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There were many worlds not suitable for colonisation that were nevertheless of considerable interest to scientists. Some were extremely unstable, and were being studied prior to their break-up in so far futile attempts to discover just what were the forces behind such a total disruption of a world; some were not suitable for climatic or atmospheric reasons, and the unfortunate scientists assigned there had to live in environmental units, sometimes for years, while they were completing their investigations.
Thule was one such planet. Currently in the grip of an ice age, one much more severe than Earth had ever suffered, the entire planet was covered by a layer of ice and frozen snow not less than fifty feet deep at the equator - and much thicker elsewhere; yet the scientists had discovered already that the ground underneath was thick with plant and animal remains, the ruins of cities and artifacts constructed by intelligent life. They were still trying to discover the reason for the catastrophe that had overtaken the planet several millennia previously.
The Enterprise had called in on her way to revisit Eminiar, where Ambassador Fox had completed his diplomatic duties, having successfully negotiated a peace treaty between Eminiar and Vendikar, and an agreement between both and the Federation. The ship had to pick up Fox, a duty the crew regarded with mixed feelings. But first they had to drop off several new personnel at the research station on Thule.
Spock beamed down with the scientists; he was curious to see what results the station had achieved in its studies of the errant sun whose variations seemed to have been the reason for the planet's death. An experiment was currently in progress; he was invited to stay, if the ship could stand by for twenty four hours, to see the result of it.
Kirk was mildly amused by the Vulcan's well-concealed eagerness. No-one else would have recognised his attitude, of course; unless, improbably, McCoy did, but Kirk had come to recognise all his friend's reactions well. He sympathised with Spock's desire to see some straightforward results in a straightforward series of stellar radiation tests, and decided that they could, in fact, well spare the time.
He went down himself to see the scientists' leader, to make sure that the results would indeed be ready inside the stated time, and on being assured that they would, he agreed to the delay. In addition, he stayed on the planet, taking advantage of the situation to have a short break himself.
He found the scientists' description of their life there, and their discussion of the various tests they had been running, surprisingly interesting; and found himself, as it got later, unwilling to leave. He eventually decided to stay all night, and in time he and Spock went off to the quarters they had been given; a double cabin, like all the others on the station.
He was more tired than he had thought, and fell asleep quickly. His last sight before his eyes closed was of Spock, still sitting up, studying a report he had been lent by one of the station personnel.
Kirk woke hours later, and glanced round to see if Spock had ever got to bed. The other bed had been slept in, but there was no sign of the Vulcan. Kirk stretched and got up.
Dr. Waterstone, the senior scientist, glanced up as Kirk walked into the station mess. "Morning, Captain."
"Morning. Mr. Spock about?"
Waterstone shook his head. "I haven't seen him. I thought he was still in bed."
"No, he was up before I woke. I suppose he's slipped off to have another look at some of the tests you have set up."
Waterstone grinned. "He's certainly keen, isn't he? What is it like, having an eager beaver like that in your crew?"
Kirk was silent for a moment, wondering how he could ever explain just what it was like. "He's... not always easy to live up to," he said at last, slowly. "But it's good having someone like him as second in command. Completely reliable... completely trustworthy... and able to turn his hand to anything. I'll miss him when he's promoted - I suppose he will be, eventually," he finished with an inner shudder as he thought of how lonely it would be when - if - that ever happened.
He joined Waterstone as he ate; in time they were joined by several of the other personnel. Waterstone glanced round them all. "Is Mr. Spock not coming for breakfast?"
There was silence for a moment, then Dr. Carson, who was in charge of the particular experiment that interested Spock, said, "I haven't seen him this morning. I did think it was odd, he was supposed to be coming to check out some figures with me about half an hour ago, but I decided that Captain Kirk must have needed him for something."
Kirk shook his head. "He was away when I got up." He glanced round the group. "Has anyone seen him?"
There was a general headshake, with several voices contributing, "No."
Kirk frowned. "That's strange," he said. He wasn't worried - yet - not quite - but he was uneasy. This was unlike the conscientious Vulcan.
It soon transpired that there was no sign of Spock anywhere on the station.
Kirk called the ship and told Scott to institute a general sensor scan of the surface around the station for Spock; and also called down a security contingent to help with a ground search, difficult as that would be in this frozen climate. McCoy accompanied the security men, without orders. Kirk couldn't find it in his heart to blame the Doctor, whose anxiety showed clearly on his face, and allowed him to remain. After all, M'Benga was on the Enterprise; he knew all about Vulcans, and could almost be called a better man than McCoy to tend Spock, should anything be wrong with him - even though McCoy always dealt with injuries to Spock himself, as he did with injuries to the Captain.
They had to wrap up well for the conditions, which were cold and stormy. Fortunately they didn't need to wear environmental suits, since the air had remained breathable, if cold; but the keen knife-edge of the wind was a killer, and they had to have protection against that. If Spock were out there, he would have no more protection against the icy blast. But - if he were, why had he gone out?
The search parties spread out, four men to a group. They had orders to report to the ship every half hour; failure to do so would result in an automatic alarm being raised for them as well.
Kirk knew that he should wait on the ship for these reports, but he was rapidly passing from worry about Spock to acute anxiety; he couldn't sit still, waiting while others searched. He had to go too, even though it might be futile.
What had happened? Why did Spock leave the base without saying anything to anyone? A glance at McCoy showed that he, too, was rapidly reaching the point of being sick with worry. Spock... Oh, God, Spock. Where are you?
He and McCoy went together, with two guards. They moved in line abreast, watching the ground in front, behind and at the side of them, sinking into the soft powder snow that drifted in great crests across their path, finding a harder patch that supported their weight, then sinking in thigh-deep again. It was exhausting walking, and at heart Kirk knew that this ground search was probably wasted effort; the sensor scan surely had more chance of success, yet... to pick up one Vulcan reading in all this wasteland... He stumbled on grimly, hands and feet numb with cold.
The ground began to rise steeply. They started to make their way up the slope, slipping a little as they went. Part way up, Kirk stopped. "Time to contact the ship," he said. He pulled out his communicator, fumbling a little as his fingers refused to co-operate fully.
"Kirk to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Uhura here."
"All well with my party," he reported. "What about the others?"
"You're the last to check in, Captain," she replied. "No-one has anything to report."
"Keep monitoring. Kirk out."
He put his communicator back in his belt, and returned his attention to the steep slope they had to negotiate. It's as well there's so much powder snow, he mused. It gave them something to sink their feet in. Without it, they would be slipping all over the place, unable to make much progress...
But Spock couldn't have come this way, a tiny logical corner of his mind kept saying. There aren't any footprints. We should have looked out for footprints.
As he reached for his communicator again there was a soft rumbling above them. He looked up. The snow was beginning to slide - they were right in the path of an avalanche.
There was nothing they could do to avoid it. The powder snow in which they were standing was too soft and deep to allow them to run to either side out of the path of the descending torrent of snow; and, powder though it was, Kirk knew enough about avalanches to know that its weight would be deadly. He made one last attempt to reach his communicator in order to give the ship their position, at least, but in vain. The communicator was knocked out of his hand by the force of the snow, and they were whirled down the slope they had ascended so laboriously in a confused tangle of arms and legs, somersaulting and rolling as they went...
The rumbling of the avalanche died into silence. The powder spray drifted down again. Stillness and silence returned to the winter-clad land. No trace of colour broke the whiteness of the snow...
McCoy woke from a cold dream of being trapped in a refrigerator to discover that it was no dream. A freezing weight pressed on his arms and back. His cheek was cold where it was pressed against the snow; one arm was outstretched, held firmly by the weight of snow. The other was bent up beside his face; it was solely due to the bent arm that there was a small pocket of air beside his nose.
He tried to push himself upwards. At first he thought that he was immovably buried, but then he felt the snow above him shift a little. He braced himself, pressing upwards as hard as he could; and the snow gave.
He found himself on the surface of a churned-up heap of snow, aware of a paradoxical feeling of relief that he was safe and fear for Kirk, coupled with the worry about Spock that already existed.
He stared round, searching desperately for some indication of where his Captain and friend might be; and, incidentally, where the two guards were. He could see nothing; no mark in the snow except the piled-up unevenness where the avalanche had come to rest. "Jim!" he shouted, knowing that it was probably futile. If Kirk was buried deep, he would be able neither to hear nor to reply; he might even now be suffocating only a few feet away, and die within reach of help because McCoy had no way of knowing where that help was needed.
As he had expected, there was no answer. He felt automatically for his communicator, and found nothing. The force of the avalanche had torn away both his communicator and his medical pouch. He had no way of calling for help; or of giving it, should he find one of the buried men. "Jim!" he called again, hopelessly.
From somewhere near came a muffled shout. "Bones!"
He took a deep, relieved breath. At least Jim was alive; it was simply a question of finding where he was buried and trying to dig him out. "Keep talking, Jim," he called. "I'll try to find you."
He followed the voice and when at last he thought he had traced it he began digging in the snow with his bare hands; his gloves were somewhere deep under the surface with his communicator and medikit. The first thing he realised was that he had hurt his left arm; something he had been unaware of until he started using it. He gritted his teeth and dug on; Jim's safety, his very life perhaps, depended on the speed with which he could dig him out.
Kirk wasn't far down, however. He also had trapped a tiny pocket of air in a fold of his arm, but he was held absolutely immovably by the snow. McCoy found his legs first, but once he had reached his friend and knew he was no longer digging in the dark, he speeded up, ignoring the pain that shot through his arm.
Once uncovered, Kirk looked up at him, relief in his eyes. "Thanks, Bones." He sat up and grimaced as the movement hurt his back. "The guards?"
McCoy shook his head. "Buried too. They haven't called; unless they happened to have been near the surface, I don't think there's much chance for them."
"Are you hurt?"
McCoy shrugged. "My left arm - I think it's a strain or a pulled muscle, caused by the way our bodies were twisted by the avalanche. And you, Jim? Where are you hurt?"
Kirk looked at him, then decided he couldn't hide it. "My back's sore. Like you, I think I probably twisted it." He tried to stand, and gasped involuntarily. as the movement sent waves of pain through his back; McCoy moved instantly to support him.
"Lie down again, Jim. I want a look."
Kirk obeyed. He controlled his reaction this time, however; he was prepared for it. McCoy felt over his back carefully. "I think you're right, Jim. It's just a twist, but a bad one. I'd prescribe several days in bed, on boards, if we were back on the ship; but since we're here, you'll just have to manage somehow until we get back to the station - "
"What about Spock?"
McCoy looked at him. "What about Spock?"
"We came out here to look for him."
"Jim, I want to find Spock as much as you do. But my first responsibility is to you. I must get you back to the ship. You're hurt. You're not fit to go wandering about looking for Spock. Once you're there, I'll come back down and go on looking for Spock. I promise."
Kirk shook his head. "I have to go on, find Spock... "
"Jim, you're just being obstinate. You must go back to the ship. That's a medical order."
Kirk sighed, accepting the necessity. There was, after all, no guarantee that they were anywhere near Spock - if, indeed, he was out here. They began to make their awkward way back, McCoy helping Kirk. Once they had moved off the course of the avalanche, Kirk stopped. He looked back. "My men... "
"If they were still alive, they would have either managed to get themselves to the surface or called out by now," McCoy said gently. "I imagine they both died without regaining consciousness."
Kirk nodded sadly. They went on, Kirk clumsy as he tried to walk without moving the maltreated muscles of his back, McCoy trying to help him but becoming more and more aware of the pain in his left arm. He was beginning to suspect that - although in his desperation he had managed to use it - one of the bones in his forearm might be broken.
It was difficult to move in the deep powder snow. They waded through it, thigh deep, both beginning to feel the cold increasingly acutely. McCoy began worrying about frostbite. His hands were frozen, his feet so numb that he couldn't feel the ground under them. He suspected that Kirk was in the same state, even though he was going on uncomplainingly.
Then they came across a track where someone had gone through the snow before them, moving away from the station at an angle to their own trail. Kirk stopped.
Both men looked at the track, then at each other. "Spock?" Kirk asked.
"It... it could be," McCoy replied, almost reluctantly. He wanted to find Spock; but he was also desperate to get Kirk back to the ship. And he knew that if Kirk did seriously think that this track was Spock's, he would not rest until he found him. McCoy looked at Kirk again, recognising the expression on his friend's face. And, at heart, he wanted the same thing.
They turned onto the already trampled track and began to follow it. The steadier going let Kirk move more quickly without straining his back; but he was still very conscious of the pain from it.
The track took them towards an ice-covered cliff - where the hillside they had been climbing steepened even more. And there, lying in a tiny cave formed by a bulge of ice clinging to the rock wall, was the recumbent body of the Vulcan.
Both men ran to him. Kirk gasped again as the sudden movement twisted his back. McCoy reached for Spock's wrist, then changed his mind and went for the neck pulse. Kirk watched him anxiously.
"Is he... ?
"He's alive, but he's in a bad way. He's cold - very, very cold. It would be serious enough in either of us, but in a Vulcan, with a normal temperature so much higher than ours... He's suffering from hypothermia, Jim. We have to warm him."
Kirk looked at him. "We could try to carry him back to the station - " he began.
"If we were both fit, I'd say yes. But we're not. We can't even begin to carry him. We have to stay here with him, and warm him. "
"How?" Kirk asked desperately.
"With our bodies. Lie down beside him."
Kirk obeyed. He put his arms round Spock, holding him close, as McCoy lay down on the other side, pressing his body close to the Vulcan.
Their backs got colder and colder; their hands and feet were so numb that McCoy worried about it. What damage was being done to their toes in particular that would remain undetected until they got back to the Enterprise... if indeed they ever did? He had never been quite sure if the stories of frostbitten men taking their socks off and pulling their toes off at the same time was fact or exaggeration. He was beginning to think that they would die here... but at least their bodies would be found together.
After a long time, Kirk said, "It's time that someone was coming to look for us."
"Yes," McCoy replied.
Kirk abruptly made up his mind. "Stay here with Spock, Bones. I'm going for help."
"Jim!" McCoy protested.
"We won't survive here much longer, will we?" McCoy reluctantly shook his head. "And you can still keep Spock reasonably warm?"
"Yes," McCoy said, still reluctantly.
"Then the only sensible thing is for me to go for help."
"Wait a minute. You can't go. Your back - "
"Bones, you can't leave Spock. You know that. I wouldn't begin to know what to do for him if you left and he got worse. It's my back that's sore - there's nothing wrong with my legs."
McCoy gave in. "Be careful."
Kirk nodded. "I will. It's your lives I'm gambling for." He got up, struggling to control his face. His back was agonisingly sore, and he was certain that the cold was numbing it slightly. He was very stiff.
One thing - there was a well-marked track back to the station. He should be able to follow it with a minimum of trouble.
Pain shot through his back. He found it easier to move with his body twisted slightly forward, and wondered if he had done it any permanent damage. This wasn't the first time he had hurt his back. Nor the second, either, he reflected. If he kept on injuring it, might he one day find himself crippled? He resolutely put the thought out of his mind.
Would he never reach the station?
He stumbled on. He was beginning to get very sleepy. It would be so pleasant to lie down and stop forcing himself to move; pleasant to lie unmoving so that his back no longer needed to hurt him... He tripped and fell.
It was nice lying still... He felt strangely warm... His eyes drooped shut...
He jerked his head up, forcing his eyes to open. He looked at the snow on which he was lying. Snow. Cold.
Cold. It was the killer. He forced himself to his feet again. He stumbled forward. His body seemed to be one great ache now, but in a way he was grateful for it, for it helped him to fight sleep. Then, ahead of him, he saw the research station.
It looked miles away.
He had to reach it. Spock... McCoy... their lives depended on it. He had to reach it... had to... had to... reach...
He became aware of warmth and comfort; faint voices sounded in a muffled distance. There was a familiarity about the voices... He opened his eyes; blinked in the sudden light.
He blinked again. McCoy one arm in a sling, was standing beside him. "Bones... what about Spock?" His voice sharpened in some alarm.
"I'm here, Jim."
He turned his head. Spock lay in the next bed, looking most unwilling to be there. "They found you," he said contentedly.
McCoy nodded. "Apparently you staggered into the station three-quarters asleep. You managed to tell them where to find us, then collapsed. We weren't too bad; Spock was warming up nicely although he still hadn't come round when they got to us, and we were beamed straight on board. We... we managed to get the bodies of the two men who died," he added. "They were both killed instantly. Meanwhile, Scotty has us on course for Eminiar. We'll be a little late getting there; Ambassador Fox will just have to wait."
Kirk nodded. Then he turned to Spock. "What I don't understand is what happened to you."
For a moment, the Vulcan appeared to be thinking. "I was wakened... it seemed, by a noise. I looked outside, and thought I saw... something... moving away. I decided to follow; all reports indicate that there is no native life surviving on Thule, although one set of experimental results shows anomalous readings, as if in fact there are life forms here. I could make nothing out clearly, however, merely movement... and that only out of the corner of my eye. As the moon set, I lost sight of... whatever it was - and then found that it was too dark to retrace my steps with any certainty.
"I sat down to await daylight... The cold must have affected my judgment more than I thought possible, and I fell asleep.
"I reported what I thought I saw to the scientists on Thule before we left; what they do about it is up to them."
"I see," Kirk said. "You know, Spock, that scientific curiosity of yours is going to be the death of you one of these days." He tried to sit up and winced.
"Lie still, Jim," McCoy said, just too late to stop him making the attempt. "You wrenched your back badly; it'll take a few days to heal. You can play chess with Spock provided he makes all the moves while you stay flat on your back - he'll be here for a day or two as well."
"What about yourself, Doctor?" Spock inquired.
"Me, Spock? Well, think about it. You and Jim will be getting out in a day or two - but I live here!"