Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount Viacom. This story is copyright © 1982 by Rosalie Blazej. Rated PG. Previously published in R&R #17.
To Each His Own
James Kirk was content. He was back where he belonged, back on the Enterprise. Once more the great silver starship throbbed in concert to his will. She was his once more, and never again would he leave her. Yes, Jim Kirk was content. Content, but bored. For two weeks now they had recorded in meticulous detail the death throes of a sun soon destined to flare into a red giant, devouring in its wrath the seven small planets that comprised this star's system. Somehow, the image of command that Kirk had carried with him through his paper-pushing tenure on Earth had selectively edited out such missions.
Resisting the urge to yawn, he rose from the command chair and made his way to the science station of all the crew, only Spock had not given in to the feeling of ennui. If anything, Spock seemed more and more enraptured by the stern columns of figures that marched across the viewer of his science console.
"Come on, Spock, time for a break. I could use a cup of coffee. Besides, you're making the rest of us feel guilty."
"A moment, Captain," responded Spock. Deft fingers played across the keyboard, calling to life a kaleidoscope of diagrams and readouts. "There is an unusual pattern of energy release evident in the atmosphere of the second planet -- largely electrical, but showing evidence of emissions from other ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum as well."
His boredom suddenly forgotten, Kirk asked, "Any evidence of intelligent life?"
For the first time, Spock diverted his attention from the viewer and turned to face the Captain. "Sensors report the only life to be a simple aquatic plant growing on the surface of the water which covers the entire planet. It is possible that there is additional life in the ocean that our sensors have not been able to detect, but I find no evidence of that. In addition, the energy is dispersed throughout the atmosphere. It is not concentrated in small areas, as one would expect if these discharges were a by-product of civilization. No, I believe that we are witnessing a natural occurrence, but one that it quite unusual. Accurate readings, however, are not possible at this distance."
"And, of course, you'd like to investigate further."
"I believe that some very valuable information could be gained from our understanding of the phenomenon."
Kirk allowed a small smile to ease his features. It would not do to embarrass the Vulcan with a full grin. Two and a half years away from the Enterprise had not slacked his friend's insatiable curiosity. Of course, Spock was right, what they were witnessing bore further research. Besides, this would give Spock a chance to use the new astro-aquatic shuttle -- something Kirk was also sure Spock wanted to do. Well, nothing wrong with that as long as it was safe. "How long do we have before that stuff flares?"
"The ignition of helium burning in the core and subsequent expansion will not take place for at least 3.3 standard days and perhaps not for 4.4. The investigation should take no more than 2.4 hours."
"I see. Have you decided who you'll want to take with you?"
"I would prefer to go alone, Captain. I can easily handle the necessary observations. There is no need for anyone to accompany me and no one I can spare. A number of crucial experiments are in progress that must not be disturbed. Lt. Carlson will be able to take over my post for the duration of my absence."
Kirk could think of any number of people who would want to be disturbed, but this was Spock's department and Kirk knew that the Science Officer did not take kindly to interference with its smooth operation. Still, the Captain was not convinced. "And you're sure there isn't any danger in going down there? Three days is not a long time. I'd have to have to leave you here."
"No venture is completely without danger; however, I see no reason to anticipate a mishap. The chances of failure are minimal -- well within acceptable parameters. In addition, these conditions are unique; the opportunity for such research may never again present itself."
"Yes, well, in that case, Science Officer, I don't see why you shouldn't ... investigate the phenomenon. Of course you'll take the new shuttle, the Nautilus."
"That was my intent, sir."
"Yes, I'm sure it was."
* * *
Spock sat alone at the controls of the sleek new craft, thinking back to another journey made in isolation, his journey from Vulcan to intercept the Enterprise on her way to confront the living machine that threatened to destroy Earth. He had viewed that journey as an admission of defeat. Two and one-half years, and ultimately he had failed to attain the state of Kohlinar. Now more at peace with himself than he had ever been, he could see that part of his life as just another step in his understanding of himself in relation to a larger reality. Freely now he could admit the joy of friendship, the laughter of revelation. He looked forward to this mission and the discoveries that awaited him.
With a jolt he was brought out of his reminiscing. Gauges and readouts that only moments before had been performing in predictable order suddenly abandoned any pretense of logic. Erratically they testified to facts that could not be. With swift, assured motions Spock stilled the shrieking claxons and transferred to backup systems. As he prepared to contact the Enterprise, he became aware of the breakdown of another system -- his own mental process. An overwhelming feeling of dread overcame him. He struggled to break through, to calm the raging riptide, but he could term only one word. He gave voice to it in a single, unbroken cry: DANGER.
* * *
"Captain! The energy levels on the second planet have increased by several magnitudes. I've lost track of the Nautilus!"
Kirk swung around to face the young lieutenant who had taken over at the science console. Before he could form a question, another exclamation drew his attention, this time from Lt. Commander Uhura at communications.
"Sir, I had Mr. Spock but now I've lost him. He only said one word."
"Play it back on audio, Commander."
The plaintive cry of "DANGER" shattered the silence and then was still.
Again the word that was at once a warning and a supplication rent the air.
Issuing orders in rapid fire, Kirk signaled 'cut' to communications. "Science, I want a complete breakdown of that energy surge. I want a track of the Nautilus' course and a scan for an ion trail. Uhura, get Scott. I want to know what kind of punishment that shuttle can take and I want all senior officers in Briefing Room 3 in half an hour, with answers. Be sure McCoy's there."
It was into a subdued and tense briefing room that Kirk strode exactly one-half hour later. "Gentlemen," he began, peripherally noting that that salutation included Uhura, "most of you are aware of the situation, but for the benefit of those not present on the Bridge I will summarize. At 1400 hours Commander Spock took the astro-aquatic shuttle Nautilus to investigate an unusual occurrence of low-level energy release on the second planet of the system we are investigating, a system which will be destroyed by its exploding sun in as little as 2.9 days.
"At 1535 Lt. Carlson recorded a sudden and marked increase in energy. At the same time, Commander Uhura received a message from Mr. Spock. Uhura, play that message for us please."
Delicate dark fingers activated an audio control and the room was filled with the dreadful cry. Even those who had heard it before were struck anew with its force.
It took a concerted effort on Kirk's part to beat back the image of Spock caught in the grip of demons that could make him cry out like that. Finally, he continued. "Since that time, we have had no further contact with Mr. Spock, and continued high energy levels have prevented us from locating the Nautilus. What I want to know, is: What happened? Why the sudden and continued high emission levels? 'Danger.' To whom? To Spock? To the ship? A greater danger?" By now Kirk was out of his seat. Hands still on the table, he leaned forward, punctuating each question with a look that demanded an answer. "Gentlemen, what are we dealing with?" Kirk waited a moment, allowing each person to absorb the intensity of his words before concluding quietly, "And, I want a rescue plan that will work."
Kirk resume his seat and turned to Spock's replacement. "Mr. Carlson -- the science report, please."
Pete Carlson became acutely aware of the eyes focused on him. Sternly he chided himself for being nervous. The report he had prepared was accurate and professional He was good at his job and he knew it, but at that moment he also knew that he could never be as good as the man he was replacing. He wondered now if that replacement would be permanent. He sincerely hoped not. Mentally shaking his head, he began. "The range of energy that we are witnessing now comes from essentially the same section of the electromagnetic spectrum as Mr. Spock recorded earlier, though at a much higher level. Most of the emissions are electrical; however, all forms of energy are present except for visible light. The first surge represented an increase of 10,000 times that which was previously recorded. These levels have abated somewhat, but remain much too high to allow our sensors to operate. Our attempts to follow an ion trail left by the Nautilus have similarly failed."
"Any idea at all what could have caused the initial surge?" asked the Captain.
"There are several possible explanations," continued Carlson, now more at ease and warming to the task, "although at this time they can only be conjecture -- our instruments simply will not operate under these conditions. The most plausible hypotheses fall into two categories: one, that this is a natural occurrence; and two, that it is directed by an intelligence. There is reason to believe that it is natural. The conditions on the planet are extremely stable and uniform. The world is essentially a sphere that revolves around its sun in a nearly perfect circle. There are no moons. Water covers the entire surface, and it appears that the only life present is an aquatic plant that lives on that water. Temperature variations are minimal, since the atmosphere produces a greenhouse effect. In addition, this system is far from any asteroid belt; bombardment by meteors would be an infrequent event, if it occurs at all. Into this closed, and possibly highly charged, system we introduce a large object traveling at great speed. It could act as a catalyst, releasing vast amounts of energy. If that is the case, we should see a steady decline in energy levels. I have no way, however, of predicting how long it will be before our sensors become operative again."
A question from Leonard McCoy interrupted him before he could continue. "Wouldn't Spock have been aware of a charged atmosphere before taking the Nautilus out? It doesn't seem like him to trip over something as obvious as that."
"It may not have been that obvious, Doctor," countered Carlson. "Remember, nothing we have observed here fits into a standard, predictable pattern. Also, the shuttle is new, its hull is made of a new boron composite, remarkably resilient but possibly possessing properties which interact with the particular conditions present in this atmosphere to start a chain reaction. As far as Mr. Spock not usually missing such things, I'm afraid I can't answer; I don't know him long or well enough to comment. It does seen possible, though, that he could have been aware of the possible danger but considered the risk acceptable in light of the knowledge to be gained."
Remembering Spock: describing the anomaly, Kirk had to believe that Spock might have known, and gone anyway. He damned Spock for his curiosity and he damned himself for being an indulgent parent. No, the analogy wasn't fair; more than that, it was useless. What he needed was more information, not a place to hang blame. "The second possibility, Carlson -- that the occurrence is of conscious intent. What about that?"
"As I said," continued the young officer, "the other likely hypothesis is that the energy releases are directed, of conscious design. Our preliminary reports limiting life to the aquatic plants may be wrong. There may exist other life, perhaps under the sea, that our sensors may not have been able to detect. Any civilization capable of producing such great amounts of energy may well possess the ability to thwart our efforts at detection."
"And be able to direct that power against us?" asked the Captain.
"That is possible, sir. The energy release may have been a defensive measure. They may have perceived the shuttle as a threat and thrown up an energy field to destroy it and prevent any other incursions."
"In which case, any attempts to go down there might just make them angry enough to direct the same destruction at us?" It was really a rhetorical question, but Carlson felt constrained to answer it. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't know what..."
Kirk silenced him with a wave of the hand. "No, Mr. Carlson, I don't expect you to mind read." Kirk: was still for a moment, thinking of the one person of whom he would expect that ability. The room echoed his silence and waited patiently for him to continue. "Any idea of what kind of intelligence this might be?"
"Other than the fact that it uses energy and is probably aquatic, I have no idea, sir. I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Carlson. Uhura -- what about communicating with whoever is down there? We'd need to get through to them, for their sake as well as ours."
There was little Uhura could offer, and that frustration made her angry. She suddenly realized how dependent they were on their instruments, and how helpless they were without them. "Other than normal broadcasting procedures, there is nothing more I can add at this time."
The feeling of frustration was shared by everyone in the room, but was felt most acutely by the Captain. How could such a routine mission suddenly take such a drastic turn? He remembered how bored he had been just this morning, bored and complacent and now.... "Thank you, Uhura. Mr. Scott, the shuttle -- can it withstand these kinds of pressures?"
Montgomery Scott, often a man of few words, chose them with special care this time. "Well, Captain, you know the craft's new and hasn't been field tested under these conditions; but the design of her is a thing of beauty, and she's been tested extensively elsewhere. I'd say that if anything could withstand that kind of punishment, it would be the Nautilus -- though I'd certainly not like to be Mr. Spock right now. Once she's in the water, assuming she's still in one piece, the gills will extend automatically and provide a continuous supply of oxygen."
"Then you think the Nautilus could have made it down in one piece?"
"I'd like to think that, sir, but -- well, withstanding that much abuse will tax the craft to the maximum and..." The Chief Engineer ended the sentence with a slight shake of his head.
"What about a probe, Scotty? Can you shield one so that it will be able to get close enough to the surface to pick up information our sensors up here aren't able to? Something that won't set off more fireworks if this is natural, and won't be detected if it's not?"
Again Scott considered before answering. "Well, Captain, we can certainly give the probe a neutral energy field so it won't be sparking any fires that way; and we can amplify the transceivers to give us a better chance of picking up information from it, though what we might expect from a probe that our instruments up here have not been able to give, I don't know.
"As for avoiding detection, now that's harder. It all depends on how the detection works. We can equip the probe so that it will absorb any beam of energy directed at it, rather than reflecting it. If that's how they're working their system, well, then we've got them beat. But if they use something different -- say, sensors that detect a new energy source -- then there's not much I can do for you. As I said, it all depends."
The mounting frustration threatened to overtake Kirk. He knew that these people were the best in their fields and that there was very little information to go on, but he needed answers and all he was getting were 'ifs' and 'maybes' and 'it all depends.' A conscious effort to control the volume of his voice only served to render it menacingly quiet.
"Gentlemen, what you all seem to forget is that we have less than three days before we have to get the hell out of here or risk getting trapped when that star goes. We've got from now 'til then to figure out what's going on and to get Spock back. Less than three days. I want answers and I want them now. Dr. McCoy -- what are Spock's chances of survival?"
McCoy hesitated before answering, taking time to scrutinize the Captain. What effect would Spock's death have on Kirk, after the two had so recently been reunited? It was a thought he did not wish to contemplate.
"Captain, I don't know what Spock's chances of survival are because I don't know what his condition is. Uninjured, his Vulcan physiology and disciplines could carry him for close to a week, even if his supplies of food and water were destroyed. That's uninjured. What his chances are otherwise depends on the extent of his injuries. A perscan has a range equal to that of a communicator, but of course that's out too, with the rest of the systems. So, Captain, I don't know what Spock's chances are. That may not be the answer you want, but it is the only one I can give."
Blue and hazel eyes locked in silent battle. Finally, Kirk passed a resigned hand across his eyes. "Okay. I know we don't have much information, so we will do what we can with what we have while we try to learn more. Carlson, continue monitoring the energy level and plot it to see if it fits anything natural. If those emissions drop, even for a second, I want to know about it; see to it that constant scanner searches are conducted. We may get lucky and break through unexpectedly.
"Uhura, broadcast in continuous sequence the standard message of greeting -- all known lingos. Add to that a statement concerning the danger to this system and our offer of help. Transmit it in both broad beam and randomly directed high beam. If there are intelligent beings down there, I want them to know that we're friends and stand ready to help.
"Scott, proceed with work on a probe. We can't risk using it now, but I want it ready to use if and when we can or have to." Kirk, having finished issuing orders, stopped and looked around the room. There seemed only one thing left to be said. "Gentlemen, I expect a lot from you, but a lot depends on how successful we are. We have the best crew in the Fleet and the finest resources a starship ever carried. I have faith in both. Now...if there is no further discussion...? Good. Dismissed. Except for you, Dr. McCoy; I'd like you to remain."
Leonard McCoy watched the occupants file out, then turned to face the Captain. "Listen, Jim, I didn't mean for that to sound like insubordination. I..."
"No, Bones, it's not that. We're all worried. What I'd like is your opinion on Spock's message. He's been in dozens of life-threatening situations, but I've never heard him panic. That was Spock's voice, but it just wasn't him. I can't shake the feeling that it has something to do with all this."
Remembering the mournful cry, McCoy had to agree. "Jim, you know that neural exchanges are largely electrical and Spock's mind, being telepathic, is much more sensitive to shifts in the electromagnetic spectrum. Those discharges could be affecting his mind, making him think or act in ways he wouldn't normally."
"Then," continued Kirk, reaching a conclusion he did not want to admit, "if he is down there, Bones, if Spock is alive, his mind is being bombarded by that energy ... driving him crazy. Do you realize what that would mean to him? Do you know the torment he must be going through?"
"Jim, I said 'could.' Any number of situations are possible."
Neither of them gave voice to the most likely situation.
* * *
He was caught in a maelstrom of raging emotion. Fear and hopeless panic washed over him. He tried to escape, but could not move. Inexorably, he was pulled toward the center. Consciousness and nightmare merged and Spock found that they were one. Feeling himself completely lost, he capitulated, willingly abandoning himself to the spiraling whirlpool, welcoming as his only relief the final oblivion of the vortex. Down, faster and faster he plunged until an inner voice cried out in protest. He could not concede without a struggle. His dual heritage demanded continuance. Instincts of preservation born in times forgotten on two distant planets took over and slowly, painfully, mental shields snapped into place, damping the raw cacophony.
In that hard-won respite Spock took time to evaluate the situation. He found that part of the nightmare would not yield to his mental efforts, for he found that, in fact, he could not move. His mind demanded that fingers curl and harden into a fist, and they would not. He felt a weakening of his shields and once more the panic threatened to overtake him. Harshly he forfeited his barriers, his logical mind demanding to know the full extent of his incapacitation. Slowly, methodically, starting with the outermost extremities, Spock tested each small group of muscles and found that none would respond. Only over the facial muscles and those of the diaphragm did he have any control.
Turning his attention to his outside environment, he realized with a start that his eyes had been open all the while; the darkness of the cabin was almost complete. It took concentrated effort to discern anything. He found that he was lying, contorted, on his side, wedged beneath the control panel. Viewing the mangled disarray of the rest of the interior, and considering the force require to slam him into his present position, Spock found it difficult to understand how the craft had been able to survive at all; yet he could not perceive any evidence that the hull had been breached, and the slight breeze across his face testified that the aquatic gills had extended and were supplying oxygen.
An attempt to move his head brought searing pain and once more forced his investigation inward. Dispassionately he diagnosed both the cause of his pain and the paralysis -- a shattered cervical vertebra. The spinal cord, however, had not been severed, and Spock knew that with Vulcan techniques he could control the swelling and the pain. Yes, there was hope that this nightmare would end, if he were rescued. With that thought he yielded once more to unconsciousness. But this time it was riot the submission of defeat; he needed time to marshal his resources and tend his battered body.
* * *
It was 0150 hours, ship's time, and James Kirk stalked the corridors of the Enterprise, which were dimmed in deference to her living occupants' concept of night. Natural sleep had eluded him, as he knew it would, and he was reluctant to use any of McCoy's potions, though he did not doubt their power to call the god Morpheus. No, he needed to be able to act at a moment's notice, and he needed this time to himself. Since the loss of contact with Spock and the concurrent eruption of unbridled forces on the planet below, the ship had been a frenzy of activity, all departments turned to the task of unmasking the enigma. So far, none had been successful.
Without conscious direction, his feet let him to the observation deck. He had always found solace in the stars; perhaps, he thought, because he identified with their solitary existence.
In lonely splendor each sun played out its appointed time, imparting warmth, bestowing life, but never being able to touch another, never receiving, always giving, until the day each would wink out. No, he decided, none would imply 'wink out.' The weaker ones, like the star they were now investigating, would desperately clutch at their dwindling sustenance, progressively burning heavier and heavier elements until, unable to support combustion, they would die, broken ashes of their former selves. Only the strongest would survive their own demises, metamorphosing into parasites, collapsing with such power that they would continue, wantonly sucking in surrounding space. Not a happy ending in either case.
Kirk's morose meanderings were interrupted by the appearance of another figure. "Didn't know you were taking the third shift, Scotty," he greeted, turning from the star field.
"That I'm not, Captain. No more than you."
Kirk allowed a wry smile of resignation. He wondered if the Chief Engineer had actually sought him out, but decided it was best not to ask. He turned once more to face the spectacle displayed before him. "They're beautiful, Scotty." In one magnanimous sweep of his hand, Kirk included the entire galaxy.
To that Kirk did not reply but stood, meeting the other's gaze levelly, letting his silence stand as unspoken agreement. In these few minutes he had gained a greater appreciation of his Chief Engineer, but knew that to mention it would only cause embarrassment; instead, he retreated, culling his next question from less personal grounds. "How's work on the probe coming?"
"Well, Captain," responded Scott, slipping easily into his more familiar role, "It's hard to shield against something if you're not sure chat it is that you're shielding against, but we're working on it. As you said, we've got the best crew and ship in the Fleet. When you need it, it will be ready. Ach, if those energy levels would just ease off ... if we could just use the scanners, then..."
"Then you'd locate the Nautilus and transport Spock out of there, perform one of your miracles, eh, Scotty?"
"Captain," responded Scott, somewhat confused and on the defensive in light of this open cynicism, "I'm only thinking what's best for Mr. Spock."
Kirk did not reply immediately, but turned to face the stars once snore. Fists clenched and unclenched in frustration at his side. "I know, Scotty. It's just that, somehow, I think we may have run out of miracles."
* * *
For an eternity the being had existed in peace and solitude, the light providing it with food and the dark with endless opportunities to wonder, to marvel at the small points of energy that pulsed in the void; to sense and record their steady, repetitive dance. It was by such cataloging that the being hoped to gain a better understanding of itself. That a fine creature it was, all its many parts working in unison, sending bits of information from one small section to another, each sensor willingly divulging its discoveries, each part receiving necessary data, and every ,piece, whether feasting in the light or wondering in the dark, joyously proclaiming the life of its total being.
Then there had appeared a new source of energy. It had appeared quickly, sailing past the more staid marches of the night, growing in size as it traversed the dark, 'til it had stopped and taken its place among the others. Never before had the being witnessed such an event. On rare occasions before a great concentration of energy would punctuate the void, playing out its song in one mighty aria before falling silent. But this new addition was different. It had stopped growing, and then seemed content to pass in assigned position. Here was a marvelous new problem to ponder, one the being would take great pleasure in unraveling. That puzzle alone would have been sufficient to occupy its thoughts for all time, had it not been supplanted by an even greater mystery. Next to this new energy appeared another, much smaller, but this one continued to grow and move across the dark, mocking all others in its swiftness. And as the entity perceived the passage, it realized the danger, knew that the unchecked growth would cause destruction. In one fearful thought it proclaimed its dread: DANGER. The thought was echoed and amplified through all its parts, declaring as one the awful fear. But that thought had not been sufficient to halt the destruction. Now mindless panic whipped across its entire being, breeding upon itself, drawing untapped energies. Into this discordant measure another thought struggled for recognition. "Hush, still, be quiet," it soothed, "listen, listen, be still and you will be saved." For a moment the injunction comforted and was obeyed, but then the raging beast of fear took over once again, calling such thoughts apparitions, unholy products of its sundered being.
* * *
Spock closed his eyes in resignation. Since awakening, he had tried to contact the intelligence that surrounded him. He knew now that it was the other's mild and unchecked fear that had gripped his mind and caused the crash of the Nautilus; he also knew that those energies would block any attempt of the Enterprise to find him. His salvation and that of the other depended upon his ability to convince it that he had come in friendship -- not an easy task, considering that he had already brought death. Two point two days remained before the Enterprise would be forced to leave, abandoning them to the final, mighty conflagration. As much for the other as for himself, Spock knew that he had to succeed before then. But for now, all he could do was rest, and wait to try again.
* * *
On board the Enterprise the sudden, momentary energy-level drop was instantly noted. "Speculation, Mr. Carlson?"
The young officer rose and turned to face his Captain in a manner reminiscent of one all too familiar to James Kirk. "That drop would seem to indicate that the outpouring of energy is directed by an intelligence. No outside element was introduced to cause such a fluctuation. Added to the fact that the energy level has remained fairly constant, not exhibiting the steady decline one would expect from a natural occurrence, I would say we are dealing with sentient beings."
"Why the sudden drop?"
"Any number of reasons. Most likely a momentary breakdown. It takes a lot of power to generate such energy."
"An intelligence. Are you sure?"
"No, sir, not sure, but given the circumstances, that's where I'd place my bet."
Kirk always liked a betting man. He was sure that the young Science Officer would go far. Nodding acknowledgement, he turned and addressed his Communications Officer. "Uhura, has there been any response to our messages? Did the fluctuation correspond in any way to that message?"
"No, sir, to both your questions. I have entered the segment of the tape that was being broadcast at the time of the drop into the main computer. Any further deviations in the energy level will be compared to determine a pattern."
"Good, continue broadcasting and amplify power on the high beam. Perhaps their technology is not equipped to pick up our transmissions."
Returning his attention to the Science Officer, Kirk asked, "Carlson, if that drop had been sustained, would the interference be reduced enough for our instruments to work?"
"Marginally, sir. Even at that level it would be difficult, and I'm not sure I'd trust them. But it sure would be better than what we're getting now."
"Okay. Keep monitoring." Thumbing the intercom, Kirk then called the Chief Engineer. "Scotty, how's the probe coming?"
"Just finishing up now, sir. Have the energy levels dropped off?"
"Just for a moment. I want the probe in place and ready to go at my command, but we'll wait on using it. Looks like we're dealing with something intelligent." Closing off the communications with more force than necessary, Kirk settled back in the command chair. "Well, gentlemen, I guess now we go back to waiting. Seems we can't do much else but wait for our friends down there to quiet down or slip up."
"You could go to dinner."
Kirk swung around to see Leonard McCoy standing behind the chair, hands clasped loosely behind his back, gazing benignly into space.
"You know I can't leave here, Bones."
"I know that you haven't eaten since yesterday lunch, didn't sleep last night and are at the raw edge of collapse."
"How do you know all that?"
McCoy shrugged slightly. "A combination of informants and that perscan you're wearing. One of the true marvels of modern science." He now shifted his gaze to meet the Captain's eyes directly. "So, Captain, do you join me for a pleasant evening meal or do I order you into Sick Bay?"
"You're not just going to let me alone and go on your way by yourself, are you?"
"Not on your life."
Kirk scrutinized the doctor for a moment, trying to find a weakness that would indicate a compromise. There was none. "In that case ... Sulu, you have the conn. Anything at all, and I want to know it immediately. I'll be having a pleasant evening meal with the good doctor." Getting out of the command chair, he waved the doctor ahead of him to the turbolift. "After you."
Once away from the Bridge, Kirk fell silent. McCoy noted the shift with clinical intensity, but said nothing as the pair made their way from the lift to the dining hall, where each retrieved his respective meal.
When several more minutes of silence passed after they had sat down, McCoy knew that Kirk would not initiate a conversation. "Want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what, Doctor?" asked Kirk, his gaze intent on his plate.
"Why you're mourning before you know there's anything to mourn."
"You mean I should wait 'til I see the body?"
"I mean that nothing is certain yet. I wouldn't give up on Spock so easily."
Kirk looked up from toying with his dinner. "Bones, I haven't given up on Spock. It's just that suddenly I realize all the possibilities out there, and this time we have less than two days to find the right one. What's the matter with me? Am I getting old?"
"Finding out that starship captains aren't omnipotent? I wouldn't call that getting old -- just maturing." McCoy picked up a fork and started to toy with his own dinner. ''What do you find overwhelming about our present situation?"
Kirk smiled slightly. He knew what McCoy was doing. He also knew there was no escape. Besides, he did want to talk about it. "Okay, Doctor, you win." Kirk sat back, his dinner now completely forgotten. "Here we sit, orbiting an unexplored planet. We have determined that there is probable cause to believe that it is inhabited by intelligent life. Other than the fact that they use energy and haven't responded to anything we've said, we know nothing about them. Yet somehow we expect them to be like us, or at least enough like us to understand the messages we are sending. Up until now we've been lucky; almost every alien we've encountered is, or at one time was, like us: brain, limbs, eyes, ears, voice. What if there are beings whose frame of reference is so different from ours that we have no basis for communication? What if they perceive, in completely different ways, different wavelengths of energy? We sit here broadcasting the standard message saying we're good guys come to help. And we expect to be understood. We speculate that there might be life down there, and immediately conjure up sea creatures that look surprisingly like us -- maybe a few gills, but basically us, trransplanted. What if we're wrong? What if what we're really dealing with is an intelligent form of coral that communicates by discharging chemicals into the surrounding water? Or a microorganism in the air that is in itself the source of energy? We've got two days. Are we going to get lucky, and find someone who understands us? And if we luck out this time, what about the next? What do we do then? I think we've been entirely too complacent for entirely too long."
McCoy's answer came in a voice that was low and sure in its conviction. "What we do then, Captain, is the best we can. And we keep our options open. Civilization, as we know it, has survived this long only because it's damned adaptable. When we meet aliens who are truly alien, we will have to learn to communicate because we have to and they have to. Remember the Horta? And if it takes longer than two days and if we fail this time, then we go on. Hopefully, we will have learned something. And yes, failing this time will be more painful than anything we've encountered before, and it won't begin to be made up for by any number of future successes. But we will go on, because that's also something we have to do."
Kirk did not reply immediately. Then he shook his head, a small smile easing the negation. "You're right. Doesn't make it easier, though, does it?"
"Easy I never promised," answered McCoy. "Only necessary."
* * *
Out of the dark, immobile silence that was his prison, Spock's mind stretched in search of the other. Only once had he been successful, and then only for a moment; but that moment served as a wellspring from which he drew his resolve. He would not fail. Yet silence, only silence, met his quest.
Slowly he drew back his consciousness. A parched tongue darted across dry lips, not so much in expression of thirst as in affirmation of his corporal being. Pain crept into his awareness.
He allowed it; it was necessary. Only by such introspection was he able to transcend his paralysis and the all-enveloping darkness, and hold on to the concept that he had a body.
Once more mind abandoned body and strove for contact. And this time, he was rewarded. A single thought stole cautiously into his consciousness. "What are you?" it asked.
"I am another," he replied.
"There is no other. There is only one."
"There is me. I am Spock."
Spock felt the link breaking. This time it was much weaker, as if he was reaching only a small part of a much larger being. He could not lose this contact. Through it he would reach and still the other in its entirety. "Return," he entreated, "Together we will unlock this mystery."
The part of its being that had extended itself stopped in its retreat. To learn, to understand, had always been the essence of its existence. That was before, before when there had been quiet and peace. And now, more than ever, now it must understand; for it knew that if it did not understand, it would spend the rest of eternity in endless, undiminished fear. "How can you be?" it asked.
"I am an intelligence as you are, though my form may be very different," replied Spock.
In the other's mind there was no concept of "form," and Spock thought fleetingly that here was an ethereal being, one without substance. But the danger that he had felt before crashing was a physical one, the pain he felt raging about him now was to a real body. He strove to understand the cause of the fear and pain. His mind joined and became one with the other. Through its senses he perceived the world. That world became one bereft of its usual three dimensions; it became an endless flatness, a two-dimensional province wherein dwelt only length and breadth. Spock saw the crash, not as an event in which his craft plummeted through a substantial atmosphere, but as one of a growing energy source that increased to the point where it destroyed and then vanished. Spock understood now why "form" was a concept beyond the experience of the other.
But Spock also remained Spock, and through his own senses knew the nature of the other. The simple aquatic plants that he had dismissed so easily ... it was they who, stretching in a homogeneous whole across the surface of the water, lived and experienced as one their two-dimensional world. It was their internal communication, quiescent in its peaceful contemplation, that he had first detected. It was the awful fear of one gigantic mind in response to the threat of his approach that had caused the mighty forces which had brought down his craft. It was his error to have dismissed so easily a potential source of sentient life. It was a grave error.
"I am another," he continued. "I am one of many. Our understanding of existence is different from yours, because that understanding was formed by different experiences. It is important that you know that what I say is true. Let my understanding be yours. View the world as I do." Once more their minds joined, and the being saw as Spock saw, moved as Spock moved. It marveled at the new world and was sorry to see the images end. But it did not believe.
"The worlds you create are wonderful; they endow you with powers I could not hope to have. But I, too, have dreamed of worlds that do not exist. Because you believe in these things does not mean that they are so."
To rein in the terror, to make the other understand the desperate situation that held them both, Spock now realized that he must first establish his reality as plausible. It was upon this task that his logical mind embarked with confidence. Carefully he built the formulae that would yield indisputable, mathematical proof of a third dimension. Solidly he anchored them in constants of energy cycles he knew to be common to both of their experiences. The undertaking was exacting and time-consuming. It drew heavily on Spock's limited resources. But it was necessary. There must be no doubt as to the validity of his claim.
When the constructs were complete, he took them and sculpted a universe that had depth as well as length and breadth. Right angles traced upon the surface were interjected by the perpendicular, creating up and down. On this new axis rode realities that continued to exist in their entirety above and below the flat plane.
The eternal flatness was shaped and formed and became a sphere that wove through space, rotating and revolving in concert with other celestial bodies. As the world turned, the passing of light and void became day and night, the great radiance of the day the gift of a star whose nearness made it appear much greater than its distant relatives.
Spock extrapolated still further and depicted events as he knew them to have happened. The Enterprise and his descent were transformed from sensations of energy to physical, three-dimensional entities and events. The transmissions from the Enterprise were shown to be more than cyclical emissions; they contained messages from other beings, messages of friendship and peace, and warnings of annihilation. The star that had burned steadily for these uncounted years was dying and would carry to death this world and all that was on it. That death, though, did not need to be complete; portions of the being could be taken from this world, and those representatives used to seed new worlds. It was this assurance that Spock projected. The path was clear before them now. All that was required was a control of the hysteria, a return to quiet that would allow them both to be saved.
His task complete, Spock relaxed.
Deeply the being had concentrated on understanding and though it now thought that it did understand, it still did not believe. It could accept this one who called itself Spock, for that presence it had felt; but the rest, the rest it had not experienced and therefore could not accept. "No," it responded after Spock had finished. "What you say cannot be. I can rely only on what I know. My knowledge has served me for all time, and will continue to do so."
"In point nine days your star will destroy your world, and you with it," responded Spock.
"That is what you say."
"It is the truth."
"It is your truth. It serves you, as mine serves me."
Weariness and the first hint of despair settled menacingly over him. There was no flaw in his logic; each block of reason was carefully laid and cemented in place by exquisitely precise mathematics. Together, they formed a truth of which there could be no question -- yet he was not believed. Why?
"Can you not understand the absolute validity of the constructs which I have presented?"
"I understand and marvel at the great beauty and intricacy of your formulae, but I do not accept them as absolute," replied the being.
"I exist," countered Spock, "yet your laws do not account for my existence; therefore, your laws must be false."
"That you exist is without doubt. That you exist as you claim, or that I am subject to those same laws ... of that, I must have further proof. You present a world that explodes almost every tenet I hold, yet you expect me to believe you. If you can travel through this dimension you call depth, then show me."
Spock had not expected this. He knew immediately that that, too, was a critical mistake. He had relied upon the self-evident power of logic and knew now that it was not enough; yet, imprisoned as he was, he could not physically prove his claim. The cloak of despair settled closer on his motionless shoulders. "I can not. I can only ask that you accept what I say. The situation demands that you do."
"The situation demands that I know with a certainty that pervades my entire being that what you say is true. Very little of me remains rational. Soon it, too, may be lost to the flames of panic."
An impasse. If only he were able to maneuver through the water, to poke, to prod, to predictably appear; to physically lift the other out of the water, then there would be no question. But he could not, and, to speculate on the impossible was fruitless. His mind was filled with classical verifications of a third or fourth or even higher dimension -- but none that he could demonstrably prove. Belief was required and that he could not instill. Frustration crept into his consciousness, and despair threatened to overtake him. Time was his enemy. Given time, he would embrace the challenge of trying to convince this two-dimensional being of a greater existence. But he did not have time. Less than a day remained before the Enterprise would be forced to leave. He found himself hoping that the end would come quickly after that. He wished it for himself, for he did not desire the agony of existence without hope; and more than that, he wished to release those who would be forced to leave him from the guilt of having left too soon.
Faith. How could he instill faith? He felt his rational mind slip and buckle under the awesome weight of the combined physical and mental pressures of the past two clays. The demand for a reason to believe beat like a voracious tide against the crumbling cliffs of his rationality. It echoed and screamed its insistence through his mind, and he could not answer it. Two-dimensional plans that should, by all logic, have changed into solids withered and died in the transformation. He did not possess the tools to convey the absolute conviction of what he knew to be true. He was lost, and he knew it. The controls of logic and reason crumbled like rotten timbers unable to support the structure of truth. In that crumbling, a sense of euphoric release washed over him. Freed from the bondage of reality, his feet raced once more across desert sands and moved with assured strides through ship's corridors.. Fingers danced on taut strings and brought to life ancient songs. He marveled at his hands and laughed with joy as knowledge sprang forth at the command of his touch. He was whole once more. The other had demanded that it be made to believe and that he was not able to accomplish; but in joyful, sensual recollection, he would relive his truths and be glad that his existence was not limited to only length and breadth.
To this the entity listened and shared in the joy of one who now seemed also a part of it. These were wondrous worlds that this Spock believed in; they were not its world, but wondrous nonetheless.
* * *
McCoy stood silently, hands clasped loosely behind his back as he kept quiet vigil ever the Bridge and most particularly its commander. The doctor knew that no threat or amount of cajoling could remove the Captain from his post now. Kirk sat rooted, as though by his very presence he could defy time or quell the massive energies that still held sway over the planet beneath them.
"Mr. Carlson," Kirk's low voice range clear and true across the deadly stillness of the Bridge, "how long before stellar explosion?"
"Possibly as soon as three hours, although it may not be for more than a day," came the assured reply.
"Will there be any warning? Could we stay within transporter range, detect the forthcoming expansion, and escape in time?"
Carlson knew the answer that was desired; it was one he could not give. "No, Captain. We will not be able to predict expansion in time to escape being engulfed by it."
Eyes that had studiously avoided looking anywhere but at their task now turned in unmasked concern to face their Captain.
"Have the energy emissions decreased?" Kirk once more directed the question to Spock's replacement..
"No, sir, they have not."
"Uhura, any response to our messages?"
Kirk sat silent for a moment before thumbing the intercom on the chair console. "Mr. Scott, please prepare the probe for launch."
"Probe already in position and shielding activated -- but as I said, Captain, I don't know if the shielding will do any good, and if it doesn't..."
"Yes, Scotty, understood." And then almost to himself, Kirk added, "But it doesn't seem we're left any alternatives."
Straightening in his seat, Kirk once more assumed the tone of command. "Launch probe on my command. Constant monitoring on the probe and energy levels. Launch probe."
Seconds stretched into minutes, and each passing minute gave strength to a growing hope. McCoy came to stand behind the Captain, both hands gripping the back of the command chair. The only sound heard was the steady report from the science station: "All systems functioning normally, visual relay beginning now, no indication of an impact sight -- image breaking up, shields compensating -- energy levels remaining constant." Then, in one devastating blow, it was over. Energy emissions jumped to new heights. Transmission from the probe ceased, and all contact was broken. In less than a minute, their slim hope was crushed, ground to dust beneath overwhelming forces.
"I guess that's it, Jim," said the quiet voice behind the command chair.
"No, Doctor, that's not it. We still have two hours and 38 minutes," came the still quieter reply.
* * *
Spock noted the surge as another assault on his beleaguered mind, and instinctively constructed new barriers against it. Most of his mind now functioned in another world, another time; only a small part remained to interpret the increase in force as a response to another intruder. He fervently hoped it was unmanned. Analytically Spock considered the similarities between himself and the other. For all their differences, one thing stood out: neither had full and rational control of his thoughts. Somehow, he didn't even think to consider whether it was the Vulcan or Terran half that had deserted him. Had he thought about it, he probably would have concluded that it was both.
* * *
In one of the sterile and efficient rooms that formed the Sick Bay complex, Christine Chapel sat before a console that monitored the perscan readings of every crewmember. She was paying special attention to those of the Bridge crew, noting the marked and continuing rise of vital signs in response to stress. Heart rates, respiration, blood pressure -- all were elevated. There were significant changes in the endocrine secretions. Each member of the Bridge crew stood poised, ready to leap into action. The strain of holding back showed clearly. Most pronounced in their deviations from norm were Kirk's readings. Combined with fatigue, they spelled a condition that demanded constant monitoring. Christine sighed. What McCoy did by instinct, she did by remote control -- a difference in training, and a difference in style. Each complemented the other. One reading was missing, and had been for more than three days now. That did not cause her to relax her guard, to give up hope that some small indication of that life would flicker across the screen. In one hour, the Enterprise would leave orbit and abandon for all time any possibility of rescuing Spock. She thought back to that other, seemingly final, parting. Spock had not even deigned to inform her of his plans, and she had cried at the insult for days after he had left. She'd cried tears of anger and frustration and embarrassment. Then, when she finally convinced herself that Spock was definitely, irrevocably gone, she dried her eyes and took a long, hard look at her life. From a small child, she had been taught that if she were defenseless and pretty and not at all ambitious, she would be whisked away by a knight in shining armor, to spend the rest of her days in eternal bliss. She had believed the fairy tale; but the knight never came, and for that she cursed him. With Spock's parting etched indelibly in her memory, Christine came to the hard truth that there were no knights, and from this day forward she would have to be master of her own fate. It was that decision the propelled her to seek her M.D. degree. It was a decision she never regretted. In the process of her studies, she also learned about herself. She was proud of her accomplishments and grew to like the person she was becoming. Spock would always reside in a special place in her memory, and she deeply regretted that she had not told him of the new direction her life had taken, and his role in shaping it. She had wanted to tell him, but hadn't. There were many good reasons why she hadn't gotten the chance, but if she were going to be perfectly honest, Christine had to admit that, despite all the growth, there still lived within her a small girl who was intimidated by the dark and regal Vulcan.
Now, sitting before the console, she strangely did not feel any further regrets, no "if only's, no "I should have's. What had happened, had happened; and if she had erred, had lost her chance, then she would learn from and live with that, too. Somehow, although she did not require it, she was sure Spock would approve.
The insistent buzzer brought her out of her private meditation. "Chapel here."
"Christine," Leonard McCoy's quiet voice boomed out of the deadly silence of the Bridge, "I'm remaining on the Bridge. Is there anything on the perscans that I should be aware of?"
"Nothing that you don't already know. There have been no indications on Mr. Spock's scan." She pitched her voice low, even though she was sure that McCoy had donned an earpiece and that her part of the conversation could not be overheard. "But Leonard, your readings are almost as elevated as the Captain's. Take care, please."
"Goddanmlit, woman!" croaked the sharp reply, "I don't need a blasted piece of machinery to tell me how I feel!"
The response was louder than he'd intended, and as McCoy replaced the earpiece he noted the heads turned in his direction. "Nothing new," he muttered in way of explanation as he made his way back to his place behind the command chair once more. He had to admit to himself that that particular piece of machinery did not lie.
"How much longer, Jim?" he asked, knowing full well that he could just as easily read a chronometer, but needing something to break the claustrophobic quiet.
"Thirty-eight minutes, Doctor. Then we can all mourn."
McCoy did not like the tightly controlled anger he heard in that voice. Once more he wondered how Spock's death would affect the Captain. It seemed certain he would soon find out. "We still have thirty-eight minutes, Jim."
Precisely, the chronometer recorded the march of time. Minutes slipped by; the forces on the planet below raged unabated, oblivious to their passage. When the last minute of their allotted margin of safety passed; all eyes turned to Kirk, who stared ahead, seeing none of them.
"Helm," came the order they all knew spelled defeat, "break orbit. Lay in a course for Starbase XIV. Space normal speed."
Except for those who watched the stars shift in their positions, none on the great ship could have noticed the change in direction -- yet everyone aboard the Enterprise knew at that moment that they had left orbit. Most stopped in their tasks and were quiet for a respectful minute. There were few among this new crew who knew the Vulcan Science and Executive Officer personally, but all respected him and mourned his passing. In one of the sterile and efficient rooms of the Sick Bay complex, a solitary observer bent her head and wept.
* * *
Spock also noted the passing of the moment, his inborn time sense remaining faithful to the end. He harbored no ill will either to those who were forced to leave him or to the creature who was the cause of that abandonment, only a small regret for things left unsaid and a profound sense of loss at his failure to save from extinction a unique sentient being. Control returned to his mind, and he called in the creatures of fancy that had run unbridled through his dreams. He would see the end of his life with rational serenity.
* * *
The point of energy shrank until only the barest hint remained to attest that it ever had been. On the surface of the second planet of the doomed system, a being who defined its existence by such recordings marked the fading with relief and sought to contact the other. Only a hollow echo answered its search. With dogged persistence, it continued to try to elicit a reply, remembering the wonderful worlds of fancy, remembering the pledge, "Together we will unlock the mystery."
"Hear me," it demanded, "I want to know more."
"There is nothing more that I can give. I have failed us both." The response was a small whisper. "It is too late."
"No!" it cried. "There exist untold mysteries, and eternities in which to discover them. Together we will explore the many truths."
But there was no answer.
A new fear drove it to heights of frenzy that even the fear of death could not. Alone. Alone again. Forever alone. That it could not endure. Not now, not after it had known the presence of another. Shrilly, it demanded to be heard. Contritely, it begged for the images to begin again. And always it was met with the same unbreachable silence. Could what the other said be true? Could the small fading energy source contain other beings? There was no more reason to believe now than there had been before; but now there was a reason to want to believe. With one mighty effort, it focused all its energy into a single thought and directed it toward the fading light.
"RETURN." The thought reverberated through the ship.
"RETURN." The demand was insistent, and would not be denied.
"RETURN." Every mind yielded to the pervasive command.
And in the void grew a single point of energy.
From it pulsed life and hope, the promise of continuation, and the prospect of wonderful new worlds.
* * *
Jim Kirk paced the short expanse of Leonard McCoy's office, anxiously awaiting the doctor's return. What it was, precisely, that had made him order the Enterprise to reverse course, he could not say -- only that there was an overwhelming need to do so. They had returned to the now strangely quiet planet and found Spock, barely alive and completely paralyzed, yet conscious enough to insist that samples of the plant life be taken and transferred to the Enterprise. Kirk had complied with the request, even though it required an expenditure of time that they could not afford. Spock had been adamant that the plants were intelligent, and Kirk knew that even in Spock's condition, his words could not simply be dismissed as the ramblings of a fevered mind. But -- sentient plants? The prospect of extending diplomatic courtesies to a tray of plankton seemed incongruous, and Kirk would have found the situation amusing if he were not so worried about his friend.
"Well, we were damned lucky." Kirk turned to face a very tired but much relieved Chief Medical Officer.
"We replaced the vertebrae, and there's no indication of permanent paralysis," McCoy continued. "Someday I'm going to have to get that Vulcan to explain how he controls his autonomic functions." McCoy sank wearily into his chair. "In anyone else, the swelling of the spinal cord alone would have caused permanent damage. It's a good thing, though, that we were aware of the situation and didn't just transport him up. Without proper bracing, the cord would have snapped -- and then even being Vulcan wouldn't have helped. Guess those perscans really are a marvel."
"Never replace a good doctor." Kirk was sincere in his gratitude.
"Ha. When I grow old, they'll probably replace me with a robot that's twice as smart and three times as efficient. And Spock will probably design it."
"Now, Doctor," continued Kirk in mock seriousness, "I don't think you'll grow old. Mature, perhaps, but not old." The laughter of relief infused both pairs of eyes and held for a moment before the Captain again became serious. "Can I see him now?"
"Just for a minute. Chris is with him right now. The exertion of communicating with whatever that thing is, on top of everything else, really strained him to the limit."
"So you think that our passenger in hydroponics is really a sentient being?" asked Kirk.
"Well," replied McCoy, "it certainly is possible. It definitely emits energy. The intelligence may not be housed in the same form as we're used to seeing; but as you said, the possibilities are endless. Just because we've never run across something like it before in no way means it doesn't exist."
"No, of course not," agreed Kirk. "I think when we learn to communicate, we'll find that we have many of the same needs. Something made it want us to come back. I don't know how to explain it, but I'm sure now that's what it was. The whole ship felt it ... the need to return. It must be a remarkable creature, and I'm sure there's a great deal we can learn from it, now that we have the time. I'm just sorry that so much of it was destroyed."
"Well, Jim," responded McCoy, "that's what life's all about, isn't it? Dichotomies. Life and death. Beauty and ugliness. Like that star out there, ready to destroy after giving life for millions of years. And somewhere else, hydrogen atoms are being pushed together in a random spiral, ready to spawn new existence."
As if to mark his words, that star chose just then to flare into a grotesque giant. The event was recorded at a safe distance by instruments aboard the great starship. Those instruments also noted that the seven small planets in that particular system were destroyed. What they were unable to record was the fact that not all life had been destroyed.