It seemed as if not just the supervolcano, but every square meter of solid ground on the planet was on the verge of shaking itself apart. The serpentine smoke cloud that emerged from the enormous, towering cone stretched far out to sea, retaining its ominous coherence even as it cast much of the ocean’s surface in shadow. Struggling to escape the noxious gases that rose from the planet’s interior, troubled flying creatures sought clearer air to the north and south. Meanwhile, landslides periodically thundered down the volcano’s slopes as its insides continued to swell, while the magma-clogged throat coughed and rumbled threateningly. Far below the outer planetary crust, something was building, something that portended far more than a mere series of Strombolian eruptions.
Designed by its builders to withstand intermittent quakes and recurring tectonic stutters, constructed of hand-hewn stone, the massive temple situated not far from the mountain’s base violently trembled but did not fall. Mute and immovable at the convergence of multiple pathways that had been laboriously cleared from the red-leaved forest, it had stood thus for many hundreds of cycles.
The bipedal figure that burst from the bas-relief framed entrance was moving as fast as possible. While the simmering volcano appeared the greater threat, the more immediate one took the form of dozens of figures who emerged from the interior of the temple in hot pursuit. The bright yellow cowls and loincloths they wore stood out in sharp contrast to their skin, which more than anything resembled the cracked and splitting clay that might be found at the bottom of a long-dried-out lake bed. Primitive, simple symbols and lines of painted vegetable dye marked their otherwise bare bodies. Their yelling and screaming formed a nightmarish cacophony that contrasted with the lead figure’s heavy breathing.
The gray cloth wrappings James Tiberius Kirk wore had disguised him. Now they interfered far too much with his breathing as he struggled to stay ahead of his pursuers. Whipping them off, he sucked in one desperate lungful of alien air after another as he dodged primitive spears that would terminate his life as surely as any phaser. Around him, the deep red Nibiran forest seemed intent on deliberately impeding his flight.
Emitting a howl of outrage in memory of the desecration that had just taken place in their most holy temple, the high Nibiran priest shook the weapon he was carrying as he urged on his fellows. Though the Nibirans were decidedly humanoid, their rounded facial features, ritually marked clay-colored skin, and black pupil-less eyes marked them as genetically and evolutionarily different from the humans they otherwise closely resembled.
As the object of their fury, Kirk fought to lengthen his stride as he ran. He knew that if he was caught in possession of the scroll he had snatched from the temple, his pursuers would show him no mercy. He would be dead before he could explain that his intentions were wholly benign. He had to just keep running—if all went according to plan, that would not be much longer.
It couldn’t be much longer, he knew. His legs were turning to rubber while his lungs threatened imminent surrender.
The branches and tendrils of the surrounding forest whipped at him; every second they slowed him, allowing the furious Nibirans to draw that much closer. A foraging mother and child gazed up at him with wide eyes as he bolted past. Sitting on a red branch, a creature that resembled a yellow anemone drew tentacles back into its sack-like body as he sped by. He didn’t know if it was plant, animal, or a combination of both, and at the moment he didn’t care. Down a slope blanketed in red foliage, across a stream, and into a small clearing he raced—where, startled by his sudden emergence from the thick undergrowth, a massive fanged quadruped reared directly and unexpectedly in front of him.
The phaser Kirk drew was as technologically out of keeping with his surroundings as a ram hydrofoil would have been in a traditional sailing regatta. Before huge paws could come down on him, he hit the animal with a full blast from his weapon. It promptly collapsed in a pile of legs, fur, and dismay, revealing another masked biped behind it. Facing Kirk but weaponless, this second figure fumbled to remove its own facial wrappings. The face soon revealed was contorted, but no more so than usual.
“Dammit, man,” Leonard McCoy sputtered, “that was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”
Confronting the ship’s doctor and still breathing hard, Kirk barely managed to mutter a frustrated “Great” before the babble of the pursuing mob of enraged Nibirans rose above every sound except the dangerously deepening growl of the looming volcano. Gesturing in lieu of speech, Kirk beckoned for McCoy to join him as he resumed his flight. With a last regretful glance at the immobile local riding beast, the doctor followed.
Taking note of the rolled tube of local parchment that Kirk clutched like a relay runner’s baton, McCoy nodded in its direction.
“What the hell is that?”
“I don’t know.” The captain was fighting for breath now, each lungful demanding an increasingly painful effort. He motioned in the direction of the bellowing native throng behind them. “But they were bowing to it.” As a second glance showed the lead Nibirans continuing to close the space between them, he drew his communicator with his free hand and snapped the instrument open.
“Kirk to Shuttle One: Locals are out of the immediate kill zone. I’ve . . . given them something else to focus on. You’re clear to proceed as we discussed! I repeat, you’re clear to proceed! Operation’s a go now!” Lowering the communicator, he looked to his left. “You know, for someone whose expertise resides in what is essentially a sedentary profession, you move pretty good.” A spear slammed into the tree just to his right.
Behind them, the immense volcano was beginning to spill streams of lava down its flanks, bleeding bright red-orange against the dark basaltic slopes.
McCoy’s gasping reply was as dry as the chief engineer’s favorite gin. “Being chased by howling homicidal indigenes has a way of enhancing my sprinting ability.” His tone darkened. “Of course, if you hadn’t shot our ride . . . ”
Kirk shook his head. “Can’t hear you, Bones. Volcano noise.”
“Volcano noise, my—!”
* * *
Computer-augmented stability controls notwithstanding, Hikaru Sulu had to fight to hold the shuttle steady. As the interior of a fast-rising volcanic plume and its accompanying blasts of acidic gases was not the most salubrious location for a hovering shuttle-craft, it required Sulu’s full attention to keep the compact craft from being knocked ass-over-teakettle. Or worse, cast on an out-of-control vector toward the unforgiving ground below.
There was nothing wrong with audio reception, however. Kirk’s voice filled the cockpit.
“Copy that, Captain!” A glance rearward showed that while well under way, preparations for the final aspect of their questionable intervention were not yet complete. Shorn of anything resembling spare time, Sulu made his concern known in no uncertain terms.
“We have to do this now, people! If we sit in this murk much longer, the acids in the offgassing are going to start impacting our systems. All we have to do is lose one thruster and we risk going down!”
His warning was acknowledged with a hand wave. It was not half-hearted, but half-human. Turning back to Nyota Uhura, Spock stood stoically as she continued sealing him into the exosuit. Designed for heavy-duty work under the most extreme conditions, the brilliantly metallic, copper-colored suit was far less flexible than its standard-issue cousins. It could protect its wearer from nearly anything, but it could not make Spock comfortable. The latter did not concern the Vulcan. Survival did. Tilting his head slightly to one side, he spoke toward the suit’s pickup.
“Captain, did any representatives of the indigenous intelligence see you? At the risk of repeating the obvious and despite the difficulties inherent in our current effort, I must repeat that the Prime Directive clearly states that there can be no perceived external interference with the internal development of an alien civiliza—”
Despite the shuttle’s increasingly violent rocking, Kirk’s response came through clearly.
“No, Mr. Spock, they did not! I know what it says! I might have missed a few details here and there in certain classes . . . ” The admirable clarity of the surface-to-shuttle transmission was confirmed as Kirk’s communicator picked up the nearby McCoy’s unmistakable sarcastic snicker. “. . . but I didn’t miss that one. We’re not supposed to be here at all. It’s because of the Prime Directive that we’re having to do this the hard way. Now, drop off your super ice cube and let’s get out of here! Kirk out!”
The science officer would have argued further with his captain save for two reasons: The time to do so had long since expired, and arguing with James T. Kirk frequently generated far more frustration than satisfaction. Filing the details of their brief conversation away for future discussion, Spock returned his focus to the business at hand.
As Uhura stepped back, Spock knelt and opened a clamshell metallic case. In addition to the brace of simple unifying electronics that turned the contents of the container from an assortment of seemingly unrelated materials and components into a device of uncommon power and unusual purpose, it was first and foremost a basic but well-made timing unit. After entering final critical information into it, he watched and waited a moment longer to ensure himself that the apparatus had been properly activated. Only when he was certain of this did he stand, maintaining his balance as, despite its stabilizers, the shuttle was rocked by increasingly violent atmospheric forces.
Slipping on the suit’s helmet, Spock locked it in place. After clipping the safety line to his chest plate, Uhura moved to ensure that it was solidly affixed to the shuttle’s cargo winch. Spock then picked up the case and secured it to the equipment bracket on his side.
Uhura stared at him through the helmet’s industrial-strength visor. “Sure you don’t want me to go?” Requesting a response was one way of making certain his suit’s comm unit was functioning. Her query provoked exactly the sort of reply she expected.
“That would be illogical,” Spock responded calmly, “as I am already outfitted in the requisite gas- and heat-resistant equip—”
Stepping forward, she placed an open palm on either side of the heavy helmet. When she next spoke, her tone was utterly different. Soft, affectionate, and full of that meaning that went beyond words.
“Spock. I was kidding.” Rising on her toes, she placed a quick kiss on the transparent front of his protective helmet.
“However transitory, even minimal visual distortion is not helpful,” he muttered.
“It’ll dissipate fast.” She stepped back. “Hopefully the attendant meaning won’t. You’ve got this, Spock.”
Their eyes locked. The moment, if not the visual distortion, was broken by the anxious voice of Sulu calling back to them from the cockpit forward.
“If we’re gonna do this, we’ve got to do it now! Or we’ll lose the shuttle as well as the moment!” Erupting gases jolted the shuttle, sending it rocking dangerously from side to side. Constantly changing atmospheric pressure threatened to knock it into surrounding walls or send it plunging into the fiery lava lake not far below.
It would have been far easier if Spock could simply beam in and out with the ship’s transporter. But while they could beam him into the volcano, it would be impossible to set him down on a safe, solid location. To do that would have required a preliminary visual fix: one they had neither the time nor the precise means to obtain. Sometimes, despite the availability of the most advanced tech, nothing worked better than a pair of experienced eyes . . . and being directly on site.
Uhura’s hand patted the science officer on the side of his helmet. “I’ll see you in a few minutes. Keep cool.”
“It is my intention to ensure that everything keeps cool.” Spock turned toward the rear of the shuttle’s cargo bay.
“Spock!” Sulu yelled from the violently rocking cockpit. “You’ve got to go now!”
Uhura laid a last look on the science officer, then turned and joined Sulu in the cockpit. Airlock doors shut tightly behind her as she settled into the seat beside the helmsman. Sulu was now sweating as heavily as if he were floating outside in the volcanic flow. Uhura spared a final thought for the science officer rather than for what he was about to do, and then, taking a deep breath, she initiated the drop.
* * *
Safely encased in the exosuit, Spock was able to swallow once before the doors parted beneath his feet, sending him on a controlled plunge into the intense heat, towering flames, and swirling mix of gases below. Behind him, the shuttle bay doors immediately slammed shut. The cool transparency of the atmosphere inside the shuttle was replaced by angry yellows and reds as he embarked on a highspeed descent into hell.
Explosive emissions of dark gases, corrosive as well as poisonous, made visual monitoring of his immediate surrounds difficult but not impossible. The heat rendered standard infrared worse than useless. Only focused life-form imaging made it possible for those on board the shuttle to track the science officer’s descent, and that only intermittently, what with the continual eruptions of large masses of hot magmatic material. One such discharge the size of a small personal vehicle barely missed Spock as he dropped. The shockwave from its passing rocked him, sending him spinning on the descent cable until he could correct for the atmospheric distortion and steady himself once more. He imagined himself a spider on a silken thread, hunting for the one stable perch above a vat of boiling oil.
Picked out by the shuttle’s hasty surface scan, the landing site was right where it was supposed to be. Its spear of metamorphic stability thrust comfortingly above the lava that geysered around it. Though recognition of it was gratifying, securing the visual did not make touching down on it any easier. All around him, huge jets of molten rock the color of the sun fountained upward, threatening to collapse atop his precarious perch and drown him. Air currents rippling with heat made it difficult to maintain position, and despite the best efforts of Sulu and the shuttle’s optimizing stability system, perfect immobility was impossible to achieve in the hissing throat of the volcano. The overwhelmed helmsman finally had to admit as much. His voice filled the increasingly warm interior of the exosuit’s helmet.
“I can’t hold us here! Activity is becoming more violent, and the stabilizers’ algorithms aren’t designed to cope with this combination of heat and atmospheric distortion. Spock, we have to pull you back up!”
The Vulcan proffered a reply that was as characteristic as it was in startling contrast to his present surroundings. “Negative, Mr. Sulu. This will be our only chance to save this entire species. If this volcano erupts, this planet dies. I would be remiss in my duties as a science officer were I to terminate this mission now.”
Then the cable, stressed by heat and circumstances with which it had never been designed to cope, snapped.
It was not a long fall, but the landing was hard enough. Spock winced as contact was made with the unyielding rocky surface. Jolted from his grasp, the case and its precious contents tumbled toward the molten rock that surrounded the solid stone on which he had landed. As he rolled and struggled to stabilize his position, he fumbled for the Rankine nullifier. Ignoring the pain in his back and ribs, he scrambled to recover it before it was lost to the seething lava. High overhead, the lower length of the broken cable had vanished into the roiling, toxic haze.
* * *
To a stunned Uhura, the unprogrammed rapidity of the cable’s ascent could mean only one thing. “The line . . . there’s no weight on it.” Though equally distressed, Sulu had no time to comfort her. As individual components shut down or went offline, the shuttle’s performance was being swiftly degraded. Frantically bypassing damaged elements and engaging emergency backups, he was fully occupied in striving to keep them from following the science officer into the volcano’s blistering, molten depths.
Rocked by a tremendous blast of superheated air, the shuttle was blown upward several dozen meters before Sulu could regain control. Despite the danger of being knocked to the deck or thrown against the roof, Uhura began to unfasten her seat’s safety harness.
“We have to get him back. There’s another specialty exosuit in the cargo bay. I can suit up, go down, and pick him up.”
With no time to spare for discussion, a grim-faced Sulu kept his attention focused on the controls. Too many readouts had turned a monotonously lethal red, too many more were shifting threateningly from green to yellow. In his left ear, a nearly invisible transmitter relayed a streaming updated info dump, none of it reassuring. Their situation was bad and growing worse.
“Given the ongoing degradation of the shuttle’s functions, at this point I’ll be lucky if I can get us back to the ship.”
Her voice cracked; her eyes pleaded. “We can’t just leave him!”
Sulu outranked her. At that moment, he wished he didn’t. Wishing, however, had no place in the chain of command. “We don’t have a choice! We barely have maneuverability, we’ve been in here too long, and if we stay a moment longer, I can’t guarantee that we’ll go anywhere but down.”
No time, no time. Uncertain even if he could still hear her, Uhura addressed the console pickup. “Spock, we’re going to try and get back to the Enterprise.”
Their discussion was rendered moot as, at that moment, a sizable chunk of solidifying, red-hot basalt slammed into the underside of the shuttle, sending it spinning wildly upward. Alarms screamed. Fighting to retain control, Sulu entered a navigation sequence, hoping that the shuttle retained enough aerodynamic functionality to comply. If he spent any more time at the manual controls, he wouldn’t be ready when the time came to abandon the sturdy but beleaguered craft. Unsealing his flight suit revealed thinner material beneath. It gleamed silver in the uneven glare, incredibly lightweight yet impermeable, simultaneously smooth and scaled while possessed of operational characteristics that had nothing to do with the daily needs of a Starfleet officer. To his right, a visibly shaken Uhura was reluctantly shedding her outer attire to expose a similar undergarment that flashed crimson in the increasingly uneven light inside the shuttle. For the last time, the helmsman addressed the comm pickup.
“Captain, we’re pulling out while we still can. Even so, I don’t know if we’ll be able to make it back to the designated drop location for the ship. I’m ditching the shuttle. You’ve got to make it to the Enterprise on your own.”
“Wonderful,” came the response from the open comm. There might have been additional commentary, Sulu reflected, but if so, it was lost in a wash of interference. Like every other system on the shuttle, its communications were failing. Knowing the captain as well as he did by now, the helmsman wasn’t sure he needed to hear any additional opinions Kirk might have had on the subject of his transport’s failure anyway. He could just as easily imagine them.
Despite the damage it had suffered, the shuttle succeeded in exiting the volcano. Though the autopilot managed to put it on course, the rest of the crippled craft was rapidly failing system by system. It was evident to both officers that they weren’t going to make it all the way back—though a dazed Uhura wasn’t sure she cared if they did or not. Conditioning, not determination, forced her through the necessary motions.
As despair and indifference threatened to overwhelm Uhura’s training, Sulu could see the danger. “Uhura—ready to swim?”
Struggling to keep her balance inside the increasingly unstable shuttle, she nodded tersely. “I know you did everything you could. I’m ready.” Her voice strengthened, her professionalism carrying her forward despite what she was feeling inside.
Her thoughts, not to mention her emotions, were elsewhere. If necessary, Sulu resolved to push her out should they have to go down. They’d already been forced to leave Spock behind.
He was damned if he was going to leave Uhura as well.
* * *
Kirk was about done. Though fresher than the captain, so was McCoy. The majority of the doctor’s limited athletic capability lay in his hands. From the start of their flight, his legs had protested at the unnatural demands being placed on them. As a physician, he was intimately familiar with the physiological indicators of looming physical failure, and he heartily disliked having to apply them to himself. If only Kirk hadn’t impetuously stunned the domesticated animal McCoy had obtained for them to ride. If only a lot of things, the increasingly exhausted doctor mused. Not that he was surprised. Saddened, was more like it. The entire operation had struck him as a fool’s errand from the moment it had first been proposed. Present circumstances had, regrettably, only confirmed that initial opinion.
Nor did their current circumstances suggest that things were going to get any better, he told himself as he shouted at Kirk.
“Jim—Jim, the beach is that way!”
Something sharp and potentially lethal whizzed past the captain’s head. A glance back showed that the mob of Nibirans was continuing to close the gap. At the two officers’ present rate of retreat, it was only a matter of moments before the next flung knife, or spear, or simple rounded stone brought him and the captain to the ground.
Kirk might be brave, even at times recklessly so, but he was not blind to the reality of their limitations. Besides, they had accomplished his intent—drawing the natives away from the dangerous proximity to the temple. Barely slowing to a stop, Kirk proceeded to drape the parchment over a nearby tree branch. As he released it, the scroll unfurled all the way to the ground, revealing a host of markings and symbols that must have taken some Nibiran scribe untold hours of labor to render so precisely and clearly.
“Jim!” McCoy was nearly out of breath. “This is neither the time nor the place to make a dramatic presentation!” A glance showed that the bellowing Nibirans were nearly on top of them. “Besides which, I don’t think your intended audience is in the mood to listen to anything you have to say!”
Kirk yelled without looking back at him. “Doesn’t matter—we’re not going to the beach!”
“No.” Realizing the import of Kirk’s words, McCoy’s eyes widened. “No no no!”
Whatever the inscribed contents of the scroll, it caused the Nibirans to break off their furious pursuit of the sacrilegious strangers. Spying the cherished document dangling from the branch, they immediately came to a halt and dropped to their knees before it in profound supplication. With hands extended in front of them, they commenced a steady, reverent chanting: eyes closed, heads bobbing. The scripture of the gods had been recovered, and they were giving thanks.
A number of them, however, had more than passive veneration on their minds. For them, there remained the small matter of revenge. To the group of warrior/defenders who continued the pursuit, prayer could wait until those who had desecrated their most holy site had been suitably dealt with. If the gods so willed it, that reckoning would take place very soon now.
Struggling to keep up with Kirk, McCoy still put one foot in front of the other. He was simply not used to moving so fast. Having to do so now did nothing to improve his mood. He was not so fatigued that he failed to recognize the surroundings they had studied prior to the drop, however. He pointed to his left.
“Jim, this is all wrong! The pickup beach is that way!”
Kirk looked over at him, each word now interrupted by a short, hasty breath. “We won’t make it to the beach!”
McCoy knew for certain what was coming now, and he did not look forward to it.
There was not a lot of red forest left in front of them. Unfortunately, its absence didn’t translate into the presence of safe ground. It didn’t, in fact, translate into any ground at all.
Directly ahead of them the forest disappeared, giving way to a line of blue-green and cloud-pocked sky above. The nearer they drew to the edge of the forest, the more the view ahead was replaced by sky and, soon, by sea. The alien ocean lay too far below, the line at the bottom of the sheer cliff they were approaching marked by gravel and wave-washed boulders. Not that they could have survived such a fall had the rocks been replaced by the softest sand.
They could stop and try to confront the howling locals who were drawing closer every second—or . . .
There was no time for analysis. Without breaking stride, the two men hurled themselves over the edge. As he plunged over the cliff, arms flailing and legs kicking, McCoy barely had time to hear what Kirk yelled as side by side they accelerated toward the waves far below.
It was a sentiment he echoed at the top of his lungs as rocks and water rushed toward them.
* * *
Slightly more salty than any of Earth’s oceans, the water through which Kirk and McCoy now found themselves swimming was murky but unpolluted. Clouds of brightly hued local aquatic life-forms swam past and around them. For the most part, the two humans were ignored. On a couple of occasions, multi-finned predators flashing impressive cutlery approached for a closer look. Both times they circled the swimmers once or twice before twisting sinuously away, having decided that the peculiar shapes did not conform to anything recognizable as their natural prey. Or perhaps it was the suddenly wide eyes of a certain submerged doctor that caused them to depart.
Reaching up, McCoy tugged at the sleeve of his silvery, form-fitting suit. The advanced diveskins he and Kirk had worn beneath their native kaftans now kept him warm in the cool alien depths. Extracted from inner pockets, goggles equipped with attached recycling breathers allowed both men to breathe comfortably underwater. The emergency devices would last only thirty minutes at most. That would be more than enough for McCoy. He had no intention of remaining in the alien sea even that long.
Despite knowing the location of their destination, it took a while for the two swimmers to orient themselves in their unfamiliar surroundings. From time to time, they would exchange looks and hand signals before deciding to move onward.
Only when the outlines of a massive, familiar shape began to emerge from their watery surroundings did they begin to relax. Ahead lay something huge and foreign to the world of Nibiru: the submerged bulk of the Starship Enterprise. It loomed before them like some great shining inhabitant of the deep as schools of alien water dwellers flashed and darted around it.
The small personnel airlock through which they entered had been designed to deal with the airlessness of space, not an influx of seawater. It still served its function, however, and the minor mess caused by the damp entry of the two officers would not take long to clean up. The few flopping ocean dwellers that had been unlucky enough to be caught in the hasty entrance would profitably find their way into the ship’s science labs.
Having removed goggles and inhalers, both men were still catching their breaths when the inner portal cycled to reveal the characteristically disgruntled figure of the ship’s chief engineer, Montgomery Scott. The nearby continental supervolcano was not the only thing emitting an excess of heat. Scott’s annoyed gaze flicked from one sodden officer to the other.
“D’you lot ’ave any idea how ridiculous it is to hide a starship on the bottom of a bleedin’ ocean? Just so the locals won’t get a regulation-breakin’ gander at us? We’ve been down ’ere since last night, and my people are sick of ’avin’ to—”
Head inclined to his left, a wincing McCoy was struggling to drain the last drops of water from his ear. “Believe me, Mr. Scott, no one regrets our inability to utilize the transporter under these conditions more than I.”
Their recent close escape already forgotten, Kirk had no time for might-have-beens. His full attention was focused on the engineer.
“Mr. Scott—where’s Spock?”
The chief’s attitude immediately changed from irritation to worry, reflecting the captain’s concern. “Still in the volcano, sir. We picked up Uhura and Sulu not long ago, and they say that’s where they left ’im.”
Kirk’s expression tightened. “Left him?”
Scott rushed to explain. “Sulu said he was losing the shuttle and they had no choice but to pull back. Apparently they were in the process of dropping him when . . . the lift cable broke.”
“Broke . . .?” Kirk was unable to finish the thought. As he fought to extricate himself from the diveskin, it seemed as if every snug twist and wrinkle in the fabric was conspiring to hold him back.
* * *
Being quite familiar from his studies with the ancient human concept of Hades, a part of Spock noted and filed for future examination its remarkable similarity to his present surroundings. He had no time for additional philosophical rumination, since the red-hot magma surrounding him was bubbling and heaving steadily higher, even as he worked with increasing speed to activate the device he had brought with him.
He was relieved to see that it had suffered nothing more serious than cosmetic damage. The assorted dents and scratches were of no consequence. Spock did not relax entirely, however, until his entry of a final series of numbers and commands triggered a rapidly decreasing numerical sequence on the nullifier’s multiple readouts. On the right-hand side, a fist-sized hollow began to glow an intense bright white.
Rising to his feet, he gazed down at his completed handiwork with a considerable degree of satisfaction: so much so that he was able to ignore the rift that appeared in the volcano’s flank. It provided a temporary respite from dying as the lava lake that had been building around him eagerly sought the new egress.
* * *
Acquiring speed thanks to gravity, the magma tsunami swept down a portion of the volcano’s exterior slope, incinerating everything in its path. A tremendous blast sent volcanic bombs the size of shuttlecraft flying ahead of the lava. The first structure to be demolished was the largest native temple on the planet’s main continent, crushed by one such plunging mass of rapidly cooling rock. Ordinarily the indigenous structure would have been packed wall-to-wall with worshippers and priests and genuflecting attendants. Uncharacteristically, it was completely empty—those who would normally have been praying and working within having been distracted and drawn away by the theft of an irreplaceable holy scroll. Captain Kirk’s actions had saved their lives.
* * *
On the bridge, Pavel Chekov swiveled in the command chair. The look on his face was one of relief as he spotted Kirk among those stepping out of the elevator. Throughout the wide, curving room that was the heart of the Enterprise, officers and ensigns barely glanced up from the multitude of multihued flashing readouts and monitors that marked their respective stations.
“Keptin on the bridge!” Having formally announced the obvious, Chekov vacated the command seat and gratefully returned to his navigator’s station.
Resuming full command as rapidly as he did his chair, Kirk directed his concern toward Communications. It had occurred to him that circumstances might have prevented Lieutenant Uhura from being present, and while Kirk was fully prepared to deal with her absence, he was gratified as well as impressed to see her seated at her assigned station. Those same circumstances prevented him from extending any immediate sympathy, though; there was no time.
“Lieutenant, do we have a channel open to Mr. Spock? Any channel, however limited.”
Her reply was patently more taut than usual. “Extreme heat distortion is interfering with his equipment, but we’ve still got contact. I’ll push it as much as we have to.”
Struck by the underlying emotion in her voice, he considered commenting on it, and decided otherwise. The need for Uhura to carry out her duties would help to distract her from personal concerns. Right now, he needed everyone on the bridge functioning at a hundred percent efficiency.
How fortunate, he mused dryly, that he never overreacted in situations laden with emotion.
“Spock . . . report!”
* * *
With the lava lake beginning to rise around him once more, despite having found an exit in the volcano’s flank, Spock concluded the final bit of necessary programming to the Rankine nullifier. Straightening, he stepped back from the case. Its dimensions were modest, its capabilities awe-inspiring. If it works, he reminded himself.
“I have activated the device, Captain. When the countdown is complete, the consequent geochemical reaction should render the volcano inert, thereby eliminating the volatile tectonic trigger that our calculations indicated would set off catastrophic seismic disturbances throughout the crust of Nibiru.”
* * *
“Yeah, and that’s gonna render him inert,” McCoy put in tersely.
Kirk’s mind raced as he growled something decidedly non-regulation under his breath. “Can we use our transporter to pull him out yet?”
At his station again, Sulu shook his head. “Negative, Captain. No more than we could use them from the start, when it was decided to carry out the operation utilizing one of our shuttlecraft. The unstable nature of the magnetic and other fields within the throat of the volcano are such that the usual immutable transporter reach and positioning systematics could be knocked off by as much as several millimeters—which, of course, would be fatal to anyone traveling via beam. I regret to say that the situation has not changed. If anything, it has grown worse.”
Chekov chimed in with unnecessary emphasis. “A Mr. Spock retrieved several millimeters out of proper entanglement would not be a Mr. Spock as we know him, Keptin. Or likely one who would appear alive.”
Neither of his officers was telling Kirk anything he did not already know. Still . . .
“There has to be a work-around, Mr. Chekov. Something we can do to make it function effectively. We need to beam Spock back onto the ship. If there’s no perfect way to do it, then give me the next best way.”
There was nothing the youthful Chekov liked better than a challenge—though he preferred those that did not involve putting at risk the life of another shipmate. His thoughts whirled, colliding and re-forming even as he ventured some of them aloud.
“Maybe if we could manage a direct line of sight? One as close as possible. If we could get right above him, the interference would not be eliminated—but it would be greatly minimized. There’s no guarantee it would work, Keptin, but it’s the best option I can think of.”
Scott would have been remiss in his duty had he not chosen to speak up. “Hold position above an active supervolcano on the verge of a cataclysmic explosion? Sir, this ship is designed to hold a position in interstellar space, or in orbit. It was not built to cope with radical in-atmospheric distortions. She maneuvers better at warp speed than on thruster power.”
Looking back, Kirk smiled thinly at his chief engineer. “Seems to be doing okay right now, Mr. Scott.”
The chief engineer didn’t back down. “Because the surroundin’ atmosphere is relatively stable, sir. I am willing to predict that if we are hoverin’ directly above the volcano and it blows, conditions will be more than slightly altered—and not for the better.”
“I believe Mr. Scott is correct, sir.” Sulu spoke without looking up from his instrumentation. “If we were to be caught in a sufficiently violent eruption, I don’t think I could maintain altitude. Especially taking into account how close we would be to the surface. There would be essentially no room in which to attempt emergency maneuvering.”
A furiously cogitating Kirk contemplated his choices. None of them appealed to him. In any event, he had no chance to reach a conclusion before a voice over the comm interrupted his thoughts. Distortion fractured the message, but the voice was, once again, unmistakable. It also evinced a good deal of exasperation.
“That is unacceptable, Mr. Chekov. In the course of our approach, the shuttle we employed was concealed within the ash cloud and subsequently within the volcano itself, but the Enterprise is too large to employ such methods. If utilized in a rescue effort, it would invariably be revealed to the indigenous species.”
“More referencing of the Prime Directive,” McCoy muttered. “To hell with the Prime Directive.”
Fully aware that such an observation would be utterly ignored by his science officer, Kirk tried a more logical tack. “Spock, nobody knows rules better than you. So you must know that depending on the circumstances, there has to be variance allowed. There must be some exception to—”
Through heat, distance, and looming apocalypse, Spock cut him off.
“There are none, Captain. Not in this instance. Revealing the superior technology represented by the Enterprise would constitute an action that unequivocally violates the Prime Directive.”
So much for logic and reason. Kirk knew there was no time to indulge in the kind of elaborate debate favored by his science officer. “Spock, we’re talking about your life.”
The response was calm and unrelenting. “The rule cannot be broken under any circumsttssssss . . . ”
Kirk did not have to hear the rest to know that his plea had no more effect than his argument. But he wanted to hear the rest of his science officer’s words, if only because as long as the Vulcan’s voice echoed through the bridge, he knew that his friend was still alive.
“Spock?” Whirling, he addressed his chief communications officer. “Try to get him back online.”
There was no one on the Enterprise who desired that more than Nyota Uhura. No one who would have given more to hear the familiar measured, assured tones of the ship’s science officer. So when she turned to shake her head once, slowly, the full measure of the loss struck everyone on the bridge.
Speaking with difficulty, Chekov looked up from his readouts and broke the silence. “Ninety seconds until detonation, sir.”
Kirk stared ahead, gazing at something that lay somewhere beyond the now-imageless forward screen. “If Spock was here, and I was down there, what would he do?”
When no one offered an immediate reply, he turned to once again eye Uhura. She started to speak, paused, said nothing. Her anguished expression told him what she wanted him to do, but as a Starfleet officer she could not say it, and the contradiction threatened to tear her apart.
In the end, it is always physicians who seem to address such questions. The doctor did not consciously seek to imitate the science officer’s manner, but Spock would surely have approved.
“He’d let you die,” McCoy said without hesitation.
McCoy’s words, Uhura’s expression. There are times when being captain of a noble ship is grand, times when it is confusing, times when it is troublesome.
At that moment in time, for James T. Kirk, it was hell.
* * *
Though very real, the fear left Spock quickly enough. He had been trained to deal with it. Fear was, after all, nothing more than another emotion. Possibly it was not really “fear” he had been experiencing at all. More of a disquiet at the certainty of approaching immolation and the subsequent lapsing of consciousness. That, and a looming sense of loss. Of things as yet undone, of experiences unfulfilled, of a certain relationship left unfinalized . . .
In its wake, there was peace.
It came to him with surprising ease, as much due to who he was as to any formal teaching he had received. Regrets cast aside, he readied himself for the ending. Spreading his arms in a gesture any Vulcan would have recognized, he closed his eyes, tilted back his head, and prepared to embrace emptiness.
* * *
They had vanquished the interlopers who had stolen the sacred scroll. The gods would be pleased. Some of those who had participated in the successful recovery ululated ecstatically before the recovered relic. That the gods were happy with their subjects was given additional proof when the temple was destroyed, for providentially, none had been trapped within when the molten rock had come downslope. The loss of the temple itself was not important. What mattered were the scroll and the words inscribed thereon. When queried about the destruction of the temple compound, the priests had avowed that it was the only way the gods could convince their subjects that it was time to raise a new temple, one grander and more impressive than its predecessor. This the people would surely do.
Further proof of the gods’ satisfaction soon manifested itself in an entirely unprecedented fashion—one for which even the most loquacious priest had no explanation.
It was as if the air itself had become an instrument. Steady and throbbing, the strange high whine made itself known even above the consistent roar and rumble of the volcano. Then the god appeared before them, in shape unforeseen, in majesty mind-blowing.
Seawater falling from its central deck and nacelles, native aquatic arthropods scrambling to abandon their suddenly motile surface, the sleek bulk of the Enterprise rose from the water below the cliff face. It continued to rise above ocean, cliff, and openmouthed indigenous bipeds until it could turn toward the erupting volcano in the distance. As it accelerated steadily, water from its sides spilled onto the dumbfounded onlookers below. Moaning and writhing, they willingly drenched themselves in liquid that could only be most holy.
* * *
00:15 . . . 00:14 . . .
It was genuinely astonishing, the kneeling Spock mused, how much longer a second seemed to take to pass when one had only a few of them left. Around him, the lava lake continued its inexorable rise. At least when the Rankine nullifier, which had cost him so much difficulty and now ultimately his life, finally went off, he would feel no pain. It was better than burning to death, though for a limited time, his exosuit would keep him alive even if submerged in lava before its systems finally failed or its integrity was compromised.
So bright and intense now was the expanse of molten rock that it started to affect his vision even with the photosensitive visor set to maximum dark. The diffused orange glow became pure white and seemed to tug at his optic nerves, taunting his eyes. No matter. If he was destined to go blind, it was a condition he would not be required to suffer for long. His natural curiosity chafed at the thought of being unable to observe the final moment preceding his passing.
There was a moment of disorientation. For the onset of death, it felt oddly familiar. Almost as if . . .
His vision began to clear. Responding to the decrease in the surrounding illumination, his visor now allowed him a more expansive field of sight. The heat that had begun to overwhelm the exosuit’s advanced cooling systems did not simply begin to fade; it vanished.
He could see shapes coming toward him that were neither molten nor rock. He recognized his surroundings. He was alive. He was not pleased.
* * *
Kirk was first into the transporter room, with McCoy close behind. Reflecting his excitement, the doctor was breathing hard. He had been forced to do entirely too much running this morning. Halting near the entrance to the transporter room, he rested one hand on the doorway as members of one of the ship’s relief and rescue teams rushed past him.
An anxious Kirk immediately focused on the figure in the center of the transporter platform. The smoke and steam that rose from the exosuit encasing the science officer made it impossible to tell if it was intact, just as it prevented Kirk from ascertaining the condition of the individual within. Even if the Vulcan was still alive, he might be burned beyond recognition: his skin peeling away, his lungs seared, his . . .
“Spock—you all right?” Unable to help and desperately wishing to do so, Kirk could only gaze worriedly, as the suit was still too hot to embrace.
For a terrible moment there was no reaction from the armored shape. Then the first officer of the Enterprise stood. Scanning the team that had assembled in the transporter room, he finally focused his attention on Kirk. When he spoke, his tone was disbelieving.
“Captain, you let them see our ship.”
Standing next to Kirk, McCoy raised a hand and allowed himself to relax. “He’s fine.”
Ignoring both his science officer’s admonition and his chief physician’s sarcasm, an immensely relieved Kirk flashed a wide smile. “Good to have you back.” He would have continued, but for an interruption from the room’s speakers.
“Bridge to Captain Kirk.”
Uhura’s voice. Kirk kept his tone wholly professional. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
“Monitors indicate transporter function is complete. Is . . . Commander Spock on board, sir?”
“Safely and soundly,” Kirk reported. Then he added, “The commander’s principal concern of the moment is not for himself, but for the possibility that our ship may have been observed by the natives.”
“ ‘Observed,’ indeed,” Chekov murmured to no one in particular. “We passed right over a bunch of them.”
Uhura responded to Kirk in an equally cool, professional voice.
“Please notify Commander Spock that his device has successfully detonated.” Emotionally overwhelmed, she terminated the communication from the bridge.
His attention still on the safely returned Vulcan, Kirk did not dwell on the abruptness evident in his communication officer’s response. “Congratulations, Spock. You just saved the world.”
“Captain. You violated the Prime Directive.”
“So they saw us.” The commanding officer of the Enterprise shrugged. “Big deal.”
Before the science officer could respond further, Kirk signaled to the members of the emergency response team. Any further deprecating comments disappeared beneath a whoosh of coolant gas and sprayed decontaminant.
* * *
In a way it was a miniature, if technologically far less sophisticated, version of what at that moment took place within the fracturing supervolcano. As the separate elements within the Rankine case Spock had delivered to the mountain’s throat merged, the resultant physiochemical reaction sent a wave of blue energy blasting in all directions. The case and its physical contents disintegrated, but they were no longer necessary. The self-propagating reaction they had initiated spread and expanded, sending waves of force not only throughout the volcano but down into the rapidly expanding magma chamber far below. The effect was to slow molecular motion within the molten rock. In other words, to cool, with remarkable speed and extraordinary efficacy.
Around the rocky pinnacle where Spock had prepared to meet his demise, the lava solidified. Racing down into the depths, the reaction continued to work its magic. The throat of the volcano turned to solid basalt while the vast magma chamber below ceased to boil. Its energy stilled, its anger calmed, the violent eruption that had been building within the supervolcano was aborted. Still farther below, the three continental plates that had been on the verge of shifting catastrophically continued to grind away slowly against one another. The danger of a major quake devastating this portion of the planet and casting its rapidly maturing indigenous intelligence back into the darkness of the primitive hunter-gatherer receded. It might be hundreds of years, thousands, before such a danger to the planet’s rising intelligence raised its threatening white-hot head again.
In the jungle outside, the already overawed natives looked on in astonishment as the sacred mountain belched forth not fire and fury, not flame and destruction, but a mile-high blast of rapidly cooling and perfectly harmless steam. Nor was this to be the last miracle, for truly the surprises of the gods were forever forthcoming. This final marvel was no less startling than the suppression of the looming volcanic eruption or the appearance of the enormous airborne deity. It was something even the simplest villager could reach out and touch.
Around the villagers, on their buildings and children and vegetable gardens and bemused domesticated animals, it had begun to snow.