Disclaimer:Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the creation and property of M. L. "Steve" Barnes and is copyright © 1972 by M. L. "Steve" Barnes. Originally printed in Grup #1, 1972.Rated R.

 

Gambit

M. L. "Steve" Barnes

 

Sulu glanced over his right shoulder to look at Captain James Kirk.

"Sir, we are approaching the Phantos system. We should be in orbit around Phantos 3 in fifteen minutes."

"Thank you, Mister Sulu. Reduce speed to sub-light and take us in."

"Aye, sir."

Kirk tapped a button on the arm of his command chair.

"Captain's Log, Star Date: 3232.0. We have crossed our galaxy and are nearing the Phantos star group. Very little is known about the one inhabited planet, number three, except that it was colonized in recent years by people from Rigel 5. We are told that they appear to be physiologically similar to the Vulcans. The Phantos system is not part of the Federation, but it has been discovered that a string of satellites around their fourth planet is rich in dilithium deposits. The Federation needs the great power these crystals can supply, but negotiations with the people of Phantos have proven unfruitful; they have refused to accept communications with our ships. Although the colony had known technological advances on Rigel, they appear to have abandoned modern methods and live a simple, almost primitive life. The planet inhabited by the colony is difficult to reach, as it is periodically swept by ion storms. As a result of this activity, an ion warp has developed and encases the planet. There is little data on this natural phenomenon, as it is a recent discovery. We do know that it makes an effective barrier behind which the people of Phantos prefer to remain isolated. Somehow the Federation must find a way to bargain with them for the rights to the dilithium before the Klingons learn of this deposit. The normal routes of communication have been blocked, our envoys ignored. It is now up to the Enterprise to reach them. We must have those dilithium satellites... Kirk out." He swiveled in his chair and looked at Uhura.

"They are still monitoring our messages, Captain," the Nubian said. "Their communications set-up is an old type. It's badly in need of repair, full of interference. But they are receiving most of what we send. They just aren't responding."

"Very well, Lieutenant. Continue to use the old code on any messages we send to Star Base 10. I want them to understand everything we say so they will know we have come in friendship." He turned to his left a little.

"Mister Spock, have you any words about that warp?"

The Vulcan drew in upon himself as if to search his memory.

"It represents an unknown factor, Captain. We know very little about such ion warps. We are aware that they tend to on the planets they surround." He paused and added slowly, "There is a theory, unproven at this time, that they may radically alter conditions on the surface of any planet they encase."

"Could it be dangerous to humanoid life?"

"Unknown, Captain. We do not have enough information to extrapolate a positive answer."

"Have you been able to decipher any of the messages from the surface of the planet through the interference?"

The half-Vulcan hesitated for a moment, his eyes avoiding the Captain.

"Spock?" Kirk stressed the First Officer's name slightly.

"Yes, Captain. I have." He met Kirk's eyes steadily at last. "It seems our information was correct. They understand Terran speech well enough, but their common language is similar to an ancient form of my people's tongue."

"It seems your race got around quite a bit, Mister Spock."

The Vulcan made no comment, but Kirk saw a muscle jump along the alien's jaw. The Captain turned back to face the forward viewscreen.

"Mister Spock, I want you to program that information into the computer. I want to know everything they say down there."

"No, sir."

Kirk spun about to stare at his First Officer in disbe1ief.

"What was that, Mister Spock?"

The alien got slowly to his feet and faced Kirk with a determined air.

"I cannot obey you, Captain. These people have not asked for our intervention nor have they shown a desire to communicate with us. The Prime Directive..."

"I am well aware of the Prime Directive, Mister Spock! It says nothing at all about our attempting to establish communications with other worlds. That is the purpose of this ship... Now, will you do as I ordered?"

This exchange had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the Bridge crew. All eyes were on Spock.

The Vulcan drew a deep breath and then stepped quietly away from his computer complex. His face was unreadable.

"I cannot, Captain. In my opinion, we have no right to interfere."

Kirk shot to his feet and glared at the Vulcan.

"Personal opinions are something you aren't entitled to, Mister! You are a member of Star Fleet and your job is to obey your Captain's orders! Now, get to it, you mutinous half-breed!"

Spock leveled a pitying look on his Captain and calmly stalked to the turbolift. Kirk watched, stunned, as the doors closed behind the sparse back.

"Chekov!" Kirk snapped. "Get to Spock's station and set up programming on the language of Phantos. Sulu, you have the con. I'll be with Doctor McCoy." Face flushed with annoyance, the Captain strode off the Bridge.

* * *

 

Leonard McCoy was just finishing a routine physical when Kirk barged into Sick Bay. The doctor took one look at his face and dismissed the crewman he was examining. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall.

"All right, what is it? I can tell by your face that it's some major disaster. You haven't looked this bad since we had those tribbles aboard."

Kirk waved aside the bantering tone.

"It's Spock, Bones. He's gone completely haywire. I've been noticing for several days that he's not himself and just now he deliberate1y disobeyed a direct order. Not only that, but he walked off the Bridge and left me with egg on my face."

"Spock did that?" McCoy's voice went up the scale in surprise. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It's hard to imagine."

"Is he sick, Bones?"

"Well, I'd have to run a complete check on him to know for sure, but Christine did mention that he hasn't been eating and he does seem irritable lately. I put it down to normal Vulcan moodiness, but now I'm not sure. You don't suppose...?"

"So soon? No, it doesn't seem likely. And his actions have been more vague than aroused. It's as though he were experiencing a very different kind of disorientation."

"Jim, we both know that Spock is under stress most of the time. Even going through some of our routine tasks stirs up conflict of some sort in him. I've warned you before that any normal man would lose his sanity under the conditions with which he lives. And Spock has managed it for thirty or forty years."

"Until now," Kirk said quietly.

"Until now?" McCoy frowned. "You think it's that bad? That he's finally cracked under the strain?"

"I see no other alternative to consider, Bones. Help him. He's the best First Officer a man could want; my right arm. Get him straightened out and soon. I need him for this Phantos thing."

"Jim, I haven't much information about the workings of the Vulcan mind. It would take a better psychiatrist than I am to analyze him with the knowledge I have available."

"Then get more. Contact Star Base 10. There's supposed to be a doctor there, a Culhane, who studied on Vulcan, isn't there?"

"I could contact him and ask him to send additional information, I suppose. But, Captain, you're asking me to tamper with one of the most powerful mental structures we know ... a Vulcan mind. And not just any Vulcan mind, but Spock's. Wouldn't it be better to wait until we reach...?"

"No, Bones! I need him now! Get him back on duty as soon as you're able. I'll send him down for his initial exam." Kirk looked at the doctor who was motionless with uncertainty. "Get on it, man! I want him on the Bridge as quickly as possible!"

McCoy stared after the Captain and then, with a heavy sigh, he sat down to contact the nearby Star Base.

* * *

 

It was an hour or so later and Kirk was back on the Bridge when his intercom whistled.

"Jim, this is McCoy. You've got to find Spock! He just broke away from me! He seemed very upset, almost irrational. Use caution when you find him, he could be dangerous!"

"Did you see where he was headed?"

"No." McCoy paused and Kirk imagined a wry look on the doctor's face. "I've been unconscious. He gave me one of his damnable nerve pinches. I don't know how long I've been out."

Kirk cut him off and started to contact security when Sulu spoke up excitedly.

"Captain, someone has launched a shuttlecraft!"

"Engage tractor beams, Mister Sulu!"

"Too late, Captain. He's already in the heart of the warp. It would be useless."

Kirk let go a small breath.

"Well," he said quietly. "That answers the question of where Mister Spock has gone."

He eased back into his chair and studied the deck at his feet. He was aware of the curious and sympathetic stares from his crew; they all knew of his friendship for the Vulcan. At last he spoke.

"Did you get a fix on his general heading, Mister Sulu?"

"Yes, sir. He seemed to be heading directly for the surface of Phantos Three."

"Uhura, open a channel to the planet."

The communications officer whirled to her board and replied almost immediately.

"Channel open, sir, but I don't know if they will respond."

"This is Captain Kirk of the Federation Starship Enterprise. One of our crewmen has left our ship in a shuttlecraft and is headed for your planet. He is ill and not responsible for his actions. I ask that you do not harm him and that we be permitted to come to your planet after him. We would consider it an act of friendship on your part." Kirk sat back and waited. The silence was overpowering.

He started to repeat his message when there was a surge of noise interference from Uhura's board and a strange voice spoke.

"We are aware that a craft is approaching and we understand your concern for your crewman. We will hold him here for you. Prepare to be met at coordinates 331 by 171. Please do not bring any weapons with you or your crewman may be punished. Do you understand, Captain Kirk?"

"Perfectly. We will be down immediately ... and thank you. Captain Kirk out." He turned the ship over to Sulu and went below.

McCoy was collecting his field pack of instruments when Kirk got to Sick bay. He was reaching for some additional sedatives when Kirk stopped him.

"Don't bother with too much, Bones. You won't need it."

"If I have to sedate that Vulcan into submission, I'd better go prepared."

"Spock is as sane as you or I ... perhaps more so." Kirk was grinning at him.

"He certainly hasn't been acting like it. He's on edge, disobedient, mutinous. And he attacked his doctor. Does that sound like sanity to you?"

Kirk's grin widened.

"I'm sorry we had to fool you, Bones. But it was necessary to get you to contact Star Base 10 while the Phantosians were monitoring our transmissions. We wanted them to believe Spock was unbalanced."

McCoy gave Kirk's face a thorough scrutiny.

"Oh, I see," he said finally. "You wanted him down there so you would have an excuse to contact them."

"And not only that, Bones, but the Phantosians and Vulcans are somewhat similar. Spock can be helping our cause while he's there. They might feel antagonistic toward Terrans but he is like them."

"Playing games again I see. Poker?"

"Chess. You sacrifice a pawn to win the game."

"Was that nerve pinch part of the plan or was that Spock's idea?" McCoy rubbed his neck gingerly.

"I'll see that you get a chance for revenge. It will be worth it...Your performance was magnificent!" Kirk turned to leave. "I'll have to ask you to accompany me for appearance's sake."

"I still don't see why someone can't let me in on things around here." McCoy grumbled as he gathered up his kit. "I can keep a secret when I have to. Doctors are good at that."

"But it was much more convincing this way, Bones. Let's go. Our unwilling hosts may get impatient."

* * *

Scotty was puttering around with the internal workings of the console when they reached the transporter room. He got to his feet with a frown.

"I can't let you beam down, Captain. Another ion storm is building up out there, and no telling what might happen if we attempt to send you through it. No, sir, you'll have to use the other shuttlecraft."

McCoy beamed gleefully.

"Now that's the best news I've had all day," he chuckled. :Kirk strode to the intercom.

"Mister Sulu, have you plotted that storm yet?"

"Yes, Captain. It's headed directly for Phantos Three. We'll have to pull the ship back for safety."

Kirk paused to consider this.

"Mister Sulu, you have the con. McCoy and I are going down to Phantos Three in a shuttlecraft. After we are well away, get the Enterprise out of here. Have you a projection on the duration of the storm?"

"Yes, sir. Thirty two hours."

"Very good, Mister Sulu. We'll rendezvous at these coordinates at that time. Kirk out." He headed for the door. "Come on, Bones, let's get to the shuttlecraft bay. We've got a mission to perform and only thirty-two hours to complete it."

* * *

Aboard the first shuttlecraft Spock had settled down for a rough flight. The ship's behavior was erratic and as he neared the heart of the warp, she began to plunge like a wild animal. She leaped upward nearly out of control. Grimly, the Vulcan clung to the controls and at last broke through into the heart of the barrier.

The ship was suspended in a vast pool of milky light, caught like a dust mote in a sunbeam. The light around her grew in intensity until it was a fiery glow of gold. There was no sound, no feeling of motion, an absence of life in this place. It was like the vacuum of outer space but infinitely more deadly in its manner. Great waves of molten fire reached out and raced toward the vessel, breaking over it like some strange surf of flame. The hull of the shuttlecraft began to heat and glow with a weird phosphorescent hue.

Just as Spock was about to go aft and check for malfunction of the engines, a great surge of power struck the craft and she was flung forward out of the bands of light. She went completely out of control, spinning end over end, falling down through clouds of silver like a stone plummeting through water. With all his Vulcan strength, Spock was unable to retard the ship's fall. He barely had time to apply some braking power before she struck the surface of the planet with a rending crash.

The First Officer was thrown forward against the controls and momentarily stunned. When he swam up to full consciousness, he was aware of an ominous crackle behind him. He got to his feet groggily and staggered to the escape hatch. The shuttlecraft interior was a wall of flame and smoke was pouring from the ventilator panels. He hit the door's release catch a blow and lunged through the opening to fall heavily on the soft soil of Phantos Three.

For a moment he lay on the warm ground and tried to clear his head of a red mist. Then he blinked and looked intently at the sky. There was no ruddy veil before his eyes; the sky was red. As red as that of: his home planet Vulcan. He got to his feet slowly and brushed the dirt from his uniform.

He was not certain how far from the settlement he had located on the scanners. He had no way of knowing how far off course the warp had hurled him. Having managed to get his tricorder out of the wreckage, he took it out now to scan the area. He picked up readings of humanoid life forms less than 10 kilometers away. Since he was expected to establish a threshold of contact with the people of the planet, he set out through the jungle-like undergrowth in the direction of the readings.

Spock had not gone far when a surge of dizziness washed over him. He stopped, nearly blinded, and shook his head in a bewildered manner and at that moment a shock of pain engulfed him. He fell to his knees, a silent cry twisting his lips. The tricorder went spinning away as he put out his hand to break his fall.

For a moment, he remained as he was, summoning from some dark region of his mind the control necessary to vanquish the pain. Knife-sharp, it cut through him. His heart labored and his lungs strained as he fought off a growing darkness.

Suddenly, he felt a soft hand touch his face. He lifted pain-filled eyes and tried to focus on the source of this oddity. Dimly, through a shower of stabling light streaks, he could see the face of a girl as she bent over him. Her dark eyes were large with anxiety and her face pale. She was holding a small flask out to him.

"Drink this," she said. "It will strengthen you."

He was in no position to argue. With shaking fingers he accepted the vial and drank in a few swallows. Almost immediately a warmth started in his chest and his head began to clear. He exerted a tremendous effort and got to his feet. Her hand was extended to him, but he ignored it. He shook his head once and looked down at his slender benefactress.

"It is our atmosphere," she said by way of explanation. "It effects all of us that way at first. You will get used to it. Was that your ship I saw burning?"

He nodded, struck by something remarkable. Although he could hear her worlds as plainly as if she had spoken, her lips had not moved. He touched her cheek gently.

"Do you hear me?" he asked.

(Of course, I hear you. One does not need a tongue to speak nor ears to hear. The heart will do both.) She smiled at him.

Telepathy, he thought. And she had chosen an ancient Vulcan Yer Ma, that exquisite form of intimate contact, to demonstrate her knowledge to him. Nostalgia touched him briefly. Although the Yer Ma form was as stylized and formal as a ritual, it supplied a great deal of the beauty of Vulcan life. Reserved for communication between persons closely acquainted, it became, through the mind touch, the epitome of personal contact. Its origins were lost in antiquity. There was no doubt in his mind that she had picked up the pattern for the Yer Ma from his thoughts. A smile almost reached his grave face.

(How are you called?) she asked.

"I am Spock," he said aloud.

She looked puzzled; apparently the name was difficult for her to comprehend. In Terran tongue, it held no meaning. Hesitantly, he put out one hand to touch her temple and summoned the name to his mind.

Her eyes widened and she drew back, startled. Then she gave a noise≠less laugh and clutched his hand in hers. He felt warm moisture drop on his fingers and when he looked down, he saw she was crying, the tears splashing unheeded on their clasped hands. She looked up at him through wet lashes and grinned.

(Do not be concerned. I cry because I am happy. You are the first. The very first I have ever been able to communicate with! I thought it was simply luck that you understood me. I am often able to hear some of what others think ... bits and pieces ... but you thought the name to me directly. How is this possible?)

He withdrew his hand from hers and when he spoke again it was verbally.

"My people have a limited telepathy. But it is not so great a gift as you possess. We must touch or be in close contact with the person to whom we speak... Are there no others in your colony like you?"

She stood quiet for a moment, curious about his retreat from her. Then she answered.

(I am the only one.)

"What is your name?"

(I am Sheron, daughter of the leader, Rimon.)

He looked around at the wild area. Thickets of bamboo-like growth clogged the paths and large trees with feathery fronds grew thickly as far as the eye could see.

"You come here alone?"

(I find it necessary sometimes to go off by myself. A fear of meditation, I guess. And the thoughts of the others. Sometimes, they overwhelm me. At any rate, occasionally I must be alone.)

He looked rather soberly, thinking that he, too, had those moments, when solitude was vital to his sanity. She nodded as the vagrant thoughts reached her.

(I think we are much alike, Spock.)

He was abruptly reminded of his mission here and turned to look in the direction he had formerly taken.

"Did you come from the settlement?" he asked.

(I am from the village, yes.)

"I must contact your people. I wish to speak with your leader or your council. Will you take me there?"

Before she could reply, he reeled with another attack of vertigo. He paled and she saw his unsteadiness. She stepped to his side with concern and looked into his deep-set brown eyes. She studied them for moment, apparently searching for something there. At last, she seemed satisfied, for she nodded slowly and touched his arm slightly; he felt the warmth of her fingers through his sleeve."

(I will help you,) she said.

Sheron led Spock through the heavy underbrush to the clearing that ended at the walls of the village. The wall was in disrepair, falling into ruin in many places. She motioned for him to follow closely and circumnavigated the main entrance. Once inside the walls of the town, she led him toward a large stone structure that dominated the small settlement. It was a tower, similar to those that adorned the castles on Rigel Four; but, although it was attached to the beginnings of a of a wall, the wall led nowhere and it was obvious that the people had abandoned the idea of building a castle long ago. The tower flung its turret defiantly above the rest of the small dwellings, a symbol of past ambition.

(The Kiven ...where our leader always resides.) Her thought touched him.

She led him up a small twisting stairway that emerged near a large, warm chamber. Despite the pleasant climate here, there was a fire burning in an open pit and velvet draperies hung against the walls. There was an abundance of color and light. Spock looked around with interest for the owner of such a room.

A small, grey-haired man rose from a window seat and came uncertainly toward them.

(My father. He is a good, kind man, but the years have dimmed his keenness. Be patient with him.)

The frail little man appeared to be almost blind. He peered first at Sheron and then at Spock.

"What have you here, daughter?" he asked. His voice was small and faint, a whisper among dead leaves.

She did not attempt to reach her father verbally. Instead she went through some graphic hand signals that Spock found impossible to follow. She ended it by coming to Spock and laying a hand on his chest briefly then touching her own breast in a related manner.

The old man looked from Sheron to Spock and back to his daughter.

"Really, Sheron? Are you certain?" he asked. At her bright nod he smiled at Spock and it was like a beam of light in the still room. "My daughter tells me the most remarkable tale, sir. Of finding you in the underbrush and being able to speak to you." He came close to Spock and scanned his face. The smile faded a little and he nodded slowly. "I perceive you are a Vulcan. I had hoped you were one like Sheron. But, no matter. I am. What brings you to Phantos 3?"

Spock was relieved that the man did not realize who he was.

"I am Spock from the Federation ship Enterprise. The Federation wishes to speak to your leaders about the satellites around the fourth planet. It would like to obtain the mining rights to them. I assure you the Federation would be most fair, if you will only negotiate with them."

Rimon shrugged impatiently.

"We have heard of your interest. We have no need of your Federation. We do not desire payment nor do we wish to discuss mining rights. What could your Federation possibly offer that we might want? We have everything we need here... we are at peace, happy."

"They could offer you protection from a common enemy, sir. You cannot hope to keep the dilithium deposits a secret forever. The Klingon Empire would be ruthless in their disposition of your people, should you resist them."

Rimon massaged his chin with a trembling hand. He seemed to consider the Vulcan's words, but a certain vagueness filmed his eyes. He sighed.

"I am an old man. I cannot concern myself with the troubles of your worlds."

"You may find, sir, that they are your troubles as well. Do not delay any longer. Call a council, or make the decision to grant the mineral rights now."

The grey husk of the old man seemed to fill away as he drew himself erect.

"I am Rimon, leader of the colony. I am advised by the council, but I have the final word. And I do not agree with your concern about us."

Spock sighed audibly. He was quite certain he was not going to be able to reason with Rimon; the old man was almost senile.

"Is there somewhere that I might rest? I find myself exhausted by the crash of my ship."

Sheron moved quickly to his side, contrition in her eyes.

(I am sorry. I did not realize. You seemed quite strong. Come, I will take you to a place.) She held out a hand which he again ignored. (No one will disturb you there.)

Rimon glanced from her to Spock and nodded his agreement. He gave them a small bow of farewell.

"You are most welcome to stay for a short while," he said, "But our climate is not too healthy for those not Rigellian."

Spock was not sure if the words were intended as a threat or not. The people of Phantos Three were very jealous of their privacy.

They left the chamber and Sheron took him a short way down the flight of stairs to a small room that overlooked the center of the village.

(You may rest here.)

"Sheron, men from my ship ... friends," he hastened to add at her startled look, "will soon land outside the village. They will undoubtedly be brought to speak with your father. After they have seen him, will you bring them to me?"

She looked at him a little warily and he felt the questioning touch of her mind on his. He made no resistance to her curiosity, steeling himself for the subtle invasion. He found the sensation almost pleasant. It had been a long time since he had surrendered his thoughts to one who could truly understand them. Still, he only permitted her to probe the surface; he was not yet willing that she delve deeper.

Aloud, he finally asked, "Is there some way my friends and I can meet with your people... speak with all of them?"

(Later, I will take you.)

She stepped closer to him and touched his forehead in the manner of Vulcans.

(Why do you not speak to me in the way you did before?) The thought was plaintive, almost sad.

He looked down at the small face and realized something unusual was occurring within him. The dizziness he had suffered formerly was gone, but in its place he was being confronted with a wave of sensations and emotions he had never realized existed. The unfamiliarity left him struggling to maintain his identity, a proud and vital part of any Vulcan's life. He sought for his normal control and found it had escaped him. His eyes were puzzled as he met Sheron's questioning gaze.

"It is a thing we Vulcans do not like to perform lightly. The mind is exposed ... vulnerable. All barriers are swept away. It can be an ... intimate ... thing between a man and a woman."

Her face seemed to loom large before his eyes. He was disturbed by what was happening to him, then he was abruptly aware of the depth of those dark eyes, the sweep of a fine brow, the curve of her throat. He was drowning in unaccustomed feelings for which he had no defense.

(And would it be so difficult to share such a thing with me?) she asked. (I would know more about you.)

Spock looked at Sheron through a darkening haze, it no longer seemed important to preserve the rigid control over his mind and body. It was the most natural thing possible to place his hands at her temples and let his mind reach out for hers.

* * *

 

Captain Kirk managed to wrestle the second shuttlecraft down to the coordinates furnished by the Phantosians. With the help of McCoy, he had avoided the rough landing they had expected. Even then, they had come down with unusually hard force and he scrambled outside to examine the hull as soon as the ship was still.

McCoy followed more slowly, rubbing one shoulder.

"For someone who is supposed to be along only for appearances' sake, I'm collecting more than my share of bruises," he grumbled.

Kirk looked over his shoulder and grinned.

"Quit complaining, Bones. I got you down alive, didn't I?"

"Do you mind if I take five minutes to make sure of that?"

Kirk started to reply, but instead looked beyond the doctor and his grin slowly faded.

McCoy followed the other's gaze and turned to see three young men clad in short silver tunics, standing at the edge of the clearing they had landed in. The two Federation men advanced toward the party. Kirk smiled and proffered a hand.

"I am Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise. This is the ship's surgeon, Leonard McCoy."

The nearest man took Kirk's hand hesitantly and released it almost at once, as though uncertain what the gesture meant. He spoke a rusty, but intelligible Terran.

"I am Shad. These are Calmus and Ferman. We came from the colony to meet you."

"You speak our language well."

The young man gave a shrug of dismissal.

"It is a game ... a trick that I do. I hear a foreign tongue and somehow the words make sense in my head."

A game? Kirk doubted if the Phantosian had any idea how unusual and valuable his casually disregarded ability was. He knew if Spock were present, the Vulcan would be taut with interest, every nerve quivering in his curiosity to investigate this unfamiliar talent.

"Have you found my crewman?" he asked.

"His ship is just over the next rise. It must have been forced off its course."

Kirk again thought of something that puzzled him.

"Your communications system is still working, yet there is little evidence of any other instrumentation."

Shad repeated his shrug.

"We were two colonies when we first arrived here. We needed the communications system to keep in contact with each other. After a while, however, we found it simpler to merge into one community."

"If you have no other instrumentation, how did you detect my crewman's shuttlecraft as it neared the planet?"

Shad gestured toward the smaller of his two companions.

"Ferman saw it in his mind. He can do this sometimes. We do not know why, but he is very good at finding objects. He can locate a particular grain of sand in a dune, if he desires to do so."

Kirk gave up any idea of trying to understand the Phantosian mind and rephrased his previous question.

"Did you put our crewman under restraints?"

"We found only the vessel. He either died in it or wandered away."

"Died in it?" Kirk's voice was sharp.

"It was wrecked." Shad turned to point to a trail of smoke that climbed the nearby rise.

Kirk broke into a run with McCoy at his heels. He could see by the condition of the ship as they approached, that the Vulcan had suffered a very bad landing. The shell of the shuttlecraft was shattered, twisted and the hull was charred. Smoke still drifted in idle swirls from the open hatch.

Kirk rushed to peer inside through the flames. The interior was badly burned and most of the equipment unrecognizable. But he felt certain that none of the blackened shapes was the body of the Vulcan. He let go a pent up breath as McCoy hurried up.

"Spock?" the doctor asked.

"Not here. He must have gotten out before it burned. From the looks of the tracks around here, I think he may have started out for the village. That was our plan, at any rate."

McCoy stepped back and viewed the wrecked shuttlecraft with a jaundiced eye.

"This plan of yours seems to get more expensive all the time. First you take a big chance by sending Spock here alone, and now you've cost the Federation a shuttlecraft."

Kirk's famous grin broke out. He spread his hands in a shrugging gesture. "I never claimed that my chess game showed any finesse; I leave that to Spock. But I usually manage to win."

The three villagers joined them and Shad offered them the hospitality of the colony while they waited for Spock.

"I would like to speak with your leader also," Kirk said. "Or a group of your people who are in charge here."

Shad looked at him distantly.

"That will be for Rimon to decide. You are here only to regain your crewman. Follow us to the village." And they turned abruptly.

McCoy suddenly clutched his forehead and paled. Kirk went to his side anxiously.

"Bones, are you all right?"

The medical man waved him back.

"It's nothing, Jim. Just the shock of' the landing, I guess." He trailed after the colonists. After a moment of indecision, Kirk accompanied him.

As they proceeded toward the vi1lage, the third man, who had remained silent until then, bounded along happily at Kirk's side like a gamboling puppy. He laughed and tumbled to attract the Terran's attention; Kirk watched his antics with amusement. McCoy spoke at his elbow.

"Mentally, I don't think he's more than 4 or 5 years old. An almost classic example of retardation."

"But how is that possible, Bones?" Kirk asked as he watched the youngster with something akin to pity. "With all the advances in science that we've made, such a thing should no longer be possible in our society."

"That's just it, Jim. In our society." McCoy made a furtive motion with his tricorder he had managed to smuggle past the suspicious Phantosians. ''We're dealing with something very different here. I don't know exactly what yet, but it's registering on my tricorder."

"Affects from the ion warp?" Kirk queried.

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised, Captain."

At that moment they reached the clearing near the village walls. Kirk's eyes roved over the peaceful fields in amazement. There was very little sign of any change here. The people seemed concerned only with growing the bare necessities and enjoying themselves. Suddenly, his gaze encountered a familiar object sitting abandoned near the fields. He turned to Shad.

"May I examine that?"

Shad made a nod of consent. The three colonists did not offer to accompany them; it was a sight they were accustomed to ignoring.

Kirk walked slowly across the clearing and approached the object, almost with reverence. It was the wreckage of a small spacecraft, its exterior and hull rotting in the elements. It was a forlorn reminder that these people had once possessed much greater skills. Kirk looked inside and saw the useless instruments. He exchanged glances with McCoy who had followed him to the craft, then they silently rejoined their guides.

They were conducted to the tallest structure in the village, a tower from some medieval legend. Kirk had seen similar buildings in the Rigel planets.

They were shown into a chamber and their escorts bowed their way out. A miniscule old man was there to greet them.

"I am Rimon," the little man said. "You are welcome here. Although we do not seek contact with the outside world, we understand the amenities."

"I am Kirk and this is McCoy. Have you located my man?"

"Rest assured, Captain. My daughter found him and brought him here. At first I was unaware who he was, but as luck would have it he is now safe with us. Is he dangerous?"

"Quite the contrary," Kirk managed a hearty laugh. "It was all a mistake. His records were mixed up with another crewman's and we had the wrong man. Before we learned of the error he grew desperate under confinement and fled the ship." He indicated McCoy with a nod of his head. "I've brought along my ship's medical officer to verify his sanity. Or you may wish to ask the doctor some questions."

McCoy almost betrayed his surprise with a startled look but he caught himself in time.

"Uh, yes ... mix-up in records," McCoy muttered. "I run a sloppy department." It almost choked him to utter the words.

Kirk continued to look straight ahead but he would have given a great deal to be able to see McCoy's expression just then.

"No harm's been done, Captain," Rimon assured him. "Aside from the fact that our little community has had its routine slightly disrupted. You can collect your crewman and be on your way."

"Ahhmmm ... I'm afraid that won't be possible just yet, Rimon." Kirk interrupted. "We received word that an ion storm has entered your atmosphere and has cut us off from our ship. We can't get back until it passes."

Rimon seemed very distressed by the news.

"Dear me ... oh, dear me. How very unfortunate." He scrubbed at his brow and then smiled warmly. "Well, I guess we are your hosts for the duration in that case, Captain. At least one of my people will be pleased to hear you and your man are not leaving immediately." He glanced towards the shadows near the windows and a young woman came forward to smile at them.

Kirk could appreciate female beauty, in fact he was well known for his keen eye; but he had seldom seen loveliness as so personified by this slender, golden-haired girl. Clad in a flowing soft gown of a blue metallic material, her figure was outlined in an interesting manner. But it was her face, with its wistful beauty that arrested his attention. Her dark eyes were large and extremely expressive. They seemed to speak to him.

"It is a pleasure to find such a lovely inhabitant of this planet so soon," said the Captain graciously.

McCoy made a gallant half-bow and Kirk could see the doctor's eyes light up. Rimon put an arm around the girl's shoulders and drew her close to him.

"Sheron cannot speak, but she can hear. She was able to communicate with your Vulcan crewman in some manner. I am very pleased that she had this opportunity. It is very lonely here for a girl like my daughter."

Kirk was eager to turn the conversation to a more lucrative channel. ''My crewman ... you spoke with him?"

"Oh, yes. Spock, is it?" Rimon gave Kirk a surprisingly shrewd smile. "He implied that your Federation was interested in some dilithium deposits. Are you, too, going to try to bargain with me?"

Kirk was a little taken aback, but he returned the smile with disarming casualness.

"They could be a valuable asset to your colony ... or a deadly trap for you. If the Klingons..."

"Oh, indeed. The Klingons. Your friend mentioned them also. We have nothing to fear, Captain. Our little colony does not seek to interfere in other's matters. In return, we ask only to be left alone."

Kirk gave him a long level look. It would be easier to catch a puff of smoke than reason with Rimon.

"I hope that you won't have cause to regret your disinterest," he said quietly.

Rimon evidently considered the subject closed, for he made no answer; instead he made an expansive gesture to include them both and said:

''You must be tired from your journey. If there is a storm of some sort, it could not have been easy. Let me offer you a place to rest."

McCoy had been wandering around the room, curiously inspecting the paintings and wall hangings. Now he was leafing through a journal that rested on a podium by the door. He glanced up at Rimon's words and came to rejoin them.

"Yes," he interposed, "I think I would like that."

Kirk recognized the tone; Bones had found something and it was obvious that he was anxious to tell the Captain.

"Would you like to join your friend?" Rimon asked. "His room is nearby."

At Kirk's nod, Rimon told Sheron to take them to Spock. The last thing they saw of the ancient, he was standing at the window gazing out over the city.

* * *

 

Spock rose from a small cot as they entered. He was as unreadable in his greeting as always, but his eyes slipped past Kirk to rest for a moment on Sheron. The Captain turned to look at her, curious, then back to Spock. The Vulcan had shifted his gaze to rest in a cursory manner on the doorway beyond her.

"Spock ... I'm glad to see you weren't hurt in the crash," Kirk began. He was afraid to say too much in front of the girl.

"I was undamaged, Captain. But I fear the shuttlecraft is past recovery."

Kirk waved off the apology.

"Have you made any contact with the villagers?"

Sheron crossed to the Vulcan and stood close by his side. Kirk watched in fascination, as his normally conscientious First Officer ignored him to look down into her face.

"Not until now, Captain," he finally answered. "But Sheron has said she will take me to speak to them now."

McCoy sat down abruptly on the cot and Kirk noticed the doctor was still pale. It was another source of worry for the Captain.

"Sheron told you? I thought her father said she couldn't speak?" The Captain looked from one to another as they stood before him, an almost palpable bond between them.

"Telepathy, Captain," the Vulcan replied. "She is one of the most perceptive cases I have ever encountered. There is no need for secrecy. She knows our plans."

Kirk looked at the girl intently.

"You've no objections, I hope?"

She shook her head and drew closer to the Vulcan's side. A small hand slipped down and captured one of the alien's in her own. Kirk could scarcely believe his eyes when the Vulcan did not rebuff her, but instead let his own long fingers enfold hers.

"Ah ... Spock, perhaps you'd better go now and try to convince them to let me speak before their council. We haven't much time."

''Very well, Captain. But I feel the Phantosians would agree to let us stay longer if we should decide it is necessary." He headed for the door with Sheron at his side, and Kirk watched him, puzzled by the First Officer's actions and by his last words in particular. They had never intended to stay more than a few hours.

McCoy waited until they were gone, then he looked hazily up at Kirk's face.

"I think we've got a problem on our hands, Jim," he said at last. "In all the years I've known Spock, I've never seen him react to a woman in that manner. It must be getting to him, too."

"It? What must be 'getting' him, Bones? What are you talking about?"

McCoy slipped his tricorder off his shoulder and indicated the space around them.

"It's this atmosphere, Captain. There's something strange about it. Apparently that ion warp has caused the release of some unusual elements into the air. They aren't identified by my tricorder, but they register on it. Without my biocomp on the Enterprise. I canít tell you how it works or why. All I know is that it does. I've been scanning all the people I can and they're all affected."

"In what way?"

"Well," the doctor sighed wearily; he looked suddenly drawn and older. "As near as I can tell, each person reacts in a different manner. Haven't you noticed that all the people we've met are ... unusual ... in some way? The three who met us, for instance. And Rimon. He's the oldest man I've ever laid eyes on. By Earth standards, I would say he's at least one hundred and twenty years old. Yet, while leafing through that journal out there, I found a record of the expedition here. They settled here twenty years ago, and their leader was one Rimon, a young man of forty-two."

Kirk stared at McCoy.

"But; that's impossible, Bones!"

"Not here, it isn't. You saw Sheron. She differs from the rest in her telepathic powers. Her father said she cannot speak, yet my tricorder shows fully developed and untraumatized vocal chords. Why doesn't she speak? Your guess is as good as any, but I'll wager it's because she is influenced in that way by the atmosphere."

Kirk joined McCoy and sank slowly down onto the cot. His head was whirling and he was sure it was not completely because of McCoy's words.

"Is that why Spock...?" he began.

McCoy nodded.

''Yes, I think so. He' s closer in type to these people than we are, so the results are almost the same for him. They're Rigellian and the Vulcans share some characteristics with them. At present all it seems to do for him is cause a release of his inhibitions, a breakdown in the control he's so schooled. in. But, his behavior will probably continue to alter drastically. There's no telling what he may eventually become."

"But Spock's a very restrained individual, Bones, with almost complete control over his emotions."

"Anywhere but here, Jim. Here he is just another vulnerable male. And unfortunately he has the blood of hundreds of 'rip-roaring' old-time Vulcans burning in his veins. No wonder he is drawn to a lovely girl like Sheron."

"Will we be affected, too? You and I, like the people here?"

"No. Not like them. In our case it's much more serious... We'll die very quickly if we stay here. We'll experience increasing weakness, dizzy spells, some nausea. In the end, a lot of pain. It wouldn't be pleasant."

Kirk stared aghast at the medical man. He digested the information slowly and with an effort.

"Well, then we'll have to get out of here as soon as us can," he said at length. "How much of a safety margin do we have?"

"No more than twenty hours at the most."

"But the Enterprise won't return for better than thirty hours!" He got to his feet and paced a little. "You've handed me a hot one this time, Bones. Are the effects permanent?"

"I don't think so. According to my readings, they can be reversed with stimulants and a return to a normal atmosphere."

"And the people here? Could they be returned to what they once were also?"

"I don't see why not. Their reaction isn't all that dissimilar to ours, in spite of their different physiology. They are dying faster than normal, too. So will Spock if he stays here too long. With the human half of him to tip the balance, I would say he might last a few weeks, no longer. That's why Rimon shows his age so badly. This place is deadly. The Phantosian life span appears to be cut by a third."

Kirk paused as an idea struck him.

"Could this affect be the reason they have retrogressed so badly? The reason they have stagnated here and aren't developing the colony?"

"It seems likely. In fact to borrow Spock's word ... logical."

Kirk resumed pacing.

"Then we've got to get them out of here."

"Captain, the prime directive..."

Kirk shook him off.

"You're as bad as Spock, Bones. The prime directive restricts our interference in a viable community. These people are dying ... quite literally."

''Well, I can't argue with that. But how are you going to persuade two hundred people to leave a place that's like a paradise to them? From what I've seen, they have all they want and need here. Food, shelter, warm climate, good health ... aside from the effects ... and most importantly, no cares or worries."

Kirk stopped to look out over the village from the room's window. Below him he saw Spock and Sheron talking to a group of townsmen. As he watched, the people slowly drifted away and left the Vulcan standing alone with the Phantosian girl. He saw the dark head bend to silhouette the golden one.

He turned away quickly.

"I don't know how, Bones, But we can't let them stay here." He drew in a shaking breath and squared his shoulders. "I'm going back to talk with Rimon. Maybe this additional information will help me break through his euphoria. They have to be warned." He turned on his heel and left.

The Captain found the old man reading in the big chamber. Rimon rose slowly at his entrance and smiled a greeting.

"I hope I'm not intruding," Kirk started, "But I have something vital to discuss with you."

"Not at all, Captain. An old man, such as myself, seldom has anything interesting to do. Are your quarters satisfactory?"

"Yes. Quite comfortable." Kirk hurried on. "Rimon, it's urgent that you get your people off this planet as soon as the storm passes."

"Lease Phantos Three, Captain? Why should we do that?"

"Because it represents a threat to your lives. You're all dying here, Rimon!"

The frail figure made a deprecating gesture.

"As are we all, Captain Kirk. Every living thing must perish eventually."

"No! Not this quickly!" Kirk felt the beginnings of frustration start in him. "Look at yourself. You're a man of forty-two, yet you look over a hundred. The atmosphere of this planet did that!"

Rimon appeared momentarily startled then the expression faded.

"Supposing that what you believe is true. How do you know this?"

"Our instruments tell us. You had ones like it that could have warned you of the danger. They're lying out there in that ship you came in ... rotting!"

''Yes. It's quite true. We had instruments. But that was long ago ... many, many years ago ... a lifetime."

Kirk clenched both fists. It was all he could do to resist the urge to seize the old man and shake him.

"It was only twenty years ago Rimon! Not a lifetime! Not years ago, only twenty! Why can't t you see the truth?"

"I see only a stranger who wishes to remove us for his own gain."

''My ... own ... gain?" Kirk ground out the words. He paused to collect his temper. "Our interests in the dilithium doesn't alter the fact that your people have changed since they came here, Rimon. Even you must see the deterioration that's taken place. Look at Sheron, your own daughter. Doctor McCoy says there is no reason why she cannot talk, yet she does not. Look at Shad and Ferman. Were they like this on Rigel Five? And the rest of your two hundred citizens; are any of them completely normal, as they were off this planet?"

Rimon made no reply. He seemed wearied of the whole discussion; his eyes drooped, half closed.

"Your people are all affected, Rimon," Kirk added desperately. "And they'll all die if you stay here. Let us help you to get them off Phantos Three, while there is still time!"

Rimon picked up his reading slate, his attention had already wandered. He smiled sweetly at Kirk and moved to return to his place by the window.

"If you will excuse me, Captain...?"

Helplessly, Kirk watched him go. Then he experienced a surge of anger so great that he slammed out of the room without a word of farewell.

* * *

 

In the square below the tower, Spock still lingered with Sheron. He knew he should report his failure with the villagers to the Captain, but the sense of duty he normally felt was gone. The day was fair and the sun warm on his face as he looked through the open village gates to the peaceful fields. Sheron's hand was soft and gentle within his clasp; he experienced a sense of peace that he had never believed possible for him.

(You like it here.) It was not a question, but a statement of fact.

(Yes. I like it here very much.) He no longer bothered to speak aloud to her. The half-formed thought in his mind was sufficient.

(You are happy?)

He considered this, probing deeply to discover his new-found cause of well being. Surprisingly, she seemed to be right. As the thought crossed his mind, she squeezed his hand and smiled. She moved closer to him and he felt the heat from her body against the length of his side. Abruptly, a tension invaded his calmness, a sense of restlessness.

She lifted an impulsive hand to touch one of his ears. Startled, he drew away and looked at her. She flushed and glanced about to see if her action had been observed.

(Forgive me. It's just that they are so beautiful.)

He made no reply and carefully kept his mind blank. There was an undercurrent to their communication now that had not existed before. A growing warmth and urgency that was both transmitted and received. He made an effort to ignore it.

(I must report to the Captain.)

She did not protest, content to walk quietly beside him back to the tower and his captain.

Kirk was just coming down the stairs to look for the Vulcan. He gave Sheron a short look that was clearly one of dismissal. She touched Spock's arm slightly and then slipped out the door. Spock was someone totally foreign as he watched her go.

"Spock? How about it?" Kirk was finally forced to ask.

The Vulcan drew his attention back to the Captain with a visible effort.

"It is useless, Captain. They seem more like children than adults. I could not reason with them. In fact, I am not certain why I wished to do so now." He looked puzzled and shook his head slowly.

Kirk studied him closely.

"It's this place, place, Spock. McCoy has discovered it has a strange effect on all of us." He had an urge to grip the Vulcan's arm and draw him back into reality, but did not. "Hang on, Spock. I need your help."

The First Officer made no reply; instead his eyes turned to the empty doorway.

"McCoy can explain it to you," Kirk went on. "But, the upshot of it is that the atmosphere will be fatal to us all if we stay here longer than twenty hours. We've got to get out of here, Spock. And, somehow, we've got to persuade these people to leave. They're going to die if they stay here. Can you plot the storm's intensity and discover if there may be a lull through which we can take the shuttlecraft?"

The Vulcan answered slowly, as though speaking were difficult for him.

"I could plot its curve, Captain. There is a possibility that the storm may peak soon. It would be dangerous, but it might be that we could break through the eye of the storm."

"It can't be any more dangerous than staying here, Spock."

''Does Doctor McCoy have a tricorder with him? I ... misplaced ... mine shortly after the crash."

Kirk perused the Science Officer's face carefully. If anything was a true gauge of the condition of the Vulcan's mind, that statement was it. Spock was normally meticulous to the point of fanaticism about caring for his equipment.

"Yes. He has it in the room with him."

Without further discussion, the Vulcan left him and Kirk found himself alone, pondering the astounding changes he had discovered in his usually reliable First Officer.

After a moment, he followed the Vulcan's steps and re-entered the room.

McCoy was stretched out on the cot and Spock was adjusting the tri≠corder. He looked up as Kirk entered.

"It is as I suspected, Captain," he said. "The storm will peak in precisely 19.22 standard hours. We could attempt escape velocity through the lull at that time. We should then be able to contact the Enterprise."

McCoy sat up to lean on one elbow.

"That' s cutting it pretty fine, Spock," he grumbled. "You could wind up taking two dead men back with you."

"Doctor, I have no control over the pattern of the storm. Nature is as inexorable here as anywhere else in the galaxy."

"Oh, yes, Spock," McCoy said shrewdly. ''We've already had a chance to study the force of nature, first hand."

Spock ignored this pointed remark and looked quietly at Kirk.

"You intend leaving at that time, Captain?" he asked.

Kirk looked at him in consternation.

"Of course, Spock. We've no other choice. And neither do you. McCoy assures me you aren't immune to this, in spite of your Vulcan inheritance."

Silence settled over the small room. McCoy lay back down and stared at the ceiling. Kirk lounged against the window embrasure, his eyes focused on nothing. A great lassitude was stealing over the Captain's body and for the first time he failed to recognize it for what it was.

Spock continued to tinker with the tricorder, re-checking his figures. For a little while, he almost regained his normal state of mind. He lost himself in the job at hand, gratefully.

(Spock?)

The name was a small bell in his mind. He tensed and set the tricorder aside.

(Sheron?)

He was surprised that her thoughts reached over the distance separating them. She understood his amazement and a gentle laugh chimed in his brain.

(The bond between us strengthens, Spock. Soon neither of us need ever be alone again. Soon we will always be together.)

Always ... always ... always...

The word echoed in his mind. He got to his feet, moved involuntarily toward the door, caught himself and stopped. He paced to the center of the room and stood there uncertainly. Kirk looked up, mildly concerned.

"Captain, I ... think I will go back outside for the moment."

McCoy had been observing the Science Officer clinically. The abrupt movements, the restlessness, all so uncharacteristic of Spock, had caught his attention. Like a caged panther, McCoy thought. Suddenly he understood the reason.

The doctor swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. He yawned with elaborate casualness.

"I'll be going part way with you, Spock,: he said. "I need some fresh air."

In silence, the two made their way down to the street below. At the bottom of the stair, Spock hesitated, unwilling to have McCoy accompany him any further. The doctor gave him a careful scrutiny.

"You like it here, don't you, Spock?"

"It is very pleasant, Doctor McCoy."

"Pleasant? It's deadly. But I can see that for you it might be a god≠sent opportunity. Here you can relax that guard you always keep up. You've finally found a place where conditions make it possible, imperative perhaps, for you to respond to the things around you. A place where you can do as your human half dictates and let the devil take the consequences."

Spock did not dignify the doctor's pointed banter with an answer. He turned to look out over the village.

"Jim doesn't suspect how much you've changed, ''McCoy went on. "But I've been watching you, Spock. You can't stay behind. You've got to come with us."

"Have I given you any reason to think I might not, Doctor?"

"Not in so many words, perhaps. But I know you well enough to know when you might be tempted, Spock."

The Vulcan turned to him with an almost savage air.

"You do not know me at all, Doctor McCoy," he said sharply.

The medical man recoiled briefly and looked with confusion into a pair of eyes that had suddenly gone bleak.

"Perhaps I don't," he mused. ''Maybe I never knew you at all, Spock. And maybe the man I knew aboard the Enterprise never really existed. The dedication, the loyalty..."

"What is the purpose of this, Doctor? I fail to see what you expect to gain."

"Just this, Spock." McCoy was suddenly very professional. "You may survive here a little longer than Jim or I could. But as much as you hate to admit it, you are half human and the human elements in your body are going to start to deteriorate soon. You'll die here, too. It will just take a little longer."

The Vulcan had begun to walk away from the discussion, but he turned now and gave McCoy the strangest look the doctor had ever seen.

"One day here or a hundred there ... I wonder, Doctor ... which would you choose?"

And then he was gone, his long legs taking him out of sight around the corner of the tower.

Kirk came quietly down. the steps to join McCoy. They stood silently looking at the spot where the Vulcan had disappeared. At last McCoy gave a discouraged sigh.

"You're going to have to have a talk with him, Jim. I don't pretend to understand the working of the Vulcan mind, much less Spock's, but I think he's found something here that he could never have anywhere else. He may want to stay."

Kirk looked at him in surprise. The idea bad not seriously occurred to him.

"And that something is...?"

McCoy nodded his head. Spock and Sheron could be seen in the lengthening shadows near the village. Kirk watched them, sensing for the first time what a close relationship was developing between them.

"I'll talk to him, Bones," he promised. Then he drew himself erect, shaking off a spell of weakness. He glanced up toward the tower walls. Lamplight was beginning to flicker in the room where Rimon spent most of his time. "Right now I've got to devise a plan for our escape."

"Escape?"

"Yes, because it's going to come down to that. If we aren't careful, the villages may suspect something and try to stop us."

McCoy scowled at him.

"Maybe it's the climate, or else I'm extremely tired, but you aren't making any sense, Jim."

"Rimon has implied that he has absolute power over the decisions made here. The council only advises him. If we are to save the people of this colony, we've got restore him to reason. Then perhaps, we can talk with him about the dilithium. But first, we must make him see that the colony has to be relocated. There's only one way to do that; when we leave, I'm taking Rimon with us."

"Kidnapping him, Jim? Are you sure it's wise?"

Kirk looked at McCoy through the growing darkness. A final ray of the planet's scarlet sun struck the walls behind them and cast a garnet glow.

"I don't know if it's wise or not, Bones. But when we go, Rimon goes with us."

* * *

 

Sheron had guided the Vulcan's steps toward the tower by another route. She did not want Spock to encounter his captain at this particular moment. Looking up at his tall, lean frame as he walked by her side, her thoughts nearly escaped her mental shield. He must make the first move, the male always must; it was the way of her people and his.

They reached her quarters in the lower regions of the tower and she led him inside. He glanced around in curiosity; the lights had been lit and were in red globes that lent ruby highlights to the room. Fiery rays made deep shadows in the corners and glanced off velvet hangings and satin covers. Suddenly, he was reminded forcefully of Vulcan.

Hot sands ... violent sky ... the red cast that imparted a ruddy glow to f1esh and stone alike...

He turned and saw her watching him, just such a glow painting her with fire. Confusion, a growing uneasiness, swept him.

(I cannot understand what is happening to me. Who am I? What am I becoming?)

(I know your mind, your thoughts, the very fibre of your being; you are Spock, a gentle and thoughtful man ... you could never be anything else.)

She was quite close to him, her breath warm along his neck. He looked down at her a little sadly.

(My friends will be leaving soon. They expect me to go with them.)

(And, will you go?)

(I ... am not certain.)

His pulse was a sudden throb in his temples as he studied her face. There was an aching emptiness in him that he could not identify. He longed to touch her, draw her closer to him and he swayed toward her, but at the last moment drew back. There was no way he could fathom the reason for his action; all his instincts were driving him to her, an intolerable need was growing within him. But the old ways were too strong, too ingrained. He was unable, despite this strange pain, to reach out. for her.

Slowly and deliberately, she lifted a hand to touch his face. The contact sent an electric jolt through his whole body. She brushed his temple and cheek with sensuous slowness and caressed one tapered ear. She saw a response in the depths of his eyes, as his pupils dilated briefly. She let her touch trail down his arm to stroke his hand. Automatically his fingers sought hers and linked in an ancient way. Communication was an outpouring of emotion between them. He understood his restlessness now with shocking clarity and saw she was not frightened by it. She pressed close and her lips found his. As strange as the custom was to a Vulcan, he found the sensation not unpleasant. A fiery heat began to consume him and his pulse became a deafening roar in his ears. There was a tremor in his hand as he lifted it gently to slip across her cheek. His fingers tangled themselves in her honey-colored hair. It had a warm fragrance all its own that added to the stimulation of his already heightened senses. Normally very acute, but kept under rigid control, these sensory impressions now overwhelmed him; setting up fire in every nerve ending. He drew her closer and his mouth closed over hers, moving with his great desire with a slow, gentle search. He lifted his face to look into her eyes.

(You are closer to me than any living being, Sheron. We are truly one. You know my thoughts as if they were your own. Know my heart as well)

Their minds became one, merging and entwining, coloring each other's thoughts. What he read in hers enflamed his own. They were one mind. one body, one consuming unrelenting need.

(It is time.)

(Yes. Please hurry! )

Now he knew the throbbing swell of rock hardness sheathed in satin softness and gentle hands that guided him in unfamiliar act. He was beyond control, desperate to find the haven of her body.

There was urgency ... haste ... pressure ... some pain ... then, gripped and surrounded by velvet softness, he began an ancient rhythm. He was aware of the mingling of their thoughts overriding all; but he was also conscious of the unexpected pleasure of new sensations ... the heat building in aching loins ... the throb of distended veins ... the eager response beneath his own body. They all combined to send fire racing through golden veins to lodge in the reservoir of his groin.

From somewhere he summoned enough of his former restraint to sustain the pattern until she was lifted to the realm of his enjoyment. Together they became fused as one being in an absolute totality.

The lava flow started ... surged ... bathed mortar and pestle alike; she superheated from within, gave a cry of ecstasy that found an echo on his lips. Then down the long, enjoyable spiral from that unmatched pinnacle they moved in perfect harmony, thoughts and bodies irrevocably wedded in blissful union.

Much later, Spock lay beside Sheron watching the tick of a pulsebeat in her throat as she lay sleeping in the curve of his arm. He was filled with wonder as he traced the outline of her cheek with one sensitive finger. The everlasting loneliness in him was gone. Their thoughts were undeniably locked together now, in a way no human could ever fathom. That, more than any other factor, bound them together for the rest of their lives.

* * *

 

Kirk tossed restlessly, alternately chilling and then sweating from the effects of Phantos Three. Near dawn, he finally slipped out of the room and found his way outside. A. faint red streak was beginning to show on the horizon, but darkness still enclosed the village.

"Captain?" A soft voice spoke near his elbow.

"Couldn't you sleep either, Spock?" He wondered that the Vulcan had not returned to their room, but did not mention the fact.

"Vulcans require very little sleep, Captain. I simply came out here to meditate."

"We're leaving soon, Spock."

"No ... I do not think that I will, Captain. That is what I have been deciding."

"Spock, are you out of your mind? Of course you're coming with us. That's an order."

The Vulcan's voice was strangely remote and chill.

"I think you would find it rather difficult to take me against my will, Captain," he said.

Kirk fell silent for a moment. Spock as a friend was priceless, as an enemy, he would be incalculable.

"Spock... Spock..." The words were soft, full of gentle recrimination.

"I cannot go with you, Jim. I have found something here I never knew existed. Call it peace, contentment ... love..." The last word came out a trifle rough. "I do not want to lose it. And I will, if I go back to the old life."

"But, McCoy has explained it to you, Spock. You will die here."

"Jim ... please try to understand. Star Fleet was my life, the only life I thought I could have. But now..." The voice stilled a moment. "This is a simple life, free of complications and pressures. Can't you understand why I want to stay?"

And damn it, Kirk thought, I do. He could not have worked and lived with this quiet man without knowing what each day had cost him. The toll had been high and Spock had paid it uncomplainingly.

"Come with us, Spock." There was entreaty in the tone.

Kirk could not see the Vulcan's face in the dark. He wondered what was in the alien's mind at this moment: His own thoughts went back over the months and years... Good right hand -≠ sharing the good times and the bad... stubborn, phlegmatic, exasperating, but loyal ... God, how loyal. He made an abortive motion toward the Vulcan, then let his fingers close on themselves. Too soon ... too late... never the right time or way to say the words.

"McCoy and I will slip out for the shuttlecraft before it's really light. We plan on taking off at 0700. We'll wait for you as long as we can." He had to leave the door open should the Vulcan change his mind. He finally turned back up their stairs, his mind reeling from dizziness and an unexpected emptiness.

He entered the room and shook a drowsy McCoy awake.

"Come on, Bones, get up. It's time we got out of here before the village is awake. Do you have your field medical kit?"

McCoy sat up and looked around in the dim lamp light with a wan face.

"I never travel without it," he said gruffly.

"Get it out. We're going to slip into Rimon's room and drug him. Then somehow we've got to carry him unseen to the shuttlecraft."

McCoy stood up slowly, wincing as he did so.

"Considering the way I feel and you look, that's not going to be easy. Where's Spock? Those Vulcan muscles of his would come in handy."

Kirk turned away, avoiding the doctor's eyes.

"He says he won't be coming. If my plan to transfer the Phantosians works, he'll have to come eventually."

"Jim, you can't just leave him. He's not himself ... he's sick. Surely you aren't going to leave him behind?"

Kirk cut him short.

"I don't want to talk about it, Bones. We've got enough to do without wasting our energy arguing about Spock."

In the dim light of early Phantosian dawn, they crept down the corridor and into Rimon's room. He was sleeping the light slumber of the very old and their noises awoke him.

The old man. sat up in bed and peered at them.

"Who...?" he started to say and then opened his mouth to cry out.

Kirk launched himself in what could only be termed a flying tackle and the old man crumpled under his weight backward onto the bed. With Kirk's hand pressing his mouth shut, he stared at them with frightened eyes while McCoy injected the sedative. Within seconds his eyes slid closed and he began to snore.

"That's it," Kirk whispered. "Let's get him out of here."

'They were fortunate in their choice of escape routes. The small stairway was empty and the village deserted. They struggled out into the heavy underbrush and somehow, half-carried, half dragged the old man. By the time they reached the shuttlecraft, they had seriously depleted their remaining energy. McCoy helped secure Rimon in the aft compartment and then staggered forward to collapse in his seat. When Kirk reached his side, the doctor was unconscious.

It was almost 0700 by now. Kirk began a check of his ship, taking time occasionally to glance through the open hatch for Spock.

He doubted that he had the strength to get the craft through the warp in his present condition. The memory of the fiery hell of the ion warp rose before his eyes, the violent turbulence that accompanied the rays of light. But they had burned their bridges now. If they did not get away, they would die in one of two ways -- the atmosphere would kill them or Rimon's people might.

Suddenly, he saw a tall, familiar figure approaching and he staggered outside to meet the Vulcan.

"Spock!" He was so relieved that he could think of nothing to say.

"I am not coming with you, Captain," the Vulcan hurried to say. "But I have been going over the wiring schematic of the controls in my mind. I think I can make some adjustments in the guidance system that will greatly facilitate your journey."

"Thank you, Spock, for that at least."

Spock went to the rear of the shuttlecraft and worked briefly under the panel there. At last he returned to Kirk's side.

"I think you will be able to handle her alone now, Captain. Even if Doctor McCoy should prove too weak to help you, you can manager her."

"McCoy is unconscious, Spock. And I'm not far from it." He hesitated and then said impulsively. "Don't do this, Spock. It will just be a matter of time before the Federation will order me back with security men to arrest you."

Spock looked toward the horizon.

"But, until that time, we can be together," he said almost inaudibly. Quietly, he went on. "Sheron told me of mountains not far from here. We could hide there. It would be many months before we were found."

"By then you will likely be dead... If she loves you, Spock, and if she were in a condition to understand, she would want you to go."

The Vulcan made no reply. He seemed to be searching the silence around them. Sheron was not far away.

"You're throwing your life away, Spock. Bones says..."

''Whatever 'Bones' says, it is still my life, Jim."

"Mister Spock, that' s a totally illogical statement. In fact your whole reaction to this planet hasn't been logical." Kirk smiled but Spock did not. "If I had the strength, I'd tie you up and force you to come with us. I know that's what you'd do in my place."

Again there was no answer. But the Vulcan looked quietly at him and there was much unsaid that Kirk could read in his eyes.

The Captain could not wait any longer. He was steadily weakening and knew that total collapse was not far off.

Kirk turned to walk away, but the world was suddenly going dark. He took one step and felt his knees five way. Stumbling, he fell forward.

Suddenly, Spock was beside him, his face indistinct and far away.

"Jim."

The voice was Spock's, but not Spock's. How could Spock voice reveal so much concern? Kirk shook his head over the puzzle of it. He felt a hand, gentle but firm, turn his face upward. He knew it was Spock's hand and could sense the compassion in his touch, but it was too late. His strength was going, his hearing, his vision.

"We ... waited ... too long," was all he managed to gasp. Then blackness blotted out the world.

* * *

 

"Captain's Log: Star Date: 3248.6. We are back aboard the Enterprise and have almost fully recovered from the effects of Phantos Three. Our unwilling passenger, Rimon, has been restored to the vigor and keenness of mind normal for a man of forty-two. Once he regained his health, he agreed wholeheartedly that the colony must be removed immediately. Phantos Four was selected as their new home. Since we have the Enterprise available, we are using the transporter to transfer the colonists. Only a few have yet to be moved. As they regain their normal faculties, the colonists have been meeting in council and have voted to grant the Federation mining rights out of gratitude. The Federation has been notified and negotiations will soon begin. As to how we survived to reach the Enterprise, we must thank Commander Spock. Alone and despite the influences of Phantos Three, he brought us back safely. I am hereby putting a commendation into his record. Kirk out."

Kirk turned in his command chair as McCoy and Spock came onto the Bridge. He was flushed with success and in a jovial mood.

"Well, Mr. Spock, our little gamble paid off. The people of the Phantos system are safe in their new home and the Federation will get its dilithium. What comments do you have about the scientific aspects of the trip?"

"I can only note, Captain, that it presented us with a fascinating study of an unusual. natural phenomenon; the ion warp."

"And what are your personal feelings about the experience?"

The Vulcan hesitated for a moment.

"I find it ... rather ... painful, Captain," he said at last.

"Painful, Mr. Spock? That's the way we humans always find life, didn't you know?" He smiled quietly to himself as the Vulcan went to his station. "And you, Bones? What do you have to say?"

''Nothing that Spock hasn't already said, Jim. Except to add that the colonists are all returning to their normal conditions. By the way, I just heard from Phantos Four again. Sheron has regained her voice. From all signs, it looks as though she will lose her telepathic powers when she is completely recovered."

Kirk sent a hasty glance in Spock's direction.

"Does Spock know?"

"He knows."

* * *

 

It was sometime later that Spock, bending over his scanners, felt a strange emptiness steal over him; as though some central core in his body had suddenly been cut away. The last fading effect of Phantos moved in his brain as he stared unseeing past the scanners. Unwillingly, his mind :formed the word.

(Sheron?)

The name was a search down the long, lonely reaches of space. For perhaps three heartbeats he held his breath, uncertain if there would be a response, but in spite of that, hoping there might be.

There was no answering rush of warmth, no swift joining of minds.

Silence met his questing thoughts. There was no reply at all.

And he knew, finally, that there never would be.

 

THE END