Uhura looked up from the communications console. She had a tired, worried frown on her face. "There's still nothing, sir," she said. "No word from the landing party at all, and I can't trace them."
Kirk sighed and turned away, the weariness in his face mirroring hers. "It's been twelve hours," he said fretfully. "Something's gone badly wrong. They must need help."
Spock turned in his seat. "Captain, our orders from Star Fleet specifically forbid-"
"Bull," said Kirk. He went back to pacing the bridge balcony. In any circumstances the loss of the six-man landing party would be a matter of grave concern, but this case was exceptional. The planet seemed normal enough - a feudal society, based on agriculture, and closed to visitors from space so that it could develop without interference. But then an automated probe had discovered a building which could not have been constructed by the natives, perched on a high hill just outside one of the most populous areas. Star Fleet had ordered Enterprise to carry out a discreet investigation. When sensor readings failed to give any indication of who had constructed the building or for what purpose, Kirk sent down a landing party on his own initiative.
Spock had objected: "Captain, in view of the possibility of cultural contamination, it is unwise to - "
"But we're getting nowhere from up here."
"We have not yet exhausted all the possible tests which can be performed from the ship, sir. Until we do, a landing party is quite illogical."
Kirk's lips tightened. "Nevertheless, I'm going to see what a team on the spot can do. Objections, Mr. Spock?"
"I have stated my objections already, Captain. With your permission, I will enter them in the log."
Kirk stiffened. "Go ahead," he said and turned away.
Spock had not said "I told you so" when Wardoff failed to report, but Kirk could read the thought in his face. The two did not speak to each other, except to carry out ship's business.
Kirk paused in his pacing and looked at the screen. Enterprise hung in orbit high above the night side of the planet, and the dark globe filled a third of the screen. It turned slowly against the distant haze of stars. Black seas glinted through the heavy cloud cover, and the land masses were a dead black. The towns were invisible, the sparse fires of hearth and torch being too small to register on that scale.
Kirk paced back round the balcony, his mind made up. "Mr. Spock, equip a landing party. We'll beam down and try to locate Wardoff's team."
Spock looked doubtful. "Captain, if the original landing party has been apprehended, the arrival of a further contingent could only compound the risk to this society."
Kirk slapped his palm against the balcony rail.
"We're going, Mr. Spock. Get ready." he turned on his heel and strode to the turbo-life doors. "Lieutenant Uhura," he said in passing, "have Dr. McCoy join us in the transporter room in fifteen minutes." The turbo-lift doors closed on him. Spock sighed a silent sigh and turned once more to his computer.
The landscape was dark and wet, and the ground underfoot decidedly soggy. As the drone of the transport beam faded away, a drifting rain splattered coldly into the faces of the landing party. all six wore the usual dress of the native people: slack trousers, laced knee-length tunics, and head-dresses fastened to a band round the forehead and draped back over the head and down to cover the neck and shoulder. Spock had pulled his forward to cover his ears, and the result resembled something midway between an Arab sheik and a sophisticated red-Indian.
Kirk studied the black ground. There were clumps of long,
rain-flattened grass, an occasional gleam of surface water, and vast tracts of mud. They stood in the middle of a low-lying water-meadow bordered on one side by a wide river and on the other by a dark, humped hill. The meadow was emptied of its grazing daytime occupants, and the starship crew had it to themselves. There was no living being to be seen.
"Are these the exact co-ordinates Wardoff used?" Kirk asked.
Spock looked up from his tricorder. "Affirmative. There is the structure on the hill."
Kirk looked up, and by squinting his eyes against the rain he could distinguish an angular shape against the skyline. He wiped some of the water off his face. "I see. Their last report was that they had reached it and were investigating." No one bothered to point out that it was then they had lost contact with the landing party. "Keep together, keep low, and keep quiet." Kirk began to slosh through the mud and water toward the hill.
The hillside was closed in shrubbery, and they soon found out why no fences were needed to keep the beasts in the field. The bushes had gnarled, twisted roots that wriggled across the surface of the ground; in the darkness they were unseen stumbling blocks. The leaves were upright and broad, and razor-sharp at the edges. Several cut fingers quickly taught the landing party not to hold on to the bushes to pull themselves along.
Halfway up, Kirk paused for breath and waited for his men to catch up with him: McCoy, three security guards and Spock.
McCoy looked at the Captain with irritation. "how much further is it?" he said, as quietly as he could and be heard over the wind.
Kirk glanced upward. "Not far."
"Nobody said anything about an assult course in a monsoon!"
Kirk grimaced in sympathy and resumed the ascent.
To a local observer they would have appeared no more than a bedraggled line of commoners making their way through the rain, except that on that planet hardly anyone went out at night, and no one at all went toward that hill.
The rain became heavier, driving downhill on the wind and rattling amoung the foliage. The headcloths whipped round their faces, and the cold rainwater ran steadily down their backs; by the time they reached the side of the building they were glad to rest in its shelter and attempt to wring some of the water from their clothing.
"Life forms, Mr Spock?"
Spock raised his eyes from the tricorder and looked noncommittal. "Vague readings, Captain. Nothing definite."
"What's behind these walls?"
"Impossible to say. The substance seems to be resistant to scanning. I get vague indications of life low down on the scale. Location indeterminate, shiting."
"Rats," McCoy said.
Spock raised an eyebrow. "Doctor?"
"You're picking up the local equivalent of rats. Every place like this has rats."
"If it's responsible for the disappearance of our landing party, that's not all it has,"Kirk said. "Spock, can you see any sign of a way in?"
Spock looked both ways along the wall. "Negative, Captain."
"Let's try this way," Kirk said, and started for the nearest corner.
The building was a block, a perfect cube forty feet on a side, half buried in the hillside. The substance of the walls looked like pebble-dashed concrete, but it registered as an integral substance, not an amalgamate. There was no sign of a door or window. Moss and the green slime of constant damp, together with an occasional climbing vine, found purchase, but the walls were not cracked.
The landing party climbed up along the line where the side wall vanished into the hillside, along the top where the flat roof sloped back into the ground, and down the other side. Nowhere did they see an entrance.
"Comment, Mr. Spock?" Kirk said when they were within one corner of the starting point.
"Interesting," Spock said without interest. By now he was too wet and cold to be "fascinated" by anything.
"The landing party disappeared at this point. They must have gone - or been taken - inside."
"It is logical to assume so."
"If we're going to follow we'll have to make our own way in." Kirk turned to the security team. "Mr. Sheckley, Mr. Lopez, set your phasers on full; blast a hole through this wall." He stepped aside, and the two men stood shoulder to shoulder and fired in unison. The rain turned into steam, the moss and slime blackened, and the surface of the wall brightened through red to white, but the wall remained intact. "Probe and phaser-resistant," Kirk said. "What the devil is that stuff?"
"Captain," Spock called.
Kirk turned and went over. Spock was investigating a place where the sharp-leaved vegetation grew right up to the wall and the ground sloped steeply upward.
"There seems to be a sort of doorway, Captain. I can't reach it."
Kirk gestured to the security guards. "Burn these plants down."
The men's phasers made short work of reducing the vegetation to ashes, revealing a low, wide arch in the wall, and in the arch an old but very solid-looking door.
"The landing party didn't go through there," Kirk said at once. "That door hasn't been opened in years."
"But it is a way in, Captain."
Kirk nodded, frowning, and Spock reached for the catch.....
.....The door swung slowly inward. It opened without a sound to reveal an impenetrable blackness beyond. Kirk called Wardoff's name into the opening. His voice seemed to bounce flatly back. No one answered.
They looked at each other.
"Do we go in?" McCoy whispered.
"Not yet." Kirk stepped back from the doorway. "These walls are phaser-resistant and impervious to the tricorder. The chances are that the ship's sensors can't penetrate them either - the transporter won't be able to reach us. We'll be on our own." He pulled the communicator from under his tunic, shook it dry, and flicked open the lid. "Enterprise. Kirk here."
"Scott here, sir."
"We've found a way into this structure down here. It may put us out of touch for a while, but track us with the sensors if you find you can."
"Aye, sir. How long shall I give ye before I send down a search party?"
Kirk met Spock's eyes over the communicator, and saw that his First Officer agreed with him. "No search party, Mr. Scott. Kirk out."
"Jim, we don't know what's in there," McCoy said, as Kirk put the communicator away.
"No." Kirk eyed the doorway. "We don't. And it obviously isn't going to come out and show itself." He leaned on the arch and squinted into the blackness. "I can't see anything," He said. "Spock, you'd better follow me at a discreet distance."
Spock nodded and watched as Kirk pulled out his phaser and stepped into the doorway. Kirk bent low to pass beneath the arch and....vanished.
"Captain!" Spock stepped to the doorway, his phaser aimed and ready. There was no target. "Captain! Jim!" No answer came.
McCoy joined Spock in the doorway. "What happened to him?"
Spock shook his head. "I do not know, Doctor."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"My orders were explicit," Spock said, checking the charge of his phaser and studying once more the internal blackness.
"What about us?"
Spock raised an eyebrow. "What about you, Doctor?"
"Are you going to leave us standing out here?"
"If you wish to return to the ship you have my consent, Dr. McCoy," Spock said without looking at him.
"And leave Jim in trouble and you walking into the same mess? Not likely! And if you tell me I'm being illogical - !"
Spock considered him for a moment, then looked at the guards. "Keep watch until daybreak. If we are not back then, return to the ship. Shall we go, Doctor?"
McCoy nodded warily, and together he and Spock stepped through the archway.
They dropped into a black vortex. There was a strong, cold blast of air that stung their eyes until tears came. The sensation was one of movement, not exactly of falling, but of displacement. McCoy streached out a hand, feeling for the touch of Spock's sleeve. There was nothing. He drew breath to call the Vulcan's name, but the wind whipped away the words before he could utter them. He felt a surge of panic, and then even that was driven from him as he landed on a hard floor. Something inside his chest gave, and he gasped at the sharp pain. A sudden redness flooded into his brain, and he lost consciousness.