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The bridge crew of the Enterprise knew that something was wrong as they approached the only planet within the ecosphere of the only G-type star they had encountered for some time - this particular area of space, unexplored by the Federation until the Enterprise had been sent into it, seemed strangely sparse in the type of star that normally supported life.
Yet the planet, circling endlessly round its parent sun, was in its turn orbited by a small family of spacecraft.
"Report, Mr. Spock," Kirk requested.
"M-class planet, Captain." Atmosphere, temperature, gravity, all within acceptable limits. No indication of sapient life, but an extensive range of non-sentient species. The orbiting craft all appear to be deserted."
"Then where are the people who should be aboard them?"
"Unknown, Captain. But they do not appear to be on the planet's surface."
Kirk scowled absently at the viewscreen. The planet stared innocently back at him, oblivious of his scrutiny. One of the unmanned craft moved silently into view.
"Is there any likelihood that these craft are in fact unmanned drones put here deliberately in order to gather data on the planet?"
"It seems unlikely, Captain. There are several different designs of craft; they would seem to have originated from a number of different localities. Our sensors show nothing that might attract the attention of a number of different species. There do not seem to be mineral deposits, the vegetation is of the most standard - there is nothing unless your race happened to want to settle an agrarian world - and you know yourself, Captain, how few purely agrarian settlements are set up by any race we know. All colonists want at least minimal deposits of iron and fossil fuels. Here, there appear to be none."
Kirk considered his next step carefully for a few moments. He wanted to know more about these deserted ships.
"Mr. Spock - send teams over to each of those ships to investigate them. Then see if you can come up with anything to help us work out where the crews went to. And where the ships came from in the first place."
"And while you're doing that, I'll go down and have a look at the planet."
"Yes, I know, Spock. But you'll be doing a more valuable job here than if you came down with me. From the sensor report, there's nothing much down there anyway. I'm only going down out of sheer curiosity - what does the place look like?"
Spock watched him leave, an unfathomable expression in his eyes.
McCoy was busy, so Kirk decided not to take him down either. He called on security, and ordered a landing party to meet him in the transporter room.
They materialised in a wooded area. Tall trees with long trunks, topped by a cluster of leaves looking for all the world like a hat, stood all round them. The ground under the trees was covered with long grass intertwined with flowers of varying colours in the red to purple range. Some of the flowers had a peculiar, almost translucent colour; from the tricorder reading, Kirk guessed that they were actually seeing a degree of ultra-violet, and wondered how Spock would have seen this particular colour had he been there. The flowers grew on long stems rising from a creeper that made its way along the ground, twining here and there among the trees in a long, unbroken cable. They investigated further.
A number of trees bore fruit, which a tricorder check showed as being perfectly edible. Once he was satisfied on that score, Kirk turned a blind eye to the men's surreptitious sampling of the fruit; he knew that they knew well enough not to eat anything of which they were in the least doubtful. Indeed, at one point, finding himself alone, he decided to taste the stuff himself. He found it rather too sweet for his taste, and only took the one mouthful. The taste was vaguely reminiscent of something, but he couldn't think of what. He moved on, still looking round curiously.
It was beautiful here. He was glad he'd decided to come. It might be an idea to call the ship and have some more men come down to enjoy the place; might even give the crew a few hours shore leave. This would be a great place to have a brief break. He stopped to study one of the flowers, a beautiful pink-mauve one. Its seven petals were delicately tinted, with lines of a slightly darker tone running from their base towards the tip, fading into the over-all colour about half-way. There didn't seem to be any pistil or stamens, which surprised Kirk slightly - he knew enough basic biology to know that all flowers should at least possess those - but not sufficiently for him to feel the need to inquire into it. At the point where each flower came up from the main creeper, a little cluster of roots had dug its way into the ground, but loosely; and the plant seemed to have no leaves. Instead, it had a number of tendrils. Where the creeper passed close to a tree, the tendrils entwined round the trunk. Kirk moved on, following the creeper, vaguely curious as to how long this creeper was.
He never reached the end of it.
Suddenly, he came on a skeleton. The plant's tendrils were entwined round the dead bones and intertwined through the ribs, and through the eyeholes.
The dead creature had been humanoid; indeed, it seemed that the dead creature had even been intelligent. Kirk bent and picked up the small metallic object that lay beside the bones.
He turned it over. Spock might have been able to give a estimate of what it was and how it worked just by looking at it, but he couldn't. It looked as if it might just open up. He prised at the part that looked as if it was meant to come off. Nothing happened except that some reddish powder flaked off it.
It took Kirk a moment to recognise what the reddish powdery stuff was. Rust. Whatever the thing was, it was rusty. It was the product, then, of an advanced race - but not too advanced. This race still manufactured artifacts that rusted. Kirk guessed that he had found one of the erstwhile occupants of one of the orbiting spacecraft.
He pulled out his communicator, and called to the other members of the landing party.
There was no reply.
He frowned, mildly troubled. This was unlike the Enterprise's crew. Without any real apprehension, only a slight anger that they should be so careless, he went in search of the men.
He had not gone far when he found the first of them.
The man was lying under one of the trees. He grinned up lazily as Kirk stopped.
"What do you think you're doing, mister?"
"Aw, come on, Cap, relax! It's great here - why not sit back and enjoy it for a while before we have to go back to that tin can we live in?"
"On your feet, mister! That's an order!"
The man yawned openly, but he came to his feet, clearly unwillingly.
"Now march! We're going back to the beam-down point, whether you like it or not."
The man very obviously didn't like it, but he had not lost his senses to the point where he was ready to disobey a direct order. He marched.
Kirk left him at the beam-down point, with an order not to move away. As Kirk turned away to go in search of another of his errant crew, the security guard sat down again. Then, after a moment, he lay back. His eyes shut, and he slept.
Kirk's anger didn't last any time. He couldn't blame the man too much. There were no dangers here. The temptation to sit back and enjoy it must have been irresistible. The temptation to enjoy the scenery was present even for Kirk; he had, after all, even considered the place suitable for a short break for the crew.
He passed close to a fruit-bearing tree. He hesitated, then picked one. It had been too sweet, but the taste had been pleasant...
This time he didn't find it too sweet. Perhaps this one wasn't quite so ripe, he reflected; maybe the other one had been overripe. This one was good.
He went on, but as he went, he began to wonder why he should bother. It would be a good idea to give the crew a short break here. Why not start with the security team? And with himself? It was... how long? since he last had had a break.
Then he came on another skeleton. This one also had been humanoid, but didn't look as if it was one of the same species at the other; the eyes were set differently, the shape of the skull being slightly different, though it was an effort to remember just exactly what the other one had looked like. And this one... this one had a seven-fingered hand! He was conscious of a feeling almost of triumph at recognising the distinctive feature.
The plant tendrils intertwined this skeleton too. He looked at the greenery covering the skull with distaste. There was something almost obscene about it. He hadn't been quite so conscious of the obscenity of it the last time - perhaps the entwining hadn't been so complete. He struggled to remember details of the last skeleton, and found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. It didn't really matter - did it? He found himself yawning. Why worry about his men? He could just sit down for a little while, enjoy the scenery and the warmth of the sun...
He gave himself a mental shake. His men were important. He had to find out why none of them had answered him when he called them. He went on, slowly. Once he stumbled and fell. It was very peaceful just lying there. The ground was quite surprisingly comfortable, and the grass was cool and velvet-soft. He reached out and touched one of the flowers admiringly. It felt wonderfully, seductively soft, and he stroked the petals gently, finding a strange pleasure in doing so.
A tendril curled affectionately round his wrist. For a moment he had the irrational thought that the plant was caressing him in return. Then he remembered the second skeleton, and the way the tendrils had been twined round it. With sudden revulsion he pulled away from it.
It seemed to reach out for him. He shrank back, away from it, trying to scramble to his feet. It took a decided effort to rise. He forced himself on. Where were his... his... his what? What was he looking for?
He stumbled on, no longer sure why he was making the effort, only knowing that he must. A little way off the path he was taking, he saw a flash of red - a brighter red than the flowers possessed. It was familiar, somehow... He moved towards it.
A man lay there, the fingers of one hand rhythmically stroking the petals of a flower while his eyelids drooped drowsily. Several tendrils were curled round his arm and legs; one was reaching for his neck. He didn't seem to notice - or if he noticed, he didn't mind. Kirk felt slightly sick. The memory of the second skeleton intruded again, less clear than it had been, but clear enough. With an effort, he dragged the man away from the tendrils.
And the tendrils moved visibly after him.
There had to be some way of escape - Kirk knew it. If he could only think...
He tried to haul the man he had just found over his shoulder, but staggered and dropped him. No - something had robbed him of his strength. He must find help...
Leaving the man, he began to make his unsteadily way back the way he had come, half aware that he might find help there. After a while he saw something bright red in front of him again, and weaved towards it, drawn by the colour.
A sharp beeping sound interrupted his difficult train of thought. It took him a minute to place it, and another minute to act on his recognition. It took a considerable effort, both physical and mental, to reach for his communicator and pull it from his belt.
He had to think again before he managed to open it. "Kirk... Kirk here," he mumbled drunkenly.
"Captain? Are you all right?" The voice was sharp with concern - a voice he knew he should recognise if it wasn't so much effort to think.
"No," he managed. "Help... help me..."
Spock and McCoy stared at each other across the sickbay bed as they listened to the muttered raving of the man lying there, held by security restraints.
"Peace... beauty... love... want them... must... must get back to them... Muriel... You're so beautiful... skin so soft... Muriel..." He fought the straps.
"What is wrong, Doctor?"
McCoy shrugged. "A superficial observation would be that he's drunk and feeling romantic - except that there's no alcohol in his bloodstream. There's something present in his blood that shouldn't be there - but it isn't anything I can identify. All I can say is that its effects are similar to the effects of too much alcohol. Funny thing is - " he turned away from the raving security guard towards the other bed, the one they had left moments before to look at the other man - " Jim has the same substance in his blood, but he's just lying there quietly. Jim!"
There was no response. It was as if the Captain hadn't heard. He lay there, his eyes shut, but they knew he was still awake. The fingers of one hand moved gently, as he stroked his thumb and first finger together lightly. There was a dazed, euphoric expression on his face.
"Peace - beauty - love," McCoy repeated, echoing the guard. "Jim's clearly aware of those feelings too. But he does seem to be slightly less effected by them than Bauer there. And I'd like to know where the rest of the landing party is."
"None of them were any where near the beamdown point," Spock said. "The Captain and Mr. Bauer were the only ones there. I suspect, by sheer chance. Mr. Chekov is scanning for the others now. But four lifeforms, even on an uninhabited planet, are not easy to detect - rather like your proverbial needle in a haystack."
"They can't be that far from the beam-down point," McCoy said, irritably.
"Agreed, Doctor. But even as short a distance as a mile could make them invisible to the sensors, excellent though they are."
"Well, finding them is your responsibility, Spock. What are you going to do?"
"I know, Doctor. It would be easier finding them from the surface, using tricorders. I think - "
"You can't send any more men down until I find out what's caused this condition."
"I was intending going by myself," Spock replied quietly. "The condition seems to be emotional in effect. Since I am unaffected by emotions, it follows that I should be in no danger."
"You can't guarantee that, Spock. You daren't take the chance, either."
"If we are to retrieve our men, I must."
They stared at each other, McCoy recognising the necessity but unwilling to admit it, unwilling to face the possibility of Spock returning in the same state as the Captain, and Spock willing the doctor to understand without comment that he, as much as Kirk, was concerned for the crew and for the safety of individuals in the crew.
At last, Spock looked away. He glanced down at Kirk for a brief moment, then turned for the door. As he reached it, McCoy said quietly,
"Spock - "
The Vulcan stopped, but didn't turn round.
" - be careful."
Still without turning, Spock replied equally quietly, "Yes, Doctor." He moved on, leaving McCoy staring at the closed door across Kirk's body, his face a mixture of worry and unwilling affection.
Spock looked round the beam-down area with suspicious eyes. There was no sign of any of the missing security guards - not that he had expected any such sign. He checked the tricorder.
There was no indication of any substance in the air that could have caused such a reaction on the part of the two members of the first landing party who had been retrieved. He swung the tricorder round, searching for any signs of life.
All readings were faint. The strongest ones were easily identifiable as those of non-sentient animals, though no such beasts were near. The fainter ones were more enigmatic. One of these faint life form traces showed vague indications of intelligence. He began to move towards it, watching his surroundings intently as he went.
It was not long before he also came on a skeleton, the bones wrapped around with plant tendrils. One of the flowers was growing up through an empty eye socket, and Spock studied it with interest, noting that it was a richer colour than many of the other flowers nearby. He filed the fact mentally as curious, even as he bent to study the bones more closely.
They had belonged to a grazing animal. That much was clear from the dentition. The brain cavity was small - very small considering the size of the creature. The major part of the creature's head had been taken up by the mouth cavity, which was out of proportion large. He moved on, still watchful.
Soon he found another skeleton, then another. Both belonged to animals, these two being of the same species, but were not the same as the first one he had found. They were smaller, more compact beasts, with a brain capacity larger in proportion to their size than that of many races, even sapient races, that Spock knew. This was a creature that might have, should have, become intelligent. Why had it not? And why were there so many skeletons in this area?
The next skeleton was different. It was of a humanoid with a seven-fingered hand, lying there wrapped in a green embrace, one bony hand still clutching a rusting box whose function could only be guessed at. Now he knew what had happened to the crews of the deserted ships that still orbited, waiting for their masters to return. But apart from the first of these ships, why hadn't the crews been suspicious? He could even guess which ship this alien had come from, drawing on his memory of the data on these ships he had been given during the last few hours.
He went on, following the one elusive trace that was getting fainter as he moved towards it - illogical as that seemed.
He passed a tree that was laden with fruit. The tricorder told him that it was edible. He was aware of hunger. Odd; he had eaten recently. Why should he be hungry? It was not a sensation he was accustomed to. Usually he only felt hungry after a prolonged fast. Resolutely, he put the idea out of his mind, and moved on.
There was a gleam of red ahead of him. He speeded up.
One of the missing guards lay there, the finger and thumb of one hand gently stroking the petals of one of the flowers that Spock had seen growing out of the skull he had passed, in a gesture very similar to the one he had seen Kirk making in sickbay. Tendrils were twining all over the man as he lay there, a silly grin on his face. Spock bent down and shook him.
He looked up lazily, the grin unaltered.
"What do you think you are doing, Mr. Erikson?"
He got no answer. The stupid grin intensified, apparently meant as a welcome, he guessed, drawing on his memory of the illogical meanings behind smiles. He flicked open his communicator.
"Spock to Enterprise. I have one of our missing men. Lock onto these co-ordinates and beam him up. Tell Dr. McCoy to stand by; he is in the same euphoric state as the others."
He stepped back and watched the man shimmer away. The flower swung itself round as if looking for him; the tendrils, finding themselves without anything in their grasp, also moved restlessly. Spock watched, fascinated. This plant seemed to have an affinity with mobile life forms - and life forms seemed to be drawn to it. Correction. Most life forms seemed drawn to it. He was not.
He swung the tricorder round again, searching for other faint traces. Ah, there was one; so faint it was almost non-existent. He made for it.
On the way, he passed several more skeletons, some of animals, and another one of a humanoid, a different type from the seven-fingered one. But that was not unexpected, now. Members of several races must have fallen prey to the euphoric lure of these plants, simply lacking the will-power to drag themselves away from the intoxication of it, dying of thirst without realising they were dying.
The trace he was following failed, but he had the position pin-pointed. He went on.
It was another of the guards. But for this one, he was too late. The man lay limp, his hand no longer caressing the petals of the flower but lying lax on the ground below it. The flower was ignoring the sprawled figure, but the tendrils were busy.
Some of the cloth of the uniform was already eaten away; the flesh beneath these holes was also in the process of being eaten, dissolved by what Spock could only assume were digestive juices and assimilated by the plant through the tendrils. There was nothing he could do. The man was already dead. And now he knew why there were only skeletons lying among the plants. The soft parts of the body were consumed quickly. The tendrils wrapped round the bones must be absorbing them, too, but slowly; and that one brilliantly coloured flower he had seen must be the outcome of a body that was particularly nutritious.
He pulled out his communicator, meaning to call for retrieval; but before he could activate it, it bleeped for attention.
"Spock, Jim got away from sickbay and beamed himself down again." It was McCoy's voice.
Spock went cold. The lure of the plants was even stronger than he had thought.
"Have you any co-ordinates for his position?"
"Negative. He set the board to clear itself as soon as he was down."
Spock swung the tricorder round. "I can't pick up any trace of him."
"I'm coming down," McCoy said.
"No, Doctor! I'm safe enough, but you would be in extreme danger."
He got no answer; but even as he put the communicator away, he heard the hum of the transporter, and McCoy shimmered into sight beside him.
"No, Doctor!" he exclaimed. He pointed to the body. "That's why. It doesn't seem interested in me. I've been standing here for some minutes, and the tendrils haven't made any attempt to wrap round me. But there is concrete evidence that humans are in danger."
He half expected a sarcastic comment, but he got none. McCoy bent over the dead guard, diagnostic scanner busy.
"He has the same substance in his blood as Jim and Bauer," McCoy said. "And Erikson." He stood and moved over to Spock, scanner at the ready. The Vulcan's eyebrow lifted questioningly.
"Well, you're clear," McCoy commented. "Not that I really expected anything else. Most self-respecting bugs would stay clear of that copper mixture you call blood."
Spock recognised the attempt to behave normally as the defence of a badly worried man. He responded calmly and willingly.
"Once again you have proved that there are definite advantages in having green blood, Doctor. I cannot understand why you will persist in speaking of it as a misfortune." Without waiting for an answer, he swung his tricorder round again. "Doctor - there is a reading this way. Weak, but persisting. It is impossible that it could be one of the landing party - it must be the Captain."
"So what are you waiting for?" McCoy demanded.
They set off quickly in the indicated direction. However, McCoy soon found that he could not keep up the pace Spock set. He refused to complain, to ask the Vulcan to slow down, and began to fall further and further behind, while he panted more and more as his straining lungs fought for more air. At last he was forced to pause for a moment to regain his breath.
Spock suddenly realised that he was alone. Fear for Kirk's safety was temporarily swamped by fear for McCoy. He looked back.
The surgeon was standing under one of the trees, running his tricorder over it. Then he reached up to pick one of the fruits hanging from it. Spock felt a renewed hunger and began to move back involuntarily. Then, as McCoy lifted the fruit to his mouth, Spock pulled himself together.
The unaccustomed use of Kirk's name for him coming from Spock attracted McCoy's attention as nothing else could have done at that moment - as Spock knew it would. He looked up from the fruit for long enough for the Vulcan to reach him.
"Don't eat that," Spock said.
I checked it," McCoy answered. "It's edible."
"I know," Spock agreed. "But I'm not satisfied. I find that when I look at that fruit, I feel hungry. I should not be hungry. Therefore I suspect that there is something strange about it. And, Doctor - have you forgotten Jim?"
McCoy stared at him, something like guilt dawning in his eyes. "Yes," he said slowly. "I had." He sounded puzzled.
"I believe there is a connection between my unaccustomed hunger and your forgetfulness - the connection being the fruit."
"It could be. I feel hungry too." He reached up for another fruit. Spock caught his hand before he could touch it.
"Come away." He pulled McCoy bodily from the tree. McCoy strained against the pull for a moment, then went with it.
As they got further from the tree, it got easier. They went on. Fortunately, although they saw unripe fruit on several of the trees, much of it barely formed, trees bearing ripe fruit seemed scarce.
The yellow-clad figure was quite conspicuous. It lay there, tendrils already wrapped lovingly round it, gently stroking the petals of a blood-red flower.
Kirk smiled up at them, and held up his free hand, welcoming, inviting.
Spock took out his communicator.
"Spock to Enterprise. Lock onto my signal. Three to beam up."
This time, McCoy put security restraints on Kirk.
Once he was satisfied that Kirk was not physically hurt, Spock turned to McCoy.
"Check yourself for that substance, Doctor."
"Why? I feel fine."
"I have no doubt - so do they." Spock indicated Kirk, Bauer, and Erikson. All three had the same bemused look; all three were reacting strangely, Kirk's finger and thumb still rubbing together, Bauer still muttering about Muriel, and Erikson grinning happily and idiotically.
McCoy grunted, but obeyed. "I'm clear," he announced. They looked at each other.
"And I am still all right, Doctor?"
McCoy ran his scanner over Spock again. "Yes."
"There is some factor common to us, then, that has kept is from being affected although the whole of the original landing party was. I would suspect the fruit."
"You think the others might have eaten some of it?"
"I think it likely. They would check it, as you did; and finding it edible, they would see no reason to resist their urge to eat." He thought for a moment. "I think you had better obtain a sample of the fruit for testing. I will go down for it."
McCoy nodded. "Thanks, Spock."
McCoy had half expected to have to resist the unusual hunger that had attacked him when he saw the fruit on the planet; but away from its natural surroundings, it seemed harmless. He ran several tests on it; and finally reported to Spock.
"Nothing, Spock. Nothing but a high alcoholic content. In other words, anyone who eats it will end up drunk for two or three days - and probably have a monumental hangover at the end of it. But apart from that - nothing."
"So if we wait, the Captain and the guards will recover naturally?"
"No, I didn't say that, exactly. There's something else involved. That fruit is not the source of the substance in Jim's blood. All the fruit's done is make him drunk; something else has injected an alien substance into the blood. And there's nothing to indicate what."
"Will the Captain recover normally?"
"I don't think so."
"When will you know for certain?"
"I'm pretty certain now. It's queer, though. The fruit has a high alcohol content, and they're all acting drunk - yet there's absolutely no alcohol in the blood, only that stuff I can't identify."
A movement at his side caught his attention, and he swung round towards Erikson. The Norwegian was struggling to get free of the restraints, his face no longer an imbecile's mask but twisted in pain. Suddenly he screamed, agony in his voice.
McCoy rushed to sedate him; but before he could do so, Erikson went limp. The diagnostic needles slid to zero, leaving doctor and Vulcan staring at them in utter astonishment.
"He shouldn't have died," McCoy said in a voice that was a combination of astonishment, disbelief and dismayed horror.
"But he did," Spock stated the obvious in his usual way.
McCoy said slowly, "I'd better do an autopsy - and I'd better do it quickly. Whatever killed him might affect Jim and Bauer too."
"Mr. Erikson did have the longest exposure to the conditions on the planet," Spock said. "He would logically be affected first."
It didn't take long for McCoy to find the reason for Erikson's death. His internal organs had been partly dissolved, seemingly quite quickly, and it could only have been by the alien substances. His face a mask of worry, McCoy checked out Kirk and Bauer.
So far, neither seemed to be harmed by the foreign matter inside them; but McCoy was not lulled into a false sense of security. He looked up as Spock came back in.
"Have you discovered anything, Doctor?"
McCoy reported his findings concisely. Spock's face became, if anything, more mask-like. "Can you do anything?" he asked. "The others will be affected too."
"You don't need to tell me that," McCoy replied harshly. "And I don't know if there is anything I can do. I've got a team of technicians working on analysing the contents of Erikson's body now. But whether that'll help..."
A memory pushed its way to the surface of Spock's mind. "I believe I might be able to help you," he said. He turned and went out. McCoy returned to Kirk's side to look down anxiously at the Captain's relaxed face. How long would it stay relaxed?
He turned towards Bauer. The guard's face was beginning to twist in pain. McCoy glanced up at the diagnostic panel. The needle indicating the level of pain was rising - fast. Bauer whimpered. "Muriel... help me..." McCoy injected a sedative. It didn't work. The intensity of pain was too great already, and it was increasing with every moment. Bauer began to fight the straps holding him down, his moans quickly becoming screams. There was nothing McCoy could do. He was aware of relief when the man at last went limp and the needles slid down.
Dead. First Erikson, now Bauer. And Kirk? What of Kirk?
Spock wasted no time in beaming back down, taking with him a specimen box and a pair of the tongs they used for handling matter they knew was likely to be dangerous. On the surface, he looked round. Nothing was changed. He moved cautiously as far from the trees as he could, moving into the centre of a small clearing. Using the tongs, he tried to pick one of the flowers.
And failed. The stem was tough, much tougher than he would have thought possible. He called the ship, asked for a knife to be sent down.
Even the knife failed to make any impression on the tough stalk. He lifted an eyebrow, acknowledging the new fact with a mixture of surprise and a kind of unwilling respect for a new aspect of evolution. He pulled out his phaser.
The beam severed the stem close to where it rose from the main creeper. He moved to pick it up with the tongs - and stopped, halted by an overwhelming pain mixed with fear. Nothing mattered but to escape from the fear - to get surcease from the pain. He moved several steps away before he managed to control himself.
He had to force himself to the fallen flower. The tongs lifted it, placed it in the box. He took out his communicator - and stopped . Fool! He wasn't finished yet. The flower alone was useless. He needed tendrils too... and the very thought of using the phaser again on the plant filled him with abhorrence that was not wholly due to his awareness of pain and fear. It was also in part due to his realisation that this plant had - must have - awareness. Perhaps even intelligence. But he had to do it. His Captain's life depended on it. And the plant was a killer many times over - there was clear proof of that in the many skeletons lying around. A nagging whisper said - 'Eating is a natural instinct... it did not know it was killing intelligence.'
He raised the phaser again deliberately, and fired, cutting through the creeper. The pain and fear doubled, redoubled. He fired again, cutting off a piece of tendril-thick creeper. He picked it up with the tongs, and flicked open the communicator.
"Spock to Enterprise. Ready to beam up."
Even as the beams caught him, he knew his instinct to move away from the trees had been right. They were beginning to sway angrily, although there was no wind. There must be some connection between the trees and the creeper. Perhaps it might be possible to investigate later...
McCoy examined the creeper carefully without removing it from the box. The tendrils lay limp, but what looked like a flower bud stood fairly erect. Even as they watched, small white roots began to appear at the base of the flower stem. Spock's eyebrow lifted in fascination as he watched. He had not killed the plant, then; it was capable of regenerating itself from a small piece of creeper. The bud opened perceptibly. Using the tongs, McCoy reached in for the severed flower, which lay as limp as the tendrils.
"The flower is dead," he said. Spock nodded regretfully.
With McCoy gone to start analysing the flower, Spock turned his attention to the living one, as much with the intention of taking his mind off Kirk's situation as from curiosity. Kirk had been stroking the flower; so had Erikson. He used a stylus picked up from McCoy's desk to stroke the opened bud, lightly, gently.
Almost immediately, the tendrils began to move, to curl upwards. He lifted the stylus from the petal. The tendrils began to move wildly, as if they were reaching for the thing, begging to be stroked. For a moment, Spock was irresistibly reminded of his long-dead pet sehlat in one of its affectionate moods; Ee-Chiya had been as dangerous - to a stranger - when he was in a bad mood as this plant was at all times. He kept the stylus lifted, waiting. The tendrils lashed about for some minutes, then slowly subsided, to lie limp again.
He nodded thoughtfully. His deduction appeared to be correct. It just needed one more proof. He went out, heading for the mess.
His way took him through the room where Kirk was lying. He paused to look down at his Captain. Kirk's face was still peaceful, his fingers still making the monotonous stroking movement. To judge from the indicators, he was sleeping - in spite of the steady movement of finger and thumb. Gently, Spock reached out to touch Kirk's forehead lightly. Then he turned away abruptly.
The mess, at this time of day, was almost deserted, for which he was grateful. Even though it was no part of their business, he did not fancy the idea of the crew speculating as to why he - a Vulcan - should be taking a piece of meat away with him. He took it back to McCoy's office, and placed it carefully on the plant's tendrils. Nothing happened. He nodded, satisfied; then picked up the stylus again. Gently, he stroked the petals; the tendrils began to move, to curl round the meat. He stopped stroking; the flower moved slightly, but both it and the tendrils seemed happy. He stood watching it eat.
The digestive juices worked fantastically quickly. Within a very few minutes, the meat had gone. The tendrils lay limp again.
McCoy came back, looking discouraged. "Nothing," he said.
"I may have discovered something significant," Spock told him. "The tendrils secrete digestive juices. Could the substance in the Captain's blood be that?"
McCoy made a face. "Actually, that could agree with what the group analysing Erikson's body have come up with."
He crossed to where Kirk lay and took a blood sample. "If I take many more samples, he'll need a transfusion," he said drily. He went back out.
Spock still looking down at Kirk. He was getting increasingly worried. Both the other victims of the plant were dead. How long did Kirk have?
A tiny scrap of the meat had fallen at the side of the plant; Spock retrieved it carefully, frowning slightly. From what he had seen of the action of the plant's digestive juices, the piece of meat should have disintegrated just as the internal organs of the two men had done. It was so much smaller that the juices should have finished consuming it by now. With another look at Kirk as he went, he took the meat through to McCoy.
McCoy grabbed it and reached with his other hand for a test tube. "Get back and keep an eye on Jim, Spock," he said. Spock nodded. There was nothing that either of them could do if Kirk began to show the same symptoms as the other two, but he knew that it would be psychologically easier on McCoy if he was with Kirk.
A spasm of pain showed on Kirk's face. Spock bit his lip, struggling for self-control. Kirk's eyes opened. He looked up at Spock unrecognisingly. Another spasm showed.
Spock turned to call McCoy, little though the doctor could do; as he did so, McCoy came quickly in.
"It's started, Doctor."
"I have something," McCoy said, almost harshly. He advanced on Kirk, and injected him. He looked at Spock. "The fruit was significant," he said. He was talking to keep his mind off what might be happening to Kirk, and they both knew it. "Something in the fruit aided the digestive process. Separately, they wouldn't harm any one; but together..." He shook his head. "That stuff should counteract the mixture, but whether it's in time..."
They stood watching for what seemed a long time. The pain no longer showed on Kirk's face, but neither did he show any signs of returning awareness. The needles of the diagnostic panel fluctuated wildly. At last they settled - at a normal level. Kirk opened his eyes and looked up; winced, and shut them again.
"Jim?" McCoy said.
"Who slipped me an Orion?" he asked faintly. Spock looked at him, then at McCoy, his eyebrows questioning. McCoy grinned.
"Never heard that expression, Spock? I told you he'd have one hellova hangover when he came round; and he knows he didn't have anything to drink. No, Jim, it wasn't an Orion; it was the fruit you ate down there."
Kirk groaned. "I wish I could say 'never again'."
McCoy grinned sympathetically. "Yeah, somehow it doesn't seem quite so bad when you know it was your own silly fault. There's nothing I can give you for it, either. Just try to get some sleep."
Kirk groaned again, but closed his eyes obediently. McCoy touched Spock's arm, and led him out.
"He'll be O.K. All he needs now is sleep." He looked at Spock, puzzled.
Was it his imagination, or was there actually a half smile on Spock's face?
Copyright Sheila Clark