"You're bluffing." James Kirk eyed his companion with the self-assurance of one long accustomed to trusting his instincts.
"Could be," McCoy returned agreeably. "Question is, are you gonna find out, or are you just gonna hand over the pot?"
Kirk's gaze roved from the pot to McCoy and back down to his own sadly diminished pile of chips. "I can't, damn it," he said disgustedly. "But you're bluffing."
"That's a shame, Jim. Of course," McCoy folded his cards and chewed thoughtfully at his lip, "if you really want to, I might let you put something else on the table besides those credits."
"Such as?" Kirk asked suspiciously.
"Such as," McCoy's innocent blue eyes searched the ceiling as if thinking hard; as if he hadn't been daydreaming of this moment for the last three months. "Oh, say, the use of a shuttle on that survey coming up. With my choice of pilot."
"Bones, there's no need for a shuttle on this one. There's no reason the transporter won't do the job."
"And no real reason not to take a shuttle, either," McCoy countered. "There's plenty of time. Might as well have one team with ground transport."
Kirk considered, tapping his cards lightly on the table. "And you'll put up?"
The doctor again cast his gaze over the ceiling and let it come to rest on his liquor cabinet. "Half a case of Saurian brandy?" he suggested.
"Make it Romulan ale," Kirk haggled.
"Not a chance," McCoy replied. He noted the captain's careful scrutiny of his face. "But I'll go a full case of brandy." Glancing down at his cards, he brought to mind a carefully sequestered memory of a Klingon patrol, their disruptors aimed very accurately at his Human heart and set to "broil." He felt a twitch at the corner of his right eye and looked back up at his captain.
Kirk pounced. "All right, Bones, brandy it is. I'll raise you a shuttle expedition."
"Call. One case of Saurian brandy." Kirk grinned with the pure pleasure of victory. "Tell you what, Bones. Let me off my next physical, and I'll share that brandy with you," he assured the doctor as he laid down three jacks and a wildcard in a military row.
McCoy's face fell as he stared at Kirk's cards. "Well, that's good to know, Jim," he drawled mournfully, but a half-second later, a broad, crooked grin spoiled the picture as he went on, "But it won't be my brandy, Captain." The chief surgeon lovingly set his own cards out to be seen and sat back to enjoy his opponent's reaction.
It was quite satisfactory. Kirk stared in disbelief at the straight flush of clubs, six through ten. "But..." he sputtered, "you were bluffing! I know you were bluffing!"
"Yeah? How'd you know that, Jim?" McCoy asked curiously.
"You always get this..." Kirk looked at him hard. "You did that on purpose!"
"Did what, Jim?"
"McCoy, you set me up!"
"Me?" McCoy spread his hands in protest. "I'll take Sulu." He swept the pile of chips over to his side of the table.
"Sulu! You can't have Sulu. I need him here."
"He's my choice."
Kirk's voice turned brittle. "You can't take Sulu."
"Now, don't sulk, Jim-Boy," the doctor chided happily. "It's highly unbecoming to a Starfleet officer." McCoy sipped cheerfully at his whiskey. "We're parsecs from any neutral zone. I'm sure the other six helmsmen can somehow manage to keep the Enterprise in standard orbit for the duration. Sulu's got soil and botany expertise, plus first contact experience in case our data's a little off about the probability of civilization down there. Besides which, he could use a little shuttle excursion to keep in practice. These flyboys," McCoy shook his head, "they gotta have that adrenalin fix, or they turn moody." The doctor became suddenly serious and medical. "I mean that, Jim," he continued. "I want Sulu to have a break from the routine, and this is perfect. And if you play hardball with me on this, I'll make it a damned medical order."
"You're bluffing," Kirk scowled, still unreconciled to having lost. The blue sparkle of McCoy's eyes turned to flint. "Try me, Captain," he replied.
After a brief struggle, Kirk flashed his old friend the smile that had gotten him out of--and for that matter into--innumerable tight spots during his meteoric career, and raised his shot glass to McCoy. "You three have a good trip," he said, drowning his attack of juvenile pique in two ounces of the surgeon's nicely aged bourbon.
"Three?" McCoy echoed. "You may have had too much of that, Jim. Me 'n Sulu makes two as I figure it." He downed his own allotment.
"You and Sulu and Spock," Kirk explained.
McCoy choked on his half-swallowed whiskey. "Jim! You wouldn't!"
"I just did." Kirk rose and headed for the door, slapping McCoy amiably on the back as he passed.
McCoy's indignant voice rose as the door whooshed open. "You're one damned sore loser, James Kirk!"
The captain's reply, laden with laughter, was barely audible over the sound of the door sliding closed again. "So they tell me."
Spock, predictably, was inclined to argue the point two days later, right up to the last moment.
"Doctor," he remonstrated as they crossed the shuttle bay to stow the last of their personal gear and board Columbus for two weeks of ground survey work in Gamma Trianguli IV's rainforest biome. "You have completed two hundred sixty-one journeys by transporter to my personal knowledge, and have only once been involved in any form of transporter failure--"
"Yeah, and that one was a doozy," McCoy interrupted, with only a faint hope that his obscure colloquialism would really halt the flow of data from his companion.
"Twentieth century Terran ground vehicles, despite their own high rate of failure," Spock continued unperturbed, "are irrelevant to this discussion. In twenty-three shuttle trips of which I am aware, you personally have encountered dangerous situations on five occasions, two of them life-threatening. Surely, current Starfleet requirements with regard to medical education include enough elementary arithmetic for even you to conclude that--"
"Oh, hush, Spock," McCoy growled as they reached Columbus. "Don't jinx us." He ducked inside, jammed his gear into a locker, and busied himself with one more compulsive check through the medical equipment as Spock climbed in. Mercifully, the first officer did not point out that nothing was likely to have gone amiss with the first-aid supplies since the doctor had last checked them two hours before. McCoy sighed. He'd have to keep busy on this trip, just to keep the Vulcan's mouth shut. Finding all in order, he settled into a passenger seat as Spock stepped out to monitor the shuttle's clearance for departure.
"Sulu," McCoy said, rolling his eyes, "if by any chance this shuttle does go down, you make good and sure I die in the crash, you hear me? I refuse to live to hear that green-blooded computer say 'I told you so.'"
Sulu returned a conspiratorial grin. "I'll see what I can do, Doc."
"Good man. For that, you may indulge yourself on the way down if you like. I told Spock you'd be taking the opportunity to get in some maneuvers practice."
The grin grew wider. "Thank you, sir. I'll take you up on that."
The descent--once Sulu had finished practicing and McCoy's stomach had settled more or less into its customary position--was glorious. Gamma Trianguli IV loomed ahead, a green, blue, and russet gem as they angled in toward the terminator. They would land in the sunrise zone. McCoy leaned back and drank in the view from the porthole. It was true that transporter travel gave him the heebie-jeebies. But it was equally true that he loved shuttle travel for its own sake. These rare minutes, with the splendid panorama of a whole planet full of new life out there, renewed and rejuvenated him just as the last few weeks of travel through vast and empty interstellar regions had oppressed his soul. In two hours, they would be immersed in the hard and frenetic work of a preliminary planetary survey. Setting camp, hauling gear, gathering data, readying samples for transport, and all the while maintaining report and contact schedules with the ship and the other nine survey parties, there would be little time for wonder once they were actually down there. But for now...
It was a standard class M planet, its atmosphere a little richer in both carbon dioxide and oxygen than Earth's. It was also a bit less massive. Gravity would be on the light side. McCoy was looking forward to feeling a youthful spring in his step again; lately he'd been noticing an unpleasant stiffness in his joints. The planet had no polar caps, and its rotational axis nearly paralleled that of its sun; day and night would be about equal, and each about fourteen hours long. Clouds swathed huge regions of the sphere, but breaks offered good views of the two great continents, almost directly opposite one another and parted by an immense, circumglobal ocean. The shuttle party would be working in a stretch of the southern continent just slightly below the equatorial belt, in what appeared to be an unbroken stretch of green. Sensor data classed it as rainforest, and probably the planet's richest region in species. They had drawn the hardest duty, and oddly enough, McCoy was thoroughly looking forward to the job.
Long before he was ready, the flight drew to a close. The gentle bumps of the outer atmosphere gave way to the slam of real air against the shields, and flames shot around them, the roar still unnerving however many times he'd experienced it. Three minutes of that brought them down to planetary cruising speed, and the green land reaching out for them began to resolve into trees. McCoy found the familiar look of the forest comforting as Sulu hovered above the leafy wilderness seeking a suitable landing site. Things that looked like trees with big green leaves generally turned out to be trees with big green leaves. They might have some oddities, but it probably meant that for the most part the physiology on this planet would be based on regular old chlorophyll-facilitated catabolism and oxygen respiration. Good. It makes things so much simpler.
Sulu found a satisfactory clearing and set Columbus down so smoothly McCoy couldn't tell the exact moment they had touched ground. Spock took a last check of the sensor data, pronounced himself satisfied; and the three men extricated themselves from the safety restraints, grabbed their tricorders, and released the shuttle doors. McCoy's first breath of the new planet was downright healing. Misty, warm, heady with oxygen, and minus any of that recirculated taste that Spock insisted did not exist, it filled his lungs and then the rest of him with well-being and pleasant anticipation.
They stepped cautiously, testing the gravity. There was even more spring to his stride than McCoy had hoped for, partly due to a thick carpet of some kind of moss analog underfoot. The ground, though somewhat hummocky, was remarkably smooth with not a rock in sight. The trees surrounding them grew to about ten meters, their overlapping canopies producing a very dark understory. McCoy could not tell if the dappling under the trees was a litter of leaves or fruit, or just a trick of the light.
Spock had his tricorder whirring away already, gathering physical/chemical data on the atmosphere and solar radiation. McCoy followed suit and began working on the groundcover, while Sulu headed for a tree across the clearing.
"Unusual," Spock commented.
"You can say that again," McCoy agreed. He was gingerly parting the fibers of moss, hoping not to run into any biting bugs as he tried to get down to soil. "There doesn't seem to be any dirt."
Spock joined him. "Indeed, Doctor?" he responded skeptically. After a moment, he acknowledged that there was not in fact any soil, confirmed by tricorder readings. The moss appeared to be growing out of another underlying vegetative mass.
"So what did you find unusual in the air?" McCoy inquired.
"Nothing, Doctor. Tricorder readings corroborate shuttle sensor data. It is the trees that are unusual."
McCoy hated prompting the first officer, but he did it anyway. "They look pretty ordinary to me."
"For an equatorial rainforest zone on a planet of this gravity and insolation, the upper canopy should rise in excess of fifty meters. None of these trees is more than twelve meters tall."
As usual, McCoy wished he'd thought of that and could only nod in agreement. He was spared verbal concession, however, by a short, alarmed shout from Sulu. Both officers were running even before they sighted the helmsman. When they did, all they could see of him was one gold-sleeved arm scraping frantically at the ground.
Sinkhole! Swamp! McCoy's mind screamed possibilities at him as he sprinted. Trapdoor to some horrible carnivore's lair! "Hang on, Sulu!" he called as he came near enough to see the helmsman's dark head as he struggled at the brink of apparent nothingness.
McCoy meant to halt, flop safely to his belly, and crawl to within reach of the clutching hand, as per Starfleet training. There was no need for Spock's anxious outcry of, "McCoy, no!" a few steps behind him. But he hadn't quite adjusted to the local gravity and his own consequently increased velocity; his attempt to stop simply threw him forward, wildly off balance. Mid-stumble, he turned his fall into a dive, grabbing for the gold sleeve as he hit the yielding ground.
Got him! He clamped his strong surgeon's grip onto Sulu's forearm, felt a return clasp, and clutched for a hold on the ground with his free hand. At the same time, he felt a steel grasp around his own ankle. Spock had him. They were safe.
Safe, that is, for the space of one breath, during which he had a momentary sensation of sliding before the world turned upside down and he was in free fall, the sound of his own surprised yelp pursuing him in a headlong rush downward. McCoy lost track of his companions as he impacted heavily on something wet and tentacle-like. Desperately grasping at the thing, he got an elbow around it and squeezed as hard as he could. He slowed, but as he struggled for a tighter hold, there was suddenly nothing there anymore. A second later, he crashed heavily onto something nastily solid.
He came around to the sound of his own field mediscanner warbling above a background chatter of cackles, chirps, gurgles and whistles, and opened his eyes. Against the surrounding twilight, Spock was waving the instrument a few centimeters above his forehead. When he saw that the doctor had regained consciousness, the first officer sat back on his heels.
Twilight? McCoy thought, alarmed. "Have I been out all day?" he asked, unwilling to ask point-blank whether he had damaged his optic nerves in the fall.
"You have been unconscious for approximately twelve point two three minutes," Spock informed him. "The low ambient light is due to--"
"Sulu?" McCoy interrupted, starting to push himself up.
Spock placed a hand on McCoy's sternum and pressed him back down.
"A little banged up, but otherwise okay, Doc," came Sulu's voice from his other side.
McCoy turned his head to get a view of the helmsman, then took another good look at Spock. Both of his companions were damp and dirt-smudged, and the skin in view showed scratches and bruises, but there were no obvious serious injuries unless he himself had sustained them. He took inventory. His head hurt like hell, but he could both move and feel all of his extremities. He could breathe easily--no broken ribs. He didn't seem to be gushing blood anywhere.
"So, Spock," he asked apprehensively, "What's that scanner telling you? Why won't you let me up?"
"I have applied dermaplast to a cut on your head that was losing a considerable amount of blood, and it has not finished sealing. Please lie still for three point six minutes more."
McCoy breathed again. "Okay. Thanks, Spock."
Ignoring conversational pleasantries as always, Spock concentrated on the business at hand. "Doctor, do you have a communicator secured anywhere on your person?"
"Well, sure, Spock," McCoy replied, somewhat puzzled. "On my be-- Oh, no," he broke off as he understood. Spock would have found a communicator on his belt, and would not be asking. He patted his belt just to make sure. Empty. "Well, you've got yours, right? Have you called the ship yet?" he went on doggedly. If he refused to admit what he was thinking, maybe it would go away.
"I had my communicator in my hand to call for emergency beam-out when we fell," Spock said. "I had to release it in order to catch a vine."
McCoy looked at Sulu.
"I had mine out because I was just about to contact Landing Party Three when I broke through," the helmsman said ruefully.
"Broke through what?" McCoy asked. "Where the hell are we? What happened?"
"We are on the surface of Gamma Trianguli Four, Doctor," Spock intoned, and for once, McCoy was content to hear his explanation without comment. "The ostensible clearing in which we landed was in fact merely the surface of the forest canopy. That canopy is composed of overlapping massive leaf-like structures fused into continuous sheets. Mister Sulu inadvertently found the edge of one of these structures, at which point there were insufficient load-bearing branches to support the lieutenant's weight, and--"
"And here we are," McCoy finished, "without any communicators."
"Shit." No verbal response was forthcoming to that. Expletives were not used on Vulcan, and Spock was ill-equipped with appropriate rejoinders; Sulu merely nodded unhappy agreement.
McCoy squinted up into the dim greenness too far away to make out clear shapes. Here and there a tiny shaft of light broke through, and there was one major hole--presumably the one they had all come through--floodlighting a tangle of lines. "So," he said, "not to complain, mind you, but that's a hell of a drop. Why are we alive?"
"There appears to be a rich biotic zone just under the canopy, characterized by a dense growth of vines, supported by the trees. They are held together by their own intertwining and also are connected by webbing of unidentified origin, presumably zoological. From the quantity of web material and the amount of vocalization now in evidence, the undercanopy must support a very large population of whatever produces them."
"Oh, great. Spiders again," McCoy groaned. "Noisy spiders."
"Unlikely, Doctor. The variety of calls we hear would indicate a community large in both numbers of individuals and numbers of species. Web production may be a common guild here. At any rate, their existence has worked in our favor. The network of vines broke our initial fall from the canopy, and all three of us were able to use them to slow our descent sufficiently to survive the remainder of the fall." He paused. "The dermaplast should have sealed by now. You may wish to rise."
He certainly did. His adrenalin was at work, and he needed to do something, even if it was only pacing around. He got to his feet, noting a slight dizziness which might have been caused by loss of blood, concussion, or just high oxygen. He took the mediscanner back from Spock and re-checked all three of them. His concussion was indeed the only serious injury. Fortunately, he had a concussion band in the fat little medikit which had, unlike his fickle communicator, accompanied him to ground. He fitted it around his scalp and let it go to work.
"Well," he pointed out optimistically, "all three of those communicators were with us when we fell. They must have landed around here somewhere."
In moments, Spock had his tricorder scanning the ground as he slowly turned in a wide circle. Sulu began scanning in the opposite direction. McCoy pulled out his own tricorder and adjusted it to home in on titanium. As soon as he activated it, it began to bleep.
"I've got it!" he called out excitedly. "It's right--" He broke off in dismay. "Oh, no!" Spock and Sulu joined him, then followed his gaze, straight overhead. They each began scanning skyward, and were soon rewarded by further bleeps.
"All three?" Sulu queried.
"I am receiving five separate targets," Spock replied.
"Five?" McCoy echoed. He watched Sulu pat quickly at his belt. Their eyes met anxiously. McCoy spoke first.
"Spock, have you got your phaser?"
"And I wasn't carrying one," McCoy groaned. "Now we're in it." All three men continued to stare upward. Even Spock seemed to be indulging in wishful thinking. "Three communicators and two phasers," McCoy finally drawled into the uncomfortable silence. "Somewhere up in those vines."
"Way up," Sulu corrected, squinting into the distance.
"Indeed," was Spock's inevitable comment. "Approximately one hundred and..."
"Way, way up." McCoy cut him off. "I can hardly see that far."
"We must retrieve them."
"You first. I don't like heights. And I'm not real wild about spiders, either. You remember that, don't you? I'll never get over watching the Lycorya killing that Klingon landing party."
Sulu changed the subject immediately. "Someone will beam down to the shuttle to look for us as soon as we miss the next standard report, in--"
"Four hours and twenty minutes," Spock finished.
"So, our best bet is to get as comfortable as we can and wait it out down here," the doctor said. Way away from any spiders, he hoped.
"If you require rest, by all means take it," Spock told him. "I will continue collecting what data we can from here." He started off to the left.
"Hey!" McCoy called after him quickly, "Don't get out of sight! This is where they'll be looking for us."
"Very well, Doctor. I suggest that we all keep this shaft of light within our respective visual fields."
McCoy watched Spock and Sulu each move slowly towards the edge of the light and off into the gray forest of straight, pole-like trunks. Well, if they were going to keep working, he wasn't going to be outdone. He set his own scanner back to its biological survey functions and set to work, examining the soil, vegetation and any critters he could find. Busily analyzing a bright red, slimy, dome-shaped something about hand size, he looked back to make sure he could still see the beacon their fall had created. As he turned again to his new life form that was almost but not quite a fungus, his peripheral vision caught another new life form just emerging from the maze of tree trunks.
It was enormous. Enormous, hairy, quadrupedal and the same gray color as the vapor-laden forest, apart from darker, spiky bumps that ran down its back. It was also amazingly quiet for its size, and much, much too close, only about ten trees away. McCoy held his breath. The creature swung its elongated head down to snuff at the ground, circling slowly around a huge tree trunk. Apparently unsuccessful at locating whatever it sought, it moved on to the next tree. When its back was to him, McCoy took his opportunity and started a slow retreat, his heart pounding. He had taken two steps when the creature lifted its ungainly head, swung it back and forth once, and turned to look directly at him. The eyes were huge, no doubt an adaptation to its dim habitat. They were also distinctly frontal. Frontal eyes provided good depth perception, a trait frequently associated with a predatory lifestyle. The beast took a deliberate step towards him.
McCoy broke and ran for the clearing, hollering as he did. Five terrible seconds passed before he saw Sulu's gold shirt and Spock's blue one heading for him.
"Climb!" McCoy bellowed, waving them away and searching frantically for any trunk he might be able to get his own arms around. There were none. But there were vines snaking up the huge trunks. He grabbed and began pulling himself skyward. He got about five meters up before he paused to check on his colleagues. Spock was struggling up a massive trunk by the vines as he was; Sulu had found a thinner tree and shinnied well up it. Both were looking back the way he had come. He looked back, himself. The creature was almost in the clearing now, still headed right for him, but not particularly hustling. Great. It probably figured it had him treed now and could just wait until he fell down. Well, the beast doesn't know about the search party. He could hold on here for hours with the right motivation, and that thing was plenty motivating. He clambered up another five meters, putting himself out of reach even if the thing could stand on its hind legs.
Clearly, he was going to have to be here a while. He reached to secure a better grip, and felt a cleft in the trunk. Perfect. If he could wedge a hand between the vine and the trunk, and then hang onto that notch...
McCoy felt his left index finger break through a rotten spot in the bark. The sensation of crumbling vegetation was immediately followed by a searing pain along the back of his hand. He let out a yelp and jerked the hand away, throwing himself off balance. A split second later, he was sliding down the trunk, collecting splinters through his uniform as he accelerated downward. He pushed himself away from the tree, hoping to clear the hard surface roots, and tucked to roll back up to his feet and run for his life.
It would have worked, too, if he hadn't had the breath knocked out of him on landing. Spock and Sulu were down from their trees and at his side by the time he could draw breath enough to curse them for leaving their refuges. They ignored him, hauling him to his feet and dragging him behind the nearest tree.
McCoy stared at their pursuer from around the trunk. It had stopped fifteen meters from them, close enough for them to see the long, scimitar-shaped claws growing from all four feet and a set of short, sharp tusks projecting from both the upper and lower jaws.
"What now?" Sulu whispered.
"Try not to act like lunch," McCoy replied with as little sound as he could. "Maybe it can't see us if we don't move."
"Doctor, it is coming straight at us," Spock noted.
It was, indeed, moving again. McCoy debated whether to go for his medikit and try a general mammalian sedative on the thing, but decided to stick to the theory that motionless equals invisible for most predators. There was no wind in the thick forest, and it shouldn't be able to smell them.
The animal, however, came on steadily. It clearly knew where they were.
"Scatter!" Spock ordered. They broke cover and ran in three directions.
McCoy heard the awful claws clicking on the ground behind him. The prospect of them sinking into his flesh drove him to leap for an improbable foothold on a tree. He missed it, slipped back to the ground, and lay flat on his back staring up at his death. Hello, Kobayashi Maru, he thought. My, what big teeth you have.
With the creature's hot breath on his face, McCoy made himself go limp.
Some predators wouldn't eat carrion. Of course, some would. Spock and Sulu approached from either side, trying to attract its attention. It looked at them each in turn, then calmly returned its full attention to the victim on the ground. It swung its head down and nudged the doctor gingerly in the midriff.
"What?" McCoy blurted, surprise overcoming fear.
The long muzzle snuffed along his arm for a moment, and the creature blinked at him inquisitively.
Baby hurt? It echoed again in his brain.
The doctor looked over at Sulu and then up at Spock. Tossing the possum ploy aside, he called, "Did you guys hear that?"
Stunned nods were the only answer from his comrades.
McCoy considered while the creature continued to sniff and blink at him. A strong sensation of affection wafted over him, making this decidedly the most non-threatening gargantuan animal he had ever met. It occurred to him that the ability to project such feelings at prey could make for a wildly successful predator.
However, now that he had a good view of the beast's large, flat teeth and could smell fermentation on its breath, he figured it was a good bet that it was vegetarian. He wondered just how much it could communicate. Was it reading his thoughts now? Could he talk to it?
Baby dumb? It nudged him again.
A nervous laugh escaped Sulu.
McCoy glowered up at the furred face. "No, I am not dumb," he told it vehemently. The information had no effect on it, other than to make it wobble the round, furry extensions on top of its head that McCoy took for ears.
Poor dumb baby, came a melancholy thought into his brain.
It sure wasn't reading his thoughts. He tried projecting one simple idea, concentrating hard: Not.
Ooh, not dumb! came the happy response. Furry lips plucked at his hand, then sampled his shirt.
Not baby! McCoy tried again, thinking as loud as he could.
Silly baby, the creature admonished. Baby hurt?
"Spock!" McCoy called out in exasperation. "Can you talk to this thing?" It was looking less dangerous all the time. He knew himself to be nearly psi blind, and yet he was getting some contact; maybe Spock's more highly developed telepathic abilities could get through to it.
"I am attempting to do so, Doctor," Spock replied. "However, it appears to be focusing its attention entirely on your condition."
The ears swivelled, and the creature looked placidly up at Spock as the Vulcan cautiously approached, one arm extended. Deliberately, it moved one foot to pin the doctor's arm to the ground, and turned its attention to Spock. As the Vulcan's outstretched palm contacted its face, it went rigid, and the waves of warm affection emanating from it intensified and harmonized with a wash of happy satisfaction. After a few minutes of communion, Spock broke the physical contact.
"It hears us," he reported, "but it does not associate sound with communication. It is also quite unable to view us as anything but pre-emergent offspring of its own kind. Our size and lack of hair seem to identify us as such, and also apparently function as releasers for caretaking behavior."
"Caretaking? It's a nanny?" McCoy asked.
"Colloquial but correct," Spock replied.
"Fine. Tell it to let me go."
"It does not want to reason with us, Doctor. It wants to protect us. I believe I have convinced it that you are healthy. However, it wishes to return us to our nest."
Carry babies nest, the creature confirmed. It opened its huge maw and a meter-long, purple, split tongue reached out to encircle McCoy and scoop him tenderly but firmly into the mouth, the tusks caging him neatly in place.
McCoy yelped and flailed at the air as he was lifted up; his hand made contact with an ear, and he grabbed onto it.
Baby safe, it assured him indulgently.
"Spock!" McCoy cried, while at the same time frantically thinking, Not baby. NOT BABY!
But the nanny had now turned its attention to the other two wayward infants. Babies climb, it ordered.
"Sir?" Sulu asked.
"I suggest we take its advice, Lieutenant," Spock told him. "It is concerned about our vulnerability to surface-dwelling pack predators. Without phasers, this animal appears to offer our best safeguard against such an attack."
"Where the hell is this nest?" McCoy demanded.
"It would seem," Spock answered as he and Sulu grabbed handfuls of hair to haul themselves up onto the beast's back and settle themselves between the spiked humps, "that the nest is a cavity in the trunk of a tree, in the undercanopy."
"Up there?" McCoy started to struggle, and the nanny shook its head enough to convince him to lie still.
"More precisely, Doctor, and in your terms, 'way up.'"
Rapunzel--as McCoy had mentally dubbed the animal as soon as he saw Sulu and Spock scale its hair--bore them back to the clearing, lumbered over to a huge tree, and rose up to enclose the trunk in a bear hug. Its claws sank a good six inches into the wood.
"Are you secure, Mister Sulu?" Spock asked.
"Yes, sir." Wedged in place, he had taken a firm hold on handfuls of fur.
Rapunzel began the long haul to the undercanopy. McCoy looked down once, blanched, and resolved not to make that mistake again. Up ahead, branches hung with twining vines slowly took shape. Still five meters from the first branches, the creature slowed and then halted its progress. Confusion formed in McCoy's brain, but he recognized it as Rapunzel's bewilderment and not his own.
The confusion resolved itself into a concrete thought. Nest where?
"Envision the shuttle," Spock ordered.
They did so, but Rapunzel only swung its head from side to side, causing McCoy to change color dramatically. Stupid babies, it thought, and the sense of puzzlement washing over them mutated into exasperation. Babyeaters above roof. No nest. The exasperation strengthened and was joined by longing. The nanny clearly wanted to be finished with this task and get back to its foraging. After a few moments, however, resignation eased into the discontent, and Rapunzel started backing slowly downward.
"No!" McCoy shouted at the ear he was still holding. "Up, you damn fool cow! Up!"
"Doctor, it hears you as nothing but squawking. I suggest you concentrate on mental imagery," Spock interjected.
"I'll give you mental imagery," McCoy muttered, but complied, thinking about up as hard as he could. Rapunzel continued down. McCoy let go his tenuous hold on his emotions, bopped the beast hard on the nose with his fist, and yelled again, "Up!" He pointed upward, straining his arm and then looking back up. They were only ten meters from climbable branches that would return them to the leaf layer and their shuttle. He wanted to be in that fork in the tree right there, and he wanted to be out of this creature's damp grip, and he wanted those things now.
"Doctor, I don't believe--" Spock began to chide, but Rapunzel suddenly stopped. Irritably, it shook McCoy once for good measure, then hung in place, giving every indication of thinking hard. It was a slow thinker, but it finally reached a conclusion and began moving again. Upward. Apparently, it had found McCoy's emotional outburst more convincing than their attempt at rational discourse.
"Spock!" McCoy called up, "What's she planning? Can you tell?"
But Spock could not reach any suitable nerve points to form a clearer link than that produced by the creature's own projections. "Negative, Doctor."
In a few seconds, however, they reached the branch point, and Rapunzel carefully set McCoy down, upright, wedged between the main trunk and the first huge limb. Not trusting his balance at this height, he quickly sat down, pressing against the trunk. He peeled his wet shirt away from his skin, hoping Rapunzel's saliva didn't contain any particularly nasty irritants or corrosives.
Meanwhile, the animal reached around, plucked Spock handily from its back, and set him down next to McCoy. When she had added Sulu to the row, she blinked at the three of them and they all felt the stern command, Babies stay.
Spock reached for her face, and she allowed him to make contact. After another moment of silent communion, Spock pulled his hand away, and Rapunzel retreated several meters down the trunk, where she halted and began clawing at the bark.
McCoy pressed himself harder against the trunk as the tree quivered slightly from the great gouges she was excavating. "Well," he demanded of the first officer, "what did she say?"
Spock looked vaguely uncomfortable but replied in his usual impassive monotone, "It believes that I alone was undamaged by the fall but that I have been infected by your mental ravings and now participate in your delusions. It is hungry but unwilling to leave us vulnerable to damage by another fall or to ground predators. It intends to secure us in a fresh nest and go foraging. If it finds our parents, it will reunite us; if not, it will continue to look after us itself. It believes us to be close to the size of emerging, though it is puzzled by our state of underdevelopment."
"So," Sulu said, "our choices now are to sit in this nest she's building and wait for a rescue party, or to make a break for the top now while she's busy."
"Concisely put," Spock nodded approvingly, then glanced sidelong at the doctor, "and without obfuscating idiom."
McCoy let the comment pass, and cast his vote. "Well, let's get moving." He was not happy about clambering around in branches a hundred and twenty meters from ground, but he was even less happy about the prospect of being stuffed into a hole in a tree to await rescue. And he didn't even want to think about what she might try to feed them. Or how.
"Mister Sulu?" Spock inquired.
"The next branch up looks like our best bet," came the reply.
Spock nodded. "Unanimous then. We will attempt the climb."
Sulu and McCoy boosted Spock up as only the Vulcan had the strength to haul the other two up there after him. Dropping to all fours, they made their precarious way along the limb until it forked, this time to a size they could straddle. Halfway to the next fork, McCoy was suddenly hit by wave of fear so powerful as to be almost physical. He prostrated himself on the branch and clung there for dear life. He recognized what was happening to him; he'd seen plenty of anxiety attacks in his career. But he had never been subject to them himself. Fine time to pick up a new neurological problem, he grumbled; but he was unable to make himself push up and keep going. He did look ahead, however, to find Sulu clinging to the branch with much the same look of desperation that he must be showing himself.
"Doctor, Mister Sulu," Spock called to them from his position in the rear. "It is coming from the creature. There is no actual cause for alarm."
McCoy looked down--and made himself keep looking down until the dizziness passed.
Rapunzel was at the first fork of the tree, staring at them in obvious distress. Having succeeded in bringing them to a halt, she sent them frantic messages. Baby come! Danger! When they failed to respond, she climbed up to the second fork and placed a foot experimentally onto the branch, but it caused the limb they straddled to dip dangerously. She retreated to the trunk.
"Lieutenant, continue!" Spock ordered.
Whatever the animal was throwing at them, it was not as scary to Sulu as disobeying Spock. The helmsman inched forward. McCoy, for his part, was not about to be outdone by Spock for any cause. Chanting to himself that the fear was illusory, and focusing exclusively on Sulu's backside a few feet ahead of him, he forced himself onward. The anxiety gradually became mingled with despair, until it had turned to profound grief. With a shock, McCoy found himself weeping unaccountably and uncontrollably. He halted to wipe his eyes, and once more looked back at the ungainly creature, shrunken now by the distance they had climbed. It had again set foot on their branch, and again retreated for fear of shaking them loose from their perch. The sorrow wafting over him remained powerful. Was it a distress call? Was she broadcasting in an attempt to contact their parents? What would that be costing her in energy?
"Spock, we're breaking her heart!"
"It cannot be helped, Doctor." Spock's voice was uncommonly sympathetic, and he made no comment on the doctor's display of emotion.
It was true; it couldn't be helped. There was no way for them to go beyond their rudimentary communication with her to ease that anxiety. For her, they were children of Hamlin, following some unfathomable call to their sure destruction.
She had backed down to the trunk's first fork now, and climbed out on the lower limb, attempting to get closer to them. The branch began to dip dangerously under her bulk.
"Spock, look!" he cried out. "Make her go back!"
But without contact, Spock was no more able to reason with her than he was.
McCoy stared. Would the blasted beast's wildly overdeveloped instinct for caretaking extend to getting itself killed in an improbable rescue attempt for the sake of unrelated individuals? What could there be about this planet that would allow natural selection to favor such behavior?
But though his mind ran instinctively to such questions, he knew he didn't really care. The answer would be just another bit of biological curiosa for his sizable store. But he did care that they had gotten the poor monster into this situation, and now she might get killed on their account, and he wasn't willing to take that death onto his conscience.
He had gotten to her once before with a display of raw emotion. He tried it again. "I'm going home!" he bellowed at the beast below and behind them. "I'm happy!" He concentrated on feeling exactly what he was saying. "I'm safe! I'm safe, you stupid, magnificent beast, you! Thank you! Go home!" He felt like a fool, but what good was dignity with a bad conscience?
And whether it was McCoy's experiment or her own instinct for self-preservation kicking in at last, Rapunzel stopped, and stayed where she was as the oddly deformed infants continued to climb out of the safety of the undercanopy, right through the roof of her world and into the dangers beyond.
McCoy lay flat on his belly, fingers wound securely into the filaments that were not mosses but projections of the leaf layer vastly increasing their photosynthetic capacity, and looked back down through the hole they had painstakingly carved in that leaf layer with his laser scalpel. The light they had let into the understory angled away from the hole and fell on the figure of their caretaker, still waiting, still cajoling them to come home. How long would she wait there, grieving for the loss of another's offspring, he wondered. And what did it mean for the species' development and their planet's future that they could do so? Such a strong drive to nurture had certainly not been a conspicuous feature of Terran primate development.
With a sigh, he scuttled back away from the edge, stood up and, testing every step, rejoined his companions inside Columbus. They were twenty minutes late reporting in. Spock was attempting to explain why they did not yet have any samples for beam-up and why they needed an extra allotment of communicators and phasers sent down. Well, better Spock than him. The devices they had lost would, of course, have to be retrieved before they did anything else. Leaving them on the planet possibly to be discovered a few million years hence when a technological society might have evolved would be a clear violation of the Prime Directive.
McCoy had been well-indoctrinated in the importance of such things. But he couldn't seem to care much about the possible effect their little jaunt here might have on the planet in its distant future. He was much more perturbed by the effect they had just had on the only specimen of macrofauna they had thus far encountered.
But duty was duty. When the phasers and communicators had been provided, he joined Sulu and Spock in retrieving the climbing gear from Columbus. With tricorders adjusted to scan for titanium, they set off in companionable silence to search out five pieces of the latest in Federation technology.
It had been a long morning. McCoy hoped they wouldn't run into any babyeaters. He hoped he wouldn't have to dangle over the abyss for long. He hoped the spiders wouldn't turn out to be telepathic.
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