The sun set slowly behind the rugged horizon of the Sha Gotha desert, taking the heat and light of day with it. For a moment the crests of the hot orange mountains glowed a shade redder, glinting like molten metal as the dying light passed over them. Then the last sliver of the orb disappeared, and the mountains became nothing more than dark silhouettes in the distance. As the home sun set, 40 Eridani's twin dwarf stars began to rise in Vulcan's now black sky, blazing as far away beacons in space.
Once dark had enveloped the sands, a predatory sig'h crept from its shady burrow, to begin hunting in the growing cool of night. It painstakingly stalked a sleepy, blue-plumed t'lyha bird, silent as the surrounding sand. Finally, it pounced, and closed its strong jaws firmly over the bird's neck, muffling the desperate cackle from its prey's beak as it dragged it back into its burrow in the sand.
T'Ganu stood perfectly still in the doorway of her house, watching, her hands frozen on the hall rug she held. She was tall, even for a Vulcan woman, and her head almost brushed the top of the door frame. She had a perfect view of the sig'h's hunt, and the t'lyha's last moments of unsuspecting calm, but logic compelled her to leave them well alone, no matter how much the sight appalled her. It was not logical to starve one creature and its family in order to give another a few more minutes of life.
She drew her black dress more warmly around herself, as the air chilled with the growing night. Her fine boned face was strikingly handsome in the shadows of half light, her rich brown hair pulled up and pinned in a series of knots and plaits piled at the top of her head, reflecting the light from inside the house. Her features held an expression of non-emotion and total logic with no effort at all, but now she grimaced a little and twisted her head away from the noise of strong crunching teeth and the squirt of blood from inside the burrow.
She shook out the mat she was holding, and turned to go back inside.
Her consort was behind her. He rested his hand very lightly on her shoulder to stay her, as he took in the final remnants of the sunset.
'Sandik. I was not aware of your presence,' she said quickly, to mask her surprise.
'You could not have saved the bird.'
Sandik knew what she had been thinking, as he always did, through the light telepathic contact that all married couples had. He surveyed the view before them, his dark eyes taking it all in with an intelligent gaze. He looked around again, past his wife's shoulder, then he sniffed the air lightly, and his nose crinkled.
'I smell the burning too,' T'Ganu told him, noticing his slight grimace. 'Coming from the north-west again.'
'It is creeping closer,' Sandik said grimly. 'I heard the scream from Ly-Xzaha, two hundred measures north-west. We all felt the death cry. There are no more towns between us and the burning.'
'Then it is logical to assume we will be next. Why do we not contact the authorities, Sandik?' she said with an almost desperate sigh.
'We are well prepared. If our village cannot defend itself against such happenings it should not exist,' Sandik said with the stubbornness that had always lain deep under his logic. 'Such is evolution.'
No matter how deep the adherence to logic was in these remote, isolated areas of Vulcan, the staunch sense of independence and pride ran even deeper. The people of the Sha Gotha desert relied on the central Vulcan government for nothing, and that was not going to change even now.
'It may be that we can resist, and the other elders, but what of our young?' T'Ganu asked, turning to him and meeting his eyes. 'Can they also resist?'
Sandik glanced back through the doorway. 'The sun has gone now, and our youngest is hungry,' he said, deliberately avoiding the question. 'Come inside, wife,' he ordered. 'You have your duties to our family to perform, instead of indulging in idle chatter with me.'
'I come, husband.'
T'Ganu was well used to Sandik's mildly old fashioned manners by now, and had learnt that his strict orders were not so much orders as his way of saying things. She stepped inside and went to the pre-programmed food dispenser, and touched a button. The dining table descended smoothly from the ceiling, until its anti-gravity supports brought it to rest a few feet above the floor, with the meal laid out.
'Children,' she called.
When no reply came, she went to her daughter's room. She considered knocking, with proper Vulcan politeness, but decided instead to simply open the sound proof door. She pressed her palm on the plate by the door frame, and a metallic voice chimed out;
'Override,' she ordered.
'Override impossible. Entrance permitted only to T'Shuo and Shuok dar Sandik.'
She suppressed the feeling of affectionate amusement. Her son had recently undergone a course in computer programming and reprogramming, and she had known his sister would have taken advantage of it. She shook her head, and prised open the smooth entry-plate.
'Computer, you will accept fingerprint identity.' She pressed a finger into the designated hollow. 'I am T'Ganu mar Sandik.'
'You will override all commands by T'Shuo and Shuok dar Sandik.'
She pressed the panel again, but the door still wouldn't open. 'Computer, why will you not permit entry?' T'Ganu asked quietly.
'You requested all commands made by T'Shuo and Sh – '
'Yes,' she interrupted.
'T'Shuo and Shuok dar Sandik commanded that T'Ganu mar Sandik would be permitted entry by fingerprint identity. T'Ganu mar Sandik requested those orders be overrode.'
T'Ganu was proud of her children's intelligence, if a little annoyed at how they put it to use.
'Recall memory, and override all directives except those permitting me entry.'
There was a whirring, clicking sound, then, 'Completed.'
'Then please open the door,' she requested softly.
'Complied,' the computer spoke back, mirroring her soft, martyred tone. The door slid open, revealing her two elder children bouncing on her daughter's bed, laughing aloud.
'It is time for dinner,' she said quietly.
Immediately the two children snapped into cool Vulcan restraint. Shuok landed back on the bed with a thump, and gulped. T'Shuo quickly stepped in front of him.
'We are ready, mother,' she said, looking as if her coolness and composure could freeze all Vulcan. 'We merely have to - to wash our hands.'
'And your faces. You must also tidy your hair - and your minds,' T'Ganu added. 'Have you not yet been taught that it is bad manners to laugh with such lack of restraint? If you are happy, a simple, quiet smile will do - and that is a habit we must train you out of. I suggest an extra period of meditation each night.'
'Yes, T'Ganu,' Shuok said miserably. 'I apologise, and so does my elder sister.'
'Such antics are for the youngest Vulcans,' his mother reprimanded him softly. 'You are no longer an irresponsible one year old.'
'Of course not, mother,' T'Shuo agreed.
'Dinner is on the table,' she told them both, then turned so they didn't see her subtle smile.
When they came out into the dining room, both their faces and their manner were shining clean.
'Seat yourself and begin eating,' their mother ordered quietly. 'Your father is outside, but he will join you soon.'
She bent over a cot in the corner, and took out the hungry baby, who was just beginning to cry. She thought she heard the low mutter, 'The baba is allowed emotions,' but when she turned to the table, the two children were only eating quietly. She carefully and discreetly opened her top, and the baby clutched at her breast and found the warm milk, its eager drinking stifling its cries. For some inexplicable reason, T'Ganu remembered how the t'lyha bird had been stifled, and she shivered. Then Sandik came inside, quietly and sedately, but looking as if he was running.
'We have been waiting,' T'Ganu said quietly, trying not to show her alarm. 'We began to eat.'
Sandik ignored what she said. 'Wife, it was fortunate that we built that fire-proof chamber in our house. I smelt the burning coming closer. When I looked into the sky, there were the lights that other villages have reported.'
'Father!' T'Shuo almost jumped to her feet, but remembered her manners, and struggled to at least look as if her newly learnt Vulcan disciplines were working. She lowered her voice again. 'Will we die, as the others have?'
'I cannot predict the future, T'Shuo.' Her father came over to her, and his hand closed over hers. 'Leave your food and gather your bedclothes from your rooms. Both of you, children. Do as I say quickly, and calmly. T'Ganu, fetch a water container, and fill it, then place it in the room.' He took the baby carefully from her, and went to wrap it in blankets and take it to its cot in the fire-proof room. 'Quickly,' he urged, as the others joined him, then he slid the heavy door closed, and barred it. 'Computer, seal all leaks. Keep air supply constant,' he ordered. 'Family, come close to me.'
'We will die, won't we, Sandik?' Shuok asked nervously.
'We will not die,' Sandik told him firmly, putting his arms around his children. 'We will all stay close together like this, and nothing will harm us.'
T'Ganu picked up the baby from the cot, and came to join her husband.
'I hear it approaching,' she said in a low voice. 'Sandik – '
Nobody knew what 'it' was. But then she felt a terrible throbbing pain in her body, and she threw herself flat on the floor, over the baby. There was a scream from her daughter, and she heard Shuok sobbing. There was no noise from Sandik. She didn't know if it was because her husband was dead already, or because of his amazing ability for mental discipline. The pain grew to an agonising ripping sensation, and the woman kept her eyes closed so she didn't see what was happening to her body. The sensation spread to touch her face, then, mercifully, the world ceased to exist for T'Ganu.
A shimmering transporter beam appeared like falling gold-dust, then solidified, setting two people down amongst the rough red rocks and blowing sand of a Vulcan desert. Captain James Kirk materialised slightly before Mr Spock, and was looking around before his Vulcan first officer could move.
'Are you sure Scotty put us down in the right place?' he asked doubtfully.
His first officer nodded briefly, then proceeded to scan his eyes across the view. The pair were surrounded by tall red spires of rock, that looked for all the world like some invading army turned to stone by magic as they marched across the desert.
'This does not seem the optimum location into which to beam a living individual,' Spock commented, eyeing the forest of tall, close packed rock formations. 'But the co-ordinates were correct.' He turned his tricorder on the rocks ahead of him, scanning and reading the results swiftly. 'We're one mile from the village. Close enough to walk to, but far enough away to be obscured from view if necessary.'
'But this is desert,' the captain protested. 'No one could live here. It's hotter than a blast furnace, and about as dry as that, too.' As he spoke a burning breeze licked at his face, feeling no cooler than the air around him.
'We are on the edge of the desert. The fringe-lands.'
Spock spoke confidently, without bothering to check his readings again. It was as obvious to him as if Kirk had been beamed into the centre of an Iowa cornfield. Spock took a deep breath of the Vulcan air, gazing up into the red sky.
'Nice to be home?' Kirk chuckled, squinting in the sun.
'There are few planets like Vulcan,' Spock replied enigmatically.
'You can say that again.' The scorching heat of the Vulcan sun was already beginning to make the human's lips and face tingle, and he hurriedly smeared more sunscreen over the exposed parts of his body.
'You should be wearing a hat, Captain,' Spock commented, looking sideways at him. 'It is best for humans to shade their heads on my planet.'
'I'll be fine,' Kirk promised. 'New Starfleet invention, Spock. Sunscreen you spray on your hair.' He patted the top of his head. 'And it seems to work. I can barely feel the heat here.'
'This will, at least, be an effective test,' Spock said doubtfully. 'Captain, I believe we must walk in that direction.'
Spock extended a long arm towards the south, and began walking without further comment. As they came around a towering crag of pinkish sandstone, a dim blur of bluish-green became visible on the horizon.
'So plants do grow in this imitation hell,' Kirk muttered.
'Naturally,' Spock said smoothly, ignoring the insult to his planet, 'as Vulcans are plant eaters. There are cooler pockets of vegetation, Captain. You would call them oases. That is mostly where villages spring up. In the more temperate polar circles, and in certain mountainous areas, there are vast expanses of leafy plants.'
'I'll take your word for it.'
Spock scanned the area around them once more. 'There are no life forms registering, Captain, although at this distance, only massed life forms would be distinguishable. But I find it disturbing that I read very little animal life in our immediate vicinity.'
'Then we better push on to this village,' Kirk suggested. He could feel his clothes becoming heavy with sweat, sticking to his skin, and was he impatient to get this assignment over and have a refreshing shower on the ship. Then, as they rounded another rocky outcrop, Spock bent and picked something up off the sand.
'Look, Captain.' He carefully held the mutilated body of a rabbit-like creature, its light orange fur matted with dark green blood. 'And there.' He pointed to another on the sand. 'These were not killed by any predatory beast. Something else injured them. A Vulcan would not kill them. Definitely would not leave them after killing them.'
Kirk knelt down to examine the other creature. He reached out toward it, but Spock jerked his hand back.
'Sir. Your clothes are heat-resistant, but if your hand were to touch the sand it would burn you.'
He picked up a handful of the grains, then wetted a finger and touched them. Kirk drew in breath as he heard the moisture sizzle away in an instant.
'Doesn't that hurt you, Spock?' he asked. 'It must be burning right through your palm.'
'Vulcans are born to this sand, and bred to it. We can walk on it with our feet bare.' He said it as a simple fact, without pride. 'It's only in a heat wave that we must protect ourselves from it.'
Kirk looked up towards the sun. He didn't dare imagine how much hotter than this a Vulcan heat wave would be. Spock laid the animal back on the sand, then dropped the handful of dust and straightened up. 'I suggest that we make haste, sir. There may be people injured or dying.'
Spock picked his way slowly through the still smoking ruins of the Vulcan village called Ly'Gotja. Soft grey ash crunched and hissed under his boots as he walked, sending clouds of dust up into the air to settle lightly in a film over his clothes and face. He turned, to see his captain following tentatively, covered in the same dusting of ash.
'It seems safe, Jim,' he decided, looking up at the blackened, swaying walls of half burned houses.
'But what happened here?' Kirk asked for the tenth time, panting in the hot, thin air. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, leaving a dark smear of soot and sunscreen. 'This is a small, isolated village. No threat to anyone.'
'This village was home to a tiny clan,' Spock told him. 'It was hardly known by others on my planet. They did not make contact with the outsiders. It was where my father's niece, T'Syan, lived.' He turned and pointed to a wrecked building. 'That is her home. She must have perished.'
Kirk turned to regard Spock. The Vulcan's capacity for coming out with startling statements in a completely emotionless way never ceased to amaze him. As level as his voice was, however, he was deliberately keeping his gaze averted from his captain's eyes.
'I'm sorry, Spock,' he said.
'It's regrettable. She was an intelligent and logical woman,' Spock said quietly, then looked up at his captain again, his dark eyes unreadable. 'The fire may have been an accident, Captain,' he said doubtfully. 'Vulcan is a hot planet. Fires can start easily.'
'We wouldn't've been sent here for a bush-fire,' Kirk said tersely. 'Vulcan doesn't call on Starfleet ships to investigate this kind of loss of contact without proper suspicions – although I don't know why they didn't send their own people.'
'We *were* already visiting Vulcan when the order came through,' Spock pointed out. 'Vulcan does not often encounter violence or mass death. We are, perhaps, more suited to investigate, especially in an area of the planet that does not take much note of official government. We must at least consider the possibility of an accidental blaze.'
'Look around you, Spock.' Kirk indicated the blackened, twisted bodies around them heavily. 'They would have run. Tried to get away at least. It's like it was all over in a second. All just struck down where they were standing before it happened. And it wasn't just a fire. It was an inferno.'
Spock inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the fact, then glanced hopefully at some of the less affected homes towards the fringes of the village.
'There may be survivors.'
'We better split up,' Kirk nodded. 'Search the houses.'
He cursed as a gust of hot wind sent a swirl of ash up into the air to stick to the cream on his face. It was useless trying to wipe the stuff off.
'I would advise caution,' Spock told him. 'Some of these structures may not be entirely safe.'
'I know.' Kirk scanned around him briefly, and picked a closely built cluster of buildings. 'Look. I'll go look through those houses, you take the other street.'
Spock nodded agreement, and strode off towards the dark entrance to the narrow street ahead of him. The place wasn't exactly inviting. The opening yawned like a hungry black mouth, ready to swallow anything that ventured into it. The overhanging, fire-blackened buildings absorbed almost all light from the bright Vulcan sun, adding to the sense of foreboding. But such superstition was illogical, and Spock focussed solely on the tricorder readings that would alert him to the presence of life.
As Spock walked forward into the gloom, his eyes became adjusted to the dim light. He looked around in dismay at the wrecked buildings, then activated his tricorder and began to scan for life forms. He drew in his breath sharply as the device registered one person still alive.
Slowly he followed the strengthening signals, until he reached a half fallen cottage a hundred yards down the tiny road. The tricorder showed vibrations indicating that the building was ready to collapse. He touched the blackened door lightly with his hand, and it crumbled into dark, soft ash.
The walls of the room inside had been white, but now they were streaked with soot and burn marks. There was furniture strewn and twisted on the floor, barely recognisable, as if it had been blown apart by some kind of explosion. Spock reached out a finger to touch a sooty metal cabinet, but drew it back quickly. The metal was still too hot to touch.
Spock lifted his head again, searching the room for any sign of the life he had registered. There was a door ahead of him, solid metal, hardly touched by the flames. Spock confirmed that that was where the life form was, set the faithful tricorder to record whatever he found, then lifted his phaser. The door resisted the first beam, but melted away under the full force of the weapon. He stepped inside the tiny room and flashed a torch across the walls, then froze with unchecked shock.
The bright beam showed a whole family huddled on the floor, expressions of total un-Vulcan terror on their faces. Spock knelt by the nearest body. A young girl, dead, her cold white skin streaked with dark green blood.
'Deformed?' Spock asked himself, noticing the strange angles of her limbs.
He touched the blood that was thick down one of the arms. It was still wet. Tentatively, he reached out a finger, and gently drew the lids down over glassy, horror-stricken eyes. He flashed the beam on another face. A woman, who was obviously the mother, another child, a man, all dead, all grotesquely malformed, as if they had been sent through a faulty transporter.
Spock permitted himself a pang of sadness at seeing the whole family dead. No out-worlder knew just how close a Vulcan family could be. Under all the impassivity, and cold, non-emotion, family ties were strong and fierce. They had died together, trying to protect each other.
But the life form still registered. Slowly, keeping down a wave of nausea, Spock turned the woman over and laid her down by the wall. He turned back to a small bundle that the mother had been protecting under her own body. He picked up the huddle of red blankets and walked slowly backwards, away from the bodies, sinking down onto his haunches. He prised his communicator from his belt and flipped it open.
'Spock to Captain Kirk.'
Jim's reply was immediate. 'Kirk here. What've you found?'
'One survivor, Captain,' Spock said quietly. 'A baby, unharmed.'
'A – baby?' Kirk asked in wonder.
'Yes. I found it in a fire proof room, amongst the bodies of its family. Obviously the room was not totally effective against this conflagration. The heat itself may have started an additional fire in the room.'
'You think the fire killed them?' Kirk asked.
Spock shook his head, regarded the huddled bodies again. 'I don't believe so. The bodies are not incinerated – only cut and bruised, with slight burns. I believe that the burning occurred after death. The tricorder records no signs of smoke inhalation. And, Captain - they are also deformed, as if something had tampered with their molecular structure.'
Kirk was silent for a moment, as that fact registered, then his voice crackled through the communicator again. 'There's no one else, Spock. They're all dead.'
'I suggest that we beam these bodies up for autopsy, sir. Also a burnt body, for comparison. Can you locate me if I leave the channel open, Captain?'
'Yes, Spock. I'm right at the other end of the village. I'll be with you in five minutes.'
'Very well. Spock out.'
Spock laid the communicator carefully down on a blackened table, then turned his attention to the baby. He unwrapped a fold of blanket and saw its pale face, eyes screwed closed. He didn't know whether the stillness was from fright, or if it was just sleeping. He put his ear close to the mouth, and heard regular, deep breaths. He unwrapped the crumpled blankets, then folded them around the baby more comfortably. As he did, the child opened its eyes and began to cry.
Spock stared at the wall, not knowing what to do. He hardly ever encountered children on the Enterprise, let alone babies. Then he looked down again and saw the fear in the child's tiny face. It shivered violently, and the terrified wailing began to get louder. Spock stood up and rocked the baby gently in his arms, speaking to it softly. He turned towards the back wall, away from the sight of the dead bodies. Eventually he eased a hand up to the baby's face and touched it with his fingers, sending calming thoughts through a light mind-meld.
'There, girl child,' he said quietly in Vulcan. 'Sleep now.'
Something clattered in the doorway, and Spock turned, beginning to speak.
'Captain. You did not take long to get - ' He looked up, and trailed off, staring into the grey muzzle of a phaser pistol. 'Who are you?'
The man behind the phaser said nothing.
Spock raised an eyebrow, the only visible sign of his startlement as he took in the face before him. The person was obviously humanoid. His hands and face were laced with ornate black tattoos that disappeared into the sleeves and collar of an earthy brown jacket, matching his ankle-length trousers. His head was covered by a swathe of dark cloth, arranged as protection from the sun and blowing sand, but it revealed enough of his face to show his skin, coloured with a coppery red pigmentation, and with upward sweeping eyebrows just like Spock's own.
'I did not believe – ' Spock began, before faltering off with uncharacteristic uncertainty. He turned the baby against his chest cautiously. 'Please identify yourself.'
The man gave no answer, but his eyes glinted with cold hatred, and he let a spurt of savage power fly from the phaser. Spock reacted instantly, turning his body away to shield the baby from the strike, but there was no way that he could evade it completely. He sagged onto his knees, and crumpled silently to the ground.