Beyond any doubt, Kirk thought, this room had been expressly designed to remove any lingering feelings of hope. The walls had been painted a drab unrelieved green, the monotonous surfaces broken only by a narrow window which looked out onto the blank wall of the building opposite, and by two heavy doors. Through one of these he had entered - how long ago was it? - with his two friends; through the other he would soon pass - alone. It seemed that the fear and hopelessness of the uncounted numbers who had preceded him through that door lingered heavily in the air, mingling with a distinct, indefinable aroma that was almost, but not quite, familiar.
Across the room, McCoy leaned against the window, gazing out at the grey leaden sky; he turned now, feeling Kirk's gaze on him, his blue eyes filled with pain and regret. Somehow Kirk found the courage to smile, to silently tell his friend that of course he understood; in the medical kit were drugs that would relax him, place a barrier between his conscious mind and the Ordeal that was to come, but even on this primitive world the presiding Technician might detect their presence, and all would be lost. The Enterprise would not return for another forty eight hours, and despite all his efforts, the Ordeal could be postponed no longer.
The doctor's face grew hazy as the pain mounted higher; he felt sick, dizzy - he fought for control, knowing that he must not fail now. One final effort, one last test of endurance - if only he could hold on!
A strong, gentle hand caught his, slim fingers touched his face lightly, and the pain receded a little; he looked up into dark, anxious eyes that studied him concernedly. Kirk sighed with relief and relaxed for a moment against the strong shoulder, enjoying the temporary respite, but all too soon he pulled away. This mission had been hard on all of them - his own mysterious fever, McCoy's broken wrist - even Spock had not adapted too well to this world. If only the Enterprise had not had to leave them! Still, too late for regrets now, it was almost over. The illness of the other two had been a great strain on the Vulcan, and for this reason Kirk had forbidden Spock to link with him, but as usual he had set his concern for his Captain above his own welfare, giving his last reserves of strength to help Kirk endure what was to come. The selflessness of that giving increased Kirk's determination - he would survive this Ordeal, for if he broke, if he betrayed himself, both these valued friends would suffer, Spock most of all.
The sinister door opened at last with a suddenness that took them all by surprise; a white-robed Technician stood there, silently motioning Kirk to follow. He rose obediently, hesitated, glanced at McCoy; the blue eyes tried to smile encouragement, but were dimmed by an apprehension he could not conceal. Kirk found that his hands were shaking, and he clasped them together, trying to conceal the evidence of his fear; a warm, strong hand closed over his fingers for an instant, stilling the trembling, and with one last look into the compassionate eyes Kirk turned and followed the Technician. As he crossed the threshold he glanced back in time to see Spock rise to greet McCoy, who had crossed to him, instinctively seeking to share his support at this moment. He need not fear for them, he thought, for they would comfort each other as they waited; only he must somehow find the courage to go on alone, to pass through the Ordeal without betraying himself.
A short stretch of corridor - too short, he could have wished it longer - then the white-robed figure beckoning him through yet another door, thick, heavy, close-fitting; he shuddered, knowing the reason for its weight - screams would be muffled by the heavy wood, not reaching the room where the others waited. But unhearing, they would still know, would live every second of torment, each stab of pain with him.
The chair waited; unresisting, he allowed himself to be guided into its metal and leather embrace. There was no point in fighting now, and delay would only prolong the agony. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed the flash of metal, and resolved not to look. Useless; despite himself his head turned and he surveyed with dreadful anticipation the shining instruments laid out in readiness; needles, wickedly pointed; razor-sharp blades; probes to seek relentlessly for jagged nerves. Shuddering, he looked away, only to see the final, barbaric refinement of cruelty - over the chair a mirror had been hung, reflecting now his own apprehensive eyes; all too soon it would show him in graphic detail exactly what was being done to him. In this place of shining metal and glass and leather, Human flesh and blood seemed suddenly very fragile. A hand touched his shoulder, pushing him back so that he lay half-reclining; a head moved into sight, mercifully blocking his view of the mirror; cold grey eyes looked impersonally into his.
"Now," said the Technician, calmly, "it begins."
The needles first, sinking deep into cringing flesh, not in themselves intolerable, but holding the promise of pain and terror to come; then other, nameless instruments, probing, twisting, tearing until only the most supreme effort of will held him still and silent. Beneath his hands the leather of the chair was worn smooth and shining by the convulsive grip of previous victims; others had survived this, so could he - but nothing had prepared him for the indignity, the humiliation of the pain those skilful hands inflicted.
He thought that his suffering only confirmed the conclusion that the survey team had reached - this planet was ripe for first contact. Advanced though its people were in many ways, this hideous survival from a more primitive age argued forcefully that the teaching of the Federation was needed to banish the Ordeal from the lives of its citizens.
There was a moment's respite as the Technician paused to confer with the Attendant who assisted him; all too soon the brief consultation was over, and his tormentor resumed the merciless probing, shredding nerves already strained almost beyond endurance; with humiliation he felt tears sting his eyes, tasted blood in his mouth, and dug his nails savagely into the palms of his hands - anything to keep himself from breaking down, from betraying himself and his friends.
His friends! Think of them, he told himself firmly; think of Bones and Spock, waiting there in an agony of apprehension. They depend on you, they trust you - you can't let them down now! They understood and shared his dread, and their own suffering would be no less than his as their imaginations lived every second of exquisite torment with him. How much longer would this Ordeal last? Surely it must be almost over?
The Technician leaned closer; in his hands... something... reflected the bright glare of the overhead lights; the waves of sick pain crashed to an intolerable level, tearing him apart... it was no use, he could hold on no longer... "I'm... sorry ..." he managed to whisper; then consciousness finally, mercifully, fled.
In the drab green room McCoy paced restlessly, fighting the urge to barge through that ominous door, to find Jim, to... to what? Snatch him away, somehow end the pain? He could try that, and in the attempt betray their identities and their mission. The Technician had Jim now, and he must wait; even if he got Jim away, his broken wrist would render him powerless to help his friend; and if the Technician got one look at his drugs and instruments he would surely become suspicious, might even recognise them for what they were, aliens in this place. But to let Jim suffer God alone knew what barbaric indignities... The quiet voice broke in on his thoughts.
"Doctor, this restlessness serves no useful purpose. You would do better to remain calm - Jim will need you when... when this is over. Try to be patient."
"Patient! Like you, I suppose!" McCoy snorted. "Don't you understand... don't you know what they're doing to Jim in there?" He broke off abruptly as a dreadful suspicion occurred to him; Spock's voice had held a familiar note.
"You're linked!" he said accusingly.
"Yes, Doctor." Spock's voice was the merest thread of sound.
"But Jim expressly forbade..."
"I had to disobey; I could no longer bear... his suffering. He does not know - he will believe he fainted - but I felt... his pain, his fear. He will survive this without speaking - that is all that matters; do not... shame him... by telling him of the link; he was... so tired, so ill..."
"So are you, Spock." McCoy touched the Vulcan's shoulder; the velvet dark eyes reflected all too clearly the pain of the Ordeal, and he could feel the very slight trembling in Spock's body that betrayed the strain he was feeling.
"I did not believe," the deep voice went on, "that such... barbaric practices still existed."
"We can't blame these people, Spock," McCoy commented sadly. "It's their way, they don't know any better... perhaps one day..." He straightened, resumed his aimless pacing. "Oh God, how much longer!" he burst out.
Silence. He looked across at Spock, saw the Vulcan suddenly slump in his chair, his hands covering his face.
"Spock!" McCoy bent over the motionless figure. "What's wrong?"
Slowly the tense hands dropped; the dark eyes gazed into his, alight with unconcealed relief.
"It... is over," Spock said simply.
The opening door brought both men to their feet, tense, expectant. The Technician entered first, followed by an Attendant bearing Kirk's unconscious body in his arms. As they started forward the Technician said,
"Your friend is in shock; he will recover shortly."
He motioned to the Attendant, who laid Kirk on a couch; a moment later the three men were alone.
Kirk awoke slowly; his first thought was instant recognition of the strong arms that held him comfortingly, his second, that the searing agony had subsided to a dull ache that was fading even now. He opened heavy eyes to see the two dear, familiar faces gazing down anxiously.
"Spock! Bones! What happened?" he asked weakly.
"You fainted, Jim," McCoy's voice answered. "Don't worry, it's over." He shot the contents of a hypo into Kirk's arm. "Just something to help you get on your feet again - we've got to get back to the pick-up point, and we have some rough going ahead. Jim, I'm sorry I couldn't give you anything to help you through this, but you know the risk; if you'd relaxed under the drug you might have let something slip..."
"It's all right, Bones - I understand." Kirk grinned with affection - McCoy had been so worried. And Spock? Kirk knew him well enough to sense his concern. He met the dark eyes reassuringly.
"I feel fine now," he said. "But Spock - I didn't betray us, did I?" He could not conceal the anxiety in his voice, the fear that he might have said something while unconscious that would have revealed who and what they were.
"No, Jim, you did not; the Technician suspects nothing - as far as he knows, you were just another victim of his instruments of torture."
Thankfully Kirk relaxed, resting his head against Spock's shoulder, allowing himself the luxury of this comfort while McCoy's drug took effect. At last he raised his head.
"Come on, let's get out of here," he said, looking back with a shudder at the firmly-closed door. "Let's go home."
As they retraced their steps McCoy stopped abruptly, pulling Kirk round to face him.
"Before we leave, I've got just one thing to say to you, Captain James T. Kirk," he growled.
"What's that, Bones?"
"Next time you decide to go tearing off on this sort of mission, for Pete's sake make sure your medical checks have been completed first - an abscessed tooth's no joke on a planet where the practice of dentistry is still in its infancy!"