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The colony on Delta Bootis III was well established. In fifty years, it had grown from a small cluster of huts to a world of several million inhabitants, spread widely over one of the planet's three continents.
Right from the start the settlers had believed in the importance of conservation, of living with the environment rather than altering it to fit what they felt was a false set of values. They had succeeded so well that not only was there a waiting list of would-be immigrants from many other worlds - not all of them Human, either - the planet was a popular tourist attraction for those wealthy Federation members who believed in hunting solely by camera. The number of tours offered in any one year was strictly limited; the inhabitants had no wish to see the wild animals that brought the tourists disturbed to the point of changing their habits.
The other two continents were still undeveloped, although consideration was being given to opening them. There was no problem with regard to one of these continents, and a planetary survey team was already there, studying its ecology - different from that of the settled continent - with a view to opening it up.
The third continent, however, was different.
Sensor readings, both at the time of the original survey and subsequently, showed indications of intelligent life forms. Yet no-one had been able to pinpoint any creature on that continent that showed any sign of having that intelligence. Finally, in an attempt to trace which of the creatures was sentient, the planetary authorities requested the assistance of a Starship, with its considerable facilities.
Starfleet knew that if they could come up with no positive answer, the colonists would leave the continent undeveloped rather than interfere; the Federation, bound by its own laws, would not force the issue - could not - yet they wanted that continent developed, for, developed, it would provide a taxable income. The nearest Starship was therefore assigned to the search, to remain at the disposal of the Bootean authorities until a positive answer was found.
Captain James Kirk regarded his orders with a degree of uncertainty. Certainly this made a change from the normal run of missions and it would be almost as good as shore leave for the crew, but it did seem to be such a waste of a Starship. If all the surveys that had been carried out - and the records showed them to have been plentiful - had discovered nothing, he suspected that there was nothing to discover. It must be some chance reading, perhaps a freak amalgam of two or three unrelated ones.
He voiced this opinion to no-one, however, not even to his Science Officer or Chief Medical Officer; Spock might admit the possibility, then produce several logical reasons why it was impossible; McCoy would certainly regard such a freak chance as completely impossible and Kirk didn't really feel like trying to support what even he felt was a most unlikely contingency.
It was indeed a beautiful continent. The climate was warm temperate grading into subtropical, and in some ways would have been a better zone for the initial settlement than the mild temperate continent they had used... had it not been for those elusive sentient readings.
The whole continent was wooded. Wooded rather than forested, Kirk decided; there were large open spaces where bushes grew, but never too thickly; the trees stood far enough apart for plenty of sunshine to reach the ground. Soft moss-like grass grew there, starred with the bright reds and purples of a myriad flowers - no soft pastel shades here, but brilliant vivid colours that caught the eye. A stream ran close by the landing site, a chuckling, gurgling fairy-like stream that danced over stones, rippled in the shadows and sent little veils of sparkling water over tiny waterfalls. Tall flowering plants edged the shallows, deep orange-yellow petals moving gently in the almost non-existent breeze. Insects droned sleepily by, pausing to visit the flowers then moving on. There was a serenity here that made Kirk realise fully just why the settlers were so ecology-minded. It would need very little encouragement for him to sit down for a while and simply live - relax, do nothing except absorb the peace and beauty of the place. It was with an effort that he forced himself to remember their mission.
The landing party split up into three. Spock headed one group, McCoy, who frequently doubled as a biologist, took one, and Kirk took the third. Not that he had any particular idea what they might be looking for - Spock's senior assistant, Lt. Carstairs, was in his party to provide the technical knowledge - but it gave him the illusion that he was doing something useful. M-5's brutally honest comment that he was non-essential personnel on a survey had stung more than he had ever admitted, even to himself.
These are single intelligences similar to the ones we have seen in the cold lands over the last fifty gale-times. They work well in their individual solitude.
Is single intelligence truly viable, however? Should one die, his knowledge could be lost to his group... Do they understand how to work in symbiosis? We should test this.
There are three queens, it seems, an older and two younger. Without true symbiosis, the young queens would seek to destroy the old one.
This must be tested.
Everything was so quiet and peaceful that Kirk decided to keep the landing party on the planet that night. Camping equipment was sent down to them, and it was with almost a holiday atmosphere that the group of scientists organised themselves.
Daylight lasted long here, on a world whose revolution was rather longer than Earth's, and it was still full light after they had eaten. Kirk, who had decreed that the day's work was most definitely done - no-one was to go gathering any more data, daylight or not - looked round.
"Anyone fancy a walk?"
"Sure, I'll come," McCoy accepted. Kirk glanced over at his First Officer.
Reluctantly, the Vulcan shook his head. "It would be most pleasant, Captain, but I must finish compiling this data, otherwise the stockpile tomorrow would be most inconvenient."
"Let Carstairs do it," Kirk suggested.
The Human scientist nodded. "I'll be happy to, if you want to go, Mr. Spock."
Spock looked rather tempted. "We can do it together, Mr. Carstairs. Captain, when we finish, I will walk out to meet you, if you have not returned."
Kirk sighed. "All right, Mr. Spock." Inwardly, he felt a degree of disappointment. He enjoyed McCoy's company, of course - but it would have been pleasant having Spock along as well.
They set off through the trees, not hurrying. It was very pleasant, just strolling along aimlessly, listening to the wind whispering through the branches and the faint droning of insect wings. Somewhere not far off, another streamlet chuckled over stones. Neither felt any great urge to talk; the sense of peace made even the voice of a friend an unnecessary noise.
The sound of falling water intensified, drawing them to a small but infinitely beautiful pool. The tall yellow flowers grew thickly round the banks; deep red water lilies floated on the surface. A trickle of water laced over the rock face down which the little stream fell into the pool.
The rock face stretched for some way to right and left of the pool; small clumps of flowers clung to tiny ledges, making a rock garden to delight any flower-lover. Rocks, fallen from above some time in the long distant past, lay all along the foot of the low cliff; and a dark hole showed behind one.
Curious, the men crossed to it. Inside, moss grew thickly, shining brightly enough to illuminate the cave. Here and there flowers glowed, more vivid than the surrounding moss.
"Sulu should be here!" McCoy commented.
Kirk grinned. "Let's have a look inside."
"Okay, but shouldn't we let someone know where we're going?"
"It doesn't look as if it goes very deep," Kirk replied. "It'll only take a couple of minutes." He moved into the cave.
McCoy hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and followed. Jim's right; this won't take long.
The cave was deeper than it looked, but they went on, lured by the changing shades of the luminous flowers. From deep reds they had muted to pinks; subtle tints of yellow and orange began to appear, edging the pink petals.
Insects lived here too; less luminous than the plants, they flew around, dancing sparks of living fire. It was like a never-ceasing fireworks display. Half hypnotized by the moving lights, they watched the kaleidoscope patterns that led them deeper and deeper.
The dream ended suddenly as the ground vanished abruptly from under their feet. Equally abruptly, the shining insects disappeared. The men crashed down, to hit the ground with stunning force.
Spock and Carstairs finished compiling the gathered information fairly quickly, and Spock then succumbed to temptation and left his assistant to send the accumulated data to the Enterprise while he set off after Kirk and McCoy. He moved briskly, intent on joining them as quickly as possible, absorbing some of the beauty around him but for the moment more anxious to join his friends than to appreciate his surroundings - not that he would ever have admitted that.
It was beginning to get dark now, and he began to experience some slight concern. He should have met them by now - even if they had moved away from the direct line they were following, the trees were not so dense that he would fail to see them. He reached the pool, and stopped.
They would not have gone beyond this; the cliff, low as it was, provided a barrier that Kirk might attempt but the more sedentary McCoy certainly would not. He must have missed them.
Disappointed, Spock pulled out his communicator. "Spock to Kirk." There was no answer. "Spock to McCoy." Silence. "Spock to Carstairs."
"Have the Captain and Dr. McCoy returned?"
"No, Mr. Spock."
Spock bit his lip anxiously. "Thank you, Mr. Carstairs."
McCoy swam out of darkness into an aching awareness of his surroundings. Pain stabbed in his left ankle; his eyes were open, and he could see nothing.
There was no answer.
McCoy peered round, eyes straining, his mind refusing to admit the possibility that he might have been blinded. He was rewarded by seeing the glow of light above his head, but it barely brightened the darkness where he lay. As he waited for his eyes to adjust, he probed gently at his ankle. It wasn't broken, he decided, but it was certainly badly twisted. He could walk if he had to, although it was not advisable - and he might yet have to, to get help for Jim.
At last he found that he could make out something of his surroundings... barely. A dark shape lay near him in a crumpled heap. He crawled over and checked his Captain as best he could.
There seemed to be no serious injury, but until Kirk regained consciousness and could tell him what hurt, he could not be sure.
Spock stared round the darkening terrain. Where were they? They couldn't have gone further than this...
Movement caught his eye; a dancing spark of light, then another and another, emerging from the cliff. And there was a faint glow coming from it...
He moved forward, stopped at the cave entrance. Could they have gone in here? Quite likely; and it would be typical of Human thoughtlessness to have done so without letting anyone know. Spock opened his communicator again.
"Spock to Carstairs."
Only crackling static answered him. An eyebrow lifted consideringly; it was a bare ten minutes since he had spoken to his assistant. What was causing the static?
No matter. It should not take long to check the cave, and he could easily find his way back to the camp thereafter; a nearly full moon was beginning to gleam and would certainly be bright enough to light his way.
Spock went into the cave. Just inside, he noticed that the moss on the floor was not all glowing; showing dark against the surprisingly bright glow were two sets of footprints.
They had come in here, then - and they were still here. He set off briskly.
He had only gone a few paces when he became aware of the insects gathering around him. There was a sharp, stabbing pain on the back of his hand, and he realised that he had been stung. It was only the first of many stings. Light insect feet moved over his exposed skin, tickling infuriatingly. He brushed them off his face, knowing that he was killing many but unable to tolerate the steady irritation. There seemed to be several different species of insect, too; Spock suspected that in addition to being stung he was being bitten, although the bites were painless.
Fire was spreading through his body from the repeated stings. For a moment he debated retreating, then he realised that he could not; Kirk and McCoy were here, the footprints were only going one way. Perhaps they had been driven deeper into the cave by the attacking insects, perhaps the insects were nocturnal and his friends had been trapped deep in the cave by them - no-one, given a choice, would run this gauntlet. But most likely they were lying in here, poisoned by the stings of the angry insects. He had to find them!
Ahead of him was darkness; he paused, eyes straining. The insects had withdrawn as he reached the dark section, but the fact barely registered.
"Spock!" McCoy's voice. What of Jim? Spock started forward, to be stopped again as McCoy went on. "He careful - we fell over a drop. I don't think we fell terribly far, but it was unexpected."'
"Are you hurt? The Captain?"
"Jim's unconscious. I've hurt an ankle."
"What about the insects? Were you stung at all?"
"No. The insects didn't bother us."
Spock felt his way forward with great care. He found the edge of the drop; sat on it, then let himself go. He hit the ground almost at once, and realised that the hole was only seven or eight feet deep.
Spock groped his way over to McCoy.
"You shouldn't have come down here, Spock - you don't know if you can get out again. You should have gone back for a rope."
"No, Doctor. That would have taken too long." How much longer could he fight the agony in his body, the growing weakness that made him want to do nothing more than lie down and rest? If one of them had been able to walk it would have been easier; as it was, he would have to carry them, which would mean two trips... he would have to expose himself to the insects three more times. Spock wondered if he could, and gathered resolution about him firmly. He could, because he must.
Which one to take out first? he wondered. Every instinct bade him take Kirk, get Kirk to safety; but McCoy was the doctor. It would be more logical to get McCoy to safety - then even if he collapsed while getting Kirk, when the rest of the landing party got them out McCoy would be there to tend them. Carstairs would come and look for them - eventually.
His decision made, Spock acted on it immediately. "I will carry you out, Doctor, then come back for the Captain. When you are outside, you can attempt to make contact with the ship and arrange for the medical department to be prepared to treat us. Should I take the Captain first, time would be wasted, since he is not conscious to make such a call."
McCoy grunted. "How are you planning to get us up that drop?"
"I will take you on my back, Doctor," Spock replied as if amazed at McCoy's stupidity. "Please refrain from clutching at my neck. "
McCoy climbed onto Spock's back and clung desperately as the Vulcan began the scramble up the rock face to the main cave. It was much easier than Spock had feared it might be, and he realised with relief that it would not be too difficult to repeat the climb carrying Jim over his shoulder. Except... McCoy seemed much heavier than a Human normally did.
At the top, Spock wrapped his arms around McCoy's legs to support him, and set off, resolutely keeping his mind from his growing weakness. His head was beginning to throb now, every step jarring it.
They were near the mouth of the cave before Spock noticed that the insects had not attacked again. He put the fact to the back of his mind to consider later, and stumbled on, out into the open air. McCoy slid off Spock's back. In the now brilliant moonlight he glimpsed the marks on Spock's swollen face, but before he could speak, Spock had vanished back into the cave.
Carrying McCoy had drained the Vulcan more than he would have considered possible, but he refused to acknowledge his weakness as he stumbled back along the passage. Every step intensified the throbbing ache in his head and sent fresh streams of fire burning through his limbs; and the insects were attacking him again. Were they simply trying to drive an intruder away from their territory, letting him leave freely because he was retreating?
He was almost grateful for the pain, however, for it helped him to fight the growing drowsiness that urged him to lie down and sleep. He couldn't sleep; he had to get back to Jim...
He saw the darkness ahead just in time to stop himself from falling, and dropped into the hole, landing with a soft thump.
"Who's that?" The voice, while not as decisive as usual, was reasonably strong.
"Jim." Relieved though he was, Spock was now physically unable to utter more than a gasping exclamation. He found himself unable to straighten from the crouching position in which he had landed, so he crawled forward towards Kirk's voice. He touched warmth, and stopped.
"Spock." A hand pressed his shoulder. Then, more briskly, "I can't find McCoy."
"He's outside," Spock gasped. "I... got him out and came back for you."
"What's wrong with you?" This exhausted voice was unlike Spock.
"As I came through the cave... I was badly stung by the insects. The poison... is weakening me."
"What... of you, Captain?"
"I'm fine." Kirk shrugged the question off as irrelevant, although he spoke gently. "A bit sore, but nothing to worry about. Now - how do we get out of here?"
Spock concentrated for a moment on controlling his physical condition. "We can climb out of here, Captain; you have to feel your way, but it is not too difficult."
By the time Spock reached the top of the short climb, he was wondering how he could complete the walk to the cave entrance. Despite his weakness, however, he turned to help Kirk over the edge.
In the light from the luminous moss, dim though it was, Kirk saw Spock's swollen face clearly enough to be horrified. He hadn't realised how bad Spock's 'badly stung' had been; although he knew now that he should have done - Spock invariably minimised bodily discomfort.
As they stood, the Vulcan swayed; Kirk caught him to steady him, and he leaned weakly against his Captain.
"Put your arm round me," Kirk told him. He slipped his own arm round Spock's waist to support him.
As they started off down the passage, he knew that he was supporting fully half of Spock's weight - a burden he was more than willing to bear, and that slowly became greater as even Spock's determination could drive his failing strength no further.
About half way through the cave, Kirk stopped. "Let's rest for a minute."
They sank down, to lean against the cave wall. Wearily, Spock allowed his aching head to sag against Kirk's shoulder. The Human held him comfortingly, unsure whether the tremors that shivered rhythmically through Spock's body were caused by pain or by cold; probably a little of both, he decided.
After a few minutes, Kirk felt rested enough to go on. "Come on, Spock," he urged. "Not far now."
Spock tried to stand but failed, despite Kirk's help. Anxiety lent the Human strength; he lifted Spock and began to carry him.
The Vulcan made no protest; he simply allowed his head to droop against Kirk's shoulder once more.
An interesting experiment; individual intelligences can indeed work in symbiosis, although the importance attached to one individual, even a queen, out of so many individuals, seems unnecessary unless that one is the receptacle for some item of knowledge none of the others possess.
The lesser queens show great regard for the old one and for each other; this is good.
That she also considers her successors is equally good. We will not discourage these intelligences... it will give us a better chance to watch/judge them if they come here than if we had to continue depending on the chance of one of our individuals being swept to the cold land, during the gale-time.
Kirk fidgeted restlessly as he waited for McCoy's verdict on the unconscious Spock. Even to his inexpert eye the readings on the diagnostic panel looked uncomfortably low, and he fretted at his own helplessness.
He swung round as McCoy limped in, and his heart sank at the hopeless expression on the Doctor's face.
"I don't know if I can do anything more," McCoy said unhappily. "As far as I can make out, he was bitten as well as stung, and the two irritants have combined in his blood to poison him. Any of us, I could have done a full transfusion, but we just don't carry enough Vulcan T-Negative blood. I've given him injections that should counteract most known insect bites and stings, but he's not responding."
"All the exertion would poison him quicker, too," Kirk said dully. "Carrying you out, then coming back for me... "
"I know." McCoy checked the readings and made no comment. It added to Kirk's depression - no news, in this case, had to be bad news.
"What I don't understand," McCoy went on, "is why we weren't stung at all."
"I know," Kirk said. "What's more, there weren't any insects buzzing about bothering him while he was with me."
"Or with me," McCoy agreed. "It doesn't make sense. Jim, you should go and rest - I'll call you if - "
"No, Bones, I want to stay. Then I'll be here if... if... "
Several hours dragged past. The readings slowly dropped lower and lower, and McCoy gave the failing Vulcan another shot. Eventually, the Doctor got up.
"They'd have let me know from the lab if they'd come up with anything," he said, "but I think I'll go and see how they're getting on." He limped out.
Kirk leaned over his unconscious First Officer, listening to the laboured breathing, willing Spock to go on breathing. He reached out and took Spock's face between his hands.
"You can't die, Spock," he whispered. "You can't. The ship needs you... I need you... Spock... "
Almost as if he had heard, Spock opened his eyes. "Jim." It was the barest thread of sound.
Somehow Kirk managed to smile. "Spock... " Then, briskly, "If you don't hurry up and get better, Spock, I'll never speak to you again."
A touch of amusement shone deep in the dark eyes. "If I don't get better, Captain, I doubt that I'll be in a position... ever to speak to you again." His eyes closed once more.
There was no reply. Kirk looked up at the panel, but the readings seemed unaltered. Spock had slipped back into unconsciousness.
McCoy looked no more cheerful when he returned.
"He came round for a minute, then passed out again," Kirk said tensely.
McCoy checked the readings then bent over the unconscious figure. "He's gone into trance."
"You're sure?" Hope stirred irrepressibly.
"Who's the doctor here? Of course I'm sure. Those crazy Vulcan readings, though... "
Kirk found himself grinning; the difference in McCoy's attitude was eloquent. Then the Doctor looked at him.
"Call me when he comes round," he said gruffly, and disappeared into his office.
Kirk paused at his First Officer's cabin door and pressed the buzzer.
Spock was sitting back, his chair pushed away from his desk, fingering his lyrette. He put it aside as Kirk entered. "Yes, Captain?"
"How are you feeling now?"
"A little tired still." Spock would admit that much to James Kirk, but to no-one else.
"Spock... " Kirk hesitated. "Spock, I know that between you and me, thanks seem a little unnecessary," he said quietly. "But all the same, I want to thank you... for coming back for me."
"It seemed the logical thing to do, Captain." Spock was silent for a moment. "Yet it is I who should thank you, Jim - for bringing me out."
Kirk's lips twitched. "Well, Spock.... it did seem to be the logical thing to do."
Spock's eyes gleamed in response. "Logical? Perhaps - but I know that that was your last consideration."
"And we both know that it was your last consideration, too."
Spock sighed, but he did not deny it.
Seeking to bring matters to a more mundane level before his friend became too embarrassed, Kirk glanced at the chess board. "Do you feel up to a game of chess?"
Without replying, Spock reached over and pulled the chess board into position.