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Undertow

Chapter Text

***

Jim grimaced and tried not to fidget in the oppressive heat of a bright, windless, Erisian afternoon. The humidity was so thick, even Spock was sweating, and Jim reminded himself once again to commend Uhura for suggesting they skip the dress uniforms.

The two delegations were spread out opposite one another on a plain, flat platform situated at the bottom of an enormous, bowl-shaped, outdoor arena. Thousands of colorfully clothed, indigenous spectators looked on, packed into the seats and standing in some of the aisles.

Jim forced his attention back on the central Erisian, whom Uhura had introduced as the people's President, because she was about to respond to the lengthy introduction Jim and Uhura had just given. She was a short, willowy individual named Njoras, and her bronze and green skin was a sharp contrast to her pale gray crown of braided hair filaments and the bright, cyan outfit she wore.

The rest of her party were similar in attire, though not appearance; Erisians were a diverse species, with a broad range of body shapes and forms. They were by and large bipedal and had at least two arms—all of those here on the platform fit that description--though their heads could have anything from long, silky hair to short, spiked clumps to a rough, bark-like covering, and they moved with an undulating grace that could play tricks on the eye. Their thick, waxy skin varied from blue to green to coppery red to rich brown.

"We are pleased to accept the delegation from the United Federation of Planets,” Njoras said, “and hope that your time spent here will strengthen our relationship. Your journeys have led you far and wide, as have ours in this region of the Galaxy, and surely there must be mutual benefits to be had in the sharing of our findings."

A blessedly short response, for which Jim was grateful. They all began shuffling around on the platform to the places they would stand while Njoras gave a speech to those who'd gathered to catch site of the visitors. Almost there, he told himself, then winced as a muscle in his neck spasmed, sharp and painful. He rubbed at it, making use of the distraction of everyone moving around so he could do so unnoticed.

Three members of the Erisian delegation wore black outfits, and one of these directed the Enterprise's delegation on where to stand and in what arrangement. Uhura made a gesture to them and murmured a phrase that sounded different from the primary language, and they seemed to regard her for a long moment before moving on to other duties. Uhura cut a sideways glance at Jim, and he acknowledged it with a nod.

The Erisians had not been forth-coming about their assistants, referring to them only as 'Ponosoi'. In general they resembled Erisians, but never wore the same color of clothing, and Uhura had indicated they didn't speak the primary Erisian languages amongst themselves. She hadn't, unfortunately, been able to arrange a private conversation with one, despite numerous attempts, and the files from the first contact mission decades earlier didn't really have much to say about them. It was a mystery Jim wanted to unravel without causing an incident, if they could.

Once they were re-arranged on the platform, Njoras began her speech to the gathered crowd. Jim concentrated on the various textures of the fabric in her outfit as a way to stay focused. He wasn't sure why his mind was wandering so much, but thinking was becoming difficult. Her voice rose and fell in a steady cadence; Uhura had indicated it was something to do with how they established context when speaking.

His eyes started to water. He blinked hard against the sensation and felt a tear slide down one cheek. Embarrassed, he reached up to wipe it away, and stared in surprise when his hand came away covered with something thick and blackish red.

One of the Erisian diplomats had noticed and was staring at him. She said something in their language and pointed, and everyone except Njoras turned to look at him.

Even Spock's eyes widened a fraction. "Captain," he said, reaching for him.

A high-pitched whining sound built in Jim's ears, and everything seemed to slow to a crawl. The air felt too heavy to breathe, and somewhere, someone was shouting.

Pain spiked in his head, sharp and deep and blinding, and he collapsed to his knees. He felt Spock's hand under his shoulder, trying to help him stand. His awareness was shrinking down and inward to that sound, which was getting closer and louder all the time. His vision swam, and his eyes snapped to someone in the crowds standing tall amongst the teaming morass of spectators. Their mustard and black robes flared in a sudden breeze, and their long, fine, dark blue hair gleamed in the sun.

The individual gestured, and the whining sound turned to a shriek.

The platform exploded into chaos.

***

He clawed his way back to consciousness, fighting an amorphous and unnameable force that sought to hold him under. This was no mere nightmare, and a conviction--that if he lost this battle much worse would come--fueled his struggle. Something deep inside him gave way, and the grip loosened, allowing him to writhe free.

He opened his eyes and saw only darkness. The air smelled moist and held the tang of minerals and earth and decay, and he was laying on his side. The ground under him was smooth like worked stone, and hard and cold, and amplified the fact that he was bruised and battered just about everywhere possible. He heard breathing, his own and someone else's. He could feel them close by.

He started to say something and a hand clamped over his mouth firmly. Every single survival instinct he had fired at once, yet his captor was more than strong enough to hold him immobile. Panic reared its ugly, ancient head, only to be doused when a familiar voice whispered close to his ear, "Captain."

Spock. He relaxed and went still, hoping that conveyed recognition and understanding. It seemed to, because Spock released him. He spoke in a voice so low Jim had to strain to hear him. "The stadium was attacked."

Jim shuddered, a hundred questions or more demanding answers, and Spock continued his explanation. "The rest of the crew successfully beamed back to the ship, but the Enterprise was unable to lock on to our signals through the fighting. When the attack seemed to stop, the Erisians raised a shield around the stadium and refused to lower it to allow us to leave. I was negotiating our return to the ship when they were attacked again, from these tunnels, and the stadium subflooring collapsed."

"Any injuries among the crew?"

"I do not know."

Jim didn't think he imagined the concern in Spock's voice. He started to ask about the attackers when his his back and abdominal muscles cramped and seized, and he grit his teeth against any sounds he might make. Spock held him still until the spasm had passed. Overhead they heard movement and voices; they came closer, then moved further away.

Jim's heart hammered in his chest, and he remembered the black fluid coming from his eyes just before the attach. He tried to slow his breathing, and turned his head so he could speak into Spock's ear. "What's wrong with me."

"I am uncertain, though I believe this is involved. I found it in your tunic." Spock pressed something no bigger than the first joint of Jim's thumb into one of his palms, and he felt along the hollow body and needlepoint head of a dart. He remembered his overall discomfort on the platform, and wondered when he'd been shot.

"Poison?"

"Possibly."

"But why would they want to kill me?"

"I do not believe you were the intended target."

If Jim had just botched someone's political assassination, there was much more happening on the planet than the Federation or Starfleet new about, which would explain why Spock was hiding them. "We have to get back to the ship. We can't get the Federation caught up in whatever this is."

"Agreed. My communicator and tricorder are functional, but yours are not. We have no signal here, but if we can find our way clear of these tunnels, we may be able to contact the Enterprise and escape unnoticed."

More movement overhead. Jim nodded his agreement, and they waited in tense silence until the sounds faded. Spock guided him to his feet, and they began to feel their way along the tunnel walls, taking slow, careful steps and staying as quiet as possible.

Now that he was moving, Jim realized that he hurt everywhere. It wasn't just the soreness of bruises and blunt trauma, but something deeper, an ache behind his eyes and in his chest. He felt strange in his own skin, like it didn't fit anymore, and his head was--

Jim jerked his foot back as he almost stepped into a hole of uncertain depth. Spock helped lead him around it. "How long since you've heard anyone?"

"Forty-five minutes."

Had they really been moving for that long? He realized he couldn't be sure, and tried not to worry about what it might mean. "Think we can risk a light?"

"I believe it would be prudent to do so."

They only had the emergency lights which socketed into the tricorders, but those were as good as floodlights in the black nothing around them. Spock turned his on at the lowest setting, bringing the level up after their eyes had adjusted.

The tunnel floor was worn down in a fashion which suggested the work of machinery; judging by the numerous cracks, splits, and holes, it was also very old. In contrast, the walls were uneven and varied from bumpy to jagged to smooth, poking out and curving in at random intervals, and the arced ceiling rose anywhere from ten to fifteen meters high.

"Lava tube?" Jim asked in a low voice. Spock stepped closer to the wall and ran a hand along the bronze-black stone.

"Most likely. Their stadium may have been built over a caldera."

Jim crouched down to touch the floor. "But they evened out the ground."

"It would make them more suitable for travel, or moving goods."

Jim stood, wincing as his joints popped and ached. Spock frowned at him, and Jim shook his head. "It can wait."

Though Spock didn't contradict him, Jim could see apprehension in his eyes, and chose to ignore it. They continued onward, guided by the soft glow of the light and Spock's knowledge of geology.