Deep in the tangle of night-blacked foliage, slick fur slid between thickly leafed branches, making no more than a whisper of sound beneath the clamor of myriad insects crying out for the company of their own kind.
A shriek ripped through the chorus, startling it to silence.
Night in the Fandrean jungle.
"Lions and tigers and bears," said Geordi La Forge, more or less under his breath.
Entirely without inflection and without missing a beat, Lieutenant Commander Data said, "Oh, my."
Silence fell over the conference room. Geordi, who had not intended that his comment garner quite so much attention, winced.
Data faced that attention without any apparent concern. "The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1939. I believe Geordi was making an analogy between the imagined threat of the beasts in the movie, and the very real beasts on the planet..." And finally he trailed off, taking in Captain Picard's thinly veiled impatience, Deanna Troi's quiet amusement, the spark of humor in Will Riker's eye. "But you knew that," he concluded.
"They knew that," Geordi confirmed. The movie was, after all, still popular enough to list in the holodeck programs.
"We did," Troi confirmed, as solemnly as possible.
"Ah," Data said. "My apologies for the unnecessary digression." But he hesitated, as though he might say something else. In the end he decided against it, but Geordi knew that expression. Data's insatiable curiosity -- about something -- had been triggered.
Worf stared intently at the creature on the view-screen -- an indistinct image, captured from beneath the creature as it swooped from one tree to another in the dense growth of the Fandrean jungle. Even blurred, the two barbed and prehensile tails were evident, along with the teeth gleaming in that long-snouted face, and the impression of size and strength. An arborata. Typical Fandrean jungle fare, according to the notations, right along with half a dozen other oversize flesh-eaters. "What does this have to do with the Ntignano evacuation?" he asked, with much interest.
"The Tsorans control this part of space," Troi said, "and we want to talk to them about the evacuation. They want to go hunting. Attending to their wants in this matter may well grease the wheels when it comes to our wants."
"Grease the wheels," Data repeated, as if he'd made some discovery.
Geordi glanced at him and decided now was not the time. He returned his attention to his padd, which held the details of the Ntignano evacuation -- not that he didn't know them by heart. One prematurely doomed star system -- thanks to a doomsday cult with inappropriate out-system technology on its hands -- and not quite enough time to evacuate the moderately populated planet within it. He'd known that the Federation had an ambassador on Tsora, trying to obtain the charts for the hard-to-navigate area -- but why the Enterprise had ended up here, he had yet to figure out. "We've got to concentrate on getting those people out of there, Captain, not on hunting with the Tsorans. And that means getting -- or making -- maps of that graviton-free corridor they've surveyed. It'll cut evacuation time in half."
"Some of the more sensitive Ntignano people are already showing signs of damage from exposure to the star's fluctuations." Beverly Crusher, her long-fingered hands loosely entwined and resting neatly on the table, reflected none of the challenge in her eyes as she looked directly at Picard. That do something about it challenge she always seemed to have the leeway to make.
This time, Picard just gave her a short shake of his head, nothing more. He paced to the end of the conference table and rested a hand on his empty seat. Not a good sign, Geordi decided. He'd be sitting if he were pleased with the course of things. "Counselor, perhaps you can summarize the situation for us."
"Ambassador Nadann Jesson has done an impressive job with the Tsorans," Troi said. "Theirs is a society based on physical prowess...survival of the fittest, one might say. They are not impressed with the Ntignano plight, and the Federation has little influence on them as nonmembers. Ambassador Jesson has been on the planet for a month now, learning their ways and trying to introduce these negotiations; she's done well to have held their attention for this long. When they learned that the Federation flagship was in the area...Well. They are a people who are impressed with titles. They have not been willing to discuss seriously the use of the graviton-free corridor with Nadann, but they've indicated an interest in a dialogue with the flagship's captain."
"They are," Picard said, tugging absently at his uniform jacket, "significantly invested in matters of prestige. They have a term for it -- daleura. And, as you would expect from a society that places so much pride on their hunting and achievements of aggression, they are also a bit prickly."
Worf shifted in his chair. After his alert stillness, the movement might as well have been a shout. Picard took quick note. "No offense meant, Mr. Worf."
"None taken. Unless the captain implies that Klingons are merely...prickly."
"In point of fact, I find most Klingons to be downright contentious."
"Thank you." Worf settled into satisfied silence.
"That explains why we changed course," Geordi said. They'd been headed for doomed Ntignano until only the previous watch; now they orbited Tsora, a planet with sporadic forestation showing like green jewels against the brown continents, surrounded by a system full of invisible graviton eddies that kept a pattern all their own. "But not -- "
"The hunting," Riker said. He'd been the one to present the information on Fandre's main preserve, the one who seemed to know the details.
"The hunting," Geordi agreed, hiding his impatience -- and more concerned with recent reports that the results of the probe-induced singularity at the core of the Ntignano sun were far less predictable than expected.
Fandre and its preserve seemed more than irrelevant.
He'd rather be introducing his plan to use a probe-web to make their own charts. Such webs were complex and needed constant monitoring and adjustment, but with a dozen probes relaying high-speed data to the coordinating probe, a preliminary star chart could be available in a fraction of the time required for standard charting procedures. True, the most complex probe-web used successfully to date employed only eight probes, but Geordi felt he'd solved the logistics issues involved in adding another tier. All he needed was a chance to try.
None of which Picard was aware of, nor likely to become aware of just yet, since he now looked at the image of the arborata and said, "Fill us in, Number One."
Riker leaned back in his chair, swiveling it slightly. "Fandre is a big-game hunter's delight, with several species of massive carnivores, all cohabiting a relatively small and tightly managed preserve called the Legacy. Since the Tsorans reestablished diplomatic and trade relations with Fandre fifty years ago, they've been traveling to the preserve for their ceremonial rite of passage, in which the participant tranquilizes his prey and harvests a token from it. The prime kaphoora, they call it."
"No doubt a ceremony of much...prestige," Worf said.
"Exactly," Riker said. "And when they heard we were in the area, they decided that the ReynTa -- what we might call a prince -- would benefit from a Federation escort to his kaphoora. Everything else aside, we're certainly faster, even in these rough waters."
"His name is ReynTa Akarr," Troi said. "But here's the crucial part -- while he's hunting, his father, the ReynKa Atann, will discuss terms on delivery of the corridor map, and permission to use the corridor itself."
So that was it. "What if t