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Kirk relaxed; the automatic, unconscious relaxation of a tension so habitual that he was wholly unaware of its existence. While the ship was in orbit around a Federation planet - albeit a very recent member planet - nothing unexpected was likely to happen. They had arrived four days earlier than scheduled; for four days he could put to the back of his mind his ever-present concern for the welfare of his ship and his crew.
He glanced back at the communications station. "Contact the planet, Uhura," he ordered. "Report our arrival and request permission for shore leave facilities for the crew."
It was, however, some minutes before there was any response. Kirk was beginning to think that some catastrophe had overtaken the entire planet before Uhura looked round.
"One of the Drennan ruling council is acknowledging, Captain."
"On the viewscreen, Lieutenant."
Two people appeared on the screen, a man and a woman. It was she who spoke. "You are early, Captain Kirk. We did not expect you for some days."
There seemed to be a degree of constraint in her voice. Strange.
"My apologies if our early arrival is inconvenient to you," Kirk said slowly.
"It is merely... a little embarrassing that our Council Head is currently unavailable. We - " the speaker indicated her companion - "do not have the authority to grant shore leave facilities for your crew at present."
"I see." The woman was not a good liar. What she was saying might be the truth - but it was not the whole truth. She was concealing something. But if he let her think he was fooled... "Don't worry about it, it isn't vital. Would you ask your Council Head to contact me as soon as possible?"
"Of course, Captain." Was that a note of relief in her voice?
"Are you in contact with Ensign Bronna?" Kirk went on. Although his new crewman still had four days of his embarcation leave to enjoy, Kirk wanted to say 'Hello', at least.
"I regret... Ensign Bronna is also unavailable. Since he does not become a member of your crew for another four days, he is... out of contact with us. They will both get in touch with you... three days from now. It is unlikely to be possible before that." The voice was quietly apologetic, but firm.
Mentally, Kirk shrugged, surer than ever that the woman was covering up something, but what she said was true. Their new ensign was still on leave and not expecting them; and the Council Head was certain to have engagements for this period. He couldn't insist on seeing either of them.
"Very well," he said resignedly. "I'll expect to hear from them both in three days. Kirk out."
However, much to Kirk's surprise, the Council Head made contact little more than an hour later. Kirk, expecting the man to be elderly, was startled to find that he was young - he looked to be little more than twenty.
"I am Fordda, Council Head of Dren," he said quietly. "You are welcome here, Captain Kirk."
"Thank you, sir."
"I would be honoured if you would beam down to visit me. There is a small matter that I wish to discuss with you."
"Certainly, sir. Whenever you say."
"What better time than the present? Also... I believe that your second in command is a Vulcan?"
"Commander Spock. Yes."
"He will also be most welcome."
Kirk glanced over to the library computer, his lips twitching involuntarily at the sight of Spock's raised eyebrow. "We'll be right down, sir. Kirk out."
They were greeted by Fordda and another man who stood inconspicuously in the background until Fordda invited them to be seated, and then came forward to offer them drinks. When Spock hesitated, the man murmured, "Our drinks are not alcoholic, Mr. Spock."
As they sipped the honey sweet drink, Kirk said, "I understand that Ensign Bronna is currently unavailable, sir?"
"I am afraid that is correct, Captain. Indeed, it is about that that I wished to see you," Fordda admitted. "Ensign Bronna wishes - naturally - to undertake his test of manhood before he leaves Dren again. He chose not to take it before he went to Starfleet Academy, but this time he does not know when - if ever - he will return. The test begins in three hours, and takes two days. Until it is over, it would be against custom for him to be disturbed in his mental preparations. Indeed, to disturb those preparations might cause his death during the course of the test.
"So far, none other of our people have chosen to join your Starfleet. When Bronna reports back to us his judgement of your strength and moral character, we will have more facts on which to judge whether or not we are betraying our beliefs by doing so. I am not speaking personally, Captain, you realise...?"
"Yes, sir," Kirk replied quietly. He had already been warned that the Drennans considered themselves superior to most other races.
"However, I feel that Bronna has the right to know that his senior officers also are men, and since you have arrived early... To succeed in this test, without prior mental preparation, you would indeed prove to my people that Starfleet chooses its senior officers carefully and well. I ask you both to undertake our test of manhood."
Kirk and Spock looked at each other. It was phrased as a request... but both knew that for practical purposes, it was an order. They had no alternative but to agree - or leave the Drennans believing that Starfleet's senior officers were weaklings.
They stood with the other aspirants to 'manhood' - in all, eighteen men and, strangely, five girls. All twenty three were dressed alike, in grey tunics and breeches. The native Drennans wore sandals; Kirk and Spock were allowed to retain their boots. Which of the men was their new Ensign they had no idea.
Fordda faced the group. "You have forty eight hours to cross the Wastelands," he said in what was clearly a ritual preparatory announcement. "You may go singly or in pairs. Any who take longer than the allotted time fail this test, but may try again. The Mountain of Maturity is your guide, to direct you on your way. Have you any questions?" He was looking directly at Kirk and Spock as he spoke. It was not surprising; the others probably had a fair notion of what they were facing. Kirk remained silent. He had a faint suspicion that ignorance might be preferable to foreknowledge of what they had to face.
Each aspirant - or pair of aspirants - left at ten minute intervals, disappearing quickly among the tall grass and twiggy shrubs of the Wastelands. Most of them went in pairs, Kirk was relieved to note. If he and Spock had been the only two who chose to go in company it might have given a bad impression. As it was, only three - two men and one girl - chose to go alone.
Kirk and Spock were the last to leave. As he gave them the signal, Fordda said quietly, "Good luck." As he had said it to none of the others, the phrase echoed in their ears with a slightly ominous ring.
At first everything seemed peaceful. They made their way easily through the lush wilderness, Spock's acute sense of direction guiding him unerringly even where they could not see the mountain that was their goal, and Kirk content to rely on his friend's judgement. They maintained a steady pace, unsure of the exact distance but knowing that it was probably fully fifty miles. The mountain had looked a long way off.
When at last they paused to rest, they had covered several miles without incident.
"It seems a strangely easy 'test'," Kirk said as he relaxed. "Even though we're going to have to feed ourselves 'off the land', so to speak, there must be more to it than this."
"Indeed, Captain. Fordda certainly gave us the impression that we would require events to favour us," Spock agreed.
"So we'd better not let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security." Even as he spoke, Kirk realised that his friend had not fully relaxed, as he had. Trust Spock, he thought, suddenly glad that the Vulcan was with him.
They allowed themselves ten minutes, then went on, still without incident. Slowly the light began to fade. In the half light they stopped where a huge rock provided a little shelter. They had not found either the water they hoped for or a fruit-bearing tree. But forty eight hours of hunger and thirst also seemed a surprisingly easy test, even on top of a lengthy walk, and both were convinced that there must be other hardships still to face.
"I'll take the first watch," Kirk said. Spock nodded and curled up, immediately asleep.
The Human sat fighting drowsiness helped by the growing hunger about which he could do nothing. The moonless night was silent except for the soft hushing rustle of the leaves and branches of the surrounding bushes. Somewhere, a long way off, a night bird called once; and then the peace of the night returned. Kirk drew a long, deep breath, absorbing the quiet and restfulness that surrounded him.
Abruptly, the silence was shattered by a nearby scream of pure terror, cut off short. Spock sat upright, instantly awake, while Kirk stared into the darkness, trying to identify where the scream had come from. It was too dark to investigate, however. Both knew that if they went blundering in search of... whatever it was, they could easily stumble into extreme danger.
Both remained alert for some minutes, but the silence had resumed as completely as if it had never been broken. Spock lay down again, to fall asleep as easily as if there had been no alarm.
Whether it was the scream that started his imagination working, Kirk never knew. He began to feel a degree of apprehension, straining his eyes in the darkness as he waited for the approach of a danger that he was suddenly sure was there. The apprehension deepened into fear. Something out there was watching him...
Spock stirred and sat up again. The lurking danger seemed to recede a little.
"Is something wrong, Captain?"
"I'm... not sure. I keep feeling that we're being watched."
Spock looked around, his keen eyes with their perfect night vision seeing more than Kirk's in the faint starlight. Bushes... grass... rocks...
"I can't see anything," he said slowly.
"Neither can I. But I can feel it," Kirk replied.
Spock concentrated. "I can sense nothing," he said, "but I shall be doubly watchful. You get some sleep now, Jim. We must still have a long way to go."
Kirk lay down, sure that he wouldn't sleep; and opened his eyes to daylight. He became aware of the fear immediately - and as he looked at Spock, he realised that the Vulcan now also sensed it, although perhaps not quite so acutely.
He stretched and scrambled to his feet. "We might as well move on now," he said. The sooner they moved, the sooner they would reach what he had unconsciously come to regard as safety.
Half a mile away, they found the person who had screamed. One of the men who had started alone lay there. He had found a tree with fruit, for he was still clutching an apple-like fruit in one hand, but he had not had time to begin eating it. He sprawled there, dead, his body unmarked but his face twisted into a grimace of utter terror. The bush he had raided - the only one with fruit that they had seen - was only yards from him. Ludicrous though it seemed, it was as if the tree had in some way managed to punish the man for picking the fruit by killing him.
Kirk and Spock looked at each other.
There was nothing they could do for the victim. The ground was rock hard, the stones they might have used to cover him firmly set in it. They could not even bury him.
As they went on, almost instinctively they moved closer together, knowing that the fear was not imaginary. It was real, whatever caused it, and it could kill, even though whatever caused it did not seem to want the bodies for prey.
A small grey animal - the first they had see - ran through the trees in front of them, heading towards another of the fruit-bearing trees. Suddenly it stopped short, reared up on its hind legs, and fell. Between it and the tree there was a flicker of... movement? Almost a distortion of the bushes as if waves of hot air were rising in front of them. Yet it was not hot enough for the air to be heated to that extent.
The animal was dead too. They left it and went on, still experiencing fear that - for Kirk - was rapidly deepening into terror.
They were surrounded by heat haze distortions now. Spock paused once to look at one of them, his interest in the phenomenon momentarily overcoming his fear. Kirk caught at his arm.
"Come on, Spock!"
The sensation of being watched deepened. Distrust washed over them, intensifying the causeless dread. Kirk felt, now, as if he was wading through a sea of it, a sticky, syrupy sea that hampered him in his urgent need to escape from the nameless, unseen danger. Spock, less acutely affected, watched his Captain anxiously, wondering how long Kirk could possibly control his terror, knowing that even he dared not relax his control for a moment. Even now, he could hear voices... voices out of the past.
Earther... uncontrolled, emotional Earther! You'll never be a true Vulcan... The taunts increased in cruelty. Words he had long forgotten echoed in his ears, battering at his self control, recalling the agony of pain and loneliness that had tortured his childhood and early adulthood, breaking down his resistance... The interruption to his train of thought as they came on another body was very welcome, although normally the discovery would have horrified him.
They looked down at the dead girl. Bruises on her neck showed where she had been strangled, presumably by her companion, who lay, face contorted in horror and fear, a few yards further on.
"What killed her?" Kirk asked, his voice shaking, as they looked at the second dead girl. But he already knew. Fear had driven her to kill her companion - and then she herself had been killed by the terror, even as the man had been. What horror had she seen - or sensed, he wondered with revulsion.
The bushes nearby shimmered violently. A fresh wave of panic hit him - so overwhelming that he forgot Spock, forgot the test, forgot everything and began running. He had to escape. From what, he didn't even know.
Spock overtook him and caught him. Kirk struggled to release himself but the Vulcan's superior strength told, and he held Kirk firm. A sure instinct told him that this was how the strangled girl had died, trying to stop her panic-stricken friend. "Jim!"
"Let me go!"
Spock glanced quickly round. A shadow among the rocks caught his eye; he dragged Kirk over to it. He was right. It was a narrow cave. Perhaps in here Kirk might feel less threatened and regain some measure of control. Spock pulled his friend into the cave. Predictably, the fear lessened abruptly.
"Relax, Jim," he murmured soothingly. "Relax... "
Slowly the tension left the Human. He looked at Spock. "What... caused that?"
"I do not know. But unless we can control it, make ourselves believe that it will not harm us, the fear will surely kill us. I noticed that there is a shimmer in the air when the fear is strongest - if that is meaningful, perhaps in here we will gain a brief respite. There is a draught blowing through this cave and it appears to run in the correct direction. I suggest that we follow it. "
They set off through the darkness, hands clasped, feeling their way along the walls. The blackness pressed on them claustrophobically.
Abruptly a fresh wave of primitive terror hit Kirk. He whimpered, jerked his hand free of Spock's and began a stumbling run back the way they had come. Desperately, Spock followed.
There was light ahead and a mass of fallen rock on the ground. The cave must fork - this was not the way they had entered! The roof had fallen in here, leaving a deep, narrow canyon. Spock began to overhaul Kirk, now that he could see his way, noticing with a sudden fear that was wholly of his own mind that there was a great gaping hole ahead, directly in Kirk's path. Urgently, Spock lunged forward.
He caught Kirk desperately, just at the edge of the hole, and they fell heavily, to lie only inches from the drop, Spock holding the still struggling Kirk firmly. Slowly the Human's struggles lessened as Spock's rigidly maintained calmness penetrated the sea of terror that threatened to destroy him. Unmoving, the Vulcan stared, unseeing, across the gap to the open countryside beyond.
Spock lay holding Kirk reassuringly for fully five minutes before he allowed himself to move, his hands gripping his Captain firmly. Out of this place, it seemed, lay certain death. Yet in here... could they even be sure of safety here?
Kirk stirred suddenly, an almost spasmodic reaction that triggered alarm in the Vulcan's normally stoic face. "Captain - please... " he entreated desperately.
"I know, Spock." Kirk's voice was toneless, weary, and he was still clearly far from regaining his self control.
"Jim, you must believe... It was panic that killed those people. If we do not panic... "
Kirk almost managed a rueful smile, then buried his face against Spock's shoulder.
The gesture strengthened Spock's failing control. With a sudden conviction that this was the way to fight the fear, Spock raised one hand to hold Kirk's head gently, firmly, against his shoulder. After a few minutes, Kirk found himself completely relaxed, the panic merely an unpleasant memory - and Spock knew, with a certainty that surpassed knowledge, that as long as this man lived, he would never need to fear loneliness again.
Memory of the test returned to them, and with it the realisation that to succeed - to survive at all - they had to go out there again... and face the killing fear that someone - or something - would undoubtedly continue to fling at them.
"We must believe it cannot, of itself, harm us," Spock repeated quietly. "Also... it seems to be powerless when faced with l... friendship. If we can hold thoughts of friendship foremost in our minds, we may yet succeed."
"I'll try, Spock." Inwardly, Kirk knew he could feel no friendship for the invisible entities that killed... but his affection for the Vulcan might suffice. He must hold that firmly in his mind.
They scrambled to their feet and headed back through the cave, holding on to each other. They hadn't gone far when both became aware of a nagging apprehension.
"It cannot harm us," Spock said reassuringly.
Kirk nodded, even although he knew the Vulcan couldn't see him. Inwardly, he thought, Spock... my friend. What would I do without you? The incipient panic faded.
There was daylight ahead again. They walked out of the cave into an evening sunlight. Long shadows lay on the ground. Had so long passed? Kirk was suddenly acutely aware that it was during the previous night that their troubles had begun.
Spock seemed to read his mind. "You should rest, Captain. Sleep. I am well able to watch all night. But even if I were not, we have seen nothing that could harm us."
"I can take my turn on watch - "
"Jim, you are more likely than I to be affected by the conditions. Asleep, you will not be aware of them. Please, rest properly. We have only a few hours of walking time to complete the test, and we do not know how far we still have to go. If you are unrested, tense from fighting the fear all night, we don't have a chance. Please, Jim," he repeated, seeing that Kirk was unconvinced. "For my sake, if not your own."
"All right," Kirk agreed wearily.
They settled down among rocks just outside the cave. There was not sufficient room for Kirk to lie down, so he slept sitting up. Slowly he slid sideways until his head rested on Spock's shoulder.
The Vulcan found himself absorbing comfort from the touch. Slowly the night passed.
Spock shook the Captain awake at first light. There was no point in delaying. They set off at once. The fear was still present, Kirk found, but it was faint and fading fast. Soon it was gone.
Almost three hours later they walked out from among the bushes into cultivated land. Many Drennans were waiting, including some of those who had also just crossed the Wastelands.
They looked at each other, knowing that they had succeeded. But that was of less importance than the knowledge that in some subtle fashion their friendship had deepened even more during those hours of terror. A wordless message of affection passed between them as their eyes met.
Then they turned as Fordda came forward to acknowledge that they were indeed men.