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Kirk was puzzled.
Since the new Senior Medical Officer, Dr. McCoy, had come on board the Enterprise, he had been trying to develop some sort of relationship with him - in vain. McCoy, it seemed, did not want any sort of Human relationship; even Spock had noticed it. But then, neither did he want a Vulcan one; Spock had tried speaking to him, and had been rudely rebuffed.
"Just leave me alone," McCoy had growled. "Let me get on with my duties; you don't need to discuss anything with me unless and until I prove inefficient."
Kirk was unhappy about the situation as well as puzzled. He prided himself on running a happy ship; it upset him that anyone on board should reject the camaraderie the Enterprise offered everyone.
What he did not - could not - know was that McCoy also was desperately unhappy. He wanted to respond to Kirk's friendly attitude; but he couldn't. His divorce was too recent. He turned away from companionship... and alone, he brooded over the long breakdown of his marriage. His wife's frequent infidelities... He had come to accept them, he loved her, even part of her attention was precious to him - only she knew too well that he had decided that accepting her cruelty and living in misery was preferable to living without her; and she had set out to make his life more and more unbearable, to show him her power over him. She had even alienated their daughter from him. Though, he remembered with a spark of pleasure, Joanna had eventually seen through her mother's actions. It was she who had eventually persuaded him to break free - yet, free, he still longed for the faithless woman who had subjected him to hell for so many years.
He was enough of a psychologist - and certainly enough of an introvert - to know that his preoccupation with the past was unhealthy. Yet he found that he was afraid to trust anyone... even another man. One of her lovers had been a man he called friend, a man he had believed he could trust. That had been the most hurting of all her infidelities, he thought. She had set out to seduce his friend, and he had not only succumbed but had then prolonged the affair. He could have forgiven Bill, he thought, if it had only been the once; he couldn't forgive the months that Bill had continued to deceive him. And he couldn't forgive the loneliness that the affair had caused him, for he hadn't trusted anyone since.
He tried persuading himself that here, on this Starship, things could be different; but his fear of fresh disillusionment was too strong. He tried telling himself that the Vulcan could be trusted; Vulcans were known for their loyalty - they held disloyalty in total abhorrence, he knew; and was convinced that with his luck, he'd strike the one Vulcan who was capable of disloyalty. Anyway, Spock was half Human, and McCoy certainly distrusted the Human half. Only with Scotty was he at all at ease; the man he had known before his marriage, and hadn't met during it, but with whom he had carried on a spasmodic but worthwhile correspondence during the terrible years when death itself would have been preferable to life. Even with Scotty, he held back; but Scotty understood. He knew a little - a very little - of what had been done to McCoy during those years - times when McCoy, in despair, had given him some clue, in the bitterness of his letters, of what had been happening. Virtually all he could offer McCoy was his company when solitude became even more unbearable than company. One night he got McCoy drunk, and learned a great deal more than he had previously known; but he kept his own counsel. He could have mentioned something to Kirk, who was, he knew, worried about the surgeon, but he felt that McCoy would regard it as another betrayal if he did. And the last thing McCoy needed was another betrayal. Just one more might destroy him utterly.
Matters continued in this way for some time, while the Enterprise moved on through space. McCoy, seeing the friendship around him, became, if anything, even more bitter that he could not - dare not - share it; and rejected every attempt to include him among them that the rest of the crew made. He found himself even beginning to reject Scotty, who watched unhappily, not knowing what to do to help his friend.
Matters were at this stage when the Enterprise reached Delta Leporis. There was a small research station on its third planet, living in an uneasy peace with the native humanoids, who called their world 'Lorne' - a word which, in their own tongue, meant 'Earth'. The natives themselves were friendly, but there was a small but powerful guild of men who, for lack of a better term, the research personnel called 'witch doctors'. Certainly they seemed to have the function of healers, but the settlers had early learned that their cures were rather ineffectual. Most of the sick who were 'cured' by them would have recovered naturally by themselves; the really sick died. And the witch doctors claimed that the dead had not had enough faith in the cure for it to work.
The station personnel had not, however, tried to do anything about it; that would have been accounted interference in the native culture. But one or two of the natives, seeing that none of the newcomers had yet died, had gone to them for medical help instead of to the witch doctors.
The station doctor had given it; so far, no-one had died after his help, and so the witch doctors had said nothing. But he knew that they were only biding their time. The first death after a Federation treatment, and there would be trouble. But he was temperamentally incapable of refusing help to the ailing.
Kirk included McCoy in the landing party, wondering if the change in environment, and the company of the station doctor, might begin to break down the wall that the surgeon had so obviously erected around himself. No-one, Kirk knew, could be so utterly self-sufficient except through choice - or so apparently self-sufficient. And it was becoming clear to him that whoever broke through to McCoy, it wasn't going to be him.
Only it didn't work. McCoy was even more abrupt and cynical than usual.
They were still there, talking to the station personnel, when two natives arrived, one of them carrying a sick child. The station doctor turned to meet them; McCoy, showing the first sign of interest that he had yet shown, joined him.
"They've begun to trust us," Dr. Watson said. "They've been coming for treatment for some months now."
"What about the native medicine men?" McCoy asked.
"They don't like it, but they haven't done anything about it that we know of."
The two doctors bent over the sick child. The illness was obviously well advanced - too well advanced.
When the landing party went back to the Enterprise, McCoy asked permission to remain behind - the ship didn't have to leave for some hours. "The child's very ill," he explained abruptly.
Kirk nodded. "Yes, of course," he agreed, glad to see McCoy showing concern for someone, and also, in away, glad to let McCoy see that he could be flexible and reasonable.
The child died.
Immediately, the witch doctors moved.
They went to the station, demanding the two doctors, accusing them of causing the death of the child by their alien treatment. Before the station commander could do anything, the witch doctors had left, taking Watson and McCoy by force. The commander, Lt Taylor, contacted Kirk.
He explained what had happened, and finished, "There was nothing I could do."
"I'll be right down," Kirk said.
He beamed down alone. Spock wanted to accompany him, but Kirk refused. "The situation down there must be pretty explosive," he said. "The witch doctors must be the bosses down there; with a dead child as ammunition, they'll be able to manoeuvre things to suit themselves. I want to try to save McCoy; he's a good doctor, even if he wasn't one of my men. Watson, too, if it's at all possible; but I don't want to risk anyone else in the process."
Taylor met him when he beamed down. "The natives are showing signs of hostility - though not as many as I'd have expected. Maybe they're a bit disillusioned themselves at the witch doctors; they wouldn't have been coming to us for medical help otherwise. And one of them whispered to me that the dead child was an orphan, brought here by members of a witch doctor's family."
"Watson and McCoy were set up?"
"It looks like it."
"Any idea where they were taken?"
"To the witch doctors' village," Taylor replied.
"I don't know. But I imagine they'll be killed. I didn't have enough men here to defy the witch doctors, Captain... and anyway, I have my orders; not to alienate the natives if at all possible."
Taylor gave Kirk directions for finding the witch doctors' village, and Kirk set off quickly, afraid that, even so, he would be too late.
The village was built in a hollow surrounded by low, undulating hills. Trees grew sparsely around. To one side of the village was another hollow. Smoke rose ominously from it; and from its direction came the sound of screaming. Kirk shivered at the agony in the screams, wondering what was happening, aware that the two Humans must be the victims, angry that they should be treated in such a way, and yet realising that it was stupid - Spock would have said illogical - to be angry with the natives for behaving according to their own culture.
He moved quickly towards the smoke-filled hollow, not yet able to see into it.
As he came in sight of its centre, the screaming stopped. At first he could see nothing in the hollow for the smoke. Natives stood around the rim of the hollow; fewer of them than he'd expected; then he realised that the killing must be being watched only by the witch doctors - and perhaps by some chiefs, too, but not by the ordinary people.
Then the smoke cleared slightly.
In the centre of the hollow was a pole. Tied to this pole, hanging limp, held up only by it, was a man in surgeon's blues - a uniform burned and smoke blackened, but still recognisable - barely. From this distance, and with the victim's head dropped forward, Kirk couldn't make out which of the two men it was. He ran forward.
The natives were moving now, as several of them made their way into the hollow, picking their way carefully - the ground was obviously very hot. They removed the limp figure from the pole, carried it out of the hollow, and dropped it carelessly on the ground as Kirk reached them.
He looked down at it. He still could not tell which of the doctors it had been; the face was burned beyond recognition. Feeling slightly sick, he looked away from the half-cremated body and up at the witch doctors who stood there.
"What have they done, that they must suffer this?"
"They are responsible for the death of one of our people."
"Would your own cures have worked?
"Perhaps. If the child believed sufficiently that we would cure him."
"The child was too ill, and too young, to believe anything," Kirk replied.
The spokesman of the witch doctors threw him a look of pure hatred, and said, "Your 'doctors' are not members of our guild of healers."
"They are members of the guild of healers of our own people."
"The child died."
"The child would have died anyway. Would he not?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk, saw another figure in blue being forced into the hollow... no, not forced, exactly, he was not resisting - but without turning and looking directly he couldn't see which one it was. "Must they both die?" he asked.
"No." Despite his obvious hatred of Kirk, the man was honest. "Any of the witnesses may attempt a rescue."
"When the fires are lit, any of the witnesses may try to cross the flames and release the criminal. If he successfully does so and brings the criminal back safely through the flames, the man is freed."
Kirk nodded. "I may attempt this?"
The witch doctor signified agreement. "You may; but what guarantee have we that your people will not take vengeance on us for your death when you fail?"
Kirk pulled out his communicator. "I will tell my people that if I die, it is my own fault."
Kirk flipped open the communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Spock here.
"Mr. Spock. I have a chance to save one of the doctors. If I die in the attempt, it will be my own fault, and not that of the natives."
"Captain - "
"You will not interfere, Mr. Spock. That's an order. We must abide by the local rules, otherwise the research station will have to close and we will be unable to maintain contact with this culture. Kirk out." He closed the communicator and turned back to the witch doctor. "Satisfied?"
The man nodded again. Kirk could see satisfaction in his face, and knew that in the native's opinion, he had no chance, and that the witch doctor welcomed the thought that another of these intruding aliens would die.
Kirk now looked directly into the hollow.
The doctor was tied to the pole; and Kirk could still not see clearly which one it was. He hoped it was McCoy - logically it should be; the witch doctors would surely be more intent on destroying the one they knew, the one who had been usurping their position - McCoy had simply been a bonus to them, as he would be - but he had no certainty that the natives could, in fact, tell one alien from another. If that was so, McCoy could have died first... and though McCoy was still a stranger to him, he was one of his men... and he hated losing any of his men. Smoke still curled lazily from the ground. What made it burn? Wisps of smoke drifted between him and the sacrificial pole... He didn't think he had been seen yet by the unfortunate doctor, who appeared to be paying little attention to what was going on. Was it McCoy?
Then, with a suddenness that made him jump, flames shot up from the ground. What made it burn? He had seen nothing to cause it; the natives had lit nothing. He glanced at the smiling witch doctor, who watched him, spite in his eyes.
"Are you still willing to try to rescue him?"
Kirk turned then, and without hesitation plunged forward.
Smoke stung his throat; fumes make him choke, and he gasped in more of the acrid smoke. He coughed, and each cough, as he gasped for breath, forced him to inhale more of the fumes. This wouldn't do. He stopped, shielded his mouth and nose with his sleeve, and brought his breathing under control. As he did, heat from the fire singed his clothes and hair. He tried to orientate himself. In the coughing spasm, had he lost sight of the direction in which he had to go? He could only hope not. He could see only a few feet. He went on in what he hoped was the right direction.
Fresh flames shot from the ground close beside him, and involuntarily he jerked away, tripped and fell. His right hand landed on a red-hot stone; he tried to pull away from it, but his weight was on it, and it took a couple of seconds to readjust his balance so that he could lift his hand. He scrambled to his feet again, hardly aware of the burning agony in his hand except as an accompaniment to the inferno. An unwary deep breath brought hot air into his lungs, and he realised that he could have damaged them quite seriously. He must watch not to breathe too deeply.
He moved on, feeling his way, one sleeve over his nose to keep from breathing in too much of the heated air, unable to go too fast in case he walked straight into one of the flame gushers, which seemed to vary their position... No, that couldn't be possible - was he hallucinating? There was as yet no screaming; was that worth anything?'
Then he came into an almost clear space. The pole was in front on him. He was behind the victim, and still couldn't see his face. He stumbled round to the front of the pole.
It was McCoy.
McCoy had gone to the sacrifice, if not willingly, at least with complete resignation. This was the end. Death was almost welcome. No more fear, no more worry... no more dread of betrayal, no more loneliness. He prepared himself to die with courage, hoping that he would not give the natives the satisfaction of hearing him scream as Watson had done. The natives were masters of suspense, it seemed; when the flames sprang up, they were not, at first, near him, though the spouts of flame were coming nearer with every eruption.
The flames were close when, out of the smoke behind him, came a blackened figure that he recognised, with some astonishment, as his Captain.
"Captain!" he gasped.
"Are you all right?" Kirk asked as he reached for the knots tying McCoy.
"Yes; the flames have been too far away... But you, Captain..." as he realised more fully the condition of Kirk's clothes and hair, "...what about you?"
"I'll do," Kirk said, struggling with the obstinate bindings. They were not rope - of course not, he thought, rope would burn - but he had no idea what they were made of, and they were difficult to untie. It didn't help that he only had the full use of his left hand; for the first time he realised just how badly the right one was damaged. But he had to use it to unfasten McCoy. He grunted involuntarily as the rough bindings tore at the burns.
"What's wrong?" McCoy asked.
"Burned my hand a little," Kirk said as the fastenings gave way. McCoy turned, reaching for Kirk's hands.
"Let me see - "
"No time," Kirk said. "We have to get out. We can't beam back to the ship, unfortunately; we have to stick to the rules. If we can get back to the edge of the hollow, you'll be counted innocent of causing the child's death. Come on."
Together they moved back into the inferno. "Keep your arm over your mouth," Kirk warned.
McCoy nodded. He knew all about the danger of breathing over-heated air. Somehow, now that he had company, Kirk found the conditions not quite so unpleasant. In addition, he was relieved - more relieved than he would have thought possible - that the survivor was, in fact, the unfriendly McCoy.
Flames spouted up round them, and once, on the way back, McCoy pulled Kirk away from a gusher that sprang up close - though not as close as the one that had burned him. As they went, getting nearer the perimeter, the flames lessened; and at last, they stumbled into clear air.
The witch doctor walked over to them, unwilling respect on his face. "Your friend is declared innocent of causing the death of the child," he told Kirk stiffly.
"Thank you," Kirk said. With his left hand he pulled out his communicator. "Two to beam up."
They were barely materialised when McCoy reached again for Kirk's hand - he knew now which one was burned. He drew in his breath sharply when he saw the extent of the damage to it. "Sickbay, Captain," he said. "Now."
Kirk nodded. He felt tired and weak now from the reaction, and he stumbled as he left the transporter pad. McCoy caught him before he could fall.
"I'll manage," he said.
McCoy looked at him. "Who are you trying to impress, Captain?"
Kirk shook his head. "I'll manage," he repeated.
McCoy slipped an arm round him. "All right, but lean on me."
In sickbay, he checked Kirk over carefully once he had attended to the immediately obvious injuries - he himself was uninjured. "Some slight damage to the lungs," he said. "Did you breathe in any of that superheated air?"
"A little, I think," Kirk admitted.
"And you didn't think it worthwhile telling me? How am I supposed to treat my patients when they won't co-operate?" He scowled at Kirk, and pointed to one of the beds. "Lie down. I'm not letting you out of here for a couple of days, so you may as well make yourself comfortable."
"Doctor, I think you're a bit of a bully." Kirk watched McCoy carefully as he spoke, his mental fingers crossed that he wasn't ruining his contact with McCoy almost before it was created. McCoy looked at him, and Kirk flinched at the look in the doctor's eyes. "Sorry," he said. "That wasn't a very good joke."
McCoy seemed to relax. "All doctors are bullies," he said. "Sometimes it's the only way to get the patients to behave themselves."
Kirk grinned at him.
"Captain... " McCoy hesitated. "Captain - thank you. You could have died down there... "
"It's all right," Kirk said. "And McCoy - I was glad to see it was you, and not Watson."
They looked at each other. Kirk took a deep breath.
He had reached McCoy after all. Only time would tell what sort of relationship would develop between them. But contact had been made.
Careful, Jim - don't push too hard.
"Doctor," he said, deliberately defusing the emotional atmosphere. "Get Spock down here, please. I want to see him."