Kirk hit the toggle connecting him with the transporter room. "Everything almost ready, Captain Spock?"
The first officer gave the provisions on the transporter platform a final once-over before replying, "Affirmative, Captain."
"Good. On my way."
Scott and McCoy were waiting in the transporter room when Kirk arrived.
"You have your orders, gentlemen. Ill see you in three to four hours." Kirk kept his command fašade in place to combat the dour expression on his chief medical officers face.
"You could let the geology team do this alone, you know."
"Bones, weve been all through this. If anybodys head is going to roll for putting their hand in this planets cookie jar, itll be mine. I might as well have the enjoyment of going planetside. Its been a long time since Ive been on a strange new world." The excitement of it lit up his face.
McCoy, like an indulgent father smiled and let his protest drop. "Be careful, Jim," he cautioned, resigned but not appeased.
Kirk grasped the outstretched hand warmly and, giving Scotts shoulder an affectionate squeeze, he said, "Just do your thing up here with what I send you."
"Aye, sir," the captain of engineering affirmed.
Kirk joined Spock and the rest of the landing party and gave the order. "Energize."
The planets surface was lush and beautiful, untouched and unspoiled. The landing party quickly went about setting up the temporary camps command post and storage pods, and began breaking out the tricorder equipment necessary to locate and collect the plants.
By noon, the temperature had risen considerably causing quite a contrast in the two senior officers. Spock continued working, luxuriating in the warmth, while Kirk and most of the rest of the landing party had removed their jackets. Kirk paused to tie a sweat band around his head to keep the stinging perspiration out of his eyes, then continued foraging among the bushes for the needed plants.
Bringing out the shoulder sack he carried, Kirk dumped it on the steadily growing pile of betar plants, then sat down on a large rock. He drained his canteen and watched as Spock walked briskly out of his thicket and emptied a pack that fairly overflowed.
"How much more do you think well need?" Kirk asked.
Spock surveyed the pile then answered, "Another fourteen kilos should be sufficient."
Kirk groaned. "You must feel right at home here, Spock."
"It is a pleasant change from the intemperate seventy-six degrees on the bridge. Actually, it is only one hundred-three degrees here, while on Vulcan it is usually much higher. Also, the lack of humidity on Vulcan and the high humidity here makes it seem more comparable than it actually is."
"l dont care if the analogy is exact: its hot!"
"There is plenty of water in my canteen, Jim. Help yourself. I wont need it."
Kirk drank gratefully then moved back to the scrubby bushes to gather the sticky pear-shaped leaves.
The day wore on, and the oppressive heat grew into a humid mist that progressed into a torrential rain that ended the work for the present, but provided minimal respite from the heat. The landing party hurried back to the command post to wait out the storm as they didnt believe it would last long. Spock took care of supervising the equipment storage and protection while Kirk radioed the Enterprise to send down some additional dry clothing and sack lunches.
The food arrived through the transporter without a problem. But when the second installment containing the dry clothing and additional shelter pods beamed down, they arrived as a smoldering lump of melted plastic and charred debris.
"Scotty, what the hell is going on up there? I wanted dry clothes, not crispy, blackened ones," Kirk sputtered.
"I canna see the trouble now. It must be the ion fluxes. I will try it again, sir, but I canna promise what shape theyll be in when ye get them."
The second attempt was successful, and soon the dry uniforms were dispersed among the landing party while the extra shelter pods were quickly raised around the temporary encampment.
"Get all the wet stuff here in one pile, and well see how things go in the other direction." He flipped open his communicator. "Scotty, are you locked in on the transport?"
"Okay, take home the laundry, Captain," Kirk ordered.
After a pause a strained voice in a Scottish accent replied, "There wont be any need to recycle that lot, sir. Theyre still smoldering from the plasma fire that materialized with them. With this ion flux problem, it looks like youll be there a while."
"Terrific." Kirk walked back to the shelter carrying an armload of supplies, followed by several other very wet security guards.
The rain continued and as dusk gave way to evening the landing party made preparations for the night. When the downpour finally abated, the flashing of ion activity was quite a show. Strong winds blew away the cloud cover revealing a night sky alive with stars. Their beauty capturing his gaze, Kirk smiled at the feeling of peace they brought to him. Always the same. Regardless of what planet, wherever in the galaxy, the stars brought him peace.
Spocks voice startled him out of his reverie. "I recommend you come inside the tent. I have picked up readings of several nocturnal carnivores which have activated the perimeter fields."
"Things that go bite in the night, Spock?"
"I believe that is what I said."
"Yes, you did." Kirk debated explaining his play on words then discarded the notion and simply replied, "Im coming." Kirk took one more glance heavenward and with regret joined his friend in the tent.
Kirk awoke to silent blackness and a monumental urge to empty his bladder. Rising quietly, he neutralized the stasis field and slipped out of the shelter pod and walked a short distance from the camp into the trees. After relieving himself, he walked a bit deeper into the lush forest, lured by the cool breeze and a night blooming fragrance he could not identify.
The twin moons light of earlier, now obscured by cloud cover, never gave Kirk a warning. Out of the forest blackness leapt a large fur-covered beast. The fragrance came from some sort of beast, and Kirk had fallen right into its trap. The startled captain rolled on impact trying to skid out of what he feared would be a deadly grasp, but was only partially successful. The great fangs of the beast missed Kirks throat, but the hind claw caught Kirk and opened his leg, groin to knee, as the two rolled on the ground.
The Human scrambled away into the underbrush, trying to put anything between him and the giant attacker. Massive arms clawed and tore huge swaths of foliage free, sending them flying in an attempt to reach its prey. Kirk scuttled on three limbs, his injured leg refusing to support him, but the animal covered the same ground easily and quickly. The great beasts grasp connected, and Kirk was hauled up against the furry chest, caught and held immobile, his feet many inches off the ground. Kirk fought, gouging the beasts eyes, slamming cupped hands against where he hoped the ears were, using every ounce of strength he had to make the beasts hold less solid.
"Spock...!" Kirk called frantically, hoping the still night air would carry his cry back to the encampment. His breath left in a feeble whoosh as the hug increased its pressure on his chest. "Spock...help me..."
The Vulcan was neither sleeping, nor back at the camp. Having heard the commotion from the onset, Spock had hurried to the source, gathering together several of the security detail on the way. As Kirk struggled to escape the beast, Spock was trying to draw a firing angle on the beast that would not injure his commander. No such angle presented itself.
Pain shot down Kirks back as the beast tried to still the squirming of his quarry with its claws. The injured man cried out under the intensity of it.
There was a flash of light, then another. "Stun setting isnt working!" called one of the security guards whose phaser beam had struck the beast.
Spock didnt hesitate to change the dial to disrupt. Another security guard fired at a nearby rock, shattering it with a fiery blast. The flying shards of molten rock startled the creature; its grip loosened enough for Kirk to scramble away. When the gap sufficiently widened between the attacker and its prey, the Vulcan fired his weapon, and the animal disappeared.
Spock wasted no time getting to the bloody form of his friend. After making sure Kirks back and head were only superficially injured and fracture free, he lifted Kirk easily and began walking briskly back to the camp. Despite his care, each step seemed to jar Kirk and make him wince. Spocks grip was slipping in the blood and sweat covering the captain, and periodically he had to adjust his hold, tightening his failing hold across the bloody back. The last readjustment wrenched a cry from Kirk, and the Human lapsed into unconsciousness.
Knowing his burden was now oblivious to the pain, Spock sped up to a trot to cover the remaining distance to the shelter pods. Once inside, he gently eased Kirk down on a cot, ordering the security guards to establish the perimeter shielding again, then set about gathering medical supplies. Returning to sit next to the injured man, Spock used his utility knife to make short work of the uniform pants Kirk wore, cutting through them easily to expose the deep gash on his leg. Blood still welled from it. As Spock examined the torn skin to evaluate the damage, he saw bits of grass and dirt contaminating the wound all the way down to the dull white of the bone showing under rent muscle.
"I seem to have met one of the planets nocturnal carnivores." Kirks voice was steady and calm as he awoke and interrupted Spocks ministrations.
"Indeed. You may regret not ordering McCoy to accompany us."
"And listen to another of his lectures on why command rank officers should remain on board? No thanks, Spock. Well handle it."
This is precisely why the commanding officer should stay on board, Spock thought as he sprayed the large gash with anesthetic-antiseptic, and was gratified to see Kirk respond to the pain reliever.
"My back, please, Spock." Kirk laboriously rolled to his side, exposing his back, then exhaled slowly as the spray eradicated the pain. "Too bad it wont last," Kirk sighed as he rolled to his previous position.
Making sure there was plenty of analgesic in the cartridge, Spock began to tediously pick out the grass and debris from the leg wound before wrapping it.
The planets sun was just beginning to rise as Spock finished cleaning the claw marks on the captains back. Adjusting the blanket around the injured man, Spock stood and watched him closely. Once assured his chest rose and fell normally in the mild drug-induced sleep, the Vulcan put away the medical supplies and went to meditate until the sun rose completely, and with it, he fervently hoped, an end to the incapacitating ion activity that held them here.
After a few feeble attempts to clear his mind, he gave up. His thoughts kept returning to the scene of Kirk in the clutches of the beast. He heard over and over in his mind Kirks scream as the animal raked open his back.
Why must you be on every assignment? Why lead every charge yourself?
Kirk moved as he slept, moaning as his injuries came in rough contact with the cot. His eyes darted rapidly under their lids and his hands gripped the blanket edges. "Let me out... dont... I cant ... dont keep me in here...you dont understand..." Kirk mumbled in a voice low and indistinct.
Spock moved to the cot to wake him from the dream before his movements reopened the lacerated back and leg. "Captain...Jim...Jim."
Kirks eyes opened reluctantly, unfocused, then clearing. "Spock?" Tense lines in the pale face eased away in the realization his friend was near and the previous terror, only a dream. "I had a terrible dream, Spock."
"It appeared to distress you. What was it?"
"I was in a cage... I had everything I wanted, or needed. All I had to do was speak it into existence. I could have anything, or anyone in there with me, just by asking... but it was still a cage. I could see out... life going by...but I wasnt a part of it. No matter what I could have inside, it wasnt enough...not as long as I wasnt free, I tried to explain that, but nobody would listen." Kirk shuddered, then winced as pain shot through him. "Id rather be dead than alive like that!"
"I know," Spock replied softly. A heavy sadness, pressed down round him as he saw his desires for Kirk in the dream. To protect him, I would gladly put him in that cage, knowing Jim Kirk would hate it. Hed be safe. He gazed at the captains face intently. You will never compromise your feeling that the quality of life would always be more important than the quantity. Spock gently touched Kirks arm. "It was only a dream, Jim. It is gone now; go back to sleep."
Kirks eyelids drooped heavily, then closed altogether.
Ill will not to cage you, my friend. I may come to hate what your freedom may one day cost you, but Ill wont be the one to take away the quality of life you have earned. Spock sat quietly, waiting for the ion interference to slacken so the Enterprise could take them both home.
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