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Research vessels dealt mostly with uninhabited planets, or with planets with very primitive, very restricted cultures.
The planet the New Caledonia discovered was civilised at a highly-cultured, albeit non-mechanised level. Sensor findings indicated that the planet had abundant reserves of several minerals, none of them exploited by the natives, none of them exploitable by the natives at their present level of technology.
Captain Darras took down a landing party consisting of the chief geologist, Lt. Sitchi, Lt. Perera and Ensign Tao, from the language and sociology department, Lt. Cameron, chief biologist, and Yeoman Gunther.
The natives were friendly, accepting the newcomers with apparent enthusiasm, and Perera made a beginning on learning the native language, while one or two o£ the natives even tried to learn English. They had rather more success with the new language than Perera; the native tongue had in it several sounds that were barely pronounceable by humans.
General conversation via the universal translator soon revealed that for a race with only naked-eye astronomy, the natives had a good grasp of the subject, and were particularly interested in the fact that their visitors came from the stars... something which they accepted with surprising equanimity. Darras had expected more reaction, but there was only some mild curiosity -
"Where is the ship in which you came?"
"The rest of the crew are holding it above the planet," Darras explained.
"Why can't we see it?"
"It's too high."
* * * * * * * *
On the third day, Tao came back from visiting a nearby farm with the information that the culture was slave-owning.
There was some horror among the landing party, even although Tao reported that most of the slaves seemed happy enough, accepting their position with apparent equanimity; and they certainly seemed to have an easier life than the handful of small landowners, whose life appeared to be a perpetual struggle to find enough food to support their families. There was nothing Darras could do anyway; there was always General Order No. One to consider.
The landing party remained as honoured guests for one more day. Some of their requests and inquiries were brushed aside, and they weren't always certain whether it was because they were treading on forbidden territory, or whether there was a communications problem. Conversation was a little stilted; all the landing party, by now, had picked up a little Brentish, and several of the natives had learned some English, and on the natives' suggestion, they had mostly stopped using the translators sos that they could improve their command of each others' language.
On the fifth morning they woke to find their status changed. No longer honoured guests, they were now prisoners...
* * * * * * * *
Three years passed before the Enterprise found herself in the general area where the New Caledonia had vanished without trace... although, Kirk thought, without leaving any word, any message might be a more accurate way of putting it. The Enterprise was the first Federation vessel to enter the area in those three years. Their orders were to keep a lookout for any indication of what had happened to the research ship as well as try to find a planet with a fairly high level of civilisation and make contact with its inhabitants, with a view to setting up a base in the quadrant.
This was not quite as difficult - or as easy - as might have bean thought; in this area of apace, there was the normal number of stars, the normal percentage of which gave heat and light to a family of planets; but many of these solar systems belonged to suns whose radiation was unsuitable for life other than microbial, or where none of the planets had yet evolved beyond a very primeval level.
They eventually found themselves orbiting a planet which the sensors indicated had a relatively high level of intelligent life, although no mechanisation.
Kirk beamed down with Spock, McCoy and Chekov.
They materialised among open fields and looked round.
It appeared to be an agrarian culture. They were surrounded by fields of well-grown crops; all the ground between them and a not-too-distant range of hills seemed to be cultivated. The hills were tree-clad, the trees climbing up to the tops, which were flattened as if by glacial activity some time in the long-distant past. Sensors had picked up no signs of large collections of houses, and now that they had beamed down, they could see that the houses were indeed well scattered.
They headed for the nearest house.
They did not reach it, however. They suddenly found themselves surrounded by a pack of dogs; and the men with the dogs made it clear, by their gestures, that the four were to accompany them.
The natives were armed with spears and knives, and they were poised ready for any attempt to escape. Kirk's involuntary movement towards his phaser was noticed; and their phasers and communicators were taken from them by a watchful native. The men hardly looked at their spoil; the things were simply thrown into a ditch, and some earth kicked casually over them.
They were forced to march towards a nearby track, then down it for a little way. Their captors spoke together, laughing occasionally, but none of the prisoners, despite their vast combined knowledge of galactic tongues, could understand anything of what was being said.
A short distance down the track there was a cart, drawn by a short-horned animal which looked like a cross between a long-legged donkey and a goat. Its legs seemed to be completely out of proportion to the rest of its body.
The cart was already full. Kirk and his men were pushed aboard beside the others, both male and female, who already occupied the cart. With four extra people in it, there was no longer room for everyone to sit, or even crouch; they had to stand, swaying uncomfortably as the cart jolted over the rough unmaintained track, bouncing into holes while its occupants were thrown against each other and those fortunate - or unfortunate - enough to have claimed a seat on the sides of the cart hung on grimly to keep themselves from being thrown out altogether as their standing fellows in misfortune were thrown against them. Their captors, riding other donkey-goats, one of them leading the unfortunate beast that pulled the cart, proceeded at a brisk trot, while the yelping dogs escorted it, running round, occasionally snapping at each other.
Although the distance they were taken in the cart wasn't far, it seemed a long way to the uncomfortable passengers. They eventually jolted to a stop beside a building, a large barn-like structure with tiny windows set high in the walls and a fairly small door that had a heavy bar across it. A platform with a pile of boxes on it stood beside the building. The captives were pushed roughly out of the cart and into the building, while the men who removed the bar from the door stood guard, spears ready should anyone from inside attempt to get out.
Some of their captors followed them in, all watchful. While one or two of them stood guard, the others stripped off their prisoners' clothes, and they were pushed, naked, away from the door, further into the building, among the captives already there. There were both men and women, many teenage or younger, and although a few were fully adult, none looked older than about fifty.
Two of their captors gathered up the discarded clothes, and the men left. The doors slammed shut.
The men from the Enterprise gathered together.
"Comments, Mr. Spock?" Kirk asked.
"None as yet, Captain. There could be several different explanations for what has occurred."
"We seem to have landed unlucky, anyway," Kirk said. "We couldn't have picked a worse time or place to beam down if we'd tried."
"Captain," Chekov said. "All these people look... miserable. They know why we are here; and they do not like it, I think."
Kirk looked round.
"Ensign Chekov is correct," Spock commented. "But we cannot ask them; I can make nothing of their language - or languages. There appear to be two distinct languages spoken here - unless one is merely a local dialect."
"Well, there's nothing much we can do about it just now," Kirk said. "Let's grab ourselves a corner while we can."
Most of the newcomers were still trying to adjust to the situation; ignoring them, the Enterprise men moved to where a pile of straw on the floor gave the promise of at least minimal comfort. They settled down on it, huddling together for warmth.
One by one, they fell asleep.
* * * * * * * *
They were wakened abruptly by the door crashing open and several armed men coming in. There was the sound of voices outside - a confused hubbub, as if there were many people present.
The six prisoners nearest the door, five men and a woman, were pushed out. The door shut again. Many of the prisoners were now crying out, some almost screaming, in obvious fear. Others simply looked resigned. There was a short pause; then the guards came in for another six. Then another. This time, Spock and McCoy were among the six selected. Kirk twisted to his feet, and was pushed roughly bacK. He scrambled up again as the door shut.
"Separated!" he growled.
A few minutes later, the men returned. They pushed Kirk and Chekov forward, along with four women. One of them was sobbing.
They were pushed onto the platform, and found themselves facing a fairly large crowd. A man at the side of the platform started speaking. His speech was interrupted by shouts from the crowd. It took Kirk a moment to realise what was happening.
"It's an auction!" he whispered. "A slave auction!"
"I don't see Mr Spock or Dr. McCoy anywhere," Chekov replied, equally softly.
"If they're already sold, their buyer will have taken them away," Kirk answered. "If only the same fellow buys us. If we're together we stand much more chance. Separated, we may never see them again." The thought sent a shiver through him.
After what seemed a long time, but they knew, from the length of time between each group being taken out was only three or four minutes, the bidding finished. Their purchaser came forward. There was an armed guard with him; one of them indicated which way they should go. Glancing back, Kirk saw the door being opened for the next batch of unfortunates.
They were taken to where several donkey-goats were tethered. One of the beasts was wearing panniers. From one pannier, one of the guards took what appeared to be clothes, which were tossed to them - 'clothes' that were simply a strip of cloth. They wrapped the cloth round themselves, Kirk and Chekov watching the four women to see how they fastened their sarongs up, then imitated the method, rolling the top part of their 'garment' over on itself. It was more secure than Kirk had expected; as they walked towards their destination, he half-expected the cloth to fall around his ankles, but it remained firmly in place. Their purchaser and his guards rode; two dogs snapped at their heels. Kirk's greatest discomfort was from the many tiny stones that cut his bare feet; and from Chekov's muttering, he soon gathered that Chekov was also beginning to feel his feet. By the time they reached their destination, although the distance wasn't far, his feet were paining him considerably, and he was leaving bloodstained footprints as he went, as was Chekov. The women seemed less distressed, and he guessed that they must be more used than he to going barefoot.
As they went, they saw many people, presumably slaves, working in the fields.
Kirk went gloomily, not really paying attention, his mind on his friends.
"Captain," Chekov said after they had gone a little way. "All these people, working to provide food. Where does all the food go? There are no big towns. Each landowner could easily feed himself and his family and workers from the produce of a fraction of the land that is cultivated. Why do they grow so much? What do they do with it all?"
Kirk forced himself to consider this. "A good point, Mr. Chekov," he said.
Chekov went on to indicate a field they were passing. It held a crop that looked a little like strawberries, except that the ripe fruit appeared to be mauve. The berries were being harvested by a large group of slaves. "Those berries," he said. "Why do they grow them? It looks like a luxury crop; who buys it?"
"Mr. Chekov, that is a point worthy of Mr. Spock," Kirk said. "I can't answer you; but we may find the answer yet. Keep your eyes open," he finished, thinking ruefully that Chekov was paying more attention to his surroundings than Kirk himself was doing.
Once at their destination, they got no time to look round. They were taken straight away to a field of bright yellow raspberry-like plants. The guard took the four women away; the owner called up a man picking skilfully near the top of a row of fruit. Then he turned away. Kirk glanced after him, and noticed the armed guards standing round. They were lounging comfortably, but they were watching carefully, and their spears were ready at their sides. There was no escape - yet.
The man looked sympathetically at them. He was dressed as they were, but his body was a mass of superficial scratched. Only his bearded face was free of the tiny marks.
"Ya hoolran - " he began. Kirk interrupted.
"We don't speak your language," he said, aware that he could have said anything at all, not hoping to be understood, but simply for something to say.
He was flabbergasted when the man exclaimed, "You speak English!"
Kirk stared at him. "I'm James T. Kirk, commanding the Starship Enterprise. This is my navigator, Ensign Chekov."
"I'm Lieutenant Fergus Cameron; I was the chief research biologist on the New Caledonia," was the reply. They looked at each other for a moment, them Cameron said quietly, "We can talk as we work."
He took them to where a pile of baskets lay, and picked up several. He threw them onto a wooden box, lifted it easily and took it back to the top of the row of bushes where he had been working. Then he went to where some pieces of rope lay.
He gave each of them a length of rope, and showed them how to thread the rope through the handles of several baskets,
"Now tie your rope round your waist," he finished. They obeyed, and he went on. "The yellow berries are the ripe ones. Orange are over-ripe, pale yellow, ripening. Take only the ripe ones. You can take one or two under-ripe, they'll ripen off the bush, but no over-ripe ones. They go mouldy too quickly. The berries hide under the leaves - so." He pushed a spray of leaves aside to reveal some berries. "Fill the baskets level with the rim. If you do that side between you, I'll go on with this side."
They began picking the fruit, noticing how Cameron picked several berries with each hand before putting them into the basket. It made for speed.
Within seconds, their hands also were scratched. The long stems of the plants were covered with tiny thorns, impossible to avoid.
"You'll be allowed a day or two to get the hang of it," Cameron said, "then you'll be given a quota. Fail to meet your quota, your rations are cut. It's a good idea to ease off in the latter part of the day, especially just now when they'll be estimating what your target is to be, so that you'll end up within your picking ability.
"If you can beat your target by a little, just a basket or two, you get extra rations, but don't overdo it too much, or your quota'll be raised. Just miss, you'll probably get away with it, especially if you're in the habit of just beating target."
"I've no intention of staying here long enough to get a quota," Kirk said grimly. "Lieutenant, what happened to the New Caledonia?"
Cameron was silent for a minute. Then he said slowly, "Captain, on a research vessel we expect danger, but we expect obvious danger, if you follow me. We expect, say, to be attacked when we land, not several days later." He went on to explain what had happened. "After we were arrested, they did tell us a few things. Things we should perhaps have worked out for ourselves - it was all there to be evaluated. They have interstellar trade, Captain, with a race they call the Hvras. The Hvras are humanoid, but look alien enough for the local Brents to consider that anyone extra-Brentish must look different... so until we told them we came from the stars, they thought we were just from another part of the planet."
"Spock!" Kirk exclaimed.
Cameron looked at him.
"He was caught too?"
"He and Dr. McCoy. They were sold separately from us."
"If they identify him as alien - and they will - it could put him - and your doctor - in the position Captain Darras ended up in.
"Captain Darras was told to order all the rest of the crew down to the surface. Of course he refused. So they took Yeoman Gunther - she was a sniveling little weakling and they could recognise that; I don't know why she ever joined Starfleet, unless she hoped to get a husband... and they began to torture her to make the Captain agree."
"And he did?" Kirk said rather grimly, remembering occasions when he had been forced to watch torture and threatened death...but had somehow found the strength to remain defiant.
"Captain, try not to think too hardly of him," Cameron said quietly. "When Gunther started screaming, begging him to save her... when he realised that once she was dead, they would take the rest of the landing party, one after the other, and that he would be forced to watch us all die before it was his turn... He wasn't afraid for himself, Captain, but he hadn't the courage to condemn the rest of us to painful death in order to save the rest of the crew... so he obeyed the Brents.
"We were sold in auction. Twelve of us came here - Captain Darras was one of us. Three tried to escape on the second day. They were caught in the attempt, and tortured to death, with all the other slaves watching. After that, Captain Darras just couldn't live with the knowledge of whet he'd done. He lost the will to live - died within a month. The others, too, died over about a year. I am the only one who managed to adapt, possibly because I come of farming stock. I think it's probable that I'm the only survivor of the entire crew."
They worked in silence for some minutes. At last, Kirk said, "Knowing the penalty for escape must have deterred you, but have you never thought about it?"
"Frequently, Captain. But where could I go? New Caledonia must have crashed long ago - in fact, I'm pretty sure I know just when she crashed - but even if she hadn't, there would be no-one on board to beam me up, and no way to contact them even if there had been. Non-slave-owning Brents, the handful of free-holders, have enough trouble supporting their own families on tiny patches of semi-fertile land without giving shelter to strangers. Certainly they are often raided and some of their people kidnapped into slavery and one or two extra workers seeking shelter could be useful... but if they were found to be harbouring escaped slaves, the entire family would be enslaved instantly.
"Even yourself, Captain - your ship is still there, but how will you contact her?"
There was another short silence. "Yes," Kirk said slowly. "I can see why they died. Without hope... There wasn't even an up-to-date report on just where you were. You knew that?"
Cameron nodded. *Captain Darras liked to have a full report before he contacted Starfleet. He thought it more efficient. Starfleet accepted it, because it saved them some paper-work, as far as I know."
"And then when the ship finally disappeared, someone would get hauled over the coals for it. That's typical of officialdom...
"What are the living conditions like? Do you have anything in the way of recreation facilities, free time, or is it all work?"
"Captain, at this time of year, you're not even free to die," Cameron said drily. "In the winter there isn't so much work, but then you're simply kept in quarters, with nothing to do but sleep, fight or go mad. It was the winter that killed most of the others." He was silent for a moment, remembering his dead comrades, then went on. "Yet most of the Brent slaves, the ones who weere botr into slavery, seem happy enough. The only ones who do try to get away are the ones who were press-ganged - small-holders who were rounded up, willy-nilly, to be enslaved."
"We were caught in one of these raids - at least, I think it must have been that."
"Probably. A lot of them are sold into slavery by their parents when they're still quite young, because there are too many in the family for their land to support them all. When that happens, the life they came from was even harder than this one, since here they do at least get enough food, most of the time."
They worked on silently again for a while. Kirk was beginning to get the rhythm of it now, but Chekov was having problems. At least here the ground was relatively soft, free from the tiny stones that had taken so much of the skin off his feet; all he had to worry about now, as far as they were concerned, was whether the dirt in the open cuts might give him some infection. He considered this for a moment, then put the matter out of his head. There was nothing he could do about it if he did pick up a germ or two.
At last he said, "If we could head back to the general area of the beam-down, my second officer will have a search party down by now. I don't think they'll be caught in a hurry, because with our disappearance, they'll be expecting trouble. I think we should make a break for it tonight."
"Tonight's no use," Cameron said. "Captain, when we've filled these baskets, we go and hand them to the supervisor, who records them against our quota... mine, anyway. We return as if to continue picking, and try to get away then. With luck, no-one will miss us until we're due back with the next load - about two to two and a half hours. It's a fair start. But at night - there's no moon, it'd be too dark to let us get very far."
"You'll take the chance too?"
"Why not? This time, there's somewhere to go."
There was another short silence. Then Kirk said, almost to himself, "What about Spock and McCoy?"
Cameron said, quietly, "Your chances of finding them are slight."
"We've had impossibilities happen before."
Cameron shook his head. "Get yourself to safety first, Captain. Then worry about them. It's more practical."
* * * * * * * *
Spock and McCoy found themselves in very similar surroundings - they were not, in fact, very far from the farm where Kirk was. But for all they knew, they could have been on a different planet.
They also were shown what to do, but instead of being left with an instructor, they were left to pick fruit by themselves. As soon as the overseer was away, McCoy said, "Think we could run for it?"
Spock glanced round, watching the guards lounging around.
"I think not," he replied. "I have a feeling that we are being watched quite closely. Recapture would be very swift. Let them think we are resigned to this."
His long fingers made the job easy for him; McCoy found it difficult to get up any speed. The day passed slowly. They spoke little, each busy with his own thoughts, both of them desperately worried about Kirk. Where was he?
In addition, McCoy had an extra worry. Both of them had cut their feet badly on the rough tracks they had had to walk to reach this farm, and it was reasonable to expect that Kirk - and Chekov - had also suffered in the same way. Spock had made no complaint, indeed had refused to admit to any discomfort, but McCoy was sure that the Vulcan was suffering much the same pain as he was from the continual abrasion of his feet. The cuts were covered with dirt, too, as the earth adhered to the wet blood from the cuts, some of which were quite deep; and where Kirk had momentarily considered the possibility of infection, McCoy knew just what infection he feared.
Although tetanus itself was a purely Terran disease, most planets had some condition akin to it; and while they all had immunisation against most of the known diseases, there was no way they could be protected against unknown ones - and of course, there were always the one or two diseases for which no vaccine had been developed. McCoy found himself worrying about the impossibility of doing anything if Spock went down with the local variety of lockjaw, and the uncertainty of knowing about Kirk.
As it grew too dark to distinguish ripe from unripe berries, slaves began to make their way up the field. Spock touched McCoy's arm.
"Let's try now," he breathed.
They crept down the field between two rows of bushes, and paused at the end.
There was a guard there, standing with his back to them, watching several slaves at the other end of the field. Spock took three swift strides, and the guard dropped as Spock pressed his shoulder. McCoy joined him.
"I can hardly see," McCoy said.
Spock took his hand. "This way," he whispered. "We'll try to get back to the beam down point."
They set off as quickly as they could in the dim light. Spock didn't seem to be bothered by his feet, but McCoy found himself trying to limp with both. Eventually, after he had stubbed his toes several times, he gave up trying to save them, gritted his teeth, and suffered the pain stoicly.
* * * * * * * *
Kirk, Chekov and Cameron paused at the foot of their field and glanced round.
There was no-one in sight.
"Wait," Cameron whispered. "There's usually a guard down here too... ah, there he is." He pointed. The guard lay in the grass a little way from where they stood, apparently asleep. "Careless of him... but lucky for us."
They slipped across the two yards of open ground separating them from the next field, and ducked into a ditch.
"This way," Cameron went on.
They crawled along the ditch for some way before he raised his head cautiously. "O.K., we're out of sight of the field."
They climbed out of the ditch.
"Don't run," Cameron went on. "Walk. We're on a legitimate errand for our master."
"I don't think I could run," Chekov said. "My feet are too sore."
They set off at as fast a walk as they could. Cameron's feet were hardened, but not to these rough tracks, and soon he, too, was beginning to leave a trail of blood from a number of cuts. It was impossible to protect their feet in any way; at one point, Kirk tried walking on the grass verging the track, and promptly cut his feet on the sharp edge of the blades of grass as well. Every step added to their torment; they stubbed their toes, larger stones pressed against the cuts and added to their bruises until their feet were one huge bruise.
Then, behind them, they heard dogs howling.
"We've been missed!" Cameron snapped.
"And with bleeding feet, we must be leaving a very easy trail to follow," Kirk said.
"There's a river over there," Chekov said.
They headed for it at a stumbling run, knowing that the water would kill their scent. They splashed into it, the water cool on their tortured feet.
"Upstream," Cameron said. "Downstream goes past several houses."
They waded upstream, slipping and stumbling on the slippy stones that formed the bed of the river, not feeling the stones maltreating their feet now because the cold water had numbed them.
It would soon be too dark for them to go further. Behind them, the howling, which had come nearer, began to die away.
"We're safe till morning," Cameron said. "The dogs have no night vision. But we won't be able to travel far either, with no moon. We'd break our necks if we tried."
"We can get a little further," Kirk said.
They scrambled onto the bank and made their way over the rough ground. Feeling began to return to their feet; they realised how much more damage the stones in the river had done to them.
Soon, they realised they were walking up a narrow gorge carved by the river over countless thousands of years.
"What happens after this, Lieutenant?" Kirk asked.
"I don't know, Captain. This territory is outwith my knowledge. But I'm beginning to be afraid that we're walking into a trap."
"I've got that feeling too." Kirk walked on in silence for a minute. "Still, we might find a way out."
He stumbled and fell. Chekov stopped to help him up. He took one step, and stopped again.
"Are you all right, Captain?" Chekov asked anxiously.
"I've twisted my ankle," Kirk said. "I may have broken a toe or two as well, but my whole foot's so bruised that I can't be sure."
"We'd better stop here, Captain," Cameron said. "It's so dark now that we'll all end up breaking something if we go on."
Kirk nodded. "We'll probably all be the better for a rest," he admitted.
They settled themselves among the rocks,
"Sleep if you want," Cameron said. "I'm not particularly tired; I'll stand guard."
Neither Kirk nor Chekov was sleepy, however. They lay back, resting, but wide awake. Each of them was occupied with his own thoughts. Chekov worried about Kirk. Would the Captain be able to go on in the morning? Kirk worried about Spock and McCoy. Where were they? Cameron thought about the dogs, and resigned himself. It had been worth the try.
As it grew light, they went on. Kirk tried not to limp, but his ankle would hardly bear his weight; in spite of it, he refused Chekov's offer of help. Chekov had his own feet to bother him. Within a few minutes, however, they found themselves at the end of the gorge, facing a high waterfall.
"That's it," Kirk shrugged. "So we go back; watch the side walls. We might find somewhere we can climb up."
They started back, going quite slowly, studying the walls as they went.
Then as Kirk, bringing up the rear, rounded a corner, he felt a hand touch his shoulder from behind.
The touch was strangely familiar; he said, "Spock?"
The hand shifted its grip slightly even as it pressed, changing from an attack to a greeting.
"Jim!" McCoy came from behind a rock as Chekov and Cameron, hearing the voices, came back round the corner.
"Mr. Spock! Doctor!" Chekov exclaimed.
"You were right, Captain," Cameron said. Kirk looked at him, puzzled. "About impossibilities happening,"
Kirk grinned. "This is Lt. Cameron, biologist, of the New Caledonia," he said.
"What is up there?" Spock asked.
"A dead end," Kirk told him. Far away, a dog howled.
"How are your feet, Jim?" McCoy asked. Kirk made a face.
"I'm trying to forget I have feet," he said. He glanced at McCoy's, at Spock's. "Much the same as yours, I'd say."
Cameron broke in. "It might be possible to climb up here," he said. "And if it isn't, at least we'll be dead before we're eaten."
"Eaten?" Kirk said.
"If they have to get the dogs out, they're not interested in taking the quarry in alive. The dogs are kept half-starved, to give them more incentive. They won't have had anything to eat for twenty-four hours, at least. When they catch us - we're breakfast."
"Now he tells us," Chekov said.
McCoy grinned. "Well, at least we'll have the comfort of knowing that the beast that eats Spock will certainly end up with a belly-ache."
"Thank you very much," Spock said. "I am delighted that such a prospect pleases you... I would imagine that the one that eats you will end up with its teeth thoroughly blunted through attempting to chew something quite so tough."
McCoy grunted, and turned his attention to the rock wall, a little uncertainly.
He had never been much of an athlete; he knew that all the others were certainly fitter than he, and that if any of them failed to make the climb, he would; he didn't know that Kirk was more than a little uncertain as to whether his ankle would last out during such a climb; if indeed any of them could tackle such a climb with their feet bare, torn and bleeding.
Cameron started up the cliff. The others watched as he made his way steadily up. He paused near the top, to call down, "It isn't too bad." Then he went on, and at last hauled himself over the top. They followed.
Spock waited to bring up the rear; but seeing that McCoy was in difficulties almost from the start, he went close behind him, helping him where he could. Kirk hauled himself up by his arms, trying to keep as much weight as possible off his injured ankle. Chekov struggled gamely, and reached the top first of the Enterprise men. He turned to help McCoy, who, thanks to Spock, was nearly up, while Spock, seeing that Kirk was in difficulties now too, climbed back down to him to steady him.
Kirk's arms were tiring now; he stopped, his weight on his arms and his good foot while he tried to rest them. Spock reached him, put an arm round him, while he held on firmly with his other hand. Kirk hesitated to add to Spock's problems, for he felt that the Vulcan must be tiring too, after helping McCoy; but Spock's arm felt strong, reassuring, and he allowed himself to relax for a moment, letting his friend support his weight for just long enough to realise his trust and gratitude.
They struggled on upwards, together, to be pulled over the top by McCoy; first Kirk, then Spock. Then McCoy turned to Kirk.
"Your feet are bad, aren't they?"
"No worse than yours, Bones. I twisted my ankle last night, not badly, but I didn't dare trust it too much. Spock... "
He looked at the Vulcan, but said no more. They were long past the stage when words were needed between them.
After a moment, he glanced round.
Up here, it was a different world; below them they could see the flat, orderly farm fields stretching as far as the eye could see, the river winding its way through them; following the course of the river back towards the hills, they could see the hunt; men riding the donkey-goats, and a pack of dogs running loose, yelping and howling as they cast round. The men seemed to be conferring; then they began to make their way up the river, the dogs directed in front of them.
"We got up just in time," Kirk said, drawing back a little. "Even if they work out that we came up here, I shouldn't think they'll be able to get the dogs up - will they?" He glanced at Cameron.
"I don't know," Cameron replied. "We never knew anything about the hills. No-one spoke of them; all we knew of them was seeing them in the distance. There may be a way up that they can bring the dogs; but I think they might decide that it's too much bother."
Kirk nodded, and glanced round again.
In sharp contrast to the ordered fields below, this was an untamed wilderness.
A variety of trees grew here; shrubs and young trees vied with each other in the spaces between the trees, and where a giant, blown down or rotted from age, had fallen. Long rank grass covered the ground, interspersed with flowering plants, beautiful weeds that would have graced any garden in any civilised planet.
Below them, the howling was louder, clearer.
"They may not be able to work out exactly where we went," Spock said slowly. "Captain, you, Mr. Chekov and Mr. Cameron had gone all the way up the gorge; they may not know at what point we began to climb up out of it."
Kirk nodded. "But they're pretty sure to work out that we did climb out."
"Yes... I suggest that we go on, Captain. We should endeavour to put as much distance as possible between us and these... barbarians."
"Except that I'd like to get back down, Spock. Our only hope lies in getting back to the beam down point. We won't reach it if we stay up here, going further into these hills."
"I suggest that you all remain here, working your way a little deeper for shelter, while I wait until dark and then endeavour to reach the beam down point. I am not too inconvenienced by my feet, as I can block out the pain, and my night vision is sufficient to permit me to see even in the almost total lack of light of this world's nights."
Kirk looked at him. The suggestion was feasible, he knew, but he didn't like it. Now that they were together, he preferred them to remain together. Before he could reach a decision, a voice spoke behind them. The sound was so unexpected that they all jumped, even Spock, but they whirled even as they jumped.
Several men stood facing them. At first sight they were savages, yet their eyes belied the general impression given by their rough clothes and unshaven faces.
One of the men spoke again.
Cameron took a deep breath, and replied. A short conversation ensued, then Cameron turned beck to Kirk.
"These men claim to be descendants of the original natives of Brent. They say the small-holders are too; but the slave-owners were brought here a century and more ago by the Hvras - to grow certain crops that the Hvras wanted, but that would not grow on their home planet. The crops were native to another world, but that world was too advanced for enslavement to be possible; so the Hvras looked around for one not so advanced, that had a suitable climate, that they could exploit.
"The slaves are descended from the original Brents, who were defeated in battle by superior Hvras weapons. Many of the Brents fled to this area, which was undeveloped despite its fertility because there weren't enough Brents living to need the extra land. The colonists leave them alone; they are either afraid or else don't think it worth the effort to capture these natives. Their lives are hard, but they are free. I have told them who we are; they say they will help us. I think we can trust them."
"Why did the Hvras let any of the natives stay free?" Kirk asked.
Cameron spoke again to the native, then turned back to Kirk. "The ones who became small-holders were the rich, who could buy their freedom. Each year, however, life becomes harder for them; each year, many are kidnapped and enslaved. Inside another two generations, there will probably be no small-holders left."
The leader of the natives now beckoned them to follow him, and they set off. Almost at once he stopped again, and spoke to them.
Cameron replied; and two natives picked Kirk up easily, and carried him. The others had to walk, but the ground here was level, smooth, and although the long grass occasionally caught at their feet, there was nothing to add to their many bruises and they were able to walk without too much additional pain.
Soon they reached an encampment. It was composed of huts made of saplings and woven creepers, thatched with rough grasses. A huge fire burned in the centre of the village, tended by a number of women, whose clothing was as rough as that of their men.
Two carcasses were spit-roasting over it. The smell made the humans' mouths water; none of them, apart from Cameron, had eaten for fully thirty-six hours, and Cameron hadn't eaten for twenty-four.
They were taken to one of the huts. Minutes later, a woman brought them hot water in a large earthenware basin, then went out again for a box containing dried moss. Cameron spoke to her, then turned to the others.
"The moss is used as a towel."
They washed gratefully. McCoy, after thinking for a moment, said, "Each of you. Tear a couple of lengths off your... your - " he indicated the cloth they wore round their waists, not quite sure what to call the costume. As they obeyed, he took some of the moss.
He went to Kirk first. Carefully, he wrapped moss round Kirk's feet so that its softness would give them some protection. Then he did the same for each of the others. Spock tried to protest, and was told, firmly, to shut up, before McCoy sat down to attend to his own feet.
Shortly after, the woman came back and took them out to where the tribe was gathering round the fire. There was a pot on the fire now; in it, there appeared to be vegetables - herbs and grasses, leaves and roots.
They were given earthenware platters, and the women began to serve out the meal. When Spock refused the meat, Cameron had to talk for some time before the natives appeared to understand why; but they seemed to accept that he wouldn't eat meat, and gave him a large helping of vegetables.
* * * * * * * *
On the Enterprise, Scotty was getting more then a little worried.
When the original lending party failed to report in, he initiated a sensor scan of the area for Spock, knowing that he had the most distinctive pattern of the four. They failed to find him; by this time, he was imprisoned in the auction building, too far from the beam down point for the scan to detect him.
Scotty could have beamed down a large and well-armed party, since the loss of contact with the first landing party indicated that the natives were hostile; but this was a low-grade culture; he was chary of showing force and thus breaking the prime directive. He had to find his Captain by some method other than a show of force.
The scan continued through the night, through the next day and over another night. The hapless ensigns who were alternating at the sensors, none of them senior enough to regard their superior officers as friends, were beginning to mutter among themselves. Oh, they respected their Captain, they'd like to get him back, but this continual scan, scan, scan for one Vulcan pattern among so many near-human ones - it seemed to be a waste of time. One pattern out of millions...
* * * * * * * *
In the village, Spock was still trying to persuade Kirk to let him try to make his way back to the beam-down point once darkness fell again. Kirk was protesting vehemently, but he was beginning to feel that he was losing... Spock advanced reason after logical reason why he should go, why he would be perfectly safe.
Eventually, Kirk gave in - partially. "We'll both go."
"Captain, I will be able to make much better time alone. I have already had experience of leading a human in the darkness here, and I assure you - "
"He's right, Jim," McCoy cut in. "He could've gone twice as fast without me. It's no fun being led, either. Besides, your ankle would never stand it."
"It's O.K.," he lied. "And anyway, I'm not about to let one of my men take a risk I won't take myself." He turned back to Spock. "I agree it's possibly our only chance of getting beck," he said, "but it's both of us or neither, Spock."
"Captain, I would rather you stayed here. You are not thinking logically. With due respect, I will have a better chance alone."
Kirk stared at him. He looked back, his face calm but implacable.
"Spock... be careful."
* * * * * * * *
The natives showed Spock a track leading down from the plateau to the fields that permitted him to avoid the gully. He made his way down in the half-light, to reach the bottom just before it got dark.
As the others made their way back to the native village, worry showed clearly on Kirk's face.
"He'll be O.K.," McCoy said reassuringly, hiding his own fear.
"I know, Bones... it's just... " His voice trailed into silence.
McCoy nodded understandingly. "It's just that you won't be able to stop worrying about him until we're all safely back on the Enterprise. I know, Jim. Me, too."
* * * * * * * *
Spock made his way fairly swiftly. Long after the humans would have been unable to see, he could still detect what was around him, although eventually it got too dark even for his eyes, and he had to slow down considerably. His sense of direction led him unerringly onwards, and as it began to get lighter and he was able to speed up again, he knew he hadn't far to go.
His feet were paining him considerably, despite his attempts to control the pain, since he had stubbed his toes several times in the darkness on rocks that he couldn't see, as well as tripping and falling once or twice; he suspected that his knees also were grazed, and one hand certainly was, quite badly, but he didn't bother stopping to investigate. The moss padding McCoy had wrapped round his feet did help; it definitely cushioned them from a lot of the roughness of the ground. He ignored the pain, however, as a discomfort about which he could do nothing, at least for the moment.
Once he reached the beam down point he paused, looking round. The region seemed to be deserted.
The communicators had been thrown into a ditch... he crossed to it, and bent over it, groping in the soft mud for them, remembering that as earth had been kicked over them they must be quite deep down.
Something pricked his back and a voice spoke harshly. He couldn't understand a word, but the situation was clear.
He was recaptured - as an escaped slave.
This group was more observant than the one that had first captured them, however.
A rapid, though totally incomprehensible, conversation ensued, and he knew they had identified him as an outworlder. One of the group left, riding one of the donkey-goats at a considerable speed.
They tied him, then lounged around, talking among themselves.
* * * * * * * *
Spock lay, his face immobile, wondering what Scotty was playing at. There should have been a search out by now; even if a second landing party had been captured, Scotty should surely be keeping a sensor scan on the beam down point, and his pattern, distinctive here, should have been recognised. He dismissed as impossible the momentary suspicion that everyone on the ship had come down. Scotty wouldn't have agreed to that. And he knew the ship wouldn't have left without them - or would it? He remembered how, once before, a distress call had forced Kirk to leave him, and McCoy, behind when he hadn't been able to contact them, his loyalty to Starfleet and his oath outweighing his personal loyalty to them... Had something of that nature happened? Yet this was near the limit of explored space. Federation vessels were few and far between, here.
* * * * * * * *
Scotty was rapidly passing from being worried to being angrily worried. As report after report proved negative, he became more and more irritable, a condition not helped by his being unable to find a legitimate reason to express it. The scan was now reaching beyond any point Spock could have reached, could possibly have reached, by any method available on the planet's surface. He was beginning to re-think his decision not to send down a large search party.
"Scan the beam down area again," he ordered at last. "Is there anyone about?"
"A group of natives... eight... and - Mr. Scott, there are Vulcan readings!"
"Lock onto them. Feed the co-ordinates to the transporter room. Transporter Room - energize as soon as you're ready."
* * * * * * * *
On the plateau, Kirk, with Cameron as interpreter, passed some of the time by speaking to the natives.
This was not the only settlement of free Brents, by any means - but the descendants of the last free ruler of Brent lived there. Kirk spoke to them.
He spoke to them of the Federation; of the Federation's laws - and offered the Federation's help to let Brent free itself from the yoke of the Hvras and their minions, knowing that the Federation would honour his promise if only because some of their own people had been enslaved and killed by the Hvras. All he asked in return was the promise of an agreement to set up a Federation base on Brent, the situation of such a base to be decided on later.
The Brents agreed. They might, they knew, be exchanging one slavery for another; but they did trust Kirk.
That settled, Kirk sat back to wait for word from Spock. The long night passed; the sky began to lighten. Kirk began to estimate how long it might be before Spock managed to contact the ship. But the day went on with no word...
His fear for Spock became almost unbearable; and mixed with the mental pain was physical pain. Even at rest, his twisted left ankle was throbbing, throbbing, with increasing force. He hesitated to bother McCoy, knowing that McCoy also was sick with worry about Spock, and preferring to bear the pain to adding to McCoy's worries, since there was nothing McCoy could do about his ankle while they were still on the planet.
Then at last, when the tension was nearly past bearing and he was beginning to feel that he must make an attempt himself to reach the beam-down area, a party of uniformed men came out of the forest... with Spock in the lead.
* * * * * * * *
Back on the Enterprise, McCoy ordered the members of the original landing party, and Cameron, to Sickbay so that he could tend their feet properly. He confined them all to bed, as well; Kirk pulled rank on him and ordered him to remain in bed too, while Mbenga attended to them all.
Mbenga also had thoughts of tetanus when he saw the damage done to their feet; he checked them all out carefully, as well as giving them anti-tetanus shots developed for a number of different strains found on several planets. Spock protested at the number of shots that he was given, claiming that the shots made his feel more sick than the illness would do; Mbenga, the expert on Vulcans, paid no attention to his protests, less outspoken that McCoy would have been but just as inflexible, and finished the course of injections.
Afterwards, when he was sure that they were all asleep, he went to McCoy, and shook him awake again.
"Doctor, I'm not happy about the Captain's readings," he said. "They're not wildly discrepant, but there is a fractional rise in temperature, and his ankle's badly swollen. I've given him an extra shot of antibiotic - is there anything else I should do?"
McCoy craned his neck to see the readings. "I'm not surprised about his ankle," he said. "He was using it far too much after he sprained it... the readings are within acceptable range, I don't think there's too much to worry about - but I'll keep an eye on him. You've physicals to get on with, haven't you?"
Mbenga nodded. The physicals could be postponed for a day or so, but if they were they would have to be caught up with; it was easier for st least one of the ship's doctors to carry on with them, no matter what the emergency; and there was really nothing else he could do now for the landing party except wait for time to heal their cut feet.
McCoy lay back again, half dozing. Any sound from any of the beds would waken him completely, immediately; but he needed rest too, and he knew it. He allowed his mind to wander...
He was jerked back to full awareness by a muffled muttering. He sat up at once; the muttering was coming from Kirk.
He got up, wincing as his feet touched the floor, and moved to Kirk's side. In the other bed in this, a side ward of sickbay, Spock sat up, also wakened by the muttering.
A glance at the diagnostic board was sufficient to tell McCoy that Kirk's fever had escalated. His temperature was 103; he was flushed and beginning to toss restlessly. McCoy examined him quickly, regretting that he had allowed Mbenga to attend to him, yet knowing that he couldn't have done any more than Mbenga had.
Kirk's left foot and ankle were badly swollen now and angrily inflamed. McCoy glanced over at Spock.
"How are your feet, Spock?"
"Healing," Spock said quietly.
"No swelling, no inflammation?"
"And mine are all right... Spock, would you slip through and see if Chekov's feet are O.K.? And Cameron's."
Spock obeyed, returning in a few moments. "They are both satisfactory, Doctor," he said.
"So whatever Jim's picked up, he must have been just unlucky."
He bent over Kirk's foot, feeling it carefully. Kirk cried out in pain, rousing enough to stare up at McCoy unrecognisingly. He reached for a hypo, gave Kirk an injection, then took a blood sample from the affected foot.
Kirk relapsed into unconsciousness as the shot took effect, and McCoy moved towards the lab.
Spock stood beside Kirk's bed, watching him unhappily. The swelling was spreading up his leg almost visibly - it was already much more marked than when they had been wakened by Kirk's delirium, and the inflammation was looking worse.
McCoy came back looking more worried than ever, if that were indeed possible.
McCoy shook his heed. "It's not well, Spock. The blood sample showed up nothing except a higher than normal proportion of water. No foreign matter, no incipient antibodies, nothing. From the test result, I'd have said there was nothing wrong... except that amount of water. But what that indicates, I don't know."
He turned his attention to the foot again, running a diagnostic scan over it.
He reached for his hypo again, to give Kirk yet another shot.
"If you do not know what is wrong, Doctor, what noxious potion are you pumping into him?" Spock asked.
"A straightforward antibiotic, Mr. Spock," McCoy replied. "Even though the test didn't show up anything, something's causing that fever, and the swelling."
He took several more blood samples, and went back to the lab.
While he was away, Spock bent over Kirk, examining the foot carefully.
One of the many cuts looked much worse than any of the others; he touched it gently. The fever heat from it shocked him; he ran his fingers lightly over the rest of the foot and ankle.
The febrile heat was definitely greatest round that one cut. When McCoy returned looking even more dispirited, he directed the surgeon's attention to this.
McCoy felt over the cut gently.
"You're right, Spock. This is the seat of whatever's causing the bother."
He reached for a scalpel and some swabbing material.
"What do you intend to do?"
"Lance it." He packed the swabbing material round Kirk's foot.
He cut deeply into Kirk's foot, enlarging the small cut the stones had inflicted. A flood of watery-looking blood poured from the cut; and with it came a tiny moving object. As the blood soaked into the swabs, the thing seemed to struggle to swim back into Kirk's foot.
Spock moved swiftly. He snatched up another swab, and pressed it down on top of the thing to stop it going any further.
Spock picked up the swabs and carried them through to the lab while McCoy worked to stop the bleeding, noticing as he did so that the swelling had diminished considerably.
Spock placed the thing in a specimen box with a little water, since it seemed to be fish-like, fastened a lid over it, and went back to McCoy.
"He's badly dehydrated," McCoy said. "That thing - whatever it is - seems to have drained a lot of the water in his body into his foot - and of course, he lost it when I lanced the swelling. Any idea what it is?"
Spock shook his head. "Doctor, I may be a highly efficient worker, but even I need some time to produce results."
"Hmm. It's a pity lancing doesn't do anything for a swelled head,* McCoy said.
He fussed round Kirk for a few minutes longer, then straightened. "He should be all right now," he went on. Then he looked at Spock. "You should be in bed."
"So should you, Doctor," Spock said blandly. "I venture to suggest that my feet are in better condition than yours; if you want to keep a watch over the Captain's condition, I think I am probably more able than you to maintain that watch."
"Get back to bed," McCoy ordered. Spock hesitated. "It's all right, Spock. I don't think it's necessary for either of us to sit up. The swelling's almost completely down, the inflammation's fading... I'm going back to bed too." He suited the action to the word, and Spock reluctantly followed him.
But though both lay back pretending to sleep, neither, in fact, did so; both men lay awake, listening to the steady sound of Kirk's breathing, alert for any change in its even tenor.
* * * * * * * *
No protest of McCoy's could keep Spock in bed next morning, however. He headed for the lab as soon as he was up, intent on studying the creature that had been making a comfortable nest for itself inside Kirk's foot. Kirk himself had no memory of waking during the preceding hours... his last conscious memory was of Mbenga injecting him.
Spock's conclusion was that the creature was semi-parasitic, living a free-swimming life until it got the chance at to enter the body of some animal, most likely a fish, where it drew most of its host's body water into a reservoir for itself, and possibly fed on the blood that seeped into the reservoir. It must have entered Kirk's foot st some time while they were wading up the river, but had taken many hours to make its presence felt.
* * * * * * * *
Kirk contacted the Federation about the Brents; while Ambassadors were sent out, the Enterprise remained in orbit in case any Hvras ships should arrive, but none did. Then, once the official contact arrived, the Enterprise was free to go.
Cameron went with them. On Kirk's recommendation, he had been posted to the Enterprise.
Kirk turned to Sulu. "Bearing 318 mark 4, Mr. Sulu. Ahead warp factor two."
And the Enterprise continued on her way towards the unexplored spiral arm that had been her destination for some month.
Copyright Sheila Clark