The Federation starship had barreled into the nebula like an Argolian ungulate pursuing a mate, causing enormous ripples in the particulate matter and leaving behind an ionized wake that glowed with the brilliance of thousands of tiny Tandaran gemstones. The captain of the Orion raider Pilferer had literally been in the right spot at the right time to witness the entry of the Enterprise, apparently without being detected himself.
“Steady helm,” he ordered, his eyes glued to the viewscreen for any glimpse of the Federation starship that was now effectively invisible slightly in front of and below his vessel. “Continue on present heading, implementing Z minus 8,000 meters gradually.” The Orion vessel forged ahead, angling its bow of attack in the hopes of picking up Kirk’s vessel.
A few minutes later, one of the Enterprise warp nacelles became intermittently visible through the “fog” of the nebula. “There she is, there she is,” the helmsman cried, pointing out the ghostly image on the viewscreen. “Should I lock disruptors, Captain?”
“Fool,” the captain spat, “do you want them to detect us? We are no match for that ship! Continue monitoring using passive scans only, while I call for reinforcements.” The captain turned to his communications officer. “Prepare a class one probe for launch. I want it fitted with a tight-beam transmitter and programmed to contact base as soon as it is out of range. Take down this message for transmittal.”
The captain moved to the helm to verify their coordinates and heading, and turned back to his communications officer to begin dictation, when his sensor officer raised the alarm. “Captain, the Federation ship has just pinged us on active sensors!”
The captain dived for the center seat. “Take evasive action. Weapons, lock weapons onto the Federation ship and stand by to fire–” He never finished his sentence; the lights on the Bridge faded to blackness and the ship began to tumble as one of its warp nacelles was torn free of the superstructure by the explosion of four photon torpedoes. The ship continued to spin out of control until it penetrated a cloud of superheated plasma, where it exploded into a million pieces.
* * *
On the Bridge of the Enterprise, cheers rang out as the Orion interloper turned into a brilliant fireball. “Mr. Chekov, that was a magnificent display of combat tactics,” KadRiQ proclaimed, clapping the young Russian on the back and almost knocking him to the floor. “We shall sing songs of your deeds today!”
Chekov smiled weakly and stretched, hoping to calm the nerves that were buzzing around and bumping into each other at warp speed in the middle of his back. “Sensors report all clear, Keptin, he reported.”
“Steady as she goes, Mr. DeSalle,” Kirk ordered, glad that Koloth had proved to master the Enterprise sensors so effectively. It had been easy to neutralize the enemy raider once Koloth had verified that the ship was carrying a crew consisting only of Orions. The Klingon commander had provided impeccable coordinates to Chekov, who one-shotted the Orion ship with ease.
“The Orions now know you are serious, Kirk,” KadRiQ observed, returning to stand beside the center seat. “They were going to ambush us, and you beat them to the punch.”
Kirk shrugged. “They shouldn’t have stolen our crews from us,” was all he said, brooding. Kirk felt no joy at the destruction of the Orion vessel, but he knew it had been necessary.
* * *
On the Pompeii, Captain Matt Decker held on tightly while his ship was buffeted with turbulence inside the nebula. He thumbed the intercom on his center seat. “Bridge to Engineering. Commander Larson, can you give me any more power on the inertial dampeners?”
“I’ve got the pedal to the metal, sir,” Larson replied. “Inertial dampeners now at 102 percent.”
“Captain, we should be out of this chop in a moment,” Science Officer Masada reported. “I’m reading reduced density of particulate matter up ahead. Suggest we adjust our course by ten degrees on the X-axis.”
Decker confirmed the order, confident in his science officer’s expertise. “Helmsman, give us plus ten degrees on the X-axis. After making the change, I want a constant calculation of the course changes that will be necessary to make our rendezvous with the Enterprise as soon as possible.”
The Einstein-class destroyer plodded forward through the nebula at three-quarters impulse, and Decker prayed the old girl would hold together.
* * *
On the Purloiner, though Spock appeared, to all intents and purposes, to be out cold due to the effects of the powerful Orion sedative, the Vulcan science officer was, in fact, hovering just below consciousness. The drug was powerful, but its strength could not match that of his psionic tormenter, who projected irresistible pain telepathically.
Burn in pain, the voice inside Spock’s head said, as it flooded his neural pathways with agony. You cannot run from me. You cannot hide from me.
No, Spock’s thoughts cried out. You are intangible; indefinite. You do not exist here with me. You cannot do me harm.
Oh, but I can, the voice responded, laughing. I am intangible and indefinite, as you say, and I am also recondrite. You cannot see me. You cannot touch me, but you can feel me. You are mine now, and you will do my bidding! Awake and arise. It is time for you to fulfill your destiny.
Spock perceived both determination and desperation on the part of the creature that was invading his thoughts. He had no idea what kind of entity it was, but its psionic powers were almost limitless. A being with such power could transmit its thoughts across the quadrant like a subspace message, only instantaneously. The Vulcan struggled to break the bond in vain.
You cannot defeat me, Spock. You must awaken and rejoin your crew mates.
Why, Spock demanded.
You have been given a gift, Spock. It is now time for you to share that gift with the other members of your crew, through this thing you call a mind-meld.
No, Spock cried, but his inner voice sounded weak. I must not!
The creature transmitted a massive burst of pain that tore Spock completely out of his state of reverie. The Vulcan cried out as he reached full consciousness, falling to the floor beside his bunk.
Two Orion guards instantly appeared at the door to his cell. “I thought the medic said he’d given him enough sedative to knock out a dozen Vulcans,” one said to the other.
“I’ll call him for another round,” the other responded, but instantly fell to his knees with an audible gasp as his body was wracked with pain. Nooooo, said the voice inside the Orion’s head. I want him conscious!
The second Orion guard, who had also been struck by the psionic attack, struggled back to his feet and then helped his colleague. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I’d better contact the captain–”
Again, the guard was hit with a wave of searing pain. Nooo, you fool! There is no time! I am in control of the Vulcan. You will release him from his cell and I will handle the rest! Now!
The Orion guards lowered the force field to Spock’s cell and entered, lifting the Vulcan from the floor. Spock cooperated completely; the creature’s psionic attacks had drained all his strength. With the help of the guards, Spock managed to regain his footing, and then he rasped, “Leave me here. Bring one of Enterprise security officers; they wear red shirts,” he explained.
The two Orion guards left Spock alone to fulfill the Vulcan’s orders. Good, the voice said inside Spock’s mind. When you obey, there is pleasure. Spock’s pain subsided and was replaced by feelings of well-being and tranquility. The feelings were powerful, but not powerful enough to overcome the Vulcan’s sense of shame and guilt.