Written for the 2011 Star Trek Big Bang on Livejournal - look for links to the mix and art there!
Warnings: Minor character death. Mind control themes and sort-of-zombies. Dark at times due to twisted xenobiological shenanigans. Mild themes of stress-related weight loss. Heaps of TOS references and/or spoilers. Eventual smut. Freakishly long chapters.
Spock caught the trailing end of the captain's tense conversation with Dr. McCoy as the two men arrived on the bridge. Kirk's brow was furrowed, and his voice several decibels below his typical speaking volume, implying that something was wrong beyond the relatively simple parameters of their mission.
"–not tell us in the first report?"
"Does it matter? They're probably a little distracted, Jim."
They both hesitated at the top of the bridge, and McCoy briefly placed a hand on Kirk's shoulder before they descended. The captain looked toward the science station and exchanged a nod with Spock as he passed by, his smile forced. Spock wondered, not for the first time, why humans often mimicked emotions they did not actually experience. While perhaps useful for deceptive purposes, when the true feelings of all parties were apparent, it seemed superfluous.
Kirk took the captain's chair and called to Nyota. "We have a channel, Lieutenant?"
"Already open, sir."
The viewscreen switched from a view of the lush red planet they were orbiting to the face of a slender woman, apparently in her mid-fifties, exhibiting the physical symptoms of sleep deprivation. "Galapagos to Enterprise," she said. "This Captain Gates. I can't tell you how glad we are to see you."
"Captain Kirk here. I'm sorry we couldn't come sooner."
"I just can't believe another Federation vessel was out in this godforsaken corner of the quadrant." Her expression eased slightly, and Spock detected a faint thread of humor in her tone. "Least of all yours, Ace."
This time, the captain's smile appeared genuine. "My place or yours, Professor Hardass?" A few of the bridge crew snickered, and Gates gave Kirk a look that Spock could not decipher with any degree of confidence. It seemed to hover somewhere between cautionary and affectionate.
"We'll come to you," she said. "Everyone's too busy moping around over here to hold a meeting."
"Then I'll see you in the transporter room, ma'am. Kirk out."
The screen went dark, and the captain turned to McCoy, who was standing stiffly behind his chair. "Well?"
"Severe overstress, but you don't need an M.D. to tell you that."
"You'll look her over?"
"I'll do remote scans. Something tells me she won't tolerate being poked and prodded. Good thing I'm used to that kind of nonsense."
Kirk ignored the doctor's pointed stare as he stood and motioned for Spock to follow them back into the turbolift. Spock almost paused automatically at Nyota's station in deference to their tradition – she would pull him aside and tell him to 'be careful out there' before away missions – but it had been twenty one point three days since their separation, and he was uncertain if such gestures were still appropriate. She did hold his gaze as he approached, smiled faintly, and nodded once before turning back to her station. Another smile utilized as a mask, and in this case, Spock was at fault for the negative emotion.
He did not wish to consider the matter any further, so he focused his attention on the new information he had gathered as the turbolift whisked them to B deck. He knew Gates had once been a science professor at the Academy, but he had not been aware that Kirk was a former student. He found himself somewhat curious as to the origin of the moniker 'Ace.'
"Because I was amazing, of course," Kirk said without hesitation when he posed the query.
Dr. McCoy snorted. "What about 'Professor Hardass?'"
"Isn't it obvious?" Kirk looked at them each in turn, then shrugged. "You'll find out soon enough."
The reception of Gates and Lieutenant Brady, the Galapagos science officer, was unusually quiet. Typically the captain engaged any visitors in 'small talk' before official meetings, but today he omitted idle conversation. They reached the conference room, and he gestured for Gates to take charge.
"Three of them were staying the night to continue preliminary research," Gates said as soon as she sat down. "Called home just fine at thirteen-hundred. We hailed them at seventeen-hundred when they missed check-in, and got nothing back. Been trying and failing ever since. That was Friday, and today is…."
"Monday, Captain," Brady offered.
"Monday." She crossed her arms and shook her head. "Damn lucky thing you folks were in the neighborhood. Regs say we're not equipped to attempt retrieval in situations like this." Her tone made it abundantly clear what she thought of such regulations.
"The sensors can't even pick them up?" Kirk frowned.
"Bio-density on Sigma Nox is too high for orbital scans to be useful," she said. "We've got heaps of non-human noise we just can't parse through."
Spock leaned forward and folded his hands in thought. "Had they sent back any data before they stopped responding?"
"Oh, plenty," Lieutenant Brady spoke up. "Standard reports, species descriptions, biodiversity surveys – you know the drill. Lots of unusual stuff down there, but nothing that raised red flags. Certainly nothing that would explain the silent treatment." His lips grew thin, and his eyes fell to the table.
It took Spock approximately two point four seconds to sort through the multitude of inefficient human colloquialisms. "May I see the data they collected?"
"Of course." Brady established a PADD link, and Spock began to scan through the lists of flora and fauna, setting his mind to the task of memorization. There was a comparatively low number of recorded species, surprising given temperature and rainfall data. The rest of the meeting consisted almost entirely of expressions of disbelief and reiteration of known facts. The only interruption came from the assembling security team informing Spock they were on their way to the transporter room. Overall, nothing of particular interest to him, but then a change in the pattern of discussion caught his attention.
"Why didn't you send us names with the first com?"
"Didn't think it was important." Gates turned her shrewd gaze on Kirk. "Why? You know someone?"
"Taylor," he said, voice solemn.
"He lived across the hall from us back at the Academy," McCoy offered, and his expression soured slightly. "A real practical joker."
Conversely, Kirk's mood seemed to brighten. "Yeah. Good man." He stood abruptly and rubbed his hands together. "Well then, I say we get going. We have a few hours until sunset. Commander, are we ready?"
"I received confirmation from the team three point one minutes ago," Spock said, noting Kirk did not bother checking his own PADD first. "They should be waiting for us in the transporter room."
Gates nodded once, and stood just as briskly as Kirk. "Give me five minutes to suit up."
"Hold on a second. Don't you think you should sit this one out?" Kirk placed himself between Gates and the door.
"You really could use a good night's rest," McCoy said gently, approaching the woman as one would a belligerent animal.
Gates narrowed her eyes, crossed her arms, and suddenly appeared more stubborn than several Vulcan elders with whom Spock had unpleasant dealings in the past. "I'll rest when my people are safely aboard my ship, thank you very much."
Spock recognized the expression McCoy adopted as the one he used on Jim whenever monthly physicals were approaching. "When was the last time you ate or slept, ma'am? Two days ago? Three?"
Kirk caught Spock's eyes and jerked his head toward the door before Gates could formulate a response. They made their escape, leaving McCoy to his craft. A mildly flustered Brady fled as well and fell into step behind them as they started toward the lift.
"If I were you, I'd say a prayer for your doctor." He shot a glance back at the conference room door, where the escalating volume of the debate inside followed them an impressive distance. They were talking over one another, making it nearly impossible to pick out distinct phrases.
Kirk laughed. "Nah, he'll be fine. He could use a challenge."
"If you say so." Brady shrugged and shot a sidelong glance at Kirk. "I don't suppose there's any way I can tag along?"
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. You haven't had the kind of combat training Constitution class officers go through."
"Combat training?" Brady's eyes widened. "You don't seriously think... I mean, we were there over twelve hours. The wildlife is downright placid. There's zero sign of intelligent life or environmental toxins or apex predators–"
"We must be prepared for any possibility," Spock interrupted. They had reached their destination, but Kirk delayed a moment, holding the doors and turning to face Brady.
"Trust me, Lieutenant. We'll do everything in our power to get them home safe."
"I know." Brady stared at his feet, and his voice wavered. "All right. Just… when you find Kallie Lombard, can you contact me right away?"
"Absolutely." Kirk let the turbolift doors slide closed, and almost immediately he sighed and slumped his shoulders, kneading a hand into his forehead. "I bet it's some stupid technical error. All three of them are so fresh out of the Academy they've got dirt behind their ears."
"Approximately seventeen percent of all starship crews now consist of recent graduates," Spock reminded him. "Yourself included." Survivors ofNarada, commended and promoted disproportionately during reconstruction.
"Do you know what that sounds like to me? A lot of kids getting into trouble. Myself most definitely included." The captain shot him a faint smile, although Spock had not intended his last comment as a jibe.
"A distress signal was never sent," Spock said, directing the conversation back toward their mission. "Statically speaking, this does imply that the team experienced equipment failure."
"That's what I'm hoping. Something stupid like the fiasco on Psi 2000." Kirk visibly balked when he mentioned the event. What little Spock did recall from that incident consisted primarily of the interior of Nyota's quarters; shameful memories muddled by consuming grief and anesthetizing lust. She would not let him leave, nor was he inclined to, even with the captain pounding on the door and shouting about intermix formulae.
The rest of the ride down to G deck was spent in a mildly awkward silence.
Three bored-looking lieutenants were waiting for them in the transporter room when they arrived, outfitted in landing party gear. "Where's Dr. McGrouch?" Morgan hopped down from the edge of a control panel and adjusted the phaser on her belt.
"He'll be along in a minute," Jim said. He retrieved two free sets of equipment from the corner locker, tossing one at Spock. "He has to nag someone to death first."
"Another casualty," Davis moaned. "When will his reign of terror end?"
Lautner rolled his eyes as he checked their emergency packs. "Not everyone has the singular talent of turning a five-minute appointment into a half-hour ordeal, Davey-boy."
"Hold up, Captain. You're tangled," Morgan stepped toward Kirk, who was struggling with the strap of his pack.
"Oh, is that why I can't move my arm?"
Spock snapped his last belt buckles into place and observed their banter, intrigued by the sudden shift in Kirk's mood. No matter how preoccupied the captain was with the burden of command, brief interactions with his crew always seemed to revive his optimism and confidence.
By the time a smug-looking McCoy joined them, Spock was almost as restless as Kirk, eager to observe the environment of Sigma Nox firsthand. Unlike the captain, he displayed no outward signs of his mental state, such as pacing back and forth across the transporter room until McCoy complained of being made nervous. When Chekov finally arrived, apologizing for a delay he attributed to a delicate experiment, Kirk gave the order to energize before the ensign placed his hands on the control panel.
Upon beam-down they found themselves in a clearing roughly fifteen meters across surrounded by thick vegetation on all sides, the last known location of the Galapagos team. Everything was bathed in a deep orange glow due to the colors of the plants, mostly shifted toward the red end of the visible spectrum. It gave their environment the illusion of perpetual sunset, though the sky overhead appeared similar to Earth's at midday. Almost every surface was covered in spongy red moss and vine-like plants, and the trees were more accurately classified as giant ferns.
"All right, fan out." Kirk motioned to the security detail. "Standard sweep, ten-minute status reports. You see anything unusual, you speak up right away."
Something swooped overhead with a rattling hiss, almost too quickly for Spock's eyes to follow before it vanished into the trees. The only impression he gathered was that it was red, as if a piece of the foliage had detached itself from their surroundings and come alive.
"Belay that order. Anything unusual that could eat you."
Spock was about to question the usefulness of such a criterion for evaluating danger before he noted the team's quiet laughter, and decided it was not meant to be taken literally.
"Phasers on stun, boys," Morgan reminded them. "I'm sure Mr. Spock wouldn't appreciate us toasting the local wildlife." She smiled and winked at Spock, who nodded once in confirmation, unsure of how else to respond. The three of them split up and made their way into the jungle. Spock noted that their typically flashy uniforms provided excellent camouflage in this environment.
"She likes you," Kirk said lightly once they were out of earshot. Spock was puzzled to find that the captain's eyes were trained on him.
"Sure seems that way, doesn't it? Maybe I should give her a psych exam," McCoy muttered, glancing around with obvious unease.
"Are you referring to Lieutenant Morgan?"
"Like you didn't notice. If I were you, I'd be on that like a tribble on–"
"Jim," McCoy said sharply, and Kirk's eyes widened.
"Oh, not that you, so soon… I didn't mean…"
Spock raised a hand to silence him. "It is quite all right." He had become accustomed to people speaking with excessive tact around him regarding any topic vaguely related to Nyota, but accepting apologies for simple human forgetfulness was becoming tiresome.
Fortunately Kirk accepted his reassurance, and he returned to examining their surroundings. Spock configured the tricorder to give him comparative baselines. McCoy and Kirk crouched nearby, examining the forest floor for signs of activity, but the ground layer of vegetation was so dense that Spock did not think they would uncover any valuable data.
As he watched them, Kirk touched a delicate, feathery leaf of one of these plants. He frowned faintly and a line appeared in his brow, an expression that Spock had learned meant he was straining his memory. "Anthocyanins, do you think? Or something more like rhodophyll?"
"The star has a similar emission spectrum to Sol, so I would hypothesize accessory pigments that obscure any chlorophyll. Perhaps for added UV protection." Spock began to check his tricorder readouts against the data from the last away team transmission. "Or it could be something else entirely," he added, for accuracy's sake.
"Let me guess. Further tests are needed?" Kirk shot him a playful grin.
Over the past one point one years, Spock had learned to expect surprises from the captain. He had been well aware of Kirk's exam scores prior to their first meeting, but for a long time he was unable to reconcile that information with the carefree, cocky attitude the captain presented. Slowly he began to see firsthand that Kirk had a far greater appetite for knowledge than one would assume. The fact that he knew about rhodophyll, a compound whose discovery had only been published two months prior, was a testament to his academic drive.
"Well, I hope it's the last option." Kirk stood and clapped Spock firmly on the shoulder. "Nothing like a brand new photosystem to make your ensigns act like it's Christmas for a week."
Another surprise had come in the form of Kirk's persistent disregard for personal space.
Perhaps disregard was not the right word. After all, Spock had never explicitly established boundaries between himself and his colleagues. Until he encountered the captain, his body language had proved more than sufficient to prevent any uninvited contact. But Kirk seemed oblivious to such subtle cues, and ever since that slap to Spock's arm during the Narada incident, he had taken to touching Spock in much the same way he did the rest of the crew – a hand on his shoulder, a pat on the back, and on one occasion, an embrace so firm it would have been mildly painful for a human.
The tricorder fell silent in Spock's hands, and he began to scroll through the results.
"What's the verdict?" McCoy moved to join them. "The med scanner says they were here, but that's about it."
"Temperature and luminance changes are to be expected, but there is a significant difference in charged particle concentrations in the lower atmosphere," Spock informed them. "Much less than yesterday evening."
"What does that mean?" Kirk frowned.
"Typically, an electrical storm." Spock did not like his own explanation, but was at a loss for possible alternatives.
"Small enough that the Galapagos never picked it up?" McCoy raised an eyebrow.
"It is likely their scanners are not configured for such parameters."
"Anything else?" Kirk crossed his arms. "If nobody's found anything in the immediate area by now, we need something more substantial to go on."
Spock studied some of the data from the Galapagos sensors again and forced himself to make an educated guess, although he suspected apophenia was to blame. "Based on the patterns of the final signals received, I estimate at least one of them was headed east."
"Okay, good." Kirk flipped his communicator open with a snap of his wrist. "Kirk here. Change of plans. Everyone proceed toward sector five, but keep a wide spread. Acknowledge." He waited until three confirmations came in before he led the way into the jungle.
Claustrophobia was not an entirely illogical condition, Spock thought as the canopy closed in overhead. In surroundings like this, a limited range of movement and vision naturally resulted in heightened awareness. Although the tree ferns were tall and easy to navigate between, many had offshoots along the trunks that they had to duck under or skirt around. Several times they passed what appeared to be perfectly round pools of water set in the ground, unusual pouches attached to a nondescript species of vine.
"I bet Sulu would love to take a look at this stuff," Kirk said as they passed through a small patch of 'brushtails.' Their tall, thin stalks and large globes of delicate, pale orange fiber lent this section of the forest a certain ethereal quality.
"I shall send him the appropriate data files when we return," Spock said.
McCoy snickered. "Have you two ever seen the conservatory he keeps in his room? The man can grow Beryloid orchids, and you know what they say about them."
Spock had heard the expression before, which related free time and the financial demands of matrimony to the horticulture of sensitive plants. "Perhaps I should enlist his aid in future experiments." He checked their projected course on his tricorder, overlaid with the Galapagos team's survey data. "We will soon encounter the planet's only evolutionary equivalent of an angiosperm. Judging from the reports, it is a… noteworthy species."
Kirk and McCoy exchanged a glance that meant they thought he was being covertly emotional. He chose to ignore them.
They could discern the color of said species well before the form, as it was the only thing they had observed thus far not red or orange. It was a fine, speckled pattern of intermixed green and blue and yellow, with many shades in between that Spock would be at a loss to describe accurately. They seemed to shift under his gaze, never quite the same hue as they were mere seconds before. Then the tree ferns opened to a wide, round clearing, and the patchwork of glimpses became an extraordinary whole.
The massive structure before them was approximately five meters tall and seven meters in diameter, squat and teardrop-shaped. The curvature of its sides implied that they came together at the apex, but from their current vantage point, if such a feature existed, it was not visible. Its sheer scale was impressive enough, but coupled with the bizarre, mottled pattern and coloring, the organism was almost intimidating.
"Well, damn." Kirk stopped in his tracks.
"I'm not sure that covers it," McCoy added, following the captain's example.
"They named this species Colossus pseudoarum," Spock said as he approached the extraordinary plant. "Common name, giant bulbweed."
"Looks like Van Gogh got a whiff of Altairian musk flower," Kirk muttered.
"An unorthodox assessment, though strangely fitting." Spock was forced to concede. Indeed, this was a case where the human adage 'a picture is worth a thousand words' seemed to apply. And while Spock felt unqualified to judge the aesthetic merits of human art, this specimen certainly rivaled the work of a skilled painter.
He continued to move toward the bulbweed, intrigued by the intricate folding pattern of the spathes that formed its sides. Kirk followed him cautiously, inspecting the surrounding area, while McCoy seemed content to remain at the very edge of the clearing. Kirk picked up his pace just enough to reach the bulbweed before Spock. He touched the plant only to jerk his hand back sharply.
"Captain?" Spock suppressed the brief spike in his heart rate.
"I'm fine." Jim hesitated and reached out again, touching the multicolored surface more cautiously this time. He grazed it with his fingertips twice, each brush slightly longer than the last, then finally rested his palm flat on the side. "It's warm. Really warm."
Spock verified with his tricorder before repeating the captain's more tactile experiment for himself. "Thirty-six point five three degrees Celcius."
"Wait just a darn minute, you touched it?" McCoy called from the treeline.
"Yeah, it's safe," Jim shouted back.
"But you touched it before you knew that!"
"Sort of," Jim said, and turned to face the doctor, motioning for him to approach. "Stop clutching your torture kit and come see for yourself!"
"I'll stay right here, thank you very much. It's not natural."
"Says the man who helped me dissect a Denebian slime devil," Jim said, only loud enough for Spock to hear, and turned his attention back to the bulbweed. He shook his head in amazement before stepping back to call in for status reports.
/Lieutenant Lautner, checking in. All clear./
/Lieutenant Davis reporting. Nothing so far./
There was a pause before the third response. /Lieutenant Morgan here. I think I see someone, sir. Here are the coordinates./ The captain's PADD chimed in confirmation. Spock peered over his shoulder and placed the site at approximately one hundred meters from their current location. /Should I approach?/
"Your call, Lieutenant. We'll be there soon if you decide to wait."
They hurried toward the new waypoint as fast as the gradually thickening undergrowth would allow. Every few meters, a branch or root or wayward pool would slow their progress. Spock and Kirk automatically took point together, holding back vegetation and scouting out the terrain for McCoy, who carried the largest equipment pack among them and had the most trouble navigating.
Spock was trying to discern if the doctor could comfortably duck beneath a cluster of orange vines when something moved in the trees to his left. Something large. It was the type of motion that commanded his instinctive attention, swaying and shadowed, and Spock turned sharply to face it. The forest canopy dimmed the late afternoon sun, and what light did make it through looked like orange columns, with just enough glare to make it difficult to see. Spock employed his second eyelids and still detected nothing.
"Now I know all these plants are real fascinating to you, Spock," McCoy's voice broke his concentration, "but I'd sure appreciate it if you quit dillydallying and helped us out."
Spock faced his crewmates to find that both men had their feet tangled in a dense net of roots up ahead. The roots were mostly concealed by detritus on the forest floor, and had gaps between them just large enough to trap an ankle. By the time Spock was through assisting them, he had begun wondering if his previous observation was just a trick of the light.
After two point eight more minutes, the local plant life thinned out again, and they encountered Lieutenant Morgan crouching behind a wide tree fern. Her gaze darted back and forth between them and a point about five meters away, where a man was sprawled face-down on the ground near some bushes.
"I… I didn't know, sir," she stammered. "I thought, what if something were nearby, or if he was–"
"You did the right thing, Lieutenant," Kirk reassured her as he jogged past with McCoy. "Cover us."
Kirk turned the man over, and McCoy started scanning him. Spock approached, briefly inspecting their surroundings with a shaken Morgan. He reached the doctor's side to see the downed officer was wide-eyed and motionless, unresponsive to verbal or tactile stimuli. Only his eyes were moving, aimlessly darting about, his pupils dilated even though his face was in a patch of sunlight. His uniform was torn and filthy, but the gold bands of his rank were still visible on one sleeve, albeit dangling by a few threads.
"Lieutenant Phillips," Spock said. Kirk nodded, and tried using the man's name to rouse him to no effect.
"He's in bad shape, Jim," McCoy said grimly, crouching to dig through his bag. "Tachycardia. Respiratory depression. Possible seizure activity."
The doctor pressed a hypospray into Phillips' neck. "No idea, but whatever it is, it's systemic. I've got to get him back to the ship. His vitals are too low."
Kirk nodded. "Go. Let me know as soon as you find out."
McCoy contacted the Enterprise, and he vanished with Philips amidst the swirling lights. The captain continued to stare at the spot they had occupied, the anxiety plain in his expression. He looked up a few seconds later and seemed surprised that Spock and the lieutenant were still standing there, but he recovered and called the rest of their team.
As Kirk relayed the new information, Spock studied the area more thoroughly, looking for anything that could explain what had happened. Phillips had no scientific instruments on him, no survival pack, no phaser. No standard equipment at all. What could make a trained Starfleet biologist completely abandon his supplies?
"I don't like this, sir," Morgan said after Kirk ordered a rendezvous and closed his communicator.
"I don't either, Lieutenant."
"If there's something bad out here, we'd never see it coming. Phillips sure didn't."
"Agreed. That's why we're sticking together from now on." A few seconds of silence passed, solemn and contemplative. "Let's meet the others halfway. The sooner the better, right?"
It was then that Spock noticed some of the long leaves nearest to where Phillips had been were tattered, glistening with moisture. He stooped close to get a reading, and the tricorder confirmed the presence of amylase. Saliva, or something like it. Before he had time to ponder this data, Kirk and Morgan were several meters away, and Kirk was calling for him to hurry up.
The away team reunited and spent approximately an hour combing the area around Morgan's troubling discovery. They found only hints of further human activity: a footprint, a scrap of uniform, a few areas with broken branches. Nothing delineated a clear human trail or some kind of struggle. Just as Gates had implied, the life form readings from their tricorders were useless. As they searched Spock counted three species of flying reptilian, seventeen distinct types of insectoid, and a species that appeared to be some sort of arboreal cephalopod. On the whole though, Spock confirmed the Galapagos team's observations of an unusually low species and genus counts for a rainforest setting. All were either afraid of or uninterested in the away team.
One example of the latter, a peculiar segmented macroinsectoid called Repens lentus, was indifferent to almost anything except eating. The team had named it 'cattlebug' for this reason. Spock nearly tripped over one as high as his knee when he rounded a large tree fern, and it didn't acknowledge his presence at all. He remembered Brady's comment about life on the planet being placid, and decided this was an extreme example.
McCoy reported in toward the end of their search to give them news of Phillips' condition. The away team huddled around Jim to listen.
/His receptors won't pick up acetylcholine,/ McCoy explained. /They've changed shape just enough that the molecule doesn't fit. There's something else too, a compound in his brain messing with his limbic system. We only figured that part out ten minutes ago./
Over a year of dangerous missions and injuries, even deaths, and Spock had never heard this ragged inflection in McCoy's voice before. He leaned in closer to the communicator. "Doctor, can you hypothesize what occurred prior to his collapse?"
/Well, he's got a little acid damage to his esophagus. So I'd say he's had some recent acute vomiting. A bunch of superficial bruises and cuts, too. Hell, if it wasn't for the other symptoms, he'd look like a victim of the world's worst bender./ There was a pause and an audible sigh. /We've got him stabilized for now, but I've got to get back to the lab. Run some more tests./
"Keep us posted," Kirk said. "And good luck up there."
/Jim, one more thing. I don't want any of you planetside after sunset. That's right about when this team got themselves misplaced./
"Your concern is noted. Kirk out." The captain rolled his eyes as he replaced the communicator on his belt. "Mother," he added under his breath. Spock watched the security lieutenants struggle not to react to Kirk's slip of professionalism.
"Captain, Dr. McCoy's concerns are based on a logical extrapolation," he said.
"Maybe so. But the rest of Phillips' team has been lost for more than twenty four hours, and with him the way he is… well, I get the feeling the window of action is closing." Kirk ran a hand through his hair. "It is almost sunset, though. I think you three should head back to the ship."
The lieutenants burst into protests immediately, and Spock stepped back to stay out of the fray.
"You're not serious."
"Sir, you can't."
Kirk raised his hands to silence them. "Calm down, all of you. Nobody's staying the night. I just want to stake out this place little longer. See if someone wanders back to the starting point."
"But sir, if you think it could be too dangerous for us, then it's sure as hell too dangerous for you," Morgan protested. "Mr. Spock, talk to him!"
And say what, Spock wondered. He had no more influence over Kirk than a dwarf planet over its sun. "Lieutenant, I have learned that once the captain has made up his mind, very few forces in the universe can sway him."
Kirk grinned. "Why, thank you Mr. Spock. That means a lot."
Mystified as to how pointing out a personality flaw could be taken as a compliment, Spock declined further comment. He retreated while Kirk and the lieutenants argued for approximately three more minutes. Only when Kirk started to employ the phrases 'direct order' and 'best judgment' did they stifle their displeasure.
After making them swear on their lives not to speak to McCoy for at least two hours, Kirk called in the transport. The lieutenants vanished, at least one of them glaring fiercely at the captain, and Kirk's posture visibly relaxed.
"One less thing to worry about," he muttered.
Spock approached him. "Sir, why did you not insist I return to the ship as well?"
"I can persuade some junior officers just fine, but a battle of wills with you? No way." Kirk heaved a sigh and smiled mischievously. "I learned a long time ago that once you've made up your mind, very few forces in the universe can sway you."
Before Spock could retort, Kirk meandered toward the east side of the clearing, peering into the forest. Spock recalled an assessment of McCoy's from a previous mission – 'stubborn as mules, both of you' – and decided that the doctor might, for once, not be entirely inaccurate in his criticism.
Darkness fell more quickly than on Earth, due to the planet's shorter rotational period. The captain paced the forest's edge as the reddish light faded, and Spock kept up environmental scans, adding and subtracting any variables that seemed relevant.
But as he suspected, this venture was proving fruitless. Given their point of reference of a Terran rainforest, there was no sign of anything unusual. Foliage rustled, strange noises echoed, and the shadows of the trees spanned the clearing. Ten point eight seconds after Spock estimated the sun was completely below the horizon, his tricorder started flashing an alert. He cued up the triggered reading and was momentarily perplexed by what he saw.
"Captain, I am picking up some unusual electrical interference," he said. "Faint, but escalating." He received no response, and assumed the captain was confirming it for himself. "The phenomenon might be localized enough that scans from space cannot yet detect it," he continued, and still there was no comment.
He turned around and was confronted by an empty clearing.
Kirk was gone.