DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Johanna Cantor and is copyright (c) 1976 by Johanna Cantor. Originally printed in Guardian #1.
The Lost Colony
Captain's Log, Stardate 1911.3. Barely one day into our investigation of the ruins on the smaller land mass of planet K623-2, the Enterprise has been summoned to Barnard 4, where a fungal infestation threatens all animal life, including the pre-intelligent Duckbills. Though top-priority, the decontamination will not require a full crew. Therefore, in view of the many assignments still to be carried out in this sector, I have transferred command of the ship to Chief Engineer Scott. He will implement the necessary procedures with the help of Lieutenant McGillicuty, acting head of life sciences, and return here within three standard days.
My reasons for remaining with the landing party are not, perhaps, the most defensible. Yet, everything about this place speaks eloquently of an advanced civilization, recently viable. We have found this concrete shelter, evidences of agriculture, and even one human cadaver, carefully buried about 100 standard years ago. Computer note: excavation report to be appended. But the planet is empty, except for ourselves. Sensors have discovered no life forms higher than a mammal like the Terran baboon. The people who built and farmed here have vanished without a trace.
Spock and Archeologist Owa agree that we have stumbled across the remains of a colony sent out from an advanced human civilization. But where did the colonists go? There are no signs of distress, no unburied remains, no --
Spock's voice carried an unusual undertone of excitement. Kirk switched off his recorder and sped across the room. "You got it to work?"
"Yes, sir. And the tapes are playable."
Spock flicked a switch. "It is audio only, Captain," he reminded.
"Right." Kirk listened intently.
"September 25, 2123. Horton reporting. Ten days ago, Captain Conners reported--"
"Horton! Conners!" Kirk interrupted excitedly. "Spock, we've found the Arcadian Expedition!"
Spock depressed the hold button on the antique machine. "It seems probable, Captain."
"Call the others." Kirk waited until the entire landing party had gathered around and then nodded to Spock.
September 25, 2123. Horton reporting. Ten days ago, Captain Conners reported that the ion storms which drove the Ilia off course also weakened her so severely that there was no hope of reaching Arcadia. The only class M planet within reach was the second in the drone-mapped K623 system. We proceeded here. All personnel and supplies were brought down, and a message was sent to Space Central. Then, because it was only a matter of time before the Ilia exploded, we rigged her to self-destruct on the far side of the planet. We are marooned here, and who knows when, if ever, Space Central will find us.
"Subspace radio was invented three years later," Owa muttered to herself.
However, we set out to colonize a world. We have supplies, seeds, tools and housing. We have each other.
Since this cave is an adequate shelter, our first priority will be--
"Skip forward, Spock," Kirk ordered. "See if you can find the last entry."
"Yes, sir." Moments later, a woman's voice, high pitched and frightened, sounded from the grid.
There are only 12 of us left now. Last night, Dmitri Savva insisted that the women and children sleep inside the shelter, while the remaining men kept watch outside. There was no sound -- no warning. I was awake and heard Dmitri call 4 o'clock and all well. The call for 5 o'clock never came. At dawn, all the men were gone -- vanished -- just like the others. The rest of us are searching, but we will not find them. It has been .month since the first group disappeared we have never found a trace of them. We will stay inside the shelter tonight, and every night. But I am convinced it is only a matter of time.
The recorded click of the off switch sounded, then the tape wound silently, unused and mute. The party watched, dumbfounded, until Spock reached past Kirk to switch it off.
Kirk gave himself a mental shake. "Owa! Listen through the reports. Record everything they knew about what happened to them. Mr. Spock, Mr. Sulu, Mr. Garrovick, come with me."
For the rest of the day, the party searched the area. They found the cave that had sheltered the colonists at first. They found further evidences of fields once cleared for planting. They found building projects, with tools and moldering materials neatly stacked. But of the colonists themselves, they found no trace.
"Everything is neat," Garrovick observed edgily.
"As if they downed tools for the night," Sulu amplified,"but never came back the next morning."
Kirk shivered. "Let's get back to the shelter. Maybe Owa can tell us something."
Owa was watching for them in the entrance of the shelter, communicator in hand. She smiled and waved as she saw then coming back then she hurried to meet them.
"The colonists were here about six months in all, Captain. They settled in quickly and even planted. But about two months after their arrival, people started to disappear. At first, they were families who'd rigged their own tents away from the main group -- they just wouldn't show up for breakfast. After the second incident, Horton ordered the colony to re-group, and everybody slept in the cave. But on November 30th -- they kept the old calendar, sir -- they woke up to find that half the colony had disappeared during the night, including Horton.
"Jane Carrothers took command and from then on, they spent most of the daylight hours searching for the missing colonists. They searched the forest inch by inch and never found a trace. On December 10th, 30 more people, including Carrothers, disappeared. That's when Savva ordered the remaining colonists down here. That night, the rest of the men went -- that's the entry you heard. It's the last one."
Owa shivered and Kirk squeezed her arm reassuringly. But they were all looking around in silence at the beautiful, empty land.
This would never do, the captain thought. "Analysis?" he barked.
Spock was ready, of course. "Logically, Captain, over 100 people do not simply vanish."
"Therefore, they either removed themselves, or they were removed. The fact that none of them, including the colony's leaders, seem to have made contact over a period of months with the group left behind would indicate the latter."
"Agreed. But how? Who?"
"The Vegans still held the quadrant then," Sulu volunteered.
"That's right," Garrovick's voice vibrated with indignation. "And it's just the kind of thing the Vegans would have pulled. Taking a colony a few at a time, as they needed them, and then coming back for more."
"Did their tricorders have the Kornfeld, Owa?"
"No, sir. They only had 180s."
"Then an alien could have beamed up any part of the colony, and there'd have been no way they could have detected the residuals."
"Correct," Spock agreed. "The destruction of the Ilia could have led the Vegans directly here."
"Where they found a nice crop of fodder," Kirk finished grimly, "just waiting to be harvested."
"Those poor people," Garrovick mused sadly.
"All right." Kirk shook off his depression. "We'll spend the night in the shelter. Owa. Garrovick. Test the well and purify it if necessary. Sulu, how's your cooking arm?"
"Ready and willing, Captain!"
"And Spock--" Kirk hesitated, feeling slightly foolish, then deciding to go ahead. "Rig a force field around the shelter. I'm sure it's unnecessary, but--"
"Right away, Captain." The others scattered.
The evening passed pleasantly. Kirk helped Spock place the generators and rig an alarm to the tricorder. Then the whole party sat down to eat, feeling safe for the first time in hours.
"Hmm," Kirk said appreciatively. "Mr. Sulu, you missed your calling. Anybody who can get this kind of meal out of portables--"
"It's just a knack," Sulu disclaimed, but his eyes twinkled The party cleared up cheerfully, and settled to the task of analyzing, classifying, and dictating the day's finds.
When the long twilight faded, Kirk ordered watches. No one objected. In fact, he had four volunteers for the first watch. Taking it himself, he ordered the rest to bed.
Kirk's watch was uneventful. He transferred to Owa, and thereafter slept soundly, only waking automatically at the end of each period to hear the turnover. Then it was the end of Sulu's watch and dawn. Relieved, Kirk attached his equipment and joined the lieutenant. A moment later, Spock was with then.
"No ghoulies," Kirk smiled, whispering so as not to waken Owa and Garrovick.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Captain," Sulu teased. "I'll fetch water. I could use some coffee."
Spock switched off the generators and the three stepped outside. Sulu grabbed an empty expandible and picked his way down the overgrown path to the well. Kirk inhaled deeply, enjoying the soft, fresh air. "We'd better concentrate on the assays today, Spock. It's unquestionably a colonizable planet, but Starfleet will want the tests."
"Agreed, Captain. I will--"
A harsh scream interrupted him. Kirk drew his phaser and charged down the path. Spock paused only to grab a weapon, shouting to Owa and Garrovick. Then he sped after the captain. They halted together at the edge of the old well. Its cover was off. The empty expandible lay beside it. But Sulu was gone.
"Sulu!" Kirk yelled. "Sulu!"
There was no answer.
'Spock, get back to the shelter. Get your equipment, and get back here on the double."
"You must not stay alone, Cap--"
"That's an order," Kirk snapped. Spock still hesitated, then turned as Owa and Garrovick came crashing down the path.
"What happened?" Garrovick demanded.
"Owa, stay with Spock. Keep him covered. Garrovick, come with me."
In the forest ahead, Kirk could hear the sounds of nervous animals. Birds called warnings; the baboons chittered in anger. Kirk and Garrovick ran toward the noise. But whatever was ahead kept well ahead of them.
"Captain!" Spock shouted from behind them.
"Here!" Kirk and Garrovick slowed down, letting the other two catch up. "What have you got?" Kirk demanded.
"A life form of considerable mass, moving rapidly. And one human, moving with it."
"Bearing 127. Toward the cave."
"All hands!" Garrovick's phaser cleared a path and they set out at a trot. "Is it still on this heading?"
"Yes, sir. But moving at three times our speed."
Kirk grunted in annoyance; but the cave was not far ahead. He pressed on, almost at Garrovick's heels. But Spock slowed and stopped, shaking his head. Kirk walked back to him. This was what he'd feared. "The rock," he stated flatly.
"Yes, Captain. A natural shielding."
"All right. It's got to be in the cave. Are there other entrances?"
"The colonists found one other," Owa answered. "Three kilometers from the first, at bearing 161."
"Higher than the mouth?" Spock demanded.
"There's no time for geology," Kirk snapped "Garrovick, you and Owa get to the second entrance. Double time. Mr. Spock and I will enter here. Contact us when you're in position."
"Acknowledged." Within moments, the two were out of sight in the forest.
"Keep trying, Spock," Kirk said as he cleared their way.
"How the devil does anything move so fast through this vegetation?"
"It left no trail," Spock pointed out.
"A winged creature?"
"Strongly indicated Unless it--"
"There's the cave!" Kirk opened his communicator. "Kirk to Garrovick." There was no answer. "Garrovick. Come in. Owa!" He whirled. "Spock!"
Spock was already checking the tricorder. He shook his head. "I read no human life within range, Captain," he reported.
Kirk stood still, stunned; then anger galvanized him. "They've got to be in the cave. Come on!"
* * *
Hours later, they stood at the cave's smaller entrance. "Almost noon," Kirk muttered, looking at the sky. "Damn it, they've got to be here!"
"Yes, sir. And since we have searched the entire surface--" Spock's voice trailed off.
"Underground!" Kirk exclaimed. Then he realized that Spock was staring into the middle distance slightly. The captain shut up and waited hopefully.
"Captain," Spock said at length. "I believe we could modify the M-probe to--"
"The M-probe!" Kirk said in surprise. "That won't indicate life functions."
"No, sir. But we could modify it to probe the thickness of these walls."
It took Kirk a moment. "You think there's a concealed access point."
"Yes, sir. Camouflaged by the natural rock, since the tricorder detected nothing. But the M-probe--"
At first Kirk simply followed Spock's directions, working on hope and faith. Then he began to see what they were doing. "Mr. Spock, if we get out of this, I owe you a drink."
"Thank you, Captain," Spock replied absently, tightening a connection. Kirk left him to it and went to rig a distress beacon. Then he picked up his recorder and rapidly dictated the day's events. "Mr. Spock has modified the M-probe to enable us to scan the cave," he concluded. "Although the Enterprise will return within 36 hours, that may be too late for the missing crew. We will re-enter the cave at the large entrance and proceed to the second mouth, marking our progress with phaser blazes."
Kirk switched off the log. "We'll take all the powerpacks we can carry. We may have to blast." Spock was already breaking them out.
The modified probe worked, but only over a limited area. At first, Kirk allowed his anxiety to push him, as though he could will the process to speed up. Then he settled down to the slow task; strangely, the work seemed to go faster.
"Halfway through," he remarked. "It's been solid so far -- what is it?"
"Here. In the floor, Captain. A large, circular-- Cap--!"
Spock's shout was cut off in the middle. Kirk grabbed for his phaser, but he never reached it. Something was crushing him, almost suffocating him. He felt a sharp pain, then nothing more.
* * *
Awareness returned slowly. Lying still, Kirk took a cautious inventory. There was no pain as the numbness faded. He listened intently, but there was no sound. He tried to sense his equipment belt without moving, but the surface under his back was hard and smooth. Finally he opened his eyes: he was looking up at the ceiling of the cave. He tried to move his head and gave an involuntary grunt. He was pinned fast.
"Captain!" Spock's voice sounded comfortingly close. "Captain Kirk! Are you all right?"
"I think so." He tried to lift his head again. "What the hell?"
"It is a gigantic web, Captain, not unlike a spider's net. Remarkably adhesive."
"I'll say." But Spock was sitting up, so Kirk tugged one hand free. Spock grasped it and pulled Kirk to a sitting position. "It's like flypaper!" Kirk exclaimed.
"Any sign of the others?"
"No, Captain. We seem to be alone."
Kirk looked around curiously. "Where are we? Inside the cave?"
"Under it, I think. The temperature is lower than the surface temperature."
"So it is. Look. The web ends over there by that slope. Let's see if we can get off it."
They soon found that by pulling each other they could inch their way across the web. It was slow, hard work, but they could travel.
"We're getting there," Kirk panted.
Spock reached for him again, then halted. "Look, Captain! On the surface." Kirk looked at the area Spock indicated. There, under the web, were traces of a wide phaser blaze.
"No, Captain. Look at those lichens. They must have grown undisturbed for decades."
Kirk's hopes sank. "The colonists," he concluded bleakly. "This is what happened to them."
Spock nodded, then reached for him again.
"Waht time is it?" Kirk grunted.
"1630." Spock gave a powerful heave, gaining centimeters.
"Good." The edge loomed invitingly, less than two meters away. "We can't have been out too long."
"Two hours. Just long enough to entrap us."
"They call a force field a prisoner's web," Kirk panted. "This looks like the real--"
Kirk listened intently Then he heard it. Footsteps! Coming toward them. Alarmed, he gave another heave. Spock positioned himself for his pull, then halted in astonishment.
A procession of humans entered the room, walking in easy formation, two by two. Kirk studied then, struck by their air of gentle contentment. Then he began to count. Two, four, six, eight -- on and on they came. Men, women and children. The early arrivals were laying strips of padding on the cave floor. Kirk registered the pads as antique sleepers, but he kept counting. 108, 110 -- "Sulu!"
Sulu looked up at Kirk's yell and waved and smiled before sitting down with the others. Kirk stared at him, back in time to see Garrovick and Owa step through the entrance. Owa was smiling up at the tall lieutenant and he put an arm around her, drawing her close. They halted in the doorway, oblivious of the others and of Kirk's shouts. Then something shoved them gently and they walked amiably over to join the group.
"Garrovick!" Kirk was still shouting. "Owa! Can you hear me? Sulu -- what the hell is that?"
Spock did not reply. He too was staring at the creature that loomed in the entrance, easing its way through the opening.
After a moment, Kirk managed to stop staring and observe. "It looks like a giant insect," he whispered.
"Yes, sir." Spock's whisper was composed, helping Kirk listen. "Observe, Captain. A segmented exoseketon."
"And look at those leg joints. No wonder we couldn't catch it. Look!"
The creature was stepping carefully among the unconcerned humans, distributing neat mounds of a whitish substance. "Is it secreting that stuff?" Kirk demanded.
Spock pulled away to get a better sight line. "Yes, sir." His tone still held nothing but scientific interest. Kirk braced himself as the creature came toward them. It halted, antennae extended. Then it moved closer, standing almost at a level with them. "If I could only reach it," Spock murmured, "I might--"
Almost as if it heard him, the creature reared, balancing on its hind legs. It held small green packages -- neat, familiar shapes -- and flipped them to the Enterprise men.
"Survival cubes!" Kirk exclaimed "They look like our own supplies."
"They must be ours, Captain, since Complemen did not come into use until 2253."
Satisfied, Kirk ate a cube, still keeping one eye on the insect. "At least they're treating us well," he observed "Spock -- Spock!"
Spock was frozen in concentration, his palms placed flat on the oblivious insect's leg. His face furrowed. Kirk caught his breath, torn between fear for Spock's safety and curiosity as to what he might find out. He saw the Vulcan quiver. Then Spock gave a choked cry and collapsed.
"Spock!" Kirk yelled. He tore loose from one part of the web, only to be entangled immediately in another. He tore free again and reached his unconscious officer, feeling for a neck pulse. There was no respiration; bending, he forced air into the still form. In. Out. In. Out.
The creature moved back, breaking the contact it did not seem to have noticed. It studied the two figures for a moment, then reached for Kirk. Suddenly Kirk was ripped off the web, then flipped. He flew through the air, back to the far end of the web, landed hard, and stuck fast. The creature pressed Spock's body carefully down against the adhesive webbing. Then it backed down to the main level and moved regally out the door.
Kirk concentrated and pulled He freed one arm and then the other, then with a tremendous effort, made it to his knees. Spock lay only a few meters away, but that was an eternity away. The Vulcan was still motionless, but as Kirk watched, he suddenly drew a gasping breath.
"Thank God," Kirk said aloud. His voice sounded enormous in the silent chamber. The group of humans looked at him in surprise. Sulu smiled and waved.
"Sulu," Kirk called to him. "Sulu!" The lieutenant waved again, then settled back to his contented abstraction. "Sulu!" Frustration lent an edge to Kirk's voice. "Sulu!" Something in the helmsman responded and he got to his feet, moving slowly toward the ledge.
"Sulu! Get me off here! Maybe those mats. If you could put them over the webbing, you could--"
Sulu smiled. "They'll take care of you, Captain," he promised lazily. "You'll be all right." He turned back to the group.
"Sulu!" Kirk changed tactics "Sulu, look at Spock! He's unconscious. Maybe in shock. He's got to be kept warm. Sulu!"
Sulu hesitated, then scrambled up the grade. From the edge of the webbing, he peered over at Spock, studying him with concern. After a long moment, he slid down, ambled over to pick up one of the mats, and returned slowly to the edge.
"Attaboy," Kirk said eagerly.
Sulu laid the mat on the webbing with care. Slowly, he got another mat and a cover and climbed onto the first. He laid the second mat down and now he could just reach Spock. He grasped the Vulcan's wrists, and pulled with all his strength. The strain delineated the muscles of his hands and neck, but finally the limp body came free of the webbing. Tenderly, Sulu laid Spock on the mat and covered him. Then he crawled in next to him and pulled the first officer close, cradling his head.
"Sulu!" Kirk shouted. But Sulu only snuggled down, smiling comfortably.
Betrayed, Kirk stared at him. Then he looked around. The other humans were settling too -- bedding children down, curling up under covers. Kirk scanned the group, looking desperately for Garrovick or Owa. A flash of red caught his eye, but the room began to darken.
"Sulu!" Kirk shouted. "Sulu, where are you?"
"I'm here, Captain. Just go to sleep. You're all right."
Kirk pulled himself loose, heading for the voice. He called again, but Sulu did not answer. Again and again he pulled himself free and stuck again, until he could no longer remember why he was struggling. He stopped fighting. After a time, he slept.
* * *
A gentle light diffused through the chamber, beautifying everything it touched. Jim woke. Lazily, he tried to stretch. Something held him fast, but it didn't matter. He lay still, contentedly watching the play of the light. Someone would come. And soon, one of the Gatherers came to him. It pulled him off the web, setting him free at the edge. Spock still slept. The Gatherer lifted him off the mat, pressing him back onto the web. But it made no objection when Jim picked up the cover and threw it over his friend. Spock must be very tired, Jim thought. But now he could rest and be comfortable.
Jim shared breakfast with Sulu and joined the other Caretakers in their work. His friends showed him what to do. It was not hard. The work went quickly and pleasantly. It seemed only minutes before the Gatherer returned. Jim looked at Sulu.
"Lunch," Sulu explained happily.
"Good," Jim said. "I'm hungry." His voice broke the tranquility, sounding strange even to his own ears. He smiled apologetically at the other Caretakers and fell into step with their easy pace.
Spock was awake, struggling at the edge of the web. Jim went to him, pulled him free, and embraced him joyfully. The Vulcan stiffened, looking at his friend in horror. Jim studied him in turn, vaguely disturbed. Then he remembered. Dear Spock. The loyal one, the trustworthy one. The dear friend. But showing his love embarrassed him so. Jim rubbed Spock's arm, to show he understood, and sat down. The Vulcan sat down next to him, but he still seemed uneasy, so Kirk shifted over to put an arm around his shoulders. "You'll be all right," he reassured him and gave the taut body a hug.
The Gatherer brought them their lunch, then moved away. Kirk looked after it with affectionate gratitude, raising his food to his mouth. But Spock grabbed his wrist, whispering urgently. Jim tried to understand, for it was clear that his friend was upset. But why was he speaking so fast? There was nothing to worry him so.
Spock reached over, then gently removed the food from Jim's hand. Now Jim understood. Of course. Spock had slept through breakfast. He must have been very tired. But now he was hungry. "Take mine," Jim said generously and stretched out near the edge of the web for a little siesta.
When the Gatherer returned, Kirk held out his arms to be lifted down the slope. Spock, too, got to his feet and held out his arms. The Gatherer lifted him down, setting him among the other Caretakers. Jim gave Spock's arm a welcoming squeeze, and they strolled hack to work. This time he showed Spock what they must do. It was good to have his dear friend by his side.
But as the light changed, Jim began to feel strange. The work was growing hard. Spock still worked beside him, helping his friend up the rises, taking the heavier loads. Jim smiled at him. Dear Spock. Always the loyal one. But time was slowing down. The rises stretched endlessly. If only he could remember what he was supposed to do. Someone put a load of greenish material in his arms. Kirk stared at it in total non-recognition.
"Spock!" It was almost a whimper. Blessedly, Spock was at his side. The Vulcan whispered urgently.
"Captain, you must not speak. Do as I do. If the insects realize we are not drugged, they will put us back on the web."
"Shh." One of the insects was coming toward them, bringing more of the greenish stuff. Kirk slipped behind Spock, trying to control a shudder. Then he remembered. The web. His futile struggles. How had he gotten here? He could hardly wait until the creature moved away.
"Spock!" he entreated.
"You were drugged, Captain. I think it is in the food. We can talk when we are alone." Spock turned back to the work, and Kirk imitated him. He didn't know what to do, but Spock hid Kirk's clumsiness. Gradually, Kirk figured out what they were doing. Terran ants were organized like this, he mused. Huge colonies, with fungus crops tended by other insect species who lived in symbiotic relationship to the ant colony. Only here the farming was done by humans. Human beings enslaved by -- Kirk swallowed the thought. Drugged, Spock had said. But apparently repeated dosages were required. He was all right now. Unless something was wrong with his time sense; it seemed they had been working forever.
But at last an insect was coming toward them and the humans were stopping work. They moved off casually. Only Spock's hand on his arm saved Kirk from striding out of the farm. Reminded, he checked himself and ambled along with the group. In the chamber, he and Spock got a mat and sat down.
One of the insect guards moved through the group, distributing food. "You must pretend to accept the food and hide it, Captain," Spock whispered.
"All right." Kirk played his role well, he rather thought, holding the repulsive stuff up to his face until the insect turned away. But it was just as well that the creature paid little attention to its charges' behavior.
Kirk buried the repulsive stuff under a mat. Spock hid his portion under his waistband, grimacing at the sensation. "Ugh," Kirk shuddered.
"We will need it for analysis, Captain."
"Yes, of course. How long was I out of it?"
"Only part of one day."
"Then the Enterprise will get here tonight?"
"2300, if she's on schedule."
"The distress beacon will bring them down in a hurry. If we can get out of here now, can we find the way out?"
"Unlikely, Captain This area is honeycombed with passages."
"And it's black as pitch. But we'd have the advantage of surprise."
"I do not think so. Probably we would get lost, be re-captured, and put back on the web."
"Yes. They overpowered us so quickly. Did they knock you out, too?"
"Yes. sir. Some sort of nerve blocker, it appears."
"Then you don't know the way either."
"I believe, Captain, that our best plan would be to wait until light. The farming area is very near the surface. And if we act drugged, they will not be expecting us to escape."
"Right," Kirk agreed reluctantly. "Damn I'm hungry."
"Naturally. How long does it stay dark?"
"I don't know." They sat in silence.
After a while, Kirk turned to watch the colonists. These must be the descendants of the original group, he thought. None of them seemed very old. Lord. That meant none of them had known any life but this. Could they talk -- or think? Probably not. If he got out of this, his problems were just beginning.
A red shirt among the colonists' drab jumpsuits caught his eye. Kirk recognized Garrovick and then Owa. As he watched them, Garrovick began to undress the girl, tenderly and appreciatively. Soon they were making love, oblivious to the group around them. Damn, Kirk thought. I hope they've had their shots. Then he looked away, turning so quickly that he caught Spock rubbing his temples.
Spock straightened immediately. "Nothing, Captain. I--"
"Look at me." Kirk studied his first officer carefully. "You don't feel well, do you? What is it?"
Spock shrugged, then stiffened. But Kirk had seen the slight shiver.
"Cold? Here." He scrambled over to get a cover and brought it to the Vulcan. "Put this around you. Did you make contact with that insect last night?"
"I think so," Spock replied uncertainly, pulling the cover around his shoulders.
"Is it intelligent?"
"Logically, yes. However, I have no telepathic evidence on that point."
"I cannot be sure. Its mind is so alien that--" Spock broke off.
"All right. Don't try to think about it. Lie down."
"I do not--"
"Consider that an order. Here." Kirk got a second cover. The Vulcan thanked him a bit sheepishly but he settled back gratefully enough and closed his eyes.
"That is all I require, Captain."
Kirk sat down. The light was going. Soon it was black. Kirk stood it for about ten minutes. Then he had to fight an impulse to scream. All around him he could hear quiet breathing as the colonists fell asleep But they were alien -- as alien as the insects who'd enslaved them. Even his own crew. Sulu. Garrovick. Owa. The thought steadied him. They were his responsibility. He began to plan. The Enterprise would be back soon. Maybe she was already in orbit -- drawn back early by the distress beacon. If they could make it out of the cave, they'd soon a search party. His heart beat faster as he planned his moves. These overgrown ants would soon learn what a starship could do! Finally, he fell asleep.
* * *
It seemed a long time before they were taken to the workplace the next morning. But then it was ridiculously easy. They waited until the guard left the group and followed the path it had taken. Soon they were outside, and in less than ten minutes, they were back at the mouth of the cave.
"Captain!" A young yeoman jumped up joyfully, dropping her tricorder accurately on Scotty's foot. But the engineer's grunt turned to a shout of joy as he saw them. The girl flipped her communicator open and the rest of the search party rushed back -- group after group, phasers at the ready. McCoy strode toward them, chattering and scolding. Kirk sensed Spock brace himself, but he cut them off. There was no time for that yet.
"We were captured," he explained curtly. "There's a giant species of insect on this planet. They've enslaved the colonists. We got away, but the rest of the landing party's still down there. Spock--"
Spock was giving the food sample to the yeoman, who held a collecting bag ready. "Coming, Captain."
"Negative. Report to Sickbay."
"With your permission, Captain, our people are still drugged. You may need some way to render them unconscious."
"Sure you're fit?"
"All right. Yeoman, get that up to the labs. Have it analyzed right away. Tell them it's some kind of tranquilizer, or maybe a hallucinogen. Scotty, you and McCoy stay here with one search party. Surround yourselves with a force-field and keep weapons at the ready. If we're not back in an hour, come after us. Boma, Leslie, Smithers, Kosciuko -- what's your name?"
"You, too. Spock, can we get back in without alerting the guards?"
"All right. We'll head for the farm. Maybe we can mix with the group and take them by surprise. Mr. Spock?"
"Our crew are still in uniform," Spock took up the briefing. "But like the colonists, they are drugged -- docile to the insects, possibly hostile to us. If you are captured, be sure you eat nothing. If you pretend to eat and act drugged, you may be able to trick the insects into freeing you."
"Phasers on heavy stun. Formation C. Kosciuko and Boma take the flanks. Move out."
Kirk's stomach tightened as they retraced their steps. But there was no trouble. The group was still working where they'd left it; they hadn't been missed. Sulu, Garrovick, and Owa were working together. They were delighted to see their friends and happy to keep them company. They had to be hurried along, but they made no objection. In less time than Kirk would have thought possible, they'd rejoined the security party. "Beam up," he ordered. The transporter room took shape around them.
"Bones, get these three to Sickbay. See if you can bring them out of it. Spock, I want a meeting in 15 minutes. Alert the tactical people. We've got to figure out how to save the colonists. Scotty, weapons check-out."
"Captain, we cannot interfere."
"What?" Kirk whirled on his first officer. Spock winced, but stood his ground.
"Our Prime Directive of Non-interference," he said stubbornly.
Kirk considered him for a moment, letting his sudden anger die. "Countermand those orders," he said evenly. "Mr. Spock, come with me." He waited until they were in the turbolift, then froze it. "Do you want to go to Sickbay?"
"Wrong phrasing. Do you need medical attention?"
"No, sir. I can heal myself."
"All right." He released the lift. "Deck 5. You think the insects are intelligent?"
"On what grounds? Your meld?"
"No. Their mind structure must be wholly different from ours. I could make no contact. But consider, Captain. Our weapons. And survival cubes."
"They drugged our survival rations," Kirk mused. "I see. They must have found, almost 100 years ago, that the colonists wouldn't take the secreted food at first. But they would take their own rations and they could be drugged that way. The insects learned that. And they remembered it."
"Yes, Captain. And, considering the length of time, almost certainly passed that knowledge on to another generation. It could not have become part of an instinct pattern in that short a period."
"Damn." The doors opened; Spock hesitated. "Come on. I'll walk you to your quarters. Spock, we can't just leave them there. They're human beings!"
"An emotional reaction, Captain. Human beings have been enslaved by many societies, their own as well as aliens. What kind of life would these people have, apart from the insects?"
The fact that he had wondered the same thing didn't make Spock's comment any more palatable. But Kirk checked his retort. "All right, Mr. Spock. We'll consider it. You rest. Don't report for duty until you're fit. That's an order."
"Acknowledged, Captain." Spock entered his quarters and Kirk heard the lock engage.
"Is Spock all right?"
Kirk turned. "He says so, Bones."
"He doesn't look it."
"He tried to meld with one of the insects; the effort knocked him out. Apparently it's a wholly different kind of mind structure. But he says all he needs is rest."
McCoy considered a moment. "I'll come back later and check him out," he decided. "Probably I'd just bother him now. Jim, you look exhausted. How long since you've eaten?"
Kirk paused to figure it out.
"Never mind. Just come on." Kirk allowed himself to be herded toward the mess and provided with soup, he wasn't really hungry. What in God's name was he going to do about these people?
"How're Sulu and the others?"
"The lab analyzed that sample and had an antidote ready. They're all asleep now. Should be fine by morning."
That was good news. Kirk ate a spoonful of soup. The taste made him realize that he was very hungry indeed. He programmed a substantial meal and finished every crumb under McCoy's approving eye. Then he want back for pie and coffee. Maybe things weren't hopeless after all.
"You'd better get some sleep, Jim."
"Bones, what are we going to do about those colonists?"
"I don't entirely understand."
Kirk filled him in, ending with Spock's assessment. "And I'm afraid he's right," he concluded. McCoy snorted. But he had nothing to suggest. "Well, let's sleep on it," Kirk said, rising. "Check on Spock, will you?"
Kirk scheduled a meeting of department heads for 0900 and dictated a briefing tape. Climbing into bed, he planned his opening remarks. When you knew what questions to ask Someone had said, you were well on your way finding the answers. Well, they had their questions. He just hoped Someone was right.
* * *
Kirk woke, rested and ready. The difficulty of the situation still impressed him, but sleep had brought beginnings of an idea (not that he'd admit that to Bones). He fortified himself with a solid breakfast and called Sickbay.
"Spock seems all right," McCoy told him immediately. "Last night when I checked him, he was in some sort of trance. About the ninth period he fell asleep -- a little heavier than usual, but normal. He's still sleeping. The other three are back on duty."
"Already? Nice work, Bones. Kirk out." He broke the channel and switched back to Communications. "Ask Mr. Garrovick and Archeologist Owa to join the meeting in Briefing Room 5," he ordered. The page for Owa was sounding as he entered the corridor. A tight ship, he thought proudly, and strode toward Briefing. But he made sure no trace of the pride appeared as he entered the room. A Captain has standards to maintain.
"You have been briefed on the problem before us," he began, just as Garrovick and Owa came hurrying in, apologizing. Kirk nodded acknowledgment, studying Owa. Why was the little archeologist so pale? He waited until they were settled. "I asked Mr. Garrovick and Ms. Owa to join us since they too were captured by those creatures. Their input may be valuable."
Owa gave an audible sigh; Kirk turned toward her in time to see the "I told you so" looks she got from Sulu and Garrovick. What had the girl expected? A court martial? Or maybe the cat o' nine tails? Civilians! Of course, it was impossible for all the personnel to be Service. But was it impossible for non-Service staff to learn that Starfleet was fair? He gave her a meaning look, then continued.
"It seems to me that we cannot leave those people there. Whatever our interference costs them, we must give them and their children the chance at a normal life, as human beings. Is there any discussion on that?" There was silence.
"No argument, Jim," McCoy said easily. "Just a point of information. The children in the colony can certainly be trained. But that may be impossible with the older ones. I can find no record of any adult who's experienced such total deprivation. We can't know until we try. But what we can do, I'm sure, is arrange for the group to be kept together in a protected environment. They can work, be looked after, and be together, just as they are now. The dislocation should be minimal."
"All right, Doctor. Your department will be responsible for making arrangements for the colony."
"Which brings us to the other problem. The evidence we have is meager, and it may be impossible to get more. Even if a method of communicating with the insects were devised, the effort to do so might be considerably more in violation of the Prime Directive than simply removing the colony. Ms. Janos, do the computer give any useful information?"
"No, sir." Spock's assistant didn't mention that she'd spent the night checking it out. Kirk noted her restraint with approval, but confined himself to a nod. "But--"
"Well, sir, if I understand the situation correctly, there were no humans on the planet until a hundred years ago."
"Yes." The captain encouraged her. This was the line of thought he'd begun to follow. Janos went on more confidently.
"The insect society must be millennia old. Therefore, it stands to reason that they must have had some method of farming before the colonists arrived."
"When the colony arrived," Sulu picked up the thread eagerly, "the insects discovered the humans could be tranquilized and used, and gradually captured the whole group, using human labor to replace whatever system they had used before."
"We know they can remember," Kirk added, "and can probably transmit information. Is it reasonable to assume they would replaced the colonists with whatever -- yes, Mr. Sulu?"
"Sorry, Captain. I just thought of something. But there's no evidence--"
"Well, sir, there is a life form native to the planet that has humanoid shape."
"The baboons!" Owa exclaimed.
"Is it possible, Doctor?"
"Why, yes, Captain. In fact, given the circumstances, it's even probable. If the insects had a system already in operation for capturing, tranquilizing, and using a humanoid life form, that goes a long way toward explaining how quickly they went about capturing the colonists."
"All right. We have a hypothesis. Recommendations?" No one wanted to speak. "Mr. Garrovick."
Garrovick drew a deep breath. "I don't like the idea," he answered frankly. "But I suppose we'd better make sure the society has alternative food sources before we do anything that could put an end to their farming. And the best way to do that is to go back down."
"Good," Kirk approved. He didn't like the idea either. But-- "We'll have to beam down again. Unless someone can think of any other way to study the society unobtrusively?"
No one spoke for a moment. Then three spoke simultaneously. "Captain, I'll volunteer."
Kirk nodded added in acknowledgment, then decided he might as well state the obvious. "It may be possible for those of us who were captured before to infiltrate the colony without alerting the insects. But I'd like Mr. Spock to be in the party."
The door opened and Spock stepped through right on cue. "I apologize, Captain, for--"
"No need, Mr. Spock. You were following orders. Come in. We've been discussing--"
"Captain, I believe there is another factor -- one I did not think of last night. There were no humans on that planet until--"
"We're way ahead of you, Mr. Spock. Mr. Sulu, please fill Mr. Spock in. We will reconvene at 1200."
* * *
They beamed down to the shelter, where Kirk posted a carefully-briefed security party and set a check-in schedule. Then he ordered the original landing party into formation. Owa was visibly nervous, but she took her place resolutely.
She jumped, but managed a amile. "Scared silly," she acknowledged ruefully. "But I guess if I get captured, you'll know where to find me."
"Good girl," Kirk approved, and Sulu laughed, clapping her soundly on the shoulder. Then Garrovick went to her.
"You'll be okay, Mari," he said and put an arm around her. It was a declaration -- one which seemed to startle its maker as much as its hearers. But the others remained impassive. Only on the face of the helmsman did a faint smirk appear. Oho, Kirk thought. So that's it.
"Right," he said aloud, as though nothing had happened. "Stay close to her, Mr. Garrovick. Move out."
Kirk nodded to Spock to take the lead, then stepped back to let the young couple follow. Garrovick met his look squarely, but relaxed at Kirk's wink. Outside, he grabbed Owa's hand, euphorically hurrying along until she almost had to trot to keep up with him. She was going to have to do a lot of trotting from now on, Kirk thought. But it was obvious she didn't mind.
He let them get well ahead before he spoke. "So that's why you assigned Garrovick out of rotation. I might have known. Damn it, Sulu, you're incorrigible."
The helmsman grinned, but he spoke earnestly. "It's been going on for months, Captain. They just needed a little shove. They're so right for each other."
"But--" The captain caught himself. "All right, Mister," he barked.
Sulu wiped the grin off his face and hurried to catch up to the rest of the party. But to Kirk, even the back of the helmsman's head looked pleased. "Incorrigible," he repeated silently.
The party halted outside the cave, shielded by an amalgam of rock and vegetation.
"Any questions?" Kirk whispered "All right. Go!"
They made it inside without encountering a guard. Maybe luck was running with them today. Spock had already found the shaft to the farm, and Sulu left an indicator in case a search party had to find them. They were back at the farm. By the time the guard insect returned to the humans, they were hard at work. Kirk held his breath as it walked past the Enterprise group, but took no notice of them at all.
"So far so good," he whispered. "You have your orders." He waited until the guard left them again. "Implement."
Politely, Garrovick handed the leaf-mold he was carrying to Spock. Then he was gone -- edging unobtrusively through the other workers to the shaft at bearing 110. Kirk timed five minutes carefully. Now it was his turn. He made his way through the colonists, turning away from their contented expressions and tranquil eyes. Bearing 290 -- he and Spock had both spotted it yesterday. Yes, here it was. He moved swiftly through the shaft, straining to hear, although he knew an attack would be silent. A large shaft bent away from the one on his bearing. Kirk hesitated, then stayed with original direction. But as he traveled, the light began to fail. Soon it was dark ahead. This was foolish, he decided, and retreated.
The larger shaft took him away from his assigned area. But it was obviously a main route. Kirk hugged the wall, darting from outcropping to outcropping. If a guard caught him between shelters, he thought grimly, it would end his participation in this mission. But again, luck was with him. He was hidden when he saw the shadow of a large mandible cast on the tunnel wall. He pressed back, phaser ready. But the large insect went by him, unaware of his presence. And it was carrying a load of some sort of grain!
Kirk waited a moment. Then he holstered his phaser and followed the insect. It led him past several by-ways but Kirk followed it as it paced steadily through the tunnel.
Kirk stopped short.
"Captain! Up here!" Kirk looked up and located Garrovick perched on a ledge. Swiftly he climbed up to join him.
"This whole section is storage, Captain. Grains, and row on row of vats with some kind of liquid."
Kirk felt years younger. "So the farm is not the only source of food for the ants?"
"No, sir. It can't provide even a small fraction of it all."
Kirk sighed "Okay, let's get back." He slid down to ground level.
"Look out, sir!" Garrovick's yell echoed through the shaft. Kirk whirled. One of the insects was bearing down on him, so close he didn't even have time to try for his phaser. There was only one chance. Kirk smiled vacuously and held up his arms.
The insect stopped, antennae extended. Kirk forced himself to remain motionless, arms outstretched. The insect picked him up; instinctively, he went rigid. He simply could not control his revulsion. The insect put him down, holding him flat. Kirk braced himself for the sting.
"No!" A yell came from above him and a red-shirted figure leapt at the insect. Startled, it fell back. Kirk shouted a warning but Garrovick charged straight toward it. The insect grabbed him and flipped him back. Kirk heard the lieutenant grunt as he hit the shaft wall. Kirk was in motion, reaching for his phaser, but the insect was a microsecond faster. One leg came up, knocking Kirk off balance. Then it had him. Kirk felt the squeeze and then the sharp sting, and then no more.
* * *
As before, awareness returned first, followed only slowly by sensation. Kirk was held fast. He remembered the strength of the web, and his heart sank. Then he heard a muffled groan. "Garrovick!" he whispered. "Garrovick! Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir." The whisper was strained. Kirk fought and pulled, until he made it to his knees, The young officer lay flat on the web, his face gray.
"What is it?"
"My shoulder, sir. I landed on it. I think -- mm!"
"Great!" Kirk looked around. They were alone. "Work time," he muttered. Painfully, he made his way over to Garrovick. "This may hurt," he warned. Garrovick got his jaw set just in time as the captain pulled his torso free of the web. Even the gentle exploration was painful and Garrovick closed his eyes.
"Well, nothing's broken." The probing stopped. Garrovick relaxed, still breathing rather quickly. "However--" The captain grabbed the injured shoulder and forced the arm up. Garrovick's body convulsed and his scream echoed in the chamber. Kirk held him as he sobbed for breath, fighting to regain control.
It was like pulling out of a deep dive, but finally Garrovick oriented himself. He realized his head was resting on the captain's shoulder. Startled, he pulled away.
"Take it easy," Kirk said gently. "Better?"
"I'm sorry, Mister. But that's a little easier if you don't know what's coming. Your shoulder was--"
"Dislocated," Garrovick supplied. "I should have thought of it."
"Damn painful," Kirk sympathized. "Especially after a period of time. But McCoy'll give you something for the inflammation. Couple of days in Sickbay, you'll be good as new."
"Lie down. Might as well be comfortable."
"Hadn't we better try to escape, Captain?"
"Negative. You're in no condition to run, even if we could get free. A search party will find us. Now, lie down. Kirk took Garrovick's sound shoulder and guided him back to his lap. Garrovick stiffened, embarrassed, but at Kirk's order he made himself relax and close his eyes. Soon he was sound asleep. Kirk resigned himself. Garrovick was in no condition to be left. Looked like the others were going to get the fun on this trip. Damn.
* * *
People were moving around the chamber. Garrovick woke up, looking slightly dizzy. He tried to sit up. "I'm sorry, Captain," he began.
"Hush," Kirk whispered sharply, pushing him back. Then he smiled down at the sheepish young officer. "You got some badly needed rest," he added kindly. "Lie low. I don't want to attract any--"
The captain stopped and Garravick felt him stiffen. Garrovick turned his head and got a severe shock. Mr. Spock stood at the edge of the incline, a sweet smile on his face.
"Spock?" The captain spoke tentatively. Spock sat down by the edge of the web, aping the contented stance of the colonists. One of the insects was coming toward them. Spock reached for the food and settled down again, smiling vacuously. The insect flicked survival cubes to Kirk. Spock turned and for a second gave the two humans a meaningful look. Kirk nodded and lifted a cube to his mouth. The insect moved away.
Quickly Kirk hid the cubes. Spock waited until the guard's attention was fixed on the other groups. Then he turned and lobbed a small package to the captain. Kirk caught it neatly. Garrovick turned to look; it was a personal phaser.
When the colonists rose to regroup, Spock turned back to them. "Join the work group at 1500," he hissed. Then he was gone.
The room was very quiet. "Might as well relax, Lieutenant," Kirk said resignedly. "We have half an hour still."
"You have a chronometer, sir?"
"Mr. Spock attached a miniature to the phaser. He thinks of everything."
"We didn't bring any miniatures."
"We must have been out several hours, you know."
"He's been in touch with the Enterprise!"
"Strongly indicated," Kirk grinned. "Relax, Lieutenant. Mr. Spock is in charge and you may be sure all contingencies have been provided for."
Garrovick counted half an hour. And at his count, Kirk checked the chronometer. "Okay. Let's see what a phaser can do to this web." He aimed the tiny instrument carefully, and fired. The web disappeared. Kirk grunted in satisfaction. "Can you walk?"
"Let's go." Kirk grasped Garrovick's good elbow, helping him to his feet. Then he guided him down the slope. A jolt of pain went through the young officer with every motion, but he kept on. "Good man." The captain's voice in his ear encouraged him. "Steady now. Don't fall. Good." They were on the flat ground. "Now, let's move." Kirk took the lead, moving swiftly, checking to be sure Garrovick could keep up.
Garrovick forced himself to move faster and faster, made profoundly uneasy by the total absence of the insects. We ought to be dodging them, Garrovick thought. Where are they?
They rounded a bend, entering the main farming area. Kirk halted in astonishment. The ceiling was gone. And, as they watched, a group of colonists dematerialized. "They're beaming them up."
"Captain!" Sulu waved to them excitedly. "Move together for beam-up!"
"Where are the insects?"
"We're attacking at the cave mouth." Sulu raced over to them, communicator open.
"Purely diversionary, Captain. Smoke bombs and noise. There'll be no casualties. But Mr. Spock theorized that an attack would mobilize the entire colony..." The transporter effect was beginning, and the transporter room formed around them. Garrovick reeled and was steadied by the two officers.
"Get this man to Sickbay!" Kirk ordered. "Where are the colonists?"
"Coming up the cargo transporters, sir," Scott reported, entering on the words. "Dr. McCoy has prepared a simulated environment for them. They'll be fed and bedded down immediately."
"Where's Mr. Spock?"
"At the decoy attack, sir."
"Beam me down there."
"Right away, sir."
Hands were reaching toward Garrovick, helping him down the transporter steps. He had just realized the hands were Mr. Scott's when he was eased onto a stretcher and borne away.
* * *
Garrovick woke and began to stretch. He thought better of it immediately and took inventory more cautiously. The soreness was much better, but bed still felt like an excellent place to be. He stretched his legs, and grunted in contentment.
"How do you feel?" It was Nurse Chapel.
She smiled. "Feel up to a visitor?"
"Who?" Then suddenly he knew. "Hey, I -- ouch! Is my hair straight?"
"You look fine."
Garrovick's breathing was out of order and his heart was beating too fast. Then it leapt. "Mari!"
"Hello, Danny." Mari hesitated, shyly. Then she walked over and deliberately kissed his forehead.
"Hey. That's taking unfair advantage of a guy."
"How do you feel?"
"Okay." They smiled at each other. Then Garrovick gave himself a slight shake. "Hey. Tell me what's happened."
"We're still in orbit. Xenobiology is monitoring the insects. They've settled down and seem to be back to normal. The farm is almost repaired. We're waiting to see if they will enslave the baboons, but there'll be no shortage of food even if they don't."
"What about the colonists?"
The vivid little face clouded. "They're still on tranquilizers. We'll take them to Minerva as soon as we leave here; they're preparing for them."
"Why are they still drugged?"
"Dr. McCoy says it'll be best if they only have one major transition."
"Whoa. Wonder what will happen to them?"
They sat in silence for a moment. Then Garrovick stretched out his good arm. Owa took his hand and gripped it tightly. "I guess we have more immediate worries," she said, a little tremulously.
"Guess so," he agreed and squeezed back. "Still, other people manage. Now listen, Mari..."
* * *
In the hallway outside, Kirk halted. He listened for a minute, then turned away. Garrovick could get an official visit later, he decided. Right now that young man had other things to occupy him. Disgraceful of course, but what could a mere captain do? He was still smiling as he stepped into the turbolift and ordered it to the Bridge.
* * *
"Here you are, sweetie." McCoy knelt to take the little girl on one knee, fumbling in his pocket. The rock candy almost distracted her from the hypo -- but not entirely. "I know, sweetheart," he said gently as the blue eyes filled with tears. "It wasn't much, but it was all you had. There. All done. That wasn't so bad, was it? Nurse, make a note on this -- on Janie here. We'd better add a half cc to her dosage. She's too far out of it."
"Yes, Doctor." McCoy waited patiently while Nurse Chapel found "Janie" -- FID K623-2X147. There was in fact no "Janie." But no patient of McCoy's -- or Chapel's, for that matter -- was going to be known by her Federation number.
Across the room, another child began to cry. "Doctor!" Collins called.
McCoy hurried over, candy at the ready. "Here you are, Marmaduke, honey," he drawled.
"It's Sammy!" Collins snapped.
Collins snorted, to cover the slight awkwardness. "Rock candy," he joshed. "Really, Doctor."
"Best soothing compound known to medical science," McCoy returned austerely. "And what was good enough for my great-grandpappy, Dr. Beauregard Jefferson Davis Lee McCoy, is good enough for a young--"
"Dr. McCoy," the intercom sounded. "Bridge to Dr. McCoy."
McCoy bounded over. "McCoy here."
"Bones, we'll be leaving orbit. Think the engines will alarm the colonists?"
"Should be okay, Jim. They've just gotten their QTD. But Jim--"
Kirk sighed. "I know, Bones. Bridge out."
Damn! McCoy looked around at his staff. They sat among their charges, frozen with disappointment. Then one by one, they turned back to their tasks. But McCoy rebelled. "Take over!" he snapped and stormed into the turbolift. "Bridge." He concentrated on working up a fine head of steam as he marshalled his arguments. Intelligent life form ... possibly advanced civilization... The doors opened. "Jim!"
The captain looked unhappy, but he replied calmly. "We have orders, Bones."
"But, Jim, the shielded probes didn't tell us a thing about those insects. I've seen the data. We don't know any more than we did three days ago!"
The captain shrugged like a man fresh out of arguments. McCoy searched for an ally. "Spock?"
It wasn't going to work. Spock sat at his console, all attention fixed on the preparations to leave orbit, disappointment showing only, perhaps, in the fact that he did not turn. "I see no better course, Doctor."
"It's such a different type of mind, Dr. McCoy," Uhura offered.
"A beacon satellite is in orbit, Doctor. The insects will be safe from further interference. And Starfleet will place the planet on Exobiology's schedule."
"At a low priority, since it's not colonizable." McCoy couldn't swallow his disappointment. "They'll get here in a decade. Maybe. Spock, isn't there some way you could rig the universal translator to communicate with those insects?"
"It might be possible, Doctor, if there were some way of making contact on those terms without further violating the Prime Directive."
McCoy grunted in discouragement.
"I know how you feel, Doctor." McCoy's eyebrows lifted in surprise, but Spock persevered. "However, curiosity is not sufficient justification for possibly harming an alien culture."
McCoy could not deny it. "Damn," he said softly.
"All right, Mr. Sulu," Kirk ordered. "Prepare to leave orbit. Warp two."
"Warp two, sir," Sulu acknowledged.
McCoy walked over to stand by the captain's chair and they all watched the screen as the planet shrank and disappeared. McCoy sighed. "I suppose there are just some aliens we'll never be able to communicate with."
"Unfortunately," Spock agreed tonelessly.
Kirk looked from his disappointed first officer to his disappointed chief medical officer with a wry smile. This was the other side of exploring the unknown, he thought: the frustration, the unknowable. On board, a lost generation. On the planet, conceivably, an injured culture. Damn, indeed.
But somehow a voice was speaking from his memory, reminding him of what made even these moments worthwhile. "We have supplies, seeds, tools, and housing," it said. "We have each other..."