The Burning Claw
The air was thick with the smell of blood and sweat. Deoch gripped the hatchet tightly, a hiss building rising from his chest to his throat. He held it there, as he did his anticipation. The small ax was not his preferred weapon. His dagger lay broken on the floor. And the captain had just yanked the ax from the arsenal hanging along the combat’s room walls just fast enough to block a decapitating blow. The fair skinned Nuvian circled him, clutching the circular three-bladed weapon with her good arm. The other hung loosely at her side, blood still flowing from it. Mavaar had long since given up trying to favor it. Both of Deoch’s arms were sliced up nicely too, a casualty of his conceit to show them off at all times. The medic would have his work cut out for him after this session.
The woman’s eyes were concealed beneath her heavily ridged brow. She blew unruly golden ringlets from her eyes. Her once sensuous lips had become a slash across her face, showing her bared teeth. Her skintight black leotard was appreciative of her sinuous, lethal form.
Despite the work out her breathing was steady and despite her injuries, Mavaar had not lost her composure. Deoch wished the same could be said of him.
He had nearly succumbed to blood lust several times during their bout, and his rage had made him sloppy, and became a second ally to Mavaar as she had carved into like a roast. He was amazed that she wielded the three-bladed kligat, a Capellan weapon, even better than Nadeen, a Capella IV native. But the massive woman preferred energy weapons or her own brute strength from what he could tell, and neither had failed her yet.
His first mate often frowned upon personal combat, but Deoch knew that his crew needed such outlets. Even if he could afford holosuites he wouldn’t want to install them. No photonic light displays could ever substitute for the smell of blood or the clash of steel.
Deoch feinted, hoping to draw the woman off balance, so that he could go in for the finishing stroke. Once she was disarmed, she would be his for the taking, in more ways than one. . But once again, Mavaar was a step ahead. “You can’t be serious about indulging Gedrik,” she said, bringing Deoch out of his battle mood.
“We can have this discussion later,” he groaned. He had hoped his offer of combat would cool her thrusters about it, but he had guessed wrong.
“This could be, no it is, the score of a lifetime,” Maavar pressed, while still keeping her guard up. She knew him too well, he surmised. Perhaps it was time to sell her, though he knew that was merely a pipe dream, and the worst part of it was that she knew it too.
“How much longer do you think you can keep this ship running or this crew docile? You’ll never make as much coin from slaves or acquired merchandise that you can with this regulator device!”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, “but we would never catch so much heat for it either. If we went your route, it would be best to unload it on the Orions and let them deal with the headaches. I mean, this is something beyond us, and I have no desire to be pursued by Starfleet, not to mention the Romulans, Klingons, Tholians, Gorn, or whomever. All the big disruptors would want this thing.”
“You’ve slipped out of many a noose since I’ve been here,” Mavaar rejoined.
“Because I’ve been smart,” he shot back. “I know my place in the food chain,” he added.
“Can you say the same for Gedrik?” The woman asked, drawing another groan from him. This was a sore spot for him, and she knew it. Though the Nuvian played the perfect courtesan in public, she had a quite formidable intellect, and once Deoch had learned to accept the value of that, The Burning Claw had become a far more profitable venture. The fake hail from the Enterprise, clipped together from Federation News Service segments of Captain Picard that had snared quite a few gullible travelers had been just one of her ideas. “Even if, and it’s a big if, his idiotic plan works, who do you think will get the credit for saving your homeworld? You?” She laughed, “Or him?”
He lunged at her, and she slid easily out of the way, flattening the circular blade to bring down on the base of his neck. Despite her skill, her slender frame could only bring enough force to stun him. If Nadeen had been on the other end of that blow, Deoch’s last image would probably be of his headless neck.
As it were, Mavaar’s strike knocked him to the ground, black worms wriggled across his vision, and the limbs that bore the brunt of his fall began to slowly capitulate. “Yield,” Mavaar’s whisper slithered into his ear, and he felt the woman straddling his back.
He grinned, using his remaining strength to throw her off. It was perhaps the surprise that caught her as much as his strength, but the woman fell the deck beside him second before Deoch’s body gave out. Mavaar provided an unpleasant pillow, but he supposed it was better than the metal plating.
She gasped, the air ripped from her, and Deoch covered her, his hands locking on to her wrists and pinning her to the ground. “No, do you yield?”
He eased up only to allow her to catch her breath. Mavaar managed a smile. “Yield,” the Venturi commanded, the time for games at an end. He was the sole master of this vessel and he would make sure that no one forgot that, even favorites like Mavaar. With renewed strength, he pressed her wrists together, satisfied when he felt the bones scraping together in each. Quickly the Nuvian’s smile morphed into a grimace and then a wail.
“I yield,” she said, defiance etched on her face.
“That is more like it,” he laughed before planting a large kiss on her lips. Her tongue slipped through his teeth and found his, pulling him closer to her like a tractor beam. Their hands roved each other, tearing what they couldn’t unfasten or unzip.
Their lovemaking was as furious and complete as a fast moving storm, made the more intense by their shared injuries. After it was done, they lie in a pile of tangled limbs, their blood commingling beneath them.
“You know that I am right,” Mavaar ventured, her words pulling Deoch back from the cliff of dreams. “Your people will never accord you the honors that they will give Gedrik if you hand over the regulator to them. You are not horned.”
Deoch hissed, “Don’t you think I know that woman!” The gray skinned, “Horned” Venturi had been the elite of their civilization, until the ecological disaster had made all Venturi equally endangered. However, old prejudices lingered and it was just one of many reasons that Deoch had left homeworld as soon as he could. Though many of the other pink “Unadorned” wished to accept a way of life that kept them second class even among a doomed, and eclipsed people, Deoch had sought the freedom of the stars.
But Gedrik’s plea had had an unintended effect on him, and since the man’s revelations, he had been thinking about homeworld and the kin he had left behind there more and more. “But this is a chance to save my homeworld! If Gedrik is right, and he is a science brain, this could make us heroes on a galactic scale. All the warrants against us would be dropped, we could become celebrities, think of the riches in that?” He couldn’t help gushing, but the idea of making money so easily excited him.
Mavaar frowned, clearly skeptical. “You’re talking about maybes. I’m talking about real power.”
“And you know the problem with real power?” Deoch asked, his voice wearied with experience.
“What’s the problem?” The Nuvian was as defiant as ever.
“People like to take it from you,” he answered, not cowed at all, “and in this case, people with fleets of starships at their disposal.”
Lt. French was already sitting in the opposite empty seat before he asked, “Care if I join you?”
Lt. Jilicia shrugged slightly, barely acknowledging him. When she wasn’t looking out of the window she was staring into her half-filled mug of Takarian mead. The dark haired human flight controller wrinkled his nose at the deep amber beverage. “How can you drink that stuff?” He asked, drawing her attention away from the mead. The helmsman was still in his gray-black uniform, and had probably just gotten off duty. He must have come to Birdland for a drink or two before nodding off, but then again, with Tim French, who knew?
It was quite possibly that he had homed in on her due to the kaleidoscopic blouse and matching breeches she wore. Neither was revealing, but both were snug in the right places.
French held up his own glass. The drink was purple, with dark chunks floating within it. The Boslic science officer looked askance. She had never seen that concoction before, and her curiosity was piqued. “What is that?” She asked.
“Oh, this?” He waved it under her nose and she got a full whiff of heavy spice and nearly gagged. “Phalkerian spice punch,” he proudly replied. “Phalow down in Engineering turned me on to it,” the young man smiled, and Jilicia had to admit that he did have a nice smile, along with a pleasant face and piercing blue eyes. Of course if only his maturity matched his physical attractiveness, alas…
“Hey, what’s up with the funeral music?” He remarked, looking around for a waiter. Duke Ellington’s mournful piano melded with the piquant saxophone of John Coltrane to combine into a sad, reflective tune that matched the pall growing over the ship.
She hadn’t known much about Earth music before attending the Academy, and hadn’t had much interest in it since her introduction, however, there was something aching and yearning about this duo’s “Sentimental Thoughts” that spoke to her. She couldn’t help thinking about their missing crewmen nor the ship that they had been ordered to scuttle, the final indignity for those tragic travelers from beyond the stars.
“Hey,” French said, finally getting the attention of one of the waiters, “a little something more up-tempo please?” The Dopterian attendant nodded, hurrying back to the bar. The jaunty sounds of Louis Armstrong erased the darkness as if someone had flipped on a light switch. Jilicia had to admit that the mood brightened almost instantly and the conversations around the lounge became less muted.
She guessed she would have to be morose elsewhere. The science officer pushed back from the table. “Where you going Jil?” French asked, a perplexed look on his face. “I thought we were having a conversation?”
“Is that what you thought?” She asked, guiltily enjoying being a little mean. She needed a punching bag right now. “I guess you thought wrong.”
“Hey,” he said, a hurt look wreathing his face, “That was uncalled for.” Jilicia could’ve come back with a dig about him intruding into her private time, but she relented. It was not fair for her to take out her frustrations on the helmsman.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hovering over her chair.
“I won’t accept it, until you sit back down,” he said, with a half-smile. She rolled her eyes and retook her seat. Tim looked around again, finding another waiter, a human this time. “My good man, could you please refill the lady’s drink?” The attendant rushed to comply. After he returned, both officers thanked him. Jilicia took a sip of the fresh drink and savored the sweet taste.
“Now this is more like it,” French chuckled, amazed at his handiwork. A few crewmen had cleared out tables in the middle of the room and turned it into an impromptu dance floor. Lt. Commander Kalnath was whipping Ensign Haile around like an Andorian ice weapon. Jilicia was surprised but the woman’s squeals seemed to be from pleasure, not mortal terror.
Sensing her concern, Tim filled her in. “It’s an Old Earth dance, called the “Lindy Hop”.” He held out a hand. “Care to try?”
“I would not,” she said, not meaning to sound so cold, but the human seemed not to take offense. He had become entranced again by the skill and prowess of both Kalnath and Haile. A small circle had formed around them, clapping and cheering them on. “Well, at least you can join me in the circle?” He asked, “I don’t want to miss out.”
“Sure,” she relented, with a small sigh. The young man was as worrisome as Gasparian gnats.
She allowed the eager French to lead her into the gathering. Some crewmen clapped, others hollered, and still more danced along with the dazzling couple. The synergy between them was perfect, as was their joy in keeping alive an ancient cultural expression.
Realizing that she was still holding Tim’s hand, she pulled away from him and backed out of the circle. Suddenly feeling stultified, Jilicia sought the fresh air of the corridor. “Hey,” the ensign called, catching up to her at the door. Once outside, the Boslic forced herself to turn around, to face him.
“I just can’t do this,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” The flight controller was genuinely hurt. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” she smiled sympathetically, “It’s not you at all, it’s just, I can’t…I can’t celebrate culture after we just extinguished one.”
“Oh,” for once, French had nothing to say. His expression became drawn, sober. “We had to do that,” he offered.
“I know, we were following orders,” she said, with surprising bitterness. “How many monsters have used such phrasing to justify their actions?”
Tim stepped back, stung, and Jilicia quickly covered the distance between them. She clutched his forearm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you, I just meant…I don’t know, it was just so callous, so wrong.”
“Listen, I understand,” he replied. “But we did have our orders and I think it ultimately was for the good, we couldn’t allow any knowledge of that regulator to fall into the wrong hands. The war might be over, but we still have a lot of enemies out there, and some are emboldened because they think we are weak. Like the Talarians for example,” he pointed out, “even the Alshain are rattling their sabers or baying at the moon or whatever they do.”
“I know,” she quietly agreed. The Talarian Incursion, while thankfully short, had been brutal and had briefly awakened fears of another war. She shuddered at the thought of how much more devastating the incursion would’ve been if the Talarians had had polaric ion weapons at their disposal. Perhaps there was something to Advisor Sullivan’s bellicose response after all.
“And those aren’t even the big guys,” he added, “I mean, it seems like things have reverted with the Romulans, which unfortunately dried up our supply of Romulan ale.”
Jilicia couldn’t help but laugh. French was trying really hard to lighten her mood and she appreciated it. “What’s your deal with alcoholic beverages? Do you need to talk to Counselor Dendron?”
“Hey, who do you think had the best Romulan ale on the ship? Much better than Birdland,” French joined in the laughter.
After catching her breath, Jilicia’s hand shifted from the human’s arm to his shoulder. “Thank you, I really needed that.” She loudly exhaled. “I just, I’m just afraid of what we’re becoming sometimes.”
“That’s a good thing,” French said.
“If you weren’t worried about that, then that would be the problem,” he smiled jauntily, “Are you sure you don’t want to come back in?” He asked chucking a thumb at the lounge’s door.
The Boslic weighed her options. Beyond the door she heard the din of the crowd. It was a lot of noise, and she really wasn’t up for that. “I don’t know,” she said. She did want to be alone, but she also knew that she had spent too many nights alone lately, and all of that solitude hadn’t shed any more wisdom on the problems bedeviling her. Perhaps a different approach was in order…
The human’s shoulders slumped, “Hey listen, we’re all feeling anxious you know, and we’re all trying to find some way to relieve it, to get outside of ourselves for a few hours, or minutes at least, until we find the regulator.” His stare pinned her. “It might be the last time we get to do so,” he said glumly, and something in his gloom spoke to her and pulled her toward him. The bravado was just the surface, Jilicia realized. There was more to Tim French than she had thought.
The scientist carefully wrapped her hand around his. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said, “I will accompany you back into Birdland.”
French did a bad job hiding his surprise, “Are you serious?”
“When have you known me not to be?” She asked, with a glimmer of a smile.
“Good point,” the helmsman replied, squeezing her hand as he led her back into the raucous lounge. “Besides, my mother often told me never to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Are you calling me equine Mr. French?” Though she didn’t do it often, Jilicia knew how to needle and she did like doing it.
“Oh, umm, no, of course not,” Tim stammered, tugging at his red turtleneck collar. She enjoyed watching him squirm. “It’s just a turn of phrase, Earth vernacular and all that.”
“I thought you were raised on Mars?” She stuck it to him again.
“Oh my, is it warm in here, or is it just me?” He squeaked, making a show of looking around. “I’m thirsty, you see a waiter anywhere around?”
She laughed, letting him off the hook. Jilicia tugged on his hand, “Come along Lieutenant, we have a circle to rejoin.”
The faux shuttle sped through space. Fear knew that the others had restrained Hope and the other misguided by now. They had surely made them see reason and for that Fear was glad. The device, the dagger that had been plunged into the heart of his world, was now secure within its folds.
Now all Fear had to do was find the appropriate area to drop it off. Preferably far enough away from Caldera so that the world would not suffer any effects if the infernal contraption exploded. But that wasn’t enough for Fear. The Calderan also wanted to send a message, to warn organics or others away from Caldera.
Fear knew it needed to do more than simply jettison the device; it had kept its world pure from offworld contamination. Fear’s mind raced with possibilities, and eventually settled on one. It changed direction, toward the Calderan Corridor. If Fear set this device off inside the corridor it might collapse it, shutting off the easiest way for the refugee horde while also ending the Federation and other’s interest in Calderan space.
Inside the shuttle a piece of him pinched off, taking on humanoid form again. The olive skinned woman looked similar to the Pacifica’s first officer, with tapered ears and severely upswept eyebrows, however her forehead bore ominous ridges. The woman knelt down beside the device and began searching for an access panel.
To gain speed, he changed form, becoming more streamlined and sleeker, with two warp nacelles jutting from its sides, its dull green finish contrasted by a fiery predatory avian on its belly. Though the Pacifica had reached out to the Calderans first, contact hadn’t initially been their goal. It had been to thwart the Romulans who had been intruding into Calderan space, and incurring the wrath of the Great Tide.
Fear had led one of the earliest assaults on a ship such as the one he had morphed into. Even though Fear didn’t trust the Romulans anymore than the humans it did admire their suspicious mindset. And it was in honor of that first blood that he would sever all ties between the Calderans and the rest of the galaxy.