DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of KarraCaz and is copyright (c) 2003 by KarraCaz.
NINETY EIGHT POINT FOUR
Aboard the battlecruiser KyakH'ta, Commander Kor viewed the overhead screen that dominated the cramped bridge, hollow-eyed and hungrily alert. He tensed abruptly, sitting forward in the command chair, impatience dissipating as a new star winked around the curve of the isolated world he had continued to observe for the last four standard days, watching in silence while the intruder blossomed slowly into a shape he recognized.
As cold starlight glittered on worked metal, he casually transferred his attention to the deck officer standing deferentially beside him.
"So," he murmured gently. "A fish has come to explore our bait."
"HISlaH, joH. True, Lord," the deck officer replied in a sibilant hiss. "And a Federazhon Duj as we hoped."
Kor's hard mouth quirked into a brooding smile of contentment. "More than I had hoped, Qurosh."
"JoH?" Kurosh questioned dutifully.
"It is the 'entepray'," Kor replied with evident satisfaction. "And this time she will be mine, Qurosh. She will not slip through my fingers again."
A Klingon crewman, one wary eye on Kor, hurried forward to whisper in Kurosh's ear.
"Lord," the deck officer said, waving the subordinate away, "we are picking up a broadcast from the Federazhon Duj. They are trying to contact their observation station on the planet."
"Then it has begun." Kor's eyes hooded momentarily with pleasure. "How was the jo', mIqta' set?"
"For a radius of five thousand paces from the Federazhon base. It will respond only to Hu'Man body heat as programmed, JoH. There can be no escape."
"Maj' QaH," Kor said, voice tinged with jubilance. "The wheel has turned for us, Qurosh. I feel it in my blood."
Excitement flared in Kurosh's eyes, burning yellow, his irises slitted like that of a goat, as he answered in a whisper. "Qapla' Daq mirqH, joH'a. Qapla'. Success at last, my Lord. Success."
* * *
The transporter set them down in a wide, bowl-shaped valley, ringed by a circle of low scrubby hills beneath a shimmering golden sky; the ruins of a past civilization lying all about them in massive tumbled blocks of masonry. Already perspiring heavily in the fierce heat, Kirk wiped at his forehead and temples, his mouth creasing into a lazy smile as he saw his First Officer instantly start to sweep the area, searching for readings.
"Found anything yet, Spock?"
The Vulcan looked up from his tricorder unperturbed by the blistering heat, apparently oblivious to Kirk's gentle irony.
"There is a life form registering at bearing one three five, Captain. Just over that rise."
Kirk nodded, mopping again at the fresh beads of perspiration breaking out on his face, irritated by a horde of tiny insects that had descended upon the human members of the landing party, no doubt stirred up by their sudden arrival on the usually empty world.
"Damn crazy insects," Doctor McCoy grumbled, panting in the furnace-like temperature, swatting frantically at the air around his face and head as the flies persisted in seeking out the moist places of mouth, eyes and nostrils.
"You okay, Bones?"
McCoy slapped at his face and neck, grimacing through clenched teeth. "This is worse than Vulcan, Jim. Let's get out of here before these bugs eat us alive."
"Indeed, Captain," Spock interjected quietly, although the tiny flies seemed to prefer honest red blood instead of Vulcan green and he remained unaffected by the insect attack. "The life signs are very weak. I suggest we hurry."
Kirk gestured to the two security officers. "Keep in direct sight. Report anything even remotely suspicious."
"Aye, sir." Both men reached for the phasers hanging at their belts, still slapping vehemently at the swarm around their heads as they moved off to follow his orders.
The weakening life signs picked up by Spock's tricorder, led them unerringly to what was left of the Federation Research base on Hietala's World. The camp looked as if a tsunami had struck it, walls stove in, windows broken, roofs askew. A loose tarpaulin flapped with monotonous regularity in the playful breeze, accentuating the desolation.
McCoy stared uneasily around at the destroyed and lifeless base camp, his gaze straying to the flat, white ruins beyond. "This could be the reason we didn't get any response to our calls, Jim. Looks like one hell of a storm hit this place."
"There isn't much left, I agree. What about those life signs, Spock?"
"Captain. Over here." The yell of alarm brought the three Enterprise officers hurriedly around the flank of the derelict laboratory. Navarin, along with Eluard, the two security personnel, stood over a row of six neatly aligned human bodies laid out among a scatter of debris and battered artifacts.
As McCoy knelt down beside the first prone figure, his medical tricorder held out before him, a huge cloud of the minuscule flies took to the air. Sweat prickling his forehead and cheeks, Bones swatted with demented abandon as they headed straight for him, trying to make a diagnosis at the same time. "They're in some sort of weird stasis."
"You mean they aren't dead?" Kirk asked, dismayed. He shivered despite the heat that burned down upon his uncovered head. Eyes half closed against the dazzle of harsh sunlight he peered closer at one blackened, unrecognizable face, his gorge rising. "Bones, this can't have been the result of storm damage. Is it a disease, some kind of virus?"
McCoy moved onto the next stiff-limbed, twisted form. "I can't say for certain until I get these poor devils up to the ship and run some tests. But if it is an infection, it's one I've never come across before."
Kirk reached for his communicator and flipped open the case. Immediately, the soft burr of Scotty came over the speaker.
"Scott here, Skipper. Is everything all right, sir?"
"We're all fine, Scotty. However, the research team are in a bad way. Have the transporter standing by. And Scotty, I want full decontamination procedures."
"Aye, understood, sir. Scott out."
However, when Kirk turned back to his small landing party, a fresh development had occurred. Spock, exploring curiously among the wreckage of the camp, had found something more.
The First Officer pointed out the deep drag marks in the dust with a non-committal expression. They led from the shattered buildings straight to where the six scientists lay.
"But what would do such a thing? And why? It makes no sense," McCoy commented tersely, before an idea suddenly occurred to him. He glanced up and down the broad sweep of an ancient roadway with evident misgivings, bathed in perspiration, his uniform shirt stuck to his backbone. The ruins shimmered in the heat haze and there was a smell of old dust in the air.
The same thought had also struck Spock. "They could have been taken as prey, Doctor. The giant arachnids of Gaea III, for example, use venom to incapacitate their victims before consuming them alive."
McCoy shuddered, his imagination working overtime, before he remembered the specifics. His eyes narrowed as he glared at the Vulcan. "Ship's sensors didn't report any animal life down here. This planet is supposed to be as dead as the dodo."
Spock, head tilted to one side his face unreadable, regarded him steadily. "I was merely stating a 'for instance', Doctor. I did not mean to imply--"
"Well, the devil with your 'for instances', you pointy-eared--"
"That's enough, gentlemen," Kirk cut in, forestalling the preliminaries of battle, resisting the urge to look at his First Officer, speculating on whether or not the Vulcan had deliberately intended to unnerve McCoy. "Gaen arachnids or not, something is going on here -- and I mean to find out what."
"Before it finds us, Jim?"
"Forewarned is forearmed, Doctor," Spock said levelly, one eyebrow rising.
"Spock's right, Bones," Kirk murmured. "However, your first priority is a medical one. Those research scientists could do with you on board."
Despite McCoy's desire to quit the planet, he still put up a fight. "M'Benga and Christine can cover for awhile. You might need me here--"
"I'm not open to argument on this, Doctor McCoy." Kirk's tone was emphatic, absolute, but to stall further argument he added conciliatorily, "I need answers, Bones. You're the only one who can provide them for me."
Mollified but still reluctant to show his relief, McCoy nodded, "I'll start round the clock research. There'll be a cool drink waiting when you beam back up. Take care, Jim. You too, Spock."
As the pink sparkle of the transporter enveloped McCoy and the injured research team, Kirk glanced up at the unremitting golden eye of the sun overhead, running his tongue over dry lips, reminded of his growing thirst by mention of that cool drink. Abruptly, his head started to whirl and he rocked unsteadily back onto his heels. A strong, firm grip closed instantly around his upper arm.
"Captain, are you unwell?"
"I guess I'm not used to this sort of heat, Mr. Spock."
The First Officer inclined his head, impervious to the sweltering temperature or the strong dazzle. "Perhaps if you were to rest in the shade for a moment, sir--"
"I -- don't think that will be necessary, Spock. It was only a momentary dizziness." He withdrew his arm pointedly from the First Officer's light hold, swatting uselessly at the kamikaze flies that continued to whirr about his face and neck. "We're wasting time--"
"Yes, Captain." Spock agreed, unruffled by Kirk's machismo. "However, it will help no one by collapsing with sunstroke."
Kirk frowned from under lowering brows before the ridiculousness of his behavior struck him. He relaxed, smiled slowly, embarrassed at his own reaction.
"Okay, Mom. I'll be a good boy and go sit in the shade--" He turned away laughing at Spock's elevated eyebrow, and froze --
From behind a low screen of fallen stone there came what could only have been a robot, quasi-spherical, gleaming with a dull sheen that emphasized the warty looking protuberances on its outer skin. It spotted Navarin at once and flowed toward him in a rolling motion that resembled a leather ball half-filled with some heavy liquid. As it got nearer, it sprouted a number of gleaming claw-like hooks and an ominous hollow probe that dripped green fluid.
"Look out--" Both Eluard and Kirk shouted at once, but Navarin was already on his back, the hooks ensnared in his clothing, while the robot dragged him towards it at an alarmingly fast rate. Fine strands of some silky filament whipped out and wrapped themselves around the security guards throat, wrists, and ankles contracting rapidly dragging Navarin with them.
Eluard wrenched his phaser from his belt and fired. A burst of searing red light flared around the machine but left it untouched. With a yell, he threw the phaser aside and jumped for Navarin. Fresh strands of the silky material bloomed from the lumpy protrusions and lashed around Eluard binding him to Navarin.
Immediately Kirk leapt forward but Spock quickly held him back, lean fingers tightening almost painfully around his arm. "I believe that would not be wise, Captain."
Kirk thrust him off, his mouth twisting into a snarl. "Those are my men. I'm not going to leave them to that -- thing."
However, he was already too late. The robot extended the hollow tube and injected both security guards with the green fluid. They went limp and the machine lost interest, withdrawing the filaments and the tube back into itself before swivelling toward the two officers. It disgorged a succession of rods, one with a bulbous eye-like structure on its tip, which studied them as it flowed nearer.
"Perhaps if we fired phasers simultaneously, sir?"
Kirk nodded, his eyes fixed on the robot as it inexorably moved in on them. "Set it on destruct. We can't take any chances, Spock."
They both fired, letting the phasers' energy beams play over and around the robot but even with the force doubled, the weapons had little effect on the alien machine. It surged towards them as they continued to watch.
"I believe it is time we exercised our discretionary faculties, Captain."
Kirk threw the First Officer a penetrating look. "You mean cut and run."
"Quite so, sir."
"If I may say so, that is a most -- logical suggestion, Mr. Spock."
"Thank you, Captain. I endeavor to be so at all times." Together they turned and fled.
It was simple to put a good distance between themselves and the alien robot, which traveled at a constant speed, neither slowing nor speeding up. Spock, with calm deliberation, estimated it as a stable six kilometers an hour and although that knowledge comforted Kirk for the present, he realized that if the hunt went on for more than an hour or two he, at least, would be in deep trouble. Despite efforts to double back and check on the two security personnel, the robot had somehow kept tracks on them, following their every move with single-minded determination. Eventually, Kirk knew the machine had to catch up and when that happened without some way to disable it, he and Spock would end trussed up like chickens exactly like Navarin and Eluard. The thought depressed him.
While Spock's superior Vulcan stamina and familiarization with the temperature allowed him to continue the chase without ill effect, the enervating heat had already taken its toll on Kirk. He gestured for Spock to slow down and sank wearily against an ancient stone pedestal that crumbled at his touch, his lungs laboring for breath. He sucked in the burning air; glancing at his First Officer through a red haze of pounding blood and exhaustion, the hard thump, thump of his heart knocking against his ribs.
The Vulcan, intent on their back trail, withdrew his communicator as Kirk watched and started to call the Enterprise.
"There is no response, Captain. Our transmissions are being intercepted."
"Intercepted? You mean the robot is--"
"Undoubtedly." The communicator closed with a dull snap. "It seems to possess sensors equal to, or even more sophisticated than those aboard the ship. We may only have a short time in which to rest."
Kirk sighed, taking the opportunity to stretch out in the meager shade of the pedestal while Spock hunkered down on his heels nearby, a wary eye on the path they had just traveled.
With his eyes closed against the fiery blaze of the sun, absently slapping at the midges that plagued him, Kirk asked, "Any idea what it's after, Spock?"
There was a brief pause. "Even speculation needs adequate data, Captain. However, I do have a preliminary hypothesis."
"Very well. This city is quite certainly very ancient and of a high order of workmanship. It also appears to have been destroyed rather than left to decay."
"Agreed. The expedition reports indicated there was a nuclear holocaust in the far past, Mr. Spock--"
Spock turned his attention to the vast ruins all around them. "Suppose that the robot was a mechanical guard, one of many that patrolled the city--"
"A sort of robotic peace corp?" Kirk asked, opening his eyes and sitting up.
"Precisely, sir. This one could have escaped the destruction, perhaps with minor damage to its programming. Fortunately, it does not seem to want to kill us."
"No, only paralyze us so that we can fry in the sun." Kirk pushed himself slowly to his feet, groaning in weariness as he straightened. He brushed unsuccessfully at the white dust clinging to his sweat-darkened shirt before giving up on the effort. "And that still doesn't explain why it suddenly came to life. The research team have been in operation here, on and off, for almost five years now."
"Hietala's World is adjacent to Klingon territory, Captain. Disputes over ownership are continually arising. With only a six man research team, it would be possible for a small party of Klingons to beam down and sabotage the work here."
"Affirmative. Or they might have something less planet-bound in mind," Kirk murmured, rubbing at the livid welts on the skin of his face and neck, an itchy legacy of the tiny flies that he could not discourage.
Spock's eyebrow flared upwards. "The Enterprise, Captain? You believe that Kor is trying to acquire the ship."
"After that last debacle with the Organians, you would have thought he'd learned his lesson, but he now has a personal score to settle. The discovery of the robot and what it's capable of might seem like the ideal opportunity to get his own back."
"It could be done, even without our capture, sir," Spock said, recalling their previous adventure and his experience with Kor's mind-sifter. "If handled properly, the crew could be made to leave the ship."
"I know, Mr. Spock. Soon a recon party will arrive, then a rescue party, then an even bigger rescue party--" Kirk straightened abruptly. "But right now I think our uninvited guest has just put in an appearance."
He pointed to a small dot moving in and out of the lengthening shadows, following their trail with a measured, automatic persistence, more frightening to Kirk than any reckless charge. "Time we weren't here."
After the brief rest, Kirk had recovered some of his former energy and managed to keep up with Spock as the two of them traversed the rubble littering the ground. There were plenty of places to hide but Kirk declined to give them a second glance, guessing that the robot would have equipment to deal with any such attempt at concealment. He preferred to keep on the move until something more permanent turned up.
Eventually, they came to a part of the city that had escaped total destruction. The buildings had remained intact although most showed signs of decay. Kirk, alert for that one chance they needed to gain some ground on their pursuer, stared up at the crumbling masonry, his attention focused on a huge chunk of stonework that overhung a narrow passageway.
"If we could bring that down it might give us the time we need to contact the ship."
Spock frowned, his winged brows drawing together in thought as he looked back at their own particular nemesis. "Of course, Captain. However, if we time it correctly, perhaps another solution will not be required."
"Tell me what you have in mind."
The Vulcan led him back to the restricted entrance to the alleyway where they had a clear view of the oncoming alien artifact. Although their flight had been erratic and was neither the best nor only route available, the robot followed almost exactly in their tracks.
Kirk grinned. "I -- see, Mr. Spock."
While the First Officer climbed agilely up the side of the ancient building to reach the protruding block of stone, Kirk backtracked once more, repeatedly walking under the massive cornerstone. Hands on hips, drenched in sweat, lips cracked by dehydration, he watched patiently as Spock gradually loosened the stubborn masonry from its foundations.
"Spock, how's it going?" The Vulcan stopped probing at the base of the shelf and with studied calm placed his shoulder against it, pushing with every ounce of strength he had. "I believe it -- is -- ready now, Captain."
He looked up from his handiwork as the block shuddered, teetering on the edge of falling. Kirk hurriedly stepped back out of the way, trying to look at the looming stone above him, while keeping an eye on the entranceway as the robot glided into direct sight.
Kirk signaled to Spock to get down out of view, unsure how many functions the alien machine might have at its disposal, and backed towards the far end of the passage. The robot flowed to a stop, clearly visible in a pool of bright sunlight, and germinated an eyestalk. Kirk watched as it surveyed the terrain, his heart thudding as it inspected the block of overhanging stone. Had it sensed a trap, its mechanical suspicions aroused? He had to get it moving again.
"Hey, you automated tin can," he yelled, hoping that Spock's nerves would hold true and the First Officer would remain where he was without taking action. "If you want me so bad -- come and get me--"
The eyestalk swivelled in his direction but the robot remained where it was. Kirk groaned, shifting from foot to foot in growing agitation. With a blood-curdling yell, he repeated his former performance running back towards the entrance. "Come on, you puffed up bag of wind. What are you waiting for?"
The robot produced a couple of very efficient grappling hooks along with a gleaming hollow tube and Kirk stopped his advance. He took a step back, checking his position with the huge masonry block that loomed over the alleyway. "Here, doggy. Come on, doggy. Let's see what you can do when you really try, smart-ass."
The machine buzzed ominously as the tube leveled on Kirk just above his heart. An intense flare of energy zigzagged towards him but he managed to roll just in time. He clambered shakily to his feet the burning air whistling in his dry throat.
"Whoa there," he panted, drawing the robot on a little further as it readied itself for another shot. "I guess -- you're stopped playing games, huh? This is for real now--"
Again, the machine emitted a high buzzing sound as if in agreement, and fired once more. Kirk dodged but the robot's aim had improved and he felt his arm suddenly go numb. He staggered to his feet, holding the frozen arm to his side, realizing that if the machine scored another hit, the game would be up.
He crouched ready for the next jump, sparing a quick glance upwards. The robot moved forward and passed directly under the teetering stonework.
Kirk yelled. "Now, Spock. Now--"
The stone shivered briefly, tottered on the edge, and fell with a crash that threw Kirk off his feet. As he lay on the ground, groggy with fatigue, enveloped in clouds of choking white stone dust, he was dimly aware of another crash following the first. Still shaken, one thought uppermost in his mind, he scrambled upright.
"Spock, did we--?" The feverish question cut off as he saw the mounds of broken stone where the frail shell of the building had once been.
"Spock?" he cried in a panic, heaving at the mass of debris with his one good hand. "Spock, answer me, damn it--"
"Here, Captain. I -- am here." And the suffocating powder thinned to reveal the First Officer climbing slowly to his feet, covered from head to feet in the drifting white stone residue.
Kirk swallowed the lump that came into his throat, brushing at the caked dust and mingled sweat on his face, covering his fright with humor. He looked from his First Officer to the tumbled marble where the alley building had collapsed. "This could be deemed willful damage to a priceless relic, Mr. Spock."
Coughing as he brushed ineffectually at the dust that clung to him, Spock agreed. "I am ignorant of the highways and byways of bureaucratic policy, Captain. However, it does seem a possibility."
It was only then that he noticed Kirk's protective stance. "You are hurt, sir."
"I tangled with our late friend's stun attachment. I don't think the damage is permanent but it's not to be recommended."
Together they examined the rubble that blocked the alleyway. Kirk swung a foot at the imposing lump of masonry, which had buried the alien machine beneath it. "Could that thing still be in working order? It might be valuable to the Federation if we had chance to study it."
"Possibly," Spock granted. "It is certainly a sophisticated mechanism and our joint phasers left it unaffected."
"What the--" Kirk abruptly jerked his idly swinging foot back as the debris shuddered and heaved in spasmodic convulsions. He groaned, "I don't believe it."
"I suspect we have little choice, Captain." Spock pointed out the dusty drill tip industriously boring through the wreckage.
"That thing must have a hide of reinforced tritanium," Kirk commented in disgust. "Come on, let's get out of here, Spock."
Over the next few hours, they gradually worked their way further into the ruined city, trying vainly to shake the inexorable pursuit of the robot. Kirk, more than exhausted, the exposed skin of his face, neck and hands ravaged by insect bites and burnt by the sun, had lost all sense of time. The chase appeared to him as if it had gone on forever and he could no longer remember a time when he had not been running for his life. It was only after several minutes that he realized Spock was not at his side. He staggered to a weary halt, the muscles in his legs protesting as he turned to look dazedly over his shoulder. The First Officer, now some yards behind had fallen to his knees, doubled over, sobbing for breath.
"Spock?" Doggedly, Kirk retraced his steps, stumbling with fatigue and dropped to his knees beside the ailing Vulcan. He had to swallow before he could force out the words past his moisture-starved lips. "Whassa matter?"
The First Officer's skin was unnaturally waxen, shining with a patina of sweat. "I must -- rest -- Captain."
"Where are you hurt?"
"Just -- need rest -- few minutes--"
"Stow that baloney, Spock. You're hurt and I want to know where." He paused, adding more kindly, "Come on, that's an order, Mister."
"I must -- have damaged my -- side, in the -- fall--" Spock admitted with obvious reluctance.
"Let me see." As gently as possible, Kirk eased the Vulcan over until he lay outstretched on his back upon the hot and dusty ground. The whole of Spock's right side appeared swollen and tender, the bruising evident against the lighter skin of his abdomen. Kirk, no medico, nevertheless, recognized broken ribs when he saw them. Spock must have been fighting pain for hours. Yet Kirk knew they could not remain where they were, in the open, exposed to attack. If the robot found them there it would be the end for both of them.
"We have to find somewhere to hole up, a place we can defend." He got shakily to his feet, wavering as the blood surged from his brain. It was early afternoon but the sun still blazed down out of a cloudless sky, drawing the moisture steadily out of them. Nothing moved; the city lay quiet and golden as far as the eye could see. "Can you stand?"
Spock nodded and with Kirk's help managed to regain his feet. They kept going by force of will alone, resting only when neither of them could take another step. The robot stayed out of sight but Kirk knew it still followed them, never far behind, untouched by their weariness, hunger, and thirst. However, he could no longer force the pace. Even though Spock remained indomitable, there was nonetheless a limit to Vulcan endurance and the First Officer had very nearly reached it.
Kirk wondered constantly what had happened to the Enterprise. Had the Klingons managed to capture her, or were there even now search parties out, vainly trying to dodge their own pursuing machines? Little by little, overcome by exhaustion, he started to believe that it would not be so bad if the robot did find them. Yet, he could not forget the sight of his two security guards tethered together helplessly, unable to resist as the alien artifact injected them with that unknown green substance. But where did the Klingons fit into the picture? What was their sudden interest in Hietala's World and why had they waited five years before taking action? The research crew must have discovered something recently, Kirk decided, something that had excited the interest of the Klingons. That something could be no other than the robot itself.
What if it wasn't an automated peace guard as Spock thought? What if it was a combatant instead? Laughter croaked past his dry lips and he tasted blood on his tongue as the dehydrated skin cracked open.
Spock, trying to ease the pain in his side as they rested briefly, looked at him one eyebrow flaring upwards in enquiry and Kirk ran back over his wandering thoughts for the benefit of his First Officer.
"The Klingons are primarily creatures of discord, Captain," he said after a while. "Their interest would be aroused naturally by such a mechanism, one that when programmed, could be used as an aid to warfare on many different worlds."
"But why waste it on us? This display of the robot's capabilities only gives us the advantage."
"Field trials, Captain," Spock nodded sagely as Kirk flicked him an astonished look. "How better to test an untried weapon than on your main adversary and in control conditions. It is extremely logical, sir."
"In that case it has to be Kor at back of all this. He's the only Klingon I know of with that much intelligence, and if we're under observation that means sensing equipment relaying information back to a central source. A Klingon ship in orbit."
"Perhaps." Spock considered, making deductions of his own. "If that is the case there would have to be a limit on the area in which the experiment took place. These ruins seem to be the major patrol route for the robot. If we moved away, it might be possible to outrun it."
Kirk managed to smile affectionately at his Vulcan First Officer. Here they were, exhausted, injured, and in dire need of food and water, yet Spock could still believe in escape. However, they had few alternatives. They continued to waste what little strength they had left on trying to stay ahead of the robot, a fool's errand if ever there was one, and if Spock's theory proved wrong at least they might find some cool shade and, more importantly, a source of water.
At the thought of water, Kirk's tongue, which already felt too big for his mouth, suddenly acquired the consistency of cotton wool. He tried to think through the pounding in his head but the vision of a cool stream burbling over moss covered rocks haunted him, playing repeatedly before his eyes like a looped tape.
By Spock's calculation, the time had long passed for Scotty to send down a rescue team and Kirk could only conclude that the Chief Engineer had problems of his own. His standing order on such occasions was emphatic; any landing party, including himself, was expendable, the Enterprise was not. He could not fault Scotty for following his direct instructions. If he and Spock were to escape, they had to do so using their own wits.
He stared over the empty ruins vibrating in the intense heat, bright, flat and uncaring -- and the robot was closer now. Kirk could hear the dull rattle of pebbles as it moved through the rubble of some nearby building. They were hushed sounds, ominous, but still filtered through the noise of blood in his ears.
They came upon a road, once an arterial freeway but swathed thickly now in weeds and other windblown flora, arrowing straight as the crow flies towards the low line of hills surrounding the city. On each side, a thin straggle of waist high water-starved bushes and scrub offered a minimum of shelter from the pulsing sunlight, and concealment from their unrelenting pursuer. The two officers crossed the shattered paving in a staggering run, falling into the scanty cover with relief as they tried to pull the stifling air into their exhausted lungs.
Spock, his angular features frozen into a cat's mask to conceal his growing pain from Kirk's watchful gaze, was the first to move, alerted by some vague sound. He wavered to his knees and peered over the tinder dry vegetation, his shadowed eyes narrowing. With the lightest of touches, he tapped the napping Kirk on the shoulder.
"Whassat?" Kirk sat up woozily, blurry eyed with weariness, rubbing automatically at his parched and blackened lips. Memory returned gradually and he groaned. "It's caught up, huh?"
He pushed himself up onto unsteady knees and joined Spock who stared attentively along their back trail. The First Officer silently indicated the ruins and Kirk strained his eyes against the shimmering heat haze, fatigue throbbing in every pore, watching as the alien robot flowed implacably along their track, leading a Klingon hunting party. Kirk grinned with bleak humor; ducking back into cover as he noticed the various weapons the Klingons were hauling.
"It looks as if you were right, Spock," he croaked huskily. "The Klingons are behind this."
Spock pulled his phaser from his belt. "Captain, if one of us were to stay in hiding, act as a decoy, there is a chance--"
Kirk cut him off abruptly. "And you want to stay behind? No, Spock."
"But, Jim --" Spock's voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. "I am unable to move with any speed. It is only logical --"
The Klingons were following the robot, exploring every niche and fissure, hoping to flush the two officers out into the open. Kirk's chin lifted brusquely. He was deadbeat, painfully aware of his frozen arm and sunburned skin, in no mood for heroics. "You heard me, First Officer. We leave together or not at all."
"The odds against escape are--"
"I'm not interested in the odds, Mister. We're moving out. Now." Kirk backed away, pulling Spock with him, keeping out of sight of the Klingons, his eyes intent on the flickering patterns as sunlight glinted off the metal embellishments on thick leather tunics.
The two officers headed for the hills, moving with as much speed as their tired bodies could muster, weaving from one ruined building to the next, the road always in sight. Spock's face had assumed the color of old putty, yellowish-grey, slick with sweat, and Kirk, dizzy with heat and lack of water, with waves of pain searing through him as the circulation finally returned to his paralyzed arm, was little better off.
The darkness, when it fell with the suddenness of a tropical night, whilst a welcome relief from the savage heat of the day, brought its own set of problems. They headed out into open country, Kirk running blind, avoiding the huge spikes of alien cacti, spiny sisalina, and tree-like saguaro only with the aid of Spock's Vulcan night vision. Each man supported the other, one thought uppermost in both their minds: they had to find a place in which to rest, somewhere safe, somewhere defendable, and they had to find it soon --
The artifact had no such consideration; neither the dark nor the roughness of the terrain handicapped it to any extent. To its mechanical mind, the debris strewn ruins, the open plains, and the hills were more or less the same. The flexible metal of its outer skin could traverse any ground and its maker had thoughtfully made it impervious to water. There was nowhere it could not go, no obstacle it could not eventually overcome. Its programming instructed that it seek out a certain warm-blooded animal within a definite area; that the animal was human and intelligent did not trouble it in the least.
The building, faintly glimmering in the hazy starlight between the man-high thorny saguaro, sat atop the hill. It was some sort of temple, Kirk guessed, mostly low to the ground with small open courtyards and columned arches; a fallen statue, recognizably humanoid but certainly not human, made a barricade across the entrance. He pointed it out to Spock and together, holding each other up, they staggered towards it, their steps faltering, both of them almost too weary to make the extra effort.
On inspection, the building appeared to have only one entrance and no exit, the refuge they had searched for, or the ultimate death trap. Spock remained dubious and Kirk adamant. He had noticed the strain etched deeply into his First Officer's face and had not missed the dry cough that Spock tried to disguise. There could be no more running for them even if Kirk had to keep off the robot with his bare hands.
Somehow, they managed to clamber over the obstructing statue and despite their total weariness, they scouted the area, reinforcing the barricade with various bits of masonry and debris they found within the derelict building. Even so, both officers were wholly aware that though it might stop an inquisitive Klingon, the blockade had no chance against a determined assault by the artifact. However, Kirk at least gained a measure of emotional security from the awareness that thick walls of stone surrounded him on all sides. Better still, deep within the temple, he found oozing from a tiny fissure in the paved floor a minute trickle of wetness. Not enough to satisfy his intense thirst, it nevertheless moistened his tongue and eased the dryness of his throat. In addition, Spock found a degree of relief from the condensation, though he did not need to replenish the lost stores as his Captain did.
At last, they found a place to rest away from the pools of liquid starlight that streamed across the tiled marble floor and hunkered thankfully down in the darkness, taking it in turns to keep watch. However, the Vulcan found it impossible to sleep. With the fall of night came an abrupt drop in temperature that, in his weakened condition, caught him unprepared. He discovered that he could not ignore the cold or suppress the tremors that shook his lean frame, nor did he have any strength to alter his hormonal or autonomous nervous systems.
Finally, Kirk could stand the sound of Spock's chattering teeth no longer. Without a word, he edged nearer to his First Officer, bridging the inch or two that separated them from each other until their shoulders touched. In the darkness he felt rather than actually saw Spock tense, and wondered what the Vulcan feared most, the fact of his own vulnerability or Kirk's closeness.
"I know you don't like being touched without necessity but we're both cold." He spoke softly, gently, as if talking to a nervous child. "What's more logical, to freeze separately or be warm together?"
The fight went out of Spock like sand out of a bottle; after all, they had been clinging to each other for most of the day, but he owed Kirk an explanation, something he attempted with very few humans.
"You -- took me by surprise, Captain," he explained his voice strained and barely audible. "It was a moment before I could set my -- mental barriers. However, I received only the most surface impressions from your mind --"
Kirk kicked himself internally for being so inept. "There's no need to apologize, Spock. I'm the one who has both feet in the -- manure. If you prefer -- I'll go back to sitting in my corner."
"That is -- not necessary, sir." It was not the first time he had melded minds with his Captain. Once again, Kirk's thoughts surprised him with their orderliness and lack of emotional overtones. The shivers had abated considerably, and he felt warmth steal over him. "I am -- grateful for your assistance."
And almost against his will he slipped into sleep, his head pillowed on Kirk's shoulder, his dreams filled with images of a cool stream burbling over moss-covered rocks.
Kirk startled awake to the sound of something heavy dragging across the paving outside their sanctuary. Instantly alert he reached for his phaser, waking Spock with a gentle shake, and wordlessly pushed himself to his feet. Although rested, his abused muscles had tightened into burning knots that refused to loosen as he hobbled across the cracked floor tiles, an old man, crippled and incapacitated heading for the entrance to the temple. The barrier had disappeared and in its place the alien artifact materialized, the knobbly surface of its metallic skin highlighted by the first rays of a new dawn. Animated and full of life, it hummed busily to itself before flowing like dull silver into the shrine.
Spock, an arm clasped protectively around his injured ribs, forced himself upright as Kirk, his aches abruptly forgotten, backed rapidly to join his First Officer, watching the robot extend a bristling probe and several assorted antennae in his direction. It fixed on Kirk unerringly, following him at a steady pace, intent on the prey, its particular print and path, relentless in its obsessive intent.
They continued to retreat as the machine rippled towards them, shadowing their every move, forcing them further into the indistinct depths of the temple. All too soon, they ran out of space. With his spine pressed up hard against cool stone, sweat trickling into his eyes and down his heaving sides, Kirk leveled his phaser, prepared to fire at point blank range. Now that it had finally come to it, Kirk knew he did not want to die. He never wanted to die. Calming his madly pounding heart he pressed down on the firing stud, watching as the phaser beam enveloped the artifact in a fiery blaze of red light. Spock, still at his Captain's side, mirrored Kirk's actions, holding his own phaser between long fingers, knowing that even together they could not defeat the robot.
Still intact even after the barrage of phaser fire, it advanced steadily and Kirk closed his eyes unwilling to witness his own demise, expecting to feel the touch of cold metal against his flesh, pulling him inexorably into the machine's embrace as it inserted the hollow tube, dripping green fluid, under his skin.
When Spock tapped him firmly on the shoulder an instant later, he almost yelped in sheer terror. He opened his eyes, managed to turn his head in the First Officer's direction, still disinclined to look directly at the robot, which had stopped half an inch away, one of its probes centered on his laboring heart.
"I believe -- it has switched itself off, Captain."
Kirk swallowed thickly, finding it difficult to talk, covertly glancing at the alien machine out of the corner of his eye. "I -- think you may -- be right, Mr. Spock. Could it have malfunctioned? Or did our phasers finally have an affect?"
"To find that out I will have to examine it more closely, sir."
Kirk vetoed that immediately. "Too dangerous, Mr. Spock. One false move and it could start up again."
"Until we ascertain what made it stop we will remain unsafe, sir. The Klingons will not be far behind. If they capture us, I doubt they will allow us to return to the Enterprise, even if we had not witnessed the events here. To establish even a rudimentary knowledge of the machine I must inspect its programming." He looked pointedly at Kirk. "In the circumstances, it is the only reasonable course, Captain."
Despite wanting to, Kirk could not fault his First Officer's analysis of the situation. However, Spock did not happen to be only centimeters away from the menacingly narrow rod gleaming faintly in the dawn light, and which jabbed Kirk in the chest every time he breathed too deeply. On the other hand, he could see no other way around the problem. They had to find out what made the mechanism tick -- and fast.
"Very well, Mr. Spock. I see no other alternative," Kirk said, at last. "But no hasty moves. I want you to go slow and easy."
Real slow and real easy, he thought with a shudder as Spock started to examine the many prominent nodules that covered the outer skin of the robot. Ultimately, the First Officer located the main programming control and with increasing confidence used his tricorder to scan the inner encoding systems of the versatile machine. The Vulcan had already formed a partial deduction and it did not take him long to confirm it. He looked at Kirk with controlled excitement shining in his dark eyes.
"This is fascinating, sir. I believe this is the most advanced form of robotics known to us. A most formidable adversary. The Klingons have apparently programmed it to respond only to human body heat and as we determined earlier, it does have a limited patrol area."
"So you were safe all the time," Kirk said, soberly.
"It seems so, Captain."
"Does it have an off switch, Mr. Spock? Or will it attack again as soon as I move?"
Spock's eyebrow arched upwards. "I disconnected the primary circuits some minutes ago, Captain. The robot is now quite harmless to either of us--"
"Uh-huh." Kirk let out his breath in a long sigh, sagging away from the wall. "Thank you for letting me know that, Mr. Spock."
Grimacing at his First Officer, he inched out from under the probe pinning him to the stonework, rubbing at the ache in the small of his back before moving to the entrance of the temple where he gazed out cautiously over the early morning landscape. Abruptly he glanced over his shoulder at Spock who had returned to the engrossing innards of the alien mechanism.
"Klingons, Spock. We have to get out of here. How long will it take to disable that thing? Permanently?"
Spock's expression was more than a little disapproving. "You mean destroy it, Captain?"
"It's the only way, Spock. We can't let the Klingons get hold of it again. If they ever managed to duplicate that thing --"
"There may be an alternative, sir. If I may suggest --"
Kirk had turned away, impatient to be gone. "Just do what's necessary, Spock. We don't have much time."
Spock set to work immediately and only minutes later, he closed the panel on the control nodule and joined Kirk at the sanctuary entrance. Together they slipped out into the shade of the tree-like cacti, their feet almost silent on the thin, sandy terrain. Nearby came the faint sounds of other movement, and the occasional glint of early morning sunlight on worked metal told them of the presence of Klingons.
Stealthily the two Enterprise officers dodged into cover as the six members of KyakH'ta's crew slowly advanced on the temple. One after another, they entered the building, disruptors drawn; unafraid it appeared of either the robot or the trapped Federation representatives they believed were inside.
However, within seconds they came boiling out, their quarry evidently forgotten as they took to their heels in flight.
"What did you do to that thing, Spock?" Kirk glanced at his First Officer with a suspicious glint in his eyes. Another form abruptly materialized in the temple entrance, a shape Kirk had come to know well. He paled as sunlight shimmered off the growth-like nodules, striking a metallic light from the narrow probe that seemed to scent the air. "Oh, no --"
He groaned, before turning angrily to his Vulcan First Officer. "Mr. Spock, I thought I told you to--"
However, the alien artifact, having retracted its probe, imperturbably rippled forward, ignoring them completely as it followed the fleeing Klingons. Kirk stared after it, his mouth dropping. "What the --"
"I believe you ordered me to do what was necessary, Captain." Spock regarded him with an almost nonchalant air. He arched an eyebrow, all the expression he needed. "I saw no logic in destroying such a remarkable construction. Therefore, I simply reprogrammed the robot to respond to a different set of stimuli."
Kirk stared at him dumbfounded for an instant before grinning slowly. "You mean I'm no longer the primary target for that automated metal -- sack."
"Indeed not, Captain," Spock said, serene as ever. "As you saw, the mechanism is now only interested in --"
"Klingons." Kirk could contain his glee no longer. The grin exploded in a fit of high-pitched giggles.
"Why, of course, Captain."
Without further ado, still giggling, Kirk snapped his communicator open. The warm, highland burr of Chief Engineer Scott greeted him immediately.
"Glad ta' find ye' safe, sir. I'm sorry we had ta' leave so precipitously, but there was a wee problem wi' the Klingons, Captain."
"Understood, Scotty. How are the research scientists?"
"Doctor McCoy informs me they'll be as right as rain in another few days, sir. Are ye' an' Mr. Spock ready ta' beam back up, Captain?"
"Indeed we are, Scotty. You'll need to lock on to Navarin and Eluard. They're still at the base camp. Have Doctor McCoy standing by. And Scotty--"
"I want the biggest jug of iced water you can find standing by. Is that understood, Chief?"
"Aye. Iced water standing by as ordered, sir. Scott out."