He was out! But out where? Squinting, Kirk rose and scanned the surrounding terrain. One hillside looked pretty much the same as the next. Though there was no search party in sight, he cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Hello! This is Captain Kirk! Is anyone out there?"
A warm wind sighed around him.
Off in the distance, a lonely animal cried. Disappointed, Kirk looked back at the tunnel. Its opening was completely overgrown with vegetation. If he strayed from the area, he might never locate this portal to the underground again. He would risk losing Spock.
The planet's sun was burning low in the sky-almost day's end. Soon there would be no light coming through the cavern's mouth, and he would never find his way out in the dark.
Hurriedly he ripped away the fast-growing veil of vegetation and re-entered the cave. His eyes took a moment to adjust, then he began the difficult task of retracing his steps. Coming from the opposite direction, everything looked different. Twice he stopped, sure that he had taken a wrong turn and gone too far.
Standing in the darkness, Kirk cursed himself. How could he have left Spock alone? A sick, injured officer under his command. His personal friend.
"Spock!" he called out, heart slamming.
The shout echoed madly through the passage.
"Spock!" He rushed forward a dozen paces, then wavered.
Rounding a corner, he saw a dark shape on the ground. A body? Spock's body, as still as death.
Kirk hurried over and searched out the pulse point beneath the Vulcan's jaw. There was a steady, rapid throb. Relieved, he gently shook Spock's shoulder and said, "Come on, Mister, I've found the way out. Just a few more steps."
Spock stirred and mumbled.
"Questioning my orders again?" Kirk tucked a limp arm around his neck and sucked in a breath. "We'll see about that." With one fierce act of will, he dragged Spock up beside him. Pain momentarily roused the Vulcan, who gasped, stumbled, and attempted to balance against Kirk. After a few halting steps, Spock slumped again and Kirk bore his full weight.
"Not far now," Kirk promised, pressing onward.
Beside him Spock gasped, "Do not endanger...yourself further...on my account..."
Kirk wanted to shout as Doctor McCoy might, "Shut up, Spock! You're being rescued!" But instead he used the anger and frustration to help them keep moving.
And somehow they made it. The native sun was dipping below the hills when Kirk escaped the cave and dropped with his burden to the mossy slope. Numbly he watched the Vulcan cough in lung-ripping spasms, then vomit green blood. As Spock slid into unconsciousness, Kirk could only hope that he was entering a healing trance.
"Rest now," he said quietly.
Every weary muscle protested as Kirk stood and faced the nearest hill. Even its gentle grade seemed insurmountable at this point, but he took the climb slowly, letting his feet sink into the soothing moss. He reached the hilltop only slightly out of breath. Turning in a slow circle, he studied the rolling countryside in the dusk. Green trees on green slopes, under a purple sky. A herd of sheep-like grazers on the farthest plain looked like drifting white dots. And there was something larger, something stationary. A shuttlecraft? More likely a rock pile. Knowing that his voice could not possibly carry so far, he shouted. He screamed for help until his parched throat gave out and the last hint of light was fading. Then it was time to hike down.
He found Spock as he had left him, shivering slightly in his damp clothes. The air temperature was dropping fast. They would need some heat.
From his survival training, he dredged up the rudiments of fire-making. He had never been particularly great at this, but he had passed the Academy course. Silently recalling a prayer from his childhood, he gathered twigs and dried leaves from a patch of shrubbery, then scraped the invasive moss from a patch of ground near Spock. Next he found a dead branch, prepared two sticks for rubbing, and got to work. The oxygen-rich air soon had the wood smoking. A moment later, the tinder exploded in flames. Soon Kirk was warming himself beside a respectable fire, both surprised and grateful that something so important had gone so well. There was enough wood on hand to keep the blaze going for a few hours.
By the light of the fire, he bent over his second-in-command and carefully unwrapped Spock's leg. It had ballooned to such ghastly proportions that he swallowed against a wave of nausea. The suppurating infection was compounded by injury, but at least there was no bone evident. He had seen wounds of this type before. If not cleansed and treated soon, Spock could lose the leg. Shaken, he rewrapped it as best he could, then rigged a splint from two slim branches and bound it by means of a vine. When that was done, he selected a stout length of wood for defense purposes and stretched out near the Vulcan, hopefully scanning the stars for some sign of the Enterprise. Where was she?
"They'll find us," he said aloud, for Vulcans in a trance were said to be aware of conversation. "Now that we're out in the open, the ship's sensors will pick us up. You'll soon be in sickbay, giving Bones a hard time." An ache built in his throat, the likes of which he had not felt for a long time. As the youngest starship captain in the fleet, he always held in his emotions and carried on. But with nothing to do but wait, tears pricked his eyes and filled his chest to bursting. Up in the heavens, stars swam together in a great bright blur. Drugged with sorrow and weariness, he drifted off to sleep.
He was trudging through a storm, feet sinking at each step, deep into the muck. He was a boy and he was lost and he was crying. Trees rose like evil black giants around him, twisting and swaying in the wind. He tried to run, but stumbled. Suddenly a pair of dark branches stretched down and plucked him from the mire.
A scream rose in his throat, but he made no sound, for he saw that the branches were really warm, comforting arms.
A strong, gentle voice said, "Jimmy, it's me."
Kirk abruptly left the dream of his deceased father-the dad he had never known-and reared up. There was a whining sound, and all around him the night was awash with brilliance. A searchlight? Brandishing his club, he stood and shielded his face from the glare. Then the landing beacon curved away and Kirk watched a shuttlecraft gently settle nearby.
The club dropped from his fingers.
Scott and McCoy were first to exit the shuttle. Uhura overtook them, and rushing over, knelt at Spock's side.
As the doctor joined her, Kirk accepted a bottle of water from Scott and gulped half of it before his parched lips strained into a smile. "Thanks, Scotty. What would I do without you?"
"Ach." The Scotsman looked stricken. "Ye're better off with a new engineer-one who can keep a wee communicator functionin' properly." Though Kirk gave his shoulder a reassuring touch, he shrugged miserably. "Mitsubi and Klate beamed up, but nary a word from you or Mister Spock...and not even a hint of a sensor reading. I set up a ground base an' sent crews out searchin' day an' night. ‘Twas as if...as if ye'd disappeared off the face o' the planet!"
Kirk sighed. "And so we did, Scotty. But it's a rather long story..."
"And it will have to wait," McCoy interrupted as he switched off his medical tricorder. "Spock's overdue for surgery. I'm beaming him to the ship, stat. Are you coming, Captain?"
Kirk nodded. "You bet your brass, I'm coming."
By modern standards, it was a lengthy surgery. There was time for Kirk to shower in a sickbay booth and put on a fresh uniform, to be poked and scanned on a diagnostic table, to be re-hydrated and fortified with a decent meal. There was time to linger over coffee with Uhura as they both awaited news of Spock. There was altogether too much time.
The last bit of coffee was cold in Kirk's cup when McCoy found them and slumped into a seat with an air of satisfaction. "Well, he came through it. The rib that punctured his lung also nicked his pericardium." He paused to rub his lower right side disapprovingly. "Damn poor arrangement, if you ask me. Hardly enough protection for a heart way down there. Nevertheless..." A smile spread over his face. "Spock's going to be fine. You'll have a devil of a job keeping up with him, once that leg heals...which shouldn't be long, now that he's officially in one of those Vulcan trances."
Uhura sighed in relief.
"Now," McCoy said, focusing on his captain, "as for you..."
With an effort, Kirk pushed himself from the chair and said, "Scotty has the con and I'll be in my quarters."
Somehow he hobbled out of sickbay, to the turbolift. His sore feet felt crammed into his boots, as stiff and strange as the rest of him. He did not remember giving any voice command, but the lift deposited him on the proper deck. Just a few more steps and his cabin door slid open in welcome. Relying only on the courtesy light, he entered and collapsed on his bunk. Then as if in a dream, someone else was nearby. Strong hands gently pulled off his boots and covered him with a blanket.
"G'night," Kirk mumbled gratefully.
"Goodnight son," came the whispered reply.