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The natives were surprisingly sophisticated for the general level of their culture. They had accepted Federation technology, introduced when the mining operations were started on their world, with no shock at all, yet their own culture had not suffered in any way. Those of them who worked at the mines, providing unskilled labour, returned at night to their homes with no apparent desire to adopt the aliens' ways.
The time came when the Enterprise called at the planet to let McCoy carry out the annual physicals for the miners. Since it was so peaceful a world, Kirk gave permission for shore leave, each watch got twenty-four hours - the physicals would take four days. The only ones to miss out would be the unlucky medical staff who would simply have a day added to their accumulated shore leave, to be taken on some more auspicious occasion.
Spock beamed down with the second party.
Unlike everyone else, however, Spock had no intention of using the time to relax... as Humans understood the word. He had heard of the surprising resilience of the culture, and he planned to spend his leave in studying it. Which, to him, would be a rest.
He wandered away from the mining camp, which they were using as a beamdown point - and 'wandered' was the word. He was in no hurry.
There were several natives around; one or two were clearly occupied in gathering plants. He paused to watch, appreciating their obvious knowledge of the flora. They knew exactly which plants they wanted, and selected them unerringly from among others so similar that Spock knew that he would have been unable to differentiate without a tricorder. After a few minutes, he moved on. The further he got from the mines, the more natives he saw. They seemed to lack curiosity; few of them so much as glanced at the stranger, and those who did seemed not to notice that he was physically different in any way from the miners. He stored the fact in the back of his mind to be considered later. The further he got from the mines, too, he noticed, there was a change in the way the natives dressed. Where the ones near the mines wore a kind of sarong made of brightly coloured cloth, there had been a fairly sudden change, and the cloth sarongs had become grass ones. This data also he stored away for later consideration.
His wandering led him to follow the sound of running water. Soon he came on a river, running cheerfully over rocks, hiccupping over tiny falls, splashing its banks with a fine spray. He heard shouts and laughter upstream, and moved that way.
A group of children was playing there. As he approached, he noticed that the sound of falling water was becoming louder, and realised that they were employed in the universal game of all young intelligences, playing where it was dangerous and no doubt forbidden; for they were playing at the base of a very healthily sized waterfall, swimming close to the falling water and running the ever-present risk of being beaten under by the force of that same water. He paused, not wanting to alarm them; and even as he did, the accident that any adult would have foreseen overtook one of the bolder boys. He disappeared under the falling water. His head reappeared for an instant, then vanished again. Spock hesitated no longer. He ran forward, and dived in.
Once in the pool, he realised how utterly foolhardy the children were, for it was a maelstrom of conflicting currents that tugged him this way and that but continually forced him closer to the falling curtain of water. Something seemed to be constricting his movements too; he refused to take time to discover what, but swam on. He dived under the surface, trying to see the boy, but the myriad air bubbles prevented him from seeing anything. Something hit against him, and clutched at him, and he realised that, unlikely as it seemed, the boy had been swept against him. He caught the child in a firm grip, and fought his way back to the surface.
From there it was comparatively easy to regain the bank. The child was quite surprisingly calm, relaxing and letting him pull him in to the side. As they reached it, a child came running, followed by several adults, who slowed as they saw that the stranger had things well in hand.
On dry land again, Spock realised what was restricting his movements. His clothes, unshrinkable though they were meant to be, had already begun to shrink quite alarmingly; he realised that he would be better to remove his shirt, at least - it was already beginning to restrict his breathing. A few words from an adult, and a child ran off again, and the adult then spoke to the Vulcan. "Our thanks, stranger. Our children are ever foolhardy, and require a fright such as they have just had to make them realise the true danger of the river. I regret that your own clothes have been rendered useless by your kindness; something about river water makes all cloth shrink in size. I have sent my son to get clothing for you."
"I thank you." Spock already suspected what clothes would be brought, but there was no quick way to get back to the Enterprise; he would have little alternative to wearing native clothes.
He was right. The boy brought a grass skirt, but now at least Spock knew why the natives here wore grass rather than cloth sarongs. It was a relief to remove the last part of his tightening clothes, and don the loose, and surprisingly comfortable, grass skirt.
He also felt it would be ungracious on his part to refuse the invitation he was given to visit the natives' village; quite apart from the fact that it was an unparallelled opportunity to see the culture at root level.
Life in the village was clearly peaceful; the natives operated a simple way of life that ensured that everyone had everything they needed; if one man had more of anything he required, he gave some to a neighbour. Even as he sat talking to his host, a group of men arrived who were wearing cloth sarongs and carrying bundles. These they put down in the centre of the village, then they moved to join the group of villagers sitting talking to Spock. It transpired that they were from a nearby village, one far enough away from the river not to be affected by its peculiar properties, and had brought with them a load of the grass used for making clothes in this village. There was some talk, a lot of laughter, and no mention of trade; after about half an hour, the visitors left. Spock asked about it.
It was simple, he was told; this grass was left over from something the visitors had been doing, and rather than waste it, they had brought it here. One day, perhaps soon, perhaps next year, they would be given something back, but it didn't matter if they weren't; things always evened out, and this village might give something to a third village that in turn paid the debt by giving something to the men who had just brought the grass.
At last, Spock rose. "I must go," he said. "My friends will be wondering what has happened to me."
The villagers rose with him. "We will go with you," said his host. So Spock, despite his protests that it wasn't necessary for them to put themselves out, found himself being escorted back towards the mining camp.
On the outskirts of the camp, the villagers stopped. The mother of the boy he had rescued reached up, and put a brightly coloured flower in his hair. "It is all I can give you," she said. "But we always pay our debts."
"You could pay it by helping my friends in the mines," Spock said gently, knowing now that payment at third hand was accepted as normal.
She shook her head. "They are not your people," she said. "Your people are the ones who come from the sky wearing blue, yellow or red."
"Then I thank you," he replied. "I know a way of preserving it, and will keep it in memory of my friends here."
She smiled, and he realised how much he had pleased her. The boy came forward too, carrying a string of brightly coloured beads. "These are my good luck beads," he said. "I would like you to have them, with my thanks for saving me."
"Thank you," Spock said solemnly, as he lowered his head to let the child slip them round his neck.
The father came forward last, carrying something that Spock did not at first identify. "If ever you are in need of help, blow this," the man said. "It will summon our gods to your aid."
Spock stared, fascinated, at the small, but clearly operative, wooden trumpet. "I will remember," he said. "And I thank you."
He walked into the camp, head held high, aware of the stares of the miners he passed but refusing to let them bother him. His one hope was that McCoy would not be present anywhere near the transporter room...
But he was there. Spock learned afterwards that a quick radio message had been sent to the Enterprise, McCoy had been on the bridge reporting to Kirk when it was received, and he and Kirk had come to meet Spock.
The Vulcan materialised in his native splendour, to stare with dignity at his two friends and the stunned Lt. Kyle.
"Did you... enjoy your leave, Mr. Spock?" Kirk asked.
"Very much, Captain, and I have amassed an amazing amount of data on the natives here. Now if you will forgive me, I must change back into uniform, and take steps to preserve the flower before it wilts."
"But where did you get it, Spock?" McCoy asked, recovering his voice.
"From a lady, Doctor." He looked at the stunned expression on McCoy's face, then, satisfied that he had made sufficient impact, added, "A respectably married lady." He inclined his head politely, and left, his dignity unimpaired. Kirk and McCoy stared at each other.
"What do you suppose happened, Jim?" Kirk grinned.
"He'll tell us when he feels like it, Bones."
"Yeah... You know, Jim, only Spock could beam up like that - and get away with it."
"0h, I don't know - it's amazing what you can get away with if you do it with a straight face."
"And no-one has a face straighter than Spock's."
Kirk grinned. "You know, in a way it reminds me... There was once... " The closing door cut off his reminiscence. At the transporter console, Kyle shrugged philosophically. He would never know 'what happened once'. But then, he was used to it; he frequently heard the beginnings of intriguing conversations. Or, just occasionally, the end of one begun before beam-up.
He set the controls to neutral, and settled down to continue with the book currently in his viewer.