A Minor Irritation

written by Holly Trueblood

"Ouch! Dammit, get away from me!" Kirk swatted ineffectually at the swarm of midge-like insects hovering around him like his own personal cloud.

"Gotcha!" McCoy crowed in triumph as he flicked the tiny corpse of one of his attackers off the blue sleeve of his uniform. "Jeezus, Jim, these things must be all teeth! And right through the uniform, too."

"No respect for your authority, eh, Bones?" Kirk was still able to find humor in the doctor's discomfort, even in the face of his own.

"Yours either," the doctor countered with irritation.

"Don't seem to be bothering Spock, though." Kirk directed the doctor's attention to the third member of their landing party. Spock was several meters away examining, with unbroken concentration, a ruined wall nearly hidden beneath a welter of thriving vines.

"Damned bugs probably don't like the taste of that bitter green syrup in his veins. Seems like Vulcan physiology has an answer to damned near every inconvenience space can come up with."


"That third eyelid, for one thing." McCoy started ticking off the points of his argument on his fingers. "Immunity to the common cold. The ability to control pain and speed up healing. Super human strength. And with all those advantages, they still never have to fight their way out of a sticky situation--no, just reach out and pinch someone." Having run out of fingers, he held out his hand to mime an imitation of his final complaint.

"You're just jealous, Doctor," Kirk jibed.

"Damn right I am!" the doctor agreed, grinning. Then, "Damn!" He swatted the back of his neck. "Most inhospitable planet I've ever been on. It's no damned wonder the Romulans hightailed it out of here."

"Get serious, Bones. The remnants of Romulan civilization on this planet are hundreds of years old. According to the historical survey this was a very ambitious attempt to colonize a planet this far from the homeworld so early in their spacefaring era. There must be dozens of reasons why this colony could have failed."

"Indeed, Doctor." Spock had completed his examination of the fallen wall fragment and returned to the doctor and captain. "This failed colony represents the remnant of an aborted program of expansion which could have changed the whole complexion of the Romulan Empire had it succeeded. For Federation scouts to have found this deserted and abandoned planet, so far from the nucleus of the Empire as to actually be outside of the present neutral zone in Federation space, is an incredible stroke of fortune. Although the technology represented here is over two centuries old, proper evaluation of it may provide us with a much more detailed picture of the Romulan Empire than anything we have been able to piece together from our own intelligence sources. It is to our distinct advantage that they apparently closed it down as a colony world with some haste, leaving a wealth of technology and artifacts intact."

"So why are the three of us down here instead of some military intelligence detail?" McCoy complained.

Kirk's reply only restated what the doctor already knew but hadn't fully accepted. "Because the Enterprise was in the area. And besides, she has, as a general reputation, a remarkable degree of success in solving mysteries of this kind. Because Mister Spock, as a Vulcan, has the most intimate knowledge available to us of the Romulans' earliest cultural beginnings, and may, in addition to his scientific abilities, be able to shed some light on the cultural nuances that Humans would be inclined to miss. Because you're a doctor, and if we find any Romulan remains, we'll need you to tell us what to make of them, and because you happen to be a damned good diagnostician, which in its own way, means a damned good detective. And with a puzzle like this we're going to need both Spock's logic and your intuition. And me, because...I'm the captain..."

"And you wouldn't miss this for the world,." McCoy cut him off.

"Because, Doctor," Kirk resumed, archly, "for security reasons, only the highest ranking officers, and as few of those as possible, are to be privy to the raw evidence we find down here until the brass at headquarters decide what's classified and what's not."

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before. But I still don't like the idea of sending the Enterprise off to Starbase nineteen and stranding us here."

"Doctor," Spock explained with forced patience, "the recent damage to the sensor array required immediate attention."

"The ship is only a couple of days away, Bones. What's going to happen to us down here in a couple of days? The Romulans are all gone and have been since before the invention of warp drive. Now come on, let's get down to business and see what we can find out about this colony. My guess is a couple of days won't be nearly long enough to cover all the research that needs to be done."

McCoy had to admit that the captain was right, as usual.

Once they got inside one of the remaining buildings which appeared to be a medical facility, McCoy became fascinated with the task at hand in spite of himself. Sometime later he looked up from a bank of medical readout indicators which appeared to imply some significant deviations from the accepted theories of Romulan physiology. It linked them instead more closely than expected with their Vulcan forebears. He called out excitedly, "Hey Spock! Come over here and look at this!"

"What is it now, Doctor?" Spock didn't bother to conceal his unwillingness to be interrupted.

"Hey, you don't have to bite my head off. I just wanted to show you something."

"I'll read it in your reports, Doctor. I have work of my own to do at the moment." Spock turned back to the antique computer console he was attempting to reactivate, rubbed the palms of his hands across the upper thighs of his uniform trousers a couple of times,flexed his long fingers, and prepared to get back into his project.

Kirk entered the room just in time to overhear the exchange. Good thing he had come along, he thought to himself. Couldn't those two ever let up on each other?

"Jim! Jim, come here and look at this!" McCoy, finding in the captain the properly appreciative audience he had been looking for to share his discoveries, soon forgot Spock's rebuff.

Once the doctor had the captain's attention, and both were absorbed in McCoy's discovery, Spock regarded them unobserved from across the room, slowly running his right hand up and down his left arm as if he were chilled.

The sun was down by the time they decided to break for the evening. The three men set up a makeshift headquarters and indoor camp in one of the lower rooms of the building where McCoy had spent his day. Over an evening meal of camp rations from the ship, they discussed the afternoon's results. Kirk had been ranging around the empty city, seeking out points of interest for the next days' investigations. He found it amazing how quickly the surrounding jungle had reclaimed the city, once the vigilance of its inhabitants had ceased. Whole buildings were covered with ivy-like plants, their sharp lines softened to vegetation-draped mounds and leafy humps in the landscape. Pavements were cracked and crumbling under the relentless assault of weeds. Whole walls were tumbled by the insinuation of fragile, but indomitable tendrils of foliage creeping into every crack and crevice. Slowly, over the course of two centuries, the vegetable life of the planet had re-exerted itself, demolishing the work of the settlers' hands and machines.

Kirk informed the other members of the landing party that he'd found what appeared to be a mausoleum, where his tricorder had indicated remains of living tissue behind the ornately inscribed vault doors. The possibility of examining actual Romulan remains, however deteriorated, so excited McCoy's curiosity that he had to be argued out of starting the work immediately. His discoveries in the medical labs during the day begged for the confirmation actual specimens could provide.

On the other hand, Spock's report of his day's activities was terse. He had succeeded in bringing an old computer system on line, but it was apparently an isolated unit, not linked by any network he could discern into any larger information access. Therefore it had provided only very limited data with which to begin his investigations.

"Sounds like we're making better progress than you are, eh, Spock?" McCoy didn't mean to sound like he was gloating, but he was justifiably proud of what he had already managed to discover, and the prospect of tomorrow's opportunities added impetus to his needling.

"I see no reason for you to set this assignment up on the basis of personal competition, Doctor." Spock stood up, placed his empty plate decisively on the chair he had vacated, and strode out of the building.

Kirk and McCoy exchanged incredulous looks.

"Jeez, Jim. You'd think he was jealous!"

"Jealous? Spock? Jealousy is an emotion, Doctor," Kirk intoned, in a passing rendition of Spock's usual manner.

"Emotion or not, something's got Spock's goat. He's been snippy as hell all day long," McCoy complained.

"I've noticed it, too," the captain agreed. "Do you suppose it's some...affront to his honor or something to keep finding evidence of what a very fine line separates the Romulans from his own people?"

"I don't know, Jim. It doesn't seem like quite such a high minded problem. More just a general bad attitude. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was acting like he was going into the seven-year Vulcan itch."

"No, thank God, if what he told us was right, we've got a good five years before we have to look forward to that again."

"Well, he didn't tell us about that choice bit of Vulcan physiology until it was almost too late to do him any good. You don't suppose he's holding something else back on us, do you?"

Kirk rolled his eyes. "Oh, God, I hope not!"

"Shh! He's coming back!"

Spock appeared in the doorway, and remained there, leaning in a casual manner which somehow didn't quite appear entirely natural, with his back against the doorframe.

"Everything okay, Spock?" Kirk inquired a little too heartily.

"Is there any reason why it should not be?" Spock countered coolly.

"Er, no. I just...Er, about ready to turn in, Spock? Bones and I were just about to break out the bed rolls."

McCoy was quick to give every appearance of doing just that.

Spock slid slowly against the doorframe before stepping away from it into the room, and moved wordlessly to lay out his sleeping gear along the wall nearest the door.

The next morning Kirk awoke unwillingly to McCoy's disgustingly cheerful urgings.

"Come on, Jim. Hit the floor! We've got places to go, things to do, graves to rob..."

The captain moaned once and rolled over, pulling the edge of the sleeping bag over his head. "Go away, Bones."

"Well, you're certainly in fine spirits this morning," the doctor huffed.

Kirk sat up, giving in to the inevitable, and ran a hand through rumpled hair. "Give it a rest, Bones. I didn't get much sleep last night."

"Don't know why not. I slept like a baby."

"Yeah, I heard you. Your snoring reverberated off the walls all night long. I'm surprised you didn't wake those dead Romulans you're so anxious to get at."

"Aw, come on, Jim," McCoy hedged defensively. "You always complain about my snoring when we're out in the field like this, but I don't see anybody else losing sleep over it."

"Spock did."

"Nah. That famous concentration of his can block out anything. Spock would never let a little night music get to him."

"Well he did last night. He must have been up and down a dozen times. To tell the truth, I don't know which of you bothered me more, you with your serenading or him with his ratting around all night."

"At least it didn't leave Spock as cranky as you are," McCoy sniffed. "See, he's already up and out of here before either one of us."

"Vulcans don't require as much sleep, Doctor," Kirk grumped as he hauled himself reluctantly into an upright position.

As anxious as McCoy was to get on with the examination of his Romulan ex-colonists, there was still data to be gleaned in the medical lab, where he had spent the previous afternoon, before he would be fully prepared to move on to the next step. On their way upstairs to the lab, they discovered the science officer, already hard at work, disassembling archaic computer components in a room off the entry lobby. They must have surprised him, the doctor thought, because he seemed to startle, almost guiltily, when they poked their heads through the open doorway to say good morning. He greeted them tersely. The doctor noticed that throughout their brief conversation Spock was scratching methodically at his palms with in-curled fingers. McCoy surmised that he must have been irritated by their interruption and awfully impatient to get back to his work to have indulged himself in that nervous-looking gesture.

Kirk and McCoy took their leave, and continued down the hall to the diagnostic lab where McCoy had found so much of interest the previous day. Once past the doorway, the captain gestured back toward the room they had just left and said, "See what I mean?"

"Yeah," the doctor admitted, with a twinge of guilt. "He looks like he had a rough night, all right." There had been dusty jade smudges under the Vulcan's eyes. Tight lines beside the corners of his mouth. His shirt untucked, he presented less than his usual immaculate appearance.

"Forget it, Bones," Kirk forgave him for both of his overtired sleeping companions. "All part of the hazards of landing party duty."

They arrived at the lab, and McCoy became immediately immersed in gathering up the data he needed on metabolic norms and physical functions unique to Romulan physiology. Kirk poked around the lab, trying to occupy his curiosity and making the appropriately appreciative responses to the doctor's occasional "Aha!'s" of discovery.

In just over an hour, McCoy had obtained all the information he had come for and was ready to make the excursion to the mausoleum. They picked up Spock on their way out. Apparently, whatever project he was engaged in paled in importance to the prospect of the specimens awaiting them.

Kirk led them about a kilometer across the empty city to where he had made his find the day before. Spock pointed out some inscribed insignias over the door of the mausoleum so ancient that, while they were still in use in both the Vulcan and Romulan rituals of death, the original meanings were long since forgotten.

Kirk led them inside, playing tour guide to cover the ghoulishness of their intentions.

"Uh, Spock?" the doctor inquired, suddenly just a little hesitant himself. "Your people don't have any taboos about desecrating graves or anything, do they? I mean, we wouldn't want to ask you to..."

"The physical body is merely the means to an end, Doctor. To be used and subdued," he said firmly, "as long as it is inhabited by life. Once life has fled, we regard the remains as simply inert matter, unable to either sense or, indeed, be the subject of desecration. I have no qualms about the requirements of our research here."

In demonstration of his statement, Spock grabbed hold of the metal rings embedded in the nearest vault door and pulled. The vault was neither sealed nor locked, but the stone was heavy and tightly fitted. Veins stood out in Spock's temples with the effort before the portal began to scrape slowly forward. When he held it balanced on the lip of the vault, Kirk and McCoy moved to help him lift it down to the floor.

McCoy held a light up to the dark opening, making a face and turning away as the fetid odor wafted out at him. "Didn't believe in embalming, did they?" He waved a hand in front of his face to disperse the rank smell.

Spock looked up from where he and Kirk were trying to dislodge another vault door, lower along the opposite wall. "As I said before, there is no logic in attempting to preserve the flesh past the point of animation."

The first wave of bad air having dissipated, McCoy raised his lantern once again and peered into the darkness.

"You're right about that, Spock. No regard for the dignity of the dead at all, it seems. They're jammed in here so tight they must have had to pound the last one in with a mallet. No order. No decorum."

"This one's like that, too, Bones." Kirk pointed down at the gaping black square they had just succeeded in opening. "Must be five or six of them in here."

Spock moved though the vault lined corridor, randomly pulling at the various shaped metal handles on the square stone doors. Some gave easily, others appeared intractable. Some others showed promise, but would have required the assistance of his two companions who were already absorbed in the examination of the crypts he had managed to open. In every case the contents appeared to be the same: a jumble of bodies, some inserted feet first, some in the opposite direction, every niche filled to capacity.

"From the look of it, Jim, I wonder if there might have been a plague of some sort, or maybe a war, to have forced them to dispose of the bodies so much faster than the building of additional accommodations would allow," the doctor suggested. "Somehow I don't think these crypts were originally built to house the crowds that are buried in them." Turning his attention beck to the first vault they had opened, the doctor continued, "Well, let's get on with it, shall we?"

Kirk nodded distractedly, set his jaw for the unwholesome task ahead and reached for the nearest foot.

"Wait, Jim. Here, put these on." McCoy held out a pair of protective gloves like the ones he was already wearing. "No telling what these guys died of."

Kirk pulled his pair on gratefully. This was going to be grisly enough work without his having to touch the dessicated corpses with his bare hands.

Between the two of them, they selected a body that looked the least difficult to get at, and began to slowly jimmy it out of its position near the top of the vault. Kirk was relieved that at least it came out whole and intact; no thighbones disconnecting and ripping loose in his hands or fragile foot bones crumbling in his grip.

McCoy was making clinical sounding mumblings about the state of preservation--apparently, he surmised, either the atmospheric conditions of the burial chambers or some pre-internment process had the effect of drying out the soft tissue to a mummy-like state. Even so, Kirk thought there must have been some kind of advanced decomposition at work. He brought his objections to McCoy's attention.

Something in their conversation, or simply the fact that what the captain and doctor were now doing was more interesting than dragging a succession of heavy stone blocks out of their housings, brought Spock back into their conversation. He moved quietly up behind Kirk's shoulder and looked where the captain's pointing finger indicated.

"See, Bones? Here and here and...down here, too. The surface of this guy's skin doesn't look like any mummy's skin I've ever had the dubious pleasure of looking at."

"Yeah, I'd noticed," the doctor agreed. "Damndest thing I've ever seen. It doesn't look like skin because it isn't skin. What you're seeing is the surface of the underlying flesh and musculature. This poor guy..." McCoy double checked his assertion with his tricorder before speaking it aloud. He winced when his hypothesis was confirmed by the instrument. "No doubt about it, it happened before he died. Probably even the cause of death," he muttered to himself.

"What, Bones?" Kirk prompted him out of his self absorption, already half guessing what the doctor was going to say.

"What? Oh, er, the thing is, Jim, this poor bastard appears to have been flayed alive...A couple of inches at a time."

Kirk allowed himself an expression of acute disgust and turned away. Behind him, all the color washed from Spock's face, while he drove his fingernails deeply into the flesh of clenched fists.

"Here, Jim, help me with the next one," McCoy insisted, absorbed in the mystery.

With all three of them working together, they quickly unloaded the entire vault and found five of the six corpses to be similarly disfigured. Only the body at the bottom seemed to have died with his skin intact. It gave Kirk pause to see, in that better preserved corpse, just how much racial similarity their mysterious enemies of the Federation bore to his familiar first officer.

At McCoy's insistence, the trio moved to half a dozen more of the vaults Spock had opened. In each one they found the same configuration of five or six stripped bodies piled in on top of a single, unscathed occupant.

"Looks like this confirms my hypothesis that some sudden catastrophe decimated the population like wildfire, and they had to stuff the new corpses in on top of the original occupants."

"An invasion by another hostile race?" Kirk ventured.

"Highly unlikely, Captain, as a colony under attack from the outside would be unlikely to take the time to bury their dead, even in so hasty a manner."

"Besides, Jim," the doctor added, "what kind of sadists would flay their victims alive...one at a time?"

"A most time consuming and inefficient process. I agree, Doctor."

McCoy shot the Vulcan a disbelieving look.

"Then what..."

"Will you two just get out of my way for a minute and let me take a good look at these people? Better yet, let's take a couple of them back to the medical building where I can do a more thorough examination. Here, Jim, you take this one."

Kirk lifted the indicated corpse, finding it much lighter than it would have been in life.

Seeing that each of them would be able to manage a body apiece, the doctor hefted one of his own off the floor. It was awkward, being stiff as a board, but not unduly heavy.

"Spock, take one of the undamaged ones so I'll have it for comparison," McCoy instructed.

The Vulcan complied and they set off back across the city with their respective Romulans laid across their forearms like bundles of long kindling.

Once McCoy had his specimens laid out on examination tables back at the medical facility, he excused his companions to pursue their other areas of interest. Spock seemed as anxious to get away as Kirk did.

The early twilight of the planet was upon them before the three men met again in the room where they had slept the night before, to report on the day's activities and share a meal. To conserve the power of their portable generators, they ate by the last light coming in from the windows. Soft shadows lay in the corners and veiled their familiar features from each other.

Kirk had again spent the day in wide ranging reconnaissance of the colony, making some significant finds involving their political buildings which permitted some insight into the Romulan power structure. He also came across the defensive installations at the far edges of the city. To his eye, there was no evidence that any of their substantial firepower had ever been engaged since the time it was put in place.

Spock reported that he had finally broken into the colony's main library computer. The volume of information stored there was so vast that he had spent most of the day transferring it to the stack of data chips he now piled in front of them. It had been a productive day. The information he had gathered would be invaluable in assessing the little known culture of these enemies of the Federation. It would take a team of translators and analysts the best part of a decade to sift through all the relevant information encoded on those chips.

But, McCoy realized, the process of making endless data copies, once the technological breakthrough had been made would have been mind-numbing for Spock. Perhaps that was why, he reasoned, that the first officer seemed so unusually fidgety. McCoy smiled to himself. He had never thought to use that particular word to describe Spock's behavior before. And, yet, that was just the word: Fidgety. He seemed to be in constant motion. Stand up, sit down, change positions. Even while standing in his typical 'at ease' pose, his hands seemed to be worrying each other behind his back.

When Spock had finished his brief report on the day's activities, the doctor launched with relish into his own discoveries.

"This is really bizarre! You know how all those skinned corpses got that way?" McCoy didn't allow his companions the opportunity to venture their guesses before supplying the answer himself, although Spock could have made a fairly accurate guess.

"They scratched themselves to death! Literally!"

"Oh, come on, Bones! How could anybody..."

"Honest to God, Jim! On closer examination, while some areas were just broadly abraded, especially on the backs of the corpses, most of the skin was removed in long strips about half a centimeter wide by three or four times as long. And the clincher is that on both of the skinned bodies, there were traces of skin under the fingernails. Their own skin! I checked: the DNA matches exactly."

"That's crazy, Bones. Why would anybody do that to themselves? How could anybody...why didn't they stop themselves?"

"Ah! Here comes the real detective work! It was hard at first to be sure, with the bodies dead for so long, but on microscopic examination, in both of the scratched up corpses the subcutaneous fat layer was riddled with insect larvae!"

"Mosquito bites? They died of mosquito bites?" Kirk asked incredulously.

"Not bites or stings like Terran mosquitoes or even bees or wasps. This phenomenon more closely resembles what we used to call chiggers. They actually lay their eggs under the skin, where they incubate, then later work their way out."

Kirk didn't even try to suppress a shudder.

"Only what's different about these bugs is that the eggs don't seem to have to remain at the site of implantation. I found infestations of the larvae even in tissue where there was no indication of a puncture to the skin. Of course, that inference is only supported by a couple of instances. It was hard to find a patch of skin that hadn't been vandalized by scratching if there was infestation of the underlying fat layer. It does support the theory, however, that somehow--maybe through something like their version of our lymphatic system--once deposited, the eggs are spread throughout the body in order to reduce the competition for nourishment as they grow."

McCoy's narrative was getting to his listeners. Kirk seemed to be getting all twitchy just thinking about a skin full of creepy crawlies, and even Spock was pulling fiercely at an earlobe in an uncharacteristic gesture. McCoy was enjoying having such a profound effect on his audience.

"Do you have a theory, Doctor, on how the colonists were able to complete so much building and give every impression of creating a colony of several years standing--including the undamaged bodies in the crypts-- without being killed or driven away by the insects?"

"That's a harder one, Spock," McCoy answered, pleased with the opportunity to theorize further about his discovery. "The way I figure, either these bugs mutated after the colonists arrived, in order to take more efficient advantage of the new food source; or, more likely, they have a life cycle like the seventeen-year locusts on Earth, and didn't have an active phase until well after the colony was established. What do you think, Spock? Do either of those ideas account for your question?"

McCoy looked up, Spock was scratching at his head, as if in contemplation. A normal Human gesture, but not one he'd ever seen Spock make before. Suddenly something horrible clicked. McCoy grabbed up his lantern and lit the light, conservation of power be damned.

"Spock," he said gently, "let's see your hands."

The Vulcan hesitated, looking over at his captain for direction. In that moment, Kirk's intuition caught up with the doctor's.

"Let him see them, Spock." Kirk swallowed hard, fearing what the light would reveal, but having no doubt what they would see.

Long green scratches covered the backs of Spock's hands. Some of them deep enough to be superating tiny emerald colored beads. Kirk rocked back on his heels with a shuddering sigh, "Oh, Spock!"

McCoy managed to sound a little more clinical. "Okay, Spock, shirt off."

Reluctantly the Vulcan complied. His arms and torso, revealed by the light of the lantern, were covered with livid green spots.

"Turn around," the doctor instructed.

Spock turned. His back was as densely spotted as the other side, but it also showed broad abrasions, as if he had rubbed it back and forth across some rough surface, like a bear scratching its back against a tree trunk.

"Dammit, Spock, why didn't you tell us?" Kirk asked, appalled at what he saw.

"What was there to tell, Jim? My training has prepared me to overcome the effects of even serious injury and pain. Any time I cannot control my reaction to the inconvenience of a few insect bites..."

"A few! My God, you're covered with them! And they aren't just bites, they're..." A horrible thought occurred to Kirk. "Oh, my God, Bones, did he pick them up from the corpses? Are we all going to get..."

He pulled up the sleeve of his tunic to examine the skin of an unblemished forearm in the light of the lantern.

"No, Jim. Anything that was in those bodies had been dead for two hundred years." The doctor turned back to Spock, gingerly continuing to examine his back. "This started even before we opened the vaults, didn't it ?"

"I was aware of the beginnings of the irritation shortly after we arrived on the planet. The lesions on the skin, however, did not begin to appear until late this afternoon," Spock confirmed, somehow managing to sound like he was describing the symptoms of a stranger..

"Apparently only Spock was affected because of the similarity between Vulcan and Romulan chemistry. The spots must not appear until the eggs begin to hatch and the larvae start to feed," McCoy mused. "And they're like this all over?" he asked.

"All over, Doctor," Spock responded grimly.

"Did you say the...larvae start to...feed, Bones?"

"Right, Jim. They live off the fat cells beneath the skin..."

"My God, he'll be eaten alive!" Kirk exclaimed in horror.

"Not hardly, Jim. True, Spock doesn't have a lot to spare, but these things are microscopic in size. Even if there were thousands of them..."

"Thousands...?" Kirk repeated weakly.

"...they wouldn't consume enough to change his uniform size--or even make a noticeable difference on the scales."

"But in the meantime..."

"In the meantime, we're going to have one very miserable Vulcan on our hands. We're going to have to think of a way to..."

"There is no need to worry about my ability to manage the discomfort, Doctor."

"But Spock!" Kirk interjected, "What about that whole mausoleum full of dead Romulans who tore their own skin off because of these...these..."

"Precisely, Captain. They were Romulans. I am a Vulcan. My reaction will not be the same," Spock qualified, but the strain in his voice was evident.

"I wouldn't make any bets on it, Spock," McCoy cautioned. He shone the light on Spock's lacerated hands. "You call these scratch marks the result of unshakable Vulcan control? And this is just the easy stage. Wait until those little buggers start trying to chew their way to daylight."

"So what are we going to do, Bones? There's got to be something we can do for him."

"I'm open to suggestions." The doctor held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness.

"Okay, here's one!" Kirk supplied. "I've heard about chigger bites before. When we were little kids in Iowa, my grandmother used to talk about when she was younger and her mother painted fingernail polish on the bites to suffocate the bugs. We could find something that would block the air like that and slather it..."

"Wouldn't work, Jim. For two reasons." McCoy shook his head. "First of all these things aren't dependent on the puncture wound for ventilation. Most of them are nowhere near the implantation sites by now. Therefore, it's probable that they don't need air any more than chicks inside the egg do--all their needs are met by the cell where they grow. But even if I'm wrong about that--and there is always that possibility," he conceded, "Spock's got these things under every inch of skin on his body. If we sealed his pores shut like that, he'd die of suffocation almost as fast as the bugs. My granddaddy liked to tell us a story about some guy that killed a woman just by covering her all over with silver paint!"

"Well, then, you've got to have something in your medikit to stop the itching, even if it doesn't..." Kirk hesitated, squeamish at the thought, "...even if it doesn't kill the bugs."

"If the itching was caused by some sort of venom or poison, there'd be simple analgesics or antihistamines that would bring it under control like that." McCoy snapped his fingers. "But as far as I can tell, the only thing those bugs injected into Spock is their eggs. The itching is caused by the damned things growing and eating and crawling around in there!"

Kirk ventured a look at the subject of their conversation. He was sitting with eyes closed and face tense, muscles rigidly controlled, rocking back and forth and raking his fingernails in a slow rhythm up and down the length of his thighs. The fabric of his trousers was beginning to fray under the pressure. His breathing was loud and shallow. For all his protestations, Spock was already beginning to lose the battle with the microscopic invaders.

Kirk launched himself at the tortured Vulcan, grabbing at his hands to stop their constant, self-destructive motion.


Spock's eyes blinked open, looking momentarily disoriented. He had begun to be mesmerized by the rhythm of his digging fingernails as they tried to relieve the persistent itch by replacing it with clean, controllable pain.

His strength vied against Kirk's as the captain fought to keep him from doing himself damage. Then he looked down and realized what he had been doing to himself. He forced himself to make his hands cease their resistance to Kirk's restraint.

While the doctor and the captain debated potential treatments, Spock had attempted to attain a healing trance. Perhaps, he thought, from within that discipline, his own body would find ways to combat the invader: or at the very least, he would have been able to rise above the physical discomfort and wait it out in some distant and withdrawn place in his mind.

But it was difficult to clear his thoughts. Pain could be dealt with. Pain could be localized, recognized, categorized, and with sufficient concentration, put away in a separate place where it could be acknowledged without having to be endured. But this was something else. It was everywhere at once. The intensity of the irritation, first one place then another, moving so quickly that the precise point couldn't even be defined before it was somewhere else instead. Many somewheres, as a matter of fact, and all at once. None of the techniques he had been taught seemed to be able to surround this kind of discomfort. It could not be put outside of him, it was a part of him, it was him, and it could neither be denied or dealt with. In that hazy state of not-quite-attained meditation, his hands had begun to move without his conscious will. Finally there was pain. Pain he could recognize and relate to and control. The creation of pain had been a balm in and of itself, and instead of moving to the clear and undistracted plane of pure meditation, his mind had been seduced into the dark morass where only the physical had existence. Lured with a promise of relief which was its own destruction.

He stared hard at Kirk, dragging himself back to full consciousness and a recognition of what had nearly possessed him.

"Spock! Get a hold of yourself!" Kirk pleaded. "You've got to fight this thing. You've got to..."

"Trying to meditate. Trying...but I can't seem to...Forgive me, Jim. I can't..."

"Shhh! Shhh!" Kirk soothed, appalled by the defeat he heard in Spock's usually controlled voice.

McCoy moved over beside Spock, adding his strength to Kirk's.

The captain looked up at him desperately. "Bones! We've go to do something! I could try to reach the ship. Maybe if you got him back up in Sickbay..."

"No!" Spock shook his head emphatically.


"He's right, Jim," the doctor agreed. "We can't know for sure if these things are on a prolonged life cycle or if they have a real facility for mutation. We can't risk taking them back on the ship with us. When they start to work their way out and become airborne, who knows how far-reaching the effects could be. We've got to keep them quarantined here until Spock is free of them."

The Vulcan's hands began to struggle again. A glazed look was returning to his eyes.

"At least, from the look of things, these little buggers don't have a very long gestation period. I don't think we have much longer to wait for them to start flying the nest."

The look Kirk gave the doctor said that he was not amused at the figure of speech.

Spock was beyond showing an interest in metaphor. His shoulders twisted torturously, his hands struggled in Kirk's grip. He had stretched his legs out in front of him and, with one knee bent so that his foot could touch the opposite leg above the boot top, he had begun scraping with the edge of his boot sole against the inner calf of the other leg.

For Kirk and McCoy, it was suddenly like wrestling with a bag full of eels. Very strong eels.

"Jim, we've got to do something besides sit here and hold his hands."

"That's what I keep telling you, Bones!" Kirk had to raise his voice now, over the low droning sound that had started to emanate from Spock. "You've got to give him something!"

"There's nothing I can give him! Don't you understand that!" McCoy snapped. "What I meant was, we're going to have to do something to keep him from hurting himself. Believe it or not, I think at some level he's still trying to work with us. If he loses control completely, there's no way in hell we'll be able to restrain him." McCoy craned his neck to look around the darkened room while still holding on to Spock's hand. "How heavy do you suppose that thing is?" He nodded at a squat metal locker of some sort, whose contents they hadn't yet taken the time to inspect.

"I'll try to hold him, you see if you can move it any closer," the doctor directed.

McCoy maneuvered around until he was sitting on the arm Kirk had been holding, while still clinging to the one he had started with. Kirk got behind the locker on his knees and put his shoulder to it.

"Pretty heavy!"

"Good! Get it over here as quick as you can!"

"Don't know if I...Ugh!...Oof!.." In fits and starts, with protesting screeches, the locker began to move.

"That's right. Push it over here near his hand...no...wait a minute...over here by his other hand. That's good. Now, how about that computer stand over there?...Yeah, that's the one. Give it a shove...Come on, Jim, we don't have all night here. He's getting harder to hold on to. Yeah, right over here...Now how about...can you tip it on it's side? We don't want it falling over on him."

The loud thump of the tipping console echoed off the walls and mixed with Kirk's ongoing noises of effort and strain. The most compelling sound in the room, however, was the wordless and unceasing moan of suffering issuing from Spock.

McCoy forced himself to ignore it, with the practice of a battle hardened physician. It was harder for Kirk.

"Okay, I've got the furniture rearranged. Anything else you'd like me to do?"

"Yeah, give me your shirt."


"Jim, we've got to find a way to tie him down. We're not going to be able to hold him much longer. Find something on that locker to tie your sleeve around; then push it as close to his hand as you can, and we'll bind his arm with the other sleeve."

Kirk made a grimace of distaste. "We're just going to tie him up like...an animal?"

"If we don't he won't have an inch of skin on him by morning. Got any better ideas?"

Kirk obediently began to strip off his shirt and follow McCoy's directions, tying up the hand McCoy was still attempting to hang on to, while still holding the other down with his own body weight. Eventually they had one hand secured, but not before Spock had managed to rip a network of parallel gashes across his own chest in the process.

Then Kirk retrieved Spock's own cast-off shirt and started on the other hand. By now he was convinced of the necessity of McCoy's plan and offered no further discussion on the matter.

Now that his hands were no longer available to combat the itching, Spock's feet and legs attempted to take up the campaign.

McCoy directed Kirk to sit on the Vulcan's knees while he wedged the officer's boots off. It was like riding an unbroken horse.

When the doctor had finally succeeded in getting the boots off, he positioned himself over Spock's ankles. "Okay, you can get up now, and help me get his pants off."

"His pants?"

"Dammit, Jim, these bugs aren't just in the polite places."

"Well...yeah...but why...?"

"Because once we get him to where he can't hurt himself, I do want to do what I can to try to make him more comfortable, even if it's only laving him down with cool water. Damn it, Jim, this is a medical emergency, not a society cocktail party. Get his pants off!"

Kirk complied, but couldn't help feeling like some kind of bizarre and unwilling peeping Tom.

By the time they were ready to free his feet from the pant legs, Spock was thrashing so hard that the doctor caught a heel squarely in the jaw that knocked him over backward. It was already starting to purple as they found two more sturdy pieces of furniture, one of which had to be dragged from an adjacent room, and used split halves of McCoy's tunic to fasten his feet to them.

Spock was completely out of control. No longer able to respond to their voices, no longer able to contain the vicious, self-destructive impulses of his body by strength of will. Even with his tightly bound extremities holding him in a pitiable spread-eagled X on the floor, his torso continued to writhe in agony, his back slapping repeatedly against the floor from the limited height that straining muscles could lift it. The furniture to which he was bound shuddered and thumped ominously on the floor as his unleashed Vulcan strength protested against its weight. The low, anguished moaning never stopped.

There was drinking water among their rations and McCoy set Kirk to trying to keep Spock's lips wet with it, while he went in search of a greater supply with which to bathe the angry welts on the rest of his body. He found a promising looking tank in one of the offices on a higher floor in the building, but the tricorder insisted that it was stale and contaminated beyond hope of simple distillation.

Outside, a decorative fountain long since fallen into disrepair and overgrown with vines, held a substantial volume of rain water.--water that should have been relatively pure in an unpolluted world. On closer examination, however, McCoy found it to be full of the same little insects that started this horror in the first place. It wouldn't do at all to reinfest the patient with water intended to be part of the treatment.

Finally the doctor found a running stream near the edge of the city. The tricorder wasn't enthusiastic about it's purity, but at least there was nothing really dangerous in it beyond a little good clean sand. McCoy filled the containers he had brought along, wishing that he'd been able to carry more. It would be a long walk to have to come back for another load.

By the time he returned to Kirk and Spock, the captain was nearly frantic with worry. By lamplight, the floor beneath the Vulcan's tortured body showed dark smears from his bloodied back. Spock's color was ghostlike, making the dark hued welts from the insect bites stand out in heightened contrast. His breathing was rapid and shallow with an edge of desperation in his hoarse cries. All over the the rest of his body, the angry welts seemed to be hardening and becoming more defined. McCoy hurried to Kirk's side, first checking the Vulcan's heart and respiration for any threat of imminent failure. Once satisfied that they weren't losing him to a more immediate threat than the microscopic hoard beneath his skin, the doctor gave Kirk quick directions to the place where he had found the water, cautioning him against any of the closer, but contaminated sources he had passed, and sent him out for more.

For all that he hated to leave his friend in such terrifying straits, Kirk felt better for having something physical, something concrete to do. Running through the darkened streets of the ruined city in search of water to sooth Spock's pain was better than sitting helplessly at his side watching him suffer. While the water might be only a little thing, and not likely to do much good, at least it was something useful he could do. Something that would take him away for a little while at least from the coppery smell of blood and the agonized pleading of a friend who didn't even know that Kirk was there for him.

McCoy bent over his patient to examine the network of lesions covering every inch of Spock's body. Many areas showed the powdery verdigris scabs consistent with drying green blood where Spock had scratched at the mounting irritations before they had bound his hands out of the way. The doctor had to hold the lantern with one hand and angle its beams carefully to be sure, however, that some of the scabbing was at the distinct center of each of several of the tiny green mounds of infestation, perhaps indicating that the minuscule little creatures had begun to make their way free. As he examined more of these welts, marked with the single dot of drying blood in the middle, McCoy noted that these spots had a deflated quality, and that the subcutaneous flush of green was fading to a shade more like jade than emerald. This seemed to confirm his diagnosis that, in the spots marked like these, the insect had already fled. As he inspected additional areas of Spock's skin, which was difficult with the hand-held lantern, and the constant struggling of his patient against his bonds, he found this evidence of the final phase of larval development to be fairly evenly distributed, and yet, these healing welts represented only a small fraction of the total.

Satisfied with his assessment of Spock's condition, McCoy began what little treatment was available to him; washing down the most irritated areas with the water he had brought. Spock's skin was nearly the temperature of McCoy's, which the doctor translated into positively clammy for a Vulcan. Had the night air been any less temperate, he would have been concerned that the cooling effects of the water would give his patient a chill, making his condition even worse. Without proper diagnostic tools, his only monitoring system was his own best judgment--a talent developed almost subliminally and often ignored amidst the usual technological accouterments of modern medicine, but still the most reliable instrument at his disposal. That ability to simply sense the right thing to do guided him now. It was all he had.

McCoy had lost track of time, absorbed as he was in watching Spock's precarious condition, and in the process of the mechanical and repetitive task of washing down the bloodied limbs and torso, examining Spock's skin for further progress of the hatching insects, then repeating the procedure over and over again. He was startled out of his concentration when Kirk flung himself back into the room. He carried slopping buckets of water in each hand and some sort of leather bag slung over his shoulder which had leaked out most of its contents on the return trip, and now sagged limp and deflated against his wet back. Kirk had hurried as quickly as he could, and was out of breath. He released his burdens and dropped to his knees beside McCoy.

"How is he, Bones?"

"Here. Look at this." McCoy held up the lantern and pointed to one of the scab-tipped mounds. "See that? It means that the little bugger has chewed his way out. It's starting to happen all over him now. Speeding up quite a bit since you left."


"Well, it is the inevitable conclusion of the cycle, yes..."

"Then it's almost over? Spock's getting better?"

McCoy looked grim. "It's almost over. Yes. But it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Only a few dozen of these things have broken open like this. There are still hundreds to go, and like I said, the process is escalating. It's going to get pretty...intense. And soon."

Kirk was taken aback. "My God, Bones. What can we do for him?"

The doctor dipped his cloth into one of the fresh buckets of water Kirk had brought. "Not a thing, Jim. Not a damn thing but watch with him and wait." He tore the bit of wet rag in two, and handed one piece to Kirk. "Here. You take the other side."

Kirk set his jaw and did as he was told.

True to McCoy's prediction, the process began to quicken within the hour. Even Kirk's inexperienced eye could pick out the signs of yet another insect hatched and gone: the tiny bead of bright green at the apex of a welt, followed by the flattening of the shape and the dusty coloration change.

"Where are they going, Bones? I can tell where they've broken out, but I never see them go."

"Remember, they're microscopic, Jim. Especially at the newly hatched stage. We probably couldn't see them in broad daylight, much less like this." He waved his hand into the surrounding darkness beyond the bubble of light cast by the lantern.

"But if they're that small, how can they make an exit wound big enough to bleed?" Kirk asked.

"Yeah, I wondered about that, too. I can't prove it, but I suspect that part of the hatching process is actually accomplished by the host's body acting to reject the things itself. That would go a long way toward explaining why both the discomfort and the physical reaction are as severe as they seem to be. At any rate, it doesn't matter where they've gone, as long as it's away from Spock, and as long as we can get him away from here before they're old enough to be hungry again."

Kirk thought about the implications of that grisly suggestion for a moment. "The Enterprise ought to be back by morning," he mused aloud.

"And as soon as we're sure every last one of these things is gone, we can take him up there and begin some real treatment."

"Every last..."

"Gotta be, Jim. The possibility of general contamination is something I don't even want to think..."

"Aaahh!" An agonized scream cut off the rest of McCoy's thought.

Spock's eyes flew open. They were rolled back in his head, and the capillaries inside the whites had begun to burst from the strain, making him look demon-possessed. The overturned computer stand at his right side scraped across the floor, and his hand began to flail in the air as the tension on his bonds loosened.

"Grab him, Jim! The more he can move around, the more he's gonna hurt himself!"

Kirk fastened himself to the thrashing arm, while the doctor strained against the dead weight of the stand in an effort to push it farther away and tighten the tension on the shirt sleeve bound to Spock's wrist.

Another despairing scream reverberated off the walls and echoed into the night.

Spock's head began to whip from side to side, his sweat-soaked hair flung back and forth across his brow with every violent motion.


"Jim, stop him! He's going to give himself a concussion that way!"

Kirk and McCoy struggled over each other in the dark, trying to change their hold on the thrashing Vulcan and succeeding mostly in getting in each other's way. Finally, Kirk ended up on his knees behind Spock's head, where he could pull his friend's head into his lap, so that it could no longer pound itself against the hard floor. His instinct was to smooth Spock's hair back and make comforting gestures with his hands, but the needs of the moment required him to use every ounce of strength he had simply to combat the constant motion and keep Spock under control.

The Vulcan's chest began to heave as if with sobs, but Spock was gulping for air that wouldn't come, hyperventilating and struggling for breath he couldn't assimilate. His color went from greenish ivory to the dead grey of Spanish moss. All over his body the bright green pinpoints of blood erupted, fast enough now for the eye to observe the change.

The struggling suddenly ceased, but rather than relaxing, his muscles went rigid, the fingers of his hands drawing in on themselves, his feet turning inward.

Kirk's grip began to loosen as he stared, horrified, at the frightening transformation taking place.

"Hold him, Jim! Hold him still! He's not getting enough oxygen! I've got to..." Replacing explanation with action, McCoy bent to cover Spock's mouth with his own in the most basic and ancient sharing of life.

Kirk fought to do his part in holding Spock's head still so that McCoy could maintain the necessary contact. Once his hand slipped against wet hair, and Spock managed a sudden panicked twist of his head that broke one of McCoy's teeth when it came in contact with his own.

"Damn!" McCoy looked up long enough to regain his breath, then ignored his own pain and bent back over Spock before Kirk could even voice an apology for the momentary lapse.

The doctor continued forcing his own breath into his patient, rapidly becoming exhausted in the effort of trying to fill the needs of a lung capacity greater than his own. The blood from his broken tooth was now smeared and gleaming on both their faces, mixing with the green of Spock's.

Mesmerized by the life and death drama unfolding in his very lap, Kirk wasn't sure whether he saw or imagined a faint miasma drifting away from Spock's body, momentarily dimming the faint light of the lantern. Slowly, however, he became aware that the pressure he was exerting on both sides of Spock's head was greater than it needed to be. When he first realized how his arms were trembling from the exertion, he released his hold reflexively, suddenly afraid that he might be doing damage himself. Then just as quickly, he remembered how important it was to hold the Vulcan motionless. It didn't take as much effort now, though. As he experimentally loosened his grip, Kirk realized that it didn't take any effort at all. Spock was still.

At about the same time, McCoy lifted his head and paused. For a moment the captain and the doctor waited. Spock's hands had relaxed. The distorted posture that had pulled them inward was released. His eyes had closed.

McCoy looked up worriedly at Kirk, took in another breath and braced himself to force another lungful of air into the silent Vulcan. But then, he hesitated.

"Bones?" There was childlike fear in Kirk's eyes.

Then Spock took a ragged breath on his own. It was deep and slow. It held for a moment, then he let it out and took another.

The doctor listened and watched and counted a dozen, increasingly regular breaths before making his belated reply to Kirk's question.

"He's okay, Jim. He's gonna be all right."

While they watched by the thin light of early morning filtering in through the dusty windows, Spock began to stir.

"His color's coming back, Bones...isn't it?" Kirk looked for confirmation of his not-clinically-trained observation.

McCoy studied the patient for a minute. "Yeah, such as it is. Not that I'd call that unhealthy green tinge color, exactly." McCoy covered his exhausted relief with a return to his customary cynicism--and a slight lisp caused by the broken tooth.

"Jeez, Bones, can't you ever be serious?" Kirk was still too rattled by the night's tribulations to make jokes.

"Serious? Me? About this pointy-eared troublemaker..." McCoy's look--and the superhuman effort he had put forth in the night to save the Vulcan's life--belied his words, "...Nah!"

Kirk just shook his head. "Do you think we can take these things off him now?" The captain indicated the ragged and bloody fragments of their uniform shirts still binding the now-relaxed body to odds and ends of furniture. "If he were to wake up and find himself like this he might be..."

Embarrassed? Even shamed? McCoy finished for himself. No, the less Spock knew about what they had all been through this night, the better it would be for everyone concerned. "You take his hands, I'll take his feet."

Both set to work, fighting with recalcitrant knots, yanked tight by the night's exertions and dampened by blood and sweat.

Kneeling at opposite ends of the spreadeagled Vulcan, Kirk and McCoy looked up at each other and the captain's tension released itself in a nervous giggle. "You look like hell, Bones!"

"Oh, yes?"

"Yeth," Kirk imitated, "and you talk funny, too!"

Just then, there was a beeping sound. It was familiar, yet under the circumstances there was a moment of disorientation before either of them recognized it as the hail of the communicator which had been silent since their arrival on the planet only two days before. There was a confused scramble while they tried to identify where the sound was coming from. Finally Kirk located the instrument near the ration pack they had left on a table in the corner. It had beeped twice more before he could flip it open and answer. "Kirk here."

"Are ye all right, Captain? Ye had me worried there for a minute when ye didna answer right away."

"Yes, Scotty. Everything here is...under control." Kirk looked over at the doctor for confirmation of his statement.

The doctor nodded his agreement. McCoy had finished freeing Spock's feet and had moved to finish the hand Kirk had only partially untied before the captain abandoned his task to hunt for the communicator.

"Are ye ready ta beam up then, sir?"

McCoy gestured that they would need a little more time to confirm that Spock was completely free of the insects before returning to the ship.

"It'll be a few minutes, Scotty. I'll let you know when we're ready."

"Aye, sir."

"Oh, and Scotty..." Kirk caught him before the connection closed, "you might want to have a medical team...oh, and fresh uniforms standing by when we beam up."

"Aye, sir. A medical team...and...and uniforms, sir? Is everything all right down there, Captain?" It would have been improper to inquire for specifics, but Scotty was both concerned...and curious.

"We've had a few...minor problems, Mister Scott, but everything appears to be under control now. I'll let you know when we're ready to come aboard. Kirk out."

"He's coming around, Jim." McCoy was already swabbing Spock's face with the last of the water and trying to talk him back up to consciousness. "Come on, Spock...That's it...It's all over now...You can wake up and talk to us...Come on, Spock."

Kirk was on his knees beside the doctor when Spock finally opened his eyes. There was confusion in them, and a reflection of lingering pain. "Jim?"

"It's all over, Spock. The insects have all hatched and gone. You're gonna be all right now."

"Doesn't itch anymore, Spock, does it?" the doctor asked.

"Itch?" Memory seemed to seep back. "The insects...I don't remember...attempting a healing trance...but I feel like...how long was I in the trance condition, Doctor?"

"I wouldn't exactly call the state you were in a 'healing trance,' Spock," the doctor replied, cryptically. "But it's probably just as well if you don't remember too much of last night."

Spock stared back and forth between his friends, uncomprehending. Then he began to be more aware of his condition--and theirs. He swiveled his head and saw the two pieces of furniture still placed at arm's length, the shredded tunics lying knotted on the floor. He noticed the battle scars on the doctor and his superior officer. The implications were obvious. "Did I do...?" The thought was simply too shameful to complete.

He then became fully cognizant of his own state of undress and moved to sit up and reduce the extent of his exposure.

McCoy put a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Spock. You've had a rough night." Even though McCoy was determined not to go into the details, Spock could surmise just exactly how rough it must have been by the unaccustomed depth of compassion in the doctor's voice.

"We're going to get you back up to the ship as soon as we can, Spock. Now that the bugs are gone, I'm sure the doctor can do something to ease the pain," Kirk reassured him.

"Captain, I am perfectly able to manage my own..." Spock began defensively, despite the pounding of his head, the blurring of his vision, the raw throat and chaffed wrists, wrenched muscles and the feeling on every inch of skin that he had been caught in a storm of sparks.

McCoy cut him off in disgust. "Oh, shut up, Spock and roll over so I can look for unhatched welts before I certify you safe to go back aboard the Enterprise."

Spock held his peace and stoically mastered his embarrassment as McCoy painstakingly went over every inch of his aching body, inspecting each individual welt for signs of as-yet-unborn parasites.

Kirk hid his own embarrassment by puttering around collecting up their equipment and the results of their explorations. Spock offered helpful reminders from his position on the floor, manfully ignoring the doctor's poking and prying as if he was somewhere else entirely and above the whole undignified situation.

Finally, McCoy stood up. "He's clean, Jim."

Kirk allowed himself a deep sigh of relief. He flipped open his communicator. "Scotty?"

"Ready and waiting, Captain."

"Three to..."

"Wait!" Spock's interruption had a surprising edge of urgency.

Kirk turned, a quizzical look on his face.

"My trousers, if you don't mind, Doctor?"

"Oh, er, sure, Spock." McCoy rummaged around until he found them, seriously the worse for wear, but serviceable, nonetheless. "Here. Uh, let me help you with..."

"I can manage very well by myself, Doctor," Spock insisted.

Spock was still too injured and weak to manage very well, but he did manage, after a fashion, on his own.

When he was decent, and leaning on McCoy's arm for needed, but unwanted support, he nodded to Kirk. "Now, Captain."

"Energize, Mister Scott."

Scott's curiosity had been mounting while he waited for the landing party to signal him to engage the transporter. Even so, he was not prepared for the sight that materialized when the glitter effect began to fade.

"My God, Captain! Wha happened tae ye? Ye look like ye've been rode hard and put away wet, the bunch of ye!"

"Don't ask," Kirk rolled his eyes tiredly.

All three men were shirtless and disheveled. Spock was barefoot in addition, and the upper thighs of his uniform pants hung in long, parallel shreds. He had appeared on the same transporter circle with the doctor, and was leaning on him for support, even though he was trying to pretend that such was not the case. The captain, Scott thought, looked exhausted, filthy, and assorted bruises and scratches showed beneath the dirt. And the captain appeared to have had the best of it. Doctor McCoy, the engineer noted, showed a broken tooth when he grimaced under Spock's weight. The tooth was chipped off at an angle leaving a sharp point. Dried blood and some greenish mess were smeared across his lower face and into the day old growth of beard. The bloodied face and jagged tooth brought up incongruous pictures of rabid vampires. McCoy's jaw was purpled and swollen beneath the other colors mottling his face, and the rest of him was as abused looking as the captain.

But Spock was the worst of them. He looked like he'd been dragged through a blackberry bramble bush backward, all scratched up and spotted like he was. His face, too, was bloodied and his lip badly cut. Seeing the green stuff in its proper context on the Vulcan's body allowed Scott to recognize it for blood and he looked again at the amount of it covering the doctor--and at that broken tooth and shuddered in disbelief. Couldna be! But it would take a long night with a bottle of scotch on one side of the table and a bottle of bourbon on the other to find out the truth, Scott wagered. He sighed with resignation when he realized that he'd probably have to provide both bottles in the bargain. A shame to waste good credits on second rate whiskey.

By the time Mister Scott's observations had reached this pass, the landing party had stepped down from the transporter platform and the medical team was moving to take over the doctor's Vulcan burden. Clean uniform shirts were distributed, but they did little to improve the appearance of the three new arrivals. Spock protested the need to be taken to Sickbay on a stretcher, but gave in when McCoy reminded him of the unVulcan-like picture of suffering and disarray he presented. At least on a stretcher they could cover his indignity with a sheet.

Kirk and the doctor fell in behind the stretcher bearers, and the procession headed out the door of the transporter room, leaving behind a bemused Scotsman, shaking his head in wonder, and with none of his questions answered.

The captain headed straight for his own quarters. When he reached sickbay, after a revitalizing shower and complete change of clothes, Doctor McCoy had just finished going over his patient with a sonic treatment wand which would help to disburse the bruised looking remnants of the harvest of insects his dermal layer had spawned. While he waited for the results of a blood chemistry and other tests, the doctor had begun a cursory clean-up of his own in one of the lab sinks.

He looked up when he heard the captain arrive.

"You're looking better, Jim."

Kirk looked him up and down disparagingly. "Sorry I can't say the same for you. You really took a bad one on the chin, didn't you?" The bruise, where a struggling Vulcan had kicked the doctor, showed more vividly now that the rest of the grime was gone from his face.

McCoy nodded agreement while turning back to the mirror and gingerly examining the broken tooth with the tip of a finger.

"So how's my first officer?" Kirk asked the physician.

Before McCoy could answer, Spock had braced himself into a sitting position with the silver Sickbay blanket pulled up modestly around himself. "I am quite recovered, Captain, and will be prepared to return to duty as soon as I am able to get into uniform."

"Like hell, you are," the doctor disagreed. "I've got test results to come in yet. And you're fighting exhaustion, and your temperature is still well below normal. I'm nowhere near through with you yet. Besides, Spock," he continued in a more sympathetic tone, "your system's been through an awful trauma. There's no way you can't still be hurting all over with the effects of the massive rejection your body mounted against those parasites. You're entitled. Give yourself a chance to get back to normal, would you?"

"Sure, Spock," Kirk agreed. "Take a couple of days--take as long as you need. Stay here in sickbay where the doctor can keep an eye on you and give you something to make you more comfortable while you get over it."

The first officer swung his legs over the side of the diagnostic bed, preparing to stand. "The discomfort is nothing that I cannot manage, Captain. There is no need to make allowances for..."

"Damn it, Spock!" McCoy exploded. "You and your more manageable than thou attitude! I've had it up to here with your martyr complex!"

Spock looked blankly at the furious McCoy. "I beg your pardon, Doctor, but I understand the phrase 'martyr complex' to refer to someone who makes a point of suffering, rather than one who refuses to acknowledge it."

Spock's attempt to avoid the confrontation by turning it into a discussion of semantics only made McCoy more angry. "That's the whole damned point, Spock! You refuse to acknowledge it when you're in pain, when you need our help. You won't admit it to yourself; you won't admit it to us. You just go along making a virtue out of suffering in silence instead of asking for help when you need it, when you ought to know that Jim and I would be ready to give it--anxious to help you, if only you'd let us in."

Kirk nodded his agreement.

"But Doctor, my training allows me to effectively sublimate physical discomfort. By employing the means available to me, I am not, as you put it, 'suffering in silence.' It is only in rare circumstances that these techniques are not able to..."

"But that's just what Bones means, Spock. There are those unique situations where it is beyond your ability--beyond your techniques--to control your physical reactions..."

"...and when that happens, Spock," McCoy finished for the captain, "when you lose control like that, you become potentially dangerous to yourself--and to the other people around you."

Spock studied their earnest expressions. There was, admittedly, some logic behind the doctor's argument. And yet... "What would you have had me do, Doctor?"

"You could have let us know right away that those damned bugs were biting on you, too, for one thing."

"They were biting all of us, as I recall. From your vociferous objections, it was obvious that you knew the insects were aggressive. How would it have changed things to know that they were biting all three of us? We did not know the potential consequences, or that they would find nourishment only in my particular chemistry."

"But then, when the itching started, and the welts appeared. You should have told us then."

"I had no reason to believe that you were not experiencing the same reaction."

"But when we dug out those Romulan bodies and we began to understand what had killed them...surely you made the connection by then that you were the only one that would react the same way they had. You must have recognized the danger by then," McCoy insisted.

"By then, Doctor, no matter what I may have deduced, the damage was done. You, yourself, said that we could not return to the ship and risk contamination, even if the Enterprise had been available at the time. You also agreed that there was no effective treatment except to let the metamorphosis take its course. In short, there was nothing you could have done differently if you had been informed."

"But...but...!" McCoy fumed, unable to counter Spock's cold logic.

Kirk took up the slack for him. "But you still chose not to tell us what you had every reason to suspect you were up against, because you're too damned proud and self-centered to let anybody else share your weakness or see you suffer. Well, you suffered plenty last night, Spock. It was a terrible thing to watch!"

To hell with the Vulcan's embarrassment, Kirk thought. He was going to let Spock know in no uncertain terms what his silence had cost them all. "It was pretty awful for us, too, you know. Watching you damn near die in agony, hurting so much for you and knowing that you didn't even trust us enough to share your pain...to let us help...until it was almost too late! If we hadn't been there for you, you would have hidden off by yourself and scratched yourself to death after the irritation became too great to bear, just like all those dead Romulan colonists, rather than let us see you out of your precious self-control!"

"I am grateful that you did not allow me to die. Thank you. I also regret being the cause of the injuries you sustained as a result of my condition," Spock replied stiffly.

"Shit!" McCoy sputtered disgustedly.

"That's not what this is about, Spock. Don't you see?" Kirk's voice had lost its fury and now sounded almost defeated. "We're your friends. Or at least we think we are. That's one of the things friends do, Spock, is to be there for each other in the worst of times as well as the best. And from the other side, to let each other see them when they're hurting or in need of help...or out of control. Accepting another person's compassion is a measure of trust, Spock."

The Vulcan considered the faces of his friends. Their hurt showed nakedly in their eyes. They had no qualm about showing him that they trusted him with their feelings, their needs. And yet, such unabashed display was beyond his ability to express.

Tentatively he said, "I believe, if it is all right with you, Captain, that I will accept your offer of a day or so off duty. Once I attain the proper frame of mind, I shall be able to alleviate the discomfort I am currently experiencing, but I do find the process to be somewhat...tiring." Then he added, to be sure that his intention was understood, "Does that admission begin to satisfy you, Captain? Doctor? "

Kirk and McCoy exchanged amused looks above the Vulcan's head. It wasn't much, but for now it was probably the most they could expect. And it was a step in the right direction. Apparently they'd made their point.

"Yeah, Spock. For the moment, I guess it will have to do. Get some sleep." Kirk smiled warmly and put a forgiving hand on his friend's shoulder.

"I shall endeavor to do so, Captain." Spock lay back down on the pillows.

Kirk and McCoy turned from their friend and departed Sickbay for their own respective quarters to do the same.

the end

There's more Tantalus Revisited.