DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Cheree Cargill and is copyright (c) 2000 by Cheree Cargill. This story is Rated PG.



THE MAN TRAP: REMEMBER THE BUFFALO

Cheree Cargill



Stardate: 1513.3. First Officer Spock recording.

I am ashamed. I meditate for hours but still I cannot purge myself of the horror and remorse that pervades my soul. I have caused a death. No, not merely one death, but a billion. Uncounted generations. It is genocide that crushes my soul. How can I ever repay that?

My own Ancestors speak to me, trying to hammer their way through the terrible guilt of my actions. Not logical, they tell me. You did nothing. You merely defended yourself, as anyone would have done.

It does mollify my grief. I did not pull the trigger, but I wished my attacker dead and even urged another to carry out my atrocity. "Kill it, Doctor! Quickly!" I shouted.

And he did. Reluctant, tormented, but he obeyed my orders, my exhortation to murder.

But, oh, my Fathers, the life that ended there on the steel plating of my ship was not merely a life. It was extinction, the Ending of a race. For, although we called the life form "the creature" and "the beast" and "the animal", it was none of these. It was a person, a being as intelligent and aware as any of the people who traverse these corridors around me.

I should have realized it earlier, but I was besotted by the deaths among the crew and the search for an invader, a monster. I was lulled by Crater's delusions and madness. And yet, was he truly mad?

I have read his papers regarding the dig on M-113. Those ruins down there, the weathered remains of a civilization, were not raised by beasts or animals. No savages cobbled those pylons and crossbeams into temples and palaces. They were lifted up by advanced, intelligent, cultured people, with a written language and arts and music and architecture that would still be standing 10,000 years later.

The one thing they did not have was an answer. A solution to the problem of disappearing salt deposits that were essential to their diet. At the height of their civilization, they plundered their resources, used the vast wealth of minerals too fast, expended the seemingly endless source of their sustenance.

But it wasn't endless. And one day, too late, they realized that the salt was becoming hard to find and soon only the wealthy could afford it. The poor, the majority, rose up in revolt and slew those who possessed the precious resource. And still there was not enough to go around. The people turned on one another in ceaseless warfare, and ... I can scarcely fathom such desperation ... began to mine the bodies of their victims for the salt of their blood.

Their civilization crumbled as the people turned in increasing desperation to searching for food. It was not long before the population had dwindled to a million ... then a few thousand ... then hundreds ... then only dozens. Finally, there was only one left.

And that's when the humans came. Of all the archaeologists, only two could understand that this was not an animal ... Bob and Nancy Crater. They befriended it, fed it, learned its language and taught it theirs. They learned that it was called Itsch'qaq and it told Crater its story, its history, and helped him uncover the legacy of M-113. For several years, the humans and Itsch'qaq worked amicably together. It was desperately lonely and even aliens were better than no company at all.

But, no matter how intelligent, it was still a half-wild savage, used to living by its wits and ever hungry. The instinct for survival was too strong to resist and it began to kill the science team and finally Crater's wife. It drove Crater mad but still he could not bring himself to destroy it. It was too precious, the last of its kind.

By the time the Enterprise arrived on the scene, Crater and Itsch'qaq had settled into a bizarre relationship in which it played the part of wife to him. Its ability to project telepathically into the minds of those around it finally led Crater to almost believe that this was indeed his wife, Nancy.

M-113 lies on the most distant frontier of Federation space and we had parted company with Balok only a day before. The stop at M-113 was already in our itinerary, although we had not expected to reach here for a month or more. Our star mapping duties had been abruptly halted at the request of the First Federates, who claimed the space in that region, thus moving our timetable up. Of course, it would have made no difference when we arrived. Events would have unfolded the same way.

They came to a violent and murderous climax there in sick bay. During the briefing, I had noticed that McCoy was acting atypically quiet and I watched him. He was sitting beside Crater and casting furtive little glances at the archaeologist. I reached out telepathically toward him but could not get a positive reading. It seemed to come across as McCoy, but there was something that did not ... feel right.

I carefully kept my face completely neutral, but determined that I would investigate this further. When the two of them got up to return to sick bay, I quickly rose and rounded the table to stand at their side. "I'll go with you, Doctor," I said, throwing him off guard. I saw surprise flash across McCoy's face but then settle into something else.

The walk to sick bay was short and in a minute, we were in the examination room. Nurse Chapel met us.

"Nurse, prepare a shot of truth serum," the doctor instructed her. "We will administer it to Dr. Crater here. Mr. Spock has some questions."

She looked startled and her deep blue eyes flicked uncertainly in my direction. This was unusual procedure and she seemed set to protest. Get out, I willed her, my eyes locked onto hers. I wanted her out of here. I sensed danger about to explode and did not wish her to be injured.

She turned and left for the pharmacy to retrieve the needed drug. Once she was gone, I turned to the other two men, simultaneously reaching for my phaser.

I never made it. Crater seized my arm and wrenched it back, knocking the phaser out of my grasp. Caught off guard by his sudden move, it took me a second too long to respond. McCoy was moving toward me with outstretched hands and spread fingers, his eyes blazing.

I started to counter his action ... then I could not move. His eyes caught and held me, arresting any movement I might have made. I found myself completely paralyzed, my whole world dwindling down to his face ... his enormous, hypnotic eyes.

I struggled mentally. I knew this was not McCoy. I had to break free.

His countenance changed, searching for an image that I would recognize and trust. One that I would not fight. It was now Great-Grandmother ... T'Pau ... who reached for me. "Be still, Spock," she ordered in Vulcan. "I would know your thoughts." Her fingers sought the meld points on my face.

I rejected the image. This was not the Elder. Not here! I fought with all my might.

"Spock..." The voice was softer, the eyes suddenly blue-gray and filled with concern. Mother stood before me, reaching to caress my face. "You're so tired. Stop fighting, son. Let me soothe you..."

No!! I struggled, reaching within me to find some reserve of strength. With a mighty effort, I broke eye contact, squeezing my eyes shut.

Then it was all gone. I found myself bent back over the examination table and Nurse Chapel was standing before me, her face filled with worry. "Mr. Spock! What's wrong? Where are Dr. McCoy and Professor Crater?"

I caught my breath and glanced wildly around me. Only the two of us were here. Trembling slightly, I gathered my wits about me and straightened, still shaken by the ordeal. "It's all right, Nurse."

"Are you sure?" she asked, moving closer. "You don't look well, at all." She reached up to my face, a gesture filled with love and caring. Her eyes were wide and beautiful, drawing me into them.

It was a second too late before my befuddled mind understood ... and by then I felt the touch of multiple suckers latching onto my face, adhering with deadly precision. But all I could see were Chapel's eyes ... the longing and hunger that filled them ... and I was well and truly lost.

Then her face contorted and she gave an inhuman screech, jerking her fingers away from my face. Enraged, she drew back and her fist flew toward me. That's the last I remember.

* * *

When I regained my senses, two male medical technicians were bending over me and just beyond I saw a pair of shapely feminine legs. I rolled over onto my back, squinting through the blood that dripped into one eye, and followed the long legs up to a trim, blue-clad body and neat blonde hair. "Get him on the table," Christine Chapel directed the two men.

I gave an involuntary cry and flinched back at the sight of her. She kept her distance and said soothingly, "It's all right, Mr. Spock. I've called the Captain. Dr. McCoy did this to you ... or whatever is pretending to be Dr. McCoy. I saw him hit you and run out the door."

The two med techs had their hands under my arms and lifted me to my feet, then backwards onto the slanting exam table. I was intensely dizzy from the blow and closed my eyes to stop the room from spinning. Chapel came and touched me lightly on the hand ... and I instantly knew that it was really her. There was no deception in the aura that surrounded her. Then she went to retrieve cleaning solution and a bandage.

I heard the door from the corridor slide open and two sets of footsteps rush in, one male and the other female. I opened my eyes to find the Captain standing at my bedside while Yeoman Rand hung back near the doorway.

"It wasn't McCoy," I managed to say. "It hit me. Had my doubts about McCoy..." The room whirled again and I closed my eyes once more.

"Captain..." I heard Rand say and then the sound of Kirk going to her.

"Crater," he said with finality. "Dead. It killed him."

Logical, I thought. It was hungry, desperate. When it couldn't use me, it turned on him.

Kirk came back. "It could've had you, too. Why didn't it?"

I managed to prop myself up a little. "Fortunately, my ancestors spawned in another ocean than yours. My blood salts are quite different."

The Captain had a sudden hunch on where our adversary was heading and ran out after it. I lay back and allowed Chapel to clean and bandage the cut on my forehead. Her hands were cool and sure, her concern echoing clearly through her touch. I do not understand why she feels as she does for me. Perhaps this is simply how she feels for every member of the crew. Yes, that must be it. Many in the medical profession are empathic and follow their need to heal the wounded and sick. Reassured, I allow her to finish, then I sit up on the side of the table and spend a moment mastering the vertigo that still claims me.

"Mr. Spock, you shouldn't get up yet," Chapel says, her husky voice filled with authority.

"I assure you I am quite well, Nurse," I reply and slide off the table to my feet. I stand for another moment then murmur, "Thank you," and march out the door, filled with foreboding.

It is four decks up to the senior officers' cabins and I head straight for McCoy's quarters. I walk in on a scene of horror. Nancy Crater has Captain Kirk backed into a chair at McCoy's desk, her fingers spread over his face. McCoy is standing slack-jawed, watching the scene with a phaser in his hand, doing nothing.

"It's killing the Captain!" I shout and try to get the phaser from the doctor's hand. He fights me instantly. "Shoot! Shoot it, quickly!"

"No!!"

We struggle but there is no time. I launch myself between Kirk and Nancy Crater, shoving her away. I am desperate with fear, for I know the creature's strength and that I cannot hold it off for more than a few seconds. "Kill it!" I beg McCoy.

He is blind with his own kind of fear. "I won't kill Nancy!" he responds.

I lock my fists together and began to hammer her face with all my might. She flinches but does not go down. The blows I am delivering should have crushed her skull, broken her neck, but she barely feels it. Then, with an almost casual gesture, she backhands me, sending me flying into the wall. The impact knocks my breath out for a few seconds and I crumple to the floor.

When I can talk again, I ask, "Is that Nancy, Doctor?"

Nancy turns once again to Kirk ... and drops her facade. We see her now for the first time in her true form. At first sight, she is hideous and it is with defiance that she reaches her suckered fingers to Kirk's face. He has just begun to come out of her hypnotic spell and screams.

Only then does McCoy fire. He cannot bring himself to kill his former lover, but a horrible monster is something quite different. She becomes Nancy once more and moves toward him.

"Leonard, please..."

"God forgive me," he says and fires again. This time she collapses and dies, changing back to her real form.

That was three days ago. Captain Kirk was moved to sick bay and fed saline solution to replace the salt she had managed to extract from his body in the few seconds she had contact. He has since been released and has returned to duty.

Bob Crater was buried on M-113 beside the body of his true wife, Nancy, and along with the bodies of the science team that Itsch'qaq had killed. Perhaps another science team will be sent to continue Crater's work here, but somehow I find that unlikely. There are always more scientists begging for grants than there is money to cover them all. It is unlikely that the Federation will continue to fund the dig here.

Itsch'qaq was not laid to rest on the planet of her birth. Instead, the Science Department has placed the body in stasis and will deliver it to Federation scientists who will study it. Ultimately, it will be placed on display with the other xenobiology exhibits in Starfleet Academy's museum in San Francisco.

I weep for her and her people. I weep for a civilization lost and a race of beings driven to extinction before my very eyes. I feel as if I had been the one to cause it.

The last one ... the last one ... and I participated in the death as surely as if I had wiped an entire race from the planet. We should have done something ... anything ... to preserve a unique species. Instead, we destroyed it. I destroyed it.

Oh, my Fathers ... how can I repay this debt? How can I atone? How can I live with the blood of a world dripping from my hands? I grieve as I have never grieved before. Help me, Fathers, come to terms with this crime I have committed. Help me cleanse my soul...

Soft hands caress me, ghostly hands of those long dead. They are here with me, the Ancestors, my Mothers and Fathers, offering comfort and support in the dim, flickering light of the firepot. A figure stands before me. Surak.

"Time is a path from the past to the future and back again. The present is the crossroads of both," he says. "You have crossed paths with a people whose time was in the past. They would have died no matter whether you encountered them or not. You did not cause this death. The blood is not upon you."

"But I urged McCoy to kill and he did so at my bidding," I argue, tears staining my face.

"You acted out of concern for your friend. Had you not done so, more would have died needlessly ... and then you would have joined Itsch'qaq in death," Surak says sternly. "It is logical for you to grieve at the loss of life, but not so to blame yourself. You did not cause this, Spock! It is time to put your grief behind you and return to the present."

"I am not sure that I know how," I answer softly, still feeling my emotions whirling about me in a chaotic maelstrom.

"You know how," Surak answers. "You have been taught the Disciplines. Now practice them."

It is a command that must be obeyed. I take a deep breath and began to recite the Tenets. They center me, focus my mind, help me gather in the tatters of my soul and stitch it back together.

By the time morning comes, the flame in the firepot has burned to embers ... and I arise whole once more, ready to face the day. But I take a moment before I ready myself for duty to bow before the Shrine ... and to think of the buffalo.

THE END