Kirk sighed in exasperation. “Lt. Uhura, notify the personnel that all shore leave is cancelled.” He paused. “Better give the crewpersons on the planet thirty minutes to pull themselves back together before they report for beam up. But only thirty minutes. Understood?”
Uhura regarded him balefully. “Aye, sir.”
As expected, McCoy appeared on the bridge in a scant three minutes, feathers flapping. “Jim, what the hell? You know good and damn well that this crew needs a rest! They’ve been pushing to the limit for—”
Kirk held up his hand to halt the flow. “Bones, please. I don’t like this any more than you do, believe me. But Komack—“
“Komack!” McCoy interjected in disgust.
“—informed me that we have to pick up Ambassador Melkk from Starbase 9 and deliver him to Alta IV. I wasn’t given a whole lot of choice in the matter.”
“Is this some big emergency or just some political bull crap?”
“Officially, yes. Unofficially, bull. A disagreement on extradition rights for a kornite smuggler. According to Komack it is vital to settle the problem as soon as possible.”
“But that’s safe space the whole way,” McCoy protested. “No dangers in that sector. Why can’t the Ambassador take an ordinary transport?”
“Not as much prestige as a starship,” Kirk replied through clenched teeth. He was irritated, too. This was the first opportunity they’d had for shore leave in months. The crew was tense and moody—and so was he, for that matter. “Komack is obviously trying to impress the Ambassador and the Counsel.”
“Jim, I’m telling you if the crew doesn’t get a chance to relax soon, you’re going to have some real problems.”
“I know, Bones, but this should be a milk run. Like you said, it’s safe space.”
“They’ll still be on duty,” McCoy insisted. “What they need is to get away from that for a while. Even routine duty on a starship generates a degree of stress.” He looked at Kirk’s drawn face. “And not only for the crew.”
For once Spock reinforced the Doctor’s opinion. “The efficiency rating has plummeted, Captain. It is down to eighty-seven percent.”
Kirk stared them both down sternly. “Comments noted and logged, Gentlemen.” He sighed. “Listen, don’t you think I know we all need a rest? But there always seems to be something else to do. I can’t help that.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right. As soon as we’re finished with this, I’ll demand a two-week layover at a starbase for repairs. I’ll have Scotty make something up if necessary. This planet wasn’t such great shakes for shore leave anyway.”
“It was better than nothing,” McCoy grumbled. “And now we get nothing.”
Lt. Kevin Riley moved through the shabby bazaar, trying to ignore his depression. Having his leave cut short wasn’t what was bothering him. He hadn’t been having such a terrific a time in any case. As usual, his luck wasn’t running well at all. He figured he was the unluckiest Irishman since the potato famine. Yeoman Tanza had snubbed him for the fourteenth time, and he wasn’t doing much better with the local women. The luck of the Irish obviously didn’t extend several hundred light years from the Blarney Stone.
As Kirk had pointed out, this world would never win any awards for an exciting leave planet. It was drab and boring, the weather grey and chill, and in spite of the fact it was on the edge of a dozen exotic trade routes, travellers came and left as quickly as possible. Aliens from a hundred different cultures rubbed elbows, but the necessary spark of excitement...or depravity...didn’t seem to exist. Perhaps it was the thick cloud cover of the planet that gave everything a greyish, dim cast, or the muddy, untidy streets, or even the unexplainable touch of gloom in the air that gave the entire city an aura of depression. In any case, few of the Enterprise crew were reluctant to be called back—although the idea of returning to duty wasn’t much more cheering.
The bazaar was the usual tourist trap; dealers hawking their wares too loudly, the smell of over-cooked food hanging in the air, a few off-key musicians trying and failing to lighten the scene. Riley ignored it all as he trudged back to the beam up point.
Suddenly a low-pitched hiss caught his attention. He turned to the left. A tiny booth, set back in the shadows, seemed to draw him toward it.
Another hiss from the shadows, a sibilant voice, “Ssspaceman...want to buy sssome sssunshine?”
Kevin paused, checking his chronometer. Twenty minutes. Plenty of time yet. After all, he didn’t want to appear too eager to get back on board—it would ruin his carefully cultivated reputation as a hell-raiser on shore leave.
“Missster,” the voice hissed again, “I’ve got sssome sssunshine here. Don’t you want sssome ssssunshine, ssspacer? Happy sssunshine from home.”
Intrigued, Kevin moved closer. “What do you mean…sunshine?”
There was a thick chuckle and a leathery face peered from the darkness of the booth. “Just that, boyo. Sunshine, pure an’ true. Sure an’ begorra, ye could use a foine dash o’ sun ta warm ye bones.”
Riley blinked, startled by the sudden change to Irish brogue. He leaned against the counter to get a closer look. The four-foot lizard-like being who sat on the stool may have been green, but he definitely wasn’t Irish. The wide snout split into a toothy grin. “What about it, boyo? Longin’ ta see the glint o’ sun o’er the bog? A bit o’ green meadows of the Emerald Isle?”
Riley laughed. “Where did you pick up that accent, friend?”
“I’m talkin’ yer language, lad, so I be sayin’ it the way it appeals to ye the most...as any foine salesman would.”
“Where are you from?” Riley asked. “You’re not native to this planet.”
“No, indeed, but don’t ye be tellin’ on me now.” The little lizard had enormous green eyes, and now they darted back and forth nervously. “I came quite a far distance, an’ it isn’t just everyone that should be knowin’ I’m here. It’s best if I keep meself scarce, if ye kin what I be meaning.”
Riley shrugged. If this odd little being was dodging the customs officers, it was nothing to him. “Fine with me. What is it you’re selling?”
“Just what I told ye, laddie. Sunshine from home.” He whipped out a small vial and set it out on the counter. The Lieutenant picked it up and inspected it curiously. The bottle was jet black, not even reflecting the light from the torch on the neighboring booth.
He looked up doubtfully. “I’m not sure I understand you. This is supposed to have sunlight inside it? From Ireland?”
“From home, boyo, wherever home may be. It does, oh that it does! And never a better quality to be found, look where ye may.”
Riley grinned. “I’ve heard of some weird gimmicks in my time, but this take the—” He stopped and picked up the jar again. It was kind of pretty, and it was a rather catchy idea. If he gave Tasha something like this, it might soften her up a bit. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. “How much?” he asked off-handedly.
“What? Forget it. That’s outrageous!”
“Ya think sunshine comes cheap? Or that it’s easy ta bottle? It takes skill—”
“Come on, be reasonable,” Riley bargained. “That’s a lot of money for a cheap little souvenir.”
There was a loud commotion at the end of the street. The lizard peeked around the edge of the booth, bit one of its long, fluttery fingers, looking as nervous as a lizard could possibly look. He lifted a large jar from a chest at the back of the booth and handed it to Riley. “Listen, boyo, I’ll sell ya the whole supply for seventy-five! But take it quick, I haven’t much time.”
Riley started to refuse, but then reconsidered. Why not? He hadn’t spent much money on this leave, that was for sure, and this might make some unique Christmas presents. A few crystal bottles of this stuff just might make a difference in his shaky love life. There must be something in the big black bottle, even if it was just Aldebaran glow water, and the fanciful concept was rather nice.
“Hurry, lad! Make up yer mind!”
The approaching crowd was growing noisier and angrier. Riley tossed another glance at the little shopkeeper, who had nearly half his hand in his mouth by this time in sheer panic.
“Okay, I’ll take it.” He took out his money and the strange being almost grabbed it out of the Lieutenant’s hand in his haste to escape, dashing to the back and exiting through a slit in the wall. Shrugging again, Riley picked up the purchase and sauntered away, paying little attention to the cluster of officials that crowded around the booth moments later.
He arrived at the beam up point in the nick of time and gave Kyle a knowing wink as he stepped off the transporter platform, his kit bag half concealed behind his back.
“A minute more and the Captain would have had your hide, Riley,” Kyle said sternly. “You’ll be sorry one of these days.”
“I’m already sorry, Jerome, ol’ chum. You should be ashamed to tear a man away from such a gorgeous creature. It’s a crime, that’s what it is.” Riley shook his head mournfully, then went out the door and toward his quarters whistling “Kathleen.”
Once in his room, he tested the opening on the bottle. It seemed stuck. Irritated, he tried tapping the lip of the jar against the dividing screen, hoping to loosen the seal. It slipped out of his hands and crashed to the floor shattering. A million dancing rays of light flickered like a demented Tinkerbell, but Riley did not see them...
...the sun shone over emerald hills, lined with low rock walls. The sky was so blue it dazzled the eyes, with just a few fleecy clouds to accent the perfection. The smell was clover and rye and sheep, with just a hint of malt from the brewery up the road. Riley was stunned for a second—but only a second.
“I’ll be damned, it worked!”
A deep sense of well-being seeped through him, just the simple, indescribable feeling of ...home. He laughed, loud and clear and happy. He threw his arms up in the air and did an ecstatic little jig. Home. Finally, he lay down in the soft meadow, folded his arms behind his head, and relaxed...
The burst of light in Riley’s quarters began to disperse; most of it escaping through the air vents. It dissipated quickly, scattering in flashing glints throughout the ship. By the time it reached the bridge, it was little more than dancing dust motes of light. The sparkle was still there, but too quick to see, except as fireflies at the edge of vision. Still, it was enough.
Kirk was caught in the middle of a yawn. He froze at the strange rustling sound that had no connection to the familiar noises of his bridge. Opening his eyes, he found himself sitting a few meters from a cornfield.
He looked around cautiously, almost afraid to turn his head or move. He was seated on a thick mat of wild grass, dressed only in a pair of cut-off shorts. A light breeze was blowing the tall corn in hypnotic patterns, and the leaves from the maple and elm trees behind him were contributing to the rustling music. He could hear the sweet burble of a slow-moving stream, the chirp of birds, and the lazy hum of bees busy in the clover.
A grasshopper flew up and landed on his knee, and he stared at it in astonishment, feeling the prick of its legs. He stood abruptly, sending it flying.
Kirk moved in a daze toward the field, reaching out to grab a handful of the tall corn. He jerked back when he sliced his finger on one of the blades—something he hadn’t done in thirty years, since he was six and learned that a blade of corn could be as sharp as a razor. He stepped back and sucked the minor cut on his finger. However insane this situation seemed, this illusion suddenly felt real.
Even stranger, he knew this place. He spun around to look at the creek which fed a deep pool. The old swimming hole. He recognized it now, although it had been at least twenty years since he’d last seen it.
Part of Kirk was slowly beginning to accept all this, his muscles relaxing in the warm sunshine. As impossible as it seemed, he was in Iowa. He was home. Instead of feeling panicked or even concerned by the inexplicable situation, he felt peaceful, even euphonic. A sensation of freedom and tranquility enveloped him.
It was all so incredible it seemed pointless to fight a fantasy. And the peaceful, seductive sense of...home drew him away from thoughts of responsibility and duty. It felt amazingly good to be outside metal walls—no matter how much he loved those particular metal walls.
There was an uncomfortable nagging in the back of Kirk’s mind, telling him he should be trying to figure this out, but it was fading rapidly. The sun was warm across his shoulders and shaking away the last of his conscience, he took off the shorts, ran a few steps and dived into the pool. He came up sputtering, the water silken and cool over his bare skin. Laughing at the sheer pleasure of it, he began to swim across the pond, but was brought up short by a bright little giggle.
The girl was sitting on the grassy bank, watching him with delight. “That was pathetic,” she called out. “Want to try that dive again?”
Kirk’s embarrassment only lasted until he saw the appreciative gleam in her big brown eyes. He grinned back. “I didn’t realize anyone was around.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind at all.”
“Uh...do you come here often?”
“I will now.” She unfastened her robe and dived into the water, quite as bare as Kirk.
They spent a wonderfully pleasant afternoon, and it wasn’t until evening, when the sun was beginning to set, that Kirk remembered his ship and his responsibilities. Not that he had any idea what he could do about this strange situation, but his sense of guilt lay in the fact that he hadn’t even been troubled with the problem for several hours. How could he have forgotten his ship, his crew...Spock? They might be in danger—obviously, something was very wrong—and here he was spending a pleasant interlude with a pretty girl in a sunlit pool.
Before he could make up his mind what to do, the last ray of sunlight slid out of sight, and Kirk found himself abruptly back in his command chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.
He caught his breath at the startling change of scene. Everything looked exactly the way as it had been. No red alerts flashing, no signs of distress, or even a hint that anything odd had happened. When he glanced down at the chronometer, his eyes widened to see that only a few seconds had passed. The rest of the bridge crew were glancing around, confused and a little stunned, but not alarmed. Actually, they looked a bit sheepish, as if they’d caught themselves doing something they shouldn’t.
For a long moment, even Kirk hesitated to say anything, feeling rather foolish himself. But he knew that this had certainly been no ordinary daydream, and it might be vital to discover just what it had been and what caused it.
The Vulcan looked up slowly, his expression puzzled and thoughtful. “Captain?”
“I may be suffering space fatigue, but I just had a most...uh...unusual experience. I thought...” he paused self-consciously. “I believed I was back on Earth—in Iowa.”
Spock nodded. “Fascinating. And I had the distinct impression I spent several hours cataloguing rare botanical specimens on the Se’Tik mountains of Vulcan.”
“Keptin, I thought I vas in Moscow, sir,” Chekov broke in timidly. “Skating on the Stalin ice pond vith de most beautiful—”
“A beach on the coast of Nigeria,” Uhura cut him off eagerly. “My father used to take us there—”
Sulu began speaking about begin at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto.
“Captain, I swear I was outside a pub in Glasgow,” Scotty finished.
Kirk shook his head, mystified. “What do you make of this, Spock? What happened?”
Spock shrugged slightly. “I would say mass hallucination, but apparently we all experienced a different manifestation. This is not consistent with either drug delirium or mass delusion.”
“So, what caused it? We’d better find out before it happens again.” Kirk hit the intercom button. “Kirk to McCoy.”
“McCoy here. Jim-boy, you’ll never believe what just happened to me.”
“Yes, I would. You were in Georgia, right?”
“How’d you know? That was the most comfortable hammock, and the best mint julep —"
“Bones, we’ve got to discover what caused this, and—”
“Settle down, Jim-boy. I think I know what caused it, though it might be a bit harder to figure out how. Kevin Riley walked in here about three minutes ago looking like he just sold his mother to the Orions.”
“Riley?!” Kirk roared. “What the hell does he have to do with this?”
“Maybe you’d better come down and talk to him. But go easy on him, he feels bad enough as it is.”
Kirk’s eyes narrowed. “He’ll feel a whole lot worse before I get through with him, if he had anything to do with this insanity. Mr. Sulu, you have the con. Drop out of warp speed until we know what the devil is going on. Follow me, Mr. Spock.”
Several hours later, Kirk was still fuming.
“Haven’t you figured out how that stuff worked, Bones?”
“I still haven’t figured out what it is...or was. There’s nothing left to analyse, Jim. Evidently, it just kind of flickered around until it burnt out or something. And we only know that much from the vid tapes. Riley’s souvenir has been examined and the container is some type of very absorbent ceramic – at least it absorbs light. There’s nothing left on the pieces of it to tell what was inside.”
Kirk wasn’t satisfied. “Spock, what about you? Any answers? Speculations?”
“No facts on which to base speculations, Captain. Lt. Riley’s bottle obviously contained some form of energy, the origin and type is impossible to determine. The effect, however, is undeniable.”
Kirk turned to McCoy. “What about the effect? Anyone hurt?”
“On the contrary. I’d say it did them a world of good. Most of the crew have had complete physicals, and so far they’ve checked out in better shape than they have in months. They’re rested, relaxed and in blazingly good spirits. Their reflexes and coordination are up thirty percent.”
“Indeed,” Spock concurred. “I ran an efficiency test a short time ago, and the rating is now up to ninety-nine point eight three.”
“I tell you, Jim, I wish we had a ton of this stuff for the pharmacy. It sure beats the hell out of stimulants!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kirk snapped, unaccountably annoyed by the cheerful attitude everyone seemed to be taking about this. “Anything could have happened while we were all off in this...daydream, or hallucination...or whatever it was.”
“According to my calculations,” Spock put in, “the actual time our minds were...preoccupied was only one point three seconds. It is unlikely that anything would occur in that span—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kirk said stubbornly. “It was still dangerous.”
“Granted there is much we do not know about the substance, but there seem to be no ill effects to the crew or equipment. This could well be a discovery of some value if we can trace its origin.”
“From what Riley said, we may not have much luck with that,” McCoy commented. “Sounded like a pretty shady character to me. Speaking of Riley, how long are you going to keep that boy confined to quarters, Jim?”
“Until he’s sixty-four, if it’s left up to me,” Kirk grumbled. “He knew better than to bring something like that on the ship without having it tested and cleared through the labs.”
“Come on, Jim, don’t try to tell me you never took a fancy to something when you were still wet behind the ears, and didn’t bother to report it and have it decontaminated. So he made a mistake, and I admit it could’ve been a dangerous one, but you can be sure this made an impression on him, and he won’t repeat it. Besides, no real harm came out of it.”
Kirk glared at the doctor. “Disrupting my ship and sending my crew on some kind of mental...trip home, is not something I care to take lightly.”
McCoy regarded him thoughtfully. “I know what’s bothering you. It isn’t what happened, it’s that you enjoyed it just like the rest of us. You did, didn’t you?”
Kirk didn’t answer.
McCoy snorted. “Just as I thought. Now you’re feeling guilty as hell because you really liked going home for a while—and even worse, getting away from the ship. It doesn’t fit with your image of yourself. Listen, everyone likes to go home now and then, but that doesn’t mean we want to stay there.”
McCoy grinned. “Don’t worry, the Enterprise knows you’re faithful...in spirit, at least.”
Kirk opened his mouth to retort hotly, then shut it again and smiled his most charming smile. “You’re trying to psychoanalyze me again, Bones. And I’m not going to let you get me riled up so you can study my reactions, so just forget it. Let me know when you finish all the physicals, and if you come up with anything new.”
Wisely deciding to leave before McCoy could come up with another line, Kirk headed briskly for the door, Spock following. The door slid open, and he nearly ran into the crew woman entering Sickbay. He froze solidly in the doorway, staring at her blankly.
“Excuse me,” she said absently, then noted the braid on his arm and looked up. “Oh...sorry, Captain. I was just...” She trailed off when she got a look at his face. “You!” she gasped, then blushed furiously. “I mean...I didn’t know...I thought...” she stammered to a halt.
“Michaels, sir. Transferred on two weeks ago, sir.”
“Any chance you’re from...?”
“Iowa, sir? Yes, sir.”
Kirk cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh...well...carry on, Lieutenant.”
Kirk didn’t speak until he and Spock had entered the turbolift and the doors had closed. Spock kept his eyes carefully fastened on the opposite wall.
“Mr...” Kirk cleared his throat again, “...Spock, would you say that you enjoyed your…uh...experience?”
Spock considered the matter. “Yes, Captain, I did. It was most...restful.” He turned an innocent eyebrow to Captain Kirk. “And you?”
“Hmmm. Well, at least it’s comforting to know it was all in our imaginations. I mean, none of it was real. We didn’t actually go anywhere.”
As they reached the bridge, and Kirk released the lever, he noticed a minor twinge in his finger. It felt like a paper cut, or...