The Ashes of Eden: Chapter 1
Kirk didn't look back to the past -- he slammed into it running, diving, hitting the volcanic ash of Tycho IV shoulder first, rolling to cover by Ensign Galt behind a jagged boulder.
But the boulder hadn't been good cover for Galt. The ensign was dead. Skin blue-white. Body locked in a final contortion of pain.
Kirk faltered. He was twenty-four years old, a lieutenant three years out of the Academy. Ensign Galt had been only nineteen. On his first mission. He had looked up to Kirk, and Kirk hadn't protected him.
The communicator at Kirk's side chirped and reflexes took over, freeing him to act. He snapped it open.
"Where are those coordinates?"
It was Garrovick. Kirk's captain hadn't beamed back to the Farragut when he had had the chance, before the transporter coils had overloaded. He had stayed with the wounded. Waiting for the shuttlecraft. Still ten minutes away.
"Scanning now," Kirk said. He forced himself to his feet, exposing himself to whatever lay beyond the boulder. Whatever had attacked the Farragut. Whatever dwelt among the ashes of Tycho IV and was now picking off the Farragut's crew, one by one.
Kirk held his bulky tricorder before him like a shield. His eyes darted from the readout to the surrounding terrain and back again. Tycho Prime was setting. The horizon blazed with the color of blood. But there were no readings.
"Captain, there's nothing out there!" Kirk's voice betrayed the tension he felt.
But the voice on the communicator remained calm. "Stay put and keep scanning, Lieutenant. You've got forward fire control till the main sensors are back in operation."
"Aye, sir," Kirk acknowledged. In standard orbit above him, the Farragut's weapons were at his command. With no sensors to guide them, Kirk was now their targeting system. Somehow, the weight of that responsibility felt good.
A distant scream cut through the dusk, ending too abruptly. High-pitched. A woman.
Kirk held his position, heart hammering. He fought the urge to throw down his communicator and draw the laser pistol at his side. Garrovick had given him his orders, and there was nothing Kirk wouldn't do for his captain.
Garrovick was that kind of commander. That kind of man.
A figure ran for Kirk's boulder. It was nothing more than a red-tinged silhouette against the sunset. Kirk quickly checked his tricorder. The figure was human.
The young lieutenant slid into position beside Kirk, out of breath, laser drawn. His short, bristle-cut blond hair was streaked with black volcanic ash. He glanced at Galt's body, but he showed no more reaction to it than a Vulcan might.
"That scream," Drake said, "it was Morgan."
Even as Kirk felt the shock twist through his chest, he saw the flicker of a smile on Drake's face. Faith Morgan was the Farragut's weapons officer. For the last three months she had shared Kirk's quarters. As his lover.
Kirk wanted to grind Drake's smirk into the rocks of this place.
But he had his orders. Garrovick's orders. Starfleet orders. There was nothing more he could do for Faith Morgan, but the crew of the Farragut numbered four hundred. At least it had, when the ship had first entered this system.
Kirk waved his tricorder into the gloom. Still no readings. He felt angry tears sting his eyes, but he fought them back.
Before anything else, he was on duty.
Drake clicked through the power levels on his weapon, twisting the stubby barrel completely around to its highest setting.
Kirk reached out to stop him. "Lasers don't work on it." One of the sentries had managed to gasp that into her communicator before whatever it was had snuffed out her life.
"The creature can change its molecular form," Drake argued. "Maybe lasers can work on one form but not another."
Kirk rapidly changed the settings on his tricorder, scanned again, looking for a target. "Garrovick says phasers will do it." Phasers were the newest weapons in Starfleet's arsenal.
Drake gestured dismissively with his laser. "What does Garrovick know?"
Kirk slapped his communicator to his side, grabbed Drake by his collar, shoved him hard against the boulder. "He's the captain," Kirk hissed. "He'll know how to get us out of this." As far as Kirk was concerned, that was what starship captains did. They were invincible. They had to be.
Drake looked amused by Kirk's emotional outburst. He smoothed his tunic where Kirk had crushed it. "He didn't do so well in orbit, did he?"
Kirk flipped open his communicator again, to keep his fist off Drake's jaw. Drake wasn't worth it. Kirk had found that out at Starfleet Academy. Their final after-class fight in the antigrav gym had cost Kirk two demerits. Kirk had won, barely. But the greater satisfaction had come when Kirk had edged out Drake by two percentiles and drawn first star duty in their class.
"Something caused a temporal shift in the sensor grid," Kirk said. It was the only explanation for how Garrovick had been taken by surprise.
Kirk had been on duty on the Farragut's bridge when it had happened. The sensor boards had lit up as the ship had been invaded by...something -- a gas cloud, a creature? At the time there had been no way to be certain.
Garrovick had ordered shields to full strength. The creature responded by somehow vanishing from the sensors' sensitivity range. At the same time, an impossible temporal phase shift overloaded every key circuit in the Farragut. It might even have been a defensive move on the creature's part. But whatever had caused it, for a breathless hour it had seemed the ship might not be able to hold her orbit.
Garrovick had ordered the evacuation of all but a skeleton flight crew. Then he had saved the ship. Invincible.
But by then the creature had found the evacuation camp on the surface of Tycho IV. And it was a creature, there could be no doubt about that now. A creature that fed on the red blood cells of humanoid life-forms. Like Galt. And Faith. And all the others already cut down.
On the surface, the creature methodically probed their defenses. It overpowered their emergency forcefields. Withstood whatever the laser cannons could send into it. Enveloped everything with a sickly sweet smell -- the smell of death on an already dying world.
Immediately, Garrovick had beamed down to the heart of the action, organizing the withdrawal of his crew. Fighting at their side.
Then, suddenly, halfway through the boarding process, the ship's transporters had stopped functioning. Too strained by the temporal overload and the first evacuation.
Garrovick had called down the shuttlecraft.
No one believed they would make it in time.
But Kirk never doubted that Garrovick would save them. Somehow.
He was the captain.
Something spiked on the tricorder's display.
Kirk fine-tuned the reading. Di-kironium. It meant nothing to him.
But then an unwelcome fragrance reached out to him. Too sweet. Overpowering.
"It's coming back..." Kirk said.
"Lieutenant!" Garrovick transmitted. "Where are those readings?"
Something moved out by the distant rocks.
No -- not moved -- billowed. Roiled forward against the scarlet sunset like a storm front from hell.
"Kirk?!" Garrovick repeated.
It was at this moment, in another time, another life, that Lieutenant Kirk froze. Faced with certain death, weighed down by the responsibility of his duty, he hesitated.
But not this time.
"Kirk to Farragut!" he shouted. "Target bearing thirty meters due west this location! All phaser banks FIRE!"
Instinctively Kirk charged Drake, forcing him down to cover as well. A heartbeat later, the heavens of Tycho IV were ripped open by twin lances of blue fire.
Kirk felt the ground shake as the eerie harmonics of phased energy tore apart the atoms of everything in its beam. He smelled burnt dust, heat, the tang of ozone released by atmospheric ionization.
The barrage ended.
Kirk peered past the edge of the boulder. A cloud of dust was lit from within by the glow of superheated rocks.
The creature was gone.
"We did it," Kirk exulted. He brought his communicator closer. "Captain Garrovick -- we..."
A wispy tendril of white vapor twisted from the dust cloud like a tornado forming in reverse.
Kirk stopped talking.
The vapor stretched up from the ground, spinning faster, rising along the ionization trail left by the phaser beams.
Rising up to the Farragut.
"Dear God..." Kirk whispered.
He looked at Drake. Drake's eyes gleamed in the final trace of light from the sunset. His expression was unreadable.
"Kirk to Farragut! The creature is on an intercept course! Get out of there!"
Garrovick broke in on the transmission. "Farragut! Break orbit! Maximum warp! Now!"
The Farragut's science officer responded, her voice breaking up in static.
"...shields down...coming in through...antimatter containment is..."
A new star blossomed directly overhead.
Garrovick said. "Farragut, come in..."
Nothing. Not even static.
Kirk stared up at the flickering pinpoint of light. Two hundred crew. A Constitution-class starship. Reduced to one dying star among so many.
Now obscured by a slender coil of white vapor. Spiraling down from the heavens.
Coming back to claim them all.
Drake laughed beside Kirk. "Great instincts, Jimbo. See you in hell."
The descending cloud creature was almost on them. Kirk had run out of options. There was only one thing left to do.
"End program," he said.
Then the creature and Drake and Tycho IV dissolved into a holographic haze, back to the past where they belonged...
...and Kirk no longer did.
* * *
"Was the suit too heavy, sir?" The young Stafleet technician waited respectfully for Kirk's answer as Kirk slipped off the bulky encounter helmet he had worn during the simulation.
In the cavernous room in the subbasement of the Cochrane Physics Hall of Starfleet Academy, massive banks of machinery hummed. The unpainted, generic blocks and platform, that had recreated the rocky terrain of Tycho IV dutifully reset themselves into yellow-gridded walls.
Kirk's eyes ached where the visual input encoders had pressed against them. His back ached from the weight of the servo drivers that controlled the feedback web enclosing his body. The entire holoenvironment encounter rig was too heavy.
But Kirk wasn't going to be the one who complained about it.
He made a conscious effort to stand straighter, move his arms more quickly. He flashed a smile at the technician. "Felt fine," he said lightly. "Almost as if I were back in my old uniform."
The technician grinned, impressed. As if all he ever heard were complaints. He started disconnecting the feedback web.
"You know," the technician said as if Kirk were a familiar friend of his, "someday it should be possible to do away with the suit entirely. Use focused tractor beams. Microgravity control. Maybe even build some props with transporter matter replication."
Kirk groaned inwardly as he kept a patient smile on his face. In addition to its weight, the suit chafed in places he didn't want to rub with an audience around.
He let the technician babble on happily about the wondrous abilities of his gizmos and gadgets an the future of holographic simulations.
He hoped the technician would think the sweat streaming off his subject's forehead was the result of the encounter suit's skintight fit, and not the exertion that had left Kirk close to exhaustion. Or the pain in his shoulder not letting him forget the way he had hit the simulated ground and rolled behind the simulated boulder.
He thought it was too bad Starfleet engineers couldn't simulate the feeling of indestructibility he had had in his youth, when he could hit the real ground on a roll five times a day and never feel the consequences.
"Think of it," the technician continued with innocent enthusiasm. "Just walk into an empty room in your ordinary uniform and zap! Instantly you're surrounded by a holoenvironment so realistic you can't tell the difference between it and reality."
Kirk flexed his hands, remembering the weight of the old-fashioned tricorder he had carried during the simulation. The way the fabric around Drake's neck had compressed in his fist. All of it an illusion.
"Trust me. It's very realistic now," Kirk said. He meant it.
"So you can be sure that's what would have happened."
Kirk didn't understand. "What would have happened?"
"If you had fired at the cloud creature right away, instead of hesitating the way you really did."
Now Kirk understood. But he didn't want to talk about it. He hadn't thought about Faith Morgan in years. But he had never forgotten her. He would never forget any of them.
"You see, by not firing the phasers right away," the technician persisted, "the creature only attacked those crew members on the ground. The Farragut and everyone on her were safe. But if you had fired right away -- based on the computer's reconstruction of the cloud creature's abilities, it would have returned to the Farragut, destroyed her, then finished off everyone else on the ground as well. So you did the right thing the first time round."
And Garrovick had died because of it, Kirk thought grimly. He changed the subject. "It should make for a wonderful training device."
The technician gave him a bewildered look. "Training? I guess. But how about for entertainment? The gaming possibilities alone are endless."
Kirk kicked off the heavy feedback boots that had made him feel as if he had crunched across volcanic soil. "You programmed all this for 'entertainment' purposes?" he asked.
The technician retained his puzzled expression as he retrieved Kirk's feedback boots, balancing the entire suit in an awkward position across his arms. "Sir, we've programmed almost all your early exploits into the system."
The technician nodded ardently. "This encounter with the cloud creature of Tycho IV, and your destruction of it eleven years later on stardate 3619.2. And stardate 3045.6 -- remember? Your encounter with the Metrons and hand-to-hand battle with the Gorn. And 3468.1 -- when you escaped from the alien on Pollux IV who claimed to be the Greek god Adonais. We've almost got them all, sir. More coming online each day."
Kirk felt rattled. He couldn't recall a single stardate from his first five-year mission on the Enterprise if his pension depended on it. "But why?"
The technician stared blankly at Kirk, as if he couldn't understand why the question had been asked. "Sir...you're a hero."
"Oh." That again, Kirk thought.
"Don't you feel that way, sir?"
Kirk hesitated. He didn't want to say the wrong thing. This young man had gone to a prodigious amount of effort to re-create an incident from Kirk's past in Starfleet's prototype holographic encounter suite. In incredible detail, as well. Even Kirk had forgotten the laser sidearms that used to be standard Starfleet issue.
He had, he admitted to himself, forgotten a great deal from those days.
He smiled at the technician, trying to soften the blow. "Those...'exploits,'" he began.
"They were just my job," Kirk said simply. "A job I did a long time ago."
The technician regarded Kirk blankly for a moment, as if unsure how to respond.
"It was more than a job, sir. To us." With a nod he indicated his fellow technicians in the control room overlooking the encounter suite. Men and women, they were all the technician's age. Younger than Kirk could ever imagine having been. And all of them were lined up against the viewport, watching Kirk's every move. It was disconcerting to be under that close scrutiny.
Kirk could see the dawn of disillusionment in the young technician's eyes. "We'll never forget, sir."
With that, the young man turned and walked back to the control room.
Kirk held out his hand to stop him. He wanted to say something, anything, to erase the youth's disappointment.
But he didn't know how.
It wasn't the first time, either.
The problem was with expectations, Kirk knew. For all that it mattered to others, his past held little appeal for him. He had always looked toward the future, toward new challenges, not past accomplishments.
But his future was running out.
He was a starship captain without a starship. Unable to look back, unable to go forward. Trapped in the present. Pent up. Frustrated. Ready to go nova.
It was an intolerable state for James T. Kirk. And he knew he had to do something about it soon. Otherwise, he would have to give up. And giving up had never been an option for him.
He'd rather die first, and Kirk was not yet ready to face that final moment.
Though in time, he knew, even a starship captain must die.
Copyright © 1995 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.