Author’s Note: the characters of Star Trek New Frontier are the property of Paramount and author Peter David, and are used
here without their creators’ knowledge or permission. Some adult language and sexual content.
For Jennifer L. Anderson, who sent me all the books. Christmas, 1999.
Aggravation levels 85% and holding.
Mackenzie Calhoun probably wasn’t supposed to see the message on the screen as Burgoyne swiveled it toward Soleta like
cadets passing notes in the Academy. He saw it anyway, just a quick glimpse over the Vulcan science officer’s arm, and had to
hide a grin.
At the foot of the table in the conference lounge, Elizabeth Shelby went on with her quarterly report, oblivious.
“ ... side trips and other ... distractions that have been interfering with our assigned goals,” she said stiffly.
Several of the crew exchanged half-amused, half-guilty glances.
Shelby went on. “This is the Excalibur, not the Federation Starship Peyton Place. It would be nice if we could attend to our
mission with no further --”
“Bridge to Captain Calhoun.”
Mac couldn’t hide his smile this time. “Calhoun here.”
Soleta turned the screen back toward Burgoyne. Mac couldn’t read what their estimate was up to now, but he privately suspected
the seething Shelby was close to a core breach. She’d been waiting a long time to let loose with this lecture, not that he expected it to
have much of an effect on the behaviors of his crew.
“Captain,” the voice continued, “we’re picking up a distress call from the Cartagena. They say they’re under attack, but we’re still
“On my way,” Mac said. “Commander ...?”
“Thank you, Captain, I’m finished,” she grumbled.
“Okay, people, to your posts.” Mac clapped his hands briskly. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Shelby fell into step beside him as he headed for the bridge. “If this is some hoax of yours, Mac --”
“Eppy!” He tried to sound hurt. “Do you think I’d fake a distress call -- never mind, obviously you do or you wouldn’t have
brought it up.”
“I know you don’t agree with what I was trying to do in there.”
“These are adults. What they do on their own time isn’t my business. Or yours.”
“Even when it hampers the operation of this ship?”
“Nobody’s neglecting their duties.”
“Dammit, Mac! You’re the captain, and it would help if you’d support me instead of sitting there smirking like a teenage boy!”
“I’m not about to wreck morale by issuing an abstinence order.” The door hissed open and he proceeded onto the bridge.
“We’ve picked them up on long-range, sir,” Ensign Trask said. He was fresh out of the Academy and nervous as hell.
“Put it on.” Mac dropped into his chair as the other officers moved to their usual stations.
The starfield in front of him blinked to show a riotous orange and red nebula, a sunset in space. In the foreground, a small starship
was briefly surrounded by a bubble of light as an energy beam deflected around its shields.
The attacking ship was shaped like an arrowhead, with a glowing scoop on the back end and a sharp nosecone bristling with
weapons. At the sight of it, Mac muttered a curse under his breath.
“What’s that?” someone asked.
“Infernan raiding cruiser,” Mac replied, having recognized the design from his years as a disreputable galactic lowlife. And here
Jellico had implied that those experiences would never come in handy ... if the Admiral only knew how wrong he’d been! “Damn! I
didn’t realize we were so close to their system!”
“They’ve detected us by now but they’re not backing down,” Trask said.
“Must be after a good prize if they’re willing to take on the Federation,” Mac said. “How long ‘til we get there?”
Mark McHenry answered without consulting any instruments. "Seventeen-point-eight minutes at top warp.”
“The Cartagena’s shields will fail in nineteen minutes,” Zak Kebron rumbled.
“Step on it,” Mac ordered.
“Captain --” Shelby began.
“We’re cutting it too close for discussion, Commander. Mr. Trask, see if you can raise the Cartagena, find out what brought the
Infernans down on them. And standby to send a message to the raiders, too.” His hands tightened on the armrests, anticipation coursing
through his veins. Mixing it up with the Infernans ... it had been a long time!
“We’ve got them outgunned,” Kebron said.
Mac shook his head. “Doesn’t matter to these boys. If they haven’t turned tail now, they’re not going to unless we hit them a
telling blow or two.”
Kebron’s massive knuckles popped like a series of concussion grenades. “Fine by me.”
“Got the Cartagena,” Trask reported.
On the screen, a flickering image appeared, shot with lines of static. It showed a tiny bridge; the Cartagena was among Starfleet’s
smallest classes of ship. The room was choked with smoke from two damaged, sparking consoles.
“Excalibur, this is Lieutenant Hawthorne. Our captain and first officer are dead. We’ve sustained heavy damage.” Hawthorne, like
Trask, was barely more than a kid. His face was chalk-white, freckles standing out as if he’d been peppered with birdshot. His
Adam’s Apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Their first shot took us by surprise, before we could get our shields up, and --” He was about to
start babbling, voice rising hectically.
“Take it easy, Lieutenant!” Mac barked. “Your shields will hold until we get there. Have the Infernans made any demands?”
The tone of authority calmed the kid’s nerves and when he spoke, he was steadier. “Yessir, they want our passenger and her
Mac could almost see Hawthorne’s pleading hope, the surety that the Excalibur would save the day. A bitter feeling roiled in his
gut. He’d hate to let them down, but ...
“What passenger?” Shelby asked crisply.
“The Bal ... Ballysor ...” Hawthorne floundered and looked off-screen for help.
“The Balisurna Lyrith of Aranaboth,” another voice supplied.
“Aranaboth,” Soleta said. “This Balisurna is far from home.”
“We were escorting her to Mnaave, I think --” Hawthorne broke off in panic as an alarm behind him began to flash and siren
“Phaser banks down!” someone on the Cartagena shouted.
“Hang in there,” Mac said. “We’re on our way.”
Hawthorne’s image fuzzed out and was replaced by a scowling Infernan. He was burnt-orange and pebbly-skinned, with short blunt
yellowish horns ringing his vaguely reptilian face and meeting in a shallow “V” just above his glaring triple-lidded cyclopean eye.
“Arriving vessel,” he said, hissing on the esses in ‘vessel’ in a way that made half of Mac’s crew shiver instinctively, “this is Master --”
“Ekekessba,” Mac cut in. His fists wanted to clench but he kept them nice and easy, and let a surly smile curl his lips. The expression
caused the scar along his cheek to tighten like a stitch being drawn through his flesh. “Long time no see.”
The Infernan’s eye narrowed, then he clicked in the way they showed amusement. “Scarskin! Where did you steal a Federation ship?”
Mac sensed his bridge crew looking at him in varying degrees of speculation and astonishment, but ignored them.
“Not stolen. Mine. I’m a Starfleet captain, and if you don’t lay off the Cartagena, I’m going to turn you and that junkpile into a puff
“You are not in charge here. This is Infernan space. None of your business.”
“That’s a Federation ship. Makes it my business.”
Ekekessba snarled and made a slashing gesture. The screen reverted to the view of the battle against the nebula.
“Yellow alert,” Mac said. “Shields up. He was never one for small talk.”
“Coming out of warp,” McHenry announced. “They’re moving to intercept.”
“Turning their back on the Cartagena,” Soleta noted.
Zak Kebron snorted. “We’re the only threat now.”
“Let’s prove it.” Mac gave a nod, and the Excalibur opened fire.
Doctor Selar paid no attention to the occasional
rocking of the ship and the hum and zap of weapons. She had every confidence
the battle would soon be over and her work would begin. Her underlings went about their business of readying sickbay with quiet
Lines of lettering, bright amber against the black screen, unspooled in front of her. With nothing else to do but wait, she passed
the time reading what little information Starfleet had on the Aranabothians.
There might not be much, she thought, but what there was certainly was interesting.
“Bridge to Doctor Selar.”
“Infernan ship is on the run. Some presents headed your way.”
“Oh, sir, you shouldn’t have,” she said dryly, as the air began to shimmer.
She heard the screams before the first patient fully materialized. The stench of charred meat hit her like a slap. She didn’t
hesitate, just moved toward the body that had appeared on one of the beds.
It took Selar half a second to make the only diagnosis that mattered. She dialed her hypospray to the highest setting and shot a
concentrated burst of painkiller into the woman’s thigh. The drug put her out, silenced her screams, and would keep her insensate until her
soon and inevitable death.
Selar turned from her to the next one. Young Granturean male, on the verge of complete neural shutdown from shock, apparently
unaware that his entire left arm was missing below the elbow. His obsidian skin had gone waxy from blood loss, the side of his uniform
stained with it.
“We must stop the bleeding. Davison, inform the bridge that we’d like to find his arm if at all possible for reattachment.”
By the time she finished her examination, the second wave of wounded were arriving. These ones came on foot from the direction of
the transporter room, since beaming directly to sick bay was always a bit more chancy and thus reserved for the most urgent cases. Most of
these suffered blunt impact trauma, the result of being flung about as their ship was buffeted.
“Doctor, a preliminary report?” Calhoun’s voice asked out of thin air.
“One with no chance of survival,” she said, “another in critical condition and we’ve still heard nothing about his arm. I understand
there is an Aranabothian on board?”
“So I’ve heard, but we’re still bringing over the rest of the crew, and I’ve got an away team going through the Cartagena deck by
deck looking for survivors and preparing the bodies of the deceased for transport to the cargo hold. Why?”
“I’ve uncovered some details that may be of interest to you. We should discuss them at your earliest convenience.”
By the tone of his voice, he was wearing a wry and humorless grin. “I knew this was too easy.” He fell silent, and then the computer
beeped again and she understood that he’d adjourned from the bridge to his small ready-room. “Okay, Doctor, let me have it. As long as
we’re in the Infernans’ backyard, with my old buddy Ekekessba still out there, I doubt I’m going to get a more convenient time.”
“Are you familiar with the Aranabothian race?”
“Never heard of them until today.”
“I took the liberty of reviewing what little Starfleet knows. The Aranabothians are pacifists in the extreme. They will not take violent
action, and do their best to discourage such actions in others. They are plant-based lifeforms, and like many plants, developed natural
“Able to derive nourishment from full-spectrum lighting and nutrients in soil. They also possess poison spores that act as both a
respiratory and contact poison, and are fatal to 92% of known lifeforms.”
She heard him exhale slowly. “So if this Aranabothian gets upset, our entire ship gets gassed. Does Kebron know this?”
“He has not yet learned it from me. I wouldn’t worry, Captain.”
“Why not? Is there an antidote?”
“Yes, but that is not what I meant. Besides, given how swiftly death occurs, unless I am on the scene with the antidote in my hand,
“You’re always so reassuring, Selar.”
“The Aranabothian culture is the best preventative medicine. At one time, they were as warlike as humans, but the spores nearly
wiped out their entire population.”
“Now I get it. So they became total pacifists to prevent it from happening again.”
“Then it doesn’t sound like we’re in danger.”
“I’d like to share your belief, Captain. However, I would still recommend quarantine, at least for an initial period.”
“Energizing,” Transporter Chief Polly Watson
said, skimming her hands over the control panel.
Zak Kebron tensed, an action that made him appear even larger than he already was. Mac wished there was a way to have done this
without involving his head of security, but he never would have heard the end of it if he’d excluded Kebron.
Two forms appeared amid clouds of swirling, sparkling molecules. One was Lieutenant Hawthorne, whose expression was one
of such pathetic gratitude that Mac wouldn’t have been surprised to see the kid burst into tears.
The other had to be the Aranabothian. As she solidified atop the transporter platform, Mac felt his customary words of greeting
evaporate right off the surface of his mind. Not to mention any thoughts of quarantine.
She was his height or even an inch or two taller, and very slender with subtly feminine curves. Her skin was pale green with
narrow stripes of a darker hue that marched up from the bridge of her petite nose, outward across high cheekbones, and down from a pert
As near as Mac could tell, those stripes went all the way down. He couldn’t be totally sure because she was encased from neck to
wrists and ankles in a silvery mesh bodysuit sewn with vinelike meanderings of tiny crystals. A short garment that seemed part poncho
and part cape hung over her shoulders and came to a point just above her midriff. A matching skirt reached almost to her knees in front but
on the sides was open all the way to the hip. Both poncho and skirt were woven of varicolored grasses in a herringbone design, as was the
bulb-shaped basket she held.
Her hair was pure white with streaks of dark green at the temples and widow’s peak; she wore it in a piled and coiled style that
made the streaks twist and weave and reappear. Eyes the color of milky jade swept calmly around the room before settling on him and
giving him an almost electric jolt.
He realized with a start that that was at least the third time Shelby had tried to get his attention, each time increasingly irked.
“What is it, Commander?”
Lieutenant Hawthorne stumbled over to Mac and clasped his hand, shaking it fervently, almost in tears of relief. “Thank you,
Captain Calhoun, thank you, you saved us, you --”
“It’s all right,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to retrieve his hand. “The rest of your crew is already safely aboard --”
“My crew? I’m just --”
“The highest-ranking officer remaining,” Shelby said. “For now, Hawthorne, that puts you in charge. Field promotion.”
Mac thought the kid was going to faint.
Her voice was low and oddly accented, but Mac had presence of mind enough to see that every male within earshot was instantly
riveted. Every male and Burgoyne, who had just come in and evidently forgotten what s/he was going to report at the sight of the
Even Zak Kebron lost his customary formidable scowl for a moment.
Shelby and Watson looked at each other and attained a nearly Betazoid telepathy.
“I’m Captain Mackenzie Calhoun,” Mac said, stepping forward after divesting himself of Hawthorne. “Welcome aboard. Balisorra,
She dipped her head toward him politely. “Balisurna,” she corrected liquidly. “Such is my tie-tle. You would trans-late it as ...”
she paused, considering. “As ‘She-Who-Is-Most-Pure.’ Lyrith is my give-en name.”
“‘She-Who-Is-Most-Pure’?” Mac repeated dubiously.
At her nod, Shelby and Watson both snickered without amusement. Shelby gave Mac a dig in the ribs with her elbow and
mouthed the word ‘quarantine.’
He flapped a hand at her -- yeah, yeah, in a minute.
Shelby cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Balisurna, but we’ll need to have you accompany our security officer to sickbay. Lieutenant
Hawthorne, the doctor should probably have a look at you, too.”
“Sure, okay.” Hawthorne headed obediently for the door, would have walked into the wall if Burgoyne hadn’t corrected his
course. The shakes had settled in with a vengeance, and Hawthorne’s gaze was wide and blank.
“This way,” Mac said to Lyrith.
“Aren’t you needed on the bridge, Captain?” Shelby asked coolly.
“I’m confident that you can handle any crisis in my absence.”
Her glare could have peeled the skin from his skull. She spun on her heel and stalked out of the transporter room.
The Aranabothian descended from the platform with the grace of a meadow rippling beneath a summer wind. She made no sound at
all as she moved, except for the faintest rustle of her garments.
Mac noticed that her feet were bare, ending in three long toes that she walked upon balanced like twin tripods. She had three fingers
on each hand as well, no ears that he could see, and when she’d spoken it hadn’t looked like she had teeth but instead ridges of hard gums like
those of a snapping turtle.
Zak Kebron stirred as she drew near him. Selar had pointed out that the Brikar, true to form, were among the 8% of known races
unaffected by the spores. Though he was such an imposing and impressive presence that even Klingons had been known to back
down, the Aranabothian glided past him without so much as an apprehensive glance.
“Do you mind telling me what you were doing on the Cartagena?” he asked as they headed for the turbolift.
“I am a bear-er of gift,” she said, patting the basket.
“Uh-huh,” he encouraged.
Lyrith didn’t elaborate, lapsing back into silence.
“What’s in the basket?” Zak Kebron asked suspiciously when Mac paused to try to think of how to continue this odd conversation.
“Thurrahasla,” she said. “Waters-clear.” She swallowed part of ‘waters,’ turning it into a single syllable -- ‘watrs.’
A frown crawled across Kebron’s stonelike features, directed partly at her and partly at Mac. “Can I see it?”
Lyrith’s head tilted in what Mac assumed passed for a shrug. She curled the basket against her torso with one arm, lifted the lid with
her other hand (and gave it to Mac; he accepted it automatically), and reached inside with her three fingers.
They came up gripping an oval that tapered to a point on both ends, like an antique Earth football. But instead of leather and stitches,
it was crystalline and filled with fluid blue light through which white and indigo moved in currents and waves.
Even poor befuddled Lieutenant Hawthorne stopped to gaze in awe.
“Touch it,” Lyrith invited.
Mac reached out, and winced as his wrist was caught in a vise. No, not a vise, just Kebron’s giant fist.
“Sorry, Captain. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Might be a trap. A bomb.”
Lyrith tilted her head again and replaced the jewel in the basket.
They proceeded to sickbay, where they found Doctor Selar and her team working industrially to reattach the severed arm of one of the
Cartagena’s crewmen, now that it had finally been found.
Kebron took up a post near the door and did his best to be both out of the way and inconspicuous, a next-to-impossible task for
someone built like an avalanche.
The doctor turned the surgery over to her assistant and approached, smoothing her straight black hair back from her severely
pointed ears. “The Granturean should regain full use of his limb.”
“That’s good. Doctor, this is the Balisurna Lyrith.” Mac stood back and let them size each other up, the Vulcan with dispassionate
clinical curiosity, the Aranabothian as placid as a mountain spring.
He decided he’d let Selar be the one to broach the subject of quarantine.
They called it night and dimmed the
To Lyrith, it was a foolishness. The will of space-farers, imposing the names of night and day on the hours as they saw fit. No
turning world, no gleaming sun to help them tell the difference.
Night. Or third shift.
Either way, the chamber called sickbay was darkened and quiet. And all but deserted. Aside from herself, held in her cell, the
only other beings in sight were an unconscious wounded man from the Cartagena, and a sleepy female intern leaning over a computer screen.
She sighed with the sound of the wind rustling in the leaves, and wished for good earth between her toes, for warm radiance and
cool shade striping her skin.
As neither were forthcoming, she went to the shelf that held the basket and opened it to remove the Thurrahasla. She enfolded it in her
six fingers and let her eyes drift closed.
Ah ... yes ... a fast-rushing stream. Bubbling and frothing over smooth pebbles. Pooling between large flat stones. Cool and clean as
she dipped her toes into it. Drawing it up into herself, feeling tiny fish tickling against her skin.
Lyrith opened her eyes, the vision gone. Now the only blue she saw was the faint glow at the edge of the force field, not the dome of a
A shadow moved across the opening, looking at her and at the jewel in her hands as the brilliance faded from it.
“Hhhcaptain,” she said, struggling with the unfamiliar word.
“You can call me Mac, if you want. Or Mackenzie.”
“M’hhcen-see,” she tried, and turned down the corners of her mouth. “Or not.”
“Or not,” he agreed, turning up the corners of his mouth.
“Shaslitharallis,” she said. “A bett-er name for you.”
“What’s it mean?”
His face contorted strangely. She still had much to learn of these humans and their expressions. Was he amused or not?
“On my world,” she explained, finding it much easier to talk to only one of them at a time instead of dealing with the crowds and noise
of the herds they usually moved in, “there is a tree that blooms once in a full turn of the sea-sons. For one night on-ly. When it does, the
flowrs are of that col-or.” She indicated his eyes.
“Well, you can call me that if you must, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell the rest of my crew what it means. They’d never let me
live it down.”
“You do not sleep?”
“Not tonight. I’ve dealt with Ekekessba before. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s still out there, waiting for another chance to strike.
Now he’s got two reasons, revenge, and whatever brought him down on you in the first place. Mind telling me where you were going?”
“Yeah, that’s what Lieutenant Hawthorne said. It’s a desert planet, right?”
“Not for-ever.” She looked down at the glimmering jewel. “This will make Mnaave grow with life. It will be-come green and
thrive. We make this gift to them. But we have no ships to fly the stars.”
“So the Federation offered to take you there. And this thing can terraform -- remake the planet? I can see why the Infernans would
“Then they should have ask-ed.”
He laughed roughly. “They don’t ask. They take.”
“And kill.” A great and terrible sadness welled up inside of her. “Death has come be-cause of this. I beg-ged them, let me go as de-
man-ded, but they re-fus-ed.”
“The crew of the Cartagena? Damn right they refused!”
“They’d already lost their captain and their first officer. There’s no way they would have had their sacrifices be for nothing and just
handed you over.”
Lyrith stared at him, realizing that the same vast gulf lay between them that her people had encountered many times before. “You do
not un-der-stand. Less hurt would have re-sul-ted.”
“No, lady, you don't understand. If you’d been turned over to them, the Infernans still would have blown up the Cartagena. And
your life wouldn’t have been worth a bar of fake latinum, either. Even if they didn’t kill you right away, you’d sure as hell wish you were
“That is not im-por-tant. If they re-turn, I will go.”
“I don’t think so,” he said firmly. “Not while you’re on my ship. I poked my nose in, and now it’s my responsibility.”
“You will take me?”
He faltered and blinked at her. “Uh ... what?”
“To Mnaave, you will take me to Mnaave? That I might fin-ish my bear-ing of the gift?”
“Oh.” He chuckled. “Oh, sure. Yeah. Take you to Mnaave. No problem.”
Lyrith nodded. “Thank you, M’hhcen-see.”
“Sorry about the quarantine,” he said. “Soon as I can, I’ll have the doctor clear you and we’ll get you set up in better quarters. It’s
obvious you’re no threat to my crew.”
The things that Selar didn’t deem worthy of
Elizabeth Shelby snorted in disgust.
It was late and she couldn’t sleep, but knew that wandering down to the bridge would be a bad idea because those on duty would
either think she was checking up on them or resent her intrusion. Or both.
So, curious about their spore-gassing passenger, she’d gone into the same files to which Doctor Selar had referred, wanting to find
out for herself just what she was dealing with.
Now she knew. The Aranabothians were a race composed entirely of females. Like dryads, tree-nymphs from old Earth
mythology, they could successfully interbreed with a diverse range of males, but the resultant offspring was always female and always
Exotic beauty plus damsel-in-distress passiveness plus a hint of danger added up to an allure that affected anyone possessing that
troublesome dowsing-rod of a Y chromosome. No wonder every man on the ship had just about gawked their eyes out of their sockets!
A small orange light flashing in the corner of her console drew her thoughts away from snide mental jabs about how amazing it was
that Mac had gone along with the quarantine.
She’d programmed the ship’s computer to note any instances of unusual events, anything that fell outside a pre-set parameter. Whether
it was a fluctuation in the warp core, an unauthorized transporter use, even a request for a controlled substance from one of the replicators,
the computer dutifully recorded it for Shelby’s later perusal.
Big Sister is watching, she thought, and pressed a panel that would inform her as to the nature of the event.
Abnormal energy readings coming from one of the sensor arrays.
Probably nothing, but worth checking out.
At the very least, when she showed up right as the night-crew were trying to figure it out, they’d be impressed by her uncanny knack
of knowing when something was going on. Mac had his hunches, but she preferred to rely on something a little more tangible.
She dressed quickly and went for a stroll. Now that she had a potential reason to appear on the bridge, she had no hesitation about
Before she could get there, Mackenzie Calhoun’s voice burst from the speakers.
“Security to sickbay now!!!”
“Oh, goddammit,” Shelby said, reversing her course and breaking into a run. “I should have known!”
“This is fine,” Lyrith said, referring to her
“Not very comfortable,” Mac pointed out. “Or very private.”
As he said it, he was conscious of the intern keeping an idle eye on them. Not close enough to overhear, but she was bound to report to
Selar that the captain had made an impromptu middle-of-the-night call on their guest. And Selar, in her peculiarly tactless Vulcan way, would
say something in either Shelby or Kebron’s hearing.
The prospect of having to put up with yet another chewing-out by either (or, with his luck, both) of them made his head spin. He
wondered if he ought to just go ahead and let Lyrith out, thereby earning the lecture he was bound to get anyway.
But if he did that, he’d have Selar on his back too, and the three of them at once was more than he could take.
“The jewel,” he said. “When I came in, what were you doing with it?”
“I walk-ed. To find watr.”
“The replicator can give you water. Didn’t anyone demonstrate --?”
“Not the same.” Her lips drew into a pensive bow as she searched for a word. “Cann-ed. Tinn-ed. Flat. Just as this light --” she
pointed at the overhead fixture, which could be set anywhere from ultraviolet to full-spectrum, “-- is a false sun. It has the ... parts, but
not the ... whole.”
“Like the difference between synthehol and the real thing?”
“What?” Great, now they were both confused.
“Hu-mans boil grain in-to juice and let it go sour, and drink to ad-dle the head.”
“Not many bars on your planet, I take it.”
She shook her head. She’d unbound her hair and it hung to her waist, the white tinged many colors by the subdued third-shift lighting.
The green streaks looked to have a different, softer texture. Of course, he couldn’t tell just by looking; he’d have to gather up a handful of
that satiny cascade ...
Mac snapped himself out of it with a rueful grin.
“We have no build-ings on my world,” Lyrith was saying, unaware of his brief side trip into fantasyland. “The trees are sis-ters
and homes to us ...”
She trailed off uncertainly.
“What’s wrong?” He moved closer.
A band of blue-white energy rippled down the force field, bulging it from within. It crackled all around the edges. At the same
instant, the dimmed light in the cell blew out with a snapping sound.
The intern sat up straight.
Lyrith backed into a corner of the cell, the jewel clutched to her chest. A sourceless wind stirred the ends of her hair.
“What --?” she asked fearfully.
The rear wall melted and whirled into a black, gaping vortex. Flame roared through, a fireball pushing a cloud of heated air in front
Lyrith cried out and flung an arm across her face, but the fire never reached her. It churned in on itself and vanished, and the vortex
Wormhole? Mac thought, already springing into action. He slapped his communicator and yelled for security.
An arm shot through the hole. It was brawny and thick and covered with plated burnt-orange scales, the elbow and knuckles
bristling with horns, a spike where a thumb might be. The arm was quickly followed by the rest of an Infernan wearing a bronze corselet
and something that looked like a pair of knee-length bloomers made of studded leather. The effect was ludicrous and Mac would have laughed
if the intruder hadn’t gone straight for Lyrith.
“No!” He lunged, forgetting the force field until the tremendous, punishing jolt slammed through his body. He rebounded,
stumbled, and only kept his footing by knocking over the startled intern who’d had the bad luck to come up behind him at just that
Though she’d held it protectively to her, Lyrith did not resist when the Infernan snatched the jewel from her. Nor did she resist, not
even to try and pull away, when his other hand clamped down on her slender arm.
“Lyrith! No! Stop him!” Mac shouted. “Spore him!”
She gaped at him as if he’d just enthusiastically suggested they indulge in one of the most obscene and illegal acts in the entire
“Shit!” He went for the controls.
Passive resistance was the best she could do, allowing herself to go slack and dead-weight. It didn’t stop the Infernan; he just
scooped her up and dumped her over his shoulder like a bundle of supple green reeds.
The doors to sickbay zipped open with a nanosecond to spare as Zak Kebron came barreling through in answer to Calhoun’s call.
But he was all the way across the room and a wounded patient as well as the dazedly-rising physician were between security officer and
The Infernan moved toward the hole, pausing only to turn and offer Mac a universally-recognized gesture. Lyrith did not raise her
head. No imploring entreaty, nothing ... she wouldn’t want anyone to get violent because of her.
Mac punched in his override code and the force field winked out of existence. Kebron’s bellow didn’t stop him from charging all-
out after the Infernan as he prepared to step through the hole.
He knew right away he wasn’t going to be in time, and turned his charge into a flying tackle. Heat baked at him, reducing his eyes to
protesting, watering slits. He felt the solid crunch of his shoulder driving into the small of the Infernan’s back, and then they were hurled
together into a turbulent smoky hell.
Shelby burst into sickbay and almost broke her nose
on Zak Kebron’s broad back.
The Brikar was standing absolutely still, except for small tremors that rolled outward from his chest and down his arms to his
fists, like seismic vibrations spreading out from the epicenter of an earthquake. He was staring fixedly at an empty and open quarantine
cell, and Shelby’s first horrified thought was that he was about to drop dead from spore inhalation and forget about Selar’s 8% statistic.
Then she realized that the other security guard and one of the medical team were up and still drawing breath.
Then she realized that there was no sign of either Calhoun or the Aranabothian. And that sickbay stank faintly of smoke. And what
was that awful grinding noise?
The awful grinding noise was coming from Zak Kebron’s jaw. It stopped long enough for him to look at her, register her presence,
and say, “He’s gone.”
“Computer, locate Captain Calhoun,” Shelby said, though she already knew what she’d get by way of reply.
“Captain Calhoun is not aboard the Excalibur,” the synthesized female voice said.
“What happened?” she demanded of Kebron.
He told her. The story sounded nuts, totally nuts, but the other two reported the same thing.
“And they weren’t beamed out.” She paced, brimming with agitation underscored with worry (and marbled with irritation; damn
Mac and his rush-to-the-rescue mentality anyway!). “Whatever it was, it must’ve been the source of those weird energy readings. Get me
someone from Engineering down here right now, and I want a complete scan of the area, longest range we can manage.”
Soon, sickbay was packed with personnel, both those she’d sent for and others drawn by the ruckus. The word spread like a forest
fire from one end of the ship to the other, and while everyone was upset, no one could make a valid claim to surprise. It sure wasn’t the
first time something like this had happened.
In a brief lull between having one batch of orders in the process of being carried out and trying to decide what her next course of action
should be, Shelby wondered if in another year or so they’d all become blasé about it. Captain’s missing? So what else is new?
Doctor Selar showed up looking as fresh and well-groomed as if she sealed herself in preservative Plasware rather than go to bed at
night. She moved her remaining patient to a private and quieter locale before proceeding to question the physician that had been on the scene.
Burgoyne arrived in a slinky robe that left little of hir figure to the imagination, though if ship’s scuttlebutt was to be believed (and
Shelby had no doubts that it was), half the crew was already quite familiar with said figure.
Kebron simply stood where he was, activity all around him, like a monolith. Shelby knew that he wasn’t going to move until he
had someplace to go and someone to dismember.
In the end, their investigation came up with no conclusive results and only a few sensible speculations.
“No transporter signal trace of any kind,” Burgoyne said. “Best guess is that it was what they say it looked like, some sort of a
“A directable, controllable wormhole?” Shelby chewed on her lower lip. “To where?”
“The Infernan ship?”
“If they could do that, why bother to attack the Cartagena in the first place?”
“It can’t be easy to do. They opened that gateway and kept it open and steady for a lot longer than a transporter beam would take,
with a target that’s moving at a good clip. They know that attacking the Excalibur would be a wasted effort, so they had to resort to
another tactic. Look. Part of that strange energy reading included a sensor sweep. That’s how they homed in on our delectable guest. They
set coordinates, made their passageway, and walked right in.”
“And our shields did nothing.” She decided to let that ‘delectable’ bit slide.
“Because it’s not really a passageway. Not really a beam. Two points, but not connected by any sort of straight line. It didn’t have to
get through our shields because it never went anywhere near our shields.”
Kebron started grinding his jaw again, and dispatched security teams to make sure that the rest of the ship wasn’t being invaded.
“I’m not so much interested in how it works as where the other end of the tunnel is,” Shelby said. “Can we pinpoint it?”
Burgoyne shook hir head. “Like I said, Commander, no beam, no particles, nothing we can get a traceback on. We’ve got a sample of
cloth from the quarantine cell that absorbed some of the smoke, so we may be able to run an analysis and learn something that way --”
He did not move.
Lyrith touched him, and recoiled with a gasp from skin so hot that it turned her fingertips a dry and withered brown.
The human groaned -- alive, at least!
She held her fingers against the coolness of the Thurrahasla until the pain was gone and they had resumed their normal coloration.
Hoping that it might help, she pressed the jewel against his forehead.
Water, she thought. Deep and clear.
His breath hitched, then eased into a slow and regular rhythm. The tension fled his muscles, and the lines of strain and anger were
smoothed from his face.
Water deep and clear.
He did not look so fierce nor fearsome now. Handsome ... she supposed the word his kind would use was ‘rugged.’ Bristles of dark
hair coarsened his cheeks and chin, rougher than the tangled mass upon his scalp.
She reached out again, and found that the dreadful heat was gone. He still felt warm, far warmer than her flesh, but not to the point
of burning. She dared to switch to her other range of vision again, the range that showed her the pattern of warmth in all living things.
When they’d first arrived in this lightless room, all she’d been able to see when she looked at him was a blinding yellow shape. Now
he was back to what seemed normal for a human. Her own hand against him was a dark blur on a field of dull red.
One moment motionless, the next he was up and had her by the arms.
Sudden fear was instantly smothered by a lifetime of conditioning. Lyrith went limp, sagging against him.
“Lyrith?” He realized it almost at once and released her, but not before she felt the murderous surge of his strength. He could end her
life and she would defenselessly allow it, for far better that than to do harm.
She drew herself upright, and picked up the Thurrahasla. “Are you well, M’hhcen-see?”
“Where are we and how’d we get here? What happened to the Infernan?”
“You fought,” she said with mild reproach. “But there were two.”
“Two! I thought I heard someone behind me. Bastard must’ve knocked me over the head.” He glanced around at the rocky walls, lit
from behind by tongues of flame that leaped and danced from fissures in the floor. “So they stowed us in this cave. Are you all right?”
“Yes. You should not --”
“Don’t start with whether I should have or not. We’re here, and we’ve got to find a way out. Not on a ship. Planetside. Probably
Inferna, it smells bad enough.”
“It comes from the stones.”
“Where’s the water?”
“There is none here.”
“But ...” He broke off and looked at the jewel in her hand. “I saw a lake, a wide blue lake with trees and clouds reflected on it. I was
swimming in it, drinking from it.”
Lyrith held it out to him. “Here is the lake. The stream. The rain. It pro-tec-ted me from the pas-sage of fire, and it help-ed you.”
“Why didn’t they take it?” He skimmed his finger across the curved surface.
“They did not speak to me. They were anger-ed; you hurt the one.”
“No! To hurt is nev-er good!”
“If we’re going to get out of this alive, that might be our only option.”
“They’re probably going to kill us.”
His mouth twisted into a snarl and she let the resistance drain from her body again as she expected him to start shaking her. Instead,
he lowered his hands with careful gentleness to rest on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes.
“Lyrith, listen ... as a principle and a goal, it’s admirable, but in practice, total non-violence is just as bad as meeting every situation
with a sword or a phaser or a fist. There has to be a compromise, a middle ground. If you’d fought the Infernan --”
“I would have caus-ed his death. Do you not see, M’hhcen-see?”
“You can cause deaths by inaction too.”
“It is not the same.”
“The hell it isn’t.”
“Are not all lives e-qual? Is it not bet-ter to yield than let a life be lost?”
“By throwing away your own life, those of your friends, your family?”
“I am sor-ry,” she said softly.
He grumbled something in a language that she did not comprehend, then said, “It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can
defend yourself without killing the other guy --”
“No. You do not un-der-stand. We can-not stop it. There is no mid-dle ground with the spores. It is all-or-none. If we act in an-ger,
they are releas-ed.”
“So you would rather let yourself be killed than harm someone else.”
“Yes. To do less is to be an an-i-mal.”
His laugh was bitter. “Guess I know what that says about me.”
“By the Ssskra!” Ak roared, hurling a clay
pot between his sons. It struck the far wall and exploded, spraying thick
khass. “The bickering begins with the crack of a shell and never ends! I have heard enough!”
“But he --!”
“Enough, I say!” Ak hefted another pot and fixed his baleful eye on Ekekessba. “You are no longer in the nest to whet your temper
and fill your belly on the meat of your siblings! Bassaskra?”
The taller and leaner of the two bowed deferentially to the D’mak. “Yes, Sire?”
“Have them brought to me. Send as many kka as are needed.”
Ekekessba subsided into a simmering glower.
“I know the musings that must be going through your mind,” Ak said conversationally, pouring himself another potful of khass.
“But if you think that you can bring your teeth to the neck of your D’mak, I know one youngling in for a nasty surprise.”
“You might be the surprised one.”
Ak clicked a chuckle. “I am in my prime! Just as quick now as I was when I overpowered my father and took his place. You may
have many battles to your credit, but you have been away from home too long.”
“Fighting battles and bringing treasure, while some stayed behind like cowards and buried themselves in dusty ancient ways.”
“Battles like the one you just lost? Chah, Ekekessba! Soft and weak lifeforms defeat you, and you expect to test yourself against
me? Go back to the brood-caves and refresh your skills against adolescents first. Those ancient ways that you scorn were what let your
brother succeed where you failed.”
“You call this success?”
Ak sipped the khass, the hot liquid scalding a pleasant trail down his throat to warm his gullet. “Bassaskra took prisoners and
treasure and didn’t lose a single kka. You scurried back like a low-crawler, with a ship held together by the seams of its wall-coverings,
many kka dead or injured, empty-handed.”
“One of his kka was severely beaten,” Ekekessba protested sullenly. “And bringing Scarskin Calhoun here was a mistake. I know
this human. He is too dangerous to be kept alive.”
“You fear this Calhoun.”
“I know him,” he repeated.
“He is a captive on our world, weaponless and alone, when we have a thousand kka ready at the click of a thumbspike.”
Ekekessba blinked his innermost eyelid slowly and insolently. “You’ll see.”
Mackenzie Calhoun restlessly explored the limits
of his new environment. Pillars of jagged stone. Geysers of fire spouting
pools of bubbling oil. Fissures emitting sulfurous gas. Cut-rate vision of hell, lacking only the pitchfork-toting devils and screams of the
The only way in or out was an opening blocked by a large boulder. A few experimental pushes confirmed what his eyes had
already told him -- no way he was going to move that son-of-a-bitch on his own.
Lyrith sat in the center of the cave, as far from open flame as she could get. Mac was starting to worry about her. She looked ...
wilted was the word that came to mind. Even her death grip on the blue jewel didn’t seem to be helping.
He noticed something strange when he went to check on her, though after he gave it a little consideration, it made sense. The air
around the Aranabothian seemed fresher, more breathable. At first, he figured it was because she’d chosen a spot away from the gas fissures,
but then he realized that if she was plant-based like Selar said, maybe she was breathing the more toxic substances and exhaling oxygen.
“How are you doing?” he asked, hunkering down near her.
“The heat,” she said wanly.
“We’ll get out of here somehow.”
She wasn’t exactly bowled over with optimism at that.
The boulder grated against stone and began to roll. Mac stood up, poised for action. But as one Infernan after another filed through
the opening, he dismissed the urge to wade in swinging.
“You boys are taking no chances,” he said. “Armed for bear and everybody wearing his special knickers.”
The first four spread out to keep him covered. The second group formed an honor guard around a tall Infernan in a regal yellow
robe under a scarlet surcoat-thing.
“I am Bassaskra,” the tall one said. “Son of Ak, D’mak of all Inferna.”
Lyrith rose beside Mac. Her triad of fingers rested lightly on his elbow, and he wasn’t sure whether she was seeking comfort or trying
to warn him out of his violent tendencies.
“I’m Captain Mackenzie Calhoun of the USS Excalibur. Abduction of a Starfleet officer and an ambassador is a big no-no, so
I’d suggest you reconsider whatever it is you’re up to.”
“The D’mak has called for you,” Bassaskra said, unimpressed.
“If he wants to look at his prisoners, how about he trundles his scaly orange butt down here in person?”
The pressure on his elbow increased a tad, not nearly enough to hurt and therefore not nearly enough to pay attention to. Maybe Lyrith
was prepared to walk calmly to her death, but that wasn’t the way they did things on his planet.
Bassaskra’s eye narrowed, but he kept his diplomatic tone. “The D’mak invites you as guests, not prisoners.”
“Oh, well that changes everything.” He took Lyrith’s hand and placed it in the crook of his arm as if taking her out for a starlight
Guards surrounded them. Mac’s shoulderblades itched with the awareness that enemies with guns were at his back, but there was
nothing he could do about it.
Information and time. He needed information, a look around, the chance to assess opportunities for escape. And time ... time for his
crew to track him down in yet another of Starfleet’s longstanding tradition of end-game saves. They wouldn’t disappoint.
At the very least, he knew he could count on Shelby to find him. Eppy wouldn’t miss a chance to unleash the full fury of her
temper on him.
Their escorts didn’t seem inclined toward chit-chat, so Mac devoted his energies to gathering that information.
It wasn’t pretty. Inferna was aptly-named. Barren, volcanic, the sun a vengeful yellow eye in a sky that was red-orange day and night
because of the nebula that surrounded the solar system. The ground was grey-brown and lifeless. Sheets of black glass were frozen in
humps and rivers, their edges sharp enough to slash through clothing. The wind was arid and gritty with ash.
Lyrith blanched beneath the hellish sky and held onto Mac for support.
In the distance, a cone-shaped mountain reared against the horizon. Plumes of smoke gushed from its summit.
It occurred to Mac that every Infernan he’d ever known had had an obsessive interest in items of beauty, art in myriad forms. He’d
always wondered if it was because they were so puke-ugly themselves, but now he understood. It was their homeworld that was puke-ugly.
The buildings weren’t much better. Made from rough-hewn blocks of stone, they were strictly functional.
From the outside, anyway. When Bassaskra led them inside, the change was dramatic. The thick, windowless walls (who’d want to
take in a view like that?) made the interiors a significant number of degrees cooler. The halls were adorned to the point of being garishly
cluttered with tapestries, statues, paintings, and so on.
A collector would go wild in here, Mac thought. The items came from hundreds of worlds, stretching back years upon years.
Seized by the Infernan raiding ships, brought home in an effort to beautify their wretched hellhole.
It would have been both endearing and funny if he wasn’t being marched along at gunpoint with no plan except his usual fallback
position of wild improvisation.
They came to a room in which the artwork on display was really thick, making the spacious chamber seem oppressively
cramped. A table took up most of the remaining space, a hugely heavy behemoth of a table with a marble-slab top and outward-curving
centipede legs of brass. It could have seated twenty with ample elbow room, but at the moment, only five places were set and a dubious-
looking feast was laid out.
Two of those places were occupied. At the head of the table, in a chair that could also properly be called a throne, a stout Infernan
arrayed in rainbow cloth and enough gold to guarantee his sinking straight to the bottom if he fell in any body of water larger than a
bathtub was watching them avidly over the rim of a clay pot.
Mac guessed that this must be the D’mak, but his attention was captured by the Infernan sitting to the D’mak’s right.
“What do you know. Ekekessba. Running in some high circles, aren’t you?”
“This is the soft-life that you’re so worried about?” the D’mak said.
“With good reason.” Mac showed his teeth, knowing that these guys took a smile as a threat. He dredged up another fascinating
factoid from his memory ... their domination ritual involved getting your foe’s neck in your teeth.
“Some khass?” Ekekessba offered with overdone politeness.
“No thanks.” He still painfully recalled the one time Ekekessba had gotten him to try the red liquid. His senses of taste and smell
hadn’t functioned properly for weeks. Khass was a concentrated extract of pepper-oil that could make a Klingon go crying home to
“And this is the Aranabothian.” The D’mak flicked the layers of his eyelid at Lyrith. “Welcome to Inferna.”
“I did not choose to come,” she said. “Why do you do this? Why do you do harm to bring me here?”
“Because, fragile-green-one, there is much you can do for us.” He looked pointedly at the jewel nestled in her arm.
“Those of Mnaave ask-ed for our help.”
“Good for them,” Ekekessba said. “We don’t ask, we take!”
“See?” Mac whispered to her.
“My son is right,” the D’mak said, startling Mac -- he hadn’t realized that his old adversary was anyone of import. “We are not
Vulcans to frame logical negotiations, not Ferengi to bargain. When we heard of your mission to Mnaave, we decided to take that treasure
for ourselves. I have just the place for it.”
“The place?” Lyrith asked, puzzled.
“Right there.” They all followed the D’mak’s thumb-spike, which was indicating a dramatically-lit niche in the wall. “It will look
very nice there.”
“You would leave the Thurrahasla to look at? That is not its pur-pose --”
“Better than giving it to the Mnaavai! They would have destroyed it! And for what? To bring water,” he sneered.
“‘Scuse me,” Mac said when Lyrith was unable to speak, “but you don’t have much in the way of water either.”
“I will put it there, where it can be seen and appreciated. Give it to me now.”
She stared at him.
“Take it,” the D’mak snapped to the nearest guard.
Mac hopefully held his breath, but Lyrith only lowered her head dispiritedly as the guard divested her of the Thurrahasla and
carried it to the D’mak.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” he hissed, knowing it was a wasted effort.
“Ahhh,” the D’mak sighed. In his hands, with their knuckle horns and pebbled scales, the jewel looked fragile as a soap bubble.
Mac recalled the lake, being immersed in the fluid silkiness of that cool water, and a pang of loss wrenched at him. If the D’mak
experienced any similar vision, it didn’t show. He gloated over his prize, then heaved himself from his chair and went over to set it in its
place of honor.
“Now what?” Mac demanded gruffly. “You’ve got what you want.”
“Not all,” Bassaskra said.
Those two little words made the back of Mac’s neck prickle.
He took an instinctive step closer to Lyrith. “Oh, yeah?”
“He will give you too much trouble,” Ekekessba said, swilling from a pot of khass. “Just kill him now.”
“There must not be fight-ing,” Lyrith said softly.
“There won’t be,” Bassaskra assured her, “as long as there is cooperation.”
“Cooperation!” Ekekessba snorted. “Weak-talk! Did we cooperate in the nest, brother? No, it was each for himself! We
clawed our way to adulthood over the gutted bodies of our siblings! Our kka do not waste time with these idiotic notions! Except for
“Because you do not respect the words of the ancients is no cause to insult those who do,” Bassaskra said. “The ways that you
scorn are the ways that will lead Inferna to a new strength! I have read it! I have seen it!”
“Khass-sodden ramblings of the dead!” Ekekessba insisted, clashing his thumbs-spikes together.
The D’mak reached over and slapped Ekekessba’s hands apart. “You had your chance and failed! I said that if Bassaskra won, if
Bassaskra brought me the treasure, I would give him my permission to follow the will of the ancients. If he is right and the prophecy is true, it
means much for Inferna. It means that we will be a world to be reckoned with! We will have unity and power, be able to fight great
wars instead of slinking lizard-quick on raids.”
“Prophecy?” Mac asked loudly, with a sick sinking feeling.
Bassaskra nodded proudly. “The ancients had many wisdoms. From their writings, I learned to open the portal that let the kka fetch
you here. And I learned of the Claws of the Ssskra, weapons that will make our kka invincible soldiers.”
“What about the prophecy?” he prodded grimly.
“The ancients wrote that One would be taken from the dark sky, garbed in the Mantle of K’sask, and --”
“Hold it!” Mac shouted, thrusting his palms vehemently at the floor. “No way. Dammit, one ancient prophecy is enough! Great Birds
of the Galaxy ... Saviors ... screw it! I’ve already been through that crap!”
“What are you squeaking about?” the D’mak demanded.
Ekekessba clicked in mirth. “You think it is you, Scarskin? So full of yourself!”
“It’s her,” Bassaskra said. “The pure one. The sacrifice.”
The kka rushed their charges -- one
placid, one struggling and swearing -- from the room.
“Didn’t I say this would happen?” Ekekessba inquired of the air at large.
Bassaskra kicked out, but, still blinded, missed. In that bright instant, he hated his brother with a passion that he hadn’t felt since the
day they hitched themselves over the hardpacked clay edge of the nest and tumbled down into the care of the females.
It had all happened so fast!
“No,” their sire said. “You claimed he was dangerous. Bassaskra’s pride is injured more than his eye.”
Speechless in pain, Bassaskra couldn’t contradict. His eye was awash in a lava pit.
The human had gone berserk. That was the only possible explanation. He’d listened calmly as Bassaskra related the story of the
ancients, and then ... unpredictable as a fireflash from the sky!
By the Ssskra, it felt as if his eye was melting! He could be maimed for life, the last sight he’d remember that of a pot of khass
coming straight at him and then the red flood of the liquid. And his sire spoke of pride!
Lyrith wept over him in the manner of her people,
dry-eyed but with beads of clear green welling from ducts in the valleys
fingers. “Why did you?”
“Somebody had to,” he rasped.
“For what good? It chang-ed noth-ing.”
Her legs were folded beneath her body, and his head rested in her lap. The Infernan guards had beaten him, the worst savagery she
had ever witnessed. The wounds could not have hurt her more if they’d been her own.
Yet, though his face was swollen and discolored, though blood leaked from his nose, he wore a hard smile.
“Maybe not, but it made me feel better.”
“This is bet-ter?”
“They’re going to kill us. Me first; the only reason I’m not dead already is probably because Ekekessba’s trying to convince his old
man to let him have the privilege.”
“So you att-ack them for no rea-son.”
He rolled his head to the side and spoke as if he were trying to get a simple concept across to a child. “I attacked them because I
wasn’t about to go out without a fight! Dammit, Lyrith ... do you want to die?”
“Could’ve fooled me!”
“I do not want to die, M’hhcen-see. But more, I do not want to harm.”
A growl of frustration rose from deep in his chest. “There’s no other way to get out of this. It’s us or them. If you’d help, we might
stand a chance. You have a weapon --”
“No! It is no wea-pon! It is the worst part of us, a curse!”
“Not if you’re using it to save your -- hell, this isn’t getting anywhere!”
“I do not want to spend this last time in ar-gue-ment.”
“Fine. Great.” He sat up. “So we wait here like good little prisoners until our pal Backassward comes to get you. Then it’s on
with the Mantle, up the hill to the monster’s lair, and they’ll chain you to a rock like one of those virgins from the old Earth legends.”
“And I bet if you weren’t She-Who-Is-Most-Pure, you wouldn’t be in this fix.”
“I do not fol-low.”
He slowly sat up, looking at her in a very peculiar way. How intense were his eyes! The flower she’d told him of was that color, yes,
but feather-soft, and his gaze was not. It was sharp, sharp as a thorn.
“Eppy would kick my butt from here to the Neutral Zone,” he muttered.
“I can’t believe I’m thinking this,” he said. “But it might be ... no. No, knock it off, Mac, you’re out of your skull for sure this time.
Then again ... there are worse ways to spend your final hours ...”
“M’hhcen-see, what are you talk-ing a-bout?”
He took a deep breath, loosed it in a shaky self-conscious laugh. “This might sound tacky and self-serving as hell, but ... well ...
if you weren’t ... pure ... then you wouldn’t be a very good candidate for sacrifice, would you?”
She gasped. “Are you say-ing --?”
“I know how it sounds! But ...”
“That I be-come less pure?!”
Funny, she’d never seen a human’s skin turn that color before. “It was only a thought --”
“And you would ... would ... vol-un-teer? I am ap-pall-ed!”
“Okay, okay, a simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.” He tried on a lopsided grin and it didn’t fit him well.
“That I should strike you!” she continued, shaking her head in astonishment.
“Lyrith, I’m sorry. I haven’t had a lot of practice propositioning women. It’s usually the other way around. Oh, hell, that sounded bad
... look, forget it, huh?” He made to put a hand over his face, encountered a lump left by the fist of a guard, and winced.
“It is very no-ble of you to off-er,” she said uncomfortably, “but I can-not.”
“Like I said, it was only an idea.”
They avoided looking at each other in an awkward silence. Lyrith mulled over something he’d said, and the more she mulled, the
stranger it seemed, until she had to ask.
“You oft-en are re-quest-ed by women to hit them?”
“Hit them? No! Why?”
“You said ...”
“Wait a minute ... are we talking about the same thing here? Just what did you think I was volunteering to do?”
“To have me give you harm.” There was no comprehension in his expression yet, so she went on, and now it was her turn to sound
like someone explaining a simple fact to a child. “I am Balisurna. I have nev-er give-en harm to a liv-ing thing. There are those am-ong us
who gath-er plants, or fish, or drive off pred-a-tors. They are touch-ed by nec-ess-ar-y im-pur-it-y. I was rais-ed to be most pure and free from
He burst out laughing.
“What?” she asked. “If you did not mean for me to strike you, what?”
“I was talking about sex!”
“Sex?” she echoed, now utterly baffled. “What of it? I have done that man-y times.”
Bassaskra pretended not to listen as Ekekessba
harangued their father.
His eye felt overlarge and tender, and leaked steady tears from the corners, but the khass had been washed from it and he could still
see. He’d changed his stained clothes, this time for a plain yellow tunic in the style of the ancients. Suitable for approaching the Ssskra.
The Mantle of K’sask was folded on a table behind him. There was no point in delaying. When the Ssskra had accepted the sacrifice,
when the kka were armed with the powerful Claws, when prophecy was fulfilled and his own worth was proven, then the D’mak would
surely make him the destined heir.
Ekekessba had to know that. And it had to rankle, the way a piece of gravel lodged wrong beneath a scale rankled. For so long, he’d
been smugly certain that his raiding ways would win their father’s favor. It must be a bitter dose of ash-salts to have everything upended,
to see the brother he’d always considered weaker and inconsequential winning.
But for now, Ekekessba only wanted one thing.
Bassaskra was two ways about it. On the one thumb-spike, it didn’t matter to him if his brother gutted Calhoun and ate his organs
without chewing. Bassaskra had never intended to bring the human here in the first place, and despite the khass-bath he’d taken at
Calhoun’s hands, didn’t care what happened to the man.
But on the other thumb-spike, why allow Ekekessba the consolation prize of a murder? He’d lost, and should just grit and
swallow. Learn that being out of favor meant not getting everything he wanted. That, Bassaskra knew, would be a hard lesson for
Ekekessba to grasp, and he might as well get started now.
Still, Calhoun did have to die. Ekekessba was right about that. They couldn’t afford to leave him alive. Bad enough that Inferna was
already responsible for the deaths of other Federation people. That would make it a diplomatic hardship when Inferna was ready to take
her place among the respected war-worlds. One more body wouldn’t change that, but having a disgruntled captain out there who’d already
proven himself treacherous and revenge-minded ... not a good idea.
So he had to be killed. Did it matter if it was at the hands of some anonymous kka or Ekekessba himself? Dead was dead.
“Bassaskra!” the D’mak called. “Calhoun is your prisoner and you owe him for that attack. What do you want done with him?”
That rankled Ekekessba all the more, having it be Bassaskra’s own decision. He savored the dull fury gleaming from Ekekessba’s
Make his brother ask?
Give Calhoun to him as a gesture of fraternal solicitude? No, Ekekessba would only see that as a sign of weakness, and from then
on, Bassaskra would have problems with him. Wanting. Demanding. Trying to take advantage.
“Leave him alive for now,” Bassaskra said. “Let him fall to the Claws of Ssskra.”
“An excellent plan!” the D’mak beamed. “Tonight, after the sacrifice, when the favor of the Ssskra is most with us, I will let all
Inferna know that you, Bassaskra, will rule after me. And then we will celebrate by showing the kka what the Claws can do to our enemies!”
Ekekessba twitched as if he wanted to leap for the D’mak right then and there, bring his teeth to the neck of his father and force his
brother to fight.
The D’mak clicked softly, mockingly. Unafraid.
Rather than try such a desperate gamble, Ekekessba turned and stalked from the room, leaving Bassaskra to finish his preparations in
“You ... you have?” he asked, peering at her
as if seeing her for the first time.
“Man-y times,” Lyrith repeated. “I have man-y off-spring.”
He seemed very bemused. “Most places, when we’re talking about purity, that’s what we’re referring to.”
His face was gradually losing that oddly darkened hue, but the way he held his body told her that he was not wholly at ease with this
She understood then. “Ah! You were sug-gest-ing that we couple!”
The color rushed back in all at once and his night-flower eyes slid away from hers to look at something else, at anything else. “Well,
you know, if it would have helped ...”
“I would like to.”
There was something wrong with his breathing. Had the gasses in the cave had reached an intolerable level?
He reached for the long locks that had fallen over her shoulders when she leaned toward him in concern. He gathered up the strands
and rubbed them as if fascinated by the texture.
“We do have until sundown,” he said, still without meeting her eyes.
They were both sitting cross-legged, facing each other. Lyrith splayed her fingers across his knees, feeling the warmth of him through
his black uniform pants.
He would be slow, she realized. Deliberate and cautious, exact in his every movement. Careful. Holding back. Not wanting to give up
too much of himself, make himself vulnerable. She didn’t know how he could live like that, letting violence flash from him quick and
destructive as lightning but shielding the rest so closely.
She said nothing more, and neither did he. Soon there would be nothing to be said, nothing that couldn’t best be communicated in
murmurs and motion.
His eyes closed and his face drew tight in pensiveness, as if he was on the verge of changing his mind. Lyrith waited, her hands
resting flat on his thighs. Then he shook his head once, a short and brusque shake, and kissed her. It started out brief and guarded, but
Lyrith knew that if she wanted this to be, she would have to take the lead.
He didn’t resist as she found the fastenings that held his clothing together and undid them. In some places, his skin was
weathered by the suns of many worlds, and in others it was paler. He wore many scars, most very old, a history of his vicious life.
Curls of dark hair covered him, sparse on his limbs, thicker on his chest and in a line down the taut flatness of his stomach to the
triangular thatch of his groin. To him, her own skin must feel cool and wax-smooth, like the surface of a new leaf.
Her touch, her nearness, and her intent all affected him. She watched in pleased anticipation as he grew erect, then caressed him
until he wordlessly urged her to stop.
With his help, she shed her poncho and skirt, and the sparkling mesh garment beneath them. A smile tugged at one corner of his
mouth as he traced her markings, the darker green stripes that patterned her body.
Once she was nude, some of his hesitation vanished. But cautious and slow, yes, cautious and slow, he didn’t fall eagerly upon
her but explored her first with both hands and then with the liquid heat of his mouth, gently unfolding her petals to taste of the nectar within.
He leaned against a slanted rock so that he was half-reclined. Lyrith stepped over him, and sank down until she was sitting in his lap
with her legs hooked around his waist.
They were face to face, one of his arms around her so that the flat of his hand was pressed against the small of her back, the other
reaching below to guide his shaft into her.
Deliberate and careful. Not fast, not frantic. Controlled. Silent.
Even when the sensations rushed outward through her like reviving sap at the end of a winter’s sleep, even when he groaned in
the low and special way that she knew meant he was nearing his own peak of pleasure, he went with that same deliberate and careful control.
As his warmth flowed into her, he exhaled a tremulous sigh that mingled with her elated moan. They remained as they were for
several minutes, not moving except for the languid caress of his hand on the curve of her back.
His relaxation didn’t last long. Too soon, Lyrith felt the distance settling over him again, blocking himself off bit by bit. She
rose from his body after one final kiss, and dressed in silence as he did the same. Before, there had been no further need for words; now, no
words seemed adequate. Almost as if he was already regretting letting himself go even that much.
Bassaskra paused warily in the lava-tunnel
outside of the cave.
All of the kka with him knew about Tkess, who was still in the pain-pits thanks to Calhoun, and most of them also knew about
how Bassaskra himself had been doused with khass and almost blinded.
They understood that this was a human who didn’t care if the odds were in his favor or not, and they were all armed and at the ready.
But their sensible concern was overpowered by excitement.
The sun was falling, and by the time it rose again, the kka would have received the Claws of Ssskra. None of them were going to let one
troublesome human get in the way of that.
The boulder was rolled aside at Bassaskra’s command, and the kka proceeded into the cave to stand at alert. Bassaskra followed, and
surveyed his prisoners.
The Aranabothian betrayed no signs of nervousness. She stood calmly, accepting of her fate. Meek and mild, and it hadn’t even been
necessary to ensure her cooperation by making threats against her companion. Her own nature was all the cooperation they’d need.
And if that jewel was any indication of the treasures of her world, well then, Bassaskra knew what the powerful and newly
respectable Infernan fleet’s first stop should be. Great wealth and timid natives ... it was a wonder Aranaboth hadn’t been sacked to the bare
ground long since.
Calhoun was another matter. Although he was outnumbered nine to one, and did not have so much as a pot to throw, something in
his eyes made Bassaskra’s throat go dry. His teeth were bared as if he couldn’t wait to feet Infernan neck-scales between them.
“You’re going to have to kill me if you think you’re taking her out of this room,” he declared.
“M’hhcen-see.” The Aranabothian turned to him with her head tipped to the side. Incredibly, she sounded reproachful.
He held her by the wrist. “No, dammit, Lyrith! I can’t let --”
Bassaskra jerked thumb-spike toward Calhoun, and the kka moved in to surround him. He let go of the Aranabothian, crouched to
thrust his hand between two rocks, and sprang back up. A blade flashed gold in the firelight, a kka reeled back with a bleeding gash,
and Bassaskra incredulously recognized the weapon as an eating-knife from the D’mak’s table.
When --?!? How --?!?
The Aranabothian cried out in horror as Calhoun plunged into the middle of the kka. Bassaskra was frozen in surprise.
A kka reeled back with a punctured eye, tripped, and the back of his head hit a jagged stone with a gruesome cracking-punching
sound. The kka’s body seized and jittered, voiding itself before going limp.
The rest of the kka piled onto the man, earning more wounds but finally overpowering him. Immobilized and battered half-senseless,
he still struggled.
Bassaskra reconsidered. Kill him now? He was clearly too dangerous. Ekekessba had been right. Every minute they kept him
alive was a minute in which more kka might be attacked.
But, no ... if he didn’t save Calhoun for tonight, some of his standing would slip.
When Bassaskra had heard that Ekekessba left Inferna a few hours ago, he’d first suspected that it was his brother’s way of insulting
him. Ekekessba would rather miss out on the most glorious moment in Infernan history than witness Bassaskra’s triumph.
Now, watching this determined human, he couldn’t help wondering if Ekekessba’s sudden departure had been based on
something much more prosaic, like self-preservation.
The kka manacled Calhoun, one set around his wrists and another around his ankles, with a third set joining the chains of the first
and second sets together.
The Aranabothian took a step toward him, water dripping from her hands.
“Lyrith,” he said urgently, meaningfully.
“I ... can-not.” Her shoulders slumped.
Bassaskra clicked in relief. “Bring her. The Ssskra is waiting.”
The kka obeyed, leading her to him. He shook out the ash-grey folds of the Mantle of K’sask and draped the heavy fabric over
her slender form.
Head bowed, she followed Bassaskra toward the lava-tunnel. At the cave’s mouth, she turned and looked back at Calhoun where he
lay curled in an in-shell position on the rocky ground.
“Lithral,” she said. “Night-Flowr. That is what I would have call-ed her. And may-be she would have e-ven had your eyes.”
She smiled at Calhoun as if what she’d said was supposed to both make sense and be comforting. The man stared at her in blank
incomprehension that turned swiftly to stark shock.
“What?” he gasped. “You ... you’re not ... you can’t be --”
The rest of his words were drowned out by the rumble of the boulder being moved back into position.
They thought she was not afraid.
Lyrith found that hard to believe.
How could she not be afraid? The end of her existence awaited her atop this sheet of volcanic glass baking so painfully
beneath her feet. The sun’s final curve was all that remained of the day. It was time.
“M’hhcen-see,” she whispered, “I am sor-ry.”
He would not understand. If she had a year to explain it, he would still not understand. His mind just could not fit itself around the
idea that was ingrained nature to her people. Do no harm. Not even to save a lover, a child, oneself.
Bassaskra stood beside and a bit behind her, mumblinglingly what she presumed was a speech. Above them, on ridges of stone
overlooking the flat basin of the one-time cauldron, the D’mak and hundreds more Infernans waited and watched.
Several yards in front of Lyrith, the plain of black glass was broken by a fissure, a deep chasm from which steam and smoke arose.
As the sun vanished and Bassaskra began to speak firmly and surely, a dusky red glow began to shine from the chasm.
It brightened and intensified, changing from dusky red to passionate crimson to brilliant scarlet. Then red-orange, blaze-orange,
brighter and brighter still. The earth began to shake, the sheet of glass starred with fractures.
Something was rising from the chasm. Rising from the depths of Inferna.
Lyrith did not want to see, could not look away.
Impressions ... long sinuous neck, backswept horns, wings that unfurled in a halo of fire, white-gold claws like scythes out of legends.
“Ssskra! Ssskra!” Infernans shrieking with exultation.
She tried to prepare herself for the invasion of those claws. It would be over in an instant, an all-consuming instant in which all the
harm she could ever imagine was compressed and delivered to her.
Sweeping toward her.
Sparkles dancing in a lightstorm all around.
Her body flying apart into countless tiny pieces.
Bassaskra concluded his speech with ecstatic
victory, the roar of his kka’s voices ringing even above the earth-shaking
the Ssskra’s appearance.
The Aranabothian was motionless, her mind doubtless ripped away by fright.
The Ssskra struck.
But the Aranabothian was not there.
A shimmer of light had taken her place.
And the Ssskra, denied the sacrifice, split the sky with a screech of rage.
In the instant before all thought ceased, Bassaskra knew that he’d gotten the Claws he always wanted ...
“It’s a trick,” Zak Kebron said. “A trap.”
“Probably,” Elizabeth Shelby acknowledged. “But we’re going to check it out anyway. Stay ready.”
“I always am.”
“Watson, anything?” Shelby asked, directing her question into thin air.
“Nothing yet,” the transporter chief replied via the computer. “A lot of life signs, a lot of activity, but no -- there! Signal lock!”
“Directly to the bridge!” She glanced around but everyone had already moved back to leave the space in front of the command chairs
open and clear.
With a whirring hum, a shower of particles appeared above the deck and then solidified into a grimy, dusty, hog-tied figure.
“Mac!” One look at the bruises and Shelby called out again, over the uproar coming from the rest of the bridge crew. “Doctor Selar,
you’re needed immediately!”
He coughed. “I’m okay.” His voice was ghastly -- dry and papery.
“We’ll let the doctor be the judge of that. Kebron, the manacles.”
He was there before she finished her sentence, popping the chains. As Mac’s body straightened out, he groaned and she could hear
his joints creak and crack.
The same turbulent mix of emotions bubbled up in Shelby. She wanted to throw her arms around him and tell him how worried she’d
been, and she wanted to plant the toe of her Starfleet-issue shoe square in the seat of his pants and tell him what a jerk he was.
“Where’s ... where’s Lyrith?” Mac croaked. His lips were parched and split.
A raw and horrible silence fell.
Doctor Selar arrived in the middle of it, paid it no attention, and went to work. “He’s badly dehydrated. Injuries consistent with --”
“Where is Lyrith?” He tried to sit up, but Selar held him flat with one hand as she continued running the tricorder over him.
“I will sedate you if I must,” she informed him.
Shelby could tell he didn’t believe her, but when he called her bluff, Selar matter-of-factly tagged him with a hypospray and out he
McHenry looked at Shelby and shook his head. “I’m not picking up Aranabothian life signs anywhere on the planet.”
He recognized sickbay by the smell even before
he could convince his caked and gummy eyes to peel themselves open. Funny
how they all had that same smell. Medicinal, antiseptic.
“Captain?” Selar, professionally courteous, with all the bedside manner of the ship’s computer.
“How long have I been out?”
“Two days. But I am happy to report that you’ve recovered fully from your ordeal.”
“I feel like crap. Is that your idea of ‘recovered fully’?”
She didn’t dignify it with a response. Mac finally did get his eyes open, and turned his head far enough to see that he was the only
“Tell me what happened.”
“We received a transmission from an unknown, unidentified source informing us that you were being held on Inferna. The
transmission included coordinates. Although there was some concern that it was a trap, Commander Shelby chose to investigate.”
“Hurray for Eppy,” he said weakly. “What about Lyrith?”
Selar’s expression sombered, and if there was anything more depressing than a somber Vulcan, he had yet to discover what. “Sensors
showed no sign of her whatsoever.”
Mac closed his eyes again. He’d known it in his gut, when the hours had passed and though he hadn’t been able to see the sky from
inside the cave, his internal clock told him it was past sunset. Then past dawn the next day, and sunset the day after that. No Infernans
coming to kill him, or feed him, or anything. He didn’t know if they had forgotten him or were planning to leave him to starve or what, and
in his frustrated anger, it hadn’t mattered.
Dammit, Lyrith, he thought. Why didn’t you --
No good; that line of thinking was as futile as resisting the Borg. She couldn’t, she hadn’t, and now she was gone.
Gone, and so was their daughter, if she’d been right about that.
He’d missed out on his son’s childhood and their current relationship was screwed-up at best, and now there was another one
lost before he even had a chance to figure out how he felt about another shot at parenthood.
Mac got up. Selar almost launched into a lecture, took another look at his face, and changed her mind.
“Calhoun to bridge,” he said.
Eppy’s voice came back at once, warm and strong. “Good to hear you’re up and around, Captain!”
“Up and around and ready to go,” he agreed. He caught his grin in a reflective surface, saw that it looked more like a frozen grimace,
and glanced away. “What’s our heading?”
The Mnaavai were small and quick, none standing
more than four feet tall. They darted and scurried whenever they moved,
they were accustomed to expanses of blistering sand broken only by tufts of brittle grass and cactus.
In time, they’d adapt. And gladly.
The only sand on Mnaave these days was that of the beaches that lined the lakes and rivers. The brittle grass was a thing of the past,
replaced by meadows. The cactus remained, but those needled sentinels were surrounded by fields of wild flowers that had erupted in
magnificent color when the rains came.
With her toes sunk deep in the mud at a stream’s edge, Lyrith remembered the absolute astonishment she’d felt upon materializing
on a transporter pad.
That astonishment had doubled when a figure stepped from the shadows and held out a blue crystal, in which the tides and currents of
a world’s worth of waters were held.
“I think this belongs to you,” Ekekessba had said.
He hadn’t wanted to explain, embarrassed by it all, but she had gotten the whole story out of him by the time they reached the desert
planet. How his desire to disgrace his brother had outweighed even his hatred of Calhoun, and so he’d contacted the Excalibur with news of
where they’d find their captain. How, when the starship hadn’t shown up in time to stop the sacrifice, he’d done it himself, beaming her out
from right under the Ssskra’s claws. How he’d even, out of pique, stolen the jewel from the D’mak’s hall.
She still didn’t know why he had returned it to her, or why he’d taken her to Mnaave to complete her mission. She suspected that he
himself didn’t know.
Eventually, word of the renewal of Mnaave would spread to other systems. It might even reach a certain Federation vessel.
Lyrith stroked the bud that swelled on her abdomen and smiled into the gentle sunlight, and the wind caught the joyful cries of
Mnaavai at play in the tall grass.