Disclaimer:  Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the creation and property of M. L. "Steve" Barnes and is copyright © 1984 by M. L. "Steve" Barnes. Rated PG. Originally published in "I'm a Doctor, Not A...", copyright © by KathE Donnelly.

 

"WORLDS MAY CHANGE AND GALAXIES...

M. L. "Steve" Barnes

 

The pungent scent of spices mingled with the more exotic odors of strange foods cooking. Above the various booths the silken pennants displayed the registered emblem of the owners. Each banner vied with one another in brilliance to catch the eye of the tourist crowd. Some merchants were even hawking their wares in the odd sing-song chant of Chakulian commerce.

It's like something out of the Arabian Nights.

The thought fled across Leonard McCoy's conscious mind even as his subconscious drank in the unusual sights and sounds and smells. Deep inside he felt the aridness in his soul ease for a moment. And then the thought came unbidden.

Linda would have been like a little kid in all this fairy world...

The senior medical officer of the United Federation Starship Enterprise did not suppress the flicker of distress that crossed his face. He could not, the memories were too painful, the loss too recent.

The Enterprise had been returning from three solar weeks of tense patrol in the troubled Rigellian sector when McCoy had received the message from his daughter, Joanna.

"Mother died this morning after a brief illness," it read. "No way to reach you in time. No need to arrange leave. Everything taken care of, and I will be back on duty by the time this reaches you. Jo."

It had been dated three days earlier -- even with laser relays it had taken the notification that long to reach Rigel. There was nothing he could have done.

Yet McCoy could not rid himself of a sense of guilt -- guilt that he had not been there when Linda might have needed him, although God knew she had made it plain enough years ago that she wanted nothing from him -- guilt and the unanswerable question of what he could have done to change things between them. But most of all, guilt over Joanna having to bear the loss alone, and a growing concern that the estrangement between him and his only child might have become as insurmountable as that which had existed between himself and his divorced wife, Linda.

She can't know, he thought as he walked in the bazaar of Chakula, that I only opposed her because I love her so.

And immediately he realized he had tried to tell her. Then Jo had declared her intention of following him into the Star Fleet medical service, both of them had been loud and voluble in expressing their viewpoints.

A wry grin touched McCoy's face:  She's a lot like me – thinking with her glands, as Spock would say.

And he could recall the last words Joanna had voiced on the matter.

"It's okay for you even if you are my father, but it's too dangerous for me, because I'm your daughter. That's not fair!"

I handled it wrong, McCoy thought. Like always when I'm around the ladies, I blew it. I made it sound as if her value as a human being stemmed only from her relationship to me. What I should have said was simply, "I..."

The thought was never completed, for just ahead, nearly lost in the press of the crowd, he spotted a disturbance. A pair of glossily uniformed Chakulian guards had closed in on someone and was attempting to drag their captive through the noisy crowd.

Leonard's first reaction was to ignore it; as an off-worlder and a member of the Federation medical corps, it was not his place to intervene in a civil matter. The situation between the Rigel system and her rebellious Territories was causing tension all over this part of the galaxy, yet both sides had refused the Federation's offer to mediate. Besides, Jim Kirk had made it clear that he wanted his senior medical officer to take a well-deserved rest, and McCoy was certain that his recent message from Joanna had figured in Kirk's insistence.

"Go down there and try to relax, will you?" the Captain had told him. "Sickbay won't self-destruct if you're gone for two days."

The Enterprise would be back past Chakula in forty-eight hours, and he had pledged himself to total uninvolvement with the rest of the world until then.

At that moment one of the guards ahead of him stepped back for a second and Leonard caught a glimpse of their prisoner.

Black hair whipped across the pale skin of her cheek, green eyes flashed angrily. He could see the girl's slender figure and general size and a huge fist took a throttlehold of his heart.

"Jo!"

The name escaped his lips even as he began to force and shove his way through the curious tourists. The guards had started to move away with their ward, and he grew frantic that he could miss her.

"Hold on there!"

He shouted, bellowed at the top of his lungs and was rewarded when the guards swung around to face him. That was when he discovered the girl's features were unfamiliar to him and he belatedly realized Joanna could never have been so far from Earth in the time elapsed since Linda's death. He was face-to-face with two irritated gargantuan Chakulian guards and a girl he had never seen before in his life.

McCoy, he thought in a fleeting burst of embarrassment, you never learn, do you?

Yet he hesitated, unwilling to disavow her acquaintanceship. All races from this part of the galaxy were taller than Terrans, with sallow skins that bespoke their cooper-based blood. Between the huge golden forms of the lawmen, the young woman was a fragile human link to Earth.

He looked closely at her face, saw the strain and tension there. The two guards were waiting on him with considerable impatience and in a swift moment he made up his mind.

"What's going on here?" the doctor demanded in as gruff a voice as he could muster. "Where are you taking her?"

"What business is it of yours, Terran?" one of them asked. McCoy was out of uniform, clad in a casual tunic with boots and slacks and to them he was just another tourist.

Leonard was within a yard of them now, and he glanced down at the pale face below his chin. She had adopted a demure attitude despite her fetchingly short tunic; one hand played nervously with the small silver pendant on her breast. Between the thick, lowered lashes, he caught the glitter of suppressed tears and knew he was lost.

"She's my fiancee, that's what business it is of mine," he snapped. Better not suggest a blood relationship, in case they had a way of checking it out. "Where are you taking her?" he demanded.

They seemed to relax a trifle in their hostility, but still looked determined to haul her away.

"She's suspected at smuggling," one of them replied. "She fits the description sent out by Rigellian Security. We have to be careful here," he went on, "we're so close to the Rigel trouble zone. Too many of their Territorials are using Chakula for the center of their struggle for independence, and we're pledged to cooperate with the reigning government."

"Have you any identification?" the other guard asked him. "This girl seems to have lost hers."

"I did not lose it."  The voice was surprisingly strong coming from so slight a figure. "It's back at my lodging house. I told them that."  This last was offered to McCoy, and he sensed the appeal beneath the words.

"I have identification." McCoy did not hesitate as he drew out his Fleet registration from his belt. "I presume the word of a Star Fleet officer is good enough for you?"

At once their manner altered. They were nervous and apologetic as they fingered the identification chits. One of them barely glanced at them before returning the orders to McCoy.

"Our apologies, Doctor," they said almost in unison. One of them continued, "And you can vouch for the girl?"

McCoy dared not glance at the silent girl; he had never been good at subterfuge.

"I told you she was my fiancee. Isn't that good enough?"  His voice was amazingly steady and calm.

They released their grip on the girl's arms at once, bowed and touched their foreheads. "Certainly, Doctor. Our deepest regrets for the inconvenience. We had no wish to offend."

One of them straightened however and eyed the young woman at McCoy's elbow. "But I suggest you caution your friend about venturing into restricted areas of this city. We are on alert status and any suspicious actions will warrant apprehension."

"She's always been too curious for her own good."  McCoy quietly slipped his arm around the girl's shoulders, giving the guards what he hoped was a convincing smile. "Com' on, darlin', that's enough adventure for one day."  And he pivoted her resisting body around and began to lead her away from them.

She seemed to hang back, her eyes strayed to the dark alleys that led off the bazaar.

"Keep walkin'," McCoy growled under his breath. "They're watching every move we make."  He leaned over, maintaining his firm hold on her elbow and planted a swift kiss on her cheek. She did not go so far as to brush the osculation away, but he got the feeling she would have if the guards had not been observing.

"They're going to run your description through the local surveillance comps as soon as they get back to headquarters," he muttered. "Are you wanted for anything -- besides that ridiculous error about your smuggling, I mean?"

Her response was a vehement shake of her head, and he heaved a sigh of relief.

"But there is a pair of Rigellian agents after me," she offered abruptly. "I lost them when I reached the city. Sooner or later they'll probably locate me."

"Oh, great!" McCoy groaned. "May I ask the old question -- 'what's a nice girl like you doing mixed up in this mess?'"

She did not answer immediately. Instead she stopped dead in her tracks carefully removing his arm from hers and looking back over her shoulder. "They're gone," she assured him. "We can relax for a moment."  The wide green eyes came back to rest on his face.

"Before I answer any more questions, what about you -- what made you take the chance, vouch for someone you'd never met?"

He glanced back nervously and saw the guards had indeed left. All the while his mind was frantically searching for a logical explanation to offer her; she obviously was not about to budge without one.

"Well -- after all, you're Terran and so am I. Isn't it reasonable for me to want to help a fellow Earth citizen?"

She shook her head, placing stubborn fists on her hips.

"Not good enough. You're in Star Fleet. This was a civil matter. What about the non-interference directive?"

McCoy grinned sheepishly. "Our ship's First Officer calls me a nattering old busy-body. Does that explain it?"

Her attitude suggested considerable doubt. He had placed himself in a very awkward position by coming to her defense, and she mistrusted his clumsy elucidation.

Oh, well, what the hell, he thought. Better to be hung for a ram than a sheep any day.

"You remind me of someone I know, darlin'."  He did not even try to relieve the tired old pitch, but the endearment slipped out unsummoned; her resemblance to Jo was still troubling him.

Her face altered perceptibly. He could see the suspicion of his motives flicker across her features but now the mistrust was of a different kind. She frowned, annoyed, and then suddenly grinned. It was as if a cloud had been pulled back to reveal warm sunshine.

"Well, why not?" she asked, tossing her hair back from her face, the eternal female enjoying male attention. "That line is so old it creaks, but it's lucky for me that I'm your type."

Her sudden breezy reaction left him at a loss.

I'd better not catch Jo shining up to strange men that way or else... And damped the thought ruthlessly. McCoy, he told himself, stop acting like a mother hen.

From the corner of his eye he saw another pair of security men approaching, and he took her arm. "By now your description will be circulating the entire force,'" he told her. "I suggest I accompany you back to your lodging house."

She bit her lip, restraining a grin, and he fumed inwardly.

"Of course, Doctor. Whatever you say."  Her manner was almost meek as they walked past the guards and left the bazaar area.

By now Leonard was fiercely regretting his impulsiveness, and he vowed to maintain a stony silence until she had been safely escorted home. But her interest had been aroused, and he saw her glance up frequently at his face as they walked.

"It wouldn't hurt to tell me your name, would it?" she teased. "I mean I generally like to know the name of my conquests before things go much further."

"Dammit!"  He stopped, jerked around to face her. "What do you mean 'further'?  What gives you the idea I want things to go anywhere?  And I might point out that you seem bent on pushing them that way if I don't!"  He started on, stalking angrily down the cobbled way.

"My, we are old fashioned, aren't we?"

She was matching him stride for stride.

"One of us is," he conceded. "And I'm beginning to regret what it got me into."

She fell silent, considering this. Suddenly he felt a touch on his tunic sleeve, and he halted to face her. The emerald eyes were serious at last, shadowed beneath incredible black lashes.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I had no right to bait you. You have been very kind and brave to intercede for me. I want to thank you for that. I guess I have just forgotten what common courtesy is supposed to be."

He drew an exasperated breath and then let it go. He could not remain angry with her for very long any more than he could hold a grudge against Jo.

"I'm Leonard McCoy," he relented. "And your name?"

"Allene Carr. Friends?"  She thrust a hand at him, smiling.

"Friends."  He took the small hand in his, remembering another time, a similar contact. "...Daddy, I'll always be your best girl, won't I?..." and managed to swallow around the sudden tightness in his throat.

"Won't you tell me what you're mixed up in?" he asked gently. "Maybe an old-fashioned character can be of help."

She looked away and once again he had the troubling notion that tears were near at hand. In fact, the suggestion was so strong to him that without thinking he reached and brushed her cheek softly with the back of his hand.

She caught at the hand, hugging it against her face. For a second her head was bowed, and he could not see her expression. When she lifted her chin, the unhappiness was gone and defiance shone in her eyes.

"I made a mistake about someone," she said simply. "Trusted them and let myself be trapped into doing a foolish thing – this... errand I came to Chakula on. It's a dreary story, not worth the telling."

"Did you love him very much?" McCoy asked quietly. Then at her silence, "Of course, you did. A girl like you wouldn't get in over her head unless she was deeply committed. I've got two days to listen, if the telling isn't too painful for you, Allene."  He peered into her face, feeling the tenderness return and not denying it this time.

She lowered their hands and turned but did not release her grip on his fingers. They began to walk along the evening-shadowed street.

"Mike is an independent ship's master," she said slowly. "I should have questioned his livelihood long before I did, but I guess I was too infatuated to care. My parents tried to warn me -- in fact, we had a bitter quarrel about him -- but I wouldn't listen. I came out to the Rigel system with him, got a look at him in his own environment. It doesn't take a lot to disillusion me, but it did take too long. By the time I realized he was involved in smuggling, all my money was gone. At that point I may still have believed my­self in love with him -- I don't know. But when he asked me to do him a favor -- in return for paying my way out of Rigel -- I suddenly found out what he truly was, how easily he could bring himself to use me. I agreed, of course, because I felt an obligation to repay him."  She laughed, an ugly sound formed by her own disgust.

She drew a deep breath and went on, "I agreed to carry something -- an item he wanted to get to the Territorials -- to a contact here on Chakula. And after all," she seemed anxious to justify her part in the affair. "I do support the Territories in their desire for independence. They've been colonies long enough, and there's rumor that the Rigellian government is mounting a full-scale invasion to crush the movement for self-rule."

She shook her head. "But I know Mike was only in it for the money. He'd just as easily serve the other side."

"You could be risking your life," he scolded. "If the Rigellian security men catch you..."

"It doesn't matter, not now."

He seized her shoulders, turning her roughly to face him.

"Don't say that!  Don't ever say that. Human life, any life, has value. It's a trust handed to us. Don't throw yours away!"

She looked up at him, a little shaken by his intensity. Finally she nodded, just a slight motion to let him know she understood his feelings. Slowly he relaxed his hold on her.

"I think I'm just disillusioned because I found out Mike was using me."  Her fingers were worrying the silver pendant again. She looked up at him. "I have good reason to mistrust gallantry."

He folded her fingers around his arm, placing his free hand atop them as they began to walk again. "You've never been exposed to Georgia gallantry, Allene," he said lightly. "It's a whole different thing."

"I'm beginning to sense that," she said softly. "You're not like any man I've ever known."

Uneasily McCoy tried to joke her words away. "I project a strong father image," he said.

She studied him in seriousness. "You aren't anything at all like my father," she said firmly. "And I don't in any way feel like a daughter towards you."

Deep inside McCoy felt a tremor of warning. He was searching for a way to mention her resemblance to Joanna when her fingers tightened convulsively on his arm.

"That's my lodging house in the next block."  She nodded through the growing gloom to a tall, many-balconied building in the middle of the block. "And those two men loitering out front are the Rigellian agents I mentioned."

They stopped and turned aside to the protection of a doorway. McCoy peered around the corner of the wall. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. "Positive. They've been after me for two days."

"Look out."  He pulled her deeper into the doorway, into the circle of his arms. "They're looking this way."

He was terribly worried that they would discover her, pull her away from his care, and drag her away for interrogation. He did not know what the penalty was for smuggling to the Territorials, but he could imagine all manner of dreadful consequences if she were caught.

"What the devil is it you're carryin' to the Territorials?" he whispered desperately. "Maybe we can just ditch it."

"And let the Rigellians have it?  Never in a thousand years!  It's a newly developed component, miniaturized circuitry, to improve the Territorial Early Warning system. It's going to give them the best sensing web in the galaxy. They need it for protection from invasion," she pleaded with him.

McCoy heaved a sigh. His eyes probed the darkening street. The agents were gone from in front of the house, but he could not be sure they wouldn't be back.

"And he gave you something that vital, that dangerous, to smuggle?  I'd like to meet this Mike of yours on a dark night somewhere. He might benefit from some lessons I'd give him."

Her arms slipped around his waist; she pressed against him, completely confident of his protection. For a moment his emotions intermingled and grew blurred as they merged. She was beauty and youth and warmth and most importantly, life. The very things that he had become a doctor to preserve -- all the things that, by his nature, and as a man, he was most vulnerable to. And yet she was studying him through Jo's eyes. A wave of confusion swept over him.

"Why are you doing this for me?" she asked. "I can't believe you care that much about what happens to me."

With steady hands he removed her arms from around him and to soften the rejection enfolded her hand in his.

"You're wrong about that."  His voice sounded rough. "I do care, very much. You'll have to accept that for now."  He scanned the empty street once again. "Let's get out of here. Maybe we can find a place that's safe."

"I'm supposed to meet my contact tonight at moonset," she said softly. "We haven't long to wait."

"Long enough," he responded grimly. "If we don't get off the streets, you aren't going to survive to deliver that component your precious Mike foisted on you."

He tugged her hand, and they slipped out into the full darkness of the unlit street. On the horizon the Chakulian moon was just beginning a reddish glow.

Half the night until moonset, McCoy noted. Hard on the heels of that thought came an irrational one, why doesn't Mister Spock ever get himself into a situation like this?  And he smothered the obvious answer with an impatient grunt.

"There are abandoned ruins north of the city, and caves," Allene told him. It's where I'm to meet the Territorial contact. Maybe we could hide there."

"That's probably the first place they'd look for a suspected smuggler. No, I think it best we stay on the fringes of crowds where we can watch for both Rigellian agents and Chakulian guards. Then if we spot someone searching for you, we can slip down an alley or into one of the city's small parks."

She agreed, and they set off, heading for the night spots of the city by the side streets.

They found their way to one of the entertainment centers of Chakulian society, a place where tables were ringed around an open city square. The lighting was dim, produced by perfumed oil lamps, and tourists were eating and drinking while they watched the performers.

It occurred to McCoy that he hadn't eaten all day.

"Are you hungry?" he asked her.

"I could eat an Orion sand bat," she grinned at him.

He suspected the grin was pretense, but he warmed to her irrepressible nature. He found a table at the back of one side of the square, a place in deep shadows from the flickering lamps.

While they waited on their food and wine, McCoy tried to get her to relax by talking.

"If you get out of this," he asked, "what will you do then?"

She shrugged, fiddling with her wine glass.

"I've still got my job. I'm a pretty good computer technician. There are openings occasionally, even out here. Maybe I'll get something on one of the Outer Planets. One thing for sure -- I can't go home."  Her face looked sad at the thought.

"Why not?  What's to stop you?  That's where your family is, isn't it?"

She looked up at him, and the sudden dullness of her eyes belied her smile. "That's just it. There was a certain finality about my leaving. My parents were terribly hurt by my refusal to listen to them, especially my father. I said ... terrible ... things, hurting things..."  She blinked hard a few times. "No. There's no way I can go back."

The image of a young face loomed before him. "If that's the way you feel, then go on back to Star Fleet. I'm a big girl now. I can take care of mother and me. It's been years since we saw you. Why should I need you now?"

He remembered the deep pain he'd felt at her words. But under the pain, he had a gentle acceptance of her bitterness. She was too young to understand about the divorce; she thinks I abandoned her. The best I can hope for is understanding some day.

And the understanding had come, over the years. Joanna had grown to love him again and had wanted to be just like him in his devotion to medicine.

"You might be surprised," he told Allene. "Parents were young once, too, you know."

She looked at him as if unsettled to find him pleading the cause of familial devotion. "I know that," she said shortly. "But I won't ask them to forgive me -- I can't."

He was trying to find a tactful way to suggest she reconsider it, when the waiter brought them their meal. Both of them were quickly engaged in consuming food. Between bites, they watched a troop of acrobats and McCoy kept a sharp eye for security men.

They sat and sipped the fine Chakulian wine, and the temptation was to forget intrigue and danger and betrayal of trust by friends, but suddenly McCoy's attention was caught by a movement in the crowd across from them.

He motioned for Allene to slip away from the table and wait in the darkness behind the square. For a few seconds he lingered, watching the two agents as they made their way surreptitiously through the evening throng.

He joined the girl and nodded toward the square. "Your Rigellian friends again," he told her.

The moon was still high, moving only slowly toward its downfall.

"Where shall we go, what should we do?" Allene asked. "I had planned to remain in my room until time to meet the contact, but I got hungry -- that's why I was out on the streets."

"Apparently your room wouldn't have been safe either. I think our best bet is to drift through the parks. These mild evenings draw lots of people out under the moon -- or so the Chakulian tourist brochure says. We can pass for just another couple out for a nice stroll."

So they linked arms and walked through the peaceful city parks one by one. McCoy was mindful of the intimate mood of the setting, the passionate embraces of some of the couples, and it made him uneasy, but it could not be helped.

They passed an hour or so and then Allene complained that her feet were hurting. They found a bench and sat down. She removed one calf-length boot and massaged her toes. "Cramps in my feet," she said in disgust.

"Here, let me do that."  Without thinking, Leonard slipped down beside her legs and began to work skillfully on the offending foot muscles.

Allene sat very still for a moment as if surprised, then she sighed and he felt the tension go out of her.

"Better?" he asked as he worked.

"Yes. Much better. You have a remarkable touch."  There was a different tone to her voice.

"Well, I am a doctor, you know."  He started to look up, chuckling, when as swift as the passing of a soft wind, her lips brushed his.

"Why did you do that? he asked, shaken.

"Because you're gentle and kind and compassionate. And because I think I'm falling in love with you."

Careful now. She's been hurt enough.

"What would you do with a fossil like me?  I'm old enough to be your father."

She leaned toward him, her breath sweet on his cheek, her emerald eyes glowing with silver from the moonlight. One of her hands came up to smooth the hair at his temple.

"Doctor McCoy," she murmured, "I've already told you -- I can't think of you that way, at all. In fact," her voice slipped another note, became huskier, "I'm restraining my impulse to kiss you again, with difficulty. I find you a very attractive man. Don't you realize you are all the things that Mike wasn't?"

He caught at her caressing hand, unable to bear the touch any longer.

"Listen, Allene, there's something I..."  But he broke off the words as he spotted the gleam of Chakulian uniforms near the park entrance. He dropped her hand and got to his feet hastily.

"Get your boots on," he hissed. "We've got to get out of here."

Within seconds they had slipped into the shrubbery and were making their way from the park. They saw two more pairs of guards with light wands glowing, checking identification chits of the park inhabitants.

"The Rigellians have spread the word," he told Allene. "And it looks as though the Chakulians are going to co-operate with them to apprehend you."

She glanced up at his tense face. "And if they arrest me?"

"Depends on whether you have that damnable component on you at the time. If they don't catch you until after you've passed it on to your contact, they've little to hold you on. Even the Chakulians won't press charges without proof. But if you get caught before you can... Where is it by the way?" he asked, his eyes searching her short, flared tunic.

Her hand went to the silver ornament on her breast and for a moment he thought it a gesture of tension brought about by his question. Then he saw the look in her eyes and whistled.

"You mean it's been there, out in the open all this time?  For the love of heaven, Darlin', you took a big chance!"

"Not really. Who would look for an electronic component in a piece of jewelry?  And I wish you wouldn't call me darlin' like that until I have time to do something about it."

He caught his breath; he'd been unaware of the slip until she mentioned it. Embarrassment flooded over him, and then guilt. There's no way I can tell her now without hurting her for having kept it from her so long. McCoy, you're a bumbling fool.

"Come on," he said gruffly. "I think it's time to start for the caves. We've only a little while until moonset."

There was a chill developing in the air, a dampness as the dew of Chakula cooled the breeze. Allene shivered once and drew close to him as they walked.

The caves were on the extreme north edge of the city, located in hills that looked over the habitable plains. Vehicular traffic had been banned in the city years before, and they were forced to walk the entire distance. By the time they reached the appointed cave, they were out of breath, and the air had grown noticeably colder.

Allene shivered again and huddled against him. He hesitated, then aware that she would wonder at his reluctance, slipped his arm around her, willing his warmth into her.

As he kept watch over the rocky approach to the cave, memories swirled through his mind. Suddenly it was a matter of great importance to him that she become reconciled with her parents.

"I wish you'd think about what I said earlier, Allene," he said. "Your parents won't be vindictive about past transgressions. Parents aren't like that."

"Are you sure, Leonard?"  She looked up into his face. He saw a tired, scared, cold little girl wanting the safety of her own bed. He blinked, and the adult Allene was back, all her attention focused on his next words.

He took the time to smile reassuringly at her, clasping both her hands in his.

"One thing I know and believe, with the certainty that made me become a doctor -- people, human beings, have an enormous capacity for love. The universe may get turned upside down, everything we know can be changed, including our world and this galaxy. But parents who love their children will always love them, no matter what. Some things never change. There's a constancy in them. That's what keeps this universe sane."  He risked cupping her chin in one hand.

"You know they love you," he said softly, "or else they would have let you go without an argument."

She sighed and a small shrug moved her shoulders. "I ... suppose you're right. I hadn't thought about that."

"I know I am. Believe me. If you were my daughter..."  His voice caught on the words. "...if you were my daughter, there is nothing you could do that would make me stop loving you. Don't waste precious time, Allene. They aren't getting any younger. Tell them now that you love them. Let them tell you. Do it, before it's too late."

Her response was cut off by a rattle of dislodged rock on the slope below them. He drew her back into the shelter of the cave and peered out into the darkness.

"Stand right where you are, Terran," said a voice at his ear. "I've come from a tunnel behind you, and I've a laser pointed right at your head."

McCoy froze and then cautiously peeked over his shoulder. The gaping muzzle of a laser gun rested just behind his head. A towering Rigellian held it, and he had Allene firmly by one arm.

"Arno, come on in," the agent called into the darkness. From the slope to the cave, another Rigellian appeared; it was obvious the sound they had heard had been made deliberately to distract their attention from the rear portion of the cave.

"All right, little woman," the first man growled. "Where's that sensing circuit?"

Both agents had lasers ready and looked willing to use them. Allene showed her mettle. She shook her head stubbornly.

"They have a right to their web," she said. "Just because they want independence from your people is..."

He waved the laser in front of her as it he would strike her with the butt of the weapon. She flinched, and McCoy felt his muscles tense.

"The Territorials have only the rights we decree for them!" the first agent snarled. "One of them is the right to bury those we catch smuggling to them!"

He moved a few feet away and drew a light want from his belt. Instantly the cave was illuminated with a bright glow. He stuck the wand in a crevice in the rock wall and returned to Allene. He lifted a giant hand to tip her face to one side. His thumb dug into her cheek, and she gave a soft gasp. McCoy moved restlessly at the sound.

"Hold it, Terran!" the second man snapped.

The first Rigellian's eyes moved slowly from Allene to McCoy and back. "Interesting," he commented. He ordered the doctor to turn around and face him. Leonard felt the cold black eyes probing him. Deliberately the agent reached out and jerked Allene toward him, causing the girl to stagger. McCoy was unable to halt his abortive motion toward her. By now he was so angry that he could feel the veins standing out on his neck.

"Leave her alone!" he yelled. "We admit that you're stronger than we are, bigger and uglier, too."  He made a backwards sweep of his hand, finding frustration in the fact that he was powerless to help as long as Allene was determined to hide the component.

The agent's eyes lingered on the girl. He seemed to be gauging McCoy's reaction. "I see." the big man mused. "Perhaps you'd like to tell us where she has hidden it?  Or else watch while we search her for it?"  He gestured towards the second man who made as if to join him. "My friend here does a very thorough job." he purred. "Sometimes his prisoners never recover from the experience."

McCoy sucked in his breath sharply. Allene heard the sound and shook her head at him.

"Please, Leonard," she begged. "Stay out of this. I want to do it. And I owe Mike something. Please."

The first agent had not released his grip on her wrist. Now he gave the arm an abrupt twist. Allene dropped to her knees and her face went pale with the pain. Leaning over her, the Rigellian began to run the barrel of the laser gun softly over her face and body. Intimately it touched rounded curves, flowed down her figure. McCoy found he was trembling in an effort to remain still.

The gun returned to Allene's face, lingered on her cheek. The forward sight, filed to a sharp edge, began to indent itself on her flesh under the pressure the agent applied. Slowly the knife edge started down her face, a spot of blood appearing beneath the tip. Allene gasped but made no other sound.

"Allene," McCoy found himself shouting, "Give it up!  Mike isn't worth dying for, and neither is the power struggle between two alien governments."  His voice dropped as the Rigellian halted his torture to look at him. Leonard's next words were for the girl alone. "I'm a doctor, Allene. I can't stand by and see human life destroyed, not even for a principle. I 'm sorry."  He looked away, avoiding her desperate eyes. "It's in the pendant around her neck."

The Rigellian grunted with satisfaction, tugging the silver chain free of her neck and shoving her away from him. He moved away to examine the jewelry under the light wand.

Allene had sagged down over her knees in an attitude of resignation. She refused to look at McCoy, or even acknowledge his presence. Her silent accusal was a lead weight on him.

The second agent was watching his friend. For a moment his attention wandered from the prisoners. McCoy gauged the distance, decided a gamble might be worth the effort. If he could get his hands on one of those lasers...

He lashed out with a booted foot at the nearer man's shins and as the agent's head came down, he brought his clasped fists smashing onto the back of the Rigellian's neck. He grabbed the laser as it dropped from the unconscious man's hand and whirled to face the other Rigellian.

But he was too slow. The other man already had the evil eye of his laser trained on him. Behind the weapon McCoy saw the agent's widening smirk.

"That's what is so fascinating about you humans," he breathed. "Your sense of immortality. I find that intriguing. That, and your idealism. Did you really think we would let you go after you had turned the component over to us?  Those who work for the Territorials must be made an example of. Now hold very still. The pain won't last more than a second..."

McCoy knew he was going to die. And, although he had faced death many times, for the first time in his life he felt utterly alone.

"...tell them you love them -- before it's too late..."

What I told Allene is true for me, too.

Allene gave a choked cry as the gun centered and the agent's finger touched the fire button.

McCoy closed his eyes for a brief second.

Let me have time to tell Jo. Is that too much to ask?

There was the soft hiss of some weapon, but he felt no pain. Then he realized the sound had not been the low hum of a laser and opened his eyes to see a third man in the cave entrance, a tranquilgun in his hand. The Rigellian had collapsed at his feet.

"I'm Durs, of the Royal Territorial Guerrillas," the stranger said as he stepped over the unconscious agent and pulled the pendant from unresisting fingers. He glanced up at Allene and for a moment his hard gaze softened.

"Thank you."  His look shifted to McCoy. "Thanks to both of you. We don't want war, I promise you. With the sensor web in place, we may be able to avoid it."  He straightened, glanced ever his shoulder, "Now I suggest you both get out of here, fast. I'll tie up our unconscious friends and be gone to join my ship."  He stared at them, waving the tranquilgun, "Go on! Get going!"

McCoy's paralyzed muscles began to work. He bent over Allene, helping her to her feet. She was still pale, but her arm seemed without permanent damage. The scratch on her cheek was no longer bleeding. He caught her good hand and dragged her swiftly out of the cave and away from the hills.

Ten minutes later they sagged down exhausted, to sit side by side on a stone wall above the city. Their eyes met, locked, in a look of incredulous wonder. Leonard felt mirth that bordered on hysteria bubbling up on him. "So much for the life of a smuggler," he said, "I've seen monkeys who would have been better than we were."

She laughed out loud, starting to giggle wildly. The sounds turned in to choked­off sobs, and she threw herself against his chest.

He felt the tremors that shook her body and knew she was suffering the same sort of reaction he was. Automatically his arms went around her, and one hand began to stroke her hair.

I held Linda like this once -- and Jo more times than I can remember. The two people closest to me -- and neither one of them knew how much they meant to me. Oh, Linda, I'm sorry I never had the chance to tell you again. And I promise to make it up to Jo...

The feelings that had been building inside him all day rose to a crescendo, and he felt his composure shatter like fine crystal.

"It's all right," he murmured brokenly. "It's all over now. You paid your debt to Mike, and the Territorials have their sensor web. Don't cry, Darlin', don't cry."

She lifted her face, reaching up with one finger, tracing the moisture on his cheek.

"You risked your life for me," she whispered, "you've been kind and brave because that's the kind of man you are. But that has nothing to do with this, does it?"  Her fingers lingered briefly on his damp lashes.

He set her away from him, got his feelings in hand and managed to shake his head. She studied him for a moment and then nodded slowly.

"I had a feeling you've wanted to tell me something all along, but I was too wrapped up in my own problems to see it. I can see I'm not the girl for you. I really do remind you of someone else, don't I?"

"Allene, I..."

"Ssshh."  She lifted a cautionary finger to his lips, then leaned over and gave him the softest kiss he'd ever experienced, "It's okay. No need to explain. You've been the most fair, the kindest person I've ever met and you've helped me so much I'll always be grateful ... and maybe just a little in love with you."  She grinned at him, a wholly forgiving and understanding grin. "And I've made up my mind. I'm going home. I can't wait to get there!  I want to throw my arms around both of them and hug them until they're breathless!"  Her face was radiant in the growing light of the dawn.

McCoy heaved a sigh of relief. "It's the best thing you could do," he assured her. Thank heavens she'll never need to know. It would have sounded like so much lecturing if she'd known I was a father, too.

The Chakulian sun was glowing red on the horizon, and McCoy felt a pleasant easing of tension in his body. For the moment he was content to sit and let events flow around him.

"I suppose the Chakulian guard will still take me in for questioning," Allene said thoughtfully. "But as you pointed out, they have no evidence on which to hold me. Still..."  She hesitated. "I hate to face them alone. Would you -- that is, could you, find it in you to do me one more favor and come with me?"  The wistful look was back, the uncertain young daughter looked out of her woman's eyes.

He reached over and took her hand.

"That's what good friends are for," he told her gently and drew her close to him to watch the fiery birth of the new day.

THE END