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The cargo shuttle bucked and shuddered, caught in a savage wind gust that had erupted out of a still, clear dawn. Sulu threw a disbelieving look out his cockpit window at Tlaoli's garnet-dusted sky and saw nothing in its sunlit haze to indicate a storm brewing. He could even see plumes of mist, the exhaled breath of hidden caves, rising straight and calm from the splintered landscape of karst and sinkholes below him. But despite the testimony of his eyes, his hands and ears told him that a relentless avalanche of air had the shuttle clenched in its grip. Sulu could feel the little ship falling farther and farther away from the stable, banking turn he'd begun just a moment ago.
He'd been exultantly heading for home then, after locating a shadowy figure moving through the wilderness of fractured rock, a figure that could only be his own lost captain. That unexpected success, made on the one brief reconnaissance flight Sulu had been allowed before evacuating the rest of the stranded landing party from Tlaoli, had buoyed his spirits amazingly. After hours aboard the Enterprise fighting Tlaoli's unpredictable gravitational shifts and dangerous power drains, while Captain Kirk and his rescue party struggled to survive the killing cold and darkness of the caverns where the original landing party had been lost, it seemed as if the strange alien force that guarded this ancient planet had finally lost its grasp on them.
Then from nowhere, gale-force winds roared out of a clear morning sky and sent the shuttle Drake skidding out of control.
Sulu gave up trying to fight the wind's pull and instead swung the shuttle hard into it, hoping he could break through to calmer air on the other side. But before the roar of the engines had time to deepen in response, before the straining nacelles could even start to shriek in protest, the Drake snapped to a stop and hung frozen in midair. Sulu's breath caught in his throat. In all his years of flying, in craft as small as hang gliders and as large as the Enterprise, he had never before felt this kind of sudden arrest. This wasn't one of the alien planet's odd gravitational perturbations, or the unstoppable power drain that had made the Enterprise nearly crash into its surface only a few hours ago. This was simply -- stillness.
Sulu had no idea how long it lasted -- a few microseconds? half a minute? -- but there was absolutely no doubt about how it ended. The Drake was slammed out of its stillness by the unmistakable blow of an atmospheric shock wave. Sulu's inner ears told him the little ship was flipping sideways, but the sudden darkness outside his cockpit window blocked any view of what had exploded down on the planet, or which way he was being thrown by the blast. The deafening noise of detonation caught up with him an instant later, fast enough and loud enough to tell Sulu he'd been near the epicenter of whatever had just blown up.
The only thing that saved him from losing control entirely was the adrenaline spiking in his blood from the wind gusts he'd been fighting a moment before. Sulu found himself responding almost before he was consciously aware of the need to do so, flinging the shuttle across the vector of the blast instead of fighting it, then spiraling its uncontrolled tumble into a gravity-assisted dive that made the metal nacelles scream in protest as he exceeded their strain limit. That sound sharpened into a howl of torn metal as Sulu hauled the Drake up out of its dive, praying every second that the blinding smoke around him wouldn't suddenly turn into rocky ground. When he finally got control of the Drake again, it was riding the bow wave of the explosion like an awkward surfer. The shuttle's steep, nose-up position told Sulu more clearly than the red-flashing lights on his controls that he'd done some permanent damage to the nacelles. But for now, he was content to hold the Drake in whatever position gave it some aerodynamic equilibrium, letting the wave of battered air sweep him ever farther from the epicenter of the explosion.
The smoke began to clear away from his cockpit windows, revealing tantalizing shreds and scraps of ruddy light through its breaks. It didn't look much like the cold rose-quartz dawn Sulu had taken the shuttle up into. In fact, if he didn't know better, he would swear the light had the sullen humid glare of the tropics. Sulu glanced down at his instrument panel, whose gauges still flashed overloads and error readings from the strange subspace interference fields that had made them all useless on Tlaoli. With a sudden and completely unjustified intuition, he swept a hand across the bank of power switches, zeroing them all to black, then watching them as they booted back up again. Each and every gauge came back a steady, reliable green, even the one warning him about the high levels of tension where the shuttle's hull met its damaged nacelles. The subspace interference had vanished.
Wherever he was now, Sulu thought, it was nowhere near the strange alien caves of Tlaoli.
The smoke thinned a little, then, without warning, the shuttle surged away from the spreading wake of the explosion and into clear air as the propulsion of its own engines finally outpaced the weakening atmospheric shock wave it had been swept up in. Sulu saw a looming shadow of hills ahead of him and pulled the Drake up as gently as he dared, trying to spare its weakened nacelles now that he was free of the blast wave. He was so intent on crafting a low-stress, minimum-clearance arc over those hills that it took him a long moment to realize they were completely the wrong color.
The one thing the Enterprise had known about Tlaoli before it sent survey teams down to study it was that the little planet was ancient and dry and mostly barren of life. The only vegetation Sulu had seen, in his three trips down to the alien planet, consisted of drought-gnarled trees and thorny shrubs the same dry gray-brown as the rocks and dirt around them. But these hills looked as if they were made of sodden emerald velvet. Their canopied trees rose in such a lush tangle that Sulu couldn't see any trace of bare ground between them. In fact, the only things that didn't glow a vivid shade of green were the violet-gray strands of mist and ground-fog nestled in the hollows and winding valleys of the forested hills.
Sulu pursed his lips to whistle in amazement, but to his surprise, he found them too dry to allow any noise to come out. That observation led to another -- his hands were shaking despite their tight grip on the Drake's helm control, and his pulse was pounding so strongly that he could actually feel it throb beneath the skin of one temple. He would have put the fear down to the aftermath of being engulfed by a mysterious explosion if he hadn't caught his gaze straying again and again to a gauge that he normally paid no attention to. With a start, Sulu focused on it now -- and realized that the fundamental constant of planetary gravity to which all of his other shuttle instruments calibrated themselves had shifted up by three percent. The reading confirmed what some subconscious part of Sulu's brain must have already noticed and understood and been horrified by.
The planet he was on now was not Tlaoli.
Sulu gritted his teeth, fighting the urge to bank the Drake around at the speed he'd normally have used in an emergency, as if he could somehow find his way back to Tlaoli and the Enterprise just by reversing course. Some rational part of his brain knew that all the maneuver would accomplish would be to finish the job of tearing off the cargo shuttle's nacelles and strand him on this unknown world forever. But it still seemed worthwhile to find out what had exploded upon his arrival here -- a wormhole? an antimatter/
matter space warp? -- so he maneuvered the wounded shuttle into a slow, gentle arc and watched the crushed-velvet hills drift below him.
The verdant palette of chlorophyll-based colors should have warned Sulu that this unknown planet probably wasn't anywhere near as empty of animal life as Tlaoli had been. But it still came as a shock to him when the green mass of forest abruptly ended, towering a surprising height above the black rock walls that succeeded it. Sulu's startled gaze followed those walls up toward the horizon and saw them merge with others, rise in height, then become blunt terraces bristling with spikes -- no, not spikes, he realized as the Drake came closer, but hollow pipes, pipes that were moving sideways, pointing outward, turning to aim -- at him!
Sulu cursed and wrenched the Drake into an evasive maneuver, momentarily forgetting the shuttle's torn nacelles. Fortunately, his downward dive kept torque to a minimum, at least until he was forced to pull up out of it. In the meantime, he watched puffs of what looked like smoke emerge from the snouts of the moving weapons and wondered just how primitive this unknown culture was. Clearly, they recognized even a distant flying object as a threat and were prepared to shoot at it...but what exactly were they shooting? Nothing seemed to explode near him or on the ground below, even long after the smoke had emerged, so it wasn't some kind of explosive device or torpedo. Projectiles, perhaps, small enough to make no sign when they missed their mark and fell to the ground.
The weapons along the black stone terraces slowly tracked him as Sulu hurtled down toward them, coaxing the shuttle out of its dive by painful fractions of arc, wincing as he heard the occasional shriek of metal ripping just a little further. He could tell that the barrels of the weapons weren't able to keep pace with his headlong dive, although to his surprise they all seemed to be trying. That was a gift he hadn't expected, that the crews who were manning those installations wouldn't realize that what came down must -- if it were to survive -- head back up again. If even one weapon stopped trying to track along his path and instead paused, waiting to meet him on the way back up again, Sulu was doomed.
But none of them did. He ground out the last nerve-racking curve that lifted the shuttle from descent to ascent again, then began a horizontal turn at an angle he hoped they wouldn't expect. It took him not back toward the rain-forested hills he had come from, but directly toward the cloud of smoke that still hung thick and sullen over the tallest towers of what now looked unmistakably like a fortress.
The shuttle darted into the smoke, and Sulu lost all sight of the weapons following him. He could still hear them, though, a constant pounding thunder that made his head ache and his eyes blink in conditioned response to the blows of sound. Still, nothing more than sound seemed to hit the Drake as it fled with excruciating slowness through the lingering remnants of the explosion that had greeted it upon arrival.
Sulu began an upward climb while he was still shrouded in smoke, grimacing as his evasive maneuver carried him so close to one black stone tower that he almost thought he could see a glare of eyes through its narrow slitted windows. Then the smoke cleared again and he found himself high above the central hub of this kilometers-wide installation. The weapons around the fringes no longer seemed to be aiming or firing at him -- no puffs of smoke drifted out of their long hollow barrels. By now, however, Sulu was feeling too battered by fate to take that for a good sign. He glanced around the hazy tropical sky, then finally remembered that his long-range scanners would work here and slapped a hand down to activate the vessel-detection screen. It took only one glance to tell him that his pessimistic instincts had been correct. A raft of small yellow lights lay directly astern, already matching the Drake's not-very-impressive velocity. And even as he watched, the scanner showed a flicker around the nose of the foremost ship that indicated some kind of power field had been detected there.
Sulu groaned and straightened the Drake out to give its nacelles the most support he could, then jacked the engines up until the tensions measured along the hull flickered between yellow and red. To his surprise, the unseen chase ships only matched his increase in velocity -- they didn't try to close the gap between them. Now why, if they could have gone that fast to begin with, Sulu wondered, had they waited for him to increase speed before they did? Was there some minimum firing range they needed for the energy weapons that his scanners showed being fired now from several ships? If so, perhaps they had miscalculated it for a ship as strange to them as his must be. Not a shiver or rattle went through the Drake as those power flickers winked on and off the scanner's detection screen.
He left the swath of central towers behind and crossed back over black stone terraces, empty of everything except the turning barrels of weapons that protruded from the edge like fangs. A towering green tsunami of forest appeared beyond the final perimeter wall, rising almost to the shuttle's altitude and promising safety if only he could disappear into its deepest hollows. But the same glance that told Sulu how close he was to shelter also showed him the turning spikes of the weapon barrels, swinging around in unison to intercept his course. He groaned in dismay and self-disgust. After all his years in Starfleet Academy and aboard Starfleet's premier deep-space vessel, he should have known better!
Sulu had made the most basic mistake of space exploration, assuming that the alien strategists who commanded in this fortress would follow the same rules of tactics as known civilizations did. Humans or Vulcans or Klingons never fired antispacecraft weapons if there were more of their own fighters than enemies aloft, because of the risk of being hit by friendly fire. But these fortress fighters were either a more ruthless or more self-sacrificing lot. Sulu began -- much too late -- to lift the Drake up to a less dangerous altitude, and saw the raft of yellow dots behind him on the long-range scanner increase altitude to match his without ever getting closer. That gap suddenly made sense to him. It would give the perimeter weapons a clear interval to fire before they encountered their own ships.
It also gave Sulu an idea.
Praying that the Drake's abused nacelles would take the strain, he began to level the shuttle off at an altitude that still kept him dangerously close to the unknown weapons ahead. Just as he expected, the long-range scanners reported his chasers doing the same thing. Then, just as he crossed over the edge of the black stone terrace and into weapons range, Sulu began a sharp banking turn at the tightest angle he could manage and still keep the nacelles from shearing off. It took the Drake into the sudden thundering fire of the ground weapons, and this time Sulu could hear the sickening thuds as projectiles hit and cratered the shuttle's duranium hull without ever breaking through. He winced, but held his course. The Drake was a cargo shuttle, never meant for battle, and its shields were designed to ward off particles of space dust and fragments of comets, not armored projectiles. Sulu wasn't sure how many of those impacts it could take without breaking apart at the seams, but he was gambling that it wouldn't be long until the fusillade ceased.
He craned his head to watch the weapons from the side of his cockpit as he swung the shuttle around, and allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. These unknown fighters might not be predictable, but they were certainly consistent. Once again, all of the weapons were tracking him in unison, following the Drake faithfully around on its 180-degree turn, until they found themselves pointed at their own ships as well as at the intruder. There was a moment of confusion when waves of projectiles slammed into the leading chase ships, bringing several of them down with surprising efficiency before the thunder of the ground weapons rolled into silence and smoke drifted away from their empty barrels.
The phalanx of chase ships was in chaos now. Sulu took advantage of it to thread his way through them and cut sideways, slipping over a different part of the outer stone wall before the ground weapons got a chance to retrain their sights on him. He lifted the Drake with a stomach-churning lurch that just cleared the towering wall of green on the other side, then settled down to hug the tops of those monstrous tree canopies as he raced for the hills on the horizon.
It took the remaining chase ships a few moments to regroup, and another minute for Sulu's vessel-detection screen to give him the bad news he'd expected. Now that they were all past the edge of the installation, there was no doubt that those alien ships were faster than the Drake, probably faster than it had been even before the powerful explosion back at the towers had half-torn its nacelles off. He jacked the engines back up as high as he dared, but he could still set only a snail's pace compared with the ships behind him. It was only a few moments before they were in visual range again, a half-dozen blunt-nosed attack ships with darkened cockpit windows and parabolic wings. Sulu could see through the side of his cockpit the heat-wave shimmer of the energy weapons that the scanner insisted were being fired from their snouts. Still, the Drake flew on without so much as a lurch or twitch of response.
The cargo shuttle's strange imperviousness to their weapons must have been apparent to the attackers, too -- one buzzed him overhead, close enough to make the Drake shudder and roll in the wake vortex trailing behind it. Sulu dragged the shuttle back to equilibrium with difficulty -- the torn nacelles had a tendency to exaggerate every loss of stability into a sideways roll. It wasn't until a second attacker buzzed and flew off, leaving him enveloped in the heat-shimmer of its energy weapon's discharge, that Sulu noticed that all of his control panel gauges were black and powerless.
Sulu's eyebrows shot up as he realized what must be protecting the Drake. Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott had insisted on shielding the cargo shuttle's warp core and engines before Sulu took it down into the dangerous power-draining force fields of Tlaoli. Now the unknown aliens on this planet -- maybe even the same ones who built that underground installation -- were firing some kind of energy-dispersive weapons at him. Those weapons would probably already have sent any normal shuttle plummeting down to the surface in an unpowered swan dive. The Drake's stubborn ability to fly seemed to be making the aliens both impatient and, Sulu suspected, somewhat nervous.
He took a deep breath and slowed the engines again, holding his course as he was buzzed several more times by the flickering shapes of the attackers. There didn't seem to be anything else they could do but fire those heat-shimmer pulses at him, but that didn't make Sulu feel safe. With half-torn nacelles and a pockmarked hull, Sulu didn't want to spend hours being jostled by them or, even worse, drive the aliens to desperate tactics like a suicide ramming. He was equally reluctant to put the shuttle down while they watched and circled overhead like vultures to mark the spot where he landed. What he needed was to convince them they didn't need to worry about him anymore, and for that he was going to have to use a fairly desperate tactic himself.
Sulu inched the Drake upward a few hundred meters to give himself a little maneuvering room and a better view of the landscape below. There was rain forest everywhere below him now. The alien fortress had dwindled to a distant smudge of smoke behind a range of hills, and ahead of him the sky was painted with tiger stripes of orange, saffron, and crimson around a setting tropical sun. The forest was vast and featureless, webbed everywhere with streamers of violet-tinted fog as the cooling air drizzled out its moisture. Then, off to one side, Sulu caught a glimpse of what looked like a shattered mirror whose tiger stripes matched the sky. He wasn't sure if it was a lake or an enormous river, but at least it was something to orient himself by in this endless span of green. Sulu took a deep breath, waited for one last attacker to shower him in heat-shimmer, then cut all power to the shuttle's engines.
They made them practice this maneuver in Starfleet simulators, over and over again, but Sulu discovered that it didn't really prepare you for the gut-wrenching feel of fading momentum and dragging gravity, the sidelong plunge that couldn't really be called a roll, the spinning plummet that increased with such shocking speed that by the time he cut the engines in again he was far closer to the forest canopy than he had planned.
The trees closed in around the shuttle while he was still trying to pull it out of its dive, and Sulu heard a rising shriek from the nacelles as their ripped seams tore open further. He made one last effort to lower his speed, but the torque was too much for the hull. With a sound almost like an explosion, one nacelle tore off completely, followed a moment later by the other. The Drake plunged downward, still spinning uncontrollably but powered enough to turn its deadly vertical plunge into a dangerous horizontal slide. And the trees themselves helped, their many branches flickering past too fast to see but braking his momentum just the same. The Drake's shields warded off the worst impacts from the larger branches, although Sulu didn't think they would be much help if he hit one of the monstrous trunks that must rise through this greenery somewhere. But as the ship twisted and lurched and skidded slowly downward through the darkening shade of the canopy, the one thing he was sure of was that it must have looked to his pursuers like a real, honest-to-God crash.
He ended up sliding only slightly canted along a humus-littered forest floor, and finally bumping to an almost laughably gentle stop against a fallen log whose diameter matched the shuttle's height. Sulu cut the engines off again with shaking fingers and wondered if he should power-down the warp core in case its shielding had been damaged. He would think about that in a minute, he promised himself, after he caught his breath and wiped the sweat of suddenly humid air off his face. The shuttle's battered hull must have sprung a leak on its way down through the forest. He would know soon enough if there was anything toxic to humans in this planet's atmosphere.
In the meantime, he could finally relax long enough to realize that he was now a hunted man on an alien planet whose name he didn't know and whose location could be almost anywhere in the galaxy.
"Oh...this isn't good...." Shaking her head slowly, Yuki Smith did something Pavel Chekov had never dreamed a Starfleet security guard would do -- she retreated several steps toward the center of the small karst plateau, as though contemplating running away entirely. "He's crying!" she whispered fiercely in Chekov's direction. "They don't train security guards to deal with crying."
Chekov didn't think it worth pointing out that Starfleet Academy didn't exactly offer electives in dealing with crying for Astrogation majors, either. Instead, he just nodded as though her objection made perfect sense, and kept his attention focused on the boy who knelt a few meters in front of them on the edge of the uneven plateau.
The boy wasn't really crying anymore. The tears had lasted only a few wrenching, naked moments, when Chekov and Smith had first cornered him at the edge of the steep drop-off. Now, the only remnant of the boy's tears was a sheen of wetness on his cheeks and a ragged edge to his breathing that made it sound as though he took three quick breaths on every too-deep inhalation. His fear had already began to mutate into something else -- something cunning and more productive. Chekov couldn't precisely identify the emotion glowing in the boy's keen hazel stare, but he'd seen glimpses of it on the face of the adult James Kirk during the last eighteen hours. He suspected it meant that even a very young James Kirk would prove a formidable adversary.
"Listen to me." Chekov struggled to pitch his tone just the right distance between solicitude and belligerence to keep the boy from bristling. He was close enough to his own teen years to remember how much he hated adults speaking to him as though he were stupid, but just far enough away from them to appreciate how stupid teenaged boys often were. "We're not going to hurt you. You said your father is in Starfleet. Then you know we're here to protect civilians, not to hurt them."
The boy's eyes flicked back and forth between gold uniform and red, touching briefly on sleeves, insignia, and waists. Anticipating the boy's concern, Chekov spread his arms out to either side. "Look -- we don't even have weapons."
It seemed to bother the boy a little that this stranger would understand what he was thinking. Sinking back on his heels, he thrust his chin vaguely in Chekov's direction. "What's that?"
It took Chekov a moment to realize he meant the small device still curled in Chekov's left hand. "A compass. For finding our bearings." He held his hand out flat in front of him so the boy could see the imprinted face and the swinging, hair-fine needle. Moving his hand slightly in a more distinct offering, he said, "Here. Take it."
Interest moved across the boy's face, replacing suspicion for the first time since they'd pinned him here. Once again, Chekov was reminded of Kirk's fearless curiosity, and he felt an irrational surge of guilt to be standing on the surface of an alien planet trying to reassure a fifteen-year-old version of his own commander. Whatever this place did to you, he found himself promising silently, we'll fix it. Because the thought of the Enterprise without Kirk in command was simply intolerable.
Stooping slowly, Chekov folded the compass closed and set it on the wind-polished rock at his feet. A nudge with his toe sent it skittering just far enough for the boy to lean forward and pick it up. Chekov watched him open it and turn it this way and that to check the needle's lazy swing, and tried to decide if the boy looked any calmer. Light from the freshly risen sun cut sharply across the boy's left shoulder, hiding half his expression in shadow as he bent over the small device. At least his breathing had steadied to a more regular rise and fall.
"We have a base camp about an hour's walk from here -- " Chekov began.
This younger Kirk cut him off with the same impatient brusqueness that would strike fear into the hearts of his subordinates when he was twenty years more refined. "I saw it."
Chekov had to bite back an abashed and automatic, "Yes, sir." Instead, he fought to keep his voice rigorously even. "You should come back to camp with us -- "
"No!" No longer some dim reflection of a great starship commander, he was just a boy again, obviously angered by the fear that flew too easily into his protest. His hand closed convulsively around the compass, and he glanced once, briefly, over his shoulder as though considering anew whether he could jump the deep rift between the karst towers. The sun made him squint and look back too quickly.
Chekov nodded, pretending not to notice the boy's vehemence. "Well, we can't stay out here all day."
"You can't, maybe." The boy lifted his chin in a brave defiance that wasn't at all feigned. "I'm not going anywhere."
You have no idea how true that is. If they didn't find out what this planet had done to Kirk -- not to mention to Lieutenant Sulu, and possibly to Chekov himself -- Chekov had a feeling none of them would be going anywhere anytime soon.
"Do you rank her?" The boy asked it suddenly, as though the thought had only just occurred to him.
Chekov glanced aside at Smith, strangely unsure how to respond even though the answer was obvious. He was too used to being the most junior member in any gathering to think of himself as ranking anyone. "Yes. I'm an officer." It was the first time he'd ever said that about himself.
"Then make her leave." The boy clicked the compass shut and folded it into his fist like a talisman. Alert hazel eyes locked on Smith, daring her to move. "She's security," he continued defiantly to Chekov. "You're just some command maven. If anybody can hurt me, it's her." He glanced away from her only long enough to pin Chekov with his stare. "Make her leave."
From ranking Starfleet officer to command maven in just under thirty seconds. A new galactic record, certainly. Still, the boy wasn't wrong, and Chekov had to give him credit for thinking clearly even if he was less than subtle about how he expressed it.
"Go on." He turned pointedly away from the boy, letting Kirk see that he was willing to turn his back while nodding to Smith. "Find Tomlinson and Martine. Tell them everything is all right."
He would have been disappointed if Smith hadn't hesitated at least a little. She glanced unhappily at the boy, then back at Chekov before finally answering his command with a businesslike "Aye, sir," and turning to climb back down the karst summit the way they'd first come up. She disappeared over the edge with an athletic vault that was much more graceful than Chekov suspected he himself would have managed.
"Who are Tomlinson and Martine?"
Chekov turned back to the boy, trying to exude the same easy confidence he had seen in a much older Kirk not so very long ago. "Two of the other officers stranded planetside with us. I don't want them to worry when they see I'm not with Smith."
Something about that made the boy frown slightly and lower his chin. "You're stranded here?" Morning shadows darkened his eyes again.
Chekov nodded. "There are twelve of us. About half are from the planetary survey team we came down here to rescue."
The boy gave a snort and a surprisingly mature, ironic smile. "Some rescue."
Chekov couldn't argue with him about that.
"So...where are we, exactly?"
"Tlaoli 4." A look that might have been fear flashed through the boy's eyes, so quickly masked that Chekov would have missed it if he'd glanced away. "A planet in sector alpha nineteen," he explained, still trying to decipher the boy's expression. A thought occurred to him, and he asked, "Where were you...before you were here?"
"On vacation. With my family in the Pantazis sector." He fought with himself a moment before admitting, "I don't know how I got here."
"We don't know how you got here, either." That was likely to be the understatement of the day. "Did you...find yourself inside the cave?"
The boy straightened, obviously startled by the question. "Yeah."
"How did you find your way out in the dark?"
He shrugged. "It wasn't that dark. I mean, it was nighttime where I was before, so my eyes were already adjusted. The light from the stalactites or stalagmites or whatever was bright enough that I could see the hole in the roof."
Chekov remembered groping for his helmet in the thick darkness, stumbling into a sit, waiting with his heart in his throat while the cave around him whispered under its patina of frost. "There was no light in that cavern." He had never been more certain of anything in his life.
"There was just the one pillar. Gold light, like a transporter beam, only it never came together." The boy shrugged again, settling more comfortably back on his heels. "It was bright enough."
There was no light. He was sure of it -- more sure than he was about anything else that had happened so far on Tlaoli -- and the boy's equal certainty frightened him a little. But before he could ask for more detail about the claim, Kirk announced bluntly, "Now I get to ask a question."
Chekov nodded. "All right."
"What ship did you come in on? A starship?"
He nodded again, but hesitated before saying, "The U.S.S. Enterprise." They had to breach the subject at some point, and sooner was no doubt better than later. Still, he found himself wishing Lieutenant Uhura were here, with her calm demeanor and expert communications skills.
To his surprise, the boy lit up at the mention of the ship's name. "Hey! I know your captain!"
Chekov felt a leaden weight fall into his stomach. "You do?"
"Robert April. He's a friend of my dad's. He came to our house for Christmas last year." Relief was palpable in the boy's smile as he climbed to his feet. He seemed even younger than before, the weight of his own safety suddenly cast off his shoulders and into adult hands that he trusted and loved. Chekov doubted he would ever again see James Kirk so vulnerable and acquiescent. "We can go talk to him. He knows where my dad is stationed -- he'll know what to do."
Suddenly sorry he'd allowed the subject to arise, Chekov said carefully, "Captain April isn't here. In fact..." There was nothing to do now but plough headlong into it. "Robert April isn't captain of the Enterprise anymore."
"But I don't understand..." The boy frowned, knuckles white around the compass in his young hands as though clinging to that small device would make what he was about to hear less disturbing. "If Robert April's not captain of the Enterprise...who is?"
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