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Captain James T. Kirk straightened himself as best he could, head raised defiantly despite the agony of cramped muscles. Beside him, tied to their respective posts, were the three surviving members of his landing party; Lts. Gilmore and Theral, remaining obstinately silent, and Yeoman Kendo, who was trying to suppress her pain-filled sobbing. All were naked, their clothes stripped from them at capture.
Kirk was glad that his Medical Officer and Science Officer were dead, both killed instantly and painlessly in the treacherous attack that had overwhelmed the landing party; at least they were spared this situation and he was spared the torment of condemning them to a slow and agonising death. Enough that he must hear the three who remained screaming their lives away, one by one, knowing that at last he also must die in the same way under the knives of these barbaric people who called themselves civilised, for he would not - could not - give them the information they desired. The temptation to do so to save the lives of his crew he had suppressed at birth. He could only hope that they would understand why he had to let them die.
The enemy interrogator watched him carefully, intently, a gleam of sadistic pleasure showing deep in the dark eyes, and Kirk knew that the being hoped that he would remain silent so that the information could be tortured out of him. The thought that it would not be clearly did not enter the being's calculations and Kirk shivered slightly; the creature - its sex was indeterminate, and anyway beings of its race could not be called men - was clearly skilled at its work and probably thoroughly enjoyed it; how long could it extend the torture before its victim died? His one hope was that the alien physiology would defeat it and it would accidentally kill them all quickly. It would be easiest, too, if the creature started with the woman; brave as she was, she lacked the obstinate courage of the security men, and it would make his duty the more difficult if she started begging him to speak, to spare them... as she surely would if she had to watch the two men dying first.
His hope was unfulfilled. Almost casually, the interrogator selected Theral. It cut Theral from the pole and lifted him easily to lie on a bench studded with nails that stood in front of them. Then it lifted a metal probe and began to prod, almost gently, at various parts of the man's body. Gentle touch or not, the probe was clearly agonising, for Theral writhed uncontrollably under it, tearing his back and tied arms open on the nails. Soon the being had selected what it considered the most sensitive spots, and applied the probe to these, in rotation, more firmly than before. The guard could no longer bite back his screams. Kirk pressed his lips tightly together. Whatever happened, he could not betray the Federation's secrets...
Theral was a strong man. It took many hours for him to die. When the body lay, limp and motionless, in a pool of its own blood, the interrogator looked at Kirk expectantly.
"Go to hell!" Kirk snarled.
The creature's lips moved in what Kirk's limited experience of this race told him was a smile, and then it reached for Gilmore.
The girl was openly sobbing now, realising that her death was inevitable. Kirk glanced aside at her.
"Four lives or the entire Federation," he said.
"I... know, sir," she managed.
Gilmore was lucky. Perhaps his heart was weaker than the alien had expected, for he died quickly, within half an hour. The interrogator looked quite disappointed as it reached for the girl.
It examined her body carefully, realising that she was physically different from the previous two. However, it seemed to reach the decision that the differences were unimportant, and began to run the probe over her body.
Her screams cut through Kirk like a knife. He was more than ever grateful, now, that his friends were dead. They would have fought to spare him as much agony as possible, but even they would have been unable to remain silent under this... What did the probe do, anyway?
He was soon to learn.
Fire shot through his body from the first delicate touch on one nipple. He was unable to prevent the involuntary movement to escape from the biting agony and the sharp movement sent the nails on which he was lying tearing across his flesh. The touch firmed. Lines of fire radiated from it to all parts of his body. His entire nervous system screamed for escape. The probe touched him again and he discovered that he had been wrong - not all his nerves had been affected the first time. His body moved of its own volition and the nails tore great gouges across his back and his arms, adding to his agony. He was rolled on to his face and the probe touched his lacerated back; he writhed, tearing open his stomach and chest. He screamed then, unable to suffer the agony in silence.
"What are the Federation's plans?" The soft voice promised release.
"Go to hell!" he gasped, then screamed again...
He regained consciousness in sickbay. His body was still sore, but it was a dull ache that, after the previous agony, was easily borne. He did not recognise the doctor who bent over him. No, of course not, he thought; the ship must have a new medical officer now...
"What happened?" he whispered.
The ship's sensors had searched... searched until they found him. But it had taken many hours... Something in the doctor's attitude warned him that there was bad news too.
"Starfleet... They've ordered a court of enquiry, Captain, because you lost your landing party."
"But I'd no choice..."
"You'll get the chance to state your case, Captain."
Kirk was still heavily bandaged when the ship reached Starbase, still under doctor's orders. Despite this he was ordered to attend the court of enquiry right away.
It was immediately obvious that he could expect no sympathy here. He had lost his landing party, a highly trained Science Officer, excellent Medical Officer, two top security personnel... and the daughter of a member of the Federation Council. The accusing voices battered him, giving him no chance to speak, to explain, telling him what he could have done, should have done, all suggesting that he should have surrendered to save his men, told the aliens what they wanted to know...
"No!" he cried out at last, cutting in on the babble of angry voices. "I could not surrender! They were evil - I could not tell them. No matter what they did. My duty was to remain silent, and I did my duty! I regret the deaths... but better that than the millions who would have died if I had betrayed the Federation's secrets... "
It took a decided effort to bring his attention back from the induced hallucination and he realised that he was lying on a couch, sensors attached to his body. Then he remembered. The final psychology test... He had known it would be stiff, but not this stiff. He found himself hoping that he would never have to face such a situation in real life, even as he realised that in real life he would not be accused of cowardice, of negligence, for doing his duty.
"You've passed the test, Ensign," the Academy psychologist continued as he detached the sensors.
Ensign James T. Kirk straightened himself as he headed for the door marked EXIT. He had passed the final test; now he would be assigned to a Starship, and he could begin the career that he hoped would one day lead to his occupying the command chair in reality, not in dreams.
And if the day ever came when he would have to pay such a price for his ambition as the one he had just dreamed... why, he would do that too, without hesitation. He had never expected his chosen career to be easy.
He was smiling contentedly as he left the medical section on his way to join the other successful candidates in a celebration drink.