The Fittest

by R.J. Sullivan

A short story set during the five-year mission of The Original Series Star Trek

Captain's Log, Stardate 4584.7. The Enterprise has been in orbit around Thalantos 3 for two weeks. This Class-M planet is notable for dense vegetation along much of its surface and the home of a sparse population of scattered primitive nomadic tribes. Since our arrival, Mr. Spock has been on the surface of the planet commanding a planet-side scouting team tasked with observing the cultural practices of one such tribe. As with all pre-warp technology civilizations, the Prime Directive of non-interference is in full effect. Accordingly, Spock and his team have all undergone rudimentary cosmetic alterations.

And now, I've received new orders from Starfleet, and must inform Mr. Spock that circumstances beyond our control require that the scouting team return to the ship immediately. I don't expect him, or them, to take the news well.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Spock. Federation Space Station G-9 has reported increased attacks in the sector from space pirates, disrupting normal trade. We're to rendezvous with the USS Degrassi and help scare them off."

"That is unfortunate, Captain. The Eranoi are a most fascinating people."

Captain James T. Kirk listened to the Vulcan report in from the base camp, amused at the tone of voice that filtered through. Had he not known better, Kirk would have said that Spock expressed human-like excitement.

"The discarded wood carvings we've acquired, for instance, reveal an aesthetic for beauty and artistic expression not typically seen in primitive cultures."

Kirk considered. "I'm afraid you're going to have to do better than that, Spock. Artistic expression can develop from a tendency to worship or communicate with ancient deities. On your own planet, Vulcans also performed ritualistic dances to speak to your sun gods."

"In most documented cases, deities demanded tributes or blood sacrifices," said Spock. "And yet, the Eranoi appear to resist this tendency. For instance, the tribe showed no interest in a herd of large bovine-like creatures when they came upon it earlier today. We've found no animal skins or weapons made of bone. In fact, no weapons at all. Their diet seems devoid of meat. Their tools, food, even their clothes, come from vegetative sources. This seems a key point of their culture."

"Vegetarian primitives." Kirk chuckled. "No wonder you admire them so, Mr. Spock."

"I simply point out that this is a mystery worth further examination. Mr. Sulu has discovered a phenomenon in the plant life unique to this planet, extraordinary cell clusters carried over across various species. If we had a few-"

"I'm sorry." Kirk shook his head, a pointless reflex with audio-only communication. "I'm pulling the plug, Spock. We'll collect your team first thing in the morning. You can gather up your data, pack up, and get some sleep if you need it."

Kirk waited through a short pause.

"That is unfortunate, sir. Can I persuade you to come back in a couple of weeks to retrieve us?"

"Are you suggesting that I send the Enterprise into battle without my primary science officer, helmsman, navigator, or communications officer? That's illogical, even for me."

"I simply meant that our opportunity to resume our mission here is statistically improbable. You'll understand if I prefer to pursue a scientific discovery over a police action."

Kirk sighed. "Starfleet is stretched thin. You have your orders, Mr. Spock. Kirk out." Kirk closed the channel. He'd heard nothing to warrant a delay of Starfleet's orders, especially with lives at stake.

Uhura re-inserted the data cartridge from the mini-drone and changed out its power cell. On the other side of the tent, Mr. Spock closed the communicator. She made eye contact with Chekov and Sulu, who looked as deflated as she felt at the news.

Spock and the scouting team had been dressed to blend in if the natives spotted them from a distance. Dr. McCoy had injected each team member with a pigment inhibitor which changed their complexion to mimic the pale pallor of the natives. The injection altered her appearance more dramatically than Spock, Chekov, or Sulu. Although she'd grown used to everyone's white hair and their shirts and pants dyed the color of wet seaweed, her own pale hands still surprised her on occasion.

Still, if the natives ever caught a good look at them, she doubted they'd be fooled for long. They now knew that the clothes were woven from the native plant life, and she suspected their denim green replicas wouldn't hold up.

For this mission, Uhura had been put in charge of the drone. Camouflaged as a bird, the drone captured bits and pieces of the tribe's everyday life as it flitted between branches and trees. Uhura controlled the drone by day and studied the drone's recordings by night. She had deciphered a rudimentary language from the recordings and had documented her findings.

She'd also committed what she learned of the Eranoi's language to memory, to exercise her rusty linguistics skills as well as for short term practical reasons. As communications officer, she could open a hailing frequency and solder a circuit board with the best of them, but she loved language in all its forms.

The scouting party hid their activities beyond the Eranoi patrols and within a large canvas camouflage tent. In the middle of the room, Mr. Chekov fired up the portable heater, which was safer than lighting a fire that might draw attention. Deep down, she lamented the missed opportunity. It would have been fun to camp out with the guys. She imagined roasting rations over the fire as they recounted ancient ghost stories. Do Vulcans have ghost stories? She'd have to ask Spock some time.

In the corner opposite her own, Sulu sorted and categorized various plant samples he'd collected from today's hike. His face crinkled as he bent to his work. He'd vowed to solve the mystery of the extra plant organ, as he called it, before they left. And now, his time had just been cut short.

Mr. Spock sat off by himself, contemplating whatever it was logical minds like his contemplated in situations like this.

"I see you over there, Mr. Spock," said Uhura. She couldn't help herself. His aloof demeanor just begged to be teased. "Pretending you've forgotten all about my request."

One eyebrow rose in a characteristic display of surprise. "While it was not foremost on my mind, I can assure you I did not 'forget' your desire to venture near the camp to get a closer look at the Eranoi's ritualistic dance."

She held the tiny data chip between forefinger and thumb. "I've reviewed at least three conversations held today that confirm they're holding the dance tonight."

"But those conversations offered no insight as to why."

"None, sir."

"And yet...forgive me, lieutenant, you seem eager to want to get a close look. I must question if you're being entirely forthcoming with your reasoning."

Uhura protruded her lower lip in an exaggerated pout. In his own way, the Vulcan could give as good as he got. "Me? Not entirely forthcoming? You wound me, Mr. Spock. Can't I just want to see a beautiful dance?"

"The benefits must outweigh the risks for me to allow it."

Uhura pressed, "And if I understood the Captain correctly, we're out of time. This may be the last chance we have to glean new insight into the tribe."

"You understood correctly." Spock folded his hands before him as he regarded the situation. "I don't suppose I could persuade you that flying the drone in for a closer look would be adequate."

Uhura shook her head. "In the dark? Through the forest? Do you want me to crash it against a tree? Besides, it's just not the same as being there."

"On the topic of 'being there,' I trust I don't need to emphasize the need for caution. If you are discovered, you may put this mission in extreme jeopardy."

Chekov spoke from near the portable heater. "According to regulations, if Uhura's going to try to observe the dance, she should be paired up with another member of the scouting team to ensure her safety."

Spock and Uhura both looked at him.

Spock answered, "Such a regulation does not exist."

"Well..." Chekov flared pink right through his pale skin. "There should be." His eyes darted toward Uhura. "Assuming you don't mind the company."

Uhura recalled their shore leave on Space Station K-7 when she wanted to go shopping and Chekov "wanted to help her." She still wasn't sure if he was infatuated with her or not. "I don't want to pull you away from important work."

"Are you kidding? Weather reports, geographical layouts, scans and maps...please pull me from my important work."

Spock said, "Your point about time being short is a valid one, so I'm releasing you to your own responsibility."

"Why Mr. Spock, you do care."

This time, both eyebrows raised, something Uhura always considered a personal victory. "I mean...we'll be careful, sir." She showed her Most Serious Face.

"I expect nothing less. Dismissed."

With Chekov at her side, Uhura exited the tent. Slung over her shoulder was an Eranoi-styled carrying pouch that hid her communicator, tricorder and universal translator. She would access them only if necessary. Should any of the locals spot them, the Prime Directive dictated that any devices must be either hidden or unrecognizable. The pouch, made of puncture-resistant cloth and secured with an inconspicuous thumbprint latch, ensured that anyone trying to access her equipment without her compliance would have a tough time.

She'd sweet-talked Spock into letting her observe the dance. Now she owed it to him to bring back useful information. And she was glad to have Chekov along. Besides, his bowler cut, now bleached white, made her smile, not to mention the way he postured in his dark green coveralls.

"So, Chekov, 'fess up. Why are you really here?"

Chekov looked shocked. "It's dark and potentially dangerous."

"I can take care of myself."

Chekov nodded. "Of course you can. I wasn't questioning your competence. But you're a valued colleague. And you can't predict every contingency. And...I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

Uhura's steps grew lighter at the flattery. "That's kind of you."

"'s a lovely night to walk with a lovely lady."

"Even when the 'lovely lady' outranks you?"

Chekov puffed his chest out. "I'm not intimidated. Russians laugh in the face of danger."

Uhura chuckled. "I'm glad for the company, too." They walked in silence for several meters.

Chekov used a long stick to clear their path. He also wore at his side his own carrying pouch. "Getting close enough to see the dance should be easy enough, but using our tricorders to record the ceremony could be a problem."

"It would be, if I were using the tricorder." She smiled and waved her right hand before Chekov's face. She wiggled her fingers. "What do you think of my ring, Ensign?"

Chekov gripped her hand in his and held it close. His eyes widened at the ring on her pointer finger, with the appearance of white bone and a tiny jewel. "You took one of our infiltration recorder/trackers from security?"

"A girl's got to be prepared for life's little emergencies." Uhura flashed a smile. "I checked it out before we beamed down. It's a basic model, it only captures video, but that's all we need, and it's easier to conceal if we're spotted."

"Mata Hari has nothing up on you," quipped Chekov. "You may not know that name. She's infamous as one of Russia's most devious spies."

"That's interesting," Uhura said, well aware that Mata Hari was executed as a spy for Germany, not Russia. If nothing else, Chekov stood as potential proof that, while the Soviet Union may have collapsed back in the twentieth century, their propaganda program extended into the 23rd century via a certain prideful Starfleet ensign.

She pointed toward the glow of the Eranoi's bonfire, partially obscured by twigs, which beckoned in the distance. "The terrain rises this way," she whispered. "Come on." Uhura gripped Chekov's hand and pulled him behind her. The underbrush crunched under their feet, sounding thunderous in her ears.

As they circled the camp, she soon found herself on a small hill looking down on the gathering. Uhura and Chekov dropped to their stomachs and crawled forward on their elbows.

They had an unobstructed view of the entire encampment. Perfect.

Below them, the tribe gathered around a bright yellow glow I seeing that right?

She crawled closer and leaned over the edge of the uprising.

She saw it correctly. That's no bonfire. But...what is it? Uhura pointed her ring and pressed the hidden record button.

The bright yellow glow didn't come from burning wood. In fact, nothing burned in the midst of the brightness. The luminescence came from the branches and leaves themselves. The best Uhura could tell, the light came from a bulbous growth still rooted in the ground.

Incredible. As she watched, members of the tribe held their hands out toward the glow and rubbed them together. Clearly, warmth emanated from the plant.

"Chekov, are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Chekov reached into his own pouch and retrieved his tricorder. "I'm not sure. I don't think I can believe my own eyes."

Uhura spoke out loud. "We've seen bio-luminescent plants on other planets, but...does this one light and give off the request and convenience of the Eranoi?"

Chekov flipped the lid of the device.

"Be careful, Chekov!" If anyone sees that...

"We won't get a better chance. These readings could answer a lot of questions." Chekov looked at the screen. He'd muted the device to eliminate any electronic sounds that might otherwise attract attention.

Uhura again looked over the scene. One Eranoi stood over the others, a strikingly lovely female whom Uhura knew from her recordings as Neeta, the tribal matriarch. She stood tall and lithe before the glow of the tree. An elaborate dress replaced the efficient two-piece coverall, accented with swirling cuts and clusters of tiny blue flowers from head to toe. A gnarled crown, accented with more luminescent flowers, lay upon her forehead. White hair fell in waves around her head and curtained her face.

The gathering quieted. Uhura, too, stood transfixed before beauty that caused her breath to catch in her throat.

In her language, Neeta called to the light in lilting, musical vocalizations.

Uhura understood many of the words and translated for Chekov. "We plead with the land, let the-" ...Groplars?... "-pass by us this night! Let their eyes be blind to our presence."

Neeta commenced to sway and writhe to the tribal beat, pounded out on drums in a steady rhythm by her people around her. They do pray to tribal idols. They believe the natural forces are supernatural. Uhura listened, intrigued, even as a part of her felt disappointed. She didn't know why this discovery affected her; it was a natural evolutionary step for most emerging civilizations.

She looked in Chekov's direction. "Chekov, look out!"

Chekov turned his head.

A large Eranoi tribesman stood behind them.

Chekov dropped his tricorder into his pouch, sealed the seam, and sprang to his feet.

Still perched on the edge of the rise, Uhura rolled, and the ground underneath her gave way.

She tumbled and landed roughly inside the encampment before the tribesmen. Even as she tried to sit up, her leg screamed with pain near her ankle.

"Uhura!" Chekov went after her, then turned to take in the sight of several faces watching them with various looks of surprise and shock. Chekov held out his hand to her. "Come on, hurry!"

Uhura tried to rise, but sharp pain from her ankle dropped her to the ground again.

"I'll help you."

The tribesmen approached, eight, maybe ten of them, looking mystified. From above them, the large Eranoi tribesman worked his way down toward them.

"No, Chekov. Go."

"I'm not leaving you."

"Chekov, look at me." She mustered her biggest smile. "Go back and tell Spock where I am." She gripped her satchel and held it close. "I'll be fine."

The large tribesman dropped to the ground and spoke in his language to Uhura. "Don't be afraid, stranger. We mean no harm."

Uhura offered Chekov assurance, "They're not going to hurt me. Go!"

Still torn, Chekov spared Uhura one last look. "I'll be back for you. Stay safe."


Chekov ran into the woods back toward their camp.

Uhura watched him retreat and vanish into the forest of darkness. Poor Chekov; that was not the show of bravery he wanted to make tonight.

The natives closed the gap, but she sensed curiosity, not hostility.

She tried again to rise, but more pain rocked her. She winced and fell back.

The group around her parted for Neeta to step forward.

Time stopped for Uhura as she and this intriguing woman from a different world evaluated each other.

Neeta placed her hand upon her chest. "Neeta," she said. She held her hand out to Uhura, then she lowered it to her side.

Uhura imitated the gesture and said, "Uhura." She responded further in Eranoi, "My tribe comes from...far away."

Neeta's gaze drifted toward Uhura's ankle. "Are you in pain?"

Uhura struggled to sit, unable to hide her wince. "Yes, I fell...badly. I think I may have..." she stopped. She knew she'd broken the bone, but would the Eranoi grasp that? "I hurt myself," she finished.

"May I see?"

Uhura nodded, and Neeta crouched next to her.

Neeta had an earthy forest fragrance, and when Neeta's hands touched her ankle, soothing warmth from her long delicate fingers penetrated Uhura's ankle.

The matriarch's large, bright green eyes reflected sympathy in the intense light. "Try to hold still."

Her fingers probed up and down the leg. Rather than focus on the tell-tale redness near the ankle, Neeta focused straight ahead.

Uhura braced for the manipulations. To her relief, numbness spread through the tissue and her leg glowed at the spot of the break. The sensation of penetrating energy ruled out any possibility of a trick of the light.

Uhura thought she couldn't be more surprised, until Neeta said, "I can see the break."

Words failed her.

Neeta continued in a soothing tone, apparently unaware of the effect her words had on Uhura. "I can numb the pain; setting the bones will take more time than I can spare. I will attend to this in the morning. My tribe...expects me to dance." Her tone expressed her unspoken apology.

Uhura didn't trust herself to say anything. The wrong comment now could expose knowledge to the Eranoi that the tribe had not yet discovered on their own. She simply smiled and nodded.

The large Eranoi tribesman came closer. Neeta said, "Uhura, this is Barlon."

"I did not mean to scare your friend," Barlon added. "We always watch for Groplars."

Uhura wondered how much to reveal. "My tribe is...from far away, but we mean no harm." And what are Groplars, and will my asking give me away?

"You are not Groplar," Barlon said. "And yet, you are not exactly like us."

"It doesn't matter," said Neeta. "Let us get you comfortable by the light."

Balancing on one foot, Uhura let Neeta and Barlon help her rise to a standing position. They stood on either side and guided her as she hopped on one foot to an open space near the glowing plant, a spot of surprising warmth and plenty of light. They lowered her onto a large rock. Through all this, they let her keep her bag at her side. She marveled at the trust these people showed her.

Barlon sat down next to her. His watched her without fear. "Your tribe is welcome. All tribes are welcome."

Neeta returned with a carved-out wooden bowl filled with a dark green broth and vegetables she'd scooped from the community kettle. She offered the bowl and a hand-carved spoon.

Uhura accepted the food with gratitude. The broth's aroma caused her stomach to grumble. She hesitated, then took a bite. She tasted vegetables and grass, unfamiliar but pleasant. She took a second bite with gusto and gobbled the rest.

The whole time, she worried about the mission. What will Spock say when Chekov reports me injured, that we blew our cover and broke every protocol in the book? How will we disengage from these people without causing them further harm? Should I have allowed Neeta to treat me?

Neeta placed a hand on Uhura's shoulder. "I must dance now, or Groplars may come."

After Neeta left, Barlon groaned a low, discordant note.

The noise surprised Uhura. "You do not like the dancing?"

Barlon kept his voice low. "I do not think the dancing affects Groplars. A heptar ago, my son was taken when the Groplars attacked." Barlon's face sobered at the memory. "Neeta had danced that night, but it made no difference. They came anyway. He was likely absorbed by them."

"Absorbed" by an enemy? Did that mean... Uhura couldn't finish the thought. Cannibalism was barbaric and abhorrent, even among sworn enemies.

Barlon continued, "Neeta asks favors of the forest, but Groplars are not bonded to the forest as we are. The forest does not speak to them, has no hold on them. Neeta will dance, and Groplars will come, or they will not. The dance doesn't matter."

Amongst the gathering, a tribesman resumed the drumbeat. A second and third joined in and played a kind of wind instrument to the tempo. Neeta restarted her dance. And with that dance, she chanted. "Hear us, forest, protect us tonight, from those who would harm your servants."

The sad, hypnotic words, sung in lilting Eranoi, caused Uhura to swoon.

"Enforce your will and guide their feet to pass us, grant us this so we may continue to serve you."

The purpose for Uhura's errand had arrived, and she had a front-row seat. She rested her hand on her knee and pointed the ring in a way she hoped was inconspicuous. Her mind raced as she pieced together the clues given to her.

She considered the Eranoi, a loose community of peaceful tribes scattered across Thalantos 3, bond in harmony with the forest. These inhabitants were so synchronized with their world, they shunned killing, even the animals, for any purpose. They trusted her, a stranger, because they presumed that she shared their bond.

Also scattered across the planet were Groplars, an aggressive race, possibly cannibalistic, people not swayed by the benevolent forces that pacified the Eranoi.

And if that's true, then Barlon is right. Neeta's dance means nothing.

A blood curdling growl interrupted her thought. A warcry, just outside the camp border. A large, brutish figure trampled into the camp. He swung a club. The Eranoi scattered.

Uhura's bad leg immobilized her. She lay, frightened, as fresh, sharp pain shot through her.

A moment later, Neeta crouched by her side. "Let me help you," she said, her eyes unafraid. With a touch, Neeta numbed her leg and pulled Uhura to her feet.

Barlon rushed in and stood between the Groplar and the two women.

The Groplar swung its club and Barlon dropped to the ground. He landed and lay still.

Terrified, Uhura turned away and stumble-walked with Neeta. "You...need to go..." Uhura said.

"Will not leave you."

Ahead, two more Groplars stepped out of the shadows. One grabbed Neeta and slung her over his shoulder.

Uhura fell to the ground.

The second Groplar towered over Uhura. Oh, no you won't! I may die here, but I will not be carried off in such an indignant fashion.

She reached down and found a rock.

With all her might, she slung the stone, but the Groplar evaded the projectile, then darted forward and lifted her off her feet in a crushing grip.

Agony overcame her and she passed out.

Even with her life in imminent danger, Uhura couldn't shake the feeling that she'd stumbled into a 20th century cinema jungle thriller.

She sat in a large, boxy cage of wooden bars, secured with some sort of twine-possibly woven from plants. She shared the cage with Neeta, Barlon, and two other Eranoi. There were two identical cages, one on either side, all three situated near a huge dirt pit.

She saw the Groplar leader as he stood in place a few meters ahead, a particularly intimidating brute among the intimidating brutes. He snorted and barked orders at his subordinates. They scrambled in unison to find more wood for the pile in the middle of the pit. Surrounding the pile, unlit torches protruded from sconces in the ground, which left little doubt in Uhura's mind what the Groplars planned once the pile was stacked to the leader's satisfaction.

She craned her head and blinked at the bright white Thalantos sunrise. About four hours had passed since sun-up. If Chekov made it back to camp, Spock's reported in by now.

She imagined Kirk, fretting on the bridge. "Can't we just beam her out of there?"

Then Scotty's answer, in a voice full of regret. "She'll sparkle and vanish right in front of everybody, Capt'n. We just canna' do it."

And then...

And then she had no idea what they might decide next. I'm a Starfleet officer. Surely they won't let me die. No one opens hailing frequencies like me. They need me. Uhura knew her oath called on her to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary, and if Kirk decided she had to die to maintain the integrity of the Prime Directive, then all he had to do was...nothing.

She had to believe he wouldn't leave her. She watched the pile of wood grow bigger. I'm too petite to be served up as barbecue.

She had the presence of mind to trigger her ring recorder, then shift her hand around in what she hoped were nonchalant movements to take video of the camp. The ship would likely detect the transmission, and the video would relay valuable intelligence concerning her predicament. This, plus the communicator in her bag would lead a rescue party to her exact location.

Snap! A Groplar broke a branch off a tree.

At that moment, Neeta winced.

Uhura put a hand on Neeta's shoulder. "Are you okay?"

Neeta's eyebrows furrowed. "Can you not feel it?"

"I..." Uhura stopped. The wrong answer now would give her away.

Neeta shrugged. "Whenever the Groplars damage the forest, the tribe can feel the forest cry."

"Oh." Torn, Uhura froze, uncertain how to answer. Covert status aside, she'd avoided lying to her new friend any more than necessary. "But, your wood carvings, your instruments. I've seen them at the camp."

Neeta's brows furrowed as she answered. "We use the deadwood that the trees have discarded." She held Uhura in a deep, penetrating stare. "Which reminds me, please lie down. I can adjust the broken bone and hasten its healing. It will take a few minutes, and then I will be weak. And we may not have much time."

Uhura lay flat on the ground. She tried to relax and get as comfortable as possible. Even without a medical background, her leg appeared dangerously red and swollen.

Neeta crouched beside her. Her delicate fingers probed the leg. Uhura waited for pain which never came. Instead, the tingling sensation returned, then all sensation ceased from the knee down.

Uhura released the breath she'd held. Then her vision blurred and she drifted in a stupor.

Neeta's voice reached her through a fog. "I can shift the bone, put it into place, and encourage it to mend. When I finish, you should be able to walk. I don't know if you will be able to run."

Uhura heard a giggle and wondered who it was, then realized the laughter was her own. "Dr. McCoy may be out of a job if you can do all that, honey." She drifted into euphoria.

Neeta's voice returned, her tone questioning. "Are you giving me permission, friend Uhura?"

"I can't fight these monsters flat on my back, darling."

"I must probe deep. Please try to relax, friend Uhura."

"I don't think I get much more relaxed than..."

The world went dark.

Uhura awoke with a sense that time had passed. She sat up and looked down at her ankle.

The protrusion and swelling were gone. It still felt stiff and sore, but not remarkably so.

She wiggled her toes. "Thank you, Neeta, I-" She saw that Neeta has collapsed in a heap in the corner.

"Neeta?" She embraced her friend and propped her up, noting with relief the steady breathing and the moan that escaped her. She recalled Neeta's words. It will take a few minutes, and then I will be weak.

Neeta's eyes fluttered and opened.

Uhura placed an open palm against Neeta's cheek. She felt warmth against her hand. "You scared me, my friend."

Neeta's eyes darted around, then settled on Uhura. They widened in what looked like fear.

Neeta scurried away, though the back of the cage kept her from going far.

Neeta's reaction stung. "What's wrong?"

Neeta's reaction emerged in a shrill cry. "Earlier you asked about our instruments, why we made them from deadwood."

"I remember."

"I said that Eranoi are bonded with the forest." She glared at Uhura. "But you don't feel the force of the forest, do you?"

Uhura looked away. "I don't know what you mean."

"You look like Eranoi. But you are not Eranoi, are you, friend Uhura?"

Uhura was silent, though her mind raced. How can I make it right?

Neeta pressed. "Tell me, friend Uhura, do you think we will be rescued?"

"My tribe...can help us. We shouldn't give up hope."

"Your tribe." The statement hovered between them. "Your tribe that does not know our language and comes from very far away. Your tribe, which destroyed the living trees these past few days as you followed us, your tribe, which cut and killed the plants."

"We are nothing like the Groplars, Neeta."

Uhura could almost see Neeta trying to process her response. "No, you are not like the Groplars, but are you a different threat?" Neeta released a deep sigh. "The Groplars live on this land. You come from outside this land, outside this..." Neeta stopped. An awkward silence followed, then she started again. "When I bonded with you to mend your leg, I saw a word in your mind. A 'Plane net.' You come from a plane net. I do not understand what that means, but I know that it is why you are not bonded with the forest."

Uhura's surreal mindset went beyond shock as she heard the secrets her friend had deduced. She needed time to process this change in events, but she also needed to act. "Neeta...I can't talk about that, but I promise you that my people mean you no harm."

"Your tribe with their secrets. I don't know what I think of them. But," her eyes locked with Uhura's, "I did not probe your thoughts on purpose, but your feelings, my people...reached me and made itself known."

"Oh." Uhura looked away. "I'm sorry. I may have jeopardized this mission by coming to your camp."

Neeta cocked her head at the words. "I don't know what that means, but I trust you. You wish to help us. I also understand your people think yourselves above us, think that I can't understand, but I do. Our people are dying. The Groplars will kill all of us if you do not help. I also know you want to change that."

Uhura shook her head. "Just because I want to, doesn't mean I can."

"I have no pride, friend Uhura. I helped you; now maybe you will help my people."

Uhura's face flamed in her shame. "Neeta, it's not up to me." How did I get myself into this? She looked out beyond the cage at the Groplars.

The wood pile stood at close to a meter tall. The leader attended to the five torches and lit them one by one with a flint. He signaled his brutes and motioned with his arm, sending them running, presumably, to gather still more wood.

Uhura wondered how much taller the stack would reach before the leader was satisfied. She suspected they didn't have much time. Out loud, she said, "I promise you this. Whatever else happens, you won't die here. Not like this."

Uhura rose to her feet, testing her balance. For the first time since they'd been captured, she took in her surroundings without fighting through a haze of pain.

The Eranoi captives watched her, still scared and cowed, as they awaited their fate in passive acceptance.

The cages had a door, securely tied shut with a rope-like plant, but no floors. Uhura considered this oddity. Maybe the Groplars thought the cages were too heavy to move, or they had learned over time that the Eranoi would not act to free themselves.

Uhura bent down. She worked her hand under the cage's edge. Careful to push with her undamaged leg, she gave it a heave.

Oh, wow, this is heavy! She strained, but the weight of the cage won out before she got it more than a few inches off the ground. There was no way she could lift the edge by herself.

She called out, "Okay, everyone, come help me. We're getting out of here."

The Eranoi stared at Uhura, their faces reflecting fear and confusion. None of them moved to help her.

She turned her head. "Come on! Do you want to die? Help me!"

Neeta rose and stood next to her.

"Come on, help me. If we all lift together, we can get out of this."

Neeta turned to Barlon. "I command you as your leader. Help friend Uhura. Help her save all of our lives."

Barlon joined them, adding his strength to the women's.

They lifted edge of the cage to Uhura's knees. Uhura gasped with the strain. "Get everyone lifting," she called. "And get them to do the same." She motioned with her head to indicate the other cages.

"Quickly!" Neeta called to the two cowering tribesmen in the corner. "Help us if you value your lives." She called out her people. "Do as we do. Quickly!"

The two tribesmen stepped over to help. The edge of the cage rose to Uhura's waist. She resisted the urge to use her newly mended leg to help lift. She filled her mind with images of her leg bone snapping from the strain, the worst thing that could possibly happen now.

She heard a monstrous growl.

Oh, no, they've noticed!

Uhura glanced at the pit to see...

Captain Kirk!

The Groplar hadn't noticed their escape attempt after all, but scrambled toward a group of charging "Eranoi" that closed in from the edge of the forest. Spock donned a headband along with his green covering, plus Sulu, Chekov, and two security guards, all led by Kirk. The captain held a large branch as a weapon and closed in on the leader.

Chekov ran directly for the cages; the security guards followed.

"I've come to rescue you!" Chekov called cheerily.

"Get your ass over here and help lift!" Uhura answered in Federation standard.

"Yes, ma'am! Come on, you two."

Chekov and the two security guards-Uhura recognized Allen and Garrison-gripped the edge of the cage from the outside. With their help, they easily hoisted the end up high enough for the Eranoi and Uhura to scramble under.

"This way," Garrison said to the confused natives. Garrison motioned with her arm toward the forest and then ran in that direction herself.

"Follow her," Uhura said to Neeta in the Eranoi tongue.

Neeta called to her people and they took off after Garrison.

Allen, Uhura, and Chekov converged on the next cage.

Though they had given it some effort, the Eranoi had barely lifted one side a few inches from the ground. Chekov pointed, indicating the door built into the cage. He said to Uhura in Federation Standard, "I can get it, but you need to distract them."

Uhura leaned against the cage. "That's not going to work," she said in their speech.

The Eranoi backed away and looked at her, their faces full of fear.

"It's okay. Look at me. It's going to be okay, we're going to get you out of this."

As she spoke, Chekov took action behind them; he unfolded a metal knife from his carrying bag and cut the rope. Though a simple tool, letting the Eranoi see a metal knife would have violated the Prime Directive.

As if we haven't already violated it many times over. Uhura motioned toward the now-open door. "There, go, run for your lives. Follow your leader."

The second group followed the first into the forest.

Off in the distance, Kirk and Spock double-teamed the Groplar leader, pummeling the giant into submission. Kirk swung with the wooden branch and delivered a blow that brought the monster to its knees. Spock stepped in and reached toward its neck, and, one quick Vulcan nerve pinch later, the Groplar dropped face-down in the dirt.

Sulu, meanwhile, held off two other Groplar with a long pole, knocking one, then the other, to his knees with quick strikes to either side.

Ahead of her, the Eranoi had managed to lift the edge of the final cage halfway up. Chekov and security guard Allen stepped forward to help. Behind them and out of their sight, Uhura noticed another Groplar emerge from the woods and close in. She-as best Uhura could tell, this Groplar was female-let out a loud cry and charged at them.

Uhura sidestepped toward the wood pit and pulled one of the torches from the ground. She swung the torch at the advancing beast.

The Groplar, dressed in animal skin, raised her arm to deflect the fire, but the torch caught the furry sleeve as it veered past. She screamed and cried as she rolled around in the clearing, trying to snuff the flames.

Uhura stared, appalled at what she had done. She returned the torch to its nook and scooped up a leather blanket near the fire pit.

She grabbed two corners and beat the Groplar with it, snuffing the flames that threatened to engulf her. Satisfied she'd caused no major injuries, she let the blanket fall over the prone body.

She turned to see Kirk, Spock, Chekov and Sulu, the looks on their faces reflecting their collective shock at her actions. Even Spock looked as stunned as she'd ever seen him.

Kirk smiled. "We thought you needed rescuing, Lieutenant, but it looks like you have the situation well under control."

"Oh, no, sir." She reached out and he gripped both his hands in hers. "I'm glad to see you. We have a lot to discuss."

Kirk released her hands. "Indeed, Spock has been trying to update me, but it seems you're the only one who knows anything."

Uhura couldn't hold back her emotion. "These people...they're in a lot of trouble, sir."

Kirk looked at the ground. She knew he was avoiding her gaze. "Let's get your friends...back to their camp. Then we'll talk about it."

Uhura lay on the floor of the tent. Dr. McCoy crouched next to her as he ran his scanner over her leg.

Kirk sat in the chair at the head of the tent, the spot Spock had occupied until now. Spock sat cross-legged at Kirk's side, his hands folded against each other before him in what Uhura termed one of his "smart Vulcan" poses.

Chekov and Sulu had also joined them. Allen and Garrison, as ordered, waited at the tribe's camp to discourage any enthusiastic Groplars that might have pursued them.

Under cover of the tent, every member of the scouting party consulted their tricorders and mini computers openly.

McCoy read his findings while looking directly at his medical tricorder. "I don't know what she did or how she did it, but the broken bone has been set and mostly mended." He directed his next words at Kirk. "Whatever else they may be, they are not your everyday primitive culture."

"I've asserted as much all along," said Spock. "Though unique, they are nevertheless a primitive culture, and we must handle them according to the Prime Directive."

Kirk nodded. "Non-interference; let nature take its course." He addressed Mr. Sulu across the tent. "Did you examine the data from the ship's scans?"

Sulu consulted his tricorder. "I did, sir. I also examined Dr. McCoy's scans of the Eranoi people and compared them to the plants I sampled. They have a unique organ in common. At first I thought it was a nerve cluster, but it emits a bio-chemical signal, for lack of a better term. Furthermore, I compared those to the medical scans McCoy took of a couple of felled Groplars, and confirmed that their physiology lacks this organ."

Spock broke in. "It's a logical conclusion that this organ is what bonds the Eranoi to each other, and to the other non-Groplar tribes. This organ also bonds them to the forest and its thriving life, most likely the animals, insects, reptiles...though we would need further study to confirm the full spread."

Sulu continued, "The distinction of the extra cluster made it possible for me to review and filter our ongoing planetary scans taken from orbit, going back to the moment we arrived. We tracked and identified all Eranoi and Groplar communities planet-wide and studied their movements. From that, I programmed the computer to extrapolate forward." Sulu looked at Uhura. "The results are...unsettling."

He turned the screen for the group to see. "By color-coding the tribes and condensing the scans into a few minutes, the pattern is as clear as it is troubling. The Groplar race is growing and thriving as they attack while shrinking the Eranoi clusters a few persons at a time. Eranoi reproduction is not keeping up with the loss."

Kirk rubbed his hand over his chin. His gaze flicked from the screen to Uhura and back again. "How long?"

Sulu turned the screen back toward himself. "Both factions are still at viable levels. It may have been several centuries before they first encountered each other, or maybe they coexisted in peace at one time. In any case, as it stands now, the Eranoi make up about one third of the planetary population, but...if this trend continues, I predict that within a decade, the Eranoi will be eradicated. Within seven years, in my opinion, it will be nearly impossible to reverse the trend."

Uhura couldn't hold back anymore. "We can't allow that."

His tone predictably cold and logical, Spock said, "There may be nothing we can do. The Prime Directive of non-interference is clear. The natural development of this planet dictates the survival of the fittest and it must be allowed to play out."


The group of faces in the tent all stared, wide-eyed, at her. Even McCoy, who usually stood on the side of compassion and decency, hesitated to speak up.

Uhura pressed, "Who dictated that being the most aggressive and violent race on a world automatically determines that they are the most fit people to dominate it?"

Spock said, "Such is the normal outcome of natural selection, Uhura."

"But now, we're here. Shouldn't our observations, our conclusions, play a part in the process?"

Spock raised an eyebrow. "That's a provocative statement, Uhura, but not one based on facts or precedence."

"The reason the Eranoi won't fight the Groplar," said Uhura, "is because they empathetically sense the emotional states of the world around them. They want only what is best for themselves and for the planet itself."

"Which, regrettably," said Spock, "has short-circuited the aggressive tendency: a trait vital for a fully realized culture."

Uhura couldn't believe what she'd heard. "'Vital for a fully realized culture?' What about Earth's history? Centuries of war, and then the environmental near-disaster that almost destroyed us until we changed our path. Our aggressive tendencies nearly cost us our world. If we hadn't found a way to 'short circuit' our own aggressive tendencies, we wouldn't be here at all, let alone be in a position to affect a positive change."

Uhura turned to Kirk. She hated to plead, but she was the last hope for Neeta and the Eranoi people. "Captain, you can act to ensure that the fittest culture becomes the future caretakers of this planet. These people, with their planetary empathy, would avoid the struggles the people of Earth faced."

Spock added, "Our research on ancient cultures backs Uhura's statement. If the Eranoi can survive long enough to thrive, theirs is the more enlightened of the two cultures, better able to make more intelligent decisions about what's best for the future of their planet."

Kirk watched the simulation loop on Sulu's tricorder. "Uhura, I'm inclined to help, but Starfleet has tied my hands. I can't just hand the tribe a bunch of phasers and other advanced weapons and set them loose on the Groplars. That would be as irresponsible as doing nothing." He looked at Dr. McCoy. "How about you, Bones? You usually have something to say."

McCoy released a breath. "Jim, I think Uhura just delivered you a message, marked priority one. Not much more I can add to it. You gotta do something. I'll be damned if I know what, but to allow these people to be exterminated would be immoral."

Kirk chuckled and looked at Uhura. "Well, she is the communications officer, and I hear her loud and clear. Now, excuse me, gentlemen, and lady, while I ponder my options." Kirk addressed Spock. "Have Garrison and Allen report to me, and tell the Eranoi to pack up and prepare for a long trek."

Speaking through Uhura, Kirk met with Neeta and explained his intentions for her tribe. They would travel several hours to a spot Kirk had picked from planetary scans, though he didn't tell Neeta that detail. He explained that Kirk could spare only one day because his tribe had to be elsewhere. Once they had reached their destination, he would explain his plan further.

Chekov and Sulu led the group deep into the woods and guided the 62 Eranoi and 8 members of the landing party in a single direction. They cleared obstacles wherever necessary, using staffs, stone knives and good old fashioned teamwork to cut a path into the unknown. Tribe-members cringed and cried from the injuries to the forest, but Neeta calmed them and urged them forward.

Uhura, Allen, and Garrison lagged behind with Kirk, per his orders. Though Uhura would have preferred to travel with her friend, she knew Neeta had plenty to do to keep her people on task.

After a half day, the tribe crossed a wide clearing. Kirk signaled to Garrison, Allen and Uhura to "fall behind" and let the tribe travel on. Kirk motioned for the group to huddle together.

Uhura, so far, had been kept in the dark, and didn't know how to feel about that. She simply did the one thing she could do: follow orders. Incomprehensible action, she reasoned, was better than no action. She trusted her captain, especially now.

Kirk addressed Garrison and Allen. "This is the first spot on the map. I need this section blocked. I don't care if you dig a pit, build a barrier, or set a booby trap. I need something that will keep the Groplars from following, and it needs to look natural."

Allen spoke, his voice a deep, commanding baritone. "A chasm seems the most efficient barrier, Captain. We can carve one with our phasers in a few minutes."

Garrison already had her phaser out. "Then we can work our way over to the other three spots you mentioned, create similar blockades, and be back at the camp site in time for dinner."

Kirk surveyed the sun overhead. "I may be gone by then, but you're clear on your orders?"

Allen grinned. "As I understand it, we have about six weeks to teach the Eranoi how to kick the Groplar's ass."

Kirk returned Allen's grin. "They need to learn hand to hand combat, plus the basics of creating and using primitive weapons from the materials and means available to them at their present development level. Nothing advanced, just teach them what they should have known already." Kirk paused. "Use deadwood for your materials when you start, but encourage them to work past the initial pain of destroying live trees and plants, and realize that the animals are also resources. If they can vary their diet, get them to work as a team to hunt and forage, this will also help their chances for long-term survival."

Garrison brushed a rebellious lock of hair from her eyes. "I was the karate champion at the academy for three years, Captain. I can show the Eranoi a few things."

Allen added, "I can't wait to see what the Eranoi will do with a pair of nun-chucks."

Kirk looked pleased. "You have your orders. Dismissed."

Uhura waited while Garrison and Allen broke off into the woods away from the tribe.

"They're going to block off all access routes to the tribe," said Kirk. "It won't keep the Groplars away permanently, and it won't save the species, even if we protect this group. But it will buy us the one thing we need-time. Time for this tribe to learn what its people need to know. Time for them to find other tribes and teach them those same skills."

Uhura considered. "It's possible that the Eranoi can project what they've learned to each other telepathically."

Kirk nodded. "That would certainly help. But it's still a long shot. They have a tough struggle ahead."

"But, Captain...isn't it possible that by teaching the Eranoi aggressive behavior, we could end up 'training out' the very qualities that make them unique?"

Kirk put a hand on the back of his neck. The question had unnerved him. "One problem at a time, Uhura. I'm counting on the cultivated wisdom of these people to use the knowledge wisely, and fight back only in defense. In any case, we'll address that issue if we have to."

Kirk regarded her. "And that brings us to you, Lieutenant."

Uhura braced herself for the lecture. She hated it, but she understood. This is where the captain reminds me I need to say goodbye to my friend. She could already hear his words. 'Your duty is to the Enterprise first.'

Kirk clasped his hands behind his back as he regarded her. "The situation at Space Station G-9 has escalated. We can't wait any longer. Once we get the natives settled, I'm ordering the landing party to return to the ship."

Here it comes.

Kirk continued, "That's where we're most needed. It may be six weeks or longer before we can return to pick up Allen and Garrison."

"Sir..." Uhura hesitated. She hadn't planned to interrupt, but here it was. This was her last chance to speak her heart. "Sir, I want to remain behind. Garrison and Allen may have read the reports and studied the analysis, but they don't know this tribe."

Kirk slashed his hand through the air. "Permission denied, Lieutenant."

"But Captain, Lt. Palmer is excellent at communications, as is Lt. M'Ress. They can fill in for me on the bridge. Please sir, I need to stay here. I know these people. They don't trust Allen or Garrison, they trust me."

Then she noticed the gleam in Kirk's eyes. "You misunderstand me, Uhura. I'm not giving you a choice. I'm ordering you to stay behind. Effective immediately, you're to serve as our official liaison to the Eranoi until the Enterprise returns. In fact, you're in command. Allen and Garrison are your subordinates during this mission."

"I'm-" As Kirk's words caught up with her, she couldn't stop the choking noise in her throat as emotion overcame her. "Yes...sir."

Kirk put a hand on her shoulder. She felt a sense of strength from his action similar to the effect of Neeta's touch. "Uhura, I'm going to delay filing my report with Starfleet until after we return to Thalantos 3. Starfleet is going to ..." Kirk paused. "...need to be persuaded...that interfering on behalf of the Eranoi is the correct choice. That means I need at least a dozen compelling reasons to tell them why the Eranoi are worth saving."

Kirk dropped his hand back to his side and smiled. "I need you to give me every reason you can find to convince Starfleet that helping the Eranoi is the only moral, ethical choice before me. I need to you to learn all that you can about the Eranoi. I need you to get them to trust Garrison and Allen. I need you to give me those compelling reasons so I can pass them along. I need you, lieutenant."

Uhura allowed herself be moved by pride. Taking on this role for her captain felt right.

Then she asked the question foremost on her mind. "And if I can't?"

Kirk considered, then shrugged. " won't be the first time Starfleet has had a major conniption over one of my first contact decisions. But..." he held Uhura with his stare. "Let's make it easy on them. Will you help me do that?"

"Yes sir, Captain, I will. And thank you."

Kirk flashed a charming smile. "I'll hate not having you on the bridge for the next few weeks, but it's obvious to me that you're 'the fittest' person for this mission. Now, let's go catch up with the Eranoi so you can give Neeta the good news."

About the Author

R.J. Sullivan's latest book, Commanding the Red Lotus, is a novel-length collection of three space opera adventure tales in the tradition of Andre Norton and Gene Roddenberry. His novels Haunting Blue, Haunting Obsession, and Virtual Blue are edgy paranormal thrillers. R.J.'s short stories have been featured in such acclaimed collections as Dark Faith: Invocations by Apex Books and Vampires Don't Sparkle.

R.J. co-hosts the Two Towers Talk Show YouTube program with John F. Allen. He resides with his family in Heartland Crossing, Indiana. He drinks regularly from a Little Mermaid coffee mug and is man enough to admit it. Learn more at