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The planet was a geologist's nightmare. There was no rhyme nor reason to the stratification; various metals veined the same rock, sharing it with precious or semi-precious stones. Granite, basalt and sandstone neighboured each other, while veins of chalk and limestone penetrated them, although the planet was now a lifeless, arid place. Its atmosphere smelt musty, like a room that has been too long unopened.
The existence of chalk and limestone indicated that it must have had life once, even although it might have been confined to long-dried-up seas. Question - what killed this world? Federation scientists were anxious to find out. The Enterprise had been given the task.
Kirk beamed down with a large landing party; the entire geological staff accompanied Spock, who led the investigation. McCoy, who frequently doubled as a biologist, accompanied them. He didn't really mind doubling up duties - it gave him something to do between routine medical examinations; except for the rare injury most of the crew, all excellent physical specimens, remained obstinately healthy. Kirk was frankly glad to have McCoy along; what Spock thought of it was uncertain.
Now McCoy busied himself searching for any trace of plant life, however primitive, that there might be. He wandered away from the others, who were all busy collecting rocks and searching for fossils.
A few minutes later, he called to Spock.
The Vulcan moved towards him and found him standing on the bank of a fast-flowing river which erupted from the rocks and vanished again into a cave some hundred yards further on.
"The rain - such as there is - must soak into the ground pretty quickly," McCoy commented.
"There can be very little rain," Spock replied. "The terrain is too dry, the soil composed of dust. If there was any moisture in the atmosphere the soil would be better compacted."
"So where does that water come from?" McCoy asked. "It must flow into underground lakes, since there's no reservoir of surface water; but where does it come from?"
"A good point, Doctor," Spock admitted. He pointed his tricorder at the water. "Nothing unusual about its composition," he said. "It is ordinary water, somewhat hard. See if you can get a sample of it, Doctor."
McCoy nodded. "I was just going to do that," he retorted. He leaned down - and the bank gave way under his weight.
He hadn't even hit the water before Spock was diving in after him.
One of the geologists moved into sight just in time to see what had happened. He ran forward and saw Spock, swimming strongly, nearing the feebly struggling McCoy before they were both swept into the mouth of the cave, and vanished with the river.
Kirk, informed of what had happened, ordered an immediate sensor scan of the surface, trying to find if the river reappeared. There was no sign that it did.
He ordered the survey to proceed as planned, as indeed he had to, while the sensors continued to scan the surface, loath to order the search to stop, delaying the inevitable moment when he must admit that his friends were dead.
Spock caught up with McCoy just inside the cave, while there was still enough light for him to see the Human. He caught McCoy's arm, then transferred his grip so that he was holding the surgeon firmly round the chest while he leaned backwards. McCoy, his trust in Spock unspoken but infinite, relaxed and let the Vulcan support him.
They were swept on into the dark. Ahead of them, the sound of the water suddenly seemed louder. McCoy turned his head slightly towards Spock.
"A waterfall?" he shouted.
"I think so," Spock replied. His grip tightened as they felt themselves falling... falling... then with a crash they hit the water and were beaten under by the force of the river behind them.
Spock struck out wildly with his legs and his free arm, his grip on McCoy unslackened, trying to fight clear of the terrible pressure. He felt McCoy go limp, but not for a moment did he consider letting go. He was only aware of a grim determination that when they were found, alive or dead, it would be together. His lungs bursting, he found himself unable to hold his breath any longer, and gasped in a choking lungful of water. He tried to cough, tried to breathe, and as he felt consciousness slipping away he tightened his grip on the unconscious McCoy still more.
Spock regained consciousness to a burning pain in his chest. He raised his head, coughed, vomited water; realised that he was lying half floating, half supported by a bed of shingle. Apparently the water level had fallen, leaving him partially grounded; but an unwary movement would set him afloat again. At his side, still clasped in his arm, was a still, cold body.
Very cautiously, he pulled himself further onto the shingle, hauling McCoy up beside him. Once he was satisfied that they were clear of the water, he bent over McCoy, relieved to find that although the Human was deeply unconscious, he was still breathing. In the pitch dark it was impossible to see if McCoy was injured; all Spock could be sure of was that he could feel no injuries - for what that was worth. But McCoy was deathly cold. Spock shivered himself. Both were soaked; and it was icily cold in the cave. If McCoy was not to die of exposure, he must do something to warm him - and also, incidentally, himself. He lay down beside the Human and held him in his arms, trying to warm them both with their combined body heat, aware that it might be kinder to let McCoy die without regaining consciousness, that they were probably doomed to die of cold and hunger here, deep underground, far beyond range of the Enterprise's sensors, excellent though they were.
McCoy, however, was not as deeply unconscious as Spock thought. He became aware of feeling cold and wet, of lying on a hard, uncomfortable, lumpy bed; and of arms round him and a warm body beside him. He knew it must be Spock; and lay for a second enjoying the illusion that the Vulcan actually did like him before he moved.
"What happened? After we went over the fall?" Somewhat to his surprise, Spock did not move away the moment he spoke.
"I am uncertain, Doctor. We both lost consciousness. I revived about an hour ago. We appear to have been left on a bank of shingle by the river level dropping, but there is no way of knowing if this is a large or comparatively small cave. I lost my tricorder, but even if I had retained it, I could not read it without light. I consider it unlikely that, unaided, we can find any means of escape. We must depend on the Captain's determination to retrieve us, if he can in fact detect us so far underground."
"And this?" McCoy touched Spock's arm lightly, not sure if the Vulcan would take the question as criticism or not.
"The simplest method of preserving our body heat, Doctor."
"And are we just going to lie here until something - or anything - happens?"
Spock hesitated for some moments before he answered. "Doctor - without light we can see nothing. I remember reading once of a cave on your Earth which was used, centuries ago, as a prison. The prisoners were not guarded; they were simply left without light. They knew there was a way out - but there is no record that any of them ever managed to escape. We do not even know if there is any exit other than the one by which we entered this cave."
"You're not just giving up?"
"No, Doctor. I merely point out that our chances of returning to the outer world, unaided, are extremely slight. If we leave here, we might in fact wander deeper into the mountainside. The Captain may, after all, try to mount a rescue via the river."
"Aren't they most likely to think we're dead, when they reach the fall?"
"Then there's no logic in staying here."
"I agree, Doctor. If there is a cave leading from here, we can at least attempt to follow it out."
They scrambled to their feet. The chill hit them afresh now that they were no longer keeping each other warm.
"Spock - we'd better keep hold of each other. Make sure we're not separated."
Spock reached out, gripped McCoy's arm, ran his fingers down to the Human's hand, and grasped it. "We should be standing with our backs to the river," he said. "However, it is difficult to retain an adequate sense of direction in these conditions of sensory deprivation. Go carefully."
They began to edge their way carefully forward, both terribly aware that the ground could fall away beneath their feet at any moment and plunge them into a neck-breaking fall down a deep hole.
Eventually they reached a rock wall.
"It is not a very big cave," Spock said. "I estimate we have travelled no further than ten to twelve yards."
"Finding our way anywhere is going to take a long tame," McCoy muttered.
"Did you think it wouldn't? Let us try going to the right." They began to make their cautious way along the wall. The sound of the water became fractionally louder.
"I believe we are moving back towards the river," Spock commented.
A few minutes later he was proved right when their feet splashed into water.
They made slightly better time going back, since they knew there were no holes, but once they reached the point where Spock. reckoned they had first made contact with the rock wall, they had to slow down again.
They moved slowly onward, inching each foot forward in turn, each ready to pull back instantly if he felt space under it. Spock kept his right hand in contact with the wall as he went, his senses straining to see, to hear something; but hearing only the shuffle of their feet and the clatter of the shingle against the background rush of the water and seeing only blackness.
This time, though, they did seem to be going someplace; the sound of the water became fainter as they went. Whether they had in fact found a passage leading away from the river, or whether they were merely following a huge curve which would eventually lead them back to it, they had no way of knowing.
The shingle under their feet gave way to rock; a smooth rock surface, easy to walk on; but they still dared not assume that there were no holes.
"What do you suppose smoothed the floor?" McCoy asked, more for the sake of breaking the silence than for any other reason.
"Water," Spock answered. "Either we are following the old bed of a water-course, or the river, centuries ago, rose this high when it was in spate - it may even still do so - and the swirl of water wore down the rock."
They groped their way onwards until they could hardly hear the river.
"I believe we are climbing slightly," Spock said after another short silence.
"I think you're right," McCoy agreed, then gave a sharp exclamation as something touched his arm lightly.
"What is it, Doctor?"
"Something touched me - something alive!" McCoy said. "There it is again."
"It has touched me as well," Spock confirmed. "In fact, it is now holding my arm."
"Is someone there?" McCoy asked, knowing even as he spoke how stupid the question was. But there was no answer.
"If it was something sentient," Spock said, "it would have spoken by now. I can hear nothing... or - " He broke off, straining his ears. "A faint, high pitched squeaking sound - higher, much higher, than a bat's voice, just at the upper limit of my hearing. If it is an attempt at communication, it is too high up the register for even my ears, and our voices must be by far too deep to register on their ears."
"Can it possibly be anything intelligent?" McCoy asked. "There was no sign of life on the surface; no sign that the planet ever rose higher in the evolutionary scale than sea creatures. And even if it did - how can anything exist down here, without light?"
"These are precedents for that from several planets," Spock told him, "including your Earth - although I admit that they are all fairly low down the evolutionary scale. There are, for example, blind fish in your America, which have lived so long in darkness that they no longer have eyes; yet they find their way about, feed, breed, in apparently complete comfort."
The unseen hands were pulling at them now; they yielded, and went on, quicker now that they were being guided - though to what they were being guided, they had no idea.
"The high voices must act like a bat's guidance system," Spock postulated, "allowing them to find their way safely."
"Wonder what they eat?"
"I would hesitate to suggest, Doctor, that we might figure on their menu, but we cannot overlook the possibility."
"If they did mean to eat us, wouldn't they kill us first?"
"Do Terrans kill cattle before taking them to market?" Spock asked. "Much easier and more logical to walk the prey to the slaughter house, wouldn't you think?"
"Except that prey our size must be pretty scarce," McCoy replied. "They mightn't realise that we could be eaten."
"Food must be in short supply down here," Spock said. "Anything living, large or small, could be regarded as food."
"Could anything grow here?"
"Which is vegetable. Vegetarians - I'm sure you'll agree - would be nauseated at the very thought of eating any animal."
"A good point, Doctor. We will have to wait and see."
After a while, they became aware of a feeling of spaciousness. "What is it?" McCoy asked.
"There seems to be more bat-squeaking here than there was," Spock replied. "I would speculate that we are in a larger cavern; one where there is a large gathering of these beings, whatever they are."
The touch left their arms. They stood, waiting, each deriving a degree of comfort from the continued clasp of their hands although neither would ever admit it, would ever admit to anything but a purely practical reason for retaining the clasp. Then the light touch came again.
"It feels slightly different," Spock commented as they were urged forward again.
"Different guides?" McCoy suggested.
"It could be," Spock admitted.
They were climbing again, more steeply now. At last, ahead, they became aware of a faint - a very faint - glow. Their guides slowed. Then the touch left them once more.
"An exit?" McCoy suggested.
They moved towards the light, slowly at first then more confidently as their eyes obtained enough light to see by. Their hands separated as they neared the opening.
Outside, the sun blazed down on dry rocks and dust. They were high up a mountainside, and from their viewpoint they could see nothing but more rocks and more dust. The heat was welcome after the chill of the caves.
McCoy sat down on a rock. "I'm tired," he admitted. "And you must be too - if you're honest with yourself. We'd be better to rest for a while before we try to find the rest of the landing party - wherever it is."
Spock sat near him. "Yes," he agreed simply. He looked round. "I think our best plan is to climb higher; we may see someone from a higher viewpoint. And if we get high enough, we'll even manage to see over the other side."
"I wonder who those beings were," McCoy mused.
Aboard the Enterprise, Kirk had the main viewscreen showing the image the sensors were picking up. He sat in the command chair staring at the arid landscape, wondering where the river had come from, where it eventually went, as the sensors swung over and over the area centred on the river. Sulu and Chekov watched too, but their attention was beginning to wander.
Suddenly Kirk gave an exclamation. In the colourless landscape below, two spots of blue had suddenly appeared as if by magic.
"Life form readings, sir!" Carstairs exclaimed from the science console. "Human and Vulcan."
"Mr. Sulu - let the transporter room have the co-ordinates. I'm going down."
Spock and McCoy, trying to summon up the energy to move, heard the hum of the transporter and stared unbelievingly as Kirk materialised beside them.
"Spock! Bones! Are you all right?" He gripped their arms as if trying to satisfy himself that they were indeed there.
A search party equipped with powerful lights went into the cave to try to find the beings who had helped them; but they found nothing.
"I'm not surprised," McCoy commented. "They left us as soon as there was any light at all. It may hurt them."
So they never did find out anything about the mysterious race who inhabited the cave. They had only supposition.
As they prepared to leave the planet, having finished the survey -
"I am curious about one thing," Spock said. "What did these beings think we were? If they were the descendants of people who once lived on the surface - even though we found no signs that anyone ever did - did they believe us to be their remote cousins who still lived there?"
"They might think that of you, Spock," McCoy began. "Your physiology is odd enough for anything - "
"Perhaps it is as well we were unable to communicate," Spock cut in. "Had they been able to understand us, your brand of illogic, Doctor, might well have led them to leave us there."
He nodded politely to the indignant McCoy and moved back to his station at the library computer.
Kirk chuckled to himself. "Mr. Sulu - course two nine four mark seven, warp four."
The Enterprise swung gracefully out of orbit en route to her next destination.