(Standard Year 2248)

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“Daffy, my child, what does this look like to you?” Ruth Valley asked

The chemist bent in front of Ruth to look at the specimen under the microscope, then straightened, returning to her own scope. “Blue,” she replied.

Ruth grimaced. Spock was driving the Chemistry Section mad wanting these tests run yesterday, and Daffy Gollub was playing comedienne. “Besides blue, I mean,” she said from between clenched teeth.

“Dead?” Daffy suggested uncertainly, then grinned wickedly. Ruth reached for the nearest non-breakable object to throw at her, and the ship’s com came suddenly to life.

“Lieutenants Majiir, Sulu, and Valley report to Briefing Room C, Deck Four,” M’ress’ voice purred.

Ruth frowned and tossed her statboard at Daffy, who caught it and placed it carefully on the table. “Consider yourself lucky,” Ruth told her as she turned to leave the Chem Lab.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

I’m so bored I could die, Sulu thought as his fingers methodically entered the ratings and scores into the computer at the command station of the Auxiliary Bridge. The make-believe reaction to the make-believe crisis over which he was the make-believe commander had run as smooth as clockwork, as he’d expected. All that was left was the paperwork. The constant drilling was necessary for the crew to remain at peak efficiency and he was proud of the performance – but the recording of it in the ship’s logs, especially after the adrenaline high of the exercise itself, was deadly dull. And I want to be a captain?

He was counting the hours until he was off duty and could go home – to Jilla. What a lovely ring that had to it. Go home to Jilla. Sweet silver fire, waiting and welcoming… But first to get this damn report over with…

“Lieutenants Majiir, Sulu, and Valley report to Briefing Room C, Deck Four.”

Shit!

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Jilla Majiir had just come off duty when she heard M’ress’ call. She sighed and returned to the turbolift. She had wanted to surprise Sulu by actually coming off duty on time. She’d planned on a quick shower and a nap while waiting for him. She was tired, but neither she nor Sulu were interested in sleeping when they were alone together.

She felt herself beginning to glow slightly at the thought, and hoped that the brightness would die down before she reached Deck Four.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

“Anyone know what’s going on?” Sulu asked as he stepped into the turbolift. He was the last passenger picked up; Ruth and Jilla were already in the car. Jilla shook her head in a negative. He glanced at Ruth, who hadn’t seemed to notice his presence. She had no doubt left her mind with whatever she’d been working on. He shrugged and stepped toward Jilla, slipping his arms around her waist. She looked up at him, her eyes shining, and he kissed her.

Ruth became aware enough to snort, “Honeymooners,” at them.

“Honeymooners?” Jilla repeated, her voice sounding as confused as it usually did when confronted with Terran slang.

“It refers to people who have just gotten married,” Ruth explained.

“I am already…” Jilla began.

“But not to Roy,” Ruth broke in.

“Sulu and I are not…”

“Never mind,” Ruth snarled exasperatedly.

Jilla’s response of “I never do,” still held a touch of confusion. She turned to Sulu. “What has it to do with honey, or moons?”

“I don’t know, hon,” he replied.

“Though he has been known to have interesting uses for honey,” Ruth murmured.

Sulu chuckled, and started to remind Ruth about her own uses for turbolifts, then, realizing that Jilla might not appreciate the reference, thought better of it. Turbolifts and briefing rooms and showers and… He kept the pleasant reminiscences to himself. After all, all that’s done with now. I have what I want. He smiled down at Jilla, who bent her head, her skin softly shimmering.

“Hey, Roy, is it fun to be able to flirt without saying a word?” Ruth asked.

“You should know,” he countered easily.

“You are a keheil,” Jilla pointed out.

“Am I being picked on?” Ruth demanded. The turbolift stopped and the door opened.

“Maybe later,” Sulu promised as he and Jilla stepped out. “We don’t have time right now.”

Ruth laughed and followed them out of the car.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock were already in the briefing room when the three junior officers entered. Sulu, Jilla and Ruth quickly took seats around the table and looked attentively toward the Captain.

“Miss Valley, Mrs. Majiir, Lieutenant Sulu,” Kirk greeted them. Spock nodded toward them. “We have been assigned to negotiate with the planetary government of Alcon…” Kirk began. Ruth’s enormous eyes grew even larger with astonishment. “You have something to say, Miss Valley?” he asked.

She cleared her throat. “Alcon, sir? Isn’t Alcon off limits?” And if it isn’t, it certainly should be. She suddenly recalled something her father had said; “That place should be marked with large red X’s on every starmap in the galaxy.” The Alconians are the sort of people only a Klingon could love, who were on a first name basis with Denebian Slime Devils, who…

Miss Valley, kindly mind your thoughts.

Sorry.

Ruth shook her head to clear it. Since the events on Shas, her shielding had been less than wholly effective, particularly with Spock. It really was only to be expected. After such intimate contact over such an extended period of time, and the fact that they were both telepaths… The Captain repeated something and she swallowed and said, “Excuse me, sir?”

“I said, for the third time,” Kirk said with annoyed patience, “that Alcon has always had limited contact with the Federation. Now the Alconians have contacted us, believing that they have developed something that we might wish to purchase from them.”

It can’t be that simple, Ruth thought suspiciously. Alconians don’t ‘trade’ – not in credits, anyway.

“Alcon,” Spock said, “generally remains neutral, if not indifferent, to anyone outside the Alconian system. They are a highly technological race, who occasionally, and for reasons known only to themselves, permit contact with other species. The last known contact with the Federation was some nine point two standard years ago, when the crew of the Alterra University Ship Blakely spent three months conducting a scientific survey.”

At the mention of the Blakely, everyone’s gaze turned to Ruth. She shrugged and smiled wanly.

“Miss Valley, records indicate that you spent the entire three months on Alcon,” Spock told her, “though you were not a member of the surveying team, and not, strictly speaking, a member of the crew.”

Which means I got to work my ass off without getting a credit’s pay for it, Ruth thought.

Spock blinked, looking ever so slightly offended. He glanced at her, and Ruth blushed.

Oops, I did it again. Sorry, Boss. I don’t mean to.

Understood.

No one else seemed to have noticed the quick exchange, though Ruth thought Jilla might have been aware of her emotions. But she could easily explain that by the subject being discussed.

“In recent months,” Kirk continued, “the Alconians have made overtures to the Federation regarding a new weapon.”

“Weapon?” Sulu asked curiously.

“They claim to have developed a dylithium-powered hand weapon,” Spock explained.

Jilla said, “Impossible,” at the same time as Sulu whistled. Ruth grumbled something under her breath that might have been “god damn.” Then she and Jilla immediately stuck their heads together and, with Sulu listening, whispered about the possibilities.

“It could be…”

“The restrictions of size and…”

“…could be overcome by…”

“…for any kind of accurate aim…”

“…that powerful, who’d give a damn about…

“...would explode in the operator’s…”

“…wouldn’t give a damn about that either…”

Both Kirk and Spock listened for a few minutes, understanding with a tolerant wonder that the entity which was becoming known as “Valjiir” understood the half-sentences and leaps of logic and intuition perfectly well.

“…the point is…”

“…I know, but if it weren’t…”

“…a shield in place might…”

“…aggravating people…

“…still say it is…”

“…why the Federation wants us to…”

“Only on alternate Tuesdays?” Sulu threw in, and received a withering stare that was immediately soothed by his most winning smile.

“Telepathy?” Kirk asked.

“More accurately, the combination of Indiian sensitivity and Antari empathy,” Spock replied. “When informative nuances can be conveyed instinctually, language becomes less important.”

“Our apologies, Captain,” Jilla said softly.

Kirk waved it away. “Unnecessary, Lieutenant. The Enterprise has been authorized to investigate this possibility, and, if warranted, negotiate with the Alconian government. The landing party will consist of myself, Mr. Spock, and you three; Sulu as a weaponry expert, Mrs. Majiir as the expert in innovative engineering design, and Miss Valley as her design partner, as well as cultural advisor. Miss Valley, we’ll need a complete report on your previous interaction and observations of Alcon and its people. Mr. Spock will provide all of you with the data currently available. Please acquaint yourselves with it. From what I’ve heard, Alcon can be a very dangerous place.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Ruth muttered.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

The cabin door opened on Jilla’s soft, “come,” and Ruth stalked in and threw herself into an empty chair. Sulu looked up from the computer terminal on the desk long enough to growl a hello. Jilla put down her lyrette and went to the replicator to return with three cups of coffee. It made Ruth smile. Once having accepted that this was where she belonged, Jilla behaved in her new home as any proper married Indiian lady would – as hostess. Ruth didn’t particularly like intruding on their privacy – after all, they were still in the honeymoon phase, even if Jilla didn’t understand the word – but she wasn’t at all happy with their assignment and she needed to share her worry with someone who wouldn’t give her raised eyebrows.

She accepted the coffee and took a long gulp, ignoring the fact that it was scalding hot. She also ignored the fact that Jilla had automatically gotten a cup for herself. Of course, if she hadn’t, Ruth would have insisted on getting one for her – but still, it was nice to know she was having a positive effect. “Thanks,” she said to Jilla, who nodded. “Sulu,” she called to the satiny black hair that was all that was visible of him. He grunted, so she knew she had his attention. “I added my report to the Alcon data,” she told him. “Have you gotten to it yet?”

“I’m reading it now,” he muttered. “Are they really that crazy or are you just trying to convince the Captain and Spock?”

Ruth scowled. “I tried to be objective, everything I remember is from the perspective of a fourteen year old, and yes, they’re really that crazy. Dangerous, games-playing, untrustworthy, devious, cruel… a normal Alconian makes the most dangerous, vicious killer on Elba look harmless by comparison."

“You are frightened,” Jilla murmured.

Clutching her coffee cup, Ruth got up and started pacing. “They’re up to something, I know it.”

“The Alconians?”

“Yes. Despite what engineering expertise says,” she began, “I don’t doubt that they have a weapon that can do anything they say it can. Part of their technology is based on remnants from the Slavers.” Jilla gave a sharp inhale of both respect and surprise. “As to the rest…” Ruth laughed shortly. “I have a very bad feeling about this whole thing.”

“And you can’t report ‘bad feelings’ to the Captain or Mr. Spock,” Sulu put in. Ruth glanced up from her pacing. He was looking at her with an expression of understanding and acceptance. “And with nothing logical, or any solid evidence to report, all you can do is hope that you’re not the one in the line of fire.”

Ruth exchanged a quick, nervous glance with Jilla, who nodded in agreement.

“Your report and recommendations are clear and concise,” he continued, “and your worry comes across loud and clear.”

“It does?” she asked.

He nodded encouragingly. “Yeah. I believe you. Spock will no doubt take your first-hand experience into account, and the Captain will listen to him. What more can you do?”

Ruth sighed. Sulu made it all sound so reasonable… “I guess you’re right,” she said, then handed her empty cup back to Jilla. She was about to ask for more when she caught the look in Sulu’s eyes. Honeymoon, remember? So she stepped instead toward the cabin door. “Thanks, Roy.”

“'Night, Spike,” Sulu said. Ruth tried not to notice Jilla’s skin beginning to glow a faint silver as the door closed behind her.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

The atmosphere in the transporter room was slightly tense, and Ruth was well aware it was her fault. She was only trying to be an efficient Cultural Advisor – and isn’t that supposed to be Anthropology’s job? she wondered sourly. Where’s Carolyn Palamas when I need her?

She cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Captain?” she said.

Kirk turned to her. “What is it now, Lieutenant?” he asked, his tone conveying his irritation. It was a response she could well understand. Dealing with the Alconians certainly made her irritable. Of course, she had to admit that it wasn’t exactly the Alconians – just the intricate and complicated set of unspoken rules, assumptions and strategies that went into a normal Alconian conversation. Which she was trying to teach the Captain and First Officer.

“The Alconians are – well, the culture is one of… they respect arrogance, and…” she took a breath. “You have to swagger, sir.”

Swagger, Miss Valley?” Ruth winced as she felt his already strained patience give a little more. “Would you care to demonstrate?”

Ruth frowned. If she attempted it, and Kirk copied her, the Alconians would have a field day with the Captain’s ‘feminine’ stance. She glanced helplessly around the room and saw Sulu grinning at her. “That’s it,” she said, relieved to have a male swashbuckler in the landing party. “Roy, you show him.”

With a visible start, Sulu looked between her and the Captain and the First Officer, then back. She could almost hear him thinking; You want me to make a fool of myself in front of senior officers? She made her most contrite, pleading, worried expression, and he sighed. She watched critically as he took a deep breath, then boldly placed his hands on his hips, threw his head back, his chest out, and strutted across the room, pivoted, returned, and sneered with just the right touch of condescending arrogance.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Jilla stood next to the transporter controls, finishing her final consultation with Scott. They were going over the details that needed to be certified for the feasibility of the weapon the Alconians claimed to possess – and Jilla stopped hearing Scott’s instructions the second Sulu started to move. The romantic haze she had spent a year controlling immediately descended on her, and her thoughts were filled with his grace and beauty and strength and perfection…

“Lass, are ye all right?” Scott asked worriedly.

She returned her attention to the Chief Engineer, blushing furiously.

“Ah, I see,” Scott murmured with a warm smile. He patted her hand comfortingly. “Honeymooners. 'Tis perfectly normal, lassie, I promise.”

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Jim Kirk frowned at the display his Chief of Security was making, then glanced to heaven before turning to his First Officer. Ruth Valley’s behavior had been annoyingly proper, almost contrite, ever since the court martial. Spock said it was an expected reaction due to her extensive healing efforts, as well as the psychological trauma they had all been subjected to. Still, Jim couldn’t help but feel that he was only waiting for the shoe to drop. “Do I need this aggravation?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, Captain,” Spock returned, “I believe, at this point, you do.”

“I was afraid you’d say that,” Jim sighed. He closed his eyes, then took a breath and did his best to imitate Sulu’s strutting bluster. “Is this more appropriate, Miss Valley?”

As he stared at her, he could’ve sworn her cheeks flushed, but she smiled and nodded. “You look just like a pirate,” she commented happily. “They’ll respect that.”

Jim shook his head. “You’re the expert.”

The Antari’s face suddenly fell. “Yes, sir,” she replied glumly.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

The beamdown point was in the palace garden. No one was there to greet them.

“They score points for making us wait,” Ruth said, “And they’ll be watching to see how we react.”

“Which should be?” Kirk asked.

“Look bored, not irritated, wait no more than two minutes, then take out your communicator and call for beam-up,” she answered.

“Alcon is a religious monarchy,” Spock said, taking the opportunity to remind them all of important, salient facts, “ruled by a priest-king. Power is shared by a Priestess-Consort. The rule of this monarch is absolute and dictatorial.”

Ruth wasn’t listening. She knew it all already, and she was carefully counting the seconds. Forty, forty-one, forty-two… oh for the love of the Zehara, get on with it!... forty-six, forty-seven…

Guards appeared from the archway that led into the palace and Ruth sighed. Less than a minute, they don’t want to toy too badly then…

They were conducted through a labyrinth of corridors to the throne room. Ruth did her best to appear casual, though she was very alert to their surroundings – and inside she was as nervous as a cat. The palace was just as she remembered it… unfortunately. Corridors full of side passages and alcoves and plenty of colorful wall hangings to hide behind. The damn blue tile that makes our steps echo like a son-of-a-bitch loud enough to drown out the always-slipper-clad Alconian feet… paranoia, that’s all it is – which doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get us and Spock’s monotone isn’t helping us stay on our toes…

Miss Valley, will you keep your thoughts to yourself?

I can’t help it!

I understand. However, I find the insertion of your thoughts into mine disconcerting at best.

A person can’t be damned for their thoughts, Spock.

So I keep reminding myself. Try to be more shielded.

I’m still worn out from Shas. Normally, I have very strong shielding…

I am aware of that fact, Miss Valley.

You don’t have to answer every stray…

I do not. The silence following the remark was more than pointed, and Ruth flushed.

Jeez, save a man’s life and he complains about a minor side-effect. It’s not as if I’m spilling my guts here, nothing that I wouldn’t say out loud…

My monotone is not helping you stay on your toes.

Be grateful it’s me and not ‘we shared consciousnesses’ Chapel.

That remark is beneath you, Miss Valley.

So don’t listen!

If I could shield from you, I would. You are the stronger telepath.

Ruth grumbled, careful not to form actual words, then realized that they were in the throne room, half-way across the shuttle bay-sized hall. She looked anxiously around and edged closer to the captain. “Aser seems to be dead, or he would be on the throne,” she whispered. "The king, then, is Skael, Aser’s son. The consort is… well, well, Nara. She was on her way to the top nine years ago but… Watch, her, sir. She’s as dangerous as Skael.”

Kirk nodded without looking at her. His attention was clearly divided between the two Alconians who stood before the high-backed, carved crystal thrones. Skael was the younger, with dark hair and eyes, like all Alconians. His face seemed to be set in a permanent, proud snarl. The woman was perhaps thirty, beautiful by any world’s standards. She was dressed in a clinging silver costume that revealed much of her lush figure. Her blue-black hair was arranged elaborately on top of her head, making her seem taller than she was. She stared back at Kirk with glittering black eyes, her full mouth smiling invitingly.

Ruth glanced between Nara and Kirk and frowned. No, not Nara, Bwana, she thought worriedly. She’ll wrap you around her little finger. She threw a warning sigh at Spock, who raised a comprehending eyebrow. Behind her, she heard Sulu whisper, “Is that…?” and Jilla’s confirming, “Pure dylithium.”

“The hills are full of…” Ruth began, then fell silent as the party stepped before the dais holding the thrones. A slave girl holding a clear goblet full of green liquid moved gracefully toward them.

“Welcome,” Skael called in a tone just a touch less than sneering, “in the name of the peace loving people of Alcon.”

The girl was standing before the captain, offering the goblet. “For you,” she breathed.

Before Kirk could reach for it, Ruth stepped in front of him and snatched it from the girl’s hands. The girl squeaked in surprise.

“Miss Valley!” Kirk protested.

“This is not fit for a starship captain!” Ruth announced contemptuously. She met the chilling, expectant eyes of Nara and matched her smile. “Thy mother,” Ruth saluted her, and drained the cup in two gulps before tossing it aside. “Forgive them, Captain,” she murmured, though loudly enough for the Alconians to hear, and stepped back to her place. She heard Kirk’s voice responding to Skael’s welcome, but found she couldn’t make out the words. It was several seconds before she noticed a supporting hand under each of her arms. Spock was on one side of her, Sulu on the other.

“Poison?” Spock asked softly.

She shook her head and wished she hadn’t. Jilla’s concerned face floated in front of her, then steadied. “Will you be all right?” she asked, her voice as soft as Spock’s had been.

“Something hallucinogenic,” Ruth managed, then closed her eyes again, focusing on clearing her system. “I’m glad it wasn’t poison. Poison makes me throw up and there’s no class in vomiting before royalty.”

“Do they always greet their guests like that?” Sulu wondered.

“Always,” Ruth returned. “It’s part of the game. Bluff, bravado, how high are you willing to jump, how macho can you be. By the way, Boss, the score is about ten to five, our side. It’s very important to keep score.”

Spock nodded, releasing her arm. Sulu shuddered. “I’m beginning to see what you meant in your report.”

“Yeah, they’re wonderful people,” Ruth muttered.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Spock turned from the junior officers and stepped up beside Kirk. None of the Alconians except the slave girl had shown any surprise – or any reaction at all – to Lieutenant Valley’s gesture. The king was speaking amiably to Kirk while his consort smiled suggestively.

“I realize, of course, Captain Kirk,” Skael was saying, "that you do not wish to be away from your ship for very long, but surely, you can spare one evening?”

“My instructions are to cooperate with your government,” Kirk answered with just the right mix of disdain and flattery. Spock would have declined, particularly with the information of the Alconians' usual greetings, but when Kirk glanced at him, he showed only the suspicion required of a second in command.

“Good,” Nara said. Her voice was rich and husky, and Spock was well aware of the effect women as beautiful as she usually had on the captain. Then he became aware that the Alconians no doubt knew it as well. His suspicion doubled. Nara touched Skael’s arm, and the king smiled. It was a cold, unfriendly smile.

“Yes, very good,” Skael said. “You and your party will share our hospitality tonight. And tomorrow, you will have your demonstration and can judge whether the Federation wishes such a weapon.”

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

“Looks like we’re staying the night,” Sulu commented.

“Oh no,” Ruth groaned miserably.

“I would rather not,” Jilla put in tentatively.

“Me either, hon,” Sulu agreed, "but who ever asks mere lieutenants what they want?”

Just once, I’d like to be on a landing party that had no complications, Ruth thought glumly.

You are forgetting, Miss Valley, that is precisely how the majority of assignments are carried out. It is those missions which have complications that are in the minority.

Supercilious, green…

Shielding, Miss Valley.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Skael and most of the court left the throne room, taking the Captain and Mr. Spock with them. This left the junior officers to be escorted by the slave girl who had offered the goblet. She was tiny and pretty and did her best to get between Sulu and Jilla. While Sulu found this amusing, neither Jilla nor Ruth were pleased at her attentions. She led them out of the throne room by a different doorway than they had come in, down along corridor that took several turns, up a flight of stairs, and along another wide corridor. They were all careful to memorize the route, a simple precaution that was automatic – and hopefully unnecessary. Halfway along, Jilla fell back on her Vulcan dignity and into step beside Ruth.

“Why is everyone here so cheerfully hostile?” she asked, her tone of voice uneasy.

Ruth shrugged. “They’re born that way. The same reason Indiians are emotional, Vulcans are curious, and Humans are adventurous.”

“And Antaris are secretive,” Jilla added.

“That, too,” Ruth agreed easily.

“What information are you withholding, Ruth,” Jilla wanted to know, “And why?”

Ruth glared at her Indiian friend, then realized that, as she had just pointed out, there was no way Jilla could not know. “Lots of personal things,” she replied. “I spent time here, remember?”

“With your family, yes,” Jilla returned. “Is that why it is so painful?”

Ruth started to respond, and a movement from a side corridor they were passing caught their attention. Two large men armed with knives were suddenly leaping toward them. Ruth ducked, shouting a warning and saw Sulu turning. “Stop that!” she yelled at her attacker, resisting the urge to make it a telepathic order. Her reluctance had little to do with Antari conventions of non-interference in another’s mind. She was hardly in the mood to obey them. But there were other factors. She delivered a quick kick to the man’s arm, sending the knife clattering across the tile floor. Another couple of kicks and he was down, the wind knocked out of him.

Ruth turned, preparing to enter the rest of the fray. Their guide, who had apparently decided to join the attack, was obviously unconscious, being held up by the smaller Jilla, the Indiian’s right hand at the juncture between the girl’s neck and shoulder. The other attacker was on the floor, clutching a broken hand. Sulu was kneeling over him, but stood as Ruth took a step forward, keeping one booted foot on the man’s throat, tucking the man’s knife into his belt.

“Were they going to kill us?” he asked calmly.

“No,” Ruth replied, equally calm. “Never before sunset. Just trying to win points by leaving some visible scars, or slicing off an earlobe or something.”

Sulu stared at her for a moment, then cocked his head. “You’re not joking,” he said.

“No, I’m not. I wish I were.”

“I do not like this place,” Jilla stated tersely. She shifted the limp body in her arms. “What of her?” she asked, then nodded toward the men still on the floor. “And them?”

Ruth sighed, her fingers coming up to her temples. “Jilla, will she have a bruise?”

Jilla silvered. “I am afraid so.”

“Good. Leave her here, and let the men go,” she said at last. She took a few steps and retrieved the second knife as her attacker rose and began scrambling down the corridor. “The bruise, his fingers, and the missing weapons are proof that we’re not easy marks. More points for us.”

“I see,” Sulu sighed. He pulled out his communicator, flipping it open. “Sulu to Captain Kirk.”

“Kirk here,” the captain replied a second later.

“We were attacked by two Alconians,” Sulu reported. “We disarmed them. They both…” He lifted his foot, stepping back, and the Alconian quickly rose and followed his countryman. “…escaped.”

“Do you know why you were attacked, Lieutenant?” Kirk asked.

“According to Lieutenant Valley, it’s customary,” Sulu replied.

“Of course. We’ll discuss it later, Mr. Sulu. For now, carry on. Kirk out.”

Sulu stared dubiously at the communicator before closing it and replacing it on his belt. “Carry on?” he wondered.

“Find out where they want us and wait there for Boss and Bwana?” Ruth suggested.

Sulu took a step toward Jilla, relieving her of the slave girl. He lightly slapped the girl’s face. “Wake up,” he said.

“Here, let me,” Ruth broke in. She reached out, touching the girl’s forehead, then shuddered. “Alconians. Ugh,” she said by way of explanation. The girl opened her eyes, glancing anxiously around, then smiling when she saw Sulu was holding her. Jilla frowned.

“You will conduct us as you were told to,” Jilla said. Ruth and Sulu exchanged surprised glances at the suddenly imperial tone to her normally soft voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” the girl replied promptly.

Sulu released her and Jilla took her arm. “Now,” Jilla said.

They were led, through more lengthy, twisting corridors and stairways, to a suite that consisted of a large round room whose wide windows faced the garden they had beamed down to. The room contained several deep couches upholstered in a light grey leather, and a long, carved, wooden table surrounded by eight backless chairs. The floor was the same blue tile, with deeper blue rugs scattered across the floor. Several deep blue curtains covered archways that led to small, luxuriously furnished alcove bedrooms, also done in blue and grey.

“You may return to your duties,” Jilla told the slave girl, who actually bowed to the Indiian before scampering quickly away.

“No locks,” Sulu muttered. “Not even any doors.”

“Alconians wouldn’t feel sporting if they allowed themselves that kind of safety,” Ruth pointed out.

“Alconians are very weird people,” Sulu returned.

“I think I mentioned that somewhere along the line,” Ruth said, then picked one of the couches and sat down. Jilla immediately sat next to her, and Sulu took a seat next to Jilla. “And unless Bwana’s done something stupid, the score’s now a good twenty-five to ten.”

“Ten?” Sulu asked.

“You called the captain.”

“That loses…” Sulu began.

“We shouldn’t’ve thought anything of it,” Ruth explained. “It should have been expected.”

“Oh.” Sulu grinned contritely. “Sorry, Spike.”

“No matter. When little-miss-long-and-winding admits she bowed to Jilla, our score will go up again.”

“Why would she admit it, then?” Sulu wanted to know.

“Because those are the rules,” Ruth sighed in exasperation. “You get away with what you can, but when you’re caught, you admit it.”

Sulu was silent for a moment. “Will it lose points to call the ship?”

“Only if you mention any of the – unpleasantness,” Ruth replied.

Sulu pulled out his communicator. “Sulu to Enterprise,” he said.

Enterprise, Holden,” came the immediate answer.

“Mr. Scott, please,” he said. He went on to explain to Scotty that the landing party would be spending the night planetside.

“The captain has undoubtedly already informed…” Jilla began.

“The redundancies of command training,” Ruth interrupted her. She smiled at Sulu. “He’ll make a good captain.” Jilla smiled too, and Sulu caught the expression. His arm came around the Indiian’s shoulders as he finished the call and put his communicator away.

“Now if we only knew what the hell was going on,” he said.

>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>~~~>

Go to Part Two

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