Jim Kirk emerged from the entrance to the immense lithium-cracking station, the sight of Lee Kelso's corpse still mercilessly fresh in his mind, and took a look at the jumbled, gray landscape ahead of him.
Craggy peaks rose haphazardly like the uncut gems in some gargantuan crown, piercing the bloated underbelly of the blue-gray clouds. The wind howled as if in pain, carrying the dust and tang of a dozen different metal ores.
Gary was out there somewhere, the captain told himself. Dehner, too. And they were his responsibility.
After all, it had been Kirk's decision a couple of days ago to try to penetrate the shimmering barrier at the edge of the galaxy -- an attempt that had ended bluntly in failure. Worse, it had snuffed out the lives of nine crewmen, all but disabled the Enterprise's engines, and turned two of his staff officers into living fireworks.
One was Gary Mitchell -- a close friend since his Academy days who had saved Kirk's life more than once. The other was Elizabeth Dehner, a willowy young psychiatrist studying crew reactions under emergency conditions.
Little did Dehner know how big an emergency she would be privy to -- the emergence of a being who could shut down every system on the ship as easily as he could shut down his own vital signs...the birth of a power so huge, so terrifying, it could choke the life from a populated world as easily as it had choked the breath from Kelso.
And now Dehner was out there among the rocks at Gary's mercy, his living, breathing pawn...or perhaps his chosen consort. Either way, the woman was in unspeakable danger.
Tucking his phaser rifle securely into the crook of his elbow, the captain left the protection of the station and set out across the sandy open area surrounding it. The wind whipped around him, driving dirt and loose debris into his face.
Kirk barely noticed. His mind was too focused on the monumental task ahead of him. I could have avoided this, he thought ruefully. I should have seen it coming. But it began so innocently....
After their violent reaction to the energy barrier, both Gary and Dehner had been examined by Chief Medical Officer Mark Piper, who determined that the victims had one thing in common -- a talent for extrasensory perception. Dehner's esper rating had been an impressive 089, while Gary's had been even higher at 091.
A small difference, statistically speaking -- but a difference nonetheless, judging by the results. While Dehner's vital signs showed no change after what she went through, the change in Gary was hard to ignore.
His eyes, for instance, went from brown to a startling, luminous silver. His voice took on an expansive, echoing quality from time to time. And he began reading at speeds even Spock could barely believe.
None of that constituted a reason to fear the man. After all, the captain had always trusted his friend implicitly, no matter what the stakes.
But there was something in Gary's attitude...an arrogance, a disdain for those around him...that put Kirk on his guard. That, and the unsettling computer logs of the Valiant, the last ship that tried to cross the barrier at the galaxy's edge.
Reports of queries about extrasensory perception, for instance. And, later, of a self-destruct order apparently given by the Valiant's captain...who had to have been confronted with a truly staggering menace to even consider such a command.
But even then, the captain couldn't bring himself to believe that Gary presented that kind of menace. And Dehner had believed it even less.
I was a fool, Kirk mused. A damned fool.
As he reached the perimeter of the sandy area and entered the cleft between two towering crags, he shifted the weight of the phaser rifle in his arms. After the shrilling of the wind, it was quiet in the shelter of the rocks. Deadly quiet, he thought.
After all, Gary could be anywhere up ahead. Anywhere at all. Senses alert, the captain pressed on.
At least the others will be safe, he assured himself. Spock, Piper, Alden...none of them would perish like poor Kelso. Of course, if he had paid a little more attention to Spock's warnings, Kelso might still be alive...and Dehner might be safe on the Enterprise as well.
Kirk recalled what the Vulcan had said at the briefing -- the one that seemed so long ago now. Soon, we'll not only be useless to him, but actually an annoyance. In a month, he'll have as much in common with us as we'd have with a shipful of white mice.
The captain hadn't wanted to hear it. He had lashed out -- told Spock he needed recommendations, not vague warnings.
And his first officer had risen to the occasion. Recommendation One: There's a planet a few lightdays away from here. Delta Vega. It is the only possible way to get Mitchell off this ship.
Kirk had balked at the idea, saying he wouldn't do it. He wouldn't strand his friend on an unpopulated planet, where even the ore ships only called every twenty years.
But Spock had persisted. Then you have only one other choice. Kill Mitchell while you still can.
The captain had rejected the option. He'd told the Vulcan to leave him the hell alone.
Again, Spock had refused to budge. It is your only other choice -- assuming you make it while you still have time.
At least act like you've got a heart, Kirk had admonished him. We're talking about Gary, Spock.
The Vulcan had scowled. The captain of the Valiant probably felt the same way, he said ominously.
It was that reminder that had finally swayed Kirk. Taking a deep breath, he had placed duty over friendship -- and authorized Spock to set a course for Delta Vega.
As he neared the end of his passage between the crags, the captain stopped and scanned the area ahead of him. There was no sign of Gary -- or Dehner either, for that matter. Just a sandy shelf that angled upward into a higher range of rocks.
Cautiously, Kirk emerged from concealment -- though he wasn't certain anything could hide him from what Gary had become, or shield him if Gary decided to put an end to him. Step by step, he made his way to the shelf. Then, still wary, he began to climb it.
Suddenly, a boulder in his path came loose and rolled down the rocky surface beside him. The captain stopped and looked around, his heart beating hard in his chest, his phaser rifle at the ready.
He couldn't see Gary anywhere, but he knew it was Gary who had sent the boulder tumbling. Kirk could hear Mitchell's laughter in the wind. He could see his friend's smile in the swirling of the dust up ahead of him.
Gary was mocking the captain, toying with him -- letting him know that his approach hadn't gone without notice. And, perhaps, warning him. Telling him to go back if he knew what was good for him.
Gritting his teeth, Kirk went on anyway.
He recalled something Gary had said back on the Enterprise, while he sat there in his bed in Piper's sickbay. It's like a man who's been blind all his life suddenly being given sight. Sometimes I feel there's nothing I couldn't do, in time. Some people think that makes me a monster...don't they, Jim?
That was when the captain had realized that Gary could read their minds. He wondered if that was happening now -- if his old friend was tracking Kirk's thoughts, maybe even finding amusement in them.
Not that it mattered. The captain had to find Dehner -- to save her if he could. And beyond that, he had to destroy his old cohort, no matter what kind of power he held in his hands.
Again, he recalled Gary's words in sickbay. I can sense mainly worry in you, Jim...the safety of your ship.
Kirk had eyed his friend. What would you do in my place? he had inquired almost casually.
Gary had smiled. Probably just what Mr. Spock is thinking now -- kill me...while you can.
There was no longer any need for pretense. With his last remark, Gary had torn away the veil.
Kirk had tried to get at Gary before he could bring his power to bear, but his friend had raised his hand and pierced the captain with a hideously painful energy charge. As Kirk faltered, Spock had launched himself at Gary as well -- only to be hurled back by the same kind of charge.
Then Gary had revealed a bit more of himself. I also know we're orbiting Delta Vega, Jim. I can't let you force me down there. I may not want to leave the ship...not yet. I may want another place.
He had smiled to himself with the utmost confidence. I'm not sure yet what kind of a world I can use.
Dehner had looked at him. Use? she asked in a wavering voice.
Gary began to get up from his bed. I don't understand it all yet. But if I keep growing, getting stronger...why, the things I could do...like maybe a god could do...
Before he could finish, while he was still intent on his vision of the future, the captain had slammed his elbow into his friend's side. Then Spock hit him also, and Kirk sent him sprawling across the bed with a right hook.
Taking advantage of Gary's stunned condition, they had sedated him with a hypospray. Then, as quickly as they could, they had brought him to the transporter room and beamed down to the dilithium-cracking station.
Kelso and his team were already down there. The lieutenant had grimaced at the sight of Gary, his friend as well as Kirk's, being dragged through the entrance to the facility and imprisoned behind a forcefield. But if Kelso had had any objections, he had kept them to himself.
After all, he knew that Gary had become dangerous. Unfortunately, he didn't know how dangerous. None of them did -- or Kelso might have survived to return to the ship.
Dragging his thoughts back to the present moment, the captain came to the end of his sandy incline and peered over its crest at a path that wound its way among the crags. Still no sign of his friend. But Gary was out there, an almost tangible presence in the landscape.
Kirk got to his feet and shifted the weight of his phaser rifle in his arms. It was a heavy piece of ordnance and it was getting heavier by the moment. But then, its inventors had never meant for it to be carried by hand over long distances.
It was Spock who had ordered the rifle beamed down, after he had seen Gary attempt to escape his energy-walled prison in the cracking station -- and only grow stronger for the experience. But, of course, the weapon hadn't helped any of them.
As the captain, Spock, and Dehner had prepared to leave, Gary had called Kirk's name. You should have killed me while you could, he said. Command and compassion are a fool's mixture.
Then Gary had hit his friend with another energy charge, as if the powerful barrier between them hadn't even existed. This time, the charge hadn't just sent the captain reeling -- it had short-circuited his brain, plunging him into a deep, swirling darkness.
When Kirk woke, he was looking up into Piper's face. Apparently, the chief medical officer had been knocked out as well, for a while. And so had Spock, who was lying on the floor, unconscious.
Gary was gone, of course. And so was Dehner.
Kelso's dead, Piper had said. Strangled.
That's when the captain had made the decision to go after Gary -- alone. After all, it was his fault that his friend had gotten this far. If he'd acted sooner, taken less compassionate measures...
Kirk had gotten to his feet and wrested Spock's rifle from his senseless fingers. When Mr. Spock recovers, he had said, you'll both transport up immediately to the Enterprise...where, if you've not received a signal from me in twelve hours, you'll proceed at maximum warp to the nearest Earth base -- with my recommendation that this entire planet be subjected to a lethal concentration of neutron radiation.
Then he had set out to hunt his friend down.
And now, perhaps an hour later, the captain was still doing that. His back against a cliff, the moan of the wind loud in his ears, he followed the path -- knowing he had little chance of catching Gary by surprise, but intent on trying nonetheless.
When he ran out of cliff face, Kirk turned the corner and followed the path between two rocks that seemed to form a portal -- an entranceway. It was then that he heard the voice.
Gary's voice, speaking in the confines of the captain's mind. But it wasn't antagonistic anymore. It was soothing, almost reassuring.
"Can you hear me, James? You cannot see me, I'm not there. You follow the right path, James...you'll come to me soon."
Kirk turned -- and suddenly, Dehner was standing there in front of him, just a few paces away. And her eyes...
My god, the captain thought, his heart sinking in his chest. Her eyes were glowing just like Gary's.
Copyright © 1999 by Paramount Pictures