The Breaking of the Bridge by ChrisQ
Summary: Jim Kirk was Matt Decker's first officer the first time they faced doomsday. Here follows the account of the professional, personal, and political battles that led them to their second showdown with an unstoppable alien superweapon: old acquaintances, new commands, lost loves, and the powerful emotions of grief and guilt that can drive men to madness.
Categories: Expanded Universes, Original Series Characters: Ensemble Cast - TOS
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Family, General, Tragedy
Warnings: Adult Language, Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 2 Completed: No Word count: 10120 Read: 130 Published: 26 Feb 2023 Updated: 01 Mar 2023

1. Chapter 1 by ChrisQ

2. Chapter 2 by ChrisQ

Chapter 1 by ChrisQ

The Merrimack tore a swath of warped space across the Pegasi sector with a growing vibration already reminiscent of an earthquake-torn island. Stars flashed past on the main viewscreen so fast that to an unaccustomed eye, they might appear to streak past like laser beams. The cruiser's nacelles strained in their mounts to keep the ship moving at speed: and still it couldn't possibly fly fast enough.

Already the emergency call from the Leonis was an hour old, and yet to Matt Decker it felt as if he'd been hunched forward in the captain's chair for half a day. The savage ache in his back seemed to lessen every time he changed his posture, only to worsen again after a few minutes. The chronometer mounted between the helm and navigation board ticked the seconds by with agonizing slowness. It could be a trick of the high warp speed, or it could be that the Leonis was in dire straits and the Merrimack was the only ship close enough to render aid.

"Time to intercept," Decker said tersely.

"Less than four minutes now, sir." Peter Brent looked over his shoulder from the helm, but his face showed the same tension that strained between every living creature on the Merrimack's bridge. "We're still about six parsecs out from Dimidium."

"Mr. Skappas, plot a standard orbit," Decker nodded to the navigator. "Mr. Kirk, weapons status?"

James Kirk turned halfway from his station on the starboard side of the bridge with a snappy response. "Main phasers manned and ready, Captain. Photon torpedoes locked and loaded."

"Very well. Lieutenant L'Rema, anything further from the Leonis?"

The black-furred Caitian woman seated at the communications console had more of a growl than a purr to her voice as she responded. "Negative, Captain. No word since they reported the artillery strike on the planet's capitol district."

"And the Yorktown?"

"ETA ninety-three minutes."

"Estimate we'll reach standard orbit in two minutes, sir," Skappas called over his shoulder.

"Very well," Decker nodded. "Hold your course. Phasers stand by!" He punched the middle button on the right arm of the command chair and leant over the speaker, rubbing his chin. "Captain's log, Stardate One-one-five-seven point four. We have received a distress call from the U.S.S. Leonis, which has been in the Pegasi system attempting to broker a peace agreement between the recently contacted planets of Dimidium and Delta Pavonis. Although the Pavoni have petitioned for Federation membership, the Dimidians have proved much more reclusive and paranoid, and a particularly violent faction has threatened a hostile takeover of its government and an interplanetary missile launch against the Pavoni unless they withdraw their petition for membership in the Federation. The Leonis has reported an artillery strike in the vicinity of the Dimidian Sacrificial Spire and lost contact with its landing party. We are en route to render assistance."

Decker shut off the log recorder, arose from his chair and stepped up to the upper level of the bridge, leaning on the circular console beside Kirk. "You'd think a cultural observer would have reported interplanetary missile capability before we made first contact," he muttered.

"The thought occurred to me," Kirk nodded. "Of course, who's to say they didn't develop the capability after the fact."

Decker gave him a piqued stare. "What are you getting at?"

"Let's face it, Matt, not all of us are inclined to obey the Prime Directive as zealously as others," Kirk replied evenly. "It wouldn't come as a shock if the Pavoni had a little outside help in developing advanced weapons systems and the Dimidians got wind of it somehow, and opted to arm themselves."

"Hmm." Decker rubbed his chin and looked around the bridge, feeling the tension of his senior officers as palpably as he could see it. He had been looking around that same bridge for three years and feeling, seeing that same tension every time they went rushing in where angels feared to tread.

And yet, a glance around the bridge never missed the plaque affixed to the bulkhead beside the turbolift, never missed the name inscribed on the plaque and never failed to remind Decker of his ship's heritage. It had inherited the name of a ship that, inefficient and ineffective as it was by all accounts, had taken part in a revolution of naval warfare and technology. Itself built on the hull of a burnt wooden sailing ship, it had been transformed into a casemate ironclad renamed for the state of its rebirth, but still known throughout the annals of history by its original name - Merrimack.

In its menacing new and nearly invincible form, that clumsy, deep-drafted ironclad had written itself into the history books the day it destroyed two of its most powerful wooden adversaries. And yet the next day, it was itself checked by a diminutive enemy, another iron ship that further revolutionized sea power just as it revolved its own gun turret. Neither the Merrimack nor the Monitorhad managed to inflict serious damage on each other in that legendary engagement, but the Monitor had bequeathed its name to every ship to follow in its design. And although the Merrimack was scuttled a mere two months after their confrontation, it, too, had eventually passed on its name to vessels that carried history on their decks and the future in their hulls.

The U.S.S. Merrimack, Naval Construction Contract No. 1344, was the second starship to bear the name. Spawned of the Archer class, with a standard saucer-shaped primary hull, its semicylindrical engineering section protruded from the rear of that hull and tapered into a shuttle hangar with a single vertical-track door. Built into the upper superstructure where the engineering section joined the primary hull, two angled pylons supported the monstrously vibrating warp nacelles, projecting thirty meters above the saucer where the shield emitter could easily cover them.

Right now they strained in their mountings, fighting harder by the minute to hold the ship at its maximum speed of Warp 6.

Following the Federation and Klingon War several years earlier, the Merrimack had been tasked with peacekeeping patrols at the edges of Federation space, should another belligerent try to take advantage of the Federation's recovery efforts. And few newly contacted races had shown quite as much belligerency as the Dimidians. For the thousandth time, Decker wondered whose bright idea it was to send the Leonis to Dimidium alone. Rhys Sheffield was a good man, an effective commander, and most importantly, a fire eater - but even he couldn't devour the flames the Dimidians threatened to ignite. Decker had never taken the Merrimack into a major battle, but if this action should buck for a place in the history databanks, he swore his ship would not live down to the reputation of its unwieldy, underpowered namesake.

He eyed the main viewscreen. A yellowish-white star had become visible in the upper left corner, growing closer at an alarming rate, seemingly dead in the Merrimack's path as it rushed onward. He folded his arms and glanced at Kirk again. "Refresh my memory, willya? Recent history of this sector."

"Well, Fifty-one Pegasi was first observed by one of the old-style deep-space telescopes late in the twentieth century," Kirk related. "As exploration vessels passed near the system over the past hundred years or so, they picked up a great deal of radio traffic which led them to believe Dimidium was a political carnosaur, threatening force and violence against nearby planets. The nearest thing to a motive that our cultural observers picked up was expansionism - a desire to use force to dominate the entire sector."

Decker nodded slowly. "Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, the Russian Federation, the Trump Supremacists, and now Dimidium. That message from the Leonis said the Gesikan faction had occupied an interplanetary missile base capable of launching two dozen Manticores at Delta Pavonis. What does that say to you?"

"Reports are vague, but the best estimation we have is that the Manticore warheads are armed with hydromonium phosphate cells. I don't think any Starfleet observer has ever seen the amount of damage they can do up close."

"So they have weapons of mass destruction and they're not afraid to use them. They want to rattle sabers, they could do with a little lesson from our own history." Decker pushed away from the console and returned to the captain's chair just as Skappas turned halfway in his seat.

"Less than a minute to Dimidium orbit now, Captain," he reported.

"Very well." Decker was on the verge of seating himself when he saw L'Rema arch her back, her tail twitching sharply from side to side - she only had such involuntary reactions when the news was singularly bad.

"I have a new message from the Leonis, sir!" she announced. "They report the Gesikan faction on Dimidium has launched another strike with high-yield rockets and destroyed the entire Sacrificial Oval. Captain Sheffield, First Officer Gavras and landing party...." L'Rema caught her breath, her pupils slitted and her tail tossing back and forth like a bullwhip. "All lost in the strike! The Gesikans are preparing to launch a Manticore at Delta Pavonis, they've already commenced a thirty-second countdown!"

"Damn them!" Decker snapped. He pounded one hand on the arm of his chair and leaned back into it, peering at the chronometer. "Thirty seconds!"

"Still forty until we reach orbit, sir," Skappas said grimly.

"Stand by the torpedoes! Jim, what's their missile capability, how far can it possibly get before we assume orbit?"

"Dimidium's gravity is only eighty percent of Earth's," Kirk answered. "By the time we reach orbit, we'll need all ten of those spare seconds to lock on before it breaks out of the atmosphere."

"I have the Leonis on sensors now, sir!" Brent called out. "He's headed away across the terminator. Range one point one AUs, closing fast!"

"Slow to warp two!" Decker ordered. "We don't need a collision at maximum speed. Forrester, get a set of eyes on the ground. When that missile fires off, I want to know about it before it makes smoke!"

"Yes, sir!" The young officer at the science panel shoved himself out of his chair and bent over the sensor viewer, trying to ignore the awl-like stare Kirk shot at him.

"L'Rema, open a hailing frequency," Decker said. He waited for an interminable second and reached out blindly for a pair of computer disks stacked on the arm of his chair, scuffing them between his fingers, trying to expend as much nervous energy as he could afford before L'Rema reported the hailing frequency open.

"Merrimack calling Leonis," Decker said. "This is Captain Decker speaking. What's your status?"

"This is - this is Lieutenant Odell, chief navigation officer." The voice sounded absurdly young, and on the edge of total panic. "The Dimidians have given us an ultimatum of one minute to break orbit and haul off. Captain, don't come any closer. These people are armed and dangerous!"

"Damn right they are, Lieutenant," Decker replied. "That's why we're here - to make sure the danger doesn't get off that planet. Stay your course, you understand? We're only a few seconds out!" Quickly he shut off the speaker and leaned forward in his chair. "Jim, time to missile launch?"

"Ten seconds left!" Kirk answered. "And still twenty until we're in orbit!"

"God, we'll never make it in time," Brent muttered under his breath.

Unfortunately for him, the mutter didn't escape Decker's ears. "None of that, Pete!" he said sharply. "Just hold your course and cut in impulse power on my mark - "

"Leonis calling Merrimack! Leonis calling Merrimack!" Odell's voice in the speaker was high, excited and permeated with fear. "Mayday! We've taken an ion blast to our number one warp nacelle! Our warp drive is down and our phaser capacity is reduced to thirty-eight percent!"

"Stay calm, Mr. Odell," Decker said firmly. "We're almost in range!"

"Captain, I'm sorry, sir, but we've got to break orbit," Odell interrupted. "They've already destroyed our landing party and they'll kill us all if we stay!"

"I said, stay calm, and do not break orbit, Lieutenant!" Decker shouted. "Do not show weakness on behalf of this man's Starfleet!"

He spun halfway round as Forrester straightened up from the sensor viewer. "Sir, the Manticore is airborne!" he announced. "Less than a minute before it breaks into open space, coordinates....one four zero, zero nine zero, zero seven two!"

"Is the Leonis along its trajectory?" Kirk demanded.

"No, sir! It just passed clear."

Kirk jumped out of his chair and leaned on the handrail encircling the lower level of the bridge. "Captain, I respectfully request permission to beam aboard the Leonis and take command," he said forcefully.

Decker stared at him in surprise. "Jim, God forbid that missile has any special targeting programming - "

"Sir, listen to that man!" Kirk insisted. "He's scared absolutely witless! If we don't show our teeth to the Dimidians now, they'll hit us even harder next time! Two ships against one missile, sir, it's the only chance we have!"

Decker held his breath, but immediately shook himself for doing so. They had no time to argue the point - and even less after Forrester took another look into the sensor viewer.

"The missile's in the stratosphere, sir," he exhorted. "It'll miss us by less than a hundred meters."

"Slow to impulse!" Decker ordered. "Lock phasers! We'll blast it as it goes by!"

"Captain...." The fire burned in Kirk's eyes, the total lack of fear, the determination. As the Merrimack fell into high orbit, Decker jerked one thumb over his shoulder.

"Go," he said. "LaSalle and Mitchell will beam over with you. Don't leave the ship without them!" he shouted after Kirk as his first officer dashed for the turbolift. "L'Rema, get both those men to the transporter room on the double!"

He sat in the chair and eyed the main viewer. Dimidium now occupied most of the lower half of the screen, the Leonis barely visible just from the glow of its impulse thrusters: but the most eye-catching thing on the screen right now was the yellowish-white plume of gas spewing from the bottom of the Manticore as it shot toward outer space.

 

Odell barely restrained himself from crying out as the Leonis heaved under another impact. Both of the hits it had taken had come from astern: the number two nacelle, projecting alongside the secondary hull on a wide strut, had been knocked completely powerless. The second blast shook the ship just as violently, though not with as much whiplashing action as the first blast had. The lights flickered, an instrument panel on the port side of the bridge went dark, and another panel on the starboard side burst altogether, spraying sparks and spewing smoke. The unnerving buzz of electrical shorts accompanied a strobelike flashing of arcs from the access panel underneath the console.

"Another hit on number two nacelle!" the science officer shouted from behind him.

"Mr. Odell, severe casualties reported on decks seven and eight!"

"We're losing attitude control, sir!"

"Sir, that missile is breaking out of atmosphere! It may not even pass us before it alters its trajectory!"

As report after dire report piled on his shoulders, each one grimmer than the last, Odell bent his head, fist clenched on top of the helm. He had had temporary command of the Leonis before when Captain Sheffield and Commander Gavras were away on a ground mission, but he had always counted on them to come back. Sheffield had instilled in him a false sense of security by assuring him that the peace negotiations would be smooth, and he hadn't for one nanosecond anticipated that both captain and first officer would never come back alive. The thought of commanding the Leonis in a legitimate crisis had occurred to him, but he had never seriously considered it - until a minute ago, when the full, crushing, inescapable weight of command smacked him full in the face.

"I'm shifting to low orbit," he finally spoke to the navigator. "Captain Decker said not to break orbit, but he - "

All of a sudden the turbolift doors swished apart.

"Report, Mr. Odell!" Kirk bellowed as he strode out of the lift. "What's your situation?"

"My - " Odell spun around, searching desperately for words as Kirk, Gary Mitchell, and Hank LaSalle overran the bridge. "I - our - we're badly damaged, sir, and sustaining serious casualties!"

"Very well, I'm taking command," Kirk asserted. "Have you got enough power for a tractor beam?"

"Only enough, Commander," the science officer broke in. "But our phasers won't - "

"To hell with the phasers! Where's that missile?"

"About to pass dead astern! It'll cross our vector in less than three seconds!"

"Mr. Odell, tractor beam on that missile, now!" Kirk barked. "Communications, have I got a channel open to the Merrimack?"

"Yes, sir, channel's been open!"

Kirk's fist fell like a sledgehammer on the comm button on the command chair. "Captain Decker, this is Kirk. I'm throwing a tractor on the missile to pull it off course. It should give you an opening to lock your torpedoes before it's out of range."

"Nice move, Jim," Decker responded. "Don't let that thing swing around and bite you in the ass. Lock and load your own torpedoes. When I give you the word, come hard about and prepare to fire a spread."

"Aye, sir!" Leaning forward in the chair, Kirk nodded to Odell. "You heard him, Lieutenant. Full impulse power! Pull that missile around and stand by photon torpedoes!"

"Yes, sir!" Odell's heavy exhalation came more of relief than of exertion as he flung every ounce of power remaining in the Leonis's straining impulse engines to drag the missile out of its lane. Relieved though he was that his crisis of command had lasted no more than a few minutes, he felt a deep premonition that he would be faced with a different kind of relief much too soon.

 

"They've got a grip on it, Captain!" Brent crowed. "The Manticore is deviating, passing three two four mark nine!"

"Very well." Decker leant forward in his chair and peered over Brent's shoulder at the navigational display. "Lock phasers on the tail end. Maybe we can knock out its engines."

"Shouldn't we try and hit the warhead, sir?" Skappas inquired.

"And be incinerated in a hydromonium phosphate blast at this range? Christ, no!" Decker spat. He punched the intercom button on the arm of the chair. "Jim, you still there?"

"Still open, sir!" Kirk responded.

"All right, stand by to whip her around. We'll try and get it in a crossfire!"

"Phasers locked on the missile's behind, sir!" Brent's report drowned out Kirk's response.

"Fire!" Decker shouted, pounding his fist on the arm of the chair.

Blue-white beams of solid energy burst from the emitters on the Merrimack's underside, lighting up the entire viewscreen as they hurtled toward the tail end of the soaring Manticore. The entire tail end of the missile disintegrated, a blinding burst of flame vanishing into nothingness with no air or fuel to sustain it. The fragments flew in all directions and the Manticore wrenched off course harder yet under the pull from the Leonis - but not all of the fragments broke loose from the tail end.

Little had Decker or his crew realized that the tail end of the Manticore had been designed to burst apart in the first place once the missile had gained sufficient altitude. Four separate panels broke open, one on each quadrant of the missile, allowing liquid-fueled rockets to undulate outward on double-jointed extenders. With a slight loss of acceleration but not self-propulsion, the Manticore barreled onward.

"They think of every goddamned thing, don't they?" Decker growled. "Jim! Status report!"

"We pulled it off course, but it's breaking free!" Kirk answered. "Sir, what are your orders?"

"Hard about, on my mark!" Decker arose from the chair and leant over the helm console between Brent and Skappas. "Lock photon torpedoes on target! Stand by to fire a spread!"

"Torpedoes standing by, sir," Brent said as he snapped three switches in quick succession.

"All right, Jim, hard over! Bring her around! Lock torpedoes and fire as you bear!"

"Aye, sir!" Kirk stood up and leant over the helm behind Odell, braced half on the back of the helmsman's chair and half on the control console. "Cut impulse power, Mr. Odell! Let it pull us around! Torpedoes stand by!"

The Leonis heaved and yawed violently to port as Odell cut off impulse thrust, allowing the Manticore, still in the grasp of the tractor beam, to jolt it into a hard turn. The ship swerved in a much tighter circle than it possibly could have under ordinary maneuvering thrust, in fact nearly spinning on its vertical axis, bringing hundreds of stars dashing across the main viewscreen in a dizzying blur until Dimidium burst into view. In moments the planet filled the entire screen, the Merrimack became visible for only a moment and then just as quickly vanished behind the huge, lumbering, thrusting shaft of the Manticore as it loomed impossibly close to the whirling Leonis.

"FIRE!" Decker bellowed.

He watched with grim satisfaction as a blood-red quartet of torpedo exhaust trails streaked into view on the screen, bearing down on the Manticore without mercy.

He refocused on the Leonis and held his breath.

"Fire torpedoes!" Kirk shouted.

The four-torpedo spread from the Leonis might have arrived a second too late behind the Merrimack's barrage, were it not for the Manticore's drastic deviation from course. From both sides of the missile, eight alternating torpedoes scored eight alternating hits. The burst of flame appeared on the side facing the Merrimack first. Its second torpedo struck home almost simultaneously with the Leonis's first, the Manticore shook, and buckled, its course skewing into a negative pitch perpendicular to the planet's orbit. The Leonis shook in unison, suddenly free from the whipping motion of the tractor beam as the two middle sections of the missile disintegrated. All at once the tractor beam had nothing left to grab, just a short-lived fireball quickly giving way to empty, airless space.

The flames vanished as quickly as they had from the missile's tail - but still the Manticore powered onward, leaving the debris of its outer shell behind. That shell and its enclosed rockets had also enclosed a solid, gleaming shaft with the missile's bulbous warhead at one end and an ion engine at the other. The pale yellow gas of attitude thrusters could be seen, firing one and two at a time, altering the missile's heading back toward its original course: and now Decker, standing stock-still in the middle of the bridge with his fists clenching and loosening, could see the warhead in all its gigantic size. He glowered at the bulbous abhorrence: no need to ask what kind of damage it would do. The most basic principle of weapons of mass destruction had been to destroy entire cities and kill tens of thousands. Hydromonium phosphate or worse, it could unthinkingly erase the entire state of Alaska from the map of Earth.

"God almighty, won't anything stop that missile?" he snapped, pounding the arm of the chair with the heel of his hand.

"Beats hell out of me, sir!" Skappas was evidently under such stress as to abandon proper decorum on the bridge.

"I"m reading a fission reaction in its midsection, sir," Forrester said, as if offering an answer. "But it's uncontrolled! The missile will reach Delta Pavonis just in time to blow an entire continent off the surface!"

Aboard the Leonis, Kirk braced himself in the command chair as the ship's pitching and rocking settled out. The exploding torpedoes had disrupted the tractor beam, and the Manticore had seemingly gone rogue, passing down the Leonis's port side. He ignored Odell's murmur of despair and strode behind him, leaning on the bridge rail behind the science station.

"Sir, the missile's veering back to its original course," Odell groaned loudly.

"Gary, sensors!" Kirk barked. "Is that missile being controlled from some point on the surface?"

"Let me double-check it...." Mitchell jumped out of his chair and hastily snapped several function switches on the console as he pushed his eyes to the viewer. "That's an affirmative, Jim! I'm picking up a one-way carrier wave from the eastern continent, broad wave, signal strength of six hundred megawatts!"

"That means they could control it as far as...." Odell broke off after one cursory glance at his navigation screen. "Straight at us! It's turning straight for us, Commander!"

"Evasive action!" Kirk bounded to the isle in the midst of the bridge. "Captain Decker, did you read?"

"I got it, Jim!" Decker answered. "We'll worry about the missile, you take care of the control point! But for God's sake don't get yourselves blown out of orbit first!"

"But - " For a moment Odell seemed to lose his capacity to speak. When he regained it, he could manage only a blurt: "How - how do they know our position?"

"Never mind about that." Kirk clapped the back of Odell's chair with one hand and guided himself back into the command chair with the other. "Bring us hard over, course one three four mark seven. Stand by on - "

"Kirk!" The speaker crackled with the volume of Decker's urgent shout. "Kirk, get the hell out of there! You've got surface-to-space rockets incoming!"

Kirk's adrenaline surged and he stood up ramrod-straight again, not even having touched the seat of the chair. The Manticore approaching them bow on and -

"Two of 'em airborne!" Mitchell called out. "Same trajectory as the radio signal, heading straight for our secondary hull!"

"Odell, we have got to turn faster!" Kirk urged.

"I'm trying, sir!" Panic edged Odell's voice once again, he slapped the back of his hand on the console with an open gesture of helplessness. "But with only one-half impulse power available, this is all she's got for us!"

"The Kobayashi Maru was never like this," Kirk grated. "Increase yaw to - "

All at once, he pitched forward again, propelled by an unknown force to a hard landing on the astrocompass in front of him. With a tremendous crash the Leonis rocked violently to port, as if the planet had broken orbit and deliberately hurled itself against the ship's secondary hull. Odell was hurled completely out of his seat, wind knocked clean out of him as he crashed to the deck against the upper level of the bridge. For a moment the lights blinked out completely, leaving the flashing red-alert light and the warning beacon on the helm as the only illumination.

In that dim red flash Kirk could no longer see Odell sitting at the helm. He groped about on the console in search of the main viewer switch, but all of a sudden a wash of light - dimmer than before, but incandescent illumination nevertheless - glared upon the bridge again. Kirk pushed upright and spun around, just in time to see LaSalle's hands retreating from the emergency lighting switches at the engineering station.

"LaSalle, I need that viewing screen!" Kirk hollered.

"That was another ion blast, Jim," Mitchell panted as he bent over the sensor viewer. "Damn near sheared off the number one nacelle."

"We've got maneuvering thrusters, but that's all," LaSalle added. "Think I've got - " He punched a bypass and the viewing screen shimmered, the jumbled static fading, and the menacing image of the Manticore still closing with the Leonis head-on, occupying the exact center.

"Range!" Kirk snapped.

"Only three thousand kilometers now, sir," Odell said. "But with only half speed, we'll never get a hold of it!"

"Tell me what we can do, Mr. Odell, not what we can't!" The blind but violent gesture of Kirk's hand came close enough to striking Odell's cheekbone that the helmsman flinched. Kirk took one long step toward the captain's chair, then spun round again: he caught a brief peripheral glimpse of the Merrimack sailing across the lower right corner of the screen before it disappeared from view.

The Manticore, however, grew larger by the second, now filling over half the field of vision.

"Commander...." Odell's voice was muted. "I think I know what we can do."

Chapter 2 by ChrisQ

"Kirk, what's your status?" Decker demanded.

"Heavily damaged and barely able to make headway, Captain," Kirk replied. "But we still have enough power left for one more kick."

"All right, let's hear what you got."

"We'll move the Leonis to low orbit while you catch the missile in your tractor beam. If you can slow it down, change its direction, delay the impact by a minute, that will give us time to abandon ship and then allow the Leonis to intercept and detonate it. The closer to the planet, the better, so the Dimidians won't have time to correct its heading."

"That doesn't give you a whole hell of a lot of time to get off, Jim," Decker warned. "If you're gonna blow that thing up in midair, we can't hang around in transporter range that long!"

"It's a chance we'll have to take," Kirk insisted. "I've ordered the ship's company to evacuate via shuttlecraft and escape vessels. The last of us will beam down to the planet and contact you when all is clear."

Reluctantly, Decker nodded assent. "All right, get going, but when this is over, all had damn well better be clear. Decker out!" He snapped off the comm channel and leaned forward. "Let's get to it, Pete. Come to course one three eight mark ten, full impulse! Stand by on tractor beam!"

The Manticore had covered nearly 500 miles from the surface of Dimidium when the Merrimack lunged after it. Decker caught one last glimpse of the Leonis on the viewer, trailing plasma from its port nacelle and starting to drift sideways, shuttlecraft and escape vessels popping from its primary hull like so much cosmic flotsam and jetsam. You'd better know what you're doing, Jim. This is the last shot we have.

"Ten seconds to tractor beam range," Brent announced.

"All right, don't wait for my order," Decker told him. "And for God's sake don't overshoot the reverse course!"

The plume of gas at the tail of the Manticore disappeared on the edge of the viewer. The hurtling missile grew impossibly quickly, took up the corner of the screen, then the side, then almost the entire bottom half before the Merrimack soared over it.

"Tractor beam....engaged!" Brent shouted. He threw a switch with a snap and angled the Merrimack to pass perpendicular to the missile, locking the tractor beam on its rear end. At first, it was almost as if the Manticore resisted, trying to power forth on its radio-controlled course. But without wasting a word, Brent punched another series of switches on the left side of his console and twisted a control knob on his right before half-turning in his chair.

"Mr. Odax, I'm gonna need a boost to the impulse engines with warp power!" he yelled over his shoulder at the engineering station.

"It comes!" The Edosian bridge engineering officer made a rapid succession of switch flips and motions with his left and middle arms, while with his right he executed the commands he'd put in on the console. Brent's impulse-power indicators flashed anew, he twisted the control knob again and grabbed both sides of the helm as the Merrimack lurched. The impulse engines throbbed, their pitch rising like a discordant thirty-piece orchestra reaching a crescendo. The tractor beam strained, the entire ship roared and vibrated with the rising, thrumming bellow of the engines as the ship heaved mightily on the tail of the Manticore.

Amazingly, the Manticore lurched with it.

"It's coming around, Captain!" Forrester called out.

"Stay on it, Pete!" Decker ordered. "Give it the heave-ho! What's the status of the Leonis?"

"She's...." There was a momentary pause as Forrester refocused the sensors. "She's in orbit, I read six shuttlecraft and fifteen escape vessels. No more than a skeleton crew on board her now, sir!"

"Heading of the missile?"

"Twenty degrees mark five, swinging left!"

"Stand by to take a parallel course, Pete! We've got to give Kirk enough time to abandon ship!"

 

Keeping a firm footing on the decks of the Leonis had proven a challenge as the ship, its artificial gravity all but out of commission, began to sideslip into the influence of Dimidium's gravity. Kirk jumped to the helm, and leaning in alongside Odell, looked into the navigation viewer. The staticky, iridescent image showed an ever-narrowing aspect on both the Manticore and the Merrimack - and only a few remaining minutes of life for the Leonis.

"Chief of security reports last of the escape craft clear, remaining crew heading for the transporter room," Mitchell called out. He had been ricocheting back and forth between the science and communication panels, pulling double duty ever since the ion strike induced an electrical arc that stopped the comm officer's heart.

"Time to missile impact?" Kirk demanded.

"Estimate two minutes, ten seconds," Mitchell answered.

"All right, gentlemen, we've done all we can here," Kirk announced. "Time we live to fight another day. Clear the bridge! All personnel to the transporter room on the double! Issue hand phasers to all evacuees, we may have a fight on our hands when we get down there!"

Mitchell, LaSalle, and the yeoman and navigator - the last two surviving lesser mortals of the Leonis's bridge - were as quick as they were relieved to comply in dashing for the turbolift. Odell, however, lingered at the helm, eyeing his navigation viewer, motioning with little more than a foot toward the deck.

"Mr. Odell!" Kirk cajoled him.

"We can't miss, Mr. Kirk." Odell's tone was strangely empty of emotion or passion. "We can't let this one pass."

"Captain Decker will handle it," Kirk snapped. He jumped to the lower level of the bridge and grabbed Odell by the arm. "Get below with the rest of us, Lieutenant, that's an order!" He half dragged the barely resisting Odell out of his seat and up to the turbolift. Sparks and flicks of flame still spattered from the control panels on the bridge of the Leonis as the doors hissed shut on them for the last time, and the turbolift, in no more than the feeble grip of the emergency power reserves, lurched sickeningly downward.

 

Brent looked like he was shifting involuntarily from side to side in his seat as he manipulated the helm controls - and the Merrimack yawed in near perfect unison with him. "The missile's fighting the tractor, Captain," he said. "Whoever's controlling it from the surface doesn't want to loosen up on it so easily. Not sure I can hold it!"

"You can hold it, Pete!" Decker flailed a hand to one side. "Odax, give the tractor beam a shot of auxiliary power!"

Perhaps both ships could have handled the Manticore in tandem, but for the Merrimack the struggle was heavy. Brent's eyes darted hither and yon, and never rested more than a second or two on the main viewer, his navigational display, and the impulse power indicators as he thrust port, then starboard, then up along the Z-axis in a never-ending attempt to hold both the Merrimack and the Manticore on a course toward the planet.

"Impulse control circuits begin to overheat!" Odax called out.

"Captain...." Brent pleaded.

"Hang on, Pete! Just hang on!" Decker clutched the arms of his chair in an iron grip as he saw the Leonis come clearly into view. The Merrimack swerved and veered and jinked about under Brent's hair-trigger helm commands, trying to hold the Manticore on a straight heading back into the planet's gravitational pull.

The juddering, grinding turbolift slammed to a halt twenty paces down the corridor from the Leonis's transporter room. Kirk bolted alongside Odell, hustling him along with the navigator, yeoman, Mitchell and LaSalle on rear guard. The ship had begun to yaw to starboard as its orbit decayed, Dimidium's gravity outpulled its own and a perceptible rise in re-entry heat started to radiate from the bulkheads.

Kirk whirlwinded into the transporter room just in time to see half a dozen survivors vanishing from the pads. The security chief, a built, middle-aged lieutenant commander, hastily reset the controls as Kirk dashed for the comm panel.

"Leonis to Merrimack!" he hollered.

"Comms are out, Commander," the security chief said, shaking his head apologetically. "I'm not even sure we have enough power for one more transport!"

"Well, we'd better flip around and find out," Kirk said. "Let's move, people!"

"Sir, there's seven of us," Odell pointed out. "Our transporter capacity is only six."

"Then go," Kirk said sharply. "I'll beam the rest of you down, set it for automatic transport and join you."

"No, sir, I'll stay," Odell said.

"This is no time for martyrdom, Mr. Odell! Get on a pad!"

Vehemently Odell shook his head. "I'm a dead man, Mr. Kirk, one way or the other. I'll never be able to face the judgment of all - "

"C'mon, Kenny, we don't have time for this!" the navigator burst out. "That damn missile is gonna plow into us any second, let's go!"

Kirk was just opening his mouth to renew his order when Odell jumped backward and behind the transporter console. Before Kirk could stop him, he'd activated the transporter, casting one last look over the five bemused faces in the chamber before they sparkled away to nothing.

"Captain Sheffield was counting on me, sir," Odell despaired. "He trusted me to hold this side of the bridge. I failed him. I let the bridge collapse, I might as well have gone down with it." Hurriedly he reset the transporter and adjusted its settings.

Kirk leaned heavily on the back side of the console. "You're still needed, Odell," he cajoled. "Damn it, don't you think starship captains grapple with the consequences of their actions every hour that they're alive?"

"I know they do, sir." Odell shook his head in resignation. "And I know I'm not up to the challenge. And right now, I know where I'm needed."

All of a sudden he activated the transporter again.

Kirk was caught totally by surprise. He hadn't seen the settings Odell had been inputting, couldn't know that the distraught lieutenant had focused the transporter beam onto an interior point no more than a meter in diameter - the meter in which Kirk was standing. Kirk hadn't the chance to speak before the beam grabbed him and he energized in a shimmering golden sparkle, out of Odell's sight a second later.

"Sorry, Commander," Odell muttered. "That's me saving you some trouble." He hurried to adjust the beam to the same coordinates he'd beamed the other five crewmen and sent Kirk's pattern on its way. Then he dashed for the corridor and the turbolift.

 

"Impulse control circuits have heated over, Captain!" Odax hollered. "Engine power falls off and attitude control fails!"

As if to underscore, the Merrimack heaved forward, the view of Dimidium jerked to one side and the roar of the impulse engines faded somewhat. No one needed a report from Brent to see the planet suddenly looming a lot larger, a lot quicker, on the viewer.

"Disengage!" Decker snapped. "Lay in a course toward Delta Pavonis. Stand by warp drive!"

The Merrimack lurched again, this time upward, as Odax cut off the straining engine power and the tractor beam dropped. Almost immediately the Manticore began to veer to the right. No telling if it would turn far enough to break Dimidium's gravity again, or....

"The Leonis is drifting," Forrester said. "She's falling into the atmosphere, Captain! The missile's going to miss her for sure!"

"Oh, for Christ's sake not now!" Decker growled. "Is it changing course?"

"Yes, sir, but I don't think it's going to break the planet's gravity in time to avert an impact!"

"Talk about a reversal of fortune," Skappas said absently. "From trying to broker a peace agreement with a hostile alien race to dropping their own missile on them - "

"L'Rema!" Decker cut him off. "Can't you get through to the Leonis?"

"I've been trying, sir! Their comm system is out!" A frustrated hiss undertoned L'Rema's voice.

Decker sat back heavily and thumped the arm of his chair with a despairing hand. No stopping the Manticore now, no means of control. Just sitting, watching the screen, watching the Dimidians' day of doom unfold by every second of its occurrence.

 

The turbolift doors lacked the power to open even halfway. Odell heaved, pushing them apart by sheer strength and force of will, and ran through acrid smoke, dangling cables and flickering lights back to the helm. He had no illusions that the Leonis had any propulsive power left, but all he needed was one little push.

Well, one little push and a functioning navigational sensor.

The sensor viewer showed him nothing but purple static. He rapped on it once, twice, extracting from it just enough of a blink of an image to see that the Manticore was swinging away even as it fell toward the outer layer of the atmosphere. No time to lose. He examined the flashing, flickering indicator lights on his console next: not to his surprise, the warp drive was dead as a doornail, and impulse power long since shot to hell. All he had left was maneuvering thrusters - he could only wish upon a star that it would be enough.

He fired the port forward thruster, then the lateral midships, then the aft port, and each successive thruster all around the circumference of the Leonis's primary hull until the ship gyrated into a discus-like spin. Odell looked into the viewer again. The Manticore was still on a course to pass astern. Firing the thrusters one and two at a time, he awkwardly spun, aimed, coaxed the dying Leonis further toward its interception point with fate.

 

Kirk had found himself mingling with fewer than twenty evacuees from the Leonis after Odell drop-kicked him into that transporter sleight-of-hand. They stood on a rocky hillside overlooking several kilometers of flat, arid terrain with a mountain range visible in the distance. Dimidium was at the far lower fringes of Class M, with air that was warm and thick enough to keep any visitors with respiratory ailments from dropping by. In another direction they could see a dark plume of smoke billowing skyward in the distance - undoubtedly the site of the artillery strike by the Gesikan faction. There was no telling how far away they were from the site of the failed conference, but one thing was for certain: the Gesikan extremists had indiscriminately killed their own people along with the landing party from the Leonis and the Pavoni delegation.

As he marched among the survivors assessing their condition, it occurred to Kirk that he'd never seen a Dimidian or a Pavoni up close: but he was given to understand that the Dimidians strongly resembled bipedal bulls. He considered the ancient Earth sport of bullfighting and wondered if -

All at once he spun around, eyes to the sky, all hands staring upward along with him as a vast effulgence of firelight burst above the flatlands to the southeast. It began looking like a star going supernova. Then the ball of fire spread, diffused outward into a four-lobed conflagration that lit up the entire hemisphere even as Dimidium's sun set. The survivors had no choice but to shield their eyes from the blast or be blinded. The funeral pyre of the Leonis was spectacular in its vastness, its intensity, and its magnificence, for the end of one crippled starship had meant the survival of not one, but two planets and their civilizations.

Kirk breathed heavily, slowly, thinking of Odell, a man who had somehow indicted himself for a moment of indecisive cowardice in one breath and resorted to self-sacrifice in the next. What kind of man would seek suicidal redemption out of belief that he'd failed in his duty and couldn't look at himself in the mirror every morning without spitting on it?

No time to ruminate on that now. The Manticore had exploded at an altitude great enough to avoid flattening the entire continent, but the atmosphere had only just begun to react. The air had heated and thickened, the winds had kicked up, pressures had changed in random pockets and breathing amongst several of the crew had become laborious. The radiation from the sky fire had incinerated some high clouds, turning the sky a blazing, hellish shade of red. Now the sound of the Manticore's detonation reached the surface: the low, intense, rolling rumble sounded like an old-fashioned steam train carrying mobile cannon platforms approaching from under a massive thunderhead.

Kirk searched among the survivors and eventually set his attention on an ensign in a medical uniform, carrying a tricorder. He demanded readings, but had to repeat the demand to distract the young woman's attention from the orbital inferno. She moved slowly and fidgeted with the tricorder, barely able to look away from the fading fire and concentrate.

"I'm reading....about thirty life forms to the east," she said presently. "Body temperature among them is collectively rising. They all read elevated levels of cortisol."

"I need to know who and how close they are, Ensign!" Kirk would have liked her to take a reading of his own cortisol level right that moment.

"I'm sorry, Commander, this is a medical tricorder," she explained patiently. "It can't determine the identity of a species at this range. But according to these readings...." She did a double take and peered intently at the tricorder. "There's fifty of them now. And whoever they are, they're very, very angry."

"I suppose I can't blame them," Kirk said matter-of-factly. "All hands, find cover. And ready phasers! We may have a ground skirmish before us."

At least the fortunes of the Leonis crew were such that none of them were injured seriously enough to preclude concealment. Some of them found it behind rocks, others in pits and holes, barely at the edges of landforms. But as Kirk darted about ensuring that everyone was safely hidden, he turned around as the rumble of the explosion died away and made audible the sounds of angry shouts, of roars, of pounding footfalls and clanging metal. One would think a rabble of ferocious Vikings was about to go up against a Scottish war band for the unholy racket they were making.

Mitchell stood beside Kirk and fondled his phaser with a deep, apprehensive breath. The medic hadn't been pulling Kirk's leg - whoever those life forms were, they were definitely not happy.

As the rumble of the Manticore's demise faded away and the clattering, shouting and stomping took its place, Kirk motioned for Mitchell to crouch alongside him and hold his phaser at the ready. Twenty against thirty hadn't been half bad odds, but if another score of Dimidians kept joining every minute or so, they wouldn't last. They were warlike, and they were in an uproar.

The survivors of the Leonis, Kirk considered, were doubtless flooded with adrenaline after their narrow escape from the Dimidians' wrath, yet now here they were facing it all over again. The approaching hostiles were still out of sight on the other side of the hill. Starfleet defense training and phaser pistols were not yet tested against Dimidian combativity and whatever unknown armament they possessed. With all these factors considered, what were the odds then?

The only way to find out was to see how this barroom brawl would take shape.

"You know something, Jim?" Mitchell said offhandedly. "I'd say this is the closest we've come to open warfare since our last row with the Klingons."

Kirk nodded slowly. "Somehow I have a feeling these people are a damn sight nastier." He motioned toward the hillside with his phaser, just a bare second or two before the first of the Dimidians charged around it.

"Bipedal bulls" was a polite descriptor for this race. The Dimidians were vaguely humanoid, but their bone structure was such that their crania protruded from the sides of their heads and tapered into a pair of forward-pointing horns. Their eyes were small, their mouths broad, and their nasal protrusions well suited for scent tracking and olfactory recall. And right now, those protrusions were aflare.

Instinctively Mitchell dropped, resting his upper weight on one hand, but Kirk straightened up at the same time. The Dimidian leading the rabble wore an animal skin over his head: his face was covered in some sort of metallic war paint, and he wore metal joint armor that looked thin and flimsy at a glance, but might break the hand of an unsuspecting attacker who had no knowledge of its composition. They carried blunt-force weapons, blades, projectile weapons - almost every imaginable type of small arm short of a Type I hand phaser. Seeing Kirk and Mitchell hunkering in plain view, the leader bellowed and waved his arm in a windmill motion.

"I don't know about you, but I'd rather be doing an Orion contra dance right now," Mitchell said conversationally.

"There are plenty of things I'd rather be doing now, Gary." Kirk held his phaser level and his hand gradually tightened about the grip.

Truly not to expectations, the air between them and the onrushing Dimidians shimmered. In his low crouch, Mitchell could have sworn it was another atmospheric disturbance being shoved toward them by the detonation of the Manticore. But Kirk recognized it in a flash - the shimmer, then the sparkle, then the irrefutable chiming tones of a transporter beam.

Six men in security uniforms materialized and wasted no time waiting for orders. They rushed to positions defending the forward flanks of the Leonis entrenchment, then the air shimmered again and six more energized figures appeared. The Dimidians were lost to Kirk and Mitchell's view as Decker, Skappas, Dr. Suslowicz, and three more security men solidified: Suslowicz bore a tricorder and a medkit, but Decker and Skappas both held high-powered phaser rifles.

Decker didn't need to see the forward jerk of Kirk's head to know trouble was imminent. The noise of the approaching Dimidians was plenty to alert him. Whirling around, seeing the livid-looking beings coming at them like so many Visigoths, Decker almost unthinkingly yanked the phaser rifle from his shoulder and fired a point-blank blast at the ground in front of the oncoming rabble. The impact disintegrated several fair-sized rocks and tore a great ovular pit in the ground, bringing several of the Dimidians jolting to a halt in their tracks rather than tumble headfirst into the smoldering new hole. The impact left ears ringing and voices shouting. Weapons rattled and feet pounded. But Decker held his ground.

"All right, our new friends, that's far enough," he announced loudly.

"Friends?" The foremost Dimidian, the one whose head was adorned with what looked like the pelt of a yak, showed his rounded, two-inch-long canines with his snarl. "Friends, you want? I am Bilokersee, warmaster of the Gesikan Dimidians, and I decide who our friends are!"

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Bilokersee," Decker said unflappably, resting the rifle on his shoulder. "I'm Matthew Decker, captain of the Federation starship Merrimack, but you can call me Matt. How about you, can I call you Bill?"

Bilokersee sneered, showing his two full rows of enormous, soaking teeth. "You can call me your mortal enemy, you meddling Federation pards. We know all about you. You travel the skies, colonizing, usurping, taking what you want from other people's homes, destroying their ways of life. And now this for the result! You even turn races against each other with your war-mongering and your us-versus-them colonialism! You'll take none of our land or holdings!"

"This guy is like a Klingon on hormones," Mitchell muttered aside to Kirk.

Decker cocked his head thoughtfully. "Say, Jim, about how far are we from Earth? Two, three hundred light-years?"

"Give or take a couple of AUs," Kirk said, moving forward to stand beside Decker. "So if these people have been watching Earth from this distance, they'd be seeing it right around the time of the Third World War. You can hardly blame them for indicting our ancestors and their 'us-versus-them' way of thinking."

"Which was incinerated along with the six hundred million people who were killed in that war," Decker recalled. "But, that was a long time ago, wasn't it? As a race, we've learned our lesson from it. And if we are destroying anyone's way of life, well, that beats hell out of letting them destroy themselves, don't you think?"

"Clearly we know far more about you than you know about us," Bilokersee scoffed. "Dimidians don't believe in this....this outflung philosophy of treating everyone with, how would you Earth people say it, 'children's mittens'? We believe in sacrifice! We believe in laying down that which is loved and cherished to protect ourselves from the likes of you!"

"Don't speak to us about sacrifice!" Kirk snarled. "There are exactly two reasons we're all standing here now - because one man, one man, made the ultimate sacrifice to destroy that missile of yours and make sure that neither you nor the Pavoni would be annihilated. And what sacrifices are you given to making? Yourselves? Your caprices? Or your fellow Dimidians with whom you disagree?"

"He sacrificed himself to protect a bunch of weaklings." Bilokersee bared his teeth again, this time in more of a callous grin than a snarl. "And not just the Pavoni - the Dimidian reformists who sought your filthy Federation's involvement in their interplanetary relations. The Pavoni can't even defend themselves against your kind. If we have to destroy them to keep them from inviting your kind to - "

"All right, all right, let me get this straight," Decker interrupted, waving his free hand. "In one breath you accuse the Federation of colonialism and hostile takeover, and in the next you're telling me you have to destroy the village to save it. That's been the idea all along, hasn't it? You're trying to tell me launching interplanetary weapons of mass destruction at Delta Pavonis is the only way to protect yourselves?"

"We're trying to tell you we mean to keep the Federation out of our system, whatever sacrifice must be made. If that means destroying the Pavoni, so be it. If that means destroying you with them, we are more than ready." Bilokersee took a belligerent step forward, brandishing a weapon reminiscent of an Andorian bladestaff, but he stopped dead in his tracks immediately as he found himself staring into the emitters of a dozen phasers.

He grinned even more nastily. "You see? You're more than ready and willing to defend yourselves from attack. We're not so very different, are we, Matthew Decker, captain of the Federation starship Merrimack? Very excited about protecting yourselves. What if we were to launch another Manticore at Delta Pavonis? Would you use your own ship to intercept it? Sacrifice your vessel and your people to protect a weakling race?"

"What makes you think we have only one ship in range of this planet?" Kirk said. "As it may be we underestimate your willingness to sacrifice, you underestimate Starfleet's expanse. You see, we're assigned to the one thousand, three hundred and forty-fourth ship to be constructed for the Federation. There's thirty of us and a hundred of you down here, but one planet against more than a thousand starships - I'm much more optimistic about our odds."

For a moment, Bilokersee hesitated. Then his teeth showed again. "Perhaps you've underestimated our strength as well as our conviction. Perhaps we have more weapons at our disposal than you have ships."

Decker smiled faintly. "You're gonna talk to us about strength now, huh?" he said nonchalantly. He shoved his phaser rifle into Kirk's arms, pulled out his communicator, and flipped it on. "Decker to Merrimack."

"Go ahead, Captain," L'Rema replied.

"Put me through to Lieutenant Brent. All right, listen up, Pete. Carry out ship's standing order number four at my command. And send word to the Yorktown to repeat the action in one minute."

"Aye, Captain," Brent said. "Standing by."

"Execute."

Decker lowered his communicator. He had wasted no words and no time. He kept a close watch on Bilokersee, saw the consternation in the snouted, wrinkled face as the lightning-like phaser blast hurtled out of the darkening sky. It slammed into the ground only half a mile behind the Leonis entrenchment, blew a giant crater in the flat ground, shook the surrounding land and sent dirt and dust flying throughout an eighty-meter radius. The Leonis survivors were startled, but the Merrimack personnel were unfazed.

And the Dimidians, Decker noted, flinched in unison.

"There, you see that?" he said impassively, gesturing behind him. "That was a demonstration - a small one. In exactly one minute, another ship is going to hit a spot twelve hundred meters that way." He pointed past the Dimidian band. "Then the rest of our ships will fire a few more random point-blank blasts at the surface of the planet and see if one of them hits your missile installation, and we'll see how you like your world being threatened with total annihilation from another planet. So now you need to ask yourself something, Bill: How many shots will it take, how much of your land will be blown to dust, and what are you willing to sacrifice to prevent it? Personally, I think you can do without your policy of interplanetary expansionism. If that's not too hard a pill to swallow, you can come on board my ship, we can take a little trip to Delta Pavonis, and we can try and bust out that peace agreement one more time."

Bilokersee said nothing. He still stared past Decker and Kirk at the newly blasted crater in the surface behind them.

"Your time's running out, Bill," Decker went on. "Now I give you my word as a representative of the Federation that if you drop the act and let the Pavoni join us in peace, we'll leave Dimidium out of it. Either that, or see the surface of your planet wiped out. What's it gonna be?"

He held Bilokersee's gaze and dearly hoped the Dimidians didn't have some special mental power that enabled them to recognize a bluff when it was being proffered.

Bilokersee glanced obliquely at his people at his left flank and then his right. Some of them had surreptitiously tried to move in on the Starfleet personnel, but Decker's security force held them at bay. Finally, Bilokersee's posture sagged, his hardened glare softened and he took half a step backward.

"We will go," he said. "But you will allow us to maintain our current level of defense, including our missiles. And in the meantime, we will hold you to your promise on behalf of your Federation. Leave Dimidium alone - or live to see the day of your doom."

"Leave Delta Pavonis alone and you got a deal." Decker smiled laconically and lifted his communicator again. "Decker to Merrimack. We'll be assuming the Leonis's duties of brokering the peace agreement. Beam their wounded aboard first, then us and the Dimidian delegation. Tell Lieutenant Brent to lay in a course for Delta Pavonis."

"Acknowledged, Captain," L'Rema purred.

Decker turned around, taking a cursory glance at the Leonis survivors arising from cover and preparing to beam up. "Nice bluff," he muttered to Kirk.

"Same to you," Kirk said. "We're lucky it worked. But if we're taking Dimidian representatives to Delta Pavonis, how do you plan on explaining that we're the only ship present?"

"I'll break that bridge when I come to it. Now where's this Lieutenant Odell? I'd like to have a word with him."

Somber, Kirk glanced at the ground. "He stayed with the Leonis. I'll make a full report when we beam up, but for now, he was the man who sacrificed himself to stop the Manticore."

"I see. All right, I want the ship on Yellow Alert once we beam up. Mitchell, you keep an eye on both the Dimidians and this planet till we reach Delta Pavonis. Any sign of trouble, I want 'em behind a force field before they can say 'Make Dimidium Mighty Again'."

"Aye, sir," Mitchell acknowledged. "And Captain, if I may be so bold, you're a regular Christopher Pike taking this bull by the horns the way you did."

"Well, don't say that within their earshot unless you want to ruin all this nice fiery progress I've made," Decker told him in a sotto.

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