Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of M.L "Steve" Barnes and is copyright © 1984 by M. L. "Steve" Barnes. Rated PG. Originally published in I'm a Doctor Not A..., edited by KathE Donnelly.
M. L. "Steve" Barnes
McCoy was back on the
The ruddy glow of the alien sky outside his cave cast bloody highlights on the crystalline surface that for want of a better word Dr. Leonard McCoy called 'sand.' Overhead the rolling clouds of dust and the heavy atmosphere filtered the light of the strange sun to give it a sanguine hue. McCoy had grown used to it, but he doubted if he'd ever find it pleasant to look at.
He crawled out the low entrance of the cave and stretched with discomfort. It was already hot, and the sand was shimmering with heat waves. Far to the west he heard a faint rumble from the distant volcano.
"Vesuvius is restless today," he mumbled, using his pet name for the unseen mountain.
He gathered his water flasks and set out across the flat desert. It was time to collect his day's ration of water.
The humidity was so low here that what sweat his nearly dehydrated body managed to manufacture was instantly sucked into the greedy atmosphere. Its evaporation made him feel cooler, and he was more comfortable than lying in the shade of the cave. He didn't mind the trip. After all, it was something to do.
He found the denuded landscape depressing as always. What plant life there was had to struggle against a multitude of hungry insects as well as the dry heat. Voracious mouths and pinchers were busily at work on every piece of stunted growth and blade of flora. And the absence of good undergrowth increased the heat and lack of moisture in the air. Somewhere along the line of evolution the planet's ecology had gotten out of balance and the desert was rapidly taking over.
McCoy reached the first expanse of polyfilm sheeting and he squatted down to carefully lift the rocks at one end where they pegged it to the ground. On the underside of the sagging plastic surface tiny beads of moisture were collecting from minute plants, the porous rocks, even the sand itself. Trust the heat of that sun to persuade anything to give up its liquid, he thought. He removed the basin he used for collecting the precious fluid and prepared to transfer it to a flask.
"I never thought I'd use the survival
training they gave me at
He caught a glimpse of himself in the little puddle of water and stared at the image in fascination.
He had finally run out of the facial depilatory he had packed when he had left the ship, and at first he had tried to hack away the whiskers with a surgical blade. Failing that, he had allowed nature to take its course and now a fine, soft beard was beginning to cover his lower face.
Makes me look younger somehow, he thought. How long has it been now? he wondered. And he pulled out his knife from the survival pack and checked the handle. Unless he had forgotten to mark a day, it had been nearly five weeks since the shuttlecraft had crashed and he had been stranded here.
"And where is here?" he asked himself aloud. For perhaps the hundredth time, his eyes
searched the landscape, sought familiar outlines. Nothing he had seen on the
"Well," he commented for his own benefit. "I said I wanted to leave the service; I just didn't think it would be like this."
He hadn't really thought about what it would be like, he realized now. The plague on Gamma Cygni had drained him, left him sick with frustration.
"What good is a doctor out here,
anyway?" he'd asked Jim Kirk, the
It had been an accumulation of things, he knew, that had led up to his decision. Too many hours on duty, too many months without leave, too many emergencies, and too little luck in saving his patients. It had been a bad year, and McCoy had finally had enough.
"I'm going back home to
"And do what, Doctor?" the Captain had asked. "Sit on your veranda the rest of your days, sipping mint juleps?" Kirk was angered at his choice; any waste of talent displeased him.
"If I feel like it, yes!" McCoy could remember his own annoyance that covered his underlying depression like a thin veneer. He could scarcely wait to get away.
Kirk's displeasure with him lingered in the back of his mind as he continued to collect the water from his catch basins. And yet at the end, he thought, he came to the shuttlecraft bay to wish me well. A good captain, Jim Kirk. And a good friend.
I wonder how M'Benga likes being in charge of
And I even miss Spock, he thought ruefully. Now I have no one to punctuate my sentences with logic.
He lifted the flask and shook it. The fluid amounted to barely a quarter of a cup, but he had several other collection spots and trudging to them was one way of spending a meaningless day.
He had visited four more of his 'water holes' when he spotted Duhr moving down out of the nearby rocks to join him. He waited until the pseudopod had slithered up to him before continuing on his way.
"Have a nice meal?" he asked her.
Duhr turned the rainbow-hued irises of her eyes upward to him and he could almost see the thoughts that proceeded speech flicker across her mind; talking was difficult for Duhr, and he was proud of the fact that she now knew several hundred words of English.
Her drab body was suddenly suffused with a myriad of colors and he waited patiently for the dazzling display to subside. Apparently the chemical impetus necessary for speech affected her entire body for she was never able to utter a word without this aurora borealis taking place.
"It was enough," she hummed in her monotone.
"For a jellyfish, you're getting mighty clever with words," he told her.
Again the spectacular ebb and flow of color.
"What is ... jellyfish?"
"Well, it might be your cousin -- a relative. It lives on Earth, or at least in our oceans. You sure resemble them. If I could only figure out how your kind had adapted to living on land, I might be able to tell you if there's any, connection."
It seemed unlikely that she was any relation to the jellyfish, he thought, but the comparison was understandable. She was a large, dully colored mound of protoplasm resting on surprisingly strong filaments that were her mode of transportation. She moved over the sand by rapid vibration of these thread-like underpinnings. At the top of the mound was what he generously called her head; it had a pair of vividly colored eyes and two slits that evidently served as ears. Her respiration was through her remarkably elastic skin. Her mouth was not visible; like the pseudopods of Earth, it was concealed somewhere under the body among the thread-like tentacles.
In the long days after the crash he had searched for intelligent life. There was an abundance here of microscopic and insect life, but of life with the capacity to respond to him with intelligence, he had found only Duhr.
By dint of careful questioning, he had determined she was a female. He had no idea what had happened to others of her kind and so far he had never been able to get her in the right mood to talk about it. Perhaps she lacked the words, but he suspected that she was just unwilling to discuss it.
He started off towards the shuttlecraft, and Duhr slithered alongside. He was grateful for her company, small and dog-like though it might be. There were times when her presence was all that kept him going, and he knew it. It was a debt he might never be able to repay.
"Where do you come from, Duhr?" he asked as they moved over the sand. It was an attempt to get her to reveal her species' history. She had never responded to the question before, but surprisingly this time primaries flooded across her body, and she replied.
"I come from ... here."
He gestured. "This place? This planet?"
"This place. Here. "
"Aren't there any more like you?"
A long pause. He sensed her reluctance to answer.
"No more. Not now."
He wondered again what could have happened to Duhr's species. Disease seemed the most likely culprit, or perhaps they had exhausted the food supply. Something was drastically wrong with the planet's ecology, he had already seen that, and perhaps her kind had been caught up in the disaster. He had watched her feed one day and discovered that, not unlike her Earth look-alikes, she ate small, almost microscopic life forms that fed on the lichens and flora of the planet. It must take a vast amount of such tiny creatures to keep her alive, but there seemed to be an abundance of such food available now.
It isn't easy staying alive in this place, he thought, and looked askance at the fiery sun. Its heat hit him like hammer blows, and he felt a small river of sweat trickle down his sides. The skin on his throat was raw from salt residue, and he could feel his tongue, rough and fuzzy, starting to swell. I'll take a drink as soon as I visit the ship, he told himself. God, I wish it rained in this place.
They had reached the wreckage of the shuttlecraft now, and McCoy felt the familiar surge of regret. The command portion was smashed beyond recognition, and the remainder of the ship was twisted and torn. Leonard had been a victim of lucky circumstance that he had been seated aft and the impact had thrown him into the after compartment.
If only we could have made a soft landing, he thought. They didn't have a chance. The Commander and one of his crewmen had died on impact and the other, a young ensign, had been too badly injured to save without surgery facilities. McCoy had tried. He had tried for two days to keep young Johnson alive. But it had been hopeless. McCoy could still remember the youthful face with its smattering of freckles. Just a boy, really.
He had attempted, in the first few days, to repair some of the damage to the ship, but it had been beyond anyone's capabilities. And as he had often pointed out, he was a doctor, not a mechanic.
Duhr had never ventured this close to the craft before, and now she was filled with curiosity.
"Where are others? You said there were others."
McCoy pointed to the rocky
"They were killed in the crash, Duhr."
Duhr circled, examined the torn spaceship.
"Why did it fall from sky?"
"A storm, Duhr. A fierce storm of ion
particles. It cut us off from
communications with the
"Why did you come with it?"
He considered his answer, found no simple way to put it. "I'd made up my mind to leave the service, Duhr, the Starfleet. We'd been through a bad planetary plague, I'd lost a lot of patients. And I don't know, but it seems that most of the cases I've treated out here in space were beyond our technology -- gambler's luck, mostly, that I could save them. It's such a tremendous, overwhelming job trying to practice space medicine." He paused, realized how insecure he sounded. "I'm good at my work, Duhr, but even a miracle worker reaches his limit sooner or later. I'd reached mine."
''But why did you come?"
"The men on this craft were based on the
planet I was going to and they had come to the
"Transporter." Duhr brought the word out in slow, difficult syllables.
"That's a device that takes you apart and puts you back together ... hopefully in the same arrangement." He grimaced with distaste. "I'll tell you about it sometime."
"Anyway," he went on, "we crashed here, and I don't even know where this is." He pointed upward. "I don't know what star that is, or what quadrant we're in."
He suddenly became aware that his stationary position outside the ship was becoming intolerable. He was no longer sweating, and his skin was prickling with a thousand tiny fires. He remembered the drink he had promised himself and decided to finish his work before having it.
"If only it rained on this god-forsaken hunk of rock. Just one little rain storm to cool things off."
"Rain?" Duhr had heard the word before but had not questioned him about it during the weeks they had become acquainted.
"Moisture - like the light dew that settles here at night, but heavier, more of it. It falls out of the sky."
"It comes from up there?" She rolled her chromatic eyes upward.
"Yes. It falls in little drops. And our sky is cool and blue, not cherry red like yours."
"We have something like that -- many years ago, I remember. But it no longer ... rains ... here."
He looked around, at the dying vegetation, the scorching, open landscapes. He could not conceive of it having rained here in many years. But it Duhr said she could remember it.
"How old are you, Duhr?" He asked out of his curiosity, but of course, she had no way of measuring time and no way of telling him if she had. She merely looked at him out of brilliant eyes.
"I have been here ... for a very long time," she said finally.
He turned away to the shuttlecraft and slipped inside the crushed hull. He had come here every day since the crash and sent out the emergency beam, searching the heavens with his distress call. It had been designed to withstand impact force and had been in working order ever since.
But the power packs were failing at last, and he had no idea if any ship was out there to receive him anyway. Today the beam was noticeably weaker, and as he watched the signal light flickered and went out. He threw the switch alternately between 'on' and 'off' and then just left it on.
He still had his communicator, of course, but it worked over very short distances and was of no use to him. He had done all he could, had exhausted the possibilities for rescue. Even if Jim had found out they had been lost, even if he had searched for him, there was no way to trace him in the vastness of space. And the chance that he had attracted the attention of some passing ship was too remote to even consider.
He sat in the ruined interior of the craft and thought about his future. The small emergency rations carried aboard a shuttlecraft were almost gone and even though he had managed to eek out enough water for the time being, he was certain he could not exist forever on the minute quantities of water he had been able to collect.
"Spock," he whispered softly, "I think this time you may be wrong about there always being alternatives."
He had his medical kit with him, of course, and there were injections available to him if that was what he wanted. But he knew he didn't.
"What's wrong with me?" he asked himself. "I could just go to sleep after a shot and never wake up. Why can't I give up?"
He knew the answer to that, but he was not one to examine his own nature too closely. And at first he had been entertaining the wild idea that Kirk might be looking for him. He knew Jim Kirk, knew his tenacity. If there was the slightest chance, the smallest hope...
But of course, Jim might have been forced to abandon the search. There was only so much time a starship captain could devote to looking for one very lost physician.
Well, Leonard thought, I won't give up. Not until I starve or run out of water. Or the heat bakes out my brains. I guess I'm just a stubborn old boy from
At the thought of
He started up and staggered from the craft to lean against the hull, shaken and sick feeling.
His hand caressed the pocked skin of the ship and felt the pulse that said 'home.' Abruptly he remembered he had not had his water yet today. He drew shaking fingers away from the shuttlecraft and poured out a small cupful of fluid from the collection flasks. He took a long time to swallow the precious liquid, letting the wetness slide down his throat with luxurious slowness. He licked the last droplets off his lips and drew a deep, unsteady breath. It was time to head back to the cave.
Duhr was slithering around his feet, making noises of wonderment over the ship. She did not fully understand its function, but she thought of it as McCoy's possession. She began using her forward tentacles to smooth away the sand that was slowly burying the ship's nose.
"Never mind, Duhr," he told her as he started to walk away. "It doesn't matter about the ship anymore."
From force of habit he broke out a food concentrate pack and began to munch the contents as he walked.
"I figure I've just about enough food to last the week," he told Duhr. "After that, well, I'll have to see."
Preoccupied, wondering what miniscule plants he might obtain some sustenance from, he began to question Duhr.
"You say you've lived here for a long time, Duhr. And that it used to rain. Was the planet different then? I mean, were there more green things growing and was it cooler?"
"Yes. Before the ... the little things that chew and eat the plants ... began to eat all the ... green things."
"I wondered about that. And how the insects grew so numerous to take over. It seems you're their only natural enemy, Duhr, and one small jellyfish can't keep the balance of nature." He paused. "Were there many of your kind once?"
"Once. As many as there are lights overhead at night."
"You mean stars?" He mused on this awhile. "Then what happened to them?" He waited with detached curiosity to see if this time she would answer.
Her colors washed over her body. "A sickness. They grew weak, no longer ate. Soon they all went to sleep."
"Oh. I see." The euphemism was not intentional; it was Duhr's childlike simplicity that supplied the term, and he felt a vague sense of embarrassment as if he had been caught peeking into a very private corner of her life.
"You must have some natural immunity to the disease that finished them." He sighed. This was a cruel place to live, in more ways than one.
They had reached his cave and McCoy, from habit, turned and searched the ruddy sky. Once he had even thought he had glimpsed a thunderhead, but it had turned out to be only smoke from the volcano.
Duhr saw his eyes looking skyward, and she moved closer to him. "You think much about this rain?"
The depression settled on him once again. "Sure, Duhr,'" he answered with reluctance. "It means home to me. Earthmen feel close to the rain. Farmers need it, city men enjoy it, kids go out and play in it."
"Play in it?"
"You know, have fun, race around..." He broke off, unable to finish. "I've got to go in now, Duhr."
"Stay awhile, McCoy. Talk about Earth."
"Not today. I don't feel like it." He was patient with her lack of understanding. "Leave it be, Duhr. You can't know what it means to me."
"I know lonely." The words sounded almost stubborn. He looked down at her in surprise.
"Yes. I guess you do." He felt very close to the pseudopod at that moment. "I'm sorry, Duhr. I wish your kind hadn't ... ceased to exist."
"They did not ... cease. They are asleep."
He could not argue with her blind faith.
"Yes, sure, Duhr. I understand."
"No. They sleep nearby. McCoy would like to visit them?"
"You mean...?" He was electrified by the news, uncertain of how to interpret what she was telling him. "You mean ... they're really asleep? They're not dead? Haven't ceased to exist?"
"I told McCoy. They became ill, went to sleep."
"Yes, I know, but..." He broke off. "Sure, I'd like to see them, Duhr. Maybe there's some way I can help..." He let the words trail off. Now don't go getting your optimism in the way of reality, he told himself. That's what got you into Starfleet in the first place. "You lead the way."
Duhr took him across the stretch of sand near his own cave, into an area honeycombed with dark, cool underground caverns. There was a multitude of chambers here, and McCoy peered into several of them.
From many came the unmistakable smell of death and decay. He did not bother to investigate these, nor did Duhr stop at them. As intangible as the idea of death was, the pseudopod apparently understood it. She headed directly to two large vaults where clean fresh air and coolness gave no hint of morbidity.
He stopped at the chamber doors and stared. Hundreds of quiescent mounds of flesh met his eyes. As silent and still as death, yet he sensed there was life there. Tentatively he got out his mediscanner, took readings on first one then another of the creatures. They were in some sort of suspended animation, a form of hibernation, and he no longer found any traces of the disease that had sickened them.
"They're healthy, Duhr," he exclaimed to the quiet little companion. "I find no sign of the illness that struck them down. But they're in some kind of a trance, a type of hibernation, that I've no understanding of." He flipped open his medikit, checked the contents. "Duhr," he asked steadily, despite his rising excitement, "may I give one of them an injection, a shot, of my medicine? It might work, could release them from this strange sleep."
She slithered about, obviously uncertain, then finally agreed. "McCoy is a friend," she said using the first word he had taught her. "He would not harm my kind."
He quickly administered the shot, and within a few seconds was rewarded with an increase of respiration, a slight rise of temperature. "I think it's going to work, Duhr," he told the anxious creature, "I think..." But then the disappointment. At a point only halfway to consciousness, his patient stopped responding, lapsed back into the semicomatose condition. He checked the animal thoroughly and found no signs of injury from the shot. In fact, the creature's vital signs were stronger. But it did not awaken. He put down his scanner, turned away.
"I'm sorry, Duhr. The shot wasn't big enough. There wasn't enough of the stimulant in my
medikit to revive it. If I just had the
medical supplies of the
Sadly the two returned to his cave and there they parted. McCoy to seek shelter from the late afternoon sun, Duhr to search out her daily food supply.
For a long time, McCoy sat just beneath the overhang at the front of his cave and watched the pseudopod feeding among the rocks and lichens. He was beset with an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
If I could only revive some of Duhr's kind, he thought, she wouldn't be so lonely. And if her species once again began feeding on the overpopulous insect life, the foliage would slowly come back despite the lack of heavy rain. Once the plant life was restored, moisture would increase in the air. It would never be a lush, wet paradise here, he knew, but it could be a great deal more habitable. But not without Duhr's kind.
Gradually the heat and his disappointment combined to rob him of energy, make him drowsy. He crawled back under the shelter of the overhang, removed his medikit and communicator from his belt, and stretched out on the soft sand. In a short time he was asleep.
He dreamed of rain and
Soft morning fog rising from the low places, swirling against the great hoary trees in a blue mist. Reaching the red hills and wreathing the low pines in a mantle of gray. Droplets fell from the mist, and it began to rain in earnest, steadily, gently, soaking the earth, releasing the wet-dust smell, turning the red ground into crimson clay, slick to the touch and cushiony beneath bare feet.
He could imagine the erotic touch of the rain on his naked skin, feel excitement rising in him. He thought he fell face forward to embrace the precious earth, press himself against it, and let the cool drops wash over him. He held his breath to listen for the gentle drumming of the rain...
"McCoy, are you there? McCoy, can you hear me?"
He sat up, shaking his head in bewilderment, groggy from the heat and certain he was imagining the voice.
"Bones ... if you can hear me -- answer."
It was Jim Kirk's voice, coming to him over the open communicator. He stared at the device as if it had become some strange creature, dangerous to his sanity. Then with a spastic twitch of his hand he had the instrument clutched in his palm and the tightness in his throat threatened to choke back his words.
"Jim! Jim, is it really you? Don't tell me you're a figment of my imagination. I couldn't take that!"
"Bones! You're alive! I'd almost given up hope. Are you all right? Is the shuttlecraft crew with you?"
McCoy's face grew serious, almost sad. "They didn't make it. Jim. I'm the only survivor."
There was a brief silence. "I'm sorry, Bones," Kirk said finally. "It must have been difficult ... and lonely."
Leonard broke into a broad grin. "Not any more!" He almost chortled with his delight. "When will you be here? I can't wait to get off this god-forsaken furnace!"
"We'll be there in forty-eight hours or less. Hang in there, Bones."
"How did you find me? I'd about lost hope..."
"We heard the shuttlecraft never reached port, and Spock had charted the ion storm. It was a simple deduction to figure out what had happened. But finding you was something else. We've been searching every spare hour we've had. We were making one final sweep of this quadrant when we picked up your emergency beam."
McCoy closed his eyes prayerfully, then felt a touch of embarrassment. "But I mean ... why? After all, I'd said I was through with Starfleet. You weren't obliged to search for me, Captain."
Another short pause. He tapped the communicator anxiously, fearful that it had ceased to function.
Finally Kirk's voice came through calmly. "Remind me to tell you what a silly ass you can be sometimes, Bones, when I see you again. As for your leaving Starfleet – well, I hoped with a short rest you might change your mind. M'Benga and I just happened to overlook filing for your replacement."
McCoy was grinning so hard now his face hurt. "Well, then get me back aboard, and don't spare the horses!"
He heard a slight background noise, and Kirk said. "Mr. Spock wants to know why you think we've reverted to horsepower. I think he's trying to make a joke, Bones."
McCoy's smile grew even broader. "Tell him I'll be glad to see even a Vulcan after what I've been through!"
He was about to sign off when he caught sight of Duhr, feeding down on the desert below the mouth of his cave. "Wait a minute, Jim..." He stared down at the pseudopod, deep in thought. He wanted to be back aboard that ship in the worst way, to see humans again, to drink all the water he wanted, to stand under a cool shower. But what about Duhr?
He could give life back to Duhr's species and in doing so, this planet.
If I can save them, he thought, it may make up for the dozen or so lives I lost in the plague. If I hadn't been in Starfleet, I would never have been out here in the first place, and if I hadn't been in space I might never have had this chance. I guess it all balances out in the end.
He broke his silence quietly. "Jim, can you delay your departure from here for a few days? Send me down some drugs and additional personnel?"
"We're seventy-two hours until our next assignment, Bones, but I think I could stretch that a bit. I thought you were anxious to get out of there! I thought you were dying to leave!"
McCoy made a wry face. "If I stay here too much longer, the dying part may be literal." He sobered. "No, Jim, this is something personal. I'll explain to you later. It's a promise I made that I'd like to keep."
He could visualize the various expressions that must be flowing over Kirk's face.
"I understand, Bones," Kirk said softly. "If it's that important to you..."
"It is, Jim. It may be the most important thing I've ever done in my life. And I think you may be right -- I'd like to reconsider my resignation."
"You're sure you'll be all right?"
"For now, yes. I'll be expecting you in forty-eight hours, and I'll give you a list of the drugs and supplies I'll need then. McCoy out."
He closed the communicator gently but held it tightly in his hand, a link to life and friends.
You've got to stop expecting to perform miracles, he warned himself. You aren't God. But you can do what you were trained to do, and do it where you know you belong.
He got up from where he was sitting and walked down the slope to join Duhr and tell her the good news. Already the planet seemed a more pleasant place and the two friends lingered to watch the setting of the fiery sun.
"It looks like a