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Captain Kirk was suspended in the gateway, floating between the countless dimensions. The interstellar transport lasted for only a few seconds, but the flashing light seemed to freeze every thought and feeling he had.
Then he was falling out the other side, rolling to his feet and unsteady on the soft surface. He was standing on the edge of a small platform, suspended near the top of a giant crevice. The sheer parallel cliffs extended for miles to either side.
Holding his arms out for balance, Kirk could only look down. The cliffs descended out of sight. The bottom was obscured by mist or smoke that was rising, softening the sharp edges of the cliffs. The rocks on both sides looked as if huge sections often sheared off and fell forever into the center of the planet.
Backing away from the edge, Kirk looked around and saw the two Kalandans. "Tasm! Stop!"
Commander Tasm was on the other side of the platform, trying to wrest away the large cylindrical unit from her errant officer, Luz. The blue neutronium cylinder was the key component of the gateway, and they were waving it around between them at the edge of an abyss!
Kirk briefly considered stunning them, but they were too close to the edge and he was afraid they would be knocked over by the impact. So he ran forward and grabbed Tasm around the waist, pulling her away. Luz hung on to the cylinder and came with her.
The soft ground gave Kirk plenty of traction, and he was able to drag both women closer to the wall of the cliff. There was an arched doorway there leading to a tunnel. Apparently that was the way off the platform.
Tasm struggled against him, but Kirk took hold of the cylinder with one hand, expertly twisting it away from her. The Kalandans were thin and frail even if they were tall.
But Luz hung on, kicking at him and jerking on the cylinder as if she were crazed. It swung wide and hit Tasm in the head, driving her down to the ground with an agonized cry. The commander rocked crouching on her knees, her head in her hands.
Glaring at him, Luz managed to push Kirk closer to the sheer drop. The streaks of green and blue on her eyelids suddenly looked right. He hadn't seen such a display of outright passion from any of the Kalandans.
"It's mine!" Luz screamed. "Let go!"
Kirk stayed calm. "Stop fighting me or we're both going over."
In response, she swiped a leg at him, catching him behind the knee. Kirk stumbled, and her momentum carried her forward, taking him right to the edge of the platform. Kirk wasn't letting go of the cylinder. He meant it -- if he went over, then he was taking her with him.
Their brief struggle showed that she didn't know anything about hand-to-hand combat. But she fought in a frenzy, nearly knocking him off the platform.
Kirk got his feet under him and spun away from her, back toward the doorway in the cliff. As she fell back, he grabbed hold of her wrist. She tried to wrench it away from him, but he twisted her arm down, forcing her to take one hand off the cylinder.
With a quick turn, he stepped behind her, bringing her arm behind her back. Now that he had leverage on her, he had the advantage. She didn't have enough brute power to shake him off.
He jerked the cylinder from her grasp and bent her arm up until she went to her knees. Her cry didn't stop him. He hung on to her long enough to make her realize there was no way she could win in a fight. "Had enough?"
Panting, she continued to struggle to get away from him. But she knew she couldn't beat him.
Finally Kirk let go, pushing her away to roll on the ground next to Tasm. Tasm was still on her knees, groaning from her head injury. Her eyes were bleary as she tried to focus on him.
Kirk pulled his phaser from his belt and trained it on them both so they didn't get any more ideas. Then he quickly assessed his situation. They were standing on a platform hardly six meters square. But what he had mistaken for soft sand was really some kind of plush rubbery material that coated the rock.
He took a few steps inside the tunnel, getting a better look at the thick beige stuff. It ran up the sides, covering it completely. Farther in, the tunnel ended. When he poked at the stuff, it felt like a dense block of suede.
Back outside, Kirk looked in both directions up and down the crevice. He had seen two metal-plated buildings on top of the cliffs before jumping through the gateway. Now he had to strain to see them. They were much farther up on the opposite side. The sun in the orange sky was so bright it made it hard to focus on the dull metal.
One look at the cliff behind him, and he knew it couldn't have been a tougher climbing challenge. Kirk was willing to bet he could make it with hands and feet alone, with the gateway cylinder strapped to his back by his uniform jacket. But that was his last resort.
Still holding the phaser on the two women, Kirk demanded, "Where are we?"
Tasm was moaning and clutching her head, so he jerked his phaser at Luz. "You brought us here. What is this place?"
Luz's lips drew back from her teeth, a desperate expression. "This is our birthing world."
"You aren't Kalandans."
"We're Petraw!" she spit at him. "You're such fools! Such trusting fools..."
Tasm was struggling to stand up. "Silence, Luz! You've betrayed your pod -- "
"I saved the interstellar transporter!" Luz let out a high-pitched shriek, rushing at Tasm.
With surprise on her side, Luz managed to shove Tasm toward the edge. Tasm fell flat to stop herself from going over. Luz sat on top of her, grabbing her around the throat, screaming inarticulately.
"You never learn, do you?" Kirk dropped the cylinder to go to Tasm's defense, but he wasn't exactly willing to risk his own life for her. Aiming his phaser, he hesitated as they rolled over, Tasm on top, then on the bottom again.
Before he could fire, he was surrounded by people. Hands grabbed his arms and took away his phaser. They were rough, their manner abrupt. It was like they appeared out of nowhere.
Kirk stopped struggling immediately. When they realized he was giving them no trouble, they let his arms free so he could stand among them. He couldn't see what had happened to his phaser, but it was gone.
They separated Tasm and Luz, taking them to opposite sides of the platform. Kirk counted eight humanoids crowded onto the platform, dressed alike in whitish-transparent bags complete with enclosed hands and feet. The loose hoods over their heads slid forward.
Kirk settled his uniform, reaching down for the cylinder. But one of the strange people picked it up first.
Kirk had to look up to see his face. It was like melted wax, with his nose, eyes, and chin softened and flattened.
"I'm James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise." Kirk pointed to the cylinder, holding out his hand. "I believe that belongs to me."
Luz cried out, stumbling forward. Kirk couldn't understand what she was saying, something about completing an engagement... Tasm was speaking to others, still holding one hand to her injured head. Clearly these were her people.
The androgynous Petraw held up the cylinder. "This is for the matriarchs to deal with."
"Are those your superiors?" Kirk asked. Getting an affirmative in response, he agreed, "Lead the way." He was more than ready to talk to someone in charge. Tasm had clearly lied to him about everything.
Tasm and Luz were herded into the tunnel behind him. It had somehow become unclogged and continued much deeper inside the cliff. It curved ahead, so he could only see a short way, and the top was within reach of his hand. It was cramped, but better than climbing that towering cliff freehand.
Kirk could hardly see a thing. There was no obvious light source, but the pliable material covering the walls was so pale it seemed to glow like amber under a light.
It wasn't long before the tunnel ended in a slightly more bulbous section. Straight ahead were six hexagonal openings stacked three across and two high. Each opening was about a meter wide.
"In there." The Petraw holding the cylinder gestured to the first hexagonal opening on the bottom.
Kirk peered in, but he couldn't see out the other side. "This is the way to the matriarchs?"
Several of the Petraw crowded close to him, trying to push him inside. Their baggy coveralls rustled as he resisted.
"What's the rush?" Kirk tried to regain his footing on the mushy floor.
They still nudged him forward, pressing down on his shoulders. He realized he was being given no choice and he began to fight back.
Without hesitation, the Petraw seized his legs and arms, subduing him by sheer numbers. Before he knew it, they were tossing him into the hexagon.
They slapped something on the end. Kirk scrabbled at it with his fingers. The covering was hard and peach-colored, almost opaque. He could see the shadows of the Petraw outside, but even when he kicked hard against it with both feet, he couldn't budge the seal on the end.
After a while Kirk couldn't see any more shadows. It was pitch dark inside. He kept kicking against the plug, but it held firm. He crawled to the other end, checking it for openings, but it was sealed tight as well. He was trapped.
It didn't take long to search the place. Kirk could sit up inside the cell if he hunched over, his hair brushing the ceiling. He could also lie down and stretch out to his full length, but both ends touched his feet and outstretched arms. It was a tiny, claustrophobic place. A sarcophagus buried in the rock.
He wasn't sure where the fresh air was coming from. Feeling around, he found nothing but smooth, slightly damp walls that were cool to the touch. Too bad his phaser was gone. But they hadn't taken his communicator.
Operating the communicator by touch, Kirk checked each frequency, listening for activity. There might be a Starfleet vessel in the area, or an allied planet that had diplomatic ties to the Federation.
"This is Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. Can anyone read me? I'm being held prisoner...."
He repeated his distress call on every frequency. If the Petraw didn't like it, they could come stop him.
But there was no response. The static was extremely high, crackling on the lower frequencies, leading him to believe that a shield could be interfering with the subspace channel.
Kirk grimly kept trying.
His voice was raw from speaking into the communicator when he finally gave up. No one could hear his calls.
A different course of action was required. Kirk flipped the cover up and felt the screen mesh. No sharp edges on it or on the smooth black body of the unit. He tried wrenching the cover from the communicator, straining with both hands to twist it out of its hinge.
The mesh cracked at one corner, breaking free and leaving a jagged edge. He winced when it cut his probing finger. The other corner slid out of the hinge.
Kirk dug the broken cover into the seal on the end of the cell. It reacted like some kind of polymer. The jagged edge left a small slice in the flexible stuff.
He hacked away at the seal. The polymer wouldn't tear, but successive jabs cut deeper into it.
Satisfied that he was finally making some progress, he worked faster.
It took a while for Kirk to break through. At first only one hand could push out of the cell. He continued to dig at the polymer to enlarge the slash.
Getting his shoulders through was the hardest. He struggled with the polymer as if the cell were alive and determined to keep him inside. When he finally slid through, dragging his legs after him, he rolled onto the soft ground.
Only to find himself trapped again. The tunnel was exactly the same as before, nearly dark with no way to get out. But the Petraw were gone.
Kirk carefully retraced their steps, and found the tunnel once more clogged at the end with a dense mass of tan polymer. But now he knew that it could be opened.
He plunged his hands into the center, feeling them sink deeper and deeper. It was powdery dry. The stretchy texture reminded him of the thick rubber bands he had used as a kid for makeshift slingshots. He pushed harder on it.
The walls slowly started drawing back, opening up to reveal the platform where the gateway had deposited him. It was darker outside now, and Kirk went forward to see the blood orange sky looming over the parallel cliffs. It was densely spangled with bright white stars. Everything inside the crevice was ruddy, including the cliffs and the tunnel.
The Petraw could have taken a transport from the platform up to those metallic structures. But why did Luz bring them here instead of directly to the top? The last thing she had expected was for Kirk and Tasm to come along with her.
Kirk crouched down and went right to the edge of the platform to look over again. The crack seemed to descend forever, cleft deep into the planet. It was completely dark down there, and would likely be even in the brightest daylight. Plus there was that odd smoky mist. It didn't look very inviting.
No, the answer must lay inside the tunnel.
Kirk went back inside, returning to the six hexagon cells.
He didn't have much time before the tunnel began to close behind him, shutting out most of the light. But he searched the walls quickly, pushing and poking, trying to find another place where the polymer would open up.
Right next to the cells, his hands sank into the wall. Kirk leaned in, pushing his arms into the center. The barrier began to give way, irising into an opening tall enough for him to step through. It was not much brighter inside this tunnel, with the ambient light coming from a warm glow within the walls themselves.
The tunnel finally widened as it ended in a cross-tunnel. This passageway was apparently well trodden, with the tan polymer floor roughened and pitted by use.
Going down this tunnel, Kirk paused to listen to the echo of odd mechanical noises. Light slanted out of a doorway ahead. Edging closer, he could see a brightly lit, cavernous space filled with various large pieces of equipment. They were interconnected by ductwork and conduit junctions. The walls and floor were bare rock rather than being covered by the beige polymer.
A shadow crossed the doorway as several Petraw approached the door from inside. Kirk pulled back, pressing against the wall. He sank in deeper and deeper until it almost covered him. His muscles strained to keep him inside, and he wondered if he could bury himself completely. But there was still a stripe down his front that wasn't covered.
But the Petraw passed by in the gloom without noticing him. Kirk finally managed to pull away from the wall, which took as much effort as sinking into it. Then he looked around the doorway again. The machinery appeared to be pumps and some kind of a hydraulic press. They were being operated by Petraw in the baggy coveralls.
Kirk waited until none of the Petraw were in view before vaulting across the opening. He wasn't ready to take on a dozen Petraw by himself. Not yet.
He felt very conspicuous in his gold and black uniform. If anyone came down the tunnel, he would be spotted instantly. But he continued on. Far ahead, light was slanting out another door, and beyond that was another door.
Kirk made the same careful approach. Each large chamber held different types of machinery. In every one, the rock was left exposed and work lights gave adequate illumination for the Petraw.
His luck changed when he found the factory where the coveralls were made. Inside the door were racks of drying coveralls, shining and smelling strongly like a brand-new spacesuit. They were translucent when wet, drying to nearly a solid white.
Kirk slipped in among the racks, going deeper to avoid the Petraw who were conveying the garments out of a mold and hanging them up to dry. Some of them were miniature, probably for babies, while others were bigger than he was. They were designed exactly the same; bags with legs that started at the knees and arms that started at the elbows, ending in booties and four-fingered gloves. The hood was attached to the neck.
He found one his size, but he wasn't sure how to get inside it. After some experimental testing, he realized the neck stretched if it was steadily pulled on. By the time his shoulders got through, it was hanging open wide. But when he pulled up the hood, the elasticized stuff began to shrink back into shape. What little shape it had.
With the hood up, Kirk felt much better. His black pants could vaguely be seen through the near-opaque polymer. But in the darkness, no one would notice.
Finally feeling free to roam, Kirk slipped out of the garment factory and began briskly walking down the center of the tunnel. He didn't have to sneak up to every doorway, and could take more time to examine the unusual machinery. It had the same hodgepodge construction as Tasm's ship, as if different materials and technology had been jumbled together to form one functioning unit.
No one paid any attention to him, even when several Petraw passed close by. They kept their eyes cast down as they walked, and their movements seemed somewhat slow to Kirk.
He grew bolder, ranging through the corridors. His general direction was up, figuring that would be the way to get out of the complex. Yet the tunnels went on and on, making him pause as he tried to remember his route. No sense getting lost in the maze. It appeared to be laid out in concentric rings, with short, steeply sloping tunnels up to the next level.
Though it had long underground corridors like the Kalandan station, everything else was different. The Kalandan passageways were large and kept sparkling clean like the space station it was. This place was cramped, dark, and dirty, like an underground mine. The Petraw, especially the smaller ones, were bowed down with work. With their melted faces, he couldn't tell any of them apart.
Kirk didn't want to feel sorry for Tasm, but for some reason he did.
It took hours before Kirk found what he was looking for -- a docking bay for spaceships. Keeping his elation in check, he passed a few of the larger vessels the size of Tasm's ship. They filled the underground bunkers from one end to the other. Then he came across several hangars for the smaller shuttlecraft-type ships, the kind that a single man could operate.
Kirk was grinning in relief. That hadn't been too difficult. Now all he needed to do was get hold of the interstellar transporter and steal a ship to return to the Enterprise.
It took a while to explore the extensive hangars to find the right ship. Most were being worked on round the clock by the silent waxwork Petraw.
At this point, he didn't hesitate to go right up to them. They were so intent on their jobs that as long as he appeared to be doing a task of his own no one paid attention to him. They coordinated with each other with a minimum of clipped words, almost a technocode.
The one time Kirk was asked a question, he made sure his hood hung over his face before grunting and shaking his head. The worker accepted his ignorance and asked someone else.
Finally Kirk found a small ship that appeared fully operational. He slid into the pilot's seat and examined the controls. The panel was activated, but it was like nothing he had ever seen. Spiky symbols scrolled down one side, with triangles and diamond patterns on the other side.
"Uh-oh," Kirk muttered. "Maybe not so simple..."
His other problem was how to get the ship out of the hangar. There were large recessed doors in the ceiling of each bunker, but he couldn't see a control panel that operated them.
I might need a native guide, he thought. Not that Luz or Tasm seemed predisposed to help him.
Working at the panel, Kirk managed to call up the navigational chart. The pattern of a galactic star map was clear in any language. He felt a rising hope that he would manage in spite of any obstacle --
Then he realized what he was seeing. Amid the multitude of stars, there was one that coincided with a red stationary indicator. It was near the center of the galaxy, in the spiral arm at the base of the Beta Quadrant.
Kirk froze. In the center of the galaxy... if that red indicator meant what he thought it meant, then he was there! At least forty thousand light-years away from Federation territory...
Dazed, he tried to do the math. At top warp speed of 9.9 -- and no ship could go that fast for very long -- it would take him over twenty years to get back to the Enterprise.
Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.