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The Enterprise was on her way to Starbase 12 with a load of medical supplies when she received a distress call from the research vessel Mendel.
The Mendel's position was such that the Enterprise didn't have to be diverted far in order to reach her. She was operating short-handed; at her last planetfall, there had been a race inimical to strangers, and the landing party had been attacked without warning. Only the vigilance of the Captain had prevented a massacre; but in the confusion, the ship's nurse had been killed, trying to help an injured man who had also died. Many of the crew were hurt, some badly, and they were so short-handed that even the injured were having to take their turn on duty. The badly hurt were in a particularly bad way, as the Mendel now had no medical staff - she was such a small vessel that she only carried a nurse, albeit a highly qualified one.
Kirk transferred several men to assist the decimated crew, took the most severely injured on board, and left Nurse Chapel with the Mendel to see to those who, though injured, preferred to remain aboard their own ship. He was forced to leave the Mendel to her own resources thereafter, as the supplies he carried had to reach Starbase 12 as soon as possible, but the Mendel's Captain was certain that he could manage, with the men Kirk left him, to gain port under his own steam.
At Starbase 12, when they eventually reached it, was a surprise for McCoy. His daughter was there, waiting for transport back to Earth. She had finished a tour of duty on a survey ship, and was now going back to Earth for advanced training - she had her eye on promotion.
After the first joy of reunion, McCoy turned to Kirk and Spock, who were waiting, more or less patiently, for McCoy to remember they were there. Kirk especially was intrigued; McCoy had said very little about his daughter even to them, and he was glad of the opportunity to meet her. Spock, hardly less curious, hid it better.
"Jim - Spock - my daughter Joanna. Jo, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. I've told you about them in my letters."
Kirk smiled welcomingly at her. "Hello, Jo. I may call you Jo?"
She ignored the question. "Hello, Captain," she said coolly. "Mr. Spock." Spock looked at her, vaguely disturbed by something in her attitude, wondering if, in the manner of many Earth people, she was shy.
"You must be happy to see your father again after so long," he said.
"Yes, it has been a long time," McCoy said. He was conscious of a degree of awkwardness, and then realised that it must be difficult for these people that he loved, meeting as strangers, to match his happiness.
"When are you going to Earth, Jo?" he asked.
"I have to wait for transport," she said. "I don't know yet."
"Well, we'll be here for a few days," Kirk put in. "Bones, we'll not need you while we're here - see as much of Jo as you can. It may be long enough before you see each other again."
He turned away. "Coming, Spock?"
They moved away, leaving McCoy and his daughter alone. Joanna promptly unfroze.
"Dad, it is good to see you," she said.
He looked at her. "Jo... what was wrong there?"
She didn't pretend not to understand. "I know they're your friends, Dad; but I didn't like them."
She hesitated. "No real reason ... except... I've a friend here, who used to know Captain Kirk. She said he's a real wolf... always chasing girls. Well, I'm not going to be a another trophy on his wall."
McCoy shook his head. "Oh, he does flirt a bit - what man doesn't? - if he gets a 'come-on' from a pretty girl. I do myself. Of course, Spock wouldn't recognise a 'come-on' if it jumped up and bit him," he grinned, trying to change the subject. But Jo wasn't amused.
"I'm sorry, Dad," she said again. "I've nothing against Vulcans in general, either, but... you've made him out to be so... so... " She broke off, unable to put her feelings into words.
McCoy looked unhappily at her. "Jo, they're the best friends a man could hope for. Loyal, trustworthy... They've both saved my life at the risk of their own, more than once. I hoped you would think of them as friends too. Give them a chance, Jo. Don't let yourself be blinded by prejudice. Please."
"I'm sorry, Dad. I'll try, but..."
"It's all you can do."
Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock, unaware of McCoy's problems, were making their way to the Base Commander's office, where orders might be awaiting them. The Commander was an old acquaintance, having been there some years.
"Hello, Jim... Spock," he said. "Don't tell me that you've left McCoy behind somewhere."
Kirk laughed. "No, Dick. I bet you know as well as we do that his daughter is here. We left him talking to her."
"Well, he'll get plenty chance to see her in the next few weeks, Jim. Starfleet's being generous and humane for once. Your orders take you back to Earth for a refit - there are some improved components they're fitting to Starships, and you're being ordered back one by one to get them. And since you're the first ship going back to Earth from here - you take Nurse McCoy."
"Are these components really improved, or are they still being tested?" Kirk asked, his experience with M-5 still fresh in his mind, even although many months had passed since that ill-fated experiment.
"Really improved. You're the fourth ship to get them - none of the other Captains has complained."
"Well, it'll make a change for the crew to get shore leave on Earth," Kirk commented.
"They'll get quite a good leave, too. The refit will take several weeks because they're taking the opportunity to check out everything, and from what I've heard, Starfleet will be quite happy if only the non-Humans in the crew are left on duty."
"I know one officer who won't go on leave until he knows his precious engines are safely back in one piece," Kirk laughed.
The commander laughed with him; even Spock's face relaxed slightly, although only someone who knew him as well as Kirk did would have noticed it. Then the commander added, "Oh, by the way - Spock, there's a package for you. Came to be sent on to you as soon as possible."
Spock took it with a nod of thanks, but didn't open it. It was almost as if he already knew what was in it.
They went back to where they had left McCoy. He and Jo were no longer there, but inquiry elicited the information that they had gone to the canteen for a meal. Kirk and Spock followed. Not that there was any real urgency, but Kirk wanted to let McCoy know as soon as possible that Jo was to accompany them back to Earth. Yet, when they eventually ran McCoy to ground and told him, he seemed strangely subdued about it. After a moment, though, he seemed to get over what was bothering him and said heartily, "Starfleet must have a heart after all."
Kirk and Spock went back to the Enterprise straight away, leaving the McCoys to finish their meal. Spock excused himself as soon as they boarded, and went off to his own quarters.
He did indeed know what was in the package he had been given. He opened it, studied the letter it contained as a cover for the other contents.
"... as you know, you are a beneficiary under the terms of the will of your grandfather, Alexander Grayson. There are certain difficulties in arranging the transfer of property, since you are a Vulcan national. We would be obliged if you would study the enclosed documents at your leisure, and..." It went on as he knew it would. He had been expecting this for some time, ever since he heard of the death of his Human grandfather almost a year previously. It had, however, come at a reasonably propitious time. He could afford time just now to study these legal documents; he was sure they would not be easy to follow, even for him; and then get time off during the refit to visit the lawyers. And since McCoy's daughter was aboard, Kirk would have other things to think about in his spare time than chess; McCoy would have other things to think about than their perpetual verbal duelling. He would miss the chess and the arguing, and Kirk's and McCoy's company, he admitted to himself, but that couldn't be helped either. These documents had to be studied. And understood.
For a few days after the Enterprise set course for Earth, everything appeared to be normal. Kirk missed seeing Spock and McCoy around, but he didn't think much of it at first; until one day he happened to be passing Sickbay when the door opened - and Scotty came out, laughing. From inside, Kirk could hear McCoy and Joanna laughing with him. As he reached Kirk, Scotty said cheerfully, "Morning, Captain," and passed on.
Kirk hesitated a moment. Should he go in or not? Normally he wouldn't have hesitated - but he couldn't help remembering how distantly polite Joanna was every time he spoke to her. Yet she laughed with Scotty... He went on.
He was conscious of a nagging feeling of discontent which was rendered all the more disagreeable for being totally unfamiliar. It seemed ages since any of his friends had said anything to him but 'hello'. And Joanna - why was she being so distant? Why was McCoy apparently keeping her away from him? After the first night aboard, McCoy and Joanna had eaten in their quarters ... as if McCoy was deliberately keeping her to himself. Kirk hadn't really thought about it - until now.
Scotty had been welcome.
He wished he could mention it to someone; but one of the two people he could discuss it with was involved, and the other was keeping very much to himself for some reason unknown. With a surge of uncharacteristic impatience, Kirk found himself thinking that Spock had had plenty of time to study whatever had been in the packet he had been given. So why was he still haunting his own quarters? Or was he? Was he also welcome in Sickbay?
Well, he wouldn't be petty about it. He could wait until they had recovered from their absorbtion; he wouldn't let them see that he was bothered.
He stayed on the bridge that day long after his usual watch was past; it wasn't unusual, and the crew who relieved Sulu, Chekov and Uhura didn't know how long Kirk had spent on the bridge. Next day, finding himself wakeful very early, he went on watch early - again, a not unusual occurrence. His usual watch-mates did not know how short a time he had been away from the bridge; and within a couple of days, Kirk found himself spending almost twenty hours a day on duty. In the intervening hours, he lay on his bed, unable to sleep properly, his mind rehearsing over and over possible reasons why his friends should have rejected him... and rejecting all the notions that occurred to him.
Did McCoy not trust him enough to let him share Joanna? McCoy had seen him flirting with several girls; passengers often expected a mild flirtation with one of the officers, and who more flattering to pay them attention than the Captain? But surely McCoy knew that Joanna would be like a daughter to him as well?
The sense of hurt grew; but his pride wouldn't let him go directly to McCoy - or to Spock, whose preoccupation with his parcel was beginning to irritate Kirk in a way unthinkable to him in his normal frame of mind.
It couldn't last, and he knew it. But he was unable to break free from the pattern that had developed in his mind. He stayed on the bridge until he could hardly keep his eyes open; stumbled to his quarters, hoping to be tired enough to sleep, and forget for a few hours the misery that was now overwhelming him; and lay awake, unable to sleep, when he eventually did lie down. Next morning, a repeat of the pattern; and the next. He could have broken it any time; a word would have been enough; he knew it - but he would not say that word, and sat in his command chair, forcing himself to behave normally so that Spock would not notice anything wrong, and yet bitterly hurt that Spock didn't notice.
He got more and more tired. It was as well that the flight was completely routine; he felt that his judgement was hopelessly gone, and that in an emergency he wouldn't be able to make the right decisions. He knew he would have to speak to Spock soon, but he didn't want to. He wanted Spock to speak to him about it... no.
He simply wanted Spock to speak to him.
That night, he found himself stumbling badly on his way back to his cabin, almost falling in his exhaustion. Ahead of him, he heard McCoy's voice, Joanna's, Scotty's... Pride stiffened his back in a way nothing else could, he walked erect, firmly, as he passed them, and even managed to smile. He didn't see McCoy turn after he had passed, to look at him, a slight frown on his face.
"What's wrong, McCoy?" Scotty asked.
"I'm not sure. Jim's looking tired... Spock mentioned to me this afternoon that he thought Jim wasn't keeping too well. Maybe all he needs is some leave; but I think I'll get him in tomorrow for a checkup, just in case."
The effort to behave normally had been too much for Kirk, however. He entered his cabin - and inside, lost his balance and fell heavily, awkwardly, against the waist-high shelving that acted as a partial partition. His head banged off the shelf; he bounced, and hit his left arm off another part of it; and slumped to the floor, unconscious.
When he didn't show up for duty next morning, Spock called him on the intercom. Receiving no answer, Spock went to Kirk's quarters, and found him still lying on the floor, still unconscious. He promptly called McCoy. McCoy checked Kirk where he lay.
"Broken arm ... several broken or cracked ribs ... and a head injury. It could have been worse..."
Since Christine Chapel was still aboard the Mendel, McCoy decided that, as he needed the help of a nurse, Joanna might as well be that nurse. It was as good a chance as any to try to reconcile her to Kirk. He set the broken arm, and gave her the job of cleaning and dressing the gash on Kirk's head where he had hit it off the shelf.
"I wonder what happened?" Spock said, once he was assured that Kirk's injuries, though nasty, weren't too severe.
"He was looking tired when I saw him last night," McCoy said slowly. "I meant to get him in for a checkup today. I'll keep him in for a day or two, give him a chance to get a rest. He needs one - he works harder than any of us."
Spock nodded. "I'll leave you to get on with it, then."
Although he was anxious about Kirk, McCoy decided to leave Joanna to watch him. It would, he thought, give her a chance to get to know Kirk - and the patient-nurse relationship, once set up, might solve all his problems. So when Kirk regained consciousness, and realised that he must be in Sickbay, it was Joanna he first saw on opening his eyes, and not, as he had hoped, McCoy.
His heart sank. Why wasn't McCoy there? Didn't he care? Kirk had reached a point of depression where the slightest thing had the power to hurt him. He wanted McCoy... or Spock... not Joanna. But again, his pride kept him from asking for them.
"How are you feeling, Captain?" Joanna asked, her voice distantly polite. He considered the question. How was he feeling? He was feeling unhappy.
But he couldn't say that. That wasn't what she was asking.
"My head ... aches," he managed slowly, shocked at how difficult it was to say even that without breaking down.
"Have you a headache, or is it just where you banged it that's sore?" she asked impersonally.
"Where I banged it?" he asked stupidly. "Both, I think." This was terrible. Where was McCoy? Or even Nurse Chapel? Oh yes, on the Mendel... He would give anything for a friendly face, a sympathetic voice, not this distant, cool competence. He shut his eyes again, to shut out the sight of her professionally calm face. If only he could sleep! Sleep, and wake to find everything back to normal. He shut his lips firmly to hold back the cry that rose to them for McCoy.
He slipped back into unconsciousness. Joanna called for McCoy.
"He came round for a few minutes," she said. "He complained that his head was sore - a headache as well as the pain from the injury, he said - then he lost consciousness again."
McCoy studied the diagnostic board. "He's probably just asleep," he said. "The readings are normal." He glanced round as Spock came in.
"How is he, Doctor?"
"Well, he came round for a minute," McCoy said. "He's asleep again, which is probably a good sign since the readings are normal. You'd better not come down much - if you're here, he'll start asking about the ship, and I'd rather keep him absolutely quiet, with that head injury."
Spock nodded. "I understand, Doctor."
"Don't worry. I'll let you know how he's getting on."
"There is just one thing, Doctor," Spock said. "We'll soon be coming within range of the research colony on the planet Earthmen call Hades. The personnel there will be requiring their annual checkup - for which your services will be required."
"I wasn't forgetting," McCoy told him.
"You will be able to leave the Captain?"
"I think so. Jo can stay with him, monitor his condition. If there's any drastic change, she can call in M'Benga."
Spock left to return to the bridge. McCoy looked at his daughter. "I'd like to take you down to help with the physicals," he said. "It'd be good experience for you, if you're going up for promotion, since you'll be authorised to conduct these routine physicals on small planetary colonies once you're up a grade. But I daren't leave the Captain without an experienced nurse in attendance, not yet. Not till I'm quite certain he's on the mend."
Joanna nodded, not very happily. She would rather have accompanied McCoy; she had no desire to remain here, watching over a man she didn't like, but she was too professional to say so.
It was several hours before they came within reach of Hades. During that time, Kirk lay unconscious. After a time, he began to toss slightly. Joanna called McCoy.
By the time he came - a matter of seconds - Kirk was tossing restlessly. "How long has he been like this?" McCoy asked.
"Just a few seconds," Joanna replied nervously. "I called you as soon as he began to fidget. "
McCoy shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it before," he said. "Not quite like this..."
Joanna drew a relieved breath - she had never seen anything quite like it either, and had been worrying in case she had missed anything. The readings were normal, yet... McCoy made a few more checks.
At last - "He seems to be thinking about something, even in his sleep," McCoy said. "Probably he's just worried about the refit - the last time we got some new equipment, it nearly destroyed the ship - and four others along with her."
He beamed down alone to Hades to conduct the physicals.
He was not long away when Kirk regained consciousness again. He kept his eyes shut, not knowing whether McCoy was there or not, but dreading finding that he was not.
Joanna knew from the readings that Kirk must be awake, and wondered why he didn't open his eyes. She felt a slight twinge of guilt; her expression, when he looked at her before, couldn't have been very encouraging, she knew; she had been briskly competent, but not humane. She had behaved more as she would towards a malingerer, and she knew that Kirk was not malingering. But she also knew that if Kirk opened his eyes now, her expression would be just as coolly discouraging. Deliberately, she moved away. He was awake. If he needed anything, he had only to ask. She sat at McCoy's desk, watching the diagnostic board.
After a while, Kirk summoned up the courage to open his eyes. No. McCoy wasn't there. He was disappointed, even though he hadn't allowed himself to hope. Joanna was watching the board rather than him, but after a moment she became aware of his eyes on her.
"How is your head now?" she asked.
"Better," Kirk lied. Someone was pounding his brain with a sledgehammer.
And he felt so tired... physically and mentally. He shut his eyes again. That helped a little. McCoy... where was McCoy?... and Spock... where was he?... did neither of them care? A thread of rational thought assured him that they did, but his weakness made it difficult for anything to exist in his mind but the feeling of rejection... He was so lonely for them... With an effort that left him drained, he held back the tears that threatened. Joanna... He must keep control in front of her. He didn't know her well enough to relax in front of her...
Hades was an uninviting planet, hence the popular name. Its atmosphere was thinner than Earth's and in addition the oxygen content was less, while the gravity was slightly higher. The temperature might have been comfortable for Spock, but McCoy found it exhausting. There was, McCoy knew, some native life; there was a race that, while not intelligent, probably would become so, one day. Because of this race, the planet had not been colonised; even although not inviting, it was livable. All that the Federation had done was set up a small research station, which had been there for some six years. McCoy had never visited it before, and wasn't sure that he ever wanted to visit it again.
While he conducted the physicals, he carried out the usual casual conversation with his patients that was designed to let them know, obliquely, what was going on in the Galaxy outside, as well as whether or not any personality clashes were occurring. Starfleet knew as well as any other official body that personal animosities are often hidden in the interests of keeping the quarrel 'within the family'.
Nothing of interest emerged this time - he was hardly surprised, as the profiles on these people had indicated a high degree of compatibility. However, the leader of the group did mention that there had been some disturbance outside the station perimeter during the last few nights.
"It's odd," he went on "Every year at about this time, there's approximately a week of disturbances among the native creatures. Then everything quietens down again. We've investigated, and found nothing. Yet there must be some reason. Is there any chance of the Enterprise monitoring the area tonight?"
"I think I can say yes to that," McCoy said. He pulled out his communicator. "McCoy to Enterprise."
"Enterprise, Spock here," came the familiar voice of the First Officer. McCoy passed on the request, and the reason for it.
"Yes, we'll do that," Spock confirmed. "I'll beam down as well, and you and I can investigate from the ground, too."
"Wait a minute, Spock... I'm not sure I like leaving Jim all that long," McCoy protested.
"I checked with Sickbay a few minutes ago," Spock said. "Nurse McCoy reports that the Captain has regained consciousness and claims to be feeling better."
So, against his better judgement, McCoy stayed, to be joined by Spock. He did, however, make his own check with Joanna. She told him that Kirk was sleeping again, not quite so restlessly, and that the readings were still all normal. They set off just before it got dark, heading towards an area where, the research leader said, the disturbances had been very marked the night before. They hadn't got very far when a heavy weight crashed against both of them from behind. When they were allowed to scramble to their feet again, they found themselves facing a group of primitive beings, who looked vaguely baboon-like but were obviously not of anthropoid origin. For one thing, they were not mammalian. The creatures were armed with stones and broken-off branches; there was a cunning look about them - not quite intelligence - yet. But not far removed from it, either. One of the baboons had their phasers and communicators. It handled the things gingerly, as if it were afraid of them.
Another of the creatures, which seemed to be the chief, grunted several times. The baboon with the phasers put them down on a flat rock.
The chief baboon then turned to Spock and McCoy, It grunted; and they found that, while it 'spoke' to them direct, they could understand it.
"In this week of the year, we test our young," it said. "Your people have come to live here, but they have never undergone the testing. This time you have come to us. You will undergo the test. If you succeed, your people will be free to stay. If you fail, your people must go. Go or die."
Spock and McCoy looked at each other. To what extent had the disturbances been bait, to lure someone out to undergo the test? It seemed, too, that they must also re-think their opinion of the intelligence of the natives.
"What is the test?" Spock asked, looking directly at the chief as he spoke. "You must survive the night in the forest, without weapons," the chief replied.
Spock nodded. "Very well," he said. "But I alone will undergo the test. Let my companion go."
"No. You must go together. It is the rule. One alone has no chance. We know this. It is a test, not a killing. At least two must go together."
"Come on, Spock," McCoy said. "Let's get started."
A lane opened for them between the natives, a lane which led them into the open forest. From the darkness beyond came the snarling yelp of some wild creature. McCoy shivered. From what the research personnel had told him, some of the animals here were not the sort of things it was advisable to meet on a dark night.
As they entered the trees, the half-light abruptly faded. The moon would not rise for some time yet, and even when it did, its light would barely be able to penetrate the deep shadows of the forest where, even at noon, the light was dim. It would create small patches of brightness which would disturb their vision, be even more distracting than no light at all.
McCoy found he was having difficulty in breathing and moving, felt as if he was wading through knee-deep water. He knew this was because of the higher gravity and thinner atmosphere ... Strange that a high gravity planet should have such a thin atmosphere, he thought. Vulcan was much the same. "How're you doing, Spock?" he gasped.
"It is rather like Vulcan," Spock said, echoing McCoy's thought.
"So you're having no difficulty? I'm glad one of us is O.K."
"I didn't say that, Doctor. On the contrary, I am finding that I have lived for so long in Earth's gravity and atmosphere that I am experiencing a little difficulty. However, I should be able to re-adapt quite quickly."
After a short while, they stopped. "Do we have to keep moving?" McCoy asked. "All they said was survive."
"I suspect that to survive, it is necessary to continue moving," Spock commented. "This planet has several unpleasant carnivores. If we remain still, it would be easy for one to creep up on us."
"And if we move, we might blunder into one," McCoy finished.
Suddenly, both were aware that it was getting subtly lighter. They could at least see faintly where they were.
"The moon?" McCoy asked.
"It must be," Spock agreed. "But how its light can be so effective is beyond my experience." They moved on in the slowly increasing light. Suddenly the ground gave way beneath McCoy's feet. As he fell, he threw himself backwards. Spock caught at him, just managed to grab his shirt. This steadied McCoy long enough to let him grasp at the edge of the pit into which he had so nearly fallen. Spock changed his hold to McCoy's arms, and pulled him up. With McCoy on solid ground again, Spock leaned forward over the hole. Beneath, he could just make out two spots of light shining up at him, and shivered, despite the clammy heat that was still in the air. There was some kind of 'trap-door' carnivore below; sheer luck had saved McCoy from becoming its dinner. McCoy knew it too; but the situation was too serious for thanks - at least, just yet. They moved cautiously past the hole, and went on.
After a while, they stopped again for a short rest - something that had become vital, even for Spock. The Vulcan sat on the ground, leaning back against a tree stump, in such a manner that-he was going to have to push against the stump to get up again. McCoy crouched at his feet,
Suddenly the Human stiffened. "Spock... don't move."
"What is it?" he asked quietly.
"A snake of some kind."
It was beginning to loop its way over the stump against which Spock was leaning, its forked tongue nearly touching Spock as it flickered back and forward. It stopped, its head blindly turned towards Spock, who couldn't move without touching it. It began to lean its head towards him.
McCoy stood cautiously, held out his hand. Spock took it.
"After three," McCoy said. "One... two... three... now!" He pulled with the strength of desperation - a strength he didn't realise he could produce in this gravity. Spock lifted to his feet.
The snake paused, tongue flickering where Spock had been. Then it seemed to accept that its prey had gone, and flowed on... and on... and on...
"It probably was not poisonous," Spock said. "But it would have undoubtedly been capable of swallowing me whole. Thank you, Doctor."
They went on, even more watchful now. "I can understand why they insisted that we go together," McCoy said.
"Yes," Spock replied, simply.
When McCoy's return to the Enterprise had been delayed, Joanna hadn't worried too much. But when time went on, and no word came, she risked leaving Sickbay to find if there was any word.
What she learned horrified her. McCoy - and Spock, which didn't worry her - had disappeared. They could not be contacted. Even sensors could not detect them.
She managed to retain her self-control until she was back in Sickbay. She checked Kirk - he was still sleeping, more restlessly again. Then she sat at the desk, crying, in spite of her attempts to control herself.
After awhile, she pulled herself together, and dried her eyes. She got up to go and wash her face; but just as she got to her feet, Kirk moved. Professional concern forced her to move over to him.
Kirk had lain for some minutes again, gathering his courage to open his eyes and face the absence of McCoy. When he did, he looked up into Joanna's tear-streaked face. Forgetting his own troubles for a brief moment, he asked gently, "What is it?"
She hesitated. Kirk was still very weak: She was sure he was still in pain.
McCoy had seemed sure of his affection; if this was accurate, it would only worry him to be told that McCoy was missing. Spock, too ... wasn't Spock supposed to be his friend too?
"What is it?" Kirk asked again. He was beginning to look agitated; and she decided that he was probably better to be told.
"Dad... and Mr. Spock... they're missing."
"Missing!" Kirk felt his heart miss a beat. "What happened?"
"We're orbiting Hades. Dad had to go down for physicals..." So that's where he was, Kirk thought, with a slight feeling of relief. "...There was something going on, and he asked Mr. Spock to go down. They left the research station ... and that's all we know. They haven't been heard from since."
"They're together?" Kirk wanted confirmed. She nodded. "Then it's not quite as bad as it might be," he went on reassuringly. "Spock'll look after your father ... and Bones'll look after Spock," he added, more to himself.
He struggled to a sitting position. "Where are my clothes?"
"You don't think I'll leave them down there without going to look for them?"
"You can't go!" she exclaimed. "You've a head injury, broken arm, broken ribs - you're not fit! You could easily kill yourself."
"I'll manage. But they may be in danger... needing help... I can't leave them."
"Send down a search party. Dad would never forgive me if I let you do this!"
"If I know Scotty, there's already a search party down there," Kirk said. "But one person might succeed where a party fails. Get me my clothes, nurse. That's an order."
"Medical orders take precedence - "
"When given by a ship's Chief Medical Officer. Which you are not."
She gave in. Slowly, she got his clothes, helped him to dress. "There's just one thing," she said. "I'm coming with you, Captain."
He shook his head.
"I must. You're ill. I would be failing in my duty if I let you go alone. Besides - it's my father who's lost."
Kirk looked at her, knowing how dangerous this trip could be. She was right, of course; on both counts, she was right.
"All right, nurse," he said. "You can come." He chose not to risk calling her 'Jo' again; she hadn't seemed to like it, and this new rapport was too fragile to risk.
Kyle was not very happy about beaming Kirk down, either; but he had to obey the Captain's orders. They materialised on the edge of the forest. Kirk swung round the tricorder he had brought.
"This way," he said. He led the way through the trees. They also were surprised by the amount of light that the moon gave. It was almost as if the trees were rendered transparent by the moonlight.
After a while, the reading on the tricorder began to get confused. There was no longer any clear indication where Spock and McCoy were. All Kirk knew was the approximate direction.
"This must be why the ship's sensors couldn't find them," Joanna suggested.
Kirk nodded. "I've never seen anything like it," he said.
They moved on. Kirk called, "Spock! Bones!" They stopped, and listened, but they heard nothing.
Spock and McCoy stumbled on through the trees, tired now and hardly caring what happened. It was nearly day; their ordeal would soon be over - officially. Yet they still had to find their way back out of the forest. In actual fact, their ordeal would not be over until they were safely back on the Enterprise. McCoy moved into the lead as the strange, unearthly light of the moon began to be replaced by the warmer light of day. The light was treacherous; more so than it had been. There was an open space ahead of them; McCoy speeded up slightly as he saw it. It would be good to get out from under the trees for a few moments, to see the sky above them.
A dozen paces into the open meadow showed him his mistake. He felt himself beginning to sink.
"Stop, Spock! It's a marsh!"
Spock pulled up at the edge of the quagmire. McCoy tried to turn, to wade back, but he was sinking fairly quickly. He was already knee-deep; as he put his weight on one foot to lift the other, the first foot sank deeper.
Spock waded out, trying to reach him. "No, Spock! Don't risk it."
Spock came towards him a little way, but his greater weight caused him to sink almost immediately. He also tried to turn back - and failed. He was trapped too, and McCoy was still beyond his reach.
Suddenly, Spock lifted his head. "Listen."
McCoy strained his ears, but at first could hear nothing. Then - "Bones! Spock!"
"A logical assumption, since only he calls you 'Bones'. But when we last saw him, the Captain was not fit to stand, let alone come in search of us on a planet with such a high gravity."
"Jim would have to be dead before he failed us," McCoy said.
Without answering, Spock turned his head towards the direction from which the call had come. "Here, Captain,"
"Spock!" There was horror in McCoy's voice.
Spock glanced round at him. He was looking towards the side. Spock looked over that way. A huge cat-like carnivore was standing there, its tail-tip twitching as it looked at them. As they watched, it put a cautious paw onto the surface of the marsh, then drew back.
"It probably lacks the intelligence to realise that it will not be able to reach us," Spock commented, "but it will be there, waiting, when the Captain comes for us."
Kirk was getting hoarse. He had been calling for hours, or so it seemed. There had been no answer, no sign even from the search party he knew must be about somewhere, but he refused to give up. The pain in his ribs, the ache in his head, were getting almost unbearable now. He saw Joanna checking the medical tricorder once, and knew that she was getting more and more concerned about him as a patient.
"Captain," she interrupted at last. "Nothing I can say will stop you. I realise that. But I can stop you killing yourself in the search. Here." She held up a hypo.
"A painkiller and stimulant."
Kirk submitted. Sure enough, the pain subsided a little; it was now bearable. He went on.
"Spock! Bones! Spock!"
At last - at long last - he heard an answer. "Here, Captain:"
It was distant, but not too far so. With renewed vigour - the knowledge that they were alive was a better stimulant than any drug, he thought - he went on. With renewed vigour, Joanna followed him.
They came out of the trees into sight of the great marsh, just behind the huge cat beast.
Quiet as they were, it heard them. It whirled, and sprang.
Kirk had time - barely - to push Joanna out of the way. Then it crashed against him, standing as he was where the girl had been only a second before.
Joanna, a highly-trained Starfleet crew-woman, didn't panic. She pulled out her phaser; she didn't dare use it on a kill setting - Kirk was too close to it as it crouched over him - but she fired on stun setting. At that range, she couldn't miss. The beast collapsed, half on top of Kirk, who gave an involuntary yelp at the new agony from his already maltreated ribs. Joanna sprang to help him, hoping as she did that a rib hadn't been driven into a lung, satisfied when she saw that Kirk wasn't coughing up blood. She hardly heard McCoy's, "Well done!"
Helped by Joanna, Kirk staggered to his feet. She made him stand still while she checked his condition. He protested, but McCoy, now waist-deep in the evil-smelling mud, called, "She's right, Jim. Let her check you."
There was no additional damage. Though the cat's body was large, it had also been fairly soft, as was the ground at the edge of the swamp.
"Captain," Spock said. "Miss McCoy only stunned the beast. May I suggest that you now kill it? When it regains its senses it will surely attack again."
Kirk nodded. "Yes, you're right, Spock." He killed the beast, rather regretfully, then reached for his communicator. "We'll soon have you out of there." He felt his belt, frantically. "My communicator! It's gone!"
Joanna felt for hers. "So has mine, Captain. They must have been jerked loose when the cat attacked."
Kirk drew a deep breath, then wished he hadn't. "We'll just have to do this the hard way, then," he said.
He turned back into the forest, looking for a long branch. There were none, however. None of the trees, large as some of them were, had branches of the size that he needed; they were either too thick and long, or too thin.
He looked at Joanna. "Hold my hand," he said. He began to wade slowly out towards Spock.
He was handicapped by not being able to use his left arm; however, Spock could use it to pull himself out. He stopped when he was within Spock's reach. Spock leaned over, managed to grasp Kirk's body, and hauled himself out of the marsh's embrace. Kirk gritted his teeth as the pressure hurt his ribs. As soon as he could, Spock transferred his weight to Joanna's hand. All three were covered with the obnoxious mud before they again stood on dry land. Kirk hissed with pain as the mud went into new scratches he had received from the great cat's claws - scratches that until that minute he hadn't known he had.
Then, without giving himself time to think about the pain, he turned to McCoy. "You won't be able to reach me, Jim," McCoy said. "That's how Spock got trapped."
"I'm the lightest," Joanna said. "If Mr. Spock goes in a little way... and I go past him... I should be able to reach Dad; and then Mr. Spock can pull us both out."
Spock waded back into the morass, and braced himself. He was near enough the edge of the moss for Kirk to reach him if necessary, but he had no intention of calling on Kirk if he could possibly avoid it. Joanna moved on past him, her lighter weight keeping her on the surface longer. She caught Spock's hand, and moved as near McCoy as she could.
With her outstretched hand she could reach McCoy - just. He leaned over towards her, and grasped her hand. Then he began to pull himself out. She gasped with pain as the strain from the double pull tried to wrench her arms from her shoulders. Spock leaned back, trying to add to the pressure pulling McCoy from the noisome mud, and with a sucking sound McCoy came free. They scrambled, trying to help each other, until they reached solid ground, Kirk trying to help too.
Once they were all back on dry land, Kirk let himself sink to the ground. He was finished, and he knew it. McCoy leaned over him, snatching up Joanna's abandoned medical tricorder. Joanna left him to it, and turned her attention to finding at least one of the missing communicators.
"What happened to you two?" Kirk managed.
Spock began telling him about the test, but McCoy interrupted him. "Not now, Spock! There'll be plenty time for that after we get back to the ship. But the sooner we get Jim back, the happier I'll be. Whatever possessed you to come looking for us, Jim? You should still be in bed. And why Jo let you come..."
"She tried to stop me," Kirk said.
Joanna came over with one of the missing communicators, and McCoy grabbed it from her.
Their first priority on returning to the Enterprise was to get cleaned up. McCoy was particularly worried about the mud now plastering Kirk's claw wounds. Joanna left them while she got washed; but it was obvious that Kirk needed help to wash the mud off. In the end, McCoy decided that he would need Spock to help too, so they stripped off and washed together, Spock supporting Kirk while McCoy washed him.
Kirk lay on a bed in Sickbay again, while McCoy carefully and very gently began to clean the last of the mud from the deep scratches - a thorough wash had not been sufficient to get it all out. Spock stood watching.
Kirk lay back, strangely content. It was good to have McCoy tending him, and he relaxed happily.
Joanna delayed returning to Sickbay, although she knew she should get back as quickly as possible. She was thinking rather hard as she cleaned herself.
She owed Kirk an apology; she admitted it to herself. She owed Spock one, too, really, but not as badly as the one she owed Kirk. She had treated him badly, on the grounds of a tale told her by another girl - no, not just that, she thought. She had been jealous of Kirk - and of Spock.
She made her way slowly back to Sickbay, and went in. She stopped just inside the door, looking at them.
McCoy was bending over Kirk, with Spock standing by, watching. There was an aura of happiness in the room - she felt it plainly. She was more than ever reluctant to go over - her presence would shatter the silent understanding that existed here.
Then Spock looked over and saw her. "Nurse McCoy," he said. She went over to the bed.
"At last." McCoy said. "Where on Earth have you been? Well, never mind, you're here now. Finish cleaning out these cuts, Jo."
She saw Kirk's anxious look as McCoy turned away, and guessed the reason for it. Kirk didn't want to be left to her impersonal ministrations. But McCoy only crossed to the table for a hypo. He came back adjusting it, and gave Kirk a shot.
"Isn't that rather a large dose, Doctor?" Spock asked.
"Yes, it is, Dr. Spock," McCoy replied. "Jim's physical condition is poor, doing all that down there on top of his previous injury. He can't have much resistance. I don't know if the alien bugs in the mud can harm us - but I'm not taking any chances."
Kirk watched him as he returned the hypo to the table, but he came back. "Captain," Joanna said abruptly. He looked up at her. "I - I owe you an apology. When I first came on board, I... I didn't like you. I'd no real reason for it, except that... Dad had told me a lot about you in his letters, and I was jealous. I was a bit jealous of Mr. Spock too - " she glanced at him - "so I really owe you an apology too, Mr. Spock. But I kept Dad away from you both, and I... I'm sorry. After what happened down there... I know I was wrong."
Kirk glanced at McCoy. There was a relieved smile on the surgeon's face.
"It's all right, Jo," Kirk said. "Don't worry about it. And you know - I was a bit jealous of you, too. I'm sorry about that."
She flushed. "You had reason to be. I hadn't."
"Let's just forget about it, shall we?" Kirk asked.
She smiled. Then she said, "There is just one other thing, Captain. Thank you." She glanced at Spock. "Thank you both."
"Well, if that is all, Captain, Dr. McCoy and I have a duty to perform. We must return to the planet's surface and let the natives know that we survived the night in the forest - the future of the research station depended on our success. Then we must resume our course for Earth."
Kirk watched them leave, an affectionate smile on his face. Then he lay back to let Joanna finish cleaning out the cuts the great cat had given him. The rest of the voyage was going to be all right.
He closed his eyes, and relaxed in the first good night's sleep he had known for many nights.