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Ever since the day when he first realised that his wife, whom he loved passionately, cared nothing for him any more, Dr. Leonard McCoy had been subject to fits of depression; days when it seemed that nothing would ever go right again, days when it seemed that no-one cared what happened to him; days when it seemed that nothing he did was of any use to anyone. His professionalism kept his depression from ever harming his patients, but in his less despondent moments he often worried that one day it would, that one day his judgement would fail, he would make a terrible error in evaluating a case, make the wrong diagnosis and a patient would die. It made him irritable, edgy, brusque; and as his marriage plunged deeper and deeper into the depths of failure, he became more and more irascible.
To give her her due, Sarah had married McCoy full of hopes for the future. What she had failed to understand, right from the start, was his need - almost a compulsion - to help others. And gradually - almost unconsciously - she had become jealous of his involvement with the sick, the injured. To protect herself from the hurt of feeling herself of so little importance to him, she had withdrawn, turning to others for the love that - without his realising it - she felt he was withholding from her. By the time her husband realised what was happening, it was too late. Too late to do anything to save their marriage. Too late for anything but an acrimonious separation, each blaming the other, a separation drawn out beyond the limits of endurance by the wrangles over the custody of their daughter, whose own life was rendered almost unendurable by the constant altercations between her parents. The eventual divorce came as a relief to all three. Sarah was granted custody of the child; and McCoy, for Johanna's sake, chose not to apply for the right to see her, feeling that it would only unsettle her if he did.
Once the divorce was final, McCoy realised fully, for the first time, just how much it had meant to him to have someone there, someone who loved him... the realisation that she did not, after all, care, was shattering. He had never felt so alone.
It was in an attempt to escape from the past that he decided to join Starfleet, knowing that his qualifications would assure him of a good position. Assigned to the U.S.S. Enterprise, McCoy had at first been slow to relate to anyone again - even to the ship's Chief Engineer, a man he had known in the past and considered a friend. Until one day Captain Kirk had risked his life to save that of his withdrawn and apparently self-sufficient Chief Medical Officer. To his own surprise, McCoy had found himself glad to respond to the Captain's offered friendship; and while he had initially been a little jealous of the ship's First Officer, who was the only other person on the ship with whom Kirk could - and did - relax fully, slowly he discovered proof that the Vulcan, far from being the cold unemotional machine he pretended to be, was a warm, affectionate being who needed friendship even as McCoy himself did, and who was as afraid as McCoy was of having his affection rejected - for a different, but equally valid, reason. Scotty, too, had proved to be an even better friend than McCoy had ever realised.
Yet, in spite of the many proofs of their friendship that he had been given, McCoy still had occasional fits of depression; mornings when he woke shaking, terrified, from a nightmare in which the black demon of loneliness and despair threatened to overwhelm him, convinced that no-one really cared.
On such days he normally shut himself away in his office with a set of research results while he tried to persuade himself that he was just imagining things. Usually he failed and did not regain emotional equilibrium until he had slept again. However, he could at least persuade himself that by doing so he was avoiding bothering others with his moodiness.
The Enterprise swung into orbit around the uninteresting planet that sensors had indicated as the only sizeable mass orbiting the red dwarf sun, having with difficulty negotiated the massive asteroid belt that separated the small world from outer space.
"Report, Mr. Spock."
"Standard M-class planet, Captain... oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, pressure and gravity within .05 of Terran norm. Temperature ranges from sub zero at the poles to a possible maximum of 18 degrees Celsius at the equator. Extensive plant cover, no animal life... correct that, indications of simple mobile life forms, possibly annelid or arthropod..."
Kirk smothered a faint sigh. Worms and shrimps weren't important to Starfleet... Oh, well, it was the Science Officer's job to inform him of all the facts, no matter how insignificant, and if anything ever went wrong, Spock always felt unnecessarily guilty about it if he had failed, even at Kirk's express request, to give a completely full report.
"Any sign of the missing scout ship?" It was the only reason they were here; to search for the missing Diana, lost these last two months and this her last reported position.
There was a short pause.
"There is a metallic trace, Captain... indications of a depleted power source... it could be the scout, although I fail to understand why, if it is, there has been no distress signal activated; that carries its own power supply and so the failure of the main system should not affect it."
"Even distress requires someone alive to set it going," Kirk said grimly. "Give the co-ordinates to the transporter room. Uhura, call Dr. McCoy and two security guards to accompany us. You have the con, Mr. Sulu. Mr. Spock..."
Self-incarcerated in his office, gripped by one of his now rare fits of depression, McCoy received the call from the bridge with a complete lack of enthusiasm. He knew he should be pleased that Jim wanted him along instead of one of the almost equally qualified and fully experienced biologists on board, but the monster of emotional insecurity that Sarah had spawned hissed discouragingly in his ear - It's not you they want but your knowledge...
It seemed to both Kirk and Spock that McCoy was unusually quiet when he joined them in the transporter room. Kirk guessed that the Doctor was annoyed at being dragged away from whatever he was doing, and grinned to himself at his friend's brusqueness. It wouldn't last long once Bones got down to the surface, he was sure. Once they had checked out the Diana, and discovered what had happened to the two-man crew, they could start exploring the life forms here. Bones was sure to find those worms and shrimps absorbing.
The scoutcraft sat where it had landed, in a solitude rendered more noticeable by the almost complete silence. The only sound was the faintest rustle as the leaves of the nearby trees stirred slightly in the gentle breeze. Kirk glanced at his Science Officer, who was busily occupied studying his tricorder, knowing he would get a report as soon as there was one to be given.
"The craft appears to be undamaged, Captain," Spock said. "I would say the vessel landed normally for a survey. The power sources are low merely because of the length of time the vessel has been unused."
"Then where's her crew?"
Spock swung the tricorder round with careful deliberation. "They are nowhere within tricorder range, Captain. I can detect only the five of us."
McCoy stirred himself into action, and he joined Spock in scanning for dead men, while Kirk flicked open his communicator.
"Kirk to Enterprise."
"Enterprise. Scott here."
"We've found the scout, Mr. Scott, undamaged but with depleted power. Send down someone to service her and get her flying again."
"Aye, sir. Right away."
As Kirk put the communicator away, Spock said slowly, "Captain, there is one thing..."
"Yes, Mr. Spock?"
"The last reports from the scout indicate that the two men of the crew were not on amicable terms," Spock said slowly. "It was their first mission as a team, and they had already applied for reassignment on their return to base; they were finding it increasingly difficult to operate in harmony. It may be that in fact there is a malfunction of the ship, and that the men, finding themselves stranded here, chose to separate."
"Surely they would stand a better chance of survival if they stayed together," Kirk protested. "Besides, they would be more comfortable remaining with the ship." He glanced at the guard who had just come from checking inside the Diana. "Report, Mr. Porrok."
"Nothing, sir," the guard replied. "Everything inside there is normal."
"Personality clashes could have reached a point where murder was done," Spock said hesitantly. "To judge from my study of Human psychological behaviour."
"It ..." McCoy swallowed. Reassignment... divorce... "It's possible. But if they had applied for reassignment, they both knew... They both knew that they wouldn't have to put up with each other for much longer. Under those circumstances... it's unlikely."
"Unlikely... but it's possible?"
"Yes. It's possible," he agreed.
There was an uncomfortable silence while Kirk considered the implications. "If murder was done... and the murderer chose to disappear... Spock, could we find one life form on the whole planet?"
Spock shook his head. "The traces would be so minimal, Captain... We might. We might not. I can give no positive guarantee."
"Let's look round anyway, and see if we can turn up anything," Kirk decided. As he finished speaking, the transporter hum announced the arrival of the engineer to check the stranded scout.
Contrary to Kirk's expectation, McCoy's mood did not lighten, and Kirk found himself watching the surgeon surreptitiously, wondering what was wrong. He noticed Spock doing the same, and realised that the Vulcan must be very concerned to allow his attention to be distracted from his work. At last, as McCoy moved away from the immediate vicinity of the scout, eyes fixed on his tricorder, Kirk drifted across to join his First Officer.
"What do you make of it?" He deliberately made his question ambiguous, and knew instantly, from Spock's response, that he had been right.
"Something is worrying Dr. McCoy."
"Yes, but what? He was O.K. last night, and he hasn't had any external messages - and he's not the man to get upset over being pulled away from one job to do another."
Spock nodded. "I thought at first that he was pretending to be annoyed about it - he would do that - but even as we search for traces of the missing scouts, we are making discoveries about the ecology of the planet, and he is exhibiting no enthusiasm over these discoveries - normally, he would."
Subconsciously, Kirk noted that Spock had revealed an understanding of McCoy that ordinarily he would have denied possessing, and set that also with the evidence of Spock's concern about the doctor.
They were interrupted by a muffled splash from McCoy's direction, and swung round to see what had caused it. The ship's doctor had vanished.
Spock reached the bright green patch whose otherwise smooth surface was marred by an uneven hole just ahead of Kirk. None of the other men appeared to have heard anything - they continued working as before. A short distance from the hole, the green carpet was shaking, heaving as if something below was trying to surface.
"McCoy!" Even as he spoke, Spock dived into the hole, disappearing into the shadowed obscurity of the water. Kirk waited anxiously; the agitation under the vegetable mat had subsided, and he guessed that McCoy was now unconscious. It strained his willpower to the utmost to remain where he was instead of diving into the hole to help Spock look for their friend, and if it had been open water he would have succumbed to the urge; as it was, he realised that one of them had to remain on dry land. He would give Spock another minute, he decided, then call the men for help.
But the minute was only half gone when the sleek dark head surfaced, a brown head held close to it. Kirk reached down and pulled the unconscious McCoy on to dry land.
When McCoy regained consciousness, his first awareness was of a pain in his chest, then secondly of a mouth covering his. Air was forced into his lungs; as the mouth lifted, McCoy grunted. His head was lifted gently and pillowed on something softer than the hard ground. He opened his eyes and looked up at two faces watching him, concern and affection in both pairs of eyes. There was nothing to indicate which of them had been giving him artificial respiration.
He choked and coughed, retching. Four gentle hands steadied him as he rolled over.
At last he stopped coughing up water. The burning pain in his chest had eased a little. They helped him to turn onto his back again, and his head was pulled back against Kirk's arm. McCoy could see now that Spock was soaking, and knew who had risked his life to save him. He smiled up at them, their open concern banishing the mood of utter despondency that had been threatening to overpower his judgement and common sense, knowing that thanks were unnecessary and would only embarrass them.
"All right, Bones?"
"What exactly happened, Doctor?" Spock asked. "Surely your tricorder detected the presence of water?"
"That's the odd thing," McCoy said. "It didn't... not more than minimal moisture. But something made me go over there..." He sounded puzzled. "I've just realised, Jim. I didn't fall in. I jumped. There was something there... something that... that called to me. It seemed to promise... to promise something good - something that I wanted... but I can't remember what it was... "
Captain and First Officer looked at each other. This ... mysticism ... wasn't McCoy as they knew him.
"I heard nothing, Doctor."
"I don't mean literally called, Mr. Spock." McCoy sounded faintly exasperated. "It was... inside my head, attracting me..."
One eyebrow lifted consideringly. "Interesting. I sensed nothing."
"Neither did I," Kirk put in. "Nor, I imagine, did Porrok or Hwang." He glanced towards the guards, who were still studying the surrounding terrain.
Spock hesitated. "Doctor..."
"Doctor, when you beamed down, you were in an abnormal state of mind, were you not?"
A reluctant nod answered him. "I was... a bit depressed. No particular reason."
"Whereas none of the other members of the landing party were concerned about anything."
"Spock, I know I was feeling low, but I certainly wasn't feeling suicidal."
"I did not intend to suggest that you were, Doctor. But your disturbed state of mind might have made you susceptible to some influence to which the rest of us were immune."
"Spock, are you trying to say that whatever influenced Bones might have influenced the scouts?" Kirk asked.
"It is... possible," Spock agreed. "A tricorder scan of that pool might be informative."
He stood, offering a hand to pull McCoy up. Startled, McCoy accepted the help as Kirk also scrambled up. As they turned to face the pool, McCoy hesitated, but then he relaxed as he realised that the strange compulsion that had gripped him had gone.
Spock aimed his tricorder at the water.
"...there is something there," he said. "A trace of... not intelligent thought, but rather... instinctive reaction, feelings... hunger predominating..." He turned a dial. "Now getting readings on two humanoid bodies... little but bone remaining."
"Whatever it was did attract them," Kirk said, revolted.
"What sort of life form could it be, though?" McCoy asked.
"Perhaps something like a large amoeba, consuming its prey by assimilating it, then either taking a long time to digest the bone or excreting it as indigestible," Spock suggested. "I would hesitate to suggest that the pool itself is the entity, although it cannot be dismissed as a possibility."
"Are there any others?" Kirk put in.
Spock aimed the tricorder in a wide circle. "Not within scanning range. Nor is there any positive way of knowing if it is a new life form developing or an old one degenerating - although I would suspect the latter as being the more likely, considering the level of the rest of the life forms on this planet, and the creature's method of attracting its prey. It would seem to be doomed, however - there is now very little life here for it to prey on."
"Well, at least we know what happened to the scouts," Kirk said gloomily as his communicator bleeped.
"Dirak, sir - the scoutship is ready for takeoff."
"Fine, Mr. Dirak. Take her into orbit - we'll assign you a partner and get her back to Base."
Kirk looked round, and shivered. "Let's get back home," he said. "There's nothing we can do here."
The figures shivered out of existence... letting the little world and its deadly entity return to their endless solitude.