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Sometime later Spock emerged from black, dreamless oblivion. Slowly he edged toward awareness, head throbbing, stomach convulsed by nausea. Repressing a groan, he opened his eyes...and remembered. He reared up and clutched his head from the resultant burst of agony, but as he applied a Vulcan technique, the misery became manageable and he was able to focus his attention on the captain.

Kirk lay just out of reach, in a patch of brown slime. His breathing was shallow and raspy. Concerned, Spock made a move toward him, but his legs met solid resistance. Glancing down, he found that his feet were bare and his ankles restrained by metallic rings imbedded in the stone. A quick look showed that Kirk was secured in the same manner.

This was not the work of any animal. Obviously they had encountered an intelligent being, but for now they seemed to be alone.

Softly he called, "Captain...Jim."

There was no response.

Lying flat in the foul-smelling sludge, he stretched toward the quiet form. Mere inches short, but it might as well have been parsecs. Sitting up, he stared helplessly at his captain, wondering what effect the powerful venom would have on a human. Was Jim dying?

There was a steady drip of water, and now and then a faint scuffling sound. Though he could not quite see into the deepest shadows, he suspected that a number of creatures were hiding there-probably the same poisonous species that had attacked them. Now Jim lay totally vulnerable to their return, and Spock's own situation was not much better.

But worrying would accomplish nothing. Setting himself in the Vulcan discipline, he wiped the worst of the slime from his hands, then bent to study his leg irons. The slim bands were hinged on one side and joined by a locking mechanism. A shaft anchored each cuff to sold rock. Spock worked his fingertips under the snug circlets, summoned his strength, and pulled hard. But despite their rather delicate appearance, the bands were quite effective. At last he released his hold. As he dropped to the filthy floor, a bitter rush of bile gagged him. The poison was still having its effect.

"Captain!" he called hoarsely.

Kirk remained deathly still. With each passing minute, the possibility of serious or fatal damage increased. The captain needed medical attention.

Willing himself back up, Spock gripped the bands again. He grit his teeth and yanked hard, ignoring the bite of metal and ooze of blood. The shackles resisted his determined prying, and a vigorous attempt to wrench the shafts from the chamber floor met with equal failure. At last the metal grew so slick with blood that he lost his grip and fell away, landing back in the seepage. Sickness rose in his throat again. The foul, humid air felt heavy in his lungs as he struggled to control his physical symptoms. One breath...two breaths...slowly...deeply...

The moldy stone walls seemed to rumble closer, the shadows twist and lengthen. No. Only the poison working on my mind...a matter of the mind...the mind controls...controls...

A ragged sound shattered Spock's concentration. Coughing? As he turned, the captain rolled onto one elbow, looking groggy and disoriented.

"Take care," Spock advised. "The aftereffect of the venom is quite unpleasant."

But Kirk was already emptying his stomach. After the retching passed, he lay back weakly. "Damn. What hit us?"

"I did not get a clear look at the creatures." Spock sat up and fingered his leg bonds. "However, I have had ample opportunity to examine these."

As Kirk struggled up and studied this latest development, a bleak silence settled over the chamber.

Watching him tug ineffectually at his leg irons, Spock said, "Clearly we have encountered an intelligent species. Energy-inhibiting minerals in this stone must have shielded these ground dwellers from our sensors."

Kirk swung around, wincing as his head protested the abrupt movement. "And our crew is searching for us blind."

Spock gave a solemn nod. "Indeed."

Through a haze of sickness, Kirk looked at the feeble wash of light receding from the window slits. He envisioned his crew frantic with worry on the planet's surface or-in a more optimistic vein-searching their way through the subterranean tunnels. "We might try calling for help...but our captors would likely hear us."

"Yes," Spock agreed, his face a vague smudge in the gathering darkness. "Quite likely."

Kirk was straining against the leg shackles when night abruptly descended. All at once every noise seemed louder-the uneasy rhythm of their breathing, drips of water, and the skittering of creatures on the chamber floor.

"Our venomous friends are back," Kirk whispered.

Spock's reply was equally low. "Judging from their level of activity, they must be primarily nocturnal."

"Hey!" Kirk exclaimed when something soft nudged his bare foot. As he swung out, another animal landed in his lap. He sent them both flying. They landed with dull plops and scurried away, chattering.

Stretching to the very limit of his shackles, he reached out blindly. "Spock...can you reach my hand?"

There were sounds of movement, and then warm fingertips briefly brushed against Kirk's. He did not know what he had hoped to accomplish by the brief contact, but it brought him a sense of comfort. With a touch of wry humor he said, "As you were."

A noisy scuffle was followed by Spock's delayed, very dry response. "Aye, Captain."

In spite of his queasy stomach, Kirk cracked a smile. His lips felt stiff and out of practice. "I have a feeling this night will be unforgettable. By the way, just how long are the nights here?"

"Eighteen-point-three-six hours."

It was perhaps the longest night in their lives. All through the dark stretch, animals came at them in a steady, relentless stream. The creatures seemed to approach in pairs, and no matter how roughly repelled, they came back sniffing and pawing.

"Persistent devils," Kirk complained. Every inch of him yearned for a tall drink, a shower, and a comfortable bed. And now that the sickness had eased, just add a thick steak to that list, flame broiled, medium rare.

"Are you feeling any better?" Spock's concerned voice sliced into his reverie.

"Fantastic," he answered sourly. "Remind me to thank our host for these marvelous accommodations. And how is your suite, Spock?"

Yet another siege of animals brought their conversation to an end. This time the creatures kept a respectable distance, swarming about and chattering among themselves.

Spock used the opportunity for a reluctant announcement. "Captain, I think you should know that the bite on my ankle is festering badly. The swelling has already spread as far as my knee."

"Great." Kirk explored the puncture wound on his own calf. A bit sore to the touch, but scabbed over and healing nicely. Almost as fast as that alien moss, growing thick and lush in a matter of minutes, totally hiding the raw site of the cave-in. "The creatures don't seem to be biting now. Try and get some rest."

"That is not necessary, Captain. As you are aware, Vulcans can forego sleep for extended..."

"Try!" The sharp order sent a hoard of creatures scurrying through the darkness.

Hunching over, Spock placed his elbows on his thighs and rested his face in his hands. He was having some difficulty regulating his mental processes. It was more than the grinding throb of his leg. Strange impressions teased at the periphery of his mind, yet when he tried to focus on them, they vanished. He made a concerted effort to think of Nyota. By now, she would be very worried about him. Would he ever see her again? Feel her arms around him and enjoy the sweetness of her thoughts as they kissed? As they made love? Now even her image fractured.

Annoyed by the distractions, he shifted and flexed his cramped muscles. Vulcan lungs meant for a thin, dry atmosphere were beginning to protest against the dank alien air. Rank seepage soaked his uniform, making him shiver.  Rest, the captain had ordered. For now he preferred to sit until his strength failed completely.

Glancing to one side, he could barely distinguish Kirk's shadowy form lying flat-out in the muck. Snoring softly, unaware of the small milling shapes, oblivious to every discomfort. At times Spock almost envied the human's easy, uncomplicated responses. Taking refuge in his Vulcan ways, he kept silent watch as the night dragged on.

 

 



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