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When the transporter malfunctioned - somewhat noisily, and with a flash that materialised even on the surface of the planet - everyone had returned to the ship except Kirk and Spock.
"Landing party!" It was Scott's voice, slightly panicked.
"Are you and Mr. Spock all right, Captain?"
"Yes, Scotty. Did the last group get back safely?"
"Aye, but it was a close thing. I was scared you'd been caught in the backlash."
"No, we hadn't got into position. How long before it's repaired?"
"I don't know yet, sir. I havena' had a chance to check the damage. Will I send down a shuttlecraft for you?"
Kirk thought about it for a moment. It was an uninhabited planet; their survey had shown no dangerous animals. If they stayed put, it would give Spock a few hours' break.
Granted, the Vulcan ate work and always refused shore leave; but Kirk often felt guilty about it. This would give Spock a short 'leave', and he wouldn't even be able to continue gathering data about the planet, for all the tricorders had already gone back to the ship.
"No, I don't think so, Scotty. We'll go and have a look at those caves we spotted just before beam-up. We'll stand by for your signal every half hour until you're ready for us."
Kirk returned his communicator to his belt with a satisfaction that he had some difficulty in hiding.
Spock looked at him quizzically. "You could have asked Mr. Scott to send down a shuttlecraft. Why are you so pleased about staying here?"
Kirk grinned wryly. He should have known that he could not hide his feelings from his friend.
He thought quickly, but it was not difficult to find an excuse. "I was just thinking - it's like playing truant. It's the same sort of feeling that I used to get when I was a kid raiding the neighbours' apple trees. Sort of... guilty, but not guilty enough to stop. And... well, we didn't have time to check those caves. Without light we won't be able to go deeply into them but it will give us the chance to see something of them."
"Without tricorders we won't find out much either," Spock pointed out.
"It'll be like a good old-fashioned exploration - the kind there used to be before tricorders were invented," Kirk insisted.
Spock shrugged mentally, and followed the Human.
The first thing they discovered was that the walls of the first cave they entered were glowing faintly. Spock peered closely at the rock, then straightened.
"I could wish that we had a tricorder, Captain," he said. "This rock may be radioactive. If so, exposure could be... dangerous. Certainly it does not have the appearance of a radioactive rock... but appearances can be deceptive."
"The light will let us get deeper into the cave," Kirk suggested. "Supposing it is radioactive, Spock - how long an exposure can we risk?"
Spock hesitated. "Possibly an hour or two..." he said slowly. He, too, was beginning to feel curious as to what was beyond the limits of immediate visibility.
"Then let's go into the cave for quarter of an hour - or until we get to the end of it, of course. Then we can turn and come back. That'll be within the limits of our check time."
He set off; not unwillingly, Spock followed.
The cave descended slowly, curving slightly. It was nearly five minutes before they saw anything.
They rounded a fairly sharp bend, and came on a cluster of stalactites and stalagmites, almost classically shaped, glowing translucently in the dim light. Kirk paused for a moment in open admiration.
"They are beautiful," Spock agreed, sensing his friend's thoughts.
It took some moments to find a way to pass them without doing any damage; then, once past, they continued through the cave. Single stalactites and stalagmites dotted the tunnel, and here and there the walls were streaked with sheets of the same limey material, and here and there were patches of vegetation that Spock thought were lichens. There was nothing as spectacular as the cluster they had first seen, but the cave still held a faery beauty.
"If we are to return to the surface in time for our first check, we must turn now," Spock said at last, reluctance colouring his voice. He thought he could see more stalactites in the distance ahead of them.
"I suppose so," Kirk agreed. There was no point in being foolhardy, and they really shouldn't miss a check.
They turned back.
It took only a few minutes for them to realise that they were lost. What they had thought was a single passage turned out to be forked and reforked when they tried to retrace their steps. When they finally came in sight of a particularly spectacular stalactite that both men knew they had not seen before, Kirk stopped.
"We're lost," he said bluntly, admitting it openly.
"Indeed, I believe we are," Spock agreed.
Annoyed with themselves, but not yet worried, they tried to retrace their steps, but it was hopeless. The passages seemed to be multiplying.
"This is impossible!" Kirk said after five or six minutes. He looked round. It was impossible to say which was the passage they had just come down; just behind them, two passages led off.
The time for their check came and went. Kick's faint hope that the Enterprise might somehow pick up the communicator signal through the rock were unrealised. They could do nothing but blunder on, hoping that sooner or later they would emerge into open air again.
When they did finally leave the tunnels, it was to emerge into a great open space; a huge rock hall. The roof rose sharply to a point where they could not see it; the walls diverged so rapidly that they were practically forming a straight line. Neither man could see the far side of the great hall, yet they were still definitely underground. The glow was brighter here, shining with an unhealthy blue light.
Spock peered at the rock again.
"It is definitely radioactive here," he said. "We must get away, or we will surely die."
Kirk glanced back into the tunnel, strangely reluctant, now, to re-enter it. The very beauty of the stalactites now seemed somehow frightening, the shapes that had been so appealing, somehow threatening. He took a deep breath, opening his mouth to speak.
"Captain - look!"
Kirk glanced at the Vulcan, then followed his pointing finger. Coming towards them were several humanoid shapes.
As they drew closer, the two Enterprise officers could see that they had a standard biped shape - but their naked bodies were a pallid, unhealthy, colourless grey-white, and their eyelids appeared to be fused shut. Yet they were making their way unerringly towards the visitors, as confidently as if they could see. Memories of blind cave fish rose from his subconscious mind, totally failing to reassure him.
The humanoids stopped, their leader a bare yard from Kirk.
At least the translator was working. But the voice was thin, high-pitched, and with a timbre that sent a shiver down Kirk's back.
"We're lost," he said abruptly, politeness forgotten in the need to get out of this place. "Can you show us a way out, back to the surface?"
"The surface?" There was a note of alarm in the thin voice. "The surface is death."
"Not to our kind," Kirk replied. "Your caves are death to us."
The humanoids muttered together, their voices sounding like the twittering of birds, too high-pitched and shrill for the hearing of either man to distinguish words.
Finally the spokesman turned back to Kirk. "We will take you to the surface, but we must prepare ourselves first. We must cover ourselves so that the killing radiation of Outside will not touch us. Come - be our guests. Rest yourselves until we are ready."
Kirk hesitated, reluctant to go with them; more than reluctant, but he realised that if they refused, they might find themselves deserted by these oddly repulsive cave-dwellers who were their only possible key to escape from the caves.
The eyeless humanoids led them away from the rock wall and into the huge cavern. They must have covered at least a mile before they saw, ahead of them, what looked like a small town; a cluster of huge blocks of stone, with many of the humanoid forms moving about.
As the party reached the 'town' the two visitors saw the beings clearly. Some were small, obviously children; but Kirk suddenly found himself wondering if these creatures were, in fact, mammals despite the male configuration of the ones who had met them, for there were others, without male sexual organs, who had no breasts; and then he realised what had perhaps instinctively repulsed him.
None of the creatures had nipples.
They looked like men - but they were not men.
The visitors were shown into one of the 'houses'. These blocks did not have the blue glow that the rocks of the cavern had, but windows cut into the sides of the block let the light in. Yet these could not be windows in the usual sense; the humanoids were sightless and did not need light.
The humanoids brought in water and a peculiar greyish-looking substance piled high on a stone plate.
"Food?" Kirk asked nervously when they were alone again.
"Probably lichens of some kind," Spock suggested.
Neither felt hungry enough to sample it; and although both were thirsty, they were not inclined to risk drinking the water. If it came from an underground spring, which seemed most likely, it would certainly be lethal to them.
There was nothing to sit on but the ground. Side by side, they leaned back against one of the walls, waiting. Kirk yawned, and closed his eyes.
A crackling sound woke him.
He raised his head with a jerk, smelling the smoke that curled under the door of his room. Outside, he heard the terrified howling of his dog, and then his mother's anguished scream.
He stumbled towards the door, groping for the handle, then snatched his hand away as its heat burned his fingers.
The smoke was really thick now, and he coughed as it stung his throat. How could he get out?
He staggered and fell, choking, to lie still for a moment, but he was too obstinate to give up. He had to reach the window...
How did the fireman know his name?
"Jim!" The call came again, and this time he managed to answer.
"I'm here," he croaked.
Strong arms caught him. He looked up at the adult face gratefully...
...and frowned at the sight of the slanting eyebrows and pointed ears.
The urgency in the voice dragged him from the memory he had buried beyond reach of conscious recollection and back to the present.
"You were dreaming, Captain."
"More like a nightmare," he muttered. "Something I thought I'd forgotten long ago. Thanks for waking me." He shivered as he remembered the helplessness...
Several man-shapes pattered into the room. They were clutching what looked like stone knives, and Kirk knew instantly that his first instinct had been right.
The lichens might be their staple diet - but these creatures were flesh-eaters too, and he and Spock were undoubtedly being regarded as potential food.
He whipped out his phaser, routinely set to stun, and fired.
The beam was weak, and failed even as his finger still pressed the button, but it felled their attackers.
"The radiation must have drained the phasers," Spock suggested.
"Never mind that now! Let's get out of here. We'll be better taking our chances with the caves."
They paused at the doorway of the stone block, peering out. It seemed clear; but a sound made Spock hesitate, and touch Kirk's arm. They waited.
A child ran past. It, too, was clutching a knife, and Kirk realised that, part grown though it might be, it was probably totally self-sufficient, possibly learning from the adults but unlikely to be dependent on any of them.
Once it was out of sight, the two men slipped out of the 'house' and began to walk quickly back towards the cavern wall, as quietly as they could. When they were about half way, they speeded up to a run.
There were several openings, and nothing to indicate which, if any, they had come out of. They hesitated, wondering which one to try, when a sound behind them decided them; the sound of pattering feet coming ever closer.
Kirk glanced back, than plunged into one of the passages.
It took them upwards fairly quickly, but sounds from below told them that their pursuers were following.
The roof lowered, and they had to crawl for some yards. As they straightened again, Kirk muttered, "Any power left in your phaser, Spock?"
The Vulcan realised instantly what was in Kirk's mind. He drew his phaser and aimed it at the roof of the low passage.
There was just sufficient power to loosen enough rocks to block the low tunnel.
"Right - come on!"
They scrambled on. Suddenly the passageway forked. They hesitated. There seemed to be a movement of air from the right hand tunnel; Kirk turned into it immediately.
Within ten yards they knew it was blocked by a rock fall. Yet there was air blowing through the fallen rock; this way must lead to the outside.
"We must dig through the rock," Spock said quietly. He might have been suggesting going for a swim on a hot day.
Kirk nodded, although he was near despair as he looked at the fallen rock. His ears strained, listening for the padding of feet coming towards them, for he was sure that the phasered tunnel would not stop those creatures for long. They probably knew a way round it, another passage leading to here.
They began shifting the rock, depositing it behind them, using it to block the tunnel in an attempt to defend themselves against the creatures. It was fortunate that it was all rock, with no soil to complicate matters. Many of the pieces ware relatively small, though some were larger and it took all of Spock's strength to shift these - the tunnel was hardly wide enough for them to work side by side. Their fingers were soon torn and bleeding.
Memories from the past that he had long subdued began to run through Spock's head. He tried to ignore them as he worked doggedly on, his muscles straining as he hauled at the rocks that were too heavy for the Human to attempt, but the memories, once roused, refused to be ignored.
Singly, as he had lived them, the events he was involuntarily remembering had been bearable and controllable; but all together they battered at his mind, draining his control until he began to understand why, in the grip of his nightmare, Kirk had been threshing wildly.
Grimly, he set his lips and laboured on.
At first Kirk found the hard work keeping his mind occupied; but as he got into a rhythm, the enclosed nature of their surroundings began to beat on his mind, recalling the horrible occasion when, as an adventurous - over-adventurous - small boy, he had become trapped in a narrow drain he had tried to crawl through for a dare. The memory of his helpless terror fogged his mind.
The drain had not been empty, either, he remembered. There had been -
A sudden hiss brought back the childhood memory tenfold.
A colourless snake-like beast reared up on its tail from under the stone he had just lifted. Kirk, already in the grip of the memory of terror, dropped the stone and turned as if to flee, completely forgetting that there was nowhere to flee to.
The sound of the stone thudding to the ground caught Spock's wandering attention. He caught Kirk's arm just as the Human began to move.
"Let me go - "
"Jim!" Then, when awareness began to return to Kirk's eyes, Spock continued. "What is it?"
"Snake..." Kirk managed.
Spock looked down. "There is nothing there but rock," he insisted, not altogether sure that he was speaking the truth and far from sure whether he was speaking to convince Kirk or only himself. "You must believe that."
The hissing sounded again in Kirk's ears, and he struggled against Spock's grasp, oblivious of the bruising grip of the Vulcan's hands.
Hysteria? Spock wondered. Certainly Kirk's reaction was one of unthinking terror.
Concern for Kirk shattered the memories that had been beating on Spock's mind, and he remembered seeing McCoy dealing with a hysterical youngster who had passed all Starfleet's psychological tests, had at least tolerated the in-space training adequately, but when faced with a several-year-long tour of duty proved to be totally unsuited to Starship life.
He released one of Kirk's arms and slapped his face - hard.
It worked. Kirk gave a shuddering gasp of relief, and relaxed, slumping slightly, fully aware once more of where they were.
After a moment, Kirk straightened resolutely. "Thanks, Spock." He hesitated. "I keep remembering things... unpleasant things..."
"So do I, Captain," Spock said quietly. "But we must remember they are only memories. They are events from the past, and they are past. They cannot affect us now."
Kirk turned back to the rockfall. "What do you think is causing it?"
"Uncertain. It could be the radiation. It could be a... a weapon used by the cave-dwellers to trap their prey." He hauled a large stone from the rockfall and pushed it against the barrier they were building.
"You know, that's something of a puzzle," Kirk said. He was talking to keep his mind off his growing claustrophobia. "The planet has practically no animals that those creatures could use for food, and they clearly don't like coming to the surface - didn't they call it 'death'? The obvious food source is lichen or possibly fungus - yet they seem to be meat-eaters. How do they get their meat?"
"Perhaps animals wander into the caves for shelter in inclement weather," Spock suggested. "Or perhaps..."
"Yes?" Kirk asked when Spock made no attempt to finish his sentence.
"Cannibalism. They may eat their own dead; and... the cave system is extensive; there may be several groups of them. They could easily consider the members of other groups as legitimate prey."
Kirk shuddered. "I didn't like them when I saw them," he said. "I think I like the thought of them even less now."
"Captain, remember that that is only speculation," Spock insisted.
"Yes. But I think you're right. Ah - "
Spock peered past him. The stone Kirk had just shifted was the last one at the top of the rockfall. They were nearly through.
It took only a few minutes to clear enough of the rocks to let them wriggle through, and they set off along the cave with renewed optimism.
"Think they'll manage to follow us?" Kirk asked.
"They undoubtedly know the cave system well," Spock said thoughtfully. "However, this passage was blocked; they may not know it."
They hurried on. And then, in his haste, Kirk stumbled over a loose stone. He lay still for a moment, unwilling to stand, to put any weight on the stabbing pain in his ankle; then through the rock, he felt the vibration of many feet. He sat up.
"I hear them," he said tightly. He scrambled up, and winced as he tried to put his weight on the injured ankle.
Spock slipped an arm around his waist, pulling one of Kirk's arms round his own shoulders to support the Human, and hurried him on.
Ahead of them, the dim blue light whitened and intensified. They had reached the mouth of the cave.
Outside, they looked over the ground that they had so recently been surveying. A shuttlecraft stood there; four security guards and a yellow-clad figure that Kirk recognised as Sulu were checking tricorders.
The five figures below them turned, and began to run towards them. Spock, still supporting most of Kirk's weight, started down the slight slope that led away from the caves.
The two parties met about halfway between caves and shuttlecraft, just as the first of the cave creatures emerged.
"What - ?"
Spock glanced back. "They're dangerous," he said.
Two of the guards lifted Kirk between them despite his protests, and the group ran for the safety of the shuttlecraft. As soon as they were all in and sitting, Sulu took off.
Below them, the creatures milled around for some moments, not knowing where their prey had gone; still aware of it, but knowing that it was retreating rapidly. The sun shone on them, too warm, burning their unaccustomed skin. Afraid, they abandoned the chase and returned to the welcome coolness of their caves.
Sulu reported back to the Enterprise as the shuttle soared skywards, and McCoy was waiting when it landed and the hangar repressurised.
"You two need keepers," he told them as he ran a scanner over them. "For intelligent men, you can be really stupid at times! Going into those caves..."
"Actually, Doctor, I suspect that the cave creatures were aware of us even when we were on the surface and put the thought of entering one of the caves into our minds," Spock said, loyally assuming equal blame with Kirk.
McCoy grunted his opinion of that as he straightened.
"You're both going to need decontamination," he said bluntly. "And that means a couple of days in sickbay."
"Bones - "
McCoy glared at him, and he subsided. The doctor nodded, and turned to the intercom.
"Sickbay. I want an orderly down here with a med trolley immediately."
"Bones, I can walk - " Kirk protested.
"Go on a trolley and stay in sickbay two days, or walk and stay in sickbay four days," McCoy replied.
"Bones, that's blackmail!"
Once in sickbay, McCoy hustled both into bed. He checked their readings again, and reached for a hypo.
The injections given, McCoy put a support bandage round the twisted ankle.
"Now, go to sleep," McCoy instructed, knowing that they had no option; he had given them both a strong sedative.
He waited until a soft snore broke the silence; then he turned, and went back to his office to fill in the inevitable accident report.