Original story by C Petterson and S Sizemore
Rewritten by Cheryl Petterson

(Standard Year 2250)

Return to Valjiir Stories

Return to Valjiir Continum

Click here to hear title song.

"When the flames have their season
Will you hold to your reason?
Loaded down with your talents
Can you still keep your balance?
Can you live on a knife’s edge?"

– Emerson, Lake and Palmer

"Orbit achieved at three thousand kilometers, Captain. We can't get any closer and maintain adequate shielding from the radiation."

"Radiation holding steady at the moment, still unable to analyze."

"Sensor readings are being distorted, sir. No conclusion as to the possible source is available."

"Spectral lines do indicate an extreme likelihood of an artificial source for the radiation, Captain."

"No further data at the moment. Your orders, Captain?"

The flow of information from First to Science Officer and back was smooth, almost as from one person, despite the fact that both officers had been on duty several hours over their normal shift. Sulu at the Helm and Ruth at Sciences seemed to coordinate perfectly. If the captain noticed, he saw no need to make mention of it.

Sulu waited attentively as Spock considered the data he and Ruth had just so efficiently presented. Points for our side, Spike, he thought. He didn't ask for any further information.

"A landing party is necessary," Spock said at last. "I will need a geologist, a physicist, and a medical team. Mr. Sulu, this ship will be your first priority. The rate of radiation increase is to be monitored and orbit adjusted accordingly."

"Yes, sir," Sulu replied, and added silently, as though I wouldn't've figured that out.

"Captain," Ruth said hesitantly, "you'll lead the party yourself?"

Spock turned impassively to her. "Do you object, Miss Valley?"

"I am the Chief of Science," she began.

"And while your rating with computers is exemplary, I have vastly superior experience with typing radioactivity. We can get no clear analysis from our sensors, therefore physical proximity is clearly necessary." Ruth flushed as Spock rose and left the con. He turned at the turbolift. "I trust I need not explain my orders again, Miss Valley." His eyes moved to the Helm. "Half an hour, Commander."

"Aye, sir," Sulu muttered and gave Ruth a sympathetic glance before turning to the con and the intercom.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

"He never goes on landing parties," Ruth muttered over coffee and a short break.

"He's only been captain two months," Sulu returned.

"You? Defending him?" Ruth gasped and Sulu chuckled grimly.

"Hardly. Just trying to soothe your ruffled feathers."

"A good officer's supposed to take risks for the captain."

"No, only the expendable ones."

"Was he expendable to..."

"Don't say it, Ruth. Besides, if Captain Bastard wants to give himself a dose of radiation poisoning..."

"Sulu!" Ruth's voice was suddenly, incongruously hurt. Sulu sighed, taking her hand.

"I'm sorry, Ruth."

She swallowed, lowering her eyes. "Me too."

He gulped his coffee. "Let's go. Check-in is in five minutes and I'd better be on that Bridge."

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Communications were difficult and Ruth found herself wondering why no one had ever tried to remove some of the delicacy of a starship's equipment. Matter-antimatter energy was so difficult to control and so critical. The transporters were sensitive to any energy flux, internal or external. Communications, the life-line of a ship, were extremely dependent on interference-free space. And radiation could play havoc with all of them.

She heard Spock's distorted and crackling voice and realized she was worried, worried sick. With this much static, the level of radiation on the planet's surface must be enormous. She glanced at Sulu, not sure why. One always looked to command, didn't one?

"...source seems to be....and definitely from within....no more than....to complete..,

"Boost that signal, M'ress," Sulu said. "Captain, please repeat. Our reception is poor."

"Next contact in four hours, Mr. Sulu." Spock's voice was stronger. "I will make any additional reports then. Spock out."

"I guess he told me all I need to know," Sulu muttered. He turned to Ruth. "Radiation level Ruth?"

"Forty degrees from maximum safe exposure," she said. "And the rate of increase has begun to accelerate. At this rate, we'll reach danger levels in two hours."

"Damn." He got up, moving toward the Helm. "Daw, can you take us up another ten thousand meters?"

"Transporter range will get iffy with that much radiation," Dawson Walking Bear returned.

"I know, but if we stay here, Captain B — " Sulu caught himself. " — Spock might not have a ship to beam back to."

"Aye, sir."

With a sigh, Sulu sat back in the con. "Now all we do is wait," he murmured.

Ruth shivered, glancing at the screen and the planet below. Zehara, keep him safe.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Lieutenant Carsons became ill within a few hours of beam-down. The environmental belts were jamming, their microprocessing chips unable to withstand the bombardment of radioactive particles. Spock carefully calculated the rate of exposure. Within the time till the next contact, his Human landing party would receive fatal doses of poisoning. The logical action was to beam them up immediately and continue alone. He took out his communicator.

And found it useless. Of course. If the environmental belts were failing, the more sensitive communicator was sure to be damaged.

For the first time in his unwanted, unpleasant command, Spock faced the prospect of losing five members of his crew, for no reason, with nothing he could do to prevent it.

Fathers, is it not enough to lose all I hold dear? Must I uselessly lose life as well?

He turned to the landing party, carefully and succinctly explaining the situation. All communicators were tried. As expected, none worked. There was anger, panic, fear. Spock did not demand that they behave as proper officers. With a finite amount of time to live, he knew it would do no good, despite his rank and position. Still he took his readings, correlating and analyzing. His mission was to discover why this planet had become such a hazard to space travel and if anything could be done to neutralize it. Its civilization was long dead — the remaining scattered tribes dying from the onset of the lethal radiation. The landing party kept demanding, "What's the use. Captain?" They would be dead and the tricorder record destroyed by the radiation before the information could reach the ship. Spock did not feel inclined to point out that he could survive for days beyond any of them. By the time such a thing could become obvious, it would have long ceased to matter to them.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

"Damn!" Sulu exclaimed for the fifth time. It was becoming his standard reaction to reports from Sciences. The rate of the radioactivity had increased — again. This was the fifth time in three hours and he simply had no more room to maneuver. The ship was at maximum orbital distance. "We've only got another hour," he said. "Can we hold out?"

"No," Ruth replied, and her voice was shaky. "Not according to my read-outs."

Sulu swore softly again and turned to Communications.

"Raise the captain. We've got to take him out early."

"Aye, sir," M'ress replied. Then, "I can't, sir. All frequencies are jammed."

"Keep trying." He called the transporter room. "Jilla, stand by for emergency beaming."

"Yes, sir."

"M'ress, anything?"

"Only static."

"Status, Ruth?"

"We've been at danger levels six point three-four minutes." She stared imploringly at him. "Sulu...?"

"Shit. Transporter, energize when coordinates are locked in."

"Impossible, sir."

"What?!"

"I'm receiving no signals from the environ belts."

"I'm on my way."

Sulu rose from the con and was halfway to the transporter room before wondering just what he expected to do there.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

"Sensors are barely functional, certainly not able to pinpoint the landing party, and with no coordinates to lock on to..."

"I know, I know!" Sulu interrupted Jilla's explanation. "We can't stay here another hour. We can't even be sure a signal would get through to us." He lifted his hands to his forehead, unconsciously mimicking Ruth's fingers-to-temples gesture.

"Sulu," Ruth's voice said from behind him. He turned.

"What are you doing..."

"Dawson's got the con..."

"Science Officer..."

"He's my husband! Damn it, Sulu, in spite of everything, he's still my husband!"

Sulu sighed. "Yeah, of course." There was a tense silence for many minutes.

"Well?" Ruth demanded. Sulu stared at her. "Do something!"

"What do you suggest? We can't beam without coordinates. We can't communicate with the landing party. And we can't stay in orbit."

"You can't just leave him!"

"I believe the captain's orders stated that the ship was to be the first priority," Jilla cut in quietly.

Ruth whirled on her. "What are you saying?!"

Jilla stiffened from the emotions Ruth was broadcasting. "Logically, since there is nothing we can do, we must follow...

"Orders? You suggest we follow orders when it means he'll die?"

"There is no other alternative," Jilla replied stubbornly.

"And you wouldn't look for one, would you?"

"Should I?" Jilla's temper blazed in direct response to Ruth's.

"Stop it, both of you!" Sulu shouted. "Jilla's right. We can't transport, we can't communicate, we can't stay."

"Sulu...!" Ruth nearly wailed.

"Shut up! There is an alternative." He faced Jilla and said in a level, even tone," Prepare the Chutzpah, Lieutenant."

Jilla stared in silent horror. Ruth swallowed and forced her emotions back to manageable levels.

"I'll ask for volunteers..." she said.

"No, no volunteers," Sulu replied. "I wouldn't ask anyone else to face that kind of radiation."

"No," Jilla whispered.

Ruth nodded in understanding. "I'll get some anti-rad from sickbay and be right back." She headed out the door.

"Thanks. I'll need it."

"No," Jilla said again and Ruth stopped, turning.

"You'll need it?"

Sulu didn't look at her. "The ship is yours, Miss Valley."

"Sulu, you can't..."

"That's an order, mister."

"No!" Jilla's voice had gained considerable strength.

"There's no other choice, Jilla," Sulu said.

"I will not allow it!"

"It's out of your hands, hon."

“Roy, I’m keheil,” Ruth broke in. “The radiation won’t…”

“But it will effect the shuttle and I’m a better pilot,” Sulu returned. “It won’t do the landing party much good if you crash their rescue vehicle.”

"You cannot!" Jilla begged.

Sulu closed his eyes. "I have to."

"Sulu — i sina, bez, al lina!"

"Ti asim. I won't discuss it further, Jilla."

There were tears in Jilla's eyes and she slowly faced Ruth. "No protests?" she managed. "My husband's life is not worthy of concern?"

Ruth swallowed again. "It's his duty."

"Duty? You suggest we follow duty when it means he will die?" Jilla's tone was bitter mockery.

"Don't do this, Jilla."

"And why not? What harm has he done you that you can acquiesce to this madness?"

"There's no other..."

"That's enough." Sulu's voice was calm and forceful. "The decision is made and as acting captain, I expect my orders to be obeyed. Now." He took a deep breath. "Lieutenant Majiir, the shuttle will leave in ten minutes. Lieutenant Commander Valley, you are to take this ship out of orbit and wait — well out of the danger zone — for no more than twenty-four hours. If I haven't made contact in that time, take what information we've got to Starbase 11 and accept new assignment. Is that clear, ladies?"

Jilla nodded mutely. Ruth murmured, "Yes, sir."

Sulu strode from the transporter room and as Ruth turned to follow, Jilla whispered, "If he dies, I will never forgive you."

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Sulu gave the shuttle's console a final check. He didn't need to do it; he certainly trusted Jilla's efficiency, but it gave him something to do besides thinking of his own mortality. And trying to ignore the voice in the back of his head that wondered why he was risking his skin for Captain Bastard. Because the captain of a starship is not expendable. Not again. Not if I can help it. I hate the bastard, but I'm still his First Officer. For now. And there are other lives at stake.

Yeah, about four hundred and twenty. Damnit, I should follow orders.

I can't. He wouldn't have if it was... No, don't think of it. Just do what you have to.

And if you die, what happens to Jilla? No one should have to go through that twice. Don't I have a responsibility...

That's not even worth considering. You're a Starfleet officer. This is duty. We all know the risks.

But for the man who tried to rape her? Duty she'll accept, but this?

Sulu opened the com to the bay control. "Jilla?"

"Yes, Commander?" came the response. Sulu winced at the dull control. He spoke in rapid Indiian.

"It is my duty, wife. Not for him, for my duty. Were it just him — know I would avenge the pain."

There was a pause before Jilla's answer came. "I understand, husband. I'm so afraid..."

"I will love you, Jilla. Always."

"I wait for you. Come safely."

Sulu took a deep breath. "Ready, Lieutenant?" he said in Anglo.

"Yes, sir."

He closed his eyes, sent her all his love, then turned to the task of piloting the Chutzpah.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Jilla stayed at the console for a long time, seemingly frozen. The man assisting her understood, far better than he wanted to, what she was going through. It prickled underneath his skin and Noel DelMonde found himself fervently wishing she'd leave. He was stuck here until the end of his watch, but she should be on the Bridge, monitoring the shuttle. The empty fear built up in her, and so in him, until he couldn't stand it.

"Please, Jilla!" he said at last.

She blinked, swallowed, and lowered her head. "Forgive me, Mr. DelMonde."

"Jus' go on, cher."

She whispered a fervent prayer, then left the bay.

Del rubbed his forehead. This was hell. As if Ruth's worry wasn't bad enough. It hit him squarely in the back of his head, a constant awareness of her misery. And there was nothing he could do. She avoided his comfort, forgetting or ignoring the fact that he needed it, too. Now with Sulu risking his life, it was that much worse. He thought of sapphire, damned the thought, then battled the sudden surge of pain. Jilla must've just made it to the Bridge.

Damnit, Ruth, this has to stop!

He endured until his watch was over, then headed for the Bridge.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

She was in the command chair, as if there was some need for her to be there. Del knew her duty schedule, maybe better than she did. That was stupid and useless. Her body and thoughts were as tense and painful as during her worst nightmares. This could not go on. Head pounding and nearly blind from other people's emotions, Del crossed to Ruth and lay a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and he heard the scream that she didn't voice.

Calm down, babe; it be all right.

She turned enough to stare at him through eyes full of fear. The rest of her features were calmly controlled and looked old to him.

"You not have to be here," Del told her. "We get some coffee, non?"

"I don't think -- "

"Tell that to my headache," he whispered. "Fo' th' sake o' th' crew, Commander."

Ruth started to speak again and Del caught and held her eyes. Please, babe?

She looked away, but rose, numbly calling Scotty to take command.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

"If our captain went by the book – and when in the last two months hasn't he? – I'd be the one on that landing party," Ruth said in an intense near-whisper.

"His choice, his discretion, his command," Del reminded.

"My loss," she snapped back, then added sheepishly, "Sorry, I'm a bitch."

He tried to smile. "I know that, right 'nough." The joke fell flat. "It still his choice," he offered. "We in a high risk business, cher.”

She looked around the nearly empty rec room and he got the impression that she was counting the ghosts of lost friends. "It's not that I haven't thought about losing him to duty. I have. Just..."

"Not like this," Del finished gently. "Not when there somet’ing you could do. Not when he not touch you in..."

"Shut up, DelMonde!" Ruth hissed, suddenly angry.

"He not, non?" he demanded.

"It's none of your..."

"You t’ink I not know that?!" They glared at one another for a moment, then Del grasped her hand. "I understand!"

Ruth's eyes filled with tears; tears as sudden as her anger had been. "He has to come back," she whispered hoarsely. "He has to!"

Del rose from his chair, pulling her from hers, enfolding her in his arms. He held her head against his chest, stroking her temples. I never wish fo’ ‘nother man's death. I don't. But, damn it, babe... Her arms came around him and he almost didn't hear the silence from the other tables, or feel the thoughts pressing down on him. He didn't want to push her away, tell her to go get some rest. But he did, damning himself for being a gentleman. And damning her for being too full of concern for her husband to even notice he did it.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Lieutenant Carsons had been vomiting at irregular but frequent intervals for nearly an hour. It was apparent he had little time left to live. Spock stubbornly, methodically continued to try and raise the ship. Contact had been scheduled for half an hour earlier, but the captain was well aware that no signal from the ship could have reached the landing party. And with no signal from the environ belts, there was nothing for the transporters to lock on to. And the sensors were...

"Captain?" Nurse Fairgate interrupted his reverie. He looked up. "Lieutenant Carsons, sir. Is there...?"

"Make him comfortable, Nurse," Spock replied. "It is all we can do."

"The ship...?"

"Should be on its way to Starbase 11."

The man's face showed his surprise. "Surely they won't leave us all to..."

"Those were my orders, Nurse Fairgate. The ship and her crew are highest priority."

"But...Captain...." A groan from Carsons interrupted Fairgate.

"Do your duty, Nurse," Spock ordered.

"Yes, sir."

Spock glanced at the deceptively clear, pale orange sky, then returned to his tricorder. As I do mine, echoed bitterly in his mind.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Sickbay had been alerted when the First Officer departed in the shuttlecraft. Leonard McCoy was preparing treatment for the radiation cases he prayed he'd be receiving shortly.

"Damn fool," he muttered at the thought of Commander Sulu. Not that he'd expected any less. It was exactly the kind of thing Jim would've done. The kind of thing Spock used to do. Once upon a time, before he murdered the Human part of himself. Damn him to hell. "Damn him," he repeated aloud.

"If you refer to the Captain," a soft, calm, female voice said from behind him, "I quite agree. Although, of course, our concepts of damnation differ."

McCoy whirled, didn't immediately see the source of the voice, but his eyes soon spotted Jilla Majiir sitting on a corner bed. Her hands were folded in her lap, her eyes turned to the deck.

"Mrs. Majiir," he questioned, "what are you doing here?"

"Waiting for Sulu," was her quiet reply.

He'd known her long enough to realize that her Vulcan-taught control was a mask. Her dead-white skin was an obvious giveaway to the terror she was feeling. She looked small and fragile and McCoy couldn't stop the flood of sympathy. He crossed the room, sitting down on the bed beside her. He almost took her hand, but stopped himself when she flinched. "He'll be all right, Jilla," he said.

She looked up. Her grey eyes were full of agony. "Will he, Doctor?" she whispered.

"I'll do my very best. You've got my word on that."

"The Captain will have been exposed longer."

This time McCoy did take her hand. "As he's so fond of remindin' me, he's Vulcan. He can damn well wait."

Jilla's face softened and McCoy shrugged. It was a lie and they both knew it; but it had made her smile.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |
>

It took all of Sulu's concentration to pilot the shuttle through the radiation surrounding Migera V. He was almost grateful for the difficulty; it kept his mind off the conflict raging in him.

Captain's orders were...

But I can't let them die if there's even a chance they're still alive.

What about the ship? The other four-hundred-and-some-odd people aboard her? Your duty is to them, isn't it?

Isn't my loyalty to my captain? Even Captain Bastard?

Even Captain Bastard. So you follow his orders.

So I save his life.

And if something happens to the ship?

I let them court-martial my corpse.

By the time he was ready to land, he was running blind. Sensors were out; he'd have to rely on visual. He was a good helmsman and he knew it; a good pilot as well, but landing a craft without instrumentation was a hundred times more difficult than any flying he'd ever done. Impact was rough, but he managed to stay in his seat and get the shuttle down all in one piece.

He waited for a few moments before leaving the craft, calming and organizing his thoughts. He could just imagine what Spock would have to say if he appeared flustered and shaken up, rescue or no rescue. He tried communications, got only static, and smiled grimly. He was on his own.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped to the hatch. Forgive me, hon, he thought, and released the lock.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

"He's dead, sir."

Spock did not glance up at Fairgate's tremulous voice. "It was inevitable," he said numbly.

"We're all going to die like that, aren't we?"

"Very likely."

"And you?" The question was pointed accusation.

Spock slowly raised his eyes. Alone of all the landing party, he showed no signs of radiation sickness. "I am Vulcan," he replied. "My physiology is more resistant — but not, I assure you, Nurse, immune."

Fairgate flushed. "I'm sorry, Captain."

Spock waved it away. Then his eyes were caught by a gleam of silver against the cloudless sky. Shuttle, his mind said automatically.

Impossible, it countered almost immediately. Sulu's orders were to...

D'Artagnan.

Of course.

Relief warred with anger as he calmly told the remaining members of the landing party that rescue was at hand. What won was a grieving realization that Starfleet was right.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

It didn't take long for Sulu to locate the landing party. He'd landed the shuttle as close to the transporter coordinates as he could, and at close range, the monitors in the environ belts emitted a strong enough signal for his tricorder to pick up.

The first thing he noticed was the figure lying immobile a ways away from the others. A surge of fear went through him, followed closely by one of sorrow. So soon? God, would any of them survive?

He steeled himself and called, "Captain!"

Spock didn't even look up. "Since you are here, Mr. Sulu, you will aid Nurse Fairgate in leading Lieutenant Masters and Ensign McQueen to the shuttle. They are already gravely ill."

Sulu bristled. "Yes, sir. That was my intention, sir." He paused, expecting Spock to rise. "And you, sir?"

"I will complete my evaluation, Commander."

"What about Carsons?" Fairgate put in.

"Lieutenant Carsons is dead," Spock replied.

"But..."

"I'll come back for the body," Sulu said softly.

"Providing there is no extra strain on the shuttle involved," Spock returned firmly.

"I know my limitations, Captain," Sulu stated coldly.

"Do you, Mr. Sulu? Carry on."

Sulu swore softly, wondering how long it would be before he could put in for a transfer.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Ruth was back in the con long before the shuttle was spotted. She'd stared at the screen, motionless, her head thundering, for an hour and a half, the longest hour and a half she'd ever endured. She'd alternated between prayer and hysteria and despair and now she was simply terror-filled. Spock, come back, she thought. Everything will be fine if only you come back. We'll work all of it out; I'll help you, I promise. Just please, please husband, come back to me!

"Lieutenant Commander," Walking Bear's voice broke in. "Look."

A spot of silver approached the ship.

M'ress turned from her board. "Message from the Chutzpah, Miss Valley. It's faint, broken, but.." She frowned for a moment, then a smile touched her feline features. "Captain Spock says rescue completed; medical care required." Her fingers danced over her controls. "That's it. I've lost them."

Tears filled Ruth's eyes and she blinked them back. She stabbed at the com console. "Shuttle bay, the Chutzpah's coming in."

"Affirmative, Lieutenant Commander," came the response.

"Sickbay, get a team to the hangar deck."

"Will do, Ruthie."

Ruth turned excitedly to Engineering. "Jilla..." she began.

Geoff Redford turned to her. "She went to Sickbay, Miss Valley."

Ruth closed her eyes. Oh, Jilla, I'm so sorry! She rose from the con. "Dawson, take her. As soon as the shuttle's in, get us out of here, warp two. I'm going to..."

Walking Bear smiled. "Of course, Ruth."

She ran all the way to Sickbay.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

McCoy had given her hand a squeeze before leaving for the hangar deck. He'd suggested she go along, but Jilla preferred to wait in solitude. She knew relief should be washing over her but she needed to see Sulu with her own eyes — and away from the Captain. Of course, she knew that Spock would need medical attention, but Sickbay was less confined than the area surrounding a shuttle arrival. So she waited with relative calm until she heard the bark of McCoy's voice that signaled his return.

Two stretchers pushed by medical personnel came through the door first, followed by McCoy, who was supporting Nurse Fairgate. Jilla’s eyes registered them but didn't really see anything until Sulu stepped into the room behind McCoy. She ran to him, slipping unnoticed through the group that was filling the room. He crushed her in his arms and Jilla clung to him in desperate joy, whispering, "You are safe."

He said nothing, just smiled down at her and held her tighter.

Then Spock entered the sickbay, and stared directly at the embracing officers. For one, brief moment, Jilla's face betrayed all she felt: fear, anger, hatred, and a guilt that tore at her. It was the guilt that made her pull away from Sulu's arms, that made her lower her eyes; and she damned Spock for it and silently begged Sulu to forgive her.

She did not look up until she heard the door open once again and Ruth's anxious, relieved voice say, "Spock!"

The Vulcan's tia filled with pain and Jilla cringed from the distaste Spock aimed at his wife. Ruth did not notice the cold look Spock gave her as she threw her arms around him.

Spock put her away, asking, "Why are you away from your post, Miss Valley?" as he did so.

Ruth's own confusion and pain warred with Spock's in Jilla's senses. "Lieutenant Walking Bear has the con, Captain," Ruth said.

"We need to retreat from this planet immediately."

"That order's already been given."

"Then should you not see to its implementation?"

"Mr. Walking Bear is quite capable..."

"This subject does not require discussion, Lieutenant Commander. You should be at your post."

"Yes, sir," Ruth answered.

She started to add something but Spock cut her off. "Since you are here," he handed her the tricorder he was carrying, "you may take this data to be analyzed. I believe you will find it contains all the information necessary to formulate the correct explanation for the radiation from this planet."

"Yes, sir," Ruth replied. She turned, then hesitantly touched Spock's sleeve. "Are — you all right?"

Jilla winced at the flood of ice that surrounded Spock as he stared Ruth's hand away. "Obviously," he snapped at her.

She bowed her head and quickly left Sickbay. Jilla brazenly let her eyes meet Spock's. But one imperial glance forced them down again and she, too, with but a brief touch of Sulu's hand, fled from the room.

| *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* | *\* |*\* | *\* | *\* |

Sulu took the con from a grateful Dawson Walking Bear. He was tired, mentally and physically, but the mission had to be seen through before he could luxuriate in a hot bath and Jilla's arms. He ordered the ship to slow to sublight pending the evaluation of the data Spock had collected. He tried not to think about the man lying dead in ship's post-mortem. Or of the two receiving intense radiation therapy. Or of Nurse Fairgate, who had succumbed just after reaching Sickbay. Or, he added to the list with perversity, the Captain's apparently perfect condition.

As he thought of the Captain, the turbolift doors opened and Spock’s voice said,

"...experiments that caused the downfall of the Migeran civilization, and over a period of several centuries have spread planet-wide."

Sulu turned and vacated the center chair as the Captain and Chief of Science came onto the Bridge.

"What about the remaining Migerans?" Ruth asked. "That planet's due to break up within a month."

"As it would be impossible to retrieve all the widely scattered settlements by a land search, which the level of radiation would make prohibitively dangerous, and as it is impossible to locate any settlements by sensor scan and transportation would prove difficult at best; and as any survivors would be dead of radiation poisoning within that month even if they could be recovered from Migera; I would say that the matter has been effectively decided."

Ruth sighed, a defeated sound. "Yes, sir," she said, and went without another word to her station.

Sulu wasn't surprised that she didn't argue. Spock was right, of course, but the Captain's words galled him. It seemed wrong somehow to not even try. He listened for a moment to Ruth's quiet logging of the information revealed by Spock's tricorder. The former inhabitants of Migera V had used their planet's strong plutonium deposits to fuel a planet-wide nuclear generator. After nearly a millenia of operation, it had malfunctioned, poisoning the Migerans, destroying their civilization, and now destroying Migera itself. Nothing could be done. Not even nuclear reactors were safe forever.

Spock's colder-than-normal voice broke into his thoughts.

"Commander Sulu."

Sulu turned from the Helm. "Yes, sir?"

"What were your orders when I left this ship?"

"Captain," Ruth's voice said, somehow gentle yet strong at the same time. "The Bridge is not a suitable..."

"Your opinion was not called for, Miss Valley," Spock stated frostily. He returned his attention to the Helm.

Sulu swallowed. "Specifically, sir, there were none...."

"Mr. Sulu!" Spock snapped. Sulu automatically faced front, at attention.

"The ship was to be of primary importance, sir."

"And exactly how did you interpret those orders?"

"The landing party was to be considered expendable, sir."

"Was not the orbit of this vessel to be adjusted so that radiation levels remained safe, Mr. Sulu?"

"Yes, sir."

"And was this ship not in danger for over two hours?"

"Yes, sir."

"While her acting captain attempted an illogical, highly dangerous, ill-considered, and flagrantly insubordinate maneuver?"

Sulu grit his teeth. "Yes, sir."

"Abandoning the command with which he had been entrusted?"

"Sir, may I point out..."

"No, Mr. Sulu, you may not. Your action was unacceptable to this command and will be so logged in your service record."

"Captain, the commander of a Constitution-class vessel is not considered..."

"You do not have permission to speak, Commander."

Sulu was shaking with anger and humiliation. "Off the record, sir..."

"Denied. The subject is closed. The reprimand stands as it is."

Sulu felt every pair of eyes on the Bridge staring at his back. They burned, and he closed his eyes, swallowing bile.

"Yes, sir," he rasped out. Then he added, very quietly, "You're welcome."

END KNIFE’S EDGE

Title song: "Knife's Edge" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

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