The Starship Trap
by Mel Gilden
As dangerous as they were, Kirk preferred Klingons to Federation councilmembers who had an inflated view of their own importance. You always knew where you stood with a Klingon. Whereas a politician was, at best, unpredictable.
Sulu said, "Klingon vessel now at sublight. Five hundred thousand kilometers and closing."
"Tactical," Kirk called.
The stars on the main viewscreen wavered and were replaced by a computer-generated chart showing the relative positions of the Enterprise, the Klingon ship, and the nearest major natural bodies.
If there had been more than one Klingon ship, Kirk would have assumed that the Enterprise was under attack and would soon be embroiled in battle. But a single Klingon ship could mean anything, and Kirk did not want to be the one to fire the first shot if firing was not necessary.
"Sensors, Mr. Spock."
"From the little we know about Klingon engineering, power curves indicate the ship is apparently in normal running mode. Only navigational shields are in use, no power to weapons."
"That's good news." Kirk rubbed his chin and wondered what was going on. These Klingons wanted something, and if it wasn't a fight, what was it? He could ask Spock for an opinion, but undoubtedly Spock would tell him that data was insufficient to allow speculation.
Someone came onto the bridge, but engrossed as he was in the tactical display, Kirk did not pay attention.
"What is the meaning of this, Kirk?"
At the sound of Kent's voice, Kirk became angry. He said, "I don't have time to explain now."
"I insist. Are we under attack?"
Kirk shot Kent a hard stare and saw that Payton stood next to him. He said, "Get off my bridge," but didn't take time to enjoy the surprised expression on Kent's face. Kirk turned his attention back to the viewscreen.
Uhura said, "We're being hailed by the Klingon ship, sir."
Kirk swallowed hard and said, "On screen, Lieutenant."
The tactical display was replaced by a Klingon who had a long thin nose and a spot of beard that barely covered his chin. Kirk had seen Klingons smile--generally at someone else's expense--but this one was not doing it. Angrily, he said, "I am Torm, commander of the Klingon warship Kormak."
Kirk stood up and introduced himself. His body was tensed and ready for a fight, as if he were meeting Torm in the flesh instead of seeing him through a device that allowed them to talk tough at each other while many thousands of kilometers apart. Behind him, Kent said, "Captain."
Damn, the man was still here. Could Kent be what the Klingons wanted? If he was, and if they knew where to get him, their intelligence reports were terrifyingly accurate and up-to-date. But it was too early to worry about any of that. All this flashed through Kirk's mind while he blinked once.
Kirk said, "This is Federation space, Torm. What do you want?"
"Your pretense of innocence is not convincing, Kirk. We want our ships back."
"Back? Back from where?"
"From wherever your Earthers have taken them!" Torm shouted nastily.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Our ships are disappearing without a trace, Kirk. Who but the Federation has both the technology and the desire to do such a thing?"
Kirk glanced at Spock, who shook his head. The Klingon commander obviously had a problem--which was no skin off Kirk's nose--and it was a relief to discover that it had nothing to do with Conrad Franklin Kent. Perhaps the Klingon's spy network was no better than the Federation's after all. "It's a big galaxy, Torm. The Klingons must have many enemies. If the Federation has declared war on the Klingon empire, I would know about it."
"Captain," Kent said, and stepped down to where Kirk stood. While Torm studied them through narrow eyes, Kent whispered belligerently, "You hot shots in Starfleet think you're the only ones capable of dealing with Klingons. I believe that a little common sense and understanding will go a lot further than phasers and photon torpedoes."
He had to admire Kent's courage, but that did not prevent Kirk from considering him a first rate ass. In Kirk's experience, Klingons understood nothing but phasers and photon torpedoes. He answered, also in a whisper, "Please allow the professionals to handle this." He turned back to Torm, opened his mouth to deny the allegation once again, and found Kent speaking already.
Kent said, "We admit nothing about the weapon."
"I knew it," Torm said.
As if it were actually receding into the distance, Kirk saw the situation getting away from him. He wondered wildly if he should follow Kent's lead. The Klingons spending time and energy looking for a new Federation weapon that didn't exist had a certain appeal, but Kirk wasn't convinced that the situation had yet become dire enough to justify lying. Besides, and it was a big besides, if the Klingons believed the Federation had attacked their ships--with a new weapon or no--they had a right to believe a state of war existed, and to act accordingly. Kent was putting the Enterprise in danger with his bluster.
Kent was obviously not going to cooperate with Kirk, yet it was necessary to show a unified front. Kirk was forced to be the adult. He said, "As I said before, you're in Federation space. You'd better leave before somebody drops a house on you too."
"House?" asked Torm. "Drops a house?"
"An old Earther expression," Kirk said offhandedly. Behind him, he heard Uhura chuckling. "End transmission, Lieutenant."
The screen returned to the tactical display.
"View forward," Kirk said.
On the viewscreen, the looming cobra form of the Kormak obstructed the stars for a moment, and then shot away, impulse engines glowing. Kirk canceled the yellow alert.
"Well, Captain," said Kent, "I'm pleased that you saw fit to come around at last."
Kirk turned to Kent and glared directly into his eyes. With menace he said, "I don't care who you are, Mr. Kent, or how well you're connected. If ever again you enter my bridge without being invited, I will clap you in irons. Is that clear?" Payton was still standing at the turbolift door. She said, "It's clear that you haven't the capacity to be grateful."
Kirk saw the smile playing around Kent's lips when he said, "Very well, Captain. I will tolerate your order for now." He and Payton turned to leave.
Kirk said, "A moment, Mr. Kent."
"What now, Captain? Is there another part of the ship you'd care to bar me from?"
"I hope the bridge will be sufficient. Tell me about the weapon about which you admit nothing."
Kent laughed so hard he could not speak. When he was done, he said, "There is no weapon. It is entirely a figment of my imagination."
Spock said, "Captain Torm claims that Klingon ships are disappearing."
"The fact that the Klingons cannot keep track of their ships is neither my problem nor Starfleet's."
Kirk said, "It is Starfleet's problem if the Klingon's believe Starfleet is responsible."
Kent seemed stunned by Kirk's remark. But he recovered and said, "I assure you, Captain, that the situation you fear can be avoided using normal diplomatic channels."
"I have no great faith in diplomacy where Klingons are involved, but I hope, for all of our sakes, that you are right."
"Yes, yes, Captain," Kent said impatiently. "Is there anything else before I leave your bridge forever?"
Kirk had a few suggestions, but none of them were either suitable for the bridge, nor practical. He said, "Thank you for your help, Mr. Kent." Kirk looked at Mr. Sulu and said, "Resume course to Starbase 12."
As Kirk sat down in his command chair, Kent and Payton left the bridge. Soon, Spock came down to stand at his side. He said, "Captain, I know of no Earth proverb concerning the dropping of houses."
Kirk smiled and said, "Tell him, Uhura."
"It's not a proverb, Mr. Spock. The captain was referring to a classic children's novel called 'The Wizard of Oz.' In it, the heroine arrives in a fantasy world aboard her farmhouse, which falls out of the sky onto a wicked witch."
"Fascinating," Spock said with amazement.
"I believe it is based on a Russian fairy tale," Chekov said thoughtfully. "It concerns a tractor falling out of the sky onto an evil commissar."
"The text is available in the ship's memory banks," Uhura said.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I will view it at my earliest opportunity."
Spock was about to return to his station when Kirk asked him, "Are Klingon ships really disappearing?"
"Information on the Klingon fleet is extremely fragmentary. But it is difficult to see how the Klingons would benefit by claiming such a thing if it were not so."
"In that case, their question is a good one. If the Federation is not responsible, then who?"
"Unknown, Captain. But the possibilities are intriguing."
"A little too intriguing for my taste, Spock. Whatever it is, it's obviously a force to be reckoned with. I hope that when our time comes, we make out better than the Klingons."
Spock said nothing. At the moment, there was nothing to say.
Kirk shook his head. "I can't help feeling that Conrad Franklin Kent knows more than he is telling about all this."
"He certainly attempted to convey that impression to the Klingons."
Kirk disliked the possibility that Kent was being more truthful to the Klingons than to him. He said, "Uhura, Contact Starfleet Command. Give them a full report on our contact with the Kormak and request current information on the disappearance of Klingon vessels. Send it tight beam and scramble."
"The answer should be most enlightening," Spock said.
"I hope so, Spock. I hope so."
That evening, Kent was in his cabin preparing for the reception that was to be held in his honor, when a chime announced the presence of someone at his door. His visitor was Hazel Payton, now dressed in a personal energy field that sparkled, revealing more or less of her as she moved. The field flowed from a button clinging to her left shoulder. In her hair was a peculiar jeweled accessory.
"I see," Kent said, "that you are dressed to meet and beguile the enemy."
"As far as I know," Payton said, "there will be no Klingons at this reception."
"No Klingons, no," With one finger, he pushed around some decorative pins held in a small box.
"Kirk isn't our enemy, Conrad."
"He is Starfleet. Just like that young man of yours on Starbase 12. Starfleet is an even more insidious enemy of the Federation than the Klingons because they have fooled so many into supporting them." He lifted a simple pearl pin from the box and pressed it into the center of the white triangle of pleats that showed above his gray coat.
"Which is why you feel it commendable to cooperate with Professor Omen."
"Not just commendable, but necessary."
"Meanwhile," Kent said, "we have a reception to attend."
"That's actually the reason I'm here, Conrad. I came to see if you were ready for our grand entrance." Kent nodded and said, "We've been all through this before, anyway." He picked up a tall glass from a side table. In it was a blue liquid with red bubbles that trailed to the surface and broke, releasing a scent of cinnamon. "Very clever of you," Kent said, "to arrange our meeting with Professor Omen on Starbase 12." He sipped, then smacked his lips once.
Payton shrugged. "You said yourself I'm a woman who gets things done."
"I say it because it's true. Which is why I keep you around despite your regrettable politics."
"My falling in love with a Starfleet officer is not a political statement."
"So you've said." He took another sip of the blue liquid, put down the glass, and asked for his cape.
Payton shook her head as she smiled ruefully, and lifted the short black cape from the back of a chair. She draped it across Kent's shoulders, and when she reached around to close it in the front, Kent took her hands tenderly in his and said, "You know I want only the best for you."
"I know. But we both sometimes forget that I am only your aide, not your daughter." She kissed him on the cheek and then pulled away. "Come on. We'll be late."
Kirk arrived at the reception a little late, hoping that Kent and Payton would already be there, but he was disappointed. He wondered if it was an accident or a calculated ploy that they would be the ones who would arrive fashionably late enough. He smiled at himself; he was thinking like a politician, not like a Starfleet officer. What real difference could it possibly make who arrived when?
Probably at Payton's request, the Starfleet insignia on the wall had been covered with an artfully draped cloth. A long table had been set up at one end of the lounge and covered with bits of food on trays. Bottles containing beverages with active ingredients such as alcohol, kebo, and sabora stood together before a yeoman from the kitchen staff, and looked like an alien city. The bottles were red, brown, yellow, and blue. One could get anything from brown bottles of Bass, a beer made on Earth, to something called Altairian devil, after the gently glowing and tentacled lifeform that floated alive inside the twisted green bottle. Kirk had tried it once and had paid for his experiment by listening to screams only he could hear for the next day and a half. Some people liked it. He couldn't imagine why.
Almost everyone was already there: Spock was talking with McCoy. They liked to pretend they hated each other, but like a bickering married couple, each would feel incomplete if alone for long. Their differences of opinion frequently made Kirk's job easier by allowing him to examine all sides of an issue before making a decision.
Lieutenant Uhura, head of Communications, was apparently telling a rowdy story to Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott, Enterprise's chief engineer, and to Chekov and Sulu. Chekov was Kirk's first navigator and Sulu was the best helmsman in the fleet. Strictly speaking, neither of them was the head of a department, but they were frequently dragooned into service at social functions to fill out the crowd. Now that Kirk had arrived, only Kent and Payton were missing.
Kirk got himself a glass of chablis and joined Spock and McCoy. "Gentlemen," he said, and nodded to them.
McCoy saluted him with a glass that probably contained something substantial and southern. "Swell party," he said, "but from the looks of the guest list, we could have held it on the bridge."
"The party wasn't my idea. It you don't like the way it's being run, I suggest you complain to Ms. Payton."
McCoy grinned and said with admiration, "What a woman."
"Appearances aren't everything."
"A strange sentiment coming from the man who still holds the Starfleet Academy record in certain unofficial competitions."
Spock looked at Kirk inquisitively.
"I was really good at checkers," Kirk said. He sipped his wine and pointed a finger at McCoy. "That woman's methods are unorthodox to say the least. Look at us, torn away from our well-deserved leave to ferry Payton and her boss to Starbase 12. And look at this party. It's my ship, but this is her party."
"Unorthodox, huh?" asked McCoy. "Kind of reminds me of a captain named Kirk."
"No need to be insulting, Bones."
"Yesterday you might have said I was paying you a compliment."
"That was yesterday." Kirk knew that he did not always play by Starfleet rules, but it seemed to him that he always had a good reason for doing what he did. As far as he was concerned, Payton's reasons were open to question. The fact that she worked for Kent was particularly suspicious in that respect.
Kirk was about to tell McCoy so, when he became aware that the conversation around them had stopped. He looked toward the door and saw Kent and Payton making their entrance. He shook his head: they were vanity and game-playing personified.
Kirk nodded at them, but refused to greet them at the door. It was Payton's party; let her greet him. As they strolled around the room speaking with the other guests, Kirk logged and noted that McCoy had been right about one thing, anyway. Payton really was a very beautiful woman.
Casually, Kirk said, "Unusual piece of jewelry in Ms. Payton's hair."
Spock said, "I believe, Captain, that you are referring to her memory augmentation/cranial interface."
Kirk tried not to stare. "I've heard of them, of course, but I've never actually seen one."
The interface allowed a memory chit to be plugged directly into the brain. The chit would instantly give one access to a foreign language, higher mathematics, the rules of 3-dimensional chess--a whole library of chits were available. Kirk was relieved when he had learned that one did not necessarily understand the information on the chit. For instance, one could be supplied with a chit containing everything Starfleet knew about being the captain of a Constitution class starship. But without training, the raw information would be useless, just as without the proper preparation, one could read a textbook without understanding it.
"It's a relatively simple surgical procedure, really," McCoy said. "Come on down to sickbay some afternoon, Spock, and I'll do it for you."
"Vulcans do not mutilate themselves in that way. We prefer to train the mind rather than artificially enhance it."
"Amazing that you consent to fly through space in something as artificial as a starship."
"I submit, Doctor, that the situations are hardly parallel."
McCoy shrugged but continued to smile. Evidently, he felt that he'd won a round. Spock's expression was unreadable.
While Spock and McCoy had been arguing, Kirk had been watching Kent and Payton. They had chosen to drink Saurian brandy, and now they were joking with Uhura and the others. Evidently Kent could be quite gracious when it suited him. He didn't care what opinion Kirk had of him, but Kent obviously thought it wise to stay friendly with the staff.
Soon, Kent and Payton made an excuse of some sort and approached Kirk. When they came within hailing distance, Kirk said, "What a lovely party."
"Yes," said Kent. "Your starship facilities are surprisingly civilized."
Kirk felt his smile hardening on his face. He said, "How very kind. We're planning to put in electricity and running water any day now."
Kent seemed to have been stunned by Kirk's words. Then he laughed heartily and said, "You do not agree with my views on Starfleet, Captain, but you must admit that some of my arguments have merit."
"I admit that you have arguments that seem good to you. Nothing more."
"Look at the evidence, Kirk. Starfleet is always fighting with somebody, the Klingons, the Romulans, some other, less worthy adversary. Wars of conquest for its own glory are all it knows."
"I believe," Spock said, "the preponderance of the evidence would indicate that you are wrong. Starfleet's reputation as a peace keeper is well-known."
"Well-known to its friends on the council, perhaps, but I insist."
"You can insist all you want to, councilor," McCoy said, "but I think you have another reason for criticizing Starfleet."
"What might that be?" Payton asked. Her smile was icy.
McCoy said, "You're using Starfleet to give yourself a higher public profile. It's a documented fact that you're bucking to be president of the Federation Council."
Good old Bones, Kirk thought: rushing in where diplomats fear to tread. Still, it was probably just as well that it was McCoy making the suggestion instead of Kirk himself. Being more visible, captains were much more vulnerable to political attack than were doctors. If Kent wanted to get tough, Kirk could lose his ship; McCoy could lose little, no matter that he'd made an enemy of some blowhard councilor.
Kent frowned and Payton looked at him expectantly. Did Kirk notice the smallest smile--a real smile this time--at her lips? She was enjoying Kent's discomfort as much as McCoy was. If she was not the enemy of Starfleet that Kent was, perhaps Kirk could find it in his heart to be interested in her after all.
"Very good, Doctor," Spock whispered. "I am quite surprised at your knowledge of current events."
"You're not the only one around here who reads," McCoy whispered back.
Kent said, "My interest in the presidency does not invalidate my interest in Starfleet, does it, Doctor?" Kirk was amazed how noble Kent could appear.
"Of course not," said McCoy. "But if you want a real cause, an important cause, I'd advise you to stop hurling brickbats at Starfleet and take on the medical establishment."
"Is that so?" Kent asked.
"It is. Are you aware that the methods the Starfleet Medical Corps uses to approve new drugs and medical techniques haven't been updated in over twenty-five years?"
"No, I wasn't." Kent seemed to give the matter real thought.
"You know as well as I do that Starfleet is an instrument of civilization, and that without it the Klingons would be all over us like a cheap suit. I know that medical approval is not the flashy cause the death of Starfleet is, but it is considerably more worthwhile."
"Thank you for your suggestion, Doctor. I will consider it."
After that, Kent went to speak with Uhura, and Chekov tried to monopolize Payton, but when he saw that Kirk also had an interest, Chekov backed off and got into the discussion of the experimental transwarp drive that Scotty was having with Sulu.
Kirk smiled and said, "Can I get you another drink, Ms. Payton?"
"No, thank you, Captain. I find that a little Saurian brandy goes a long way."
Kirk nodded and watched his people mix. He had the best crew in the fleet, no question about it. Without them, the miracles he was sometimes accused of performing would have been impossible for anyone to perform. He looked back at her and said, "I've never seen a cranial interface worn with such style."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Would it be impolite of me to ask what kind of chit you have in at the moment?"
"It would, but since I have nothing to hide, I'll tell you that it is merely a sensory enhancer and pickup. I am making a record of Mr. Kent's activities for his own private use. Everything I see and hear is recorded by equipment back in my cabin. I can make index marks on the recording by thinking of special codes."
"I'm sure that Mr. Spock would be impressed by your mental discipline. Do you expect something of interest to happen at this reception?"
"One never knows. In any case, recording Mr. Kent's activities is standard operating procedure."
"The recording of civilian logs is not standard operating procedure on the Enterprise, Ms. Payton."
"I assure you, Captain, that Mr. Kent and I have full Starfleet clearance to operate in this way."
"You do not yet have my clearance. Please see that you limit your recording to public parts of the ship, and to activities in your own cabins."
"Of course, sir."
The conversational temperature had fallen many degrees since Kirk had mentioned the interface. In an attempt to raise it again, he said, "So, how long have you and Mr. Kent been together?"
After thinking for a moment, Payton said, "Four, no, five years."
"You make quite a team."
"We each have a job to do."
"And yours is to get the job done."
A smile broke through Payton's composure, and she and Kirk had a little laughed together.
After a moment, Kirk asked, "Do you agree with his views on Starfleet?"
Kirk saw the small opening he'd made vanish. Stiffly, Payton said, "My views are of absolutely no importance to anyone but me, Captain. I am not a member of the Federation council."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was a touchy subject."
"Not touchy, Captain, but I resent anyone trying to pry Mr. Kent and me apart. If you will excuse me . . . " She strode across the room, and to Chekov's delight, began to speak with him.
McCoy wandered over and asked, "Any luck, Jim?"
"She is a woman with a lot of spirit," Kirk admitted.
They both drank. And then McCoy said, "What's the word on the Klingons?"
"The scuttlebutt around the ship is that you saved us by performing another miracle. Imagine two of us miracle workers aboard the same ship."
"I don't know about your miracles, Bones, but in my case, we were lucky. The Klingon captain would rather go home and report a new Federation secret weapon than fight."
"What new secret weapon?"
"Something is destroying Klingon ships. Kent says it's a secret weapon. But he claims he made it up, and told the Klingons about it for effect."
"If I were the suspicious type, I'd be suspicious of a claim like that."
Kirk nodded. "He may have been telling me a big story just for effect too. We were both pretty angry. This may be a good time to ask him about it again. I might not get an answer from Starfleet for days." He glanced in Kent's direction and saw him laughing as he listened to Uhura speak. Maybe Uhura should ask the question. Kent was not the first man to be fascinated by her.
He and McCoy went over to listen to the end of Uhura's story. Kirk had heard it before. It concerned a communications officer named Eliot who mistook the claw-clackings of crustaceans on Prufrock's World for enemy code.
When Kent finished laughing, Kirk said, "I'm sorry if I seemed, er, impatient this afternoon on the bridge." "No, no, Captain. I'm the one who should apologize. I understand how nervous you must get with strangers watching you."
Kirk said, "It's not--"
McCoy interrupted, saying, "I believe you had a question for Mr. Kent, Captain." McCoy rocked innocently on his toes.
McCoy was right, of course. Another angry scene would do none of them any good. Kirk got hold of himself and said, "Indeed I have, Doctor. Mr. Kent, this afternoon, you told me the notion of a secret weapon was just a story for the Klingons, but I can't shake the feeling that something more is going on."
"You wish me to answer here, Captain? Now?"
"Unless you have some reason not to answer here and now."
"Of course not. Let me only suggest that you ask Professor Omen about your suspicions."
Kirk and McCoy were both surprised by that answer. Kirk asked, "Professor Omen? The Federation scientist who lead the team that developed the latest generation of starship weaponry?"
"Why ask Omen?" Kirk asked. "Is he responsible for the disappearances?" Kirk thought it unlikely that Professor Omen was connected to this situation--if a situation even existed. So far, Kirk's evidence consisted of the word of a Klingon, and what was probably the improvised whimsy of a politician. The thing that kept Kirk so interested was Kent's equivocating. If Kent had really invented the weapon out of whole cloth that afternoon, why not just say so instead of leading Kirk on? Unless he enjoyed leading Kirk on. Damn the man!
Kent said, "Omen is the weapons expert, isn't he? If the Federation is making Klingon ships disappear, he'd be the man who would know about it."
"Then there is a weapon," Kirk said.
"I didn't say that."
Kent was very annoying. Kirk said, "You're playing with me, Mr. Kent. If this thing is secret, say the word and I'm through asking questions. If it's your own invention, we can all have a good laugh at my expense, and hope that, as you insist, the Klingons can be persuaded not to believe the Federation has attacked them. But I dislike being purposely misled."
"Ask Professor Omen."
"I am not likely to run into Professor Omen out here."
"On the contrary, Captain. You will meet him at Starbase 12, and he will have a little assignment for you."