DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of M. L. "Steve" Barnes and is copyright (c) 1977 by M. L. "Steve" Barnes. This story is Rated PG-13.
M. L. "Steve" Barnes
"Jim, you can't be serious about going out there tomorrow!"
The only answer to McCoy's exclamation was the hiss from the firepit as the Cetan evening mist found its way down the hut's crude chimney to mingle with the flames. A curl of smoke rose from the burning logs, then vanished into the air much the same as McCoy's protest.
Captain James Kirk paced away from his two friends, found himself massaging the back of his neck as he stared out the dwelling's one small window. The hut he now shared with Spock and McCoy sat at the top of a gentle slope. Below, in a grassy clearing he could see the night fires of the village.
The doctor's argument was almost rhetorical. Kirk had already made up his mind. In the hut next to the one he occupied lay an important Federation ally, wounded and unconscious. Somewhere in the village four Klingon warriors were quartered, and he had no doubt they were using their oily persuasiveness to have the injured man turned over to them. Teja, the Cetan headman, had shown neither side preferential treatment in their debate. Instead he had suggested an entirely unexpected way of determining the truth.
As if on cue a shuddering roar came out of the darkness of the valley and Kirk once again felt its heart-shaking power. He sensed suspension of activity in the village, the hushed listening as everything was dominated by the night cry of the great Cetan beast, the Wanti.
Kirk swung away from the window and found McCoy still facing him, hoping for some form of denial from his Captain.
"Bones, I've no choice," Kirk said finally. "When Roterbi contacted the Federation and offered to turn his design for a new transporter over to them, the Enterprise was committed to his safe conduct to Star Fleet headquarters. It was sheer bad luck that his shuttlecraft developed a power loss here over Ceta and crashed."
"Bad luck?" McCoy asked. "Or did the Klingons have something to do with it?"
Kirk exhaled. "We've no way of proving that, Doctor, with Roterbi unconscious. All we know is that the Empire somehow learned of his new transporter and sent a ship to follow him here. It's up there now, alongside the Enterprise in an uneasy truce. How is Roterbi doing, by the way?"
"Not good. I've done all I can but the longer we delay getting him to the ship's sick bay, the less promising it looks."
The Vulcan, Spock, had been silent, watching Kirk's growing concern and agitation. Now he interrupted the conversation with a comment of his own. "Captain," he said. "I fail to see what the Cetans hope to prove by forcing one of us to face the Wanti. There will be little proved in the area of intelligence. It seems merely a test of brute strength."
Kirk spread both hands in an expansive gesture. "You heard them, Spock. The Cetans worship the Wanti - this beast of the valley. To them he is a deity, an omniscient being who possesses insight into a man's heart. They leave all important disputes to his 'wisdom'."
Kirk went on, building to his tale. "They believe that if a man is lying, the Wanti will kill him. If he's telling the truth, his heart will be good and he'll triumph over the beast. Two men in disagreement take their turn going into the valley to meet the Wanti. According to Teja, only one will return. To them it's totally simple. Only in this case the two parties involved happen to be the Federation and the Klingon Empire."
"Do you think the Klingons will accept old Teja's challenge?" McCoy wanted to know.
"Combat is right up their alley, Bones, I've no doubt of it."
"It still seems illogical to me," Spock protested.
McCoy turned on the Vulcan. All the long hours of frustration and worry over his patient culminated in his explosive retort. "Face it, Spock! Not all people are governed by logic! A lot of us still relish a little old-fashioned action instigated by an emotion -- love, hate, fear, even greed. That's something we can understand."
The Vulcan's face was crossed by a look of impatience. "A most disturbing thought, if true, Doctor. It's been my experience that the actions of an individual who allows himself to be governed by emotions are extremely unpredictable."
By now McCoy was hostile at the First Officer's cool tone. "Well, I have a long standing mistrust of anyone who suppresses all of those feelings, Spock. Unless I've some exterior sign, it's pretty hard to guess what they're thinking."
"Doctor, the fact that you find my thought processes beyond your comprehension comes as no surprise to me."
"How can anyone know what you're thinking, Spock, when you hide behind that mask? I'll bet you don't even know yourself what's in the deepest corner of your soul. You've kept it smothered by your logical control too long."
"Gentlemen," Kirk stepped between them, his presence commanding the cessation of their hostilities. "Your debate is of no value in this case. The Cetans have their customs as we have ours. If we're to maintain friendly relations with them -- the right to collect the doromite plant -- we must abide by their ways."
"Well," McCoy said shortly. "We've got to have doromite, just as the Klingons must. It's the basis for a dozen pharmaceuticals. We couldn't begin to synthesize all the drugs it produces. And Ceta is the only planet in half a galaxy that grows it."
"True, Bones," Kirk agreed. "And I've no intention of having the Federation cut off from the supply if I can help it. And since the Klingons have told Teja that Roterbi was an escaped prisoner that belongs to them, we're at an impasse. I see no way out of it except to accept their offer and meet the Wanti in the morning."
A savage bellow echoed up the valley to punctuate his statement. The sound caused the Star Fleet men to exchange glances.
"Jim..." McCoy began but was waved to silence.
"Captain." Spock was more determined, did not heed Kirk's warning look. "I do not fully agree with the Cetans' method of determining the truth, but I respectfully request permission to meet the..."
"Denied, Spock. As Captain of the Enterprise, I represent the interests of the Federation. It's my responsibility to see those interests are protected."
"Logically I should be the one to go," the stubborn Vulcan persisted. "Vulcans are stronger than humans, our past history of violent personal combat equips us..."
"Spock," Kirk turned a level gaze on the First Officer, quelled his argument. "Spock, I'm not open to discussion on this. I'm the one who will meet the Wanti and that's an order.''
Spock subsided but he did not look happy about it. The door to the stone hut opened at that moment and their host, Teja, chief of the Cetan tribes, stepped in.
Teja was an old man by Earth standards, grey of hair and wrinkled of face. Yet his body retained a youthful firmness and he moved with the grace of a younger man. His black eyes were set in a nearly triangular set of eyelids and his silvery skin gave evidence that he was of non-Terran heritage. His clothes were the rough skins and furs of a primitive people but his face held an ageless wisdom.
"I have come for your decision, Kirk," he said. "Will one of you face the Wanti tomorrow?"
Kirk moved forward. "Yes, Teja, if that is the only way we can persuade you of the truth of our words. Have the Klingons agreed to your testing, also?"
Teja nodded. "Since they arrived moments behind you, they must take the second morning. You have the honor of the first."
"Teja," Spock stepped forward, curiosity on his face. "What if both men survive the testing? What will you do then?"
"I see you do not understand , Mister Spock," Teja said as he shook his head. "The Wanti can see into a man's soul, know instantly the truth that lies there. There will be only one survivor -- the one who carries only good in his heart."
Kirk gave Spock an amused I-told-you-so look and the Vulcan lapsed into silence.
"You mentioned a ceremony, Teja," Kirk went on. "When does it take place?"
Teja bobbed his head as he bowed. "Immediately, Captain. Now that you have accepted our offer of combat, the Wanti must be informed of your pledge."
"Informed?" McCoy's voice matched his ascending eyebrows. "How can you inform an animal...?"
Kirk's quick vehement shake of his head halted the doctor's words in mid-sentence. Teja looked at them in an inquisitive manner.
"Is there some doubt in your minds?" he asked, "that our Wanti is capable of determining whether you or the Klingons may rightfully claim the man called Roterbi?" He seemed disturbed at the thought.
Kirk stepped hastily to his side, took the old man's arm in a manner calculated to instill confidence.
"No, Teja," he said. "There is no doubt in our minds at all. We respect your customs and appreciate the honor you've offered us. Shall we get on with the ceremony?"
Teja bowed again and indicated they were to follow him. Outside the dwelling, gathered in the grey mist of night, was most of the male population of the Cetan settlement. When Kirk and his men stepped through the door, they set up a low humming, a wordless tune, a paean to one who had been pledged to the testing.
Torch bearers came at a run to flank them and light their way. Teja led them up a path beyond their hut to a stone altar set at the base of a steep rocky cliff. Behind them the Cetans formed two long rows. Many of the men carried weapons -- the short tri-bladed spear and a type of sling -- and all stood with eyes respectfully lowered now that they stood on sacred ground.
A great slab of rock stood before the cliff face. Cut into the stone surface was an artist's conception of a monstrous beast. Rearing on hind legs; it towered above them, great shaggy shoulders hunched behind gaping jaws, fangs bared and claws extended towards the viewer.
Primitive as the carving was it held the power to strike a chill in the heart of the observer. The animal's eyes were feline in pupil shape and had been treated with some phosphorescent material so they glowed as if with fire. The claws were besmirched with a scarlet dye and appeared to drip gore. Beneath the carving was an altar on which rested several ivory objects whose scimitar curve caught the flickering torch light.
"The claws of a Wanti, Captain," Teja explained. "They are coated with a powerful substance which is the beast's most effective weapon."
"What do we do, Teja?" Kirk asked, feeling out of place in this unusual setting.
"Only your presence is required, Captain. Whichever of you is to go forth in the morning to meet the god must be here when we tell him."
"It has been decided that..." Kirk began but was stopped by Teja's cautioning hand.
"Do not speak the name of the one who goes forth," he told Kirk. "From this moment on it is a matter between him and the beast." He bowed to the image and then stepped forward to raise a stone mallet from where it rested beside the sculpture. He lifted the implement and struck a metal gong that hung on leather straps beneath the ferocious replica.
The humming stopped behind them. Kirk turned and eyed the assemblage, saw that they had dropped to their knees. He and his men remained on their feet as did Teja.
The booming voice of the gong resounded off the nearby hills, found its way into the valley and echoed with ghostly tones off the distant peaks. Involuntarily Kirk felt a shiver touch his spine. The sound was something out of a dark and primeval past, speaking to him of bloody ground torn by fierce talons, and or bleeding flesh.
The answer was even more unsettling. From far down the valley a Wanti responded to the ancient call. The beast's cry reverberated off the rocks, beat against startled eardrums. Its deep rumbling tone reached down inside the listeners, twisted and tore at the chest until the heart felt ready to burst.
McCoy's face went pale. "In the name of heaven, Jim," he whispered. "You can't go out against a thing like that. It's sheer madness!"
"You said Roterbi has to have better medical attention soon, didn't you?" Kirk murmured back. "Well, the Cetans aren't about to let him go until someone's proved to them he is their property. I'll just have to see that it's done as quickly as possible."
"I wish they hadn't confiscated our communicators and phasers," McCoy grumbled. "I'd put my trust in a good solid stun a lot more than in those spears."
Teja had now joined his reverent clansman and was leading them in some undecipherable chant. The torches flared and smoked, sending coils of blackness up across the face of the carving. In the heat waves from the flames the image's lips seemed to writhe and lift in a bestial snarl. McCoy shuddered. Then Teja got to his feet and came back to them.
"It is done, Captain," he said. "The Wanti knows someone will come to his valley tomorrow. He will be expecting them at first light."
McCoy seemed fascinated by the cruel talons of the beast. He jerked his head towards them as they rested on the altar. "Do you mind if I examine those claws, Teja?" he asked. "I won't touch anything."
The headman hesitated and then nodded. McCoy stepped to the stone and Kirk saw him surreptitiously palm his mediscanner to pass over the altar. He had no way of knowing what the doctor was looking for but when McCoy turned to join them his face was set in deeper lines than before.
In silence the caravan returned to the huts. Teja told them that weapons would be left outside the main hut during the night. Then he wished them well and he and his people continued down the path to their village.
The diminishing light from the torches became white blobs of brightness then golden dots as the Cetans reached their village below. Overhead unfamiliar star patterns leaped into full view, danced in the clearing sky.
"This is like something out of a nightmare," McCoy commented. "It has all the unreal quality of a bad dream. I feel as if I'd been transported backwards to some barbaric view of ancient Earth. I keep thinking that when I wake up it will all be gone."
Kirk turned and looked at the face, dim beside him in the growing darkness. "Only in this case when we wake up, Doctor," he said, "the truth will be worse than the dream." He entered the hut without further words.
McCoy and Spock followed, trailing in silence after their Captain, but the doctor had something more on his mind. "Let me add another bit of horror to your collection," he told Kirk. "Remember the substance Teja said was on the Wanti's claws? Well, I took a reading down there by the altar. Have you ever heard of a chemical called triambinal?"
Kirk shook his head. Spock's eyes assumed a faraway look.
"A very dangerous element," the First Officer comnnented. "Induces feelings of anxiety and depression that result in violent insanity. Correct, Doctor?"
McCoy nodded. "Correct on all counts, Mister Spock. And the Wanti's claws are loaded with it. One nick and the average man will be dead within an hour -- after terrible suffering." He turned to Kirk. "Jim, I'm not much of a fighter, but a doctor is more expendable than a First Officer or Captain. Let me go out to face that thing tomorrow."
"Aren't you forgetting your patient, Doctor?" Spock asked, then he faced Kirk. "Jim, it is not logical for a starship captain to expose himself to such risk. Let me..."
"No good, either of you." Kirk cut their protests short. "The decision is mine, and I'm going."
"But, Jim, triambinal is deadly -- there's no known cure once a man's been scratched by an object that is covered with it..." McCoy began.
"We're not dealing with a simple problem of freeing Federation allies, now, Doctor," Kirk interrupted. "It's gone beyond just getting Roterbi out of here. No, we're fighting to preserve our rights to doromite and to uphold the honor of the Federation. We may not agree with the Cetans' method of deciding honor and truth but we're stuck with it. Right or wrong, it's their custom and I intend to see their challenge met."
He softened his expression, draped an arm over each of their shoulders. "I appreciate the offers, the good intentions behind them. But I'm in command and I'll be the one to face the Wanti."
He stilled their protests with a raised palm.
"The subject is closed, gentlemen," he told them. He indicated the room's rough-hewn chairs, the cot in the corner. "I suggest we make ourselves as comfortable as possible. I believe I'll get some rest." He walked away from their arguments to stretch out on the cot.
McCoy lifted an eyebrow at Spock, gave a twitch with his chin. The Vulcan followed the physician outside and across to the hut where Roterbi was kept.
"Let him sleep," McCoy said as they entered the other stone shelter. "He's going to need all the strength he has."
* * *
Kirk closed his eyes, feigned sleep to silence the arguments of his friends. But he had underestimated the day's toll and without warning he began to drift into uneasy slumber.
His dreams were disturbed by the periodic rumblings of the night-prowling Wanti. Even in his sleep the sound found its way into him, caused a momentary restlessness. He tossed and turned, dreaming of his childhood on old Earth and a farm in Iowa where he and his aunt and uncle had sought shelter from a prairie tornado. He could still recall the horrendous rush of wind, the nerve-shattering roar...
The noise from his memories found an echo in a present crescendo of sound that struck awe into the heart of the ten year old boy he had once again become...
He stirred uneasily in his sleep, found his way back to his present age. But the silence was once again disturbed by the earth shaking howl. As he dreamed he felt lost in an emptiness that had no end, whirling forever in blackness, falling away into nothingness.
His mind reached out, sought a link with reality.
"Spock..." he murmured, searching for the one person on whom he had always been able to depend.
The motion of his lips partially roused him and he turned on his side to sink into a quieter rest.
* * *
Spock and McCoy were in the other hut, which except for a small antechamber, was identical to the one where Kirk slept. Roterbi's cot was in the smaller room and McCoy went to glance at his patient.
"Still unconscious," he informed Spock. "He's going to require further testing, brain scans to search for serious damage."
"Aren't you forgetting, Doctor," Spock asked wryly. "That unless Captain Kirk defeats the Wanti tomorrow, you'll be unlikely to ever get those tests taken."
"I haven't forgotten, Spock!" McCoy growled. "I've been worried about Jim all day." He paused. "Do you think he can overcome it ... I mean..."
The Vulcan moved impatiently as if the doctor's words had triggered some unbearable tension in him. "The Captain knew what he was doing, Doctor," he said sternly. "We must abide by his decision." Abruptly he changed the subject.
"If I were to carry Roterbi, Doctor, could he be moved?"
McCoy shook his head. "I can't risk that, Spock. The dangers of complications are too great."
"Then there is no chance for escape."
"Escape, Spock? What are you talking about?" McCoy stared at him, then grew angry. "Jim has agreed to meet that ... thing ... tomorrow and you're talking about escape? You'd just run away and leave the Captain, is that it?"
Spock turned and faced the bristling surgeon, his face calm as always.
"And what if he should fail in the testing, Doctor? Have you thought about that? Someone must get Roterbi to safety so that the new transporter design doesn't fall into the hands of the Klingons. Despite the Federation's dependency on doromite, it must take second place in importance to the new design. If the Captain should fail, that will be my prime responsibility."
McCoy focused on the Vulcan with incredulous eyes.
"Spock, I don't believe it," he began softly. Then his voice started to rise in intensity and volume. "After all he's been to you. You can stand there and calmly talk about the chain of command if he dies!" He shook his head and his eyes blazed. "That's your friend over there, about to toss his life away in some barbaric ritual and you don't even care!"
Spock did not allow the doctor's words to nettle him, "My lack of emotional outburst does not signify that I am not concerned for his safety, McCoy," he said firmly. "But we are faced with irreversible facts; if Jim fails tomorrow the Klingons will be tested for the right to Roterbi. I am concerned with his well-being at present. There is very little we can do for the Captain at this time."
McCoy subsided, considered the First Officer's words more calmly. "Isn't there any way you can persuade him to change his mind, Spock?" he asked at last. "You're closer to him than any other person."
Spock's face was drawn fine in an effort to maintain his composure. "Doctor," he said quietly, "I must obey his orders, just as you must. To do otherwise would be to betray all that I have believed in my entire life. And it would run directly counter to my oath as a Star Fleet officer. He is my Captain."
McCoy sighed. Those last four words said it all for Spock. Where he, himself, might be tempted to overstep boundaries, disobey rules and bend regulations, to the Vulcan those same regulations were a sacred trust. To expect Spock to betray his oath would be to violate the Vulcan's deepest beliefs.
"Well," the doctor said finally. "I've got a patient in the next room that needs constant monitoring. I guess there's nothing either of us can do to change tomorrow." As he turned to leave his attention was caught by the expression in Spock's eyes. He found himself unable to meet those eyes.
"Uh ... Spock ... look ... I'm sorry. I just lost my temper with you because I'm worried. I know you care for him." When the Vulcan made no reply he turned and disappeared into the smaller room.
Spock's body was rigidly immobile but as the doctor left the room there was a flowing away of control that left him looking totally human in his vulnerability.
He sent his thoughts out in the ancient Vulcan way seeking the cause for the silent cry that had touched his consciousness seconds before. He found only the uneasy confusion of sleep in the familiar mind and he let his concentration relax as he withdrew the contact.
His body shook with a slight tremor that he made no effort to suppress. His eyes rested for a moment on the doorway where McCoy had just stood.
"Yes, Doctor," he whispered. "I care."
* * *
Less than an hour before dawn, Spock slipped out of the hut he shared with the doctor and returned to the other dwelling. He found Kirk awake and about to leave. Outside the hut the Cetans had left a sling and he saw the gleam of a tri-bladed spear. On the horizon the Cetan sun had started to part the darkness; a streak of grey could be seen over the distant hills.
Kirk turned as Spock entered, smiled at his friend. "Come to wish me luck, Spock?" he asked.
Spock made no reply. He planted himself in the center of the room, arms folded.
"I think you've made the wrong decsion, Captain," he said without preamble. "I was attempting to tell you before, when McCoy was explaining about the triambinal-- We know triambinal is fatal to humans but Vulcan brain cells are different. The drug does not effect them. I must be the one to face the Wanti."
Kirk waited him out patiently. "You're half human, Spock," he said when the First Officer had finished. "You can't be sure you'll escape the effects of the poison."
"Jim." Spock sounded exasperated for once. "The odds in this are inescapable. There is a fifty-fifty chance that I would be immune to the triambinal. There is no such margin of safety for you. Let me go."
"No margin, if I'm scratched, Spock. I don't intend to let the beast get its claws on me." He paced away, stood before the window as if collecting his thoughts. "Spock," he said in a level tone. "I'm the one who is going and that's final."
"I cannot permit..."
Kirk was jolted. He spun around, eyed the First Officer. His response was angry. "You cannot permit...?" His voice was deceptively soft.
"Jim. Please. Hear me out. There is a flaw in your nature -- perhaps the quality which has made you the most admired Captain in Star Fleet, I'm unable to judge -- which makes you unwilling to order someone to take a risk if there is any way you can assume that risk yourself. It is an emotional -- a human -- quality in you. I do not condemn it, I merely point out that in this case it is misplaced. Vulcans by nature of their superior physiology are better suited than humans for feats of strength."
Kirk seemed bent on absorbing the Vulcan's words analytically, without rancor or involvement. Now he began to speak, slowly and with greet feeling.
"Spock, I know that sometimes you find yourself lost in attempting to understand human emotions. Our lives are clouded by feelings, colored by our passions and weaknesses. I wouldn't have it any other way, physiological superiority or not. I can't explain to you why one man has no compunction about ordering others into danger and why another would rather not. I only know I'm one of the latter." He paused, continued in a fatherly tone. "Forget what the book says about command, Spock," he advised. "Sometimes a man has to throw away the rules, take that extraordinary step himself. I do what I think best for my ship, my crew, and then myself -- in that order."
"But what you're doing is illogical," the Vulcan protested. "There's no need for you to expose yourself to the danger. Jim, let me go. I beg..."
The words were choked off, hung in mid air between them. The Vulcan's expression altered abruptly from one of intensity to something akin to horror. Kirk's eyes were suddenly suffused with a softer light, lit with sunny hazel depths, but he had the presence of mind to recognize the Vulcan's acute embarrassment and he turned away to allow Spock time to collect his control.
"Just call it something I have to do," he said over his shoulder.
The words were spoken in such a low tone that Kirk had to strain to hear them.
"Forgive you, Spock?" he said as he began to turn back with a smile. "I never even heard what you said."
Too late he realized that Spock had moved within a step of him. Too late he saw the hand come up towards his shoulder. The long fingers caught the side of his neck, skillfully applied pressure. There was a blinding flash of pain in his head and then Jim Kirk sagged, unconscious, into Spock's waiting arms.
The Vulcan held him for a second, looked down at the fair head he cradled against his chest.
"Forgive me -- for disobeying you, my friend."
Regret darkened the brown eyes for a moment. Then Spock gathered the Captain's body in his arms and carried him to the cot. Tenderly he placed Kirk on the small bed and without a backward glance left the hut.
* * *
When Spock stepped outside the hut he was greeted by the sight of the entire Cetan village. They were waiting silently in the roseate glow of Ceta's morning for him. As he picked up the weapons they began the low humming once more. As Teja had indicated, this was their religion and like it or not, he had become a part of it.
He put the sling over one shoulder and picked up the spear in his right hand. Then he left the huts and the Cetans behind as he headed into the morning shadows of the valley.
He walked quietly in the early morning silence, eyes and ears alert for the Wanti. Once or twice a bird ventured a timid imitation of pre-dawn chatter but except for that an unusually deep quiet lay over the gloomy brooding valley. The morning breeze had ceased to riffle the grass and Spock could hear the faint swish his boots made as they parted the dewy stalks.
As yet the canyon was mostly in darkness. The rocky peaks that ringed the area prevented the rising sun from penetrating the depths and it was only by slow degrees that he was able to see the craggy outcroppings along the way.
Ahead of him was a stream, winding soundlessly and coldly black down the length of the valley. He paused frequently, letting his keen ears search the unnatural stillness.
He had been walking for only five minutes when something caused him to stop and move under the protecting overhang of a rock. His eyes probed the deep shadows for his sensitive ears had caught a faint sound.
It was a pebble dislodged from the slope ahead of him. His gaze jumped upward to scan the hill and gradually he made out the motionless form of a Wanti. The animal had halted when it had disturbed the rock and it had frozen to become one with the hillside.
Spock was fascinated by his first real sight of the beast. It was down on all fours and its head was on a level with the massive shoulders. The body was heavy and muscular, grey fur stippled with white. Its forequarters resembled nothing so much as a Terran Kodiak bear and he estimated that it would stand over ten feet when on its hind legs and would weigh at over a thousand pounds.
The rear quarters of the beast were more cat-like, in keeping with the feline pupils of its eyes. The hind section was less ponderous, longer and possessed strong stifles. The Wanti would be capable of enormous leaps, Spock reasoned.
Suddenly the beast began to swing its massive head right and left, testing for his scent. Something had alerted it to his presence and he heard the faint rumble of anticipation deep in the cavernous chest.
Suddenly the Wanti's head ceased its seeking, the eyes seemed to bore into the shadow where Spock had hidden. Slowly the spinal hair began to rise as it sensed its prey. The muscles under the long fur rippled as they bunched for the leap.
Spock jumped from the shelter of the rock, stealing the Wanti's advantage. He cocked back his arm and hurled the spear with all his Vulcan strength just as the creature sprang. The bronze point sank home but he had misjudged the Wanti's skeleton. The spear sheered off shoulder bone and failed to do any real damage. The grey body hurtled straight at the Vulcan's head.
Spock barely had time to avoid the deadly claws before the Wanti's weight struck him and knocked him rolling. The beast was an top of him, fangs and claws seeking his flesh.
* * *
Jim opened his eyes slowly, squinted painfully at the golden haze that poured in the open hut door. He sat up to rub the tender spot on his neck in wonderment.
Suddenly he remembered. He scrambled to his feet, rushed to the door and looked out. The village seemed deserted and the Cetan sun was above the horizon.
He heard a door close and McCoy came walking from the other hut. Kirk was busily casting about the cabin, seeking some form of a weapon when McCoy entered the dwelling. The doctor was in time to see Kirk raise a chair and smash it against the floor.
"Jim! What in the name of heaven...! Where's Spock?"
"I'll give you three guesses, Doctor," Kirk grunted as he examined the club he had fashioned from a chair leg.
McCoy stared toward the valley. "I came over to wish you good luck," he said stupidly. Then Kirk's meaning dawned on him. "You mean, Spock...? Spock disobeyed an order and went out to meet...? I thought..."
Kirk brushed by him. "Spock had other ideas, Bones." He halted as he noticed the complete absence of life in the village. "What happened to our Klingon friends?" he demanded.
"I suppose they went with the villagers to await the outcome of the battle," the surgeon said. "Maybe they're with Teja. You know, watching."
Kirk gave him a withering glance. "You know the Klingons better than that, Doctor. Ten to one they're out there somewhere waiting to do in whichever one of us went out to meet the Wanti. That way they won't be taking any chances on who gets Roterbi. That is, provided Spock survives the encounter with that ... thing." His face was contorted by a sudden spasm of concern.
"Bones," he said desperate ly. "Bones, that's Spock out there!" His knuckles were white where they gripped the chair leg. "And now he not only has the Wanti to fight off, but the Klingons as well. He'll be killed!" He began to run towards the valley.
Within minutes Kirk was running along the streambed, eyes searching the rocks for some sign of the Vulcan. He scrambled up a slight rise and came to a halt. Below him, inextricably entwined were two figures, one man, one beast.
"Spock!" The name escaped him in a low hiss of fear. Even as he watched the two figures rolled over and in the dust from the valley floor he was unable to separate one body from the other.
The Wanti was too powerful for the Vulcan when he held him like this, close in the grip of a bear. Somehow Spock managed to wriggle free and get to his feet, the only position in which he might be able to hold him own. The Wanti lunged to all fours, then reared upwards to tower over him. Spock danced away from the raking claws, pulled the sling from his shoulder.
"That's it, Spock," Kirk whispered. "That's it."
The Vulcan had to get the beast down on all fours. At the top of his tremendous height, the animal was too far above him for a fatal blow.
Spock launched a stone from the sling, struck the beast on the chest. The Wanti dropped to all fours, uttering a bellow of pain and rage. Spock tossed the sling from him, moved within range of the deadly forelegs....
And suddenly Kirk knew that Spock understood the Cetan challenge better than he had and that the Vulcan with his inbred hatred of violence and death had made up his mind to conquer the beast in his own way, the only way by which he could win the Cetan's friendship.
Dancing just beyond reach or the claws, Spock whirled in past the heavy shoulder, reached down and grabbed at the shaggy head. For a second it seemed as if he would be unable to find the purchase he needed and then his hand was at the animal's neck, fingers digging deeply, searching for the proper spot.
The Wanti sagged, its legs buckled and with only a moan it slipped forward, unconscious, to the ground. Spock had used the nerve pinch on the beast to overpower it without killing it.
A flicker of movement above the Vulcan caught Kirk's eyes. Poised to leap on the unsuspecting Vulcan's back were two of the Klingon warriors.
"Spock!" Kirk leaped down the hill, his bellow of warning shaking the valley. Spock whirled at the cry, caught the hurtling Klingons on his shoulder and went down again under their combined weight.
As the three struggled to their feet, Kirk rushed in, waving his make-shift club. He caught one of the Empire's men behind the ear and had the satisfaction of seeing him fall, out cold. Spock hurled the other man over his shoulder and the hirsute man's head made a resounding contact with a rock. He groaned and lay still.
Kirk was breathing hard from his exertions and the shoulder of his tunic had split when he delivered his powerful blow. Spock's uniform was covered with dust and his face streaked with dirt.
Kirk recovered first. His eyes began to blaze from beneath his tousled hair. "You crazy Vulcan!" he shouted. "What were you trying to do, get yourself killed?"
Spock took time to spit out a mouthful of soil and tug his tunic straight. His look when he met Kirk's eyes was one of his normal aplomb.
"Not at all, Captain. I was merely..."
"I gave you an order, do you recall that?" Kirk snapped. He glanced at the unconscious animal. "At least you might have killed it when you had the chance."
"I surmised the Cetans would not want their deity permanently ...damaged, Captain. To have done so would have been to jeopardize our future relations with them. It must be their custom to overpower the beast without harming it."
Before Kirk could summon a response, McCoy came puffing down the slope, followed closely by the Cetans.
"Is everything all right, Jim?" he asked.
Kirk looked at Spock, exhaled pent up breath. "I guess so, Doctor," he said finally. "Mister Spock has found his usual logical solution to the problem." He glared at the First Officer. "Just consider yourself lucky that you didn't have to prove your theory about Vulcan immunity to triambinal."
"Vulcan immunity?" McCoy looked from Spock to Kirk, failed to see the First Officer's frantic attempt to silence him. "Vulcans aren't any more immune to triambinal than we are, Jim."
Kirk gave Spock a level look, got his temper under control at last. As Teja came up to join them he said softly, "Consider yourself on report, Mister Spock." Then he turned to the chief. Behind the Cetans he saw the remaining two Klingons trying to make themselves inconspicuous.
"Your friends could not wait their turn to go into battle, Teja," the Captain said with a touch of disparity. "They were so anxious that it appears they mistook Mister Spock for the Wanti,"
Teja shook his head over and over, his face grave and filled with outrage.
"We have made an error in trusting their words, Captain," he said. "We have seen who had the truth in his heart today. I will meet with my council and decide how to punish the Klingons,"
Kirk rubbed his chin, eyes pinned to the Klingons in an unholy delight.
"Why not send them back to their leaders with word of your refusal to deal further with the Empire?" he suggested. "Tell them they are no longer welcome here -- to collect doromite or anything else. I think they'll find sufficient punishment awaits them."
Teja nodded. "An excellent suggestion, Kirk. You would make a good member of my council." He turned to Spock and slowly removed a scarlet ornament from his cheat. He walked up to the Vulcan and fastened it on his tunic collar.
"For one who has shown the truth in his heart," the old chief said.
Kirk had to bite his lip to keep from grinning at the look of discomfort on Spock's face. As Teja moved away Kirk could not resist a comment.
"It looks very handsome on you, Spock," he said with mock gravity.
"It feels very peculiar, Captain," Spock responded.
"Serves you right," Kirk retorted and walked away to catch up with Teja.
"Teja," he said. "If you've no further need of our communicators, we've a very sick man to be taken aboard our ship.''
Teja removed the boxes from beneath his furs and he also returned the phasers. "Will you and your men be back to collect doromite soon, Kirk?" he asked shyly. "We would be pleased if you would honor us with your presence."
Kirk smiled as he flipped the commicator open. "You can count on it, Teja," he promised. Then he spoke to his ship. "Scotty, locate Roterbi in the village and then beam the four of us aboard. Kirk Out."
The last sight Kirk had on Ceta was of Teja, arm raised in farewell as the Enterprise men were beamed home.
* * *
Aboard the Enterprise, Kirk parted company with Spock and McCoy outside the transporter room. "I'm going to contact Star Fleet and let them know we have Roterbi safely aboard," he told them. His "I'll expect you in my quarters in half an hour, Mister Spock," had an ominous ring to it.
The doctor saw Roterbi was placed on a gurney and a medical team was in attendence for the journey to sick bay then he fell into step alongside the Vulcan.
"I think the Captain has some difficult questions for you, Mister Spock." The doctor peered eagerly into Spock's face. "Are you ready with the answers?"
Spock glanced neither right nor left as he strode down the corridor.
"I have no defense, Doctor, What I did was in violation of a direct order -- an act of insubordination."
"You can say that again!" McCoy could barely contain his glee. "Whatever possessed you, Spock? I'll grant you the situation warranted action and I, for one, think you did the right thing, Jim's pride be hanged. But I doubt if the Captain's going to agree with me." He paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"I just want to know what was the difference about this time?" he probed. "Why now? You've stood by a dozen times and watched Jim take reckless chances. Why did you finally do something about it? And don't hand me any of that damnable nonsense about logic, either! That's not the answer and you and I both know it."
Spock halted, turned to face the surgeon. His expression was at its most aloof.
"I believe you are enjoying my predicament, Doctor McCoy," he accused.
"I'm just elated to find out you do have emotions under that facade, Spock. An emotion that finally grew too big for you to control. And I can make a good guess at what came over you this morning." He leaned forward alertly, a bird dog on the scent of game. A faint smile tugged at his lips.
"How are you on your Aristophanes, Spock?" he asked.
"Greek drama, Doctor?" Spock sought to discourage him with his sarcasm. "I had no idea you ever read anything except medical journals."
McCoy was not to be diverted. "The 'wind-born egg' of Erebus, hmnm, Spock? You know Erebus, of course. The place where Death dwells and from which mankind derived its greatest gift."
Eyes glowing, hands clasped behind him, the physician quoted,
"...'forth sprang Love, the longed-for, shining, with wings of gold'. That's it, isn't it, Spock? You plumbed that dark corner of your soul you've been afraid of and found out how you really felt." He smiled gently. "Congratulations, Spock. You finally let yourself be ruled by an emotion."
Spock's head had been averted as he listened to the doctor's words. Now he lifted it almost defiantly, locked eyes with the physician.
"If you are through celebrating my disgrace, Doctor," he said finally. "I'll leave you here." He turned and began to stride away.
"Don't worry, Spock," McCoy called after him cheerfully. "I won't tell anyone your secret. For once I'm on your side!"
* * *
"Spock, this is a serious charge. You know that." Kirk settled back in his chair to confront his First Officer in his quarters. They had both taken the time to shower and change uniforms and the recent events on Ceta seemed only a memory.
"Before I decide whether or not to take any official action, I want to hear what you have to say in your behalf."
Kirk had left the Vulcan standing at attention in the center of the room, fully aware of the fact that he was now facing his captain's official displeasure.
"I have little to say, Captain," Spock said. He fastened his gaze on the wall above Kirk's head. "I have betrayed my oath as a Star Fleet officer and in doing so have violated my honor and your trust. There can be no defense on my part."
"Then why did you do it!" Kirk was on his feet, his fist striking his desk in a blow of frustration. "You knew the consequences of such an act if you survived. You knew what I would do."
Spock cleared his throat. "It was the only logical course open to me, Captain. I had the advantage or my Vulcan physical superiority. I therefore..."
"Logic be damned!" Kirk exploded. He was close to open anger and he took a moment to get himself under control. "I'm afraid that won't do, Spock," he went on more calmly. "If I report this incident you're going to have to come up with something better than that."
Spock made no reply and Kirk stared at him silently for a second. He changed tactics and began to probe ruthlessly.
"What do you recommend that I do about your actions, Mister Spock? Vulcans never lie, yet you lied to me about the triambinal. You deliberately disobeyed a direct order. You exposed yourself to grave danger. You risked a very valuable and irreplacable member of Star Fleet."
"I have expressed no desire for leinency from the Captain," Spock reminded him.
Kirk was relentless. "No, you haven't. But there exists between the two of us certain circumstances that go beyond military protocol, don't there, Spock?"
"I do not wish to trade on our personal relationship." The words were low pitched.
Kirk shook his head in a resigned manner. "Spock..." he said gently. "Spock, what am I going to do with you?"
"File a one-oh-seven-nine on me, as per regulations," was the prompt reply.
"And destroy the immaculate record of one of Star Fleet's finest First Officers -- and my friend?" Kirk asked.
The Captain returned to his chair, sagged down into it, studied the implacable face across from him.
"No, Spock. I won't do that. Because you see, I understand."
For a second he saw reaction in the Vulcan's eyes, a look of entrapment, of panic over discovery, then it was hastily smothered. "...understand, Captain? I am not certain..."
Kirk watched him, not enjoying the Vulcan's pain. "How can I put you on formal charges, ruin your career for what was probably the most emotional act you've ever committed -- and that act for me?"
"Emotional, Captain? There was no emotion involved."
Kirk sighed. The immovable force was back at work in Spock's nature, driving him to deny what existed between them -- even to Kirk. The Captain found himself deeply regretting the necessity of this ordeal. They were on the verge of losing something very valuable, the quality of trust and the ability to communicate, simply because procedure demanded this confrontation.
Kirk wanted to go to the Vulcan, touch him, kindle Spock's spirit with his physical presence, re-establish the strength of the bond between them. But he restrained himself. These were not the proper circumstances. There would be time enough for that later...
Kirk leaned back, made a pretense of stretching as if weary of the entire discussion.
"I'm going to pretend it never happened, Spock," he told the Vulcan. "You have your own private hell to deal with since you violated your Vulcan upbringing, went against your Star Fleet oath. That's punishment enough. But I want your solemn promise that this will never occur again in the future."
Kirk leaned forward, pointed a warning finger. "If I ever have occasion to believe you're contemplating such a thing, if I ever have the slightest inkling..."
"I trust you will never have the opportunity to suspect my intentions again, Captain."
Kirk paused, searched the face for the facetious eyebrow. Failing to find it, he waved a hand at the Vulcan.
"Go on, get out of here. Dismissed."
As Spock reached the door, Kirk's voice stopped him.
"You know it goes both ways, don't you?" the Captain asked softly. "It's important that you believe that."
The Vulcan halted, shoulders tensed. Then he let them relax as he turned to look at Kirk.
What he saw on the Captain's face apparently reassured him. The old feeling leaped in response between them. With those few words Kirk had won, had eliminated rank and procedure and had returned them to beings who shared a priceless relationship.
Spock almost smiled, his eyes were alive with warmth as he answered.