Star Trek 1 | Chapter 5 of 13

Author: James Blish | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1855 Views | Add a Review

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Balance of Terror

When the Romulan outbreak began, Capt. James Kirk was in the chapel of the starship Enterprise, waiting to perform a wedding.

He could, of course, have declined to do any such thing. Not only was he the only man aboard the starship empowered to perform such a ceremony-and many others even less likely to occur to a civilian-but both the participants were part of the ship’s complement: Spe-cialist (phaser) Robert Tomlinson and Spec. 2nd Cl. (phaser) Angela Martine.

Nevertheless, the thought of refusing hadn’t occurred to him. Traveling between the stars, even at “relativistic” or near-light speeds, was a long-drawn-out process at best. One couldn’t forbid or even ignore normal human relationships over such prolonged hauls, unless one was either a martinet or a fool, and Kirk did not propose to be either.

And in a way, nothing could be more symbolic of his function, and that of the Enterprise as a whole, than a marriage. Again because of the vast distances and time lapses involved, the starships were effectively the only fruitful links between the civilized planets. Even interstellar radio, which was necessarily faster, was subject to a dozen different kinds of interruptions, could carry no goods, and in terms of human contact was in every way less satisfactory. On the other hand, the starships were as fructifying as worker bees; they carried supplies, medical help, technical knowledge, news of home, and-above all-the sight and touch of other people.

It was for the same complex of reasons that there was a chapel aboard the Enterprise. Designed by some groundlubber in the hope of giving offense to nobody (or, as the official publicity had put it, “to accommo-date all faiths of all planets,” a task impossible on the face of it), the chapel was simplified and devoid of symbols to the point of insipidity; but its very existence acknowledged that even the tightly designed Enterprise was a world in itself, and as such had to recognize that human beings often have religious impulses.

The groom was already there when Kirk entered, as were about half a dozen crew members, speaking sotto voce. Nearby, Chief Engineer Scott was adjusting a small television camera; the ceremony was to be carried throughout the intramural network, and outside the ship, too, to the observer satellites in the Romulus-Remus neutral zone. Scotty could more easily have assigned the chore to one of his staff, but doing it himself was his acknowledgment of the solemnity of the occasion-his gift to the bride, as it were. Kirk grinned briefly. Ship’s air was a solid mass of symbols today.

“Everything under control, Scotty?”

“Can’t speak for the groom, sir, but all’s well otherwise.”

“Very good.”

The smile faded a little, however, as Kirk moved on toward the blankly nondenominational altar. It bothered him a little-not exactly consciously, but somewhere at the back of his conscience-to be conducting an exercise like this so close to the neutral zone. The Romulans had once been the most formidable of enemies. But then, not even a peep had been heard from them since the neutral zone had been closed around their system, fifty-odd years ago. Even were they cooking something venomous under there, why should they pick today to try it-and with a heavily armed starship practically in their back yards?

Scotty, finishing up with the camera, smoothed down his hair self-consciously; he was to give the bride away. There was a murmur of music from the intercom-Kirk could only suppose it was something traditional, since he himself was tune-deaf-and Angela came in, flanked by her bridesmaid, Yeoman Janice Rand. Scott offered her his arm. Tomlinson and his best man were already in position. Kirk cleared his throat experimentally.

And at that moment, the ship’s alarm went off.

Angela went white. Since she was new aboard, she might never have heard the jarring blare before, but she obviously knew what it was. Then it was replaced by the voice of Communications Officer Uhura:

“Captain Kirk to the bridge! Captain Kirk to the bridge!”

But the erstwhile pastor was already out the door at a dead run.

Spock, the First Officer, was standing beside Lieutenant Uhura’s station as Kirk and his engineer burst onto the bridge. Spock, the product of marriage between an earth woman and a father on Vulcan-not the imaginary Solar world of that name, but a planet of 40 Eri-dani-did not come equipped with Earth-human emotions, and Lieutenant Uhura had the impassivity of most Bantu women; but the air was charged with tension nonetheless. Kirk said: “What’s up?”

“It’s Commander Hansen, outpost satellite four zero two three,” Spock said precisely. “They’ve picked up clear pips of an intruder in the neutral zone.”

“Identification?”

“None yet, but the engine pattern is modern. Not a Romulan vessel, apparently.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Spock,” a voice said from the comm board. “I’m overhearing you. We have a sighting now. The vessel is modern-but the markings are Romulan.”

Kirk shouldered forward and took the microphone from Lieutenant Uhura’s hand. “This is Captain Kirk. Have you challenged it, Hansen?”

“Affirmative. No acknowledgment. Can you give us support, Captain? You are the only starship in this sector.”

“Affirmative.”

“We’re clocking their approach visually at…” Hansen’s voice died for a moment. Then: “Sorry, just lost them. Disappeared from our monitors.”

“Better transmit your monitor picture. Lieutenant Uhura, put it on our bridge viewscreen.”

For a moment, the screen showed nothing but a scan of stars, fading into faint nebulosity in the background. Then, suddenly, the strange ship was there. Superficially, it looked much like an Enterprise-class starship; a domed disc, seemingly coming at the screen nearly edge-on- though of course it was actually approaching the satellite, not the Enterprise. Its size, however, was impossible to guess without a distance estimate.

“Full magnification, Lieutenant Uhura.”

The stranger seemed to rush closer. Scott pointed mutely, and Kirk nodded. At this magnification, the stripes along the underside were unmistakable: broad shadows suggesting a bird of prey with half-spread wings. Romulan, all right.

From S-4023, Hansen’s voice said urgently: “Got it again! Captain Kirk, can you see-“

“We see it.”

But even as he spoke, the screen suddenly turned white, then dimmed as Uhura backed it hastily down the intensity scale. Kirk blinked and leaned forward tensely.

The alien vessel had launched a torpedolike bolt of blinding light from its underbelly. Moving with curious deliberateness, as though it were traveling at the speed of light in some other space but was loafing sinfully in this one, the dazzling bolt swelled in S-4023’s camera lens, as if it were bound to engulf the Enterprise as well.

“She’s opened fire!” Hansen’s voice shouted. “Our screen’s failed-we’re-“

The viewscreen of the Enterprise spat doomsday light throughout the control room. The speaker squawked desperately and went dead.

“Battle stations,” Kirk told Uhura, very quietly. “General alarm. Mr. Spock, full ahead and intercept.”

Nobody had ever seen a live Romulan. It was very certain that “Romulan” was not their name for themselves, for such fragmentary evidence as had been pieced together from wrecks, after they had erupted from the Romulus-Remus system so bloodily a good seventy-five years ago, suggested that they’d not even been native to the planet, let alone a race that could have shared Earthly conventions of nomenclature. A very few bloated bodies recovered from space during that war had proved to be humanoid, but of the hawklike Vulcanite type rather than the Earthly anthropoid. The experts had guessed that the Romulans might once have settled on their adopted planet as a splinter group from some mass migration, thrown off, rejected by their less militaristic fellows as they passed to some more peaceful settling, to some less demanding kind of new world. Neither Romulus nor Remus, twin planets whirling around a com-mon center in a Trojan relationship to a white-dwarf sun, could have proved attractive to any race that did not love hardships for their own sakes.

But almost all this was guesswork, unsupported either by history or by interrogation. The Vulcanite races who were part of the Federation claimed to know nothing of the Romulans; and the Romulans themselves had never allowed any prisoners to be taken-suicide, apparently, was a part of their military tradition-nor had they ever taken any. All that was known for sure was that the Romulans had come boiling out of their crazy little planetary system on no apparent provocation, in primitive, clumsy cylindrical ships that should have been clay pigeons for the Federation’s navy and yet in fact took twenty-five years to drive back to their home world-twenty-five years of increasingly merciless slaughter on both sides.

The neutral zone, with its sphere of observer satellites, had been set up around the Romulus-Remus sys-tem after that, and for years had been policed with the utmost vigilance. But for fifty years nothing had come out of it-not even a signal, let alone a ship. Perhaps the Romulans were still nursing their wounds and perfecting their grievances and their weapons-or perhaps they had learned their lesson and given up-or perhaps they were just tired, or decadent….

Guesswork. One thing was certain now. Today, they had come out again-or one ship had.

The crew of the Enterprise moved to battle stations with a smooth efficiency that would hardly have suggested to an outsider that most of them had never heard a shot fired in anger. Even the thwarted bridal couple was at the forward phaser consoles, as tensely ready now to launch destruction as they had been for creation only a few hours before.

But there was nothing to fire at in the phaser sights yet. On the bridge, Kirk was in the captain’s chair, Spock and Scott to either side of him. Sulu was piloting; Second Officer Stiles navigating. Lieutenant Uhura, as usual, was at the comm board.

“No response from satellites four zero two three, two four or two five,” she said. “No trace to indicate any are still in orbit. Remaining outposts still in position. No sightings of intruding vessel. Sensor readings normal. Neutral zone, zero.”

“Tell them to stay alert and report anything abnormal.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Entering four zero two three’s position area,” Sulu said.

“Lieutenant Uhura?”

“Nothing, sir. No, I’m getting a halo effect here now. Debris, I’d guess-metallic, finally divided, and still scattering. The radiant point’s obviously where the satellite should be; I’m running a computer check now, but-“

“But there can’t be much doubt about it,” Kirk said heavily. “They pack a lot more punch than they did fifty years ago-which somehow doesn’t surprise me much.”

“What was that weapon, anyhow?” Stiles whispered.

“We’ll check before we guess,” Kirk said. “Mr. Spock, put out a tractor and bring me in some of that debris. I want a full analysis-spectra, stress tests, X-ray diffusion, micro-chemistry, the works. We know what the hull of that satellite used to be made of. I want to know what it’s like now-and then I want some guesses from the lab on how it got that way. Follow me?”

“Of course, sir,” the First Officer said. From any other man it would have been a brag, and perhaps a faintly insulting one at that. From Spock it was simply an utterly reliable statement of fact. He was already on the intercom to the lab section.

“Captain,” Uhura said. Her voice sounded odd.

“What is it?”

“I’m getting something here. A mass in motion. Nothing more. Nothing on visual, no radar pip. And no radiation. Nothing but a De Broglie transform in the computer. It could be something very small and dense nearby, or something very large and diffuse far away, like a comet. But the traces don’t match for either.”

“Navigator?” Kirk said.

“There’s a cold comet in the vicinity, part of the Romulus-Remus system,” Stiles said promptly. “Bearing 973 galactic east, distance one point three light hours, course roughly convergent-“

“I’d picked that up long ago,” Uhura said. “This is something else. Its relative speed to us is one-half light, in toward the neutral zone. It’s an electromagnetic field of some kind… but no kind I ever saw before. I’m certain it’s not natural.”

“No, it isn’t,” Spock said, with complete calmness. He might have been announcing the weather, had there been any out here. “It’s an invisibility screen.”

Stiles snorted, but Kirk knew from long experience that his half-Vulcanite First Officer never made such flat statements without data to back them. Spock was very odd by Earth-human standards, but he had a mind like a rapier. “Explain,” Kirk said.

“The course matches for the vessel that attacked the last satellite outpost to disappear,” Spock said. “Not the one we’re tracking now, but four zero two five. The whole orbit feeds in along Hohmann D toward an intercept with Romulus. The computer shows that already.”

“Lieutenant Uhura?”

“Check,” she said, a little reluctantly.

“Second: Commander Hansen lost sight of the enemy vessel when it was right in front of him. It didn’t reap-pear until it was just about to launch its attack. Then it vanished again, and we haven’t seen it since. Third: Theoretically, the thing is possible, for a vessel of the size of the Enterprise, if you put almost all the ship’s power into it; hence, you must become visible if you need power for your phasers, or any other energy weapon.”

“And fourth, baloney,” Stiles said.

“Not quite, Mr. Stiles,” Kirk said slowly. “This would also explain why just one Romulan vessel might venture through the neutral zone, right under the nose of the Enterprise. The Romulans may think they can take us on now, and they’ve sent out one probe to find out.”

“A very long chain of inferences, sir,” Stiles said, with marked politeness.

“I’m aware of that. But it’s the best we’ve got at the moment. Mr. Sulu, match course and speed exactly with Lieutenant Uhura’s blip, and stick with it move for move. But under no circumstances cross after it into the neutral zone without my direct order. Miss Uhura, check all frequencies for a carrier wave, an engine pattern, any sort of transmission besides this De Broglie wave-front-in particular, see if you can overhear any chit-chat between ship and home planet. Mr. Spock and Mr. Scott, I’ll see you both directly in the briefing room; I want to review what we know about Romulus. Better call Dr. McCoy in on it, too. Any questions?” There were none. Kirk said, “Mark and move.”

The meeting in the briefing room was still going on when Spock was called out to the lab section. Once he was gone, the atmosphere promptly became more informal; neither Scott nor McCoy liked the Vulcanite, and even Kirk, much though he valued his First Officer, was not entirely comfortable in his presence.

“Do you want me to go away too, Jim?” McCoy said gently. “It seems to me you could use some time to think.”

“I think better with you here, Bones. You too, Scotty. But this could be the big one. We’ve got people from half the planets of the Federation patrolling the neutral zone. If we cross it with a starship without due cause, we may have more than just the Romulans to worry about. That’s how civil wars start, too.”

“Isn’t the loss of three satellites due cause?” Scott said.

“I’d say so, but precisely what knocked out those satellites? A Romulan ship, we say; but can we prove it? Well, no, we say; the thing’s invisible. Even Stiles laughs at that, and he’s on our side. The Romulans were far behind us in technology the last we saw of them-they only got as far as they did in the war out of the advantage of surprise, plus a lot of sheer savagery. Now, suddenly, they’ve got a ship as good as ours, plus an invisibility screen. I can hardly believe it myself.

“And on the other hand, gentlemen… On the other hand, while we sit here debating the matter, they may be about to knock us right out of the sky. It’s the usual verge-of-war situation: we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”

The elevator door slid open. Spock was back. “Sir-“

“All right, Mr. Spock. Shoot.”

Spock was carrying a thick fascicle of papers bound to a clip board, held close to his body under one arm. His other hand swung free, but its fist was clenched. The bony Vulcanite face had no expression and could show none, but there was something in his very posture that telegraphed tension.

“Here are the analyses of the debris,” he said in his inhumanly even voice. “I shan’t bother you with the details unless you ask. The essence of the matter is that the Romulan weapon we saw used on S-4023 seems to be a molecular implosion field.”

“Meaning what?” McCoy said roughly.

Spock raised his right fist over the plot board, still clenched. The knuckles and tendons worked for a mo-ment. A fine metallic glitter sifted down onto the table.

“It fatigues metals,” he said. “Instantly. The metal crystals lose cohesion, and collapse into dust-like this. After that, anything contained in the metal blows up of itself, because it isn’t contained any more. I trust that’s clear, Dr. McCoy. If not, I’ll try to explain it again.”

“Damn you, Spock-“

“Shut up, Bones,” Kirk said tiredly. “Mr. Spock, sit down. Now then. We’re in no position to fight among ourselves. Evidently we’re even worse off than we thought we were. If the facts we have are to be trusted, the Romulans have, first, a practicable invisibility screen, and second, a weapon at the very least comparable to ours.”

“Many times superior,” Spock said stolidly. “At least in some situations.”

“Both of these gadgets,” McCoy said, “are Mr. Spock’s inventions, very possibly. At least in both cases, it’s his interpretation of the facts that’s panicking us.”

“There are no other interpretations available at the moment,” Kirk said through thinned lips. “Any argument about that? All right. Then let’s see what we can make of them for our side. Scotty, what have we got that we can counter with, given that the Romulan gadgets are real? We can’t hit an invisible object, and we can’t duck an invisible gunner. Where does that leave us?”

“Fully armed, fast and maneuverable,” the engineer said. “Also, they aren’t quite invisible; Lieutenant Uhura can pick up their De Broglie waves as they move. That means that they must be operating at nearly full power right now, just running away and staying invisible. We’ve got the edge on speed, and I’d guess that they don’t know that our sensors are picking them up.”

“Which means that we can outrun them and know approximately-what they’re doing. But we can’t out-gun them or see them.”

“That’s how it looks at the moment,” Scott said. “It’s a fair balance of power, I’d say, Jim. Better than most commanders can count on in a battle situation.”

“This isn’t a battle situation yet,” Kirk said. “Nor even a skirmish. It’s the thin edge of an interstellar war. We don’t dare to be wrong.”

“We can’t be righter than we are with the facts at hand, sir,” Spock said.

McCoy’s lips twitched. “You’re so damned sure-“

A beep from the intercom stopped him. Way up in the middle of the air, Lieutenant Uhura’s voice said:

“Captain Kirk.”

“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Kirk said, his palms sweating.

“I’ve got a fix on the target vessel. Still can’t see it-but I’m getting voices.”

Even McCoy pounded up with them to the bridge. Up there, from the master speaker on the comm board, a strange, muted gabble was issuing, fading in and out and often hashed with static, but utterly incomprehensi-ble even at its best. The voices sounded harsh and only barely human; but that could have been nothing more than the illusion of strangeness produced by an unknown language.

The Bantu woman paid no attention to anything but her instruments. Both her large hands were resting delicately on dial knobs, following the voices in and out, back and forth, trying to keep them in aural focus. Beside her left elbow a tape deck ran, recording the gabble for whatever use it might be later for the Analysis team.

“This appears to be coming off their intercom sys-tem,” she said into the tape-recorder’s mike. “A weak signal with high impedance, pulse-modulated. Worth checking what kind of field would leak such a signal, what kind of filtration spectrum it shows-oh, damn-no, there it is again. Scotty, is that you breathing down my neck?”

“Sure is, dear. Need help?”

“Get the computer to work out this waver-pattern for me. My wrists are getting tired. If we can nail it down, I might get a picture.”

Scott’s fingers flew over the computer console. Very shortly, the volume level of the gabble stabilized, and Lieutenant Uhura leaned back in her seat with a sigh, wriggling her fingers in mid-air. She looked far from relaxed, however.

“Lieutenant,” Kirk said. “Do you think you can really get a picture out of that transmission?”

“Don’t know why not,” the Communications Officer said, leaning forward again. “A leak that size should be big enough to peg rocks through, given a little luck. They’ve got visible light blocked, but they’ve left a lot of other windows open. Anyhow, let’s try…”

But nothing happened for a while. Stiles came in quietly and took over the computer from Scott, walking carefully and pointedly around Spock. Spock did not seem to notice.

“This is a funny business entirely,” McCoy said almost to himself. “Those critters were a century behind us, back when we drove them back to their kennels. But that ship’s almost as good as ours. It even looks like ours. And the weapons…”

“Shut up a minute, please, Dr. McCoy,” Lieutenant Uhura said. “I’m beginning to get something.”

“Sulu,” Kirk said. “Any change in their course?”

“None, sir. Still heading home.”

“Eureka!” Lieutenant Uhura crowed triumphantly. “There it is!”

The master screen lit. Evidently, Kirk judged, the picture was being picked up by some sort of monitor camera in the Romulan’s control room. That in itself was odd; though the Enterprise had monitor cameras almost everywhere, there was none on the bridge-who, after all, would be empowered to watch the Captain?

Three Romulans were in view across the viewed chamber, sitting at scanners, lights from their hooded viewers playing upon their faces. They looked human, or nearly so: lean men, with almond-colored faces, dressed in military tunics which bore wolf’s-head emblems. The severe, reddish tone of the bulkheads seemed to accen-tuate their impassivity. Their heads were encased in heavy helmets.

In the foreground, a man who seemed to be the commanding officer worked in a cockpit-like well. Compared to the bridge of the Enterprise, this control room looked cramped. Heavy conduits snaked overhead, almost within touch.

All this, however, was noted in an instant and forgotten. Kirk’s attention was focused at once on the commander. His uniform was white, and oddly less dec-orated than those of his officers. Even more importantly, however, he wore no helmet. And in his build, his stance, his coloring, even the cant and shape of his ears, he was a dead ringer for Spock.

Without taking his eyes from the screen, Kirk could sense heads turning toward the half-Vulcanite. There was a long silence, except for the hum of the engines and the background gabble of the Romulan’s conversation. Then Stiles said, apparently to himself:

“So now we know. They got our ship design from spies. They can pass for us… or for some of us.”

Kirk took no overt notice of the remark. Possibly it had been intended only for his ears, or for nobody’s; until further notice he was tentatively prepared to think so. He said:

“Lieutenant Uhura, I want linguistics and cryptogra-phy to go to work on that language. If we can break it-“

There was another mutter from Stiles, not intelligible but a good deal louder than before. It was no longer possible to ignore him.

“I didn’t quite hear that, Mr. Stiles.”

“Only talking to myself, sir.”

“Do it louder. I want to hear it.”

“It wasn’t-“

“Repeat it,” Kirk said, issuing each syllable like a bul-let. Everyone was watching Kirk and Stiles now except Spock, as though the scene on the screen was no longer of any interest at all.

“All right,” Stiles said. “I was just thinking that Mr. Spock could probably translate for us a lot faster than the analysts or the computer could. After all, they’re his kind of people. You have only to look at them to see that. We can all see it.”

“Is that an accusation?”

Stiles drew a deep breath. “No, sir,” he said evenly. “It’s an observation. I hadn’t intended to make it public, and if it’s not useful, I’ll withdraw it. But I think it’s an observation most of us have already made.”

“Your apology doesn’t satisfy me for an instant. However, since the point’s now been aired, we’ll explore it. Mr. Spock, do you understand the language those people are speaking? Much as I dislike Mr. Stiles’ imputation, there is an ethnic resemblance between the Romulans and yourself. Is it meaningful?”

“I don’t doubt that it is,” Spock said promptly. “Most of the people in this part of space seem to come from the same stock. The observation isn’t new. However, Vulcan has had no more contact than Earth has with the Romulans in historical times; and I certainly don’t understand the language. There are suggestions of roots in common with my home language-just as English has some Greek roots. That wouldn’t help you to understand Greek from a standing start, though it might help you to figure out something about the language, given time. I’m willing to try it-but I don’t hold out much hope of its being useful in time to help us out of our present jam.”

In the brief silence which followed, Kirk became aware that the muttering from the screen had stopped. Only a second later, the image of the Romulan bridge had dissolved too.

“They’ve blocked the leak,” Uhura reported. “No way to tell whether or not they knew we were tapping it.”

“Keep monitoring it and let me know the instant you pick them up again. Make a copy of your tape for Mr. Spock. Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott, please come with me to my quarters. Everyone else, bear in mind that we’re on continuous alert until this thing is over, one way or another.”

Kirk stood up, and seemed to turn toward the elevator. Then, after a carefully calculated pause, he swung on Stiles.

“As for you, Mr. Stiles: Your suggestion may indeed be useful. At the moment, however, I think it perilously close to bigotry, which is a sentiment best kept to yourself. Should you have another such notion, be sure I hear it before you air it on the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

White as milk, Stiles said in a thin voice: “You do, sir.”

In his office, Kirk put his feet up and looked sourly at the doctor and his engineer. “As if we didn’t have enough trouble,” he said. “Spock’s a funny customer; he gets everybody’s back hair up now and then just on ordinary days; and this… coincidence… is at best a damn bad piece of timing.”

“If it is a coincidence,” McCoy said.

“I think it is, Bones. I trust Spock; he’s a good officer. His manners are bad by Earth standards, but I don’t think much of Stiles’ manners either at the moment. Let’s drop the question for now. I want to know what to do. The Romulan appears to be running. He’ll hit the neutral zone in a few hours. Do we keep on chasing him?”

“You’ve got a war on your hands if you do,” McCoy said. “As you very well know. Maybe a civil war.”

“Exactly so. On the other hand, we’ve already lost three outpost satellites. That’s sixty lives-besides all that expensive hardware… I went to school with Hansen, did you know that? Well, never mind. Scotty, what do you think?”

“I don’t want to write off sixty lives,” Scott said. “But we’ve got nearly four hundred on board the Enterprise, and I don’t want to write them off either. We’ve got no defense against that Romulan weapon, whatever it is-and the phasers can’t hit a target they can’t see. It just might be better to let them run back inside the neutral zone, file a complaint with the Federation, and wait for a navy to take over. That would give us more time to analyze these gadgets of theirs, too.”

“And the language and visual records,” McCoy added. “Invaluable, unique stuff-all of which will be lost if we force an engagement and lose it.”

“Prudent and logical,” Kirk admitted. “I don’t agree with a word of it, but it would certainly look good in the log. Anything else?”

“What else do you need?” McCoy demanded. “Either it makes sense or it doesn’t. I trust you’re not suddenly going all bloody-minded on me, Jim.”

“You know better than that. I told you I went to school with Hansen; and I’ve got kids on board here who were about to get married when the alarm went off. Glory doesn’t interest me, either, or the public record. I want to block this war. That’s the charge that’s laid upon me now. The only question is, How?”

He looked gloomily at his toes. After a while he added:

“This Romulan irruption is clearly a test of strength. They have two weapons. They came out of the neutral zone and challenged a star ship with them-with enough slaughter and destruction to make sure we couldn’t ignore the challenge. It’s also a test of our determination. They want to know if we’ve gone soft since we beat them back the last time. Are we going to allow our friends and property to be destroyed just because the odds seem to be against us? How much peace will the Romulans let us enjoy if we play it safe now-especially if we let them duck back into a neutral zone they’ve violated themselves? By and large, I don’t think there’s much future in that, for us, for the Earth, for the Federation-or even for the Romulans. The time to pound that lesson home is now.”

“You may be right,” Scott said. “I never thought I’d say so, but I’m glad it isn’t up to me.”

“Bones?”

“Let it stand. I’ve one other suggestion, though. It might improve morale if you’d marry those two young-sters from the phaser deck.”

“Do you think this is exactly a good time for that?”

“I’m not sure there’s ever a right time. But if you care for your crew-and I know damn well you do-that’s precisely the right way to show it at the moment. An instance of love on an eve of battle. I trust I don’t embarrass you.”

“You do, Doctor,” Kirk said, smiling, “but you’re right. I’ll do it. But it’s going to have to be quick.”

“Nothing lasts very long,” McCoy said enigmatically.

On the bridge, nothing seemed to have happened. It took Kirk a long moment to realize that the conference in his office had hardly taken ten minutes. The Romulan vessel, once more detectable only by the De Broglie waves of its motion, was still apparently fleeing for the neutral zone, but at no great pace.

“It’s possible that their sensors can’t pick us up either through that screen,” Spock said.

“That, or he’s trying to draw us into some kind of trap,” Kirk said. “Either way, we can’t meet him in a head-on battle. We need an edge… a diversion. Find me one, Mr. Spock.”

“Preferably nonfatal,” Stiles added. Sulu half turned to him from the pilot board.

“You’re so wrong about this,” Sulu said, “you’ve used up all your mistakes for the rest of your life.”

“One of us has,” Stiles said stiffly.

“Belay that,” Kirk said. “Steady as she goes, Mr. Sulu. The next matter on the agenda is the wedding.”

“In accordance with space law,” Kirk said, “we are gathered together for the purpose of joining this woman, Angela Marline, and this man, Robert Tomlinson, in the bond of matrimony…”

This time there were no interruptions. Kirk closed his book and looked up.

“… And so, by the powers vested in me as Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, I now pronounce you man and wife.”

He nodded to Tomlinson, who only then remembered to kiss the bride. There was the usual hubbub, not seemingly much muted by the fewness of the spectators. Yeo-man Rand rushed up to kiss Angela’s cheek; McCoy pumped Tomlinson’s hand, slapped him on the shoulder, and prepared to collect his kiss from the bride, but Kirk interposed.

“Captain’s privilege, Bones.”

But he never made it; the wall speaker checked him. The voice was Spock’s.

“Captain-I think I have the diversion you wanted.”

“Some days,” Kirk said ruefully, “nothing on this ship ever seems to get finished. I’ll be right there, Mr. Spock.”

Spock’s diversion turned out to be the cold comet they had detected earlier-now “cold” no longer, for as it came closer to the central Romulan-Reman sun it had begun to display its plumage. Spock had found it listed in the ephemeris, and a check of its elements with the computer had shown that it would cross between the Enterprise and the Romulan 440 seconds from now-not directly between, but close enough to be of possible use.

“We’ll use it,” Kirk declared promptly. “Mr. Sulu, we’ll close at full acceleration at the moment of inter-position. Scotty, tell the phaser room we’ll want a brack-eting salvo; we’ll be zeroing on sensors only, and with that chunk of ice nearly in the way, there’ll be some dispersion.”

“Still, at that range we ought to get at least one hit,” Scott said.

“One minute to closing,” Spock said.

“Suppose the shot doesn’t get through their screen?” Stiles said.

“A distinct possibility,” Kirk agreed. “About which we can do exactly nothing.”

“Thirty seconds… twenty… fifteen… ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.”

The lights dimmed as the ship surged forward and at the same moment, the phaser coils demanded full drain. The comet swelled on the screen.

“All right, Mr. Tomlinson… Hit ‘em!”

The Enterprise roared like a charging lion. An instant later, the lights flashed back to full brightness, and the noise stopped. The phasers had cut out.

“Overload,” Spock said emotionlessly. “Main coil burnout.” He was already at work, swinging out a panel to check the circuitry. After only a split second of hesitation, Stiles crossed to help him.

“Captain!” Sulu said. “Their ship-it’s fading into sight. I think we got a hit-yes, we did!”

“Not good enough,” Kirk said grimly, instantly suspecting the real meaning of the Romulan action. “Full retro power! Evasive action!”

But the enemy was still faster. On the screen, a radiant torpedo like the one they had seen destroy Satellite 4023 was scorching toward the Enterprise-and this time it was no illusion that the starship was the target.

“No good,” Sulu said. “Two minutes to impact.”

“Yeoman Rand, jettison recorder buoy in ninety seconds.”

“Hold it,” Sulu said. “That shot’s changing shape-“

Sure enough: the looming bolt seemed to be wavering, flattening. Parts of it were peeling off in tongues of blue energy; its brilliance was dimming. Did it have a range limit—

The bolt vanished from the screen. The Enterprise lurched sharply. Several people fell, including Spock-luckily away from the opened instrument panel, which crackled and spat.

“Scotty! Damage report!”

“One hold compartment breached. Minor damage otherwise. Main phaser battery still out of action, until that coil’s replaced.”

“I think the enemy got it worse, sir,” Lieutenant Uhura said. “I’m picking up debris-scattering ahead. Conduits-castings-plastoform shadows-and an echo like the body of a casualty.”

There was a ragged cheer, which Kirk silenced with a quick, savage gesture. “Maintain deceleration. Evidently they have to keep their screen down to launch their weapon-and the screen’s still down.”

“No, they’re fading again, Captain,” Sulu said. “Last Doppler reading shows they’re decelerating too… Now they’re gone again.”

“Any pickup from their intercom, Lieutenant Uhura?”

“Nothing, sir. Even the De Broglies are fading. I think the comet’s working against us now.”

Now what in space did that mean? Fighting with an unknown enemy was bad enough, but when the enemy could become invisible at will— And if that ship got back to the home planet with all its data, there might well be nothing further heard from the Romulans until they came swarming out of the neutral zone by the millions, ready for the kill. That ship had to be stopped.

“Their tactics make sense over the short haul,” Kirk said thoughtfully. “They feinted us in with an attack on three relatively helpless pieces, retreated across the center of the board to draw out our power, then made a flank attack and went to cover. Clearly the Romulans play some form of chess. If I had their next move, I’d go across the board again. If they did that, they’d be sitting in our ionization wake right now, right behind us-with reinforcements waiting ahead.”

“What about the wreckage, sir?” Uhura said.

“Shoved out the evacuation tubes as a blind-an old trick, going all the way back to submarine warfare. The next time they do that, they may push out a nuclear warhead for us to play with. Lieutenant Sulu, I want a turnover maneuver, to bring the main phaser battery aligned directly astern. Mr. Spock, we can’t wait for main coil replacement any longer; go to the phaser deck and direct fire manually. Mr. Stiles, go with him and give him a hand. Fire at my command directly the turnover’s been completed. All understood?”

Both men nodded and went out, Stiles a little reluctantly. Kirk watched them go for a brief instant-despite himself, Stiles’ suspicion of Spock had infected him, just a little-and then forgot them. The turnover had begun. On the screen, space astern, in the Enterprise’s ionization wake, seemed as blank as space ahead, in the disturbed gasses of the now-dwindling comet’s tail.

Then, for the third time, the Romulan ship began to materialize, precisely where Kirk had suspected it would be-and there was precisely nothing they could do about it yet. The bridge was dead silent. Teeth clenched, Kirk watched the cross-hairs on the screen creep with infinite slowness toward the solidifying wraith of the enemy-

“All right, Spock, fire!”

Nothing happened. The suspicion that flared now would not be suppressed. With a savage gesture, Kirk cut in the intercom screen to the phaser deck.

For a moment he could make nothing of what he saw. The screen seemed to be billowing with green vapor. Through it, dimly, Kirk could see two figures sprawled on the floor, near where the phaser boards should have been. Then Stiles came into the field of view, one hand clasped over his nose and mouth. He was trying to reach the boards, but he must have already taken in a lungful of the green gas. Halfway there, he clutched at his throat and fell.

“Scotty! What is that stuff-“

“Coolant fluid,” Scott’s voice said harshly. “Seal must have cracked-look, there’s Spock-“

Spock was indeed on the screen now, crawling on his hands and knees toward the boards. Kirk realized belat-edly that the figures on the deck had to be Tomlinson and one of his crew, both dead since the seal had been cracked, probably when the Romulan had hit the Enterprise before. On the main screen, another of the Romulan energy bolts was bearing down upon them, with the inexorability of a Fury. Everything seemed to be moving with preternatural slowness.

Then Spock somehow reached the controls, dragged himself to his knees, moved nearly paralyzed fingers over the instruments. He hit the firing button twice, with the edge of his hand, and then fell.

The lights dimmed. The Romulan blew up.

On board the Enterprise, there were three dead: Tomlinson, his aide, and Stiles. Angela had escaped; she hadn’t been on the deck when the coolant had come boiling out. Escaped-a wife of half a day, a widow for all the rest of her days. Stolidly, Kirk entered it all in the log.

The Second Romulan War was over. And never mind the dead; officially, it had never even begun.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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