DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Karen Bates Crouch and is copyright (c) 1984 by Karen Bates Crouch. This story originally appeared in It Takes Time on Impulse #3, 1984, Harriett Stallings, editor. Rated PG-13.

The Trackers

Karen A. Bates-Crouch

"Captain's Log : Stardate 8284.5

Starfleet placed an isolation directive on Teegan Six as a results of our findings. That time the Prime Directive had precedence over the possible medical gains that could be derived from the bijum plant. Should a massive plague requiring the serum synthesized from the plant, as there was twenty years ago, erupt it will be interesting to observe whether the plants or the natives have priority of survival on Teegan.

Ten years have passed, yet it is as if no time passage has occurred. The images of Teegan are clear..."

* * *

"Jim, would you look at these readings!" McCoy announced with amazement. "The concentration of callum in the bijum leaves is nearly pure. Mineral contamination is at a bare minimum. Do you realize what this means?"

"I would assume from your lack of enthusiasm the landing survey hasn't been a complete waste," Kirk dead-panned. "Spock, any readings?"

" Life form readings which I assume to be the planet's inhabitants, but they are some distance away. Ten point four kilometers to be precise."

"Good choice in beam down point, Mr. Spock. We should be able to complete the survey and beam back on board before they venture this far. Kirk to Enterprise," he spoke into his communicator.

"Scott here."

"All clear down here, Scotty. Break orbit end deliver our guests to Veil. You should be back here in three days."

"Aye, maybe sooner. Transporting prisoners is risky business. I'll feel better once they've been delivered."

"Agreed. Three days."

"Aye." Kirk could hear the dislike of leaving a team on the surface with no ship in the vicinity in Scott's voice. Still, the chance finding of a bijum/callum source couldn't be passed up, even though they had prisoners on board to take to Veil for incarceration. The prisoners were in maximum confinement and the survey was standard exploration in an area well away from native inhabitants. What could go wrong?

* * *

"Kirk to Enterprise. Kirk to Enterprise. Enterprise, come in." The Captain tapped the device and fine tuned it again. "Kirk to Enterprise." Putting it away, he threw another stick on the fire. "They' re two days overdue."

"Could be just red tape on Veil," McCoy suggested, trying not to let the concern creep into his voice. It wasn't like Scott to be this late to a rendezvous. "Where's Abrams? I'm supposed to relieve him on watch."

"I'll get him," Edwards offered. "Probably mislaid his chronometer again, knowing Tom." Edwards exchanged knowing shrugs with the other two security men and went in search of the missing companion.

"Theories, Spock?"

An eyebrow rose at the request. "A theory, Captain? Without sufficient data..." Spock fastened the back panel on to the tricorder and made an adjustment. The same question had been asked a hundred times, both verbally and silently, in the last two days. He had no more answers now than the first time. "I believe with this new calibration the good doctor will be able to record the amounts of callum being secreted by individual plants."

"Something's happened."

"Jim, you can't be sure or that. There could be any number of reasons why the Enterprise is late in returning."

"I can feel it," Kirk replied grimly. "Where'd Edwards go?"

Spock motioned the others to silence. "Footsteps," he whispered.

"Where?" Kirk asked softly, pulling his phaser free and rolling down to the ground.

Even as his sensitive ears picked up the approaching men, Spock felt the tiny sting of a dart in his neck. He pitched forward into the ground, not seeing his companions follow suit from the same tiny stings.

* * *

"Where are we?" Abrams asked, rubbing his arms in an effort to generate some warmth against the damp chill.

"A holding chamber of some sort, Ensign," Spock answered clinically. "Possibly subterranean by the amount of moisture on the walls and ceiling."

"Did you see anything?" Kirk questioned the small group. "Abrams? Edwards?"

"Nothing, Captain," they returned in unison.

"I didn't even see Abrams before something knocked me out." Something nipped at his back. Edwards slapped at it and came away with a yellowish ooze in his hand.

The heavy door suddenly swung inward and out thrust spears bristled at the group of men seated on the floor. They were humanoid, tall in stature, averaging seven feet in height, but thinly built. There seemed to be a pale blue cast to their skin, but the humans couldn't be certain in the torch light. This time when the captors left they took the torch with them.

"I have a bad feeling about this, Captain." Abrams muttered. "Those drums out there don't sound too friendly."

"Any chance of breaking through the door?"

Spock listened intently through the stone, having failed to find a counterweight on their side. "Doubtful, Captain. I can discern at least five voices in the passageway."

"Our only chance will be when they come back again, whenever that is."

There was an incessant dripping or water from the ceiling that grated on the nerves. The room was pitch black, not even light from the passageway came through the cracks around the door. Fresh air came from somewhere. but there were no openings large enough for a man to fit through. Without Spock's internal time sense there would have been no way to keep track of its passage. One small room with six men and countless tiny creatures determined to take advantage of the feast.

* * *

"How long, Spock?"

"Thirty two hours, forty three minutes," came the prompt reply.

Kirk shifted positions, trying to protect the raw and bleeding spot on his leg where a rodent had chewed on him while he slept. Thirty two hours, nearly a day and a half in the dark without food or water. If not for the others confined with him, he could see how a man could go mad in such an environment. Every inch of his body felt covered in welts from the many bites and stings of the room's natural inhabitants.

Where was his ship? Why hadn't she made the rendezvous? Possibilities sprang into his mind, covering every contingent he could imagine. Even if she showed up now, would the sensors penetrate this rock and detect them? He didn't even know how deep they were. They had to find a way to the surface where the sensors could pick them up. At least they registered differently from the natives.

The natives still puzzled him. Why had they been captured? If the only point was to kill them, why hadn't they done it while the group was unconscious. Their intent was obviously not friendly, evidenced by the treatment given them so far. None of this made any sense.

Dim light shattered his brain as the door swung open again. This time Margolin was dragged away and the door sealed into place once more. Kirk smashed his fist into the stone wall in frustration, feeling an alien sense of helplessness. Why Margolin? Why now? What was going on out there?

He sensed rather than felt Spock stiffen a time later. "What is it, Spock?" Kirk could barely make out the incessant pounding of the drums beyond the door, was it possible Spock could hear something he didn't?

"I believe Yeoman Margolin has just been killed," Spock admitted at last.

"How?"

"Unknown."

"Then you can't be sure," Edwards inserted. "You can't know for certain he's really dead."

"Johnson, too?" The Captain felt that familiar sensation of impending doom.

"Yes, Captain."

"Terrific!" Edwards muttered. "Here we sit like a bunch of prize bulls waiting for the slaughter." His hand closed on an incautious rodent and threw it across the room in anger. "Damn them! Why don't they let us out of here to die like men instead of animals?"

McCoy leaned back, forcing himself to relax. "I don't think I want to know."

* * *

The night air felt good against his skin as he tugged at the ropes tying him to the pole already worn smooth by countless others before him. Jim Kirk could see clearly around the area illuminated by both torch and double moonlight. Pounding drums hammered his senses while the vision of the uniformed arm hanging from a pole near the alter haunted his imagination. The markings on the blood stained shirt were those of Yeoman Margolin.

By the morning light, the five men tied to the poles had been reduced to four. It was a night none of them would ever forget.

* * *

He couldn't understand the words, but the gestures that accompanied them were fairly clear. They were being given a chance as a part of a ritual. Freed, they would be permitted to run for their lives. If they reached the pass in the mountains, they were free, if not...

There was just one catch... They only had one day's lead on the Trackers.

* * *

Brilliant foliage glistened in the mid-day sunlight, giving cover to the unseen birds chattering and scolding the four men that pushed their way through the brush into a welcome clearing. Collapsing by the tiny pool, the three humans drank deeply while the fourth member studied the way they'd come.

The obvious route to take would have been the trail pointed out to them that morning at dawn, but once out of range of the village, Kirk had forged a new trail or his own away from the beaten path that led to the distant mountain peaks. Unfortunately, the terrain, which had started out smooth, had changed into rugged slopes and deep ravines.

Twenty four hours to gain a lead on the Trackers. All four of them were suffering from infections that had set in the multiple bites and scratches obtained while incarcerated, coupled with weakness from lack of food and water during that same time. Berries and an occasional fruit found along the route were devoured immediately, but how long would their luck of even finding edible foods last? This small pool was the first water they'd come across all day.

Edwards tore a strip from his shirt and began washing the various wounds on his person. They were a sorry group in his opinion. Yet, they were, at least for now, alive. Which was more than could be said for the rest of the landing party. What kind of culture was this that would do such hideous things? He and Abrams had been friends for a long time, even before the service. Tom's dad had often remarked laughingly that he'd somehow inherited an extra son when he and Tom had begun hanging around with each other. They'd been more than friends, more like brothers. Now Tom was just so many pieces hung on poles on some nightmare planet. If he got out alive, how would he ever be able to face Tom's father with the truth?

McCoy watched from the corner of his eye as Joel crawled off into the brush to throw up at the memory of last night. It was hard to resist the temptation to do the same. Closing his eyes had not stopped the noises, those horrible sounds of death. Pulling on his boots, he staggered to his feet, ready to go on.

* * *

It was like tongues of fire licking at his legs. Flames that refused to be quelled. The sun glared mercilessly overhead as he lay in the burning sands. Creatures gnawed at his bones, fighting among themselves for tiny morsels of flesh that remained. He tried to push them away, but the bones of his hands fell apart when he raised them and clattered to the ground in a heap. Sanity tottered on the brink...

McCoy cursed his lack of equipment while trying to hold Kick's flailing arms down long enough to gauge the advance of the fever. Damp rags torn from their uniforms were wrapped around the Captain in hopes of forcing the fever to recede, but so far the attempt was failing.

"We cannot remain here."

"He's in no condition to travel, Spock," McCoy snapped.

"They are rot far behind us."

"A day's lead, they said!" Edwards picked up the rags in anger, heading for the stream to soak them in its coolness. "Sun's not even down yet."

"I do not believe it was ever their intent to allow us that much of an advantage. We must continue."

"He could die," McCoy objected.

"There is no choice." Instructing Edwards to soak all possible rags in preparation for traveling, Spock squatted next to Kirk and pulled him onto his back. McCoy wrapped Jim's arms over one shoulder and under the other of Spock and tied his hands together. The Captain was still shifting, trying to flail at unseen demons, but tied as he was to the Vulcan, there was no way he could work himself free. Balancing his piggyback burden, Spock set out once more for the pass that promised freedom.

* * *

McCoy trotted determinedly beside Spock, periodically checking on Jim's fever. Without the bright moonlight they couldn't have continued traveling once the sun had set. As it was, the animal trail was just barely discernable, but that didn't stop them. Spock's eyes, accustomed to the moonless world of Vulcan, could perceive the trail clearly, McCoy and Edwards tagged close by, brushing fingers over the Captain's body which no longer thrashed in delirium.

Spock was silently impressed that the two humans were still keeping pace with him after an entire day's journey. Both were becoming feverish from the festering bites, but neither one had slipped into the delirium affecting the Captain. McCoy had hypothesized that whatever had bitten the Captain must have been infected itself and spread the same disease to Jim.

Unhindered, the Trackers would soon cover the ground between themselves and their prey. The pass couldn't be too far now. If they'd taken the trail, the journey would have been three days. Moving across country, they'd shortened it considerably. But to what end? Jim was dying even as he carried him.

There were always alternatives. How many times had he used that very phrase? Logically this situation also had to have alternatives. Spock shifted Kirk in an effort to redistribute the weight. The human was not heavy, but the infection in his own leg required the Captain be carried off-center to compensate for the weakness.

The Trackers were closing in on them rapidly. Before long the question of whether they would make it over the pass would be completely academic. McCoy and Edwards wouldn't hold out much longer at this grueling pace. Alternatives. There had to be alternatives...

The weight on his shoulder slipped. With care, Spock moved the Captain back into place, then stumbled when Jim's face brushed his own with the chill of death. The feverish brow had been replaced with one so cold, so lifeless, in a matter of minutes.

Minutes, such a small interval of time, yet so long when used properly. How many times had the difference between life and death come down to a matter of minutes, or even seconds and one man had stood in that tiny space of eternity and made a decision? Spock fought back the anger and pain inside as he came to the realization that his life, Jim's life, anyone's was no more than a dividing of time into the appropriate boxes and pigeonholes allotted them. Three days till the return of the Enterprise, three days in a hellhole, a night of death that stretched forever into eternity as they endured Abram's death, a day's lead on the Trackers, a few minutes in which Jim had crossed what was into what lay beyond, the instantaneous retrieval of memories he'd held at bay that now flooded over him... Alternatives.

He stopped long enough to lay Jim in a secluded clearing, away from the trail and order the other two to continue toward the pass, then he was gone.

* * *

The sun rose, peeking its crimson edge over the distant hills behind them as they laboriously trod ever upward toward the elusive pass that promised freedom. There'd been no sign of Spock in hours. McCoy tried to follow him, to bring him back, but it was too dark to follow a trail he couldn't read. Edwards could track, but it was too dark even for him. Giving up, they'd reluctantly forged ahead, moving to the peak illuminated in the moonlight.

McCoy stumbled, then caught himself. What did Spock hope to accomplish? Where was he going? Jim was dead. Nothing was going to change that fact. All these years of facing formidable opponents, of looking death in the face a thousand times, of cheating the grim reaper, now ended with the bite of a rodent. Any one or them could have been bitten by that little beast, why Jim?

Was the callum worth all of this? Were the millions of lives the serum could save worth the lives of the four men killed on this planet? What if they never made it off Teegan? All the death and destruction will have been for nothing. Jim's death would be in vain.

Spock, where are you?

* * *

Perched high on the wall of the ravine, Spock counted the Trackers as they entered it. Ten of them, the finest Trackers available. He recognized all of them from the night before as they'd gathered around the altar, reveling in the agony or their victim. Bits and pieces of Starfleet uniforms hung as trophies on their spears, bloodstained with the red of outworlders.

Waiting till all but one had left the ravine, Spock threw a stone to distract the Tracker. Luck was with him and only one turned around to investigate. Leaping from above, Spock knocked the warrior to the ground and quickly killed him. Claiming the long knife and spear as his own, Spock became the Tracker.

* * *

"We made it," Edwards panted. "This is it. See those markings on the poles?"

McCoy sat down heavily on the boulder, barely hearing what Edwards was saying. The pass. A small, insignificant passageway marked with symbols that meant nothing to the humans. Jim was dead. Even now it didn't seem possible. Spock was gone and chances were that too would be a permanent absence. There'd been no sounds, no nothing to let them know he was still alive. He and Edwards had made it to the pass, but to what end? Without the Enterprise, there was no future, no meaning to any of this.

* * *

Spock allowed a tiny smile to touch his lips as another one of the Trackers fell to his blade. They were Trackers, with all attention turned forward on their quarry, seemingly oblivious to what was happening behind them.

Circling ahead of them, Spock lay waiting, near where he'd left Kirk. It'd only taken a moment to cut a piece of Jim's uniform and wrap it around his own arm. A voice inside spoke against the illogic of such an action, but Spock refused to listen. The Trackers had killed the most important thing in his life. There had been no logic to their actions, why should he not respond in kind? Sarek might argue that it was accidental that Jim was bitten by a diseased creature, but in Spock's mind it was no accident they had been placed in the chamber where it occurred.

The Enterprise was long overdue. Perhaps it would never return for them. Either way it did not matter to him. Favoring his bad leg, Spock chose a new position to wait for the Trackers. Perhaps Sarek would not understand his actions, but Spock was certain his ancestors from the pre-reform days would have nodded in approval.

* * *

The Trackers halted. Now it was they who were being tracked. Ten had left the holy place, only six remained. Spreading out, they moved ahead cautiously.

* * *

McCoy could withstand it no longer. Even if the Enterprise returned, which he doubted it would, there was nothing there for him. His life was behind him, back there on the trail. One friend was dead, but the other was only missing. He couldn't leave this place not knowing Spock's fate.

Edwards tried to follow him, but was ordered back harshly. Someone had to wait for the Enterprise. The bottom edge of the sun broke free of the hills and glared back at him as he stared down the hill at the retreating figure.

* * *

Allowing the bulk of the group to pass him by, Spock crept out of hiding and advanced on the rear man. The Tracker stopped, alarmed by something, perhaps only a sixth sense. Seeing there was no more time before the other would raise the alarm, Spock threw himself at the warrior, striking low with his knife across the legs below the knee. As the tall one buckled to the ground, the Vulcan struck again, this time slicing the throat cleanly. Blue-tinted blood spattered him, but it passed unnoticed, as had the previous four times.

* * *

Someone was coming. The Trackers slunk back into the bushes, concealing themselves thoroughly. Within moments their wait was awarded. Eagerly, they rushed from hiding to attack.

* * *

Spock was moving ahead, startled by sounds. By the time he arrived they were gone, but fragments of a blue uniform remained. He followed the bloody path and found McCoy beside a stream.

Holding him close, Spock worked his way back to where Kirk lay. The Trackers had left the vicinity, seeking their prey further up the slopes. He sat alone, unmolested, by the two bodies beneath the leafy bowers.

Why had McCoy come back down the hill? One possibility came to his mind, but the Vulcan in him refused to accept it. The Doctor might have returned to find Jim if he'd still been alive, but what could have motivated him to find Spock? Spock thought he'd known loneliness when Kirk had died, but now it was replaced by something even more empty. If only he had not been so blind...

* * *

Edwards saw the glint of sunlight on the polished spear points and knew all had been lost. Abrams, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, all of them were gone. There was no freedom at the pass after all. It was all just a game, a game with death that had no winners. The fox ran, seeking its freedom, the hounds and horsemen followed. For the fox there was no, escape, for the trackers, victory in the end.

As the Trackers came closer, he saw a figure in blue appear from nowhere and thrust a spear through the rear Tracker. Before any could react, Spock had moved on to the next. It was a bloody match as the remaining three turned to meet the attacker.

Edwards rushed down the hill, arriving even as the last Tracker fell. Blood flowed freely, mixing green with the blue, as the Vulcan crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

At First he didn't notice it, but then Edwards realized there were scraps of cloth tied firmly around Spock's arm. Unfastening them, Edwards unrolled both, revealing the stripes of a Captain and a Lieutenant Commander.

* * *

Ten years. Such a long time to remember people, places, events... A beautiful planet with plants that could save millions, yet could hold such horrible death. Flipping the switch, he continued the private log entry.

"Perhaps I am being 'morbid', remembering the events that took place on Teegan Six. Seven men beamed down, but only one returned. The Enterprise was delayed on Veil by quarantine difficulties. When it arrived at last, transporters beamed up all remaining life forms. The sole survivor was beamed aboard and the isolation directive placed on Teegan Six soon after."

Sitting bask in his chair, alone in the solitary quarters, the Captain pushed the erase button and deleted the entire log entry. There would be time enough later to do it.

* * *

Edwards had never felt such pain as the spear meant for Spock slid through his body, pushing him into the ground. The last action of a dying Tracker. Edwards could sense the transporter beam as the life drained from his body. "I nearly made it," he thought to himself, "I nearly made it," as death claimed one more.

FINIS