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There had been a small colony on Veda for some twenty years, long enough for it to be regarded as no longer experimental, but definitely permanently established. However, contact with the settlement had been lost, and the Enterprise was diverted to investigate.
"Could plague of any sort be responsible?" Kirk asked McCoy as the ship swung onto the new heading.
"Unlikely, Jim," McCoy replied. "They'd be vaccinated against all known diseases before they arrived, and any native diseases they weren't protected against would show up in the first two or three years of settlement. Besides, Veda has no life forms high enough in the evolutionary scale to be likely to affect Humans."
"That's not an infallible rule," Kirk commented.
"I agree with Dr. McCoy," Spock put in unexpectedly. "The likelihood of such a disease appearing after twenty years is extremely small. I am inclined to suspect that it could be a simple communications problem, a malfunction requiring nothing more than a few minutes of Lt. Uhura's skill to repair."
The landing party materialised on the outskirts of the Vedan colony's main settlement. Unlike many colonies which spread their inhabitants over a fairly large area with two or three centres, this one had kept to one area and was spreading out gradually from it as more land was put under cultivation. The place was deserted.
The houses were made of native wood, sturdy and well built; each had a garden in which crops of vegetables were growing, with, here and there, a splash of colour where someone had spared a narrow border to put in a few flowers. In some of the fields beyond, half grown grain shimmered in the wind. Everything was quiet; there was no sound of animal or bird or insect to augment the sigh of the wind across the fields and the movement of distant branches.
"As if they'd just left everything and gone away," Kirk murmured.
"The Mary Celeste," Spock said
"What?" McCoy asked.
"An old Earth story. A ship found deserted, everything normal on board - but no sign of her crew. No-one ever did find out what happened."
McCoy looked at him. Spock was full of surprises; at times like this, McCoy found himself wondering how Spock would have developed had he been brought up on Earth; then he realised that the paradox of seeing everyone behaving in the very manner that he was being taught was wrong could have driven Spock insane.
"They had cattle," Spock was saying now, as if the previous exchange had never happened. "Where are they?"
"In those barns, perhaps?" Uhura asked.
"Unlikely, Lieutenant," Kirk replied. "In these climatic conditions, it would be easier to keep the beasts out of doors - and reasonably close, too, for ease of access for milking. There should be some in those nearby fields that look to be lying fallow."
"What about native wild life?" McCoy asked. "It's primitive, but surely there should be some?"
"Not necessarily, Doctor," Spock said. "If the colonists were killing off the local fauna - an unnecessary proceeding, but quite likely behaviour for Humans if the creatures were raiding the crops - it would take a little time for them to gain enough confidence to return to here, the centre of their destruction."
"That's possible for most animals," McCoy agreed, "but there are always a few creatures that men can regard as... as pets, or are harmless and realise they can get easy pickings around houses. There should be something... some native equivalent of a robin, perhaps."
"Bones is right, Spock," Kirk said. "There's bound to have been some beast that reminded the colonists of home. They wouldn't kill those - they're more likely to feed them. Whatever Vulcans might do, that's the Human reaction."
The landing party scattered to search the village.
Kirk and McCoy went into one house. Everything was tidy, but in an incomplete sort of way. A laid table was mute evidence that whatever had happened, had happened suddenly. There was a plentiful store of food - dried, smoked and apparently salted.
"Spock was right with his comparison," Kirk said. "I can think of another case from Old Earth; three lighthouse keepers who disappeared. There was a laid table there, too, if I remember. They were on a tiny island; it was searched thoroughly, but there was no sign of the men. No clues... "
"There must have been something - something that was overlooked," McCoy said, suddenly impatient with the mysticism that had gripped first Spock, and now Kirk.
Kirk shook his head. "The place was thoroughly searched," he repeated. "There were dozens of suggestions put forward, but it remains a mystery."
"We do know one thing here, anyway," McCoy went on. "They didn't leave because their food supplies were running low."
Kirk nodded. "Plenty stores; and the gardens are full of vegetables, too, nearly ready to harvest. No, it certainly wasn't a food shortage."
They investigated several houses. All were the same as the first - tidy, well-stocked with food - as if their owners had merely slipped out for a few hours. As they went, Spock and Uhura joined them, having found nothing in any of the empty barns. All were empty except for the stored fodder.
"Stores again," Kirk said. "They wouldn't have stored fodder unless they had animals. What happened?"
At last they came to one house that was different.
The bodies of two women lay there. Both were skeleton thin; neither had been dead for long.
"Two days at the most," McCoy said. "If we'd been sent just a couple of days earlier, I could have saved them."
"We were sent as soon as Starfleet was certain there was a breakdown in communications," Kirk said. "They couldn't have sent us earlier or they'd have sent us before the colony was actually out of touch."
McCoy shook his head. "Official bodies have one speed," he said. "They probably waited for a week before deciding that anything was wrong."
"That can happen," Spock said. "But the Captain is right. This time, at least, Starfleet moved quickly. It was the distance from Earth that killed them."
McCoy still looked unconvinced as Uhura returned from the kitchen. "There's no food through there," she said.
"There's something odd here," Kirk said. "They must have known, when their food ran out, that they could get more, either from the garden or by raiding the house next door. Yet they chose to starve to death. Why?"
"The colony could have developed strict customs of privacy or honesty," Spock suggested.
"In twenty years? Unlikely," Kirk said. "Certainly not when no-one else was there, and anyway, no custom holds when starvation is in question."
"There is a more likely possibility," Spock said. "They may have been afraid to leave the security of their own house. Humans - females in particular - are frequently illogical. They may have preferred to remain here - where they felt safe - even though they were starving. Perhaps long after whatever endangered them had gone. They may have lacked the courage to investigate; I have noticed that Human females often prefer shivering in fear to investigating whatever has alarmed them."
"That may be true of a lot of women," McCoy said, "but these ones were colonists. They had deliberately chosen a possibly dangerous life; they weren't the psychological type to be afraid of shadows."
"But whatever harmed the other colonists wasn't a shadow," Spock said. "They probably saw what it was... and it terrified them."
"Yes," Kirk said. "It's a good suggestion; but what could make them so afraid? There was nothing in the survey reports that gave any indication of anything dangerous to Man."
"There are two possibilities," Spock said slowly. "Some species have protective coloration, either for protection against predators or to permit them to approach their prey unobserved. If this planet has a predator that looks absolutely harmless - for example, a slow-moving coelenterate closely resembling a tree. A survey party could land and fail to identify it as a danger, especially if it was comparatively rare, and in good faith give the planet a clean report. Eventually - after twenty years - a group of these creatures reaches here. The colonists would be unprepared, might find it impossible to differentiate between genuine trees and these possible coelenterates, those two choosing to hide here, others fleeing - perhaps into another group of the creatures... "
"If these creatures were so slow-moving they'd still be in the vicinity," McCoy objected. "We'd see them."
"Indeed yes, but, like the colonists, how could we recognise anything other than trees? In addition, they would have moved far enough away by now for them not to attack us.
"Another hypothesis, which I prefer, is the possibility of a life form with two distinct stages; a harmless one, perhaps larval, lasting for many years, and an adult stage of a few days when the creature is dangerous. Think of Earth's many biting insects; the adult female must suck blood before she can lay fertile eggs. On Earth they are primarily an annoyance, although some do transmit disease. The survey party, only seeing the larval stage, could easily fail to realise that metamorphosis occurs - or, quite simply, fail to realise that the adult form could be dangerous."
"But surely there would be adult forms every year," McCoy protested.
"Not necessarily," Spock said. "There is one Earth insect - the mayfly; adults are only seen for a period of approximately two weeks in the spring of each year. For the rest of the year there are only larvae. There is a Vulcan species with a two-year cycle; there are adults for a few days every second year. A cycle in excess of twenty years does seem a trifle lengthy, but there are certainly precedents on a smaller scale."
Further discussion was stopped by the arrival of the security men who had been searching the perimeter of the village. One of them reported finding a paw mark.
"It's huge, sir," the guard reported. "Like a big lion. There are some bones too, broken and scratched - an animal of some kind. Must be one of the beasts belonging to the colony."
McCoy examined the bones carefully, before reporting them to be those of a cow, and the marks consistent with their having been chewed by some large carnivore.
"But there aren't any," Uhura protested. "And the colonists wouldn't bring any dangerous animals with them - would they?"
Spock, examining the paw mark curiously, said, "They might bring rats for experimental purposes, to test the effects of local flora on Terran life. Rats could become dangerous if they escaped, if only for lack of predators to keep their numbers within bounds - but not only is this the wrong size, rats do not leave this shape of paw mark." He pulled out his communicator. "Spock to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Scott here."
"Sensor probe on this area, Mr. Scott. Is there any feline life nearby?"
There was a brief pause. Then - "There is, Mr. Spock. About two miles away, bearing two mark seven four. There are also Human life form readings almost overlapping the feline reading."
They stared round at each other.
"Can you lock on to the Human readings?" Kirk asked.
"Negative, Captain. The feline ones are too close."
"We'll have to do it from the ground, then."
They set off. Although they could have beamed up and back down closer, they had no way of knowing how much cover they would get from the terrain; Kirk had no wish to expose his party to whatever danger the felines offered.
Eventually they topped a rise and found themselves gazing down on a large group of what looked like double-sized lions... No, more like sabre-toothed tigers - they were striped and the huge canine teeth looked very prominent, even from that distance. The beasts were prowling round and round a huge heap of rocks, backwards and forwards, restlessly waiting. Then one of them gave a gigantic yawn, giving the watching group an excellent view of a magnificent set of teeth.
"Fascinating," Spock commented. "Where did these creatures come from? Even an incompetent survey team could not have missed those."
"Never mind where they came from," McCoy growled. "What are we going to do about the people they have trapped?"
"They must be from the colony - and in a pretty weak condition from lack of food," Kirk said. "The big cats have them pinned down - the beasts must be too big to get in among the rocks, and lack the intelligence to realise that it's no use waiting, because they'll never get in." He thought for a moment. "If Scotty can't lock onto them, one of us will have to get to them, to give him an exact co-ordinate."
Spock said promptly, "I'll go, Captain."
"No, Mr. Spock. I don't propose to risk any of your lives. You will all beam back to the Enterprise."
"Jim - " McCoy began.
"That was not a request, Doctor, it was an order," he said. He pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Scott here."
"Beam up the rest of the landing party, Scotty. I won't be coming just yet."
He stepped back from the others. Seconds latter, he was alone. He looked at the pile of rocks and the prowling carnivores, raising a hand to test the wind. That was all right; it seemed to be blowing steadily from the rocks towards him. He turned his attention back to the pacing beasts.
There was a definite pattern to their movements. Then one broke the pattern; it lay down. It remained watchful, but at least it was static. Then another lay down, and another. Soon only four remained on their feet.
Kirk crept back over the rise, carefully keeping below the skyline, and ran for some yards. Carefully, he crawled back to the top of the rise. The rocks were now between him and the animals.
He lay still for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of a dash as opposed to a careful crawl towards the rocks. It was easy to reach a decision. No matter how fast he ran, once the beasts saw him they would be able to outpace him easily. He began to wriggle forwards.
Twice he had to stop as a beast looked towards him. He was sure the second creature had seen movement, and he lay in an agony of uncertainly until it looked away again. Even then he remained motionless for a minute more, in case it was cunning enough to pretend it was no longer paying attention to him. But apparently it wasn't, for it did not look back.
He wriggled on. At last he reached a point where he could no longer see the beasts for the rocks.
He could go faster now, but even so he had to freeze in a heart-stopping alarm when a carnivore padded round the edge of the rocks and into view. He felt horribly conspicuous. The creature didn't look towards him, however; its attention was wholly taken up by the victims trapped among the rocks, and after a couple of minutes it padded back out of sight. He took a deep, relieved breath, and went on.
When he reached the rocks, he crawled in between them, conscious of considerable relief. He squeezed his way through the cracks between the rocks, and soon came in sight of the refugees.
They were crouching among the rocks, staring at the giant carnivores, barely out of reach of a probing paw; eight of them, painfully thin. In addition, there were several bodies. They must have been sheltering here for quite some time. Kirk could not help but remember McCoy's words... If we'd been sent just a couple of days earlier...
Kirk kicked a stone. One of the men jerked round, terror on his face. He gasped with relief when he saw it was just another man.
"You'll soon be safe," Kirk said. He pulled out his communicator.
From the story the survivors told, the position became clear. The big cats were, quite literally, that. One of the colonists had taken his pet cat when he joined the colony. In fairness to the man, he hadn't known the animal was pregnant; he had thought simply to take the family pet, which was very attached to his family, along, thinking no harm, believing that when it died there would be no more cats on Veda.
Even then, he had intended drowning the litter when it appeared, but enough people offered them homes for him to change his mind. But of course they had bred; the next generation of kittens had been larger than the first, and one of the females had gone feral. By the third generation, they realised that they had a problem; the cats were now as big as a medium-sized dog. All the subsequent kittens were destroyed and the adults spayed. However, the feral female had also bred, and about her kittens they could do nothing. Occasionally they caught sight of the feral beasts, getting larger with each generation, but they hadn't fully realised the danger that was developing. When the giant cats had eventually attacked, driven to it by lack of native prey animals large enough to support their appetites, they had killed the handful of tame cats left as well as the cattle and several of the settlers. Most of the colonists had scattered - these few had been lucky to find shelter. They knew a rescue ship must eventually arrive, although they had begun to fear that it would not arrive in time to save any of them.
"Were there any children born in the colony?" McCoy asked. First settlers often had none, waiting until they were certain the planet was wholly suitable for colonisation before bringing children onto it.
"A few," Cleary, the senior of the survivors, said.
"How was their size?"
"Odd you should ask," Cleary said. "They were all getting pretty tall."
"Then you're well away from there," McCoy said. "There must be something there that causes gigantism."
"The cattle were all right."
"Among meat-eaters, then. You'd have had to leave eventually, or your descendants would have been a completely different race."
"It won't be possible for us to go back, then, even if we find some way of getting rid of the cats?"
"I wouldn't advise it. Our biology and science sections will try to pinpoint what was responsible, but all the good that'll do will give the survey boys something else to check out."
Cleary nodded. "A pity, though. It was a good place. Until the cats attacked."
"In a way, they did you eight a favour." (No more survivors had been detected.)
"Cats breed so fast they showed up the condition pretty quickly. Without them, you'd have been into your third or fourth generation - sixty years at least, instead of twenty - before you realised what was happening."
"Yet it's twenty years lost," Cleary said.
Kirk, who had come in unobserved, said quietly, "No, not lost. You did accomplish something, my friends. The colony was well developed. You have the experience. You can probably fit in any new colony without any difficulty." He smiled at them. "We'll be leaving orbit soon - is there anything you want to collect from the village?"
The survivors looked at each other. "No," Cleary said for them all. "As you said, we have the experience. That's all we need to take with us."
Kirk nodded and turned back. towards the door. "If there's anything you need, Dr. McCoy will get it for you. I'll be on the Bridge if you want me." He went out, and headed along the corridor towards the elevator. He got in.
"Bridge," he said. The turbolift moved upwards, carrying him back to duty.