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Even at a distance of thirty astronomical units, an unheard-of distance from its primary for a planet to be habitable, the temperature of Gamma Geminorum was high - fully equivalent to a tropical noon on Earth. The brilliant white sun, so distant that it was little more than a dot in the sky, gave out a fantastic heat. The inner six planets were infernos - even with full protection it was impossible to land on them. The seventh was slightly better, though full protection was needed; the eighth was liveable. The ninth was still exploitable without protection. After that, the remaining ten planets got progressively colder, and from the outer three the sun was indistinguishable from the stars.
The Enterprise was on a series of standard visits to recent colonies when it called there. Kirk and Spock beamed down with McCoy to pay the leader of the colony a casual visit while McCoy performed routine medical tests.
When they materialised, the first thing they noticed was the dry, shrivelled look of the plants around them.
"Strange," Spock commented. "Early reports on the planet indicated plentiful rainfall and lush vegetation."
"There haven't been any reports from the colony of unusual weather conditions," Kirk said.
"It's serious if the crop does fail," McCoy worried. "One of the native plants, gaminal, has widespread medical value - as useful as penicillin was in the early days of its discovery. If the gaminal crop fails, there'll be a shortage of the drug - not this year, but next, and that could have serious repercussions."
Kirk said slowly, "I wonder why Mason hasn't reported this?"
One answer for the crop failure came quickly.
The planet had a fairly intelligent humanoid population. Getting a treaty had proved to be quite difficult; the native language was a very limited one and there was some uncertainty as to whether the natives had actually understood what was meant by a treaty. They had worked for the colonists for some time, then - "One day they just upped and left," Mason said. "About three years ago. There had been something of an argument - as far as they could argue; we'd been uprooting great masses of a very common weed to make planting space, the natives objected - or so it seemed, but we're not sure why. Their language is limited to four or five hundred words, mostly nouns and verbs - no direct negatives or affirmatives... "
"That hardly seems sufficient for the everyday use of any but the most primitive of cultures," Spock commented.
"They do have a very wide range of colloquial expressions," Mason admitted. "Unfortunately they don't have the vocabulary to explain what these mean - and you have to grow up with a language to grasp colloquialisms fully, unless you're a fantastic linguist - which none of us are. Half of what the natives ever said, indeed more than half, we understood the words but not the meaning. After all, think of the literal meaning of a phrase like 'hit the sack'."
"A religious reason, perhaps?" Kirk suggested, recalling the subject under discussion.
"They have no religious beliefs that we ever saw." Mason swiped at a large black and yellow insect that buzzed round his head, and flattened it. "Watch you're not bitten by one of these. The bite is poisonous. Yet when we killed them, the natives objected - we think."
"Perhaps the natives are opposed to bloodshed?" Spock offered. Mason shook his head, accepting the word 'bloodshed' in this context without demur. "They eat meat." He flicked the dead insect away. "Mark you, the neowasp's bite doesn't seem to bother them. Only the colonists die."
"That can happen," McCoy said. "I've found that either we're immune to alien bugs, or we're very susceptible, and you can never be sure which it'll be until you're exposed."
Mason nodded. "Fortunately, the things have a very short life. They bother us for about a fortnight, then there aren't any more for a year. But we do lose two or three colonists a year from their bites."
"Is there no cure at all?" McCoy asked.
"None - and very little time to experiment with cures. The victim is usually dead within a couple of hours. Next time, we try something else. So far, nothing has worked."
"I'll see what I can find out," McCoy offered.
"We'd be grateful," Mason admitted. "You're the first Starfleet doctor we've had here at neowasp time. You could easily find out something our medical staff has missed."
McCoy picked up the dead insect, glanced at Kirk for permission, and left, flicking open his communicator as he went. Mason went on. "Since the natives left, the plantations have slowly stopped flourishing, in spite of all we can do... although I'll swear we tend the gaminal plants better than the natives ever did. We could never get them to see the importance of weeding, for example, or get them to understand that caterpillars were undesirable. We lost up to a quarter of the yield each year to caterpillars - big yellow-striped ones - very similar in colour to the neowasp. We think it may have been the larva, though we never did find any eggs. Certainly the insect is much scarcer now that we've been spraying the plants to kill off the caterpillars. Granted, the larvae ate a lot of the weed too, but we can uproot that - weedkiller doesn't work on the commonest weed - the stuff we call blackweed."
Spock said slowly, "Some plants are of value because they replace elements such as nitrogen that other plants remove from the soil. Is it possible that this blackweed is one such - and the gaminal plants are failing because they are exhausting the resources of the soil in which they are planted?"
"We did think of that, Mr. Spock," Mason replied. "We made tests. They all proved negative. There was only one trace element present in fractionally greater quantities in a blackweed patch than in the gaminal fields - so fractionally that its presence was negligible, and we couldn't even identify it."
"If you couldn't identify it, is there any possibility that it is some element native to this planet?" Spock asked. "Something not found elsewhere?"
"The trace was so small that it was impossible to say whether it was something purely native or not," Mason replied.
"Do you mind if I perform my own tests?" Spock asked.
"I'd be glad if you did," Mason replied. "As with the Doctor, you could easily find something we've missed. Our personnel is non-specialised, and as such we don't have the expertise of Starship personnel."
Kirk watched as Spock also left, then asked, "Where have the natives gone?"
"We're not sure. There was a settlement of them five or six miles west of here; it looks as if it's still lived in - we occasionally send hunters out that way - but since this blew up, they haven't seen anyone there."
"As if they're avoiding you because you've offended them?"
"Well... yes. Though why they should be offended - " Mason broke off with a shrug. "It's the language difficulty, Captain. If we did offend them, we couldn't understand them if they tried to tell us why. There was nothing we did that we hadn't been doing for years."
Spock's report on his soil samples was almost a carbon copy of Mason's. The traces were too minute to be identifiable, even although they were detectable. "I think it's a native substance," Spock finished, "but I can't be certain."
McCoy's report on the insect was hardly better.
"The damage is caused by an anticoagulant in the saliva, similar to that of biting species from a number of planets including Earth," he said. "But I can't, from studying the saliva, begin to guess why it causes such an adverse reaction in Humans. I'd need blood samples from someone who's been bitten, and from the natives as well since they're not affected. Mr. Mason - has no-one ever survived its bite?"
"No. Oh, there are fewer deaths now than there were a year or two ago, but then there are fewer of the insects."
"And you're quite certain the natives aren't affected?"
"As far as we can tell they're not."
"Then this could simply be a case of an extreme susceptibility to an alien substance."
"You said the saliva is similar to that of any biting insect," Kirk challenged.
"Yes, it's similar. But it's not identical. Even among Earth species, some cause a greater allergic reaction than others, and some people are more susceptible than others."
Not unexpectedly, Kirk decided that his best plan was to try to contact the natives. He set off with Spock and McCoy for the nearby settlement.
As they got further from the colony, the plants began to look healthier, and the birds, sparse near the colonists' village, began to make a more frequent appearance. Spock stopped to watch one. It hopped along a branch; its beak jabbed and it raised its head, a squirming black and yellow caterpillar in its beak. He speeded up to rejoin the others, who had not stopped.
"Captain," he said. "Mr. Mason neglected to tell us that birds eat those caterpillars he mentioned. They could be a fairly important element in the food chain."
"Would a race as primitive as this appears to be know anything about conservation?" Kirk asked, "Or about the balance of nature?"
"If they live close to nature, Captain, it is not impossible," Spock said slowly. Before he could elaborate, however, McCoy let out a yelp. He slapped at his arm.
A large black and yellow insect hung from his arm by its proboscis.
McCoy looked at them, pain already in his eyes, then his legs gave way. Spock was just in time to catch him as he fell.
Kirk pulled the insect free and was about to throw it away when Spock stopped him. "Wait, Captain. Bring it. Perhaps the natives have a cure for the bite. If their vocabulary is small, showing them the creature might hasten our explanation."
"Or they might get angry because we had killed one."
"A chance we must take. We must make haste, Jim. Mason said death came in a matter of two hours. It's McCoy's only chance." He swung the doctor into his arms and set off, almost running, along the track, Kirk close at his heels. The native village was deserted.
Kirk looked round, then glanced helplessly at the Vulcan.
"I suspect that we are being watched," Spock said quietly from where he knelt beside McCoy.
Kirk shrugged. He looked round again, and said loudly, "Our friend will die unless you help us."
"Please help us."
Nothing happened for what seemed like a very long time, although Spock later told Kirk that it was only a few seconds. Then two natives appeared from the undergrowth and walked into the village. They stopped a few yards from Kirk, looking at the unconscious man who lay there, Spock still kneeling at his side. "You skymen?" The tone made it a question. Kirk nodded. "Skyman die?"
"This bit him." Kirk held out the dead insect. "Its bite kills us."
The natives conferred for a moment. The words they spoke made sense, but the meaning was obscure; Kirk couldn't understand any of the conversation and began to realise exactly what Mason had meant when he spoke of the colloquial nature of the natives' conversation. Then - "Skymen want cure?"
Kirk nodded. "Skymen have no cure. Skymen want cure," he said.
"Skymen kill cure," the native said.
"Please!" Kirk said desperately. "Help us!"
The natives looked at each other. Then the second one, who had not yet spoken directly to them, walked away to one of the huts. He came back with an earthenware jug and two bowls. He tipped some dark blue liquid into each of the bowls, and gave one to Kirk. "Drink," he said, and turned to McCoy. Carefully, he began to tip the liquid into McCoy's mouth.
Kirk hesitated, looking at the first man. "Cure," the native said. "Drink."
Kirk tossed it down. It tasted of fruit, with bitter overtones. The first native took the bowl bank from him, refilled it and gave it to Spock, who also drank.
"Safe," the native told him. He indicated McCoy. "Cured. Come."
The second native remained crouching by the still unconscious McCoy as Kirk and Spock followed the first one, who led them to a patch of plants they recognised as the weed the colonists called blackweed.
"Cure," he said. He picked three berries and a leaf. "Boil, crush. Cure."
Kirk and Spock looked at each other. No wonder the natives objected to uprooting the blackweed!
"At a guess, Mason never asked them why the neowasp's bite didn't affect them," Kirk said dryly, "and the natives assumed that the colonists had their own cure."
"Come," the native said again.
He led them to a nearby stream, hardly large enough to call a river. He plunged his hand into the soft mud at the edge. The mud underwater looked much greyer than that above the surface. He gestured that they should look close.
"Tiny white specks, Captain," Spock said. "Eggs, perhaps?"
"I'll take your word for it, Spock; the specks are too small for my eyes to see."
"Insect," the native said. He dropped the mud back into the water and washed his hands clean. Then he moved a few yards to where the water ran shallowly over stones. Small nymphs lay on the stones, occasionally rising to the surface. "Insect," the native said again. "Fish eat."
"I understand," Kirk said.
He led them back to the patch of blackweed and turned over several of the leaves, revealing a number of the black and yellow caterpillars.
The native indicated them. "Insect," he said. "Birds eat."
"Definitely a staple in the food chain," Spock commented. "First an aquatic cycle, then a land one. Unusual. Have they a two-year larval cycle, I wonder?"
The native bent and picked up something. He held out on his hand some small, dark-coloured spheres. "Insect drop," he said, "plant eat."
Kirk frowned, puzzled.
"The larval droppings," Spock said. "A fertiliser."
"The trace element?" Kirk said. "And without it the plants are dying."
"You were right, Spock. These people do have a good grasp of ecology," Kirk mused.
"Mr. Mason will have to accept the depredations of the caterpillars to gain a crop," Spock commented.
"And he'll have to stop weeding," Kirk added. He looked at the native. "We will tell skymen," he said. "We will tell them insect good, plant good. You will go back then, and help them?"
"Insect live, plant live, we go back."
When they got back to the native settlement, they found McCoy conscious, gingerly flexing his bitten arm.
"I doubt Mason ever bothered to try understanding what the natives were trying to say," Kirk told him. "They had a cure for the bite. Now all we have to do is persuade the colonists to stop weeding and killing caterpillars. They have a choice of losing quarter of the yield or - in a year or two - not getting a crop at all. I don't think it'll be a hard decision."