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A spear flashed; the young water mammal writhed, impaled, its blood staining the water to opaqueness. As the victim's death throes ceased, the hairy humanoid hauled the carcass from the water. More blood ran from the gaping wound the ugly barbs had torn in the delicate flesh. The hunter bent to the wound, licking avidly at the warm blood, too intent on his meal to see the grey adult head that stared unblinkingly at him from a hundred yards away. Then as the hunter raised his head, tongue-tip reaching for the blood that adhered to his lips and beard, the head disappeared silently under the water and was gone.
The hunter hauled the spear out of the body, the barbs tearing the flesh further. He pulled a blunt knife made of whetted bone from the matted tangle of his hair and hacked off a piece of the torn flesh, which he munched, raw and warm as it was, while he heaved the carcass onto his shoulder, blood dripping down to dry stickily on the hair of his body.
Carrying the spear easily in his free hand, he strode through the soft-stemmed vegetation of his world, automatically adjusting his balance as the waves rolled under the huge floating island of matted weed that was his home.
The planet provided paradoxical readings. On the one hand, sensors indicated that intelligent life was present; that lush vegetation was widespread. Yet the single huge continent was entirely barren. Only the simplest of plants clung to an uncertain foothold on the shoreline. There were ruins on the continent, ruins of vast cities. Machinery poked half rusted signs of its presence into the air from its graveyard of windblown detritus. In more 'rural' areas there were skeletons too, many of them with sundried skin still covering the bones. These bodies had also, it seemed, been buried and exhumed by natural forces. Here and there were the graveyards of huge forests, marked by the occasional branchless trunk standing tall and weather-bleached. The ground was desert dry; the wind experienced no difficulty in blowing the topsoil from here to there and back again. It needed little imagination or intelligence to realise that some sudden disaster had overtaken this world.
"Readings indicate that the catastrophe occurred fully ten planetary centuries ago," Spock reported.
"But... Spock, all that metal should have rusted into nothing in a thousand years," Kirk protested.
"Not necessarily," Spock replied calmly. "For oxidisation to occur, moisture must also be present. I would estimate that there has been little or no precipitation for practically the whole of that period."
"He means it's been a long, dry summer," McCoy translated. Spock pointedly ignored the Doctor. He swung his tricorder carefully around, circling as he did so.
"The vegetation must grow on islands," he said at last as he stopped moving, facing the sea. "The inhabitants of this world must also live on these islands. I detect intelligence... humanoid life... "
Even from the Enterprise, it proved impossible to pinpoint any of the islands, however. No land, however small its area, could be detected anywhere except the huge barren continent - and yet the vegetation readings continued, strong and clear. And, anomalously, the readings were not static. They came and went, without any detectable pattern.
"All right," Kirk said impatiently when Spock finally admitted defeat and straightened from the sensor with an expression very indicative of chagrin. "We'll go down by shuttle. Then we can chase these elusive islands if we have to!"
The Galileo took off with its full complement of seven - Kirk, Spock, McCoy , a junior scientist (Bayliss) and three guards, Dawson, Shiras and Carlsen. It dropped easily through the atmosphere, Spock's skilful hand at the controls, and flew over the ocean a few hundred feet above the surface.
At last they detected a huge mass of vegetation near them and Spock swung the shuttle towards it. He took the Galileo lower, and landed in a small clearing beside the shore. Tall tree-like growths towered above them, but a quick check showed these 'trees' to be soft-stemmed growths - indeed, they more nearly resembled overgrown grasses than trees in their structure.
Spock left the study of the vegetation to his subordinate and concentrated on discovering more about the strange island on which they found themselves.
"The island is definitely moving," he announced at last. "It appears to consist entirely of vegetation. It would seem that it is a thick raft of matted vegetation held together by the roots of the plants growing on it. These roots may in fact reach right through the 'island' to the water. And, of course, as each generation of plants dies, its remains add to the thickness of the raft."
A ripple of movement made the surface under them rise and fall in a long roll. They staggered, caught off balance by the unaccustomed sway under their feet, and Dawson went white and swallowed hard. The 'ground' steadied again. Spock continued as if nothing had happened. "Possibly there is a limit to how large the island can become. Probably when it reaches a certain size pieces of it break off naturally because of the strain of continually moving up and down, or parts might be broken off in a storm." He consulted his tricorder. "There are humanoid readings some four hundred yards off in that direction." He indicated 'inland'. "I estimate they live as near to the centre of their island as possible."
"How many are there?"
"Fourteen. But, Captain... "
"Although readings indicate the presence of intelligence, they also indicate a low level of culture."
"Surely that's to be expected?"
Another rolling surge under their feet made them stagger again, while Dawson swallowed once more, one hand going to his mouth.
"What's wrong, Mr. Dawson?" McCoy asked as he regained his balance.
"I feel sick," Dawson muttered, only half audibly. He looked a little ashamed of himself.
"Some Humans have very low tolerance for uneven movement," Spock offered. "It is known for particularly susceptible individuals to become nauseated while travelling on absolutely motionless water."
"He means some people get seasick easily," McCoy translated. "Don't let it worry you, Mr. Dawson. Some individuals are particularly susceptible to nausea after injections of drugs commonly regarded as having no side effects." He glanced slyly at the Vulcan as he spoke, even as he reached for his medikit. He selected a hypo, adjusted it, and gave the white-faced guard a shot. "That should help."
Kirk looked directly at his Science Officer. "What level of culture do these people have?"
Spock looked doubtful. "I would say... pre-Stone Age."
"Pre-Stone Age? I thought Stone Age was the most primitive culture possible?"
"There is an earlier level, where the race concerned simply picks up whatever comes to hand and discards it after use. Even some animals are known to do that. From there it is a short step to retaining a particularly useful stone or semi-working a bone or a branch. A true Stone Age culture arises when materials are regularly shaped for a specific purpose and retained for that use until they break; and indeed, such a culture can be surprisingly sophisticated and their tools extremely skilfully crafted. Here, however, there is no stone. Any tools these people have must be made of wood or bone. They may have reached the beginning of a Stone Age; however, they cannot be more advanced than that."
"Which still leaves one question." Kirk caught at a 'tree' to steady himself as another long wave of movement rippled the island, and nearly fell as the soft stem crumpled under his grasp. He regained his balance and went on. "Could a race evolve in these conditions?"
"I think it... unlikely, Captain." Spock adjusted his balance neatly and easily. "It is more likely that these are the primitive descendants of the people who once lived on the continent."
Dawson sat down abruptly as a sharp gust of wind caught the floating island and blew it sideways at right angles to the direction of the water's movement. Bayliss caught at Carlsen's arm as that guard staggered dizzily, steadying him. As McCoy turned to inject Carlsen, too, Kirk muttered, so low that only Spock heard, "How did we manage to get two guards on this trip who are liable to sea-sickness?"
"It could have been worse, Captain," Spock murmured. "All three might have been susceptible. Come to that, the entire party might have become seasick. Myself excluded, of course."
Kirk threw him a disgusted look, then staggered as another gust of wind swung the raft of vegetation sideways again. A small piece of it, perhaps two yards across, broke away. It bobbed along beside its parent for some seconds before the combined action of wind and waves carried it onto a diverging course.
Spock, who seemed to have adapted to the conditions as if born to them, steadied Kirk. The ground stopped moving, except for a residual tremor under their feet, and Kirk went on. "Where are these natives?"
"This way, Captain."
A sleek grey head that none of them had noticed watched them vanish into the 'forest', their feet sinking deeply into the soft, half-rotting carpet of vegetation as they went.
They came on the natives suddenly, without any real preliminary warning, walking out from the shelter of the trees into an unexpectedly large clearing.
The natives were gathered round the remains of a reasonably sized carcass from which they were feeding. There seemed to be little distinction in rank in the small tribe; a male, three females, and seven half-grown children were all clustered round, hacking intently at the body with crude bone knives, elbowing each other aside to get at the raw flesh. The male cuffed aside one of the youngsters, a half-grown boy who reached for a portion the male had obviously earmarked for himself; the juvenile shook himself and pushed aside one of his younger sisters. Only three very small children were not pushing in but lay or crawled at the outskirts of the group. One of the females turned to throw a scrap of meat to the oldest of the three, and saw the strangers. She uttered a snarling yelp and the others looked at her then turned to find out what had taken her attention.
The male moved forward, growling, his lips drawn back to show what could only be called fangs in a threatening snarl.
This was no time to make protestations of peaceful intent. These beings clearly made little or no use of language; the male obviously regarded them as a threat to his family group. A quick glance showed that the females seemed equally ready to fight.
"Back away," Kirk said softly, hoping that the hairy male would take their retreat as a sign that they accepted his dominance on this island.
The men backed away steadily; but this humanoid seemed not to recognise retreat. He kept on coming.
Kirk reached for his communicator; the great ape-like creature seemed to see that as a threat and flung the bone knife he was still holding. It knocked the communicator from Kirk's hand.
"Get away!" he snapped to the others. He dropped to his knees to grope in the soft leaf mould for the communicator. Spock hesitated. "Go on, Spock! Get away!"
"Your communicator isn't important, Jim. Leave it!"
Then, before either could move, the humanoid was on Kirk, fangs tearing. Spock snatched out his phaser.
It was impossible to fire without hitting Kirk as well. But even seeing this, Spock did not hesitate. He fired his phaser, automatically set at 'stun'. Kirk went limp instantly; the big alien male seemed unaffected. He worried the limp body for a moment longer, then dropped it and turned on Spock.
There was nothing the Vulcan could do except run. But, since he had attacked the beast - if in fact it had recognised his action as hostile - it would regard him as a danger. Or did it simply regard him as food? Either way, he could lead it away from the others, give them a chance of escape. He turned and ran at right angles to the direction of the shuttlecraft.
Only the male followed him. The others began to gather about the Captain's limp body.
McCoy and the others had not seen what had happened. Already behind Kirk and Spock, they were much nearer the 'trees' and had already lost sight of the clearing before Kirk lost his communicator. They proceeded to obey Kirk's last order, and made their way directly back to the shuttlecraft, pausing only when the movement under their feet increased enough for them to lose their balance. They crowded in, to wait in growing anxiety for the others.
Those same ground movements bothered Spock too in his flight, and his hairy pursuer, with a lifetime of adaptation to these conditions to help him, quickly gained on him. The Vulcan realised that he would be unable to follow his original intention of dodging the creature so that he could return to attempt to aid Kirk - if the Captain were still alive. His memory of the tooth-torn gashes on Kirk's neck was painfully acute. Soon he, too, would be caught - and strong though he was, he guessed that the ape-like alien was stronger. There was only one possibility of escape. His path took him close to the water's edge. Without pausing, he dived in, swimming strongly under water for as far as he could before coming up to gasp breathlessly, his lungs straining for air. For some seconds he could only pant helplessly as he trod water weakly, feeling dizzy and his sight blurred by the strain he had put on his body.
Then as his sight cleared, Spock saw that he had not escaped after all. The hairy head of the humanoid was close to him - too close - and coming closer. He began to swim, still feeling breathless from the dive following his run - short though it had been, it had been a very fast sprint. He failed to draw away from the ape-man; and the chill of the water was beginning to bite. if only he could stop long enough to get his communicator and have himself beamed up...
The females and young gathered curiously around Kirk's body, puzzled by its hairlessness. One of the young licked the blood on the smooth neck, but more out of curiosity to discover what this strange creature's blood tasted like than from any real hunger, for their appetites had already been satisfied. The females soon lost interest, returning to their youngest offspring, the biggest of which had found its way to the half eaten carcass and was investigating it with fingers and tongue. His mother began to scrape slivers of flesh off the bones for him; the other mothers lifted their young to suckle them.
The other young prowled round the new body for a little longer, but soon they too lost interest, and moved away in rough play.
Kirk regained consciousness to the unpleasant after-effects of a phaser stun, a tearing pain in his left shoulder and neck and a weakness that left him disinclined to move. He lay motionless for a minute while he recalled the events leading up to his collapse. He realised he had been stunned - why, then, when his assailant collapsed, had his men - man - Spock? - not carried him off back to safety?
He turned his head slightly, and bit back a gasp of pain as the movement hurt his bitten neck.
The three females crouched, wholly intent on their young. One of the juvenile males was in the process of disappearing into the 'forest'. There was no sign of the other young ones nor of the huge male... nor of his men.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, blessing the soft plant debris that covered the ground and would effectively silence his movements, he began to crawl away, one eye on the maternal group nearby. They were far too intent on their young, however, to notice him. For a moment, Kirk wondered at their carelessness, then realised that their singlemindedness probably indicated quite low intelligence, an inability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Besides that, they most probably thought that he was dead. Who would expect a dead body to get up and walk away?
Kirk reached the cover of the 'trees' and scrambled to his feet. Swaying, staggering from a combination of weakness and the periodic heaving of the ground under him, he made his unsteady way back to the landing site.
The shuttlecraft was still there.
McCoy had taken command by virtue of his rank, since there was no senior officer in line of command present. He reported what had happened to Scott, then settled down anxiously to wait, considering it the best thing he could do. Privately, he decided that if there was no sign of the other two within half an hour, he was going back to look for them, no matter what.
However, before the half hour was up, Kirk appeared. McCoy took one horrified look and rushed to Kirk's side, to support him back to the shuttle.
He eased Kirk into a seat and ran a scanner over him, then gave him two quick injections.
"What happened, Jim?"
"I don't really know, Bones. Ouch!"
"Sorry, Jim, but I've got to see to those gashes... "
"Where - ow! - where's Spock?"
"He's not here, Jim. He must have fallen behind us; until we got here, I thought you were both with us."
Kirk frowned. "The big male attacked me just after I ordered you all away. Someone used a phaser on the brute and knocked me out as well. When I came round I wondered why I was still lying there. Most of the tribe had gone. Spock... Spock must have led them off, I suppose."
"So where is he now?" McCoy was beginning to look really uneasy.
They looked at each other, the same thought in both their minds. Caught? Killed?
Kirk looked over at Bayliss. "See if you can detect Mr. Spock anywhere around, Lieutenant. Alive... or dead."
"Aye, sir," Bayliss moved to stand outside the door of the shuttle, tricorder busy.
He swung it steadily through a hundred and eighty degrees, from water's edge round the entire island to water's edge again, and back.
"Captain, there's no sign of Mr. Spock anywhere on the island."
Kirk and McCoy looked at each other. Spock... eaten already? Two of the juvenile males appeared at the edge of the 'trees'.
They stared at the shuttle, but seemed to accept it with little more than passing curiosity. They were more intent on the occupants - specifically Bayliss, standing outside it.
"Get back into the shuttle, Mr. Bayliss."
The scientist needed no telling. He was already turning to re-enter even as Kirk spoke. The door slammed in the faces of the two savages.
"Now they know we're here," Kirk said dully, "they won't leave. They think we're food. There's nothing we can do to help Spock. Even if he got here, they'd get him before he could reach the shuttle. Prepare to take off."
Spock turned onto his back and kicked out strongly while he groped for his communicator. He raised it, fumbling awkwardly with chilled, uncertain fingers. The numbness betrayed him; the communicator, still unopened, slipped from his grasp to sink irretrievably. He looked once, almost despairingly, at the apelike head drawing steadily closer - in time to see it vanish smoothly, as if pulled under by some irresistible force. What flesh-eating monster lurked in the sea? Whatever it was, he could not hope to escape it if it attacked him, too. He could only hope that its hunger was satisfied by its first victim. He turned and began to swim, more slowly now, back towards the island.
It was some minutes before he realised that he was getting no nearer to it; in fact, if anything, he was further away from it than when he'd started. It took him only a moment to realise why. Urged forward by a combination of wind and current, it was travelling faster than he could swim.
Then he saw the shuttle lifting from among the 'trees' a little to his right. It rose steadily, moving at an angle that took it further away from him.
For a moment, he knew despair. He knew that they would not abandon him; but it was probable that they considered him already dead.
A sleek grey seal-like head surfaced beside him with an abruptness that startled him. The creature indicated quite unmistakably that he should take hold of it; he did so, wrapping his arms around it and locking his numb fingers firmly together, and was towed rapidly to the island. The creature indicated that it meant to go under water; he took a deep breath just before he was pulled under.
The seal-like creature towed him under the island and then upwards. They surfaced in a dim 'cave' hollowed out of the vegetable matter that formed the island. With the last of his strength, Spock dragged himself onto a sort of ledge just above the water, where several of the seals already lay. His rescuer humped limblessly out of the water beside him.
"My thanks," he said quietly. Why had the beast helped him? He couldn't think. Perhaps a mind meld?
He reached out and put a tentative hand on the seal's head, and gasped.
This was the intelligent species the sensors had detected? Not the apelike humanoids, but the seals. Intelligent... with a high level of telepathic culture... poetry... music... and all in the mind.
They were preyed on by the humanoids who lived on all the islands. But they needed the islands to live on, too; the barren continent was death, it was too dry...
"Why did you help me?" Spock asked.
The savage one who killed my youngest son sought you also for his prey.
"Where did these savages come from?"
They came originally from the dry land. There was a climatic change, though we do not know what caused it. At that time they were intelligent and left us alone; but hundreds of years, living the way they were forced to do, with brother mating sister because they could find no-one else, seems to have destroyed their intelligence. Now they are animals.
Spock nodded his understanding. He had been right. "Is there anything my people can do for yours?"
He sensed the creature's gratitude. I thank you for my people, but no. There is nothing. The legged ones did not ask to become savages; they must live somewhere. They sometimes see us in the water - they do not know we live in the ground under them. And we are watchful. Only the very unwary young are killed. There was resignation in the thought.
"Is there no way that you could live on the continent? Are there no caves there?"
The rocks are hard. We cannot dig there - only in the soft matter of the islands.
"If my people dug you caves, would you live there?"
Your people could do that? Disbelief, mixed with hope.
"Easily." Spock hesitated. "But I must first make contact with my own people. Unfortunately I lost my communicating device. They will have to find me - and I very much fear that they consider me dead."
When they reached the Enterprise, McCoy hustled Kirk off to Sickbay. As he went, Kirk called back, "Scotty - initiate a search for Spock... alive or dead."
"Aye, Captain." Scott's voice was cut short by the closing door of the transporter room. He looked at Bayliss. "Can you give me any coordinates for where you lost Mr. Spock?" he asked.
The young scientist hesitated. "It was on one of the floating islands, Mr. Scott. The island was being blown along pretty fast."
"Then the sooner you tell me where it was, laddie, the better." Scott passed the coordinates on to the Bridge, then headed there himself at top speed. He walked onto the Bridge to find Chekov bent intently over the sensors.
Chekov straightened as Scott crossed to him. "Nothing, sir. There are three islands in the area Mr. Bayliss gave us. I can read humanoids on all three, but there are no Vulcan readings - either alive or dead."
Scott took a deep breath. "Mr. Spock has to be down there somewhere, laddie. Keep on looking."
"Yes, Mr. Scott." Chekov bent over the sensors again. Scott moved restlessly to the command chair.
"Mr. Scott... "
"Yes, Mr. Chekov?"
"I'm getting some strange readings, air. The islands... They're composed of vegetable matter, and... Mr. Scott, I think Dr. McCoy should check these readings."
Scott punched the intercom. "Dr. McCoy - are you free to come to the Bridge? We want your opinion on some readings we're getting."
"I'll be right up, Scotty."
There was silence for a minute, during which Chekov, still intently studying the readings, looked more and more puzzled, until the elevator doors slid open and McCoy came onto the Bridge.
"What's this you want checked? Don't tell me you've forgotten what Vulcan readings look like!"
"No, Doctor," Chekov defended himself. "But these readings... "
McCoy bent over the sensor, and a mobile eyebrow lifted. "Amazing!" he exclaimed.
"What is it, Doctor?" Scott asked.
"Some of these plants... These readings indicate the presence of several rare - and very useful - drugs. Those islands are worth harvesting... Now, what about Spock? Have you found him?"
"There are no Vulcan readings that I can detect, Doctor."
"He's got to be there!" McCoy muttered. "Even that crazy Vulcan can't fly... "
"Wouldn't we have problems harvesting the islands?" Scott put in. "I mean, the landing party was attacked... "
McCoy nodded gloomily. "Yes, Scotty, we'll have problems... but those drugs could be worth it. Chekov, haven't you found Spock yet?"
"Doctor, he is not on any of those three islands," Chekov protested.
"So look further afield. He's got to be there!"
Chekov muttered something inaudible under his breath as he turned to the sensor. Privately, he was convinced that the First Officer was dead and his body already eaten. Wisely, McCoy chose not to ask the Russian to repeat himself.
"How's the Captain?" Scott went on.
"He'll do, but it was a near thing." McCoy fidgeted restlessly. "I'm not worried about him."
Had the Doctor accented the word 'him'? Scott wasn't certain. What had happened to Spock?
Spock was, at that moment, lying between two of the seals, glad of the warmth of their bodies and wondering what had happened to Kirk. Had the sharp fangs killed the Captain? Or had he succeeded in reaching the shuttle? Spock suspected the latter from the simple fact that the shuttle had taken off...
Suddenly he felt himself caught in the familiar field of the transporter. He materialised in the transporter room, the two seals still at his side - and had to struggle to control the almost irresistible desire to grin at the stunned expression on the faces of the man waiting for him.
He sat up, laid his hands on the seals' heads and tried to explain what had happened. He could feel their discomfort at the dry heat of the ship, and looked over to Scott, who was manning the console.
"Beam my friends down again, Mr. Scott, if you would. Make sure they materialise in the water."
"Wait!" McCoy exclaimed. "They helped you?"
"An astute conclusion, Doctor. Yes, they are extremely intelligent - and increasingly uncomfortable in these dry conditions."
McCoy nodded. "Arrange to meet them somewhere down there."
"I already have," Spock replied. He moved quickly out of the transporter chamber. "Energise, Mr. Scott."
McCoy ignored the seals' shimmering away. He moved to Spock, noting the Vulcan's involuntary shiver. "Cold, Mr. Spock?"
"Yes, Doctor. "
"Come on, I'll soon get you warmed up."
"I was... afraid... you would say that. What of the Captain, Doctor?"
"He'll be OK. Now, Spock - " as he led the Vulcan firmly towards the door - "what were you saying about contacting these seals again?"
"They are the intelligent life form on this planet," Spock told him as they headed along the corridor towards Sickbay. He was still dripping water as he went, although he hoped - vainly, as it happened - McCoy would not notice. "The humanoids seem to have degenerated to the point of having lost all their intelligence. They prey on the seals, mostly on the young ones. I promised the seals that we would excavate caves on the mainland where they could live free from predation."
As they turned into Sickbay McCoy said, "Do you think they could be persuaded to do a little job for us in return?"
Spock's eyebrow asked a question, and McCoy explained about the drugs as he bullied the Vulcan out of his wet clothes and into a bed beside Kirk.
Spock nodded. "I am sure they would, Doctor."
The Enterprise left two days later carrying a load of plants for processing and a firm commitment to continue trading with the seals. Many more caves would be needed than the few they had provided for the group that had helped Spock, once word got round the other islands. And in time, the seals would probably discover other things that the Federation could supply to them in trade.
Several seals basked happily on the rocks of the splash zone of the continent, a few yards away from the entrance of their new home. A watcher would have heard nothing; but telepathically, they were singing.