Tractor beam.” Captain James T. Kirk spun toward his chief engineer.
Montgomery Scott turned from the engineering console and shook his head forbiddingly. “At this distance? Through that atmosphere? Impossible, sir.”
“Their shields are failing.” Spock was angled over his science station console viewer, its informative blue glow playing over his sharp features. “At the current rate of descent, their hull will be crushed in four minutes, sixteen-point-nine seconds.”
“Mister Scott, set shields for atmospheric running.” Kirk turned back toward the helm. “Sulu, close the distance. I want that ship pulled out of there.”
“Aye, sir.” Sulu’s lithe fingers danced impressively across his console. At navigation, Ensign Chekov answered Sulu’s movements. Moments later, the navigator said, “In range, Captain.”
Kirk kept his eyes on the main viewscreen. Tension made his shoulders knot up. First contact with a new warp-capable race was exhilarating, but the distress call dampened any enthusiasm and caused concern. “Spock?”
“Radiation from the gas giant prevents a detailed scan, but sensors indicate storm currents are pulling them deeper.”
Sulu must have felt his captain’s eyes on him because he began reporting the closing distance. “Forty thousand kilometers…thirty thousand…”
Scotty positioned his hands over the proper controls. “Almost.”
“In range…” Sulu gazed deeply into his scanner. “Now!”
“Tractor beam engaged, sir.”
Enterprise’s tractors emitted blue energy beams that encased the alien vessel and pulled it slightly closer.
“Reverse course,” Kirk ordered.
The engines struggled as Enterprise pulled the other ship through the tempestuous primordial gases. Kirk gripped the arms of his chair and seemed to transfer his will to the tractor beam to help tug the mass behind them. On the main viewscreen, gas clouds eventually gave way to the dark vacuum of space. Kirk watched the starscape intently until the red lights on the helm began to flash. Chekov instantly checked his console, as the captain watched over his shoulder.
“Two vessels, incoming.” Chekov looked back at Kirk expectantly but the captain flew out of his seat and toward the rail near the first officer’s station.
“Unknown design. Scanning energy signatures…” The Vulcan glanced up, making eye contact with Kirk. “They’re charging weapons.”
“Uhura, hailing frequency.”
Slender brown fingers made well-practiced motions across the communication console. Uhura nodded quickly. “Open, sir.”
“This is Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise. We are responding to a general distress call and engaged in rescue operations—”
Uhura removed her earpiece and instead read her console screen. “They’re responding, sir—mathematically.”
“Universal replies, Uhura.” Kirk stepped up between his officers, but kept his eyes on the main viewscreen. “Spock?”
“Class eleven shields and weak disruptor cannons. And yet…” The first officer turned away from his scanner to impress upon Kirk the irony of the situation. “They appear to be warning us to leave.” “Don’t they have sensors?” If they did, Kirk thought, they were fools. “We outgun them a hundred to one.”
“Confirmed, Captain,” Uhura said. “The message is a warning.”
“Explain we’re on a rescue mission.”
Uhura checked the readouts on her board and shook her head. “I think they understand that, sir. Their message reads: ‘Leave them to die.’”
“They’re firing on the damaged ship,” Spock reported.
Kirk ordered Scotty, “Extend our shields.”
The chief engineer shook his head. “We’ll lose the tractor beam, and they’ll slip back into the atmosphere, sir.”
“Another salvo, and the alien ship will lose cohesion,” Spock said.
Kirk returned to his command chair and pounded the comm button. “Bridge to transporter room. Lock on alien vessel in tractor and beam all life-forms aboard.”
As he watched the small vessel fade into the gas that surrounded the planet, Kirk wished he was at the transporter controls. He looked from the main screen to the speaker on the arm of the center seat and back again—until he saw a bright flare against the sweeping maelstrom of colors. The ship was gone. Kirk’s jaw tightened until he heard Kyle’s report from the transporter room: “We have them, sir! Three individuals.”
A sigh rose in Kirk’s throat but he wouldn’t let it escape. Instead, he asked Spock, “The hostiles?”
“Breaking off, Captain. Retreating toward the inner star system.”
Sulu’s hands hovered on his console, ready to engage a course that Chekov had no doubt already plotted. “Pursuit, sir?”
“Negative. Continue scans and maintain red alert. Uhura, security to transporter room. Have medical standing by.” Kirk hurried to the turbolift. “Spock, with me. Scotty, you have the conn.”
“Jim, I don’t think we’ll need them.” Doctor Leonard McCoy’s tone was laced both with annoyance at the security team near the doorway and pity for the three unconscious souls in sickbay.
Familiar with McCoy’s attitude and recognizing that the three aliens didn’t pose much of a threat, Kirk sent the guards away. As they retreated out of sickbay, the captain got a closer look at the most colorfully dressed alien who appeared to be the leader.
Dressed in a medium-blue tunic and loose gray trousers, the being to whom McCoy attended was humanoid, slight of build with a bone-white complexion under a pinkish fuzz. He had no hair exactly, but the fuzz on his head was thicker and crest-shaped. He had large eyes that bulged even when closed, and flat nostrils without a pronounced nose—an interesting evolution.
A nurse removed a device from the being’s wrist, and Kirk noticed that the even distribution of fuzz made it seem as if a pale child had been crossbred with a peach.
“How are they?” Kirk asked as McCoy scanned and reviewed the bio-bed monitor.
“Coming around, I think,” the doctor grunted.
Before them, the peach man stirred, his bulbous eyes fluttering open. He was so delicate that Kirk wondered about his planet’s gravity and makeup. Did his people, like the Vulcans, hide incredible strength in their slender forms?
The alien flailed his arms then pointed and gestured while looking pleadingly at McCoy and the nurse.
“Is he trying to speak? Is he injured?” Kirk came closer.
“He’s not trying to speak,” McCoy said, glancing at his Feinberg scanner. “No vocal cords.”
“Captain, I believe he wishes to use the device taken from his wrist.” Spock gestured toward the apparatus on the table to the left of the alien.
Kirk nodded and said, “Analysis.”
The Vulcan scanned the device with his tricorder, then picked it up and inspected it closer. “A computerized communications device. No inherent threat.”
Kirk made a gesture, ordering that the unit be returned to its owner. The alien sat up in bed, and relief flushed his pale countenance as Spock returned it to him. The alien placed the device on his wrist and began gesturing again. This time, however, a flood of tones emanated from the device.
The other two aliens began to stir. They looked panicked and unsure at first, but then, suddenly and perfectly synchronized, they grew calm and centered. Kirk found it curious, and filed away the thought for later consideration.
The universal translator began interpreting, replacing bleeps with words once the Enterprise’s computer learned the alien language.
“Can you understand us?” Kirk asked the alien who had come to first.
The peach man took in a breath, not quite a gasp. Kirk wondered if the reaction was the equivalent of a nod, but then the alien gestured at him. The translator took over: “Understand I. You make sound. Hear I and communicate.”
Kirk nodded slowly and the alien mimicked the gesture as if attempting to duplicate a greeting.
“You who?” the alien asked, looking around the room and addressing the question to them all.
Kirk took a step forward and said, “James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, my first officer, Mister Spock, and Doctor Leonard McCoy. We responded to your distress call.”
The alien looked from Kirk to the others—including his own people—then back to the Enterprise captain. His slight features, which seemed even smaller in relation to his bulbous eyes, were excited and relieved. “I possess no knowledge of you, but you interesting very very. I called Berlis Aknista from Isitra Colony First. Excuse language barrier. We communicate thoughts. When travel space, device necessary for deliver information give you.”
“Yes, thank you, Mister Spock.”
“Do you have a written language?” Spock asked Berlis.
“Writing recent. No need past.”
Spock nodded as if confirming a theory to himself.
“But you developed a manual language?” McCoy asked.
“Yes. Not all people think together. Some alone, single—disabled. They signs created—ideas communicate difficult but possible.”
The syntax wasn’t alarming to Kirk, though it was already improving thanks to the universal translator. There must have been something in the way Berlis was gesturing or the manner in which the device interpreted these gestures into tones that the translator still didn’t understand. With time it would improve.
Kirk wasn’t certain if he should avoid moving his hands when he spoke. He was concerned about gesturing in a manner Berlis and his people might find insulting, or that would accidentally convey the wrong thing, so he kept his arms at his sides and spoke as evenly as possible.
“Someone wanted you dead. Why?”
Berlis’s face wrinkled with confusion as he said, “Why?”
“That’s what we’d like to know. Why?”
Berlis and the other two aliens simultaneously looked at Kirk anxiously, as if the captain would be the one to soon supply them with an answer.
Could such naïveté be genuine? Kirk and Spock exchanged a glance, but the Vulcan offered only a curious expression.
Pushing out a breath, Kirk steeled his gaze. “Who attacked you?”
“Our people from Isitra Zero: homeworld.”
Spock’s eyebrow lifted in surprise at the information, and McCoy, even as he continued to scan one of Berlis’s comrades, looked genuinely insulted on the aliens’ behalf.
“And…” Kirk struggled to get the next question out, unsure of just how far he could go before seeming rude. “You don’t know why they’d want you dead?”
“I know not,” Berlis told him. “I Colony First leader I now return home from meeting with Zero council.”
“Was there a disagreement at your meeting?” Spock asked. “Perhaps a heated one?”
Berlis made a quick synchronized movement with both hands. “No.”
Kirk waited a long moment for Berlis to elaborate, but the alien said nothing more. Finally McCoy broke the silence.
“Jim, we should let them rest.” The doctor gently pushed Berlis down against the bio-bed’s pillow. “Their oxygen levels are still pretty low.”
“Well, you’re safe for now,” Kirk assured the three aliens, and found himself nodding to Berlis. Then the captain smiled slightly, unexpectedly, and shared another brief glance with Spock.
Spock merely looked at the captain with interest. Kirk couldn’t quash the feeling that there was something strange about Berlis. He did not think it was because of the nonverbal communication; it wasn’t the first alien—or human—he’d met who used manual language.
After a second’s hesitation, the captain nodded once more, and turned and left. Spock followed behind.
Once they were in McCoy’s office, Kirk turned to his first officer. “Opinion, Mister Spock.”
“While it seems unlikely that Mister Berlis would be unaware of the reasons his own people might wish him dead, he seems forthright.”
His lips pursed into a thin line, Kirk grudgingly grunted in agreement but added, “There’s something…odd about Berlis and his people. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Perhaps your human intuition is at work,” Spock gibed, as McCoy joined them. “How lucky for you to not be burdened,” the doctor said.
Kirk allowed himself a slight smirk that pulled up one corner of his mouth.
“Indeed,” Spock replied.
“How long before we can talk to them again, Bones?”
The doctor’s shoulders rolled in a lazy shrug, as he shook his head. “I’ll let you know.”
“As soon as Bones gives the word, move Berlis and his associates to quarters,” Kirk told Spock. “I want you to talk with him again. Find out all you can—about their colony, the area, anything else that might help us figure out what’s happening.”
Spock, clasping his hands behind his back, nodded, saying, “Understood.”
“Do we return Berlis to his colony,” Kirk asked, “or hand him over to his homeworld’s authorities? We choose the wrong answer, and our actions might cause a civil war.”
Dave Galanter has authored (or coauthored with collaborator Greg Brodeur) various Star Trek projects, including Voyager: Battle Lines, the Next Generation duology Maximum Warp, The Original Series novels Crisis of Consciousness and Troublesome Minds, and numerous works of short Star Trek fiction.