Kirk was smothering in a sudden avalanche of puffballs. With a strangled cry he reared up, gasping for breath, and felt the furry bodies cascade onto his lap in a docile heap. For one confused instant he thought he was on a space station infested with tribbles. In the next moment, he wished it were true.
"Captain," a voice spoke to him from the darkness.
"I'm fine," Kirk said, batting real-life creatures from his body. "Nightmares, Spock. One after the other, over and over. I couldn't seem to wake up." And suddenly he recalled the worst one of all. "Remember the Horta?"
Spock was not likely to forget the wounded silicon-based being whose mind he had recently joined. "Yes. The pergeum mining operation on Janis IV disturbed her nesting chamber. Before we arrived on the scene, she had killed more than fifty miners."
Kirk described the vivid terror of his dream. "We were back in her tunnels, in the nesting chamber itself...surrounded by shattered eggs. You attempted to meld with the Horta, only this time, at the last moment she turned and attacked. Your hands, Spock...the acid." He shuddered and fell silent.
The murmured remark took Kirk by surprise. "Well, I'd hardly call it that."
"To the contrary, Captain. I find it interesting that you dreamt of the Horta at this particular time. You have given me an idea. In our natural...arrogance...we have been overlooking a viable possibility."
Kirk felt the first stirring of hope in hours. Spock was having a brainstorm. "Overlooked what? What possibility?"
"As in the case of the Horta's eggs, I prefer to test this theory privately before disclosing it."
"Hey, I could use some amusement," Kirk protested. But he was left to wait and wonder.
Whatever the Vulcan was planning, it apparently involved capturing one of their furry cellmates. Kirk heard a maddened screech and desperate scuffle. He heard a soothing Vulcan phrase. Then quiet.
Kirk's eyes widened with sudden comprehension.
Spock found that catching the creature was easy. Subduing the angry blur of teeth and claw without being bitten proved more difficult. His eyesight was no match for the nocturnal prowler. He could barely see well enough to avoid a slashing, yet he had to act quickly, even recklessly, before more creatures came charging to the little captive's defense. Wedging the frantic body between his knees, he fingered the surprisingly broad skull and collected himself.
Tentatively, he probed. Then deeper. ...And the world exploded in a swirl of impossible images. Muted hues...violent emotions...terror...rage...
"No!" Spock's mental protest swept into the turmoil. "I mean you no harm!"
Nearby, Kirk heard the labored breathing of a meld gone bad and yanked desperately at his leg irons. It was dangerous for a Vulcan to join with an animal's mind. "Spock!" he hissed. "Break off! Do you hear me?" The bands sliced into his straining fingers. "Spock!"
The anxious cry fell painfully on Spock's ears, as if they were very small and accustomed only to small sounds. Yet not even such a blast could disturb the tranquil sense of belonging in this dim, friendly place. The air suited his lungs now and breathing came easier. The thick, sheltering rock seemed to nourish the flow of thought...
Reluctantly he gave the creature's velvety fur one last stroke, and lowered her to the floor.
He heard Kirk struggling with his bonds and managed to say aloud, "It's...over now, Captain."
There was a fierce sigh of relief...or annoyance...or perhaps a mixture of the two. "Mister Spock, by what logic do you justify linking minds with a venomous animal? No, wait a minute." Kirk jumped ahead to another question. "You're not going to tell me that these...vermin...are actually intelligent, self-aware beings?"
"My justification," Spock replied, "is the logic of survival. As to your second query, external characteristics have little bearing on intellectual capacity. Science once held that certain physical criteria such as cranial development..."
"Just get to the point."
Sorting through a lingering whirl of impressions, Spock reduced them to the barest of facts. "They call themselves the Dwellers, a sentient species once enslaved by an extinct ‘master race' that constructed these passages."
"Dwellers?" Was Spock's hold on reality slipping? "You mean to tell me that these...these rodents put us in leg irons?"
"Although your use of the terms ‘rodent' and ‘vermin' are technically inaccurate, your general assumption is correct. For their size, the Dwellers are quite strong. Their hands include an opposable thumb and are capable of fine work. Their art is actually..."
Kirk interrupted. "We'll have a discussion on art later. Did you persuade them to let us go?"
"I made an attempt to convince them of our good intentions, but they cannot help but consider us a danger."
Nor could Kirk altogether repress a shiver of revulsion. So their lives might well depend on these scuttling creatures. Peering around the chamber, he strained to see something, anything. And now through the narrow, high apertures came the faint but unmistakable signs of dawn.
"It's almost morning," he said, wondering what the new day would bring. And it was coming on fast. He could already make out Spock's shape.
The Vulcan's voice was grim. "The Dwellers are all but blinded by the light. Let us hope that they reach a favorable decision while it's still dark enough for them to release us. We treated them roughly; several were injured. But perhaps they have forgiving natures despite..." He broke off suddenly.
The entire floor seemed to have come alive. Dark shapes swarmed in from all directions, surrounding their prisoners with more soft, chattering noises.
Spock held himself still as a single Dweller climbed into his lap and lightly touched his hand. Their eyes met, and he sensed a familiar mind reaching cautiously toward him. It was an obvious request for communication. The sleek, tufted ears quivered as his fingertips settled over the furry meld points. And for a second time, he entered the Dweller's mind.
As Kirk waited, he could not help but wonder what a mass assault of furious Dwellers could do to a human...or Vulcan...body. Poised around him, the Dwellers seemed almost...hungry. Did they eat raw meat? Smile, he told himself, look friendly. But in some cultures a show of teeth or even a stray lip movement could be seen as aggressive. Sweat tricked down his forehead and stung his eyes. He squeezed them shut, rather than risk any hand motion that could be interpreted as hostile. And all the while Spock was over there, communing.
Kirk's eyes were still shut when something grazed his bare foot. He jumped and took a peek. Spock was crouched over him, working some sort of key. The ankle rings opened silently.
"Thank God," Kirk groaned, struggling up on stiff legs. He was alone with Spock. Every one of the creatures had retreated into their shadowy daytime haunts.
"And thank the Dwellers as well," Spock said. "They could easily have left us to die."
"Or torn us to shreds," Kirk added, flexing his knees.
Spock looked him in the eye. "A distinct possibility, since their former oppressors were also humanoid in appearance."
It was much lighter now. Kirk took a long look at the Vulcan's dirty face and broke into a grin. "You must have scared the hell out of them."
"Indeed." One angular brow climbed. "I had the distinct impression that they found our appearance exceedingly repulsive."
"They think we're ugly."
"I believe that is what I said, Captain."
Shaking his head, Kirk gestured toward the doorway. "Then let's relieve them of our presence, Mister Spock." But at his first step, his toes sank into the slime and he came to an abrupt halt. "Our boots. Where are they?"
Spock glanced around the chamber. "Unknown. I suggest we return to the Enterprise for replacements."
The tone was so self-assured that Kirk could not resist a flippant, "Right. We'll beam straight up."
"I hardly see how that is possible," Spock said, taking the remark seriously. "But I should be able to lead us from the tunnels on foot. The final meld imprinted a map of sorts upon my mind."