Wheee-wwoo! The bosun's whistle squealed over the  speakers of the captain's cabin followed by Uhura's easy voice.  "Bridge to Captain Kirk: Priority One transmission from Admiral Fitzgerald, Starfleet Command." 
   Kirk looked from the chessboard and met Spock's eyes.  There had been nothing coming down the pipe to foreshadow any immediate problem.  In fact, whoever said that life on a starship a never-ending adventure must not have been on board for these past three weeks of frontier patrol.  Whatever was happening , it was bad and it had caught Starfleet by surprise.  
   Kirk toggled the computer intercom. "Queue it up on the main view screen, lieutenant.  We're on our way." 
    Kirk rose from his desk and pulled on a fresh shirt. The adreniline was already pumping.  "You're in luck this time, Spock.  I would have had you checked in two." 
   "Arguable," said Spock as he locked the chesspieces in place for later . "And hardly 'lucky', in any event.  A Priority One situation suggests imminent and extensive loss of life and welfare, and is in no way preferable to the loss of a game of chess."
    "You have a talent for understatement, my friend," said Kirk.  Spock waited for him at the cabin door.  "Come on; let's see what we've got."  Together the two men strode out into the corridor.

   "Go ahead, Starfleet," said Uhura as captain and first officer took their Bridge stations.
   On the large screen, Admiral Fitzgerald's face flickered into view.  "Captain Kirk, I need to apprise you of an urgent situation.  As you know, since Organia, the situation with the Klingons has become paradoxically worse.  Instead of straightforward military aggression, they are disrupting allied worlds--civilian targets--in increasingly destructive ways." Fitzgerald paused deliberately.  "We have just been informed that they have released Regulan eel-birds on Vega IX. "
    Kirk waited.  Starfleet didn't deliver orders by Priority One for lost pets.  "And?"
    Spock raised an eyebrow.  "Eel-birds are voracious carnivores.  On Regulus V they feed on and control the population of aquatic animals.  Given the lack of marine animals and the paucity of lower land animals on Vega IX, the humanoid population would, of necessity, become their primary sustenance."
    "Exactly," said Fitzgerald.  "In just the initial report we have thousands killed and large parts of the infrastructure destroyed in the feeding frenzy.  The situation must be reversed; the very survival of the planet depends upon it." Fitzgerald leaned toward the screen. "Kirk, the Enterprise has drawn this assignment."
    Kirk squared his shoulders.  "Mr. Chekov, how far out are we from Vega IX?"
   "Eighteen hours at warp six, sir."  His fingers flew over the console, already plotting a new course.
   "'I'll expect a positive progress report within twenty-four.  Every minute that the birds hunt is a Klingon victory," said Fitzgerald.
   "And there is one more thing."
   Kirk squared his shoulders.   Wasn't there always?
   "Vega IX is a pre-warp planet, D on the Richter scale of culture.  The prime directive is in full force.  Saving the inhabitants at the expense of further contamination won't be acceptable."
   "It shouldn't be a problem.  With our ship-to-planet sensors and phasers--"
   "Which will not be an option," Fitzgerald interrupted.  "The Vegans have taken advantage of a peculiarity in their atmosphere, which contains focused pockets of substantial static electricity.  They have moved into these pockets, which function as natural force-fields. Phasers and transporter beams anywhere in the atmosphere disrupt the electric flow for several hours.  If you transport in or phaser one bird, you will leave the planet vulnerable to mass slaughter by the rest." 
   Kirk glanced at Spock and then brought his eyes back to the screen.  "You aren't making this easy, Admiral."
   "That's the mission and it's all yours.  Vega IX is counting on you. Starfleet out."  The screen returned to the field of stars.
Kirk turned from the viewer.  "Well, Mr. Spock, you have eighteen hours to read up on everything we know about Vega IX and eel-birds. You'd best get started."
   "Acknowledged.  And you, Captain?"
Kirk grimaced.  "This diversion is going to tighten our schedule severely. I'll be working on a way to tell the crew that shore leave on Starbase 73 will be cut short because some giant birds have flown the coop."
Spock cocked an eyebrow.  "I believe I have the easier of the two assignments."
    "As usual, Mr. Spock, I agree with you."  With a gesture, Kirk ushered Spock into the turbolift.

   Nearly eighteen hours later, Scotty met them in the hanger deck airlock with a phaser in each hand.  "I readied the Galileo.  I know she's your favorite." He shot Kirk a secret, sideways look--one career sailor to another.
   She was--for no reason that Kirk could explain. In fact, she still held some of his personal gear for his planned R&R on Starbase 73--the recreation that was now forfeit to this mission.   "No phasers," said Kirk, motioning Scotty's offerings away.   "If we don't have them, we won't be tempted to use them."
   "How do you expect to control the beasties?" asked Scotty.  "Sweet talk them into traipsing home?"
Kirk motioned toward the devices he and Spock had clipped to their belts.  "Tranquilizer darts.  The biolab says they should knock out an eel-bird in fifteen seconds.  Mr. Spock and I will assess the situation and decide on a plan from there."
   "Just the two of you?" Scotty asked.
   "This is a pre-warp culture and the prime directive is in full effect. The less people down there, the less chance of revealing something inadvertently."  At the engineer's look of skepticism, Kirk smiled and said, "Don't worry.  If we need anything, we'll call up and let you know.
   "Scotty, my ship is in your hands.  Remember that the Klingons started this and may be nearby.  Keep my ship safe, but not at the risk of the people below.  Warp out if you have to, but no phasers or transporters anywhere near their ionosphere."
   "And you?"
"Mr. Spock and I can take care of ourselves.  You worry about the Enterprise and those Klingons."
   "Aye sir," said Scotty, sounding none too happy about it.  "I'll have support teams standing by to shuttle down if you so much as make a peep."  The indicator signaled ready, and Scotty opened the airlock door.
   "Thoughtful, but I'd prefer you waited for an order."  Kirk clapped him on the shoulder and strode across the hangar deck to the Galileo with Spock following a half step behind.

   "Fascinating," said Spock, staring into his goose-necked monitor. "I am receiving readings from only two eel-birds anywhere on the planet."
   "Are you sure?" asked Kirk. "Two isn't much of a catastrophic infestation."
   "The numbers may be low; however, I would not discount the damage that two eel-birds could do given their enormous nutritional needs and the dearth of alternative food sources.  Furthermore, when they breed--"
    "I get the picture," said Kirk, the tension mounting within him again.
   Spock tweaked a dial.  "The two birds are 5.392 kilometers apart.  One is on the move; the other is stationary."
   "Better and better," said Kirk.  He peered out though the forward viewer, but saw only haze dotted with the shimmer of electric energy, as he had through most of the trip within the atmosphere.  Spock's monitor could penetrate the clouds, but it was made for a single user only.  "Put us down between them, but keep us under cloud cover as long as you can.  I don't want to be visible any more than necessary."
   "The inhabitants have a rich culture of folklore, including legends of mythological beings from the sky visiting their world.  It is likely that any sightings of our presence would be attributed to such myths," said Spock.
    "A legend and a shuttlecraft are two very different things.  If you can find us a landing spot within easy reach of one of the birds, but out of sight of the humanoids, you will have earned your pay."
  Spock worked the instruments.  "I believe I have done that."
   Kirk squeezed his shoulder.  "Beautiful!"
   "But to maintain maximum concealment, our landing might be a bit precipitous."
   Wise to his first officer's penchant for understatement, Kirk hastily took a seat.
   Spock engaged the landing protocol, and the Galileo dropped out of the sky.  Kirk's stomach flipped and he grabbed hold of the console as the shuttle careened out of the clouds and down directly toward a chain of massive mountains.
    "The eel-birds' native environment is caverns in the Chyllaraw Mountain Range of Regulus V.  They appear to have sought similar habitat here." Spock brought the shuttle over a peak and dropped into a twisting pass, following around and alarmingly close to the rock.
    "Spock," Kirk began again as they veered within seeming centimeters of a rock face, "this is a spacecraft; we could fly over the mountains."
  "There are humanoids scattered throughout this area. If you wish to avoid being sighted, the cover of the terrain is imperative."
   "Let me amend that to 'maintain cover without littering the area with incriminating debris from a Federation shuttlecraft wreck.' Maybe I should pilot."  Kirk tried not to wince as they barely rounded a tight turn.
   "I am better qualified," said Spock.  "However, if you would desist from distracting me, it would increase the safety margin."
   Kirk swallowed and folded his hands in his lap.
   Whoosh!  All of a sudden, the craft was free of the rocks and dropping straight down towards a choppy, black sea.  It flattened out barely above the wave crests and skimmed the water's surface at breakneck speed, heading directly toward a rock cliff across the way.  Kirk winced, but said nothing and kept his eyes open wide as the Galileo rolled almost sideways and swooped into a hidden crack in the rock.  The craft twisted and turned through a passageway not much wider than itself, until it stopped short and landed on a relatively level clearing in the rock.
   Spock shut down the engines. "We're here."
   Kirk stood and tugged down his shirt and let his stomach settle back where it belonged. "So I see."
   Spock switched from the shuttle instruments to his portable tricorder.  He slid open the hatch to the Galileo and scanned the vicinity.  "We are precisely 0.371 kilometers from the moving reading and 4.209 from the other."
   "Good work," said Kirk. He hopped down to the rock.     "Which way?"
   "Bearing 8-1-1." Spock gestured with his tricorder; Kirk took the lead.
   "It's moving toward us now," said Spock.  "Less than three hundred meters."
   Kirk readied his tranquilizer gun.
"Two hundred fifty.  Two hundred.  One hundred fifty."
    Kirk alternated between scanning the skies and the rocks. There were so many cracks and caves, so many places a creature comfortable in these environs could hide.
Spock kept his eyes fixed on his tricorder.  "One hundred meters and closing."
    "Brrraaaaacck!"  There was an earsplitting squawk and the sky above darkened as an eel-bird nearly as big as a shuttlecraft swooped in and snatched Spock up in its talons. 
    Spock twisted and bucked, trying to break free.  His utility belt dropped to the rocks below, shattering his communicator into scores of useless shards and sending the tranquilizer gun sliding down a narrow crevasse. 
    Kirk fired up into the eel-bird, but the dart bounced harmlessly off of the thickly armored hide.  As Spock struggled to break free, Kirk fired again, aiming for the vulnerable spot between wing and body, but the eel-bird deflected it easily and flew off with Spock in its grip.
    "Scotty!" Kirk yelled into his communicator.  "Get me a lock on Mr. Spock.
    "Are you in trouble, Captain?  Do ya want me to beam him up?"
    Yes!  "No. We can't disturb the power matrix.  Just put a lock on him and feed the telemetry down to the shuttlecraft tricorder."  Kirk was already running back to the Galileo as he spoke.
    "Do you want me to send down a support team?" asked Scotty. 
    "Negative.  Shuttling takes too long.  I'm going after him myself."  Kirk slammed shut his communicator and leapt through the shuttlecraft door.  He stopped for the other tricorder, then dashed to the back and rummaged through the gear he had stowed for his aborted leave.  He found the levitation boots and shoved them on. 
    They weren't really designed for horizontal transport, so coordinating the angle of the boots, interpreting the tricorder data and avoiding the peaks and juts took all of Kirk's attention.  There was not enough left to worry about being seen by the natives; they would deal with that after he got Spock back.   Finding a position that would propel him forward, Kirk put the boots on full burn and took off in the direction of the tricorder blip.
    The eel-bird had a sizable head start, but soon Kirk was narrowing the gap.  He thought he could see it up ahead and pressed the boots for every bit of power they could give.  He zipped and zoomed over the mountains; now the distance was less than half of what it had been when he had started in pursuit.  But then the eel-bird turned and veered.  Kirk's heart sank when he saw where it was headed: out over an ocean cove and down.  This was the worst possible sign.  "The eel-bird's habit is to drown its prey, then consume it safely at its leisure."  Spock had told him this just a few short hours ago during his briefing.
    Kirk wondered momentarily if Scotty's telemetry would distinguish between live and dead Vulcan readings, then--to Kirk's relief and surprise--the bird crossed the cove and swept up again and into a cliff, disappearing into a split in the face.  The telemetry indicated it was continuing on back--into the heart of the mountain.  Kirk slowed the boots and maneuvered to follow. 
    The cavern was lit with a sort of eerie bioluminescence that seemed to emanate from the algae on the cavern walls.  Good thing, too.  I should have brought a light, thought Kirk.  Twenty twenty hindsight. He set down and prepared to follow on foot. The passage was spacious and easy to navigate, not surprising considering the size of the eel-bird.  At times he fired up the boots to traverse crevasses or jump rock piles, but mostly it was easy going.  Spock's blip on the tricorder was static now--positioned only a couple dozen meters away.  He jogged the remaining distance, calling Spock's name, but stopped short when the passage opened up into a large room, the floor of which was almost completely taken up by a pool of black water.
    The tricorder indicated Spock was 4.2 meters ahead--and two down.
    Kirk dropped the tricorder and whipped off his utility belt.  He kicked free of the boots and dove in. Once submerged he opened his eyes and struggled to see, but it was inky black and something in the seawater burned his eyes.  Flailing around at depth, he held his breath for as long as he could, then broke for the surface and checked his bearings.  Four point two meters from shore?  He stroked out and dove again.  This time he swam into something fibrous and sticky and just about the size of his first officer.
    Kirk tore at the substance, but couldn't get a grip; it was tough as Targ hide.    He lost his breath, bolted for the surface, then dove down again.  This time he worked to pry the casing from the rock to which it was adhered. It came away slowly, peeling away through a layer of thick goo.   With a final heave, Kirk freed the casing.  It floated to the surface and Kirk followed it up.  Gasping for air, Kirk pushed it over and onto the shore.  He ripped at it with his hands, but the fibrous wrap wouldn't budge. 
    He flipped his communicator open.  "Scotty, have Dr. McCoy stand by in the transporter room with a medikit."
    "Captain, can I--" Over the communicator, Scotty's voice sounded strained.
    "Just stand by!" Kirk snapped.  His eyes darted around, found a shard of sharp rock.  He grabbed it and sliced down the length of the case.  The fibers gave, and a soggy blue sleeve poked out.  Kirk slashed harder, all the way down the side.  He tore with his hands and the edges parted.  Peeling the casing back, he pulled a soaking wet Spock out onto the rocks.
    Eschewing the tricorder, he placed a hand below Spock's chest.  The heartbeat was there, but slow--alarmingly slow.  Kirk lowered his cheek to Spock's face and checked for breath.  There might be a hint of it but if so, barely.   He pumped the legs; no water came from Spock's mouth. 
    Kirk gave two quick breaths and called back to the ship, his hand on the Vulcan's heart, watching for the rise and fall of his chest.
    Scotty answered, his brogue now as thick as an Aberdeen fog.  "Captain, Dr. McCoy is ready.  Shall I beam him down?"
    Was the heartbeat a little stronger?  A little faster? "Negative.  Not yet."  Kirk hauled off and slapped Spock hard across the face.  Yes, Spock's pulse was definitely faster and stronger.  Kirk slapped him again, and again, and again.
    On the fourth pass, Spock caught his wrist.  "Thank you, Captain.  That will do."  His voice sounded every bit his cool, usual self.
    "Spock!"  Grinning with relief, Kirk grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up bodily.  "Inner eyelids are one thing, but don't tell me that Vulcans have gills too."
    "Unfortunately not.  The eel-bird's food storage cocoon, while strong enough to be a formidable constraint, is also largely water-resistant.  A large pocket of air was locked inside with me during the wrapping process and I was able to slow my metabolism sufficiently to have it sustain me until your arrival."
    "And if I hadn't gotten here in time?"
    Impassive as always, Spock did his best to press the water from his laden uniform.  "I surmised that you would."
    "Odds that good?"  Kirk asked.
    "No.  Nonetheless, knowing your predilection for illogical action, it was logical to surmise that you would be here regardless of any odds."
    Kirk chuckled.  "I'm not sure Surak would approve of that thinking, but I'm glad that you were right.
    "What's going on here, anyway?  I didn't know that eel-birds grew that big."
    "Ordinarily they do not," said Spock.  "My best hypothesis is that the Klingons bred some representatives to giant size to better increase the destruction."
    "According to Starfleet, it's working," mused Kirk. "Where is that giant friend of yours anyway?"  Kirk looked around.  Now he saw the round objects scattered about the edges of the pool.  They looked a lot like the horta eggs on Janus VI.   The weight settled back on Kirk's shoulders as the significance of that sunk in.  There were so very many of them.  Hundreds of hungry, young predators--
    "She has gone back out hunting."  Spock stressed the first word.  "The bird is female.  I was able to read some of her thoughts on a rudimentary level while in her grip.
    "The greater body mass of the gigantism necessitates that they must feed frequently and in large amounts.  That has proved problematic for them with the limited food resources here, and worse since the natives moved into the static electric shields.
    "Her mate died of starvation some weeks ago, as did the other pair that was deposited here.  She is the last surviving adult.  It seems that the other sensor reading we picked up was not another single eel-bird, but the combined mass of her eggs."
    Spock nodded toward the edges of the room.  "Apparently Vulcan flesh is compatible with their metabolism; she was saving me as food for her young, which are due to hatch soon.  Although starving herself, it was her intention to leave me as nourishment for them."
    Kirk exhaled.  "Maternal instincts or not, I'm just as pleased that they won't be having you."
    "As am I," said Spock with an amiable nod of his eyebrow.
    Beep beep!  Kirk's communicator signaled.  "Kirk here."
    It was Scotty, again.  "Captain, Dr. McCoy is most urgently requesting a status update."
    Even over the background filters, McCoy's voice and mood were unmistakable.  "The blazes I am!  Tell him this is not a request.  It's a damned emergency medical order!  The emergency being my nerves."
    Kirk shot Spock a rueful glance. "And you didn't think he cared."
    Kirk spoke into the communicator.  "Scotty, we're okay here.  Mr. Spock has been recovered and we are back on our way to track the eel-birds.  Tell McCoy thanks, but we won't be needing him after all."
    In the background, a chain of colorful invectives, accented by a thick drawl could be plainly heard.
    "Dr. McCoy acknowledges," said Scotty. "We'll be here if you need us.  Enterprise out."
    Kirk shut his communicator and looked around. Now what?  "The eggs will hatch soon.  We should get on with it.  What's the best way to destroy them?"
    "Destroy?"  Spock's voice was even as always, but with a discordant note that Kirk recognized all too well. It was the one that guaranteed that things were about to get more complicated.  "That would be a tragic and probably unnecessary loss of life," Spock added.
    "Spock, they were about to eat you." Kirk tried for reason.
    "Jim, the eel-birds did not cause this situation.  They are victims as much as the Vegans are."
    "They're animals, not people."
    "They have been relegated to a slow and miserable death by Klingon war tactics." 
    Kirk rubbed his jaw with one hand.  Vulcans!  But Spock did have a point.  Force without compassion was a recipe for disaster.  Even when normal size, the eel-birds were some of the most majestic creatures in the galaxy, and becoming endangered on Regulus V, not so unlike the horta....
    Kirk's face shifted.  As Kirk had said before: risk was their business.  They were supposed to seek out new life, not destroy it.  He relented. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
    "We can take them with us."
    "The eggs?" Kirk looked about dubiously. How close were they to hatching?
    "And the mother."
    Kirk jolted.  "You can't be serious!  That thing is the size of the Galileo and I--for one--am not going to fly back with her sitting on my lap."
    "I had another plan in mind," said Spock.
    Kirk rolled his eyes, but tossed out his hands in surrender.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  "Okay, what do we do?"

    The first order of business was to load the eggs onto the Galileo, which would involve flying her back to the cavern entrance.  With only one pair of levitation boots, there was some discussion as to who would go for the shuttle and who would remain behind.  In the end it was decided that as he was apparently the lesser sought after food source, Kirk would stay.  Spock did not seem entirely content with this arrangement, but having won one argument with his captain today, he apparently was not inclined to press his luck.  He stood with one boot on and the other in his hand.  "It should be possible to fashion a makeshift weapon from a reserve power pack. If the bird returns--"
    "I'll be fine," said Kirk.  "She won't hurt her babysitter."
    Spock seemed unconvinced.
    "Go.  Hurry back with the shuttle." Kirk began moving the eggs up to the cavern's entrance.
    By the time that Spock returned, they were neatly piled and easily transferred into the back of the Galileo for take off.
    "Now what?" asked Kirk, as they flew above the clouds.
    Spock pressed a button.  "Sensors confirm that there is only one eel-bird reading on the planet." He stood up and slid past the eggs into the cargo bins in the back.  "As per your earlier request, I believe it's your turn to pilot.  If you will return to the Enterprise with the eggs, I will get the mother."
    "And how do you propose to do that?"
    "I will subdue her with a neck pinch.  When she is quiescent, she can be beamed aboard.  With the danger of attack gone, the power grid interruption will not pose a hazard to the Vegans. If you will give me your communicator, I will contact Mr. Scott when it is safe to transport."
    Kirk gaped incredulously. "Do you remember what happened the last time you got near it?  And besides, it's an eel.  It's got no neck!"
    Spock ignored the first question.  "The physiological mechanism of action is the same."
    "It's got hard scales protecting it.  How are you going to pinch through that?"
    "Admittedly, it may require some adaptation of technique, but in my assessment, it is worth the risk."
    Kirk shook his head. "How are you even going to reach the spot?  The thing is enormous."
    "She." Spock reminded him.  "She is enormous."  Having found what he was after, Spock closed the cargo bin and returned to the main compartment.  In his hand he held Kirk's rock climbing grapple hook.  He whirled it around once with a tight circle of his wrist, fired up the levitation boots and bounced a tiny distance into the air.  "I believe the expression is, 'ride 'em, cowboy.'"
    Nonplussed, Kirk passed over his communicator.  He wasn't sure how this would play out, but one thing for certain: he wasn't going back to the Enterprise until he knew.  First, there was no way he would let Spock take on this hare-brained idea without him.  Secondly, Spock as a cowboy? He wouldn't miss that show for the world!
    Taking the pilot's seat, Kirk maneuvered the craft over to the blip that indicated the bird's position. Holding within the clouds, he watched through the viewing instrument.  There was the eel-bird, soaring over a marsh.  He turned to Spock.  "Go! Now!"
    Spock opened the shuttle hatch and jumped, firing the boots up fully as he did.  The bird gave a bloodthirsty shriek and turned, heading straight for Spock.
    Spock whipped the grapple around and flung it, missing the bird by inches.   He dodged an attack by the sharp talons and reeled in the line, reaching the hook end just as the bird made a dive for him with her beak open and aimed for his head. Spock tossed the grapple again.  This time it caught between her scales.  He tugged and pulled himself up and onto her back.
    Sadly, there was no legacy of Vulcan cowboys and Spock found himself woefully unprepared to be the first.   The eel-bird bucked and reared, making it all Spock could do to hold on.  Jim's communicator flew from his belt, just like the first one had.  Spock slid down the bird's back, past her tail, and hung on only by the grapple line.  One levitation boot came off and tumbled down after the communicator.  Spock fired up the other, but it was barely enough.  Although he was inching his way forward to the eel-bird's upper body, he still continued to dangle from the line as the bird twisted and rolled, trying to free itself. 
    With a sharp exclamation, Jim turned the Galileo to follow the bird and Spock.  The heading took him directly toward population cluster by the seaside.
    "Scotty!" Kirk called into the comm system.  "Lock on to the eel-bird.  Spock is riding it, but doesn't have a communicator." 'Riding' was generous overstatement for Spock's predicament, but this wasn't the time for details. "Can you phaser just the bird without hitting Spock?"
    "From orbit?  Ahm sorry, Captain, but that would be like trying to phaser the eye out of a flea in the hair of an angel without disturbing her dance on the head of a pin."
    Kirk took that as a "no."  Even with phasers on stun, Spock would be killed by the fall.  Perhaps with immediate transport...? But if the timing was off by more than a second or two...  And if he transported Spock first, the beam would disrupt the electric shield leaving the ravenous bird right over a vulnerable crowd should the phaser strike miss. 
    "All right, Scotty, stand by with phasers on stun and locked on the eel-bird and with transporter on wide beam. On my orders, beam up Spock and the eel-bird. Don't take chances; if you can't get a tight lock, beam up everything in the vicinity."
    There was a pause.  "Did you say to beam up the beastie too?"
    "Yes.  Have a security team in the transporter room armed with phaser II.  And have McCoy there as well."  Kirk hoped that he wouldn't need either of them, but battles weren't won on hope alone.  "Kirk out."  He closed the channel and concentrated on following the bird.

    Now Spock more or less lay on the eel-bird's back, trying to hold on with his legs, flopping and slipping with every turn the bird made.  He put his hands flat and tried for a meld, but something--maybe the scales?--prevented deeper contact.  Taking his right hand, he applied it to the place where a neck would be in a normal bird. 
    Nothing happened.
    Spock flipped and twisted, trying to place his legs where his hand had been.  The other boot went flying off in the process.  He squeezed with all the force his legs could muster, but still nothing happened.  The bird bucked and Spock was tossed off again, holding on only by the grapple line.  The bird veered out over the ocean and now Spock hung a hundred meters or so above the choppy waves.
    From the Galileo, Kirk watched.  This was going to be close. Within the electricity bubble below, people had gathered and were pointing skyward.  He would have liked more distance--both for safety and discretion--but then Spock's hand slipped on the line and Kirk was out of time. 
    "Now, Scotty!" Kirk ordered. "Fire phasers first, then transport them both."  A cone of yellow shot down from the sky and the bird dropped hard into the water.  It hit with an enormous splash.  Spock followed in a tangle of rope and wings.   The Vegan atmosphere flared once in a chaotic shower of electric sparks, then fizzled into a thick gray gloom.  Kirk switched to the viewing instrument and saw nothing on the water's surface but waves. He couldn't see the transporter beam, but a quick sensor sweep of the sea area below confirmed no animal life.  Of course it had worked. He had the best crew in the galaxy.  Kirk settled into the pilot's seat and turned the Galileo back home.

   When all was said and done, the worst part was the mess it made of the transporter room.  Seawater stood several inches deep and soaked everything, including Scotty, McCoy and the transporter technician.  A thoroughly bedraggled Spock was coming around, offering a slew of predictable complaints about the effects of McCoy's hypospray upon his intestines.  The eel-bird lay sprawled well over the edge of the platform, taking up more than half of the transporter room.   Scales, feathers and ocean debris floated everywhere and the smell--none too pleasant from the outset--was becoming worse by the minute.
It pained Kirk to see any part of his ship in such a condition, so he manned one of the anti-grav units and helped transfer the eel-bird to a makeshift hold in on the hangar deck.
   That left only the eggs.
   With the mother secured, Kirk led Chekov into the Galileo.  "Mr. Chekov, get some help and move these eggs to the medical isolation chamber.  Oh, and if I were you, I would refresh my memory of fairytales."
   "Fairytales, sir?  I don't understand."  Chekov wrinkled his brow.
    "Why, yes.  You're about to be an uncle."  Kirk flipped an egg into the ensign's hands.  "You'll have to find something to amuse several dozen babies with.   I suggest bedtime stories--unless you want to learn how to knit booties with pockets for talons instead."
    Laughing at Chekov's perplexed expression, Kirk hit a communication panel.  "Kirk to Bridge. Let's go, Scotty.  Have the helm set course for Starbase 73, warp factor four.  Mr. Spock and I have earned our break."

"Brrrrrrraaack!"  From the sky, the dragon reared its head and roared as it bore down upon the little hamlet.   In the town hall, a watchman frantically rang the tower bell, but it was already too late.   The dragon smashed into hut after hut, leaving the thatched roofs in smithereens.  At the last home, it dove through  and scooped up a screaming woman.  From behind, another snatched her two children from where they huddled in fear.  Two more dragons came roaring down, bombarding the few men who had taken position as archers.  They banked back up--each with a man in its grip--as a barrage of flimsy arrows bounced impotently off of their scales.  Together the dragons flew off towards the ocean with the doomed villagers in their claws. 

When it was over, the watchman let go the bell and looked out over the ruins of his town.  In the streets, survivors clung to each other and wept. 

Anya laid her sleeping bag down on the ground. 

Her father--Liftu--touched her shoulder.  "Turn it the other way.  It'll be coming from that direction." He waved an arm to the eastern sky.

With a grunt of annoyance, Anya twisted the bag around.  Her brother, Lawda, spread his out beside her.

"Not too close!"  She jerked her bag away from his.  Despite her graces, Anya could be difficult like that sometimes.  Liftu wondered at the mystery of his precious daughter--that the enigmas of womanhood could evince themselves so soon.

Lawda edged his a bit away.  He got that from his mother: always agreeable--on the surface.  Liftu suspected Lawda would move it back at the first moment that his sister wasn't looking.  Anya would pretend not to notice.  She got that from her mother too.

Liftu set a chair down and scanned the purple sky with his lens.  Although the night was clear and the Great Moon was not out, the smaller moon was almost full.  He hoped that its light would not interfere.  This was likely to be a once in a lifetime event for him. 

"Settle down, little ones," he said.  "Your mother is already unsure of letting you stay up to watch.  Keep at this nonsense, and you'll be off to bed."

A careful silence immediately ensued.

"This will be something that you can tell your children about," he said. "And then you can watch for the comet with them and your grandchildren."

The comet came every eighty-one years.  "I'll be eighty-eight by then," Anya said.

The math was correct; still, Liftu had a hard time processing that enormity.  His little girl, an old woman. 

"How old will I be?" asked Lawda, pulling the sleeping bag up around his neck.

Anya rolled her eyes.

"Old enough to be answering questions instead of asking them," Liftu said.

"But how old is that?" Lawda persisted.

Eighty-five.  Liftu couldn't quite grasp that either.  "Older than me," is what he said.

"No, Papa, you know everything."

Liftu laughed and tweaked his son's snout.  "Not everything. Just more than you."

"Tell us some of the before time.  Tell us about the time of the dragons." 

Anya's eager face shone in the pale moonlight.  She was always the adventurous one, Liftu thought.  Despite his many cycles of the seasons, he could never deny his daughter when she looked to him like that.  "Well, it was a long time ago.  Before your grandfather had horns."

Lawda giggled.  Likely it was hard for him to imagine his grampa as other than he was now.  Liftu could sympathize with that feeling.  How wondrous is the passage of time?

Liftu continued, "As you know, the spirits are benevolent, and in their kindness they had decided to send a gift to the people. 'But what should it be?' they debated.

"They considered clearing the great ocean waters, so that the people would have more land.  But more land to farm meant more work, and that was no gift at all.  Instead they thought of an idea to lessen the peoples' toil.  They would create a species of beasts of burden--tremendous dragons--to work the land.  In their generosity, they sent down a pair to populate the world."

Liftu paused, the horrific tales of slaughter that his father had told him rose fresh in his mind.  "But like us, even the spirits are not perfect.  They failed to consider that the mightiest creatures of this world would have the mightiest needs, unbalancing the carefully refined order of things.   On the day that the beasts came down, the spirits expected great rejoicing, but instead, the world was plunged into eerie darkness when The Balance was disrupted.  From there, times became harder and harder for the people.

"The dragons soared through the blackened sky, terrorizing the people with what they could not see.  When the light returned above, it only made it worse: people could see the great beasts, which by then had begun to hunger and to feed.  And, my children," Liftu paused for effect, "dragons feed only on living flesh."

Anya shivered.  Lawda moved closer to her.  For once, Anya didn't object.

"At first the dragons preyed on those who were too old or too slow to dodge their claws.  Then they turned the same powerful bodies that had been designed to save the world from work to the task of eating the people alive.

"They slammed into inns, houses and barns.  With their powerful legs, they shattered timbers and clay alike.  People fled for the hills, but the dragons navigated the caves as easily as they did the air.  There was no shelter to be found.

"Daily people were taken--three of your great aunts went that way.  Those who did not die huddled together under ledges and other false pretences of shelter and listened to the screams of their friends and neighbors as they were taken instead.  Parents--if they were unlucky would return from a futile dragonhunt to find their homes pulverized and torn sheet with spatters of blood where their children had been. 

"If they were lucky, parents would be taken themselves and die believing that their children were now going to be safe.

"The people shaped the electric river of the sky into barriers to keep the dragons out.  They worked well and the people inside were safe, but the freedom of a cage is no freedom at all.  When the people ventured outside the electric bubble, they were again at risk and often fell to dragons' maw.

"The spirits saw all this and were mightily sorrowful, but what life the spirits create cannot be undone, not even by themselves, and so they could only watch and wait for The Balance to be restored.

"It is said that to be true, The Balance must extend everywhere, even among other planes, and thus a counterweight came from another place than this.   One day, before your grampa met you gramma, a comet flew across the sky."

"Like the one we are going to see?" asked Lawda.

"No," said his father. "This comet was unexpected.  It was a brilliant white and moved like no other, as if steered toward us with a purpose.  It was a special chariot of the spirits sent to deliver two heroes to save the world.  Their names were Hricni and Hracto, and they were dragonslayers.

"Hricni and Hracto rode the white comet down to the moorland.  They brought neither sword nor bow, but only themselves and precious magic amulets that had been bestowed upon them by the spirits.   They landed and began to prepare the spell that would slay the dragons, but from behind a gritstone outcrop, a dragon listened.  Now, this was no ordinary dragon.  This was the king of all dragons--massive and clever--and though it could not speak, for its throat had grown raw from the fearsome roars it had made, it still had the power to understand our speech.  It heard Hricni and Hracto planning to destroy its race, and it knew it had to act.

"The dragon king launched itself over the rocks and flew straight at Hricni and Hracto, talons bared and ready to fight for its life.  It grasped one man in each claw, but Hricni wriggled away. He rolled and squirmed and kicked and twisted until the dragon could no longer hold him.  In trying to do so, it nearly lost its grip on Hracto and since one meal in a claw is better than two left behind, the dragon gave up and dropped Hricni to certain death on the rocks below. 

"But Hricni had already called upon the part of the power of the amulet that he could and used it to summon the chariot to his rescue. He still fell through the air, rolling and tumbling down to the moor--but instead of hitting the rocks, he landed on the white cushioned seat of the spirit vehicle.

"Hricni righted himself and, taking control of the magic chariot, he followed the dragon, with Hracto in its claws.  Across the sky they swept and wove over forests and dales and seas and plains. He followed through the day and into the night and the next morning as well, always right behind the dragon and his friend Hracto.

"The dragon king was growing weary, and as it could not outfly Hricni and his magic chariot, it took shelter in the Ywaffan Mountains instead. It dashed through the smallest passes and took the sharpest turns until finding one that Hricni's chariot could not manage.  The chariot and Hricni crashed to the ground.  The dragon cawed in glee and leisurely flapped back to its home in the sea cliffs to enjoy its meal at its leisure and to share it with its mate."

"The dragon didn't really eat him, did he?" Anya's eyes were wide with horror at the thought.     
Liftu rubbed her hair.  "Heroic flesh and worldly flesh are all the same in a dragon's stomach." 
He continued, "But Hricni would not stand for this meal to be so easily bought.  He followed the dragon by foot through the ragged mountains.  And when he could not pass on foot, he crawled, and when he could not crawl, he crept like a serpent on his belly, even up the great rock faces. 

"When he got to the dragon's lair, he entered with the powers that he could summon from the amulet's glow.  He shone it round the gloom, but even the power of the amulet could not spare him from what he saw: Hracto dead and floating in the vile, black, pool of murk that flooded the bottom of the lair.

"Hricni was inconsolable at the loss of his friend.  Hricni had fought all the battles of the ages together with Hracto and could not envision doing so without him.  His eyes swelled with bitter tears as he pulled the lifeless body to the shore.  He rent his shirt and called out in anguish to the spirits for their callous disregard.

"When they heard Hricni's anguished cries, the spirits took pity upon him and sent down to him a golden lariat with the power to harness the beasts of land and sky.  The spirits warned him that since the dragon had triumphed over Hracto in water, the lariat would be useless there, and would dissolve as foam upon the shore.

"But Hricni was mad with grief and rage and he heard not the words.  He saw only the power of the magical rope and the chance to revenge himself.  He grabbed the lariat and whirled it into the air and thereby harnessed the power of the skies.  He rode the wild wind across the distance with one purpose only: to slay the dragon that had slain his friend.

"Again he followed through night and day, slipping and roaring through places normally only the wind could go.   He pursued the dragon 'round the world and back again, always just a few gusts of air behind, finally arriving where he had started: at the entrance to the dragon's cave.

"Now the dragon was sorely tired, and despite himself, and when he was in  sight of his lair, he slowed just enough for Hricni to make his move.  Hricni spun the golden lariat and snared the dragon around the neck.  He pulled himself in closer and hopped upon the dragon's back.  His amulet fell to the ground, but Hricni did not mourn it for the lariat gave him even greater powers while in the sky or on land.  With the smug swell of certain victory, he began to tighten the noose. 

"The dragon bucked and reared and turned its head to see what manner of man had ensnared him so.  When he saw the amulet, he knew it must be a heavenly hero.  When he saw the golden lariat, he knew that it too must come from above and he knew the powers--and the weaknesses--it must have.
"The dragon got an idea.

"As the noose closed in around its throat, it spread its great wings as wide as it could and soared out over the sea.   Hricni pulled the lariat tighter and called on the power of the spirits.  The dragon king called on the strength of all of its kind, funneling the sum life force into one.  The life or death of all dragons would rest with the victory or defeat of their king.

"But the strength of mere beast cannot stand up to that of heroes who are favored by the spirits, and the dragon king felt itself begin to fall. With one final, earsplitting screech that must serve to relay all the thoughts and desires and dying wishes of all of its kind, the dragon king plunged headfirst into the sea."

"And then what?" asked Anya, now on her knees and leaning in to her father's every word.

"The lariat dissolved in the water, and the dragon king and Hricni both sank to the bottom of the sea."

"And then what?" Anya demanded.

"And then nothing," said Liftu.  "Everyone went home and life returned to normal; the dragons were gone."

No!" Anya bolted upright.  "I mean about Hricni.  What happened to him?"

Liftu strove to keep his voice gentle.  "He died a hero.  He saved us all."

"No!" Anya's was near tears.  "I don't want him to be dead! Not either of them!  It's not fair!"

Liftu moved from his chair to sit on the ground between his two children.  He took his daughter in his arms.  "Some say that the spirits agreed with you.   Some say that they, who were so grateful to have The Balance of the world restored, raised them all up."

"All?" asked Lawda.

"Um-hum.  Hricni, Hracto--and the dragon king as well."

"The dragon?" asked Anya. Incredulity shone from her face.

"Yes.  As death wasn't fair to the heroes, neither was it fair for the dragon king.  It was a creature of the spirits that had to eat just like we do. It wasn't its fault that it was too great and too needful for this world.  So, the spirits raised all three up and into the cosmos where they have no need of air or food or blood, and they could roam wild and free without fear of harm to anyone. "  He leaned over his children's shoulders and pointed just to the west of the Lesser Moon.  "See, there--how they ride on the dragon's back?  There's the dragon's tail and his head--"

"I see, I see!"  Lawda squealed.

Anya frowned and squinted along the line of her father's finger. "They're riding the dragon that killed them?"

"Oh, in their new existence as lesser spirits, Hricni and Hracto forgave the dragon for taking their mortal lives and the dragon forgave them for taking its. They became fast friends, each respecting the other for the valiant battle they had fought and for how well they had matched each other in power and wit.  The dragon agreed to carry them through the skies. It is said that when those stars drop low and out of our sky, the three have left to fight another battle on another world and restore Balance.

"It's said," Liftu continued, "that when we need them, they will come back down to us."

"Is that all true?" asked Anya.  

Liftu shrugged. "You've seen the artifacts in the museum. What do you think?"  They had taken the children just last summer.   The folding amulet wasGalileo composed of strange materials and parts more finely honed than even the master craftsmen could produce. Liftu had touched the boot himself.  It was hard and smooth--even after the time it had spent in the sea--and also made of an unidentifiable material.  It was at least ten times too big for a normal foot, and had no room for side toes.   The sagest men had been consulted and all agreed: the artifacts could only have come from offworld giants.  Heroes.

Anya eyes widened and she nodded vigorously as she remembered.

"Can we go back to the museum tomorrow?" asked Lawda.

"Not if you don't get some sleep tonight."

"We will!"  The kids both sang out at once.

"As soon as the comet comes," added Anya.

Lawda stifled a yawn.  "How much longer will it be?"

His father picked him up, sleeping bag and all, and curled him on his lap, next to his daughter.  It was a tight fit, but his lap would always have room for them both. "Sometimes you just have to wait and see.  Don't worry; I'll wake you up."

Anya jumped up and pointed to a speck in the East.  "Papa, is that it?  Is that the comet?" She held her finger out rigid and sure.

Liftu reached over for the lens.  Something was moving straight their way. It was just a blur, but it was bright and unwavering, cutting a streak of silver through the quiet sky as if it flew with a purpose.

"You're right; I think it is."