Star Trek 1 | Chapter 4 of 13

Author: James Blish | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1855 Views | Add a Review

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The Unreal McCoy

The crater campsite-or the Bierce campsite, as the records called it-on Regulus VIII was the crumbling remains of what might once have been a nested temple, surrounded now by archeological digs, several sheds, and a tumble of tools, tarpaulins, and battered artifacts. Outside the crater proper, the planet was largely barren except for patches of low, thorny vegetation, all the way in any direction to wherever the next crater might be-there were plenty of those, but there’d been no time to investigate them, beyond noting that they had all been inhabited once, unknown millennia ago. There was nothing uncommon about that; the galaxy was strewn with ruins about which nobody knew anything, there were a hundred such planets for every archeologist who could even dream of scratching such a surface. Bierce had just been lucky-fantastically lucky.

All the same, Regulus VIII made Kirk-Capt. James Kirk of the starship Enterprise, who had seen more planets than most men knew existed-feel faintly edgy. The Enterprise had landed here in conformity to the book; to be specific, to that part of the book which said that research personnel on alien planets must have their health certified by a starship’s surgeon at one-year intervals. The Enterprise had been in Bierce’s vicinity at the statutory time, and Ship’s Surgeon McCoy had come down by transporter from the orbiting Enterprise to do the job. Utterly, completely routine, except for the fact that McCoy had mentioned that Bierce’s wife Nancy had been a serious interest of McCoy’s, pre-Bierce, well over ten years ago. And after all, what could be more common-place than that?

Then Nancy came out of the temple-if that is what it was-to meet them.

There were only three of them: McCoy and a crewman, Darnell, out of duty, and Kirk, out of curiosity. She came forward with outstretched hands, and after a moment’s hesitation, McCoy took them. “Leonard!” she said. “Let me look at you.”

“Nancy,” McCoy said. “You… you haven’t aged a year.”

Kirk restrained himself from smiling. Nancy Bierce was handsome, but nothing extraordinary: a strongly built woman of about forty, moderately graceful, her hair tinged with gray. It wasn’t easy to believe that the hard-bitten medico could have been so smitten, even at thirty or less, as to be unable to see the signs of aging now. Still, she did have a sweet smile.

“This is the Captain of the Enterprise, Jim Kirk,” McCoy said. “And this is Crewman Darnell.”

Nancy turned her smile on the Captain, and then on the crewman. Darnell’s reaction was astonishing. His jaw swung open; he was frankly staring. Kirk would have kicked him had he been within reach.

“Come in, come in,” she was saying. “We may have to wait a little for Bob; once he starts digging, he forgets time. We’ve made up some quarters in what seems to have been an old altar chamber-not luxurious, but lots of room. Come on in, Plum.”

She ducked inside the low, crumbling stone door.

“Plum?” Kirk said.

“An old pet name,” McCoy said, embarrassed. He followed her. Embarrassed himself at his own gaucherie, Kirk swung on the crewman.

“Just what are you goggling at, Mister?”

“Sorry, sir,” Darnell said stiffly. “She reminds me of somebody, is all. A girl I knew once on Wrigley’s Planet. That is-“

“That’s enough,” Kirk said drily. “The next thought of that kind you have will probably be in solitary. Maybe you’d better wait outside.”

“Yessir. Thanks.” Darnell seemed genuinely grateful. “I’ll explore a little, if that suits you, Captain.”

“Do that. Just stay within call.”

Commonplace; Darnell hadn’t seen a strange woman since his last landfall. But most peculiar, too.

Bierce did not arrive, and after apologies, Nancy left again to look for him, leaving Kirk and McCoy to examine the stone room, trying not to speak to each other. Kirk could not decide whether he would rather be back on board the Enterprise, or just plain dead; his diplomacy had not failed him this badly in he could not think how many years.

Luckily, Bierce showed up before Kirk had to decide whether to run or suicide. He was an unusually tall man, all knuckles, knees, and cheekbones, wearing faded cov-eralls. Slightly taller than McCoy, his face was as craggy as his body; the glint in the eyes, Kirk thought, was somehow both intelligent and rather bitter. But then, Kirk had never pretended to understand the academic type.

“Dr. Bierce,” he said, “I’m Captain Kirk, and this is Ship’s Surgeon-“

“I know who you are,” Bierce broke in, in a voice with the blaring rasp of a busy signal. “We don’t need you here. If you’ll just refill us on aspirin, salt tablets, and the like, you needn’t trouble yourselves further.”

“Sorry, but the law requires an annual checkup,” Kirk said. “If you’ll co-operate, I’m sure Dr. McCoy will be as quick as possible.” McCoy, in fact, already had his instruments out.

“McCoy?” Bierce said. “I’ve heard that name… Ah, yes, Nancy used to talk about you.”

“Hands out from your sides, please, and breathe evenly… Yes, didn’t she mention I’d arrived?”

After the slightest of pauses, Bierce said, “You’ve… seen Nancy?”

“She was here when we arrived,” Kirk said. “She went to look for you.”

“Oh. Quite so. I’m pleased, of course, that she can meet an old friend, have a chance of some company. I enjoy solitude, but it’s difficult for a woman sometimes.”

“I understand,” Kirk said, but he was none too sure he did. The sudden attempt at cordiality rang false, somehow, after the preceding hostility. At least that had sounded genuine.

McCoy had finished his checkup with the tricorder and produced a tongue depressor with a small flourish. “She hasn’t changed a bit,” he said. “Open your mouth, please.”

Reluctantly, Bierce complied. At the same instant, the air was split by a full-throated shriek of horror. For an insane moment Kirk had the impression that the sound had issued from Bierce’s mouth. Then another scream ripped the silence, and Kirk realized that it was, of course, a female voice.

They all three bolted out the door. In the open, Kirk and McCoy outdistanced Bierce quickly; for all his outdoor life, he was not a good runner. But they hadn’t far to go. Just beyond the rim of the crater, Nancy, both fists to her mouth, was standing over the body of Darnell.

As they came pounding up she moved toward McCoy, but he ignored her and dropped beside the body. It was lying on its face. After checking the pulse, McCoy gently turned the head to one side, grunted, and then turned the body over completely.

It was clear even to Kirk that the crewman was dead. His face was covered with small ringlike red blotches, slowly fading. “What hit him?” Kirk said tensely.

“Don’t know. Petachiae a little like vacuum mottling, or maybe some sort of immunological-hullo, what’s this?”

Bierce came panting up as McCoy slowly forced open one of Darnell’s fists. In it was a twisted, scabrous-looking object of no particular color, like a mummified parsnip. It looked also as though part of it had been bitten away. Now that was incredible. Kirk swung on Nancy.

“What happened?” he said tersely.

“Don’t snap at my wife, Captain,” Bierce said in his busy-signal voice. “Plainly it’s not her fault!”

“One of my men is dead. I accuse nobody, but Mrs. Bierce is the only witness.”

McCoy rose and said to Nancy, gently: “Just tell us what you saw, Nancy. Take your time.”

“I was just…” she said, and then had to stop and swallow, as if fighting for control. “I couldn’t find Bob, and I’d… I’d just started back when I saw your crewman. He had that borgia root in his hand and he was smelling it. I was just going to call out to him when-he bit into it. I had no idea he was going to-and then his face twisted and he fell-“

She broke off and buried her face in her hands. McCoy took her gently by one shoulder. Kirk, feeling no obliga-tion to add one bedside manner more, said evenly: “How’d you know what the root was if you’d just come within calling distance?”

“This cross-examination-” Bierce grated.

“Bob, please. I didn’t know, of course. Not until I saw it now. But it’s dangerous to handle any plant on a new world.”

Certainly true. Equally certainly, it would have been no news to Darnell. His face impassive, Kirk told McCoy: “Pack up, Bones. We can resume the physicals tomorrow.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Bierce said. “If you’ll just disembark our supplies, Captain-“

“It’s not going to be that easy, Dr. Bierce,” Kirk said. He snapped open his communicator. “Kirk to Transporter Room. Lock and beam: two transportees and a corpse.”

The autopsied body of Darnell lay on a table in the sick bay, unrecognizable now even by his mother, if so veteran a spaceman had ever had one. Kirk, standing near a communicator panel, watched with a faint physical uneasiness as McCoy lowered Darnell’s brain into a shallow bowl and then turned and washed his hands until they were paper-white. Kirk had seen corpses in every conceivable state of distortion and age in one battle and another, but this clinical bloodiness was not within his experience.

“I can’t rule poison out entirely,” McCoy said, in a matter-of-fact voice. “Some of the best-known act just as fast and leave just as little trace: botulinus, for example. But there’s no trace of any woody substance in his stomach or even between his teeth. All I can say for sure is that he’s got massive capillary damage-which could be due to almost anything, even shock-and those marks on his face.”

McCoy covered the ruined body. “I’ll be running some blood chemistry tests, but I’d like to know what I’m testing for. I’d also like to know what symptoms that ‘borgia root’ is supposed to produce. Until then, Jim, I’m really rather in the dark.”

“Spock’s running a library search on the plant,” Kirk said. “It shouldn’t take him long. But I must confess that what you’ve said thus far doesn’t completely surprise me. Darnell was too old a hand to bite into any old thing he happened to pick up.”

“Then what’s left? Nancy? Jim, I’m not quite trusting my own eyes lately, but Nancy didn’t use to be capable of murder-certainly not of an utter stranger, to boot!”

“It’s not only people who kill-hold it, here’s the report. Go ahead, Mr. Spock.”

“We have nothing on the borgia root but what the Bierces themselves reported in their project request six years ago,” Spock’s precise voice said. “There they call it an aconite resembling the Lilium family. Said to contain some twenty to fifty different alkaloids, none then identifiable specifically with the equipment to hand. The raw root is poisonous to mice. No mention of any human symptoms. Except…”

“Except what?” McCoy snapped.

“Well, Dr. McCoy, this isn’t a symptom. The report adds that the root has a pleasant perfume, bland but edible-smelling, rather like tapioca. And that’s all there is.”

“Thanks.” Kirk switched off. “Bones, I can’t see Darnell having been driven irresistibly to bite into an unknown plant because it smelled like tapioca. He wouldn’t have bitten into something that smelled like a brandied peach unless he’d known its pedigree. He was a sea-soned hand.”

McCoy spread his hands expressively. “You knew your man, Jim-but where does that leave us? The symptoms do vaguely resemble aconite poisoning. Beyond that, we’re nowhere.”

“Not quite,” Kirk said. “We still have to check on the Bierces, I’m afraid, Bones. And for that I’m still going to need your help.”

McCoy turned his back and resumed washing his hands. “You’ll get it,” he said; but his voice was very cold.

Kirk’s method of checking on the Bierces was simple but drastic: he ordered them both on board the ship. Bierce raged.

“If you think you can beam down here, bully us, interfere with my work-considering the inescapable fact that you are a trespasser on my planet-“

“Your complaint is noted,” Kirk said. “I apologize for the inconvenience. But it’s also an inescapable fact that something we don’t understand killed one of our men. It could very well be a danger to you, too.”

“We’ve been here almost five years. If there was something hostile here we’d know about it by now, wouldn’t we?”

“Not necessarily,” Kirk said. “Two people can’t know all the ins and outs of a whole planet, not even in five years-or a lifetime. In any event, one of the missions of the Enterprise is to protect human life in places like this. Under the circumstances, I’m going to have to be arbitrary and declare the argument closed.”

It was shortly after they came aboard that McCoy forwarded his reports on the analyses of Darnell’s body. “It was shock, all right,” he told Kirk grimly by vid-screen. “But shock of a most peculiar sort. His blood electrolytes were completely deranged: massive salt de-pletion, hell-there isn’t a microgram of salt in his whole body. Not in the blood, the tears, the organs, not anywhere. I can’t even begin to guess how that could have happened at all, let alone all at once.”

“What about the mottling on his face?”

“Broken capillaries. There are such marks all over the body. They’re normal under the circumstances-except that I can’t explain why they should be most marked on the face, or why the mottling should be ring-shaped. Clearly, though, he wasn’t poisoned.”

“Then the bitten plant,” Kirk said equally grimly, “was a plantin the criminal, not the botanical sense. A blind. That implies intelligence. I can’t say I like that any better.”

“Nor I,” McCoy said. His eyes were averted.

“All right. That means we’ll have to waste no time grilling the Bierces. I’ll take it on. Bones, this has been a tremendous strain on you, I know, and you’ve been without sleep for two days. Better take a couple of tranquilizers and doss down.”

“I’m all right.”

“Orders,” Kirk said. He turned off the screen and set off for the quarters he had assigned the Bierces.

But there was only one Bierce there. Nancy was missing.

“I expect she’s gone below,” Bierce said indifferently. “I’d go myself if I could get access to your Transporter for ten seconds. We didn’t ask to be imprisoned up here.”

“Darnell didn’t ask to be killed, either. Your wife may be in serious danger. I must say, you seem singu-larly unworried.”

“She’s in no danger. This menace is all in your imagination.”

“I suppose the body is imaginary, too?”

Bierce shrugged. “Nobody knows what could have killed him. For all I know, you brought your own menace with you.”

There was nothing further to be got out of him. Exasperated, Kirk went back to the bridge and ordered a general search. The results were all negative-includ-ing the report from the Transporter Room, which insisted that nobody had used its facilities since the party had returned to the ship from the camp.

But the search, though it did not find Nancy, found something else: Crewman Barnhart, dead on Deck Twelve. The marks on his body were the same as those on Darnell’s.

Baffled and furious, Kirk called McCoy. “I’m sorry to bust in on your sleep, Bones, but this has gone far enough. I want Bierce checked out under pentathol.”

“Um,” McCoy said. His voice sounded fuzzy, as though he had still not quite recovered from his tranquilizer dose. “Pentathol. Truth dope. Narcosynthesis. Um. Takes time. What about the patient’s civil rights?”

“He can file a complaint if he wants. Go and get him ready.”

An hour later, Bierce was lying on his bunk in half-trance. Kirk bent over him tensely; McCoy and Spock hovered in the background.

“Where’s your wife?”

“Don’t know… Poor Nancy, I loved her… The last of its kind…”

“Explain, please.”

“The passenger pigeon… the buffalo…” Bierce groaned. “I feel strange.”

Kirk beckoned to McCoy, who checked Bierce’s pulse and looked under his eyelids. “He’s all right,” he said. “The transfer of questioner, from me to you, upset him. He’s recovering.”

“What about buffalo?” Kirk said, feeling absurd.

“Millions of them… prairies black with them. One single herd that covered three states. When they moved… like thunder. All gone now. Like the creatures here.”

“Here? You mean down on the planet?”

“On the planet. Their temples… great poetry… Millions of them once, and now only one left. Nancy understood.”

“Always the past tense,” Spock’s voice murmured.

“Where is Nancy? Where is she now?”

“Dead. Buried up on the hill. It killed her.”

“Buried! But-how long ago was this, anyhow?”

“A year…” Bierce said. “Or was it two? I don’t know. So confusing, Nancy and not Nancy. They needed salt, you see. When it ran out, they died… all but one.”

The implication stunned Kirk. It was Spock who put the question.

“Is this creature masquerading as your wife?”

“Not a masquerade,” Bierce droned. “It can be Nancy.”

“Or anybody else?”

“Anybody. When it killed Nancy, I almost destroyed it. But I couldn’t. It was the last.”

The repetition was becoming more irritating every minute. Kirk said stonily: “Is that the only reason, Bierce? Tell me this: When it’s with you, is it always Nancy?”

Bierce writhed. There was no answer. McCoy came forward again.

“I wouldn’t press that one if I were you, Jim,” he said. “You can get the answer if you need it, but not without endangering the patient.”

“I don’t need any better answer,” Kirk said. “So we’ve intruded here into a little private heaven. The thing can be wife, lover, best friend, idol, slave, wise man, fool-anybody. A great life, having everyone in the universe at your beck and call-and you win all the arguments.”

“A one-way road to paranoia,” Spock said. Kirk swung back to the drugged man.

“Then can you recognize the creature-no matter what form it takes?”

“Yes…”

“Will you help us?”

“No,”

Kirk had expected no more. He gestured to McCoy. “I’ve got to go organize a search. Break down that resistance, Bones, I don’t care how you do it or how much you endanger Bierce. In his present state of mind he’s as big a danger to us as his ‘wife.’ Spock, back him up, and be ready to shoot if he should turn violent.”

He stalked out. On the bridge, he called a General Quarters Three; that would put pairs of armed men in every corridor, on every deck. “Every man inspect his mate closely,” he told the intercom. “There’s one extra person aboard, masquerading as one of us. Lieutenant Uhura, make television rounds of all posts and stations. If you see any person twice in different places, sound the alarm. Got it?”

A sound behind him made him swing around. It was Spock. His clothes were torn, and he was breathing heavily.

“Spock! I thought I told you-what happened?”

“It was McCoy,” Spock said shakily. “Or rather, it wasn’t McCoy. You were barely out of the cabin when it grabbed me. I got away, but it’s got my sidearm. No telling where it’s off to now.”

“McCoy! I thought he seemed a little reluctant about the pentathol. Reluctant, and sort of searching his mem-ory, too. No wonder. Well, there’s only one place it can have gone to now: right back where it came from.”

“The planet? It can’t.”

“No. McCoy’s cabin.” He started to get up, but Spock lifted a hand sharply.

“Better look first, Captain. It may not have killed him yet, and if we alarm it-“

“You’re right.” Quickly, Kirk dialed in the intercom to McCoy’s cabin, and after only a slight hesitation, punched the override button which would give him vision without sounding the buzzer on the other end.

McCoy was there. He was there twice: a sleeping McCoy on the bunk, and another one standing just inside the closed doorway, looking across the room. The standing form moved, passing in front of the hidden camera and momentarily blocking the view. Then it came back into the frame-but no longer as McCoy. It was Nancy.

She sat down on the bed and shook the sleeping doc-tor. He muttered, but refused to wake.

“Leonard,” Nancy’s voice said. “It’s me. Nancy. Wake up. Please wake up. Help me.”

Kirk had to admire the performance. What he was seeing was no doubt an alien creature, but its terror was completely convincing. Quite possibly it was in ter-ror; in any event, the human form conveyed it as directly as a blow.

She shook McCoy again. He blinked his eyes grog-gily, and then sat up.

“Nancy! What’s this? How long have I been sleeping?”

“Help me, Leonard.”

“What’s wrong? You’re frightened.”

“I am, I am,” she said. “Please help me. They want to kill me!”

“Who?” McCoy said. “Easy. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

“That’s enough,” Kirk said, unconsciously lowering his voice, though the couple on the screen could not hear him. “Luckily, the thing’s trying to persuade him of something instead of killing him. Let’s get down there fast, before it changes its mind.”

Moments later, they burst into McCoy’s cabin. The surgeon and the girl swung toward them. “Nancy” cried out.

“Get away from her, Bones,” Kirk said, holding his gun rock steady.

“What? What’s going on here, Jim?”

“That isn’t Nancy, Bones.”

“It isn’t? Of course it is. Are you off your rocker?”

“It killed two crewmen.”

“Bierce, too,” Spock put in, his own gun leveled.

“It?”

“It,” Kirk said. “Let me show you.”

Kirk held out his free hand, unclenching it slowly. In the palm was a little heap of white crystals, diminishing at the edges from perspiration. “Look, Nancy,” he said. “Salt. Free for the taking. Pure, concentrated salt.”

Nancy took a hesitant step toward him, then stopped.

“Leonard,” she said in a low voice. “Send him away. If you love me, make him go away.”

“By all means,” McCoy said harshly. “This is crazy behavior, Jim. You’re frightening her.”

“Not fright,” Kirk said. “Hunger. Look at her!”

The creature, as if hypnotized, took another step forward. Then, without the slightest warning, there was a hurricane of motion. Kirk had a brief impression of a blocky body, man-sized but not the least like a man, and of suction-cup tentacles reaching for his face. Then there was a blast of sound and he fell.

It took a while for both Kirk and McCoy to recover-the captain from the nimbus of Spock’s close-range phaser bolt, McCoy from emotional shock. By the time they were all back on the bridge, Bierce’s planet was receding.

“The salt was an inspiration,” Spock said. “Evidently the creature only hunted when it couldn’t get the pure stuff; that’s how Bierce kept it in control.”

“I don’t think the salt supply was the only reason why the race died out, though,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t really very intelligent-didn’t use its advantages nearly as well as it might have.”

“They could well have been residual,” Spock suggested. “We still have teeth and nails, but we don’t bite and claw much these days.”

“That could well be. There’s one thing I don’t understand, though. How did it get into your cabin in the first place, Bones? Or don’t you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t mind,” McCoy said. “Though I do feel like six kinds of a fool. It was simple. She came in just after I’d taken the tranquilizer and was feeling a little afloat. She said she didn’t love her husband any more-wanted me to take her back to Earth. Well… it was a real thing I had with Nancy, long ago. I wasn’t hard to tempt, especially with the drug already in my system. And later on, while I was asleep, she must have given me another dose-otherwise I couldn’t have slept through all the exitement, the general quarters call and so on.

It just goes to prove all over again-never mess with civillians.”

“A good principle,” Kirk agreed. “Unfortunately, an impossible one to live by.”

“There’s something I don’t understand, though,” McCoy added. “The creature and Bierce had Spock all alone in Bierce’s cabin-and from what I’ve found dur-ing the dissection, it was twice as strong as a man any-how. How did you get out, Mr. Spock, without losing anything but your gun?”

Spock smiled. “Fortunately, my ancestors spawned in quite another ocean than yours, Dr. McCoy,” he said. “My blood salts are quite different from yours. Evidently, I wasn’t appetizing enough.”

“Of course,” McCoy said. He looked over at Kirk. “You still look a little pensive, Jim. Is there still something else wrong?”

“Mmm?” Kirk said. “Wrong? No, not exactly. I was just thinking about the buffalo.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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