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Sheila Clark

"Report, Mr. Spock."

"The planet does not exactly fit any standard classification, Captain," Spock replied slowly. "Considering its large mass, its gravity appears to be little more than standard - approximately 1.1424751 of Terran norm. In composition it appears to be midway between the density of a gas giant and that of a small, solidified world. The atmosphere is basically oxygen/nitrogen with an unusually high proportion of free nitrogen. The upper layers are composed of pure oxygen. Air pressure at ground level is unusually high also, but the surface is extremely uneven, and in fact the mountain ranges reach an altitude that brings their upper slopes into the more tenuous oxygen layers. There is extensive plant and animal life, including sapient readings, despite the fact that I can detect no surface water."

"How can life exist without water?" Kirk asked blankly.

"Certain species of desert animals..." Spock began


The Vulcan subsided obediently, mentally shaking his head. He would never understand the Human passion for asking questions for which they did not desire the answers.

"Can you pinpoint a settlement of these intelligent beings?" Kirk continued.

Strangely, the Vulcan, studying the sensor screen intently, was in no hurry to reply.


The silence dragged on a few moments longer. Had Spock been Human Kirk would have thought he was being deliberately hesitant because of the reprimand, mild though it had been; but that would have been petty, and Spock was never that. "No, Captain."

Kirk had been so keyed up for a set of coordinates that it took him a moment to remember just what his last question had been.

"Not at all?" he asked.

Spock paused for a split second to wonder if this question was rhetorical, and decided that it was not.

"The sapient readings are sparse, Captain, and are concentrated on the higher mountain reaches where there are occasional pockets of the standard atmosphere, but there appear to be no settlements as we understand the term. Probably the air pressure at the lower levels is too great for their species, despite the fact that animal and bird species live at those levels. The culture seems to be non-mechanised..."

"So if the Federation wants to employ native workers, we'll have to begin by teaching them what mechanisation is," Kirk mused aloud.

"It would appear so," Spock agreed unenthusiastically. He could never readily accept the ease with which the Federation High Command - including its Vulcan representatives - could ignore the non-interference directive when it suited their purpose. If such interference had been over a moral issue, Spock could have understood and accepted it; but the reasons were almost always economic. In this case, long-range scans had detected the presence of pergium. Since there was only one other known source of this ore inside Federation space, it was inevitable that someone - in this case the Enterprise - should be sent to investigate more closely.

"What about the pergium, Mr. Spock?" Kirk went on.

The Vulcan was ready for the question. "There are several extensive sources, Captain. All are situated much lower down the mountains than the natives choose to live. "

Kirk swivelled round to look at him. "How much lower?"

"Between five and ten miles lower, Captain."

Kirk considered this. "Could any of the Federation races tolerate the air pressure at the level?"

"I believe so, Captain, although they would probably be more comfortable under pressurised domes - or, more accurately, depressurised domes."

Kirk nodded thoughtfully. Unlike his First Officer, he could accept the breach of the Prime Directive; what he disliked was the exploitation of the native inhabitants, who were often ruined morally by the sudden riches earned at Federation scales of wages, while lacking the sophistication to know what to do with such wealth. He found himself strangely satisfied that these particular natives should, by their biological structure, be difficult to exploit; and, knowing Spock's views, he was pretty sure that the Vulcan also was experiencing a feeling akin to satisfaction.

"Just how rich is this pergium ore, Mr. Spock?" Kirk continued.

Spock looked slightly dubious. "I would not care to make an estimate without a closer examination of the ore, Captain."

"All right. Take a landing party down and check it out. Better test two or three deposits while you're down there. You think you'll be able to tolerate the air pressure?"

"A short exposure should not be detrimental to our health, Captain."

Kirk grunted. "You'd better go down by shuttle, though. That way you'll be able to visit several areas in one trip, as well as having a handy pressure chamber, should it become necessary."

"Yes, Captain." Spock considered Kirk's phraseology for a moment, then added, "You are not accompanying the landing party, Captain?"

"I don't think so, Spock. You know what you're looking for, and I've got some paperwork to catch up on; one or two routine reports I've been putting off doing, but I can't put them off any longer." He sighed. Most of these routine reports were totally unnecessary, never varying from one month to the next, and he sometimes wondered at the level of mentality of the people who studied them - if indeed they were studied and not just quietly tossed into a file somewhere to gather dust. If doing them is tedious, he thought, reading them must be even more so, by the time the reader gets through all the reports from all the Starships!

Spock considered who to include in his landing party. If Kirk was occupied with routine reports, McCoy would be also. Which member of the medical staff should he include? Andersen, perhaps. Although he was young and relatively inexperienced, it was unlikely that the trip would provide anything more exciting then some slight nausea caused by exposure to the unaccustomed pressure. It would be valuable experience for the young doctor. Carstairs and Bayliss from his own department - he didn't want to risk too inexperienced a scientist for this survey. Yeoman Mears was reasonably competent on landing party duties and, since she had a steady boyfriend in Engineering, she wasn't likely to try a 'helpless female' act in order to attract the attention of one of the Human males.

Spock shuddered mentally as he recalled one such act that he had witnessed. He still, despite giving the matter considerable thought, completely failed to understand why the Human males present on that occasion had crowded around, all anxious to help her, for he knew - and knew that they knew - that she was fully able to manage for herself.

Better take two security guards, too; there might be dangerous animals. Spock checked the duty roster. The first two names were Becket and Reynolds, both good men. He summoned his chosen group to the hangar deck.

* * * * * * * *

The shuttle dropped lower and lower through the tenuous upper layers of the atmosphere. Suddenly it hesitated, as if it had reached a barrier; then it continued downwards through air that the sensors told them was now an oxygen-nitrogen mix. Spock noted the fact that there seemed to be a distinct dividing line between the upper oxygen layers and the lower standard atmosphere, a line marked by an apparent force field. He put the item to the back of his mind for later consideration as they continued on downwards.

Strong winds began to tug at the shuttlecraft, blowing her steadily off course. Spock tried to compensate, but found the strength of the prevailing wind too great for the power of their small craft. Inexorably, they were carried from their chosen route, away from the mountain range whose slopes they had planned to follow down until they came to a pergium deposit.

Spock considered rapidly. There were pergium deposits over most of the planet, and the further down the mountains they got, the more deposits there were. They didn't have to reach the one he had originally selected. Any half dozen sites would serve the purpose equally well. He let the wind blow the shuttle onwards, still dropping steadily towards the lower levels.

After a while the wind began to veer around and carry them back towards the mountain range that they had originally been descending. Spock's eyebrow lifted as he pondered the vagaries of climatic conditions.

They had been seeing many small birds, both singly and in groups, but most of these had remained reasonably distant, at the limit of visibility in the steadily thickening atmosphere. Now one large bird swooped close and hung beside them on motionless wings, its unblinking eyes glaring at them menacingly. Its hooked beak looked dangerously powerful. It sailed along, paralleling them for some minutes, then it turned aside. The small, unwary bird that had unwittingly come too close probably never knew what hit it. Still gliding along on outstretched wings the huge predator bent its head to its talons and, with two or three tearing bites, consumed its prey. It cast another look at the unresponsive shuttle, then apparently decided that the intruder wasn't going to threaten its territory, for it turned and flew on slowly flapping wings back the way it had come. There was a general sigh of relief from the Human members of the crew.

Visibility was gradually diminishing now, due to the oncoming darkness and thickening mist. Spock was puzzled at first over the prematurely fading light; the sun should still be high in the sky. After a few rapid calculations, he realised that the layers of clouds through which they were passing must be reducing the density of light reaching them. There might not be any surface water, he reflected, but there was an ample amount in suspension in the atmosphere.

The wind was getting erratic and gusting spasmodically. Spock frowned slightly. He wasn't worried... not really... but he found this change in the wind's behaviour disturbing as he edged the shuttle downwards.

Bayliss, at the sensors, jerked his head up in alarm. "We're almost on the surface, sir!"

Spock nodded acknowledgement, wrestling with the controls. The wind's erratic behaviour was explainable now. He was still unable to see the surface, but guessed that it must be very uneven. "Is there a pergium deposit near?" he asked calmly.

His calmness had its effect on the near-panicking Bayliss. "Yes, sir," he replied, more quietly. "Course two mark five nine." Spock swung the shuttle on to the designated course. "How far, Mr. Bayliss?"

"Not more than half a mile, sir. If you land anywhere near here we'll be right on top of it."

Spock proceeded to set the shuttle down. The ground looked reasonably even in this half-light, despite the fact that it was sloping slightly. They touched down, and the soil slid from under them in a landslide caused by the shuttle's weight. Spock had already cut power; he snapped over the lever to repower the craft, but too late - they were carried downwards by a shifting mass of soil and loose rock. The shuttle tipped sideways, throwing the crew about like so many dolls. Built for travel in space or atmosphere, the small craft's structure was never intended to withstand such treatment. Its walls began to buckle and tear open under the strain.

They finally came to rest a full half mile further down the mountain. Spock rose carefully from where he had braced himself to avoid being tossed about too wildly, finally becoming aware of the increased pressure. The hull of the shuttlecraft was no longer intact. Andersen lay in a crumpled heap nearest to him. As Spock walked towards him he discovered that, in the increased pressure, his movements were not so rapid as usual.

The young man was very pale; there was a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. Kneeling beside him, Spock reached into the medikit for a diagnostic scanner and passed it over the unconscious man. His lips tightened slightly. A broken rib had pierced a lung, and there were other internal injuries. Andersen needed immediate, skilled medical help.

Spock proceeded to check out the others, who were all beginning to show signs of scrambling to their feet and reacting in their various ways to the many bumps and bruises they had suffered.

Satisfied that none of them were seriously hurt, Spock turned back to the control panel. He flicked the communications switch. "Shuttlecraft to Enterprise." There was no reply, but he had not seriously expected one. He reached for his communicator. "Spock to Enterprise." There was still no reply. Strange - they shouldn't be out of communicator range. "Spock to Enterprise," he repeated, with the same result.

He examined the communicator carefully. It was functioning, but something as yet unidentified was blocking the signal. Might it have something to do with the pressure? Unlikely as that seemed, it was the only answer that he had. He must assume that it was the pressure, and that being the case, the only way to regain contact with the ship would be to get to a higher altitude where the pressure was lower.

The crew gathered around, waiting for orders.

"Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Becket. Find something to use as a stretcher. Dr. Andersen is badly hurt and will have to be carried. Mr. Carstairs, see if the water container has remained intact.

"Yeoman, issue the phasers. Mr. Bayliss, check conditions outside." The crew scattered to do his bidding, the action helping to overcome shock. Mears retrieved the phasers from their slightly battered container and slipped the spare power packs into her pouch along with the seventh phaser - the one Andersen wouldn't be able to use. She moved among the men, handing out the weapons.

The water container also had escaped serious damage, unlike another occasion Spock could remember all too vividly. At least there was no danger of sunburn or extreme, rapid dehydration here; fortunately, for the amount of water in the container was little enough for seven, and might have to last them for several days. Carstairs rigged up a harness for it out of spare straps and fastened it to his back. A thought struck the Yeoman, and she added several disposable cups to the load in her pouch.

Becket and Reynolds, however, were having difficulty manufacturing any sort of stretcher. At last they settled for a long strip of metal torn from the shuttle's wall, sparsely padded with stuffing from the seats, to be carried - with difficulty - by means of more tricorder straps. One strapless tricorder went into Mears' pouch. Two more were wedged at Andersen's feet, once he had been lifted carefully onto the makeshift stretcher. The Yeoman and the three scientists each carried one.

They gathered around the stretcher, the Humans oddly unwilling to leave the doubtful security of the shuttlecraft. Spock, however, knew only too well that without radio contact it was unlikely that the Enterprise could detect them. The very atmosphere was their enemy, its density rendering sensor readings indistinct and completely unreliable. They had to reach higher ground where the pressure was very much less. Then, perhaps, a communicator signal might reach the ship.

It was fortunate, he thought, that none of them had experienced any immediate difficulty. Extreme exertion, however, might be detrimental to their condition. Slow and steady must be the watchwords.

"Report, Mr. Bayliss."

"Everything around us seems... dead, Mr. Spock. Only very primitive lichens and a few worms and arthropods. We seem to be below the level at which much life exists."

Spock nodded, the report confirming his own suspicions. At this level, the air pressure was simply too great for most forms of native life, even though they, the visitors, seemed able to tolerate it. He looked around, his senses feeling out for the correct direction.

"This way," he said confidently, pointing. "Mr. Bayliss, go in front. Mr. Carstairs, Yeoman. Do a supplementary check as you go. Mr. Reynolds, you and I will take the stretcher first. Mr. Becket, be ready to relieve either of us when it becomes necessary." After a scattered chorus of acknowledgement they set off, walking over rough, uneven ground. The dust that filled many of the hollows was too fine and soft to provide adequate footing, causing them to trip and stumble in the dim light. Visibility was hampered by the thick mist that hung clammily over everything, limiting their vision to only a few twilit yards. A multi-legged centipede-like creature scurried away from almost under Bayliss' feet, invisible in its camouflaged colouring until it moved, and disappeared again among a colony of lichens that hugged the rock in sparse mottled greyness.

They found it impossible to move with any speed. Not only was the footing uneven and treacherous, but the pressure of the air weighing on their bodies definitely slowed them. It was like walking underwater, except that their bodies lacked buoyancy and they were restrained by the additional weight of the extra gravity. Even Spock felt its effects; probably, he suspected, because he had lived for so long in a purely Terran environment. His body would readapt quickly, but for the moment he was as physically distressed as his Human companions.

After about half an hour Spock called Becket to relieve Reynolds, and they went on without a break. Spock suspected that conditions were unlikely to improve, and it was uncertain how far they had to travel. He wanted to get as far as possible before the crew began to feel the cumulative effects of gravity, inadequate water, and an uncertain food supply. The moisture in suspension would ease the water situation considerably, for while they were breathing moist air they were unlikely to become too dehydrated.

By the end of the next half hour Spock was feeling surprisingly tired, and gave the order for five minutes rest before continuing. He bent over Andersen before he sat down, however.

The doctor was still unconscious. Fresh blood continued to trickle from his mouth. Spock shook his head; there was still hope for the injured man, he could still be saved if they were found soon - but it would have to be very soon. Abruptly, Mears coughed.

"What's wrong, Yeoman?" Spock asked.

She choked back another cough to answer. "There's a lot of dust in the air, sir. It caught in my throat."

Now that she mentioned it, Spock realised just how gritty the atmosphere was. All atmospheres contain dust, but here the specks were quite large, several of them being visible to him even in this half-light, now that he was looking for them. They were sinking, but very, very slowly. Spock sat on a large rock and surveyed the others.

"I am afraid that the dust is another hindrance we are forced to accept," he commented.

"I know, sir," Mears replied apologetically.

* * * * * * * *

On board the Enterprise Kirk shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Now finished with his reports - they never took him very long, it was just his distaste for them that delayed him every month - he was becoming concerned that Spock hadn't yet reported in. He swung round to Communications.

"Any word from Mr. Spock yet, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir." I'd have told you if there was, her thought continued, a little irritably. "I've been trying to raise the shuttle for nearly twenty minutes, but there's no response."

"Check the coordinates for the shuttle's first landing site, Lieutenant, and relay the position to the transporter room." Kirk punched his intercom button. "Kirk to Security. Two men for a routine check. Beam down and attempt to contact Mr. Spock, who should be at, or very near, their beam-down point."

"Acknowledged." The voice continued, more faintly, before the intercom was switched off. "Who's top of the duty...?"

* * * * * * * *

Fasleur and Norwin materialised in a thick mist. Visibility was only a few yards. They could see nothing but mist, and around their feet the soft-bodied vegetation moving gently in a steady breeze - a breeze so light that it was little more than a draught. Insects danced around; a bird swooped out of the mist, open-mouthed, and soared again, breaking through a veil of the tiny creatures and banking to scoop up more of them in its open maw. The insects continued their dance, oblivious to their danger. The bird turned once more to harvest the flock of insects, then it vanished back into the mist.

Fasleur studied his tricorder intently, peering at it in the half-light. Nothing... no trace of any worked metal. There were large pergium deposits near... some ferrous ores... traces of copper... but nothing more. If the shuttle had ever been here, it must have moved on to the next site Mr. Spock might have chosen for investigation.

Norwin pulled out his communicator. "Mr. Spock." There was no reply. The two guards looked at each other. "Norwin to Enterprise."

After the two guards had been beamed back aboard, Kirk ordered the search to begin.

* * * * * * * *

Andersen died without ever regaining consciousness, barely an hour after the party recommenced their determined plod towards the planned landing site. They stopped long enough to dig him a shallow grave in the soft earth, then went on. Although he regretted the man's death, Spock was also, in part, a little relieved. Carrying Andersen had been a considerable drain on the cumulative strength of the group. They had done everything they could for him - now they could continue with a better chance for their own survival. He knew better than to say so, however; the Humans would never have understood. Even though, as he had discovered, they could accept such paradoxical attitudes as admiring and disapproving of someone at the same time, they could never understand that death, undesirable as it was, could sometimes benefit others.

Spock led them on thereafter for almost a mile before the already faint light began to diminish, and he knew that the planet's long day was drawing to a close.

There was no real shelter to be had here, either. They were still traversing a barren, apparently lifeless plain, but who knew what creatures might emerge from their dens with the coming of darkness? Creatures that would not require eyes to detect them, and from which the fugitives would have little, if any, chance of escaping out here in the open. If the sunlight could only produce a dim twilight, moonlight - even that of a full moon - would certainly fail to illuminate their surroundings.

Just before it got too dark to see they found a semi-refuge where two great boulders lay together, providing a place where they were sheltered by two sides of a triangle. There was no protection on the third side, or above, but it was better than nothing. Spock decided to let them all sleep, if they could; in the pitch dark of night a guard would be unable to see anything, and a prolonged watch would only result in a strain on eyes and mind, with absolutely no possibility of being able to warn or defend the others should danger approach.

The air, already chilly, seemed to get even colder as visibility dwindled to nothing. Spock decided that the apparent drop in temperature was imaginary, and remained obstinately aloof, but the Humans huddled together for warmth. One by one they fell asleep, until only the Vulcan remained awake.

The night was completely still. Spock found himself, as he had known would happen, straining his eyes to see in the Stygian blackness, straining his ears to catch a sound in the utter silence, and forced himself to relax. The moist breeze caressed his face with icy fingers, and he gave an involuntary shiver. Memories of forbidden Human stories read in secret, or told to him by his Terran cousins, rose unbidden in his mind. Not that he had ever believed in ghosts, of course, but...

Spock took a deep breath. It is imagination, he told himself. Ghosts do not exist. They are a figment of the imagination of generations of superstitious and illogical Humans. What I feel touching me is the wind, silent because there are no branches through which it can blow. There is nothing here to frighten me... His thoughts trailed off as he saw a mysterious bright light moving towards him. There was a dark, shadowy shape behind it that he found himself wishing he could see more clearly. The light was strangely hypnotic; he felt himself drawn to it... He began to sit up...


He wrenched his mind free from the attraction, forcing himself to look away from the light. When he had regained control of himself, he looked back; if he had been Human he would certainly have laughed with relief. The creature had turned away, and could be seen quite clearly in its own light - a bird, large but not excessively so, and the light a brilliant, glowing spot at the tip of its beak. He doubted that it was large enough to constitute a real danger to any individual in the party. A creature something like a Terran angler fish, but avian; an interesting sight. He reached for his tricorder.

After a few minutes the bird flew slowly away. Soon the light was gone, swallowed up in the mist. Spock yawned, and lay back down again, suddenly sleepy.

It was still dark when he awoke, but his sense of time told him it would soon be day. He sat up, aware for the first time that his clothes were quite damp, and frowned. There was nothing they could do about it, but it would not be good for any of them to remain in wet clothing. Before long one or more of the party would begin to suffer from some malaise brought on by the damp conditions, and he had an uncomfortable suspicion that he might be the first to succumb. Vulcans, accustomed to a hot, dry climate, were very susceptible to ailments caused by cold, wet conditions.

Gradually the light grew brighter, and once it was clear enough for him to see Spock roused the others. None of them complained about the hunger all were beginning to experience, knowing that there was nothing they could do about it, but all were grateful that Spock allowed them each a little water from their scanty supply. Only Carstairs noticed that Spock himself took none. Without letting the others know, Carstairs moved over to the Vulcan.

"Aren't you having anything to drink, sir?" he asked softly.

"I do not need it, Mr. Carstairs," Spock replied equally softly. "Vulcans are accustomed to living in an arid climate, and there is more than sufficient moisture in the atmosphere to satisfy my requirements."

Carstairs was unconvinced, but accepted the explanation, well aware that Spock knew what he was doing. He swung the water container onto his back again, ready to move off.

Slowly their surroundings began to change. The sparse lichens became more widespread, and instead of hugging the rock grew more profusely, reaching upwards to a maximum height of fully half an inch. Spock bent to examine these new plants carefully, and looked up at the Humans.

"It will not be particularly palatable, gentlemen, but this lichen is edible. I suggest that we all eat, and then gather as much as we can carry. We may find a small stock of food quite valuable, since we cannot guarantee always finding something we can eat."

He was right; the little plants were not very appetising, but all were hungry and choked them down. It was very dry eating, too; Spock allowed them all a mouthful of water when they had finished their meal, and even took one himself. They set to work to gather what they could, and after stuffing Yeoman Mears' pouch with the dry lichen, moved on.

Small creatures were becoming more common too, darting here and there among the low plants with short, abrupt movements. It proved impossible to catch any to examine closely; the little animals could move much faster than their prospective captors, and were too restless for a tricorder examination to be anything but frustrating. At least a report on them was being fed into the tricorders, which could be replayed much more slowly once they regained the Enterprise, and would let them discover something about these tantalising mites. There were more of the multi-legged arthropods, too, scuttling here and there but seemingly harmless; far and away the largest creatures in their universe, the tiny animals still seemed to have a full awareness of danger, for they scurried away when any one of the party drew near, and Spock remembered the angler bird he had seen during the night. Did it prey on small ground creatures as well as on flying ones?

What looked like a grey and brown mottled moth fluttered past Reynolds to land on Bayliss' arm. He looked down curiously at it, seeing at once that it was not an insect but a multi-legged creature. A long proboscis uncurled, reaching down towards his arm, and Spock, noting it, brushed it off. It fluttered away, giving a comical illusion of annoyance.

"Why did you do that, Mr. Spock?" Bayliss asked. He sounded a little irritated.

"We are unfamiliar with these creatures, Mr. Bayliss," Spock replied evenly. "It may have been harmless, but I do not think we should risk being bitten. Bloodsucking creatures frequently carry disease, and we have no doctor now."

Bayliss looked unconvinced, but followed obediently as Spock turned to walk on.

The lichens were steadily growing longer, and the creatures among them were larger, though still of the same kind as the ones they had been watching for some time. Mixed with the lichens were other plants, moss-like growths with short, stiff stems supporting little spore reservoirs. Spock stopped again.

"I think we had better eat again while we can," he said. "We are passing out of the area where the lichens grow, and we cannot be certain of finding another source of food."

For the second time that day they choked down some of the dry, tasteless lichen, grateful that it at least eased the hunger pangs. As they went on the lichens did indeed vanish, and only moss was left underfoot. The animal life was different, too - still composed of small, scurrying creatures, but these seemed to lack the perfect camouflage the others had possessed. Perhaps it was because they lived where there was more shelter to he found.

Yeoman Mears choked on a scream. Spock looked at her with some impatience - surely he had not over-estimated her reliability? No. She was staring, horrified, at a long, green shape that he now saw gliding towards them. The creature had an alarming resemblance to a snake, moving gracefully in long, even waves, its head swaying hypnotically. When they moved out of its path it altered its course to follow them.

Becket pulled out his phaser and fired. The creature reared up on its tail, then dropped. Spock moved cautiously towards it.

Its mouth had dropped open, revealing several rows of sharp teeth; sharp, tearing teeth. Although its mouth clearly could not open wide enough for it to swallow any of them whole, which its size had suggested, it probably wrapped itself around its prey, then tore the flesh from its bones.

"Most unpleasant," Spock commented. "Gentlemen, if we see any more of these animals, we must shoot them immediately, for our own safety. And be doubly watchful; I surmise that these are not the only creatures that will be dangerous to us."

They went on, leaving the fallen beast. Within moments it was covered with the tiny fauna of the mossland, feasting on the unexpected harvest. So intent on their feast were the tiny denizens of this region, they failed to notice the gathering birds, which in turn swooped to prey on the unsuspecting little creatures and then - the surviving animalcules of their attack having scuttled for shelter - settled to feed on the remainder of the snake's body. Within ten minutes nothing but bones was left of the once-feared killer. Stunned or dead made no difference. In this environment, to be injured was to die.

The landing party moved on. Although he chose not to say so, Spock was satisfied with the progress they were making. So far they had covered at least eight miles from the crashed shuttlecraft, though they had gained little more than quarter of a mile in altitude. There was still a long way to go, but they had made a good start.

They reached the top of a long, gradual incline and paused in some dismay. In front of them the ground was descending again, for as far as they could see. Spock lifted an eyebrow.

"It would be illogical to expect the ground to rise steadily all the way, just because that would be more convenient for us," he said, knowing as he did so that he was saying it as much to convince himself as the others. "We are still headed in the direction of our original landing site; the ground will surely begin to rise again shortly. This may be only a very short descent."

His assumption proved to be correct. At the foot of the incline the ground was very soft, a thick layer of fine earth into which their feet sank as if it were a quicksand. They scrambled back onto hard ground and paused to consider how to proceed.

Spock picked up a stone and tossed it gently onto the ground as far in front of him as he could see. It sank, slowly and gracefully, slipping from sight while the soft dust oozed back level again. The Vulcan shook his head.

"We cannot cross here. We have no alternative but to attempt to make our way around this soft area."

He glanced right and left. To their right the ground appeared to rise slightly. "We will go this way," he decided, turning in that direction. "The dust may have collected in a low-lying basin; it should be possible to go around it."

"Can't we rest, Mr. Spock?" Yeoman Mears asked. "Just for a few minutes? I'm terribly tired."

Spock smothered a sigh, and nodded. "Very well, Yeoman. We'll stop for ten minutes."

The Humans sank down gratefully, and Spock realised that, in fact, all five of them were equally tired; sheer pride had kept the men from admitting it. Spock himself had become re-acclimatised to the greater gravity; while the pressure still dragged at him, slowing his movements, he was not unduly distressed and he had forgotten that his companions would require longer to become used to the conditions. The girl would be a valuable member of the party after all, for she could be trusted to ask for a break before any of them reached the point of collapse.

He gave them fifteen minutes before he called them to their feet again, and they set off, if not with alacrity at least with a little more energy than they had previously been showing.

They did not have to travel too far before it became obvious that the band of 'quicksand' was narrowing. On the other side of it they could see rough ground again, although it was still too wide for any of them to jump in these conditions. A few hundred yards further on, however, it suddenly became narrow enough for them to step over it. They had only been taken about a mile out of their direct way.

Spock led them on, allowing for the detour. The ground began to rise quite steeply, and their pace slowed considerably: two or three laboured steps, then a pause for breath, then another few slow steps. Spock slackened his pace to what he felt was a positive dawdle, and still the Humans had to stop frequently. After they had been climbing for nearly half an hour, during which time he estimated they had covered a bare quarter of a mile, he relented and allowed them another break.

They sank down, and Spock crossed to Carstairs. "I will take the water container now," he said. "It was inconsiderate of me to have you carrying it for so long. I have become acclimatised, and it will place no strain on me. I forgot that you would find the conditions less bearable."

The scientist felt that he should protest, but the thought of getting rid of the weight on his back that had slowed him down was seductive, and he slipped the straps off his shoulders. "Thank you, sir."

Spock looked around. Visibility was no better here; higher they might be, but the cloud was still as thick. He would have preferred to scout ahead, but even with his perfect sense of direction he knew that in this mist he could very easily lose his way back to the landing party. The steepness of the slope was troubling him; if they came to a cliff, they would have no way of knowing if it was only a few feet high or many thousands - no way to know if they should in fact attempt to climb it or make a long detour. And what if they reached the top of a mountain that had to be descended again before they could go any further?

With an effort he put the troublesome thoughts out of his mind. He was in command of the group; it was his responsibility to encourage the others, not discourage them.

He eased the water container onto his back and stood. "Shall we go on, gentlemen?"

This time he set a very easy pace. The Humans found that, for the moment, they could keep up, and plodded steadily upwards. The moss under their feet thickened; the little creatures of the moss forest darted away from them. A bird swooped close, suddenly spotted them and whirled away again,

Spock looked around and was far from happy; the long day was drawing to a close, and they must find some sort of shelter for the night. Memory of the snake was vivid in his mind. He hoped that it was a diurnal species. In the absolute darkness of this world's night, there was nothing they could do to defend themselves against it or any other carnivorous creatures.

The slope rose higher, a long incline surfaced with small stones and earth cemented together by the two-inch tall mosses. There was nothing to indicate whether shelter might lie a few yards to either side of them, hidden by the ubiquitous mist, but he doubted that any did.

"Mr. Spock."

"Yes, Mr. Bayliss?"

"It seems to be getting dark," Bayliss said uneasily.

"Yes, Mr. Bayliss. It is."

The Vulcan didn't need to say anything more. All realised the danger. Soon they would have to stop, with or without shelter. They travelled only a few hundred yards further before they came to an extremely steep part of the slope. In the failing light they could see that it only stretched above them for about two yards, but at least it offered protection on one side.

They each ate a few mouthfuls of the lichen they had gathered earlier, washed it down with a mouthful of water, and settled down for their second night in these dismal surroundings. Despite their fatigue, none of them found it easy to get to sleep; memory of the snake kept disturbing all six, even Spock. In addition, the Humans found themselves too tired to sleep.

A raucous cry broke the silence - all the more startling because it was the first sound they had heard, other than what they themselves had made - a harsh, eerie call that made the Humans shiver.

They spent a cold, uncomfortable night, and all were greatly relieved with the arrival of dawn.

"We had better reserve our remaining food for later," Spock said. "Also our water. Let us go on; movement will soon warm us again." Hoping he was right, he was suddenly aware of a tightness in his chest that could easily be the beginning of a respiratory infection.

None of them could move very fast because their muscles were stiff from the cold. They struggled on, skirting the steep part that had offered the illusion of shelter.

The moss grew longer, becoming interspersed with taller growths that resembled nothing that any of them had ever seen before - long, thin stems held upright by what resembled air bladders, swaying gently in the steady breeze, long tendrils floating out from the tips. Sparse at first, they became thicker until the party had to brush through them.

Yeoman Mears yelped as soon as she entered the 'grass'.

"What is wrong, Yeoman?" Spock inquired.

"This stuff stings!" she replied. "It's all right for you men, but my uniform doesn't give me any protection. Starfleet ought to design a uniform with trousers for female crew members to wear on landing party duties!"

Spock considered her complaint reasonable; having her legs badly stung by the vegetation would be most uncomfortable... and possibly dangerous. The sting could produce an allergic reaction.

"Follow after the rest of us," he instructed. "Gentlemen, trample down the vegetation as much as you can."

The men obeyed and, travelling carefully, Mears managed to avoid being stung again, but she was more than glad when, after about a mile, they climbed above the stinging plants. Spock noted that the vegetation was distinctly layered. He checked it carefully, and after deciding that the plants were innocuous, declared a pause. He suddenly began coughing, trying to clear his congested throat.

Animals, which had been sparse among the stinging plants, were more abundant here. Larger than any they had seen so far, except for the birds and of course the snake, these creatures moved about with much more deliberate movements than the tiny life-forms they had seen at the lower levels, seemingly in a steady search for food. One shell-covered creature grazed placidly on the plants; another crept through the stems to pounce on yet a third that had allowed its attention to stray from its immediate and permanent danger. A flock of tiny birds - perfectly formed elfin hummingbirds - flicked into view through the mist, swerving and darting in perfect unison, only to pass quickly out of sight.

Spock coughed again, grateful that the others also were coughing fairly frequently because of the dust that had never ceased to trouble them. They were unlikely to realise that he was developing a chest condition typical among Vulcans exposed to cold and damp. After a certain length of time, which varied according to the individual, the lung damage caused by the condition was irreversible, even by a healing trance. Should this occur, he would be forced to resign from Starfleet and live out the remainder of his normal lifespan as a chronic invalid. That would trouble his companions if they knew, he realised; little though he understood it, he knew he was liked by the crew. He was relieved to realise that, should any of them recognise that he was ill, they would assume his illness to be nothing worse than a cold, and without lying he could continue to allow them to think it.

The prospect of permanent illness chilled him slightly; he resolutely put the thought out of his mind. Jim would not allow himself to become depressed by the magnitude of the journey in front of them, but would continue with cheerful optimism, saying that of course they would be rescued soon. He must behave as he knew Jim would expect, but he was secretly wishing that McCoy was around with one of his noxious potions.

Something moved sluggishly across the ground in front of them. For a heart-stopping moment they thought it was another snake, but then they realised that it was fatter, darker in colour, and had no discernible head. As it went it seemed to absorb the vegetation it crossed, leaving a narrow, bare trail behind it. Spock aimed his tricorder at it.

"Fascinating!" he exclaimed. "Mr. Carstairs! Mr. Bayliss! This creature is, in fact, vegetable in composition, with only the most minimal of animal physiology."

The two scientists joined him in examining it, gathering as much data into their tricorders as possible. Then, leaving the primitive life-form behind, they moved slowly on, still climbing steadily.

The vegetation was becoming taller and more dense. It now stood waist high, and while it could still be pushed aside with ease, they had to part the individual plants in front of them so that they could see where they were stepping. That slowed progress considerably, but they didn't dare chance that the ground in front of them was even and unbroken. Although it seemed to be remaining fairly smooth, a thin layer of soft dust filling the hollows, here and there a larger stone projected.

Spock tried to ignore his increasing physical discomfort by considering the dust. Logically, in view of the moisture in the atmosphere, he would have expected it to be wet - mud, in fact. That it remained powder dry was interesting. The plants must obtain most, if not all, of their water requirements from the air. He coughed again harshly, a dry cough that gave him no relief - it only aggravated his already irritated tissues.

This region seemed to be uninhabited, and the only creatures they could see were several large birds that swooped just above plant level. The birds worked their way closer to the party of intruders, seemingly oblivious of them. Then, startlingly, one of the birds swooped down at Bayliss' head. The scientist ducked, and the bird overshot, then turning, dived on Carstairs. He flung himself on the ground and the others crouched too. Their attacker was joined by others, which circled unwearyingly, clearly knowing that their cornered prey would eventually make a break for it, and when one of them made a dash for safety the runner would surely be caught.

Reluctantly, Spock reached for his phaser. He had no desire to kill any creature that was living according to its own nature, but it seemed that he had no choice. Merely to stun one or more of the birds would simply mean that the unfortunate avians that he selected as his targets would then be eaten alive by their flock-mates - unconscious, certainly, but still alive. There was little chance that he could stun them all. Unwillingly, he slotted the phaser to the lethal setting and fired.

The dead bird fell heavily a few yards from them. The survivors took only a second to realise the bounty that awaited them, and converged on the body. The landing party crept cautiously away through the waist-high plants. Behind them, a chorus of squawks indicated a rapacious fraternal squabble.

The party forced its way on, despite straining lungs and aching legs, until the angry squawking had faded in the distance. Then they all, even Spock, sank to the ground from exhaustion.

Despite his illness Spock still recovered first and sat up, alert to their surroundings. They were still in this forest of waist-high plants, waving fronds held by long bare stems at a level where they could catch the maximum light, air and moisture. A few small creatures darted about, and he decided that the previous lack of wild life was due solely to the presence of the hunting birds.

He checked his tricorder and fought to control his anxiety. They had passed out of the region where only the most primitive of life-forms lived; in this region were the larger creatures, predators like the birds. The ones they had already seen, large though they were, were a comparatively small species. Beyond, above them, were the big ones, like the great bird they had seen while still in the shuttlecraft. He gave little credence to Human superstitions, but here he could only hope - hope that the largest birds were creatures of the open spaces, birds like the Terran albatross that spends many months at a time out of sight of land. Meanwhile, he decided, he had best not pass this information on to the Humans. Bayliss was probably not experienced enough to realise the danger, but Carstairs might figure it out for himself. If so, with luck - superstition again - he would tell Spock first, and then the Vulcan could warn him not to divulge the situation to the others. Spock fully respected the courage of the security guards and his two scientists, and had a higher opinion of Mears than of many of the female crew members, but even so he felt it better not to make them nervous. In such a condition most Humans were inclined to act first and think later.

As the Humans began to sit up, indicating their recovery, Spock motioned to Mears.

"I think something to eat is indicated, Yeoman. A handful of lichen each - no more. I do not require any."

"You must eat something, sir," Mears protested as she groped in her pouch, beginning to hand out the tiny ration.

"Vulcans can fast for long periods without harm," Spock replied, suppressing the knowledge that, ill as he was, fasting would indeed be harmful. However, the unappetising dry lichen was unappealing, and he knew that in any case the Humans would need the small amount he would have consumed even more than he did. He did, however, accept a mouthful of water. In doing so he had to fight the urge to drain the container - his illness was making him very thirsty.

When their meagre meal was finished the party headed on. The plants grew taller and taller, until they were making their way between thick, bare stems topped by huge fronds that waved steadily in the sharply gusting wind. The plants provided some protection, for which they were grateful. The air, already cold, was rendered icy by the wind. This forest also concealed them from flying predators, Spock realised, for they must be invisible from above.

Ahead of them, an animal darted through the 'trees'. It was impossible to determine any details of its physical structure, yet its timidity indicated that this creature, at least, was no predator - unlikely as that had seemed. Apart from the mobile vegetable they had seen earlier, almost every creature on this world seemed to prey on smaller ones. They might be safe from flying predators, but they weren't safe from quadruped ones - or creatures like the snake.

Soon they discovered another advantage of being among the 'trees'; the atmosphere was no longer so dusty. The Humans' coughing diminished, but Spock's persisted, in spite of his attempts to alleviate it.

Mears noticed his continued coughing first, and mentioned it. It took Spock only a moment to decide on a minimised version of the truth.

"I appear to have developed a mild respiratory infection, due to the constant dampness," he admitted.

The girl searched in her pouch for the small emergency medical kit. Spock reached out to stop her.

"We should keep the medication for absolute emergencies," he said.

"You're not being logical, sir," she replied. "An antibiotic injection now could keep the infection down. But if you wait until it gets any worse, it might take more antibiotic than we have to sustain you."

"Yeoman, I appreciate your concern, but this infection is no worse than a cold, and if we use what little medication we have on something so mild, it will no longer be available should any of us become injured."

"Colds can be a lot more weakening than most people admit, Mr. Spock," Mears insisted. "Besides, we need you. If you collapse we really will be in trouble."

"I am hardly likely to collapse from a respiratory infection, Yeoman..." Spock began.

"I'm sure you've heard Dr. McCoy say that the best time to catch a disease is when it's just starting," Mears said. "I know I've heard him say it lots of times, and you know him better than I do." She pumped a dose of antibiotic into the Vulcan's arm before he could protest any further.

"You misquote the good doctor, Yeoman," Spock said with a touch of wry humour. "What he has frequently said is that the best time to catch a disease is before it starts."

Mears returned the medikit to her pouch. "Whichever it is, sir, it's still better to do something about it now."

At heart, Spock knew that she was right. At least he could tell McCoy that his condition had not been neglected - he shuddered at the thought of the caustic-tongued medic's comments and the enforced sojourn in sickbay that would be his eventual lot. Before long Spock was forced to admit that Mears had been right; he felt much better for the injection. But he knew that at beat the relief was only temporary. More than a general antibiotic was needed, and he could expect no real improvement in his condition until he was away from this cold, damp atmosphere.

The group was halted by a scream. They swung round to find Bayliss, who was bringing up the rear, flat on the ground with a snarling animal crouched over him.

Becket, nearest to the fallen man, reacted first. He pulled out his phaser and fired. The creature collapsed and they rushed forward to heave the carcass off Bayliss, who sat up shakily.

"Are you injured, Mr. Bayliss?" Spock asked.

The scientist shook his head groggily. "No, Mr. Spock. The creature knocked me over when it pounced, and you turned on it before it could continue its attack."

Spock looked down at the animal. Although not very large - no larger than a Terran wolf - it was clearly a creature to be feared. Its mouth was larger than a wolf's and filled with ugly, pointed teeth. No wonder the earlier beast they had seen was so timid.

They continued onwards. The ground was becoming steeper again, and Spock found it increasingly difficult to climb steadily upwards without pausing for breath.

Abruptly they came to the edge of the 'trees'. The mountain sloped upwards ahead of them as far as they could see, devoid of large plants or any sort of shelter. As it was getting late, Spock decided that this was probably as good a place as any to stop for their third night on the planet.

As they settled down, Carstairs and Bayliss looked at each other, then advanced towards Spock.

"I know you don't like close physical proximity, Mr. Spock," Carstairs said with polite obstinacy, "but the conditions are worse for you than for any of us. For your own sake, you must let us keep you warm."

The Vulcan looked from one to the other. Had this been Kirk and McCoy he would not have hesitated. He had grown accustomed to the knowledge that these two were not fooled - had never been fooled - by his apparently complete self-possession, although McCoy pretended to be, and he knew that the warmth of other bodies close to him would be welcome. He had also grown accustomed to the knowledge that Kirk and McCoy were fond of him, and could accept it without embarrassment, but the two junior scientists were another matter. In his weakened condition it would be very easy for him to let his normal dispassionate reserve slip. Dare he risk it? It would be most unethical for him to meld accidentally with either of the young men and so discover their secret thoughts; or even worse, let them see the Human warmth that dwelt so near the surface of his mind.

Practical considerations decided him. As Mears had said, the Humans needed him if they were to stand any chance of reaching a point from which they could contact the Enterprise. Reluctantly, he nodded.

"Very well, gentlemen. And thank you."

The young scientists settled Spock between them. The change of position, from upright to prone, made him cough again. He was not surprised when Mears came over and gave him another injection before he even realised that she was there. Then she joined the two guards and huddled down with them.

Spock slept fitfully, afraid to relax completely, but knowing that the warmth, slight as it was, and the injection, were doing him some good. If his condition was not improving - he knew it would not until he received the proper treatment - at least it was not deteriorating as quickly.

The group roused as it was getting light. The change of position again made Spock cough, but he stopped the Yeoman was she reached into her pouch.

"We have very little of the drug," he said. "It is inadvisable to use it all just yet. Some must be kept for emergencies." He had grown quite hoarse, but knew the futility of trying to clear his irritated throat.

They ate the last of the lichen, Spock again refusing it to leave more for the Humans, and allowed themselves a little water. There was hardly any left in the container, and Spock decided that the remainder should be kept for as long as they could possibly do without it.

Rested, but not refreshed, they set off again up a slope sparsely covered with the short, moss-like growth they had first encountered part-way through the second day. They had not gone far, however, when they were stopped by a chasm that cut across their path.

It was a fairly narrow ravine, not more than fifty yards across, but it might have been fifty miles, for there was absolutely nothing they could use to bridge it. Even had the plants through which they had recently passed been a little longer they were too soft-stemmed to bridge the gap.

Spock peered downwards, but he could only see a short distance before the universal mistiness blanked out visibility. The canyon was at least a hundred yards deep - the distance he estimated he could make out any details - and the sides looked unclimbable except by mountaineering experts. A strong wind blew through the ravine, causing the mist to eddy and swirl but doing nothing to clear it.

Hopeless to try and climb down, for it might descend not just three hundred feet but three thousand, and they had no ropes or any other safeguard. There was no alternative; they must travel parallel to it in the hope that they would, before too long, reach the end of it. Nor was there anything to indicate which was the better way to go. Spock turned to the right, knowing that his choice of direction was purely arbitrary.

"We will try this way," he said quietly, wishing he felt as confident as he sounded.

* * * * * * * *

On board the Enterprise Kirk had long passed from extreme anxiety to acute worry. Repeated sensor scans showed nothing, except that below a certain altitude nothing was detectable, and it was rapidly becoming clear that Spock and his party must be below that altitude, otherwise their bodies would have been detected. The scan of the area into which the shuttle had been headed was so thorough that they were recognising characteristics of certain individual animals that lived in the area. Yet how could the shuttlecraft have got so far down the mountain side?

The first reports from the searching Galileo told him. It was impossible for any of the shuttlecraft to maintain a course, let alone carry out a proper search, because of the strong, gusting winds. The shuttle could be anywhere, carried by the wind, its course unpredictable because of any action taken by its pilot. Kirk could understand that Spock would not want to return to the Enterprise without having conducted some form of survey - which would explain why he hadn't given up when his shuttle was first thrown off course. But that would mean that he could be anywhere on the planet's surface... And what was keeping him from coming back? Sick with worry, he remained on duty until McCoy came and forced him to go and rest, sedating him into unconsciousness. McCoy himself was desperately worried - and not only for Spock. But at least he knew he could do something for Kirk.

* * * * * * * *

It took the landing pasty two days to reach the head of the ravine, days when they grew more and more exhausted from the pressure that slowed their movements. Fortunately they had found another edible plant, this time a barrel-shaped fungus that had a high moisture content, and this had satisfied their need for liquid as well as filling their stomachs with a not particularly nutritious meal. Again they had stopped for long enough to harvest as much as would fit in Mears' pouch, as well as squeezing some to fill their water container. All six were rather relieved, although none of them said so. Despite the moist atmosphere all of them needed water, and the filled container would last them several days.

The ravine passed, they resumed their interrupted march towards the original landing site. Bird life was now far more frequent. Small flocks of birds of varying sizes flew in formation, changing direction in unison in what appeared to be normal protective behaviour everywhere for any creatures that were subject to attack from others larger than themselves. Larger birds occasionally flicked out of the mist to swoop on the small ones, frequently missing but occasionally catching one. Unwilling though he was to kill any of these birds, Spock checked them for edibility, but all were incompatible with Human requirements.

The ground was more broken here, and it slowed them even more. Unwary speed could easily result in twisted ankle, and that they dared not risk.

They had strung out a little. Spock still took the lead, for only he had a sense of direction sufficiently acute to keep them going in the right direction. Becket was close behind him, with Bayliss at his heels. There was a short gap, then Mears, with Carstairs at her side, and Reynolds bringing up the rear, but the distance between them was only a few yards. Every time the group at the rear lagged too much they called out, and the leading party stopped and waited for them. The girl was doing the best she could, but having shorter legs, though she took step for step with the men each stride covered less ground, and she had to throw in an extra step every so often. It made the journey that much more tiring for her, so that inevitably she found herself lagging slightly.

The rear group was passing a fallen boulder when a tentacle reached out sharply from under it and caught Carstairs. He was jerked a step towards the rock before he recovered enough to resist the pull. Immediately a second tentacle joined the first. Reynolds drew his phaser, as did Mears even as she screamed, "Mr. Spock!" They fired under the boulder simultaneously. The tentacles lifted Carstairs right off the ground, then dropped him. The scientist did not move.

The leading group moved back quickly, but by the time they reached Carstairs the action was over. They bent over the fallen man, who was gasping noisily. Before they could do anything, however, he managed to draw a deep breath and sat up. "Just... winded," he gasped.

He scrambled to his feet, and they crossed to the boulder to see what had attacked him.

It was like a creature out of a nightmare, an amalgam of octopus, sea anemone and insectivorous plant, the tentacles only two out of a countless number ringing a gaping maw that seemed to lead directly into an insatiable stomach. "Most unpleasant," Spock commented. Mears shivered.

"It's strange, though," Reynolds was saying. "I was behind and saw quite clearly. The Yeoman was closer to it, yet it reached past her for Carstairs. And it didn't try to catch either her or me while he was trying to pull free, although it certainly has enough tentacles to have tried it."

"Maybe it just doesn't like red," Bayliss suggested in an effort to lighten everyone's mood.

"You could be correct, Mr. Bayliss," Spock said slowly. "As I recall, all the attacks that have been made on us have been directed at the scientific staff - the personnel wearing blue. It is possible that the creatures living at these levels are not aware of red. There are precedents from other planets, including Earth."

They carried on, the Humans casting nervous glances at the terrain around them. Where there was one of those creatures, it seemed possible there would be more. However, they passed out of the region of broken ground without further incident.

Spock called a halt soon after. His condition, having remained static for some time, was worsening again. A tight band was constricting his chest, and he was having increased difficulty in breathing without showing signs of distress. There was little point in telling the others; they could do nothing to assist him. Even the antibiotic was finished now, apart from one dose that he had insisted should be kept for an emergency.

To provide a reason for the halt, Spock took out his communicator.

"We may have gained enough altitude now," he said. Privately, he doubted it. "Spock to Enterprise.... Spock to Enterprise..."

"They will still be there, won't they, Mr. Spock?" Mears asked.

Spock knew what was in her mind. "Yes, Yeoman, they will still be there," he replied. "On this occasion, there is nothing to take them away."

"But they won't search indefinitely, will they?" she persisted.

"They will search for as long as there is any hope at all of finding us alive," Spock answered confidently, privately certain that Kirk would not give up the search even after that. Kirk would continue until he found their bodies - but he chose not to say that, for it would sound too emotional.

They resumed their steady plod upwards after a short rest. Vegetation began to thicken again, becoming a knee-high carpet of wide bladed leaves, each on its own stalk. Once more it was difficult to see where they were stepping.

It was the unfortunate Yeoman who encountered the next hazard. As she had already pointed out, the uniform that Starfleet provided for its female personnel was most impractical for landing party duties; where the men were able to brush through the plants with no ill effects, Mears soon found that she had acquired several unwanted passengers in the form of leech-like creatures that clung to her legs. Fortunately, they pulled off fairly easily, but each one left an itchy spot where it had been clinging to her.

Although they were sympathetic the men could do nothing to help her; as time went on, Spock began to get rather worried about these parasites. It was getting late, and they would soon have to stop for the night - but if they stopped in this region where these creatures were so plentiful, all would be attacked by them as they slept, and might even be drained of blood before the morning. It was not a pleasant prospect. None of the other regions through which they had passed had been extensive, however; with luck they might get clear before dark.

Shortly before Spock estimated they would have to stop for the night they passed out of the region of wide bladed plants and back into a region of moss. Mears stopped to pull the last of the parasites from her legs and throw them back among the plants where they lived. Then they headed on, trying to put a reasonable amount of distance between themselves and the creatures before they had to stop.

They finished the cactus-like plants they had gathered and settled down for the night. Exhaustion was making them all sleep now, despite the cold; even Spock accepted his juniors' succour now without demur, glad of the heat from their bodies.

In the morning it was clear that Mears was far from well. They checked her as well as they could with the scanner in the medikit, but even Spock, with his greater knowledge of medical matters, could make no positive diagnosis. There were signs that the girl, too, was developing a respiratory infection, but there was more than that, and he suspected some poison in the saliva of the leeches was responsible. It took only a moment's consideration for him to decide to give her the last dose of antibiotic - it might arrest the infection and give her a better chance to fight the poison.

Spock allowed them all a drink, then indicated that they should go on. Mears struggled gamely on in spite of her growing weakness, but the men all knew it was only a matter of time before she would be unable to walk any further. At least, Spock thought, Mears is the lightest member of the partly, and carrying her will be less of a drain on the rest of us.

They passed into a region where the very rocks looked strange, interlaced with coral-like growths. Spock checked them curiously and realised that they were similar in structure to Terran coral, each tube of the structure housing a polyp. Waving antennae protruded from one tube. A large insect was caught in the draught from them and was drawn towards the sedentary predator. When it was close enough the insect disappeared, caught by the delicate-looking feelers. Fascinating! Such polyps existed on a dozen worlds, but Spock had never heard of any that were not underwater dwellers.

Visibility was improving slowly - slowly but noticeably. They must be gaining altitude quite rapidly. There were more birds about now, too, larger flocks than before, but still flying as one, with a precision of manoeuvre that was eye-catching.

Mears was coughing badly now. Spock called a halt and allowed them all another drink before taking out his communicator again. "Spock to Enterprise... Spock to Enterprise..."

* * * * * * * *

On the Enterprise Uhura swung round from her console, jubilation in her voice, "Word from the Galileo, Captain - they are in communicator contact with Mr. Spock."

Kirk heaved a sigh of relief. McCoy, hovering on the bridge as usual, gripped his shoulder, and Kirk knew that the doctor shared his relief.

There was a short pause, then Uhura activated the main screen. Spock's face looked out at them.

"Captain, I have to report that six of the original landing party are safe. Dr. Andersen was unfortunately killed when the shuttle crashed. Please inform Dr. McCoy that we will require a decompression chamber on our return to the Enterprise, and that Yeoman Mears and I will require medical attention."

"What's wrong, Spock?" McCoy asked sharply.

"Miss Mears has a mild respiratory infection and was badly bitten about the legs by creatures resembling leeches. I have a Vulcan respiratory infection that could become serious if it is not treated quickly."

McCoy glanced down at Kirk, and looked quickly away from the renewed worry on the Captain's face. "I'll be ready for you, Spock."

* * * * * * * *

Kirk strode into sickbay to stop by Spock's bed. The Vulcan looked up at him pleadingly.

"Yes, Mr. Spock?"

"Captain, can't you persuade Dr. McCoy to let me return to my own quarters?"

McCoy glanced over from his office door. "There's gratitude for you, Jim! It's not forty-eight hours since he told me he would need medical attention - actually told me - and now that he's had it he can't get away from me quickly enough!"

Kirk grinned. "Could he go back to his own quarters, Bones?"

"Not until that cough clears up - and don't try telling me it's just residual and doesn't mean anything, Spock. You know better than I do what that infection of yours could mean." McCoy's head vanished back inside his office.

Kirk looked down at his First Officer sympathetically. "He's right, you know," he said softly.

Spock's eyes gleamed with a touch of humour. "Yes, Jim, I know," he replied equally softly. "But you don't expect me to tell him so, do you?"

Kirk grinned broadly. "No, I guess not." He sat on the edge of Spock's bed. "Care to tell me all that happened?"

"You have already received reports from the other members of the landing party, Captain," Spock replied evasively.

"Yes, but you were in charge. I want to know how things looked to you. Especially since I have to put in a report on that pergium, which we still haven't surveyed."

Spock sighed in resignation. "My first recommendation would be pressurised domes to live and work in, for comfort and for protection from the damp conditions and indigenous fauna... Jim, can't it wait for another day or two? I'm still not feeling well."

Kirk had the admission he wanted. He took Spock's hand and pressed it gently. "All right, Spock. Just you rest."

The ghost of a smile touched the Vulcan's lips. Then he closed his eyes peacefully and slept.


*First printed, NEXUS 3. 1979*

Copyright Sheila Clark