Cliffhanger!
by Bruce W. Thompson

As Doctor Leonard McCoy watched with fascination, sunlight refracted and shot rainbow beams off the bead of sweat he had tracked as it slithered down and clung precariously-- upside down and quivering, sloth-like-- to its tenuous perch. McCoy had to grin as he looked away from the shimmering ball of perspiration, retracing its path-- back over the rounded tip, then up and along the prominent nose bridge, around the dark-lidded eye, and across the upswept eyebrow to the edge of the neatly trimmed fringe that formed his companionís hairline. Commander Spock stood in silence, apparently oblivious to McCoyís bemused scrutiny.

"Hot, isnít it, Spock?" the doctor asked. McCoy watched Spockís shoulders almost sag in resignation as the Vulcan turned his head slightly more toward him, one eyebrow lifting in its familiar manner.

"Really, Doctor," Spock said flatly. "Must you always state the obvious?" The Vulcan swiveled his head back in the other direction dismissively.

"Of course," McCoyís mouth twisted up into an acerbic smile. "Itís part of my charm, Mr. Spock." McCoy didnít have to see the Vulcanís face to know the eyebrow had lifted again.

Obvious or not, it was hot. Hot and miserable. McCoy cupped his hand over his brow and took a quick look up at the unrelenting sun. It burned above like some unblinking devilís eye, superheating the boulder-strewn landscape in which the two officers waited. The surrounding rocks baked in the heat. The doctor tentatively laid a hand on one of them, then quickly pulled it back as its surface was just barely too hot to touch. He stole a fleeting look over at Spock, hoping the science officer hadnít noticed. The Vulcan stood calmly adjusting his tricorder. McCoy cocked an annoyed eyebrow in his fellow officerís direction then surveyed the terrain around them.

They had taken position in the bottom of a small ravine, hardly more than a twisted scratch in the cracked and arid ground. Everywhere McCoy looked, he saw yellow-- yellow sun above tossing heat down upon them in wavering yellow sheets, yellow slabs of stone casting dingy yellowish shadows at their yellow bases, yellow sand skittering at his feet, the hot breeze blowing over the land just picking up the loose dirt and swirling it up, turning the air around them a sickly-pale yellow color. The air itself was painfully dry-- dirty and gritty as McCoy tried to gulp it down. It tore at his throat and lungs. The dust stuck to the sweat on the back of his neck and was irritating the skin under his collar. The synthetic fabric of his blue shirt clung to his back and his feet felt swollen and throbbing inside his boots. He shambled across the stones toward Spock.

"What time is it?" he asked. "Is our contact late?" Spock had worked his way over near one of the larger boulders and the small amount of shade it provided made it cool enough for McCoy to lean one shoulder against.

"It is precisely 03:22:47.5 hours, Doctor," the Vulcan responded without consulting his chronometer. "And yes, our contact is now 22 minutes, 48 seconds overdue. Irritating, but given the human proclivity toward tardiness, within acceptable limits."

McCoy fingered the lid of his med-kit as he considered giving himself a tri-ox booster, but then decided he didnít want to give the Vulcan the satisfaction. "A pity we canít all have time-keeping programs where our hearts are supposed to be, isnít it, Spock?" he snorted.

"Indeed. I often find..." The rest of Spockís response went unspoken as his attention was suddenly drawn to the tricorder slung over his shoulder. He lifted the device up in front of him and moved it around in a half circle. He finally stopped and aimed the tricorderís scanner toward a nearby outcropping of rock several dozen meters ahead of them.

"What is it?" McCoy asked. He peered ahead and squinted, trying to force the bright sunlight out of his line of sight.

Spock adjusted several controls, checked a display, then looked up. The Vulcan calmly drew his phaser and motioned for the doctor to seek a semblance of cover. "One life sign. Very faint. Proceeding in our direction. I am attempting to obtain a more accurate reading." He cautiously maneuvered toward the outcropping, keeping a series of large boulders between himself and the source of the life sign reading.

McCoy peeked over the rim of the ravine. He watched as Spock made his way to the base of the outcropping, then pause. The Vulcanís head tilted slightly, first to one side, then the other. The doctor smiled as he realized what Spock was doing: using the enhanced listening prowess of his elegantly pointed ears to detect sounds of movement through the thin atmosphere. The science officer again reached for the tricorder and stole a quick glance at the display screen. His impassive face displayed no emotion, but even from McCoyís vantage point, the tension in his shoulders was apparent. Spock knelt behind a massive slab of stone and began to carefully, but efficiently, ease forward, phaser first. He quickly vanished around the stone. McCoy waited a beat...two...three. The wind whistled through the spaces between the surrounding rocks, but his lowly human ears couldnít hear anything else. He was thinking about climbing out of the ravine and creeping forward to check on Spock when the Vulcanís voice called out. "Doctor. Your assistance is required."

In a flash, McCoy was out of his hiding place and rounding the large stone barrier. He found Spock at the mouth of a small opening in the outcropping. At first he thought the Vulcan was still alone, then he caught sight of a boot lying on the ground just beyond a flat, table-sized rock near the science officer. As he drew closer, a twisted, gruesome shape became clearer. The boot led up to a misshapen leg, which was barely attached to a burned, blackened body that itself scarcely clung to the blistered head crowning the figure. "What in the name of?..." McCoy started, then his medical instincts kicked in and he quickly crouched at the side of the broken form, his hands plying their trade with practiced ease. He ran his scanner over the figure. He glanced up at Spock, shook his head, and hastily set his hypo for a massive dose of painkillers. With a whoosh of forced air, the medicine flowed into the hapless manís bloodstream. "Help me turn him around, Spock," the doctor said, moving about to the injured manís shoulders. The two officers gingerly straightened the contorted manís frame out and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. The man groaned as they propped him up against a small boulder. His hair was nearly singed off but for a few stray charcoal-gray strands and the skin on his unrecognizable face was charred, peeling, and oozing pus. McCoy couldnít even be sure what species the poor man was. What remained of the manís clothing was little more than a smoldering collection of tatters. McCoy looked up at the Vulcan again. "Do you think this is the ambassador?" Spock knelt down beside them.

"Uncertain. Possibly he is one of Ambassador Shrasí entourage, which would seem to indicate an unforeseen turn of events."

"No kidding!" McCoy scoffed. "A most Ďlogicalí conclusion, Iím sure." He turned back to his patient and reactivated his medical scanner. "No...Heís not the ambassador. No Andorian readings." He slowly waved the scanner over the manís crumpled body. "Definitely human. Heís got massive internal injuries...his right leg is broken...both his arms are practically shattered...a severe concussion...Itís a miracle he was able to drag himself this far."

"Do we need to get him onboard ship for treatment?" Spock asked. Just then, the injured man moaned again and McCoy hastened to provide what emergency aid he could. His patient suddenly stiffened and fell back with a pitiful gurgle of breath. McCoy sighed, leaned back, and quietly closed the lid of his kit.

"Itís too late. Heís dead, Spock." McCoyís words echoed over the rocky terrain as the acrid wind gusted around them.

Spock stood and configured his tricorder for a wider scan. "You will recall, Doctor, that we have seen injuries similar to these before." He tweaked the tricorderís controls as McCoy looked back to the charred body. The doctorís blue eyes widened as he realized what Spock was talking about.

"Of course..." McCoy rose to the Vulcanís side. "Cestus III! An entire Federation outpost destroyed...by the Gorn!"

Spock nodded grimly. He was already reaching for the communicator at his belt when the small device started beeping. He and McCoy exchanged glances as the Vulcan brought the instrument to mouth level and flipped the cover up. "Spock here." The two officers could hear the strident red alert alarm over the communicator as the frequency opened.

"Mr. Spock, your status?" The voice of Captain James T. Kirk filtered down from high in planet orbit.

"The doctor and I are intact, however we believe the ambassadorís party may have encountered difficulty. What is the situation there?"

"We detected a ship entering this solar system a few minutes ago. Its configuration matches that of the Gorn ship we confronted at Cestus III." Kirk paused, receiving a situation report from Mr. Sulu at the helm station. "Sheís coming in loaded for bear, Spock-- all weapons charged, defensive screens activated. Iím ordering shields up and I may have to take the Enterprise out of orbit. Iím sorry, but we wonít have time to beam you aboard."

"Understood, Captain." Spock responded. He glanced down at the remains of the man they had found. "We suspect there may already be Gorn forces on the planet, sir. We have discovered someone we believe to have been a member of the ambassadorís group. He died of injuries comparable to those that dispatched the Cestus colony. While you deal with the threat to the Enterprise, I submit the best use of our time down here would be to try to determine the fate of the ambassadorís mission."

Kirk cautiously agreed. "Be careful, Spock...Nobody knows better than I do just how dangerous Gorn soldiers can be."

McCoy leaned nearer to the communicator. "Donít worry, Jim. If any of those Gorn get too close, weíll just throw together a homemade cannon out of an old log and some rotted vines. Piece of cake!"

"Sorry, Bones," Kirk chuckled. "That trick only works for us starship captains because our thoughts are noble and our hearts are pure!"

"Oh, is that how it is?" McCoy smirked as he watched Spockís eyebrow loft skyward. A buzz of voices swelled behind Kirkís as the well-trained Enterprise bridge crew demanded their captainís attention.

"Gentlemen, Iím afraid Iíll have to cut this short. Spock, Bones...good luck! Kirk out." The connection broke off with a mechanical chirp and Spock closed the communicator, returning it to his belt. He looked at McCoy quizzically.

" ĎPiece of cakeí?" he intoned.

"Never mind," McCoy said quickly. He didnít exactly feel like bantering with the Vulcan about ancient human expressions, especially since he was a little fuzzy concerning the origins of pastry-related idioms. "Last I heard the Gorn Empire and the Federation had agreed to normalize relations. I know this dust bowl of a planet is near the border of their space, but I didnít realize there were any pending territory disputes."

"I am unaware of any as well, Doctor," Spock said. He continued conducting scans as he followed along the dead manís tracks toward the opening in the rock which had disgorged him. "However, I believe it would be prudent for us to assume that such a dispute exists as far as some party, or parties, are concerned." He glanced up at the sun. "I suggest we use the daylight remaining to us to trail this manís route back to its point of origin. I estimate approximately 3.27 hours of serviceable sunlight available..." He turned back to McCoy and saw the doctor kneeling next to the burned corpse. The Vulcan allowed his voice to soften ever so slightly. "Doctor, I sympathize with your desire to provide the requisite burial rites for this man, but time is not on our side. Perhaps we can return later..."

McCoy stood, hot fingers of wind tousling his hair and pulling at his shirt. "We donít even know his name...Did he know who fired the weapon that killed him? Did he have any warning? How far did he have to drag himself to reach our position?..." His voice trailed off as the Vulcan drew to his side and peered down at the still smoking body.

"He gave his life in the performance of his duty, Doctor," he said. "And now, it is time for us to perform ours."

McCoy nodded. "I understand, Spock." The two officers turned and began to trace the grisly trail.

The narrow gouge in the rocks opened upon a sizable canyon that lay nestled between a matched pair of imposing cliffs. The passageway seemed to focus and amplify the gusting wind. Now the biting breeze fairly threw dust and dirt at them, taunting the officers with its mournful howls. Coughing, McCoy held his hand to his brow and tried to focus on his tricorderís display. "Spock?" He had to almost shout in order to be heard above the blustering din. "Are you reading the same trace DNA I am? Looks like he definitely came this way." The Vulcan braced himself against the wind, stole a quick reading with his own tricorder, and looked back.

"Confirmed." Spock paused, looking around. He peered down the length of the canyon, then his eyes swept upward to the cliffs above. McCoy shut down his tricorder and closed the distance between them.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Assessing our tactical status, Doctor. I am concerned that, given the apparent proximity of hostile forces, the bottom of this canyon ill affords us adequate protection in the event of an attack. I believe our next course of action should be to seek higher ground." He gestured up one of the cliffs. "Specifically, the summit of this precipice."

"Youíve got to be kidding, Spock!" McCoy gaped up at the towering three hundred meter rock face before them. "Iím a doctor, not a mountain goat!"

"Are you certain? Perhaps we should examine you for hooves and horns before proceeding." Spockís face was a portrait of Vulcan innocence as McCoy shot a double take in his direction.

"Do me a favor," the doctor groused. "Stick to science and let me handle the comedy, all right?"

"Comedy is not in my nature," Spock said. He cocked his head upward. "Do you wish to lead the way, Doctor?"

"Oh, I wouldnít dream of it, Commander. Please," McCoy bowed formally, his hands sweeping forward dramatically. "After you...sir." The Vulcan approached the cliff face and, without hesitation, began scaling the craggy edifice. McCoy watched his ascent for a moment or two with a mixture of annoyance and admiration, then tentatively reached for what he reckoned to be secure handholds and began to climb.

The doctor did what he could to keep up with Spock-- following his lead, trying to match his movements, attempting to place his hands and feet in the same spots the science officer had. Still, the Vulcan had amassed a considerable lead on McCoy before he finally paused about a third of the way up and glanced back. "Doctor, there is a small ledge just a few meters further," Spock called. "We should be able to seek a brief respite there." Noting McCoyís acknowledging nod, the Vulcan proficiently made his way to the rim of the ledge. He had already reached for his tricorder and was scanning the area when McCoy pulled himself, huffing and puffing, over the edge of the projection.

"Damn." The doctor collapsed on the ground in a heap. "Spock, the next time Jim puts on a few extra pounds and I nag him to spend some time in the gym, remind me to join him." McCoy dragged his braided sleeve across his brow and brushed some of the yellowish dirt from his hands.

"As you wish," Spock said, still concentrating on the tricorder. He stood in the shadows cast by the mountain face looming over them and the light from the instrumentís displays played across his face.

"Any signs of company?" McCoy asked, wiping dust from his uniform as he stood. He drew closer to the Vulcan, thankful to feel the shade was keeping the ambient temperature at least a few degrees cooler. "Spock?..." The Vulcan had still not responded. Suddenly, a high whistling sound pierced the air above them. McCoy felt his feet pull out from beneath him as he realized Spock had grabbed his arm and was half tugging, half throwing him against the side of the mountain. The whistle grew louder and more intense, then abruptly stopped. McCoy lifted his head to say something when half the ledge they were crouched on exploded. Pulverized rock and dirt showered down upon the two officers, and the remaining ground under them trembled as the shock wave from the explosion swept over the area. Barely able to catch their breath in the smoke-filled air, Spock and McCoy hugged the facade of the mountain as the blast subsided. "I guess that answers my question about company!" McCoy found himself shouting over the ringing in his ears.

"I would say so, Doctor," Spock said. "That detonation appears to have been the result of the same type of concussion force weapon the Gorn employed during our first encounter at Cestus."

McCoy was about to ask if they should keep heading higher or try to make their way back down the cliff when a second incoming whistle lanced the air. The same brief, sickening pause followed, then nearly twenty-five meters of the slope they had just climbed burst outward in a cloud of debris and tumbled toward the ground, effectively cutting off their chance of returning the way they had come. McCoy hacked the dust out of his throat and turned to Spock. "What now? We canít stay here and hope they donít suddenly become better shots with those weapons!"

"Agreed," Spock said. "They should have our range determined very shortly. We have no choice but to continue ascending this cliff. I recommend we hasten our pace."

"Not even I can argue with that logic, Spock!" McCoy scrambled to his feet, wiping the dirt from his eyes. The Vulcan pushed ahead of him and resumed climbing. McCoy had barely pulled himself off the ledge when a third charge whistled down, disintegrating the slender rock shelf from practically beneath his boots. He swallowed his fear and quietly ordered his brain to ignore his aching muscles, determined to do his level best to stay right below Spock.

McCoyís fingers were cut and bleeding by the time they had reached a narrow natural pathway a few dozen meters higher. His arms felt leaden and he was pretty sure he had pulled a hamstring muscle. Sweat pouring from his forehead kept getting into his eyes, the salty liquid burning them. Spock reached down and, grabbing the doctor around the shoulders, yanked him the final few feet up onto the path. "Well, not a very dignified entrance, but thank you for the assist, Mr. Spock," McCoy said as he tugged his shirt back into place and knelt to catch his breath. He held his injured hands out in front of him. "In my considered medical opinion, this is going to hurt like hell in the morning!"

"Starfleet Medical would be pleased to hear such a detailed diagnosis, Iím sure, Doctor, but I believe we have more pressing concerns." Spock pulled his tricorder off his shoulder and conducted a quick scan. "I am curious as to why the Gorn have stopped their shelling. It has been nearly ten minutes since their last bombardment."

A wry smile crawled across McCoyís dusty face. "Maybe we scared them off? We are a pretty formidable pair, you know." The officers looked each other up and down-- torn and soiled clothing, dirt-stained faces, battered and bleeding hands-- two sweat-soaked, blue and black clad specks clinging for dear life to an implacable mountainside one hundred and fifty times their size.

"Yes, of course...that must be it," Spock said, something that was almost a smile flickering at the sides of his mouth. He turned back to the tricorder, then spoke again. "I must confess, Doctor, I am at a loss as to why you so frequently employ humor in tense situations such as this. I have observed the captain doing this as well."

"A classic Ďhumaní reaction to stress, Spock," McCoy responded. "Joking can take a personís mind off a serious problem, or relieve the tension in a given moment."

Spock nodded. "I see. Does it help?"

McCoy paused, a bit taken aback by the question. He had to reflect for a moment. Then he shrugged. "Sometimes."

The Vulcan maintained his scans for a few silent moments, then set the tricorder in stand-by mode and flipped the lid of the device down. "I am going to scout ahead, Doctor." He stood and turned up the thin path. "Please continue resting. I shall return in a few minutes."

"Wait! What am I supposed to do while you go off and play Kit Carson?" McCoy braced one arm against the rock wall as he pulled his aching body to a standing position. Spock stopped and looked back.

"Try not to fall off the side of the mountain." The Vulcan fixed the doctor with an expectant gaze. "That was a joke, Doctor. I trust your tension has now been sufficiently relieved." He spun around on his heel and began to swiftly make his way up the path.

"Oh, youíd better believe it," McCoy called after him. "I feel so much better now, thank you!" He watched the Vulcan disappear up the trail, then flopped back down on the ground and massaged his throbbing legs. He took a deep breath and expelled it loudly, trying to calm his nerves. Spock was right about one thing: the silence following the last Gorn blast was eerie. McCoy morbidly wondered what they were waiting for. He peered down the cliff, trying to spot troop movement or the gleam of sunlight on a weapon muzzle-- any clue to their unseen oppositionís whereabouts. The narrow valley below lay in hushed slumber, only the thin blanket of newly-fallen dust it had drawn about itself revealed any recent disturbances to its dreams. Rubbing the last knot out of his thigh muscles, he leaned back against the uneven surface of the cliff and attempted to loosen up his upper arms. He tried to clear his head and, for the thousandth time, cursed himself for ever joining Starfleet. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes. He smiled inwardly and reminded himself that if he had stayed home and hung out his shingle in Georgia, he would have never seen the things he had seen during his travels on the Enterprise, or experienced the wonder of examining a new life form for the first time, or the thrill of healing an unknown alien on some backwater world. "Besides, if Iíd never ventured into space," he grumbled aloud to himself. "I would have missed all the fun of days like this..."

McCoy halted, his reverie suddenly interrupted by a now familiar whistling noise from above. He jumped to his feet, fumbling with his tricorder as he moved. He tried to adjust the medical unitís scanner to detect where the force weapon would land, but his injured fingers felt as though they were encased in lead. He slammed the tricorder closed in frustration and dove for the side of the rock wall. He hunkered down and covered his head with his arms as the very atmosphere around him seemed to draw away, anticipating the fateful pause that signaled imminent impact. McCoy felt the ground give way beneath him as the blast hit. He gasped for air, but was only rewarded with a mouthful of dirt. He sputtered and started to slide downward, twisting and turning wildly, struggling to find any random handhold. Suddenly McCoy came to a wrenching stop. His fingertips had somehow latched on to the lip of what remained of the narrow path. His shoulders screamed bloody murder, but he managed to will them to remain in their sockets as his hands secured their grips. He cried out in pain as stony debris rained down on him and threatened to knock him from his uncertain perch. His feet flailed below his body for a few seconds, then finally found just enough rocky protrusion to push against. He grimaced and hauled himself up on to the remnants of the pathway.

McCoy blinked and wiped his eyes. The dust was making them tear up. He quickly surveyed the area. Most of the path behind him was destroyed. There would be no turning back. In the other direction the way was mostly intact, but he knew that could change with the next incoming charge. There was no sign of Spock, but McCoy had to hope the Vulcan was safe somewhere ahead. He turned and headed up the path, carefully checking his footing as he walked.

McCoy had hardly traveled half a dozen feet when the air was again ripped asunder by the high-pitched sound. He frantically looked around for cover but the pathway had narrowed to barely more than three times the width of his boot, leaving nowhere for him to duck. He had turned around to hug the stone wall and steel himself for the shock when the weapon detonated right below him. The slender ground under him began to cave in as the bank beneath it erupted outward. As McCoy felt himself falling backwards, losing his grip on the rocks before him, time seemed to both slow to a crawl and rush headlong ahead. He could feel his legs churning madly, trying to gain purchase on the shifting earth. His mouth opened silently, as if uncertain whether to scream in terror or shout out in anger. His outstretched arms flapped at his sides like birdís wings comically deprived of flight. He felt his body start to sink as his boots finally slid past their last opportunity for salvation.

Suddenly Spock appeared beside him. The Vulcanís hand reached out, grabbing McCoy by the front of his tunic. McCoy blinked in disbelief as they hung there, death yawning below. The Vulcanís left arm stretched out behind him, fingers dug into unseen handholds with some impossible grip. His left boot was propped against the last vestige of the edge of the path as his right foot swung around madly, trying to gain a foothold. Even Spockís emotional control couldnít disguise the pain shooting through his body. He gritted his teeth and gasped, his face contorting with effort. Then, with a final, agonizing grunt, Spock brought his full Vulcan strength to bear and began to haul McCoy back toward safety. Somehow Spock managed to flip McCoyís bulk up on to the path-- what was left of it-- without tumbling over the side himself. He then pushed-- dragged-- the doctor another twenty meters further along the thin strip of ground before halting abruptly.

McCoy, still stunned by his nearly fatal fall, sat confused for a moment as he shook his head, trying to clear it. He looked over at the Vulcan. "Spock?" he asked, his voice a quivering, raspy whisper. "Whatís the matter? Why have we stopped?" The science officer stood next to him, shock still and silent. Just then, McCoy became aware that the sun above them had become blocked by an immense shadow. He looked just ahead of them to locate the source of the shade, and found himself gawking at a massive, leathery, gray-green foot. He gulped and forced his gaze up, along a muscular, stocky leg, across a powerful torso, all the way up to the thick neck and broad, flat, lizard-like face of a Gorn soldier in all his reptilian glory.

Spock turned to McCoy. "I believe this would be an excellent opportunity for a tension-relieving joke, Doctor."

McCoy drew himself slowly up to the Vulcanís side, still staring at the sight of their gigantic foe. "For the life of me I canít think of one, Spock."

The Gorn stepped forward. It easily stood a good seven feet tall, moving with a lumbering but powerful gait. Clumsy, claw-like appendages relieved the two officers of their phasers, tricorders, and communicators, which the Gorn then stashed in a pouch hanging from its studded belt. The Gorn gestured with its drawn sidearm for them to move ahead of it on the path. The great man-beast prodded his weapon into McCoyís back to reinforce its point.

The two officers were led to another pathway in the rock which quickly veered off and sloped back down the mountainside. They were joined enroute by two more of the huge lizard men, which exchanged words with the first Gorn in their strange, breathy, hissing native language. As their descent continued, McCoy dourly concluded that the trip down the cliff was easier than the trip up, but a whole lot more embarrassing.

They soon found themselves entering a primitive camp at the base of the far side of the cliff. Half a dozen more Gorn soldiers greeted their captors and pointed toward the center of the encampment. Spock caught McCoyís eye and nodded toward several figures cowering in a circle on the ground. McCoy returned the Vulcanís nod, having spotted the bright blue skin and bleach-white hair of the Andorian ambassador among the captives. One of the Gorn soldiers roughly pushed the two officers down beside the gathering of prisoners.

"Is everyone all right here?" Spock asked the group. The people remained silent and kept their heads down. A young Rigellian woman wept and averted her eyes. A wiry, balding human man sat, drawn up in a fetal position, rocking. Three more men of various lineage huddled together to one side. The group had obviously been traumatized by their ordeal. A young Andorian female helped the ambassador to his feet. The elder Andorian came forward unsteadily, but still with the inherent nobility that marked his ancient race. Spock stood, bowed and held his hands out, palms upward, in a traditional Andorian greeting. "Ambassador Shras," he said formally.

Shras returned the gesture. "Commander Spock of the Enterprise, I presume," he said in weak but clipped tones. "Forgive our humble surroundings, but we..." The ambassador halted and winced in pain. McCoy rushed forward to steady him.

"Iím a doctor," he said, wishing for his med-kit. "Are you injured, sir?" The Andorian paled but waved McCoy away.

"We are all Ďinjuredí, Doctor," he snapped. "Every last one of us." His shoulders slumped and his demeanor softened. "I am sorry, gentlemen. Your concern in appreciated, of course, but you will understand if I bear the brunt of responsibility for this fiasco. It was my idea to open negations for dentarium mining rights on this planet with the Tzenkethi Alliance. Then to beam down only to discover the entire Tzenkethi party butchered by these...unklíackítlee..." The ambassadorís hand swept out in the direction of the Gorn. McCoy wasnít sure what the Andorian curse Shras had used meant, but he had no doubt it was particularly unflattering. "Why they did not kill us as well, I can not say." Shras wrapped a hand around the arm of his female escort and hung his head. "Death would be preferable to the torture we have endured, I think."

"Have you been able to determine why these Gorn attacked you?" Spock asked.

The ambassador shook his head. "No. I was one of the framers of the non-aggression pact between the Federation and Gorn Empire. I am positive their representatives negotiated in good faith." He stopped and thought for a moment. "But, I do know this: relations between the Federation and the Tzenkethi have always been...tenuous at best. I fear what repercussions this tragedy holds for the sector."

Spock looked at McCoy. "Perhaps that was their intention-- to foster ill will between two rival powers. Take advantage of the ensuing conflict to acquire more territory."

"I suppose," McCoy agreed. "Doesnít seem like a very smart plan though, does it?"

"Terrorists are rarely noted for their intelligence, Doctor." He turned back to Shras. "How many Gorn soldiers are we dealing with?"

The ambassador reflected for a few seconds. "Not an especially large number," he finally concluded. "It was the suddenness and brutality of their attack that caught us off-guard. Perhaps...nine or ten of them?" He looked at his staff for confirmation. They whispered amongst themselves, then shook their heads in agreement.

Spock looked around the camp, doing a quick Gorn head count. "And weaponry? Do they appear to be heavily armed?"

One of the ambassadorís assistants, a graying human, spoke up. "They each carry one of those sidearms, some sort of disruptor, I think. And a knife..." His voice cracked and he looked down at several jagged cuts on his arms and legs. "They seem to enjoy using those damn knives..." The Rigellian woman touched the manís hand tenderly and continued for him.

"They also have one of those," she pointed to the far side of the camp. An ugly, bloated, mean-looking machine gleamed in the sunlight. Like much of Gorn technology, it appeared primitive and advanced at the same time. It sat in the dust, hunched down like a nightmarish jungle cat poised to leap upon its prey at a momentís notice. It dwarfed the two Gorn soldiers standing guard near it. "Itís some kind of cannon," the woman went on. "A launcher. It sends out the most awful charges!" She began to cry and, wiping her eyes, she turned to McCoy. "My husband, William...He managed to get away! He ran for those hills over there, but then...then they started shelling him! He ran and ran...but the charges kept falling closer!" She looked up into McCoyís eyes. "Did you see him? Did you see my poor William? Please tell me he made it to safety!" she pleaded.

The doctor gently took her wrists in his hands. He knew the man who had died near the canyon had to have been her husband. He returned her gaze without blinking. "Iím sorry, maíam," he said softly. The woman broke down sobbing. The Andorian female came forward to comfort her. McCoy turned back to Spock and Shras. "Well, now what?" he wondered.

"Mr. Ambassador, have you observed the Gorn loading their launcher weapon?" Spock asked. He was staring intently at the numerous heavy canisters surrounding the vicious-looking machine.

"Yes, I have, Mr. Spock," Shras replied, curious. "Why do you ask?"

"And those containers...Are they the ammunition for the device?" Seeing the ambassador nod in affirmation, Spock continued. "Would you say that the Gorn exercise extreme caution when handling them?"

Shras again confirmed the Vulcanís reasoning. "Yes, they are most careful with them. In fact, I watched two of them almost drop one canister as it was being loaded. It caused quite a stir. What is the significance of that, Mr. Spock?"

The Vulcan did not answer the question, instead saying, "Thank you, sir. Would you please rejoin your companions?" The ambassador nodded and limped back to the group. Spock studied the two Gorn still guarding them. One of them was the soldier who had confiscated their weapons and equipment. Spock tilted his head at the Gornís belt pouch and whispered to McCoy. "If we could regain at least one of our phasers, I believe we may be able to disrupt the Gorn long enough to effect an escape."

"What?" McCoy scoffed. "The two of us, along with seven injured people, against ten Gorn soldiers? Has the heat driven you out of your Vulcan mind, Spock?"

"I admit some risk is involved, Doctor," Spock said. "But remember, the Gorn are awkward, slow-moving creatures. If we coordinate our plan properly, we should be able to...Ďrun circles around themí. I believe that is the correct human phrase."

McCoy cast an incredulous eye upon the Vulcan. "Youíve been hanging around Jim Kirk too long. This sounds like one of his hare-brained schemes!"

Spock fixed an intense gaze on the doctor. "What would you have us do? Remain here and do nothing? Sit quietly and allow ourselves and these people to be held hostage, or possibly killed? We have a duty, Doctor."

"Iím aware of that, Mr. Spock," McCoy said angrily. He stood eye to eye with the Vulcan for a few seconds, then he smiled and winked. "Sorry, Spock. Iíve had a rough day."

The eyebrow lifted. "As have we all, Doctor. Now, let us join the ambassadorís group and plot our liberation."

They sat down with the others, quickly and quietly outlining Spockís plan. Their fellow captives were even less enthusiastic about its chances for success than McCoy, but Ambassador Shras agreed with the Starfleet officers that action was preferable to sitting around waiting on an unknown fate.

McCoy helped the ambassadorís staff gather closer together as Spock stood and slowly, subtly began to inch toward their reptilian guards. Just as the two Gorn soldiers began to notice the group stirring, Spock and McCoy exchanged knowing glances and McCoy whispered, "No time like the present, Mr. Spock."

Spock whirled around suddenly and dodged between the two Gorn. As they lumbered to stop him, he reached up and tried to grab for the pouch dangling from the belt of the Gorn to his left. Meanwhile, McCoy rousted the captives. "Move! Move!" he shouted, prodding them to dash for the hills in the distance. Injured though they were, the ambassador and his staff limped and hobbled as quickly as they were able. Other Gorn began to turn in their direction, clumsily groping for their disruptor weapons. As the last hostage passed him, McCoy looked back at Spock. His heart sank as he saw the Gorn soldier with the belt pack had gripped the Vulcanís right arm in his oversized hand, lifting Spock two feet off the ground. The science officer was still struggling valiantly for the leathery pouch with his other hand. The remaining guard was threatening to grab the Vulcan from behind, while the rest of the soldiers were taking aim with their disruptors.

McCoy reversed direction in full run, hollering over his shoulder for the others to keep going. As he neared Spockís position, the Vulcan finally managed to free one phaser from confinement. The Gorn roared in rage and shook the Vulcan violently, but Spock held on to the weapon. Through eyelids slit in effort, he saw McCoy racing up to them. He took careful aim and lofted the phaser at the doctor. "It is up to you," he shouted in pain. "Hurry, Doctor!"

The phaser arched toward McCoy as he ran up. It was coming in too fast, he feared, leaping over the uneven terrain. Knowing he was going to get only one shot at this, he stretched his body out in one last desperate flying leap at the weapon. His hands shook as they reached out, but suddenly his felt the pistol grip in his palm. Then he landed head first in a cloud of dust. Adrenaline surging, he spun quickly back up to a standing position, using his rollís forward momentum to increase the speed of his headlong run. His fingers fumbled with the phaserís power settings as he bounced across the stony landscape. He circled around two more of the ponderous Gorn and set his path for the cannon launcher on the other side of the compound. Disruptor fire began to blaze around him as the rest of the troops finally brought their weapons to bear. Still adjusting the phaserís settings, he made a swift cut to the right, just under a Gornís arms. With a satisfying click, the phaser at last began to vibrate and hum, an overload beginning to build up in its power cells.

McCoy knew the phaser had to be delivered to its target at nearly point-blank range, so he dove to within ten feet of the huge mechanism before hurling the overloading device into the largest collection of the ammunition canisters he could spot through the confusion raging around the camp. He turned back to escape only to find his way blocked by a Gorn brandishing a knife. He wove to his left, then back to his right, dodging the huge attacker. The overload signal blaring behind him began to drown out all other noise as he spotted a large boulder ahead of him. With a final groan of exertion, he plunged over the rock and covered his head. Finally, the phaser released all its pent-up power in a blinding flash, igniting the unstable canisters next to it. The whole Gorn weapon went up in a blaze of glory, sending shock wave after shock wave across The rocky plain. The boulder McCoy squatted behind bounced up and down several times, then plopped back down in place with a loud rumble. Burning pieces of shrapnel from the cannon rained down upon the area.

Abruptly an eerie quiet fell over the camp as the dust settled. McCoy slowly opened his eyes and peeked over the large rock. Their plan had worked even better than they had dared hope. All of the Gorn he could spot through the dust appeared unconscious or worse. He turned and quickly made his way toward the last place he had seen Spock. He found the two Gorn guards sprawled out in a heap, but couldnít see any sign of the Vulcan. He was afraid to call out, for fear of rousing some of the unconscious Gorn. Just then he spied movement and a flash of science division blue between the two fallen beasts. The dark hair and pointed ears popped up next, and McCoy grinned. The Vulcan extracted himself with as much dignity as he could summon under the circumstances.

"Well done, Doctor," Spock said, with maddening calm. "It was not your usual type of surgical procedure, but most effective none the less."

McCoy smiled broadly. "Mr. Spock, after nearly being knocked off the side of a mountain by that damned thing, it was downright cathartic!" His eyes narrowed as he looked toward the hills in the distance. "It looks like the ambassadorís staff got away too."

"I suggest we join them at once," Spock said. "Most, if not all of these Gorn are still alive, and will no doubt have a most unpleasant emotional reaction to recent events."

As they turned to follow the fleeing group, a familiar hum began to fill the air. Six figures took shape atop a nearby ridge as Captain James Kirk and a contingent of Enterprise security men transported down, phasers drawn. Kirk gaped at the carnage below for a moment, then bounded down to join his officers. "Spock, Bones! What the devil is going on?"

"Donít mind us, Jim," McCoy beamed at his friend and commanding officer. "Spock and I have just been enjoying a nice, relaxing day on landing party duty, right Spock?"

The Vulcan looked from Kirk to McCoy, then back again. "Yes, Captain. It has been...a piece of cake."

Kirk opened his mouth to speak, paused, frowned, then finally said, "I...see." He motioned for half of the security force to begin rounding up wounded Gorn, then ordered the rest to collect Ambassador Shras and party. "Well, gentlemen," he said, turning back to Spock and McCoy. "Youíll be pleased to know that the Gorn youíve been fighting down here are part of a rogue element within the Gorn Empire. The ship that came into orbit turned out not to have much stomach for fighting once half a dozen ships from the official Gorn government arrived. They should be sending troops down momentarily to take whatís left of these Gorn into custody. If you two would like to beam up to the ship, I think it would be a good idea to have Doctor MíBenga check you over."

"Acknowledged, sir," Spock said. As Kirk pulled out his communicator to issue the appropriate orders to the transporter room, Spock turned to McCoy. "Doctor, perhaps we should take advantage of our time in sickbay to review the computer database on mountain climbing techniques."

"Mr. Spock, if I live to be a hundred and thirty-seven, I am never going to climb another mountain!" McCoy folded his arms behind his back in mock annoyance. "Must you always be so blasted logical?"

"Of course, Doctor," the Vulcan said, cocking an eyebrow while folding his own arms behind him. "It is part of my charm."

McCoy grinned as the transporter effect began to envelope them and they disappeared in a shimmering shower of light.

End.

My impressions of why this story failed to pass the Strange New Worlds test

Cliffhanger!: What went wrong?

Well, most obviously, the last couple thousand words are too rushed and need a good going over. ĎCourse, I was "balls to the wall" at the time, since I had to get the blamed thing done and sent in the next day! Can you say "discipline"? I thought you could! Thatís why Iíve already started two stories for next year.

Secondly, I feel my "serious" dialog doesnít come off as well as my "funny" dialog. Now maybe Iím such a comedic genius that I should just stick with what I do best, but whereís the challenge in that?

I tired to come up with an opening paragraph like no other...I figured a bead of sweat hanging from Spockís nose ought to qualify, but perhaps this approach slowed the story down too much? I was trying to evoke the beginning of the spaghetti western Once Upon A Time In The West, in case anyone cares.

Also, I think that I failed to properly develop the characters in the ambassadorís group. I think the ambassador himself came off fairly well, but the rest are pretty much faceless cyphers. Again, thatís why you shouldnít wait to the last minute, boys and girls!

Iíve been told that I didnít clearly establish why Spock and McCoy were on the planet to begin with, and I suppose thatís a valid criticism. I have mentioned on the SNW message board the problems I have with exposition. It always seems so clunky when itís thrown at the reader. I tried to be subtle about it, but I still donít like it. Iím probably turned off by it because of all those old Silver Age Superman stories where the Big S would be given a thought balloon along the lines of "Thereís the bottle city of Kandor, which was stolen years ago by the evil space android Brainiac from my home planet Krypton before it exploded! I have vowed never to rest until I find a way to restore it to its original size! >CHOKE!<"...zeezeezeezeee..."Great Scott! Thereís the signal from Jimmy Olsenís special signal watch, which I gave to him so he could summon me when he was in danger! I hope itís not trouble with my arch enemy, criminal scientist Lex Luthor, who has hated me ever since we were boys in Smallville, and he blamed me for the laboratory accident which caused the loss of his hair!" See why I HATE exposition??

Now, the fun stuff:

What I think is right with Cliffhanger!

1) I will stack my McCoy/Spock interaction up against ANYbodyís, he said modestly!

2) I got to make fun of Jimís ego AND his weight! Ya canít beat that with a stick!

3) The action sequences came off well, especially the mountain climbing stuff. The later action in the Gorn camp doesnít work as well, but again, I think it just needs a healthy polish.

4) I also liked my opening/closing mirror joke motif.

What Iím gonna do differently next year:

Bribery!

...No wait! Maybe Iíll just try the time-tested "try, try again" approach. Iíve come up with an idea for a TNG story that I think will allow me to write more in my usual "horribly overwritten" style. So watch your backs, you winners from this year!

I invite your critiques and comments: E2JORL@aol.com.

Thank you for your time!

Bruce W. Thompson

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