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"Lookout reports unidentified vessel at 140 degrees, sir!"
"Scramble Zhart squadron immediately!"
"Aye, sir." The orderly turned to the general intercom. "Attention! Attention! Zhart squadron! Intruder, possibly enemy, at 140 degrees, closing fast!"
"Acknowledged!" The single word seemed to hang in the air even when the roar of engines, seconds later, bespoke the take-off of the defenders.
The attack was so sudden that Spock did not even have time to report the presence of the other vessels before they were hit. The defenceless Galileo, all buoyancy gone, dropped towards the ground like a stone. Spock fought with the controls, desperately trying to hold the shuttlecraft on an even keel; Kirk flicked communications switches open, to receive such a howl of static that he didn't even bother trying to contact the Enterprise.
"They're following us down!" Chekov yelled.
Kirk's lips set grimly. Who could these beings be, to attack without even giving a challenge? "Can you identify them, Mr. Chekov?"
"No, sir - I've never seen ships like these before."
The ground was rising towards them with uncomfortable rapidity. It was bare, desert land - rocky, without vegetation, and Kirk found himself wishing for a forest canopy that might at least help to cushion the impact of their landing.
How Spock managed, Kirk never knew; but the shuttle landed on an even keel, sliding forward on the bare soil. For a moment, he dared to think that they had landed safely; then the Galileo hit a boulder. She was still travelling very quickly; the impact threw her over, somersaulting her several times. Her occupants were unable to prevent themselves being thrown from their seats; tossed wildly about, like so many rag dolls, they lay sprawled where they had fallen when at last the ruined shuttle bounced to a halt.
The leading craft of the Zhart squadron turned in midair above the wreckage, wheeling like a huge vulture. When the commander was satisfied that no-one was going to emerge from the wreck, he ordered his vessel down. It moved carefully, descending like a helicopter, to land only a few yards from where the alien vessel had come to its last resting place. High above it, the other two vessels wheeled gently, on guard.
Six men left the landed vessel. They made their way cautiously to the wreck; investigated it.
There were four bodies in it. One of the men ran a scanner over them. Three were definitely alive, and would recover; they even appeared to be uninjured, apart from their unconsciousness. But the fourth, who was lying half covered by wreckage so that only the lower part of his body was showing, exhibited only the most minimal signs of life.
"This one's as good as dead," the men examining them said. "We needn't bother with him; he's just cra-meat. Bring the others."
Kirk, McCoy and Chekov were hauled ungently out of the wreck, and lugged onto the Zhart ship. Almost at once it took off. Dust from its passage drifted over the ruined Galileo, through the many holes, and sank onto the motionless Spock.
Kirk regained consciousness to find himself sprawled on the floor of a tiny room that looked as if it had been carved out of solid rock. McCoy and Chekov lay near, looking as if someone had just dropped them and left them to lie as they fell. Where was Spock? He pushed himself to his feet, wondering as he did so how the room was lighted. There were no windows, and no obvious lights, yet the place was well lit. He moved over to the others, and carefully shifted them into more comfortable positions. Then he sat down again, to wonder what had happened; why they had been shot down, and why they were, clearly, prisoners. And where was Spock?
McCoy regained consciousness soon after, and looked at him.
"What happened, Jim?"
"You know as much as I do," Kirk replied. "How's Chekov? I couldn't find any sign of injury, but I know as much about medicine as you do about maths."
McCoy grinned wearily. "You certainly couldn't know less," he retorted. He checked out the still-unconscious ensign quickly, as thoroughly as he could without any instruments, and said, "He should come out of it naturally any time now. I don't think he's badly hurt." He looked round the little room. "Where's Spock?"
Kirk shook his head. "I don't know, Bones. He wasn't here when I woke."
Chekov groaned, and opened his eyes. "What fell on me?" he asked.
"A rather hard mountain," Kirk said dryly. "And before you ask where Mr. Spock is, we don't know."
"Or where we are, or who brought us here - or why."
The commander of the small base watched the awakening of his captives on a small viewscreen. He glanced at his second-in-command. "They are concerned for their missing comrade," he said. "It is as we have been told; these Mhlar are emotionally attached to the other members of their battle-group. We can use this sentimental weakness; since it is the only one the Mhlar have, it would be foolishness not to."
"Yes, indeed, Lord Shurr."
"We must discover how they know of the settlement here, Underlord Vlarr. Since the establishment of our colony is highly confidential, there must have been some leakage, some lack of security, at Headquarters."
"It might have been an accident, Lord Shurr."
"They were heading straight towards our main mining area," Shurr replied. "Does that look like an accident?"
Slowly, Vlarr shook his head.
"I will see these Mhlar now," Shurr went on. "Have them brought in."
The three men were sitting silently, thinking about their situation. Kirk and McCoy especially were seriously worried about Spock. Why wasn't he with them? Kirk scrambled to his feet as the door began to open, the other two only a second behind him.
The guards who entered looked decidedly unfriendly. They kept at a respectful distance, suspiciously watchful. They were fairly Human in appearance, Kirk noted, but there was something about them - he couldn't quite pinpoint what - that said 'alien'. He looked carefully for any sign of weakness, but saw none. There would be no immediate escape from here.
They were taken to another rock-carved room that was obviously an office, through corridors that were also hewn out of living rock. Whoever these people were, Kirk reflected, they were determined to keep their presence secret; no wonder the sensors had failed to detect any traces of them - presumably their vessels were also kept in huge underground hangars. And what sort of relationship did they have with the scattering of primitive natives that the sensors had detected?
Shurr sat silently looking at the three men as they stood in front of his desk. One of them looked as if he was unused to being kept waiting - presumably he was the leader of this battle-group. Sure enough, it was he who broke the silence.
"May I ask why we were attacked, without warning?" he asked. He sounded genuinely indignant, and Shurr took off his mental hat to whoever had briefed the man. "We are on a peaceful surveying mission; we gave no provocation. And where is our friend?"
Shurr smiled briefly. "Your comrade is dead," he said brutally. He was rewarded by the look of horrified grief on the leader's face - the equally grief-stricken face of one of the others. The third one seemed less affected. "As to why you were attacked - did you really think that we would fail to detect you, small though your craft was? Even though our presence here is supposed to be a secret known only to our Government, we still keep a good lookout; we have no intention of letting this planet be taken over by you Mhlar."
"Mhlar?" Kirk said, making a terrible mess of the first guttural sound. "We've never heard of them. We're from the Starship Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets. Our home world is known variously as Earth or Terra."
Shurr laughed. "Clever. Very clever. But do you think - do you really think - that we will be fooled by such child's tales? If you yourself are not Mhlar, then you are certainly from a Mhlar dominated world. Now, Leader. I went to know - who told you about our presence here?"
"I've already told you. We knew nothing about you. Because you live underground, we were unable to detect your presence, otherwise we would have tried to contact you before coming down. We're on a survey mission for the Federation. But if you have already claimed the planet, the Federation will respect that claim."
"Still you take me for a fool. Perhaps you fear your masters too much to tell me what I want to know. But you will learn to fear me much more. I promise you that."
Kirk looked at him. "For the last time," he said, "we know nothing about any race called Mhlar. We are from Earth. This is, to us, an unexplored region of space. We're the first Federation ship to come into it. And no number of threats will change that. If the Mhlar are a warlike race, we will help you to defend yourselves."
Shurr smiled wolfishly. "You come here, you who are identical to the Mhlar, and really expect me to believe such a tale?"
"Humanoids are relatively common throughout the Galaxy," Kirk protested. "The external appearance is often identical; we know of several races indistinguishable from our own... as well as many, like you, who are not."
Shurr nodded appreciatively. "Whoever concocted your cover story did a good job," he admitted. "They seem to have thought of everything. But - 'for the last time' - understand that I will not be fooled."
"Our companion - the one who... who died. Did you examine him closely? He is not of the same race as we are; he has physical differences - "
"It is easy to say that, since he is not here; nor are we about to risk an expedition to examine his body. We are not concerned with cra-meat."
Shurr turned to the guards. "Take them to the question room."
The small group of natives gathered round the strange metallic object that had descended so noisily several hours before. Their camp was not far away; they had watched as the strangers had landed their flying machine and taken men out of the wreck; and there had been no sign of life now for those hours. Presumably the strangers were not coming back. It would be safe to investigate.
They prowled round the outside, pawing at the broken metal, peering through holes into the darkness inside. At last, one of them, braver or more foolhardy than most, ventured to climb through one of the bigger holes. He called out after a moment. There was still a body inside the wreck! Not one of the strangers - this one was another kind of stranger!
He came back out, pulling the limp body. The tribe gathered round it, curious.
The strange being was alive - just. He was deeply unconscious; the natives could detect his breathing, but could find no heartbeat.
They gathered together, ignoring the unconscious man, discussing what they should do. They had avoided the strangers who had come to live on their world, watching them from afar. They envied the strangers their ability to live without a sacred well; from where did they get their water? For they had abundance of it, it seemed; they could even afford to pour it away on the ground. But along with the envy was fear. Fear of such magic powers: fear of the newcomers' ability to fly. And this stranger also had come from a flying machine. Though his was not, it seemed, such a powerful one as those belonging to the strangers they knew, for had it not hit the ground hard enough to be damaged?
At last one, more thoughtful than his fellows, said, "If we take this stranger to our camp, and tend him, and he recovers, he will surely be grateful. We might therefore learn much from him."
The others nodded their agreement. They picked up the limp body, and carried it carefully with them as they made their way back to their camp.
It seemed, however, that their hopes were going to be disappointed. Soon after they reached camp, the unconscious man began to move restlessly, and speak weakly. But they could not understand a word he said. As they struggled for comprehension, the newly-conscious man seemed to grow weaker... as if he had given up the fight to survive...
The question room was, unsurprisingly, another one carved out of solid rock. Chekov and McCoy were fastened to one wall with chains. They could only stand; the chains were not long enough to permit them to sit. Presumably, if they fell asleep, they would simply have to hang by their arms. Kirk was put in a stone chair a little way away from them. Above his head was a large barrel, a tap projecting from it at its base. He was strapped very carefully, so that he could not move any part of his body - then the tap was turned. on. A single drip of water hit his head. After a short pause, came another. Then another. Kirk recognised the type of torture involved. He had read about it somewhere, years before. After a very short time, the drop would begin to weigh heavier and heavier, until at last he was being hit by sledgehammers. And at the same time, the muscles of the rest of his body would be protesting violently at their inactivity... Strange how different races so far removed from each other in space should come up with very similar ideas with regard to torture.
The natives stared hopelessly at their unwitting guest. It seemed he was about to die indeed, of his own choice; and once having made up their minds to help him, they were unhappy about losing him.
"He is trying to tell us something," said the one who had first suggested bringing him back to camp.
"Perhaps he is trying to tell us why he wants to die," suggested another.
"I do not think so. I think he may be dying from self-pity because no-one understands him, or because he is among strangers... we should give him something to think about other than self-pity." And with that, he lifted his hand and struck the stranger hard across the face. "If I can make him angry enough to want to fight, to hit back," he said, "we may then be able to find some way of communicating with him." He hit the stranger again - and again - and lifted his hand to hit him yet again. This time, the stranger brought up his own hand, and stopped the blow before it could land; then said something. The words were unidentifiable, but the tone was not. Whatever the stranger was feeling, it was not anger. But the desire to die seemed to have gone.
The two men, tribesman and stranger with the unusually pointed ears, looked at each other; then began the long and difficult task of finding some means of communication.
Kirk's face was twisted in agony, though he had not uttered a sound. From his position against the wall, McCoy repeated over and over, "We've told you the truth! There's nothing else we can tell you! Stop it!" Chekov's face was a mask of horror, as he muttered "Cossacks!" under his breath.
Eventually, Shurr seemed to decide that he would get no information this way. He looked at McCoy. "You have been most voluble," he said. "But you have told us nothing, for all your words. Perhaps the water will loosen your tongue, and make your words more sensible."
He nodded to the guard, who turned off the water, then released Kirk, who was then dragged, so stiff that he couldn't walk, to the chains that held McCoy. The doctor was released and hauled to the chair, while Kirk was chained in his place. He hung limp, unable to make his feet support him at first, his weight providing added torture for his stiff arms.
As the drip began to fall onto McCoy's head, Kirk forced himself to stand. "You can't get information that doesn't exist," he said weakly. "And if this is your normal pattern of behaviour, then you're just as bad as the Mhlar you so hate - maybe even worse!"
At last, Shurr gave up. Chekov also had had his turn under the water, though he had not had to suffer as long as had the other two - Shurr had begun to realise that even battle-group loyalty would gain him no information. These Mhlar were too well indoctrinated.
"Take them back to their cell," he ordered. "It's too late to kill them tonight; they will be executed tomorrow."
They were dragged back to the cell and dropped on the floor - none of them was capable of walking. Locked in again, McCoy crawled to Kirk's side.
"How are you, Jim?"
"I'm no worse off than you or Chekov," Kirk muttered.
"At least Spock was spared this," McCoy said quietly. "He had a peaceful death."
"Yes," Kirk said. "But if he had been here, they would have had to admit that he wasn't of any race they knew - and then they might have believed us. Bones... they spoke of these Mhlar as if they were... oh, the local equivalent of the Klingons. But their own behaviour... might they be the local Klingons - and the Mhlar the local Federation?" His voice broke. "Spock," he whispered, so softly that McCoy barely heard him. The doctor put a hand on Kirk's shoulder sympathetically.
The Enterprise, back from surveying the rest of the planets in the system, swung into orbit, trying to contact the Galileo.
"There's no answer, Mr. Scott," Uhura reported.
"Sensors. Scan for the shuttlecraft."
There was no response for some time, then -
"Got her, Mr. Scott. She seems to have crashed. No signs of life near her, but there are indications of intelligent humanoid life fairly near."
"Let's go down and see. Lt. Uhura, come with me. Mr. Sulu, you have the con."
Scott and Uhura made their way to the transporter room, where they were joined by four Security men. They beamed down to the wrecked Galileo. A quick check was all that was needed. "There's no-one here, sir," Reynolds reported.
"Right. We'll try for the nearby life forms. They might be able to tell us something."
They set off. They were not, had they only known, unobserved; before they were halfway to the native camp, the tribe already knew of their approach.
Minimal communication had already been attained between them and Spock. They decided to try to ask him who these strangers were - strangers who had mysteriously appeared, even as the watcher blinked. They were uncertain as to how much of what they tried to tell him this pointed-eared stranger understood, but he seemed to be confident; they retreated, watching from concealment, while Spock waited for the arrival of - whoever it was. They were reassured, however, when their guest greeted the newcomers. Within seconds, it seemed, full communication was set up between them; the newcomers had some kind of device that enabled the two races to understand each other.
The first question Spock asked was - what had happened to his friends?
The natives knew where the strangers had their base. They watched it constantly; though they gleaned very little information. The strangers lived underground. They had made their caves, which could therefore contain no holy well to provide them with water - yet they were so wasteful of water that they threw it away, pouring it on the ground.
"Sounds like a farming colony," Scott commented.
"A farming colony that has war vessels?" Spock asked disbelievingly. "Mr. Scott - bring down a full Security detail. I do not intend going near these beings less than fully armed. They attacked us without warning, although it must have been clear to them that a vessel our size offered no threat to them."
"Aye, Mr. Spock."
"And you will return to the Enterprise. It is enough to hazard myself to rescue the Captain; it would be irresponsible to risk us both."
Scott looked at Spock. Logically, he knew he should try to insist that Spock, as second-in-command, be the one to return to the Enterprise; but he also knew that it would be hopeless. Spock would produce reason after logical reason to explain why he, and only he, should lead the rescue party - and not one of those reasons would be the truth.
The three prisoners didn't sleep well. It wasn't the threat of impending execution that bothered them; death was one of the hazards of the service, and they had all faced it too often for it to be a terror. But all three were stiff and sore, with aching heads; too stiff and too sore for them to relax; and in addition, Kirk and McCoy were grieving for Spock - even although they knew they would soon join him.
When morning came, it was almost a relief to be hauled from the cell and along the long passage. This time they were led into the open air.
Several guards lazed around. It was as if they knew that their victims could not even begin to try to escape. More guards were coming out from other entrances; and above them, unseen, a signal passed across the desert.
The prisoners were fastened to big rocks, spread-eagled against them. Several guards took up positions near each. There was a general atmosphere of holiday. The sun beat down on the prisoners' unprotected heads, adding to their discomfort.
Shurr eventually appeared. As he did, the lolling soldiers snapped to attention. Shurr looked round, as if inspecting his men, then moved over towards the prisoners.
"You have one last chance to tell me how you found out about our colony," he said. "If you tell me, your deaths will at least be merciful. Merciful and quick. Otherwise... "
"We've already told you the truth," Kirk said wearily. "As far as our people are concerned, this is unexplored space. When we couldn't detect any signs of life other than a few sparse primitive settlements, we assumed the planet to be undeveloped."
"You will be used for target practise," Shurr told him. "First your fellows, then yourself. Let us see if you can still remain ignorant when you hear the screams of your battle-group comrades."
Kirk looked over hopelessly towards the others. Chekov... Bones...
McCoy grinned reassuringly at him. "They'll learn, Jim. Then he'll have to live with his conscience. I wonder how he'll react to the certain knowledge that he's killed three innocent men?"
Shurr shook his head almost pityingly. "I do not want to do this," he said. "But you force me."
He turned to give the order - and was stunned into immobility as several shapes began to sparkle between him and his men. The shapes solidified into men - and Shurr gaped at this certain proof of a technology beyond anything known to his people - or the Mhlar. The men were holding weapons - small weapons, but Shurr suddenly felt certain that they were dangerous ones. There was a whining noise, as more sparkling shapes began to form.
One of the newcomers was physically different from his fellows - he had slanting eyebrows and pointed ears, like nothing Shurr had ever seen. He stepped forward, mouth open to speak. Even as he did, one of the prisoners - Kirk - exclaimed, "Spock!"
Spock whirled, took one look at the three figures fastened to the rocks, and snapped, "Release them!"
Three of the colonists hastened to obey as Spock moved towards Kirk. He caught his Captain as Kirk, released from the chains that were holding him up, nearly collapsed; then he realised that McCoy was in as bad a condition. McCoy, however, forced himself to move to them; said weakly, "Get Jim up to the Enterprise, Spock..."
Spock, knowing Kirk would prefer to remain standing, held his Captain up with one arm, while he slipped the other round McCoy to support him as well. Only he knew that the support was also an embrace.
"You're both going up as soon as the transporter is free," he said.
"No," Kirk objected. "We have some unfinished business to attend to here."
"I'll see to it," Spock said.
"It wasn't you they called a liar," Kirk said grimly. He looked at the now obviously nervous Shurr. "Well?" he asked.
"I must admit," Shurr said, "you have a degree of technology the Mhlar do not have; and your comrade is indeed of no race that we know."
"All right," Kirk replied. "Having got so far, we can talk. Tomorrow. Leave a guard here, Spock, then beam us up."
Spock glanced at the Security Chief. "See to it, Chief," he ordered. "And tell the ship to beam us up." He had just realised that he didn't have a hand free for his communicator.
Later, with Chekov confined to bed in his quarters - he wasn't in quite as bad a shape as the other two - and Kirk and McCoy in bed in sickbay, M'Benga and Nurse Chapel fussing round them, they got down to explanations. Kirk was particularly interested in why their captors would have thought Spock dying.
"I was in a healing trance," Spock explained. "A group of natives - native to the planet, that is, not colonists. They seem to be intelligent people, handicapped by lack of facilities for any sort of civilised life - their whole lives revolve around getting enough water. Perhaps the Federation could help them. They have already been exposed to the knowledge of outworlders because of watching the colonists."
Kirk nodded. "I'll recommend it," he said. "The other thing we have to determine is whether this race or the Mhlar, who seem to be their traditional enemies, are the more deserving of contact."
"Perhaps both are," Spock suggested.
Kirk looked at him. "Perhaps," he agreed.
Spock got up from where he had been sitting between them. "You should both sleep now," he said.
"Is that an order, Spock?" McCoy asked.
"Yes, Doctor, it is," Spock replied. He nodded a silent farewell, and left.
Kirk and McCoy looked at each other. Kirk grinned.
"You heard him, Bones. Let's get some sleep."