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Something was wrong on the U.S.S. Enterprise.
The Enterprise had been to Starbase 5 to pick up emergency supplies for a colony on the outer limits of explored space; there had been a crop failure, and no freighter could get there before most of the population died a nasty, lingering death from starvation. So the Enterprise was headed for Avalon at top warp speed, and even so might be too late for the weaker inhabitants, the very old, the very young, and the sick. The crop failure had come at the worst possible time, from the planetary point of view - caused by freak weather conditions, it had come when the crop was almost ready to harvest, when the stores from last year were almost exhausted.
The day after they left Starbase 5, the ship began to suffer minor malfunctions - nothing serious, just annoying; switches that jammed, light bulbs failing - nothing that hadn't happened before, nothing of any importance, but the frequency of these malfunctions was greater than normal. Much greater than normal.
Things had been going missing, too, to be found later, sometimes in the most unlikely places, and often where a search had earlier found nothing. Spock's harp, missing for three days, eventually turned up in the rec room, sitting on a table in full view. It was impossible that it had been there for three days, unnoticed. A picture of McCoy's daughter vanished for a week before Spock returned it, claiming to have found it in his cabin. He insisted that he knew nothing about its disappearance; McCoy was inclined to believe him, although he didn't admit it - practical jokes were not in Spock's line. Sulu lost a number of items from his various collections - they were found scattered throughout the ship. A pair of Uhura's earrings appeared in Chekov's cabin. He would probably have left them anonymously at her station, but Reilly was with him when he found them and thought the 'story' too good to keep secret - to the annoyance of both the innocent parties.
Odd noises were heard, too; creaking sounds, occasional bangs, brief snatches of music - and the source could not be pinpointed.
On a ship the size of the Enterprise, with a multi-racial, multi-species crew, there were bound to be some who were very superstitious. Soon, despite the ship's years of service, despite the time most of the crew had been aboard her, the whisper of 'haunted' began to be heard.
Kirk looked round his department heads, gathered together in the briefing room. "I'm not going to bother re-stating the obvious," he said quietly. "You all know what's been happening since we left Starbase 5. Personally, I don't believe in ghosts. I believe that there must be a simple, rational explanation for it all."
Spock nodded. "I agree," he said. "It is not logical for a 'ghost' to begin 'haunting' the Enterprise; nor would a 'ghost' indulge in the pointless practical joking that has been annoying the crew."
"What about poltergeists?" someone muttered.
"Poltergeist phenomena are completely different from anything that has occurred here," Spock replied calmly. "Naturally, I have no personal experience, but from what I have read, I would expect a poltergeist to do more than move things from where they should be to where they have no business being."
"Are you suggesting that it's all nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, Mr. Spock?" Uhura asked.
"It does have that appearance."
"Wait a minute, Spock," McCoy put in. "I'm not ready to believe in ghosts yet, but I can't believe in a practical joker either. We didn't take on any new crew at Starbase 5; everyone in the crew has been aboard for several months. If someone in the crew was a practical joker, it would have shown up before this. Besides, a tendency to that kind of so-called humour shows up on a psychological profile; and a joker would never be passed for duty on a starship. He's reckoned to be too difficult to live with in such close quarters."
"All right," Kirk said. "If it can't be a practical joker and we don't believe in ghosts, what's left?"
The assembled officers looked at each other with varying degrees of unease which, in Kirk's case, rapidly became irritation.
"Has no-one any suggestions? No matter how unlikely?"
Spock spoke slowly. "Doctor - you took delivery of several species of laboratory animals at Starbase 5. We have encountered animal species before now, not all of them sapient, that could influence our thoughts to some degree. Is there any possibility, however slight, that there is such a creature among your new animals?"
"Mmm." McCoy thought it over. "I'd say not. There aren't any new species among them; some of them are quite rare, but none are completely unknown. Sorry."
"There is no necessity for you to express contrition, Doctor, since it is not your fault you cannot provide a solution to our problem."
McCoy looked at Spock in disgust. How could you explain to a man who took everything literally a turn of phrase that was used merely out of politeness?
A harsh laugh echoed through the room. It began on a low note and rose to an almost demoniacal shriek of sadistic mirth, then died away into nothing.
The assembled officers sat open-mouthed, in a stunned silence that deepened as they tried to understand where the laugh could have come from.
Kirk looked round. The silence stretched - then Spock raised his head sharply. For a moment, no-one else heard anything, then out of the silence came a soft, hauntingly beautiful male voice, gaining volume from a barely audible whisper to a still quiet but perfectly audible pitch.
It was a wordless humming, a strangely-pitched and modulated tune that employed no tonic value that Spock or Uhura, musically orientated as they were, could recognise, a tune that seemed almost in a minor key but not quite. Even Kirk, whose taste leaned more towards the more martial airs, listened entranced.
The voice began to fade into the distance. After it had gone, the officers again sat silently for some moments, this time unwilling to break the spell the tune had woven. It was Uhura who recovered first.
"Whatever that was... it must show there is no evil intended towards us..." After the beauty of the singer's, her voice sounded harsh. It broke the spell.
"You can't guarantee that, Lieutenant," Kirk said, making a determined effort to shake off the euphoric effects of the voice. "Remember Earth legends - the story of the sirens."
"Come off it, Jim!" McCoy exclaimed. "You can't be seriously suggesting that something's trying to lure us to destruction."
"No," Kirk said. "I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that we can't automatically say it's not evil just because the song sounds so beautiful. Especially coming after that laugh."
"I am strongly tempted to agree with Miss Uhura," Spock put in, "but I am more inclined to concur with the Captain. There is no evidence to support her statement. I am additionally disquieted by the apparent unwillingness of... whatever it is... to reveal itself. And I am suspicious of the differences in approach it shows."
"Yes," Kirk said. He rinsed his head. "Why don't you show yourself?" he asked clearly.
There was no response.
The phenomena now divided into two distinct types - one mischievous, frightening; the other producing only the beautiful music, the latter manifestation usually following the more terrifying ones of the former. The crew got more and more edgy.
Kirk was going along a corridor towards a group of several crewmen when a peal of blood-curdling laughter started up just behind them. One of the men glanced round and although Kirk, watching, saw nothing, the crewman obviously did. He gave a strangled scream of utter terror, and began to run in panic towards Kirk.
His panic started the others too. Without knowing why, they also began to run. Kirk moved into the path of the first one, meaning to stop him, sure that if he succeeded the others would stop too. But the man was too terrified to stop. He brushed against Kirk, sending both staggering off balance. The crewman regained his balance after two or three awkward steps; but Kirk, thrown into the path of another fleeing man, was knocked down. The second crewman fell heavily on top of him; another, tripping over both, landed on top again, adding his weight to that of the other man. The laugh rose mockingly.
The crewmen scrambled to their feet. Ignoring the fallen Captain, they followed after their vanished companions, the one thought predominant in their minds being to get away from whatever was laughing.
Winded, Kirk had no alternative but to lie still for some seconds, gasping for breath. The laugh was all round him, closing in on him with a terrible aura of evil. He also felt the need for escape, and struggled to remain rational. He began to push himself upright, and subsided again abruptly with a gasp. Unnoticed until he tried to move, something in his abdomen and something else in his chest stabbed with agonising pain; and once it began, the pain went on and on. The heavy bodies falling across him had caused internal injuries - and he couldn't even get up to call for help because of the pain. No-one was likely to come past while the laughter continued - it was going on and on as if it intended never stopping - and even once it did stop, this corridor wasn't used that much - it was sheer chance that had led to these men being there.
It was unlikely that either of the men involved knew that the Captain had been hurt. He could only hope that once his absence was noticed, one of the men might overcome his panic enough to report having seen him in this corridor...
Again he tried to move, to sit up - and the pain, already unbearable, intensified. He felt his senses failing. The last thing of which he was aware - or was it only the effect of his swimming head? - was the laugh, getting more and more cruel with every peal.
He regained consciousness to a silence that was, if anything, more unnerving than the laugh had been. He was still lying in the corridor, with nothing to indicate how long he had been there. The pain had diminished to a barely tolerable level. He tried to investigate.
The pain in his chest was undoubtedly due to a broken rib, probably touching a lung. He must watch that. He didn't want to puncture his lung. The ache in his abdomen could have been anything, but it almost certainly was symptomatic of some internal organ damaged. Carefully, he tried to sit up. A spasm of pain gripping his ribs warned him against it. He was unable to anything but lie still, waiting for rescue.
The panic-stricken men ran until they reached an elevator; using it, they moved several levels before the panic subsided and they looked at each other rather shame-facedly. And two of them at least hoped that they hadn't been recognised by the Captain they had knocked down and then left to face the horrors of the Enterprise's ghost alone. They scattered, two of them to their quarters, the rest to their duty stations, none of them aware of the situation in which Kirk had been left.
For a while, the laughter had been clearly audible on the bridge; then it faded slowly. It was replaced almost at once by the beautifully melodious voice that hummed wordlessly for several minutes and then also faded. The various officers on duty looked at each other with some apprehension; only Spock appeared to be unmoved.
The ship went on.
It was getting late now; Spock began to wonder where Kirk was. No matter what, Kirk usually made a point of coming onto the bridge towards the end of each ship's day; tonight he was overdue. Perhaps he was discussing with McCoy what to do about the increasing number of cases of nervous disorder on board. Even trained Starship personnel were not immune to breakdowns caused by nervous strain.
The elevator doors slid open. Spock glanced round, expecting it to be Kirk, but it was McCoy who came onto the bridge.
The surgeon looked round. "Where's Jim?" he asked.
"I thought he must be with you, Doctor," Spock replied. "Perhaps he's in his quarters."
McCoy shook his head. "I've been there. He isn't."
The humming; began again. It seemed to move towards the elevator, hesitated, came back towards Spock and McCoy, then moved towards the elevator again. The two men looked at each other.
"It seems to want us to accompany it," Spock said slowly.
As if in acquiescence, the humming increased momentarily in volume, them dropped again to its previous low note.
"Take over, Mr Sulu."
Spock crossed to the elevator, McCoy at his heels. The voice hummed ten distinct notes.
"Deck ten?" Spock asked. The voice hummed approval.
Deck ten was a cargo area, where supplies were also kept. It seemed an unlikely place to go, but the voice seemed certain.
The elevator doors slid open. The voice moved slowly ahead of them. Then, in front of them, they saw a yellow-clad figure lying on the floor.
McCoy could find nothing wrong with Kirk.
He was obviously in agony, the diagnostic board was in full agreement about it - but McCoy still could find no actual injury.
"What exactly happened, Jim?" he asked, for the third time. For the third time, Kirk told him.
Spock had been buried deep in thought since the first telling; he didn't seem to have noticed that his friends had repeated themselves twice. Now he looked up, and joined in the conversation as if it was all being said for the first time.
"It would appear that our mischievous friend is causing you to feel pain where no injury exists, Captain. And the singer apparently disapproves, for he led us to you. Lt Uhura was right; the singer is not evil; he seems to wish us nothing but good. Perhaps his singing after each manifestation of the other is by way of reassurance to us that he will not permit the other to do anything really serious. The other... may be evil, may in fact be only mischievous. We have no way of knowing which."
"Well, if you're right, Spock, I wish the singer would stop the other one. And find some way of actually conversing with us," Kirk said. Pain sounded clear in his voice; none of McCoy's painkillers had worked.
Spock reached out his hand, placed it on Kirk's forehead, then slid it round to a melding position.
He closed his eyes in concentration; Kirk felt the tendrils of Spock's mind touch his and intertwine with it. But the pain continued undiminished. At last Spock lifted his hand.
"The suggestion of pain is stronger than my ability to cancel it," he said quietly. There was a suggestion of sadness in his voice.
With an effort that made the sweat break out on his face, Kirk sat up. "You're certain there's no physical injury, Bones," he said.
"I'm positive, Jim."
"Then I don't have to worry about causing more damage to injured tissue," Kirk went on. "There's no point in my staying here - pain or not, I can work."
"Jim, the strain on your heart would be tremendous. Even though it is purely... well, imaginary pain."
"I can work, Bones; and anyway, if I'm working, it'll gave me something else to think about other than my... imaginary pains."
As they got nearer Avalon, the manifestations increased, and Kirk found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what he was doing. At least once every day McCoy tried to convince him that he would be better to hand command over to Spock and come down to sickbay; even though the painkillers didn't work, he could be kept sedated while they tried to make some contact with the unfriendly thing that was affecting him - or even with the friendly one, completely ignoring the fact that Spock had been trying to talk to both, and particularly the singer, ever since Kirk was affected. All his attempts had been ignored.
Half the crew was on tranquillisers; the other half, the unimaginative ones, the ones whose cultures precluded superstition, were all overworked, since the tranquillised personnel were incapable of working at anywhere near full efficiency. Kirk's mind was fogged with pain, pain which increased hour by hour as they got nearer the planet. He had thought it almost unbearable before, and what he was suffering then was a mere shadow of what he was suffering now. Only when the singer was heard was there any mercy for him; but despite everything, he refused to surrender to the pain.
At last they swung into orbit. Kirk prepared to beam down, with Spock and McCoy, to see the governor and arrange about the most effective way of landing the supplies.
The transporter would not work.
"Our gremlin is at work again," Kirk said grimly.
"An archaic slang expression, Mr. Spock. A gremlin was an evil spirit that caused mechanical malfunctions. The phrase was used when there was no obvious reason for the malfunction, or when it occurred at a particularly inconvenient time."
"Let's try the shuttlecraft."
But the hanger doors wouldn't open either.
Yet, unlike the other manifestations of the gremlin, there was no fiendish laughter. There was only complete silence.
Suddenly, there came the singer's voice. It seemed to move; Spock recognised the manifestation, and said quietly, "It wants us to follow it."
It led them to the bridge, and came to rest at Spock's station.
Spock went over to his place. A light flashed; in response, he flicked a switch. The computer spoke - but it spoke in the male voice they had previously only heard humming. The speaking voice was as beautiful as the singing one.
"I apologise for the inconvenience my fellow traveller has caused you, and for the pain he has made you suffer, Captain. Unfortunately, I cannot counteract it; only he can release you. I could not oppose him; it would have been against all our customs. No-one of our race may interfere with the acts of others. All I could do was try to reassure you."
"Who are you? Where are you from? Why don't you let us see you?" Kirk asked. "And... what did your friend have against us?"
"We come from the planet beneath you. You cannot see us, for we are invisible to the light wavelengths by which your eyes see. We can see you, but only as dark, almost formless shapes. We knew you apart only by your thought patterns. We travelled to your world in the ship that brought your..." The voice hesitated, as if uncertain of the correct word.
"Colonists?" Spock suggested.
"Colonists," the voice agreed. "We got aboard the ship; we travelled unseen to your world. I wished for further contact; my companion did not. He decided to try to prevent you arriving here; he thought that if the colonists died, no more would come, and our world would be ours again."
"He was wrong," Kirk said sadly. "More would come. We did not know anyone lived there - we thought it an uninhabited world. But now we know about you and your people - we can make contact, try to come to some arrangement."
"My companion has gone to tell our people of you, and to argue against you. I will do what I can to persuade them, but I cannot interfere if they decide against you."
"Wait a minute," Kirk said, his mind reaching through the pain to a seeming inconsistency. "You can't interfere in the acts of others... but that's what he's been doing, trying to stop us getting here."
"I will point that out."
"And... ask your people - do they really want to condemn the colonists to die of starvation - a long, lingering death?"
"I will ask."
The voice went silent. Kirk and Spock looked at each other. Then he went back to his command chair, and sat down, trying to find a position in which his 'broken' rib did not irritate his lung.
When the pain ceased, it was so abruptly that for a second he didn't realise it. He raised his head.
"It seems the decision has been made. Let's try for a landing again."
"The pain?" McCoy asked.
"It's gone, Bones."
They were in time, despite all the attempts of the native Avalonian to stop them. Then they set out to arrange an ambassador from the natives to explain the situation to the Federation. On Kirk's request, the singer went as ambassador. He was assigned a cabin, although they never knew if he used it.
And on the return journey, no-one was afraid when the singer's voice was heard, humming his strange, haunting melodies.