There were many things that Jim was used to after four months as Captain of the Enterprise. Having Starfleet blame him for everything that went wrong? He was used to that. Having Scotty pull miracles out of thin air and Spock being disinterested and Bones being snappish and Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura being kind of amused by his mistakes all around? He was definitely used to that. Being shot, stabbed, poisoned, kidnapped, tortured, brainwashed, mauled by animals, tortured (it needed repeating), and blasted halfway across the galaxy by forces too powerful for man to comprehend? Jim was used to that, too. In fact, some would say that the crew of the Enterprise was used to far too many unusual things to be normal, and he would kind of agree with that.
However, if there was one thing Jim wasn’t used to, it was these things happening to other people. There were just some people on board—okay, mainly one person on board—that Jim didn’t like to involve in the dangerous, torture-and-kidnapping filled missions, although sometimes it was necessary. So, imagine his surprise when—through the peaceful jaunt across seemingly-empty space—those very same dangerous elements seemed to find them.
Of all the things Jim had seen and become accustomed to, having the Enterprise’s CMO snatched right out of the medical ward in empty space was not one of them. And—as the currently semi-hysterical nurse in charge was pointing out—it was without warning, and in a crowd of thirteen people who were staring at him because he’d made Ensign Walters cry with his bedside manner.
Jim snorted, both to keep up moral (“A likely excuse,” Bones would have said) and to keep himself from wringing his hands like a bad heroine. He wasn’t worried. Really. His best friend—and recently so much more—could take care of himself, even if he disappeared without a seeming trace.
“Not so, Captain.” This from Spock, who was undoubtedly aware of Jim’s inner panic—he was sharp like that—and was tactfully avoiding mentioning it. That, or he was making fun of him; Jim could never really tell.
“What makes you say that, Mister Spock?” He was hopeful, even if any sort of force capable of snatching someone from a well-protected starship was also capable of getting away with it. Jim refused to think about that and Spock—for once—didn’t seem inclined to point it out.
Jim wondered if he really looked that lovesick.
“There is a faint ion trail leading to the Alpha Psi solar system, undoubtedly from a long-range transporter.”
Jim felt ecstatic. It was a bit of a distance, sure, but they could definitely catch them…
“Scan for any ships in that area.”
There were a few beeps as Chekov scanned the system in silence, and then he turned.
Jim didn’t like the look of misery on his face, and not just because Chekov tended to be their always-cheerful mascot.
“Readings are wery clear, Keptin—no ships in the area. The trail is definitely leading to somewhere in the system, a planet or open space.”
Jim swallowed. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe.
But that means…
“The sensors must be mistaken, Mister Chekov—those planets are orbiting a neutron star, and none of them are supposed to be able to support life.” The atmospheres—on what few had an atmosphere—were actually poisonous. No creature could survive there, not for long.
If anything, Chekov looked even more miserable.
“I know, Keptin. No mistake.”
Jim closed his eyes and tried to think, or at least tried not to panic. Captains didn’t panic.
“Spock—track that ion trail to where, exactly, it came from; we’ll find out where the kidnappers were, if not where they are. Uhura, monitor all transmissions in the area—I want to know if someone is bragging about snagging a doctor from a Federation ship. Scotty?”
Jim didn’t even have to say it before Scotty was chiming in from the engine room.
“Aye, Captain. I’ll give you Warp Eight or better, if I can.”
Jim smiled, just a little. If McCoy was alive…they’d find him.
“Thanks, Scotty. Mister Sulu, set course to match Mister Spock’s coordinates, and full speed ahead.”
A chorus of “yes, Captain” answered him, and Jim leaned back, trying his hardest to stay calm.
The planet that the ion trail led to was the fifth planet, and it was roughly a third of the size of Earth, a Class Y planet rightly termed a “demon planet.” The atmosphere was thin and poisonous, the radiation levels fatal, and the ground was dark, rocky, and with a high temperature brought about by the fact the orbit around the central star was unusual and non-circular, always changing as the planet deformed.
There was no way, no way, a human could survive on that planet. Jim felt his stomach drop as it came on screen, observing the odd shape and strange protrusions from the surface, too bleak to think of why they could be there. It was a hell of a place to die.
An excited voice interrupted the bleak nature of his thoughts, and he was surprised to see that Chekov had moved over to the science station with Spock.
“Keptin! The planet is giving mixed readings—the atmosphere keeps coming back as breathable, then poisonous, then breathable again! There’s a small section—it looks like a series of domes—that has an atmosphere almost completely oxygen!”
Jim straightened up and bounded over to the science station to see it for himself, and sure enough, small pockets on the planet were coming back as oxygen atmosphere, manageable radiation, calm temperatures. It was impossible and strange—that planet had been surveyed at the very beginning of space exploration, and that was not near enough time for such a drastic change. Jim could only assume the first group had somehow been mistaken.
“Any life readings, Mister Spock?”
“I cannot say, Captain. The radiation level of the planet is altering the readings of our more delicate sensors—any life present is obscured. However, there was life as recent as two years ago, at the very least.”
Jim couldn’t resist clapping him on the back, and he pointedly ignored the glare he got in return.
“How do you know that?”
Spock’s voice was bland.
“Those protrusions are constructed, Captain. Cities. Undoubtedly an attempt to colonize the planet.”
“Alright. Alright.” He spun around and addressed the bridge crew as a whole. “I’m beaming down, alone—if there’s life on that planet, I don’t want them to think we’re invading, or that we’re asking for a fight. If I don’t check in within two hours, Mister Spock, you are to get the ship out of here—that’s an order.”
“Alone, Captain?” Uhura asked, and Jim didn’t have to glance at her to know she was worried about his plan. He was touched.
“Yes, Uhura. They must have technology to be able to transport over such a distance; numbers will hardly do any good if it comes down to a fight.”
Nobody seemed happy about that, but Jim knew they had to agree.
“Alright. Mister Spock, send the coordinates of the largest air pocket—colony, whatever—to the transporter room.”
And with that he left, speed walking as quickly as possible to the turbolift.
Of all the things he had expected, beaming directly into a small crowd of tentacle…things…wasn’t on the list. For a planet that was supposed to have no life readings—or “obscured” life readings—there certainly was a lot of life. And it was all staring at him.
As far as the creatures went, Jim wasn’t really sure what he could say. They weren’t humanoid, but nor were they like any tentacle creatures he had seen up to that point, and they certainly weren’t aquatic, if their clothes and generally upright posture was any indication.
However, they were intelligent, very much so—after his surprised “Umm…hi?” they seemed to know his language, and they also seemed to know exactly why he had come.
One of them—a guard, if his spear was any indication—addressed him without any hesitation.
“You are here to retrieve the first one?” He sounded disinterested, if anything, and Jim was more than a little freaked out by the fact his face looked almost human, albeit a bit more elongated.
“Er…yes? May I see him, please?”
The guard didn’t move.
“You cannot take him back—he is to be wed to our princess, and to be our heir.”
“O…kay.” Jim glanced at the guard up and down, refrained from making any comments about the fact that they probably couldn’t reproduce across their respective species (Bones had probably said it already, anyway), and simply nodded sagely.
“Sure, fine, okay. Can I speak to your…king and queen?” Because that was weird—an apparent monarchy that was not only advanced enough for space travel and to colonize such a planet, but more advanced than any of the democracies seemed to be.
But, again, Jim didn’t say anything. The guards spoke amongst themselves quietly in a soft, burbling language that was almost pretty, and then gestured with their spears for Jim to follow them. Jim did so, and kept his mouth shut—never mind they had Bones, they also had spears, and Jim had (possibly foolishly) left his weapon on the Enterprise.
All of that seemed somewhat unimportant, however, when he walked into a long room, and saw Bones scowling and sitting on a stone throne. Jim brightened almost instantly.
“Jim!” He stood, and was pushed back down. Jim made a move to walk towards him, equally excited to see him alive and well, and was pulled back by one of the guard’s…tentacles? Jim wasn’t really sure what they were anymore, just that they weren’t as slimy as he’d expected.
“King Ripallon and Queen Jipjorulac, this is the other creature’s mate.”
“His Captain, actually.” He shrugged the limb off and didn’t bother to explain his and McCoy’s relationship any further. Best to keep it simple, especially since they’d have to report all this to Starfleet anyway.
The one who Jim thought was the Queen—hard to say, really—slid off her throne and moved forward to stare at him. Jim would have been unnerved, except they didn’t appear to have eyelids (and that probably should have made it worse, actually.)
“Captain—welcome to Yugopotamia. May I ask why you came here? Our daughter has quite fallen for your warrior.”
Jim opened his mouth to reply—with what, he wasn’t sure—when a strange squeal stopped him.
“Mother!” A slightly slimmer but no less tentacle-y alien emerged from near the other three thrones, completing the weird group.
Jim glanced at the obviously female and obviously teenaged alien with skeptical eyes, then back at McCoy who was now—surprise, surprise—scowling quite fiercely at the surrounding aliens. Jim looked back at the “parents.”
“Yeah, well, they make a cute couple, but I kind of need him back.”
The king and queen blinked, and something like a spasm passed through their many tentacles. McCoy was sputtering in the background and edging away from his wife-to-be with an expression that was half-fear and half-disgust, but Jim barely noticed.
He was too busy focusing on the sudden appearance of twenty or so spears, all aimed squarely at him.
The king slithered forward.
“Cute? You would dare insult our daughter in such a way? You must be a great warrior indeed.”
Jim eyed the spear tip resting lightly over his heart.
“Not that great.”
The queen shrugged. Or at least that’s what Jim interpreted the motion as; it was slightly more like an animal getting ready to pounce then he was comfortable with, but as Spock would probably be all-too-happy to point out, it was kind of an evolutionary fact that things with tentacles didn’t pounce.
“Nonetheless. If you wish to take back your warrior—and our heir’s chosen mate—you must battle for him.”
Jim watched the spears lower, and he grinned. Finally, something that wasn’t a diplomatic mess.
“Okay, that I can handle. What kind of battle? Spears? Swords? Fists?” Okay, the last one seemed unlikely since the Yugopotamians didn’t have fists, but he was still hopeful.
The king and queen, however, looked positively evil, and cackled. A true, evil villain sort of cackle; Jim would have admired it if their amusement hadn’t been centered on his probable-demise.
“To take back your warrior, you must face…the Perils Three!”
Jim really didn’t like the sound of that.
Rather than immediately take him off to fight bears or something as he’d expected, the Yugopotamians pushed him aside and proceeded to discuss the matter in a fashion that was oddly reflective of a democratic society. Jim watched it for a moment, decided it was going to take a while (apparently, the “Perils Three” were tasks chosen from a wide selection of equally horrifying tasks) and moved to stand over by McCoy.
Jim—with much restraint—did not hug him or show affection in any way, instead choosing to have a far-less-obvious conversation. Jim might have been resourceful, but the “Perils Three” sounded slightly out of his area of expertise, and he wouldn’t say no to a bit of assistance.
McCoy, thankfully, took the hint and leaned close, ostentatiously examining his nails.
“Jim? Do you have a communicator?”
Jim nodded, but he nipped that idea in the bud by flipping it open.
“Yes, but these domes are blocking the signal—very advanced.”
McCoy nodded, and glanced back at the very armed guards who were watching them and seemingly not caring at all that they were probably conspiring.
“No kidding. Jim, you do not want to fight with these people.”
Jim glanced at the nearest guard, who was cackling while sharpening an axe.
“Yeah, I’m getting that.”
“No, I mean it. They tried to make me eat glass, Jim. Glass! Like it was normal food!”
Jim sighed, and interrupted before McCoy could really start ranting.
“Okay, okay. Any ideas?”
McCoy looked at him sadly, and huffed.
“Yeah. Get a new CMO.”
Jim didn’t even consider it.
“Not gonna happen. Anything else?”
McCoy snorted, and glanced at his hands. He stopped talking for a while, seemingly just thinking, and when he spoke it was resigned. Tired.
“I don’t know, Jim. The nearest I can see is that they’re like the Klingons, only capable of surviving in really extreme conditions. They didn’t immigrate here, Jim; they evolved here.”
Jim knew his face was beyond shocked at that point, but frankly he couldn’t care. The very idea of evolving in such conditions flew in the face of every evolutionary theory that he’d ever heard of.
“…what? I thought that wasn’t possible.”
At this, McCoy started to look excited underneath the cold fear.
“Not for humanoids, or creatures that breathe oxygen, but get this—they’re plants!”
They were silent for a moment. Jim sighed.
“…Bones, have you been breathing the atmosphere?”
McCoy shook his head, and pulled out his medical tricorder. Apparently, he’d been holding it when he’d been snatched.
“No, really, they’re plants, as in feed from photosynthesis and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen during the process. They didn’t make these domes full of oxygen—they just processed all of the normal atmosphere into oxygen, and this is what’s left. That’s why there’s so many domes—they have to keep leaving because they run out of air, and they can’t live on the ground because it’s too hot. Oh! And you know what else?”
“They have no organs. None. No vital areas, no arteries, nothing. Stabbing one would be like stabbing a tree. Oh, and you know what else?”
Thankfully, the guards interrupted before McCoy could regale him with any other frankly horrifying facts. As it was, Jim was fighting the impulse to grab McCoy and make a dash for it, taking the atmosphere outside—as damaging as it would be—over any of the possible tasks.
Hell, why haven’t the Yugopotamians taken over the universe? For God’s sake, how do you defeat TREES?
The king slid down from his throne, and smiled. Jim was eerily creeped out by the fact that these plants obviously had teeth. And eyes.
“Captain—we have decided on your three tasks.”
And, with no further discussion, they led him away, laughing all the while.
The first task was to take place in an area that held a large metal tank and a suspicious diving board set up—the obvious idea was to jump off the board and into a large vat of something, but what he was jumping into was really the question. Whatever it was, Jim doubted it would be pleasant, and he had closed his eyes even before they began leading him up the stairs, and he could hear his heartbeat drown out the soft hissing of the crowd.
Once on the platform, however, the guards left him to walk to the edge himself. The task, it seemed, was a test of bravery (or possibly stupidity) and not something he would be forced into. Then again, Jim had a hard time believing they would just let him leave.
He edged forward, closer and closer to the board. When he was finally near enough (“Within spitting distance,” as Bones could no doubt helpfully supply) he leaned just a bit closer, and saw…a pile of pillows. Jim blinked and leaned back, and then looked again.
Jim eyed the stack of pillows dubiously. The king—and, indeed, most of the spectators—cackled again.
“Go ahead, brave warrior. If you’re so mighty, than surely you can jump into a container of pillows!”
The cackling continued while Jim tried to find the catch. Knives in the pillows? A creature that lived in the pillows, for whatever reason? It seemed unlikely, but the only other explanation Jim could come up with didn’t make any sense at all.
Knowing he was taking his life in his hands and flinging it carelessly aside, Jim jumped…and landed in a sea of beautifully soft, wonderfully cool pillows.
Someone in the background screamed, and Jim flopped around a little for good measure before hefting himself from the tank.
The king and queen looked appalled.
“You are not injured?”
“No?” He saw the look of horror on the oddly expressive faces around him, and tried again, striking a pose with his hands on his hips and his shoulders back.
“No. What’s next?”
Shaking, a nameless guard led him to the next room, all but McCoy following at a healthy distance. Jim turned to him, wondering if McCoy was as surprised as he was, or if this was perhaps the “what else” he’d been about to mention.
“That couldn’t have been what just happened, right?”
McCoy shrugged and clapped him on the back, looking almost cheerful, albeit confused.
“You got me. But who knows? Maybe the next challenge will be truly—“ And here he couldn’t help but snort out a laugh “—truly horrifying.”
The guard opened the wide doors, the room for the second task, and revealed a stone chamber filled to the brink with…pink flowers.
Jim glanced at McCoy, who was also eyeing the contained field of flowers with an expression that said he was one moment away from cracking up. Jim looked back at the king and queen, almost embarrassed to hear what his next challenge would be.
The king straightened and moved forward at Jim’s look, keeping a healthy distance from both Jim and the flowers.
“Well, Captain? Surely you cannot skip through a field of flowers!”
The cackling that had subsided in the horror-struck aftermath of Jim’s first task suddenly resumed, and Jim wondered if maybe it wasn’t a form of cheering rather than actual laughter. Difficult to say, really.
He glanced at McCoy again, who was smiling widely and glancing away. Jim sighed.
“Bones, if you tell anyone about this, I will kick your ass.”
“Huh? Why?” McCoy sounded so surprised that Jim knew it would have been all over the Enterprise within an hour.
“It’ll ruin my manly image.”
At that, McCoy snorted.
“What manly image?”
Jim glared, and pulled off his boots so the Yugopotamians would know he’d gotten the full effect of the dreaded flowers.
“Kick. Your ass.”
And with that, he skipped—quickly, and in as manly a fashion as possible—through the field of flowers. When he reached the other side and it became clear that the Yugopotamians weren’t going to follow him, he skipped back as well.
Whereas the Yugopotamians had been trembling and frightened before, now they seemed simply…shocked. Jim shrugged, and pulled his boots back on, well aware that McCoy was fighting laughter in the background.
“Okay. What’s next?”
The guard gestured shakily for him to follow them, but whereas the first two tasks had carried the threat of a quick stab if he had dallied, now nobody moved, simply watching as the guards led him to the next room. The room was empty except for a swell of anti-radiation and anti-disease shields that Jim recognized, and for the first time since the pillows, he felt uncertain. After all, the first two tasks may well have been a rouse to get him to drop his guard, or make him overconfident, or something.
But then, he really didn’t have a choice. Over an hour had passed…hesitation might mean death, at this point. So Jim stepped forward and into the room, noting a single box in the center of the room.
Jim opened it…and he couldn’t believe his eyes. He didn’t wait for the Yugopotamians to give him his challenge; instead, he bit right into it, brightening as he waved his hand at McCoy.
“Hey—it has peanuts in it!”
The king fainted, and the Yugopotamians scattered. Jim shrugged and munched happily before flipping open his communicator. He was not surprised to find that the shield blocking the ship’s signal was gone.
The last thing the Yugopotamians saw before an amused McCoy and a smiling Jim disappeared in a shower of gold was the Captain offering the bar to McCoy, and speaking in a chipper tone.