"I want it on the record, I did not agree to this."
Behind him, he hears one of the Security men stifle a snicker, and he rolls his eyes at Scotty, who is grinning behind the transporter control panel. "Do you ever, Bones? Energize, Mr. Scott."
His CMO's protest is lost in the whirr of the transport beam, and a moment later is picking back up mid-sentence on the planet below, much to the rest of the landing party's amusement.
"-think it might be called the Planet of the Dead for a good reason? Huh?"
"Oh, for pity's sake, that came from the colony's bartender. Hardly a reliable source of information. Okay, Mr. Spock, what're we looking at?"
His First has been totally ignoring the little drama and scanning the area with a long-range tricorder, and finally gestures to a rocky outcropping some distance away. "The signals we were receiving are emanating from that direction, Captain. My guess would be a cave system of some kind, possibly entirely or partially underground."
"Ooooh, we get a guess today. The science gods are smilin' on us."
"If you'd like to just nerve-pinch him and leave him here until we're done, I'll be happy to look the other way, Commander."
"I shall take that under advisement for future incidents, Captain."
"Y'all are no fun." A good-natured scowl. "So what about these caves of yours, then?"
"They are either that, or some prehistoric dwellings disguised as a naturally-occurring phenomenon of geologic nature. The readings would indicate a lack of intelligent design, however. Most likely they are naturally-occurring caverns and simply were appropriated for whatever purpose needed to house the mechanism creating the signals we received aboard the Enterprise."
"Awesome." He was afraid of that. He hates caves, but they'll have to investigate if it looks safe to enter, because that signal was obviously of intelligent design, even if they couldn't decipher what it meant. He might score another First Contact out of this, or he might just score a few dozen bats and a panic attack in the dark.
"I am also receiving very high readings of various magnetic ores scattered in layers throughout the planet's crust, which would explain why our sensors were unable to penetrate beyond the surface, with one or two localized exceptions throughout."
"Well, one mystery solved, at least it was nothing mechanical that was purposely blocking us. Let's check in with the ship and get on with it, then. Gather any samples you need here and let's move out." Spock nods and moves a few feet away with Bones, pointing at something sparkling on the surface, and his Security men are keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding area, though there's nothing to be seen for what looks like miles. "Kirk to Enterprise."
"Landing Party, this is the Enterprise, we read you. Go ahead, Captain."
"How's it going up there?"
Uhura's voice is professional but he can hear the undercurrent of mild exasperation. "We haven't broken the ship in the five minutes you've been gone, sir."
He laughs. "That'd be a record, at least. Look, we think the signals we picked up are coming from a group of cliffs that probably is some kind of cave system, we're about to go check it out. Keep an eye on our frequencies but you might lose us if we end up going inside. I'll have one of the Security guys stay outside for contact purposes if that's the case."
"Acknowledged. You're equipped with the proper tools to determine stability?"
He glances sideways at Spock, who though working is within Vulcan hearing distance, and at the nod turns back to the communicator. "Spock says yes. If he's wrong and we end up squashed like bugs then you know who to blame. Annnnd he's rolling his eyes at me, so I'll sign off now, Lieutenant. Don't forget to log those hours in the chair."
"Aye, sir. Enterprise out."
One of the things he'd said he wanted on this second five-year mission was for both Sulu and Uhura to start command training, at least on occasion, and they have to log hours in the chair in command of the Bridge to do that; that's part of the reason he can get away with having Spock down here with him on this mission.
Bones really shouldn't be here too, but when Jim had heard the planet was likely riddled with cave systems, he knew he might need somebody other than a random redshirt to deal with his not-well-buried claustrophobia. Hence the surprise summons to a landing party, and the grumping to go along with it. Bones will get over it, and a lot faster than Jim's getting over this stupid hatred of enclosed spaces. It's been years since the Warp Core Incident, as his crew still calls it with hilariously delicate diplomacy, and he still can't stand the idea of being trapped anywhere, sealed in anything. It's why he still gives everyone fits going on as many away missions as he can, he just starts getting crawly if he has to stay on board for too long without seeing sky above him.
To his knowledge no one really knows for sure about it, though, so he's done a decent job of hiding it. Spock suspects, he's too observant not to, but has no proof, and Bones isn't an idiot so he probably knows and just isn't letting on. But it's beside the point; caves it is, and caves they're going into, so he'll suck it up and deal and just hope they can get it over with quickly.
This was a really dumb away mission to insist on coming on, though. Serves him right.
Soil and mineral samples safely stowed in Spock's sample case, they set off toward the rocks in the distance, glancing around to check for any signs of life long gone. He's not surprised there aren't any; that probably has contributed to the old folk tales the bartender at the outlying planet had spun when they stopped for shore leave, calling it the Planet of the Dead as per the locals' eager ramblings. There are very few plants growing in the rocky, pebbling soil here, and the air is chilly, almost foggy and damp. The sky is blue, but a dark, indigo-ey, almost purple-blue, making everything appear oddly fluorescent in the unearthly glow.
"Damn creepy planet," he hears Bones mumbling behind him, and shakes his head, smiling, as he stumbles over a loose rock and rights himself. "Weird lookin' sky like that, and it's freezing, and –"
"Seriously, Bones. It's not that cold. And if Spock's not complaining you have no call to be."
"He's not complaining because he's used to being cold!"
He tunes out the devolving argument with well-practiced ease, because it will occupy both of them while he tries to figure out why his hair's starting to stand on end.
Like someone's watching them.
"Actually, Doctor, since the Enterprise-A's refit, several modifications have been made to her overall design which have made many of the species aboard more comfortable, including mine."
"Huh. Modifications like what, for instance."
"Manually controlled heating vents under every Bridge station, for the more cold-blooded crewmen," he says absently, scanning the surrounding area in a slow circle. "I was tired of watching you and Ensign Bovarta shiver on duty, Spock."
Both his XOs blink at him.
"What, you really think the brass were the ones who thought of that? Give me a break." He whips around, neck prickling, but there's nothing anywhere to be seen. For as far as he can see, not so much as a tree for something to hide behind.
"Put a pin in that for a second," Bones says, jabbing a finger at him. "What's the matter with you?"
"I don't know. I have a weird…feeling. Like someone's watching us. Yes, I know I'm paranoid, Bones, just leave it." He good-naturedly shrugs, trying to hide his unease. They're nearly to the rocks ahead, anyway; the two redshirts are already guarding what looks to be a sizable entrance and patiently waiting for their straggling superiors to catch up. "I'm sure it's nothing. So! You guys up for a little spelunking?"
Bones gives him that look, the one that says you aren't fooling anybody, and he swallows. "Ok look, I –" He whirls around. "What the – "
"Jim, what's wrong?"
He spin around again, full circle, but there's nothing there. "Did you see anything behind me just now?"
"Jim, I may be getting older but I'm far from blind. What is going on with you?"
He shivers, rubs the back of his neck. "I would have sworn something was there, I felt – I don't know, like fingers, or a hand. On my shoulder. It was weird, Bones. And I don't just imagine weird stuff, usually."
"Usually. When was the last time you slept? More than an hour at a time?"
"It's been a couple nights, but –"
"Well, there you have it."
He looks around dubiously, but again sees nothing. "Yeah, okay."
He flicks a glance upward to Spock, though, and without a word his XO silently turns a couple of dials and starts scanning the surrounding area. Unfortunately, they've all seen far too many things to flippantly discount any warning, however outlandish and humanly instinctive it may seem.
"I read no disturbance of any kind around us at this time, Captain, neither life-form nor energy."
"Of course not."
"At least, none that my tricorder is able to detect. That does not negate the possibility of existence, merely that it is on a plane or dimension we are unable to perceive with instruments or our physical senses."
"Annnd that's enough of that," Bones declares loudly, as they near the rocks. "Bad enough we got to go spelunking like a bunch of crazy ghost hunters, I'm not listenin' to you –"
"Who said anything about ghost hunting!" Michaelson exclaims, hand inching toward his phaser.
Great, not another one.
"Gentlemen. Just because the locals at the edge of the system called this place the Planet of the Dead does not mean it's a frigging ghost planet, for gods' sake."
"I dunno, Jim, bartenders usually know a damn sight more than they're telling, in my experience."
"This one outdrank Scotty. Before telling this story," he says dryly.
"All that to say, I will not take a crew into this cave system who's acting like a bunch of unscientific, frightened civilians. If you have a legitimate phobia of something, that's one thing, and I have no problem working around a medical issue, gentlemen. But drop the talk of ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night, if you please." He runs a hand through his hair, huffing, as the redshirts shuffle nervously, eyeing each other. "And a fear of ghosts is not a legit phobia," he adds, rolling his eyes.
"Not that, sir," Michaelson says hastily, amid a snicker from his fellow Security officer. "It's just…Mr. Spock, is that thing able to scan for life-forms at this distance?"
Spock looks like he's about to go off on the poor illogical human for heaven only knows what, so he steps in instead.
"You afraid of bats, Mr. Michaelson?" he asks lightly.
"Of course not, sir! Captain. I mean, not exactly, sir."
"Of course not. Just, when they're flying at your head in the dark. Or in the light. Or flying anywhere, for that matter?"
"Uh." The poor guy turns the color of his uniform tunic. "Aye, sir. But it will not affect my performance, Captain, I just want to be prepared! And –"
"Ensign, seriously, calm down." He claps the man on the shoulder, grinning. "I need someone to stay outside and keep in contact with the Enterprise anyway, because the interference from the rocks is going to cut off our signals. Isn't that right, Mr. Spock?"
Spock frowns at his tricorder. "Actually, Captain, these readings indicate –" Jim gallantly doesn't laugh as Bones kicks the Vulcan in the shin without even looking up from his own tricorder – "…indicate that reception will indeed be sporadic at best." A dark glare is fired at the top of the physician's head, going totally unnoticed by both McCoy and, thankfully, the young Security officer.
"There, see? Problem solved." He stops suddenly, and turns around, looking up at the cliff face in both directions.
"I don't like it," he mutters, skin crawling. "I really don't. I want us in and out of here. Johannsen, stay with Michaelson, guard the entrance."
"Captain, sir, that's against –"
"Regulation 105.7b, yes, I know, Lieutenant. But I have a bad feeling about this place, and if we're not back in an hour I need someone to come after us, find out what happened and contact the Enterprise. There's safety in numbers and I'm not losing a man on this mission, it's supposed to just be recon and I'll not have it otherwise. Stay together, and contact the ship if we're not back in an hour, then come find us."
"Aye, sir." Johannsen nods, clearly uncomfortable with letting them go alone but at the same time relieved he doesn't have to enter the cave system as well. Obviously someone's watched enough horror holovids to know you don't leave anybody alone if weird things are going on unless you want them to die.
He will have no more senseless deaths on this ship, not on his watch.
Besides, if he freaks out in there he really doesn't want some random redshirt watching his captain lose it.
Bones eyes him knowingly before shaking his head, resignedly flicking the light on his tricorder and moving ahead of him into the yawing crevasse between two rocks.
He takes one last look around, ostensibly to look for whatever's got his hackles up but in reality to look at the sky, closes his eyes, and very firmly pushes all thoughts of being trapped inside small spaces down into an even smaller space deep inside.
The cavern opens up almost immediately inside, looming upward to what has to be almost the entire height of the cliff; there's actually a few slivers of light that trickle in here and there throughout, which eases the darkness somewhat – not much, but it's something. Bones's powerful light is slicing a wide beam over the floor a few meters ahead of him as Jim stands there looking around, for a minute forgetting where he is, because it's actually pretty cool-looking. Obviously some kind of civilization did exist here, some undetermined years, maybe centuries ago – because the walls are covered in ancient-looking writing, pictures, carvings, a veritable wall-to-wall art museum. And he's probably one of only a few humans who've ever had the opportunity to look at such an amazing thing.
This is why he went into space.
It's almost enough to make him forget he's stuck in a giant cave in near-darkness, until Spock steps on a small stick right behind him and it snaps like a forcefield shattering, scaring him half to death.
His reaction can be described as less than professional, and it's a good minute or two before Bones can stop laughing long enough to shine the light on the walls for Spock to get good tricorder recordings of the artwork for the Enterprise databases.
Upon completion, Spock flicks his own tricorder light on and raises an innocent eyebrow at him in the half-dark before carefully shining it on their feet.
Honestly, if he didn't love these two so much, he'd just kill them both and be done with it one of these days. There's something to be said for that weird parallel universe they'd accidentally landed in last year where they were part of a never-ending empirical war where his counterpart had ensured permanent captaincy of the Enterprise by summarily executing anyone who so much as mildly annoyed him.
"You got a pinpoint on those signals yet?" he asks, as they move toward the back of the cavern, eyes on the floor for safety.
"They appear to be coming from ten degrees due east of this location, Captain. And only a few meters' distance; there must be an adjoining cavern or chamber to this."
"Well, let's figure out what it is and get going," Bones mutters, sweeping the light briefly over the ceiling. No bats, thank goodness. "I got a feeling whatever it is is just the equivalent of somebody forgettin' to unplug the coffee maker, this stuff looks centuries old."
"I concur. In all probability, the beings who left the signal, of whatever type it may be, are long since deceased."
"Well, it is called the Planet of the Dead," Bones mutters morbidly.
"Seriously, Bones, I swear –"
"Well there has to be a reason it's called that, Jim, nobody just up and names a planet that 'cause it looks good on travel netsites!"
"Nobody names planets anything except the Federation, and they use a stupid Latin and alpha-numeric system!"
"Gentlemen, this is hardly productive. Also, I believe that might be the object which is emitting the signals we intercepted aboard the Enterprise."
"…Great. We traveled all this way for a rock?"
"I would presume it is more than simply a rock, Doctor, given that it is transmitting a looping signal indicating intelligent life at least in the past, existed on this planet."
He rolls his eyes at the by-now familiar bickering and moves toward the thing, a little disappointed that he's been keyed up for the last fifteen minutes only to find they've just discovered what is probably nothing more than an ancient Here lies what's left of our civilization, please do not disturb kthx message.
He crouches down to look at the boulder, which is oddly cylindrical but not flat on top, as if someone smoothed the sides but left the top rough and untouched. It's a plain enough rock, dusty-gray as the rest of the stone in the cavern seems to be in the light of the two powerful tricorder searchlights, and when he cautiously flicks it with a fingernail nothing shocks him or reaches out with weird tentacles to grab him, or anything else strange or dangerous.
Improvement on their last landing party, then.
"Jim, how many times do I have to say don't touch anything until it's been scanned!"
"Seriously, Bones. The last time I had an allergic reaction to something was before Khan. Chill."
"The Doctor's caution is not misplaced, Captain. Given that this stone appears to be radiating some kind of energy signal we are not familiar with, it would be wise to not engage in physical contact until it has been further analyzed."
"So analyze it and let's get going," he says impatiently. "It's a frigging rock, and we have a colony transport to catch in the Laurentian system. How exciting can it possibly be." His gesticulating hand just barely brushes the rock as he speaks, and the next second he's squinting up at the ceiling of the cavern and two blue blurs that get less blurry after he blinks for a minute.
And that would be his head, banging out a crescendo of owowOW as one of the lights abruptly stabs into his retinas.
"Jim, you okay?" The careless tone is totally fake, he's not stupid enough to fall for it, and the fact that there's a medical tricorder buzzing way too close to his ear is testament to the fact that yeah, he's lost some time somewhere.
"Uh. I think." He doesn't hurt anywhere except the back of his head, which is subsiding now into just a dull ache, maybe as if he hit the ground? "You want to tell me what happened?"
"You touched something I told you not to, that's what!"
"Doctor. Obviously, the physical contact was an accident."
"Yeah, because I don't even remember –" His head spins briefly as he sits up, then everything settles. "Ugh. So…what happened, exactly?"
"I dunno, but you set off a shockwave that tossed you at least three meters and knocked us both over too. Judging from Spock's tricorder readings the wave probably got picked up all the way outside the cave."
"Okay…any idea what it was?"
"Negative. The energy remains unidentified."
"Is that thing still transmitting a signal?" he asks quietly. If it's not, then that's not a good sign, it means he's probably just unintentionally opened some kind of Pandora's Box and released gods-know-what into the universe.
"Yes, Captain. Signal still transmitting, with no noticeable decrease in power."
Huh. "That's…okay, that's good."
"That's bizarre, is what it is."
"Maybe that's just it's Look Don't Touch sign." He stands, a little wobbly, and gives his First a nod of thanks for the hand up. "But that's good, it means no harm done. And we have our readings so we can leave it alone now, right?"
"Correct. Given recent events, that would certainly be my recommendation, sir."
"You got it. Let's blow this place and go home."
"Jim, are you sure you don't feel, I don't know…strange?"
"No, I don't feel strange, Bones," he says in amusement, as they make their way back through the cavern system. "Honestly. I think it just stunned me, I've had worse falls in the gym sparring with Sulu. I probably just set off some kind of proximity shield or something."
"Yeah, well. You start feelin' weird you let me know. And let's pick up the pace, who knows if that shockwave loosened up the ceiling in this place."
"Thanks for that." He shivers at the thought, and hurries after his fast-moving XOs and their thankfully still-working searchlights.
They still have a good fifty meters back to the main cavern when he stops suddenly enough that the spray of shale and soil attracts their attention. Bones half-turns, light shining bright in his face before a vague apology and it's directed downward.
"What's the matter, Jim."
"Um." He clears his throat. "You're not seeing anything…strange, in front of me right now. Are you?"
"…No," is the cautious reply, and by now Spock's turned around too, his beam playing over the ceiling in a stability scan to make sure they're not going to get flattened while they stand here talking.
"Yes, Jim, I'm sure." There's mounting alarm now, in the tone, and his CMO elbows Spock sharply. "Scan the area one more time for energy readings. I've already done it for hallucinogenics and airborne toxins, there's nothing I can pick up that's in the Medical databanks."
"I have been doing so at three-minute intervals ever since the Captain indicated his initial discomfort outside this cave system, Doctor. There is nothing here, at least which is visible to our Medico-Science technology." Spock's dark eyes reflect the light beam for a moment, narrow with unease.
Well, that's not good.
He exhales slowly, half-expecting the breath to turn into an icy cloud in front of him, but nothing happens; further proof that he's probably hallucinating or else just going nuts.
"Jim, what exactly are you seeing?"
"Uh." He clears his throat with a forced laugh. "I'm pretty sure I know now why they call it the Planet of the Dead."
"Oh hell no."
He does laugh, and feels a little better, at the exclamation. All McCoy needs now is the fingers in the ears and chanting la-la-la bit to complete the picture of complete and total denial.
"You're messing with us, right Jim?"
"I wish, Bones."
"Captain, are you implying it is your belief that you are viewing the…"
"Otherworldly remains of the former inhabitants of this world?" he supplies with a shake of the head, and waves his arms dramatically at the path in front of him. "Ghosts, spirits, souls, whatever you want to call it, I'm looking at – or through! – a translucent humanoid, okay?" Okay, that's hysteria, take it down a notch, Jim.
"Don't tell me there's the whole chains and empty eyes and dripping blood bit too, Jim."
"No, it's…it's actually just…normal looking." He realizes this for the first time, because now that he's calmed down just a bit and least Spock doesn't appear to think he's totally insane, he can take a second and observe. "Just like a normal person, no horror holovid effects."
"Well, that would indicate whatever it is, it didn't originate in your head, at least," Bones muses, frowning. "Hallucinations usually take on the traditional aspects of the visual in question."
"You think! I'm a head case, yeah – but I don't just go around seeing dead people!"
"You say the apparition is humanoid, Captain."
"Yeah, Spock. Bipedal, typical humanoid faical features, just something a little…off, about it, probably not exactly human. We don't know what the inhabitants of this planet looked like, do we? Or if they developed along a Terran-parallel timeline?"
"Negative. The history of this star system, particularly this planet, has become exceedingly muddled due to its many unreliable myths and stories regarding, incidentally, such apparitions. That is one reason we were to explore this star system; its charts are incomplete and its history even more so. The Xenosociology teams have been primarily working to reconstruct the latter based upon information we can only presume is correct; we have no actual confirmation as such."
"Well, that's fabulous."
"This incident, however, is a remarkable opportunity to obtain an accurate record of the natives' appearance at least, Captain," Spock continues, and Jim stares at him in consternation as he starts pushing buttons on his tricorder. "To be able to accurately depict this planet's society and its inhabitants from an eyewitness account would be of incalculable historic value."
"Are you kidding me."
"You're seriously wanting me to like, describe this thing to you for your records? Are you crazy? How exactly do you propose to explain that to the Federation Scientific Council when you submit your report, without getting me sectioned?"
Spock blinks, as if the total weirdness of the situation had never even occurred to him.
"I can't believe I'm standing here in front of a ghost – and you're trying to freaking interview me about it."
"I can't believe that sentence just came out of your mouth, and that it actually makes sense in context." Bones rolls his eyes and turns around. "Look, we've already been in here forty-eight minutes, twelve more and those two out front are gonna come looking for us, can you just take a mental picture and be done with it, Jim? Let's figure it out aboard ship."
"I am totally for that," he agrees fervently, wondering how exactly to side-step the figure without getting anywhere near it.
The apparition, a tall, vaguely female humanoid with simple, long-braided hair has just been silently regarding him with blank-eyed curiosity, but now suddenly moves toward him, and he takes a stumbling step backward before he can stop himself. "Whoa there! What –" He stops mid-sentence as it halts, head tilted as if in question, then simply vanishes from sight as quickly as it had appeared. "She's gone. What in the world."
"We are not on Terra, and I should prefer not to be on this planet any longer as well."
"Truer words were never spoken, Mr. Spock," Bones agrees, and hightails it out of the passage, muttering under his breath about spirits and spooks and who knows what else, good Lord deliver us.
Spock lingers long enough to give him one longsuffering look, then follows, light cutting a bright beam through the dark. Jim is about to follow, when something slithers through the darkness behind him, and he turns, taking a couple steps backward to see better.
Three ghostly figures are just standing in the room they came from, watching them. Not in any way threatening, just watching. They all look vaguely male rather than female, though they could just have close-cropped hair, and all about the same height – like some weird trio of identical guards or something.
It's creepy as hell, and he thinks he can probably be excused missing the fact that there's soil and small pebbles starting to trickle down the side of the passage until it's too late.
He hears the sudden wail of Spock's stability scanner an instant before the shout of warning, and has just enough time to dive under a relatively foundational-looking stone outcropping in the rough tunnel before what looks and sounds like the entire rest of said tunnel comes crashing down on him.
It's probably just a few seconds, but it feels like months. He doesn't even black out, which is better than expected, and aside from a mouthful of gravel and something that bounced off his one exposed ankle with enough force to make him yelp (hence the mouthful of gravel), is not actually physically hurt. The ledge is a decent size, enough that he can not-quite-starfish out to touch stone wall on one side and stone tunnel remains on the other three which trap him inside the small space pocket. He's actually in decent shape, all things considered.
All things considered, that he's now buried under who knows how many tons of rock containing too much magnetic ore to be transported out.
Yeah, that's panic, starting to curl in a nauseating churn deep inside, clawing restlessly at his lungs and scratching at the back of his brain. But he's not felt any air flow yet, and he can't even tell which way's up in the pitch-black. Put simply, he can't afford to hyperventilate.
He puts his head back down on his hands and starts silently going through the ship roster, calling each crewman in his head by name, starting with the A's. It's the first thing he can think of, because counting by number just points out how many seconds he's been stuck down here.
He's up to the letter C when his ears stop ringing enough to hear voices – and they're not that far away, actually. Relief sweeps over him like an ice-cold wave, and he exhales shakily. He can hear not just Spock and McCoy, but what have to be several Security people and that might be Scotty too – so no one else was caught in the collapse, Spock had been clear of the tunnel when it came down.
His people are safe.
The rest he can deal with. Probably.
From somewhere in the darkness he inhales a puff of floating dust, and that's just fantastic. He hopes his coughing isn't violent enough to start a secondary landslide on top of everything else.
Apparently it's loud enough to halt the escalating voices outside, though, because there's a very, very startled pause for just a brief second.
"Somebody wanna hurry up out there?" he bellows, in his best Captain's Voice. "What do I pay you people for, anyway?"
He hears one of the redshirts cheer and a high-pitched "Haha! I told you, didn't I!" that can only be Scotty, before another coughing fit makes him shift onto his elbows to try to get more air in his lungs.
"Yeah," he rasps, hacking out another mouthful of dirt. Blech. "Not going anywhere, Bones."
"Very funny. Listen to me, you hurt anywhere?"
"Not…really, I don't think." He takes another labored inhale. "Something landed on my ankle, but other than that…think I'm okay."
"You don't sound okay."
Spock's voice, tight with tension. "Captain, do you have a sufficient flow of oxygen?"
"Uh…I doubt it." He coughs again. "Think you can work on that? I can't see a thing. No idea where the outside even is, or how deep I'm in here."
"I will see to it, Captain." Then, in a much lower tone. "How long, Doctor?"
"Given the amount of space there is under that ledge? Just move your ass."
"Understood." He hears a shifting of rocks and gravel, then distant voices.
"Gonna have you out of there in no time, Jim."
He grins in the darkness. "Such a liar, Bones."
"I am not! Just gotta do it the old-fashioned way. We can't use the transporter, Scotty already tried and the interference is just too much. I'm sorry."
"You and me both." He's starting to feel the walls closing in, like they weren't already nearly on top of him all around. "God, I hate small spaces, Bones!"
"Easy, Jim. I know you do."
He takes a deep breath, or tries to. "'F I pass out in here, sorry."
"Jim, do not, I dunno how much oxygen you got left in there and we can't take the risk. What the hell is taking you so long, I thought you people were engineers!"
"Doctor, we must finish the simulation before beginning the removal of the debris, or the removal of one incorrect boulder could bring down even more of this mountain, including the cavern in which we currently sit. Fifteen seconds remain in the simulation."
"'S like Rock Jenga." He mutters.
"Are you gettin' loopy on me?"
"No. Wish I was." He closes his eyes, inhales, opens them on the exhale.
And stares right into the curious eyes of a ghostly child, sitting on the ground by his head.
He probably scares everyone in the entire cave system half to death, and Bones totally flips out, thinking something came loose and like, squashed him. Or something.
The poor ghost kid looks just as freaked and disappears too, leaving him in darkness once more, accompanied only by half a dozen shouts wanting to know what is going on.
Not something he enjoys explaining.
"You screamed bloody murder because of a ghost child?" Bones demands. "What was it going to do, play ghost patty-cake with you?"
"Dude, it was sitting right by my head when I looked up, okay? I can only deal with one scary thing at a time – two's just not fair!" His heart's still racing, and after the brief eerie glow the darkness seems even more dark than it had before. "Don't – look, I just – look, Bones – "
"Hey, hey, it's okay. It's okay, Jim. I need you to slow it down now. Stop talking, take a deep breath for me."
"Talk if I want to," he mutters rebelliously.
"Then do less of it and more breathing. Spock'll have more air to you in a minute. Or he'll regret ever meeting either one of us. Come on, breathe in. Count to four, you know the drill. And out."
He scrubs his hands over his face in the darkness, thankful no one can see that's not blood he's wiping away.
"They're moving rocks now, Jim. In a second you'll have a breathing channel, then we start getting you out. See? Easy as skippin' rocks on a Sunday."
He snorts, then giggles almost hysterically. "What the hell does that even mean. People can't actually talk like that, not even where you're from."
"You can make fun of me when you're not the one inhaling CO2. Commander, you don't do something pronto you're gonna have my boot up your –"
"Bones! There's junior officers in here!" He coughs out as much censure as he can while trying not to laugh. The fact that Spock doesn't even bother to respond is even more hilarious to his slightly unbalanced brain.
"They've heard worse," he hears grumbled, and he can't argue with that, but still. Just because those two get along weirdly well after the whole business on Altamid, like disturbingly well, doesn't mean they can just lose it in front of other people.
Speaking of losing it.
"How much longer they going to be?" he asks, hoping his voice is as steady as he intends.
"I dunno, Jim. From what I could see, the scan was saying the pile had to be pulled apart in an exact order or the whole thing would come crashing down even further. You're not buried in there very deep, but the rest of the mountain's balanced on this part of the collapse. One wrong move and instead of being buried under like fifteen rocks, you're buried under two hundred."
"Dude. I thought you were supposed to be, like, comforting me or something. You suck."
"…Yeah, sorry, didn't think that through."
He laughs, oddly high-pitched, and rests his forehead on his hands. Suddenly a weird blueish glow seeps through his fingertips, and he jolts backward as far as he can go, this time thankfully only with a bitten exclamation instead of the embarrassing screech he did a few minutes ago.
"Ghost kid's back." He makes a vague motion with his hand, squirrels as far away from the apparition as he can, which is only a couple scant inches. "Go 'way. Shoo."
"Did you just try to shoo it?"
"What the hell am I supposed to do?"
"Is it trying to do something to you?"
"No! It's just…sitting there. Staring at me."
"Like, going to eat your soul staring?"
He chokes out a laugh. "No, just…like…I dunno, curious staring." The child is a tiny little thing of maybe four or five, curly-haired and vaguely humanoid as the woman earlier had been, and it sits, head tilted as if in question, but makes no move toward him. If anything, it looks a little afraid of him, and no wonder, after the ungodly screaming he did earlier when it popped in to say hello.
"Uh. Hey, there. I'm sorry I scared you earlier." The child blinks, a little warily. "What do you want, exactly?" he asks, hesitating before scooching back to his former position.
The child looks puzzled, and it looks like it's saying something in return, but no sound can be heard though its lips are moving.
"Huh. That's interesting."
"It looks like it can hear me, but I don't know if it can understand me. I can't tell if the universal translator in my wrist transponder is working, or if it got broken in the chaos, I dunno. But when it tries to talk back, I can't hear it."
"You're tryin' to talk to it."
"Well, yeah. It's just a kid, Bones. I like kids, when they’re not ghosts anyway." The child looks even more puzzled, and a little more curious, and says something else, but he can't even try to read lips if he doesn't know the language. "It's weird I can't hear it, though." He suddenly realizes his head's spinning, and catches himself on one elbow as he crashes back down. "Bones, seriously. How much longer are they going to be?"
"I can check if you want me to, Jim."
"Do it. At least see if they can like, get a hole big enough for you to shove a tri-ox hypo through to me." The quiet seriousness in his tone is more than enough for McCoy to scramble to his feet, swearing, and a moment later his footsteps retreat somewhere further away from the point in the rubble where his voice had been coming from.
He turns back around.
"Okay. That's new."
There's two of them, now. Twins? They look an awful lot alike, though he's no expert on this type of thing. The other has softer features, and hair tied in six or seven little braids with bits of what might be decorative ribbon or something tied to the ends, so he's assuming a girl, though that's a little Terran sexist an assumption, he supposes. Just because they're humanoid doesn't mean their species has humanoid development parallels, and they're wearing the same kind of generic robe-thing.
"Your…sibling? Sister?" He motions between the two of them, trying to look questioning, and the first child grins, gap-toothed, then nods, tugging briefly on the little girl's nearest swinging braid. The gesture's so surprisingly human childlike that he smiles, for the first time in what feels like hours.
The girl merely sighs tolerantly and ignores her sibling, regards Jim with wary fascination; and he doesn't blame her, if he's the first person in who knows how long to be able to see them.
"I wish I could understand what you're saying," he says softly, as the boy says something else, little hands gesturing quickly between the two of them. "But I can't, I'm sorry. I can't even hear you." He shakes his head, cups a hand behind his ear, hoping the vague sign language will translate visually.
The disgruntled frown he receives tells him it has, and he tries not to laugh at the pouting expression that follows. It's been so long since he was around children, he forgot how much he loves them.
"Hey, look, I dunno what I touched in there," he points in what he thinks is the vague direction of the chamber where he accidentally set off the shockwave that started this whole mess. "But it was an accident, I didn't mean to. I don't know what I did. But it brought part of your mountain down, and I'm sorry."
Both children blink at him for a second, and then start giggling. That it's so silent is freaking creepy, and he feels the hair on his arms stand on end despite the fact he knows they mean no harm.
"Glad someone's able to find humor in it," he mutters.
But as he watches, he sees the boy put his hands together and mimic an explosion, air puffing out of his small cheeks as he no doubt makes the accompanying noises, throwing his hands apart and grinning cheekily across the intervening inches.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, I know it was dumb," he says, grinning. "Not like I did it on purpose. Hey, is that what gave me the ability to see you guys? Touching that rock?"
The little girl glances at her brother, who shrugs.
"I bet it was, that'd explain why Bones and Spock can't see you," he muses. At the questioning look, he gestures toward the wall of rock separating him from freedom and sanity. "My friends. The loud one and the one with the ears." He traces a point on his own ear, and is startled when both apparitions suddenly disappear without warning. "O-kay."
Maybe he's just hallucinating this whole thing, maybe the big rock let off some kind of poisonous gas or something and he's like, actually in the Enterprise's Sickbay safe and sound and Bones is about to wake him up from an induced coma of Weirdness.
Yeah, he'd be able to breathe better if that were the case, unfortunately.
He jumps half out of his skin when the darkness suddenly is shattered by the return of his two little companions.
"Waugh! Come on!" His heart really needs to stay in a normal range here. "Can you just…not, do that?"
Both look at him questioningly, and with some amusement.
"Never mind. You went to see who I was talking about?"
The little boy nods.
"They're Good People."
A quizzical head-tilt; obviously unfamiliar terminology.
"My family," he tries, patting his chest briefly over his heart, and sees a light of comprehension. Another nod. "Do you have family, or did you, here? On this planet?"
A nod, and the boy points at his companion. The girl smiles shyly, but volunteers no other information.
"Your twin, I'm guessing? What about your parents? I don't understand how this all works," he muses to himself. "Are you all just…here? Is this some sort of like, soul resting place, is that why they call it the Planet of the Dead? Or just, selective. Like only certain people come back to haunt the place, like Terran ghosts supposedly do?"
The child stares at him blankly.
"Sorry, kid." He starts to laugh, and then starts coughing again when there's legit not enough air to draw in. "Oh, that hurts. Okay, I'm done talking for a while, no offense." He lies back down on the floor, hoping that will stop the ceiling from spinning in an eerily-lit circle. "Hey, at least talking to you guys, 's kept me from freaking out in here. So thanks for that. Even if it's not really gonna help much longer."
The blueish light to his right brightens momentarily, and he turns his head to see the male child in the act of creeping toward him, looking like a deer in headlights when caught.
He has to smile. "Look, you're welcome to stick around, but I don't think I'm going to be awake much longer." At the frown of incomprehension, he gestures at the walls around them, then back at himself, patting his chest. "Human. We need something called oxygen. I won't be able to breathe very well for much longer in here."
A blink, then the child points at the rocks blocking the way out from under the ledge.
"Yeah, that's the problem. My crew's working to clear a path but it's slow going, I'm not sure they're going to make it in time." He has nothing but faith in them; if it can be done in time, it will, he has no doubt of that. Unfortunately, they've learned the hard way that not everything turns out as it should. Life isn't a fairytale, especially their lives, and it doesn't do anyone any good to get upset or angry about it. You have to just enjoy the present, live and love as hard as you can in it so you have no regrets when the time comes.
Granted, he'd really hoped that time wasn't going to be for many years yet.
The child frowns at his words, and turns back to his sister, who tilts her head to listen to something, then shrugs. Then the boy turns back, looking pretty upset. Poor little guy.
"You okay, kid?" he asks, wishing his brain weren't so foggy. He should be marking all of this at least in his mind for the sake of historical record if he ever gets out. Spock will no doubt think his conversation with a ghost child is fascinating.
The boy reaches out a small hand toward him, and Jim looks warily at it for a moment. Hesitating, for just a fraction of a second; he has no idea what this could do to him, and he's touched enough things he shouldn't today, even if the last was an accident.
Aw, what the hell, it's a scared kid.
He's not even sure his hand will connect, because how could it if the boy's voice could not break through whatever barrier was between their worlds? But the poor kid looks totally freaked, for some reason, and the hysterical portion of his brain thinks is just a little funny that the child's scared about Jim's impending demise when the kid himself has been dead for like, centuries probably.
Unless he doesn't know he's dead? Do any of them? Maybe they just think they're all living a normal life here.
Maybe this is their normal life-form, for their species. A species without a corporeal body.
Gods, his head hurts way too much for this kind of science-ing.
He reaches out and takes the kid's hand, and –
It's like the worst transporter trip ever, and he's been held in a pattern buffer for almost two minutes before in the middle of an ion storm (not including the one whopping mis-transfer that threw them into a pocket universe halfway through the first five-year mission). This? This is like, turn your body inside out and then back again without a stabilizer, and he's two seconds from puking everywhere when the world stops spinning and he can feel solid ground under his back again.
He jerks his hand away and heaves in a strained, strangled lungful of blessedly clear air, praying his stomach will settle and still be in one piece when his breathing slows down.
His eyes fly open just in time to see the child vanish, silent as a shadow.
As his head stops spinning with the onrush of oxygen, he blinks his vision totally clear and to his astonishment, sees – and hears, geez – a few meters away, the majority of his command crew and half a dozen redshirts all in varying stages of controlled panic, in the process of digging out what looks like a…that's way more rocks than Bones made it sound like.
Way, way more.
There's no way he'd have survived in there for another what, five or six hours? Ish? He can't see them being able to clear it any quicker than that without a transporter, which can't penetrate through the interference in here even with the giant hole overhead where the roof of the tunnel used to be.
Ah. That'd be why Spock looks like he's about to commit tal-shaya on the next person to ask him a question, and why Bones is freaking the hell out on some poor redshirt who's probably just delivering a message.
He does a quick once-over to make sure all his parts are like, still functioning, and what do you know. The kid apparently does know how to apparate through a wall with a human in tow.
Huh. Well, he's seen and done stranger things. Not much stranger, but stranger.
He's still sitting up, rubbing the back of his neck and trying to pull his spinning head back into enough pieces to just stop everyone, when one of his Engineers sees him on the floor of the cavern a few meters away and drops an antigrav drill in shock while it's still on, setting off a minor explosion that definitely gets the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
"Uh…yeah. So, this place is definitely the Planet of the Dead, guys…"
They lose no time in waiting for an explanation, just beam straight out without even cleaning up their mess really, and while he really wants to at least say goodbye to the kid that just probably saved his life he can't argue with both protocol and the fact that he still feels like, well, a tunnel just fell on him.
They're met in the transporter room by a Medical team and Uhura, who's been monitoring the transmissions from the surface and directing operations aboard ship while the landing party's been trying to dig him out, and the look on her face has him backing up into the waiting Med gurney quicker than Bones's pointing finger could ever make him.
"Next time you leave me in charge of the Bridge, I'd appreciate you not trying to get yourself killed on the away mission, Captain!" Her eyes are flashing fire, arms gesticulating so wildly Bones has to expertly dodge one to measure out something in a hypospray. "No one wants that on their training record!"
"Sorry," he mutters, trying not to laugh. Even Spock is edging toward the door on the heels of their rapidly disappearing security team, trying to get out of range of the friendly fire. "Not like I did it on purpose."
"Didn't do it on – do you have any idea what you touched down there?"
"Obviously not! Contrary to what everyone on this team seems to think, I am not stupid enough to just run blindly around putting people's lives in danger! I don't do that anymore!" His tone has risen into genuine anger, compounded by the fact that he's really starting to feel extremely shaky with the outrush of adrenaline.
"Sit down before you pass out, Jim. And no one's saying you do, you just are a walking embodiment of Murphy's Law and everyone on this ship knows it." Bones's firm hand on his shoulder sits him heavily on the gurney, a steadying presence in the whirlwind he's still trying to navigate.
"Sorry," Uhura says in a more subdued tone, as he sways unsteadily, hand over his eyes.
"No, it's not. You scared us. And it's been a while since that happened."
"Not long enough," he hears a mutter overhead. "Lie down, Jim."
"Not yet." He holds up a hand to halt the hypospray coming at his neck. "You translated the signals while we were down there, then – you know what that thing was."
She nods. "In a vague sense, yes. It's a pretty simple language, actually – with just a little tweaking the universal translator did most of the work. The thing is, we didn't get enough of it to formulate a proper structural syntax until after you touched it; the signal pattern changed then from the loop it had bee."
"Wait, why didn't we pick that alteration up on the surface?"
"Tricorders are only programmed to pick up and analyze broad-spectrum energy signals. My equipment up here is much more sophisticated. The Science tricorders wouldn’t register any change if the strength of the signal was the same." Spock nods in agreement. "We picked up a major shockwave on the surface, then the signal changed. And it started transmitting something different, not on a looping signal like it was before. After a few minutes we had enough for a working translation to begin, and I was able to piece together the rest."
"Huh." He glances over at his First, and sees a gleam of interest. "So in other words, it's a good thing I touched it, or we'd never know what it was."
"I will put you out for a week, Jim, so help me."
"Chill, Bones. So, what is it, Lieutenant?"
"Apparently, it's…this is going to sound really weird."
"Not half as weird as what I've seen today. Go for it."
"It's apparently a sort of communications device, for the society that lived there previously."
"A communications device to allow them to speak with their dead," she clarifies wryly. "Supposedly."
Bones snorts. "You're joking."
"I'm not. That's what the signal was saying. It was giving instructions on how to call up the – the translator couldn't parse the word, my guess is it means soul? – of whomever you wanted to communicate with. The stone is supposed to give you the power to see the soul, or whatever it is, for a period of twenty-four hours. And the end was like, some kind of prayer for peace in the afterlife for the person in question, I’m guessing a ritual to say at the end to thank it for the twenty-four hours of unrest. There's a part in the middle we haven't translated yet, but that was alarming enough I thought. We got all this too late to really help, and had other concerns since by that point you'd decided to get yourself pancaked. Sir."
He wrinkles his nose, but ultimately laughs, a badly needed trickle of relief in the tension.
"No, it actually makes a lot of sense, Bones," he says, thoughtfully. "It at least explains why I was seeing ghosts everywhere, and you and Spock weren't. I screwed up the process, somehow, so I was seeing everyone."
"It does seem, from the instructions, to be a very delicate process. I wouldn't be surprised if you just set off some protocol that let you see everything, or that it malfunctioned when it recognized a non-native lifeform was trying to access its processes."
"Nice work, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, sir. So…you were really seeing, what, spirits, on the planet?"
"Or something. It was a ghost kid that got me out of the cave-in, actually."
"A physics-defying event we have yet to explain the mechanics of," Spock interjects mildly.
"Not arguing with you there, Commander. But here I am."
"Agreed. I believe you Terrans have an apt saying regarding the viewing of equine dentistry which applies to the situation."
His Communications Chief almost visibly cringes, and Jim has no such compunction about cackling maniacally. "Someday I'm gonna learn Vulcan well enough to butcher your idioms, I'm just saying."
"All right, enough, you two – Jim, you're gonna fall off that thing in a minute, you're wobbling so much. You 'bout done?"
"Wait." A horrible thought has just occurred to him, driving away the amusement in an instant of cold clarity. "Lieutenant, did that thing say how this…ability, was given? Or if it was contained to the planet?"
"No, sir, nothing about how, just that it was a process peculiar to their society."
"If what you're seeing is actually not a bunch of hocus-pocus, Jim, the only way to achieve it would probably be a neurological upset in the brain."
"Indeed, Doctor. There have been multiple medico-scientific postulations over the centuries that were we able to access certain dormant portions of our minds, we would be able to see and sense far more than we currently do as sentient beings, up to and including objects or beings existing outside our four-dimensional realm. There is much medical and scientific data to support, but not prove, such a theory, such as the evidence that various animals and small younglings of certain species seem to be capable of perceptions which adults of their species are not."
"They seemed to regard it as a gift, Captain, from what I could tell of the recordings. But no, it said nothing about being confined to the planet, and I don't see how it could be if it's got something to do with the impulses in the brain like Leonard just said."
He swallows. "Bones, knock me out for eighteen hours."
His CMO looks down at him in surprise. "Not that I'm not happy to hear you agreein' with me on medical treatment for once, Jim, but why?"
"If it's not relegated to the planet?" He tries not to look at the corners of the transporter room, hopes that the shadows he's seeing moving are just that, shadows. "It's bad luck in the 'Fleet to not bring elements of the old ship into the new if you're christening her with the same name. Do you know how many ghosts there could be haunting this ship, tied to the old Enterprise?"
It's a wonder he hasn't seen anything yet, given how many people they've lost in transport alone – starting all the way back at the very beginning, that fateful day when their lives all met in one huge crash-and-burn that changed them all irrevocably and forever.
He hears a sharp inhale, and Uhura glances back at Spock.
"I can't – I can't chance seeing that. Seeing them." He sends a pleading look toward the door, and receives an understanding nod. "Please."
"I will take command for the next twenty-four hours, Captain."
"I don't want to leave the planet yet, though – if there's a way to, I don't know, thank that kid, I want to find it. You said there was some kind of prayer to say, at the end of the time period, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Captain. I'll get on a translation of it right away, as accurate as I can make it. It'll be ready for you when you want it."
"I will give orders to remain in orbit for the duration of your medical leave, Captain."
"How do you plan to swing that by Command, if we're supposed to be in the Laurentian system in forty-eight hours?"
Spock blinks innocently at him. "Inconclusive scans of unusual energy readings on the surface which could indicate catastrophic planetary instability. Obviously."
"Oh, obviously." He manages a brief but genuine smile, relief seeping through the tension.
"We got this, sir. I’ll have that translation ready for you tomorrow, and make sure we’ve cleaned up the mess we made so their resting place is as undisturbed as it can be." Uhura nods, making a little shooing motion with both hands. "Do your thing, Leonard. Naptime."
His glare is halfhearted at best, because it's a little hard to be grateful and irritated at the same time.
And if that's an eerie glow he sees lurking behind the transporter pad before his eyes close, well. They're all better off not knowing what – or who – might be keeping watch over them on this ship, silent guardian angels for the ones left behind.
He prefers to keep his focus on the here and now. He prefers the light of lucky stars to the shadow of guardian angels.
Some final frontiers just don't need to be explored yet.