i. the planet with all the sand
"Not one drop is wasted," the man said. Naib was how he introduced himself, but Jim was pretty sure that was a title rather than a name. The man's voice echoed through the cavern, as soft and gentle as the distant sound of dripping water. "This is our way."
A bead of sweat trickled down Jim's back and he shifted guiltily. It was on the tip of his tongue to mention that surely there were easier ways of terraforming a desert planet, but Spock spoke first.
"Your methods are impressive," Spock said. His hands folded neatly behind his back, he paced the width of the cave slowly. Jim knew him well enough to know that was his "I'm checking your calculations and I expect to find them faulty" pacing, but after a moment he returned to the naib's side and said, "I believe your estimate of when this endeavor will reach its stated goals is accurate within a reasonable margin of error."
The naib's eerie blue-in-blue eyes flared briefly, but Jim couldn't tell if the man was insulted or merely amused. "This is our way," he said again. "We know what is to come and who will lead us there."
There was a brief, awkward silence. First contact diplomacy was one thing, but Jim was having a hard time figuring out how to start the conversation without saying, "So you're a drug-addicted messianic cult dedicated to drinking your own distilled urine so your descendants generations down the road can grow palm trees. How's that working out for you?"
Jim adopted what he hoped was an open and inviting expression. "Tell us more about your ways," he said. Get them talking about religion, Dr. Ng used to say, and you'll learn more in five minutes than you could in five days of polite chitchat.
The naib inclined his head briefly. "I will," he said, and Jim sent a silent thanks to Dr. Ng, along with an apology for being so disruptive in her class. "But first I will tell you of the worms."
Spock raised one eyebrow curiously. "Worms?"
The man's smile was sharp. "You will see." He turned swiftly toward the entrance of the cave. For a moment his elaborate moisture-capture suit was visible beneath the folds of his scarves.
Jim and Spock exchanged a glance before following. Jim just hoped these worms didn't turn out to be another intestinal thing.
ii. the planet with the unfriendly natives
Ensign Montoya wouldn't stop screaming.
The tricorder was useless in the bleak, black planetoid's erratic electromagnetic field, and the sedative and painkiller Christine have given Montoya weren't doing a damn thing. He was writhing and arching his back and clawing at his abdomen - she didn't have enough goddamn hands to hold him still, not like this - and he had given up on actual words about ten minutes ago.
Now it was only deafening screams in the claustrophobic space of the quarantine tent.
"Chapel, report." McCoy's order was an impatient bark over the communicator. "We don't have all day."
Christine rolled her eyes; it was easy enough for him to be impatient safe and sound in orbit. "Still here, Doctor," she said. She reached up to brush her hair back before she remembered the mask. She prodded at Ensign Montoya's abdomen; the infection, or whatever it was, was getting worse.
She leaned back to ready a dose of the most powerful antibiotics she had on hand. "It'll be brilliant, Chrissy," she muttered to herself, echoing her fiancé's final words before he'd run off to join Starfleet and she had followed, doe-eyed and naïve. "Space is where all the action is. Sure, Roger, this is where all the fucking action is."
Christine jammed the hypospray into Montoya's neck. Watching a friend and colleague scream to death on the rocky surface of planet that had never been good for anything except a failed mining colony, a failed terraforming project, and now a failed exploration, alone in a quarantine tent shrouded in death and darkness and cold and blood, that was action, all right, and if she ever saw Roger again the first thing she was going to do was punch him in the face.
Then she would punch herself for developing a subconscious that sounded so much like Leonard McCoy.
"I can't do anything more for him down here," she said. "Stand by for transport on my-"
Montoya stopped screaming.
Christine was distantly aware of McCoy shouting over the communicator, but she ignored him and checked the patient. Montoya's eyes were glassy but he was still - no, not breathing, he was definitely not breathing, but something was moving inside him. Pushing, stretching, trying to-
The silence was split by the sick, wet sound of ripping flesh.
Christine drew her phaser and fired before she even registered the blood erupting out of Montoya's abdomen and splattering across her faceshield.
"Chapel? Chapel, what happened?"
She was on her feet and halfway across the quarantine tent. Montoya was dead, his midsection a ravaged wreck. But the thing - whatever it was, smeared with Montoya's blood and stirring weakly over the remains of his chest - was only stunned.
"Christine, goddamnit, answer me. What the hell is going on?"
Christine swallowed and took a deep breath. "It's not an infection. Montoya's gone. It's, damn it, it's not an infection. It's a hostile lifeform. We need to evacuate."
"What kind of-"
"Acknowledged, Nurse Chapel." Spock's voice was loud and clear over the communicator. "Initiating transport immediately."
Just before she dematerialized, Christine saw the creature scurry away from Montoya's body, leaving a trail of blood behind it.
iii. the other planet with all the sand
The music in the cantina was a great deal more cheerful than its patrons, but Uhura ignored the suspicious glances cast her way and took her drink to a table in the corner.
She had some time to kill while Scotty talked to "some lads I know, trust me, they'll have what we need and then some," and she had never had the chance to see so many unfamiliar alien species gathered more or less peacefully in one place. Just between the door and the bar she'd counted at least eight she couldn't identify by sight and five more she'd only read about.
She was so engrossed in trying to eavesdrop on a conversation that seemed to consist of nothing but melodic clicks and hoots she didn't notice the man sliding into the seat next to her until he said, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Uhura turned slowly and sipped her drip, pretending he hadn't startled her. "What kind of place is this?" she asked.
The man grinned crookedly. He was human, although his companion - tall, hairy and bored - definitely wasn't. The man was handsome in a men-your-mother-warned-you-about way, even with the space pirate look he had going on with the black vest , white shirt and smug expression. "A dangerous place," he said, his voice low and playful. "Haven't you heard about what happens around here?"
Uhura had heard plenty about Mos Eisley spaceport from Scotty before they'd beamed down, and from past experience with Scotty's stories she guessed about half of it was probably true. "I've heard," she began, leaning closer to the man.
"I've heard this is the kind of place were men come to, you know."
The man's grin grew wider. "To do what, exactly?"
Uhura lowered her voice to just above a whisper. "To brag about the size of their warp drives."
The man looked blank for a second, but his hirsute friend let out a snorting wheeze that was probably a laugh, and there was a spark of intelligent amusement in his eyes. Then he said something - Uhura had never heard the language before, but she recognized a primitive structure to it - and the man scowled briefly and muttered, "Shut up, furball."
But he recovered quickly and leaned back, stretching his arm over the back of Uhura's chair without a trace of subtlety. "But the only thing that matters," he said, "is whether or not they've got anything worth bragging about."
Uhura finished her drink in one long swallow and set the glass on the table. "It's too bad they so rarely do," she said. She pushed her chair back and stood up with a smile. "You really should listen to your friend here. You'd have better luck with the tentacled gentleman over in the corner."
She felt eyes following her as she left the cantina. It was time to find Scotty and see if he'd found what they were looking for.
iv. the planet that should not be
Every crew member on the bridge was gaping at the image before them.
"Is that..." Sulu cleared his throat. "Is that really..."
"Are those..." Uhura trailed off. "Alive?"
As though it heard her question from a distance of seventy thousand kilometers, one of the elephants waved its trunk in greeting.
"Fascinating," said Spock. For once, he sounded like he really meant it.
Jim seized the opportunity. "Care to venture an explanation, Mr. Spock?"
Spock hesitated a moment before answering. That was always a bad sign.
"While it is highly improbable, due to fundamental gravitational interactions, for a stable planetary body to take the shape of a finite convex disc rather than the more common oblate spheroid, it is not physically impossible for the accretionary process to create--"
"Spock," Kirk interrupted, rather too sharply. "It's not the planet that I'm worried about. It's the giant... things. And the other, the..." He waved his hand toward the screen. "More giant thing."
"Turtle," Chekov offered helpfully. "It's a turtle, Captain. Dermochelys coriacea, I think. Although," he added with a puzzled frown, "they are not usually so large."
Jim sighed. "Really? I never would have guessed."
"Captain," said Uhura, "we're receiving a transmission."
"What's it say?"
Uhura sounded uncharacteristically uncertain as she translated. "'Divide by... cucumber error'? That doesn't make any sense." Her fingers danced over her control panel. "The next part seems to be something about cheese."
"All right." Jim jumped to his feet. "Away team, meet me in the transporter room."
"Do you not wish to gather more information before exploring the surface?" Spock asked. The arch of his eyebrow made it perfectly clear what he thought the answer should be.
"We've already got a planet that shouldn't exist on top of a circus pyramid of giant space creatures that shouldn't be alive." Jim grinned and stepped backwards into the lift. "How much weirder can it get?"
v. the planet that cannot be
The landscape was marked with ridges of jagged rock and dry dunes, dead forests littered with withered silver leaves and mountains looming in the distance. The remains of a once-grand city of spires and towers beneath a broken dome cast a shadow across the waste. One of the planet's twin suns was high in the sky and the atmosphere was the color of rust, not unlike Vulcan at sunset.
But there was no reason to dwell on such idle comparisons.
Spock turned his thoughts from the distraction of meaningless pattern recognition and returned to the task at hand. The data provided by the tricorder was puzzling and incomplete.
The wind turned, and Spock looked up at a whisper of a voice. Kirk was pacing impatiently several meters away. The empty planet agitated him; in their many missions together, Spock had observed that Kirk preferred meeting even the most hostile inhabitants to a planet where no one remained at all.
Kirk approached quickly. "What is it?"
"I did not hear what you said before," Spock told him.
Kirk gave a puzzle frown. "I didn't say anything. Miller, Gryzbowski? You say something?"
From their recon positions nearby, both women shook their heads.
"I see." Spock considered telling the captain what he had heard, but he decided against it. Vulcan hearing was more acute than human; he was almost certainly interpreting the sound of wind through rock formations as speech.
Kirk asked, "Find anything?"
"I cannot determine the source or cause of the anomalous readings," Spock said.
From orbit, everything about the planet had been unusual, and the routine sensor readings had been so erratic they were nearly upon the planet before Mr. Chekov confirmed its existence at all. Thus far even preliminary visual observation, a method that often offered answers where technological devices failed, did not illuminate the reason for the discrepancies.
The surface revealed nothing more than a scorched, dead world, remarkably similar to many others abandoned after wars and cataclysms. The shattered dome of the ruined city suggested a sharp delineation in the planet's former population distribution, but Spock could draw no conclusions without further study.
"We should approach the cultural remains," Spock said.
Kirk shaded his eyes as he looked toward the city, though there was little enough sunlight to affect his vision. "Sure. That's a good idea."
Neither of them moved.
Ordinarily Spock would choose this moment to remark upon the captain's uncharacteristic reluctance to explore the planet and emphasize the lack of logic behind such hesitance, but he only said, "From the city we will gain a better understanding-"
The wind shifted again, and once again a low hiss of voices teased at the threshold of his hearing. Spock turned his head quickly but the landscape was empty.
"Spock? What is it?"
When he looked back at Kirk, Spock saw for a moment the dome of the city shining and whole, and the buildings beneath warmed with sunshine. As he watched, a dark shadow spread from the top of the dome, seeping downward like oil devouring the city.
Then the image was gone, and the wind shuddered with unintelligible sighs.
A trick of the mind, perhaps, or an optical illusion: those were explanations a human might offer.
The inhabitants of this planet had not been human.
"Captain," Spock said slowly, "It is unsafe to remain on this planet. We should leave."
"What? Why?" But Kirk didn't wait for an answer. He gestured to Miller and Gryzbowski and said, "Okay. Scotty? Four to beam up."
The familiar, "Aye, Captain," was lost in another gust of wind.
When they returned to Enterprise, Spock ignored the captain's questions until they reached the bridge. The crew was in an uproar, agitation and alarm apparent in the chatter between stations and darting hands on control boards.
"It's gone," Chekov was saying, gesturing excitedly. "One moment it's there, the next - gone."
On the viewscreen there was only empty space. The planet had vanished.
"Spock. Spock." Kirk touched his arm, and Spock started. "What the hell just happened? And how did you know it was going to?"
"It's gone," Chekov said again, as though trying to convince himself. "Where did it go?"
"Exterminated," Spock said. It was not what he had intended to say; the word implied conscious action, and they had no proof of that. He turned from Kirk's questioning glance and sat down. "I suspect you will find, Mr. Chekov-" Spock cleared his throat to steady his voice, not quite believing what he was about to say but compelled to say it nonetheless. "I suspect you will find the planet's apparent disappearance is not a displacement in three dimensions but an elimination in four."
It was not rational. It was not permissible by the laws of physics. It did not obey the principles of spacetime as he understood them, that fear and rage and grief and loss could carve their way into the echoes of existence as a momentary retreat from nothingness, a single final message etched into memories that endure.
"But that is not possible," Chekov protested. His hands were already flying over his control panel, calling up sensor readings and calculations in shifting diagrams and racing lines.
"Is it?" Kirk asked, so quietly only Spock could hear. "Is it possible?"
Spock said, "If a people were to develop the ability to manipulate time and space on an unprecedented level, it is logical to surmise that ability could evolve to include..." The words caught in his throat. He swallowed painfully. "There are many ways for a planet and its people to cease to exist."
Kirk watched him, waiting.
Spock said, "I do not know."
Around them the crew's voices fell quiet as they turned their confusion into concentration and sought answers Spock was not sure they would find.
He listened, but no longer heard the whispers of the dead.