Doppelgänger, Southern England
- 1950 hours -
The sound of engine noise boiled to a groan as the capsule descended, rising to a howl just before touchdown, then fading to a distant hum once the craft finally planted its landing struts in the grass some fifty meters away from the obelisk. It didn't sound like an old-Earth combustion engine, but it wasn't quite an impulse engine either. It was a noisy, oscillating sound, something that reminded Kirk of the pulse-detonation engines on WW-III cruise missiles. It was an almost human-like design: a flattened teardrop shape that, now that it was safely situated on the ground, open like a clamshell on one entire side that exposed the glowing innards of what was clearly some kind of high-capacity transport chamber.
Kirk stopped in his tracks and turned here, squatted in the tall grass where he could still see with his own eyes. It wasn't quite two hundred meters, but if the Gorn were here for this obelisk - and they certainly appeared to be - it was more than far enough.
The transporter chamber came ablaze with sparkling orange light, and then several moving figures materialized there, hauling equipment packs and sensor devices as they scattered around the site. Scale was had to judge at this distance but he knew from Sulu's report that the Runner stood just shy of five feet tall even accounting for his long flexible neck. These Gorn weren't much larger: biped reptiles about the size of human pre-teens. They all seemed to be wearing some type of uniform, except for the first two off the craft, who were wearing heavy body armor and were armed with plasma weapons. They all walked with an almost simeon posture, their legs never quite straight, yet they moved with a kind of artful grace and casualness, the way a diver might move through water.
In their previous encounters with the Gorn they had encountered a number of subtypes of the species, ranging in intelligence and sophistication from semi-feral berserkers to sublimely intelligent and frighteningly strong command types. Though it was hard to tell from looking, these Gorn seemed to lack a distinct characteristic from any particular type and seemed to be an amalgamation of all of them; small as they were, they stood mostly upright and every single one of them wore a uniform and a full pack of field equipment. A few of the larger ones also carried plasma weapons and some tactical equipment, but the difference in size was subtle, closer to the difference between McCahil and Miri than a human and a Gorn.
It was theorized that these Gorn were a different faction than the groups Enterprise had encountered before; that theory was looking more and more likely by the second.
Spock kept his attention glued to the tricorder, while Rand and McCahil squinted through their monocles. "Phasers safe," Kirk reminded them, fearing an itchy trigger finger might accidentally turn surveillance into a shooting match. Both of them obeyed, as did Miri, though her attention seemed to be less on the Gorn and more on the mysterious 'something' that had caught her attention earlier.
His communicator beeped again and Kirk answered it quietly, "Kirk here."
"We're in position, Captain. Standby for beamout..."
"Hold on that for a moment, and keep this channel open. Energize on my signal."
"Aye Captain... but sir, changing our position means we've dropped into a much lower orbit. The transport window closes in four minutes and won't reopen again for another forty five."
"Understood, Enterprise. We'll keep you posted."
Spock touched Kirk's shoulder, radiating concern out of every pore.
"They took the time to observe our mission," Kirk said, "It's only fair we take the time to observe theirs. Besides, I don't want to risk being outdone by our invisible friends out there." For the time being, he kept an open communications line to the Enterprise, ready to give the order to beam out at a moment's notice. If he waited too long, the transporters would have to extract the away team under fire and the six of them would be trapped in a combat beamout situation. If he beamed out too early... well, that ran the relatively small risk of not seeing exactly what the Gorn were up to. It almost wasn't worth the risk when he thought about it, but then, curiosity was a heinous virtue of starship captains...
For nearly half an hour, the Gorn moved around the monument, unpacking equipment from antigrav cases in a manner not unlike Spock and McCoy earlier. Spock could identify Gorn versions of a few basic devices - gravity sensors, ultrasound probes, life form scanners and a few others - along with a few whose purpose he couldn't begin to guess. Several attached some elaborate-looking devices to the surface of the platform which - once activated - were flung away from it as if propelled by explosives.
"Electron resonance probes," Spock said, carefully scanning the failed devices as the startled Gorn scrambled to retrieve them, "They're attempting to determine the shape of the object by inducing an electric current on its skin. Intriguing methodology. Futile, though, in light of the composition of the platform."
Actually, they seemed to have better luck attaching similar devices to the obelisk on top of the platform. Kirk briefly wondered if this method would be more effective than Spock's failed attempt to scan inside it. Even if it was, he doubted there was anything useful inside the monument that would give them clues as to the origins of this planet; the monument was much too conspicuous for that.
After what seemed like a long, tense delay, one of the Gorn approached the obelisk with a stubby cylindrical object in hand, looked along its surface for a moment, then found a corner section of it and pressed the cylinder against it. Kirk saw the violet snap of a force beam and realized this was some kind of core drill, pulling samples out of the surface layer and encasing them in a slide or capsule for later analysis. So far, the Gorn were exactly replicating Starfleet's examination procedures except for their seemingly greater preparedness...
Then the tip of the obelisk flickered and a lance of orange flame snapped out from the tip, right down over the head of the Gorn with the core drill. The beam swept through the long axis of the hapless creature and carved a six-inch section out of him, neatly splitting him in two from head to groin. The bisected Gorn collapsed into a heap, then the beam swept out a circle around the perimeter of the platform as the remainder of the Gorn team scrambled for cover.
The beam stopped as quickly as it started. Spock looked up from his tricorder now with an almost gleeful expression. "Fascinating! Tricorder indicates a power output in the thousands of megawatts..."
"I'm more interested in the trigger, Spock. Am I crazy or did that thing just react to the core drill?"
Spock nodded slowly, "It is fortuitous that Doctor McCoy took it upon himself to take that sample. This device appears to be programmed to defend itself against any non-human aggression."
"Probably to avoid accidentally blowing up inquisitive locals..."
"Meaning we can take samples," Kirk decided, "But the Gorn can't."
Spock nodded again. "That would seem to be the logical assumption, Captain."
Kirk came to a decision all at once. He slipped off his phaser and his tricorder and quickly recovered the core drill from Spock's field kit before the science officer even realized what he was up to. McCoy reached over with a cautionary gesture, but much too late; the Captain was already to his feet and marching through the overgrown grass towards the landing site, where a dozen Gorn were still cowering behind the hull of their capsule or any other rock big enough to conceal them. They didn't need to be told, but Rand, Dallas and McCahil all trained their phasers on the Gorn camp, not so much to prevent a hostile action as to be able to respond in the event that the Gorn found the Captain's actions as incomprehensible as his own away team.
With most of their attention on the obelisk, the Gorn didn't notice him until he was almost forty meters away. They found his arrival almost as perplexing as the force beam that had torn through their numbers a minute ago, but much easier to deal with since - at the very least - a humanoid life form wasn't completely outside the realm of their experience. Kirk approached with both arms in the air, core drill in hand, so the Gorn could see he wasn't approaching in a fighting posture or with any overtly aggressive intentions. Even so, three of them partially emerged from concealment, each brandishing small handheld weapons that looked like techno-art sculptures of dinosaur skulls. Kirk hesitated for a moment, wondering about the alien weapons. The plasma rifles he understood, but the skull-guns were an odd design even by Gorn standards. He suspected they were a lot more intimidating than they were dangerous.
When the Gorn didn't cut him down where he stood, Kirk picked up his pace and walked directly to the obelisk. This both put the Gorn at ease - at least on his account - and frightened them back into hiding as they became convinced that another force beam attack was about to vaporize their human counterpart. Before they could get more nervous, Kirk walked to the same spot where McCoy had taken an earlier sample, set the drill against a corner of the platform and let its tiny sampling beam scrape a few microns off the surface of the structure. Then he stepped up to the obelisk and did the same, collected both samples into separate slides, and very carefully set the slides and the drill down on the top of the platform and walked away from it.
When the obelisk failed to slice him in half, the Gorn emerged from concealment again, watched and waited. When another minute passed with no activity, one of the skull-gunners carefully approached Kirk while his companion bounded up the steps to collect the drill and the sample slides. Seeing - and perhaps for the first time, realizing - what they were, he looked back to the capsule where his companions were still cowering and fired off a long and complicated series of musical whistles that Kirk's translator eventually rendered as "The transmitter is programmed to permit human examination only."
Kirk picked up on this and asked, "Transmitter?"
The closer one with the skull-gun in its hand, though no longer raising the gun as if to blast him with it, sang out a long composition that translated to, "This object here, we've identified it as some kind of long range communication device. It has seen to resonate at three specific subspace frequencies."
"My science officer thinks this device might be powered by geothermal energy. Maybe using a dilithium lattice for thermal conversion."
"Geothermal power transformation... but the device would have to extend many thousands of kilometers down."
Kirk nodded, "According to our readings, it does."
Kirk smiled. "This device seems to have a defensive program in place. It may misinterpret your analysis as a hostile act."
The Gorn nodded, apparently come to the same conclusion on its own.
"You may have guessed by now that this object wasn't created by the inhabitants of this planet."
"We have suspected this. The transmitter is not consistent with indigenous technology. We do not know where this came from."
"Let's work together to find out," Kirk went on, seizing what seemed to be a brief rapport with his Gorn counterpart, "You know I've made this offer to your ship before, and now I'm making it in person. If we combine our resources, we can help each other to solve the mystery of this planet."
"That is a wonderful idea..." the Gorn stared at him for a moment, "Who are you?"
"I'm James T. Kirk, Captain of the Federation starship Enterprise."
"I am Seventh and First Cycle the Gunbender. I am chief inspector of the Gorn starship Francium."
"It's in our mutual best interest that we cooperate on this mission. We're stronger together than apart."
"Oh, I fully agree with you, James T. Kirk. But the decision is not mine to make."
"Whose decision is it?"
"The orbit commander at this time is Second and Twentyfirst Cycle the Dancer. He tends to make decisions that are not in anyone's best interest."
"Is there someone else up there we can talk to? Someone more open to a cultural exchange?"
"Our navigation commander, Eighth and Fifteenth Cycle the Boneless. She is far more reasonable, and is more flexible in her interpretation of our instructions."
The Gunbender lowered his head and tilted it horizontal, what Sulu had determined was their equivalent of a nod, "From our harbor. We have been instructed to avoid contact with your species and to collect information about this planet and its technology. The harbor was not more specific than that. Eighth and Fifteenth is open to cooperation if it is necessary, but for some reason Second and Twentyfirst interprets these instructions as an order to prevent you from getting that same information. It is a source of some controversy among my colleagues."
"What about your Captain?"
The Gunbender lowered his head slightly and narrowed his eyes. Somehow, Kirk recognized this as puzzlement. "I don't understand that question."
"Um... who has highest authority on your ship?"
Gunbender stared for a moment and pondered the question. Then he came to a realization and said, "Each watch is a team, each watch has authority. We do not dispute between watches."
"You have no single commander who oversees the entire mission?"
"Yes. Our ship performs multiple missions. Orbit mission is commanded by Second and Twentyfirst. Navigation between planets and stars is for Eighth and Fifteenth."
Kirk thought about this for a moment, then nodded, "You're saying you have different commanders for each mission phase."
"Yes..." The Gorn seemed unsure about his end of the translation, but it seemed close enough to his own understanding. "Yes, different commanders."
"That may be a problem."
"It may be a problem. Yes. Cooperation is unlikely while we are in orbit of this planet. And while we are on the subject," the Gorn craned its head almost one hundred and eighty degrees, back towards the reentry capsule where another Gorn was in a low crouch position, having a very animated conversation with its ankle bracelet in that rumbling/musical language of theirs, "My team leader," the Gunbender gestured to this one, "must now make a report to the Francium. If I know Second and Twentyfirst, the new instructions regarding your people will not be pleasant."
"Perhaps if you let me explain to your commander..."
The transporter chamber began to hum. "Go. You do not have much time."
Sighing, Kirk turned and started jogging back towards the landing party, reaching for his communicator as he did. Behind him, the Gorn likewise jogged over to his team leader, already in conversation with their command ship above. There came from the two of them a brief but frantic exchange of vocalizations, almost certainly a heated argument. A few seconds of gesticulating and elevated voices culminated into a sweeping gesture by the leader, followed in short order by a change in posture from almost the entire Gorn away team. The transport chamber glowed furiously, and then the size of the Gorn team doubled as the new arrivals took their positions. All of them - even the one Kirk knew as "the Gunbender" - made a check of their weapons, pulling mechanical leavers and handles as if to load physical projectiles. Kirk doubled his pace and broke into a run.
It all happened at once, too quickly for him to register and too abruptly for him to anticipate let alone understand it. There was a series of loud popping sounds like firecrackers going off, followed immediately by a blunt impact and a blast of heat against the backs of his legs as if he'd just been hit by a speeding car. He hit the ground sideways on his elbow, scrambled back to his feet and went on running, feeling the hot pins-and-needles sensation of his overshield cycling down. Despite both sides' reluctance, he knew they were in a fight now; what he didn't know, even as he finally reached Rand and McCahil's positions, was what exactly the Gorn had fired at him that could have hit with the force of a hand grenade.
The three security officers had started firing their phasers in bursts when Kirk slid into the grass in front of them. Spock was glued to his tricorder screen while McCoy was bitterly growling obscenities under his breath. Only at this point he noticed the phaser beams were the fiery orange of a high material-disruptor setting instead of the blue-violet pulses of the stun pulse. "Keep your phasers on stun," Kirk said, "they're not heavily armed, and they're reluctant to fight with us..."
"The latter may be true, Captain," Spock said tersely, "But they are quite heavily armed..." as he spoke, Kirk heard more gunshots from the Gorn camp and looked back in that direction as several large, brightly-glowing objects hurtled towards them, like photon torpedoes in miniature, flying in flat arcs out of the "mouths" of the skull-guns like fast-pitch baseballs. It took Kirk half an instant to work out the landing sites of those projectiles and then he turned and dove in the opposite direction, seconds before a chain of explosions ripped open the ground just short of where he'd been standing.
He chided himself for not seeing this sooner. It was the basic components of a photon torpedo launcher, miniaturized in hand-held form. These Gorn were undeniably smarter than their counterparts. "Enterprise, away team! Require combat beamout immediately!"
"Standby, away team. We're coming around in our orbit again. Transport window opens in two minutes, twenty seconds."
Ensign Dallas brought up his phaser rifle and swept the beam across the Gorn lines like a flashlight. The reptilian soldiers dove into the grass, some of them firing randomly with plasma rifles in a token attempt at an answer. One of the Gorn took a phaser beam directly across his chest; a circle of translucent material seemed to appear directly in front of him and the phaser beam crashed against it, driving both the shield and the Gorn behind it backwards into the tall grass as if they'd been hit with a fire hose. They have shields too, Kirk realized. That also explained why Spock had taken his phaser off stun.
Kirk took advantage of the covering fire, retrieved his own phaser, set it for kill. Without a targeting sensor he had to walk the guide beam across the landscape and dance through the grasses in the field until he saw the little blue dot skitter across the chest of one of the giant lizards. When he squeezed the trigger, a shimmering line of orange flame shot from the emitter and struck the Gorn in in the side of its head; as before, a circle of translucent material appeared in the path of the beam, but the force of the phaser blasted knocked the hapless creature completely off his feet and flipped him end-over-end as if he'd been hit by a runaway car.
Kirk looked for other targets, but more of the mini-torpedoes were being fired into the air, these on much more random headings than the others as the Gorn landing party was now more concerned with staying in cover than killing their opponents. Which was, for Kirk, a considerable problem; he figured out that it wasn't necessary to stun the entire Gorn party, just any member of the party who might have outranked the Gunbender.
"The guidance systems on those grenades are unsophisticated, Captain," Spock said reassuringly, "Simple ballistic trajectories calculated automatically to land at a pre-arranged target. No midcourse guidance."
"Like field artillery. But they don't even have to hit us to score a kill."
"The grenades produce temperatures in excess of four thousand kelvins," Spock looked up from his tricorder, "Our shields may withstand one, possibly two direct hits."
"Can you jam their scanners? Keep them from tracking us?"
"I'll try, Captain..." Spock started adjusting the controls on his tricorder, toggling through scan modes into the tactical operations menu that - both of them knew - would allow the tricorder to operate as an ECM device. Whatever the Gorn equivalent of a tricorder was, it was about to get an ear full of mind-crushing white noise.
"Let's put on some distance first," Kirk said, and then shouted to the others, "We're gonna leapfrog it. Bones, Miri, Dallas and McCahil pull back first, Spock and Rand with me. Fall back twenty meters then reposition. Ready?"
"Ready," shouted Dallas and McCahil, and McCoy grumbled something sarcastic and depressing.
Kirk counted in his head, then shouted "Go!" and raised up in the grass high enough to fire off series of sweeping beams from his hand phaser, joined after the shortest delay by Miri and Rand. McCahil's group turned and broke into a run in the opposite direction, as fast as they could without raising their heads high enough to give the Gorn a clear target.
Two Gorn emerged from cover, raising skull guns and aiming more carefully than the others and fired a salvo of those burning orange grenades into the air. A flurry of phaser fire from Rand and Miri slammed of them into the ground like a traffic accident and sent two others scrambling back for cover. The grenades they launched sailed high into the air, spiraled down towards the Earth and then landed in a ragged cluster directly in the path of McCahil's group in rolling sheet of explosions. Dallas and Doctor McCoy dodged explosions like frightened cats dodging hailstones. McCahil, for no obvious reason, stopped in his tracks, turned and fired his phaser up in the air as if trying to shoot down the grenades. One of the little fireballs came down right in front of him and detonated between his feet; the explosion launched him twenty feet into the air and flipped him five times before he landed on his head few meters away, most of his uniform already on fire.
A group they hadn't noticed until now opened fire from a different direction, plasma bolts cut through the air over and between them and sent all four of them diving back into the grass for cover. Kirk glanced just as a plasma bolt hit Ensign Rand in the stomach like an errant fastball, doubling her over as it knocked her off her feet. He fired blind at where he thought the shot had come from and jumped to her side to inspect the wound; her field jacket was scorched and blackened where the plasma bolt had breached her overshield, but the skin underneath was barely singed. He pulled her up to a kneeling position; she nodded an 'I'll be fine' gesture and took up her phaser again. Kirk knew, though, that if she took another hit like that they'd be recovering her remains with a shovel.
"They're flanking us, Captain," Spock said, squinting at his tricorder screen.
Kirk looked back at where McCahil's team had run and saw them drop to a new position almost thirty meters behind them in the wild grass. It was, in fact, a precarious position; off to one side, the wild grass tapered off to shorter growth that would provide almost no cover at all, and off to the other side, the grass ended abruptly at the crumbling remnants of an acceleratedly-ancient road. It made a relatively straight retreat path, on the one hand, but it meant the Gorn would have almost no difficulty figuring out which way they went.
No choice either way. "We're gonna fall back next," Kirk said to the others. He wanted until Miri and Dallas had their new position, then thundered, "Go!" and shoved Rand to her feet ahead of him. All four of them sprinted back towards their new position while Miri and Dallas fired swept their phaser beams over them as McCoy - apparently having the same idea as Spock - set his tricorder to start jamming the Gorn sensor devices.
Kirk made sure the others were still ahead of him as he passed Dallas' position, but hesitated for a moment when he didn't see Miri with either group. He followed Spock and Rand back another thirty meters behind Dallas and Bones, then ducked down in the tall grass and asked, "Where's Hallab? Was she hit?"
"She's engaging the flankers, Captain," Spock pointed with his finger towards the ancient road, at a point where Miri was lying prone on a piece of asphalt that had been pushed up from the ground by hundreds of years of rapid-aging vegetation. She was methodically plinking at the Gorn landing party as if she were shooting at tin cans on a fence, short and highly-controlled phaser beams into the heads and necks of anything she didn't recognize as human. Their shields could block the destructive energies of a phaser rifle, but they couldn't dissipate it as efficiently; Miri's sniping would only be more effective if she were firing bean bags out of a howitzer.
The sound of Gorn plasma weapons subsided off slightly, as did the sounds of explosions from the skull grenades. The combination of distance and return fire had bought them enough time to catch their breaths. "Enterprise, away team!" Kirk shouted into his communicator, "I strongly suggest you beam us aboard now!"
"Away team, Enterprise," Uhura answered, "We're coming into position now, so... oh damn... standby, Captain, things are getting interesting up here."
"The Gorn vessel has changed orbits, coming over the horizon on a high-angle trajectory. At their present heading, they'll be in firing range in about two minutes!"
Kirk was afraid of that. Apparently the Gorn orbit-operations commander - who by Gunbender's account had blanket authority over anything that happened while still in orbit - was a bit too impetuous for his own good. Probably he'd decided it was simpler to dispose of the alien presence in orbit with them than continue to worry about potential complications. "We don't have time to get to a safe position! Get your shields up and break orbit now!"
"Stand by, Captain. We're gonna give you some cover."
Spock's tricorder whistled a warning and the Vulcan looked at the screen in alarm, "They've locked onto my tricorder!"
"Dammit... Covering fire!" Kirk shouted to McCahil's team as he snatched the tricorder from Spock's hand, wound up and threw it as hard as he could, straight back towards the Gorn as the four security officers opened up with their phasers. A dozen skull guns all fired at once from some place too far away to see, and a dozen blazing orange grenades sailed high up into the sky before raining down in a ragged pattern around where the tricorder had finally come to rest. A series of white hot explosions ripped the ground where Spock's communicator had come to rest, melting the ground around and beneath it into glass.
Kirk's communicator chirped again and Lieutenant Uhura's voice announced to all of them, "Brace for support fire! Danger close!"
It was all the warning they had before a dense cluster of bright red phaser beams poured out of the skies above and behind the Gorn. Each beam was immense, easily the width of a man's torso, and where each made contact with the ground a small artificial volcano erupted from the Earth, sending plumes of crushed rock and soil and incinerated vegetation geysering tens of meters into the air. It wasn't clear if they were specifically aiming at the Gorn or just blanketing the area to discourage their pursuers. Either way, the Gorn soldiers immediately scattered in every direction and seemingly forgot that Starfleet had ever landed an away team on this planet.
"Thank you, God!" Miri gasped, fully moved to tears by the very miracle she'd been praying for, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..."
Kirk snapped open his communicator and bellowed, "Nice shootin', Sulu! We're the clear!"
"We have your signal. Standby for transport."
"We're ready, Enterprise. Beam us up." He closed his communicator and turned to Ensign Rand with a smile, "Well. That was fun."
Rand either didn't hear him or didn't bother to respond. Her attention was focussed down the site of the phaser rifle, scanning the wall of madness that was Enterprise's ongoing phaser bombardment.
"Sir?" She spared him a momentary glance, enough to reply, but not enough to break her concentration.
"Transport in five... four..."
"What do you think?" Kirk asked, looking at Rand out of the corner of his eye.
"About what, Sir?"
"... Three... Two..."
"It's not too late to go back to being a yeoman."
She glanced at him for a moment, showing slight confusion, followed in short order by a flash of amusement as the static discharge of the confinement beam began to crackle around her, "To hell with that!"