the Captain, Zahira," he replied. "Here's a cloth. Wring it out in the water and wipe his face with it now and then. It will make him feel a little cooler, even though it won't do much else. And come and tell me if Captain Kirk should start to cough. Do you understand?"

"Yes, of course," said Zahira proudly. "I will look after Captain Kirk really well." Industriously she dipped the cloth into the water and squeezing it dry, she gently wiped Kirk's face.

Meanwhile Kirk looked at McCoy as he spoke.

"Cough?" he asked. "Why should I start coughing?"

"Because, Jim, I believe the stab wound has opened up and is bleeding into the lung."

"Hell!" muttered Kirk in disgust. "I did wonder."
"Why? Have you had any symptoms?" McCoy's voice was sharp.

"Oh, there's been a pain in my chest and back the last couple of days. And I've felt more tired than usual, that's all."

"Jim, why in hell didn't you tell me?"

"You have enough on your plate as it is. Anyway, I thought it was just the heat."

"Well, now I have a whole lot more to worry about," snapped McCoy. "If you'd told me when the pain first started I could have put you on antibiotics. That would have helped. Now we haven't any antibiotics left."

"I'm sorry, Bones." Kirk sounded contrite.

McCoy's face softened.

"I should know you by now, Jim," he said, resting his hand gently on Kirk's shoulder. "I'll do what I can and it won't be long before the Enterprise returns. Try and sleep for a while."

By the next morning Kirk's condition had worsened considerably. His temperature had risen and as McCoy had predicted, he had started to cough. McCoy managed to prop Kirk up a little to try and help with his breathing, which was becoming laboured.

He had been sick several times during the night and McCoy was worried that he was becoming dehydrated. He and Zahira had been giving Kirk small sips of water, but even that he seemed unable to keep down. He lay quietly on the blanket, his face flushed and covered in a sheen of perspiration. Every now and then he gave a hard, wracking cough and when he did so there were traces of blood on his lips.

All during the day, Zahira remained at Kirk's side like a small faithful shadow. She bathed his face and gave him sips of water, talking to him to keep him amused. But as the day wore on, his temperature increased and he began to drift in and out of consciousness, not seeming to know exactly where he was. As his temperature rose, he began to mutter incoherently, tossing restlessly, trying to get away from the pain which seemed to encompass his chest.

McCoy came to see Kirk more frequently as his friend's condition deteriorated and Serena, too, would come and sit by his side for a few minutes whenever she could. They were able to give him pain killers to try and deaden the pain, but apart from that there was little they could do until the Enterprise returned.

The next two days took on the aspect of a nightmare for McCoy, Serena and Zahira. McCoy spent less and less time in the hospital and more and more time with Kirk, trying to do what little he could for him. Somehow he managed to acquire several jugs of water and was able to sponge Kirk down in an attempt to lower his temperature; the pain killers seemed to help with the worst of the pain and Kirk didn't seem so restless. By now, however, he was unconscious for most of the time and McCoy could only listen helplessly to his Captain's voice, giving orders to his Bridge crew as if he were still aboard the Enterprise. His voice was husky and cracked and he coughed frequently.

Zahira never left his side during those days. She sat beside him, watching him anxiously, sometimes holding his hand in an attempt to reassure him that his small friend was near. Sometimes, she would snatch some sleep lying curled beside him, but mostly she just sat and watched him with dark, troubled eyes.

For Serena, with the whole weight of the camp on her shoulders, there was little she could do, except visit when she could. Fortunately no more mysterious deaths in the camp had been reported and it seemed that the phenomenon was confined to the eastern section of the camp. With so much to do, she decided not to attempt to evacuate that part of the camp unless a lot more deaths were reported. But after the death of Cousens, there were no further incidents, but the cause of their deaths remained a mystery.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

Spock sat in the command chair, watching the viewscreen as the Enterprise took up orbit around Mercia. To the rear of the Enterprise the transport ships, bearing their precious and vital supplies, swung into a similar orbit, just as Spock had programmed them to do.

"Synchronous orbit over Camp Meo-Sun achieved, sir," came Scotty's voice from the Engineering Section. "And those beauties are all right behind us," he added with satisfaction.

"Thank you, Mr Scott," replied Spock, his voice as expressionless as ever. "I assume by "beauties" you mean the transport ships."

"Of course, Mr Spock. And the camp must be desperately needing those supplies by now."

"Indeed, Mr Scott." Spock stood up and was about to make his way from the bridge when his attention was caught by a small glowing, pulsating blip on the planet's surface. He stared at it for a moment, almost in disbelief, then walked quietly to the Science monitor to take readings of the phenomenon and his eyebrow lifted as he read off the results. The pulsing glow of energy came from the ruins to the east of Camp Meo-Sun and Spock realised with a sudden shock that this was the tiny surge of energy he had originally seen pulsing at a rate of once every eighteen hours. Now it was pulsing at a rate of once every minute. Spock stood silently, looking down into the sensor hood.

"Is anything the matter, Mr Spock?" asked Scotty as he noticed the Vulcan's almost puzzled stance.

"I am not sure, Mr Scott. That pulsing blip of energy has increased in power and rate by a quite enormous degree while we have been away. I am concerned as to what effect it might have on the surrounding area. As you can see it is quite near the eastern border of Camp Meo-Sun."

"Aye, Mr Spock," replied Scotty as he studied the view screen. "The Captain will need to know about that."

"I intend to establish contact with the Captain immediately." And Spock moved towards the communications board, his long fingers reaching for the buttons to open the hailing frequencies.

On the third day after Kirk had become ill, McCoy sat beside his Captain, watching over him with deep concern. An open communicator was beside him and he was hoping desperately that today the Enterprise would return.

Kirk was almost comatose now and the tent seemed filled with the sounds of his breathing, as he laboured against the infection in his left lung. Without antibiotics to fight the infection, his condition had deteriorated rapidly and McCoy was worried for Kirk's life. For Kirk hadn't been completely fit when they had first arrived on Mercia; he had needed a period of R and R to completely recover from the attack on his life during the journey to Babel. Now McCoy cursed the fates who had decided this mission must be given to the Enterprise and not another starship.

McCoy glanced across at Zahira as she lay sleeping on her blanket in the opposite corner of the tent. He had made Zahira lie down and rest a couple of hours ago. The child had been exhausted and McCoy had become concerned over her failing strength – she had little enough stamina as it was.

But Zahira had been so worried about Captain Kirk, she had not wanted to leave his side. She could see his condition was getting worse and was reluctant to move even a few yards away, in case he too disappeared into a land where she could not follow, just as her own family had done. But McCoy had been insistent and now she lay, utterly exhausted, but sleeping peacefully.

McCoy looked again at Kirk, resting his hand for a moment on Kirk's dry, heated forehead. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and his face was thinner now and more haggard.

Suddenly the communicator beside McCoy bleeped. He looked at it for a moment in disbelief, then snatched it up, flipping it open.

"McCoy here."

"Spock here, Doctor," came Spock's calm, precise voice. "The Enterprise is now in orbit above Camp Meo-Sun. We have the transport ships with us. Is the Captain there?"

"Spock, you son of...!" McCoy was almost weeping in his relief. "Yes, the Captain is here, but he's extremely ill. This is a medical emergency, Spock. Two to beam up."

"At once, Doctor." There was no trace of enquiry, worry or alarm in Spock's voice, but the speed with which the transporter beam took both McCoy and Kirk told its own story.

Zahira woke suddenly as she heard McCoy's voice. She sat up, dazed and for a moment uncertain where she was. Then she looked across at the corner where Kirk lay and the nightmares and fears of the past few days had suddenly happened, only in a much worse way than she could ever have imagined. Even as she watched them she saw both Kirk and McCoy gradually fade into nothingness.

She got up and ran across the tent, her hands desperately seeking for what her eyes could not see, but there was nothing there. She sat for a moment in total disbelief and then lay down on the blanket which was still warm from Kirk's body and cried as if her heart would break.

"Captain Kirk, don't go. Please don't leave me." Zahira's voice was low, and her hands clutching the blanket as if willing Kirk to come back. But it was too late, he had already gone and Zahira knew she was totally alone once more.

In the Sickbay, Kirk lay propped high on one of the beds. Already McCoy had set up a drip to give Kirk drugs to help fight the massive infection in his lung. Spock stood silent at the end of the bed, his eyes brooding, as he watched McCoy make Kirk more comfortable. There was fear and deep concern in those dark fathomless eyes, but no-one could read the thoughts which whirled in Spock's mind.

Even when he had spoken to Sarek about the possibility of leaving Starfleet, Spock had forced himself not to think of James Kirk and what life would be like without his understanding presence. Spock sometimes felt that Kirk was the only one who really appreciated just how difficult his dual heritage was. Even Amanda had not fully understood. With Kirk he could be himself, he did not have to put on a Vulcan front, to act a part he did not always quite believe in. And he knew that Kirk accepted and liked him because of, and not in spite of, the fact that he was half Vulcan and half Human. Now, as he looked down at Kirk, he was afraid; afraid that Kirk's understanding and comforting presence would be taken away from him permanently. His eyes sought McCoy's as the doctor came to stand beside him.

"It's all right, Spock," said McCoy gently. "He's going to be O.K. We were in time. I'm going to have to operate and seal the stab wound again and the lung will have to be drained, but he's going to make it."

Spock closed his eyes for a brief moment, then looked at McCoy.

"Thank you, Doctor," he said quietly. "And now I am needed on the Bridge. I am sure those supplies are required urgently on the planet's surface."

"Indeed they are. There are practically no medical supplies left in the camp. That's why we weren't able to treat Jim until the Enterprise returned. All I can say is that thank god there were medical supplies on those transport ships."

"Mr Scott is in the process of off-loading them to Camp Meo-Sun now. I believe Doctor M'Benga is with Doctor Macauley arranging for their dispersal to the most needy places."

"They're not going to last long though, Spock. Have you any idea when supply ships from the Federation will start to arrive?"

"I received news two days ago that the Federation have already despatched twelve ships to Mercia; four of those are carrying supplies specifically for Camp Meo-Sun. They are also carrying volunteers to help in the camp. They are expected here in ten point five seven days."

A grin spread across McCoy's face.

"Well, that's good news," he exclaimed.

"One more item of news which I received at the same time; and that is of the appointment of Sarek as temporary Governor-General of Mercia. He will relieve Charles Evard, who will return to face the Federation Council."

"Excellent news for Mercia," replied McCoy. "How does your father feel about it?"

"I had a personal message from him which indicated that he was content with the situation."

"I guess that means he's pleased," said McCoy with a grin.

"He also conveyed a message for you, Doctor McCoy."

"For me!"

"Yes, Doctor. He said to tell you that the outcome of our ministrations had fully met his requirements."

With that Spock turned and walked to the door, leaving McCoy speechless. Spock stopped at the door before he left Sickbay, to look once more at Kirk. And he wondered in that moment how he could ever leave Starfleet, how he could ever leave James Kirk. How could he face going back to Vulcan, to the Science Academy, to living out his life in the cloistered unemotional atmosphere there? He needed the vital sense of living which was an essential part of Kirk's make-up; he needed the companionship and affection of Humans, however hotly he might deny it; and now Spock knew where he belonged. At Kirk's side – just as Edith Keeler had said all those light years away.

But knowing that had not made Spock's decision any easier. There were strong ties with his father too – ties all the more close now, after the long years of separation. Sarek had made no demands but Spock was aware of how much Sarek longed to have his son back on Vulcan.

Now Spock began to doubt his decision to leave Starfleet; a decision that had cost him many agonising hours of thought. To see Kirk so ill and to know how often Kirk put himself in the firing line without thought for his own safety. Spock gave a slight shudder, knowing that there was no-one who would watch over Kirk with the same regard for his safety as Spock himself would. How could he leave Starfleet and this man to whom he gave all his loyalty and all his regard?

Again Spock felt the agony of his dual heritage and he could only hope he had the strength and the courage to make the right decision.

When Serena Macauley returned to the tent on the day the Enterprise assumed orbit above the planet again, she was exhausted. Mr Spock had contacted her earlier in the day with the news that Kirk was now safe aboard the Enterprise with Doctor McCoy. He also informed her that supplies would be beaming down into the camp and for the following few hours she had worked closely with Doctor M'Benga and several others of the Enterprise crew to get medical supplies moved as quickly and as safely as possible to where they were needed most.

The supplies had been considered enough for a planet, but a healthy planet, and Serena knew that these medical supplies would soon be used up with the enormous number of people who were living in Camp Meo-Sun. That further supplies were already on their way, together with more people to help, came as a great relief to Serena and she made her way to the tent knowing that some of their problems were at an end.

In the light of the small lamp she saw Zahira lying curled up on Kirk's blanket. She was sound asleep and her face showed traces of the many tears she had shed at Kirk's disappearance. Serena stood for a moment looking down at her, then she knelt down and gently shook the child awake.

As soon as Zahira's eyes opened and she took in where she was, tears began to fill her eyes.

"Captain Kirk has gone," she told Serena in a shaky voice. "He just faded away and there was nothing I could do. Doctor McCoy went too and I didn't even know he was ill."

"Oh, Zahira," exclaimed Serena, drawing the child into her arms and gently stroking her hair. "It's not what you think at all."

Zahira looked up at her, her face wet with tears.

"What do you mean?"

"Captain Kirk has only been taken to his ship. Doctor McCoy is looking after him and he will be well again in a few days."

"But he just faded away. No ship from the Enterprise came to get him," said Zahira, unwilling to hope again. "How could he have got back to the Enterprise? He was too ill to move."

"Mr Spock was on board the Enterprise and he used the transporter to beam Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy aboard."

Zahira looked at her blankly.

"Don't you know what a transporter is, Zahira?"

The little girl shook her head. Serena hugged her close.

"It's a bit difficult to explain exactly what it is and how it works, but what it means is that a beam of energy came down from the ship and took Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy back to the ship. It did it much more quickly and easily than a shuttle from the Enterprise would do."

"But they just vanished."

"I know, Zahira. That's how the transporter beam works. I know it's difficult to understand, but please believe me when I tell you that Captain Kirk will soon be well again and I am sure he will try and explain it all to you then."

"Do you really mean I will see him again?" asked Zahira, still not convinced that she needn't believe the evidence of her own eyes.

"Of course you will. I'll explain to Mr Spock how worried you've been and I know Captain Kirk will see you as soon as he is well."

Zahira gave Serena a hug and buried her face in Serena's shoulder. A flood of delight swept over her as the realisation gradually took hold that Captain Kirk wasn't dead after all. She would see him again; see those eyes twinkling down at her and feel him holding her hand. He might even talk to her again about the Enterprise and Zahira felt those were the best times of all.

"Do you think you could lie down and sleep now?" asked Serena.

"Well, I could lie down, but I don't feel at all like sleeping," said Zahira smiling. "Do you think Captain Kirk would mind if I lay on his blanket tonight?"

"I don't think he would mind at all."

Serena set the little girl down onto the blanket, where she promptly curled upon her side, looking out of the open flap of the tent. She could see the stars, sparkling and clear, and thought what a pleasant place the Captain had chosen to lay his blanket.

The following day McCoy operated on Kirk, sealing the wound which had ruptured the inner wall of the lung. The wound itself was not as bad as McCoy had expected, as the muscle in Kirk's back had healed well. But where the wound in the wall of the lung had opened slightly, infection had set in; infection, McCoy believed, caused by the dust storm during Evard's visit. It was a job of only a few minutes to seal the wound and insert the drain to clear Kirk's lung.

It was only a short time later that Kirk began to come round and his eyes flickered open and he saw McCoy smiling at him.

"Hi, Jim," he said. "I reckon you're going to feel a whole lot better soon."

"I hope so, Bones," Kirk replied as he tried to move. "What in hell have you done? My back hurts worse than ever."

"I've sealed the lung wound and put a drain in to empty your lung. Make you feel less congested. It will be a little uncomfortable while it's in, but you'll be up and about in a couple of days."

Kirk's eyes lit up, but McCoy wagged a warning finger at him. "But only aboard the Enterprise. I'm not allowing you to go back to the planet yet awhile."

"O.K. Bones. Just as you say."

McCoy looked at him suspiciously.

"Agreement yet?" he asked. "I don't believe it."

"Well, I always found that cooperation was the best policy for getting out of Sickbay quickly," smiled Kirk. "Now, come on, Bones, help me sit up. I hate lying flat on my back like this."

Once Kirk had recovered from the anaesthetic, he wanted to see Spock.

"I want to know what's been going on," he pronounced. "I seem to have been out of circulation for a while."

"Four days to be exact, Jim," said McCoy. "And that's as exact as I'm prepared to be! I'll let our Vulcan friend give you the precise details."

Kirk laughed and then coughed.

"Where is Spock?"

"He should be along in a minute. I called him about five minutes ago, and told him you'd be waiting to see him. And you'll only be allowed a short visit. You still need plenty of rest. I shall be glad when the coughing stops."

"You and me both," said Kirk with a rueful grin.

Spock entered Sickbay to find Kirk sitting up against his pillows. He was pale and weak, but there was a jaunty smile on his face that Spock was delighted to see.

"Hi, Spock." Kirk's voice was still somewhat husky. "Sorry to give you a fright."

"A fright?" questioned Spock, feigning puzzlement.

Kirk's smile widened.

"Never mind, Spock. I'm glad to see you."

"And I'm pleased to see you improved."

"McCoy's done a good job," responded Kirk. "But then he always does. I'll be up and about in no time."

"I hope so, Captain," said Spock seriously.

"Now, Spock, what's the situation at Camp Meo-Sun? Are the supplies you've brought going to be at least adequate until further supplies arrive? And when will the first supply ships be arriving?"

"All the transport ships achieved orbit successfully. Fortunately one ship was given over completely to medical supplies. Some of these have been used to give the Enterprise Sickbay some drugs. There was very little left. The rest have been transported to Camp Meo-Sun, where Doctor Macauley and Doctor M'Benga have seen to the distribution. The food and clothing is being transported at the present time and Mr Scott and myself are organising its distribution."

"Very good, Mr Spock."

"Further ships are already on their way and should reach Mercia in ten point seven five days. There are four ships marked specifically for Camp Meo-Sun. I do not believe the camp will run out of supplies again."

"That's excellent, Spock!" exclaimed Kirk, and sat up slightly. The move was not a wise one and an expression of pain came to Kirk's face as the wound began to throb anew. Spock moved forward to help.

"It's O.K., Spock." Kirk's tone was rueful. "Bones said I shouldn't move too much while this drain is in. And he's right as usual."

"I received one most interesting piece of news while returning to Mercia," continued Spock. Kirk looked at him inquiringly. "Sarek has been appointed temporary Governor-General of Mercia. He is already on his way with Amanda to take up the appointment. The Federation feel that it would be better for Charles Evard to be removed from Mercia as soon as possible. They are to appoint a permanent Governor as soon as the full Council meets. In the meantime, Sarek has agreed to stand in."

"How is your father now?" asked Kirk. "It will be a tough assignment in the present situation. Is he up to it?"

Kirk leaned his head on the pillow tiredly.

"As you observed earlier, Captain, Doctor McCoy 'does a good job'. Sarek seems remarkably well and is looking forward to the challenge, I believe. There is just one other thing, Captain."

"Yes, Spock. What is it?"

"A certain young lady by the name of Zahira has been overly concerned about you. Doctor Macauley informs me that Zahira thought you had died. She saw the effect of the transporter beam and did not understand it. I believe she thinks you have joined her father, mother and sister

Kirk closed his eyes for a moment.

"Poor little Zahira. I had forgotten all about her. I never did explain about the transporter." He tried to imagine how she had felt at seeing their bodies just disappearing, apparently into thin air. "I must see her." Kirk started to cough. "I'd better go down..."

"I don't believe that would be wise in your present condition, Jim."

"No, I'm O.K.," said Kirk coughing again.

At that moment McCoy came bustling in.

"O.K. Jim, Spock. That's enough. You keep coughing, Jim, and that drain will become displaced. I don't want to have to do the whole thing over again."

"I'm O.K,." said Kirk again, trying desperately not to cough. "I've got to see Zahira..."

"I've seen her already, Jim," said McCoy firmly. "I've convinced her that I'm alive and that you are too. You can see her in a couple of days."


"No buts, Jim. Spock has to go now. Too much talking won't help your recovery one damn bit."

Taking Spock firmly by the arm, he guided him to the door.

"Thank you, Doctor," said Spock, disentangling his arm. "I am quite capable of finding my own way out."

Kirk grinned and closed his eyes.

"See you later, Spock."

"Indeed, Captain."

The door swished shut behind him and McCoy walked back to the bed.

"I just want to look at that drain, Jim. It's about time it was changed."

He helped Kirk lean forward and lifted his pyjama top. Kirk rested against McCoy's shoulder, glad of the support.

"You say you've seen Zahira?" asked Kirk.

"Yes, Jim. Poor little kid. Serena said she was really distraught the night we beamed back to the ship. She saw it happen and put her own interpretation on it." McCoy laughed. "She's really happy now, though. Couldn't believe it when she saw me first of all. If I'm alive then she figures you must be too."

"I must see her and reassure her. I promised her a visit to the Enterprise too."

"Then she can come up here and visit with you."

"Ouch!" exclaimed Kirk as McCoy changed the drain. "What the hell are you doing?"

"It's O.K. now" He helped Kirk settle back on his pillow. "You should feel a lot less pressure soon. Now get some rest and quit worrying about things, will you?"

Kirk looked at him.

"I'll try, Bones. But it's sure as hell difficult when there's so much to do."

"I know, Jim. But you've got to have rest right now. The more you rest the sooner you'll be on your feet. I'll come by and see you later. Just press a button if you want me."

"Thanks, Bones."

McCoy turned at the door and was relieved to see Kirk's eyes already closed; McCoy shook his head in relief. It had been a close call, but thank goodness Kirk was well on his way to recovery.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

It was three days later before McCoy felt ready to let Kirk leave Sickbay. McCoy had removed the drain on the second day and immediately Kirk had felt much more comfortable. The wound was healing nicely and thanks to the antibiotics the infection was clearing up quickly. Kirk, therefore, felt he should be down on the planet surface, organising the storage and distribution of supplies; but at the insistence of both Spock and McCoy he was persuaded that for the good of his health he should take it easy on board the Enterprise for a few more days. But inactivity didn't suit Kirk at all and he called a meeting to discuss the various problems still to be sorted out on Mercia in general and at Camp Meo-Sun in particular. Serena Macauley came up from the planet surface and met Kirk, Spock and McCoy in number five Briefing Room.

"How's Zahira?" asked Kirk, as soon as they had settled themselves around the table.

"She's fine now," replied Serena with a smile. "She thinks an awful lot of you, you know."

"I think I have become a sort of father figure," replied Kirk. "That kid has lost absolutely everything. Family, home, village, her complete way of life. And there was nothing at the camp to replace any of it. I think I just came along at the right time."

"It could make for difficulties, Jim," said McCoy. "What is Zahira going to do when you really go out of her life for good?"

"By then, we'll have got a lot of things sorted out," replied Kirk. "Maybe we'll be able to move her tribe back to the valley they came from."

"She still won't have her family," responded McCoy. "And from what I hear, the village people aren't too keen on her. Regard her as some sort of jinx. Beats me what Zahira did."

"She didn't really do anything," said Kirk slowly. "She had a pet pig which lived under the house next door. One day the village priest decided to use the pig as sacrifice to their god. Unfortunately, no one told Zahira. First thing she knew about it was when the priest slit the pig's throat." Kirk shrugged his shoulders. "She screamed."

"And that's it?" asked McCoy.

"That's it," replied Kirk. "The scream obviously didn't pleased the god; Zahira's mother was the first of the villagers to die on the trek to the camp. It was regarded as a sign of the god's disfavour and they have kept clear of her since."

"Poor little kid." McCoy's voice was quiet.

"I'll have to see if there is anything I can do to keep her with me," said Serena. "It's plain she can't go back to her village."

"And she loved her village so," said Kirk sadly. "All the happy times she's known were spent there."

"It's a helluva situation," said McCoy. "She's such a sweet little kid, too."

"The problem might well be taken out of our hands," said Kirk, after moment's pause. "If we can't come up with a solution on how to get Mercia back on its axis, the whole planet will have to be evacuated. Then it won't be just a question of what to do with Zahira, but what to do with the several million people who inhabit the planet."

"And one small child may be overlooked."

Kirk looked steadily into his eyes.

"I think you know me better than that, Bones," he said quietly.

"Sorry, Jim." McCoy looked down at his hands. "It's just that I'm worried about the kid."

"We all are, Bones. But there's more here than one small child and I have to do all I can to make sure that everyone can stay on Mercia." He looked across at Spock. "Have you come up with any ideas, Spock?"

"Negative, Captain. I have pursued various lines of enquiry and I have run them through the computer, but none of them have proved practicable."

"Have you contacted anyone who might be able to help?"

"Yes, I have. I have given full details to the Vulcan Academy of Science and the Terran College of Science and Technology. They have said they will give it top priority and will contact me if they discover anything we can try."

"Hmmmmmm." Kirk sat for a moment deep in thought. "I wonder just how much time we have. It seems to me that time is running out fast. Have you any further information on when the lake is going to dry up?"

"The level of the river which feeds the lake has already dropped considerably during the time the Enterprise has been gone. Unless we have rain within the next three weeks, the river will be dry in eight weeks.. Then it is just a question of consumption of water and evaporation, bearing in mind that the lake itself is extremely low already."

Kirk sighed and rubbed a hand wearily over his face, "It's not long," he said.

"And the amount of water that sixty thousand people use in one day is quite considerable," added Serena. "I have already ordered a cut in the rationing of water. I won't be able to reduce it much more or I will have more people dying than I have already. And there's always the possibility of other people joining the camp."

McCoy shook his head.

"God! What a situation. I suppose we just have to sit and pray. Is there no other large body of water we could take them to, or at least some of them. What about the other continent? Surely there is water there."

"That continent was always barren," replied Spock. "what little water it had has dried up long ago. And on this continent, Lake Meo-Sun is the only lake which has a river feeding it that hasn't already dried up. I'm afraid the situation is quite desperate."

"There must be something!" said Kirk, hitting his fist down hard on the table. "There must be something we can try."

There slipped into his mind the room he and Serena had explored in the ruins. He picture again the strange paintings and the mysterious hole in the ground. They must mean something.

"Spock," said Kirk suddenly. "Did you discover anything about that blip of energy you saw before you left Mercia's orbit.?"

Spock remembered with a pang that he had not made a report to the Captain of the surge of energy he had noticed when the Enterprise first returned to Mercia. The shock of Kirk's illness and the subsequent pressing needs of distributing the supplies had pushed the information to the back of his mind.

"Forgive me Captain," he said now. "I had meant to inform you earlier..."

"Inform me of what, Mr Spock?"

"The blip of energy we noticed before I left was pulsing at a rate of once every eighteen hours. "When I returned the pulse rate had increased enormously to approximately one pulse a minute."

"Still in the same area?"

"So it would appear, Captain. I had meant to ask you if you had had any report of anything unusual in that section of the camp nearest the ruins."

Kirk and McCoy looked at one another.

"It would seem that I called this briefing not a moment too soon," said Kirk grimly. "Yes, we have had several unusual happenings in the area, wouldn't you say, Bones?"

"Yes, Jim. You see Spock, six days ago we had five deaths at the camp. All within the space of about four to five hours and all apparently from the same cause." Spock steepled his finger and listened intently. "The deaths all occurred to men who should not have died. Three were Kariang, all reasonably healthy. The other two were crewmen from the Enterprise."

Spock lifted an eyebrow.

"Indeed? And what did you discover to be the cause of death, Doctor McCoy."

"Well, the cause was a burnout of the synapses of the brain. Almost as if the brain were flooded with too much... energy." McCoy's voiced trailed off as he realised what he had said. He glanced first at Kirk and then at Spock.

"And that blip has increased its rate of energy by an incredible amount," said Kirk thoughtfully.

"But there have been no other deaths reported from that cause since?" queried Spock.

"No. Not a one," exclaimed McCoy.

"Fascinating." Spock's voice was thoughtful and, touching the computer controls, he called up a view of the eastern sector of the camp and the area around the ruins. They all stared at the screen silently. There was nothing to be seen for a few seconds and then the blip of energy pulsed once. They all waited for the next pulse, but it was almost four minutes until another one appeared.

"Well, gentlemen, it would seem that whatever it is that causes the energy surge is slowing down again. I wonder why. I would say a visit to the ruins is in order, wouldn't you, Spock?"

"Indeed, Captain."

Kirk consulted the chronometer. Much as he would have liked to beam down immediately, there was not a great deal of time left before night fell on the planet's surface. Kirk did not relish trying to find their way through the ruins in the dark with the amount of debris laying around; added to which was the very real possibility of getting lost in the vast labyrinth of corridors. With no more deaths reported Kirk felt he could afford to wait a few more hours.

"In that case, gentlemen, we'll beam down to the ruins at first light tomorrow," said Kirk. "Spock, give Scotty the correct coordinates..."

"Now just hold on a minute," protested McCoy. "I don't want you going down to the planet's surface yet, Jim. You've barely recovered from the last infection..."

"Bones." Kirk's voice was firm. "I am going down to the ruins tomorrow morning."

"But Jim..."

"There is something odd going on and I intend to find out what it is as soon as I can."

"But there have been no more deaths since that morning," said McCoy.

"Two of those men were members of my crew and I want to know why they died." Kirk saw the concern in McCoy's face. "I appreciate your concern, Bones, but I feel fine. Anyway, I don't anticipate being down there for too long."

McCoy bowed to the inevitable.

"O.K. Jim. Just as you please. But I'll be with you every step of the way."

Their eyes met for a brief moment and then Kirk turned to Serena.

"Would you like to accompany us, Serena?"

"Much as I would like to, I really have so much to do at the camp. We have even more patients now than we had before you came."

Kirk looked at her inquiringly.

"Well, we have more medication so we are able to treat everyone who comes to the hospitals." She looked pensive for a moment. "No more of those heart-breaking decisions to make about whether the medication will save their lives or ease their deaths. I thank you for that." Serena's voice was soft, but the expression on her face told of the many agonising decisions she had had to live with since she first came to Camp Meo-Sun.

Kirk reached out and covered her hand with his for a moment.

"I guess word has got around," commented McCoy.

"It would seem so," smiled Serena. "People come because they know they will get treatment and the general atmosphere in the camp has improved because of it." She sighed. "There's still a long way to go though. So many people who need help who we haven't seen yet. Tom has started travelling the camp again, but this time he is able to take portable drip apparatus with him and set it up anywhere in the camp. It means that people too weak to be moved can get medication and some nutrients into their bodies. Perhaps we can begin to save the lives of those who would previously have had no hope at all."

"And more help is on the way as you know," said Kirk. "We'll be able to start building shelters for everyone; give them some decent clothes; and with what you and your medical team can do perhaps we'll be able to make life a little more bearable generally."

"It will still only be a temporary measure," replied Serena. "These people are not the kind to live permanently in a township such this would turn into. Sooner or later we have to get them back to the hills."

"And to do that, we must correct the axis of Mercia." Spock spoke quietly.

They were all silent for a few moments, then Serena stood up.

"I really must go. As I said before, there is so much to do. I can't tell you how grateful I am to you all. And I wish you every success tomorrow. I hope you will find some clue to help us find the miracle we are all praying for."

The three men stood up and Kirk moved to escort Serena to the door.

"I'll walk you to the transporter room."

As they walked along the corridor, Kirk glanced quickly at Serena and there slipped into his mind the last occasion when Serena had been aboard the Enterprise. He swung round, catching her upper arms lightly in his hands. "Do you really have to go at this moment?" he asked. She looked at him, reading his thoughts in his expressive hazel eyes.

"Much as I would dearly like to stay, Jim, I really do have to go back." She reached to brush his lips briefly with hers. "I'm truly sorry."

"I understand," said Kirk softly. "Maybe there'll be other times."

"I hope so."

Kirk slipped his arms around her and pulled her close. His lips came down on hers and for a brief moment they clung together. Then Serena pulled apart and took a deep breath.

"I really must go back," she said a little unsteadily. "Besides there's a young lady who is most anxious to come and visit you."

"Of course," said Kirk smiling. "Zahira. I promised her a visit to the Enterprise today."

"Well, when I came aboard she was waiting patiently. In her best dress as well."

"I'll beam her up as soon as you're back on the surface," promised Kirk. "She understands about the transporter now?"

"Yes, Leonard explained it to her. I think she's frightened but not frightened enough to stop her coming. There is one thing, Jim. A word of warning. I think Zahira is failing. She seems frailer than she was. I've got her on a course of vitamins and she eats regularly now. But her stamina is small. Don't let her walk too far. The Enterprise is a big ship."

A frown of concern creased Kirk's forehead.

"She is going to be all right?"

"No guarantees, Jim. I'm doing all I can. Let's hope it's not too late."

The doors to the transporter room swished open and Kirk and Serena walked inside. As Serena stood on the pad she looked across at Kirk as he waited near the door.

"I'll see you again, Captain," and blew him a small kiss with the tip of her finger.

Kirk smiled.

"Energise, Mr Kyle."

A few minutes later, a small scared-looking figure shimmered into existence on the transporter pad. For a moment Zahira stood motionless, slightly stunned; then she saw Captain Kirk standing near the door, smiling at her.

"Captain Kirk," she whispered and flew across the room and flung herself into his arms. He hugged her close as she said quietly. "You really are alive."

"Yes," he grinned. "I really am. And I didn't expect such a whirlwind to arrive on my ship."

"They don't often come off the transporter pad at that speed," said Kyle grinning at the tableau of the Captain holding the tiny girl in his arms.

Zahira leaned back in Kirk's arms to look into his face.

"I'm sorry," she said solemnly. "I didn't mean to arrive so fast, but I was so pleased to see you. And..." She turned to look at the transporter pad. "I don't really understand just how I got here. Am I really on the Enterprise?"

"Yes, you are." Kirk set Zahira down, realising as he did so how right Serena had been about the little girl. She was frailer than ever. "Now where would you like to go? Or shall I just take you to my favourite places?"

"Is one of your favourite places the Enterprise garden you told me about?" asked Zahira. "It sounded a lovely place. A bit like my valley at home."

"Yes, it is, Zahira. I guessed you would want to go there. But first I'll take you to the Bridge and then to the Observation Deck. I think you'll like those too."

"If you like them, then I will too." She placed her hand in Kirk's. The doors swished open and Zahira jumped. She peered around the edge of the door, expecting to see someone there. She looked up at Kirk in puzzlement.

"All the doors on the Enterprise do that, I'm afraid. You'll get used to it," said Kirk with a grin.

"Ye-es." Zahira sounded unsure, but knew that if the Captain was with her everything would be all right.

Kirk was careful not to tax the strength of Zahira. He could see for himself that she was frailer than she had been before he had become ill. Her skin seemed tightly stretched across the bones; there seemed so little of her that Kirk could almost believe she would break if he squeezed her too hard. Her eyes, always large, now seemed to dominate her small face and there were dark smudges beneath her eyes and hollows in her cheeks. Kirk's heart ached when he looked at her, knowing there were many hundreds of children like Zahira in Camp Meo-Sun. Children who in many cases would never live to reach maturity.

But Zahira's eyes were bright with happiness at being close to her beloved friend again and knowing that he had kept his promise to her. To Zahira the Enterprise was a strange and enchanted place, unlike any thing she had ever seen before. She could hardly believe or understand anything she saw, for the technological age had never entered the valley of Me-Tan.

She clutched Kirk tightly as the turbo lift whizzed them swiftly to the Bridge; the feeling of movement was strange, as they didn't appear to be moving at all. And she had hardly got her breath back when the doors swished open and Kirk led her on to the Bridge. Zahira gazed around in wonder at the many bright, flashing lights; the murmur of voices of people she could not see, and dominating everything, a large window open to the night sky! For that was how the view screen appeared to Zahira, who despite Kirk's attempts at an explanation did not really understand what she was seeing. He allowed her to sit in his command chair and she pressed some of the buttons on the arm. She was startled when the disembodied voice of Lieutenant Kyle answered her from the Transporter Room, closely followed by Scotty's voice from Engineering.

Mr Spock was sitting quietly at the Science Station checking various figures on the computer. Zahira watched him silently for a moment.

"He's your friend too, isn't he?" she asked Kirk.

"Mr Spock?" said Kirk, glancing across at the Vulcan. "Yes, he's my friend. He has helped me out of many difficult situations. He is also First Officer of the Enterprise." For a moment, Kirk was silent, thinking of how much he was going to miss his First Officer and friend, unaware as yet that Spock's decision to leave Starfleet was not as definite as they had both thought when they first arrived on Mercia.

"Aren't you the First Officer?" asked Zahira. "I thought you were in charge of the ship?"

"I am, Zahira," replied Kirk, grinning. "But I'm the Captain; the First Officer means the first person after the Captain."

"It's very confusing," said Zahira, shaking her head. She leaned close to Kirk. "Do many people have ears like that?" she whispered pointing towards Spock. "And are they that shape so that they can hear better?"

Kirk could have almost sworn that Spock's ears twitched, but he bit his lip hard and replied to Zahira's question seriously.

"All Vulcans have ears like that. I don't know about the shape making them hear better, but they certainly have acute hearing." He leaned close to Zahira and whispered, "I find the shape of the ears quite interesting, don't you?" And this time Kirk was positive Spock's ears twitched.

"Does that mean you like them?" whispered Zahira.

Kirk nodded solemnly.

"Then I like them too."

The Observation Deck was quiet and dark and for a moment Zahira was disappointed; until Kirk touched a button and the covers rolled back from the large observation window. Kirk bent and lifted Zahira up to enable her to get a better view.

The black velvet of space sparkled with many thousands of stars; stars which seemed infinitely brighter and more clear than Zahira had ever seen them from Mercia. She gazed wonder at their beauty and Kirk, seeing the expression on her face, remembered a young boy who had also gazed at the stars in wonder.

When Kirk had been a young boy in Iowa, he had slipped out from his home at night to wander across the farmlands looking at the stars and dreaming dreams of one day travelling amongst them. His father had been a space ship navigator and had brought tales of the stars and space into his life at an early age and triggered off the desire to become a starship captain, a desire realised, here, on the Enterprise. But for Zahira the stars had always been lanterns of the gods and were there just to look at – unreachable, unattainable.

Zahira leaned her head on his shoulder and wound her arms around his neck.

"I think they are prettier from here than they are from the camp," she said. Kirk felt her body sag against him.

"Tired?" he asked.

"A little."

"I'll take you to one more place which I think you'll really enjoy."

"The Enterprise garden," exclaimed Zahira. "Oh, I know I will enjoy that."

The garden was cool and full of the scent of flowers and Zahira breathed deeply, her eyes closed.

"I'd forgotten how pretty flowers smell," she said, touching a delicate bloom gently with her forefinger. She wandered slowly along the pathways, smelling and touching the flowers, lost in the world of green and growing things. It seemed like forever since she had last seen such greenness and beauty. Kirk followed her quietly, his hands behind his back. Just to see this tiny child gaining so much happiness from such simple things as flowers and plants tore at his heart. He felt so helpless, there seemed so little he could do. Bringing Zahira aboard the Enterprise for a short while would bring her a little happiness, but what about the rest of her life? What would happen to her when the Enterprise left Mercia? She had no-one in the world who cared for her or whom she cared about.

And what of all of the thousands who lived in misery below on the planet's surface? What happiness would many of them know? Kirk gave a small sigh. He knew that McCoy would tell him he was taking too much of the burden onto himself, that there were others who would be bringing help to Mercia and Meo-Sun and he knew this to be true. He also knew that McCoy cared as deeply as himself about the many people who were suffering on the planet.

His own helplessness to cure the situation angered and frustrated Kirk and he prayed that somehow, tomorrow, they find the answers at the ruins. But somehow Kirk felt he was praying for a miracle, and miracles rarely happened.

Suddenly, Zahira stood absolutely still. There on a bush just in front of them was a small, multi-coloured butterfly. Zahira hardly breathed as she watched it. Slowly and quietly Kirk lifted Zahira's hand and placed it near the butterfly.

"Stay absolutely still," Kirk whispered.

For several minutes they watched as the butterfly fluttered from flower to flower and then came to hover where they stood. Zahira held her breath. It hovered for a moment and then came to land on Zahira's outstretched hand. She stared, unable to believe her eyes, as the butterfly flapped its wings a few times and then flew off. She turned to Kirk, tears welling in her eyes.

"Thank you," she murmured brokenly. "Perhaps now I will be home in Me-Tan soon."

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

Kirk, Spock and McCoy shimmered into existence near the tall archway leading into the ruins. Kirk felt relief that McCoy had actually allowed him to come down to the surface of the planet. The doctor had spent a long time examining the Captain to be absolutely sure he was fit enough to come down to Mercia. But after exhaustive tests McCoy had reluctantly agreed that Kirk could go; the infection had cleared completely and although Kirk wasn't yet up to his usual peak of fitness, he was well enough to resume light duties, and as far as Kirk was concerned that meant beaming down to the ruins.

Spock and McCoy looked around with interest, intrigued by all they had heard about the place from Kirk and Serena. Although it was still early morning, the heat was already intense and the horizon shimmered and shifted, making it difficult to judge distances. But the ruins themselves, immense and stark, stood out sharply against the deep blue of Mercia's sky.

"No wonder Terrans feel so at home on Mercia," remarked McCoy. "It really is amazingly like parts of old Earth. Although I grant you, the ruins don't usually come in this size."

"They are large, aren't they?" replied Kirk. "And they seem to stretch far into the distance. It would be only too easy to get lost in there." He nodded towards the entrance.

Spock turned on his tricorder and pointed it at the ruins and a slight look of puzzlement came over his face.

"No life forms registering, Captain. "But... something."

"Something, Spock?" said Kirk with a grin. "Can't you do better than that?"

Spock turned to look at Kirk, his eyebrow lifting slightly.

"Energy – unlike anything I have seen before. It has no form, no substance. It registers at a low and a high reading. I am at a loss to explain the anomaly, Captain."

"The tricorder is functioning correctly?" asked Kirk coming to stand beside him.

"Yes, Captain. As far as I can ascertain. Whatever it is, it seems to be in that direction." And Spock pointed towards the archway.

"In the same direction as the painted chamber," said Kirk slowly. "Then it seems that is the way we go. Mind your footing, there's a lot of debris around."

Kirk led the way into the shadowed ruin with Spock and McCoy following close behind. The way to the chamber was clear in Kirk's mind and he led the way without hesitation.

"I've never seen anything quite on this scale before, Jim," commented McCoy, clambering over an enormous piece of masonry which seemed to have fallen from the roof quite recently. "There's no chance any more of these blocks are likely to fall, is there?"

"I sincerely hope not," replied Kirk. "But be on your guard. If one of those came down on us we'd be flattened."

"You can say that again," exclaimed McCoy.

"I see no reason for the Captain to repeat a comment which was completely clear and true," interposed Spock.

"Spock!" snapped McCoy. "You know very well what I mean. I sure as hell don't know why you constantly have to pick me up..."

"I have no intention whatsoever of picking you up, Doctor," interrupted Spock.

McCoy spluttered, speechless, and Kirk gave a soft laugh.

"Cut it out, you two," he said. "It's not much further now. How does that reading look now, Spock?"

"Still the same, Captain. A very slight fluctuation, but nothing of any significance. And still coming from the same direction."

"It's no stronger as we get nearer the source?" queried Kirk.

Spock shook his head.

At last they reached the door to the chamber and slipped inside. There was no change since the last time Kirk had visited the place, as far as he could tell. And yet...

"This sure is a miserable feeling place," said McCoy. "And yet these guys in the paintings seem to be having a good time." He stopped to gaze up at the paintings of the tall humanoids.

"It didn't feel miserable before," said Kirk slowly. "But you're right, Bones. It does feel sad... unhappy..."

"I would agree Captain. A definite air of melancholy," said Spock. He moved over to look at the hole near the back of the room; the groove around the edge showed clearly in the light which shone from the roofless room. Spock knelt on one knee to examine the hole and its surroundings more closely, his tricorder whirring as it took readings. His eyebrows lifted as he read the energy levels.

"Fascinating," he murmured.

At the other side of the room McCoy continued to look at the paintings.

"What do you think these people are doing, Jim?"

"I wish I knew, Bones." Kirk looked across at Spock. "Any ideas, Spock?"

Spock moved to stand beside Kirk and McCoy. He examined the paintings carefully, using the tricorder to make a record of each painting.

"Most interesting," he said at last. "It would appear that they are listening to something. The hole on the floor seems to be the focal point of their attention." He paused. "And that would tie in with the latest readings on that energy fluctuation I have."

Kirk looked at him questioningly.

"From the readings I get here in this chamber, it appears that the energy has intelligence. The fluctuation appears to be a natural phenomenon, akin to our breathing. I would say that it is a life form of some kind, but unlike anything I have seen before. And strangely enough, it is giving off feelings of deep melancholy."

Both Kirk and McCoy looked startled.

"Melancholy?" exclaimed Kirk. "Then the atmosphere of melancholy we felt..."

"Would appear to emanate from the life form," finished Spock.

"And that being so, it follows that the feeling of expectancy Serena and I noticed, must have also come from the life form."

"What about the time you came alone?" asked McCoy. "You didn't feel anything

"Perhaps it wasn't at home that day." He gave a laugh which gradually faded away. The three men looked at one another; that was the morning the men had died at Meo-Sun. There was a moment's silence.

"Then, gentlemen, perhaps we should try and make contact with this life form," said Kirk at last.

"And how do you propose to do that?" asked McCoy.

"I'm going to ring the door bell."

"What!" McCoy's voice was incredulous. "How in hell are you going to do that?"

"The first time I was here, I ran my finger along the groove and a faint ringing sound seemed to come from the hole."

"And?" asked McCoy.

"Well, nothing happened that time. But maybe if we tried again..."

"If we try again, the life form, whatever it is, comes rushing up to answer the door and kills us all as we stand." McCoy's tone was sarcastic. "Captain, I don't feel that this is one of your better ideas."
"Bones," said Kirk sharply. "We have to make contact with it. This might provide the answers we need to the problems of Mercia."

"And a lot of good it will do Mercia with all of us dead!" snapped back McCoy.

"There is no proof that this life form is what killed the people at Camp Meo-Sun," said Kirk. "And even if it is, we still have to find out why and how. Risk is our business, Bones. This is the only clue we have found that might possibly be able to help us. There is too much at stake here to overlook any possibility."

"I believe the Captain to be correct," said Spock quietly. "If we assume that the life form is what killed the people at Meo-Sun we will then take suitable precautions to make sure it doesn't kill us. One of your Earth sayings is, I believe, forewarned is forearmed. I will be able to raise quite formidable barriers to shield my mind from any possible energy overload."

Kirk looked sharply at Spock.

"I didn't say you were to make contact, Spock."

"I am the logical choice, Captain. May I enquire what precautions you could take to shield your mind?"

Kirk opened his mouth and closed it again. There was no logical reply to that.

"Very well, Spock," he said at last. "But Bones and I will be close beside you all the time." He glanced up at the paintings. "Perhaps if we assumed the positions as demonstrated in the paintings..."

"I think not, Captain, " replied Spock. "At least not at first. I feel it would be better for me to make contact alone."

"I'm sure as hell not happy about this, Spock," exclaimed McCoy.

Spock looked at McCoy for a moment and understood the worry that he saw in the doctor's eyes. For a brief moment he felt the warmth of friendship between them which was not always apparent. Then he glanced at Kirk and saw the same worry for his safety reflected in his hazel eyes.

"It is something which must be done," Spock said quietly.

"Have you got the universal translator ready, Spock?" asked Kirk. "If you do make contact it is unlikely that we'll be able to understand each other without it."

"Indeed, Captain. I have it here as you instructed." And he produced a wand-like baton and turned it on. "I have set an automatic warning; this should indicate to whoever responds to our initial call that care should be taken in communicating with us."

"An extra safeguard. Very wise."

"And always supposing that whoever replies doesn't want to harm us." McCoy's voice was grim.

Silently Spock sat down cross-legged in front of the hole. Kirk and McCoy hovered close to him, watching anxiously. Slowly Spock ran his finger along the groove in the same way as the humanoids in the paintings. There was a clear, bell-like ringing and all three waiting tensely.

Nothing happened.

Spock ran his finger along the groove again and the bell-like ringing sounded again. As it died away, a curious crackling sound came from the hole and Spock stiffened slightly. His hands came up and clutched the sides of his head.

"No... no..." he muttered. "Too strong... too strong. I can communicate with... you... but your messages... are tooo..."

Suddenly Spock gave a low moan, his hands slid from his head and he toppled sideways onto the floor and lay still. Kirk and McCoy heard the crackling sounds again and then there was silence.

"Spock... Spock..." Kirk's voice was anxious as he clutched Spock's shoulders. He could hear the whirr of the mediscanner as McCoy ran it over the Vulcan.

"He's still alive," said McCoy looking at Kirk. There was relief in his voice. "And I can find no trace of any damage to his brain."

Kirk let out the breath he didn't even know he was holding.

"Is he all right?"

"Difficult to tell. From the readings, I would say he is fine, but from those same readings he shouldn't be unconscious."

Kirk took hold of Spock's hand.

"Spock! Spock! Can you hear me?" Kirk looked across at McCoy.

"Is here anything you can give him to bring him round?"

"I have several things I could use, but I don't want to risk it yet. We don't know what Spock has been subjected to."

At that moment Spock's eyes flickered open and he looked first at Kirk and them McCoy in puzzlement. He started to sit up. Kirk slipped an arm round his shoulders to help him.

"Are you all right, Spock?" asked Kirk.

"Quite well, thank you, Captain."

"What happened?"

"Most curious," replied Spock. "The creature is pure energy force. The amount of energy it generates at its usual level is quite... powerful! You could not have coped with it, Jim. My own shields were barely strong enough." He touched his forehead. "It has however left me with a somewhat formidable headache."

"I can give you something for that, Spock," said McCoy reaching into his medikit. He was glad that Spock was suffering from nothing worse.

"That will not be necessary, Doctor, thank you. I have my own way of dealing with it."

"Did you find out anything about the creature?" questioned Kirk.

"Enough to know it means us no harm. It needs companionship. I sensed loneliness, unhappiness. A need to communicate with other life forms."

"But is it able to turn down the power of its communications?"

"I believe I was able to make it understand the necessity for doing so."

"So the creature is the reason for the deaths of my crew and the Kariang back at the camp. It was trying to communicate with them."

"And didn't realise that the power he regards as normal is well above our ability to withstand".

"So what happens now?" demanded McCoy.

"I believe if we wait here the creature will be back when it is able to communicate at a much lower level. I sensed sorrow at what it had done – there was no malice in its intentions, only a desire to communicate."

And Spock was right. It was not many minutes before they all heard the crackling sound again and Spock was able to contact the creature. It took several attempts before the level of communication was low enough for Kirk and McCoy to tolerate, but once the right level was achieved they were able to join in a mental conversation with the creature. Spock sat in front of the hole, with Kirk and McCoy kneeling beside him. They placed their fingers above Spock's ears and immediately they could hear the voice of the creature inside their heads.

The voice was strange, almost metallic. The words the creature spoke seemed laboured, difficult to comprehend and Kirk knew that without the translator they would have no hope at all of communicating with the creature.

"I am EL," came the voice. "Deep sorrow, sadness for what I have done. Deaths are not... good. I did not... understand."

"I regret the deaths as much as you, EL," said Kirk gently; concentrating on making the words clear and easy for the universal translator to handle. "Now you know our limitations, no more deaths need happen."

"There will be none." EL's tone was emphatic. "But who are you? I did not know the Cqyrsdaf had returned."

"We are not Cqyrsdaf. I am James T Kirk of the Starship Enterprise; my First Officer, Mr Spock and my Chief Surgeon, Dr McCoy. Two of us are Human. Mr Spock is Vulcan".

"Hu-man. Vul-can. Words are strange. Names are difficult for me. Where are Cqyrsdaf?"

"We know nothing of the Cqyrsdaf," responded McCoy. "Are they the people in the paintings in this room?"

"Cqyrsdaf my friends. We speak without words. Words not needed. Find difficult, words, with you. Paintings? Not understand."

"On the walls of this chamber are pictures of people similar to ourselves. Are they the Cqyrsdaf?" asked Spock.

"Ah. The ninezrsqt." The translator was unable to give an appropriate word in English. "Yes, they are Cqrysdaf. Friends now gone."

"Where did they go?" asked Kirk.

"Not know. Much trouble to them. I did not understand. They not tell. Come to me less, then less still. Very bad for me. Then did not come again. I do not know." EL's voice was quiet and sad and although the words were disjointed, all three realised how upset EL must have been when the Cqrysdaf no longer inhabited the palace.

"Did you not go and look for them?" asked Kirk.

"Where to look. I can go not far. Now I hear of other people. Who are people? Many live? Did not know. People who died very far for me."

"It is a camp called Meo-Sun," replied Kirk. "Many people live there because their homes in the mountains have become uninhabitable through the lack of rain. We are trying to help them. There is very little food and water for them."

"Rain?" said EL in a puzzled tone. "Rain. The Cqyrsdaf said rain went away. Need rain to live. Come from clouds above. Is this right?"

"Yes, quite right," answered Kirk. "Do you know why the rains did not come?"

"Not know. Is important?"

"It could be," responded Kirk. "The rains have failed because the planet has moved off its axis and the climate has changed dramatically and rains have not come. Everything is dying."

"I do not understand."

"Perhaps, EL, I could explain," said Spock. "I will try and show you the charts and diagrams in my mind. Perhaps it will be easier for you."

"Yes, will try."

For the next few minutes Spock went over the various diagrams and pictures in his mind, trying to show EL exactly what had happened on Mercia and why the situation was so desperate. It took several explanations from Spock before EL began to comprehend the problem. Then the three men could almost feel him smile.

"I understand," he said. "For you, big problem. For me, no. I can put right. Can keep right. No rain will not happen again."

"You can put the planet back on its correct axis and keep it there?" asked Kirk incredulously."

There was a puzzled silence.

"Captain," said Spock. "EL does not understand the words, but he fully understands the problem. He is quite sure he can put it right."

"It's the miracle we have been searching for," said McCoy, a smile in his voice. "Who would have believed it?"

"How long will it take?" questioned Kirk.

"Times of the sun – three. No more," replied EL.

"Three days, by all that's wonderful," grinned McCoy. "We could have rain within the week."

"How can we thank you, EL?" said Kirk, hardly able to believe that Mercia's problem was on the way to being solved. "It's incredible – more than we ever dared hope for."

"Thank you not needed. It will help Humans. It is good?"

Kirk grinned.

"It's very good, EL."

"I am pleased to help. Rain come soon. That also good?"

"Yes, that's also very good," said Kirk laughing. "It will save many lives. We need to get the planet back on its original axis, so that the rainfall can bring back life to the plants and crops. If that couldn't be achieved many thousands of people would die and the rest would have to be moved to another planet."
"I see that rain is important to your survival."

"Yes," responded Kirk. "Very important. Life giving, in fact. You do not need rain? Where do you live."

"Rain for me not needed. I live deep inside my planet. Could not live on outside. It is... good for me inside. But Cqyrsdaf would show me much of outside of my planet. It is... green with many things growing, not moving."

"Plants," said McCoy. "Not many of those left. They die because of lack of rain."

"They die – like people. Strange. All things die. I do not die. Cqyrsdaf die. I live always."

"Is there no-one else of your kind here, EL?" asked Kirk.

"No. I am. There is no-one else."

"No wonder he was so desperate to make contact with the people at Meo-Sun," muttered McCoy. "The loneliness must be almost unbearable."

"Loneliness?" questioned EL. "Yes, that is the word. I am alone. I would like people here. But Cqrysdaf not return. Have humans and Vulcans come now?"

"Humans have been on this planet for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but no-one knew what these ruins were, " said Kirk. "No-one knew you were here. I am sure many would come here if they knew."

"People here?" said EL. "That is good. Would like to talk without words again."

"I'm afraid our people are not able to talk without words, only in the way we are talking."

"I can help. I give. No words. They will understand. You will try?"

"I don't understand," said Kirk.

"You sit." And into Kirk's mind came a picture of the indentation near the wall. "I will bring joy."

"Jim, do you think that's wise?" said McCoy in a worried voice. "Remember those people who died in the camp."

"I do not believe there is any danger in communicating with EL," said Spock, who up until now had been listening carefully to what was being communicated to them all.

"It's OK, Bones. EL understands about the level of power now."

"Doctor," said EL. "I understand concern, but no fear. It is joy, no more."

Kirk took his hands from Spock's face. The others did the same.

"I don't think I'm in any sort of shape for prolonged kneeling," exclaimed McCoy, as he straightened his stiff knees. "Is it really necessary to kneel in that awkward position to talk to EL?"

"I would guess not, Bones," replied Kirk. "I suppose it was the most comfortable for the Cqrysdaf."

"Well next time you talk to him, mention my stiff knees, will ya?"

Kirk smiled and moved to the small indentation and sat cross legged beside it, resting his hands on his knees as the creatures in the paintings had done. Spock and McCoy watched closely. Now that they had separated, neither of them could hear what was going on between Kirk and EL.

Kirk closed his eyes and waited. He heard EL's voice in his mind.

"No water in pool. Not so good. Makes better. Will try."

EL's voice faded and Kirk was aware of a single sound entering his mind. Its silvery bell-like quality seemed to fill every corner of his being. It quickly multiplied and he experienced a joy in living he had never felt before. Lifted on a wave of euphoria, his mind swam in places of untold beauty and in the realms of unimaginable fantasy.

Slowly the sounds faded away and Kirk opened his eyes, unable to speak for a moment.

"Are you all right?" questioned McCoy.

"It was incredible," said Kirk in a bemused tone. "I never experienced anything like it. Did you hear it too?"

"No," came EL's voice in his head. "Only one person at a time may visit the beauty I am able to call forth from a person's most inmost mind."

"You mean what I saw and heard was from my mind?" asked Kirk in bewilderment.

"Your mind. Mine, too," replied EL. "Made better. I try for everyone. Everyone like. It is good?"

"It's incredible," said Kirk again. "I feel... happy. Content." He gave a laugh. "Thank you, EL. Your talent is quite... overwhelming."

"I am glad. Vulcan and Human can try if wish."

"I'm sure they would," agreed Kirk looking at his two friends with a smile.

"What's going on, Jim?" asked McCoy.

"I can't explain, Bones. You'll just have to try it for yourself. EL is quite happy for you both to have a turn." Kirk climbed to his feet, and vacated the spot where he had sat. "Who's going first?"

In turn McCoy and Spock sat cross legged and closed their eyes. Each time the others watching heard nothing, but it was obvious that each experienced the same powerful sensations of delight as Kirk.

Gradually the light in the chamber began to fade and the three men realised that night was approaching. They were reluctant to leave; unlike when they had arrived, the chamber seemed full of happiness.

Once more the three had final contact with EL. He now understood exactly what had to be done and estimated that within three days the planet would be back on its original course. In turn, Kirk promised to do all he could to have people come to live in the palace and to try and restore it to its former glory. He had no doubts that once the people of Mercia realised what EL was able to do both for the planet and for themselves there would be many volunteers.

Kirk led the way back through the darkening ruins, picking his way carefully over the scattered rubble. He would like to return once the palace had been restored and was full of people. But for now he felt very tired, exhausted almost. He stumbled slightly and felt the supporting hand of McCoy under his arm.

"I should have realised how tired you were, Jim, " said McCoy apologetically. "I guess I was just carried away by all that we have learned to-day. You need to rest as soon as we return to the ship."

"I won't argue with that," said Kirk with a grin.. "I am tired, but I feel great. Do you realise that the miracle we hoped for has actually happened? How long do you think it will be before we can expect a return to a more normal climate, Spock?"

Spock negotiated a large pile of rubble before answering.

"EL said it would take three days to get Mercia back onto its original course. I would estimate another seven days before we can expect to see any major changes in the climate."

"And by that you mean rain?" queried McCoy.

"I do indeed, Doctor."

They were each silent with their own thoughts for a few moment, rejoicing in the knowledge that Mercia and her people were no longer doomed. Then Spock spoke.

"Do you realise, Captain, the significance of EL's name?" he asked.

"No, I'm not sure that I do. Is there any significance?"

"I am not sure," said Spock quietly. "But the name EL is one of the nine thousand names of God.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Eighteen

EL was as good as his word. During the next three days, Spock constantly monitored the planet and gradually, an infinitesimal fraction at a time, Mercia came back onto its original course. No-one had any idea how he was doing it, it was enough that EL was able and willing to do it.

The Enterprise was still running on a skeleton crew, with most of the crew still down at Camp Meo-Sun. Kirk, however, was still restricted to light duties and spent most of the time he was allowed on duty on the Bridge. He kept the communications channel open ship-wide as Mercia swung onto its correct orbit and as Spock made the announcement there was a cheer from all crew members on board. Kirk smiled, knowing just how much everyone cared about the fate of Mercia, especially Camp Meo-Sun. Then he looked across at the First Officer and there was satisfaction in both their eyes.

Spock turned to make final adjustments to the Enterprise's orbit around the planet, but Kirk continued to watch the Vulcan. During the last few days when he had been ill and afterwards when there had been so much to think about regarding the future of Mercia, the knowledge that Spock would soon be leaving both the Enterprise and Starfleet had been pushed to the back of his mind. Now, with a little more time to spare Kirk began to realise anew just what a loss he was personally about to face. Spock had said he would leave once this mission was over and now Kirk could see the end was almost in sight.

Now Kirk must face further missions aboard the Enterprise without his Vulcan First Officer and friend. It would be an almost impossible gap to fill. Kirk sighed. There was much still to be done.

"Spock?" he called.

"Captain?" replied Spock, turning in his chair.

"How are the supplies holding out at Camp Meo-Sun?"

"They are being used at a faster rate than we anticipated, but Doctor Macauley reports that the daily mortality rate has dropped by forty-six point seven per cent."

"Well that's good news," replied Kirk.

"Incoming message, sir," said Ensign Jewett at the communications board.

"Put it on audio, Ensign"

"Yes, sir,"

Kirk grinned at the other's keenness to please. In the normal course of events, Ensign Jewett would never have been on the Bridge, let alone manning Uhura's station. But with eighty per cent of the crew still on Mercia, everyone was taking a turn at whatever jobs need to be done.

"This is Captain Howell of the U.S.S. Ark Royal. We estimate our arrival at Mercia to be in three point six five hours. Do you read, Enterprise?"

Kirk gave a wide smile of surprise and pleasure.

"We do indeed, Captain Howell. And I'm delighted to hear of your imminent arrival. You have made excellent time. Well done!"

"Thank you, Captain. We've certainly been pouring on the power. My Chief Engineer has been complaining all the way."

"As mine would in a similar situation," laughed Kirk. "Are there any more ships with you, Captain Howell?"

"Negative, Captain. We were not so heavily laden as the rest of the fleet and have left them behind a little. I would estimate their arrival during the next twenty four to forty eight hours."

"I'm sure the whole of Mercia will be glad to hear it," said Kirk.

"We have on board the acting Governor General of Mercia and his wife. I believe they are known to you."

Kirk glanced across at Spock, who came to stand beside the command chair.

"They are indeed. Welcome to Mercia, Ambassador Sarek and Mrs Sarek."

The familiar voice of Sarek filled the Enterprise Bridge.

"Your welcome is a little premature, Captain, as we have not yet arrived on Mercia. But it is nevertheless appreciated. Is my son with you?"

"I am here, father. I trust you are well."

"Very well. I will report straight to Government House. But I hope we will have time for a further talk together soon."

"As soon as can be arranged, father. I have much to tell you."

Spock looked at Kirk, but the Captain refused to meet his gaze, staring down at his hands clasped tightly in his lap. Kirk could imagine well enough what it was that father and son wanted to discuss.

"So be it," said Sarek. "Until later then."

Spock depressed the button on Kirk's chair.

"Enterprise out."

Spock continued to stand by the Command chair watching the face of his Captain. His eyes were lowered and Spock could see the long lashes almost resting on his cheeks. Kirk's mouth was set in a grim line and his hands were clenched so hard that the knuckles were white. Spock knew what was going on in his Captain's mind. He also knew what he had to tell his father.

"Jim," Spock said quietly.

Kirk looked up at him.

"I would like to speak to you alone for a few minutes."

Kirk looked surprised.

"Is it urgent, Spock?"

"Not urgent, Captain, but I would like to speak to you as soon as possible."

Kirk looked around the half empty Bridge. There was little going on at the moment and the Bridge personnel were able to be trusted.

"Lieutenant Kyle. Take the con, please. I shall be in my quarters for a short while. If anything happens I want to be notified immediately."

"Yes, sir." Kyle left his chair and sat down in the centre seat which Kirk had just vacated.

The doors swished shut behind the Captain and the First Officer.

Kirk ushered Spock into his cabin and sat down at his desk, indicating that Spock sit opposite him. For a moment neither of them spoke.

"Well, Spock?" asked Kirk finally.

"Jim," began Spock. "If you remember I told you a short time ago that I had decided to resign from Starfleet and return to Vulcan to take up a post there at the Science Academy."

Kirk nodded.

"I remember only too well. It came as quite a shock."

"At that time, I felt quite confident that I had made the correct decision..." He stopped.

"And now, Spock?"

"Now, I feel the decision was not the correct one for me," said Spock, softly.

Kirk stared at his friend for a moment, not sure that he had heard correctly.

"Are you telling me that you don't intend to leave Starfleet after all?"

"My life belongs to Starfleet, as does yours. I took the oath of allegiance and I know I cannot break that oath even at the wish of my father."

The quiet joy which filled Kirk's expressive face was almost too much for the Vulcan to bear. He looked down at his hands.

But as the realisation come home to Kirk that he was not about to lose the best First Officer in the fleet or indeed the best friend he had ever had, he could contain himself no longer. He bounded from his chair and came to stand beside Spock. He almost felt like hugging the Vulcan, but knowing how Spock felt about such demonstrations, he contented himself with resting a hand briefly on Spock's shoulder.

"I thought miracles happened only rarely," he said quietly. "But it seems my luck is in. Two miracles in three days. It's a lot more than my fair share and I don't know why you changed your mind and I don't really care. I'm just very glad you did."

Spock turned to look up at Kirk and there was the warmth of deep friendship and caring in those eyes that Kirk could not mistake. Now Kirk knew exactly why Spock had changed his mind. He would not tell Kirk in so many words; it was not his way. But his expression said it all.

"Thank you, Spock."

"I believe the reply is – you're welcome, Jim."

And Kirk laughed in pure joy and contentment.

During the next two days, the first twelve ships of the rescue fleet began to arrive and take up orbit around the planet. Each was given its correct station and informed where their cargo was to be transported. The main responsibility for this fell to Sarek and a small staff of men comprising some from the Oceanside Council and some officers from the orbiting ships. It was a mammoth task that would take many months to complete. But now the rescue operation had at least begun and a more hopeful atmosphere began to filter across the land.

Five days after Kirk had spoken to EL, Kirk broadcast to the whole of the southern continent. He told them in detail about EL and how he had been able to put Mercia back on its correct axis. He also explained how much EL needed companionship and appealed to people to come forward and befriend EL. Kirk was eloquent and his enthusiasm and caring for the whole project came across strongly. There were many volunteers and Kirk knew that EL would never be lonely again.

The committee that Sarek headed voted that funds be put aside for the rebuilding of the palace as soon as the present crisis was over. For the people in the cities the situation eased quickly, as food and supplies became available at reasonable prices. It was the people who lived in the camps, who could not return to their homes until rain had fallen in considerable amounts, that still had to wait out the crisis. And it seemed to them that the time would never come when they could go back to their homes.

But for one man the crisis was at an end. Charles Evard, who in some ways had brought about much of the suffering on Mercia, had now to leave and face the consequences of his actions. The U.S.S. Ark Royal which had brought Sarek and Amanda to Mercia, left seven days later taking Charles Evard and Edward Landers to trial before the Federation Council on charges of criminal negligence.

Serena had beamed across to Oceanside to visit her father before he left, but the visit had not been a success. Charles Evard was a broken man, his life lying in shattered pieces. All that he had worked for thrown away because he did not want to admit he could make a mistake and because he had not cared how much suffering he caused to so many in the process.

Serena and Charles Evard had nothing in common. Their ways of life; their ways of viewing things; their attitudes to people were all poles apart. They could never be close as father and daughter should be. Serena came back depressed and heartbroken.

Kirk met her in the transporter room.

"How did it go?" he asked but the look in her eyes told its own story.

He put his arms around her shoulders.

"I'll buy you a drink," he said. "You look as if you need one."

She looked up at him.

"Maybe I do. But now is not the time," she said quietly. "I must get back to Meo-Sun. That is where I belong."

"Camp Meo-Sun will not always be there, Serena. It might take months, it might take years, but eventually all these people will be going home."

"And no thanks to my father," she replied bitterly. "I am ashamed to be his daughter. To see what havoc he caused amongst innocent and simple people. Children born into a world they will never understand because their brains were starved of food at the vital time. And all my father can think of is how his life finished, how his dreams have failed."

"So you're going down there to try and pay back on your father's mistakes. Serena, don't turn yourself into a bitter woman because of what your father has done. Go back and help the people of Meo-Sun, but go back because you want to help, not because you feel you must pay back a debt owed by your father."

Serena turned to him, her eyes swimming with tears.

"Oh Jim..."

He put his arms round her and held her close. He motioned with his head for the Ensign monitoring the transporter to leave the room. He went at a run.

Serena sobbed as if her heart would break. Kirk held her gently, tenderly; soothing her with gentle words, holding her close. Eventually her sobs lessened and she looked up into Kirk's face, seeing there only sympathy and understanding.

"I'm sorry, Jim," she said brokenly.

"There's nothing to be sorry about. You've borne a great burden during these past months; more than most people are asked to cope with in a life time. Look forward now, Serena, to the better times ahead."

He took the handkerchief from her hand and gently wiped the tears from her face, pushing back her hair a little as he did so. Then he kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"Besides I have some good news for you."

A smile touched her lips.

"Good news?" she repeated.

"I went back to the ruins yesterday to tell EL how many people had volunteered to come to the palace and of how much money is to be set aside to rebuild the palace. I don't have to tell you how pleased he was.

"I had a long talk with him about the Kariang and the babies born in the camp who will never mentally develop their full potential and of how they will become outcasts in their villages, because they are not as other people. EL has come up with the suggestion which I think you'll like. Once some of the palace is habitable they can come and live there. I'm sure we will be able to find people who will look after them. Then EL will communicate with them regularly – show them the beauty of their own souls and show them some of the wonders he has shown me through his ability to translate the experiences of other people who are only too eager to share them. Of course, they will never be the same as other children, but they will at least know beauty and happiness. And they can live their lives at the palace in peace." Kirk paused and looked at Serena. "What do you think?"

For a moment Serena was so stunned that she could not speak. Then she flung herself into Kirk's arms, laughing and crying at the same time.

"How can I ever thank you?" she said.

"No thanks are necessary. At least not me. EL is the one to thank."

"Of course. And I will thank him as well," responded Serena. "But you too. For doing everything in a very special way."

Kirk gave a slight bow.

"Why, thank you, ma'am."

Serena moved her arms around his neck, ruffling her fingers through his hair; then pulled his head down. Their lips met for a timeless moment.

"That was a pretty special thank you," said Kirk a little breathlessly at last.

Serena smiled.

"It was meant to be. It was for a pretty special person."

"Thank you, ma'am," said Kirk again, then added more briskly, "now what about that drink?"

"No, Jim. Thank you. I really must return to Meo-Sun. But I'm returning without bitterness. I owe you for that."

"I'll remember that, Serena," said Kirk as he moved across to the transporter controls. Serena mounted the transporter pad. She smiled across at him as he activated the controls.

"Take care," he said softly.

"You too," she called and faded away in a cloud of golden sparkles.

Sarek found the task of acting Governor General an extremely demanding one, but met every problem with calmness and efficiency. The General Committee which had formed under his chairmanship worked hard to organise the distribution of all supplies and personnel which were pouring into Mercia, ensuring help got to the places where they needed most. With Charles Evard sent for trial before the United Federation of Planets, none of the Oceanside Council desired to appear dilatory in their attitude to the general situation.

Sarek also found time to visit all the townships and cities with Amanda beside him, to see for himself what the situation was like. The rioting stopped almost overnight once it was announced that supply centres were being set up in every district and that there was food enough for everyone. The water supply was still a problems and stand pipes giving water only at certain times were still in operation. And this situation was likely to continue for quite some time, until the rains came and the water table rose.

The worst problem Sarek had to solve was the various epidemics of typhoid, typhus and cholera. But now many medical personnel and supplies had been transported in, Sarek felt the situation would soon be under control.

It was when Sarek and Amanda arrived at Camp Meo-Sun and saw the nightmare conditions there that he began to understand the enormity of the problem still to be solved. Spock took them both around the Camp personally, pointing out how much the Enterprise had been able to achieve in a very short time.

A good percentage of the people now had some form of shelter against the blistering heat, but it still left many more trying to live in the shallow dug holes in the hard earth. There were long queues of patient, silent people at the hospital, waiting to be treated by the doctors. Since more doctors and nurses had been brought in with the fleet, the queues now were shorter, but disease and starvation was everywhere still.

Sarek was silent, appalled by what he saw. He had never envisaged anything on this scale. Only now when he was actually in Camp Meo-Sun did he realise just what an enormous task there was before him to try and alleviate the suffering he saw on every side.

Amanda was openly in tears, as she walked behind Sarek and Spock. It was incredible to see the conditions under which the Kariang lived and to know how long it had been going with virtually no outside aid of any kind. Her admiration for all the doctors who had worked and were still working on the camp was unbounded and she understood their dedication in trying to help in any way they could.

Spock showed them two of the new hospitals which the Enterprise crew had been able to set up, explaining how many more people they were able to help now. They also saw the old original hospital which had been the sole place that the people could come to for aid, until the Enterprise arrived.

"It is surprising that anyone survived here at all," was Sarek's only comment.

At last Spock took them back to the ship, leading them to his cabin, where they could refresh themselves before returning to Oceanside.

"I feel guilty at being able to leave that awful place for the comforts here and in Oceanside," said Amanda quietly.

"Guilt is not logical, Amanda. You will be of more assistance at my side, helping me to organise the supplies for Meo-Sun."

"I know that's true, dear. But I cannot help how I feel."

She came to sit beside him, glad of his logical and comforting presence. She rested two fingers against his, seeking reassurance that all would eventually be well.

"I intend to send a detailed report to the Federation," said Sarek, "reinforcing the one that Captain Kirk has already sent. Much money will be needed to help these people return to their normal lifestyle. I am surprised at how much the Enterprise has been able to achieve since she has been here. The help you have all been able to give is most admirable"

Sarek steepled his fingers and placed them to his lips.

"I had not realised before the enormous capabilities a Federation Starship has at its disposal. Nor did I quite realise exactly the wide breadth of knowledge its personnel were required to have."

Spock raised an eyebrow. He was surprised at his father's words, but they gave him the opening to tell Sarek of his decision regarding Starfleet.

"Father, there is something of importance I wish to tell you regarding Starfleet."

"Before you say any more, Spock, there is something I must say." Sarek held up his hand to still the words Spock wished to speak. "Forgive me. I was wrong to suggest that you give up your Starfleet career. It has become obvious to me that your life is here, aboard the Enterprise where you can best serve Starfleet as Captain Kirk's First Officer. I should have realised that before. I am unable to explain why I did not."

"Perhaps you were not feeling well," said Amanda softly.

"That should not have impaired my judgement, Amanda," retorted Sarek. "Whatever the reason, Spock, I feel you should remain aboard the Enterprise."

Spock was silent for a moment. The task he had dreaded had disappeared with the words which Sarek had just spoken. He looked across at his father and then glanced at Amanda, who smiled at him in understanding.

"I am glad that you feel that way, Father," said Spock at last. "I have given the matter a great deal of thought and have come to the same conclusion as yourself. I could not give up my Starfleet career, or my position aboard the Enterprise. I feel that here is where I belong."

"I felt that, right from the moment I first came aboard," said Amanda smiling. "And I am so glad that you have such a friend as Captain Kirk. There is one thing, dear. It would be nice if you could visit us more often if the opportunity presented itself. I have felt that you were always reluctant to come back to Vulcan."

Spock looked down at his hands.

"Yes, there has been a certain reluctance to return on my part." He looked across at Sarek. "But I think now that the situation has changed somewhat. I believe a certain amount of leave could be arranged from time to time."

Amanda came to stand by Spock and ran her hand over his hair.

"I'm so glad, Spock. I shall look forward to your first visit."

Sarek stood up.

"Come, wife. It is time to return to Oceanside. There is much to be done. We will see you again before you leave the planet?"

"Of course, Father," replied Spock. "I shall be interested to hear how things are progressing in Oceanside under your governorship."

Sarek bowed slightly and the three of them made their way to the transporter room.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter Nineteen

McCoy, at the main hospital, walked outside and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He looked up at the clear, bright blue sky and sighed. It had been seven days now since the planet had been put back on its correct axis by EL, but there was still no sign of the weather breaking. He looked around at the myriad canvas tents which now surrounded the hospital. The supplies from the ships had been put to good use and the shelter these people had would be badly needed when the rains came. The whole of the camp would become a mudball and a whole host of new medical problems would raise their heads. McCoy sighed again. He didn't know yet how long Kirk had decided to stay on Mercia. It couldn't be for much longer. Now that the supply ships had arrived, with more on the way, the Enterprise's job was just about finished.

Much as McCoy wanted to leave the misery and horror of Mercia, he was loath to leave when there was still so much to do. Every day seemed to bring more and more patients to the hospital doors. And every day, people were still dying, but fortunately the rate of deaths had dropped considerably.

Perhaps soon something could be done about the burial grounds. McCoy shuddered at the memory of that awful place. He had been there once with Kirk and never wished to go again. He could understand just how Kirk felt about the place – it was like a vision of hell.

He felt a tug at his hand and looked down into Zahira's upturned face. His face lit up with a smile and he went down on one knee beside her.

"I haven't seen you for a few days, Zahira. Where have you been?"

"I haven't felt well, Doctor McCoy, and I stayed on my bed in the tent."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Zahira. What's been the trouble."

Zahira leant against him as if she had no strength.

"I've felt very sick and my arms and legs don't seem to work properly."

Zahira's voice was faint and, alarmed, McCoy took hold of her gently. Her thin face was thinner now than ever before and had a greyish tinge to it. There were dirty black smudges beneath her eyes – and her breathing was short and shallow. He picked her up in his arms and carried her quickly over to the doctors' tent. Laying her down on her blanket, he quickly examined her and his face became grave. He got out his communicator and flicked it open.

"McCoy to Enterprise. McCoy to Captain Kirk."

"Kirk here."

"I think you had better come down here straight away, Jim."

"What's the matter, Bones?"

"It's Zahira, Jim. She's been taken ill. I don't like the look of it."

"I'm on my way." Kirk's tone was clipped and McCoy knew he would waste no time in beaming down to the planet.

"Is Captain Kirk coming to see me?" asked Zahira. Her huge eyes fixed on McCoy's face.

"Yes, dear. He's coming right away." McCoy held her tiny hand in his.

"Perhaps I shall be able to go back to Me-tan. When the butterfly landed on my hand I knew it would not be long."

"What butterfly was that, Zahira?"

But talking had tired her and she lay with her eyes closed waiting for her special friend to arrive. It was only a few moments later that Kirk shimmered into existence just outside the tent. He came inside immediately, looking down at her anxiously. Then he looked across at McCoy.

"How is she, Bones?"

McCoy shook his head. "She's still alive, Jim, but I don't know for how long," he answered quietly.

Kirk's face settled into grim lines for a moment and then as he looked at the child lying before him, the lines of his face softened. Gently he took her fragile hand in his.

"Zahira," he called softly. "It's Captain Kirk. Can you hear me?"

Zahira's eyes fluttered open and lit with warmth and happiness at seeing him there.

"Captain Kirk," she murmured and a slight smile lit up her face. "I knew you'd come. Have you been on the Enterprise?"

Kirk nodded, unable to speak.

"Thank you for showing her to me. I will always remember her."

"I'll take you on her again when you're well, Zahira. There are many more places to show you."

"I would... like that... when I'm not so... tired."

Kirk leaned forward to hear the words as Zahira's voice grew fainter. He turned anguished eyes to McCoy but there was nothing the doctor could do but shake his head in despair.

"I'm sorry, Jim," he said and his voice was the merest whisper.

Zahira opened her eyes again.

"I'm glad the butterfly... landed on... my hand. Now I know I'll go back... to Me-Tan. I'll find... so many butterflies there. My mother... and father... and sister will... show.... me where... they are."

Zahira looked up and a beautiful smile lit her face. There, just in front of her, were four of the most gorgeous butterflies she had ever seen. Two were the brightest blue, like the sky at midsummer; the other two were bronze, glowing as if with an inner fire. They hovered above her, just out of reach. But this time Zahira was determined. She was back in Me-tan now and she was aware of the trees and flowers all around. She could hear the women calling to each other as they worked in the fields. She was in the garden of her home and just inside the house her family awaited her. She felt surrounded by love on every side. But before she did anything else, she must catch those four beautiful butterflies. Her eyes sparkled with delight as she watched the blue and the bronze butterflies and her smile broadened. This time she could catch them. They swooped nearer and were within her grasp. Zahira reached out her hands.

Kirk and McCoy leaned nearer to hear what Zahira said, but only caught the word Me-Tan. She looked up into Kirk's hazel eyes now darkened to almost bronze and McCoy's blue like the mid-summer sky, and her face brightened into a delighted smile. Slowly she lifted her hands towards them. A small sigh escaped her lips; her eyes closed and her arms lay still upon the blanket.

Kirk looked across at McCoy who had his fingers on her pulse. Their eyes met and slowly McCoy shook his head.

Carefully and tenderly Kirk and McCoy prepared the small body of Zahira for burial. McCoy found her other dress amongst her few belongings; it was the dress she had worn to visit the Enterprise. Kirk remembered how excited she had been to see him again and to be aboard his ship. At least he had given her a little happiness.

Now looking down at her still face, a feeling of despair came over him. They had all been so pleased when the supply ships came; when EL had been able to correct Mercia's path. Now everything would be all right. But Zahira's death made Kirk realise that at Camp Meo-Sun things were far from all right. People were still dying every day; babies being born with little chance to live; people were still suffering on an enormous scale. Kirk, on his knees before Zahira, let his shoulders sag with the despair he felt.

McCoy rested his hand on Kirk's arm

"Jim," he said quietly. "At least she is at peace now."

"I know, Bones. I know. But she was such a tiny child and the only beauty and happiness she knew in years was while she was aboard the Enterprise. Think of all the other children in the camp who won't even have that much. Who'll still die in this awful place."

"You can't change the way of things overnight. You've done what you can. We all have. And you know that maybe now things are still bad, but they are getting better all the time. Once the climate gets back to some sort of normality, you'll be able to see the changes for the better more readily."

Kirk rubbed his eyes tiredly.

"Maybe. But at the moment I can only grieve for Zahira. Somehow she became for me a symbol of Meo-Sun. I felt if she made it, so would the camp."

"The camp still will make it. You've got to believe that"

Kirk looked McCoy straight in the eyes.

"Do you?" he asked.

"Of course I do, Jim." McCoy's answer was cool and confident. "We just have to give it time."

Kirk climbed to his feet.

"I guess you're right, Bones," he said wearily. "I'm just not thinking straight at the moment." He looked down at the body of Zahira. "She was such a sweet kid. I shall miss her."

He flicked open his communicator.

"Kirk to Enterprise."

"Spock here, Captain."

"I want the co-ordinates of the valley of Me-tan. I shall be beaming across there for a while. Call me when you have them. Kirk out."

"Without waiting for a reply he closed his communicator and looked across at McCoy.

"You're taking Zahira's body to Me-Tan," McCoy said. It was a statement.

"I can't take her to the burial grounds, can I, Bones? She wanted to go back to Me-Tan and that's where she's going. It's the least I can do."

"I'll come with you."

"I'd rather go alone."

"But Jim..."

"Please, Bones." There was a tone in Kirk's voice which McCoy could not refuse.

"O.K. Jim. I'll be waiting for you here."

Kirk materialized in the centre of Me-tan village. After the heat and dust of the plains around Camp Meo-Sun, the village seemed cooler, but more oppressive. As he glanced around he could see dark thunderclouds gathering to the north and forked lightning danced along the mountain tops. Kirk gave a small sigh of relief that at last the rains were on their way.

He looked down at the tiny white-sheeted body he carried, so light in his arms that he could scarcely believe a human body could weigh so little. He wanted to bury her in the garden of her home and Kirk started to look around for the names Zahira and her sister had painted on the outside of the house. Slowly he walked along the length of the main street and half way along he caught sight of the house he was looking for.

There were the names, surrounded by gaudy patterns, just as Zahira had described. Kirk stood looking at them, trying to imagine the naughtiness of two healthy young girls. The house itself was dilapidated now; the roof had partly fallen in and the steps up to the veranda broken away in places. Inside the dust and dirt covered the floors; it looked old, forgotten and forlorn. Kirk was very glad that Zahira couldn't see how much her former home had changed.

A flash of lightening lit the darkening sky and Kirk looked up, surprised to see how far the clouds had advanced in such a short space of time. They were almost overhead now, and the deep black clouds, heavy with rain, began to cover the sky. In the distance Kirk could see a thick curtain of rain advancing towards Me-tan.

Slowly he walked through the house to the garden at the back, setting Zahira's body down beside a dead, leafless tree, whose bare branches lifted towards the sky as if in a silent plea for rain. The earth around it was dry and hard and Kirk looked around for something to dig the grave with. Lying on the ground near the house was a spade with a broken handle.

A swirl of wind rushed through the garden, tossing the branches of the tree and blowing dust and dirt into Kirk's eyes. He wiped his face and looked up at the lowering clouds, as the first drops of rain began to fall.

Carefully he laid Zahira's body into the grave he had dug and gently covered it with earth. Then he stood with his hands clasped in front of him, his head bent.. Memories of Zahira played through his mind; the time she had first seen Spock and been intrigued by his ears; how she had waited beside the road for him when he first went to the burial grounds; and the constant vigil she kept by his side when he had been so ill. And he remembered her face when the butterfly landed on her hand.

"Rest well, Zahira. May you find the butterflies you've always looked for."

The rains were falling heavily now, soaking his clothes. The air was filled with the sounds of water and thunder; the lightening almost continuous. But Kirk didn't notice. He stood gazing down at where Zahira was buried, and the rain mingled with the tears that ran down his face.

* * * * * * * *


"Take her out, Mr Sulu. Ahead warp factor one."

"Ahead warp factor one, sir," confirmed Sulu.

"Heading eight two four mark seven."

"Heading eight two four mark seven."

Kirk looked around the Bridge in some satisfaction. It was good to know that all his crew were now aboard and the Enterprise heading out on another mission. His eyes rested on the viewscreen which showed Mercia receding quickly into the distance. They all done a good job and Kirk was pleased with the entire crew. But he knew there was a lot to be done still on Mercia. Sarek had the situation well in hand in the southern part of the continent, but it was Camp Meo-Sun which still occupied Kirk's thoughts.

Rain had come to all parts of the planet. It had fallen heavily turning the hard, dry earth into a mire of mud in the camp. Those lucky enough to have some kind of shelter were grateful for the protection against the suddenly changed weather. For those who still lived in the shallowly dug holes, it was one more thing to endure in the nightmare of their lives.

Help in the form of supplies and personnel were arriving all the time; and more and more tents were being raised as well as more durable shelters, but even people in the tents became cold and damp as the temperature began to drop sharply. And then the death rates which had dropped after the arrival of the first supply ships, now began to climb again as people began to suffer from pneumonia, colds and bronchial attacks. In their weakened state they had little stamina to fight these new diseases. Then Kirk had received orders to take the Enterprise out of orbit and proceed immediately for duty on the Federation/Klingon border. Kirk protested vigorously, but to no avail. The Enterprise was no longer essential to Mercia; her mission was finished and Kirk had no option but to recall all his crew to the ship.

But the plight of Mercia had touched the hearts of the Federation planets and even now huge fund-raising events were being organised to raise money for the stricken planet. And Kirk now knew that there was every reason for hope for everyone at Camp Meo-Sun.

Already Serena Macauley had reported that a few people were already planning to leave the camp and return to their villages, taking with them food, seeds and supplies to tide them over to the first harvest. The Kariang were a tenacious and independent people and although many might still die, enough would survive and grow strong for the tribes to flourish again.

McCoy came to stand at Kirk's side.

"You O.K. Jim?. You've been very quiet since we came back to the ship."

Kirk looked at him and gave a wry smile.

"I was remembering a child who only wanted to catch a butterfly."

McCoy was silent. There was nothing to say.

Kirk stood up.

"Mr Spock, you have the con."

And Kirk strode from the Bridge, leaving a trail of surprised faces behind him.

Kirk entered the Enterprise garden quietly. He stood for a moment, breathing in the moist air, redolent with the scent of flowers, He had forgotten how wonderful it was here in this very special part of his ship. He began to walk slowly along the paths with shrubs and plants on every side. He came upon a buddleia bush just beginning to come into flower and stopped to look at it. Would Mercia ever know this kind of beauty again? It was hard to believe it would after the devastation the sun and lack of rain had wreaked on the land. But nature was amazingly resilient and perhaps sooner than anyone expected the land would be green and growing again.

Kirk sighed. Already it was too late for the many thousands who had die; and especially for the one small girl who had stolen his heart.

Kirk reached forward to smell the just bursting buds. He rested his hand for a moment on one of the stems and as he did so a butterfly hovered and settled on his forefinger. He looked at it curiously, not moving. Was it the same butterfly which had landed on Zahira's hand? Kirk had no way of knowing. The butterfly flapped its jewel-like wings and flew off. Kirk smiled.

Zahira had always wanted to catch a butterfly. To her it meant a return to her home and happiness. Now, to Kirk, this butterfly also meant a return to his home aboard the Enterprise and the happiness he always knew there...


Copyright Shirley Buck