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The Enterprise had penetrated well into unexplored space. No-one knew just what they might encounter, what level of civilisation the natives of the various solar systems might have reached. The ship was so far into unknown territory that any messages to Starfleet would take many months to reach their destination; the crew was wholly on its own.
Kirk found the prospect of being entirely his own master exhilarating. Although fairly autonomous, usually they were within reasonable reach of a Starbase, and could be contacted and their orders changed at fairly short notice. But this time nothing could be changed unless he ordered it.
In time they approached a small solar system, one with only six planets whirling round a K-type sun.
The innermost planet was obviously too hot, too near its primary, to be worth close investigation; they approached the second. This was the one well-situated in the ecosphere; if there was life in this system, it would be found here. "Report, Mr. Spock."
"The sensor beams are bouncing back off the planet," Spock reported after a moment. "Something in the atmosphere is preventing the beams from reaching the surface."
"Strange," Kirk commented. "Can you think of anything that would account for it?"
"No, Captain. It is a completely new phenomenon. The impression I receive is of the beams being reflected back by a mirror. Either there is a belt of something in the atmosphere which is stopping the beams, or there is a very high intelligence down there putting up a shield. I would suspect the former."
Kirk punched his intercom. "Kirk to transporter room. Beam down some test material and bring it back. Report results to me." A few minutes later the report came back. "Captain, the test material beamed down and back satisfactorily."
Kirk glanced at his First Officer. "We'll go down and have a look at the place, Mr. Spock. Lieutenant, tell Dr. McCoy to meet us in the transporter room. Take over, Mr. Sulu."
The three officers materialised at the foot of a high cliff. They looked round.
"Very quiet," Kirk observed. "Mr. Spock?"
Spock swung the tricorder round, adjusted it, readjusted it. "Negative, Captain. There is no reading."
"It is as if the tricorder were switched off."
Kirk pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise." There was no answer.
They looked at each other.
"Oh, well," Kirk said philosophically. "All we have to do is stay put. Someone will take the initiative of beaming us up in an hour or two."
"This is very interesting," Spock said thoughtfully. "I wonder if the phasers will work?"
"Probably not," Kirk replied doubtfully.
Spock aimed his phaser at a nearby rock. Nothing happened. "Nothing mechanical works," Spock commented unnecessarily.
"Your theoretical belt of something must stretch to ground level," Kirk suggested. Spock nodded. "And there's nothing you know of that could account for it?" Kirk went on. "It must be something unique."
"Not necessarily, Captain," Spock said. "My memory is excellent, but I have to have the knowledge presented to me in the first place. There are many things I do not know. And this is an unexplored part of the galaxy."
"Think a lot of yourself, don't you?" McCoy put in.
"I cannot deny the facts, Doctor."
Kirk looked at him affectionately. "You may not know how to play hide and seek, Spock, but I shouldn't think there's much in the line of duty that you don't know."
They looked round again.
"No sign of intelligent life," Kirk went on. "Though that could just mean an uninhabited area."
"Civilisation could not develop here," the Vulcan said thoughtfully. "It would reach a certain level, then stagnate... "
"Or else the drawbacks would give greater incentive to develop."
"It would still be very limited. Logically there is a point beyond which there can be no development without mechanisation."
"On Earth, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Chinese, among others, had a very high level of civilisation, and they were non-mechanised," McCoy put in.
"It was still extremely limited," Spock maintained. "Travel was slow - "
"Craftsmanship was much greater," McCoy insisted. "In their own field, men had possibly greater ability than they have today."
Spock looked doubtful. "That is partially true," he admitted. "However, overall knowledge was less, and what the race could accomplish in any given field was kept to physical capability - dexterity, if you like - and visual observation inside the mental abilities of your race. Your people were held up in development until you discovered the potentials of fuel oil. Then you advanced quickly. You accomplished more in a century after that than you had in the five thousand years before it. On this planet you would still be using horses and manpower."
"I suppose it really depends on what you mean by progress," Kirk said slowly. "Mechanisation can lead to much greater impersonality in many things... even when it leads to greater efficiency. In that case, can it truly be called progress?"
He wandered a little nearer to the cliff, looking up at it. "It would have been nasty if we'd materialised just on the edge of that," he said as he bent to examine a fairly large rock which showed streaks of quartz.
McCoy moved over to join him, his eyes fixed on the lichen that crept up the face of the cliff. Reddish in colour, it seemed to glow translucently in the sunlight.
Suddenly, hearing a faint noise, Spock glanced up. He leaped forward, cannoned into McCoy and knocked him into Kirk. They ended up in a tangled heap pressed close against a small hollow at the foot of the cliff. Seconds later a huge rock thudded to the ground beside them, followed by others, both large and small, falling thick and fast.
After what seemed like a very long time, the noise of falling rock stopped. Cautiously, Spock raised his head.
And saw nothing.
He took a deep breath. "Captain? Doctor?"
"I'm all right, Spock," McCoy replied. There was no answer from Kirk.
McCoy reached out, groping blindly in the dark. He felt an arm and began to run his hand up it towards the head.
"That is my arm, Doctor," Spock said gravely.
McCoy let go rather quickly and began to grope about again. He touched another arm. "Spock? Is that you?"
"No, Doctor, you have not touched me this time."
McCoy moved his hand up the limp arm to the head. He touched the neck pulse, and breathed a sigh of relief. "He's alive, anyway," he said. He felt over Kirk's head gently and grunted. "A rock must have hit him," he went on. "He seems to have cut his head open." He wriggled slightly, trying to find a more comfortable position, aware that Spock was doing the same, but they had very little space in which to move. They ended up each on his side, with Kirk between them, Spock's arm under Kirk's head, pillowing it.
Both were pressed against the sides of the rock cave that imprisoned them; above their heads was very little space. By reaching up they could touch the roof.
Kirk grunted slightly, then, "Spock? Bones?"
"Here, Jim," McCoy said softly.
"I can't see. Where are we?"
"We're trapped," Spock said quietly. "The rock fall was greater than I had anticipated."
"You saved us from being squashed, anyway," McCoy put in.
"If I had had any sense, I would have pulled you away from the cliff, rather than this."
"You wouldn't have had the time," Kirk said. He reached out, across Spock's body, to touch the wall, groped up to feel across the roof and down the other wall behind McCoy. "How long before we suffocate?"
"About an hour and three minutes," Spock replied quietly, almost reluctantly. "I can't say closer than that."
They lay silent for some time. After a while, Kirk said softly, "Spock... Bones. I wish... I wish you were both safe on the Enterprise... but at the same time... I'm glad you're here with me."
"That is not very logical, Captain," Spock murmured.
"Well, I know exactly what he means, Spock," McCoy retorted. "And I agree with him. I'm glad we're together... even though I wish you were both safe," he finished, so quietly that they could barely hear him.
There was silence for a moment.
"Completely illogical," Spock repeated. "But... I also am content that we should die together."
There was another long silence as they each lay enjoying the company of the others in a strangely peaceful rapport. At last, Kirk said lightly, "My feet are getting cold."
Spock replied thoughtfully, "Air must be coming in from somewhere. We should be feeling it stuffy by now."
"Through gaps in the rockfall?" McCoy asked. In his mind was the thought that suffocation would have been quick; but to die of thirst would be unpleasant - and Spock, with his greater tolerance of adverse conditions, would also have the horrible experience of sharing his grave with the bodies of his already dead friends for an uncertain length of additional suffering before he also succumbed.
"I think it unlikely," Spock said reflectively. "Doctor, you are nearest to the rock wall. Are there any holes in it close to the ground?"
McCoy twisted round to face the cliff, pressing hard against Kirk as he did so. Kirk grunted as the breath was forced out of his lungs by the pressure of the surgeon's body.
McCoy groped his way along the wall as far as he could reach. "Nothing," he said at last. "But I can't reach the cliff near my feet. "
Spock sat up cautiously, careful lest he bump his head. He managed to sit upright and wriggled his way towards where his head had lain. Kirk, realising what he was doing, also sat up. He winced as the movement and the upright position hurt his head, making it ache, but he said nothing about it, unwilling to worry the others.
He also wriggled back, against Spock, leaving McCoy more space in which to move.
McCoy groped his way towards his feet. Finally, he said, "There does seem to be a hole here, but it's a tiny one." Spock, edging round Kirk, felt his way to where McCoy was feeling; he touched McCoy's arm and used it as a guide to find the hole.
The draught was unmistakeable.
He felt round the tiny hole and began to dig in the hard earth around it with his bare hands. McCoy immediately moved to help him. "What are you doing?" Kirk asked.
"Digging," McCoy grunted in a tone that said Ask a silly question...
Kirk moved towards them, but could only touch their backs. "There isn't room for you as well, Jim," McCoy said. He also remembered how Kirk had been knocked out; he had no intention of letting Kirk in to dig if he could possibly avoid it.
After a while, Kirk said, "Come on, it's time I took my turn."
"We'll manage, Captain," Spock objected. He also remembered Kirk's spell of unconsciousness.
"My turn," Kirk said firmly. "That's an order. Come on, Bones. Let me in."
Reluctantly, McCoy wriggled aside. Kirk took his place. He felt at the hole for a moment.
"This is going to take impossibly long," he said. His friends had made surprisingly little impact on it.
"The ground is certainly very hard," Spock admitted. "But I think that the original hole is getting bigger as we dig deeper. Possibly only the mouth of it was blocked."
Kirk merely grunted.
A little later, McCoy said quietly, "Spock, your turn to have a break."
"I do not require a 'break', Doctor; if you and the Captain alternate I can continue for some time yet."
"You'll be better for a rest, Spock," Kirk put in. "Let Bones take your place."
Unwillingly, Spock obeyed, but within a very short time he relieved Kirk, whose head was now aching so abominably that he made little demur.
At last, when all three were suffering from torn and blistered hands, they decided that the hole was large enough - barely - for them to get through.
"Shall I try it?" Spock asked calmly.
"Be careful," Kirk warned.
Spock wriggled into the hole. The others listened anxiously to the scraping sounds that drifted back to them as he went. After some moments -
"It opens into a large passage," came Spock's voice, only slightly muffled by the distance between them. "I cannot reach the roof, the walls are about two metres apart, but they are not even, so that the width varies slightly. The floor is quite smooth, as far as I can ascertain."
"We're coming through," Kirk called. "Go on, Bones. You first."
McCoy began to crawl through the narrow tunnel. It was only a few yards long. He knew as soon as the roof began to rise, and got to his knees. A moment later he was able to scramble upright.
"I'm through," he said.
The scraping sounds began behind him. After some moments, when the sounds stopped, Spock said quietly, "Captain?"
"I'm here. Can you see anything, Mr. Spock?"
"Even my eyes need some light," Spock replied.
"Do you suppose the passage gets any wider?"
"It is possible." His outstretched hand touched one of them. "Captain?"
"Yes. Bones, where are you?"
"Here." McCoy groped his way towards the voice, and after what seemed an eternity, touched an arm.
"We'd better keep close together," Kirk said. "If we lose contact in this dark, we might never find each other again."
"Not easily," Spock agreed.
It was becoming an effort to think. All Kirk really wanted to do was lie down and rest. But he couldn't. They had to get out of here, and he mustn't be a burden on the others. He had to keep going...
"I suggest we follow one of the walls," Spock was saying. "That will give us a guide; and even if it does widen more, we'll still have an indication of where we're going."
They clasped hands to ensure that they stayed together, Spock and McCoy by mutual consent putting Kirk between them. They set off, slowly at first, then with more confidence as the passage continued, level-floored, in a relatively straight line.
"It would appear that this passage has been, if not made, at least improved," Spock commented after they had been travelling for about half an hour. "I have never heard of a natural cave with such a level floor."
"Might it be a lava tunnel?" Kirk asked, forcing himself to make an intelligent comment in case the others should suspect that he was below par.
"Barely smooth enough for that," Spock objected.
"Why should it be made - or improved?" McCoy asked.
"As a communications medium," Spock suggested, "in much the same way as railway tunnels were still built on your Earth ... There's light ahead."
"Your eyes are better than ours," Kirk managed. His head was now pounding almost unbearably, and he felt sick. He kept seeing flashes of light, but he was sure that what he was seeing and what Spock was seeing were two different things. They moved on a little further.
"I see it!" McCoy exclaimed. Kirk said nothing, all his will-power now concentrated on continuing to place one foot in front of the other without letting the others realise his weakness.
It was further to the light than they had thought at first, and it was many minutes later that they stood at the end of the passage, looking out over a large cave.
It was well-lit by great smoky torches that stood on holders round the cave walls. A great fire burned in the middle of the cave; the smoke from it curled upwards to be lost from sight in the cavernous space above them. Several people were moving about. Kirk took one step forward, and found that his legs would no longer support him.
Spock caught him as he fell. McCoy bent over him, seeing for the first time the gash on his head where a rock had caught him. Dried blood caked one side of his face, although McCoy knew this inevitably looked worse than it was. He felt in his bag for his scanner.
"How is he, Doctor?"
McCoy pursed his lips. "Worse than he should be," he said bluntly. "If he had told me he wasn't right, I could have given him some medication ages ago; I'd have been able to find what I wanted by touch. But now... " His voice trailed off.
He took out a hypo, gave Kirk a shot. "I'm all right," Kirk protested weakly.
"Sure, I know," McCoy said with a cheerfulness he was far from feeling. "You feel like wrestling with a Berengarian dragon. Well, forget it. The state you're in just now, you could be pushed over by one of their eggs."
Spock heard a faint noise and looked up from his study of Kirk's pale face.
Two men had come over, attracted to them by the sound of their voices, and were standing watching interestedly as McCoy attended to the blood-stained Kirk. As Spock looked up, one of them gave a hesitant smile, his gaze fixed on the insignia on Spock's chest. "Welcome," he said. Even in the one word it was easy to detect a strong accent. "You are from the Star Fleet?"
Spock's eyebrow lifted in some surprise. "You know of our people?"
"You can think about that later," McCoy put in. He looked up at the men. "Our Captain is hurt," he said. "He needs warmth."
"Bring him to the fire."
Spock scooped Kirk up carefully and carried him after the men, McCoy at his side. He put Kirk down near the fire, sitting down himself to provide a pillow for his Captain. One of the men signed to a woman; she moved away, to return almost immediately with a blanket. McCoy almost snatched it from her and spread it over Kirk. Spock looked at him, a question in his eyes.
"He has a alight fever," McCoy said, "which he wouldn't have had if he'd just had the sense to tell me just how badly he was hurt. I knew he'd cut his head, but in the dark I couldn't tell how badly. I thought it was superficial, and that he'd just been knocked out. It's possible that there's some infection in the cut, though it has bled enough to have cleaned it." He took a cleansing pad from his medical kit and began to wipe away the dried blood.
A woman came over to him, holding out an earthenware jar. In it was a yellowish ointment.
He smiled up at her. "It's all right, thanks," he said. "I do have something for it." He showed her his medical kit.
She shook her head. "This good," she insisted. "You use. Good for fever."
"A local cure might be harmful to our metabolism," McCoy muttered to Spock.
One of the men joined them. He glanced at the woman, then at McCoy. "The ointment is good," he said. "It has been used before. It will not hurt him."
McCoy hesitated for a second longer, then reached out to the jar. He smeared some of the ointment onto and around the cut. The woman smiled her satisfaction, and moved away, joining a growing crowd that watched and listened from far enough away not to get in anyone's way.
Spock looked up at the man. "How do you know about Starfleet?" he asked.
"The Pioneer spent some time here nearly ten years ago," was the amazing reply. "Some of us learned your language then, and we have been very careful to remember it. We were sure your people would return one day."
"I thought we were the first ship to come into this area," McCoy said, more to Spock than to the native.
"The Pioneer was lost seven point four standard years ago," Spock said thoughtfully. "She made no report of finding an inhabited planet... " He thought briefly, calculating. "Ten planetary years would be approximately seven and half standard years. She may have been lost just after leaving here. However, I did not realise that she had been in this area."
"Didn't Starfleet know?" McCoy asked, startled.
"Apparently not. Certainly Starfleet did not know she had come this far into unexplored space. But I met her Captain once; I remember thinking he was born out of his time. He really belonged in the past, in the days when an explorer could - if he had the money - just get up and go wherever he wanted to." He shook his head, disapproving of such impetuousness. "Like you, I thought we were the first ship to come this far."
"So did I," came a weak voice from Kirk. He raised his head, and seemed to realise then that it had been pillowed on Spock's leg. He turned his head to look up at the Vulcan.
"How do you feel, Captain?" his First Officer asked.
"I'm all right," Kirk answered. Both Spock and McCoy looked doubtful. McCoy ran his scanner over Kirk, and his eyebrows went up.
"You are, too," he said, "That's pretty good stuff." Kirk glanced at the native. "Go on," he said, and they realised that he had been conscious enough to be aware of the conversation. "The Pioneer was here about ten years ago. Go on."
"It was nearly a year later that everything mechanical suddenly stopped operating and our civilisation crumbled overnight," the native continued.
The three men looked at each other. "Go on," Kirk encouraged.
"We were not as mechanically advanced as the men on the Pioneer, but we were very dependent on machines. Many of our people were unable to adapt to the new conditions, which were of necessity extremely primitive. They either died or killed themselves. The rest of us found it too depressing to continue living in the ruins of our cities; many of us came to live in the caves. We survive by doing a little farming and hunting; but strangely enough, the number of poisonous and other dangerous animals has increased tremendously, and we have lost many men to them."
"Have you no idea what caused the change in conditions?" Spock asked.
The native shook his head with an up and down movement that they at first took to be affirmative and then realised was negative. "There is nothing we know of that could have caused it," he said.
"And it was very sudden?"
"Strange," Kirk commented.
"Too strange to be natural," Spock added. He looked at the native. "What of the dangerous animals?" he asked.
"Our world was civilised," the man said. "There were dangerous animals, but all lived in restricted environments. Now, whatever the reason, they have increased tremendously in numbers, and spread out into areas where they never lived before." He shivered, fear in his eyes. "They are terrible," he added. "We have lost so many men to them... I wouldn't have thought it possible for animals to have spread out so much in just nine years."
"With no check on their breeding, wild animals would spread," Spock observed.
"But it's not just the animals," interrupted another native who had come up unnoticed. "A few miles south of here the land that borders the sea has suddenly become desert... overnight, too. It was lush, fertile land before. And dangerous animals abound there. But they shouldn't. There's nothing there for them... "
Kirk glanced at Spock. "Comment?"
"It would appear," Spock said slowly, "that something has disturbed the natural ecology of the planet."
"The same something that has caused the 'shield' you postulated was blocking the sensors?"
"Then I think we should investigate."
"I agree, Captain."
"I don't," McCoy cut in. "Not immediately, anyway. You may be miraculously recovered, Jim, but you're still not right. You need a night's sleep before you try doing anything strenuous." He looked at Spock. "Don't you back him up, Spock. He does need it. Another night won't make that much difference, after ten years."
"Nine," Spock corrected automatically even as he nodded his agreement. "Dr. McCoy is correct, Captain. Indeed, I consider that we all need rest, myself included. Digging that hole was... rather tiring for us all."
McCoy caught sight of Spock's hands as he finished speaking and reached out to grip them. They were cut, with raw sores where blisters had burst. Neither Kirk nor McCoy himself had suffered such intense injury to his hands from the digging; this was sure proof that Spock had done far more than his fair share of the work.
He reached for his medi-kit again, and gave Spock a shot. The Vulcan looked disgusted, but refrained from protest.
The natives supplied them with a meal, then gave them a quiet corner where they settled down for a few hours' sleep. Spock woke first, and lay still for several minutes just watching his friends, thinking over what both had said while they were trapped by the rockfall, feeling an unaccustomed happiness as he remembered their closeness during the minutes when they had all thought that they were soon to die. He admitted to himself that he did not want to live without them... even as he had admitted it to them...
After a few minutes he shook McCoy awake. The surgeon blinked up at him.
"It is time to go, Doctor... if the Captain is fit enough." McCoy turned to the still sleeping Kirk. He ran his scanner over him.
"He seems to be fully recovered." he said. "He'll have to watch that he doesn't hurt his head again until that gash heals, but there's no further infection in it and no fever... What about your hands?"
Resignedly, Spock held out his hands to McCoy, who checked them quickly.
"They'll do, but don't try to use them too much." Turning back to the Captain, he shook him awake.
Although one of the natives would have gone with them, they chose to go alone to investigate the countryside.
At first their walk was through pleasant countryside. Trees, bushes, and a variety of flowers and grasses provided surroundings through which it was a pleasure to travel. Then, abruptly, as if a line had been drawn by a ruler, the countryside changed. Ahead of them was desert - bare, desolate. Great rocks littered the landscape. A few cactus plants grew, half-heartedly providing a touch of green to an earth-brown scene. The three men looked at each other.
"This doesn't look natural," McCoy asked.
"Very unnatural," Spock agreed. "There should be at least a minimal transition zone, several miles wide." He tried his tricorder, from sheer force of habit, and shook his head. "Nothing."
"Frustrating, Spock?" McCoy asked.
Spock regarded him consideringly. "No, Doctor," he said. "Merely an inconvenience, no greater than the one provided by your presence."
Kirk grinned slightly as he also remembered the words that had been said while they were trapped... the words that neither Spock nor McCoy would ever admit to having said, now that they were safe again.
They moved into the desert, using the sun as a guide, and headed for the sea, still several miles distant. Abruptly, Kirk stopped, staring at the ground in front of them.
"What is it, Jim?" McCoy asked.
"A rattlesnake... "
"I see nothing," Spock put in.
"... right in front of us!"
McCoy froze, staring. The snake reared its head, staring at him; he knew it was poised to strike. He wanted to jump away, but couldn't; he wasn't even sure that that was the best thing to do.
As the snake struck, Kirk leaped forward. He thrust McCoy out of the way; and the snake struck him. He staggered back, clutching his wrist where it had bitten him, while the snake wriggled rapidly away. McCoy sprang to Kirk's side.
Spock stared in blank amazement as McCoy bent over Kirk's wrist, and in even greater astonishment as McCoy whipped a scalpel from his medi-kit.
"What are you doing, Doctor?"
"What do you mean? Jim's been bitten!" He poised the scalpel to slash Kirk's wrist. Spock moved with fantastic rapidity and caught his arm in time to stop him.
"He hasn't been bitten! There's nothing there!"
"Dammit, Spock, let me attend to him! He'll die if I don't!" Indeed, Kirk was already looking decidedly ill. His arm was swelling badly; at least, McCoy thought it was. Spock was less certain. All he saw was that Kirk was looking unsteady, and was holding his arm as if it were paining him badly.
Spock shook McCoy fiercely. "There was nothing there, Doctor!" he repeated.
Kirk looked at him. "Are you... sure, Spock?" he asked. It was already an effort to talk.
"But... I saw... it. And I... I felt it... bite... It's sore... "
Spock moved to his side, hand outstretched to Kirk's face. He concentrated as he touched it.
"There was no snake, Jim. Your arm is whole. There was no snake. Believe with me. It was an illusion, Jim. It was an illusion... "
To McCoy's eyes there was no change; Kirk's arm remained swollen, he looked very ill, the two puncture marks on his wrist remained an angry red; but Kirk himself was feeling better. His arm no longer pained him, and he was no longer feeling unsteady. He straightened up.
"Thank you, Mr. Spock," he said quietly. He glanced at McCoy. "Maybe you'd better attend to Bones, too."
Spock followed his eyes, and nodded. He moved over to the pale, horror-stricken doctor, and raised his hand to McCoy's face. Slowly McCoy relaxed, seeing the swelling on Kirk's arm disappearing, the bite marks disappear as if by magic.
Spock withdrew contact. They looked at him, then at each other.
"The snake was an illusion," Kirk said.
Kirk looked round. The desert stretched in front of them. How much of it was real? He asked Spock.
The Vulcan glanced round. Then he repeated the examination, more slowly.
"I don't know, Jim," he said simply. "It could all be an illusion. Or none of it might be illusion. I just don't know."
"But you were sure about the snake," McCoy objected.
"Although the transition from fertile ground to desert was so sudden, it is in fact quite logical for there to be a desert here," Spock pointed out. "It is not logical, however, for there to be a rattlesnake, a wholly Terran species, present in this desert. Therefore, I can see the desert, if it is an illusion, because it is logical; I can see cactus plants, because their presence is logical; but I could not see a species of snake that I know could not be there, for that is not logical." He moved over to a nearby cactus. "What will happen if I crush this, I wonder?"
The cactus crushed, leaving a moist sap. Spock touched his finger to it, tasted it. "Completely realistic," he said.
"In that case we won't die of thirst," McCoy said grimly.
"You think the cactus plants are an illusion, Spock?" Kirk asked.
"I am almost certain that the whole desert is. But I cannot break this illusion."
They moved on. Several times the two Humans saw creatures that they knew were dangerous, but when Spock saw nothing, they accepted these as illusion and, ignoring then, moved on.
"Don't you see any creatures you know are dangerous?" McCoy asked Spock.
"It is illogical for any Vulcan species to be here, Doctor; as illogical as it is for Terran species to be present."
Ahead of them they saw a ravine. Kirk stopped.
"I don't know. Its presence is logical. It might or might not be real. "
He moved cautiously to its edge, and lay down. "Hold my legs, Captain, in case it is real."
He felt forward cautiously, his eyes closed. His hand went down below the level of the ground on which he was lying.
After a few moments of feeling about carefully, he raised his head. "I believe it is real, Captain."
Kirk stood looking at it for a while. The edges were loose; it would be far from easy to climb down and up the other side. Well, it was try it or give up altogether.
He sat on the edge of the ravine, then swung round, scrabbling with his toes for a hold. He began to feel his way down; the others followed him. It was not easy; the loose earth fell away under his weight; earth fell on his head from above, kicked loose by his friends.
At last he reached the bottom; he waited for the others, then they crossed the broken ground at the base of the ravine and reached the other side. They began to climb up.
The soil on this side was drier, looser; there were no holds worth mentioning. They scrambled their way up, digging their toes into the loose soil, digging their fingers in. McCoy spared a breathless moment to think anxiously about Spock's hands, cut and raw from his efforts to dig them free from the rockfall.
Kirk felt himself beginning to slip; he lunged upwards, and caught at the top of the ravine. He pulled himself over the rim, and turned to watch the others.
Spock reached the top; Kirk pulled him over. Then as McCoy reached for the top his foot slipped, sending a shower of earth back into the gully. Kirk caught at his wrists; Spock, behind him, caught at him so that he would not be pulled over. Between them, they hauled McCoy over the top and subsided, panting.
Kirk drew a deep breath. He was aware of his head, which was beginning to ache again from his exertions. He wondered if one of the small stones knocked loose by the others had perhaps hit his head without his realising it; but it can't be bleeding again, he thought, or Bones would be fussing over me already.
They went on. The desert looked a little more fertile now, as if the illusion was failing, but it was still far from inviting. Then suddenly they came in sight of a collection of long, low buildings, quite unlike anything they had ever seen before. Behind the buildings was the sea, long waves breaking on a stretch of sand, running up it in long, sweeping caresses, leaving feather flecks of foam behind as the water ran back to join the next wave.
Several huge boulders lay on the sand; the water ran up round them and retreated from them again. It was a peaceful and oddly beautiful scene.
The three friends moved forward towards the buildings. "Is this a reality?" Kirk asked.
"I think so," Spock replied. Then one of the boulders moved.
As they watched, open-mouthed, the boulder began to move away from the water towards the buildings.
"What is it?" McCoy gasped.
"It must be a living being," Spock said calmly. He watched carefully.
The being had a superficial resemblance to a horta, but more closely resembled a Terran crab except that it had no visible legs. Now that he was watching it carefully, Spock saw that it had two antennae, and two claw-hike appendages just below these.
The creature moved past the buildings and came towards them. A yard from them it stopped, looked at them... and they understood what it wanted to say.
\\Who are you?\\ it asked. \\What are you doing here?\\
Kirk swallowed. His training had not included instructions in how to speak to telepathic crabs.
"We are from the United Federation of Planets," he said, a little nervously - more nervous with this encounter than he could remember being even at his first contact mission when he was still a lieutenant. "You will not have heard of us; we come from another part of the Galaxy, and this is only the second visit to this planet by our people."
\\There is intelligent life in the cosmos apart from ours?\\
"Yes. There are many intelligent races. Some have more knowledge than others; not all have the secret of space flight. But although our race has this knowledge, we are stranded here because on this world our communications devices will not work."
\\Certain sound waves upset the brain pattern of our species,\\ the crab told him. \\Our craft have shielded engines because of this. When we landed and saw that this planet was suitable for settlement, we became aware of those sound waves emanating from somewhere on the planet, and we put out a blanketing shield so that we would not be disturbed by them.\\
"You've settled here?"
\\Yes; our own planet became too dry. We are an amphibious race; part of our life span is spent in water, and we enjoy being in water at all times. Travelling here was a terrible experience... between the dryness and the mental upsets caused by even the shielded engines.\\
"But you've disrupted the lives of the native inhabitants of this planet!" Kirk objected. "Couldn't you have looked for an uninhabited planet? You must have known that there was life on this one."
\\We knew... but this was the first planet suitable to us we found. We were so relieved to find one that we chose not to travel further. The original inhabitants can live here also; all we ask is the land close to the sea.\\
"You killed many of them by the changes you made. Thousands - millions - died!"
The creature was silent for some minutes. Only Spock, with his telepathic ability, realised that it was communicating with its fellows. At last -
\\We are not wholly unreasonable. We will set you and your friends a number of problems... a test. If you are intelligent enough to solve them inside one of your hours, we will leave and go elsewhere. If, however, you fail in even one of the problems, or exceed the time, we remain.\\
"We agree," Kirk said after a glance at his First Officer. They had, after all, no choice. "One thing... If you do leave - or even if you stay - the Federation would be glad to have contact with your race."
\\We will... consider it.\\
It was, in effect, a straightforward intelligence test that they were given. Most of the tests were easy to Spock's highly intuitive mind. Only one test provided any difficulty. They faced it with only a few minutes of their hour used up.
It was, quite simply, to find their way through a maze. But the walls of the maze were invisible.
"A telepathic maze," Spock murmured.
"Force fields?" Kirk asked.
Spock shook his head. "Purely telepathic, I think."
They groped their way about for many minutes. Several times they thought they had found the key, only to discover that they had made a mistake and were forced to grope an uncertain way back - and too often, they were sure they had not found the way back to where they had been. Kirk began to be acutely aware of the time they were using up.
"How long?" he asked once, near-despair in his voice.
"We still have twenty three minutes, forty two seconds," Spock replied calmly.
They felt their way on. Even Spock's rudimentary telepathic sense was of little use here; his mind operated on a different wavelength altogether. At last they reached a point where they were stuck. They seemed to be in a small enclosed space; a space only a yard or so square. And they couldn't even find the way they had entered it.
Kirk leaned back wearily against the invisible wall. "How long?" he said again.
"Seventeen minutes and - "
"Near enough at seventeen minutes," Kirk interrupted. He sighed, shaking his head. "Now I know how frustrated an experimental rat must feel."
McCoy snapped his fingers. "What is it, Bones?"
"That's it! An experimental rat! It must be some sort of trick entrance. I've seen rats given that sort of maze to master - and they've done it, too. Sometimes quite quickly. Don't tell me we're not more intelligent than a rat."
"What sort of trick entrance were you envisaging, Doctor?" Spock remained wholly practical.
"Mmm. There are several kinds. You have to apply pressure in the right place, or it's some sort of swing door - "
"I would doubt its being that," Spock commented. "We have applied pressure evenly at all parts of the 'wall'. If it was a swing door, it would surely have opened."
"Or, since it's a telepathic maze, the placing of the entrance might have been altered. Put lower, say."
Kirk was already on his knees, feeling round the base of 'the 'walls'. On the second wall, he looked up.
"You're right, Bones! There's a way out here."
They crawled through. Soon they felt the 'roof' above them heighten; it became possible to walk upright again. They continued doggedly.
They reached another dead end, and turned back. Then another. They turned back again. Kirk was sweating now, McCoy almost as badly. Only Spock continued as if they had all the time in the world. His face was a mask of concentration.
Then - "I think I have the key, Captain." Spock led the way unerringly until he was brought up short by another impenetrable wall. For once he allowed his sense of disappointment to show; his shoulders drooped wearily.
"I apologise, Captain," he said dully. "And there is no more time to try again; we have only just over a minute left."
But the Humans were paying him no attention. Both were feeling desperately over and along the walls, searching for an exit. It was McCoy, with his knowledge of the sort of tricks that were built into mazes for experimental animals, who found the catch - a simple knob that he failed to turn, then pressed. He felt the wall open. "This way!" He scrambled out, and felt the wind blowing through his hair. They were out of the maze. Kirk followed close at his heels, with Spock just behind.
They looked round for the telepathic crabs, but saw none. Then they became aware of a humming sound. The sky darkened for a moment. Then it cleared.
They stared around in amazement, for their surroundings had completely changed. The low buildings were gone. The surrounding desert was gone. In its place was a great stretch of fertile land, lush grass waving in the wind. The only thing unchanged was the sea, still running up the sand in long sweeping surges.
Spock drew a deep breath. "We got out with only eight seconds to spare," he said quietly.
"And they've gone," Kirk added. "Well, they kept their bargain. I just wish there was some way we could be sure of finding them again." He pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Captain! Ye're all right! - Ah, Scott here, Captain."
"Three to beam up, Scotty."
McCoy took them both off to sickbay as soon as they materialised. Both protested; both told the other that he should go, even while objecting about going himself. McCoy pushed them both into bed, and turned his attention first to Kirk's head. The cut needed some attention. That seen to, he glared intimidatingly down at his Captain.
"Now, Jim - do you go to sleep peacefully, or do I sedate you?"
Kirk made a face. "I'll sleep," he promised.
McCoy turned to Spock and checked his hands. Despite his Vulcan healing powers, Spock's hands were looking nasty. McCoy checked him over, gave him an injection, and glared at him. "Sleep or sedation?"
Spock sighed audibly. "I'll sleep," he said.
McCoy turned to leave. At the door, he turned to look back at his friends. Both were watching him. He grinned at them, and left.
He released them next day on their promise to do nothing too strenuous. He did agree to let them beam down to the cave where they met the natives; but he insisted on accompanying them.
The natives met them at the cave entrance, already aware of the change.
"I don't think you'll have any more trouble," Kirk told them. "And any help the Federation can give you - "
"We must do this for ourselves," was the reply. "It is ten years since one of your ships was last here; if it is another ten before your people come again, we will have something to show you."
"It should be a lot less," Kirk answered. "Good luck."
He looked at his friends, and smiled. "Let's go home," he said simply.