McCoy looked gravely round the circle of faces that lined the table. Present were all the senior members of the Enterprise except the Captain. At the far end of the table McCoy could see the First Officer, but not even he knew why the Doctor had called this meeting.
"I'm afraid I've got some serious news for you all," McCoy said slowly. "It concerns the Captain."
From the end of the table he was aware of Spock's eyes on him but he continued, "The Captain has contracted a very rare disease. It is, in fact, so rare that it hasn't even got a name yet, only a number - K6. It isn't often we have come across it."
McCoy paused and Scotty broke in. "Is it fatal?"
"As far as we know, yes."
No-one said anything for a moment and then Spock said, "Do you not know of any cure?"
McCoy hesitated and then said, "There is one, but it's not easily come by."
"What difference does that make?" said Chekov impetuously. "What is it?"
"It's the juice from a certain plant, known as soldum. It's the only known thing that can arrest K6. The trouble is that there's only one planet where soldum can be found."
Spock spoke again. "And that is - ?"
"Molybarra," said McCoy.
"Then why isn't the ship already on course to Molybarra?" inquired Sulu.
"Because the Captain forbids it," said McCoy quietly.
"There was a startled rustle. "But why?" demanded Chekov.
"Then he knows," said Spock before McCoy could answer the Russian.
"Yes, he knows," said McCoy. "And he says one death is enough."
"I am afraid that I do not comprehend," said Spock, puzzled.
"What do you know of Molybarra?" McCoy asked the company at large.
"Precious little," said Scotty and the others murmured agreement. Only Spock seemed deep in thought. McCoy looked at him.
"Well, Mr. Spock? Don't tell me you know nothing about it!"
Spock looked up at him. "Class M planet, humanoid inhabitants. Civilisation primitive and nomadic and extremely superstitious. Planet not fully explored as yet; there is some suggestion of another intelligent life form not yet discovered," he said in a flat voice as if reading it off a printed page. "The Molybarrans - "
"As you say," McCoy broke in, cutting short the budding lecture. "The natives are very superstitious. I'd better explain the whole thing for the benefit of those less gifted in knowledge than yourself."
Spock ignored the jibe and McCoy continued. "The natives of Molybarra know about the soldum and its uses - the juice is a very fine medical drug and used for many differing ailments. However, it only grows in the remote areas of the planet and the Molybarrans have a strange way of acquiring it. They insist that it belongs to another race that they themselves have never seen, and that this other race guards it jealously. The only way they can come by any, when they need it, is to pay for it - and they pay for it with their own lives."
Scotty said, "That's monstrous!"
"Yes, it is," said McCoy, "but that's their custom and has been for countless years. Their method is to choose the sacrifice - it only needs one - and send him out to a certain place, with a talisman. After a specified interval of time, the others go to this place and find their soldum and the talisman waiting for them, but the sacrifice has gone and is never seen again."
A hum of talk broke out and McCoy paused to let the news sink in. Spock didn't comment. He sat in brooding silence. Presently Scotty called, "And so if we want some of this stuff we'll have to provide a sacrifice?"
"That's it in a nutshell," McCoy concurred. "And the Captain won't even consider such a thing."
"It's a pity he was told about it, then," said Chekov.
McCoy flushed slightly. "He already knew about it. In fact, he told me."
"But surely someone'll be willing to go?" Scotty said, and then hesitated. "Well, no, maybe not... "
"There's no question of anyone going!" snapped McCoy. "The Captain won't hear of it, I told you."
"Need he be told?" inquired Sulu.
"Can you certify the Captain as being unfit to command, Doctor?" Spock put in, breaking across the babel of voices.
"Well, I could... There's nothing wrong with him mentally, mind you, but he's sure cracking up physically."
Spock stood up. "Very well. If you will do so, I shall take over command and take the ship to Molybarra."
There were some murmurs at this and McCoy leaped up. "Aren't you being a little high-handed, Mr. Spock? I didn't say I would certify the Captain as being unfit for command."
Spock, already on his way to the door, turned and gave him a look of surprise. "I understood you to say that the Captain will die unless we obtain some soldum, Doctor."
"Yes - but - "
"If he will not take the ship to Molybarra, then someone else must do so. Have you any quarrel with that?"
McCoy sighed explosively and sat down again. "Oh. I guess not... All right, go ahead."
Spock went. Later, he looked into Kirk's cabin on his way down from the bridge - Kirk having been resting in his quarters - and found the Captain arguing furiously with McCoy.
"Ah, so there you are!" Kirk shouted at the sight of the black head and pointed ears in the doorway, and Spock tried to withdraw quickly but was too late. "Come in! Come in! I want a few words with you!"
"Yes, do come in," McCoy muttered. "You can take some of the bawling-out!"
Spock obediently came in. Kirk rounded on him almost with violence. He rated him without pause for five minutes. He wasn't nice in what he called him, either. Spock stood silent and said nothing. When Kirk finally ran out of breath he said mildly, "Captain, it is for your own benefit ultimately."
Kirk snorted. "That's what this lunkhead's been saying too! Mr. Spock, you know the conditions that apply to getting soldum on Molybarra, don't you?"
"And are you seriously suggesting I'd allow any member of my crew to sacrifice their life for mine?"
"There is hardly any question of your allowing it," Spock said. "I am in command now and what I allow is quite another matter."
"So you're taking the onus off me, are you? Thoughtful of you, Mr. Spock, but I'm afraid I can't have it. I refuse to allow any crew member to die on Molybarra. Is that clear?"
"Then stop all this bloody nonsense about going there!"
Spock shook his head. "I am afraid that is not possible, Captain."
Kirk took a deep breath. "And why?"
Spock looked at him serenely. "I must remind you that you are no longer in command. Under Starfleet Order No. 29968, sub-section (a), paragraph 2, I am empowered to - "
Kirk swung back onto McCoy. "Damn you, you're in league with him! I've had enough of it! Cancel that ridiculous certificate of yours. I'm perfectly fit to command!"
McCoy shook his head in his turn. "No, I can't do that, Jim. You see, you aren't fit to command. Refusing to go to Molybarra is a form of suicide, and suicides are of unsound mind, as I'm sure you'll agree."
Even Spock looked impressed.
Kirk stormed again for a few minutes, then fell silent. The other two watched him gravely but unrelentingly, united for once. Finally he spoke again, in a much calmer voice. "All right, so you'll take the ship to Molybarra, to find soldum. You know the penalty. Exactly how do you intend to proceed once you get there?"
"We will get the soldum," said Spock.
"Sure, but how? Whose life are you going to sacrifice for it?"
"There might not be a sacrifice entailed, Captain. How do we know for certain?"
Kirk looked at his First Officer keenly. "No? Listen, that custom is as old as time. I can hardly see the Molybarrans letting you waive it. A life for soldum - that's been their rule for countless ages. They're not going to let aliens walk in and change it, just like that! I ask you again, Mr. Spock, whose life are you going to sacrifice?"
"It is hardly a thing I can order anyone to do," said Spock.
"Exactly. And do you think anyone will rush to volunteer? Men are fond of life, you know. Do you hope to find someone who's tired of it?"
Spock said nothing.
"Well, Mr. Spock?" Kirk said curtly. "Who are you proposing to send? I hope you haven't got any notion of making a burnt sacrifice of your wretched yeoman."
"Certainly not," said Spock, shocked.
"Bones," said Kirk to McCoy, "if you've got any brains at all, stop this absurdity! I'll put Spock in irons if I have to."
Spock looked at him calmly. "It would not help if you did, Captain. The ship is now on course for Molybarra and the crew would not obey your orders."
"I'll have you broken for this!" Kirk promised him.
"Captain, after we have been to Molybarra and obtained the soldum you are welcome to do what you like with me," Spock said simply. "But not until then."
Kirk turned away with an exasperated sound. "Tchah! It looks as if we've got to go there - you've won this round. But you won't win the next one, I'll see to that! No-one is going to throw away their life for me."
"Have I permission to go, Captain?" Spock said.
"Damn you, yes!"
He went and Kirk, feeling suddenly dizzy, reeled and almost fell. McCoy went and helped him to sit down, his face full of concern. "Take it easy, Jim. You shouldn't let fly like that in your state of health."
"I wish I could stop you going to Molybarra on this bloody fool's errand!" Kirk sighed.
"You just rest!" McCoy told him firmly.
* * * * * * * *
When they reached Molybarra a small party beamed down to the surface. It consisted of McCoy, Spock and Kirk, who had insisted on going along too. The Molybarrans were thin, rather mournful people, but they weren't unwelcoming. They were willing to discuss the matter of the soldum and the sacrifice, and were quite definite that the latter was necessary to obtain the former. They didn't mind the Enterprise men getting some soldum and gave Spock the talisman they used. It was a large lump of crystal the size of a football.
"We would ask one thing of you," the Molybarran headman said. "That you will not try to rob the Others of their payment."
"We will not," Spock promised.
"If they are angered, much ill fortune will come to us."
"The sacrifice will be made, never fear."
"Not if I know it!" muttered Kirk, but McCoy hushed him.
"I don't see the point of getting all that information and bringing back the talisman," Kirk observed later when they'd left the Molybarran camp. "Neither of you is going after the soldum, I'm determined on that."
Spock's eyes met McCoy's and he moved unobtrusively behind Kirk.
"Of course not, Jim," McCoy said soothingly. "But anything's worth a try. There might be some way around it... "
Spock's hand arched forward and pressed Kirk's shoulder. Kirk went limp and Spock caught him and laid him on the ground.
"Right!" snapped McCoy. "Now let's get him back aboard - "
Spock reached for his communicator. "Spock to Enterprise. Two to beam up - the Captain and Dr. McCoy. Spock out." He flipped back the top of his communicator and looking at the infuriated and astounded doctor said, "I apologise, Doctor, but it is unavoidable. You will attend to the Captain when the soldum arrives. That is an order, Doctor."
McCoy tried to protest but had only got his mouth open when he started to vanish. He and Kirk disappeared in a golden shimmer, leaving Spock alone with the talisman. He deliberately tossed away his communicator into some thick undergrowth and started on his way at once.
The way to the glade of sacrifice was clearly marked by an avenue of gold-leaved trees. Spock followed it without difficulty, walking along with the talisman tucked under one arm. It wasn't a long walk and when he got there he found a wide clearing, in the centre of which was a wide flat rock with a projection like a back rest. There was no sign of life. Spock went up to the rock and held the talisman as he had been instructed, so that the sun's rays flashed off it like a signal. Then he sat down on the rock, leaned his back on the projection, put the talisman in his lap and waited. The sun moved across the sky and he waited, patient, for what was to come.
* * * * * * * *
Back in the ship McCoy raged at the trick that had been played on him, for it had been agreed between him and Spock that they were going to get Kirk out of the way and then go for the soldum together, to see if two of them could find some way of escape. He should have known better than to trust that pointed-eared son-of-a-bitch! Kirk, when he came round from the nerve pinch, was also considerably upset when he learned what had happened. He would have had Spock beamed up immediately if he could have located him, but Spock's jettisoning of his communicator had put paid to that and there was no way of tracing him - which Spock had well known. McCoy was torn between two poles, the desire to remain and help Kirk when the soldum arrived, and the desire to go after Spock. After some thought he reasoned that perhaps if he hurried he might get to Spock in time to carry out their original plan of escaping or somehow overcoming the creatures who brought the soldum. It was worth trying, anyhow, and Kirk would be perfectly safe in the hands of Dr. M'Benga. Leaving Kirk in sickbay under sedation, McCoy slipped off to the transporter room. He knew how to reach the sacrificial glade, and when he had materialised below he set off for it hotfoot in pursuit of Spock.
He burst out into the clearing to find Spock still there, sitting on the rock, gazing in front of him. He took no notice whatever of McCoy, who was slightly irked at being so studiously ignored. He crossed to the Vulcan's side and said testily, "Well, you look safe enough! What happened? Wouldn't they accept you as a sacrifice?"
Spock didn't move his eyes. "Be quiet!" he said in a very level voice.
"Damned if I will!" exploded McCoy. "Stop sitting there like that! We were meant to - "
"Doctor, if I were you I should depart while I still could," Spock interrupted, without moving his eyes. "In a minute, indeed probably less, it might be too late."
"What are you talking about?"
"They have come for their payment."
McCoy swung round and looked for the first time where Spock was looking. He froze with horror. Looming above the gold-leaved trees were three huge towers. They stood black against the sun, covered with some kind of bark-like substance. They must have been over fifty feet high. As McCoy stared, astounded, one of them moved forward slowly, with trundling majesty, and then stopped. Then another moved a little in its turn.
"What the hell ARE they?" McCoy whispered.
"As one of them is carrying soldum plants, I can only assume they are those the Molybarrans referred to as 'the Others'," Spock answered. "I have been watching them approach for nearly half an hour."
"And you didn't bolt for it? God!"
"I am here for a purpose, but you are not. Go while you can."
McCoy hesitated, torn between fear and pride. Spock calmly watched the towers creeping closer. McCoy suddenly decided there was no point in both of them being captured. With a sudden instinctive impulse of self-preservation that he had no time to control or question, he turned and ran. The slow silent advance of those massive ominous figures had frightened him, and he was no coward. He was too late, however. A thing like a whip coiled round his legs and brought him crashing down. The tower began to reel him in like a fish. The second tower flung its whip thong about Spock and whirled him into the air. The talisman fell off his lap and bounced across the ground. The third tower tossed down a load of soldum plants on top of it. Then all three towers turned and retreated.
The two men were parcelled up in tough ribbon-like thongs and carried along through the forest. McCoy struggled for a while, trying to reach his communicator but when he finally managed to get his hand to it, it was wrenched out of his hold and fell to the ground. Realising it was lost he ceased to struggle. It seemed pointless. Spock, who had hung limp and unresisting throughout, wasn't so tightly bound up and was able to examine his captor as they went along. He did so with his usual unquenchable scientific curiosity.
The creature was so immense it was difficult to see all of it, but Spock had seen many strange life forms in his time and gradually he picked out the various features. There was one eye, at the top of the tower. It was shaped like a crescent with its points downwards and was a yellowish colour. There was no visible mouth or nose, but these could have hidden in the folds of the bark-like black glistening skin. Some rather mossy growth above the eye passed for hair. The thong that had lassoed him so neatly was one of six, three per side, all identical in thickness but varying in length. Those not in use were carried neatly coiled up against the creature's sides. Spock craned his neck to look down but couldn't see how the creature moved. There were no visible feet or legs and it travelled rather as if it was on wheels. It paid him no attention whatever now it had caught him.
The towers travelled a long way deep into the unknown heart of the planet and they moved now at quite a pace. They appeared to be heading for a mountain range that now appeared over the horizon. Spock, who had resigned himself to his fate, presently dozed off where he was. McCoy, less at ease, fidgeted and tried not to think of what might be coming.
* * * * * * * *
Back on the Enterprise, the Molybarrans had delivered the consignment of soldum and Kirk was already being treated by M'Benga. He was stunned and couldn't take in the terrible fact that he'd lost both his friends.
"It's a terrible blow," Scotty said to Sulu later. "The Doctor and Mr. Spock both gone."
"I'm sorry we came to this darn place!" said Sulu with violence.
"Would you rather the Captain had died, then?"
"No, but as it is it's two lives for his one. And look at him! He isn't grateful for it!"
"They were the two men closest to him," Scotty said with a sigh. "You canna blame him for feeling it."
Nurse Chapel came by them and gave them a rather forced smile. They watched her until she was out of sight and then Sulu said wisely, "And there's another broken heart! Poor girl, she's really hard hit."
"Ach well, everyone knows she was just about mad for Mr. Spock," said Scotty. "He never bothered, though. He was more than half a computer."
In the sickbay Dr. M'Benga said to Kirk, "You've got to get better, sir!" and Kirk replied firmly,
"Sure I've got to! Do you think I'm wasting my friends' lives?" But when the doctor had gone, he sat and stared miserably at the bulkhead.
* * * * * * * *
Far below the massive circling Starship, at the root of the mountain range, Spock and McCoy were prisoners in a cage. They were in what was all too obviously a laboratory. It wasn't difficult to guess why they were there.
"Guinea pigs!" said McCoy bitterly as they looked out of the heavy mesh that barred them from liberty. "That's what we are, Spock! Now we know what the towers need sacrifices for. They use them for experiments!"
"We must seem very small and insignificant to them," Spock observed mildly.
McCoy didn't look as if the idea appealed to him. "But surely they must realise we're intelligent beings? For one thing, we're clothed."
"And they are not," said Spock. "Possibly they do not know what clothes are. And anyway, intelligence is a matter of comparison, Doctor. To an insect no doubt a guinea pig would appear intelligent."
McCoy sighed. "I don't like the look of the immediate future, Spock!"
"No, nor do I," Spock admitted. He looked at McCoy with sudden unexpected concern. "You should not have followed me, Doctor. There was no need for a second sacrifice."
"Believe me, I didn't mean to sacrifice myself," said McCoy, not quite truthfully.
Spock shook his head. "Your following me was all the more illogical, then. This is all right for me, it is what I was prepared for, but you have no place here."
"I'd like nothing better than not to be here!" grunted McCoy. "However, there's damn-all we can do about it for the moment."
"Except wait," said Spock.
They weren't ill-treated, any more than laboratory animals are. Their cage was large and they had some woolly material to sleep on. They were fed regularly and the food wasn't unpalatable, although quite unrecognisable. They were given it on broad flat leaves as firm as cardboard, which passed as plates. They had to eat with their fingers, which the fastidious Spock resented, but in time they grew quite skilful at it. They were given a plentiful water supply, even for washing. The towers had provided their captives with a neat little sink in one corner and in another corner there was a low bowl that drained out into a pipe below the cage - they had evidently been accustomed to keeping humans and knew what was required in the way of sanitary arrangements. The two men had all they needed except something to do. McCoy became bored in a very short time but Spock found an interest in watching the towers as they moved about the laboratory outside the cage. At first they wondered if they would find any of the previous sacrifices still alive, but there were none visible. It looked ominously as if they'd been killed.
A short while after their arrival they were taken out of the cage one at a time and closely examined by two of the towers. These weren't the ones who had taken them from the glade. One was evidently old, as its skin was more heavily folded and greyer than the others'. The second tower was smaller and slighter in build and its moss-like hair was thicker and longer. These two carefully turned the men this way and that and probed them, but not painfully, although it tickled. Spock's ears were gently pulled, as if the towers weren't used to such appendages and thought they might be detachable. The sensitive thongs felt their clothes and the smaller tower of the two made notes in some kind of hieroglyphics on what looked like a sheet of cork. The two men were weighed and measured and then put back into their cage.
"I know what guinea pigs must feel like now!" McCoy commented ruefully.
"I think the smaller of the two creatures is a female," Spock observed thoughtfully.
"Do you? Perhaps it is. But whatever it is, it's no beauty."
"Very probably we are not beauties to them, either."
McCoy refrained from saying that he was in complete agreement with them if so, particularly where Spock was concerned.
Whether it was female or not, the smaller of the two towers took charge of them and fed them. It seemed fond of them in a way and would sometimes pick them out and hold them up, looking at them and apparently gaining pleasure from just petting them. It was always particularly gentle when handling them, and sometimes it would stroke their heads softly with the tip of one thong. "Like a little girl with a pussycat," said McCoy.
The experiments began before long, but were bearable to begin with. First came intelligence tests. They couldn't tell if they'd impressed their captors with these or not, but presently they ceased and endurance tests began. These were much harder. It was evidently the older tower's intention to find out how much these funny little creatures could stand. He put McCoy into a centrifuge that left him sick and dizzy for a long time. He threw Spock into a large pan of water and left him to swim for it. Spock could swim if he had to, but he didn't like doing it. This time, though, it was obviously a choice between swimming and drowning, so he swam. The pan seemed small enough to the towers, no doubt, but to him it was almost as wide as a sea. He got more than halfway across before he foundered, and when he ran out of strength he floated. Seeing that he was exhausted, the tower fished him out and the smaller one tenderly dried him. To do the job properly she took his clothes off, very delicately - it must have been like undressing a tiny doll to her - and then rolled him up in a substance like cottonwool while she dried his clothes. She then dressed him again, holding him between two of her thongs and turning him around. McCoy, watching from the cage, couldn't help grinning, but Spock remained dignified and unresisting. He would have preferred to dress himself but he wasn't going to make an issue of it. The female tower appeared to find his nakedness fascinating and she stroked and smoothed him a while before putting his clothes on again. He ignored her icily, to McCoy's further amusement.
The longer they remained in the laboratory the more the two men got to know about their captors and before long they were almost convinced that the two towers were father and daughter. The father was evidently a scientist and his daughter was assisting him and being trained. They often watched the old tower showing the young one how to do something with the equipment and scolding her when she made a mistake. They spoke in muffled booms, but try as they might the men could never made sense of them or indeed differentiate between the sounds. Spock was sure the towers couldn't hear human voices, they were too high-pitched for them, and certainly when he once tried shouting at the female she took no notice of him at all.
After the endurance tests came the injections. These McCoy viewed with considerable misgiving, and even Spock showed some uneasiness. The first lot made them both vomit. The female tower, who McCoy had dubbed Bessie, showed signs of concern and tried to tempt them to eat with what she evidently considered to be great delicacies, but her father - if he was her father - didn't appear to appreciate her kindness towards his laboratory animals.
"Definitely a female!" Spock groaned, turning his head away from Bessie's anxious administrations. "She has all the characteristics of her sex!"
For all his thumping headache and churning innards, McCoy chuckled.
When the old tower - who McCoy called Moses - rooted them roughly out of bed and hauled them out for inspection, Bessie hovered nearby and tucked them both back into bed again with almost motherly care when he'd finished with them.
The next injections upset McCoy but didn't affect Spock at all. This appeared to vastly intrigue Moses, who couldn't understand it.
"It's your lousy Vulcan constitution!" McCoy said sourly to Spock. "And come to that, it's your fault we're here at all!"
"We can at least presume that the Captain is alive and recovered now," Spock said reprovingly. "Surely that should be sufficient."
McCoy, however, was feeling too ill to be sure of that.
The next injections brought them both out in an itchy rash. They scratched madly until Bessie took pity on them and dusted them both down with some kind of powder that soothed the irritation.
They both noticed when the time came for their next dose Bessie seemed worried and appeared to be asking Moses not to give it. Moses ignored her and injected McCoy only. Bessie then swept him up and hugged him gently before putting him back in the cage, as if in apology. They soon found out why.
Soon McCoy began glowering and muttering insults at Spock, who ignored them. Then McCoy got up and hit Spock across the face. Spock had been sitting cross-legged on the floor - they had no chairs - and the blow knocked him off balance and bowled him over backwards. McCoy hurled himself onto him, or tried to, but Spock was too quick for him and had got to his feet before McCoy hit the place where he'd been. Not at all put off by this, McCoy scrambled up and advanced onto his companion with a murderous expression. Spock backed before him warily, every sense alert.
"What is the matter with you, Doctor?" he asked, trying to reason with him, although he guessed.
"I'll finish you off once and for all!" McCoy ground out. "Just wait till I get my hands on you, you pointed-eared slant-eyed son of a bitch!"
But Spock wasn't waiting. McCoy rushed him; he dodged. McCoy wheeled like an outraged bull, and once more Spock dodged.
The commotion had attracted Moses's attention and he trundled up to watch and take notes on how aggressive these little creatures could become.
After a considerable amount of dodging, Spock was finally trapped in the corner by the sink. Delighted, McCoy advanced on him for the last time. Spock waited as long as he could with safety and than came out to meet him with such suddenness that McCoy was taken by surprise. His arm was caught and jerked, his leg kicked away from under him and he somersaulted into the air and landed with a crash some yards off. Spock stood where he was and waited. Pleased, Moses scribbled busily with one of his thongs. It looked as if the little animals were really going to fight. If there was a fatal casualty he didn't mind. They were both the same sex, so he didn't need two of them anyway.
McCoy climbed to his feet, livid, and hurled himself to the attack again, reaching for Spock's throat. Again he was met and bowled off his feet, to land with a thud. He was stunned and stayed where he was for a moment and Spock took advantage of it to get out of the corner. But McCoy still followed him grimly, and he saw the only thing to do was to stand and fight it out. Once more they came together. Spock moved so fast that Moses couldn't follow what he did - and nor, for that matter, could McCoy, who found himself tied up in knots and dumped most ungently on the floor. As he tried to get up again, Spock's long hand reached over his shoulder and gripped. McCoy sagged like an empty sack and slid down again unconscious. Spock stood for a moment looking at Moses. Then he bent and hauled McCoy across to the bed and put him into it to recover.
By the time McCoy regained his senses he was himself once more and wanted to know why he ached all over.
"This is getting worse," he commented when Spock had explained.
"I think the one you call Moses wished me to kill you," Spock said without emotion.
"If you'd been doped too I don't doubt you'd have done it," McCoy said drily.
"Let's just hope he doesn't try it again."
They looked at one another and said no more on the subject.
Bessie came into the laboratory and gently lifted them out. She examined them both for damage, and stroked them, booming softly at them.
"She's apologising for her father," said McCoy, "And I don't wonder!" The old tower saw what she was doing and roared at her to put them back. Bessie hastily did so, but she still didn't treat them roughly.
"I've got a soft spot for Bessie," said McCoy after she'd gone. "I'd like to make firewood of her old man, though!"
"An ambition you are unlikely to fulfil, Doctor," said Spock dampeningly.
McCoy walked to the mesh of the cage and looked through it at Moses, busy at one of the benches.
"What worries me is what they're going to do with us," he said. "I'm sure old Moses has no intention of keeping us permanently."
"No," Spock agreed. "Sooner or later he will have finished his experiments or one of the experiments will kill us:"
"And if it doesn't, when he's done with us, then... " said McCoy and made a thumbs-down gesture.
"Exactly," said Spock gloomily. "All we can hope for is a speedy end."
* * * * * * * *
Meanwhile the ship continued to orbit Molybarra. Kirk refused to take her away until he was fully recovered. He was trying to find some way that he could rescue his friends, if they still lived. He could have sent down a large rescue party with phasers and no doubt he could have tracked the two men, but the obstacle here was the Molybarrans. They refused point-blank to allow such a thing and in fact implored Kirk not to do it. It would, they insisted, endanger them all, for once the Others had been robbed of their payment they would be revenged. The headman agreed that McCoy had been an extra bonus and not in the contract, but even so, he said, the Others must not be annoyed. He implied that if McCoy had been silly enough to get himself taken off he must abide by the consequences. Kirk fretted helplessly but knew he couldn't act. He had no right to endanger the lives of the natives, even if he didn't personally believe anything would happen to them. They believed it would, and that was all that counted. Still, he thought, there must be some way of getting Spock and Bones free without angering the Others, whoever they are. Damned if I'm leaving here until I've had a good think about it. Maybe I'll hit on something in time. I'm not going off until I'm sure there's no way I can rescue them. He refused to consider that they might already be dead. It was an idea he couldn't bear to think of.
Starfleet Command was surprisingly understanding but told him he couldn't have much longer. The ship was needed elsewhere soon, and she must go, whether he'd located his friends or not. He would never have been given permission to remain as long as he had if the Admiral hadn't been a personal friend of his. Sometimes, he reflected wryly, it pays to have friends in high places!
* * * * * * * *
In the laboratory miles below, relations between Bessie and Moses were growing increasingly strained as Bessie continued to make pets of the two men. On one occasion she was working alone when a strange tower came into the laboratory, another young one. By the way she reacted to it, it was a male, and she had a fancy for him, which was reciprocated. The two men thought he looked exactly like a less wrinkled edition of Moses, but Bessie seemed to think he was extremely handsome. She fluttered around him as seductively as a fifty-foot tower could flutter, and McCoy at least was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle when Moses returned suddenly, roaring like thunder.
"Oh God, that's done it!" exclaimed McCoy. "Poor old Bessie!"
Bessie and her boy-friend blundered apart. Moses shot out a thong and belted the young male one in the face - or what passed for a face - so that he almost measured his not inconsiderable length on the floor. Then Moses turned his attention to Bessie. He grabbed her and shook her until the laboratory rocked, roaring all the time. Then he let her go and chased the young male out, hitting and slapping at him. Once he had gone, Moses returned to Bessie and proceeded to beat her savagely. His thongs whistled and cracked like whips and the men could see raised weals appearing on the smaller tower's body.
"Revolting!" pronounced Spock with distaste. "There is no need for such behaviour."
"Could she be his young wife instead of his daughter?" McCoy wondered. "He seems terribly put out."
"I do not know, Doctor, but I do know that his violence is most objectionable," Spock stated. "He is hurting her badly. Would you beat your own wife like that if she was unfaithful to you?"
For a moment McCoy looked stricken, then he forced himself to reply lightly. "I might, if I was old and beyond it and looked like he does!" he said, and Spock gave him a look of freezing disapproval. They stood together and watched poor Bessie's punishment and McCoy shouted rude comments at Moses, which he couldn't hear.
After Moses had left, Bessie came over to them. She was moving jerkily and appeared to be in pain, but she came to feed them as usual.
"Poor old girl," said McCoy pityingly and as she lowered their plates in to them he caught hold of one of her thongs and held it to his cheek for a moment. Above them the tower's big single eye looked down on them with sudden softening. She caressed McCoy's head gently with one of her thongs.
"She knows how you feel," Spock remarked, sitting down with his food.
"I'm quite fond of old Bessie," McCoy said as Bessie trundled away. "She's been kind to us."
"She has indeed."
McCoy sighed and looked round the cage. "So this is where we end our lives. Rather constricting - and far too soon."
"Death is nearly always too soon," said Spock. "But it always comes."
"Vulcan philosophy!" snorted McCoy.
That evening there was a great argument between the two towers. They boomed at one another until the laboratory rang with the noise. For a long time Bessie seemed to be standing up for herself, but eventually she left, rather diminished, and Moses continued to bellow triumphantly after her. "I wonder what all that was about?" mused McCoy.
"I am sure I do not know, but I do not like it," said Spock. Moses came over to the cage and stood looking at them.
"You've forgotten our dinner, you son of a bitch!" McCoy told him.
"Or he deliberately has not given it to us," Spock said. "I do not think he forgets much."
Moses opened the cage and lifted the two men roughly out. He held them up, looking at them, not noticing - or not caring - that he was holding Spock upside down. He surveyed them both for a moment and then tossed them disdainfully back into the cage. They tumbled on top of one another on the cage floor, grunting with the impact.
"Wonderful!" said McCoy bitingly as he sat up.
"I am afraid this bodes ill," said Spock, dusting himself down. "That, unless I am mistaken, was a farewell inspection. We are going to be - disposed of."
"You always were cheerful!" observed McCoy.
"No, Doctor. Merely logical."
They sat on their bed and stared at the mesh of their prison. Moses had gone. They were hungry.
"Wish Bessie'd come and feed us," said McCoy after a long silence.
"Possibly she has been given instructions not to do so. That might have been the cause of the argument we saw," said Spock.
"God, do you think they're going to starve us to death?" McCoy exclaimed.
"I do not know," answered Spock, and then lifted his head, listening. "Someone is coming now. Perhaps it is the female with our food."
It was Bessie, but when she came up to them she wasn't carrying any food. She opened the cage and took them carefully out, then instead of holding them up to pet them as she usually did, she set off across the laboratory with them.
"What's going on?" McCoy hissed to Spock, who was held in a neighbouring thong.
"I do not know," said Spock again, refusing to be excited. "Wait and see."
There was nothing else to be done, but in a moment they realised Bessie was taking them out of the laboratory. It was the first time they'd been outside since their original arrival.
"Great God, I believe she's letting us go!" McCoy whispered to Spock, who didn't reply. He wasn't going to be drawn into speculation.
Outside, the planet lay under thin moonlight. Bessie didn't put them down. She started trundling swiftly across the ground, brushing through the trees but being careful not to hurt her burden.
"She is returning to the sacrificial glade," Spock said after a while.
"Bless her!" said McCoy with feeling. "Moses'll have her hide for this when he finds out."
"I must confess that the thought perturbs me also," Spock confessed. "I hope he is not too rough with her."
"He'll half kill her, poor thing!"
"Well, no doubt she is aware of what she risks. She might be able to blame our escape onto some other agency."
"I sure hope she does - and that she fools the old son of a bitch!"
"So do I," said Spock, and meant it.
Bessie, oblivious of the conversation, was moving more rapidly than they'd ever seen a tower move. She was obviously in a hurry. Pushing through the trees with a noise like a strong wind, she took them to the glade of sacrifice and put them gently down. They stood together looking up at her, as she loomed over them against the sky, her one eye shining down at them. She twined her thongs loving round them both, stroking their heads. They rubbed their faces on her thongs, it being the only way they could thank her. Then she let them go, with a little push each towards the avenue that led to safety. She couldn't have told them more clearly that they were free to go. Then, as they turned away from her, she turned too and went, and they heard her moving off, the noise gradually fading into the silence of the night.
McCoy looked at Spock. "God, who would have thought it? Talk of being born under a lucky star!"
"That is a ridiculous statement," said Spock precisely. "How could anyone be born under a star, lucky or otherwise?"
"Oh, you!" grunted McCoy, and then he said, "Well, we'd best find those Molybarrans. They'll tell us what to do next. We don't even know if the ship's still there."
Spock suddenly said, "No need, Doctor."
In front of them a golden glimmer began to show, gradually hardening into a familiar shape - stocky and well-built. Kirk stood there, gazing at them astounded.
"I am glad to see you recovered, Captain," said Spock, completely unruffled, but McCoy exclaimed joyfully,
"Jim!" and went to grip Kirk by the arms.
"How did you get here?" both he and Kirk asked simultaneously, and then they both laughed.
"The ship's leaving orbit shortly," Kirk explained, "Starfleet Command's orders... I couldn't keep her here any longer. Had a job keeping her here this long as it was! I beamed down for a - well, a kind of farewell look, I guess. I never expected to find you here waiting for me!"
Spock looked at him shrewdly. "I understand, Captain," was all he said.
"Your side of the story'll keep until we're back on board," Kirk told them, and taking out his communicator said, "Kirk to Enterprise. Three to beam up."
Copyright Audrey Baker