Breathe Deeply Before You Fall

Khan blinked as the transport room, warm and vibrating with energy, dissolved into glittering particles of light. For a split second, he felt disembodied, floating, careless …then he was standing on firm ground, thick weeds that gave way slightly beneath his booted feet. The feeling was so swift, so transient, and gone so fast that it was barely noticeable, leaving nothing but a passing impression on his mind.

With him were four of his sixty remaining people, sixty of his fellow supermen, ready to dig their hands into this new world and mold it into their own image. He could see wide, expansive forests and a running river that wound its way through the valley for some distance before it disappeared at the base of tall, tree-studded hills that glowed a soft green in the sunlight. Yes, the sun was very warm and very beautiful, much like the sun of Earth. Plenty of lumber, fresh water, and wildlife rushing free through a virgin wilderness. With their enhanced powers and this raw material, free for the taking, what more could he require?

Of course, it would have been easier to come upon a ready made, unsuspecting civilization, to destroy the government and take its place, drawing on an authority that had already been tended and obeyed mindlessly for hundreds of years. To travel the stars and spread that rule over a thousand solar systems…he glanced up at the sky, a rueful feeling clawing at his stomach. That love of freedom that lives in all men, that chaffs against involuntary imprisonment and slowly gnaws away the reason of a man's mind…and the greater the ambition, the greater the dreams…the greater the pain.

Yes, he would, given the choice, prefer the freedom of space-travel. If he had been born and raised on this planet with no knowledge of the universe above his head it would be a different matter; but he had seen the shining stars, the burning hearts of molten planets and the limitless, black reaches of space; he could never close his eyes to them again.

A soft sigh escaped Marla McGivers as she stood beside him. He turned his head to look at her and saw fear in her face. The end of his mouth curled up ever so slightly, because he knew exactly what sort of terror plagued the woman. It wasn't fear of punishment from his hand, but fear of rejection from his heart. Such a weak, delicate thing she was, like a butterfly perched on his hand. A single puff of air from his lips, and he would lose her beauty forever as her fragile self-esteem crumbled away.

She was afraid that he would be furious with her for releasing Captain Kirk; he was. He knew he would be angry about that, perhaps for the rest of his days. Her swift betrayal of him should really have come as no surprise, considering the fact that she had been so conflicted and trembling, opening her heart but unwilling to share her soul.

She might love Khan, but she had no loyalty to him, no loyalty to his cause. She followed her heart, not her will. And the heart is always fickle. So now, because of Marla's weak, misplaced affections and watery, transparent attachments to two different worlds, Khan Noonien Singh and the last of the great Augments were trapped on a tiny globe of earth, air and water, tucked away in a small pocket of the great big Universe.

But what could he possibly hope to achieve by avenging himself upon her? Why did he expect to keep a loyalty he had forced from her in the first place? This planet wasn't a bad place; a raw, bounteous land full of unlimited potential; and she was a beautiful woman. A spouse had had no reason to fear; she would never question him or disobey or bring her words against his, as an Augment woman would. Normally, to avoid such a danger, Khan would never have married. But Marla was here, and she was ideal for the role of the perfect little wife.

He slipped his hand around her chin, pulling her face to look at him. Even if she'd wanted to, she could not resist it. Her soft blue eyes glistened with unshed tears. Gods of my people, he could not help thinking disapprovingly, she is afraid of this new life too. How can a being live with so much fear?

An unfamiliar urge to comfort her welled up inside him like a spring of water. His words wrapped around her, reassuring as they were empty, compelling as the words of a man who had once controlled thousands through voice alone. "It is a new world, Marla. A world of terror and beauty combined into one. It will be hard for you," not for us, we who have ten times your strength and intelligence, "but I will be here for you."

He could see her rousing herself, putting on a brave face for his sake. Good. He noticed her white neck expand as she swallowed heavily, her sweet mouth tightening into a firm, determined line. "I know. I won't disappoint you."

She sounded almost…bitter saying that, somehow. Not that he cared enough to figure out why. It was enough that she was trying. He smiled, a devilish, easy smile that had swept countless duchesses, princesses, and queens off their feet. It had much more possessive charm than affection in it. But there was affection there, nonetheless. "You could never disappoint me, my dove."

This seemed to remind her of the worries that had been weighing on her mind so heavily. When he let go of her chin, she blinked rapidly, eyes darting away as she tried to clear her thoughts. "Khan, I…the ship, the captain…I…"

"It is done," Khan said sharply, in a tone that brooked no argument. It was not as good as 'I forgive you', but it ended the discussion just as well. He didn't want to talk about Kirk, or the Enterprise, or lost chances any longer, "let us say no more."

She opened her mouth anyway; she was going to try and pursue her point with that wonderful verbal stubbornness peculiar to her kind. Khan shook his head even as he leaned down to silence her pitiful protests. Women.

And he kissed her, pulling her to him as they stood together in the golden glow of the sun of Ceti Alpha V, which sank behind the horizon, setting on the dawn of a new world.

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The first thing they began to work on was a large clearing around Botany Bay. Whatever prowled about in those woods, they needed to be able to see it if it attacked the camp. Khan drew the schematics for a defensive barrier, using energy from the ship to create lamps and alert-triggers that lined the edge of the clearing.

Then, when the basic structures had been built and the finishing touches and improvements were being laid on, Khan divided the workload between building temporary shelters and weapons that were effective and easily made from native materials. He was determined to use the planet itself as much as possible and not tax the cargo bays, which were to be their emergency supply.

There was also the Botany Bay, engines stripped, sleeper cabins cannibalized…an empty husk, a final parting gift from Kirk. A reminder of the great and dangerous journey they had made, the brothers and sisters they had lost, and the utter failure that fate had dealt to them. A gift and a mockery at the same time.

On a day when the weather was clear and the warm breeze fanned against their faces, singing of the unknown and the unexplored, Khan gave in to the spring-like fever and led an exploration party into the forests. Deer-like mammals that ran on four legs but could also fly on leathery wings when they were startled. Small, slithering, furry worms that hissed and rubbed around their shoes blindly, cooing and vibrating. Chattering creatures that sped so quickly from treetop to treetop that it was hard to say what they looked like, and birds. Bright, colorful birds that flew around them, fearless, singing, unable to sense any threat from weapons they had never before seen.

Khan did not want to break the spell of this first journey, so he ordered that there was to be no shooting unless it was necessary. Then he led the troop up one of the great hills that crowned the valley, intending to have a few minutes of quiet majesty, like a king observing the whole of his domain for the first time. He lifted his strong legs high before bringing them down again, forging a way through the thicket with ease. Marla was hiking just behind him, her breath coming in short wheezes as she tripped and struggled over the rough terrain of fallen tree branches, rocks, and earthy hillsides.

Once only, she gave a small whimper of pain. Impatient and irritated by this sound that broke the beautiful atmosphere so rudely, Khan whirled around and saw her clutching her leg. A sharp stick had embedded itself just above her knee as she tried to throw one leg over a dead log. A small, red trickle of blood stained her dark stockings.

Restraining a sigh, Khan slipped one arm under her shoulders and gently but firmly gathered her knees together, lifting her out of the mess of sticks like a small child. He was about to put her down, but she laid her head on his chest with a tired sound of self-recrimination. The feeling of her soft hair brushing his neck turned something on inside him, and he carried her the rest of the way to the crest of the hill before setting her down.

Suddenly and seemingly unaware of her presence, he turned around to watch the rest of his people join them at the top. Marla pushed her thumb against her puncture wound, wobbling a little on her feet as she stared at the valley below. Her stiff, bright mini skirt stood out sharply against all the green. It made her look like she was on fire.

She needs better clothes if she is to live here, Khan thought ruefully, glancing back at her over his shoulder, his hands on his hips as he almost guiltily enjoyed the sight, there should be some extra jumpsuits in the Botany Bay.

The other members of the exploring party swerved to either side as they passed him, shouldering each other boisterously, laughing, eager to take a look at this brand new world. Then there was a few minutes' silence.

Marie shook her head slowly; her short, thick black hair reflecting the sunshine like white bars of light. Her eyes were wide, drinking the sight in almost hungrily. "It is so beautiful…so very wild."

Tauto laughed at her comment and lifted his hands up, curling his fingers as if he was grabbing handfuls of cloud. "Ha! I cannot wait to get my hands on it!"

"This, I think, was a wise choice, Khan," Joachim said quietly, his hooded grey eyes burning with quiet thought. Joachim was a man Khan respected. It was no small thing to earn Khan's respect.

"What do you mean, Joachim?" Khan crossed his arms as he sidestepped closer to the other man.

"I hunger to conquer other worlds, to bring them under our sway, to order and protect and organize them. A mighty challenge, such as we have never had before. But this…this world…it somehow seems an even greater challenge. Think of it, what we do here, we will do well. We will create a civilization that will be the awe of the galaxies. We have all the knowledge we need to bring it light years ahead of other newly born nations. It will be like a child prodigy."

"Our child, old friend. Our child prodigy," M'dara smiled, her smooth, dark skin glowing with the reflected light of the sun as her hair whipped around her face. Like all the supermen, she was tall and strong, beautiful and bursting with life. She almost seemed to pulse with an enthusiasm for existence. Looking at her, Khan knew they would succeed, especially with women like this.

Women like this…he glanced down at Marla. She had dropped to a seat in the grass, crossing her legs and staring out over the valley. He could not catch any excited gleam in her eye, any anticipation or zest for the challenge. Only exhaustion and awe.

Could this woman ever lift heavy planks from trees, wrestle down wild beasts, or tame the land that rolled out before them? Could her fragile body bear Khan's children, could her milk-white spirit stand the hardships, the exposure, and the challenge?

Thinking she was unobserved, Marla dropped her face into her hands, her red hair spilling down like a curtain. Khan frowned grimly. I think not.

Seeing this weak being he was saddled with, he almost ordered everyone back down; Marla had spoiled the mood by her presence. Grabbing a hold of himself, he reconsidered. After all, I do not want her to die of exhaustion on the way. "We will rest for fifteen minutes. Then we head back."

If Marla realized he was doing this for her, she gave no notice. Khan didn't mind. He turned and began walking off along the top of the hill, hoping to get a birds eye view of the river. He was instantly aware of it when someone broke away from the group and came up behind him. "What troubles you, Marie?"

A sly, seductive smile curved up one side of her mouth. "You never let your guard down, mighty Khan?"

"Never around you, enchantress of France," Khan spoke with humor, but his mouth remained in a thin line of concentration as he stared out over the valley, taking in its depth, measuring the time needed to colonize and subjugate it.

"The poor woman of the Enterprise…she seems tired. You had to carry her; I saw."

"I would be disappointed if you did not," Khan answered dryly. He was suddenly aware of where this was going; he was no reveler in the wars of love, but he had had enough experience. He also knew Marie rather well.

"Khan, you know what I mean. This McGivers has served her purpose; failed it, I should say. I can bear the burdens she cannot; I will survive where she will waste away. She has no idea what lies before us; I do. She will eat our food, drink our water, then sicken and die. Kinder, I think, to send her to the next life now. We, you and I and our people, we must move on. She is of no more use to you."

Khan crossed his arms, his face amused. "What you say is true, Marie. But I believe you speak more from personal desire than actual concern for our rations. Look around you," he swept an arm out, "we have all this. Surely we can share it with one weakling?"

Marie's big smile faltered; she was no fool. She realized she was losing ground. Stepping up beside him, she stared up at his face, not the valley below. Her gaze traveled over his hair, so black that it was almost blue, which reached down to his shoulders before curling inwards in little waves. The straight, strong nose that lent so much nobility and elegance to his dark face and his firm eyebrows that lent such a perfect shade to his eyes, dusky brown and full of fire. It was the face of a prince, a Sikh of India. The kind of face many a princess had dreamed of.

Staring at his face, Marie only realized all the more how much she wanted to be his. "She is not one of us," she forced her voice to be steady, "she is a burden and an unnecessary one at that."

Khan cocked an eyebrow at her; he knew he was playing with her and it was cruel, but teasing women's hearts was something he had done very often, and very well. Of all his brethren, Khan was the most charismatic. He had a magnetic presence, a tone in his voice that seemed to wrap others' wills into his. He was a born leader, a quality that had only been augmented by the Eugenic Wars. Some people would bend over backwards to do his bidding with very little promise of reward.

It had been his idea to select the very best of the supermen, to have them swear allegiance to him and make a gamble with the unknown, taking off in an experimental sleeper ship with set coordinates for a distant planet few of them had even heard of before. It took trust and faith, something Khan found easy to instill in his followers.

He looked down at Marie, remembering her words; she is a burden and an unnecessary one at that. He knew exactly what she meant. Did she think him a butcher? He would slaughter Marla to save a few pounds of food and free himself of any obligations? Or, better yet, free him to take Marie as his wife?

The idea insulted his pride. Except for a dangerous look in his eyes, he made no sign of the anger building inside him. He had always fought to keep a tight control on his anger. Perhaps he had returned to life in a new era of peace, but his freshest memories were the Eugenic wars, where it was a battle in itself simply to keep one's soul intact. In the midst of death, deceit, and betrayal, a king's temper could easily flare. And Khan had always had a terrible temper. "You think I would kill this woman, simply because she is no use to me?"

Marie realized her mistake, trying to backstep. "I never said…"

"You are very beautiful, Marie. And in another lifetime, I would have said yes. But it would mean nothing to me, you understand? Nothing! There is attraction between us, but no love. Love is another trap of words and emotions that was torn out of our biological makeup as children. There is no such thing as love. The only thing like it that I have left is honor. I keep my word, and I keep my obligations. McGivers opened her heart to me. She still experiences love. She believes I love her. She is to be my wife, because I am responsible for her. Do you understand?!"

Marie's face had turned dark. Dangerous. Her hand unconsciously grabbed at her belt for a knife. Khan tensed, but made no other move. He knew she wasn't so stupid as to attack him here in front of the others, and especially not in front of Joachim, the 'Spanish Assassin'. It was merely emotions, and they would pass.

And they did. Marie took a deep breath, then let it out, draining the rage from her body. Her feet shifted position, like a relaxing tigress. "I understand, but I am not satisfied." Her blue eyes darted like lightning at Marla's red head, easily visible even at this distance. "McGivers has none of my good will."

"She does not need it," Khan smiled confidently at her, looking smug but also full of warning as he stepped forward and passed by, forcing her to move back to avoid his broad shoulders, "she has mine." Meaning, if you try to hurt her, I will hurt you.

Marie bowed her head in acceptance, following Khan as he rejoined the group. After all, he was her leader, even if he would not be her lover. Until someone better stepped forward. And then, things would be different.

Khan bent down, touching Marla on the shoulder. Startled, she jerked her body into action and stumbled to a stand beside him. He observed her for a second, wondering whether or not she could make it. He decided she could. "Come, we must go back."

Marla hesitated; she looked down the steep incline that led into the tangled forest. Khan resisted the childish urge to roll his eyes. "Do you want me to carry you again?"

At this, Marla's head flew up proudly, a beautiful anger flashing in her blue eyes. Khan was surprised, but like a trained warrior, showed nothing of it. She brushed by him, not breaking stride as she began the difficult, sliding descent.

A tiny smile curved the side of his mouth. Marla McGivers was not completely spineless, it seemed. In fact, she seemed to have a little bit of a temper too. That was alright with him. In fact, he would have been even happier if her temper matched her beautiful red hair in brightness. Spirit and fire were some things he admired above all others, especially in a woman.

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Khan leaned against the wall, arms crossed, watching the makeshift curtain shift. It was basically woven bed sheets of a dark green color, too thick and in the wrong light to see anything through. They were survival blankets, meant to shield you from the fiercest cold. He wondered what winter would be like when it finally arrived.

Marla came out from behind the partition wearing the red jumpsuit. She carried her old red dress and stockings and high-heeled shoes in a bundle, her old Starfleet uniform. When she saw him, she halted, her new boots thumping on the metal floor. The way Khan was looking at her…it was both unsettling and flattering. "Where do I….put my things?"

Khan smiled at her. She did indeed look lovely, especially in red. It seemed to set her hair on fire and brighten her eyes. He wished she would smile at him more often. She seemed more ill at ease than anything else, which was unreasonable. He had not tried to intimidate or dominate her or even threaten her since they came to the planet. It angered and irritated him. He wanted her to smile at him. "I was thinking we could make it easy. You opened your heart to me, Marla, and I promised to never send you away again. I wish to make you my wife."

Ah, there was the hopeful, joyful look he had been missing. But somehow, a wariness crept in, poisoning the beauty of her face, poisoning the happiness of the moment. Khan sighed. It was not that important. It could be dealt with later. "You do not answer."

That moved her. He knew that her devotion would overcome any strange reservations she had been harboring. She blinked, her face seeming to come alive again as she dropped the clothes on the floor in an unheeded pile. "Yes, Khan. I will be your wife."

I will be. She spoke as if she were the one making an acquiescence. It rankled Khan's pride. He covered the distance between them in two short strides, taking her hands in his, feeling how small they were, remembering how he had forced her into submission by merely squeezing them. For an instant, he thought he would do it again.

But he didn't. He reached up instead to stroke her cheek gently, feeling how soft and smooth the skin was. Her red hair brushed softly against his knuckles. She stood on tiptoe, inviting him into a kiss. Slowly, he gathered her into his arms. For one blissful moment, loving her as he knew she loved him, he had nothing to worry about, and nothing to regret.

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Khan pointed to the west, where the trees thinned slightly and the river widened. He shifted his stance, allowing the others to scoot closer and see what he saw. "There is where we will build the road leading to the river…the houses can be scattered around it, wherever you wish, but keep them well spaced and ordered…not too close to the water."

"And if we want to build a home for two?" Tauto smirked, leaning towards Elizabeth suggestively. She rolled her eyes and shoved him away.

Khan gave them a stare that quickly reduced their childish antics to a whisper. When Augments were not fighting each other, they usually got along very well. Too well, as Khan had discovered when his followers on Earth rebelled against him. Even the Augments on this planet, while relatively content and still bound by their oath, displayed a disconcerting insolence at certain times. Usually they were just bored, feeling that a matter was not important if they were not in control. At other times, they were pushing Khan. Pushing him to see how much he would take.

Well, they had met their match. They could push Khan to the end of time, and he would never falter, never surrender. He was stronger than the earth they stood upon. He could, if he had a mind to, destroy them all. Because he was the best.

But for now, he would humor them. These particular Augments were no more than children, really. Tauto had been sincere enough; he really was going to try and claim Elizabeth for his own, if she didn't whack him unconscious first. Khan nodded slowly, as if he was considering the words after cleansing them of juvenile stupidity. "Before we can have an empire, we must have families."

"I do have another task, however, for M'dara. We must also record all our technology. There is no telling when the databanks in the Botany Bay fail, running on emergency power as they are. You must encrypt them onto data chips and store them safely in durasteel capsules. It will be useful for our descendants when they are ready to take to the stars again. We must also record all we have stored in here," he pointed to his head, "I myself have a good grasp of present day engineering. Some of you can contribute from your fields…little secrets, no doubt, that you would not share with me when we fought over the earth together." He glanced around with a teasing grin. They chuckled in response, past ambitions still not completely forgotten, even in the face of this new challenge that would certainly take up their entire lives.

Marla caught his quick eyes when she came out of the half-finished hut at the campsite, carrying some odd articles of laundry with her. She dumped it in a large basket that would be escorted down to the river later, along with the rest of the crew's clothes. He paused to watch her as she dusted off her hands and snapped the lid shut.

She turned and noticed him looking at her. He quickly glanced away, not wanting to have to smile in response. He never wanted to be forced into showing frivolous affection, just for the sake of brightening her day. She was his wife, after all. A pleasant companion, a mother for his children, a balm for his eyes. Nothing more.

"We will concentrate first on ensuring that each family has enough food, clothing, and sustenance. When the children come, we will encourage them to be the best, in the woods or in the laboratory, in the fields or the hunt. But most of all, we will teach them to always think on their destiny, their heritage; as the rulers of the Universe."

Marla had moved back into his vision as he spoke, listening to his words, almost as if she was trying to get his attention. As he ended his speech, a frown came over her face. She crossed her arms and, shocking Khan, rolled her eyes to the sky in derision.

Such a little thing should never have irritated him. But it did, like a tiny splinter that somehow inflames the flesh all around it. His mouth tightened in a frown, his eyes glaring at her. She saw it, but she did not meekly duck her head or back away. She tossed her hair at him and stalked off in a fine show of female defiance.

Which was unusual, for her. It was also alluring. A reluctant, fond smile softened his face.

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It was early afternoon, the sun hot and deep, glowing as it lit the forest and the grassy clearing with light. The mouthwatering smell of roasted meat floated from the fire, teasing men and women alike. In some ways, Khan reflected with amusement, his people were no different from normal human beings. Tauto was even trying to snatch a tidbit off the roasted animal, only to have M'dara smack his hand so hard that the sound rang through the camp as ladle connected with bone.

He sighed; looking back at the plans he had spent the past few hours drawing. So much to do, so little time. Every day was too short, with the work always pushing into the late hours of the night. It was exhausting, and yet it filled him with more energy than anything he had ever before attempted. It was almost as if, in attempting to preserve rather than destroy life, he was receiving new life back into his spirit. It gave him a unique, wholesome sense of accomplishment that was not so invigorating or exciting as combat and victory, but even more satisfying.

Marla was singing inside. She had a pleasant contralto voice that was easy on the ears. Even without prompting, she always sang for her own enjoyment, an expression of how she was feeling. Such songs, Khan had discovered, had an unprofessional yet beautiful quality, a free spirit no slave's ballad could compare with. He had come to enjoy Marla's singing, even going so far as to ask her to sing for him.

Which was opening yet another can of worms, since Marla's singing seemed to also reflect how she was feeling about him. Sometimes it was happy, confident, and strong, sometimes pounding furiously, other times spiritless and trembling. Those last songs always made him impatient and furious, and he wanted to shake her.

Why was she always so unhappy? She was the legal wife of Khan Noonien Singh, leader of the Augments and lord of Ceti Alpha V, not his scullery slave, which she very well could have become. The mere prestige and envy accompanying such a position would make any right minded female mad with jealousy. He gave Marla many liberties, many thoughtful gifts and attentions he would never give someone else. And still, she avoided him.

He blinked suddenly as the sunlight shifted on the rushing, murmuring river, sending bright white light straight into his face. He stood up, tired of sitting anyway, and watched the ripples as they seemed to weave along the water and through the valley like a silver thread. He saw where the thread ended, in the mountains, and he wondered what was beyond them. Someday, perhaps, when their settlement was well established, he would lead an exploration party there and find out.

Suddenly, something screeched just behind his ear, like an angry parrot that was being strangled. He instinctively jerked his body to the side, turning around at the same time, his fingers grasping at empty air as Drigga, Marla's tame pet bird, rocketed by his face in a storm of yellow feathers.

It circled into the sky like a mad thing, still screeching insanely. Khan frowned. Something was just not right about the bird's behavior. He remembered the elephants of India, how intelligent and expressive they were. Working among them as a younger man, he had soon learned to understand the sign language they communicated through their sounds and body movements. Many a time while fighting guerrillas deep in the pit strewn, tree crowded jungle where tanks and cannons could not go, the instincts of animals had saved his life.

He stepped forward, peering at Drigga as it dove crazily, nearly hitting a woman in the head. She too tried to snatch it but missed as the bird pulled up steeply, tearing through the air and heading towards the clean, white clouds that graced the sky like hot cotton.

As Khan followed the tiny yellow blur and watched it disappear, he saw something else slowly morphing in the heavens. His brown eyes widened.

With a strong, steady sensation, sound seemed to suck out of the very air around him, leaving it utterly silent, as if the world had been flooded by warm water. The sky twisted in on itself, stretching the clouds out like thin cotton candy as the beautiful blue rusted over into an orangeish red.

A true child of constant struggle, danger, and death, Khan's warrior instincts took over. He looked down, and he screamed. But the words were too quiet; every movement seemed slowed down by hours as the sun hung, suspended, in the red sky.

He screamed for everyone to get inside the ship. They listened. They were warriors too, and more than that, they were survivors. Stopping for nothing, they dropped what they were doing and pelted towards the Botany Bay. Khan turned, ducked inside his half finished hut, and grabbed Marla by the upper arm.

He did not explain. There was no time to explain. He slung her, shrieking, over his shoulders. He turned and ran for the ship. The earth began to shake, rolling upwards and groaning. Nausea built in Khan's stomach. He felt lightheaded, as if his brain was being pulled the wrong way. Each step somehow swayed off target, nearly unbalancing him as he wondered what force of nature had stolen away his natural grace. But he ran. He leapt. He dove into the ship through a crowd of silent supermen who slammed the door shut behind him. Marla was dumped off his shoulders and fell with a thump to the metal floor.

But the world was not done falling to pieces. The ship rattled. Everyone, silent and intense, began to grab onto something, ignoring the pain as they wedged their bodies and limbs into the safest crannies possible. They latched onto door handles and balance bars until their strong knuckles turned white. Like turtles, they seemed to only harden under this new catastrophe, knowing what needed to be done, knowing that there was no certainty any of them would survive. They simply did what instinct told them, and waited for fate to decide.

Marla had stopped screaming. Khan was grateful for that. He pushed her into a corner, grabbing her hands and forcing her to hold on. Red lights blared, the alerts screaming throughout the ship as he stumbled towards the controls, wanting to be where he could do something…anything.

Then the ship began to turn over. Botany Bay creaked and reeled; switching the roof with the floor and back again as alert sirens screamed and wires vomited out sparks. The world outside was roaring in agony, bucking and thrashing in pain, and they were caught in it like pebbles in a hurricane.

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Khan's mind was content to float in blackness, warm and soft and utterly blind. There was a dull ringing in his ears and tiny whispers that warned him that he and his followers were in danger, but nothing seemed urgent enough to warrant ripping the protective darkness apart and forging a path out into the painful light.

Then, a heavy, hard thing began to squeeze his lungs. Air turned hot in his chest, forcing its way out. But nothing returned to fill the emptiness that was burning inside him. He couldn't breathe. Pressure began to build inside his head. If he stayed in the darkness any longer, he knew he would die.

He opened his eyes. One of them instantly seemed to catch on fire, stinging. He closed it. With the other eye, he could see nothing. It was completely black. The thought crossed his mind that he might be blind; with a desperate force of willpower, he smashed the panic down.

There was something hard on his chest; he pulled his arms up. One was stuck under something. He wriggled the fingers, testing for pain, and found none. Than he yanked it free. The other hand was slippery with moisture. He brought them both against the thing on his chest and shoved.

Five seconds, and his trembling muscles gave, forcing even more air out as the thing nestled heavily against his chest a second time. He lay still, fighting to pull in as much oxygen as he could. Then he tried again, summoning the power that had once made him the most feared man in Asia. Placing both hands flat, he pushed. It must give. It will give.

It did. He pulled his legs awkwardly as the thing rolled over them, smashing bone and scraping metal. He threw his head back with the pain, gritting his teeth, too paralyzed to even breath the air he had fought so hard to gain. Had the explosion…natural disaster, or whatever…had it done this much damage? Was the entire world dark, had the sun been devoured? Had the others…

The others.

Khan dragged his feet under him and reared to a stand. He swayed, putting a hand out to steady himself as he shouted into the thick, claustrophobic gloom of the ship, "Marla! Joachim…Tauto! Marie! M'dara! Salazar! Christopher! Gloria!"

With each name, something out in the darkness seemed to stir and come alive. Purpose, with its wonderful certainty, filled Khan's pain fogged mind. "Answer me!"

"Here…here…" the voices ranged from garbled to clear. He did not hear Marla.

"Can any of you move?"

"I think so…" he could tell it was Joachim who had answered.

"Well, do not try! I will find the door. Anyone who can reach, look for the emergency lights."

He stepped forward, feeling very carefully with his boot. More than once he touched an unresponsive leg or arm of someone unconscious or…dead. He forced himself to ignore it, pressing his long, sensitive fingers to the wall, trying to feel the heat of control panels, wary of the innocent, fuzzy sensation of shorted out wires.

Suddenly, a dull green light switched on. Khan blinked, turning around sharply to see who held it. To his surprise, it was Marla. One side of her face was blackened, but she was slowly pulling herself up on her wildly shaking legs. She tossed the light to him. He caught it, forcing himself not to look at the littered bodies the light exposed. There would only be more outside. Not everyone could have made it inside in such little time.

He turned around and secured the lamp against the wall before pushing the controls to open the door. There was a quiet electric sound that whirred fruitlessly, but nothing else. Khan took a deep breath, then threw himself forward, digging his fingers into the cracks and grunting as a sharp pain began to throb inside his left elbow. But he kept pulling.

Slowly, painfully, it gave. It screeched and ground over the slide path. With a hiss, something fell inside against Khan's boot. It was cold and soft and apparently dead. He kicked it off, and whatever it was sprayed against the wall. Sand. Khan realized.

Then, light began to slice into the black compartment, like a prison bar that slowly expanded, swallowing up the shadows. The light was yellow. Air poured inside in a cloud of dust. Khan coughed, sticking his head out to look.

And what he saw was a dead world.

Sand, blown from who knew where, covered the once grassy lawn. Dead stumps of burning trees that had been struck down by the wind, the earthquake, and the flames that rocketed down from the huge rent torn through the sky. There was fire over the ground. The ship had literally been pushed against the hillside and sand was pouring down around it, mingling with eroded soil.

Khan stumbled out of the ship, staring at the ashes of their dreams. The campsite was demolished. The village, which had just begun to stand on its own feet, was wiped off the face of the earth. He strode through the sand, not noticing the red trail of blood that dripped from his arm.

He came to the crest of the campsite, and looked down at the valley below, the valley that had been full of such promise. The shining river was gone, pulled down under the earth itself. Khan knew enough of geology and planetary science to realize what had happened.

Their moon, Ceti Alpha VI, had exploded. Its powerful gravitational pull had gone haywire, and was now in the process of changing the land around them, once a fertile forest, into a doomed desert wasteland.

Already, a freezing wind howled like an avenging ghost, whipping around the yellow vest Khan had been wearing in the heat of the afternoon sun, nipping at his bare chest and arms…was that the same sun up there? Yellow and hard and already so old? Was this dead horizon truly Ceti Alpha V? It was too real to be a dream, too real and sudden to even be believed. It was more like they had been abducted and dumped on another world.

A soft hand on his shoulder startled him, and he wheeled around, hands clenched into fists. He was just begging for an enemy to pound into a bloody pulp. That was real. That was something he could believe in.

Marla stared up at him. An ill flush was crawling up her beautiful, bruised cheeks. "There's…there's sixteen dead…I think. So many are wounded. So many are missing…"

Khan reached for her hand, hardly knowing why he was doing so. It was almost like he was asking her for something, anything. But her brief, choked words of despair reawakened the leader inside him. He smiled grimly, feeling as if his eyes had turned into stone and he couldn't close them. "Then we bury, we heal, and we find them."

He glanced back once more, watching as the faraway roar of the hungry fire reached his ears, leaping from tree to tree, devouring every living thing. Anything it missed would be dead within weeks, killed by the massive upheaval of the ecosystem.

For an instant, he thought he could see the river again, the silver thread surrounded by a green carpet of lush trees. His own words echoed back to him, mocking him, There is where we will build the road. And the homes. Before we can have an empire, we must have families. When the children come, we will encourage them to be the best. But most of all, we will teach them to always think on their destiny, their heritage; as the rulers of the Universe.

A bitter snort forced its way out, and he threw back his head and laughed, howling against the deep, black flood of despair that threatened to swallow him alive.


Author's Notes: I'm not sure whether the actual orbit change would be this sudden and shocking, whether the planet wouldn't just die steadily around them as the weather went to extremes and the altitude changed. But this fits my story better, so, have mercy on me. It's science fiction. Also, I am not a Trekkie, although I do enjoy the show. I have seen both "TOS: Space Seed" and "The Wrath of Khan". I have heard of but have never read "Ruling In Hell" or any of the other written works on Khan, although I'm dying to. Please enjoy and remember, reviews feed plot bunnies!