Kirk shot upright on the bed, a faint, soft cry startled from him, jerked out of a disturbing dream that started to fade even as he struggled to remember it. More upset than really alarmed, he felt his heart palpitating unevenly as if he had been running, although it seemed to him that he rushed headlong towards the fear instead of away from it, and was just about to confront his terror when wrenched so abruptly awake.
With the sweat-dampened sheet pulled up around his naked shoulders, the nightmare made furtive by its very vagueness, he stared into the darkness of his cabin, feeling like a small child needing the reassurance of its mother. For some reason the fear refused to dissipate and instead of drifting back into sleep for the few remaining hours before he was back on duty, he pushed aside the sheet and reached for his robe. Even as the lights brightened around him, he found his thoughts already occupied with the unexpected anomaly found on the planet below the orbiting Enterprise.
Belting the robe around him, he strode quickly over to his desk and pressed down on the stud that would contact him with the bridge. "Captain Kirk to Mr. Spock."
There was an instants pause before the quiet, calm voice of his First Officer came over the speaker. "Spock here, sir."
"Progress report, Mr. Spock." He wiped at the sweat on his forehead and upper lip, sensing the Vulcan's puzzlement at the sharpness in his tone, but Spock was far too courteous to question him outright.
"There has been little so far, Captain. Two of the Sleepers have been beamed aboard and Doctor McCoy is continuing his investigations." Spock paused significantly. "His last report, 23.10 minutes ago, was still negative. My own researches are the same."
Unable to shake off his apprehension, Kirk heard himself ask huskily, "And the girl?"
Still without comment, Spock supplied him with the appropriate information. "Still on the surface, Captain."
"Very well, Mr. Spock. You'll find me there if I'm needed…"
"Sir…" Spock's tone remained neutrally polite. "If I may remind you, we are due to rendezvous with the K'hoten in ten hours time."
"Consider me duly reminded, Mr. Spock. Kirk out."
Half an hour later, he materialized in the moonlit glade cut from an almost solid barrier of thickly crowding trees and intertwining brambles, some as thick across as his upper thigh; an impressive entanglement that entirely surrounded the fortress-like structure within. In the warm silence beneath the closely packed trees only the wind moved, the wind and the work detail from the Enterprise.
From where Kirk stood, the scene had a vaguely surrealistic air, reminiscent of a Dali painting, or a sculpture of Jelenia's. The proof of wind and weather was everywhere he looked; in the debris choked courts, the crumbling outbuildings, the black yawning doorways. A feeling of death seemed to hang over everything like a shroud. Stealing his nerve, Kirk entered the ruined square, unable to avoid the twenty pitiful bodies placed there by the work crew. Stretched out in an orderly row they looked unmistakably dead, withered by the hand of time.
However, they were not dead, Kirk reminded himself forcibly, they still breathed as they had done for fifty, a thousand, ten thousand years, McCoy found it difficult to be sure of the exact length of time. Some macabre catastrophe had overtaken this isolated, vaguely medieval, community - and if there had been others on the planet similarly affected they had all rotted into dust long since, for while there was evidence of other settlements scattered about this one and only landmass, there were no longer any other living sentient beings. Kirk supposed that was warning in itself and yet, despite the advice of his departmental heads, he had insisted they stay and investigate. It was almost an obsession and all because of that one, beautiful girl they had found lying as if deeply asleep in the fortresses highest tower.
Ignoring the work crew, he crossed the square and ascended the few shallow steps that led into a long, marble-floored hall. This was where they had originally found most of the bodies, court officials dressed in once rich finery, soldiers in ancient armour, an adolescent page, humanoid but not human, so much alike that it made little difference.
With the ease of old knowledge, Kirk left the hall and rounded a corner that led to one of the four tower rooms. The carved oak door, heavily clad with iron was open as he had left it only hours before, but he checked for an instant in alarm as a hesitant footstep sounded from within the darkened stairwell. A shadow erupted suddenly out of the gloom, challenging him nervously.
"Vhat is there?" The demand was followed by a quick gasp of recognition and recovery as Chekov appeared in the doorway. "Kepten! It is you."
Kirk grinned weakly, remembering his own spurt of fear. "Who were you expecting, Ensign? A ghostly herald?"
The young Russian emitted a decidedly shaken laugh. "I…don't know, Kepten. In such a place as this, anything seems possible."
"Yes," Kirk murmured, only slightly wistful. Then his voice sobered. "You're relieved, Ensign. Go and get an early breakfast. I'll take over for a while."
"Aye, Kepten," Chekov called appreciatively as Kirk brushed past and continued up the winding stairwell. His footsteps echoed eerily as he climbed, drawn forward against his better judgement, commanded by a voice only he could hear. The air was thick and damp, pungent with a sweet smell of age and ripening decay, but Kirk hardly noticed anymore as he wavered on the edge of the top step, peering into the gloom that crowded in upon him. Another heavy door barred his way at the top. Trembling, his breath catching in his throat, Kirk reached out for the weighty metal ring adorning the wood and pushed inwards. The door creaked sonorously as he stepped over the threshold, straining his eyes to catch that first tantalizing glimpse of the motionless figure that lay on the simple catafalque in the centre of the small, circular chamber. Bit by bit, he picked out the smudge of dark hair surrounding pale features, the limp hand curled against the dusty sheen of golden fabric, already intimately known to him from his many previous visits, the experience still as fresh and exciting as the first time he had seen that still lovely form sleeping there.
Kirk slowly approached the bier trying to control his disturbingly fast and uneven breathing in the hushed room, his heart throbbing against his rib-cage as a stray moonbeam found the tiny slit window, illuminating the apparently young girl who occupied the catafalque. He stared down at the face that had so mesmerized him over the last few days, entranced by the radiant features, the contrast between the sable hair and startlingly pale cheeks, the swan-like neck supported on faded scarlet pillows, the generous lips softly parted as if waiting for a lovers kiss. Her high breasts gently rose and fell, the only sign that she still breathed. With a tender, uncertain finger, Kirk reached out to trace the smooth skin of the girl's cheek, finding it cool to his touch, unresponsive to the caress. He took her hand, studying the three long fingers and the opposable thumb. She was definitely not homo-sapient, and the thought crossed his mind that perhaps she was just like the others they had found, that he was only indulging in his own crazed imagination, some strange and unlooked-for wish-fulfilment.
"No!" He cried out at the thought, feeling an abrupt sense of loss, an inner pain that had him reeling in shock. "I won't believe that. I can't…"
And he lifted the limp hand to his lips, laid it against his own cheek.
McCoy's shocked voice broke Kirk's semi-trance and he jerked stiffly around, the small, lifeless hand still clasped within his fingers; more than just ordinary guilt made his jaw harden and his voice harsh.
"You have something to report, Doctor?" He missed the sharply appraising look McCoy gave him as he placed the girl's hand carefully across her breast, letting his eyes linger once more on the haunting beauty of her face.
"Jim…" McCoy hesitated, knowing he was skating on thin ice, unnerved by the small room and its silent occupant, coldly afraid at finding Kirk there all alone and seemingly unaware of the oppressive atmosphere. Even Spock avoided coming here, though he had admitted to McCoy that he had no logical basis for his antipathy.
"Captain…" He started again cautiously, wishing that he had brought along the First Officer as Spock had suggested. "There's no point in remaining here any further. We've found nothing that can account for what occurred here and if we're to rendezvous with the…"
Kirk's eyes narrowed as he sharply turned to inspect his ship's surgeon.
"What do you mean, there's no point in staying? You said yourself you can't explain all…this." He waved a hand in the general direction of the courtyard outside. "I'm not leaving orbit until we learn precisely what transpired here, Doctor. I am quite well aware that might not appeal to certain crew members but this doesn't happen to be a pleasure cruise…"
He exhaled a deep, quivering breath, his eyes seeking the face of the girl as if in reassurance. "The K'hoten will have to wait for us. I hope that's clear, even to you, McCoy."
The Chief Surgeon stiffened at Kirk's peremptory tone, unable to disguise his own anger any longer. "If you're trying to say that my daughter being on that ship has anything to do with wanting to get off this planet, then you are damned right, Captain, Sir!"
Bemused at McCoy's tone, blinking in confusion, Kirk stared at his old friend.
"Bones, I can't leave. Not yet. It's as if she's been waiting here for me to find her."
"Jim, she died a long time ago. Nothing you do will ever change that."
Kirk shook his head, his face betraying his growing agitation. "No. There has to be something we can do…"
He drew a reluctant McCoy closer to the bier side and made him place his hand upon the softly rising breast. "Look at her, Bones. You can see she's just sleeping."
But McCoy found reason to look at anything but that exquisite, tantalizing face. He pulled free and backed away, wiping his hand surreptitiously on the seat of his pants.
"Captain…those bodies I had transported up to the Enterprise were just husks, technically alive, I suppose, but as soon as they came into contact with the ship's air they just started to …disintegrate…rot away right before my eyes." He shook his head, tasting his own disgust and horror. "The same thing will happen to this girl. She is dead, Jim."
Kirk's voice was thick with denial. "No!"
"Jim, listen to reason."
"Let me be." Kirk's fingers clenched tight. "I have to work this out for myself."
McCoy shifted uneasily, wanting desperately to get out into the clean air.
"Come back to the ship, Jim."
Kirk laughed and there was a bitter ring to it. "Worried I'll do something foolish, Bones?"
"Not you, Jim."
"No, not me." He reached out blindly, patted McCoy's shoulder, a half-smile curving his lips. "I'll get you to Joanna, Bones. That's a promise."
"You can bet on it."
McCoy's voice was very quiet, his light blue eyes still worried. "I know you'll do the right thing…for all of us…"
"Uh-huh." But Kirk hardly noticed when McCoy finally left him. He stared down once more into the sleeping, serene face of the girl, his heart thudding as he took her lifeless fingers into his own. "Oh, God, you're so beautiful…"
Abruptly he bent and brushed a kiss over the delicately parted lips. At the touch of his mouth, the air unexpectedly crackled with electric tension. The girl's breathing faltered, she stirred, sighed lightly, and slowly raised delicately veined eyelids. At the same instant light seemed to fill the tiny room, banishing the shadows. The eyes Kirk had so longed to see stared up at him, burning with a strange orange glow, the black pupils horizontal slits…
Shocked, Kirk hurriedly straightened, trying to back off but long, sinuous fingers curled tightly around his neck and he found it impossible to break the cold embrace. In one flowing movement the girl sat up, her lips twisting back to reveal canines and incisors that were impossibly white, sharply pointed…
"I have waited long for thee, but I am well pleased, beloved," her distinctive voice hissed sibilantly into Kirk's ear as she effortlessly drew him closer. "I will drink deeply of thy lifeblood, James T. Kirk."
Astonished, Kirk tried to pull away, his mouth open in a scream as the door slammed resoundingly shut behind him. Then, as he writhed in the powerful grip of the girl, he felt her teeth sink deeply into the pulsing flesh beneath his chin…
Kirk shot upright on the bed, a soft cry startled from him, jerked out of a disturbing dream that started to fade even as he struggled to remember it…