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There was little of interest in the entire solar system of the star generally known as 'Variety' by Starfleet personnel. The only interesting aspect lay in the single quality that had given the star its popular name. None of the planets was of any value to the Federation, either for farming or for mining; none was inhabited by any sentient species. However, an automatic recording station was sited on the fourth planet. There was no regular pick-up of the records, which measured the sun's variations and radiation - it was one of many such stations dotted around Federation space on planets that should have been suitable for exploitation but weren't. Any Starship that happened to be in the vicinity stopped off for an hour to pick up the records, make sure there were plenty of tapes in the recording machines, then left again, and the results were duly sent off to Starfleet along with the ship's regular routine reports.
The ship that was passing on this occasion was the Enterprise.
Spock was busy; some other, more important, results that they had picked up recently had to be processed, and he was buried deep in them. Kirk decided to leave his Science Officer to get on with it, and beamed down himself with two of the ship's junior scientists. To satisfy the book, he also took down a security guard, Brewster, even though he knew full well that there would be nothing for the man to do.
It was an uninviting world. Vegetation must have existed there at some time in the distant past, for there was a breathable atmosphere; but there was no longer vegetation or even water on the arid globe. High mountains interspersed with deep, deep valleys covered much of it; in other areas the ground was flat, the unevenness levelled off by windblown soil. The recording station stood on an outcrop of rock overlooking one of those windswept desert plateaux.
The landing party materialised to find a howling gale whipping sand round the station. Lightning flashed eerily in an apparently cloudless sky; thunder echoed hollowly round the mountains behind a long, low building, reverberating from peak to peak. Lt. Yates gasped and clapped a hand over his eyes as sand blew grittily into them. His scientific colleague grasped his arm and led him towards the door of the station. Kirk and Brewster followed, staggering slightly as the wind buffeted them. Lightning forked down to hit the ground a few yards from them, and they smelt an indescribably unpleasant stench of burnt earth.
The force of the wind rushing into the space left when the lightning burned up the oxygen in its path knocked all four men flat. They staggered upright again, all very conscious that they had been fantastically lucky not to have been hit, to stumble on to the door.
Inside, they relaxed in the grateful calm of shelter. By now all four had gritty eyes, and their first concern was to remove the grains of dirt irritating them. Yates and Udo then turned to the banks of machines lining one of the walls.
Kirk watched them as they moved along the row, subconsciously noting their performances as they pulled out tapes, checked that everything was operating properly, then replaced the used tapes with fresh ones. He also noted approvingly how Brewster, fully aware that here there was no danger for him to guard against, moved forward to offer the scientists his help, passing new tapes to them as they were required and taking the recorded tapes from them to let them proceed more rapidly. Satisfied that his men were performing competently, Kirk moved forward too.
Outside, the thunder continued to rumble, the sound now muffled slightly by the walls surrounding them. The building shook ominously as lightning hit it. Kirk glanced up at the roof a little nervously, but the men who built the place had known what they were doing, and the structure was sound; and of course there was no way lightning could set fire to stone, he reminded himself.
The two young scientists moved steadily on, and the pile of recorded tapes grew larger. Udo handed Brewster the last tape, took the replacement and turned back to help Yates finish the check. Brewster began to gather up all the tapes ready for the beam-up; Kirk reached for his communicator to give the order, anxious to leave this nerve-racking environment as quickly as possible, willing his young officers to hurry up. A further bolt of lightning hit the wall. Sparks flew from the machine the men were checking. An unearthly green light flooded from it as its check-light flared brilliantly, dazzling them. Tapes scattered as all four instinctively and automatically threw up their hands to shield their eyes. Kirk's communicator skittered along the floor with the tapes. He paid no attention. Why was he feeling so dizzy? His physical discomfort occupied his mind to the exclusion of almost everything. He was only partially aware that the other three were similarly affected. Faintness overcame him; he dropped to one knee to steady himself, but in vain. Udo and Yates were already prone; as Kirk collapsed to join them, Brewster also fell. The green light intensified, flaring even brighter, then with a sharp crackling that only just stopped short of being an explosion, it snapped out, leaving the four bodies illuminated by the ordinary lighting.
Scotty, left in command since Spock was so busy, relaxed in the Captain's chair. He was very tired; it had been a long day. Routine maintenance first, then three very junior ensigns to get their first assessments - and that had been a more than usually exhausting experience, since one of the three had been overcome with nerves and fumbled clumsily at a test job that Scotty knew he should have been able to do with his eyes shut; and another, who had looked quite promising, turned out to be barely competent after all, knowing the theory perfectly but performing the practical part of the test only just well enough to avoid being failed. Fortunately, the third had wholly lived up to his promise - for Scotty had then taken the others and gone over with them the practical work they had found difficult until both were confident with it. Now he had the con. Oh well, nothing much could happen here. Standard orbit, routine mission well within Federation space... He suppressed a yawn. He should be off duty now. It would be pleasant to sit back in peace and comfort in his quarters with the latest technical journal and a glass of whisky, he reflected - in half an hour or so, when the Captain was back.
The half hour passed, and a few more minutes with it. He glanced over to Uhura.
"Any word from the landing party, Lieutenant?"
"No, Mr. Scott."
"Give them a call. See if everything's all right. They're a little overdue. "
"Aye, sir... They don't respond, Mr. Scott."
Scott swore, briefly but comprehensively. Uhura went on. "I'm getting nothing but severe static - there must be a storm down there. It's possible that a communicator signal isn't managing to get through."
The Chief Engineer looked a little more cheerful. He thought briefly, estimating times, then punched the command chair's intercom button.
"Scott to Mr. Spock."
There was a brief pause, then, "Spock here."
"The landing party's a mite overdue, Mr. Spock, but Lt. Uhura can't pick up anything but static when she tries to contact the Captain. Shall I send down a shuttlecraft to collect them?"
"An excellent idea, Mr. Scott. Spock out."
Even with the more powerful equipment available to them, the two-man crew of the shuttlecraft lost contact with the Enterprise not long after they entered the planet's atmosphere.
"Bet the Captain's mad," Zelinski suggested.
Wallis chuckled. "Ever been on a landing party with the skipper when something like this happened?"
"Once. I never knew he could get so annoyed about anything."
Wallis nodded. "I've known him longer than you, sport. He can be as patient as... oh, as a chunk of rock when he's up against people, and it's a battle of wits - but when the elements turn against him and there's nothing he can do, a man like him can't stand knowing he's absolutely helpless to change matters. "
"Yeah," Zelinski agreed. " ...There's the station."
"They must still be inside it."
"Well, can you blame them? Look at the way that soil's being whipped up. There must be a proper gale blowing down there."
A gust of wind caught the shuttlecraft. Wallis wrestled it straight again. It was relatively easy to compensate for the wind, however; although gusting slightly it came steadily from one direction in an undeviating line.
They swooped down to land close to the station door. Zelinski looked at Wallis, sitting almost triumphantly at the controls, and grunted.
"I suppose I've to go out because you're the pilot."
Wallis grinned at him. "Well, I've done all the work so far."
Zelinski muttered something under his breath and opened the shuttle door. Soil blasted in and stung his unprotected face and hands. He swore sharply, and then dived out. Wallis closed the door and waited. But his colleague reappeared alone, almost immediately, beckoning. He looked shocked. Puzzled, Wallis joined him, and followed him into the station.
Together, they stood staring down at the four motionless figures.
Zelinski shivered. "I think they're dead."
Ignoring the scattered tapes - someone from the science department would have to come down anyway to finish checking the recording computers - Wallis and Zelinski carried the four bodies out to the shuttlecraft. Zelinski went back one last time to fasten the door; then they took off, gaining height as rapidly as possible.
McCoy, with a medical team, met them in the hanger deck. He rushed the bodies to sickbay.
Spock entered just as McCoy was straightening dispiritedly. The surgeon looked round, his discouragement showing in every line of his body. Spock bit back the query he had been about to make, substituting another.
Unhappily, McCoy nodded. "I just don't know why. There's no sign of injury on any of them. It's as if they just lay down, went to sleep, and died peacefully in their sleep. I'll try an autopsy - but I'm not hopeful of finding anything significant." He looked over the four bodies again. "Christine - take the Captain, Brewster and Udo down to the morgue. We'll need to retain their bodies, at least until I can come up with some reason for their deaths," he added, almost apologetically, to Spock.
As Christine Chapel moved to obey, McCoy nodded to his orderly, who shifted the fourth body - that of Lt. Yates - through to the lab.
"I'll let you know as soon as I get any results, Spock."
"I will be on the bridge, Doctor."
The Vulcan looked once at the face of his dead Captain, then turned and left unhurriedly. Outside, he stopped for a moment. The corridor was empty. He permitted himself the luxury of shutting his eyes for a brief second, his mouth twisting in grief; then he straightened himself. His face resumed its normal impassivity. He strode firmly to the elevator.
He paused as he moved onto the bridge. Every eye seemed to be fixed on him. He hesitated, then made his decision. The bridge crew deserved to know first, before he made the general announcement to the ship - even though it meant that he would have to say, twice over, the words that even now were sticking in his throat, the words that he would have given everything he possessed to be able to deny.
"The members of the landing party were all dead when the shuttlecraft landed," he said quietly. "Dr. McCoy is attempting to ascertain the cause of death."
There was a single gasping sob from Uhura, cut off short. It nearly broke Spock's desperately-held composure. His face like a stone, he moved to the command chair as Scott came to his feet. "Give me shipwide intercom, Lieutenant."
"Aye, sir." Uhura choked back another sob as she obeyed.
"Attention all hands. This is Mr. Spock. It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that the Captain and his landing party are dead. The cause of death is as yet unknown. Science Department; Mr. Carstairs, take a shuttlecraft and go down for the record tapes from the recording station. Check that all computers are processed. Spock out." He stared blindly at the backs of the men at the helm/navigation console. "Mr. Chekov; compute course to the nearest Starbase."
"Yes, Mr. Spock."
McCoy straightened wearily and moved away from the neatly dissected body to wash his hands. This, of all his tasks, was the one he most disliked; the final butchery, carried out to discover the cause of death, with only the barest chance that his findings might ever help him in the future. And on this occasion, it had been a futile exercise. Life processes had ceased; and he had discovered nothing, nothing at all, that might explain why.
His hands dry, he reached for the intercom. This was not going to be easy - he might as well get it over with.
"McCoy to Spock."
"Spock here. What have you learned, Doctor?" A stranger might have thought that Spock was speaking of someone he barely knew; but McCoy had learned long since that when Spock sounded most unfeeling, it was when he was, in fact, at his most emotional.
"I haven't found anything, I'm afraid. There was no indication of any injury, no damage to any internal organ. The only suggestion I can make is that since brain impulses are basically electrical in origin, the violence of the storm on the planet's surface short-circuited the brain. It's not a theory I like, in fact as a diagnosis I dislike it intensely; but since there's no sign of any injury, internal or external, and everything just stopped working, it does suggest that something did, in fact, arrest all brain activity."
"Hmmm." Spock considered the surgeon's words. "Radiation - even solar radiation masked by a planet's atmosphere - can have some strange effects, Doctor. You will log it tentatively that the effect of the storm or solar radiation on their metabolism was the cause of death?"
"Yes. Nothing else I can do."
"Very well, Doctor. Thank you."
McCoy punched off the intercom. An orderly was just finishing tidying up the autopsied body. "You might as well put him in the freezer too, Corso."
"Yes, sir." The phlegmatic orderly wheeled out the body.
The days passed slowly as the Enterprise moved steadily nearer to Starbase Five. Everyone on board was depressed. Their work didn't suffer, they were too well-disciplined for that, but off duty in the rec-rooms, little groups gathered to talk in solemn voices. There was some gloomy speculation about their new Captain; would Spock get the post, or would he passed over in favour of someone else? The general consensus was that Spock would be preferable to any other Captain.
McCoy seldom left sickbay. He spent the hours going over and over the useless autopsy results, comparing the readings there with Yates' living readings, and finding no anomalies. Occasionally he just sat, staring at nothing. There was nothing he could have done; the men were dead when they were brought aboard; but he still felt he should have been able to do something.
Spock never appeared outside duty hours. He came on to the bridge, remained till his watch was over, apparently relaxed - perhaps a fraction quieter than usual - but showing nothing else. When he left the bridge, he went straight to his quarters and remained there till it was time to go on duty again. It was some days before McCoy realised that the Vulcan had eaten nothing since Kirk died. The surgeon hesitated about interfering, but only for a moment; then his sense of duty took him to Spock's cabin.
He had to buzz twice before he got an answer.
"Come." It sounded unenthusiastic; he would gladly have retreated, but he knew he had to do this.
Spock was sitting at his desk, fingers steepled. He looked up, however, as McCoy entered.
"No, it's not well, Spock. Have you eaten anything recently?"
"I am not currently hungry, Doctor. If I were, I would eat."
"Why aren't you hungry?"
"Vulcans do fast on occasions, Doctor, as you already know. Our reasons... vary."
"What possible reason could you have now? Spock, you're acting Captain. You need all your strength. You can't afford to waste any of it by starving yourself."
"Doctor, I am not starving myself. I am undergoing a periodic fast - something that is customary to my people."
"When they are under stress," McCoy said slowly, remembering a previous fast. "What stress are you under, you living computer?" He knew he was being cruel; but if that cruelty broke Spock's iron self-control, it would have served its purpose, even if Spock never subsequently forgave him for it. "We're headed straight for Starbase Five - and while the circumstances taking us there aren't routine, the flight itself is. So what are you worrying about?"
"I do not wish to command, Doctor. That I am now the ultimate authority on the ship is something I find... disturbing. In a disturbing situation, a Vulcan is unable to eat. If he does... he cannot retain the food in his stomach. It would be illogical for me to eat. The food would be wasted."
"Come off it, Spock. You know you're perfectly capable of taking command - "
"I do not wish to command, Doctor," Spock repeated.
"Spock, will you stop being so damn evasive!" McCoy exploded. He put his hands on the desk and leaned over it accusingly. "You wanted command all right before you ever knew Jim. It was only after that that you began to claim you didn't. You can't deny it."
"It was after I became second-in-command to Captain Kirk that I realised I am more suited to such a position, Doctor."
"Tcha!" With an effort, McCoy restrained the obscene expletive that rose to his lips.
"Besides, would you really wish me to be the next Captain of the Enterprise, Doctor?" Spock added, a little wryly.
"Yes, I would, dammit! And so would all the rest of the crew!"
"The... 'devil you know', Doctor?"
"If you care to put it that way."
Spock looked steadily at him. "In this instance, Doctor, the devil you know would not make a satisfactory Captain."
"Are you trying to deny your own capability? I thought you had a very complete appreciation of your own worth."
"I have no illusions regarding my own ability, Doctor. I know what I can do effectively and well. I do not consider I have the capacity to become a wholly effective Starship Captain... as you yourself have pointed out to me in the past."
"In the past... the situation was not always the same," McCoy admitted. "But this time... " He sat down wearily and buried his face in his hands. "Oh God," he mumbled. He looked up tiredly. "Spock - the ship needs you. If Starfleet offers you the Captaincy you must take it. You're not betraying Jim if you do. You'll be carrying on his work, the way he would want you to do."
"I don't want it!" It was an explosive, gasping whisper.
"I know," McCoy said, gently now. "What you want is to be Jim's second-in-command. But you can't be that any more. He's dead. There's just one thing; if you take over, in a way it would be like continuing to be Jim's second-in-command for you would be continuing his work in the way he would do it. You would only be betraying Jim if you refused to do that."
"I can't," Spock said, despair clearly audible in his voice. "I don't have the gift for command that he had. I could have succeeded any other Captain I can think of - except him. I don't have his Human insight, or - "
"You are the man he would have chosen to succeed him, if he had ever had the occasion to choose," McCoy said quietly. He was silent for a moment, then went on. "Spock, once before, we thought him dead - lost with the Defiant. Do you remember the message he left for us?"
Spock nodded dumbly.
"He told you to ask my advice if you wanted to know the Human reaction to a situation. It wasn't needed that time. We - you - got him back alive. This time... " His voice broke. "This time we have his body, for all the good it does. I haven't even been able to find out what killed him!"
"You cannot blame yourself, Doctor. There was nothing you could have done."
"I know. All I can do is offer you advice when you feel you need it - as he told me to do. And at this moment, I advise you to accept the Captaincy, if it is offered to you. Please, Spock."
The Vulcan looked at McCoy, his face strangely gentle. "Very well. If I am offered the position - and it is by no means certain that I will be - I will accept it. But I will need you beside me, Doctor."
McCoy nodded. "I'll stay with you. Now - now that that's settled, will you come and eat?"
Slowly, Spock shook his head. "I can't. Not yet. I must still learn to accept that Jim is dead. Strange... I was certain that I would feel his death - in my mind, as I did when the Intrepid died. But I did not. I know he is dead, but I cannot believe it. It is illogical."
"No, Spock, it's Human. You can't believe it because you don't want to believe it. I don't either. But it has happened, and we must accept it."
"Do you think I don't realise that?" Spock gave a long, shuddering sigh. "Please, don't say anything more on the subject. Let me come to terms with it in my own way."
They were still three days from Starbase Five when Starfleet contacted them urgently. Admiral Komack's face stared gravely from the viewscreen.
"The colony on Beta Piscium 12 reports that it is under attack by a hostile race, believed to be neither Klingon or Romulan. You will divert to assist the colonists."
"Admiral," Spock put in. "I am compelled to remind you that at present the Enterprise has no Captain - "
"Mr. Spock, you have an excellent record," was the firm reply. "You are highly experienced and overdue for promotion. Success in this mission will ensure your promotion to Captain of the Enterprise. You will proceed as ordered. Admiral Komack, Starfleet, out." The viewscreen blanked out, then the normal display of stars appeared.
Spock closed his eyes for a second. He had already concluded that while Kirk's body was still on board, he would be unable to accept his loss. Little though he relished the thought of an autopsy on Kirk, it had been almost a relief to realise that in three days they would be able to hand over the bodies to the Starbase medical section to see if the doctors there could find something McCoy had missed. Privately, Spock considered it unlikely that they would. Now they would have to retain the bodies for an indefinite period.
"Mr. Chekov, plot a course for Beta Piscium."
"...plotted and laid in, sir."
The great Starship swung gracefully onto her new course.
"Warp factor six, Mr. Sulu."
"Warp six, sir."
Skilfully concealing the wearied resignation that he felt, Spock went over to his neglected station at the library computer, wanting to check out details on the threatened colony.
It was a planet of an A-spectrum sun, swinging round its primary in a wide orbit estimated at 98.4 standard years. It had been settled for nearly twenty-eight standard years - a little more than quarter of a planetary year. The ruins of a high-level civilisation had been found on it, but it was not certain how old they were; archaeologists had estimated a probability of about a thousand standard years. The ruins were not extensive, being very localised in small pockets; and among the ruins, there were indications that the race, sparse though it appeared to have been, had had space-flight capacity. Some skeletons had been found, indicating a tall humanoid race with a rather large cranial capacity. It was considered possible that the inhabitants had in fact also been colonists from some unknown planet but that the colony, for reasons unknown, had either died out or been abandoned. The latter was perfectly possible - with a year almost a standard century in length, it was probable that as yet unrealised difficulties or insoluble problems might arise. The planet seemed fertile; it appeared to lack specific seasons, having a reasonably temperate climate round a wide belt that covered at least half of it, since its axis was a bare degree from the vertical. An experimental farming colony had been set up on it that had so far more than paid its way.
The disadvantage of the place was that it was dangerously near the edge of Federation controlled territory, close to unexplored space. Now, it seemed, that unexplored space had spawned a race that attacked strangers on sight. Spock suppressed a tired sigh. Why were so many intelligent races so bloodthirsty? All right, Vulcan had had its violent past, too; but Vulcan had overcome it. Why had so few other races? Surely their civilisations were advanced enough to permit them to agree with other races that their differences did not matter. He passed on to study the reports recorded by Uhura regarding the attacks.
So far, the only thing that had saved the colony on Beta Piscium 12 was the wide dispersal of its settlers into many small communities, and the fact that there seemed to be only one attacking ship. It had picked off one or two communities, although most of the inhabitants of these had been out in the fields working and escaped; but many of its attacks had, strangely enough, been aimed at the ruins. It was as if the crew of the attacker could recognise the ruins as centres of habitation but could not detect that they were no longer in use. Interesting. That must mean that the attacker's sensor equipment was not as accurate or as sensitive as the Federation's. What was the comparative level of their other equipment, though?
The enemy vessel was large. It was rocket-shaped and rather longer than the Enterprise. Sensors indicated that it was in fact powered by rockets - although it was a very sophisticated rocket; the vessel did not lack manoeuvrability. As the Enterprise swung round Beta Piscium 12 towards it, it reacted swiftly, moving into a defensive position.
"Open a channel, Lieutenant," Spock ordered.
"Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"This is Commander Spock of the USS Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets," Spock announced. "You have attacked one of our colony worlds. Please state your reasons."
Only the faint crackle of static broke the silence.
"They don't respond, Mr. Spock," Uhura said unnecessarily.
"USS Enterprise to alien vessel. Please identify yourself."
The silence continued unbroken. Spock raised an eyebrow. "It would appear that they do not desire contact," he said drily. "Close the channel, Lieutenant."
The Vulcan Acting Captain stared unseeingly at the viewscreen. Now what? His orders were to assist the colonists. How could they even begin to do so if the enemy refused any contact? How could he make any decisions when he only knew one side of the situation?
"Signs of energy readings building up on board the enemy ship, Mr. Spock," Chekov reported from the library computer sensors.
"Deflector shields on maximum, Mr. Sulu." That at least was a decision easy to make.
"Shields on maximum, Mr. Spock."
"Power readings now very high," Chekov continued. He had barely uttered the last word when the ship shook violently.
"Power readings now minimal... but beginning to rise again, sir," Chekov reported. "All shields holding."
Spock's eyebrow lifted consideringly. A weapon, probably similar to a phaser, but whose rays were invisible. How had this alien race managed it? It took a decided effort to drag his mind from contemplation of the accomplishment and back to the problem of how to counteract it.
"Power nearly at firing level again, sir," Chekov put in.
Unfortunate, Spock thought. But he had to defend Jim's ship. "Fire all phasers, Mr. Sulu."
" ...all phasers fired, sir."
"No damage, Mr. Spock," Chekov announced. "Their shields are holding." Then almost without a pause, "Their power readings are at firing level again."
"Stand by for their attack," Spock said quietly. Moments later the ship shook again. "Damage, Lieutenant?"
"All decks report no damage, sir," Uhura relayed from the reports reaching her. "One casualty in engineering."
"Shields still holding firm," Chekov said jubilantly. Then gloomily, "Their power levels are beginning to rise."
"Hmmm. Do they have any other weapon, I wonder?" Spock mused. "It would seem illogical to continue using a mode of attack that had been proven ineffectual if a second method is available. Mr. Sulu, arm photon torpedoes."
"Power level increasing rapidly, sir," Chekov said.
"One fired, sir."
"Direct hit," Chekov reported unnecessarily. They could see the hit on the viewscreen. "No damage."
"Two fired, sir."
"Another direct hit," Chekov reported said. "No damage. Their power is at firing level again... Our shields are holding steady, Mr. Spock." A pause. "Their power level is holding steady too. Minimum power."
"Possibly they have decided that our defences are too strong - or they have a further weapon they now wish to try," Spock said. "We cannot pierce their defence either, however. Is this the situation that Humans would call a 'stand-off'?"
"Yes, sir," Sulu answered.
Spock nodded. "Disengage photon torpedoes. Stand by to fire phasers again if they attempt another attack. Lt. Uhura, open a channel. They may accept contact this time."
"Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"This is Commander Spock of the USS Enterprise. What is your reason for attacking us?"
The resulting silence could almost be felt.
Since it seemed obvious that the enemy vessel was not going to attack again, at least not at once, Spock left Scott in command and went to his cabin to think over the matter in privacy. It required a conscious effort before he managed to relax sufficiently to permit his subconscious to begin considering the data.
One thing he realised clearly at last; McCoy had been right. He owed it to Jim to continue with his work; to keep the Enterprise 'the finest Starship in the Fleet' - and perhaps it would be easier to do so than accept a new commanding officer to whom he would, as a Vulcan, automatically give his loyalty. To see someone else in Jim's place... No. Disinter his ambition from the unmourned grave where he had buried it the first time Jim had smiled at him in open friendship. But first he had to solve this problem. This was the test of his ability to command as Jim had done.
He considered his options. One ship against one ship, evenly matched, evenly armed, evenly defended. They had already proved that martial force was ineffective in these circumstances. He could ask for help - but that would be to admit defeat. Quite apart from his prospects for promotion, to admit defeat would betray Jim, and that he would not do. If the enemy ship sent for reinforcements, then... but they had not broken radio silence. Might they be expecting reinforcements anyway? Unlikely. Until the Enterprise arrived, the alien vessel had been master of the situation.
Evacuate the colony? Spock shook his head. That would also be a surrender. But what other course of action was open to him?
He rose wearily. Leaving the cabin, he paced deliberately along the corridors, choosing not to use the turbolift because that would take him to his destination so much quicker; and he was strangely reluctant to reach that destination. But at last his unwilling feet carried him to the ship's morgue.
He slid Kirk's body out of its freezer compartment and stood looking down at it, not really seeing it for the image in his mind was of a Kirk alive, alert, active and smiling affectionately.
Jim, he thought. Jim, in this situation, what would you do?
Spock emptied his mind completely, hoping that here, standing beside his dead Captain's body, some inspiration might come. He stood there a long time.
Slowly, so slowly that at first he didn't realise it was not his own reaction, his mind registered an awareness of cold. A cold so intense, so numbing, that it blanked every other thought out of consciousness. Spock shivered involuntarily. Yes, it was cold... but not as unbearably cold as the thought indicated. He glanced round to see who else had entered, but he was still alone. Alone except for the body beside him.
Kirk? Kirk's thoughts?
Spock reached down, and without any of the revulsion a Human might have experienced at the thought of touching a corpse, he placed his fingers to the Captain's head, reaching out with his mind.
The thought was faint, barely more detectable than it had been without the physical contact. Cold...
...Spock? Help me... so cold...
Spock lifted the stiffened body easily. He turned to the door.
McCoy looked up from the autopsy report that he was studying for the fiftieth time, his fatigue-reddened eyes blinking as his gaze focussed on the Vulcan's burden. Spock crossed to a bed and placed his Captain's body carefully on it.
"Are you out of your Vulcan mind?" McCoy asked irritably. "Why on earth... "
"Doctor, I know this sounds unlikely, but I have detected coherent thought in the Captain's mind - "
" - he is aware of intense cold... I believe that he is alive and that by some chance the freezing process in the morgue acted to suspend animation as if it had been done deliberately in a hospital to - "
"Yes, I know why we use deep freezing procedures," McCoy growled. After a moment of stunned disbelief he had moved quickly, and he was already spreading a thermal blanket over the motionless figure. He touched the switch to activate the diagnostic panel. The needles jerked fractionally upwards.
"Alive all right... if we can keep him alive... " McCoy muttered.
"Doctor, I suggest we bring the bodies of Mr. Brewster and Mr. Udo here as well. They might also be in a state of suspended animation."
"Yes, of course." McCoy moved to the lab door. "Corso, Ossowski, go and get Brewster and Udo from the morgue. Be careful with them - they may be alive." He returned to Kirk's side, his face showing near disbelief.
Spock looked down at Kirk's face for a moment longer, his expression strangely gentle. "Prognosis, Doctor?"
McCoy shook his head. "Too soon to say, Spock. And even if he lives, he may not recover fully. He's been frozen rather longer than recommended. In addition, there was no respiration discernible for several hours prior to freezing - and no pulse, therefore no circulation. There may be brain damage. There may not."
They were interrupted by the orderlies wheeling in the other two bodies. McCoy hurried to attend to them. He pulled blankets over them and flicked the switches. The needles on the panel above Brewster jerked and slid upwards slightly. Udo's panel remained obstinately unmoving. McCoy reached for a hypo.
Spock watched him for a moment then glanced back at Kirk. Knowing himself to be unobserved - McCoy and both orderlies were fussing round Udo's body - Spock reached out quickly and touched Kirk's face lightly, fleetingly. Then he turned towards the door. He still had a problem to solve.
He headed back towards the bridge. He had already been away from it far too long - much longer than he had originally intended.
Scott looked round as Spock left the turblift and rose to let the Vulcan assume the command chair, aware of a slight feeling of relief that he was no longer in the hot seat. The lack of response from the enemy ship was unnerving, even though Scott was not a nervous man. Perhaps that was what the aliens were wanting - to upset their opponents by making them feel nervous.
Spock sat down gratefully; his legs were feeling strangely weak.
"Present status, Mr. Scott?"
"No change, sir. They've made no hostile move, but they've made no attempt to contact us either."
"That is hardly surprising, Mr. Scott. If they had been prepared to talk, they would have responded to our signal."
Scott watched sympathetically as Spock steepled his fingers and contemplated them. Then he moved over to the engineering station. There might be very little concrete assistance he could give the Vulcan, but he could at least be there, on the bridge, offering moral support. Little though Spock might show it, over the years Scott had come to realise that the Vulcan did in fact appreciate the silent sympathy and support of his friends.
What would Jim do? Spock thought. He could, of course, stall, wait until Kirk regained consciousness and leave the decision to him - provided Jim was then mentally active enough to make a decision - but that would be the coward's way out. Spock's stubborn pride refused to consider it. Besides, there was Jim's declared opinion of Spock's abilities - and, seemingly, the crew's, if McCoy had been telling the truth. The Vulcan knew he didn't want to betray that opinion. He wanted to be able to report to Jim that he had found a solution to a problem the Captain didn't even know existed. Even if that solution was the one Jim himself would have found. Especially if it was the solution Jim would have found.
What would Jim do?
Spock thought back over some of the situations Kirk had contended with. He had used bluff often; but Spock suspected that, with the best will in the universe, he could not carry out a successful bluff. Even if he could - what bluff could he use in this situation? If the aliens would only accept contact!
Wait, though. Although the aliens had not responded to his attempts at communication, it was almost certain that they were, in fact, receiving the signal.
"Open a channel, Lieutenant," he ordered pensively.
"Hailing frequencies open, sir," Uhura said, a hint of tired frustration in her voice. He noted it, with a touch of sympathy. He was also experiencing some irritation at the aliens' continued refusal to talk.
"This is Commander Spock of the USS Enterprise calling unidentified alien ship. It is obviously clear to you that our vessels are of comparable power and that we are in a state of impasse. It must be equally clear to you that this situation cannot continue indefinitely. We have a claim to this planet in that we have established a colony on it. There was no indication of any other colonisation at this time, but if you feel you have a prior claim, we are prepared to discuss it with you."
"No response, sir," Uhura said in a tone that indicated it was exactly what she had expected. Spock nodded. It was what he had expected as well.
"We must make them listen, then," he said.
"But how, Mr. Spock?" Scott exploded.
"By beaming someone over onto their bridge," Spock replied calmly.
The bridge crew stared at him as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head. He looked over to the library computer. "Mr. Chekov - can you pinpoint their bridge?"
"I think so, sir." He bent over the sensor intently.
"Mr. Spock - wouldn't it be better to beam one of them over here?" Scott asked.
"We could, of course, do that, Mr. Scott," Spock admitted. "But what guarantee would we have that we had, in fact, locked on to an important member of their crew? Even on the bridge, we might pinpoint someone no more important than a yeoman bringing a standard report. In an attack situation, such a crewman would become highly expendable - a pawn whose importance is negligible. No, we must send someone over. And since I am the ranking officer here, the task must be mine. If I fail... If I fail, we will know we are dealing with a totally intractable race, probably as dangerous as the Romulans, and you must inform Starfleet of that fact."
Scott looked searchingly at Spock. A few hours ago, he would have said Spock was suffering from a death wish, but there was a subtle difference in his attitude since his last absence from the bridge; he clearly did believe that this was the only way to reach a solution - and what he said was true. In the absence of a trained diplomat, the ranking officer present was the one empowered to make diplomatic decisions.
"Have you found the co-ordinates yet, Mr. Chekov?" Spock went on.
"I think... Yes, Mr. Spock."
"Inform the transporter room. Mr. Sulu - I will inform you as soon as I am ready to beam over. Drop the shields on my signal, and re-establish as soon as transport is confirmed." Mentally he was hoping that the aliens' shield could be penetrated by their transporter. If not - scratch the idea and try to find another.
"Mr. Scott, you have the con."
"Good luck, sir," Scott said quietly. Spock looked straight at him for a moment without replying, then turned and entered the elevator.
His first thought on materialising was that it was no wonder the attacking ship was so large. Himself tall enough to tower over most of the Enterprise's crew, he was dwarfed by the huge alien standing near by. He stared in a fascinated silence at the aliens, only half aware they were studying him as intently.
The aliens were fully eight feet tall. They were humanoid, without in any way resembling a Human. Their scaley, bronze green faces were topped by crests of varying magnificence; several carried their crests flattened against their heads, but the standing alien carried his high, flaring wide in proud display. His lidless eyes blinked as a nictitating membrane passed over them. Spock's first coherent thought was that this race was of reptilian origin rather than mammalian.
"Who are you?" the alien asked, utter bewilderment in his voice.
"Spock of Vulcan, representing the United Federation of Planets."
The alien's scaled face was incapable of frowning, but the angle of its head was eloquent. "I do not understand," it said.
"You thought we were someone else, perhaps?" Spock asked.
"Yes. My apologies, Spock of Vulcan. But... " The puzzled voice trailed off.
"We received your earlier communications. We did not believe... This world is the home planet of my people. How can you have a colony here?"
"There was no sentient life on the planet when Federation scouts found it," Spock said, almost sympathetically. "Only ruins almost a planetary century old."
Shock showed on the alien face, immobile though it had appeared to be. "So old?"
"That is our estimate."
The beautiful crest drooped, giving an impression of utter hopelessness. "This is the home world of my people," the alien repeated. "Three to four generations ago there was a war. Our ancestors were of a less technologically developed race and were defeated, their country over-run. Those who were not content to become slaves were forcibly deported to a planet of another solar system which had only recently been discovered - one with a strange climate that left half the planet uninhabitable and was believed to have little of value to the conquerors. A few liberal-minded of the conquerors were exiled too, for daring to suggest even the conquered had rights. They were our first teachers... We found the deeply-buried ores our conquerors did not think were there; we taught ourselves technology, urged on by the need to win back our own land, and at last succeeded in developing space flight. My ship came to reconnoitre, and seized the opportunity offered us to attack - but now you tell me we have attacked your people, who have done us no harm. It makes us as bad as those we thought we fought."
"No," Spock said. "You had no way of knowing that the present inhabitants of the planet are no longer those you sought. And while the desire for revenge is no longer a thing my people ever experience, historically we were warlike and I do understand it. All we ask is that you meet us now with open minds."
"We will do so." The crest lifted slightly.
"And since the colonists also have a viewpoint, I suggest that we meet on the planet with their leader."
"I will speak with them, and let you know time and place. Will you now contact my ship and ask them to beam me back on board."
The crest lifted a little further. "Gladly. And until our next meeting, Chavex of Mlexa bids you farewell."
Spock was greeted aboard the Enterprise with an exuberance that at first surprised and then touched him. He had never realised before how much he was actually liked; and the discovery that his fellow officers had actually worried about him was somehow warming.
He went first to the bridge; ordered Uhura to contact the leader of the colonists so that he could arrange a meeting with the aliens, then, that done, he told her to relay everything to Starfleet - including the information that Captain Kirk was alive.
"Alive?" The bridge crew stared at Spock in utter amazement.
"Dr. McCoy is unsure as yet how fully the Captain will recover, however. Mr. Scott, carry on. I will be in sickbay."
In the solitude of the turbolift, Spock allowed himself a luxurious stretch. The tension across his shoulders that he had not permitted himself to notice relaxed slightly. Provided Chavex of Mlexa proved trustworthy...
He put the matter to the back of his mind as he entered sickbay. McCoy was bending over one of the beds - and looking very unhappy.
"Doctor?" Spock was suddenly anxious again.
The surgeon jumped. "Oh, it's you, Spock. What do you mean, creeping in like a cat?" He had regained control of his facial muscles, and a Human might have wondered if he had imagined the expression on McCoy's face. The Vulcan knew he had not. It was a revelation to him. McCoy, ashamed of emotion?
"There was one casualty in engineering during the battle, Doctor. How is he?"
"Oh, Jarrold. He fell down the steps. A broken leg and a few bruises. Nothing serious. His pride's hurt more than anything else."
"And the Captain?"
"Hasn't come round yet but his temperature's nearly back to normal. The readings all look satisfactory."
"Good. What about the other two?"
"Brewster's responding well, but Udo's definitely dead."
McCoy does sound depressed, Spock thought, his keen ear catching the trace of weariness in the surgeon's voice. Odd. Certainly, Udo was dead and McCoy hated losing a patient, but since Kirk - and Brewster as bonus - were alive after all, he would have expected McCoy to be delighted, bubbling over with the vehement exuberance that Spock regarded with amused tolerance.
"What is it?" Spock asked softly.
"What is what?" McCoy asked, too quickly. Spock looked at him with a quiet patience that defied the bluster, and McCoy found himself unable to meet the Vulcan's eyes.
"Tell me," Spock insisted. "Is there... Is Jim still in danger?"
"Under the circumstances, until he actually comes round, I won't know. I told you - there could be brain damage. The readings look all right, but that isn't conclusive."
Spock still looked directly at him, patiently waiting, instinct telling him that there was more to McCoy's depression than fear for Kirk.
"That isn't all, is it?" he asked gently.
McCoy gave in. "No."
"Tell me, then. You've said to me in the past that it helps to share your troubles. Try your own prescription for once."
McCoy drew a deep breath. "It's Yates, Spock."
The Vulcan waited.
"I keep thinking... Was he really dead, like Udo - or did I kill him when I performed the autopsy?"
The impact of the question hit Spock like a douche of cold water. There was no easy answer, no real reassurance he could give.
"All your diagnostic aids reported Mr. Yates dead, Doctor," he said at last. "If you do not believe your instruments, you might as well give up practising medicine."
"Those same diagnostic scanners reported Jim and Brewster dead too, but they weren't."
"The odds on such an occurrence happening once are very poor. The chance of the situation repeating itself are incalculable - "
"But it did. Jim - and Brewster. That's two."
"And for it to happen three times... No, Doctor, I am convinced that it could not occur three times, even all at once. I am sure in my own mind that Mr. Yates was indeed dead when he was brought aboard."
"Are you, Spock? Are you really? Or are you just being... kind?"
"I would not lie simply for the sake of what you call 'kindness', Doctor. I am convinced Mr. Yates was dead."
"All right. Then was the autopsy itself necessary?"
"What killed Udo and Yates and left the other two apparently dead?" Spock asked.
"I don't know."
"Was there any way you might have found out?"
"Only by performing an autopsy," McCoy admitted.
Spock looked down at Kirk's relaxed face. "The Captain might be able to shed some light on the matter once he regains consciousness," he suggested.
"If he's capable of coherent thought at all," McCoy said gloomily.
"I believe he will be. Even unconscious and frozen, his mind recognised me and communicated with me. I think it likely that he has escaped permanent injury."
"I hope you're right," McCoy said fervently.
"Let me know as soon as there is any change in his condition. I will be in my quarters."
"Yes, of course." McCoy put aside his depression long enough to register that the Vulcan looked tired. Little wonder... but he was at least going to his quarters - hopefully to rest.
The Doctor watched Spock leave. His face resumed the unhappy, haunted expression he had been wearing earlier. Had he killed Yates? He would never know.
Unhappily, he sat down between his two living patients, and waited quietly for them to regain consciousness.
Copyright Sheila Clark