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The shore leave party on Argelius had visited a number of pleasure houses, and had lost several of their number en route. Now only Kirk and McCoy were left; and Kirk, free at last from the encumbering presence of his junior officers, was feeling like enjoying the chief entertainment offered by the planet.
The two officers paused at the entrance to a particularly opulent-looking establishment. Rhythmic music pulsed inside; through the half-open door they could see the swirl of colour as a dancer gyrated tantalisingly. A glance passed between them, then by mutual consent they moved inside.
They ordered drinks, and sat watching the dancers. Before long one of the girls paused in her twirling dance to sway seductively before McCoy. The surgeon glanced almost apologetically at Kirk, who grinned back.
"Go on, Bones, enjoy yourself."
McCoy rose. The girl caught his hand and led him out. Kirk sat back, to look over the other girls consideringly. Even though none of them had made a move to come to him as yet, he could still invite one of them to partner him. None of them really tempted him, however; he wanted someone a little more... delicate in her approach, he decided, not one so blatantly suggestive as this dance made these girls. He remembered a place he had found once before, and a girl there...
Kirk tossed a coin onto the table, and left unhurriedly.
The various members of the landing party beamed back to the ship in varying states of intoxication; and because there was a change of watch midway through the period when the off-duty officers were returning, it was not until Kirk failed to appear on the bridge next morning that anyone realised that he had not returned.
Spock hesitated for some minutes after Kirk's continued absence was reported to him. It was unlike the Captain to be late, but Kirk would not, Spock knew, appreciate it if a search were initiated to discover that for once Kirk had overslept somewhere on the planet after a strenuous night; yet an instinct that he trusted told Spock that there was a more sinister explanation than that for Kirk's failure to report back to the Enterprise. After thinking about it carefully, the First Officer decided to ask McCoy's opinion.
He found the ship's Chief Medical Officer looking slightly the worse for wear, as if he were in need of his own medication, with slightly bloodshot eyes and an obvious lack of energy. The surgeon regarded Spock unenthusiastically, the Vulcan's attitude of buoyant sobriety clearly offending him. But Spock's first words - so different from the ones McCoy had been expecting to hear - quickly shook the last of the liquor fumes from his mind.
"Last night, Doctor - when did you last see the Captain?"
"The Captain has not returned, but because of some carelessness when the watch changed, his absence was not reported to me until this morning. When did you last see him?"
McCoy gathered his wits together, and gave Spock the required information, adding,
"So I went off with the girl. When I got back to the dance area, Jim had gone. I asked if he was still there, and the attendant said he'd left, alone, a while before. I didn't think anything of it... Spock, you don't think Jim's in trouble?"
"I don't really know what to think, Doctor."
The man lying on the filthy bunk regained consciousness to a throbbing headache. He blinked his eyes open cautiously, wincing as the light, dim though it was, dazzled him. He looked round.
He was in an untidy windowless room lit by a bare light bulb. There was something familiar - yet at the same time utterly unfamiliar - about the unpleasant little room. He looked with distaste at the rubbish littering the floor, his nose wrinkling in disgust at the stale, unpleasant stench that assailed his nostrils. There were three other bunks in the horrible little room, each as dirty as the others, all empty. He shouldn't be here, should he? His brow wrinkled in a frown of bewilderment. With a sudden stab of fear, he realised that he could not remember his own name. Who was he? Where was he? He looked down at himself with the sudden conviction that the sight of his clothes might help him to remember.
It didn't. He was wearing an anonymous grey coverall, as dirty as his surroundings, that he was irrationally certain was not his normal garb.
He was sitting on the bunk, elbows on his knees, his head resting on his hands, when the door was kicked open.
Two men stood there. They were dressed similarly, in grey trousers and dark blue shirts; and one held a length of thin knotted rope in his hand.
The puzzled man in the dirty coverall stared up at them. "Where... where am I?"
The man with the rope showed his teeth in a mirthless grin. "And that's the only question you're allowed, buster. You're on board the Ranger now. I'm Officer Derwent, your boss; and I only tell you things once. If you're clever, you'll learn fast. Otherwise..." He swished the knotted rope meaningfully. "Now - what's your name?"
"I'm... I can't remember." He sounded astonished.
Derwent strode forward. He grabbed the chest of the coverall in one brawny hand, ignoring the involuntary yelp as he caught a fold of skin as well, and yanked the hapless man to his feet. "Don't get funny with me, crewman."
"I can't remember... anything."
Derwent pushed him away roughly, scornfully. "This one won't be much use for a while," he growled, glancing at his fellow officer. "Speaks too grand to be used to working hard. All right, Dummy. We'll see how much good you are. Out!" He nodded towards the door with a sharp gesture.
The man who would now be called Dummy obeyed. There was no point in resisting; and outside this unappealing room he might learn something that would help him remember...
Unhesitating as his obedience was, it seemed that Derwent was not satisfied with Dummy's speed, for as the man passed him Derwent struck him across the shoulders as hard as he could with the knotted rope. The unnecessariness and unexpectedness of the blow added to its effect.
Dummy gasped at the sudden unexpected pain, a hand clenching involuntarily. The sight of this incipient rebellion pleased Derwent; it gave him an excuse, little though he needed one, to exercise his sadism. The knotted rope fell again across the new crewman's shoulders, and again and again...
A blow -- perhaps it was misjudged - caught Dummy across the head, causing a sharp pain out of proportion to the force of the blow, vicious as it was. Dummy cowered away, trying to protect his head, whimpering softly in shock.
The other officer caught Derwent's arm after a minute. "That's enough, Derwent - you don't want to kill him - not yet, anyway. Get our money's worth out of him first!"
"All right, Varen," he growled. "Now you, Dummy - that's not a fraction of what you'll get if I ever see the slightest sign of disobedience again. Get it?"
Dummy, half-stunned, managed to nod weakly.
Dummy was set to work immediately in the cargo hold of the Ranger. The work seemed to his dazed, half-awake mind to be totally unnecessary, but he was set to join three others who were wearily moving heavy packing cases. Derwent checked the contents, then set the four men to restack the huge boxes, which were almost beyond even the combined strength of the four of them to shift easily, and Derwent's knotted rope was used freely.
Several times it caught Dummy on the head, slashing across the head wound that he had discovered but could not remember sustaining; just as it caught the others direct on various cuts and sores. Other times it fell across their bodies, frequently catching already inflicted bruises, so that movement itself became agonising. Dummy suffered it in silence for a while, but after one particularly vicious cut he turned on his tormentor, fists clenched.
He was stopped by the knotted rope catching him across the face, a blow that barely missed his eye. After that, wisdom prevailed again and he crouched back, trying to protect his head with his arms. Derwent let the rope fall where it would and only stopped when at last his arm was tired. The other three cowered back too, glad that they were not the objects of the sadistic officer's attention, more than glad of a rest. When at last the rope ceased to fall, Dummy's body was an aching mass. He was given no respite, however. They were lashed back to work.
At last they were released, to stumble painfully and wearily back to the filthy cabin they shared. Dummy looked round it with disgust, now appreciating why it was in such a state; its occupants, after being worked as they were, were in no fit state to do anything but collapse on their bunks in exhaustion when they stopped work. But they could at least keep it tidy, surely.
He made an attempt to clean the floor slightly by gathering all the debris together, but was unable to do more; when he asked, no-one knew where he could dispose of it, and he was told, frankly, that Derwent would not like it if he asked anyone else. Each of them, it seemed, had made such an attempt on first coming aboard - but it appeared that the officers on the Ranger wanted to keep the crewmen living in squalor; it kept them dispirited. The death rate among the crew was very high; none of them had been aboard more than a few months, and the one who had been there longest was a very sick man who frequently vomited blood.
"Don't you get any medical attention?" Dummy asked, puzzled, a faint memory trying to surface.
The sick man shook his head.
When mealtime arrived - they were fed only once a day - Dummy found that for him, there was no meal. Derwent had ordered that for the next week, the rebellious, mutinous Dummy should get no food.
The other officers took no part in the ill-treatment of the four cargo handlers; it was no concern of theirs how Derwent handled his section. They had their own sections to oversee; and while their treatment of their men was less brutal than Derwent's, it was still harsh.
As the week progressed Dummy, weakened by lack of food combined with the over- hard work, became the subject of more and more beatings as he failed to accomplish his workload to Derwent's satisfaction. He was dimly aware that this brutality was not necessary; that it was the result of a sadistic pleasure in causing suffering.
Something in him rebelled at the incessant bullying, and only the realisation that any more defiance on his part would result in increasingly severe punishment kept Dummy from attacking his tormentor. That and the knowledge that the other officers would unhesitatingly support their fellow and that he could not win. His fellow crewmen - they could almost be called slaves - would not help; their spirit was broken.
By now he had discovered where he was. He was on board a tramp freighter, one of the freelance ships that was normally owned by its Captain, and that paid only lip service to Federation laws. Such ships were difficult to crew - Dummy fully appreciated why - and were frequently manned by men kidnapped from the back streets of general spaceports. The discovery cheered him slightly; surely someone, somewhere, knew that he was missing? But even if they did... did anyone care enough for him to bother trying to discover where he had gone? Had he friends or family to worry about him?
On board a Starship now many light years away, several people were worrying quite considerably. Spock had delayed only a few minutes before yielding to the instinct that told him Jim was in trouble. A thorough search of the town proved blank; the earth might have opened up and swallowed the Captain of the Enterprise. Spock began to consider how to extend the search.
They were handicapped even before they started, however; a man in the uniform of a Starfleet Captain was a conspicuous object, but Kirk had, for once, been wearing civilian clothes.
An investigation of all means of transport out of the city revealed nothing. No stranger had left the city by any of these, and it was unheard-of for anyone to leave on foot.
Spock began to worry about murder.
The ship's entire Security section beamed down to make a second intensive search of the back streets and alleys and the surrounding countryside, but it revealed nothing. The crew of the Enterprise became more and more edgy; only Spock appeared to remain his normal calm self, his very calm serving to quieten the anxiety of some of the crew and irritate others. Only in the privacy of his cabin did he permit himself to relax and no-one seeing him then could have doubted that his worry exceeded that of any three of the others put together - with the possible exception of McCoy, who was becoming more and more irascible as hour followed hour with no news.
Jaris of Argelius proved to be another irritant with his quiet, ineffectual, resigned sympathy. Even Hosea, the Terran who had replaced the unlamented Hengist and who didn't know Kirk, was annoyed by Jaris' reaction.
"My job's made ten times harder by attitudes like yours!" Hosea burst out on the evening of the second day after a particularly philosophic comment by the Argelian. "Dammit, if you'd think a bit more about other people and less about having a good time, your whole rotten planet would be better off! O.K., you don't have much crime, but what there is, is foul - and what help do I get to discover the criminals? No wonder so many of your crimes are unsolved! Well, this one I do mean to solve.
"Quite apart from anything else, have you thought what the unexplained disappearance of a Starship Captain in your main city will do to your planet's relationship with the Federation? Come down to earth for once!"
Hosea turned to the Enterprise officers. "There have been several other disappearances over the last few months," he explained. "Mostly they were locals - one or two were crewmen off freighters - and I've made inquiries, but this planet has a population of the galaxy's most dedicated defeatists. I've a few ideas, though, and now I can twist an arm or two; there's a big difference between a starship captain and an unskilled general crewman who is shrugged off by everyone as a deserter seduced by the fleshpots of Argelius. I'll find out what happened, all right."
Hosea was as good as his word. It took him four more days, but he eventually contacted the Enterprise. Spock called McCoy in to hear Hosea's report.
"There are a few immigrants living here," Hosea began. "They're mostly dropouts from other worlds. They don't usually fit in here either - this is a completely hedonistic society but that doesn't mean that a man can just lie back and do nothing. Misfits from other worlds usually find that they can't adjust to a life here either; by definition they'll be discontented with the status quo wherever they go. However, a lot stay for lack of somewhere better to go. Money becomes a bit of a problem after a while for most of them - and that's where most of the criminal class comes from. So I'd a fair idea of where to start looking.
"Your Captain was shanghaied and sold to the Captain/owner of a tramp freighter - like the rest of the people who've disappeared recently. I couldn't find out for certain which tramp - but the Ranger left orbit early on the morning Captain Kirk was reported missing, so I'd guess that's your ship."
"What was the Ranger's filed destination?" Spock asked.
"There isn't one, sir. Those tramps are just that; they intercept a sub-space message about a mining discovery or a good grain crop or whatever, and if they reckon it's to their advantage, they divert. All I can tell you is that they left on course four two seven mark three."
"Thank you, Mr Hosea. You have been most helpful. What of the kidnappers?"
"As immigrant Argelians, they are subject to Argelian law, Commander. Argelian punishments are... vicious - the statute books haven't been changed in centuries; it's not been worth the Argelians' while to bother, since the natives are basically law-abiding nowadays, whatever they might have been in the past. These men will suffer far more than if a Federation court tried them, believe me; and even in the name of humanity, the Federation cannot intervene. And frankly, I have no sympathy for them."
The Enterprise swung gracefully out of orbit on to course four two seven mark three, and proceeded at Warp six. At this speed, so much in excess of the fastest any freighter could manage, the Starship soon overhauled a tramp. It could only be the Ranger.
Spock studied the tramp as she hung in the viewscreen. The vessel's once beautiful lines were marred by blemishes where inadequate shielding had permitted tiny meteors to impact and by a carelessly done repair that had, in addition, been left unpainted. It would take very little to destroy this ship entirely. The sight prepared him somewhat for his first contact with the Ranger's personnel.
As the Enterprise matched her speed to the freighter's, Spock glanced back at Uhura.
"Open a channel, Lieutenant."
"Hailing frequencies open, sir."
"Spock, commanding the Starship Enterprise, to tramp freighter Ranger."
The face that appeared on the screen was unwashed, unshaved, and generally gross. It gave the appearance of dissipation and self-indulgence.
"Shira, owner. What the hell d'ye want?"
"We understand you shipped at least one new crewman at Argelius, Mr Shira, and from our information we believe that he may be one of our men, who went missing the night before you left. We... request... permission to board you and search for him."
Every eye on the bridge was fixed on the scowling face on the screen, and the combined expression of shock -- and, yes, fear - that passed across the unpleasant face was unmistakable.
"What makes ye think yer deserter is aboard my ship?" It was clearly recognisable, even to Spock, as bluster.
"He is not a deserter, Mr. Shira - we have good reason to believe that he was abducted. As for his being aboard your ship, we have investigated every other possibility."
"I won't have it, d'ye hear me? Ye've no right to nosy about in my ship -"
"If you have nothing to hide, Mr. Shira, why object?"
"It's a... an infringement of my rights - "
"Even tramp freighters are subject to Federation authority, little though you might like it, Mr. Shira. Without us you would not have the freedom of movement that you presently enjoy. I have the right to insist on boarding you to look for our missing officer."
"And if I refuse?"
"We do have the capacity to disable you while we make our search, Mr. Shira. All we need to do is use the ship's phasers to stun everyone on board, then we may look for our colleague at our leisure."
Shira cursed, violently and fluently.
"Do I take it that you have decided to permit us to board?" From a Human, the question might have been slightly mocking; from Spock, it sounded like a straight question - although McCoy, present on the bridge as a matter of course to find out what was happening, knowing his Spock, glanced sharply at him, suspecting sarcasm.
"Yes, damn ye!"
Spock went himself, taking McCoy and ten Security men. The guards scattered through the ship in pairs, while Spock and McCoy requested Shira's company as they also searched.
Their search eventually took them into the cargo area. Packing cases were littering the floor untidily in a hopelessly inefficient muddle; a single ill-tempered looking officer was working there, apparently checking cargo. The Enterprise officers looked round disapprovingly.
Satisfied that there was no-one else there, Spock turned to leave; McCoy hesitated. Something struck him as false here. Then he realised. In the other areas they had seen, there had been one or two crewmen working dispiritedly, at tasks that seemed unnecessary; here, where it seemed necessary to have someone working, there was no-one. He said so.
Spock lifted an eyebrow. "Well, Mr. Shira?'•
"We're... We're short-handed, Commander. We've no cargo handlers just now..."
"Couldn't you put some of the men doing make-work in other areas into here, at least until the cargo is safely stowed?" Spock asked. He looked straight at Shira, as the tramp's owner stammered unintelligibly, and went on, his voice colder than McCoy had ever thought it possible for the Vulcan to sound. "I would be obliged if you would stop wasting our time, Mr. Shira. I do not blame you for the kidnapping, little though I relish your way of recruiting; but I do not intend to continue playing games while you pretend that our missing friend is not on board. I want him - now."
Shira paled. The menace in the hitherto urbane officer's voice was unmistakeable and rendered even more deadly by the fact that Spock made no threats. Unlike many bullies, Shira was no coward; but he knew, without any doubt, that on this occasion at least, the time had come to surrender.
The four men in the filthy cabin lay on their bunks, surprised by the unexpected order to knock off and make themselves scarce but glad of the extra rest. Even the fact that they had heard a key turn outside, locking them in, failed to rouse them to curiosity.
Now, when the key grated in the lock again, they sat up wearily, sure that they were being called back to work... and stared in utter bewilderment at the blue and red shirts in the doorway.
"Jim!" McCoy sprang forward, but before he reached his Captain he faltered, realising that Kirk was far from all right. His exuberant greeting changed instantly to medical concern; on the last two steps he whipped out his medical scanner and ran it over the Captain, his lips tightening as he interpreted the readings. "We'll soon have you back on the ship, Jim..."
They also took the three other crewmen; at Shira's objection Spock told him that if he had any complaints, to deliver them straight to Starfleet Command. Shira shut up rather quickly, already worried about what might happen. Little though he cared for the Federation's laws, he realised that he did need them; he had no wish to find his ship black-listed so that no Federation planet would give him trade again, and he had already decided that if necessary he would throw Derwent to the lions and pass all the blame onto him.
Spock and McCoy stood, one on each side of the sickbay bed, staring down at Kirk's naked body, horrified by the mass of bruises on bruises that covered their friend's body. Kirk's eyes were closed in sedated sleep.
"Someone has been beating him regularly," McCoy said, clinically impersonal. "Someone who knew a fair amount about the Human nervous and muscular system. See these concentrated patches of bruises. All are covering areas where any movement - walking, lifting, even getting up and sitting down - will cause pain, if the muscles are strained or bruised. His body's going to be a most uncomfortable thing to live in for a few days, even with painkillers to help him. In addition, there's the head injury. It's been aggravated some way. The other three are in much the same condition," he added parenthetically. "And one of them has a stomach condition that I may not be able to cure, it's so far advanced. But even if all I can do for him is make his death easier, I've accomplished something. I'd like to get my hands on the man responsible for all this," he added, indicating the bruises.
"The Captain did not know us," Spock said, tension noticeable in his voice.
McCoy nodded. "An amnesiac condition probably caused by the head injury. With rest it should improve."
Kirk's eyes blinked open. McCoy smiled down at him. "Easy, Jim. You're safe now. You'll be on your feet again in a day or two."
Kirk's lips moved in a faint responding smile. He looked on past McCoy to Spock. The Vulcan, realising that something concrete was needed here to reassure his friend, permitted himself to smile slightly as well; unnecessarily, had he known. The warmth already in his eyes was all the reassurance Kirk needed. Even although Kirk could not recognise them, he could recognise their obvious concern.
His eyes moved on round the room. There was a haunting familiarity about the place, although he didn't stop to think about that; what was of more immediate importance was the simple fact that everything was clean. It all looked clean and - wonder of wonders - it smelt clean. It was with a strange feeling of physical well-being caused by the pleasantness of his surroundings that he closed his eyes and slept again.
Kirk lay still for a minute when he awoke, delaying opening his eyes, glad to be awake. That had been some nightmare! It had even left him with a residual headache. A hand caught his, and he opened his eyes, surprised.
He was lying in sickbay; his First Officer, sitting beside him, was holding his hand.
"Spock?" he asked.
Visible relief passed over the Vulcan's face. "How do you feel, Captain?"
Kirk made a face. "As if a herd of stampeding buffalo had charged right over me."
"I'll call Dr. McCoy to give you a painkiller." The voice was quiet and very gentle.
"No, wait. Spock... I dreamed that I'd been kidnapped and made to work on a cargo ship..."
"You didn't dream it, Jim. It really happened. It took us almost a week to find you." He took a deep breath. His grip on Kirk's hand tightened slightly for a moment, then he released it. "I'll get McCoy - he's checking the other men we rescued from that hell-ship."
Under the peaceful influence of the painkiller, Kirk drifted off to sleep again, lulled by the memory of the warmth in his friends' eyes.
Of course he had friends to worry about him...