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The planet was a mass of contradictions.
Sensors indicated the presence of humanoid life forms, but no traces could be found of settlement in any form.
"They could be nomadic hunters," Spock suggested, "though even a nomadic tribe should, logically, have a base in which to leave their women and very young children."
A landing party completely failed to find any signs of life, although there should have been inhabitants in the area, according to the ship's sensors. There were indications of past settlement - a few ruins, little more than the foundations of buildings - but according to tricorder readings, these were several hundred years old.
Sulu, in charge of the landing party, reported a fantastic variation in scenery; desert to jungle in unlikely pattern, trees and shrubs neighbouring cacti, animals of all kinds living in mixed herds. But no people. No surface signs that people had been there for many, many years, despite the readings.
Kirk recalled the landing party, and further surveys were made from the ship. Eventually Spock asked permission to take down another landing party to make a second ground survey, with particular emphasis on the ruins.
Kirk, for once, refused; he saw no point in repeating an already abortive investigation. He did however, agree to allow Spock to go down himself; and, on consideration, decided to accompany Spock, taking McCoy with them.
They spread out a little. Turning, Kirk found himself alone and moved back a little - and saw the others lying on the ground. He ran over to them.
There was no sign of violence; but both were dead.
He knelt beside them, half stunned, disbelieving; then reached for his communicator. Before he could reach it, however -
He looked round. Three men faced him; all held deadly-looking weapons resembling spears; the heads had very jagged edges. Daggers hung from their belts. How they had appeared, where they had come from, he couldn't understand. "Come," one of them beckoned. They took his phaser and communicator, and motioned him on. He held back.
"My friends - " he began.
"They are dead," one replied. "A dead body is useless. Move on."
"No," he whispered. "You can't just leave them to be eaten - "
"It isn't likely to worry them. And soon you will join them anyway."
The spear jab was painful, and Kirk moved.
He was taken to a cave, led through many passages, and pushed into a room. A heavy door swung to behind his captors. Left alone, he sat on the floor grieving, blaming himself, but at the same time relieved that he hadn't allowed a larger party to return to the surface. After a long time, he got up and walked slowly towards the door. He tried it; a reflex action, although he had no hope that it would open. But it did.
He stepped out into what he could only think of as a long corridor. It was as dimly lit as the rest of the cave system, but he could just see there was a single door near the end of it. Cautiously he tried it, pushed it open - and gasped.
Sitting there, in an attitude of hopeless grief, was McCoy. He raised his head at the sound of the opening door, and came to his feet, staring; then they caught each other's arms fiercely.
"You were dead, Jim! I saw you..."
"No, you were dead. And Spock. Then people - whoever they are, wherever they appeared from - brought me here."
"I saw Spock dead too. But - since we each saw the other dead, and here we both are, does that mean Spock's alive too?"
"It must." They looked at each other.
"What does it mean, Jim?"
Kirk could only shake his head. He turned back to the door - and found that it was locked.
Spock regained consciousness aware of a nagging sense of loss. He sat up and looked around.
Memory connected as he saw the two men who stood watching him. They were, he thought, two of the three who had forced him here at spear-point.
"Where are my friends?" he asked.
"Otherwhere," replied one of the men. "On your head rests whether they live or die. We have work for you. If you accomplish it, they may live; if you fail, they will certainly die."
"May live?" Spock said. "That is not good enough."
"The possibility of life against the certainty of death. Do they mean so little to you, then, that you refuse them the chance of life?"
Spock took a deep breath. "Logically, your terms would be more just if you put the certainty of life against the certainty of death."
"They are ill," the man replied. "We may or may not be able to cure their illness. But without your services, we will not even try."
"Do you accept?" the other asked.
"I have no choice," Spock replied.
He was led through dark passages for a long way. At last they came to a huge cavern that - although the lighting was still dim - was brighter than the passages that led to it. In it stood a huge metal cube that was making a very soft purring sound.
"Centuries ago," he was told, "there was a war. The reasons for that war have been lost; all we know is that the most senior scientist of one side invented this - a machine designed to upset the climate and disturb the ecology of their enemy's land. As a weapon, it was very effective - it ended the war within weeks. Then it was discovered that he had kept some of its secrets to himself; nobody else, not even his assistants, knew how to switch it off once the enemy surrendered. The man who had developed it wasn't old but, according to the story, he did the final work himself and then, shortly after he started the machine and before he could know how successful it was, he died. The effect spread over the entire planet. Many died. Surviving scientists from both sides tried for many years to counter the effects of the machine, without success; and in the struggle to survive in the ever-changing conditions, the knowledge of how to use science was soon lost. We want the machine stopped, so that over time things will return to the way they were."
"I will attempt to halt it," Spock said. "I would have done so had you come to us on the surface and asked my assistance; you did not need to resort to threats. But I can promise nothing. If the men who invented it could not stop it, if it has continued to operate without maintenance for hundreds of years, I do not estimate the odds of success are high."
Ignoring the rest of Spock's comment, the man said, "Only success will win help for your friends."
Spock looked at the men, his lip curling slightly in derision. What was this culture like, that its people believed that only threats could gain anyone's assistance?
"What is its power source?"
"We do not know. It appears to power itself."
Spock frowned as he turned to the machine. If it could not be *switched* off, eliminating the power source was the only feasible way to stop it... but if it powered itself...
Perpetual motion? Could that long-dead scientist of this now-backward world have discovered the secret of perpetual motion? Well, if he had, it was in a form that was not practical.
Spock stood for long minutes studying one side of the half-seen thing, moved to study the second side... the third... the fourth. There certainly did not seem to be an external power source. As far as he could see, there were no panels that would allow technicians to work on it once the external casing was complete.
Perhaps one whole side could be detached? He moved forwards and ran searching fingers down one of the edges, half expecting to feel the roughness of rust that he was unable to see in the faint light, but the metal, whatever it was, was absolutely smooth. He went on to the second edge. Ah! This felt slightly different. He checked the third edge. Yes - it should be possible to detach this side - if he could determine how it was fastened. He could feel no indication that it was screwed into place, or hinged... At last he bent, gripped the bottom edge and pulled upwards - and it moved.
It was heavy and he glanced over at the men watching him. "Help me lift it," he said.
They glanced at each other, then one nodded and the other two stepped forward. Between them, the three pushed the sliding side upwards. Something clicked, and a bright light came on inside the cube; one of the men helping him gasped. Spock, however, realised that when it engaged, a catch designed to hold the side up had also activated a light switch. "Thank you," he said quietly, and turned his attention to the inside of the machine.
He studied it carefully, then began, one by one, to remove components that slid surprisingly easily out of their sockets - but there was no change in the soft purring of the machine, and he frowned slightly. Pausing for a moment, he studied the structure of the machine carefully, then nodded to himself. This apparent interface, these removable components, were fakes, had to be fakes, designed to trick anyone less knowledgeable about the machine than its builder into thinking this was the working surface. He began to search for a panel that would allow him deeper access into the cube.
It took a long time; but finally he felt a minute indentation. He pressed it inwards, then tried to pull it upwards. It seemed to shift a little, and he applied more pressure; then, suddenly, it moved and a panel slid up, revealing what looked like another set of possible controls.
After encountering the previous false 'work surface', he was far from convinced that this would provide the actual controls for the machine; it could be another... what was the human term again? Ah, yes, 'red herring'. However, the only way to be sure was to assume these were the controls, and act as if they were.
These components were more firmly set in place, but he was aware that that might only be because they had never been found and moved by the long-dead scientists who had previously worked on the machine.
Suddenly, the soft purring stopped. "It is finished," Spock said. "Now, what of my friends?"
The men standing round looked at each other. Then the spokesman said quietly, "There is nothing we can do for them."
Spock swallowed something in his throat. "You said - "
"We said we might be able to help them. As it happens, there is nothing we can do."
"They are dead?" Spock asked. "Were they even alive when you made that 'bargain' with me?"
"Where are they?"
He was led along more passageways to a big door. "In there," he was told.
He went forward and pushed the door open.
Kirk and McCoy lay on a wide bench, side by side. Spock crossed to them, aware of a tightness in his throat that he had not known since infancy.
"Jim," he said softly. "Bones." A tear ran down his face. He reached out and touched Kirk's face - and Kirk's eyes opened.
The Vulcan stared, speechless for a moment. "Jim," he whispered.
"Spock." McCoy's voice was strangely quiet. "What - tears?"
Spock swallowed again. "I - have something in my eye," he managed. McCoy smiled understandingly; this was not an occasion for a sarcastic comment.
"What happened to you?" Kirk asked. "We saw each other - and you - dead, but when we were put together, we guessed that you must be alive too."
"I lost consciousness." His voice was steadier now. "When I recovered, they told me you were both ill - would die unless I stopped a machine for them. Then they told me you were dead anyway, and brought me here. It seems very illogical."
"Some sort of psychological test?" McCoy suggested.
"They were serious," Spock said. "They didn't seem able to understand that I might help them without being threatened or bribed - and yet if they were able to make us see something that did not exist, they must have some telepathic ability. With telepathic ability, they should have been able to realise that we would be willing to help them."
The door opened to them. Outside, they found their communicators.
They searched the corridors, but found no-one. Eventually, they beamed back to the ship. A further sensor scan revealed nothing more - except certain climatic changes already coming into effect. It was obvious the natives wanted no more contact.
Kirk logged a recommendation that a survey be made of the planet in five years' time. Then they left, on their way to continue their exploration of this barely-known part of the galaxy.