The Captain of the Enterprise was in no mood for stories. Especially when they involved the dematerialization of his ship in Bermuda Space, the simultaneous vanishment of every single member of his crew, and the subsequent destination on a planet previously unknown, whose native inhabitants hold the curious obsession that such events are worth creating for a tale.

Kirk walked out on the veranda of a statesman's home on the planet Navridia, the fifth of five of a lone solar system. He was escorted by one of its natives. She belonged to the primary race of more than a hundred in this city alone. They were of humanoid appearance, with the striking feature of silky hair covering their back and arms as well as their heads. They had intelligence, emotions, and most significantly, a craving for the spectacular.

It was the way she retold his ship's capture that was disturbing. They had done this before.

"For millennia, there have always been storytellers from the stars. You will tell a story yourself very soon."

"I'm not interested. You better tell me what you did with my ship and crew. I want to speak with Commander Spock or Doctor McCoy."

She mused. "It's revealing whom a person requests when he finds himself in need."

How can he explain this. "I'm a captain of an expedition in space, in command of a starship, and during episodes of operation I rely on my most capable men. Their safety and that of my crew are my paramount concern."

"Paramount," she repeated, and smiled. "Meaning prime, supreme, overriding."

He ignored the curiosity in her voice. What about the meaning of that other word in the Navridian language, laptier. It meant a soul captured in a starship hunt. Their word for slave. "Take me to my men."

"I'll show you something more beautiful," she motioned him to follow as she moved past, unsheathing a blade that was not a sword but longer than a knife. What sort of people with their powers needed knives anyway. He could still feel the fiery numbness in his spine. He had the unfortunate experience of testing her telekinetic hurling abilities when he was lessthan cooperative.

The next sight he saw was across a drop of a thousand feet and over the roofs of innumerable houses of the Navridian suburban Capital. It was the USS Enterprise. The ship was marooned on a lush hilltop overlooking the city. The dismantling had already started. Even from this distance, a hundred pieces could be seen down below, carried by equipment and workers, adored by the vast crowds longing to touch the starship's surface. Kirk grasped the railing of the veranda's edge. So this was beautiful. The woman's breathing quickened beside him, her gaze and the gaze of all her people fixed on that singular object crowning their world.

"So that is a starship," she said. "My mother of the fifth generation touched a ship from space. It was nothing like yours. I would tell you the story, but the Commissioner will arrive shortly."

The reverence in her voice. Yet they ransacked the Enterprise below. Only the inside was being destroyed. They still needed its beautiful skeleton to adorn their horizon. That's what a starship hunt was all about.

Jim.

It was without word, but he knew that friend anywhere.

The Captain removed himself from the Navridian's nearness. McCoy followed him. The native left them alone, for now. There was no danger of their escape. The only other means of exit was the thousand-foot drop into the city below.

Kirk turned his back on the horizon, to concentrate on only one thing at a time. McCoy. He hadn't seen him for hours. Time seemed to run together in this place. No clocks or mealtime. Even the sky had been overcast, until now. He didn't know where they had taken McCoy, but he appeared unharmed. Only his face showed strain.

Suddenly that face contorted with indignation.

"So they're already torturing you." McCoy whirred the medical scanner around Kirk's head.

"I'm all right. I just hit the ceiling."

"Just the ceiling?"

"Failing five escape attempts is not the most healthy way of spending a night." He tried to smile. The air was cold and that made the pain seem nonexistent. Recently it seemed that physical injury was a mainstay of the Captain. Last mission it happened on Cephtarian Six, before that the Constellations of the Ganghereen. He assumed McCoy should have been used to it.

The Doctor only shook his head. He was initiating a full medical investigation. "Just how many bruises were you not going to tell me about?" In a lower voice, McCoy locked eyes with him. "Have you seen?"

"No," he replied. Not a second too soon. The Vulcan was making his way into the veranda escorted by their personal bodyguard. He regarded the woman as she observed him. His gaze never failed to miss the details of his surroundings, or the people. He regarded Kirk, specifically his head.

"I do believe you require immediate medical attention."

"That bad." Kirk smirked.

"What's wrong with these people anyway? They leave a man with open wounds untreated like a slab of meat in the sun."

McCoy's colorful imagery usually amused Kirk. But the comment cut him wrong. He let go of the railing that separated him from the sky below. "I didn't notice. I'm too busy watching the dust kicked up from the deconstruction of the Enterprise."

Spock stood between them, his hands behind his back. Of course he sensed the disquiet. There were just more important matters at the present. "Captain, I do have information." He almost was impatient.

Kirk waved his hand. "Go ahead Spock." Facts would be a relief to hear.

"I have discovered much in the generous tour the Navridians granted me with their technicians. There are a number of fascinating aspects to the technological advancements of this culture as well as the nature of the transporter beam that captured us in the Bermuda Quadrant of space. Navridia operates under a decentralized system. The beam is directed from two hundred forty-two power stations distributed across the planet. One hundred ten stations will be activated as backup power sources if any of the primary stations are impaired. The beam has the additional complexity of being composed of innumerable vortices. They operate simultaneously within the larger beam structure, and as you theorized Captain, each beam vortex locked onto each member of the crew and transported the individual to a separate destination, most unknown to us."

McCoy impatiently waited for Spock's technical report to finish. "How do you suppose we're going to retrieve all those people back? It's been hours. Have you found some kind of loophole in their system? I haven't seen a single person I knew. I don't know what's happened to Chapel or Scotty or-"

"Anyone on board the Enterprise besides ourselves," Kirk finished. He feared as much. "Thank you for the report. I'm sure it took - considerable effort - to obtain that information." Spock did not visibly react to the Captain's praise. The added knowledge only made things more complex. "A decentralized system isn't easily sabotaged. Even if we can operate the beam, where do we beam to? Unless we can find a central command, a leader."

"And you will fail," the Navridian answered. The woman of flowing hair squinted her eyes as she spoke, and it appeared she was in a state of excitement. McCoy quickly stepped in between Kirk and her rapid approach. The odds between a telekinetic soldier and a human doctor weren't the kind you'd bet on, but Bones wasn't the betting kind. Kirk slipped his hand around McCoy's arm and moved the Doctor aside. He didn't need a bodyguard.

The Navridian stood in the glory of her species. "The governments of Navridia are united in perfect harmony. There is no Emperor. More than a hundred races have dwelt in friendship under the collective leadership, reaping the rewards of united creativity. Decisions are made by Commissions. Commissioners carry out the will of the peoples. All that we imagine we have tested against the ingenuity of previous laptier. That's why you will never find our weakness. There is only one hope for you. The one we offer. The stories you will tell."

"This story business is getting on my nerves," McCoy said under his breath.

More Navridians entered the veranda. Kirk moved past the woman as he beheld the personage everyone had been waiting for. He had a mane trailing him on the floor as gold as his eyes were bright. His body language had this strange magnetism, as if he were aware of everyone and everyone aware of him. Emotion radiated from him. This had to be the Commissioner. Kirk felt the man touch his mind. He didn't know how else to describe it, but it suddenly made his core feel very warm, and his thoughts open, like a book. Spock was almost motionless. Yet Kirk could sense that even the Vulcan was considering this form of power, maybe even felt the power invade like water drenching cloth.

The Commissioner extended his hands in greeting, and spoke.

"There was a time before record, when our people traveled the stars. We were the first, and before us, there was no one else. Where other societies tilled their lands and built their cities, we saw suns and walked on moons. We met civilizations in their cradles. We knew life before it began, and beheld the ancient faith that predates all matter. We saw the Age of Chaos become the Age of Monsters become the Age of Light become the Age of Stars. And we left behind a knowledge that no one else would know, while we came to know the stars face to face, as a friend speaks to a friend.

'For hundreds of thousand of years, this was so. And then it ended. In the span of ten years, our way of life was broken. Men died or went insane. Space itself had become our poison. Even in the Era of Perfection, there was nothing our scientists could do. Even in our Era of Starship Hunters, there is no understanding of why we are cursed.

'Space is forever closed to us. All that remain are the stories. Every five thousand years, a new story is told. A starship is found. The fifth generation is born. Once again we seek the stars like the days of old, and the bells in the Capital ring as the signal spreads and a new storyteller regales us.

'And so we take from the stars what they took from us. That is why you are here. This is the Celebration of the Navridians. This is the Spectacle of Storytellers. Twelve laptier are selected to compete against one another. Each will create his story and be judged by the people. The greater your power in the telling, the greater your reward. There is only one who will succeed. As his reward, he may choose his life and freedom, or the lives and freedom of those he cares for. But he cannot choose both. You will forfeit your own life if you choose to save another.'

"You have an indefinite number of hours to prepare, and then shall begin the Spectacle."

:: ::

"At least we can kill ourselves with these."

McCoy broke the silence. He was holding up a Navridian fountain pen whose tip was so sharp that it might as well have doubled as a dagger. Not that daggers would do them any good. They stood in a set of rooms with no doors or windows. Nothing, and no one, had contacted them since they were beamed here immediately after the Commissioner's speech. Through repeated and painful attempts to find an exit, the walls were found to be impenetrable. The only things in this place were the table and chairs and writing supplies, and the paintings. Oh sure they were gorgeous. They displayed life in the Navridian Capital in a style reminiscent of impressionism. In fact Kirk suspected they were supposed to stimulate creativity since virtually everything else of life was denied here.

"What I don't understand is how a people with such sensitivity can perpetuate the barbarism we experience." Kirk watched a painting of a girl touching a gravestone under the willow trees. A young man of a different race stood behind her, holding her shoulders.

The Vulcan observed the same painting, with a pensiveness. "They are evidently a highly emotional species."

"Not only emotional, but longing," Kirk observed. "Such a deep history is breeding the bitterness we see now. They are angry with the stars. For reasons unknown, they can no longer travel in space, and if they can't be part of space, they sure will hurt it back. That's what we represent to them."

Spock folded his arms, and a deeply thoughtful expression passed through his face. "I have finally gained enough knowledge to piece together the story. The ten-year period of which the Navridians speak of wherein a mysterious disease overtook them and they lost the ability to space travel must have occurred prior to the formation of the Federation by several hundred thousand years. Vulcan civilization was still pre-stone age. Star travel was unknown for most life forms in the galaxy. If their account is accurate, they are separate from other life forms not only in their fantastic advancement but also their anachronistic societal development."

McCoy mused himself on the thought. "In other words, they're so far ahead of the curve they're now paying for it."

"Or making us pay for it."

The silence grew thick again. Kirk paced the empty floors. Spock and McCoy stood and sat down, respectively, each with his hands clasped before him. Each was attempting to solve the problem in his own way and in his own time. Perhaps each was observing the other, too, and surmising the chances of the game they were supposed to play.

"You know what bothers me," Kirk finally spoke. "For all the spacecraft disappearances in the Bermuda since the first interstellar explorations, there were always survivors. Often just one survivor, who never quite knew how he was found or what had happened to him in the days he went missing. Neither his ship or crew were ever found."

"The facts do establish a pattern. Of the six verified cases of vanishing starcraft in the vicinity of the Bermuda Star System, the vessel had disappeared for several weeks before the recovery of a lone survivor. This survivor would be found on a starbase without explanation for his method of transport there, he would be in excellent health, but he would lack memory for the days in question. In five of the six cases, this particular individual's personality matched a profile for elevated levels of creativity, interpersonal intelligence, ambition, and survival drive."

McCoy got to the point. "You're actually saying that this survivor is the winner of the Spectacle."

Spock concluded with finality. "The winner or - the person saved by the winner's choice to forfeit his life for another."

"But what are we supposed to do - actually play this game?" McCoy asked incredulously. He stood up because he couldn't sit anymore, couldn't wait anymore. He had grown increasingly agitated, and blurted out, "What about the other men in this competition? There are supposed to be twelve of us. We don't even know who they are. And if one of us actually wins . . ."

Kirk stopped pacing. His halt brought him eye level to the greatest painting in the room. It was meant to be dramatic, and perhaps influential. It was a classic scene of soldiers behind enemy lines. Not the fighting, but the people in it. One person giving another water. One wounded, another speaking to him. The commander in conference with his officers. Two people helping each other walk.

Maybe he was playing straight into the Navridian playbook. He was running out of time. But that didn't mean he was desperate. He had his best officers with him. These were not unseasoned men. They lived through the craziest things the universe had to offer. Even as their captain lost sanity or leadership or existence to another dimension, Spock and McCoy would rally their resources and prove his faith in their ability. He needed that faith now. Faith and unity of purpose in the task he was about to ask of them.

"Gentlemen, if one of us actually wins, I expect you to do the right thing. Ask for the biggest reward they can give - the lives of every single man and woman of the Enterprise."

:: ::

For what seemed like the next several hours in a place as timeless as this, the trio set to work creating stories. Or more accurately, scribbling and rolling up wads of paper, or piling sheets, or tearing off even more pages from the stacks of notebooks supplied in the corner of each room. They noticed that there were in fact three small rooms that connected to the main one, and each room had its own table, chairs, and writing supplies. So each was intended to have his own working space, if he so preferred. But at least two of the three favored collaboration.

McCoy and Kirk sat across from each other. Periods of silence were punctuated by harried pulling up of chairs, leafing through each other's work, and commenting on the pros and cons of the most random and unbelievable story starters. Apparently creating a story was harder than it looked. McCoy couldn't get past the first page and Kirk couldn't even narrow down his ideas to begin. "This is silly," McCoy muttered under his breath from time to time. The work was beyond Kirk's comfort zone, to say the least. He had written dozens of research papers during his Academy days, and he had experienced the usual literature training of an educated man of Earth, but he had never put any thought to fiction writing. Oh, he could tell a story or two on the bridge some days. He thought of himself as even mildly entertaining. But this? What exactly did a 430-person-worth story look like, anyway?

"This is insane Jim," McCoy must have said for the fifth time. He lay his pen down and looked over to where Kirk was wearing down the nib of his own pen into the unforgiving pages. "You're a captain, not a novelist. This doesn't make sense, none of it does. If these people wanted fairytales, they should write their own."

"They want entertainment." Kirk straightened in his seat. His back ached from hours of hunching over. Strangely, the rest of his pain was gone. His wounds had healed rather quickly. That was probably the only good news. McCoy, of course, was a more complicated problem.

Kirk crumpled the latest sheet of paper. "I just dreamed up six different love stories and didn't finish any of them." He side-glanced the Doctor, and feigned injury. "Tell me you can write a better one."

"Not really." McCoy tapped his finger on his own sheet. "I'm afraid it isn't very entertaining."

"I wouldn't say that yet." Kirk turned the paper towards him before McCoy could stop him. The Doctor half rose but the deed was done. Kirk quickly knew why. It was only half a page, a single scene. And it told the story of the first time the Doctor had met his estranged wife.

Shyness overtook the Doctor. "It's just something I scribbled together," he drawled, eying Kirk out of the corner of his eye. He suddenly got that look as if he was being judged on the spot. "Well if this is the last thing I'm going to write, I might as well tell my own story!"

Tell my own. Now that was an idea.

"That's very good," Kirk began. He fell into an awkward silence. How much of McCoy's life pre-Starfleet did he just barely know about? He was so accustomed to sharing his own insecurities with Bones. Issues of the heart were the Doctor's specialty. But of course the Doctor had his own heart, and his own secrets. A Captain didn't always make the best of confidantes. There was always something to do and not enough time to listen.

"Are you going to finish it?" Kirk managed at last.

"Like I said, it's not entertaining."

"I believe genuine is worth more."

That must have meant something. McCoy eased in his chair, leaned back, and gazed across the table. "You know, some days I think of her. I used to come home early from the clinic, and find her walking the road to meet me halfway. I remember one day she played this prank on me . . . " McCoy gently laughed as he recounted the first time he ever felt mad and the first time he ever felt love. It was a story of sunny skies and wooded countryside. It had a length of seven years and nine months. It was small but strong, bright, and musical. Its last melody fell softly and sadly, until something cracked and things weren't the same.

"What about you Jim? You can't make me talk forever." McCoy leaned towards him. That face had an ease, a gentle sadness, in its features, as he observed Kirk. A gleam in his eye. "I think Spock can do with your supervision."

Kirk smiled, nodded. He rose. "Write that down, just the way you told me." He strode the small distance to the farthest room. He wasn't surprised to find the papers on Spock's table stacked quite precisely and to be of a considerably greater height than the same on McCoy's table. The Vulcan seemed to be rapt in the trance of a writer's dream. His pen moved continually on the sheet, and even his lips moved as he wrote.

"I never knew you mumbled." Kirk amused himself as he found the Vulcan uncharacteristically surprised by his appearance.

"I am not finished." Spock turned each sheet over to reveal only the blank side. "I would appreciate your departure for the moment, Captain. I am currently synthesizing multiple plot threads in several of my outlines. It takes . . . considerable concentration."

"Understood. Of course, collaboration does have its advantages," Kirk suggested with literal open arms, then rubbed his hands together as Spock did not react one way or the other. Kirk paused with uncertainty. He stood a few feet from the Vulcan, unwilling yet to distance himself. "Spock. What is your understanding of a story?"

His First Officer raised an eyebrow. "The great works of literature, history, and myth provide the pattern. A story is an account of events regarding people either real or imaginary. It has various psychological and societal functions, often forming the vehicle of history of early civilizations. Many cultures have advanced the practice into a higher artform. For example, the metric structure of poetry and fable creates symmetry and beauty. Each element of the narrative supports the central theme of a work. An author's purpose is to mold these elements to create the effect he desires in his hearers."

It was plain that Spock could have continued, but something held him back. "In truth, Captain-"

It was a shame McCoy had to enter the room just then, for Spock immediately became silent. Which was highly annoying! Spock left the Captain on a cliffhanger. But McCoy had something on his mind. He walked straight up to Kirk and rescanned him with his medical equipment. "It's almost all gone. You shouldn't heal so fast. It's remarkable."

"And it bothers you."

"When was the last time you drank water? Or felt hunger?"

That piqued Spock's interest. "Of course. I also have not experienced the need for sustenance, and yet we have remained here for several hours."

"Are you saying our bodies are being kept in a state of changelessness?" Kirk felt a surge of energy. But McCoy shook his head.

"I don't know what it means. I need more information." The exasperation was clear in his voice. All thoughts of story-creation had fled their minds. Hope needed just one clue to become irresistible.

It was at that crucial moment that change did happen.

It is remarkable how loud a hum sounds when the only thing you've been hearing is your own breathing and the shuffle of paper. It was the sound of the Navridian transporter beam. Once again the three faded from sight from one another, and each was powerless to stop it.

:: ::

Kirk landed in a graveyard.

No it wasn't his tombstone that lay next to his head. In fact, he wasn't underground at all.

The skies were bright blue and the landscape beautiful - a hilltop rising above a valley of green suburbs. Kirk lay on the ground in the grass, tombstones all around him, everything smelling fresh. The same Navridian woman was kneeling over him. The moment he was fully transported, she lay the edge of her knife against his throat.

"You may stand," she invited. "I am Armana."

"What have you done with McCoy and Spock," was his answer, and no, he didn't stand.

"The tour is just beginning. I have been assigned to you. I record every act you perform, and this same record is being made even in the solitude of your chambers. All is visible to the peoples." She then cocked her head and adopted a more playful attitude. "The three of you create an interesting team."

Kirk grabbed her wrist. Her knife was swift. It cut through the skin of the back of his hand. And yet he felt the searing heat throughout his body. The weapon had a power beyond its construction that burned his spine and crushed his lungs. Yet his heart burned hotter.

It was a while before his mind relaxed and his body was no longer powerless. She was now standing over him, and speaking.

"That is the power of ex nihilo. It is not ours but belongs to the ancient faith. It can create in the body what was not there before."

Kirk lifted himself up, but his answer was the same. "Where are my men."

Her eyes searched him. "Do you really trust your men?"

"With my life and the lives of the Enterprise." He never skipped a beat. She stepped back, answering his first question.

"If I told you, there would be no suspense."

There it was again. "And I suppose this" he nodded to the knife, "increases the stakes."

She smiled effortlessly. "Very perceptive. Only life has worth, and especially when that life is one's own. A person does strange things to save himself." She beckoned him to walk, and she kept close behind him. The land rolled gently before them, and the enormity of the cemetery became clear. It must have been somewhere outside the Capital city's heart, because Kirk now could see the other side of the Enterprise in the distance. It was closer now, and towering. The haze was unmistakable. The smell of material being ripped apart.

For one moment, he stood still in the fullest sense of the word.

This was intentional. It was arranged that he see this, because they wanted to see a reaction.

"Do you want me to mourn?" He turned his whole body towards her. No he chose not to face the Enterprise.

"I do not mourn for a ship. I mourn for the people to whom it belongs. Men and women who have dedicated their lives to the search for knowledge and the discovery of new life and new worlds. Worlds to whom we have extended every facet of our generosity and kindness, with the objective of mutual understanding and learning. And yes, we exult in the stories we find. We believe in the potential, and worth, of every individual and the life he shares. And because we respect every life, we value it in a way that gives that life maximum freedom and responsibility towards fellow life. We celebrate every life's story, not just our own."

He paused at the right moment as he saw something in her eye. Was it recognition, or longing? He drew near to her.

"The greatest story is the bond that unites every living thing to another. Species to species, friend to friend. That's why I ask of you now, to see with your own eyes that there is no need for this. The beauty you value does not need cruelty to create it. Free these people, and you will experience a far greater satisfaction."

He saw the visible rush in her that he felt within himself. It was clear, though subtle, that emotion of being genuinely moved. The way every feature sparked in turns with surprise and sobriety. Yet her knife remained at his throat.

"We cannot give what you seek. Only you can accomplish that purpose."

She slipped away from him, and walked out across the gravestones. Had he not noticed before, but shards of material stood scattered as monuments besides the headstones? Material that appeared . . . to once have belonged to the outer hulls of spaceships. Standing within the circle of monuments, she continued.

"The greatest stories contain not just the bond of love, but the pain of sacrifice."

There was a monument taller and older than the rest that she approached. With the grace of reverence, she lay a hand on the shard of a spaceship panel, encased in a fiberglass skin, of a vehicle that must have existed a very long time ago. An image of the spacecraft was carved into the massive granite block besides the fragment. Kirk did not recognize its model nor what society had built it, but it had exquisite detail and a circular symmetry that was beautiful.

"At a time that even my mothers have difficulty recalling, there was a starship hunt in the year of the Great Famine. It was before the days that space was forbidden, the days that we traveled to other galaxies in perfect health. This was also the Era of Empires.'

'Yet the craft we captured was alone. It was not the most remarkable of spoils. Neither very large, with a crew of just three, and many of its systems defective, yet this same ship had evaded our hunters two weeks through the Zentrali Asteroid field.'

'And the stories we heard enthralled and charmed us. In an afternoon of legend, its captain delighted our audiences with tales of his exploits whose truth we debated but paid no heed toward. The women loved him; the men wanted to be him. But he already loved a woman, and his reward was her freedom and the freedom of his co-pilot. He only asked that we keep his ship intact. Except for this single piece, we have preserved the Millennium Falcon exactly as it had existed one hundred seventy thousand years ago."

:: ::

By the time Kirk was returned to the windowless chambers several hours later, the last thing he expected was to find McCoy cradled in Spock's arms.

"Bones!" Kirk dashed to McCoy's side. The gashes across the Doctor's face and chest were hastily treated, though healing. Spock had aligned his own body in a sitting position on the floor such that he was able to support McCoy's head and upper body while still allowing the Doctor to remain in a prostrate position. Papers scattered with blood lay on the floor beside the pair. McCoy gazed up as Kirk pushed the notes away and knelt by his side.

"I'm fine," McCoy snapped as Kirk laid a hand on the Doctor's shoulder. There was something frosty and nervous in the Doctor's demeanor. It had to be more than the injuries he sustained. McCoy continued to avert his eyes. He seemed uncomfortable in Spock's grasp, but that was only natural. The unease in McCoy translated to a dead calm in Spock. The seriousness with which the Vulcan held the Doctor was almost comical, but Kirk wasn't in a laughing mood. Even for the pair's awkward position, they still had been busy. There werelots of scribbled sheets on that floor.

McCoy's brow furrowed as he spied the cut Armana had made. "What happened to your hand?"

"What happened to you." The weapon was clearly Navridian. Something burned inside him. For a people so refined, violence was still their language. And they had to do it to McCoy. He was never a threat. That man would save the life of his enemy if he were given half a chance.

Kirk gazed up. The ceiling said nothing, but they were there. Armana said they were being watched at all times. Was it their purpose to test them, with something like this?

"What's the report."

Spock also surmised that watchful eyes beheld them. With a deftness of movement that underlay his inscrutable demeanor, he injected Kirk intravenously with one of McCoy's prescriptions, presumably to stem the cut's bleeding. McCoy averted his eyes, pain tracing his features. Spock spoke carefully. "The Navridians escorted the Doctor to the Spectacle Chambers in the Capital's central district. There McCoy expressed . . . disagreement over the Navridian policy of laptier treatment."

"Disagreement!?" McCoy bounced defensively in Spock's arms. Instinctively Kirk touched McCoy on the arm; the warning was meant to be wordless. But safety was not McCoy's concern. "I saw our men out there. It's like a meat market. They're herding them into the square like animals and selling them by the dozen. Some art collector bought Uhura - and Chapel just became somebody's wife."

Spock replied, "The Navridians never before had this large number of men captured from a single starship hunt. They are attempting to integrate our own people into their society as fast and expedient as possible."

"Integration my eye," McCoy spat back. His face was wasted and his patience had long run out. He gazed wearily at the Captain. Kirk shook his head at McCoy, wordlessly, subtly, to send home the message. Yet McCoy's gaze had already read it: I already know.

Spock's voice was low. "I witnessed the popular votes in advance of the Spectacle. There are already clear favorites. I am afraid that McCoy is not among them."

Under his breath, Kirk's words went something like "to hell with them." Aloud, he said, "What does that mean for McCoy?"

"He will be removed from these quarters as soon as the Council has made its decision."

"And then what?" The anger no longer could be hidden. Spock did not respond, but Kirk immediately felt loss of control. So many hours had passed. Most of these were spent confined to this room performing a task they were ill prepared for. The extent of McCoy's injuries were unknown; McCoy's fate, even less so. Nine of his men were being forced into this competition, and he didn't even know their names. His crewmen were being bought as slaves, spouses, and collector items. Not to mention the Enterprise. The Enterprise. Would it be preserved, like the Millennium Falcon?

Quietly, his voice returned. "We have to examine all the possibilities. We are still together and we are alive. Our minds still work. They do not intend to kill us yet, and perhaps that is not their final intention." With sudden insight, he added, "The Navridians even have the grace to share the accounts of previous men in our position. They have preserved spaceships from previous hunting expeditions."

The implication of this last sentence was not lost on Spock nor McCoy. If one of them could just locate a single spaceship and figure out how to run it, then escape was possible. But they couldn't plan aloud, not with Navridian ears and eyes upon them.

McCoy tried to throw them off the scent. "I heard of those spaceships. The tales are bigger than the monuments. There was this slab chiseled in the shape of a tall box, and the name engraved on it was just 'Doctor.' Apparently when 'the Doctor' told his life story, a thousand Navridians wept."

Kirk returned the banter. "You should hear the stories I heard. One captain battled an Empire and gave his life for a princess. He had a ship, the Millennium Falcon, and it is intact in every respect." Intact. Get it? he eyed Spock, who subsequently raised an eyebrow.

"I witnessed several spacecraft on my own tour. They are effectively antique," Spock replied. McCoy rolled his eyes and Kirk put on a little frown. Spock was an old pro at this, however, and he remained unflustered. He replied cooly. "If you are feeling better Doctor, I suggest you rise and exercise your leg muscles."

"Getting rid of me so soon?" McCoy obeyed and Kirk helped him up. The cheer in his face quickly changed. For a moment, the lack of expression in the Doctor's face mirrored Spock's. The same look when he first saw McCoy. The same unease.

Suddenly, McCoy grimaced and stumbled. He grabbed hold of Kirk's shoulders as he fell against his chest. Kirk instinctively supported his fall and embraced him. Immediately he remembered the searing pressure of ex nihilo. But it wasn't that. The Doctor lunged against Kirk's neck and whispered hoarsely in his ear. "Do what you must do . . . and Jim, I'm really sorry."

The moment was gone. McCoy quickly regained his composure. In fact he appeared somewhat awkward as he stood apart from Kirk, dried blood on his face hiding the truth there. Spock acted like nothing happened, though the gravity in his eyes was hard to miss. It was choreographed. The message was sent in such a way as to escape surveillance.

Which meant only one thing. In those hours he was gone, they had discovered something. Perhaps even formed a plan. And the outcome wasn't good.

:: ::

Not very long after that, McCoy was taken away. The beam came without warning. Kirk would have held the Doctor back, but Spock held his shoulders and prevented him. It was silent. They were alone. It wouldn't be long now. The mood had changed so drastically from the days back on the Enterprise, when the most pressing decision was the path to take into uncharted darkness. Now Spock stood before him, a sentinel to a cold and sterile world. The angle of that jaw did not move. Only his hand rose in a steady trajectory.

Kirk received the papers from Spock's hand. The papers that had been scattered on the floor beside them when he first returned, the same papers christened with McCoy's blood. "With your permission Captain - I took the liberty to complete the story you started."

Kirk did not speak. He scrutinized Spock. The Vulcan was remaining aloof deliberately. Whenever Spock resorted to such a tactic, there usually was a sensitive issue at stake. The last thing he wanted to do was press him. A smile crept over Kirk. He started leafing through the sheets. "So you did my homework for me?"

Now maybe that remark disturbed Spock. He put his hands behind his back and elaborated. "You did not have the time. You were on tour longer than I or McCoy. In the hours I was here alone, I perused and analyzed your personal story notes. You recorded hundreds of ideas and several unfinished drafts. These drafts form the basis of the premise, which forms the basis of the narrative."

So that's it. The material began to enthrall Kirk. He glanced up. "This is actually . . . very interesting." He patted his finger on a page, his mind racing. "There's a certain feel to it."

"McCoy assisted me," Spock quickly added. Kirk looked up more closely. The Vulcan stood there with his hands still behind his back, this time more a child than a First Officer. Spock gently looked away, then at Kirk again. "We collaborated."

"I can see that now." It made Kirk feel strange. Like this was a different way of free-falling.

"How can I refuse?" he said. "It isn't everyday you and Bones conspire behind my back."

And the Captain flashed that smile of his. He bridged the gap and grasped Spock's shoulders. He saw the strain under those curving eyebrows, the paleness of already pale skin. "Get some rest. I think our taskmasters will soon be ready for us."

Spock drew away from the Captain's hands. "I do not believe there is time for rest." His eyes rose up to the windowless walls, to the paintings and how bewildered they appeared now. The thoughts coursing through that intelligent mind, the feelings clashing inside that soul.

Spock looked back down. He regained that cold heart and clarity.

"Captain," he began, "we must be prepared for death."

"You're going in heavy Spock . . ." Kirk sauntered a little distance and rubbed the back of his neck. "How many times have we faced death before?" he spread out his arms in symbolism. Yet Spock would not be distracted.

"This is not the same." His precision was invasive. Kirk was forced to be serious. He knew Spock. He did not mince words. Nor did the Doctor. Whatever they found in those hours he was absent, it must have worked.

The Captain felt his own spirit breathing again. "I know what I have asked of you, of McCoy, of myself. I knew everything going into this. I've kept my options open. I'll do everything I can do and I know you will do the same. I trust my officers to perform their oath above all other considerations, and I never want you to forget that."

:: ::

The day of the Spectacle of Storytellers dawned in a hundred colors and a single cold clear light. The city shone in the valley, the starship reflected the rising sun, and ten thousand souls saturated the plaza below. It was a dizzying sight. Adrenaline was the only emotion you felt, and launching that first word was the only thought you had.

And yes there were many launches. His men came from all walks of life and rank, and they approached the challenge differently. A young ensign of navigation, Randalf Kent, could barely begin. He was able to tell a love story only halfway through. Others did better. Yeoman Shane shared an intricate fantasy dream, complete with tamed dragons and ice citadels. Nurse Mendrosa and Biogeographer Barclay combined their love of song with their poetry to create lush tales native to the Shangha Star System. Utilities Technician Zahran told of the time he saw his baby daughter for the first time after his wife passed away. Fiction and personal history melded for better or worse in the story each told. No matter what the technical quality of the material, it was plain that every tale meant something to at least one soul in those thousands.

Ranks were given to competitors after each telling. As the sun traced its predetermined dance in the sky, the audience thirsted for more.

Spock went just before Kirk. They were the last two storytellers and it was almost noontime. Almost certainly there was a purpose for this strategy of sequence. Kirk was nervous for Spock. The cut on Kirk's hand seemingly stopped healing and had decided to muddy his hand in fresh blood. He had read Spock's script for him back to front, and he was forming new ideas of his own.

Spock began speaking with that same dispassionate simplicity that epitomized his species. The story he told was of Vulcan. Specifically, the evolution of society from its barbarism to its logical refinement. He covered an amazing distance in historical figures, conflicts, and societal change. He emphasized moments of transformation. He told of its tragedy, of those lost in the struggle to civilization.

It was flawless history. The correct events were precisely arranged in the narrative to rise to the inevitable consequence. From cause to effect, all of Vulcan evolution was delineated.

Perhaps its only shortcoming was its very neutrality. It never wavered from the omniscient viewpoint that swept through the ages. Perhaps that made it beautiful. Perhaps that made it cold.

You could sense the ambivalence in the audience. There were those wholly caught in the web the Vulcan weaved. You could tell by the reverence on their faces. There were those as unmoved as Spock himself seemed, perhaps even hostile. They whispered among themselves. Why did the laptier not feel the emotion of his own story? Why did he hold back?

As Kirk watched the audience fall into dispute, as he saw Spock stiffen at the judgment thrown in his face, it occurred to him that Spock may have anticipated this reaction.

It was now his turn. Flanked by guards on both sides, they crossed paths on the way to the podium. The only acknowledgement was a brief moment of eye contact. Yet even that was cold. He thought he had already grown accustomed to such a look.

He stepped up the last stairs into the sight of thousands. The pieces were falling together. Perhaps now, Kirk began to understand what his friends had done. They had written him a story that was still his. It had that clarity and warmth, that structure and humanity, that human and Vulcan fused inseparable. It was the lives of the people he knew best. It was the story of the Enterprise.

The voice of Spock and the voice of McCoy echoed in his own, as Kirk began.

"Space, the final frontier.

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

:: ::

He poured all his charm, passion, and care into those hours of storytelling. How he gambled his ship in a game of "corbomite," or when he and his First Officer discovered that a monster made of rock wasn't a monster after all. He sauntered through the "joys" of a tribble infestation, and retold the relentless stalking of a planet-eating machine. He spoke of a different universe where cruelty rules and your friends betray you, and the only way to survive was to become like them. He described an infection that took away your inhibitions and unclothed your soul, while your starship falls from orbit.

The events were told not in chronological order, but in order of drama. Kirk could sense Spock's logical mind in the placement of moments, of dialogue and character entrance. There was sharp clarity in the narrative. So too McCoy's hand was unmistakable. Every individual was given screen time and his or her personality expressed with just the right nuance. There was a certain cynical humor that pervaded some portions, which Kirk smoothed with his easy confidence. Even in the midst of this unbelievable collaboration, there were still rough spots where Spock's rather complex structure conflicted with McCoy's simplicity. Kirk smoothed them all in the midst of performance, adding the flair that the story lacked.

Throughout, Kirk spoke for three viewpoints. Spock and McCoy had written not just of events, but even what they experienced firsthand. Was it the Doctor's idea to retain each person's identity? Or was it Spock who discovered the truism that a story's power lies in the experience of its tellers? To bare your own soul is one thing, but to tell of the heart of your friends is another. Perhaps that is why Kirk's voice grew somber as he spoke what the Vulcan felt on his wedding day, the day he thought he killed his captain. Perhaps that is why Jim felt himself smile in sadness and pride, as he recalled McCoy drugging Spock and himself unconscious so that the Doctor would die instead of them. For the first time, the reality of what he had always known came to rest in his soul.

Captain Kirk looked out across the spectacle. Had he run out of things to say? The stories may be over, but there was still something else.

"People of Navridia." Their silky beautiful heads arrayed the plaza like sheep's wool, but there was something more bright that gleamed from their eyes. He had been on that platform so long, commanding the masses with his voice and his tales. He could make them believe a little longer. "This is a day to celebrate. The manner in which we meet is one of opposing sides. But we are both lovers. We delight in the world of the stars, in the domain of discovery not just of new places, but in finding ourselves. That's what this really is about. To know what we're made of, to seek challenge and drive ourselves to the breaking point-" he gestured his hands to the sky. "That's what makes life life."

He paused. He saw the reactions, the flash of recognition. "And in every life, there is death. For every love, there is sacrifice. Every story has its ending. That is the task you ask of us. It is the action I am prepared for. As in accordance with your ancient custom, so may it be."

Like the flood racing through a dry land, the audience was electrified. Maybe they never heard of somebody volunteering for the part before he had won it. Perhaps it was the stories themselves and the buildup of drama upon drama. Kirk could hear the names of his crew on Navridian lips. Women spoke of Spock with a softness in their voices, and the names of McCoy and even Scotty featured in the retelling. In fact, though he had ceased to speak, the stories had not. The theme of personal friendship seemed to be the strongest. Though the Navridians had never met the men he called friends, they connected to the characters in a way that was astonishing.

There was trembling in the hands of several Navridians by the podium's edge. Suddenly he saw the cause: McCoy had appeared in the crowd, followed by Spock. Guards were escorting them and other officers into the plaza, and this time the people never left their side. Besides the streaks of dry blood across his face, McCoy looked all right. Yet his features were so coiled in a knot of emotions that included fear, anger, desperation, and horror when he saw Kirk. Spock was near McCoy, shoulder-to-shoulder. The Vulcan looked straight into the Captain's eyes. As if he meant to stare there forever.

"Hail the Storyteller of the Spectacle!"

Someone official had shouted this, and the crowd went wild. It almost was too sudden. Perhaps Kirk expected a tally of votes first before decision was made. But the people had already decided. The whole time he was up here, they were not idle.

The Commissioner strode into the Captain's presence. So did the guards with their knives, and Armana there beside him. With a great clap of his hands, the Commissioner hushed the crowds. His speech was flawless. Glorious Navridian history was briefly enumerated, and set to conclusion. "We owe our Storytellers much this day, and all days. The fifth generation has arose to share this moment among us. Our days of waiting are past, and again they are before us. The music of faerie has been sung in our midst again. Always remember and never forget, that its beauty has no death. For this day, I say you chose wisely."

The bells pealed in the Capital. Young and old lifted up their faces, and listened to the bells. The Commissioner stood apart with warmth and insight, addressing Kirk with the ease of timelessness. "And now Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise, what is your reward?"

You can tell this was the part the people were really anticipating. The part of the story they could see for themselves. The plaza was filled and silent again, and only the bells tolled.

It was his move. He felt the rise in his chest and every second between every breath. The flurry of petals that flew past him in the wind, which was cold. The towers that rose in the distance like ladders to heaven, never reaching the sun. He knew what he was going to say.

"We are just the last of many travelers. You were the first. You walked among the stars and called them friends. A hundred thousand years from now, that love will be remembered by those who come to know the stars as you did. Make yourselves worthy to be remembered. Use your love for what has never been done. Experience the pain of selflessness that you've heard in story all your life. Let go of my men and give back the Enterprise to the stars."

Give back the Enterprise? That's not what the Spectacle of Storytellers was about.

Or was it? Now the audience had its own plot twist to deal with. They hadn't waited five thousand years just to release their spoils. Yet a laptier's last request was never denied if he so merited it. And merit he did. For he spoke not only for himself, but the stories of his comrades. Multiple experiences of the same event, the patterns of thoughts, the cauldron of emotions - it was inescapable, palpable. Surely the bond of kinship, the strongest in the universe, was as real within these as the best the poets told. Surely the passion, the warmth, the undeniable logic of the tale came forth from multiple personalities at work creating a narrative that was remarkable among the entries in Navridian history.

But the Enterprise was . . . unparalleled. It was theirs. Their connection to the stars, the greatest of all monuments of what the infliction had stolen from their forefathers. A craft their grandchildren can touch with their own hands. Had a laptier any right over that?

Yet the prospect of performing a new act, of experiencing selflessness, was not lost on them. Wasn't it better to live it than merely hear it told? For millennia beyond counting, they had exulted in the scenes of others offering their lives in sacrifice. Why not feel it themselves? Why not feel a fraction of that beautiful pain? Why not . . . become part of the story?

So went the rhetoric. The Captain exchanged glances with Spock and McCoy below. Those two had squeezed their way to the front of the crowd, as close as possible to Kirk's position on the podium. If they had any plans superior to his self-sacrifice strategy, it better be put into action now. He recalled that he didn't even know where Spock had gone when they had taken him on tour. Spock hadn't cared to share the information, or couldn't. Well . . . was it too late now? What kind of power could they wield at the last hour? Spock's attitude appeared one of tense resignation, or earnest waiting. Somehow that felt off. McCoy, on the other hand, was a mess. He was constantly fiddling with his medical tricorder, punching in data like his life depended on it. Jim, he seemed to mouth, but Kirk was too far to hear. He shook his head. McCoy gave him a scowl mixed with frustration. They did understand he was about to be executed at any moment, right?

He turned to find the Commissioner addressing him.

"You ask what is difficult. We ask nothing less. Sacrifice for sacrifice. Your performance has been exemplary up to the present; now it must be final. Your ship and your men await your last act. And yes, they will be free, if you can perform it."

It was now that Armana approached Kirk as everyone else receded. Her own knife lay across both her open palms, metal brilliant in the sun. An invitation. There was no hiding the real emotion on her face. Here was a Navridian who spoke the wonders of a tale in a graveyard. Now her words were simple, honest. "This is my privilege," as she handed the knife for his possession.

So the execution was meant to be a self-inflicted one. Once across the throat, she indicated. Simple. Just stand here front and center, and end your own life.

Kirk must have moved front and center just enough, because he could hear McCoy now. "Jim, Jim-"

His two friends were standing in a sea of the expectant. The Vulcan stood as a mountain ancient and unmoved. Never a change in his curving eyebrows nor loss of dignity in the carriage of his body. If there were fluctuations in that state of mind, an extreme control was exercised over their appearance. The protocol of the situation mandated such. This was the attendance of the Captain's sacrifice. There would be every honor and reverence in the stillness of that face. Yet there was still a nod of the head, and one last motion: Spock lifted up his right hand, and saluted Captain Kirk. A salute without words.

Self-control had returned to the man beside the Vulcan. McCoy held his hands clasped behind his back in similar pose to Spock. His agitation was tempered, the pain in his face held back. He did not make any motion, except this slow bounce that he seemed not able to control. Whatever he was going to say, he did not continue the thought. His sigh was ragged, and he forced himself to look up at the Captain. His nod was ever so brief, and meaningful.

In that moment, all three spoke the same language.

Then Captain James Kirk performed his final act in the Spectacle.

:: ::

The Navridians were true to their word. In seven days, the Enterprise was fully restored and returned to its original coordinates in space through the power of the multiple vortex beam. Four hundred twenty-nine men and women took their leave of the planet and launched the Enterprise on its journey out of Bermuda. The People of Story had a curious conversion to generosity during those ensuing weeks. They allowed the memories of the crew to remain. Through some as yet unknown purpose, or perhaps change of heart, they did not act as previous generations had done. Perhaps after all, that was the point.

Spock held command, and he negotiated one last leniency. That the body of James T. Kirk be given a proper burial on the Captain's home planet, Earth. On one condition, the Navridians granted even this. So it was that if you ever visit a graveyard on the fifth planet of the Bermuda Star System, you will find a small piece that once belonged to a starship, cast in fiberglass film and a name engraved on its monument, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Constitution Class. Besides it stands an empty grave.

Kirk was about to discover why there would not be any grave, on any planet, at all.

He woke up to the neutral ceiling of sickbay. His dreams had been horrible, stuff like choking on blood, extreme paralysis, throbbing pressure, and other disturbing, far-too-real imagery. Instinctively his hands rushed to touch the skin of his throat. There was a deep scar, but no searing heat.

"It's all right Jim."

There was McCoy. Doctor as always, now by his side and perusing Jim's medical indicators. A slight grin played on his face. "For a dead man, you mend very well."

"Technically the Captain never died."

Spock had just entered the room. He appeared supremely pleased with himself as he folded his arms and attended the Captain's bedside. McCoy rolled his eyes as Spock gained momentum. "I must offer the Doctor compliments on his astute observations. It was his insight into the residual power of ex nihilo and its effects on the body, such as rapid healing, lack of hunger or thirst, that exposed the biochemical and pseudo-mystical nature of the effect and its potential for modification."

"A simple hello would suffice," McCoy snapped.

"Gentlemen!" Kirk pushed himself off the bed and laughed. He laughed and laughed. He grasped the shoulders of the two men, and felt his own feet on the ground again. "So . . . " he crooned, "your plan was to kill me all along."

McCoy got red in the face. Spock cocked his head, that mind of his dissecting the imprecise nature of the statement. "If I recall Captain, you performed the act to end your life through your own choice."

"But you set me up!" he raised his voice and gestured, but the game was already up. The ends of his mouth were trembling upward in a smile. He shook his head, his stomach knotted in this insanity. He zeroed his eyes on McCoy. "Exactly how did you decide to conspire with my First Officer?"

Poor McCoy. Clearly Kirk was having the most fun out of this. Spock was mildly amused, or annoyed, it was difficult to tell. Kirk reluctantly rested back down on the bed; apparently hysterics and recovery did not mix well together. "And I thought all those faces of agony were real," he jabbed.

"I wasn't sure it would work Jim!" Maybe he really did fluster McCoy. "Yes I had isolated the ex nihilo matrix while you were still on tour. It's amazing. The power literally is the creation out of nothing within the body. New molecules can be formed, blood flow created, the works. I first felt its extreme form in that pistol-whipping I got, but the power is present in the very environment these people live in. Their wounds heal quickly, they rarely hunger or thirst because the molecules themselves form spontaneously in the body. I only isolated and catalyzed the reaction; the matrix did the rest. It's not originally native to Navridia from what I could gather; in fact, I suspect it might be related to the disease that barred them from space travel ages ago."

"That wouldn't affect me now, would it?" That would be highly inconvenient. McCoy shook his head.

"Not according to my tests. The effects wear off in a few weeks since you no longer experience the planet's atmosphere. Until then, you will experience very little hunger or other bodily needs. A state of changelessness is one of its primary symptoms."

"At least you're sure," Kirk side-glanced him, laying his hands primly across his chest.

McCoy stared at the Captain. "How can you be so . . ."

"Alive?" Kirk pursed his lips, and smiled. But he really was serious. He was literally alive, thanks to the scheming of these two individuals. Spock must have slipped him the intravenous dosage during that brief moment just before McCoy was taken away. How these men did all this planning, and story collaboration, in those few short hours . . .

He glanced over to Spock. "Any more loose ends to inform your Captain before he gets back to duty?"

The Vulcan mused on the question, and gave his response. "Yes, there is one matter. You inquire of the purpose driving the Doctor and myself in our objective of your winning the Spectacle of Storytellers. In truth Captain, we perceived the outcome ahead of time. The information we gained on the tours proved most fascinating." And Spock stopped, eying McCoy. Almost as if asking him to continue the story.

McCoy took the invitation. "While I was getting myself kicked out of the competition, Spock was shown to the public square and center of Story Discussion. The rankings of our men in the competition were a hot subject among the Navridians. They were literally forming opinions on the competitors before they stepped on the podium - that's the purpose behind all those secret cameras and recordings. They evaluated how a person spoke and how he delivered his message or interacted with his companions. There were clear favorites, Jim, and you were one of them. In fact, you held an amazing lead, along with Biogeographer Barclay and Utilities Technician Zahran."

Here Spock intersected. "It was your authenticity, Captain. Your passion and idealism. The Navridians are true idealists. They value the skilled expression of ideas - and emotions. I witnessed your brief speech in the Hallkutra Grave of the Nendra, and it affected the audience considerably. I determined . . . that my own probability of arousing such feeling was not favorable in these circumstances."

Spock paused at this. Kirk was moved. The Vulcan had been far more perceptive than himself. Yet not entirely true. "You did move people, Spock. I heard your story myself. It was beautiful."

Spock glanced at him with knowing, and brushed it off. "An anomalous reaction, Captain. Even with the favor on your side, I knew that still did not guarantee the freedom of theEnterprise. The caliber of stories required in a society obsessed with them required, to say the least, exceptional methods to create them. You had spoken of such a method to me earlier in our captivity. You suggested collaboration."

The Captain nodded. "You're diabolical."

"Oh yes that," McCoy stationed himself on the far side of the bed opposite Spock. "You should have seen me when Spock first suggested that blasted idea of his. I almost turned him over to the Navridians myself!"

"I asked you to assist in the creation of the best story possible for the deliverance of hundreds of lives, and ascertain a method to save the Captain's life," Spock defended himself.

"Great division of labor - you plan Captain Kirk's death while I run around ensuring he lives through the ordeal!"

"Without intervention, the odds of death were one hundred percent for at least one of the twelve competitors. Most likely, the Captain would still die." Spock did not back down.

Kirk rose up suddenly. His presence had the effect of halting the escalation. He looked at each one of them, and suddenly the playfulness returned. He grinned at Spock. "My death was the only logical course of action." His grin grew wider. "Of course, I would have preferred the plan that we appropriate the Millennium Falcon and make our getaway straight over the Capital city."

Spock expressed clear disapproval. "I was given a personal tour of that spacecraft. Besides its 170,560 earth years in age, its systems were perfectly preserved in their various states of defectiveness."

Kirk sighed. "You suck the joy out of everything." He began to walk towards the exit of the room, but not before touching the shoulder of each as he passed. Spock turned towards him. He had something further to say.

"Captain. I desired to tell you."

The gleam in Kirk's face was unmistakable. "I know."

"You bet I wanted to tell him!" McCoy broke in, and Kirk just gazed back with the pleasure of a grandfather. "I was against this whole idea from the beginning . . ." the good Doctor began monologuing his list of complaints against Spock for all those hours they were forced to work together. Kirk had to interrupt him.

"Before you get too far, just one more question," he waited until he had McCoy's undivided attention. Then he made a slicing motion across his throat. "Is this scar permanent?"

McCoy and Spock exchanged glances. McCoy mused. "There's always surgery. Otherwise . . ."

"Forget it. It's really not important." He flashed a grin, and walked out the door. Of course, Spock was right behind the Captain, and McCoy just behind Spock. There was work to be done on the bridge. If that ex nihilo factor was isolated, and its connection with the Navridian space malady established, perhaps a cure was possible. Perhaps a people forbidden from space would finally be free to return. That opened a whole set of moral dilemmas. What kind of danger would they be unleashing to every star-traveling civilization if starship hunters were allowed beyond the Bermuda Sector? Was it better to leave them isolated, unreached, and alone? Could the Navridians change?

They did not owe their captors anything. Wasn't that the beauty of it?

It was another mission, and another adventure. Another story to be told.

And as always, there will be three at the helm, performing the part each was meant to play.


End Notes

Though I co-wrote with my sister before, this is the first story I've published on my own. And it's my first Star Trek story! The subject matter was inspired by the love my sister and I share for how stories move people. Also, it's awesome writing Triumvirate! I wish I had explored the separate viewpoints of Spock and McCoy. Their perspectives and inner conflict would have made this far better. Oh well XP

By the way, while I'm at it, I dedicate this to my sister. Your passion for story and for that which is most honorable in every character, every theme, every part of life, is one that will always inspire me. I love you.