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It was a huge underground complex. Corridors mazed the area, corridors lined with bank after bank of silent, motionless machinery. Doors opened to right and left, doors that separated the huge machines to reveal enormous rooms filled with other complicatedly incomprehensible machines. In all this vast mechanical jungle, there was no life, no movement.
Dust lay thickly over everything... the dust of millennia. There was no quick way to remove it; it was fortunate that the tricorders worked perfectly adequately despite the accumulated debris of the centuries during which the machines had waited patiently for their masters to reactivate them.
But those masters, too, were long gone, and it had been sheer chance that led the Enterprise's landing party to this mechanical graveyard. The planet's surface was dry, parched; here and there ancient ruins still showed above the soil that had long buried most of them, low walls that erosion had left barely recognisable as the products of a civilised world. Spock estimated that fully half a million years had passed since intelligent life ceased to exist here, although simple, primitive forms might have continued for ten, twenty, fifty thousand years before the continuing lack of water destroyed them.
This same lack of water had prevented the huge metal doors that closed off the great cave from the outside world from rusting solid, so that they opened easily enough to the landing party's investigation. Inside, despite the passing of the years, some form of ventilation system did seem to be still operative; the air, although musty, was fresher than Spock would have expected, and the layers of dust showed clearly that fresh, dust-filled air had been drawn into the place, at least until reasonably recently.
Now the Enterprise's scientists were exploring avidly, recording data as fast as their tricorders would work. A Federation Study Group would certainly be assigned here, and gathered data would help to decide who should be included in it.
There had been no real reason why Captain Kirk should have accompanied the landing party. Science had never been his speciality, although he had, as a matter of course, studied some science at Starfleet Academy and had learned more as an immediate result of his close friendship with his Science Officer. His senior officers, however, encouraged him to accompany these trips, well aware of the strain of command and the way he drove himself, knowing that even an hour of undemanding landing party participation in circumstances such as these gave him a rest.
He did put the time to some use, however, by watching the performance of his men - he liked to know the general standard of efficiency at all times, and implicitly as he trusted Spock's judgement, he still preferred to form his own. Now he drifted idly around, careful not to get in anyone's way, apparently examining things with idle curiosity.
Spock came round a corner, intent on a report, and bumped into him. Kirk sat down with a considerable thump.
"My apologies, Captain." Spock pushed himself upright from the console he had fallen against, and reached down to help Kirk up.
"My own fault," Kirk replied cheerfully. "You're busy, I'm not. I should have been paying attention. How's it going?"
"We're progressing extremely well. Another twenty-four hours, and we should have completed the initial compilation of data for Starfleet."
"Good." Kirk moved away, absently rubbing his hip. Not that it was sore, exactly - but he was pretty sure that he would soon be sporting a huge purple bruise.
He moved on down the corridor, and soon realised that he had come to an area none of the scientists had yet reached; the dust lay undisturbed all around. He stopped, attracted by one of the machines.
Smaller than any he had so far seen, it looked strangely familiar, although he was quite certain that it was completely unknown to him. It consisted of a large screen, with a console containing relatively few controls below it. As he watched, it seemed to him that lights were shining behind the screen, moving in an ever-changing pattern. He put his hands on the console, leaning closer to the screen as he attempted to focus on the movement. One hand pressed a switch.
For a moment, he felt giddy; then he straightened up. He threw a disgusted look at the screen, convinced that something psychedelic in the varying light rhythms had caused the dizziness, and determined not to risk a repetition. He headed back towards the area where the scientists were working, wondering why this one machine, out of all of them, should apparently still be operating. The landing party was gathering as he came in sight of them. He nodded to himself, not surprised; they had been here for over ten hours, and he had been wondering how much longer Spock would keep them down. He moved across to the Science Officer.
"Packing up, Mr. Spock?"
"The landing party has been on duty for ten hours, thirty eight minutes, sir," Spock replied rather stiffly. Kirk stared at him in some surprise; it was unlike Spock to answer so defensively, as if he was expecting some objection.
"Yes, of course, Mr. Spock. Carry on." Puzzled, Kirk decided to wait and see if anything transpired to explain Spock's unusual response.
The group of scientists headed for the great doorway; Spock delayed to bring up the rear and switch off the lights they had installed. Kirk half hesitated, then decided not to drop back beside the Vulcan, who quite clearly was not, at this moment, desiring his company. Surely... he couldn't be worrying about having knocked Kirk down so recently?
Once out of the cave, the landing party began to group ready for beamup. Only five men moved into position; as Kirk wondered who the sixth should be, Lt. Carstairs said, "Aren't you coming, sir?" and he realised that, strange as it seemed, they expected him to return with the first group.
More puzzled than ever, he moved into place. He looked over towards Spock as the transporter hum began. The Vulcan was looking almost contemptuous.
On board the Enterprise, he received a further shock. Kyle saluted - a piece of routine Kirk had long since dispensed with - his face expressionless. Sheer amazement kept Kirk from responding; the transporter chief dropped his hand and remained standing to attention, his face unaltered. He obviously did not expect a response.
Kirk nodded curtly. "Carry on, Mr. Kyle." Without waiting for the rest of the landing party to be beamed up, he turned and strode out of the transporter room.
He made his way to his cabin, where he sank gratefully into the chair at his desk; then he stiffened. This was not his chair. He rose again, and studied it carefully. It looked right... but it felt wrong. The subtle hollows formed by a chair's normal occupant were in the wrong places. Slowly, he sat down again, remembering the dizzy spell he had experienced, remembering a previous occasion when he had felt giddy after materialising after transportation. There was only one possible explanation.
Somehow - he had yet to discover how - he had been transferred to another universe. Spock's behaviour - Kyle's behaviour - suddenly began to make sense. The Kirk of this universe must be far more of a stickler for discipline and going by the book than he was. Kirk shivered involuntarily as he remembered Spock's facial expression while the first group was dematerialising. This Spock clearly did not regard his Captain with any affection.
And yet that in itself seemed strangely... unlikely. Even in the sadistic universe of the E.S.S. Enterprise, Spock had evinced some regard for the vicious, scheming intriguer Kirk's counterpart there had been. Even if this Kirk was a martinet, surely his First Officer must have some feeling for him... and yet all he had shown was incipient scorn. What was this Kirk like?
He sat thinking for some time, then sighed. He was beginning to feel hungry - better go and eat. And the reactions of the rest of the crew to him might tell him a great deal. He headed for the mess.
Spock was sitting at a table with McCoy, and they were deep in conversation. Picking up his tray, he decided to join them.
As he crossed the room, Kirk noticed a significant difference in the attitude of these men to the one he was accustomed to. There was a degree of animation in both their faces; here, these men were clearly and openly close friends.
He was halfway across the room when they became aware of him. Both faces altered instantly, assuming a wooden mask of what could only have been a false respect. It brought to his immediate notice that everyone in the room wore a similar expression. There was clearly no relaxation in this Captain's presence and Kirk shivered as he thought how lonely his counterpart must be. There was an empty table beyond Spock and McCoy, and for a moment he considered passing them and going to it; then he chose to follow his original design. He stopped beside them.
"May I join you, gentlemen?"
"Certainly, sir," McCoy replied evenly. His face expressed mild surprise; now was that surprise that he should join them, or surprise that he should ask permission?
Kirk glanced towards Spock. The Vulcan's eyes were veiled as Kirk had not seem them since the very early days of his service aboard the Enterprise.
An awkward silence fell; neither Spock nor McCoy seemed to have anything to say now, but ate steadily. To break the silence, Kirk said,
"A most interesting planet, wouldn't you say, Mr. Spock?"
"Yes, sir. Most interesting." The response was flat; Kirk had the sudden conviction that if he were to say 'It's raining in here', Spock would agree as automatically.
Kirk was now actively regretting joining them. Spock's response had been polite, nothing more; he clearly had no desire to pursue the matter. Or any other, come to that. Yet this Spock was not an unsociable creature who held everyone at arm's length; he had, quite obviously, been enjoying his exchange with McCoy.
Both men had finished eating now, but were waiting for the Captain to finish. Kirk suddenly felt sorry for them, forced, from courtesy, to remain at the table with a superior officer with whom they clearly had no rapport. He was certain now that their own Kirk would probably not have joined them anyway - at least, not unless he was either extremely thick-skinned or so desperately lonely that even this masochistic suffering was preferable to sitting alone.
"If you have duties to attend to, don't let me keep you, gentlemen," he said stiffly.
They glanced at each other; both rose.
"Thank you, sir, I do have today's results to check," Spock said politely and formally.
"I have some reports to finish, sir," McCoy added, equally formally. "Excuse us, please."
Kirk nodded. He watched almost sadly as they left, then, his appetite completely gone, turned his attention back to his half-eaten meal.
Kirk passed a restless night wondering what to do about the situation, although in fact he knew what he must do. He must go back down again, find the machine he had been examining, and try to re-create the conditions responsible for his transfer. He was pretty sure he'd depressed a switch on the console - but he was not certain, and he certainly didn't know which switch... and from what he remembered, the console, while not so complicated as those of the other machines, had still a fair number of switches.
Should he confide in Spock, he wondered... and then decided against it, feeling that in all probability he would not be believed. This Spock so clearly had very little respect for his Captain - at least, as a man, whatever he might think of him as a commanding officer. There was so very little time, too - twenty four hours longer, his own Spock had said. After that, there was very little point in even trying to get back; the other Kirk would no longer be anywhere near the transfer point.
Surprise showed on Spock's face when Kirk entered the transporter room; surprise, masked so rapidly that he would have been believed had he denied feeling it. But Kirk knew he had not imagined it; he knew his own Spock's expressions too well, and this Spock seemed very similar.
"I've decided to come down again, Mr. Spock," Kirk announced with forced cheerfulness.
"Yes, sir." The answer was polite, apparently respectful - no-one could have faulted Spock's tone in any way - and utterly discouraging. It was very clear to Kirk that he was not welcome, and he wondered if his counterpart was as sensitive to these nuances as he. If he were, he must be a miserably unhappy man. Kirk glanced round the assembled scientists, conscious of a stiffening in their attitudes too, and thought he could guess why. They were seeing this as an indication that their Captain did not trust them to get on without top supervision. The realisation chilled him afresh. This was not a happy ship, although it was, in all probability, an extremely efficient one.
Kirk waited until everyone had beamed down and had scattered to continue their work, then made his way back to the small machine that had caused all the bother. He examined it carefully.
It looked dead today; or... was the one in this universe inoperative? Was it only the one in his universe that was working? If that was the case, he might well be trapped here. He faced the prospect with growing unease; while he could make changes here - or try to - what would his counterpart be doing? How unhappy would his counterpart be making the crew of that other Enterprise? And most important - what would that other Kirk be doing to Spock's trust and friendship?
It was, of course, probable that Spock would realise, as he had realised when faced with James Kirk of the Empire Starship Enterprise, that an exchange had somehow happened... but on that occasion he had been unable to do anything except restrain the strangers. This time... It seemed to Kirk, faced with the silent machine, that there would be no escape for him unless Spock found it. But would Spock, even if he guessed the truth, realise that too? Dispiritedly, Kirk turned away from the machine.
He was about halfway back to the others when the explosion sent him staggering backwards. Clouds of dust filled the air. He regained his balance, pushing himself away from the console that had stopped him from falling, and plunged forward, choking on the dust, aware of the smell of burning. His men! That they were not, in fact, his, never occurred to him.
He nearly bumped into a young scientist who leaned helplessly against a machine, coughing.
"Are you hurt?" he snapped.
"I don't know."
The man was clearly in shock. Kirk gripped his arm. "This way."
He gathered several more as he went, and led them in the approximate direction of the huge gates. There, he checked how many there were. Ten. That meant six were still in the place - and Spock. He barely remembered that this was not his friend; that this Vulcan had no affection for his Captain. It was still Spock...
"Stay out here," Kirk ordered. "I'll call on you if I need you." Not noticing the astonished stares, he plunged back into the cavern. Almost at once he found three of the missing men groping their way out; four still missing, including Spock. His lips set in a grim line as he remembered that he did not know what part of the cavern Spock was in. And he had to find him...
The dust was in no hurry to settle, either, powder-fine as it was. Kirk groped his way along the murky passages, barely able to see. Was it his imagination or were the lights they had fitted in the place failing too?
Ahead of him he heard coughing, and a moment later he came on two more of the scientists. One was limping badly, helped by the other. Kirk paused. "Do either of you know where Mr. Spock was?" he demanded.
"He was beyond where we were... sir," the uninjured man replied. There seemed to be surprise in his voice, and Kirk suddenly realised that his behaviour was not characteristic of his counterpart. In that case, no wonder his men had little respect for him as a person!
"You're on the right way out," he said encouragingly, and went on past them. Then he hesitated.
The smell of burning was getting stronger. He looked back. "When you get out, contact the ship, and have half a dozen men with breathing masks and fire extinguishers sent down. And McCoy - if Mr. Spock is still alive, he may require medical attention." He went on without waiting for an answer.
He carried on, peering into the gloom, trying not to breathe too deeply, fighting the urge to cough since that, he knew, would only serve to draw more dust into his lungs. Then, ahead of him, he saw flickering and knew he had reached the seat of the fire.
Two bodies lay there, pinned down by fallen beams. He stopped at the first one. It was the missing scientist; from the gaping wound on his forehead, he must have died instantly. Kirk moved to the other man - Spock, held down by a beam that was already beginning to burn.
The Vulcan's eyes were closed, and for a moment, Kirk thought that he also was dead. He had to be sure, though, and bent over to touch him. At the touch Spock opened his eyes and looked up. Surprise showed clearly, even in the dim light.
"Are you hurt?" Kirk asked.
"No, sir, but I am unable to move." The voice was even, unemotional, although Spock must have known how close he was to a terrible death.
Kirk stood, and examined the beam. He soon saw how it was jammed, and also that leverage from the top of it would probably shift it relatively easily. Unfortunately, the top was burning.
He looked down at the Vulcan. "Be ready to pull yourself clear," he said. Then, without hesitation, he caught the burning part and pulled.
Pain shot through his hands; he gritted his teeth and continued to apply pressure. The beam shifted slightly; encouraged, he threw all his weight against it. It gave abruptly; a moment later, Spock caught his arm.
"All right, sir - and thank you."
"Let's get out," Kirk replied hoarsely.
Together, they stumbled towards the exit. Halfway there, they met the fire-fighting team, and Kirk hesitated as if to go back.
"No, sir," Spock said with unexpected firmness. There was a new note of respect in his voice. "Your hands need attention."
So Spock knew... well, he would have been stupid not to, Kirk realised.
Fresh air had never been so welcome. McCoy, waiting there alone, hurried over to them, his face questioning.
"Captain Kirk burned his hands," Spock said quietly.
"Let me see them, sir."
Unwillingly, Kirk held them out. Both Spock and McCoy drew in a sharp breath as they saw the damage, and McCoy reached for a hypo.
In sickbay, where McCoy had hustled him to get his hands properly seen to, Kirk faced his counterpart's two most senior officers.
"You are not Captain Kirk," Spock said abruptly. "You resemble him closely, but you are not he. Captain Kirk would never have risked his own safety for me... or for anyone."
Kirk sighed. "I am Captain Kirk," he replied. "But I'm not the Kirk you know. Mr. Spock, Doctor, what do you know of the theory of parallel universes?"
They looked puzzled. "There is the theoretical possibility that they exist... " Spock began.
"They do exist," Kirk replied. "Occasionally a doorway opens between two universes. When that happens, personnel in those universes can be transposed. This is the second time it's happened to me. We also were exploring an underground cavern full of machinery, and I accidentally managed to activate one of the machines. Your Kirk may have been doing much the same... "
"He did wander off on his own," Spock remembered.
"And when I materialised in this universe, it was beside a machine similar to the one I had touched. Personnel in the two universes seem to be the same, although their backgrounds and personal characteristics can vary, and two people who know each other in one universe may never have met in another because of the different circumstances. As a positive example of these differences - here, you serve under Captain James Kirk, but you have no liking for him. In my universe, both Spock and McCoy are my very good friends - my closest friends, in fact."
"Our Captain won't let anyone like him," McCoy said. "He seems unable to trust anyone on a personal level. I don't know why. He's a good enough Captain... even although I'd say he's afraid of seeming inefficient, which is why he insists on all the trappings of discipline, and always goes by the book - "
"Covering up a lack of self-confidence?" Kirk suggested.
"It could be," McCoy said. "His personality profile doesn't indicate it, but it could be. You see, now that I'm actually listening to you, I can tell the difference. Your voice is more... more... "
"More relaxed," Spock supplied.
"More relaxed, and yet more decisive, sir," McCoy nodded. "That's it exactly."
"Don't get too used to me," Kirk warned. "I want to find the doorway back to my own universe."
"Would you not consider staying here?" McCoy asked.
"I'm sorry," Kirk said quietly. "But you two aren't my Spock and McCoy, even although you resemble them closely; and you're used to coping with your Kirk... they aren't, and I don't like to think how he might be reacting to them. And what worries me most... If events there today have been the same as events here, and there was an explosion, what happened to my Spock?"
James Kirk pushed himself upright. What had made him so dizzy? He should get Dr. McCoy to check him... but what if McCoy discovered something seriously wrong with him - or said he did, to get rid of him?
He went slowly back towards the rest of the landing party, his mind a confused jumble of conflicting thoughts. If he was ill, he should seek medical help... if he sought medical held, McCoy might...
A scientist glanced round as the Captain approached, and grinned cheerfully. "We're getting on well, sir." '
Startled by the man's unaccustomed friendliness, Kirk nodded. "Good."
He went on. The party was beginning to gather now, and Kirk approached it. "We're more than half finished, Captain," Spock said. "The men have done well."
"Yes... yes, Mr. Spock." The cheerful friendliness in Spock's voice utterly confused Kirk. His First Officer had never sounded so informal... Kirk was aware of a sudden pang. If only Spock would always be like this! But why... why? What had made him suddenly act so... so amicably?
Indeed, the whole landing party was behaving oddly; there was a... a relaxed efficiency about it that was wholly unlike anything he had ever seen before; but he recognised instantly that it was exactly how he would always like his ship to run. He watched carefully, trying to decide what had caused this. But he got no indication as the landing party, its members chattering cheerfully, headed for the exit. Spock fell into step beside him.
Spock, wanting his company?! He glanced sideways at the Vulcan, grateful that Spock did not seem discouraged by his silence. If only it could always be like this! he thought again, the memory of utter loneliness vivid in his mind. Why had Spock never made such a move before? His old dread of betrayal stirred, and he resolutely pushed it back, telling himself that Vulcans were loyal - they were, they were known for it. But then he had trusted Gary Mitchell... and Mitchell had completely betrayed his trust. Dare he trust anyone again? As the party gathered to return to the ship, Kirk realised that, strange as it seemed, they expected him to wait until last to beam up. He watched the first two groups beam up with a new feeling of... of what? Responsibility? Spock was speaking now.
"... leg all right, Captain?"
"My leg, Mr. Spock?" The question confused him.
"You hurt your leg when I bumped into you."
Spock? Bumped into him?
"Oh - yes, it's all right. I'd forgotten about it." He was glad to see that Spock accepted his answer without further question as they moved into position to beam up.
Kirk was still wondering about Spock's query when they materialised and he received his next shock. Kyle, at the transporter console, made no attempt to salute. Kirk bit back an instinctive order; Kyle's attitude, strange as it seemed, was in no way disrespectful.
When he left the transporter room, he headed, as usual, for the bridge. There, he found a similar situation. The personnel greeted him with a cheerful, respectful informality; Scott rose easily but unhurriedly from the command chair as Kirk moved forward.
"Everything normal, Captain," Scott announced.
Why was everyone calling him 'Captain' instead of 'sir'? What had happened? He had to have time to think about this.
"Carry on, Mr. Scott," he said abruptly. He left again, and this time headed for his cabin.
There, he looked around. Everything looked normal... He sank into his chair, reaching for the report he had been preparing before beaming down. He would have to add to it...
He glanced over it, reminding himself of what he had written, and found himself staring blankly at it before he was halfway through.
This was not his report!
It was very similar, but the wording was subtly altered. He was still trying to make sense out of the situation when the door buzzer sounded. "Come."
The door slid open to admit Spock. The Vulcan was looking faintly puzzled. "Yes, Mr. Spock?"
"Captain, are you sure you are all right?"
"Why do you ask?" Suspicion and distrust rose involuntarily to Kirk's mind, overwhelming the momentary pleasure that the apparent concern gave him, and he spoke sharply.
"Your behaviour since you rejoined the landing party has been... unusual, as if something is worrying you. In the transporter room you looked at Mr. Kyle as if you were angry at something, although you said nothing; you visited the bridge, for no apparent reason other than to check if Mr. Scott was doing his job properly; also... Captain, you cannot have forgotten that I bumped into you. When you left me after it, your leg was clearly paining you."
What was Spock playing at? Was he trying to manoeuver Kirk into a situation where he could get McCoy to declare the Captain unfit for duty on the grounds of a failing memory? Spock had him either way, if he committed himself to an answer; if he admitted to remembering something that had never happened Spock would accuse him of imagining things; if he insisted that it had never happened - and it had - or even if Spock continued to insist that it had - he could be accused of forgetfulness. Either way, whether he said yes or no...
"Mr. Spock, are you trying to get me declared unfit for duty?" He no longer even thought of trusting the Vulcan; the momentary urge to do so swamped by the fear of betrayal that had inhibited his relationship with others ever since Gary Mitchell had deliberately left him to die. Only sheer chance had saved him, not the action of anyone who cared for him.
"No, Captain, but the fact that you think I am confirms my belief that you should see Dr. McCoy."
"No!" It was an instinctive, almost panicky negation. McCoy could have him declared unfit for duty... unfit for command...
"Captain, I do have the right to insist... and so does Dr. McCoy." Spock's voice was colder now, almost as icily formal as usual, the concern gone, and the change, the reversion to normal, sent a cold shiver up Kirk's back.
"Mr. Spock, I assure you I am perfectly all right." In self-defence, his own voice automatically resumed the habitual cold formality that had so successfully kept everyone at arm's length and gave him the illusion that his loneliness and apartness were completely voluntary.
Almost, Spock seemed to flinch. His face set in a mask even more than customarily expressionless, he said, "Sir, I insist that you see Dr. McCoy, under Starfleet Regulations, paragraph - "
"You always did want my job, didn't you, Commander?" Kirk broke in bitterly. "Do you see this as your chance?"
Without waiting for a reply, he marched from the cabin, and headed for sickbay, sick at heart. For a few moments he had dared to hope that Spock did, after all, like him; for a few moments he had dared to hope that he need no longer be so utterly, hurtingly, alone. And now Spock had slammed in his face the door that he had apparently opened, leaving Kirk with nothing but the bitterness of a renewed betrayal. Spock followed him silently.
McCoy's examination was thorough; at the end of it, he glanced from one man to the other. "You're perfectly fit, Jim - I can't think what's got into Spock."
Jim??? Kirk's original bewilderment welled up again. No-one had called him 'Jim' since... since Gary Mitchell.
"I am, of course, gratified to know that, sir," Spock said formally.
"Very well, Mr. Spock." Spock at least had returned to normal... but what was McCoy playing at?
Kirk returned to his cabin. He was feeling hungry now, but he couldn't face the crew. Not after the cheerful, casual, "Evening, Captain," from the lowly ensign he passed on the way. What was making them all behave like that? He couldn't be going mad; McCoy would have known. Unless...
Was he going mad? Had McCoy lied to lull him into a false sense of security?
He sank into his chair, remembering the report, and studied it again. It was definitely his - and yet not his.
After a time, he put it down, and moved wearily to his bed. As he did so, for the first time he consciously saw the carving standing on the shelf by his desk.
Where had that come from?
Trembling, he reached for it and studied it carefully. It was his - he couldn't mistake it, for it had been fashioned specially for him by that wood-carver on Rigel... but he had given it to Sam for a wedding present, and not even he knew where Sam was now. No-one on the ship even knew that he had a brother... so how had it got back here?
He sat down again, and began to consider facts.
First, Spock's initial attitude. Although it hadn't lasted, it had been friendly to start with. Secondly, the crew's attitude. Relaxed, disciplined in spite of it. Thirdly, McCoy's behaviour, informal without taking advantage. Fourthly, that report, subtly altered. And finally, the carving that shouldn't have been here but was.
He remembered the dizziness he had suffered down on the planet. Had something happened then that caused these changes? There was only one way to find out. He must go back with the landing party tomorrow, and see if he could discover anything. He felt a momentary urge to confide in McCoy, remembering the surgeon's attitude, or even Spock, remembering the Vulcan's seeming concern, but fear of ridicule killed it. For if something had happened to him, why was it manifesting itself in uncharacteristic behaviour from everyone else?
Next morning, Spock was quietly, but not coldly, formal when Kirk joined the landing party. The Captain was half expecting Spock to give some indication that this was unexpected, but the Vulcan seemed to accept it as perfectly usual. Kirk added a sixth item to the list of his puzzles.
Once on the surface Kirk did not delay but headed straight for the cave, the scientists at his heels. Behind him as he went, he heard the transporter hum as it announced the arrival of the next group.
Kirk headed in the general direction of the machine he had been examining the previous day, wishing as he went that he had paid a little more attention to his surroundings; yesterday he had simply wandered off, more to pass the time than because he was really interested, not really watching where he was going; the cold, distant, polite formality of the scientists he had approached had disturbed him even more than usual. He had felt so desperately unhappy that he had had to get away from everyone and their subtly insinuated dislike. At heart he knew that they were only reflecting his own attitude... but he was afraid, terrified, of trusting again and being betrayed again.
Now he had to try to find a machine whose site he had never actually known. Soon he realised that he had lost his way in the maze of passages. A momentary panic threatened him; he forced it down, and moved steadily back the way he had come, following his own footprints in the dust.
Spock was still trying to make sense out of the Captain's strange behaviour. From the way Kirk had gone with the first group of the landing party, the Vulcan suspected that he was not yet forgiven for insisting on a medical examination for the Captain. Spock gave no open indication of trouble, however, despite his inner hurt. Kirk had gone off on his own again, too - a bad sign in the normally gregarious Captain. On any other day Spock would have followed, seeking to help, but on this day he decided to wait.
He moved towards a fresh machine and began to take readings. He was interrupted by a tremendous explosion, sent staggering by the force of the blast.
What had happened? He stumbled forward, choking and coughing in the dust-filled air. Within moments he had encountered the first of the scientists, three of them helping a fourth, who was limping badly.
"What happened?" Spock asked.
"We don't know, Mr. Spock. The explosion was beyond us - in the area we haven't checked yet, near where the Captain was yesterday."
"All right. Get outside and contact the ship. Tell them what happened and to send down a medical team and a firefighting squad in environment suits."
"Yes, Mr. Spock." The four men moved on. The Vulcan headed further into the dusty depths of the cavern.
He saw no-one else, and could only hope that everyone had been able to reach the open air. For himself, he had to find out - if he could - what had happened. Flickering flames attracted his attention; he headed for them.
Then in the dusty haze he saw Kirk, lying pinned down by a long thick bar of metal. The Captain lay staring fixedly at the flames as they licked closer and closer to him.
"Jim!" All Kirk's strange behaviour was forgotten. He hadn't thought of the Captain coming back here, where he had been exploring yesterday; he had automatically assumed that Kirk would have gone to another part of the cave. Now, realising his mistake, he hurried forward.
The Captain turned his head to look towards the voice. There was naked terror in his eyes, a desperate pleading, but he said nothing. He didn't want to die like this, but he was even more afraid of asking for help and being refused. If he died here, Spock would gain the Captaincy. The Vulcan must know that.
Spock checked the metal bar carefully, noting where it was jammed. Leverage would free it... He caught the end of it furthest from Kirk, ignoring the pain as the heated metal burned him.
It gave suddenly, and he staggered back. Kirk scrambled to his feet as the Vulcan regained his balance.
"This way!" Spock led the way unerringly. They had not gone far when they met the suited figures carrying fire extinguishers. Spock paused long enough to give them directions, then continued on his way to the exit, Kirk at his heels.
Only McCoy was waiting for them, just outside the doorway. He took one look at the brown scorch mark on Kirk's shirt, and asked, "What happened?"
Almost reluctantly, Spock told him, once it became clear that Kirk intended saying nothing.
"Let's get up to the ship," McCoy said. "I'll check you both there."
Spock hesitated for a moment. "The men?"'
"All safely out." McCoy opened his communicator.
Kirk was very quiet as they made their way to sickbay. He was still stunned by the fact that Spock had sacrificed his chance of promotion in order to save him. It gave him a strange feeling of... warmth? that someone should do something for him... unlike Gary Mitchell, who had been his closest friend, yet who had deserted him, leaving him to die. Spock had burned his hands, too, doing it. He should say something... but what do you say to a man who does not like you but has just saved your life?
"Thank you, Mr. Spock," he began. He hesitated, then with an effort went on. "Would you tell me something?"
"If I can."
"Why did you do it? I know you don't like me, and if I'd died you would have become Captain... "
Both men stared blankly at him; then Spock said quietly, "Who are you?"
"You are not Captain Kirk." Unconsciously, he was echoing his counterpart's words. Kirk seemed to stiffen as Spock continued, "You resemble him closely, and you have acted your part well enough, even although some of your behaviour during the last twenty four hours has not been characteristic. However, you have now made one major mistake."
"What do you mean?"
"You just claimed that I dislike you."
"Don't you?" The question was bitter.
His hearers both caught the bitterness, and glanced at each other as Kirk went on. "I know no-one likes me!"
"Our Captain would never say that," Spock cut in quietly. "Our Captain knows that we are his friends. So I ask you again - who are you?"
"I'm Captain James T. Kirk," he insisted. "You know that. I've been Captain of the Enterprise for nearly two years now, and - "
"That's wrong!" McCoy stopped him. "Captain Kirk has commanded the Enterprise for nearly three years - "
"Wait, Doctor," Spock interrupted. "He could be telling the truth."
Both Kirk and McCoy stared at the Vulcan for a moment, then McCoy exclaimed, "Yes, of course! An inter-universe exchange!"
Kirk looked at him. "A what?"
"There are many alternative universes," Spock explained quietly. "These are all co-existing. Occasionally, however, something goes wrong, and a man in one universe changes places with his counterpart in another. It would appear that such an exchange has occurred in this instance. You are here - and our Captain is in your universe, wherever that is."
Kirk was silent for a moment as he tried to assimilate the information. Then he nodded. "Yes," he said slowly. "It would explain... certain anomalies."
"Have you any idea of when the exchange might have happened?" Spock asked.
"Yesterday - in the cave - I felt dizzy. It was after that that everything seemed... different."
"Then we must return to the cave, if we are to attempt to restore the proper balance."
"Wait - " said Kirk. "Must we?"
"I am afraid I do not quite understand, Captain."
"I would like... to remain here."
"Captain," Spock said quietly, "we want our Jim Kirk back. And you - why are you unwilling to return to the world you know?"
"Here... here, you're all friendly. In my own world, no-one likes me. No-one in my world would have tried to save me, back there." His eyes were fixed on Spock's hands. "My Spock... does not even respect me. He obeys me because I am his Captain - nothing else."
"Are you sure of that?" McCoy asked. "This isn't the first time we've encountered another universe; the last time - it was a cruel, vicious, blood-thirsty universe where treachery was normal - and that Spock, alone of all the men on his Enterprise, was loyal to Kirk."
For a moment Kirk remained silent, thinking. "I... think I'm sure. He has never given me reason to believe that he does other than despise me. McCoy, too. They're in league to have me declared unfit for duty so that Spock can become the Captain."
"I cannot believe," Spock said slowly, "that any Spock would prefer Captaincy to his scientific duties, or would be anything less than completely loyal to his commanding officer."
"I know of Vulcan loyalty," Kirk replied. "But... I seem to be incapable of inspiring personal loyalty." There was renewed bitterness in his voice.
"Don't you trust your Spock?" McCoy asked, in wonder.
The pain, suppressed so long, surged against Kirk's defences. "In my universe... I don't trust anyone. I daren't. I couldn't bear... having my trust betrayed again. Here... I believe that I could trust you two, at least."
Spock and McCoy looked at each other once more. Then McCoy said gently, "Because one man let you down, it doesn't mean that everyone will."
Anguish showed on Kirk's face. "Do you think I haven't told myself that? But I can't help it, Doctor. Because it's been proved to me, over and over, that no-one will do anything for me. No-one likes me enough."
"Lack of trust causes lack of trust," Spock said. "If you truly believe that no-one - "
"I trusted Mitchell implicitly, and he left me to die!" Kirk broke in.
"Mitchell?" Spock asked. "Gary Mitchell?"
"Mitchell... In this universe, Mitchell had a strongly selfish streak; a hunger for power that eventually showed itself," Spock said. "He was trustworthy - up to a point. But in the end, he would have betrayed the Captain, the Enterprise, the Federation itself, to gain the power he craved. Yet it was not his fault. The energy barrier at the edge of the Galaxy changed him - "
"Energy barrier? Changed him? Not in my universe."
"What did happen in your universe?" McCoy asked gently.
For a moment, they thought he wasn't going to answer. Then Kirk said slowly, "We were on Dimorus... "
He hadn't thought, consciously thought, of the incident for years.
As senior lieutenant, he had been in command of the landing party. Sensor reports had shown no signs of advanced life forms; incipient intelligence only had been detected. Still, the presence of a developing sentient species had dictated caution; the Prime Directive was currently being very strongly enforced since a recent unfortunate incident where a pre-sapient race had shown signs of contamination after an unwary contact some years previously by a ship's surgeon, who had helped an injured individual, believing the being unintelligent enough to forget quickly. However, the next survey ship that passed reported the setting up of an extensive religion based on misunderstood healing techniques. It had to be due to the unfortunate doctor's action; and nothing could be done about it without worse interference.
Kirk's landing party, therefore, knew it had to act with caution. He was joined by two scientists, two security guards, and he had taken Mitchell along as well.
At first everything went well. Several times they saw native creatures and hid; sensors indicated the presence nearby of the near-intelligent life forms, but they had no clue as to which of several species it might be. Under the circumstances, Kirk preferred to take no chances.
The survey neared completion; suddenly there was a shrill whistling sound, a hiss, and a scientist fell, clutching at a small dart embedded in his throat.
"Take cover!" Kirk snapped. As his men scrambled for the dubious shelter of some rocks, he ran to the fallen scientist. There was nothing he could do. The man was already dead. Kirk snatched up the tricorder and turned for shelter.
Only the abruptness of his movement saved him; the dart intended for his throat hit his shoulder. Fire shot through him. He staggered, still trying to head for the rocks, sensation rapidly leaving his limbs.
Then he saw Mitchell, looking out from shelter.
"Gary!" he gasped, fully expecting his friend to come to his aid.
For answer, Mitchell flicked open his communicator. "Mitchell to Farragut - four to beam up." As Kirk collapsed, he saw his friend's body breaking into a shimmer of light. The last thing he was aware of was the triumph on Mitchell's face. Kirk lay, paralysed, now completely numb, the physical pain only a memory - but the mental pain was growing, strengthening, as he considered how Mitchell - Gary Mitchell, his friend, his closest friend - had not only deserted him but had done so deliberately, knowing that as next senior officer he would now gain a more important position on the Farragut. Kirk's mind seemed more than usually active as he lay; he remembered things, little things that of themselves had meant nothing, but cumulatively... and he realised that Mitchell had never been his friend. He had pretended friendship so well that Kirk had been completely fooled; but Mitchell had only been using him, using a friendship with someone of more seniority in order to advance his own career. And now Mitchell clearly felt he didn't need Kirk any longer...
There was a patter of feet and a body moved into his line of vision. Vaguely rat-like, it moved in a semi-erect position, one paw clutching a dart ready to throw. It was followed by others. A hunting pack... and he, and the dead scientist, were clearly their intended meal.
The first one was close enough now to touch him. It bit at his arm. He felt no pain, but then watched with a horrified fascination as blood ran from his arm and the creature chewed on the piece of flesh it had bitten from him. The others moved closer. He tried to cry out, to frighten them away, but found himself unable to utter a sound. He couldn't even close his eyes, and knew that he would have to watch these little horrors eating him alive...
A harsh squawking noise sent the rat creatures scattering for cover, uttering shrill squeaks clearly identifiable as fear, as a shadow covered the sun. There was a flapping sound as something settled on the ground nearby. Kirk tried desperately to lift his head, to look, to see what was happening, what had come now, but he couldn't move...
He regained consciousness in sickbay, still paralysed. It took several days for the paralysis to wear off. He learned afterwards that only his bleeding arm had saved him from being declared dead - and only the Captain's fear that leaving two bodies and their equipment might somehow cause a breach of the Prime Directive had caused him to retrieve both as soon as the sensors showed that the semi-intelligent rodents had moved away.
Mitchell came to see him once, probably hoping that he could fool him again; but Kirk remembered the look on Mitchell's face only too well. He greeted the man coldly, and the other, realising that he had betrayed himself is well as Kirk, did not press the point. He had transferred away soon after. But the damage had been done. Kirk had never been able to trust anyone on a personal level again. He had learned only too well how easily he could be fooled by a clever, unscrupulous, ambitious man...
As his voice ceased, Kirk remained staring vacantly into space, his face showing clearly the horror that he was re-living. Spock and McCoy glanced at each other, the same thought uppermost in both their minds.
They wanted Jim Kirk - their Jim Kirk - back. But somehow, could they help this Kirk... lonely, unhappy, tortured by a horrible memory as he was? Spock realised the terrible loneliness, for that had been a facet of his own existence for almost all his life, but McCoy knew from personal experience the pain of a betrayed trust... remembering a period, now long past, when he had been afraid to trust again...
And yet, how could they help him? Mere words would never serve to overcome such a terrible disillusionment; actions were what was needed... and their actions would only, at best, persuade him to trust them - not their counterparts. And... would their anxiety to get their own Kirk back utterly destroy whatever slim chance this Kirk had of learning to trust again?
The three men studied the machine carefully.
"It appears to be completely inert, sir," Spock said. "You are certain that this was the one - ?"
"Quite certain, Mr. Spock." Kirk looked at it consideringly. "The one major difference is that in my universe it looked as if it was working. The screen - " he pointed " - had moving patterns of light and shadow. Faint - very faint - but it looked as if it was still working."
"Whereas this one appears inoperable. Interesting." Spock pressed a switch. It remained unmoving.
"I can't help thinking," Kirk said, "that it's the one in my universe that was responsible for the transfer. If so, I'll have to depend on them realising what's happened and trying to get me back."
"Are they likely to realise?" McCoy asked.
"I think so. Last time... Spock knew right away. Certainly the differences between the universes were more marked on that occasion, but Spock knows me better than anyone else in the universe. It might take him an hour or two - but he'll know. And he'll do something about it."
His companions looked at each other. "It would be very pleasant... if our Captain trusted us as you do your Spock and McCoy," Spock said quietly.
"Perhaps you can help him," Kirk suggested. "You don't dislike him?"
"No - he just won't let us - or anyone - like him," McCoy replied.
"You respect him as a Captain?"
"He goes a lot by the book, but yes - he's competent," Spock answered.
"Then let him see that. Seek him out - be friendly. Never mind if he brushes you off at first. Something must have made him untrusting - you have to convince him that whatever it was doesn't apply to you, even if it's by letting him trample all over your feelings. That's not easy for you, I know - but if you can persevere... I think you'll find it's worth it."
"If he does come back - we'll try," McCoy promised.
They turned back to the machine again. Kirk poked at the control switches idly. "Look!"
Kirk and Spock raised their eyes from the panel. McCoy was staring at the screen.
Flickering shadows moved on it. Remembering his previous actions, Kirk leaned forward; he raised his hand to press down on the switches, then paused. "If this works, and we exchange again... good luck, gentlemen." Firmly, he leaned on the board.
He staggered dizzily; hands caught him, steadying him. He took a deep breath, and looked up into two concerned faces. The expressions were sufficiently different to tell him all he needed to know.
"Thank you, gentlemen. It's good to be home."
"Welcome home, Jim," McCoy replied warmly. Spock said nothing - but his eyes were welcoming, and Kirk felt renewed sympathy for his lonely counterpart who had for so long denied himself the warmth that he could have been given by his own Spock. He would never know, of course... but he hoped that somehow that other Spock would find the strength to teach his Kirk how to trust him.
"It's good to be back," he said again.
Something was wrong! Kirk stared round the empty blackness with a whimpering terror, desperately trying to see - something, anything! The transfer had begun to work... but it had only partially worked. He was no longer in the alternate universe, but he had not returned to his own universe either. Why had he listened to the other Spock and McCoy? The trust he had begun to feel for them faded into oblivion. He had been safe there... but he had risked this because they had seemed so sure... the pain of betrayal, the worst of which he had held at bay for so many years by rejecting all emotional involvement, surged over him afresh and he caught his breath in a harsh sob as he fought to control panic.
Was his counterpart also caught in this limbo of nothingness? He called out, desperate for Human contact for the first time for almost longer than he cared to remember.
"Is anyone there?"
There was no answer.
Spock and McCoy had watched with resignation as the Jim Kirk who was so different to their own flickered out of sight, to be replaced a moment later by his double. Spock took a step forward, meaning to utter some words of welcome - he wasn't sure what - but then stopped. Kirk, leaning against the console, stared round blindly, terror on his face.
But the Captain clearly didn't hear - or see - them. His breathing was harsh, uneven.
"He's almost crying," McCoy whispered. "Spock - what's happened?"
"The transfer may have left him disorientated."
"Not this disorientated, surely," McCoy protested. "He's not aware of anything."
"Is anyone there?" The desperation in Kirk's voice made both men shiver.
"McCoy and I are both here, sir," Spock replied. There was no change in Kirk's tense attitude.
"He doesn't hear you," McCoy said.
Spock nodded. "I suspect that he may be trapped inside his own mind," he said.
"He sounds so... lonely."
"He probably is," Spock replied, almost sadly. "I can understand, Leonard; I was lonely as a child, because I was different and the Vulcan boys would not accept me. I can understand what it is to have no friends."
"But it's his own fault; he's always held everyone at arm's length."
"Since meeting that other Kirk.. I find myself wondering why. You seem to be much the same in both universes, from what Jim Kirk said, I seem to be much the same. So why should he be different?" Spock was looking straight at Kirk. The Captain was showing increased terror, and Spock realised that unless they could do something quickly, Kirk might go mad from the sheer sensory deprivation of psychological blankness.
McCoy realised it too. "Can you do anything to reach him, Spock? Would that mind meld you showed me get through to him?"
Spock hesitated. "It might. However, it is unethical to link with someone without their consent - "
"He isn't in a state to consent! If he was, it wouldn't be necessary!"
"I know. I must try it, ethical or not. Leonard, if it does not work - If I am trapped in the labyrinth of his mind - you will know by my very silence and my actions, which will parallel his. If it happens, pull me away from him; hit me until I regain my senses."
McCoy nodded. "I'll do that."
Spock took a deep breath. Then he took the single step that carried him to Kirk's side, his hands reaching up to Kirk's face.
Kirk stood motionless, staring into the darkness, his eyes straining to see, his ears to hear. Somewhere far away was a soft whispering murmur, like the sound of branches rustling in the wind or the distant friction of breakers rushing up a sandy beach. The sound, faint though it was, gave sufficient reality to the situation to calm him slightly.
He remained silent now. If he did share this limbo with anyone, they had not answered his call; he would not give them the satisfaction of hearing him ask again.
Somewhere there must be a way of escape... but where? Now that the first shock was over, he could think more rationally. The Spock and McCoy of the alternate universe could not know of his predicament unless their own Kirk also had not returned; he could not depend on their help. His own Spock and McCoy? Any of his own crew? Did they even know of the exchange? If they did, did they know of the attempt to change back again? But how could they help him anyway? Would they even want to? Long ago he had made it so clear, so horribly clear to everyone, that he couldn't trust their offered friendship... until they had withdrawn the offer. He knew now, too, that he had wanted to accept it, could have accepted it if they had somehow managed to overlook his attitude until he had stopped being afraid of them. The thought caused the suffocating waves of loneliness to wash over him even deeper, intensifying the desolation that had been his constant companion since Dimorus
What was that?
A faint light was shining in the darkness. He reached out towards it, and touched something solid.
"But... but how... ?"
A hand gripped Kirk's firmly. "There will be time for explanations later. This way, Captain." The voice was very gentle. "Trust me, Captain."
Trust... Could he? He could at least try.
It was a long, dark twisting tunnel and Kirk could see only the faint light as he was led along it. But he followed without hesitation, finding it surprisingly easy to trust. Someone - Spock - had actually come to look for him, and he was carried along on the reassurance of that thought.
The light was brighter in front of them; suddenly Kirk found himself out of the blackness, standing in dim light in front of a machine... and Spock was holding his hand, and McCoy was standing there too, grinning like an idiot in unconcealed relief.
Kirk looked from one to the other as Spock released his grip. "What happened?"
"You know you transferred into another universe, sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Spock - and I got lost coming back."
"Not exactly lost, sir. Your body returned - but your mind retreated into itself, possibly because you were unwilling to leave the other universe."
"How do you know that?"
"There is a Vulcan technique - Captain. I was able to form a telepathic link with your mind, to lead you back to consciousness. I... read several things there, Captain, that among them. I was not attempting to spy on your thoughts, sir, and what I learned... will not be divulged to anyone."
"He had to do it, sir," McCoy put in. "Otherwise you'd have gone mad."
Kirk was silent for a moment as he thought about it. Then -
"What was... he... like?" He had to ask.
"He was the man you could be, Captain - if you could bring yourself to trust us," Spock replied honestly.
Remembering, Kirk looked down at Spock's hands. "Was there an explosion here?"
"Yes. Your counterpart burned his hands to save me."
Kirk's face twisted slightly, and with sudden insight Spock knew what must be said. "I was grateful... but even so, you are my Captain, and I am glad that you have returned."
Kirk looked straight at him; Spock met his Captain's eyes directly, allowing the respect he felt for the other Kirk to show clearly. As he had hoped, Kirk interpreted the expression as going with the words. A tentative smile appeared on the Captain's face.
Both men relaxed. There was still a long way to go, and they could guess that Kirk would need constant reassurance to overcome his uncertainty, especially at first. But perhaps the way would not be as difficult as they had feared, for Kirk was clearly willing to meet them halfway.
Kirk himself knew that it would not be easy; the demon of self-doubt would still plague him at times, and would have to be overcome; but for the moment, he felt a peace he had not known for many years.
Content, strangely happy, he said, "Let's get back to the ship, gentlemen. There are some changes I want to make... "